Children of Our Feelings

My daughter attends an online Jewish school twice a week, and this past week the school organized a parent session discussing living a vibrant Jewish life in rural areas outside of Jewish communities. There are many things that I gained from this discussion, including making myself feel better about my situation, that others have it much more difficult. The other is this: Don’t let your children latch on to your anxiety.

In any situation where someone feels emotions, this is translated through tone of voice, body language and facial expressions. It’s expressed in how they react to others and what choice of words they use when speaking about the subject. Children are sponges, it’s true, and they are very in tune to the feelings around them, much like when a horse can sense that you are nervous to be around it (or any other domesticated animal). Our stresses are simply that, our stresses. When we bring our children into things — knowingly or unknowingly — that they can’t change or situations they can’t help, it does them a disservice to then assume our anxiety as their own.

Our personal anxiety is tough, but we can, G-d willing, find ways to cope with the situation. We are adults, we’ve dealt with many different types of situations, and whether we can change the situation, we know how to cope with it (or can find out how through our resources we’ve, iyh, accumulated). But when children feel and internalize our anxiety, it becomes a bigger deal. They can’t change it, and much of the time, the anxiety is in regards to things they should be falling in love with instead of falling in love to kvetch about. A big situation that could be anxiety-causing is school. We want our children to love going to school! But how can they when they know that we think this is a sub-optimal environment for our future prodigies?

We live in a town about 45 minutes out of a Jewish community (complete with a kosher market, many synagogues and a few kosher restaurants). Baruch Hashem, we have about 6000 Jews in our town and about 25 families are Orthodox — and that number might be stretching it. There is one Jewish day school that is technically a Solomon Shechter school, a conservative Jewish school. This means that they promote egalitarianism in prayer and don’t focus too much on limudei kodesh, Hebrew/Jewish/religious subjects. They have a kabbalat Shabbat ceremony on Fridays to welcome the Shabbat before the end of school. They learn Hebrew and a little bit about the Torah. They don’t learn exactly what I want them to, but that’s okay. No school is perfect, however, this school is no where near where I want it to be for my daughter.

I had to pull my daughter out of the Chanukah performance because it was going to be in a synagogue that shares the sanctuary space with a church. I didn’t want my daughter to sing in a sanctuary of that caliber. These are very sensitive places and I believe she should only be in places like that that align with our beliefs. I had to change the words on her reading activity because I didn’t think that “ham” was an appropriate word for my Jewish child to be reading in her Jewish school. I have to have her daven before we go to school because they only do a very minimal davening and don’t emphasize the importance of it. I could go on for days like this, but I’m pretty sure you get the picture.

For now, I have no other choice. This is where my daughter is going to go to school unless, chas v’shalom, G-d forbid, I were to put her in public school. I don’t have to be okay with this, but I need my daughter to believe that I am. If she senses that I’m not really into this school and think it’s a terrible institution (which I don’t!! It’s just far from my first choice),  then going to school is a lost cause. She is still learning valuable things in terms of secular education. I have the Jewish Online School that is an amazing program that my daughter loves. I do my own education with her in the home about things that I think she should know about, such as the Chabad Chassidic holidays. She has a poster in her locker with the Rebbe’s picture and the twelve pesukim, verses of Torah. She exposes other children in her class to Orthodox Judaism who possibly wouldn’t have been exposed otherwise. It is an extreme kiddush Hashem, sanctification of The Name, for my daughter to be in this school and to thrive within it. It is a chillul Hashem, desecration of The Name, for it to be otherwise.

I do let my feelings spill over into my parenting. It’s definitely something that needs to be actively worked on and thought about. It’s not easy, just as any aspect of parenting isn’t. But it’s something for us to recognize and to be aware of so that we have the ability to actively work on it. While I didn’t have to deal with many of the struggles many of the parents in the session did — such as pulling children out for chagim, Jewish holidays non-permissive of work, since our school is closed for them — I did learn a lot from the session itself. I also gained a little bit gratitude for at least having a Jewish school to send my child to, no matter how unhappy I get with it.

For today, I’m going to focus on having positive body language, speech and facial expressions. It’s going to be a challenge, but I sense that it will be a better day overall because of it. I’m ready for the challenge.

A Society of Compliments

B”H

To the woman in Whole Foods,

Thank you for stopping, for taking time out of your day to compliment my parenting. As a single parent, I (feel) constantly ridiculed for just being me. It perhaps (probably) is just how I feel, but it’s still my valid feeling. As my daughter was yelling at me because she was so hungry after I repeatedly told her by the family Chanukah party to come up and eat, even saying “You’re not eating later if you’re hungry,” you stopped your cart and looked at me.

Uh-oh, my heart sank to my stomach. What was I going to say to you in defense of wanting to parent my child like I think she should be parented?! Why should I have to defend myself, as I have had to so many times before? But you didn’t attack me and tell me I’m a bad parent, or hey, to just give in and give her a piece of cheese. Nope, you stopped your cart, looked at me square in the eye and told me that I was doing myself a favor in the long run.

That is definitely much different than berating the young, single mother in Whole Foods around 8 or 9 p.m. dragging along her, kah, 5-year-old daughter who is screaming about being hungry. This was one sentiment from a stranger I did not expect, but I definitely appreciated, especially as I felt like a terrible mother for not feeding my child. I knew it was the right thing to do, but you, when you stopped to tell me, hey, it’s going to be okay, you’re doing the right thing, it made my day. For once, I was recognized for doing what I should be doing. While that sounds a bit ridiculous, it’s not, I promise.

Try being a single mother since the time of conception, practically, and go through the next undetermined amount of time only parenting (meaning being the only parent, no one else but me, not just single). When my daughter yells at me, it’s my fault. When she hugs and kisses me, this is also my doing. Everything, good or bad, is because of me. So who is my co-parent to tell me I’m doing a great job just by keeping my head afloat during this thing called child rearing? It’s you, it’s every person who sees me doing a good job at being a mother. This world is built upon others adding to society, hopefully in a positive manner, so we should be showing others how much we appreciate what they do – even if it’s just being a mom, doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

We shouldn’t just stop to tell only parents what a great job they’re doing. We should stop and tell everyone that they’re doing a great job when we see it happening! When we compliment others, we create an environment of happiness. I want to create an environment I’m comfortable living in and want to raise my children in, and happiness is one thing I want in the environment.

And guess what, you didn’t even know I was an only parent! You just complimented me because I’m a human. And this is what I’m saying, let’s look and see the good in others and tell them when we recognize it! I like to thank my lawn people every time I see them for coming to cut my lawn and rake my leaves even though it’s their job. My rental company is paying them to do it! I’m just telling them I’m grateful they went into work today. So thank you, I appreciate you!

And thank you, kind woman in Whole Foods, for complimenting me in a time when I really needed a compliment. During an unsuspecting time where I was flooded with anxiety, my beacon of hope came in the form of a woman spreading love. Thank you.

All the best, blue skies and much, much love,

Chana Sara

Am I There?

Traveling the path of a ba’alat teshuvah isn’t the easiest and sometimes it feels like it takes forever to get where you want/need to be, wherever that is. The path that I have taken is that of Chabad, a Chassidic group that focuses on spreading the light. That’s how I was brought in, by an outreach group of this particular sect of Judaism. I became close to the rabbi and his family that led the group and eventually made it to the shul he belonged to. People were warm and inviting, I saw their light and it began to make my wick desire the fire that it knew was imminent. I was hooked.

After a little bit of time, slowly but surely taking on all of the mitzvot, moving within a mile of the Chabad House in my town, getting two new sets of dishes, pots and pans – no wait, three, an extra fleishig set for Pesach – and purchasing ultra-modest clothing, I feel like maybe I’m “there.” But where is “there?” I’m not sure, and I hope I’ll never know. I always hope to be growing, reaching for the stars, making myself better, learning, learning, learning…

Last night I was listening to my daughter entertain our guests as I finished frying the last latkes and cutting up an Israeli salad. I can’t tell you the nachas I shepped, pride I received, from that encounter. I thought to myself, “How did I get here?! My child knows what to do, she is entertaining the guests, doing hachnasas orchim, hosting guests, and doing a mighty fine job of it.” Okay, maybe I’m giving my, kah, 5-year-old daughter too much credit. Is she really thinking about fulfilling the mitzvah? Is she doing it because she wants to spread light? Or is she doing it because children enjoy being the center of attention?

I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter why she is doing it, but rather the fact that she is doing it. For a lot of us, there are things we need to be doing, and sometimes we do it unknowingly, but the important part is that we are doing it.

Before we started down this path of teshuva, we didn’t have a lot of guests over. Actually, we didn’t really have anyone over, ever. My daughter was ultra-shy when we met new people. When we began hosting people for meals, she was still very shy, it took her a while to warm up to them to even say hello. Now we are inviting guests for Shabbos, yomim tovim and just normal nights for dinner. My daughter entertains, I cook, clean and educate. We have conversations, love those who enter our home and show our love and fear of G-d. If you told me two years ago this is what I would be doing today, I would tell you to stop kidding yourself.

This was the moment that I said, “I’m there.” Just like all of those homes that I walked in to scared and shy to unfamiliar territories, the children came and took us by the hand – figuratively if not literally – and told us to not be scared and look, here are toys! Now my daughter was that child that I was so very thankful for when I began to traverse this path.

Realizing that your life is where you always wanted it to be (even if you didn’t know that for many, many years!) is a good feeling. It’s like waking up in the morning and realizing that you’re living life. It’s pretty cool, life’s a pretty cool thing, it’s hard to get, but once you get how to play the game and use the rules provided, it’s pretty sweet. Now that I’m “there,” all I can continue to do is do what I have been doing for the past two years. Continuing to learn, continuing to have guests, continuing to cleave closer to G-d and understand the directives from my spiritual leader, the Rebbe.

This journey for klal Yisrael was only started after we said, “naaseh v’nishma,” we will do and we will listen, saying that our children are our guarantors to continue the Torah from generation to generation. The best thing I have now is the ability to transmit good middos, values, to the next generation.

How I Blame Michigan Time for My Punctuality Defect (and other ways to avoid taking responsibility)

I bike to school every day, rain or shine, snow or ice (just not too icy!). I did have one crash while I was trying to make a sharp turn on our first real day of snowfall, bit the dust – or snow, technically – and got back on my back a bruised and puffy eye, chin and thigh later. Something I like to do while ride my bike is contemplate intense ideas. Naturally, yesterday I was riding my bike to school, at approximately 9 a.m. when class begins at 9 a.m. However, I go to the University of Michigan, so we have this thing called Michigan time.

Michigan time: A phenomenon originating form the University of Michigan where most classes begin at 10 after the hour rather than the hour appointed. For example, if your class begins at 8:30 a.m., it really starts at 8:40 a.m.

So now I push the limits as to when I have to leave my house for my 6-8 minute ride to school, depending on which building I’m in first. Needless to say, I’m late to class a bit. This lateness also translates to my life outside of school. I’m late getting out of bed, I’m late getting my daughter to school and birthday parties. Generally, if there is an appointed time, I’m late. I claim that Michigan time created my punctuality defect.

I mean, that would make sense and get me off of the hook for actually taking responsibility for anything. However, if we would carefully asses the situation, we would see that I have been increasingly less and less punctual over the last 5.5 years. So now I’m going to blame my defect on my daughter. Because, of course, I don’t have any responsibility in any of this.

Being a mother is tough stuff, especially a single one, and getting out of the house is one of the hardest tasks. Thank G-d I have this opportunity. But to blame my punctuality inside or outside of school on Michigan time is simply, well, copping out of responsibility. In everything that I do, from actions to reactions, I am responsible. There is not anything that the outside world can contribute that makes my actions or reactions not my fault. No matter how difficult the situation, I always have the opportunity to act like a mensch.

“In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” Hillel, Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, 2:5

Be a good person even though others aren’t. Take responsibility for yourself, even though there are not good things going on around you.

But this is just one facet of taking responsibility. As for the Michigan time dilemma, well, it’s more a dilemma of procrastination. Yes, Michigan time allows me to procrastinate longer than without it. Yes, being a mother is difficult, especially as an only parent. I was always on time before I had my daughter. Now, I have a less than perfect punctuality score. But I make it to things that are important, and I rarely apologize for being late. Why do I rarely apologize? Because I’m not sorry, and not in a mean way. Saying I’m sorry means that I want to take steps to fix being late. I knew I was going to be late. I know I will continue to be late. Currently, it’s how I am operating. Is it the best I could do? That’s debatable. Maybe at this moment in time, yes, because I have no desire to actively work on my timeliness. Am I bad person because of this? No. I’m just an honest person taking responsibility for my actions.

One day I will aspire to be more punctual, maybe. Then, if I am late, I can genuinely say “I’m sorry,” since I am working on my punctuality and intended on being there in a more timely manner. But until I have that motivation, I’m okay with being a little bit late. I just need to recognize that this is not due to anything other than my own personal habits.

Spinach Lokshen Kugel

I have been saying for years – since my daughter was 18 months old, now she’s kah (kein ayin hara, Yiddish for “no evil eye”) 5-years-old – that I am going to lose weight. At 4 months postpartum, I had lost over 60 pounds and was 20 pounds lighter than I was pre-pregnancy. Well, I think I’m finally sticking to my guns and going to lose the much needed weight. I am about 30 pounds heavier than I was at my lightest, and I’m trying to get back to that weight. It was a healthy weight. I felt good, I exercised, I ate right. Now, I try and eat right, but I’m getting older and not making the best food choices all of the time. For the next 3-4 months, I will be embarking on this process of trying to shed the extra weight.

I’m using My Fitness Pal to record my calories and exercise. It’s both a phone app and a great full-version online. I’m cutting calories and trying to work out at least twice per week for 30 minutes each time (as suggested by a friend). I hope to eventually schedule in another 30 minutes in my week. But right now I’m so busy and even these 30 minutes are a miracle! I ride my bike to and from school and to the gym. I’m trying to find foods that are healthy, filling and low-calorie. On this quest, I’ve found that my carb-filled spinach lokshen kugel is only 129 calories per serving. It’s not the healthiest, but it’s filling and fills that craving for a full stomach.

I posted on Facebook that the art of dieting is to find the food that is most filling with the least calories. A friend asked what I had found. I posted my spinach lokshen kugel. Another friend asked for the recipe. So, Devorah, you ask and you shall receive!

Spinach Lokshen Kugel: 16 servings
Adapted from Spice and Spirit Kosher Cookbook

6 eggs (I use Trader Joe’s White Grade A Cage Free Eggs)
1/2 bag of Bodek spinach
1 medium onion
fresh garlic to taste (optional)
salt to taste
1 bag medium egg noodles (my bag was 12 oz, you can modify if your bag is more than 12 ounces, also, the calories per serving will change)
2 TBSP extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 350. Prepare a 9×11 pan (I don’t spray mine, but you can if you need/want to). Cook the noodles according to the package. Drain them and put them in the pan. Sautee the spinach with onion and garlic in olive oil. Salt the mixture to taste. Mix the noodles and spinach mixture completely. Add in the eggs and mix thoroughly. Pop the pan in the oven for 40-60 minutes. The kugel is done when it has browned and puffed up evenly. Let it cool before you cut it.

I made this kugel after my Rebbetzin made this over the chagim. Oh-so-yummy! It’s even good reheated but best right after cooking.

Nutritional Facts: 129 calories per serving (16 servings), 4 g fat, 103 mg cholesterol, 55 mg sodium, 36 mg potassium, 16 g carbs, 6 g protein

How Simple Gestures Make a World of Difference

A few days ago I was walking to class after taking the bus downtown rather than riding my bike because I was feeling tired and lazy. As we approached my stop, I found out that yet another street on the route (the first street was closed during the Winter semester, and will be closed until June 2015) is partially closed. This meant that my few-minute walk to class turned into a 15 minute trek (which still isn’t bad, but I was lazy!!). I was feeling quite solemn to begin with, and this minor setback didn’t help my case.

As I was walking along my final stretch to the Modern Language Building for my early morning Hebrew class, an elderly (50’s? 60’s? 70’s?), presumed-to-be-homeless man looked at me and said, “Good morning!” I looked up at him and a huge smile spread across my face. As he passed me, he said, “Have a good day, now!” Did this man just say good morning to me just to make me smile?! Some random stranger just walking along the street, and he wants me to smile? I heard him continue the routine as he walked by until I rounded the corner.

I was amazed by this. But why should I have been? We should all be taking time out of our day to make sure that those around us are also happy. Why? Because I want my world to have happy people in it and to continue to make everyone we come into contact with happy, also.

In this past week’s parsha (Torah portion), parshas Noach, Noach’s name is said twice. The Torah is short on words and concise, meaning that it never repeats or says anything for no apparent reason. Down to each letter, everything has meaning in the Torah. So why was Noach’s name said twice? Plainly, because every name that is said twice (i.e. “Noach, Noach” “Avraham, Avraham” etc.) is repeated to denote that they are a tzaddik, a righteous person. Kabbalistically, his name is repeated to denote that Noach – and all of his descendents – are supposed to have an effect on two spheres: one between each person and the other with the spiritual realm.

This means that we are supposed to promote peace and tranquility around us, even by just saying “Good morning!” to another fellow human being walking down the street. Not only do we affect the person we are interacting with, but we also affect the environment around us. When one mitzvah is done, it begets another. When one person smiles, it encourages the next person to smile. When we have this occurring in the environment that we live in, the tension starts to subside and a feeling of calm begins to take over. When we affect our environment, we therefore make an impact on the spiritual realms above. Our Sages taught, “Whenever a person’s fellowmen derive satisfaction from him, G-d derives satisfaction from him.” (Derived from Keeping in Touch, based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s talks, Vol. 1 parshas Noach, read the whole thing here.)

When this man did this simple act of saying good morning to me, he not only affected me and my day and the people I came into contact with that day, but he also made waves in the spiritual realms. The Sages didn’t teach that when a Jew derives satisfaction from a fellow Jew, rather they said man derives satisfaction from his fellowman, as G-d derives satisfaction from all of His creations, regardless of their religion. In fact, Noach was not a Jew but was still indeed a tzaddik. He was so important that he was given an entire parsha that bears his name. The important task of building a teiva was given to him, to begin to rebuild the world by saving G-d’s creations that he deemed fit to continue after the flood.

Ever since that man said good morning to me, I’ve been much more conscious of how I relate to other people. And after taking a lesson from Noah, I try to not only makes waves in the spiritual realm, but to also affect my fellow human down here in the physical realm, and to encourage this physical realm to be a dwelling place for G-d.

 

7 Noahide Laws (and my cute interpretations)

1. Do not worship idols. (Worship G-d.)
2. Do not murder. (Hug your friends!)
3. Do not steal. (Donate books!)
4. Do not be sexually immoral. (Take pride in yourself and your sexuality.)
5. Do not partake in blasphemy. (“How are you today?” “Thank G-d! I’m doing well.”)
6. Do not eat an animal while it’s still alive. (Hug kittens!)
7. Make a court to provide legal recourse. (Hold yourself and others accountable.)

Reconnecting Through Meditation

B”H

As I prepare for Yom Kippur (and similar with preparations to the recently-passed holiday Rosh Hashanah), I look back and see where I need to do some teshuvah, repentence, for behavior, actions, thought, speech, etc., that could have been done differently. A lot of the time I can get stuck in a rut, saying “I can’t believe I did that,” and “I’m so dumb.” I really like to engage in self-deprecating speech, thoughts and action. It’s almost as if the more I dislike myself and act this way toward myself, the more comfortable I get because I don’t have to have any decent standards, because I’m not decent. No, it’s not “it’s almost as if,” it is!

Contrary to my popular belief, the goal of evaluating my life and doing proper teshuvah is not in order to devalue myself, but rather to find ways to value myself even more than before and for others to find value in what I can bring to the world.

A few days ago, I was talking to my married neighbor who has two children. She said to me how she is in awe of what I do as a mother who is also in school and also an employee. She said she doesn’t know how I can do it all by myself. The first thought that popped into my mind was that she was saying this just to be nice. But what would have forced her to say this?! Absolutely nothing, that’s what. She was actually being sincere! Once I understood this, a smile took over my face. I began to see what I am doing right and the positive things about being the person I am today, single mother and all.

Recently, I read that mediation is for yourself and that prayer is for G-d. I know, prayer and meditation seem to be awfully similar, and sometimes I can even use these terms interchangeably. Some define meditation as something Buddhist monks spend a great deal of their time doing. Others define it as time to focus on a specific tefilah, prayer. Others just focus solely on the individual letters making up a tefilah. All of these answers are correct, and it depends on what helps you attain the end goal of meditation.

To compliment this statement that I read, I was privy to a discussion about meditation last night. The more I listened, the more I realized how true this statement is. For each person – who all meditate in a non-prescribed way – felt better connected to G-d afterward and were able to communicate straight to Him as they finished with the tefilot of their choice.

Meditation helps me to prepare to connect with G-d. It allows me to be in a state of bittul, self-nullification, and to carry out acts that G-d would like it if I would do. This includes praying to Him with the utmost respect, concentration and kavanah, intention. Beyond readying myself for prayer, meditation also helps to nullify myself in order to be G-d’s messenger, and to carry His message to the world, rather than the message that I see important and fit for the day. We are all G-d’s messenger, we just have to seize this opportunity and listen to what His message is in order to carry it forth to all of His creations.

When I focus on what needs to be done, I can make positive choices for my family and my surrounding community. However, before meditation, it is hard for me to see outside of my personal struggles and all I want to do is propagate the misery I’m feeling when I can’t see out of this hole. Always striving to be able to do the next right thing seems like it should be easy, but many times I allow myself to get in the way and I need to find a way to kick myself out of the way! I’ve found that meditation accomplishes this in the most painless way.

During Rosh Hashanah services, I felt that my davening was taken to a different level than it normally is. I felt this true connection, this nonstop direct flight to G-d from me in my chair in the women’s section. I felt the true power of these words that are so eloquently picked to be in the Rosh Hashanah machzor, special siddur for the High Holidays. Why was this davening so special to me? Why did it take on such a different vibe than during normal times of tefilah? I had meditated for the entire month of Elul (and continue to do so more intensely than normal during aseres yemei hateshuvah, the ten Days of Repentance) and was finally ready to do some serious tefilah for G-d. Not for myself, but for G-d.

G-d doesn’t need me to daven with such kavanah, but He wants me to, and I want to be able to do what He wants of me. Hour after hour of High Holiday services, I’m telling Hashem simply this – how I want to right what I’ve done wrong and to continue to cleave to Him as He has directed the Jewish people. It feels really good when my daughter apologizes to me after doing something I repeatedly told her not to do. This is so basic and on such a low level compared to each Yid’s connection to G-d. I can only imagine how special it makes G-d feel to have more than just an apology, more than just a few tears when I realize how bad I’ve been, more than “bad to good.” This is all just more. This is so much more it’s on a level I can’t comprehend, one that is full of spiritual juju and powerful vibes to elicit this innate connection Yidden have to their neshama, and in turn to G-d.

To put it more simply: I felt a physical and spiritual change when I realized that this davening is not for me, but in fact for G-d. While G-d doesn’t need anything, He appreciates when we walk in His ways and it helps to strengthen that finite-infinite bond that we have with Him.

Now I’m re-evaluating my year. I see the positive in it, and I also see missed opportunities to connect with G-d. Instead of focusing on what I didn’t do right, say right, think right, etc., I’m focusing on how I can change these missed opportunities into taken opportunities. Even though the events are still the same (I’m not a time-traveler!), the way I approach them are different when I realize that I’m doing life not for my benefit, but for the benefit of G-d and to ultimately create this world into His dwelling place.

Keeping in mind that I am constantly working toward creating this world into His dwelling place seems easy at first, but with a second glance it’s easy to see how life can get in the way of this thought. When I can realize I’m not going down the path I need to be in terms of thought, speech or action, the best thing I can do is to recognize it. Once I recognize this, then I can take steps to correct it, such as meditating and subsequently strengthening that ability to connect with G-d. All within a split second.

When I get into this rut of “I’m not good enough,” I can recognize it, stop, breathe, meditate, and continue to connect with G-d. As I heard a wise person say, if I feel that G-d is far away, it’s me that’s moving because He is always there. Meditation is one way to move back toward G-d.

May we receive many brachos this year, grow closer to G-d and may merit the coming of Moshiach NOW!

G’mar chasima toivah! May you finally be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.