I’m moving! (well, this blog is)

December 6, 2022

It’s been 14 years of this Midlife Bat Mitzvah blog!

That;’s a nice long run. This blog has continued for 12 years after my actual Bat Mitzvah! But like a 1950s pink tile bathroom, it’s due for a makeover.

As of December 2022, I’m starting a new blog called Two Pockets on the Substack platform: You can find it at https://ilanadebare.substack.com/p/welcome-to-two-pockets.

Two Pockets will cover pretty much the same topics as Midlife Bat Mitzvah did—writing, parenting (although now parenting of an adult!), Judaism, family history, and politics. The new name is explained in that first post: If you guess its source correctly, let me know. :-)

Please continue reading! Use the subscribe button on the Two Pockets page to receive posts directly in your email inbox. To make sure they don’t get caught in your spam filter, add this sender to your contact list: ilanadebare@substack.com 

You can also keep up with my writing on my new website, ilanadebare.com, which should be up and running by January 2023.

Thanks so much for accompanying on the Midlife Bat Mitzvah journey—your reading, commenting, elaborating, and encouraging. I hope we can continue sharing more experiences and insights through Two Pockets.


Cover reveal!

November 15, 2022

I’m so excited: Here’s the cover for my novel Shaken Loose, which will be published next summer by Hypatia Press!

I really, really love this. It’s eye-catching, reflective of the themes of the book… and it was created by my daughter Rebecca Schuchat!

Becca is an emerging graphic novelist and designer. She received her MFA last June from the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, has a growing portfolio of work, and is working on a graphic novel that will be of particular interest to people who have followed this blog. (Shhh. I can’t give away anything about it.)

I’d been thinking way too literally about cover ideas. I asked Becca to help me come up with some concepts I could give to the publisher, since my own drawings look like the output of a semi-talented pre-schooler. She produced a rough sketch, which they liked enough to have her design the actual cover! After some rounds of refinement, here it is.

I really love it. Publication in summer 2023 feels like a long time away, but this is a big step and makes it feel more real.

It’s a little weird being categorized as a “debut novelist”—with connotations of young girls in fancy dresses—when I’m closer to 61 than to 16. But then I had a Midlife Bat Mitzvah, so I should be used to that. :-)

I am deeply thankful for having such a talented and generous daughter. Grateful for a publisher who recognized a good cover when they saw it (as opposed to the awful, literal sketches I’d sent them). I’m thankful that after four decades of drafting novels after workdays, while on maternity leave, and during spurts of unemployment I am finally on the road to publishing one.

Happy Thanksgiving! Thank you for joining me on this journey so far, and I look forward to your company over the next year too.

Go to (artistic) Hell

October 25, 2022

Like the real world isn’t scary enough these days? Now I’m asking you to join me in visiting Hell?

Hold on. This is *artistic* Hell—how artists across history and cultures have depicted a punishing afterlife. And it’s really interesting. It can even be a fun, momentary diversion from the genuinely scary things like politics, climate change, Putin’s war on Ukraine, etc.

I’ve just launched Facebook and Instagram feeds on the art of Hell. You can find them on either of those social media at @hell_scapes. Here are links to the Facebook page, and to the Instagram account. We’ll explore some works that may be familiar to you (Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights) and some that are likely to be completely unfamiliar (a 15th century Central Asian image of Muhammed at the gates of Hell).

Garden of Earthly;y Delights
Vision of Hell by Heironymous Bosch, in his Garden of Earthly Delights triptych (late 1400s, in the Prado Museum).
Muhammed rides towards red gates that mark the entrance to a fiery Hell
Muhammed (with the turban) approaching the gates of Hell, on a mystical steed called a buraq. From a 15th century illuminated manuscript of Nahj al-Faradis, or The Path to Paradise. From the Timurid Empire, which encompassed today’s Iran. Iraq and much of Central Asia. Image from the David Collection in Copenhagen (inventory # 14/2014), photographed by Pernille Klemp.

Why am I doing this? My fantasy novel Shaken Loose, which will be published in summer 2023, is set in Hell. In doing research for it—yes, writing about an imaginary place did require research!—I ran across a lot of intriguing, moving, gruesome, or just plain bizarre paintings and sculptures.

These images tell stories of what the artist and their society valued and condemned. And of what they feared: After all, they were trying to depict the Worst Punishment Imaginable. They tell us something about the artist’s own self: Were they gloating at those tormented souls as they painted them in flames or chains? Were they feeling compassionate? Rebellious? Confident about their own destiny, or worried?

These images also raise related questions about ourselves. Why have we humans felt such a widespread need to imagine a punitive afterlife? Of course we yearn for justice that may not manifest itself in our lifetime. But does justice always require punishment? How about our criminal justice system today: Can we imagine and implement a form of justice that isn’t centered on the infliction of pain and suffering?

Painting of souls in purgatory
Souls in purgatory, from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, an illuminated manuscript created around 1440 in the Netherlands. In the Morgan Library. The Hellmouth is a common motif in medieval European art.

I invite you to follow either the Instagram or Facebook feed. (They have the same content.) Beyond that, I invite you to help! Think of it as a Hell Art Scavenger Hunt. If you’re visiting a museum and find a painting or sculpture of Hell, take a photo of it along with its informational plaque and send them to me. I will credit you as the “finder” of this treasure.

You can expect one or two posts each week — not enough to overwhelm, just enough to provide a moment of whimsical or thought-provoking relief from work Zooms, stalled commuter trains, or bad news headlines.

Join me in Hell! For fun and relaxation! Meet you at the fiery gates. Or cave. Or jaws.

You can find purgatory in suburban Connecticut. Photo by Ilana DeBare

From drought to deluge of visual info

September 22, 2022

I’ve been in Istanbul for the past week doing research for the historical novel I mentioned in my last blog post!

Also having regular touristy fun with Sam, of course: mosques, ferries, fantastic food. But all the time I’m trying to figure out what Istanbul was like in the 1600s— what it looked like, smelled like, sounded like back then.

It’s challenging. First of all, no commonplace buildings still exist from that century, only monumental structures like stone mosques and the Topkapi Palace. The everyday city was built of wood, and it burned periodically, and nothing is left from before the late 1800s and 1900s. There’s no equivalent of Barcelona’s Gothic quarter or Paris’ Marais neighborhood.

In addition, there are few visual depictions of Istanbul from the 1600s.  Muslim art is non-representational—beautiful calligraphy and floral designs, but no images of humans. The few existing landscapes of pre-modern Istanbul are by Western European artists (whose vision is not necessarily reliable due to Orientalist preconceptions), and even those were rare in the 1600s. 

View of Istanbul waterfront (Eminonu) by French painter Jean Baptiste Hilair from 1789 (Pera Museum)
A view of the waterfront today (the opposite shore at Karakoy) / Photo by Ilana DeBare

So I’ve been wandering the very modern streets relying on imagination to see what they were like 350 years ago—before pavement and neon and chain stores, before trams and motorcycles, before the hordes of Istanbullus and tourists promenading along Istiklal Road with ice cream cones and roasted corn on the cob.

And all these Istanbullus and tourists are taking selfies.

Thousands of selfies. Tens of thousands of selfies! Maybe I just notice it more after two years of Covid isolation, but in the city’s gathering spots it seems like every fifth person is taking a cell phone photo. 

Clustering around local street musicians, people take cell phone photos. Jumping onto an old-fashioned trolley, more photos. And of course the view spots—the grand mosques, the palace—even more cell phone photos.

Cell phones eliminated any price barrier to taking photos—lots of photos. I take advantage of this as much as anyone does. I’ve snapped probably two dozen photos of Istanbul’s street cats. Do I need to remember each cat? Will I want to look at each cat five years from now? Of course not. But I pass a cat, and I think “how cute” or “how picturesque,” and I click and move on.

Sam photographs a street cat, and Ilana photographs Sam / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Data point: Over 6 billion people on the planet now have cell phones.  If only one-quarter of them take only one selfie each month, that’s 1.5 billion new images floating up into the cloud each month. That’s 18 billion new images each year.

It adds up to a visual library with incredible potential for future social historians, assuming they are able to access it.* 

Even simple posed portraits tell us a lot about someone’s place in society. (Think about those Renaissance portraits where there was significance to the way a nobleman was standing, or the items placed on a table beside him.) 

And portraits in a busy public setting tell stories about the surroundings as well as the subject: What’s the demographic make-up of that crowd watching the street musicians? Which products are for sale in the shop window behind them? Why are a dozen armed policemen leaning against a wall nearby?

But there will be so many photos. Probably a thousand photos of the Galata Tower taken each day, and ten thousand of the Hagia Sofia mosque. Making sense of them will no longer be a job for an individual but for an A.I. program. The program will sort and dice them in countless ways—how many scarfed versus unscarfed women, how many same-sex couples touching each other in public, how many Nike sneakers and what age were the Nike wearers? 

For historians and historical novelists of the future, the challenge will not be too little visual data but too much visual data. 

Will it be easier or harder for a historical novelist in 2422 who is trying to recreate the world in which we’re now living?


*I know that future access to all these photos is a big “if,” both legally and technically. These billions of photos are supposedly private, even if stored on Apple or Google servers in the cloud. And who knows if historians of the future will be able to view jpgs? The first novel that I drafted in my 20s was saved on floppy disks, which computers can no longer read. If I ever wanted to revisit that (early, painfully bad, not worth revisiting) work, I’d need to hire a data retrieval company.

Of course I have to include a selfie! For those future historians who want to know how American tourists dressed in 2022. / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Digging up history for a historical novel

April 21, 2022

How far in the past does a novel need to take place for it to be considered “historical fiction?” That question came up recently in an online writing discussion group that I follow, and the answers were both varied and revealing.

Varied: Some people suggested a fixed amount of time, such as fifty years in the past. Others suggested it simply needs to be distant enough that many readers didn’t experience the era. Still others offered specific criteria: Before cellphones, or before computers, or before the most recent war….

And revealing: For some of us, it was boggling to think that parts of our own lives—the 1960s, the ’70s, maybe even 9/11 ?—might now be shelved with historical fiction. 

Historical fiction… isn’t that Ken Follett writing about medieval cathedrals? Not me shopping for bell bottom jeans as a teenager in Greenwich Village! Am I now as antique as a Gothic cathedral?

Nothing says “historical fiction” like an 1,104-page novel about a cathedral

With the new novel I’m starting, though, there’s no question that it’s historical. It’s set in the 1600s in the Jewish communities of Europe.

And that’s requiring a level of research beyond anything I’ve done before.

My non-fiction book on U.S. girls’ schools certainly required historical research—lots of time in school archives—but nothing from before the early 1800s. All the sources were in English, and the stories took place in a world that was different from mine yet recognizable.

My forthcoming fantasy novel has characters from the deep past, such as pre-colonial Africa and the edges of the Roman Empire, but those are all secondary figures. The main character is from 21st century San Francisco: I’ve walked the streets she walks and eaten the burritos she eats. Though I had to research those other characters, I only needed enough for brief walk-ons—not enough to carry an entire book.

With this new project, I need to know 16th century life in the lands we now call Germany and Italy and Turkey. I need to know how Jews and others dressed, what their homes looked like, what they ate. I need to know how their streets smelled and sounded. I need to know how they got from one place to another.

How a Jewish woman in Istanbul might have dressed in 1574, from “Jewish Costumes in the Ottoman Empire” (published by Golem Santa Galerisi)

That last question has preoccupied me for several weeks. My character travels from Hamburg to Istanbul. But how? Does she go by land, sea, or some combination? What is her exact route? Would she have ridden in a coach or a wagon, and, if so, what did vehicles from that era look like? What did ships from that era look like? How many passengers on a merchant ship and where did they sleep? How many miles per day would her coach or ship have travelled? How did Jewish voyagers interact with Christians during their travels? And so on. 

Images of ships from a 17th century Haggadah

Yes, it’s fiction. Which means I can make everything up: There is no single right answer. But some answers are more plausible than others. I need to learn enough about travel logistics of that era to make her journey believable and historically accurate.

I don’t want to be like some 25th century writer recreating the year 2022 and saying that the heroine flew from California to Paris in an hour and a half!

The 1600s are what historians consider the “early modern era” of Europe. Because of developments like the printing press, there are more written documents available from this period than from prior centuries. But photography hadn’t yet been invented. Unlike cathedrals and palaces, few “typical” Jewish homes still exist with their 17th century form and furnishings. And while I’ve found some artistic depictions of 17th century ports and cities, they are far less numerous than, say, in the 19th century when every young painter aspired to do a Grand Tour of Europe.

So this is challenging. But it’s also a great treasure hunt. The subterranean stacks of U.C. Berkeley’s main library are one of my favorite places. I’m finding treasures such as Alfred Rubens’s oversized A History of Jewish Costume. (It weighs almost four pounds.) Or a history of coaches and carriages first published in 1877. Or a recent book by a Brown University professor on “the great Jewish refugee crisis of the 17th century.” 

A History of Jewish Costume

I slogged up the stairs from the stacks this week lugging about 15 pounds of books. (Rubens’s tome wasn’t even in that batch!) It felt like physically unearthing past centuries and raising them into the afternoon Bay Area light.

It’s strange to be writing a novel where I will spend a year or more at work before typing a single sentence of story—before I even know my character’s name—but I need to understand the backdrop in order to figure out what happens to her.

Very occasionally I wonder, What did I get myself into? But mostly I’m having a lot of fun.

Smoke and (our own private) mirrors

March 19, 2022

Today I delivered a drash (commentary) on the weekly Torah portion, which was Tzav (Leviticus 6:1 through 8:36). I won’t reprint the entire thing here, just the part I liked the most. :-)

Tzav primarily focuses on the role of the priests in carrying out sacrifices on behalf of the Israelites. Moses instructs Aaron and his sons on where to make the sacrifices, what to wear, how to dispose of the ashes, etc.

I was struck by the repeated use of language about “turning sacrifices into smoke.” This is the phrasing the writers of Tzav use to say that an offering should be completely burned up. For instance:

“The token portion of the meal offering shall be turned into smoke on the altar as a pleasing odor to the Lord.”

“The priest shall turn the (fat of the guilt offering) into smoke on the altar as an offering by fire to the Lord.” 

“Moses washed the entrails and the legs with water and turned all of the ram into smoke.”

And so on.

Not a sacrifice! Someone is cooking potatoes on a DIY stove. But it still produces smoke. Photo: Frank Benson

Now, there are so many ways one could describe what is being done with these offerings. You could simply say that Moses burned up the entire ram. Or that Moses incinerated the ram. That he turned it into ash, that he turned it into cinders, that he burned it so thoroughly that the amount left was smaller than a pebble. 

But over and over, Leviticus tells us that these offerings were “turned into smoke.”

Why this emphasis on smoke?

Thinking historically, perhaps this was another of many steps in differentiating Judaism from the surrounding religions. Many ancient religions saw gods as similar to humans in that they needed to eat, and these societies viewed sacrifices as literally feeding the gods. Judaism took a different view of God—as being above and beyond human needs such as eating— and wanted to make clear that these ritual sacrifices were not Doordash for God. The sacrifices were not food for God’s survival. Instead, they were something intangible to please and connect with God: a “pleasing odor to the Lord.”  

But I also like to think about it metaphorically, especially as it applies to the guilt and sin offerings. The fiery sacrifice turns something solid and heavy and bloody into something light and airy and (to God, at least) pleasant smelling.

Isn’t that what we’d like to have happen with our transgressions and regrets? They weigh us down, we carry them heavily… but wouldn’t it be nice if we could let them float away into the air? Through the ritual of the sacrifice, that’s what these ancient Israelites were doing. 

Candle smoke. Photo: Tigerzeng.

So, with your indulgence, let’s do a little thought experiment.

Close your eyes. Think of one thing you’ve done in the past week that you regret because it was wrong. It doesn’t have to be a big thing: In fact, it’s most likely a small thing. Were you rude to the clerk at Safeway? Did you snap at your spouse? Did you read a news story and respond with cynicism rather than open-hearted empathy? Did you share a piece of gossip that, inside, you knew you probably shouldn’t? Did you gloat over someone else’s troubles? 

Take a minute. Think of one small thing that you regret. We’re going to sit here quietly while you come up with that thing.


Okay, now picture that small thing as a heavy block of wood. It’s hard to lift. You’ve been lugging it around all week. You don’t want it, but there it is. It’s heavy.

And now — keep those eyes closed! — envision setting that block of wood on fire. You know what you did was wrong and you’ll think twice the next time such a situation comes up. You’ll do better. The block of wood is burning and getting smaller and smaller and lighter and lighter and this thing you regret is turning into smoke. There! It’s past. It’s floating away. You’ve learned something and will do better next time. The wood is gone and the weight is gone and the smoke is dissolving into a broad blue sky.

Take a deep breath now, a full breath. You’ll do better. You’re learning, all the time. It’s never too late to learn. Your lungs fill with fresh, clean air and the smoke is no longer even visible, but God smells the smoke from your offering and, indeed, it is a pleasing odor to Adonai.

Open your eyes.

Shabbat Shalom.

Book contract!

February 1, 2022

Did you hear the shouts reverberating through your modem?

I have a publisher!

I’ve signed a contract with Hypatia Press to publish my two-book fantasy series, Shaken Loose.  

No, this is not a specifically Jewish book. But it did indirectly grow out of some of the issues we’ve explored together in this blog—such as the contradiction between a supposedly just God and a universe so full of injustice. 

This moment has been a long time coming. I started writing Shaken Loose in 2014, at which point I envisioned a single book. I began querying agents in 2017 with no luck, did several rewrites, realized it needed a sequel, queried more agents with no luck, hired a developmental editor and did more rewrites, gave up on agents, and finally moved on to small presses that allow you to submit without an agent.

Now here we are at the start of 2022, and these books finally have a home. Hypatia Press is a newish small press dedicated to “quality irreligious publishing,” which is a perfect description of Shaken Loose

This is Connecticut. Not my book. Photo: Ilana DeBare

It’s set in a dystopic afterlife—a Hell that includes both truly evil people and anyone from throughout history who was not a baptized Christian. Yep, that would include me. And billions of other folks. Maybe you? It’s more fascinating than grim as the modern, secular Bay Area protagonist encounters 4th century Hun tribesmen and Chinese revolutionaries and Jim Crow-era segregationists and, of course, Satan. 

And viewed today—as opposed to when I started writing back in 2014—it’s a relaxing, almost benign kind of dystopia! There is absolutely nothing in there about Covid or Trump or climate change. 

Maybe this is the start of a new genre: “Escapist dystopia.”  :-) 

The tentative publication date is summer 2023. Now I start a new stage of this process—marketing. I need to create an author web page, solicit promotional blurbs from other writers, develop a social media strategy, maybe start an additional blog that is more focused on fiction than this one. Not as much fun as writing the actual books, but at least I have a long lead time to work on it.

I’ll keep you posted! And at some point, probably early next year, I’d love your help in spreading the word.

MLK Jr. in Haftarah Trope

January 18, 2022

It’s no longer Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but I just found out about this YouTube video of some of Dr. King’s speeches chanted to the trope (melodies) of the Haftarah. It’s amazing!

Elise Barber chanting from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “trope” refers to the traditional melodies used to chant from the Hebrew Bible in synagogue. There’s one set of melodies for the Torah (Pentateuch), and another set for Haftarah, the weekly readings from books of the Prophets.

This video is of Massachusetts Cantor Elise Barber chanting excerpts from Dr. King’s speeches to Haftarah trope, the melodies used for the Prophets. It’s an appropriate choice because Dr. King was the embodiment of a contemporary prophet, a Micah or Isaiah for our times.

Listen to how particular phrases are paired with rises and falls of the melody to emphasize their meaning.

Within American Judaism—particular the Reform denomination within Judaism—there is a long tradition of social justice advocacy and support for the civil rights movement. I found this video moving because it musically expresses this connection, blending centuries-old Jewish liturgical chanting with Dr. King’s visionary words.

Want to see more? Here’s a link to the words of this chant, plus some background, the cantillation marks, and an audio recording by Cantor Jack Kessler, who set the phrases to trope in partnership with Rabbi Marcia Prager.

Eyewitness to the Chmielnicki Pogroms

January 17, 2022

On Saturday, while an assailant was holding Jews hostage inside a Texas synagogue, I was reading about the Chmielnicki pogroms.

Thankfully, the Texas synagogue assault ended with the safe release of the victims. And based on the limited information that’s been released so far, it seems to have been the work of a lone attacker. So I’m not comparing its details with the Chmielnicki pogroms, a 1648 uprising by decommissioned Cossack soldiers and Ukrainian peasants that killed tens of thousands of Jews.

It was just… unsettling to be reading about pogroms while Jews were being threatened with death RIGHT NOW inside a U.S. synagogue.

I’d heard mention of the Chmielnicki pogroms, the worst disaster in Jewish history between the Iberian expulsions and the Holocaust. But—like many American Jews, I suspect—I knew almost nothing about them. I was researching the pogroms as background for a potential novel set in the 1600s. But the book I was reading wasn’t a secondary source or historical work: It was a contemporary account by a rabbi who survived the pogroms, originally published in Hebrew in 1652.

It is stunning.

Abyss of Despair, by Nathan Hanover, is astonishingly readable for a work that is 370 years old. It’s only about 120 pages and straightforward in its style, almost conversational. In his summary of the history leading up to the pogroms, Hanover is surprisingly honest about the social position that Jews held in Polish-run Ukraine, and how that fed into the pogroms.

Excerpt from original manuscript of Abyss of Despair, or Yeven Metzulah / Courtesy of Wikipedia

Here’s my still-evolving understanding, based on Hanover’s book and some secondary histories:

At the time—early and mid-1600s—the kingdom of Poland extended far beyond today’s Polish borders to include much of Lithuania and the Ukraine. While there was a king, there were also many dukes and nobles who ruled chunks of territory and lived off of the labor and taxes of peasants there.

Jews were relative newcomers to Eastern Europe. Following their expulsion from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s, many moved to Holland and what today is Germany. But the decentralized states of Germany had their own waves of expulsions, and by 1570 Jews had been expelled from nearly every German city. Many of these exiled Jews moved east: The Jewish population of Poland/Lithuania rose from about 30,000 in 1500 to between 100,000 and 150,000 in 1575, according to European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism by Jonathan I. Israel.

Map of Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth and surrounding states in 1648 / Creative Commons by Mathiasrex
Map of pogrom sites during the Chmielnicki upraising, from the Jewish Encyclopedia

The Polish kings and nobles welcomed the Jews, who filled a role of intermediaries between the nobility and the peasantry. Jews served as tax collectors for Polish noblemen and also ran estates, mills, and distilleries for them. (They also were innkeepers and engaged in crafts such as soapmaking and tanning.)

The Polish nobility tended to be Roman Catholic while the Ukraine peasantry tended to be Greek Orthodox. Hanover writes:

“King Sigismund [ruler of Poland from 1596 to 1632] raised the status of the Catholic dukes and princes above those of the Ukrainians…. and the masses that followed the Greek Orthodox Church became gradually impoverished. They were looked upon as lowly and inferior beings and became the slaves and handmaids of the Polish people and of the Jews….”

Meanwhile, the Polish king had recruited Ukrainian fighting men into a military force—called Cossacks—to guard the frontier with the Tatars, a Muslim people occupying the region of Crimea, vassals of the Ottoman Empire. The Cossacks held privileges such as being exempt from taxes. But after several unsuccessful Cossack-led Ukrainian revolts, the king decommissioned tens of thousands of them—creating a powder keg of downwardly-mobile and unemployed armed men. 

A wealthy and charismatic Cossack named Chmielnicki launched another revolt against the Polish overlords in 1648. But this time there was a crucial shift in the power balance: Chmielnicki formed an alliance with Ukraine’s neighbor and traditional enemy, the Tatars. 

The rebel forces targeted Jews as well as Polish nobles and Roman Catholic priests. Hanover explains the dynamic when describing a particular Jewish man who “was the nobleman’s tax farmer, as was the customary occupation of most Jews in the kingdom of [Little] Russia. For they ruled in every part of [Little] Russia, a condition which aroused the jealousy of the peasants, and which was the cause for the massacres.”

The title of Hanover’s book in its original Hebrew was “Yeven Metzulah,” which literally translated means “Deep Mire,” a reference to Psalm 69, which says, “Deliver me, O God, for the waters have reached my neck; I am sinking into the deep mire and find no foothold.”

Most of the book is a description of one massacre after another. 

As Chmielnicki’s army advanced, Jews fled from small towns and the countryside to the fortified cities held by Polish nobles. But in one city after another, they were slaughtered. In one case, the Polish defenders of the city struck a deal to hand over the Jews to the rebels. In another, the Ukrainian rebels gained entrance by waving Polish flags and pretending to be Polish reinforcements. In yet another, Ukrainian peasants working as guards along the city walls let their countrymen ford the walls with ladders. In other cases, cities were stormed and burned. 

Hanover’s descriptions of what happened in captured towns are stark and appalling. Even if we allow that some of the atrocities were exaggerated, as often happens in war, there is still enough to horrify:

“These persons died cruel and bitter deaths. Some were skinned alive and their flesh was thrown to the dogs; some had their hands and limbs chopped off, and their bodies thrown on the highway only to be trampled by wagons and crushed by horses; some had wounds inflicted upon them, and thrown on the street to die a slow death; they writhed in their blood until their breathed their last; others were buried alive. The enemy slaughtered infants in the laps of their mothers. They were sliced into pieces like fish They slashed the bellies of pregnant women, removed their infants, and tossed them in their faces. Some women had their bellies torn open and live cats placed in them. The bellies were then sew up with the live cats remaining within. They chopped off the hands of the victims so they would not be able to remove the cats from their bellies…

“Women and young girls were ravished but some of the women and maidens jumped into the moat surrounding the fortress in order that the uncircumcised should not defile them. They drowned in the waters. Many of them who were able to swim jumped into water, believing they would escape the slaughter, but the Ukrainians swam after them with their swords and their scythes, and killed them in the water… till the water became red with the blood of the slain.”

Print of massacre of Poles by Ukrainian rebels after a 1652 battle / Wikipedia

These descriptions sound histrionic, but Hanover’s narrative is more nuanced than that. He describes rivalries among the Polish nobility that hampered them from putting down the rebellion. He notes a successful survival strategy of some Jewish communities: Letting themselves be captured by the Tatar troops, who would enslave rather than kill them. (The enslaved Jews were sold south to the Ottoman Empire, where Jewish communities in Constantinople and Venice ransomed at least some of them.) Hanover pens a dramatic narrative of the rebels’ advance over time—one city falling, news arriving at the next town, those inhabitants fleeing to the next fortified city, which in turn falls, and so on.

Really, it is worth reading. 

But what are we to make of these horrific events today, over three centuries later?

Some initial thoughts, still evolving:

The Chmielnicki pogroms are a reminder that anti-Semitism didn’t begin with the Nazis. The Holocaust was unique in its vast scale, its technology of death, and its systematic approach to wiping out Jewry, but it was one of many, many expulsions and massacres that Jews faced in Europe over the past millennium. There were multiple centuries when Jews were not allowed to live in countries like England that today we view as icons of liberal tolerance. The saga of one forced exodus after another—from Spain to Germany, from Germany to Poland, from Poland back to Germany— is sobering.

Yet the fatalistic conclusion that “everyone will always hate us, no matter what we do” is not necessarily warranted. Granted, Christian theologians and clerics vilified Jews as despicable Christ-killers for much of European history. But Hanover’s account spotlights the vulnerability of Jews’ position in the Ukraine—as the most close-at-hand and thus most easily hated representative of an oppressive, foreign overclass. The pogroms grew out of specific economic and social circumstances, not pure religious dogma.

Those 16th century Jews threw their lot in with the Polish nobles and counted on the nobles’ protection. That protection turned out to be absent or inadequate once faced with a massive peasant revolt. Jews living in the Diaspora will always be a minority, and faced with a similar choice of where to place their allegiance—the current regime? the regime’s challengers? the suffering masses? 

Would it have been wiser to ally with the masses of impoverished Ukrainians? Would it have even been possible? 

One of the founding visions of Zionism was a society where Jews would not be at the mercy of a host regime—would not be at risk of expulsion, would not be limited in their professions, would not have to be landless, powerless “middlemen” trapped between powerful nobles and angry masses. How has that worked out? That’s a complicated discussion for another day.

No answers here, just questions. I’m a novice when it comes to pre-modern Jewish history. If you’re someone with more expertise, feel free to weigh in via the comments! I welcome corrections, additions, or simply more questions. 

And in the meantime: read Abyss of Despair. (I was lucky enough to find an inexpensive used copy online.) It’s gripping, sobering, and documents a piece of history that deserves to be known and discussed.

Rachel and Leah: Rivals into Allies?

November 13, 2021

It was my turn this Shabbat to deliver a d’var Torah (commentary) after the group discussion in Temple Sinai’s weekly Torah study class. This week’s portion, Vayetzei, covers Genesis 28:10 to 32:3, but the class discussion focused only on the final third. So I chose to center my presentation on an earlier section, the rivalry between Rachel and Leah. Here it is.

Like many of the parshot in Genesis, a lot happens during Vayetzei. Jacob sets out from his family’s home in Beersheva, both to flee the anger of Esau and to find a wife from among his mother Rebecca’s family. Lying down to sleep on a rock, he dreams of a ladder or ramp to heaven with angels going up and down. In his dream, God stands beside him and blesses him, saying his descendants shall spread out to the four corners of the earth and all the families of the earth will be blessed by them. 

Jacob wakes and names the site Beth-el, House of God, which is located about ten miles north of Jerusalem, near what today is the Palestinian city of Ramallah on the West Bank. 

Jacob continues on to Haran, which is quite a long journey, up through Syria into what is today Turkey. He meets his cousin Rachel at a well, much as Abraham’s servant found Isaac’s future wife Rebecca at a well. Rachel’s father Laban agrees to let him marry Rachel if he works unpaid for seven years; then on the wedding night, Laban tricks him by substituting Rachel’s older sister Leah—a parallel with how Jacob tricked his own father by pretending to be Esau. Laban requires Jacob to work without pay for another seven years in order to marry Rachel too. 

The Torah then enters into an extended section on the two sisters’ childbearing—or lack of childbearing. Eventually Jacob decides to return home, and there is an episode of one trickster tricking another trickster, with Jacob slyly arranging to get possession of many of Laban’s sheep and goats. That gets us up to the portion of Vayetzei that we read together today in class. 

But I’m going to return to that long section about childbearing and the relationship between Leah and Rachel. 

Rachel and Leah, as imagined by 19th century English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (It looks a little more like a romanticized Renaissance England than the ancient Middle East, don’t you think?)

The Torah tells us that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. “And God saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” Leah conceives and bears one son—Reuben—then another, and another, and another— four sons in a row while Rachel can’t get pregnant. 

Both of these sisters are in deep emotional pain. 

Infertility is certainly traumatic, especially in a society like the ancient middle east where women were valued only as mothers of sons.  “Give me children, or I shall die,” Rachel pleads to Jacob in a dramatic statement of how crucial childbearing was to her.

But I felt an even deeper identification with Leah. She was married, presumably without any say in the matter, to a man who didn’t love her. When her first son is born she chooses the name Reuben, saying “It means the Lord has seen my affliction. It also means, ‘ Now my husband will love me.” But it doesn’t help. Whenher second son comes, shge says, “The Lord heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also.” And it doesn’t help. And then the third. She says, “This time my husband will become attached to me for I have borne him three sons.” And it still didn’t help.

She is doing everything in her power to win Jacob’s love —everything possible to fulfill the role expected of her, to provide healthy male heirs, everything that anyone in her world would ask of her—and it still doesn’t help. 

I imagine this desperate young woman, getting her hopes up over and over—this time it will work! this time it really will!—and each time it doesn’t. Haven’t we all been there at some time, trying so hard and yet knocked down over and over again? 

Perhaps when we were in our teens, infatuated with some boy or girl, convinced that If I wear my new red miniskirt, they’ll notice me! If I bake chocolate chip cookies, they’ll notice me! If I help them with their math homework, they’ll notice me! Trying over and over, so sincerely, and of course they don’t notice.

Or perhaps at work, trying to get a promotion: If I stay until 6 pm each night, they’ll notice me! If I turn in the most thorough report ever, they’ll notice me! If I learn to play golf, they’ll notice me! Trying over and over, playing by all the rules, and of course they don’t notice. Because you’re female, or Black, or you’ll never be one of the “old boys,” or whatever…. 

In those modern scenarios, the advice is clear: Leave. Find a new crush, find a new job. But Leah, as a wife in the ancient Middle East, had no option of leaving. And the stakes for her were so much higher than a junior-high crush or a promotion. This was pregnancy and childbirth—nine months of pregnancy, hours or days of labor, things that in those days truly risked death. But none of it made Jacob love her.

So the competition went on, dragging in other parties like a world war. After Leah’s fourth son, Rachel still can’t conceive and so gives her servant—her handmaid— Bilhah to Jacob as a concubine. 

(Just an aside: The Torah has Rachel saying to Jacob, “Here is my maid Bilhah. Consort with her, that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children.” Some commenters including Robert Alter say that “bearing on my knees” refers to an ancient practice of placing children on someone’s knees as a ritual of adoption. But writer Margaret Atwood chose to take this literally in her patriarchal dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale—this is the source for the horrible practice of the handmaid literally giving birth between the knees of the patriarch’s wife.)

But back to Rachel and Leah and their childbearing competition. Leah is ahead, 4 to nothing. But then Rachel’s servant Bilhah bears two sons by Jacob, and Rachel says “A fateful contest I waged with my sister, and I have prevailed.” You can imagine her doing an ancient Mesopatamian fist punch in the air. 

So Leah then gives Jacob her servant Zilpah, who bears two sons. This is starting to sound like the US-Soviet arms race. It parallels the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau, yet in some ways it is more intense and painful because both siblings were so aware of it—two women living side by side  in the same family compound for 20 years, with close-up, unavoidable views of each other’s ongoing victories and failings. 

It’s horrible to think of these two sisters in a permanent state of war. Some of the commentators seemed to think so too: There are midrashim that weave stories of empathy and solidarity between Leah and Rachel. 

One midrash from the Talmud says that Rachel knew in advance of Laban’s wedding-night trick, warned Jacob, and he came up with a way to defeat Laban’s scheme.

Jacob gave Rachel signs [so that he would be able to recognize her on their wedding night].

When Leah was brought under the wedding canopy, Rachel thought: “Now my sister will be shamed [when Jacob discovers the fraud and does not marry her].” She gave the signs to Leah.  (BT Bava Batra 123a).

According to the Rabbis, Laban would not have succeeded in deceiving Jacob without Rachel’s involvement. Rachel had to choose between her love for Jacob and her compassion for her sister, and she decided in favor of the latter. The most extreme description of Rachel’s act of self-sacrifice appears in Lam. Rabbah, according to which Rachel entered under Jacob and Leah’s bed on their wedding night. When Jacob spoke with Leah, Rachel would answer him, so that he would not identify Leah’s voice (Lam. Rabbah [ed. Vilna] petihtah 24).

I would like to think that, alongside the pain of infertility or being the second-choice wife, there was also empathy and solidarity between the sisters. Like the rest of the Torah, this parshah was written by men, from stories handed down by men, and this reproductive arms race may be their outsider’s view of what was going on within the family tent while the men were away with the flocks. 

Let’s look at what happens next, after Bilhah and Zilpah have each birthed two sons and the total son count is up to eight. Reuben, Leah’s oldest son, brings her some mandrakes that he finds in the field. (Mandrakes, having a root that is bizarrely shaped like a human figure, have been imagined in many cultures to bring fertility.)

Mandrake root / Photo by Jenny Laird

Rachel asks Leah for some of the mandrakes, hoping to cure her infertility. Leah at first refuses, saying, “Was it not enough for you to take away my husband, that you would also take my son’s mandrakes?” But then Rachel promises that Leah can sleep with Jacob that evening in exchange for the mandrakes, and Leah agrees. 

Leah goes out to meet Jacob that evening and tells him. “You are to sleep with me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.”

This is a truly shocking moment. Leah is in command for once—unlike her own wedding night, she has the power here. She is commanding Jacob to sleep with her. And not just commanding him, she is saying that she hired him, like you would hire a prostitute, like you would hire an ox to plow a field.

Perhaps her grief all those years was not just at being unloved—it was at being powerless, manipulated by her father in order to get more work out of Jacob, unable to choose her own fate. Here for once she is able to take fate into her own hands and turn the tables. Jacob in effect becomes a sex object here. 

It’s not pretty, but perhaps it was satisfying or even restorative for Leah. Perhaps Rachel wanted to give her this gift of momentary power. 

We don’t know. What we do know is that, three sons later, when Jacob is ready to leave Haran, the two sisters respond in unison.

“Then Rachel and Leah answered him, saying, ‘Have we still a share in the inheritance of our father’s house? Surely he regards us as outsiders, now that he has sold us and has used up our purchase price. Truly, all the wealth that God has taken away fronm our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, do just what God as told you.”

In current slang, we might say there’s no daylight between the two sisters here. No rivalry, no disagreement. They have long been done with their father’s manipulation and are ready to leave—together—for Jacob’s promised land.