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JVO Blog Has Moved!

To the wonderful JVO-niverse:

In case you’re wondering why we haven’t posted here in a while – we’ve moved! Please join us at our new blog site, If you scroll down on the right-hand side of the screen, you’ll see an option to subscribe to the blog via email. Enter in your email address and get the latest blog posts as we write ‘em!

Thanks for joining us.

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Something to Smile About

OK folks, time to take a break from all the heavy stuff. Iran, Shmiran, is what I say! Instead, let’s do one of my favorite things: A roundup of fun, interesting links from the internets. (What’s also nice? I started this post a few weeks ago, and every few days, I came across another story or link that I just had to include. The lesson: There’s good stuff and good people out there, even if they don’t always make the headlines.)

So what am I liking on the Jewish web these days?

This kid: Ethan Metzger explains “Jewish brainwashing” during a poetry slam in the Bronx. (Also, Fun Fact: I used to teach at the school Ethan attends! Yes, Funner Fact would have been if I had taught Ethan, but hey, you take what you can get.) He eloquently and passionately answers an uncomfortable question that plagues many of us who grew up Orthodox: “Aren’t you just doing all this religious stuff because your parents make you? Aren’t you brainwashed? You didn’t choose to keep this lifestyle or to observe these commandments. It’s just because your parents told you.” Etc. etc. And while I could paraphrase his answer for you, I think it’s well worth the less-than-three-and-a-half minutes to listen to Ethan slam it.


Also making the rounds on YouTube: The multi-talented doctors and nurses at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem. It’s a video promoting hygiene and good health through effective handwashing, but while that may sound super boring, I promise you the video is anything but. Israeli medical professionals rapping and breakdancing in a hospital? How could that not be fun?! The video is in Hebrew, but when it went viral (ß get it?) they added English subtitles so even more people could appreciate its awesomeness.


Sometimes, I like to visit the guys and girls over at Israel21c for some inspirational articles that make me hopeful about the future of humanity:

So, you know, just another regular old day in Israel. Go to work, drink some coffee, transform the lives of the visually impaired. OrCam, a company whose mission it is to restore functionality to the blind and visually impaired, just came out with a device that helps people read and see. Using artificial intelligence and complex algorithms—in other words, “science” and “math”—the device identifies thousands of everyday objects and transmits them to the wearer’s ear via a voice system. The device helps people with visual impairments do daily activities that would be otherwise impossible, like read a newspaper, wait for the bus (and know when the right one comes) and count out exact change.

Then there’s these guys, an Israeli startup called IonMed, who have developed a way to close incisions without stitches or staples. The idea, in short (very short) is to use cold plasma and basically weld that incision shut. In addition to getting rid of scarring, the plasma promotes healing and reduces risk of tissue infection. The product is still in the testing phase, but when it receives FDA approval, it will literally change people’s lives.


Then there’s the news from Israel’s “startup nation,” which is becoming so routine it’s almost boring. First, Google bought the Israeli navigation company Waze. (The story made some very nationalistic waves when the company refused to sell if it required relocating to California. In the end, they are keeping their offices in Israel.) Then Facebook scooped up Onavo, which does something complicated involving “analytics” and “optimizing.” Not sure what that means, but you go, guys! This purchase is also significant because it represents Facebook’s first office in Israel. And the latest purchase is Soluto, a company that helps manage computer issues remotely. It was bought by an American company Asurion Corporation. (Fun Fact: Former CEO of Soluto is Israel’s current Minister of Economy and Commerce Naftali Bennet.)


From the war desk: A little-known fact about the current civil war in Syria is that while Israel is staying firmly out of it (because we’re sort of officially at war with them), Israeli doctors have treated hundreds of wounded Syrians. Less severe cases receive treatment at Israel’s field hospital in the Golan Heights, while doctors bring the more serious cases to Israeli hospitals in Nahariya and Safed. A recent first was when a Syrian woman gave birth in an Israeli hospital. The woman realized she was in labor but was without access to a hospital. She traveled to the border and the Israeli soldiers, seeing that she was in terrible pain, transferred her to Ziv Medical Center in Safed, where she delivered a healthy baby. She spoke warmly of the care both her and her baby received, saying, “I really don’t feel like I’m in an enemy country; everyone is helping me and caring for me.”


Next up on Happy News: silence. Specifically, the Sound of it. These Hasidic brothers are making the viral rounds on a popular Israeli singing contest. Whether or not two traditionally garbed Hasidim singing Simon & Garfunkel qualifies as “kiddush Hashem/sanctifying God’s name” is up for debate, but there is no arguing that it is certainly fun to see stereotypes come crashing down. Also, they are really good.


Finally, this: You decide – happy or depressing? This picture has been getting a lot of attention lately. A young man fell asleep on the subway, nodding off on the shoulder of a slightly older man. The second guy didn’t push him off, wake him up or move away. He simply let him sleep because he said he knew what it felt like to be exhausted at the end of the day. For sure, the gender and dress of the two men—a be-hoodied young black man and a kippah-wearing Jewish man—is adding to the viral-ness of this picture. The question: Is this a “Isn’t the world such a wonderful place where simple acts of kindness like this can happen?” or is it a “How low have we sunk, as a human race, when someone doing a very simple act of kindness—in fact, the kindness was more in his not doing anything—makes us all teary eyed? And that what we would have rightfully expected the guy to do was push the sleeping kid off, looking disgusted or disturbed?” What do you think?

Well, that ends our latest segment on Things Aren’t So Bad! Next week we will be back to our regularly scheduled program of wondering about stuff and overthinking things.


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We Have … The Power!

(^ Paraphrasing the always-quotable He-Man. Well, OK, this is probably his only quote.)

A recent video on the website “Upworthy” showcased a debt collection agency with an interesting twist. For those of you who aren’t familiar, “Upworthy” is a website filled with good things from the vast world of the internets, things that are both “awesome and meaningful” (their words), instead of “depressing and shallow and did I really just spend five minutes of my life watching/reading that?” (my words).

So then, you are probably wondering how debt collection could have anything to do with “awesome and meaningful.” That’s where the interesting twist comes in. The goal of this particular debt collection agency—which hires “customer care representatives,” not “debt collectors”—is to get the debtors back on their feet. They operate on a simple premise of, “If people are in debt, they probably don’t have money.” The agency helps debtors in every area—from refinancing loan terms, to helping them pay bills, find housing and get jobs. The agency will even fix your resume, get you an interview and call you the morning of the interview to remind you to get ready!

But how can a debt agency afford to be so … nice? How do they get pay their overhead and their employees’ salaries—with sparkly smiles and bear hugs? Surprisingly, the agency does well. Very well—the owner says they can make twice the amount of other debt collection agencies. How? Because, when they help people get jobs and make money, the (former) debtors have more money to pay the company. Being nice actually pays!

So … what’s the lesson here for the rest of us? The answer: Most of us, at some point in our lives, are responsible for the well-being and happiness of another person. It may happen during business dealings or during family dealings, but there will come a time when we find ourselves holding the key to someone’s happiness, to their ability to move onward and upward. This person, whose life may be in your hands (figuratively speaking), may be having a difficult time. He or she may have screwed up and even owe you something. And when this person is before us, we will be faced with a decision: Will we shame and embarrass this person until we get the desired result? Or will we use this opportunity to help this person solve a problem, regain his confidence and achieve his potential?

As a parent, I often find myself in this position. A certain child of mine is a chronic school-supply-forgetter. And yes, I often yell in exasperation, “You forgot your folder again?” But while yelling and shaming may help him remember, it won’t be nearly as effective as working with him to find a way to remember on his own. Same is true at work—when an employee hands in a subpar presentation, you certainly could reprimand him and make him feel really bad about it. Or, you could take this opportunity—frustrating as it may be—to help him see the issue from another angle, come up with a better idea/response/presentation and fix it on his own.

Like the debtors, if someone is having trouble doing something, yelling at them for not being able to do that thing is … well, less than effective. However, helping the person get to the root of the problem and improve himself along the way—that is nothing short of tikkun olam.

The premise of this unique debt collection agency, the premise that should form the foundation of all of our interactions with others, is “dan l’kaf zechut/judge others favorably.” This doesn’t just mean “give people the benefit of the doubt.” It’s a much more positive, proactive tenet of Judaism. It means believing in and respecting the essentially good nature of man. Believing that, in general, people are decent and worthy, not lazy screw-ups.

People want to do well, to stand on their own, be self-sufficient and make those around them happy and proud. They want to achieve and reach their potential. Supporting and guiding them on their way is not only an opportunity for us, but is in fact one of our greatest responsibilities to our fellow man.


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Hey There Good Lookin’!

One Shabbat, a few months ago, a friend stopped me in the street. “You look so nice today!” she exclaimed. Her honest, out-of-the-blue compliment made my day. And still, thinking about it months later makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

But lately, saying anything that smacks of “outer beauty” is a big no-no. I guess she should have said, “You look so intelligent today!” Or, “I love your leadership skills!”

This is perhaps less true about adults, but it is certainly the trend when it comes to our children, especially our daughters. The current wisdom states that we should refrain from complimenting them on their looks because we don’t want them to think their self-worth is related to their outer appearance. We should focus on girls’ brains, talents and sense of humor. Not on how pretty they are.

And part of me really understands that. In our sexed-up, celebrity-obsessed, look better/younger/thinner society, I get that you need to bend the twig far, far back in the other direction. Instead of an appearance-centered outlook, focus instead on achievements, accomplishments, brains, abilities.

But isn’t how we look also part of who we are?

The Torah certainly thinks so. The parshiot (Torah portions) we’re in the middle of now talk a lot about the beautiful women of the Bible. Sarah is called “yafah hee meod/very beautiful” (Gen. 12:14). Rebecca is described as being kind when she drew water for the travelers and all their camels. But first, the Torah says that she was “tovat mar’eh meod/beautiful of appearance” (Gen. 24:16). Rachel is “yifat to’ar v’yifat mareh/handsome and beautiful appearance” (Gen. 29:17). Apparently, beauty was considered significant enough to be mentioned. Repeatedly. Maybe because looks do matter? Our appearance is an undeniable part of who we are. Not as important as being generous, honest or humble, but not something we should ignore, either.

When my kids do well on a test, make a funny joke or (on blessed rare occasion) help each other out, I compliment them. And if they are looking spiffy in their new Shabbat clothes, or if my daughter has a cool new hairdo, I’ll compliment them on that too! Why should they never hear from their parents that they are cute/gorgeous/handsome? I like being complimented. I don’t think there is something wrong with deriving pleasure from being told I look nice. I also am fairly certain that my self-worth is not entirely reliant on those compliments, either. Why is it different for our kids? I believe it’s more than OK to throw in a “You’re so beautiful!” to our kids now and again. In fact, I think the opposite is true—we do a disservice to our children when we deny that how we look is an important part of who we are.

I want my kids growing up knowing that their mom thinks they are capable, smart and beautiful. And I want to empower them to feel those things about themselves, to feel confident about themselves and take pride in who they are, both inside and out.


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A Blessing on Your Head

We put our hands on our kids all the time. A hug, a kiss, a shoulder tap, a Band-Aid, a fresh diaper, adjusting baseball caps, fitting on socks and shoes, washing hair, holding hands, inspecting a bruise, bump or scratch. All those things happen, mostly without us even paying attention.

Every Friday night, though, there’s a different kind of touch. Right before Kiddush, we place our hands gently on the heads of each of our children and murmur the traditional blessing for children: “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe” (for boys) or, “like Sara, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah” (for girls). Some also add the Biblical verse we use for the priestly blessing. “May God bless you and keep you. May Hashem make His face shine on you and be gracious to you. May God turn his face toward you and give you peace.”

I have found that spirituality occurs in small moments. (Not “Judaism.” That, often, occurs in big, flashy moments, like Friday night dinners or cleaning for Pesach or building a sukkah.) But spirituality, actually connecting to God, happens in small, ordinary moments. I don’t have time for lengthy prayer sessions in synagogue, but when I light candles every week, I spend a few extra seconds “in conversation” before I uncover my eyes. When I make a “shehechiyanu” (blessing on something new), I reflect for a moment on how profoundly grateful I am to have reached this point, to have this experience.

And one of “small moments” happens during the weekly blessing of the kids. It’s short and quick and humble and not always picture-perfect—sometimes we have to chase the kids (depending on age and mood), sometimes the 3-year-old eyes us distrustfully and throws the blessing back at us. Sometimes the sulky tween refuses to come to the table. But we do it, we bless them, every week. And every week, I look forward to it. To having just a few moments—really, no more than seconds—to connect with each child on a different, primal level. We’re not talking to each other. In fact, we’re not even looking at each other. I’m simply touching them—barely—breathing them in and being grateful that they are here, that they exist, gratified that God has given them to us, praying we won’t mess them up too badly and hoping that, like the prayer says, He continues to keep them and give them peace.


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Small Spaces

I started this blog, about recent events in Israel, a few days ago. But as I wrote, I realized I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to say. I knew I needed to write about it, I just didn’t know, honestly, what my point was going to be. (Reassuring words from a blogger, no?) (And I really do have another 1,300-word document on this topic, full of thoughts with no point. Welcome to my life.)

So, in lieu of a thesis, I’ll just tell you what’s been going on. There has been a lot of crappy, saddening, frustrating stuff happening around here. In the past month, there have been four random terror attacks on Israelis—literally random, the four perpetrators acting alone, not with each other and not as part of a wider terror organization like Hamas—leaving three men dead and one little girl injured (wounded via a gunshot from crude homemade gun, while she was playing in her yard.) An off duty soldier was lured to a Palestinian coworker’s house (they worked in a restaurant together), where the killer strangled the soldier and dumped the body into a well, then went to take a nap. The killer, whose brother is in an Israeli jail, was hoping to exchange the body and secure his brother’s release. Another soldier, on duty in Hebron, was fatally shot by a sniper. And the latest victim, a retired IDF officer bludgeoned to death outside his home, may have “just” been a victim of a botched robbery and not a terror attack. The investigation is underway.

Then came the news of the terror tunnel—a tunnel starting in Gaza and ending well inside Israel, in a kibbutz called Ein Hashloshah. The point of the tunnel, of course, was to make it easier for Hamas to kidnap soldiers (the tunnel is similar to the one used to capture Gilad Shalit in 2007) as well as carry out terror attacks inside Israel. Even better? We helped make the tunnel! Hamas diverted supplies that Israel sent to Gaza, such as cement, and used them in constructing the tunnel. You’re welcome, guys! Thankfully, the tunnel was found before it was put to use, although Hamas reassures us, “We have the will and the resources to create thousands more like this.” Super.

So I felt compelled to write about this slew of horrific news, because it weighed on my mind and my soul. But what to say? Comment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the peace process? As you probably know by now, political analysis is not my style and certainly beyond my capabilities, which often seem to be limited to “make fun of my kids” and “wonder about stuff.” Write about not becoming desensitized to these atrocious acts? No, I didn’t want to write about that either. And anyway, here, the opposite is often true—we take each loss personally and heavily.

So I had nothing left to say, except this one thought: You guys, this country is small! And not only in that we-all-care-for-each-other sort of small. No, I mean, physically, actually, geographically, cartographically, small! This scary stuff is happening in my backyard. Not to a distant people in faraway places. To my people, in my places.

There are haters who are literally a five-minute drive from my home. We routinely travel past red signs warning Israeli citizens not to enter Palestinian-controlled territories, that their lives are at stake should they continue driving. We hike in Ashkelon, a mere stone’s throw (literally) from the rockets of Gaza. I pass Ramallah every time I drive to Jerusalem.

This knowledge, that close by, there are those who hate me and spend their lives hoping to end mine, it surrounds me. I breathe it in, I live it every day. One day, in the not-too-distant future, my children will need to fight it. It’s like living in New Jersey knowing that there are people in Delaware working on your complete and total annihilation. It can feel frightening and sad and hopeless.


Now that I’ve written these thoughts, I need an ending, of course. I could end on a positive note, find the silver lining, talk about how this makes us stronger, brings us together, makes us appreciate and live life to its fullest.

Blah blah blah.

But no. The kumbaya-ness will have to wait for another day. Today, I’m going to acknowledge that it can be hard, living here. This country that I love with my heart, mind and soul, that I love fiercely and proudly and deeply—it can be a scary place to live sometimes.


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Funny, He Doesn’t Look Pewish

(^ So many Pew/Jew jokes, so little time…)

First, a confession: I am terrible at understanding statistics. When I read things containing the words “causal connections,” (which I always, ALWAYS, read as “casual” connections. Like, “Me and this other fact get together sometimes, but it’s not serious”), or “percentages” or “correlated,” well, it all kind of swims before me in a jumble of letters. So it was with some trepidation that I read the latest Pew research study: “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” (And when I say “read the study,” I mean “read the one-page overview.”) But as it deals with some of the topics so central to this site—defining Jews, Judaism and the relationship between the two—I knew that I owed it to you, dear JVO-niverse, to bury my fear of correlated percentages and dive right in.

After I read the summary and a few of the articles written on the subject, I found that I am inclined to agree with the sentiments of this blog post. The author says that, basically, every media outlet has taken away what they like from this survey. It’s a smorgasbord of Jew stats! There’s something for everyone! The doomsayers can point to the increasing rate of intermarriage and gravely announce, “This is the end of the Jewish people,” while the optimists can point to the statistic that 94 percent of US Jews are proud to be Jewish and say, “See? See? Look how far we’ve come!”

How you interpret the results of the survey depend in large part on how you define Judaism. Is Judaism a religion? Or is it a culture, an ethnicity, a nationality? Since I myself am a religious Jew, I thought I would answer (A.) But one of my chief tenets of, well, living, is that my lifestyle is what is right for me, not what is Right, Period. So I don’t think that Judaism, for everyone, is defined by religion, by a strict set of laws. In fact, even for many (some? most?) religious Jews, Judaism is about a lot more than religion and halacha.

In fact, I think one reason Jews have gotten this far is because we don’t just define ourselves by religion. We are more than just a do-this-don’t-do-that people. We have a rich history, tomes upon tomes of academic writings and multisensory traditions that allow people to engage with Judaism however they like. Attending Shabbat dinner or Passover seder, learning Jewish texts, supporting Israel, giving charity, connecting with your Jewish community, even Holocaust remembrance—these are some of the ways people are defining what it means to be Jewish.

There are those that say Judaism isn’t a buffet. You can’t pick and choose, they say. I say, why not? Why not pick and choose what works for you? By defining Judaism more broadly and inclusively, we are inviting more Jews to connect—proudly—to being Jews. Maybe it’s not about Jews keeping Judaism, it’s about allowing Judaism to keep us. To keep us connected and engaged, through its numerous, diverse, intricate, beautiful facets. To make us proud and eager to pass on our traditions, heritage and history to the next generation.


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Happiness, Courtesy of One Small Thing

Sometimes, you can’t stop thinking about a thing you wrote once. Maybe because it was so witty, philosophical, reflective, deep, provocative or profound. Or, maybe because your brain is so full of fog that the only idea you have is one you already had.

Either way.

It seems I’m still thinking about this whole “choose to be happy” thing. Why? Because now, people, is when you gotta put your money where your mouth is. (But don’t really do that, ‘cuz then how will you pay for your coffee?)

Once Sukkot comes to an end, summer vacation is well and truly over. And even though we are reveling in the return to routine (Yay! Back to regular life!), there’s just a wee bit of sadness that the festivities are gone (Oh. Back to … regular life.) PHB: the Post-Holiday Blahs are settling in.

It’s especially hard during that first week back because the next vacation is just ever so far away. Plus, we realize that in addition to all the work-work that’s piled up during the past month, life-work is also waiting, and none too patiently. Make that doctor’s appointment! And the dentist appointment! Laundry + food shopping! For the love of duct tape, fix that @#$#$# [broken thing] already! Buy that new garbage can, you know you need one!

In other words, DO ALL THE THINGS. We’ve been cheerfully pushing off everything to Later, but folks, Later is here, and she’s not in a good mood.

And it’s not just us grownups having a hard time buckling down to do all our things. Mornings have been rough on my second grader. (The first day of school after Sukkot—after being home for 2+ weeks!—is like the first day of school, but with more of the dread and none of the excitement.) He states, point blank: “I don’t like school. I don’t want to go.” And even though he generally returns home in a good mood, telling me a funny story or a game he played in gym, his short-term memory is painfully lacking the next morning. (“Remember??” I cry desperately, “Remember when yesterday wasn’t so bad??”) He even savvily plays the “You’re only sending me to school to get me out of the house!” card. Which, I have to explain, is actually not true when you’re in second grade. Cue explanation of “truancy officer.” (Do they still have those?)

Once I explain how not going to school could land us both in jail (where they have TV but no kids’ shows), I launch into the “Choices” lecture: You can’t always choose how things turn out but you can choose how to react to them. Going to school: Not a choice. Being grumpy about it: Definitely a choice.

Then, I segue right into the “One Small Thing” speech. I encourage him to find one tiny little flicker of hope in every day. One cheery something thing he can look forward to, whether it’s a game at recess, a certain class, or even dinner. Sometimes we even write down a schedule of every day’s One Small Thing. And the best part? One Small Things are all over the place, all the time. Birthday parties? Eh, they’re fun, but only once a year. But the funny parsha teacher? Every Friday! Gym class? Twice a week! Dinner? EVERY SINGLE DAY! (A philosophy that always reminds me of this brilliant Calvin and Hobbes strip.)

And then, mid-lecture, I realize that hey, I should listen to these wise words I’m saying. Yes, vacation is done, gone, bye-bye. Yes, there are a lot of things that need to get done. And it can feel daunting and endless and full of blah. But remember: Choose to look for those little happy things, wherever you can find them. For me right now, it’s going to be a second cup of coffee.


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You, Over There! Be Happy!

So Yom Kippur is over. And whether you spent the day praying in synagogue, praying on your own, contemplating reflectively (or reflectively contemplating), riding your bike down Israel’s car-free streets, or dealing with a sick 3-year-old, it’s done. We have all, hopefully, been inscribed for a year of good things.

And now we move on to Sukkot. The holiday of happiness, literally: Sukkot is also known as “Chag simchateinu/The holiday of our rejoicing.”

How did Sukkot get to be The Happy One? One reason is because it is also “Chag Ha’asif,” the holiday of gathering. Sukkot was the time when farmers would gather in their crops, just in time for the rainy season to begin; it joyfully represented the culmination of a summer’s hard work.

During Sukkot in the time of the Temple, a festive spirit prevailed as Jews from all over gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday together at the Temple. The simchat beit hashoeva/water libation ceremony was held every day, during which the Jews would pray for rain. The excitement that accompanied the ceremony was something to behold. The combination of the gathering of Jews, the joyful ceremonies, the festive feeling, the anticipation of a wet, rainy winter made Sukkot a profoundly jubilant time.

Much of that happiness that was so organic to Sukkot is somewhat lost today. No more Temple, no more gathering of Jews to the holy city (although perhaps the hotel bookings in Jerusalem at this time of year would say otherwise), no more water ceremony. It’s easy to get bogged down in the stress of missing more work (again), cooking and going to synagogue (again), and entertaining kids (AGAIN!!)

So can we really experience the happy of our Happy Holiday?

Yes, you can, says God. The lesson of the Torah’s words “v’samachta b’chagecha/and you should rejoice in your holiday” is in the very fact that we are “commanded” to rejoice.

God knows that it’s not always easy to be happy. On Sukkot, He reminds us that we need to make our own happiness. During this holiday, we put effort into our sukkah, our lulav and etrog and our festive meals. But we also need to invest in recognizing and creating moments of joy.

The joys can be small or big, simple or profound, experienced alone or in a group. For example, when you find that perfect etrog, and you marvel at its deep yellow hue and heft that’s just right in your hand, recognize that blissful moment for what it is. Relish the opportunity to color on the walls and create dazzling works of art for your sukkah. (For the record, ours include the classic super-long paper chain, something complicated made of magnets, an abstract art experiment created by mixing the paint colors together to create the ever-popular “Kid Brown,” and a moose head we bought once because we saw it and thought, “This is perfect for the sukkah.”)

Sit back and enjoy the sounds of Kiddush and singing coming from the surrounding sukkot on the nights of the holiday. Appreciate that first sitting-in-the-sukkah blessing (leshev basukkah), which means you DID it! The sukkah is standing (for now), the food is cooked, and everyone is enjoying the fruits of their labors.

I gave you this holiday, says God, now you need to choose to make it a joyful one.

Yes, we’re also stressed. But you know what? [Spoiler alert!] There’s always going to be stress! “V’samachta b’chagecha” reminds us that we have to decide what our approach to life is going to be. Will we let the joy in? Will we go out of our way to find it and create it? Will we obey the commandment to be happy? God, for one, hopes we will.

Wishing all of you a happy Sukkot and a happy year.

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The Lazy Person’s Guide to Teshuva

It’s that time of year again. The “Aseret Yemei Teshuva” (10 days of repentance, which last from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur), and we are busy, busy, busy making our New Year’s resolutions. We list, in great detail, all the ways we screwed up last year, beg God to forgive and promise Him that this year, it’s going to be different. We’re going to be good people, swearsies.

It’s amazing that He still believes us. Because for me, at least, all my good intentions last for about 6.5 seconds, till I realize that it (it = whatever praiseworthy thing I decided to do) is too difficult and I give up.

In my defense, resolutions are hard. I think I should be commended for even trying to make some. Just wanting to improve is half the battle, right? Right??

However, I thought would be a nice change to make some keep-able resolutions, for once. I devised my own “Guide to How to be a Better Person Without Really Trying; Or, Trying Just a Little” (patent pending).

Here’s how it works:

  1. Think back to the good things you did last year. Don’t focus on things-you-screwed-up-that-need-fixing. Think about what you did well, whether it’s “bein adam l’makom” (between a person and God) or “bein adam l’havero” (person to person).
  2. Decide how you can do that thing (that you are already good at doing) even better.
  3. Do it!

Voila! An easy, doable resolution!

See, you gotta start with small steps. If you choose something insurmountable (“I will never yell at my kids,” “I will spend all of my free time engaged in acts of kindness” “I will go to synagogue all the time” “I will pay close attention to every single work story my spouse tells me”) then the minute you find that you cannot, in fact, surmount it, you will feel dejected and overwhelmed and you may just give up.

But if you pick something you already know you can do, well, then, you are almost there!

Lev Vygotsky understands this. Vygotsky is the psychologist who developed the idea of “zone of proximal development,” a fundamental teaching theory. (I know teaching theories because I used to do it—teach, that is. Not have theories. Having theories is my current job.) The ZPD is the difference between what a child can do with help and what he/she can do without help. A teacher’s job is to work within a child’s ZPD—their comfort zone—so the child can develop and enhance skills by completing tasks on their own. Once they gain skills and confidence, their ZPD gets pushed out—a task they could previously do only with help becomes something they can do independently. Start with what a child is comfortable with, let them achieve success, and they will be able to take risks and learn new skills.

Teshuva has to begin the same way. You have to start in your comfort zone. So pick something you are already good at. For example, for me, “never yelling” is as likely to happen as eating only half the Snickers bar and “saving some for later.” Last year, though, in lieu of birthday parties for our children, my husband and I took each of the kids out on “date night.” The kids loved it—even the 3-year-old, who had no idea why Mommy and Daddy were taking him to a park but was relishing every minute—and my husband and I enjoyed spending alone time with them.

Alone time with the kid = a good, positive thing, which is also something doable. (And who knows? Maybe in the end it even leads to less yelling? A girl can dream). So perhaps this year, my “resolution” is to carve out alone time with each kid more often. Where “alone time” is defined as parent and child doing an activity together, not parent and child both alone in the house by happenstance, with parent cooking dinner and child sitting in front of the TV. An ice cream date, reading a book together, a trip to the mall—small things to remind myself that I’m also their parent, in addition to being their chef/chauffeur/nurse/referee/Homework Enforcer (<–It’s a real thing. Look it up.)

Another thing I’m good at? I’ve made many “new mom” dinners for friends who’ve had babies. Perhaps this year I expand my circle, extending the mitzvah to new moms who aren’t necessarily my good friends. When the email comes around asking for volunteers to cook a meal, I’ll sign up, even if I don’t know the parents.

So those are some “bein adam l’havero” ideas. What about the Big Guy? Besides calling out to Him several times a day during some trying parenting moments—what could I do?

Well, this year, I channeled my pre-kid self and starting using the early morning time to pray. I will be first to admit, it’s a quick, Cliff’s Notes version of the morning services, but still, it’s something. So this year, I will make an effort to make that a daily occurrence, not only a once in a while thing.

Small steps.

In addition to determination and a desire to improve, we also need success and confidence to pull off a really solid, doable “New Year’s resolution.” Those qualities are crucial to pushing our teshuva comfort zone out just a little bit, so that next year, we can tackle something new.

And that, my friends, is how a Lazy Person approaches teshuva. What about you?

Posted in Beliefs and Practices.

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