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

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.