Holiday lights: more than just another decoration

Every year we (and when I say “we”, I mean my husband) get out our holiday lights to string around the house.  They’re always blue and white and generally vague enough to be Hanukkah or Christmas lights.  I recently saw another house with a blue and white theme and what looked like Jewish stars in their windows, but when I got closer, they were just snowflakes.  I always feel very proud of my Jewishness and even love that our festival of lights can (in all intended original purposes) rival that of Christmas traditions.  Even this Wikipedia passage notes the importance of displaying the holiday lights and unfortunately, when not to…

The reason for the Hanukkah lights is not for the “lighting of the house within”, but rather for the “illumination of the house without,” so that passersby should see it and be reminded of the holiday’s miracle (i.e. the triumph of the few over the many and of the pure over the impure). Accordingly, lamps are set up at a prominent window or near the door leading to the street. It is customary amongst some Ashkenazi Jews to have a separate menorah for each family member (customs vary), whereas most Sephardi Jews light one for the whole household. Only when there was danger of antisemitic persecution were lamps supposed to be hidden from public view, as was the case in Persia under the rule of the Zoroastrians, or in parts of Europe before and during World War II. However, most Hasidic groups light lamps near an inside doorway, not necessarily in public view. According to this tradition, the lamps are placed on the opposite side from the mezuzah, so that when one passes through the door s/he is surrounded by the holiness of mitzvot (the commandments).

This year, was a year like any other until my husband came home with a rotating dreidel projector.  Normally, I would be thrilled.  We’d been talking about another inflatable that is Hanukkah themed, to add to our blue and white polar bears.  Any other year, I’d be ecstatic.  This year is different.  This year, only a few weeks after Trump won the election, swastikas are popping up everywhere.  A teacher friend of mine showed me photos of swastikas all over a notebook belonging to one of her Hispanic students. Luckily, he didn’t know what they were.  I have a feeling in a years time, everyone will know what a swastika is.  It shakes me to my bones.

Of course, I am a proud Jew.  I am happy my husband found such a fun decoration and we display it proudly.  We are now officially saying, WE ARE JEWS to our neighbors and passers by.  In truth, it is a source of pride and fear.  I worry that next year for Hanukkah, we’ll be asking family for a video surveillance system.  I worry that others will pass and not see a festive house, but a target.  I worry for my sons who are about to start into the public school system where swastikas are more and more prevalent.  But for now, we celebrate.  We shop and prepare for the holidays and make plans and move on with our lives.

I am lucky to have many jobs and side jobs.  A colleague was over dropping off some paperwork and we started talking about the new dreidel decoration.  She loved it and I confessed to her my fears.  Til that point, I had not verbalized my feelings out loud to anyone and it was rough.  She turned to me and told me if anything ever happened to me or my house that she would “have a wall of people standing in my front lawn with crosses around their necks 24/7”. And I just fell apart.  I can’t even type the words without tears in my eyes.

I guess it’s good to know that I know warriors of peace, that Maccabees can come in all forms and be from all backgrounds.  It’s good to know that there are people in my community who will stand up, instead of stand by.  It brings me peace.  It makes me feel safe in a very unsafe world. I am blessed, I am protected and I am free to celebrate the holidays however we wish. I hope you find the same peace and joy this year and all the years to follow.

May the Schwartz Be With You

High Holiday Hangover

Last year was the first year I truly felt it.  The burn out, the exhaustion, the eager anticipation of the wrap up of festivities and eventual quietness that is left behind.  I know most Jews (or at least most Jews I know thing of the high holidays as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but Rosh Hashanah is really just a kick off for what is over three weeks of celebrating one holiday or another, ending on Simchat Torah.  From the apples and honey, to the dance around the unraveled Torah, for families who celebrate it all, it’s a whirlwind.

This year, it was even more evident.  Each holiday presents it’s own opportunities for mitzvahs, some more fun to perform than others, with plenty of opportunities to be a host and a guest.  If you are lucky, you have people over or visit homes to share each occasion.  When we finally took down our Sukkah decorations this year, it left an obvious void.  It left our pergola looking sad and lonesome and our hearts a little bit empty too.

We were able to perform the mitzvah of having guests at our home (Ushpizin) so much this year, that taking down all of the decoration we put up to host those guests, made it feel as though it never happened.  I guess that’s the blessing of mitzvah, how it fills your heart, even if you don’t expect it to, even when it’s more work, set up, cooking and clean up than you wanted to deal with.  The magic moments when others are enjoying your Sukkah, when you blow the shofar, when you break the fast, when you dance and sing and drink around the long, open, beautiful blessing that is our Torah, those magic moments fill you in a way that none other can.

We fill our hearts with mitzvah magic and do it SO much in such a short time, it really does leave a void.  Maybe it works out that way to allow us to reflect on what just happened and how we can keep those magic moments going all year long.  Maybe we need an intense, tiring new year to keep our hearts full of passion and joy and thoughtfulness as long as possible, before they start to fade and slip back into our day to day ways.  Maybe it can inspire us to create more magic more often.  I know it will for me.

How will I handle my high holiday hangover?  With a healthy dose of Rosh Chodesh.  Because, although it’s not something I normally celebrate, why not?  There’s magic in the moon and mitzvah in my heart.

May the Schwartz Be With You


Where Disney meets Yom Kippur

I’m not really sure how I never noticed it before.  Maybe because the link was never pointed out to me as a child and now only as a parent am I so immersed in Disney culture that I’ve noticed it.  Maybe G-d was sending me a message through my oldest, who on the long trip from temple to our break-the-fast chose Pinocchio of the half dozen movie options available to him.  How did I not see the link between Pinocchio and Jonah?

I was really hoping he would pick any other movie, Monsters U, Lilo & Stitch, Peter Pan, etc… I was a little disappointed, but I only have to listen to the movie, he’s the one watching it.  I have always thought Pinocchio was one of the scarier Disney movies.  Pinocchio’s series of bad decisions led to some scary situations for a child to be in.  Usually Disney will start with a scary moment, have one or two more leading up to or at the climax and then, bang bam boom, happy ending.  Pinocchio is more like a scary sandwich, with feel good as the bread and a whole lot of naughty in between.

Jonah, also an example of a whole lot of naughty.  Ignoring the direct request from G-d to set the Assyrians on the path of righteousness, running in the opposite direction, because why should he care about saving the bullies of his region?  Why would Pinocchio go to school, when becoming a famous actor was surely more fun?  They run as fast and far as they can, away from their responsibilities, but eventually, both end up calling out for their Father.

They both had to find themselves in the belly of a whale to “get it”. Even when Pinocchio is found by the blue fairy, he lies instead of confessing he’s been naughty.  Being given the chance to do what’s right, he still shirks from the path of righteousness.  Jonah and Pinocchio both had others to save.  Who is Jonah to decide that the Assyrians (even if he despised them) were unworthy of G-d’s salvation?  Pinocchio and Jonah both prove we are only “real” when we try to save others, when we do G-d’s work, when we are the best version of ourselves that we can be.  And isn’t that what Yom Kippur is all about?

So this year, if you have young children, share the stories of Pinocchio and Jonah and talk about how they compare and how we can spend our efforts on holy, virtuous endeavors in the Jewish year ahead. Gmar Chatima Tovah: May you be inscribed for good and may the whale spit you out on dry land.

May the Schwartz Be With You

Pinocchio And Jonah by David Ronald Bruce Pekrul

Pinocchio and Jonah met in the Square,
They both were complaining, “It just isn’t fair,
That both our Creators would show little justice,
By treating us both like two little puppets.”

For God had a job for Jonah to do,
But he wouldn’t do it and said he was through,
Having strings being pulled both this way and that,
So he jumped on a ship like a spoiled little brat.

Pinocchio wanted to be a small boy,
But Geppetto was pulling his strings like a toy,
Instead of obeying, he tried to rebel,
But his nose started growing and people could tell.

They both ended up in the guts of a whale,
And all they could do was tread water and bail,
And think how they struggled when God tried to teach,
Until they were finally tossed onto a beach.

Let’s listen real well as we hear this sad tale,
Of Pinocchio, Jonah and Mostro the whale,
And learn a great lesson, to do as we should,
Whether we are a person or made out of wood.


When Yom Kippur Goes Bad

Yom Kippur 5776, I had the worst experience of my entire life at a temple, EVER. Worse than the time I was completely ignored by every single congregant while checking out a new temple, worse than fainting on the bimah, worse than anything I could really ever imagine experiencing in a Jewish community.  One that I had mostly experienced as being welcoming and comforting. Here is most of what I wrote to my new Rabbi in response to the traumatic day.

I have to say it’s Sunday and the first day I have not been in tears about my experience at the family service on Yom Kippur at your Temple. So I think now is a good time to put my thoughts and feelings into an email….
…My husband was out of town for Yom Kippur, so I figured that since you offered a family service, I could attend with my boys and have a good experience of being able to hear the ashamnu and the usual inspiring and introspective words you would expect to hear for the holiday and have the boys experience it too.  At the temple we just ended our membership at, family services were for children of all ages and the quiet room was for children who were crying or screaming loudly and it was expected that children might be out of their seats or in the aisles, having fun while still being a part of the service in the synagogue. Since I assumed the family service was for all families, I assumed I would be able to attend with my 1 and 3 year old, without my husbands assistance and have 1 hour of a Yom Kippur service before going to break the fast in West LA. 
I arrived and sat in front of 2 ladies I know who work at the JCC, who were lovely and seemed very understanding of the fact that my young boys were standing instead of sitting, singing along with the choir, which they loved and being as good as you could expect a 1 and 3 year old to be. 
Unfortunately, a few of the other congregation members were not understanding at all. I was getting repeated nasty looks from a lady on my right and it became so disturbing, I stood up to collect my children. My plan was to use the quiet room as a “time out” room for my oldest until he decided he wanted to be back in the synagogue, enjoying the service. As I was about to reach for my youngest, a gentleman decided to come across the aisle to tell me that there was a quiet room and directed me to its location. A second indication that we were not welcomed at this “family” service. 
I shook it off and decided the back row would be best for us once my son was ready to rejoin the service. Unfortunately, the back row was so far from the choir and instruments that my oldest quickly lost interest and began running in circles with his brother (as quietly as possible) in the back area. 
It was not ideal, but at least I tried to do something meaningful with my family on Yom Kippur.  After about 5 minutes of being in the back row, another gentleman decided to let me know that babysitting was available for children under 5. That’s when I lost it. I burst into tears and left the service early. The message was clear: you and your family should not be here. It was by FAR the worst experience I’ve had at any temple in my 37 years of life. 
I was leaving the temple sobbing as a “greeter” outside said goodbye to me without asking if I was ok, if I needed help, like I was a normal sight to see. Also, very disappointing. I know you, as temple staff, are not responsible for all of the actions your members make and I have been (in the spirit of Yom Kippur) trying to give the people who made me feel so unwelcome, the benefit of the doubt, maybe they were trying to be helpful or maybe they were testy from fasting. I don’t know, but I forgive them. 
I have talked to other Jewish parents with children the same age as my kids and they also indicated the family service was not for all families and that they would not return to that service until their kids were much older. This is a stark contrast to the programming you offer that I’ve experienced thus far, which has been very welcoming and inclusive. I plan on spending the rest of this year attending as many family events as I can. After Wednesday, I can’t guarantee we will be members in 5777, but I am keeping an open mind for now. 
Since you don’t know me that well, I will say that I’m not a “crier” (which makes the fact that I cried for 4 straight days significant) and that I will never complain without making suggestions on how things could be better. A few suggestions:
Encourage the family service to be truly family friendly, encourage children to be in the aisles and crate an atmosphere where lively, childlike, yet respectful behavior is encouraged. 
Create a separate “tot” service in a separate room or facility with either the family service live streamed in or someone else leading the service and indicate service in the synagogue as for children 6 and up. 
Keep things as they are and at least put on the service description as for kids six and up. Or 8 and up, whatever age you expect children to sit quietly for an hour during service. 
If I had known what to expect, I never would have gone, which is disappointing. The whole experience was disappointing. Ask yourselves How many other members (families with young children) are feeling alienated on the most holy day of the year? 
Ugh.  Even rereading it brings back the feelings of rejection and disgust. How much I believed that the universe was telling me we had made a horrible mistake in switching temples, but you know what?  I stuck with it.  I did Sukkot, Tot Shabbats and even Family Camp.  We had good experiences with families we liked for the rest of the year.  Amazingly, we even signed up for the Torah school, even though our son goes to a Jewish preschool.  Because the staff reached out to us, because they and the congregants encouraged and  supported us.  We found our new home and even though the one experience was frighteningly bad, it began to fade, until the High Holidays came sneaking around again.  I got my packet, shuddered and hid it in my inbox, putting it off as long as possible.  But guess what?  When I finally opened it, I was pleasantly surprised.
The temple added 4 new service options for kids grades K-8! This doesn’t apply to me right now, because my boys are too young, BUT they listened AND things changed.  Not really what I was expecting, but a lovely and heartwarming thing to see coming off a Yom Kippur with so many bad feelings (and not the normal bad feelings we should be having on Yom Kippur).  A lovely and heartwarming year of feeling like we may have a future here after all.  I expected the worst and got the best.
So for 5777, I’m going back to my old temple on Yom Kippur.  My husband is, again, out of town and I cannot bring myself to go back alone, to the same family service.  Maybe next year, but this year, I am at least sorry that I can’t bring myself to give it a second chance. Maybe next year, with confidence that because I shared my tribulation, I can expect the best and get it.
May the Schwartz Be With You

My First Hug

I’ve been in my part time job now for a year or so.  I work as admin at a park and see the kids come and go each day.  We get many, many more in the summer.  We get our regulars, the latch key kids who are dropped off and picked up by parents who can’t afford a proper summer camp.  It’s common and most (not all) of these kids have horrid manners.

A few weeks ago, I got a text from a staff who works under me (and directly with the kids activities) who needed help.  One little boy was being horrible, which was not unusual for him.  He would talk back, not clean up, be rude to the staff and an overall pain. My coworker couldn’t handle him that day.  He was at his wits end.  I told him to send the boy my way.

He got to my office and there was a moment of internal panic for me.  What was I going to say? What could I have him do? What would be effective?  I certainly didn’t want to overstep any boundaries and couldn’t make a punishment too light, or else he’d never care about getting sent back my way.  I started by asking him questions.  “Do you know why you’re here?  What do you think the staff are here to do? Do you want to spend your summer in my office, or out there with the other kids?”.  Tears streaming down his face, he answered these for me.  Luckily, I am not a pushover and certainly didn’t let him off the hook because of his emotional display.

By the time I was done asking him questions, I figured out I could make him write standards. “I will listen to and respect the staff” on a lined sheet of paper. A few words were exchanged during this time.  Nothing significant, but friendly.  I sent him on his way with a warning that next time, he’d get a repeat and some additional work to do.  I confirmed he certainly wanted to spend his summer on the playground and not in my office.

Fast forward to the next Monday. He gets to the park, walks into my office and GIVES ME A HUG.  My first hug from any kid in the whole year I’d been working here.  The first kid that felt any connection to me and all I’d done was reprimand him.  Now this kid comes by every day to say hi. We talk about what’s good and not so good about our day.  If he’s around for any longer than 5 minutes, he always asks for a toy or piece of candy, which I give after confirming with the closest recreation leader that he’s been cooperative and respectful.

He seems to be turned around for now, knowing someone has a stake in how his day is going and what tone and words he uses with others.  I guess my Mommellah instincts can expand beyond my own kids in ways I never expected.



Bête Noire

The “Black Beast” as it’s known is not for the faint of heart. It’s a flourless chocolate cake reminiscent of a fudge that is (in my humble opinion) the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had. A gem from the late Deborah Berger passed along through Aunt Bea. You’re welcome in advance.

1 c water

1/4c sugar

9 Tbsp unsalted butter, diced

18 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped

6 large eggs
1 c heavy cream

8 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
Butter 10-inch springform pan. Line bottom with parchment paper trimmed to fit and butter it. Wrap the pan in 3 layers of heavy-duty foil, bringing foil to the top of the pan.
Now, preheat the oven to 350.
Making the Cake:
Combine water and sugar in small saucepan, bring to boil over medium heat, stirring till sugar dissolves. Simmer 5 minutes, remove from heat.
Melt butter in large saucepan over low heat, Add chocolate and beat till smooth.* Beat sugar syrup into chocolate mixture and cool slightly. Add beaten eggs to this mixture and beat till blended.

*Take it slow and low with the butter/chocolate mix so it doesn’t seize up. I do mine in a microwave on a very low power-setting for seconds at a time.

Pour into prepared springform pan, place it in a roasting pan filled with water so that the level reaches halfway up the springform pan.

Bake cake in center of oven till center no longer moves when pan is shaken gently, about 50 minutes. Remove from water and cool on rack.
Making the Topping.
Bring whipping cream to simmer in small pan over medium heat. Remove from heat. Add chocolate and whisk till smooth.

Pour over cooled cake, gently shake springform pan so the liquid scoots down the sides of the cake inside the pan. Refrigerate in pan till topping sets, about 2 hours.
To serve, run a knife around the inside edge of the pan before removing the outside of the springform.