Sunday, June 25, 2017

Two Little Girlsies, Born in a Row. WOW!

Yom rishon, 1 Tamuz 5777.

As I greet two new little girls, born of my daughters-in-law (Champagne Girl and Molly McMolly) within a week of each other, it occurs to me that grandchildren are a bit like passive income. You worked hard, over long, arduous years, to build and refine the prototypes. Now, without lifting a finger  future babysitting notwithstanding  you suddenly have this treasure, this verdant, voluptuous pasture, propagating before your eyes!

And I remember one of the main reasons I love being a woman of faith.

Bursting with gratitude – for the babies, for the health of the mothers and the children, for the love of the fathers and mothers for each other and their progeny, for the strength to enjoy all of this – it is so very pleasing to have Whom to thank.

It is also comforting to have Whom to beseech. "Please God, let them all live to be really old people, with wonderful stories to tell their great-grandchildren. And may all those who long for nothing more than family be blessed."

Hodu Lashem, ki tov, ki L'Olam Chasdo!  




Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Recommendations for a Stress-free Pesach

Yom chamishi, 18 Adar 5777.

As the post-Purim panic level begins to rise among those I love, it seems it's time yet again to dust off a few facts, and to share a few good ideas that have made Pesach -- dare I say it? -- one of my favorite holidays.

Bear in mind that the following recommendations are ideas and tools that have worked for me. I would love to hear what you have found works for you. All positive inspiration at this time of year is welcome!

Let's start with something very basic. Repeat after me: Dust is not chometz. Dust is not chometz. Dust is not chometz. (If you're Sephardi, dust is not hametz.) I know you know this; but your years and years and generations of Jewish guilt training will not let you embrace it. Go ahead. Indulge yourself. If you have forgotten how to indulge yourself, go ahead and pour a glass of wine, and take that rich dark chocolate out of the drawer.

Here are a few great ideas I have learned over the years, some from a creative and cheerful rebbetzin in New York, who published a delightful tape*; some from the energetic Rivka Slatkin, who published a number of guides on getting through the holidays (which I was blessed to be able to edit):

One of our excellent mechutanim, ready to battle chometz
  • Buy beautiful or fun aprons for yourself. Why should you do all that cleaning in a shmateh? I followed this advice, and it really picks up my spirits! (This is not sexist. Guys can clean for Pesach, too; and I have seen some great aprons designed to give smiles to the Mars set as well.)
  • Build a flexible schedule on one of those printout calendars. Seeing your chores in front of you and checking them off is empowering, and keeps you from feeling quite so overwhelmed.
  • If you didn't clean out the closets and paint the kitchen and dust the ceilings before Rosh Chodesh Adar (or Adar II in years that have 'em), forget it until after Pesach. Spring cleaning is still valid in May.
  • You can't always clean in private. But during the times when the kids are otherwise occupied, listen to a Torah lecture or to uplifting music while you clean. The former will enrich your knowledge, as well as offering the opportunity to feel good about yourself. The latter can really make the exercise fun. I recommend Udi Davidi for soul searching tunes, as well as some great, upbeat me'at mikdash cleaning music! (I hope he would consider that a compliment.)
  • The holiday is EIGHT DAYS out of your year. It is possible -- though a shandeh in some circles, I understand -- to seal up all the normal cupboards, put up folding tables, and live there, as if you are camping, for a week and a day. And it's kind of fun.
  • Israelis, geniuses that they are, have devised very cool products to help us to get through the holiday. My favorite: the portable gas stove top. Mamash genius! I clean the stove top, but without breaking any nails or using corrosives on my poor, delicate hands -- and then I close the lid, and set the Pesach stove top on top of my regular stove. One week of heaven on Earth!
  • There are lots of young people around with time on their hands who are actually advertising to help you clean for Pesach. (If not, you are living in the wrong neighborhood.) Allow them to earn money for the mitzvah of relieving you of stress. Win-win.
  • And speaking of help, this is a great teaching opportunity. Since my boys were small, they and their friends were encouraged to make a competition of scrubbing the front doors of my cupboards, light switch covers, anything non-essential but icky, that they probably created anyway.
When disaster strikes -- you're sick, God forbid; you have a steady stream of surprise guests from out of the country for every day leading up to the holidays; work decides to become ironically heavy in the month preceding Pesach; all of the above, which is not uncommon (because God has a wicked sense of humor) -- the following is a wonderful reminder. Please look over Rabbi Aviner's helpful (if somewhat rigorous) guide: How to do your Pesach Cleaning Cheerfully in Less than One Day.

One of the main things that gets me through this season with a good attitude is remembering what it's all about. Why are we getting rid of all this leaven? Yes, yes... I know. Because Hashem said so. But beyond that obvious fact, what do we gain spiritually from the exercise?

Having a good, healthy ego is necessary to function in the world. But a by-product of ego is hubris, an additive to our characters that is decidedly detrimental to our ability to fulfill our God-given missions on the Earth. Chometz -- leaven -- is symbolic of hubris, an inflated sense of self-worth, excessive pride. What joy that God gives us the opportunity to temporarily flush it out of our systems once a year! If we do this internal and symbolic cleansing with the right attitude, perhaps we are permitted at least a few months of valuing ourselves for what we truly add to the world, those individual gifts each of us has to complete our fellow human beings.

I give us all blessings for as pleasant and stress-free a Pesach prep as possible. See you on the other side of the Yam Suf!


*Remember cassette tapes? I played this particular rebbetzin's tape until I wore it out. Unfortunately, I cannot remember her name. I would love to give her credit. But at least her ideas stuck, and can be shared with you.

Feel free to add your ideas in the comments section. And if this has been helpful information, please feel free to share!

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Many Perfumes of Mama

Yom shishi, 12 Adar 5777.

Mama Behind Cinnabar

Even though she married a construction worker, there was always the history of pearls and Ming vases (pronounced "vahzez," not "vayses," because that indicated breeding). She was born to be wealthy and finely educated, was my dear Mama... but life circumstances discarded her from those possibilities. Kicked out of home at nineteen with the clothes on her back and fifteen cents in her pocket, she just tried to survive. Irene aka Nana, the vicious great-aunt who raised her, stole her pearls and wore them ill on medication till they were as ugly as paste. I saw the vahz once, when I was thirteen, and wanted to kick it over, just to watch their pretensions crash.

But back to Mama, and that hidden exotic air she recreated with Estée Lauder's Cinnabar... cinnamon and bergamot, sandalwood, cloves, with hints of peach and patchouli. She was all Orient and evenings in a sarong on a stretch of sun-kissed sand beside murmuring blue-black waves. She was a jewelry box of stories, hints of wild love affairs with men who spoke no English and whispered false promises into her hair. And this impression she gave is illusory, because she was none of these things, not outside. She was a frightened girl brought up in a forbidding and crazy Catholic home, abused in too many ways to mention in polite company, married to a second generation Holocaust remnant, followed by a child abuser, followed finally by a man who never got around to appreciating her. She was externally the mother of four children whom she loved and for whom she cooked endless stew, around knitting sweaters and Barbie doll clothes. But her heart and soul were bathed in the freedom and world travel and mystery of Cinnabar.

*************************************************

Life Bread

Mama baked bread. Her sourdough could rival the famous San Francisco sourdough bread, the "mother" in the fridge smelling between bakings drunk from its own bacteria. Her black bread was more Russian than the Russians', full of caraway and beer, dark smells of the healthy diet of the truly poor of the Steppe who ate good natural bread, homemade cheese, root vegetables in season. Her pumpernickel would have made an old Jewish deli owner weep with memories of his childhood, his grandmother's kneading with gnarled hands turning poverty into promise. I felt as if I were in European history as I sat in her kitchen, smelling and seeing a newsreel of lives we had no reason to know.

Her bread and one-pot soups and stews spoke of an upbringing and history she lacked, as if she made herself up out of the European and Russian novels she read. An avid student of world history, an autodidact, Mama taught herself whom to be, how to cook, how to raise children, as she herself was never raised by anyone.

She was very American, was my mother. Born in North Hollywood and raised among the stars. Cary Grant used to drive her home from school. She, the "good girl" of the malt shop gang of movie star wannabes, rode in James Dean's car with him down a precipitous mountain road, because the crowd trusted only her to gauge his true speed honestly. She didn't let them down, reporting accurately the details of their daring flight down that wickedly perilous slide, two weeks before his fatal crash on that same mountain road...

Mama was always the kid in the vicinity of greatness and tragedy who lived to tell about it.

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Thanksgiving

Mama's pumpkin pie, her famous dressing made with apples and bread, sage and cinnamon, smelling like childhood. My baby sister dancing the naked turkey obscenely in the pan, after cradling it, giggling "My baby, my baby..." Caraway seeds on dark brown bread browning to perfection as if to warm up the oven for its really laborious work of crisping the skin of a juicy turkey. Dish-washing liquid smelling of harmonies and laughter. Turkey roasting will always smell of sisters and mother working together to create a savory and sweet masterpiece of family love.

We don't celebrate Thanksgiving anymore, because with the passing of the matriarch, that family has splintered, lost its color, drifted to four corners of the universe, held indecisively together by a shredding thread of Facebook "likes." But those smells will always make me smile and sense a perfectly-harmonized ladies' barbershop quartet of my Mama, Diane and Carol and me, before the meat turned rancid, the pumpkin spoiled, the spices faded into memory's kitchen.

*****************************************************

Searching to connect, to regenerate scattered ash, I single-handedly revitalize the sale of a fragrance from 1978, as Estée Lauder pulls Mama's memory from a dusty back shelf. Dabbing reminiscence on my earlobes, wrists, throat, I wrap in the essence of her, all the trampled promise and fairy tale and unconditional love of her.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

An Exciting Homeschooling Option

Yom revi'i, 29 Shevat 5777.

Once in a while, you get to be part of a project that touches your heart. (With God's help, I will have the opportunity to teach at this online academy in the fall.) If this looks like something you've been looking for -- or if you have friends who homeschool and are looking to broaden their child's horizons, pass it on!

Presenting Open Tent Academy’s 2017 - 2018 class offerings and schedule!


Open Tent Academy is an all-inclusive consortium of phenomenal instructors, who are offering homeschooling (and “after-schooling”) students an array of amazing classes. All OTA instructors are committed to excellence in education. Our goal is to guide students allowing them to ponder, think, analyze and draw conclusions. We believe that this is best accomplished through interactive classes filled with discussions, hands online, group projects and open ended questions. During 2017 – 2018, we are offering 80+ classes for grades 3 – 12!  There is something for everyone!

Important details to remember!

Registration begins on MARCH 1, 2017 with a two-week EARLY BIRD REGISTRATION period. During this time, you save $50 on EVERY CLASS. The "Early Bird" Discount is applied to the cost already.

In addition, if your family registers for 5 or more classes (as a unit), you can SAVE an ADDITIONAL 10%. Use registration code MULTI.

OTA will be using CANVAS as a Learning Management System (LMS). Everything will be online 24/7 for you/your students!  Classes are held live in virtual classrooms as well as recorded for later use.

Classes are limited in seating. This means, once they are filled, they are filled. Please do not wait too long!

To be part of our email list for future announcements or if you have questions or concerns, please contact Eva Goldstein-Meola at eva@opententacademy.com.

Be prepared to be amazed!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Hidden Figures: From Disrespect to Dignity

Yom rishon, 9 Shevat 5777.

I grew up in a time after the civil rights battles of the Sixties had already been fought by brave people of many colors, standing shoulder to shoulder. Not that the fight is over -- for as long as men believe themselves to be more or to be less than others for any reason other than merit, we have not yet won -- but at least I never saw separate drinking fountains and restrooms separated by color.

There was a black family that moved to my all-white town when I was a little girl. My mother became close friends with Fortha May Fergus (thus named because in a family of many children, she was born on the fourth of May). Among her children, Fortha May's son of my age became my very good friend.

One day, we marched into my back yard, hand in hand, and announced to my stepfather that we were getting married.

"The hell you are!" he roared. I never discovered if it was merely our young age or something else that caused such a heated reaction... but I do know that others drove my "boyfriend" and his family out of our town some time after our ill-received news. Mama said it was because they were Negroes. Neither she nor I could comprehend the reasoning behind this. It would be as illogical as the brunettes driving out redheads or blondes.

On the way home from our date today at Cinema City, the Dearly Beloved remarked: "There are some good movies. Some reach the level of greatness. This was a great movie."

I agreed, though I shook with rage and barely-controlled tears through the last half of the film.

I often see goodness in human beings that makes my heart burst with pride. At too many other times, I think we must make God cry at the tragedy of how we diminish each other, His creation, His children. How can we ever, ever feel superior to another human being, for things over which we have no control? How has it ever been possible, how is is still possible, for one human being to look at another as automatically beneath him, simply due to an accident of birth?

There are plenty of good movie reviewers who will tell you all about this remarkable film, about the fine actors portraying a degraded and degrading time in American history, and how some brilliant people of stunning patience fought the system within the system and won some semblance of respect and dignity. So I won't review the film for you here -- but I will recommend that you watch it, and that you take your children to see it.

God created us all with unique gifts and with defects so that we can all work together to form a complete and awe-inspiring world. If we think for five minutes, we can see areas to admire in another human being, areas in which we ourselves are lacking.

It is my fervent prayer that Israel, saturated as this nation is in the Torah concept that we are all b'tselem Elokim (created in the image of God), will finally decide to lead the world in truly looking not at the jug, but in the wine it contains, as our Sages taught.


Friday, February 3, 2017

What's Your Favorite Day of the Week?

Yom shishi, 7 Shevat 5777.


I am sure that in religious Jewish circles, the "correct" answer to the question of favorite day of the week is the holy Shabbat. The Sabbath certainly is a precious day, filled with good food, dedicated time with friends and family, time to read actual paper books, time for communing with oneself and with one's God. But I am not quite at the madraiga to put Shabbat first.

My very favorite day of the week is Friday, yom shishi (the sixth day) in Hebrew. Our Torah seems to skillfully combine the best of all human worlds for me on this day. While it's about preparing for our holiest day of the week, everything I love about being a physical human being is put toward this important task.

I will make a caveat here, for the sake of readers with small children. When I was a full-time mommy, I do not think that Erev Shabbat was my favorite day. It was a day when I had to feed lots of people who all wanted (or hated) different things, and who were intent on making messes faster than I could clean them up. My great goal on Friday was to NOT deserve going to Hell some time during the day for screaming at those of Hashem's precious children in my care. I usually failed. But this post is about Retired me, not Mommy me.

It would be untrue to say that I love cleaning. It's pretty far down on my list of fun activities. But what I do love is making everything mesudar -- organized, in its place, tidy -- for Shabbat. It gives me pleasure to wash all of the dishes and put them away, clearing the counters and tables, making them ready for their next "performance." I love to see the floor clean after a good sweeping and mopping, knowing that by candle-lighting time, it will say to me if not to the world that Ruti has it together.

Cooking for Shabbat is also a fulfilling activity for me. I get to take raw stuff created by God and put it together in new and interesting ways, the height of creative work (even above writing and painting and playing music) for me. And I know that each dish will say "I love you and care about what you like" to someone in my family.

There are special errands and rituals for Friday: my walk to collect the mail and the Torah Tidbits weekly magazine; recycling all of the various detritus of the week; shopping for the last minute items. The exchange of "boker tov" and "boker ohr" and "Shabbat shalom" with everyone I pass simply puts the frame around a lovely and purposeful walk throughout my yishuv.

There is a peace in this day that exists in no other: the peace of creating, while knowing that it is in the service of the day designated as the holiest day of the week.

I give myself and all of us the blessing that we can find the harmony of creativity in the service of something higher. I further bless young friends and family with little ones and demanding jobs that they will enjoy their days -- even the crazy ones! -- for long, healthy years, and that they will remember that there are wonderful things to look forward to, even after the kids have grown up and moved away.

What's your favorite day of the week, and why?


Glossary:

Madraiga: level
Erev Shabbat: Friday, the day leading up to the Sabbath
Boker tov: good morning
Boker ohr: literally "morning light," used as a response to boker tov
Yishuv: community, small town