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

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 “Dear John” letter to Target

As a Jew in Long Beach, I have always been proud that you can find menorah lighting ceremonies in Belmont Shore, Bixby Knolls and even City Hall.  It shows that although Jews make up a relatively small percentage of the population, that our culture and religion are honored and included in some way during the holiday season.  You can usually find some assortment of Hanukkah merchandise at the bigger chain stores starting in November, which is nice.  I can pick up dreidels or chocolate coins for a party, or candles for my menorah.

I was shocked when I found out Target, “Long Beach Bellflower” in Los Altos, did not only NOT have a small selection of goods, but the manager refused to stock even one small shelf or end cap of Hanukkah merchandise this year.  Signal Hill has an end cap, Seal Beach has an end cap.  Obviously managers CAN order these items and other managers in the same region felt is was pertinent and applicable to have a small selection available to their customers.

I personally haven’t been shopping at this specific location very long, but other Jewish women I know have been shopping at the Los Altos Target for 20 years and have always felt like the Hanukkah selection has been adequate based on the local Jewish population and its needs.  So why this year?  Why now?  Some say that the merchandise must not have been selling well.  Then why not see the influx of complaints (I know I am not the only one who has complained) and choose to stock some merchandise in time for the holiday?  If people are complaining that they WANT to spend money at your store, but can’t, isn’t that a great reason to expand your selection of merchandise?

Target has allowed each manager to decide if it will be stocking Hanukkah merchandise this year, regardless of demand, or demographics in the region.  In essence, they are allowing each manager to exercise their own prejudice and discriminate.  Now, I get it, this isn’t Eric Garner levels of discrimination.  We are Jewish women who can easily get to Seal Beach or Signal Hill stores if we are dead set on getting Hanukkah merchandise from Target.

Is it the end of the world?  No.  But you can bet it’s the end of me ever shopping at Target again.  If my Jewish money isn’t green enough for them, I’ll spend it where it’s appreciated.  I’m not even going to ask you to stop shopping at Target.  I loved Target.  I even miss shopping there.  If you told me 6 months ago I wouldn’t step foot in a Target again, I would have laughed in your face.

What will I ask you to do?  Represent Long Beach.  The most diverse beach city in SoCal.  The city that has a beautiful waterfront downtown, at least 3 synagogues, countless churches and a mosque.  A city that has a gay, Latino mayor.  A city that celebrates with their neighbors in the streets with beautiful parades and local, Long Beach pride.

I will ask you to take a moment the next time you’re in the Los Altos Target and let the manager know you think it’s wrong they are not stocking Hanukkah merchandise.  Support the Jewish community and do what all of Long Beach seems to do so well; Find a way to make everyone feel like they matter during the holiday season.

Happy Holidays!  May the Schwartz be with you!


I’m not OK and you shouldn’t be either

It’s officially been over a year since starting my Mommellah project.   It’s been a great time of new beginnings and reflections of how motherhood can connect me to Jewishness.  I recently read a post about mother who is living in Israel, and after telling everyone for so many weeks that she was OK with the current conflict, decided that she is not.  It really hit me.  As a mother, I can’t even imagine being in the scene that she paints.  It makes me want to cry.  It makes me want to scream.  It makes me realize that even though I may be halfway around the world, I’m not OK either.

The other morning my husband looked at me during breakfast and asked me what was wrong.  I just can not stop thinking about what families in Israel are going through right now.  The fear, the injustice, the horror of it all.  The reality that even though Israel is defending themselves in a reasonable way, they are fighting an unreasonable enemy.  Pictures of dead children vilifying Israel, when Hamas orchestrates their deaths so the world sees Israel as a monster.   It all shakes me to my core.

I have to ask myself, why is this conflict so much more important to me than conflicts in the past?  Is it really more severe?  More publicized?  Am I more aware of what’s going on because of my new blog and dedication to my Jewish identity?  It could be it’s become more real knowing I have friends in Israel, parents that have children who I can sympathize with because of my family here.  They’re not OK.  They shouldn’t be.  I’m not either and frankly, there’s not a Jew on the planet who shouldn’t be afraid right now.

The media coverage is disgusting.  I want to believe that the people who are supportive of the Palestinian action are ignorant of the true facts and are falling in the PR trap Hamas set for us.  Unfortunately, it’s just not the case.  The events in Paris make me wonder, can there be another Holocaust?  Will there be?  My heart is heavy.  Every single day.

My Jewishness means I am connected to Israel, no matter how far away.  I must stand for Israel, or I stand for nothing.  As a Mommellah, I’m starting to realize, my duty is in teaching my kids about our history, Israel, the Holocaust and what is happening today in the Middle East and in Europe where antisemitic feelings and actions still exist.  I’m learning that being a Jewish mother goes far beyond Berit Milah, lighting Shabbos candles and changing diapers.  It’s about explaining what you can about what’s important to the future of our people.  The proud descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Am Yisrael Chai.

May the Schwartz be with you

10 Questions all Mommellahs ask

Whether you’re Jewish or not, most moms can relate to these 10 questions…

10.  Who’s your little friend? Are they Jewish?

9.  What’s with these shpilkes? Didn’t you get messhugah at the park?

8.  Is my bubbellah too hot?

7.  Is my bubbellah too cold?

6.  Is my bubbellah eating too much?

5.  Is my bubbellah not eating enough?

4.  You call that a nap?!

3.  Can you please sit still while I wipe this schmutz off your face?

2.  Do you love your mother?  Then (place direction here)

1.  What am I going to do with you?!

May the Schwartz be with you!


Rediscovering Purim

Our family is an interfaith one.  I also happened to grow up in an interfaith family.  I am probably one of those “Secular Jew” statistics, as far as my level of temple involvement, etc…  The thing is, I want to be Jewish.  I want to feel connected to my religion and I want to find more fun ways to celebrate the holidays and traditions.  Purim is a fabulous way to do just that.

Now from what I remember, as a child, Purim was a holiday where you eat hamantaschen and make a lot of noise in the synagogue.  You could dress up as a character from the story of Esther, but it wasn’t required.  As I’ve found out, in reconnecting with my Jewish roots, there is a lot more fun to be had with this holiday.  In the last few years, I’ve seen The Beatles and Star Wars themed Purim festivals and services, a step (or a few steps) above the old, dress up as a princess or old man options I had as a child.  There is still a rowdy atmosphere with groggers (noise makers) aplenty, but with a welcomed, more adult enhancement.  Alcohol.  Lots of it.

It’s traditional during Purim that you boo and make lots of noise every time you hear “Haman”, the name of the evil character in the Purim story.  What I never knew as a child is that it is a mitzvah to get SO drunk, you can’t tell the difference between, “God bless Mordechai” and “Down with Haman”.  Now, you don’t have to drink to have a great time, but let me tell you, getting rowdy and making a ton of crazy noise in the pews is way more fun, and a lot more awesome when people are passing jello shots down the aisles.  Even my Catholic reared husband thinks Purim is the bomb.

The essence of Purim is one of shedding your secular image and being proud to identify yourself as a Jew, as Esther did.  So, let me encourage you, if it’s been awhile since you’ve been to temple, if you have been on the fence about when to go poke your head in, go celebrate Purim this year.  It even falls on a Saturday night! (March 15)  It’s never too late to reconnect with your roots and party like your ancestors did: hard.  On Purim.

May the Schwartz be with you.


Halloween: Kosher or Treif?


Halloween, the crisp fall air, the fun and freight of dressing up, haunted houses and trick or treating.  My memories of being a young child and the thrill of the scare make me nostalgic for the simpler days in my life.  Growing up as a Reform Jew in Southern California, there was never a question of whether I would celebrate this holiday in all of its traditional, American glory.  Costumes, parties, tricks, treats, and candy.  What is there not to like?

Now that I have kids of my own, and have more of a focus to find meaning and connection to my Jewish heritage, I find that Halloween is pretty much considered treif by most conservative Jews.  Disappointing, but not surprising.  Halloween has never been associated with Judaism and is traditionally a time for witches, spirits and divination.  Of course, I am not a witch, I am a Jew.  So what does Halloween mean to me and why do I choose to celebrate it?

It’s essentially a silly, secular holiday.  Do I really need to appease the “spirits wandering around” with candy?  Do I need to dress up to represent those wandering spirits?!  Lord no.  I dress up to celebrate my American roots and traditions.  Heck, it’s only been celebrated here in America for the last 100 years.  It may seem old to me, but relatively speaking, a new practice.

Most traditional rabbis argue that trick-or-treating is best avoided. Some children are easily scared.  Some Jews choose not to go trick-or-treating. Instead, they will celebrate in other ways like roasting pumpkin seeds, eating fun food, bobbing for apples and listening to Halloween themed songs.  Although these celebrations may be viewed as alternatives to participating in a foolish custom, it’s still celebrating the holiday. So I ask these Jews, why stop just short of trick-or-treating?

I view Halloween as a secular holiday, no different than Thanksgiving or July 4th.  It’s an evening filled with harmless fun and free candy.  I think many American Jews see nothing wrong with that.  In the end, it’s up to you to decide for yourself how you view the holiday, and how you would like your family to celebrate, if at all.

I can still remember the rubber mask my dad bought when I was about 7.  He sat on the porch all night and scared the kids that thought he was a dummy in a chair.  It is a memory I will never forget and will appreciate forever.  So, for all the reasons you may decide not to celebrate, I’m celebrating for one reason only; To give my sons the opportunity to create and cherish their own Halloween memories.