Note to Self in the Lead-Up to Pesach

Now that Purim has come and gone, this is a loving reminder to myself and to everyone who celebrates Pesach:

Passover preparations — in all their time-consuming, expensive, and exhausting forms — are not a competitive sport. No matter when each of us gets the process underway, we all win by getting to eat the same matzah, whether that’s the prize you had in mind or not.

A tablescape is not d’oraysa. You can make the same menu your bubbe made 80 years ago or that you prepared last year. Don’t feel pressure to try fancy new recipes if you aren’t up to it or it just isn’t your jam. A one-course meal is fine; so is takeout. We’re all stuffed after korech anyway. Grapes make a refreshing dessert. Do the best you can and be kind to yourself.

If you feel the countdowns to Pesach are the devil, unsubscribe, unfollow, delete, don’t look.

Chametz, not dust, reminds us of the spiritual depths to which we sank in Egypt as a people in bondage. Pharoah enslaved our bodies, but the undoing of our souls was of our own making. Until we sweep away the leavening within ourselves, we remain in chains. More important to focus on that, and on prayers for peace and healing for those who have been uprooted this season, than on reorganizing the linen closet. Spring cleaning can come in July. Or never.

There is plenty to do, but it will get done. Somehow, it always does. Our homes will be clean, the shopping bags piled up in the living room, the soup bubbling on the foil-covered burner, the maror ground in time for seder. This will all come to be whenever we decide to turn over our kitchens, however much we complain about it, whether we have the ability to fill the freezer with briskets and mandelbread weeks ahead of time or if we pull ours out of the oven hours, or minutes, before candle-lighting.

Let’s not lose sight of our wellbeing, mental and physical, in the process, or sweep the opportunity for personal and communal renewal out the door with the crumbs we will inevitably discover behind the couch.

Passover is a wonderful, 8-day (or 7) holiday of freedom. This year, let’s not become enslaved to our preparations.

Love,

Merri

My Year in Books 2021

Hi there,

I hope everyone is well and managing the ongoing pandemic in good health.

I know it’s been a while since I’ve written here. My last post was my 2020 book list. I had plans then to start a newsletter instead, the technology of which continues to elude me. The next thing I knew it was this past Sunday and sorry about that. Thank you for understanding.  

I do write regularly on Facebook. If you’d like, we can stay in touch there until I get the newsletter off the ground. https://www.facebook.com/merri.ukraincik/

In the meantime, the book list is the book list, so here we are.

My 2021 reading was up and down. There were months when I had my head in a book non-stop; others when I hardly had the headspace to read at all. Mostly, I read what struck me in the moment (Dickinson, Godwin) or what a friend handed to me as she cleaned out her basement (Styron, Kaling), or what I picked up from a random box of books marked “Free” (Tyler, Cole) while out walking.

My favorite piece of writing wasn’t a book at all. It was this gem of a prayer, scrawled by http://Isaac Bashevis Singer on the back of a rent slip.

All in all, despite the chaos happening out there in the world, reading was as it always is – a balm and a joy.  

Looking forward to hearing what you read this past year, and what you recommend.

Oh, also, we finally bought a new couch – a small miracle, given the supply chain situation – so I’m looking forward to doing a lot of reading on it in the future. A friend gave me book-themed pillows for my birthday. A girl couldn’t ask for anything more.

With love and books,

Merri

My 2021 Year of Books

First, the forgotten titles from 2020, or least the ones I finally remembered:

Bread and the Knife: A Life in 26 Bites by Dawn Drzal – Food as metaphor in this wonderful memoir in essays.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk – A novel of longing (for many things) in a small Turkish town, set against the rising threat of Islamic extremism.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I love Patchett, but it wasn’t easy to read a book about folks stuck in one kind of lockdown while we were stuck in another.

And here’s 2021:

1.   A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – A classic I last read in my adolescence, better appreciated this time around.

2.   Fifty Names for Rain by Asha Lemmie. Beautifully written, engaging story with a lovely title, though I wished for a different ending.

3.   The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn. Well-done mystery that unfolds in an upscale New York City neighborhood. Great afternoon distraction.

4.   The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. Quick-going novel about a female spy network that operated in France during World War II. Read this a few years ago; reread now for book club.

5.  The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet – Moving story of twin girls and racial identity in the segregated American South. Glad to have read it, but struggled with the second part of the book.

6.  The Patron Saint of Liars by Anne Patchett – Patchett’s first novel, about a woman who abandons her husband. Themes of reinvention and self-preservation. I’d probably find Patchett’s grocery list enchanting.

7.  House of Glass by Hadley Freeman – Freeman pieces together her family’s Jewish past. Memoir as mystery.

8.  The Yellow Bird Sings by Jennifer Rosner – The answer when people ask why we need another book about the Holocaust. Stunning writing.

9.  The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce – A love story set in a music shop.

10. The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter – Comedic novel about the financial crisis, as told by a business reporter turned poet. Wasn’t my thing.

11. A Blessing on the Moon by Joseph Skibell – Spectral story narrated by a man murdered during the Holocaust who cannot get to Heaven. Mixed feelings about this one.

12. The Magician’s Assistant by Anne Patchett – A novel of love, magic (the characters’ and Patchett’s), healing, and redemption.

13.  A Bookshop in Berlin by Francoise Frenkel – Rediscovered memoir, originally published in 1945, of Frenkel’s escape from the Nazis. The story of the book’s reappearance at a flea market makes for a wonderful preface.

14. The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams – A quirky novel about how words come into being and how language becomes a kind of currency.

15. Hunger by Roxane Gay – Gay’s memoir is hard, but necessary, and her voice is astounding.

16. Who Is Michele Obama? by Megan Stine – Biography for children, interspersed with stories about previous first ladies. This was a fun book gift, given to me with #40.

17. The Book of Jeremiah by Julie Zuckerman – Endearing novel told in stories that flit back and forth in time and reflect the spectrum of human emotion. Wonderful titular character, poignant (and funny!) ending.

18. A Wealth of Pigeons: A Cartoon Collection by Harry Bliss & Steve Martin – A few cute cartoons. The rest were meh. Or maybe I’ve lost my sense of humor to the pandemic.

19. Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown – I enjoyed the relationship between the Yiddish-speaking immigrant mother and her American daughter.

20. Darkness Visible by William Styron – Memoir about the author’s depression and recovery.

21. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh – Hilarious, quirky graphic memoir that also tackles tough topics, including mental health.  Plus, there’s a goose.

22. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger – Heartbreaking coming-of-age story.

23. News of the World by Paulette Jiles – Quick read about a Civil War veteran who gives live newspaper readings. Struck me as written for the film version.

24. The Last Jews of Berlin by Leonard Gross – Powerful accounts, written by a journalist, of U-boats, Jews who hid in Germany during the war.

25. The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg – Berg’s writing is beautiful. But she diminishes the impact of abuse on familial relationships.

26. Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland – I liked so much about this Jewy story, set in Atlantic City during World War Two, except one story line that struck me as untrue to the characters.  

27. A Gift for a Ghost by Borja Gonzalez – Odd graphic novel, especially the faceless characters who connect across time.

28. Poems by Emily Dickens – Just what I needed in that moment to help usher out a Shabbos.

29. The Takeaway Men by Meryl Ain – Novel by my fellow Jewish Week alum Meryl Ain about memory and Jewish identity in mid-20th century Queens.

30. Memoirs by Kinglsey Amis – I could not read past the preface, though I tried. The silver lining was the sweet bookmark from a shop in Madrid that fell out of my used copy.

31. Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou – Memoir of Angelou’s complicated, but ultimately redemptive and loving relationship with her mother.

32. All My Sons by Arthur Miller – Play. A short read and good conversation starter about the way a secret can destroy a family. Painful in its way.

33. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery – Beautifully written, fascinating, but a long-read essay would have been enough for me. My fault, not the book’s.

34. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling – A gift from a friend. Not my usual read, but a fun afternoon distraction.

35. The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich – Homage to the author’s grandfather, who fought against Native dispossession from North Dakota. But the story was all over the place and hard to follow.

36. The Jewish Husband by Lia Levi – Set in Fascist Rome in the 1930s, the tragic story of a young Jewish man who marries into a Catholic family that supports Mussolini.

37. The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Penelope Lively – I abandoned this a few stories in.

38. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner – This resonated, the language of loss and the emotions, and the fact that I, for reasons different from the author, have cried in H Mart.

39. A Palestine Affair by Jonathan Wilson – A chance find at a library book sale. Read this romantic thriller set in Mandate Palestine in one sitting.

40. How the World Looks to a Bee by Don Glass – A companion of short, topical science pieces that I enjoyed one or two at a time.

42. Wartime Lies by Louis Begley – A raw Holocaust novel. Begley’s afterword is powerful.

43. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks – A beautifully written novel of love and war that spans from World War I to the present.

44. SlaughterhouseFive by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s classic anti-war science fiction novel. I reread it for the first time in decades after visiting Vonnegut’s library.

45. The Good Husband by Gail Godwin – Compelling story of marriage, intellect, love, and loss.

46. How to Make a Life by Florence Reiss Kraut – Historical novel about several generations of a Jewish family and the challenges of immigration.

47. The Children’s Bible: A Novel by Lydia Millet – Societal collapse, climate disaster, dystopia. Not for me.

48. The Sabbath World by Judith Shulevitz – Part spiritual memoir, part historical/religious exploration. Lovely to read.

49. Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – Enchanting tale. Enjoyed it, though I usually find fantasy unsettling.

50. Blankets – Craig Thompson – Coming-of-age, autobiographical graphic novel.

51. The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor – Heartbreaking, but gorgeous. Trevor is an astounding writer.

52. The Layers Project: Personal Narratives of Struggle, Resilience,and Growth by Jewish Women by Shira Lankin Sheps – Narratives of challenge and triumph, as told by 30 women living in Israel. Important read, stunning photographs.

53. The Door by Magda Szabo – A haunting novel, translated from Hungarian, about the relationship between a writer and her housekeeper. This book! Be prepared.

54. The Patriots by Sana Krasikov – So much to say about this book, a mother-son tale, a story of secrets, a sweeping historical novel. One of my favorites this year.

55. At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracey Chevalier – A peculiar story about a broken family and a lot of apples.

56. When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains by Arianna Newman – Newman uncovers her father’s war story. Reads like a thriller.

57. Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank – I was late to the game of reading this very popular book from 1999, about the comic-tragic dating dance.

58. Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom – A novel about a white indentured servant from Ireland and a plantation master’s illegitimate slave daughter in the American South.

59. The Traveler by Daniel Simkin and Darren Simkin – A small fable of a book about the lessons of living.

60. Out of Egypt by Andre Aciman – Memoir, beautifully written, about growing up in a Jewish family in Egypt.

61. World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil – A collection of lovely essays that feature nature as memoir. Completed in an afternoon over several cups of tea. 

62. The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles – The odyssey of four boys who really get nowhere, but the storytelling and the living are the point. Towles is brilliant. Still, I was troubled by the ending.

63. Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret? by Judy Blume – I loved this book as a girl and decided to reread. Let’s just say, sometimes, you can’t go home again, even in a book.

64. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter – A wonderful story of love and social satire, set in a seaside Italian village and Hollywood.

65. House on the River: A Summer Journey by Nessa Rapoport – Lovely, evocative memoir about the power of memory to shape the author’s life. 

66. The Boston Girl by Anita Diament – Novel about a spirited daughter of Jewish immigrant parents in early 20th century Boston.

67. Under My Hat by Sally Berkovics – The author sensitively explores the challenges of balancing Orthodoxy and secularism.

68. Swann by Carol Shields – A literary odyssey about an uneducated farmer’s wife who is murdered shortly after handing her poems over to a small press.

69. On the Heart of the Seas by S.Y. Agnon – A spiritual legend about a group of Chasidim who travel to the Holy Land in the early 19thcentury. A divine read.

70. The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz – This thriller asks who owns our stories. It creeped me out. Also, the trajectory was predictable, though maybe that was the point.

71. The Tide between Us by Olive Collins – The novel hinges on the little-known history of the 2,000 Irish children deported to Jamaica as slaves in the 1800s. Roughshod editing and the second part left me wanting.

72. After Rain by William Trevor – A touching collection of short stories. Trevor writes as if he can see into the human heart.

73. Open City by Teju Cole – A novel about a Nigerian-German psychiatrist in New York, and the stories we write about ourselves. The descriptions of the city are stunning.

74. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – I could not get through a novel about the world destroyed by a flu pandemic. Wrong timing.

75. Wow, No Thank You – Samantha Irby – She’s clever and funny. Yet, though I’m not prudish, I wasn’t in the mood for something so crass.

76. Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler – The story of a loving, imperfect family with a wonderful, middle-aged mother at its helm.

77. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque – Brilliant classic novel of World War I, and the tragedy of war.

A Little Reflection on Heroes

There are three women I consider the heroes of my lifetime so far.

The first was my grandmother, who from the very beginning, planted the seeds of grit deep down in my spine, who always said to keep my chest out to project confidence even if I didn’t feel self-assured, and to wear lipstick every time I left the house. She taught me to smile even when it’s hard, that I’d catch more flies with honey, that I would never be too old to learn new tricks, and that it’s good to know how to make things with my hands.

Then came Wonder Woman, played by Lynda Carter on our television one night a week. She showed me that costumed or not, each of us possesses unique strength – that it’s up to us to know this is true, that we should never wait for someone else to say so, and that we should use it to do our part to save the world. Our lives may be ordinary, may never be the basis for a movie, but we all have stories worth telling and we are all worthy of surrounding ourselves with people who will love us enough to listen and hold us dear, no matter how the plot twists and turns.

Then came RBG, who despite her short stature, struck me as the tallest person in the room, who had poise and always knew the right thing to say, who fought and won so many battles for women, precious things we now take for granted – which we should not, not now, not ever, not anywhere, for so many reasons, mostly so we’ll never let them slip through our hands. But she also stood up for others struggling to climb the ladder of equality, sharing her strength and conviction with generosity, knowing she had enough of it to go around.

So last night, I crocheted a collar in Ruth’s memory, put on lipstick for the first time in eons (no one sees it behind the mask, so why bother?) to honor my grandmother’s, and wore a cuff to muster some of Wonder Woman’s strength.

This Shabbos, I pray we all find the hero inside ourselves, that we will use our individual powers to make choices for the greater good, that our voices will take flight, reaching G-d’s ear, and that He will grant us the light to see and the wherewithal to patch up all the places where our world is broken.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

❤ Merri

  • I made the collar by adapting a pattern by Kristen Stein/ModernLaceCrochet for use with a thicker weight wool.

Getting Used to a New Kind of Silence

It’s been a while since I’ve written here. But the pandemic lockdown has rendered my sense of passing time wonky at best. It is hard for me to believe it’s already Labor Day weekend, and that Rosh Hashana is nearly here. I could’ve sworn it was still March and that I’d just sent out a blog post about Pesach.

Over the past several months, I have been thinking a lot about changes I want to make, though I haven’t made most of them. I haven’t felt any pressure to do so, which is good. Still, there are rooms I daydream about reconfiguring, closets I hope to declutter, and projects I want to undertake, among them a face lift for my website and a new format for my conversations with you.

For now, though, my focus is elsewhere, for I awoke to a loud, sudden quiet in our house this morning.

It’s not the quiet I recognize, the one that would echo after our boys, then small, had left for school. Nor is it the tired, afternoon silence they shattered when they’d come back home, arriving like pots and pans falling out of a cabinet onto the kitchen floor. Hungry. Loud. Edgy. Bumping into corners. Clomping down the stairs.

Delighted to see them, I still longed for the hush that would settle over the house again only at bedtime, when the stars would come out and we would read their favorite stories, then read them once or twice more. I would ask the angels to watch over them during the night, and I’d sing to them, to my boys, knowing I was still the center of their world.

This silence, the one I hear now as I begin to prepare for our first Shabbos as empty nesters, is unrecognizable. It’s like a new sweater I’m trying to break in, stretching the wool and folding up the cuffs on the sleeves so it fits just right, like an arm around my shoulders.

I have a flash of memory of my young sons shrieking with delight at the sea, gathering rocks and crabshells and jumping through waves, darting in and out of the water until they have exhausted themselves, falling fast asleep before our minivan reaches the highway. My heart has frozen that moment in time, just as I can still hear the sound of their youthful breathing in my head as I walk through their rooms now to straighten up, murmuring my prayers and eyeing their vacated beds with a pang in my chest, knowing this emptiness around me is the way things are meant to be.

We love them, care for them, trust in the strength of our relationship with them, praying that it will always hold, and then we let them go. It’s the natural order of things, and like breath itself, it is a gift of gifts to know they have grown, that they are men in the world, and that I am no longer the center of their corner if it.

And yet, this is a silence that will take some getting used to.

I look forward to sharing the ways I hope to fill it in the months to come.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

❤ Merri

Trying To Do Nothing At All

Hi everyone!

It’s been a while since I’ve written and it feels good to be back with you in this space. I hope you are all safe and healthy and managing well.

This week was exhausting. Lots of doing with little progress, as if I’d been running in place.

I cooked like a short-order chef, cleaned until the house smelled of Clorox, ran the bajillionth load of laundry since we locked down, and choreographed a series of staggered grocery deliveries to arrive between now and Shavuos. One night, I colored my hair, but missed a splotch of grey. The next morning, I gave myself a mediocre pedicure. I tried to write, but instead spent two days trapping an elusive fly the size of a fighter jet that buzzed non-stop around my office. I told him he could have my chair before I gave up and left the room. I sunk a basil plant into the ground, knowing I haven’t the energy to fight off the bunnies. And after reading too many articles about the pandemic, I resolved never to leave the house again.

But more than anything this week, I was sad. I schlepped that hopeless funk around – daydreaming in mid-vacuum, worrying about the present, worrying about what comes next. I felt conquered. I cried. I wished for certainty, or at least a window of clarity, both of which seem to have slipped through my hands, if they were never mine to hold in the first place. I sat outside in the late afternoons to get some sun, to bring in a bit of light, but it didn’t help as much as I’d have liked. And I prayed, asking G-d for a lot. Maybe even a chutzpadik amount.

As the week draws to an end, I’m starting to think I’ve gotten it all wrong. Maybe sad isn’t the right word for what I’ve been feeling. Perhaps it’s more apt to call it the frustration born of trying to move forward, only to discover that all the roads are being repaved, that the map of the world has been redrawn, that we really know very little for sure. Yet my gut tells me that it’s likely also acceptance of my own very human limitations at the hardest of times.

Thank G-d, thank G-d, Shabbos is here, come to save me from myself. To remind me that I don’t always have to be strong, that I can lean into my faith to keep me standing, that I don’t have to carry the weight on my own. That it’s okay if I can’t always hold the pieces together. That sometimes, doing nothing at all is what gets you where you need to go.

Wishing you all a beautiful Yom Yerushalayim and a restful, peaceful Shabbos.

Love,

Merri

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