Friday, January 7, 2011

Mark the Moment

Shabbat #1 - Just Us.

Menu: Filet of Beef with Tomato, Red Onion and Basil Salad, "Mock" Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Toby's Challah (because it "warms the cockles of my Jewish heart" says Steve even though we are trying to cut carbs), Fresh Fruit

What I Learned:

In 2006 we toured Israel with the American Jewish Committee. Sitting at a cramped cafeteria table on a kibbutz where the tour had stopped for lunch my law school classmate and fellow traveler told me that she was a convert. Really? It was like learning for the first time that a friend had delivered a baby with out an epidural. Or got Botox. Of course I knew it could be done, I just had never known anyone in my own circle that had actually, well, done it. She went on to tell me that she had even visited a mikvah to, in her words, to "mark the moment." Having just spent several days traveling across Israel I was more than a little familiar with the mikvah -- the sacred bath -- though many I had recently witnessed were little more than deep holes in the ground of ancient ruins. I'm sure my mouth dropped wide open when she told me, as I tried to imagine this blond haired, green-eyed girl, dressed in designer jeans in the middle of the desert slipping into something so mysterious.

That stuck with me. Not just the visual, but her reason. The idea of marking the moment of a significant decision. I vowed that if I ever converted, which was far from my mind at the time, I would visit the mikvah too.

Having been to the mikvah, I am still of the opinion that it is pretty darn mysterious and a wee bit intimidating, but well worth the effort. I'm not so convinced, however, that dipping into the mikvah somehow made me a better or more "real" Jew. Just like my wedding -- the vows, the chuppah, the breaking of the glass -- didn't magically make me a better wife.

What those moments did do -- the mikvah and the wedding -- was create a very real and tangible reminder of what I had committed to do.

I've never been one to make a hasty decision. It's as much of a curse as a blessing. Left to my on vices, I would happily stand in the canned soup aisle for a good 15 minutes carefully studying the price, calorie and sodium content of each offering before carefully placing my selection into my basket and pushing on.

Likewise, it was not without serious thought, contemplation, risk assessment and more than a little soul searching that I chose to get married and later convert. And even with all of that consternation I still have moments of doubt, disconnection and, well, buyers remorse. Who doesn't? Should I have gotten the tomato and basil instead of the creamy tomato? Then I settle myself by recalling all of the thought that went into my decision and reminding myself that I am anything but hasty. I think back to those moments ... the one's I marked ... when my choice was made and have faith in myself that it was the right one.

Each New Year's Eve I am always more than a little ready to move on to what's next. This year more than ever. Sure, I'd made my resolutions. I'm one of those. A list maker. But I needed something more. Something to mark the moment.

On that same trip to Israel in 2005, Steve and I purchased a mezuzah our last day in Jerusalem. We brought it home and Steve dutifully hung it on our door, carefully following the directions for blessing the tiny little scroll that I got from the rabbi at our local judaica shop.

This tiny metal box would be my solution for marking our moment -- renewal for 2011.

I checked with my favorite source for hints on Jewish living -- Anita Diamant -- and then, sadly, wikipedia. Was I responsible for some yearly care and feeding of our mezuzah that I could somehow use to mark the moment? Like rotating the tires on my car or vacuuming the coils of the refrigerator -- neither of which I did on any sort of regular basis? Anita was not much help. Wiki told me it should be examined by a "reliable scribe" twice every seven years. So left to my own vices I came up with my own way to mark the moment. Maybe something that will become a tradition at our house.

Before dinner we gathered the kids, lifting each to see the mezuzah nailed to the front door. Something they had passed by thousands of times in their young lives, yet probably never noticed. And something I had never pointed out to them. I explained to them where it came from and what it meant. Then I gave them each a soft rag to carefully dust the metal box. Steve blessed the mezuzah repeating the words he had said six years ago. We passed our challah and then we each touched the mezuzah and repeated together:

May our house be a place of holiness, by welcoming guests, in the bonds of family, with deeds of loving kindess, gifts of tzedakah, and words of Torah.

Sure. The flaking paint did not magically disappear and tulips did not sprout from the frozen ground, but we marked a moment of renewal. Renewed commitment that our home will always be a place of peace and gratitude no matter what 2011 serves up.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

It's A Wrap - A Summary of Our Year

January 31st marked the final Shabbat in our “Year (Or More) of Shabbats” odyssey. While expressing my feelings through my writing has always come fairly easy to me I now find it hard to put to paper exactly how much this experience has changed our life. Nonetheless, in gratitude to all of you who have shared a meal with us, followed the blog, or otherwise supported and encouraged us this is my best effort to sum up our experience.

The Numbers.

Our family slowed down to celebrate Shabbat every week in 2010. We hosted 45 different families for dinner in our home and served 166 people. The dinners included 45 unique menus including an entrĂ©e each week that I had never cooked before and well over 100 different recipes. Ben collected 71 cans of food which he delivered to the Food Pantry at our synagogue Central Reform Congregation. I chronicled our experience on a website ( that had over 4000 visitors and 8000 page views from readers all over the world including Israel, Germany, Japan, South Africa, Austria, France, Iceland, Italy and Canada. I started a Facebook Group called ONE dedicated to families committed to having at least one dinner once a week for one year. 106 families – Jewish and not – from across the country joined.

I also broke three wine glasses and one gravy boat and stopped the sink up twice.

What We Learned.

Ben and Sarah knew they were Jewish before we started all of this, but I think they learned more about what that really means. Not only did they learn to recite the prayers, but they learned about the meaning and purpose. They learned about Jewish traditions and created more than a few of their own. They learned to share their table and their toys. They learned that not everyone is Jewish and without knowing it they learned to share their religion and accept and embrace the differences in others. I tried to teach them that while our religion is filled with joyous traditions and celebrations it is also filled with responsibility -- responsibility for showing gratitude and forgiveness and working for peace and repair of the world. Above all, I hope they learned that life requires resilience and that when things are difficult or seemingly impossible; they must pick themselves up by their bootstraps, raise their heads, have faith and march on.

While I can’t speak for Steve, I hope he learned that he is not defined by a moment and that the most important opinions are those of his family, his wife and particularly his children. I think he learned that our family works better when we take time to slow down each week and connect. I watched him develop a renewed Jewish identity that now expands far beyond his previous observance of a handful of holidays. Each week I saw his worries subside – even if only temporarily – as we filled our home and our hearts with new and old friends.

I learned that I need my faith. It is a source of strength -- second only to my children -- that has helped me forgive and has led me to find goodness and gratitude in even the most difficult situations. My faith brought 166 people into my home, each of whom put us one step closer to moving beyond the past. My faith also helped me find a place of quiet contemplation that centered me when the world spun out of control.

I learned that I have a voice. At the start of this project, I did not intend to share what I wrote with anyone other than my family and the evening’s guests; partially because I’ve never been one to share my struggles, but mostly because I figured it just wasn’t all that interesting. I have been awed, humbled and downright dumbstruck by the support I have received from people who have read the blog and in many cases taken the time to tell me personally or in letters that my words were meaningful. I can promise you that the writing has been far more meaningful and cathartic to me.

Opening my home for dinner guests nearly every week made it difficult if not impossible to conceal my shortcomings – not just in my cooking, but in my parenting, housekeeping and a myriad of other insecurities. I learned that the only one that seems to care (or even notice) these shortcomings is me so I’ve let many of them go. I’ve learned that perfection is neither possible nor desirable and I’ve found that it’s much more satisfying to just focus on being real.

Finally, I’ve learned that I am far more resilient than I ever believed I could be. Instead of telling myself it can’t get worse (because it might) I’ve learned to make the best of the hand I am dealt no matter what it is. I’ve learned that harboring bitterness takes a lot more energy than picking up and moving on. I’ve learned what makes me happy.

And I learned I’m a damn good cook.

What’s Next.

Our weekly dinners will continue indefinitely. They have become a part of who we are as a family. And while I do not plan to break the record of 45 different families for 2011, I do plan to invite new and old friends to share Shabbat dinner with us on a regular basis. I plan to continue to write about our experience and will focus on completing some unfinished entries from 2010 and additional entries for 2011. I plan to bind the entire blog into a book for my children and a treasure for myself of the 365 days that will forever be known as “The Year (Or More) of Shabbats.”

Thank You.

Thanks to all of the families – some of whom were practically strangers – who fearlessly shared a meal with us. Many of you were not Jewish, had no idea what Shabbat was, but nonetheless risked bringing your small children to an unfamiliar home for a sit-down dinner. Incredible. Thanks to Rabbi Susan Talve who so magically filled me with faith long before either of us knew it would be my saving grace. Without you there would have never been A Year (Or More) of Shabbats. Thanks to our non-Jewish family and friends and to the organizations I have committed to who understood when we had to forgo Friday events. And thanks especially to my husband who so dutifully drove to Toby’s Challah House each Friday, grilled in the snow and sweltering heat, washed and put away all of the dishes, motivated me to press on in the weeks when I swore I didn’t have the energy, and who so graciously and without question or doubt allowed me to share what has been the single most difficult period in his life. I love you.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hanukkah Motherlode

Those of you who know me or follow my blog know that I wasn't raised in a Jewish home. I grew up Methodist and converted shortly before the birth of my second child in 2007. So I'm still pretty new at this being Jewish thing.

Growing up, everything about being Jewish was a bit of a mystery to me. Especially Hanukkah. Robin was my first Jewish friend. I met her when I was six. I knew she was special because she had a swimming pool. With a slide. And she also told me that she got presents for 8 days in a row during a holiday I couldn't pronounce because she was Jewish. As far as I could tell she was living the dream.

I remember the day I learned about the whole Hanukkah motherlode. I marched home, hands on hips and demanded to know why we couldn't be Jewish so I could get presents for 8 days. My mother promptly told me that we couldn't be Jewish because we were Methodist and if I wanted presents for 8 days I could kiss Santa goodbye. (Not to mention a few other key figures in history, but I'm pretty certain she didn't get into all of that. She was never long on explanations.)
Our family moved out of the neighborhood and Robin and I lost touch, but the association of Hanukkah and presents stuck with me.

It's funny how life works out. I wished I was Jewish at age 6 for the wrong reasons and ended up becoming Jewish at 37 for the right ones. Yet somehow those 6-year old dreams made their way back into my first Hanukkah with Ben. Remembering what I had longed for as a child, I made that first holiday about the presents shopping and then wrapping eight little packages for Ben. More things he didn't need and I didn't want to pick up and put away. Even more, as each night passed, my efforts seemed to be more and more lost on the short attention span of a 3-year old who opened the gifts nearly as quickly as he tossed them aside to focus on the "fire" and our pleas that he not blow out the candles. We continued to light the candles each night, but by the end of the week I began to wonder whether I'd wasted my time getting all those gifts. And I began to wonder even more why I had done it in the first place. Why couldn't the storytelling, prayers and candlelighting have been enough? How had my selfish 6-year old priorities made their way into my 37-year old parenting paradigm?

Ben was too young to remember his first (and last) Hanukkah motherlode. These days he and Sarah spend the first night of Hanukkah with all of their cousins, eating latkes, lighting the Menorah, spinning dreidels, getting gelt and opening their special first night present. The rest of the nights we light the Menorah at home. And that's just enough for all of us.

I hope that doesn't make me a Hanukkah scrooge. But mostly I hope that if one of Ben's inquisitive 6-year old classmates asks him about the whole Hanukkah thing he remembers to say it's about the festival of lights ... and not about the presents.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"I Love You Too Much To Argue"

Shabbat #41

Guests: Grant and Chloe.

Menu: Italian Mini Meatloafs, Three Cheese Pasta, Chocolate and Vanilla Meringues

What I Learned:

Ben (with Dad's help) had the honor of drawing up this week's guest list and menu. He chose his partner in crime Grant and his girlfriend Chloe. (Steve chose meatloaf.) Add Sarah to the mix and Steve and I had plenty of opportunity to practice all of our best "Love and Logic"one- liners.

What? Haven't heard of "Love and Logic?" Don't worry, we hadn't either. It's a program that teaches parents to replace anger and lectures with empathy and consequences. How you ask? In part, through some famous (at least now in our house) one-liners delivered with "compassion and understanding." Things like "Bummer. How sad," "I love you too much to argue," and my favorite ... a long pause followed by "hhhhmmmm" and then silence.

Steve and I more or less parent from the hip, but we decided to give the class a try. Mostly because it was from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. and included free child care. Need I say more? After our first L&L class complete with AV and role playing, Steve and I were chomping at the bit to try out our new skills. Of course it didn't take long. As soon as we hit the front door, Ben headed straight for the fridge. "Sorry Bud, kitchen's closed. Upstairs for jammies." (Yes, my children actually think the kitchen closes after dinner ... a helpful one-liner from my Parent's as Teacher Educator to promote mealtime eating.) And then the meltdown began. So I went for it.

Me: "Ben, I love you to much to argue."

Ben stops dead. Turns and looks directly at me with a suspicious eye as his sister's mouth drops open.

Ben: "Did you you just learn that in class tonight?"

Cheese sticks and apples followed.

Fortunately, I didn't have to put any of the one-liners to use on Friday night. The kids were a dream and once again proved my belief that parenting four little people is actually easier than parenting two as long as half of them aren't yours.

But it was not the happy camaraderie that was the highlight of the evening, it was seeing the four of them together at the table. Both Grant and Chloe had been to Shabbat dinner at our house before and even though neither of them are Jewish, they remembered how we roll. Patiently they sat waiting for their candles to be lit (our custom is to give each child their own set), the blessings to be repeated and the bread to be shared. And that made me happy.

I'm proud that Sarah wants to light the candles and that Ben has nearly learned the blessing over the wine. But I'm even more proud that they are excited about sharing our traditions with their friends. But maybe, just maybe this is even a little bigger than our family.

I hope that Grant and Chloe remember their Friday nights at our house years from now. Not just the couch jumping and popsickle eating, but the candle lighting, friendship and gratitude that we shared. And I hope they remember that even though we did not all share the same religion, they were very much a part of our Jewish celebration. But mostly I hope when they think of their nights here, they'll remember this one-liner:

"Differences are good."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Out of Range

Shabbat #40

The Grand Canyon, Bright Angel Campground

Menu: Grilled Garlic Bread, Cheese Tortellini with Red Sauce (cooked on camp stove), Dark Chocolate Covered Caramels, Wine compliments of J.P. and the Phantom Ranch Canteen

What I Learned:

Every year more than five million people visit the Grand Canyon. Only one percent make it to the bottom. Last week Steve and I became members of this elusive club.

The view from the edge of the Grand Canyon is breathtaking. To climb down (and out) on your own two feet is life changing ... or at least a memory for a lifetime. For Steve and me, dressed in our tell-tale brand new REI gear, it was all of the above.

A trip down the South Kaibab trail is measured in milestones, not miles. Drop a few switchbacks off the edge and the brisk rim breeze subsides. A few more and the temperature begins to rise. The 360 view from the famous Kaibab Limestone -- dubbed the bathtub ring of the canyon -- can only be explained as otherworldly. And it nearly is with geologic exposures in the inner gorge nearly two billion years old. Skeleton Point provides the first view of the Colorado River and the utter disbelief that such a humble stream of water could have created such a majestic sight. The Tip Off Point literally tips you into the gorge and towards the Kaibab Suspension Bridge constructed from cables carried down on the backs of men when the mules could not manage. A pitch black tunnel leads to the bridge that is the gateway to the famous Phantom Ranch and our home for 3 days: Bright Angel Campground.

To say that less is more when it comes to camping in the Grand Canyon is an immense understatement. Whatever you carry in, you're carrying out and up 5000 feet. (Thankfully our travel companions from Montreal considered the two bottles of white wine a "necessity.") The best thing about camping at Bright Angel is the camaraderie. An instant connection that everyone has traveled under their own power and for their own very personal reasons into one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It's a place where respecting one's neighbors means not hanging dirty socks in trees to dry or banging the lid to the ammo box that holds your food in the early morning. Dimming one's headlamp on a dark trail is an expected courtesy. Campground "Quiet Hours" are from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. And it's actually quiet but for the sound of the river and the million twinkling stars in the sky.

Regardless of the hour there are noises that you will never hear in the canyon. No cars or sirens. No mindless television. No beeping and blaring video games. And, most notably, no cell phones. Or their companion one-sided cell phone conversations.

You see, there's no cell phone coverage in the canyon. Not because it's impossible. It is. But because some wise person has thankfully preserved a spot where it's still impossible to divide your attention between your phone and life.

And such was life for us ... at least for three days. Undivided attention for Steve. For me. And for the beautiful place we were blessed with the good health to climb down into and, eventually, out of. That alone was worth the miles of hiking and the 5000 vertical feet.

Our guide warned that real life returns quickly once you've hiked to Skeleton Point where spotty coverage resumes. Listen closely and you may even hear the tell tale "You've Got Mail." Steve and I did not succumb to temptation quite so soon. We held off to the top. Seated in the El Tovar Lounge, wine in hand, we hit "Power" and one by one the sea of emails rushed in along with the overwhelming feeling that we'd missed something. A deadline at work. Snack for preschool. The school nurse. A panicked (babysitting) grandparent. We were, after all, integral to the spinning of the world. Right? Well, apparently not. It kept right on spinning. Our colleagues worked on. The kids survived. And the grandparents managed. Perhaps the only thing missed was an extra cheap massage on Groupon ... which I could have used right about then.

So what did I learn? That the world does keeps spinning even if I'm not connected every moment. That if it's okay to sign off for three days in the wilderness, then it is certainly okay to sign off to give all of the things important to me in my life my undivided attention. Like my husband. And my children. And the joke that Ben has to tell me, again, on the way home. All of those precious moments in life that are far more important than whether I've immediately returned a message, mindlessly read Facebook status or otherwise used my phone for some purpose that Alexander Graham Bell surely never intended.

Last year we vowed to slow down on Shabbat. To take it in. And to turn the rest off. We've done a pretty good job in that respect, but there's room for improvement the other six days of the week. I'm ready.

So if you email me and I take a few days to answer, now you know why.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Bringing Back The Block Party

Shabbat #39

Guests: The Schoemehls

Menu: Manicotti, Roasted Butternut Squash Salad, Meringues, Chocolate Truffles

What I Learned:


Friday, October 29, 2010


Shabbat #38

Guests: The Steinbecks

Menu: Filets, Roasted Butternut Squash Over Greens, Garlic Mashed Potatos, Mice Cookies

What I Learned: