A(-nother) Moment of Awe

Oh, wow. Hmmm…Gosh. Ooh…Sigh…Gulp.

That’s me being awed during these awesome “Days of Awe;” the ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur; a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and repent.

I don’t think of them really as “sins” as much as actions or reactions I may have had in the past year that could have or should have been different. Sure, I can imagine a few of my behavioral faux-pas as sins, quite easily in fact, if I think of them in the context of the Yom Kippur prayer-book language, but since I’m resolved to be more compassionate, toward myself included, I choose not to use that language.

As a creative and emotional person, I am already prone to daily moments of being wonderstruck, to be amazed and at a loss for words (hence all the tears and maybe the laughter, too). To be awed by my surroundings is not unusual for me: people, places, and happenings, even the seemingly most insignificant ones, can easily leave me awestruck. This is perhaps what makes me at once a challenging partner, friend and parent, yet in the same swoop a deeply engaged and caring one.

And funny. And loud.

But yesterday I was especially quieted, and particularly awed by my octogenarian friend Leo, a Holocaust survivor. To such a degree was I feeling overwhelmed by reverential respect after something Leo said while we were sharing our lunch, that my heart skipped several beats, and I sounded like – if there was any sound at all – the onomatopoeias above:  Oh, wow. Hmmm…Gosh. Ooh…Sigh…Gulp.

On Yom Kippur it is customary to light memorial candles that burn for 24 hours. Special memorial prayers are said for our beloved departed ones, both privately and communally, to heighten the appreciation of the unique holiday spirit. It’s all about life and death, prayer for redemption, that sort of stuff: who shall live and who shall die, who by sward and who by fire…you catch my drift. Imagine the significance for these words and images for someone who has lived through the trauma of the Nazi death camps.

In between mouthfuls of his favorite Subway sandwich, Leo mentioned that his aide had not been able to find any memorial candles, that they were all sold out, everywhere. “Somebody cleaned’em out” I quipped. “Sure” he said, “there was a two for one sale!” I knew I had one at home, in the bottom of a drawer somewhere, left from last time (they were on sale!) and so I offered him mine. I would always be able to track down another one for myself before the big day.

Since my one, significant loss in life – my father died nearly three years ago – I have lit a candle for him on Yom Kippur and other fast days. Although he was not a Jew, I chose to ritually enter into the private and communal act of remembrance “à la manière juive” since this is, after all, how I have chosen to live my life.

“Oh, thank you sweetheart,” Leo offered, “but I need twelve candles!” I looked a bit puzzled up from my salad that I was only picking at to keep him company, and before I could begin to realize what he meant, let alone ask, he matter of faculty reminded me of the sober statistics of his life. In a voice sounding like a patient teacher kindly enumerating the mathematical facts – so often repeated for the students at a loss and who just can’t grasp it – as if the facts were the bare bones reality of the most incomprehensible highest truth: “I light eight candles for my brothers and sisters [who were children and killed in the Holocaust], two for my parents [also killed in the camps], one for the woman who saved me [a righteous Polish Christian], and one for Norma [his late life partner].”

I fell silent. In less than a nano-second it seems images of my own children flash before my eyes, as well as my sister and myself as children, and my parents as I have been blessed to know them and love them all my life. It was “just” another moment – but a profound moment – of awe, mixed with fear AND wonder at all the kindness, resilience and courage, as well as with all the impossible heartache, evil and desperation a person can carry with him in his life, and even more admiration that this person can still have the capacity to wake up in the morning and chose to greet another day with a smile; making friends, loving his neighbors and finding enough hope and dreams to hang on.

I wish all of you, too, the ability to be able to find some awe in your days. Pick a day, any day. It’s important to feel the awe.

Days of Awe

New Year Resolution? Compost and Compassion!

It’s the Jewish New Year (5775 for those counting or curious) and I say BRING IT ON!

Bring on the giddy renewal of a new year, and all the hopes and dreams it can and should hold.

What happened right before Rosh Hashanah makes me believe that change is always possible, and that love, compassion and small efforts are really the key ingredients to making hearts sing.

What happened was so small, yet brought me to tears: For the first time since I became Jewish, some 26 years ago, my non-Jewish mother (in Norway) texted me: “L’Shanah Tovah! Hugs to all from Mormor!” Now THAT is just special when your Norwegian speaking mom makes the effort to send a greeting in Hebrew: Imagine the auto correct texting battle on her iPhone in Oslo. Not that she hasn’t supported my choices in life; not that she isn’t aware of the various Jewish Holidays, but that small effort made a huge difference in how I was able to enter the holiday period with what felt like a lifted spirit.

It’s the small things that matter. I will bring this memory with me into the new year, and with more compassion toward others and even myself, I hope to bring on some small but meaningful changes.

Shanah tovah

***

And the compost, you ask?

As I was cooking up a storm for the various meals I was hosting for the holidays, I looked at the ever growing mounds of vegetable and fruit peels, cores and ends in my sink and decided to no longer toss all these goodies in the trash or down the garbage disposal. Finally – after how many years of serious meal preparations? and a constant nagging feeling that it is just wrong to throw it all in the garbage – an internal voice said “If not now, when?”

My friend has a big compost unit in his garden, and I have now seen the magic in action and up close; how the “gold” is produced over time. I simply could not bring myself to throw all the stuff away, although my old muscle memory made fun of my newfound idealism, and I had to more than once pick stuff back out of the trash to put it in the compost pile. Old habits die hard. But they can be “finished off” with a small effort.

So I say Compost and Compassion; my two invigorating buzz words for this New Year of 5775.

Compost

Want a Fan Club?

Buy This House in Our Neighborhood

There’s a house for sale on our street, and it’s not just any house, nor is it just any street. If you buy it I (can almost) guarantee you will gain an immediate fan club. Talk about a fringe benefit! Your new neighbors will likely come up to you with big smiles and greet you, some perhaps bearing gifts, welcoming you and thanking you for taking on the project. They will tell you about our great block parties, the progressive dinners we have had, and you will feel loved and appreciated.

Our street is in the historic part of town, graced with many stately and charming homes that owners seem to take a particular pride in resorting,, and where you can sense a palpable awareness of the value of maintaining older homes.

It sits there on the corner of our block ­­– once a stunning pale yellow colonial with white trims and charming eaves, neat and lush laurel shrubs lining the white picket fence – but over the last few years it has been uninhabited, and now looks forsaken and sad, as if its soul once walked out the door and never returned.

As the fence has peeled, the shrubs have became unruly and the shutters drooped, we, the neighbors, have watched with sinking hearts while the unforgiving players of time and seasons have made their marks on this former bright pearl of the neighborhood.

But like natural pearls that lose their luster, this unique house too can regain its former splendor once it receives the right care; a clear vision coupled with the will to restore a once graceful home, and some good old TLC.

And I bet once a family moves in and breathes its energy into the walls of the house, the dailiness of life will quickly bring about the long needed transformation. And there will be a supportive troop cheering on the metamorphosis, no matter how long or slow it will be.

Maybe we’ll will start a fan-page on Facebook and follow the process with encouraging comments and inspirational quotes.

But hey, no pressure; welcome to our neighborhood!

old-house1

Bursting at the Seams

As I am swiftly approaching my 49th birthday, I’m bursting at the seams in more ways than one. In a figurative way, I am bursting out of the 40s, hanging on (by my claws?) to this last precious year as a “40-something” which I plan to relish to the fullest. I so want my 40s, all of them, to have been fabulous. But the truth is, they haven’t been.

The other bursting is taking place down here on the battleground, where the dailiness of life happens, where I am literally bursting out of the seams of my clothes.

Four years ago, while going through my divorce, I was thin as a bean. “Wow, you look great!” I heard from left and right, and so in a manic attempt at convincing myself that it was all happening for a reason, I created a mental connection between the skinny me and the “a-okay.” Funny thing is, I was miserable, of course. But it felt great to be slender, even fitting back into my wedding gown from 23 years prior, which I wore to the Purim Carnival that year with the sign “mail order bride” dangling morosely from my neck.

Today, shimmying into my stretchy jeans, cursing under my breath at what I’d like to call the shrinkage factor of the dryer cycle, I’m puzzled at the bursting. I am happy, I tell myself. I have come such a long, long way, I confirm, doing a quick mental inventory of all the self-improvement, mindfulness, yoga, hypnosis and therapy sessions I have been part of in the last four years. I am doing what I love, my children are healthy, I am loved. Breathe in, breathe out. My bra feels tight, damn it.

True to form, in my over-thinking mind, I begin to ponder: Maybe I’m not happy. I may be telling myself that I am, when in fact, I may be faking it. With all the awful recent world events that social media brings too close, too often, it’s enough to make the most balanced Zen chick weepy, compulsively pouring the scotch and piling on the French cheese on those gluten free organic crackers. And then there are all those lingering haunting thoughts about one’s past: “what it I had just…” Maybe in this life of mine, bursting as it is with goodness, blessings and possibilities, I am also lying to myself?

However, deep down I know that what I am bursting with, is not just empathic pain for the exterior world, but also, still, the emotions of the slow and arduous path to my own emotional recovery. I also recognize that, like the glistening and plump seeds bursting forth from the cracked open pomegranate, the traditional fruit of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, from which yields a glorious nourishing elixir, I have the ability to feed my soul with the stuff of my bursting.

If I only put my mind to it.

Fortunately, I don’t have to wait until December 31st to make my New Year’s resolutions, because the Jewish New Year is right around the corner. Moving forward, I want to be compassionate, not to bear down too hard. The resilience and enthusiasm I know is part of my temperament must carry me forward, and I will burst ahead with more gratitude, and less tears, at what truly seems a sacred life.

Bursting Pomegranite

Fifteen Religious Jews Jumping in a Lake

Fifteen religious Jews jumping in a lake. That sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it?

But it isn’t. It is was what I saw the other day.

Imagine you’re taking a walk along a remote dirt road on the south side of a lake in rural Maine. You notice it’s green everywhere, the air is fresh; it smells of moss and moist earth.

Suddenly you hear a car approaching, the way tires sound on a pebbly road, and you prepare to step over to the side as what you now notice is a van, no wait, two vans with New York plates approach.

As the vans pass you, you see that they are full of young, religious Jewish dudes, with their payot or side curls flowing freely, and their black kippot or skullcaps propped loosely on their more or less shaven heads. The driver, a pimply, blond, round faced guy leans out of the window with a cigarette between his lips.

They slow down and ask us if we know of any public access here; they’d like to swim. My friend, who is also Jewish, but to them looks like just a “regular” guy (jeans, t-shirt, a cap) walks over to the window of the car, leans in and assesses the peering dark eyes, the cramped in young male bodies, and says “Shalom aleichem!” This startles the driver greatly, who exclaims, incredulously, “You’re Jewish!?”

They think they are the only Jews in Maine.

After a few introductory remarks, just to eliminate all doubt of imposture, my friend leans in again and says, in the tone of loving zayde or grandfather, “Come out here guys, so I can see you!” whereupon they all gladly pour out of both vans and begin to gather chaotically around us. Some have towels slung over their shoulders, they are all wearing tzitzit, the required fringes that hang down from their everyday undergarment, casually and loosely worn over white t-shirts. One guy is wearing a dark, blue terry cloth bath robe.

There’s laughter, questions, some light up cigarettes, others pace nervously between the cars, some smile at me while yet others shy away from my gaze when we answer their inquiries about where the best spot to swim might be. They tell my friend to come join them for davning – prayers – at their camp in the next town over, and stick a note in his hand with their phone number scribbled on it.

We know well where a great spot for swimming is. We direct them. We point and explain. As they climb back into the vans, they thank us, and we hear laughter and excitement as the drivers struggle a bit to turn the vans around on the narrow dirt road, and then they honk as they drive off.

When we approach the turn in the road, on the other side of the lake, where we had suggested they give the swimming a try, we hear them; shrieks of joyful sounds cutting through the woods, splashing water, and loud music. Religious, up-beat music blasting from the speakers in the vans.

The sight was worth a million dollars. There were the fifteen religious Jews having the time of their lives swimming, basking, splashing, jumping, dunking and diving. A couple had swum out to an orange, plastic, floating pier and were dancing on top of it. Holding each other’s arms and dancing the way you might see religious Jews dance at a simcha or a celebration.

Fifteen religious Jews jumping in the lake; it was such a great and refreshing vision to see them enjoying themselves freely and wholeheartedly, basking in some of God’s finest natural surroundings, far away from their native Brooklyn.

And that’s when it dawned on me why they may have been especially happy: With the Jewish day of morning just behind us; Tisha B’Av having ended a couple days before, and the Sabbath coming the next day, the young men were also using the spring fed lake as a mikvah, or a ritual bath. Getting ready for the holiness of the day of rest, and perhaps marking the possibilities born from new beginnings after a solemn fast day, which Tisha B’Av had been, they were indeed rejoicing.

Fifteen religious Jews jumping in a lake. I was lucky to meet them that day.

Two male friends jumping off dock into lake in mid air

 

 

My Day of Mourning

Starting tonight, I will observe the Jewish day of mourning called Tisha B’Av, or the ninth day of the month of Av, in my own way. I will appropriate the significance of it –– commemorating the many tragedies that have affected the Jewish people throughout history through fasting and prayers –– and I will shape it to make sense in my historical context.

I will light a memorial candle for ALL the victims in the current crisis in the Middle East. Just before sunset, I will eat a hard boiled egg dipped in ashes as a symbol for the mourner, then I will fast for 25 hours, and I will read from the traditional Book of Lamentations. I will continue my prayers for peace, although much more intently, because I will know in my heart there will be millions of Jews around the world who will be crying out at the same time as myself for an end to this suffering. To all suffering.

One way to help me achieve this spiritual time out will be to NOT open Facebook for the duration of Tisha B’Av. For whenever I do, I get tempted and find it impossible not to dive into the glittery, colorful ocean of graphic and verbal debates and accusations about who is at fault, who started, who is using too much force, or the wrong or unfair weapons or tactics. I get sucked in. Like a well meaning, peace seeking California dude surfer, I get sucked into a vortex of bad karma stuff that leaves me feeling like I am suffocating. Drowning. And I need to breathe to live. I need hope.

I will try to be yogic about it: to seek some kind of transcendence, if only momentary, for something that does not make any sense at all: human suffering as it is inevitably brought on in wars.

Where did all those great yoga sayings go, anyway?

 

candle_Candle_light_3009

Oh, the Meaty Delight!

Last night I had me some meaty delight. Or was it meaty guilt? I’m afraid it was a bit of both. I don’t eat a lot of red meat, but when I do, boy do I relish the mouthfuls. It almost puzzles me – even shocks me – as I masticate and “mmmmm” my way through the flesh of another creature, that I, who am normally so full of empathy for all living things, can, and seek to, enjoy eating meat as much as I do.

Let it just be said I “only” enjoy it once a week or less; does this make me less of an offender, your honor?

So, about last night. I cut into the best part of the prime rib we cooked for dinner on the BBQ; the tip part that has the most marbleization – that’s just fancy talk for fat – then found a suitably sized piece of roasted potato to go with it on my fork, and then, finally, a small chunk of caramelized garlic. I put this divine trio in my mouth and I didn’t even try to hold back my moan. I actually moaned.

I’m not the kind of gal who saves the best for last. In fact, I usually eat the best part first, with the idea that perhaps I will be satiated before the food on my plate is gone, and then, at least, if I should die of a heart attack mid-meal, I will have enjoyed the good stuff while I was able to.

I think this loosely translates to a theory of how one can choose to live life. My dad was big on this one. “Let’s enjoy each other while we have us,” he used to say, always acknowledging the relativity of it all.

Of course, I never seem to the heed the “satiated” feeling, that little voice in your head that says “you can and should stop eating now, because even though you don’t actually feel it yet, you are full,” so I end up eating everything on my plate anyway, and then some. Perhaps that’s where the guilt comes in.

Well, as I write these words a fisherman glides by in his canoe on the lake in front of my cabin, his fishing pole bobbing off to the side, the line gently and gracefully skimming the water’s surface.

Perhaps I should try catching me some fish for dinner, even though fish have feelings too.

Prime Rib

 

Chef: The Big Turn On – A Film Review

I admit it, I’m a not just a middle aged social media-hooker, but also a food-porn fan, so the new foodie flick and summer hit, Chef, totally made my day. If you have not yet partaken of this inviting orgasmic, I mean organic visual banquet, put down your spatula, run to the theater and prepare to have a visual feast bound to arouse your senses.

If you are a foodie – or even just dig good food in all its glorious varieties – this summer’s crowd pleaser will make you grin for more reasons than the charming story of a divorced workaholic father (Jon Favreau) re-connecting with his often disappointed young son (Emjay Anthony) who misses out on quality dad-times in the classic divorce-kid reality. The appealing, feel-good plot has top ranked L.A. chef Carl Casper getting two thumbs down by the food world’s evil incarnation of Siskel and Ebert (Oliver Platt), driving Casper to quit his job for the lack of creative freedom enforced by a conservative and controlling restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman). The down and out but eager to re-invent himself chef is gifted an old food truck by an eccentric, wealthy and curious acquaintance (Robert Downey Jr.), and chef Casper, a.k.a. El Jefe, reluctantly takes his son on a road trip from Miami. Joined by his lovable and dedicated sous-chef side-kick Tony (John Leguizamo), the trio drives the gloriously restored taco-truck back to L.A. via various cities known as foodie meccas, serving up greasy, sexy Cubano sandwiches, all while creating a Twitter-frenzy in such a visually clever way on the big screen that it risks tickling and baptizing even the most reluctant social media user.

The casting of sultry Latina diva Sofia Vergara as Casper’s ex-wife is a clever way to sneak in an extra dash of visually sizzling and caliente shapes and sounds, as her curves and outfits are sprinkled throughout the movie with as equal and natural ease as are the many alluring and groovy beats of Latin rhythms (yes, I bought the sound track and am playing it as I write these words). The understated and soothing presence of Scarlett Johansson as Casper’s colleague and casual love interest, Molly, reminds us that sometimes it’s not the spiciest and most colorful dishes, but rather the comfort food that hits the spot.

When writer/director/actor Jon Favreau says his film is “like singing from the heart” he is not only referring to the “mise en scène” of his own childhood experience of bonding with the old man on road trips, because everything that has to do with food is sung from a creative and caring foodie heart in this film. Adds Favreau: “It’s about treating food with reverence,” a sentiment most obvious in the many close ups involving food handling in runs to the farmers’ market, flipping sandwiches on the griddle, or in the slow twirling of the perfect pasta aglio olio served up in the early morning hours after work. From how the greasy cheese melts on the Cubanos to the slicing, dicing, stirring and of course tasting and slurping with requisite moaning, it all basically strikes just the right chords with anyone who’s into food. I’m really not imagining the suggestive links between cooking and erotica, because Favreau’s character actually knows how to find the grill’s slippery “hot spot” for optimal performance. Some critics rant that scenes of Favreau cooking should have been trimmed, but my take is: can I have them in slow-mo replay, please?

I particularly loved how the potentially ugly monster of social media — and the ignorance of its power by the not so old parent (younger than me!) — was cleverly incorporated as a lesson the munchkin could teach his dad. The film’s clever use of Twitter shows that, when used with some entrepreneurial savvy (even by amateurs and kids), it really can make a positive difference. “You’re trending, bro” sous-chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale) says to Casper– who is sending angry tweet responses to his critic into cyberspace without having a clue about how the thing really works. Oh boy is he trending.

Since I used to buy my lunch from a food truck throughout my entire, very long graduate school career on a campus in the boonies, I don’t feel like a novice in the setting; however, I will never be able to look at a food truck the same way after Chef. With its many intimate cooking scenes from inside the food truck pantry, involving meaningful conversations about life and love — such as when Casper says to his son: “I get to touch peoples’ lives with what I do, and I love it! And I wanna share this with you” — I now have a new appreciation for the stories behind each mobile cuisine and the folks inside, as we may find them lined up along boulevard stretches and on street corners.

As it turns out, the initially prickly food critic is not so bad after all; just like the sabra cactus of the Middle East, he is tough on the outside and soft on the inside. He eventually comes around and offers El Jefe a partnership deal so sweet he can’t refuse, and although the ending is a bit too fairy-tale sugary for this real life cynic, it all works because it’s the love of food that seems to bring on all this positive change in the characters’ lives. Just as Puerto Rican salsa king Pete Rodriguez reminds us with Chef’s groovy music score, making us walk away giddy from the experience bopping to the irresistible Latin beat: “I like it like that!”  — For this is the movie that makes you feel happy, hot and hungry, and with this tantalizing combo, it’s simply impossible to turn down seconds.

As Israeli chef Bino Gabso, a.k.a. Dr. Shakshuka has said about the fulfilling experience of serving up awesome food: “Beyond knowing how to cook, you have to know how to eat.” Like a great meal cooked up and served with love, Chef is likely to leave you feeling good, and a tad high on serotonin. Bon appétit!

Chef

Modern Day Don Giovanni: A Poem

Leaving Don Giovanni

 

91 in Turkey, 117 in Germany, 236 in France

Maid or lady, young, old

The list goes on

He had them all, and wanted more

 

Number 24, the summer of our youth

Tall, blond and from Norway

Like the nobleman’s conquests,

I, too, naïvely, gave my all

 

Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Zerlina

I get your pain and anger

A virility that seduces, he believes his love to be true

Alas, the one he loves is himself, not me nor you!

 

But all of me was not enough

Just more than he could handle

So off he went, or, just continued

Wanting more, wanting all.

 

Like his comical brother

His baritone voice boasts:

Non mi pento! Non mi pento!

Conscience has a price, you see

 

So, I take my leave

From the Don who had it all

Lest he die the scorching death

Of his pathetic comrade

 

Non mi pento…

As I walk out the door

Non mi pento

As I, too, want more.

 

Don_Giovanni_Playbill_Vienna_Premiere_1788 

 

Where’s the Junk?!?

Late last night as I was driving back to Connecticut from New York City on the Merritt Parkway, my favorite way back to “the country,” I began feeling droopy approaching New Haven, and I thought some good old junk food would hit the spot. At least I figured it would reek some havoc with my blood sugar and give it an unhealthy spike surprising my senses enough – before the guilt would set in – to keep me awake for the home stretch.

The fantasizing and planning phase of the service area stop was in and of itself perking me up; I was scheming about going straight for the good old candy and chips isle for some sweet and salty delights. And of course a Diet Coke. Note the Diet. I visualized my move as I would swiftly snag a bag of Munchos, those “light and crispy” artery cloggers that are so processed and salty they have probably been banned from most modern day snack venues, despite the fact that they are made from a vegetable. I think there was some low-carb potato in there at some point.

I pull in to the next service stop – and I should add that along the quaint Merritt Parkway, a historic limited-access “highway” known for its scenic layout, its uniquely styled signage, and architecturally elaborate overpasses along the route, the service stations have been recently renovated and now have bathrooms with a spa-like aura painted in subdued trendy colors and matching earthy mosaic tiles, automatic everything and soft background music – and I make a beeline for the snack section. Looking for my designated junk booty, my eyes give way to a worrisome scan of what appears to be a Whole Foods mini-mart. Where’s the junk?!? Granola this, yogurt that. Wrappers screaming protein power and gluten free delights. Squirrel food I say. I want my junk! And there, all the way in the back, on the hidden side of the rack; sad, forgotten and ignored like a bunch of reject kids on a dodgeball lineup at that awfully discriminatory and mean team selection moment in high school, there were my darlings.

I walked out gently and kindly holding a Twix, a bag of Muchos and a Diet Coke, as if I had rescued orphans that were in desperate need of love and affection. Poor things.

The rest of the drive home was a breeze, and as soon as I had killed my darlings, when the guilt was about to set in but I was still high on God knows what, I gladly brushed it and all the crumbs away and with another gulp of aspartame and caffeine instead reflected on how even junk has its rightful and just place in the world.

Junk-Food1