Sukkah Memories

Being an empty nester on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot is not for lightweights. No more little helpers eager to hang all those adorable and by now faded and partially crushed sukkah decorations made in school over the years. No more little voices begging to spend the night under the stars, barely sheltered by the brush and bamboo we use as a sukkah roof, nestled into sleeping bags cuddling with their mamma on sheepskins and air mattresses. No more raucous gatherings with teens wolfing down pizza and junk food, leaving a mess, but non the less doing it in the sukkah and thereby performing the mitzvah of “le-shev be-sukkah“—to sit in the sukkah.

Not only are my boys no longer living at home, but I am also temporarily (but voluntarily) displaced, and so have not put up a sukkah this year. In order to feel the closeness of my three sons whom I miss even more intensely than usual whenever a holiday comes around, I group-texted them a holiday greeting with a question: What is your favorite memory from growing up celebrating Sukkot?

Their sweet responses made me laugh out loud while I relished their memories, vividly seeing each of them in their own articulation of holiday enjoyment:

Tobi, my oldest, the peace-maker and gentle soul with a sweet tooth, said he fondly recalled all the “joyous Sukkot meals with lots of different guests…And the honey on the challah” (a family tradition we started was to dip the challah in honey for the WHOLE month of Tishrei).

Gabi, my middle son, the foodie with the competitive edge who is wooed by all things great, loved the sukkah hops, and “getting to see who had the best snacks and the coolest set-up.” He added, “I remember the Feigenbaums always had junk food and we always had the most fun sukkah!”

And Benya, my youngest, the pensive creative spirit and practical problem-solver, remembered how much he enjoyed “setting up the sukkah and making it look nice with all the ornaments and art from school.”

For a few precious moments the boys felt as if they were huddling right next to me reminiscing, and I was tickled to see how their memories corresponded in quality to each unique character. This in turn reminded me of how it’s our individual nature that feeds and shapes our memories.

Chag sameach! Happy Sukkot!

May your family holiday memories be as brilliant as the stars in the sky!

Sukkot Chabad

Photo credit: Chabad.org

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The Polar Bear and the Mezuzah

We step over cables, pieces of sheetrock, and the old torn down doorframe in my sister’s new home in Norway, which is undergoing a total renovation before they will move in at the end of June. Taking me on a tour of the project in process, she tells me of her vision for their dream nest, with one brilliant and thoughtful concept after another. Washer and dryer at hip level so no bending is needed; a small wall-hung fireplace in the open solution kitchen/dining/living room space; lots of windows, glass and light, and mellow, soothing color-tones of grey, white and wheat. I know they will be happy and comfortable here, in a space just “enough bigger” than their smaller, old house, two doors down, and perfectly customized to their family’s needs and beautiful Scandinavian esthetics.

As a housewarming gift I brought her something quirky from Italy: a hand crafted sterling silver and cream colored enamel polar bear from one of the traditional jewelers on the Ponte Vecchio in Firenze, so small it fits in the palm of my hand. The tiny Ursus Maritimus called out to me from a bright window display, surrounded by brilliant, precious objects I usually would not notice. It was perfect: easy to carry to Norway, unobtrusive to my sister who is not into nicknacks, and meaningful—our late dad was a lifelong member of a men’s club, the Polar Society, whose logo was this great nordic icon. Symbolic and evocative, perhaps she will keep it on a ledge in her work-room, where it can bring a smile to her face on winter days when the darkness and the laundry piles become oppressive.

At the end of the tour and as we stand by the old doorframe while musing at the tiny bear, my sister, who is not Jewish and did not buy the house from someone Jewish, bends down and picks up a small, dusty, brass mezuzah from the rubble. “The couple who lived here travelled to Israel a lot throughout their lives,” she says, “the workers must not have known what it is.” She brushes it off and closes her hand around it. “I’d like to put it back up on our new door when it is installed.” The mezuzah is in traditional 1970s style—flat, matte, with a red Hebrew letter “shin” on its face. Inside it, behind a piece of thin metal backing, we find the handwritten parchment with the Hebrew prayer, blessing those who enter.

Later, near midnight as I fall asleep while the sky is still blue and pink, I think about how after 30 years of me living in the US and being Jewish, our culturally blended family has morphed into a unique symbiosis of traditions and appreciations; a kind of attentiveness to what is meaningful for us. But best of all, I tell myself, is the emotional connection in our small clan, which despite much time and distance apart, remains the pulse affirming our shared expereinces.

 

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Hospitality, Redux

There was this writing prompt: “Imagine a historical figure is brought back to life. Who is it? What’s their favorite mobile app?” (max 250 words)

Then this came about:

As the saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman. Abraham and his wife Sarah need no introduction. Although they hail from thousands of years ago, from a land far, far away, don’t worry; they are in great shape, and ready to make a difference once again, just as they did generations ago. But they come as a team!

You may know that Abraham is not only the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but that he’s also considered the archetype of hospitality. He and Sarah opened their home to anyone that came along needing shelter, regardless of who they were, where they came from, and what they believed. In this they are true role models of co-existence.

This is why their favorite app is AirBnB, the ultimate hospitality service app. You’d think they created the company’s mission statement—that you can “belong anywhere” when you stay in AirBnB places around the world. It’s all about making travellers feel at home, even if just temporarily, by graciously opening our dwellings to them.

I happen to be an AirBnB Superhost host in Maine, and this cool couple will be staying in my renovated barn for a few days. I can’t wait to cook up and serve them some great meals, and brainstorm about how to make the world a better place through hospitality and kindheartedness.

Naturally, they have a few things to teach us about welcoming the stranger with compassion and generosity. I’ll make sure to take copious notes and share on social media.

Welcome Mat

 

Do Not Resuscitate: An Obituary

My dear Lexus RX300 left me today. She was 18.

Probably born in Miyawaka, Fukuoka, Japan in either late 2000 or early 2001, it is believed she made the arduous journey across oceans on M/S Andromeda Leader, arriving in Newark, NJ later that year. She spent the first four years of her life with a young couple from Washington DC, who treated her well and made sure she had all her regular check-ups. In addition to valuing her stellar genetic makeup, they also gave her the opportunity for personal growth through a few upgrades that made her even more sought after later in life. These included a high-end sound system and a rubber encased rear bumper to allow her to better handle the bumps and scratches a full life will bring. The couple eventually brought her to West Hartford, CT, where she joined my family in 2005, or thereabouts.

There, she travelled many miles as my steadfast companion in a suburban life filled with dogs, kids, carpools, and trips to Home Depot (home improvements), BJ’s (bulk toilet paper) and endless after school sports. Later, we embarked on more adventurous trips together, like when we branched out toward independence and took up residence in our own smaller but easier to manage space, the benefit of which meant more freedom to pursue new dreams and push the boundaries of the suburban comfort zone to which we had grown accustomed.

As my interest in spending more time in Maine grew, my sweet Lexus RX300 gladly came along for ride. Together we’d zip up 84 east, across 90 west, along the seemingly never-ending 495, to the promising, northbound I-95. We eventually settled in Maine, where we were able to slow down a little—me to pursue my vocation, she to take fewer long distance trips.

She was there when we needed her until the end, despite peeling paint on the hood, a few well-hidden rust spots here and there, and occasional coughs and hiccups. It was when, after a good run of more than 209,000 miles, she began to show some undeniable signs of rapid decline, that we made the decision together. Do not resuscitate.

And even this she did with poise.

When, during the last couple of years, I’d take her to the shop for a mechanical tweak or a replacement part, she took it in stride as if telling me “Onward!” while knowing her end was nearing. She never lacked a sense of optimism and her positive attitude will always inspire me to keep moving forward.

She will be deeply missed not just by me, but also by my children, partner, friends and neighbors, who all benefitted from and enjoyed her gracious style and dependability.

As was her wish, her organs will be donated to helping other Lexuses live longer and healthier lives.

In lieu of flowers, consider a donation to your favorite charity.

Lexus Obit

Bury Me There

When my dad died, we scattered his ashes from a fishing boat in the ocean in Norway, near our family’s favorite summer spot. It was what he wanted and we had a deal.

It was a pretty special day, filled with sunshine and curious seals trailing our boat, grandchildren taking turns holding the urn and pouring the ashes into the water. His ex-wife, my mom, threw rose pedals on the water’s surface while Sinatra’s “I did it my way” filled the air from my brother in-law’s iPhone.

A few days later, before my return to the States, my sister and I were having dinner when she told me that if she dies before me, she’d like the same kind of arrangement. “How about you?” she asked.

I couldn’t answer her, then.

Since Jewish tradition doesn’t permit cremation, I am mostly committed to the idea of my body decomposing in a simple, pine box. As unpleasant as the thought is, I figure I’ll be dead, so it really won’t matter much either way.

The greater question for me is where I should be buried. I used to say “bury me in Norway,” since it seemed to me that this would be one way of ensuring a connection for my boys and one day their children and later their children’s children, to their Nordic roots. My remains deep in the Jewish cemetery in Oslo, they might feel all the more compelled to take that roots-trip, so to speak.

I have friends who want to be buried in Israel, the eternal spiritual homeland for the Jews. This is where they feel their soul belongs. I too, love Israel and feel a special connection to its history and significance, although perhaps less so to its modern day reality.

Then, only four weeks ago, there was the funeral of my dear friend Fanny. Making my way to her burial place past the headstones with all the familiar names from my nearly 30 years in West Hartford, Connecticut, I had an epiphany. It is there, next to the friends who made the world a better place for me, that I belong. The deep sense of community we built together struck me as timeless. Although we joke that our Jewish cemetery, perched as it is on a hill across from a strip mall in a nondescript town, isn’t exactly pastoral, it is—alas—the people who make the place.

So now I can say to my sister, bury me there, surrounded by the friends who welcomed me and made me feel like I belonged in my life as a Jew.

 

Jewish Cemetery Customs

Focus on foreground stone sitting on top of Jewish headstone in cemetery. It is a Jewish tradition for a visitor to a Jewish grade site to place a single stone on the monument. It tells visitors that follow that others have also visited this grave. A religious explanation is that stones are added to symbolize that we are never finished building a monument to the deceased.

A Time to Cry

“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity” – a line reads in most translations of Ecclesiastes or Kohelet. But as one Bible scholar I know well has suggested in his book on the ancient wisdom text, the Hebrew word commonly translated as “vanity” can in fact also mean “breath.”

“Breath, breath, all is breath” – now it sounds more like a zen and rather uplifting meditation on how breath is what it’s all about, and that in the end, nothing else really matters. All the other things and emotions and experiences are a natural part of our lives and yearnings, but in the end, it’s breath that lets us live and laugh and cry.

“A time to be born and a time to die…” we read on. Sadly, today I lost a dear friend, whose breath left her in the early morning hours. And I cry. But her breath didn’t just evaporate and disappear, in my mind. That energy—for breath is energy—is just transformed. This is physics 101. I imagine a sacred blanket of protection lingering forever around all those who loved her and whose lives have been touched by her, as her unique energy is transformed to a living blessing. Her memory—like her life and her being and her breath—will be a blessing to us, and thus, she will remain among us, in this way.

Wife, mother, grandmother, sister, daughter, friend…the list goes on, and so do the memories. I hear her voice and her laughter and the way she used to call out my name, “Ninalich!” I see the way she used to sit on the chair, the way she’d walk, her affection toward my now adult sons ever since they were babies. I remember how she’d sweep into the room and the room would light up from her smile, and she’d offer solutions and ideas on how to make things, anything, better, more beautiful, smoother and smarter. She was, I now realize more than ever, a grounding almost maternal force for me, although we were almost contemporaries.

A deep urge to feel rooted sweeps over me today. Home and family were my friend’s ultimate raison d’être, and trying to honor her positive energy and endless grace, I yearn to pull my boys close, cook a soulful meal, and beautify my surroundings. And most of all, I will put the notion of shalom bayit—peace at home—in the center as I count my blessings and focus on breath. For it is all. And she taught me this.

inhale-exhale

 

Onward in a Flash!

Well, well, well. Fancy seeing you here. Where the heck have you been? What am I? Chopped liver?

This is my blog talking to me, and I can’t say I blame it. Although my knee-jerk reaction is to shoot back a sharp “So what??” I won’t go there. It could get ugly and the holidays are just around the corner, so I’ll take the high road.

And rather than offering up a long list of reasons why I’ve been absent for so long (ok, excuses, excuses!) I am offering a truce: the flash blog post. Moving forward, I commit to only publishing posts made of max 500 words, but aiming for even less. That’s about half of my typical blog post length, and will feel less imposing for both you, the reader, and me.

Those of you familiar with my curiosity blog know that I have a propensity toward wordiness, but fear no more! While absent, I’v been exploring the most unlikely thing for a person of my disposition, namely to express myself more briefly. One such attempt was recently awarded by being published on the Brevity Blog – the blog of the journal by the same name publishing concise literary nonfiction. Another micro-memoir-essay of mine made it to the final round (but no cigar!) of a competition last month.

I have to tell you it is pretty exhilarating or at least rewarding to see how an essay about anything can go from a longer form of its original self, filled with what in hindsight (but only in hindsight) looks like unnecessary rambling, to a chiseled and defined version, and this new specimen feeling truer, clearer and packing more punch. I wrote about this kind of epiphany a while back in a publication called Literary Mama.

Now there’s a word to behold: concise. I now carry this little secret nudge in my pocket and fondle it daily to remind me of its value.

I think my offer of a flash blog post might be a great compromise serving both me (who wants to keep writing), the (bitchy) blog (who doesn’t want to just whither away, alone and ignored after such a robust and colorful early life), and you, the reader (who is the real hero in all of this, and whose time and attention I never take for granted).

So, from now on, I commit to a shorter more concise form or blog post, think in the tradition of flash non-fiction or flash fiction stories, or even what is called micro-essays (look it up; I had to once).

Oh, and FYI: I’m clocking off at 436 words.

See ya!

Flash

On Joining a Movement

Yesterday, I joined a movement. I’ve never been big on “joining” or “movements” which has always been a bit of a sore point on my conscience. I would like to have joined the recent women’s march in DC, where many women friends, sporting pink pussyhats, moved the world and were moved by the meaning and power of a shared mission. When I was recently in Barcelona and the entire city seemed to be marching to demonstrate their commitment to welcome refugees, I was moved by the masses of people marching together, chanting and waving banners for a good cause.

So, I started with something that moved me, creatively and spiritually.

Yesterday, I was honored to have an essay published in Hevria (the litmag), or on Hevria (the website), or with Hevria (the creative movement), an online community which isn’t just a magazine nor just literary, as you can see for yourself, but rather  a unique place of creativity that oozes with a positive and spiritual outlook on life as a creative process, as a force that can bring change.

This I love.

Hevria explains that its name is a combination of the words “Hevreh” and “Bria” in Hebrew, which mean “group of friends” and “creation.”

What better place to be part of something bigger than oneself. A place to begin my involvement in movements.

Elad Nehorai, the creator of Hevria, explains: “We are a group devoted to spreading the idea of positive creation in a spiritual context. We want to make this world beautiful. And we want you to join us.” And so, I did. The experience of a glorious sunset in Tel Aviv and the photo of it that you see below, were part of the beautiful thing in this world that I wanted to write about.

But that was only a small part of the story. There was a human interaction moment that really made it moving, not the sunset by itself.

Since Hevria only accept pieces written expressly with them and their mission in mind, I was waiting for the right moment when I would have an experience or an idea (usually the idea follows automatically a few minutes or hours or days after an experience. This is a way for me to understand what just happened; I metabolize life through writing it and I “unwrap” complex often emotional situations by writing about them.) Writing is my oxygen, what makes me breathe easier in this world.

Always have been, always will be.

What happened to me on the Tel Aviv boardwalk that late afternoon-early evening  was not easy. I was haunted by the moment and how it left me. How I left it. But I knew the moment was bigger than me, and that it carried with it the raw ingredients for some real soul-food-home-cookin’.

Nehorai continues: “Hevria’s mission is to become the go-to community for Jewish and spiritual people who are ‘creators.’” Although I get the meaning of the term “go-to,” I looked it up for a fuller and more evocative essence: “Go-to: denoting a person or thing that may be relied on or is regularly sought out in a particular situation.”

Hevria can be relied on as a beautifully created and creative-spiritual community, available 24/7, when you feel you need some soul-food. And we all need some soul-food from time to time. Yum yum.

Let this be my first step toward joining movements that bring positive change to the world.

sunset-tel-aviv-v

A New Week in Jerusalem

Shavua tov,” the old man said as he passed. Wishing me a good, new, week, he reached out his hand and handed me a rosemary twig and smiled with warm, twinkly eyes. I had heard his shuffling feet before I looked up, and noticed him approaching slowly from down the street, as if hugging the closed storefronts, pausing occasionally. His cane helped stabilize him and he took his time. I noticed his clothes were a little shabby, and that he had a bunch of rosemary in his hand. But he didn’t ask for anything, and he didn’t seem to have an agenda. “Shavua tov,” I replied. He walked on.

I was sitting on a bench reading a magazine and Shabbat had just ended. The street was still quiet with few cars driving by and although the day of rest was officially over, there was as if a hiatus of neither here nor there; a few moments of suspended time before the busy bustle of the week was to resume.

To linger and notice this space in time is like an invitation to experience magic.

The magic of a time in-between silence and noise, in-between rest and work, in-between holy and mundane. A time that is fleeting like the setting sun, but infinite in its dreamlike quality of possibilities and promise.

A new week.

Soon the neighborhood would be bustling with people and cafés and restaurants, buses and taxis whizzing by, but for now it was still. I looked up and saw the man stop at the next storefront only a few meters past where I was sitting, and reaching up to its doorway he lifted his hand to touch the mezuzah, the parchment inscribed with a prayer found on the doorposts of Jewish homes and businesses here. He touched it and kissed his hand, this way kissing the words of G-d, and then he shuffled on to the next store’s doorway.

The shops were still closed for Shabbat, so many were dark while some had bright lights in the window. I followed the man with my eyes as he continued his ritual at every doorway, slowly moving down the street, eventually disappearing into the darkness.

Perhaps he is an angel, I thought to myself.

I smelled my fingers that held the twig of rosemary, the strong pine aroma had already left its fresh, minty scent on my fingertips. It made me smile and feel hopeful and invigorated.

I brought the rosemary upstairs to my apartment, turned on the light and opened my computer. And then I thought, it will be a good week, because I was touched by an angel.

 

 

 

rosemary

Sounds Like Jerusalem

A woman hollering non-stop in Hebrew or in Arabic, I cannot tell from here; cats going at it; dogs barking; the automated announcement on the bus passing by; the muezzin calling fellow Muslims to prayer at 4am;  birds chirping…Perched in a 3rd floor apartment in the German Colony, or Moshava Germanit, here in Jerusalem, I hear the sounds of the city I’ll call home for the next 6 months.

I get to play and wander the city after my workday is over, then the myriad of sounds will be connected to their things.

Down there on the street I roam at dusk, taking in the scenery while the city is still enveloped in the soft, forgiving light of the day’s final moments, when the air is cool and I am free. I see small stray cats of all colors and shades who with their lithe bodies make their way through garbage piles filled with scarps of food; they look nothing like the plump and lazy felines we see in our neighborhoods back home, the ones that go home at night to toys and blankets and their owners’ loving strokes and cooing voices.

I see the snouts of mutt-looking dogs protecting their owners’ gated Jerusalem stone homes where bright pink Bougainvilleas cascade over fences and lemon trees hang heavy with unripe fruits; I’m told Arabs are afraid of dogs.

I see young religious Jewish women pushing baby strollers, and whose heads are fashionably covered in the new hip turban look. In the store I shop next to Arab women, young and old, wearing their hijabs walking closely side by side. Then, I stuff myself into a crowded bus nr.34 A on the way home from an errand in a working class neighborhood. The sights and sounds are a cacophony, my observing stillness interrupted before every stop by the monotonous recorded voice that announces the next one, names of streets flashing in red Hebrew letters on the digital sign above the driver’s head. I understand. I listen. I look around me: Asians, Ethiopians, Russians; beautiful, haggard, covered up, or not. I smell the pungent odor of cigarettes and sweat and urine from the three unkempt bums in the seats next to me; their dark-skinned and hairy arms with tattoos leading down to hands that have been around, draped in wrinkled skin and ending in dirty finger nails that grip what I imagine might be vials of methadone that they discreetly unwrap from brown paper envelopes, comparing them side by side, discussing feverishly, teeth missing, something important.

Hopping off the bus, I approach my new, temporary, home. I smell falafels frying, shawarma grilling, and sweet challahs piled high.

I see beggars of all ages, and regardless of whether I give them a few agurot or shekels, they wish me Shabbat shalom or mumble a blessing. I try to look them in the eyes and not look away from the poverty; but there are so many…

This is like Jerusalem. This IS Jerusalem, “the city of gold.” Gold: malleable and soft; solid under standard conditions. But what is standard here? Gold: produced by a collision of stars. The myriad of people here are like the stars in the universe, each one invaluable to the whole. And they collide, only to make more gold.

Jerusalem of gold. “Yerushalayim shel zahav.” 

jerusalem-of-gold

Jerusalem of Gold by Jean David