Roundtable Night

A while back, my daughter’s school had a roundtable discussion with the mothers. There was a panel of teachers, and each teacher had a turn to answer a submitted question. The answers sparked a lot of back and forth between the mothers and the teachers.
I looked around, and I saw realness. I heard sincerity. I felt earnestness. Regardless of our differences we all want the same thing. To raise our children to be ehrliche, ovdei Hashem. And oftentimes we feel confused about how to reach this goal.
Thinking about this, the word mesorah came to mind. We each have our own mesorah from our parents and grandparents that we want to hand down to our children. I have my own personal mesorah, just as each mother sitting in that room has hers.
It might be from a Bubby, Babbi, Oma or Grandma. But all of us mothers are connected by the desire to pass down our personal mesorahs. We might come to a roundtable event, call a teacher or seek out the advice of a rav to guide us. But we mothers have the power. Through actions more than words we can help our children be the best they can possibly be. That night as I looked around I realized our capabilities and our desires to continue to pass down what we have from our ancestors.
Which brings me to my own grandmother.
Recently my grandmother was niftar. Following her petirah, I was flooded with childhood memories. I remember going to her house for yamim tovim and spending time with all the cousins. I can picture her peeling apples on chol hamoed Pesach, giving my mother a list for the grocery store and putting on her tasteful jewelry on a yom-tov morning.
I can feel the excitement when we knew my grandparents were coming, loaded up with gifts for a two-week visit. I can see them sitting at our table eating supper and them taking their daily walks. I can picture my grandmother making her Hungarian gefilte fish in my mother’s kitchen and baking her heavenly kokosh cake.
My grandmother was very quiet. She kept to herself, always a little bit on the sidelines. Perhaps her quiet nature and unobtrusive way of getting things done speaks louder than any words.
After her petirah I turned to my aunts and uncle and asked them to tell me more about my Babbi. She was eighteen years old, the youngest of ten children, when the Nazis stormed her village and deported her to Auschwitz. She lost her father, stepmother, six siblings, six sisters- and brothers-in-law and many nieces and nephews. While two of her remaining siblings went to live in Eretz Yisrael, she decided to follow her older sister to America. And so this quiet woman came to a new country, leaving behind what was once familiar and had been shattered.
She came to this strange country after growing up in a small shtetl on a farm. Her father was a tremendous talmid chacham and a Belzer chassid who ardently followed the Rebbe and spent the Yomim Nora’im with him.
My grandfather, on the other hand, was from Czechoslovakia. He grew up in a more cultured, bustling city. He was an Oberlander, with very different minhagim from the Chassidim.
Before the war a shidduch with a Hungarian farm girl would have been laughable.
But he also came to America after losing his whole family in the war. He had harrowing experiences and was ready to rebuild. I don’t know who their shadchan was, but together they were ready to start rebuilding.
Coming as they were from two totally different backgrounds, one would have thought they would disagree over minhagim, each wanting to continue what they had learned from their own parents. But my grandmother was 100% mevater. As far as anyone knows (aside from not eating gebrokts), she never once said, “But my father, a tremendous talmid chacham, did it this way.” She knew that to have shalom she would need to accept her new husband’s ways. And she did.
I think it is safe to say that vatranus was what defined her. She was happy to give anything to anyone. She just needed to know that those around her were content. Even as she lay on her deathbed, she worried about each person who came in. Are they hungry? Do they have a place to sleep? She couldn’t relax until she knew that her guests were well taken care of.
The lessons we learned from her are precious. She taught us how to find our inner strength and to carry on despite the struggles we might have. She taught us how to live in the moment and appreciate what we have. She taught us to quietly get things done, to make sure everyone feels good and not to make problems where none exist. She taught us about being machsihiv Torah. She would never stop or disturb my grandfather from learning. Whatever was going on could always wait until Zayde was finished.
As I mentioned, Babbi stayed on the sidelines. We knew where we could find her, but she didn’t need to be noticed. I always wanted to know more about her. What was her life like growing up in the shtetl? What were her war experiences? How did she come to America? What was it like to get married with the only family in attendance at her wedding her older sister? But she wasn’t a talker. It was hard to get her to share. And besides, there was always next time to ask.
There is no next time anymore. Babbi left this world and with her went all her memories and all her experiences. But my dignified Babbi gave over so much to us. Not with words but through actions.
It’s her actions that left indelible impressions on her progeny.
I saw this from my mother, her daughter. My mother experienced so much suffering. But she was always ready to continue onward. She never let herself get sucked into self-pity. She never let her suffering stop her from being there for others, and she appreciated the positive moments amidst the suffering.
All this is part of my mesorah, and I want to pass it down. The mother sitting next to me that night might have learned other things from her parents and grandparents. But we all have similar goals: to pass down to our children what our ancestors held dear.

 

Do You Know Who You Are?

Do you remember that girl in your class who was really pretty, whose hair was always perfect? Did you compare yourself to her and feel ugly? How about the girl who always had a witty response? Did being around her make you feel as if you were just so dull?  Do you still find yourself thinking like that? Does your super-clean sister-in-law make you feel like an incompetent housekeeper or your stay-at-home neighbor make you feel like an incompetent mother? Do you ever feel that you are boring, that you always mess things up, that you’re not so smart or talented or just a complete failure?
Guess what? You are normal. Probably many of the people you think are better than you look at others and also feel inferior in some way. It’s almost as if this is a mandatory qualification for being a woman.
I know a tenth grader who is on top of her class academically. She has a wonderful personality and lots of friends, and her middos are extolled by many of her teachers. Yet when I asked her why a teen who has everything going for her would have low self-esteem, she looked at me as if I was crazy and answered, “Isn’t it obvious why?”
Low self-esteem doesn’t stay behind in a classroom. If it isn’t worked on, it follows us straight into the workforce, marriage and motherhood.  But no matter our stage in life, it’s never too late to work on improving the way we feel about ourselves.
In פרקי אבות, פרק ב: משנה ו, it says, “.ולא הבישן לומד” What does this mean? One can’t learn because of embarrassment? Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski writes that if a person has a question in learning but won’t ask because he feels that he should know it, or he must not be smart because no one else has this question, then he loses out on very important learning opportunities. How can a person learn if he always feels embarrassed? This is not a good embarrassment, nor is it humbleness. It comes from feeling bad about one’s self and the repercussions are not positive.
With these kinds of feelings it is hard to achieve anything. How can you accomplish if you always feel that if your ideas had merit someone else would have come up with them or that you’re just not capable of carrying them out? Nowhere in the Torah does it say that you should feel incompetent or unqualified. And as the Mishnah says, your shame will stop you from understanding, learning and accomplishing.
There is one kind of embarrassment that is praiseworthy. This comes from anivus, true humbleness, like Moshe Rabbeinu displayed. We all know that Moshe Rabbeinu was an ענו מכל אדם. Yet, Moshe was the leader of Klal Yisrael. He knew his strengths and used them for עבודת השם.
We are all mirrors reflecting tiny pieces of Hashem’s various middos. Therefore, we must be careful to acknowledge when a talent exists within us. It is not egotistical to know that you are a great organizer, a wonderful listener, a talented party planner or a very patient, loving mother. Rather, realize that you are a reflection of Hashem’s attributes. When we can acknowledge that the strengths we have are from Hashem and we are ready to use them for our own growth or for the sake of those around us, then we are acting in a G-dly way. This is a positive kind of “embarrassment.”
So let’s say you are the typical mother and wife fighting those nasty voices in your head telling you that you aren’t good, that you are inferior to others. You don’t know how to handle this child’s issue. You aren’t sure that you are showing enough support to your husband. And maybe in general you are doing something wrong because your children almost never show responsibility. What are practical applications to help you like yourself?
You can know that like every living person, you are perfectly imperfect. Your flaws were given to you by Hashem, Who wrapped them all up together in a box for your life’s journey. (You can imagine what color your box is, the size of the box and whether it has a bow or not.)
Accept your limitations – they are from Hashem. But don’t become complacent about them. Work on them with Hashem. Ask Him to help you make changes to turn your negatives into positives. And don’t forget to recognize your strengths. Find them. Remind yourself every day about the qualities that are specific to you.
Talk back to your negative voices. You can tell them, “Listen here, Voice, I know you are trying to making me feel bad about my flaws. But guess what?  Everyone has flaws. I also have strengths. That’s what I am trying to focus on. So you can keep telling me that I am not good enough, but I will keep telling you about all my strong points.”
Consider the following quote: “It’s not what you are that is holding you back, but rather, what you think you are not.”
Learn what you are so that you can use your kochos fully.
This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here in revised form, with permission.

A Mother’s Love

 

Oftentimes, I wish I could think of just the right word; sometimes it seems to be on the tip of my tongue, but instead I stammer and stutter my way through my thought, hoping that I am getting my point across in some way.

I had such an experience with a friend who doesn’t have a very good relationship with her mother. In addition, her mother is not frum, which probably aggravates the situation even more. I was telling her how I wanted my mother’s opinion on something. I obviously couldn’t get it from my mother, so I got it from a friend instead. But really, I was longing for my mother’s input. She couldn’t understand what I needed my mother for. What was it that my mother could have offered me that friends and family couldn’t?  I tried to explain what the relationship with my mother was like. I tried to explain the connection that we had. But she couldn’t get it. I stuttered and stumbled and groped and grappled for the right words to explain the unexplainable.

It then became a mission. I felt I must get that point across. What is a mother’s love? How strong can a mother-daughter connection be? The feelings are so strong. The words must be out there somewhere. But I couldn’t find them.

I didn’t give up. At the risk of the friends in my group chat thinking I had really gone nuts, I sent out a text asking if anyone could define a mother’s love. The answers weren’t long in coming: unconditional, a natural connection, love earned just because of being born, irreplaceable, love without strings attached.

Maybe it’s all true. But it is also all cliché. And I needed to explain the connection I had with my mother in real words. I needed to define that indefinable love.

And so I turned it around. I asked myself how I would describe the love I have for my children.  The question almost took my breath away. The love is so deep that my heart starts to hurt. I want to protect and shield them from all pain. I just want everything to be perfect for them.

I also felt confused thinking about the question because I realized that I want perfection for them in ways that don’t even make sense. I want to hug them so tightly and never let go, but I want to teach them independence. I want to make all the right choices for them, but I want to teach them to make their own responsible decisions. I want to defend them fiercely, but I want to teach them to take responsibility. I want to teach them the fine line between self-respect and anivus. I want to teach them to care for others but not to be stepped upon. I want to nurture them with love and encourage them with positivity. I want to cultivate our values and foster our connection. My love is so absolute that it transcends logic.

I know that is how my mother felt toward me.

That “transcending-logic love” made her care about all the small things in my life that no one else would care about. It made her take interest in me and my family in areas that no one else would have interest in. The love made the unimportant important to her. It made the insignificant news significant to her.

And the best friend and the closest aunt can’t replace that.

I had a gift that my friend isn’t fortunate enough to have. It is the gift of real maternal affection. Now, how can I describe this indescribable gift? How can I explain my unexplainable loss?

I went online and searched for that right word. I googled definitions but couldn’t find anything. After a long while I found a word that tugged at me. The word is ineffable. The definition is indescribableinexpressible, beyond words, beyond description, begging description.

I have been searching and searching for that perfect word – for that word that can define what I had with my mother. And I found it!  But I have come full circle. Because the word ineffable has taught me that I will not find that right word. It doesn’t exist. And simply said, that is what I had with my mother. Something that is indescribable.

Perhaps my friend has a better vocabulary than me. Maybe she is familiar with this word. But if not, I will teach it to her.

I can tell her that that the reason I wanted my mother’s opinion is because of our ineffable relationship. It was something that I can never put into words. And that is the person whose opinion has the most value to me. I know I am fortunate that this was our relationship.

But I miss it.

Holding on to the Memories: My Scrapbooking Journey

 

I have been told that I am a very emotionally rich person. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not. But I certainly did feel overwhelmed with many emotions after my parents died. There was so much longing, so much wishing for what once was – all that emotion with no place to put it.

I wanted to keep everything as it used to be. I wanted to hold on to the past so tightly that it would never leave me, to create a bubble for myself and my memories.

It was actually my sister who got me into scrapbooking after she was given the idea by a mentor. I was always hearing about the tools and supplies she was buying. And then one day I said, “Why don’t I do this too?”

I have found this new outlet to be very therapeutic. It has allowed me to take my roiling emotions and put them in order. I can put my feelings into these pages and grab onto the memories.

In recalling the past, I realized that there are different kinds of memories: there are the actual pictures in my mind of past events, and there are also “feeling memories.” For example, smelling a particular food or hearing a specific phrase can engender strong feelings, and when I have these feelings, sometimes I like to just sit and experience them.

Creating a scrapbook has prompted a lot of the feeling memories. Sometimes I feel sadness or longing. I am documenting a world that is no more. But creating the pages has helped me identify the emotions and put them in order. It has helped me enter the bubble I was yearning for, and afterward I am able to emerge and continue functioning.

Another valuable benefit of my scrapbook has been to allow me to share the memories with others. My children learned that the oldest grandchild coined the name Funny Zaydie for my father because he made people laugh. They can get a glimpse of our family birthday parties and the yamim tovim we spent together. Depending on my mood we can share what I’ve created and cry together or open it and laugh together.

One thing that I found really nice about scrapbooking is that there is no right way to do it. I enjoy writing, and I found that writing releases a lot of emotions and helps me put my thoughts in order. If you are more creative or artistic, you can narrate a full story with pictures and cut-outs.

If you like things to look just so, there are so many tools and materials you can use to create that perfect look. If you would you rather accomplish quickly without focusing on exactly how everything is placed, that’s okay too. After all, this is your bubble of memories.

Every craft store and even your local discount store (Target, Walmart, Amazing Savings) has loads of scrapbooking materials. I found it helpful to walk through the aisles and peruse the selection, which includes backgrounds, borders, stickers, lettering of all sorts, 3D applications and more. Sometimes seeing an item brought up a memory, and I knew it was just what I needed for my book. Then again, there are lots of materials you can find in your house: a piece of fabric or wrapping paper, a postcard or picture cut from a magazine, a ticket stub, etc.

Included here are some samples of what I’ve created.

Page number one was meant to be a more serious page. Learning, halachah and minhagim pesach-page-page-003were an integral part of who my father was. I therefore chose colors that would be appropriate to this tone. Although I didn’t use any real “wow” materials here, it conveys the memory of my father holding on to what was really important to him. It was easy to find pictures of the sefarim and shtender. I could have made it fancier by making a 3D shtender or even including a picture of my father standing behind it and learning. Another option would have been to color copy the cover of a sefer and shrink it to size. What I created here, however, is a simple page that is filled with strong memories.

pesach-page-page-004The second page describes one of my mother’s hobbies. It makes me smile. She enjoyed shopping, and I enjoyed shopping together with her. For this page I wasn’t aiming for the same tone as the one depicting my father’s learning. I therefore chose to do it in a brighter color to create a lighter feeling. When I look at it, I see my mother standing near the cashier, pulling out the right card. This is a page that gives me a pleasant feeling.

My parents, especially my father, was a real family man. He pesach-page-page-002took great pride in his children, and we felt this each yom tov. So for my third page I chose to focus on how my father performed bedikas chometz with the grandchildren. When I look at this page, I see and feel this special brand of family pride. The reference to cleaning is a nod to my mother’s involvement here. To make it more real and personal, I cut out a piece of an actual shmatte. Using matzah paper was an obvious choice. It makes the page so much more appealing with little extra effort.

So where should you start?

You can create pages arbitrarily, working on ideas as they come to you, or you can work systematically. For example, go through all the significant events of a single year, documenting each one on its own page. Create a spread for each yom tov, showing how your family celebrated it through the years. Create a page for each family chasunah. Or create pages by the season: a fall section might include the first day of school, Succos, raking leaves; a winter section might include Chanukah, snowstorms, family melave malkas; a spring section might include Pesach, planting flowers, mowing the lawn; a summer section might include family vacations, visiting day, family BBQs, etc. Perhaps your book might include a section showing the time before your parent was sick; the period during which your parent was ill; and a section showing family life or activities after your parent’s petirah.

Do you have any mementos from your parent? A scrapbook is the place to stick your mother’s favorite magnet or your father’s yarmulke. Any picture or item can be the springboard for a page. I actually did the credit-card page after I found my mother’s cards in her wallet. My mother’s essence wasn’t shopping like my father’s was learning, so it wasn’t until I found the credit cards that I thought of making this kind of page.

Above all, remember that this is your space. If you love the color orange, use it. Your best friend might not understand why you chose that color – that’s okay. Tap into your emotions and your memories.  Your sister might question your perception about something – that doesn’t matter because this is your safe place to release and experience your emotions.

Does this whole idea feel overwhelming to you? Then don’t make a scrapbook, make a scrap page. Choose something that is precious to you and create just one page surrounding it – you can’t go wrong.

Happy scrapbooking!

Dear Bubby

Dear Bubby,

I am so sad that I was only a baby when you were nifteres, and I never got to know you. But my mommy always tells me that you loved me so much. During the one year of my life that you were alive, I gave you so much joy. Each time you saw me, your face lit up. You played with me and made me giggle. You held me and made me feel loved.

The night before you were nifteres, you had a small procedure, and afterward they brought you to the critical care unit. The nurses weren’t used to a patient having as many visitors as you did, and they were aggravated about it. They definitely would not have been happy to see a baby there. But you were really sick, and Mommy knew you might never see me again.  She knew how much joy I brought to you. Shhh…don’t tell anyone – but she snuck me in. You were too weak to hold me or coo to me. But you gave me a smile. I know I am lucky that I was the last grandchild you smiled at.

Sometimes I wish you could still be here with me. My mother tells me how much you would love hearing cute stories about me and cuddling me while reading me books. You would love to buy me new dolls and books, and you would love to talk to me on the phone.

She tells me that we would come to you for yamim tovim together with all the cousins, and it would be such a blast! I feel so sad that I lost out on that experience. When I play with all my cousins, Mommy tells me that you would have such nachas watching all your eineklach playing together. All I know is that I love playing with them, and I love when we spend time together. It is sad that we can’t all play together in your house.

You missed most of my milestones. You missed when I started walking and talking. You never had a chance to see how inquisitive I am, how I love learning or to see my bouncing curls as I skip and giggle with carefree joy.  I look so big in my uniform, but you never got to see me in it. Do you even know that your granddaughter is an aspiring ballerina? Well, I am. I do ballet all around my house. I twirl and pirouette. I walk on tippy-toes and jump up. But if this worries you, don’t let it— because when I grow up I want to be a tzaddekes.

Guess what?! On Wednesday we are having our aleph-bais siyum. I get to wear my Shabbos clothes! My mommy will brush my hair until there are no knots and my curls frame my cheeks. Then she will look at my sparkling green eyes and the touch of freckles that light up my face. She will tell me how proud you would be. She will tell me that I have your sparkling green eyes. I don’t know what your eyes look like, but I do believe that I would make you proud.

Tonight I sounded out words and wrote them down. I figured out that Chanukah is spelled with a chof, a nun and a kof. Mommy said that we have to save this paper with my first words. I told her that I can show it to you when Mashiach comes. She also wants to save my first sight-word book to show you. I told Mommy that I might not be “in this age” anymore by then. But she said we can still save it for you.

I wish my mommy could tell you about all the good middos I have. Yesterday, I held the door open for her even though my hands were so full of things. That is because it was kibbud av v’eim week in school. Now it isn’t anymore, but maybe sometimes I’ll still do that mitzvah.

Mommy was happy that I made a kiddush Hashem at the bank. That’s because I got a lollipop and was having fun. But don’t worry – as long as I am in the mood, I will try to make “kiddush Hashems.”

Sometimes if I am hungry or tired, I get very kvetchy. Probably on those days my mommy would call you up and say, “I have a kvetchy little girl in my house.” But don’t be sad that sometimes I get “kwetchy” and maybe even talk with chutzpah.  I think that as I get older and learn more about good middos, I will give you lots of nachas.

I am still just a little girl. But I know that in a way you and Zeidy and Tante Esti and Uncle Chesky will always be part of my life. Because I always hear about you.  And I really do want to give all of you nachas up in shamayim.

Still, like my mommy I do wish that today you could see how cute I am, that today I could talk to you on the phone and that today I could show you my first page of words.

My doll is crying now. I have to go take care of her. So, bye.

Love,

A Little Girl with Sparkling Green Eyes who Never Got a Chance to Know Her Bubby

Friendships Can Make all the Difference

Do you remember how the years of high school can be filled with social stigma and social anxiety? Social circles and social acceptance are of utmost importance. I remember girls who wouldn’t walk down the hall to get a drink without a friend, as others might view them as being friendless. That was not a risk worth taking. Are you nodding along, even as you laugh at how silly this sounds?

The truth is, friendship really is important. Friends are influential – for the good and for the bad. A friend can help a person find herself – who she is and who she wants to become. A friend can encourage and inspire. A good friend continues to fill this role as one moves on through the various stages of life.

In the first perek of Pirkei Avos, the sixth mishnah tells us: “קנה לך חבר” – be mindful of who your friends are. Make sure that you are forming relationships that will help you grow and change, relationships that will allow you to learn and teach, relationships that will make you feel good about yourself so that you can be a positive, productive person.

A negative friendship will put you on a downward spiral. You might find yourself doing things you don’t really feel comfortable doing, going places you never went before, wearing clothing that are not up to your tznius standards or letting your children do things that are not really on par with your chinuch standards.  In such a friendship, you might feel anxious, confused and down on yourself, and when you stop to think about it, you might feel that the things you are busy with are not really “you.”

A positive friendship, on the other hand, can help bring out your ma’alos and strengths. Such a friendship engenders good feelings and pushes you to want to be a better “you.” In the company of a good friend, it is often easier to make the right decisions.

On the first day of my year in sixth grade, a new girl walked into the classroom, and we all realized we had a star in our class. I felt so lucky that she chose me to be her friend – her best friend. My new friend brought out my fun side, as well as the introspective side of me. As the years went by, and this girl continued to impress our teachers and amaze the principals, I really felt lucky that she was my very best friend. I had my social standing with a friend who was helping me grow.

Eventually we grew apart. But I can look back and see how our friendship helped mold me as a person. Years later, already married with children, I became acquainted with a woman in my town. Over time and with shared experiences, we eventually became close friends. I know how lucky I am for the friendship that we have. My friend is there for me whenever I need her. We share chinuch concerns and ideas – both practical and theoretical – and support each other when making difficult decisions. She is there for me when I am down because of a parent or sibling’s yahrtzeit; she helps me to get to the crux of what I’m experiencing so that I can move on. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses; we build on the strengths and encourage through the weaknesses.

 And so I try to use my friendships for growth, and I try to be a friend who can inspire growth.  I hope I am passing down to my children the lesson of having a good friend and of being a good friend.  I hope that my parents are looking down and having nachas from the friends I have, the friend I am and the friend I have taught my children to be.

This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here in revised form, with permission.

My Nephew Eli

He was gentle and he was kind. He was wise and witty. He was a dazzling beacon of sunlight to all those who knew him. He was my nephew – my nephew Eli whom I never really knew because of the distance we lived from each other.

He was a courageous warrior, fighting his sickness for four long years, unwilling to surrender.  But the disease was more powerful than he was and eventually took over his body. On September 29, 2016 my nephew Eli returned his neshamah to Shamayim. He was only eleven years old.

As his father wrote, “It is with forever shattered hearts that Eli was niftar.”

I realize I lost out on an opportunity to get to know this valiant soldier.

So I asked his parents to tell me about Eli, about the extraordinary little boy whom I never really knew. And I now echo his father. It is with a forever shattered heart that I will never know Eli the way I would like to.

When Eli was five years old, an adult would have been forgiven for thinking that he was closer to twenty. He astounded everyone when he asked his zaydie for a set of Chumashim for his afikomen present that year. His zaydie would have been fine with buying him a remote control car or a scooter. But at that young age, Torah was what he cherished. When he received his gift, he went outside, sat on his big electric car and read the pesukim of the Chumash. He didn’t yet understand what he was saying, but he understood the pleasure that the timeless words were giving him.

By the time he was seven he had read through the entire Chamishah Chumshei Torah. As he got older, just reading the words wasn’t enough for him. He wanted more knowledge, more understanding. And so he started reading The Medrash Says. Like a sponge, he soaked everything up. He asked questions to his zaydie, a big talmid chacham, and zaydie would be astounded at his young grandson’s knowledge.

Sadly, by the time Eli’s class was starting to learn mishnayos, he was already sick, only attending school sporadically. One day his father drove him to school and arranged a time to pick him up shortly after. Eli walked into his classroom and was exposed to mishnayos for the first time. By the time his father came to pick him up, Eli had learned two mishnayos ba’al peh.

It wasn’t just Torah that he loved – he loved tefillah too. Eli loved to daven, especially with his zaydie. He always wanted to go to his grandparents’ home for Shabbos so that he could spend time davening in shul with zaydie. Eli didn’t want to lose out on an opportunity to connect with his Borei Olam and therefore had many alarms on his phone to remind him about different tefillos. As he left the hospital, it didn’t matter that he had just been through harsh treatments; often, shul was the first place he stopped.

Yes, you can be forgiven for thinking that we are talking about an adult. But the amazing thing was that if you looked at Eli, you saw a child. He loved to play and joke. He liked reading and playing wii games. He was a kind, caring and fun-loving brother. He was very sensitive to the needs of his siblings, giving each one what they needed.

And he was a compassionate friend as well. He cared about his classmates and was the first to run over to console a friend who was hurt. He acted with extreme selflessness. Whether it was giving his time or his snack, it was done with a smile. As a letter from his classmate testifies: “He was the brightest, sweetest, most loving, sharing boy. “

Eli accepted his challenges. While most children were in school and riding bikes, Eli had to be admitted time and time again to Children’s Hospital. Maybe for treatment. Maybe because he had fever or maybe for extreme pain. But he didn’t complain. His attitude belied his age. He wanted to do what needed to be done and then continue on with life.

He had to take foul-tasting medicine with awful side effects. But he took it with acceptance. He was also scrupulously honest. If it was time to take his medicine, he would tell his mother he needed ten more minutes. His mother trusted that he would come get it when he said he would – and he did. He was so young, and yet he understood that each word we utter has value. In his mother’s words: “I learned about emes from my son.”

The Gradon house is open to many guests. Some of the regular guests are recovering addicts. About eight months ago, one of the guests had just reached a four-year anniversary for his recovery. Each guest sitting around the table had the opportunity to say something positive about this person. When they came to Eli, his father passed over him. But he said, “No, I also want to say something.” Everyone stopped to pay closer attention to this child. What was he going to say? With a maturity beyond his years he said, “Just as you conquered your addiction, so too, you should conquer your aveiros.”

Eli had no aveiros to conquer. He was only a katan. But his love of learning, of Torah and mitzvos, made him seem like a tremendous gadol. And as family friend said, “We were not zocheh to keep Eli.”

I feel sad that I didn’t have enough of an opportunity to know this little tzaddik who was my nephew. But I learned a lesson. Family is most important. Many of our families are large, and we have extensive extended family as well. This is something that is so easy to take for granted. But I can say, “Eli, in your death, you have taught me the value of family.”

Eli should be a meilitz yosher for his parents and siblings and for all of his extended family, and may we be zocheh to the geulah sheleimah very soon.

Vulnerable

Once upon a time there was a mother and a daughter. They lived happy, peaceful lives. Although they lived in different towns, they spoke daily. They shared their day’s grievances. They shared their day’s hopes. They shared all the nitty-gritty that life has to offer. Mom and Daughter each knew that they were loved by one another, even though they rarely said the words, “I love you.”

One day Mom went to the doctor with a concern, hoping to hear that it was nothing. But doctor did not dismiss her concern. Quite the opposite. He told her she was very, very sick.

Over the next few years, Daughter flew in and out to spend time with Mom. They sat at the supper table together talking about her treatments. They went shopping together, with Mom treating daughter. At night, they sat on the beds in Mom’s room laughing. Although the love between the two was tangible, rarely did they say the words “I love you.”

Mom was getting sicker. Daughter flew in more often. The conversations were shorter and the laughs less frequent. Daughter’s heart was aching. Mom knew that it was. Daughter was so scared of Mom dying. Mom knew that she was scared. Mom loved Daughter with a fierce intensity. Daughter loved her back. But rarely did they say the words, “I love you.”

Mom was very sick. Doctors were giving up. Daughter called Mom throughout the day, and the conversations ended with, “I love you.” Daughter knew that Mom didn’t want to die without saying those words.

Mom was lying on her deathbed in the hospital. Daughter was with her. She sat next to Mom, bent down to her ear and whispered, “I love you, Mommy.”

*************

Recently my husband’s sister lost a child. She ended one of our text conversations with, “Love you.” This is not the way she usually speaks. And I recognized that deep, vulnerable state she is in right now. I connected with it because I remember my mother’s deep emotional state when she said those words to me.

It meant, “Miriam, I am dying. I am leaving you in this world without me. I will not be here to watch you raise your children. I won’t be here when your children reach milestones or for any future births. I won’t be able to discuss any more of the daily humdrum that life offers. You will be without me for yamim tovim. I know how hard this is. You just lost your father and older sister. Another loss is devastating. I wish I wasn’t dying. I want to stay with you. Miriam, it isn’t in my control, but I love you.”

Sometimes I wonder what would have been if we would have been more candid with our feelings toward each other, expressing them openly and allowing the other to see our emotional vulnerability. Would our relationship have been even stronger? I do wish I could go back in time and try it out. But of course, it is too late for that.

So I was thinking: Should I work on my current relationships? Should I try to take them to that place of open, sincere, emotional candidness? What will I gain? Would working on such a thing be considered avodas Hashem? If yes, then how?

Okay, so you can laugh at me. But I texted a few friends this question. We spoke about it, and I think I am starting to get it.

I need to work through anything that I carry that might cause me to react in a way that can be hurtful to others and myself. Someone might say something that will trigger feelings of pain over my mother’s death. I can tell myself that I am being ridiculous and decide to ignore the pain that I am feeling. However, if I do that I will be creating a bubbling anxiety inside of me. Sooner or later I will explode and lash out at whoever happens to be around (who totally doesn’t deserve it). That behavior isn’t okay.

Hashem created Adam. He then said, “It is not good for man to be alone,” and he created Chavah. Hashem doesn’t want us to be alone. He gave us family and friends so that we can grow together.

Vulnerability is a gift from Hashem. It is a tool He has given us so that we can be connected, so that together we can support and encourage one another along our personal journeys. I can use this tool when something is triggering my pain – any pain from any area of life.

That’s connection.

When I use the tool of vulnerability to connect I am exposing my true self. I am letting down my defenses. I have nothing to guard anymore. I won’t be justifying anything and therefore will be ready to take in Hashem’s messages for me. I will feel lighter inside. I won’t have that bubbling anxiety in me, and I will be a happier person.

Using this tool can bring me to menuchas hanefesh and to real simchah.

And reaching that level of simchah is avodas Hashem.

I got my answer. I can work on this part of my relationship with family and friends now, knowing what I missed out on because I didn’t do so with my parents and siblings.

But it is a struggle. It feels awkward to be so exposed.

I find it easier to expose my true self to Hashem. With Hashem, there is nothing to be embarrassed about. But I have a friend who has a hard time talking to Hashem from a place of vulnerability.

You can laugh again, but we made a joint decision to work on ourselves in this area. She will tell me each day about an open conversation she had with Hashem, and I will tell her about having such a conversation with a friend. I am not sure where this will lead us. But I think it will be to someplace good.

Perhaps if I work on this with people in my life today, the feelings of regret that I wasn’t open enough with my mother will diminish. So vulnerability, here I come!

Regular Me

 

One day I stopped and said, “I was always plain ordinary me. I am just so regular. What happened? My life is not regular anymore.”

Regular is a very broad word. What is regular for me may not be regular for someone else. But I think that most people will agree that their vison of regular does not include sitting at the bedside of three family members, watching them die. My vision of regular did not include losing parents at such a young age. My vision of regular did not include going to a cemetery on a fairly regular basis.

My vision of regular was having my parents around for many years. My vison of regular was having my parents around as I raised my own children. My vison of regular was for all my siblings to get married and raise their own families. My vision of regular was to grow together even as we build our own families.

But regular seemed to forget about my family. At the young age of fourteen, my brother died from leukemia. At the time I thought this was our family’s big tragedy. From here on, it would be smooth sailing. I got married shortly afterward, and things were good. But one fine day my sister received a diagnosis of cancer. Three days later, my mother also did.

Over the next few years, I lived with constant fear. We were always waiting. Waiting for my mother’s scans and waiting for my sister’s test results. If one of their tests came back looking good, it didn’t mean that the other’s would. There were ups, there were downs. There was hope, and there was despair. There was anticipation, and there was dejection. There was courage, and there was faith.

But with all the faith we had, we couldn’t have ever possibly imagined that one night, in the middle of a relative’s chasunah, my father would have a massive heart attack and die. We were confused. We were davening so much for our mother and sister. So my father died? There wasn’t time to dwell on it. My sister was sick and withering away. We had to put all of our kochos into her refuah. Eight months later, she was nifteres, and eighteen months after that, we sat shivah for my mother.

After that shivah I realized I had no emergency to focus on anymore. There was no one sick and no distractions. It was time to look at myself – definitely something I didn’t want to do. It is so much easier to keep on running. I didn’t like who I had become. I was distracted and unfocused. I was sad and impatient.

And so began my own healing process. I had to learn that emotions are real. When I feel sad it is okay to feel it. I feel better when I accept my pain and don’t push it away.

I had to realize that guilt was harming me. I know I did what I could for both my mother and my sister. Guilt was telling me that I had lost out on opportunities. I had to make sure this guilt would not disrupt my wellbeing.

I had to learn how to open up more to my friends. They wanted to support me; I just needed to let them. I was very emotionally closed. To open up and let someone deep in to the most painful places was so scary. But to remain alone in my pain was even worse.

I had to work very hard on accepting that everything that happened was exactly the way Hashem wanted it to happen. I wasn’t in charge. I couldn’t have done things differently for a different outcome.

At times I still feel sad and lonely. I still wonder what it would be like if my whole family would be alive. I still feel the need to turn to my parents for so many different reasons. I miss my sister so, so much. I wonder what my brother’s wife would have been like and how many children they might have had.

My challenges have made it necessary to work on myself consistently and constantly.

It isn’t easy because I just want to be regular – normal. By now I have learned that I am normal, but my normal is different than the way I thought it would be. I am learning acceptance over and over again. The more I accept, the calmer I feel.

The pain of losing a parent at any age is very difficult. Because of my experiences I am able to help out others going through similar experiences. This is part of my regular. I always thought that I would have a different regular. But my life is just as it is supposed to be. Regular custom-made for me

Dear Tanta Goldy

 

Dear Tanta Goldy,

Although you were sick for a long while, with your petirah I realize how much I learned from you and how very much I miss you. You were so warm and caring, with a heart open wide toward anyone you met. You never judged people for their flaws and frailties; rather, you always saw a whole person, who, like everyone, had both positive attributes and imperfections. With the absence of judgment, your heart was open to just simply caring.

The other day during a chat with a relative, the conversation turned to a few girls in need of shidduchim. I said, “I feel so bad for them. I wish they would get married. But I’m so powerless. What can I do?”  After thinking for a moment, I added, “I could do something. I could daven more for them. The problem is that I don’t. Not because I don’t care. But because my list for what I am davening for is already so long. My emotional energy is spent before I can finish davening. Then I stopped and said, “But that wasn’t Tanta Goldy.” My emotional capacity for empathy is so limited.  But Tanta Goldy, yours was not. Your emotional capacity was limitless. You felt the pain of others so acutely.

Your Shabbos table was always full of guests – and not the guests we all want to have, but rather, those we don’t want to have, people who were limited emotionally or mentally. You saw Yidden who needed a Shabbos seudah, and your heart opened wide. Saying no to those that needed you caused you tremendous pain.

As Uncle Tzvi told me, when a meshulach came, you didn’t just give the tzedakah. You felt the person’s pain. And you would tell Uncle Tzvi how your heart was breaking for this meshulach who had to leave his home to collect for his challenging situation.

Sometimes when I call a person’s name I think about how I am uttering a few syllables, but at the same time, I am expressing a whole world. Each person has so many layers: things that make them happy and things that make them sad. Worries and fears, hopes and aspirations. Middos they want to work on and middos they excel in.

And you, Tanta Goldy, saw only the positive. The better middos. The secret dreams. The noble aspirations. Not only that, but you encouraged people to really follow their hopes and hearts to be all they could be.

Tan-ta Gol-dy…four syllables. Four syllables that convey a heart that encompassed the whole world. I wish I could feel for others as you did because what you had was true ahavas Yisrael.

This is your legacy, Tanta Goldy, which is being passed down from your children and grandchildren to theirs: how mommy or bubby always saw the good in people and loved each Yid.

I recognized something great in you. It would be a pity to just move on. I don’t think that your legacy has to be just for your own descendants. No. A caring heart wishes everyone to have a caring heart.

I wish my heart could be open as wide as yours. I want to try. I know so many people with so many needs. I am going to try to incorporate more tefillos for others into my daily davening. I need to strengthen my empathy muscle.

Tanta Goldy, it isn’t easy to reach your level of emotional empathy. But I am determined to try. I want to bring your legacy into my family. And so in my heart, you will remain alive, as I try to emulate your ways.