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.