Tag Archives: Torah

The Most Important Shoes

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I closed my eyes. Just for a second because I was driving. The kids were all speaking at the same time. One child was repeatedly asking me to pass a water bottle over to the backseat. The next one was explaining how he reached his ‘superstar’ status at school (a teacher’s recognition for good work) and interrupted himself to quiet his siblings down. The little one was very angry about her pacifier lying on the floor and was shrieking for it. I prayed that I could keep the wheel steady as I passed the water back two rows and grabbed the pacifier quickly thereafter (nearly dislocating my elbow). I popped the pacifier into my toddler’s mouth and now heard just one frustrated little voice.  I told my son to continue his story and to focus on me instead of the previous noise because I WAS listening.

I closed my eyes. Just for a second. I found myself wishing for a little quiet. I was tired after a long work day and in the mood to think. I wanted to mull over a conversation I’d had with an employee, figure out how to effectively support a friend in mourning, and make a mental to-do list for the following day. I wanted to plan out my evening action steps from calling a colleague back to packing lunches. I didn’t want to hear anymore whining or talking or demands. I almost voiced the thoughts running through my mind but then…

I closed my eyes. One last time. This time, when I opened them, I saw what I had missed. The little blessings in the backseat who needed me to be fully present in mind, body, and soul. The strategies, the analysis, the rushing would have to wait. Right then, I needed to be successful with my most important little clients. Success requires me to slow my mind and my pace (not my natural tempo) and smile or shake my head at the right times to listen wholly.

I am so tempted to become absorbed into every other arguably important task and overlook my most important ones. Not just the children but close relationships in general. Judaism asks us to fill the void that only we can fill first. In other words, if someone else can take the phone meeting but only you can visit your sick best friend to cheer her up, then the right path is clear. If someone else can do your laundry and prepare dinner but only you can help your niece with her homework, then your choice is simple. You are the only person who can fill your unique task. Let’s not lose sight of the most important shoes we need to fill: our own.

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My Fear of Groundhog Day

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You wake up when the alarm begins to buzz. But you’re tired. You press the snooze button. You doze off only to be awoken again eight minutes later. That alarm clock of yours is persistent if nothing else.

Oh fine, you’ll get up. So you do. You wash your hands, your face, you use the bathroom, maybe you say a morning prayer, maybe you check your phone.

You get dressed, you give yourself one last look and have one lingering thought: Need. Coffee.

Some of you will splinter into a different phase of the morning but those of you with young children will pack lunchboxes and oversee wake up calls, some good dental hygiene, and offer encouragement (read: nagging) to get everyone dressed.

You pour cereal or coffee. Maybe you exercise. You hop in the car and drive to work or you drive the kids to school.

I could keep going through your day but in the interest of time, and because I think you get it, I’ll stop here.

This concept of living what’s essentially the Groundhog Day movie version of your life scares me to pieces. It always has – since I was a teenager and realized that people waste so much of their lives running on a metaphoric hamster’s wheel. Uninspired or dwelling on pettiness,  or just generally surviving their lives instead of living them.

But is my life any different than that? I wake up the same way you do. You could say we lead parallel lives with a few adjustments.

I saw a 30 Day Fitness Challenge video where people were tasked to do 100 push-ups for 30 days straight. Their journey of emotion- from frustration to exhilaration and back, from physical impossibility to a reality was fascinating. But even more impactful was, of course, the results.

We are all vulnerable in perceiving that our lives resemble the Groundhog Day movie. What differentiates this day from the last one is the effort I put in every single moment. To learn, to work, to be better each day. The moment I take to think through my attitude or speech and choose a higher road is the moment I am elevated to new heights.

Then, we can wake up, take in the newly elevated scenery, and unaided by an alarm, smile.

 

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.

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.

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.

Potentially Fabulous

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I really want to make something of myself. I know people who have. I know a guy who doesn’t quit. He works around the clock to build up his non-profit organization that he’s passionate about- all while holding down a job to support his family. Another example is my friend who almost never sits down. Not kidding. She seems to feed off of an undetectable energy and works incredibly hard to make her home warm and happy, constantly helps members of the community, hosts countless meals, and somehow has endless time to listen attentively to all sorts of people she encounters.

Another fabulous woman I know – I wish you could meet her because there’s no way to do her justice here- is incredibly generous with her time, energy, and talents. A fellow teacher, since the beginning of the year she has constantly tried to help me navigate through projects, students, parents, and colleagues. “Oh, I’ll do that” is her motto and she has quickly become my first stop when I need help at work. Peeking through her classroom window showed me I’m not unique- this lady gives to many with a full heart. Those who are close with her know that if you need a sympathetic ear, sage advice, help with cutting and pasting, or even a kosher (she’s not Jewish) snack – she provides and a relationship is built. When teaching at a public school in a “bad”  neighborhood, she nearly adopted one of her young students who was neglected and abused by his parents. This might surprise you but if you knew her, it wouldn’t.

Don’t get me wrong- none of these people are saints. I’ve actually seen them when they’re not being fabulous. There’s no point in sharing their flaws but, rest assured, they exist. What distinguishes them for me is that most of the time, these people have captured something. A generosity of spirit, a strong work ethic, they’re LIVING LIFE and not just living. Thinking of them moves me off of my couch and towards real-world activity and connection.

You know the classic report card guaranteeing that a student is full of potential? That she or he would be FABULOUS if only…. Well what happens many years after the report cards have been signed and the parent/teacher conferences (strategizing about how this vague potential will be actualized) are long over? Do these little rug-rats, exploding with potential, actualize, maximize, LIVE?

Until recently, I considered my life as an extension of my childhood; I felt I was a (incredibly blessed) Youth of the Nation. It took me three years to figure out that the real Youth no longer view me as one of the Nation. Maybe it was my age, or my children, or my maturity (ok, maybe not the maturity) but clearly something changed. This is the next chapter of my life, the one where all the supposed potential unleashes…right?

Childhood and adolescence is often marked by living in the moment (hopefully joyful ones) and self-absorption. As children, we thought the world revolved around us, that our parents’ lives began when we were born, that our needs should come first. As teenagers, we just didn’t think (should I only speak for myself?). Our decisions were shaped by our whims with no forethought to consequences or aftermath. To fulfill our potential as adults, we’d have to break free of the narcissism and selfishness, simultaneously maintaining the joie de vivre that most children have in spades. For me- if not for all of us- it is that happy spirit, appreciation for life, selflessness, and ACTION that largely defines “actualizing potential”. These are the hallmarks of people who are LIVING. Like I said, I really want to make something of myself and not get stuck just potentially fabulous.

Into the Fog

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I remember my friend being jealous of me at 19 which was fair. She called me lucky and I was. I had figured myself out; what direction I wanted my life to go. I knew that I wanted to reach out to other Jews as a career. I knew I wanted to raise a religious Jewish family. My friend, on the other hand, wasn’t sure of what she wanted or who she was. Come to think of it, I had been blessed with complete clarity from a very young age. I knew for certain at 12 of who I wanted to be at 24. I made decisions at 14 that were based on goals for my 18 year old self.

Imagine my surprise to wake up at 30 in a fog. That’s what I feel I have been walking around in for the past year. A haze of thoughts, circumstances, and postponed decisions circling me and for the first time since I can remember, I lack the certainty I’ve always taken for granted. We’re supposed to ask ourselves what God wants from us given the situations we’re presented. Want to know what happens when you ask yourself the same question over and over again? Disconnection from the original question. A white noise whitewashing any hint of my inner voice.

Ironically, I’m jealous of myself at 19 too. Where did that assured girl go? The unadulterated idealism that wasn’t shadowed by responsibility and practicality? It’s as though someone put a thick pair of glasses over my eyes when I could see just fine before. Or maybe someone just took my much needed pair of glasses off.

There is an upside. I’ve learned to live in the moment. It’s the only way to be happy. If I find myself  contemplating the future, I remind myself that worry and stress is counterproductive. So now I just push (shove) thoughts of the future out of my mind. I look around at my wonderful family, my nice -rented- condo, the food in my fridge, my health and the health of those I love. But what if I can’t feed my family tomorrow? What if I can’t afford to pay next month’s rent? These questions are monsters hiding under my bed. They only exist in my mind.

There’s another upside. I’ve also learned that if I turn outward, if I refocus my attention toward people in need (emotionally or otherwise), I stop feeding my negative thoughts. There’s no space for self-absorbed negativity when you are put in the position of being someone else’s cheerleader.

I’m in a fog about many things but of one thing I’m crystal clear: Life is for living and living well. We only get one chance to live this life the way we think best and I’d much rather soak up my blessings than panic that they’ll disappear tomorrow. This silver lining is my lifeboat as I wade through the fog.

God’s PR People

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I’m friends with professionals who are in Judaism’s marketing department. They are synagogue leaders, teachers, non-profit directors, counselors, rabbis, rebbetzins, youth group advisers, and the list goes on.

My question is this: Is custom packaging Judaism for any given audience wrong?

I am confident that enriching and expanding the Jewish community is a good thing. My question is one of parameters.

It seems that Judaism – and the Torah specifically- should be enough. The wisdom is rich and relevant. The values are clearly for the good of the people. Why should the Torah need PR?

On the other hand, those said values and guidelines have an image. Like it or not. When any given person thinks about living a Jewish life, a picture is conjured up. A picture also comes to mind when considering the G-word for that matter (rhymes with cod).

For some, God is Santa and He needs to hand out presents to us so we know we’re loved.  For others, God is a deadbeat dad who created a world and walked away. Worse yet, God is a sadist who takes pleasure in the world’s clashes and suffering.

So too with Torah Judaism. Picture Judaism. (I’ll give you a minute…) Did  you think of a faceless old rabbi with a silver long beard and dusty black hat sitting in a stuffy room hunched over a book?

Surely our definitions of God and Torah Judaism needs reworking.

Obviously Judaism isn’t just for the old Torah scholar. Judaism is for all of us.

Packaging God and Judaism has already been done by every single one of us. Every Jew who’s spent two minutes thinking about his/her own heritage.

Not only is it right to repackage Judaism and God, it is necessary since there are so many distorted images already out there. In order for us all to be great Jewish leaders (which would be ideal), we need to have a mature grasp on what God and the Torah is really all about.

That way, we fully understand the content to ensure it’s not manipulated. The message must always stay intact. But the packaging? That’s up for grabs.

How Madonna and College Girls Are Ruining Feminism

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I’m a die-hard feminist. Have been since I can remember. There was really no choice since adults always described me as “feisty” and “outspoken”. When we’d have company over as a kid, I’d usually sit on the men’s side of the table to discuss current events and ideas (as opposed to recipes and diapers- sorry ladies!). Maybe if authority figures noticed any shred of deference or submissiveness, my life would have taken a different track. But I doubt it.

Let’s define our terms. What is feminism? I think it’s generally understood to mean the desire to have equal rights and treatment to men. Also, an acknowledgement that women are as good, smart, strong, and capable as men. Lastly, women are equal to men.

I’m not a feminist under those conditions. Judaism recognizes women as having incredible power and abilities but are different than men. We look different – I don’t think I need to draw you a picture. We sound different- men’s voices are generally lower in pitch and women’s are generally higher in pitch. We usually make decisions differently (see Myers-Briggs for evidence). We typically excel in different areas of study. Notice all my qualifiers: “usually”, “typically”, “generally”.

Turning a blind eye to these vast differences is the ultimate slap in the face to our gender.

I don’t even think the words “equal”, “better”, or “worse” should be used in a conversation about women and men because of our extensive differences. Would we use those adjectives to discuss giraffes and elephants?

In my opinion (like all things you’ll find here), the newest wave of American feminism was led by Madonna (her 80’s version- not current day). I was at a laundromat the other day and I saw an interview with Madonna from the 80s where she declared that she didn’t care that people had a problem with her being so sexual. She was “taking back control” of her sexuality. That’s why she was dressing in black leather with plenty skin exposed, in seductive poses, with a long blond ponytail, and a cone-shaped chest. Here’s the thing. If she didn’t claim that she was in control, we might think that it was the men controlling her and Madonna creating an image of male fantasy. Beyonce is considered to be a feminist with you-go-girl songs but her videos tell a different story.

It’s difficult to determine just who is in control, after all. When the sorority girls use Halloween to dress up like a Playboy bunnies, can we really say that they’re “in control” of their sexuality? Or are they, like Madonna, dressing like pin-up girls to gain male (and female) attention? Was Marilyn Monroe a feminist or was she objectifying women by just being a physical object to be lusted?

When I gave a series of classes on modesty to a group of co-ed college students, I was fascinated with the reactions I got. The girls just didn’t seem to care about feminism (secular definition). When the boys saw how little the girls cared, they gave up answering my questions with what they thought would impress the girls. They – the girls and boys- unanimously agreed that cat calls and whistles was in no way demeaning to women. Many of them agreed it was a compliment and would be pleased for their mothers or sisters to be on the receiving end.

Ultimately, Judaism’s view on women and modesty appealed to most of them because it’s so much more rational than this new definition of female power. Women are to be treated with respect, like queens, for their innate worth. A woman’s physical appearance is a beautiful shell but pales in comparison with the beauty of her mind, heart, and deeds.

I hope my boys grow up valuing women for their internal worth and not just their physical appearance. Sadly, this generation’s college girls are following in the footsteps of Madonna and true feminism has taken an enormous step backwards.