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...