In Search of Miracles

These days I find myself in a not-so-good mood. The latest reason for my anger at our suicidal government is a headline that says: IDF Intel: Hamas threat will be significantly worse in a year. No surprise, of course, to me. But apparently, our Prime Minister believes that making more and more “gestures” to the folks who are only disagreeing with Hamas on the tactics of bringing about our demise will somehow bring about the peace that we desire. Of course the peace that Israel desires is a bit different than the peace the Arabs desire. In their megalomaniacal brains, peace will come when there are no longer any Jews living in Israel– or perhaps, when there are no longer any Jews living at all. But, there goes Mister Olmert, intoxicated by his own ego, blithely removing 27 checkpoints (places where terrorists wearing explosive belts can be stopped before they blow up Israelis in buses and restaurants and malls) and offering to free Arab prisoners as a “goodwill” gesture while they continue to hold our kidnapped soldier. It makes me sick. This man is gambling not just with my life and the lives of my children and grandchildren, but the entire future of Jewish life in Israel. And let”s not even talk about the rearming of Hezbollah.

In a recent poll, something like 33% of Israelis said that what will save Israel in the future are miracles. We had just better start praying harder.

A couple of thoughts

Two things have been bothering me and I need to talk about both.

1. I do not enjoy the fact that in the past week, the three mentions of Hanuka in the New York Times, all had to do with Jewish families who were celebrating Xmas. Don’t get me wrong. Xmas is a beautiful and wonderful holiday for Christians. It is a very special time of the year for them and it is of deep religious significance. But is it NOT an “American holiday.” It is NOT a “secular holiday.” And whoever thinks it is and writes about it that way and thinks that tinsel and stockings are what it’s about is being downright disrespectful of people who take it very seriously.

But I don’t fault the people in the stories. After all, those whose stories I read are people whose observance of Judaism is limited to the outer trappings and the outer trappings of Hanuka are clearly less attractive than those of Xmas. After all, what is a menora whose full splendor comes to the fore only after seven nights of increasing light to a Xmas tree with ornaments and lights and fake snow and tinsel and gifts beneath it? Were these people to understand the deep religious significance of Hanuka and of other Jewish festivals and observances, they would not cast them aside nor think of them as lacking in any way. They would be touched by the presence and protection of G-d at a time when the Syrian-Greeks were spreading Hellenism and asking Jews to join them, when only the brave were able to stand up and say that what we have and what we are committed to is precious to us. They would understand that the capitulation to the trappings of a holiday that is not ours is an echo of the same battle that Hanuka commemorates.

2. On a totally different subject: To those beauty queens who have been naughty girls- showing what shouldn’t be shown and doing what shouldn’t be done– Women!!! Are you crazy? This is not the 1950s when only camera nuts had cameras. This is not the 1960s or 70s when those little instamatics could only take pictures from 6 to 8 feet away from the subject. This isn’t even the era of film cameras most of which were big and all of which required film, meaning the expenditure of money and limited numbers of pictures. This is the new millenium. We have digital cameras. They are so tiny that we have to lift up an envelope to find them and can lose them in our pockets. They can take thousands of pictures on one memory card and those pictures don’t cost even a penny. There are cameras on cell phones. Yoo hoo…. how can you possibly think that no one will see what you look like when you are acting out??? You attract attention to yourselves and then are “surprised” at being caught? I mean, I thought the days of the “not-so-smart-but-has-a great-bod” were over. When you act in such unintelligent ways, you women embarrass me. You embarrass your mothers. You embarrass yourselves. Get a grip! Respect yourselves. How you look is G-d’s gift to you. How you act, is your gift to yourself.

OK, I’ve said it and I’m done! (for now.)

Travel

One thing that Israelis like to do is travel. Go anywhere in the world that Jews can travel without getting killed (you can understand which countries are off limits) and there you will find an abundant supply of Israelis.

The first time I noticed it was when as a college student I was traveling through Europe. In Rome, I climbed to the top of the “Wedding Cake” monument to Victor Emmanuel and what did I find? Yep. Two Israelis. I have since done a lot of traveling (after all, in March of 1998, I officially became an Israeli!) and there we are– everywhere I look– at the top of the Festung in Salzburg, in the Salt Mines in Werfen, on a city tour bus in Budapest, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, on a boat on the Li River in Guilin, China. We are everywhere.

And in addition, we love to explore our own country. Many Israelis enjoy hiking and discovering all of the wonders of our land. Like us, many Israelis go three or four or five times a year to places in Israel they have never visited before to learn about the history (and every rock here has a history!), to see the enchanting views, to see the wildflowers, the migrating birds, the mountain ibexes, the waterfalls and pools. This is indeed a wondrous land and maybe the fact that Israel is so jam-packed with interesting places is what makes us believe that the world must be filled with additional places of interest.

One thing we Israelis love to do is to make contact with Jews living in cities throughout the world. There is a certain excitement about finding “family” wherever we go. Their very existence gladdens us and our visits to them strengthen both them and us.

It came as no surprise to me to find that Jews were involved in trade from earliest times, traveling the silk and spice routes, interacting with other cultures. When we were in China, many of the parallels between their culture and ours struck us as needing to have come from an interplay of the cultures. Certainly the private prayer of the Emperor in the Temple of Heaven for a good harvest reminded us of the high priest going into the Holy of Holies, the inner chamber of the Temple in Jerusalem, on Yom Kippur. The structure of their palaces and gardens was not dissimilar to the structure of the tabernacle in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem.

The experience of traveling, whether in Israel or outside of it is always interesting and offers the opportunity to appreciate the vastness of creation, the beauty of the Earth, and, as Jews, our special place in the universe.

Tikkun Olam

It’s been tough to write recently. I don’t want to write about the situation in Israel. It’s all too frightening. We have a government led by a man who has great difficulty keeping his foot out of his mouth and his hands out of other people’s pockets. At present, the press has stopped obssessing over our President’s legal difficulties (the allegations of improper sexual conduct) and all we are concerned about is the possibility that the man who says he wants to annihilate Israel will succeed in building a nuclear powerhouse that will destroy not only Israel, but all of Western civilization. All of this, while the Western countries debate whether sanctions are in order. What, may I ask, is the good of all of the Holocaust memorials and education if the Western world is sitting around and waiting to see if a madman who has vowed death and destruction really will do it??? And don’t these ostriches know that once he is done with us they are next???

When I was a little girl, my father told me that he too lived through difficult times. He told me that people talked about whether the world would survive. He told me that he believes that the world is stronger than the evil that wants to destroy it. He was not a traditionally religious man, but he had more faith in the goodness of the world and the kindness of people than anyone I have ever met. He was the consummate optimist while at the same time understanding and being concerned with reality. His gift of optimism is what keeps me going, keeps me hopeful.

We are taught that our lives are seen in a balance with the good deeds we do on one side and the places where we fail on the other and that any one act can tip the balance. I think of our place in the world in the same way. I believe that adding goodness in any place at any time can shift the balance. I believe that showing kindness to our family, friends, and strangers, being helpful, considerate, and understanding can bring enough goodness to the world to outweigh the destructiveness and hate that threaten us. We need to appreciate the beauty in each person and recognize in each other the holy spark of the Divine that resides in all of us.

This is one way in which we can bring about “tikkun olam” -healing the world.

An oasis in time

I finally figured out why I enjoy traveling as much as I do. Normally, I am engaged in activities that I must complete such as household chores like washing and ironing and cleaning and grocery shopping. In addition, I work a couple of days a week teaching family therapy. I have a course I teach for women one morning a week and a course for men one afternoon a week. Even recreational activities are planned and scheduled. Then there are the telephone calls both incoming and outgoing and errands to run.

But when vacation on an organized tour comes, all of that is left behind. I leave behind most of my clothing and take the minimum amount. Everything that I have to deal with resides inside my suitcase. Once on the plane, all I am responsible for is showing up. I am taken from one beautiful place to the next. I learn about the history and art and song and dance of the place. I learn a few words of the language. I notice the people’s faces — the smiles (in China), the frowns (in Hungary). Every day is an adventure. I am constantly learning. I do what is the most human: I live in the moment.

On our recent trip to China, for example, I enjoyed every sight, every sound… even walking throught the alley with the fish market in Xian where the creepiest crawliest characters were for sale for dinner– imagining myself as a contestant on “Fear Factor.” When we were in Chengdu, I loved watching the panda stand up and greet us. I marveled at the number of bikes and motorbikes coursing through the Chinese cities and parked filling wide swathes of sidewalk. I loved the music and dance and acrobatics we saw. I was completely tuned into my surroundings. I was not preoccupied with planning or waiting for a phone call or making arrangements for tomorrow. All of that was taken care of and all I had to do was to enjoy it.

And I wondered. Is it possible to turn off all of those preoccupations we carry with us and just enjoy the moments we have when we are here at home? Can we do it for a short time?

And I began to understand that that is precisely what shabbat is about every single week. It is a time we put away the telephone, the scheduling, the household chores, the errands, and we enjoy the moments with family, with friends. We enjoy the walk to shul, the sound of our feet on the sidewalk, the fresh air, the people we see, the pets out walking, the trees and the bushes that bloom here all year long. The peace of shabbat allows us to be fully human, fully in the moment. It is an oasis in time available to all, and you don’t even have to pack your bags.

Skin Deep?

I saw something yesterday that set me to thinking. It was something I really did not ask to see. Well, let’s put it this way: it was something I would rather not have seen. It was something that having seen it, I still do not understand. I was in the dressing room of our local health club when I saw it. What “it” was- was thong underwear. The wearer was a woman of perhaps 45. The scene was not pretty. I mean, if she had had a mirror at home that could have shown her a back view, it is clear to me that she would not have worn them in the privacy of her home let alone to the health club. And what is the point of them? They have got to be uncomfortable. A cleavage is one thing… if you are the type who has one and wants to use it for some sort of advantage. After all, one can see a cleavage from a distance. It might be what attracts a man to a woman and ultimately what enables him to learn what a fascinating, educated person she is. But thong underwear??? The only person who is likely to see it is one who’s already pretty committed to the process and by then it really shouldn’t matter.

And then I started to think of all of the dumb things that women do to make themselves “attractive.” They style and color their hair, they buy expensive clothing, they get tummy tucks and facelifts and breast augmentation. They put on makeup and perfume. They learn how to be “beautiful” by reading magazines like “Glamour,” “In Style,” “Shape,” “Vanity Fair,” and “Allure.”

And then they complain that men only want one thing! That no one appreciates them for their brain!

Well, people, I have a proposal. Let’s start over again. Let’s revalue women in a different way. Let’s talk about real human values. How about kindness? compassion? caring? creativity? How about understanding? concern, selflessness, optimism? Why shouldn’t women develop their ability to understand, to teach, to experiment, to invent? How come we don’t emphasize that our daughters learn to nurture, support, encourage, and achieve? And… why can’t we teach these things to our sons?

Why aren’t there magazines that tout the values that are the least susceptible to the ravages of time and accidents of nature, those that reflect the essence of the human being? Can a disabled person act in a beautiful manner? Can an old person have charisma? Can a terminally ill person give the gift of kindness?

In the realm of real values, worth is timeless and non-contingent. In a place where there is humanity to be shared, those with character can share it. In a place where comfort is needed, it can come from old and young, wise and slow. Beauty, then is much much more than skin deep. Beauty is taking our Divinely given soul and developing it in ways that will help others and improve the world

Strength from pain

I currently am teaching another class of wonderful women who are in the first phase of acquiring professional stature in the field of family therapy. Many of these women have been working informally for years as advisors and counselors and teachers. Many simply have the insight and will to help others.

This week, they completed an assignment I had given them in which they had to assess themselves in terms of what they were bringing of themselves to the therapy relationship. All of them were candid and open to discovering themselves. Virtually all of them understood something that is little understood elsewhere, but should be. They understood that many of their greatest strengths came from the adversity they had suffered. Their ability to withstand the challenges they had been given enabled them to become stronger. Their having lived through adversity enables them to understand others who are enduring or who have endured similar challenges and to be able to understand the complex web of feelings that pain and suffering activate. They understand that one can feel hurt and angry and embarrassed and ashamed and frightened and abandoned and worried– all at the same time. That tangle of emotions is what makes people unable to express themselves because it is all so confusing. My students understand that having gone through such tangles of feelings, they are sensitized to others’ feelings and able to understand them and provide the support that others need.

Many years ago a doctor (who neglected to read an x-ray report that the radiologist had written that identified the pain in my hip as a stress fracture) and had sent me for a bone scan, became convinced that I had a tumor and sent me for a stat CAT scan and an MRI. He explained that if it were a tumor, it would be secondary to cancer somewhere else in my body. I naturally believed at that point that I was looking at the last of my days. I began to see the world differently. I realized how future oriented speech is and how detached I already was becoming from the world of people whose futures stretched out ahead of them. I remembering passing a cemetery where a funeral was taking place in the rain and thinking that soon I would have my day. Somewhere in all of that, I remember thinking that if it turned out that I was OK, then I was having the most unbelievably enriching experience because from then on, I would know what it feels like to think that one’s days were ending.

The results were, of course, good. It was only a couple of years later when I was transferring my records that the original radiologist’s report fell out of the large x-ray envelope and I saw the cause of my pain. However, because of that experience I was able over the years to relate in a more relevant and compassionate way to people who had terminal diagnoses.

One of the paradoxes of life is that adversity can build understanding and compassion and that having suffered pain becomes an asset in terms of bringing caring and kindness to the world.

My students are all lovely women. They will go out into their communities and bring with them not only their enthusiasm and caring, but their deep understanding of others and most important, the knowledge that adversity often builds strength.

Music hath charms

I am sitting here, still endeavoring to get over my jet lag and there is beautiful music playing in the background. It is music that we bought in China with the haunting sounds of the flute. Many of the traditional Chinese instruments are different from those we have in the west. They use stringed instruments and woodwinds, chiefly. and some percussion. There is a calming feeling that this music evokes in me. As soon as I hear it, a beautiful garden appears in my mind’s eye.

There are so many experiences that remain with one far beyond their actual duration in time! How many times do we recall the excitement of our wedding and the profound joy at the birth of our children! These beautiful milestones in time remain in our memories to be called upon to lift our soul.

How lucky we are to live in a world that encompasses such beauty and so many opportunities for joy. How important it is to be among those who are privileged to increase the goodness in it!

Back from China!

We have returned from China. Our experience on this Shai Bar Ilan tour was once again fantastic! We landed in Beijing and hit the ground running. Each day was filled with beauty and wonder. From the Summer Palace to the Temple of Heaven and Forbidden City, we saw Beijing’s wonders, stopping for a most welcome foot massage. We flew to Xian and saw the wondrous Terracotta Warriors, thousands of them, each different from the others, no two the same. We flew to Chengdu and were lucky enough to see a number of pandas up close, including a look into the nursery where four baby pandas were lying in their cribs. We went to LeShan and saw the world’d largest sitting Buddha. We flew to Kunming and marveled at the beauty of the Stone Forest. Later in Guilin, we saw cormorant fishing and traveled to Yung Shuo to cruise down the Li River and see the magnificent scenery. We traveled up a 1.5 kilometer chairlift to the top of a mountain overlooking picturesque Guilin and then went on to Hangzhou to see a tea plantation and the beautiful West Lake and then we went on to Suzhou to see the production of silk and a The Master Fisherman Garden. In Shanghai we saw yet another beautiful garden, the Yu Yuan Garden. China consists of some 55 minority ethnic groups with the majority group, the Han, making up 92% of the Chinese population. We got to meet some of the people who are members of the Zhwang group (the largest of the minorities) and of the Yao group. Each group has its own language, customs, land area, and crafts. We enjoyed Chinese dance, music, and art. All in all, it was a dream vacation and one that restores one’s love for beauty and one’s sense of transcendence.

You can see my pictures at this location.

Overweight

There are certain words and combinations of words that strike fear and loathing in people’s hearts. They are, of course, mere words but sometimes their implications can be frightening.

Take the example of one of my granddaughters who today got her hands on her mother’s credit card and until she was caught, she probably was making plans as to what to do with it. Since she is 19 months old, we are assuming that she couldn’t have done much harm unless her older siblings have taught her that most dangerous of phrases: “charge it.”

And take that most horrid word, worse than any of the smarmy four letter words who only aspire to the fear and disgust this one invokes: overweight.

“It can’t be! I tried so hard. I sat and planned and worried and deprived myself and I am still overweight. I can’t believe it! This can’t be happening!”

“Don’t get excited,” I am told, “You aren’t the only one.”

“Of course not, but still…”

“You can pay extra and it will be all right.”

“What?”

“You can pay extra for your suitcase and we will allow it on the plane.”

“Oh! My SUITCASE! …..I guess I can cancel my nervous breakdown”