Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The American Legacy

Dov was rummaging through some old papers this morning and came upon this gem of a cartoon, drawn in a childish hand.
It's an honor, Mister President. I'm a huge fan. 

We think Yitzchak drew this one, not sure when. We'll have to wait until he comes home from school to ask him.

But aside from making us laugh and providing parental joy over the cleverness of our child, Dov made an interesting observation: All of our children were born and raised in Israel and yet the flavor of their humor is American. That is after all, the legacy we handed down to them, without even trying.

To someone else, it may seem like forsaking America to come live in Israel is like us turning our backs on our Motherland. But it wasn't, isn't, like that at all. Dov and I love America. So much so that sometimes the title of a certain awful, awful song comes to mind:

I can't speak for Dov, but I often feel torn between the country of my birth and my new love: Israel. I have never stopped loving America, but I love Israel, too. I had to choose, you see, and so I chose Israel, because she needs all the love and support she can get. But still, Dov and I are as American as apple pie and Mom. Irrevocably so.

I'm glad my children identify with their American heritage. I can feel good about that because I am proud of my American heritage. America is a beautiful land that gave sanctuary to my ancestors. In America, for the first time, they were able to get ahead. I am proud of my American work ethic and so many other aspects of the gift that is my American heritage.

In the final analysis, there is another reason I don't mind my children giving honor in their everyday lives to the land of their parental heritage: I know that deep down, NONE of them want to leave Israel for the largesse of America, at least not for the long term. Once upon a time, we thought about leaving during a time of financial distress. At the very suggestion of leaving Israel, my eldest daughter burst into a very different song than the one cited above:

This song is called "Kan" which is Hebrew for "Here," and is poignant like no other Israeli song I know.


Kan beiti, po ani noladeti Here is my home, here I was born
Bamishor asher al sfat hayam On the plain by the sea
Kan hachaverim itam gadalti Here are the friends I grew up with
Ve'en li shum makom acher ba'olam And I have no other place in the world
En li shum makom acher ba'olam I have no other place in the world
Kan beiti, po ani sichakti Here is my home, here I would play
Bashfela asher al gav hahar In the lowlands by the mountainside
Kan min habe'er shatiti maim Here I drank water from the well
Veshatalti deshe bamidbar And I planted grass in the desert
Veshatalti deshe bamidbar And I planted grass in the desert
Kan noladeti, kan noldu li yeladai Here I was born, here my children were born
Kan baniti et beiti bishtei yadai Here I built my home with my own two hands
Kan gam ata iti vechan kol elef yedidai Here you are also with me and here are all of my thousand friends
Ve'achrei shanim alpaim, sof lindudai And after two thousand years, an end to my wandering
Kan et kol shirai ani niganti Here I played all my songs
Vehalachti bemasa leili And I walked on a nightly journey
Kan bine'urai ani heganti Here in my youth I defended
Al chelkat ha'Elohim sheli My own God's little acre
Al chelkat ha'Elohim sheli My own God's little acre
Kan noladeti, kan noldu li yeladai Here I was born, here my children were born
Kan baniti et beiti bishtei yadai Here I built my home with my own two hands
Kan gam ata iti vechan kol elef yedidai Here you are also with me and here are all off my thousand friends
Ve'achrei shanim alpaim, sof lindudai And after two thousand years, an end to my wandering
Kan Here
Kan et shulchani ani arachti Here I set my table
Pat shel lechem, perach ra'anan A piece of bread, a fresh flower
Delet lashchenim ani patachti I opened a door to the neighbours
Umi sheba, nomar lo "Ahalan" And we'll say "Ahalan" to whoever comes
("Ahalan") ("Ahalan")
Umi sheba, nomar lo "Ahalan" And we'll say "Ahalan" to whoever comes
Kan noladeti, kan noldu li yeladai Here I was born, here my children were born
Kan baniti et beiti bishtei yadai Here I built my home with my own two hands
Kan gam ata iti vechan kol elef yedidai Here you are also with me and here are all of my thousand friends
Ve'achrei shanim alpaim, sof lindudai And after two thousand years, an end to my wandering
Kan gam ata iti vechan kol elef yedidai Here you are also with me and here are all of my thousand friends
Ve'achrei shanim alpaim And after two thousand years
Achrei shanim alpaim After two thousand years
Kan noladeti, kan noldu li yeladai Here I was born, here my children were born
Kan baniti et beiti bishtei yadai Here I built my home with my own two hands
Kan gam ata iti vechan kol elef yedidai Here you are also with me and here are all of my thousand friends
Ve'achrei shanim alpaim, sof lindudai And after two thousand years an end to my wandering
Kan gam ata iti vechan kol elef yedidai Here you are also with me and here are all of my thousand friends
Ve'achrei shanim alpaim And after two thousand years
Sof, sof lindudai An end, an end to my wandering

Translation by Tamar Leachtman.

On the Cusp

11 years earlier at Elyahu's Bar Mitzvah
Yesterday at his Hanachat Tefilin

When kids are little, they think their parents are the bee’s knees. Mom and Dad can do no wrong. But the adulation gives way all too soon. When adolescence comes, the tables are turned and it often seems that Mom and Dad can do no RIGHT.

Left to right: Simcha, Ayala, Natan,Gedalia, Dov, Akiva, Shua, Moshe, Levi, Aharon, Eli, Yitzchak, Me, Aharon, Malka, Yocheved, Shmuel.

Brother in-Law Simcha offers the benefit of his experience in all matters phylactery to Yitzchak.
Little brother Asher looks on in anticipation of his own special day two years hence.
Left to right: Simcha, Levi, Gedalia, and Akiva.
Yitzchak is honored with "glila" which involves rolling the Torah scroll and replacing the decorative cover.

Lots of brothers and a brother in-law to help.
Me and Shua.

Psychologist Charles Williams coined an acronym to describe the stages of the father-son relationship from earliest childhood through the adult years: IDEAL. The link here takes you to an (unattributed) article of mine that describes these stages. The acronym stands for Idolization, Discordance, Evolution, Acceptance, and Legacy.

But the acronym also somewhat fits the picture of the general relationship of child to parent, without taking gender into account. The idolization phase fits what my eight sons seemed to feel for me in their early years. With all of them, adoration for me just shone from their eyes and that, more than anything, was the hardest thing for me to give up when I closed the gates and said no more children.

Yitzchak epstein's "hanachat tfilin" from IFL network on Vimeo.

By that time, I knew all too well the rocky road between adolescence and full adulthood when a son’s expressions of love for me became too few to count. Still there is a period of time before acne and rebellion when a son will still deign to know my opinion—still dare and care to seek my approval—and that is at their bar mitzvahs. At every one of my son’s bar mitzvahs, there would come a time when said son would glance beyond the dividing wall that separates men and women at prayer, look to catch my eye, and offer up a shy smile.
Left to right: Shua, Asher, Elyahu, Yitzchak, Natan, Me, Aharon
I knew what they wanted. They wanted me to notice and bestow a return smile of warmth, approval, and pride. No one handed me the script. No one handed THEM a script. But we both knew our parts.
Left to right: Eli, Aharon, Yitzchak

Left to right: Aharon, SIL Simcha Samuels, Yitzchak, Moshe.

After the ritual repeated itself for the third time, at Elyahu’s bar mitzvah, I wised up and noticed the pattern. I learned to watch out for the silent gift offered up by each son and to hold on to that gift through those rough years ahead, until full manhood would arrive and they would somehow relearn their appreciation of me. Of course, the adoration would be gone and have been replaced by plain old respect and love, but at least things would normalize: another pattern I noticed.

Dov calls this shot: Dark Alley Frummies. From left to right: Aharon, Asher, Natan, Shua, Elyahu
Shua shows Yitzchak how it's done.
So yesterday was Yitzchak’s date with leather: the first time he would don phylacteries. All my sons showed up at the Western Wall for the event and I thought my heart would burst, it was so full of maternal love and pride. There were two pictures presenting to me: that of my eight sons all together at the Wall in prayer, and a second picture: Yitzchak on that cusp between childhood and manhood, a sweet child donning the garb of adulthood. I watched, and sure enough Yitzchak's smile came beaming at me through the divider, filling up my tank of maternal joy for at least a few years, until such time as my 11 year-old, Asher, reaches the age of bar mitzvah. God Willing.
The deed is done

Film credit: My son Natan Epstein :-) Israeltech Productions

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Leather's in the Air

Tomorrow, my son Yitzchak will don phylacteries for the first time. The custom is for the boy to start getting the hang of phylactery-winding a month shy of his Bar Mitzvah. Yitzchak's birthday is the eighth day of Chanuka, and so the big day for leather straps (Nyuh uh uh) falls tomorrow.

We're going to set out for the Western Wall early in the morning and Yitzchak will do the deed at the Wall with immediate family in attendance. We'll put out some pastries and drinks and then pack up the kids for the ride back to Efrat. Then we'll go to Yitzchak's school and have some more pastries and drinks with his classmates and teachers.

I'm thrilled because this is a win-win situation for me. I get to see all my kids at once. I watch Yitzchak reach an important milestone. I get to see the Wall again. My son gets to reach a milestone at the Wall. And best of all: I don't have to fuss or do much at all except show up and schep nachas (reap joy).

For the last week or so, Yitzchak has been doing a little personal countdown: "I can't believe that in one week, I will have a hanachas tfillin (donning phylacteries ceremony). I can't believe that in three days I will be old enough to put on tfillin."

And so on and so forth.

Dov and I can't help but get a kick out of him because this particular child has the sweetest little boy's voice in the world. He sings like an angel in the pure high voice of a child. Yet according to Jewish law, he's becoming a man. We just smile to think about it and go with the flow. He may not have the outer trappings that come with being a man, but we don't worry that the voice change, acne, and adolescent awkwardness have not yet arrived. We're in no hurry and we're happy to make a fuss over our little man.

Yitzchak is a nudnik in some ways, but he's also a deep thinker and quite earnest. I am very proud of him and expect him to have a brilliant future. He's that kind of kid. Sure I'm prejudiced. But as mother of the soon-to-be Bar Mitzvah boy I'm entitled to kvell (Yiddish for swell with pride), right?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Thumper Paradigm

One of my favorite movie lines comes from the animated Disney classic, Bambi. Thumper insults baby Bambi and Thumper's mother reprimands him, asking him to remember what his father always says. Thumper bows his head, ashamed, takes a deep breath and recites: "If you can't say something nice, [deep breath] don't say "nuffin" at all."

We like to say this in our home when the kids say insulting stuff to each other. It works as a catch-phrase, especially if you say it just like Thumper, so that it seems light and not accusatory. But it's a good rule of thumb for adults, as well.

I have a very fragile writer's ego. Another person's "constructive criticism" can lay me flat out and leave me unable to write for hours, days, or even weeks, until I manage to catch my equilibrium. Sound like an exaggeration? I swear it's not. It's God's truth.

Sue me, I'm human. I really need encouragement. Writing is like hanging your kishkes (Yiddish for guts) out there for all to see. It hurts when someone gives me even a valid criticism.

Funny how when you explain that, the people who hurt you try to tell you they are only being honest. "That's a poor word choice, there. I'm only being honest."

Sorry Chabibi (Arabic for buddy), I'm not buying it. That is stating an opinion and giving it a (fake) veneer of honest fact. Everyone is entitled to honest opinions, but opening one's mouth and sharing them is a different story. Better to stick to the Thumper Paradigm.

Thank goodness, my girlfriends are more sensitive. They are quick to make positive comments about my work and I imagine if they haven't got something nice to say, they keep it to themselves. Not because they are dishonest, but because they don't want to discourage me or hurt my feelings. And to my mind, refraining from discouraging people or hurting their feelings is a much higher spiritual level than speaking the truth.

Is constructive criticism important? Of course. But in the proper context. Watch the writer for signals. If the writer says, "Be kind. The editor tampered with this and I also had a specific readership to keep in mind," that's your key to find something, anything positive to say. And if you can't find SOMETHING positive to say, then apply the Thumper Paradigm.

My motives for writing may be sullied by my need for praise. I admit it: I gobble up praise and long for more. But there is a motive that supersedes my selfish emotional need: my wholehearted desire to assist my husband in providing for our large household. I don't think anyone could find quarrel with that motive.

So please, the next time you decide to become an armchair critic, remember the Thumper Paradigm and keep it to yourself.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Annoying Encounter

Land I have known each other for years but are only friends on Facebook for a short time. In a recent thread, "L" proposed I create a blog, since I draw numerous comments on my Facebook threads. She is well-meaning and hoping to encourage my professional prospects.

I responded that I do have a blog, but friends prefer to comment ON Facebook, rather than on my blog, and no one clicks the Google Ads on my blog, either, so I just don't make any money writing there. When I ran into "L" at the local mom and pop store, we fell into a continuation of that Facebook discussion and she asked me, "Do you write about politics on your blog?"

I hedged the question by answering, "Sometimes," since my blog doesn't have much of a central focus. Some blogs are about food, other blogs are about politics, but my blog doesn't have any sort of cohesive narrative running through the entries other than that I write up things that are central to ME. Politics are a big part of my life, but so is food and genealogy and music. I'm a mishmash of a person and so my blog is a mishmash of a blog.

I've also been a mishmash of a blogger. Months can go by without a single new blog entry, even though I make resolutions now and again to write something, ANYTHING, each day. I can't seem to stick to the commitment entailed by a blog and here's why: It's hard writing into a vacuum.

The nature of writing a blog is different than that of writing a diary. A diary is for the diarist whereas, the blogger demands (or at least prays for or fervently desires) an audience. The lucky blogger attracts a wide audience and makes money. The other 99% do not. (I am smelling an Occupy Blogs movement on the horizon and its NOT a good smell. Nyuk.)

But back to "L" who continued, "Because if you write about politics it's better I don't follow you because I don't agree with your politics and if you write something political and I read it there, I won't like you anymore.

I mean, you're an intelligent person and I like a lot of what you write, but I don't like your political views and I'm afraid that if your blog is political, it will ruin my liking for you."

At that point, I shut up because--nu--she was already repeating herself.

By mutual unspoken agreement, we changed the subject, finished shopping, and went our separate ways.

But the exchange pissed me off.

"L" and I both live in a city where political beliefs are just about unanimous. We're all right wing. We live in Judea, in disputed territory the other side calls the Occupied West Bank. We both wear the settler label.

What made my politics so unpalatable to "L?" And do I really care?

I believe that "L's" real motive in this conversation was to get me to ask her to elaborate on her political views. But what she said made my hackles rise. I dug in my feet and refused to ask. "L" was letting me know she thought my political views inferior to her own. I was insulted and annoyed. Not in a major way. More like irked.

The good part of all this is that nobody reads what I write here and least of all, "L." So, I need not fear she'll read this and take offense :-)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Coming Home

Anyone who knows me for even a short time knows that I’m religious. As a result, friends have been known to pass on the names of friends or family members in need of prayer. Some of my friends swear by my prayers and say that Hashem really listens to me.

If you were to look at my prayer book, the first thing you would notice is that one slim section of the white pages that comprise the small fat book is tinged off-white when the closed volume is viewed from the side. That would be the section of my prayer book that contains the Mincha prayer: the short afternoon prayer. It is my long-standing habit to pray the Mincha service.

I made up a WORD document with the names of people who want me to pray for them. The list has headings such as Conception, Refuah (healing), Shalom Bayis (marital harmony), Parnasa (financial well-being), and Shidduch (finding a match), with names under every heading. I even have some esoteric categories such as “Desire Life” and “Simcha” (happiness), according to friends’ requests. I keep this document updated as much as possible. I print out and snip the list into neat columns of paper to insert in my prayer book, in the appropriate sections of the Amida, the silent prayer Jews say three times daily.

I have been known to say my prayers during the long ride to Jerusalem, even though it is preferable to say the Amida while standing. I have said the prayer in a slim hallway at a health clinic, on the bus, backstage during an RYS rehearsal, in the Central Bus Station, in Jerusalem, Hevron, and in Efrat. It seems I am always grabbing my prayer book to say the Mincha prayers at the last possible moment before sundown.

A year ago, I cut out of a parent teacher meeting to daven Mincha when I saw the sun starting to hunker down for the day. But there were people around, parents, and it felt a bit exhibitionist. In an apologetic tone, I explained to another mother that I had a kind of pact with a friend to say Mincha and I had neglected to say it until the last moment, but that she shouldn’t think I was some kind of religious freak. This was the truth: a good friend and I had decided to do our best to pray for each other every day, as a true mark of friendship. We thought that there could be no better expression of our friendship than to pray for each other each day.

Instead of mumbling some vague platitude, the mother at that meeting told me something very cool about Mincha. She couldn’t remember the source for this word of Torah, but she had heard a rabbi say that Hashem loves the Mincha prayer best. It’s only natural to wake up in the morning, see the sunlight, and realize that it’s time to pray the morning prayer. It’s normal to see the sky darken and know that it’s time to say the evening prayer. But there are no markers to tell us that it’s time to daven Mincha. It takes a special kind of dedication to say the afternoon prayer and so Hashem loves this prayer best of all.

At this point in this mother’s recitation, I had to interrupt and explain that the reason I liked to say Mincha best is that it is the shortest in length of the three daily prayer services! I protested that I am no saint. Not by a long shot. Still, I liked that word she told me and I do feel that Hashem really listens to me when I crack open the prayer book.

It doesn’t come easily to me, the knack of prayer. I’m not a Chassid or a touchy-feely emotional kind of gal. I’m of Lithuanian Jewish stock and we are notorious for having dry, cold personalities. But the truth is that I am very moved by my own prayers. Maybe that is why I prefer to pray in a private corner of my home whenever possible. I don’t really like other people to see me in the thrall of my quiet and modest little ecstasies. But I do like my kids to see me like that. I think it’s good for them to see me stop what I’m doing and take the time to pray and acknowledge Hashem.

Alas, as much as all this makes me out, in spite of my protestations, to be some kind of religious freak or saint, I am above all human and filled with the frailty entailed by the human condition. Here’s where the confession comes in: I lost my job and had to move to a new apartment. And just when I should have been praying harder than ever, I lost the habit of praying Mincha.

I didn’t forget about Mincha or prayer. I just couldn’t bring myself back to my former state of commitment. Whenever I’d think about taking up the prayer book, I’d push the vague thought away. I was in the synagogue for the High Holidays, of course. I even davened the sunrise service, one of the first female parishioners to show up for services. But I’d lost my Mincha habit and it nagged at me in a whisper and didn’t leave me alone.

I packed and unpacked all the boxes for the move. I made the new place a home. I sent my resume out wherever I could and tried to keep positive. But I didn’t daven Mincha. I can’t explain why this should have been the case when I should have been praying HARD for a good start in a new home, and praying even harder for a new job.

All I know is that today, I at last managed to get a grip on myself. The time came and I said, “That’s it. I have to start davening Mincha again,” and I dug the book out of the hall bookcase and did my thing. It felt GOOD.

It felt like coming home.