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The Seeds We Plant

“Pagrates!” Olivia said at Rosh Hashanah dinner earlier this month. “Pagrates!”  Today’s twenty month olds have sophisticated palates. Pomegranates are a staple at such holiday dinners, their seeds symbolic of our hopes for abundance in the new year. This deep red fruit, with its fanciful crown, inspires us to consider what we will plant over the next twelve months.  Will our seeds bear fruit or pain? Will the dream-seeds of our goals reach their full potential or merit additional time to flower?  

We now approach the end of the year’s cycle of Torah readings — V’zot Habracha, “This is the Blessing.” For me, it is the most heartbreaking reading in the entire Torah. Moses is at the end of his journey. The Israelites are about to enter the land of milk and honey. For forty confusing, contentious, and often confounding years, this reluctant prophet planted within their hearts seeds of faith, of resilience, of self-determination readying them for the moment the Promised Land would be theirs.  For misdirecting his anger and disobeying one of God’s directives, Moses is barred entry and must settle for a concessionary glimpse from afar. Then he dies, God’s kiss upon his lips.

In the future lie the promised lands of Olivia’s Bat Mitzvah, wedding, or motherhood. Will I reach them? No matter how much kale I consume, the ultimate decision lies Elsewhere. But seeds are being planted, some by design, some by happenstance.

A few weeks ago I brought Olivia to shul and was given an aliyah, the honor of reciting  blessings over the Torah before and after it is read.  Up she came with me. Balanced on my left hip, Olivia was riveted. When our ba’al kriyah (Torah reader) began chanting, she didn’t take her eyes from his face. Olivia will be called to the Torah some 11 or so years hence as a Bat Mitzvah. At that time, and for the first time as a Daughter of the Commandments, she will recite these ancient words. Deep within her subconscious will a tendril of memory of our shared aliyah unfurl?

Our first outing in my car, I cued up some Crosby, Stills and Nash. Three bars into Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, Olivia called out, “Next song!”  Tracks two and three were met with similar dismissal.  Alas. The next CD — Jewish prayers and texts arranged in the call-and-response mode of kirtan music — was more to Miss O’s liking. The words on the first track, Dodi Li, comprise Judaism’s traditional wedding vows.  Now, as soon as I  buckle her into the car seat, Olivia calls out, “Dodi Yee!  Dodi Yee!” Each note of the song is a seed yet to flower. When Olivia stands beneath a chuppah one day and recites, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” a distant melody may twine its way through the air. She might also have a sudden and puzzling hankering for Cheerios.

Then there is the doll my mother called Madame Butterfly. I was not much older than Olivia is now when indulgent family friends brought her back from Japan for me. Madame Butterfly’s split toe socks and zori shoes disappeared a long time ago, but her kimono costume and intricately-styled yarn hair are intact. Olivia has renamed her Baby and asks for her within minutes of visiting. She understands Baby’s fragility and sits patiently on the couch, waiting for me to put Baby in her arms. Gently, Olivia cradles Baby, rocking her and crooning to her in that high sweet voice we humans instinctively use with infants. I look on and marvel as Olivia gives to my sixty year old doll the deep love she has received her since her conception.

There are Promised Lands I may never reach. But I have been given glimpses. Until then, Olivia and I will continue to share pomegranate seeds, car rides, and maybe even some Crosby, Stills and Nash before too long.                                                                                                                                        



“If you are able, please rise.”

During any worship service, Jews do a lot of standing.  There’s the Amidah, “the standing prayer” at the core of each service. We stand when doors of the Holy Ark containing our Torah scrolls are opened. We stand to recite the Kaddish (a memorial prayer.) We stand for (non-memorial) Kaddishes that punctuate various transitions during the worship service, conclude of a brief period of learning within a service, or celebrate the completion of an extended period of study of certain texts. We stand for the Kiddush which is a prayer recited over wine or grape juice and is not to be confused with Kaddish. We stand during the hakafah when the Torah is walked through the congregation. During the High Holidays there is even more standing. 

So it was, during this past High Holiday season, that I became vexed at a woman who remained seated during an entire service. She didn’t seem to have a physical limitation; there was no walker within reach or cast on her foot. When we stood in unison to recite the Amidah, she sat.  When the ark was opened, she sat. When the congregation rose for the memorial Kaddish, she sat. Not only didn’t she stand, but she never opened a prayer book, opting instead for her Kindle.  Perhaps she had a vision impairment and had downloaded the service on her e-reader so that she could enlarge the type? No, she was just reading a book. Not The Book. I was waxing wroth big time. Why was she acting with such obvious disrespect?  She had to be Jewish. No non-Jew would have behaved so obtusely.  

Then the words of Rabbi Alicia Magal came to me. She leads a congregation in Sedona, AZ where the average age of the worshippers is in the 60’s. Inevitably someone is recovering from surgery. Or has taken a tumble on a hike and is casted or bandaged. Or endures some other infirmity and can only rise in his or her heart.  Rabbi Magal’s invitation is always phrased thus, “If you are able, please rise.” 

It occurred to me that perhaps the woman two seats over simply wasn’t able to rise, for whatever reason. Physical impairments are not always visible. Emotional ones even less so.  Perhaps she hadn’t attended synagogue in years due to some tangled tormented emotional pain and resentment. Showing up Rosh Hashanah morning was as far as she could rise. Perhaps she was there out of deference to her husband and some grand bargain they had struck: she would attend but would remain seated and take refuge not in the prayers but in her Kindle. Perhaps she remained seated simply to mirror back to me my own pissy judgment.

That realization sent me on a train of thought about this coming year and the inevitable expectations I will place upon those in my circle. I began considering the ways I have expected others to rise to my standards and my subsequent judgments when I perceived they didn’t. I pondered the unknown and unconsidered ways I surely had not risen to my loved ones’ hopes this past year and began to consider how I might rise to them in this New Year.

“If you are able, please rise.” How many times is each of us just not able? Not because we don’t care but because of some inner barrier, known or unknown, that disables us. How many times do we rise but it just doesn’t look like it from the outside? How often have I refused to rise simply because I didn’t wanna? How will this year be different?

The woman two seats over will never know the impact she had on me. I am grateful to her for rising that Rosh Hashanah morning to attend synagogue. Sitting through the entire service, she invited me to rise. I pray to be able.

Who Pays for the Tombstone? Who Attends the Wedding?

Since 2013, I’ve written a monthly advice column for the Detroit Jewish News.  I love writing it and thought it would be meaningful and gratifying to expand the love to my Read the Spirit family.         You don’t have to be Jewish to have tsuris! (troubles, heartaches, problems.)  You just have to have a trouble, problem or dilemma that plagues you by day and disturbs you by night.                                  Write to me at deardebra at renmedia dot us or use the form that accompanies the column.               

photo credit: Emma Darvick

photo credit: Emma Darvick

Dear Debra

I am the oldest of three brothers.  Our middle brother died this year and it is time to order and pay for his headstone. Baby Brother says he does not have the money, but will reimburse me when middle brother’s estate is settled. I know very well that my brother could afford to contribute his share, but chooses to spend his money on lavish vacations, kitchen renovations and expensive designer clothes by Ralph Lauren.

Baby Brother has pulled this kind of shenanigans before and I’m tired of it. What can I do to make him pull his fair share in this?                  Big Brother

Dear Big Brother,

Start by dropping the terms Big Brother and Baby Brother, which reinforces the roles of responsible vs irresponsible siblings.

If you can pay up front for the headstone, have your brother sign a promissory note stipulating his commitment to repay you when middle brother’s estate is settled. Provide the executor of your deceased brother’s estate with a notarized copy of it as well. Your personal attorney can guide you here.

If by “shenanigans” you mean that your brother has wiggled out of other financial commitments, you may have to be prepared to pay for the headstone yourself, or take him to court. But if by shenanigans you mean he lets others make the first move and then ponies up, you can be reasonably confident you will be reimbursed.

Since Jewish law requires that a tombstone be prepared to mark the deceased’s burial plot, you might consider ordering one for yourself when you purchase the stone for your deceased brother. Should you predecease your remaining brother, you will not have to worry if he’ll come through.

Dear Debra,

Two days after I RSVP’d to my younger niece’s wedding, an invitation to her older sister’s wedding arrived!  These out-of-town weddings are six months apart.  We cannot afford to go to both.

I am peeved that my sister didn’t warn me before I RSVP’d. Wouldn’t it have been more considerate to space the weddings more widely or have one big affair since many of the same people will be invited to both? My sister has already made noises that she expects me to attend both.                                                                          Aggravated Auntie

Dear Aggravated,

Would that we could dictate how our hosts should organize their affairs. But we can’t. If the financial impact makes attending both weddings out of the question for your husband and you, perhaps you can divide and conquer.  Let your husband attend one wedding and you attend the other. Or let hubby off the hook and you attend both, kind of a one-for-the-price-of-two solution that also pleases your sister who is expecting you at both. Just be sure to let Bride Number One know immediately that you will be attending solo. Once you have decided how you will handle the RSVP’s, shift your attention from aggravation to celebration. Jewish weddings are called simchas for a reason — simcha means happiness, and that’s what every bride and groom is entitled to on their wedding day.

Dear Debra,

I am a long-time member of a committee at synagogue. Each committee member signs up at the beginning of the year for that year’s commitments.  The chair has this annoying habit of sending out reminders at least every two months. He knows I am happy to do this job, I have never forgotten and have asked him not to send me these reminder emails.  Shall I chalk it up to his eccentricities?                                Perplexed

Dear Perplexed,

I’d bet a dozen bagels he wishes he had a whole committee of folks who never needed reminding and never forget to show up!  Then he’d be free and clear to go fishing, read the latest New Yorker or check out a new restaurant in town. Even the most dedicated folks sometimes forget to show up and welcome extra reminders.

The committee chair has likely assembled all his volunteers in one address file. You don’t really expect him to include your name for the first mailing, delete it for all subsequent ones and then reinstate it the next year, do you? Next reminder you receive, simply hit the delete key, disposing of the annoying email and maybe your peevishness, too.  Better yet, before deleting the chairman’s reminder, hit reply and acknowledge all his hard work. What you call eccentric, I’d call practical. And often thankless.


Playing Favorites and Tortured by Texting…

Since 2013, I’ve written a monthly advice column for the Detroit Jewish News.  I love writing it and thought it would be meaningful and gratifying to expand the love to my Read the Spirit family.         You don’t have to be Jewish to have tsuris! (troubles, heartaches, problems.)  You just have to have a trouble, problem or dilemma that plagues you by day and disturbs you by night.  The reader who penned Problem Number Two, took this invitation literally.                                                                       Write to me at deardebra at renmedia dot us or use the form that accompanies the column.               

1. My spouse’s parents play favorites with their grandchildren, and my children are starting to notice, asking why Grandma and Grandpa don’t pay the same kind of attention to them as they do to their cousins (and it’s not that these other grandchildren need them more for any apparent reason) . How should we handle this?  UnFavored

Dear Unfavored,                                                                                                                                                   Familial favoritism should be the 11th Thou Shalt Not. Has your husband discussed with his parents that the children have noticed the favoritism? If 1) he has and they haven’t changed or 2) he cannot or will not bring it up, then you have to take the initiative . Tell your in-laws that  you’ve missed having them around and would love to see more of them. Invite them to share a new family tradition — a weekly Skype or family outing. Hopefully they will respond in kind.  But if they remain scarce, you will have to help your children learn a painful and important life lesson: we cannot change others, we can only change our reaction to what life throws us. Be sure you give them the message, as much as is needed , that their grandparents’ behavior has nothing to do with them. They are the biggest losers for missing out on joyous time with some pretty terrific grandkids.

2.   My husband’s work expects him to be available 24/7. He sleeps with the phone beside the bed to catch incoming texts.  The problem is he doesn’t hear them come in; I do. By the time I wake him to take the text, I can’t fall back asleep.  Help! Sleepless

Dear Sleepless,                                                                                                                                                Even the Creator of the World granted Himself weekly rest after Her labors were completed!                        It seems quite awful that your husband has to be available 24/7. But since you didn’t ask me to weigh in on that one, I’ll keep mum. And here’s my advice on what you did ask about: Set hubby’s phone to vibrate and slip it beneath his pillowcase. If the sound of the incoming text doesn’t stir him, hopefully the motion will and the sound of the vibration will not disturb you. . You  might also  try sweetly whispering, as he is falling asleep, that you are turning his phone off (but don’t).  Perhaps the anxiety of missing an emergency text will prompt some part of his sleeping brain to keep one eye (or ear) open so you can keep both of yours shut.

My Third Mother Has Died


My grandmother, Clara and my mother around me at my Confirmation.

I knew that the call, or email, would eventually come. Word that Clara had died.  She was over one hundred after all. No one lives forever. But when such news arrives it still lands like a fist to the heart.

Clara was the mother of my first love. She welcomed me into her family at a time when divorce had shattered my own and my parents’ attention was often elsewhere.  Like my grandmother’s, her love was unconditional, joyous, bottomless, steady. She was a Holocaust Survivor who told me she made it through by hiding in the forests. At sixteen I believed her. In my fifties I came across the truth and wept.

When her son left for college I would still visit after school every now and then, grateful to hang out, to be fed cakes and other sweets whose names had as many consonants as they had ingredients. When he came home on break I was ecstatic. Yes, for the obvious reasons but also because I could visit with Clara nearly daily. She wove me into their family as deftly as she sometimes braided my long hippie hair — into a crown ’round my head, much as her mother must have braided hers and her sisters’.

Her son and I broke up, stayed in touch sporadically, saw each other and one another’s families if our returns home coincided. He became religious and moved to Israel. He is now the father of many, a grandfather several times over. One by one, the dozens whom Hitler murdered are being given new life in their namesakes.  Clara once said that she lived so long because all of her loved ones had given her their years. No doubt in my mind that when the next great-granddaughter is born, she will be called Clara, or its Hebrew or Yiddish equivalent. Will she have Clara’s green eyes? Her beautiful smile? Her strength and ready love? I will never meet her but bless her just the same. Your great-grandmother was a wonderful woman, little one. She lived through hell and back. She came to this country to make a new life, a good life.  And she was a haven for a lost soul and whose light still shines upon me to this day.

From Rainbows to Ruination?


Martin captured this after a rain shower in Sedona.

Each year, the cycle of reading the Torah (Hebrew Bible) begins anew. Across the world, in every synagogue the same parasha (section) is read, either specific selections for those synagogues on a triennial cycle of reading, or the entire section. Yesterday we read the section titled Noah. Again and again we do this, reading the same texts. And it is never the same experience, for we are different each year. Year after year, we come to the text from different places in our intellectual and emotional growth. Noah, animals, rainbow, and then in the same section the story of Babel, the building of a tower in an effort to reach the Divine. Same stories, different insights. Each and every year.

This year, something new struck me as I read the story of Babel. The floodwaters have receded; we have read the groupings of Noah’s descendants; we are told that from these groupings, nations were formed and branched out across the earth. And all of these nations speak the same language.  Driven by hubris and ego, they set out to build a city and a tower whose top would reach into the sky “to make a name for ourselves” the text tells us, “else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

Well God wasn’t too keen on human beings using the commonality of their language to build a tower to the heavens in an effort to be known far and wide. “If as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose will be out of their reach.  Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” 

And that’s where this year’s reading stopped me in my tracks. So that they shall not understand one another’s speech.  Coming off a week where Jews in Israel are being stabbed and murdered willy nilly and the world pretty much stays silent, or in the case of one reporter reality is completely distorted, where the phrase I just can’t understand you echoes between spouses, siblings, friends and more, I wondered at this Divine intervention. Don’t think me blasphemous for questioning God’s motivations in this chapter. It is the Jew’s birthright. We are called the People Israel because yisroel means “to struggle with God.”

What a legacy for us all not to be able to understand one another’s speech! The people of Babel were punished for using their commonality of speech to go where they weren’t supposed to go and think thoughts of grandeur and ego they weren’t supposed to think. I sat there pondering this as the Bar Mitzvah boy continued his fluid and confident chanting of the rest of the section. What if we all still spoke the same language? Would we continue to conspire in the wrong direction? Would we have found a way toward understanding one another’s hearts and plights?

We use the phrase “we speak the same language” as short hand for “this person and I, we are in tune with one another. We understand one another.”  Sometimes when we “speak the same language” with someone, words are unnecessary. We know what the other is trying to express; we know what the other needs without their having to ask; we know what to do because by saying “we speak the same language,” we are saying the other isn’t really other, but us.

I have no resolution for this column. Nothing as pretty and breathtaking as a rainbow.  I wonder at this week’s juxtaposition: in the section that forever joins the rainbow’s glory to God’s Promise that He will never again destroy the world, we seem to be on that path nevertheless because, our speech Divinely confounded, we no longer understand one another and cannot seem to find the way to do so.

It was called the Spanish house

A neighborhood icon bites the dust.

A neighborhood icon bites the dust.

Anyone who walks this neighborhood knew which one you were talking about when you mentioned the Spanish house. It was one of the town’s oldest. The one with the red tile roof. The one whose charming arched front door had been treated like a fine painting: matted first with a beautiful arch of stone, then a filet of pale plaster, and then framed with a carved wood surround. It was the one sitting way back on a large swath of land, shaded by maples dating back close to a century. Anyone and everyone knew which one you meant when you sighed over the beauty of the Spanish house. Martin and I dreaded what we knew was coming the day we saw a construction company’s sign on the front lawn and an orange portapotty toward the back.

When we walked by today, the sound of the backhoe’s bucket shattering those beautiful terra-cotta tiles shattered something within me too. I know that I’ve crossed well into middle age because I now ask in the face this change and supposed progress, “Is nothing sacred?”

I guess it’s a sign of a recovering economy that may trickle down to those manufacturing the timber and the wiring, the insulation and the fittings. Another McMansion is about to go up. I can’t help but think it’s also a sign of an appalling lack of appreciation for what once was. I know, I know, this diatribe is a precious lamenting of one era’s manse being replaced by another. There are bigger things to protest. A home demolished in a Michigan neighborhood is nothing in light of the massacre in South Carolina or the deaths from the heat wave in Karachi.

Martin and I walked over to the police officer who was watching the demolition from his patrol car. Perhaps he was required to be there, (un)building codes and all.  Or perhaps he was there as we were, another gray-haired and saddened bystander.  “I hope they leave the Moose House alone,” he said. “The owner died last month.”  I knew instantly the one he meant. The sweet yellow shingled house a few blocks down from here. The one with the kelly green shutters and the huge antlered moose head that hung to the left of the home’s front door. The moose whose antlers were strung with lights at Christmas time. The moose that a friend’s daughter visited on their daily walks, bringing him a handful of Hershey’s kisses. Sometimes, she would even tell the moose stories before leaving her foil-wrapped gifts on the bench beneath her antlered friend.

We’ve been living in this neighborhood for three decades and then some. When we arrived, I was nine months pregnant with my first. Over the years, I’ve watched the block’s nearly two dozen kids take flight. I guess that now qualifies me for geezer status. I hope it also qualifies me for bard or chronicler or storyteller. That way, if a young one overhears the elders talking one day and asks, “What’s the Spanish house?” or “What’s the Moose house?” I’ll be able to answer.

Hopefully saner heads, and a moose head, will prevail.

Hopefully saner heads, and a moose head, will prevail.