An essay prompt by the rabbi at Neveh Shalom

October 11, 2014 at 11:20 pm (Uncategorized)

This was an essay prompt that Congregation Neveh Shalom’s Senior Rabbi, Daniel Isaak, sent to his congregation in advance of the High Holy Days: “Why Be Jewish?” He then prompted me be one of the respondents, so I composed my thoughts. The following is my reflection/response to his question, which he went on to help define by adding, “(It) can be interpreted in any number of ways: What special values and ethical teachings emerge from Judaism; why create a Jewish home; what is Jewish community all about; how do holidays or Jewish practices enhance your life? It would be wonderful if you could write something personal that emerges from your own unique situation.”

In the late-90s, when I was in graduate school in the Bay Area, I took a class that would culminate in an investigative reporting trip to both Nicaragua and El Salvador. The term was spent preparing for the trip; the biggest emphasis was on the stories themselves: What topic would we select; what theme would we pursue; what contacts in the States could we make before venturing south?

I was the only member of my Reporting Central America class living in the relatively industrial part of the East Bay, in Fremont, a town fairly well dominated by immigrants from all over the globe, including Central America. So much so that small restaurants serving cuisine specific to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and others spanned the main road running through the city.

At one eaterie, a number of regular patrons eating the pupusas of their native El Salvador allowed me to interview them about the then-relatively recent massacre in their natal country.

While conducting my in-person interviews, I tried convincing myself that my topic was of great personal interest. Like all wars, the massacre in this tiny Central American nation – already considered only as safe as Haiti, the most violent nation in the Western Hemisphere – ended untold lives in sickening ways and scarred forever the new Americans I interviewed Stateside.

But then, while sipping an horchata (a sweet, cinnamon-spiked chilled milk drink) that the propietaria had kindly given to me gratis, a short man with dark skin wrinkled by overexposure to the Equatorial sun came over to talk to me. Like a Disco star, his shirt was unbuttoned nearly to his navel, revealing a huge Star of David. My heart leaped: This man from Central America was Jewish! I’d initially wanted so badly to integrate a Jewish angle into my reporting but had yet to find an “in” into this unexplored population.

At that time in my life, I went to the campus’ Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. And that was the extent of my observance. But percolating closer and closer to the surface was a growing passion for identifying more personally, more publicly and more spiritually with my Judaism. Maybe this story – one that had morphed from a focus on civil war in a Catholic nation to something, anything about its Jewish population – would serve as the jumping-off point I was seeking. If a lone Central American in Fremont, Calif., could proudly brandish his Mogen David, then there had to be a story there.

Turns out, there was no story there. Rather, the story – and one with no deadline, no trip, no word count – was here, in me.

In tandem with working toward my master’s, then moving cross-country to support my husband as he pursued his, entering professional life, undergoing another cross-country move, and entering parenthood, I increasingly pursued Jewish friends, Jewish learning, Jewish work … and – in just a couple words – being Jewish.

“Why Be Jewish?” I. Don’t. Know.

But here’s what I do know: I cannot deny the sense of “this is what I must do; this is what feels right” that’s always been in my gut, especially since my years in higher ed.

I never made it to Central America; I got pretty ill and couldn’t take the trip. And in 1998, the Internet proved very little help in completing an international story from my Fremont home base. Shortly thereafter, I got an internship at a small daily newspaper and eventually chose more and more of my own stories’ topics than having an editor assign them to me. So a few of my pieces, of course, had a Jewish angle, the first time that paper ever had such stories in print.

Around that time, I attended the High Holy Days at a Reform temple in San Mateo; its rabbi implored the congregation to bring something – anything – into their homes to commemorate Shabbat. He said that even baking a challah could be that thing.

Soon, and at first slowly, I started to incorporate both the academic and personally meaningful parts of Judaism into my life.

Fast-forward nearly 20 years. What I believe is of great importance for my Jewish practice now is of import to my family, too. We make Shabbat every week (complete with homemade challah; my kids hate the whole-wheat experiments I sometimes foist on them); my eldest just became a bat mitzvah and I’m still reveling in her accomplishment; and my youngest this year gets to embark on the Jewish lifecycle curriculum in the ALIYAH Education Program here at Neveh. And on it goes.

My husband, who is not Jewish, once looked at me over the lit Shabbat candles and said, “Shabbat really is a nice thing.” Do you really have to ask, “Why Be Jewish?”

shabbat candles



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There’s still so much laundry

October 8, 2014 at 9:38 pm (Uncategorized)

June 3 was the last day of the permanent part-time job I’d held for nearly five years. During my employment, I kept up volunteer work, as well as publishing the occasional freelance story, too. The dishes always piled up; the laundry always remained in piles. The litter boxes (yes, there are two) never seemed to be panned for poo as effectively as the cats wanted (needed) them to be; the dog never got the right amount of daily exercise.

Unemployed since early June (though gainfully seeking employment since then), I have spent the last few months mystified as to how I’m not yet the perfect homemaker. I have the time now, right? I thought that during my — er — forced joblessness, I’d tackle and indeed conquer the Sisyphean household tasks that — predictably – still are in a constant state of nearly complete. I shouldn’t be so hard on myself: There was that ONE DAY in late-July, when both girls were in Tukwila, Wash., at sleep-away camp, on which I’d completed all of the following: washing, folding and putting away every last stitch of the household’s laundry; walking the dog (briskly and at length); scooping the hell out of the litter boxes; purging our storage area and donating unused items; and even filing and labeling every photograph and keepsake I’d been meaning to put into albums. I really did revel in that one day. But it wasn’t to be repeated. Nor may it ever be repeated until both girls are off to college — and not at the kind where they could too easily return home with empty bellies and full laundry sacks.

Oh, the piles.

Oh, the piles.

I am a candidate for a full-time job and shudder to think what could become of this household should I get it or any job with a similar butt-in-the-chair expectation. Then again, perhaps it will continue to look just as it did the last 364 days (and the 365 days before that, and the 365 days before that and ad infinitum).

Which brings me to the odd purgatory in which I find myself. I don’t have a permanent job and so fill my time working on a project that ends in early December and seeing friends; should a j-o-b be realized, I won’t have the luxury of social time. I know this because even when working “only” part-time, my calendar had precious few spots for idle chatting beyond quick phone calls here and there when commuting to and from the office.

Oh, the office. How I miss it. And how weird it still feels – even though it’s been four months since I could call one mine – to not have it as my daily destination.

What does all this maudlin sentiment mean? That I want my old job back? No. It means I am willing, ready and eager to work. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on work – the nature of work; humans’ proclivity to work; the positive effects work has on people – and I am sad to be missing out on fulfilling what turns out to be a pretty basic human need. (Others include: Love. Sleep. Eat. Eat chocolate. Exercise. Work.)

I would be lying if I said I haven’t enjoyed my time “between jobs.” Indeed I have. In the past months, our family put on and enjoyed immensely Alyssa’s simply wonderful bat mitzvah; we biked, and fried our skin, and bicycled in Central Oregon before summer’s end; I experienced my one day of homemaking victory; and I’ve been uber-grateful for the relaxing time I’ve spent catching up with friends and family. But I’m now more than ready to return to the pace where the house doesn’t fall apart but also isn’t bereft of unfolded laundry – or the umpteenth dinner in a row of unimaginative leftovers. To the pace where the dishes that still have a skosh of residue on them simply get put back into the cabinets instead of undergoing a more-thorough scrubbing (who has that kind of time!?). To the pace where I find alternative afternoon plans for my children due to work responsibilities.

To a time when my kids beam with pride because their mom has a job. To a time when I’m fulfilled by the work I’m accomplishing outside (or even inside) the home. Fulfilling one of the most basic of human needs.


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