The Golden Circlet

All the good things in life

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About a year ago, my whole family converted to Judaism. For me, taking on a faith in which I wasn’t raised was a mysterious, maze-like process, with lots of false starts and roadblocks over many years — my whole life, really. Just like with a completed maze, once it’s finished, you can look down on the page and the path is totally obvious. But in the midst of it, you never have any idea what the hell you’re doing, or where you’re headed, or if that’s the right place to be at all.

Our rabbi said that he was not the one who would “convert us” to Judaism. He told us that when we were Jewish, we would tell him! But when that happened, we wanted to mark it in a formal way, and he suggested three experiences we walked through to do that. The first task was my husband’s alone. Jews, of course, symbolize their covenant with circumcision. Luckily for my husband, like most American men, he’d already gone through that as an infant! But the rabbi did suggest a Hatafat Dam Brit — a ritual re-enactment of circumcision for Jewish conversion. My husband said he found it straightforward, and not really spiritual. He said the worst part was simply the embarrassment of trying to arrange it — we live in rural New England, where there are no mohels. There are Jewish doctors who are willing to do this ceremony, but their secretaries and support people are not Jewish, and for my shy husband to call up the doctor’s office and try to explain what he wanted made for an awkward moment!

The last task was a formal conversion ceremony, at the synagogue, where our rabbi gave us our Jewish names, said a blessing for us, and we spoke about what the experience meant to us for our family and friends.

But the middle task was the one that mattered to us: the mikveh. Everyone is familiar with this religious ceremony. Christians call it baptism — it’s what John the Baptist and Jesus were doing in the river Jordan. In Judaism, immersion in water is a purification rite. It is done during conversion, and women do it after childbirth or menstruation. Men do it for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons — some Jewish men go to the mikveh before every Shabbat. The idea is to become ritually clean, but there is also an idea of being “reborn,” of becoming like a newborn child in the waters of the womb, which is why both Christians and Jews use water for conversion.

Jewish law requires that the waters of a mikveh be “living,” that is to say, from the sky, not the earth. For conversion, we immersed ourselves in the lake in our front yard.

Our rabbi came, turned his back to us while he sat on the lake, and we waded, naked, into the water. There was immersion — each of us alone — you want the water to touch every inch of you. There was prayer: the Shehecheyanu, the Sh’ma. But the details are hazy for me. All I can tell you is that when I went into the water, I wasn’t expecting much. Because there were Hebrew prayers involved, we had practiced, on our own, days before. I expected the “real thing” to be like the practice. I expected the conversion to be symbolic, rote, nothing more. I thought the spiritual work was the reading, the study, the rituals we’d slowly been incorporating into our lives over weeks and months. Anyway, I’m not at all certain I believe in God, anyway. Belief in God was not what I was expecting when I converted to Judaism.

But I didn’t get what I expected.

The mikveh lasted all of five minutes, but those five minutes were something special for all three of us. I don’t know what happened — I don’t know who was there, what to name that presence that unmistakably showed up and pervaded the air and the water with electricity that you could taste, like smoke. I didn’t hear any divine voice, or receive any revelation, beyond simply a profound experience of joy and mystery — an awareness of the presence of God. And we all felt it, as we were astonished to discover when the rabbi went home and we were all inarticulate confession to one another.

I’ve never had another experience like it.

So now, every month, when my period is over, I create a little mikveh. I don’t like the patriarchal symbolism of purification after menstruation, or of the forbidding of sex during menstruation. But I find something meaningful in the ritual all the same, somehow. In the summer, I immerse in the lake, say my prayer, and have a little bath. In the winter I take snow or water from the lake if it isn’t frozen, pour it into the tub with my bathwater, and essential oils, and say my prayers and mindfully wash there. I do it at the beginning of Shabbat, because it sweetens Shabbat love-making for me. (My husband has grown to love the scent of the mikveh essential oils wafting through the house, portending a happy reunion.) It’s a small, but lovely thing. (And I should note that my little “mikveh” is not halachically kosher. I’m a reform Jew, I believe that God continues to command us in the present day, and although I’m happy to consult them, I listen to my own heart, not the medieval rabbis, when it comes to deciding what God wants of me.)


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Homeschooling: Challenging Math

We’ve been working hard on learning division of fractions in our family. We use a  wonderful math textbook my aunt wrote, Mathematics Revealed, which I am tickled to discover will set you back $500 bucks on Amazon.

Betsy has always focused, in her efforts at better math education, on making math relevant to daily life, and the text (I think) was aimed at adults with poor math literacy. It’s been fun to work through as a family. Yesterday, for example, the text had us cutting, say, a 3 inch rectangle into 3/4 inch pieces, then counting how many we got, to illustrate the real-world outcome of 3 ÷ 3/4. The boy got a kick out of the cutting and pasting and counting and readily grasped the concepts and how they translated to equations on the page.

Math with the boy can be challenging, though. He works very fast, and doesn’t like to be watched. But because he works fast he makes mistakes, which he doesn’t like pointed out. The more you do point out these mistakes, in fact, the faster he goes and the more mistakes he makes. We’ve tried to focus on good study skills: sitting right, going slowly, thinking out loud — all of which he hates! But if he doesn’t do these things, he doesn’t work as well at home or at school. Helping him enjoy the work is challenging.

We’ve noticed that it goes better if we do it regularly and with saintly patience — a challenge for the grownups in our household, with our own busyness and distractability! What homeschool subjects give you challenges in your family?

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Homeschooling: Writing

When we do writing on homeschooling days — we did tonight — the boy gets to choose the project.

  • He can choose to write on his own blog, Robin’s Peace Blog.
  • He can choose to do a project out of this marvelous book,  Rip the Page!: Adventures in Creative Writing, that I wanted for the longest time on her recommendation before actually winning a copy from Soulemama.
  • Or, he can choose to work on a story-writing project. Right now, he’s working on two long stories. One, The Power of Secretariat, was inspired by his love of horses. The other, The Spy Project, was inspired by reading, well….of course you can probably guess. Right:

Tonight he worked on the Spy Project, got bored with it (“Mom! I have writer’s block!”), and did Rip the Page, playing with small words he likes (pee, pow, zam all made the list).

Here’s a kid with serious writer’s block, man.

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Thinking About Ike’s Tax

Paul Krugman’s musing on the Twinkie era has me thinking about 1950s politics.

Let’s just get clear that even though I wasn’t alive in 1952, I am confident that I would not have “liked Ike.” I’m a hardcore lefty, my family campaigned that year for Adlai Stevenson,  I’ve read some of Stevenson’s essays, enough to get a sense of both his personality and his politics, and whatever: I’m pretty sure I’d have been an eggheaded Stevenson voter in 1952.

But even Truman hoped Eisenhower would run as a Democrat, so there must have been something to the guy. He was no Ronald Reagan, that’s for sure, that horror show of a president whose half-remembered, handsome movie-star smile seems to have rendered amnestic half the nation to the fact that he wrecked the farms, destroyed the unions, and impoverished the country for the next generation and beyond.

A quick look at the Wikipedia table with the history of U.S. income tax rates adjusted for inflation  makes clear just what legacy Reagan left us. In 1965, before the Reagan era, the top tax bracket (folks making, in 2011 dollars, $1.42 million a year or more) paid a marginal rate of 70%. By 1988, the end of the Reagan era, the top tax bracket included anyone making, in 2011 dollars, $56,000 a year or more, and everyone from there on up paid a marginal tax rate of 28%. And tax rates have stayed ridiculously low and ridiculously regressive ever since.  That giant sucking sound Ross Perot heard had nothing to do with NAFTA — it was the sound of money being sucked away from the public good and into the dragon hoards of billionaires.

But in Eisenhower’s era, taxes on the rich reached their apex, and Krugman points out that CEOs were feeling the pinch. He links to this fascinating article, which gives the impression that most presidents of corporations circa 1955 lived delightfully small, bourgeois existences, paying their taxes, avoiding politics and culture,  skippering their  Chris-Crafts on fishing expeditions and saving carefully for their children’s educations.

I might consider selling my soul if my government would tax David Koch into such a station in life.

However, until an underdemon comes calling with an offer, I felt compelled to make tea towels. A little playing around with my knockoff-Photoshop-for-dummies transformed this wonderful image from a mid-century clothing catalog into a broadside for tax relief, like so:

Using Zazzle, I put this little poster onto tea towels, which — if they turn out — may make it into my Christmas presents this year. (I think you can use the link to get a taxation tea towel for yourself, but I don’t get any kickback from that if you can. I assume this image may still be under copyright. I consider my playful use of it for political activism to be fair use, and if you do too, feel free to use the image widely for your own personal enjoyment as well, but this image isn’t for anyone’s commercial benefit, including my own.)

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Silver and Gold Thanksgiving

Our Thanksgiving this year reminded me of this old camp song. We had two families over — the family of one of my very oldest friends, a woman I went to summer camp with when I was a kid, and some friends of theirs — an amazing art-music-geekery-thoughtfulness-activism-dancing family whom I hope will end up being our newest friends. It couldn’t have been more wonderful to spend the evening with all of them.

One problem that occurs when you invite generous people to dinner is food. Plenty of it. It’s a good problem to have on Thanksgiving!

We contributed:

  • A bread cornucopia (except we used homemade No-knead Challah dough rather than commercial breadsticks)
  • White bean and rosemary dip (based loosely off of this recipe) and salsa with chips
  • Garlic mashed potatoes
  • Vegetarian and turkey gravy (we never even served the veggie gravy, because our friends brought their own)
  • Salad (which we then completely forgot even to serve)
  • No-knead challah drizzled with honey
  • Pumpkin packed with bread and cheese
  • Cauliflower cake
  • My husband’s famous and much coveted veggie pot pie
  • Homemade cranberry sauce (Our son made this, using the recipe off of the back of the cranberry bag, to which I suggested he add a chopped, unpeeled orange and a handful of chopped candied ginger, which makes a nice sauce).
  • Black olives, the ordinary kind, from a can, which is how I like them. I could eat the entire can, in fact.
  • Mini tartlets filled with coconut cream (Robin’s favorite) or lemon curd. (For the crusts, I just make Betty Crocker’s standard pie crust recipe, with butter substituted for lard. Do they even still publish this recipe with measurements for lard? They don’t online, but an old version of the cookbook will have it. I bake them at 350 for 20-25 minutes or so, in an assortment of sandbakkels tins from my grandma and some strange-shaped tartlet pans that my aunt handed me down to be playthings for my son when he was small. I don’t do anything fancy like use pie weights or prechill the dough. My tarts turn out misshapen, but who cares?)
  • A couple bottles of Clos du Bois Riesling (2007 and 2009, for those who care, which does not include me. I do like this Riesling OK, though)
  • Some “kid wine,” like so:

Then my old friends came, carting an amazing heater-cooler which plugs into the wall and does whatever you need it to do and would be awesome for a pop-up dinner party like this one. And they added:

  • Bumps on a log, cran-cream cheese and PB&raisin versions.
  • A “meat” pie made of seitan and mushrooms, which I haven’t even tried yet.
  • Green bean casserole
  • Veggie gravy
  • Homebrew IPA
  • A bottle of Bella Sera Pinot Grigio
  • A bottle of Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel

Then our new friends came, and at this point I just rolled over and died laughing, because they brought:

  • A huge, beautiful local roast Vermont turkey
  • Another container of homemade cranberry sauce, which we didn’t even touch
  • Another container of gravy (at this point, with two different meat gravies and two different veggie gravies, I’m thinking we should bring out the shot glasses and have a gravy tasting)
  • Homemade rolls
  • Stuffing
  • A gorgeous, cranberry-topped cheesecake
  • 2 lovely pomegranates
  • And a whole bunch more wine and beer

The kids ate 6 tartlets a piece and screamed and jumped on the beds. We grownups sat around the table and yakked and yakked and ate and ate. It was ridiculous. It was epic. It was bountiful. A good time had by all.  I hope I know these people forever.

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The boy goes to regular public school, but his school isn’t very good. So we make up the difference at home. Yesterday I was home sick, doctor’s orders and everything, because I see patients and was running a fever, and the two are not compatible. But I wasn’t actually feeling that bad. The boy was home for the beginning of his Thanksgiving break. So between the two of us, we did a lot of homeschooling — maybe two weeks worth in a single day. Here’s what we did:

  • We did two hours worth of math. We practiced multiplication of fractions, and then I taught him division of fractions.
  • We played outside on the beach. He is trying to dig a “pleasure tunnel” which he imagines making so large that he and his best friend can sit inside of it and read. Please don’t tell me such beach digging is dangerous. I already know. The tunnel is not yet so large, and I’m hoping we can cross that bridge if we ever come to it. In the meantime, he dug, and he made me dig. Then he criticized my digging. I am neither fast enough nor skillful enough for my little foreman.
  • He read this book for an hour:

  • My husband taught him to play some guitar. He did a little Suzuki, and then my husband taught him how to do a “blues shuffle” on his little electric guitar. It might be called the “blues” but listening to them work on this while I stirred up a pan of lemon curd for Thanksgiving tarts made me smile so hard my face practically fell off.
  • We closed out the night cuddled up in bed, with me finishing reading him The Tin Woodman of Oz. I love the Oz books — they are exciting and magical, no one ever gets killed, and they are less sexist than anything  anyone’s writing now. You’ve got to like a Victorian fantasy world where the queen of the entire thing is a transgender teenaged girl. (No, I am absolutely not kidding. Her majesty Ozma of Oz is a boy named Tip who discovers as a tween that she is in fact a girl princess of a fairy kingdom. Anyone who tells you that we’ve made social progress hasn’t read any old books.) Robin was pleased to learn that neither the Tin Woodman nor the Tin Soldier had to marry poor Nimmee Amee, whom they had abandoned lovelorn years prior, because she had already happily married somebody else.