Only Simchas? Impossible!

There is a Jewish expression “Only simchas!” or “Oif simchas!” in Yiddish. It is a wish– a blessing, really – that we should bump into one another only on happy occasions.

Folks use it as a parting phrase when they leave a wedding or a bris. They also offer it up as a balm upon hearing or sharing sad news, or when leaving a funeral or a shiva house.

I hope it isn’t heresy to say so, but this popular saying has always flummoxed me.

The optimist in me wishes that our calendars were filled with nothing but happy occasions. But the realist in me knows better. It’s just not the way of the world. “Only simchas!” can never be true.

We are mortals swept up in the circle of life. We don’t get to live forever. G-d willing, our time here on earth will offer up its share of joyous occasions and hours of blessing. But the human experience also includes inevitable moments of loss, disappointment, failure, rejection, pain, and illness, times we’d never refer to as happy ones.

So why set ourselves up for the impossible by uttering the phrase “Only simchas!” when we have the language to say something more apt?

However well-meant, why do we wish a friend something none us can ever have?

These were among the questions running through my head this past week while my husband sat shiva for his father. Luckily, I found an alternative to the old phrase in a quick look around the house.

Someone had brought over the Torah and siddurim. Men made minyan each day. Friends, family, patients, and colleagues came from near and far to be menachem avel – to comfort the mourner and show us their love. They listened as my husband shared memories. They offered words of Torah, dropped off meals, ran errands, and filled our pushkas with tzedakah (charity) that will be donated to help people in need.

So many mitzvot (good deeds) were performed in that short period of time, all to help my husband grieve and to buoy our family as we faced a monumental loss.

Rising from our sorrow was an enormous sense of gratitude for all those acts of kindness and the wisdom of the Jewish rituals of mourning, which carve out spaces in time, lines in the calendar that help us process our pain. Even when we feel most steeped in sadness, our community reminds us that we are not to bear it alone.

It’s best, then, to dispense with “Only simchas!” On both happy occasions and during periods of mourning, let’s instead say, “I am here for you, whatever life brings.” Because life will, inevitably, bring at the very least a little bit of everything. And there’s no greater joy, and no greater comfort, in knowing we have one another, come what may.

As we enter Shabbos this week, I am most looking forward to its island of peace and calm, and the opportunity for reflection as we find our way back to normal. May it provide all of us with the chance to regroup and recharge our minds, bodies, and souls, and may the week ahead be filled with love and kindness. Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

#gutshabbos #shabbatshalom #gutshabbosshorts

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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.

 

 

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.

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.

 

On Being Silly

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The word silly has been with me for as long as I can remember.

I’m sure I acquired it as a child when an adult took issue with my foolish behavior or set me straight on something I naively said. Silly stuck like glue, tinged as it was with embarrassment.

No one defined the word for me. No one had to. Ridiculous. Without common sense. I intuited from the tone in those adult voices that silly wasn’t a good thing to be.

Lately, though, I’ve found myself acting in a manner some might consider silly. For starters, I’ve been dressing up my Lord & Taylor goose. The photo above features Taylor in the red beret/scarf combo I crocheted for her. I’ve prepared a Purim costume for her as well, though I’m keeping that a surprise for now.

My friend Techiya inspired me to pose with statues and public art, whenever the opportunity permits. Here I am during a visit to the beautiful grounds of Duke Farms in New Jersey.

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These are just two examples. I assure you that my silliness continues to pick up steam at a steady rate.

Recently, I decided to look up the exact meaning of the word, curious if I had it right all this time. Merriam-Webster defines the adjective silly as foolish, weak in intellect, indicative of a lack of common sense or sound judgment. The adverb means in an absurd or ridiculous manner.

Well, I don’t believe I’m being any of those things. Quirky, yes. Spontaneous, sure. And certainly fun, at least I think so. Maybe even (a bit) eccentric. But I’m convinced there’s nothing foolish going on. I see it as a breath of fresh air, the lightening-up of an adult life that requires so much seriousness of me and demands my constant attention to responsibility, time management, bill-paying, housekeeping, rule-abiding, meal-prepping, and maturity.

With that in mind, my husband and I posed for this photo, inspired by Grant Wood’s American Gothic, the counterpoint to the formal shot we took the same night.

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We are the guests of honor at our shul’s upcoming dinner and the committee needed a  portrait to feature with our bio in the journal. We briefly considered using this one, but silly didn’t seem to be the look the committee was going for.  It’s still our favorite image from the photo shoot, however.

For now, back to adulting I go. But I hope to continue embracing the good that lies at the heart of silly, to keep taking these short breaks that let me feel I’ve unshouldered some of my real-life obligations, albeit fleetingly. After all, I’ve been sitting at the grown-up table long enough to know that serious will be waiting for me when I get back.

The Sound of Silence (in My Head)

I needed a break. A little getaway. Nothing exciting. Just some quiet and a change of scenery. The chance to work on my book, read, sleep late (at least past 6 a.m.), crochet, drink beautiful lattes, and stare at the ceiling if the mood struck me. I didn’t want to travel far, just far enough that I wouldn’t bump into anyone I know. And I wanted to go alone.

I told my husband, “I need to clear the noise in my head and write,” laughing as the words exited my mouth, filing the idea under Science Fiction/Fantasy.

When he asked me, “Why not?” I listed the myriad reasons – our complicated schedules, seemingly endless obligations, and all the stressors that were cluttering my head in the first place.

Days later, I discovered a folder marked “Margaritaville, PA” on my laptop, papers with my hotel reservation (thank goodness for points!) and a few suggested local attractions inside. For the record, there is no such place as Margaritaville, PA. I first read the location without my glasses on and the name stuck.

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Knowing what a luxury it was to carve out this window of R & R, my first getaway like this in 25 years, I was excited to go, grateful, too, that my husband understood why I needed to be by myself in a place where I’d hear mostly silence. Soon enough, though, I wondered who I thought I was to take this time away.

Still, I proceeded with the plan, borrowing Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own from a friend. I hadn’t read it in years, but I recalled Woolf’s proposal that in order for a woman to devote herself to the craft of writing fiction, she must have a room with a lock on the door, meaning unfettered time and space to do so.  Though the book was published in 1929, many of its ideas still resonate (for proof, check out all the Post-Its on my friend’s copy), far beyond Woolf’s specifics about women and writing and fiction.

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Woolf would surely agree that the everyday encumbrances of the modern era devour our time and energy, leaving us with little opportunity for intensive focus on our creative pursuits and interests or our other ambitions, whatever they are. It’s okay, important even,  to take a break here and there from our obligations to rediscover who we are deep inside and get our spiritual juices flowing.

As I packed to leave for this self-styled retreat, I asked a friend to make sure I got in the car. I was afraid guilt would change my mind, that I’d give up on the idea of Margaritaville, PA. Going was a much belated leap of faith in myself, and I’ve returned sold on the importance of short escapes, even if all we can manage is an hour or two in which we do nothing but what nurtures our souls. We need to steal moments whenever we can, locking the metaphorical door behind us.

While I was away, I met a friend for coffee and did some shopping. I read and slept and crocheted. I even stared up at the ceiling now and again. And I wrote, scribbling far more than I would’ve at home in that same window of time. Mostly, I embraced whatever it was I felt like doing, allowing myself to be in the moment while gathering stories along the way.

In one thrift shop, I stumbled upon this sweet tableau. I am still trying to figure out what Chaim Potok has to do with St. Patrick’s Day, but there’s an essay in there somewhere. And one day I’ll write more about day two, when I returned from a quick run to Trader Joe’s to find the lobby filled with emergency personnel. A pipe had burst and the Fire Marshall had to close down the hotel, evacuating the guests and scattering us to assorted other hotels in the area.

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By the time I got home, a folder teeming with notes under my arm, it was close to Shabbos. I’d cooked and frozen everything in advance so I’d be able to hold onto that peaceful feeling heading into the weekend. But of course, within hours, all the noise was back in my head. Still, I have the memory of those few blessedly quiet days away to hold onto. They are precious, and I can’t wait to get away again.