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Archive for March, 2010

What matters?

“What matters?” Zoe likes to ask, her arms held up in the universal child-asking-a-question gesture. She thinks it means “what’s the difference?”  To me, she sounds just like Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof whenever she says it, most often after I correct her pronunciation of a word. ( “Shrimp, shrump,” she shrugs. “What matters?”)

In the weeks leading up to Passover, I’ve been thinking a lot about what matters. Many years ago, I lived a life bound quite closely by halacha, Jewish law. While there were still decisions to make, many choices were cut and dry, and didn’t involve much weighing of personal priorities. I did things they way they were supposed to be done, and the way so many other Jews around me were doing. This life worked well for me when I lived on the Upper West Side, in a vibrant community of  really thoughtful and relatively diverse observant Jews. But when I moved to a small Jewish community with very few observant Jews, I began to feel a need to balance my need for community with my love of (many parts of) traditional Judiasm. (What did it mean to keep shabbat all alone? What level of kashrut did I want when I no longer had to worry about who would and wouldn’t eat in my house?) When I married and started a family with a non-Jewish man, and essentially cast my lot outside of the traditional community forever, the questions became both more complicated and more urgent.

Passover has always been one of the more challenging times of  year for my husband and me as an interfaith couple, as I wrote about here, for interfaithfamily.com. It’s not just the 8 days of no beer in the house, although it is some of that. More accurately, it’s the many layers of metaphor tucked away in those forbidden beers. As much as I love my husband, and though there are probably hundreds of mitzvot I do not manage to observe, I can’t seem to let go of, or even ease up on, my strict observance  of Passover.

So this year, I decided to make thing easy for all of us. I’m working full time, teaching at a day school, which means I have the whole holiday off, as does my older daughter. So, I thought, let’s go to Bubbe’s for Passover. A great plan – no kashering the kitchen, no Passover shopping, and lots of quality family time. But, no Papa for the whole holiday??? That didn’t seem right to me. So, I re-thought, let’s do seders here and then go to Baltimore.  But, well, my brothers were going to be at my mom’s and I wanted them to see the girls too. So, I re-re-thought, let’s have one seder here and then go to Bubbe’s.

Our final version of the Passover plan has left me having to make what feels like a million big and small decisions. Should I travel on Yom Tov so that we can be with both my husband and my family of origin? (yes.) Do we accept the invitation to a first seder with friends I really want to be with, but don’t keep Kosher for Passover as strictly as I do (yes, but I’m bringing some of the required foods and a main dish double wrapped in foil.) Do I change over and kasher our kitchen for one day of Passover? (yes, but only the bare minimum of things I will be using. One day of paper and plastic seems only a wee bit environmentally sinful.)

As the one and only partner who really cares about how Judaism is practiced in our home, every decision is in my hands. And because I don’t feel obligated to halacha above and beyond all other values, each decision, each glass, each mug and each crumb, and what I do with them, is complicated. And fraught with a lot of hand wringing. And, somewhat inexplicably, guilt. It was so much easier when I was a “good Jew.” But I am learning a lot about….what matters. To me, anyhow.

ps, Here we are, one big happy family, searching for chametz. For the first time, at their request, the girls hid four of the pieces Keith and I to find. They loved helping us try to find theirs, but hadn’t quite reconciled their divergent definitions of “hot” and “cold.” Most often, we were both. At the same time.

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Or at least the most efficient, since I could have easily eaten the entire batch in one sitting.

My standard refrain about living in a small New England city is “everything is great, except for the bagels.” Now I can say “everything is great. And have you tried my bagels?”

they start like this

and come out like this

The recipe came from Dan Leader’s fantastic book Bread Alone. I found them a tiny bit salty, but otherwise, perfect. They were actually too good for cream cheese. I assure you, these are no “rolls with holes.” After Passover, this may have to become a weekly tradition.

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I spent my first year of graduate school in Jerusalem. Because this was some twenty years ago, communication with friends and family in the States was primarily by mail, which often took two or three weeks to arrive at its destination. So when my father died unexpectedly that year, I received a letter from him several weeks after his death. It was only a few sentences long – a slip of paper folded around some kind of enclosure (a clipping? a check? I can no longer recall) – and these words:

“Do what you love, and love what you do.”

Who knows if he really meant much by it? But, coming, as it were, from beyond the grave, I took the message quite seriously. What I love about the advice is that it recognizes that happiness is not just about following your bliss. While happiness surely comes from doing things you love, it’s equally, if not more important, to learn to love whatever you may find yourself doing. Even what you are stuck doing.

I was reminded of my father’s letter when I read the book Chicken Man, by Michelle Edwards, to my daughters the other night. It may be my favorite PJ Library book of all time – the story of a kibbutznik whose heart is in the lul, the chicken coop. But as he rotates through chores, as mandated by kibbutz policy, he finds the joy in every job he does,  from washing dirty laundry, to supervising the wildest children in the kibbutz. While his cohorts on the kibbutz kvetch about their work, he sings his way through piles of wrinkled shirts, gathers bouquets of roses (for his favorite chicken, no less) during his time spent in the garden, and juggles his way into the hearts of the kibbutz kids. But in the end, he is allowed to return to the lul, because, well, they need the eggs. (If you don’t know what joke I’m referencing, go rent Annie Hall THIS INSTANT.)

Chicken Man exemplifies the kind of happiness I think we all want for our children. On the one hand, we hope that they will discover something, or many things, that they truly love. It’s not so hard to figure out how to guide them along this path. Schools, camps, lessons, friends, relatives, and lots of time as a family exploring the real world, help our kids learn about the many amazing things the world has to offer. Remembering to take some time as parents to do things we love  isn’t such a bad idea either (and no, being a mommy or daddy doesn’t count.)

But the “love what you do” part – there’s the rub. How do we teach them to be like Chicken Man – to see every twist and turn in life as an opportunity to juggle spoons and sing folk songs (or at least not hurl spoons across the room and scream?) One answer, of course, is to set an example. I’m no Pollyana, but when I’m succeeding at the art of making lemonade, I try to point it out to them. (“Yep, there sure are lot of cars stopped on the highway. Let’s play Name that Tune!”) I also try to avoid doing things that I simply cannot seem to enjoy, such as, say, vacuuming. I used to just not do it, and wait for the dust bunnies to nip at my husband’s heels. When I went back to work full time this year, I hired someone to clean our house twice a month.

Last week, I came home from school with the girls while Amanda, the wonderful woman who cleans our house, was vacuuming. My four year old, Zoe, went up to her and tapped her on the back. “EXCUSE ME, AMANDA?”

Amanda turned off the vacuum and her mp3 player. “Yes, Zoe?” she replied.

“Do you like cleaning?” asked Zoe.

“Actually, I do,” she smiled.

“That’s good,” said Zoe, “because you do it a lot.”

Amanda thought Zoe was showing signs of being preternaturally empathic. Based on my experiences of Zoe at, say. 2 am, I think not. Rather, I think she was just trying to figure out if everyone else lives by the same principal that her grandfather advised so many years ago. “Do what you love, and love what you do.”

(r) cmyk PJ Library logo with tagline and piecesThe PJ Library® program sends Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis to families with children through age eight. Created by The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, The PJ Library is funded nationally in partnership with The Harold Grinspoon Foundation and local philanthropists/organizations.

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Did you ever wonder why, if we aren’t allowed to eat products made with wheat on Passover, that matzoh is totally kosher (so to speak?) I must admit that this question puzzled me until my mid-20’s, when I spent a year in yeshiva learning the laws of Passover.

For those of you who don’t have a year or two to dedicate to Torah study, here’s a fantastic and very entertaining (in a corny kind of way) explanation. You will need to download a power point (click on Chapter One) but it’s well worth the small effort and the time spent watching it.

I found the site after visiting their facebook page, Great Seder Ideas for Kids.

If you are wondering when I’m going to post about getting ready for Passover, the answer is, when I’m not so busy getting ready for Passover. In the meantime, here’s a link to a few posts from last year.

Why Do I (Almost) Turn into Someone Else on Passover?

This Jewish Life

The Ultimate in Homeshuling

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Here’s what one reviewer on Goodreads had to say about my book, A Mezuzah on the Door.

“This book helped me to realize that you should disregard your values, traditions and beliefs simply because you are in an environment where those same values and traditions are not embraced.”

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I know it’s not near Yom Kippur, but my brilliant, creative (and single just long enough to start dating again) brother just posted this to Youtube. It’s a song about Nineveh, the town that saved itself by doing to teshuvah, much to Jonah’s great consternation.

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