Archives for October 2005

Photographs and Memories (with thanks to Jim Croce)

What does a modern grandmother do in honor of her granddaughter’s bat mitzvah? Well, of course there’s the gift which must be special and meaningful, but beyond that, what can she do to symbolize the significance of this day in her granddaughter’s life.

While her grandfather will have words of torah to share with her, and in his gentle and eloquent way, he will welcome her to the congregation of Israel, her grandmother, will be just as proud, but in a more private way.

I will be there beaming with joy because I will be seeing her join the chain of women who carried on the traditions of our people. And because I want her to understand just how momentous her role is and how she fits into this grand chain, I am working on a PowerPoint presentation for her.

I have been combing through literally hundreds of pictures and finding those which tell the story I want her to hear. I see once again my mother and my father who would have loved to see this day. Through their pictures, they are invited to be a part of this celebration. I include pictures of my grandparents on both sides whose joy would be unbounded. I include pictures of my husband’s parents as adults and as children and I know how proud they would have been. I include people I have never met—my husband’s sister who passed away at age sixteen and his grandparents and great grandparents. I include pictures of my paternal great-grandmothers. I am overwhelmed with the sense of connectedness I feel with these people and with my realization that I have not let them down.

I look through the pictures seeing smiles and laughter and love. I remember the warmth of my father’s smile, the wit of my mother’s humor, the softness of my grandmothers’ arms, the brightness of my grandfathers’ eyes. I see my own daughter growing from infant to toddler to child, pre-teen, teen, young woman, wife, and mother.

And I am grateful.

Will Hadas appreciate this? I think she will. She is caring and sensitive. But if not now, she will later, and perhaps she will add these pictures to the gift she will give her granddaughter someday as she becomes yet another link in the chain.

Building a healthy family

For many people, the words “home” and “family” have two meanings—one, the home and family that they have and the other, the home and family that they see as ideal. Frequently it is the discrepancy between those two concepts that causes people to feel dissatisfied. Parents and children may feel that something is missing from their family life that would make it better.

We know that love is basic to the happiness of families, but there are other elements that are necessary for people to feel safe, secure, and valued. These are: respect, trust, graciousness, generosity, tolerance, and forgiveness. These are not the only aspects of family life that are desirable, but together they make for safety and security in the family.

Respect must exist between spouses and among all family members. It is important to remember that each individual is precious even when we are angry with him or her. Anything that degrades or debases another family member must be avoided. That includes shaming children in front of others and name-calling or making fun of family members.

Trust is important not only between spouses who must share the tasks of family life and be able to trust that the other will fulfill his or her responsibilities, but it is also important that parents and children be able to trust each other. That means that lies and threats cannot be used to control children. Consequences of a child’s dangerous or unacceptable action should be clear and the child should be warned. If the child persists, then the consequences must follow. Children must be able to trust the people who care for them and that includes their being able to count on clear limits. In turn, children should be trusted by their parents. Children who are trusted from an early age become trustworthy adults.

Graciousness is a concept not often mentioned when discussing family life, but in fact, it is a very important one. There are many tasks family members must perform. It is possible to moan and groan about them, but if they are tasks which must be performed, then doing them with grace and a pleasant manner makes them not just tasks, but gifts which one gives to other family members. A change in attitudes toward tasks can make them seem more pleasant and can change the atmosphere of the home. Children too should be taught that it takes less energy to do a task with a smile that to fuss and complain about it.

Generosity has to do with not keeping a tally of who has done more for whom. If one expects to give only 50%, then one is always keeping a tally and since we each see the world only from our own eyes, it always seems as if we are doing more. Marriage is a 100-100 proposition. Each partner must believe that all of the responsibility for the happiness of the couple is on him or her. Then there will be only giving and not counting up and feeling used. The more family members give to each other, the more they will receive from others. This is because we all have an ingrained sense of fairness and we enjoy reciprocating love.

Tolerance for one’s spouse and children is a difficult thing to cultivate. We all like to think that everyone is like us– that we all work the same way. This simply is not so. It is clear that different people have different talents and interests, but the differences also extend to how we see and experience the world. Some people like to be with others. They enjoy going out and doing things with groups of people. Other people are more comfortable at home reading a book or listening to music. Some people like to plan and decide things well in advance. Others like to leave decisions to the last minute of to collect a lot of information before deciding. In a family, there are always such differences. In order for people to live together happily, they must appreciate their differences and learn that they bring strength to the family. Each child also has a unique way of seeing and living in the world. Parents must learn to treat each child as an individual in order to help the child develop in his or her own way.

Forgiveness is perhaps the most difficult of the elements to cultivate. There is a hard-wired need for fairness. If someone wrongs us, we feel it’s only fair to get something from that person to make up for what he or she has done. Maybe we feel that we should be able to hurt the person. Maybe we think we should embarrass him or her, or give the silent treatment, punishing him or her. All of those tactics are counter-productive in family life. In a family, the aim is to make sure that everyone is working together to achieve a healthy, normal, happy, productive, meaningful life. “Getting back” at someone sabotages that effort. It hurts both people and divides families. Forgiveness lets the relationship continue to develop and allows people to get closer and feel more loving and supportive of each other. People who are punished in retribution are able to justify their behavior. Most people, when forgiven, feel fortunate and are more likely to avoid making the same mistake.

Creating a family that is loving and kind is hard work. Sometimes it requires acting in ways that feel unnatural, but like an athlete, we need to keep our minds on the goal and not lose sight of it.


Let me tell you about Hadas.

Hadas is my oldest grandchild.

Hadas was born on a sunny Friday morning, 12 years ago, at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, Israel. As her mother, my daughter, gazed into the eyes of her firstborn, I began to experience the world in a totally new way. I saw in my daughter’s eyes a deep, encompassing maternal love. I heard in the way she spoke to her little baby, warmth and kindness. I saw in the way she held Hadas, her gentle touch. I knew Hadas was in good hands. I could trust this young mother who, it seemed, had only recently been my baby.

As the years have gone by, Hadas has given her family great deal of pleasure. We appreciate the fact that she is quick witted, intelligent, clever, and has a great sense of humor. When we spoke recently, I told her that I remembered her having devised a PowerPoint presentation when she was very young. She told me that at one point she was hired to teach her older cousin to use PowerPoint. I asked her how old she was then. She said that it was the year she was in kindergarten!

Only a few years ago did we recognize her talent at dancing as she danced both folk and jazz with a local troupe. Then, we were wowed by her singing—listening to her sing solos at school commemorations with a voice as clear as a bell and a poise that was impressive.

In less than two weeks, Hadas will celebrate her Bat Mitzvah. She has lived a Jewish life from the day of her birth. She has come to love the land of Israel and the study of Torah. She takes on her responsibility as a Jewish woman with devotion.

Yesterday Hadas and I went to Jerusalem. The streets and parks were filled with people as families spent chol hamoed together. In the Ben Yehuda walking area, sidewalk stands were selling tablecloths and Simchat Torah flags. Street musicians played keyboards and trumpets and violins and balalaikas. Off to the side of the walking area, there was a tent with a puppet show. Stores were crammed with merchandise and there was a festive atmosphere all around. We walked together and talked and ran some errands and had lunch and finally, late in the afternoon, after a very gentle, sweet day, we returned home.

I spoke to Hadas about the fact that she was about to become the next link in a chain of Jewish women through the ages. I referred to her great grandmothers and great-greats, and all of the women in the family who had come before her and spoke to her about how the gift I was giving her also was meant to be passed through the generations. And just as I had felt secure that she was in good hands with her young mother, I feel secure that our tradition is in good hands with this lovely child as she becomes a Jewish woman.

Ode to an Iron

This is a piece I wrote in 1995, just after I moved to Israel. It is written in loving memory of Mamie T. Lindsay.

I have just moved into my new house and I am ironing. It is not the first time I have ironed. Permanent press is not always permanent, and my daughters’ hair ribbons crease where they tie. But this time there is no TV to watch and no radio to listen to, and the items I am ironing are linen placemats and napkins.

They are ecru with blue edges. The placemats each have an appliquéd flower attached to them about two inches from the left side. They are sewn to the placemat on two sides so that a properly folded napkin will fit between the sewn areas and be held to the placemat by the flower. They are of a bygone era when women stood at ironing boards and spent time ironing such dainty items.

But today, as I iron the first napkin I begin to think about my childhood and how I watched with fascination as Mamie ironed. I would watch her strong yet graceful hands take a wrinkled pillowcase and make it lie flat and perfect. The steam would rise from the iron and the fresh scent coupled with the straightness and smoothness of the fabric touched my senses in a way that seemed to symbolize purity. I envied the power that lay in her hands which tamed the wild cloth and made it do as she bid. I wondered how it would feel when I would finally be able to iron.

Then I grew up and got married. The first week after our honeymoon I ironed my new husband’s shirts. Actually, I ironed only one shirt because I feared I would also burn the second and all subsequent shirts. His gentle comment was, “I’ll just take my shirts to the laundry.” The age of polyester dawned and women were liberated from ironing except for “touch-ups.”

As the years passed and I raised my children, moved around the country with my husband, and pursued my own study and career, I began to notice that I do my best thinking under two circumstances: when I am washing dishes and when I am in the shower. I thought water had something to do with it- a return to the womb or something, but today I know that is not true. In both cases I was fully involved in doing something which was automatic. Since the activity in which I was engaged required no higher thinking processes and my body was able to move without conscious thought, I was freed from external stimuli and able to think in a meditative way.

As I stand this evening, iron in hand, I think about all of the time for meditation and thinking I have missed by not ironing. I also think about all of the time that I was fortunate to have because I was for so many years, raising babies. I think of sitting and softly rocking my babies, holding them and being fully aware of their softness and their vulnerability and their potential and the amount of love it is possible to have for another person. It was at those times that the world became understandable. And now, as I iron, I meditate again.

Rona Michelson 1995

It’s painful to be a good parent

Helping families to solve their problems sometimes involves doing detective work. How did the problem arise? Why this problem? Why are they handling it the way they are?

One way of answering some of these questions is by taking a complete family history. One aspect of that history involves becoming acquainted, through my clients’ memories and stories, with the people in their families. This helps me to see patterns of behavior that tend to recur from generation to generation. It helps me to understand what my clients consider normal and functional behavior and what they see as problematic.

Once, a very long time ago in a place very far from here I had a family come to me with a problem. As they began to tell me about the people in their family, each description was the same: “s/he’s a wonderful person; s/he’ll do anything for you.” I began to wonder about their grasp on reality, but that’s a story for another time…

What did strike me was that they equated “wonderful person” with “will do anything for you.” Indeed, when we have friends, we know that we can count on them to help us out if we are in trouble. But is that true of a wonderful parent?

Well, many people will tell you that it is true also of a wonderful parent. This is the parents who meets all of the child’s needs, cleans the child’s messy room, brushes the child’s hair, helps the child with homework, picks up the child from school if it is raining, and puts the child’s needs before his/her needs.

Hmmm… I’m not so sure. What happens when the child is building with blocks and the tower gets wobbly? If mom or dad intervene, does the child ever figure out how to balance things better? Oh, the mother and father can teach him, but is that the same as his learning it by trial and error and strengthening his neural pathways and achieving a feeling of mastery? OK, I have clearly loaded the answer, because to me, a mother or father who does everything for their child is a mother or father who allows the child to miss the thrill of discovery and the sense of accomplishment that solving a problem can bring.

It is hard to see one’s child struggle with a problem. It is so much easier to go and solve it for him or help him to solve it, but the mother and father are not always going to be present. The child needs to have the confidence and the experience to solve problems in his life. He cannot carry mom and dad with him, but he can carry his ingenuity and creativity wherever he goes.

This is not to say that parents shouldn’t teach their child. Of course they should. They can teach problem solving by talking through how they themselves solve problems and to give the child examples of situations and help the child generate ideas about what could be done. However when a child is confronted with a challenge , often the best thing to do is to encourage him or her to think of solutions, to talk them out, perhaps to try them out. Trial and error at young ages are so much less painful and embarrassing than later in life when the child becomes aware of peers. Sending a child into the world with the ability to solve his/her problems and to think for him/herself is a gift that only a parent who learns to sit by and do nothing can give.

Yom Kippur

For years I conceptualized Yom Kippur in a fairly traditional way. It was the day on which I went to the synagogue and prayed as honestly, as reverently, and as fervently as I could to be granted another year—a year in which I would become a better person and avoid all of the negative actions that I had either knowingly or unknowingly performed in the previous years of my life.

But this year is different. This year I lived through an illness that had me thinking that I might just be meeting my maker sooner than planned. Once healthy, I went off to adventures in China. And then, last week, Rosh Hashana, I once again became ill. This time, it was much less serious, but this time I was unable to attend services the second day of Rosh Hashana. The meaning for me was clear: I was not welcome at services. I had too much to account for. I needed to take a very long, hard look at myself.

Since then, I have been thinking about the way I treat people in a much more conscious, self-conscious way. And then yesterday… We were in Jerusalem to run some errands. I walked into one of my favorite stores. The tape or CD playing in the store was one that was presumably humorous, but the first song that I noticed made me cringe: “dead puppies aren’t much fun” or something like that. As I listened, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would think that joking about dead dogs would be funny. The next song, “they’re coming to take me away” was worse. It made fun of human beings in pain. After only a few bars, I quickly left the store. I had to leave. All I could make of the experience was that the songs were injuring my soul. How could I allow my soul, which I strive to purify in anticipation of the holiest day of the year, be polluted by such crass and callous satire?

When I got out of the store, it was as if I could finally breathe again. I felt as if I had rescued a child from a fire. I had brought my soul away from something that would injure it and make it less sensitive and caring and perfect before G-d.

I thought a lot about that yesterday and today. And today I will approach Yom Kippur with a new commitment to those things which are good and kind and benevolent and ennobling. I have a new appreciation of the fragility of the soul and our need to protect it. Today I will pray to be worthy of increasing goodness in the world and truly becoming a servant of G-d.

Sunday in the Temple of Heaven

We awoke Sunday to another glorious day. After breakfast, we boarded our buses and drove through Beijing to the Temple of Heaven. The Chinese have many beliefs about what is fortuitous and some of them have to do with placement of buildings. The Temple of Heaven, to which the emperor would travel, was in a direct line six kilometers south of the Forbidden City where he resided. He would go to the Temple of Heaven every winter solstice to worship heaven and to solemnly pray for a good harvest. Since his rule was legitimized by a mandate from heaven, a bad harvest could be interpreted as his fall from heaven’s favor and threaten the stability of his reign. So, the emperor fervently prayed for a very good crop. When the emperor traveled to the Temple of Heaven to offer his prayers, citizens were not permitted to watch. Were they unlucky enough to be caught along the path when he was making his way, they had to lie prone and avoid looking up for the entire duration of his journey.

We arrived expecting to see buildings, but in fact, the most interesting sights at the Temple of Heaven were the people we saw. Each day hundreds of Chinese people, mostly over the age of sixty, come to exercise. They were doing Tai Chi individually, or in groups with fans or swords. They were playing hacky-sack. They danced, sometimes ballroom-type dancing. But the most amazing sight was the area that was most like a children’s playground. Instead of equipment geared for children were all sorts of devices designed for adults to chin, to do sit-ups, to climb, and to stretch. There were paths with rounded stones embedded in them over which they walked in thin-soled slipper-type shoes. One older woman held a pole behind her neck that stretched over her shoulders. She gently raised both of her legs and placed them behind the pole, effectively bending herself in half. Ouch! It hurt me to watch, but not enough to keep me from taking pictures.

As we walked through the gardens and structures, we heard beautiful music, either being played on instruments live in the garden or from mechanical devices people had brought with them. The people seemed very happy and content. It seemed such a wonderful way to start a day, out in nature with friends, doing healthy exercise. I asked what they do in winter and our Chinese guide told me that they are there in winter as well.

At the edge of the park there was a store that sold fresh-water pearls. We saw a demonstration where a man took an oyster and opened it up to show us the pearls inside. He had a charming sales pitch, but not charming enough to convince me to buy something that I didn’t need.

Outside we met some Malaysian women and they were so attractively adorned that I asked to take their picture. They then took mine!

When we got back onto the bus and headed straight to the airport for a flight to Xian (Shi-Yan). Xian was the capital of thirteen Chinese dynasties and is its only walled city whose walls have survived until today.

There we saw the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower. We took a walk through the Muslim Quarter and saw a Muslim Temple that is said to resemble quite closely the synagogue that used to exist in Kaifeng. It was of traditional Chinese architecture in that it consisted to entrances and gardens one after the other. It was very tranquil and very beautiful.

We then visited the Big Wild Goose Pagoda which is a Buddhist temple. You can read about it at

Back at the hotel, we had dinner and when we left the dining room, we saw some very lovely young women in long purple taffeta gowns with nametags and little purses. We didn’t know if they were to be in a show or if they were at some sort of conference or what. One said something about dancing. I took a picture and one looked at me and motioned not to take pictures. Later I learned that these women dance with visiting gentlemen.

We then left the hotel and went to the Tang Dynasty Show which consisted of beautiful music and dancing. The costumes were exquisite. It was a feast for the senses. A tired crew, we returned to the hotel to catch a few hours of sleep before the next day’s adventures.

A Very Narrow Bridge

Last week my husband and I and a couple we are friendly with went for a hike in the Negev Desert. We had asked someone knowledgeable to recommend a trail. The person saw that we were not exactly teenagers and that in addition to us, our friends’ son and daughter-in-law and their three young children were present.

We set off into the desert passing a number of camels, climbing in our cars to the top of an overlook to the Great Machtesh (crater), and then continued on to the eucalyptus parking area that was beside the colored sands—sands that were naturally colored from the minerals in them.

Our friends’ son and wife decided not to come on the hike, but their having a car of their own enabled us to leave our own car at the finish of the hike.

We started along the trail. At first it was a gradual rise along a path that was quite beautiful. We passed some exquisitely colored sand formations and the rocks formed patterns in the sunlight. Soon the path turned upward and we climbed along the rocks. Then we saw a wall in front of us and a trail marking pointing up. We found metal handholds and scaled that wall and came to the top—or so we thought, but we found out that at the top of the mountain, the trail led to the top of another mountain and at the top of that mountain, there was yet another. The path became steeper and steeper. Finally, we reached the top. The view was magnificent.

We were walking in the heat of the day. We had sufficient water and food, but the heat and the very persistent flies made it less than pleasant. However, having gotten to the mountaintop, we hoped that the second part of the hike would be easier.

It wasn’t. The way down was along a path that ranged between 8 and 20 inches, was covered with dry pebbles, so there was not a decent foothold, and had only pointy rocks to hold onto. The mountain was called “the Big Fin” but I refer to it as “Stegosaurus Mountain.” My husband and one of our friends chose to propel themselves down the mountain in a sitting position, however I was wearing a skirt and there was no way that would work, so I watched every step (as did they) and continued on. We had noticed at the beginning of the climb that there was no cell phone reception and so I had shut off my cell phone thinking that I didn’t want to use up the battery in case we would need it later. My husband worried that if I fell, he would have no access to the cell phone! We began talking about the fact that the only rescue would be via helicopter. There was no way to carry a person down the mountain. I never worried about dying, but the thought of serious injury did enter my mind when I slipped and heard the pebbles continuing to fall down to the desert floor. But we continued, mainly because there was nothing else that we could do.

When we finally got to the bottom of the steepest descent, we rested and then the rest of the descent seemed easy. Just as we were feeling confident once again, we noticed that there was a railroad track directly in front of us that was at the top of a very steep rise. Only a few minutes later did we discover that there was a pedestrian tunnel underneath. That was the good news. The bad news is that it was built for pygmies. The tunnel was probably five feet high, but after the descent, I literally ran through it bent in half.

When finally we reached the parking lot where the car was located, I believe I rhapsodized about my car in a completely insane manner. But by then I was totally spent.

We stopped in the next town to buy cold drinks.

When finally I caught my breath, I realized that this whole adventure was very much like life. You start out happy and confident. Things are beautiful and easy. You experience some difficulty, but it’s still lovely. And then you get to a point where it gets hard, very hard, and just when you think it can’t get any harder, it does. Then it gets harder yet. You can stop and look around and then you decide you need to go on. You walk along the path, danger on either side. You can be with friends and they are there to share the experience with you. They provide support and protection and comfort, but the journey is still rough. Sometimes the up-hills are the hardest, and sometimes when it seems that things should be easy, that is when they are the most difficult. But when the hard times are over, you feel relieved, grateful, and maybe even proud that you hung in there and made it through.

Throughout the descent, I kept thinking of something that Rav Nachman of Bratslav said: “The whole world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be at all afraid.”