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!

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!

PS: If you enjoyed this post you might want to explore my companion blog Rosebud's Castle, where I write about things like interior decorating, party planning, and the occasional recipe...

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Voice that Spoke

Coming to America from Europe, and coming from a place where even the Orthodox Jews were fairly undistinguishable from their surroundings both in looks and in outlook, to living life in a frum community, was more than a culture shock – it was space travel! I had been religiously observant for many years already, had brought up my children to be shomer Shabbos and keep mitzvos, was indeed considered something of a religious fanatic in my home town, but – this! Real life people, looking and behaving like something out of a library book (because in der alter heim, we only had a Jewish library – no Hebrew book stores).

I wanted to live a Torah-observant life, there was no doubt about that – it was the reason we had moved to the US – but there was still a little part of me that wanted it on my own terms, so to speak; a part that would have liked to adapt certain chapters of the Torah to my own sensibilities, rather than to adapt myself, unreservedly, to the will of the Borei Olam – the Creator of the Universe. In other words I was at that time, regrettably, one of those about whom Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch said: “We must reform the Jews – not the Judaism”.

Additionally, there was all this intensity that I had never experienced before, the all-or-nothing-ness, so uncompromisingly and incessantly involved with the innumerable minutiae of observance, where so many things were “not done” even though they might not be outright forbidden, where everybody lived according to endless, complicated minhagim that had not even been hinted at in any of the many books on halocha I had devoured – it was scary! I, who had been used to being considered quite knowledgeable, found myself making one clumsy gaffe after another.

There was also my own, personal shock of having been a relatively big fish in a small pond for many years, but now being suddenly a nobody, demoted to the level of those at the lower end of the observant spectrum – something that was surprisingly painful. As Rashi points out in his commentary on Parshas Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:2), when a person leaves his native country, one of the things diminished in the process is his fame – his status, his renommé – and he becomes an anonymous unknown. Like Avraham Avinu, lehavdil, I had left my home country for the purpose of living closer to Hashem, and I knew exactly what Rashi was talking about. (It should be noted, perhaps, that my new acquaintances were kind and encouraging, not in the least judgmental of my “lesser” background, but I had eyes to see with; it was clear to me that I was not up to standard.)

To say that I was disoriented, would have been entirely accurate.

Then came the momentous day, perhaps two years into my foreign adventure, when I was standing in my bedroom one morning, fiddling with something in a drawer, and pondering something regarding a potential date, my hopes for the future, or some such, turning over a few things in my mind. The sun was coming in brightly through the window – I remember so clearly the rays on my cheek.

And suddenly, out of nowhere – what was it that happened? An unexpected, unsolicited insight; a conclusion that was not the fruit of my ruminations; an unperceived, unsuspected conflict, suddenly resolved; conviction born in the blink of an eye; knowledge hitherto unrecognized; a light that reached into the soul; words not chosen, nor strung together, by me, but yet so very clearly enunciated – I can only call it: “G-d spoke to me”.

“Don’t you see that this is your only road to true happiness, that this is what I have always held up to you, what I have wanted for you all these years?” (This, being of course the Torah life, held up in front of my eyes, for me to see, desire and embrace.) “How long are you going to fight Me?” What do You mean? Fight? I’m not fighting You – I believe in You; I am shomer shabbos, I keep kosher, I keep everything as best I can! Had I been fighting against Him? Surely not!

But in a flash I understood that my fear of being swallowed up alive, as it were, by the overwhelming intensity; my reluctance to look like “them” with a little stretchy bag over my head (if I ever managed to get married); my need to assert my own standpoint; my divided attentions and loyalties, were exactly that – a fight against complete, wholehearted surrender and commitment to Hashem and His eternal truth. It was perhaps the difference between actually getting married and remaining eternally, conveniently, engaged. In love, certainly, but with a feeling of “yes, but what if it doesn’t work out?”.

And He continued, in words that are forever etched on my mind: “How are things going to be between us? As long as you compromise with Me, I shall compromise with you.”

It was clear that He meant it. My response was instinctive and immediate – and without the slightest doubt or hesitation. No, no, Hashem – I don’t want to be compromised with!

And it was like a clarity and peace came over me – it was so obviously the right thing. No more holding back. No more “what if”. Let’s get married! I am yours, and I want you to be mine. Ani l’dodi v’dodi li. I will stop compromising with you this minute!

And I did.

Shalom Uv'racha!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Israel Diary 2: Home Alone

I am happy to say I feel very much at home when I am in Eretz Yisrael. I feel safe and connected, and I never thought it would make a difference if I went there on my own or with company, but this past winter, as I mentioned last week, I went there by myself and I had a very unexpected experience – I felt lonely. I don’t think it was primarily for lack of my husband’s company on a purely simplistic, “social” level – I am independent to a fault, and have always had a great need for alone time. I am usually able to entertain myself very well, and often relish my privacy.

However, to begin with, I was staying in a neighborhood that was new to me, Giv’at Hav’radim, also known as Rassco – which actually stands for something as unglamorous as “Rural and Suburban Settlement Company” – west of Katamon, because kind relatives had made available their gorgeous apartment free of charge. It was a far cry from where we usually stay, in a small rental efficiency in Zichron Moshe, a stone’s throw from Kikar Shabbat.

In Zichron Moshe you are surrounded by pious, frum, Jews all day long, whether you like it or not. But I like – you don’t feel lonely when Hashem’s ambassadors are running about all over the place. They are also noisy, so you feel irritated – but not lonely. In Rassco, frum Jews are very few and extremely far between. In fact, I saw none. (The Jews I did see must, sadly, not have been aware that they were supposed to be Hashem’s ambassadors.) Only walking east towards Katamon, as I did on my second Shabbos, did they become visible. Also, it was very quiet in the apartment, with only sounds of distant cars, but none of human voices. Almost eerie.

It also has to be said that when it comes to securing invitations for Shabbos meals and the like, my husband is second to none, and very useful to take along on any kind of outlandish venture. He has no social barriers whatsoever. He can go up to a complete stranger and say “When are we coming to you for a se’udah?” No kidding – I have seen it with my own eyes. People are usually too stunned to refuse. Then again, many actually enjoy it; my husband is very good company and can make anyone feel at ease right away. Even farfrumte women will sit and talk to him as if he were their cousin. It is a particular gift, an extraordinary measure of chen, the blessing of finding favor in the eyes of others, that the Creator has given him. I myself am not like that. I have barriers. Very barriers.

For the first Shabbos, I went to stay with my darling friend and her husband in Efrata, but as my second Shabbos in Yerushalayim approached I was actually stuck, being that several promising leads had fizzled into nothingness. The day meal was taken care of, but I was facing the possibility of a Friday night se’udah all alone, and it got to the point that I was toying with the idea of booking myself for a meal for a fortune at the relatively nearby Prima Kings Hotel, just to be surrounded by human faces. In Zichron Moshe I might have been able to make Shabbos on my own and be okay, but in Rassco I would have felt utterly desolate and desperate. Finally, my husband (boruch Hashem for Skype!) was the one who came to the rescue and set it up – from home – by making a few well-placed phone calls and arranging a pleasant evening with a wonderful family in Katamon.

But there was also another kind of loneliness, one that is harder to pinpoint, and which is actually the topic of this post. I made a very interesting discovery – one which is a bit complicated to break down into logical thinking or meaningful words. I am not even sure how I came to this surprising conclusion (unless it came to me through the influence of having sat in the Rebbe’s seat!), because there is still a little part of me that is vaguely suspicious of this kind of thinking. All the same, here it is: Being in the Holy Land without my holy husband felt – less holy.

Dare I actually proclaim that there might be a dimension of kedusha, of holiness, and connection to the Divine, that is brought into the world exclusively through the male – just as there is another one, given birth to, and nurtured, by the female? I am confused, and I am unsure of how it is actually working, but something tells me that it is so. (And if you are going to tell me that: duh! – this is what the Rabbis have been saying all along, I would retort that certain things are not true and "real” to you, unless you are able to experience them on an internal, emotional level.)

Rebbetzin Tzippora Heller, in her book “The Balancing Act” writes obscure things about “men bringing down Torah and women building with it”, and honestly, I don’t have a clue what she is talking about, and I wish she would explain herself, but I had a bit of an inkling, over there in Rassco. Obviously, I went to the Kosel, the Western Wall, and of course I went to visit my very holy Rebbetzin in Meah Shearim, and I went to pray at the graves of tzaddikim, and to a women’s Torah lecture, and I had two beautiful Shabbosim with frum families – and yet, there was a dimension that was missing from this experience.

On a pedestrian, logistical level, a man’s constant concern about davening and z’manim (the daily prayer services at the proper appointed times) is a perpetual reminder of our connection to Heaven, but it goes deeper than that and it is more subtle than that. Perhaps it is the fact that two – connected – minds are involved with avodas Hashem, Divine service, instead of only one? 

Could it be that men, because they are so different from normal people (women), transmit their spiritual experience to us in a way that adds something novel to ours? They burst in through the door and carry on with this mishna, and that shita; and guess what the gabbai said?; and it is quite remarkable how people don’t enunciate their brochos properly and am I really supposed to answer Amen to that garbled nonsense?; and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has a real bomb on this week’s parsha! And we say “that's lovely, darling – here are your eggs”, but all the same we are affected – in a good way. A holy way, I think, because it adds a dimension that we women are not usually directly involved with.

But maybe it is even more subtle than that? When Hashem is beaming His Presence into our material universe, could it be that the female and male “receptors” are quite simply so different that we will absorb different aspects of the Shechina, in radically different ways? That our very fundamental concepts of Heaven might be light years apart? If the male conquers and the female nurtures, it stands to reason that we should perceive the spiritual world in different terms. And considering that we women and men were created to complement and complete each other, we each need the other’s vision. Without this other vision there was something missing from my life – and I felt lonely.

I once had a female coworker of an older generation who told me about a woman of her acquaintance who prayed “just like a man” three times a day. “She never got married” my coworker explained, “so she doesn’t have a husband to pray for her – she has to do it herself.” Strictly speaking, this may have been a little bit of a misconception on my coworker’s part regarding the role of prayer in a woman’s life, but the concept appealed to me, and has lingered in my mind these fifteen years. The husband prays for – and on behalf of – his wife, and she – well, she does all the other thousand-and-one things for him, and they both benefit.

Perhaps it was as simple as that – on this trip I didn’t have my man there to pray for me; I was home alone.

Shalom Uv'racha!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Israel Diary 1: Sitting in the Rebbe’s Seat

Last January I went to Eretz Yisrael all by myself. Difficult logistics and conflicting schedules meant that my husband and I had been unable to organize a proper winter vacation together, as we normally do. Finally he said: “Why don’t you go on your own? You’ll be frustrated without a vacation, and then I’ll be frustrated also. If you want, just go – then I can relax too!” Smart guy.

So I went alone to Yerushalayim for two weeks, and besides being wonderful, it was also an interesting experience – one that I will digress on more another time. But now I want to tell you about a small, but extraordinary, thing that happened to me.

In order to ensure that I would have a meaningful experience I had decided from the outset to go on some kind of excursion. However, I felt it would be a bit unfair to my husband to go somewhere new and exciting, where by rights we ought to go together, so I signed up for an old Hoffman favorite, “Holy Places of the North”, consisting mainly of visits to the graves of tzaddikim – very great and very holy persons. You can’t get too much of that.

The little 15-seater bus that picked me up at the designated spot that morning was pleasingly half-full (you see what an optimist I am) so, naturally, I grabbed the seat immediately behind the driver and prepared myself for a day in splendid comfort. Unfortunately, it soon turned out that this was only the shuttle that would take us to the real bus, a monster of a vehicle, stuffed to the rafters with Jews who were on a quest for more graves of more tzaddikim. (Luckily though, I am much more tolerant of physical discomfort in Eretz Yisrael than I am here – because there I am more in touch with the spiritual aspects of life, I think – so I didn’t mind too much how we all had to climb over each other and get our shins scraped in the process.)

During the drive to the Real Bus, the driver proudly regaled us with the full scoop of how, only two days previously, he himself had had the privilege of picking up none other than the Satmar Rebbe from the Ben Gurion airport, and driving the Rebbe, in this very bus, to Meah Shearim. We were all suitably awed and impressed. Then the driver caught my eye in the rear view mirror – and spoke some words that significantly upgraded my life, right then and there. “The Rebbe was sitting exactly where you are sitting now”, he said to me. Did my ears deceive me? Nope. “He sat exactly in that seat” the driver confirmed, “and you know what – nobody else has sat in that seat between him and you!”

How do I describe the sensations that coursed through me? Perhaps I ought to clarify that I am not chassidish, not of any stripe. Based on my family background I would be a yekke, a German Jew; by choice of Rabbi, a Litvak. And yet, sitting in a seat that had so recently been occupied by a great Rebbe, a tzaddik, felt like an honor, a crazy kind of z’chus. If you think about it, considering that the Satmar Rebbe doesn’t generally go by public transportation, it is the kind of thing that probably doesn’t happen too often to anyone – especially to a woman. Was Hashem bestowing upon me some special kind of gift? Were there still some lingering sparks of Divine energy that were to be transmitted to me by means of a bus seat? What was the big idea? It is said that a tzaddik cannot stand in the place of a ba’al teshuva, a person who has returned to the Torah life – but maybe a ba’alas teshuva can sit in the seat of a tzaddik

So much fuss about nothing, you say? Perhaps, but life is largely made up of small moments and nothingnesses, and we must continuously look for the message in everything that comes onto our path. I am still not sure what the message was in this case, but I think it will come to me. In the meantime, let us just say that I’m sitting tight.

Shalom Uv'racha!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

My Daily Korban

Last week I posted an article dealing with my initial difficulties in keeping kosher. The article was first published on, the website of Aish HaTorah, where I received several comments with positive feedback, which was immensely encouraging to me.

One Anonymous commentator wrote: “Thank G-d it is possible to enjoy the tastes of several non-kosher foods by using substitutes. […] We are blessed with so many delicious and healthy kosher foods, I never miss the non-kosher ones!” My first, spontaneous reaction was, “lucky you – I wish I could agree”, because to this day, thirty years after the events I described, I am still beset with cravings for certain off-limits items. Thanks to Hashem’s intervention I no longer give in to those cravings, but they are lurking about on the outskirts of the premises.

Yes, there are kosher substitutes for some treif things, and they are acceptable, but no, they do not measure up to the originals. Dear Anonymous, if you had ever tasted real crab, or certain other things I could mention if I wanted to, you would know the difference – but I am glad for your sake that you haven’t.

One particular hobby horse of mine is cheese. Why can’t I get good kosher cheese? No, I’m sorry, the cheese available to me on the American kosher market doesn’t satisfy me – it wouldn’t satisfy anybody who has once known better. Incidentally, this is one of the many, many perks for me of going to Eretz Yisrael – that I can actually get quality kosher cheese. I always stock up like mad, but how much cheese can one law-abiding citizen smuggle into the country? Not nearly enough. And even then, there still seems to be certain types of cheese that are simply not made “in kosher”.

You hear the rant? This mental savoring of gustatory memories? Isn’t it despicable? Pathetic? There are times when I worry, and wonder if this makes me a bad person, an inferior Jew who is somehow less than wholehearted in her mitzvah observance.

But my second reaction is “lucky me!”, because my persistent temptations mean that I am zoche to be mekayem, I have the merit to perpetuate the essence of, this dictum by Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah: “[…] a person should not say, ‘I loathe swine’s flesh’ […] But he should say, ‘I do desire; yet what can I do when my Father in Heaven has decreed upon me [against it]?’” (cited by Rashi, on Vayikra 20:26).

That’s me – I am that person!

Do I always have this noble awareness? No, I am sorry to say that there are moments when I pout and stamp my little foot. But then I try to shift my consciousness into a higher gear, and I say to myself, “Listen, you fool, here you have the supreme opportunity to take your appetite and give it up, according to the will of your Father in Heaven, for the purpose of holiness; you are in the position – the enviable position! – of being able to bring a sacrifice, a korban, of your desires”.

Furthermore, thanks to the kindness of Heaven, I am fortunate enough to live in a place, at a time in history, when eating may take place several times every day, so each day I am able to bring this sacrifice, just like, lehavdil, the daily korbanos were brought in the times of the Beis Hamikdash.

This personal sacrifice, based on individual perceptions, which is just as much about midos and character development as it is about adherence to law, is the kind of sacrifice which we are told that Hashem likes. So it would seem that I may possibly have an advantage over all you other kosher-keeping people who don’t even know what you are missing; or who don’t miss what you do know. Not to boast, of course!

Just as I am writing this, a funny and ironic thought occurs to me: as I have indicated previously, my husband makes his living as a mashgiach, a kashrus supervisor. Could it be that the Ultimate Supervisor, Who already sent angels to support me in this particular area, thought I needed a little extra supervising? Could it mean that He was thinking to Himself, “better safe than sorry, so let Us put somebody on her case 24/7, just to make sure”? The more I think about it, the more poignant the idea becomes. And if that is so – well, then here, ladies and gentlemen, comes the inescapable conclusion: My husband is my Angel.

But now, if you’ll excuse me, it is time for a little snack. I am just going into the kitchen to bring my daily korban.

Shalom Uv'racha!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Three Angels

In Parshas Vayera, in Sefer Bereishis, (Genesis 18), we learn of the three angels who come to visit Avrohom and Sarah. To all outward appearances, they are three men on a journey, and Avrohom receives them the way he would receive any mortal guests. Only later does he – and we – realize that the men are really messengers from G’d – they are angels.

One of the many things we can learn from this narrative is that sometimes, what may look like an ordinary human being is, in reality, an angel. To illustrate this with a personal example I shall take you back to a time - about three decades ago - when I had recently begun to keep kosher. This was a very difficult thing for me to do. I had already been keeping Shabbos and many other mitzvos for many years, but to keep kosher was the biggest hurdle of all. 

I was constantly beset by temptations and cravings for certain dishes that were no longer on the permissible menu, and finally I thought I would do what it says somewhere in the Talmud about a person who is possessed with the urge to sin. If he is unable to contain himself, let him put on dark clothes, go to another city where he will not be recognized, sin, and be done with it. I know that this is very far from what the Rabbis recommend, or even sanction, but if need be, the Evil Inclination will even pervert the meaning of the Gemorah in his campaign to ensnare us. I kept thinking, “just once, just one last time - to kiss it goodbye”.

So I went, not to another city, but to a big, anonymous supermarket in another neighborhood, in pursuit of the forbidden fruit. As I approached the counter where the desired item was sold, I suddenly caught sight of two Jewish women of my acquaintance, who were standing right in front of that counter. They were deeply engrossed in conversation and effectively blocking my path; I was well known in the Jewish community of my home town, and I was certainly not going to let anyone know about my embarrassing culinary proclivities! 

I decided to bide my time. I wandered off and bought some vegetables and then tried again, but the ladies had not moved from their spot. I made another round. Still there! This kept on for quite a while, until, at long last, the coast was clear; I could make my purchase and retire home to my guilty pleasures.

Nevertheless, there was one more article of food I was hankering after like mad, and the next day I decided to get that too out of my system with one final indulgence. But this time I was determined to be smarter, so I went to a suburb, to a supermarket where I never normally shopped, in the certainty that there I would encounter no familiar faces. So, as I am sitting there on the bus, bound for my unlawful goal, and basically minding my own business, a woman suddenly plonks herself down on the seat next to mine. “Hello!" she says, "how are you?” 

What do you know – it is the mother of one of my bas mitzvah students! We talk, and when I get off the bus she does too, and I suddenly realize that she actually lives in this suburb. Great! As “luck” would have it, she is also bound for the food market. Super! She seems glad of the company, but I, of course, am less excited. We walk along the aisles, filling our baskets with various – kosher – products, and the woman doesn’t budge from my side! Finally we pass, together, through the cash register, and only outside on the sidewalk does she leave me alone. She says goodbye and walks off, and I return into the store, buy what I came for, head back home and have my illicit little party. 

And then it hits me!!!

Now, if I had lived in Biblical times, I might have described these events a little differently, maybe something like this: 

“And it happened in those days that I walked upon the path of iniquity. But behold – two angels of the Lord appeared before me. And lo! the angels spake unto me and they said ‘Get thee hence, be gone from this abomination, and run not after the lust of thy heart!’ But alas, I heeded them not, and I sinned. And on the second day I followed my evil desires anew. And behold – the Lord sent an angel to walk with me and lo! the angel spake unto me and it said ‘Woe is thee, that thou runnest after the lust of thine eyes! Walk with me on the path of righteousness.’ But alas and alack, I hardened my heart and I heeded it not, and verily I sinned.”

Yes, that is how I might have described it, because in those days people – even sinners – were more finely attuned to Divine messages, and when it pleased G’d to send them an angel or two, they sat up and took notice. 

I cannot even describe how devastated I was when I realized the full implications of what had happened. These three women had come in my way for a purpose; they had been messengers from G'd. The women were clearly angels that He had sent me in order to prevent me from transgressing, and their very presence “spoke” quite eloquently to me. Hashem had made every effort to keep me on the right path, but I had not been receptive, I had not listened to the message. The worst thing was not that I had eaten forbidden foods – bad enough as that was – but that I had turned a deaf ear to G’d and “hardened my heart”. That was what crushed me. (Need I say that I never ate treif again?)

Thus it seems that we can all be angels, at times through an act, a word, or even just a smile that is bestowed when one is needed. Sometimes, though, as in the case of my three "angels", all it takes is to be in the right place at the right time. If we can remain conscious of this it is one of the things that can make our lives very meaningful - to know that even when we are committing no heroic acts we may still, at any moment, be the emissaries of G'd, carrying within us the message that can change another person's life for the better - for good!

Shalom Uv'racha!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Out There

In a certain romantic movie which was made about twenty-five years ago, there is a brief scene that made a deep impression on me when I saw it then, and which resonates with me to this day. A woman, who has just received news that her best friend has once again had a disappointment in the love department and is facing a break-up, turns to her new-found love, the man she has just moved in with, and says to him, with a shudder and a note of imploring urgency in her voice, “Please tell me I never have to be out there again!” He holds her tight and assures her tenderly, “You never have to be out there again!”

In just a few words, an entire world of despair has been encapsulated and made vivid. “Out there” is a very scary place to be; I know – I have been there. Not only is it a lonely location, it is a place of shattered dreams and crushing disappointments where the heart suffers daily exhaustion; an emotional emergency room where hope is, if not dead, at least in a coma.

When I got married I finally understood what Biblical Naomi meant when she said to her daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpa, “May you find menucha – rest – each in her husband’s house”. I used to think that it was a bit lame. Surely you don’t dream of marriage so you should be able to finally relax and have a good rest? I didn’t want rest – I wanted romance and excitement!

But I believe Naomi is talking about menuchas hanefesh – not the physical peace and quiet that may first come to mind, but tranquility, ease of spirit, emotional security; the complete freedom from the anxieties of “does he REALLY like me?” – in fact, the absolute opposite of “out there”. It is the menucha of never again having to wonder if he is going to call.

Not that husbands always call, mind you; my own frequently goes Missing In Action. Without a cell phone, he is conveniently incommunicado – conveniently for him, that is. But the basic peace of mind is there, something that is very important for a woman if she is going to be able to be her best.

One of the books sitting in our bathroom right now is “What Women Want Men to Know” by “human relations expert” Barbara de Angelis, Ph.D. She outlines Three Basic Truths about women, and in doing so ends up with something so close to what the Torah and the Chaza”l are saying, that I just know she is on to something.

Her Three Basic Truths about women are: we put love first; we are creators; we have a sacred relationship to time.

Therefore – no, we are not obsessive or controlling when it comes to the human relationships (romantic or otherwise) in our lives – we are just expressing our inner truth that love, in all its forms, is one of the primary concerns of our existence; and we will go to any lengths necessary to safeguard that love.

As creators of life, we create and improve wherever we go; our creativity knows no bounds and expresses itself in a myriad ways, from childbirth to selecting the right shade of lipstick, to “improving” our husbands. We are not saying that he – or the current lipstick – is bad; we are just constantly busy building an even better world.

One of the reasons put forth why a woman is generally exempt from most of the time-bound mitzvos, is that, by dint of her innate biological rhythm, she is already aware of Divine time and requires no further reminder. She carries the moed, the designated season, within her, and her awareness of time makes her different from a man in that she counts every minute, every day, every year that passes, and invests it with a deep meaning.

I have to say that I am quite impressed that Dr. de Angelis - who describes herself as a "liberal thinker" - allows herself to subscribe to a world view in which a woman’s psychological makeup is seen to be informed by her biological nature – this is in such stark contrast to the politically correct tenets of our times. (She even goes so far as to draw an analogy between a woman's style of communication - round and round in a spiral-like digression on her topic - and the rounded, spiral-like shape of her womb; while a man's communication style is more - how shall I put it? - to the point.) The Chaza”l, our Sages, have always made the point that the external mirrors the internal; that the physiological is a representation of the spiritual, but this is not something one expects to hear “out there”, among the sociologists and psychologists – be they Jewish or Gentile.

Dr. de Angelis also points out that a woman has a “secret” – or at least often unacknowledged and unrecognized – need to feel safe; only when she is emotionally safe, does she become free to express herself fully, and let go of certain destructive behaviors.

This is something I noticed in my own life many years ago, long before I was validated by Dr. de Angelis. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to become critical and – dare I say it? – to nag. However, interestingly enough, self-analysis finally revealed to me that this unbecoming trait really only comes to the surface when I am nervous – when I feel emotionally unsafe. It is the need for answers and reassurance that makes me run after you and nag; it is the fear of avoidance and indifference, and the fear of the unknown, that make my inner critic rear its head. And this applies not only to the marital relationship. In earlier years, my children also sometimes suffered from this tendency of mine, and I have realized that it holds true in the parental relationship as well – as a single mother I felt extremely unsafe a lot of the time. The image that comes to my mind is the furiously pecking chicken – but a chicken only pecks when she is under duress.

Menucha in the tent!
(Image from
This is why there is a great brocho in Naomi’s wish for menucha – the condition that will keep a woman protected from the emotional anxiety of “out there”, and thus able to fulfill her true potential. May we all find menucha in our marriages - and in our tents.

Shalom Uv’racha!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Real Heroes

This year I actually went to hear a Shabbos Shuva drosha. The z’chus, merit, goes to my husband, for prodding me, but my own z’chus lies in the fact that I managed to stay awake. No offense or disrespect to the Rabbi, who is an excellent speaker with a lot of substance, but all that sitting still, after a good Shabbos meal – you know what I am talking about.

What the Rabbi was talking about, was a Midrash (cited as such both by the Maharal in Netivos Olam, and by HaKosev in his commentary on Ayin Yaakov; both of whom also profess to having been unable to trace it), where three Rabbis are having a debate about quite an interesting topic: Which pasuk, which singular verse, in the Chumash could be said, beyond all others, to encapsulate the entire message of the Torah.

Ben Zoma says: “Sh’ma Yisrael, Hashem Elokenu, Hashem echad!” (Hear Israel, Hashem our G-d, Hashem is one. Devarim 6:4). Often referred to as the Jewish “declaration of faith”, this suggestion would make sense to most of us – what could be more fundamental than our relationship to G-d?

Nanas says that it is: “V’ahavta lere’acha kamocha” (And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Vayikra 19:18) Again, this pivotal pasuk brings us a message of love and charity that has brought ethics and conscience to all of the civilized world – certainly this is a paramount digest of the entire Torah!

However, Shimon ben Pazi brings up a pasuk that is much less known, at least among the general public: “Et-hakeves echad ta’aseh vaboker, v’et hakeves hasheni ta’aseh bein ha’arbayim” (The one lamb shall you offer in the morning; and the other lamb shall you offer at evening. Bamidbar 28:4) And the text of the Midrash - somewhat surprisingly - concludes that, basically, the Academy Award goes to Shimon ben Pazi.

The reason is that what makes Jews survive as Jews is the daily, constant, unremitting performance of mitzvos – morning and evening, rain or shine, inspired or uninspired. Ultimately, this is what will pass the Torah on to the next generation – not lofty theology; nor ethical societies, however noble. Sadly, very few Reform or Conservative Jews manage to convincingly pass on to their heirs any real commitment to remaining Jewish on any level – and they are the ones who most proudly reiterate the Jewish tenets of faith and ethics.

During one of our journeys to Eretz Yisrael, a number of years ago, my husband and I went on a Hoffman tour of the holy places in the north. It came time for mincha, and a few more men were needed for a minyan. The search began, while the mincha time window was rapidly closing. In the nick of time some men were found – young Sefardi workers, in their worker’s gear, a few tzitzis here and there; they put a “Be Back Soon” sign on their shop doors, and came running to join the quorum. One or two had already prayed the afternoon service, but – look, mincha must be attended to, a minyan is needed, a Jew has to help.

Once we were back on the bus again, my husband turned to me and said, “those young workers are the real, live heroes!”. And he has been saying so ever since. The real heroes are the ones who quietly, faithfully, unpretentiously, unremittingly go on doing mitzvos, and go on helping their neighbor do mitzvos; keeping the wheels turning, upholding the Kingdom of Heaven through a myriad of small actions and punctilious observances. You may be a simple laborer, with or without education, but you know what needs to be done – so you do it. Doesn’t matter if you “feel” it, if you are in the mood – you just keep doing it, putting one foot in front of the other, “one sheep in the morning, and the other sheep in the evening”.

These everyday heroes above were male, and indeed many are, but I can’t help feeling that this type of simple, dogged, persevering avodas Hashem, Divine service, is a particular domain of women. It is so often the women who pay attention to the little things, who have that extra measure of patience – and stubbornness – that enables one to “soldier on” with mitzvos on a daily, regular, unassuming basis, without looking for recognition or reward. Mothers, particularly, come to mind…

In his Shabbos Shuva drosha, the Rabbi also recounted an anecdote from the aftermath of the Holocaust, which we have heard many times before, but which never fails to move me deeply. A Rabbi is traveling through war-ravaged Europe, searching for orphaned Jewish children who have been hidden and rescued to physical survival by non-Jews, in order to now rescue them back to spiritual life. In a certain convent, the staff is unwilling to admit the Rabbi, since they want to keep charge of the little souls who are unaware of their Jewish identity, by now have been baptized, and are being raised as Christians. In spite of their insistence that no Jewish children have ever been sheltered there, the Rabbi cajoles the priest into giving him two minutes to take a quick look. The request is granted – after all, what can you achieve in two minutes? The Rabbi steps into the crowded dormitory and says in a loud voice: “Sh’ma Yisroel, Hashem Elokenu, Hashem echad!” Immediately, numerous little voices respond from around the room: “Boruch shem k’vod Malchuso l’olam va’ed!” (In another, similar situation, small children responded by automatically, reflexively, covering their eyes, according to the established practice of doing so when reciting the Sh’ma.)

Surely the mothers of these little ones, who, night after night, had put their children to bed with the Sh’ma on their lips weren’t always so inspired; surely the fatigue of mounds of laundry and potatoes to be peeled and floors to be scrubbed, must have tempted them occasionally to forgo the evening prayers with their children, but they kept doing it nonetheless, faithfully, unremittingly, because this is what the Torah tells us – “one sheep in the morning and the other sheep in the evening”. These were the real heroines! And this practice was what succeeded in transmitting the Torah to these little boys and girls, thereby safeguarding their spiritual future. Nothing else – no theology or ethics in the world – could have achieved the same triumphant result.

Not a day of my life goes by that I do not brood about the many mistakes I made as a young mother, trying to raise my children. Obviously, like most mothers, I tried to do the best I could with what I had, but what I had was so inadequate. Among my many mistakes was not to put my children to bed with the Sh’ma on their lips and mine. Had I realized the importance of it – had I been familiar then with the above anecdote – I would have. I don’t mean this in a simplistic way – because I know so well that G-d is no Santa Claus, and we are not rewarded as an automatic consequence of having “pushed the right button” – but I can’t help wondering: if I had, would their lives have looked different today?

As we were walking home from the Shabbos Shuva drosha, my husband turned to me and asked, “Who are the real heroes?”. I have been coached well over the years, so I knew what to answer: “the Sefardi workers at mincha time in Tz’fat!”

Shalom Uv'racha!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Dwelling in the Sukkah

Once again, we are approaching the Time of Our Joy – Sukkos, my favorite time of the year. There is much to prepare, and in our marriage we have worked out a division of labor – it is only fair, right? Everyone has to contribute. What we do is this: I build the sukkah; my husband stays out of the way. 

(There seems to exist a home movie of my husband from the late fifties, when he was a toddler barely in his third year, sitting in his crib and happily minding his own business. Apparently, his father stuck a screwdriver in his son's hand and started the camera. In two minutes flat, toddler-boy found all the screws and took his whole crib apart, laughing maniacally as it fell asunder about him. Demolition - he's your man. Construction? Not so much.)

My husband is very proud of how he has perfected his skills over the years – he will be the first to tell you that he is now able to stay out of the way b’hiddur – a mitzvah beautified! Sometimes though, the stress of it all gets to him, and he might want to come home and relax, and then I may have to tell him, “I’m sorry, sweetheart, but there’s still some more way to be stayed out of!” And he soldiers on, heroically.

Personally, I couldn’t stay away if you paid me. I love building the sukkah; I love decorating it and beautifying it; I love dwelling in it. I feel like I am creating this little holy place in the universe for G-d to come and live in, with us; I get to play house with Hashem. He is the Daddy. And nowhere else – except by the Kotel – do I feel as close to Him as I do in the sukkah.

For many years now, I have taken upon myself not to eat bread or grain products, or to drink wine (which I do a lot), outside the sukkah, and, weather permitting, I usually try to sleep in the sukkah at least a couple of nights. My husband is fragile; he sleeps indoors. As a woman I am not obligated to keep any of these observances, which are time-bound and therefore incumbent only on men. Women are exempt from mitzvos aseh shehaz’man gramma, “positive” time-bound mitzvos, and that is the commonly cited reason why women are not obligated to dwell in the sukkah.

If you ask me, I don't think that is the whole story – there are many other holiday observances that are even more strictly time-bound than sukkah, such as fasting on Yom Kippur, hearing the Megillah, drinking four cups of wine and eating matzo during the Seder, Maggid - the retelling of the Exodus, kindling Chanukah lights, and others (not to mention Kiddush every Shabbos), that are nonetheless equally incumbent on women; and don't forget that it is universally accepted that women have taken upon themselves to take the Arba Minim, the Four Species - and Ashkenazi women make a brocho on them. There has to be some further factor involved here. 

I bellieve it has to do with the fact that the sukkah is external, outdoors, outside the tent, if you will, and therefore bordering on the public sphere. Not that a Jewish woman is prohibited from entering the public sphere, but the Torah always exempts her from any necessity of doing so. In some places it actually was a public sphere – where it may have been necessary for several families to share a sukkah, or if the only one available was the Community sukkah; and in such cases it would not be proper for a woman to mingle with men from outside her own household – or for those men to mingle with her. (Of course, the perfect solution would be to build a separate women's sukkah. In pink.) Additionally, a mother needs to be where her children are (which is why she is exempt from time-bound mitzvos in the first place), and even though babies are certainly brought out to experience the sukkah, I don’t think it has ever been suggested that all the cribs should be moved out for the duration. (Furthermore, some of the activities involved in child care, such as changing dirty diapers, may not even be permissible in the sukkah.) Consequently, she is not obligated. 

Then again, you might not bother to ask me.

So I do these things fully aware that there may be no s’char, Heavenly reward, in store for the whole venture; we are rewarded for fulfilling our obligations, not for doing things – even praiseworthy things – according to our own desires. (Except for the actual building of the sukkah, of course, by which I enable my husband to fulfill his obligation to dwell therein.) But who knows – maybe there could be just an itsy-bitsy, teensy-weensy, little baby s’char? If not, there is always the reward that lies inside the sukkah right now.*

Being that I am very interested in interior decorating, I have to tell you a little bit about what it looks like. Our balcony allows only for a 6'x9' edifice, and it is a canvas sukkah - a support structure of metal tubing, covered all around with canvas walls. My walls, however, are not made from canvas, but from a floral upholstery fabric, which I lugged home in my younger, more vigorous days, and sewed together, yard after yard, with Velcro flaps to hold it in place. The fabric is very sturdy, and holds up beautifully both in rain and shine.

I wanted my sukkah to be decorated with elements from nature, but at the same time I was not interested in the seasonal fall colors, which might have been an obvious choice. It took a bit of searching, but a finally found this material - green, covered all over with pink roses and other florals. Thus, the sukkah is already its own decoration – but it doesn’t stop there…
The western wall, by the entrance - last year's look
A view towards the east, with a draped seat of honor for my husband

The table is set and waiting for the Ushpizin
Oh yes, a person like me can have a lot of fun with this Yom Tov! I hope you will too - Chag Sameach!

Shalom Uv'racha!

PS: If you enjoyed this post you might want to explore my companion blog Rosebud's Castle, where I write about things like interior decorating, party planning, and the occasional recipe...

*PPS: Since I wrote this post I have been delighted to discover from a reliable halachic source that if a woman does dwell in the Sukkah it is actually counted in her favor, as if she had performed a bona fide Divine commandment - in Frumspeak parlance, "she gets a mitzvah" - and she does receive s'char, Heavenly reward, for what she has done.