Life

Restraint: Public and Private

One of the most powerful lessons that I learned from my father was restraint.  Holding back can be so much more powerful and effective than brute force.  And, learning when to exercise restraint can be one of the most difficult and important lessons in life. 

My father had an unmatched way of listening to things that he deemed fruitless.  When he decided that there was too much negative energy or that the discussion was no longer productive, he would just say “enough” or “Genug” in Yiddish, he would walk away or he would change the subject.   That was it.    No disrespect.  No harsh words.  Just, that we needed to move on.  That was his unique way to halt the pointless and divert to the meaningful.  We learned to accept and even appreciate it.

That was Aba’s shortcut to restraint.  He employed it as a young bachur (Yeshiva student) when others approached his shtender (lectern) in the Beis Medrash (Study Hall) to talk baseball.  He used it when we complained incessantly about someone or something.  He used it recently when a family member was too verbose about her negative childhood experiences.

While the shortcut “Genug” was his mainstay restraint mechanism, there were memorable times that called for a more creative and deliberated approach to restraint.  I will share two stories that illustrate this type of premeditated restraint, a personal recollection from the seventies and one that occurred last winter. I just heard a third story this week about Aba’s restraint in the Beis Medrash that has served as a restraint paradigm for those who witnessed this event.

When I was growing up on the Telshe Yeshiva campus, my friends and I used to ride our bicycles to the library, a distance of about one mile.    The library was at the bottom of a steep hill.  We would ride down to the library at full throttle, while we would painstakingly walk our bicycles back up the hill with our baskets full of borrowed books. 

One week, I took out a book with content that was unsuitable to my upbringing.   I found the book compelling as I read it over Shabbos.  While I recognized that it was inappropriate, it was captivating.  Sometime during the afternoon, I decided to take a break from my reading.  I placed the book face down over the back of the sofa and headed to visit one of my friends. 

When I returned, the book was gone.

I knew that my father had taken the book.  At first, I was furious.  How dare my father read my library book?  As my initial anger subsided, I considered my punishment.  Would Aba scream at me?  Would he take away privileges?  As time passed, I became less worried about the punishment and more and more ashamed.  As much as I tried, I could not block out the image of my father reading the impure words of this book.  A flood of embarrassment overtook me.  The more I thought about it, the more shame and worry I felt.

What would my father say or do to me?  How could I respond? How would I even have this type of conversation with someone whose eyes and heart were so pure?

I waited for my father to return from Shul (Synagogue) after Shabbos.  I could barely breathe.   My heart was pumping so quickly that I could not even concentrate.

My father finally returned home from Maariv (evening prayer) to recite Havdolah (End of Shabbos Ceremony).  He said nothing.   Not a word. 

He made Havdolah.  He enjoyed a short Melave Malka (end of Shabbos meal) with my mother.  Still nothing.

My mother left the room and my father called me to a private space.  My chest was pounding and I could barely meet his eyes. 

My father was calm.

I saw the anguish in his eyes and he saw the fear in my shame.

He said something like, “Please return the book to the library without reading another word.  It is not a book befitting someone as dignified as you.”  No yelling.  No punishment.  Just a simple suggestion. 

In that moment, I felt relief wash over me.  I could redeem myself.  I could fix what I had done wrong.  And, that was it.

In that brief and touching encounter, I felt Aba’s embrace in his disappointment, his trust in his only daughter overwhelming the anguish. 

That evening, I learned about standards.  In that encounter, I also earned a lifelong lesson about restraint. 

Had Aba admonished me right away, the reprimand would not have been as effective.  Had my father yelled at me or punished me, it probably would not have achieved what his calm trust in me accomplished.  My father didn’t embarrass me in front of anyone, although he let my conscience do all the work.   This type of restraint may have come naturally to him, because he worked on patience and restraint.  Looking back, this was a brilliant and effective lesson in life, one that will probably take my entire life to achieve.

The second story is one that I recently heard and it speaks to my father’s restraint in a public scenario.  The story is about my ill father’s restraint as he defended an anguished student against his bullies and a system that unknowingly sheltered these tormentors. 

My father was invited to speak at an esteemed Yeshiva.  It was shortly before Chanukah and he was excited to share his Torah on Shemen Neis (Miracle Oil).  It was a topic that Aba had already prepared and edited for his new sefer and it was one of his favorite lectures.    The yeshiva had arranged for him to be driven there to present the forty-minute speech.

On the way, the driver who had great respect for the yeshiva shared an unfortunate incident with my father.  It seems that one of his friends had recently sent his son to this elite yeshiva and that the new student was being teased and bullied by some of the older Bocherim.  The menacing was so upsetting that the driver’s friend was considering switching his son to another yeshiva.

My father was livid.  How could Torah students bully another bachur?  How could an Institute of Torah learning support this type of behavior?   How is it possible to learn and teach Torah in an environment that is hostile even to one student? 

My father verified the bullying claim and once he confirmed its truth, he took matters into his own hands.  He asked the driver to detour.   Aba needed to pick up notes on a different sugya (topic) called Talmid she’eino hagun  (Inappropriate student).  It was a topic that he was just completing for his sefer and it was being readied for his chapter on Shavuos and Torah learning.  He felt that it would be a more suitable topic for this yeshiva and he was ready to switch gears to teach these boys an unexpected lesson. 

The driver desperately tried to dissuade my father from this new diversion.  My father refused to be deterred.  He was adamant about picking up the new study materials.  As much as the driver pleaded with my father, Aba remained firm.  He would need the notes on Talmid She’eino Hagun, and that was it.  As my father and the driver traveled to pick up the new notes, Aba shared his precise and clear lecture on Talmid She’eino Hagun, elucidating this difficult topic and emphatically proving that a bully is the prime example of an inappropriate student.

The Yeshiva boys were eagerly awaiting my father’s arrival.  Using his rollator, my father marched right up to the podium, dismissing all introductions and accolades.  Despite the rigors of his chemo and his weakened state, my father calmly and patiently presented the forty-minute lecture.  Aba explained all the possibilities of understanding the difficult sugya.  He questioned and prodded the students, forcing them to examine the topic in an entirely new way.  He included their ideas and built upon the Torah piece, brick by brick.

They were spellbound.  The difficult topic with a myriad of different approaches had been presented to them in the clearest way.  They had developed the sugya brilliantly and it all seemed so simple.  Together, my father and these talmidim (students) had explored Shemen Neis as never before.

The topic illuminated the miracle of Chanukah so dazzlingly.  They had discovered brand new insights into the way the oil miraculously burned for the full eight days, while there was only enough oil naturally to burn for one day.  Did they pour all the oil into the menorah the first night or did they only use 1/8 of the oil each night?  Was the miracle oil actually olive oil?  After all, does olive oil need to be from an olive tree or is it possible for a miraculous oil to have the chemical composition of olive oil while not being from a tree at all?  Is Shemen Neis olive oil or is it a new substance similar to olive oil?  Using a unique combination of sources, my father had mesmerized them with Shemen Neis.

After the long lecture, the students relaxed.  They were satiated by the Torah that they had learned.  They were enamored with the lecture and the lecturer.

But, my father was only beginning his lesson.

He called the bullied boy to the podium and gently told him that he heard beautiful things about him and his father. A hush overtook the room as the boy left the podium.

“Now fellas. Let me tell you what is more important than the Shemen Neis,” he roared. “Torah may only be learned by someone who is a mentsch, or else your Torah can be a dreadful poison,” he bellowed.  “Your Torah and the Torah of your teacher is worth nothing if you boys don’t act properly to one another.”

The students were shocked.  Gone was the calm demeanor of the talmid chochom who had just taught them Shemen Neis.  Here was the fierce determination of a talmid chochom who was disappointed in their behavior and was defending kovod Ha’Torah (Honor of Torah). 

My father now addressed the Rosh Yeshiva, “Here is my sugya on Talmid She’eino Hagun.“   Aba handed the heavy wad of paper to the shocked Rosh Yeshiva and boomed, “Here is the shtickel (piece of) Torah on what I just mentioned.  If you have any questions, please call me. ”

That was it.  My father had made his point in precisely the way he had planned it.  No one could dissuade him from staying true to his principles.  He had delivered an entire 40-minute lecture on another topic to whet these boys’ appetites.  Aba had earned their respect before he dropped the bomb.  He had done it calmly but with conviction.  These yeshiva students would never forget this lesson. They were shocked but they accepted the rebuke of my father, dancing him out of the room.

This story was told to me at the shiva.  I was enamored by the brilliance and restraint implicit in this story.  Once he heard about the bullying incident, I would have thought that my father would choose to first lecture these students on Talmid She’eino Hagun .  I can only imagine the restraint that it took for him to complete a long lecture on another topic in his weakened state when he was enraged by the despicable behavior of some of these students.  He had clearly done it in precisely this way because he understood the psyche of these students.  They needed to respect the Chanukah Torah that they were expecting before they could internalize the more important surprise lesson about their errant behavior.

The third story is one that I just heard a few days ago and it offers a glimpse into Aba’s beautiful conduct in the Telshe Beis Medrash. These stories from the Beis Medrash fill me with great joy and contentment because I was not privy to this part of my father’s life. It helps me depict my father in his favorite spot in this world and catch a glimpse of his interactions and lessons to the current and future Talmidei Chachamim of Telshe Yeshiva.

Aba was a force to be reckoned with in the Beis Medrash. He sat in one of the back rows for over fifty years, never wanting honor, yet disseminating kavod haTorah (honor of Torah) wherever and whenever possible. When he would discover a chiddush (new aspect of Torah), he would run around the massive Beis Medrash, sharing his new dimension in Torah. He was loud, boisterous and unapologetic in his favorite domain.

My father took his responsibility as mashgiach (Spiritual Guide) of the Yeshiva very seriously. While Aba never expected his talmidim to maintain his own rigorous schedule, he expected them to be on time for davening and to invest seriously in their Torah. When a talmid came late regularly or shirked the responsibility for learning Torah, they knew Reb Yankel would hold them accountable.

One day, a talmid was tardy once again to the Beis Medrash and my father confronted him. After davening, my father reprimanded him and explained that it was unbefitting of a serious talmid chochum to be perpetually late to the Beis Medrash. My father was famous for saying “shape up or ship out” and perhaps, he used that expression in this context.

The student was not willing to be chastised by Reb Yankel and escalated the tone and decibel level of this discussion in the back of the Beis Medrash. As the discussion became heated, unbeknownst to my father, the other talmidim started to pay attention. My father stood his ground, explaining why this talmid‘s behavior was unacceptable.  The fiery discussion continued and became louder and louder.

In a demeaning voice using inappropriate words that the walls of this Beis Medrash have never heard, the talmid affronted my father personally. He called my father an insulting name that the listeners were shocked to hear, especially in this holy place.

The Beis Medrash walls were holding their breath, waiting for the shoe to drop.   Reb Yankel had been personally insulted in the most vulgar way in front of the entire Beis Medrash.  Everyone knew that my father had the power and the confidence to throw this talmid out of the Beis Medrash.  How would he react?

Aba took his time. He took a few breaths. And, then, in his distinctive voice, he responded.  Calmly.

My father simply said something like  “I can see that now is not the time to finish this conversation. When you can speak using the right words, we will finish this discussion.”  That was it.  Aba turned on his heels and went back to learning as if nothing had happened.   

This story was told to my brother, Moshe, by a talmid chochom of massive proportion who was a young boy at the time this story took place. He was present that fateful morning and he was deeply affected by the scenario and my father’s amazing self-control in a situation where Aba possessed all the power. He intimated that my father’s self-control has become his paradigm of patience, balance and restraint.  Whenever he personally has been tested by someone else in this type of way, he conjures an image of this encounter.  He replays the holy reel of my father debating this talmid and then calmly retreating to his holy place of Torah.

Restraint comes in different forms.  I watched as my father exercised restraint in precisely the correct way for each circumstance. It is a difficult attribute to master and it takes herculean strength and self-control to assert.  For my father, it seemed effortless as he dedicated a lifetime to the development of restraint and self-discipline.   He employed it in child-rearing, in teaching his students and as a paradigm for others to follow.   For me, the “genuk” shortcut may just have to suffice for right now. 

Aba’s Sugya of Shemen Neis from Shashuai Yaakov
Aba’s Sugya of Talmid She’eino Hagun from Shashuai Yaakov

Games and Idioms

Games are a subtle, yet imaginative way to teach and to inspire.  The happiest memories of my elementary school education at The Hebrew Academy of Cleveland are the games that my favorite teachers employed to teach or review information.   I recall playing Chutes and Ladders with Chumash (Pentateuch) questions and Jeopardy with science facts.  While I was a shy student, these games challenged my competitive side and gave voice to my knowledge and originality. 

During my college years, I was hired as a long-term substitute teacher in my alma mater.  I taught various classes and ages, sometimes for weeks on end if a particular teacher was out for an extended leave of absence.  This opportunity offered me enough time to get to know my students while allowing me to try my hand at different subjects and age groups.   

I discovered that only two-thirds of the students answered questions without coaxing.  The other one-third of the students needed encouragement or creativity to activate their interest, confidence and voice.  Students yearn to catch a glimpse of their teacher’s personal side, so I began sharing some of the activities I enjoyed. We baked challah together, we crafted and we played games.  And, what I found was that the shiest students were empowered by these enjoyable activities.  The class looked forward to this respite from learning, while unbeknownst to them, they were learning more during these activities than ever before. 

The concept of designing a game can be daunting.  At first, I prepared elaborate game boards and typed my information cards.  Over time, I found that the simplicity of the game’s design did not in any way diminish from the fun and lesson of the game.  For Jeopardy, I would write topics on the blackboard and handwrite the dollar amounts and answers on index cards that I taped to the blackboard.  Some of the best games that I played were so simple.  I would ask my students to jot down their original inspirations and experiences about a particular Torah topic on a notecard and then I would share their awesome ideas with the class.   I began selecting student game show hosts to assist me and offer leadership to those whose voice I was eager to hear.

A few decades passed.  I graduated from college and from long-term substituting.  I started to accelerate my game of life as I married and began a family.  I sent my own children to school to acquire knowledge and inspiration, hoping that they would find their own voices among their peers. Some possessed cautious voices and others owned assertive voices.  I planned and hosted family get-togethers and parties, but stopped playing games.

One Chanukah, my niece Sorala prepared a game for our family Chanukah party.  It was a Jeopardy-style game with cards taped to my sister-in-law’s breakfront   It activated our competitive nature in an effort to correctly answer questions about Bubby and Zaidy who had recently departed from this world.  It was entertaining and wonderful.  And, it made me remember how significant and empowering games can be.

I took a lesson from Sorala and started developing my own games.  I started with intricate Family Feud boards and Jeopardy boards.  Whatever games our family had discovered and enjoyed over the past months, I converted into inspirational games suitable for the event.  The games became less and less elaborate, but were just as memorable.  I played Human Bingo in an effort to get our guests to reveal and acknowledge new facts about each other.  For Sheva Brochos, I would play Malarky with facts about the new couple.  For Purim, I played Chameleon with topics related to Purim.  When I didn’t have much time or energy to prepare an original game, I just took out pens and notecards and asked my guests to reveal a thought about the event. When we read these out loud, we discovered hilarious and interesting inspirations and facts about each other.

Just over two years ago, I created a game based upon Idiomaddict. It is a game where common phrases are stated using different words and the audience has to guess the original idiom.  For example, “one cent exchanged for your opinions” would be the remake of the common expression, “a penny for your thoughts.”

I played that game with the Cohen family at our Chanukah 2018 party, just a few months before my father was diagnosed with his dreadful illness.  I converted my parents’ favorite expressions into different words and the audience members tried to guess the original sayings.  It was an original and interactive game and I saved a copy of the family idioms on my computer.

This weekend, we commemorated the shloshim (thirrty days) of my father’s petirah (passing).  My mother asked me to speak to the family at the Shabbos lunch.  I recalled my father’s interactive Divrei Torah (words of Torah) and tried to picture the weekend in Cleveland through the eyes of my nieces and nephews.  Long speeches about their grandfather may be inspiring or laborious.  So, I decided to retool and create an interactive and unforgettable experience, instead.  After all, that would be Aba’s preference, fun inspiration through humor for the next generation to ponder and remember.

I selected my favorite game show host, Lazer, and with his assistance I replayed the 2018 Chanukah game with some of my father’s favorite sayings.  I added an important twist.  This time, in addition to guessing the original saying, Lazer would choose someone to explain the saying and describe why it is a memorable adage.

I will share some of these sayings and inspirations.  In each quoted block, The first expression is my father’s remade expression using different and cumbersome words for the game, Idiomaddict.  The second expression is my father’s actual saying followed by the inspiration and reason behind Aba’s idiom. I hope that you enjoy our unique family dialogue using the language and idioms of my father:

Absent even a bit of Lazy Mirth:

“No laytzanus!”

 When Aba would want to wake us up or inspire us to learn, he would say “no laytzanus!” It was his way of making sure that we understood the importance of davening and learning and the futility of laziness. He had a great sense of humor but it was never used to depricate anyone or anything 

Partake in an enjoyable diurnal course:

“Have a nice day”. 

While Aba was not much of a conversationalist, he really cared.  His wishing everyone to have a nice day expressed his affection succinctly.

Subjects that are exceptionally wonderous :

“Devarim Niflaim Ad Me’od!”

When Aba would come up with a chiddush (new insight in Torah), he would be so excited. This phrase demonstrate his excitement for the freshness of his Torah. During shiva, he was referred to as “an eighty-year-old teenager” in his youthful enthusiasm for learning. 

Query your resident scholar:

“Ask your local Rabbi.”

 Although Aba knew the answer to our halachic questions, he would very often answer our questions in this way.  He wanted us to get used to finding our own local rabbinic authority.  It reveals his humility and his trust in each of us finding our own way with our own Torah guide. 

 

Containing pB and Missing pB: “

“Leaded or Unleaded”. 

Aba took pride in not caring about material things and hoped to influence us to focus on internals rather than externals.  Aba began using this expression in the seventies when unleaded gasoline was first introduced. It was his way of reminding us that material things shouldn’t take over our lives. Aba was a practical and thrifty person and preferred generic brands.  Walmart was his favorite store.

Absolutely my sugary chest organ:

“Sure, sweetheart!” 

This was Aba’s go-to expression when we asked or said something ridiculous.  Rather than debate us or upset us, he would use this expression to signal that the conversation was over.  To continue the discussion, we would need to divert to something more meaningful. 

In an elevated voice, sluggishly as well as in pure tone:

Loud Slow and Clear.” 

Aba was adamant that if we expressed ourselves, we must speak in the proper voice so that we could be heard and understood.  He always made sure to enunciate everything loudly and clearly, albeit in his distinctive gravelly voice.

“Rabbinically and Utterly Amazing”:

“Meiradig” (Yiddish for astounding). 

When my father was excited about a new understanding or development in Torah, he would use this word.  I can picture his blue eyes shining as he used the word Meiradig.  He once addressed Rabbi Shlomo Weinberger and declared. “I want to share with you something meiradig!”  In the true tradition of Halachic arguments, Rabbi Weinberger challenged, “Let’s hear it and then we’ll see if it is meiradig.”  Amazingly, my father was not insulted or deterred.  In fact, he loved Rabbi Weinberger’s bold retort!

Representatives that belong to me”:

“My Agents”

This was my father’s way of avoiding an answer about someone, probably to avoid loshon Hara (hurtful language) or Rechilus (gossip).  For instance, if we asked my father who he had been speaking to and he didn’t want us to know, he would simply answer, “my agents”.  We would just laugh. 

“Pertaining to your enormous broad knowledge:”

“In your vast bekiyus.  “

When my father would challenge us with a Torah question, he would preface it with the phrase, “in your vast bekiyus” .  It would ready us for the challenge that he was about to present and we would love it!

an original measurement in the Old Testament”:

“A new dimension in Torah.”

This expression was spoken about at the funeral by those who learned with him in the Beis Medrash.  My father was excited about discovering new dimensions in Torah and empowered those around him to find their own Chidushim (new ideas).  One of his talmidim shared with us that he and my father were the only ones in the Telshe Beis Medrash one Friday afternoon.  My father had just discovered a new understanding of something that they were learning.  He was so excited that he grabbed his student’s arm and started dancing in the Beis Medrash. 

By way of mysticism:  

“Al Pi Kaballa”

This was my father’s retort when he didn’t want to give us the real answer for a silly question.  When I would ask him, “why do you only button every other button on your shirt,” he would answer “al pi kabbalah”.  I surmise that the real answer was that Aba wanted to save the buttoning time for learning. 

My father rarely played games, but he made learning memorable and interactive.  For me, games have been an effective and creative tool for retaining knowledge.  They can be simple and effective.  They can empower and guide.  They can give voice and leadership.  And, they put entertainment into inspired learning. My father, through his memorable idioms, put humor and fun into our upbringing, while remaining true to his pure nature. These expressions helped us witness my father’s playful, honest and personal side. I hope they offer you a glimpse, too

12 Words to Ponder


מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקיים שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה רבה אמונתך
I offer thanks before You, living and enduring King, for You have returned my soul within me. Great is your faithfulness.

After my father’s diagnosis, I asked Aba to recommend something that I could undertake as a special merit for his recovery.  My father asked me to recite Modeh Ani every morning with kavana (concentration), paying attention to each one of the twelve words of this first prayer of the day.

My father’s Modeh Ani request was so characteristic of what he expected of me and others.  It was simple.  It was practical and feasible. And, it was divine. 

I shared my father’s request with my friends and many of them took upon themselves to say Modeh Ani every morning slowly and carefully, concentrating on every word.  My childhood friend, Chavi, even placed a post-it note on her light switch, reminding her to do this every morning.  For me and those closest to me, being given a tangible and holy mission made us feel like partners in my father’s refuah (recovery).

For the nearly two-year roller-coaster ride of my father’s illness, every morning, I tried to savor the words of modeh ani as I washed my hands to greet the new day.  I began my morning routine with the words   מודה אני and ended this holy routine with the word אמונתך.  I tried to be careful to enunciate every word and to concentrate on its meaning.

The two years of mornings took me through hopeful times, stressful times and everything in between.  The modeh ani with kavana responsibility empowered me to start each day with the humility to thank G-d for another twenty-four hours, opening my eyes wide to His many kindnesses.  The first word מודה challenged me to begin my day with gratitude as I pondered the possibilities of the day ahead. The last word of אמונתך, written in the second person, reminded me of the faith that the Creator had in me. 

The modeh ani responsibility became routine, as most repetitive things do.  I tried to stand still while enunciating the words.  I was careful to think about the meaning of every word.  I was proud of this small thing that I was doing for my father and for myself.  But I really didn’t gain new inspiration after the first few weeks of saying modeh ani with kavana.

Until after my father left this world.

On one of the mornings of shiva, I stood and recited Modeh Ani and tears streamed down my face.  Every word of Modeh Ani evoked powerful images of my father, specifically in his simple and dedicated service to The Almighty.   

מודה

מודה is defined as showing gratitude and deference, while taking responsibility.  My father was the paradigm of humility and appreciation.  He taught me not to apologize for someone else’s behavior but to take responsibility for my mistakes and make them right. 

My father could easily have used his illness as an excuse for less davening, learning or physical exercise.  We all marveled at the stamina that he summoned when he was suffering terribly to daven, to learn with concentration and to take care of his body when it was so difficult and painful.

He showed deference to others, especially in his learning and was comfortable asking others for favors, asserting that people naturally wanted to perform chesed (kindness), especially if thanked by the recipient.  I cannot remember a single time that my father forgot to thank me for something that I had done for him.

My father showed deference by being humble.  My father would often tell me that he didn’t know the answer to something in Torah.  Most times, I thought that he really knew the answer.  I suppose that he wanted to teach us by example that it is okay to admit that there are things that we don’t know.

אני

אני is defined as “I”.  In modeh ani, this is the only word that does not apply to my father.  His Torah and Tefilla (prayer) prowess were not motivated by ego .   He never dressed or acted in a way to receive respect.  The only honor he expected was Kavod shamayim (Honor for The One Above).

My father helped one of his talmidim (students) write a sefer (book) on the Keilim of the Mishkan (artifacts of the Temple).  He invested about 1000 hours of his time over 28 years.  When the author remarked to my father that it should be his sefer, my father humbly retorted. “Torah is Torah.  What difference does it make whose name is on the cover?” 

Aba once shared with me that one of his Roshei Yeshiva (Deans) was bothered by his shuckeling (swaying) side-to-side during davening (prayer).  My father desperately tried to stop swaying, but just couldn’t.  So as not to disturb or disappoint his Rosh Yeshiva, my father moved his seat so that he would not be in sight of the Rosh Yeshiva during davening.  He didn’t want to create an issue by asserting his preference so he solved the issue in a non-confrontational manner.

לפניך

לפניך is defined as “before You”.  My father understood that every act was in the presence of The Almighty.  He recognized that everyday activities like vacuuming and doing laundry can be elevated in the presence of G-d.  His davening and his learning were sights to behold, because the shechina (spirit of G-d) that accompanied those heavenly activities was palpable.  It was clear in my father’s tefilla that he was speaking to G-d, while in Aba’s Torah learning, G-d was  undoubtedly speaking to him.

מלך

מלך is defined as “king”.  My family and I visited Telshe Yeshiva for Rosh Hashanah almost every year.  At the Yom Tov (holiday) table every year, my father would ask us what the purpose of Rosh Hashanah is.  The right answer was, “to anoint G-d as King”.  To us, it was a good question with the correct answer.  To my father, the vision of the anointing of The King on Rosh Hashanah came to life right before his very eyes.  On Rosh Hashanah, I could almost visualize my father holding The King’s crown.

חי

חי  is defined as “living”.  My father’s Torah was alive and so was his relationship with The Creator.  On the few occasions that I saw my father sparring in Torah, I was awe-struck. It was like seeing lions clashing, with each Torah lion demonstrating great respect for the dexterity and prowess of the other.  I can visualize my father’s blue eyes twinkling as he learned and taught Torah, dissecting a sugya (Torah portion) into its most basic parts.    

וקיים

וקיים   is defined as “enduring”.  My father’s Torah was served in a way that was lasting.  My father had so many ways to understand a single piece of Torah.  I was always so embarrassed that I couldn’t remember many of the facets, even if not much time had elapsed since the last time Aba had discussed a particular topic with me.  My father never acted disappointed, but explained it again and again with more and more enthusiasm each time.  He reviewed and explained until he felt I could master and internalize the piece.  He wanted to make his Torah memorable and enduring.

My father was noted for his unusual metaphors that help make his Torah lasting.  During shiva, people treated us to many of these creative metaphors that made a sugya learned with my father animated and memorable, even years or decades later. 

שהחזרת

שהחזרת  is defined as “returned”.  This word is from the same Hebrew root as the word chazora (review) because review implies a return to something that was already studied.  No one that I know performed chazora like my father.  Aba would ask for his students to review something 101 times but he expected many times that level of chazora from himself. 

When he was writing his sefer, Shashuai Yaakov (Delights of Yaakov), I asked my father if each one of his binders of his Torah writings was unique or if many of his writings built upon his past works.  He explained that each time he came back to something about which he had already learned and written, he reviewed it first and then added a new dimension to his Torah.  He really felt that Torah needed to be built brick by brick and that chazora strengthened the foundation for new Torah ideas to emerge.

My father rarely squandered an opportunity to learn and perform chazora.  It was breathtaking to watch my father perform review in the most unusual times and places.  Many couples have pictures of my father at their wedding sitting in a corner learning from a sefer after energetically dancing before the new couple.  While waiting for my son and daughter-in-law’s sheva brochos meal to begin, my father used his cellphone to review one of his own shiurim on Kol Lashon in preparation for a Shashuai Yaakov topic.  To me, it was just natural, but our guests marveled at my father’s concentration and attention to review.     

 בי

בי is defined as “within me”.  My father’s religious growth was internal with almost no external manifestations.  He never grew a long beard; he never donned a kaputa (frock) that would represent an external manifestation of the magnitude of his Torah and he shunned sitting on the Mizrach (Eastern) Wall of the Beis Medrash.  

Aba saw no need to wear designer clothing and preferred most things that were purchased at Walmart.  He wore the same glasses frames for nearly fifty years.  When someone remarked that his frames were back in style, they were mysteriously replaced by a pair that was only thirty years behind the fashion trend. 

My father only buttoned every other button.  When anyone asked why, his blue eyes would twinkle and he would say “al pi kaballah (based upon mysticism), but we knew the truth.  There was no reason to waste the time buttoning unnecessary buttons!  My father embodied all that was good about Torah with none of the outer trappings.

 נשמתי

נשמתי is defined as “my soul”.  Aba devoted his life to the development of his soul.  Every hour spent learning, every prayer and every deed was dedicated to the honor of The Creator.  People saw him as “the real deal”.  There was nothing false or pretentious about him.  During shiva, we heard that so many had confided in my father, sharing their problems and their religious doubts with him, knowing that his soul was pure and that he would deal with their problems with true integrity.  They were never disappointed with his profound understanding of their issue and his simple advice. 

בחמלה

בחמלה is defined as “with compassion”.  Most of the kindness that we inherited is from my mother, who dedicated herself to helping people in need.  During shiva, we heard stories about my father’s compassion that took our breath away. He cared about people who were lonely or in crisis in a way that was so normal.  Many of these people barely realized who my father was or what he had done for them until years later.  My father expected no gratitude for anything he did.  Individuals confided that my father elicited Torah advice from them and then gave them public honor for their contribution to his Torah, insightfully offering them the self-respect and honor that they desperately craved. 

One of his students told me that my father was learning a difficult sugya and there was one expert who could offer information that would help Aba understand a problematic part of that Torah topic.  His student suggested that my father contact that person.  My father adamantly refused.  That person had a personal difficulty that would be recalled by the mention of that topic.  Aba was willing to forego a clearer understanding of that sugya rather than upset someone else. 

 רבה

רבה  is defined as “great”.  At my father’s levaya, he was repeatedly called a gavra raba (great Torah scholar) and the following Gemara (Makos 21b) was mentioned:

 כמה טפשאי שאר אינשי דקיימי מקמי ספר תורה ולא קיימי מקמי גברא רבה:

Rava said: How foolish are people who stand for a Torah but do not stand for a great man

At the time that Rabbi Mordechai Gifter zt’l offered my father the position of mashgiach (spiritual guide) of Telshe Yeshiva, he referred to my father as a leibadig sefer torah (lively Torah scroll).  My father’s greatness was in his ability to embody seemingly paradoxical qualities in the service of G-d.  My father was “hidden” in the Bais Medrash, but was careful that his Torah not be shuttered to others.   He was confident in Torah, yet humble.  He was fierce in his self-discipline, yet gentle with others’ feelings.  He learned Torah at the highest level, yet made it accessible to the masses.  The harmonious combination of these ostensibly conflicting qualities was what made my father great.

אמונתך

אמונתך is defined as “your faithfulness”.  While my father’s faith was exceptional, here I would like to thank G-d for His faithfulness during my father’s illness.  We are not only allowed to refer to G-d in the second person, but we are mandated to do so to recall the love and devotion between Hashem and us.    We call The Creator a rofei ne’eman v’rachaman (faithful and compassionate Healer). 

During the course of my father’s journey through Pancreatic Cancer, we were so cognizant of the Hand of The Healer.  It was clear to us that the experimental drug CPI-613 had been developed by Rafael Pharmaceuticals in Israel with my father’s illness in mind.  The doctors and nurses were taken by my father’s calm demeanor and positive response to their experimental drug.  They kept telling us that “he made them look good”, when in fact He, The Faithful Healer, made them look good.  We owe gratitude to The Creator for His devotion to my father’s Torah mind, allowing him to learn and to teach until his final days. 

As I enter a new reality without my father’s physical presence, I must renew my commitment to the words of modeh ani as I begin each new day.  It is essential that I start with the gratitude of מודה אני and end with the faithful embrace of אמונתך.   The phrase רבה אמונתך is from Eicha (3:23), a holy text of loneliness, devastation and pain. Perhaps, the reference to Eicha (lamintations) is to challenge us to trust in Him through good and difficult times just as He trusts us with each new day, even before the day’s events occur. Maybe, these twelve words of gratitude and faith parallel the twelve months of aveilus (mourning). And, if I ever doubt the possibility of embodying every word of the modeh ani, I must remember that He has shown me that it has already been achieved. Because, I carry with me the image of someone who did just that.  That person was my father.

Chavi’s Modeh Ani with kavana post-it reminder on her light switch

A Humble Maestro

On one of the first days of shiva for my father, Meyer Muschel, a friend of my brother Mordy shared a beautiful reason for saying kaddish (Mourner’s Prayer).  He quoted a beautiful metaphor in the name of his father,   הרב נחום מושל ז”ל, a world renowned מחנך of the prior generation, who explained that Hashem is the maestro of the world’s orchestra.  Every one of us is charged with playing a unique instrument and that G-d himself can discern when one his instruments is out of tune or is G-d forbid missing.  When one of The Creator’s instruments has been silenced through death, the ones closest to the deceased say Kaddish to sanctify G-d’s name, substituting for the missing instrument that is so vital to Hashem’s composition.  Not only do the mourners fill in for the quieted instrument, but they also elicit sanctification from the other musicians. 

Aba speaking at Leah’s Bat Mitzvah, Teaneck 2005

I thought about the beautiful kaddish metaphor.  Metaphors remind me of my father as they bring an idea to life through a concrete example. The metaphor was one of Aba’s favorite and most powerful tools in Torah.  My father was fond of using examples that we could all picture in order to illustrate an idea.  Bulldozers.  Washing machines.  Sleeping pills.  A punctured tire.  A bald tire.  There were many metaphors that he employed and Aba expected us to give numerous examples of how the Torah idea was exemplified by the metaphor.  He expected us to show where the metaphor excelled and at times, where it failed.

So, I turned this metaphor around in my head, engaging with every facet, as my father would expect of me. 

If every person in the orchestra is playing an instrument, then which one was my father asked to play?  Which instrument demanded 18+ hours a day of rehearsal?  Which shy instrument asserted itself only for the benefit of the composition? Which instrument was enjoyed mostly because of its humility and creative melody?  Which one possessed no ego for its own musical majesty, but owned the confidence to respectfully challenge the melodies of other musicians?  Which instrument could distill a complex melody to its essence? 

Perhaps my father played one of the lead instruments.  A violin?  A clarinet?  The solo instrument that highlighted the melody while the others accompanied? The instrument with a wide musical range? The instrument that required the most intense rehearsal? Or, was my father asked to play an unusual instrument whose gravelly voice complemented and enhanced the smooth sound of other instruments?

As much as I tried to picture the instrument that my father had played, I couldn’t settle on one. So, I retooled the metaphor.    

After all, there are those who play an instrument and those who conduct the orchestra, guiding other instrumentalists.    For one composition, there are countless ways to uniquely express the arrangement using the ability, creativity and interest of the players with the singular vision of its conductor. 

It is the conductor who waves his baton, making certain that others follow his example and musical perspective, joining forces to produce a majestic symphony.  It is the meticulous and hard-working maestro who persuades the musicians to achieve their best.  It is through the conductor’s creativity and vision that others can find their own voice, blending in the service of the orchestra.  For a single composition, each conductor can interpret the music in a way that fulfills the vision of the composer, while staying true to the unique blended expression of the orchestra. 

So, I believe that my father was the maestro of a symphony of his unique time and place, summoning confidence and creativity as he coaxed others to play the music of Torah through a melodious conversation with The Creator.  His concert hall was the Beis Medrash (Torah study hall)  and every space that he converted into his own Beis medrash.  In my father’s inimitable, shy and no-nonsense way, his baton was raised for others to follow. 

However, if my father was the maestro, then the metaphor remains flawed. There are two important pieces that are missing. 

First, if my father was the conductor, does that imply that his role was only to lead? As the maestro, was my father silent during the symphony? What about his own music? Did our metaphor’s maestro still play his own music once he began handling a baton? And, how does our maestro maintain humility while leading the orchestra?

The maestro must play his own music, as my father never stopped developing his own chidushim (new aspects of Torah) once he began teaching Torah. He never expected his instrumentalists to practice their music, while he stopped rehearsing and advancing his own. Our maestro listened, but was rarely silent during the symphony, while he allowed others’ music to shine. Even from the podium, our great maestro remained humble as he wrote, taught and recorded Torah.

Second, if my father was a maestro with his own musical instrument, then where is G-d in this metaphor?  If He is not the conductor, then where and what is He?

G-d is, of course, The Composer.  The Composer is the One who developed, develops and will continue to develop the music that the maestro and the orchestra perform. The Composer defers to the maestro and the orchestra to infuse the symphony with creativity and vision. He expects the maestro to be versed and vigilant so that the integrity of the composition is true to the composer’s original intent. The maestro is expected to express his unique perspective and style.

My father was indeed both a maestro and an instrumentalist, teaching Torah to himself and to everyone in the orchestra. Aba’s orchestra was melodious and grand, not because of its exclusivity but precisely because it included all our voices. Aba’s style and mastery of the Composer’s music was always true to G-d’s original intent, but was infused with the memorable metaphors and insightful chakiros (explorations) that were his own.

I hope that through the recitation and response to kaddish for my father, we stay true to his Torah vision while sanctifying the Composer. My prayer is that even after the completion of kaddish, the musicians of our world will continue to look to our maestro’s musical instrument and to his baton. May my father’s inclusive, inimitable, yet humble leadership guide our majestic music in the service of our Composer eternally.

Yehi Zichro Baruch.

Aba learning and teaching at Bnai Yeshurun, Teaneck 2020

A Fox of Hope

When my father was diagnosed with end stage pancreatic cancer, I was devastated.  My father was the healthiest and holiest person I knew.  He learned Torah all day and into the night.  He watched his diet.  He employed humor and creativity to dispel tension and teach Torah.  He was careful about exercise and he had generations of longevity genes.  I just couldn’t understand how my father could be so sick.

I couldn’t sleep.  I couldn’t eat.  I couldn’t think. 

My father was as relaxed as ever.  In fact, he was funnier than I’ve ever seen him.  I just couldn’t comprehend how he seemed totally unaffected by his grim diagnosis.

On the way to the biopsy at University Hospital in Cleveland, my father asked me to research how many miles there were between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  He was giving shiur (lecture) to me in the car and my hands couldn’t stop shaking.  He was completely unfazed by his terrifying prognosis and I just couldn’t concentrate.  When I managed to muddle through a Google search on the rivers and their distance, my father explained that in the end of days, Hashem would flatten out the land between those rivers and then give an equal portion to all inheritors. Each inheritance would include a flat portion and a mountainous portion (Yechezkel 47:13-19). 

In those moments of anguish, I couldn’t process Torah, inheritance and rivers.  My head was just pounding with the fact that my father was gravely ill.  Aba’s head and heart were pulsating with the beauty and majesty of Torah and the future.  While my father was picturing the Torah’s positive and equitable reward, I was weighed down by his foreboding prognosis. 

That day was one of the most challenging days of my life.  The miracle for which we had prayed did not reveal itself in the way we imagined.  The biopsy confirmed our worst fears.   I tried to remain calm as the nurse wheeled my father to the biopsy.  I asked her to please take care of my holy father.  With a twinkle in his eye, Aba retorted, “I seem to be getting holier and holier each time I am being stuck with needles!”

I asked my father, “How does a talmid chochom (wise Torah student) process this type of diagnosis and still be so composed?”  He answered, “It is simple and it is in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 101b). 

אמר רבה בר בר חנה כשחלה ר’ אליעזר נכנסו תלמידיו לבקרו אמר להן חמה עזה יש בעולם התחילו הן בוכין ורבי עקיבא משחק אמרו לו למה אתה משחק אמר להן וכי מפני מה אתם בוכים אמרו לו אפשר ספר תורה שרוי בצער ולא נבכה

Rabba bar bar Ḥana says: When Rabbi Eliezer became sick, his students visited. Rabbi Eliezer said, “There is intense anger in the world.” The students started to cry because of their teacher’s suffering. Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They said to him, “Why do you laugh?“ Rabbi Akiva said to them, “And why do you cry?”  They replied, “Is it possible that (Rabbi Eliezer who is) a Torah scroll is suffering in pain and we do not cry? “

אמר להן לכך אני משחק כל זמן שאני רואה רבי שאין יינו מחמיץ ואין פשתנו לוקה ואין שמנו מבאיש ואין דובשנו מדביש אמרתי שמא חס ושלום קיבל רבי עולמו ועכשיו שאני רואה רבי בצער אני שמח אמר לו עקיבא כלום חיסרתי מן התורה כולה אמר לו לימדתנו רבינו (קהלת ז, כ) כי אדם אין צדיק בארץ אשר יעשה טוב ולא יחטא

Rabbi Akiva said to them, “That is why I laugh. As long as I see that for my teacher, his wine never spoils, his flax is not disturbed, his oil never ruins, and his honey never turns rancid, I would say, ‘Perhaps, G-d forbid, my teacher has already received his share in this world (and may not receive a reward in the Next World). But now that I see my teacher suffering (for the few sins he may have transgressed), I am happy.’”  Rabbi Eliezer said, “Akiva, have I failed to fulfill any portion of the entire Torah?”   Rabbi Akiva said to him, “you taught us, our teacher: ‘For there is not a righteous man upon earth who does good and sins not’“ Ecclesiastes 7:20).

Through this powerful Gemara, my father explained to me that the simple truth is that suffering is good.  Difficulties purify the soul to ensure merit in the Next World.  Aba’s mantra had always been that everything G-d does is for the good.  Calmly, he clarified and role-modeled that positive message, explaining that he needed no ingenuity for the Gemara elucidated it all so beautifully. 

I was still reeling from the pain and grief of the diagnosis, but my father had now framed the experience through the words and world view of Rabbi Akiva, the eternal optimist.  I was determined to see hope and optimism, but I am no Reb Yankel Cohen and I am certainly no Rabbi Akiva.  It was difficult and almost impossible for me to be optimistic. 

Hopefulness and laughter were Rabbi Akiva’s distinctive traits.  While everyone cried, Rabbi Akiva could discern optimism within tragedy, the silver lining in every cloud.  The most famous story of this indefatigable hopefulness is in Gemara Makos 24B

שוב פעם אחת היו עולין לירושלים כיון שהגיעו להר הצופים קרעו בגדיהם כיון שהגיעו להר הבית ראו שועל שיצא מבית קדשי הקדשים התחילו הן בוכין ור”ע מצחק אמרו לו מפני מה אתה מצחק אמר להם מפני מה אתם בוכים אמרו לו מקום שכתוב בו (במדבר א, נא) והזר הקרב יומת ועכשיו שועלים הלכו בו ולא נבכה

Another time, they (Rav Gamliel, Rav Elazar ben Azarya, Rav Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva ) were going up to Jerusalem. When they reached Har Hatzofim and saw the Temple site, they tore their garments in mourning. When they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox leaving the site of the Holy of Holies. They began crying, while Rabbi Akiva laughed. They said to him, “Why are you laughing? “Rabbi Akiva said, “Why are you crying?” They answered, “This is the place for which it is written: ‘And the non-priest who approaches shall die’ (Numbers 1:51), and now foxes walk there; and shall we not cry? “

אמר להן לכך אני מצחק דכתיב (ישעיהו ח, ב) ואעידה לי עדים נאמנים את אוריה הכהן ואת זכריה בן יברכיהו וכי מה ענין אוריה אצל זכריה אוריה במקדש ראשון וזכריה במקדש שני אלא תלה הכתוב נבואתו של זכריה בנבואתו של אוריה

Rabbi Akiva said to them, “That is why I laugh, when God revealed the future to the prophet Isaiah, it is written ‘And I will attest to Me with the faithful witnesses, Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Yevarchihu’ (Isaiah 8:2). What links the prophecies of Uriah and Zechariah? After all, Uriah prophesied during the First Temple era, and Zechariah prophesied during the Second Temple.  The connection is that Zechariah’s prophecy is dependent on the fulfillment of Uriah’s prophecy.”

באוריה כתיב (מיכה ג, יב) לכן בגללכם ציון שדה תחרש [וגו’] בזכריה כתיב (זכריה ח, ד) עוד ישבו זקנים וזקנות ברחובות ירושלם עד שלא נתקיימה נבואתו של אוריה הייתי מתיירא שלא תתקיים נבואתו של זכריה עכשיו שנתקיימה נבואתו של אוריה בידוע שנבואתו של זכריה מתקיימת בלשון הזה אמרו לו עקיבא ניחמתנו עקיבא ניחמתנו:

“In Uriah’s prophecy, it is written, ‘Therefore, for your sake Zion shall be plowed as a field’ (Micah 3:12), where foxes may roam. In Zechariah’s prophecy, it is written, ‘There shall yet be elderly men and elderly women sitting in the streets of Jerusalem’ (Zechariah 8:4). Until the (dark) prophecy of Uriah comes to fruition, I feared that the (hopeful) prophecy of Zechariah would not be fulfilled.  Now that Uriah’s was fulfilled, it is clear that the Zechariah’s prophecy will happen.”  The sages said, “Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us”.

This type of eternal optimism based upon Hashem’s word was modeled by my father using the lessons of Rabbi Akiva.  My father became the American paradigm of a self-made masmid  (continuous Torah scholar)  just as Rabbi Akiva had advanced himself from a stable boy into a talmid chachom.   My father taught us to look at events and challenges through the rose-colored glasses of Rabbi Akiva.  He taught us that all The Creator does is positive and that with a grounding in Torah, we may even catch a glimpse of the good in what seems bad.  My mother dedicated her life to funding my father’s learning in much the same way that Rachel, Rabbi Akiva’s wife, had championed Rabbi Akiva’s learning.  And, most of all, these two great men taught us to view every experience and challenge through the pure and positive prism of Torah learning and a connection to The One Above.

Once armed with Rabbi Akiva’s optimism, we began to see G-d’s miracles and hugs in the treatment of my father’s dreadful disease.  Within a few days, expert oncologists and pathologists reviewed my father’s case and guided us.  A new experimental drug named CPI-613 produced by Rafael Pharmaceuticals showed promise for this type of cancer.  My father packed a few essential belongings and his favorite seforim (Holy books) and we began the hopeful journey through his illness, moving my parents from Ohio to New Jersey.

My father was the oldest member of the experimental group and was one of the last to be admitted into this non-randomized drug trial.  The drug trial had recently moved from North Carolina to Morristown, NJ, a forty-five-minute drive from my own home.  The doctors and nurses at Morristown were taken by my father’s optimism and calm compliance to the rigid framework of their drug trial.

Miraculously, in those frightening early days of treatment, a red fox would visit our backyard.  I named the fox Akiva, feeling a hug from Above and the optimism represented by Rabbi Akiva through this fox.  Once we settled into a chemo routine, the fox stopped visiting and we did not see him again for quite a while.  Akiva, the fox, reappeared the Shabbos after my brother-in-law tragically died of COVID in March 2020.  As we sat broken-hearted at our Shabbos table after burying Mordechai on Friday, the fox reappeared, staying in our backyard for a good portion of that difficult Shabbos.

That seemed to be all that we needed and we did not see a fox again.  My father b’H survived for nearly two years, far outliving the original three-month prognosis.  My father, in his great optimism and calm demeanor, managed the rigors of chemotherapy and the cancer that had invaded his abdomen.  He published his sefer, Shashuai Yaakov (delights of Yaakov) during that time, savoring his study of Torah.

My father implanted his legacy of laughter and learning in all who knew him.  For the two additional years that he was with us, he strengthened that lively legacy in us, creating a Beis medrash (Torah study hall) space within the confines of a new geographical area, chemo treatments and an aggressive illness.   He taught us that joyfulness is not a destination.  It is a means of travel, suitable for all times and all places, always with an understanding that all The Creator does is good. 

Rabbi Akiva and my father had an additional surprise for me.  Early one morning, enroute to shiva for my father, I saw an animal running in front of my car.  As I trained my eyes on its movement, I saw its pointy nose and bushy red tail.  The fox had returned to bring good tidings with another hug from the Creator.  Rabbi Akiva once again had taught us to glimpse the silver lining in the cloud of sadness and loss. 

Aba in front of the Telshe Beis Medrash
Aba’s Kevura on Har Hamunochos, Jerusalem, 2 Shevat 5781

Rav Yankel Cohen: My Father and Mentor

This month, we lost a Talmid Chochom (wise Torah student) of massive proportion who learned Torah with tireless strength and courage.  He was addressed as a living Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) and the paradigm of an American masmid (Torah scholar).  He was fearlessly honest.  He had an amazing sense of humor.  He was confident in his Torah and yet, he was the humblest person I knew.

He was my father.

As a young girl, I knew where I could always find my father, in the Beis Medrash (Torah study hall).  While he spent endless hours in the Telshe Cleveland Beis Medrash, he converted every other space in his life into his personal Beis Medrash.  Torah was his first love and I never tried to compete with that love.

His learning was melodic, even in my father’s gruff and gravelly voice.  The words were sweet.  The tune of his Torah played over and over with his deep concentration and the sweet hum of Torah emanating from his study.  I remember the sour lemon drops that he would enjoy as he learned Torah deep into the night.  I can picture his relaxed pose, hands behind his head, feet outstretched with his brow furrowed in deep concentration.

I remember him buying reams and reams of composition paper at Gold Circle, especially when the paper was on sale before the school year.  And, I would watch him fill binder after binder with papers full of his Torah, so neatly written with his dominant left hand.   His study wasn’t aesthetically beautiful, but it was his haven.  The bookshelves were dusty and old, the chair was mended but sturdy, and the holy seforim (books) were his prized possessions. 

Day after Day.  Week after Week.  Year after Year.  Decade after Decade.

Aba’s Torah never grew stale.  It became more and more vibrant and each time he reviewed or he taught the same sugya (portion of Torah), it was with even more passion than the time before. 

My father was a gibor (of heroic strength).  He was a born athlete and was known in his hometown of Chicago as an aspiring and outstanding ball player.  He summoned amazing stamina and agility and channeled raw power into his beautiful rhythm of Torah.  In the same way that my father as a youngster had developed a powerful swing in baseball, my father perfected his service to the Creator through his learning.

He never tired of review.  He always found new and exciting topics to ponder.  The source of fire on Shabbos.  The Anenai Hakavod (Clouds of Glory). The Klai Mishkan (Utensils of the Holy Temple).  Cloning.  And, so many others.

My father poked and prodded, researched and challenged.  He looked at every question in Torah through many different angles, rotating and scrutinizing so that he could view and understand every facet of the issue.  He discussed it with anyone who was available, piquing their interest and incorporating their contributions to his clarification of the Torah piece.  He employed real-world metaphors that brought the topic to life. He asked for additional information from NASA scientists, school children, geniuses in Torah and even from me.

My father never dumbed anything down for me.  He always made me feel like his chavrusa (study partner), not his talmida (student).    He omitted nothing with me, happy to teach me any subject as long as it could be viewed and internalized through the pure prism of Torah.  He would tell me often how proud he was of me and that I was his best daughter (I am his only daughter).

I never felt that I was second best to his Torah, probably because he shared his love and enthusiasm for his learning with me.  He made me a part of the breathtaking magnitude of his Torah and he filled my childhood with simple, yet memorable moments of fatherhood. 

My father once shared how excited and awe-struck he was when he beheld me for the first time after I was born.  I remember my father vacuuming and changing diapers.  I loved the way he did those tasks in a way that was uniquely his.  I remember him swiveling his tie to the back of his shirt when he changed a diaper.  I can picture how my father wrapped the cord of the vacuum.  I can smell and taste his cholent recipe which he happily shared with me after my marriage. 

I remember him showing me how to use his first shoe-box sized calculator as he prepared the family tax return.  Every birthday, I would eagerly await as he took down his camera and we watched as exactly one Polaroid photo came to life before our eyes.  My father gave me few presents, but they were gifts of thoughtfulness and affection.  He bought me leather-bound machzorim (holiday prayer books) on his first visit to Israel.  He presented me with a red potato peeler when he saw that I was missing my Pesach peeler.  I needed nothing more from my father.

When I was unhappy, my father wiped my tears.  My father was never really sad, so I think of the greatness it took for him to feel my pain.  When I was disappointed, he taught me to look at the problem through the prism of hopefulness and to try to distill out the good in what seemed bad. 

My father taught me that everyday activities can be elevated.  He showed me by example that mowing the lawn or doing laundry were not activities beneath him, but that these ordinary tasks can be elevated in the service of Hashem.  Family responsibilities were not to be shirked, but rather to be lifted in the service of the Creator.  My father gardened and dabbled in carpentry.  He played ball with his kids and yet, he learned day and night.   It was normal, it was seamless and it was holy.

My father showed me never to expect things to be perfect.  He wanted those closest to him to accept all that the Creator bestowed upon them and to distill out the good in them.  He modeled how to exercise strength, restraint and humor to navigate through life’s challenges.    He helped others achieve joy in their lives while he always found happiness in his.

When my father was diagnosed with Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer, I was devastated and Aba was calm and funnier than ever.  He told me many times that he had no complaints with G-d, that he had a utopian life.  His only argument to the Creator was that he could no longer praise Him if he was taken from this world. He would quote the following words of Dovid Hamelech (King David):

מַה־בֶּ֥צַע בְּדָמִי֮ בְּרִדְתִּ֪י אֶ֫ל־שָׁ֥חַת הֲיוֹדְךָ֥ עָפָ֑ר הֲיַגִּ֥יד אֲמִתֶּֽךָ׃

“What is to be gained from my death, from my descent into the Pit? Can dust praise You? Can it declare Your faithfulness?

He showed me how to appreciate others and to express thanks in a meaningful way.  I recall so often when he would publicly and privately thank my mother for all the years of support so that he could learn Torah without worry.  My father would thank every doctor and nurse as he rode the roller coaster of his illness.  He personally thanked me for just about every act of kibud Av (respect for my father) that I performed. 

My father revealed how to daven, by being totally immersed in his conversation with Hashem.  He showed how to learn and to teach, to leave no stone unturned in his pursuit of the truth in Torah.  He showed us how to stand up for kevod shamayim (respect for the One above), while expecting no honor for himself.  

My father taught us about finding everything in Torah learning and in finding Torah learning in everything.  He taught us to apply every attribute, every gift and every challenge to derive closeness to our Creator and to never forget that the essential reason for learning Torah is to draw close to Hashem.   

Those lessons seemed so effortless for my father, the masmid who learned Torah for close to 18 hours just about every day.  In my father’s greatness and normalcy, Aba never expected me to be him.  He just invested in me by example, yearning for me to be the best that I could be.

That was my father, my beloved mentor.

Aba at my engagement L’Chaim, 1987
Aba learning at Bnai Yeshurun, 2020

Sara’s Zara Shower and Edible Handbags

sara shoes and handbags

Today is a wonderful day in the Respler family.  My niece, Sara, is getting married later this afternoon to Lawrence Rosenblum.  It is a wonderful opportunity for the family to celebrate, especially because Sara is surrounded by so many female cousins.  We love to party and this celebration will be one to remember.

Over the past few years, I have been trying to accumulate less “stuff” and instead, build more memories.  So, instead of getting another gift for Sara, Leah and I decided to go all out and host a memorable shower for Sara.

There was delicious food and drink, great camaraderie and even some dancing.  The shower began with a wonderful theme.  You see, Sara is the ghostwriter of ModestZara, an account dedicated to posting tznius (modest) finds at Zara.  Sara wears Zara, breathes Zara and embodies Zara’s classic and timeless style.

Leah scoured the house to find anything that could be used for the theme.  We found mannequins of all sizes, a shoe music box, rolls of kraft paper and lots of assorted bags and boxes.  I picked up some miniature tote bags and black and kraft paper goods at the local dollar stores.

I printed some Zara-inspired signs using bar codes and a Zara-inspired font.

I thought up a clearance candy station and one of Sara’s friends organized a hot cocoa station replete with marshmallows, whipped cream and all types of cocoa and milk.  I created a menu and a to-go station near the front door.  I lined my granite countertops with kraft paper and brought up my dairy chafers.

sara candy clearancesara hot cocoa station.JPG

sara-menu-w-barcodes.jpg

sara buffet chafers

sara waters togo station

Leah kept insisting that we get dozens of Zara bags from our local Zara store so that the guests would understand the theme.  I thought that with everything we had designed, the Zara-reference was more than apparent.

But, Leah insisted.  She said that it would be great to put these bags on the buffets and the dining room table.  It would be great to put unwrapped gifts into these bags and that it was extremely important.

I did what any mother would do.  I called Zara and pleaded my case for the free bags.

I explained the Modest Zara connection.  I explained how Sara represents Zara’s classic style.  I emphasized that Sara captures a modest Zara population on social media.  I waited on hold.  I spoke to the manager.

And, I was told Zara does not give out any bags without a purchase.

So, I told Leah that I had valiantly tried to get free Zara bags, but that I had failed.

And, Leah did what any self-respecting daughter would do.   She took matters into her own hands.

I don’t exactly know how it happened.  But, later that week, Leah came home with a big smile and dozens of Zara shopping bags in all shapes and sizes.

And, I set to work cooking and assembling.  Davida made her awesome cupcakes.  She tinted the frosting a kraft-brown color and frosted those cupcakes.  She then piped a thin S onto a chocolate fudge cookie to embellish the cupcakes.

sara cupcakes

I created my shoe and pocketbook station using a shoe-themed music box and handbags fashioned from cookies, frosting, and sour sticks.  For each pocketbook, I took two half-moon Tirosh cookies and put them together using frosting.  I placed a sour stick handle between the cookies.  I embellished the fronts of these pocketbooks with assorted sprinkles and edible gems.

sara shoes and handbags

My niece, Orit, made a delicious Caesar Salad and one of Sara’s friends made an incredible Greek Salad.  I prepared orange soup.  One of Sara’s friends made Penne Vodka. I prepared lasagna and quiche. and Leah prepared cabbage salad and a fast-moving smartphone game.   My niece, Michal, and her daughters prepared warm brownies. 

We ate and we drank.  We laughed and we danced.  And, no one overlooked the Zara theme because we had plenty of Zara bags for decor.

Remembering my Mother-in-Law: Calaniot and Bees

 

 

yahrzheit-anemone-and-succulent-arrangement-2.jpg

Today is chof-alef (21) Kislev, the eleventh Yahrzheit (anniversary of passing) of my dear mother-in-law, Devorah bas Yitzchok Aaron (Devorah, the daughter of Yitzchok Aaron).  We are in Israel to commemorate the yahrzheit and it is a time of reflection upon a life well-lived.

It is winter here and we have cool, beautiful weather.  The fields, the mountains, and the flower stands all over Israel abound with calaniot (anemones)  in every color of the spectrum.   These calaniot are the national flower of Israel and they represent all that Israel is.  They add color and hope to the darkest season in the most barren places.  As the rain brings nourishment to the fields and mountains during the winter, these calaniot blossom.

Our small garden as you enter our Jerusalem apartment is also replete with greenery and its own flowers.  The variegated leaves and chrysanthemums that were planted two years ago are lush and nourished by the winter rains.  They, too, bring the promise of color and bounty in the cold winter.

jeruslaem garden winter

 

In honor of the yahrzheit, Don and his brother, Mordechai, completed a masechta (portion) in Gemara (ancient Talmud).  On the eve of the yahrzheit, we hosted a siyum (finishing party) and seuda (festive meal) for family and friends in Jerusalem.  It was a time to combine reflection, learning and good food as a way to elevate the soul of my mother-in-law.

I created a number of small floral arrangements and one larger one to decorate the tables of our siyum seuda.  The smaller floral arrangements were intended as a take-home gift for our guests.  The larger centerpiece was to remain with us to grace this week’s Shabbos table.

yahrzheit small arrangements.jpg

 

I began with a glass low vase and soaked a piece of oasis.  I then took a variety of leaves from the garden.  I started with a single succulent to create this centerpiece.  I then added the ribbon-like variegated leaves and stuck them into the oasis in two places.  Each leaf end was secured with a toothpick to ensure that the top end of the variegated leaf didn’t budge.  I randomly added fuchsia anemones, making sure that they moved in all directions of the arrangement.  Finally, I added some more leaves on short stems to fill in the arrangement and to ensure that all of the oasis foam was covered.

yahrzheit-anemone-and-succulent-arrangement-2.jpg

 

At the yahrzheit siyum, I spoke about Mom and reflected upon what made her unique.  I compared her to a Devorah (bee).  K’shma kein haysa (her name reflected upon who she was).

T’hay nishmasa tzrurah b’tzror hachaim (May her soul be bound in the bond of life).

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Tonight is the Yarzheit of  Devorah bas Yitzchok Ahron

The Yarzheit is a special time to reflect on the qualities of the neshoma (soul) that remain  in this world even after a persons petira (passing)

This year I thought we would take my mother-in-law’s name, Devorah, which means bee and we would explore some of the unique and even surprising facts about bees to garner some lessons that she taught us all:

1.  A bee is a busy and social creature.  One bee must fly on average 90,000 miles, about three times around the globe, to produce one pound of honey.    A bee colony is comprised of more than ten thousand bees and less than 80,000 bees.       

My mother-in-law was a busy woman, always thinking of others and connecting people around her Shabbos and Yom Tov table.  She was really a people person who enjoyed being in the company of others. She sought out new friends wherever she went and so many lonely people found a place in her home and in her heart.   She was truly a busy and social creature.

2. A bee honeycomb is a very efficient structure. It uses the minimum amount of beeswax in each perfect hexagon to hold the maximum amount of honey.   My mother-in-law had the unique quality of finding a small and inexpensive gift that would show her concern and caring for another person. She would keep a box of Dixie cups with knock-knock jokes for decades.  She would take them out and distribute them.   We were each mandated to read the knock-knock jokes out loud and then she would make sure no one ruined the cups by drinking from them. She would then collect them and those Dixie cups would go right back in the box and into her cabinet.

On Shabbos and Yom Tov, Mom would ask me to make platters for kiddush and then she would whisper to me “in case more people come, please cut each piece of gefilte fish into half and then into quarters so that each guest would get a piece.”   Every guest would arrive hungrily and at least go home with a quarter-piece of fish.  Her friends always left filled by her friendship and attention.

She would find safety pins and Bobby pins and dollar store gifts that would be just what we all needed    Like the beehive, Mom was efficient about using small things to their maximum benefit.

3. The venom in a bee sting has medicinal properties. Bee venom has shown promise in treating arthritis and other types of pain.

Mom was known to speak her mind, especially when she saw something with which she disagreed.  For me as a new daughter-in-law,, some of my mother-in-law’s words stung.  But, as I got to know Mom  I really began to understand and appreciate this quality.  I learned that her bee sting had medicinal properties. Her words were honest and truthful, and I personally learned a lot through her.

When I first was married, she admonished me for not calling her every Friday.  I apologized and felt stung by the criticism.  After all, in my family, we called each other whenever we felt like calling.  There was no schedule and that was just what I was used to doing.  Nonetheless, I decided to start calling my in-laws every Erev Shabbos (Friday afternoon) as that was their expectation.  As the years went by, I realized what a blessing the initial criticism had been.  Now, my children and grandchildren call me just about every Friday afternoon.  That is the medicinal quality of that sting.

4. A bee is the only insect that produces human food and the bee is the only non- kosher creature that produces a substance that we are allowed to eat. 

Like the bee, the sweet honey that my mother-in-law produced is unique and defies logic.  She had the ability to take the most mundane and insignificant gift and elevate it by making someone feel special.  She was able to take her toughness and criticism and combine it with her Simchas Ha’chaim (joie de vivre) to produce children who are known for their incredible sweetness   And, she taught us that it is possible for each one of us to be the only insect that can produce something edible and then elevate it to something pure and kosher.

May the neshoma (soul) of Devora bas Yitzchok Aaron have a tremendous Aliyah as she buzzes and soars in the Next World.  May each one of us continue to produce the honey from all that Mom has taught us.

Crockpot Pulled Turkey

 

pulled turkey w logo

Every day is Thanksgiving.  That is my corollary to my mother’s cardinal rule of “every day is Mother’s Day.”  Feeling gratitude is an ongoing and essential goal and should not be limited to any one day of the year.  And,  I love so many of the traditional foods associated with Thanksgiving like  turkey, pumpkin  and cranberries.  As these ingredients begin to become available at our local markets, I buy them, hoping to find new and improved ways to use them.

Giving thanks is such a pivotal tenet in Judaism.  Each Jewish holiday commemorates something that has occured for which we are to feel gratitude.  The word for thanks in Hebrew is תודה, which is rooted in acknowledment, humility and praise.  The virtue of humility is based upon showing gratitude to G-d for what we have and not ascribing all that we have to our own strength and prowess.

This particular Thanksgiving season is poignant and special for me.  My father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer several months ago and my parents have moved in with our family as my father undergoes his experimental chemotherapy treatments.  As challenging as these few months have been, they have been so beautiful, as well.  Going through each season with my parents and gleaning wisdom and life lessons from my parents has been a treasure and a privilege.   It is something for which I give eternal gratitude to G-d.  I pray for strength, support and positivity to help us traverse this challenge.  Focusing on the aspects for which to show gratitude has transformed these difficult times into an opportunity for Thanksgiving.

This morning, I bought the first fresh turkey breast for the season and I intended to make it memorable.  I placed the turkey breast in a crockpot and topped it with sliced Vidalia onions and a handful of garlic cloves.  I poured barbecue sauce and water over the top and set the crockpot temperature setting to high for eight hours.

I came home to the most delicious Thanksgiving aroma.  After removing the bones, I shredded the turkey.

Voila!

PULLED TURKEY SERVING SUGGESTION.jpg

 

INGREDIENTS

Half of a turkey breast on the bone
1-2 onions, peeled and cut into rings
8-10 medium garlic cloves
1 cup water
2/3 cup barbecue sauce

DIRECTIONS

Place all ingredients in the crockpot.  Set crockpot to high and cook for 6-8 hours.  Turkey should be falling off the bones when ready.

Remove and discard bines,  Using two large forks held tines to tines, shred or pull the turkey.  Add several tablespoons of extra water and barbecue sauce, if turkey needs to be moistened

SERVING SUGGESTIONS

 

Love Birds Floral Arrangement

love birds arrangement 3

This week is one where we have been basking in the beauty, delight and joy of a new couple in our lives.  Our son, Yitzchak Aaron, has announced his engagement to Hindy Shippel.  As we welcome Hindy into our family, we feel humbled by the enormity of the gift of this union between two families.  My parents, who are now staying with us, have been actively involved in this shidduch and my father especially has been delighting in the details of their courtship.

We were in Israel for the past two weeks and wedding-themed accessories seemed to be everywhere.  Hindy and Yitzchok Aaron’s effervescence has been infectious and my father called Israel occasionally to provide updates on them, always referring to them as the “love birds”.

So, when I found a pair of Styrofoam wedding birds in a store in Israel, I just couldn’t resist buying them.   The groom was wearing a black top hat and the bride was decked out in a tulle veil.  They were charming and delightful.  The five-shekel price was perfect and I knew that I would find the ideal opportunity to use them.

The lovebirds accompanied me home and were unpacked.  They patiently sat on my kitchen counter in their package.  Yitzchok Aaron and Hindy announced their engagement Wednesday night, just hours after we arrived in New Jersey.  The past thirty-six hours were a whirlwind.  And, I forgot about the Styrofoam love birds.

Yesterday, I picked up a 3 for $12 flower special at Shoprite along with the basic groceries to restock my refrigerator.  Still basking in the wedding spirit, I chose all white flowers.  I purchased two bunches of hydrangeas and one bunch of calla lilies.  I cut them down to size and arranged them into my hallway vase.

And, as I was bringing the vase back to the front hall, I encountered the love birds.  After positioning them atop my new arrangement, they too are basking in the excitement of this simcha.

Marshmallow Ballerinas for Kiddush

ballerina marshmallows

So many of you have remarked that they missed the blog posts over the summer.  I did too!

The summer was a hectic one and brought with it some exciting new house-mates and a brand new granddaughter.  Michelle and Scotty moved into our home in July, in preparation for the birth of their first child and their move to Atlanta.  Charlotte Jennifer בתי-ה  (Charlie) was born on August 6th and joined our family home, too, until after Yom Kippur.

charley barley

Charlie is named for Scotty’s maternal grandmother, Beverly בתי-ה (Batya) Deutsch of Los Angeles.  We have been regaled with the stories of Mrs. Deutsch’s delicious and generous cooking and her deliveries of massive amounts of sumptuous food to members of her community.  Although we never had the opportunity to meet Charlie’s namesake,  we feel like we have met Mrs. Deutsch through Scotty’s Mom,  June, as she embodies so many of her own mother’s virtues.

We hope and pray that our Charlie will fill the tall shoes of her namesake and open her own heart and home to others as her maternal great-grandmother has done.   It is a great legacy and we have great hopes and dreams for little Charlie.  After all, food is a universal symbol of love and Charlie’s life right now centers around her feeding schedule.

To welcome Charlie, we hosted a kiddush luncheon for our family and friends on the Shabbos that she was named.      It is a Jewish custom to host a Shabbos morning kiddush to honor the birth of a baby girl.  The concept of a kiddush for a baby girl is an opportunity to thank G-d for this enormous gift and for others to bless the new child that she be raised לַתּוֹרָה לָחֻפָּה וּלְמַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים  (to Torah, wedding and good deeds)It is also to sanctify the importance of Jewish women and their vital role in Jewish learning and survival.

We learn throughout Tanach (Bible) and history that the Matriarchs and their female descendants graciously guided their families and ultimately, our nation through difficult family and historical challenges.   After all, Jewish identity follows matrilineal descent.   Jewish women were the ones who made seemingly small moves that changed the course of our nation’s history and who danced with Miriam at the Splitting of the Sea to celebrate the good that had been bestowed upon them.   In Jewish families, the mother is entrusted to feed and love her children physically and spiritually.  Her responsibility is to delicately instill faith in G-d and observance of mitzvos (good deeds) in her family.   We hope and pray that Charlie fulfills the potential in her name.  May she steer her own family through life’s travails and dance through  life’s simchas (joys).

To celebrate this special occasion, I created a stage of spinning ballerinas with the help of June, Scotty’s mother.  It was an adorable centerpiece that really was simple to create.

Let Charlie’s first act begin!

ballerina marshmallows

SUPPLIES

stryrofoam block
pink tablecloth
pink ribbon, matched to width of Styrofoam
gold ball toothpicks
white cupcake papers
stapler

INGREDIENTS

1 package large marshmallows
1 package mini marshmallows
pink sanding sugar
white or pink icing

DIRECTIONS

Place pink tablecloth underneath stryrofoam block and add a 6 inch perimeter all the way around Styrofoam.  Cut tablecloth to size and wrap tablecloth around Styrofoam, tucking in corners neatly as if wrapping a gift.  Staple tablecloth to bottom of Styrofoam in as many places as necessary to secure the tablecloth to the styrofoam, making sure to reinforce corners with extra staples.  Staple or glue ribbon around perimeter of the lined Styrofoam creating the ballerina stage.

For each ballerina, dab icing on the bottom of each large marshmallow.  Dip the marshmallow into the pink sanding sugar, creating the decorative collar.

Using icing as paste, glue one mini marshmallow to the top of each large marshmallow and a cupcake paper to the bottom of each large marshmallow.  Allow to dry.

Using the large end of each of the gold ball toothpicks, pierce each ballerina marshmallow carefully through the cupcake paper end.  set up each ballerina on the stage, opening up the cupcake paper tutus to move in different directions.

Please Note: This post contains affiliate links from Amazon, which means I earn a small commission if you click and make a purchase.

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My Grilled Chicken Mentor

My mother is one of the most persistent and resourceful people that I know. Nowadays, when I look in the mirror, I see my mother. And, I’ve learned so much from her determination.

During my childhood, my mother went back to college and then to law school. We grew up eating cereal for dinner most nights and we were okay with that, because that was our reality. My mother had never taken algebra or writing classes before college and my father tutored her along the fourteen year path from Math 101 to LSAT’s until her graduation from Law School.

It all started years before when she appeared in court for a traffic violation. As she explained the position of her car and the related facts, the judge was visibly impressed. He asked what her line of work was. She replied, “I’m a Hebrew school teacher.” The judge then asked, “And, what does your husband do?” My mother answered, “He’s a rabbinic student.” The judge then gave her a life-altering piece of advice before waiving the ticket. He simply said, “When you are done pulling your husband through Rabbinic school, ask him to pull you through Law School. You have the underpinnings of a great lawyer.”

That judge’s understanding of law was infinitely better than his comprehension of the Torah lifestyle that my parents had chosen.    After all, Torah is a lifetime pursuit and my mother never stopped “pulling my father through Rabbinic school”.  But, my mother listened carefully to his encouraging words and put the wheels in motion.   Her own father had been studying in Law School before the Holocaust and never completed his education. His dream was that one of his children would carry on that legacy.  Until the judge’s comment, my mother had never imagined that she would be the child to fulfill her father’s dream.

Fourteen years of education pursuing that dream as a working mother of four lively children had its challenges. And, it was not the typical course for a kollel (Rabbinic student) wife, especially in those days.   There were many nights where we attended college and law school with my mother.  And, there were those snarky comments from those that just didn’t understand or agree with the dream.  But, with G-d’s help, we all persevered and celebrated when my mother passed the Ohio Bar on the first try, after those long and difficult years of study.

And, then we began worrying.  How would my mother, the perennial student, manage as a self-employed attorney?  The fourteen years began when I was in fourth grade and now I was newly married and living elsewhere.   How would my mother transition from the theoretical to the practical?  How would she find the practical expertise to help her clients?

And, the worries persisted for only a short while.  Because, my mother was vested in the transition from school to practice.  My mother was determined to become the expert in certain aspects of law and she lacked the practical know-how.  Law school had taught her so much of the theoretical, but there were gaping holes in her practical application of the law.  And, her persistence, creativity  and resourcefulness were up to this new challenge.

My mother found mentors.   And, not just any mentors.  She sought out the experts in Cleveland in the areas of law in which she needed help.

She called the top Cleveland lawyers in each area of law expertise.  She introduced herself, gave a brief description of her background and asked if they would be willing to do a good deed and mentor her.  When they asked how she had found them, she told them that they were well-known as the experts in that area of law and she would be honored to have them as her mentors.

Just about every one of these top-notch attorneys agreed to mentor my mother.  They were kind, helpful and attentive to her and she was most appreciative of their assistance.  When she felt that she knew enough to manage on her own, she sent each one of these lawyers a small gift with a handwritten thank you note in her large scrawl.

That is mentoring done right.

It had worked so well for my mother that I tried it on my best friend, Lori.  In our house, she is the grilled chicken guru.  I had a long way to go to preparing the perfect grilled chicken.  So, I called Lori before Purim  and asked if she would mentor me by helping me prepare the grilled chicken for our Purim seuda (feast) on our grill so that I could watch and learn.

I learned how to grill chicken properly.  Mostly, I learned that I would never be able to match Lori’s meticulousness.  She had a cutting board and special knife set up for slicing each piece of chicken down the middle and a stopwatch for timing everything perfectly.

There was one important take-away from our backyard mentoring session that I have been implementing.  I never leave the backyard while anything is on the grill.  Although I skip the cutting board and stopwatch, I watch the grill fastidiously, making sure to turn and remove everything in the right time.  There are occasions that will test the doneness of my grilled chicken by slicing the thickest one open to check that there is no pink in the middle.  I leave the perfection to Lori and I thank her because the mentoring paid off immeasurably.

grilled chicken.jpg

Now, for some grilling tips:

(1) Use a great marinade and marinate for at least a few hours or overnight.  The marinade will tenderize and flavor the chicken.

(2) Clean your grill and spray with cooking spray before placing the chicken on the grill.

(3) Use your hot spots on the grill for the thickest pieces of chicken and cooler spots for the smallest pieces.

(4) Stay vigilant!  Do not leave your backyard until the chicken is ready.  Turn and remove pieces as they are ready.

(5) Make the grilled chicken yours by serving with torn fresh herbs, salsa or a homemade sauce.

Happy grilling!

Tisha B’Av: The Sour and the Sweet

 

 

The Hebrew date for this Shabbos is the Ninth of Av.   Tisha B’Av throughout history has been a day of Jewish national tragedy and great hope throughout the ages. Since Shabbos is designated as a day of joy rather than mourning, this year, we commemorate Tisha B’Av on Sunday, instead.

The calamities of Tisha B’Av began on this date in 1313 BCE with the pessimistic report of the twelve spies who returned from assessing the land of Israel.  Most of the spies reported that Israel would be impossible to conquer due to the giant inhabitants.  Only Caleb and Joshua spoke of the true beauty and blessing of the land of Israel.  That night, the Jewish nation cried, heeding the unfortunate pessimism of the spies.   On that fateful night, G-d warned us that this day would be one set aside for meaningful punishment and tears throughout the ages.

And so it has been.

As a nation, we have experienced so many Jewish tragedies on this fateful day:

The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE

The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE

The city of Beitar was destroyed by the Romans in 135 CE and the Jewish population of that city was annihilated.

Turnus Rufus, a Roman warrior, plowed the city of Jerusalem in 135 CE.

On this ominous date, the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, from France in 1306, and from Spain in 1492.

Germany entered World War I in 1914

SS commander Heinrich Himmler received formal approval for The Final Solution and thus began the Holocaust.

In 1942, the Jews were deported from the Warsaw Ghetto.

We cry for the pain of the losses, the devastation and  for the light of the connection to G-d. We shed tears over what we had and what we have lost.

However, we must find hope in our sadness, sweetness in the sourness of the past tragedies.  Our tears should not be the pessimistic tears cried by our ancestors on the night the spies returned.  They should be meaningful tears based upon the optimism and connection of Joshua and Caleb.  After all, pain indicates that we are alive and feeling.  Crying for so many centuries shows that we are still connected to the Holy Temple and the presence of G-d.  The month of Av means father and we must feel the embrace of G-d, our father, through the sour past and into the sweet future.

The Jewish nation looks to our leaders who taught us to find light, meaning and hope, even at the darkest times.   After the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Akiva was walking in Jerusalem with three other great Rabbis.   They saw a fox running among the ruins of the Holy of Holies of the Holy Temple. The Rabbis began to cry at this sight of utter devastation.  Famously, Rabbi Akiva began to laugh.  He explained “The joyous prophecy of Zechariah is contingent upon the sad prophecy of Uriah. Uriah’s prophecy was that ‘Zion shall be plowed like a field.’ Zechariah’s prophecy was that ‘The old men and women will return and sit in the streets of Jerusalem…’ I see that the prophecy of Uriah has been fulfilled, and now I know with certainty that the prophecy of Zechariah will come to fruition…”.

Tisha B’Av has been a day of darkness and devastation and yet, we hope for the light.  As Leonard Cohen famously sang, “There is a crack, a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in. ”

May the darkness of Tisha B’Av be tempered by the laughter of Rabbi Akiva’s clarity of fate and faith.   May the light enter our lives from a clear understanding of  the cracks in the darkness.  May the sweet replace the sour as we feel G-d’s embrace and we hope for the  Final Redemption and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple.

kotel rice krispie treats

For Shabbos, I prepared Rice Krispies Treats to represent the Kotel (Western Wall) stones.  I placed green Sour Sticks between the stones for a sweet/sour flavor and to represent the live greenery growing in the cracks of the Kotel stones.

 INGREDIENTS
1 jar of marshmallow fluff
3 tablespoons margarine
6 cups Rice Krispies cereal

1 small bag of green sour sticks

cooking spray

DIRECTIONS

Line a baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper.  Cut sour sticks into small pieces.

Over low heat, melt margarine. Add marshmallow fluff and stir until completely melted. Remove from heat. Add Rice Krispies, 2 cups at a time. Stir until well combined.

Using a wooden spoon or a firm silicone spatula, press Rice Krispies treats evenly onto lined baking sheet.

Cut into brick-like pieces and display on a rectangular or square platter.  Intersperse green sour sticks pieces between the Rice Krispies Treats.

Baby Stroller Fruit Display

fruit.png

 

There are events that just make you stop and take note.  This past Shabbos, our family was part of one of those life events.

My best friend, Lori, welcomed her first grandchild into this world on Shabbos, Parshas (Torah portion)  Shelach.  Since the baby was born on Shabbos, the Shalom Zachor (festive gathering on first Friday night after birth of baby boy) and Bris (circumcision) were held back-to-back this past Shabbos, Parshas Korach.  To complicate matters, our shul’s social hall was already booked for a Bar Mitzvah, so Lori opted to host both events at her home.

I so wanted to help Lori pull this together because Lori is like the sister that I never had.  I called her daily asking for an assignment, but Lori assured me that the whole family was pulling together to prepare for these exciting and daunting celebrations.    So, I took matters into my own hands.  Actually, I took matters into the capable hands of my youngest daughter, Davida.  And, of course, I wasn’t disappointed.

Davida carved a watermelon into this baby stroller complete with a nectarine baby sipping his bottle.  It was not too complicated to prepare and it really created a wow at the celebration.

Thank you, Davida!

Mazel tov, Lori!

SUPPLIES

1″ baby bottle
Mini-skewers or heavy toothpicks
Permanent marker 
melon baller
paring knives

INGREDIENTS

one oval-shaped watermelon
honeydew or cantaloupe
peach or nectarine
4 oranges or clementines

DIRECTIONS

Using a heavy knife, cut watermelon in half to create base of stroller.

Using a melon baller, scoop out the two halves of the watermelon and other melon(s) and place in a large bowl.  Using melon baller and paring knives, clean out the cavity of the two watermelon halves so that cavities are smooth.

Reserve the larger watermelon half for the stroller cavity.

Using a heavy knife, cut the other half of the watermelon in two to create the stroller hood.  Cut v-shaped notches to create a decorative edge on the larger half.  On the smaller half, cut a small band to use as the stroller handle.  Discard the rest of the watermelon.

Carefully secure the hood to the stroller cavity using Mini-skewers or heavy toothpicks inserted into the middle of the rind of each section.  If skewers are too large,  trim so that they are the right length to secure the watermelon sections together.   Secure the stroller handle to the front of the stroller cavity in the same way.

Carefully secure citrus “wheels” to stroller using  Mini-skewers or heavy toothpicks.

Draw eyelashes on the nectarine or peach and carefully push the baby bottle into the “mouth”.

Refill the watermelon with the melon balls, leaving a small space for the nectarine baby.  Place the baby into the melon carriage.

 

End Of Year Gifts

end-of-year gifts

Now that the end of the school year is fast approaching, it is the time to show appreciation to those who have helped our children through the school year.  Many schools collect money through a class parent or the PTA to offer a more substantial gift to the teachers, but there is still a special place for a personal gift and card expressing appreciation for a job well done.

There were years that I took the time to create personal gifts and there were years that I opted to just go with the class gift.  Now that my children have all graduated from elementary, middle and high school (phew!), I regret that I didn’t take the personal route more often.

And, here is why.

A personal display of appreciation really is important.  Words and gestures really do matter.  And, they last for a very long time, sometimes a lifetime.  This is a lesson I should have learned earlier, but it is an important lesson imparted to me by my daughter, Michelle.

One year, on the first day of school, Michelle came home with a big smile on her face.  “I have the meanest teacher in the school,” she delighted in telling me.

Most parents would worry.  I knew to trust Michelle because I understood why she was smiling.  Michelle was up to the challenge of taming the “meanest teacher in the school.”

It was hard for me to believe that this teacher really was the ogre that Michelle and her friends believed.  After all, she was a well-coiffed woman with the sweetest smile ever.  Michelle assured me that the smile meant nothing and that this teacher smiled even as she made snarky comments to the class.

I waited patiently.

Over the course of the school year, Michelle seemed to have gotten used to this teacher.  Even as her friends complained, Michelle worked at finding favor in the eyes of Mrs. Mean and almost begrudgingly, Mrs. Mean took a liking to Michelle.

In those days, I would write a poem as part of the year-end gift for those teachers that really went the extra mile.  I wasn’t sure that this teacher had really been extraordinary and I was not planning to write that poem.  Michelle thought differently.

A few days before school ended, Michelle asked me if I had written a poem for Mrs. Mean.  I came up with a long list of excuses.  “I’m too busy.”  “I just can’t find the time to do it.”  “I’m not sure your teacher would even care.”

Michelle countered with “what are you so busy with?” “It’s as important as anything else on your to-do list.”  “You don’t know what a handwritten poem will do for this teacher.”  And, finally, “Whatever is on your to-do list, I will do for you so that you can write the poem for my teacher.”

Now, that was an offer that I couldn’t refuse.  So, Michelle cleaned the kitchen, set the table and did everything else that I was supposed to do.  And, I sat down begrudgingly to write the poem.  Of course, I encountered writer’s block.  The words just wouldn’t flow because I really didn’t have much to say.

But, Michelle had a whole year’s worth of material.  And, she was armed with the conviction that this poem was so vital to her teacher.  So, after she completed all my chores, Michelle fed me the material.  And, I wrote that poem.  And, Michelle cheerfully delivered that poem to her teacher.

And, years later, I encountered that teacher.  She was still so well-coiffed and smiley and I still had a hard time believing that she was a monster teacher.  She remembered Michelle so vividly and asked about her.  And, she told me that the gift and the poem are still on her windowsill where she reads the poem often.  And, that the poem written by my pen and Michelle’s heart is one of her most treasured items.

Mrs. Mean would never know that the challenge that year was not in reading, writing, science or spelling.  It was for Michelle to take on the meanest teacher.  And, we all know that Michelle nailed the challenge in so many ways.

So, take the time to create a memorable gift that shows appreciation for a job well done.

Here are some helpful tips:

(1) Include something personal that shows you paid attention.  Choose items in the recipient’s favorite color or theme.  Include a personalized item, a gift card to their favorite store or favorite magazines, candy or food items.

(2) Find an interesting basket or box to contain multiple items.  Find a container that matches the theme and is the right size to include all the items selected.

(3) Use clear cellophane wrap or cellophane bag to wrap items and secure corners with clear packing tape.

(4) Shred brown paper grocery bags in paper shredder to use as filler.

(5) Secure with a thick ribbon and trim top of cellophane wrap .

(6) Always include a personal note.  Reference something that made your experience with this teacher or mentor unique and memorable.  You never know if yours will be the note that your recipient treasures for a lifetime.

 

 

Yom Yerushalayim: A Day of Gratitude, Responsibility and Love

Yom Yerushalayim and Yehuda with flags.png

 

“Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) is a gift given to our generation,” I declare often to my children.  “It is not a small gift and it is not a gift to be taken for granted.  It came at a high price and we have a huge responsibility to appreciate this treasure and care for it properly.”

For generations, we longed to be able to walk the streets of Yerushalayim in peace and in song.   We prayed long and hard for the opportunity to shed tears and pour our hearts out in prayer at the Kotel (The Wailing Wall).  When we visit Jerusalem now, we can enjoy the beauty and comfort of Jerusalem and it is easy to forget that it has only been 51 years since we have received this enormous gift.

My brother-in-law, Bezalel, recalls visiting Jerusalem for his Bar Mitzvah, prior to 1967.  He made the long journey by boat with great anticipation of finally reaching the Holy Land and seeing Jerusalem.  He describes the moment of the great reveal.

He had spent weeks traveling by sea.  Jerusalem was in his hopes and his dreams.  He along with the Jewish nation prayed and pray daily for the opportunity for our eyes to behold  Yerushalayim.  There was such anticipation and excitement.

Bezalel reached the Mandelbaum Gate, the closest place at that time that a Jew could come to the Old City of Jerusalem.  It was the checkpoint into the Jordanian-controlled part of Jerusalem, north of the western edge of the Old City.    Bezalel climbed up as high as possible to try and catch a glimpse of the Old City of Jerusalem.  He describes straining his eyes to behold Jerusalem.  He describes how fortunate he felt that his parents allowed him to make the long, albeit meaningful, trip to catch but a glimpse of the holiness and beauty of Yerushalayim.

Did he believe that just a few years later his children and grandchildren would be able to choose from scores of flights daily into Israel?  Did he imagine that he would be able to walk hand-in-hand with his progeny in the streets of  Yerushalayim?   Would he have guessed that the streets of Jerusalem would be filled with song and the many study halls of Jerusalem would be sweetened by the sounds and echos of Torah learning?

It is a dream come true and an enormous gift and responsibility not to be taken lightly.

Years ago, we visited Israel with Kaitlyn, who was a preschooler and just beginning to learn Hebrew.  She struggled with the basic Hebrew vocabulary and grammar.  I remember that during that visit, Kaitlyn exclaimed, “Wow!  Even the babies cry in Hebrew!”

Today is Yom Yerushalayim, a day commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem and the establishment of Israeli control over the Old City after the Six-Day War.  It is a day of drama and a day of appreciation.  It is a day of importance, a day of gratitude and a day of responsibility.

As I have written in the past, G-d chose the place for the the  Holy Temple in Jerusalem to be built as the spot where two men felt each other’s kindness, caring and  brotherly love. We are taught that there were two brothers living in Jerusalem.  One brother had a large family and the other brother lived alone.   One evening, each brother devised a plan to help the other brother.  The single brother thought, “my brother has so many children and probably not enough food. I will bring him a bundle of wheat.”  The brother with a large family thought, “my brother has nothing but his wealth.  I will bring a wheat bundle to him to fill some of his loneliness.”    That night, each brother carried a bundle of wheat through the hills of Jerusalem.  Under the cover of darkness, the two brothers met and embraced each other. God proclaimed.  “This very spot where these two brothers demonstrated love for each other is where the Holy Temple will be built.”

The boy in the picture is my three year old grandson, Yehuda.  When we visited Yerushalayim for Pesach (Passover), Yehuda had just turned three.  One morning, before the rest of the house awoke,  I invited him to take the Jerusalem light rail train with me to do some shopping.  On the way back, I offered that he could get himself a single item.  He chose a small Israeli flag.  As we were walking back to the train, Yehuda remembered that we had not bought anything for Avigail.  He asked if I would give him money to buy a flag for Avigail, as well.  We went back and bought her the same flag.

This picture was a candid shot of Yehuda at the Davidka station of the light rail waving his and Avigail’s flags in the streets of Jerusalem with the carefree happiness that we have hope for, longed for and prayed for.

May G-d allow us the opportunity to appreciate the gift or Yerushalayim, until the true rebuilding of this city in the times of Moshiach.

 

Hoop Floral Arrangements

magnolia hoop arrangement.jpg

I am intrigued by framed arrangements.  I love the contrast of a rigid framed shape against the natural beauty of foliage and flowers.  The frame provides boundary and format to the creativity and unique beauty of G-d’s world

Last year, I attended a cousin’s Bar Mitzvah in Jerusalem and the simple floral arrangements mesmerized me.  The arrangements  incorporated circular hoops as the backdrop for tropical flowers.  I was intrigued by these arrangements and just couldn’t take my eyes off them.  There was something about the way the circular hoop framed the arrangement and the way the lush tropical foliage and orchids contrasted with the simplicity of the circular shape.  My relatives caught me staring and  quickly realized that they would be seeing  more of this type of arrangement on  my blog.

hoop floral arrangement

I spent some time thinking about how I could achieve that look on a budget and with flowers from my garden.  I loved the idea of the circular framing.  I was determined to use the hoop as a frame for a sparse arrangement that would allow one to see right through the arrangement.

For our Purim seuda (feast), I created these arrangements using the just budding branches of our Magnolia trees in our backyard.  Back in late February-early March, the buds were fuzzy, kind of like pussy willow buds but with meandering branches that were so interesting in their unique shapes.

magnolia tree in february.jpg

I contrasted rose-gold painted hoops with these branches and the effect was breathtaking and unique.  I mounted the hoops onto cans spray-painted in the same metallic color as the hoops.   They were conversation starters, especially because they incorporated elements from the winter-beleaguered trees in my backyard.  And, they signaled that spring really would arrive this year.

shabbos table through copper hoop arrangement

Almost two months later, the branches are still gorgeous and fresh with the fuzzy, though slightly withered blossoms still attached.   I found an old globe stand and I fitted one of the metallic hoop arrangements into the semicircular base of the globe stand and have been enjoying the floral arrangement in my front hall.

Until, last week.

Just a few days ago, the Magnolia tree fuzzies metamorphosed into their trademark showy pink blossoms.

magnolia tree.jpg

And, I just couldn’t resist updating and upgrading the hoop arrangements.

And this old-new arrangement just took my breath away.  Not because of the rose-gold hoops.  Or, the meandering branches.  Or the fuzzy blossom beginnings.  Or, even the spectacular magnolia blossoms.

magnolia hoop arrangement 2

It is because of the symbolism.  The round world surrounding the flowing beauty of nature, marching to the same rhythm and yet, ever changing.  It is the miracle in the world.  And in nature.  And in creativity.  And, mostly in the things we just take for granted.

 

SUPPLIES

pruning shears

small 16-24″ hula hoop

metallic spray paint

glue gun with glue sticks

heavy brick or can for base

INSTRUCTIONS

Using pruning shears, cut interesting branches, with or without blossoms, that will fit inside the hoop.   Peel any stickers or coating off of the small 16-24″ hula hoop. Spray the hoop and the base carefully with metallic spray paint.  Using a glue gun with glue sticks, carefully secure branches or flowers to the insides of the hula hoop, securing them in a few spots on the hoop.  Using the glue gun with glue sticks,  secure the hoop to the weighted base.

Voila!

shabbos table through copper hoop arrangement

Nearly No-Carb Cheesecake with Mom’s Voice

Next week, Don and I will be heading to Israel for my mother-in-law’s ninth Yahrzeit, (commemoration of the anniversary of death) of my mother-in-law, Devorah bas Yitzchok Ahron a’H.  I loved my mother-in-law dearly.  While her physical presence is no longer in this world, her neshoma (soul) endures.  And, the Yahrzeit is the time to reflect on the lessons that she has imparted and continues to impart to us, her children.

My mother-in-law was brutally honest.  She was definitely not subtle.  Not in any way.

She would tell me and everyone else exactly what she thought.  And, exactly what she thought we should do.  She would tell my children that we weren’t taking good enough care of my furniture.  And, that my sister-in-law’s couches were holding up better than mine.   She offered advice to me on how to raise my children.  She couldn’t hold back when she thought someone was too fat or wearing clothing that was not flattering.  And, she always brought me just the items from the dollar store that she thought that I needed in my life.

Mom was absolutely right about most everything.  Her advice was truthful and blunt.  I heard what she said and yet I often rejected her words as harsh and unfair.  Because, in Mom’s lifetime, it was just too much information and it felt so negative.

Now that only her soul and her legacy remains, I interpret her words differently.  I accept them more and push back less.  Honestly, I just needed to learn to accept the criticism and own it.

Now that her physical presence is gone, I still hear her whispering in my ear.  Most amazingly, her voice has merged with my own inner voice.  And, it feels right and only positive now.

“It’s time to lose weight.” “Close the front door.”  “Don’t let the grandchildren play with play dough on the floor.”  “That outfit isn’t flattering.”   These are Mom’s lessons with my own inner voice whispering them.

So, with Mom’s voice as the impetus, we decided to do something exciting, frightening and wonderful on our  Yahrzeit visit to Israel this year.   We decided to jump-start healthier eating habits on this trip with the hope that these habits will last.  And, I feel that Mom has whispered this daunting plan into my ear.  Because, she always wanted her family to be slimmer, more fit and healthier.

Don’s two brothers will be joining us on this trip.  Don’s brother, Yisroel, has been on a modified Atkin’s diet successfully for two years.    He volunteered to be the mentor and coach.  I volunteered to be the cook and menu planner.  Yisroel keeps reminding me that it will be hard work.  And, I am up to the challenge, Mom!

Don’s brother, Mordechai, is on board with this new plan.  For this trip, he will be traveling without the love of his life, Yael.  But, he doesn’t want to give up another love of his life.   Cheesecake.

Don told Mordechai that we will find a way for him to have his cheesecake and eat it, too.   And, since I am in charge of the cooking and meal planning, I was determined to bake a cheesecake with nearly no carbs.

Therefore, I made a simple, crust-free cheesecake with Neufchâtel cream cheese and SPLENDA® .  Although, I generally do not use diet sugars or diet products,  I made an exception here due to the circumstances.   I hope that you love the cheesecake, Mordechai.

Thanks Mom, for that new inner voice!  May your dear neshoma be bound with the souls of the living.

no-carb cheesecake

SUPPLIES

spatula
food processor
mixer

glass pie plate

INGREDIENTS

2 pounds Neufchâtel or light cream cheese
3 large eggs
10 SPLENDA® packets (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

cooking spray

DIRECTIONS

It is best to bring the ingredients to room temperature before baking to prevent cracking, although I have made this recipe effectively with ingredients right out of the refrigerator.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Prepare pie plate by generously spraying with cooking spray or lining with parchment paper .

In food processor fitted with an S-blade, beat cream cheese, eggs, SPLENDA® and vanilla in a food processor or with a mixer, just until smooth and creamy. You can also use a whisk to incorporate and beat all these ingredients. You will have to scrape sides of bowl to incorporate everything well until combined, smooth and creamy.

Pour mixture into pie plate.

Bake for 40 minutes. Turn oven off and leave in oven to another half-hour.

Remove from the oven and cool completely.  Chill for at least 2 hours before serving.

TIPS

If you would rather use less SPLENDA® , I would suggest just sprinkling a bit on top of the cheesecake when serving.  A sprinkle of SPLENDA®  or powdered sugar on top fools the palate and imparts sweetness to the whole serving.

Gorgeous Roses on a Rose Gold Base

roses on copper

Don still brings home roses just about every Friday.  He brings home a different color every week just to keep things interesting.  While I always favored tropical flowers like birds of paradise, ginger flowers, antherium and haleconias,  I have learned to enjoy and embrace the simple, classic rose, mostly because that is what Don brings home. Every week.

There was a time when Leah would set our Shabbos table on Thursday night and then suggest a matching color of roses to Don so that everything would match.  Nowadays, I am back to setting the table on Friday mornings.  I look forward to the color surprise as Don brings home a dozen roses right after Shacharis (morning prayers) and before he leaves to the office on Friday morning.   I just match my napkins and table design to whatever the rose color of the week is.

I still try to keep the roses for at least two weeks.  Sometimes, we are lucky and can even enjoy them for three weeks.  The newer roses are mere buds, while the older roses are open, mature and beautiful.  Most of the time, by the end of the first week, the week-old roses are starting to droop.  They look so forlorn on the edge of their stems, barely able to hold on.

Once cut off the stem and floated in water, each blossom takes on a new life.  It is amazing how these “older” roses are even more beautiful than their young counterparts. Invariably, my guests ask me if the roses are real, because their complexity borders on perfection.

And I love these roses because they are real.  And mature.  And beautiful despite their age.

Is there a metaphor to the aging process?  Maybe.

This week, to match the vintage looking roses, I resprayed one of the wooden planks that I sanded and painted in an arrangement of Single Roses: Simple, Upcycled and Breathtaking.  I chose a copper color (rose gold) paint, so currently in vogue and such a perfect match to offset the delicate and unusual color of these roses.

Voila!

roses on copper

SUPPLIES

6 large open-blossoms
four foot section of 2″x6″ wood beam
metallic copper spray paint
6 clear 4″ square glass vases
water

 

TOOLS

hand sander

 

INSTRUCTIONS

Using hand sander, sand rough edges of beam.

Spray paint the top and all sides of the beams in your favorite color.   I used metallic copper spray paint

Cut open rose blossoms off of stem.

Set up 6 clear 4″ square glass vases at equal intervals along beam, aligning first and last vases with the edges of the beam.

Fill each vase two-thirds with water.

Carefully place each blossom in each vase.

 

Please Note: This post contains affiliate links from Amazon, which means I earn a small commission if you click and make a purchase.

Challah: Wrapping Up a Bit of Heaven

wrapping a bit of heavenTraditionally, we bake braided challah for Shabbos.    The Hebrew word, challah, actually means loaf of bread and alludes to the mitzvah (commandment) of challah, the blessing and setting aside of a small piece of bread dough during the bread preparation process.

At our Shabbos meals, after we say the kiddush (blessing on wine), we recite a blessing over two loaves of bread on a tray that are covered.  These braided loaves are referred to as Challah, for their importance in our fulfillment of the mitzvah of  challah.

challah x 2

In Numbers 15:17-19, we are taught that at the time of the Temple, when we bake bread, we were to set aside a small piece of dough and give it to the Kohen (priest) to eat.  Today, when we no longer have the Holy Temple, we separate a piece of dough whenever we bake bread.

 

If we have prepared a large batch of dough (at least five pounds), we make the following blessing:

Hebrew:
ברוך אתה י-י אלקינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וציונו להפריש חלה

Transliteration:
Ba-Ruch A-tah A-do-noi Elo-hai-nu Me-lech Ha-O-Lam A-sher Ke-di-sha-nu Be-mitz-vo-sav Ve-tzi-va-nu Le-Haf-rish Cha-lah

Translation:
Blessed are You, our G‑d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to separate challah.

We carefully discard the small piece of challah or we burn it.  We call this mitzvah (commandment)  challah.

challah top and bottom dew.jpg

As our ancestors traveled in the desert, the Maan (manna) fell from heaven to physically sustain them.  Every morning, they would go out and collect the Maan.  On the Friday morning before our very first Shabbos in the desert, two portions of the Maan (manna) fell for each person so that they would not collect the Maan on Shabbos.   To commemorate this double portion of Maan,  we set two loaves of challah at our Shabbos table.  The loaves are set upon a bread tray and covered with a decorative challah cover.  The layers underneath and atop the loaves of challah remind us of the layers of dew sent by G-d to lovingly protect the precious Maan, both on top and bottom.

challah a bit of heaven.jpg

The root of the word challah is chol which means secular or common.  The etymology of its name teaches us much about the challah and our relationship to Shabbos and to the world.   The challah tradition takes a mundane, though rhythmic and beautiful, chol (secular or common) task of baking bread  and elevates it into something extraordinary and holy.  It recreates a physical baking process into a spiritual tradition that provides service and generosity from the baker to the Kohen and ultimately to G-d.

The challah is typically braided with three strands.  The two loaves contain six strands of dough.  This symbolizes the six days of the week preceding Shabbos.  The braids allude to our bringing together the six weekdays of material sustenance into Shabbos, when we create unity and harmony by infusing our lives with spiritual sustenance.

Shabbos and the challah represents unity and spiritual direction.  The six weekdays represent the diverse secular part of our week.   The days, Sunday through Friday, each represent one of the six directions in our secular world: North, South, East, West, upward and downward.  During these weekdays, we move outward as we attempt to master our physical environment.

Shabbos is different.  It points inward, and we attempt to infuse our neshoma (soul) with the gifts of spiritual sustenance.  We try to achieve a sense of peace and unity as we direct the blessings of the week into our homes.   On Shabbos, we greet each other with the words, Shabbat Shalom (peaceful Shabbos) as that is the ultimate goal, one of finding great inner peace as we bring ourselves closer to the ones we love and to G-d.

In the past, when I performed the challah tradition, I either burned the challah portion or carefully wrapped it and discarded it according to the letter of the law.  After today’s baking of the challah, I added something else.  I added a pretty bag and a bow to the discarded piece of challah.  If I were to bring it to the Kohen, I would wrap it properly, so certainly, if I am designated this small piece of dough for G-d, I must present it well.  If my weekday recipes must be simple to wow, then certainly my spiritual traditions must be up to par!

Does G-d really care about the external trappings?  Maybe, yes or maybe, no.  But, there are at least two parts of every mitzvah (commandment).  There is the relationship part of the mitzvah that connects a person to G-d.  Then, there is another part of every mitzvah that is at least as important.  It is how that mitzvah cleanses and imprints the soul of the individual performing the mitzvah.  So, wrapping the piece of donated challah with a bow may not affect G-d’s relationship with me, but that special wrapping of the challah donation really imprints me with a greater sensitivity, understanding and yearning to perform the mitzvos (commandments).

 

 

Tisha B’Av: On Sadness, Continuity and Redemption

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We are in Israel and the saddest day on the Jewish calendar has begun. Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av) has been commemorated throughout the ages as a day of Jewish national tragedy. It is the day that both of our Holy Temples were destroyed and a day that is filled with mourning, trepidation and many tears.

It is a day that the following terrible Jewish tragedies have occurred:

  • The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE
  • The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE
  • The city of Beitar was destroyed by the Romans in 135 CE and the Jewish population of that city was annihilated.
  • Turnus Rufus, a Roman warrior, plowed the city of Jerusalem in 135 CE.
  • Jews were expelled from England in 1290, from France in 1306, and from Spain in 1492.
  • Germany entered World War I in 1914
  • SS commander Heinrich Himmler received formal approval for The Final Solution and thus began the Holocaust.
  • The Jews were deported from the Warsaw Ghetto. in 1942

We fast on this day, we sit on or close to the floor and we cry for the pain of the losses, the devastation and the void left by the destruction of the Jewish Temples almost 2000 years ago. Our tears are for the majesty that was lost and for the light of the connection to G-d at the time of the Holy Temples that was unparalleled. We cry over what we had and what we have lost.  And we pray for our tears of sadness will be replaced with rejoicing upon the final redemption.  .

According to the Jewish calendar, the festival of Pesach (Passover) always falls out on the same day of the week as Tisha B’Av. In Hebrew, there is no real word for coincidence because in Judaism things are just not coincidental. Things that happen in the same way were meant to be that way. And so, there must be a connection between Pesach, the festival of Geula (redemption) and Tisha B’av, the day of national mourning.

Redemption by definition implies that we will return to something that we have lost, something that we have already experienced. While Pesach commemorates our becoming a nation through the open miracles of our Exodus from Egypt, Tisha B’av dwells on our mourning the details of all that we have lost through the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem.

Only by understanding what we are missing can we ever hope to regain that which has been lost. And, so, on this day of national mourning, we lament the loss of the grandeur of the Holy Temples, the unity and the closeness that the spiritual relationship we experienced  during that time.  We read Megillas Eicha (the scroll of lamentations) and we shed true tears for all the tragedy and pain that has befallen our nation and has taken us from the holiness of an era long past.

Our fast begins on the eve of Tisha B’Av and continues until dark nightfall on the next day.  The mourning begins with great intensity and we sit on the floor or low chairs as Jewish mourners do.  We fast throughout the day, but the mourning gradually lessens throughout the day of Tisha B’Av. At Chatzos (midday), we are permitted to sit on regular chairs.

On this terrible day in history,  the structure of our precious Temple was set afire by our enemies. And, the most intense burning of the wood and stones of our Temples occurred at midday.

So, why would midday, the time of the most painful sight of the fiery destruction of our most holy site and of the holiest place on earth, be the time that we start lessening our mourning?

Because precisely at the moment that our precious Temples began burning did we see the hope for the future and the end of our mourning.

At midday, yes, our holiest Jewish sites were burning but we understood that our nation would survive. G-d had chosen to pour out his wrath on the stones and wood of Jerusalem’s holiest site and left our nation to repent, heal and hope for redemption.  That is true continuity and that is mourning with a mission.

And that is precisely the connection to Pesach. Pesach is the celebration of our becoming a nation and our hope for the Final Redemption. Tisha B’av, although painful, is integral for forcing us to recognize what we have lost.  It is the ultimate day for us to contemplate our continuity and redemption and return to what we had.   Tisha B’av is the day to elucidate what we had and cry real tears of understanding for the enormity of the void left by these losses. Only then, will we be granted the merit to witness the Final Redemption and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple.

Frosted Candied Grapes

Grapes are featured prominently at the annual Pesach (Passover) seder (festive meal, lit: order).  After all, we drink four cups of wine or grape juice and the seder ceremony begins with the kiddush (santification) over the first cup of wine (or grape juice).  Wine is featured in the charoset (fruit and nut dip symbolizing mortar) for the maror (bitter herbs).

The seder is a mixture of tradition and whimsy.  It is the only night on the Jewish calendar when we sing Hallel (songs of praise) and tell the story of Egypt at length.  It is an evening in which we engage the children and pass these Jewish traditions from generation to generation.  In fact, so much of the elements of the seder are intended to pique the interest of our children.

Which brings me to candied grapes.  We are taught that parents are to give their children special foods and gifts in order to engage them at the seder.  So, why not combine the elements of tradition and whimsy in creating these adorable and delicious candied grapes?

One note of caution, though.  The round shape of the grapes  can create a choking hazard for small children.  These grapes should not be given to young children, unless they are quartered.

These grapes can make a delicious snack or the perfect garnish for desserts.

 
candied grapesINGREDIENTS

1 box jello
grapes

 
DIRECTIONS

Rinse individual grapes thoroughly in a colander. Spread jello powder in a pie plate or large plate.  Coat grapes with powder.    Place on waxed or parchment paper to dry.
Refrigerate for 1 hour to allow gelatin to set.

NOTES

The round shape of the grapes  can present a choking hazard for small children.  These grapes should not be given to young children, unless they are quartered.

Sheva Brochos To-Go Station

 

Last week, in preparation for Goldie and Tuvia’s Sheva Brochos (one of seven wedding after-parties, each with seven blessings), I purchased a large box of hamentaschen (triangular Purim pastries) to add to the Viennese table. While I was setting up, Don mentioned that we should set up a to-go station similar to those that we had at our daughters weddings. He thought that we should set out the hamentaschen individually wrapped along with tea and coffee.

I thought that was a wonderful idea.

Except, the weather was unseasonably warm.

So, we set up a water bottle and hamentaschen to-go station with personalized labels for the hamentaschen and water bottles.

I covered an old desk with an elegant tablecloth and inserted a printed sign into a vintage frame that read:

“Please take
something cold and something sweet
for the road ahead”

Our guests loved it.  It really was simple to wow them.

And, we plan to do this again at our next home celebration.

Great idea, Don!

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Who did it better? Free nightstand vs. $395

 

 

I just received the newest Anthropologie House & Home catalogue and had so much fun leafing through it.

When I turned to page 75, I couldn’t believe my eyes!

There was a nightstand so similar to the one that I refinished from a free cast-off in A Nightstand Castoff: Simply Upgraded and Gilded.

Oh, and, it sells for $395.

So, I ask you.  Who did it better?

I know who did it last summer and who did it for a whole lot less money.  As we like to say in our house, “Nothing beats free”!

White and Wow Wedding Arches

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When Kaitlyn’s friends started to get married, we realized that there were no places in our community to rent or borrow wedding shtick (items of whimsy to adorn the wedding dancing).

That left only one choice.

We quickly needed to figure out how to make our own.

And we did. The most popular item that we designed were our wedding arches.

After the traditional Jewish wedding chupah (Jewish canopy) ceremony, the Jewish bride and groom have a few moments alone called Yichud (seclusion) in order to enjoy each other’s company before entering the reception room.

As the bride and groom prepare to enter the reception room after Yichud, there is palpable excitement in the air.  The band gets ready to perform a musical intro and the guests are on their feet waiting to dance the new couple into their lives together.

In the last few years, so many Jewish couples enter the reception by dancing under beautiful arches held by their friends and family.  There is nothing in halacha (Jewish law) or minhag (Jewish custom) that explains the significance of these arches.

So, we are truly left to our imagination.

Perhaps, the arches mimic the idea of the chupah, a shelter representing their new home and they represent the doorway from the new couple’s status as individuals into a life of togetherness. Perhaps, these arches connect earth and heaven.  Maybe, they incorporate the idea that the new couple is rooted in the friends and family that hold the arches.

Nonetheless, these arches carry the excitement and whimsy of an exciting new chapter just opened by this new Jewish couple.

And, that is what has guided the design of our wedding shtick.

These arches can be designed in so many different ways.  We have feathered and flower arches, but our most popular arches are our fluffy, curly and whimsical mesh arches.

We offer all of our wedding shtick with a donation to Camp HASC (Hebrew Academy for Special Children) in memory of Stephanie Cohen a’h. Stephanie was a very special friend of our daughter, Leah, and our family.  Her dear parents, Lisa and Stuart, are like part of our own family.  The joyfulness and whimsy of these arches were designed with Stephanie’s delightful character and joyful nature in mind.

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Stephanie lived a life of joy and lit up the lives of all those who knew her.  Although she was physically and cognitively challenged, she used every fiber of her body to bring happiness and whimsy to others.  She taught everyone around her about being positive and happy  in one’s life and she brought a smile to all who interacted with her.  The original set of colorful mesh arches were designed using Stephanie’s favorite vibrant colors in order to raise money for the place that she loved most, Camp HASC.  

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Stephanie’s colorful arches have been and continued to be borrowed over and over and have raised a great deal of money for Camp HASC.

This week, I  designed a new set of white and wow wedding arches to complement the colorful mesh arches that were designed several years ago. This time I documented the supplies and directions necessary to create their design.

Here we go!

SUPPLIES

hula hoop
heavy-duty scissors
scotch or cloth tape (optional)
duct tape or White Gorilla duct tape
21″ wide deco mesh (For each arch, I needed one 10-yard roll of deco mesh plus extra embellished mesh for accents)
pipe cleaners to match mesh or floral wire
white gloves (optional)

INSTRUCTIONS

Carefully cut a hula hoop using strong scissors.  Some hula hoops have beads inside to create hula hoop sound effects.  If you would like to add those sound effects to a plain hula hoop, add a few beads to the inside of the cut hula hoop.

Cover the ends of the hula hoop with duct or cloth tape to prevent the beads inside from falling out.  Use duct tape to coat the hula hoop from one end to the other.  I find that the easiest way is to leave a 2-3 inch section of tape exposed on the roll and wrap the duct tape roll around and around the cut hula hoop.

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Prepare pipe cleaners or cut wire into 12-16 inch sections.

Line up mesh near one end of the hoop.  Begin securing the mesh to the hula hoop by using a pipe cleaner or mesh to secure the mesh to the hula hoop about 6 inches from the end of the hula hoop.

Making sure that the mesh covers both sides of the hula hoop, wrap the mesh around the hula hoop, twisting slightly to form a swelling effect.  Secure mesh again to the hula hoop in about 12-15 inches.

mesh-wedding-arches-mesh-wrapped-around-hula-hoop

deco-mesh-arches-hula-hoops-covered-in-duct-tape

Continue to wrap the mesh around the hoop, securing it with the pipe cleaner or cut wire at equal intervals, making sure that the last interval before the end of the hula hoop is secured about 6 inches from the other end.

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Cut the mesh close to the end of the hula hoop, leaving the same amount of space for a handle at both ends.

Using the deco mesh, cut 8-12 inch sections of mesh.  The longer the sections, the more perfect your rolls will look.  The shorter the sections, the more rolls you will have.

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deco-mesh-arch-rolled-mesh

Prepare pipe cleaners or cut wire into 18-30 inch sections.

Take 3-4 deco mesh rolls and twist a pipe cleaner or wire section around the middle, forming a whimsical curly flower, making sure to twist the middle tightly, but to leave plenty of wire at the ends so that the curly flower can be securely fastened to the arch.  Here is where you can be creative and incorporate different colors, textures, ribbons or media.  For these arches, I used three white sparkly mesh rolls and one 4″ section of bubbly mesh for each curly flower.

deco-mesh-arch-flourish-with-wire

Continue to cut deco mesh rolls and create at least as many curly flowers as you have secured intervals on your hula hoop arch.  Each one of these flowers will cover the wire that you used to secure the mesh to the hula hoop.

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I like to prepare a few extra curly flowers to fill in the middle of the arch, which will add whimsy and height to the final arch.  I also sometimes prepare a few smaller curly flowers, made with only 2-3 curls to fill in areas where the arch needs some more volume.

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Using the ends of the wire or pipe cleaner, secure each flower to the arch covering the exposed pipe cleaner or wire that you created when you secured the mesh to the hula hoop, making sure to twist tightly and secure all wire ends.  Examine your arch carefully and critically, adjusting curly flowers to cover both sides of the hula hoop and making sire that the arc looks full.  Add curly flowers to areas on your arch that look unadorned.  To achieve a full look, each of these arches took 9-12 curly mesh flowers.

deco-mesh-arch

If necessary, cut the end of the deco mesh so that at least 2-3 inches at each end of the hula hoop can be handled.  Use heavy duty duct tape, secure the ends of the deco mesh to the handle.  Wrap the duct tape around and around so that the handle is neat, comfortable and secure.

To give the arches a more finished look, wrap matching pipe cleaners around all exposed wire securing the curly flowers to the mesh hula hoop.

If you would like to make a donation to Camp HASC  or would like information on borrowing these arches for an upcoming wedding, please comment below or email me at simpletowow@gmail.com.

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