|February 24, 2012||Free Love||1 comments|
|January 22, 2012||The Height of Hypocrisy||1 comments|
|December 26, 2011||Awaiting a Pennsylvania Spring||3 comments|
|September 26, 2011||J.A.P.'s (Jewish American Pioneers)||1 comments|
|July 06, 2011||Collateral Judaism||3 comments|
|April 11, 2011||Cleanliness is Next To Godliness||6 comments|
|February 04, 2011||The Year of the Tiger is Over||7 comments|
|January 17, 2011||The Courage of My Convictions||4 comments|
|December 16, 2010||Playgroup||3 comments|
|December 06, 2010||Old Dog, New Tricks||9 comments|
I cannot begin to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed writing my blog over the past year and a half. It’s given me the opportunity to share my opinions about things that interest me and provides me an audience to read it. For those of you who have stuck with me, I admit that I have struggled a bit with finding my voice. I’ve written about politics, friends, Jewish issues, and learning opportunities to name a few. To be honest, I’ve been all over the place. When I conceived of Sister in the ‘Hood, I imagined that I would only focus on topics of interest to local Jewish women, and above all, cover topics of substance. I wasn’t going to write fluff. But I have realized, sometimes “fluff” is fun, and there is no better time for fluff than the week following Valentine’s Day. So forgive me for not attempting to serve up quality content. If you are curious about my schmaltzy musings,…read on!
My husband Dan and I have been married for almost 20 years. Twenty wonderful, fun, exciting, and adventurous years. Years that have produced three children, spanned two houses, launched several careers, inspired many laughs and smiles, and taken us through our latest venture, ….an adorable, yappy, smelly puppy. Not only do Dan and I live and raise a family together, we also work together. By day, I work as an attorney at a firm that Dan founded about a decade ago. My world is completely intertwined in his, and his in mine. Sometimes we question whether we have too much togetherness. We always come back to the same place. We like things as they are. As you can imagine, we have exhausted a lot of “firsts”. That being said, life is never stale.
This past Valentine’s Day, we had an inescapably, incredibly simple “first”. So unexpectedly easy, that I wanted to share. I am the first to admit that I love all of the fanfare that comes with Valentine’s Day. I am a sucker for romance, and revel in cards, poetry, candy, lingerie, and candle-lit dinners. I do not dismiss Valentine’s Day as just a Hallmark holiday. And yet none of this fun was part of how Dan and I celebrated Valentine’s Day this year.
Like many of you, Dan and I live jam-packed, overly-scheduled lives. While we spend a lot of time near each other, to navigate time alone with one another often requires real skill and commitment. We laugh about how there will be a time in our lives when all we have is time alone together, and we hope we are not too decrepit to enjoy it. As for now, however, time alone is a gift. In this vain, we gave each other the most appropriate Valentine’s Day gifts we could….a day off of work in the middle of the week to spend time together, at home, after our kids all walked out the door to school. In the course of our entire married life, we have never before thought to take a day “off”, when everyone else is busy at work and school to just be together and enjoy time in our house. It was a completely indulgent, luxurious, and peaceful day.
Never changing out of our sweats, we read the newspapers cover to cover and sipped coffee, together we cooked a delectable brunch of vegetable omelets and fruit smoothies, we listened to “our” music, not our kids’, under a blanket on our couch we watched a movie that we had been wanting to see, and of course, we talked on and on and on. So many topics covered completely without interruption. With time on our side, we didn’t have to just skim the pressing issues that required our attention.
Starting at around 3:15, our kids started barreling through the door. Within moments, the decibel level in our house increased, the kitchen counters were covered with snacks and books and sweatshirts, and we quickly snapped back to our reality. But for those six wonderful hours, we could not have enjoyed ourselves more. When Dan and I got into bed that night and recapped our day, we laughed about the fact that we had so much fun and never even spent a dime. Because although Valentines’s Day chocolates and flowers are divine, the real essence of the holiday is about showering affection on the people you love. While there were no bows to untie nor packages to unwrap for me this year, I got the best gift of all ...time alone with my husband. And because it was not the Saturday, date-night kind of time, it felt even more special. This Valentine’s Day was a new “first” for us, but I can assure you that it won’t be our last!
On Thursday, January 20 th , just two days shy of the South Carolina primary, Marianne Gingrich, the second of Newt Gingrich’s three wives, took to the air waves, to reveal that back in the 1990’s, her then husband, Newt, asked her to enter into an “open marriage” while he was having an affair with his current wife, Callista. According to Marianne, Newt explained that the problem with their marriage was that Marianne wanted him all to herself. Imagine that…Marianne had the audacity to demand a monogamous marriage! Having been married to Newt for almost 12 years, she refused to grant him his wish of having both a wife and a mistress. And just like that, Newt was gone.
This interview, which aired on ABC’s Nightline, rivaled a reality show for serving up salacious details of what went on behind closed doors in this marriage. While I didn’t see this interview in real time, I did tune into the Republican debate later that night hosted by CNN’s John King. Mr. King’s first question of the night went straight to Newt to comment on whether it was true that he asked his wife for an “open marriage”. Newt fired back “I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” Newt continued that what King was doing was “as close to despicable as anything I (he) can imagine.” The audience responded to these comments with thunderous applause.
At first I thought, “I actually agree with Newt!” On the eve of the next primary, the debate should stick to substantive issues like jobs creation, healthcare, and Iran. It did seem a bit sordid for King to go straight to the smut. The more I thought about King’s opening question; however, the more appropriate I thought it was. For me, a liberal Jewish woman from the North, it was poetic justice.
Over the past week, I have read countless articles about how Newt, as well as his Republican rivals, were strongly courting and pandering to the Evangelical Christians in South Carolina, a constituency that places family values and prayer at its core. In fact, at no point along the campaign trail, has Newt, the candidate, shied away from injecting morality into the race. Newt supports a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, he supports school prayer, heck, he even authored a book titled, “Rediscovering God in America.”
While I don’t believe God and morality need to enter this presidential election, Newt clearly does, and he has not missed an opportunity to infuse his campaign with reminders that we should all live good Christian lives. If Newt’s political views openly and constantly serve up Christian values, then he has opened the door to be questioned about his adherence to these standards, Perhaps the only problem with Jon King’s line of questioning is that it didn’t go far enough! After all, Newt is the candidate who criticized parents living in housing projects for not demonstrating a sufficient work ethic for their children to model. I’d be curious to know what Newt thinks the effect of “open marriages” are on the children of these parents!
While I do believe that John King tread where he shouldn’t have with his opening question to Newt, the truth is that Newt started it As long as he continues to preach family values, he needs to be prepared to talk about them.
Over the past days, I have been following the protests occurring in Cairo’s Tahrir Square with both outrage and awe. On December 17 th while demonstrating for the removal of military rule, a young, abaya-clad woman was savagely beaten by Egypt’s Security forces, dragged by her arm as if she were a dead animal, stripped in public, and then repeatedly kicked and stomped on while she lay helplessly in the street. They left her injured and lying on the ground, with her abaya removed and covering her face, revealing her naked torso covered only by a blue bra. To the world this horrific incident, caught on film and posted on You Tube, has become known as “the girl in the blue bra.” It has quickly become an iconic image of the excessive use of force and abuse experienced by Egyptian women who are trying to fight for a more progressive and accepting home.
Several days following this incident, in brave defiance of these military tactics, roughly 6000 women, along with several thousand men supporting them, returned to Tahrir Square to denounce this insidious degradation of women, continue to call for the immediate removal of the ruling army, and pray that Islamic rule does not infuse the new regime. This protest was unprecedented. It’s the first time in Egypt’s modern history that women so powerfully united and advocated for their freedom.
Watching these incidents unfold, thousands of miles and countries away, I felt how lucky I am to live and work in a place where I don’t experience sexual violence or repression. I am not told how to dress, I can travel freely on my own will, I can initiate a divorce should I choose, and I’m not subject to genital mutilation. Further, I can be an active participant in the political process, and I don’t worry about being beaten and stripped in public by police officers if I participate in a protest.
Curious to learn more about the rights of women in Egypt, I began reading about the participation of women in Egypt’s political process over the years. As of 1956, Egyptian women were granted the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Then in 1979 a quota of seats for female candidates was sanctioned because Egyptian women were continually under-represented in the political process. As of the 2010 parliamentary elections, this quota reached 12%, or roughly 64 of the 518 available seats. This past May, however, the ruling military council removed this quota. This represented a major setback for Egyptian women, especially in light of the recent election victories by conservative Islamists.
In order for Egyptian women to insure that they move toward some acceptable form of equality, they need to have a seat at the table. They need to be part of the political process. It follows that the more female representation there is in the Egyptian parliament, the greater security they will have against harsh rules being implemented diminishing their rights.
This got me thinking about women’s representation where I live. Of course I am in no way equating residence in Pennsylvania to that of Egypt, but the need for greater female representation in our legislature is a critical issue here as well. As of 2010 Census, women comprise roughly 51.3 % of the state’s population, yet in the Pennsylvania State Legislature women currently hold only 17.4 % (44 of 253) of the seats. This ranks Pennsylvania 41 out of 50 states in percentage of women state legislators. We hover only slightly above states like West Virginia, Mississippi, and Alabama.
On a federal level, the statistics are even more dismal. Pennsylvania currently has 21 members in its national delegation (2 senators and 19 congress members), only one of whom is a women. And in the entire history of our country, Pennsylvania has sent only 7 women to Washington. (see; cawp.rutgers.edu)
Over the next months there will be more elections in Egypt and hopefully we will witness a transfer to a more progressive and democratic government. For a true democracy to take hold and to attempt to reduce gender discrimination, however, Egyptian women must be part of the political process. We should all root for this to happen.
At the same time, we can’t close our eyes on what’s going on in our own backyard. Yes, women in our Commonwealth live free lives without fear of sexual repression. That being said, if we are truly honest with ourselves, there are still gaps that need to be closed (i.e, pay equity for women, reproductive rights) which will enhance the lives of women in our state. Just think how some of these issues would change if there were more women holding elected positions in Pennsylvania. I’m not advocating for quotas like Egypt, but we should all be aware of the importance of the role of women in elected office, and encourage strong female candidates to run.
There is a connection between the events in Tahrir Square and our lives in Pennsylvania- at one level, our visceral reaction to physical repression against women and the dismal lack of female political power in Egypt. Yet on another level, a reason to recommit ourselves to s greater role for women in the political process here at home.
I have a curiosity with respect to knowing whether someone is Jewish or not. I freely admit that in my free time I have played “Guess Who’s the Jew” online, and when traveling, I can’t resist a round of Jewish geography when I meet a fellow Jew. I beam at the thought of kinship with Gwyneth Paltrow and Scarlett Johannson, and feel personal shame for Bernie Madoff’s betrayal. And if you were to ask me, I can make a compelling case that Abraham Lincoln was definitely a member of the tribe.
A couple of weeks ago, my family and I traveled out west for our summer vacation. We began our journey in Rapids City, South Dakota, touring Mount Rushmore and hiking through the Black Hills. We then continued into Wyoming, driving across the state and ending up in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. We became enraptured by the spirit and the scenery of Big Sky Country. Mountains, waterfalls, canyons, bison herds, sagebrush, and geysers filled our landscape. We were awed by the majesty of the natural beauty surrounding us.
At this point you may be wondering how my family vacation has anything to do with my penchant for discovering that someone unsuspecting is Jewish. Included in our out-West itinerary was a stop off in Deadwood, South Dakota. Deadwood began in the 1870’s when George Armstrong Custer, a colonel in the Civil War, led an expedition into the surrounding hills and discovered gold. This finding gave rise to the town that soon became infiltrated with gambling, brothels, and saloons. It earned a reputation for being lawless, with a rough and rowdy character, and infamous for the murder of Wild Bill Hickock. Today the town looks strikingly similar to how it did over one hundred years ago, because the whole town has been declared a National Historic Landmark and therefore preserved.
When we arrived in Deadwood, which could just as easily be mistaken for a Hollywood set of a western film, we stopped at The Midnight Star for lunch. The Midnight Start is a western saloon owned by Kevin Costner and decorated with memorabilia from the movie “Dances with Wolves”, which starred Kevin Costner and was about the Lakota Indians who previously inhabited this part of South Dakota.
I think because it seemed so unlikely, while waiting for our food to arrive, I thought to myself, “I wonder whether any Jews have ever lived in Deadwood?” In this age of smart phones, the answer was only one click away. Much to my surprise, within an instant, I had struck gold! One simple Google search connected me to articles entitled, “The Hebrews in the Hills of Old Deadwood” and “Deadwood, South Dakota and the Jews”. Not only did Jews live in Deadwood in the 1870’s, they practically owned the place. One of the articles talked about a historical marker (“Jewish American Pioneers and Deadwood” that had been installed at the corner of Wall and Main Street, just a block from where we were eating.
We raced through our lunch to go off to learn more about our Jewish Pioneer ancestry. When we arrived at the marker, here is what we learned: Jacob Goldberg owned the grocery store; Sol Star co-owned Star & Bullock Hardware, set up the Deadwood Flouring Mill along with fellow Jewish pioneers Ben Baer and Harris Franklin, served as the first Mayor of Deadwood and set up the town’s first fire department; The Franklin Inn’s major investor was Harris Franklin, nee Finkelstein, and his son Nathan became Deadwood’s second Mayor; and Paul Rewman, a Jewish man of British descent, established the first telephone system in Deadwood, which also happened to be the first phone system in the state of South Dakota. Out of the 78 buildings on Main Street at the time, 20 of them were built or had businesses in them that were owned by Jews. And although there wasn’t a synagogue, these Jewish pioneers did have a torah, and they met for services in private homes. Jews were an integral part of this western town, to the point that they earned a historical marker describing their contributions.
When I googled “ Jews and Deadwood” I really didn’t expect to find anything. My image of Jews from the 1870’s didn’t comport with my image of the people who founded this gold rush town. When I learned otherwise, I was delighted. I got a rush of collective pride. And that’s why I find this small game of mine compelling. You just never know what you’ll find!
Two weeks ago, my two younger children boarded camp buses to head off to Emma Kaufmann Camp (“EKC”), Pittsburgh’s JCC overnight summer camp). My oldest son had left days earlier since he is a counselor this year and needed to participate in staff week. My husband and I have been sending our children to EKC for the past seven years. I have grown accustom to the routine that precedes their departure. Frenetic camp shopping in an effort to pack the duffels in time for send-off, countless loads of laundry to insure that each and every favorite shirt is available to pack, “kids’ choice” family night the evening before they leave, usually at some hokey restaurant like The Melting Pot where we wouldn’t otherwise dine, and morning jitters as we drive to the camp bus. And each year there are tears, always mine, at the moment the bus pulls away as I get a last glimpse of their cute little faces smiling through the bus windows.
While there is comfort in the predictability of this routine, each year I try to better understand the reasons why they want to return to this particular Jewish camp. There are numerous competing summer programs from which to choose, but my children want to return each summer to EKC, and my husband and I choose to send them.
Some of the reasons are obvious. They have fun and they want to be with their friends. And of course my husband and I value the fundamental lessons they learn from living away from home for several weeks, navigating social dynamics amongst their peers, and enjoying good, wholesome fun. Fun that swaps televisions, cell phones, and computers for horseback riding, archery, and campfires.
The day before my kids left for EKC, I was traipsing through clothing stores with my daughter in hot pursuit of a white dress for her to wear at camp on Shabbat. The camp buses were leaving in less than 24 hours and we still had not crossed this major item off of our list. I was irritated that I was still running camp errands at this late date but then in the middle of our desperate shopping experience, I had a revelation….and it had everything to do with the white dress!
My family and I practice Reform Judaism. We belong to a Reform congregation, we celebrate major Jewish holidays, our kids attend Hebrew and religious school, and we are proud of our heritage. That being said, there is an intrinsic randomness to our religious practice. Some Friday nights we light Shabbos candles and dine as a family, while other Fridays we don’t even taking notice of Shabbat. On some Saturdays we go to Temple, and others we run errands and work. My kids attend Hebrew school, yet I allow them to miss for some pretty trivial reasons. I strive for more consistency in our practice but often succumb to the demands of our secular lives.
And yet the day before camp started, it was important to my daughter that she had “special” white clothing for Shabbat. At camp, my kids look forward to Shabbat. They welcome the change of pace that it brings to their camp week and look forward to celebrating in song and verse while linked arm-in-arm with friends. In the days leading up to camp, Hebrew words begin to invade their dialogues. “Who will be housed in the “Beit Chosky” this year”, they ask or “I wonder whether there have been renovations to the “chadar ochel”?
At camp they live alongside kids and counselors with names like “Orr” and “Lev” and go to activities named “Teva” and “Tikum Olam”. For four weeks they eat a kosher diet and sing “H’motzi” before each meal with spirit and gratitude.
At EKC, being Jewish is fun and inherent to the camp experience. The Jewish environment I struggle to create for my children at home, camp accomplishes effortlessly. For the four weeks that my kids are away, their Judaism becomes more relevant, appreciated, and more ingrained. Instilling Jewish values may not be the primary reason I send my kids to EKC, but it sure is a wonderful collateral benefit.
A common refrain from my husband is, “If you just put your keys in the same place every time, you’d always know where to find them.” Easier said than done for someone like me. Chaos and clutter have surrounded me. I have always functioned quite well at my desk amid stacks of papers. The heap of books, papers, and magazines, sprawling alongside my bed I have navigated willingly. And I have always been at peace throwing my shoes in a pile at the bottom of my closet, even though I have to dig them out one at a time each morning. Until recently, that is.
Having just completed a kitchen renovation at the end of last year, I was inspired to move back into my new kitchen the “right” way. I enlisted the help of my good friend, Jodi Eisner, who is a professional organizer and whose business is aptly named “Method to the Madness.” She helped me to organize my cabinets and food pantries, creating systems and designating spaces based on how I operate in my kitchen, and forcing me to part with things I hadn’t used for years. For me, not only was it a novel experience, but therapeutic, as well. I soon found I was putting everything away, I could locate anything I needed quickly and effortlessly, and my house was always presentable. I no longer had to hide an unseemly stack of mail in the bread drawer when guests arrived.
Jodi’s work with me had a snowball effect. We next tackled my home office where Jodi created a filing system for every relevant piece of paper entering my house. We took on my kids’ playroom, my daughter’s homework space, and finally my bedroom. The Container Store became my new obsession, and I began making daily drop-offs at Goodwill, purging my house of “stuff” for which I had absolutely no use.
I liked how I began to feel. I felt less stress and more control in my house, and to some degree, I experienced a profound sense of liberation. Liberation from clutter, and things, and chaos. The adage, “Less is more” became my daily mantra.
With the Passover holiday upon us and my bustling newfound sense of organization, I’ve become curious about the ritual of bidikat chametz, the hunt for chametz, as well as the nexus between Passover and spring cleaning. I’ve poured through Internet articles surprised by the plethora of content in cyberspace about these subjects. And in my research, I’ve learned a thing or two.
In preparing for Passover, a Jewish tradition is to rid one’s house of any chametz, or leavened bread. This process ("bidikat chametz”) traditionally begins weeks before the first seder with a thorough house cleaning. Some believe that spring cleaning has its origins in this Jewish ritual. This house cleaning is followed by the removal and/or sale of the chametz, which then leads to a final candlelit search for chametz the night before Passover, and the burning of the last remaining chametz the following morning. In its place during Passover, Jews eat matzah, unleavened bread, as a reminder of the Israelites hasty exodus out of Egypt.
Unlike matzah, chametz has a leavening agent which makes it rise or “puff-up” and is often associated with ego, haughtiness, and the state of being full of one’s self. While Passover is the celebration of the Jews’ freedom from slavery, in a modern context ridding our house of chametz is a physical act symbolic of freeing ourselves from anything that enslaves us, whether it’s ego, self-importance, or as in my case, clutter.
In prior years, spring cleaning didn’t even enter into my lexicon of thoughts. This year I have enveloped the practice both physically and spiritually. For the past days, I’ve worked towards preparing my house for our family’s seder, and with each passing day, I feel more connected to spring and renewal and the celebration of Passover.
Next Sunday evening, I intend to lead my family through the final, candlelit hunt for outstanding chametz. As instructed, we will use a feather, or perhaps a toothbrush, to sweep any crumbs we find into a paper bag. I’m certain my kids will find this ritual quite amusing. And when we go to burn the chametz the next morning, the good news will be that I will actually know where to find the matches! Happy Pesach!
Since the story “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” broke in the January 8th edition of the Wall Street Journal, the media outlets have been flooded. Upon reading the published excerpt from Amy Chua’s latest book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, few people have found it possible to restrain themselves from weighing in on the parenting issues presented. For those of you who have missed this recent dialogue, here’s a summary. Amy Chua is a Harvard educated, middle-aged, mother of two. She is of Filipino-Chinese descent, works as a Yale law professor, and is married to another Yale law professor who happens to be Jewish. In her new book, Ms. Chua, explains how it is that “Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids.”
Being strict, demanding, and brutally honest is part of Amy Chua’s Chinese-style parenting. She never allowed her daughters to attend a sleepover, have a playdate, watch TV or play computer games, or be in a school play. Her daughters were also never allowed to be anything but the number one student in all subjects but for gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, or for that matter, choose not to play the piano or violin. When her 7-year old daughter Lulu couldn’t master a difficult piano piece and wanted to give up, Amy Chua ordered her back to the piano, hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and threatened to donate it to the Salvation Army if she didn’t perfect the piano piece by the following day. Ms. Chua also threatened Lulu with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, and no birthday parties for the next years. Unabashedly Ms. Chua proclaims, “I told her (Lulu) to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.”
What kind of mother would fire off these hateful, nasty comments to her 7-year old daughter? Does she really care that much about how well her daughter plays the piano? Or is she some kind of egomaniac who views her own self-worth by how successful her children are? Luckily for Lulu, she eventually mastered the piece and was proud of herself for doing so. Ms. Chua’s believes “there is nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.”
All this talk about the Tiger Mom has made me consider whether there is a Jewish mother parenting model, and if so, whether it qualifies us as being “superior”? We are all familiar with the nagging, overprotective, smothering, guilt-inducing Jewish mother sterotype, but I don’t think that fully describes the Jewish parenting that occurs today.
I don’t profess to speak for an entire religion but indulge my desire to make some generalizations. Judaism values learning and education not just as a means to an end, but also as an endeavor to enjoy and cherish. The whole concept of “lifelong learning” is innately Jewish because as a religion, we understand that learning should be a challenging, meaningful, and inspiring journey that enriches one’s life and shouldn’t end upon the completion of formal education. Learning and education are pathways to fulfillment and happiness in their own right, and not just because of A’s that may be earned. These are the values that Jewish mothers instill in their children.
That’s not to say that Jewish mothers do not want their children to achieve success. Like their Chinese counterparts, Jewish mothers have high expectations of their children. Herein lies the difference. Amy Chua underscores the value of rote learning and the belief that she should dictate her children’s interests. Jewish mothers work hard to instill a sense of curiosity and to encourage their children’s individuality. Jewish mothers don’t view nurturing as anathema to success. While grades are important, gaining the tools for a meaningful life is preeminent.
It is a well-known fact that Jews make up a disproportionate number of the Nobel Prize winners, 22% to be exact, while they represent only 0.2% of the world’s population. (see, www/JINFO.org) Jews also are inordinately represented at the most selective colleges in the country. These facts alone doesn’t necessarily render Jewish mothers “superior”, but these mothers must be doing something right when it comes to raising and educating their children.
The other day I learned that the Year of the Tiger in China has just ended and it is being replaced by the Year of the Rabbit. While a tiger inspires fear and respect, a rabbit symbolizes peace and calm. I had to laugh. Perhaps after experiencing the likes of Tiger Mom Amy Chua, the year of the rabbit is just what Chinese children need!
For another exploration of this subject, read The Chronicle story, Tiger Moms tamed by American experience.
The week between Christmas and New Years, my family and I traveled to San Francisco for an extended family vacation. We chose San Francisco because that is where my husband’s brother and his wife, children, and stepchildren live. The trip had been planned in honor of my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday.
We stayed at my brother-in-law’s house whose family’s schedules, we quickly learned, couldn’t have been more different from ours. We are night owls who tend to get an energy surge just as the sun is setting, and dawn is a time of day we read about only in poetry. By contrast, our relatives are early to bed and early to rise. They would be considering lunch options as we were wiping sleep out of the corners of our eyes. While the reality of our ill-matched schedules was unfortunate, it gave my family great expanses of downtime to be together and talk, especially in the evenings once our hosts had gone to sleep.
This year more than in years past, I became fixated on what my New Year’s resolutions should be. Perhaps this was because of the luxury of time….calm, ample, unadulterated time which allowed me to think and share discussions with my family having no connection to homework, chores, or bedtime. Each evening, I pitched new thoughts. The insignificant resolutions came easily. I resolved to organize my house, work out more often, and to become a better joke teller. More substantial New Year’s resolutions did not flow as quickly.
To celebrate New Year’s Eve, our hosts had made a dinner reservation at a very elegant restaurant. The reservation was intended just for the six adults of our group, and our children were to stay behind and hang at the house until we returned. From the moment I heard about the plan, I was uncomfortable with it. For the most part, I really wanted to be with my kids. Their ages are currently 16, 13, and 10, and while they do their share of fighting and yelling, they are three of the most fun, high-spirited, and interesting people I know! Alternatively, it was not an option to take them to this restaurant since it was an incredibly expensive and gourmet experience that was not appropriate for them. Nor was it an option to change the venue since our hosts and in-laws were looking forward to dining at this particular restaurant.
All week I struggled with how to reconcile the conflicting interests presented by this New Year’s Eve plan. I knew that opting out of the plan and celebrating with my children was the right thing for my family. On the other hand, I didn’t want to offend our relatives who had arranged the dinner, and didn’t want to appear to be an unappreciative guest.
It took until New Year’s Eve day for me to muster the courage to opt out of this fancy dinner. With the consent of my husband and the jubilation of my children, I shared with our hosts my family’s sudden change in plans. While they looked at us dubiously, questioning why we would forfeit the opportunity to have a spectacular culinary experience, they respectfully supported our decision. A huge weight had been lifted.
As New Year’s Eve began to descend, our hosts, dressed for the special occasion, embarked on their evening. The five of us, left behind, began to piece together a fun night. We decided to try dim sum cuisine and Urbanspoon directed us to a nearby restaurant that could accommodate us at the last minute.
Seated at an intimate, round table, we enjoyed picking course after course of delicious selections. Each of us chose at least one thing we were craving, and with each course served, the conversation became more and more robust. We discussed New Year’s resolutions, we recalled the wonderful things our family did in 2010, and we remarked on what a great year we all had. My youngest, Josh, noted how the year 2010 would be gone forever, which launched us into a discussion regarding the tinge of sadness in a New Year’s Eve celebration for times gone by.
Our conversations continued incessantly, each one of us having so much to contribute that we actually assigned speaking orders so everyone could be heard. The table was drowned in laughter, joy, and warmth. There was a magical quality to the night that was palpable. For those few hours while we conversed around a table eating dim sum, my family and our lives seemed to be in perfect alignment. Ironically, the restaurant was named “Harmony”.
Our festive moods continued as we drove back to my brother-in-law’s house to watch the ball drop on Times Square and usher in the New Year. As we began the countdown to midnight, the five of us (the only ones still awake in the house), sat in a row on a huge sectional, grabbing hands with one another greeting the New Year as a family happily connected, appreciative of our good fortune, and ready to continue together on our life’s journey. For me, it had been the perfect New Year’s Eve celebration.
When I got into bed that evening, still wrestling to find a meaningful New Year’s resolution, the answer suddenly dawned on me! It had been staring me right in the face. Listen to myself. Learn to trust my instincts and have the fortitude to act on my beliefs. And there it was! For 2011, I have resolved to have the courage of my convictions. When I do, I am certain that good things will follow!
Roughly sixteen years ago, through a series of fortuitous events that are now too hazy to remember, I forged relationships with four other women in the interest of starting a playgroup. Each one of us was born in 1965 (“Sorry, Girls”), we gave birth to our first child in 1994, none of us grew up in Pittsburgh, and each one of us craved a day out with our child where we could also enjoy adult conversation. And so it began.
During those early years, each Friday presented a new opportunity for fun. We took in museums, festivals, and farms. We swam, slid down slides, picked pumpkins, and played in colorful, plastic ball pits. Our kids were happy and engaged, and we filled our afternoons with loud, incessant, and therapeutic conversation. So many times, we would all be talking at once which made me wonder whether it was the need to talk or the need to be heard that mattered. It’s as if we all needed our fix, and the meter was running.
Within a couple of years, round two began. Our second children were born and our gig was still going strong. Pushing double-strollers, the five of us continued to carve out Fridays for each other. For me, these days were sacred. As the years passed, we sent our children off to school and re-entered the workforce. It became less practical to keep Fridays reserved for each other. Many playgroups disband at this juncture. Not so with ours. This playgroup took on new forms.
Over the years, the five of us had shared so many experiences, swapped ideas, confided, coached and inspired each other, listened, laughed, and entertained one another creating bonds of trust and eternal friendship. Our history and connections were too strong to dissipate.
To date, we are five couples, fourteen children, and six dogs strong. While we no longer parade our kids through the likes of Chuck E. Cheese or the Children’s Museum, we make a concerted effort to be a constant in each other’s lives.
I chuckle when I think about what a sketch of the coordinates of our telephone calls to each other would look like. Like a game of ping-pong, back and forth and crossing on a daily basis. The added bonus is that as much as the five of us enjoy being together, the same holds true for our husbands and children.
This past August we celebrated my daughter’s bat-mitzvah. At a meeting with the photographer prior to the big day, we discussed the various essential family shots. I wanted pictures of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It then dawned on me that “Playgroup” needed to be added to this list. Like true family, there has been no celebration or milestone that “Playgroup” hasn’t rallied around and rejoiced in with me. They are as excited about the things that bring me joy as I am, a testament of true friendship.
The 7th Annual Collins Dreidel Classic was hosted last week on the seventh night of Hanukkah. It’s an annual Playgroup gathering conceived of and hosted by the Collins family. Its significance among Playgroup over the years has grown. Filled with celebration, competition, pizza (always Mineo’s), trophies, and dreidels, all twenty-four of us know it’s a priority to attend. This night ranks as a highlight occasion each year. The hours fly by as we laugh, eat, and celebrate with a shared sense of connection and warmth.
While Hanukkah celebrates the triumphs of the ancient Maccabee family, for our little Playgroup “family”, this holiday symbolizes the strong bonds we have built that will hopefully last forever. Some day in the not too distant future, our kids will begin embarking on lives of their own. We laugh about how years from now when our kids are adults, each year we will make them travel back home for the Annual Collins Dreidel Classic. I hope that they will. To be part of something this meaningful is a gift to treasure.
To Sister ‘in the Hood readers, thank you so much for your support over the past weeks. With the craziness of winter break, wrapping up end-of the year work projects, and travel, I will be taking a hiatus until after the New Year. See you the first week of 2011. Happy, healthy, and safe New Year to all of you!!!
While I don’t relish offering up my age, let’s just say that this past week commemorates the 45th time that I have celebrated the Festival of Lights. I have witnessed the glow of the Hanukkah menorah on precisely 357 sunsets. I have played dreidel using coins, Jolly Ranchers, and alcohol. As for latkes, I have cooked many variations including zucchini, sweet potato, and carrot, and have done my share of sweet and sour, savory, and cranberry briskets. One year, I made Hanukkah wrapping paper, and another I iced blue and white cut-out cookies. You get the point. At this stage in my life, I had been quite certain that I had exhausted most of the options for putting a new spin on Hanukkah.
While they say “you can’t teach and old dog, new tricks”, I have just learned that this cliché is patently untrue. Two years ago, I joined Jewish Women’s Circle (JWC), a program sponsored by Chabad of Shadyside to bring women together to study and learn in the context of a “girl’s night out” replete with great food, drinks, and lively discussion. Rivkee Rudolph, along with her husband Rabbi Mordi Rudolph, run Chabad of Shadyside. Rivkee is our hostess and comes up with interesting and fun ideas for programming each time we convene.
Last Tuesday we got together to celebrate and learn about Hanukkah. I had glossed over the evite to know that the night’s program had something to do with oil. I assumed we would be learning about the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks, and how at the rededication of the Temple the oil that was found lasted for eight nights instead of one night as expected. While it’s a captivating story full of triumphs and miracles, I can recite it in my sleep. It’s the one story I remember in all of its glory from my Sunday school days.
Once at JWC, I discovered that our lesson regarding oil was that we were about to learn how to make herb-infused olive oil! While Rivkee wove into her cooking demonstration the significance of oil in the story of Hanukkah, as well as the how this holiday symbolizes the triumph of the Jewish soul, she instructed us on how to blend flavorful, fresh herbs and spices into olive oil to create a gourmet delight.
Displayed on Rivkee’s kitchen counter were plates of leafy, fresh herbs ranging from sweet, tender basil, to woodier herbs like oregano and rosemary. There was fresh garlic, black peppercorns, onion flakes, and cracked red pepper. After we chose the greens and spices to our liking to place in our own olive oil carafe, we filled the remaining space with oil that Rivkee had previously cooked on her stove. We each took home our signature olive oils that were equally beautiful and delicious.
For me, this was a novel and fun experience centered around a holiday full of ritual and tradition. Every night, my family has found a new use for this oil. We have used it as a dip for French bread, drizzled it over homemade pizzas, and even used it instead of cooking spray when making scrambled eggs. It has added a zest and richness to our food.
The great surprise of the story of Hanukkah is that the oil lasted much longer than expected. A night at JWC is no different. While the food we share nourishes the body, the camaraderie and connections we make nourish the soul for many nights to come.