Many thoughts about the world, meditation, parenting, Judaism, pregnancy, teaching, cancer survivorship, moving from West Coast to East and more.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A great beginning to the year

We've just completed our first year with a new rabbi. I was somewhat ambivalent about him when he first arrived. I would like to be part of a shul that is not just modern Orthodox but actively progressive in social activism, feminism, environmentalism etc., but his statements at his initial interviews included a lot about wanting our shul to be similar to others and not stand out as too different.

However, this year a few of us asked that he be more inclusive of women in various aspects of the chagim. He didn't want to "make a statement" but did agree to some gestures that have made a difference. A rabbi in his shoes is in a tricky position of wanting to make shul welcoming to many, but without irking others. He walked that line fairly safely, but the amount of difference for those of us to whom this matters, I think will help him reach his goals of making our shul a place that is welcoming and inspiring to as many as possible.

Last night I wrote him the following letter which he agreed that I could post here:

Dear Rabbi Block,

You came to our community eager to make change. Many times you’ve talked about helping our shul to increase its kavannah through coming to shul more.

Within our community there is a wellspring of kavannah and passion towards Judaism and mitzvoth that often goes untapped because it resides on side of the mechitza that often is ignored. This year, by encouraging the purchase of lulavim and etrogim, and in participating in hoshanas for women as well as men, you helped unleash a few more members’ expression of our faith in Hashem and commitment to Jewish practice. Likewise, by simply opening the door to the women’s Simchat Torah leining and smiling at us, you showed support for our eagerness to interact actively with the Torah (an action that is sometimes ironically viewed as illicit rather than praiseworthy).

I do not come to shul terribly frequently. I mentioned to you once before that this is due to anxiety around people. That is true. Kiddush is a time when I often feel awkward and uncomfortable, and sometimes I need to opt out because my week has been filled already with high intensity human interaction. On the weeks when I stay home, I feel I use the time well. I daven, I read the parsha and often do some other Torah study on my own, and I meditate – a tool that helps me connect with Shabbat very intimately. I still need that time to refresh myself. However, that is not the entire reason that I do not come.

Many years ago I was often one of very few women who came to shul early or at the less popular times. After years of feeling like an oddball and somewhat unwelcome if walking home with throngs of men, I gave up. I have felt less and less as though shul is a place where I can achieve anything spiritually. In the wake of that I have felt greater passion for Judaism through the outlet of organizations such as Hazon, but far less through prayer and the shul community.

By making the efforts you have over the past weeks, you are now giving me a chance to potentially feel more welcome and valued for attending shul. I am reconsidering my relationship to prayer and feeling the importance of modeling that both for Naomi and for my peers. The gestures you made these weeks which I mention above may have seemed either simple or risky, but they are making a difference in me and in others towards your goals for creating a community that embraces Torah.

I hope that over the coming years we’ll be able to work together to achieve the goals of having more Torah study, of greater commitment to halakhah, and of having all members of the shul –both men and women - feel integral to the community’s relationship with G-d.

Thank you

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

8 years in remission

I have a friend who, like me, celebrates remission from cancer at this time of year. I mark the date from when my oncologist showed me a series of CT scans that proved to his surprise that "even the scar tissue is shrinking." My friend marks his date from when the bone marrow donated to him began to work.

We chatted the other day. He says he doesn't think about the cancer much. It was a pivotal time in his life, obviously. He doesn't think, though, about the fear of being told he was likely to die. Instead he talks about how he eventually discovered the cancer was caused by toxins in his environment and how that led him on a career path of environmentalism.

My response was that I do think of cancer... not all year long, certainly not daily anymore. But I have always been an intense person with intense emotions and thoughts. Some comments I've been told over the year are that I "always have a pot boiling" or "need to lighten up." When I talk about my experience with cancer, though, no one says those things to me. And at this time of year, during the remission anniversary, I think about it a lot.

When I had cancer, I was convinced that it would bring me a kind of enlightenment and wisdom that I didn't have before. I suppose it did a little, but I'm still not sure how to define what I gained. And I have unresolved anxieties and anger too, mainly resentment towards people who seem to live their lives so flippantly, then are shocked when someone else suffers a tragedy, as if they never considered it actually could happen to them.

This year to celebrate I have written a rather long essay trying to explore these issues. If you wish to see it, please let me know.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Back Home Again For Gilad

I have never had as close a relationship to Israel as perhaps I should or even perhaps want to. Lots of barriers in the way for me including that I'm comfortable where I am, love my Sundays. The usual reasons that many reasonably call excuses. Add to that occasional confusion about Israeli politics and a general sorrow that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has led many of my fellow Jews to make statements that are narrow-minded and racist.

But concerns for Gilad Shalit over the past 5 years, and joy upon his return home are unifying and beautiful. I feel connected and happy today.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Farms Instead

We were supposed to spend Chol Hamoed in Waltham, MA visiting my friend and her new baby born on September 11.

Alas, I've had a nasty cold.

So yesterday we went to a local garden store and its petting zoo. Today we went to Depiero's -- petting zoo, hay maze, hayride with pumpkin picking and all.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Let's talk about why we should, not why we don't have to

Just came in from the backyard. Another dip into my annual adventure of climbing into our backyard ditch for schach for the sukkah. Just needed a little more to be a little more sure of the Kashrut of our Sukkah's hole-y roof. While working on it, I had some thoughts I need to share on why I love Sukkot/Simchat Torah and why it's one of the more challenging weeks of the year for me.

People complain sometimes that spirituality can seem distant within Judaism. The prayers feel foreign, even when read in English, the routines and rituals strange, the rules strict. But Sukkot has so much potential for fun and love.

How physical it is! Your whole body thrown into building the sukkah, getting the schach, making the decorations. I love that each of us can take on our own special role preparing for the holiday, not because of what's dictated or even custom, but because of our talents. My husband is creative at assembling things. He puts up our sukkah. I love getting down and dirty in nature. So I climb into a ditch and saw bamboo and vines to throw on top. Our daughter loves art. So we all decorate with her together. And throughout this we can talk or laugh or do it on our own time rather than following dictates of decorum the way we must (and should) in shul. Yes, there are rules, but they are general, leaving lots of room for creativity.

Then there are the religious rituals themselves that do have rules, the waving of the 4 species with so many interpretations towards their meaning. The hakafot at shul, where the community continues showing our allegiances to G-d that we re-established, crowned and surrendered to from Rosh Hashanah to the closing moments of Neilah.

Throughout the week we're meant to completely immerse ourselves, as a family, in the mitzvah, living in the Sukkah -- eating, sleeping, relaxing. Not like women's monthly immersion in mikveh, or some mens' voluntary immersion right before Shabbat or a chag that is so powerful but private. But a family endeavor to just be together with G-d peeking through the latticework above us with absolute love and joy.

By Simchat Torah there is the dancing, the communal celebration, the opportunity to get up so close to the Torah itself and begin anew -- storing up joy and optimism to hold us through the winter ahead.

So then, why do people want to spend so much time saying what we don't have to do?

Start with rain, mosquitos, cold... people become uncomfortable very quickly in the sukkah. I don't wish to criticize this too thoroughly. I appreciate that the Torah allows us to protect ourselves rather than put our bodies at risk for the sake of a mitzvah. And I totally agree with disdain towards mosquitos, one of the few of Hashem's creations for which I have hardly any tolerance.

But rain?

The slightest sprinkle leads to the biggest complaints. And again, I want to be sensitive, but without rain, there would be no life. It's no less straightforward than that. Sometimes it can be uncomfortable, but I'd like to propose that others try to feel how refreshing it is, to feel G-d sending blessing upon us. Like breastmilk from a mother, it can't be replicated in any way, and we're completely dependent on its nourishment. Think of parts of the world in which water is conserved, weighed, prayed for. Can you imagine people living in those regions describing it as "disgusting?"

And now let me provide you of a list of things that women "don't have to" do:
-eat, sleep or dwell in a sukkah
-carry a lulav and etrog for hoshanas
-participate in hakafot
-read from or receive an aliyah at the Torah

Fine, what an opportunity for women to show their commitment voluntarily rather than by obligation.

Or not... because how often are we actually barred from doing these mitzvot?

How often have you been in a sukkah that is not quite big enough or in which the schach is not all quite right, and the women take seats on the periphery since "it's not our mitvah?"

As as hoshanas, and hakafot, these are so totally easy to carry out on the women's side of the mechitzah, and how often do they not, either because the shul doesn't provide leadership to make it happen or the women don't want to appear as rocking the boat, and so stand back and either don't care or pretend not to care?

And aliyot... okay, that's tricky, but I can tell you I'm going to be both layning and receiving an aliyah at a women's Torah reading. For those who feel this is "not their thing," and prefer to connect with Torah in another way, such as learning in a class, so be it. For those who just don't care because they've been excluded for so long... what a tremendous loss.

While working on a fictional story this summer about a high school girl who had to make a choice of whether to make an activist gesture or not, at risk to her comfort in remaining silent, my teenage niece commented that "It's cool to not care." We talked about the discomfort in being passionate about doing something wonderful or just, and how sometimes it leads to feelings of isolation or loneliness.

I wish that not caring was just a phase we went through. Sometimes it's something we still need to grow out of.

This season is filled with so much opportunity to feel powerfully connected with the creator who brought life to us and to all of nature, together with so much love. My prayer is that we throw ourselves into the season whole-heartedly to care and be in it together.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

More inspiration!

Alysa and I came to Yeshivat Noam in the same year. We have always bonded over our concern about environmentalism, but she is just amazing and organizing and initiating programs that work. Check this out.

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Sunday, October 09, 2011

Inspiration and Agony

A friend of mine recently got a job with Teva and has been ecstatic since. On Yom Kippur he told me about a transformative experience he had davening Shacharit with a leader in the woods. He wrote a lovely blog post about it.

I listened as he told me about this and found myself exclaiming internally, "Oh oh oh! You've never davened shacharit in the woods before? Oh, how sad!!!! Oh, you know now about the light inside us all that comes from G-d... you hadn't had that before either?" I am so happy for him to have discovered this and feel a simultaneous plummeting inside me as I'm realizing just how few have ever even touched this. It feels as natural as water to me. I grew up in Corvallis, OR with nature and incense and touchy-feely Jews who loved Judaism for its connection to life itself and not just to text or walled-up inside shuls. To me this is what it is.

Over the years my day-to-day view of Judaism has changed, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, but that connection between nature and the soul and Torah are already inside me. It makes me so sad when it's obscured by materialism or simply by the devoted black hat suited culture that is passionate about G-d but disconnected from land and sometimes from their children because they don't always know how to connect their spirits together. What torture to imagine that it's not for so many people who want that connection so badly, sometimes without even knowing it.

Before this friend told me this story, we were sharing how grateful we both are to have jobs in where we know we daily engage in passions of our life that make a difference in the world. But there's a piece of me that still feels something is missing, a potential connection isn't meeting. Is this just the norm that comes of not being able to do all I want all at once -- change the lives of children while still writing and meditating and being present in my own free time and being a fun mother too. Or is it a gap I need to heal? I don't get to teach spirituality. I teach reading, writing, math and how to be a citizen from a child's perspective. The passion of teaching comes through connecting with children and families, particularly when there are barriers to overcome just as social or behavioral differences.

That's just it... I love connection. I'm connecting with them, sometimes helping them connect to each other, but are we connecting to G-d? Am I connecting all the parts of me, are we connecting all to each other, to nature, to our inner spirits? Or must the writer and meditator parts of me be reserved for different times.

In short, am I doing everything to the best of my abilities exactly as I should be? Or someday should I do it a little differently... the writer, meditating environmentalist teacher of behaviorally challenged children...

who loves to just sit and be alone sometimes in the woods.

And who already does that sometimes, returning to see the perfection in the present exactly as it is right now.

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Friday, October 07, 2011

Yom Kippur 2011

Entering into the holiday with intent to slow down and be present, especially for family. ND has had fever for two nights already, and is still sick. Appropriately timed to help me practice my priorities. Balancing the spiritual-in-shul and spiritual-in-life qualities.

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Sunday, October 02, 2011


So we're sitting in shul on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. I'm the only woman there except for two little girls. ND says, "Why are there all those men over there and a leader on their side but there is no one over here?! It's not fair!"

I'm not sure whether she was just observing and whether her concern was more that there was a leader on only one side or that there were so few women, but it's inspiring. I think I'd like to attend shul a bit more this year. I still feel more connected at home, but this may make it worthwhile.

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