A Horseradish Reversal

Every year, I take the head from the horseradish root we use at the seder and plant it deep in the ground. But inevitably, just as the new greens emerge the following spring, one of the garden-eating wild things in our yard will devour the entire plant, root and all, leaving us with nothing.

By now, our recent sedarim feel as ancient as our slavery in Egypt and we no longer require fresh horseradish. Like so much else that’s gotten lost in our COVID-induced isolation, I’d forgotten about the root I planted right after last Pesach until this morning, when I noticed these bursts of green in the garden.

Shocked that they’d not been eaten (perhaps the hose has served as a fortress), I brushed away some of the dirt to check on the roots. They have to stay a little longer in the dark underground to fill out, to be ready for picking. But still, there they were in all their hideous, knobby-topped glory, and I smiled a smile I haven’t mustered in weeks.

The leaves are another story. Unbothered by rabbits and deer, they stand, when fully grown, like a proud gathering of fans, rippled at the edges and ribbed in the center. A verdant crown atop such an ugly, biting vegetable is a lesson unto itself — about silver linings and finding good and not allowing bitterness to consume us. To have played the tiniest role in bringing something forth from the earth, a bit of new life, gives me the taste of something hopeful, and that’s no small thing right now.

Who knows what this week will bring, our dishes packed away and Pesach behind us? Perhaps the animals will leave the plants alone, finding something sweeter to nosh on, and I will be able to offer friends fresh horseradish root with which to prepare an array of quarantine condiments. But mostly it’s the hope I’m clinging to. I’ll lop off the tops and stick them back in the ground.

Wishing the whole wide world a peaceful day of rest, and a Shabbos filled with hope.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

Keeping Up With Hand Cream

I bought this at Trader Joe’s back in January. I was away for a few days and realized I’d forgotten to bring hand cream. And hand cream, I know from my grandmother, is something we should never be without.

Her beauty regimen was simple, selected from drugstore stock. She assured me you didn’t need fancy-fancy, but you had to be consistent in applying your chosen unguents to keep yourself youthful. As a little girl, I’d watch her with wild-eyed fascination as she went through these paces. She never left the house without putting on lipstick. Before bed, she’d scoop Pond’s from the jar to remove her makeup, and once a week, she had her wig set at the beauty parlor across the road. I hung on her every ritual. But the only wisdom that really stuck was the one about creaming your hands. She’d say that a woman could moisturize her face all she wants, but her hands would give her age away if she didn’t tend to them, too.

Washing so frequently now, I’m finding that hand cream just isn’t cutting it. Levi says my palms, once soft, feel like sandpaper. My knuckles are scrubbed red and raw. My hands are aging before my eyes, as much as all of this is taking its toll on my soul.

But last night, after I’d done the dishes and washed down the kitchen, I picked up this tube of hand cream and noticed the tagline for the first time. “The perfect precursor to your next meeting!” Indeed, whenever that might be, I wondered, allowing myself a full-bodied guffaw.

Lately, especially in moments when fear of this dark shadow that hangs over all of us becomes sharp as a knife in my gut, I miss my grandmother especially. I conjure up her scents for comfort. Sometimes it’s her violet talc and her perfume. At others, especially on the eve of Pesach, it’s frying onions and Sanka. I realize that even if she were alive, I would not be able to visit her or feel her kiss on my cheek. The thought of it pains me because I know so many of us are now separated from those we love. So I will persist, creaming my hands as a way to cling to what I can of what life was like before.

We have arrived to Shabbos Hagadol, the great Shabbos that comes before Pesach, which for us is the third Shabbos our shul is shuttered. May we somehow find grace in this ongoing silence apart from our community, and may G-d hear our prayers to bring this plague to an end.

Gut Shabbos!  Shabbat Shalom!

Sending love to all of you.

Merri

Selfie with Potato Starch

When a store clerk noticed me posing for this shot in our local Stop & Shop earlier this week, he smiled and asked, “Does it scare you?”

I laughed and said that it did not, though in the past, it would’ve turned my anxiety dial to the max. But I’ve lived enough life and faced enough genuine challenges over the past few years to know that making Pesach is small potatoes – or potato starch, if you will.

“Already? So soon?” I once asked the Kedem man when I spotted him stocking the shelves a full month before Purim.

“I have 200 stores to finish. I’ve got to start somewhere,” he said with a shrug.

We, too, have a starting point, a moment when we’ll say, “Okay. Breathe. It’s time.” But we shouldn’t look over our shoulders, watching to see where everyone else is holding or what they are up to on their prep. Rather, set your own clock. Find your own pace. Shut out the noise, the murmurs of folks reporting how much they’ve already done. Be delighted for them. Truly. But remember this isn’t the Olympics. There’s no gold medal for First to Clean Out the Pantry of Chametz or silver for Filling the Freezer with Knaidlach and Meatballs.

You’ve done this before. You’ll do it again. Have faith in yourself.

When we left Egypt, following Moshe into the uncertainty of the desert, we all did so on the same night. In our day, we, too, will all sit down to the first seder on the same evening — regardless of when we first got the shopping and cleaning underway.

So don’t let those paper-lined shelves and Kosher for Passover signs unnerve you. Enjoy Purim, and take a tongue-in-cheek Selfie with Potato Starch instead.

We All Need A Break Sometimes

Early this morning, I realized I had not cleared off or set the Shabbos table, which I usually do on Thursday night, nor had I made chicken soup with the greens I bought on Wednesday. I hadn’t wrapped the Chanukah gifts at one end or finished the decoupage projects at the other, and I’d failed to put away the groceries and papers in between. To boot, the cakes I baked, my only attempt to begin Shabbos preparations, had collapsed because I took them out of the oven too soon.

I was just too tired and too blah from the cold yesterday, and I didn’t want to do anything but write. Though it was out of character to let things go, I decided this was a very acceptable decision, that it wasn’t sloth or procrastination, but rather an investment in my work and word count and me, and that all of it was as important as making fresh chicken soup and challah, at least in the moment.

But I now know this to be true because I found two quarts of the former and five of the latter in the back of the freezer this morning, all of which I made a few weeks ago – for a rainy day. Because sometimes you get lucky and see your blessings staring you in the face. You feel all the goodness from on high and your faith is strong that everything will sort itself out, even if it looks different from how you first envisioned it.

You know what else? I’m going to make a brownie mix for dessert, relocate the gifts and projects to other surfaces, stash all the papers in a Marshall’s bag, and reschedule our Architectural Digest photo shoot (just kidding about that last bit). And it’s not going to bother me one bit. Really.

Sundown will come as it does each week no matter what. Our meals will be simple this time, but there will be love in them, and they will taste like wonder and miracles and the holiness that separates Shabbos from everything else. And G-d willing, we will rest along with Him from the busyness of the everyday and the business of being humans who sometimes just need a break.

Wishing everyone a restful Shabbos that allows us to forget, briefly, all the tasks that await us after Havdalah.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom! And a Happy Chanukah, too!

 

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

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.