Sunday, December 31, 2017

in search of realistic parenting advice

I finally got around to reading "No Drama Discipline" based on a recommendation of a friend. I am reading the book and nodding my head: yes, connection, yes, a behavior is a cry for help, yes, regain composure. Slowly but surely a seed of doubt crawls in: this is all nice and well, but the parent has to always control herself, not to react, act loving, be comforting, suppress the impulse to yell, to release tension, Moreover, all the examples conveniently have only one child that the parent has to connect to at any given time, and somehow that connection happens fast enough not to interfere with the rest of life.

Overall, I have nor found any super new, earth-shattering material (I am about a hundred pages in). I have been applying a lot of the advice in this book in my parenting already: talk to the child, spend a lot of time in his or her world, connect, calm them down, redirect, be present, look at the big picture instead of immediate behavior change. But what the authors of this book (and other similar books) do not mention is how exhausting all of this is, how mentally draining. Now throw in more than one child and you got a situation ripe for a disaster.

My husband is on call the entire weekend. Somehow that very important piece of information slipped my mind, so I invited a friend over for Shabbos. Then I tried inviting other families who have kids in the similar age range to her kids, so all of a sudden, the Shabbos table had to be set for 20. Naturally, that is the very Shabbos that my husband got called up to deliver a baby before lunch even started. So I am madly prepping food, my kids are in shul unsupervised, my baby is running around in pajamas, and I should go over to shul to get those kids and guests. My friend helped and helped. My guests all pitched in. But naturally, this is the Shabbos that my 2 yo will not go down for a nap, I have people gathering downstairs that do not know each other, my daughter is trying to find girl-centric space in a house heavy on the boy side... My sobbing 2 yo just needs her mommy to hold her and rub her back to fall asleep.

But I end up trying to host this lunch, and with everyone helping and being easy-going, it ends up working out.The 2 yo does not end up napping. I am stressed already. I mentally make a note of making a better job scheduling large company when my husband can get called up. But now I host, serve, talk, take a drink of wine.

The guests leave, sweetly taking 7 yo and 4 yo with them. The older boys leave for shul with their friends. It grows quiet. And 2 yo decides it is time for connection. I talk to her, I read to her, I make myself a cup of tea, but I spend more time finding animals in her book than reading my book or drinking. I feed her some sort of dinner.

Everyone comes back for havdalah. My husband rushes out to round in the hospitals. And I am left trying to get everyone to collect laundry and into pajamas and into bed. I need to recharge and I know it, but instead I get a sulky teen and cranky daughter who does not want to go to bed and 4 yo who needs to go and get an ice cube to suck before falling asleep. And can they have computer time? And don't they see the state of the house?!

I wake up in a sour mood, but I try to cheer myself up with a quiet cup of coffee before everyone resurfaces for the day. 4 yo is peeking out from his room and HE wants to cuddle on the couch. so I do (connection, right?) but I miss my chance at a quiet cup because more and more kids wake up and they all want something. And I want boys to go to minyan that is at 8 so I am rushing them to be ready. And I'm trying to make pancakes because I'm hungry and who does not like pancakes? But my kids do not touch them, as my husband comes downstairs, at five to 8, phone pressed to his ear, scheduling a procedure at 9. So I shove the boys out the door to superfast shul while 2 yo makes maple syrup handprints.

And then they are back and everyone ignores my third polite request to please start sorting and folding the clean laundry. I become more direct with 13 yo: either you fold the laundry and I get 2 yo dressed, or vice versa. He picks his sister (aw, sweet!) and I go to the basement to make the guest bed witrh clean linens.

When I come back up, I am greeted by wails from upstairs. 11 yo comes down and pointedly asks me don't I hear what is going on and why am I ignoring her? I go upstairs where I find 2 yo manically trying to remove her diaper while 13 yo is tugging in vain to keep it on. They are both screaming in frustration. I take the baby who sits on me, butt-naked, sobbing and direct the rest of the kids back downstairs to sort and fold laundry. They go. I am connecting with her, but not with them. I see that she has a diaper rash and offer her a quick bath. She is delighted. She takes her time. I holler downstairs for someone to please bring me a towel and a bath mat because they are in that laundry. No response. I do not want to leave the girly alone in the tub, so I holler again.I am informed that those items are still wet in the dryer. I quickly run to get a spare.

By the time the leisurely bath with a calm 2 yo is coming to an end, I am hearing wails of 4 yo from downstairs. He comes up crying that he has way too much to fold and sort and he cannot do it. The truth is that I have been usually doing his laundry for him, so I am sure his siblings just made a large pile and that is overwhelming. Hearing her brother cry, 2 yo starts whining again. I rush to get her dressed before she loses it and come downstairs.

7 yo is exasperated because she has been trying to train her younger brother in the art of clothes folding, but he was having none of that. I pick up crying 4 yo and let him melt into me. Connection, right? Now 2 yo runs over and tries pushing him off, making space for herself. Neither of them is happy. I end up folding clothes for 4 yo that he puts away through tears. 13 yo is sulking, again. 11 yo pipes up how what I am doing is unfair, again. I see a large pile of leftover unsorted socks, again. And I have a few more loads to run.

So when 7 yo decides to open the blinds a few minutes later, she yanks on the cord a little bit harder than usual and the whole molding falls down, with the blind still attached. And it is Sunday right before New Year's day. And there is a large nail protruding. and a nice gash in the wall, And I lose it and yell all the frustration and all the connection that I have been giving away without getting anything for myself, without getting a break, without time to recharge, to even read about what is supposed to happen after all the connection. And I yell a little bit harder than the situation calls for. And I break all the connections that I have been building. 7 yo runs away from me, screaming. Two younger ones disappear.A few minutes later I get a hand-delivered note saying that she is sorry and I can do with her whatever I want. Poor child, one minute your mother is a saint and the next she is a raving lunatic. I sit next to her, I pick her up and hold her and tell her that I am sorry for yelling at her. I just did not want a broken wall.

And I do not get to finish because her friends come and pick her up and she leaves through tears.

I am looking for a parenting book where a parent is not a pushover, an only adult for most of the situations, and there are multiple children to deal with at all times. Because I have all the tools, but I do not have the circumstances that allow me to apply them successfully and healthfully.

Disclaimer: as I was typing this late at night, 13 repeatedly interrupted me to read yet another panel of the comics that he founde funny (his bid for connection) and I repeatedly asked him to stop so I could focus.

Who are the people in your neighborhood?

When I was becoming frum, my not religious grandmother, a"h, would say every time she turned on the light on Shabbos or ate not kosher food: "G-d will forgive me". She was in her eighties, and there was no point in arguing with her. I remember stewing inside: how do you know that G-d will forgive you this? How do you know that he does not care about you eating not kosher or not keeping Shabbos?

But now I wonder whether my old grandmother understood something deeper. After all, her sins were not of the leaders of my city's community. She was not reluctant to speak out about a convicted con artist who was scamming multiple people for years. She was not covering up child molesters. She was not guilty of selectively warning some congregants but not the others when a dangerous individual moved onto a block. Those were not her sins.

Torah warns us to make a railing around our rooftop, lest a person falls off the roof. Torah does not tell us to wait till somebody falls off and gets hurt and then make a railing. We are told to be proactive, to avoid innocent people getting hurt so the blood is not on our hands. So why do rabbis think that we need people to get hurt, get hurt badly, and keep on getting hurt before somebody decides that it is time to do something? Why are they so careful about the laws of Lashon Hara but not so careful about guarding the physical well-being of those who rely upon them? Why is it up to the congregants to ask: is this person dangerous? Do I have to avoid him/her?

I am very upset. I cannot be the clearinghouse for the rumors circulating here because these rumors have substance. However, why do I have to call rabbis to substantiate the rumors? Why do I have to direct others to call the rabbis? Why cannot the rabbis get up and lead by saying: this person did such and such, stay away from that person. Why does it take a mother in the community, an oddball to be speaking the truth, get attacked, get questioned?

I do not know how those rabbis sleep at night. I do not know how they go about daily life while the congregants keep inviting these neighbors over because they are trying to be open and welcoming. Those out of the loop do business with them because why would you suspect someone who goes to your school, your shul? Why would you suspect a fellow Jew when you are encouraged to love him/her? And why do rabbis love their congregants less than the congregants love their neighbors?

I do not know how these rabbis stand on Yom Kippur and recite vidui, doing teshuva for leading others astray. And I do not know how am I supposed to worry about my kashrut and Shabbat observance and ask sheelot of the same rabbis. They will not eat in my house because "it is not kosher enough" based on totally arbitrary standard that has nothing to do with halacha, but they will not worry about how kosher their actions are?

My grandmother was onto something because the G-d that I believe in can forgive an 80-year-old lady not keeping Shabbos, but Hew cannot forgive community leaders for not publicly and forcibly warning members about dangerous individuals.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

getting triggered by health coach posts

I have not bought a new piece of clothing for months while slowly shedding and discarding old, worn, not fitting or "I'll never fit into it" clothing". Frugality? Depression? Minimalism? Fatalism? Body positivity? Body image issues? Accepting myself for who I am now? Lack of time to shop? Lack of desire to shop and tap into consumerism? Or maybe I am just content with what I have for the stage of life that I am in right now.

I have yet another acquaintance who befriended me on Facebook and is on a health journey. She is trying to lose weight, get healthy, eat healthy, be coached and supported, support others. I see it, I watch it, I observe it. I am happy that she is trying to do something about her weight and body image. But at the same time, I keep thinking how there is so much more to life than abstaining from licking fingers, posting recipes and motivational quotes. There is so much more to it than weight and the size of your dress and the shape that you see in the mirror.

As someone who was always thin while eating whatever I wanted, who never consistently exercised, who never agonized about going a size up, this might be dismissed as a thin girl being dismissive of a not-so-thin girl. But I have gone through five pregnancies and the weight gain that comes with that. I weight right now what I weighed at the end of my first pregnancy. I have gone through nursing and weird body sizes and bras that somehow never fit or looked flattering.  I have gone through going to the store and coming out upset because even if you are fairly thin, your belly is not the same size as your breasts which are a different size than your hips and the clothes designers do not keep that in mind. And I have gone through Hep C treatment when I lost ten pounds in six weeks, was very thin, sick as a dog... Yet through all that I have never hated my body. All these body size and shape fluctuations were a background to the life I was living, the children, homeschooling, outings, trips, classes.

So dear friend on a health journey: I know you mean well. I know that you need support, especially since you want these changes to stick. I know you are excited for what you are seeing in the mirror and on the scale and you want to share the formula of your success with the world. But I am finding myself triggered by your constant pep talk. If I want a cookie, I'll have a freaking cookie and not worry about repercussions to my thighs or the scale. If I want a get-thin-quick secret, it's ribavirin. It kills the appetite (along with a few other useful things in your body).  But come on, beautiful friend. You have lovely kids. Don't they deserve a little bit of Facebook space too? You have so many other things going on in your life. If you don't, there are so many causes to get involved in. There must be more to life than cauliflower crust pizza.

So get rid of your clothes, get cute new ones, say hello to the one you start to love in the mirror, and I will be waiting for when you are ready to have friendship go beyond calories, recipes, and self-negation.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

working on not yelling

After facing the reality of how devastating yelling is to some of my kids, I have consciously cut down on yelling. (I have written about yelling before, but then I slipped, things got crazy again. I am human and imperfect and that was the emotional release shortcut.) It has been very very hard to control myself even when anger seemed justified, even when punishment seemed warranted, even when yelling was a primal scream of despair. One of the consequences of not losing it and not yelling has been how that child has reduced his tone of voice. Because the overall volume has been much lower, he modulated his voice to speak more quietly. His overall tone is so quiet that I often have a hard time hearing what he's saying, so I end up raising my voice to ask him again to speak up...

It seems that I have been the primary source of noise with my children because now I experience other people's elevation of tone or yelling as a physical slap. Probably didn't help that I was belted as a kid, so the body remembers drawing into a panic state because that kind of escalation by another adult would be followed with hitting. Oh no, no childhood abuse, just "I was spanked as a child and I have turned out alright, respectful and all." But now that the gut reaction of recoiling and protecting myself is activated, I am experiencing precisely what my children must have been experiencing all the years and times that I have raised my voice at them in frustration and anger.

And it hurts.

Because I spend so much of my day and emotional energy on controlling myself, I am drained by the evening time, when the rest of the children get concentrated mommy while trying to kick, back, let go, get comfortable and wind down. I have so little emotional reserve left that I end up losing it, either externally or internally. Sometime between 4 and 9 pm, despair sets in, the sort of despair that one experiences while pacing with a baby who just would not sleep. I am drowning while trying to rescue others.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Interlinear seforim

Chanukah is almost here and that means both Artscroll and Feldheim are having Chanukah sales. I have asked 11 yo to browse their websites, perhaps some books will catch his eye. I am hoping for more Jewish learning.

"Mommy, why isn't there interlinear Mishna Succah?" he asks, intently focused on the screen.

How do I explain, dear child, that by the time most people (children?) learn mishna, they do not need interlinear translation? How do I delicately put it that interlinear books are meant for those who do not yet have a grasp of Hebrew vocabulary or fluency, and who will probably never read Mishna Succah in Hebrew?

I feebly suggest that we have interlinear Pirkei Avot. He searches for other mishnayot, but none of them are interlinear. I see a worry form on his face. He has been meeting with a rabbi, studying Mishna Succah. I have an all Hebrew edition that I got for 13 yo when he was learning mishna. I have an old-style Hebrew-English mishna, but that one is hard to follow. I see that he is seeking an easy way to see an immediate translation of the words. The words still do not yield their meaning. The words are hard to read, do not connect into a coherent whole. Where I see mysteries, challenges, wisdom ready to be plumbed, he sees insurmountable obstacles.

I do not know why Hebrew is so hard for him. I do not know why he still cannot read it smoothly. I do not know why he does not see shorashim or remember the meaning of simple words that he encountered numerous times. I also feel so alone in trying to crack this puzzle. I want to help him, but give him enough room for growth and challenge. I want him to experience the sweet taste of achievement.

I have prayed this morning. I do not ask for the removal of obstacles, "why me?" or "why him?" I am not praying for miracles. My new insight is to pray for the right people to turn to. May Hashem keep on sending them onto my path.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Daily schoolwork for 11 yo

I have one child at home and this is what we aim to do every day:

  • Chumash. His bar mitzvah Torah reading is the first day of Pesach, last bit of Parshat Bo. We have started Shemot from the beginning. We have agreed to do four pesukim per day. The latest round of child's input landed us at him reading one day and me reading the next, with him translating to the best of his ability and me supplying the words he does not know or remember. We are using a Chumash with Rashi menukad, and I aim to do one Rashi per day. Sometimes it works, sometimes it backfires. He continues to have reading difficulties, so my goal is to build his confidence in being able to read Chumash and Rashi.
  • Yahadus. We are using Yahadus textbooks, reading a chapter a day. I do all the English reading, while he reads the name of each mitzvah in Hebrew and the pasuk that the mitzvah is derived from. Then we pull out Stone Chumash and he highlights the relevant part of each pasuk. 11 yo also made a "Mitzvah Man": on graph paper he made a large rectangle that contains 600 squares (geometry snuck in there) and added extra 13 as hands and feet. For every mitzvah deoraita, he highlights a square. I also use The Taryag Mitzvot Manual tables as a review and reinforcement. Since 11 yo is a kinesthetic learner, I photocopied the relevant pages onto cardstock, cut out each mitzvah and separated its Hebrew name from Hebrew description from English summary. As we learn more mitzvot, 11 yo's goal was to line them up in order and match up all three parts. This was not trivial when we got to Avodah Zara. My secret goal is for him to know all 613 by heart following the order for Mishne Torah. I got these ideas from the One Minute Masmid by Jonathan Rietti. I am proud to say that we finished the first textbook this week and he was able to organize all 86 mitzvot with their explanations and translations correctly.
  • Chayienu. He does one page of Chayeinu workbook Daled. I know that he's technically in 6th grade, but Vav proved to be too hard and he started to give up, so we backed up a bit. It's Yediyot Klaliot, and there is plenty of new to him material in there. Currently we are working on knowing the seder of Parshyot in order. ( I know there are young kids who know this, but I also know plenty of adults who learned the song as kids and totally forgot it).
  • Lashon Hatorah. Honestly, I could not remember where we were a year ago before he attended day school, so I did what I do best: went online and ordered a new workbook for middle and upper school students. It is faster paced than other books. So far, it is review material, and he is going at a good solid pace. I skip along pages that are repetitive.
  • Math. He asked me more than once NOT to continue with Math Mammoth. Since last year he did some 6th grade math, he placed himself into 7th grade Khan Academy math. There are holes in his knowledge, so I have to often sit next to him when he hits unfamiliar areas. He gets to pace himself, so he sees his progress through badges and percent of material covered and decides how much time he wants to devote to math on any given day.
  • Grammar. He also does that at Khan Academy. From what I see, good solid progress. 
  • Coding. Khan Academy and Scratch from homeschool coop.
These are the skeletal basics. This is what he has as a daily plan. He can get it all done by 10 am, but it does not always happen.

Now, what this does not reflect is the insane amount of helpful housework 11 yo does. He sets the table without being asked, unloads the dishwasher, cooks for himself and others, plays with younger siblings, changes diapers, washes 4 yo, brings in groceries, cleans up, babysits. As far as being a mentsch, this child shines.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Outer Limits

A few weeks ago, we participated in the Shabbos Project. Originally meant as a Shabbat to encourage your non-observant Jewish acquaintances to give Shabbos a try, it seems to have taken a life of its own and now turned into a communal Shabbos celebration of "We are here. We are keeping it. Yay us!" Ok, I will admit that there is good coming out from the sense of not doing it alone, but it leaves me wondering what is lacking.

Our shul held a communal lunch where members were encouraged to share their "Shabbos at the outer limits" stories. I had one come to mind and was prepared to share it. However, I have waited for a clarification that explained that stories are to be heard by the Rosh Kollel and he will give feedback on how appropriately one acted, given the circumstances.

The stories came pouring in: wine brought over on Shabbos, electronic appliances malfunctioning, fridge lights turning on, naughty babies unplugging essential components threatening to cause major damage, menorah fire... Each participant shared and Rosh Kollel nicely explained what was at stake and how it could have been solved halachically.

I found myself feeling glad that I did not go first, and then unable to share in this format because my story seemed a world away from the concerns being voiced. I also felt that my story was not a halachic shaila, but in some other category.

I am fifteen. I have been to the States for two years, attending a Jewish high school, learning about Judaism and observance. Now, finally, as originally promised, I am given a ticket to go back to Moldova and visit my parents whom I have not seen in those two years. I am excited because I have been very homesick. But I am also very nervous: in these two years I have decided to become observant. My parents can be simply described as atheists. Now, I am going back to post-Soviet Union country in the middle of the nineties. The globalization had not reached that far (yet), so there is no kosher packaged food, no paper goods. There is no Google, internet is in its infancy. And I am going back, determined to keep Shabbat and kashrut among my family that expects me to come back and be the same person that I was when I left two years ago. I am supposed to eat my grandma's cooking. I am supposed to milk those precious two months for every opportunity to be with my parents and do what they do, Shabbos and all its prohibitions getting in the way.

I fought a lot with my parents about shabbos, on kashrut, on beliefs, on observance, on being brainwashed, on tears that this is not what they signed up for. I kashered whatever silverware they had that was all metal. I cleaned all glass/pyrex containers and plates that they had. ( I felt terribly guilty for not toveling those dishes). I became a vegetarian because there was no kosher meat, short of going to the Chabad rabbi with your own live chicken and then plucking it yourself. Besides, it was easier, kashrut-wise, for everything to be dairy and parve. I brought four cans of tuna from the States and those cans were my way to honor Shabbat. The local rabbi told us that the baguette bread could be eaten, so I ate lots of bread, vegetables, pasta, milk and dairy.

I had a list of candle-lighting times, so I knew when to light the candles. I made havdalah based on when I saw three stars. Instead of the elevator, I used the back entrance to the apartment buidling with the stairs. It reeked of urine and worse and was pitch-black for the two flights of stairs.

And I stayed away from the always-booming TV that drew me in. I used the bathroom in the dark because someone always forgot to leave the light on, or turned it off not to waste electricity.

I made kiddush and hamotzi. I spent time with my long-suffering family that was far from the enjoyable shabbat seudah that comes to one's mind. We did not discuss Torah unless I was called upon to defend it, with my total of two years' of learning.

The truth is, nobody would have known whether I kept Shabbat and kashrut when I went back home or not. I sort of wonder whether the assumption was that I WILL NOT keep it and we will all be quiet about it, don't ask, don't tell sort of thing. But I knew that G-d will know, and I wanted to be pure before G-d.

Ironically, that same summer, I had a meeting with a senior rabbi who was in charge of the program that brought Russian Jews to study in America and Israel. I showed disobedience by refusing to be a pawn and to go to a new city that he picked for me to go. I wanted to stay in the same school and with the same community that gave me the fortitude to keep Shabbat by myself halfway across the world at the age of fifteen. He was not pleased, and he was going to punish me by withdrawing the funding to continue going to the same school. I wonder how he will be judged after 120 for abandoning a Shabbat-observant girl in Moldova to fend for herself... I wonder if he also thought that I was not keeping Shabbos.

Looking back, I don't know how I did it. I would not eat nowadays by the level of kashrut that I kept at that point. I don't think I knew enough to keep Shabbat 100%. But given the circumstances, I know that I gave it my best shot.

How could I bring this extreme situation to the judgment of Rosh Kollel? How could I share it publicly when the biggest emergency meant simply finding a non-Jew to turn something on or off, and aah, breathe in the spirit of Shabbat, make a good story about it?

I sometimes wonder why my outer limits always end up so far outside of everyone else's.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

on parenting


Remember when you thought you had it all figured out? When you were sure that the future is bright? When you knew all the answers, and knew which path to follow? When all you had to do was wait for your life to start?

That seems like a million years ago. The older I get, the older the kids get, the less I feel like I know, or there is less that I know with certainty, that I can dispense as age-old wisdom.

I got the basics because they do not change. We swing in our norms one way and then the other, the parenting magazines and articles will list a brand-new technique, but, chances are, it was already empolyed and we know the results.

The basics are: you cannot hold your children too much. They will always crave your arms, crave your touch, crave a physical knowledge that they matter more than anything else. You cannot spoil them like that. They cannot be too old. The touch with change, the lap will grow smaller as their bodies grow bigger, but it is always needed, like air.

They want to know that they are loved unconditionally, whether they are good or bad, whether their actions are good or bad, whether they make you happy or not, whether everyone approves of what they do, or not. They will try very hard to be unloveable, to break your heart, and then break it again and again, in hopes of proving to themselves that they are not worthy of love. And you, as a parent, will be left to pick up the pieces and tell them that they matter, that you still love them, that you will not give up on them, because it's your job to make them feel whole and worthy of your love.

And then there is time. The children will remember the time that you took from a million more important, more worthy things just to be with them. My kids fondly recall an insane Starbucks Frappucino drive-through run that happened less than half an hour before Shabbos. It was not the most menaingful or stress-free activity, but it was fun and it clearly put them first. I try so hard to make time just to sit on the couch and see what develops. Usually it's books and cuddles, sometimes it's conversations, or games, but I hope they remember the importance of just sitting together without agenda, without productivity, just because they are my kids and I love them and I show that love by spending time with them.

Everything else is so murky. Bedtimes? Discipline? Sibling conflicts? Mess? Nutrition? I don't know if there is one way to do it right, but if there are tears from all involved, it is probably wrong. What was right for this kid does not always translate to that kid.

So I don't think I will ever have this parenting thing figured out. I envy parenting gurus, dispensing advice, like they have walked in my shoes, lived my life, dealt with my kids and their unique circumstances.

So you do you, as you do every day. Throw out the parenting advice and follow your mommy heart.

One Momma to Another

Friday, September 29, 2017

Two thoughts on Yom Kippur.

I was shocked to see how many people post lists of segulot, customs and "good things to do at the auspicious time" for Yom Kippur. It is not magic. Torah warns us strenuously and multiple times again idolatry and there are ten negative commandments (according to Rambam) that warn against omens, superstitions, astrology, divination and magical thinking shortcuts. I always thought that Yom Kippur was about teshuva, feeling bad for what you did, resolving to do better, being contrite and trying to rectify your mistakes. It is a painful process of intense internal self-search and finding yourself wanting. So I could not understand how a shortcut like "give tzedakah to our charity and erase your sins!" has any appeal beyond feeling like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound. However, this year I realized that another theme of Yom Kippur is magic unlike anything else that we see in the Torah. Hashem will erase our sins. They will not be remembered anymore, moreover, they will no longer affect us. Imagine that someone punches a hole in the wall. Now the wall has a hole. If one wants to fix it, he has to carefully patch it up, wait for the plaster to dry, smooth it, sand it down, paint it in perfectly matching color. Even then, no matter how skillful is the craftsman, with time, due to the difference of the material, one will be able to detect the exact location of the hole. It is not there, and there at the same time. What Hashem promises to us on Yom Kippur is that the wall will revert to its unpunched state. No human can do that, only Hashem. What about the scarlet thread that changes from crimson to white as the sins are erased (only in the Beis Hamikdash)? What about the essence of the Day of Atonement that itself atones? Isn't it amazing how much love Hashem has for us that He will act against the natural order just so we can all have a fresh start?

So why do people sully this with segulahs and weird additions? Is it because we have so much fear that we are willing to invoke something, ANYTHING just to remove the feeling of pending doom? Isn't is because the impulse for Avodah Zara is so strong that we are willing to stray after ridiculous proclamations hoping to get a better year and avert the inevitable death that awaits us all? And then I realized that there is another theme of Yom Kippur. The essence of Jewish people getting atonement comes from Moshe praying to G-d (on Yom Kippur!) after the idolatrous sin of the Golden Calf. We are given the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy that are recited numerous times during Selichot. Jewish people sinned because they did not understand the true nature of G-d. Jewish people sinned because they turned to an intermediary, hoping it to do "magic" for them. That's why Moshe asked Hashem to teach him his divine ways because he was hoping to bring down to people clarity so they would not stumble again.

A second idea that came to me is how I normally deal with this time of year. I have spent years missing davening.mostly due to kids being small, lack of childcare, lack of support to get to shul or to have a mental space to daven, being exhausted due to pregnancy or nursing. So usually I arrived at Yom Kippur feeling that I have not done enough, prepared enough, read up enough, did enough teshuva, did teshuva correctly, etc. I was feeling guilty (and tired and exhausted). The whole experience did not produce that fabled serene mother of many who can calmly say that taking care of her kids is her Avodah, thank you very much, why is it not cutting it for you, you must be doing it wrong... Last year I had a full mental breakdown that I kind of did not even care what kind of year I will get because whatever I tried to do during these days of repentance would not cut it.

But this year something shifted. I might still be doing it "wrong" but it seems to be working for me. I offered to give a class on Rosh HaShana machzor for women. Only one lady came, but it did not matter because I got to spend time thinking about what are the themes that have to do with these days of Awe. I also listened to Aleph Beta videos during my many hours of driving. The picture that emerged from Rosh Hashana was of Hashem as a benevolent King, a kind Ruler who only wishes good upon his subjects and eagerly awaits for them all to rectify their ways and enter into the glorious messianic era full of knowledge. There was a clear absence of guilt and dread. It seemed that the first step was crowning Hashem as King on Rosh HaShana and then receiving a royal pardon on Yom Kippur. The focus was on learning the essence of the day, understanding the ways of Hashem, realizing that he desires our teshuva and that the day will erase any wrongdoing. The Awe has to do with realizing the majesty of our Divine Ruler, not in fear. Once I have been honing this mental picture of who G-d is, I found myself desiring to be closer to him, to know more of him, and working on purifying myself spiritually to achieve even more closeness. Then, if my sins stand in the way, I will remove them as a barrier.

For the first time ever, I might be doing teshuvah meahava (from love).

In an interesting twist, once I achieved this understanding, I am no longer sad or annoyed that I am likely to miss on large parts of shul attendance due to my children. I also realized that I would not have been able to have these insights if my youngest kids were younger.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Wednesday

I am tired. Oh so deeply, essentially tired.

I don't want to whine about how tired I am.

I had a bad night of sleep. 11 yo got braces on his upper teeth and an expander and the pain kicked in in the middle of the night. He marched over at 3 am for a dose of Tylenol.

Not everyone had lunch packed this morning. 13 yo was having a picture day at school, but it was on me to remind him the morning of that he needs to bring a suit on a hanger. 11 yo refused to eat breakfast due to braces and inability to chew his usual morning fare: a bagel. No alternatives would do. He would not think about what to pack for lunch for the homeschool coop classes coming up later in the day. He refused to daven. He refused to go. He refused to do any schoolwork, to listen to any suggestions on how to deal with his teeth, or to offer any of his own. And the whole time I kept coaching myself internally: do not yell, it's his anxiety talking, do not yell, it will make it worse, do not yell...

I packed my lunch. I wiped the kitchen windows. I washed out the recycling bin.

He did get in the car when it was time to leave. He acquiesced to a water bottle, but no food. We listened to iPod in silence during the drive. I felt drained already.

I taught my class. 11 yo is in my class, and he was super jittery the entire time: pacing, touching, blurting things out. I find teaching exciting and draining, even if it's just middle school chemistry to five homeschool kids. My mom called in the middle. We have been taking coop classes on Wednesdays for six years, but she still called when I was teaching.

Then I assisted in another class. 11 yo freaked out about a forgotten password, then he recalled it. I helped paint some rocks. I had lunch. I chatted with other moms, all the while keeping an eye on the clock for the afternoon carpool. 11 yo came over to graze. He had a few crackers. I tried to pretend that it is normal to skip breakfast and lunch, nothing to worry about.

I left at 2 pm. 11 yo seemed agreeable to finding something to eat at home while I would drive carpool. I meekly suggested that he look over his schoolwork and see if he can do anything on his own. I dropped him off and zoomed to preschool to get 2 yo. She was sleeping, and sleepily transferred to her car seat. Then we zoomed onto the highway to get the rest of the kids from their school.

By some sheer miracle (and the existence of people more organized than I) I am part of a carpool where I have to drive only 2-3 times a week instead of 10 times. However, since there are six kids loading into my car, it is never smooth. These ones do not want to sit with those. That one is touching this one. This one is eating. That one is sort of trying to say a bad word while talking about it. These ones are just annoying. That one is loud. And they all have been cooped up in the school building since 8 am and now they are set loose in my car. I used to talk to my kids when we drive places. I used to think they were loud. But this is a whole new level.

But today was not bad. Today they even loaded quickly enough for the carpool lady not to hustle anyone. I had same iPod going and as long as it was playing, they seemed quiet. I checked my messages to see who is dropped off where today. Mind you, it is 4 pm now and I have been driving since 2.

We get home. 13 yo and 7 yo change into their bathing suits for swimming. Years ago, when I just started homeschooling, the boys tried out for a swim team and were not able to swim enough to qualify. Now it is a whole different story. We live a five-minute walk from the JCC. There are no major streets to cross. 13 yo is legally old enough to babysit. But JCC apparently has a rule that he is not old enough to be 7 yo's guardian while she is attending swim practice. They are not just splashing in the pool, they are attending an organized class, but they need to be watched by a legal; guardian. So they cannot walk over there and back on their own, and they cannot be left there unsupervised while they are swimming. I am very upset by this. Have I known this, I probably would not have signed 7 yo up. 13 yo is old enough to get there and back on his own. And I wonder: we keep complaining how kids nowadays are so ill-adapted to independent living, how millennials are such spoiled brats, how they don't know how to be tough. Why do we set up such rules in place that keep kids on a short parental leash for so long? How are large families supposed to manage this? I tried bringing my younger kids to practice, but it is no fun keeping 2 yo for half an hour away from the pool's edge. Besides. she was just in the car for over an hour. All she wants to do is come home, chill and play.

My only solution was to ask 11 yo if he so kindly would not mind watching his two younger siblings at home while I watched his two older siblings at the pool, twice a week. He agreed, but today both younger siblings disagreed. I ended up shoving two older kids out to the door, leaving 11 yo in charge of two screaming kids. If you want to feel mom guilt, do that, especially after spending zero time with the babies the whole day.

After the pool, faster, faster, let's get home, I know the little ones were storming the pantry before I left. I have not been home since 9 am, so there is no dinner because there was no time for the dinner. But never fear, we are going to eat out tonight at a new Israeli restaurant because that's the best I could come up with. As we are getting in the car to drive that ridiculously short distance home, 11 yo called me to hurry up because 2 yo did not stop crying the entire time I was gone.

I bitterly commented how I need more grown-ups in my life, so I am not leaving an 11 yo in braces pain in charge of two screaming kids. 13 yo wryly commented how he used to be that 11 yo. Yes, kid, we have been making do for years. It is sad when kids have to step up and function as adults.

I am greeted at the doorstep by a teary 2 yo clutching her blankie next to her big brother. 4 yo is freaking out that this new restaurant will not have hot dogs and what he will eat then? The rest of the food is "yucky". It does not take a supersleuth to figure out that he did not nap today, that he's tired, that the last thing he wants is to go out to eat instead of snuggling on the couch with mommy. But there is no dinner, and I am not serving noodles yet again.

The new restaurant was a bright spot. Even my husband made it home on time to come with us. The food was plentiful and good, they had schnitzel for 4 yo, 11 yo was able to chew and get mashed potatoes. The rebbitzen of the community invited us out for Succot lunch. Yay for procrastination! One less meal to plan for!

And then my husband got called up, And then we got home at 7 pm. 7 yo had twenty minutes of nightly reading log. 4 yo went back into full meltdown mode, and I was trying to manage the kids from the couch while half-listening to my daughter read. It is clicking, but it is still slow. Both boys were reading fluently and for pleasure at this age. She still does so little functional reading that I had to point out the kids' section on the menu. I am also thinking how this mandatory reading is not helping move things along, but, being a conscientious student, she dutifully reads every night.

After I finished and tucked in the three youngers, I did two more sections from Hilchot Teshuva with 11 yo. That was the only schoolwork that we did today.

It is 9:30. 11 yo is still up. I packed lunches. I am defrosting chicken for erev yom kippur and for kids to eat on Yom Kippur.

I just want to go and kick back with a book. But most of all, I want to arrive at the nighttime not mindlessly tired.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul. My oldest got back really late last night from his class trip to the eclipse totality. I gave myself a small pat on the back for staying put and not being stuck in the same traffic. This late arrival led to a late start in school, at 10:15. Now, my other kids get picked up in a carpool so this late start meant that I had to drive him. Time to insert gratitude for having the flexibility that these schedule changes are mere inconveniences than major life disrupters. He was a bit nervous about getting to school on time, feeling that this was like a pardon not to be squandered. I had some errands to do, so I hustled 11 yo to come with us.

It happened. Statistically, it was supposed to happen sooner, but it happened today. The fastest and most direct way to the school requires one to get onto one highway, exit onto the left lane of another highway and then exit on the right off the second highway in 300 feet onto a service road. One is expected to transverse three lanes of traffic while entering on the left (fastest moving lane) in 300 feet. I used to avoid this route. I used to tell kids to shush, as I cannot see the traffic on the second highway till I exit the ramp. But I have been lucky to successfully merge, cross those three lanes, and exit where we need to exit. It does not help that the next exit is a few miles away.

Today, since I was coming mid-morning, I was not able to cross all three lanes while going at highway speed. There was a car merging left, and the guy in the right-most lane did not give me space to exit. So we ended up being pulled towards the next exit, with my teen slowly hyperventilating how he's going to be late. I asked him to Waze our way. We were arriving at 10:16. But I was quite rattled. I kept saying how this was bound to happen, how at least we did not crash, but internally I was in turmoil.

After drop off, we set out on the same highway to run our errands. I decided to go to Office Depot not far from our old residence since I needed to make multiple copies for homeschool chemistry class. Lo and behold, their price is 14 cents per copy while I am getting reimbursed at 10 cents per copy. Multiply that by a couple hundred pages and I slowly backed away from the counter, thinking that I need to find a place with a better rate.

As I got into my car, chatting with 11 yo, I put the key into ignition and ... nothing. It would not start. It just started! We drove here! What now? I tried this, I tried that. No, it would not start. The previous time this happened was with our old van, two days before Rosh HaShana and we needed a new alternator to the tune of a crazy amount of money, a day in the shop and a rental car, Today I had to pick up 2 yo at 2:30 on the other side of town. No wonder I went into the hyperventilating mode.

Time to insert gratitude that we broke down in the major shopping plaza, that I do have AAA, that AAA repair shop is in the same plaza, that there is kosher food available right there, that a friend who was texting me at the exact same time offered to help. I am also grateful that I did not leave 11 yo at home, because who knows how long this would take?

I decided that it is quicker to walk over to AAA than to call the hotline. It turned out to be a smart decision, as they sent a mechanic with a jumper battery to see whether they could just jump me. The car started enough for me to drive it over, but the battery was dead. They assured me that it is not the alternator, just a battery and they can switch it out right in the parking lot, here is your bill, have a great day. As I ran the rest of the shopping errands, we got some lunch. While we were eating it, I said out loud how it is Elul and maybe these two car malfunctions were a kapara (a redemption) for something I did. Incidentally, we went over Vidui yesterday and the line at the end where we ask Hashem to erase all our sins, but not through illnesses and major suffering stuck out to me. 11 yo listened to me musing out loud and said, I get it already, you've convinced me. I muttered how I am trying to convince myself.

On the heels of the eclipse, we definitely take the sun for granted until there is a major celestial event that brings our awareness to what it does for us day to day. I was thinking how I take my car for granted. We went for years with one car and that was hard. I loved having two cars after that. I was very aware of what a difference in mobility a car makes, especially with small kids in a spread-out city. But that was many years ago. Now we have had two well-running cars for over 8 years, so it is not on my mind so much.

However, there was another theme, something that I did not articulate out loud. As much as both of these incidents could have been a kapara, did I really need it like this? Do I really need to get into a near accident? Do I really need to drop a large amount of money on a sudden car repair? Do I need to run mental lists of whom can I call to get my baby from preschool if this car issue turns out to be serious? What happened to kapara of reaching into a pocket for a quarter and pulling out a dime?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

second day of (home)school

11 yo davened at home. I had to drop off 2 yo and get an oil change. We agreed that he will complete a certain amount of school work on his own and he was all done by the time I came back. He did three pages of Chayeinu workbook and read over the next mitzvah in Yahadus. Meanwhile, I'm slowly plowing through Rabbi Rietti's One Minute Masmid. I am very inspired since for the first time in a long time, I feel that there is an approach that I can use both in my own learning and in helping 11yo. The basic is that you start with Tanach, then Taryag, then Mishna, then Gemara, cover a lot of ground to build up the breadth and to feel progress and review like crazy. Since we are doing Yahadus at 11 yo's request, it leads naturally both to looking mitzvot up in Chmuash, reviewing Taryag and learning halachot. Today, when I got home, I asked him to find a high lighter and go back into Chmuash to highlight parts of the pesukim where the mitzvot are found. They are quoted right in Yahadus, so it was a beatiful exercise to see where Rambam pulled each mitzvah from. I also got a review in and even some Hebrew reading. 11 yo asked me whether Daddy will approve of his marking up Chmuash. I said that it is for purpose of learning, so it is OK.

I had grand plans for doing one more mitzvah, reading one perek of Navi a day with him, reading one Aliyah of Parsha, but for now, I will have to sit tight and see how all this goes. I told 11 yo to take a piece of graph paper and mark up a shape encompassing 613 squares. That sent us on a half an hour hunt for the ruler. We never fully unpacked homeschooling supplies since our move. I was also thinking how disorganized space reflects disorganized mind... but I have totally given up on that. I just don't go into the basement, don't deal with those boxed up hopes and dreams. I also cannot keep up.

So once the ruler was located, drawing this shape proved to be an estimating challenge with a small dose of math. 11 yo wanted to use extra 13 squares to make a person shape. I just watched. I can be very patient with one kid. Then, when he got the shape to his satisfaction. I told him to color in the squares equal to a number of mitzvot we high lighted. I want to give him a visual of our progress, in hopes to both address his anxiety about learning Judaics and to encourage him with tangible progress.

As an aside, he looked up the very last word in the Torah, noticed how some pesukim already contain more than one mitzvah and noticed how Rambam used the pasuk about not testing G-d to mean not to test Navi too much.

I went over his Chayeinu pages. I located abandoned Lashon HaTorah.

We had lunch. We tried going biking, but the bike rental rack would not allow me to get into the system today. 11 yo tried out dirt bike trails. We saw deer. He got exhausted after less than an hour. He also remarked how the day is going well. I asked him how he knows and he said, I'm not throwing fits.

When we got home, I did Hebrew Duolingo. I tested out of a whole bunch of levels, so now I am swimming in a sea of new words that I supposedly know. He watched me. I would like him to try his hand at it, but not now, when he feels confident or curious enough.

He did Khan academy math. I don't know what he knows, so it is nice that they are catching the holes and giving him a chance to practice both lower and higher level skills. He placed himself in 7th grade even though technically he's in sixth. He did grammar and some coding too. I caught him pausing the explanatory coding video and taking notes because he knew from previous experiences that they will expect him to use those commands.

taking notes on coding
Finally, he had his first tennis lesson at the JCC around the corner. 13 yo and 7 yo also started on swim lessons yesterday. I dropped them off and ran into the issue that the coach would not let my oldest walk back on his own. I had to drive back to pick them up all the while thinking how we complain about spoiled rotten millenials. 13 yo is allowed to use the pool on his own according to JCC rules. Why is he not allowed to walk back home? The coach said that he just needed to hear my agreement before letting them walk. So today with tennis, I found 11 yo's coach and clearly told him that I am allowing my son to walk over and back on his own. Coach's first words: "Does he know the way?" We live around the corner, literally. The child is 11. What is this world coming to? Who is not allowing for independence and responsibility?

Today was overall a good homeschooling day, even though all the crazy from the rest of the kids ended up being concentrated into a few evening hours.

P.S. I have so many photos of just kids' backs. It just hit me today that all those photos mean that I do not stop my kids in their tracks with my presence, but I get to see the path that they are on.

Monday, August 14, 2017

On Charlottesville

Let me put it like this: I am neither shocked nor surprised that someone out there who never met me wants me dead. Maybe it's being Jewish. Maybe it's being foreign. Maybe it's growing up in Moldova and waking up one morning to the nationalists marching right outside screaming slogans that Jews and Russians should go home. What home? What do you mean? I have been born here, I grew up here, my father grew up here, where exactly is this home that I'm supposed to go to?

I have seen this hatred. It's the pure evil. It's the hatred of Palestinians who run and stab Israelis. They do not care that some of their victims are fellow Arabs, Druze, Christians, maybe even other Palestinians. What else but pure hatred would cause one to run up to a person to stab them?!

My friends are upset by the silence of fellow Americans. Silence is deafening, they say. They are very uncomfortable. They cannot believe that this is happening here, now, in 2017, on American soil. Me? I can believe it. It is evil. It is always here. I have never been able to get comfortable enough to believe that I belong, that I can pass as someone other than a Jewish woman who wears conspicuous clothing and speaks with an accent. I am "the other".

After being made to feel distinctively uncomfortable in my land of birth, I am not kidding myself. America was supposed to be different. But is it? I think that handwringing is over the fact that America turned out to be just like the rest of the world.

Growing up, the butt of the Russian jokes were Germans. Think: we were the third post-WWII generation, but the jokes about "the other" were about the Germans. But those same Germans are the ones that killed my great-grandmother. I have a hard time meeting Germans now. I know it's prejudice. but, deep down, I wonder: was it your distant relative who pulled that fateful trigger in Zaporojie in '41? What did he say when he came back home from war? Did he talk about it? Did he think about it? Why would he want her dead? Many years and many generations have passed. What would it take for you, the person conversing with me, to want me dead?

It's an uncomfortable feeling to walk around with. It is borderline paranoia. But I know that these things can happen. Even now. Even here. Even in 2017

First day of something

This school year has officially started. I have four kids that went off to school this morning: 13 yo to 8th grade, 7 yo to 2nd, 4 yo to preK and 2 yo to preschool. The preschool is different from the school where the other kids go because then it would be too simple. 11 yo is at home. "Mommy, now I know what school is like. I've experienced it. I think I will throw fewer fits now because it is not an idle threat." Yeah, exactly the perspective I wanted you to take on the school system, son.

So here are the obligatory pictures. Notice how 7 yo is the only one who made a sign for her grade:
7yo, 4 yo and 13 yo are all in the same school

"Bunny ears mean love"

2 yo

11 yo doing research on camera obscura for the upcoming eclipse

11 yo is off to play Dungeons and Dragons with homeschool friends. He had one session so far and he loved it. I asked him what does it teach him and he said, decision making. I'll take that. (It also teaches him that not everyone is out there to bully you).

And I'm off to glorious few hours of having no kids in the house. It had not happened since May. Every single activity was done by me. Every pool time, every outing, every park time, zoo, museum, ice cream trip... Yes, I can do those things. Yes, I can turn on a dime and give my kids the gift of summer. Yes, I can even do most of those things with a smile on my face and without losing my temper. But I cannot temper my resentment over being the only major presence in my children's lives. I cannot simmer down that if I don't do something for them, nobody else will. I am upset at the death of the village.

That is why those SEED boys were such a ray of sunshine. Somebody will learn with my boys! Somebody will talk to them about what they want! They even took them bowling and to Six Flags (I had to do the driving, but they took them on the roller coasters).

And that is why I am just swimming in the sudden quiet. It will be gone soon enough because Dungeons and Dragons is not every week, because 11 yo will be home with me and he did not become a mellow presence overnight. I am just enjoying a sudden rush of freedom from being always on guard for someone else's needs.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

I wanted to go walking

Image result for be in natureToday was supposed to be hiking day. There was nothing scheduled until the evening, kids start school the following week, I need to get into nature, we didn't hike enough. But today was raining.

I made other plans, threw three youngest kids into the van, drove to Ikea to salvage the day. The Smaland was closed. I killed half an hour in front of it until the manager confirmed that it will not open. Doing Ikea with three kids, one of whom does not want to walk in a straight line resulted in a lady reprimanding the kids for climbing onto the podium where they don't belong. No, I did not buy what I needed, but I still spent money. The store's credit card system was down. One thing after another.

I came home to discover my boys who were supposed to be learning with the SEED boys on their DS. I was not amused.

I wanted to go walking. The rain stopped, so my daughter asked if we could go swimming. Since it was 70 degrees, I nixed outdoor pool. She sulked. I offered to do a hiking path in the park. She expressed her extreme displeasure. My oldest slyly suggested bowling. I retorted that he's grounded. 4 yo wanted playground. It is extremely wet.

I wanted to go walking. After intense negotiations, 4 yo and 2 yo came with me. I brought an umbrella stroller. 2 yo refused to sit in it. Instead, she pushed it. When she yells: "Help me!" it actually means "don't help me". We got to the bottom of the driveway. It started drizzling. 4 yo did not look so sure about walking. 2 yo kept on pushing the stroller without the ability to see where she was going. 4 yo walked two doors down with us and then announced that he's going home. I tried coaxing 2 yo into the stroller. She refused. We stood there, turning circles, me keeping her away from the passing cars.
Image result for walk outdoors quotes
I wanted to go walking. We came home. 13 yo and 7 yo were sketching from photos. 2 yo drew on the wall. I made soup. The sun shone through the clouds.

I still want to go walking, Exercise is good for anxiety and depression. Walking is a safe exercise that does not cost anything. Being in nature lifts one's mental state. Everyone should get out there.

Everyone that can, that is.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Where is inreach?

"There is no inreach", tells me a FFB person. I was chatting about text-based learning, about my visceral desire to grow. "At the end of the day, I don't want sources, I want to read about emunah. Before you complain, ask, did you get everything there is to get from inspirational classes?"

This remark devastates me. This is lashon hara, evil speech, and no amount of classes on Shmirat HaLashon will explain how deeply such words wound. There is no inreach. I do not connect to spiritual classes. I have gone to women's talks for years and I liken them to cotton candy: sweet, inflated, empty calories. I leave them and I hunger for more, all the while regretting the time wasted away. When I learn a text in depth, when I grapple with it. when I have to work my brain cells, make connections, look words up, that's when I get the satisfaction of learning Torah.

The SEED boys are in town for the past week. My boys have been going to shul to learn with them. On erev Tisha BeAv my 11 yo came back beaming after learning for hours. He has started his bar mitzvah parsha prep. This brought tears to my eyes: in six years of homeschooling, this is FIRST TIME that someone who is not his parent and who is not getting paid, learned with him what he wanted to learn. I did not think it will be like that. I thought there will be people (rabbis? fathers? bachirim? older gentlemen?) who would hear of our homeschooling journey, see that we are baalei teshuva, see that we do not have skills, just see an interested kid, and help him out. He came home glowing. The boy who was learning with him did not care that he has anxiety, that he might not have skills of a 6th grader, that he was rejected by two schools... He was here to learn with the boys and here was a boy, ready to learn.

On Tisha BeAv proper, I encountered this statement from Gemara:

It was apropos for our situation: please learn with me! Please make time. Please find energy. Please do it as a chesed. Please get me to the level where I can learn on my own. It is taught as one of the causes of the Destruction. Yet I have not seen anyone talk about it. Perhaps it is painful to wonder what is to become of all the baalei teshuva, the ones who know just enough to be observant on the outside, yet do not get the life-sustaining gift of in-depth learning.

In Lech lecha, when Avram goes to Canaan, he brings with him "all the souls that they made in Haran". A classic interpretation of those souls is all the people whom Avram taught about G-d. Yet this is the only mention that we have of them. Where are they? Presumably, they did not stick around. Maybe, just maybe, despite Avram's efforts at hospitality, he was really holding out for his biological son. Maybe there was no inreach, and the believers slowly, yet inevitably, left.

What is to become of the baal teshuva movement? What is to become of all those who do not have an established network of relatives and rebbeim to plug into? What is to become of those who thirst for more, yet are so misunderstood by those enjoying the privileges of being "on the inside"? What is there to tell that just because you have been frum for years, there is still no family to have you over for a Pesach seder? That all divrei Torah at that seder are on you (and your husband who is working overtime so he can have Seder off)? I know that plenty of those who have come to Orthodox Judaism on their own are afraid to admit the gulf of ignorance beyond browsing halachot on Aish or emailing rabbis at OU. They read English side of the siddur, hoping that nobody notices. They read the Hebrew side, but it might as well be in Chinese. They put their kids in school, hoping that someone out there will teach them and they will be able to do more. Those parents still cannot review Chumash with their kids, let alone Gemara.

We talk and talk about how Torah learning is important. Well, let's learn some Torah. And if you are able to teach, let's teach some Torah lishma.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

skipping a step

We have lived in this new house for six months. There are two stories, so I spend plenty of time going up and down the stairs and I've noticed something interesting: I keep tripping when going up the staircase. I trip daily, sometimes every single time I go up. It's the fifth step usually that trips me, although sometimes it's the fourth and sometimes I make it higher up before tripping. The shoes that I am wearing, the slippers, the bare feet: none of these seem to make a difference. I have not done a full face plant yet, but I had to catch myself numerous times either by landing on my hands or grabbing the railing.

I asked my husband whether he shares a similar experience and he shrugged, saying that it does not happen to him, so there is most likely no inherent defect with the steps.

After reading "At Home" by Bill Bryson I appreciate a bit more what it takes to make a functional staircase. There are rules for making steps not too steep, not too high, not too shallow yet elevated enough to bring one up in elevation. I have no reason to suspect that I have an unusual staircase in my house. Stairs are made to be uniform so that one does not have to think about how to place one's feet going up. One is supposed to establish a rhythm and follow it and the steps are specifically uniform so that one does not trip and fall.

So what is going on?

The original steps, used by pilgrims
When we were in Israel, in Jerusalem, we were taken to the side area of the Kotel. (Forgive me for not recalling its proper name: I had a hot sleeping two year old on my back). There was an expanse of stone steps, most likely from the time of the Second Beis Hamikdash. The first and most noticeable fact is that they are not uniform: each one is different in size. The purpose of this was to grab attention of all those approaching and remind them: be mindful of where you place your feet, you are about to rendezvous with the Divine and that can only be done by making every step count.

Why can't I fall into an easy rhythm while going up a regular staircase in my house? Why are my feet not on autopilot? Why do they seek novelty around that fifth step? Am I subconsciously bored with the routine of climbing up and I make my own diversion? Or am I too mindless in climbing those stairs and I need to pay more attention where my feet land?

7 yo and 4 yo descending. The closer up steps are a recent renovation.
I keep thinking how so much of what brings pleasure in life is the balance between familiarity and novelty, between routine and excitement. Yet often I wish for normalcy when life hands me adventure and vice versa. I am not sure how much of this is my ingrained dissatisfaction with status quo, whatever it happens to be, and how much of it is not having control over which period of life I will be in.

In the meanwhile, I'll watch my step.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Getting the Nine Days wrong

I caught myself thinking today that maybe I am "doing" the Nine Days wrong. It is supposed to be a time of sadness and mourning. We are supposed to curtail activities that bring us joy and pleasure such as eating meat, drinking wine, listening to live music, enjoying water activities and prolonged baths, wearing freshly laundered clothes, making large purchases and participating in joyful gatherings. However, I found myself actually looking forward to many of these restrictions. No meat? No problem, I can finally make my beloved Indian food. I can make mac-n-cheese and pizza. In fact, I have so many dairy or meat-free meals that I can make that I do not have enough dinners during these Nine Days to make them all. No swimming? I can stop worrying about 2 yo trying to drown herself in the deeper end of the pool. I do not have to worry about moldering bathing suits and towels. Less laundry? Yes, please! Just wear what you have! And wear it again! Fewer fun outings? Less prep, less stuff to pack, fewer kids complaining that it is too hot, they are too tired, they cannot eat what I've packed, they didn't want to come in the first place. No large purchases? More money in the account, less looking around because I won't buy anyway, less decision making. No large gatherings? I'm an introvert.

So is that the attitude that I am supposed to be taking into Nine Days? Am I doing it wrong?

Then I thought: all of these restrictions were placed so people would have more time to look inward, spend with their immediate family, focus on the internal instead of being distracted (or entertained) by the external. There is a famous Gemara about not mourning excessively over the destruction of Beis Hamikdash, which is exactly why Chazal limited our mourning to these expressions.

I wonder whether not feeling repressed by them is a benefit that allows me to feel less emotional pain as I turn to look inward.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Dinner in an hour

This is not a foodie blog and I do not have pictures to go with what I am about to post, but I figured it might be helpful to some mom out there.

We went to a lake to swim with some homeschool friends, so I did not get started on dinner till 4. I had it on the table at 5 (fine, 5:05 for transparency's sake). No, it was not take-out. No, it was not chicken nuggets or frozen pizza. It was a solid dinner: soup, main, starch, veggie. No, it was not a miracle.

This morning I pulled a bag of chicken cutlets from the freezer. Since I buy them at Costco, I usually divide the large family pack into two bags before freezing. This bag had breasts sliced in half, so it defrosted quickly.

At 4 I turned the oven up to 400, rinsed the breasts and put them in the pan. I sprinkled them with sesame oil, soy sauce, onion flakes, garlic powder, ginger and a drizzle of honey. Then I mixed them in the pan so the breasts were well-coated, covered them with foil and stuck them in the oven. Next, I rinsed one cup of rice in another pan, added 1 3/4 cups of water, a drizzle of olive oil, covered that pan, and stuck it in the oven with the chicken.

I usually make this quick zucchini soup. two onions, chopped, 4-6 zucchini, chopped into chunks, vegetable broth to cover, 1/4 cup of rice, bring to a boil, add seasoning, simmer for 20 minutes, puree with immersion blender straight in the pot, voila! Except that I like to doctor it up: add quinoa instead of rice, or throw in extra veggies. Today, as I was reaching for a bag of quinoa, I found a package of edamame noodles from Costco. They were brittle, they were green, and they had zero appeal of the noodles, so they were sitting in the pantry. An evil genius idea of a substitution: why don't I crumble them in instead of quinoa, then puree and nobody will know? Look at all the extra protein! Look at me salvaging what I'm sure were expensive noodles, languishing here! Hehe! So in they went. I made a mental note to remove any traces of what I did before the kids who will come to set the table express their opinion on my substitution without a taste test.

While the soup was simmering, I pulled out a bag of string beans and another pan. I trimmed the ends, tossed them with a bit of olive oil, spread them in a pan and sprinkled with salt. Then they went in the oven together with the chicken and rice.

I checked my phone. I stretched. This dinner was practically cooking itself. I uncovered the chicken so it could get dry in its sauce. I threw a bunch of parsley from my garden into the soup (it's about the only thing that grew in the garden, but it sounds very foodie of me now: freshly snipped parsley! In reality, I was too lazy to go and get scissors, so I twisted and yanked). I pureed the soup while adding cumin and curry and called the kids to set the table.

They fought. Just because I had dinner under control did not mean that they turn into angels. One child provoked another. By the time, I took a bathroom break, a steady wail in stereo leaked under the door. One child touched another. One child lost dessert.

It was dinnertime. Dinner was served.

They ate the soup with the green edamame noodles incorporated into it. Hint: soup croutons make all soup taste better. Some asked for seconds. They discussed how much fun they had playing with their friends, making elaborate sand dams.

Save this post for the next time dinner prep gets in the way of getting together with some friends and spending the day at the beach.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

To each their own

Twice a year Artscroll holds a large book sale: they give you 20% off everything. I try to time my book browsing to this time period. It is accompanied by numerous email reminders and a glossy catalog that arrives in the mail. I do not always buy, but I do browse heavily.

Since I will be homeschooling 11 yo next year, I asked him for his input in what kinds of books he was interested in. He opened the catalog, got fixated on the cookbooks, then told me he does not want anything. Except he did want one thing. It was an oversized illustrated coffee table book of the Beit Hamikdash. I was eyeing that book myself for years, but its price was making it into an unjustified purchase. We have so many resources available online, for free. We have other books with the Beit Hamikdash payout. Our money would be better spent on other causes. So every time I longingly looked at that page, I said: not now.

11 yo might have known exactly what I was thinking (or possibly even saying out loud in the past), so he immediately took his request back by saying that he does not expect us to spend that kind of money on a book. I stopped him: do you really want it? He said, yes, but it's too much. I went on Amazon to see if it can be bought used for less. No. I checked whether it is available in a smaller size. No. I resolved to buy the book. Then I added a few other titles to the mix: historical narratives, biographies, a book on Shmirat HaLashon (The laws of speech), halacha pocket guides, and a small group of inspirational quotes and stories.

The packages arrived today. When it was brought in after Shabbos was over, 11 yo ripped the whole package apart to get to his Beit Hamikdash book. He oohed and aahed over the spread. He asked me whether he can bring it into his room, a code expression for reading it in bed.I asked him to leave it on the coffee table till the morning. His excitement over this book was so genuine, so palpable.

Yet my heart is heavy.This is the same kid that failed Judaics this year, that thinks that he can't learn, that is burned out on Hebrew and Gemara and halacha. This same child miserably told me on Friday night that there is no purpose in Shabbos now because when he was in school he looked forward to Shabbos as a two-day break before he had to go back to school and start all over again. Mind you, he was not horribly miserable the whole year, and he had a very decent Shabbos once he lifted himself from the funk. But I keep on thinking how he needs such an untraditional approach to his education that none of the standard rules apply.

For now, I am recording it that he is ecstatic to receive a Beit Hamikdash book, so he is willing and eager to engage with Judaism on his terms. Now, please G-d, give me the courage to guide him so his spark of desire to learn grows and does not diminish.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

screen at mealtime

"Mom, you're on your phone again. If you can be on your screen, then we will all bring ours to the table."

Guilty as charged. I looked up and saw them all. They don't even all own screens, but the message stung. Yet I said, "Look at you guys. Two of you are again sitting with your knees higher than the level of the table, one of you is continuously screaming how dinner is yucky. Is the baby falling asleep in that puddle of soup she made on her high chair? And one of you has his elbows in my personal space. Until you produce better company, is it any wonder that I want to get lost in my screen?"

Yes, I've actually said that. Not my proudest parenting moment, and it might backfire spectacularly when they will start bringing their own screens to mask parental droning. But for the moment, they were quiet.

Dinners have been a mess lately. By lately, I mean for many years.If I do not start up a meaningful conversation and constantly direct it, most of the dinner ends up being filled up with talk about Pokemon, some latest cartoon, bizarre sounds, and taunts. Throw in a 4-year-old who preemptively starts screeching that dinner is yucky, and a baby who does artistic food splatters, and there is nothing to look forward to. I don't think I've had a civilized dinner, somewhere where you have to use proper manners in a very long time. When we were in Israel, my husband and I wandered into this street square where they served fine cuisine. It was a true French restaurant, where one could order gourmet food while the music played on the stage in the background. But my husband wasn't hungry, so he really didn't want to sit down and eat. I ordered dessert and a glass of wine, pretending that I am having a fancier meal than I am. But I was not dressed up since we were just planning to go walking on our last night of stay. I was wearing a hoodie. My husband was busy setting up the live stream of the musical performance on his phone while I was slowly sipping my wine with my creme brulee. It was a chance for a formal meal, according to the rules of the etiquette but it did not happen.

A friend shared this gem with me today. Somehow, she always seems to know what will resonate with me, and for that, I am grateful. My husband is not home tonight. I will be giving my mirror image another pep talk right after the shower but before I collapse. Until I will be able to be treated to a proper meal time with proper manners, what's a little technology to get through the night?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The plan for next year

I know it's the end of May. I know that most people have decided long ago what they will be doing with their kids the following school year. But that is not how we roll. We roll with agony, with false starts, with negotiations, with doubts. As of Friday, I finally know what we are doing.

Call it hashgacha pratit, call it prayer, call it coincidence, but a spot opened up for my 2 yo at the same school that my oldest is attending. We did not even apply, let alone get on the waiting list. We just spoke to the financial office to see what it would cost us to enroll all four children in one school. We got our answer, but then there was no spot for her because we started the conversation so late. So we did not even apply. I spoke to the director of their current preschool about next year and was told that since 4 yo will be in pre-K, it would have to be five days a week program, less he misses something important in his preparation for kindergarten, Insert giant eye roll here from an unschooly mom. Then we got into the financial side and for some reason, even though I had all the papers ready to sign, the same financial organization was not sharing our file with the preschool. It dragged on for almost two weeks till I got an unexpected phone call that they are expanding 2 yo class at the other school, the same financial package as before, are we committing? One school, one calendar, one schedule for pick up and drop off, one location? Are you kidding: we are committing. And this commitment gave me just the right push to decide that 11 yo, my second son, will be homeschooled next year.

He had an OK year at school. He adjusted to the schedule, the workload, the homework. But he did not adjust to bullying that was taking place and that both he and I tried to address with the administration. He was utterly lost in gemara because that's what happens when you take a child who is still struggling to read Hebrew, throw him with condescending boys who had a few years of gemara (8th graders), switch a rebbe in the middle of the year and give him tests where he aces one and fails the next. "I hate gemara." Brilliant, just what I wanted the school to do to you and your approach to learning.

I have taken him to yet another psychologist and we collected yet another diagnosis and another set of suggested accommodations. Funny how they all sounded like what I did back in the day when I homeschooled him: no time pressured work, minimize written output, don't make him write long answers where a short one would suffice, offer typing or voice dictation instead of writing, keep environment distraction-free and quiet, give him extra time on tasks and tests... I wanted to meet with the principal and discuss the accommodations, but he was more interested in getting us to sign the tuition contract. Then he was more interested in discussing his standardized scores. My child who has anxiety had to take three MAP tests this year just so they would confirm what I already knew from IOWAs: he reads and comprehends on a high school level and is a level ahead in math. The principal was arguing that this shows how the school is helping him flourish. I was thinking of the same child cowering in the kitchen corner that morning, fully dressed in his uniform, crying how he does not like school... He has been begging to go back to homeschooling the whole year but I was not sure whether I have it in me.

Thank you, G-d, for everything turning out just as it should. Apparently, coming full circle is putting my typical kids into school and keeping my different child at home. Now please just give me strength, passion, and patience to pull this off and to keep on meeting his needs.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"All or nothing" thinking

One of the things that my therapist keeps bringing up is "all or nothing" thinking. In a nutshell, it is exactly as it sounds: either have it all, or nothing at all. I apparently suffer from it. It is not healthy because, well, I cannot have it all, and, as a result, I keep on feeling like I have none. Once you have none, what's the point of trying?

I have been thinking about this for a while. I know that it is better to be flexible, to enjoy even increments, to reframe small victories and defeats as just that. However, I have also been thinking how that's directly opposite of what brings happiness and satisfaction (not contentment, as that does seem to come from highs not being so high and lows not being so low).

A lovely poem, courtesy of Well-Trained Mind:

Work While you Work

Submitted By: Nancy Keslin
Work while you work,
Play while you play,
This is the way
To be happy each day.

All that you do,
Do with your might,
Things done by half
Are never done right.
Author: Unknown

A lovely sentiment, isn't it? And a perfect example of "all or nothing" thinking. We encourage our children to memorize it.

"I always type with one hand while wearing
 a white sweater. My baby's foot is
 perfectly positioned to spill
a cup of coffee all over my sweater.
Unless she chooses to spill that glass
of freshly squeezed orange juice over my laptop first". 
Then there is work itself. Either you are a working mom (guilt over not staying home with your kids, missing out special moments, etc, etc) or you are a SAHM (guilt over not contributing to income, wasting education, etc). Anyone who says "work from home" has not tried to actually work from home. It is not like those images: the babies do not let you type or complete phone calls. If you want to work from home, you need a space where you can escape, lock the door and not answer unless there is gushing blood. Or hire a sitter, which defeats the "staying home with kids" feeling. Besides, it is hard to do work with all your might when there is laundry to be washed, dinner to be started, plants to be watered, behinds to be wiped. So many "work from home" people, men and women alike, escape to Starbucks or some other location where the rest of house is not beckoning with the never-ending list of chores.

I have a four year old. He is in preschool every day from 9:30 till 1:30. I thought and thought and approached them about sending him next year, for a longer day, but only two or three days a week. No, nope. He is four, so it's pre-K, so he needs to go five days a week so he doesn't miss anything. Or don't send him at all. All or nothing thinking. I have been telling them that I do not worry about curriculum gaps because going to the zoo or being read to at home or unloading groceries is just as important as learning about a community helper of the week. They said, maybe, just maybe, if I send him four days a week it could work.

I wish I could send my older kids to school just for Judaics, but it's either the whole deal, or nothing. I wish there was a flexible education program where you sign up for a few gloomy winter weeks and then get the kids back to enjoy glorious spring days. I wish I could take them on multi-day trips and still get some structure when we come back, or unload some of the learning in the areas where I am weak. But schools and programs are rigid: either you sign up and commit to a full day, a semester, a year, or don't even bother.

And then something funny happens. Just as I got all my kids into schools, admitted an end to homeschooling, and their learning became someone else's responsibility, just as they all insisted has to be done to implement curriculum and achieve results, I am bombarded with school communications. Science fair! Scholastic! Curriculum night! Parent-teacher conferences! Learning opportunity alongside your child! And if you say "no thank you", now you are a bad parent for not being invested in your child's education. Multiply that by three schools, and you are constantly saying "no" and constantly feeling like you are directly messing your child up.

I had this conflict come up in a visceral way with preschool. They were having a special visitor day at the same time I was supposed to see my therapist. So I had to choose: be a good parent by coming to my kids' school, or a be a good parent by trying to claw out from a major depression? Guilt all around because you cannot have it all, because you cannot clone yourself and be in two places at the same time.

At the same time, if I am reading a book, I just want to focus on the book and not be interrupted every five minutes. If I am cooking, I just want to be cooking. If I am signing up for art class, I want to attend all the sessions. And if I am relaxing, I just want to be relaxing.

Anyone else has trouble with this?