On Extraordinary Ordinariness: Finding Inspiration in Connections

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Since moving to Oregon, I’ve come to realize that I’m not as special as I used to think I am. I’ve met so many people here who have lived lives that require the telling of stories to explain who and what and where they’ve been, and what they’ve done and thought, that what made me special, now makes me one of the pack. I stand out less now that so many of the people around me have the qualities and experiences that make a person interesting.

Surprisingly, this makes me happy. Something lost and something gained.

There are stories that require a map to trace the physical journeys people have taken as they’ve moved to follow dreams, people, and jobs. There are the intellectual paths that show commitment to interests, as well as commitment to following every wisp of curiosity. Wanderers and wonderers. I willingly give up my talk turn to listen and ask questions.

And since I don’t know if any of these connections will develop beyond the moment, I’m also learning to appreciate each experience. There doesn’t have to be more, there doesn’t have to be the full story—there never will be the full story—there is simply the self that is presented.

I used to prefer reading over interacting; now I revel in characters who walk into my story, helping create a more fascinating, unfolding book. Not because of adventures we take together, but because we have interwoven our stories just enough to stimulate the imagination and find excitement in the flow of a life.

What is the purpose of life? The key question, still, always, to contemplate. For now, for me, being an agent of positivity, trust, and support, and receiving the same back. Perhaps the horrors that have been unfolding since October 7th have made me realize the importance of listening to each other, and finding inspiration in living one’s life as honestly and fully as possible at each moment. And that is enough. That is the point.

May we each have in our lives people who inspire us and who we inspire. Who are those people for you?

The Israeli hostages are still in captivity. Bring them home now!

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Prayer or Talking to and through My Heart

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Rabbi Zev Wolf, the Hasidic master of Zhitomir (where my maternal grandmother is from), taught:

Do not think that the words of prayer as you say them go up to God. It is not the words themselves that ascend; it is rather the burning desire of your heart that rises like smoke toward heaven. If your prayer consists only of words and letters, and does not contain your heart’s desire—how can it rise up to God?

Using words to think about prayer and praying makes me realize that words are clothes: covering up that which is within and revealing that which is to be shared. 

They are patterns on a page, even when written from the depths of my heart and read with heart, they will always represent a distance: the space between thought, expression, and reception.

On Passover this year, when my mother was about to light the Yizkor (memorial) candles in memory of her father, mother, sister, and husband, I asked if she wanted me to get the Kaddish (Jewish prayer for the dead) prayer for her to recite. “No, she said, “I’ll do it from my heart.” We stood silently, remembering.

It is not that I need to believe that God knows what is in my heart, it is that I need to understand what guides my thoughts and emotions without pinning them down with specific words. It is not about offering words to God; rather, it is for me to be aware of what motivates, demoralizes, energizes, and encapsulates me, and what it is that I yearn for.

Prayer: to feel my heart, to learn from shared insights, to be within my life force, and to acknowledge that this is within that which was, is, and will be.

The Israeli hostages are still in captivity. Bring them home now!


Sharing Insights: On Praying and Studying

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“What is the difference between prayer and study?” asked the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, explaining the order of a Jewish prayer service and the importance of studying Torah and Jewish texts. “In prayer, we speak to God; while in study, God speaks to us.”

Then he added, perhaps as an admonishment, “Before we can ask God to listen to us, we have to show that we can listen to Him.”

Learn, then ask.

Listen, then speak.

A good reminder that my own words are not the most important ones. And that there is a source other than myself for what I know, and that to want should be an expression, not a demand.

An unfolding lesson, too, that there may be an intermediary force guiding my thoughts and expressions. I am a vessel, receiving and sharing nourishment.

What nourishes does not originate with me.

The vessel is temporary.

The balance is between who I am, what I receive, and what is given to others.

As I go deeper into retirement, shed of the necessity of achieving tasks and fulfilling expectations, I am learning to live as a reflection of what is within, which comes from learning and listening, seeking and connecting, praying and creating.

How does your life reflect what is within you?

 

The Israeli hostages are still in captivity. Bring them home now!


Sharing Insights: Unnoticed Miracles

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The Miracle of a Forest

Light bulbs do pop in our heads. I know because it happened to me yesterday in the middle of a Zoom breakout room. We were sent there to talk about whether we trust in God, to which I immediately said that I have a hard time with that. But then the woman I was talking to asked me the next part of the question: “What are some of the ways you have addressed anxiety or worry in your life?”

In the middle of responding that I’m an independent woman and I figure things out on my own (after an adequate amount of procrastinating), I said that I depend on a few friends for support. As the words were coming out of my mouth, I realized that none of those women “naturally” entered my life or came back into it.

God’s influence, I realized, is not necessarily that of a magician, but rather an improv director, bringing together people who need each other to create a single scene or a few scenes—helping each other live our lives and fulfill our purpose.

Miracles don’t need to be as obvious as a non-burning burning bush or a winning lottery ticket or a cure for an incurable disease. They are gifts that we receive but ignore, perhaps in a closet to be regifted. Or, they are gifts that we integrate into our lives becoming indispensable, for as long as necessary. Grateful for their miraculous appearance.

Who are the miracles in your life?

Today is Day 259 that the Israeli hostages are in captivity. Bring them home now!


Kindness Is Foundational and Revelatory: Let Kindness Flutter

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Walking along towering trees


Today is Day 241 that the Israeli hostages are in captivity. Bring them home now!

It’s nice to be nice. It might not seem to be a powerful message, but it’s one worth taking to heart—and action. To me, it’s up there, for self and society, to be among the most important and aspirational.

In a recent daily video, the rabbi of the Palm Beach Synagogue talked about kindness, proclaiming that it’s “the foundation of the world.” The book of Numbers (called Bamidbar in Hebrew, which means in the Wilderness or Desert) he said “is about kindness. God’s kindness to the Jewish people, the Jewish people’s kindness to future generations.” Then, he said that “the foundation of the world is built on kindness. Kindness is the foundation of our lives.”

Kindness is not generally thought of as a religious attribute or character trait of note. It’s basic and it should be easy. It’s not asking you to consider that you may have hurt people (intentionally or inadvertently) and then ask for forgiveness of yourself or anyone else. It’s not asking you to work on your anger-management issues or your patience, so that you don’t make yourself and the people around you uncomfortable. Can you imagine what the world would be like if people were kind to each other, both as individuals and as groups?

What does it mean for kindness to be foundational? It seems worthwhile to contemplate this on an individual basis, helping assess and learn from one’s own actions, always striving to be better—kinder. Why? Think about how we feel when someone is kind to us? My new neighbors brought freshly-baked cookies when they introduced themselves to me. A new acquaintance walked me partly home from an event at the temple that I will soon refer to as “my temple,” to show me a way to go that is not up and down a steep hill. That warm and fuzzy feeling, and desire to return the kindness to those people and others is tangible.

For many years, I was a teacher. I learned that if I didn’t quiet the part of me that was annoyed or frustrated at a student or students, the annoyance continued, and with it the uncomfortable feeling in the room. And lackluster teaching and learning continued. But when I focused on them—not knowing what a child was going through or how they were feeling or why they were acting in the way they were at that moment—I simply tried to be my best person. Remembering, too, that in addition to teaching content, I was there to be an example of how to act even when annoyed (perhaps purposely triggered by astonishingly loud purposeful pen-clicking), I could feel myself calm and my voice find a softer, brusqueless, tone, certainly better for teaching and mentoring.

My interactions with my ex-husband showed me how unkind I could be, and that was hard to acknowledge. Though it also showed me that I never want to relate to any one again when I was guided by anger, hurt, and tit-for-tat self-preservation.

Which brings me to watching the seething anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, Jew-hating, West-hating, Democracy-hating protestors. They show what it means to not have a shred of kindness directing one’s actions. No explanation can excuse or explain someone calling for the death of another person or people. Or for using rape to achieve anything. What is at the core of their interior world? Where has the kindness fled, if it was ever there?

I have read and heard plenty of insightful analyses of what is happening in our world right now and why, but I can’t stop focusing on the brutal visuals. The burning north of Israel that seems invisible to the world because Israelis are suffering. The pictures of the hostages before they were kidnapped, fearing what they look like now (those who are still alive), after 241 days in hell. And then across the world, the mob mentality that seems to suppress individual thinking and compassion (kindness on a higher scale). And the invisible bystanders, whose timidity belies their own thoughts of their goodness, unwittingly enabling the mob to fester and grow.

While there may not be a simple solution to any conflict between different peoples and religions and ways of life and claims to land, it does seem to come back to people not being kind to each other. But perhaps it’s more basic even than that. Can you be kind to yourself when you harbor hatred? What good can you share with the world if you condemn others to a life of fear?

In researching the butterfly effect, I read what Alessandro Filazzola, a community ecologist and data scientist, said about the impact that one’s individual actions can have; “The items I buy, the people I interact with, the things I say, I believe can each have their cascading effects that ripple through society. That is why it is important to try and be a good person, to create a positive influence. One thing I also think about is how these indirect effects are often not as small and removed as I believe many would think.”

This is my cry, my plea to each of us: to see each other as a good person—I am good and you are good—and act accordingly. I want to tamp down the animus I feel toward those who call for my murder because I am a Jew and an Israeli, and even an American. I cannot force anyone to see me assuming goodness, but I can be a butterfly flapping my wings, living my life with kindness as its foundation.  

A group of butterflies can be called a flight, flirtation, flock, flutter, kaleidoscope, rabble, swarm, or wing of butterflies. Pick the imagery that works for you. Then, imagine your goodness joining with others, fluttering in goodness together. This image will help me remember that my actions are not isolated, that they are part of a larger entity, working to create positive change for us all.

 

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Baking dozens of bagels

Learning and Living Jewish Wisdom: Moving forward on My Life Journey

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Discovering paths near my new home in Oregon

Today is Day 236 that the Israeli hostages are in captivity.

Bring them home!

Life is beautiful, banal, and cruel. We have all experienced moments of each since they broadly cover the human condition. It’s the balance that makes life unfair.

This weekend, I watched the interview with four mothers of the five young Israeli women in the recently-aired video as they were kidnapped and brutalized by H-m-s. Another opportunity for more cracks to the heart because of casual evil, and an overwhelming sense of injustice and helplessness. Empathy for these women and their daughters is too hard to experience because how can I, a mother of daughters who are safe, who are living their undisturbed lives, even purport to comprehend what these mothers—and their daughters—are going through? But they are in me, which feels like a duty I have committed to.

A few hours later, my daughter and her boyfriend came over for dinner. It was early evening on a beautiful spring day in Oregon. We sat in the backyard around a big table, enjoying the food that I cooked over two days, eating and talking about our week, planning for the next week. During pauses we watched the occasional hummingbird feed on the flowering bushes in the back of the garden. Later, I realized that this was the first time that I had anyone over for a meal since before Covid. The last time was brunch with my Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom group. (SOSS is an organization for Jewish and Muslim women to meet as friends, learn from each other, and work toward acceptance and understanding.) I still have hope in connections made around plates of food, though right now that feels like a band-aid when heart surgery is needed.

With all the videos I’ve watched, and articles I’ve read, and essays I’ve written about antisemitism, Jew hatred, and anti-Zionism over the years, after October 7th I decided that I need to do more—to be more. Learning and awareness are important, but I need to figure out how to stop feeling like an observer.

Almost eight months after that apocalyptic event, I’m acting in a new way: focusing less on me as an isolated individual, and more on me within a Jewish journey. In this space, I plan on sharing some of the lessons and ideas that I learn that resonate with me. To learn from a tradition, a people, a religion that has survived and thrived, in often intolerable conditions, is to honor those who came before, and to learn from the richest, soul-touching, thought-provoking ideas that can inspire me to be a light—to keep me focused on what is essential to continually work on myself to, as I recently read and am absorbing, “show that I am deserving of the Divine Presence.” This seems to be the worthwhile goal.

Trust the Divine Presence and do good; dwell in the land, and be nourished by faith. (Psalm 37:3)

 


PRIDE, GRATITUDE, & LOVE Vanquishing ignorance, hate, & turmoil

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I will miss the sights at the Wakodahatchee Wetlands

Today Is Day 212: Free the Hostages

I was supposed to fly to Israel on Saturday night, April 13. As I finished packing my bags, I heard that large gatherings were being cancelled and schools closed until further notice. Then, that the air space would be closing. Finally (substantiating the reason for the closures), that the Islamic Regime of Iran had sent a barrage of ballistic missiles and attack drones that would arrive sometime while my flight was enroute. Not surprisingly, I cancelled my flight.

That trip had meant so much to me. On a personal level, it was to be with friends in Israel and get a break from the aloneness of being in Florida. On the level of being a proud Jewish woman, one who used to live in Israel, it was essential to connect with Israelis—and the physicalness of Israel—at this moment. I wanted to be there, adding another pained soul calling out for the release of the hostages; to be there supporting those who continue to risk their lives for the safety and security of all Israelis; to be there absorbing some of the sense of loss that exists in the very air; to be there, too, as part of the power that is the Jewish people coming together for the continued strength and survival of our people in the face of yet another maniacal group of haters.

After the initial shock and fear, then relief that the attack was not destructive, I decided to change the order of my plans: move to Oregon first, then visit Israel. Not letting myself seep into wallowing or inertia, I quickly found a house to rent in the city where younger daughter lives. I move this week.

Which means that instead of being within the life and loss of Israel at war, I’m in the shock and horror of watching antisemitism in its ugliest forms on college campuses, spouting from the mouths and bodies of students, professors, staff, agitators, supposed intellectuals, and journalists.

A few days ago, I tried to work on the translation of a Holocaust survivor’s testimony as I have been doing for almost five years. It was too hard, and not just her Hungarian-accented Hebrew, but the fact that at this moment there are people dehumanizing Jews, calling for the mass murder of Jews, claiming that all the ills in the world are the fault of Jews—again.

After a few days, I was back at it. The mob of hate will not stop me.

Watching these hordes and then being told that they are peaceful is stunning, shameful. But more than that, to know that what they have been taught, what has swayed and twisted their minds to say “don’t kill these people, kill those people” as if that’s the greatest expression of human rights, is scary. There is no need for adherence to reality when it comes to hating Jews and Israelis and Israel.

But, listening to young Jewish leaders speak up and push back against the tsunami of lies and distortions from their classmates and instructors is inspirational. Their eloquence and clarity of thought is impressive. It makes me realize why we Jews are still here, after all these onslaughts. Though in each generation there are those who “drop out” and decide to not be Jewish, or to be so against all semblance of what a Jew is that they don’t count, some call these “as a Jew” Jews. The rest of us are going on with learning and studying, figuring out how to stand up in pride, improving each day as an individual, as well as a member of a people who pursue justice for others—though now seems to be a good time to get some help back—but if not, we will do what we need to for ourselves—and still look out for the other. Each of us needs to take on a bit of the burden: the fulfilling burden that is to be part of a people who, though maligned, continues to believe in being a light, for seeing the humanity in each of us for it is foundational to know that each person is created in the image of God; and to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Now, it seems essential for those neighbors to see us this way, too.


Gaining Perspective in Uncertainty

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Not a pity party

On my recent birthday, a friend asked what plans I had. I told her, breakfast at my favorite café (Aioli), lunch with my mother at a restaurant on the ocean (Latitudes), ending with a private pity party, perhaps paired with birthday cake. A realistic plan.

I haven’t done pity lately because of my preoccupation with Israel and the continuing brutal holding and who knows what horrors experienced by the 133 hostages; and the continued rocket attacks in Israel, especially in the north and feeling empathy for the stress that all Israelis are living with; and the parallel stress that Jews worldwide are experiencing because of the events in Israel, the resulting vile onslaught of antisemitism and the dangerous hypocrisy that it breeds. And the sadness at the tragedy in Gaza that a terrorist government, supported by another terrorist government, has caused and continues to cause, abetted by antisemites in high places.

The drive home from the restaurant was along the ocean on the A1A, with its occasional view of the ocean amidst luxury homes and lush tropical greenery. A true staycation feeling. For a moment, I forgot the human-created tragedies and noticed the beauty that there still is in this world.

When I got home, I listened to a new voicemail message. It was from my gynecologist. No, big deal, she said, but call before the end of the day to discuss the results of my annual exam.

The no big deal, turned out to be a slight chance of cancer. Ugh. Not the word you want to hear any day, especially on your birthday. But what surprised me was that the celebratory pity party I had planned was immediately replaced by thoughts of gratitude. Of course, I don’t want cancer, and I hope and pray that the follow-up test I took the next week shows that it’s nothing, but in that moment, and since then, I realized that I had no need to wallow in woe-is-me: I am immensely grateful for my life.

Sure, I’d like things to be different, and, yes, I’m working toward that, but all-in-all, my life is pretty darn good. No winter home along the A1A, or even a condo in Delray Beach, or a partner to make my birthday breakfast, but there are people who I care about and who care about me—and I’m retired! And there is purpose outside of myself.

It occurred to me, too, as I tamp down diagnosis anxiety, that the work I’ve been doing on myself, especially since October 7th, probably has something to do with that. My focus has been more on the spiritual and religious, connecting to the wisdom and stories of Judaism and Jewish people: the long thread of life that has been at the core of my ancestors, and of wanting to be a better version of myself, growing from those traditions and accumulated wisdom.

A friend told me that children view people our age as old. We both laughed at the idea of being considered old in our 60s. But, now, sitting here, I kind of like that. Perhaps that explains where I am on my journey: this desire to focus on the transcendent, on being there for others and learning how to do that best, trying to elevate my soul (that which is essence), to keep being worthy of the trust people have placed in me as a person.

Praying for health and peace and compassion.

Follow-up: I'm thankful to say that the doctor said my test was negative. Breathing sighs of relief.


On Being the Archetypal Other

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When people forget our shared humanity—and Israel becomes a pariah state and Jews are pariahed; and blood libels are once again all the rage; and when binary thinking condemns conversations and peaceful conduct—to whom do we turn for strength?

To the wisdom of the wise.

The following is an excerpt from a lecture that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, gave in 2011, titled, “A People that Dwells Alone.”

“In ancient times, Israel was a small nation surrounded by large empires. In the Middle Ages they were the most conspicuous minority in Christian Europe. Today in the Middle East, Israel is the most conspicuous country that is not Muslim. Jews are the archetypal other, we don’t fit into the dominant paradigm—the dominant faith, the prevailing culture—and that is what we’re there for. To remind ourselves [humanity] that there is such a thing as the dignity of dissent. That’s what we do in life. We challenge. We argue. We stand out against the crowd; we go against the trend. We are apart, but we are not destined to be alone.”

About the Tower of Babel, he noted that everyone was saying the same things. He quoted Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin who explained why the Tower of Babel needed to be destroyed: “If everyone thinks the same thing, there’s no dissent. That is not a free society.”

Rabbi Sacks continued, “We are there to be different, for the sake of everyone’s right to be different. We fight for the right to be, whether as a nation in its historic land or as a religious group in the diaspora, we fight for the right to be free to live as Jews, not just for our sake, but for the sake of every other minority in the world.… Everyone who seeks the right to challenge the prevailing culture or the dominant faith. That is why we are there.”

His words brought me the comfort of history. For a moment. It is discomforting to be in sync with history, and not beyond it—as we had hoped would one day happen. Why must we once again be a scapegoat for yet another angry group? Why must we be forced to stand, isolated to some extent, before the forces of evil that, unfathomably, seem so enticing? Why must our every action be scrutinized, manipulated, and twisted? Why must we always be seen as other, when our otherness is so very ordinary?

A few days later, I listened to the podcast Wondering Jews during their discussion of antisemitism. A key idea presented was that Jews represent whatever it is that the ruling or majority groups hate. So, “For today's anti-imperialists and anti-colonialists, Israel is the quintessence of imperialism, truth be damned.” Once again, Jews are being condemned by the antisemites for being what they don’t want to recognize in themselves.

Then, in an online lecture, the speaker said that the role of Jews is to crush evil.

And I thought to myself, that’s so much to put on one very small group of people. To be condemned for being different and to defend everyone’s right to be different. To be hated and to fight against hate for all. To be derided for something that they’re not, while the deriders feel stingily better about themselves as they try to oppress the other. To be accused of crimes that are done to us. To be the bulwark against the spread of evil that others think is still wise to appease.

Who are the Jews that so many other groups depend on them in such twisted ways?

It’s not as if we are born with super-human strength or intelligence or courage or wealth or any number of advantageous advantages.

We are a people held together by religion, faith, traditions, education, and values. We are also a people held together by our love, and their hateful actions.

Going back to what Rabbi Lord Sacks said about Jews being the archetypal other. It is ironic that in this era when we’re supposedly all about accepting everyone for who they are and what they believe, vile antisemitism is rampant.

While my voice is barely heard, it is still another voice calling out, standing up—dissenting. Proclaiming, too, that I am proud to be a Jew, as different and alone as we may be. I am also proud of those people (friends!) who are not blinded by the cacophony of twisted logic.

This battle is not new. It is as old as the Bible. A while ago, I told younger daughter that I didn’t want to study Torah, that I wanted to learn from new stories that I could relate to. Now, I see how wrong I was. Those stories, and the analyses of them that have been a part of our ongoing oral and written tradition, are the basis for understanding our world today. I see now that learning from history is understanding how a people reacted to unfolding events, over and over again, and what fortified them. This now gives me strength.


A New Life Balance: Being Jewish after October 7th

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Since October 7th, my heart and mind changed. Technically, my life hasn’t changed, but that just goes to show that life is not determined only by the actions one takes in a day. How can it not have changed when the mental and emotional landscapes that enable me to thrive have been altered, and when the world around which my thoughts often revolve has been so dramatically devastated. This is the reality of a Jew in the diaspora.

I speak often with a friend who has lived in Israel for a long time. She gives me her perspective on how life has changed there and I give her mine about how the relative ease of being a Jew in the US has changed. Even if I haven’t been directly impacted—what does “directly” even mean when you see people screaming for the killing of you, your relatives, and your people?—reading about and watching what is happening in far too many places, and realizing what is happening—and could happen—has a cumulative effect.

When I go to Israel in April, I will get a better understanding of how reality has changed for Israelis, and, I expect, I will be changed even more.

But this is not to say that this has weakened me, this hate from those murderers, rapists, kidnappers, and incinerators of lives, and their vile supporters who, unfathomably, support them and their acts by their actions and inactions, their spoken and unspoken words. No. As Israelis have come together to fight the genocidal intentions of its enemies, we, no, I am reordering my be-ing with anger, fear, and disgust, but more significantly with pride and determination, re-establishing my mindset. Who are they to, once again, determine the future for me and my people. Not only is Never Again a rallying cry, so is Enough Already!

The other day I heard a psychologist say that there is no basis to the idea of generational trauma. I don’t know, to me it seems that this is another layer being added to our stack of Jewish experiences that joins us—forging generational strength, resilience, and determination—and through the trauma that is passed down in stories, creating the ways we participate in the world.

Ahad Ha’am (a Hebrew essayist and thinker, 1856–1927) said: “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Another part of that keeping seems to be antisemitism, since it keeps pushing us together, forcing us to focus on the Jewish part of our identity foremost, since that is all we are to others. But not as self-hating Jews who may refute their identity, but as proud matzoh-holders who refuse to see themselves through their haters’ eyes.

We had – thought / hoped / prayed / worked toward / educated about / committed to / built toward – a world in which there would be no more violence against us because we are Jews.

But we were wrong.

Once again there are actions against us and the world looks away, or, worse, stands by, tacitly supporting: not having the compassion to care and the clarity to condemn. It has been a harsh awakening.

Now I understand my ex-father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor who moved to Israel right after the war, who didn’t trust anyone outside of the family and especially not outside of the Jewish Israeli family. I get it. I wish I didn’t.

Living here in the States, the shock of seeing the physical attacks on October 7th, their vileness and then the depravity of how the hostages have been treated and ignored, downplayed and blamed, has been tough. 

Add to that the trauma of seeing how we are not seen and that our pain is minimized at the very same moment that we are held accountable for anything bad that happens, seemingly anywhere.

Clearly, antisemitism is evidence of the world’s insanity. It should be their problem, this irrational, evil nonsense, and theirs to deal with. It is their addiction. Their warped way of making them feel, somehow, that they are better than they are, more than they are, and that we are less than we are.

While we would like to not have to deal with their problems, we must. What addictive need do we answer? The need to hate, the need to be better than, the need to not look inside, the need to not deal with their own lives, the need to ignore the consequences of what has come before and what they have or have not done?

This latest attack in the stack has forced us to recognize that this generation is not, alas, different from previous ones: we have not escaped unscathed the deadly impact of antisemitism. Terrorists, we see you. Another selfish, rampaging horde that shows its dark side more than it says anything about Jews.

And we (even if forced to cower in fear) are standing within our identity. We will not succumb to the perversity of the situation or of grotesque accusations. We will continue to be who we are destined to be. Light and love and compassion will not be defeated. As so many of us are finding ways to be strengthened within our Jewish identity, so are we hoping, still!, that we are not alone. Not just because it’s hard to be abandoned, but because we know that we shouldn’t be—that the world can’t be that dark and bitter and hypocritical. And if it is, it bodes ill for all of us—and we must push against that, together.


Contemplating Purpose and the Man-in-the-Sky

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The interconnectedness of life in an Oregon forest

Before writing silently for 60 minutes, the participants in my Shut Up and Write! group talk about what they’re planning to write. This week, I explained that as my part in pushing against the rise of antisemitism and anti-Zionism—in addition to my aching howl to FREE THE HOSTAGES and my plea for people to stop being motivated by hate—I plan on sharing a Jewish learning.

It feels right to be Jewish publicly, showing that Judaism is a way of being that encourages the individual to constantly improve the self and the world around you, where empathy and concern for the other are motivating factors and that this religion, philosophy, culture, people—this way of being that has been around for over 3,000 years—is not something to chant against or accuse of horrors.

I was drawn back to a quote I heard in the Mussar class that I’m taking. (Mussar is a virtues-based approach to Jewish ethics and character development.) This quote by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, from To Heal a Fractured World, focused my pre-writing musings.

“Each of us is here for a purpose. Discerning that purpose takes time and honesty, knowledge of ourselves and knowledge of the world, but it is there to be discovered. Each of us has a unique constellation of gifts, an unreplicated radius of influence, and within that radius, be it as small as a family or as large as a state, we can be a transformative presence. Where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be. Even the smallest good deed can change someone’s life.” 

Not only does this conceptualize the idea that we’re always where we need to be, but it helps me perceive each moment—each circumstance—as an opportunity for growth, to be more fully me. The idea that we must continually work on ourselves, combined with understanding that we are always at our appointed place, means that there is never an excuse to not try to be my best or even to find fulfillment in the simplest of moments. This moment—each moment—is not a mistake: it is a stepping-stone within a life.

Contemplating that quote, I keep returning to, we are “where God wants us to be.”

What does that mean? Am I (this human, this spark), on my own, or is there a current upon which our lives—each of our lives—flows? Is this the concept of God that can help me understand the idea of God that has been so elusive?

Which reminds me of something else that I read recently. In Jewish with Feeling, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, says, “Think of God not as the subject of your sentence, who is or is not this or that, but as the is-ing, the very process of being itself.” He went on to talk about not using the word God but to think of how we each are enlivened or en-spirited to live our lives.

As I looked over my highlighting in his book, another idea stood out.

“Nothing we can say about God will survive the rigors of logical analysis. But that shouldn’t get in the way of our search for the presence we have felt in our most spiritually open—or spiritually hungry—moments. If there is a tension between what we know in our minds and what we feel in our hearts, then let’s stay with that tension. If there is a contradiction, let us take it upon ourselves. Only let us press on with our desire to experience the numinous and serve the patterns of the universe in a deeper, more meaningful way.”

And finally, “That part of us that always seeks to awaken even more, I call soul. Judaism speaks of the soul as a spark of God.”

The concept of an eternal, spiritual energy or force, stripped of the anthropomorphic man-in-the-sky imagery, appeals to me—speaks to the essence that is. The something within that wonders about the connections between people—the strings that seem to draw us together in coincidences and circumstances as we go about our lives—prefers to contemplate the “patterns of the universe” rather than that we are disconnected individuals stumbling around. It seems so much more correct, so much more of a way to consider our own purpose because in this case, purpose is not merely survival. It is to be, as Rabbi Sacks said, “a transformative presence.”

To be within the presence, the fertile soil, comforts me and challenges me. I do not want to wither. I want to use the nutrients that I am given to “serve the patterns of the universe in a deeper, more meaningful way.”

With this perception of God, this force, this is-ing, I can cry out for the pain that others experience and believe that there is a gathering of life forces that has an impact, has meaning. And to that I say, amen.


"The Future Is Feminine": Insights from a Lecture

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Recently, I attended an online lecture by a Chassidic rabbi titled, “The Future Is Feminine.” I’m not sure what I expected, but nowadays I want to hear thoughts that haven’t been floating around in my mind for years. I’m also in a religious and spiritual seeker mind-frame where my focus is on learning from the accumulated wisdom of the sages of my Jewish heritage. October 7th propelled me faster down a path that I was already meandering along. A motivating thought: Why should I accept your concepts if they end up leading to—and even encouraging—the dismissal, death, and destruction of my people?

What surprised me, when I listened to the rabbi and heard the direction he took, was that I remained attentive to ideas that, until recently, I would have been aghast at and probably mocked. Now, I’m willing to listen. It seems that when concepts that had seemed valid turn out to twist and distort reality, casting good as evil and evil as good, that becomes the time to be open to hearing other ideas.

As I explained the main points to younger daughter’s boyfriend later that day, he summed it up succinctly, “Oh, it’s about women staying home.” It horrified me to think that I had listened to and found worthwhile thoughts in that vein. But rather than rip up my notes and turn my back on the rabbi’s ideas, I decided to read through them and think about whether there may be something to what he said, while still firmly in my feminist perspective.

While the ideas he presented are simplistic and stereotyping, I still found them thought-provoking.

Women

  • Women are motivated by how good the good is. Things can be so good, why not make them better. For women, achievements come from their identity, and contentment is their natural condition.
  • Women are motivated to do something good, which leads to their doing more good deeds; for example, keep Shabbat, then start to eat kosher food.

Men

  • Men are motivated to eliminate the bad. I must do something to get rid of the bad. They are anxious, then they become active to complete a task, upon completion there is a moment of contentment, then they return to anxiety, to begin the cycle again. Men identify with their achievements. They are motivated by anxiety, to make a change or to fix something, which is their natural condition.
  • Men are motivated to stop doing something negative, which leads to doing something positive; for example: stop eating non-kosher food, then keep Shabbat.

The Desired Direction

  • We all need to be more like women. Rather than focus on not sinning (the masculine approach), we need to focus on doing more mitzvahs/good deeds (the feminine approach).

I’m not necessarily thinking about what he said from the male/female dichotomy, though it may have some validity, though certainly not on a universal scale. Instead, I’m thinking about these two ways of moving through the world. It does seem more peaceful to go from the perspective that things need to be improved and to work at that, rather than that things need to be broken and then rebuilt. Not only is the latter way destructive, it’s also arrogant. It’s as if all the contributions of those before you are valueless and only yours are of worth. Each time re-creating, rather than growing a creation and maintaining its fruition.

The wars that were and those that are, could they have been prevented if the world had been more feminine, or acting from a place of improvement rather than destruction?

Since October 7th, my thoughts keep returning to this moment: Israeli hostages still held in terror tunnels, Israel living through the drain and devastation of war; the reignition of the nasty flame of antisemitism; Gazans suffering from the impact of Islamic terrorism and, ironically, antisemitism; and supposedly caring people failing to see the humanity and worth of every human.

And I think about how the rabbi’s ideas could help me think forward, to a way out of the gloom. The rabbi may have been talking about men and women in personal relationships, but that is not where I take them.

These days I see women baking challah, reading psalms, writing, speaking, informing, and organizing as their way of prayer to the Eternal Spirit to protect their loved ones, to return the hostages, to protect the soldiers, to stop the deaths and harm to all civilians—to bring about lasting peace. And I think, too, of the people I know who remain devoted to bringing together Jews and Arabs—people are people—because they cannot abandon the idea that Things can be so good, why not make them better, because they want to make that the way forward rather than I must do something to get rid of the (perceived) bad.

Perhaps the way forward, using the rabbi’s insights, is for me—for each of us—to commit to improving the world—focusing on that which is good: using and sharing our sparks within as best we can so that there is more light, and not a diminishing. Perhaps each of us—man and woman—needs to see what we can contribute to making the world a better place and not letting others, or even ourselves, rip apart the good with the bad.


Four Stages of Retirement

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Seeing far and fog on a walk in the woods


I’m slipping into my next, the fourth, retirement stage or mindset. I call it Detachment.

First, there was the astonishment that I don’t have to be at a specific place, at a set time, to do a certain thing, and that nothing can be demanded of me by anyone. That was Relief.

Second was Disappointment. This was when Relief was awash with negative thoughts. No one needs me. What am I going to do with all these days stretching ahead of me? How can I fill my time so that I still feel needed, important, alive? This mindset began the stripping bare that’s happening even more now. But, as a courtesy to ourselves, this doesn’t happen all at once.

Third was Unretirement. Looking for activities (volunteer and paid) and get-togethers that made me think that I still have it, that I’m still the person I was, that I’m still good at the things I trained in and practiced for years, the things that, in fact, enabled me to retire early. This stage is when people often go back to work, escaping the freedom of retirement.

Interspersed amongst those mindsets is Escape. Travelling, especially when teaching, was hard during the school year. We all seemed to have someone determining when we could or couldn’t escape. Now, my schedulelessness is another bit of proof that I’m in control of my life and my time. This one also feels good when I hear about other people’s trips—it’s not just mine. There’s less envy than there may have been in the past. Now, it’s about appreciating that other people are cutting loose from whatever schedule they created for themselves and are setting out to have new adventures.

Two weeks into my Oregon sojourn, I realize that I have transitioned into the fourth stage, Detachment. This is me figuring out what I want to do without the imposition of external shoulds or shouldn’ts.

I’ve been spending whole days without anything to show for my time and it barely bothers me. When younger daughter asked what I did one day, I told her, without apologizing, that I read emails, watched lectures, viewed stories on Israel, napped, and took a walk. I can now spend my time productively for me without needing to have anything to show for it. Receiving—information, thoughts, observations, ideas, learnings—are just as important and necessary as output. The veneer of acceptability is being scratched through: I don’t need do something to prove (especially to myself) that I’m not lazy or that my life is of value. Every moment is to be lived and embraced as I need, and within every moment I am figuring out how to keep growing.

As I’ve been thinking about why I continue to write and what I hope to get out of it, I’m becoming aware that I don’t contain within myself all that I want to know and share. I’m ready to learn new things and be a conduit to others. But, and this is key, this is self-directed.

For years, I was fixated on needing to get a PhD to prove (to myself and others) that I know something, that I am an expert in something. But I never did it and now the idea of going back to school and spending years putting my mind under the scrutiny and assessment of professors feels like a waste of the time that I have left and a waste of what I have learned up to this moment.

This, too, is a shift in mindset. I realized that what I want—need—to know is not more detached information. What I need is as pertinent as breath: how can I keep improving as a person.

With no job that demands and drains my time, and adult children who don’t need me for their sustenance, I’m free to follow the path that leads me to be as me as possible, giving me the opportunity to fulfill my purpose as I understand it to be.


Daughtering My Mother

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A walk in Oregon

My 90-year-old mother is clearly a child of the Great Depression: she saves and reuses everything, and not out of concern for the environment. There are cottage cheese containers holding dried apricots, supermarket bags as garbage bags (in Florida, we still get plastic bags at checkout), and envelops doubling as notepapers. But the efficacy of using every scrap of paper, including yesterday’s newspaper that’s about to go into the recycling, as a place to write a shopping list, a relative’s address, a friend’s phone number, or even a reminder to take one’s pills and eyedrops is questionable when one’s memory dulls and the pieces of paper seem to disappear, somewhere.

Growing up, there was always a notepad with a pencil by the telephone (back when they were rotary and connected to the wall by a cable). This woman had it together. It’s taken a while for me to notice that she doesn’t anymore and to realize that I need to help her. It's not easy to realize that your parent needs you in a way that infringes upon your independence—and the image of them that you built over a lifetime.

Remembering that younger daughter used a daily planner to keep herself organized in school, I decided to get one for my mother. We went together to Target and I showed her the one that I thought was right. Feeling conflicted about making decisions for her, I didn’t want to buy it without her participation. She might forget where she put a note, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t remember what she wrote on the note and why she needed it.

There is the intense fear that she will lose her independence and become dependent on me. It’s not an unfounded fear. Too many people I know have stories of parental dementia and dependence to not think about how I would respond to the challenge. And knowing that my brother won’t be a partner to me in any care, means that the decision-making is mine.

But here is where love and good parenting are appreciated. As I make decisions, and deal with new confusions, and get frustrated with and question myself, my daughters have become my sounding boards. Perhaps if I was married or if my brother was a better son, I wouldn’t have to turn to them for feedback and support. But this is the situation. The cycle of mothering and daughtering continues: none of us is in a fixed role.

My mother is still trying not to need me, even as she thanks me and says that she doesn’t know what she would do without me. I’m finding that I need to stand up for myself and not glide into letting her needs overshadow mine.

I’m taking a class in Mussar (an ancient Jewish spiritual tradition) where the goal is to work on different personality traits to better ourselves (and in the religious sentiment, better serve G-d). The first trait covered is humility. We were given a focus phrase, which seems appropriate here: “No more than my place, no less than my space.”

Perhaps this is what I need to have in mind when I think about daughtering my mother and mothering myself. The place and space may change depending on the circumstances, but there should never be a negation of one for the other. This is what I need to have in mind as I continue creating my life, and not denying it for my mother, whatever her situation.

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A walk in Florida

Traveler’s Prayer: Looking for Comfort along the Way

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Before going to the airport to fly from Southern Florida to Oregon, I removed my car fob from my key chain. I wanted to keep with me the key chain with the hamsa (a symbol thought to thwart the Evil Eye) that has on it the Jewish Traveler’s prayer in Hebrew. I never did that before, but it felt important to have it with me.  

A few hours into waiting at the airport for my connecting flight, it was cancelled due to the weather and icy conditions at the destination airport. Rather than wait a couple of days until flights resumed and I could get a seat, I decided to take the bus—which was leaving in 40 minutes. As I was trying to find the bus stop (which, not surprisingly, is hard to find in an airport), my daughter’s anxiety (I wonder where she gets that from) about the road conditions was tempered by her boyfriend’s confidence that I-5 would be clear.

Since it was still only early afternoon and I didn’t want to sit around waiting in a hotel room for days, I got on the bus. The ride was supposed to take seven-hours instead of an hour’s flight.

The ride from Seattle to Portland was relaxing, since there was no evidence of snow or ice most of the way. I enjoyed being a passenger looking out the window watching the world go by instead of focusing on the road and the aggressive drivers down in Florida. I could see the view that we miss when we fly: the dusky shapes of hulking mountains and the dark green of a northern forest were a nice change from the flatness of the land and the bright greens of Florida’s greenery where palm trees are the only natural thing with height. Not that I’m complaining about living in the tropics, I just felt myself transition to appreciating the experience of being a detached passenger on a dimly lit bus and not a stressed, stranded traveler in the charged energy of an airport when delays abound. 

It was dark when we departed cold, snowy Portland, where we had to wait outside in the cold for our connecting bus. No one sat next to me, so I remained in my little mental bubble. As we pulled out and onto the snowy streets, I remembered my key chain and took it out. I tried to read the traveler’s prayer, but the lettering was too small and I wasn’t familiar with the Hebrew. I used my phone to read an English version of the prayer (see below). I read it over a few times, wanting to get a sense of what it said, the dangers that a traveler might expect, and what a traveler could ask of G-d as they embarked on a journey. I tried to absorb the prayer as a whole, and not necessarily think about the individual words.

A friend told me that she always recites this prayer before she goes on a trip, and raised her daughter to do the same thing.

I had never read it before. But it seemed right to think about G-d, or appeal to G-d, or consider other Jewish travelers (now and in the past) and what they needed to feel safe, or at least not completely alone on their journeys. And I wonder now, as I think about that moment of speaking and appealing to G-d, of wanting to connect to that spirit to protect me and look out for me—what will it take for a Jew of this generation to ever feel safe again on this journey. Is it possible? Is it something to desire?

When we arrived at my destination, I thanked the bus driver for his cautious driving and tightly hugged (and got tightly hugged back by) younger daughter and her boyfriend.

The next day, I ventured out to start discovering my new neighborhood, where I’ll live for a couple of months. It was icy and neither the streets nor the sidewalks were cleared. Not far along on my walk, I slipped and fell on my right arm. I took baby steps to make it back without falling again. It took 15 minutes to walk a square block (about 1,000 feet). Gratefully, nothing broke and it took a couple of days for my arm to be almost back to normal.

As I was recovering, I was thinking of the pain that injured Israeli soldiers are experiencing, and the pain that the recovered hostages are experiencing, and the pain that everyone impacted by the massacre on October 7 is experiencing, and, of course, the unimaginable pain of the hostages. I thought about how much my arm hurt just from falling on it, compared to what Hersh Goldberg-Polin might be experiencing after having his arm blown off.

This is not a time, I realize, to be alone in one’s thoughts—there is only how to use one’s thoughts and experiences to try, in whatever way possible—to connect with and help Israelis and Jews. This is a time to support each other in our pain and our (eventual) healing.

I wonder, as I’m trying to drop my skepticism and doubt, what impact all those prayers to G-d have. As I told my daughter the other day about a prayer session that I attend, “It can’t be a bad thing to send out positive thoughts into the atmosphere.”

The other day, this line in Psalm 54 stood out: “Behold, G-d is my helper; G-d is with those who support my soul.” It’s a line to linger with, to think about what it means to support my soul and to consider, too, that it is not just a job for myself.

How do our recitations and prayers and thoughts connect and build? How do they help us protect ourselves and each other? How are they heeded and what does it mean for a prayer to be manifested?

As a secular woman who has always seen my identity as a Jew as important, I think that perhaps I have missed the essence. I’m not sure where I’m going, but saying a prayer for a safe journey, and praying for the safety of those battling for Israel’s safety, and those traumatized by hate and terrorism, feels like the right direction. And knowing that there are others who are doing the same thing brings me the comfort of knowing that I am not alone.

May it be Your will, G‑d, our G‑d and the G‑d of our fathers, that You should lead us in peace and direct our steps in peace, and guide us in peace, and support us in peace, and cause us to reach our destination in life, joy, and peace (If one intends to return immediately, one adds: and return us in peace). Save us from every enemy and ambush, from robbers and wild beasts on the trip, and from all kinds of punishments that rage and come to the world. May You confer blessing upon the work of our hands and grant me grace, kindness, and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see us, and bestow upon us abundant kindness and hearken to the voice of our prayer, for You hear the prayers of all. Blessed are You G‑d, who hearkens to prayer. (link)


Being Jewish at this Moment: I Am Angry, Disappointed, Sad / Determined, Inspired, Intertwined

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Walking out of the supermarket the other day, I was a few steps behind a woman with a baby carrier, her hair was up, making her back-of-the-neck tattoo visible. It said, שלום. I smiled. A simple moment of connection in that word, shalom—hello/goodbye/peace—especially seeing it in Hebrew, especially now.

As I passed her, I turned and said, “I like your neck tattoo.” She smiled back and said, “Thank you.”

Amid chants calling for death to Jews, either through slogans or increasingly blunt chants, and the grotesque ignoring/diminishing/discounting of Israeli women’s (and men’s, it now appears) horrific experiences of sexual assault and rape on October 7th, and the harrowing stories from the released hostages, and the increasing fears for the remaining hostages, and the stories of Jewish college students fearing for their lives on once seemingly pastoral campuses, and the vandalism and protests outside of Jewish institutions and Jewish-owned businesses, and disruptions of celebrations, and blocking highways and bridges, and the “context” that morally bankrupt college presidents (and their supporters and advisors) need to condemn genocidal antisemitism—and and and—this long list of pain and suffering—just let us Israelis and Jews live in peace!—this woman made me happy to see how easily she expressed herself and her existence.

It was a relief. Like when I see someone wearing their Jewish star or Chai necklace (חי, which means “life” in Hebrew). I look at them and smile, often with a nod of mutual recognition.

To spread those nods, I wear a new Jewish star necklace. This symbol, also referred to as a Star or Shield of David for the biblical king who ruled in Judea—Israel—from approximately 1010-970 BCE (more than 3,000 years ago!) represents Jews and Judaism. It was important to me to buy mine from an Israeli artisan: supporting my people in two ways.

When I took my mother to a doctor’s appointment the other day, a woman in a Muslim head scarf signed us in. I could see her looking at my necklace. There was no nod of recognition, but I felt an acknowledgment. Here we are, both proudly showing who we are, in this country where we are both minorities (against the backdrop of a big Christmas tree in the lobby and a small Hanukkah menorah), and especially since we are often portrayed as enemies or expected to be enemies. But we are not enemies. My abiding fear is that the extremes—the terrorists and their growing numbers of ghastly supporters who have become so visible and verbal—will continue to get to define how we see each other and how the world sees us. It does not have to be this way.

The pit in my stomach since October 7th is a real, constant presence even, here, in southern Florida. It is hard to remain calm amidst so much hatred—hatred with fancy explanations.

How does it feel to be obsessed with an entire group of people? How does it feel to hate people you don’t know? How does it feel to think that raping, beheading, and burning people alive is a form of liberation? How does it feel to believe that death is better than life? How does it feel to be proud of hurting and terrorizing people? How does it feel to know that there is so much blackness within you?

If this is a test for humanity, so many are failing. And it doesn’t matter the psychological explanations, the religious reasonings, or the philosophical underpinnings: to be ruled by hate is a dark existence. It is not one conducive to inquiry, discovery, creativity, conviviality, and inspiration, or even the basics: happiness and love.

Rather than seeing that there can be light and striving toward it, they are/there are insatiable black voids of hate.

I would like to pity those who refuse to emerge from their internal tunnels, but I am too angry, disappointed, distressed. Too many people believe blanket assertions of evil about Jews. The absurdity makes me laugh, a bitter laugh for the twisted state of the world.

I am too saddened by more reports of deaths. Of deaths because the people were Jewish, or protecting those who live in Israel. If prayers—heartfelt thoughts that go out into the ether, perhaps creating a stir, like butterfly wings—have an impact (how do we continue to believe this after centuries of this cycle of pain and hatred?) I want to use mine to find light, I do not want to be dimmed. Oh, how I want to believe that our continued existence, our strength, our commitment, our beliefs have been/are for good.

In my prayer class today, when one woman tearfully said how dismayed she is about the latest devastating news out of Israel, others told her not to give in to despair, to not let others break her.

I don’t know. I get not despairing because it removes hope, but not being broken? Perhaps the innate drive to repair one’s broken soul and spirit forges something stronger.  

But what purpose is the dead-end darkness of hate?  


Jewish Women Are Lionesses, Not Material for Mockery and Easy Jokes

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Jewish mothers are rising and we are lionesses!

We’re done being mocked for loving our families too fiercely. There can be no “too” much love, as there can never be enough kugel or rugelach (two tasty signs of that love).

Jewish mothers have often been portrayed in movies and TV as meddling, overprotective, domineering, aggressive, pushy, and even a tad bitchy in support of their brood. Is that bad? This is how we do generational trauma!

And now we see the reason for having developed those behaviors playing out right before our eyes. We see the devastated mothers of kidnapped Israelis battling the world to get their children back. We see mothers whose children were killed in a modern-day pogrom and mothers whose children, Israeli soldiers, died as they fought for our survival, bereft, grief-stricken, but still rising with an untamable fierceness to find their children, to protect the memory of their children, to roar in pain.

Does it still seem like a burden that a mother would want to know where her children are and when they’ll be home? Just one, two, three generations ago, it wasn’t a stretch for her to wait with real trepidation and supreme relief to hear from them, to see them, to pamper them.

Is it funny that Jewish mothers seemed to smother their children with constant concern when we are now presented, in the supposedly safe USA, with the reason behind the behavior: vile antisemitism?

It’s clear now why Jewish mothers always need to know where their children are and who they’re with. Today, their children are on campuses where students and professors mass together to call them murderers and chant slogans for the destruction of their people, and where administrators are dangerously silent—where exactly is the line between overbearing and sensibly protecting their children?

It’s clear now that this protective stance may be one of the reasons why Jews have survived through so much destruction and turmoil over the centuries.

Look at those Jewish lionesses whose sons and daughters have been abducted. They are not settling for letting men in high places figure things out quietly or standing behind any man. Nope. Centuries of institutional oppression, wherever we have lived, taught Jewish mothers to be the strength and the backbone of the family. But now, finally, they don’t have to do that quietly, salvaging what is left of a destroyed family—no, they’re demanding to be seen and heard. Let’s heed the cries of these modern versions of our Biblical mothers. They are a force to be reckoned with. And their voices sear our hearts.

I’m in awe of Jewish mothers in Israel. One woman I know has two sons serving in the military, and still she goes out and volunteers, determined to do more to support other people who are suffering. Another mother, with two daughters in the military, provides succor to those with whom she interacts, even as she herself is consumed with worry.

Thinking back to Jewish mothers who sacrificed in ways big and small (which is it when she gives an extra matzoh ball to her children, but only takes a single lumpy one for herself?), nagging them to keep studying so that they can get into the finest schools in the land and have professions that they could take with them wherever they may be forced to live. Now, somehow, they need to protect their children on campuses rife with antisemitism and hate, reminiscent of the baying crowds of the pogroms that drove so many of our ancestors from Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

How can it be funny that a Jewish mother sees her children as little princes and princesses? Why not smother your children with things when just a generation ago all was taken and destroyed: all that your family had managed to amass from the previous pogrom or expulsion. I finally understand that being raised as a Jewish American Princess was aspirational and not something by which to be embarrassed.

We Jewish women need to channel our inner lionesses, demanding that all Jewish lives and what happens to them matter.

I recently joined a daily women’s prayer group where we recite tehilim (psalms), as an act of calling to God. I’m not really sure why. But part of me feels that through it I’m establishing a connection with Jewish women in the past for whom prayer was an integral part of their lives, their expression of faith, of that which is within and which they could control. I’m also connecting with other Jewish women in that zoom room who are earnestly praying for safety, victory, and peace. It’s not that I believe in the power of prayer, but I realized who am I to not believe in it. Why not do something that I don’t understand, something through which I send out my voice and my heart.

Once I would have mocked them—me—but now I see nothing to mock in hoping that there is a force that binds the world and that, perhaps, the positive energy that we create can somehow be for the good. We are quiet lionesses. We each need to find a way to express our pain and our hope—to not give in to the drag of fear and anger, but to let our pain lead, somehow, to something better.

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October 7 Broke My Heart: Sharing My Words and Feelings at this Devastating Time

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Cafe life in Tel Aviv in better times

Last week was my younger daughter’s birthday. She turned 28. She and her boyfriend went to a restaurant near their home for dinner, then to a bakery for birthday cake to complete their celebratory evening. Last weekend they went to a concert and this weekend they plan to go hiking.

If we hadn’t left Israel, the place where she was born, years ago, the reality of her birthday would be much different. Would she have gone to the nature party where so many young Israelis were killed, abducted, shot at from the air, and wounded by grenades in shelters? Would she and her boyfriend have been called to reserve duty? Would she need to huddle in the safe room or stairwell of the building where she lives when sirens go off, or along a barrier on the highway when she and her sister went together to or from a funeral or shiva call? Would my daughters be organizing supplies for people who have been displaced from their homes because of the constant intermittent bombing of Israeli towns and cities? Would they know that I, their mother, had moved to Israel from America for a better life for them as Jews, which I still believe to be true, which is a damning statement to the world.

It boggles and doesn’t boggle my mind: the hatred, the victim blaming, the anti-Zionism—the antisemitism. For years—up to now—I wondered intellectually about the reasons behind antisemitism. But I think I will stop doing that now. Does it matter why people think it’s okay to kidnap Israeli children, rape Israeli women, murder Israeli men, and harm Israeli elders? Does it matter why people gleefully support the kidnapping, raping, murdering, and harming of Jews? They do. And others don’t speak up against it. That’s enough to know.

Kind of like with the bombing of the hospital parking lot in Gaza. If you don’t care that terrorists did it, if you don’t even stop to ask, “Are you sure?” about who did it or the number of people killed, then why should I let you agonize my brain?

My blanket understanding after doing so much reading over the years, including for a Master’s degree in Conflict Analysis and Resolution, is that there is evil in the world and there is the pull of the ego for power and control over others. There are people consumed by envy and low self-esteem, and fear that they will be harmed by bullies, so they bully first. There are people for whom Jews are scapegoats, blaming them for all their own failures and disappointments. It’s so easy to live in the crowd, without an independent thought, without the moral fiber to ask “Is this right?”

And there are those who have been taught to hate. What chance does a child have to know right from wrong when the adults in their life—at home, at school, in the mosque—encourage them to hate and kill—that Jews are not worthy of life? These brainwashed, life-deprived people cannot abide that people—Jews—show that, no, your way is not the only way. We do things a little differently, but can’t you see that it’s all the same: we all have the same basic needs? OK. You say a prayer in Arabic and we say one in Hebrew. So? What’s the problem?

Apparently, you can’t forgive us that we decided that the way we had been doing things for centuries before your religion even started is just fine for us, but you, go ahead, find your own path. (And this same sentiment and analysis fits with Christians; and, oh, how I wish that after 2,000 years they have finally come to accept us as we are.) How does our dedication (and stubbornness) harm you and your belief system? Does everyone have to be the same or kill anyone who isn’t? Are we at a modern Inquisition where conformity is king. Is this the philosophy that liberals, who supposedly believe in free speech and human rights and individual rights, have adopted, thus completely relinquishing their morals?

On this topic, the spread of antisemitism, there are enough thoughtful people, who I have been reading over the years and intensely so over the past two, heart-wrenching, aching weeks (two weeks that feel like a lifetime)—at this holy work of calling out the, oh, so basic, truth that Jews are people too. 

Since that black Saturday, October 7, these people have had to explain things over and over and over again, hoping to dismantle the little house of hate cards that some have built in their brains, and to prevent others from creating their own.

There have been so many words, but there have also been those horrific images.

As I feel committed to listening to people’s stories, so, too, did I feel that I need to see what happened—what was done to people because because because—there can be no reason for such brutality. It is not a crime to be Jewish.

But following through has been hard. Not hard to understand that people can be brutal savages. Hard to witness a human body—created in God’s image—to have suffered so much. Hard to grasp the pain those people experienced. Hard to know that people think it was—is—okay to cause so much pain because they’re Israelis.

No. I don’t want to think about those savages any more.

I want to think about the victims, alive and dead. I want to think about the people who may still die protecting Israel or simply living in Israel—who are not all Jews. And, yes, I also want to think about the civilians in Gaza who may still die because their leaders don’t care about them.

Since the massacre on October 7, I have been to a prayer service, a Solidarity with Israel rally, and an information session about the work that Magen David Adom does in Israel (it’s Israel’s Red Cross, but without the cross). At each meeting, the phrase Am Yisrael Chai (the People of Israel Live) was chanted at the end, signaling that while we had gathered to mourn and cry at the horrific massacre of Jews in Israel, we also reaffirmed our faith and our connection to each other.

We Jews are a people with a religion and a culture with approximately 4,000 years of continuous history in our homeland, Israel (c.1700 BCE, the Biblical patriarchs of the Jewish people settle in the Land of Israel). Some of us like to refer to ourselves as a tribe. After all, there are only 15 million of us (finally back at our pre-Holocaust population). While this deep familial connection between us may have been hard to see recently with the divisions that the government seemed to be sowing, we are standing side-by-side at this moment of attack and survival and commitment.

I’m not sure why Jews need to keep proving that they are worthy of being treated just like everyone else. Oops. I caught myself: I’m not going to think about antisemitism. I’m going to think about Am Yisrael and Jewish pride.

If part of our assignment as Jews has been to be a light unto the nations, then even now, our unity and support of each other, in Israel and in the Diaspora, show that our spirit, the thing that makes us human, the motivation to care about others, the force that keeps us Jewish regardless of religious observance, is mighty within each of us. Strong even as we suffer watching the parents of kidnapped children plead for help, for their immediate rescue and release. Strong even as we absorb the pain of parents, whose children were murdered, with their otherworldly look because they now inhabit a different world.

I ask that you don’t use labels—Jew, Israeli; Muslim, Palestinian—to determine who is deserving of compassion, of life. I ask that you see that terrorists (yes, that is a label) who set out to murder and abduct others do not represent a worthy cause. I ask that you look at yourself to see if you have a light within that could be used for good, rather than supporting evil. 

And, me, I will do what I can from here, in the States, to support Israel and the right of Jews to their homeland, to acceptance, to peace.

One small step that I am committing to at this time when rockets are still landing in Israel, and terrorists are still trying to infiltrate from the south and the north, and when so many people have been displaced from their homes because they don’t have homes any more or they are in harm’s way, and others have been called up to serve in the military, is to buy at least one product made in Israel each time I go to the supermarket.

Am Yisrael Chai!

Wonderful View
Peaceful evening scene in Zichron Yaacov in better times

 


On Reading in Retirement: The Lesson of Too Much of a Good Thing

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I thought I learned a lesson about retirement when I visited my grandparents in Miami Beach when it was still a retirement haven, long before it became the hip place to party.  

By the shuffleboard court (with nary a pickleball court in sight), a neighbor of theirs told me, “I have a list of books that I told myself I’d read when I retire.”

“How long have you been retired?” I asked, thinking that he would say a few months, settling in before tackling Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and War and Peace.

“About five years,” he responded. Then, he went on to talk about all the volunteer activities that were keeping him busy.

A person doesn’t change who they are when they retire, I thought at the time. I even used this as an anecdote when talking to people about my perception of retirement. Recently, I learned that I was wrong.

A friend, another former high school English teacher, and I talked about how our main hobby is reading. It’s our “activity” of choice whenever we have downtime. So, I expected to luxuriate in my reading hobby in retirement. And I did, I do. But a funny thing happens when your wish is granted—or when I got unlimited time to read—I realized that it’s not enough to live for or focus on.

It’s not that I don’t have good books to read, especially since my list of recommendations is always growing and I got over the mental hurdle of reading on my phone, but I feel uncomfortable giving in to the couch and a book in the middle of the day, especially weekdays. Friends have told me, “You’ve given of yourself for your entire teaching career and as a mother, you’ve earned it. You can relax.” But I can’t. It feels too selfish, like I’m just taking.

Reading was always an escape for me; it was how I learned about the world and the people in it. In college, when I decided not to major in Political Science, I wavered between switching to literature or psychology. Literature won out because it felt truer to me to learn from stories that people create based on their lives and perceptions (and I stayed awake reading novels, except for the Victorians), while psychology, with its dense textbooks that put me to sleep, was too detached and dry.

When I was teaching, not only did I get to read for work, but when I read non-school books, it was both an escape and the source of insights and lessons that I could share with my students and daughters. My reading served a purpose outside of myself. Now, it’s just for my own entertainment. Which doesn’t sit well with me.

The other day I overheard two men talking. One commented that he was feeling old at 60. The other said that a relative of his just turned 101, noting that if the other man lived that long, “you have almost a whole life ahead of you.” The preternaturally elderly 60-year-old, thanked the other man for the perspective, as did I, silently. Just because I have accepted certain things about myself in the past doesn’t mean that they should determine my future.

It seems that the question I need to ask is “What do I want to get out of my reading?” since a few hours of retreat into a book’s world makes me feel that I should be doing something productive. Then the question reframed itself: “What do I want to do with the things I learn and absorb in a day?”

Which immediately made me think of how we interact in real life: in conversations. I thought of the two main types of conversations we have. There are the details conversations, where you hear (even if you don’t want to) about what a person did and said and ate and bought. Then, there are those which are an exchange of ideas and experiences, where questioning and receiving support are integral, raising a conversation into a productive activity.

Now, I see that my conversations continue to be fruitful because of the words I read on the page. It’s as if I come forward—across a table, a phone, a Zoom screen—bolstered by the stories and insights I’ve gleaned from a supporting cast of characters and authors. This is especially true in retirement when I don’t interact with many people. Rather than a way to retreat from the world, books enhance the way I engage with it.

Which means, that, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to hit the couch (or beach), book in hand. We can talk later.


Rosh Hashanah Gifts for My Daughters: A Delicate Balance

Thinking about the upcoming Jewish High Holidays and my triannual conundrum of gift-giving and holiday reminding to my daughters, I wrote my latest post, "Rosh Hashanah Gifts for My Daughters: A Delicate Balance." You can read it at The Times of Israel, by clicking either of the links here.

Thanks, Laura