Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Dancing Visions

29 Tishrei 5778, posted in Cheshvan.

Not a painting of Bryna Kitay, zt"l.  Her dance was sweeter.
It is a beautiful wedding. The bride is, appropriately, breathtakingly beautiful. She reminds me of her mother when I met her, who also took my breath away (and still does). Not merely because God has given her a good face, but because there is authenticity behind her eyes. Her daughter shares that intense and real beauty. (And her father is an accomplished businessman, who at simchas plays the perfect image of the sad/happy clown, still acrobatic over the years.)

The guests touch my heart: they are friends of twenty years and more from the town that reared my sons and their parents in the Jewish faith.

There is so much for which to be grateful tonight.

As I listen to the soulful strains of Im Eshkacheich Yirushalayim -- If I forget Jerusalem -- with closed eyes...

Bryna Leah (aka Beverly) Kitay, a"h, appears in the center of the room. Now I must digress...

I am not a terribly spiritual person. I have had exactly two spiritual dreams in my life. And prior to this experience, I have had exactly two "visions." Only one is relevant to this story:

Many years ago, I was at a Simchat Torah celebration at Congregation Tiferes Yisroel. Rabbi Goldberger was dancing with the Torah, as he did by TY tradition, alone with the Torah, before the group dancing began. The dance was very ritualized, as Rabbi G preserved memory with motion. Details such as a raised hand, a bend of the waist, everything was an echo of a dance of the past. It was told to me that each careful step added to the design of the Ineffable Name of Hashem...

We all knew the steps and the motions, and that they were handed down from Rabbi Goldberger's rebbe.

I closed my eyes...

Suddenly I could see, very clearly, Rabbi Ben Tzion Chaim Shloime Meshulam Zusia Twerski, zt"l,  dancing with Rabbi Menachem Goldberger in the center of the room.

I had never met Rabbi Goldberger's rebbe. I only knew him from photographs. But in that one isolated moment, I felt that I saw him and felt his presence... and that "vision" has stayed with me all these years. There was so much love in that room that evening: the rebbe for one of his dearest talmidim, Rabbi Goldberger for his kehilla and family, our love for him and his remarkable bride, also a talmida of the Rav. The experience has typified for me what it is to be part of a mesorah, a tradition.

Suddenly, at this moment at this wedding, my third vision becomes a new spiritual thread in the tapestry of my Jewish journey.

In Baltimore, at any significant spiritual event, Bryna Kitay could be seen, in her quaint matching hat and suit jacket over a long skirt, arms raised to Heaven, dancing to and for God. Her eyes would be closed, and her expression was one of such sublime peace and openness. The kallah's mother reminds me that Bryna was always the first person in the center of any circle dance, later joined by the ladies around her. "She taught me what circle dancing is about. There's the part about joyous circling with loved ones. And then there's inviting Gd into the dance: bringing down His energy and light into the circle." Bryna left the world in 2016, around the same time of year as this recent TY wedding. I always imagine her dancing in Shemayim for God...

So here I am, at this wedding of these beautiful young people, surrounded by friends who define my family's Jewish roots... and there is Bryna Kitay in the center of the room, eyes closed, arms raised to Shemayim, dancing only for Hashem. Somehow, her presence here adds a layer of shefa and bracha to this marriage of two souls. My heart dances. I long to dance with her, to get her acknowledgment of my presence, but I know this is foolish. Bryna Leah never danced with anyone else except her One-and-Only Partner, in all the years I knew her. If she touched you during the dance, you are blessed. She only had eyes for Him.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

So I Guess this is the Bris?

26 Cheshvan 5778.

It's a bit late, but the "baby" had to spend a little more time in the ICU than expected.

With gratitude to God and lots of really wonderful humans, I am happy to announce the birth of the book, and its subsequent transfer from the safety of the incubator to global distribution. L'chayim!

You still get the best deal by ordering from Lulu Publishing.* This is helpful if you live in the States, or have friends traveling to you in the near future.

Happily, little "Big Whine"** is now available from other vendors.

If you live in Israel, New Zealand (Hi, Kiwi!), Northern Ireland (Hi, Valerie!) or the rest of the UK, my personal favorite book seller is Book Depository. They deliver directly to Israel, and their service is timely and professional. (We once received a book that was mangled. I sent photos. They sent a new book in record time. Can you say "customer service"?)

And, of course, there is trusty ol' Amazon, and Amazon UK, and Amazon Spain (I know, right?), and Amazon Saturn...

(If you see the book available elsewhere, please feel free to share in the comments section below.)

Next item on my personal bucket list: to see From Big Whine to Big Grapes (perhaps in time for Chanukah?) in the window of my favorite book store on the planet. (Feel free to click on the link to let Michael and Shira Pomeranz know you're interested.)

When we popped the cork on the champagne in my writing class, a brief conversation ensued.

Sarina (teacher, friend, mentor extraordinaire): I love that sound. It's the sound of celebration.
Ruti (a somewhat mouthy and by sport a contradictory student): Yeah, that's the traditional approach. I think of it as the sound of the next project.
Sarina (ever encouraging): I like that. Write it down.
Ruti (occasionally compliant): Yes, Ma'am.

If you like the book and feel inclined, please write a review at Amazon and/or at Lulu. Nothing sells a book like the kindness of strangers, and friends!

*If you have a book inside you and would love advice about self-publishing through Lulu Publishers, I would be very happy to talk with you. #sharingiscaring

**Nearly every kid has a nickname, right? We love you, BW!!! Make us proud, kid.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

By Light of Hidden Candles - a review

5 Cheshvan 5778.

Finding a really good book is one of the sweet pleasures of life.

Daniella Levy's first novel, By Light of Hidden Candles, is by turns a troubling love story, a glimpse into two related religions and their practices, a mystery, a study in the tragedy of our brothers and sisters hidden in the world of the anusim (forcibly converted Jews), a romp through five hundred years of history.

My favorite thing about Ms. Levy's writing is her ease with dialogue. I feel that I know her characters. I can see them in conversation, and I care about them. I wanted so much for their individual and their collective stories to work out, the way you do when you hear a friend's story. There were so many ways for it to go... and I wanted all of my peeps to fare well. Of course, life doesn't always work out that way...

Listening to an interview of the writer (by her husband, Rabbi Eitan Levy), I heard something that made my eyes roll. I should not have been surprised: we live in The Age of the Protest.

Apparently, both Christian and Jewish readers (some of each, not all) expected Ms. Levy to cater to their views on how relationships between Jews and Christians should be written. My understanding, through at least fifty years as an expert reader, is that an author's job is not to make you happy. That may in fact happen... but her job is to make you think. To challenge. To help you grow. At least, this is what my favorite books have done. They also may be entertaining. But the best novels have helped me, through their study of the human condition, to see my fellow human in more detail, to appreciate his struggles, to make us more real to each other.

Not only do Alma, Manuel and Míriam come alive on the page (as do all of the supporting cast of their half-century and transcontinental story), one is offered the opportunity to respect them and their viewpoints and wrestling-matches with their beliefs. The young protagonists share their often acerbic commentaries with each other, and with the reader; these people authentically speak with the unguarded opinion of young people everywhere. The rabbis and priests in the story are all fully-drawn and believable; there are no glib religious caricatures here.

The leitmotif of intermarriage is explored fully, from those who do and are shunned, to those who don't and must bear the heartache of martyrdom for the sake of a greater good. Each position is given its moment to be explored and felt from inside. While I (and clearly the author) have strong views on the subject, I feel enriched by the opportunity to "walk around in the other fellow's moccasins" a while. Understanding another's viewpoint doesn't threaten my own, but it makes me more compassionate.

A bonus: If you love stories about hashgacha pratit -- the hidden hand of God, cv"l, moving things into place behind the scenes -- you will enjoy several subtle references woven throughout the book, as many things "just happen" at exactly the right moment to guide the unfolding of the story.

Another bonus: the loving care in the editing and publication by Yael Shahar and Don Radlauer of Kasva Press has resulted in a beautiful, nearly-flawless book. I recommend trying to get on their very tight list, if you are a writer who wants a very beautiful finished product.

You can read more to intrigue about this excellent story at Daniella Levy. I recommend it!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Yaakov's Teshuva

12 Tishrei 5778.

"Yaakov, dear father, if you could go back and change one thing, what would it be?"

He sits for a long, long time. I marvel that he is really here with me, in my humble sukkah. He said a bracha over the tea I brought him, and actually tasted Celestial Seasons Bengal Spice. The incongruity of that, of the traversing of millennia involved, probably strikes me more than anything else about our remarkable morning so far. Before he speaks, a tear rolls down his cheek. I feel horrible, because I caused one of our Holy Avot to cry. As if reading my mind, he speaks reassuringly.

"Do not suppose that this is the first occasion over the centuries upon which I have been asked to contemplate this question." He smiles ironically. (I am in awe of reading an ironic smile on the face of someone from the Bible.) "You at least query kindly, without accusation.

"So I will present you with an answer. I have had many and long occasion to turn the question in my mind, as a leaf turns and frolics on a turbulent stream. Please forgive me if my answer seems to your ears like a lesson. It is for me a penance.

"If I could return to that place in time when I placed on the shoulders of my beloved son Yosef the beautiful coat of many-colored weaving, I would not do it. I would will my hand to lose its cunning before I would act thus, cherishing this child above his brothers, thinking it an innocent and seeming quiet act of profound love for his dear mother.

"Little could I know at that moment -- as God is my witness! -- what jealousy and pain and death would be given birth in the world through the threads of that cursed garment."

I look at him sadly, feeling such pain for him. I realize with new humility that this is not his first such visit. He must have come to Earth -- or must have been sent -- many times, to go through this process. For himself? I wonder. For the good of the world? We are still so divisive. We children still fight so jealously.

I try to give him a crumb of comfort as he sips the still steaming tea.

"Surely, you did not bring jealousy into the world. It started at least with Kayin and Hevel."

He looks at me with eyes both frightening and haunted. "I could have ended it."

I don't ask him any more. I know that he is right. I have spent my entire motherhood trying to correct the jealously and bitterness created in my siblings the day my stepfather drunkenly announced to all of us -- his stepdaughters and even to his own precious children -- that I was his favorite. How dare he? How dare he cause such pain, and certainly give me no pleasure, with that careless remark.

Again -- I sense that my father Yaakov reads my thoughts.

"I am here, this time, to tell you and your husband that you are making a tikun for that mistake. Not merely the mistake made in your own life by others. But in a very small way, your children are aiding in binding the hole in the fabric of our people, and thus the world. And thus in my heart, daughter."

He smiles... and he is gone. I look at the cup of tea. I take it in my hands, and hold it to my lips, and drink a bit, like a tender kiss.

"Thank you, Abba."

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Birth of a Book

21 Elul 5777.

I'm very excited about this project! BS"D, after long months of editing and reformatting, the blog will be coming out in October in book form. For photos, you'll have to check back to the online version; but hopefully the words will be fun to see in print -- especially with the remarkable and insightful cover art by Hanna Tova Glicksman, and the wise graphic design of Hanna Sara (Zeif) Katz. It pays to work with hometown talent, especially when they're related, and accustomed to getting along nicely. (Ms. Glicksman and Ms. Katz are cousins. Nice family, this.)

Since you have been a part of this project from the beginning, as you have read, encouraged, commented, sometimes corrected (and saved me embarrassment), I hope you will also get some pleasure from owning a copy. You'll let me know.

Keep watching here and on Facebook. I'll be very excited to let you know when the labor is over, and the book is born!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Chamber of Commerce Dynamic Duo

13 Elul 5777.

Do you sometimes wish your Chamber of Commerce would get around to promoting the small businesses in your town? I mean, how does a town survive, if no one knows what it has to offer?

The Dearly Beloved and I traveled to Tzfat for a day of unplanned exploring with some old friends from the States. I decided to check in with Miri and Dave, since we were in their neighborhood. Maybe they could meet us for a cup of coffee or for lunch or something...

We've known Miri for around thirty years, since our US Army days in Germany. Our boys grew up together -- not always in the same location, but certainly in the same time-frame. While I don't get credit for making the shidduch with Dave, I can at least say that I was able to tell her that yes, he was a darn good guy, and I thought they'd be good together. They were, and they get better all the time.

Not only did they meet us for lunch -- but they made themselves available as Tzfat's Chamber of Commerce representatives for the day!

First was lunch at a little place called Elements Café. You will find a ton of favorable reviews for this cheerful, charming little vegan place. (I know, right? What's happening to the Dearly Beloved and me? Like -- where's the beef???) We had a terrific time. The food was fresh, creative, plentiful, homemade and delicious. As if that's not enough, the quirky and comedic owner, Zev, along with his staff (who clearly like their jobs), made our visit fun and enjoyable, all while also dealing with a crowd that was appreciating a local rabbi's shiur on the patio. Now, the Dearly Beloved is trying to get me to recreate the pareve blueberry "ice cream," made with coconut cream. We may just have to make another trip to Zev's place...

After introducing us to Zev and his marvelous restaurant, our hosts took us to meet a local artist named Kathleen Wasserman who not only makes gorgeous quilted glass artworks, but teaches others to do the same. Her work was totally out of our price range, but that didn't stop us from drinking in all that color and creativity with our eyes.

Miri had to return to work, but she left us in the capable hands of Dave, who played guide to us and our friends visiting from America for the next few hours. (Remember that I just hoped that they'd meet us for lunch!) Dave took us to see one of the remarkable and beautiful synagogues of the Old City of Tzfat, and told us stories of war heroes from the times that Tzfat was under serious shelling from surrounding enemies during the early days of the modern state.

He informed us of places to purchase locally-made goat cheese, and then took us to meet a young artist named Avraham Loewenthal who works to share his vision of what the shofar blasts of Yom Kippur might look like, rendered in a rainbow of colors, as well as beautiful rainbow calligraphy of the Hebrew expression "Ain od Milvado," which can be translated as "there is nothing but God, everything that exists is only a manifestation of God" -- or as A. J. Heschel said it: "God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance."

Dave then saved us the headache -- after a long day of touring -- of driving further north to find a good winery. "Why don't you just go to the winery nearby, Dalton Winery?" We took him up on his suggestion, and experienced a really nice, private wine tasting, before taking ourselves to dip our toes in the Kinneret.

It was a beautiful trip, with old friends from our past, and old friends from Baltimore. What will stand out for me most was the loving kindness of one couple toward not only visiting friends, but toward the town they hope to see flourish.

I recently read an excellent d'var Torah from logotherapist Avraham (Allan) Friedman. In it, he says: "We all live while searching for and fulfilling different meanings in our lives. Yet, any meaning we have in this life is not for our sake alone. Our own meaning is tied to self-actualization if and only if it is also 'other-directed'...

"'How can we change the world for the better' is a question that we need to ask ourselves."

Instead of sitting around and lamenting that "nobody is doing anything to publicize the artists and businesses in our city," Miri and Dave have found an answer.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

From Tragedy to a Wedding

1 Elul 5777, Rosh Chodesh.

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there were seven brothers and two sisters. Their father and mother brought them up to be fine, responsible men and women. Among other things, all of the boys and girls did their part to serve their country. The second of the children, Itsik, was killed on his way back to his army base in a car accident. He had spent a happy Shabbat with his family; and he and his eldest brother Moshe had really bonded for the first time, as is the way often with brothers born only a few months apart. Itsik was only twenty years old.

The State of Israel gave the parents a monthly stipend after the loss of their son, as it does for all families of soldiers who die while they are on call to defend their country. Since they were getting along all right financially -- not rich, not poor -- Itsik's mother decided to set aside the money. "I will do something special with this money one day, in honor of my son," she said to her husband and herself. Even after her husband died, when their youngest daughter was only 15, she continued to save the money, and saved and saved and saved...

Nearly fifty years after that tragic loss, she commissioned to have a Torah scroll written in her son's honor.

The Dearly Beloved and I were privileged to attend a very special Jewish ceremony. When a Sefer Torah is written, people who are permitted to "write a letter" in the Torah, with the help of a sofer -- a qualified scribe -- have the merit as if they had fulfilled the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll.

There was something extraordinarily moving about attending this ceremony in Israel. Those honored with adding a letter to the Torah came from many different levels of observance. But every one of them exhibited such respect and love and awe for the Torah, for the rabbi guiding their hands, for the holiness of the moment. On some of the faces, there was complete comprehension of the gravity of the moment. The faces of others were aglow with an almost childlike delight. The rabbi gave brachot, and allowed the hand that had written the holy letters to be reverently kissed.

The final honor, the writing of the last letter, was reserved for the bachur (the eldest son), our friend Moshe Torjman.

And after the last letter and the last blessings, the dancing was as joyful as at any wedding!

When the Torah scroll has been completed and has donned her finery, she is danced through the streets of the city under a bridal canopy on her way to the beit knesset with much song and revelry. 

Everyone met outside Mrs. Torjman's apartment (where I had made a sad shiva visit on the passing of Moshe's father some time before. It was a pleasure to be meeting the family again, but for a happier occasion). To much joyful (and incredibly loud!) music, we paraded with the Torah under the wedding canopy toward her new home in the shul.

What a joy it was to walk through the city streets of Jerusalem with this exuberant family and their friends, some of whom they had not seen in ten or fifteen years. The Jerusalem police guided and protected the crowd, especially the small children. There was so much happiness! Even the drivers of cars had to be persuaded to move along, as they were happy to sit and "dance" behind the wheels of their cars. The tiny mommy of the family, who had saved all that money to honor her son and other dear family members, is now in her eighties. She walked the entire distance (after dancing with daughters and granddaughters) with a smile on her face.

Once the Torah scroll and her entourage reach their destination, she is met outside the shul by the resident Torah scrolls; and she and they are danced into the holy aron in which they will live together, symbolically marrying the Jewish people yet again to our God.

There are many reasons we love living in a small town in Israel, shopping at our local store, and getting to know the people around us by name and by story. May we have long, healthy, happy years to celebrate with each other, and to strengthen each other through our sorrows.

This precious Jewish soul was taken from us by a tragic accident before he could marry. Years later, we all danced at a wedding in his honor.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The One Hundred Shekel PMP

Yom sheni, 16 Tamuz 5777.

It's summer in Israel. It's HOT. Don't tell me it's hotter where you are. We don't care. We feel we have the right, when temperatures soar to between 34 and 37 degrees Centigrade, to whine. (That's between 95 and a hundred degrees, for those still thinking in Fahrenheit.) Perspective is everything.

This is also true regarding the cost of living. For example, my son Aryeh (known in his youth in these pages as "Stunt Man") fressed routinely at a shewarma place on Agrippas that sold its product for fifteen shekels, well under what was being charged at other establishments. (By the way, he took the parents there on a -- for him -- major spending spree. It was pretty good, especially for the price.) At one point, the owner decided to become more competitive, meaning he attempted to make the same profit everyone else was making. Aryeh (and presumably lots of other customers) stopped dining there. To Aryeh, it was more than just the five extra shekels. "It's the principle." Aryeh is of the impression that no meal should cost more than four bucks fifty, with the tip. Aryeh doesn't eat out often. The shewarma place lowered the price, back to fifteen shek.

So back to the heat, and my immediate comfort. I have this beautiful patio, with a lovely view of the Judean Hills.

"Where are you going on vacation this year?" people often ask me. I take them outside to my patio.

"What are you talking about?" I ask them. "Have you seen this view? I live on vacation!" (Aryeh comes by his frugality honestly. If we can't afford it, we don't do it.)

The problem is that the patio is fully embraced by the blazing desert sun much of the day. When one is not accosted by the great golden orb, it's the wind, for which Neve Daniel is famous. I like wind. But when it plucks your tablecloth, as well as cups, plates, napkins, flatware, off the table, and sometimes takes the table as well, dining on the patio isn't as relaxing as one might desire.

Many people have solved these problems by constructing upon their patios beautiful wooden or metal structures called pergolas. Similar to the gazebos of my youth, pergolas can be covered to subdue the sun, and sided with fabric or wood to ward off the wind. The difficulty is that pergolas can cost anywhere from 2800 shekels to 28,000 shekels. People who eat fifteen-shekel shewarma don't even call pergola companies to ask for an estimate. They sit around chewing their pita inside by the fan, and imagine how nice it might be after dinner to sit for a little bit in the dark on the patio. If the wind's not too bad.

Suddenly -- voila! -- the Dearly Beloved came up with the perfect plan for the Poor Man's Pergola (aka the PMP). He dragged out the metal frame for our sukkah. He purchased (for less than a hundred shekalim -- under 30 bucks, if you're reading from the States) some weather-resistant canvas with convenient holes for the Baltimore handcuffs to go through, and some Baltimore handcuffs. He dragged out some old schach that is no longer fit for the holy week of Sukkot. Without designating it an actual sukkah, my dear husband built me a shelter from sun and wind.

This morning, we sat outside together and talked of many things. The air was redolent with the scents of earth and green leafy life. Thanks to the simple canvas cover, the sun was not oppressive.

Thank you, God, for imbuing this family with resourcefulness to ward off impotent envy, with an attitude of gratitude. Thank you for this ingenious fellow who builds something marvelous, even as he works to make sure that my pergola is not an official sukkah. "I used metal bars for the support of the roof..." -- he does not call it "schach," even though he will call it that in the fall -- "...so Rabbi Goldberger would approve."

 This evening, we returned to the PMP, and enjoyed the evening breeze, the feral "decorator" cats, the impending sunset, each other's company. Bonus: the setting inspired in the Dearly Beloved two excellent divrei Torah.

May we all remember to be grateful for simple solutions and for the privilege to live in this holy, holy Land.

Best wishes for an easy and productive fast. From the Eastman pergola on a mountain in Israel.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Two Little Girlsies, Born in a Row. WOW!

Yom rishon, 1 Tamuz 5777.

As I greet two new little girls, born of my daughters-in-law (Champagne Girl and Molly McMolly) within a week of each other, it occurs to me that grandchildren are a bit like passive income. You worked hard, over long, arduous years, to build and refine the prototypes. Now, without lifting a finger  future babysitting notwithstanding  you suddenly have this treasure, this verdant, voluptuous pasture, propagating before your eyes!

And I remember one of the main reasons I love being a woman of faith.

Bursting with gratitude – for the babies, for the health of the mothers and the children, for the love of the fathers and mothers for each other and their progeny, for the strength to enjoy all of this – it is so very pleasing to have Whom to thank.

It is also comforting to have Whom to beseech. "Please God, let them all live to be really old people, with wonderful stories to tell their great-grandchildren. And may all those who long for nothing more than family be blessed."

Hodu Lashem, ki tov, ki L'Olam Chasdo!  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Recommendations for a Stress-free Pesach

Yom chamishi, 18 Adar 5777.

As the post-Purim panic level begins to rise among those I love, it seems it's time yet again to dust off a few facts, and to share a few good ideas that have made Pesach -- dare I say it? -- one of my favorite holidays.

Bear in mind that the following recommendations are ideas and tools that have worked for me. I would love to hear what you have found works for you. All positive inspiration at this time of year is welcome!

Let's start with something very basic. Repeat after me: Dust is not chometz. Dust is not chometz. Dust is not chometz. (If you're Sephardi, dust is not hametz.) I know you know this; but your years and years and generations of Jewish guilt training will not let you embrace it. Go ahead. Indulge yourself. If you have forgotten how to indulge yourself, go ahead and pour a glass of wine, and take that rich dark chocolate out of the drawer.

Here are a few great ideas I have learned over the years, some from a creative and cheerful rebbetzin in New York, who published a delightful tape*; some from the energetic Rivka Slatkin, who published a number of guides on getting through the holidays (which I was blessed to be able to edit):

One of our excellent mechutanim, ready to battle chometz
  • Buy beautiful or fun aprons for yourself. Why should you do all that cleaning in a shmateh? I followed this advice, and it really picks up my spirits! (This is not sexist. Guys can clean for Pesach, too; and I have seen some great aprons designed to give smiles to the Mars set as well.)
  • Build a flexible schedule on one of those printout calendars. Seeing your chores in front of you and checking them off is empowering, and keeps you from feeling quite so overwhelmed.
  • If you didn't clean out the closets and paint the kitchen and dust the ceilings before Rosh Chodesh Adar (or Adar II in years that have 'em), forget it until after Pesach. Spring cleaning is still valid in May.
  • You can't always clean in private. But during the times when the kids are otherwise occupied, listen to a Torah lecture or to uplifting music while you clean. The former will enrich your knowledge, as well as offering the opportunity to feel good about yourself. The latter can really make the exercise fun. I recommend Udi Davidi for soul searching tunes, as well as some great, upbeat me'at mikdash cleaning music! (I hope he would consider that a compliment.)
  • The holiday is EIGHT DAYS out of your year. It is possible -- though a shandeh in some circles, I understand -- to seal up all the normal cupboards, put up folding tables, and live there, as if you are camping, for a week and a day. And it's kind of fun.
  • Israelis, geniuses that they are, have devised very cool products to help us to get through the holiday. My favorite: the portable gas stove top. Mamash genius! I clean the stove top, but without breaking any nails or using corrosives on my poor, delicate hands -- and then I close the lid, and set the Pesach stove top on top of my regular stove. One week of heaven on Earth!
  • There are lots of young people around with time on their hands who are actually advertising to help you clean for Pesach. (If not, you are living in the wrong neighborhood.) Allow them to earn money for the mitzvah of relieving you of stress. Win-win.
  • And speaking of help, this is a great teaching opportunity. Since my boys were small, they and their friends were encouraged to make a competition of scrubbing the front doors of my cupboards, light switch covers, anything non-essential but icky, that they probably created anyway.
When disaster strikes -- you're sick, God forbid; you have a steady stream of surprise guests from out of the country for every day leading up to the holidays; work decides to become ironically heavy in the month preceding Pesach; all of the above, which is not uncommon (because God has a wicked sense of humor) -- the following is a wonderful reminder. Please look over Rabbi Aviner's helpful (if somewhat rigorous) guide: How to do your Pesach Cleaning Cheerfully in Less than One Day.

One of the main things that gets me through this season with a good attitude is remembering what it's all about. Why are we getting rid of all this leaven? Yes, yes... I know. Because Hashem said so. But beyond that obvious fact, what do we gain spiritually from the exercise?

Having a good, healthy ego is necessary to function in the world. But a by-product of ego is hubris, an additive to our characters that is decidedly detrimental to our ability to fulfill our God-given missions on the Earth. Chometz -- leaven -- is symbolic of hubris, an inflated sense of self-worth, excessive pride. What joy that God gives us the opportunity to temporarily flush it out of our systems once a year! If we do this internal and symbolic cleansing with the right attitude, perhaps we are permitted at least a few months of valuing ourselves for what we truly add to the world, those individual gifts each of us has to complete our fellow human beings.

I give us all blessings for as pleasant and stress-free a Pesach prep as possible. See you on the other side of the Yam Suf!

*Remember cassette tapes? I played this particular rebbetzin's tape until I wore it out. Unfortunately, I cannot remember her name. I would love to give her credit. But at least her ideas stuck, and can be shared with you.

Feel free to add your ideas in the comments section. And if this has been helpful information, please feel free to share!

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Many Perfumes of Mama

Yom shishi, 12 Adar 5777.

Mama Behind Cinnabar

Even though she married a construction worker, there was always the history of pearls and Ming vases (pronounced "vahzez," not "vayses," because that indicated breeding). She was born to be wealthy and finely educated, was my dear Mama... but life circumstances discarded her from those possibilities. Kicked out of home at nineteen with the clothes on her back and fifteen cents in her pocket, she just tried to survive. Irene aka Nana, the vicious great-aunt who raised her, stole her pearls and wore them ill on medication till they were as ugly as paste. I saw the vahz once, when I was thirteen, and wanted to kick it over, just to watch their pretensions crash.

But back to Mama, and that hidden exotic air she recreated with Estée Lauder's Cinnabar... cinnamon and bergamot, sandalwood, cloves, with hints of peach and patchouli. She was all Orient and evenings in a sarong on a stretch of sun-kissed sand beside murmuring blue-black waves. She was a jewelry box of stories, hints of wild love affairs with men who spoke no English and whispered false promises into her hair. And this impression she gave is illusory, because she was none of these things, not outside. She was a frightened girl brought up in a forbidding and crazy Catholic home, abused in too many ways to mention in polite company, married to a second generation Holocaust remnant, followed by a child abuser, followed finally by a man who never got around to appreciating her. She was externally the mother of four children whom she loved and for whom she cooked endless stew, around knitting sweaters and Barbie doll clothes. But her heart and soul were bathed in the freedom and world travel and mystery of Cinnabar.


Life Bread

Mama baked bread. Her sourdough could rival the famous San Francisco sourdough bread, the "mother" in the fridge smelling between bakings drunk from its own bacteria. Her black bread was more Russian than the Russians', full of caraway and beer, dark smells of the healthy diet of the truly poor of the Steppe who ate good natural bread, homemade cheese, root vegetables in season. Her pumpernickel would have made an old Jewish deli owner weep with memories of his childhood, his grandmother's kneading with gnarled hands turning poverty into promise. I felt as if I were in European history as I sat in her kitchen, smelling and seeing a newsreel of lives we had no reason to know.

Her bread and one-pot soups and stews spoke of an upbringing and history she lacked, as if she made herself up out of the European and Russian novels she read. An avid student of world history, an autodidact, Mama taught herself whom to be, how to cook, how to raise children, as she herself was never raised by anyone.

She was very American, was my mother. Born in North Hollywood and raised among the stars. Cary Grant used to drive her home from school. She, the "good girl" of the malt shop gang of movie star wannabes, rode in James Dean's car with him down a precipitous mountain road, because the crowd trusted only her to gauge his true speed honestly. She didn't let them down, reporting accurately the details of their daring flight down that wickedly perilous slide, two weeks before his fatal crash on that same mountain road...

Mama was always the kid in the vicinity of greatness and tragedy who lived to tell about it.



Mama's pumpkin pie, her famous dressing made with apples and bread, sage and cinnamon, smelling like childhood. My baby sister dancing the naked turkey obscenely in the pan, after cradling it, giggling "My baby, my baby..." Caraway seeds on dark brown bread browning to perfection as if to warm up the oven for its really laborious work of crisping the skin of a juicy turkey. Dish-washing liquid smelling of harmonies and laughter. Turkey roasting will always smell of sisters and mother working together to create a savory and sweet masterpiece of family love.

We don't celebrate Thanksgiving anymore, because with the passing of the matriarch, that family has splintered, lost its color, drifted to four corners of the universe, held indecisively together by a shredding thread of Facebook "likes." But those smells will always make me smile and sense a perfectly-harmonized ladies' barbershop quartet of my Mama, Diane and Carol and me, before the meat turned rancid, the pumpkin spoiled, the spices faded into memory's kitchen.


Searching to connect, to regenerate scattered ash, I single-handedly revitalize the sale of a fragrance from 1978, as Estée Lauder pulls Mama's memory from a dusty back shelf. Dabbing reminiscence on my earlobes, wrists, throat, I wrap in the essence of her, all the trampled promise and fairy tale and unconditional love of her.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

An Exciting Homeschooling Option

Yom revi'i, 29 Shevat 5777.

Once in a while, you get to be part of a project that touches your heart. (With God's help, I will have the opportunity to teach at this online academy in the fall.) If this looks like something you've been looking for -- or if you have friends who homeschool and are looking to broaden their child's horizons, pass it on!

Presenting Open Tent Academy’s 2017 - 2018 class offerings and schedule!

Open Tent Academy is an all-inclusive consortium of phenomenal instructors, who are offering homeschooling (and “after-schooling”) students an array of amazing classes. All OTA instructors are committed to excellence in education. Our goal is to guide students allowing them to ponder, think, analyze and draw conclusions. We believe that this is best accomplished through interactive classes filled with discussions, hands online, group projects and open ended questions. During 2017 – 2018, we are offering 80+ classes for grades 3 – 12!  There is something for everyone!

Important details to remember!

Registration begins on MARCH 1, 2017 with a two-week EARLY BIRD REGISTRATION period. During this time, you save $50 on EVERY CLASS. The "Early Bird" Discount is applied to the cost already.

In addition, if your family registers for 5 or more classes (as a unit), you can SAVE an ADDITIONAL 10%. Use registration code MULTI.

OTA will be using CANVAS as a Learning Management System (LMS). Everything will be online 24/7 for you/your students!  Classes are held live in virtual classrooms as well as recorded for later use.

Classes are limited in seating. This means, once they are filled, they are filled. Please do not wait too long!

To be part of our email list for future announcements or if you have questions or concerns, please contact Eva Goldstein-Meola at eva@opententacademy.com.

Be prepared to be amazed!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Hidden Figures: From Disrespect to Dignity

Yom rishon, 9 Shevat 5777.

I grew up in a time after the civil rights battles of the Sixties had already been fought by brave people of many colors, standing shoulder to shoulder. Not that the fight is over -- for as long as men believe themselves to be more or to be less than others for any reason other than merit, we have not yet won -- but at least I never saw separate drinking fountains and restrooms separated by color.

There was a black family that moved to my all-white town when I was a little girl. My mother became close friends with Fortha May Fergus (thus named because in a family of many children, she was born on the fourth of May). Among her children, Fortha May's son of my age became my very good friend.

One day, we marched into my back yard, hand in hand, and announced to my stepfather that we were getting married.

"The hell you are!" he roared. I never discovered if it was merely our young age or something else that caused such a heated reaction... but I do know that others drove my "boyfriend" and his family out of our town some time after our ill-received news. Mama said it was because they were Negroes. Neither she nor I could comprehend the reasoning behind this. It would be as illogical as the brunettes driving out redheads or blondes.

On the way home from our date today at Cinema City, the Dearly Beloved remarked: "There are some good movies. Some reach the level of greatness. This was a great movie."

I agreed, though I shook with rage and barely-controlled tears through the last half of the film.

I often see goodness in human beings that makes my heart burst with pride. At too many other times, I think we must make God cry at the tragedy of how we diminish each other, His creation, His children. How can we ever, ever feel superior to another human being, for things over which we have no control? How has it ever been possible, how is is still possible, for one human being to look at another as automatically beneath him, simply due to an accident of birth?

There are plenty of good movie reviewers who will tell you all about this remarkable film, about the fine actors portraying a degraded and degrading time in American history, and how some brilliant people of stunning patience fought the system within the system and won some semblance of respect and dignity. So I won't review the film for you here -- but I will recommend that you watch it, and that you take your children to see it.

God created us all with unique gifts and with defects so that we can all work together to form a complete and awe-inspiring world. If we think for five minutes, we can see areas to admire in another human being, areas in which we ourselves are lacking.

It is my fervent prayer that Israel, saturated as this nation is in the Torah concept that we are all b'tselem Elokim (created in the image of God), will finally decide to lead the world in truly looking not at the jug, but in the wine it contains, as our Sages taught.

Friday, February 3, 2017

What's Your Favorite Day of the Week?

Yom shishi, 7 Shevat 5777.

I am sure that in religious Jewish circles, the "correct" answer to the question of favorite day of the week is the holy Shabbat. The Sabbath certainly is a precious day, filled with good food, dedicated time with friends and family, time to read actual paper books, time for communing with oneself and with one's God. But I am not quite at the madraiga to put Shabbat first.

My very favorite day of the week is Friday, yom shishi (the sixth day) in Hebrew. Our Torah seems to skillfully combine the best of all human worlds for me on this day. While it's about preparing for our holiest day of the week, everything I love about being a physical human being is put toward this important task.

I will make a caveat here, for the sake of readers with small children. When I was a full-time mommy, I do not think that Erev Shabbat was my favorite day. It was a day when I had to feed lots of people who all wanted (or hated) different things, and who were intent on making messes faster than I could clean them up. My great goal on Friday was to NOT deserve going to Hell some time during the day for screaming at those of Hashem's precious children in my care. I usually failed. But this post is about Retired me, not Mommy me.

It would be untrue to say that I love cleaning. It's pretty far down on my list of fun activities. But what I do love is making everything mesudar -- organized, in its place, tidy -- for Shabbat. It gives me pleasure to wash all of the dishes and put them away, clearing the counters and tables, making them ready for their next "performance." I love to see the floor clean after a good sweeping and mopping, knowing that by candle-lighting time, it will say to me if not to the world that Ruti has it together.

Cooking for Shabbat is also a fulfilling activity for me. I get to take raw stuff created by God and put it together in new and interesting ways, the height of creative work (even above writing and painting and playing music) for me. And I know that each dish will say "I love you and care about what you like" to someone in my family.

There are special errands and rituals for Friday: my walk to collect the mail and the Torah Tidbits weekly magazine; recycling all of the various detritus of the week; shopping for the last minute items. The exchange of "boker tov" and "boker ohr" and "Shabbat shalom" with everyone I pass simply puts the frame around a lovely and purposeful walk throughout my yishuv.

There is a peace in this day that exists in no other: the peace of creating, while knowing that it is in the service of the day designated as the holiest day of the week.

I give myself and all of us the blessing that we can find the harmony of creativity in the service of something higher. I further bless young friends and family with little ones and demanding jobs that they will enjoy their days -- even the crazy ones! -- for long, healthy years, and that they will remember that there are wonderful things to look forward to, even after the kids have grown up and moved away.

What's your favorite day of the week, and why?


Madraiga: level
Erev Shabbat: Friday, the day leading up to the Sabbath
Boker tov: good morning
Boker ohr: literally "morning light," used as a response to boker tov
Yishuv: community, small town