Zach Braff's movie, Michael Douglas & Diane KeatonBy Gerri Miller
New movies are coming out this month with several actors in interfaith marriages. Plus, the much anticipated Zach Braff film.Go To Pop Culture
Two months ago, I declared my resolution to unplug with you on this blog. I told you I’d let you know how it was going along the way. I have been reticent to write about it again, but I feel compelled to come clean. I am doing a pretty bad job. I am doing a great job at being mindful of how often I turn to technology, which is one step in the right direction, but I am probably only achieving total shutoff every 1 out of 5 weeks, which is much worse than where I thought I’d be.
If you are observant enough that unplugging isn’t novel, or if you have your own version and you’re pretty good at it, you may not find this of interest. But if you’re one of the many people who told me, “That’s a good idea, I wish I could do that,” I thought I’d let you know where I am getting hung up. You can use my hang-ups as a reason to not try yourself, or as a guide to how to create your own unplugging objectives. Up to you.
Here is where I find myself reaching for the things I said I could live without:
Reason # 1 (the one I kind of anticipated): Making plans
Because this is not really a “turn off electricity because of our religious observance” rule, we are turning off our phones but interacting in a non-religious world for most of Saturday. Saturday is a big day for us to be together as a family and with friends. All of these friends have their phones on. When my girls were younger, I was home on Fridays, so I could focus on family time and planning for the weekend on Friday during the day. But now I work fulltime in the office, and so I am trying to both be in family time and plan family time simultaneously on Saturday. It’s a rarity to have the day all planned by Friday night so that I don’t feel an urge to text a few friends so I don’t miss them at the soccer field, or to plan a spontaneous play-date when naptime is over.
Reason # 2: Getting anywhere
When I was living in LA in my 20s, everyone lived by this incredible map book called The Thomas Guide. Over time, the book was imprinted in my brain in a way that only comes from the act of reading off of a page. Now, I use the map app on my phone to get anywhere. And it hasn’t really imprinted. So I either need to print out directions to anywhere I need to go by sundown on Friday, or fumble my way through Boston by trial and error, both of which I am failing to do.
Reason # 3: Music
We live stream a lot of music in our house (and our car). If the rule is that the phone is off, the Internet radio is, too. I try to draw a hard-line on this one, but I am stuck with commercial radio, which I am not crazy about, and CDs, of which we don’t have many that I am not sick of already.
Reason # 4: Reading
I recently put a real page-turner that I took out from the library on my phone. Sure, I have magazines to read, but I want to finish that book, gosh-darn it.
Reason # 5: Writing
Writing is a diversion I really enjoy. It allows me to clear my head, think differently, and attempt to get interesting things up on this blog. But after over 20 years of relying on word processors, I just can’t write that quickly on paper anymore. And my hand cramps. And then I need to transcribe it on Sunday. So I’m not writing, but I’m not crazy about not doing it.
Reason # 6: Winding down
On a good week, Eric and I put the kids to bed and enthusiastically play a board game or talk about what’s on our minds. But on a regular week, when we are stressed and tired, there’s nothing that feels more romantic than snuggling up on the couch and watching a movie or six episodes of How It’s Made. But our resolution was that unplugging means no TV on Friday nights. Some weeks, we just decide to skip that rule, and others, we both just go to bed early, which is good for our health but doesn’t achieve the objective of taking the TV away so that we can better connect to one another.
Because of all of these things, I’ve cut myself some breaks that feel unavoidable in the moment but don’t help me in achieving my goal. I’m not ready to change the rules just yet – I want to give it some more time. And even with the rule skirting, I think we’re getting somewhere. When we don’t use the Internet radio, we talk more, read more stories, or remember to look out the car window at the beautiful trees instead of looking at the pictures on the phone. We may not actually ban TV for 24 hours, but we are mindful of not turning it on before we have a conversation to unwind together first. And the phone has pretty much disappeared from our dinner table 7 days a week, when it had crept in a little too much. So we’re getting somewhere. Its just slow going.
I had no intention of writing two posts on the High Holidays, but something happened the other day while playing tennis with Sammy that was in sync with the spirit of the season.
Sammy has been playing tennis since the age of four. He has progressed from group lessons to private lessons twice a week. He truly loves the sport and started to play competitively last year. His game has improved exponentially and there is no longer a need for Cameron and me to take a little off our strokes when we hit with him.
But while Sammy has become hard to beat, we are still bigger, stronger and more experienced. No matter how close the games are, more often than not, one of us is on the winning side. This is hard for Sammy. We don’t care if we win, but Sammy has an intense desire to beat us.
When I was a kid I too wanted to beat my parents. Winning against them symbolized a kind of independence. It said I wasn’t a baby; I was strong enough to beat an adult. So I understand Sammy’s pursuit of victory. I just don’t like it when the intensity with which he pursues his goal leads him down the path of unsportsmanlike behavior. This is what happened the other day.
Sammy had won the first set 6-2. I was up 2-0, 40-30 in the middle of the third game of the second set. I could see Sammy’s frustration building at having easily given-up the first two games. Now I had the chance to take a 3-0 lead if I won the next point.
I served, he returned the ball and after a short rally he hit it out. Sammy didn’t like the call but instead of asking if I was sure that the ball was out, he exploded, “That ball was in!”
“It looked clearly out to me,” I said. “It landed in the green space behind the baseline.”
“No it didn’t! It was in,” he yelled. “You’re a cheater! You just called it out so you could win!”
“Sammy, I’m your mom. I love you. Why would I cheat?”
“You do cheat!” he shouted before he started to serve the next game.
As I waited for his serve, I hoped that hitting the ball might help him work out his anger and frustration.
“Zero serving three,” he said. “But it should be deuce!”
“Out,” I called when his serve landed wide.
“I don’t even know why I play with you. You make me so frustrated. I hate you!” Sammy screamed. This insult was followed by a cry of “Uggh,” as he fired his next serve.
The serve was a bullet and the force of the shot made me think that he was channeling his emotions into better play. But I was wrong. I soon saw that rather than raising his game he was spiraling into a complete meltdown. After I won the set, I suggested that we go home and continue the match the next day.
Sammy protested and I agreed to play more, but after the first game of the third set I decided I had enough of Sammy’s unsportsmanlike behavior. The tantrum wasn’t working itself out. It was time to set some boundaries.
“I’m done,” I said.
“I’m tired of listening to you use hurtful language. I’m tired of you throwing your racquet and whacking the fence. I’m going home,” I said in a calm, but stern voice as I picked up balls.
Sammy walked over, sat at the net, put his head in his hands and cried. I went over and sat too. “Can I give you a hug?” I asked.
“No! I don’t deserve one,” he mumbled.
“Sometimes when we’re angry and frustrated a hug is exactly what we deserve,” I replied. “I may want to believe this because I’m your mother, but I don’t think that you really meant what you said today. Your words and actions were your anger and frustration speaking.”
“I’m sorry,” he sobbed.
“I know you are. Listen, I’m your mom. I love you. I will never cheat you. I’m also human and humans are flawed. Sometimes I’ll get the calls right and sometimes I’ll make mistakes – just like you. But I’ll always try my best to make an honest call.”
Sammy inched closer. We hugged. “I’m really, really sorry,” he said.
“I know. Sometimes we say things that we know are wrong or that we don’t mean, but because we are so emotional we can’t seem to stop the words from coming out. I know you didn’t mean what you said. I forgive you.” I gave Sammy a kiss and then said, “I love you – always.”
I didn’t intend to make our tennis game a High Holiday teachable moment. It just happened to be a reminder that as we seek to return to wholeness we not only want God’s forgiveness, but also each other’s.
This year, we won the lottery. The school lottery. We were among the lucky few to win a coveted public pre-kindergarten slot for Ruthie, at one of our first choice schools, no less. This means that last week we celebrated Ruthie’s last day of preschool, and with excitement and a twinge of nostalgia we will become an elementary school family in less than a week.
When I went to line up our fall calendars, I was faced with my first big school decision. Hopefully you have already realized that Rosh Hashanah comes very early this year. On Ruthie’s second day at her new school. Transitions are not easy at four years old, and after months of preparing for school, of trying to get her excited about her new classroom, her school uniform and making new friends, it feels like an unfair jolt to her system to go through the routine for her first day only to break it up by pulling her out on her second. And I have thought a great deal about the possibility of dropping her off at school on the way to synagogue that day – of not mentioning the holiday in the spirit of structure during a transitional time. After all, she’s nowhere near
As torn as I feel about breaking up her routine, however, she will miss that second day of school. Rosh Hashanah is important, as both a holiday and a time for our family to be together. Ultimately the observance and chance for reflection is more important than the bedtime difficulty the disruption will likely inspire. And in full disclosure, the thing that pushed me over the edge on this decision is the experience of navigating the holiday with my husband, and our annual holiday frustration.
Eric is very committed to raising the girls Jewishly, and began experimenting with observing the high holidays long before we were officially making a home together (like the year he secretly tried out fasting and didn’t tell me until the grumpy 3-o’clock hour rolled around). But for years we have hit a snafu in September. In the weeks before the holidays, we talk about our plans for them. Eric looks forward to services and family meals and the like. When the actual day of the holiday approaches, however, he realizes he has key a deadline the day after Rosh Hashanah, or an essential meeting the day of Yom Kippur, and he forgot about the conflicting dates. He scrambles last minute for what to do, sometimes giving his boss poor warning of his need to miss work and other times missing synagogue.
I inevitably get irked, disappointed, and say something unfair.
I used to blame his forgetting the date on his not caring about the holiday, or just not getting how important it was. Over time, though, I’ve come to understand that that’s not the story. It is a classic situation where the big things – whether or not we want to celebrate a holiday together – aren’t what’s tripping us up – it’s the little things. The little thing here is that for over 30 years Eric didn’t have to stay on top of an ever-changing lunar calendar to figure out when his holidays were. He didn’t need to step out of “regular” life every fall for the holidays. His forgetting was never that he didn’t want to, it was just that he never cultivated the habit. If we were going to be Jewish together, I needed to help him – to let him know as soon as I saw the dates, and to remind him once or twice (or thrice).
As an American Jew, the high holidays have always felt a little more sacred to me because even though “regular” life is going on all around us, we are required to stop and do something different. It is a profound time to sit in the quiet space of silent prayer in the synagogue, or by the water outside, and think about being Jewish, about how to be better people, and about the miracle of God. I was never going to win a perfect attendance award at school, but I was going to get a few extra days with family, and a few extra shots at reflecting on how to be a better me. So I don’t want Ruthie to have a year without that, even if she’s not old enough to truly get teshuvah (repentance). And I look forward to hanging that paper shofar up on refrigerator next to her first school art project.
As the High Holidays approach, I’ve thought a lot about the past year – my successes; my failures; the moments when I’ve been my best self and those when I haven’t lived-up to who I want to be as a colleague, daughter, friend, mother, sister, spouse and Jew. As I’ve gone through this psychological housecleaning I’ve made note of the things big and small that I might want to repent for this year.
I’ve asked myself which transgressions will I seek forgiveness for and which ones are well…minor infractions and not important. Does not observing Jewish dietary laws make the cut? What about walking past litter in a parking lot? Does God really care about what I eat or is the divine more interested in seeing me do a better job of caring for the earth?
As I contemplated these questions I was reminded of a conversation I had with Sammy during Passover. The holiday fell during his spring break. We were on vacation and were not being mindful of the holiday’s food restrictions. Sammy said, “We’ve been really bad at keeping Passover this year.”
“You’re right,” I said. “Some years I’m good at making sure we keep it, and others years I’m not. It’s always easier when we’re home. Since we’re away I’ve let it go. I think God will forgive us.”
“I don’t think God cares,” replied Sammy. “I don’t think God cares about what we eat. I mean, God wants us to eat healthy food but I don’t think God cares if we keep kosher or keep Passover. God cares about important things like not hurting people, not making fun of people and treating people fairly.”
At the time of the conversation and again as I replayed it in my mind I thought Sammy has a point – eating matzah instead of bread on Passover won’t repair the world, but showing compassion and gratitude, and honoring others can go a long way to making our society better.
Then I found an article, “A Universal Explanation for Religious Atheists,” that I had torn out of the paper back in July. Written by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald, it is a conversation between the author and God about atheists and the concept of a godless “universal spirit.” Pitts asks God if the idea of a universal spirit bothers him to which God replies no. God then says, “I’ve been called worse. Besides have you seen the things some religious people do, supposedly in my name? They blow things up in the name of God. They stone women in the name of God. They fight in the name of God. They hate in the name of God… I wish, more often they would hug in the name of God. Serve in the name of God. Heal in the name of God. Make peace in the name of God.”
After re-reading Pitts’ column I felt that he was making a similar point to Sammy – care about the things that are truly important, the things that have the ability to make the world a better place. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Because while the small stuff can help us feel closer to God; more connected to our faith, traditions and history; and provide a way for remembering to hug, heal and serve, it can also if we’re not careful, become more important than loving thy neighbor, honoring our elders and caring for the earth.
So as I finalize the list of things I will seek forgiveness for this year I’ve decided that my food transgressions will not be on it. I don’t think God cares that I ate pizza on Passover or indulged in lobster rolls over summer vacation. But I do think God would like to see me acknowledge that I can do a better job honoring my mother and father, listening to my colleagues, showing patience with Sammy, controlling my temper in disagreements with Cameron and taking care of the environment.
We were feeling good after a great Pie Fest, which drew our biggest crowd and most impressive selection ever—including a heavenly homemade key lime pie and a raspberry plum tart. Yum. All those round beauties sitting on our table, each embodying our wish for a New Year that rolls along smoothly. Our first-ever attempt at making pie crust turned out pretty well, even with the minor disaster of placing the lattice-top crust on our peach pie, which we somehow reconnected. (Thank you Cooks Illustrated for the eponymous illustrations!) The forecast had called for rain and wind, but right before our guests arrived the sun’s rays broke through and the kids spent most of the time outside. We went hours over our party time, and by the end we lounged on the floor and sofa, feeling much like we do after Thanksgiving.
While we were making the pies I asked my kids questions that our rabbi and director had suggested: What happened in the last year that you were proud of? What do you wish you had done differently? What are your hopes for the future year? They had some interesting answers, such as, “I’m proud of the way I handled grandma’s sickness and had faith that we would get back to the light as a family” and “I’m proud of how I resolved my fight with my best friend” to “I wish I had given the new kids in my class more of a chance.” Then they asked me, and let me tell you it’s not so easy when the roles are reversed. I think I begged off in the interest of time, with flour flying all around me. I’m still trying to figure out my answers, which Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur have really helped with. In my relatively brief time as a Jew, I’m still getting used to the idea of having the joyful celebration first and the melancholy repentance second, which is almost exactly opposite to the weeks of abstinence of Lent leading up to the good times of Easter. Color the eggs! Break out the chocolate!
On the afternoon of Yom Kippur, as my husband and I were beginning to feel a little woozy from no food, we went on a bike ride with our 7-year-old. That might sound weird, but we needed a distraction and the park isn’t too far from our house. When we got there we went straight for the pond, where we have spent countless hours feeding ducks and geese. The first ominous sign was a dead duck curled up near the fountain where my son loves to play. Then as we walked along the perimeter we heard an odd flapping sound and looked over to see a male mallard caught in fishing wire that was attached to the stone wall surrounding the pond. The wire bound his beak to his chest and wound around one of his wings, which he kept flapping in vain, turning around and around in a small circle. It was a truly heartbreaking sight. My first thought was to find a knife to cut him free and I ran over to some picnic tables, but the only person who looked likely was a dad barbecuing for his family who was using a gigantic cleaver to cut chicken and clearly not eager to hand it over to me. Meanwhile, my husband called the emergency parks number for a ranger to come out and rescue the bird. We figured it might take a while so we headed home, where my husband found a hockey stick and I grabbed some scissors. We drove back to the park and found two families gathered on the banks near the bird, talking about how to save him. My husband and older daughter hooked the stick under the bird’s belly and pulled him gently to the edge, and then quickly cut the line attaching him to the shore. The bird’s beak lifted up, his wings spread and he took off across the pond, just skimming the surface. The families clapped as the duck joined his buddies on the other side, and then watched as he swam by us again. Then we all noticed the same thing: a small piece of wire remained looped around the duck’s beak. We hadn’t completely freed him. The duck slowly circled the pond, rubbing his beak against stone and reeds. Just then a police car drove up—turns out the ranger wasn’t on call—and talked to us. He said he’d leave a message for the ranger on Monday, and there was nothing he could do. We were impressed the officer showed up at all, and held out some hope that the duck would be able to rub off the wire eventually before it starved. But at the same time we felt disappointed that our best efforts hadn’t been enough to completely liberate the duck. I’m tempted to draw some parallels to starting off the New Year full of hope, trying your best, then realizing along the way that sometimes things just don’t turn out exactly as you want them to. It’s a lesson I learn again and again in a spiral, that all we can do is try our best. We’re definitely going back to the park to try to find our friend, though.
The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are referred to as the “days of awe” – a time of reflection, atonement, saying you’re sorry to those you may have wronged. The Days of Awe 2011 for our family has officially been re-named the “days of sick”. Unfortunately our older son was sick and out of school for the past 10 days. Nothing serious – but he had a long standing fever, horrible cough and a big case of the “I just want to lay on the couch, watch TV and play Wii”. He got x-rays for pneumonia – nothing, we went to the doctor’s – his exam was perfect. We went to get blood work – which was a whole other ordeal unto itself – nothing. Just more Jr. Tylenol and cough-induced sleepless nights for us all. I just felt so bad for him – no energy, no appetite, no interest in doing anything. The worst part for my husband and I was that we felt so helpless – we just couldn’t do anything to make him feel better.
The one bright spot of the week was one night before bedtime. We usually read our boys a book or two (or three) before bedtime that they get to choose and at this point, our older son can read on his own – he was so proud of himself when he came home from school on library day with two chapter books after he passed the “test” to take them out. Instead of reading Hooray for Fly Guy or Gus and Grandpa’s Halloween Costume or a book about tornadoes, dinosaurs or baseball, he requested The Only One Club and The Shabbat Box – two adorable PJ Library books that we probably haven’t read in two years but are still in his bookcase. The Only One Club is a great picture book about a girl who realizes that she is the only Jewish child in her class as her teacher is having all of the kids make Christmas decorations. She goes home that night and makes a special badge for herself that says “The Only One Club”. At school the next day everyone asks her what the badge is for and then everyone else wants to be part of the club. Although she makes the badge because she is the only Jewish child, she figures out that each kid in her class is the “only one” of something – red hair, freckles, big teeth, etc. It’s a book that is particularly relevant during the December holidays when kids start to figure out who is Jewish and who is not, or remembering my son’s explanation – “who is Christmas and who is Chanukah.”
The Shabbat Box is a book about a boy who waits “98 sleeps” to take home the Shabbat Box from pre-school and then it drops in the snow on his way home and he ends up making another, even more special Shabbat box for the class. From our experience at the JCC pre-school, the Shabbat Box includes candles, a fresh challah, grape juice, a blessings sheet and a Shabbat book. Getting the Shabbat Box in pre-school was always fun for us – except on the Friday nights when my husband and I were completely exhausted and couldn’t rally to do Shabbat and instead made French toast on Saturday morning.
I was more than happy to read these sweet, moral-based, Jewish books to my sick son who obviously needed a feel-good book before bedtime that night – too tired and too exhausted to read on his own and more in the mood for a pre-school story than a big boy book. My husband also read these same books to our son the night before – unbeknownst to me.
As I look back on these ten days and do my own reflecting, I realize I am so lucky to have a healthy family, an amazing husband who is helping create a Jewish life for our children and a supportive community in which to do so.
For more information on the PJ Library and how your child/ren can get free, age appropriate, Jewish books and music sent to your home on a monthly basis visit www.pjlibrary.org. You will be happy you did!
From Tel Aviv to Atlanta: After our goodbyes were said, a few tears, a 12 hour flight and 16 hour unexpected roadtrip down the Eastern seaboard, my husband, baby and I are officially ex-expats. The move from Israel back to the United States was a little tougher on me physically than I expected. Sometimes I do forget I have to slow down a bit more than usual as I have hit my final trimester, but we are finally settling in nicely. With cars purchased, house rented and boxes unpacked, we are now focusing on everything we have to do to prepare for our son.
Besides the usual, like the bi-monthly prenatal appointments, showers, birthing classes and decorating the nursery, we are beginning to research mohels to perform the circumsicion, a rabbi to perform the conversion and local synagogues to find the perfect fit for our growing interfaith family (in the middle of the High Holidays mind you!). There is a lot to do in the next three months, but I think we’re up for the challenge.
I have already noticed little differences with being pregnant in the States than in Israel. Because the birth rate in Israel is higher than in the U.S., I would see pregnant women everywhere and now I feel as if I rarely see another pregnant woman on any given day. In Israel, my OB was very dependent on technology and genetic testing to track the progress of my pregnancy. I had an ultrasound and a blood or genetic test at nearly every appointment while in Israel, while my new OB in the States will only perform one ultrasound and will rely primarily on tracking my symptoms, weight and growth for the rest of my pregnancy.
Oh and of course, Americans are far more aware of personal space than Israelis so the belly rubbing and uninvited advice from strangers has slowed quite a bit since moving back. I have to tell you, I actually kind of miss it!
One of the challenges of being an interfaith Jewish family is that at times we find ourselves without a large Jewish family gathering to attend. (Full disclosure: Even with my Irish Catholic upbringing I have long held a fantasy of large, warm, boisterous Jewish family gatherings. I’m not sure where it comes from—movies? books?—but there you go.) A few years ago we were trying to figure out how to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with just the five of us, when our middle child suggested making our favorite pies and inviting a few friends, in keeping with the whole sweet New Year theme. At first she wanted to make it an anti-cake rally, too, complete with a poster of a cake in a red circle with a line through it (she isn’t too fond of cakes, obviously) but we decided in the end to keep it positive and focus on our love of pies. And thus our first annual Rosh Hashanah Pie Fest was born.
After going to morning services and Tashlich on the shores of Lake Michigan, we turned our kitchen into a veritable pie factory. Along with covering our kitchen in flour, smears of butter, and sugar we churned out a fair number of pies, among them apple, lemon meringue, pumpkin, key lime, cherry and blueberry. I have to admit we cheated on the chocolate French silk, buying it from Bakers Square. The hardest part turned out to be the crust, and I ended up buying pre-made crusts from the grocery store after a few failed attempts. I felt a little guilty about doing this, as my mother was an expert baker, who had learned the art of making pastry crust from her mother, whose own mother was a cook in the Duke of Norfolk’s kitchen (more on that in later blogs). We laid out the pies on tables in our backyard and had about ten people over, most of whom brought even more pies. It was lovely. The kids ran around, laughing and playing (and hyped up on sugar!), a wonderful sound. We ended up sitting around our outdoor fire pit, stuffed with all the different pies and feeling that we had done our part to start the New Year off as sweetly as possible. Every year Pie Fest has grown a little larger, and this year—our fourth—we’re expecting about thirty guests. I’m going to try my hand at the crust once again, this time using a recipe that our cantor suggested. We’ll see how it goes. L’Shana Tova!