Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Audience with God

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, Middle Babe surprised me with a confession:

"It's so hard to believe in God. D'you know what I mean?"

So moved was I by my child's cosmic musings that I immediately wanted to accompany her in her place of doubt.

But as someone who doubts the existence of just about everything except for God, I had to make a confession of my own. I told my daughter that although I knew exactly what she meant, I have always felt God by my side.

No matter where I roam, Hashem is my home.

Still, formal prayer has always been a bit of a challenge for me. Recently, at a launch event for the publication of the new mahzor Lev Shalem, published by the Rabbinical Assembly* I caused a bit of a stir by alluding to my own experience of DADD: Davening Attention Deficit Disorder...a condition where one finds oneself drawn to the experience of prayer but unable to sustain interest in a traditional synagogue service or the printed page of the siddur, especially on the High Holidays when davening assumes the form of a vast sea, with no shore in sight.

Which is not to say that I have never had transcendent davening experiences within the confines of a sanctuary or haven't felt a path to God or been warmed by the presence of community or buoyed by the bond of Jewish peoplehood and the tragic and triumphant course of our history.

Indeed, some of my deepest and warmest memories reside within the walls of a shul, specifically, the Marathon Jewish Community Center in Douglaston, New York, where I grew up as the daughter of a charismatic and caring rabbi. Far from being a cynical PK (preacher's kid) I felt fortunate to be surrounded by an entire community that watched out for me and my siblings. My father was Kennedyesque and a commanding orator. I loved our Shabbat and holiday services with their quaint decorum, hazzanut and responsive readings in English sprinkled liberally amid the traditional Hebrew and Aramaic prayer service.

(Of course, there is much more to say about the experience of growing up as the first family of a tightly-knit Jewish community -- especially in the sixties and seventies -- and I have, in other venues. There were personal style restrictions, especially when it came to hair and clothes, meaning that I never looked quite the way I wanted. My siblings and I were kept apart from the kids in our community in the manner familiar to kids of the aristocracy. I had a secret rebellious life, which grew more complex as I entered adolescence. To this day, I am simultaneously drawn to and harshly critical of clergy.)

Though I didn't have the negative religious experience that people often recount when discussing their adulthood aversion to prayer, I do find myself struggling with the details of davening: the synagogue, the length of the service, the siddur, the choreography of prayer.

Which is why what I did this morning is so thrilling and shocking to me.

Heavy of heart, troubled of soul, I wandered aimlessly through the empty rooms of the Urban Bungalow until my eyes lit on the Koren siddur, sitting next to a Paul Auster novel on a shelf in our dining room.

I opened up the prayerbook and started to read the Shacharit service. I thanked God for restoring my soul. I praised God for giving strength to the weak, for clothing the naked, for giving sight to the blind. I stayed with the proscribed prayer for a bit, then, as if animated by a force outside myself, I walked into the living room, located the velvet tallit bag that bears my husband's Hebrew name in golden thread -- my present to him on his 60th birthday - withdrew the majestic garment, pausing in awe and terror, and then wrapped it tentatively around myself, over my head, obscuring my gaze.

Once enclosed by the wool, I shut my eyes and rocked. I do not know how long I stood but I knew before whom I was standing.

I stood and rocked, stood and rocked, stood and rocked, surrounded by the soft, sweet smell of the garment. And when I finally ceased my prayer and removed the tallit from my shoulders, shaking it out on my bed to figure out the folding, I was transfixed by the new mark it bore: a blotchy tear stain, Rorschach-like, smudged with grey-black kohl, unmistakeably that of a woman.

* full disclosure: I represent the Rabbinical Assembly and mahzor Lev Shalem.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Starbucks on Shabbat

I'm trying out something new, which is really something old, though it is new to me.

I call it blog-byting.

By this I mean that when I have a cool idea, but no time to expound upon it, I will simply produce a mini blog post instead of my typical tome.

So here is my very first blog-byte, which is really a question:

Is it okay to use a Starbucks gift card on Shabbat?

The answer, for those who adhere to a more-or-less halakhic observance of Shabbat, is "obviously not," but I think that perhaps we should reconsider this, based on two ideas:

  • The Shabbat Elevator
  • The fact that being able to get an iced Venti coffee or Frappuccino on these deadly summer afternoons could be considered "oneg Shabbat," the enjoyment of Shabbat, or even "pikuach nefesh," a life-saving maneuver, which is a mitzvah, to be sure.
This blog-byte presumes a certain Jewish literacy so if you are reading this and need help, call up your Jewiest friend, who can hopefully explain what Shabbat elevators are and what the deal is with spending money on Shabbat. Because this is a blog-byte, I will be logging off now to resume my regularly-scheduled crushing workload and leave this provocative question dangling in cyberspace.

Or blowin' in the blogosphere, if you will.

Opinions, comments and feedback are welcome.

Shabbat Shalom!!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Andre Aciman/Glow Lotion/Existential Despair

When I staggered out of bed this morning, plunking myself in front of my laptop, armed with a steaming cup of Oren's Beowulf Blend, the following email popped out at me from my insanely overcrowded Inbox:

Hi there,
Thank you for contacting Soap & Glory – we really appreciate hearing from you!We are currently aware that our ‘Glow Lotion’ is out of stock in stores and on We are striving to rectify this, but are unsure of when it will be back.I would also like to bring to your attention our press release regarding Target and Please have a read here. We would like you to know that S&G is not going away from the US, we will be selling through another retailer in September. Until we launch with our new retailer, we ask for your patience as due to Target clearing stock, you may not be able to purchase some of your favourites. In the meantime, if you are struggling with your local Target, you may have better luck purchasing on than in store.I hope this information is helpful.
Kind regards

Yes, I am that woman who writes to the customer service people when she cannot find a beloved product on the shelves. And gets abnormally excited when they write back.

In the case of Soap&Glory's Glow Lotion -- one of the world's most amazing (and cheap!!!) beauty products, missing from the shelves of Target which has carried it exclusively for the past several years -- the customer service people are based across the pond, somewhere in the UK.

And while I cannot diminish the great sense of relief I felt to have the mystery of the missing Glow Lotion finally solved, I was exponentially more delighted to learn that this addictive elixir wasn't gone forever, simply in short supply until Soap&Glory products appear in a specialized beauty retailer, as the press release details.

You see, the disappearance of beloved products causes me to go into a state of existential instability, as I have detailed in a previous blog post (Discontinuity/February 18, 2010). Indeed, I still have not gotten over the demise of Origin's Ginger Glimmer (
and have endeared myself (or established myself as a wackadoodle) with the sales staff at the store on Broadway and 84th street, where I periodically pop in to optimistically inquire about the product's sudden re-appearance, even after the folks at company headquarters told me (several times) that it is no longer available and that every single store in America is apparently out of it.

I know, because I have called them all, scoring the last stash of the stuff, which I tracked down at a mall in Westchester.

Getting back to the Glow Lotion...the appearance of Jess's email this morning was fortuitous timing because just last night I had the privilege of hearing Andre Aciman in conversation with Joshua Ellison, the founder of Habitus: A Diaspora Journal ( at the magnificent Museum of Jewish Heritage ( (Full disclosure: I work with the impressive Mr. Ellison, promoting his remarkable journal.)

In the course of the public conversation on the subject of Is New York City the Diaspora? Aciman spoke about the sense of spiritual dislocation he experienced during the renovation of Straus Park, a rather pathetic little park at the intersection of Broadway, West End and 106th Street, a subject he has written and lectured about extensively.

Aciman writes from the perspective of an exile or displaced person. Some critics point to him as the quintessential scribe on this subject; indeed, this very fact informed his participation in last night's event. An Egyptian Jew whose journey to New York entailed the adoption of other national identities, he addressed the inherently Jewish nature of exile last night...and how that rootless, insecure identity that shaped the consciousness of an entire people is affected, changed or possibly even obliterated by the experience of living in New York City, clearly the most extreme and enduring of all the new Jerusalems.

As I looked around the room, I kvelled at the packed space and rapt faces turned towards the conversation. My joy was compounded by the fact that I had expected the worst (no one showing up) due to the weather (rainy) and the location (remote, at the southwest tip of the island with a fabulous view of the Statue of Liberty.) In general, doing events in Manhattan is a masochistic endeavor because no matter how great the program or how much advance buzz there is, you are up against thousands of other happenings in this restless town and are never sure that your event will be a hit or that even one person will show up.

So I was in a state of supreme happiness.

However, my personal takeaway was something that might not have impressed other members of the audience, indeed, may have gone unnoticed.

It was Aciman's allusion to his existential despair in the course of the renovation of Straus Park, in particular at the statue of Mnemosyne, or Memory.

And though I was born in this non-Diaspora in the latter half of the 20th Century, making me an historical anomaly -- a Jew who feels entirely at home outside the Jewish homeland, a member of a minority with paradoxically elite social and cultural status, an unambiguous American citizen who has never once felt the sting of persecution on her native soil -- the sense of exile I experience is internal and ubiquitous. stemming either from my adoption or from the metaphysical force of collective Jewish memory or from something else, rendering me sad and shaky when Glow Lotion goes missing from the shelf of my local Target.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Oy Story...or a Twist on the Gift of the Magi

The Urban Bungalow is littered with Dave and Buster's paraphernalia, owing to Middle Babe's penchant for patronizing the place with her friends.

For the past couple of months she's been home from college I admit I've been curious about Dave and Buster's since she has described it as a nocturnal playground, an Eden of alcoholic drinks, arcade games, hoops, upbeat music and jolly youngsters.

Having stumbled into the Dave and Buster's at 9:45 pm at the Palisade's Mall this past Sunday, I can vouch for the aptness of the observation that one man's heaven is another man's hell for no place I have recently visited has made me want to run screaming into a forest populated by hungry bears like Dave and Buster's.

But why would a groovy chick like me even find herself at a suburban mall on a Sunday night, you might ask?

The answer is possibly even more disturbing than the fact that I was wandering around a mall at night to begin with: to see the 10:05 pm showing of Toy Story 3. In 3D.

Reader, this was not my idea.

You see, we were en route back to the urban bungalow after an intensely wonderful weekend which was capped by a Sunday night barbeque on the lawn of our bungalow with Middle Babe and her GC (Gentleman Caller).

With Alfie and Nala the Pomeranians taken care of my our daughter and her GC for the evening, we had the same thought: "Screw Manhattan movie prices! We're stopping to see a movie on the way home!"

The thing was, by the time we cleaned up dinner, packed up our stuff and got on the road, it was already verging on 9 pm. Though readers of this blog can attest to my penchant for partying like it's 1999, with HOBB at the wheel of our Honda, I started drowsing off, exhausted by my weekend warrior workouts, my hostess duties and the relentless heat.

Positive that my husband was likewise anticipating nothing more adventurous than climbing into our bed back in Manhattan, I was positively SHOCKED when he pulled off 87 at the Palisades Mall and cheerfully announced our night activity -- the next showing of Toy Story 3, which he was dying to see as Middle Babe gave it a rave review.

Loathe to be a party-pooper, I weakly agreed that this was a fabulous idea.

The Palisades Mall is a nightmarish work of architecture designed by a descendant of the Marquis de Sade. It has an industrial feeling to it, like being inside a gigantic warehouse held up by scaffolding. The construction also has an aura of instability to it, looking like oversized metal Lincoln Logs. This brings to mind the possible existence of a giant and malevolent toddler, bent on destroying the entire structure ANY MOMENT NOW.

Late on Sunday night, the place was deserted with the escalators stopped dead in their tracks and only the ghostly movement of elevators moving up and down. Most of the retails shops were long closed, a good thing considering the freakish window displays. There was a store hawking the world's most hideous evening dresses and gowns; another one carrying fake-looking artifacts from Africa, India and the Philippines.

"Can you imagine being locked inside this place, overnight?" I whispered to HOBB as we searched for the movie theatre. "It's a great premise for a slasher film. Those dresses could come to life and strangle us."

In addition to the Loew's at the mall, the chain restaurants were open. Included in this group was Dave and Buster's -- which we wandered through like a pair of stoned and anguished tourists -- and Friday's, where we had the super-relaxing experience of sitting at the bar drinking tea and really horrendous coffee while a Beyonce song blasted, followed by some unrecognizable rap/disco rant thing.

Finally, the time came to see our film.

Nudged into fake wakefulness by the caffeine, we presented our tickets, were awarded with Al Maysles-shaped 3-D glasses and rushed into Theatre 11...worried that we would be relegated to the front row due to the overflow crowd. Instead, we found ourselves gaping at the grand total of 9 other movie-goers who also had the weird inspiration to see this kiddie flick at 10:05 at night.

We grabbed two perfect seats in the dead center of the auditorium. After an interminable presentation of previews of children's movies, Toy Story 3 began.

The good news is that the film was diverting, even creative and touching in parts.

The sad news is that I was the only one who actually saw it. About ten minutes into the film, HOBB fell asleep, waking up only to briefly share the popcorn I bought midway through.

Since he was yawning mightily as we left the theatre, I took the wheel on the drive back to Manhattan, instructing HOBB to keep up his end of the conversation so that I would not fall asleep.

And as I drove down 87 into Westchester County, I felt HOBB beaming with pride...and satisfaction. Correction. Beaming? He was positively gloating. In fact, he was GLOWING with pride. He was radioactive. I looked towards him quizzically.

"You know, I didn't really want to see a movie but I knew how much it meant to you, so I decided to give you a treat," he said.

"What?" I fairly shouted. "Are you nuts? I slept the entire way here! Yeah...I wanted to see a movie FIVE HOURS AGO...not at 10 pm! And not a baby movie!!! I almost shot myself during the trailers! You've got it was ME who didn't want to disappoint YOU!"

HOBB sat silently, stunned. And then burst into laughter. Which I had to join, of course, because I thought about the past few hours -- the hell of wandering sleepily through the carnival ambiance of Dave and Buster's and drinking bad coffee at the uber-loud Fridays and having HOBB sleep through a kiddie movie that only he wanted to see in the first place.

Yeah, our entire evening had been utterly ludicrous but also very sweet. And kind of epic. Like The Gift of the Magi or something out of a Chasidic tale.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage, Then Comes....Misery??

Could this simply be a case of New York Magazine being its irritating, pseudo-trendspotting self, or is our nation indeed overrun by a generation of spoiled brats who decided to have children as a gift to themselves...and are now amazed to discover that childrearing is challenging, difficult and often NO FUN AT ALL?

In a maddeningly shallow and inconclusive article, Jennifer Senior, a writer I often admire, attempts to nail this new reality by introducing us to whiny men and women -- and ambiguous experts -- who support her thesis that the modern American parent hates parenting because it is no fun. Her message is, reader, before you breed, consider the following: You have to make sure your kid does homework and this will produce a power struggle. Your toddler will destroy the object you spent the morning constructing and you will have to give them a time-out. You will no longer feel sexy and edgy. Check out the sordid details here:
All Joy and No Fun.

I read this article on a blessedly air-conditioned #1 train during the height of yesterday's heatwave and could barely refrain from losing my cool. Not because I think Senior made the whole thing up; after all, she begins the article with an anecdote about her own toddler destroying the garage she built. Rather, I was aghast at the sheer stupidity of those parents who are shocked and awed by the fact that life changes when you have children. Who are amazed to discover that toddlers are little terrorists. Who cannot accept the fact that some self-indulgent stuff will have to be put on hold for maybe as long as eighteen years as part of the bargain.

Boker freaking tov, Eliahu.

A couple of months ago, I was briefly captivated by a debate raging in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that was playing itself out on the blogs. Seems that it had become standard practice for some parents to shlep their babies, toddlers and young kids to local bars in the evening rather than miss out on all the socializing that the single and child-free were enjoying. Just because they were parents didn't mean they didn't deserve to party! However, fellow patrons disagreed, stating that the last thing they wanted to see during Happy Hour was a small, pre-verbal and bald human drooling next to them...and the last sensation they wished to experience was the crunch of Cheerios underfoot as they walked to the bar to order a beer.

This debate captured my interest because of the self-centered chutzpah of these parents who believe themselves entitled to everything they had prior to the kiddies; their idiocy at lacking the common sense to realize that kids don't belong in bars; their lack of the resourcefulness needed to discover other gratifying activities they might undertake with their kids which would significantly reduce their sorrow at being barred from the bar.

I was also amazed because, throughout the thousands of evenings that constituted my two-plus decades of child-rearing, I never once felt deprived because I wasn't at a bar instead. Especially during those evening hours which encompass dinner, bath and bedtime. I can hardly imagine giving up twilight playground visits for a Cosmopolitan. Or the screening of beloved old films for vodka shots. Or even the drudgery of doing homework together on the dining room table for raucous conversation and the chance to flirt.

Of course, there were plenty of things that were out of reach for me like time for myself or an upscale gym membership or the chance to go to graduate school or buy nicer clothes or hire evening babysitters so HOBB and I could go out more but I didn't cry over what I didn't have. Perhaps my parents raised me right or I had my kids young enough to avoid becoming addicted to my own autonomy but my experience of motherhood was, well, pleasurable. Though horribly broke during that time, we were happy. Rolling pennies to afford tickets to the movies was a bonding family activity. Winning tickets to the circus on the radio was a thrill. Having read Senior's article, I am fairly certain that most of the people interviewed by her would have been miserable in my circumstance.

Which makes them -- not me -- pathetic. It is a gift to have an attitude of gratitude.

I recently remarked to Middle Babe, now a lass of 22, that when she and Big Babe were little and HOBB worked on Sundays, I couldn't believe the great fortune that had been handed to me -- we had a whole day together and I got to be the sole architect of our adventure! And the places we went! Museums and libraries and parks and parties and pools and beaches and little towns on the Hudson River and thrift shops and historic places and amusement parks and friends' houses.

And when Little Babe arrived and my older kids were eleven and seven, we simply toted him along with us, introducing him to the ashram we stumbled onto that served delicious and cheap veggie dinners and had a neat meditation room we could hang out in and the $1.50 movie theatre and the Appalachian Trail and all those 99 cent stores with the sour Charms blowpops -- four for a dollar!! -- near our bungalow and the great ice cream stand that sold doggie treats and the Heritage bike trail and the new promenade along the Jersey side of the Hudson and the new waterfront in Newburgh and the Orange County Fair and the three drive-in theatres near us and the magical lake tucked inside a state park on the border of New York and New Jersey, right near Mountain Creek.

I had my work and I had my friends and I had my extended family but being with my kids was the best fun of all.

That is not a gilded recollection of the variety Senior alludes to in her article. And it goes without saying that there were times of excruciating difficulty -- sickness, trouble, conflict, emergencies, trips to the shrink, the deaths of friends and family members. But I smile as I recollect those busy, long-ago days. I loved being pregnant and I loved having babies and I loved having toddlers and I loved having schoolchildren and now, I love having young adults and a teen. Our dynamic has changed -- we don't have long Sundays together very often and our fights are more up close and personal -- but our present relationship was molded by what took place so long ago, all those sweet evenings and mornings and Sundays and Shabbatot; passing feelings, fleeting glances, shimmering moments, eternity captured in a millisecond.

We are a five-headed organism, the product of innumerable hugs, cuddles, illnesses, crises, tears, laughter, endless conversations, beloved books read aloud over and over and over again, angry words, car, bus and train rides, airplane trips to locales both near and far, museum visits, ice cream cones, movies, studying, fighting, negotiation, dysfunction, transcendence. I emerge into a wholly new phase of my adulthood -- at the age of 49 -- as profoundly shaped by the three Babes as they have been by me and HOBB.

This summer is the very first one in nearly 26 years that I have very few parental duties. Big Babe lives in Berlin, Little Babe is on a teen trip to Israel for five weeks and Middle Babe, who is home for the summer, is a rare presence in our apartment, due to her work and school schedule... and new boyfriend.

I finally have that upscale gym membership and HOBB and I have been on an extended honeymoon, going out every single night, catching up on Mad Men at home, drinking wine at cafes, taking long walks, traveling abroad. For the first time in very long I don't have to make dinner or be home at a certain hour or pay someone to watch my kids or do homework when I'd rather be reading
The New Yorker. And come this fall, I finally am going to graduate school.

I love the freedom I have now, but make no mistake, I didn't miss it overly much during the sweet years of full-time mothering.

I had something far, far better. Something precious and evidently, exceedingly rare.