Sunday, April 13, 2014

Erev Pesach

Wine glass in hand, waiting for my husband to come back from Ma’ariv, the evening service, I am surveying my domain – not a speck of chometz, forbidden leaven, in sight. All is ready for Bedikas Chometz, the ritual search that ensures that no chometz has been accidentally overlooked. What a satisfaction! For many years now my husband and I have been going away for Pesach. Except for our second year as a married couple, when we stayed home full of exciting intentions of creating the Seder of the decade, but ended up “alone”, i.e. just him and me (which was rather anti-climactic), we have been going to either Eretz Yisrael; or to a certain college campus where my husband would supervise the kashrus situation while I would relax to my heart’s content, and frequent a Chinese massage parlor in my spare time (when I wasn’t busy relaxing); or to our cousins in Baltimore, where the livin’ was easy.

This year, however, we had a dilemma. Eretz Yisrael was off our financial map; my husband was refusing to supervise more kashrus in the middle of the Seder, or to put up with the lack of spiritual atmosphere of the Hillel house; and the Baltimorons had up and moved to our town, now living only a half-hour’s walk away. Don’t get me wrong: I love them, and I am thrilled to have them close by, but – it is no longer a question of “going away”. Going out of town for ten days, even to a place like Baltimore - which is not known for any extremes of exoticism - can be quite alluring, because, after all, it is a change of scenery, but sitting in a guest room two miles from home just doesn’t have quite the same cachet.

Our solution was Solomonic in its ingenuity: spend the Sedarim with the Baltimorons (for whom we will now have to come up with a more suitable epithet); then moving back home on Chol Hamoed, the intermediary day, and gracefully accept invitations by our friends. By Hashem’s grace and kindness, we have both friends and invitations. So this spring, for the first time in many years, I have “made Pesach”. Every Yom Tov, holiday, has to be “made” – it doesn’t just “happen” by itself, but Pesach requires some extraordinary making.

Slightly nervous about the unaccustomed task ahead of me, I made sure to start early.
“The bedroom is already kosher l’Pesach” I was proud to inform one of my very close friends three weeks before Purim, expecting to hear some well-deserved praise.
“Did you wash the walls?” she said, because she is not right in the head.
“No, I certainly didn’t” said I.
“Why not?” (said in a kind of plaintive tone).
“Because there is no chometz on my bedroom walls; kitchen walls, possibly – bedroom walls, not.” That should give her something to think about!
“You could repaint the walls instead”, she suggested – clearly bonkers.
“Yes I could, but I am not going to” I replied, sort of doing that teenage rebellion thing that I never really mastered in younger years, but could do to perfection now, should the need arise.

Well, yes – the apartment has now been rendered both clean and chometz-free, and (with many thanks to my excellent cleaning lady), I must say that it has been a pleasure. The mustiness and dust of winter replaced by freshness and a breeze with a scent of spring; order in the ranks of the household goods; repairs and replacements of the little things around the house that should have been addressed before, but weren’t until now. Because I worked too, mind you – not for me to only sit and watch, along the lines of the main character of Three Men in a Boat, who observes that “I love work; it fascinates me; I can sit and watch it for hours!”

There is both a satisfaction and a sense of adventure about it – the home is transformed; its regular permanency challenged (perhaps somewhat reminiscent of the upheaval of Succos – after all, both holidays commemorate the leap of faith and the upending of the “normal”; they are both feasts of transition), and for as long as I have been making Pesach, I have always found an almost primeval contentment in the moment when I am placing all my brand-new groceries and implements in one of the kitchen cabinets, newly-scrubbed and covered with some stupid paper that is always a little bit askew. For eight days I will be camping, as it were, with different pots and pans, different counters and cook tops, different foods – or rather, with a different limitation of permissible foods (ah, the delicious Pesach cakes!) – which all contributes to giving me that sense of adventure.

We are on a hike. Where are we going? Hopefully to Yerushalayim – meaning both the geographical city, and the spiritual city center of our hearts.

May your journey be a happy one – have a kosher and freilichen Pesach!

Shalom Uv'racha!
Shulamit


Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Match Made in Heaven

Truly, marriage could only have been invented by G-d, because who would ever venture into it, or suffer through it, or enjoy the benefits of it, if it were not for the Divine law that compels us. And I am not specifically speaking about my own marriage, but rather about the institution per se.

Who but G-d could ever have come up with the idea that living together, one man and one woman (yes, for the record, that is the only definition of marriage that I accept) in a committed union is a good idea, considering how much hard work is involved? Far easier to be a serial monogamist. And yet, there is a certain quaint charm to it.

When I was still waiting for Mr. Right, I often heard married people talk about the “hard work” involved in marriage. “Fair enough”, I used to think, “but what does that really mean – what kind of hard work?” I am currently taking a poll among my married friends, but while I am waiting for the results to come in, I have thought a lot about it, and for myself I think it means: accepting the fact that marriage is meant to change you for the better. It may sound easy and self-evident, but it isn’t. One’s inner sloth – the Evil Inclination – just wants to take it easy, and resists change the whole time, and that is the fight that is hard work for one’s better self to win. It is so much easier to denigrate the marriage, or the spouse, than to take oneself to task and demand improvement.

We do not know the man we have married until we have lived with him for quite a while, but neither do we know ourselves until we are tested. Marriage comes to provide that test. You go around thinking you are an absolutely charming specimen of womanhood, but then – once again! – he puts away the ketchup bottle upside down, and it leaks all over the refrigerator – and there goes your charm down the drain for the umpteenth time.

When we met, my future husband declared, in an unguarded moment, that he could take very well care of his own physical needs and that he wasn’t looking for a wife to do so; he had experienced freshly ironed underwear in his first marriage and felt it was overrated – what he was longing for was a wife he could talk to; a wife who would understand him. Obviously, his words have come back to haunt him. In his present, considerably happier, marriage he knows himself to be lucky if his underwear are reasonably freshly laundered.

There was an incident once, when I had actually been neglecting the laundry to a degree that was quite unusual even for me – no doubt due to a pressing engagement with a pint of ice cream – and there was not a clean undershirt to be had either for love or money; but did he complain? No, never saying a word, he just quietly went out and bought himself some new undershirts, thereby further endearing himself to me for all eternity. (A little tip for all you husbands who might want a little tip.) And all you radical feminists out there, who are braying: “why didn’t he just wash his own undershirts?” – shame on you! I really can’t afford to buy new washing machines all the time.

But hark! – there is a murmur in my little writing chamber. It is a chorus of disgruntled readers’ voices: “Wasn’t this article supposed to be about how you are being tested, oh charming specimen of womanhood?” you are saying. “So far, all we can see is that your husband is the one being tested – and passing with flying colors, we might add – while you are floating about all day on a cloud of ice cream!”

Ahem.

Who is writing this article – you or me? I thought so. Let me therefore assure you that I am being tested too; sometimes I pass, sometimes I fail. In the early days there used to be many more fails than passes – criticism (constructive or otherwise) or various types of dissatisfaction on my part would be clearly voiced at even minor provocations – but the ratio is changing, slowly but surely; I am learning to keep my mouth shut, or to use it in a more pleasant way. A little trick I discovered along the way was to try to stop even the irritated thought when it would pop up, and not give it any real estate in my brain, because once a thought is rattling around inside your head it can so easily slip out through the mouth. And yes, in case you are interested, since this is a great challenge for me, it is very hard work.

But G-d wants us to work on ourselves, and grow and improve, so he gives us marriage, with its daily opportunities for character refinement, and it is a wise woman – or man – who takes advantage of those opportunities. The reward will surely come, hopefully already in this world.

Ultimately, speaking of marriage, we might be faced with the question: does a woman really need a man, or is the single woman “like a fish without a bicycle”? Personally, I would say that she might not need him, but that without him she won’t be all that she can be.

Shalom Uv’racha!
Shulamit



Sunday, February 2, 2014

Tichel Pride

I was browsing about on some Jewish websites the other day when I came across a blog post called – I hesitate to even type the title – “The Tale of the Magic Tichel and Its Hijab Envy”, written by one Chaviva Gordon-Bennett. In her article, the author complains that she doesn’t feel beautiful in her tichel, which doesn’t fit her well, and that she thinks the Muslim headscarf – the hijab – does a better job of bringing out a woman’s beauty and modesty; one of the supposed reasons for this being that a tichel reveals some of its wearers hair (?!), while the hijab does not. All in all, Chaviva is not happy with the situation – she knows something needs fixing, but she is looking in the wrong place for the remedy!

As a woman who mostly wears a (synthetic) sheitel, or wig, but also enjoys wearing tichels, kerchiefs, when the mood – or the outfit – is right, my reply to Chaviva – or anybody else in a similar predicament – is as follows:

G-d forbid that the Daughters of Israel should envy the adornments of another nation! (All the more so, when the object of the envy is a nation that, by and large, is seeking the destruction of ours.) If you are unhappy about how you look in your tichel, here is some advice and encouragement; you, too, can look “more tzniut and more stylish – more mysterious”; yes, more holy and more feminine, beautiful and glamorous too!

·        Who says that you are supposed – or even allowed – to let some of your hair remain visible? Be more diligent about covering your hair, and you will see that your beauty and dignity will increase exponentially.
·        If your tichel doesn’t fit you, learn how to tie it better (there are great internet tutorials!*), and use some of the excellent aids available, such as “The WiGrip”, a velvet band which holds your hair in place, while simultaneously preventing the tichel (or the wig) from slipping. There are specially-made liners that give volume as well. There is no reason or excuse to be “perpetually shifting and pulling and tucking” anymore!
·        If you don’t feel beautiful – maybe you need to invest a little more effort into finding really beautiful tichels (there is an endless supply available both in stores and on the internet*), which will sit on your head like a crowning glory. You can decorate them further with ribbons and head bands, brooches, pins and hair clips – there is no end to the lovely things you can find in a trimmings store, a hair accessories store, or even places like H&M, that will enhance your tichel.
·        Since a tichel reveals and emphasizes the face, and particularly the eyes, more than a wig does, you may need to pay more attention to your make-up. A refined and elegant eye make-up will make all the difference in the world! Make sure to keep your eyebrows well-groomed.
·        Earrings do very much to enhance the over-all look as well!

But the greatest adornment of all is the holiness that you will emanate when you cover your hair punctiliously, reminding yourself every moment of the day of Who is your King – and that you are His daughter! I once heard a certain rabbi say that the reason a married woman covers her hair is to be reminded that Hashem is her master – not her husband! It seems like a unique viewpoint, and be that as it may – it is a very holy act to cover one’s hair. Personally, when I tie my tichels, I am also reminded of the headdress worn by the Kohanim in the Bais Hamikdash.

Letting go of that celebrated tefach, the much-disputed finger-breadth or hand-breadth measure of permissibly showing hair, can be a real challenge to many. Chaviva talks about her bangs, and shows them in her blog portrait – the look is, unfortunately, rather that of a sweet little puppy than that of a Jewish princess. As one who also always had bangs, I can understand the fear of the revealed forehead, which I used to share before I was married. (Once I had gone under the chuppah, though, I never showed a single hair in public.) I think the solution may be to try to accept on an emotional level that your image has changed; to admit to yourself that yes, I am now a thoroughly different person – I am changed and transformed, not only internally, but externally as well, and I am at peace with that. As a married woman one is always in disguise - whether I wear a sheitel or a tichel, my true, "revealed" self is not visible in public. In a sense, it is Purim all year round, and what you see is only a part of me - I am wearing a mask, as it were, and if that mask has no bangs, so be it. 

If that doesn’t help, I have found that a piece of sculptural lace or fringe can serve beautifully as a “bangs substitute”. What does not work however, if you want to achieve the maximum levels of holiness and beauty is to hang on to the bangs. You will be neither here nor there; standing with one foot in each camp, as it were, holding back a piece of yourself from Hashem, holding yourself back from growing, and missing out on that mysterious glamour in the process.

The key to achieving the full glory is an attitude of “Ashreinu – mah tov chelkeinu!” (“How fortunate are we – how good our lot!”). Let us be proud to be Jewish women, and let us be proud of our tichels – let us wear them as banners!

Shalom Uv’racha!
Shulamit

*A few websites with tichel tutorials and products that I greatly enjoy are:
http://www.judithdeparis.com/tutorials/



Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Sock Manual

A marriage is generally founded on the following two-part premise:
     a)      Every man – even the best of them – generates a certain amount of dirty socks
     b)      Most of those dirty socks are going to end up on the floor – your nice, clean floor!

Because of this universally acknowledged truth, I have keenly felt the need to develop a Dirty Socks Marriage Manual in aid of all you young wives and wives-to-be out there.

The first thing to understand is: This phenomenon will not change, no matter what you do or say. For generations wives have suffered, raged, prayed, even tried to bribe their men into compliance, but the problem remains, unaltered.

I once read a cute article (if memory serves, which it often does not, it may possibly have been on aish.com, but I have absolutely no recollection of who wrote it. Sorry!), wherein the writer described how she had tried various approaches to correct the situation, such as attaching a cutesy Post-it note to a sock, imploring her husband to “Pick me up!”. Dejectedly – inevitably, I would have said – she had to admit that even this humorous strategy had failed. (The funny thing was, though, that when I made an - unsuccessful - attempt at locating this essay again, and entered “dirty socks” in the aish.com search engine, I found countless digressions on the topic – evidently, there is a lot of dirty sock pain out there!)

Therefore, I hereby offer a radical approach to the problem; an approach that aims at preserving your sanity and your healthy blood pressure levels:
  • Do not let his dirty socks on the floor spoil your good mood – just smile serenely, turn your gaze Heaven-wards, and (here it comes!) blithely step over them!
  • You may increase the efficacy of this method by humming a little ditty as you step along.
  • Strive to ignore the twitch of duty that might bid you to bend down and retrieve them, while simultaneously ignoring the twitch of rage that bids you to yell your head off and tell him what’s what. Also strive to banish from your mind the highfaluting lines fed to you by rebbetzins, kallah teachers, and such, who may have told you that a good wife always feels it is a holy privilege to pick up her husband’s socks, the dirtier the better; indeed, she feels elevated by it! These ladies weren’t doing you any favors!
  • In a real emergency, such as when his mother is coming to visit, you may kick the offending article(s) under the nearest piece of furniture. Hopefully this will prove to be a bed, but sometimes it might even turn out to be the dining table (floor-length tablecloths are of the essence), or the living room sofa – just ask this experienced wife!
  • There is no cause for concern – if it ever gets to the point that he really wants his socks washed he’ll find them and bring them to you, don’t worry!
  • Don’t nag, don’t even discuss the matter – just try to find the serenity to let events unfold; then shrug your shoulders and smile innocently and say “Oh, really – you don’t have any clean socks? What a shame…” Then snicker quietly to yourself. Having to go to his niece’s wedding in dirty socks will resound more with him than anything you could ever say. In a worst-case scenario, he will find that he quite likes wearing dirty socks, and then you’ll never have to worry again!
  • Never use the word “never” (as in “you never pick up your socks”), because you remember, there was that one time, on your wedding anniversary, when he wanted to impress you, and proudly put three socks in the hamper. Obviously he overlooked the other seven under the bed, but still, you know – he did it!
  • Always avoid the word “always” (“you always leave your dirty socks on the floor”), because you know very well that once he left them in the car instead.
  • Learn to say “Do I know?” and “Do I care?” – but in a loving way.
  • As a last resort, play dumb. You know you know best anyway.
Since I like to spread pearls of wisdom all around, I also want to share with you a great T-shirt that I just read, the message of which seems to be uncannily applicable to the issue at hand:

“L-rd, give me COFFEE to help me change the things I can change;
and WINE to help me accept the things that I can’t!”

Did I ever mention that I drink quite a lot of wine? Serenity now!

Shalom Uv’racha!

Shulamit 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Traveling Light

There are some people who are very proud of how little they pack when they travel, gallivanting about all over the civilized world with nothing more than a sleek carry-on case – and then there is me. My situation is altogether different. Any tasteful accoutrement that could possibly become useful in some remote emergency scenario – I’m packing it! I do not (yet) as Queen Elizabeth II does, travel with my own white leather toilet seat, but I have given it some thought... 

In any case, traveling light is not for religious people. Fuhgeddaboudit! First, there is obviously the issue of bringing the extra Shabbos outfit. And depending on where you are going, it may not be sufficient with one outfit for Shabbos – oh no, there has to be one for Friday night and another one for Shabbos day. I see it more and more even among quite non-materialistic women. Who came up with that? Is this a new chumra, a new religious stricture? Because G-d has seen that outfit, thank-you-very-much, and He gets fed up with seeing the same dress over and over, and He is drumming His fingers, as it were, waiting for you to come up with something new already? Or maybe it is based on the frequent changing of vestments that the Kohen Godol would perform on Yom Kippur? Five changes, back and forth between gold and white linen. Because obviously we all want to be very holy.

And that is only when you are a guest in somebody’s home; if you are staying in a Jewish hotel you need three outfits – one for Friday night, one for appearing at the Shabbos se’udah, and one for when you wake up after the afternoon nap, for G-d forbid that anyone should harbor a suspicion that you don’t own enough clothes. Needless to say, each outfit requires its own accessories, shoes and jewelry, and chad gadya, chad gadya – one thing leads to another – and this is coming from somebody who loves clothes, accessories and jewelry…

Then there is all the other Shabbos equipment. We are used to traveling to remote spots – spiritually remote, if not geographically – where Shabbos is barely known beyond a rumor, and everything must be brought along. Shabbos candles with holders and don’t forget the matches!; havdoloh candle, wine, bechers and benchers; a nice tablecloth of course, and a little something for covering the Challah (plus the Challah itself, obviously); a cholent pot; a Kosher Lamp for reading in bed and something to read in bed; masking tape for the light switches in case you should get absent-minded, and – it just never ends… "Her poor husband" you are thinking now, "all that heavy lifting!" Not so. He explained to me at an early stage of our marriage that his - rather impressive - muscles were purely cosmetic. They are no use at all. I do most of my own heavy lifting.

Kashrus brings with it its own packing needs. Aside from the frequent necessity to bring along certain food stuffs (try to find parve chocolate along the US highways, or bishul Yisroel tuna!), there are the pots and the pans, and the vegetable peeler and three colors of paring knives and cutting mats and sponges, and disposable plates (three sizes) and extra-pretty disposables for Shabbos (I thought we had dealt with Shabbos already…), and always an electric pump thermos for frequent tea drinking, even on weekdays, and kosher wine, and a proper corkscrew that won’t break and cause untold suffering.

And we always bring our own pillows, otherwise we can’t sleep. And hard-boiled eggs.

In my computer I have numerous packing lists, each refined for its specific purpose: for car vacations or air travel, domestic or international, for Europe or Eretz Yisrael, for Pesach and for the rest of the year, and a special one for a certain college campus where my husband is occasionally asked to substitute – complete with a map of our room marking each electrical outlet. There we have to bring our own linens and comforters and towels as well. And tables.

I even started working on a packing list for when the Meshiach comes, because that’s when you want to be ready and not waste time dithering back and forth about what to bring to the Holy Land. My dear cousin and I have been discussing this topic – we are in absolute agreement that among other things, we will need a special Meshiach kleid – a beautiful dress for greeting the Ge’ulah Sh’leima. May we all be zoche to do so!

So – no, traveling light must be something that the Gentiles have dreamt up for their own amusement – not something that applies to us at all.

I have just returned from a visit to my European country of origin – need I say that I was assembling my packing for about ten days in advance? Don’t ask! There is no need – I’ll tell you anyway. In addition to all the customary necessities, I went all out this time and packed an extra-small hot water urn, with an adapter to fit the foreign-type outlet – no more fiddling with pots and unreliable thermostats; I bought stuff for a really pretty Shabbos belt and sewed it together – and packed it; and then the gifts, of course…

And aside from the kashrus aspect per se, one must definitely take along some food, just in case. My husband always says a Jew doesn’t even go up in the attic without taking along a little something to nibble on, because you just never know. I used to think he was a little over-zealous, bringing along food even on air planes where we had already ordered kosher meals. Wasn't that enough for him? But he kept harping on his theme of how Jews must bring food wherever they go. 

And then we had a charming little adventure some years ago which taught me. We went to Eretz Yisrael with Turkish Airlines (first and last time), and on the return trip everybody's kosher meal consisted of only a mini-container of apple sauce and three saltines – because the main course, the Actual Food, had gone missing, and the staff had the audacity to tell us that this was the way kosher dinners came. If my husband hadn’t had some fruit and little bags of nuts and candies handy that he generously shared with his fellow Jews - including his wife - there would have been mass starvation, I can tell you.

This time I flew with Norwegian Airlines (which I will willingly do again), a discount airline that doesn’t even offer a kosher meal, assuming you would be willing to pay $30 extra for meal service. (Halal food they do have. Go figure.) So my dear spouse loaded me up with salads and chicken and Milky Ways to eat before the chicken – and the ubiquitous hard-boiled eggs of course – and the concept of schlepping has now taken on a whole new dimension.

Traveling light? No, I don't think so. But I simply MUST buy some of that extra light-weight, spinning luggage. Matching, of course. In pink…

Shalom Uv'racha!
Shulamit

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Seinfeld Episode

For those who might be unfamiliar: “Seinfeld” is a TV series from the 1990's about the absurdities of New York City life; a genre study whose ironic (and iconic) claim to fame is that it lacks a plot – “it’s about nothing”.

My Trusty Friend, who came with me to the hypnotist in an earlier post, has shared stranger things than that with me. We once went on a date with my future husband – together.

Sometimes, TF comes to my work place and does professional stuff. At the time in question, we had known in advance that we were both going to be finished at the same time, so we had made plans: we’re gettin’ out of here – together! This was a not uncommon occurrence – get out of work, go and have a coffee, hang out a bit, try to find some shoes to buy (always chasing after shoes!) – have a little girl-time, which all females so sorely need. I myself had a DATE set up for later in the day – the fifth in a series of hitherto not overly promising episodes – but not until three o’clock, I told her, which would give TF and me two hours to enjoy while I was waiting for the date to occur.

So, off we went to the locus that we used to favor at the time. We were chatting up a storm, selecting seats, dropping our purses on the floor, practically falling over trying to retrieve them, and finally settling, somewhat unsteadily, on our perches at the fifties’ style counter, starting to peruse the menu.

And all of a sudden, in the middle of salads versus omelets, who materializes, as it were, out of thin air? Mr. You-Know-Who, arriving one hour and forty-five minutes early. What kind of business?! Carrying a rose, indeed (yellow – so misguided, when there is pink!), and he had done something to his eyes, switched them on or something; blazing turquoise headlights. This was a man out to conquer.

And this is where, forever, he gained some very substantial brownie points with me. He greeted us both with grace and ease, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to have a date-with-friend and he had been planning it this way all along, explaining the circumstances that had led him to the neighborhood earlier than expected - but how had he known where to find us? I’m still wondering, ten years later. It’s no use asking him – he barely remembers what he had for breakfast. He must have been spying, lurking about in the streets…

TF was visibly embarrassed – the code of honor among girl friends clearly states that you do not encroach on your friend’s dates; you remove your person at the earliest convenience, should a male personage appear at the horizon – but You-Know-Who was completely relaxed, making conversation, waving off her apologies and saying things like, “Hi TF, how are you; nice to meet you; sit down for goodness’ sakes; what would you like for lunch” and such pleasantries. He was so perfectly at ease, so perfectly pleasant and hospitable, so perfectly gentlemanly, never for a split second allowing TF to feel that she was one too many, that I was filled with respect and admiration. (It was, truly, a Jane Austen moment.)

I joined my entreaties with his, because the funny thing was that to me as well it felt absolutely right – why shouldn’t she join us? She and I had planned our time together – why should we give it up? And You-Know-Who’s laid-back attitude freed me to be myself and relax into the moment; there were none of the disappointments or irritations, or thwarted expectations, that many a lesser man might have displayed. 

And we had a very good time, the three of us, even though TF still felt that the situation was quite absurd – the stuff of sitcoms. She referred to it then, and many times afterwards, as a real “Seinfeld episode”. And it was, but not one “about nothing”, but one about the budding appreciation of a certain woman for a certain male person; an appreciation that ultimately led to a wedding. This turned out to be the date when I fell in love…

B’kiso, b’koso, b’ka’aso – that is how one knows a person: what he has in his pocket, how he uses that money and the power that comes with it; in his cups, when inhibitions come down and the truth comes out – what is revealed; and how he handles himself in his anger, when faced with stress, disappointment or frustration. Another excellent gauge is the one my Trusty Friend unwittingly provided: take along a friend on a date!

*     *     *
TF and I would meet fairly regularly, and six or seven weeks after the Seinfeld date, when we got together again for our coffee and girl-time, I had news to impart. Big news. When the coffee was drunk I jumped to my feet. “Come on – I have to go and buy a snood!”

This was for me one of the most tangible and coveted symbols of my new condition as a kallah, a bride in the making – one that I had longed for more than words could describe. Very soon, I was - finally! - going to get to cover my hair, becoming officially recognizable, not only as a successfully married woman, but as an unquestionably frum one. For at a certain point of one’s life, if the hair still remains uncovered, there are always people who will wonder if it is due to a lack of Torah observance, not realizing that it is “only” the lack of a husband. I used to suffer keenly from these questions, usually unspoken yet somehow heard, and I am sure many other “late bloomers” have felt the same. We went together to a tichel store and I tried on snood after snood, while TF looked on, discussing the merits of each one, sharing with me a few emotional tears…

Trusty Friend (you know who you are) – kol hakavod!

Shalom Uv’racha!
Shulamit



Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Divine Parties

The Amidah, our main prayer, begins with the words “Elokei Avrohom, Elokei Yitz’chok, v’Elokei Ya’akov…” (“G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob”). The obvious question presenting itself here is, why is the text so repetitive; why not just “G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”? The phraseology teaches us that since we are all unique individuals, everyone must develop his own relationship to G-d, and must find his own personal way to serve Him, each with his own specific set of traits and talents, each person walking on his own path towards the Heavenly Throne, utilizing one’s shortcomings as well as one’s assets in Divine service.

Therefore, aside from the obligations that G-d has laid down for all of us, a person must also ask herself, “how can I do something special for Hashem?”. Thus, some perform their special, individual service of G-d through prayer, some through fasting, some through a particular type of good deed, and so on. I make parties.

It used to be even more explicitly so while I still lived in Europe; in my city I was one of a very small minority that kept mitzvos at all, much less made Shabbos and Yom Tov meals in His honor. There is a quote by Harav Aharon Kotler who said that religious outreach [to not-yet-religious fellow Jews] begins with “a glass of tea”. (In our own days, presumably, it begins with a slice of pizza – or some sushi!) The pleasures of the table, even very modest ones, are truly the way to the heart for many – don’t most of us have a childhood memory of something very delicious, the remembrance of which evokes love and longing and nostalgia? (Every wife certainly knows that her mother-in-law’s cooking is the best in the world; “almost as good as my mother’s” is the finest praise a husband can offer!) And from there, a spiritual longing is not so very far away.

Obviously, on another level, what Reb Aharon was perhaps primarily referring to, is the spirit in which the tea is offered, the warm and accepting atmosphere, and the conversation that takes place at the table. My guests, both the partially observant, and the not-yet, all knew that however much effort I put into the cooking and the table setting, my real goal was to show them the beauty of the Torah life. Indeed, it was one of these guests, a “regular”, who helped me understand my calling. One year, at the Seder table, she turned to a newcomer and said, “You see, our hostess has this mission in life to teach us unaffiliated Jews about our religion”. As she smiled fondly at me, I was hit right in the kishkes, my guts, with the truth – this was truly my mission, and right there I knew I wanted to be a Rabbi (but that is another story altogether…), or at least a Rebbetzin.

There, in Europe, I was at the center of religious outreach; here, in my new American home, I have been given a different role to play, but I still like to use my G-d-given aesthetical talents in His service. And I am not really talking about hachnossas orchim, hospitality per se, but about the artistic arrangement of the table and the premises. Thus, every Yom Tov has the added dimension for me of opportunities for – should we call it Divine Party Planning?

I have already written something about what Sukkos means to me, and now let us see what Chanukah brings. First though, a gripe: Who in the world came up with the notion that the “Chanukah colors” are blue and white, with some silver thrown in by the daring for a bit of glamour? Blue and white are the colors of the Israeli flag – and there it ends. There is no such thing (and there never has been such a thing) as Chanukah colors – not even in our over-commercialized universe. And if there were, why would they be blue and white? So un-party-like.

The challenge lies in decorating beautifully and festively, yet without accidentally making it look as if you are decorating for another holiday, lehavdil! So many of the commercially available decorations are balancing on a knife’s edge in this respect – and besides, see my gripe above about the blue-white color scheme. And we don’t want to be like the innocent children who went shopping for Sukkah decorations – which are notoriously borrowed from this other holiday – and came home with a picture of “Der Roite Rebbe”, very pretty with his red kapote, and a long, white beard! Or is that an urban myth?

I arranged my Divine Party this year in shocking pink and gold – gold really being a much more Chanukah-compatible metallic accent color than silver, since it recalls the gold of the Menorah itself, as well as many of the other Temple accoutrements; the Chanukah “gelt” (money, but literally meaning gold) that is traditionally given out during the holiday; and maybe even the golden sheen of the olive oil that we burn. Shocking pink is an obvious choice that should not need any further explanation – at least not for anyone who knows me!

Here are a few pictures for fun and inspiration…

The centerpiece with roses and candles. The gold-sprayed pumpkins were a small acknowledgement of this year's unusual combination of Chanukah and Thanksgiving.





A place setting, with the ubiquitous gold coins tied in a mesh pouch... Believe it or not, but I "invented" the use of chocolate gold coins for Chanukah thirty years ago, long before anyone else had thought of doing so - at least in Europe.


 The table at night, with all the candles lit...










Finally, just a hint of atmosphere...

And yes, I find that this added beauty of roses, pretty plates, and some extra frills enhances my overall enjoyment of Chanukah. 

Additionally, I make a point of arranging a little treat for myself every day of the holiday, whether it be some extra-delicious chocolates, a new book, or a very pink lipstick - and I advise all you over-worked wives and mothers, and women of all stripes out there, to do the same! "Ein simcha ela b'basar v'yayin" - there is no joy without meat and wine - is a Talmudic dictum that clearly acknowledges that spiritual joy is enhanced by physical pleasure. So whatever your "meat and wine" might be, do not forgo it. It doesn't have to be expensive or outrageous, but it has to be enjoyable. You are the backbone of Am Yisrael, and you need to cultivate the joy in your life.

When I sit and gaze at the golden flames with a cup of peppermint tea, or a glass of wine, and the aforementioned chocolates at hand, I find it even easier to contemplate the gratitude for Hashem's miracles that is the great message of these eight beautiful days.

Shalom Uv'racha!
Shulamit