I want to apologize first for not posting this in time for it to be relevant in Israel. I seem to be customarily behind in everything again this year.

I am preparing for Shabbos and cleaning for Pesach at the same time, which is actually convenient and productive. But it leads me to try and find a balance between getting ready for Pesach while still really making Shabbos Kodesh

We spend weeks focused on the preparation for Pesach, whether it is shopping, cleaning or simply swapping recipes. At the same time, we need to remember that Shabbat is here and it has its own holy essence that we cannot skip (pass?) over because we are so focused on what lies ahead.

As Rabbi Tatz writes in “Living Inspired“: “There are many ideas in Shabbos, but perhaps the most basic is that it represents an end-point, the tachlis of a process. The week is a period of working, building; Shabbos is the cessation of that building, which brings home the significance and sense of achievement that building has generated. It is not simply rest, inactivity. It is the celebration of the work which has been completed. Whenever the Torah mentions Shabbos it first mentions six days of work – the idea is that Shabboss occurs only after,because of, the work.”

Shabbat is not just a rest stop in the many-step process of Pesach preparation. It is an end in and of itself to the intense work most of us have been doing this week.

I hope that you can try and be in the moment this Shabbat and celebrate its own holiness and essence. I hope you can impart that to your kids. I hope you can feel even just a little sadness as Shabbat departs Saturday night, and not just relief that you can  get back to what needs to be done before Monday night. I am mostly hoping this for myself, as I know it is going to be a challenge.

My plan is to light the candles and do my best to shut the “to do” list out of my brain completely. While I know we can use the time to learn about and discuss Pesach, I plan to davka spend time with the children on this week’s parsha and on Shabbos itself.

I am not saying we need to divorce ourselves from the time of year. We don’t call this Shabbat HaGadol for nothing.  Interestingly, there are a lot of different opinions as to why it has this name. I am pretty sure it isn’t because of the “gadol” menu and elaborate set -up this particular Shabbat!

The Shibolei Haleket writes about the custom for a lengthy sermon to the kahal this week: “The customary lengthy Shabbat HaGadol speech makes the Shabbat feel long, drawn out, and ‘gadol’.”  Do we want it to feel drawn out to force ourselves to stay in the moment, or does it feel drawn out because we want to get to Pesach?

And if we need to feel that anxiousness, then let it be for our redemption from exile and slavery and NOT anxiousness to get on with the cooking and cleaning!

May you have a focused and meaningful Shabbat Shalom…..

Last lap?

October 3rd, 2010

For me, one of the clearest “punishments” for choosing to live outside of the land of Israel is the three-day yom tov.  Here in the diaspora, September has been a string of holidays chained together by a few work/shop/cooking days.  My guess is that with the holidays coming at the same time as back-to-school and the non-chag days being on Fridays, it didn’t feel that much different in Israel, but no doubt my readers will clarify this for me. (I hope.)

I went into Shabbat morning telling at least a couple of community members that I felt like I was running the “last lap in a very long marathon.”  A month of cleaning, shopping, cooking, serving, cleaning, serving, cleaning, serving…. laundry…. lather, rinse, repeat. The last day had finally arrived.

I was glad that I made it to shul to hear the Rabbi speak, because he really turned the whole day around for me. I am sure he chose his topic the same way he always does; by listening to whatever has been going on inside my head the past few days. I keep asking him to stop eavesdropping on my thoughts when he chooses his sermon topics, but it doesn’t appear to have stopped the habit.

The Rabbi spoke about parashat Bereishit, yes, but he spoke about how in this parsha, in the beginning, is the clearest, starkest way that man can emulate G-d. We rest on the seventh day because G-d did. Period. Wanna be like G-d? Keep Shabbat.

He went on to remind us that yes, it is keeping the Shabbat, but moreso it is being “in the Shabbat” that makes us like G-d. That when we truly dwell in the mindframe and Shechina*-consciousness of Shabbat, then we are emulating G0dliness in the purest form.

He reminded me in that one moment that it wasn’t the “last lap” of anything. The holidays ended the day before. It wasn’t the Shemini Atzeret moment, the Sukkot moment, the Simchat Torah moment, or even a last moment of any of them. It was “mamash the holy Shabbos.” The only thing that made the day the “last lap” was that it was one more day to dwell in G-d’s presence and to stay close before going back to months of normalcy… a normalcy that includes less time and focus on accessing that closesness to Hashem.

I went home determined to be in Shabbat, and to savor the holiness rather than watch the clock for my return to…. everything else. It really changed my Shabbat, and I enjoyed it so thoroughly. I even had a house full of unexpected “stoppers by” and relaxed and enjoyed it. (Despite having nothing left in the house to serve them.)

I felt the sadness as Shabbat left us that I am told people holier than I feel every week. I suddenly remembered a dear friend (and tzadika), DE, telling me one year of the depressing let-down she feels every year at the end of Sukkot. I was very surprised; the only feeling I had ever  registered was relief. At the time I  couldn’t relate to her feeling at all because I didn’t have that kind of relationship with G-d.

I think I was able to connect to Hashem in Tishrei this year more than ever before. My grand theory on this is that since my children are getting a little older I was able to sleep more hours this year than ever since getting married.  I feel very strongly about the relationships between sleep &  religion, sleep & happiness and  sleep & health … but that is a blog post for another time.

But whatever it was, the davening, the sleeping, choosing to have fewer guests (!) or just the wake-up call from our wise Rabbi, I felt like this last day wasn’t a drag, and wasn’t a last lap…. it was a gift.

*The majestic presence or manifestation of God which has descended to “dwell” among humankind, traditionally referred to as the aspect of Hashem that comes down into the Holy Temple and/or comes closer to the Jewish People on Shabbat.

What am I missing?

July 17th, 2010

Tisha B’av is always a personally challenging time for me. When we first moved back to the United States ten years ago, I cried so much on Tisha B’av. I felt like my own Yerushalayim had been ripped away from me. I felt like I knew better than anyone alive what it meant to really yearn for Jerusalem.

The problem is, it is a personal longing.  I missed my home, I missed my life.

The mourning of Tisha B’av is of something much greater, and more religious. I have struggled with and worked at internalizing that Tisha B’av is a time for real yearning for the Beit Hamikdash, our holiest Temple. Our unity as a people, our connection to G-d, and our ability to express that through the many mitzvot we cannot currently perform. We are even mourning our lack of understanding what we are truly missing. Generations past rent their clothes and cried out because the stories and memories of the beautiful Temple in all of its glory were still fresh enough to hurt and burn their hearts. We have even lost that.

I have grown at crying over these national losses, and not just how much I miss Shabbat meals at Ruthie’s or going to a class with Debbie.

This week, we had guests stay with us for Shabbat. A friend who feels like family was in from Eli (Israel) with his young son. He didn’t do anything or say anything earth shattering. Our conversations were for the most part the picking up where we left off over a year ago, as always seems to happen with good friends that you don’t see often but you know will always be friends.  Just another one of our friends in from Israel for a friendly visit before returning to Israel.

I made aliyah in 1995 and lived in Israel for six years. While I only have two more years to count down until I finally get to return, I have now been “back” in the US for a full decade. One might argue that having spent 15.8% of  my life in Israel hardly makes me an Israeli.

I moved to Israel straight after college (even skipping graduation) in 1995. I spent a year there from 1990-91, and never really left emotionally. Although I returned to North America to get a college degree, I was already friends with Israelis, learning and speaking Hebrew, returning to Israel each summer, and planning my aliyah.  I have always felt that my childhood development was in the US, but my adulthood development was in Israel. My first apartment, job,  car and many other adult experiences were all in Israel. The type of community I wanted to live in, and the kind of environment I wanted in which to grow into the person I wanted to be, were all in Israel.

When I moved there, it was for all of the reasons others have presented, historical, cultural, religious, philosophical, etc., but mostly because I felt at home. Lots of us olim seem to say that, don’t we?.  I have been back in the US for so long now, and at the beginning I worried a great deal that I would simply start to feel more at home here.

That has never happened.

This is what brings me back to our Shabbat guest.

It just felt so strikingly familiar to have him around. He (and his wife) think like us, talk like us, daven like us, parent like us… are people from “our planet”.  Having him around just reminded me of how much we are not with people like us and are never truly at home while here.

We live in an amazing community with wonderful people. I will need to post another blog about what a unique and special place this is for one’s growth as a Jew.

Still, this feeling that I am swimming upstream every single day doesn’t abate, and is what makes me miss Israel the most. There is something so wonderful about overcoming differences, meeting other kinds of people, broadening one’s horizons… but there is also something so wonderful about just going home.

I don’t think that most Israelis would perceive me to be very Israeli, or even necessarily from “their planet”. American olim, however, are definitely our own category, and within that group is always where I feel most at home.

It was wonderful to have a Shabbat guest, and to see an old friend.  But being so close to Tisha B’av, I find myself fighting the temptation to feel consumed by yearning of the homesickness variety. I have to channel that longing and sadness  and use it to tap into the true focus of the day.

Health Nuts

June 15th, 2010

My husband and I try to keep our house as healthy as possible. This is true in terms of my stellar housecleaning (not!) as well as the food that is allowed in the house.  We don’t buy chips or cookies for the kids. We reserve dessert for Shabbat and simchas. No sugar cereals. This includes “healthy” cereals, like Life, that actually have a lot of grams of sugar. Absolutely no candy, and no juice.

Many people address these choices with a great deal of scorn. We are “mean parents”, we are creating hoarders with food issues,  and of course our children will take twice as much junk as other kids whenever we aren’t around, didn’t you know?

First of all, let me just say that my kids do have juice and dessert when they are in other places, and yes, they sometimes sneak stuff (and think that we actually don’t know), and that a few times every summer we simply have to go get ice cream because it is just too hot and Ima feels like it. So there are exceptions.  They also still come out waaaaaaay ahead in terms of junk consumption, despite the sneaking. And not only do they not have food issues, they are learning the AMAZING skill of taking “just one”, and they recently declared that when allowed a “normal” sized piece of birthday cake that it was just too much icing and they couldn’t eat it.

I find it terribly amusing just how opinionated other people are about this particular issue. Most of the time when parents really feel the need to probe this issue with me, they eventually tell me it is because they are not really happy with the amount of sugar and junk their own kids eat, but they just don’t feel there is any way they could buck the system.  They want to believe no one can do it, therefore our existence is problematic. I get that.

Bucking “the system” isn’t always a lot of fun. I don’t know that I would stand up to the irrational and ridiculous social pressure to load my kids’ bodies with sugar if my husband and I were not such a united front on the matter. He couldn’t care less what anyone thinks, pretty much all of the time, so this doesn’t seem to be an issue for him at all. He is even happy to be the bad cop, saying no more consistently and without any defensiveness than I could ever manage.

The “why” we do this is on the one hand simple and obvious – it’s healthy – and on the other hand a lengthy explanation.

I tell my children that our body is like the front lawn of our neshama, our soul.  Now why would anyone want to fill their front lawn with garbage and junk? I also explain that we have a mitzvah to guide all of our actions by serving Hashem, and that sugar slows us down, makes us more prone to illness, and makes less room in our bodies for the food and drink that do help us serve Hashem. Which, by the way is true.

I don’t tell them that without developing a taste for all things oily, salty and sweet early on, that they are learning how to actually taste food, try a wider range of things, not become “picky eaters” and to have a ground work of healthy habits that I hope will prevent the weight struggles and food issues from which I suffer.

I do tell them that the restrictions are out of our love for them, their bodies, and our love for Hashem. We want to show we appreciate the wonderful, nourishing foods that He created, and that we don’t take our miraculous bodies for granted.

One of the hardest parts of this decision? Trying to explain to my children why other G-d fearing, well-meaning, caring good parents are happy to “litter all over the front lawn” and give their kids a green light to eat whatever they choose!  I of course explain that their are different approaches, etc., but in the mind of a four year if we restrict their junk consumption because we love them, then what does that say about those other parents? What does it say about the teachers in school who tell them to go ahead and eat the candy – Ima and Abba aren’t looking.

Confronting this battle within my kids’ school is another article in and of itself.  I am proud to say that on a local level, progress has been made….. very small amounts of progress over a very long amount of time. We aren’t the only ones:  Soveya is an organization trying to change the thinking about food in yeshivas and the frum world in general, “one pound at a time”.

So. how did I get started on this topic today? Homeshuling’s  Amy Meltzer posted an article about juice for kids.

I never really thought cutting out juice was necessary. I only gave pure juice (as opposed to cocktail or sugar drinks) to the kids, and I diluted it, but juice is healthy, right? And then five years ago, just when I thought the pediatrician would tell me that our food policies were too strict even for him, he said “don’t ever kids your kids juice.”

What?

He explained that kids crave fruit sugar, and that fruit is GREAT for kids. They will get the sweetness they crave, but that the fruit itself has important fiber and vitamins that they won’t get if they have the juice. He also explained that kids who drink juice drink a LOT less water than kids who don’t. This is true from my experience. So, armed with the powerful phrase “The Dr. said”, I stopped giving the kids juice, cold -turkey, years ago.

Now I buy a LOT of fruit. People gawk in the store and give me looks that clearly show they are sure I work at the zoo. One day I am going to print up a shirt for myself that says:

T-shirt graphic

[ I hope you like my first drawing. You can see why I don't make them. I am no Allie Brosh, nor do I aspire to be. But I really do want a T-shirt that says that, if anyone is thinking ahead to my birthday. ]

…Getting back to my point, I do buy a lot of fruit, but I am spared the endless dilution of juice and the lugging of large jugs. (I lug large bags of fruit instead.)

The juice article that was posted:  http://www.inhabitots.com/2010/06/11/85-of-kids-drinks-snacks-could-contain-high-levels-of-lead/ explains that many, many brands of juice for kids may actually be toxic.  Kudos to Dr. Shah for sparing us. Do you think maybe this will hold back the ridicule from the scornful throngs?

On a last note, food policies are like religious observance; anyone to the right of one is “extreme” and anyone to the left is “too liberal”. So we are by no means considered hard-core in healthy eating circles. After all, we still have white flour, white sugar and even – gasp! – hydrogenated oils – in our home. Everyone has to find the balance that works for them. What we do works for us. I never try to suggest it would work for everyone. I am amazed when the same people who campaign on my children’s behalf for lollipops and other forms of food dye ask me with astonishment how I get my kids to eat nicely, or how I get them to sit still.   If you tell me I am doing great with the cutting down sugar but am far from feeding them healthily, you may be right.

…. But at least it turns out I am sparing them lots of lead in juice. Who knew?

Two rolled up sleeping bagsWe were invited to be guests in someone else’s home this past Shabbat. That’s right, 8 out of the 9 of us picked up and moved in with another family for Shabbat. This very brave, gracious family has twelve – yes twelve – children.  Don’t worry; only ten of them were home.

We don’t go away very often, especially for Shabbat. We rarely go out for Shabbat meals locally in our own community. It is truly a lot of work, and usually easier to stay home. Not only is it invariably someone’s bed or nap time during a meal, but my picky eaters will usually come home from a meal telling me they are starving, so I have to make food anyway.

This last week was an intense work week for me, and my thinking was that with 10 children home (ages 22-3) there would be mess, chaos, noise and lots of food without my having to worry that it was all caused by my family. I also brought sleeping bags and pillows for my kids. The thought of anyone having to do double the amount of laundry I do just makes me woozy.

We had a fabulous, fabulous time. Two things struck me: 1. There was far more unanimous happiness and joy than there ever is at any “family outing”, which usually take more money and a lot more effort. 2. Being a host is good for a person, but so is being a guest.

We spent our Shabbat away in Lakewood, NJ, a black hat (or haredi) community, if not THE haredi community in the US. (Forgive me, Monsey).  The community as a whole observes Judaism in a lot of subtle little ways that are sharply different from our family.

One great thing about coming outside of our home, our neighborhood, our comfort zone, was to have a different role. In this case, mine was blissfully passive! Another was to get a new perspective. We didn’t just glimpse a different Judaism, we discussed it. We asked, we compared. We got a taste of something else.

When I was younger and single I encountered so many different Jews with different views on Torah and halacha. I saw and experienced such a wonderful range of minhagim (family traditions) and opinions. Then I settled down, had a family, and wanted to build a wonderful consistency for them. The break from that consistency was wonderful, and allowed us to understand a piece of Klal Yisrael just a little better.

Another wonderful thing about being a guest is seeing different styles in parenting. It is obviously clearer during a 26 hour visit than a two hour one. It is wonderful to digest what one can learn from others and to break the routine to the point where things aren’t happening by rote so that maybe you can “see” them.

There are some who claim that communities like Lakewood are insular, judgmental, close-minded, etc. Perhaps I am not looking for such negativity so I am not finding it. But I must say that the warmth and kindness from everyone I met was just amazing.  It is obvious to anyone there that I am an outsider who does things differently. I was greeted much more warmly than I have been in some other places. (As I always have been whenever in Lakewood.) By being there, I could ask questions, as so many people ask me, about why things are done the way they are. And as with so many other things in the Torah, the answers are often simple and beautiful, just with a perspective I didn’t previously have.

The informal and extensive hospitality is one of the many things I miss about Israel. I was recently told that travelling to another’s home routinely means bringing one’s own linens.  I bet that helps a lot.

I also enjoy being a host(ess) for many of the same reasons. I love hearing a different person’s story, their point of view, their Jewish journey. (I think this particular part I owe to many meals at Alan and Bonnie Cohen’s home opposite the Old City of Jerusalem. One of the many things I owe them…) I like the new “flavors” that different people bring to our meals. It isn’t always easy to be the host, especially if you feel compelled to make a certain kind of impression. (Of course I have never felt that way.) It is often easier to keep things routine, just family; simple. I have never been known for preferring easier for its own sake.

It isn’t always easy to invite a whole family into your home, especially overnight. Nor is it ever easy, I think, to travel somewhere with six of your own. But the experience was so very worth it, and I feel invigorated not only by the rest of letting someone else “make shabbos”, but by the fresh perspective and the watching and listening.

….. I will just have to hope that someone else, at some point in time, is crazy enough to once again invite all of us to be guests.

I love Pesach

March 16th, 2010

Pesach is my favorite holiday, with perhaps the exception of Shabbat. It is also the time of year I miss Israel most, but that is for another post.

Funnily, I think Purim is consistently my least favorite. But I love Pesach. As with most things, I don’t think it is for any one specific reason. I love that spring is coming. I love sending the kids outside. I love to cook. I love the children’s enthusiasm for the seder. I probably wouldn’t like the preparations as much if I had to use china and then clean it, or if I had to bake a lot of Pesach desserts. I don’t bake during Pesach. No one likes the way most of it tastes, and I have never gotten my family hooked on the good stuff, so they don’t really know what they are missing.

….I also love Pesach cleaning.

Every year I am reminded, along with everyone else, that “Pesach cleaning doesn’t mean you have to do Spring cleaning”. But I love spring cleaning. I am sure this is because I hire myself help to do it with.

I love the fact that for the spring cleaning part I only have to get through as much as I get through. I love the lack of clutter, the putting things in a place. Giving things away we no longer use. A fresher smelling, feeling house.

My office usually gets crammed with chametz/non pesach stuff I can’t fit anywhere else and locked up for the week of Pesach. Sold. As a result, it is the least cleaned room in the house. This year I did that first, and I just love the feeling. I actually want to go in my office again. I am perfectly aware that we aren’t eating in there, and that the beads on the floor aren’t crumbs. Still, the cobwebs and dust are gone, the lost checkbook found, and I can move on to cleaning actual chametz with a better feeling.

Check back next week as Pesach gets closer; most likely more of the last minute stress will be getting to me and my back won’t feel quite as good.

In the meantime, the sun is shining after two days of floods and storms and doom and gloom and all the stray lego lost in 10 rooms is slowly making its way home.

I love Pesach.

The VERY sick Sick day.

March 12th, 2010

If my life had a theme it would be the old Yiddish expression “man plans, G-d laughs”.  When I wrote my last blog post I was quite sure at an early hour how the day would go.  I had been there before, and confidently typed out my plans for the day….

… I hadn’t counted on catching the stomach bug my 4 yo had just finished dealing with. Soon after publishing my blog post and immediately after eating a small meal, I knew that the day wouldn’t go as planned.

By late afternoon I had summoned my husband to work from home. By early evening… you don’t want any details of what went on early evening.

I lost all of that day and the next day, too. Turns out the recovery from such stomach bugs can be worse than the bug itself, as your muscles all try to recover from working backwards.

I cancelled my dss’s time to be with us that day in an effort to spare him similar agony. I almost never, ever cancel his time with us. I don’t like the message it sends. Luckily, at 15, he voluntarily opted to come the next day instead. Readers, please remind me of that when I am not having a great stepmom day.

I am now two days behind in both work and Shabbat preparations, and needless to say my Pesach prep will have to happen next week.  That is what I get for so confidently declaring how my day would go.

While I was sick, I thought to myself that this was actually worse than labor. At least with labor while my insides are turning inside out I know there is something wonderful coming out of it.

The following day, while I lay there feeling like my guts had been run over a few times, losing patience with my recovery time, I became flooded with gratitude for my problems. My husband was able to work from home. My illness wasn’t going to be a long term one, didn’t require a hospital stay, or lots of chesed from my community (little bits, for which I am also grateful.)

There are a number of people in my community going through some tough stuff health-wise right now, and the day I fell ill I had also read this heartbreaking article about a woman trying to have a baby.

It occurred to me that when their children whine that they “want their Ima back” after one day of being sick, those Imas can’t really give them what they want and need, and how difficult and sad that must be.

I thought about this because most of my children came to me while I lay in bed, one by one, and told me that they “really, really, really didn’t want me to be sick.”Because my incapacitation was causing them to suffer. While I appreciate being valued and needed as the Ima in the family, I am looking forward to their maturing to the point where they can realize that Imas need compassion and sympathy too.

Of course then I realized that while I give my children compassion and sympathy, I really didn’t when the little one was actually sick!

The night the 4yo was up sick I lay in bed incredibly grateful that my husband was taking care of it all. Next time, now that I have lived through it I think I will drag my tired self up to make sure I give some soothing words and some hugs in the middle of the night.

I will still let my husband clean it all up.

I LOVE THIS BOOK

February 4th, 2010

We just received “The Shabbat Box” by Lesley Simpson from the PJ Library program. If you aren’t signed up for the program, you should be.  The program is only available through certain Jewish Federations, but it allows you to enroll your child 0-8 years old to receive a Jewish book (or CD) once a month.  We have been exposed to a lot of wonderful material that my family – and community – is enjoying.

One of these days we will campaign the Princeton-Mercer Bucks Federation to get their act together and join the program. It is really a terrible shame.

Back to “The Shabbat Box”. It is wonderful. I LOVE THIS BOOK. I love the concept. I love the story, and I really love the fact that the content and pictures truly are accessible and relevant to any Jew regardless of their background or affiliation.

For the most amazing follow up to the book I could imagine, please look at this Homeshuling blog post. I truly hope to be half as talented and forthright about implementing the concept… maybe when it gets warm outside.

I also hope our local school and hebrew school will create and use a Shabbat box as well.

This is just the kind of children’s book I really hope to write one day.

Hope you are able to find the book and buy it or borrow it.

Mother of the Year

January 31st, 2010
the remnants of a plastic cutting board

... and how do I get this off, exactly?

I like the idea of hiding my housework from myself…. in theory.

In what has to be the all time highlight in my career as a mom, this morning I have managed to melt plastic all over my oven:

pool of melted plastic on the bottom of the oven

what I wasn't able to scoop out, soft, with a wooden spoon...

Someone in my community taught me this great secret she learned from our rebbetzin; if you can’t stand looking at the larger pots and pans that are dirty for all of Shabbat, hide them in the oven.

First of all, if you are lucky enough to have two dishwashers then you usually won’t have this problem. You can hide everything in there. We have one dishwasher, and it is dairy because we eat so much more dairy during the week.

Second, if you are going to use this little trick you have to either: make sure to wash your dirty dishes motzei Shabbat instead of relaxing, hanging out, or just being tired; or at least have to have the presence of mind to NOT TURN IT ON UNTIL YOU HAVE TAKEN THINGS BACK OUT.

Come to think of it, one probably should have the sechel (wisdom) not to put a plastic cutting board in the oven to store, ever, no matter how messy the kitchen is, or how much it bothers you.

I would love to tell you that this is the very first time I have preheated an oven and then realized I had left things in there. I wish it were the second time, or even the third. This is the first time I  have ever been stupid enough to put a plastic object in there, never mind forget about it completely.

I think the holy and wise rebbetzin who uses this trick to hide her pots and pans is much older than me, gets a full night sleep, and has older children who help her DO the dishes motzei Shabbat instead of hiding them and leaving them there.

Now my house smells like melted, toxic plastic. I have no idea how I can safely burn the goo off without causing my home to become a toxic hazard too dangerous for my own children. I have no doubt it is going to be one of those lessons I have learned the hard way, with a lot of time, money and energy wasted.

Truly, mother of the year.   :  (

PS – if I figure out how to safely get rid of it all, I will write an update.

I was asked by the local outreach organization to teach a “lunch and learn” class on Tu B’Shvat this past Shabbat.  I heartily agreed because I love what they do and love to help them do it. I love to teach and jump at every chance to do so (there aren’t that many). I have been running a women’s Tu B’Shvat seder at the same location for the past four years, and as a result have ended up learning quite a great deal about the holiday.

However, once I had a chance to stop and think about it, I realized that this would be the first time I was teaching a shiur to a mixed crowd. I teach lots of mixed crowds – religious and not religious – but never men and women together. My rebbetzin – who would never agree to do such a thing –  gave me a look that read “give me a break”. My husband gave me same look, but even stronger.

I am not shy or in anyway less than completely outspoken in mixed company. I have “addressed” mixed audiences before in the same location… but not as a teacher of a Torah shiur. Not for an hour and a half. I have taken gemara shiurim for women.  I studied at Drisha. I had a Rabbi (the brilliant Rabbi David Aaron) speak under my chuppah, but was adamant that I wanted a woman – the incredible Rabbanit Chana Henkin – to speak at the wedding…. so no wonder they gave a look that said “give me a break”, right?

I wrote as my title that I am not a feminist. I am a strong sexist, and a huge fan of womankind.

What I do not support, however, is the idea that we are the same as men in any way, that Hashem wants us to have similar roles in any way, and that male opportunities can and should be given to women wherever and whenever possible. (Even when speaking within the boundaries of halacha.) That is my understanding of what feminism is, and so that makes me not a feminist.

Here’s the thing; I think that women are better at just about everything under the sun than men. Maybe not lifting huge weights or playing football. But if we needed to, we would find a wiser way of getting both of those things done. I have seen and heard and read numerous studies on how women use more parts of their brain. I have read shiurim on how the limitations put on women in Orthodoxy are because we are “exempt” and not because we are “prohibited”. Why do more things than you have to in order to connect to G-d? Why not perfect instead what you do need to do?

My experience of egalitarianism in Judaism is the equivalent of the best behaved child in the school fighting for decades for the right to stay after school in detention.

I once had a dream of becoming a Cantor. I had amazing role models, education and experience to pursue such a thing. My choice to sit behind a mechitza is not because I feel a desire to be subjugated. It comes from a true sense of superiority – not the opposite.

Years ago, I sat in a session at the GA – the General Assembly of the UJA.  In this session they were discussing a new crisis in the Hebrew Union College’s Rabbinical program. According to the panel, as the percentage of enrolled female students neared 50, the enrollment of males just started drastically dropping off.  The woman on the panel went on to describe studies that had been done in other industries, and cited the same phenomenon in the secular world.  Men fled the nursing profession when women began entering it in equal numbers.  The rise in female enrollment in medical school, at least according to the panel member, was having the same effect.

This would seem to be data that agrees with the way a sexist Orthodox Jewish structure was explained to me. Women can be rabbis; they can be great rabbis…. but what does that do to the men? There is something in the male psyche and makeup that doesn’t like competing in anything against women.

And I think the sages understood that much better than contemporary secular society would like to.

I know there are some that believe that this is about evolving and growing beyond such primitive and unfair inclinations, but I don’t buy it. If you believe in G-d, and you believe (he) made man and woman the way he did for a reason, then I believe you need to conclude that the differences are not to be ignored or squashed, but acknowledged, celebrated and worked with.

…. So I believe all of that, and still gave this shiur in front of a bunch of men.  G-d must have a wonderful sense of humor. Someone in our community had a baby, and while baby and Ima stayed in the hospital, many family members came for the shalom zachor and to lend a hand. From Brooklyn and from Lakewood. With very black hats on their heads. And these family members decided to stay for the ‘lunch and learn’.

Mixed learning in our community, taught by a woman at times, isn’t unusual or controversial. So the issue was with me, and my comfort level. Now, I was dealing with men in my audience who had never (they told me) listened to a shiur by a woman in their lives.  So apparently, I was making some statement or stand anyway.

I would love to hear from my readers if my next move was cowardly; I asked the proud new father of said baby to get up and read the Gemara section (the first part of Masechet Rosh Hashana, in the Mishna) that is our first mention of Tu B’Shvat. The truth is he is a wonderful Rebbe in the school and he did a much better job at reading and explaining it than I ever could have.  I am quite sure that there is no halachic distinction at all whatsoever between my teaching the class and my reading that Gemara. But I couldn’t do it.

The rest of the shiur I chose to enjoy. After all, no one made anyone stay, or indicated that it would be rude for them to leave. They could have eaten and then left. They chose to be there. They complimented me afterwards. I take comfort in the fact that I seriously doubt that any of the black hat men have ever heard much of anything about Tu B’Shvat at all whatsoever. Certainly not why the kabbalists made a Tu B’Shvat seder and perceived it to be a tikkun.

I am not embarrassed to teach in front of men, and I don’t apologize for my own level of knowledge, access to learning (yes, the Gemara) or my ability to give that knowledge over.

Through this process I have come to realize that ultimately what bothers me is only that I don’t like being the focus of attention in a room for over an hour that isn’t filled solely with women. Although the focus should of course be on the material, in principle I just don’t want to stand up and be that which everyone looks at for such a long period of time in mixed company.

I don’t think that I will agree to do such a thing again. In this particular case, there was a least some strong element of kiruv, outreach, involved. I know there were men at an early point in the Jewish journey who became more connected to the holiday because of my teaching. This is the one aspect that causes my ambivalence.

I have no doubt that the “black hat” men (as if I can judge them by their head covering…) did NOT learn that a  woman can be learned and teach a coherent shiur on a topic and give over information they didn’t know. I am 100% certain they already knew that.

I don’t think tzniut is about hiding your talents. G-d forbid. Or denying them. But I do think it is about having the confidence to share them in a way that draws attention to the service of Hashem and only the service of Hashem and not attention to ourselves or what we are capable of.

I hope this is the way in which the shiur was received.  I am confident that Hashem is concerned with my intentions.

I am still left with the feeling that I made a statement, and not one I am sure I wanted to make.

I am, after all, a sexist.  :  )