It is with a heart full of shock and grief that I announce the untimely death of my beloved, wise, good, and precious father, Haim Aviram, after a brutal battle with a rare lung disease. Dad leaves behind the love of his life – my mother Yael – me, my spouse Chad, our son and his beloved grandson Rio, his siblings in blood and in law Michal, Oded, Nuni, and Ettie, his nephews Tal, Dan, Annabelle, Sharon, Shai, Shahaf and many others, hundreds of dear friends and colleagues from all over the world, and many generations of adoring students. Dad was a very special, one-of-a-kind man, and we are heartbroken.
The funeral will be held at the civilian-secular cemetery Menucha Nechona in Kiryat Tivon on Monday, June 12, at 6pm. We will hold no shiv’a and we ask for no condolence visits.
Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. Miriam sang to them: Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.
Exodus 15: 20-21
Caring for my dad in hospital is a labor of love, dedication, optimism, in the face of fear, grief, and shock. It’s been quite the thing to be here, spend every day at the hospital, and keep up my spirits and my mom’s as much as possible. This has not been made easy given the surrounding political context. The volatile cocktail of religious, ethnic, and national differences here is so close to blowing up that everyone is on edge. Among the many loathsome trends all around us is a religious push to marginalize and silence women, which my friend and colleague Yofi Tirosh is fighting with everything she’s got.
A few days ago, I was horrified to learn that the mom of 13-year old Eliana, who was invited to sing at an event in her community and practiced long hours for her performance, was told at the last minute that she would not be allowed on stage because an Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi was in attendance. Her mom, Abigail, recounted that she couldn’t even begin to explain to her daughter that women’s singing was disallowed. Eliana is now invited to sing the national anthem at each anti-government protest, and may her voice ring loud and clear. But the problem runs much deeper. The prohibition on women’s voices has reached pathological levels: rabbis are opining on the age that girls are not allowed to sing in the presence of their brothers. I was under the impression that much of the recent craziness goes far beyond what was regarded reasonable in religious communities until not long ago; my dad vividly remembers going to his religious youth movement, B’nei Akivah, and singing and dancing with girls. But it turns out that the nutty silencing of women from song has deep historical roots, and beyond the famous “kol ba’ishah ervah” (hearing the voice of a woman is akin to watching her display her genitals) from Tractate Brakhot, there’s a whole discussion in Tractate Sotah page 48 about the practices of liturgical singing during the days of the Second Temple. On that page, Rav Yosef Bar Hiah, a chap I would have probably enjoyed ferociously debating on this, opines that “men singing and women answering invites promiscuity; women singing and men answering is like setting fire to bramble.” Essentially, allowing women to open their mouths at all is horrendous, but having women initiate, rather than follow, is by far the worse transgression.
So how does this learned group of pious men (duh) explain away Miriam, Moses’ sister, who, per Exodus, vocally and musically participated in perhaps the most memorable victory song in the Tanakh? Here the Talmud does what it does best, which is engage in breathtaking interpretive gymnastics so that there’s no contradiction. The less impressive commenters argue that Miriam’s singing was only audible to the women. The more sophisticated commenters say that the moments immediately following the marvelous miracle of parting the Red Sea (evocatively visible in Judy Chicago’s feminist illustration for the Haggadah, see above) were of such unique spiritual quality–the rapture before such an otherworldly occurrence, the release from bondage, the vivid connection with, literally, Deus-ex-Machina coming to the aid of his people–that they merited an exception to the prohibition on women’s singing. If you read Hebrew, here’s a lecture by Admiel Kosman that walks you through the whole thing.
I got thinking about Miriam and her singing, and Eliana and the small-minded men who wanted to keep her from singing, because I came across an interesting study. Starting in the 1970s, many symphony orchestras hold “blind” auditions: musicians play behind a screen and are thus judged on the quality of their music, not who they are. A Harvard study showed that the “blind” auditions were successful: after their introduction–between 1970 and 1993–the percentage of women in the five highest-ranked U.S. orchestras increased from 6 to 21 percent. Now, however–in the name of representation/diversity initiatives–there are calls to remove the screen so as to increase diversity, primarily along racial lines.
Pretty much every classical musician I know, of all genders and ethnicities, thinks that removing the screen is a profoundly idiotic and unfair idea, which will stymie true integration and inclusion of folks from disadvantaged backgrounds in classical music–because, if the idea is that diversity increases quality, wouldn’t you assume that the behind-the-screen musicians the orchestra hired would be diverse? Wouldn’t you immediately hire Jessye Norman, Reggie Mobley, Wynton Marsalis, and countless amazing others, whether or not they sang or played behind a screen? And if we removed the screen, what would that say about the qualities of the people we hired, and how would it feel to have been hired under those circumstances?
What we need is to strongly enhance and enrich and provide opportunities for musical education and musical education for kids–even very young kids–of all backgrounds, so that class/race/gender will not be a hindrance to anyone who wants a classical music career at its inception. If we invest our effort in fostering, supporting, and nurturing musical excellence from infancy, then of course we can keep the screen up to prevent the Yosef Bar Hiahs of the world from sabotaging people they disdain out of bias and bigotry, and we can ensure that everyone has a fair shake from the start, resulting in their excellence sparkling through the screen. But investing in early-age education and artistic development in disadvantaged neighborhoods is challenging, expensive work, whereas posturing and bloviating about diversity is lazy and cheap. I really hope we invest in raising generations of musical Miriams who don’t need any special favors for their beautiful voices to ring even from behind a screen; when their prodigious talents and hard work get them to the finish line, appreciate their voices; and then remove the screen, so we can amplify their music a thousandfold.
For those of you wondering why the stream of posts has whittled down: for the last three weeks I’ve been in Israel, at my dad’s bedside. Dad became aggressively ill, was hospitalized at Carmel Medical Center, and deteriorated so quickly and alarmingly that he’s now been for about ten days in the ICU. He suffers from a rare lung disease called BOOP (bronchiolitis obliterans organizing pneumonia), is connected to an ECMO machine as well as a ventilator, and we’re now at the stage where experimental treatments are attempted. My mom and I are experiencing shock and grief, supported by wonderful family members and friends, and visiting the hospital when we can. The staff is professionally superb and incredibly kind – truly, we’re so fortunate to be in the care of such angels. I’m also getting a real education in obliterating the past and future, dwelling a lot on the Four Noble Truths, discerning which connections and actions are gold and which are garbage, and reading Ivanhoe to my father at his request before he was intubated. I think it’s no coincidence that he was drawn to an epos of bravery and combat.
Where to get news: One thing I’m finding is that it is exhausting to respond to individual queries for updates, even when they come from the sweetest friends. So, my friend Valerie kindly made a resource for us, where you can read the latest news on my dad in both Hebrew and English. You can subscribe to get updates. I try to update frequently because I know how much everyone loves my dad and worries about him.
What is helpful: hugs and supportive outreach without expectation of reply. If I think you can help, trust me, I will contact you if I haven’t already. Prompt and effective follow-through if you have been asked to help. And, offers to take professional things off my plate.*
What is not helpful: wild medical diagnoses/prognoses/suggestions based on your friends/relatives/things you read online, fatalistic talk (whether Jewish or New Age) along the “everything happens for a reason” lines, burdensome diatribes, efforts to get me to do work obligations.
Beyond all this awfulness, a small piece of news on my part is that I’ve been accepted to the Jewish Studies program at the Graduate Theological Union and intend to start school next fall, on top of my full-time job, as part of my long-term plan to seek rabbinical studies and ordination in the secular humanistic tradition. My spiritual interests are helping me frame this horrendous experience and I’m glad I at least got to tell my dad about this before they put him to sleep and intubated him (he was happy, and we even got to study a page of Gemara together one night before he was moved to the ICU.) This is just to say that future posts will be more diverse in topics, as I expect my new academic journey to inform them as much as my current line of work.
*If you were expecting any professional dealings with me this summer, be it LSA, the animal rights workshop, the animal liberation conference, etc., everything is off. I’ve done the best I could to follow through with cancelations and replacements; I’ll just say that the ease of canceling everything for the summer was incredibly instructive regarding the illusion that any of us is super important or irreplaceable. If I’m supposed to grade your exam or paper, I promise you I will do that (and in fact am nearly done.) If I’m supposed to get back to you regarding the impending publication of FESTER, I will do that as well. Everything else will happen in due course.
For the uninitiated (most of us, I assume), midrash is rabbinical commentary on scripture, which illuminates aspects of the text through a variety of hermeneutical and literary devices. Some midrashim remind me a lot of dharma talks–a series of beaded parables, anecdotes, and examples; others, like Ruth Calderon’s retelling of talmudic tales, take the form of a fictionalized narratives. Talmudic era midrashim on the Humash (the first five books of the Old Testament) were collected and published as compendiums, starting with Bereshit Rabbah” and vary in terms of how closely they track the original text. The question that midrash scholars confront is: why did the rabbis do it? What is the point of this commentary?
Prof. Aranoff introduced us to two schools of thought on this. Some commentators see the point of the midrash as the artistry of collecting text selections from scripture–all of which, for the orthodox, are a perfect fit with each other and free of contradiction–and beading them together. Others offer a more critical approach: the midrash is merely a stylized form of commentary that reflects the rabbis’ own ideologies, affairs of the day, etc. Boyarin’s approach is that both perspectives are valid, and each of them as incomplete. Yes, the rabbis were making ideological and philosophical points. But an important aspect of what they were doing, which goes beyond just form, was that their textual universe–the sum of sources that they drew on–was a vast treasure of storytelling of various sorts, styles, and perspectives, which they drew on to make interconnections. If you will, it’s the original art of the hyperlink, or the inspiration for games such as the HipBone Bead Games. The point is that each paragraph of scripture from this immense textual universe can bear on, and illuminate, another; the sophistication is not just on the choices of text but also in drawing the connections.
Today’s selection was a midrash from VaYikra (Leviticus) Rabbah, which focused on the brief mention of the death of the sons of Aaron. I don’t know that I expected lots from Leviticus, which is not what you would call a page-turner: Leviticus is largely a temple operation manual with detailed and completely obsolete instructions on sacrifices and holy tools. Since the midrashim were written long after the temple was gone, the text itself is slim pickings for those reading it literally. But precisely because of this, the rabbis didn’t see themselves as bound to the original text, and wove a tapestry of intertext connections with vastly more interesting stuff.
The big mystery about the death of the sons of Aaron goes to the heart of the plot of every film noir I’ve ever seen. We don’t know if these people were actual historical figures (were they? more importantly, does it matter to you, and why?) but the idea that two young people would be suddenly and tragically taken away does resonate with things we experience in real life: overdoses, suicides, homicides, accidents. The Chabad website tells the story: On their very first day of service at the temple, the two youngsters, Nadab and Abihu, brought a “foreign fire” and were tragically consumed.
The rest of the story goes into the horrendous lament of anyone who loses a loved one: why, why, why did it happen. The midrashim try to figure out, at length, how these young men might have offended God. Some suggestions include: they were drunk, they were egotistic, they didn’t marry and have families. But these sort of retributive stories are seldom very satisfying, because guess what: every day we hear of people who did absolutely nothing wrong to deserve horrendous, sudden ends. In other words, we have to find some way to deeply comprehend a difficult truth–namely, that shit happens and there’s nothing we can do about it.
In her phenomenal album La Llorona, one of my favorite singers, the late, unforgettable Lhasa de Sela, evokes this incessant, uncomprehending grief, in her song De Cara a la Pared:
Llorando De cara a la pared Se apaga la ciudad Llorando Y no hay màs Muero quizas Adonde estàs? Soñando De cara a la pared Se quema la ciudad Soñando Sin respirar Te quiero amar Te quiero amar Rezando De cara a la pared Se hunde la ciudad Rezando Santa Maria Santa Maria Santa Maria
The wisdom of the Achare Moth is that the rabbis don’t try to furnish some schoolmarmish rationale a-la Nietzsche’s “slave morality.” They know that we seek explanations for tragedies that visit people who do not deserve them, and that we’re also looking for some prescriptive comfort: if we do this or that, we’ll escape that ugly fate. It’s human to look for these tranquilizing explanations. I see it time and time again in the early writings in the field of victimology, such as in Menachem Amir’s concept of victim precipitation and in the uphill battle that imperfect victims face in the criminal justice system. But they also know, and they know that we know, that these sorts of facile explanations are ultimately unsatisfying, because life offers us daily proof that shit happens and cannot be avoided, that controlling the outcomes of our lives is an illusory and ultimately futile endeavor, and that the best thing we can do is try to come to terms with the impermanence and vagaries that come hand in hand with being alive. In other words, that the First Noble Truth is real, and you don’t have to be the Buddha to know that.
So, what do they do? If you read Hebrew, check out the text here. They pull a quote from the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), arguably the most noirish part of the Old Testament. Kohelet is a cynical voice-over which, in this particular section, Kohelet says that everyone ends up the same way: the righteous, the evil, the pure, the impure. The rabbis proceed to pull out of all corners of the Bible a variety of examples of personages from different eras, locations, and contexts, drawing connections between these people’s lives and their fates. For example: Noah (a righteous man) and Pharaoh Necho (the opposite) both ended up bitten by animals and becoming lame. David (a good man) and Nebuchadnezzar (the opposite) both ended up with the same fate, even though one built the temple and the other destroyed it.
They also proceed to pull a quote from Psalms, which admonishes people for rowdy joy, and follow up with a series of examples of righteous, perfect figures in the Bible (Adam, Abraham, Sarah…), all of whom were unhappy. You can almost hear an ancient Manhattan grandpa shaking his head and telling his kids, “who ever told you we’re supposed to be happy?” And the most astonishing bit comes at the end, where they throw in a shocking story that does not come from scripture: A well-to-do man from Kabul (a city near Acre) celebrated the marriage of his son with friends. As they were wining and dining, he sent his son to the attic to get another barrel of wine. Upon getting to the attic, the son was bitten by a snake and died. The man wondered what might have happened to the son, left his guests and went upstairs, when he found his son’s body. He proceeded to wait until the friends finished their festive meal and then told them the chilling truth: they had come to usher the son into his wedding and will now usher him to his grave. The lesson returns to Ecclesiastes: laughter is mixed with tears, joys with sorrow. We can’t rationalize it. We can only come to terms with it and practice our equanimity chops.
I recently read an interesting article about the appeal of true crime podcasts like My Favorite Murder. Even though the show deals with heinous crimes, it has developed a vast and loyal following of people who claim that it has improved their mental health. One listener interviewed in this Atlantic piece explains: “I sort of exorcise that anxiety through obsessively reading about true crime and learning about it. . . You’re like, I’m not afraid of this. I’m going to face this, and I think it’s like exposure therapy.” What is interesting about the true crime movement, as I’ve written elsewhere, is that it diversifies the categories of victims, offering empathy in places where it used to be in short supply and reminding all of us that there is no line dividing the “deserving” and “undeserving” where violent crime is concerned. This may be the point that the rabbis tried to illustrate through their study of Biblical figures and their fate; the man from Kabul could be the tragic hero of a film noir or the protagonist of the newest podcast, and the emotion–horror, empathy, and opening heart–that we feel is just as fresh as it was for the people who studied this centuries ago.
This midrash offers good opportunities for learning about intertextuality, narrative devices, plotting, and connectivity, but I was really struck by the content. I’m still working on coming to terms with the young man I found dead on BART last week. The grief and horror of this poor kid sitting on the train, pale and unmoving, with no one noticing him, is hard to shake. The many friends I shared this story with have commented, “no one deserves to die alone on a BART car.” But maybe what we deserve, or do not deserve, is not the point. Adjacent to the magnificent peaks of our joys are deep oceans of sorrow and tears. And both are an inevitable part of our human experience.
The Talmud Bavli opens with a tractate about the whens and hows of the different blessings, and its first page deals with the question of timing the “shma” blessing, the one many believing Jews recite morning and evening as part of their daily prayer structure. The Jewish day, just like the day in many religions, belief systems, and communities, is rather regimented with habits, and it looks like the conversation between the Talmudic teachers focuses on the best timing for the habits. These suggestions are remarkably fresh in their reasoning–they sound a little bit like a group of health hackers debating the exact timing and components of drinking their bullet coffee or taking their supplements.
Some scholars tie the blessing to the early temple days (long in the rearview mirror when this was written), linking its timing to the timing of sacrifices in the temple. Some, like Raban Gamliel, tie them to the natural world (debating the timing of sunrise.) And some seem to set a deadline for the blessing–midnight–to distance the person from evildoing.
This plan–tying virtuous behavior to a certain hour at night to prevent oneself from drifting into, well, less virtuous behavior–speaks to a dispute that pops up once in a while in criminal justice policy: to what extent is criminal behavior situational? Take a look, for example, at San Jose’s teenage curfew policy: Under a city ordinance, a person under the age of 16 cannot be in a public place within the City of San Jose without adult supervision between the hours of 10:00pm and 5:00am. Minors who are 16 or 17 years old cannot be in a public place within the city without adult supervision between the hours of 11:30pm and 5:00am.
I should know: twice a week this semester required an early morning BART commute with my bicycle. In the last few years, there is a lot more visible suffering on the train, and the hour of travel makes an important difference: the early morning features a lot of the aftermath of whatever bad things happened during the night. It’s not rare to see people injured (sometimes profusely bleeding) on the train; fights; exhausted folks sleeping, eating, and eliminating unhygienically on the train, on the platform, or in the elevators; and sometimes outright scary and dangerous activity, like people lighting up joints inside a closed train car. Most people on the train try to ignore this stuff even when it’s flat-out hazardous, because who wants to get in trouble, but sometimes our determination to mind out own beeswax has horrendous consequences.
This is what happened last Wednesday. I was on my way from Berkeley to San Francisco on the early afternoon train. At some point, I realized that the man sitting close to me was not breathing. He seemed pale. I asked the other passengers whether they had seen him breathe or move. No one had. I tried to touch the man. “Don’t do it, he’ll jump at you” someone said. “Junkie sleep,” someone else chuckled. But no. The man was dead. He was in his twenties, with a head full of curly hair like my son’s, wearing clothing that was somewhat disheveled (but who doesn’t look disheveled on BART?). For all I know, he might’ve ridden the train from the early morning hours, or even slept on it, and died at some point in the morning, continuing to ride unnoticed by the people around him. What happened to him–overdose, cardiac arrest–is anyone’s guess. He was found in the daytime. Did it happen at night? I’m not sure.
I’ll write more about my dead fellow passenger in the weeks to come – finding him was deeply saddening and unsettling and made me think of many ways in which our communal spirit needs an infusion of fresh compassion. But for today, this incident is relevant not only in that it raises the question of whether bad things happen at night, or early in the morning, but also in that it provokes the question, how we can leverage our habits and attention to meet each day (even on BART) with a larger reserve of compassion for others.
The next part of the mishna deals with the morning blessings, and it looks like the New Agey idea that you create your own reality by setting the tone for your day is not all that new. Brachot 1 offers us two approaches on when to punch the Shma prayer card. Shammai is all about consistency: make sure you say your blessing as you get up and as you go to sleep. Hillel, always the mellower of the two, is all about “just make sure it happens at some point during the day.” I’m generally part of the Hillel crew (big shocker there, I’m sure), but this time, I gotta say, I can see the logic in Shammai’s prescription, as I have (forgive the tiresome idiom) some lived experience in this department.
On the early morning commute days, I usually start my day in one of three ways: praying and singing (I created a morning blessing playlist with a meditative component), listening to classic literature (something I’ve read many times before, like Jane Austen), or listening to a true crime podcast. The podcasts are very engaging and I feel a strong pull to dive into these horrendous stories, but I’ve noticed that, when I do that first thing in the morning, I spend the rest of the day in a mental fog, and am somewhat more watchful and suspicious of people around me. I don’t think serious crime does not exist. It is definitely a part of reality. But I do think that disproportionately inclining my mind toward these scary and traumatizing scenarios does set a more somber tone to my day. The best of the three commute beginnings is the one that involves praying, singing, and meditating, but it definitely requires setting a habit.
Which is where being secular can be a bit difficult and, at the same time, freeing. When you read the Talmud as a follower of orthodox theistic edicts, you pray in the morning, or at night, or both, because your wise ancestors said you should. When you read it as a freethinking secular person, you are the boss of you, and you decide if and when to pray based on what, if anything, it contributes to your life. If that’s the case for you, you have the freedom and the responsibility to figure out which of your habits takes you in a direction you appreciate. Would we all be quicker to detect a fellow passenger in medical distress on the train if we took a moment in our busy morning–a clearing in the dense forest of our lives–to incline our mind toward compassion and caring?
Lately, I feel like an increasingly big part of the second half of my life is saying goodbye to people I love. Just recently, we unexpectedly and prematurely lost so many friends. This morning we received the terrible news that our friend and colleague Prof. Gad Barzilai, of Haifa University (formerly of Tel Aviv and University of Washington) has died of heart complications. It was very sudden and he was only 65 years old.
I met Gadi in Tel Aviv, when I was a frustrated postdoc there, and his advice and encouragement through the job search process was invaluable. His humanism and optimism was uplifting. We later worked a lot together at the Israeli Law & Society Association and at LSA, whose conferences he attended without fail.
Gadi was a scholar of universal renown, whose writings straddled the fields of constitutional law, administrative law, and political science. His book Communities and Law dealt with questions at the heart of Israel’s current crisis: how should majoritarian democracies treat minorities with identifiable community cultures? In the book, Gadi discusses the case of Israel, focusing on three such minorities: Palestinians, women, and ultra-Orthodox Jews. By contrast to much of the political science literature, from Robert Nozick through to Bhikhu Parekh (thank you, Sam Scheffler, for teaching me this literature) Gadi didn’t have a prescription to fit all majority-minority situations. Rather, he thought that each minority culture frames its own interest in, and ability to, engage with the majority culture in a different way, which requires
flexibility in framing the appropriate response within liberal societies.
This idea–of letting disenfranchised groups speak for themselves and understanding them on their own terms–also characterized his pedagogy and administrative work. An expert on Israel’s political culture (and the president of the Association of Israel Studies between 2011 and 2013) Gadi forged relationships with scholars, students, and administrators of varied backgrounds and walks of life. He used to say that research (and life) were “revolutions in a tie.” His administrative career was a testament to this. Under his Deanship, Haifa University bolstered and strengthened its impressive clinical program, with the idea being putting legal studies into practical use by helping those unable to afford legal representation.
Gadi was also a high-profile commentator on current events in Israel, where his vast goodness and common sense made him uniquely qualified to be a straightforward voice of basic morality. His last few posts on Facebook are a testament to this. Upon hearing that the 37th government sabotaged the ability to monitor domestic abusers with electronic cuffs, he said, “this is a clear sign of a country in serious moral crisis; we might be able to save the legal system, but who will save a woman who will be murdered? Shame on you.” His analysis of the convoluted events of the last few weeks was always crystal-clear, spot-on, and prescient. This article (for the Hebrew readers among you) is an example of his ability to convey complicated ideas in ways that everyone can understand and relate to, legally and morally (“the chances of a written constitution in Israel are just like the chances of me being a world champion in running.”) And in this article he warned all of us of the brewing civil war. In one of his last interviews, he articulated his vision for Israel’s constitutional future:
I want a bill that enshrines human rights that, to this day, are only supported by the High Court of Justice–the same “dictatorial” High Court that is now being challenged–which will include freedom of speech, freedom of travel, freedom of religion and freedom from religion. It’s great to be Ultra-Orthodox, but it’s also great to be secular, and every person must have the freedom to live according to their views. At the end, we must improve the existing Basic Laws, to enshrine human and civil rights with an emphasis on minority rights.
I’ve now seen lots of testaments and obituaries online, and interestingly very few of them focus on Gadi’s own scholarship, which was vast and impressive; rather, people are commenting on how Gadi supported and encouraged their own work. Because that’s exactly who he was: devoid of any ego, incapable of pettiness, he was universally generous to all. Always with a kind word to everyone–fancy people in the field as well as undergrads and grad students–and always expressing deep curiosity and interest, a desire to learn, and a sense of partnership and enthusiasm about other people’s work. Always a champion of his friends and colleagues, Gadi was constantly one of my recommenders for any job, award, or grant I went for, and always effusive in his advice and praise. He also chaired the panel that celebrated my first book, Cheap on Crime, and had such wise remarks about it. I think we all felt that Gadi was an expert in our field because he was so knowledgeable in all fields.
Gadi had known for a while that his cardiac condition spelled trouble, and had made lifestyle changes in terms of exercise and diet; but he continued to work himself ragged and worry desperately, from the depths of his big heart, about the future of the country he loved so much and fretted so much about. I really do think that this government broke his heart. It is precisely in these dark times that we need courageous voices of common sense and a strong moral compass to remind us that there is an objective good and that we need to care about everyone, not just let the majority trample human rights. With Gadi’s voice muted and his great light dimmed, I worry more for us all. What is remembered, lives.
A few months ago I mentioned my new commitment to strength training, which has since taken shape with the help of my fantastic coach, Celeste St. Pierre. Celeste knows a lot about triathlons and about swimming, and, like me, she is a disciple of the excellent Stacy Sims. Sims’ work on perimenopausal and menopausal athletes emphasizes the importance of building muscle and bone at an age in which we start losing both very quickly, and offers no-nonsense advice on diet, supplements, and training, which focuses on shorter and more explosive workouts, including sprints, plyometrics, and lifting heavy. Celeste and I have been working on a weekly schedule that combines my love for endurance/cardio things with my newfound passion for lifting, so this is what my week looks like, fitness-wise:
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays: I lift, swim, and roll/stretch. On Mondays and Wednesdays I typically use the Berkeley facilities – their weight room is terrific and the Spieker Pool brings back grad school memories. If I really want a treat, I swim at the Golden Bear pool. On Fridays I lift at home and swim at Balboa Pool or at Garfield Pool and, if I have time, I take a yoga class at Yoga Flow.
Tuesdays and Thursdays: I do some form of strength (typically abs and a leg series that includes plyometrics and jump-rope) at home, followed by a sprint/interval run/walk.
On Saturday, which is my official recovery day, I take a pilates class at Synced Pilates with the fantastic Sue Free.
On Sunday I do something long – either a long run followed by boot camp in my neighborhood or a brick workout (swim followed by run.)
On all these days I also commute on my cargo e-bike, which adds some cardio to my day.
For more than half my week, several of my workouts happen at home, and over the years, with Chad’s help, I’ve constructed a fabulous little workout corner that has pretty much everything I need. I have a yoga wall, which I bought used during my days of teaching fitness at Elevate Group Fitness; I can use it with springs or with TRX straps, and I have a belt that allows me to go upside down and remember my Antigravity days (it’s also great for those of us with back afflictions.) I also have quite a collection of dumbbells, some of them adjustable, a little barbell that fits my space with some plates, and a foldable bench for bench pressing. The weighted balls are nice to use, as are a few kettlebells that I swing around when I do high-intensity interval work. I have some resistance bands around, which I also take with me if I’m at a hotel for a few days. Music is always an essential part of this routine.
I may outgrow the weights I have at some point, but I’m coming to realize that gaining muscle is a function of various different types of lifting: powerlifting heavy weights through compound lifts and burnout exercises with more moderate weights. I’m already seeing some success (newbie gains are so encouraging!) and plan to continue gain as much muscle as I can to combat perimenopause and its insidious effects on fitness. Honestly, I’m not sure whether workouts are becoming more ferocious or I’m getting older or both. But this approach of shorter, more intense and more varied workouts, combined with a lot of stretching, rolling, and recovery, is working quite well for me at this point, and it might fit those of you who are entering your forties, fifties, and beyond.
In the last few weeks I’ve been making big changes to my nutrition and fitness routine, which call for some careful reflection. The whole thing started when a colleague–a badass athlete in her own right–lent me her copy of Stacy Sims’ new. book Next Level, the first (as far as I know) book about perimenopausal and menopausal athlete. Just a few days later, I attended an open water swim camp in Hawaii, where my wonderful and knowledgeable coach, Celeste St. Pierre, recommended the same book, and impressed upon me the vital importance of Lifting Heavy Shit.
Up to this point, my athletic endeavors were almost squarely in the endurance world. I swam long (and slow) in open waters, transitioning then to multisport to protect myself from injury. In the heyday of my marathon swimming days, I did no cross training whatsoever – only swimming. Later, I added on calisthenics, in the form of fusion classes (which I took and taught) and antigravity fitness (using silky hammocks.) I’m not quite sure whether I was fully aware of the importance of doing all these things at the same time, and I’m also pretty sure I wasn’t told to increase the resistance and challenge or to eat more. Generally speaking, and relatedly, my weight has been almost entirely the product of my diet: when I eat more and poorly, I gain weight; when, with great control and care, I eat less and well, I lose weight. Going in the former direction is easier than the latter.
For many important biological reasons that Sims explains in a lucid, straightforward way in her book, the wellbeing and athletic priority during perimenopause and beyond should be building lean muscle and bone. For many of us, this means changing our body composition, which is not an easy thing to do and not one that can be accomplished merely with dietary changes. The building block for muscle is protein, which has to be consumed in adequate amounts, and the muscles must be used in a progressively challenging fashion for them to grow stronger.
I read the book cover to cover and then, through the recommendation of another wonderful athletic colleague, was introduced to lifter Casey Johnston and her excellent couch-to-barbell program. Two weeks ago, for the first time, I mounted plates on my barbell, and am quite fascinating with this transformation, though I still have many questions and uncertainties. Here is some of what has been happening:
I am lifting three times a week – twice at the school gym with my colleague, once or twice at home. This has required a certain change to my routine. I lift on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday; I now swim on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. I also kept up my pilates on Saturday and my boot camp (which includes lifting) on Sunday. On lifting days I also do a short plyometric set (quick, HIIT-type jumping). Monday is somewhat of a lighter day, though I do ride the cargo e-bike, as I do every weekday, to drop my son off at school. That means shorter but more intense workouts, which is what Sims recommends. It does feel weird, as someone used to endurance workouts, that there’s none of the prolonged suffering that we marathoning people tend to glorify. Hilariously, I am finding the mantra “I can take anything for twenty seconds” useful for both HIIT and lifting.
I am already experiencing improvement in my strength. Last week I flew to Atlanta for a conference (ASC was very good this year, and I’ve already posted about some of what I learned–on court fees and on extradition) with a big, heavy backpack containing everything I needed for four days. When I got to my airplane seat, I lifted my bag into the overhead compartment–and was immediately struck by a big difference. Reader, it was child’s play. Not that it wasn’t heavy; I was stronger, noticeably so, and it was very gratifying. Same story with groceries. My partner was astonished yesterday when I came back from the co-op with a gigantic box of produce, oat milk cartons, and the like, and carried it myself as if it was nothing despite its weird shape. All of this is very good news and provides ample motivation to keep going.
The progress arc at the beginning is very satisfying. Every time I lift I think to myself, there’s no way in hell I’ll be able to lift five pounds more in two days. And then the next workout arrives, and to my astonishment, I can! I’m sure this fast progress will slow down as I progress, but for now, this linear improvement (2.5-lb increments for upper body, 5-lb increments for lower body) is providing a huge motivation boost. This is a good thing. Throughout my life, I’ve often see-sawed between two good sensations: growth (picking up a sport or a skill I know nothing about and getting through the uncomfortable months/years that it takes to become “good enough” to enjoy it) and relishing skill (making small improvements in a sport I’m already quite proficient at.) Sometimes it feels like I need to stay in my comfort zone (as with, say, swimming or flute.) Sometimes I pick up something new (such as tai chi or the handpan.) Now is a time for the latter, and I feel excitement building for when I get “good enough” to know what I’m doing.
I’ve also introduced some changes to my swimming. At the open water swim camp, Celeste taught us to activate our muscles through dryland practice before getting into the water. I’m finding this highly effective, and I’ve made one more adjustment–my sets are shorter and sprintier now. I cover fewer yards overall, but the intensity of the practice has increased, which is exhilarating. I’m also hitting some surprising times with my 50s and 100s – times I hadn’t seen in the pool since I was training for Tampa Bay in 2012. At 48, this is gratifying and makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing.
I’m still not 100% sure what I’m doing, nutrition-wise, despite having gotten excellent advice. Sims’ book, the coaching figures in my life, and my awesome new acquaintance, vegan fitness coach Karina Inkster, have all emphasized two principles: I have to eat a lot more than I’ve been eating, and I have to prioritize protein. These things go hand in hand, because it is a pretty impossible job to double one’s protein intake (especially on a vegan diet) and keep the caloric situation low. Sims discusses the common problem of low energy availability, or LEA, and stresses how crucial it is to fuel properly before, during, and after workouts. We vegans love to scoff at ignorant meat eaters who ask us “where do you get your protein?” and, indeed, one can get a lot of protein on a plant-based diet, but it does require more planning, as the things one should eat (good, plant based food with fiber and phytonutrients) don’t tend to come in easy protein-rich packages. On Karina’s website, one can find lots of excellent resources for protein and other nutrition strategies for vegan athletes. She even has a handy vegan protein calculator, which instructed me to eat twice as much protein as I had been eating. This means I’m chasing protein throughout the day (tofu scramble; adding vegan protein powder to green smoothies; adding hemp, flax, and chia to my morning oatmeal) and all the other calories sort of work themselves out.
I’m also not sure what’s happening with my body size-wise. Despite eating almost twice what I ate during the Big Weight Loss and Health Restoring Project, and despite putting on about 12 lbs or so, my size doesn’t feel significantly different. My measurements are almost the same. The scale is unhelpful, as its body composition readings are inconsistent and bizarre. Parts of me feel more muscular, other parts softer, and, in general, I feel more like a work in progress than like the chiseled ancient Greek statue my mind imprinted on as the picture of health and strength. I can’t argue with the functional improvement, but there is definitely a part of me that is terrified of regaining all the weight I lost through so much effort–if only because I have wonderful clothes and would like to continue wearing them. This is a really interesting and juicy place to explore in meditation–attachment to body, attachment to clothes, the possibility that I purchased my current wardrobe as a protective talisman against weight gain, lots of new things to learn about myself and my relationship to my body.
Spiritually, the whole thing is weird, fun, and a bit discombobulating. One of my favorite teachers, Pema Chödrön, speaks of “positive groundlessness“: coming to a sense of tentative, floating peace with the idea that nothing is permanent and there is really nothing to hold on to:
The idea of letting go of fear and becoming comfortable with groundlessness has been a recurring theme for me in the last few weeks, pretty much since I participated in the Smithfield Trial and experienced the elation of its aftermath. Recently, Wayne Hsiung and I recorded our third podcast together, in which I espoused a theory about the judge’s closed fist where it came to affirmative defenses and evidence in the trial. I’m increasingly convinced that what drives these aggressive judicial court-management maneuvers is the fear that the trial will evolve and bloat into some landmark political moment beyond the judge’s ability to handle. Fear of uncertainty, of having nothing to hold on to, no buffer or protection, drives a lot of behavior, including very bad behavior. This includes my own fear: during the trial, as Wayne and I discuss in the podcast, I was sure that taking a mistrial was the right choice for him, but he decided to take the chance and see what the jury would decide. Happily, he was proven right. It was a moment that taught me that Wayne has more guts than me, and that I need to develop my relationship with positive groundlessness.
In his book Becoming a Man, one of my favorite authors, Paul Monette, wrote: “When you finally come out, there’s a pain that stops, and you know it will never hurt like that again, no matter how much you lose or how bad you die.” I think this is true for virtually anything worth being brave about: animal rights, helping incarcerated people, fighting against an unjust regime, resisting orthodoxies (from the right and from the left), and changing something as solid and fundamental as one’s relationship with one’s body. Let’s just say this lifting journey is a wonderful opportunity to explore my own bravery in picking up something new, and it’s a spiritual journey as well.
On social media, a wonderful post by Rebecca Solnit is making the rounds. It is a quote from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing:
A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….
One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.
It’s very well put, but it does remind me of Erving Goffman’s Gender Advertisements, which was published more than a decade earlier. Goffman analyzed dozens of ads, showing how women are gazing and gazed at the same time, perceiving themselves as the object of the male gaze.
I recently had the opportunity to contemplate the extent that this self-perception has been inculcated even in me. The annual meeting of the American Sociological Association was held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, which is a huge venue with many multi-stall bathrooms. Upon arrival, I found out that the organizers converted almost all the restrooms (which had been gendered) into all-gender restrooms (with the exception of a restroom on the first floor) and festooned the entire venue with signs about respect and affirmation for LGBTQ people and nonbinariness (if not at a soc conference, then where?). The compassion and acceptance for all attendees was, of course, commendable, but I was surprised to be of two minds about the choice to ungender all toilets. On one hand, as a small-bladdered person who always must run to the bathroom (and has the criminal record to prove it!) I was delighted that the number of available stalls and their proximity increased! On the other, I was uneasy with the presence of urinals in the bathrooms (even though they were not used in my presence) and felt wary of checking my appearance in the mirror, which is something I do without giving it a second thought in women’s bathrooms.
When talking about this to a colleague, she noted that there was one restroom marked “women” on the first floor of the humongous five-floor building, which she made a special effort to use. It would have taken me half an hour to get from the rooms where I gave and attended talks to make it to that bathroom, which perhaps gave women an opportunity to sample the experience of folks with disabilities and gender nonconformities of various types, who typically have to trek to find the “special” bathrooms. So, while discomfiting, this at least was educational.
I’m not sure that completely eliminating gendered bathrooms is in our future, nor am I sure that it’s a desirable future (that’s a debacle for a different day), but it sure made me think whether my instinctive reaction was an expression of the Goffman/Berger “woman watching herself being looked at” thing, and if so, whether it’s something we should accept, attempt to root out, or something in between. Curious to hear your thoughts.
Recently I listened to Chen Zausmer’s fascinating podcast “What Are You Waiting For?”, which documents her egg-freezing journey. The podcast is moving, disquieting, and extremely well done, documenting Zausmer’s emotional process as well as the physical and financial practicalities of the procedure. Among the things that make this a worthwhile listen are the embedded recordings of personal conversations between Zausmer and her friends and family, in which they raise uncomfortable, emotionally loaded subjects such as “giving up” on couplehood and a two-parent framework, questions on reproductivity and self worth, womanhood and femininity, and other complicated, soul-searching issues. It is also an admirable example of honestly and vulnerably offering a meditation on subjects that can be, and are, deeply private issues for wide public consumption.
When someone does make the choice to make their very private affairs public in this form (the podcast is accessible on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and pretty much anywhere else podcasts can be found), though, the audience’s thoughts about it are not merely nosy/judgmental commentary on another private person’s journey. Each of us consumes art and media through personal eyes. And, in my case, that meant listening to four lengthy episodes detailing a plethora of emotional, physical, and financial trials and tribulations focused on a very particular biological choice, without even a brief mention, a suggestion, or a whiff of possibility, around nonbiological parenting through fostering and adoption. And as an adoptive mom, this was crazymaking.
This is not a personal critique of Zausmer’s options–she is, of course, free to do as she wishes with her body, soul, and financial resources–and for what it’s worth, she comes off as a thoughtful person who engages in unflinching self-inquiry, which is admirable. But those who don’t want their deepest personal struggles to evoke a range of emotions, thoughts, and reactions, seldom make podcasts out of them, so I’m offering some thoughts in that spirit.
As in the pro-choice/pro-life debacle, becoming a mom through adoption has gifted me with a more nuanced perspective that untethers parenting from biology, which I elaborated on elsewhere (here and here.) I always feel like these perspectives are left unexamined because of the strong bias in favor of biological parenting. The conversations about reproductive justice that I’ve been privy to not only prioritize biology but actively push any notions of nonbiological parenting out of the conversation. For a number of years I’ve been surrounded by people, some of them close friends, who have gone through numerous circles of IVF hell, back-and-forth with surrogates and the adjacent ethical issues, and the deep tragedies of miscarriages and losses. And yet, suggesting adoption or fostering to people who are undertaking unbearable physical, emotional, and financial difficulties in their torturous journey to become biological parents is considered terribly rude, and the social consensus is that people’s willingness to jump through absurdly challenging hoops to ensure that they go through pregnancy/birth, or even just that their genetics are passed on, should be unquestionable accepted, without opening other doors and possibilities.
I remember noticing this when I attended an event celebrating Dov Fox’s new book Birth Rights and Wrongs. To his great credit, Fox provides a thorough and thoughtful overview of the myriad problems caused by reproductive technologies, including unreported medical conditions of sperm donors. The book’s agenda, however, is clearly to empower parents to address these serious technological and medical challenges through lawsuits in torts. One walks away with the sense that any procedure for procuring biological children–as complicated, experimental, expensive, and taxing as it might be–should be the unshakable right of any prospective parent, complete with the legal power to sue at every wrinkle at which something goes wrong. Expanding these litigation rights is a tacit expression of the law’s preference for, and encouragement of, biological reproduction.
This may be outside the cultural/biological/social norm, but I know I’m far from the only one: I have never wanted to get pregnant or to give birth, and at the same time I am thrilled to be a mom and my son is the light of my life. I accept that many, perhaps most, women do want to experience pregnancy/birth. But it is hard for me to responsibly participate in conversations with people who are experiencing horrific suffering and sorrows through their pursuit of biological parenting at all costs, and are completely unwilling to even consider other paths to parenting. Because we are very open about our adoptive journey, over the years I’ve happily had several lengthy conversations with friends and acquaintances who, throughout this journey started “despairing” and “thinking about adoption”–as if it’s a secondary choice to biological reproduction, only to be pursued if the “normal” path has failed, because multiple IVF rounds involving extensive travel and six-figure-dollar amounts is apparently more “normal” than offering a home to a newborn that also saves the life of young people saddled with an unwanted pregnancy. Afterwards, sometimes I get a phone call saying that they discussed it amongst themselves and at least one of them was adamant that what they really wanted was “a child of our own.” Get it? A child of our own–as if your kids through adoption or fostering are not really “your own”, or it’s some testament of your inferiority that you chose nonbiological parenting. I always want to ask: Why is it so important for you to propagate your specific genes, and how are they uniquely better or more important to propagate than those of other members of the human population? It’s especially jarring when, in opposite-sex couples, virtually all of the physical suffering is endured by the woman, and it’s the man who clings to the genetic imperative at the price of his partner’s health and wellbeing. Can I say something about this, compassionately and gently? Of course not! It’s none of my business, and there’s such a taboo against suggesting this even in the most compassionate way–and I submit the taboo exists because we harbor a deep bias against nonbiological parenting.
But this is not just an issue of people’s personal choices, for whom I have all the compassion in the world (another person’s suffering is 100% understandable and relatable, and gets 100% support and love from me, even if I’m not on board with the cause of the suffering.) It raises serious questions for all of us as a community. Societies that do not fully support solid, comprehensive sex education, keep young people ignorant of their bodily functions, allow young men to walk away from the consequences of their sexual activity, sticking young women with the agonizing expectation that they carry unwanted pregnancies to term, are societies that produce babies born into untenable situations who need stable, solid, loving homes. And such societies should do everything in their power to guarantee a good starting point for all these babies–starting with completely destigmatizing, and even encouraging all forms of nonbiological parenting, through resources, education, and unwavering social support. Investing enormous amounts of medical progress, public funding, and unquestioning social validation in biological procreation for the wealthy at all costs has a price, and that price is delegitimizing and neglecting fostering and adoption. And in the current political climate, this does not strike me only as precious and capricious, from a governmental perspective, but also as morally untenable.
My great aunt Carmella had a beautiful child-free life: she had her own business and traveled around the world with a lovely and similarly adventurous husband. They worked hard and arrived at a place of wealth and financial comfort. And yet she was deeply unhappy throughout it all. One of the main reasons: She desperately wanted to be a mother, bitterly envied her siblings (including my grandma) who had kids, and this filled her with frustration and contempt. Toward the end of her life, which she spent giving backhanded compliments and insulting family members, my mom called her to let her know that we had a son, and shared briefly about the adoption. There was a long silence on the other end of the line, and then Carmella, who was never at loss of words, said quietly, in a little girl’s voice: “Hadar is very wise.” When my mom shared this with me, my heart broke for Carmella and for the decades of joy and fulfillment she robbed herself of by not even considering fostering and/or adoption.
If you are reading this, no matter where you are in thinking about parenthood, what I most desire for you is to be happy. And what is most important to let you know is that there are many ways for you to find happiness. You can, and definitely should, consider the many possibilities of becoming parents through both biological and nonbiological means. You can, and definitely should, consider the very legitimate possibility of living a wonderful life full of meaning and fulfillment as a non-parent (with or without children in your life in one form or another.) A lot of the suffering we undergo in life when we choose a certain path comes from the stubborn (and incorrect) belief that it is the only viable path to our destination. I don’t want this for you–I want to you to offer yourself more freedom, and this freedom starts in your own mind, outside the socio-cultural expectations, pressures, or inducements. I’m sending you good wishes on this journey.