Monday, September 29, 2014

Pain in the Neck

How is the new year going so far? How was your Rosh Hashanah? And – the question on everybody’s lips this time of year – what time did you get out of shul? Do you belong to the 5 pm crowd? Or only the 3:30 community? As for myself, I was in a shul that finished at 1:30. Very humane. I have a suspicion that if you haven’t been able to “get through” by 1:30, those extra three hours probably won’t help much.

However, the real issue this year was that I almost didn’t get there.

Like every other self-respecting female, I spent the entire Erev Yom Tov baking, cooking, and preparing – and enjoying it. I am also incredibly fortunate in that throughout the day, there were people who called to wish me a good year. So – what does one do? One clamps the phone between the ear and the shoulder, and keeps stirring the tzimmes. This technique used to work just fine in the past – as long as one is young and limber one gets away with it, but suddenly one day the body protests, and says “enough of this abuse”, and before one knows one is sitting at the Yom Tov table, barely able to dip the sheep’s head in the honey for sheer pain. In my case the neck pain radiated into the whole shoulder and down into the rib cage, with the result that I could not breathe more than the tiniest gasps for air – or suffer the torture of what felt like a knife stabbing me. Needless to say, the whole first night of the new year was nightmarish; hardly any sleep, no moving, no breathing, and the worry of "what if this is a sign of what the year has in store for me, G-d forbid!?" And needless to say, when I slowly and painfully clambered out of bed in the morning I was not in a shul-going mood.

Some time in the late spring I had had a similar pain episode, and back then, when I had braved the agony and attended the Shabbos seudah to which we had been invited, I almost fainted from the pain, and had to be the object of much unsought attention. What if something similar would occur again? What if I fainted in shul? How was I going to bear the hard benches, all that standing, not to mention being able to daven with a modicum of kavanah, holy intention? And how was I even going to get dressed? 

I so wished that my husband might suddenly, unexpectedly, show up at the door (because his personal shul schedule is unpredictable in the extreme – his advanced condition of ADHD prompts him to run around from shacharis in the Vasikin minyan, to Torah reading in another place – except, if they are only up to “Sim Sholom” he’ll keep running, in order to find a shul where they have gotten to “Vay’hi binso’ah ha’aron” – then he might want to catch the rabbi’s drosha in a third shul, mussaf in a yeshivah, perhaps, and kaddish by the Chassidim. Five or six shuls in one day is perfectly “normal” for him, sometimes with one or two home visits sprinkled in, so he really might have popped in) to say something manly and protective to me along the lines of “you just get back into bed, and I’ll find someone to blow the shofar for you later”. But for once in a blue moon, he was just staying put in some shul and did not materialize when I needed him. 

So I was standing there, propped up against the bed, holding my bra in one hand and wondering what to do with it, when suddenly Hashem (because I assume it was He), put a thought into my head…

In my line of work I deal with Holocaust Survivors. Many of them have told me their stories, and additionally, throughout my life I have read numerous memoirs and testimonials of the devastation that they lived through. “Would they have let themselves be stopped by a bit of debilitating pain?” I suddenly asked myself. “Would an inability to breathe have held them back?” A nechtigen tog!, I had to answer myself in that resounding Yiddish circumlocution for the concept of “never!” Running, hobbling, or crawling, they would have propelled themselves towards the beckoning voice of the shofar if there had only been the slightest chance of hearing it; crippled by pain, unable to breathe, fainting and starving, they would have overcome any obstacle for the privilege of praying from a Machzor for a few moments – and tragically, this holds true for so many other thousands of Jews as well throughout our glorious and painful history.

Me – not go to shul on Rosh Hashanah? Are you kidding me?

Buoyed by this insight, and shamed by my own weakness, I betook myself to the nearest synagogue. And I didn’t faint. Was it the best shul experience I have ever had? Maybe not. But whatever I may have achieved there, and the very fact that I went, is entirely the z’chus of "my" Holocaust Survivors – and the only reason at all that I have chronicled my aches and pains here is to give tribute to those whose lives are a daily inspiration to me!

May we all be sealed for a healthy, pain free year!
Shalom Uv'racha!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Yom Tov Notes

There are only a few days left to Rosh Hashanah and I am so unprepared, spiritually and otherwise, that it is quite frightening. The only thing I have to hold on to is my computer document “Rosh Hashanah Prep” in the folder “Yom Tov Notes”. As the years go by I am growing in experience, if not in wisdom, and each year I commit new bits and pieces of that experience to the eternity of Microsoft Word.

“Cooking MUST be started the day BEFORE Erev Yom Tov” was a deeply felt urging one year that reeks of desperation. “KEEP IN MIND to wear comfortable shoes” on Rosh Hashanah, because the Amidah, the standing prayer, is awfully long, and hard enough to concentrate on, without the agony of too tight, or too high-heeled shoes. One year I even added a note not to wear long necklaces on Yom Kippur (costume jewelry is my mainstay!), because they interfere with the beating fist of the Viduy, the confession of our sins, when we strike our chest in remorse.

There is a list of the people, near and dear, who must get a phone call or an email, because near as they may be to my heart, they live in foreign lands with many hours of time difference, and if I don’t plan in advance I might suddenly discover that it is too late!

Those of you who read my post about traveling and packing will not be surprised to hear that I have a list of what to pack in the (specially designated) little Yom Tov tote bag I bring to shul. My own holiday Machzor, obviously, but also a little book rest, so I can comfortably prop it up in front of me instead of having to hold it the whole time. Try it – it is very convenient. Tissues, because hopefully I will be moved to tears; and a shawl, because the air conditioning can be ruthlessly effective sometimes.

Then there is a certain thick, white, fringed pillow case that I must remember to bring, in order to have something to kneel on. Yes, usually I am the only woman prostrating myself, and I used to be embarrassed about this, but it is such a dramatic, emotional thing to do that I just can’t let “what are they going to think” stand in the way. And if you know me at all, which by now you should, it must be eminently clear to you that I would never dream of making do with a few paper towels beneath my knees, like I see many men do. Perish the thought!

For Yom Kippur there must also be something sweet-smelling, such as a pomander or a bottle of Eau de Cologne. Once, a few years ago, I went to the shul of a certain close friend for Yom Kippur. She had beseeched me to try it, promising that I would appreciate the heart-felt davening there. “I will save you a seat next to me”, she promised. I came, and discovered that not only was my seat reserved, but she had taken the time to prepare a number of pomanders for scented reviving purposes, and had set aside one specially, just for me! Every time I think about it I am touched by this lovely gesture of caring.

Last year I added a new item to my packing list: a seat cushion. As everybody knows, after 4-5 hours, the benches can get quite hard. Luckily, I already possessed a rectangular cushion, covered in burgundy velvet. So synagogue-appropriate…

Then there is the Rosh Hashanah food shopping of course – all the simanim to symbolize the many blessings we need for the new year; the honey and an extra-nice apple for dipping; the sheep’s head – grilled and delicious!.... glistening pomegranate seeds… chicken soup with curlicues of fat… carrot tzimmes with sweet potatoes and veal neck bones… and tongue, my once-a-year treat… mmm! My husband won’t eat tongue – he is worried it might lick him back, or something. So fortunate for me – I get to eat it all by myself.

I am telling you – without my Yom Tov notes I would be completely lost.

“But what about your spiritual preparation?” you are now saying, scratching your heads. Well, yes. It seems so easy, doesn’t it? But WHEN, is the big question – WHEN am I supposed to scrutinize my conscience and take stock of my soul? WHEN do I gather my thoughts enough to realize what it means to make G-d the King of my universe?

The only thing I can say in my defense is that I talk to Hashem about it every day – I thank him for bringing me safely across the street; for keeping food in the stores – and providing me with enough money to buy some of it; for getting me a coffee in the morning; for helping me find those earrings I had misplaced; for getting me a parking space, and helping me park without causing damage and mayhem around me; and for inspiring me to write these blog posts. And I thank Him fervently for my children – that they are healthy and kind and bright like shining lights, and that the oldest one is talking to me again; and I thank Him for the husband that He found me; and for my good health; and that He made the world so beautiful and I am allowed to live in it and breathe and enjoy the sunshine. I have never been a good davener, but I talk to Him a lot, and I thank Him often. Does that count?

Of course I need to become a better person – who doesn’t? I have my challenges, and I like to think I am working on them, and occasionally I see a little bit of improvement, but it is one of those uphill things. But there is always the chance of a break-through! Hopefully, this year will be the one – the year of great strides, of enlightened souls, of jubilation and salvation, for each one of us individually, and for the entire K’lal Yisroel!

Kesivah Vechasimah Tovah!

Shalom Uv’racha!