At 10:55 last night I began creating a henna tattoo of a Blue Mariner butterfly on my right foot. This was the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, a night of study, reflection, and wondeer over the events that brought the Ten Commandments, and maybe the whole Bible, into being. But this? An activity, really. It has history, like the Bible, but that history goes to the wedding rituals of the old Yemenite Jewish civilization. . But who was I marrying – or rather, who was marrying me, since the painting of henna was done for the bride and her retinue. As a heterosexual male, I suspended my disbelief and kept detailing, This activity begged the question. What was I doing here, and why henna painting, and not, for example, nipple piercing?
The evening marched on as Hanna the Henna artist painted a flower on my daughter. The flower must have been a lotus – it must have had a thousand petals.. Rebecca sat silently and still, noting the artist’s precise motions as she traced every petal while holding my daughter’s arm as carefully as you would a painted Ukrainian Easter egg..
“You are a very patient girl, Rebecca!” Hanna of Henna interjected.
“Thank you,” my socially inward child replied.
Hanna finished her henna drawing and we descended to the ballroom for the signature activity of the night – under the guidance of a prominent artist who is a member of our community, we made larger-than-life sized tiles based on a roughly sketched human form. These, and hundreds like them, would be stitched together to form the Occupy quilt for this year’s July 4 demonstration. My son etched bold black outlines on his figure, rending the background in two by hurling forest green paint from his sketch’s outstretched left arm and sinking the dark green from his booted foot. On the blank side, there appeared nothing but a quote from George Washington, “Even though I was shot, I survived by great trust and loving friends.”
Rebecca and I painted in tandem on our Occupy panel. When she painted a cloud, I painted a cloud. When she drew a heart, I drew a heart. Her brush strokes were smooth and thin, mine were stippled and heavy. Her paint was mixed a shade or two darker, but otherwise our figures and landscapes mirrored each other. She pored heart and soul into the 99% that her half of the image represented; I mirrored her gesture in the meaner spirit of the 1% that wants for nothing. Work paused only because in Rebecca’s zeal for the project, she had confused the paint with the bucket of water for the brushes and had ten fingers dripping Forest Green.
The time for study had arrived. My son, Erez, sat on one knee, Rebecca, on the other. The tractate that we study by tradition on this holiday would come many hours later. Now, we studied Pirkei Avot. This book, known as “Ethics of the Fathers,” is a small but controversial piece of Talmudic literature that speaks to how people should live in society. I imagine groups or Rabbis scratching their heads to come up with a system to encode revolutionary messages to their followers. Revolutionary or not, the acts of tzedakah (righteousness, charity) and kindness speak through the often contradictory text.
Two days earlier, I had “bought” ice cream for the children and myself, but discovered that I had no cash in my wallet and worse yet, my card was rejected. I explained to the manager, who has known my family for years, that I had a little over $1,000 in the bank, and would he please let me bring the money back to him a little later. Fearing the worst, my son paid the check with his own money while I was occupied with my daughter. As I had promised, we finished our ice cream and went off for cash. Erez patted my right shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Dad,” Erez intoned soothingly.
I looked at him, puzzled.
“I paid the check already.”
Honesty had been an issue for Erez ever since my marriage to his mother imploded. In fact, one source of his ability to pull off a gag was to lie about himself, falsely incriminating himself only to have a good laugh when evolving facts prove him blameless. So I had to check. I returned to the ice cream vendor prepared to pay the check, but instead found that, true to his word, Erez had paid for the ice cream.
No “I told you so” followed. Just a tender, profound hug.
As I was putting the children to sleep in the Teen Lounge this Leyl Shavuot, I told Erez that we were all studying Tzedakah up there, but he didn’t have to.
“Erez,” I told him,
“You don’t have to study Tzedakah. You ARE tzedakah!
He squeezed my hand and mumbled, “Dad-dy,” and drifted off to sleep.
Those henna tattoos on my daughter and me? They began to deteriorate before I put Rebecca to sleep.
“Look at my flower!” pouted Rebecca, in obvious distress.
“Baby,” I replied, There is a certain kind of sand painting that people make over hours and days and even weeks, and when they get it just right, they either leave it to fall apart or they celebrate and pile the sand up again. Just because the painting was destroyed didn’t matter. What mattered, Becca,“ I whispered, “is that it was perfect once.”