P, B and Jay

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A few years ago when money was already tight and we were scaling back on holiday gift giving, my insane husband, Mark, happened upon a giant inflatable polar bear playing “Whack-a-mole” with two little penguins. Like any adoring husband, he thought, “I just have to spend the money and buy this inane decoration for my Jewish wife for Chanukah.”

I remember walking into the house and hearing this loud whirring noise which turned out to be the pump he bought to blow up the whacking polar bear and penguin cubs. This monstrosity was in the center courtyard of our house when I came home and Mark and our two boys just stood there beaming upon my arrival.

“This is a joke, right?” I asked, looking at the giant arcade-like phenomena. Then, realizing that it wasn’t, I tried to lighten up and smile as I queried about the cost of this newly acquired modern art. “We’re Jewish,” I said, “You do know that we don’t celebrate Christmas and I’m really not okay with a huge Christmas display in the middle of our house.” In spite of the red and green holiday scarf and Santa hat adorning the polar bear, Mark argued that it really wasn’t related to Christmas at all and was merely a celebration of wintertime joy. “He’s beating two penguins,” I countered. “There really is no joy in this scenario.”

Mark nicknamed the Antarctic birds “P and B,” and dubbed the big white Ursus “Jay.” While I acknowledged that the names were cute and clever, I couldn’t wait to rid my home of their presence. Finally when the New Year rolled around I insisted on packing up the polar trio and stuffing them into a cabinet in the garage. I admit I agreed to letting them come out again the following year. But truthfully, I had no intention of honoring that accord.

Last year as the holiday season roared in I had a real heart-to-heart with my husband. I told him how sweet it was that he had purchased such a unique gift for me the year before and that I couldn’t think of a single wife who had gotten as unusual a gift as I had received. But I felt very uncomfortable displaying the wondrous gift as I was proud of our heritage and felt like Jewish people needn’t decorate their homes with Yuletide paraphernalia. He was slightly downhearted but understanding as he neatly packed up P, B, and Jay and readied them for their journey to Good Will.

But then an idea came to me. We have a nearby neighborhood that goes all out at Christmas time.  They create a magical winter wonderland and invite a steady stream of visitors to enjoy their extensive fantasyland. We go with the boys every year and had planned to drive through the Christmas oasis that very night.

As our car slowly crept down the sugar-plum laden road,I readied my family to be on the lookout for a suitable home for P,B, and Jay. We knew it the moment we saw it; one house on the street that was lit up brighter than all the others, with a slew of polar bears gleefully interacting with passersby. This was a home where our Arctic creatures would feel happy, chilled and welcomed as part of the family.

We went home and wrote a deeply personal note explaining why we could no longer care for our beloved trio. Like a despondent parent leaving her baby on a neighbor’s doorstep, we waited till the crowds dispersed and snuck back to leave our package and note at the front door of our new host’s home. We felt sad and our hearts were heavy as we said our final goodbyes and departed.

We checked back a few nights later but there was no sign of P, B, and Jay. We wondered if they would ever see the light of Christmas again. It was a painful holiday season as we mourned their loss, all the while remembering the joy they had brought us the year before. I felt guilty and ashamed of giving them up. Perhaps the new family had too many mouths to feed already and had simply tossed P, B, and Jay onto a trash heap without ever even meeting them in full holiday inflatability.

We grieved their loss for months and when this holiday season arrived we all pretended that we had no expectations. I couldn’t actually bring myself to visit the magical street this year. I couldn’t face it if P, B and Jay weren’t there. At least I could live in denial if I stayed away from the street altogether.

My eldest son, Levi, was bolder and insisted on facing off with reality. He went on an evening Christmas light excursion to check on our threesome. I could barely await his return. “Did you see them?” I asked with fervent anticipation. He looked at me with a stone cold stare. Then he slowly raised his phone to my eyes. It was them! They were there! Front and center. P, B, and Jay were alive and well and celebrating Christmas with their polar bear brethren  in the most prominent spot on the front lawn of the house where we had left them .

I was elated. Seriously. I mean, it was truly as if my beloved offspring had been given a second chance at life. I haven’t stopped smiling for weeks. And as we celebrate another year of light and joy, I realize that Holiday miracles are all around. You just have to look in the right places.

What does forgiveness look like?

Tonight marks the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days. Much of the emphasis of the next ten days is on forgiveness. We ask forgiveness from those we have hurt. We ask forgiveness for ourselves for being less than we know we can be. We ask forgiveness of God for our failure to lead good and righteous lives.

I was asked to create a piece of art that illustrated what forgiveness might look like. This is what I came up with.

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What does forgiveness look like?

A broken vase, a treasured gift
from a father who is gone.

My grandfather’s Havdala spice jar,
dropped by a five year old’s inattentive grasp.

The Kiddush cup we got when our first son was born,
mangled in the garbage disposal
as I hurriedly tried to rush through kitchen clean-up.

Broken bits of life that used to shatter my heart.
I chastised myself for their loss.

At first I didn’t know why I saved them in that crate in the garage.
They were painful reminders of moments gone wrong and the
things and people I could never replace.

And then one day I found them and realized
that although they were not whole, as they had once been,
they could live anew, as they now were,
precious pieces of a creative expression.

Entangled within cabinets, picture frames, shelves,
these beloved mementos remind me to forgive, to let go,
to welcome the changes that come sometimes with
carelessness, hurry, and the natural course of our existence.

Forgiveness allows what is broken to become whole.
Art is the process by which those shattered shards come together
to express the imperfect beauty of life.

L’Shana Tova to all.

Resolutions shmesolutions!

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Every day is the beginning of a new year.

I just realized that and Iʼm rather impressed with the depth of that assessment. Why is it that we all wait until December 31st to declare our failures, faults and foibles? I for one have the uncanny ability to notice every flaw about myself on a daily basis. I eat too much chocolate. I yell at my kids. I forget birthdays, flake out on lunch dates, hurt peopleʼs feelings. Itʼs a curse being so self-critical. But at least Iʼm honest.

There also happens to be a silver lining to my day to day fault-finding compulsion. You see, I also have the capacity to start anew, each and every day. And I take full advantage of that capability. In fact, I resign each and every night to love my kids better, to cherish my husband more, to appreciate the simple moments that comprise my all too complicated days.

Waiting for December 31st seems like a colossal waste of time to me. Plus, once a year resolutions are merely a way to set yourself up for failure. If you only go on that diet once every 365 days, youʼre bound to pork out and let yourself down at some point. Then youʼve got to wait another 8 months or 23 pounds (whichever comes first) to start starving yourself again? Thatʼs ridiculous. Iʼd rather enjoy my culinary bender, knowing full well that I can embark on my healthy eating campaign anew the next morrow.

If you act like a jerk on the freeway, cutting someone off either purposely or inadvertently, do you spend the rest of the year following suit until December 31st arrives? Then, and only then, do you pledge to be a better driver, with an improved attitude and kinder disposition? Why not recognize the error of your ways, and correct your rude behavior by the time you get to the next exit?

Or what if you joined a gym as part of your last New Yearʼs resolution and only frequented the joint a few times in January? Should you throw up your arms in defeat and wait until next January to kick your couch potato butt into action? Absurd I say. Go take a walk today, run to the mailbox two or three times, try a free Zoomba class at the Y. Get your body moving any way you can.

So, not that you asked me, hereʼs my suggestion for your 2013 list of New Yearʼs resolutions. Resolve to face yourself in the mirror every morning and not run away from whomever you see. Notice the blemishes, the wrinkles, the age spots. Then challenge yourself to accept who you see, to improve the things you can, and to recognize that weʼre all just a mess of imperfections, trying to do our best and often falling just a little bit short.
Happy New Year.

Happy New Year?

This week, most Jewish people ignored the minor holiday of Tu B’Shvat. Unlike the biggies, like Rosh Hashana, Chanukah and Passover, Tu B’Shvat has always occupied a spot on the sidelines, kind of a red-headed step-child kind of holiday.

In part, it’s because it’s a complex festival that has to do with tithing and farming and a lot of technical “arboreal-related” issues. Most of us think of it as some sort of birthday celebration for the trees. Beyond that, we can’t really see the forest.

I would’ve missed the holiday completely this year had it not been for my 11 year-old son, Levi, who came home from school on a mission. It was 4:00 and I was rushing to get ready and get out of the house by 5.

“Mom,” he started in a determined tone that clued me in immediately that I was in for trouble. “I have to go to the grocery store right now.”

“I’ve already gone shopping today,” I assured him. “I’m sure whatever you need can wait till tomorrow.”

“But it can’t,” he bemoaned. “Tomorrow will be too late.”

I explained calmly that no amount of whining would sway me on this issue and sent him on his way. A few minutes later he re-emerged with a grocery list and a very rational request. He had $15 in tow and announced that he was going to pay for his items himself if I would agree to let Gabi, our nanny, take him to the store. He assured me that they would be back in plenty of time to get Eli, his brother, to Karate.

“Levi,” I finally inquired, “What is so important that can’t wait until tomorrow?”

“I’m making a Tu B’Shvat seder and we don’t have all the items I need.”

Now I believe in consistent discipline. I also believe in sticking to my guns. If I say something, I try very hard to follow through with it. But the requested grocery trip had suddenly taken on a new perspective. Sure it was still inconvenient. But why was I sending my boys to Jewish Day School if I wasn’t going to support the important and thoughtful lessons they were learning? I agreed to the bargain, delayed my dinner date and handed Levi a 20 dollar bill.

About an hour later, Levi called the Seder to order. He had set out bountiful platters of pomegranate seeds, nuts, dates and olives. There were avocados and plums, fruits with inedible peels, seeded berries, pitted fruits, and a few Fig Newtons to stand in for wheat, barley and figs. I was taken aback by the beauty and effort involved in creating this meaningful display.

Then Levi taught me about Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for the trees. He explained the significance of eating each of the food items he’d prepared and told me stories of what the holiday meant spiritually as well as literally and religiously. I have to say I was in awe of his expertise and the facility with which he handled the information. We sat together for nearly an hour, me listening to him, reciting prayers, and even asking follow up questions to gain better understanding of his teachings.

It was an unusual opportunity for me to take off my parental hat and see my son for the bright, thoughtful and passionate person he’s becoming. It is truly an honor to be able to step back and appreciate your child for who he is and what he believes in and cares about.

Sure, we’ll still fight about his forgetting to put his dishes in the dishwasher, and his failing to put away his folded laundry as promised. But in between those minor altercations, I’ll try to remember just how amazing this strong, independent young man is, and how grateful I am for all that he brings to our lives.

Happy New Year, trees!

Sorry, minus the strings

Tonight at sundown marks the beginning of the Jewish holy day, Yom Kippur. It’s also known as the Day of Atonement, where Jews around the globe ask God and their fellow man for forgiveness. We ask to be forgiven for all the failures, indiscretions, and wrongdoings of the past year. We also ask, ahead of time, to be forgiven for all of our upcoming transgressions. It’s like an open acknowledgement that sin is human, and even with the best intentions, we are destined to slip up again, and again, and again.

In some ways, Yom Kippur offers Jews a forgiveness insurance policy. “Please forgive us for all the sins we are bound to commit in the coming year.” We say this as we beat our chests, confessing with heartfelt sincerity, all our regrets from the year that has just passed. It is the humility and acceptance of ourselves as imperfect beings that is inherent in this holiday that I find so compelling.

No matter how sorry we may be, no matter how determined we are to improve our behavior in the future, Judaism recognizes that we will inevitably err anew. So we apologize to all whom we have hurt, and we tell God that we will try to behave better, to be kinder, to act more thoughtfully. But we remind God, or the Universe, or whatever Power we happen to believe in, not to take our declarations and promises too seriously. For our weakness as human beings is to fall short, to let down, to disappoint. But in some ways, it’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What if, just once, we vowed to improve without strings attached? What if we didn’t give ourselves loop holes and excuses that set us up for failure? It’s possible that even with a deeply sincere commitment to do better we would still fall short and disappoint. But maybe, in the striving, we would actually move closer to the truth, goodness and harmony each of us seeks to achieve.

Wishing all of you a day of repentance, self-reflection and enlightenment.