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

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The Language of a Headscarf

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We just returned from a trip to Europe where we visited family in Zurich and Zagreb, stopping to see some of the terrain as we drove between the two cities. I’ll write more about that journey soon.

What I don’t want to wait to share is this story.

In the days before the trip, I was anxious about how to cover my hair while we were away. I generally prefer wrapping with a tichel (headscarf) to wearing a sheitel (wig), all the more so in the heat of summer and for ease on the road, when sheitel accouterments take up too much space in a small suitcase. Yet I was worried about being seen – being picked out as a Jew at a time when anti-Semitism is spiking, or as a Muslim woman when profiling is a thing, or by anyone whose prejudice makes them uncomfortable with either. I’ve had moments stateside when my scarf has attracted uncomfortable attention. In Europe, I figured, better – safer – to wear a wig and benefit from the anonymity of hair. To look as local as possible, too, to fit in when Americans are not the most beloved of tourists.

Still, I waffled back and forth until the morning of our departure, finally running it by one of my sons, who said, “Don’t worry. Just do you.” So I threw a scarf into my suitcase for variety, tied a second one around my head, and off we went.

For 10 days, it was, thank G-d, fine, though I’m aware it could have gone otherwise. Once, at a Slovenian castle, an Israeli family pulled up next to me and asked in Hebrew where there was parking, no doubt picking me out of the crowd because of my head-covering. Otherwise, no one seemed to notice.

On the second to last day of our trip, I left our hotel room in Italy to see if one of the housekeeping staff was on the floor. I needed a laundry bag. Luckily, I found someone, and luckier still that she spoke some English since I have no Italian.

I’d turned to go when she suddenly asked me if I was from Morocco. She expressed noticeable surprise when I answered, “No, America.” I returned the question, smiling as she said, “I’m from Morocco. The women there wear scarves like you.”

I wish there had been more time, that she didn’t have to get back to work and I didn’t have to pack, so we could carry on the conversation, so I could ask her my many questions. I had not detected at first the lilt of hope I later sensed in her voice, perhaps a longing to happen upon a landswoman with whom she might reminisce.

It did not occur to me to tell her that I’m Jewish or why I wrap my hair. Perhaps she figured it out after, though I don’t know for sure and doubt it would’ve made any difference. I also did not share with her how blessed it was to have felt safe wearing a headscarf during our trip, and that I might not have done so had our itinerary been different, had we gone to London or Paris instead, for example.

Yet I was beyond grateful I had put my wig back on its stand and chosen a scarf, not only for the personal comfort the latter gave me on days when the temperatures reached the high 90s and the hair of a long wig was not stuck to the back of my neck. But also for that fleeting encounter in the hallway of our hotel, a moment between two women, neither from that particular place, who felt at home with one another, their backgrounds and nationalities and beliefs fading into the distance as a scarf, intended to conceal, revealed what they shared instead.

Wishing everyone a restful Shabbos. May G-d continue to reveal Himself in beautiful moments large and small, allowing us to partner with Him as we bring light and love into the world.

 

 

Slipping Into A Comfortable Chair This Shabbos

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In Ashkenazi tradition, we name our children after those we’ve lost, keeping the memory of the deceased alive each time we call out to the living. The assemblage of items in our home, many bequeathed to us when family and friends passed into the World to Come, does the same.

Well-worn tables, tchotchkes, kitchen utensils, costume jewelry. Some things are quirky and rare, others useful. Yet all are precious, if only because a hint of the soul of each previous owner lingers in the fiber of these belongings.


My sons will tell you we have too much they’ll never want. And yet, though I am quick to declutter my own things, I cannot part with these bequests. Doing so would feel too much like dropping the string tied to a bouquet of balloons, letting it soar until it becomes invisible, lost somewhere behind the clouds.

I believe it’s part of my tafkid, my purpose here on earth, to preserve the mesorah of items once dear to those who were dear to us. Would my loved ones disappear entirely from my memory if I did not? As long as I’m blessed to remember, the answer is no. But by filling our house with their things, I keep their names on the tip of my tongue, and the essence of who they were a physical presence in this world.

It is not morbid or overcrowded here, I assure you. Rather, our home pulses with life.

When I wrap myself in my Grandma Sadye’s afghan and wear my mother-in-law Lea’s earrings, I sense their love. When I stir with Bubbe’s spoon, I feel her hands in my own. This bounty has little financial value. But the sentimental value could fill a vault at the bank.

Recently, our neighbors’ daughters were generous in giving us some furniture and an old chocolate-egg mold as they emptied their parents’ home of its contents. Their father passed away last year, and their mother has since been in assisted living. We embraced these items with the same warmth we shared with their original owners. And it feels good to know that in some way, they still live here on the block with us, their names on our lips when we point to their things.

There are so many ways to disappear, so many forces that have the power to say poof and erase evidence of our existence from this world. And yet, there are many ways to keep it from happening, to root ourselves here in love, kindness, and the business of preserving memory. I say, let’s do all we can to make a lasting impression during the limited time we have.

I can’t help but think about Shabbos as I look around our home, my soul filling up with moving recollections. Shabbos itself is a moment devoted to remembering what matters most in this world, to guarding the holiness of the day, and to keeping G-d a vital, pulsing presence in our hearts and lives. It’s the reason the Hebrew writer Ahad Ha’am famously said, “More than the Jews kept Shabbat, Shabbat kept the Jews.”

This Shabbos, may we slip comfortably into the chair of someone whose memory we cherish, and into the embrace of someone we are deeply grateful to still have here with us. And may we be blessed to keep the Sabbath day, and for it to keep us – vital, beloved, and present – until we reach 120.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

Give A Little Kindness To Yourself

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I recently spent a few days in the middle of nowhere on a retreat for creative Jews. No cellular service. Spotty WiFi. A detox from social media. All of this in the company of generous, warm, loving, engaging people, and really good Stumptown coffee.

As it turned out, the middle of nowhere was the very best place for me to be, inspiring me to invest in myself, both as a writer and a human.

We were a diverse group of participants, the perfect blend in fact.  Our backgrounds varied, as did our levels of religious observance and personal stories. But there was plenty we shared, too – mostly our yearning to create however we choose to create, and to express our deepest selves in a way that feels beautiful and meaningful to us.

We coalesced around these longings, while also singing, praying, breaking bread, and sampling new outlets for our creativity. We talked deeply, both one-on-one and as a group, sitting cross-legged in a circle on the grass. And we explored our fears and dreams, connecting with one another on an authentic level that I believe will have lasting impact – in friendships, mutual cheerleading, and spiritual growth through artistic expression.

For me, the retreat came at just the right moment. I’m at a juncture in my writing, determined to throw myself more fully into my book. With that goal in mind, I recently created a permanent work area at home, a place where I can spread out my notes and keep my laptop open without having to clean off the dining room table when it’s time to serve dinner. This is a really big deal for me, a kindness to myself, and I’m hanging a lot of hope on the idea of space spelling progress.

I’m also planning a new look for my website. I want to do a better job of bringing the different aspects of my writing life together. I have a gazillion ideas, like talking more about books and experiences, linking my inspirational pre-Shabbos posts on social media to the site, and shrinking the size of my picture. I want the updated site to be a platform for us to interact more with one another as well.

With all of this in mind, I’m reaching out to ask for your thoughts and feedback. What are you looking for from the site? What’s working and what isn’t? Tell me if you share my posts with friends. Just want to say hello? That’s great, too.

Drop me a line at merriukraincikblog@gmail.com. On Friday, July 26, I’ll enter your name in a random drawing to win one of five small, but sweet prizes – the magnets featured in the photo above. My friend Rivki* and I designed them together and we think they sum it all up, like some sort of key to being a good human. Plus, we could all use the reminder to be kind and patient with ourselves.

Can’t wait to hear from you.

Merri

*Rivki will also be hosting a giveaway on her site soon, so surf on over to Life in the Married Lane and double your chances of getting this magnet to hang on your refrigerator.