Merri Ukraincik

Saying Goodbye to Andrew Clements

fringle2

Frindle came into our lives when one of our boys had it assigned at school. It was love at first read. We would go on to enjoy many books by Andrew Clements, but I kept coming back to this one.

The story is about a boy named Nick who comes up with the new word frindle for a pen. The book’s themes – the power of words and creativity, an individual’s ability to have impact – resonate with young readers. But they have so much to say to the rest of us, too.

Around the time of my son’s bar mitzvah, I decided to write to Mr. Clements, to tell him how much his books Frindle and Lunch Money, in particular meant to this child. What I didn’t expect was a response.

Two months later, however, Clements wrote back. He told my son how much he appreciated hearing from us, especially to learn his books had such meaningful impact. He included a beautiful line about the importance of having faith and a faith-based community in one’s life. He enclosed a small note to me as well, which I keep in a treasure box.

This paragraph at the end of Frindle is my favorite. It’s in a letter Nick’s former teacher sends him when he’s already a university student and frindle has officially entered the dictionary:

“So many things have gone out of date. But after all these years, words are still important. Words are still needed by everyone. Words are used to think with, to write with, to dream with, to hope and pray with.”

Sadly, Andrew Clements passed away last week. May his memory and his books be a blessing. I did not know him, nor did I ever meet him. But he wound his way into my heart through his stories, and I will mourn all the words that were surely still inside him when he passed, taking them with him into the next world before he had the chance to share them with the rest of us.

I plan to reread Frindle (again) this Shabbos, and to think hard about words. Because our words, the ones we exchange with one another and the ones we exchange with G-d, make all the difference in this world.  And may we be blessed to remember that they have the power to change it for good.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

Birthday Lessons and Blessings

Though these haven’t been the easiest 12 months, I know by now that G-d doesn’t hand us a catalog and say, “Go ahead. Pick the challenges you can handle.” He makes that decision for us, just as He chooses the less demanding weights we carry in our lives.

Yet it’s up to us whether we see the bumps in the road between the smooth stretches, or the smooth stretches between the bumps. Potholes come in all shapes and depths. Some we can maneuver around with ease and others we get stuck in, as if they were quicksand. Still, Hashem often enough sends the kindest, most giving humans to pull me out, or hold my hand and talk me through until divine assistance arrives – or comfort me when it does not.

No matter how old I get, I feel 39 in my head. Sometimes, I’m sure I’m still the little girl in this photograph. Curious. Eager. Wide-eyed. Hungry to experience everything the world has to offer.

I once thought I could do or be anything, though by now, some ships have sailed. I’m getting better at accepting what will never be and cherishing what’s come instead. Determined to embrace the jiggle of middle age, I’ve tossed everything control top from my wardrobe. We don’t really have control over much in this world anyway – only how we respond to the deck we’re dealt, and how we love, show respect to one another, and fight for what we know is right.

Some of my closest friends from childhood are still my dearest. Our shared history is priceless. But I’ve gathered wonderful new friends at every stage of my life, too. They are all treasures to me.  I’m grateful to them for letting me be my quirky self and for finding a place for me in their hearts.

There are people no longer in this world whom I miss with my every breath, every single day, even as time passes. More than anything, I wish there were phones in Heaven.

I love our house, with its old furniture and worn-out bits, our books and tchotchkes, and the kitchen, especially the kitchen, which, though small, lets me bake challah and feed people I care about and cook for folks I may never meet.

I love my family. I love my tribe. But I love being a part of a greater humanity in all its diversity.

Though I miss the steady paycheck of my former career, I am blessed to be writing every day, even if some days I can only do so in my head.

Since forever, I’ve enjoyed a tuna melt and a strong cup of coffee. My grandmother (and yours) was right; health really is everything. It’s good to have a hobby or two, to know how to create something with your hands that absorbs what worries you. Though I often can’t remember where I put the car keys, I haven’t forgotten the words to my high school playlist. This is important since nothing knows your emotions like the music of your youth.

There’s little that surpasses the pleasure of a book, a hug, a deep belly laugh, or a smooth glass of scotch. I’d add a full night’s sleep, but that remains elusive.

And then there’s the grace period of Shabbos, which gives me the chance to pause, reset, and fill myself up with hope for what awaits, G-d willing, in the days, months and years ahead. It’s a gift I hope to spend the rest of my lifetime appreciating, starting with candle-lighting tonight.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

Always Listen To Your Stomach

Back in the early years after the fall of Communism, I lived in Budapest as the Joint Distribution Committee’s Ralph Goldman Fellow. My boss was a man named Moshe Jahoda z”l, then JDC’s country director for Hungary.

Moshe escaped with the Kindertransport from Vienna to Palestine soon after the Anschluss. But his parents and sister stayed behind, and they were later deported and murdered in Auschwitz. He went on to build a life in Israel and a meaningful career, fighting for the needs of aging survivors and devoting himself to the causes of the JDC and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany. Yet his past – and his losses – informed everything he did. 

He was a hardworking, insightful man who cared deeply for his family. His personal history gave him an aura of gravitas, though he had a wry sense of humor and a boyish twinkle in his eye that did not dim, even as he aged. He still had it the last time I saw him — during a visit to Israel not long before he passed away. 

Moshe, whose yahrzeit was observed last month, was my mentor and moral compass, both during my time in Hungary and for the next 12 years we worked together at JDC. Still, his parting words of advice on the day I left Budapest for New York in 1993 are what have stuck in my heart all this time. 

I was on the cusp of several major life decisions. Moshe knew some of the questions on the table in front of me and intuited the rest. And he understood, with his unique brand of kindness, their weight in the present and what each choice might foretell for the course of my life.

He said, “Merri, listen to your stomach, not your brain. Your intellect will convince you of anything. But your stomach will always tell you the truth.”

Life is a stretch of decision-making, from the fun choices – chocolate or vanilla? – to the more challenging ones that affect our families, health, and future. A lot of water has flown under the Danube since Moshe gave me that advice years ago, and I’ve since had to make many decisions, some that have been out-of-the-box, raising eyebrows instead of allowing me to slip under the radar. But Moshe’s words have not failed me yet. And the older I get, the more grateful I am to have that wisdom in my heart.

He’s on my mind as we head into Shabbos. May his memory be a blessing.

Wishing everyone a beautiful Shabbos. Gut Shabbos!  Shabbat Shalom!

For the Love of Making Things with Our Hands

This is my latest afghan, a wedding gift. It comes at a moment when I’m in need of distraction, and I’m glad to find it in these colors and patterns that vary from row to row. It’s taking me a long time to finish, though that’s neither here nor there.

While sneaking in a row early  yesterday morning, I was thinking that I wish I were the type to crochet an occasional sweater. But the undertaking involves too much counting and measuring for my non-math brain. All previous attempts have been crochet disasters, which is why I spend a lot of time making afghans instead. 

Anyway, while I was thinking about sweaters, I had an idea. The last handmade sweater I owned, made by my grandmother, was ruined when our basement flooded during Hurricane Irene years ago. I thought I might ask our cleaning lady, a talented knitter, to make me a new one. 

She had been with us for more than two decades when she retired recently – not by choice but by kidney failure. She’s now packing to return to Europe, to spend her years with the family she left behind when she emigrated. I’ve been checking in with her regularly and we have plans to visit next week.

All this time she was like a great aunt to me. She taught me to prepare proper Turkish coffee and also helped take care of me, especially when I was on bed rest with our youngest and later after my surgeries. She loved us, and felt it was her place to chide me for never ironing because I was, after all, one of her own.

When we spoke yesterday, I asked her if she’d make me one of her signature cardigans, and said I would bring the wool along with some vintage buttons when we visit. I told her I want it as a remembrance of her and her time with our family after she leaves.

She cried, and said she would like nothing more than to knit for me, and to fill the hours that now unfold endlessly since she can no longer work. Sadly, she’s in too much discomfort from dialysis to knit anymore, adding that she has unfinished projects for her grandchildren in her knitting basket.

I picked up my afghan-in-progress, feeling the blessings in the work, in my fingers and the hook and the wool. Yet I also couldn’t help but add this to the many indignities of illness and of our bodies aging and coming undone. We must grab the chance to create whenever we can, to never squander the opportunity to make beautiful or impactful things with our hands with whatever time we are given. And with that I forgot about the laundry and the dishes in the sink and worked six more rows instead.

Like Clay in the Hand of the Potter

Yom Kippur is upon us and I feel the weight of it on my soul. I’ve bought a brisket to prepare for the pre-fast meal and visited my grandparents in the cemetery. I’ve also typed up my lists of sins and regrets, of requests and pleas for healing and improvement, tucking them between the pages of my machzor.

As always, when Kol Nidre comes, I will sit in my designated pew and find strength in the Vidui, in the klopping of my fist over my heart. Otherwise, I will focus more on the content of my lists and the chapters of Tehillim I will recite around them than on the poetry of the prayer service and the beautiful melodies chanted by the ba’al tefillah.

Some will say this isn’t the way to atone or pray, that it is the script in the machzor that matters. But for years now, this is how I’ve come to talk to G-d in shul – as if He is there beside me, as if whatever words I can muster are the right ones, as if my tears are the most haunting of prayers.

My faith is unwavering, but more often than not, my human mind cannot wrap itself around the challenges He’s given me. So I talk to Him. Question Him. Yell at Him for not paying enough attention to me. Yell at Him for paying too much attention to me. Sing His praises. Declare my love. That’s the glue that keeps our relationship dynamic and organic and secure. And it keeps me coming to shul, too, where I lean back and feel His embrace and know that’s His answer, the only one I can hope for.

On Yom Kippur, I look around and wonder who else is asking the same, or different, questions. Though we are united that day in our singing with angels and our hopes for another year of life, we cannot know the tefillos on one another’s lips. The only truths I have are my own prayers, the holes in my heart I want healed, the longings I hope He’ll fulfill in the year ahead.

Like clay in the hands of the potter, we will step into the holiest of holy days of the year just hours from now. To get in the mood, give a listen to Rogers Park’s exquisite rendition of Ki Hinei Kachomer, or print out this Al Chet I wrote for The Layers Project to bring along to shul.

I wish all of you a Ketiva v’chatima tova. May Hashem hear our cries, grant us life, surround us with love, and redeem us from ourselves.

With my warmest thoughts,

Merri

Only Simchas? Impossible!

There is a Jewish expression “Only simchas!” or “Oif simchas!” in Yiddish. It is a wish– a blessing, really – that we should bump into one another only on happy occasions.

Folks use it as a parting phrase when they leave a wedding or a bris. They also offer it up as a balm upon hearing or sharing sad news, or when leaving a funeral or a shiva house.

I hope it isn’t heresy to say so, but this popular saying has always flummoxed me.

The optimist in me wishes that our calendars were filled with nothing but happy occasions. But the realist in me knows better. It’s just not the way of the world. “Only simchas!” can never be true.

We are mortals swept up in the circle of life. We don’t get to live forever. G-d willing, our time here on earth will offer up its share of joyous occasions and hours of blessing. But the human experience also includes inevitable moments of loss, disappointment, failure, rejection, pain, and illness, times we’d never refer to as happy ones.

So why set ourselves up for the impossible by uttering the phrase “Only simchas!” when we have the language to say something more apt?

However well-meant, why do we wish a friend something none us can ever have?

These were among the questions running through my head this past week while my husband sat shiva for his father. Luckily, I found an alternative to the old phrase in a quick look around the house.

Someone had brought over the Torah and siddurim. Men made minyan each day. Friends, family, patients, and colleagues came from near and far to be menachem avel – to comfort the mourner and show us their love. They listened as my husband shared memories. They offered words of Torah, dropped off meals, ran errands, and filled our pushkas with tzedakah (charity) that will be donated to help people in need.

So many mitzvot (good deeds) were performed in that short period of time, all to help my husband grieve and to buoy our family as we faced a monumental loss.

Rising from our sorrow was an enormous sense of gratitude for all those acts of kindness and the wisdom of the Jewish rituals of mourning, which carve out spaces in time, lines in the calendar that help us process our pain. Even when we feel most steeped in sadness, our community reminds us that we are not to bear it alone.

It’s best, then, to dispense with “Only simchas!” On both happy occasions and during periods of mourning, let’s instead say, “I am here for you, whatever life brings.” Because life will, inevitably, bring at the very least a little bit of everything. And there’s no greater joy, and no greater comfort, in knowing we have one another, come what may.

As we enter Shabbos this week, I am most looking forward to its island of peace and calm, and the opportunity for reflection as we find our way back to normal. May it provide all of us with the chance to regroup and recharge our minds, bodies, and souls, and may the week ahead be filled with love and kindness. Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

#gutshabbos #shabbatshalom #gutshabbosshorts

No photo description available.