Thursday, February 27, 2014

What am I Doing at 3:00a.m. on Thursday Mornings?

The costumes line the streets and Purim is in the air. It's really one of my favorite holidays, made more so by the preparations for our community's traditional English-speaker's Tzfat PurimSphiel. I excitedly anticipate the unique mishloach manot that my Sepharadi neighbors send -- their homemade Moroccan Purim challahs, orange-flavored donuts, muffletot  and sambusks are a highlight of the holiday.  I make my own strawberry jam, since spring is strawberry-time in Israel (wash and crush 2 kilos of strawberries, add a tiny bit of sugar and let it simmer for several hours on the stove till it turns into a jam) so that I can present my neighbors with strawberry hamantashen.

For the last few years I've been teaching about Judaism and Israel to 6th and 7th grade students at American Hebrew schools. Jewish schools are increasing their elearning activities and even Jewish Educator Awards are noting elearning in their award presentations. 

Our online classes include a variety of frameworks, for homeschooled kids, kids who live in areas in which they don't have access to a local synagogue/temple school  and students who meet in their local temple or synagogue afternoon program and participate in together with their peers. These lessons vary: we discuss different aspects of Judaism, contemporary Jewish issues, Israel and the background and reasons for many of our  Jewish traditions. It's important to me to create lessons that incorporate current events or upcoming holidays  so that the content will be meaningful to the students.

Last year I tried to find some content that would make Purim more relevant to these students. The kids were aware that I live in Tzfat and they had wanted me to explain kabbalah. As Purim approached I decided to present a lesson that would explore the Purim holiday in the light of kabbalistic teachings while challenging them to dig into the hidden meanings of Purim and connect the holiday to the concept of Tikkun Olam.

Purim wasn't familiar to most of the kids so we started out with an overview of Purim,  told to one of Ari Lesser's raps. The kids got quite a kick out of that. From there we moved into explaining  Tikkun Olam -- the kabbalistic view of Repairing the World -- and then connected it to our mandate to protect our environment.

Our lesson specifically focused on Esther. Who was Esther? Why is she remembered as a great Jewish woman? Why did God expect her to save the Jewish people?

Esther was a young, simple woman who had been thrust into a bewildering situation. The king had chosen her as the woman that he wanted to become his future queen -- a job that Esther did not pursue or want. However Esther's cousin/uncle/guardian Mordechai encouraged Esther to accept the position. He believed that God had a hidden reason for placing her in this situation. Esther wasn't obligated to accept the post but she agreed to do so because she was prepared to go beyond herself for the greater good.

According to Judaism, each of us is the guardian of our environment. God didn't instruct man to protect the planet because He was lacking for alternatives -- according to Judaism, man is the earth's sole creature who has the ability to restrain his natural inclinations for the sake of a greater good. Whenever one of us pushes ourselves to compost, recycle, clean trash, reduce energy bills, use public transportation, plant trees or take steps to reduce our carbon footprint, we follow Esther's lead. That was the message that I wanted the students to absorb.

As the class progressed we used voice recording and PPT presentation tools to develop the students' understandings of how Esther's place in history evolved. Esther wasn't great because she acted virtuously. The significance of her actions lay in that fact that she was willing to step out of her comfort zone and stand up for what was right.

The class then returned to the main focus of Purim -- as a holiday of hidden miracles and we started to discuss climatic changes. These changes seem frightening on the surface, but they might, in fact, be hidden miracles. We don't know what God's plan is. Perhaps His plan includes creating a climate in which certain species will evolve or maybe climactic change is His wake-up call to tel us to become more cognizant, more involved and more pro-active in safe-guarding our planet.

We concluded the lesson by sharing a linoboard in which the students collaborated regarding their ideas about the things that each of us can do to "be an Esther." The kids' had numerous ideas of things that we can all do to help reduce our carbon footprint.

To conclude the lesson we reviewed the mystical relationship between Purim and "Hidden Miracles. God's name is never mentioned in the Megilla -- commentators have debated this omission for thousands of years. So we related this omission to the idea of hidden miracles. What does God expect us to do before He steps in? This is a particularly important lesson to consider as we think about our responsibilities to our environment.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dan L'Kav Z'chut

Dan L'Kav Z'chut.

It means, basically, giving the benefit of the doubt but it actually means more than that -- when you dan l'kav z'chut you see the good in something.

I used to have a neighbor who was a world expert in dan l'kav z'chut. No matter what anyone did, she would find an excuse for their bad behavior or a way to mitigate something that they'd done.

"They must be having a hard day" she would say. Or "he didn't really mean what he said" or "she'll wake up tomorrow and everything will look different."

Whenever I think of the concept of dan l'kav zchut, I think of this wonderful woman. She died in her 40s of brain cancer. Yes, I know that you're not supposed to say The Word -- you're supposed to say "The Illness" or something like that. But .... whatever. She had cancer and if there was anyone who should have lived to be 120, just on pure goodness, it was her.

I always think of this neighbor whenever I notice how different people react to things. It really says a lot about a person. Someone who's overly critical is probably not someone who I want to spend a lot of time around anyway. On the other hand, someone who goes out of their way to see the best in a situation is someone who I want on my team.

I was thinking about this recently when a few of my recent guests left reviews about my guestroom. The truth is, I can usually tell who's going to leave a nice review and who's going to find things to pick apart, just based on the way that they interact with me and with the other people that they're traveling with.

The people who are happy, upbeat and generally thrilled with life are happy with the guestroom (which is, I fully admit, a simple room with simple amenities -- clean, bright and well cared for, but, by no means, luxurious). The people who have trouble smiling, I can always predict, will find something to complain about.

Same guestroom, same host (me), same location....but different outlooks on life.

I have an aunt whom everyone always called "the smiley one." From the time that I was young, I knew that i wanted to be like her. Lately, a few people have commented to me "you're always smiling." I take that as the biggest compliment.

I don't have a lot of goals in life but I hope that dan'ning l'kav z'chut will always be one of my traits. 

Totally Crazy Week

Well, what's a blog for if you can't kvell a bit? Here I am with my new granddaughter. No official name yet. Born Sunday night. First grandchild!  What a great feeling.

So aside from the fact that her parents were in the hospital for 4 days before she was born (the drs. wanted to induce but it didn't go very well, so they were just waiting around for something to happen) I've also got a wedding this week. My daughter Yochi and her hatan, Yoni, are getting married tomorrow evening.

How's that for a week of non-stop action?

My poor mother and her sister, neither of them exactly young (young in heart, yes) were held up in the airport in Philadelphia for over 24 hours while the plane was delayed and delayed and delayed. When my mother came for my brother's wedding 12 years ago, her luggage (as well as the luggage of my brothers, who were traveling with her) was lost for several days. There's something about my mother and Israeli weddings....

So it's a crazy week here. I have lots of work to do but can't concentrate...hence the post. Maybe a nap is a good idea...I've been up since 4:00a.m. 

Thursday, February 06, 2014



Since last May I've known that my daughter will be getting married in February. And about that time we were informed that my son and his wife would be expecting their first baby (my first grandchild) at approximately the same time. So you'd think that, after 7 months of anticipation, I wouldn't be as excited as I am. 


Son and D-in-L are at the hospital now, as far as I know (either that or they went home and are one's answering my texts and, since I remember what labor's like, I don't want to call them) and I'm on spilkes. The wedding is next Thursday night and daughter yochi is on her way home to spend her last week on the homestead. And here I am, blogging. Why? Because I'm too excited to actually do any work. 

So, in lieu repeating how excited I am, I'll share a story that occurred to us last week on Shabbat. 

I have a small guestroom that I rent out whenever my own offspring aren't home. When guests come during the week I usually don't have much time to interact with them but for guests who come on Shabbat, I'm often able to invite them to a Shabbat meal with some other neighbors and friends where we can get to know each other in a relaxing atmosphere of food (good food, I'm told...I'm not an inspired cook but I do manage to put edible eats on the table) and good company. I've had some wonderful experiences and met some incredibly amazing people. 

In general however, even if I can't invite them myself for a meal, I try to arrange for them to have at least one Shabbat meal with a family in the community. In particular, I do this for non-religious people since
a. they generally don't have the background to organize themselves Shabbat hospitality
b. it's an opportunity to provide them with a Shabbat experience
Everyone tells me that they have a good time, so in addition to the mitzva, I feel good (don't forget, I couldn't do this mitzva if it weren't for my amazing neighbors who share the mitzva by inviting these guests).

Anyway, last week my guests, a mother and daughter who had booked ahead of time, told me that they were coming from Sweden.  I was in contact with the daughter whose emails indicated a good background in Shabbat so I figured that they were Jewish. It's always a little awkward to know whether non-Jewish visitors will feel comfortable at a Shabbat table so I was fairly certain that this mother and daughter would be at ease.

When they came, it turned out that they were actually from Poland -- just the daughter is presently living in Sweden. And not Jewish. So I could only hope that they would feel comfortable at my neighbors' and my Shabbat tables. 

On Friday night I took them to one of Tzfat's Carlebach shuls where they obviously enjoyed the dancing, singing and lively atmosphere. I introduced them to their hosts and hoped for the best. 

On Saturday they arrived at my Shabbat lunch, enthusiastic about their Friday night meal. During the course of the meal, with a group of neighbors and friends, the daughter shared with us that, due to all sorts of "incidents" and "coincidences" that occurred during her life, her mother suspects that the family is, in fact, Jewish -- one of the thousands of Jewish families that hid during the Holocaust and then covered up their Jewish identity after the war in order to survive in the anti-semetic Polish society. 

I don't remember all of the signs -- some of them involved eating a matza-like cracker at certain times of the year, no religious observances....strange in the strongly Catholic Polish countryside where the mother grew up, and a vague memory of the mother, as a child, hearing some of the people in the Polish town where she grew up telling her grandmother that "if things get bad, we'll hide you here" -- this in 1968 when anti-semetic government actions in Poland were peaking.

I've always been fascinated by the stories of people who discover their Jewish roots late in life -- especially in Poland, where so many children were hidden by Righteous Gentiles but then they, or their own children, only discovered their real ancestry many years later. 

This story has a long way to go for these women to determine the truth but the possibilities are staggering. Our Jewish identity is something that none of us should take for granted.