This Book Made My Head Spin: I Am Forbidden

During the rut race, one of the things I focused on but didn’t write about was that I joined the online book club From Left to Write, inspired by reconnecting with an old friend.

I used to be in a local book club, and I even ran it for a while. I fell out of sync with it when I found I wanted to read whatever I wanted to read, and was feeling stressed about reading book-club books.

Unrelated to that, I fairly recently reconnected with an old friend on Facebook[1. I made a big deal about quitting Facebook, I know. And I did quit, for a while. But I missed keeping up with my parents and my brother and my cousins, and so I eventually went back on, unfriended a few hundred people, deleted my fan page, and use it as I’ve always wanted to use it – for my own personal stuff and nothing else.]. We met when we were teenagers, as members of a Jewish youth group. It does not cease to delight me that I love Robin as much now as I did then, even as we haven’t laid eyes on each other in almost twenty years. Also, Robin writes two of my favourite blogs – one about parenting her three kids, and one about her new-found sewing hobby.

When I saw that Robin participates in this book club, I thought, Robin’s one of the most thoughtful people I know, I bet that’s a great group. I’d like to read as part of a group again. Maybe I’ll join. And I did. And this is my first post about a book we’ve read.

I often think about my high-school days as my Jewish days. The youth group was a good outlet for me. I hated school and didn’t have many friends there, and the youth group was where I got to really learn and grow socially. I was quite active in the governing of my local chapter, and also in the greater Upstate New York region. Because it was a religious organization, there were expectations surrounding how the youth leaders were to behave. We were, in essence, to walk the walk of our religious sect – to keep kosher (at least outside the home, where people could see us), to observe the Sabbath and holidays, to regularly attend religious services, etc.

Things began to fall apart for me when I was sixteen, though, when I finally realized I’d just never believed in god, and beyond that, that the organization’s insistence that I behave in ways that were different from my family’s implied that my family was doing something wrong. We didn’t keep kosher at home, for example. Did that mean I wasn’t being raised right? Fuck that, was pretty much my adolescent response (it remains my adult response).

I distanced myself from the youth group my senior year in high school, and continued to struggle with my religious and cultural identity, and wasn’t really comfortable outing myself as an atheist until I was in my mid-twenties.

It’s a great coincidence that the first book I’ve read as part of this book club, then, is I Am Forbidden, by Anouk Markovits. It’s a new novel, about two girls growing up in a Hasidic family. Hasidism is one of the most fundamentalist sects of Judaism, and this is very much a book about the rigidity and isolation of fundamentalist religious practice.

Reading this book left me in a tailspin, thinking about all those confusing religious-identity things again. In my thoroughly secular life, I’ve wondered more and more about my Jewish identity – which is very strong in a cultural sense – since Owen came along. I want Owen to grow up in a Jewish home, because that’s our culture. And that means I need to resurrect some practices I’d long ago abandoned. Like we lit Hanukkah candles last winter, for the first time in over a decade.

But, wait. This is not what I was going to write about.

I’ve been thinking almost non-stop about what I’d write about my experience of this book, because it was such a rich read for me. I related to it, even though I’ve never come close personally to experiencing fundamentalism in my religion.

So I’ve decided to write about this:

The book focuses, as I said, on two girls. One is Atara, eldest daughter of Zalman Stern, a very pious Jew. The other is Mila, who was adopted into the family as a young child after her parents were killed during the Second World War. Mila’s life was saved by a boy whose parents had also been killed. He had been taken in by the family’s housekeeper and hidden in her Christian home, as a Christian boy.

The boy had lived for seven years as a Christian when he saved Mila’s life and helped her to find the Sterns. By then the war was over, and Zalman Stern went to get the boy so that he could live amongst Jews, his people. Florina, the boy’s adoptive mother, had known (I think) that the day might come. And the boy had loved her, his second mother. Still, he went to live with the Sterns until it was time for him to go to America to study with the Rebbe, who had fled Europe during the war.

Atara and Mila were the best of friends, and were raised as sisters. As adolescents, though, Atara became skeptical. She wanted to read secular books and question religious interpretations. Mila was devout. She wanted to live a Jewish life in all the ways of her family.

One of the ways this book made my head spin was its treatment of children being raised by adoptive families. About how the boy was taken from his second mother and it was expected that he couldn’t have properly loved her, because she wasn’t Jewish. As he tried to live the most pious of lives, he still struggled to have her in his heart.

Mila, the adopted daughter, also struggled to live the most pious of pious lives.

Atara, the biological daughter, eventually left, because the pious life was suffocating her, and her family mourned her as if she had died.

The double standard of Jewish second mothers being mothers, but goyishe second mothers not counting rekindled the anger I feel toward organized Judaism of any sect.

We have not converted Owen, even though most synagogues would have us do so for him to be considered a proper Jew. The way I see it, I’m either his mother or I’m not (Judaism is a maternalistic [oops; corrected] matriarchal religion – if your mother’s Jewish, you’re Jewish, as far as Jews are concerned). If the synagogue doesn’t fully recognize me as his mother, it’s not something I want to be a part of, ever.

This is a very rambling post. More rambling than usual, even. My head still spins from this book, and I think that’s part of why I came out of my rut – it feels good to be so confused about something I want to figure out.

I recommend the book regardless of your religious experience. It’s a tale of love as much as it’s a tale of religion, of skepticism, of devotion.

This post is inspired by I AM FORBIDDEN by Anouk Markovits. Though not sisters by blood but through their Hasidic faith, Mila and Atara view the rules and structure of their culture differently. Mila seeks comfort in the Torah while Atara searches for answers in secular literature she is forbidden to read. Ultimately, each must make an irrevocable decision that will change their lives forever. Join From Left to Write on May 8 as we discuss I AM FORBIDDEN. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review.

 

It’s Serious Business

Last week I took a walk with a new friend. I pushed the stroller and she held the leashes of her dog and mine.

We chatted about all sorts of things new friends talk about, including the dramatic tale of Owen’s arrival in our family. She asked me when or how we’ll tell Owen he’s adopted, and I realized two things: First, that I didn’t know how to answer the question. Second, that I’ve always known the answer to the question.

Owen will always know the story of his coming to our family. Just like parents who gestated their children tell the stories of rushing to the hospital, or of eighteen hours in labour, or of the dramatic delivery in the back of a cab, Owen will hear over and over again about the phone call and the emergency trip to Babies R Us, and the amazement we felt when we held him for the first time.

He’ll hear over and over the story about how our friends who hadn’t even met him yet toasted his arrival with champagne on New Year’s Eve. He’ll hear over and over how his Gramma Janet screamed when she heard the news, and how his Uncle Eric and Auntie Alana extended their holiday visit so they could stay with us for another few days and help with the new baby. He’ll hear over and over how his Grandma Shari booked a plane ticket right away and told so many of her friends how happy she was that his closet filled up with gifts from people I don’t even know.

It is not a touchy subject, that we adopted Owen. There’s no stigma about this. Owen’s story is as uniquely his as any person’s story is. His story is full of happiness and love, just as every baby’s should be.

It may be that at some time or times during his life he’ll have a lot of questions and fears and concerns related to his being adopted, but we all have questions and fears and concerns about things as we grow up. It’s serious business, growing up. It’s serious business crafting one’s story. And I, just like every parent should, will try to help my kid explore and examine and understand and accept and feel secure.

Happy New Baby Year

I have only a few minutes to write this, so I’ll dispense with my inclination to properly introduce the topic and jump right to the point.

Last Thursday afternoon we learned we’d been chosen to adopt a baby the next day. I’m sure you can imagine the frenzy of the following twenty hours. I’ll tell you all about it another time; it’s a pretty dramatic tale as your imagination has certainly already concluded.

So last Friday at around noon we met our six-day-old healthy baby boy. Yes, your math is right – the Jewish couple is adopting a Christmas baby. And we brought him home on New Year’s Day to a house full of family and friends who fell in love with him as quickly and fully as we have.

Meet Owen William Piper Werker. He’s a chill, expressive little dude who likes neck nuzzles and Simon & Garfunkel.

We’re going to lay low for the next couple of weeks during the 30-day revocation period during which the birth mom can change her mind. After that, I’ll tell you loads more, and will by then be a little more used to our new sleep schedule, which will render me more capable of coherent blogging and discussion. For now, if this is the first you’ve heard about adoption from me, you can read what I’ve written about it over the last year.

Now it’s now about time I finish the little baby blanket I started knitting months ago. Thankfully I have only a few more rows to go. I figure it’ll take me a week, at this rate.

Happy New Year!

Housekeeping!

So many little things collecting in my brain, and I haven’t set any of them down here. Time to remedy that! *Rolls in my trusted bulleted list.*

  • Sheryl MacKay and me, photo

    Sheryl MacKay & Me, at the CBC studio

    After a decade wondering what it would be like, I was on the radio. Not live radio, but radio all the same. In a studio, with a schmancy microphone. Sheryl MacKay interviewed me about Mighty Ugly for British Columbia CBC’s arts and culture show North by Northwest last weekend. It’s the first segment in the May 8th podcast, which you can download here, or here’s a direct link to the mp3.

  • After six weeks wondering what it would be like, I held the very first Mighty Ugly workshop at Plush on Main last Monday. It was full, it was fun, and there’s video evidence of it here.
    • Speaking of, I’ve delved into previously barely-explored territory in using YouTube for Mighty Ugly. Till last week only a casual watcher of videos, I’ve now set up a channel for the project and embedded a playlist and everything. My early-adopter-o-meter is sitting perfectly still in the too-late zone, but whatever.
    • The next workshop at Plush is on Monday, 7th June. If you’re in Vancouver, you should sign up!
  • I never wondered what this would be like, but that doesn’t diminish the pleasure I feel when I say, “I was profiled on MSN Money.” Uh. I swear I don’t mention stocks or refer to human beings as numbers. I’m actually very happy with how she (local journalist Kerry Gold) put the article together – Can You Make a Living by Blogging?
  • I’ve been making stuff. Behold:
    EarringsGreen Earrings
  • Yesterday I ordered a Dyson Animal vacuum cleaner. With taxes, it cost nearly $800 CAD. Which is an obscene amount of money to spend when you’re on a pretty tight budget, on a household appliance that probably averages around $150 in price. But when I asked the Twitter, 9 times out of 10 people responded that we should get the Dyson. And not only that we should get it, but that we won’t regret getting it, and that it will work wonders on the little tufts of gift Cleo leaves all over our house, all year ’round. I’ll let you know if it changes our lives after we get it in a couple of weeks.
  • Last week I drove a reader away with my clearly stated opinion about a writing style. I consider this to be indication I’ve crossed some sort of invisible threshold of blog success. I’d thank her, but she no longer reads the blog.
  • I skipped book club last night because we’re in the final throes of our adoption application – compiling photos of ourselves and writing a letter to birth moms. The former is annoyingly narcissistic (“Does this photo portray us well as, you know, people?”) and the latter is downright uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable because the thought of conversing with a birth mom is uncomfortable, but rather because we have no idea who will read the letter. Writing one generic letter to be read by any number of women who have different personalities, different sets of values, and are approaching their adoption plan from completely different perspectives just strikes me as somewhat insulting to them. I’m doing my best to get over it and just perform this part of the process like a good prospective adoptive parent, but it’s hard not to want to reach through the paper to look the reader in the eyes and say, “I can’t imagine what you’re thinking and feeling as you read this, but I’m a human and you’re a human, and I respect you. For what it’s worth.”

Nearly Approved: Adoption Update

I know, “nearly approved” is like “almost pregnant.”

Still, we really are nearly approved, and I’m itchy to talk about it.

Over the last several weeks we completed the final major part of our application to be approved to adopt: the home study. As I think I’ve said, this isn’t what you might think it is if all you know about adoption you’ve learned from sitcoms – a social worker doesn’t show up at our house unannounced, looking for stray toxic chemicals, neglected pets, and dusty baseboards.

Here in British Columbia there are particular requirements for the home study. At least one meeting has to be at our house. The social worker has to meet with each partner separately at least once (if you’re applying as a couple, which obviously we are). There’s a minimum length of time she had to spend with us. There are particular topics we had to cover.

We ended up doing all of our meetings at our house. We talked about all manner of things: our relationship, our childhoods, how we came to decide to adopt, our work, our hobbies, our friends and family, our religious and spiritual beliefs and practices, our anticipated approach to parenting, and more. We adore our social worker, so these conversations were completely stress-free and enjoyable.

And now she’s writing up what will essentially become a dossier about us. Once the agency approves it (and there’s no reason they shouldn’t), our file will become available to birth mothers creating an adoption plan for their child.

In sum, we’ve completed our application. It took about six months. It can often take longer, but our flexible schedules allowed us to take the first four-day workshops that were offered (they’re only offered a few times a year) and to schedule our home-study sessions in a fairly concentrated period of time. (If you’re itching for me to jog your memory about the rest of the requirements, here’s the paperwork bit: initial application, four references, forms from our doctors, criminal history checks from every state or province we’ve lived in since reaching the age of majority. I think that’s it. It doesn’t seem that daunting from this side of it all.)

What happens once we’re approved? We wait to be chosen. Hopefully we’ll be chosen soon. And as you can see from the photo, above, I’ve been struck by an inclination to knit (and crochet, and maybe even to sew).

Which brings me to a note about superstition, and another one about cause and effect.

A note about superstition: I may not practice the religion I was born into, but its culture is my culture. And part of Jewish culture is a (usually) healthy dose of brutally practical superstition. Jews don’t have baby showers before a baby’s born. We hold off because of the slight-yet-devastating chance of something going horribly wrong. Of course, we attend baby showers when they’re thrown for other people (though I admit I’m often uncomfortable due to my congenital superstition; I do my best to hide this from pregnant people at showers).

The superstition goes so far as to demand that no crib be set up, and no baby items be kept in the house. My in-laws will hopefully be game to keep a box in their basement for us. When I finish the simple hoodie blanket in the photo, I’ll leave it at their house. Now, yeah – if it’s years before we’re picked, we may need to add a second box.

The only thing we’re going to purchase ahead of time (aside from, um, yarn) is a car seat. Because it’s possible we’ll become parents on a day’s notice, and I really don’t want to have to go shopping when I otherwise will want to focus my full attention on freaking out. The car seat will live in my in-laws’ basement, too.

Jews have a natural baby-shower-like milestone when babies are eight days old – the bris (circumcision) or baby-naming ceremony. We will have what I’ve begun thinking of as Day 31. A birth mother has 30 days from the birth of the child to change her mind about making an adoption plan. I think this is a very good thing. Still, as an adoptive parent, I imagine that 31st day will be one of unanticipated emotion (or, perhaps I’m anticipating it now…). That’ll be when we’ll want to celebrate.

A note about cause and effect: Based on some comments I’ve received (by the way, every single comment has been enthusiastic and supportive. I love you all for that), I feel I must clarify that the baby that will come into our lives will not be a blessing (a joy, a wonder, a momentous change in our lives for which we’ll be forever grateful and loving – yes, it will be all of those things to us). There will be nothing supernatural about their coming into our lives. In fact, this baby will join our family only because their mother spent months and months of her life agonizing over the best decision to make for them both. Her decision will come about for her own reasons, and that we’ll become parents because of it, that we’ll rejoice and feel lucky and overwhelmed, that we’ll be overcome with emotion, all of that will not be a blessing. Our joy will come from her pain, no matter how happy we’ll be. Unlike getting pregnant, having kids through adoption means some people will grieve while we celebrate.

Ok, now it seems like I’m ending this post on a downer. I don’t intend to. I just don’t want to gloss over the hard parts because the happy parts are so shiny and cute.

I’ll distract you with thoughts of baby knitting! It’s so small and quick!