| Personal Accounts |

Climbing Through the Year

Twelve writers share the messages they mined from months gone by

T
he Jewish year is a spiral staircase; the months repeat themselves, yet each year, we can approach them on a higher level, with fresh insight and new perspectives.

 

Tishrei — Judy Mandel

When my son was three months old, I took him and his older sister for professional pictures. “I need to take these pictures,” I confided in an older neighbor, “while I still can. I don’t know if I’ll always have these two children.”

Looking back, I cringe. The pictures came out beautiful, but I wish I would’ve dropped the melodrama. In my defense, I was young, and open-heart surgery is a big deal in anyone’s book.

When the nurse came to take him down for an echocardiogram a day after birth to follow up with his heart murmur, I asked if I had to come along. She looked at me strangely and said I didn’t have to, but most parents accompanied their babies for echoes.

I went down with him, not even feeling particularly nervous. I was that unprepared. When the cardiologist we consulted with after discharge confirmed the hospital doctor’s diagnosis that my son had a heart defect that required surgery, I was hit hard.

The plan was to wait a few months, to allow the baby to get older and stronger before putting him under the knife, and I spent those months in a torrent of anxiety. Despite the doctor’s reassurance that the surgery had a 98 percent success rate, I was still tormented with what-ifs.

To complicate the matter, no one could tell us exactly what was going to happen in surgery until they would open him up. There was a best-case scenario, in which case the problem would be resolved with no further intervention needed, and a Plan B, which would entail another surgery when he was older.

We obviously hoped desperately for the first outcome, and while the doctors said there was a good chance it would work out, they couldn’t know until they actually saw what was going on.

The months passed, and when he was five and a half months old, we accompanied our precious little son to the operating room. We bentshed him, passed him into the doctor’s arms, and in our hearts, handed him over to Hashem. After all the months of anxiety, at this point I felt strangely calm. We had done all we could, and now he was in His Hands.

A few hours of davening and tense anticipation passed, and the doctor came out. The verdict: Success! Baruch Hashem, they’d managed to repair the baby’s problem using the preferred method, which would mean no further interventions necessary.

We left the hospital a week after we’d come, hearts brimming with gratitude, arms full of paraphernalia, and most importantly, a healthy baby.

Yom Tov came shortly after, and as I gazed into the flickering flames, the words of the brachah I’d heard and recited so many times took on new meaning. “Baruch Atah Hashem…. shehecheyanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higi’anu lazeman hazeh.”

I looked at my adorable little son, who showed no indication of the harrowing ordeal he’d gone through three weeks earlier save for the scar on his chest, and felt the brachah, “Who has kept us alive and sustained us and allowed us to reach this time” in a way I never had before.

(Featured in Family First, Issue 661)

 

Cheshvan — Lea Pavel

Unlike my other siblings, who were born in spring and summer, I, the youngest, was a fall baby; my birthday is the 5th of  Cheshvan. Quite appropriately, autumn is my favorite season.

Heat sucks the life out of me, and I fear the sun for the skin damage it may cause (a shame, since I tan easily.) I prefer cloudy, wet weather. As long as I’m well-protected, rain may pound away with nary a peep from me. After all, is it not siman brachah?

Additionally, while foliage may fade in Cheshvan, the month following Tishrei is the true time of renewal. Consider it: the hecticness of the Yamim Noraim and Succos has died down, and we now face a new year to carry out our claims of self-betterment. My birthday, a distinct milestone, helps to mark that annual fresh start.

When I began dating, my Rosh Hashanah was focused on my bashert. Please, Eibeshter, I would plead. Can it be this year? Please?

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 661)

 

Kislev — Batsheva Kahn

The rooms are brightly lit, homes on display for the world to see.

I walk past slowly, breathing in the atmosphere of Chanukah as my feet plod down the street. There’s a chill in the air. It’s cold enough to make you wish you were indoors.

Except where in is colder than out.

Number 68 has one menorah; a majestic silver creation with branches and oil cups that seem to take up the whole window. Rabbi Goldman is sitting with a sefer, flames dancing in the foreground.

My heart tugs.

The people at 46 are an old couple who keep to themselves. But if you look a little closer, there’s a miniscule menorah there, Magen David on the shamash.

I walk on.

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 661)

 

Teves — Ariella Schiller

My upstairs neighbor called again to ask if she could clean my mirpeset for me. I feel bad, I think the mess personally offends her, but it’s a hard pass.

I’m not opening the triss to the porch.

Even though it’s already Teves, and the mess littering the floor out there is made up of wet and soggy succah decorations, sheaves of sechach, and moldy wooden beams.

It’d been a fairy-tale Succos. Our landlord had just built us a porch, and we luxuriated in our right-off-the-dining room hut. I’d decorated it to look woodsy and ethereal, with tablescapes and matching bouquets.

The chag itself was a celebration of life, filled with laughter, and we felt so safe, so secure in our little island. Hashem seemed especially close as we drank and ate and slept out on the tiled floor, stars peeking through the cracks of the sechach above.

And then, the last day of Yom Tov, it began.

The lone-wolf stabbing attacks.

And a fear like I’d never known before, a tangible, visceral panic crept into every crevice of my life. Illogically, I refused to allow my husband to open the triss to our porch. He did, just once, to take the wooden boards down, but I was shaking so hard, he abandoned everything and locked the glass doors.

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 661)

 

Shevat — Shoshana Itzkowitz

The year was 1946, and my grandfather, a young man in his early twenties, was a bochur in Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem in New York City.

Sometime during the school year, the the menahel of MTJ elementary school, Rabbi Chaim Swiatycki, found himself out of a first grade rebbi. Armed with the approval of the rosh yeshivah, Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l, the menahel approached Zeidy and asked him to take the class.

Zeidy fell in love with chinuch and never turned back. Soon after, he moved up to fifth grade, where he would remain the yeshivah’s legendary haschalas Gemara rebbi until he retired in 2012. To this day, when we meet old MTJ-ers, they’ll say with awe, reverence, and more than a small dose of fondness, “Your grandfather taught me how to learn Gemara!”

In August 2000, I was having one of my long phone schmoozes with Zeidy when he told me something fascinating. Oh, to him it wasn’t fascinating in the least — we were simply talking about how chinuch had changed over the years, and he shared this anecdote.

Sometime before, a young rebbi who taught in a classroom right near Zeidy’s asked to have a few words with him. With humility and respect, he told Zeidy that he noticed Zeidy had a no-nonsense way with his talmidim: sure, the boys performed and “knew their stuff,” but was it possible, he suggested humbly, that they toed the line because of the strict atmosphere and not because they wanted to make him happy?

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 661)

 

Adar — As told to Faigy Peritzman

Living in an out-of-town community in the Midwest meant that Purim was low-key. Sure, everyone in the community exchanged mishloach manos, and the megillah reading was punctuated by loud hooting for Hamans, but I always felt like I was missing out on something.

There were no groups of tipsy bochurim going house to house collecting. No huge families with matching themed costumes driving by with music blaring.  My father didn’t get rip-roaring drunk and start quoting Zohar or Maharal. He’d get slightly high, remaining very much in control as he ran a warm, lighthearted seudah hosting our regular guests, year in year out.

There was Mr. Max, a tiny older man who never opened his mouth, not to speak or eat. There were Gail and Gertrude, two septuagenarian sisters who always showed up with a huge box of prune hamantaschen that never got eaten.

And then there was Avraham. Avraham was a middle-aged ger, sweet and serious, his dark eyes shy yet wise. My father claimed he was a brilliant learner, and his conversations yielded thoughtful philosophy of the type that teenage me realized was waaaay deep. Despite the efforts of his friends and the community, Avraham had never married. He spent every Purim with us.

All things considered, Purim was beautiful, yet the adolescent in me wanted more flash, more color, more… I wasn’t quite sure what. Every year after Purim was over I yearned for something, some grand gesture that would’ve made that Purim stand out in my memory.

I was 17 when I got what I’d wanted, although not quite the way I expected.

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 661)

 

Nissan — Libby Silberman

The delivery boy dropped the groceries at the front door. “There you go, madam.”

“Not so fast, young man,” my Bubby said to him. “Do you know any women that are looking for work cleaning people’s houses?”

“Hmmm, maybe. How many do you need?”

“As many friends as you can find. Here’s my number. Thank you, sir.”

Bubby headed back to the oak table in the dinette, headquarters of her cleaning lady gemach, where her lukewarm coffee and open yellow notebook awaited. Still not enough, still not enough. Three names were scrawled on the page, three Jewish families that needed household help desperately — a kimpeturin, a busy mommy, and a mechuteneste marrying off her daughter soon — and she didn’t have any cleaning lady available for them.

Bubby wasn’t done with her networking just yet. With a sense of urgency, she dialed her grandson Eli.

“Eli, do me a favor, drive down Maple Avenue to the corner near the gym. Yes, where people hang around waiting for work. Ask people standing there if they know of any women that would clean houses.”

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 661)

 

Iyar — As told to Rivka Streicher

He was born in Meron. His soul was sustained among the mountains, the dirt paths, the swarms of Jews, and, of course, the annual pilgrimage on the hilula of Rabi Shimon. He was one of those wide-eyed, peyos-on-the-breeze boys, watching them come — thousands and thousands of them — to the place he called home.

Until he wasn’t. He was in his early teens when his family moved to the States. He was a boy of two vastly different hometowns, but when he went to yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael for one day each year, on Lag B’omer, he was back home again.

Rabi Shimon knew. Rabi Shimon understood the travails of a boy far from family, a boy who really belonged beside him. Rabi Shimon was privy to everything: shidduchim, his marriage, his life in America. Children and nachas and health and everything he begged Hashem for.

He came year after year, speaking urgently to Rabi Shimon, updating him, beseeching him to ask on his behalf. For decades he hadn’t missed a Lag B’omer at Rabi Shimon’ tziyun.

One year, the children were grown, finances were tight, and his wife didn’t think he should go. He couldn’t explain it, but he had to go. It was a yearly immersion in the world that was once his, the little boy he once was, before a rebbi who was there all along. He tried to explain, said he would pray for this and that, and when he mentioned their son — in shidduchim a while — her heart melted. He went.

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 661)

 

Sivan — Miriam Rosen

“Where you go, I will go.” Whenever I thought of those words Rus said to her mother-in-law Naomi, I’d think, Pah! More like, “Where you go, insults will go.”

After visiting my in-laws, I used to spend our return flights licking the wounds from my mother-in-law’s thinly veiled insults.

Every visit was the same. Barbs about my weight (“Think of your baby! You want to be around to see her grow up, don’t you?!”), about my parenting (“Don’t work out of the home! Daycare is bad for your baby!”), and my housework (“Why is my son walking around in a creased shirt? Don’t you know how to use an iron?”)

The funny thing was that she’d always follow it up with “I love you like my own daughter,” which would set off a silent scream inside me. No, you don’t! Then you wouldn’t be so mean!

Whenever anyone said how nice my in-laws were, all I could think was The nicest part is that we live far away from them….

Still, we went to visit my in-laws quite often. As I packed up at the end of our last visit, my mother-in-law approached me. “I’m not telling everyone yet,” she said, “but I wanted you to know — I’m sick.” She filled me in on her tests, the results, and surgery date.

I hugged her. As soon as we backed out of the driveway, I turned to my husband Naftali and said, “How are you feeling? You must be so worried.”

He said, “Well, I’ve had time to digest it, she told me this morning. I would have told you, but she wanted to tell you herself.”

Oh.

Suddenly I had a lump in my throat.

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 661)

 

Tammuz — Shoshana Schwartz

The long-awaited family summer vacation finally arrived. We confirmed our accommodations, bought Groupons, rented a van, and drove north.

The van showed subtle signs of distress on the longer inclines, but nothing serious — or so we were assured by the van rental company. And indeed, we didn’t run into any serious trouble.

Until we did.

The last day of our trip included mini golf on the way home. A half hour into the drive, the van simply gave out. No amount of key jiggling or thingamabob-fiddling could get the engine to supply more than a faint grunt.

Reluctantly, we left the comfort of our air-conditioned vehicle, basic supplies in tow, and climbed over the guardrail to get ourselves off the road. Which, looking around, turned out to be a particularly dangerous road — a two-lane, curved mountain pass, with trucks careening along at top speed. We needed to move far away from the van. While we searched for shade, we called the rental company, who agreed to send someone “as soon as possible,” which, loosely translated, meant two or three hours.

We found ourselves on an incline boasting dirt, rocks, and weeds, with the occasional tree offering sparse shade under a blazing sun. Everyone was hot, frustrated, and disappointed, the kids were complaining, and we had no clue how long this situation would last.

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 661)

 

Av — Avigail Rabinowitz

Yahrtzeit candles sent their somber shadows through the dimly lit kitchen. Several flames flickered in the little sink, as they did every year from the onset of the fast.

My grandmother observes yahrtzeit for all her family killed in the Holocaust on Tishah B’Av. My grandfather used to tell us how Tishah B’Av under Nazi rule was exaggeratedly harrowing, even compared to his usual brutal life in his years as a slave in their camps. It was as if those resha’im knowingly had the tragic date circled in red in their own calendars.

So it was for the Jews of Warsaw on July 23, 1942.

On that day, the Jews were herded to the Umschlagplatz for mass deportation from Warsaw. That Tishah B’Av, the Jews who called the Warsaw Ghetto home gathered in the huge square that made up the waiting area, made to stand for hours while fasting in the summer heat. My grandmother, Helena Wisnicki, 20 years old at the time, stood together with her last-known living relative, her mother, along with hundreds of thousands of others.

Suddenly, a Jew whom my grandmother had never seen before, but who was clearly assisting the Nazis as part of the notorious Jewish Ghetto Police, came riding by, sitting high on his horse. He urgently called over a Nazi officer and pointed straight at my grandmother.

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 661)

 

Elul — Rochel (Grunewald) Samet

Elul. Stiff uniform pleats and sharpened pencils, folded arms and bright eyes, clean pages, clean desk, new start.

And the last month of the year.

It’s hard to think of it that way, strange to imagine the reckoning of an entire year coming to a close. This was decreed on Rosh Hashanah, we think throughout the year, through the ups and downs, the hills and valleys. It’s harder to internalize that when Elul comes, and something that feels very much like a new year has already begun.

I struggle with the discrepancy, first as a student, then as a teacher. My year, it seems, is mapped out already by the time Rosh Hashanah descends, in a fiery sunset, upon the waiting world. I have my schedule, my classes, my place. There’s a monthly paycheck and a detailed events calendar, and everything feels guaranteed, secure. It’s hard to beg for the eggs already in your basket.

I know the truth intellectually: that nothing is actually mine, that each moment of life is gifted anew, that this world has no guarantees. I know but I don’t feel. And so I daven and try to focus on the moments when truth hits me in the heart, and I sense the reality that we have nothing at all.

That there are no eggs. Only a basket, and whatever He wills inside it.

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 661)

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