Thursday, September 20, 2018

During the Worst of Times, the Best of Times: Live Like You Were Dying

On the non-Jewish calendar, today is my 61st birthday.

Last week was the saddest of times. The 45-year-old father of four, Ari Fuld, Hy"d, was murdered. While grocery shopping. For being a Jew in the Holy Land. I cried a lot during Yom Kippur, for a young widow and four orphans. I cried for a Jewish people who had lost a hero, a man whose passion for Israel, for the Jewish people, for Zionism, for teaching Torah, was unquenchable and inspirational to countless people around the world. He was also a teacher of self-defense to men, women, and children. And my heart broke for them: if the Lion of Judah could be taken down, who couldn't be? Who could feel safe at a shopping center ostensibly designed to show the world that coexistence is possible, when some shoppers believe that it's okay to stab a man in the back?

But from the little that I personally knew of Ari, I believe the best tribute I can give him is to continue living. In Israel. Proudly Jewish. Proudly Zionist.

My sons arranged for the best birthday present I have ever received, and a wonderful tribute to LIFE. They took me skydiving.

This was actually the bachelor party for my son that was postponed due to weather. (He's been married for just over two years. Spoiler alert: marrying her was a great idea.) Dani told his buddies that this was the day to give it another go, and that they'd have one more attendee. While none of my other sons could participate due to the demands of work, they paid for my ticket, sent supportive comments throughout the day, and cheered at the end as if Moms had climbed Everest.

I had a great crew, including my youngest son and my Dearly Beloved (who chose to play the role of ground crew, since he doesn't believe in jumping out of moving vehicles at 11,000 feet in the air). One a kid I've known since he was born. Another, my son's brother-in-law. The last member of the crew is one of our star football players, whom I will miss very much. Until he can't handle the sidelines any more...)

L-R: Gideon Reis, Dani Eastman, Ruti Eastman, Avi Eastman, Avi Schamroth, Avrami Farkas

The flight crew, geared up.
Paradive in Haifa is staffed with people who clearly love their work. First, young ladies with great senses of humor had us fill out the usual "if you die or are badly injured, don't blame us" legal paperwork. (All jesting aside, they really are careful to make sure you are not jumping into the deep end, so to speak, without knowing the dangers.) Then they showed us a video. There was constant briefing to be sure we knew what to do and when to do it, and what not to do. The instructors were calm and patient, and fun.

My instructor was a very respectful fellow named Arnon. He was a great teacher, giving information and encouragement as needed. He taught me how to twirl the parachute so that it was like a wonderful aeronautical waltz. We had a very pleasant flight over the teal-blue of the Mediterranean Sea. Arnon didn't seem to mind when I chattered joyfully about the amazing world of beauty God has created for us to enjoy.

Paradive does a very cool thing for the spectators (in this case, Team Avi): they post the parachute colors of each participant, thus allowing the spotters on the ground to get some good aerial shots.

Hey, Avrami! Lookin' good!

Howdy, Avi S. Smile for your mom and dad.

Roger, Haifa. The Ema has landed.
These guys look all Top Gun now, don't they?

There is simply nothing as sweet as benship*.
We all discussed post-experience how we felt. What were you feeling when you jumped out of the plane? Which did you like better: the free-fall or floating under the open parachute? (I couldn't decide. Like steak and red wine, each has its contribution to the total adventure.) Were you scared? How did you handle the moment the chute opened? Would you do it again? (If money were no object, a few of us at least would have gotten back in line.) "I think I'm seeing the fifteen-year-old mom," said Dani, with a grin.

None of us could stop smiling (except for the few moments during which we composed the #toocoolforwords gangsta post-flight photo). I'm still grinning.


You can do a lot of things on your 61st birthday.

You can hang out with your best friend.

You can paint your nails red. (I recommend it.)

You can also go skydiving. Now I need to go 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu...

With the best friend, best ground crew, best cheerleader God ever created, puh-puh-puh. (Caryn and Inbar, take note: your earrings, your necklace. Ruti's tee shirt courtesy of the Paratroopers branch of the IDF.)

*Benship - a Ruti-generated word for that unique and special relationship you can only have with your adult children
Moms - not a typo. One of my frighteningly large array of nicknames.

The title (to those for whom it isn't apparent) is a mashup of  Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (from 1859) and Tim McGraw's song released in 2004, just to display the broad palette of inspiration out there in history.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Best Birthday EVER!

30 Kislev 5778, 1st day Rosh Chodesh Tevet, 6th day of Chanukah.

Not mine. Though my recent 60th was very, very special, thanks to the Dearly Beloved.

Rather, it was that very Dearly Beloved's birthday this past week. The fellow who has spent most of his 69 years worrying more about the happiness of those he loves than striving for his own contentment. I don't think I've ever known anyone who puts other people at the top of the list to such a healthy degree. You have to be very comfortable in your own skin to do that successfully; and Coach is indeed blessed with that extraordinary self-possession.

Four of our sons were in Israel for the birthday party. And they really came up to bat (if my football players will forgive an "unworthy" metaphor). Via Snapfish, they and their lovely brides produced a book of Abba's famous sayings. The book is filled with photographs that remind them of special moments between each of them and Abba, with funny expressions he is given to repeating, and most preciously, with love letters from each of them. (Life hack: If you want to tell that special someone that they do, indeed, matter to you very much, don't wait. Write that letter now. You cannot know the power of your heartfelt words.) Each son or daughter-in-law read passages of the book, to much laughter. And tears of love flowed when they each read their own letters aloud.

My contribution was the best photo ever (IMHO) of Coach.
After we finished drying our eyes and congratulating each other, I brought out the last gift: a painting by our very talented friend, Steven Seward. I don't think anyone has captured my dear best friend as well as Steven did. He has not just talent but wisdom: since his work had to be done without a model and with an ocean between us, he asked for several photos from which to choose. After perusing them, he told me he wanted to use the one that would make Avi happiest: the one with his bride in the picture. Smart guy, this portrait artist! (Kudos and gratitude to his lovely bride, Caryn Good Seward, for facilitating so much of this project.)

We look forward to celebrating many, many birthdays together, please God. But this year's birthdays have certainly reminded us that the best gift of all is the love of our humans.

Chag Urim sameach. Keep adding light to the world!

Special thanks to my daughters-in-love for hosting a wonderful Shabbat birthday celebration, with delicious food, comfy sleeping arrangements, and grandchildren, bli ayin hara, puh-puh-puh!

Interested in contacting Steven for the commission of a portrait? You can visit his website to view his portfolio at I'm always happy to make a shidduch.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Angel, Breaking with Just a Smile

9 Kislev 5778.

Yesterday, my eldest grandchild turned 18.

I have lived long enough to have a third generation reach adulthood. It boggles the mind.

This is a love song to my Lily, whose existence is a miracle, even more than every child is a miracle, whose birth brought closer hearts separated by misfortune, bad choices, gulfs of continents and seas and cultures.

Lily, you make everyone who meets you smile. You have brought out the best in people who may have remained ordinary, and brought out the magic in people who are trying their best to save the world, one child at a time.

You're in the process of making a little brother an even better and finer and more sensitive super-hero than he would have been without you. (No doubt, the baby brother will gain from these lessons as well.)
You have caused two excellent people to become monumental, in my eyes, in their binding together a nest to hold you and your brothers. Even when that nest got tested by your teenagerness, which you surprisingly couldn't avoid. Like getting wrinkles and pimples at the same time, one would have thought you would be immune, but no.

None of us knows how much light you have to add to this tragic little world, nor for how long.

But your distant grandmother wishes for you and for all of us who love you that your light will shine and continue to refine all of us.

Thank you for coming into my life, little person, little hummer of ancient songs. I love you.

"...Darling Lily, is an angel from Heaven
Come to see us a little while
Stage door Johnnies wait for her
Our voices encore her
They just adore her style

Darling Lily, doesn't dream of the heart
She keeps on breaking with just a smile..."

from the song by Henry Mancini

Friday, November 24, 2017

Sigd: Hearts Facing Jerusalem

Yom Chamishi, 5 Kislev 5778.

"Remember, I pray Thee, the word that Thou didst command Thy servant Moshe, saying, If you transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations: but if you turn to Me, and keep My commandments, and do them; though your outcasts be at the utmost parts of heaven, from there will I gather them, and I will bring them to the place which I have chosen to set My name there."  
-- Nehemiah 8-9

Imagine spending generations reading these words, and believing that the prophet Nehemiah was speaking directly to you and your people! And then finally coming home, on "the wings of eagles," to "Yerusalem"...

Fascinated with a story I heard about the first Ethiopians to "come Home" to Zion, I have wanted to experience the Ethiopian holy day, Sigd, for most of the decade that I've lived in Israel. Work, weather, and my general shyness prevented it, until last Thursday.

The OU Israel Center arranged a morning tour of various sites integral to the exploration of Sigd, which means "prostration" in Ge'ez, the holy language of both Jews and non-Jews in Ethiopia. Our very competent and entertaining young guide was David Bratspis. ("Go ahead. Just get right into the pronunciation. Don't hide from it: brats' piss.") His self-effacing humor and factual research made him easy to like and respect immediately; and his presentation throughout the day didn't disappoint.

Our first stop was the cemetery on Har Herzl, where David introduced us to the memorial commemorating the loss of more than 4,000 Ethiopians who died en route and in Sudan on their way to the Holy Land in the 1980s and early 1990s. They succumbed to famine and disease; but they also were robbed, raped, and murdered by people they trusted as guides. Happily, many thousand Ethiopians -- also known as Beta Yisrael -- were rescued during the airlifts (designated Operations Moses, Joshua, and Solomon) from 1984 through 1991.

Representations of Ehtiopian tukulim (huts)

Sitting at the monument, we listened raptly to David as he told us the history of Ethiopian Jewry, facts about the three key languages among the people, and details about their dwellings (a thatched, conical hut called a tukul), and their practices, many of which were decidedly Jewish in nature.

the names of those who perished

David reminded us that it might be more appropriate to call this day (29 Cheshvan, fifty days after Yom Kippur) "Yom Sigd" rather than "Chag Sigd," as it is a holy day of commemoration, and half-fast, and a very solemn day of blessings and prayers. David pointed out that Sigd became an official holiday in 2008.
After our educational visit to the Har Herzl memorial, we re-boarded our bus to head for the Tayelet, a promenade located in Talpiot, and the highest point in Jerusalem. Their holy leaders, called kessim, chose the Tayelet to continue the practice of a mass pilgrimage to the highest available point, and gazing toward Zion.

David showed us an example of the Orit (pictured), the sacred text of Ethiopian Jews.
From the Tayelet, they worshipers can see the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem. The Ethiopian practice is to join with their kessim, rabbis, to recite prayers, to read from their holy book called the Orit.

At least this is the practice of some. "What proof do we have that the Ethiopian Jews are authentically Jewish? Some of them (mostly Amharic speakers) hold by going to the Tayelet, to continue the old practices; and some of them (the Tigrinya speakers) wouldn't be caught dead there, and go instead to the Kotel." After we all had a good laugh at the classic joke (two Jews, three opinions), David told us that many Tigrim do join the observance on the Tayelet. But his humor served to remind us that these Jews are part of our family, something we continued to learn and feel throughout the day.

At the Tayelet, we were "turned loose" to walk around, take photos, make conversation. I met lovely people who were more than willing to talk about the day, about their families, about their profound love of Israel.

Some of the ladies were shy at first to be photographed; but after I explained that I write a blog to share what is lovely about living in Israel, they were interested. Once I expressed my happiness in being able to participate in this holy day, they were eager to talk. We discussed how special it is to share traditions, and the joy they feel bringing up their children in the Israel their parents only dreamed of.
Only kessim sit under the umbrellas; so if you see an umbrella in the crowd, you know there is an Ethiopian rabbi there.

We received many blessings from these holy people.

A young soldier was proud to protect all of us as we mingled on the Tayelet.

After this visit, we moved to the Kotel, to say the afternoon prayers with our Ethiopian hosts, who then broke the fast over traditional sourdough flatbread called injera, with which they were very generous. They were also very generous with their brachot. I collected abundant blessings from more than one kes for my sons and their families.

"Will you pass on the observance of Sigd to your children?" The boys were sure. The girl was just shy, as is usual with most girls everywhere.

I saw her standing under an umbrella. "Is your husband a kes?" I asked her. She seemed surprised that I knew the significance. (Score another one for David, our informative tour guide.) "My father is a kes," she answered. After the breaking of the fast, she took the microphone, and made a short speech to the assembled crowd (which I sadly did not understand). She was the first to offer me some injera, even before she took for herself.

Kessim of both groups of Ethiopians davened and broke the fast side by side. We can all learn from each other, I think, about getting along.

I hope to participate again in Yom Sigd, less as a curious observer and more as a fellow olah, as well as in the many and varied cultural customs of my wonderful Jewish Nation. As my dear and wise Mama, a"h, always said, "Why do people fight about their differences? Wouldn't it be better to celebrate our rainbow of colors and all of our different ways of viewing the world?"

The mounds represent the mountains met during their trek to the Holy Land.
Ethiopian Jewry officially recognized by the Rabbinate
You can contact David on Facebook about arranging a tour at David Bratspis Tour Educator.

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!