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Grandparents and recalling Christmases past while hiking in the Negev

This was sad and poignant and strange. Aspects of it reminded me of my childhood, growing up four hours from my paternal grandparents and a whole country (and a wide country!) away from my maternal grandparents. It made me nostalgic for a childhood that I didn't have, of living close to extended family. It also made me miss my grandparents, both dead and alive. I know that I was lucky to have them in my life for as long, and as much, as I did, but I still want them around for longer.

I spoke to my grandmother, my one living grandparent, on the phone last night, in honor of Thanksgiving, and it made me miss her even more. I hadn't spoken to her since I left the US in August. There is no excuse for that, given the price of long-distance calls these days, but the miles somehow make it seem further. So much of the time we have spent together has been around activities or food, that it's hard to sustain a relationship over the phone. I don't think I would want to commune with her over the Internet, even if she were willing to, which I don't think she would be. It would have been really fun to "do" Thanksgiving over the Internet, via webcam, with the extended family, but it wouldn't have been the same. At all. Thanksgiving is a BIG deal in my family, at least partly because it was the only holiday my immediate, Jewishly-observant family could do with my non-observant wider family. I've only, in my life, had two Thanksgivings before this one without my grandmother, siblings, parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. One was when my grandparents didn't make a big Thanksgiving because they were having a 50th wedding anniversary party the same winter, and the other was when I was in Israel in 1997. (Is it normal to say "make Thanksgiving" the same way one says "make Pesach," or is that a Yiddishism that has crept into my English?) My mother is making Thanksgiving dinner tonight, for my father, sister, me, and two friends, but it isn't the same, although I am looking forward to it tremendously.

I was hiking in the Negev over the past three days, and the subject of Christmas traditions came up. Yes, a bunch of Jews hiking in the Negev, discussing Christmas. Why not? One Jew, who grew up in Utah, recalled hitting the slopes every Christmas, since they were virtually empty. Another Jew, probably from New York although I wouldn't swear to it, recalled movies and Chinese food.

At first, I said that my family didn't have any Christmas traditions, but then one came to mind. My grandparents used to visit us from California twice a year: December vacation and Pesach. The December vacation at the day school I attended typically began on December 26, just to make a point.

The Christmas tradition that I recall most strongly took place on December 26: the day the Christmas chocolate went on sale. We would go to the local drugstore and stock up on red and green Hershey's kisses and half-priced sugar cookies shaped like Santa Claus. All such foods were forbidden by my parents, but allowed, and in quite liberal portions, by my grandparents. The other thing that we used to buy was smoked sable from the local kosher butcher. It was delicious. My mother didn't like it, so we never had it except when my grandparents came to visit. I wonder if you can get it in Israel? And why did I never buy it for myself, once I was of age to do so? My grandfather also used to buy us all the herring we could eat. I don't like herring any more, but when I was seven and eight, I loved it. And, again my mother didn't like it, so we only had it when my grandparents came to visit.

You can't do half-off Christmas chocolate, half-off Santa cookies, smoked sable, and cream herring over the Internet.


I never share photos on this site, but I wanted to share some views of the Negev. It was so great to get outside--both to be outdoors and to be away from the beit midrash, largely because of my recent frustrations. I might write about the trip some more at some point. I also want to write about the KolDor conference and the General Assembly (aka "GA"), both of which I attended a few weeks ago now. Enjoy!

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Torah and life

Things are, quite frankly, not going so well in the beit midrash, and thus in life. I am not enjoying learning nearly as much as I have in the past. I'm not really sure why, except for one idea that I am finding extremely difficult to articulate. I look around the beit midrash, see others happily and excitedly engaged in learning, and it makes me sad.

So I have made a list. Because lists are easier.
  1. I used to learn to escape from deep truths and the emotionally difficult parts of my life. I loved learning and did it a lot. It was a great escape on many levels, especially studying Mishna.
  2. Then I decided to stop escaping from deep truths or I stopped being able to escape.
  3. Then I disliked learning Torah, since I only knew how to learn in this bifurcated, sanitized-from-emotions, way. Learning Torah reminded me of that former life of escape from emotions that I had rejected. Also, whenever I learned (and I think this is related), it felt boring and irrelevant. Cut off from the meaty part of life, somehow.
  4. So I didn't learn for a long time (1998-2004).
  5. But I missed learning.
  6. When I started learning again, I found that I didn't feel like I was leaving my emotional life at the door, so to speak. I felt like I was somehow bringing my whole being to my Torah study. And I found that I loved learning as much as I had before (say, back at #1).
  7. But now I am not enjoying learning, to a large extent. It's like I'm back at #3. And I don't know why.
At the end of this past summer, which was spent studying Torah, I wrote that "I have a renewed conviction that one can and should bring one's personal and emotional life to bear on one's limmud Torah." I somehow suspect that the institution where I am currently studying, or the program within the institution where I am studying, does not support this "bringing the whole being" model of Torah study. Somehow, it feels like I am being asked, or forced, or encouraged, to check who I am at the door, and enter the beit midrash sanitized from emotion and personal history. I think if I stood up in the beit midrash and said "I think that one can and should bring one's personal and emotional life to bear on one's limmud Torah," I would either be laughed at, ignored, or just simply not understood.

Do any of you understand what I mean by that? I tried to explain it to someone in person recently and he really didn't understand what I meant. Or, rather, he said that he felt that that's how all limmud Torah is, by its very nature. He didn't understand what the alternative was, that I was rejecting, which made me feel he didn't understand what I was saying.

The kind of learning I am interested in doing is the kind of learning that informs and is informed by the actual lives we live. By my life, and my struggles, and my values. I want Torah study that illuminates rather than represses, that connects and unifies rather than divides. I want Torah that engages me at my core. I want to be able to learn Torah the way that I talk to my closest friends or read the newspaper: with my whole being, informed by everything I've done and that has been done to me, by my feminism, my attention to detail, my liberal proclivities, my concern for humanity, my interest in how legal systems can create positive change in the world, by my need for creative expression. This is my Torah, and more that has yet to be written.

I feel guilty articulating this. I was raised with a certain rigorous intellectual standard for Torah, and the accompanying feeling that anything that actually touched or affected people was fluffy nonsense. Gemara should be about pure Gemara (or, sometimes more accurately, about rishonim). Halakhah should be about serving God, not articulating deep emotional truths. I still cringe when people try to make Torah about politics or current events. How is that different from what I want? I don't want some watered-down version of Torah just for the sake of making it personally meaningful--do I? Am I just a casualty of the "me generation," where if it isn't about me, it isn't worthwhile or important? Just how self-absorbed am I, anyway?

I have two other goals besides learning Torah in a way that engages my whole being and that involves bringing my whole self--warts and all--into the beit midrash. (No, I don't have actual warts. Just metaphoric ones.) Another list:
  1. I also want to know everything. Really. I want bekiut that I don't have at the moment. And I want to acquire it in some way other than, say, reading through the Shulkhan Arukh, which I find to be boring. Maybe I just haven't found the right way to do it or the right person to do it with. I don't know.
  2. I want better skills. I want a larger Aramaic word bank in my head. I want to be able to read through a page of Gemara with less difficulty, and even to attack Tosfot with some expectation of success.
I have loved learning Gemara, halacha, and Tanakh in the past, and I want to love learning it again. I don't know how to fix whatever is wrong. Heck, I can't even really articulate it that well! (I'm not even 100% sure that the problem is this (see above), and not something else more pragmatic, like not being in the right shiur or not being interested in the particular material I am studying.)

Does this sound like anything any of you have ever felt? I am hoping that if people ask me questions or challenge me to be more articulate, I could better explain what I mean.

Someone help me, please!

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Rashi supports women's empowerment!

See this nice d'var Torah on Parshat Chayyei Sarah. I'd never noticed that Rashi before, or that Rivkah's father and brother first attempt to send her off without asking her before they changed their minds and ask her.

I do wonder what the role of Rivkah's mother is in all of this. She is mentioned, after all, in Genesis 24:
כח ותרץ, הנערה, ותגד, לבית אימה--כדברים, האלה 28 And the damsel ran, and told her mother's house according to these words.

נג ויוצא העבד כלי-כסף וכלי זהב, ובגדים, וייתן, לרבקה; ומגדנות--נתן לאחיה, ולאימה 53 And the servant brought forth jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment, and gave them to Rebekah; he gave also to her brother and to her mother precious things.

נה ויאמר אחיה ואימה, תשב הנערה איתנו ימים או עשור; אחר, תלך 55 And her brother and her mother said: 'Let the damsel abide with us a few days, at the least ten; after that she shall go.'

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Remembering Rabin and enjoying democracy in Israel

Today, the 11th of Heshvan, was Yitzhak Rabin's thirteenth yahrzheit [anniversary of his death]. I can't believe it was thirteen years ago. That makes me feel old. So much has changed in the world since then.

I know exactly where I was when I found out--at the local nursing home, where I visited residents every Shabbat afternoon. I usually ignored the televisions that were on in residents' rooms, but that day, it was impossible. I don't think I knew that he had died; only that he was shot. I didn't really get the full story until after Shabbat ended. After I found out that he had died, it occurred to me, for the first time, that a democracy could stop being a democracy under the right circumstances. I had to take some SAT IIs the next day, which was quite difficult.

Fast forward thirteen years. I am here in Israel. I listened to someone read a lovely Rabin memorial poem on the radio was I walked from Talpiyot to Meah Shearim. (One of my new activities is taking long walks, since Jerusalem is a lovely city for walking and I need the exercise.) I read many interesting, scandalous, depressing, and humorous campaign posters for the upcoming mayoral elections. On Friday, I watched teenagers standing next to each other on street corners, holding up signs and passing out fliers for opposing candidates, but chatting in between handing things out. On Shabbat, I chuckled at the (inexcusable given the number of native English-speakers campaigning for him) poor English translation on one of Nir Barkat's handouts: "Barkat shall execute!"

I am really enjoying this election. In a way, I feel more connected to this election than to that other recent election, although I voted in that one and won't vote in this one. I don't really have time to read any newspapers here, so I wasn't following Obama/McCain at the end, but here, the election is all around me and it feels like everyone is involved and everyone cares. And it's nice.



Prayer before voting from neohassid.org

Enjoy [PDF]! And happy voting. [Hat tip to Steg.]

I voted from Israel with an absentee ballot and I hope my ballot arrives in time--even though I was voting in New York, where it is extremely unlikely to matter.


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