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A little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot of blah blah blah....

Monday, December 16, 2013

What Do You Do When Your Jewish Children Feel Left Out at X-mas?

This is a festive season for families of so many backgrounds and religious practices. There's no escaping it even if one wanted to. Neighborhoods and skylines are keeping their local electric companies in business with the amount of lights strung about.  Seemingly every radio station has been broadcasting X-mas songs since Thanksgiving. They're playing when you walk into any shop. Store shelves are stocked to overflowing with the season's hottest trends and deals you simply won't want to miss out on. But what do Jewish parents and families do when presented with the generations-old challenge of Jewish children who feel left out at this time of year? How do you address some of the tougher questions that arise? How do you respond when your child's Girl Scout Troop/Boy Scout Troop/4-H Club/School Class does an activity specifically geared toward X-mas? And what happens when your previously proud yarmulke-donning/Shabbos candle lighting child announces he/she no longer wants to be Jewish since we don't have a tree/get presents from Santa/have stockings hung from the fireplace mantle? How do you handle these challenges when other members of your extended family do celebrate X-mas or aspects of it?

These are tough questions that arise each year, and are in the forefront of my mind this year now that I am married. How will my husband and I address these questions when, G-d willing, we have children of our own? It's a subject we already talk about at length and can both relate to having experienced these challenges when we were growing up ourselves. I can remember very well coming home from public school in kindergarten very upset because a little girl had said that her holiday (X-mas) was better than mine (Chanukah). I can recall wanting a LOT of things this time of year when toy commercials increased exponentially on my afternoon television lineup. However, among the things I wanted most were brightly colored lights to illuminate the front of our house and a dead fir tree to sit in the middle of our living room filling it at once with the sweet smell of pine and brown, dying needles. I never outright wanted X-mas in and of itself, I just wanted a version of it suitable to our traditions. Not at all realizing the irony of such a concept when it comes to the meaning behind Chanukah, I thought that perhaps a tastefully laid extra large dreidel container could be mysteriously filled with treats by Yehuda HaMaccabee while I was sleeping one Chanukah night. Now over 20 years later, I am very grateful my parents did not give in.

My parents, in fact, handled these issues very well. We were not an observant family by any means, but we had a strong pride in being Jewish and keeping certain traditions. My parents addressed our feelings of being left out, ostracized, jealous, and curious all with sensitivity, patience, and compassion. I think in many ways and like many parents in diverse communities, they overcompensated with the amount of presents they gave us at Chanukah, really encouraging and reminding my sister and me that while our peers got presents only on one day, we got them for eight nights! But the most important thing they did was stand their ground all while paving our way to become proud Jewish women, wives, and at the right time, mothers. Our questions and complaints were met with answers and kindness. We may not have always liked the answers at the time and we never did have a tree or Santa or lights and stockings filled with candy. What we did have that we still have today (and I'm guessing most of our peers from back then aren't still holding on to that same tree or candy cane) is our pride and identity in being Jewish. And this time of year, as in many times of year, that does mean being a little bit different than some of our peers.

My parents also allowed us to participate in holiday themed activities at other people's homes. We did go to tree decorating parties (and, let me tell you, the only two people decorating that tree rather than scouring the cookie table were the two Jewish girls from South Colonie, NY)! We made cards for our friends and baked cookies for neighbors. On December 25th, we met the vast majority of our Jewish friends at the local movie theater and Chinese food restaurant. I can't say that when the opportunity arises my husband and I will proceed in exactly the same manner, but I can say that I hope our children will be blessed the way I was to have sensitive, patient and proud Jewish parents like I do.

My husband and I have already talked about some of the things we feel are important to remember at this time of year.

  • We know we may not always be able to mitigate feelings of jealousy and being left out when it comes to the commercial aspects of this time of year. But some of the core aspects of the holiday season are ones that we can embrace and not just once a year. For us, keeping Shabbos and making a special time for family each week is really important. We see the value in sharing a special meal and playing games and learning together without distractions in whatever way a Jewish family chooses to do so. While we are shomer Shabbos, we also see from experience how special and beneficial it is just to even light the Shabbos candles and have a nice meal together on Friday night.
  • We both know that disappointment and not getting everything you want when you want are a part of childhood and a part of life for that matter. Why is it harder at this time of year to say "no" than, say in March, when little Moishy wants that overpriced toy at the checkout stand? Perhaps it is that sweet smell of generosity in the air this time of year? Or just those cinnamon scented pine cones at the front of the store?
  • In that merit, generosity is a huge part of this season that we can all embrace. While we should hopefully focus year round on acts of chesed (kindness) and tzedakah (charity), picking out an act of service on some nights of Chanukah or to fill the hours of downtime during winter breaks can be a great way to be less self-minded and more other-focused. Taking advantage of some of those "great bargains" to help clothe, feed or provide toys/books for families in need can be a great activity for any age.
  • Don't make it what it's not. Chanukah isn't "Jewish X-mas." And that is OK! Even if we did grow up with a few therapy bills here and there, none of them were from not having a tree with presents underneath and sitting on the lap of an exceedingly happy overweight man in a red velvet suit (who even wears red velvet suits anyway?)! Learning about and teaching about Chanukah as well as about other holidays and Jewish topics are things we can do year round. When we really understand and experience the joy of keeping Shabbos, of celebrating holidays, of reaching life's milestones through the beautiful lens of Torah and mitzvos we are left with nothing to compensate for. Our lives and our spirits are full and the gifts we receive
    continually are greater and far more meaningful than whatever the hottest trend was in 1995. (Tickle Me Elmo??) 

But I really open up the question to you, my readers, at this point. How do you address these issues as they arise in your home and with your children? Whatever your reason for celebrating this time of year, I wish family and friends all a season of joy.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Kitchen Adventures: Pumpkin Corn Muffins with Pecan Streusel Topping

Yesterday I played with some pumpkin in my kitchen. I remembered an old Autumn favorite of mine years ago when I was living in Washington and not so careful about kashrus out of the house. There
was a cafe that served pumpkin spice chai lattes that were simply decadent. So I opened a can of pumpkin puree, scooped a heaping spoonful into a pot and added some chai tea concentrate, rice milk and pumpkin pie spice, heated it up and used a whisk to make it nice a frothy. Voila! It was scrumptious! Now, all I needed was an amazing gluten free muffin to go with it! And, I had this can of pumpkin sans one heaping spoonful to contend with...

...And thus came about the inspiration for my newest crazy kitchen concoction. I looked up recipes for gluten free pumpkin muffins and pumpkin breads and liked some of them but not enough to adhere to only one. Finally, I decided to try my hand at building my own recipe and the results were a tasty success even my husband enjoyed! They were great right out of the oven, and, if I do say so myself, just as delicious reheated a bit alongside a cup of coffee.

Pumpkin Corn Muffins with Pecan Streusel Topping
This recipe is gluten free and pareve. You could also substitute regular flour and butter if you want the gluten-full and/or diary version.


  • 1 medium sized ripe banana, mashed
  • 1 can (15oz) pure pumpkin puree
  • 2 TBSP molasses
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1 cup oat flour
  • 1 tsp pumpkin pie spice
             Streusel Topping

  • 1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
  • 1/8 cup margarine, melted
  • 1/8 cup brown rice flour
  • 1/8 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 1/4 cup crushed pecans
Yeild: 1 dozen muffins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and prepare a muffin tin with liners or spray. I used my kitchen aid to mix ingredients for the muffins. Spoon into liners until about 3/4 of the way full. Melt your margarine and mix streusel ingredients together (I did this by hand) and crumble a bit on top of each muffin. Bake in preheated oven for about 20 minutes, until toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean. Enjoy, share with a loved one and enjoy some more!

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Last Dance: Ending Tishrei

Woohoo! It's Monday! I never thought I'd be SO happy to see a Monday morning with a 5 day work-week ahead! To put that in perspective, the last two Monday mornings were more like Montuwednesdays since I had to cram far too many weekday activities into only 3 weekdays. The Jewish month of Tishrei is always busy and jam packed with holidays. When three out of four of these major holidays fall alongside Shabbos, you end up with the conglomeration Orthodox Jews refer to with both affection and dread as Three Day Yom Tov. It can be challenging in the secular world, particularly in the workplace or as a student to explain our requests for time off. I can remember explaining to an exasperated professor why I would be missing several classes right at the beginning of the semester one year while attending college in rural eastern Washington. "I know about the Jewish New Year and day of Atonements, but what holiday is it this time?" he asked. I proceeded to explain that for the next 8 days, we eat in little temporary huts outside followed by a big shin dig where we dance in circles and sing and drink. In hindsight, this may not have helped my cause...
And then there's the food. So. Much. Food. With the exception of Tzom Gedaliah and Yom Kippur which are fast days, the month of Tishrei feels like one giant adventure in testing the limits of an elastic waistband. I've enjoyed getting to know local running routes in my area and even unpacked my Yoga/Pilates mat, but for the most part in the past month, my exercise regimen has been reduced to brisk walks around the buffet line. And although two days of fasting may improve my waistline some, they tend not to improve my social relationships...

And then there is the added excitement and challenge of traveling since we live 40 minutes away from our synagogue and Jewish community. We have a wonderful place to stay in Norfolk that is convenient and comfortable and cozy and I am the most sensitive sleeper I've ever met. Since being diagnosed with a sleep disorder three years ago, I've been immensely grateful for the gift of being able to treat the symptoms and greatly improve my health. Nonetheless, sleeping in my own bed can be challenging and sleeping in a different bed can be darn near impossible at times. No more are the days of curling up anywhere and everywhere and dozing off. In that challenge, I've become quite the homebody and in our current living situation, I am trying very hard to become a home-away-from-homebody as well. I can say with confidence that I have one very patient and sensitive husband, thank G-d and the awareness from experience to know that one or three or eight sleepless nights will not cause permanent harm. And I can say that I think we're both looking forward to me sleeping a bit more soundly now that we're getting back to a more regular routine. 

My husband and I both acknowledge the inherent difficulties of getting married right before Tishrei. It's an auspicious time, for sure, but also a very busy time. We didn't come home after the wedding and have time to settle in and settle down. Rather, the celebration in many ways has continued at full speed. We both put a lot of effort into making time where we can slow down and enjoy each other's company. Oftentimes this falls on Sundays since neither of us works out of the home on weekends. We were both really geared up and excited to spend the day at Busch Gardens here in Williamsburg yesterday and had talked about it for a couple of weeks ahead of time. And, by the time yesterday rolled around, we were both feeling quite under the weather. One of the most beautiful parts of being married is the joy and effort one takes in making the other smile. That was the guiding force that pushed both of us the shlep around an amusement park for hours yesterday like the oldest young couple you've ever seen. It's not that either of us really even wanted so terribly to be there and we both probably could have used some major rest and relaxation. But it was our "Sunday Funday" and we wanted to soak up every last drop of time together uninterrupted and uninhibited by the responsibilities and obligations of the work week.

And that is what Tishrei is all about. By the end of Sukkos, we are yom tov-ed out. We are exhausted and full from too much delicious food. We'd all probably love to just stay at home, to rest and relax. But G-d says "no, not yet." He wants for us to savor every last drop of time together uninterrupted and uninhibited by the responsibilities and obligations of our work week. And so we honor that last bit of time by observing Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah. We pray and we eat and we dance and we sing. And we may be tired and not feel much like continuing with the party, but when it comes to our relationship with G-d, we will do what we can with joy and effort to make Him smile. With that, may we end the month of Tishrei and enter the new month of Cheshvan with joy and renewed energy and may we all have a gut voch (good week).

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Yom Tov/Shabbos Schmooze: Tichels, Sheitels, & Snoods, Oh My!

I recently finished giving Shaindy her first bath and it was utterly terrifying. I mean, watching her under the faucet for the first time literally put the fear of G-d in me. Shaindy is not my child nor is she my pet. She is my sheitel (Yiddish: wig). Yes, I named it. I felt that would help us develop a better rapport after a rather rocky beginning to our relationship. But I would say that washing my sheitel for the first time bore a striking resemblance to what I'd imagine many parents feel when bathing their newborn baby. First, you spend way too much money on some fancy shampoo that promises no tears (and whether that promise is delivered in the end is between me, my sheitel and my upstairs bathroom, thank you very much). As you're hovered over the tub covered in more water than if you were actually in it, you think to yourself how amazingly incredible this new responsibility is. This fragile and invaluable item in your hands is, after all, just the strikingly-more-expensive-than-you'd-ever-imagined result of the commitment of two people in love.

You see, in Orthodox Judaism, after a woman is married she can begin to fulfill the mitzvah of covering her hair. On a very basic level, this practice is done out of modesty. On a deeper and more spiritual level, however, a woman covers her hair after marriage to signify attaining a new spiritual level and special connection to G-d as well as to honor her new and special connection to her husband. Her actual hair becomes something reserved for only her husband and perhaps immediate family to see*. While many have the misconception that modesty in this practice refers to a woman covering up her physical beauty in an effort to appear less attractive to the opposite sex, it is not at all about this. For many women, myself included, covering our hair with wigs, scarves, snoods, berets, and hats of all kinds makes us feel very beautiful and can look stunningly attractive. Today's sheitels are a far cry from the heavy and artificial looking wigs our bubbies and zaftas sported. Most people cannot even tell that a woman wearing a sheitel is not walking around in her very own hair. Some people then argue, well how can that be modest? What if a woman looks more attractive in her sheitel than she did before?! And wouldn't covering her hair in an exquisitely tied tichel make her more noticeable to society than if she simply sported her natural locks? This is in and of itself evidence that the mitzvah's main purpose is not to hide the outer qualities of the woman, but rather to bring out the beauty of her inner spiritual qualities and personality. The Lubavitcher Rebbe himself encouraged women to wear a sheitel outside of the house so that they may feel more comfortable within society and also supported women in keeping their own natural hair at a manageable length underneath that would still allow them to feel beautiful and attractive toward their husbands. Although it is not my personal minhag (custom), it is the practice in some other communities for women to shave their hair after marriage and I am sure this is something that feels meaningful and special to them.

*There are many varieties of practice around the mitzvah of women's hair covering that are unique to different communities and individuals. There is a wide breadth of halacha (Jewish law) governing this mitzvah that I am ill-equipped to adequately explain, though I encourage continued learning from reliable sources, and competent rabbis and rebbetzins.

So back to Shaindy... Before I was married, I spent more time than I'd like to admit prancing around alone in my apartment in my new sheitel, practicing tying a tichel and trying on different hats, berets, and snoods. In fact, I spent more time doing this than I did wearing my wedding gown! I dragged my then fiance, my mother and my aunt to a hat shop in Queens, NY. My cousin came all the way from Israel into my smelly, flooded apartment in Albany, NY with a bag full of brand new tichels and berets she shlepped in her suitcase overseas and tolerated the swamp-like stench just to show me how to tie a rectangular scarf. These were joyous times, don't get me wrong! But there were fears and tears as well. My best friend from Spokane, WA was in Crown Heights visiting her parents when I traveled in to purchase my sheitel. She happily joined me on the excursion, bringing along her 4 year old son. Shortly after the sheitel-macher  (wig stylist) placed what would eventually become Shaindy onto my head and little Moishy* (name altered to protect the innocent) ran out of mischief to make in a women's hair salon, he asked in a sudden panic "Mommy, where is Michal?!" Amused, but now slightly panicked myself, I responded from under 2 feet of someone else's hair, "I'm right here, Moishy. Do I look different in a sheitel?"

When we got back to my friend's parents' home, Shaindy in tow, her husband was sitting at the computer busily working. Without really looking up but knowing in a wise, husbandly way that he should say something, he said, "Wow! Your new sheitel looks great!" I wasn't wearing my new sheitel yet. It was wrapped in a plastic zip-loc inside tissue paper in the bottom of a paper shopping bag. I was, in fact, still sporting my own graying, frizzy, lopsided bun. Oy! And then, I went to put Shaindy on for the first time by myself. Disaster. Utter disaster. It was crooked. The sticky July heat had half the hairs sticking to my neck. And I had a huge sheitel bump in the back from that graying, frizzy, lopsided bun underneath. I cried. My friend gave me a much needed hug, some woman to woman advice, support and humor. Like many other things in life, this would take practice and getting used to. The week before my wedding I began to have those wedding-jittery nightmares. I woke up in the wee hours of the morning drenched in a cold sweat after dreaming that despite continued efforts to fit all of my hair inside a new beret, huge chunks and wisps kept flying out of the top, the sides, the bottom, you name it... I reached for the still-uncovered graying lopsided bun atop my soon-to-be-married head, took a sip of water and drifted back to sleep...

Two nights after our wedding, my new husband and I showed up almost an hour late to our sheva brachos dinner at my grandmother's shul. We mentioned the trouble we'd had getting out of the parking lot we were sardine-packed into in Brooklyn and then getting stuck in traffic. We did not mention the tearful temper tantrum I had when I couldn't get my sheitel on the way I liked and the combs were literally pulling my hair out of my temples. In the end, my husband made me smile, laugh, and promised we'd take a trip to a sheitelmacher the next day to get help. I pulled it together, we both looked stunning and the evening was wonderful. The next day, I walked into a Boro Park based salon and explained my teary predicament. I was sent by a lady upstairs to see a lady who knew a lady who could help. In no time at all and only $10 poorer, I left with a stretchy little headband that could hold my sheitel in place and hold my marriage together all while positioning the combs so that my hair wouldn't rip out! There were no more sheitel tears until we got home to Williamsburg and were preparing to travel into Norfolk for Shabbos when I realized I'd accidentally left this amazing little bit of elastic in the rental car we'd driven and returned that morning. Needless to say, I now have a new headband that was rush-delivered by as well as a couple of back-ups just in case.

I have also developed a few new quirks. I have mitzvah-induced paranoia. I am constantly asking my husband if any hair is visible from the back or falling out of my tichel. It's not that I really think anyone is staring at the neck hairs under my beret or measuring the wisps of side curls flying out from my snood. Perhaps it's more that I feel the weight and beauty of fulfilling this mitzvah and with that, the responsibility and desire to do it correctly or at least as best as I am able. It doesn't come without practice, trial and error, and of course, a sense of humor. I set a precedent early on to only walk around our house with my hair uncovered upstairs so that I would not accidentally walk outside or be seen should someone come to the door looking au natural.  A couple of weeks ago after a long and sweaty evening of moving stuff around the house, I decided to let my locks hang out for a bit while we watched a movie. Afterward, as we were preparing to go upstairs for bed, I remembered trash was being picked up the next morning, and offered to take out the kitchen garbage. Midway down our front walkway, I dropped that Glad bag like a hot potato and froze like a deer in the headlights as I frantically, albeit ineffectively used my two hands to cover up my exposed hair. Quite mortified, I ran into the house and my husband carried the trash the last few steps to the curb.

We don't live in an Orthodox neighborhood nor are there any other Orthodox Jews that we know of in our area. I try not to feel self conscious when I am walking around town in my snoods and berets or running in a tichel. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it, really, but on some level I am aware that I stick out like a sore thumb. It's pointless to worry or wonder what other people think if they even think anything at all. My husband once apologized to me for the fact that I have to cover my hair now. I thought this was very sweet, but in complete honesty, fulfilling this mitzvah brings me great joy! I love wearing my berets and hats and tying my tichels and sporting my snoods. I love styling my sheitel in different ways and sporting a hairdo after three days of yuntiv that isn't drenched in the schmutz and schvitz of not being able to wash your hair. I beamed the first time a woman and now good friend of mine in our community came up to introduce herself and her daughter. She said her daughter was so excited to meet me and had a way of spotting a new kallah (bride) from a mile away. And then I laughed as I said, "perhaps she seeks out the young woman who still looks awkward and uncomfortable in her new sheitel." I got a kick out of sitting at a yuntiv meal at a table mostly full of men when a more senior member of the gang piped up and said to a sheitel-sporting me, "You've been brushing that chunk of hair away from your face all day, why don't you just pin it back already?" Immediately and seemingly in unison, at least half a dozen younger male members of the table told him in a tone that denoted both sincere familiarity and pending doom to keep his mouth shut and go back to enjoying his cholent. 

Yes, there are many moments of laughter, and some more poignant ones as well. I was walking out of a public restroom in a local WalMart just as a Muslim woman walked in. I flashed an awkwardly large smile in her direction merely because I felt a surprising sense of camaraderie with this woman I didn't even know whose religious views don't match my own. Yet I perceived she must on some level experience a similar feeling when walking around Williamsburg, VA with a head covering on even if we do cover our hair for different reasons. I wonder if people look at me and think, G-d forbid, that I have cancer? I wonder if I'll ever hear a child ask too loudly about the lady over there in the funny looking hat? I wonder how you explain to your new employer that the carefully coiffed modern hairstyle you sported in your interview could actually come off and wind up on the floor if pulled on hard enough by an excited toddler? And still, matching a beret or scarf to my outfit or picking out a sparkly little barrette to pin back that little chunk of sheitel-hair that tickles the side of my face brings me such joy and excitement! It is a means to tap into that beautiful and deepening connection with G-d that is enhanced now by my growing and loving connection to my husband. It is a connection between me and so many other women in my generation and even more women in generations before mine. And as for the trials and tribulations along the way? It's nothing to split follicles about! I just need to grin and hair it! And with that, I wish family and friends a Good Yom Tov and Good Shabbos!
Having a little bit of fun sporting a College of William & Mary sheitel

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Seeking Stability & Permanence in the Sukkah

Our beautiful Sukkah
It's Chol Hamoed (the interim days) of Succos. It's one of the most joyous festivals of the Jewish year. As much as we are celebrating the literal fruits of our labor in this harvest season, Succos also honors the joy of the spiritual fruits of our labor. We just finished an intensive period of self-reflection, conversation with and connection to G-d and teshuva (repentance); we are now celebrating the happiness and comfort of knowing we have a "clean slate" and a fresh start. So how do we celebrate? By exposing ourselves to the unpredictability of the Autumn climate and eating in a temporary makeshift hut outside, of course! That doesn't make a whole lot of sense, you say? What about being nibbled on by mosquitoes and shivering through a festive meal conjures up feelings of joy? Furthermore, wouldn't it make more sense to focus on the strength, stability and permanence of our connection to G-d than to spend seven days in structure comprised of 3 "walls" and a "roof" full of holes?

The day before Succos was to begin, I was feeling exhausted. It was less than 24 hours before another 3-day yom tov, and I was feeling yom tov-ed out! We've been home here in Williamsburg for about a month, and with all of the holidays, we have still barely been home. After talking with my husband, we both realized we felt the same way and decided rather than traveling again to celebrate the beginning of the holiday with our community about 40 minutes away, we wanted to spend it together in the peace and quiet of the house and to have an opportunity to enjoy our first sukkah as a married couple. For me, the occasion brought the added element of excitement of having my first sukkah at home! Since women are not obligated to build or eat in the sukkah, I'd enjoyed many meals in other families' sukkahs since becoming religious, but had never had my very own. So after making some apologetic phone calls to families in Norfolk who had so graciously invited us to eat with them over the first three days and now so understandingly accepted our last-minute change of plans, we set out with only five hours to go to prepare for the next three days of yuntiv and Shabbos. The house was a mess. The sukkah wasn't up all the way yet. We had no food prepared and six festive meals to eat!

Up goes the schach...
My husband was the very essence of calm. He vacuumed, organized, worked on finishing our sukkah, washed dishes, took out the trash, took us to the grocery store. He hung up some of our artwork around the house, made arrangements to meet some very kind and generous friends who would drop off a lulav & esrog for us, and made calls to friends and family. He set up the holiday candles for me and even formed some makeshift candlesticks from tinfoil as our usual candlesticks were still in our Shabbos apartment in Norfolk.  He did this all b'simcha (joyfully). His wife, on the other hand, eh em, was in a bit of a tizzy. I tried and tried again to conjure up that sense of joy and peacefulness as I prepared many of my favorite recipes and set the holiday table. I tried to feel and act joyful as I set the lights and made the beds and filled the hot water urn my husband had taken extra time to kasher that afternoon. Spending three blissful days with my husband in our home was exactly what I'd wanted, why couldn't I tap into that joy while plowing through preparations instead of feeling overwhelmed?

Well, we accomplished the seemingly impossible. As the yuntiv came in and I lit the candles, the house looked amazing. The sukkah was up. We had three days of feasts fit for royalty, still warm in the oven. My husband encouraged me to finally sit and take a load off, to revel in the beauty of that moment. We no longer had to rush; we could now revel in the appreciation of all that hard work, of having accomplished a task that seemed insurmountable. And that is when it hit me; this is the meaning of Succos. We have accomplished the seemingly impossible, an ostensibly insurmountable task. Through teshuva, through our prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we have worked tirelessly to prepare. Just like preparing our homes and tables, we have prepared ourselves. We have taken inventory, done a little shopping to fill in the empty spaces, and cleaned up the messes. We have repaired the structure of our relationships to each other, to our Creator and with ourselves. Now, we can take a load off. Now we can revel in the appreciation of all of that hard work being done. But we do so in a sukkah, in a makeshift temporary structure that is exposed to the elements, because that is the nature of our lives. We are in this world temporarily. We exist in a state of impermanence. We live and breathe at the whim of the elements. Sometimes our lives are smooth sailing and sometimes the waters are rough. At all times, we can focus on the fear of that which is temporary and unpredictable or we can sit back, smile, and enjoy the ride. We can plan, prepare, and plot as much as we want, but that sense of stability and permanence can only come from truly letting go and trusting we can weather this perfect storm. G-d runs the show so we don't have to.

Nothing says Sunday morning like challah French toast in the Sukkah!

And there is one more truly beautiful part of that. We are not alone. On  the seven days of Succos we invite the seven holy ushpizin (guests) to "join" us in our sukkah. We welcome the beautiful characteristics of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joesph, and David into our sukkahs one by one with each day. Chabadniks also honor the beautiful characteristics of the Baal Shem Tov, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbeim, and the Rebbe. It is a mitzvah to share the festive meals with actual guests as well. We invite others into our sukkahs both physically and spiritually to mark that we are not alone. Just like I must learn that my husband is happy to help around the house and being asked to do so brings him joy, so too must we all learn that it is ok to ask others for help in this journey. We can turn the pages to turn to the holy characters of the Torah  and to the wisdom of the Rebbeim for much needed guidance. We can turn to each other for much needed support and companionship. And we can always turn in prayer to G-d. Just like it brings a parent or teacher great joy to see her children work together and support one another, so too does it bring G-d great joy to see His children lend each other a gentle helping hand.
Rainy havdalah in the Sukkah after Shabbos

And so come rain or shine, for seven days we find joy in the sukkah not because it is strong and stable and will last forever, but quite because it is the opposite of all that. We can find stability and permanence in this temporary structure that is exposed to the elements because it mirrors our own existence in this world. And we can glean great comfort and even joy from welcoming the help of those who love us truly and completely for who we are. Moed tov & chag sameach!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Imperfectly Ever After

This blog post is humbly dedicated to the loving memory of Esther bas Chana, z"l. Although we cannot begin to understand the ways of Hashem, we were blessed that you remained close to us during our wedding day and in the seven days to follow. I will forever be grateful for the brief time I merited to share with you, for the wisdom, kindness, and kedusha you bestowed upon us and for the most special gift of all you gave me--your dear grandson, now my beloved husband.

I haven't done the research to check, but I'm willing to bet that there are a lot of beautiful, flowery blog posts and articles out there about wedding days and life thereafter. In some ways, maybe this is one of them. In some ways, it's not at all. The day I was married surpassed my wildest dreams. All of the struggles, hurdles, and hard work it took to get there were well beyond worth it to be surrounded by dear family and friends from near and far as I walked the final steps and seven circles toward being wed. In our Orthodox Jewish community as well as many others, it is customary that the chosson (groom) and kallah (bride) refrain from seeing and contacting each other the week prior to their wedding. Before that week began, my chosson and I organized our final plans and preparations in a comprehensive To Do list beginning with the tasks we would embark on early in the morning and ending quaintly at approximately 10:00 PM on our wedding night with "Live Happily Ever After." 

In some ways, it's hard to determine what part of the story a wedding is. Is it the beginning or the end? Perhaps it is a bit of both. It is the end of life as we once experienced it individually and the birth of a life united together as one. But it really isn't linear like that either. Life is full of circles and cycles. We are born, we grow, we become. We live and those who are truly lucky will love as well. And when our time and our mission here in this physical world is complete, we move on and pass the proverbial baton. The Jewish year, too, is full of circles and cycles. Circles of hours and days, weeks and the months. Cycles of milestones and holidays, traditions and celebrations.  These are the circles and cycles of life. We enter in and out of them, weaving through space and time. Along the journey, we can long so deeply to feel with certitude that we are accompanied and not alone. At times, we are so focused on the future, we fail to look just behind us and see the hand gently placed upon our shoulder. At times, we are so focused on the past, we fail to look just in front of us and see that our loftiest dreams really are just within our reach. But sometimes -- at the right times--at the quietest hours just before the dawn, G-d gives that to us. He allows us to feel without a doubt that we are never alone, that everything we could ever want and need is already within and around us. 

The story of our wedding was also one of circles and cycles, beginnings and ends. Just days before the wedding, my husband's grandmother was rushed to the hospital after a terrible fall. Without direct communication, it was hard to really know what was going on and in a heartfelt effort to preserve the simcha (joy) of our occasion, family on all sides tried very hard to protect us from any information we might find upsetting. Grandma Esther was an amazing woman. At 98 years old and standing at a meager 4'7" tall, she was a spitfire. I had the true honor a short while before our wedding day to share an afternoon with her in her home. She thought I was 21 years old and a supermodel. Who was I to argue? She supported our journey toward marriage in so many ways--ways I cannot even begin to adequately acknowledge. Sitting in her kitchen, I could feel the kedusha (holiness) surrounding me. The room was filled with beautiful intricately painted ceramic plates. When I asked about them, I learned that she had painted each and every one by hand. She explained that when she was a very young newlywed she had a hard time adjusting to married life. She was scared and frequently took trips to stay with friends. Finally, her friends told her she must return to her husband, to her new life, and that she should take up a hobby. She took up painting ceramics. In times of fear and uncertainty, she walked outside and noticed the beauty and detail of the flowers. This, she explained, is where she saw G-d. And so she came home to her husband and she painted all the beauty she saw. I think, in that way, she found beauty and perfection in her new life and eventually also within herself.

Grandma Esther often said she was staying alive for the wedding. She was so looking forward to that day and to hosting the first of our sheva brachos celebrations in the week to follow, that it was almost impossible to conceive of the show going on without her there. As Hashem would have it, she watched our chassanah (wedding ceremony) from a hospital bed via live webcast beside some amazing family friends and wished my husband a hardy mazal tov over the phone just seconds after he broke the glass beneath our chuppah (wedding canopy). Truth be told, the whole day was a whirlwind. From those early morning preparations to the hours of joyous dancing and celebration in the evening, I'm not sure either of us really had a second to slow down. The following evening, the first of the sheva brachos was moved to the rehab center where she was supposed to be recovering. At the last minute, is was moved again, back to her synagogue and she was rushed back to the hospital. We were surrounded by family and friends, and dear friends of Grandma Esther's. It was such a special and joyous occasion. Neither my husband nor I realized at the time that en route to the rehab facility that evening, she had suffered a massive heart attack and stroke back to back. By Divine Providence, she ended up hospitalized just blocks away from the Brooklyn-based hotel we stayed at. The night before leaving New York, my husband and I paid our last visit. Even in a hospital bed and hooked up to machines, she looked radiant. She looked strong as ever and in a way, peaceful as well. And she was true to her word. She stayed alive for our wedding. The afternoon following our final sheva brachos celebration, Grandma Esther passed away. It was as though she had gracefully escorted us through that whole first week and danced right alongside us b'simcha.

Now, in the weeks following our wedding, I still feel and strive to maintain her presence. I try to conjure up her wisdom and strength with every dish I wash and every box I unpack. So far in the past month, I've had two "out of body experiences." The first was on our wedding day when after three weeks of not seeing each other and after a week of no contact, I saw my husband approaching in preparation for the bedeiken (veiling ceremony). As I saw him walking toward me in his new black hat and kappota, escorted by my father, his brother, and two of our dearest friends, despite being firmly planted in my bridal chair, I felt like I was free falling. The second "out of body experience" happened last week when we went to the local bank to open a joint account together. The banker asked me what my occupation was and despite copious hydration, I suddenly had the worst case of cotton mouth of my entire life as I choked out "housewife." 

Marriage is one of the few topics most people are blatantly honest about. Almost everyone is happy and eager to tell you how hard it will be and many are also willing to share some tried and true tips and advice. They talk about toilet seats left up and toothpaste caps left unscrewed. They speak of unusual flossing habits and less than preferable nail clipping practices. They mention burnt-to-a-crisp dinners and other kitchen disasters. Perhaps what these well-meaning and experienced folks are trying to say in their own unique way is that "Happily Ever After" is not what fairy tales made it out to be. Marriage is not a means to an end with Happiness being the destination. Ever After is the desired destination and Happiness is the journey.

Now, after about a month of being married, I can tell you with confidence that it's true--marriage is hard. Wonderfully, beautifully, imperfectly hard! Not because of either of our unusual habits or unique quirks (and yes, we both have them), but because no more are we two separate individuals living parallel lives in the same universe. We are one united force sharing not only the same soul, but also the same home. No more is there this question of where do I end and where does he begin? To see it as such would be to deny that my left hand is part of my physical body. I recently was reminded of an oft told story of the person who is chopping vegetables with his right hand and accidentally cuts a finger on his left. He is so angry that his right hand would do this to the left that in his rage, he cuts off his right hand. The struggle of marriage is not that we are critical of each other; it's that we are critical of ourselves. And, when we are harsh and impatient and unfair to ourselves it is as if we are taking one hand and cutting off the other. Inasmuch as it is damaging to ourselves, it is just as harmful to our spouse.

The Jewish month of Elul, the month in which we were married, is a time of introspection and self-reflection. It all comes to fruition in the month of Tishrei with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and then Yom Kippur, a Day of Atonements. It has been a whirlwind month for us, constantly traveling between our home in Williamsburg, VA and our home-away-from-home in Norfolk, VA where we go to shul. Almost two months after moving from Albany, NY, I still wake up in the middle of the night and feel disoriented, going through several state lines in my sleep-induced haze before I remember where I am and why. But then I look over at my husband lying fast asleep and I feel the greatest sense of comfort and home I have ever known.

In the evening as Yom Kippur begins, even the most self-proclaimed secular Jews flock to shuls around the world to hear the hauntingly familiar and ancient melody of Kol Nidrei. We say this prayer three times. The first, as I've learned, is to cultivate forgiveness between other people and ourselves. The second is to cultivate forgiveness between G-d and ourselves. And the third--that is when we must forgive ourselves. 

I can recall early in my journey toward teshuva attending some meditation workshop on my college campus. They asked us to close our eyes and imagine finding compassion for our closest friend. That was easy. Then we were instructed to find compassion for our worst enemy. That was a little trickier, but not impossible. Even someone who has greatly hurt us has some redeeming quality that allowed us to be drawn toward them in the first place; otherwise, we'd never feel such hurt to begin with. Finally, we were asked to find compassion for ourselves. For me, that was hard. I left discouraged. And the surprisingly hard part in being married is not finding compassion, kindness and forgiveness for my husband, but rather cultivating that for myself. My husband doesn't care if I burn lunch or if dinner isn't ready when he gets home from work. In fact, pardon my language, but the guy thinks I sh*t rainbows! And I don't care if he forgets to take out the trash when I ask or leaves the shower curtain open. I just love sharing this space together!

Right now, we're still in a whirlwind. We don't know if we're coming or going much of the time. On one quiet and slow afternoon, my husband stopped to ask me if I missed my friends in Albany. After brief contemplation I responded that I hadn't really thought about it and went about the day.  A few weeks later, at a not-so-opportune time one busy morning, I announced tearfully just as my husband had to leave that I missed my friends terribly. Timing is not always impeccable. My husband suggested that maybe getting married when we did in the month of Elul, right before the holidays was hard. Even though Elul is such an auspicious time to be married and we most certainly wouldn't change a thing, it's a busy time and we really haven't had the opportunity to settle in and settle down. But in a way, that is the beauty and perfection of it! Elul is a busy time of transition as our neshamas (souls) make the whirlwind rounds of preparation for the month of Tishrei. By the time Rosh Hashanah comes, we're at the peak of the adventure, but the journey is just beginning. We spend 10 more days cycling and circling through acts of teshuva and pleas for forgiveness in a heartfelt effort to return Home. But the truth of the matter is that we are already there. G-d is Home and He has been with us the whole way.

Following Yom Kippur, we enter into the holidays of Sukkos and Simchas Torah. This time is called in Hebrew z'man simchaseinu, the season of rejoicing. Sure there is an element of seriousness and almost somberness to the conversations we just had with G-d, but we're not walking away feeling bogged down by the amount of "work" we have ahead of us. Rather, we are rejoicing in the opportunity to do it! And so right now with the house still half in boxes, my husband and I already have some lofty goals and beautiful dreams. G-d be willing, we also have all the time in the world to fulfill each and every one and to come up with others along the way. Boxes, settling dust, unfinished laundry and all--this house is already completely home. Not because it's perfect or "finished," but because we're here together, with G-d's help, imperfectly ever after. And just like Grandma Esther, z"l, we must find the beauty in each other and in the world around us, and paint it with a loving and compassionate eye.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

When It Rains, It Pours...

Ah, summertime in Albany, New York...

...seems about right...
But the wonderful thing about summertime in Albany, New York--the thing I most remember about it from when I was a child, is that whenever you don't like the weather, you can wait five minutes and it will change.

Yup, it's been one heck of a wet summer in between spells of sun, a rainbow here and there, some clouds and maybe a chance of meatballs.

I live (until the end of this month!) in a basement level apartment. It's an older building and from the time I moved in, I noticed it's western slant. Basically, like so many buildings of its age in the area, my apartment is sinking. Amazingly though, it's always remained unscathed by the torrential downpours that flash through, by days of endless rain, by melting snow, even by Hurricane Sandy.
So when yet another torrential downpour rushed through the area this afternoon while I was still at work, I didn't expect anything different when I got home. Nonetheless, I had a soggy surprise seeping into my living room, also known now as my indoor pool room. (If we weren't in the nine days now, I'd totally invite my friends over for a nice swim!)

For better or for worse, I've had ample experience with house floods. The morning after we moved into our second home in upstate New York in 1993, the hot water heater in the basement burst, flooding my brand new playroom. When we moved to Massachusetts in 1999, our quaint cape style house was built atop a wetland. The first Rosh Hashanah there, it rained. Inside the kitchen. Every single year, without fail, we had at least one significant flood in the basement. In 2003, that flood was accompanied by an electrical fire. I learned in many ways not to be attached to material objects. It was actually a positive lesson all things considered. If I got home and heard the familiar sound of rushing water, I knew there were a few things to check. First living creatures. Then the piano. Then my stuffed Kermit the Frog and my binder of song lyrics. I learned, much through experience, that the rest was not so important. Photos are lost, books are damaged, clothes get ruined, tchotchkes break; this doesn't take away from the memories or sentiments they bring. Those you hold onto forever, no matter what. Cross country moves, electronic storage failures and the inevitable passing of time taught me more still. You can't take it all with you. Home is wherever you make it with whatever you have. It's the people you are with and the love that surrounds you that is always in your heart. If your hands are full of miscellaneous stuff, you've less room to hold onto the relationships and stories we share. Maybe it seems callous, maybe it seems superficial, but this is what makes it possible and easier to go in whatever glorious direction life takes me without clinging too strongly to the small stuff.

So when I got home and saw the water collected outside my front door and then squished my way through the living room carpet, still seeping with incoming rain, I did what I always do. I checked my now nearly 20-year-old stuffed Kermit the Frog. And the brand new sheitel I'll wear after my wedding next month, G-d willing. And I started to unpack all the soggy boxes. Laid out the books to dry. Threw out what wasn't salvageable, B"H, not too much. I changed from my canvas shoes into rubber boots. I called the apartment maintenance. I called my fiance. I called my mom. Then I cried a bit. Some family were going to visit for dinner tomorrow night on their brief way through Albany. They live in Israel and I've not seen my cousin in at least 15 years. I have yet to meet her two beautiful children in person. I am still very excited, though my apartment is no longer inhabitable for a dinner party with kids. No matter, my family is all about adapting and adventure! I moved the rest of the stuff out of the way so they can put a big fan in here tomorrow to suck out the moisture the shop vac couldn't. I have amazing friends here who will help me out with a cool, dry place to stay. It's yet another reminder that those relationships and connections we build are the most important thing. All the rest is replaceable.

Humor and meaning can be gleaned from most situations in life. My apartment is so wet, there was seriously a live earthworm on my carpet. That was amusing. I probably won't be charged for ANY stains possibly found on this carpet when I move out at the end of the month! That's kind of nice. The sun is shining now, but in a New York minute, that could change. It could pour again and in all likelihood, with the ground at saturation point, the flooding could continue. And that's where the meaning comes to play. It's the relationships we build and not the structures that truly matter. Whether we are close or far away, whether we see each other every day, or once every 15 years, the connection we develop and maintain is not part and parcel to the journey, it is the journey. This is why we must nurture those connections and why we must nurture ourselves. If we hold on to old hurts or fears, we, too, will reach saturation point and the very places we call home will seep through the surface with the flood of our tears and pain.

Each and every night as an observant Jew retires, (s)he is called upon to let go of the day. To make amends for any personal wrongdoing. And to forgive anyone else who may have wronged her/him. It is a tall order on some days, but in that, we let go and start fresh. So, too, is G-d so incredibly merciful that He allows us each day to start anew. A little flood in my living room is truly a gift to remind me not to sweat the small stuff. That in the face of pending and exciting change--a move, a marriage, a new life with my soon-to-be-husband, I don't have to cling to the details. I can do my part and in the rest, I can trust HaShem will do His. Water is sustenance. It is life and breath and possibility. It can also be destruction and death. Everything in this physical world is neutral. What we make of it is what we become. Sink or swim. And again and again, with G-d's help and with the love and kindness of the connections made along the way, I choose to keep calm and just keep swimming.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

That Simple Thing Known As Emunah (Faith)

It's a typical Sunday here. I took my time davening (praying) this morning, and now I'm still sipping my morning cup of coffee. It's hard to believe that nine weeks from today my chosson (groom) and I will be preparing for our chassanah (wedding)! Reality comes in small doses of excitement, panic, anticipation, and everything in between. I'm in the final stages of preparing to leave Albany, NY at the end of next month and it was barely a year ago I was in the final stages of preparing to come here! What an amazing difference one year can make!

I remember last year on a hot and sticky summer day, while visiting the place I planned to potentially call home, that I sat at the Shabbos table of the head Chabad shlichim here. I was in such awe and shock to be there; they are a highly respected family in our community and worthy of that respect. They had some of their children and grandchildren visiting that day as well. Many of them have gone on to open their own Chabad houses in surrounding areas and university campuses. I was just some young woman coming from across the country with a Big Idea to move back to her childhood hometown.

Trying to get a sense of this Big Idea, one of the rabbis asked me:
"So, you have a place to live here?"

"No." I answered.

"Oh," he responded, seeming a bit surprised. After all, my cross country move was less than one month away. "Well you must have a job then, right?"

"Um, no." I answered.

"So you have a lot of emunah, then!" he concluded.
I, at that time, came to a different conclusion: I was completely off my rocker! What was I doing with a one way plane ticket, no place to live and no way to support myself?! And though I was very familiar with this word, what was this emunah I supposedly had?

Time and memory are an amazing pair that gracefully dance around one another. About a year later, I remember in theory that there must have been times I panicked and tears that I shed making a 3,000 mile move after 9 years with nothing but 15 medium sized boxes, one bicycle, 3 suitcases, a carry-on and some medical equipment. I recall my dear friend, my rebbetzin from Spokane, driving me to the airport at 4:00am. I remember the 13 plus hours of traveling with three connecting flights. I remember keeping a stiff upper lip (even though the lower one was getting a wee bit wobbly with each passing time zone). And I remember the moment my carry-on exploded on the tram at the Newark airport, letting loose a laptop and piles of important paperwork and documents on the floor of the bus just as it pulled to my gate. No matter, I thought. I made it this far, I'll just stuff it back in and keep going. But what do I recall the most? That last 45 minute flight from Newark to Manchester, NH. The weather was horrible; the plane was the size of my morning vitamin. And as it shook violently in a night sky flashing with lightening, I heard this song on my ipod and felt nothing but comfort and hope. I knew I was on the cusp of something huge and in that moment, it didn't matter that I wasn't sure what that was. All that mattered was that I knew that things would be good. I knew G-d was with me; I had nothing to fear. G-d was with me when I'd made that journey in the other direction 9 years before. He was with me when I got sick; He was with me when I got well. He was with me in times of plenty; He was with me when resources were scarce. There was no reason not to believe that He was with me now.
And what else do I remember? I remember thinking to myself that I was seeking my own Avraham. A man who could open his heart and his home. A man who could have enough emunah to "take us home" even if, like me, he didn't know for sure where that was or how to get there.

Fast forward about a year to a typical Sunday. My coffee is cold, but I'm still sipping slowly. I'm nine weeks away from marrying that man I believed so deeply I would find if I took 4 planes 3,000 miles away to a place I'd called home as a child. And do I find myself stuck in moments of doubt? Of course. I worry about leaving my job and having nothing lined up on the other end. I worry about missing the friendships I built over this last year. And yet, in the areas it matters most, I have no doubt at all. I know without a doubt that, with G-d's help, I've found my basherte (soulmate). Of all of his many good qualities, the one I most greatly admire is his emunah, his complete faith in G-d. It is present through his unwavering confidence in his Yiddishkeit. It is visible through his deep and complete love for his fellow Jew and the beautifully selfless way he will bend over backwards just to help a friend in need. Our ancestors before us have walked to the chuppa  (marriage canopy) in this way for thousands of years; we are just blessed enough to carry on in that tradition.

But what is this emunah that allowed us to make our individual returns to the ways of our ancestors? How did having faith merit us the z'chus after a lifetime of searching to meet each other face to face on a sidewalk in Flatbush, NY? Is it trust or temporary insanity that allowed us to know without a doubt after barely three months and only that many face-to-face meetings that we are meant to be husband and wife? Perhaps it is a bit of both. Emunah is not blind faith, but what we do see versus what we don't is a huge part of it. As I took an evening Shabbos stroll through a local park yesterday, the setting sun shone brightly in my eyes rendering me completely unable to see the ground before my feet, let alone what lie ahead. Nonetheless, I kept walking. I didn't need to see to know the pavement just two steps ahead and two steps ahead was all I needed to know. Additionally, having the sun in my eyes didn't make me question whether or not I would ever see again. No one worries they are blind because the sun is in his eyes! We just inherently know that it is temporary, that if we keep moving we will see again or at the very least, time will move the sun. And we also know that this same sun that renders us temporarily blind also warms our shoulders and shines on our cheeks and paints the evening sky in shades of pink. So, too, can we know without a doubt that feelings of fear over the unknown are temporary. With G-d's help, if we keep moving, it will be revealed or at the very least, time will reveal it for us. We don't need to see everything that lies ahead in order to take next step; we need only to put one foot forward and then the other. Not everything is meant for us to see; not everything is our responsibility. But that element of doubt that characterizes our trust is just like that setting sun. It is temporary. Through time and space, it will pass. And G-d is very much there to gently warm our shoulders, to shine on our cheeks and to paint the path ahead in shades of hope. That is the very simply thing known as emunah.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Don't Worry About a Thing... And Other Life Lessons Learned In Preschool

June is a tricky month when you are a teacher, particularly of four-year-olds who will go on to kindergarten in the fall. All year long, it seems that June will never come. Some days, it seems that 1:00 will never come! And then, less timidly than September and with less fanfare then December, and hardly as subtly as March, June arrives and with it, Graduation Day. These bright and longing faces that walked into my classroom in September with combed back hair and sparkly shoes, with shiny backpacks and freshly creased pants are preparing to walk out my door and into the World. June, you did it again! Here you are and these kids are all seemingly a foot taller. Some have lost teeth. Some have gotten glasses. Their hair is a little more wild, their sparkly shoes a little worn for the wear. Those shiny backpacks are faded and wrinkled; those freshly creased pants no longer even reach their ankles. In many ways, nothing will change. Many of these kids will still come back to school come Monday morning when camp begins. And with my pending nuptials, I'll be leaving that classroom a bit before they do. But some things did change. Some of them are barely palpable and some of them tug at my heartstrings because in this year of teaching, more perhaps than in any other, I changed.
I walked into my classroom in September with combed back hair, sparkly shoes and a Muppet backpack.  (Later that month, a small school bus pulled to the side of the downtown sidewalk where I was awaiting the city bus and asked if I was the little girl who was supposed to be taken to a local elementary school; I promptly swapped the Muppet backpack for a tote and purse instead.) I walked in with all the confidence in the world, ready to teach my students. This was, after all, my dream job: an integrated classroom with a play-based curriculum in a Jewish school. In the end, however, it is my students who taught me. They taught me how to learn, how to play, how to love and how to forgive. They taught me how to fall and how to cry. They taught me how to feel and how to have hope that truly springs eternal. And this came in phases. There were lessons learned in the classroom, lessons learned in the hallway, and lessons learned on the playground. They are lessons I shall carry near to me as I continue my career in whatever realm that will be and they are lessons I shall carry dear to me when, G-d willing, I become a parent myself. My co-teachers and fellow staff, too, were invaluable in these lessons and became like family.
Today as I cleaned out and set up my classroom for camp, I could smell the change in the air. Something about the emptiness and the humidity of June just felt so disorienting, but at the same time so familiar. And it really hit home today that everything I've ever learned in life, I learned in preschool. It began in 1987 in my own preschool classroom at a synagogue down the street from the one where I now teach, and it continued 25 years later in this one with many other classrooms along the way. I could never adequately convey it all in one blog post, but here are some highlights:

Stop Talking! I talk a lot. A lot! Having a severe ear infection this year was one of the greatest gifts-in-disguise I ever received. For over a month I was in severe pain and my right ear was literally draining. I tried 3 rounds of antibiotics before the infection finally cleared, but my hearing didn't fully restore for four months. I was embarrassed to admit it, but for about a month and half, I really could hear almost nothing out of my right ear. All of a sudden, unless a child was looking at me and speaking toward my left, I missed entirely what he or she had said. I came to understand for a child with a processing delay how much time it actually takes to decipher and decode what a teacher is saying. I learned to slow down and leave space because the children had to do this now for me. It caused me anxiety especially at first. I felt frustrated and embarrassed when I had to ask people to repeat themselves one or even several times. Now, the anxiety, frustration and embarrassment the children felt when they couldn't respond to a directive right away made a lot more sense. In not being able to hear, I learned not to talk. I learned that the moments when my voice would want to be loud are the moments when my voice should become quiet. I learned to say less and to listen more.

That's It, I'm Going Home! It was my first day when I followed a student out of the room to his cubby as he put on his backpack, grabbed his lunch box and proceeded toward the front exit. "That's it, I'm going home!" he announced. How many times in my life have I felt that? How many times have I actually said it?! We've all felt that way. Done. Just done. And there really is no place like home. But what I learned from my students and from 11 places I called home in the last 28 years and soon to be 12, G-d willing, is that home is not a location. It's not a physical place and I don't need to go anywhere to be there. Home is a state of mind and a state of being. And everything I need is in the faces and the places around me.

You can pick your nose. you can pick your friends, AND you can pick your friends' nose. Ok, that one is pretty self explanatory. But my students taught me a lot about friendship, boogers and all. Together we learned that you have to be a friend to have a friend. And when I really think about it, this is true of all relationships. Even building the bond and connection between a husband and wife is not so dissimilar to the very basic foundations we learn about relating to one another as preschoolers. We must be confident enough in our individuality to be sensitive to that confidence in the other. We must be willing to share, and when we're not, able to take some space. We might not all like the same things, but we do like enough of the same things and even in preschool we can begin to appreciate that the common ground between us all is always of greater importance than the distance between things that make us different.

It's not too hard, you CAN do it, and it's OK to ask for help. About a month after the shine and sparkle of new shoes and backpacks began to fade, so did my confidence. I began to wonder if my supervisor realized how unqualified I really was for this position. I mean, did anyone even read my resume? I started to feel like an impostor. Sure, I was taller than the kids, so by process of elimination that would make me the teacher, but I had no clue what I was doing. For the first three months of school, I would be so nervous leading circle time I'd begin to sweat profusely. I stood in utter awe of my co-teacher who has significantly more experience and education than I do. She resonated calm and remained centered and always seemed to know what to do. I wondered if anyone picked up on the fact that I was totally winging it. And then I realized that success in this classroom would be measured differently than success in my previous classroom and differently still than success will be measured in classrooms to come. I told myself each morning as the city bus entered the parking lot to the building next door to the school that I would find moments of success. And I did. More and more and more. Moments,  minutes, hours and now, in my eyes, truly a year of success. The fact of the matter is that, like kids, success comes in many shapes, sizes and shades of joy. No task put in front of us is too hard to accomplish. I CAN do what I set my mind to. But if and when it feels too hard, again I take a cue from my students. It's OK to ask for help. It's OK not to know everything when you begin, because that is precisely why we are here; to learn, build, and grow together. And I am pleased to say that even though I lost 25lbs after a few months of unplanned runs down the school hallway, I definitely grew a lot!

Everybody Gets Mad, and Sad, and Scared. My worst day ever was my best one as well. I think it happens to every teacher at one point or another and for me, it happened in February of this year. It was one of those days where for better or for worse, I was not feeling my best. I was tired. I'd just returned from a trip to see my now-fiance, and goodbyes were not easy even then. I was assisting a student who was upset to calm down and in the midst of it, without actually intending to hurt me, he got me right in the jaw. My eyes welled with tears initially from the impact or maybe the surprise, but before I knew it, my emotions caught up. I was about to cry. I was mortified. Not at getting hit, but rather that in that moment I couldn't help this kid, I couldn't help my other students and what was worse, I couldn't help myself and I was crying. I tag-teamed with another teacher; have I mentioned how priceless my co-staff are?? And I did what all mature, sophisticated, educated teachers do in a moment like this: I cried in the closet. Another teacher was able to help the student who was upset immediately; we both needed a change of scenery in that moment--sometimes everybody just gets stuck! But he was worried. Worried I was mad. Worried I would leave. I know that worry well--that gut-wrenching fear that you finally spilled one glass of milk too many and all the love and tolerance has run out like milk across the table. So I faced my fear of being seen in a state of vulnerability in favor of educational opportunity. I sat next to him and said very simply: "See? Everybody gets upset sometimes. Even teachers get mad and sad and scared and we cry and it's ok. We just need to ask for help, that's all we need to do." And I say it again and again to myself and to my students: we just need to ask for help. And that's all we need to do.

Something Different. One of the most challenging lessons to learn in preschool and in grade school and in college and in life is how to cope in the face of change. We live and thrive on routine in a world that is subject to constant fluctuation. Children are amazing. They feel their emotions and express them at full intensity. And in that, they let go; they move on. Somewhere along the line we are told or come to perceive that this full-intensity display is not OK and we learn instead and to our detriment that we must stifle our feelings and our reactions. Instead of that good 20 minute tantrum, we sit on 20 year grudges and cling to 20 year pains. We hold so tightly to what we can control because we are fearful of how much we cannot control. And things come and go. People come and go. Excitement about change can feel funny inside of us. We want to wiggle and move and make a lot of noise and instead we're told to be still and stay quiet. It's in those moments that I learned right along with my students that things do change. Sometimes things are different. Sometimes we don't know what will come, and that's hard. One student said it best: "I don't like not knowing." In those moments, I help them and help myself look for the things that are the same. The things that are always within and around us. Even when something is different, we still have everything we need.

It's hard to wait. Ever been a four year old in the late spring on a playground where the sprinklers are being tested and the teachers say you can't go in? It's hard to wait. One student in this situation said to me "They should just turn off the sprinkler so friends don't have to look at it and want to go inside." I could not agree more. Ever been a four year old waiting for her turn at a game or with a toy or on the computer? Or the four year old waiting for his mommy to come at the end of the day when the other kids  have already left?  Or the four year old waiting for lunch? It's hard to wait. And the fact of that matter is, we spend a lot of our lives waiting. We have ample opportunities to practice waiting in line, and on the phone, and for a test result or for our wedding day.... It's still hard to wait!  Too many times, the temptation stares us right in the face like that sprinkler on a sunny day when we're not allowed to get wet. And the same things that worked more or less when we were four work now to get us through the time and the distance. We distract ourselves, we change scenery or activity, and sometimes, it helps just to say it and get it out there: it's hard to wait.

These are all important and meaningful life lessons. I take away from preschool today very much the same things I took away from it as a preschooler myself 25 years ago. One of our very favorite children's book characters is Pete the Cat. He is notorious for having all kinds of potentially frightening and challenging adventures or misadventures, but does he worry or cry or get upset? Goodness, no, because it's all good! And the most important thing I would hope I taught my students, the most important thing I know they taught me is this: don't worry about a thing, everything is going to be alright.

We played the following song this morning as the students paraded into the room for our graduation ceremony. When we were first dating, my soon-to-be-husband sent me a clip of the original version. In a beautiful, simple and poignant nutshell, it reminds me again and again of preschool's--of life's most valuable lesson.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

"Aren't You Uncomfortable?!" Actually, Yes I Am....

Taking on the laws and customs of tzniut (modesty) pertaining to the way I dress as an Orthodox Jewish woman was not a linear process. Like any aspect of becoming a ba'al teshuva, it involved significant amounts of research, thought, prayer, trust, education, and, of course, trial and error. Nonetheless, I have come into my own state of comfort and understanding with the way I dress--with an equal state of comfort and understanding toward the way anyone else might choose to dress. Most days I don't think twice about it. It's a hoot when you teach preschool. Last year while teaching in Washington state, I overheard a little boy explain to his peers why I always wear a skirt: "She just HATES pants!!" (This is actually not true, though I don't miss the days of struggling to find pant legs that weren't too long and a waist that wasn't too low...) This year, while teaching in New York state, it took over 4 months before any of the children said anything one way or the other. It was a little boy who in the middle of lunch announced with a quizzical expression, "You always wear dresses," and went back to his PB&J.

Still, nothing brings the topic to the forefront of discussion like spending time outside during the first warm days of spring. The ladies all look so lovely and lively in the bright colors of modern spring fashion. Some of them wear jeans, some wear shorts, some wear sandals and others sport a playful pair of flats. There are sundresses, tank tops, t-shirts galore. I, as usual, am in a skirt that flows past my knees and a top with sleeves that reach below my elbows. And then the comments begin:
         "I'm hot just looking at you. How can you stand it? Don't you ever miss blue jeans? Don't you feel uncomfortable?"
Initially, I feel awkward and even apologetic. Gosh, I'm so sorry that my longer sleeves and full length skirt make others feel hot in this weather. I jump to respond with something like "No, I'm not uncomfortable at all. I got used to it after a while..." and then I ask myself who I am really feeling apologetic toward? Actually it's me. I am sorry for myself because you know what? Yes, I am uncomfortable. And so, I opt for the first time to respond completely honestly:

"Actually yes, I am uncomfortable. Choosing to wear a skirt and longer sleeves in accordance with my beliefs on modest dress did not make me Superwoman; I feel hot, sweaty and uncomfortable in warm weather just like any other person. And you know what? I love that! Because as many times as I stop to think how uncomfortable I am, that's how many times I feel connected. Connected to my Creator, connected to my roots, and connected to my soul as a spiritual being. In fact, because I am uncomfortable so often due to the choices I make regarding dress, or food, or social relationships, or weekly routines--I never feel disconnected the way I did prior to becoming religious."

And there you have it. But this isn't a post about tzniut or even about religious observance. It is a post about feeling uncomfortable. It's about finding perfect beauty while existing in an imperfect world. Some of life's greatest rewards are received as a result of our greatest sacrifices. Some of the most intense sensations of connection evolve out of our willingness to let go a little. Some of the deepest feelings of closeness emerge from our ability to tolerate temporary states of distance. And nothing brings this topic to the forefront of discussion like the blessing of finding one's basherte (soulmate) and preparing for marriage!

I hear all of the time that nothing challenges a person's sense of self like learning to coexist as an individual within a couple. Thank G-d, I am so blessed to have a sensitive, thoughtful and patient fiance who is learning these ropes with me. In spite of my propensity to become Bridezilla, our mutual respect and love as well as our commitment and humor carry us through any and all bumps in the road to the chuppah. There are endless decisions to make from the details of a wedding invitation to the details of a place to live and the only constant factor is change itself. Well, wait a minute, I don't like change. Remember? Or maybe that's just what we tell ourselves to make it ok that for too long at times in our lives, we remain idle in our discomfort.

The fact is, there are many times I've chosen change. Just less than a year ago, I changed locations from Spokane, Washington to Albany, New York. It wasn't all easy or instantaneous, but Home remained an internal state of being and wherever I went, I was Here. I landed my dream job. I maintained and grew in friendships that are now thousands of miles away and I developed friendships here. I gained contentment and confidence in my Yiddishkeit and certainly gained my mazal in finding a shidduch! I thought about what drew me to move back to this area where I grew up. It wasn't an act of "going back." I really didn't do that at all. I didn't rekindle old relationships here or even spend much time revisiting old stomping grounds. It ended up being the sweet smell of spring lilacs that brought me clarity on the matter. As I was walking around this neighborhood I've called home for the last several months, the overwhelming aroma of spring here brought equally overwhelming memories and nostalgia. I wouldn't say I recalled anything specific or vividly in that sense, but rather that I revisited a feeling. This smell, this place, and this feeling represented the greatest joys and hopes of my childhood. In a very real sense, I came back here to try and find that. And, with G-d's help, I did. But I didn't find it in the place itself or even in the sweet scent of lilacs. The truth is, I've found it within the person I am becoming now together with my chosson (groom). Being with him is where I have returned to the greatest joys and hopes of my childhood as well as the joys and hopes I feel right now and for our future, G-d be willing.

Additionally, marriage is not a foreign language at all. Sure it is new to us and we are in so many ways new to each other. But it is also sublimely familiar. Why? Because prior to meeting my chosson, the greatest most significant and long term relationship I'd had in my life is my relationship to G-d. The Jewish people are often compared to a bride in a marriage to our Creator, our groom. The Torah is our ketuba (marrital contract), Mount Sinai was our chuppah (wedding canopy). G-d created us with free will; we are not like angels or machines who carry out G-d's will automatically. We think, we feel, we exist as individuals. We have our own desires and our own expectations. G-d created us that way. He sees it all, He knows it all, and He loves us anyway. He may walk out of the room at times, but He will never walk out of our marriage. So, too, in my relationship to G-d have I walked out of the room on occasion. Yet, leaving that marriage was never a viable option.

Connecting to G-d was always for me about finding ways to feel close despite an inconceivable disconnect. Reaching and maintaining that intention occurred through a willingness to tolerate and sometimes even appreciate discomfort. Sometimes that manifests in the form of peeling away layers of ego to let in a little vulnerability and then a lot of love. Other times, it just looks like wearing a long skirt and sleeves that reach past my elbows even in 80 degree weather. Marriage between a man and a woman is also an act of peeling away layers of ego. There is a sense of cautiousness and callousness we develop to survive as single halves of a yet-to-be-united whole. That can now be carefully and lovingly peeled away to let in the sense of connection and closeness that kept us searching until, with G-d's help, we merited to reach this moment. And sure, it can be uncomfortable. Do either of us really know what we're getting into? We're both making sacrifices and we're both letting go. We're both tolerating the time we're physically apart in favor of the reward that will be, G-d willing, the ample time we spend together after we're married. 

Despite all of its discomforts, my relationship to G-d is the greatest comfort I've known. So, too, is a marriage the home for all of life's greatest joys and hopes. Appreciating those requires research, thought, prayer, trust, education, and, of course, trial and error. Is it a bed of roses? Absolutely! Thorns and all! We can only appreciate the beauty of perfection in this imperfect world through finding meaning or at least tolerance in moments of discomfort. Wishing my readers a beautiful and blessed week. Wherever it takes you, may you make yourself comfortable or at the very least, make yourself at Home.