80 Years since Kristallnacht: Thoughts on Swastikas and Diwali

Today we commemorate Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” which is given its name for the shards of broken glass shattered in the streets of Nazi-Germany on November 9-10, 1938. On that evening, Nazis ransacked German synagogues, killing about 90 Jews. Kristallnacht is considered a turning point in the history of the Holocaust for this very reason. Tonight, I will light a yahrzeit candle before Shabbat in memory of these Jews and to mark this occasion. In our shul, a speaker will talk about his family’s experience during this time.

It’s been 80 years. Another whole lifetime. Have things changed?

Nearly two weeks ago, 11 Jews were murdered while praying in a Pittsburgh synagogue. As a rabbi of a synagogue myself, I can tell you that this has wreaked havoc on our world. How do we protect ourselves while still wanting our synagogue to be open enough to allow entry to those who wish to be there for the right reasons? How do we explain to our children why people are being wanded with a metal detector when they enter into a house of worship, a place which I have explained to them is literally a safe sanctuary?

Suffice it to say that anti-Semitism still exists. Some say it’s on the rise. Some say it’s always been here, but just getting more press. Who am I to make these claims? But as a rabbi, I am doing my best to encourage children and adults to continue being proud of their Jewish identity despite what is happening in the world around us. Continue to wear that Star of David necklace. Continue to voice your Jewish pride. Do not hide your Judaism, my friends.

And then, something like this happens: a kid in middle school is bullied for being a Jew, a swastika is found on a door to a Jew’s home, a gunman opens fire in a synagogue on Shabbat.

Just this morning I learned of a practice by my friends who are Indian: placing swastikas on the doors of their home on the holiday of Diwali, as a sign that all who enter should be blessed. I’ve tried to read up on this practice and admittedly, I do not know much and would love to learn more. I am grateful to be part of a community comprised of residents of all faiths, including people who celebrate Diwali. It was a victory in my town only in the last few years when the school district decided to close on this holiday. I celebrate that victory.

And yet, wow.

diwali swastika

I don’t even know where to start.

It’s clear that I was raised in a white, working-class (and Jewish) bubble. To me, a swastika was nothing but a sign of hate, nothing but a sign of anti-Semitism, nothing but disregard for the dignity of the soul of another person. To learn that it could serve as a sign to wish others well? The thought honestly blows my mind because of years of seeing it only as a sign of hate.

As it turns out, the symbol – this “swastika” – has been around for about 5,000 years and only in the last 80+ has it taken on a new – and hateful – meaning. I say to myself:

“I want to know more.”

In the Jewish tradition, there are rituals that we follow because they are obligatory upon us: holding a Passover seder, keeping kosher, lighting candles on Shabbat. These are called “mitzvot” – or commandments.  If these commandments are written in the Torah or are rabbinically-derived they are obligatory and we cannot change them without a formal process of re-examining that mitzvah. I teach my bar/bat mitzvah students that a mitzvah is not necessarily translated as a “good deed,” but rather a “commandment,” to demonstrate that sometimes we might not feel like doing them, but we are obligated to do them nonetheless.

And then, in the Jewish tradition, there are rituals which CAN be changed because they are not mandated, but are rather community customs, or minhagim. In the Jewish faith, some customs might be to eat legumes on Passover (or not eat legumes on Passover). When reciting a certain prayer, one community may stand and another might be seated. These are customs, depending on the scenario, that can be altered.

If I were a rabbi in an Indian community, this might be a dilemma I would face about the desire/need to change community custom – or not – around the display of a swastika on Diwali.

As a rabbi, I want every Jew to practice their Judaism freely, in a safe space. I would never want someone to tell me that I cannot practice my religion in the way that is commanded of me or in the way that it has become my custom. So too, I would never want to tell a person of another faith that they cannot practice their religion freely. I guess this means that I would never tell someone who celebrates Diwali to remove the swastika from their door.

And yet…and yet…and yet.

I am left with so many questions.

A part of me wants to add a caveat to my previous statement – that I wouldn’t want someone to tell me that I cannot practice my religion freely.  What I would add to that are the words “so long as I am practicing it without harming others.” I say that because I obviously do not support acts of terrorism which are done as a religious act in the name of some supposed God. I would not even call that a god. In the Jewish tradition, life supersedes everything else.

The question for me is where we draw the line regarding what is safe to other people.

It’s clear when the killing of innocent lives is done in the name of religion, there should be no place for this and justice should be met.  But where do we draw the line with hate crimes? If a swastika is placed on the entry of my door or on the front steps of my synagogue, it is a hate crime. But when that same swastika is placed on the door of a Hindu on Diwali, it represents only well wishes. Can those two scenarios mutually exist? I honestly can’t even get my head around it.

To my friends who celebrate Diwali, I want to know more. Please share with me your thoughts, your struggles. Is this something that is commanded of you – and must be practiced or is it merely a custom, which, given the current context of anti-Semitism and hate, might be altered or eliminated? Are you upset with me for even proposing that question? It’s really a genuine inquiry.

And to my Jewish friends – you may be upset with me for being so open to swastikas on the holiday of Diwali. Please don’t misunderstand me or quote me out of context, especially as I’m genuinely wrestling with all of us. I’m invoking the commandment to dan ‘cha zechut — give others the benefit of the doubt. It’s really a question about the boundaries of religious freedom.

At first glance at the above photo, I see hate. The red paint or chalk on the stairs seems like blood – and sends my mind off into a world of terror. But as I look closer, I see flowers and twinkling candles, leading me into the home.

I would be thrilled if an Indian friend were to invite me to a Diwali celebration in their home. And now knowing this, if I was greeted at the front door with a swastika, might it be up to me to change my internal dialogue to see that swastika as a sign of a (gulp) blessing?

Is it possible that the same emblem which greets me in one context with hate and fear, could, in another context, shower me with hope and love?


In Memoriam: UPHS Alum, this one’s for us

I just cried like a baby.

One of those deep cries that is borderline wailing. As I type this, I can still see the goosebumps on my arms, raising up from my pale, sunscreened skin. I am so sad.

Within the last week+, I learned about the death of two of my high school classmates. Two. And I’m not even forty. I didn’t know them well. I knew their faces, I remembered their mannerisms and their smiles in history class and in the halls of my very rural public high school.

Tonight I also learned about a third classmate, who past away months ago. And although I probably haven’t seen her in decades, or spoken with her in many years, she was one of the most cheerful people in school. I remember her cheering for me on the high school tennis team; her determination was fierce, but it took a close second only to her jovial sportsmanship. If I close my eyes, I can see her on the sidelines after she finished singles and I began my doubles match. She was wearing her white, polyester tennis skirt and a gold, collared team shirt. My win would be her win.

Tonight I caught myself crying, my head buried in my arms, hunched over the granite island in the middle of my close-quartered kitchen. I was dumbfounded as I thought to myself:

“These people all have young children! This is not fair! This is not the way that life should be.” When I think about these children being raised without these parents, Oh, God, I cannot bear the pain.

I immediately think of my own children, so grateful to be alive. At the same time, this horrific thought occurs to me: how would my kids get by without me?  I cry even more before realizing that my daughter asked me to leave her door open when she went to bed tonight. So I caught my breath, swallowed the cries, and tiptoed to her room, gingerly shutting the door so she could not hear me in tears. God, be with me and my children.

I grew up in a small town. We called it “the valley.” It was one of these “blue ribbon” school districts that won many awards. We prided ourselves – or perhaps our school administrators prided themselves – on it. But we’ve had our fair share of troubles: high school shootings, rampant drug addictions, and DUIs that made top-news in the local Town and Country paper. Some of us are still here. Many of us moved away.

But on nights like this, even those of us far away don’t feel so far away from home. Because the truth is, when stuff like this happens, I feel very close with my classmates. I feel connected to this place. I send random hug gifs to those in the valley. And I pray for someone who I haven’t seen or spoken with in years. Because…we have a past together; because their pain is our pain; because that moment, that touch, that look, that smile, that perhaps-even-tiny connection we made with them in homeroom class touched a deep part of our fleeting souls that we didn’t fully appreciate…until now.

Sometimes it takes a tragedy like this…or three tragedies…to have these feelings. As my father, of blessed memory, would say: “That ain’t right.” But that’s the way it is. We can’t label these feelings. We don’t know how to describe them. But they are there and they affect us. We are in this together; we are together – despite our distance.

I made myself a hot cup of tea before I sat down to write this. Echinacea-flavored Yogi tea, for immune support. I might need it after a day like this. If only we were immune from this stuff: these diseases, these tragedies, this pain. My Yogi tea bag message says it all: “Give love, get love.” And so we shall. And so we will.

Rest in peace, Bill.

Rest in peace, Jared.

Rest in peace, Rachel.

We, those who grew up with you, those who were raised and taught with you, those who cheered for you, even those of us who weren’t even friends with you, remember you and pray for you and love you. In your memory, we will spread love and random acts of kindness throughout the valley and beyond.

We’ve got your families in our prayers. We’ve got your children in our loving arms. We are going to get through this…together.

Time Heals Wounds

One year ago today was the day that my then 17-month-old daughter grabbed my piping hot cup of tea off the counter. It came crashing down upon her, trapping boiling hot water in her onesie. It felt like one of those scenes in a movie that happens in slow motion because I watched it happen, tried to stop it, and was unsuccessful at preventing her from experiencing the pain she would go through in the weeks and months to come. My other daughter witnessed the scene, glass shattered on the floor, as I called the doctor in one hand and stripped my daughter’s clothing with the other. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever witnessed. You never want to see your children in pain. She let out the most piercing cry I have ever heard. If I close my eyes, I can hear her screaming all over again.

The last few weeks have been difficult for me. More than likely this was because I knew I was approaching this anniversary and I feared that I would somehow relive it painfully again. I am not overwhelmed with guilt; I know that accidents happen. But there’s something to be said about approaching that one-year anniversary and remembering where I was on that traumatic day.

It was June 20th, 2017, the first day of my 10-day vacation. A Tuesday. To be honest, I don’t even remember what I had planned for my vacation, since I would tend to my daughter’s every need for the entirety of said “vacation.”

Immediately after the accident, I dropped off my older daughter at the shul where I work. Thank God for good colleagues and friends. I quickly rushed my younger daughter to the local ER, where they spent so much time taking down information and were slow to help relieve her pain. I remembered going to the same hospital to deliver her, only then it was I who was painfully crying. I’d rather be in labor twofold all over again than helplessly watch my daughter this way.

We waited and waited. She cried as I embraced her with every fiber of my being. I fed her bananas, challah and crackers and tried to distract her with an iPad that I threw in my car last minute. Eventually we met with a doctor, who told us that she’d be okay. They would send us home with some ointment or cream that night. I was so relieved.

Just in case, though, the doctor took a picture of my daughter’s burns and sent them to the best burn unit in the state for a second opinion. The burns went all down her chest, covered the left side of her face and ear, and bubbled over on her left upper arm. We received word from those doctors that we should be rushed by ambulance to the burn unit and she would need an IV to ensure she was properly nourished. And to think the ER doctors were going to send us home.

The ambulance driver was able to boost my cell phone with some more juice on that 40-minute trip to Livingston, which was helpful for contacting family. And the little one? She was the cutest and the most well-behaved patient. And by then, the pain medicine was starting to kick-in. Thank God.

On the way to the burn unit, the medic prepared me for what would happen to her:

“They will separate your daughter from you and she will go into a room. They call the room “the tank.”  There, they will wash her body and put bandages all over her wounds. The process is very, very painful and difficult to watch, so you will not be allowed to go into the room with her.”

I said to myself:

“I’ve been a chaplain. I’ve seen pain. I can take this. And my daughter cannot be alone! I’m sure I can talk my way out of this rule.”

For once, I was not able to talk my way out of this rule. And I’m not sure I would have wanted to, as her guttural screams echoed from “the tank” throughout the hospital hallway and pierced through my soul. My maternal instincts or love could not protect her from this.

As the crying slowly diminished, I knew they would soon bring her to me. And when they did, she looked like a cute, little baby mummy, bandages wrapped around her.

mummy isabelle

The doctor came in.

“I would prepare yourself for being here for about a week to 10 days.”

And that’s how long it was. 10 days. The entirety of my vacation.

During those 10 days, we learned so much. We learned that severe burns, like the 2nd and 3rd degree ones on her body “peak” at 36 hours, which is why the ER doctor was ready to send us home because they didn’t “look bad” immediately after the accident. We learned that a high-protein and high-fat diet is what the body needs to heal burns. We learned how quickly you can build community in a hospital of strangers when you spend your days and nights with other parents and people who are going through the same thing. We felt the love, too, as our own community lifted us up through prayer and matzah ball soup.

A couple of my colleagues came to say a prayer for us. It was then that I felt the power of my own rabbinic hospital visits, now being on the receiving end.

When we were discharged, her wounds were just at the very beginning of recovery. In fact, it’s been a year, and she still is not healed completely. She still lotionwears a cute, but constricting and hot compression vest for 23 hours each day, to smooth out her skin. The worst area on her upper left arm is still visibly wounded. We still have to put cocoa butter on her burns three times a day, massaging the worst part to “even-out” the skin. She still needs to be careful in the sun, so I’ve stocked up on sunscreen and we’ve got plenty of wet suits to cover her skin for water play at camp. But for the most part, thank God, she’s healing nicely and I’m able to continue drinking a hot cup of tea without worry…in June.

Will she need surgery one day? Only time will tell. And this much I do know: Time indeed heals wounds.

isabelle vest

My anticipation of this dreadful day was not so bad after all. For the most part, I focused mainly on my older daughter’s “graduation” from Nursery School, which took place today, too. I had thought that I wanted to write this blog post last night because I didn’t want to take away from the older one’s celebration. Today would be “her” day. No need to remind anyone of where we were a year ago, especially if I’m the only one who remembers. But instead, writing this today, on the anniversary of the younger one’s accident and on the day of the older one’s graduation from school, reminded me that life goes on, that time does heal wounds, that we can replace the sadness with joy. And sometimes, it doesn’t even take much.

The body is a wondrous miracle. Often when it fails us or when it’s harmed, we appreciate it even more. But each time I look at my baby’s scars – slowly but surely getting smaller – I’m reminded of the blessing of our bodies.

We recite in a prayer about such wonder:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשׂוֹת

Blessed are You, God, Healer of all flesh, who makes the wonders of creation.

May You continue to heal her flesh.

May You continue to make us wonder.

May You continue to replace the pain with joy.

So today, just before bedtime, I watched my younger daughter play with one of her doll babies. First she changed the baby’s diaper. Then, pushing her baby in a stroller, she played doctor with her baby. She caught our attention, pointing to the baby and said: “she’s got a boo boo – a burn – but she’ll be okay.”

My heart sunk, as if she had known what happened to her a year ago today.

Yes, baby. She’ll be okay. And so will you.

burn baby doll

Top Soil Strength

I was just going to run in, get some milk and yogurt, and run out.

Yeah, right.

You know that never happens.

As soon as I grabbed a cart (that was my first clue…), I saw top soil. Top soil in the grocery store. I might need that. For the plants that I’m going to plant. After I buy them.

Three giant bags for $5. Pretty good deal. I look at how much soil is in each bag. Forty pounds. Clearly, I’m going to get three bags.

And so I reached down to pick up the first bag and from behind me I hear: “That’s heavy, darling!”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Really heavy, be careful.”

“Thanks,” I repeat, biting my tongue from what I really want to say to this man.

I knew what he was trying to convey. I’m a woman and I probably won’t be able to pick it up. Ironically, this gives me more motivation to dead lift the soil and throw it into my cart. Bam and bam and bam.

I look at him and smile. Not a friendly smile, but a smile that conveys “how do’ya like that, buddy?”

“That’s your husband’s job,” he says to me.

“If only I had a husband,” I smile back.

Now I’m really annoyed at this man. How dare he make not one, but TWO stereotypes about me?

I want to storm off in anger, but first, I look at the man. He is wearing one of those John Deere-looking baseball hats that have a shape of their own. It stands upon his head. But instead of a green and yellow logo on the hat, it’s got a Jewish star of David on it, blue and white. And then I look down and I see he’s collecting money for something in a coffee tin. I was still so angry that I didn’t even bother to learn more.

Storming through the aisles, I cannot believe the chutzpah of this man! How dare he make these assumptions about me. I am a strong woman! Why would a man have to pick up my top soil for me? Am I a child? Could I not read the sign that said “40-pounds?”

Rice Krispies and Cheerios on sale. Perfect. I’ll take one of each. Oh wait. Need to buy three so I get the sale price. Three it is. I throw in a jar of applesauce, four containers of soup, some milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, frozen cauliflower and some low calorie frozen dinner. I don’t know why I bother with the lo-cal stuff.

I am still so annoyed. I zoom through the aisles, zig-zagging between other shoppers, peering ahead to see which line is the shortest. I want to get out of this place. I find the shortest line. But it doesn’t take me long to figure out that it will not be the quickest line. The bagger is having a conversation with the cashier. Like they are holding court or something. God, I wish I had more patience. But I don’t. I’m mad at myself for not just getting the milk and yogurt via the express lane.

And then it sinks in.

That man was wearing a Jewish star hat and was holding a collection bin.

I say to myself: “you missed out on a great opportunity.” I am ashamed with my actions.

He is one of your people. And he was collecting money for your people. I begin to think about all of the possibilities for what his collection was about.

OMG. What if he’s collecting for the Hebrew Free Burial Society? What if he’s trying to collect money to bury Jews who cannot afford a burial? I realize, even though I cannot see him at this point, that he was at least 85. Maybe he is a WWII Vet and he’s collecting for the veterans? He put his life on the line and I’m angry at this (probably) cute 85-year-old man because he was (probably) trying to be chivalrous?

I look into my wallet because, at this point, I am determined to give money to this man, this man who I snubbed. I don’t see any cash. Maybe I have a few dollars in the car. But that means I have to first pass this guy again, unload my cart, and then come back in. What if he’s not here when I come back? Would I have missed my chance?

The lady in front of me doesn’t know how to use the keypad to check-out. I’m growing more and more impatient. This time, not impatient out of my own selfishness, but impatient because I want to give. I want to do good. I sigh to myself, hoping and praying that the man is still by the grocery store entrance when I leave. As I take out my Shop Rite card, I see some cash stuck between two other cards. I take out the cash. Three dollars! Amazing! He deserves every penny – this man I hated only a few minutes prior.

I make up some time by bagging myself. I don’t know why more people don’t do that. I begin to push my cart out of the store.

And there he was. The cutest little 85-year-old man on earth collecting for a Jewish veterans group. He smiles at me. I wonder if (hope) he doesn’t remember me because of my behavior. But I promise to make it up to him. This time he has a friend with him. Same hat, different can.

Nothing changed for this man.

But everything changed for me.

A run through the grocery store and I realized that I have the capacity to change even negative interactions into positive ones. I was so glad he was there and this time, I also got to meet his friend. “Here you go,” I say, giving the cutie two dollars. “And here you go,” I say to his friend, giving him a dollar. “I know it’s all going to the same place, but I didn’t want you to feel neglected,” I said to the man’s friend, as I divided up the money into their two cans. I smile at them both, saying: “thank you so much for serving our country.”

He tipped his hat, which I now thought was adorable.

And then…I saw a women who was blindly walking by them pause and stop after hearing my words. She turned to them and genuinely said “yes, thank you for your service.”

I may not have been at my best 30 minutes ago with the top soil, but I am here now. My impact has made someone else stop and say “thank you.” I sighed to myself thinking: “I am exactly where I need to be.” Right now. The timing is Godly.

I went home, top soil now in the trunk, and my neighbor stops by to say hello. He asks how I’m doing, about the kids, and then I look at him and say: “Hey, while you’re here, would you mind helping me get some top soil out of my car?”

top soil

This weekend many Jews around the world will recite “Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek” (be strong, be strong, let us be strengthened!) as we end one book of the Torah and begin another.

My strength today was not in how I was able to hoist three heavy bags of soil into my cart. Indeed, that was my biggest weakness.

My strength was in allowing others who cared into my life – even a stranger. And maybe, to let someone help me along the way, too.

I have nothing to prove to anyone about my physical strength. Instead, I hope what I offer to others from the depths of my heart – even when it’s a little delayed – represents the strongest woman that I know I can be. Sometimes strength is in our softness.

Thank God for Mr. Sketch

As my daughter went to cross off the date on her calendar before she went to bed the other night, she realized that her marker was not where it normally is: next to the calendar, in the folder she created to hold it. She selected another marker from her desk, in red, to make X’s on her calendar.

“Please don’t use that one, sweetie,” I said to her.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s permanent and I really don’t want you to accidentally write on the walls with permanent marker. Here, use this one.”

“But it’s not red. All of the other X’s are red.”

“Okay, let me see if I can find another red one.”

And there it was.

A cherry-flavored, Mr. Sketch marker.


mr sketch

I handed it to her and she accepted it with a smile. Thank God for Mr. Sketch.

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about the difference between that which is permanent and that which is temporary.

In the Jewish tradition, we put rocks on graves instead of flowers. Flowers wither and die.  A stone, that which is more permanent, represents the lasting presence of one’s life and memory. There is beauty that comes with permanence.

On the other hand, our lives are full of moments, responsibilities, and sorrows that are just not meant to…last. Temporary, too, is good for our souls.

For example, when something awful happens to us, we find solace in knowing that eventually things will get better. We are comforted by the notion that time heals wounds. I have a magnet on my fridge that reads: “There are far better things ahead than any we may leave behind” (C.S. Lewis). Temporary is a blessing in these moments.

But when things are amazing, rarely do we want them to be temporary. When we return home from vacation, we might feel like the time passed by too quickly. When we meet up with an old friend, we always wish we had more time. When we hug our child in our arms, we don’t want the moment to end. When we meet someone who deeply affects us, we might feel like we never want our time together to end.

These are the moments, when we bask in happiness, that it is difficult to appreciate the temporary.

I am one of those people who never likes to say “goodbye.” One time when I was on the phone with my father, of blessed memory, I was wrapping up my conversation with him and said “goodbye.” Boy, was that a mistake.

“Don’t say goodbye. Say “so long,”” he said to me.

At his funeral I shared this story and wished his soul “so long.”

And so, I’m wired with a desire to keep the good permanent. Like a Sharpie marker, I want moments of beauty in the canvas of my life to last…forever.

And then it dawned on me.

I, too, am temporary.

Okay, so what I really mean by that is my body is temporary. For sure, I do believe that the soul lives on; no doubt about that.

But my body is temporary. It’s here for a finite time. It’s purpose is limited to my time on this earth. When it comes down to it, God is the only permanent. I, too, am temporary.

And so if I can bless the temporary essence of my own being, is there a way that I can bless the temporary moments in life that I want to last forever and ever? Is there a way to praise the ephemeral without craving more?  Is there a way to thank God for that random “messenger” who said just the right thing I needed to hear today, as she ebbs and flows out of my life? Is there a way to thank God for this person who was sent to me for a beautiful reason and now is gone?

Thank God for Mr. Sketch.

Thank God for this beautiful moment of temporary. It may not last, but while it was here, I appreciated every single moment.


Thank you, Mr. Bluejay

We all want the answers.

And we want them to be the right ones.

We search for answers to our questions in many forms. Self-help books are at the top of our Amazon Prime list. Podcasts numb our minds, with the hope that we will be inspired with the answer to that question that seems like it’s all-energy-consuming. We pay shrinks, and psychics and life coaches, so we have the answers. We consult friends and mentors to help us arrive at the answers. We look for signs for our answers: in nature, or even in a fortune cookie. This week my fortune cookie read: “If you wish good advice, consult your mother.” I guess I’ll be calling my mom next.

But just as I opened my fortune cookie, my eyes were drawn to look out the glass doors of my kitchen. And there it was: my answer – or so I thought.

It was a bluejay.

As it perched on the tattered railing of my weathered deck, I immediately started to cry. A bluejay always seems to give me the answers. Some of you know my father’s name was Jay, and so when I need answers, sometimes I ask my dad for help. And sometimes, I believe, he gives me answers through the presence of a bluejay. It’s been a very, very long time since I saw one. Maybe six months. But isn’t it amazing how, just seconds after I found myself searching for the answer, there it was. Literally, outside my window.

Or was it?

I found myself saying “no way!” “I can’t believe it!” The power behind the presence of the bluejay was so palpable that it gave me goosebumps. I closed my eyes and let out a sigh. I almost found myself laughing because I couldn’t believe it. And then I did what any good twenty-first century miracle witness would do: I got out my cell phone and took a picture. Because such a sign was almost too good to be true, or rather, too Godly not to notice. You people of faith know what I mean.

I scrambled with my cell to take a picture. It was a little blurry because I took it through the smeared glass of the window – or maybe because I was shaking.  But Mr. Bluejay held on tight. He didn’t go anywhere. He stayed with me for a while, reinforcing that this was, in fact, happening.

So there I had it. My answer. Or so I thought.


I put down my cell phone, fell into my chair, and wept into my own arms. The bluejay was not the answer to my question. It’s not like he held a sign that said “do this” or “do that.” It’s not like he tweeted me a message, either.

And that’s when I realized that Mr. Bluejay was a vehicle, a messenger. It was up to me to determine how to interpret the bluejay’s message.

But by that point, I already had.

My answer was felt at the first sight of the bluejay. I had the answer within me the entire time. I just needed a little help getting the answer out in the open, seeing, with my own eyes, via the bluejay, that the answer was the right one.

Thank you, bluejay, for bringing out what I already had inside.

Thank you, dad, for listening.

מָה רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ ה’  — ה (Psalms 104:24). How great are your works, oh God.

Thank you, God, for connecting all of this, all of us, together.

The Last Whatever.

I’ve been thinking these days about the last whatever.

The 25th anniversary of my becoming a bat mitzvah has encouraged people to put together a video montage with photos, videos and mp3s of memories from my childhood to the present – to share at a cocktail party in my honor (shameless plug: please RSVP here or to make a donation). I wanted to submit a picture of me and my dad of blessed memory – our last picture together – with that grin of a smile on his face – and the thought brought me to tears. It doesn’t take much these days.

Add to this the pain of another mass shooting – 17 lives brutally cut short – and the surrounding conversations with mothers around me whispering (they, too, with tears in their eyes), “give your child an extra kiss tonight, make sure you hug them before you say goodbye at school. Let them know how much you love them before you tuck them in at night.”

I am not tucking my kids in tonight. They are not even sleeping in my home with me. When I dropped them off at school, I knew I might not see them until tomorrow night. That’s what happens when you get a divorce.

The collision of my father’s last photo, the finality of this mass shooting, and saying goodbye to my kids at school without tucking them in – all gives new meaning to the last whatever.

The thing about the last whatever is that you never know it’s the last until it’s…the last. You never know if something is the last hug, the last photo, the last embrace, touch, kiss, conversation, smile, breath…whatever. You never know. Until you know. And when you do know, the pain takes your breath away.

The parents of all of these children didn’t know the last whatever would be the last. And, I am outraged and appalled that our government and society continue to let more last whatevers happen – shooting after shooting – innocent child after innocent child – when will this madness end?

But here is what I do know:

We’ve become desensitized. It’s become the norm. Last whatevers? We shrug them off as if to say “whatever!” Because we feel ignored and unheard and, quite frankly, because the pain of more last whatevers has made us numb to the point of suffocation. It’s no longer “if” it happens again, but “when” it happens again, and we all live in fear, worried that next time…it might be our child.

And so we squeeze them even tighter. We look into the their eyes a little deeper. We love more fully – things we know we should do anyway.

Let this be our last…”whatever.” The last time we soon forget before moving on. The last time we don’t speak up, the last time that we feel the need to worry about giving or expressing our last whatever.



It’s 10 pm and I feel like…

I woke up this morning to the sound of…was it my cell phone alarm? Or was it my toddler? I have no idea. Because I can’t even remember. Because this morning seems so long ago.  It’s 10 pm and I feel like I’m just starting my day.

If I recall from the recesses of my foggy-mommy brain, I think I was up at 4:30 am, probably after going to sleep at 1 o’clock.  “Read book, Mommy!” My head must have fallen as I dozed off with that “what are you thinking?”  look on my face. But the early-morning snuggles were oh, so, worth-it. God, I love this kid.

I put her back in her crib, tried to squeeze in a couple more hours of zzzzzzz before the tip-tap of my 4-year-old’s feet were heard across the floor. “I guess I need to get up,” I thought to myself. And then, it’s…off—to—the—races!

Getting dressed: This one surprises me with the clothing that she chooses for her day.  Pink from head-to-toe! And that one wrestles me as I change her pull-up and…ouch! “Did you just punch me in the eye? You’re not even two!”

Breakfast: This one likes her dried Special-K red berries on the side. And that one likes them in her milk. This one could benefit from a straw (she’s not drinking enough milk these days!) and that one yells because it’s her straw, the one we got at the last Barnum and Bailey Circus. (I know, sue me for taking my kid there!). Oh no! I’ve got to unload the dishwasher. For now, I’ll just put the stuff in the sink. I’ll get it tonight, after the girls are in bed. If I don’t fall asleep first.

Teeth brushing: Let’s use the Magic Timer app (I highly recommend). This one gets to select which character to use, and that one gets to press start. I notice a moment of tenderness, as the older one gets the younger one’s toothbrush ready.  I celebrate the moment by giving both of them high-fives! But the moment doesn’t last long because one begins flailing her toothbrush, mid-brushing into the air, spit and used toothpaste gunk landing on the mirror and on my face. These are moments when I can truly only laugh. And we do. Together. That look in their eyes is oh-so-amazing.

Somehow, and don’t ask me how, it takes 20 minutes to put on our shoes and coats. The older one reminds me to take the teacher’s aide Christmas gift, because he’s there that day. How does she remember this stuff?  Don’t judge that it’s mid-January and he’s getting a Christmas gift now. Or the fact that I’m a Jew giving a Christmas gift…let alone, a rabbi giving a Christmas gift. Oy vey.

Speaking of rabbi, after managing to get them to school, I finally arrive at my desk. There are still boxes of Chanukah things that need to be stored away for next year. I know; it’s January. I’ve got some time to check email, touch base with the other staff, get some things checked off of my to-do list, schedule 5 bar/bat mitzvah meetings, 12 coffee and lunch dates, not to mention begin planning for my future classes. I’ve got a webinar scheduled mid-day, so at 11:52 am I hit the restroom and run into the synagogue kitchen to raid the fridge and check out the leftovers situation. Eight minutes is surely enough time to use the bathroom and put some egg salad on a plate.

“Rabbi, while you’re here…can I ask you to look at something?”

“Rabbi, I have a quick question for you.”

There go my eight minutes.

By 12:04 I’m at my desk. Late to my webinar. Although I’m so used to being late, I actually loathe being tardy.

Webinar finished. Then off to meet with more staff. I’ve got 32 minutes until my next appointment – with my older daughter. I have to figure out how to pick her up to take her 1 block away to dance class without the younger one seeing me. I need the younger one to stay there because I have to get back to work.

Mission accomplished!

Off to dance. Juggling tights and leotards and hopefully I remembered a healthy snack. Then back to work after dance-drop-off for a 4 pm conversation with a new member of our community. Mazal tov; welcome aboard!

Eventually, at school pick-up, I spend another 20 minutes (not really, but it feels like it) getting coats back on my kids to walk across the street from school to home. My work day is kinda “over,” but I haven’t really left my job.

After our normal routine of taking off our shoes and washing our hands, we proceed to the kitchen table to set-up for dinner. “Mommy, I think the table is still dirty from breakfast.” I looked across the table. Yes, baby doll; you are right, indeed. I didn’t clean-up from breakfast. Once soggy Special-K flakes had now become one with the kitchen table. I used my thumb nail to pick away at the gross-ness.  Ouch. I cut myself. Really? Who cuts herself on a Special-K flake?

Dinner, teeth-brushing, story-time. More wrestling to get dressed, this time in pajamas. And I need to put cocoa butter on one because she was burned in June from MY boiling hot cup of tea that I was drinking. In June. I’m always off on my seasons, as you can see. The wrestling feels like 40 minutes. It must have been 7. Still…seven! She knows she’s tantalizing me so she begins to laugh, that magical smile of her eyes and her delicious cheeks. And I begin to laugh. And I realize how genuine both of our belly laughs are. We can’t stop laughing…together. Pure joy.

As I’m close to putting the one in bed, I peak at my digital clock from the other room. 7:54 pm. I’ve got 6 minutes until my next meeting; I’m calling into this one.

Eventually, eventually, kids are in bed. I’m late (clearly) to my phone meeting. But I do this and suggest that- and in between one comment and another on my phone meeting, I’m able to wipe up the smeared blackberry from my floor. I hang up the phone, answer some more emails and realize…

It’s 10:00 pm and I feel like I just started my day.

I feel like I can finally sit down and…I don’t know. Do whatever I want. If only I wasn’t so tired. I will inevitably fill the next three hours: with laundry, as I change into my yoga pants, but fail to do yoga or run on the treadmill. What’s for dinner tomorrow? What did I forget to do today? I’m sure there’s something.

But as I sit for the first moment of quiet in this hectic day, I feel the biggest sense of peace and calmness. I’m not just starting my day. It’s not about “my” day – what I can get done when the kids are finally asleep.

It’s 10:00 pm and I say to myself, “I just had the best day of my life.” Through the flying toothpaste and the Special-K flake injury, I say to myself with great happiness…

“I would want no other life than this one.”



Kaddish for a man I never knew

It was a Monday. I woke up early to get dressed, turn on the electric yahrzeit light and grab my tefillin so that I could go to shul to pray and say Kaddish, a memorial prayer, for…a man I never knew.

That man was my grandfather.

Each year I do this on the Hebrew anniversary of my grandfather’s passing. After my father died, I felt an obligation to recite this special prayer on behalf of my father, who would recite it for his father. But I never knew my father’s father. He died when my dad was 16. My dad would say: “you weren’t even thought of yet!”

I grew up in a very small Jewish community (we were the only practicing Jewish family). When it was time for my father to say Kaddish, he called up fellow community members and asked them to join him for a short service so that he could say this memorial prayer for his father. (We need 10 people for a minyan, a prayer “quorum”). Afterwards, my dad invited everyone to the local diner for breakfast. He enjoyed over-easy eggs, home fries, and dry rye toast with butter on the side. He liked his tea hot, full to the top, and with lemon.

There I was rushing to synagogue on Monday as if by rote and obligation, strapping my younger daughter into her car seat so she could join me. Why was I even going?

During the Torah service, the rabbi asked me if I wanted to chant the memorial prayer for my grandfather. I responded: “I’d love for you to say it.” I’m always saying it for other people, so it’s nice to be on the receiving end.

As I vocalized my grandfather’s name in Hebrew, I realized that it is the same as my brother’s Hebrew name, which felt uncomfortable. But that’s what happens when grandparents die before their grand-babies are born.

And then someone said it, first in English and then in Hebrew:

“May you be comforted only by good memories.”

“Good memories?” I thought.  “I don’t even have any memories.”

The only memory I have of my grandfather was of him standing in an old picture from the 1950’s or ’60s, one that was blurry at best. I clung onto that image, one which I probably saw only a handful of times and decades ago.

“I don’t deserve these blessings.” I thought. “I didn’t even know him.”

Just as the rabbi was finishing up the recitation of the Hebrew prayer, my daughter, who was resting on my hip, began saying “potty.” And so we rushed to the lady’s room. We missed most of the prayers that morning. In fact, by the time we got back, we made it just in time for the final Mourner’s Kaddish. I almost missed it completely. But, her timing had a way of making it work.

I held my daughter on my right hip as I said Kaddish. She nestled into my neck, thumb in mouth. Her closeness to me felt all-consuming.

And then it dawned on me.

I can’t remember if I vocalized my thoughts or if they were only internal, but I found myself saying to her:

“Someday, you’ll say Kaddish for me, baby…”

The intersection of my daughter’s presence and saying Kaddish for my grandfather – the connectedness of the generations…that was the way in which my grandfather’s memory comforted me. That was the way that we honored his memory, too.

Someday, maybe, my daughter will take her daughter to shul and say Kaddish for my dad, a man she would never know. And when her baby nestles into her neck, I hope she realizes that even without actual memories of her grandfather, she has the wherewithal to bring his spirit alive.

Doc McVoter

My plan all along was to do it at the end of my work day. Just another thing to get done on my to-do list. At certain times during the day – in the morning after daycare drop-off and in the middle of my work day around lunchtime – I thought about changing my plan just to get it done sooner. Just to cross it off my list. But I didn’t. I stuck with Plan A – to take my daughter with me to vote.

When I picked her up from nursery school, she greeted me with great enthusiasm. “Yay! We are going to vote!” I remember taking both of my daughters to vote with me about a year ago for the presidential race. I took a picture on the steps of borough hall that day because I thought that we’d be making history. We still did. Would today feel as weighty?

On the car ride to borough hall, we talked about who we’d be voting for this year. This led to a conversation about the difference between towns, states, and countries. It was pouring rain when we went, so the task carried extra challenges: slipping on rain boots in the backseat of the car, balancing the giant golf umbrella over the car door and the roof to cover me while I clicked the harness to her car seat into place. In the parking lot of borough hall, the umbrella blew away. While I unbuckled the car seat, my daughter grabbed onto the umbrella tightly with her hands: “Here, Mommy; I’ll hold it for you.” I remember thinking to myself: “I’ve done something right.”

In order for both of us to stay dry, we had to get close to each other under the umbrella and as we approached the steps of borough hall, with my arm around my daughter, I felt a rush of energy over my body as if the wind took the breath out of me. I felt the energy of the women before me who fought so that I could vote. So that I could take my daughter to help me vote. I started to cry.

I had this moment where I was at a crossroads. Do I burst the bubble of my daughter by explaining to her that girls and women didn’t always have the right to vote? Or, do I allow her to soak it all up with great pleasure and ignore the reason why I was crying?

“Thou shall teach your children” (Deuteronomy 6:7).

“You know, honey, this is a privilege that we have to vote. At one point, women were not allowed to vote – which was not right, but we are really lucky that we can today.”

This led to a conversation about what privilege was and the importance of equality, which led us, most importantly, to… “I voted” stickers.

We were greeted by a woman smiling at us. We walked up to the table to sign-in. More women. I looked at the other table across the room. Only women there, too. I commented to them about what I was just explaining to my daughter. And then I noted that all of the volunteers were women. Oh wait, there is one gentleman “manning” the voting booth to my right. I smiled at him and waved.

I signed in. My daughter already won over the hearts of the volunteers and got three stickers — perhaps one for each female in our house?

We stepped into the booth. I explained the different races to her.

“What’s this button, Mommy?”

“Don’t touch that yet, sweetie. We press that when we are finished.”

I asked her for her opinion about the yes/no ballot questions. To a four-year-old, these answers come easily. If only…

I had a moment in the voting booth where I thought: “my, this is taking a long time. I hope there is not a line forming behind me.” But then I said to myself: “this took me so much longer, but, my, was it so worth it.”

The long way is often more difficult, but so rewarding on the other end.

When we got home, my daughter gave an “I voted” sticker to her younger sister, who proceeded to play with the sticker, place it on her shirt, and then smack-dab into the middle of Doc McStuffins’ belly.

The sight was so beautiful. You go, Doc McVoter. Way to be, girls.

Today we voted. Together. And my, was it a glorious experience.