Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Art and Maintenance of a Thirteen-Year-Old Mensch

For 13 years, I have watched my eldest grandson take on the characteristics of the proverbial mensch. Minutes after he was born, I witnessed a boy in the making. With his flagrant red hair, his calculated screams, and his sense of timing, Mr. Adin made an impression. Immediately after his covenantal circumcision, he began his preparation towards the real thing: his bar mitzvah.

Menschology is the art of making a child into a mensch. It is a gender-neutral word that encourages the creative strategies of parents and rabbis to fine tune the intricate details of becoming a bar/bat mitzvah in today’s contemporary society.

A mensch: A person of integrity and honor.

"Perhaps a public dialogue on the bimah about your parshah would be the way to go," I suggested to my daughter and grandson as we began exploring the essence of his bar mitzvah service at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C.

"Like what kind of questions?" asked Adin.

"Questions about your Torah portion. What are the Biblical and relevant themes? A few fun facts perhaps? Teaching moments," I concluded.

The morning of the bar mitzvah, I introduced the question/answer format to the congregation of friends and family. We did our back and forth routine with humor and affection.

After months of study and daily practice, my grandson learned some very important Judaic skills. Even before uncovering the sacred melodies of the scripted Torah, he had developed a built-in Jewish consciousness and a Talmudic mind characterized by his genuine curiosity.

So what was the task to be accomplished for his bar mitzvah?

The job of the bar mitzvah is to teach the young man how to swim in the world of knowledge, and how to navigate the nature of menschology. Both require a deliberate process with a talented guide/mentor. Both build on a strong foundation from the teacher/parent. Both are continuous and contiguous to each other. The bar mitzvah boy has to give himself over to the mystery that lies behind the Hebrew characters and learn to respect its history, legacy and sanctity. As a mensch in the making, the Bar Mitzvah boy has to search for his ethical and moral compass on a daily basis.

Have you ever watched the bar/bat mitzvah child during his special weekend? ow does he conduct himself around friends and family? What is his demeanor? Does he exude gratitude or haughtiness? Is he respectful to his family or is he spiteful? Has he begun the long road towards a person of character or a person of attitude?

As I watched my grandson stand up and be counted as an educated addition to the Jewish people, I was even more proud that after 13 years of character building and problem solving, his registration card reads, "Mensch." Now that the party is over, the guests have left, the daily practice routine has abruptly ended, we can focus on the art and maintenance of this thirteen-year-old mensch, Adin Isaac Yager. Mazal Tov!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Stuck at the Seder Table

I wish you all a meaningful and sacred Seder experience where time and space take you forward and backward. Do extend your prayers towards the possibility of freedom beyond our borders to all who need the miracles of the Exodus today. Chag Sameach V’Kasher.

Our annual seders were staged in the Bronx apartment where my maternal grandparents lived with my aunt, uncle and my two cousins. The living room was transformed into a festive dining hall where chairs and tables occupied the entire space. Once everyone was seated, it was difficult, if not impossible to move. Stuck at the Seder, we performed our rituals, sang our songs, recited the prayers and waited for our dinner. Sarah, our family housekeeper, prepared the plates from the overstocked kitchen and then passed them to the aunts, who passed them to the person at the end of the table who passed them down the table to the elders. The children were served last on smaller plates. During the passing of the plates. I stayed in my less than comfortable chair, taking in the heavenly smell of  my mother’s fluffy matzo balls. Besides the food and the atmosphere of thanksgiving, I felt lucky to be squeezed between my cousins at this crowded but cozy Passover Seder.

My immigrant Polish family had survived the pogroms, the holocaust, poverty and humiliation. Behind each song was a story. I would not tease out their solemn stories until I was in my twenties when the seders of my youth became the seders of my past.

My grandparents passed away. My cousins married and moved away. One by one we evacuated the Bronx apartment building on Prospect Avenue and moved to our own separate neighborhoods. My uncle moved to New Jersey, my aunt to Riverdale, my other aunt to Co-op City and my parents to the Grand Concourse. Our congenial family dispersed itself throughout the Bronx. For decades, I would try to piece together this geographic jigsaw puzzle, albeit unsuccessfully.

Tonight, I will celebrate Passover at the home of my eldest daughter in Virginia. Three of my four children will accompany my seven grandchildren, three son-in-laws, my ex-husband, his brother and sister-in-law from Israel, plus two young friends. We are still dispersed geographically, but we deliberately come together to replicate and celebrate the Seders of our past. The seating will be more luxurious. The dining room with its long table and chairs will extend into the hallway and two more tables will be added. I will be the one serving instead of waiting to be served. We will sing the songs, perform the rituals and recite the prayers while we all anticipate the holy matzo balls, fluffy or hard. I will be content to be stuck at the Seder table with those I love.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Accounting

I recently changed banks. When I saw the official stamp, Account Closed, I had an existential thought: Which one of my internal accounts has been liquidated? Have I just been freed of some debt that I incurred in another lifetime? Maybe this life is about to change for the better. But how would such a recalculation manifest itself?

I am in love with my new bank. They call me by name when I walk in. They say, “Good morning!” and smile. “What can I do for you today?” they ask. I like this new attention that is directed toward me. But I am beginning to think my neighborly affection is pointing toward a bigger truth: If the bank teller’s greeting makes me feel prosperous, it is because I enjoy being seen.

In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve attempt to eclipse themselves from God’s view after having disobeyed the instruction not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. When God asks, "Where are you?" Adam responds, “I was afraid … and I hid myself.” From the beginning, knowledge came with self-doubt: As soon as Adam was aware of his humanness, he saw himself as flawed.

We all hide from others because we are ashamed, or we don’t feel competent, or others make us feel invisible. We hide for fear that we will be rejected, yet we crave to be seen by others through an unconditional lens, with reverence. Every acknowledgement brings us out of the shadows of our own vulnerability and into the light. This feeling is not tied to anything we own or any wealth we amass.

My recalculation, then, goes something like this: I, too, need recognition from others to remind me of my worth. But I am also learning, little by little, to see myself as a person of value. And of this I am certain: It has nothing to do with my bottom line, and everything to do with the richness of my spirit.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The TzimTzum of Relationships

In the act of creation, God contracted him/herself to make something very finite out of the infinite. God, referred to as the Ein Sof, is "The Infinite,";the Boundless One, the Being that has no end. TzimTzum is a term used in Lurianic Kabbalah that describes this constriction.

So when God decided to create the Universe, God emptied him/herself by withdrawing the Infinite Light into a single spectacular light and created a world that was outside of him/herself.

This was an act of love.

When you love someone, and you want to give them the "space" that they desire to flourish, the discipline of contracting yourself allows the other person’s needs to become a priority. You shrink yourself so that something greater can grow. Neither disappears. The concealment is only temporary while each person finds their own purpose and brings their gifts back to the team. The void is filled with renewed joy and fulfillment from a deeper dimension.

As the mother of four grown children, I practice contraction daily. When my adult daughter calls me to ask advice about a particular dilemma of the moment, my first response is to enlarge her query. By asking questions rather than giving answers, I place her concern in the center of my beingness; my capabilities to discern her reality becomes limitless if not, like the Ein Sof, infinite.

Friday, February 27, 2015

My Mother's Shabbat Candles

In memory of my parents, Rabbi Benjamin Miller and Jeanette Miller, whose yahrzeits occurred this past February 15 and February 22, respectively.

While going through the contents of my piano bench one evening, I discovered the sheet music to a piece I used to play constantly when I was in high school.

Among the smiles
Among the tears of my childhood’s sweet and bitter years
There’s a picture that my memory fondly frames
And in it softly shine two tiny flames
My mother’s Sabbath candles . . . 
(Jack Yellen,1950) 

I placed this decades-old song above the keyboard and began to play. My fingers traversed the black and white keys easily. I recalled the living room scene where my mother would sit on the flowery upholstered couch across from the piano and listen while I practiced. Often, she was tearful; mostly, she was just speechless.

I witnessed my mother lighting and praying over the Sabbath candles every Friday night for the 22 years that I lived at home. She succeeded in fulfilling the commandment to light the Sabbath candles almost 5,000 times during her 95 years; I believe she never once missed this reverent act. When I got married and left the warmth of those Friday evenings, I took the ritual of lighting the Sabbath candles into my home, and it became one of our cherished family traditions.

My aging parents moved to Philadelphia from the Bronx to be near my oldest sister, Khana, when they needed extra care. For the next eight years, they lived in a large one-bedroom apartment that included a small, square kitchen that could only accommodate their dishes and appliances. There was no breakfast area and no real table, so a shelf was built specifically to hold my mother’s two Sabbath candlesticks.

My father’s yahrtzeit, the one-year anniversary of his death, occurred the Sunday before my mother died. She had struggled to live without him throughout the year. Now, another year was beginning. How many more Sabbaths would she need to observe without him? The week before, I had stood next to her in that kitchen, and the two of us had lit the Sabbath candles together. My childhood memories melted into the candle wax. My mother leaned on me as she waved her hands in front of the candles to usher in the light of the Divine. With her eyes closed, she continued the tradition of her foremothers, mumbling the customary Hebrew blessing while her heart cried out with silent grief.

My mother died the following Sabbath in the early morning hours before dawn. I was not with her when she lit her candles for the last time. But my father’s spirit stayed to bless and temper her Sabbath sorrow. He resided in the tears that fell onto my mother’s apron and sanctified the windowless space. I can picture my parents leaning on one another and waving their hands toward the light. Perhaps the glow of the flame was my father’s soul longing to be at home again with her. Perhaps it was my mother’s longing to be at home in his soul.

Maybe both.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Shabbat with my Grandchildren

They sat on my couch lined up like a row of boats in the harbor: boy, girl, boy, girl; six, eight, eleven and twelve respectively.

With the Shabbat candles lit, we sang the welcoming Sabbath hymn, I gave them each a hard cover siddur (prayer book), and together we created our home-centered Friday evening service.

“What prayer would you like to sing now?” I asked.

My four grandchildren have been singing and studying the Jewish liturgy since birth. Their parents celebrate Shabbat with them every Friday night, and the tunes and the words have been etched in their hearts and minds for years. How did I get so lucky to be witness to the next generation of Jewish youth?

As I listened to my grandchildren recite the prayers of our age-old religion, I realized that passing down the traditions of our ancestors is accomplished with one teaching moment at a time.

It may begin with a Jewish lullaby or the taste of a braided challah. The glow of the Sabbath candles or the recognition of a Hebrew letter. These are the sights, the smells, the sounds of our Jewish heritage.

I can see beyond this Shabbat and perceive a Jewish future where my four grandchildren are leading the way.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Portraits of My Father

I could look up the year of my father’s death, but what does it matter? On a cold February day, five or six or eight years ago, he passed away. What matters is how the grief has changed me. After all these years without his physical presence, our relationship continues.

Is it normal to bring into focus his funny face every time I think of him? What did we both look like when we were younger? What does it matter? Now, all that I can imagine is an ageless father who stopped growing old and never was young enough to be my "daddy."

Sometimes, I see him pulling out a Cuban cigar from his pocket, and, in slow motion, lighting up on a corner street in the Bronx. Sometimes, when I walk into a Dunkin Donuts store, I continue ordering him his favorite, the original donut and a large black coffee, no cream, no sugar, but hot enough so he could feel the warmth on his dentures. And sometimes, I picture him standing in the living room, with tallit and tefillin wrapped around his arm and forehead.

Morning after morning, he appeared as my first vision. He appears again as I conjure up his funny face.


Whether my father was eating, smoking, praying or laughing at his own jokes, he was and always will be moving portraits of love, compassion, wisdom and joy.