Tag Archives: orthodox

Who makes you feel small?

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There is always someone. He may be overt or she may be surreptitious and not even realize she’s doing it. You may cross paths casually or in a corporate setting or you may see one another everyday at home.

Everyone has someone that makes them feel small. Or something. The high school reunion, the report card, the play date at the park, the scale, the business meeting, the rejection letter.

It’s the way they talk about their kids as if your fertility challenge just doesn’t exist. It’s the dialogue about a client that you personally brought in but it’s as if you had no role in the pitch. It’s the pain you feel when you see someone you knew from long ago and your failures seem to be printed on your forehead.

This someone or something is smoke and mirrors. The mirror is, of course, a reflection of your feelings about yourself. The smoke is the voice in your mind pulling you down, way down.

For me? It’s that woman who smiles as if she cares and speaks in a clipped tone. I tell myself she is not judging me but feel inexplicably smaller when she’s around. She seems to know everyone and be an expert at everything. She explains that she avoids apologies because people need to take ownership of their own feelings. She’ll just be sorry for them that they feel that way. She is always composed.

I have to look again. Again and again. If I don’t want to feel small, if I don’t want to BE small, I need to halt the negative voice. I need to remind myself that it’s smoke and mirrors.

There’s an idea is psychology that the people who appear in our dreams are really parts of ourselves. What if this was true of real life? If everyone around you, or your perception of them, was actually just a projection of you?

Maybe it is. Maybe your relationship with your family, friends, and community are reflections of how you feel about yourself. Maybe your relationship with the groups of people who stand for despicable things are reflections of parts of yourself that you hate most. One thing is certain. If you feel small, it’s not about her and it’s not about him.

It’s about you.

The million dollar question is how do you overcome it?

The answer is simple and intuitive. Change the script.

Peel back the superficial conclusions you drew. Reveal the areas of that person or group of people or that situation to discover their vulnerabilities and fears. They have them too. What are they? Stunningly, you will start to feel empathy for that person. You will find common ground.

Best of all, you will become an expanded version of yourself. You will be great. You will be BIG. No more pettiness for you- not about them and not about you. You will be big in the presence of everyone and everything. You will never be made to feel small again.

 

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Just Hold On

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Sometimes, I get bored, tired, or spontaneously unmotivated.

I need something or someone to ignite my passion toward self-development. I have many goals in many areas from homemaking to career. Do you know how together I would feel if I could just take the kids’ old small clothes out of their closets, organize the junk drawer, and have my car radio fixed?

Some days, I’m pumped to exercise, eat vegetables, drink water, and moisturize. Other days, I want to change the world for the better and make significant positive global impact NOW. I want to run a home where I really RUN my home, y’know? A home where I’m nurturing, guiding, supportive, firm, fair, consistent. The type of home that runs seamlessly.

Even on tired days, like today, when I didn’t do much. I spent a couple of hours in the office and played with my children. I will spare you what I made for dinner because chummus and string cheese aren’t especially impressive. I’m drained from nothing and exhausted physically for no reason. I should go to sleep but need to hoard my sacred awake ‘Me Time’ that my mother explained to me long ago but makes far more sense now. Even on a day like today. I want it all.

But how do I accomplish with all of my inconsistency? Sometimes I focus on one area of my life and other times my brain is in a fog? How will I make substantial progress at this pace?

Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, shlita, shared that on days when we are either unmotivated and lazy or, Heaven forbid, anguished and depressed….our job is to simply hold on. We must hold on to everything we built prior to this day. Don’t let go, don’t fall. Show up to the 30 minute workout, show up to work, show up to learn, show up to pray, show up for the people in your life. Focus your ounces of energy on just holding on.

Then, when those brilliant days of energy and passion gift themselves to you…RUN with them. Take huge and high leaps and don’t look back because there will be rainy days when all you’ll have the strength to do is hold on.

There is a school of thought that teaches us to implement small, consistent improvements in order to make progress in life and these two pieces of advice live harmoniously in my mind. I do that too. Life is more like a heartbeat than a slope, there are ups and downs. And on a day like today, a good and blessed day, when my eyelids weigh heavily but I refuse to give in to sleep, I just hold on.

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.

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.

Woe to Persian Jews

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One of the moments I consider a tipping point in my religious journey (still journeying, by the way) was when I was in college in NYC at 19 years old discussing my values and vision for the future with a friend. When I mentioned I didn’t want a television in my house because of the flood of negative messages and influence I’d prefer to filter, not to mention the potential for wasting time, my friend did a double take. Apparently it was the final straw! “You don’t want a TV in your house? Don’t you think the way you run your life now doesn’t really jive with how you see your life in the future?”

Huh. Good point, I thought.

After a long time investigating, discussing, and contemplating my religious choices, my behavior took considerable time to match up with my mind. That conversation goes down, in my personal history, as a game-changing one.

Game-changing revelations like the one I had at 19, that occur after a seemingly inconsequential experience, usually is the result of a long brewing build-up.

Recently, I had a very short interaction with a Jewish outreach professional that has shifted my perspective significantly. Without discussing the actual interaction, I’d like to address a flawed,  yet widespread, philosophy.

In Jewish outreach, a topic I have dealt with extensively in this blog, there is an objective. To bring Jews closer to Judaism. Different people define that closeness differently and different organization create milestones, strategies, and more specific objectives around that BUT the overall goal is always to bring Jews closer to Judaism. You might phrase it differently but, in my opinion, that would be semantics.

If you disagree, please do contact me because I’d be curious to hear a different perspective.

So, let’s say you want to dedicate your lifelong career to bringing Jews closer to Judaism. How would you do it? You would try to use your resources (time, money, energy) most effectively to foster the best success. This is the way any business is run and anyone with a goal, personal or professional, would be wise to take this course.

Trouble is, there is a danger… In Jewish outreach, we work with people. ***Please see bottom of post

I write this post with caution. I have deleted hours of work in the past to avoid hurting others, undermining good values, or any writing that might garner writer’s remorse. I read reprehensible blog posts where bloggers bash efforts at Jewish unity and continuity in the name of principles when it’s clear there’s a personal agenda. I have no such agenda. On the contrary, I very much support Jewish outreach efforts and endeavor to use my time sharing a positive Jewish message and being an example of a kind, compassionate, proud, upright Jewish woman.

That said, there is a danger when working in Jewish outreach and running the outreach organization like a business. Outreach organizations tend to focus on Jewish people who are most likely to embrace and be open to Judaism. Some Jewish demographics get less attention than others based on this. For example, in recent years, campuses have gained more traction in Jewish outreach because someone young and unencumbered by a spouse and children is more open to embracing new ideas and learning new practices. But what if some Jewish groups are purposely left out to their own detriment?

The example I’d like to raise is young Persian Jews.

Persian Jews, isolated and discriminated against for being Jews in Iran, are generally a more insulated community when immigrating to America. As a community, they tended to be more traditional than their assimilated Ashkenazi (and some Sephardi communities depending on origin) counterparts.

My Persian friends in high school always had huge extended family Shabbat dinners, where no one was strictly observant, but everyone was strongly traditional.

I can personally relate to this culture having been born to South African/Rhodesian parents where a traditional (as opposed to orthodox, conservative, reform, etc) Jewish approach was mainstream and accepted. I still remember attending my late cousin’s shiva in Israel and being asked by an elderly South African man (with no malicious intent) if my father had become as “fanatic” as I was. I still crack a smile at the memory!

Back to Persian Jews though!

Young Persian-American Jews are generally discouraged from becoming “too orthodox” in appearance, practice, etc while they are still expected to marry Jewish and maintain their traditions. Many such young people, who have desired a more Torah-observant lifestyle, are swayed by familial pressure to not entertain such notions. As such, most mainstream outreach organizations and professionals do not  expend the same resources on Persian Jews as they would on others.

But that’s okay because, those young Persian-American Jews have their respective families and communities to keep their religiosity in check. Right?

Remember Tevya’s tradition song in Fiddler on the Roof? From a Jewish continuity perspective, our hopes for Tevye’s progeny are practically dashed when his youngest daughter, Chava, marries out to a Russian Orthodox Christian, Fyedka.

Tradition, un-anchored by a solid Jewish education and context, feels meaningless particularly for a second or third generation of traditional Jews. SO, young Persian Jews, in my estimation are in the particularly difficult predicament of feeling very Americanized and connected to non-Jewish people, activities, and general lifestyle with minimal effort to guide them towards their heritage.

To be fair, there are some Persian-only groups that do focus on the Persian young Jewish community but some of their membership feel there shouldn’t be a need for such exclusive organizations if the mainstream ones would include them as well.

Having been through my share of Jewish outreach positions and having discussed this often with others in the field, I strongly believe outreach organizations should afford Jews positive Jewish experiences to encourage stronger practice but with ZERO expectation for any increase in observance level. To expect that would be arrogant, unfair, and create a very negative/competitive/unhealthy work environment! Most Torah-observant outreach organizations (I have not done a formal survey) are funded by people who want tangible results, measurable external success, and outcome-focused efforts. Much is lost by such practices, including (G-d forbid) the next Persian-American generation.

Jewish outreach (kiruv) shouldn’t have any specific goal other than to expose Jews to Judaism.

Now if only I could find people who share my views to fund such efforts.

 

*** After reading this blog post, my husband made a crucial point: There are many, many dangers in treating Jewish outreach organizations like businesses. The underlying one may be: “My strength and might are in my hands” Kochi v’Otzem b’yadi. This attitude is antithetical to Torah Judaism which insists that any fruits of our labor are God-given. If we assume anything successful is coming from ourselves, we are being arrogant. Working with the intention of ‘I am trying to connect Jewish people to Judaism’ should be the focus. The supremely bottom-line focus on numbers, numbers, numbers ironically counters the very values we are trying to spread and yet this attitude often reigns supreme. My husband, after reading this footnote, wishes I would elaborate further and says it’s an article unto itself. One day I’ll convince him to write it.

Plugging In to Unplug (Virtual Reality’s Great Escape)

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My 5 year old son recently told me what his favorite day of the week is. As an orthodox Jewish family, we invest time and energy into making Shabbos (Friday sundown-Saturday sundown) special. Special for a child in my house means good dessert, a special snack, staying up extra late, wearing nice clothes, singing songs, going to synagogue, and having extra one-on-one time with parents, family, and friends. Shabbos was the answer I anticipated but not the one I got. “Sunday!”, my son smiled wide, completely unaware that Mommy was  more than a little dismayed with this revelation.

Then I gave some thought to my favorite day of the week. For an adult who observes all of the laws of Shabbos, it’s an incredible 25 hours of relinquishing the attempted stranglehold of control over our worlds.

There’s an acknowledgement that something Transcendent, in fact, is in control and has been this whole time. Whether I finished all my work or I left lots over, once the sun goes down on a Friday, I stop.

Stopping specifically entails shutting down all electronics (yep, smartphone included) and all “creative work” where I’m changing something existentially is prohibited.

If a light is off in a room, it stays off (if it’s on, it stays on). Nothing gets cooked, no water gets boiled, no fires are lit, no preparation is made for the upcoming week, no laundry is folded or washed, nothing is sorted, nothing is cut, nothing is glued.

There are times when the stopping is a total relief and I literally exhale. There are also times when the stopping is frustrating because I feel as though I have so much to do and yet… The lesson I take is that life is fleeting and there will be an indefinite stop button pressed for me one day (hopefully at 120 years old!) whether I feel I’m finished, or not, so better not waste a second. I certainly love Shabbos and while it may be my very favorite day of the week, I do think that it’s best in small doses. I admit, I don’t mourn resuming my normal, productive activities. Maybe that’s by design, to feel compelled to get up and DO, ACCOMPLISH after some time of forced stopping.

Sunday is the day when I grocery shop for the week, take the kids out somewhere fun to run free so I can observe (comfortably!), and organize my life and house for a whirlwind schedule beginning Monday morning. It’s family day, it’s me day, like my son, I do like Sundays.

Still, a part of me feels guilty. Shabbos should be our obvious answer. If it’s not, then WHY NOT?

One possibility is that when we plug in our computers and cell phones, we essentially DISCONNECT from the real world to CONNECT with the virtual one where our selfish whims, thoughts, and desires are catered to by well sponsored sites. When we pull the cord from the outlet and shut down, we are turning on our inner selves. We are forced to have actual human contact and interaction. The world isn’t just about us, it’s about everyone around us too. While Sunday through Friday, I plug in my computer to escape (read: plug out), on Friday night and Saturday I plug my electronics out to spiritually recharge (read: plug in).

No matter how we choose our “favorite day”, I think it’s critical to plug out sometimes and even more meaningful on a Saturday when the day has been carved out for us as one of rest. But what do you think?

What I Don’t Tell My Spouse (and what you shouldn’t either)

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I probably should start by saying that my husband and I are always talking. I have a close friend -with a wonderful marriage- that is completely different from mine and I don’t understand it at all. She tells me that while she’s home with her husband they don’t see each other or speak to one another much. For the record, they live in a small apartment with young children. Each one of them, though, is busy doing his/her own thing and there’s very little contact. I believe her when she says that they have a great marriage- but I can’t wrap my head around it! My husband and I don’t stop yakking. I consider my marriage pretty great and I understand marriages come in different shapes and sizes- no one necessarily better than the next. It just so happens that our dynamic is, well, a pretty verbal one.

That said, I do try very hard to not speak to my husband about some things (admittedly I fail at least as much as I succeed). I avoid topics of negativity that take the form of kvetches, sadness, bitterness, irritation, anger, etc. The upside is that with all our shmoozing, we avoid bringing up lashon hara (negative/damaging speech). The advantage that I’d like to highlight here is that I don’t spread the negativity. Again, this is a work in progress.

So, to wrap up, do I (should I) vent to my husband? In a generation that glorifies full self-expression, I’m proud to report that I have censored(!) myself many times this past week in an effort to keep our atmosphere at home upbeat and cheerful. There were a few challenging moments (totally not connected to my family) that I opted to keep to myself. Y’know what? I don’t feel repressed or squelched or stifled or inhibited. I feel liberated. Taking control of my mouth in the face of strong emotions leaves me completely empowered, in the driver’s seat.

While my friend says she doesn’t talk much to her husband (and hey- if that works- gezunterheyt!), most couples I encounter TALK. A LOT. While our cultural standard is to give couples carte blanche to disclose every thought passing through (sort of like Twitter…), I propose we utilize a little good judgement before we communicate to our spouses. 

We Don’t Need No Education

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I dedicate this to the 12 year old girl who found my blog. She knows who she is- I teach her Jewish General Knowledge, Laws and Customs, Jewish Prophets, and the Torah Portion daily. I’ve encountered a variety of people from my past and present who have read my posts and given me feedback- none took me by surprise the way she did.

I also dedicate this to my teachers- the formal ones who stood in front of a classroom and my teachers of life who I learned from simply by spending time with them, observing their behavior, and interacting.

As a child, I thought my teachers were one-dimensional figures who fed us information, graded our work, and were authoritative. I never thought my teachers had a casual side- even the more laid back ones- and I certainly couldn’t visualize their lives outside our classroom.

As I got older and matured, my image of teachers evolved into a more 3D approach where I could reconcile an authority figure having a private life, flaws, and vulnerabilities. Still, when I walk into the front of my classroom everyday, I’m very aware of the persona I’m portraying and the duties it involves.

What blindsided me about my student (I’ll call her Sarah) finding my blog (and proceeding to read its entirety!) was that I really lay it all on the line here- no sugar coating- in order to give myself a space to let my hair down (figuratively!). It’s been therapeutic and provided me with a much needed mode of connection. While blogs are obviously public and completely accessible, I just assumed my writing was for adult consumption alone.

Lucky for me, Sarah is an awesome 12 year old who has all the innocence and sweetness of her years with the sensitivity of a grown woman. Every so often, I break with protocol and stop teaching Prophets to rather focus on Jewish Outlook or how the Torah weighs in on various relevant areas of life. When Sarah explained that she found my blog- smiling widely!- the one she took an interest in was this one where I discuss feminism and Madonna. I spent my class time on Wednesday lecturing and moderating a lively discussion about how feminism has developed over the past 60 years and the current day perspective of an empowered woman. We ended with the Jewish vision of a strong woman.

I like learning the text of Samuel II as much as the next gal- likely more – but I floated out of class on Wednesday because we discussed incredible mentors in the Jewish world and nothing inspires me more than envisioning people who are living the values I aspire to personify. Also, bringing Judaism to life with controversial discussion makes me feel 18 again when I spent countless sleepless nights debating and soul-searching. On Wednesday afternoon, I could close my eyes and virtually transport myself back to seminary in Israel where some of my highest-impact mentors modeled extraordinary living.

This week has involved a late school night at the annual Open House, a trip to the emergency room, a somewhat explosive exchange with an acquaintance, a disappointing interview, tragic news of Jewish children’s death locally and in Israel…it’s easy to feel tired, negative, and about 100 years old. Thanks to Sarah, I am renewed and feel blessed to make a feeble attempt at becoming the person and example I hope to exemplify.