Twelve writers share the messages they mined from months gone by
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.
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?
Then came my birthday, glaring proof of my spinsterhood. I would purchase cards with sparkly numbers emblazoned on the front for my nieces and nephews’ birthdays, which they’d proudly display. But there’s an unwritten rule that such glee is not appropriate past the age of 21.
After what felt like way too many bad dates, my bashert made himself known. My Rosh Hashanah was very different that year, as I asked for everything good in our soon-to-be-marriage. Our wedding was scheduled for the 9th of Cheshvan.
“Maybe we’ll be able to have an outdoor chuppah?” my chassan hoped.
“I doubt it,” I said. “It can be rather chilly by then.”
But it was not the chill that made the outdoor chuppah impossible. The day dawned (in my opinion) delightfully gray. My brother, an amateur meteorologist, predicted not only rain for that evening, but a “bombogenesis.” We’re talking serious precipitation.
“Siman brachah,” I said happily.
The makeup artist and hair stylist came to the venue, rendering their handiwork safe from the elements. All outdoor pre-wedding photography took place beneath an overhang, as the weather was drizzly. I was pleased I didn’t have to squint in the sun.
The little ones shrieked as they chased each other in gauzy gowns and velvet formal jackets. They were ecstatic, having waited for “their wedding” (as they saw it) long enough.
I’m not sure when the “bomb” officially began, but it had definitely arrived by the time I entered the festivities accompanied by the blare of trumpets, some guests still grasping their umbrellas. The rain continued to patter on the roof above during the chuppah, showering us with symbolic brachah.
The storm persisted as we danced. We danced joyfully, gratefully, without inhibition. We danced in the rain, so to speak, my nieces and nephews glowing as their wedding was everything they could have wanted. Our sneaker-clad feet bounced off the floor as our hands were flung to the sky.
The guests began to trickle out. The band crashed to a close. As we caught our breath, the photographer corralled my now husband and I. “I want to try something,” he said, and herded us out a set of French doors. His assistant, wearing only a thin shirt and slacks, marched unflinchingly into the downpour and propped up a backlight. I yelped in protest, but he was determined for the sake of the shot.
Our new beginning was thusly preserved, the two of us framed in a glittering aura of raindrops, the “siman brachah” forever evident.
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.
From across the street, I see the candles in the menorah at number 35. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, I count. For good measure, I add an imaginary eight and hum Miami’s “Light up the Nights.” Even as I walk, I see one of the number 35 progeny — there may just be 35 of them — move up to the window and stare out. Instinctively, I pull my zip higher, quicken my pace.
The people with the green door are bellowing Maoz Tzur at the top of their lungs. There’s a little girl sitting on her mother’s lap.
I’m almost home. The Levines next door have their lights on, but I can’t really see much of their house. Makes it easier, I muse.
I’ve reached my destination — a study in contrasts. The front rooms are dark, curtains carefully closed after the candles went out last night. The beautiful gold menorah we once used is in the display cabinet. Now we have a frosted mirrored one, so frosty, the warmth of the candle seems trapped inside when it’s lit, the glow less bright.
We used to light at 5:30. Now, I wait. And I wait….
It’s been a long haul with Ma in hospital this year. In, out, back in again, and this time she’s there to stay, it seems. Which is enough on any normal day, but even worse on Chanukah.
We’ve been lighting late, Dad and I, him running in right from the ward and racing back out again immediately after. He “does” his a half an hour later. And me? I sit in the furthermost corner from the window, staring at the flames and listening to the ticking clock. It’s tough going.
My brothers know what’s happening, of course. I speak to them often these days, sometimes twice a day when I’m feeling lonely. But the rest of the world knows nothing of my secret, and as I write emails and answer phones in the office all day, I hug my privacy close, feeling more isolated than ever before.
And then it’s Zos Chanukah. I get home from work, grab a snack. The doorbell rings. Peering at the intercom, I make out the face of a neighbor. Strange.
She smiles pleasantly at me when I open the door. Then proffers a small white box; nondescript, neat.
“I’ve heard it’s been rough recently,” she says. “Enjoy these, and please let me know if I can do anything.”
In my bewilderment, I just about mumble a thank you and say goodbye before closing the door and opening the box. Four iced donuts stare back at me. Have I not had a single donut this Chanukah? I think in wonder, and my eyes mist over until I have to shut the box to protect the donuts from my tears.
We have donuts that night, me and Dad, in front of the last Chanukah flames. I’m warmed, inside and out, from the people who care — and the pinpricks of light shining through the cracks, even with the curtains closed.
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.
“An Arab can just shoot right through the glass,” one helpful Shabbos guest pointed out. He wasn’t invited back.
The worst was traveling to college three days a week. The way there I carpooled, and the edge of the fear was taken off by sharing the trip with others in the same situation. But I had to go home alone. Three times a week, I would stand outside the college building, waiting for my taxi, trembling with fear.
Soldiers patrolled up and down the street, but they were laughing and joking, and if an Arab would have strolled out of the nearby falafel store and stabbed me or gotten into his car and rammed me, they couldn’t have gotten to me in time.
Tears of relief would prick my eyes when I settled into a cab after an infinitely long wait, but then would come a new fear: What if an Arab opened the door to the taxi as we sat in traffic and killed us where we sat? My imagination was out of control.
The fear was exhausting, the tension and nerves kept me taut, and I used to burst out crying in the middle of nothing and nowhere.
Lazy afternoons in the park were a thing of the past, so were lengthy trips to the makolet. I barely took my baby out of the building, and when I did, it was with a beating heart, sweating palms, and a mind filled with worse-case scenarios.
But mostly, apart from the fear and panic and sleeplessness, I felt alone. The Hashem Whose embrace I’d luxuriated in during those short days of Succos was hidden from me. The relationship I thought I’d created over the Yamim Noraim was gone. And in its place was a dark, endless void. It was just me, navigating a world gone mad.
And then, just as suddenly as it started, it began to peter off. Blood stopped staining the streets, people cracked open their doors to let the sunlight in. The parks were once more filled with laughter and (cautious) playing.
I peered out of the window one Motzaei Shabbos and there they were. The stars I’d gotten to know through the sechach. They were back.
And with a blinding clarity I credit to a full night’s sleep after several months of sleeplessness, I realized that they’d been there the whole time, simply hiding behind a cloud of illusion.
As happy as we were in our little succah, this is galus. More often than not, we need to push through barriers to achieve the closeness we desire with Hashem.
And in some cases, we just need to open a triss.
The very next day, we went onto the porch, waved at our upstairs neighbors, and began to clean up.
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?
“What do you mean by that?” asked Zeidy, very curious as to where this young man was headed.
“Well, you know, things are different today. We’re told in workshops and at conventions that today’s kids have to be taught differently, they respond to lots of positivity, prizes, contests, things that make them feel geshmak.”
I held my breath as I listened to Zeidy speak. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. This guy was young enough to be Zeidy’s grandson, had been teaching for four or five years, and he was giving Zeidy chinuch pointers? Didn’t he know who he was talking to?
“Wow, Zeidy,” I said, finally. “Did you put him in his place?”
“In his place?” Zeidy echoed. “I was very, very grateful to him. What a brave thing to do — and very thoughtful.”
I almost swallowed my teeth. Was Zeidy saying this man wasn’t a mechutzaf? That he did a good thing?
“I spoke to that young rebbi several times afterwards,” Zeidy continued, oblivious to my shock. “I saw he had a very good rapport with his talmidim and was an excellent rebbi. I was interested in hearing his ideas.”
“But Zeidy!” I cried, protesting. “You could have been his rebbi and his father’s rebbi, and you were going to him for ideas?!”
“I was very happy that he approached me,” Zeidy repeated. “It was a brave thing to do, and it was to my benefit and the benefit of my students. He did a wonderful thing, and everyone only gained from it.”
I was floored.
Zeidy told me the story to highlight to me the greatness of this younger rebbi.
What he did was highlight to me the greatness of a man almost 80 years old who had been teaching for over half a century — and still felt that there was room to grow, room to learn new ideas and plant new seeds.
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.
Gertrude had pneumonia that winter, so she showed up with a mask over her face to protect against any stray germs. And Mr. Max was possibly more taciturn than usual. It was Avraham who ended up stealing the show.
My father was in the midst of a drawn out rendition of “Shoshanas Yaakov,” and my mother was urging seconds on everyone, when suddenly Avraham began to cry.
Within seconds, the room was silent. Of all people, Avraham never called attention to himself. But now, despite every eye upon him, he continued sobbing loudly, his shoulders shaking uncontrollably.
I squirmed in my seat, my brothers and I exchanging worried glances. My mother began collecting plates, trying to distract everyone with the noise, and my father cleared his throat but didn’t say anything.
Poor Avraham. Always seeming so happy, so content. But he must’ve had one too many, and now his real feelings were coming out.
What to say? How to comfort him, all alone in the world? Someone do something! I wanted to shout.
But then Avraham started talking. “I’m sorry I’m crying, but I’m just so overwhelmed. I’m so happy that I’m a Jew! Can you imagine, out of my whole family, Hashem chose me to have a Jewish neshamah? Where would I be without Yiddishkeit, without mitzvos? How would I get through each day without the beauty of Torah? I’m just so grateful and happy!” His voice was punctuated by sobs, but the strength and joy in each word was contagious.
I felt tears prickling my eyes, and when I looked up, my mother was crying over the empty bowls. My father cleared his throat again, and this time, I heard the tears in his own voice as he threw his arm around Avraham’s shoulders. And of all days of the year, we all sat there crying. Gertrude even took off her mask to blow her nose loudly in her napkin.
I went off to seminary a year later and spent a memorable Purim in Yerushalayim with hordes of tipsy bochurim, plenty of blaring music, and Torah-spouting drunkards. But I never found more, never found anything grander than the thought of Avraham, alone in this world, crying from happiness for being a Jew.
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.”
As soon as she ended the call with Eli, the phone rang. “Rebbetzin, do you have a cleaning lady available for me? I’m literally not making it to Pesach!”
Again, the yellow notebook bore silent witness to Bubby’s desperation, as her angular writing filled yet a fourth line with a name. How badly Bubby wanted to help everybody! She pushed her chair to the window, facing Monsey’s biggest intersection. Here, a young lady in jeans with Slavic features was passing by. Maybe she could work!
She opened the window and called, “Wait! Lady, wait a minute!”
She scrambled for the door, and as fast as her septuagenarian legs could carry her, she hurried down the front path to the waiting woman. In flawless Polish, Bubby asked whether she would like to work cleaning houses.
Bubby’s cleaning lady gemach wasn’t a choice; she needed to perpetuate chesed. Her pre-Holocaust childhood home in Romania was a place where beds, food, and clothing belonged to guests as much they belonged to the family.
Later, as a postwar orphan, she was exposed to unbelievable charity in the home of the late Skulener Rebbe, where hundreds of war orphans were cared for. (The Skulener Rebbe ztz”l, who passed away earlier this year, called Bubby shvesterku, little sister.)
In a victorious twist of irony, she employed the foreign languages the blood-soaked land had taught her to help the new generation of Jewish families flourish once again in a new land. Her survival of the great wickedness wasn’t enough. She needed her People to triumph.
And so, day in, day out, Bubby sat at the dinette table, taking calls, interviewing newly arrived immigrants looking for work, and setting up the impossible timetables for each one. Oh, and taking flak for all the no-shows and no-qualifieds. High season was before Pesach, of course, when she would be hard at work splitting seas, making shidduchim between families and their helpers.
Often, she would call a family where the cleaning lady was unhappy and remark, “Perhaps you could shmear the reder, grease the wheels, and offer your cleaning lady some proper food?”
Then, she would turn to the cleaning lady, sitting teary-eyed beside her at the oak table, and comfort her in her native tongue, be it Romanian, Polish, or Russian. “She’ll be kinder to you. Try going one more time.”
Bubby, you were left broken, yet you never harped on your losses. You never forgot the language of your oppressors; instead, you used it to service Jewish families, to build anew.
L’illui nishmas Gitel bas Yeshaye (Rebbetzin Gitel Myski) who selflessly gave of herself to Klal Yisrael.
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.
On the plane, he noticed a woman and her young daughter sitting across from him. The pair caught his attention in a plane of louder, brasher people. The child was bright and inquisitive, a thousand questions for her mother, all of which she responded to with patience and good cheer.
The mother looked to be a little older. Maybe this was her youngest? He was intrigued by her calmness and patience.
In front of him, he heard an obviously frum man decry the culture of waste and excess in chareidi circles to his two secular seatmates’ delight. He wanted to stop him, when, to his surprise, the woman spoke up, respectful and refined, explaining to the secular people that this wasn’t the case across the board, making a kiddush Hashem with her words, her bearing.
At 30,000 feet, he had a strange thought. What if my son could become part of a family like this one?
He dismissed the notion: low air pressure. Ridiculous thinking!
Who were they? What were the odds they even had an eligible daughter?
He found himself walking behind them, and when they were waiting at the baggage claim, the mother gave a little nod in her daughter’s direction as if to say to him “keep an eye on her” while she went to the ladies’ room. He was overtired, still affected by the air, still holding onto this preposterousness.
“What’s your name?” he asked the girl. “Where does your father daven?”
She told him. Through the blur in his head, he spotted his suitcase. The mother returned. Soon they would go, specks in a peopled land, and what did he have? A name, a shul? Who said they had an eligible daughter?
He thought fast.
“What a well-behaved little girl,” he found himself saying. “Is she the oldest?”
The woman hitched her suitcase up on the cart. “No, I’ve actually got a daughter in shidduchim,” she said congenially, and they disappeared into Arrivals.
At Rabi Shimon he davened. He didn’t know for what. That the shidduch should be? He knew nothing about them. Next to nothing. But there was something in their manner. If the older girl was like this too in her youth… If she was raised with this mother… A feeling is not nothing.
Initial inquiries confirmed the specialness of the family and their eligible daughter. More information, more phone calls. They knew the references, the family lived but a neighborhood away.
At the l’chayim, the kallah’s mother said, “Hey, aren’t you the man from the plane? What a small world!”
He merely smiled.
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.”
Suddenly I had a lump in my throat.
Time passed, the surgery date arrived. My husband’s large family divided Sefer Tehillim many times over, and after a few tense hours, my father-in-law posted on the family WhatsApp: BH Mommy out of surgery, doing well.
I sat in the rocking chair in my baby’s room, with my Tehillim and phone, silently thanking Hashem for His miracles. Wondering when I should call.
Not yet, I decided. I’m just a daughter-in-law. And she just got out of surgery. I’ll call tomorrow, first thing. Maybe I’ll even call a sister-in-law first, to find out when would be the best time.
Suddenly, my phone rang.
I stared at the caller ID in shock. Maybe it was someone else?
But no. It was my mother-in-law, her voice groggy. “I’m in recovery,” she told me. “I wanted you to know I’m okay.”
“You’re calling me?!” I was dumbfounded.
“Well, I knew you’d be worried. Now I’ll call Naftali on his cell.”
I hung up and cried.
For the first time ever, I believed her. She considered me another daughter. She loved me.
That was when everything turned around.
She still says hurtful comments on occasion. But somehow, knowing beyond a shadow of doubt that she really, truly loves me gives her comments a less hurtful hue, and I respond in kind. Our relationship is no longer prickly.
And now I get it.
“Where you go, I will go.”
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.
This was supposed to be a fun-filled day. A day of togetherness, of bonding. A day that was to solidify the glue that held our family together. I was desperate to salvage it.
My youngest is not so young anymore, but I still have plenty of pass-the-time-while-you-wait-in-line tricks etched into the deepest recesses of my memory. We played some games, sang some silly songs, retold old family jokes. The kids started making more room for each other under the tree. Apples and cucumbers were divvied up, pretzels were shared, water was playfully rationed… this was turning into A Moment! We were bonding! We were having fun!
We settled more firmly into our little comfort zone. We checked in with the rental company; at least another hour, we were told. We brought out more water, handed out sandwiches. I was amazed at how well this was going. We were really getting into the spirit of togetherness.
We grew drowsy in the heat, rested across each other’s legs. We’d grown quite comfortable, in fact. So comfortable that when the rental company informed us they’d be there in ten minutes, my kids were actually disappointed.
By the time the replacement van finally arrived, we were all too worn out for mini golf and decided to go straight home. Miraculously, no one complained about the missed activity. In fact, one of my kids proclaimed that this last day was the absolutely best day of the whole vacation.
It was inspiring. Wonderful. Beautiful. Truly a bonding experience. And the take-home lesson of being happy with what you get will not soon be forgotten.
But as the Nine Days drew closer, something niggled at me.
We can get so comfortable, even while crouching under the thin shade of a small tree, that we forget we originally had another destination in mind. We forget that we could be relaxing in a shady forest or meandering through an air-conditioned building. We forget we were on a journey to a place where there was ample water, perhaps sumptuous food. We were going to immerse ourselves in enriching, thrilling activities.
But we forget. We get sidetracked.
We grow so accustomed to makeshift accommodations that all we yearn for is a small patch of shade, forgetting the splendor that awaits.
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.
“She cannot possibly be deported with the rest,” he proclaimed. “She is my fiancée!” The Nazi pulled my grandmother out from among the others and told her to go, but she resisted, desperately wanting to stay with her mother. Her mother knew better and insisted that her beloved daughter return to the ghetto.
The Jewish policeman pulled his horse alongside my grandmother and hurriedly gave her an address. He told her his mother and some other women were there, and that they would take her in. With nowhere else to turn, my grandmother arrived at the address, where she met up with other women and girls saved by the same courageous man.
History has taught that without exception, the kedoshim who were forced from Warsaw that Tishah B’Av were all sent to the infamous death camp, Treblinka, and killed al kiddush Hashem.
Almost 80 years later, we’ve been shown the untold potential of a single life saved, with the multitude of progeny — five beautiful generations — given life by one heroic Jew.
The ninth of Av. A colossally tragic day of mourning, both nationally and personally. It is the yahrtzeit not only of the Wisnicki family of Warsaw, but all those whom Helena Wisnicki stood with and loved on that long-ago Tishah B’Av; their holy neshamos represented by flickering Tishah B’Av candles.
But this is also the day on which Hashem chose an individual to remain behind; a small piece of the she’eiris hapleitah, offering a soft call of nachamu, nachamu, amid the destruction of our People.
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.
And then I travel, and I’m alone in a foreign city, and I’ve just finished a job and haven’t yet started a new one. I call my family to wish them a shanah tovah, and the words come through tinny and rushed across so many time zones. It is nearly time to light candles.
The year is slipping away, the last hour lingers. A text from a shadchan about a promising suggestion: I’m so sorry. He said no. I sit in my room that isn’t really mine, holding a rented phone, and feel the emptiness, the nothingness. I have nothing. Nothing at all.
I take my machzor and leave for shul, find a seat in the back. I don’t have a place of my own but the community is welcoming and I’m surprisingly calm.
Then I realize it is no surprise at all.
Because what better time is there to have — nothing?
My world might be empty, devoid of the comforts and familiarity of home, resounding with echoes of dreams slipped away. But I’m not alone, I’m less alone than I have ever been before, because I feel Hashem in every aching space around me. Inside me.
And I realize that the emptier my basket, the more there is to fill.
I lean forward, into the pages, into the words and the tefillos. And I cry, and it’s real, and broken, and unforgettably whole. Because tonight my world is empty, and my heart, my heart is crying along.
I have nothing, and that’s okay. That’s all I need in the moment where everything begins.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 661)
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