Chanukah Then and Now

By Azriela Jaffe

The Judaism of my youth was defined by what I was not able to do. Is that not what characterizes any observant Jew? I may not eat non-kosher food, as G-d commanded. I may not work on Shabbat, as G-d commanded. I may not eat on Yom Kippur – as G-d commanded. I may not eat chometz on Passover – as G-d commanded.

True, but these Jewish ideals were alien to me as a child. We didn’t know from kosher, I had no awareness of even the concept of Shabbat, and although as dutiful – and perhaps superstitious- secular Jews, we always attended synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, we ate lunch that day, too. Our Passover celebration did include a rather abbreviated seder, but I had no understanding of chometz, or the avoidance of it – we bought a singular box of matzohs for the seder table, and enjoyed our bagels the next morning, (with no guilt, mind-you, as my uneducated family had no idea that this was a problem).

So what then, do I mean by this notion that my Jewish identity formed around what I could not do – when in fact, our family was so assimilated, it would have been difficult to differentiate us in any way from our goyish neighbors, and there were seemingly no restrictions on our life?

You knew our Judaism in December. Although my parents worked extremely hard to assimilate our family in every way imaginable – and they succeeded – there was only one time a year when they took a firm stand, and we children knew that we were Jewish, and different from non-Jews. Our family did not have Xmas trees and wreaths of holly on the door. Our family did not go to church on X-mas day, we went to the local Chinese restaurant and to the movies afterwards, where the parking lot was littered with hundreds of other Jewish-owned vehicles. We were Jewish, and therefore, we didn’t celebrate X-mas.

As a child, I saw this as a problem. The rest of the world got to have fun, and we were deprived. When we lit the menorah and eagerly awaited our presents, the complete absence of spirituality around the holiday made it only a competition we were sure to lose – which kids got the most presents – the Jews, or the non-Jews? We would comfort ourselves with the thought: Our holiday lasts 8 days, and the Christians only get one day, so we’re actually luckier. But I distinctly remember as a child that lucky is not how I felt. I was a Jew and therefore, I was not allowed to do the holiday that the rest of the world celebrated. We were different, and deprived.

With the perspective of adulthood, I now see my Chanukah “celebrations” with gratitude. It was my parents’ last hold-out, and through it, they formed my identity, albeit uneducated, as a Jew, different from my Christian neighbors. They had given up all other semblance of separation between us and the non-Jewish world, yet somehow, they hung on to this one. Thankfully, as an Orthodox Jew of many years now, I do not have memories as a child of singing Xmas carols, even if M ’aoz Tzur was not in our family’s vocabulary.

The Judaism of my children’s youth is also defined in part by what they cannot do, according to Jewish law, but now, their heads, hearts, and souls are filled with so much they can, and do, look forward to about Chanukah, there isn’t a glimmer of deprivation. The excitement of Chanukah starts early in school with Chanukah chagigas, lessons from their Morahs and Rebbeim about the true spiritual meaning behind Chanukah, and the exciting story of the Macabees, and of course – what would Chanukah be without homemade menorahs brought out of their storage bags year after year? The house smells of latkes, Tatty comes home early from work so he can light the menorah with us, and as we sing M ’aoz Tzur by the window, we thank G-d not only for the miracles that the Macabbees experienced so long ago, but also, the miracle that we are frum, and despite our secular lineage, we have returned.

The Macabees waged a war against assimilation, and with Hashem’s help, they won. We waged our own fight, and also, with plenty of help from Hashem, we’ve won, too. Thank you, G-d.

Syndicated newspaper advice columnist and author of twelve books, Azriela Jaffe is an international expert on entrepreneurial couples, business partnerships, handling rejection and criticism, balancing work and family, breadwinner wife and dual career issues, creating more luck and prosperity in your life, and resolving marital conflict. Her mission: “To be a catalyst for spiritual growth and comfort. Visit her web site here.

First published Dec 22, 2008

Sederim Without Extended Family

My children feel sad every year when Pesach comes around, because they are in yeshivas where they are surrounded by friends who talk about their excitement about Pesach Sederim, and all the extended family who will be there. My children have grown up with their grandparents never at the Seder table, or any extended family for that matter, and this is how it will be until Moshiach comes. Sometimes I would try to console my children with the tried and true BT speech: “Some day you’ll be grown up with children, and I’ll be the Bubbe at your Seder table!” Lately, I don’t give that speech. I just hug them and say, “I understand. I miss having family at the Seder table too. I wish Grandma and Grandpa, and Nana and Papa, and your cousins could be there too.”

The key is, I miss the concept of having family at the Seder table. It’s a beautiful, sentimental idea that belongs with Pesach, like it was written into the script. But I don’t miss having my family at the Seder table, or my husband’s family either for that matter. That’s when the rosy picture breaks down. When I wrote the book, “What Do You Mean, You Can’t Eat in My Home, a Guide for Newly Observant Jews and Their Lesser Observant Family Members,” I had a conundrum when I got to the chapter on Pesach. First I tackled Pesach as a cheerleader: You can do it, you can have Seders even in your mother’s non-observant home, or you can join together with your secular sister and her kids. Here’s how! And for some families, these compromises and adjustments are a small price to pay for the pleasure of being with family on Pesach, and it is a goal that can be accomplished and relished. To those families who have figured out how to bring together observant and non-observant (or lesser observant) families at the Sederim, G-d bless you. In some families, compromises won’t work, and true harmony is only reached by making a mutual decision that on this holiday, or for this simcha, or in this circumstance, we just can’t be together. We still love each other, but we have to separate from each other at this time. And so it is, in our family, for Pesach.

I remember when my husband pointed out to me that all of my life, I had never actually experienced a Pesach Seder on Pesach. When we were growing up in our secular home, we knew we were Jewish because we celebrated Hanukkah instead of Christmas, and Passover instead of Easter. Our Seder took all of twenty minutes. We used a booklet produced by the Reform movement called, “The Concise Family Seder”, and my mom cooked a delicious (non-kosher of course) brisket and bought a box of matzoh. We dipped the parsley, recited the plagues, ate the horseradish, sang “Dayenu”, and got right to the meal. Every Seder, and its accompanying meal, was over before Passover actually began, because who’s going to wait until 9 PM to start? I’m sure we were eating bagels the next morning, and there was no meaningful discussion at the table. What was meaningful was that this completely secular family was still holding on to this annual ritual of the Passover Seder. It wasn’t what the Seder stood for that really mattered; what mattered is that we still identified as Jews, who therefore, did three things: circumcised our babies, avoided Christmas, and then sat around a Seder table reading stories of our ancestors to remember that we are Jews. Even when I was away at college, and an adult in my twenties before marrying my husband, I came home for the Seder.

For the past fifteen years, my husband and I have been conducting the Pesach Seder in our own home. We don’t join with other BT families (as many do, to relieve the sadness of loss of family and to celebrate together in friendship), but instead, we give our three children ample time at the Sederim to share over the volumes of learning they have brought home from Yeshiva. Getting together with family is not an option for us. Going there is impossible because there would be nothing kosher about it, and no willingness to accommodate to the extent we’d need. So then, why not invite family to our Sederim? We’ve always done so, but the answer is always no, and I understand. To them, it looks like a punishment. You don’t start until 9 PM? You spend two hours with all of the rituals before you get to the meal? Instead of nachas over the children’s excitement and learning, there is something between distaste and disdain, and who needs that at the Seder table?

I feel sad when I see the children’s excitement at the Seder table, and I know that their grandparents are missing out on all this nachas. I feel sad when I know that all of our family members choose to separate from us on the most family-centric holiday of the year. I feel sad when I’m going through the sometimes-exhausting Pesach preparations, and I dream about what it would be like to have a mother or sibling to share it with, or at least someone who could even relate. It can be a lonely time, Pesach, one that really reminds me how far we have moved away from our families of origin.

I’m not going to end this essay with a “rah rah” sentimental speech about how good my husband and I feel as observant Jews, and how this makes up for all of the sadness, etc. This is what is true for me. Sometimes the path of the BT is a lonely one, especially when it comes to family. Sometimes I ache for my family to join me. Sometimes I’m angry that they aren’t here. Sometimes they are angry that I am not there. Sometimes I miss the good old days when I didn’t know any better, and I didn’t have to clean out the whole house for Pesach, and the Seder was over in twenty minutes. . . let’s eat. But there’s no going back. What there is, after fifteen years on this path, is increased pride and conviction of where my husband, children, and I have gone – no turning back – and increased acceptance that this has meant a necessary separation from our families of origin. This is what it is. It isn’t perfect, but this is it, so we live with it and make the most of it. And sometimes we cry. While my husband’s eyes are brimming over from too much horseradish, mine are sometimes teary from being lonely for observant family to join us. G-d receives all of our tears, whatever their origin. A very famous alcoholic came up with an expression I find very true everytime Pesach rolls around: “G-d grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Amen!

First Published April 14, 2008

When the Secular Little Cousins become Teenage Cousins

Fresh from my annual time share vacation with the secular family, I want to write for the Beyond BT readers on a topic that I think needs some further exploration and discussion.

Logic says that the longer we are working things out with our secular family, the easier it gets. Everyone finally realizes that the orthodox family isn’t going to change its mind, and they didn’t really join a cult. They get used to the fact that there are some simchas we aren’t going attend, and they don’t make as much of a fuss ten years into it, as they do the first time you send back the R.S.V.P. with a “sorry, we cannot attend.” You’ve figured out how to eat in mom’s kitchen, or at least, everyone accepts the fact that you’ll bring your own food. Yes, it’s absolutely true that in many ways, on many occasions, it gets easier. So if you’re a new B.T., take heart – you won’t spend the rest of your life trying to convince your mom that you really do mean it when you say that you can’t eat her lasagna with meat sauce, even if she’s the best cook this side of the ocean.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, and here’s one: When the kids and the cousins start growing up and become pre-teen, or teenagers.

Every year we assemble the entire extended family for a week at a time-share in the mountains. It was accepted when we didn’t come for Shabbos and chose mid-week instead. They rolled their eyes a bit when we brought in a wheelbarrow of food because kosher food wasn’t available for purchase, and we didn’t want our kids to feel deprived all week long. They even eventually accepted our rule that sister and brother can no longer sleep in the same bed. In many ways, we’ve worked out a lot of issues, but. . . .

I wasn’t prepared for how DIFFICULT it becomes when the little cousins who once played with each other on the floor, and talked about barney and sesame street, now talk about “hot” boys, my space, and IPODS. When the kids were little, the differences between all of the cousins was not as pronounced, and other than making sure that the kosher kids only ate the kosher food, it wasn’t much of a problem.

Now – my girls aren’t supposed to do mixed swimming anymore, and I caught a conversation between my oldest daughter and her teenage cousin who couldn’t quite believe that my daughter has never had a boyfriend. Now the teenage cousins bring their computers and IPODS and videos to vacation, and none of it is Jewish. Now my 10-year old son’s eyes can easily be diverted by his teenage cousin’s non-tnius dress, or lack of dress.

In the beginning of the week, my kids think their cousins are weird. But after only a few days, they start looking fascinated, and that’s the biggest problem. I don’t think it has ever gotten to the point where they’d want to trade places, but one never knows what can happen when that thought is introduced for even a day or two. And, what really bothers me is that I want my kids to feel really privileged and lucky to be frum Jews. I worry when the “other side” starts looking attractive, and our way of life seems to be making them “miss out.” (Yes, of course we can give the speeches to our children about how the secular kids are really the ones missing out, but hey, kids are normal, and some freedoms in life look very delicious at times to them).

The most challenging aspect of this problem is that it’s not one my secular family would understand. I can say, “sorry, can’t come to the simcha on Shabbos, mid day, an hour’s drive away.” But how can I possibly say, “sorry, I don’t want to expose my children to their teenage cousins, your sons and daughters?” It will never happen. These words I wouldn’t say, other than in a forum like this. Their kids are fine people, just not harmonious in many ways with ours. Those who have taken the stand that they will not allow their teenage children to “be exposed”, if that works for you and your family, amazing. It would never work in our family. My parents, and brothers, and nieces and nephews would be so insulted, there would be permanent damage. All we can really do is talk to our children about it, prepare them, protect them as much as possible when we are there, and then talk about it in the car on the way home. And, like most of you, our get-to-gethers are infrequent.

I would suggest that there be some discussion about this issue on this forum. I’m not writing with a solution, but rather, with an acknowledgment that this is a source of trouble, and unlike many other issues that get resolved over time, I think that this issue gets much more problematic as the kids grow older, not less so. Especially for those of us that maintain a commitment to ongoing connection to extended family.

Best to you all –

Originally published 9/17/2008.

Another World

Many years ago I sought the attention of an obgyn doc in Manhattan, Dr. Kevin Jovonovic, for a tricky problem I was having that another doctor was recommending surgery to fix. Dr. Kevin specializes in this problem and although it took me an hour train ride, and then an hour’s walk to his office by Central Park (I’ll walk two miles in the city before I’ll get into a taxicab there!), I was glad I made the visit. He correctly diagnosed the problem, gave me a non surgical fix, and I’ve been coming back to him for annual physicals twice a year ever since; once you’ve found a doctor who is smart, compassionate, and responsive, you don’t let them go over something like a less-than-ideal distance away. I joke with Dr. Kevin that I must be his patient with the longest commute to his office!

I am writing this column on the train back from my visit to Dr. Kevin this morning. When a writer is struck with the writer’s muse, unless it’s Shabbos, she has to write while the inspiration flows in!

Last night I set the alarm for 5 AM, so that I could catch the 6 AM train to New York from my Highland Park, NJ home, and then walk to his office for my 8 AM appointment. I bundled up in layers, earmuffs, gloves, and winter tights for the cold long walk, and donned my best sneakers for the mileage. As I emerged from the train, I was immediately accosted by the sights, sounds and smells of the bustling New York city streets, as every nationality, size, and cultural group whisked by me, rushing somewhere. It struck me how weird it is that I leave my suburban home in NJ, take a one hour train ride, and I emerge on a different planet, an environment so different and unfamiliar to me, with no gradual transition. Off the train, walk a few minutes, and NY City is all around me.

I search for familiar landmarks to anchor me, and to reassure me that I have not lost my way. The kosher pizza store on Broadway.The three-story high Macys.The glittering billboards of Times Square.The 5-dollar pashimi scarves selling on the corner, and the carts on every corner selling trafe food not for me. The recognizable sights remind me that I am on track to my destination, but all around me, the New York City pandemonium overwhelm my senses. I marvel: How can a trainride transport someone to such a different world in under an hour?

This feeling I had in New York City this morning is as close as I can describe to what I feel like when I spend time visiting my secular family. The landmarks are familiar – old childhood photos on the wall, familiar people, the smells and sounds and language of my childhood. I try to orient myself, so I am not lost, but I am now on an alien planet. I left my home and entered another, but it’s not just another home – it is the home of family who do not observe Torah and mitzvot the way that we do. After over two decades of keeping Shabbos and raising a frum family, I am becoming as disoriented when I visit my family of origin as I feel when I emerge from the train to New York City.

Shomer Shabbos used to be the alien world and I was a visitor from another planet. Now the secular world is strange to me.

I can’t wait to get off this train, and to be back home where I belong.

Azriela Jaffe, www.chatzos.com and www.azrielajaffe.com.Author of 32 books, holocaust memoir writer, novelist, and freelance writer for Mishpacha magazine and Ami magazine. Contact email: azjaffe@gmail.com

Black Ice

I don my trusty backpack for my early morning walk to the supermarket, stocking up for Shabbos cooking and tonight’s dinner before the sun even rises. This is how I start my day, while my husband is davening in morning minyan, while my teenage children catch the last moments of slumber. The calendar says that it is winter, but we’ve hardly had any snow except for that weird storm in October no one expected. Still, it is bitter cold this morning, and I walk slowly, navigating the icy, slippery sidewalks of Highland Park, NJ.

The weatherman warns of black ice, the hidden danger of a pavement that looks dry and safe, but it is really an ice skating rink in disguise. My morning walk is not enjoyable, nor at any pace one could consider it exercise. Having endured two serious sprained ankles and four different foot surgeries in my adult life, I am not eager to take an ill-fated step on black ice and find myself looking up at the sky. I find myself planting each step with care, never looking up from the ground, and for the entire walk, I keep thinking about black ice.

Black ice. Danger that looks harmless. Danger that can catch you by surprise in a moment’s notice, rendering you injured, or at least embarrassed, before you even have a chance to intelligently respond. Black ice, an oxymoron of sorts, as ice is supposed to be clear, crystal, colorless, yet this is not. Black ice, a winter nemesis.

Black ice. My teenage daughter who is learning how to drive is ready to take on the highways, the famous New Jersey mergers, even, be still my heart, drive one of my other children some place they need to go. She’s a good driver. It looks safe. Black ice. Be careful.

Black ice. My other teenage daughter wants to take the bus to Brooklyn to shop. She’s old enough, she says, to travel with her teenage friends into the city, to enjoy shopping with Mommy’s credit card, and without Mommy. It’s time, she says. It would be soooo much fun. She can handle it. But can I? Black ice. Who will be on that bus, in the city, how can I trust?

Black ice. My husband of eighteen years and I are two very busy professionals, and working day and night to care for children and household. We joke that we’ve probably been on five dates in the past five or even ten years. It’s not something we do, and as the children get old enough that we can see their imminent departure from the house, I can’t help but worry. Our marriage is solid, committed; we are kind to one another, always on one another’s team. We need to find our way back to each other again, to set aside the responsibilities that overwhelm us, and to reconnect. Black ice. I don’t want to be one of those women who marries off the last child, looks at her beloved husband, and doesn’t know him anymore.

Black ice. Two close relatives have entered cancer treatment in the last two months. You wouldn’t know it from looking at them. They visit the outpatient clinic every day for their daily radiation treatments. The doctors tell them their prognosis is good for a complete refuah. The radiation should do its job to shrink the tumors, and B’ezras Hashem, they will grow older with no return of the cancer. Except for the daily outing to the cancer treatment center, one wouldn’t even know that inside of their body, a battle rages on. It all looks so normal. Two old people still enjoying their life, and looking forward to the next simcha. Black ice. When will they fall? When will Hashem decide to take them, to allow the tumors to take control, to end a life still very much being lived?

Black ice. The secular family now consists of several secular teenagers. When we get together – infrequently, but it does happen – my teenage daughter is intrigued by the conversations she has with her secular cousins who have boyfriends, and a social life nothing like she’s ever experienced. How harmless are these conversations, as infrequent as they are?

Black ice. It looks like nothing, until in just a few seconds, you find yourself on your toucas, wondering what happened.

Originally posted on Jan 17, 2012

Azriela Jaffe is the author of 26 published books including, “What do you mean, you can’t eat in my home?” and “After the Diet, Delicious Kosher Recipes with less Fat, Calories and Carbs”, both of which are available directly from her at azjaffe@gmail.com. She is also a holocaust memoir writer, privately commissioned by families who wish to write up the life story of the survivor matriarch or patriarch of their family. Visit www.azrielajaffe.com for more information about her work, and visit www.chatzos.com for more information about the worldwide movement she founded to bring more kavod into erev Shabbos.

My First Sheitle

The tireless search for the perfect sheitle is a daunting one. Nabbing the perfect, and affordable, wig, first time out of the gate, is akin to finding a designer gown on sale for less than 100 dollars, in just the color you need for your next simcha. With a bracha from Hashem, it happens, and it feels like winning the lottery when it does.

When I called up the Partners in Torah organization eight years ago, looking for a mentor, I was clear with them about my goals. “Please find me a frum woman who can help me learn the laws of Shabbos and Pesach, but please don’t match me up with anyone who is going to pressure me to cover my hair. It’s not something I plan to do.”

And so, they assigned me to dear, Adina Henderson, of Saint Louis, Missouri, the most patient, non-judgmental teacher, and I gave her my speech: “I’m willing to keep Shabbos, kosher, mikvah. But I’m never going to wear a sheitle, so please don’t expect that of me.” I could hear her smiling across the phone waves. “No problem,” she said, and we proceeded with our first lesson.

A year later, I was progressing nicely in yiddishkeit, taking on new mitzvot by the week. Except for. . . covering up my gorgeous, back-length thick, wavy, hair, other than wearing a hat on Shabbos to shul to be respectful. Where I was living at the time, Yardley, PA, only a few women covered their hair. I wasn’t “frum enough” to be a card-carrying, sheitle-wearing, Jewish mama, or so I thought.

And then, Hashem intervened. As a public speaker for one of the books I had just published, I was stranded for a day in the airport, and to compensate me for my troubles, I received a free airline ticket to be used anywhere in the country in the next year. I put it in a desk drawer and completely forgot about it. . . until two weeks before it was due to expire, and I found it. “Where to go in two weeks by airplane?” I wondered. I had been learning with Adina every week for a year, and a thought popped into my mind. I picked up the phone and called her.

“Adina, I have an airline ticket due to expire in two weeks. What do you think about me coming to visit you? You’ve been teaching me the laws of Shabbos over the phone. How about doing so in person?”

Two weeks later, on a sweltering hot July day, I was standing in Adina’s kitchen, helping her make Shabbos. Unbeknownst to me, my – kind, non-judgmental, never going to push me into a sheitle- teacher, had a plan. She asked her sheitle macher to supply her with a box of sheitles to be just “sitting around her house”, in case she had the opportunity to introduce the idea to her completely sheitle-reluctant student.

Two hours before candle lighting, I was complaining to her about how hot my snood was in the Saint Louis summer heat. Adina casually responded, “I know what you mean. I find that a sheitle is much more comfortable than a snood in this heat. You know, I happen to have a box of sheitles in the house. Have you ever been curious? You could take a look.”

What fun. I never had the nerve to stick my hands into the Yardley rebbetzin’s hair. I’d always wondered what a sheitle felt like. Adult dress-up, why not.

Adina brought out this box full of sheitles and showed me where the bathroom was. “Have fun,” she called out.

I opened the box and pulled out the first sheitle. A shiver ran up and down my spine. I was holding my hair – the exact coloring, curl, and length. Below it in the box were short blond sheitles, red sheitles, a wide variety, but this first one. . . this was me. I placed it on my head and looked in the mirror. And the tears came. I looked like me. Only prettier.

I left the bathroom to show Adina. She tried to appear nonchalant. “Looks nice, why don’t you keep it on for tonight’s dinner, for fun?”

I did, and I wore it the next day, too. Motzei Shabbos, I knew I would be purchasing it. Her Sheitle machor couldn’t believe it. It needed no adjusting. It was perfect, right out of the box.

I was sure I was never going to wear a sheitle. Hashem had other plans when He stranded me in the airport for a day, one year earlier.

First Seen in Mishpacha, Family First, January ’08.

A Mother’s Prayer

By the time this column posts, the drama will be over. My daughter, Elana, now a high school senior at Reenas Beis Yaakov in Edison, NJ, will know which seminaries have accepted her, and she will have made her choice.

It’s a tumultuous experience, the seminary application, interview, and selection process. Elana has enjoyed being with the same group of friends since second grade. They light up my house with their positive energy and laughter on Shabbos, and I have watched all of them develop into lovely young women ready to venture out into the next chapter of their lives. Our house will be very quiet next year, not just because of Elana’s hoped for departure for Israel, but also, the loss of all of her friends parading through the house, studying with her, chilling with her, and giving me joy, nachas and envy, as Elana has enjoyed close friendships the likes of which I have never known. I send her off into her life after Reenas with lots of pride, and encouragement, and a big sigh.

I also send her off with prayer. This is something that any frum woman reading this column would have an. . . of course. . . response to. But an awareness struck me recently that every baalas teshuvah can relate to.

I drove Elana to her first seminary interview, held in a high school, which gave over a classroom to the Rabbi who was conducting the interviews. Since we hadn’t attended the open house, he graciously allowed me to watch a seminary video with Elana, and to receive a summary overview of the seminary from his perspective. And then he excused me outside of the room so that he could interview Elana without her mother sitting on the couch behind her.

The interview was very early in the morning so I had brought my siddur with me. As she and the Rabbi continued their conversation, I opened my siddur and proceeded with morning blessings, Shema, and Shomonei Esrei. Whenever I could, I tucked in special prayer for Elana, that she should be relaxed and confident and be able to impress the Rabbi with her special qualities.

There I was, standing outside of her interview room, siddur in hand, eyes closed, praying for my daughter. This was not an unusual sight for any of the other religious teenagers walking the hallways between classes. They’d seen their moms do the same for years.

For a moment, when my prayers were finished for the time being, tears sprung to my eyes.

My mother has never prayed for me. I don’t believe so, anyway. She doesn’t have a religious life or a relationship with our Creator, one that I am aware of. She doesn’t own a siddur, and she doesn’t ever go to shul. She is a worrier, so perhaps all of the worries she has sent up to heaven over the years have been received as prayer. I’d like to think so.

I stand outside of Elana’s interview room wanting the best for her. I stand outside of that room knowing that it’s in Hashem’s hands, and asking Hashem to help her. I stand outside that room sending another prayer, one of thousands, that I have said for her over her lifetime. I have prayed for her friendships, and her health, and her love of Torah, and her success on any number of tests. I have prayed for her happiness, and her refuah from sickness, and so many details of her life, she would probably be surprised to know. I have no doubt, if she goes to Israel next year, I will stand with siddur in hand and plead with Hashem to watch over her.

A baalas teshuvah mourns the loss of many things, and accepts that the path is sometimes a lonely and trying one. I miss something I never had, and probably never will – a mother who prays for me.

If you pray every day for your children, don’t think, “of course.” It is a gift, one your children may never fully appreciate until they are standing with siddur in hand, praying for their own children. And then they will understand a mother’s prayer.

The Never Ending Road of the BT

“I’m a BT.” This statement has an air of finality to it, doesn’t it? Like, “I’m a graduate of Harvard Med School”, or “I’m a doctor”, or “I’m a mother”. “I’m a BT” could be right up there with the other descriptors that apply to me: Jewish, female, wife to Stephen, age 47, professional author, mother of three. “I’m a BT.” I like the ring of it. I don’t have to give over the long complicated story of how I journeyed for twenty years as an adult before committed to a Torah way of life. This is the thirty-second elevator speech: “I’m a BT.” Then, the person to whom I’m speaking can nod his or her head in an understanding way. “Ah, I get it. You’re a BT!” Now we understand each other. . .

After I mastered the art of announcing myself as a BT without stumbling over the words, or feeling embarrassed about it, it came as a bit of a surprise to me that the label can be quite misleading. I AM a BT makes it sound like I have graduated from BT school, and I can now pronounce myself as holding a Masters in BT’dom. I AM a BT makes it sound as if I traveled down a road, picked up this identity along the way, and now I am, forever more, a fully formed BT, with all the credentials. I AM a BT is a bit of a cop-out, an easy way to size up a complex journey that is impossible to reduce to an elevator speech. More accurate would probably be this: “I am growing and learning in Torah.” But of course that expression isn’t as jazzy sounding, doesn’t quite sum it up in a few easy to remember initials.

I now find it more accurate to use the expression “I am a BT” to identify the direction to which I am moving — closer towards Torah and the Torah ideals of my long-ago ancestors who stood at Mt. Sinai and pronounced themselves ready to follow Hashem’s commandments. I am no longer moving away and disowning my Jewish heritage, I am embracing it. I am no longer focused on successful assimilation for my children, but rather, successful indoctrination of my children into the yeshivas way of life. I am no longer satisfied with just knowing enough Jewish learning to get by — I want to learn something new every week. I am a BT, growing in Torah, and trying not to be discouraged by how far I have to go, but rather, looking back at how far I’ve come.

My seventh-grade daughter is studying the laws of Shabbos in school. I’ve been fully shomer shabbat for about six years, and to my knowledge there isn’t anyone in our Highland Park community who won’t eat in my home. I pass the test, so to speak. I can hang the BT kashrus certification on my fridge. But just the other day, my daughter came home from school and told me — nicely, because that’s how she’s been trained to speak to her Ima on such sensitive matters — that I was opening the black olive can wrong on Shabbos. I knew not to use the electric can opener. I knew not to tear off any letters from the label. I didn’t know that before I opened the top of the can, I was supposed to puncture a hole in the bottom, so that I would be rendering the vessel unusable. News to me. I’ve opened about 200 black olive cans the wrong way. Please forgive me, Hashem. I am a work in progress.

The longer I am a BT, the longer the road ahead of me appears to be. Way in the early days, I worried about such basics as separating milk from meat, and wearing a hat on Shabbos. I was figuring out how to say the right thing on the Yom Tovim, so that I didn’t just say “Good Shabbos” to everyone when it was a Tuesday. I felt like I was at the bottom of Mount Everest ( or should I say, Mt. Sinai), and the top seemed out of sight. But then, as I started climbing, with the help of some very special teachers, I started feeling more confident. I CAN DO THIS! I can keep a kosher home that even the Rabbi will eat in. I can wear a sheitle and a long skirt and look every bit the part of an FFB. I can go to classes and learn, and learn, and learn, and then practice, and practice, and practice, and I can DO this. I can raise my children to be frum yidden who will also choose to raise their children to be frum yidden. I have returned.

Funny thing about climbing this mountain. I’ve discovered that it’s somewhat comforting to keep looking “down” – it reminds me, when I get discouraged, of how far I’ve come. And I’ve also discovered that there really is no summit to reach when, should I get there, I can just kick back and enjoy the view. Thank G-d, I have three children, ages 8, 11, and 12 1/2, who keep teaching me how much more I have to learn. Thank G-d.

*******

Azriela Jaffe is the author of “What Do You Mean, You Can’t Eat in My Home, A Guide to How Newly Observant Jews and their Lesser Observant Relatives Can Still Get Along”, which can be purchased at Barnes and Noble and other online booksellers.

Originally Published Feb 27, 2007

Spiritual Black Ice

I don my trusty backpack for my early morning walk to the supermarket, stocking up for Shabbos cooking and tonight’s dinner before the sun even rises. This is how I start my day, while my husband is davening in morning minyan, while my teenage children catch the last moments of slumber. The calendar says that it is winter, but we’ve hardly had any snow except for that weird storm in October no one expected. Still, it is bitter cold this morning, and I walk slowly, navigating the icy, slippery sidewalks of Highland Park, NJ.

The weatherman warns of black ice, the hidden danger of a pavement that looks dry and safe, but it is really an ice skating rink in disguise. My morning walk is not enjoyable, nor at any pace one could consider it exercise. Having endured two serious sprained ankles and four different foot surgeries in my adult life, I am not eager to take an ill-fated step on black ice and find myself looking up at the sky. I find myself planting each step with care, never looking up from the ground, and for the entire walk, I keep thinking about black ice.

Black ice. Danger that looks harmless. Danger that can catch you by surprise in a moment’s notice, rendering you injured, or at least embarrassed, before you even have a chance to intelligently respond. Black ice, an oxymoron of sorts, as ice is supposed to be clear, crystal, colorless, yet this is not. Black ice, a winter nemesis.

Black ice. My teenage daughter who is learning how to drive is ready to take on the highways, the famous New Jersey mergers, even, be still my heart, drive one of my other children some place they need to go. She’s a good driver. It looks safe. Black ice. Be careful.

Black ice. My other teenage daughter wants to take the bus to Brooklyn to shop. She’s old enough, she says, to travel with her teenage friends into the city, to enjoy shopping with Mommy’s credit card, and without Mommy. It’s time, she says. It would be soooo much fun. She can handle it. But can I? Black ice. Who will be on that bus, in the city, how can I trust?

Black ice. My husband of eighteen years and I are two very busy professionals, and working day and night to care for children and household. We joke that we’ve probably been on five dates in the past five or even ten years. It’s not something we do, and as the children get old enough that we can see their imminent departure from the house, I can’t help but worry. Our marriage is solid, committed; we are kind to one another, always on one another’s team. We need to find our way back to each other again, to set aside the responsibilities that overwhelm us, and to reconnect. Black ice. I don’t want to be one of those women who marries off the last child, looks at her beloved husband, and doesn’t know him anymore.

Black ice. Two close relatives have entered cancer treatment in the last two months. You wouldn’t know it from looking at them. They visit the outpatient clinic every day for their daily radiation treatments. The doctors tell them their prognosis is good for a complete refuah. The radiation should do its job to shrink the tumors, and B’ezras Hashem, they will grow older with no return of the cancer. Except for the daily outing to the cancer treatment center, one wouldn’t even know that inside of their body, a battle rages on. It all looks so normal. Two old people still enjoying their life, and looking forward to the next simcha. Black ice. When will they fall? When will Hashem decide to take them, to allow the tumors to take control, to end a life still very much being lived?

Black ice. The secular family now consists of several secular teenagers. When we get together – infrequently, but it does happen – my teenage daughter is intrigued by the conversations she has with her secular cousins who have boyfriends, and a social life nothing like she’s ever experienced. How harmless are these conversations, as infrequent as they are?

Black ice. It looks like nothing, until in just a few seconds, you find yourself on your toucas, wondering what happened.

Azriela Jaffe is the author of 26 published books including, “What do you mean, you can’t eat in my home?” and “After the Diet, Delicious Kosher Recipes with less Fat, Calories and Carbs”, both of which are available directly from her at azjaffe@gmail.com. She is also a holocaust memoir writer, privately commissioned by families who wish to write up the life story of the survivor matriarch or patriarch of their family. Visit www.azrielajaffe.com for more information about her work, and visit www.chatzos.com for more information about the worldwide movement she founded to bring more kavod into erev Shabbos.

Originally published Jan 17, 2012

So NOT Deprived

My family of origin thinks that I am deprived. I am limited to eating only kosher food, and not any kosher food. If it has a “K” on the box, that isn’t good enough. When I go into the Food Court of the local mall, I can’t eat anything I want. If I should have a craving for an ice cream cone after a fleishig meal, I must wait. I live in a free country, and yet, I have willingly enslaved myself to a lifestyle of scarcity. (They think).

As a recent attendee to KosherFest, where all my senses were flooded with gourmet food of every nationality imaginable, and thousands of fellow Jews elbowed their way to get to the latest sample of delectable and decadent, I wanted so much for my family to witness –it’s never been so easy to be a kosher Jew. Anyone in the busy East Coast of the USA who would complain about kashrus limiting their choices hasn’t really taken a good look at the closest supermarket, glatt market, or any major department store and big-box grocer that provides an array of kosher choices beyond anything our grandparents could have imagined.

I am fortunate to be living in a suburban area with easy access to kosher food. (One of my children asked, “Mommy, how do people who don’t keep kosher ever make a choice about what to eat? There are too many choices out there!”)Not all Jews have it this good –Jews scattered all over this globe, and traveling on business, are sometimes living on a lot of tuna fish and maybe even the dreaded airline meal. But in my universe, it is the rare moment when I actually experience anything close to a feeling of deprivation when it comes to what I put into my mouth.

And so it is that when my family assembles by me one day a year, on the American holiday of Thanksgiving, that I make enough food to feed twice the number of guests, and the side dishes are plentiful. No one who eats in my home will ever see kashrus through the eyes of deprivation. So they can’t have ice cream on their pumpkin pie – that’s what parve ice cream is for. After all these years, I’ve stopped defending my choices to my family, and although they don’t join me in observance, they have stopped trying to convince me otherwise. What lightens my heart is that our children, who were raised in a Torah-observant home, view their secular relatives as being deprived, and not the other way around. “They don’t get to ever have Shabbos rest from shopping and phones?” “They don’t even know what Sukkot is, or Simchas Torah?” And when it comes to food, our children can’t imagine a life without cholent, potato kugel, deli roll, and chocolate bubka, Who is deprived?

The holocaust survivors I interview for the memoirs I write for them all originate from different parts of Europe, and yet each one of them has told me the same story – of a Shabbos of their youth with a simple and savored menu, looked forward to every week, and greatly missed once the Nazis ripped it all away. Now, amidst all the many choices in the local market, each one of them reminisces about the foods of their childhood; nothing currently sold or available holds a candle to their mother’s compote, or chicken soup, or cholent. Kashrus was once a true struggle, a life-altering commitment that required hours a day of preparation, and choices were simple then. Yet, never once has a survivor complained to me about feeling deprived as a child because their family kept kosher. Never once.

The language of kashrus is one of joy, of pride, of commitment, of family tradition, and always, of delicious. Too bad it’s not calorie free.

First appeared in Mishpacha magazine, January 2013.

Location, Location, Location

In Highland Park, NJ where I live, if you’re catching the New Jersey transit train into Manhattan, you know you either need to get a ride to the train station, or leave enough time to park about a half-mile away and walk to the station. Only residential permit parking is available within the train station and vicinity unless you happened to inherit one of the coveted parking spots inside of the train station, which are renowned to be available only if your next of kin passes it on to you in his or her will.

This morning as I walked to the train station to head into Manhattan, I passed a familiar “For Sale” sign that has been posted outside of a house for sale that sits on a piece of land on the way to the station. “For sale” signs are ubiquitous since the housing market collapsed, but this stucco house is no ordinary house. By anyone’s standards, you would call it a mansion. It must be at least 5000 square feet with a large circular drive way and an ornate fountain that graces the center of that driveway. With a three-car garage (in a neighborhood where you are lucky not to have to park your car on the street), and enough driveway space to park a dozen cars for a party, this magnificent house invites curiosity. The “for sale” sign has been posted out front for the better part of a year, and it’s not a surprise.

This stunning house backs up to the train tracks, literally, a few feet away. For the buyer who wants a very short commute to the train, literally right outside their back door, or the one who grew up in the city and is comforted by the sound of commuter rails running through his living room, it could be a perfect shidduch. But still, the house sits, unsold. Where it sits matters much more than the house itself.

I used to always think of “coming from the right place” as meaning a good heart. But as I take stock of my failings, and set my sights on how to improve myself in the coming year, I face one of my greatest challenges: arrogance. It’s not the type of arrogance that often comes to mind with this word association – I’m not brash, full of pride (insecurity is more like it), or ever, the life of a party. I’m thinking of a much more slippery and I daresay evil kind of arrogance because it is disguised as well-intentioned advice.

As a wife and mother, I am often, absolutely sure, that I know better. Why does my husband not always follow my advice, when of course it is meant for his own good? Why do my three teenagers chart their own course, and sometimes, when mom makes a “suggestion” – read directive – they refuse, coming back with their own point of view? If “coming from the right place” always meant a good heart, I think that more often than I do, I would choose silence, or a hug, or a suggestion that is really meant as such – a suggestion, not a command.

I am sometimes a beautiful house (my neshama) located in the wrong location (my yetzer hara running the show). During these days of Teshuva, I silently express my regret to Hashem, and to those closest to me. This school year I have a daughter in Israel and a son boarding in mesifta. My younger daughter who is home is in 11th grade and growing more independent by the day.

May Hashem help me to locate myself in the coming year more often in wisdom and love than ego and fear.

The Blinking Light of Bitachon

The blinking message light on the telephone tortured me all of Shabbos day. My overly active writer’s imagination sent me over the edge into an emotional abyss that is entirely incompatible with a peaceful Shabbos.

Never, never, never, look at caller ID when the phone rings on Shabbos and you can’t answer the phone.

I learned that lesson once, and ten years later, I learned it again.

Ten years ago, I had gone for an annual check-up with my gynecologist who said, “I’ll only call you if there’s a problem to discuss.” And so, on Shabbos morning, when the phone rang, and I saw the caller ID from his office, I went into a complete panic. My mind raced all day long and by the end of that Shabbos I was terminally ill, and it was time to start getting my affairs in order. Except that when I listened to the message, it turned out to be the billing office calling with a question about my insurance. So ever since then, I told myself – if the phone rings on Shabbos, don’t look at caller ID because you can’t answer the phone, and you’ll only torture yourself.
Ever since then, I have been completely machmid with this rule…. Until today.

And I sure paid the price.

Tomorrow morning my brother is getting married. The entire family has been gathered in his location to celebrate, starting Friday night. Since my extended family is not observant, we chose not to attend any of these festivities over Shabbos, promising instead to show up early enough Sunday morning for the family photos before the chuppah.

Like any good story about a divorced man and a remarriage to a divorced woman, his shidduch is a miracle, this wedding is a miracle, and there has been plenty of drama associated with this union. I am on pins and needles as the chuppah draws near.

And so, when the phone rang on Shabbos day, like a magnet drawn to a piece of metal, my eyes could not resist glancing at the caller ID as my yetzer hara took my brain hostage: “I hope it’s not my mother, and that nothing is wrong.”

And it was. My mother’s cell phone. My stomach lurched. My imagination went into overdrive, where it stayed for the rest of Shabbos, which didn’t end until late in the evening.

My mother, although not observant herself, knows that she can’t call me on Shabbos. So my logical mind told me that therefore, there must be some terrible reason for her call. She wouldn’t call me on Shabbos to talk, or to tell me something that could wait till after Shabbos because she knows I can’t answer the phone. So, my mind rattled on, she is alerting me that there is an emergency. G-d forbid, the wedding is off, there has been a tragic accident, the chosson is in the hospital, the kallah has…. Okay, you fill in the blank…. I did, all afternoon long, writing story after story in my head.

I took long walks and tried imagining all the positive reasons she could have called, and then, when I couldn’t figure any of them out, I dug up inane reasons… like, can you please bring an extra pair of stockings when you come to the wedding? And when that didn’t work, I pleaded with Hashem, and I tried to sooth myself with gam zu letovah talk, and when none of that worked, I debated finding a non-Jew to call my mother, but my husband reminded me that this wasn’t pekuash nefesh, this was just me going out of my mind with worry. And so ultimately, I watched the clock, and paced, and apologized to Hashem for not being in Shabbos, even though Shabbos was in my home.

At the precise second I was allowed to call, I picked up the phone and dialed into voice mail, literally shaking and perspiring as I braced myself for….

My mother’s “butt call.” That’s what we call it when a cell phone calls the last number dialed without the cell-phone owner’s knowledge. (So-named from the days when we used to walk around with cell phones in our back pocket). All I heard on the answering machine was the sound of clinking glasses, laughing people, and joy.

Later confirmed…. I missed one heck of a party. Everyone is simchadig. It should be a beautiful chuppah. They missed me at the party. My mother had no clue that her phone had dialed mine by accident. Sorry.

Whew. Breathe. Lesson learned. Never, never, never, look at caller ID when the phone rings on Shabbos! I’m sorry, Hashem.

Revival of the Dead

It was every author’s worst nightmare. Summer, 2005. Just another routine morning, or so I thought. The screen went dark on my computer, with no fanfare or warning, as sudden as a solid oak door slamming shut in the wind. And nothing I did brought it back to life. I tried restarting it, davening, begging, and yelling at it, but the computer before me seemed to have left this planet. Inside of this mysterious metal box was untold hours of work, my kosher cookbook and all of the recipes I had developed in the previous two years, thousands of files that represented the heart and soul of my work life for over ten years.

Thank G-d I have regular back up, I thought, as I made an appointment with the nearest Macintosh repair shop in another town. I had been regularly backing up my most important computer files to an external hard drive, well aware of the dangers of depending on a computer that could break down with no forewarning. All I needed to do was retrieve those files, buy myself a new computer, (ouch, not in the budget), and I’d be back in business.

One major problem. The computer technician gave over the horrifying news the way a surgeon informs the anxious family that he’s so sorry he lost the patient on the operating table. “Did you ever test this back up to be sure it was working?” the computer genius asked me. “No, never did,” I replied, the panic rising up my chest. “I’m sorry to tell you,” he responded, “there’s nothing on this back up. I don’t know what you have been doing all these months, but this back up is empty.”

I just about fainted. My computer was dead as a doornail, he confirmed, all the files gone forever. And my so-called back up was useless. I was distraught. In our town of Highland Park/Edison, NJ, we Jews rely upon a “Yahoo board” where we post electronic messages for one another – SOS’s like “I need a ride, I need a doctor, has anyone got this in their attic not being used?” It was there that I posted my call for help. “Any mac geniuses in town who can resurrect a dead computer and save the life of an author in a panic?”

Marnin Goldberg, Mac Genius, responded. He took my computer home with him and promised he’d see what was possible. He’d be in touch when he knew. I doubt I slept, ate, or functioned until I heard from him. When I heard from him the next day, his words were pure gold. “I was able to bring your computer back to life just long enough to grab your documents off of it, and now it’s completely dead, you can bury it. You’ll need a new computer, but I have your documents for you.”

I’m a religious married woman. I couldn’t hug him, but I would have if I could. With new computer, and retrieved documents, I was back to the land of the living, breathing author.

I don’t know what Marnin did to bring my computer to life for those precious few hours, some kind of techno mumbo jumbo with a magic wand only he and other geniuses like him would understand. But this High Holiday, twenty years after Rabbi Alan Ullman of Massachusetts brought my neshama back to life, I honor the Rabbi who revived a secular Jew whoseJudiasm was for all intents and purposes dead.

In 1991, I woke up just long enough to be revitalized. Rabbi Ullman spoke words of Torah to me, and from the slumbers of secularism, something in me started stirring. What looked dark, and dead, was only dormant, waiting for the right person to know how to bring me back to life. All those Yom Kippurs when I ate and drank because I didn’t know better, those Rosh Hashana’s when I didn’t go to shul because I didn’t have a clue how to daven, those sukkots that passed me by because I had never even heard of the holiday….I wasn’t lifeless. I wasn’t forgotten. I was just lost.

Twenty years later, my frum husband and our three frum-from-birth children will be davening in shul, pleading for a good year from Hashem.

Rabbi Ullman, you didn’t only change the course of one Jew’s life. You altered the course of history for my family for generations. When you met me, you didn’t see a dead Jew. You saw a Jew who had not yet been awakened. And I met you in the nick of time.

Thank you. My Hakoras Hatov knows no bounds.

Azriela Jaffe is a holocaust memoir writer privately commissioned by families who wish to document the surviving matriarch or patriarch’s life story for future generations. She is the author of 24 books, and also founded the worldwide movement for bringing more kavod into Shabbos by preparing by chatzos on Friday. She can be reached at chatzoslady@gmail.com, or visit www.azrielajaffe.com

Pay Attention to Me!

It was a busy Tuesday morning in the Jaffe household, and since I prepare early for Shabbos by chatzos, Shabbos was on my mind. I put the ingredients into my mixer for my challah, which I often make ahead for the freezer. As the mixer was doing its thing, I reached for the phone. Mistake number one: When making challah, focus on the challah; let the voice mail get the phone.

On the other end of the phone was what I considered bad news. A project that I had invested a number of months into was ending prematurely, at the potential loss to me of several thousand dollars. Mistake number two: Where did my bitachon go? I got very busy making phone calls and trying to fix the problem.

I got myself so emotionally worked up, I decided to go exercise, to release some of the adrenalin flowing through my body. Then, once I was out of the house, there were some errands to run, and four hours later, I returned to my home to pick up mycomputer and briefcase before leaving for my teaching job at Yeshiva at IDT.

When you walk in the front door of my home, the ground level is all one large room. My kitchen at the back of the room opens up to the dining area, which flows into the living room and my office, all of it within sight of the front door as I stepped into the lobby. From across the room, my challah dough called out to me.

YOU FORGOT ALL ABOUT ME!

Yes, I did. The mixer had stopped mixing hours ago, but the dough in the mixer continued to rise, ballooning out of my mixer to the size of a small beachball. I couldn’t stop laughing, when I wasn’t chiding myself about what kind of a woman are you to forget all about your challah dough?

I was on my way to work with only minutes to spare, so there was no time to bake the dough. I punched it back down into a small enough dough ball to fit into the largest mixing bowl I have, covered it with saran wrap, apologized once again to the dough for neglecting it, and placed it in my spare refrigerator to rise for the rest of the day while I was teaching in yeshiva. I braided and baked the dough that night and hoped that this unplanned experiment in rising would work.

That Shabbos, we enjoyed the best challah I have ever made. Apparently, it forgave me for my neglect, enjoyed it’s extended rising time, and produced for our family a taste of ganeden. Later on that week, I was asked to give over a shiur on the chazzak phone line, (personal story 105#) which I readily agreed to do. Incorporated into my shiur was the story of my rising dough, which I saw as a metaphor for all those times when I am busy at my computer, and one of my children is requesting my attention. I asked the question in my shiur: To what extent to our family members feel they need to act like this dough did in my mixer, rising and getting larger and larger and essentially shouting across the room: “You’ve neglected me!” before we pay attention.

It was the Sunday following my recording of the shiur when I listened to my recorded shiur for the first time, to ensure that I had given over what I wanted to share. At this time, my recently barmitzvahed son was working a few feet away from me on his school book report. The shiur was coming through the speaker phone on my desk, and just as I was telling over the story of the dough rising, Elijah said, “Mommy, can you come here? I need help with my book report.”

I didn’t know how to pause the shiur’srecprdomg, and I didn’t want to have to start listening to it all over again, so I raised my finger signaling one moment, and said to him, “As soon as I finish listening to this shiur.” At that very moment, my words echoed through the speaker phone for all to hear in the Jaffe household: “How often do we focus on our work, or our phone calls, or whatever it is, while our children are trying to get our attention, and they have to rise bigger and louder, like the challah dough, shouting at us, “Pay attention to me.”

My son heard these words, and he calmly said, “Mommy, I think we are having one of those moments right now.”

Oh, yes we were.

Azriela Jaffe is a holocaust memoir writer privately commissioned by families who wish to document the surviving matriarch or patriarch’s life story for future generations. She is the author of 24 books, and also founded the worldwide movement for bringing more kavod into Shabbos by preparing by chatzos on Friday. She can be reached at chatzoslady@gmail.com, or visit www.azrielajaffe.com

The Refuah Comes Before the Maka

Since downsizing considerably to move from Pennsylvania to Highland Park, NJ, my husband and I have been sharing a closet in our bedroom for the past six years. Our turf is clearly divided, his belongings to the left, mine to the right, and like wool and linen, never the two shall mix.

My husband is in charge of making sure that our closet keeps smelling nice. I don’t ask what he does to make sure that happens, and he never volunteered the information.

One day, I saw something on the top shelf of my closet that I wanted to pull down. I was too lazy to get a stepstool, so I prodded the corner of the box with a hanger, hoping that I would be able to catch it as it fell off the shelf into my waiting arms.

ARGHHHHHH.

Sitting on top of that box was a plastic cereal bowl I didn’t know was resting there.

Filled with baking soda.

My husband’s secret weapon.

Before I even knew what was coming, responding to my hanger’s prodding, this bowl sailed through the air, did a 180, and deposited about two cups of baking soda all over me. One moment I was eager to check out a box on the top of the closet, and five seconds later I was sputtering, and trying to breathe through nostrils full of white dust. My face, arms, torso, legs, shoes, covered in a white film that is hard to describe, but picture throwing a handful of flour up in the air and letting it settle on you wherever it may land. You get the idea. The angel dust even spread itself all over my hanging clothes, and as I opened my mouth to scream for my husband, it entered my mouth as well. (Baking soda is renowned for its dental health qualities, but I don’t recommend eating it raw.)

The sight my husband and children found as I slunk out of our closet should have aroused sympathy, but instead, it brought on gales of laugher, the rolling on the floor, every time you try to control yourself, you just laugh more… kind of laughter. You see, apparently, I was quite the sight.

But Hashem brings the refuah before the maka. My hair was covered in a cap, and although coated in baking soda, I was spared the grief of a sheitle full of baking soda, which might have been a novel way to introduce some extra shine to my wig, but who needs the hassle?

It wasn’t long after the baking soda incident saga that I felt Hashem’s preparation for the maka in another palpable way. I visit once a week with Mrs. Lola Mappa, a lovely holocaust survivor residing in Lawrence, NY, for whom I am privileged to write her memoirs. As I was leaving her home today, she suggested to me that I borrow a scarf of hers, so that I shouldn’t be cold on the way home. I insisted that I was dressed warmly enough in my jacket, and that I would only be in the car anyway, so there was no need for a scarf. Lola has a big heart, and she wouldn’t hear of it. She went to her room and removed from a drawer one of her personal scarves and showed me how to wrap it around my neck for warmth. I appreciated her kindness, although I felt the scarf to be entirely unnecessary. I left with it wrapped securely around my neck.

A half-mile from Lola’s home, I heard myself scream as my car made an explosive sound. My right front tire blew out into smithereens, rendering my car immediately incapacitated. I was traumatized by this unexpected, dangerous turn of events, and with shaking hands, I called Triple AAA from the side of the road. (I was not from there, and I didn’t know if they had Chaverim!). I paced the side of the road for quite some time as I waited for Triple AAA rescue to arrive. I was shaking from fear, but I was warm, in my new, winter scarf.

Hashem prepared the refuah before the maka. And good for me, Lola was listening.

Azriela Jaffe is a regular writer for Mishpacha magazine, the author of 24 books, a holocaust memoir writer hired by private families who wish to document their matriarch or patriarch survivor’s life story, and also known in the Jewish community as the “chatzos lady.” Visit www.chatzos.com for more information on how to transform your approach to the stress of erev Shabbos. www.azrielajaffe.com

The Empty Chairs

First published in Mishpacha Family First, Pesach, 2010

I remember my surprise, the first time, 17 years ago, that I learned that there were TWO Sederim for Pesach. And the seder isn’t twenty minutes long? And what’s this about eating no chometz for 8 days, and separate dishes, pots, and pans, and you can’t start the seder until 9 P.M.? This was not the Passover of my upbringing!

My secular family held on to two Jewish rituals – my brothers were circumcised with a mohel, and we always gathered for the Passover seder. I had no idea, growing up, that the twenty minute – dunk the parsley, break open the one box of Manischewitz Matzoh bought for the occasion, and then sing “dayeinu” – seder of my youth was a poor substitute for the real deal. In my family, Passover lasted as long as the seder, and we came from the “is it over yet, when can we eat the meal?” perspective. I will never forget my first frum seder, and oh, why didn’t anyone warn me? I arrived hungry, had no clue that we wouldn’t be starting the matzoh ball soup until way past 10 P.M. and couldn’t fathom that this was the same Passover seder I had supposedly participated in all of my life.

The Passovers of my youth are now long gone. My husband and I became frum, are raising our children frum from birth, and it’s been 16 years since we’ve spent Pesach with our families of origin. We went through the painful and necessary separation from our families, and came to peace with the reality that it is entirely impossible for us to spend Pesach in their homes, or to join them for their version of the Passover seder. We invite them to our seder every year, and every year they politely decline. Some BT families manage to find some form of compromise to allow for family togetherness on Passover. In our family, we stick to Thanksgiving and the summer time share vacation as those opportunities, and when it comes to Pesach, the secular families stay far away, and we can’t convince them otherwise.

When you’ve been ba’al teshuvah for as long as we have, there are certain realities you get used to – certain holidays come around every year, with the same result. Every year my children feel sad when they hear of their friends who are looking forward to Pesach at Bubbe’s, or hanging out with the cousins at the Pesach hotel, or Zayde leading the seder. It is the annual reminder for our children that as frum as they are, their seder table will be absent, once again, any grandparents, cousins, aunts, or uncles. It will be a stark reminder to them that we are the only religious family in our entire extended clan.

I say the words out loud to them every year, and I mean them, even more so, now that my children are now teenagers: “Very soon, Tatty and Mommy will be Bubbe and Zayde and you’ll be here with your children, who will have frum cousins to play with, and grandparents at their seder, you’ll see. . .. “

B’ezras Hashem, it will be. It is this vision that my husband and I cling to when the BT journey is arduous. And still, although I try to be upbeat in front of my children, I also feel sad. I, too, miss a generational seder, with my parents, their grandparents, present, and with frum cousins making a ruckus. As I am starting to feel a bit melancholy, I make myself think about it in a whole new light:

I am writing family-commissioned holocaust memoirs; my mind travels to the five survivors whose life stories I’ve written thus far. I think about their first Pesach after liberation. Parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, gone. Ripped away from the annual Pesach seder, murdered, with no warning that the last seder enjoyed together before Nazi terror would be the last.

Empty chairs at the seder.

The pain, unimaginable, impossible to accept.

Every one of the five survivors I’ve come to know are now, Baruch Hashem, leading Sederim with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren squeezing into the seder table, and Bubbe and Zayde, survivors, brimming with Yiddish nachas.

There are no more empty chairs at their seder tables. Their beloved, lost relatives live on in their namesakes. Sweet revenge.

My children escaped from the holocaust of our generation – assimilation. The empty chairs at our seder table will be filled in one more generation, B’ezras Hashem!

Putting Hubby First

I didn’t grow up with a mother who gave me any kind of pre-marital chat about how to be a good wife. But I learned from watching her. In our household, she was fully dedicated to taking care of my father’s every need. I vividly remember their routine – he ran a business about a 25-minute ride from home. He would call when he was leaving work, and my mother would time the evening supper meal perfectly so that when we all heard the automatic garage door opener, and my father was pulling in the driveway, my mother was plating up his dinner. Perhaps that is why my husband comes home to a warm meal every night, timed with his train schedule. I grew up thinking this was entirely normal.

The longer you are married, the easier it is to get lax on this kind of commitment. My husband, Stephen, would most certainly be forgiving if on any given evening he came home to a flustered, busy wife, and she said, “Didn’t happen today, dear – make yourself a sandwich.” It’s never happened, not once, and truthfully, I fully enjoy the ritual of preparing my husband’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s what I love about being married to him all these years, not what I wish I could remove from my to-do list. Chas v’shalom.

And so it came to be just recently that my commitment to always putting my husband first was tested. A family simcha on my husband’s side meant that Stephen was going to go away to the Berkshire Mountains for a weekend, leaving the children and me here. (That’s a longer story, not for this column, but everyone who reads Beyond BT can relate to when you decide to send away one member of the family to the obligatory family simcha that takes place over shabbos amongst non observant relatives). I made him his own special Shabbos food, and we packed him up to leave Friday morning. Meanwhile, the idea of Shabbos in our home without him was too depressing, so I called two good friends and invited the children and me to them, one Friday night, and one Shabbos day.

We make plans, and G-d laughs. Friday morning, the only news anyone was talking about was the first weather “event” to hit our area – in the form of a major snowstorm for Saturday night and Sunday that promised to dump 2 feet of snow in the area. It would not be safe driving for my husband. And so, after a long pow wow, we decided that he would opt out of the simcha, and stay home for Shabbos. Fantastic news for us.

Here’s the rub. We NEVER go out on Friday night for a meal. It’s our family time, and my husband relishes Friday night dinner with just the family after a long workweek, and making up for the sleep he is deprived of all week long by his grueling schedule. When we learned that he’d be home, he requested of me that I cancel our attendance at my friend’s house, as he preferred to eat at home. I protested – “that’s not fair to her, as I’m sure she’s done all the cooking already”. And, truth be told, I wasn’t interested or ready to make a Shabbos meal. I am ready for Shabbos by chatzos every week, and this was two hours before chatzos.

My husband is an agreeable guy, and he shrugged and agreed. Decision made. But it nagged at me. I knew that I wasn’t putting him first. And, I knew that I could, if I wanted to. I called my friend to find out if she’d already cooked for us, and found out that she isn’t a chatzos family – she hadn’t even begun cooking yet. And that’s when I knew the right decision. I wouldn’t be putting her out by cancelling; in fact, it would relieve pressure on her. And I would make my husband very happy.

I got into gear, and without my husband’s knowledge (he had gone elsewhere for a few hours), I put together a meal and set the table for dinner – before chatzos. Stephen would never have demanded it, but as he sat at the table on Friday night, beaming at his children, enjoying his wife’s cooking, and admiring a beautiful table, I knew that I’d made the right decision.

I was looking forward to a night off – no cooking, no dishes to wash, someone else to serve me for once. I traded that freedom for something much better – a look of gratitude in my husband’s eyes.

Azriela Jaffe is the author of twenty books. Most recently she has been focusing her writing efforts on holocaust memoirs. She is hired privately by families to write the life story of their surviving holocaust matriarch or patriarch. After months of interviews, she produces a finished book for the family. Azriela’s new novella, entitled ,“Meant to Be” will be in Jewish bookstores the end of January. And most recently, she is known as the “chatzos lady” because she has organized an email support group that now includes 160 women from all over the world who want to learn how to be fully ready for Shabbos by mid-day on Friday. To join this group, email azriela at chatzoslady@gmail.com. To inquire about her holocaust memoir writing, email azjaffe@optonline.net

Vaccinating Our Children Against Prayer

I am writing this column on the train – the one AFTER the one I was supposed to catch, as I experienced that forlorn feeling when I rushed as fast as my legs would carry me, my briefcase, coat, umbrella, and take-home kosher pizza for the kids from my business meeting in Manhattan to the train that would carry me home to my Highland Park, NJ home. As I strode confidently on to the platform, relieved that I had “just made it”, I saw the doors close before me, sudden and sure, with me on the outside of the door. I missed my planned train by something like 5 seconds, and I wasn’t happy as I mentally calculated the impact on my schedule of needing to wait for the next one.

It’s a dangerous thing, giving a writer time to sit in a train station to contemplate. I couldn’t get the image out of my head – that of the train door slamming in my face, and the sheer permanence of it. No amount of begging, waving at the conductor, crying, would have helped. I was simply on the other side of the door; the lucky ones were inside, and I was outside.

My mind flashed to my business meeting earlier in the day, which began when a man in the meeting made what was seemingly a friendly gesture – he offered half of his tuna fish sandwich to another man in the room. The other man smiled widely at the generosity but immediately declined the offer. “Let me tell you why I NEVER eat tunafish,” he said. He then proceeded to explain that when he was a child – many years ago – he had become carsick on a family trip when he reached into a bag looking for a yummy treat and instead, came up with tunafish coating his hands, and sending a wrenching smell up to his nose which led him to lose the contents of his stomach. From that moment, tunafish was a four-letter word – just the thought of it, (and especially the sight or smell of it), made him feel queasy.

Essentially, this man had become vaccinated against any lifelong enjoyment of tunafish, in one quick moment. And this, my fellow readers, is the best way I can describe how I felt, and feel every year, during the High Holiday davening that we have all recently experienced. At the ripe old age of 50, I can tell you that I was vaccinated against meaningful prayer when I was about 10, and 40 years later, I still feel that I am standing on the wrong side of the door – the one where people hold a siddur and look like they are praying, but they are disconnected, tired of standing, confused, and sad, because they don’t know how to daven, and they can’t seem to “get there” no matter how hard they try.

I was raised with the typical secular introduction to prayer – none. There was no mention of G-d in my childhood home, no Hebrew school, no role models of people who ever prayed, no understanding of the Hebrew language – and the best vaccination of all – I was forced to go to synagogue two days a year, for “Happy New Year” and Yom Kippur, where all I remember about those experiences is counting the ceiling titles, the pages left to go in the siddur, and the hours to go.

I do not blame my childhood upbringing for being “vaccinated” against meaningful prayer. I am an intelligent adult who has read hundreds of inspirational articles, books, and magazines, attended shiurum, conversed with partners in Torah, and relied upon my trusty transliterated siddur to help me manage the Hebrew in the service. I understand that prayer is an avodah and I know that working at it is a lifelong ambition.

I also know that, just like the man who to this day can’t stomach tunafish because of his childhood negative association, it is taking a lifetime of work to try to undo the entrenched negative association I have embedded in me from unhappy childhood connections – or disconnections as it were – with synagogue.

I may not ever get it right in this lifetime. For me, it might be too late, but at least my children know what it’s like to live in a house where people pray, they are learning how to pray, and more importantly why to pray at school and at home, and they go to synagogue every week, not twice a year. Even if they sometimes find prayer boring, and synagogue too long ( don’t we all), of one thing I am confident. They have a better shot at it than I do, because they were never vaccinated against it.

My time of sitting in the train – and thus the luxury of contemplation – is coming to an end. I leave you for now with one last thought that gives me pause. Some childhood experiences are so visceral and deeply felt, they enter into our children and lodge permanently somewhere in their psyche, never to be entirely shaken loose. As I am still in a contemplative mood from recent Yom Kippur introspection, I ask myself now, are my children at all vaccinated against something for which I would hope they would not have a negative association? Did it come from me?

I pray not.

Whew, I do know how to pray after all.

Syndicated newspaper advice columnist and author of twelve books, Azriela Jaffe is an international expert on entrepreneurial couples, business partnerships, handling rejection and criticism, balancing work and family, breadwinner wife and dual career issues, creating more luck and prosperity in your life, and resolving marital conflict. Her mission: “To be a catalyst for spiritual growth and comfort.”
Visit her web site here.

The Complexities of Eating Kosher at the Family Time Share

I am writing this from the condo, having just polished off the kosher dinner that I cooked and shlepped to the annual time share vacation that we participate in every year with my parents and brothers and their wives and children. The family rents the time share location for a full week but we ( me and the kids) come for the Sunday – Tuesday of the week – after Shabbos, and returning on Wednesday so that a) I have time to prepare for the next Shabbos at home, and b) because it’s too onerous for me to even think about preparing all of the food for the family for longer than three days.

Over the years, we’ve become accustomed to bringing our own kosher food and trying to ignore the non-kosher food the rest of the family brought, or buys, and eats alongside of ours. Over time, I’ve more often elected to cook so much food, everyone can eat kosher and we don’t end up in this weird divided place with the “kosher eaters” and “the non-kosher eaters.” It also gives me a small degree of pleasure to see my family eating kosher food, which isn’t the case the rest of the year.

This year I was placed in a particular dilemma, which I thought I’d share with you, because I bet many of you will relate.

I just celebrated my 50th birthday. At the time share, the family got together and decided to offer me the gift of everyone being taken out for dinner at the local kosher restaurant that was within a few miles of the time share.

Normally, I would have snapped up the opportunity to get a paid-for kosher meal I didn’t have to cook. But this time, before going to this time share, I went online and found mostly very negative reviews for the only kosher restaurant that was a realistic alternative. It was way over priced, and service was notoriously slow. So, now I had a big problem. If we went out as a family (a whole lot of us) and my father treated everyone to the meal ( as would happen), the bill would be enormous. If the food was just okay and not amazing (which is what online reviews said), and the service was terribly slow to boot, I would be feeling responsible for the quality of every bite they ate, and every nickel my father spent, worried that he’d be thinking, “Geez, if I have to spend all this money for it to be kosher, does it have to be this bad?”, or, “You know, if I didn’t have to take the whole family out to a kosher meal, it would have been a third of the price to just order pizza!” Although I appreciated the offer for a meal out, instead, I insisted that I had brought enough food to amply feed everyone ( true) and we could use his money for other purposes.

I wonder about the experiences of others who are reading this essay. Have you ever felt that you were defending all of kashrus when going out to a kosher restaurant with non-kosher eating relatives? Do you shlep along enough kosher food for not just you but for the rest of the family when you go to a mixed family vacation? Do you think there’s anything to be said for the one or two kosher meals that you manage to get your family to eat when the rest of the year they are eating trafe? Does it give you pain to see your family eating non kosher food without a second thought? These are the thoughts on my mind this evening

Fresh from the trenches –

Signed,

A kosher Jewish mother and wife, and also a daughter, a sister, a sister-in law and an aunt to those who are not. . . . complicated business, isn’t it?

Azriela Jaffe

How Can We Mitigate the Effects of Wrong Doing By Religious Jews?

There are few Jews in the world, who weren’t pained with the stories and photographs in the newspaper and the live pictures on television showing our rabbeim in handcuffs, stoic faces, being marched off the bus and to court. We read every word in the paper and ask ourselves, how could this happen? And during the nine days no less. We try to give benefit of the doubt, but it is difficult. We see the sight of an 87 year old rabbi, the pinnacle of wisdom and holiness, with his head hanging low, being marched off to what might be his ends years in prison. We want it all to turn out to be a big mistake, for our brothers to be cleared of all wrong doing. We cry for the communities who have to deal with the loss of their rabbinic leaders and their trust. It’s devastating.

Since this website is Beyond BT, I want to suggest a new discussion post topic related to this.

Does anyone feel particularly embarrassed because it’s religious Jews, and it’s hard enough convincing your secular family that you’ve chosen the right path, but this doesn’t further that cause?

When the Madoff scandal hit, we were all embarrassed that he was Jewish, but for me, seeing religious Jews in handcuffs, with their long beards and peyos and kippot and tzizzis, it’s all the more painful. And I find myself wondering what my family is thinking, and if they will use this to further their already negative perceptions of religious Jews. Ideally, we understand that every religion has people off the derech, and it doesn’t mean the whole derech is bad. We have peaceful Muslims trying to convince us of that all the time.

So is anyone embarrassed about this latest shanda, as it relates to how your secular family already views religious Jews?