Meeting Mayim

May 30th, 2011

About a month ago, I went to a fundraising event for Jew In The City where I got to meet Mayim Bialik. Probably best known as “Blossom“, she now plays Amy Fowler on The Big Bang Theory.

The main reason I attended the event was to support Allison Josephs, the one-woman-show behind Jew In the City, and the amazing work she is doing for the Jewish world.  I was determined not to be a groupie. I am embarrassed to admit that prior to the event I had never watched Mayim on The Big Bang Theory. I have been privileged to spend most of my life meeting and speaking with prominent,  people for one reason or another (none of which have anything to do with me).  I don’t fawn, and have always prided myself on relating to the famous just like everyone else.  (*Margaret Thatcher was the exception to that.  I don’t consider her a real person; she is history and larger-than-life, right? )

But this scenario was different. I spent my entire childhood dreaming of a life on stage. I performed from age eight. I took singing lessons, dance lessons, acting lessons and spent summers at BU Theater Conservatory. When I was  a junior in high school and the hobby wasn’t going away,  I was told by all of the well-meaning adults in my life that I was  “too Jewish” to make it in “the business”. It wasn’t just my parents who discouraged me, telling me that Bette Midler and Barbara Streisand were the exceptions to the rule, but all of the  professionals in show business who I came into contact with as well….

… And then the movie Beaches came out. And Mayim Bialik was literally playing a young Bette Midler.  And her movie role led to her own TV show. So she became a hero to me, and a symbol that all of those adults were wrong. (Somehow I drew that conclusion a lot at 17.) I continued to pursue a career on the stage for many years after. I subsequently dropped that plan for my own reasons, almost all of which had to do with my religious growth and shift in priorities.

So here is the very same Mayim Bialik talking about her religious growth with me in the center of the second row, hanging on her words like a full-blown groupie.  It didn’t help that we are both into attachment parenting and healthy eating (“both into”  as in she has written a book on holistic parenting and I do what I can when I can.) Or that the first thing Mayim said to me when I walked in was:  “Oh my gosh, I almost wore that dress tonight!”.

Yes, she did say that, and this is the dress.

I tried not to gush, or to tell her all of this background which would have sounded ridiculous to her, but to instead maintain my customary non-groupie-like composure. Since I  fell out somewhere between polite and out-right gushing, I think I came across as a complete weirdo.  I also think she must be really used to it.

More than anything else, I really appreciated learning from her that evening. Much more than an actress she is a true thinker. A PhD in Neurology, she is intellectual and deliberate in her approach to just about everything, including her faith.  One of the things she said that struck me the most is that she knew she was on a ladder of personal growth. But she needed to understand the shape and structure of the ladder, i.e. Jewish law, philosophy and theology, before being able to reach her hand off of it and safely out to Hashem. I have used the analogy of a ladder often in describing my own personal Jewish reality  and  I found her description so apt.

I left the evening sure that if we just had some time together Mayim and I would just be great friends. This woman who had the career that I tried not to covet as a teenager is now in the arduous process of melding her love of acting with her growing love of Judaism.  I feel for her, relating so strongly to the many choices and changes that I made along the way. Okay, so I didn’t exactly have to contend with being on a PRIME TIME SITCOM, but I made my own sacrifices.

I think it is to Mayim Bialik’s credit that she left me with that impression that we would be buddies if only…  as well as no doubt 90% of the other people in that room, and 90% of the women all over the country who watch her and have met her.

One other comment she made that stayed with me was her retelling of a fundamental question Allison asked her when they began learning together many years ago as chevrutot,  or study partners: “Why do you think G-d gave you this amazing success and what do you think he wants you to do with it?”   She didn’ t have any answers then, but it was a life-changing reference point that she said Allison has stuck with and revisits with her.   She is taking a lot of composed, rational middle-aged women like myself and turning us into groupies, and getting an increasing amount of attention about her Jewish growth and her holistic parenting choices.

So she  is doing much with her notoriety, and I think she is at least part of the way towards figuring out an answer.

 

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Teshuva is hard.

I could say that teshuva is hard for me, but from what I have learned teshuva is supposed to be hard. Recognizing your flaws and dedicating time and energy to personal change is just hard.

During the month of Elul we are supposed to be reflexive, taking a full accounting of our behavior for the year. We know Hashem is going to be “checking the books” soon, so if we are going to ask him to forgive the screw-ups we really ought to know what they are first. Or at least try to know what they are.

The Rabbi of Twin Rivers, where I live, is a big proponent of an Elul Cheshbon Hanefesh, or spiritual accounting, to properly prepare for Rosh Hashana. A book by this name was written by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Satanov in 1812, with a prescription on how best to do such an accounting.  The problem is a true Cheshbon Hanefesh is really difficult! To sit down and take a real honest look at one’s behavior towards G-d and our fellow human beings is time consuming and uncomfortable. Of course perhaps my readers are much better humans than I am and your Cheshbon Hanefesh is a walk in the park because you get to remind yourself of how many wonderful things you did…. but that isn’t the case for me.

I have made a number of people decidedly unhappy, uncomfortable and even hurt throughout this past year. It makes me quite unhappy, uncomfortable and hurt to know that I have done this.   If you are reading this and you are one of those people, I hope you will accept my heartfelt forgiveness. If I come to realize what it is I did and when, I will do my best to contact you directly and try to make amends before my time runs out.  If you want to tell me in case I don’t get there on my own I won’t enjoy the experience at the time but I will be truly grateful.

Saddest of all, I know that try as I may to be a better person, which I will, I am most likely going to be able to say the same statement next year at this time.  Some of what I have done seems to be misunderstandings. Or justifiable. Or a difference of opinion. But I would be kidding myself if I said it ended there. I still have a lot of work to do in this lifetime in order to be at my best. It definitely does not feel like fun to have to beat myself up so as a part of religion. A lot less fun than Homeshuling’s Top Ten. (Oh, just go read it after you finish this.)

Judaism isn’t always about fun. It is about pleasure. Pleasure in this world and pleasure in the world to come*. The Sages say that pleasure and fun are NOT the same thing. They also teach (I am told) that pleasure will come from the mastery of my own shortcomings. From my personal growth and slaying of my dragons. That this is the true pleasure in both worlds.

It is a lot more fun – or at least pleasurable – to live with myself when I “clean out my soul’s closet” as it is described in our  latest PJ library book, “New Year at the Pier” … I just wish I hadn’t let it get so messy and cluttered up this year.

*If you want to watch a very short and fabulous video on “the world to come”, check out jewinthecity.com

Related Reading:

Apparently Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas is publicly complaining about Israel acting like a democracy.  This story seems Onion-like in its absurdity. http://www.israeltoday.co.il/default.aspx?tabid=178&nid=21143.

Tzedek-Tzedek is a powerful blog that confronts really difficult issues Israel faces today. I appreciate the writing as well as the courage of the topics.  I think this piece, about fires recently started in Israel, is a disturbing and important one, but I always wonder about giving more publicity to shameful behavior in the religious Jewish world.  http://tzedek-tzedek.blogspot.com/2010/05/grave-and-burning-issue.html. This would be a sad, sad example of Abbas getting his way. Our democracy not at work.

According to this one source, Obama is losing his ground with American Jewish voters.  http://www.jpost.com/International/Article.aspx?id=176051. The article juxtaposes two polls to suggest that the shift in support is due to the shift in support for Obama’s Middle East policies. I don’t believe there has been a dramatic transformation, and that suddenly Israel has become a primary reason for US Jewish votes for either party. So I wonder how much of the shift really has anything to do with Israel, and if as little as I suspect, then why the shift?  Is it sadly just “the economy, stupid”?

On a much lighter note, I resisted watching this youtube video when my friends all posted it. Then I watched it. And then I posted it on twitter and facebook. So if any of you haven’t gotten it yet, or resisted it like me, please watch. A young mother from Kansas City and her husband went looking for “truth” while in Kansas City, and found Judaism. Then on vacation in Israel, she felt it was a safer place to raise her kids than the violent streets of her former home.  The cynic in me is pretty sure the story is being played up more than a little for the ratings of Israel’s American Idol, “Kochav Nolad”. But it is still a feel-good story. Here is my question: if American Jews had to live in worse neighborhoods would they finally learn how safe and peaceful Israel is for children too?

Lastly, I want to make a shameless plug for Natural Jewish Parenting. Not the philosophy, the magazine and web site. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. Apparently there are a bunch of us “freaks” out there, scattered in each community…

Related Reading:

I saw an article posted today titled “5 Keys to Your Child’s Happiness.”

It was posted by newtips4mamas (twitter) but is found on Oprah.com: http://www.oprah.com/spirit/5-Keys-to-Your-Childs-Happiness/print/1

So states the title, the article is about 5 keys to having happy children. What I find interesting is the research at the beginning of the article that states that a huge majority of parents in 67 (!) countries wish happiness for their children far above all else.

And with my regular level of chutzpah, I think they are getting it wrong.

Or rather, I think the Torah instructs Jewish parents to take a different view, with a different priority.

We need to raise kids to be good, not happy. We need to raise children to do the right thing, to be good and to do good. There are many, many, many times in life that doing that which is right and good does not make us happy.

My husband brought this concept up to me years ago, quoting Dennis Prager as his source. Prager has an article on raising good children in his book Think a Second Time.  (As a side note, I don’t agree with lots of things Dennis Prager says, particularly his views on plastic surgery, but about this I think he is on the mark.)

He writes: ” The problem with regard to parents raising good children is not that most parents don’t want their children to be good people. It is that few parents actually make their child’s goodness their primary concern. Most parents are more concerned with their child’s being a brilliant student or a good athlete or a successful professional. ” (pp. 36-7)

Maybe what he would say today is that based on Oprah’s research, most parents are more concerned with their child being happy.

There is something deeper than happy, and I am not sure what one would term it in English. In Hebrew, there are several words for “happy”. Sameach, merutzeh, mapsut, .. . there are more.  One of them is to feel “shalem”, which means whole, complete, at peace. I think this kind of happy comes from doing and being good. From knowing your source. Knowing your purpose.

But not immediately. It doesn’t make a young child happy or shalem or anything other than pretty mad to have to share, wait, give instead of take, act selflessly, etc.

However, by raising our children in a Torah path, to be serving our creator and living by the rules of right and wrong contained within halacha, we are training them to be good.

One of the mitzvot contained in that halacha… is to be happy. Not the happy described in the article on Oprah’s website. Not the “I am the most loved, most special, most tended to child” kind of happy… the happy of purpose, of meaning, of being good – and knowing why.

Of course I want my children to be happy. Of course I want them to experience more joy than sorrow and to feel the words of “Modeh Ani” right down to their bones every single morning. But I just don’t agree with the apparently thousands+  of parents they seem to have polled that this is the number one priority, number one wish.

I will suffer on the side as they experience the nisyonot, challenges, that Hashem sends their way.  I will hope that they can see all of those future challenges as gam zu l’tovah – Hashem’s will, and ultimately for the good.

I will continue to prioritize their childhood being a development of their goodness… and hope and pray that with it, from it and through it….comes happiness.

Related Reading:

Last week our local library invited Yosi, a childrens’ performer, to give a Chanukah concert. We don’t live in a large Jewish community, and the greater community does very little to acknowledge Jewish holidays. I was thrilled.

But Yosi got sick, and the event was cancelled. I called the library and offered to “fill in” and run a Chanukah Musical Party (as opposed to a concert) this week instead. After all, I reasoned, it is actually Chanukah this week. The children will  have something instead of nothing, however lame it may be. It will be great marketing for my Jewish Mommy and Me program. And who knows? Maybe one more Jewish family will leave wanting to know more about their Judaism. …

I didn’t think it through, and I didn’t consider at the time how much I was setting myself up to flop, fail; embarrass me and my family.

The local outreach Rabbi was so pleased that I “think on my feet”, and jumped into the void quickly enough for it to work out. The library is thrilled! My kids are excited (the almost 10 year old is embarrassed in anticipation, I think).

I learned the word impetuous at a very early age from my father – about me. I have made very quick decisions much larger than whether or not to perform without an instrument or musicians – or a clue – in a small local library before.

After 18 months of college searching, 8 applications, etc, I decided to blow it all off, “defer” and go to Israel for the year. It was one of the best, and most pivotal decisions of my life.

I dated my husband for 8 months. Some considered that very short; for me it was far longer than I felt was necessary.

I suppose that some enjoy the comfort of  safety. This isn’t a feeling I can relate to very much. It isn’t learned, it is an innate personality trait that I enjoy taking risks, knowing that I will sometimes fail.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t come with an innate ability to deal with said failure.

The dictionary uses the term “rash” to somehow differentiate between impetuous and hasty. So are my decisions rash? Or just “thinking on my feet”?

Perhaps the only way to know is with that wonderful clarifier hindsight.

My first singing teacher taught me the trite phrase “life isn’t a dress rehearsal”. It resonated with me. I think more often than not I have been happy with the hasty decisions I have made.

I hope today’s performance is one of them. I have already expended a lot of energy with thoughts of “what was I thinking”.

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Happy Thanksgiving

November 26th, 2009

While I should be doing lots of things other than blogging at the moment, I will use my son’s still frequent nursing as my rationale, and post a quick message. (Yes, I type and nurse at the same time. Sorry if that provides an unpleasant image to some readers. )

My sons ask me annually why certain religious jews do not celebrate Thanksgiving. I don’t have any great answers for them, which is probably why it is an annual inquiry.

This year my answer, in earnest, is that the Jewish people are blessed to celebrate Thanksgiving every day. I see my friends on facebook pausing to reflect on their blessing from Hashem. Which is great. But I also know that this is my obligation according to Halacha every single day. I am grateful that the United States is the kind of country that encourages everyone else to be conscious of our “brachot hashachar” for one day, and gives everyone a long weekend to feel grateful in the company of family and friends.

Prior to my (first) aliyah, I did not take Thanksgiving very seriously. I scoffed at most things American, and took a lot for granted. The truth is, I took almost everything in my life for granted. I was in my early twenties….

When I met my husband in Israel, I remember his rebuke that I should be happy and grateful to have Thanksgiving, to be an American, and to be blessed with a life of the freedoms that growing up in America afforded to me. Even as an expatriot, he pointed out to me how blessed as olim in Israel we were to have come from an American upbringing.

Since that year, I have come to appreciate Thanksgiving (and the freedoms in the United States) more and more. If we could bring the best (and only the best) of what America is built upon to Israel, the country would be much better for it.

I think that the foundation of Thanksgiving, or gratitude, is humility. As is most of Judaism. Knowing that everything we have, we do, and we struggle with are all gifts from our creator to help us learn, grow and improve can only lead to tremendous gratitude.

I hope that you are having a wonderful day of Thanksgiving and gratitude wherever you are, and that you are reading this after the holiday because you are too busy enjoying your blessings to read today.

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