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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Microwave Mac n' Cheese: My Childhood Favorite With A Grown-up Twist

Something about that limbo stage between completing my college degree and making a cross-country move/being gainfully employed makes me crave some of my childhood favorite foods. Maybe it's the fact that I'm actually moving back to the place where I lived when I was a child or maybe it's just nostalgia and comfort. I was a painfully finicky eater when I was a young child and while my palette has expanded and matured, I still adore my childhood favorites. And despite cutting wheat and gluten out of my diet a couple of years ago due to some very uncomfortable health problems, I've found I can adapt almost all of those favorite recipes to suit my dietary restrictions and more grown-up tastes.
I think Mac n' Cheese is a favorite among almost all kids and I was no exception. My mom made a fabulous microwave recipe when I was growing up and it was a frequently requested entree in our home. It is one of the first recipes I requested to have when I moved out on my own. The original recipe has you prepare a basic roux (white sauce) in the microwave, which is then added to cooked macaroni (or other small pasta), one package of shredded cheddar cheese (about 2 to 2.5 cups) and then topped off with a seasoned bread crumb topping. After this is all prepared in a microwave-safe dish, you heat it on high for another 5 to 6 minutes and it's done! Since going wheat/gluten-free, a traditional roux, which calls for wheat flour, is off limits. Additionally, it is rather challenging to find a wide variety of Kosher cheeses where I live and I've yet to find anything pre-shredded! No worries, a few substitutions and some creativity combined yield what I like to call Microwave Mac n'Cheese for Grown-ups. It's still quick, it's still easy, and it's even more delicious than ever in my humble opinion.

Recipe for Microwave Mac n'Cheese for Grown-ups

Ingredients:

  • 1 package/box of gluten free macaroni or other small pasta (I find corn pasta works quite well)
  • about 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese*
  • about 1 cup shredded pepper-jack cheese*
  •  3 TBSP butter
  • 3 TBSP rice flour
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp spicy brown mustard
  • 1 1/2 cups low-fat milk
*You can substitute 2 to 2.5 cups of freshly grated or pre-shredded cheese of your choice. This combination is scrumptious, though if you choose to try it!

Topping:
  • 1/4 cup cornflake crumbs, seasoned with garlic powder, Italian seasoning, salt & pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Cook pasta according to package directions until al dente. Strain and set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, in a microwave safe dish (I use a 2-Cup Pyrex glass measuring cup for this part), heat butter over medium heat setting in the microwave until almost completely melted. Add rice flour, pepper, mustard and milk and combine with a whisk or fork. Microwave on high for 1 to 1.5 minute intervals, mixing in between until roux thickens about to the consistency of pancake batter. Even if it seems a bit thin, it will thicken once you add it to the pasta & cheese and finish cooking it, but do try to get any lumps mixed in as well as possible.
  3. In a large microwave safe bowl (Pyrex glassware works well for this), combine the pasta, your white sauce, and your grated cheese. Mix to combine ingredients. Top with seasoned "bread" crumbs and microwave on high heat for about 5-6 minutes, or until cheese is completely melted and casserole begins to bubble. Let cool for about 5 minutes before serving and enjoy!
I made this for lunch today. It is quick, easy, and oh so perfect for a cloudy, lazy Sunday afternoon. Ok, not entirely lazy because I am busy applying for jobs and preparing for a 3,000 mile move, you know!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Shabbos Schmooze, the 3rd of Tammuz: How The Lubavitcher Rebbe Changed My Life All The Way In The Middle of Nowhere, USA

This Shabbos marks the 18th yarhtzeit of Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory. If someone had asked me five years ago whether the Rebbe had impacted my life in any way, I'd probably say 'no.' In all likelihood, I'd say that the name rang a bell, but I didn't have a personal connection to the Rebbe or to the Lubavitcher community as a whole. I could have told you where the Chabad centers were located in various east coast towns; I could have identified their families. Even my own family is a beautifully diverse smorgasbord of Jewish identity ranging from self-proclaimed secular, to Reform, to Conservative, to Modern Orthodox and Orthodox, frum, even ultra-orthodox. I was raised mostly in a Reform setting myself, but longed for Orthodoxy from the time I was twelve or thirteen. Because of the diversity in my family, I'd experienced tastes of Orthodoxy whenever we would visit my maternal grandparents.  As a girl watching her friends be called up to the Torah to become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, I also wanted to be able to read and understand the prayers, to follow along in the siddur, to more deeply connect with my family, my heritage, and my G-d. I picked up any books I could find in my home that I thought might help, including some that belonged to my parents when they were children in Hebrew school. When it came to attending services at the Reform synagogues I attended as a teen, I comforted myself with an early memory of the rabbi at the synagogue my family had attended early on in upstate New York.
I recalled one Sunday when this tall, bearded, important and holy looking man got up on the bimah and, strumming his acoustic guitar, began to sing the Hebrew alphabet. "Did you know," he said, still strumming, "that I didn't even know my aleph beis until I was in rabbinical school?" I held on to that for twenty years until I finally learned my aleph beis while co-teaching in a Jewish preschool! To the best of my ability and understanding, I kept Shabbat, kept kosher and kept learning, but a 3,000 mile move to the pacific inland northwest almost nine years ago did not bode well for my continuing progress. It was over a year before I even found a synagogue and Jewish community at all near where I was living. I'd already pretty much put my Judaism on hold at that point. About five years ago a family moved here from Brooklyn, New York and opened up a Chabad house. A very unique thing happened the first time I walked through their front door: I immediately felt at home and like I had somehow known them all my life. I've not necessarily plunged into the level of practice associated with the Lubavitcher community; my own continued and continuing growth is personal, individual and driven by a feeling of connectedness to G-d that I never consistently had before.
When I speak with individuals living in areas with a large Jewish population and community and tell them where I live, they are shocked. The first thing they inevitably ask is whether I experience a great deal of antisemitism.  Thank G-d, I don't and haven't. Even more unique, however, are the conversations I have with individuals out here who, when I share that I have moved toward Orthodoxy only since living in this area, are absolutely shocked that this transformation happened only after moving to eastern Washington state! So when asked today, do I feel a connection to the work, memory and legacy of the Rebbe, I can wholeheartedly and unequivocally say yes.
Those whom are closest to me know that I am preparing now after living out here for nearly 9 years to move closer to home and my family. As I get ready for this Shabbos and think about the significance of Gimmel Tammuz, the 3rd day of Tammuz marking the Rebbe's 18th yarhtzeit, I think of a conversation I recently had with my Rebbetzin. It was motzei Shabbos a couple of weeks ago after I'd been privileged to have a special Kiddush lunch to celebrate my college graduation and thank the community here. Some of the intense emotions of leaving a place I've come to call home and people I've come to call family had surfaced. I was remarking how ironic it seemed that the very feelings of closeness I have to this community and to her family were what now made it "ok" to leave. I shared that although I'd longed from the depths of my being to connect with Judaism on a deeper level, the direction I was headed in almost 9 years ago made that an unlikely if not impossible objective. "Maybe that's why the Rebbe sent us here," she said, simply "Maybe it was so we could meet you." And then I got it; I finally understood this connection to the Rebbe. That even though my only "conversation" with the Rebbe was through a piece of paper torn up at his grave sight in 2010 praying on my behalf for a complete and full recovery (and thank G-d, my prayers were answered), I was and am nonetheless forever connected to his legacy and to this tireless army of Jewish 'soldiers' marching to every corner of the earth to help a fellow Jew.
Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Rosh Chodesh: Sanctifying the New Month

Today and tomorrow mark Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, the new month of Tammuz, on the Jewish calendar. For many months now, I've wanted to write a post on Rosh Chodesh and highlight some of the unique aspects of sanctifying the beginning of the month particularly for Jewish women. Well, there's really no time like the here and now--so now, here it is! Chodesh Tov, may you have month of blessings, prosperity, success and meaningfulness in all you do.


So what's this business of a Jewish calendar? Interestingly, the very first commandment given to the Jews as a people while they were still in Egypt was that of Rosh Chodesh, sanctifying the new month. 

"And God said to Moses… in the land of Egypt… This month is for you, the head of the months. First it is for you among the months of the year." (Exodus 12:1-2)  

This passage indicates that G-d told the Jewish people that the month of Nissan in which they would leave Egypt would mark their first month and they now had a responsibility to create and follow a special Jewish calendar based on the lunar cycle. It's rather unique that this was the first commandment, even before the ten commandments given at Mount Sinai,  no? And why was it so important to G-d that the Jewish people follow a lunar calendar different from the solar calendar everyone else was following at the time? Additionally, why was it left to humans to determine the beginning of the month rather than G-d Himself?

This Is Our Time & There's No Time Like The Present

G-d gave the commandment of Rosh Chodesh while the Jews were still in Egypt to highlight the fact that while they were slaves, their time belonged to the Egyptians and to Pharaoh. When they would be freed, their time would belong to G-d and to themselves. This empowering message from G-d also signifies the importance of time management. We should use our time wisely, for the good of bringing G-dliness into this physical world. The very fact that it is a Jewish person's responsibility to indicate the arrival of the new month based upon the phase of the moon is also unique. The new month is declared only after it is determined by a Jewish court that a new moon has appeared. In fact, if the moon were not to be visible on the indicated day, G-d would even push things off for a day until it could be determined for sure that the moon was seen. That's a lot of power; we are masters of our own domain and as such have the ability to shape our own destiny.

"Whereas time is steadily moving ahead, never-stopping, marching on in a cyclical, repetitive spiral, we are given the power to stop or start time at will, allowing us to 'share' with God that special creativity of determining reality." --Dina Coopersmith, Rosh Chodesh via aish.com

What's The Moon Got To Do With It?

So if everyone else uses a solar calendar, why were the Jews commanded to go by the lunar cycle? One idea that comes to mind is that the very essence of Jewish identity in and of itself is the fact that we are commanded to be different from other nations. How we dress, how we eat, how we pray and relate, how we observe the Sabbath--all of these characteristics distinguish the Jewish people from other religions and heritages. Additionally, the very nature of the moon speaks volumes of the nature of the Jewish people. It appears from above to wax and wane, to nearly disappear and then reappear. It is also significantly smaller than the sun, which has a seemingly unchanging nature. The Jewish people, like the moon, may be humble and small. We have historically faced hardship that has rendered us few in number. However, like the moon, when times grow dark we can look upward and find that our hope springs eternal. Our very faith in G-d ensures our survival. It is our comfort through the cyclical struggle against this everlasting paradox of time. Inherent in our very soul is the ability to grow and change, to overcome and to renew. 

Rosh Chodesh and Femininity

Rosh Chodesh is considered a mini-holiday especially for women. It is our reward for not having participated in the sin of the Golden Calf. The month represents the feminine aspect of the Jewish calendar and there are countless times throughout the Torah that women have risen above their surroundings, struggles, and circumstances to sanctify G-d and bring honor to the Jewish people. For this reason, many women on Rosh Chodesh will abstain from certain types of work, enjoy a festive meal and spend extra time learning and in prayer. Rosh Chodesh is an especially auspicious time for women to pray, particularly to recite Tehillim (Psalms). In certain communities, women will gather to study or recite Tehillim together. In some families, women and their daughters will wear new clothes on Rosh Chodesh as they signify the celebration of ushering in a new and beautiful month.

For More On The Topic...

Check out these websites:
Chodesh Tov!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Parshas Korach: No Man Is An Island

 

Parsha Recap

In this week's parsha, a man named Korach, for whom this portion was named, leads a mutiny against the Jewish high priests of the time, Moshe and his successor-to-be, Aharon. Korach's rationale and that of his 250 all-too-eager followers is that the Jewish people are holy as a whole; no one person should have any greater privilege or responsibility than any other. He criticizes Moshe's leadership skills and his questions his connection and relationship to G-d. The rebellion that ensues brings about a plague that kills 14,700 people and only stops when Aharon, who is divinely destined to succeed Moshe, makes a proper incense offering.
Two specific ideas from this week's parsha stand out to me and have great relevance to our lives today. The first concept is that criticism: How and when should we give it and how and when should we receive it? The second important idea is that of our interdependence and interconnectedness: no man is an island. Every action we take and word we speak creates a lasting and evolving energy that can reach far beyond the realms we could even begin to imagine. This is the proverbial butterfly effect.

On the Topic of Criticism

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi M.M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, advised that criticism of another person is not necessarily something to be avoided, but is an action that should be reserved for the security of a close friendship. Additionally, one should only criticize a close friend who has the same knowledge, experience and perspective from which to draw an informed opinion and/or decision on a matter. In the event that one is not a close friend to someone he/she wishes to criticize, that connection should be developed before criticism is delivered. Then, and only then, should one criticize another person--if, after really getting to know this person you even still have the urge to criticize him/her!*
  *This information was compiled from here and here.

From this, we see how important it is to truly put ourselves in another person's shoes before casting
judgment. Whether it's as 'innocent' as jumping to an unfavorable conclusion about the woman who cuts you in line at the grocery store or as personal as sharing a negative opinion of someone with that person (or even worse, with someone else), do we really have all the facts? Do we know everything that occurred previously in a person's day--or life, for that matter--that led them to act or speak in a way we deemed unsavory? Additionally, what is it about their behavior that is causing us to feel critical? In many cases, when I've felt critical of someone else, I can identify that I am, in fact, not feeling critical as much as I am feeling hurt, embarrassed, and/or insecure about my own behavior. That which I find unappealing in another person almost always mirrors something I find unappealing in myself.

We're All In It Together

That brings me to this idea of the butterfly effect. How far do our words or actions really reach? What about our thoughts? On the topic of gossip, or lashon hara (lit. evil tongue), it is said that talking about another person brings harm to three people: 1) the person who speaks, 2) the person being spoken about, and, 3) the person who hears it. Of course speaking ill of someone would bring harm to that person, and of course someone speaking in such a way is subject to the inherent negatives of that behavior, but why the person who hears it? (S)he didn't ask to be a part of this, why is (s)he in any way harmed because of it? The reason is that our words, our actions, and even our thoughts create an energy that, once exuded, is hard to reverse. We all do it. We make a seemingly harmless comment about a person and it spins out of control. Social networking and our age of immediate and widespread connection through the internet make this an even greater risk. It takes literally seconds to type something and hit 'enter' and even if we delete it later, the damage has already been done...














Even our more personal and private thoughts and attitudes are subject to this ripple effect. Have you ever noticed on a day that you feel grumpy, tired, or down in the dumps that everything seems to go wrong? Or how about a day when you're feeling your very best and you seem to have amazing luck? Our thoughts and attitudes are very powerful; we perceive the minutia of everyday events through the lens of our current mood and mindset. Of course, there are cases where our mood/mindset are affected adversely by, G-d forbid, illness, a chemical imbalance, or a major life event or tragedy. Oftentimes, however, the "stuff" in our lives that feels so big, overwhelming, and stifling is largely self-created. This is not to say that our feelings of frustration, fatigue, loneliness, anger, etc., are invalid or not real. It is, however, often possible to see things another way and act accordingly. By shifting one's mindset, one can also shift her/his mazal (luck). In other words, don't sweat the small stuff. Think good and it will be good.

 

 

Wrapping It Up...No Man Is An Island

In Parshah Korach, the Torah states "There shall not be like Korach and his congregation." (Bamidbar 17:5) We are, through this verse, commanded against being involved in quarrels. But what if we're 'just in a bad environment?' Are we not a product of the society we live in? Why should we be accountable for others' actions? It's enough work to be accountable for our own sometimes! However, one answer may be found from within the very phrase "no man is an island." We all have unique talents, unique skills and unique passions. We also have personal areas where we need growth and refinement. Were we alone in our endeavor on this planet, we very much would be at the mercy of our own devices. However, we are not alone; we are surrounded by billions of other human counterparts. No one can deny even the most subtle influence of our fellow man if you think about it. How many times have you seen someone yawn and done so yourself even though you're not at all tired. How about those times you hear a child or a friend laughing and even though you don't know what's so funny, you find yourself beginning to chuckle, too? Deeper still, is the idea that we can learn, grown and gain from everyone and anyone we happen to cross paths with; even those whom we find difficult. It may not be possible or even healthy to see the world through rose colored glasses all of the time; but we can strive to look at others and at ourselves with a good eye as often as possible. It may seem at times, like it did to Korach and his followers, that the power, resources, and pleasures in this world have been doled out unfairly and unequally. Unlike Korach and his followers, we may very well be accurate in this assumption in some cases. However, in order to bring about peace around us, one must establish peace within. Sometimes, that will require a trust that G-d has our very best interest behind His master plan; even when that is not clearly evident.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

(Belated/Early) Shabbos Schmooze: Preparing For Shabbos Without Going Meshuggeneh

I'd intended to write up this post last week, but due to a lot of excitement (a visit from family and my college graduation!) as well as some unplanned circumstances (my laptop power cord decided to retire early last week so I had to order a replacement), I never got around to it until today. I had such an amazing Shabbos and weekend with my honorable guests and a wonderful celebration of my long-awaited and hard-earned graduation.
Since my commencement was held on a Saturday, I took specific precautions to avoid breaking Shabbos. A good friend of mine took some lovely photos earlier last week.
For quite some time, Fridays would roll around and I'd feel like a chicken with its head cut off as I tried to run around and accomplish everything on a list of to-dos that didn't actually exist. That's when it hit me; I needed a list! For inspiration and in desperation, I found this incredible website, Organized Jewish Home, where I also found a large and invaluable collection of check lists, menus and more. From that, I created my own checklist that I revisit and tailor each week to prepare for the holiness and sanctity of Shabbat in the most calm and joyous way possible.*

*Not having access to said list this week was a wonderful opportunity to remember that my grandparents never had websites, blogs, or spreadsheets to help with Shabbos preparations and yet they accomplished everything that needed to be done with serenity, honor and their heads intact! Instead, I went about my list-making in the old fashioned way--with a pencil and paper!

So, without further ado, here is a very basic copy of my own checklist. Each person and family has different customs, traditions, and preferences; as such, your own checklist may be different from mine. Nonetheless, I've found this to be a useful tool and had a lot fewer Shabbosim spent in the dark (because I forgot to set lights) or with an awkward situation in which I cannot easily get into my refrigerator because the light will go on!



Shabbos Check-List

Cleaning/Organization

      Vacuum/Clean Floors
    Clean/prepare Bathroom
        Prepare Bed(s)
        Laundry 
 De-clutter/set up
LAST MINUTE PREP:       Put away electronics
        Set lights on timers or on/off
Set air conditioning/heating
Set up candlesticks, candles, tzedakah box, matches, etc.
Set out Shabbos clothes, shoes, etc.

 

Food Preparations

Shopping: pick up any last minute ingredients/items, flowers, etc
Following a menu template (like these), prepare/cook food
 Bake/defrost challah
LAST MINUTE PREP: Set hot water, crock-pot, coffee maker
Set table for Kiddush
Tape over light in refrigerator
                               
      Even though this all seems very basic and informal, it's so helpful when I get into the last hours before Shabbos begins. I do try very hard to complete some preparations each day of the week not only so I am prepared for Friday night, but also so that I am excited for it! This list can be modified and used to prepare for a Yom Tov, too. 

                 And if anyone was wondering, I survived not having my trusty list before last Shabbos after all...When Shabbos came, I *was* ready and even relaxed. I so enjoyed (over)feeding my visiting family members some of their favorite traditional recipes and even got some self-proclaimed pickier eaters to enjoy some new dishes! Off to eat some of the copious leftovers now and start preparing my menu for this coming Shabbos. Shavua tov--a good week to all!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Parshas Shelach: Humongous Fruits, Humongous Warriors, and Humongous Amounts of Chutzpah

I've recently begun studying the weekly parsha with a learning partner over the phone. This is an incredible opportunity not only because my learning partner has significantly more Jewish education than I do, but also because when two individuals learn together, the process is enhanced by both of their experiences and insights. Even if you have already learned a parsha in depth, you can always gain something new from studying it again, particularly with a partner.

In this week's Torah portion, Parshas Shelach, we meet up with the Jewish people as they are nearing Eretz Yisrael. Moshe sends twelve spies to Canaan, seemingly to scope out the lay of the land, and when they return 40 days later with a giant cluster of grapes, a pomegranate and a fig in tow, the report is not all sweet. With the exception of Caleb and Joshua, the rest of the spies warn that the land is not only abundant in ginormous fruit, but also inhabited by giants and warriors "more powerful than we." Only Caleb and Joshua believe and insist that the Jewish people can conquer the land as commanded by G-d; the rest of the Jewish people weep and kvetch that they would prefer to return to Mitzrayim. G-d decrees that Israel's entry into the Land shall now be delayed for forty years. So, how do humongous fruits, giants, crying and forty years of waiting relate to our lives today? Here are some interesting points I took from studying this parsha:

Is seeing believing?
  • This was a generation of Jews who experienced open miracles in a way we no longer do. Their belief and trust in G-d was, in a sense, made simple by the fact that they could clearly see and experience His powerful work. They got stuck at the Red Sea? G-d created a miracle and parted the waters. They got hungry along their sojourn? G-d created another miracle and unfailing provided manna and water to sustain them on their journey. For all intensive purposes, their every need had been previously provided for. Now they were being made to work for their sustenance, to till and toil the land, and they got scared. But why? Had G-d not protected and provided for them up until now? Why, just because they would no longer see immediate evidence of His hand in their survival, would they believe G-d had any less of a role in that? The answer, I believe, is twofold:
    • Uncharted territory is scary. It is human to be afraid of that which we have yet to experience. When we do not know what to expect, we grow tentative, hesitant and even, at times, resistant. This was a generation of holy people and yet they still struggled with this very human condition.
    • When we can't directly see/feel/perceive something, we question/fear/resist it. But why? Think of the wind, for instance. We cannot directly see the wind, but we very well trust in its existence when we see the leaves rustle in the trees, feel the breeze against our face, or hear the howling of an autumn gust. Even the most self-declared "secular" Jewish farmer in Eretz Yisrael often keeps the halachas surrounding one's land and crops; he perceives indirectly G-d's role in his success or his demise.
G-d does not give a person a struggle he or she cannot handle AND it is our divine mission to reach our G-d given potential.
  • G-d has given each and every one of us a divine mission to complete in this physical world. It may not feel natural or come easily to us, but it is uniquely ours. If we are unwilling to fulfill this divine purpose, it is as though we are obsolete.  The Jewish people of this generation were given the divine mission to enter into Eretz Yisrael, to work the land and create a nation for the Jewish people. They did not trust in themselves or in G-d enough to fulfill this mission and as a result, it was the next generation, their children who would obtain this purpose and not them.
    • Exhibit A: Joshua & Caleb: They are the two key figures in this week's parsha who ascended above the mistake of the Jewish people. Joshua was given this name by Moshe, who added a yud to his former name Hosea, indicating that "G-d would save" him from the plot of the spies. As one of the two spies who gave encouragement and remained positive, he was rewarded by succeeding Moshe as leader of the Jewish people. He went on to continue Moshe's work of conquering the land and is also responsible for dividing the land among the twelve tribes of Israel. Finally, he was the second link, right below Moshe in the chain of the transmission of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Caleb was significant in that he outright spoke to the Jewish people imploring that they have trust in G-d and fulfill His mission; G-d would not have allotted them this task if it was truly insurmountable. Caleb went on to inherit the city of Chevron and both Joshua and Caleb were rewarded by being the only two males to merit from entry into Eretz Yisrael and receive immunity from G-d's decree.
    • G-d knew the Jewish people would make a mistake. Again, he created a miracle: it should have taken much longer to enter and return from Canaan but G-d made it that the spies should accomplish this journey in 40 days since He also knew their consequence would be to sojourn for one additional year in correspondence to each day of their trip. Therefore, this generation were kept from entering the Land for forty years but no longer.
 Moshe had chutzpah! and other important lessons about leadership, education and parenthood:


  • Moshe outright argued with G-d; now that's chutzpah! When G-d was upset that the Jewish people were acting so rebelliously, Moshe reminded Him that it was His idea to put them in this position and test their faith; it was now G-d's responsibility to show the Jewish people that they could trust Him. Moshe went so far as to admonish G-d that smiting this generation would only make Him look bad! Moshe reminded G-d they the Jewish people were only human! What do we learn from Moshe's brazenness? 
    • Firstly, sometimes we must speak up and have chutzpah. We are only human; we make mistakes. But how long must our suffering last? From where will our help come? It is said that through heartfelt prayer and tears the gates of Heaven are opened; we have a right and a responsibility to demand help from G-d.
    • Secondly, I am reminded of the value and power in my role as a teacher. In any leadership role, whether you are a parent, educator, or mentor of any kind, one must maintain a balanced approach of sensitivity and persistence. Setting the bar too high leads to imminent failure and feelings of frustration and despair. However, setting the bar too low also inhibits success and leads to feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. We must be leaders/teachers/parents like Joshua and Caleb. We must have faith in our students/children that they can, will and should succeed. We must also emanate our own faith in G-d and maintain trust in our ability to successfully fulfill our own unique divine mission.
"We can surely ascend...for indeed we can overcome it!"


Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prayer in Judaism: If you've got a minute, can we talk?

I had such a fabulous and meaningful Shabbos this past week. I was fortunate to be surrounded by some of the most loving and positively influential friends I've made over these last nine years. Some of them I've known for a long time, while others I've only just recently met. It was incredibly moving (at times overly so!) to be able to thank so many people who have been an integral part of my journey toward wellness, a college degree and foremost, toward greater spirituality...






...which brings me to my next topic of interest: 

Throughout our lives, one of the most significant areas we can develop and cultivate is our ability to relate. Humans by nature desire relationship; it's not part of the journey, it is the journey. We long to connect and modern technology has provided countless measures of doing this: cellular phones, internet, travel and transportation, media, art, music, religion, etc. And yet, even with ample means by which to relate, in reality we live in a world of great disconnect. Even though we have the tools and power to communicate worldwide in an instant, many of us would likely say we have at times, if not often, felt lonely, isolated and disoriented. 
My desire for increased Jewish education and observance began when I was very young--maybe twelve or thirteen years old. On my own, I read any books I could get my hands on, tried to make sense of it and when possible, asked questions. For all intensive purposes, my learning (and subsequently my observance) really increased after meeting other observant Jews in, of all places, the pacific inland northwest. It's not been a linear process by any means. Changing and/or creating habits is a challenge. Taking on more than one is ready for can lead directly to feelings of frustration, failure and discouragement. Additionally, I often felt challenged by the sense that I just didn't "feel" it. Regarding certain practices and halachas (Jewish laws), I wasn't feeling it. How could I keep kosher if I didn't feel it? How could I keep Shabbos if I didn't feel like doing that? And then there was this other "issue" that until recently, I thought was completely separate from practice and observance: I didn't consistently feel connected to G-d. Sure, it was easy to make Shabbos when I did feel connected, but what about the times I didn't? Shouldn't I feel intensely connected to G-d at all times? Then and only then would everything else "fall into place."  Inevitably this created a cycle of moving in one direction and then another, back to one, then the other. It felt disorienting, isolating and oftentimes lonesome. I'd begin to think I had some personal defect, that I'd failed. And at some point a few years ago, I even went so far as to try to convince myself that I didn't want to have a relationship with G-d because I had enough relationships in life "down here" that were challenging, difficult or scary. 
Interestingly enough, I never stopped praying. Even in the times I'd actively try to avoid it, these conversations automatically and unfailingly still occurred. It would catch me by surprise in moments of intense fear, exhaustion or even joy that I'd find myself talking to G-d. In 2010 when my health began to suffer to the point that I could no longer hide the symptoms or the associated emotions I was experiencing, I turned to some of the dear friends who accompanied me this Shabbos. I also turned to G-d. I stopped looking at my struggles as punishment for transgressions and started looking at it more as G-d proverbially tapping me on the shoulder as if to say,  

"Hey, if you've got a minute can we talk?"

Now I allowed the conversation to happen without specific expectations, without a need to be in a control all of the time and with firm resolve that I didn't even want to know or control what would happen. How did I get through three days and over six hours of being inside an MRI machine? I prayed. How did I calm myself through hours of waiting in exam room for test results? I prayed. And the months of sleepless hours? Every minute would have been unbearable if I hadn't prayed. And from this, I have found the following:
  1. I didn't (and don't) always feel it. Not in synagogue, not at home, not on the road. But sometimes I do and it's intense and incredible. It's a feeling I've had and revisited on occasion from the time I was a very small child sitting on the bimah with my preschool class looking out past the empty shul at the sun shining through the stained glass windows: I am never alone.
  2. My relationship with G-d is just like any relationship in that I don't always feel the same level of intensity or energy in our conversation and interaction. That's pretty normal!
  3. That said, my relationship with G-d is different from any other relationship I have in that He is always wanting, willing and waiting to connect with me with full intensity and energy--each moment of each and every day.
  4. Action sometimes precedes motivation: Slowly and continually, I take on more learning and observance. Some practices come very naturally to me right away: for instance, the Kriyas Shema recited at bedtime was instrumental in helping me to calm down and stay calm through many months of struggle and even still comforts me during occasional bouts of insomnia. It is a seemingly natural part of my bedtime routine. Other aspects of practice have required me to "just take the plunge," so to speak. One example of this has been keeping the laws of kashrut in my home. After my grandfather passed away in November (may his neshama be blessed), I decided to stop letting fear of failure keep me from making this change and to kasher my kitchen in his merit and memory. I took small and manageable steps toward achieving this goal and can honestly say that with time, study and practice, I have not only felt that it is attainable and maintainable, but I have also found it to enhance my feelings of connectedness with G-d.
  5. It's not all or nothing! Each mitzvah I do is a means to connect with G-d. What I've not learned or accomplished yet does not take away from what I have learned and accomplished thus far. With G-d's help, I will continue to grow and self-refine. This is every Jew's and every person's life work.
I had a really unique conversation over Shabbos with some friends. I am so inspired by their journeys toward learning and observance; they each have a unique and individual strength in this process that will not only benefit them but will cultivate their individual abilities to touch those around them. During our conversation I came to a realization: no longer does a single day go by that I don't feel connected and in relationship with G-d. I do not feel disoriented, lonely or isolated. Through this, I have enhanced and strengthened my human relationships; as emotional as saying 'goodbyes' can be, I see inherent beauty and value in having connections to people that are strong enough to hurt a bit when they change. Furthermore, even in times of upheaval and change, I can count on conversation with G-d. Prayer for me is the ultimate antidote to almost any uncomfortable emotion. It infuses my daily activities--from the mundane to the most significant--with gratitude, hope and the comforting realization that I am never alone.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Parshas Behaalotecha: Always With the Kvetching!

Ugh! It's cold, rainy, windy and all around dreary here in the usually-warm-and-dry-by-June inland northwest. I was supposed to receive a conference call at 1:30 that never came. Whine, whine, whine--and now I want cheese but am all out!
Alright, so I'm kind of joking around here, but the truth is my inner dialogue is quite often full of complaints. If it's sunny and warm, I'm kvetching about having to water my flowers or being too hot. If that phone call had come on time, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to write this blog post. All in all, life is pretty darn fantastic. I am, thank G-d, alive, healthy and happy. Nonetheless, I often find reason to be unsatisfied. I will boldly venture to guess that I am not alone in this either. In fact, the earliest documentation of excessive kvetchiness can be found in the Torah as the Jewish people made their exodus from Egypt.
We were freed and then the sea was in our way; we whined. G-d made a miracle and split the sea; we celebrated. Then we decided we were scared; we whined. G-d made another miracle and sent clouds by day and night to protect us; we celebrated. Then we got a little hungry; we whined again. G-d made another miracle and sent us water to drink and manna to eat. This heavenly manna arrived daily and in double doses for Shabbos. It could taste like anything you wanted it to! And for a bit, we were satisfied, but then after a while...you guessed it, we whined some more. We were bored with the manna and wanted meat! Sound familiar at all?
Ok, now I'm NOT joking--my parents really did hang a sign like this outside my playroom when I was a kid!
The parsha (Torah portion) of this week is Parshas Behaalotecha, which translates to "when you raise light." It is in this parsha that we learn about the laws of building and lighting the menorah that was found in the mishkan. However, that is a seemingly minute portion of this particular reading. Much more focus is put on the implementation of a "second Passover" for Jews who were ritually impure and unable to participate in the first one. Additionally we read about the kvetchiness of the Jewish people regarding their dissatisfaction with the generous manna supply. Moshe elects seventy elders to assist him in governing the Jewish people. Meanwhile, Miriam speaks ill of Moshe and is punished with leprosy. Nonetheless, Moshe prays to G-d for her healing and recovery and his prayers are answered.
Right about now, you might be wondering how I'm going to tie all this together? What does my kvetching and the kvetching of the Jewish people have to do with raising light? Or with modern day life for that matter? Actually, I've found it has a great deal of relevance and applicability. We live in a culture and society that is very rooted in instant gratification. I can, with the click of a button, share my ideas with friends nearby, family far away and complete strangers halfway across the world. How powerful is that! But what happens when I am made to wait longer than a New York minute for something? I feel frustrated; I kvetch. I want what I want and I want it now. And when I get it? There's something else that I want, which I want right NOW! Modern technology has provided us with a means to communicate in ways we were previously unable to even fathom. Like manna, we can use this tool in any way our mind can imagine; the sky is the limit. However, like the Jewish people during the time of the exodus, we grow so accustomed to the predictability and generosity of this tool that we take it for granted, misuse it at times (think: all those Facebook and twitter posts that maybe didn't need to be broadcast...) and grow brazen enough to demand more.
Yet, each and every day my life is abundant and full of blessings. It is raining today so I don't have to water my flowers. My plans changed this afternoon so I got to study this week's parsha and write this blog post. And like the Jewish people of the many generations before and many generations to come, I am called upon to raise a light in a world around me that can, no doubt, be very dark at times. Oftentimes, this light begins with finding genuine--not conditional--gratitude in the abundant blessings I receive each and every day. Some of these blessings may be obvious to me; others may be harder to reveal immediately.
A friend of mine recently wrote the following and I really took it heart:
"I'm not optimistic or pessimistic, I don't know if the glass is half full or empty...I'm just so glad there is a glass."
Do you curb your enthusiasm?


In that merit, thank You, G-d for the glass that You so unfailingly fill up each and every day to overflowing. And thank you, "Blogosphere", for keeping me grounded and providing an opportunity to share and express the light that is within each and every one of us.

Monday, June 04, 2012

My Story As Told By ME: And the Many Hats I Wear


For those who missed it or asked for copies, here is a modified "blog version" of the presentation I gave during my university's Diversity & Disability Contest a couple of weeks ago. The contest criteria were to present a five minute lesson on some aspect of disability as diversity. The entire experience was humbling. I got to meet some incredible fellow students and hear many other unique stories. Coming in second place was only the icing on the delicious cake!

My Story As Told By ME

And The Many Hats I Wear


Life begins as the story others tell about you.








She was born six weeks early.

She did things her way.

“NO,” and “You can’t,” were not words even in her vocabulary!

...But time goes on and as we grow, life becomes the story we tell about ourselves

It can, in fact, be summed up quite nicely by the many hats we wear.
The hats we choose,
The ones we didn’t,
And oftentimes, the hats that were never even put on the table for us to see...

 I was just a “typical” little kid.
Maybe I was a lot like you,
I wore many hats as a child, and planned to continue in just that way.
At twelve years old, I learned to knit my own hats.
It seemed like the world was a giant ball of yarn at my disposal and I had all the tools I needed to create something incredible!

Only in my early teens, I started to feel exhausted,
To the point that I had trouble even staying awake.

It didn’t matter if I slept for two hours or for twelve,
I experienced chronic and continuous pain.

I saw doctors and specialists,
Experts in their field,
And my options all seemed to unravel to nothing but a label
In the best of circumstances: “NORMAL TEENAGER”
(No, I don’t think those words go together either)
But in worse circumstances the labels included:  “overreacting” and then “depression” and other types of “mental illness”
 Which led to some of these: 

worthless, hopeless,
incapable

stupid, failure, fragile,

LAZY,

ruined, broken, damaged

These were not the words I’d necessarily chosen, but for years they were the ones that defined me, accompanying me from a childhood of academic and extra-curricular success to an adolescence of remedial classes, barely attending let alone graduating from high school and over a decade of swallowing prescription medications that were unnecessary if not a risk to my health.






The details and diagnostics aren’t so important now. 
In just a few weeks, I’ll finally wear this hat, which I was told was never possible.  
I’ll wear this hat in part because I’m stubborn and at a certain point in my life, it stopped being OK for others to decide which hats I could wear and which I could not.


"In just a few weeks, I’ll finally wear this hat, which I was told was never possible." 

I’ll wear this hat also because just about two years ago as I was nearing the completion of my bachelor’s degree, I developed some more unsettling symptoms. 
The thought of seeing doctors again was scary. Worse than that, however, was the idea that taking time off might mean all those labels were true. I took the chance nonetheless, put my academics on hold and began another arduous process of doctors’ visits.
Ten months later, somewhat accidentally, I was finally correctly diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. In all likelihood, I’ve had sleep apnea or the propensity for it from the time I was born. After fifteen years of severe symptoms, it took only one night of observation in a sleep lab to see that on average I stopped breathing over 30 times per hour.  

Often I’m asked:
Aren’t you angry that they never knew?
Or What if they had figured it out 15 years ago? How would your life be different?
Occasionally I do think about that, but for the most part, I’m celebrating. Plus, check out this awesome Darth Vader hat I get to wear to bed every night:
















The important part of this story,
the one I tell about myself today, is that at one point, I allowed misconception and an all-too-common perception dictate which hats I could wear, which hats I would wear and more importantly, all hats aside, how I defined who I am. Standing here today in celebration of the many characteristics of diversity on this campus, I ask you:
Who narrates the story of who you are? And who you will become?
Were there people who shaped you into being? Were there ones who tried to tear you down?
For me, it’s not about ability or disability.
It is about opportunity and the right to choose how I define and describe myself.
It’s about remembering at any moment that although there is much we can tell from the cover of a book, there is more to every story than meets the eye.
At the end of the day, as I mask up for a good night’s sleep, it feels more important to me to acknowledge the multitude of traits that connect us than the comparatively few which set us apart.
“Today, it feels more important to me to acknowledge the multitude of traits that connect us than the comparatively few that set us apart.”