September 1. This date is branded on every Israeli child as the first day of school. It doesn’t matter that I left Israel after 8th grade. No matter where I am in the world, September 1 rolls around and I think: school supplies, new shoes, backpack, pencil case.
Although it doesn’t usually align perfectly, when you think September you also think: Elul. Preparation. Days of Awe. Rosh Hashanah.
You feel that subtle shift in the weather, that Elul breeze in the air that is like a knock at your door. Fall. Chagim. Introspection.
For Israeli children, there’s another association with September 1: “Marco,” an animated children’s TV series, inspired by the story “From The Apennines of the Andes” in the novel Cuore by Edmando de Amicis.
For a certain generation, it’s a piece of Israeli nostalgia. Here’s a perfect summary of the series I found online: “A young Italian boy named Marco is devastated when his mother must leave home to work in Argentina to pay off the family debt. She sends the family letters, but soon the messages stop coming, which worries Marco and sets him off on an epic quest to find her.” The animation is imbued with a real life quality. There are man beautiful and moving frames.
Here’s how it’s connected to September 1. Every summer the show aired.
Children were glued to the TV, emotionally journeying with Marco, tortured yet hopeful of finding his mother. As he travels from country to country,
overcomes vicissitude after vicissitude, your heart breaks as you hold your breath in hopes of Marco and Mother reuniting. Here’s the rub. In some quirky glitch of TV scheduling the final or next to final episode — the one where Marco does finally reunite with his mother, whom he finds on her death bed only to be revived by seeing her beloved son Marco — always fell on September 1, the first day of school. In other words, an entire generation of Israeli children were left hanging with the tortured question: Did Marco ever reach his mother?
Now you have to understand, and google it if you can, but this series was proceeded with the most emotionally tortured song of yearning whose motif was the cry of a child searching for beloved mother. “Lev Hayam.” When this song played and when this show aired, you were mesmerized and completely emotionally invested, as though Marco and his pained search for mother were real. In the prelude “Lev Hayam” plays on the heartstrings, the song emphasizing the word “Ema” almost with the force of an operatic sforzando. Time and again “Ema” rings out to your soul.
This final episode fiasco of Israeli television scheduling has become an Israeli cultural reference point. It has become national code for humorously explaining one’s “insanity” or error. You might find someone saying, “Look, you have to understand, I’m from the traumatized Marco generation,” whereupon said person immediately receives looks of empathy and understanding — the national cliffhanger reference. No more words needed. By simply evoking that TV show, one can successfully get off the hook from whatever situation one might be worming one’s way out of.
I can still remember the first time someone referenced G-d in the feminine. It was years ago, at the gym. The cashier at the cafeteria was one of those types who could be a university professor but was instead a cafeteria cashier. He was super smart. His trivia, knowledge of history and recall were astounding. He was occupied by lofty philosophical ideas. From time to time, we would shmooze. One day he said: “Tehilla, how do we know G-d is woman?” I was stumped. “Because only a mother would give us a chance again and again.” Now I was really stumped. It was a strong idea and one I had never before considered.
Of course, G-d is genderless and beyond time. Yet in the liturgy G-d is often evoked with either the authority of king or the love of a father. In mystical sources G-d’s divine presence is evoked in the feminine, as the Shechina. But overall, when we think of G-d in our limited, finite, anthropomorphic way, it is often as male.
I have written of Elul and the famous idea of “the king is in the field”; of Elul 3 in this auspicious month being the yahrtzeit of the great Rabbi Kuk; of the message of synchronizing the genesis of Elul with the famous teaching of “Love thy neighbor as yourself”; and of course of the famous paradigm for the Elul relationship, that of the belonging of lovers, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine, ani le-dodi ve-dodi li.”
This year, I think of Elul as mother. Compassionate mother. Even if the link in my mind between Elul and mothering stems from the television series “Marco,” it is a real one nonetheless.
With Marco’s relentless journeying, yearning, searching for his mother, to be reunited with his mother, we have an aspirational metaphor for the intensified time of month of Elul and the Jewish people’s relationship with G-d. It is this G-dliness as maternal love that I think of this year.
The book of Psalms portrays G-d as mother, and more explicitly so does the Isaiah, whose chapters currently permeate our Sabbaths as we are immersed in the shiva de-nechemta, the seven narratives of consolation chanted from the Shabbat after the 9th of Av up to Rosh Hashana. “As a mother comforts her child, so will I [G-d] comfort you . . . ”
Elul. Comfort. Closeness. G-d-liness. Mother. Ema. September 1.
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