Things are definitely different here in Washington state. If you follow the news, you will consistently read about Seattle as one of the strongest and fastest growing Jewish communities in the country. I have little reason to doubt this fact. Except that unless I’m at our wonderful new temple in North Seattle, I could swing dozens of dead cats and never hit a single member of our tribe.
We currently live about 20 minutes North of the city in a suburb at the tip of Lake Washington known as Kenmore. My kids have no Jewish friends at school, I haven’t seen a single home with a Mezuzah on the doorpost in our neighborhood, and I can’t find a decent challah within 20 miles of my front door.
I’m not exactly complaining. But it’s awfully weird for this North Shore Chicago girl who spent the last two decades in Los Angeles and Scottsdale surrounded by plenty of Jewish brethren to be living amongst all of these lovely people, most of whom have never even met a Jew. My oldest son, Levi, who is deeply entrenched in Judaism, torah and spirituality has mentioned to me several times that he feels kind of weird even telling kids at school about his Judaism because he’s always met with strange looks and perplexed stares whenever he mentions his religious heritage.
Please understand that we have in no way met with unkindness or religious intolerance in any way. Our neighbors are civil and have spoken to us on at least one or two occasions. But they’re not busting down our door with plates of great Aunt Sofie’s mandelbread or a sample of Grandma Sarah’s famous rugelach.
That being said, Levi loves his new High School. In part, this is due to the outstanding culinary arts program that he managed to earn a spot in as the only sophomore ever admitted. His culinary arts teacher is an amazing chef, teacher and yes, Iron Chef America winner. We’ve even talked about having her and the students cater my younger son, Eli’s, upcoming Oneg Shabbat Bar Mitzvah luncheon at the temple this March.
But the other day, Levi came home in a state of utter delight and could barely contain his excitement long enough to tell us why he was so elated. He explained that there was a new class competition in culinary. Each student would get to choose one kitchen appliance for the upcoming challenge and would have to prepare a specified dish with their appliance. Levi immediately began gunning for the food processor. But after picking numbers from a chef hat, he ended up being the last student to choose his appliance. “I knew there was no way I was going to get the food processor,” He told us sadly.
The other appliances included a blender, a Kitchen Aide, a waffle iron, a deli slicer and several other typical kitchen helpers. “But somehow,” Levi offered, “No one picked the food processor. I was absolutely last and I got it! Can you believe that?”
“No one picked the food processor?” I asked incredulously. “That’s really bizarre. That doesn’t make any sense. I would’ve thought the food processor would’ve been the first to be snatched up.” “I know,” he said with a huge smile plastered across his face. “I never knew I was this lucky. And guess what else? You will never believe what recipe I got with it.”
“What?” My husband, Mark, asked with intense curiosity. Levi cheerfully replied, “Dad, it’s our favorite thing to make in the food processor! You’ll never believe it. Guess! You have to guess.”
“Our favorite thing to make in the food processor?” repeated Mark. “Um…potato pancakes?”
“Not just potato pancakes,” chirped Levi, “But latkes! Actual latkes! That’s what the recipe said. Isn’t that amazing!”
Now comes the moment where I regret lacking any internal editing programs to stop my mouth from speaking exactly what my brain thinks up. “Well, obviously you got the food processor because no one else even knew what a latke was.”
Both Levi and Mark looked at me in horror. “Mom,” Levi said, “That’s ridiculous. Who doesn’t know what a latke is?” Mark was smiling a knowing smile, “Yeah hon, who doesn’t know what a latke is?”
“Um…you’re right, Leves,” I stammered. “Forget I said that. You just got…lucky, incredibly lucky!
Look, I’m Jewish. I have no identity problems. I’m not self-loathing (at least not for my religious preferences). I was raised Conservative with one set of Orthodox grandparents. We keep kosher, fervently observe all Jewish holidays and celebrate Shabbat every week.
But I have to confess something. I find tremendous comfort in Christian rock music. Whenever I say that out load, my Jewish friends, family and colleagues are shocked and dismayed. “You’re kidding, right?” is the most frequent response I encounter. But it’s the truth and I’m not afraid to say it.
Sure there are plenty of songs to which I don’t relate. I check out at the explicit Jesus references and any talk about “our father who died for our sins.” But most of it is completely aligned with our own Jewish spiritual philosophy. Songs about “hanging on,” “believing,” “never giving up,” I can’t see those as heretical or anti-Jewish in any way.
My affinity for Christian music bothers by family — a lot. I try to play it in the car sometimes when I’m shuffling the kids to and from clubs, appointments and Hebrew school. I think the positive, uplifting messages will seep into their unconsciousness and improve long term coping skills as they inevitably meet with obstacles and disappointments in life. That’s all well and good until an unsuspected reference to our savior and king surfaces. Then the jig is up. “Mom, will you stop with the Christian music. It’s just weird, OK?”
Then they inevitably remind me of my 2007 trip to Sedona when they were 7 and almost four. It was New Year’s Eve and I was driving with the boys to meet some friends for the holiday. It was cold and snowy but I had plenty of daylight and I knew it was a relatively short trip. Of course once it started to get dark, I realized I’d been driving for over three hours and that I might have made a bum turn or taken a wrong exit.
When I finally found a safe spot to pull over, I was slightly hysterical and began sobbing into the steering wheel. As we sat there in the cold car somewhere on the side of a road, me weeping and the boys growing ever more anxious, there was a sudden tapping on my window. I looked up and saw the kindly countenance of a woman motioning to me to roll down the window. I did so and she asked me if I was okay. I admitted between whimpers that I was not. “I’m trying to get to Sedona,” I sniffled. “But we’re lost, and I have no idea where we are.”
She took my hands into hers and said, “May I pray to Jesus with you?” My boys watched with wide eyes as I emphatically said, “Yes!” Then she offered up a prayer to the big guy asking for him to help us find our way and to protect us on our journey. She pointed me towards a neighboring town which I later learned was Strawberry, AZ and with renewed hope and vitality I set out to find our path to salvation.
I was able to get us turned around and back on the road and managed to successfully make it to our cabin in the woods just slightly late for dinner. But the more people to whom I related my redemption tale, the more I was met with uncertain stares and stifled laughter. “What?” I said to friends and family whom I could tell were holding themselves back from full throttled chortling at my experience. “I got where I needed to go. That’s all I’m sayin’.”
As we move ever closer to the holiday season this year, I encourage all to count blessings, believe in miracles, and stay open to inspiration, from wherever it may come.
Passover is the time of year when we Jews celebrate the Exodus from Egypt. We were slaves and then became free people. That’s pretty monumental and it took a lot of wandering, a lot of soul searching and a lot of self-doubt. There were those who yearned to go back to Egypt, because that was as least a known world, a familiar fate. Sure it was awful. But like a prisoner who recommits a crime on the eve of his parole, three hots and a cot can be pretty inviting when you’re contemplating a life of self awareness, choice and independent thinking.
We are supposed to tell the story of Passover to our children. Well, we do that — annually. By now, you’d think they’d pretty much have it down pat. But here we go, we’re gonna tell it …again and again and again. Why is that? What is to be gleaned in the story this year, this telling?
I think I might have an answer. I think this year, with all that has transpired within my world, I think maybe I finally get this Passover story. Freedom is a double edged sword. Freedom brings joy and lightness. It also brings self doubt, fear, even anguish.
This year we have found ourselves free from the constraints of a harsh, abusive work relationship. Becoming free was painful. We suffered intense betrayals, deep anguish and still find ourselves walking the halls in the wee hours of the night because self doubt and worry keep us from restful sleep. We wonder how we will survive on our own, without the punishing security we’d grown used to. How will we take care of our children? How will we maintain our standing in the community?
Freedom doesn’t come easily. It is terrifying. I’ve always wondered how my Jewish ancestors would have been anything but overjoyed as they raced away from Pharaoh and the shackles that enslaved them for decades. Yet here we stand, naked, unprotected from the elements, and we are afraid.
We spent less time preparing for Passover this year. In the scheme of things, Passover prep had to take a back seat. We are too busy struggling to get back on our feet, find solid ground and begin to remake our lives as free people. I feel guilty about my lack of focus this year. But the truth is, the rituals, the foods, the seder, they all seems less important right now. Because I get it. I get why we do all of it. We have been “gifted” with an opportunity to feel the truth of an Exodus from slavery. That’s why we eat special foods, say special prayers and thank G-d for the opportunity to experience freedom.
I think I could skip all the rituals entirely this year. But we wont. We have family to celebrate our new found freedom with. We have children to whom we must continue to tell the story. We have each other, sometimes frightened, sometimes boldly empowered, and together we will journey forward through the uncertainty and fear.
We step into a new world of freedom, choice and self direction this year. We graciously acknowledge the family and friendships that have stood by our side through our imprisonment and propped up our spirits as we reluctantly fled from our captors.
With freedom comes responsibility; the burden to live well, to offer the best of who we are to everyone we meet, to appreciate each and every kindness afforded us. And so to all of you whose kind words, thoughtful deeds and deep love and support have strengthened and sustained us this Passover season, we thank you for making our path easier to navigate and our road more clearly defined.
We admit that the uncertainty remains scary and unsettling. But like our ancestors, going back is not a choice. We must keep our eyes focused ahead, our hearts open and our faith deeply in tact. For it is only with clear vision, love and trust, that we will emerge at the border of a promised land and will retain the insight, courage and readiness to venture into it as free souls who understand the perils of slavery and appreciate the power of liberty.
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.
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.