Hallmark Card for Me

I bought myself a birthday card today.

This is not something that I normally do, but something that was a no-brainer for me to do, at least today. I suppose there are a couple of reasons why I bought it.

Let me start here: My birthday is not until March. And it’s January. I am never this well-prepared. (Except for that time I planned my daughter’s February birthday party in December because I was expecting a second baby in January – but that does not count). However, buying a birthday card two months in advance? The only other time I do this is when it’s for someone else.

The card caught my eye in the check-out line at the grocery store. After I read it, I said to myself, “I love that message.”  And then I did it. I did what I would normally do. I said to myself: “who can I get this card for?”

For the very first time in my life, my answer was “me.”

The truth is this: who knows where the hell I’ll be in March. March feels like eternities away in my world right now. But at least if my January-self could send a message to my March-self, then for sure, this would be the message I would want me to hear.

I looked at the price.


Are you kidding?

I’m the type of woman who cuts coupons and always knows where the best deals are for certain products. $6.99? I could get a Subway value meal for less than that. But…I bought it anyway. Because…

I am worth it.

If I can’t spend $6.99 on a Hallmark card to love myself then who can? Then who will?

Truth be told: it’s not the card that matters – at all. But it’s the conversation that I had with myself about the card. It’s about practicing self-love and self-worth through the card.

I believe so many of us try to find ways of taking care of other people or worrying about other people that in the process, we lose ourselves. We forget about ourselves. And, ironically, the moment that we lose ourselves is the moment when we are inauthentic in our relationships because we lack the self-worth to be “enough” for those around us.

I love this card and its message, but as I look at the blank card staring before me, I wonder:

Do I write myself a message? If so, do I write what I need to hear now? Can I even predict what words I will need to hear then?

Or, do I leave it blank? Might the absence of words say something even more powerful?

Birth day.

I called my mother on the day that my daughter turned one year old. Decades prior, my mother had given birth as well, on the same date.

“Happy birth day,” I said to my mom.

“Happy birthday,” she replied.

“No, mom, happy birth day. Birthing day.”

My mom laughed. We had a moment. Even if it was over the phone.

I’ve always had a thing about birthdays, but it wasn’t until I was a mom myself that I really understood the miracle of bringing a new life into the world. To the person for whom we celebrate the day, the day is really about marking time, but for those of us who were around on the actual birth day, each year this birthday takes on so much more meaning. I see and feel that meaning now that I am a mom.

Just one year ago, there I was, calling our emergency “babysitter,” a family friend, to watch our older daughter as we prepared to go to the hospital.  As the doula rubbed on my back and I tried to scarf down some tapioca pudding in between contractions, I kinda knew what was in store for me, as I had done it before, but…you never know.

I remember waking up the day before, one Saturday morning, with contractions. As a rabbi, I was supposed to officiate as a student became a bar mitzvah that day, but naturally, someone else was on-call. After I woke up and the contractions subsided, I decided to head to services anyway. Hell, if my water broke or something, right on the bimah (the stage), well then…we’d just deal with it.

But that didn’t happen. My contractions went away, just for the duration of the service, then started up again after I went home. I gave birth early the next morning. Even though I was five days past my due date, sometimes things happen right on time.

On my baby’s birthday, I will always be connected to my mother and all the other mothers who experience the miracle of birth. Somehow, I don’t remember that pain. I know it was bad, but can’t really describe it in hindsight. That’s because when I look into my baby’s eyes and when she nestles into the space under my chin, I thank God for the miracle she is and I know that whatever I went through was…nothing, nothing at all. In those moments when my baby cuddles with me, my heart is so full and nothing else matters.

Happy birth day, Mom.

Happy birthing day to me.

And happy birthday to my baby.

Kaddish with the Kids

Today is my father’s yahrzeit, the Hebrew anniversary of his death. It’s been nine years. Normally, on my father’s yahrzeit, I rearrange my schedule to say Kaddish for him, the prayer that we recite on such an occasion, praising God. Normally, I go to synagogue three times: once in the evening, again in the morning, and a third time in the afternoon to ensure that I say this prayer three times over the course of the Hebrew day. Normally, this is on my calendar months in advance and I commit to nothing else so that I can spend a few minutes with dad, and maybe, if I’m lucky, a few minutes with God.

This year is different.

This year, I have chosen to do something else.

Mind you, this decision is somewhat unusual for me, especially those who know me well. During the year after my father died, I remember how I feverishly jumped through hoops so that I could recite the Kaddish prayer every single day. When I was away from a Jewish community, I had a team of friends who were near a synagogue who would say Kaddish on my behalf. (I still have their names and the dates they said Kaddish for me marked in my Bible, next to the psalm that I read instead). There were literally dozens of shuls where I said Kaddish, in several states. In the city, I would run up and down on the Manhattan A-train stairs, just to get to services on time, sometimes with just a moment to spare, sometimes even at the tail end of the prayer. Sometimes, admittedly, I would even say it on the streets of NYC when I was fairly certain that there were ten Jews around me. They didn’t even know they were participating in a minyan, a quorum of Jews necessary to recite this prayer.

I became addicted to Kaddish. I became addicted to this aspect of the Jewish tradition because my world was so torn upside down. At the time, Kaddish provided me with so much meaning and an opportunity to heal. Sure, it was nice to be with other people, standing next to other men and women who felt my pain as well, as they said Kaddish for their loved one. Sure, it was nice to cling onto this routine, as my world was in utter chaos. In fact, when I said my final Kaddish during that year, it was painful to let go of this prayer. I remember sponsoring a breakfast that morning, with fresh bagels and schmear, after services at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was studying to become a rabbi. And the tears that I let out as I said that final Kaddish, with the words so vividly escaping my lips, somewhat by rote, somewhat by an act of God because I did not want to end them…well, those were powerful, too.

But I was literally driving myself crazy to get it all in. And, looking back, at least this year, my experience feels a little different.

Growing up, I was the “perfect child,” or at least I was held to that standard. My father, of blessed memory, grew up with such a challenging childhood, literally wearing the same clothes every day to school, not growing up with a father of his own during the most formative teenage years of his life. And so my father, with only the best of intentions, had every hope that I would be the child he never was: the one who got straight A’s, the child who was involved in nearly every extracurricular activity and received a full tuition scholarship to college, the child who picked up the pieces of a broken family after we lost my 18-year old sister when I was thirteen. Thirteen.

Needless to say, I was under a lot of pressure. I never had the courage to break away from the expectations that were placed upon me. I loved the validation that I received when I did well and this validation motivated me to do even more, to “be” even better.

But I was not better. And I was not being. I was living the life of someone else. I was living the life of this person on a pedestal who I strived to be.

So this year I will not be going to shul. I will not be saying Kaddish. I will not rearrange my schedule, though this date has been on my calendar for months now. And, no, childcare and self-care are not the issues. Instead, I will spend that time with my beautiful daughters. As a full-time rabbi and mother of two, my time with them is so precious. This year, I will read to my girls the book “Stones for Grandpa,” by Renee Londner, a book that describes the Jewish tradition of putting stones on a tombstone. This year I will light a candle and tell my daughters “Pop-Pop” stories, how he loved antique cars and tandy cake. This year, I will devour lots of cocktail weenies (one of his favorites) in his memory. This year, I will be free to do what my heart so yearns to do: turn the words of the Kaddish praising God into actions of love and praise with my children. Isn’t this what it means to praise God?

Before my father passed away, he asked me “Sun, (that was his nickname for me – long story!) when I die, will you say Kaddish for me?”

I’m saying Kaddish for you this year, dad, just a very different kind of Kaddish. Here’s to a great day in your memory with your grandbabies. I love you and miss you every single day.