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.

 

 

Finding Good Things In The Last Place I Thought To Look

shoes

It’s the season of atonement, the days spanning from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur.  I should probably be writing to you with thoughts about the holidays, but at the moment, I’d prefer to talk about Walmart instead.

I’ve never liked Walmart much, in great part because it’s enormous. Yet where we live, it’s the only general goods store open until midnight, which comes in handy at 11:15 p.m. when one of your children mentions in a casual manner that he needs a hard-to-find school supply for the next morning. And sometimes it’s helpful because I just need to get out of the house, to clear my head late at night when everything else is closed.

Two years ago, I made a hesitant peace with Walmart, not that I was trying, nor because I embraced the fact that you can buy underwear, craft supplies, snacks, bug spray, and spackle under the same roof. The reason was that yours truly inherited a wicked pair of bunions from her grandmother and has a very hard time finding a comfortable pair of shoes.

It was completely by chance that I discovered Walmart sells a good pair of flats. I was driving to a meeting when I realized I’d left the house in flip-flops without more professional footwear to change into. There was no time to return home, so when I spotted Walmart on the horizon, I pulled in and headed to the shoe department at the back of the store. The only other option on my way was a supermarket.

I tried on a pair of black, faux leather flats. They had a wide toe box – perfect to accommodate my bunions – and a flexible, cushioned sole. I couldn’t believe how comfortable they were. But friends, shoes have seduced me in the footwear department before, tricking me into thinking they’re the ones. I buy them, bring them home, wear them. A perennial optimist, I’ve purchased all the fancy brands that promise comfort like you’re walking on air. Still, I’ve ended up with a towering pile of shoes I can’t wear and plenty of blisters. On my last attempt, I wore the shoes out of the mall, but my feet were in agony by the time I got to the car.

As surprised as I am to admit this, the Walmart pair was different. So different and so comfortable, in fact, that I drove back to Walmart a week later and bought the same shoes in three different colors.  My love for flip-flops remains strong and true, but I finally have options for more formal occasions since my pump-wearing days are long over.

I wore the black flats this Rosh Hashana. They aren’t fancy, but unless I tipped you off, you’d never know they were only $9.97. And I’m pleased to report that in the two years I’ve owned them, I’ve worn them to work, shul, weddings, and bar mitzvahs without a blister or cramp to speak of.

In the end, though, I’m not really writing this blog post about Walmart. It’s more about exploring opportunities to be open-minded because you never know from whence your blessings will come in the year ahead. They may be waiting for you in the last place you’ll think to look, perhaps even the last place you’d ever want to look. But you’ll never know until you try.

Wishing you a wonderful year of blessings in whatever shape and form you long for them to appear. May they reveal themselves to you with ease, and may you have the mazel to find them wherever you turn.

 

Sometimes, You Can Get What You Want

 

butterpecan

A tub of parve butter pecan ice cream about to head into the deep chill of our garage freezer.

I had a sudden hankering for butter pecan ice cream when I sat down to write this. Instead, I ate a salad, which was delicious, by the way, but still wasn’t butter pecan ice cream.

Before the ice cream distraction, I wanted to tell you a very nice story about my Kitchen Aid. You may recall that I blew it out baking challah a few months ago and decided to invest in an Ankarsrum mixer, a sturdy Swedish machine with room for double the amount of dough.

How do I like it? Well, it does a nice job on my challah recipe. It’s good-looking, too. Yet I’m still adjusting to its operational nuances and learning how to lock in the attachments and struggling to understand what some of the attachments are for.

My friend David, who convinced me to buy the Ankarsrum, uses his machine for all his baking, not just challah. Despite his encouragement, I’m not there yet. I admit, though, this may be because I remain in the thrall of my Kitchen Aid, which has sat – forlorn and unused – in the shadow of the Ankarsrum on the counter for months.

My husband told me not to give up hope, that he might yet get it working. He ordered a number of parts online. He and David then performed the surgery, laying out the Kitchen Aid in pieces across the dining room table. Sadly, the patient did not recover. We all agreed that a professional repair wasn’t worth the cost.

When I had lost all resolve and began to mourn, my husband had an interesting idea. By interesting, I mean kooky. He called one of his Croatian landsmen – this time Ico, our auto body guy. Surely, you see where this is going. My husband dropped the Kitchen Aid off at Ico’s shop.

At the time, a part of me thought this was the strangest of my husband’s interesting ideas. On the other hand, I’m a big believer that it’s the strange things that make the world go round. I pinned my hopes on the possibility that the guy who fixed my minivan after a snowplow backed into it would also be able to restore my kitchen life to order.

My cell phone rang two weeks later. It was Ico, telling me he had completed my “husband’s little project” and that I could pick it up whenever I wanted. I couldn’t thank him enough for bringing my Kitchen Aid back to life.

All good things come to those who wait, I thought to myself. I was grateful to my husband for thinking out of the box and to Ico for his willingness to give the idea a shot.

The Kitchen Aid and the Ankarsrum now sit side by side on the counter, any traces of sibling rivalry suppressed for the sake of shalom bayit. The division of labor is clear-cut. The latter helps me bake challah, while the former helps me tackle everything else, from cakes to ice cream.

Last week, I made pareve pistachio ice cream for Shabbos to test out Ico’s handiwork. This week’s flavor? You guessed it. Butter pecan.

When Key Challah Isn’t Meant To Be

Right about now, my Facebook feed is beginning to fill up with images of stunning braided challahs just out of the oven. There will be others as the day unfolds, even more in the lead-up to candle lighting.

The pictures speak volumes about the irresistible lure of freshly baked challah, not to mention the magic of those first few bites on the Shabbos after Pesach. The moment is something akin to a lover’s reunion, one filled with anticipation, desire, and longing. Sure, we’ll look forward to challah the following Shabbos and every one after that until next Pesach, but it won’t be with the same intensity.

And then there’s the matter of the keys.

It’s the Shabbos of schlissel, or key, challah. As the custom goes, bakers place their keys into their challahs as a segulah, or good omen, for livelihood. Though I’m a late blooming challah baker, I dove head first into the key ritual from the beginning. I loved the mystery of secreting keys in the loaves, and the metaphor of opening up the doors of blessing. I ignored each counter story that insisted the ritual had pagan roots. So many challah bakers I knew did it, though when I asked, I learned that most, like me, had adopted rather than inherited the custom.

I carried on, grateful for the spiritual meaning behind it, until – in an odd twist of events – I misplaced our house keys several years in a row in the process. I was sure I’d positioned them in the loaves. Once, I thought I’d mistakenly given the loaf with our key in it to a friend, but her family didn’t find it either. Honestly, it was getting creepy. Where were all our keys disappearing to?

I never got an answer, and the keys still haven’t turned up. I did try one other approach to the custom after the last key went missing, baking challahs shaped like keys instead. Frankly, they emerged from the oven looking nothing like keys, though they tasted just fine. The final straw came when a loaf a patient had baked for my husband using his office key disappeared from his desk, the empty pan left behind and the key nowhere to be found.

This whole schlissel challah endeavor is about signs and omens, and here was one staring us right in the face. God had given up on subtlety and I finally took notice. Still, it’s been hard to let go, even as my husband reminds me over and over that our livelihood is determined on Yom Kippur. And so I try not to put too much stock in a key in a loaf, even one with powerful symbolism, even one I long to bake.

Today, then, is a big day as I pull out the ingredients to bake challah for this Shabbos and refrain from schissel challah-ing. I’ll miss it, but I’ve promised not to do it again. I’ll keep the house key stowed in my purse as I watch the parade of beautiful key challah images in my Facebook feed and read the accompanying stories about the power of this particular segulah. I’ll look for signs and wonders and good omens in the kneading and the shaping instead. But mostly, I’ll wait for the blessings to burst forth when we break the loaves open and savor every post-Pesach bite, because blessings, like keys, come in all shapes and sizes, and there’s magic power in both.

A Sound Investment

eggs

A Portrait of Pesach in 20 Egg Cartons

A Sound Investment

I was at a wedding the other day when the conversation veered, not surprisingly, towards Pesach. I admitted how much I enjoy the holiday, while another woman in the community kindly disagreed. She confessed she wished it were over already and made me laugh with her description of the scene in her home. It’s so demanding, she said. What’s more, I’m a short-order cook for the whole eight days.

While I concur with her on both points, neither makes me love Pesach any less. The discussion did, however, leave me wondering why I harbor such affection for a holiday that tries the bodies and souls of those of us making it. And it’s only now, as I write from the trenches of preparation more than a week later, that I can finally articulate an answer.

To me, Pesach is magical. It has been since I was a little girl sitting by my grandfather’s side, my legs swinging beneath the seder table, and it’s a feeling that has continued to grow over time. Why? Because the holiday allows us to do something we can’t do at any other point during the year – to time travel.

Through both our storytelling and our other observances, we go back to where we came from, gleaning spiritual wisdom from our collective memory as a Jewish people, reliving the tears of our slavery, and exulting in our redemption. The holiday demands that we live in the present, too, making physical changes to our daily norms – turning our homes upside down to shake out the chametz and altering how we eat. And lastly, it leads us, with the hagada as our guide, to holy places where we can question our role in the world and define what matters to us, letting the answers determine where we go next.

This perspective inspires me to pin a lot of hope on this holiday. What we create during Pesach will, I believe, help shape how my sons think and feel about their childhood and Jewish tradition. I want them to remember with warmth and nostalgia that there was good in all that hard work, that I wasn’t just sleep-deprived and cranky the entire week before we tasted the first bite of matzah – even though I will be sleep-deprived and the tiniest bit cranky – and that there was a lot of love around our seder table.

So I plod along, talking to God as I cleanse our home of chametz and kasher the kitchen, grate the horseradish and make the boys’ favorite Pesach delicacies. The next few days of preparation will demand a lot of me, as will the holiday itself. I’ll be exhausted, to be sure. But the long-term returns, I pray, will be worth it, and that seems like reason enough.

Wishing everyone a meaningful Pesach.

Merri

P.S. To read more of more my thoughts about Pesach, check out my latest column in the Jewish Week and the NJJN,  Honored Guests at the Seder Table.