Tag Archives: jewish

It’s Not Enough: In Pursuit of a Life on Fire

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You may have a nice job, good friends, and a happy family life. You may be fortunate enough to peer out of your bedroom window as the sun peeks out in the early morning. You might be blessed to have health, a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food in your belly. Still, it won’t be enough.

If we stop a moment, the reality that we need more sets in. Practice gratitude by counting all the wonderful gifts you were given. That helps. But, most days, you need more.

A teenager with good grades, good looks, and good fun will need more just as a senior living in a retirement community enjoying the golden years needs more too.

What’s the more?

What are we searching for? Why are we empty?

We crave a life on fire.

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We desire to live in an inspired, meaningful way. We want lives that are rich with cause, depth, importance. We want to impact. We want to mean something.

How do we live a life on fire?

I marvel at my powerhouse friends and family who do great big things with their lives. They start organizations. They  travel globally to share a message. They help thousands of people through unconditional support with a wide open heart, broad smile, and sparkle in their eyes.

How can we make every moment count? What can we do to uplift ourselves and those around us? What do we need to build to be worthy of living a life on fire?

Maybe nothing.

Maybe, we just need to audit our current lives and see what needs are right in front of us. Everything that has led up to this moment, this very moment, was by design. We are walking through a movie set, characters intentionally placed just so, backdrop calculated by a masterful Director. We are just asked to look around, take it all in, and react.

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What is being asked of us? Something needs our attention and only we can figure out what that is. A difficult relative. Financial strain. Worries about health. A void in some area. There is a lesson buried underneath our individual worlds and we can uncover it when we live our fiery lives with our eyes wide open.

What does my life demand of me right now vs. what do I feel like doing? If we go through each day in pursuit of truth, working on ourselves, wanting to help the world – no matter the home, the family, the career- life will be more than enough. We will live a life on fire and set the world ablaze.

Where The Riches Are

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I took a bite of the steaming hot, four-cheese pasta I had ordered in mid-town Manhattan and nodded my head. Yes, I agreed with my friend sitting across from me, this was too delicious to be true. We were out for a girls lunch. A work/pleasure hybrid of a lunch break as my companion was evolving in her Judaism and wanted to talk about her next steps in learning and growth. She was pretty, composed, and very down-to-earth. I had liked her the minute we met weeks before at an outreach event I helped run in NYC. We were about the same age and instantly hit it off with easy conversation that balanced giggles with depth.

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A little background for the buildup. While I’m pretty grounded, I have this weird sixth sense and I believe that I see people’s auras…just a little bit. Just sometimes. The color, the energy. It doesn’t happen often but I have experienced the phenomenon. (Oy. If I’ve freaked you out and you want to stop reading, I totally get it.) Once, many years ago, I told my roommate in school that a black energy appeared to be radiating from her. The words tumbled out of my mouth and I realized mid-stream how strange and offensive they sounded. She got very quiet but spoke after a few moments. “I was institutionalized”.  Then quiet again. Gulp. I wasn’t prepared for that. Since then, I’m more cautious about sharing my observations though I still get into trouble occasionally.

I share this with you because I felt I really had a grasp on my lunch date’s energy. She was admirably calm. She was patient and it was as if nothing could phase or stress her. She spoke deliberately and slowly; she paused before answering. She was like… a warm blue. (In contrast, I speak quickly and often kick myself mid-sentence for not filtering more. Over the years, I’ve conditioned myself to lock my jaw shut and pad my responses with “Can I process that and get back to you in the next couple of days?” I have yet to regret that answer and use it liberally to ensure that I am thoughtful and not rushed.) I digress but don’t worry, the bombshell is coming.

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So there we were, indulging in carbs, enjoying girl talk, speaking of personal development and lofty ideals when my friend cleared her throat. She wanted to confide in me about something from her past. Of course, I gladly obliged and assured her that my lips were sealed. Whatever she wanted to tell me surely wouldn’t shock me. I knew my friend was on her journey in spirituality and connection to Judaism. It was clear that she hadn’t been particularly sheltered though she came from a solid family and a good home. Whatever was in her past couldn’t be so bad.

Then, with her reflective, collected disposition, she described how she became addicted to cocaine and battled to stay clean. She had a stint in rehab and was a real ‘mess’ (her word) through college. I used up every bit of control I had to show no signs of shock. I knew addiction existed and I had met addicts before but her? I just couldn’t reconcile it. How could this composed, even sophisticated, soft-spoken young woman have such a dark, out of control side? I thought to myself, maybe I don’t know her that well. Perhaps she was unstable? Could it be?

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“I hope I haven’t changed the way you look at me”, she said. I vigorously shook my head and worked hard to convince both of us that she hadn’t. As I walked to the subway from the restaurant, I reminded myself that an addiction shouldn’t define a person and that her future wasn’t hinged on her past.

Fortunately, my friend didn’t vanish from my life. We actually grew closer and stayed in touch for many years. I absolutely adore her and she has taught me a lot about how complex human beings truly are. Looking back, I so admire her confidence that day. She fully accepted herself and felt comfortable to talk about choices that would bring most people shame. Since then, she’s married and had many children. I wonder if she would tell anyone what she told me all those years ago but it doesn’t matter. She has a depth of self-acceptance that most of us would and should envy. Perhaps hitting rock bottom and having to climb out of that pit builds self-acceptance.

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Fast forward ten years to the opposite scenario. I was working on campus and had developed a relationship with one of our students. She was a sorority girl who would do coffee with me from time to time. She joined our weekly learning program. Her etiquette was always on point. Based on her Facebook profile, she seemed to have an exciting party life but never spoke of it to me. I always had the sense that she was holding back in the hopes of making a good impression.

One day, after about a year, she and I met at the Starbucks on campus. I could see she was going through something but didn’t want to share. In the hopes of convincing her of the importance of vulnerability, I said to her, “Y’know…you don’t have to be perfect all the time. That must be really draining.” She started crying despite valiant efforts of staying composed. Suddenly, she was mortified that she had dropped her guard, apologized profusely, and excused herself. This poor young woman really wanted to reach out, she spent so much energy acting like everything was okay, and she just couldn’t make peace with herself. She couldn’t accept that she was flawed, like the rest of us.

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I’ve quoted this line before but it bears repeating. My very favorite verse of all time from the Torah is one pertaining to offerings. While I can’t say all laws of korbanos (ritual offerings) are my favorite area of Judaism to explore, this particular point is so profound that (even) I cling on to it. All meal offerings, the Torah demands, must be offered with salt and not honey or yeast (Vayikra 2:11-2:13). Yeast inflates and honey sweetens. G-d doesn’t need us to offer falsely inflated or sweetened versions of our true selves. Rather, we are required to use salt, something that brings out the natural flavors and preserves. (Rabbi Mordechai Gifter)

What a gift. G-d, who is perfect by definition, is requiring us to be as we were created. Flawed. Broken. Vulnerable. Makes sense. After all, He created us that way. But why?? Why can’t we achieve perfection? Why can’t I love myself…once I’m perfect?

The whole point of this life, the one that begins the moment we are born and ends the moment we die is our quest for correction, our journey to perfection. I’m awed by people who try to make an impact and be an “influencer” under the guise of perfection. I have no desire to emulate that. I want to embrace this life, accept every part of myself, and understand that the creased, bent, and fractured pieces are where the riches are.

Adult Friendships

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Adult Friendships
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Some friends and I in Jerusalem, 2011 (I’m on the far left)

Well, this is embarrassing. For years, I’ve been telling a few choice family members and acquaintances that I find it extremely difficult to establish friendships as an adult. Sometimes, I smile facetiously and announce that I have no friends at all and sometimes, on a good day, I concede that perhaps I have one or two. I must be the only person in the world who feels this way because, so often, listeners respond with an air of disdain. It’s as if they’re thinking: Sorry that you have this problem. Luckily, we don’t.

What was easy at 13 seems so daunting at 33. Do friendships have an expiration date? How much investment is required in a friendship? If we talk this much, share this much, connect this much…are we friends??

How did I have so many friends before adulthood? For me, adulthood began when I got my first full-time job in New York at 21 years old. Before that, I was able to prioritize friendships above all else with nearly endless time and care. Once I began working, I just didn’t have the energy to stay awake late with a friend on the phone. I was too tired to go out with friends unless it was the weekend or a special occasion.  I would often get home from work very late and the thought of using up my little downtime on socializing was too much to bear. I just wasn’t interested. After all, I had to wake up the next morning and work a long day! I was leading a very full life, albeit alone.

Marriage and children only served to reinforce my challenge. Today, now that I work full-time while juggling a young family, I’m thankful for a bathroom break undisturbed (still a rare occurrence). Showering and sitting down for a meal are luxuries. I don’t walk into a store unless it’s for groceries (don’t worry too much though, Amazon has cured me of my other shopping needs). Friends?? Impossible!

But maybe we need to define our terms before I write myself off as a recluse. What are friends anyway? Are they the people who will bail you out of jail or pick you up from the hospital? I would argue that any kind soul would do that for you, friend or foe. Here are three reasons you may call someone a friend and a little push back on that definition from yours truly.

You’re friends because of….

  1. Shared interest, stage of life, or community. Examples: We both have babies and we spend lots of time together on the playground. We love sports and play basketball every morning. We are next door neighbors. In all three cases, these friendships likely take up most of our quota for “friend time” and, I would argue, count the least. Why? Because they’re dependent on something external to exist. Judaism teaches that a love dependent on something is only as strong as that thing. Move out of your neighborhood, stop playing basketball, no longer go to the park and your friendship will disappear.
  2. History. I have friends who I rarely/never speak to but love and they have a special place in my heart. We went to school together or we spent summers together, we talked and talked, sometimes about nothing and other times about everything. While these friends are very important to me, many of them play a big role in my rear-view mirror but don’t really know me as I am today. If I was in trouble, I wouldn’t call them because there’s a lack of familiarity with our adult versions of each other. I have tried to rekindle these friendship over the years and end up awkwardly stumbling in and out of connection.
  3. A safe space. These are the friends that we can really spill to, feel safe with, and share our innermost thoughts without fear of being judged. This category is the one I am most inclined to give credit. There’s just one problem. In a time when privacy is as undervalued as it is today (how many times have you signed off on the privacy terms and conditions of your favorite app?), we may indeed feel “safe” with any supportive, open people in our lives. Also, feeling safe or confident to share is a function of our own self-confidence and not a reflection of friendship necessarily. I have seen some gut-wrenching posts on Facebook and I continue to be surprised by people’s raw vulnerability on scaled social media sites.

You may disagree with me and consider any of the above definitions as entirely reasonable. If that’s the case, I too have friends (yay!).

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Two special friends who visited me in San Diego, 2007 (I’m on the far left again)

Until I have an intuitive understanding, I will have to rely on my intellectual understanding of how the Torah defines friendship. Judaism has a lot to say on the subject but the most compelling teaching, for me, is the story of David and Yonatan. Yonatan was the son of King Saul whereas David was just a young shepherd from a large family who became prominent through a remarkable series of events. Their backgrounds had no overlap, they didn’t have similar interests, yet the Mishna describes their friendship as loyal and devoted, dependent on nothing, and everlasting. Even more remarkable was that Yonatan was the heir to his father’s throne but David took it over- a move that should have made Yonatan jealous and yet he was entirely supportive.

So the Torah defines friendship in very simple terms.

Friendship is simply an outpouring of constant love and loyalty. It may start out as connecting with someone because you both love golf, attend the same school, or share cubicle space. But that does not make a friendship. Spilling your deepest, darkest secrets doesn’t make a friendship either. Being friends with someone in your childhood or teenage years of angst is also not the magic bullet.

The answer comes down to the question: Will you allow your relationship with this person to exist superficially or will you opt to go “all in” and choose to care for him/her deeply? Do you choose to love that person? Do you choose to help that person and invest in that person? Will you allow them to help you?

The lesson for me is that friendship is a choice to prioritize a person outside of myself or my family. In this light, I am starting to wonder if maybe I have more friends than I thought.

It’s Not About Me (but I think it is)

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I really should make a video about this because I love telling the story. I laugh every time (horrified). There I was, in downtown Jerusalem, enjoying frozen yogurt with my sister, who was visiting me for the week. Somehow the cold stuff that was meant for my mouth lands on my skirt. The nearest paper towel was a good 50 feet away back in the yogurt store.

As I walk, holding my skirt,  a man sitting on the ground gesticulates at me. Embarrassed, I react in a broken Hebrew, “I know, I know. there’s a stain on my skirt. Don’t worry, I’m going to clean it now.” He doesn’t respond so I hurry past  him.

Two minutes later, my skirt is drenched but clean. I turn around and find my sister laughing. “What’s so funny?” I smile wanting in on the joke. She says, “Rachel! That man wasn’t pointing at your skirt! He was holding out his hand for charity!”.

I take a moment to process what she tells me. I am mortified by how preoccupied I was with my Number One Focus- me! I laughed, shocked by my own behavior.

Thankfully, my quick-thinking, generous sister had already offered the bewildered man a few shekalim (Israeli money) for his trouble so there was nothing left for me to do but reflect on my own self-absorption. My little splotch compared to his challenges? I was too wrapped up in my spilled snack to think about his empty stomach? Our minds are so fixated on our own personal narratives that we end up missing out on so much color and character, pain and joy, richness and texture from the the world around us.

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I’ve come to see that thinking the world revolves around me is a recipe for misery. Why does my colleague hate me? Why did that driver cut me off? Why is my friend not calling me ? Maybe, just maybe, the answer has absolutely nothing to do with me.

Now, I’m well aware that I write this in an age when the “selfie” is a socially acceptable photograph to share with thousands of strangers. Sales revenue for the selfie-stick back in 2014 was about $6 million. If our self-absorption is so blatant on the outside, imagine the monster within.

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I attended a workshop on running a home with happiness and energy a few years ago. The teacher shared an insight that sticks with me today. People who are masters of their study don’t ask themselves how they can appear to be masters. They just are. For example, an authentic community leader doesn’t ponder on what clothes best position him/her for leadership. Rather the lenses are pointed outward. How can I better serve these people?

Our Patriarch, Abraham, reversed human nature. Usually, we concern ourselves with our own physical and emotional well-being. Am I hungry? Thirsty? Hot? Cold? Tired? Sick? Sad? Happy? When we think of others, by default, we consider their spiritual well-being. She really shouldn’t talk like that. He has an anger issue! I guess they don’t keep kosher- a shame! Incredibly, Abraham did the opposite. He worried about his own spiritual health and took care of others’ physical and emotional well-being. Even when in tremendous physical pain, he hosted guests with gusto that most of us can only dream to attain.

Bishvili Nivra HaOlam The world was created just for me. V’Anochi Afar V’Efer I am but dust and ashes. In a world where self-absorption is the new normal and our minds are programmed to focus on ourselves, it is critical that we re-calibrate. Let’s together turn our attention outward and invest in the needs of others. The others in our home, the others in our community, the others in our world.

Made or Broken: We didn’t sign up for this life. Now what?

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Made or Broken: We didn’t sign up for this life. Now what?

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I was the only woman in an office filled with rabbis when the phone rang. Someone was calling. I picked up the phone.

At 23 years old, my job was to create inspiring programs for Jewish women on the Upper West Side (I was elated). The caller was female and would only speak to a woman. She sounded upset and I wanted to help. I’ve replayed that call many times in my mind over the last decade and know that the responsible thing to do would have been to ask someone older and wiser to call her back. Luckily, I was irresponsible.

Sarah was brought up in a religious home. She was a sweet little girl with her family and a good student in school. She was kind to others and had friends. As she got older, she volunteered in after school activities. She knew that she was a “good girl” and expected to have a good life in return for her efforts. Sadly, in her teenage years, she was exposed to an adult male character who was no good at all. Following high school, when she traveled to Israel for her gap year, she experienced another negative incident.

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Sarah was a good girl and wanted a good life so she tried to shake off her unpleasant encounters. At 21, she was set up with a nice Jewish boy and married him. They had a few children and she tried to build her home and move on with her life. Despite her best efforts and what should have been a happy stage in her life, she felt trapped in her pain and sadness.

Why had God put her in a position to suffer? She was a good girl, after all.

Despite my youth, I knew to validate Sarah’s pain and listen. When she was finished, I told her what I was sure she already knew. Life is not meant to be a stroll in the park. We’re here to work. Life is full of pleasures and we should savor every one but we are meant to climb and develop, rung by rung, to reach the greatest heights we can reach. At times, those rungs come in the form of painful circumstances. We are made or broken by those circumstances.

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She asked what happens if that’s not the kind of life she signed up for? It was not the life she wanted. She preferred to follow the rules and, in exchange, be granted shelter from sadness, anger, and pain. She came into this world with an expectation of an unspoken deal with her Creator. If she’s obedient, then she’s protected from heartache.

We spoke for a long time and ended up keeping in touch for years. I relate to Sarah in that we both share a false expectation. The human experience seems to be hard-wired with a cycle of process, milestone, and then process again. We think we have everything figured out and in that very moment of confidence, the rug is pulled out from underneath, leaving us disoriented and forced to adjust to a new reality. It often comes as a shock and just as often humbles us to our core. I would argue that the rug-pulling may be for the express purpose of jarring us from our feelings of security, confidence, and (perhaps) complacency.

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So many examples come to mind.

  1. Dating- You work so hard to meet The One. When you do, no matter your education, a part of you is sure you’ll ride off into the distance together. Details for the ride are fuzzy. GPS not included.
  2. Parenting- You spend your childhood (just me?) sure you will be the best parent. Then you have a child and realize you are clueless and the most knowledgeable experts in the world have less insight than you do about your child. (Note: That shouldn’t stop us from consulting them).
  3. Personal Development- I finally figured out how to be a good person after years of study and practice only to realize that I’ve mastered an exceptionally narrow lane and I have miles to go.
  4. Reputation- After significant effort invested in community service or professional endeavors, I make a mistake or suffer a humiliation in the presence of others.

I’m really glossing over these big categories but you catch my gist.

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Sometimes, nothing goes wrong but the things that were supposed to go right just never happen. We wake up and look at our lives through the eyes of our past selves. This is NOT what I signed up for. 

If you’re reading this – or if you’re not reading this- you did NOT sign up for your life. You were supposed to have kids by now. You weren’t supposed to get divorced. You were supposed to have a great job that you love. You weren’t supposed to be this old. Your finances were supposed to be better. You weren’t supposed to suffer with physical pain or illness.

So what now?

Dear family, friends, and me: Our lives are not what we signed up for but they are exactly what we need. Your life is tailor-made for what you need right now. The big gaping holes and the terrible messes are by design. So what is life asking of you right now? What are you supposed to be doing?

Maybe you need to focus on healing. Maybe you need to focus on sharing. Perhaps more time doing and less time thinking (perhaps more time thinking and less time doing). Move faster. Invest more. Slow down. Be deliberate. Whatever circumstance you have in front of you, there is something important being asked of you. Someone is calling.

Pick up the phone.

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Why I Get Depressed & How I Feel Better

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I’ll conveniently skip over my gross neglect of nearly two years and get right down to it. You know the thing that gets so many people down? We go through phases (if not longer) of sadness, low self-esteem, and feeling lost. Sometimes there’s a reason and other times, it’s foggy. On this eve of Cyber Monday, I’d like to make a suggestion. Perhaps Thanksgiving weekend is the quintessence of what plagues us.

I hate to pin this on Thanksgiving. I, for one, love Thanksgiving. As an orthodox Jew, Thanksgiving embodies a value that defines the Jewish people- gratitude. As a matter of fact, the Hebrew word for Jew is Yehudi. The Hebrew root of Yehudi means thankfulness. I love the opportunity to be grateful in a country that has allowed me to connect with God as a Jew. (Side note: the irony that the patriotic and unifying holiday of Thanksgiving almost immediately followed an especially divisive election is not lost on me.)

So, I hate to pin this on Thanksgiving BUT consider this: Thanksgiving weekend begins with a shortened Wednesday of school or work for many. A break! A rest! A respite! Following that, Thursday brings a smorgasbord of delicacies from roasted turkey to mashed potatoes to a variety of pies. Oh, the eating! Many spend the afternoon flip-flopping between assuming the couch potato position in front of a televised football game or in a justifiable food coma. Just as a turkey-induced sleep threatens to become permanent, we are motivated out of bed by Black Friday. Ah, Black Friday. Who doesn’t love a good sale? Friday, for the die-hard shoppers begins early with a strong latte and ends late with a severely depleted bank account. On Saturday and Sunday, we begin pre-shopping for Cyber Monday, the Digital World’s parallel creation to Black Friday. I received an email on Sunday suggesting I urgently begin shopping NOW since by the time Monday actually begins, many items will be sold out (the horror!).

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To wrap up, there’s an inordinate amount of eating, napping, and shopping. Outrageously excessive. If this weekend came but once a year and was an isolated incident, I wouldn’t be concerned. I write because Thanksgiving weekend is a mere culmination of a general culture that considers consumerism to be a lifestyle.

We feel low because we can’t stop consuming. We feel depressed because we can’t stop consuming. We feel unproductive, unaccomplished, and incapable…because? You guessed it. We can’t stop consuming!

How do we climb out of our depression?

It’s actually simple. We just need to start DOING. Imagine giving instead of receiving! Creating instead of devouring! Take me for example. I just need to get up and write the blog post I procrastinated for two years. Alternatively, I can clean my room or even my inbox. Last resort, I can call a friend or feed my children (joking. sort of.) I just start doing something. Anything. Immediately.

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Sometimes, we need to pick ourselves up by our post-Thanksgiving fat pants, and DO. Self-correct and adjust as necessary but go directly to ‘DO’ mode before we become too bloated  and lazy to move.

I made a joke to a friend that I feel better eating my chocolate when I see her facebook photos of marathon running. While I perhaps won’t sign up for the next 5k run, I hope to keep moving, working, giving, and not waste a precious moment.

Soon By You!

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Looking over the shoulders of fellow dancers, I just barely saw my friend’s shining eyes, her glowing face and perfectly curled-and-set hair. I couldn’t help but reflect her broad smile as she straightened out her lace white bodice and wiped the sweat from her brow.

“Aw, don’t worry!” A loud voice boomed over the blasting live music, shaking me out of my trance. “You’ll get there! You’ll get married too!”

Huh? I wasn’t sure what motivated *Rebecca who knew me as an occasional Shabbos (Sabbath) guest in her home to approach me. I quickly composed myself and grinned in her direction. “Thank you” I responded, trying to look gracious instead of shocked.

I turned back towards my friend, the bride, and tried to refocus myself in the moment but it was tough. I had never voiced my desire to get married to this woman. She knew I was working and enjoyed my job. Why in the world would I be absorbed in myself instead of rejoicing in my friend’s happiest day? And yet, in the wake of Rebecca’s comment, here I was, analyzing and growing increasingly self-aware of my single status.

Being single, when I stepped back to think about it, was a little lonely. I felt I was missing something, something vague. I didn’t know his name or his personality or what he looked like. I felt he was unattainable both in thought and in reality.

Still, with all that, I felt fulfilled. My job took up so much of my time and lent meaning to my life as I was able to connect and reach out to fellow Jews through my work. My evenings were often filled by events that I had either recruited for, created, or planned. Shabbos was tough, trying to figure out whether to travel and stay with someone or keep things very low-key with bakery challah, deli and a good book in my apartment.

I asked a rabbi/colleague of mine, “Do you think it’s okay that I’m happy not being married?” and he smiled and reassured me that I was emotionally healthy. A different rabbi, unaware of that conversation, called me into his office and declared with concern, “You can’t be married to an organization”.

I had dry spells when there was not a single mention of the opposite gender for weeks- months- on end. Other times, I found myself juggling more than one suggestion. Three weeks, three dates, three minutes- various times were required to sum up that “he” was just not for me. There was no consistency and I found dating a drain on my energy, my time, and my money (hair, nails, and clothes ain’t cheap).

More makeup, less makeup. Bigger hair, straighter hair. Skinnier, and…well, skinnier. The superficial expectations were taxing whether meeting men or meeting women who could introduce me to men. (Being totally honest, there wasn’t much expectation in the way of internal growth. As long as I could be polite and generate pleasant conversation, I felt little pressure. Any character development I took on, was for me alone.)

I wasn’t an old single by most standards but I reached a point of balancing annoyance against gratitude with every mounting “Soon by you!”.

Of course, when very close friends announced their engagement, a shrill unrecognizable voice in the back of my mind reminded me that with each passing day, I was falling behind in the Great Race of Life.

Still, this friend, at this wedding, I never felt we were in competition. She was someone I met and connected with only a couple years prior to her wedding. Sweet from the first time we spoke, I felt unbridled joy for this joyful bride.

So, as I worked unsuccessfully to shake off Rebecca’s well-intentioned and insensitive guarantee of my imminent betrothal, I paused for a beat. I should remember this moment, I decided. When I am married with children (if I ever do get married), I will never get too caught up to speak without thinking and forget how I felt when I was single.

 

 

 

 

 

*Name changed to avoid Lashon Hara, negative speech.

Orthodox Women Talk: Round 3

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Exciting news! The highly acclaimed blog series, Orthodox Women Talk, is happening right here and now! I’m so thrilled to host this third edition of engaging panelists below (who I’ve never met before) as we all share with you our perspectives to readers’ questions. Please email me at rachel.s.eden@gmail.com if you’d like your question or suggestion to be considered! Ok…let’s do this!

 

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Teeny Tiny Disclaimer: Opinions below do not necessarily reflect the views of this blog.

Reader writes: I‘d love to hear something regarding your favorite way to infuse your lives with Judaism. (Kosher food, Tznius, Shabbat…etc..)”

 

TALI SIMON

I have to admit that I was confused when I first read this question. To me, saying that I infuse my life with Judaism makes it sound like my Judaism is separate from the rest of my life: there’s home life, and work, and seeing friends, and then there’s also my Judaism. But that’s so far from the reality.

Judaism is my life and I couldn’t separate the two if I tried. Some of the basics: I live in Israel, where every daled amot (let’s just call that every four paces) that a person walks equals another mitzvah. Add to that the fact that this year is Shemittah, when we have the opportunity to eat produce suffused with holiness — seriously, we’re talking about holy guacamole (check out chabad.org for lots of information on Shemittah and what it involves). My family is also lucky enough to live in a religious yishuv (settlement), where having a Torah-infused life is just the most normal thing in the world.

I spend most of my day taking care of my kids. That would be valuable for anyone, Jewish or not, but as a Jew, there’s more under the surface. Whether I’m changing diapers, playing in the park, or doing something “obviously Jewish” like singing Modeh Ani with my toddler — it’s all part of raising the next Jewish generation, the people who will keep on keeping the mitzvot and teach their kids to do the same. As a Jew, my day is not just about me, and not even just about my kids who get the bulk of my energy, but also about all the future generations. Not that I’m thinking about that every time I change a diaper, but still.

When I’m not with my kids, I’m working, and in that area there’s also no separation between life and Judaism. As a freelance writer and editor, I choose my clients (and I can turn down a project if it isn’t right for me), so the material I work with is Torah literature, Jewish history, or related to Judaism in some other way.

Do I walk around in a holy haze all day, feeling super spiritual every single second? No — there are times that I feel especially connected, but in general, a normal day is a normal day. It’s just that my “normal” is very, very Jewish. So what are my favorite ways to infuse my life with Judaism? I guess everything!

Tali Simon is a writer, editor, and food blogger living near the Dead Sea. She loves to cook, her skinny husband loves to eat, and their two kids are rather unpredictable. Check out Tali’s vegetarian recipes, weekly menu plans, and stories about life in Israel at More Quiche, Please.

 

REBECCA KLEMPNER

​One of the biggest influences on my day, from the time I was still a child until today, has been ​saying the prayer Modeh Ani when I wake up in the morning.

First of all, it reminds me that it’s a gift just to wake up in the morning, because some people don’t. And it reminds me that G-d can hear me even if I can’t see Him.

Later on, I learned that when the prayer ends with the words “raba emunatecha” (“Your faithfulness/reliability is great.”), it indicates not only G-d is faithful and reliable, but that if He awakens us each day, it’s because He believes in US. He feels we are important, that we have a job to do today and the means of doing it. There’s hope for us yet!

I find this very comforting.

At a certain point, Modeh Ani and the Bedtime Shema were the only prayers I said every day. And yet they reminded me that there is a singular, unique G-d; that He loves me and listens to me; and that I’m a Jewish person. Starting the morning with Modeh Ani brought a “Jewish” energy into the rest of my day. As I grew in observance, it became a reminder that everything I do in the day can be transformed into serving G-d. If I pick modest clothes, eat kosher foods with the proper blessings, greet people with a smiling face, choose to learn a little Torah instead of waste my time, I draw that G-dly energy into the rest of the day.

I once heard that someone stayed overnight in the home of Rabbi Noach Weinberg, z”l. When Rav Noach awoke in the morning, he bellowed out this enthusiastic Modeh Ani that you could hear from the next room. He was definitely a man who looked forward to serving G-d each day. I use this story sometimes to remind myself that each day is an opportunity to do good and be good, even if occasionally I just want to crawl back in bed for a couple more minutes of shut-eye.

I also sing Modeh Ani to my children in the morning, very softly, in my first attempt to wake them. (It doesn’t always work. 🙂 ) I think it’s a lot nicer than an alarm clock.

Rebecca Klempner is a wife, mom, and writer living in L.A. Her picture book, A Dozen Daisies for Raizy, appeared in 2008, and her short stories and essays have appeared in publications including Tablet Magazine, Binah, Hamodia, and Ami. Her current serial for teens and tweens, “Glixman in a Fix,” appears weekly in Binah BeTween.


MELISSA AMSTER

I infuse my life with Judaism by baking challah. I love the process of making the dough, braiding it, and then enjoying the way it smells as it bakes and then cools. Sometimes, my kids will mix the dough and then braid with me and they have such a good time. Other times, I’ll have friends over to braid challah together. I always say prayers for people as I’m kneading the dough. The next day, I share a loaf of challah with a friend or neighbor. This came from Loaves of Love, which Chabad started up after the murder of Rebbetzin Rivkah Holtzberg in Mumbai, as she used to give challahs to everyone in her community. I feel it’s a nice way to continue to honor her memory and it also helps me feel more connected to the women in my community. Of course, the best part of baking challah is eating it on Shabbos. I can taste all the hard work and love I put into it.

Melissa Amster lives in Maryland (DC Metro area) with her husband, two sons and daughter. When she’s not reading and interviewing authors for her book blog, she works for a Jewish non-profit. In her spare time (what’s that?!?), she likes to watch her favorite shows on TV, bake challah and desserts, and host meals and other gatherings. Check out her personal blog and follow her on Twitter.

 

SKYLAR BADER

I’m a nerd, so it’s no surprise that my answer would be books and ideas. I try to always be reading something Jewish. I’m always in the process of reading about 20 books, so that’s not hard!

But since the suggested ideas were more “physical world” things, here’s my physical world application of Judaism: social justice. I know, you’re thinking, “OMG who let a reform Jew in here?!” (I’ve gotten that awful reaction before: “social justice” is a perversion of Judaism created by reform guilt (since “tikkun olam” is considered one of the major tenets of the reform movement). Seriously? Orthodoxy may have many disagreements with the reform movement, but the importance of humanity and helping people should not be one of them.)

Tikkun olam, social justice, being a good person, whatever you call it, it’s important to me. I add a lot of time to my day by taking the time to treat people as betzelem Elokim (in the image of God), whether that’s…

  • Listening when I don’t want to
  • Letting the aggressive driver go ahead (even though he’s totally in the wrong!)
  • Being patient with strangers when I don’t have the time
  • Responding with a real answer when someone asks “how are you?”
  • Doing that chore that I know the other person should totally be doing instead of me (not pointing that out is actually the hard part)
  • Speaking out when someone at a Shabbat table says something racist
  • Advocating for serious Torah education for the women with the time and inclination
  • Advocating for feminism, religious freedom, against racism, against sexism, and in any other way that recognizes the betzelem Elokim in others
  • It can be as simple as taking the time to explain why you can’t help a stranger with directions (“I’m sorry, I don’t know this area well. Good luck!”), instead of just yelling “Sorry!” out the side of my mouth as I run down the sidewalk. Or worse, acting like they never spoke at all.

It bothers me that so much of orthodox society is machmir on tznius, machmir on men’s hats, machmir on women’s haircoverings, machmir on where you’ll eat or not eat, machmir on what colors are “allowed” to be worn, machmir on what school you’ll send your kids to, etc, but not the interpersonal mitzvot. There’s been intermittent public discussion about curbing lashon hara, but it’s always aimed at women (oh how those women talk!) and in the most childish of ways sometimes (everything’s pink because we know you ladies LOVE pink!).

I want to be machmir on interpersonal mitzvot. And you know what? I think the interpersonal mitzvot should apply to non-Jews as well. Another way I’m being machmir and/or making up halacha. (If you’re new to this idea, most of the interpersonal mitzvot only apply to Jew-Jew relations, such as the laws of speech, colloquially known as lashon hara.)

It’s hard, and sometimes I’m not good at it, but I’ve seen tremendous growth in myself. And I’ve seen how others react differently to me. Even strangers seem to recognize me as having a kind face. Sometimes it weirds me out that my behavior can apparently make my face look different in a way that’s obvious to a stranger! It’s amazing how much people appreciate when I treat them as tzelem Elokim. Especially in NYC, we can feel invisible and meaningless, and when a stranger is willing to sit and listen to your problems sympathetically for 20 minutes at the pharmacy (without dictating how to fix those problems), that’s huge. And boy, did I regret it as the woman just kept talking, but I knew I actually had the time (if I was being honest with myself) and she seemed to need the talk. I like to think I was able to bring some shalom bayit to her and her husband, or at least some release for her. It’s a gift to them, and it’s also a gift to me in the long run. What’s the Jewish word for karma? 😉

The really hard part? Being machmir on respecting others when you believe that person is harming others, via word or deed. That’s an art form, and I’m still fingerpainting. The biggest example for me: confronting people who say racist or other disrespectful things at the Shabbos table or other social events.

Of course, maybe one day I’ll be a parent, and all this patience and kindness will go right out the window.

Skylar Bader is an orthodox convert living in New York City. She wears many hats, which you can check out at www.skylarbader.com. She blogs at crazyjewishconvert.blogspot.com, teaches conversion candidates and kallahs, and is also a lawyer for small businesses. Originally from the South, she has four pets and an addiction to books.

 

EMILY CHILUNGU

There are a lot of ways that Judaism has made my life (and the lives of my husband and kids) a lot richer and more meaningful.  Judaism takes the everyday and elevates it, makes it special, and living an observant life pretty much puts Judaism into every area of your life, from what you eat to what you wear to how you structure your week.  But two areas–which are closely related–where we have made the extra effort to clearly incorporate Judaism, and where Judaism has had a enriching effect, are kindness towards the creation and an appreciate for it.  I know that isn’t as clear or concrete as modesty or kosher or Shabbat observance, but it’s a major part of who I am as a person and as a Jew and who we are as a family.  For us (I say us because my husband also feels this way), being in nature and seeing the beauty, complexity, and astonishing variety in it is the best way to tap into that awe that we should have for the Creator of it all.  Synagogue and prayers from a book are tough for me.  When I get a chance to pick up a prayer book, I just keep looking at the clock or counting the pages–I admit it, when it comes to structured prayer, I am lousy at it.  I don’t feel much when I am in synagogue, beyond the wonderful feelings of community and friendship with the people I am with, but when I go out into the woods or paddle around in my kayak or spend time with animals, it’s there that I really feel the presence of G-d and appreciate His creation, and in turn appreciate Him.  Before I was Jewish, I didn’t think much about where all the world around me came from.  I grew up in a more rural place, and had natural beauty all around me, but it was just there.  I enjoyed it, I loved it, but I didn’t see past the science or just basic pleasantness of it.  Since becoming Jewish, and acknowledging that there is this Creator behind it all, it adds a layer of wonder to everything.  The Torah starts with the creation of the world, and I always took that to drive home the point that first and foremost, G-d is a Creator and an artist and we are part of that creation.  That’s something I think we forget sometimes.  It describes the world and all that is in it as very good.  Not just alive or there or neutral or a backdrop or unintended consequence, but very good.  Judaism tells me that while there is certainly a wonder to the world that can be tapped into through appreciating the aesthetic or the biology behind it, there is also a goodness, a rightness to it that runs deeper.  Nature is like a little glimpse of this great Divine wisdom.  So it’s a two fold benefit–because of Judaism, I see a new layer of beauty in nature, and because of nature, I am able to appreciate G-d.  My husband and I really try to impart that feeling to our kids because we believe it will enrich their own Jewishness.  We are very fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the country (seriously–upstate New York is pretty cool), and access to some really stunning places is easy, and we take our kids on adventures as often as we can because we want them to know that G-d doesn’t just dwell in the synagogue, and He is not just accessible through pre-written prayer.  He’s also out in His creation, and that creation is so wonderful and beautiful.  It’s not all just a lovefest, though.  Along with that appreciation there is a responsibility for it.  We are to be stewards (sorry, while that word always strikes me a weird, I can’t think of a better one!) of this place, and we have to take care of it.  When you see G-d’s hand in things, and you see life in things, you begin to want to treat those things as precious, which they are.  So we are big on kindness and care when it comes to the things that G-d designed.  In addition to getting the kids out into nature, we also get them involved in tzeddakah for local animal shelters and food drives for the less fortunate.  Don’t get me wrong–anyone can, and should, do these things.  You certainly don’t have to be Jewish, or even religious, but for us, for me, Judaism has added a deeper meaning to these things.  Like I’m not just doing it because it is the right thing to do, but because I want to do it, because it satisfies a need I have to feel a connection to this huge creation that I am a part of and share a bit with.  Wow, I’m sorry this is kinda nebulous, but I hope that answered the question of what my favorite way to infuse my life with Judaism is.

Emily Chilungu is a 35-year-old mother of four. She is observant Jewish convert married to another observant Jewish convert.  She’s from rural Ohio and currently lives in upstate New York.

 

RIVKI SILVER

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I’ve found that my role as a mother of small children makes infusing my life with Judaism both harder and easier.  While the many physical tasks I do to take care of the house and my family can serve as an excellent distraction from all things spiritual, it’s really through my children that I most integrate Jewish thoughts and rituals into my daily life.

The first thing I do with them in the morning (assuming I wake up before them, that is!), is go into their room and sing Modeh Ani with them.  The modeh ani I sing with them is way more involved than the one I mumble to myself when I get out of bed, so it’s like I’m getting a do-over, which is awesome.  Then we ritually wash our hands (and also brush our teeth).  At breakfast, we make brachos over our food and I try to mention from time to time things like how making a blessing over food is our way of thanking Hashem for providing us with food.  We have a marble jar that I use as a reward program, so when my children do a mitzvah, usually one related to interpersonal relationships or manners, I’ll put a marble in the jar.  They get a prize when the jar is filled.  At bedtime we sometimes read books about midrashim, or other Jewish stories.  I try to slip some mussar into bedtime stories when I have the presence of mind to do so.  And we say Shema together before bed.

And in addition to the active education I’m trying to give to my children, I’m also keeping in mind that I should be modeling the kind of behavior I want them to emulate.  So it’s a dual program of teaching and living which is filling my life with Judaism.

Now I’m going to go do some laundry, which is sure to be a more spiritual experience now that I’ve taken the time to think about spirituality.  Sweet!

Rivki Silver has spent most of her life immersed in the study of music, but for the past six years has been learning about marriage and motherhood.  She writes about relationships, parenthood, music and religion, as seen through the lens of an Orthodox Jewish woman.  Her writing can be found on Kveller.com, Aish.com, PartnersinTorah.org, as well as her blog, LifeintheMarriedLane.com.  You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

KESHET STARR

The great thing about being frum is that so many details of your daily life are naturally infused with Judaism–from what you eat to what you wear to what your calendar looks like. But, especially as someone who’s been observant for a number of years already, it can be hard to continue to practice with the same intentionality and joy as you had at the beginning, all the more so if you’re sleep deprived and tired! My solutions for this are to try to approach the prep and planning I do for holidays, Shabbos, etc, with a lot of joy, even if I have to “fake it till I make it” in the beginning. I also try to listen to classes and read Torah books when I can so that my observance doesn’t feel like something I do by rote, but something alive and growing. in recent years, it’s also been very exciting for me to see my children learn more about Judaism and to share in their natural enthusiasm!

Keshet Starr is an Orthodox wife and mom who works as an attorney and moonlights as a scrapbooker, blogger, photographer, baker, reader, writer, and lover of all things creative! She lives in New Jersey with her fellow-attorney husband and two young children. When she isn’t taking care of her to-do list, indulging in a hobby, or sipping a hot latte, she likes to think about the deeper things in life and connect with others. Keshet blogs at www.keshetstarr.com and Instagrams at @keshetstarr.

RACHEL EDEN

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My absolute favorite way to infuse every aspect of my life with Torah and spirituality is reaching out to other Jews, kiruv. While I do teach Judaic studies in a day school, my most inspiring and energizing moments come when I’m teaching and connecting with college students and adults alike. Exposing Jewish people to the richness of their heritage, discussing Jewish values in contrast with Western values, conveying Torah’s timeless wisdom as applicable, vibrant, relevant…these are a few of my favorite things! I consistently walk away from classes and dialogues more inspired than I walked in and feel closer to God.

Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky has said that the time to act Jewish isn’t daily or weekly and it’s not monthly or yearly either. We can’t place Judaism in a box and take it out when praying or learning or for a holiday. Being Jewish has to permeate every moment of our lives. We are Jewish when we’re driving our cars, waiting in line, on an airplane, talking to our spouses privately, disciplining our children, interacting with colleagues or clients. There’s no off-switch. This concept is particularly meaningful to me since it demands us to heighten our awareness and consciousness in all aspects of life. Framing stressful situations as growth opportunities has enhanced my life and the atmosphere in my home. Developing a strong work ethic plays well in my personal relationships, in my job, and when relating to myself and  God.

In addition to trying(!) to living consciously and teaching, I love hosting Jews from all walks of life at my Shabbos table. If the goal is to expand ourselves as people and be a source of blessing, what better way than to expand our hearts and our homes?

When working on campus, I was astounded by the number of students who were embarrassed to be labelled “Jewish”. I was asked to refrain from asking a student if s/he is Jewish on campus in case friends of the student would hear! The words of Rav Noach Orlowek stick with me: Our differences are either a source of pride or shame. It is incumbent upon us to personify the dignity and beauty of a Jew so we can be a shining examples for our children and the people around us.

The reality of hosting Shabbos meals, teaching, and generally reaching out is that you know the people around you are watching your behavior as a testimony of Torah’s truth and wisdom. For all orthodox Jews, this is true, but those in outreach are particularly aware of watchful eyes. While there are disadvantages, I think the pressure of knowing others are looking at us creates the motivation to bridge the gap between living a life of mediocrity and grasping to live an extraordinary life.

Rachel Eden hails from Southern California where she teaches and writes about all things Jewish. She has spent the past ten years in various roles of outreach in California, New York, and Israel. She has a home of boisterous boys (and man) and invites you to be their guest (at your own risk). Rachel’s blog can be found at www.thiswaytoeden.wordpress.com.

This Life is Like

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Here’s what I thought life was like.

 

Childhood: Life is all about me.

 

Teenage years: Life is all about my enjoyment. (Translation: Still about me)

 

 

Adult years: Have life mostly figured out, just living and working the dream that I dreamed (idyllic home, perfect parenting, children basking in my awesomeness, etc).

 

 

Golden years: Sit back, relax, enjoy what you’ve built.

 

 

Of course, there are a few key moments that if you mess up, you will alter your trajectory and rob yourself of the fantasy mansion with paid staff for a rundown shack that smells like cigarettes and trash. (Remember MASH???)

 

Those key moments are the BIG crossroads of life, the choices like which SCHOOL (high school, college), which EXPERIENCES (travel, spirituality), and which PARTNER (and perhaps very important friendships). These BIG choices create a lifestyle and circumstances that make or break a person’s future.

That’s what I believed anyway.

Since I was 13, I lived my life according to the BIG choices philosophy. I undertook to live away from home during high school in order to go to a Jewish school (kicking and screaming parents in tow), I didn’t burden myself with a moral compass until I was 18 and knew if I didn’t buckle down soon, my future direction would change. By 21 I made a decision to be conscientious, accountable, an adult. Someone who could hold down a job, whose mistakes and challenges would from here-on-out be of small proportions, hey, maybe I could even be a role model for others.

Goodbye journey, Hello destination. I’ve arrived.

 

 

My rude awakening came swiftly when I found myself on top of the world in this new-found state of nirvana, proud over my accomplishments and choices. I was doing everything I set out to do, making myself and my mentors proud, feeling self-satisfied.

 

My disillusionment came in the form of a few human errors, a reality-check when I encountered said mentors’ (who were all grown up and, of course!, infallible) mistakes.

I lost my resolve. I no longer had the strength or motivation to maintain the perfect image I thought I had attained (I hadn’t!).

 

When I was ready to dust myself off and try again, I lived in a new world where role models can make the wrong decisions and I was no longer perfect.

In the ten years since then, I have made lots and lots of adult-size (super-size) mistakes. I have learned to forgive myself and others for the constant stream of bad decisions (from trivial to large). I have learned to give myself plenty of time and patience.

Every time I step up to a new rung, a new job, a marriage, a new child, a new friend, a new challenge, I am greeted with fresh new mistakes.

I look at how I spend my time, where I spend my energy- mental and physical, what I give my all to, what I have become complacent in, bad choices I never bothered to correct, good choices I need to dust off and re-integrate.

Turns out, this life (for me, for now) is more like:

Childhood: Life is all about me.

Teenage years: Life is all about my enjoyment. (Confession: I hope this won’t be the case for my children!)

Adult years: The good days? Three steps forward, two steps back or – bad days- two steps forward three steps back.

Golden years: Growing, growing….

…Gone.

 

May this Jewish new year, we be blessed with all the resources we need  (health, peace of mind, money) for a fresh start towards human, fallible and humble greatness, a year of growth and positive impact, a year with clearer understanding of what this life is like.

Confessions of a Cheater

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It’s funny how we excuse some things but not others. Take Lea*, for example. We’ve known each other for a very long time, surfing in and out of contact for ages, reconnecting on Facebook, and ultimately our childhood friendship has been crystallized,  glorified as the years pass.

We recently touched base and had a fascinating theological discussion but in case that’s not your bag, I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, I was advocating a Torah lifestyle while my friend was knocking it to some degree.

None of that phased me, but as we were speaking, Lea mentioned how boring marriage is. I assumed Lea meant that having passed the honeymoon phase, marriage now required plenty of work on her own character, investment of time and effort, sans the glitz of romance and excitement.

Before I reacted, I asked Lea to elaborate. It was as if she had been waiting for someone to ask her to elaborate.

Marriage is a prison. I’ve been married for years and please don’t give me some fluffy advise about working on pumping up the electricity because I’ve been there and done that. I’m tired of the same spouse- it gets old. People were not built for monogamy. I want to connect with new people, live new experiences. Whenever I bring up the topic to my husband, he loses it and demands to know why he’s not enough for me so I drop it. There are so many reasons to stay together: the kids, money, comfort, fear. Some people have discovered the joys of an open marriage but most don’t do that. Everybody cheats or wishes they could cheat but nobody admits to it. Now I’m stuck feeling resentful towards my spouse for making me feel stuck.

Reading this conversation in an article likely dilutes the shock value I experienced when listening first hand. Will you reread this and imagine your childhood friend saying the same words?

I was surprised on more than one level. I thanked her for her honesty- after all, do you know many people who would express a struggle that private?

What most surprised me was how far she had gone to rationalize her feelings. Lea is bright, no question about it, but to intellectualize cheating by insisting that humanity is not built for monogamy? To comfort herself with the illusion that everybody does it? The whole discussion brought to light how far down a rabbit’s hole any one of us can go when we think long enough for our brains to regress to our bodies. It’s a lesson for me in other areas of my own life.

 

But back to infidelity….What about the trade-off? How many new, even pleasurable experiences will be worth one meaningful life-long relationship? No one doubts that the novelty of a new person (for one evening) creates more of an adrenaline rush than the umpteenth time our spouses walk through the door. But at what cost? And how can we be so blind as to not recognize the beauty and greatness that our spouse has? This is the one person in our family we actually chose!

I do not judge my friend at all, I just wanted to express my feelings about her choices in the hopes of catharsis (for me!). My friend has dug herself too deep a hole to attempt to climb out though I hope she does take that first, painful step. She knows I only have her best interests at heart and, again, hats off to her for her honesty.

I doubt any readers would dare agree with her on facebook or any public forum but if you ever want to debate this privately, I am game.

 

*some details have been changed to protect my friend’s anonymity.