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.

The Ambitious Joy Of Summer Reading

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If you’re curious, I can describe in vivid detail the experience of dissecting a frog in middle school science. It was a small trauma that quashed my ambition to become a doctor. And yet, I have no memory whatsoever of being assigned summer reading throughout my years in school.

I recently saw an article that tracked summer reading programs back to the 1890s, so it’s likely my peers and I, who grew up in the 1970s and 80s, were given an obligatory list of titles to page-turn between our dismissal in June and our return to school after Labor Day. From the start, these initiatives were intended to encourage children to read during the off months and develop a lifelong love of books. They still are, though they now have the added goal of reining in what is known as the summer academic slide.

Math homework was another story, but I never needed incentives or coaxing to read. I’ve been a voracious devourer of books for as long as I can recall. There were, of course, assigned books for English class during the school year. Those were a bonus. Likewise, any books we may have been asked to read in the summer would have blended into the stack I had already chosen to read on my own.

Summer reading simply meant that I had more freedom and time to do it. It was what I looked forward to most once school came to an end, that and heading out on my bike after I got home from camp. Summers were the chance to while away the hours in the library, discovering all sorts of new and interesting things, some more appropriate than others, and to sit in the park beneath the shade of the forsythia tree and read until I had to go home.

Alas, grown-up July-August seasons are different. Though idea of summer reading inspires thoughts of relaxing with a good book while at the beach or away on vacation, it is not the same as the reading cycle I enjoyed for two luxurious months during the summers of childhood. In fact, it is no different from the wonderful pocket of reading hours I manage to carve into the week year-round, hoping to be uplifted, enlightened, enriched, or entertained.

As such, I find myself gripped by nostalgia when I spot the “Summer Reading” signs on tables at the library and bookstores this season. The recommended titles are often a mix of light, fast-paced stories one can toss with insouciance into a beach bag or carry-on tote for the plane. Even if we’re not heading anywhere, the books still promise to carry us to far-off places, worlds, and lives. And they transport me back to the summers of my childhood, to the local library and to the corner of my room in which I’d curl up with a book until it was time to turn off the light.

My reading has been heavy of late. Since Pesach, I’ve been making my way through a stack of Holocaust-related fiction and memoir. I’ve picked up other books, too – classics I’ve longed to read, or re-read, as well as some modern titles whose reviews intrigued me. Come autumn, I may well switch gears. I am where I am reading-wise, for now.

No matter how far my age distances me from the summers of my childhood, books continue to anchor me, carving out their own moments in time. In their way, they both  predict my future and find their place in my memory. They also define the present, continuing to shape the person I am.

So here we are, on the cusp of the months defined as the season of summer reading, thanks to school administrators and booksellers across the country. My list is long and ambitious, and I suspect yours is, too. But therein lies the joy. Let’s celebrate it together.

P.S. At the moment, I’m reading Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, about a former slave who becomes a slave owner, for my book club. After that, I’m planning to pick up Elizabeth Erhlich’s Miriam’s Kitchen, a memoir that explores the mysterious connection between food and love. But who knows which book my heart will choose next?

 

What are you reading now? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

 

 

For the Love of a Shoe

There was a time during my early adolescence when buffalo shoes were all the rage. I adored them. But I’d had foot issues from infancy and my parents refused to let me get a pair of wedges, certainly not after years of paying for costly orthopedic footwear. They believed buffaloes would undo the corrective work Katz’s hideous rubber sole shoes had wrought, though it’s likely the doctor had also told them as much.

I can still recall my desperate longing to own a pair anyway. I was convinced they were the secret to the insouciance all the other girls my age possessed, an aura I felt I lacked in spades. My envy was powerful, and I can reach for the memory of it as if it were a leaden, physical object I once held in my hands.

And yet, there was no moving my parents, no matter how much I begged and fought. Buffaloes remained elusive that entire spring.

One summer evening, I went with them to the erstwhile Bradlees department store. I hid some of my babysitting money in the top of my bra before we left the house, a trick I learned at an early age from my grandmother, who used to do this with her bus fare. While my parents shopped, I ran to the shoe department to purchase a pair of knockoff buffaloes in my size (Bradlees did not carry the original Buffalo brand). I didn’t even have time to try them on.

At the agreed hour, I met my parents at the exit. I tried to keep calm and casual. After all, I was hoping to pull off the greatest stealth operation of my youth.

“What’s in the bag?” they asked me. Anxious and fearful I was going to lose my only chance at those shoes, I clung to that bag for dear life, the plastic handles cutting deep into the palms of my hands.

But there was no point. The battle of the buffaloes was lost. My father walked with me to customer service, where I returned them. In a final plea, I promised never to wear them if he let me make the purchase. I just wanted to own them, like every other girl I seemed to know. Alas, I crawled into the car with tears in my eyes, placing my sadness, disappointment, and rage on the seat next to me.

I was too young to know that by fall, buffaloes would be out of style, that all I needed to do was be patient and this yearning, too, would pass.

Flash forward to this afternoon, when these caught my eye at Marshall’s. Not the exact pair I remember, but close enough. And there were others, similar styles, some with higher wedges, others lower. The new buffalo wave of 2019.

With childish delight, I tried them on, admiring how they looked. But they weren’t comfortable. I felt unstable, certain I wouldn’t be able to walk far in them. Yet I considered buying them anyway. I mean, who’s going to stop me now?

Instead, I let them transport me back in time, where I forgot that I’m middle-aged, that I have bunions, that I long ago relegated heels to the back of my closet.  And yet, it was with the insouciance of youth that I placed the buffaloes back in the box and returned them to the shelf. I took my seat at the wheel of the car and drove home with a new pair of Crocs instead, my heart happy, and my feet, too.

 

How To Walk Humbly From Purim to Pesach

It was the morning after Purim.

After making myself a cup of coffee, I took my regular seat at the dining room table, hoping to write. At the very least, I wanted to preserve the kernel of an essay that had popped into my head the night before.

I cleared a space for my laptop by pushing back the remains of the Mishloach Manot packages that covered the table. But as much as I tried, I could not write. Not a word.

I was too distracted by the assortment of colorful containers and clever themes, the bright ribbons and festive gift bags, the towering boxes filled with candied nuts and dried fruit, the baked goods, wine, and chocolate. The display was a visual picnic. The risk to my healthy eating regimen notwithstanding, I could not look away.

Of all the ritual obligations of Purim day, the exchange of food gifts is my favorite. I love having a reason to make something fun for our friends. On the receiving end, I treasure the variety, as well as the thought folks put into the planning and distribution.

Still, as with so much else in Judaism, it’s the spirit of the mitzvah that matters most, not the beauty of the package or the creativity of the contents. Generosity and friendship go into the giving along with the treats. It’s equally important to remember that this bounty, dare I say excess, isn’t to be taken for granted.

It strikes me each year how the two holidays that start with a P (or a peh in Hebrew) not only fall just one month apart on the Jewish calendar. They also share an essential mitzvah:  the giving of tzedakah to those in need. On Purim and Pesach, we only fulfill our own holiday obligations once we’ve made sure others can as well.

While traveling between the two Ps, ridding our home of chametz, I try to hold this close to my heart. The cost of making Pesach goes up year after year (Does anyone else remember when the butcher gave out shank bones for free?).  Many families, sometimes folks we least suspect are in need, aren’t sure how they’ll put the basics of the seder plate on the table. Because we may have no idea who among us is struggling, we’d do well to be sensitive as we shop, refraining from participation in the public chorus of kvetching about the rising cost of brisket.

As for our formal Maos Chittim donations, we can make them early to organizations like a local Tomchei Shabbos, the Masbia Soup Kitchen Network, or a shul matzah fund. They are all especially busy as they scramble to meet the needs of Jewish families in the approach to the holiday. Buy two of something while out food shopping for Pesach and donate the second to a kosher food pantry, checking with them first to see what they need most. Or get creative in taking the edge off Pesach prep for someone who needs help in ways that aren’t financial.

Make good on the Pesach cleaning in the meantime. Donate unused chametz to a local food pantry or soup kitchen that services a non-Jewish population. Or follow the example of the Greenbergs. They make a huge Kiddush Hashem by collecting Purim leftovers from members of our community, then repackaging them as gifts to a veterans’ home, a shelter for women and children, and an after-school program.

One thing we can all do, no matter what’s on our plates as we travel from Purim to Pesach, is to make extra room in our hearts while we’re clearing out our freezers and cabinets and at our tables when we sit down to the holiday meals.

Kindness begets kindness.

Let’s fill the coming weeks with as much of it as we can and may our seder tables teem with blessing.