Wednesday, February 25, 2015


I have seen some talk lately putting down the lifestyle of baalei batim as a second-best choice to full-time Torah learners. Usually this talk comes from a more right-wing people, the ones who have someone else (or expect someone else) to cover their expenses while the husband sits down and learns full time. These people feel very uncomfortable when later on life they are forced to leave the cocoon of the kollel and face the realities of the world. Their wives feel that the sacrifices they make to assure full-time Torah learning makes them partners in Torah, and they are assured Olam Haba based on how many hours their husband spends in learning. They feel fake and lost once this learning ends.

During my high school years, I have discussed this issue, and firmly resolved not to get married to a full-time learner. I believed in being married to someone who has a work ethic, and who views himself as a family provider, while still making time for learning and maintaining a frum lifestyle. Good thing I met my wonderful husband before hitting the shidduch circuit.

This past weekend we drove to another city for my husband's medical conference. He needs continuous medical education credits, and being homeschoolers with a pretty open schedule, we can all come along. The only caveat is, usually doctors fly to these conferences in ritzy places, stay in quite decent hotels, and have a mini-vacation while rubbing shoulders with other doctors and watching some Powerpoints. In our case, the conference was over Friday-Saturday, so that posed some issues from the beginning. My husband found out that the hotel where the conference was taking place was within a walking distance from a local Jewish community. He came up with a plan: stay with a local family for Shabbos, and he would walk to his lectures on Saturday. (He made similar arrangements before). Learning from our last year's experience, I know that not everyone is able to put up a family of six, so I was a bit skeptical. He called up the shul, talked to the rabbi, and even made a deal that whichever money would go towards hotel, he would either give to the family or donate to the shul. There are a few kosher establishments in the area, and a few tourist attractions, so I was sold.

When we got to our destination, there was a layer of ice and snow on the ground, something that we did not experience this year. It was also bitterly cold. The kids were eager to go out and play, until they realized how cold it is, and how slippery the ice is. I got worried: how is my husband going to walk in all this? We did pack warm clothes, but they are not proper northern gear, as we usually have no need for such things.

On Friday, I dropped him off in the morning. We agreed to meet in the Jewish student life center for lunch, down the block from his conference, where there was a supervised vegetarian cafe. He came in between his lectures, and wrestled our baby so I could get some food in. Then, he went back. There was more winter advisory weather predicted, and the city was going into lock down. I was worried about him getting back before Shabbos, but he took a bus back, and basically turned right around, took our two older boys, and went to shul for Friday night. It was snowing, and he was already out walking in this nasty weather, but this was a chance to daven with a minyan (and I needed a bit of break after wrestling with all the kids in an unfamiliar place all day). At the table, he made an effort to engage kids in parsha-related discussions, even though he was the only adult doing so.
The following morning we woke up to a freezing rain. I mournfully looked out the window: you will have to be walking for half an hour in this?! He just got up and davened, then he made kiddush so we would have at least a bit of a normal Shabbos family time, and then he offered to walk me over to shul (our hosts made it quite clear that the mom likes to have a quiet house on Shabbos morning while the kids are in shul, and that's where lunch was going to take place). I kept glancing at this freezing rain, at my poor kids who have to walk in it, and at my husband who will have a much longer walk than we do. I was glad that he walked us over, as the slushy ice made it hard to navigate with an umbrella stroller. Then my hubby turned around and marched to his conference, in the freezing rain.

The plan was for him to walk back over during lunch break, have lunch with us (if he got the timing right) and then go back to the conference. He had to submit his paperwork by the end of it to get credit for attendance, so he had to be there by 4 pm. He filled it all out beforehand and left it with a concierge (the hotel was outside the eruv, and the conference people are a bit picky about how they accept things). As this shul luncheon progressed quickly, I kept glancing out the door, hoping that my husband makes it back. I made a plate for him to take back, but without the hot options. As the hosts started to leave, I had no choice but to bundle up my kids and follow them. Just as we started trudging back, my husband returned, wet and cold. Without complaint, he helped navigate the same slush back to the house.

I offered him a meager shul lunch plate (bagels, cream cheese, tuna and egg salad). There was no lechem mishna, so he just washed on sliced bagel halves. He told me how the hotel people looked funny at him, coming in soaking wet, how passing buses splashed him with water, and how the conference secretary wondered aloud about provisions for such cases, like calling a taxi. Big0shot doctors are not supposed to be ding this! But he just shrugged his shoulders, finished his lunch, said mincha, and trudged back to the hotel. We agreed that I will try to pick him up when Shabbos is over. I joked ruefully how when we are home and he's on call, he has his cell on him, so I can call after Shabbos and reach him, but now that he was not on call, I cannot even get in touch. He smiled and said, don't worry.

As Shabbos ended,  he did call me from the front desk to be picked up. I was feeling how this was such a weird Shabbos, and so uncomfortable, both physically and spiritually. Yet, after we got kids into bed, I caught my husband sitting down to finish his shnei mikra.

Maybe he did not learn the whole day, maybe this was not a traditional shabbos, but whichever Torah he learned this Shabbos, despite the crazy circumstances, I will gladly accept as my ticket to Olam haba. I am proud to be married to someone who will no sacrifice either part of his identity for convenience's sake. And I am proud that this is the role model for my children.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Being mindful.
Davening with kavanah.

Making time to notice small things.


Focusing with intent.

All these lovely terms are thrown around all the time, and are so important. We all need to take that time in the day to breathe, to think, to be ourselves, to ask ourselves what's important, to calm down, to connect to G-d, to clarify priorities. Yet, how is one supposed to go about achieving any of these?

In Judaism, women are not obligated in time-bound commandments, such as structured prayer three times a day. Women are not obligated to wear tefillin, which is a time-bound mitzvah. Some consider this to be sexist, and I have known feminist-leaning friends who, while considering themselves orthodox, do put on tefillin. But they tend to be younger, unmarried, and without kids. They are agents of their own day, of their own time. If they sleep in and miss the proper time, it is due to their own negligence.

Yesterday I managed to wake up before anyone else in my household. I crept out in darkness, turned on laptop and browsed for prenatal yoga videos. I have two DVDs with prenatanl yoga, but each runs closer to 45 minutes, which I knew I did not have. I found a free, streaming 20 minute video, turned the volume down, laid out my mat, and prepared to breathe and stretch, to calm my mind, to focus. Exactly four minutes in, just as I closed my eyes and centered my breath, 1 yo woke up. If you think it is possible to do yoga from a laptop with a 1 yo, I invite you to try. He will either bang on the keyboard, or sit on me. More likely, he will try to pull the yoga mat from under me. I hastily disassembled and picked him up.

I tried saying brachot (morning blessings), which I do say every day, but usually somebody decides that it is a perfect time to talk to me, or grab my back, or stand on the couch and moan along.

Even bentching is not safe. I try to say it slower, with intent of thankfulness for the meal and connection to G-d, but yesterday, as 1 yo heard me bentching, first he ran over, excited, with a bentcher and then he proceeded to declare: "Poopy! Change diaper!" while itching his backside and tugging at my skirt. Dear offspring, don't you see that mommy is in need of her moment of mindfulness here? Don't you appreciate the kind of halachic problem you are creating?

But the offspring is oblivious. The offspring is little and needy and self-centered. The offspring needs hugs and attention, the offspring clamors for connection. And the offspring takes precedence over mommy's mindfulness.

How do you find time to focus and center yourself?

Friday, February 13, 2015

striking gold

We finished Sefer Breshit with 10 yo. 8 yo finished another perek with my husband.

But this is not what my kids are excited about at the moment. When the schoolwork part of the day was finished, when I'm done yelling at 10 yo for misplacing his spelling words (again), when 8 yo has completed his totally unfair math where "they keep tricking me by asking for area and I am much better at finding perimeter", the kids decided to go outside. It is cold here, not as cold as in the northeast, but the temperature is just above freezing. I was trying to get 1 yo to take his nap, and to finish Shabbos cooking, so I strongly encouraged this outing. I was not sure how long they will last outside, so I suggested gloves. They wanted to go digging. I decided that they will find out for themselves what digging in frozen ground feels like.

We had a tree cut down recently, with a large stump remaining. My husband made a bonfire on top of it this past Sunday, and the kids fed it, and toasted marshmallows. But the stump is still there, and there are old grass clippings and wood shavings all around it. They went digging between the roots, two boys with shovels and one girl, watching and helping. Suddenly, they dash into the house, excited: "We think we found gold!" A large crumbly rock is thrust into my face, with pale yellow veins running through it.

Not from our yard
Clap, if you believe in gold mine right in my front yard.

I have learned to stay positive, or non-committal in such situations. They washed the rock off, examined it, and then went Googling to find out how to tell whether they struck gold. I came in the middle of them watching a video telling how to identify gold in quartzite. The rock in the video looked eerily like the rock they found.

Now they want a magnifying glass, to examine those grains and veins closely.

I bet they will not remember much of what we did this morning. I bet they will not remember which exact problems they solved to get area, or which sentence they used for "especially". I bet they will remember the time they struck gold in the front yard.

This is what gives me strength to continue homeschooling. As much as I would like to have a certain balance of academics and tangible achievements, knowing that they have freedom to explore, be passionate, conduct their own research, and draw their own conclusions is more important than my objectives.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

ice cream making, or aspirations

We finished our dinner. 10 yo: "Mom, can I have ice cream for dessert?"

I don't want him eating my husband's Haagen Dazs, so I say that he can have something else. He is not satisfied: "How do you make ice cream anyway?"

"You use heavy cream and you freeze it. You might  want to look it up."

He runs to the computer and starts Googling. I'm envisioning a trip to the grocery store, to buy heavy cream which I clearly do not have in the house. He finds a recipe for ice cream using ziploc bags and milk. It is chocolate-flavored and we have all the ingredients on hand. First he is writing out the ingredients, then he is cutting and pasting into Word, trying to fit the recipe on one page.

Gathering the ingredients.
He got the bags, and the ingredients. 5 yo and 1 yo are on hand, helping and curious. I happened to have rock salt that I got expressly for the purpose of making ice cream with the kids years ago, but, somehow, never got around to it. He mixed the food ingredients, got a hand from 1 yo in scooping the ice, added rock salt, wrapped the whole contraption in a towel, and started tossing.
Little brother lends a hand
They are fighting over who gets to shake the bags.
After requisite 8 minutes, it was clear that the ice cream still did not freeze. I was suspicious of the fat content of milk (we used 2 %), but I suggested more time tossing it around. I also found an old coffee can, so we transferred the inner ziploc into it, packed it with ice and rock salt, and the kids rolled it back and forth on a towel. 1 yo tried getting in on the action. They had a grand old time!
Rolling the can back and forth
After all this vigorous mixing, it finally felt frozen, but gloppy, more like frozen yogurt. 10 yo pulled out the bowls for everyone, even though it was supposed to make only one serving, and topped it off with whipped cream and chocolate syrup. They sat there, in blissful satisfaction. He remarked how good homemade ice cream tasted.
Doling out the goodies.
I thought how allowing kids to make ice cream from scratch on a night when my husband was on call and nowhere to be seen was either an act of the best mommy ever, or of a total loony.
When I was growing up, my mother had two cookbooks. One of them was imposing The Book of Healthy and Tasty Food. Being a bit like my oldest, only lacking Internet, I read it. I was inspired. The recipe that stood out for me was sea turtle soup. It started like this: cut the head and the flippers off the turtle, rinse the carcass...

The truth was, the turtle was never available in the grocery store. It was not available in my parents' lifetime, either. It was not the sort of recipe that you actually made, it was the recipe to aspire to, one day. Maybe my mother could kid herself in her childhood: in ten years we will live during communism, and then turtle will be available, and I will be able to choose whether to make turtle soup or not. I was harboring no such illusions. In fact, the recipes mentioned cream. I do not recall once eating it. There was ice cream, from a cart outside, with my mother determining whether it was safe to eat or not (she worked as a supervisor for food control, so eating out of the house was a taboo, or a very risky proposition at best). I did not aspire to cream, but I read, in that same book, that a polite meal included a nicely set table, with napkins.

I was probably about ten when I approached my mother with the same proposition. I knew better than to ask her to use our china (for guests only), but we had paper napkins, and I wanted to use them, probably as a substitute for turtle soup and cream. I was met with a lot of reluctance. As I recall, we did use them, but they were just laid out and then collected at the end of the meal, to be used at some other occasion. There was also probably a verbal message of wastefulness which went along, but my dreams of culinary freedom were not to be.

Most likely I am making up for my childhood desires by indulging my kids in their cooking escapades. I want them to be more active in the kitchen, I want them to be adventurous, to make delicious things, to dream of making delicious things. I often stop them, too: I am too tired, I want food to be done with in the most efficient way possible, I don't have a high tolerance for mess, I worry about them messing up the recipe and wasting food. Yet we live in a total abundance. We can afford to waste whatever goes into any particular recipe (maybe not a turtle soup, but turtles are not kosher anyway, so we are safe). And that look of satisfaction, that freedom to eat what you desire, and the ability to make what you want: isn't it worth it?

Monday, February 9, 2015

unstructured learning

We went to a homeschool day at the local nature center. 10 yo did not want to go, had to be practically convinced and dragged over there. The formal programs there leave much to be desired. They are run by a former public school teacher with years and years of experience. All that I see are crowd control techniques: rotate through stations, listen to instructions, do not interrupt.

So why do we keep going back?

8 yo decided to participate in indoor scavenger hunt, looking for images of ten song birds. He had to find them and write them down on a clipboard, then to turn the list in. He worked with a friend, looking and searching, persisting at a task for close to an hour. He also wrote them all down. Was that cheating? Collaboration? Was this writing practice? Sticking to a task? Not giving up in the face of difficulties?

5 yo made a new friend, whom she played with and followed around.

10 yo traded in his fossilized fish bone.

1 yo spent a lot of time looking at a mole snake, watching it slither. Then, just as he was losing interest, one of the employees came with a spray bottle. She opened the exhibit, pulled out the case, lifted the lid, and misted the habitat. I told 1 yo that the snake was getting a shower. He sat in my lap, fascinated. Then she offered to take it out, as long as he wouldn't touch it. He really got a close look at that snake! I asked about the heavy rocks on the lid, and was told that these snakes are very strong and can lift up the lid of the enclosure and escape. We got this close and personal look, totally unplanned.

One thing that I learned from the past three years of homeschooling is that a lot of learning happens in unstructured, "unproductive" moments. Homeschooling is not about advancing through grades, or filling out worksheets, or passing tests. Learning is not quantifiable, but it happens when there is an opportunity for it to happen. If one passively sits and waits for someone to tell them what to learn and what to know, they are guaranteed to fail. They will not remember anything beyond the point of required recall. The point of learning is to "own it", have a stake in it, be interested for its own sake.

Which brings me to my "next year" dilemma. Now I am leaning to sending out the two youngest kids: 5 yo and 1 yo. 5 yo wants to go to school, "to see what it's like", and 1 yo manages to disrupt and destroy faster than I can blink. I know that many homeschool families choose to send kids to preschool until kindergarten age, precisely to be able to focus on the older kids. I also know that 5 yo would be ridiculously easy to homeschool. Today we davened together, and then we did the first lesson from "Derech Bina". I was planning on focusing exclusively on reading, not being sure how much writing she can do (the primer is meant for Hebrew school kids who are in 2nd grade). This girl insisted on doing the writing page, too. And she managed just fine, with some direction. Then, in the afternoon, we doled out allowance. We start at 5, a quarter for each year of age, so she gets a dollar and a quarter. Then we give tzedakah, which is ten percent, so that's 12 cents in her case. I point out the coins for her, let her figure out their value, show her how to make change from the quarter that she gets into dimes and pennies so she can give tzedakah. Then she counts up her dollar bills and we use a hundreds chart to calculate cents. "Can this be my math?" Of course, dear, this is your math, only it is meaningful and useful math. 1 yo gets a penny to put into tzedakah box.

I look at her day, so full, and then I wonder what is the school going to give her that she is not already getting at home. She might end up with a morah who is calmer than a sleep-deprived mommy, yelling at her older brothers. She will get to do more projects, more worksheets. She might get exposed to ways of counting and reading that I am not familiar with. But is all this academic material worth more than having freedom to play for hours, to choose what to learn, and to be with her family?

Sunday, February 1, 2015


Every once in a while, even if the day did not turn out to be perfect, even if it rained, and even if the kids got on my and each other's nerves, it is nice to reflect how much nachas (happiness) they bring.

1 yo walks around the house, singing "Hashem melech, Hashem malach". He loves to get the bentcher and give it out. He loves looking at it. He demands that I say "bracha" when he is eating. No, he is too young to understand, to repeat the words, but he knows that we do not just shovel in food, there is this other element surrounding it. He is thoroughly enjoying Kid K'nex, connecting the pieces on his level.

5 yo has been looking at books more and more on her own. She was reading "ir/ur" blends today, because they happened to be in the book that we were looking at. She is also reading the state magnets that we have on the fridge.

8 yo offers to return shopping carts every time we go to the store. He has been spontaneously spelling words (thank you, Minecraft homeschool). he reads the parsha every week in English, and knows it well. Moreover, he does not hesitate to crack the chumash and do research to answer a difficult question. His temper has mellowed out so much in the past six months, that he almost feels like a different kid. I shudder what would have happened if I did end up putting him into this local dayschool. I would miss all this growth and maturing.

10 yo has been scootering back after his mishna lessons.With the spate of articles about overreacting bystanders to kids being outside alone, I do worry, not for his safety, but for what would happen if someone decided that an almost 11 yo cannot ride his scooter on his own for less than a mile. He has been producing spontaneous creative drawings and projects. Yesterday, as we were walking, 5 yo decided to recite back to me my cell phone number (it took her one day of trying to memorize it). 10 yo went into calculations of how many combinations can one get for different phone numbers. He came up with 10^100 (and may those with better skill correct him).

When I step away and stop worrying about academics, about where the kids are compared to their grade level. when I step back far enough to see the big picture, I see that they are turning out just fine. They are learning, they are motivated to do their things, they do behave like menches (mostly), and, when asked, they much rather be homeschooled. As much as I beat myself up about messing them up, about not doing enough, about not providing the right environment for growth, about missed opportunities, they seem to be just fine.

I do not know how I will be feeling about homeschooling tomorrow. But today, I am enjoying the nachas.