The Interpretation of Values

Note the pen for size. This is not a huge bookshelf.

From the time they were young, my sons interpreted values in a way that suited them best.  In other words, they would take a values lesson and bend it so that it benefited only themselves.

For example, the “Golden Rule”.  Do unto others as you would have done to you.

Most of us interpret this to mean that we should be kind to others, because we want to be treated kindly.  And I do believe that is the intended message.

My children, however, had a completely different interpretation.  They believed that if someone hit you, it was because that person wanted to be hit, and so my sons would hit back.  They explained as much to me when I questioned them.  My heart sank.

“Turn the other cheek,” obviously means that person wants to be hit again on the other side.

These are not my values.  My values are kindness, charity when I can afford it, understanding, tolerance, and the ability to make room for people, even if that means walking away from a person or situation with which I disagree.  My values are to talk things out quietly, listen to one another, find a solution.

I have tried to redirect my son’s interpretations of values, so bring them more in line with my own.  They have resisted at every turn.  It is a rare occasion, and usually the younger son, when thoughtfulness for another person is displayed.  These are not children who gleefully give gifts as I do, more excited to see the look on someone’s face when opening a present than I am to receive a gift.  These are children who are constantly looking for the payoff, “What do I get?”

This month, my younger son asked his brother if he would personalize the bookshelf project the older brother had in class.  This immediately turned into a transaction.  The praise of the younger for the elder’s work was seen as an opportunity to exploit, whereas had I been my older son it would have been an opportunity to surprise my sibling on Christmas morning.  (They still celebrate Christmas, though this is not a “religious” holiday in our home.)  Prices were named, specifications were requested.  No longer was this appreciation and thankfulness, it was capitalism at its most base and vile.

Of course this went poorly.  When the elder completed the project and saw how the younger coveted the shelf, the price went up.  Possibly the price increase was linked to the desire for a new online game purchase price.  Conflict ensued, and escalated swiftly.  Previous debts were called, mathematical ability was called into question, and costs were calculated.

That’s the interesting part.  The elder son was calculating material and labor costs.  The fact is that he acquired none of those costs.  He made the bookshelf as a required project for class.  He had to make it.  He had to etch it, and it made no true difference what was etched, so his brothers request was free as well.  As to the cost of the oak, if anyone paid those it was me, in the form of “materials fees” charged by the school.  At that, it was less than $10, and the elder son was demanding over $30 for the finished project.

Calling in previous debts, the younger son calculated that he should have to pay only $5.50.

I honestly don’t know how this happened.

Where did I go wrong in teaching kindness, sharing, doing for others?  Is the fault mine or are these two particular brains wired in such a way that looking out for Number One is the only way to go?

Again, the younger son is less selfish, less likely to hold back when he could share.  Which is a problem when there is such a power imbalance; he will buy games for his brother with the promise of being paid back, but he never sees the money again.  The younger son worked all summer to build himself a little bank account, and it is mostly depleted with the purchase of games not only for himself, but also in the form of these consistently defaulted loans.  The problem is now how to reinforce the generosity and willingness to help, without teaching him to be a doormat.

Separately, I spoke to each boy.  They are teenagers now, entering society soon, and this is my last chance to try and get through to them.

To the seventeen year old, I explained my disappointment in his decision to sell what could have been a wonderful gift that would have been wildly appreciated.  Instead, it’s a point of contention, causing them both to be angry at one another.  I could not reach him, I was told that he was so angry now that the deal had been broken that he wanted to throw the shelf in a wood chipper.  Then he broke a highlighter by throwing it hard into the floor, and stormed upstairs to slam his door.  Twice.

I called the fifteen year old into my office for a lesson in price comparison and value.  We scanned the sites of custom bookshelves until we found one that was comparable in size.  Quality was questionable, it was most likely mass produced in China, but it was hand painted, and it was the right size.  It cost $20.08 on  I tried to make it clear this was not a lesson in bargaining with his brother, but rather in understanding purchase price and value before buying anything.  He nodded a lot, said, “So, $20 would have been a fair price,” and left.

Communication is 50% interpretation.

I can’t tell you if anyone learned anything.
I can tell you what I hope would happen.  I would like my children to feel compelled by love and compassion to give gifts to one another this month.  I would like to see that shelf wrapped up under the tree, to be opened by my younger son.  I would like the gift inside to foster a sense of thankfulness as well as gratefulness for having such a caring brother.
I would like the younger son to have purchased a gaming gift card for his older brother, and I would like this gift to foster a sense of thankfulness as well as gratefulness for having such a caring brother.  I would like that day to be peaceful, loving, appreciative, and wonderful.  I’d kind of like angels singing and holy light to shine through the windows too, but I won’t push my luck.


A Crisis of Practice

(Reprinted from Blogspot – Jan. 27, 2012)
So some people have asked, “Why do you want to convert to Judaism?” and it’s a fair and valid question.
That was the start of last week’s blog that never happened.  In looking at it again, I understand why.  What I was writing last week is not how I wanted to answer this question.
I guess it’s important to note that I have postponed my conversion date for now.  This is very important to me and I want to convert when I can give it my full attention.  Between school, and various family crises that come and go, I cannot give anything my full attention right now.  Being a mother, I come pretty far down the priority list on whom and what gets my attention.  As much as I would like to have this time and energy for myself, to do the things I know need to be done towards this conversion, it would simply be too selfish to take it.
There is deep irony in this.
The understanding I’ve come to is that there are two major components to Judaism.  One is the ritual component both during services and in one’s own home.  The other is the mitzvah, community component.  There are obviously many other pieces of the picture, but these two seem to me to be the ones that stretch over everything else.  The latter, the mitzvah and community portions, I can do those with some small effort, squeezing time in during school breaks.
I have to admit, however, I am very bad at attempting such things during school.  I get into a sort of class homework family time groove and I forget anything else I may have scheduled; meetings, mitzvahs, workouts.  I often forget when I am low on gasoline in my car during school.  This is a problem.  I anticipate it resolving when the boys are one their own (either an eternity from now or just 4 short years, depending on one’s perspective and the way the wind is blowing) and when I have more control of my own schedule.  In the meantime, I’ve had to forgo classes I sorely wished to attend, I’ve let people down, and I’ve made myself feel miserable for failing.
The former component is where I have the most issues currently.  On one hand, I have the time and the willingness to perform Shabbat rituals at home; I have candles, I have a Kiddush cup, and I can buy Challah each Friday.  But I know I have been doing only part of what is necessary.  I am missing a tray for the Challah, and a Challah cover.  I am missing a hand washing cup.  I still don’t clearly understand the order in which I should do things; I’m not secure in my prayers whether I say them in English or Hebrew.  Perhaps most importantly I am alone in doing these things that bind me to that which I seek to be bound.
Yes, I have spoken to my Rabbi.  There is homework.  I am to host a Shabbat dinner.  That seems simple enough, yet it’s not.  I live quite a ways away from the shul and most of the Congregation members.  My husband, who I love and understand, is neither a religious nor a social being.  His form of Shabbat does not involve hosting.  It involves resting.  Alone.  Or just with me.  This is how Friday night has been for us for ten years.  This is an upheaval of his world I am not sure I feel he deserves just because I want to make official something I’ve felt all my life.  A fellow convert points out that this process we have undertaken is happening to our partners as well as ourselves, and we need to be mindful of this.
There are other logistics; friends who can’t drive at night, if the Rabbi’s attend dinner has to be very early so they can get back to the shul for services, my house is a mess because I am rarely home or free of homework long enough to clean properly, people’s other commitments, my own trepidation at infringing on my husband.  How many people can fit in my kitchen?   I want to have the Challah tray and cover and the hand washing cup in place.
Or are these items just distractions?  I keep wondering at all the accessories I seem to need, and wondering if I have to be much richer before I can be Jewish.  Mezuzahs and tallit and netilat yadiyim! Oh my!  I panic.  I wonder at my own mentality of poverty when I live in a home that is more than comfortable, and have all the other daily things I need.  Yet I deny myself clothes and other items in favor of making sure the rest of the family has their needs met.  My winter wardrobe is all five years old or older, I shudder at buying myself proper shoes because of the expense, and I flat out deny myself “wants” and put off my own “needs” as long as I can.
Including my need to make my affinity for Judaism “official”, my need to validate what’s in my heart as if a dip and a piece of paper will suddenly change everything.  This is not a crisis of faith, it’s a crisis of practice.  Will having a Challah cover make me More Jewish than I feel in my heart?  Did G*d give us these mitzvot to bind us in obedience?  To give us something to cling to when faith is lagging? Are the physical manifestations of faith more important that the faith itself and if so, why?  Can our relationship with G*d evolve in ways that transcend the cups and plates and shawls?  We have the tzitzit to remind us of the mitzvot, but don’t we strive to get to a place beyond where we need reminders?  Don’t we strive to get to a place where mitzvot our not only in our mind and hearts but our entire beings?
I don’t have the answer to these questions, and without the ritual objects I can’t understand what the purpose of the ritual is, truly, by experiencing it with my whole body and my physical actions.  This seems not unlike when my son watched The Weekenders, and saw the ease with which cartoon characters could skateboard, then expected that he too could navigate ramps and do tricks just like them without first learning to balance on the board while rolling on a flat surface.
I think I’ve answered my own questions.
I think it’s time to go shopping.


(Reposted from blogspot – Jan. 13, 2012)
I’ve spent my whole life learning how to eat.  Growing up with a Mom who wasn’t interested in cooking much less forcing a late-in-life child to eat her veggies, I had been raised a spaghetti-tarian.  Before going to school, this was never much of a problem.  I ate at home, and I was free to graze on Kraft American Singles and Apple Jacks as I pleased.  My best friend and next door neighbor would come over, and we would liberally sprinkle sugar on Wonder white bread, roll it up and mash it so the sugar stayed put, then we’d dine on the crunchy goodness of our creations.  It never occurred to me that this wasn’t normal.
In grade school, I was faced with the lunch line.  Alien foods that I’d never tried were spread before me, and I was not interested.  I learned to eat around a lot of things.  I could get chicken noodle soup, for example, and eat around the chunks of meat.  I could eat rolls and butter, and wash it down with Tab.  I don’t remember any of this being an issue for my friends or for the lunch ladies.
I do remember Passover when I was in third grade.  My rolls were replaced with matzo.  When I questioned this phenomenon, it was explained to me that to eat matzo one should smear it with butter and sprinkle it with salt.  For me, this was heaven.  I was disappointed when the week was over and the rolls returned.  My friends assured me that the matzo would be back next year at Passover.  I didn’t know what Passover was, but it had become my favorite time of year.
This was also the time in my life, age eight, when I was aware of this thing called “minorities”.  It was clear to me that since everyone else knew how to eat matzo, and since everyone else knew when and what Passover was, I must be in the minority.  It only made sense.  They shared something in common and I was the outsider.  The rule in my home had always been never to speak of money or religion, so I had no concept of these things whatsoever.  I never connected the word “religion” to attending Sunday school at St. James, and it certainly never occurred to me that a religion could be a minority, or that food and religion could be intertwined.  Minorities were the outsiders, and my experience thus far simply taught me that I was an outsider.
When I was moved to a Catholic school two years later, St. Joseph’s a block and a half from my house, lunches ceased to be an issue.  I was able to walk home for lunch and take as long as I pleased if I was willing to skip recess, which I was.  This was a coed school, there were boys.  I’d had limited and mixed experience with boys, and I wasn’t all that interested.  So I’d eat lunch and then stroll back via the candy store, where I would supplement my spaghetti lunch with Sunkist sugar coated jelly fruit flavored slices.  More sugar crunchy goodness. 
Sugar was the theme of my life, especially when my impish Irish Grandmother had been alive.  She’d had two strokes and was bedridden.  My Grandfather, a true American rags-to-riches story, was in a position to allow them stay home with round the clock nursing care when they grew old and infirm.  They lived directly across the street from my bedroom window, but up in the penthouse apartment.  As we were at the end of a busy thoroughfare, the street was quiet, and I could cross to go visit at any time my mother was willing to watch me from her second floor balcony facing the street.  This delighted my Grandmother who would teach me naughty nursery rhymes, and make me bacon “just right”.  Her kitchen was many times over the size of my Mothers little strip of a room, with a hand crank meat grinder made of steel and stamped with the manufacturer’s name attached to the cupboard, and a shiny silver coated hand towel rack that had four arms on a hinge and could swing in and out independently of one another.  It smelled of the cupboards being painted over too many times, so much so that they would stick closed in the summer humidity of the City.  There was a little table by the window that faced the stove and when she had been healthy enough to cook for me, I’d watch my grandmother’s small frame as she fried the bacon. 
I’d always wanted her to be something she wasn’t.  I wanted her to be the gramma who imparted the wisdom of the ages to me over fresh baked cookies and milk.  Instead she was devilish, taught me nursery rhymes in ways my Mother was sure would get me killed in the streets of New York.  When she became ill, she would harass the Irish nurses who, because of her, formed a group that became a nursing agency providing private home care to those who could afford it.  She fired them with great regularity but they never left.  She became unstable, or maybe more puckish, and would drift back and forth between being present and being senile.  After my Grandfather died, for example, she would ask questions of his whereabouts.  My Mother would sometimes make something up, and sometimes she would remind my Grandmother that he had died.  My Grandmother had random fits of anger, but never at me.  It got to the point where my mother put two statues on the table in the foyer where the elevator opened.  One was a raging hostile bull, one was more demure.  The nurses were instructed to place them according to my grandmothers moods so that my mother could see upon arriving whether she wanted to get out of the elevator and go in to the apartment, or just press the button for the lobby and go home.
When I visited my Grandmother she would ask me to make one of my “special” coffee milkshakes for her.  At first I would make them in one of those old Ovaltine brown plastic cups with a light brown plastic domed lid.  Put the ingredients in and shake until smooth.  Somewhere along the line, I transitioned to a blender which never had the same feel to it.  It felt too much like a short cut.  She had made me bacon herself with her own two hands, standing over the hot stove turning and moving it until it was perfect.  I had been able to return that to her with that plastic cup.  The blender was insincere but the nurses insisted so I complied as it allowed me to be able to make us both a milkshake at the same time.  My special milkshake, as you probably could have guessed, included Haagen Daaz coffee ice cream, a splash of whole milk, and probably a full cup of sugar.  If I didn’t put in enough sugar, my little frail elf of a Grandmother would send it back for more.  If she was trying to irritate my Mother, and she often was, this was not an effective method.
It’s amazing I have teeth.
When I was twelve, it was decided somehow that I would go to summer camp.  Sleepover summer camp for the entire summer.  Of all the glossy brochures laid out before me, Camp Red Wing was not among them.  Yet this camp, set on Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks was the one I chose because one of my playmates in the building also went there.  I had turned down the pretty Swiss chalet style cabins for this place because I knew someone there already.  For many reasons, this was not the best criteria upon which to choose ones living situation for three months.
Food was an immediate issue.  There were rarely dinner choices that were devoid of meat.  Pasta was a rarity.  At this point, rice and potatoes were not a part of my diet, unless the potatoes were French fried and came in a cardboard cup.  We did have short field trips up the road to the general store, and I was convinced by friends that I would not die if I ate Freihofers chocolate chip cookies that were for sale there.  This proved to be true.  In fact, Freihofers chocolate chip cookies were a form of heaven.  I’m willing to bet they still are, but at the time I had a new addition to my diet.  In the mess hall though, I ate a lot of bread and butter that summer, and the following two summers that I attended camp in the mountains.  
My second year at camp, their nutritionist called me aside to discuss my eating habits.  She told me that I needed a balanced diet, and that without protein from meat I would not be healthy.  Somehow I knew by then that my hair and nails were the result of protein, and I had a full head of thick wavy hair down past my waist.  My nails, I showed her, were also thick and strong.  She shook her head and gave up on me.
The third year they sent a bill to my mother in September charging her for the additional loaves of bread they had allegedly had to purchase because of my diet.  It didn’t take me long to point out that they had probably saved a ton of money on meat, which is how my mother responded to their demands.  By then I was pretty much done with that camp and those people and did not return for the fourth and final year.
I was now back in a private school, five miles from our apartment, a trip that prohibited going home for lunch .  At this Quaker school, I somehow always managed to find something in the lunch line, always supplementing with two cartons of milk which had to be approved by my Mother due to the additional cost.  For as few items as I ate, I always seems to be incurring additional cost.  Soon it was a possibility to leave the school building with my Mother’s permission, so I would go with friends to Joe’s coffee shop on the corner to eat toasted bagels with butter, or grilled cheese and French fries with a thick chocolate milkshake – devoid of an added cup of sugar.
In the summer after high school, reunited with my best friend after her family had moved to Chicago, I learned to eat pizza.  I also learned to eat some vegetables.   And in my subconscious Jewish mind I was starting to understand this treatment of food called “kosher”.  I was initially told that kosher food was any food blessed by a Rabbi, which even at the time seemed frivolous and like an oversimplification.  Now I knew what Passover was, and why people eat matzo, and I was very moved by the story.  These were not the same Bible stories I’d learn at St. James.  They were far more human somehow.
Kosher food aside, I was headed for college, knowing that once again I’d be facing the cafeteria line.  A friend from high school had a girlfriend who would be attending my same college, and she was a vegetarian, and very health minded.  I hooked up with Michelle and she promised to teach me how to eat like a real person, and still remain vegetarian.  Thankfully, the college had two cafeteria lines, the regular one, and the vegetarian one in the back.  Hooray for hippie colleges!  Michelle’s first task was to rid me of white bread, over processed pasta, and butter.  These things were replaced with whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, soy sauce and parmesan cheese, then again with Dr. Bronner’s sauce and rennetless cheese.  We worked on food combinations, and balancing fruits and vegetables I was willing to eat.  She introduced me to rice.  I ate potatoes that were not in a cardboard cup.  Then she became a fanatic. 
Michelle was changing her own diet in more extreme ways, aiming at becoming like the guru she had read about who lived on a mountain top and was rumored to subsist entirely on air via a special method of breathing that was supposed to bring him all the nutrients he would need.  Michelle cut out processed foods.  Then she cut out cooked foods, becoming a “fresh food-a-tarian”.  Her next step would be to only consume liquids.  I departed from her dietary advice at this point.  A year later her skin was as pale and thin as rice paper, she was so gaunt I wondered how she could walk, but she still professed that this was the way to go and believed she was healthy.
Years later, here I am, converting to Judaism, far more aware of kosher dietary rules and my own health.  When talking with my Rabbi about being kosher, there weren’t many places I needed to change anything.  We decided that I should try to become “eco-kosher” meaning that I will try to eat foods that are not only grown responsibly, but are also processed and packaged responsibly.  Again, I try to be fairly aware of these things normally, but I made a more conscious effort nonetheless.  It helps a lot that I have moved to Colorado where food is grown all around me and farmer’s markets are abundant.  Also as I have grown in my awareness of food, Whole Foods Market has grown along side of me, making certain things much easier to acquire.
I still eat way too much pasta, I never really fully developed that special taste for whole wheat spaghetti, and the Dr. Bronner’s is long gone, but there are so many alternatives now that it’s not much of a problem.  I confess that my fruit intake is still pathetic.  The two fruits I am most likely to eat are apples and oranges.  My vegetable intake is dependent on my laziness quotient.  It’s a lot of chopping and dicing for one meal.  Give me a good salad bar any day and I am perfectly happy, but making my own salad is another story that usually ends with mushy gushy vegetables at the bottom of the produce drawer of my refrigerator.
Yet I persist.  I’m closing in on 50, I’ve had two children, and I am definitely soft around the middle, more so than is healthy, though my dietary choices are so limited.  I like food, and I love pasta.  Being kosher and vegetarian is easy.  Being healthy, not so much.  My relationship with food is not unlike my relationship to money; seriously messed up.  I think food was subliminally included in my Mother’s list of taboo conversations.  At least I’ve sorted out the religion thing.  I’m a third of the way there!
This year begins a new relationship with food.  This relationship will involve portion control, a return to some of the things Michelle taught me, continued eco-kosher choices and an awareness of what my body actually needs.  Being as sedentary as I have been, it hasn’t needed much.  If I want to exercise and regain muscle, my body will require more.  2012 begins with charts and graphs and careful tracking.  I’m not about to start some fad 500 calorie liquid diet or starve myself.  But I am going to be aware of how much I move, and how that relates to what I put into my body.  I think I am closer than ever to knowing how to eat properly.  And it only took 5 decades.

My First Hanukkah

(Reprinted from Blogpost – Jan. 7, 2012)

Maybe the first step is simply deciding how to spell Hanukkah, Chanukah, Chanukka, Chanukha, and once that is accomplished one can set to making latkes.  Boxed potato pancakes, be they Streitts or Manicheivetz  or whomever, are the first mistake I made this season.  Those things are horrible.  I don’t know what they are supposed to be, but potato pancakes they are not.
I regained composure, brushed myself off, and looked in the fridge.  As suspected I had some pre-shredded store bought potatoes.  Not wanting to waste food, I combined the boxed stuff as a base, with the potato shreds for texture.  Not elegant by any stretch of the imagination.  My sons told me that the result was good, tasted like fast food tater tots.  I think that was supposed to be a compliment.  Or maybe the homemade applesauce a member of the shul had given me saved them.
Pushing on, I searched a dozen recipes, talked to friends who directed me toward more recipes, and then I figured out exactly what to do!  I threw out all the recipes.
Growing up in New York City, raised by a single Mom who was also an alcoholic and a narcissist, I didn’t learn how to cook.  Homemaking was not at the top of my Mothers priority list, likely it wasn’t there at all ever.  She was raised with hired help; a Japanese man and wife slash chef and maid duo.  Not that she ate at home much, the family photos I inherited show her at the “21” Club, the Waldorf Astoria, Giovanni’s.  There are no photographs of Mom slaving over a hot stove creating a savory meal for her family.  No Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving poses over the perfectly done turkey.  Mom was the Queen of having her meals brought to her, just the right temperature and seasoned to perfection.
She did cook for me.  Sort of.  I was her last child, born 20 years to the month after her first child.  She had lived through the “Eat your lima beans!” phase of motherhood once, and was absolutely not interested in living through it again.  Mealtime went like this: “What would you like for dinner?” “’Sketti.”  “Sketti it is!”  And so from the time I could speak and eat solid foods until I entered college, my diet consisted of spaghetti with butter and salt.  No red sauce.  No meat whatsoever.
The list of foods I ate is far easier to list than the list of what I didn’t eat.  Dinner was spaghetti, and that was that.  For the rest of my meals, I had to fend for myself.  Breakfast cereals were Sugar Pops, Frosted Flakes, Apples Jacks, Froot Loops, with sugar sprinkled on top and whole milk.  Lunch was Kraft American cheese singles on white bread.  If she felt up to it, Mom would peel and slice cucumbers for me.  At restaurants, I might try a hearts-of-iceburg salad with salt.  I was even picky about my candy, choosing only Juicy Fruit gum or Nestles chocolate bars at Halloween and giving my best friend and next door neighbor everything else.
That same friend convinced me to try cheese pizza the year we worked on the Jersey Shore painting temporary tattoos.  I had been living on cheese sandwiches and French Fries at the diner up the block, or corn on the cob at the stand near the stripper dance club when she finally convinced me that pizza wouldn’t kill me.  It took me the rest of the summer, on nibble at a time, to finally be able to eat an entire slice of pizza on my own in one sitting.  I was so proud!  Eighteen years old and I could eat pizza!
To return to the latkes, as I threw out the recipes, I knew I was entering new territory.  Cooking from scratch.  I’d read enough from the experts to glean the basic ingredients were potatoes, salt, pepper, eggs, and way too much peanut oil.  Previous “from scratch” recipes had some limited success, but were mainly one trick ponies based around the béchamel sauce from The Joy of Cooking.  Thanks to my friend and her sister my vegetable repertoire had grown to include carrots, broccoli, snap peas, green beans, onions and a few others.  In college we had on campus apartments where I lived with vegetarians and we took turns makes stir-fry for dinner each night.  But latkes…and ethnic food from scratch.  Was I brave enough to take this on?
Armed with my hand-me-down knock-off Cuisineart food processor, a basic knowledge of what needed to be included, and my super huge Pampered Chef skillet full of peanut oil, I set too work.
Of all the things Jewish I’d experienced in New York growing up, latkes were not among the list.  In third grade I learned about matzohs on Passover, and the school lunch line offered them with butter and salt.  I was hooked.  Chicken noodle soup with matzoh balls, I ate around the foreign bodies and stuck to the noodles and broth.  Hanukkah candles and the nursery school story of 3 soldiers holding off a hoard of Greek soldiers to protect the Temple with only a one day supply of oil that turned into eight days of light was familiar to me.  Yes, I have since been corrected with the historical accounts of the Macabbees, but the story is still magical to me.
Now, it was just me and this culinary oddity of fried potatoes held together with egg and mashed matzos.  I’d already made my mistakes before Hanukkah had officially begun, and they weren’t inedible.  Perhaps I was invincible.  Perhaps these failures gave me confidence that I was on the right track.  My younger son, Thing 2, offered to help, as he was by now invested in yummy potato pancake goodness and convinced of the latke-applesauce marriage.  We peeled and shredded and mixed while the oil was heating.
I forgot to light the hanukkiah that night.  In fact, I forgot most nights, even after we had spoken of staring into the candlelight on Saturday of Torah study during the holiday.  For one thing, the hanukkiah is supposed to go in my window and shine the light out into the world.  I have a real wax candle and flame hanukkiah, and also two insane dogs, two cats, two teen boys and a pyrophobic spouse.  Candles on the windowsill are not an option.  And electric hanukkiah is on the list along with a lot of other Jewish paraphernalia from a challah cover to a tallit or Jewish prayer shawl.
I did not, however, forget to soak up the time with my evangelical Christian-turned-atheist son.  I took pictures of him holding up a handful of raw potato mixture as he growled “Brains!” in his best zombie voice, and then frying the pancakes at the stove.
I’m not Jewish yet, this is all practice, I reminded myself.  The whole thing this year has been practice.  I’m getting better.
In fact, I am getting better.  That batch was definitely the best batch of latkes I’d made.  They were thick, crispy on the outside and soft and warm on the inside.  We’d long since run out of homemade applesauce and were back to the Motts of my childhood, with the new world “All Natural” label of my son’s childhood.  And I made them without being taught, without a recipe, without help from a Jewish Grandmother.  Not bad for a practicing to-be-a Jew.


(Reprinted from blogspot post – dec. 30, 2011)

Each Sunday when I was small, my Mother and my Grandparents and I would attend services at St. James Episcopal church on Park Avenue in New York City.  To me it seemed like a gigantic church, seating for hundreds of people, and each Sunday hundreds of people filled the seats.  I learned how to read music by following along in the hymnal, figured out for myself that the numbers on the board corresponded to the books in front of me, and I was allowed to place the envelope in the collection plate when it came around.  I felt I was doing good deeds, giving money to poor and starving children around the world.
At a certain point in the service, I would join the other children in a line to the Sunday school room to play with the wooden kitchen set or the dolls.  This room is where I developed such a pathological dislike for the smell of Play-Doh that when I had children of my own I simply could not abide the stuff in my own home.  After Sunday school, I would cross the six lanes of Park Avenue and join my Mother in the coffee shop that faced the massive granite staircase of the church.  There I would eat French toast as she drank coffee and read the Times. 

At some point in a girls life, she begins to reach certain theological and just plain logical milestones.  For one, it was time for me to attend Confirmation classes in readiness for my own confirmation as a young Episcopalian lady.  For another, it became clear that my Mother didn’t stay for services when I went to Sunday school, she left when I did and spent that remaining hour in the coffee shop.  I must have been ten years old though the age is fuzzy to my memory for several reasons.  For one thing, when I was ten I also ended up, through a twist of economic fate, leaving my lovely private all girls school for a coed parochial Catholic school in my neighborhood.  I am sure of that age.  However, that would also be the age that our Confirmation class went on a retreat to some camp in the wilderness. My Confirmation class mates all sneaked out to the woods to smoke pot and drink booze stolen from their parents liquor cabinets.  I was young enough to be appalled rather than feel left out.  After all, this was our religious retreat.  This was an event dedicated to something holy.  How could these other kids be treating the experience with such disrespect?

The weekend ended with a tour of the church, where we were guided through the sanctuary and the art work was explained to us.  When we got to the front of the pews, our instructor pointed skyward to the top of the three story high pillars.  Up there, we were told, the pillars were encrusted in real gold leaf that had to be replaced every two to three years.  “Real gold leaf” was impressed upon us I’m sure to imbue in us a feeling of awe at the beauty of the place.  For me, it caused a crisis of faith.  Into my young mind popped the image of the gold collection plates with their thick burgundy velvet liners at the bottom.  Immediately I wondered if the money I had thrown into that plate every week had been spent not on starving naked children in faraway lands, but rather on the ornamentation of pillars, statues and stained glass.  Not only was I disappointed in my classmates, I was disappointed in my church.  It was devastating.

And then it was time for the parents to pick up their freshly anointed children, full of fresh air and godliness.  One by one the children were hugged, their suitcases packed into taxi cabs or limousines to be whisked back to the comfort of their own beds.  Soon there were only a few of us left, then only two of us, then I stood alone on the steps of St. James church on Park Avenue.  I stood and waited, looking for my Mothers face in the windows of every yellow cab or shiny black sedan.  None of them stopped, after all it was a weekday and no one was going to church.  I finally went inside and begged the reluctant secretary to call my home.  There was no answer, this was in the time before answering machines.  I simply listened to the phone ring, picturing it on my mothers desk in the entry to the apartment, listening to the ringing as it filled that apartment from the kitchen, through the living room, down the hall past my room, into her dressing room, and finally to her bedroom where she had another extension.  No one answered.  The day was turning into evening, and the secretary was closing the office.

I was a ten year old girl with a huge pink paisley suitcase purchased at Saks Fifth Avenue, and I was alone in New York City in the twilight.  I had no money for a cab, and the secretary had declined my request for cab fare (they must have been saving for a new statue of Mary) and I had only a vague direction of home.  With a sense of resolve born of complete hopelessness, I began lugging my suitcase northward up the avenue.  Ten year old girls in New York City are already quite aware of what the implications of being a girl with a suitcase alone in the city could mean.  I was as wary as I was weary.  I had to lean away from the hand holding the suitcase to keep the thing from scraping on the sidewalk.  I had no idea where my Mother was or why she wasn’t picking me up.  Surely she knew when the retreat was over.  Surely she missed me.

I trudged onward, occasionally switching the suitcase from one hand to the other and counterbalancing with my entire body.  I was getting hungry and I had been thirsty almost from the start.  I stopped to search my pockets and my bag for any loose change or bills I might have forgotten having.  I came up with enough money for a medium order of French fries and set my sights on the Burger King at the west end of my street.  When I finally reached the place, I laid out my coins and ordered a medium fries and a large ice water.

I suppose a girl hits an age where business logic becomes apparent as well.

I was told that they could not give me a large water.  The cups, it seems, are directly related to inventory, so I could buy the cup at the regular soda price and they could fill it with ice water, but they couldn’t give it to me for free.  However, they could give me a tiny Dixie cup of water and I could ask for as many refills as I wished to have.  I was close enough to home that I decided that was too ridiculous and trudged on.

I don’t know where my Mother was, or if I ever found out I don’t remember.

I did, when she materialized again, tell her that I was absolutely not intending to be confirmed at that Church or any other church, citing the drinking and smoking of my peers.  She didn’t push the issue.  I don’t think we ever went back to St. James, my grandparents had already passed away and I was aware we had gone to church in the first place to appease my Grandfather.  I know I never saw those kids again and I couldn’t name one of them now if I tried.  I feel certain that revisiting that church would cause me to find it smaller and emptier than the picture memories I hold in my head.  I did miss my Sunday morning French toast breakfasts by the picture window overlooking Park Avenue.

It seems clear now though, that this was my first stumble on what was to be a long road toward faith and toward G*d.  First I had to fall out of those huge ornate doors and down those worn steps.  Before I could find my way, I had to discover that I was lost.

Welcome to the world of a Chimera