A Clear View onto a Summer’s Day

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My friend once had charming but drafty old windows above the bookcases in her living room. She set the same goal every summer for more years than she could count: to etch a pretty pattern onto the glass in order to conceal some of the cosmetic wear and tear. But real life always took over and she eventually replaced the windows instead. The etching idea never stood a chance.

My summer agenda tends to vary from year to year, though it’s constant in its length and ambition. And while most – or all – of the contents will go the way of my friend’s windows, I still approach the enterprise with the naivité of a rookie who thinks she might actually get it all done.

This summer, however, I decided to scale back expectations to one major project (making headway on my book) and a handful of smaller, manageable tasks (cleaning out the bathroom vanity and other earth-moving experiences).

First, I wrote “Make a list” at the top of my list. I got this tip from my writer friend Esther, whom I’ve never met, but know through Facebook. Her mom z”l would begin all of her own lists this way, enabling her to leave the starting gate with a sense of accomplishment. It’s a brilliant, empowering idea, and I was delighted to have one thing already crossed off before summer even got underway.

Alas, within days, the rug was pulled out from under me. I flayed the skin off two fingers on my right hand while cooking for Shabbos. The bandage wrapped over my second-degree burns left me to peck like a slow-moving chicken at the laptop keys. All of my writing plans and work obligations were put on hold for weeks, as did the making of dinner. I quickly sank into a funk from my general lack of productivity.

That is, until I started to pay attention.

While I was getting nothing done, plenty was happening. I witnessed a stunner of a double rainbow after a storm, caught a firefly, made a new friend, and took a leisurely stroll with my husband for Slurpees. I discovered that tall stems of yellow-crowned dill – grown from the seeds my hairdresser’s mother brought me from Romania – are now flourishing in my garden. I also met a charming duck in the park the other morning, who escorted me back to my car. And I’ve already found two four-leaf clover, with six weeks still to go before Labor Day.

By now, my fingers have more or less healed, though my hand-modelling career is over before it started. As for my list, I have no idea where it even is, not that it matters, really. The only things I’ve managed to cross off are “Make a list” and “Clear out the bathroom vanity.”

Meanwhile, all of this musing leads me back to thoughts of my friend, who never got to etch her windows. She has no regrets, by the way. Only a clear view onto a summer’s day.

 

A New Driveway, and a Mensch

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Our driveway had been falling apart for years, crumbling to the point that when the landscaper rode over it with his mower one day, concrete pebbles flew everywhere and shattered my windshield. My husband and son mixed fresh concrete in an old dish bin and patched up the driveway as an activity. Their efforts weren’t going to win any beauty pageants, but it entertained them for a while and stabilized the driveway enough to get us through the following winter.

When the concrete disintegrated entirely thanks to the ice, snow, and salt this year, we began to fear it would collapse under the weight of our cars. The time to deal with the problem had come, our dread of the cost and the attendant aggravation notwithstanding.

I’m no fan of construction. I’m still recovering from the work we had to do when we moved into our fixer-upper more than a decade ago. Still, this experience was the loudest, messiest, and most frustrating of all. To put it mildly, the crew weren’t a courteous bunch, neither in their conduct while here nor in the way they left detritus behind. I spent the better part of three days cowering in my living room while they shouted at one another, expletives and all, the stress filling my shoulders and back like the asphalt in our driveway.

That said, we had chosen this company because the owner promised to fix the wobbly brick steps leading to our front door as well. The member of his crew who patched them arrived hours before the others each morning, his gentle dog in tow. He focused on the task with care and pride in his handiwork. He was kind and soft-spoken, polite and thoughtful to us, and he appeared to be the peacekeeper among his colleagues. He even came back after the job was already finished and paid for, just to check that the mortar had set nicely.

Once he’d gone, I returned the pots of our container garden to their perch on the brick landing. I looked out at the driveway and found myself praying that this new asphalt incarnation will hold up, that we won’t need to do this again for decades. One day, though, we’ll have to redo the steps. They are sturdy, but they aren’t going to win any beauty pageants and they won’t last forever.

I thought then of Pirkei Avot’s (Ethics of the Fathers) wisdom: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” And I’m grateful to the mensch who patched the bricks together for us, who bought us some time and made it possible for our guests to arrive here safely this past Shabbos.

Wishing you all a peaceful week.

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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

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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.

Falling Madly, Deeply in Love with the Here and Now

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One High Holiday morning many years ago, when my oldest was still very small, the township began to remove the massive metal plates that had been covering the gaping holes in the road outside our shul for months. My son and his posse of friends stood there transfixed, watching the trucks and the men at work. We moms all agreed we could never have planned a better activity to keep them busy for so long.

The memory is imprinted with their childhood sense of wonder, that ability to shut out everything else and focus solely on some magical thing in the present. At a time when it was so much easier to make them happy than it is now, it was breathtaking to see them take simple pleasure in learning how things worked – that, and the thundering bang the plates made when they landed on the flatbed of one of the trucks.

As I drove home the other day, I had a bit of déjà vu. Several trucks were parked across the street. One worker stood inside a cherry picker, hovering above a tall oak, while a handful of others held tethers to the tree from below.  It was noisy, and at first I was frustrated, certain I’d never be able to concentrate on a writing assignment I needed to finish. Yet to my surprise, I let it go. In fact, I found myself smiling because the sight of a huge saw and a falling tree would once have been such fascinating entertainment for my sons.

Before I knew it, I had taken my cup of coffee and opened the front door to watch them work. I kept thinking, “I’ve got so much to do,” but couldn’t tear myself away. It dawned on me that I was reliving that cherished moment in front of the shul, a scene the boys – now young men – likely don’t even remember. They are blessed, thank God, not to feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. They are of the age when they are busy enjoying the here and now, paying almost no attention to the past, and to the future only on an as-needed basis.

To say it was out of character for me to just stand around like that would be an understatement. I’m the sort to carry my worries on my sleeve, to let them keep me awake at night, to allow them to distract me throughout the day. But as I watched that tree, and then the next one, come down, I realized how much I want to take a cue from my boys and let this living in the moment thing come more naturally to me. I want to enjoy, not just accomplish, to dream more and worry less, to stop moving at such a harried pace, and mostly, to master the art of making the time to enjoy it.

I’m not expecting I’ll become a different person overnight. I admit it’s going to be a struggle, especially for someone so nostalgic yet so anxious about the future all in one package. My first move is to try silencing the voice in my head that usually hinders me, the one saying, “I’ll wait until/when/after.”

Now I’m making big plans: to return to the days of weekly dates with my husband, to shut down the computer at dinner time, to curl up with a book a little earlier each night. Let’s see if this middle-aged dog can master a few new tricks. Let’s see, shall we, if I can fall madly, deeply in love with the here and now.

Check out my latest in Tablet Lessons from Sarajevo’s Jewish Refugees and the New Jersey Jewish News The Light Between Two Angels.