An estimated 25,000 people marched from Manhattan’s City Hall over the Brooklyn Bridge on January 5, 2020. The message from the group organizers – mainly Jewish alphabet groups like UJA, AJC, ADL and JCRC – was “No Hate. No Fear.” The signs were everywhere, but few of the marchers uttered the words.
Various politicians lined up to address the TV cameras but not the audience before the march took place, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senator Chuck Schumer. The masses then followed the politicians over the bridge to a park in Brooklyn, escorted by scores of police and members of CSS, the Jewish Community Security Service.
The people came from beyond the five boroughs including Westchester, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington D.C. and Canada. There were a…
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Looking for drama on Saturday mornings?
Each Saturday morning during Shabbat services, no matter what city you live in or what flavor of observance a synagogue or temple may ascribe to, there is that moment of truth. The moment when the person given the honor of lifting the Torah, or hagbah, lifts the open Torah scroll above their heads, turns around for the congregation to see the letters, and then sits down in a chair where he is assisted by the galilah, the Torah dresser, who wraps the Torah, fastens it with a silken belt, places the cover back over the Eytz Chayim, or wooden posts, and adorns it with a silver breastplate depicting the twelve tribes of Israel. The galilah then replaces the silver pointer hand, or yad, and then finally the beautiful Keter, or crown, is placed atop the wooden posts.
Sometimes while lifting, the Hagbah shows three columns, sometimes, if they are really strong, four or five columns.
At this crucial moment in the Torah service, there is a certain element of danger in the air. We all rise as the Torah is lifted. Out of respect, yes, but also knowing that we are all in this together if the Torah lifter does not get it just right.
The suspense is especially stronger if we are at the beginning or end of the Torah cycle; when the Torah is scrolled way to the left or the right. For if the hagbah loses their grip or if their strength gives out, to drop a Torah scroll is a grievous mistake. To see the hagbah struggle or even tip slightly under the weight of the Torah elicit responses of gasps and “oh no’s” from the congregants and quick assists from the others on the bimah to steady the scroll from falling. And a feeling of relief and handshakes of “Kol Hakavod” after the Hagbah steps down from the bimah and returns to their seat in the congregation.
So serious of an offense, that on the rare occasion when a Torah scroll does fall to the ground, the offender must fast for 40 days. To reduce the severity of this consequence, oftentimes, a congregation will divide the 40 days to 40 congregants.
This is why so many are hesitant to perform the mitzvah of Hagbah for fear they might drop Judaism’s holiest possession.
Jews take the physical aspects of our holy books very seriously.
If you had an observant Jewish education, you were taught that our prayer books: our Siddurim, our Chumashim, were NEVER to be on the ground. If you do drop one, as kids often do, it is customary to give the book a kiss, because these books have Gd’s name in it. The same goes for our talit, or prayer shawls with the fringes that represent the Torah’s 613 commandments. None of these things should ever touch the ground out of pure respect.
When Torah scrolls and prayer books are so old and worn they can no longer be used, they, with prayer shawls, are buried in a Jewish cemetery.
In many synagogues, you may see a battered Torah scroll, or a fragment of it. Water stained. Singed. Enclosed in its own glass case or hanging in a frame.
These are known as the Holocaust Torahs, which the Nazis confiscated and kept in barns or stables, to one day be placed in a museum to show off how the Third Reich had thoroughly extermined the Jews from the face of the Earth.
So, when I woke Saturday morning to learn that some ….. thing, some thug, some subhuman walked into the Nessa Synagogue in Beverly Hills and trashed its insides.
And tore our prayer books. And threw our talit on the ground.
And threw and unraveled our precious Torah scrolls to the ground.
My heart and soul went into a state of mourning.
What the shock must have felt like to those early risers who were first to arrive for Shacharit services that morning.
Did they think they were in Beverly Hills?
Or 1930’s Berlin?
The image of a naked Torah scroll lying on the ground to a Jew is visceral.
What animal would do such a thing? What rhetoric or “free speech” did they hear to spurn on this act of hate?
So Jews.. what are we going to do about it?
Luckily, Chanukkah is coming.
Chanukkah. No, No, it is not the Jewish Christmas. So for Gd’s sake, stop competing with it like it is.
Just, on your debates on whether we should have a stupid Chanukkah bush or oh how cute Chanukkah Harry is and oh my kids feel so left out during Christmas…. so we make a big deal out of Chanukkah with presents and we get a bush….
For fuck’s sake. Just stop.
Chanukah means: Rededication.
It marks a time in OUR SHARED Jewish history when, in 164 BCE the greatly outnumbered Maccabees in three years defeated the Assyrian Greeks and liberated Jerusalem and when they got to the Temple on the Temple mount they found it to be completely trashed.
Pig’s blood and idols everywhere.
The altar smashed.
And they adjusted their energies from defeating their enemy to then rededicate the Temple and thus rededicate the Hellenised Jews in ancient Judea back to a Jewish way of living.
In the aftermath of the Nessah Synagogue desecration, which, even in this year where haters have defaced synagogues, beat up on Jews and most recently, even killed Jews in Jersey City, what Jews need to do now is find some strength. And Light.
Nessah, if I’m reading that correctly, in Hebrew means miracle.
During Chanukkah, we celebrate the miracle. Not about the oil lasting, but that the Jews had the strength to battle on.
We must battle on. Now is not the time to hide or shrink into the darkness.
That can mean speaking out against Jewish or anti-Zionist hatred from wherever or whoever is spewing it.
That can mean attending services or make a minyan for someone on mourning.
Or, it can mean celebrate Chanukkah for what it is.
Not a Jewish Christmas.
But a time to rededicate ourselves as Jews to our strong, proud, Jewish path.
I had the privilege of giving the dvar Torah at my synagogue this weekend.
For those who need explanation – Dvar Torah, literally translated as “words of Torah” is a weekly speech or sermon delivered in synagogues about the week’s Torah reading. It can be given by the rabbi, the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl, or synagogue members.
It allows us, through examination and introspection and study, to put our own take on the Torah reading.
Here’s mine from yesterday:
Has there ever come a time in your life where you had the rug pulled out from under you?
When suddenly there is a shift in the paradigm, and you are asked to get up and move to a distant land or situation?
This is the case with Abraham. In just the third parashah of the Torah cycle, seemingly out of nowhere, we are presented with #Abraham aveinu. Right here, in a sudden shift, the Torah moves from the universal: The Creation of the world and the beginnings of humanity, to the particular:
Abraham. And the history of the Jewish people.
And what do we read in the very first lines of our Parashah?
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃
I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.
וַאֲבָֽרֲכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה׃
I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth Shall bless themselves by you.”
Right here, from the get-go, God establishes the connection between the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Four times in this parashah, God instructs Abraham to possess the land.
God enters a covenantal relationship with one specific people. God commands Abraham to live by that moral law for his own good and the good of all humanity. In picking himself up and moving to an unknown land for him and his progeny, Abraham demonstrates he is the first to believe in the one, living God. And by willingly picking himself up to settle in Canaan, Abraham becomes the first Zionist.
This is the first passage of hundreds woven into the Torah about the mitzvah of Haaretz, a connection to the land of Israel. Half of the 613 mitzvot contained in the Torah are specific to Haáretz. Settling and living in the land, according to the Torah, is essential for Jews to create their own, just and righteous society.
From this point on, the Torah establishes the fact that Judaism is more than a religion.
We are Am Yisrael.
The Nation of Israel.
The Children of Israel.
Geographically speaking, it is an inconvenient fact that most of the places mentioned in Bereishit, from Abraham’s stop in Shechem, building an altar to God at Beit El, dwelling in Mamre, attempting to sacrifice Yitzchak on Mount Moriah and finally, conducting history’s first real estate transaction in Hevron are located in Judea and Samaria, territories that most of the nations say are void of any Jewish connection.
There is a theory that is being peddled around: that being Jewish has nothing to do with Israel, or anti-Zionism, meaning the belief that Jews do not have a collective right to sovereignty in their ancestral homeland, has nothing to do with today’s global rise of hatred towards Jews.
To those who hold these beliefs, I invite them to examine and study the many references about settling in the land and then tell us that Israel has nothing to do with Judaism.
IN 2017, American Zionist groups in timing with Parsha lech lecha, and the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, proclaimed that Shabbat Lech Lecha will now be known as Zionist Shabbat, where American Jews should relearn the significance and importance of Zionism in our religion.
AZM President Richard Heideman wrote: “The first commandment given to a Jew relates to Israel and Zionism. Indeed, Zionism and Judaism are inseparable, and we need to ensure that all Jews who are celebrating Shabbat around the world incorporate our common love for Israel – the land, the people and the culture – in the spirit of the unity of the Jewish people,”
In a 2019 video essay explaining the mutations of anti-Semitism, Rabbi Johnathan Sacks explains how Jew-hatred shifts and mutates through the centuries. That is why the current hater claims they are not a hater because their hatred differs from the Jew-hatred of the past.
For example, in the Middle Ages, Jews were hated for their religion. In the 19th century, Jews became secular and assimilated and were hated for their race, because they were capitalists, and because they were communists. Now, we are hated because we have a nation-state.
Perhaps, we are hated because we have survived as a distinct, unique people with our own traditions and customs. Perhaps, like Abraham, we are hated because it is in our DNA to go against convention.
Last week, at Detroit’s Jewish Book Fair, I had the chance to catch a panel discussion with Tablet editors last week. There, editor in chief Alana Newhouse said the reason why Jews have survived as a unique and distinct people is that we have operated not by going with the flow of general society, but perpendicularly from the rest of society.
Sometimes, as Rabbi Sacks explains, Lech lecha means “go by yourself.”
Often, it does seem like the children are of Israel are alone.
Sure, criticism of Israel’s politicians and policies are fine, just ask the Israelis who do this every day.
Yet Israel stands alone in an often-impossible situation, She faces existential challenges and must make difficult decisions that are not asked by most nations on earth.
But criticism of Israel loses all nuance when it is now more popular to call for the illegality of the existence of Israel in its entirety. That, is anti-Zionism.
Our pro-Israel students on campus must increasingly be feeling like Abraham, standing alone to the taunts and chants that Israel is a Zionist and therefore a racist state.
Little do these accusers know that they are peddling a conspiracy theory hatched in the 1970’s in the United Nations by the Soviet Union and spread through Arab countries by Yasser Arafat.
Don’t believe me? Check out Bari Weiss’s new book: How to Fight Anti-Semitism.
It’s all in Chapter Four.
Like Abraham, 400 Jewish students this month got up and walked out of a student government meeting at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). They were protesting the body’s overwhelming support for a motion titled “Condemning Ignorance of Racism and Equating Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism.”
This motion denied any link between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. It was written by four student government members aligned with the UIUC chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). No Jewish student organizations or Jewish individuals, including the governing body’s only Jewish member, was asked for input on what defines anti-Semitism.
Student Lauren Nesher acted like Abraham when she led the exodus of Jews from the student government meeting. Nesher is a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and Turkish and Iraqi Jews who were kicked out of those nations because they were Jewish.
Before she and her Jewish supporters walked out, she addressed the packed room and said:
Never again will anyone allow the Jews to feel unsafe on this campus, whether we be affected by swastika graffiti, neo-Nazi or university-sponsored presentations that uniquely seek to delegitimize the establishment of a Jewish state.
Nesher is not alone in affirming the Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism connection. The American Jewish Committee just this week released a study titled: American Jews on Anti Semitism in America. In this survey, 82 percent agreed that the BDS movement and its supporters are antisemitic. 84 percent believe the statement Israel has no right to exist is anti-Semitic.
So, what do we do? How do we combat the rising wave of anti-Semitism that goes under the veil of anti-Zionism?
For one thing, know there are others around you who, like Abraham, do not go with the flow. There are those around you who will not check our pro-Israel and Zionist leanings at the door to fit in or be included or accepted into progressive or intersectional causes.
Finally, let’s take a cue from Bari Weiss who suggests, that yes, we should be like Abraham:
Among Weiss’s many suggestions at the end of the book (spoiler alert) she suggests that we be like Abraham. And I paraphrase:
Abraham’s story is deeply Jewish. He stood radically against the prevailing orthodoxy of his time…..
Today, the idols are more abstract than the ceramics Terah, Abraham’s father, prayed to. They come in the form of power and prestige. The temptation to keep your mouth shut in order to get ahead or get along or to be well liked are very seductive…
But we must face the loneliness to be like Abraham. To be brave enough to say, yes, we are different. We need to be courageous enough to stand apart, ot to bend to the crowd, not to give in to group think.
We should find strength and pride in being an idol-smashing people.
Yesterday, as it always is when Oct. 26 rolls around, was my birthday.
Highlights of my day include getting a phone call from a field somewhere in Boston where my daughter got her entire ultimate frisbee team to shout HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM! into the phone.
My Facebook feed was loaded with wonderful messages wishing me love and happiness. Aren’t Facebook birthdays just the best?
I spent the afternoon on a long walk looking at the reds yellows and oranges of the trees in my neighborhood. I spent the bulk of that walk talking with old friends until my battery died. All the while thinking, why don’t I talk to old friends more often? Like, with my voice. On the phone.
In the gloomy rain, I curled up in bed with our next book club book then enjoyed a fabulous dinner with my son and husband as many of our friends soaked themselves to the bone at the Big House to watch Michigan beat Notre Dame.
Then we watched a movie at home.
Yeah. I know. It was Shabbat. And traditionally, Jews are supposed to power down and unplug on the day of rest. But my phone rang and beeped all day with messages and conversations with my family who all live out of town from me.
I did not forget that it was Shabbat. In fact, we spent my birthday morning in synagogue.
Just like I did last year. On the day after my birthday.
Yesterday, just like last year, I was in synagogue. But now, I cannot think of saying that sentence without thinking about the searing poem written by a young Detroiter who I hope to be half the writer she already is.
Yesterday in synagogue, the accordion door that partitions the sanctuary from the social hall was opened just a crack, just as it has been for a year now.
In case we need to escape a shooter.
Outside, our faithful security guards greeted us with a cheerful good morning and held the door for us as we entered.
They’ve been doing this for a year now.
Yesterday, I chanted an extremely long Haftarah that marks the Beginning as Jews everywhere who go to synagogue begin again and read the story of Creation.
How fitting, or ironic, I thought, that here we are, the day before the day that caused our Jewish community such destruction and pain, the worst attack on Jews in our nation’s history, we read the story of Creation.
After the Torah service, we read a profound statement from a Pittsburgh rabbi who discussed the long-lasting impact the terror attack and those 11 deaths have had on the wider Jewish community in Pittsburgh.
In it, the rabbi concluded that, even as impossible as it seemed, there were still joyful moments in the days and weeks that followed the murders. Even in their mourning, Pittsburgh Jews celebrated weddings. And kids turning into Jewish adults at bnei mitzvot. Somehow, as it always has in our Jewish history, joy mixed with sorrow. And we go on.
As it did yesterday in our own little shul.
Yesterday our congregation officially welcomed our newest member of the tribe as she was called up to the Torah for the first time with an aliyah as she celebrated her conversion to Judaism.
Yesterday I learned I was not the only one celebrating a birthday. From the looks of the two cakes wheeled out on a cart for Kiddush, one blue and one pink, I learned that I now share my birthday with twins. The blue-eyed boy of the twins announced to me that he was now three and then went back to playing with his fire truck.
Last year on my birthday was the last day before.
It was the last day Jewish Americans could go under the false pretense that we were safe in our sanctuaries.
It was the last day before we all became Pittsburgh Strong, before we all scrambled, even though it was Shabbat, to call friends, family, loved ones, friends from camp, friends we knew in childhood that we had not seen in years, to check on them to see if they were okay. Because, if you are an East Coast American Jew, chances are you have a connection to the Tree of Life Synagogue, where not one but three congregations gathered there to pray. To sing Shabbat Shalom Hey! at Tot Shabbat. To welcome in a baby boy into their community. It’s a place where I’ve been. Where my kids have been. Where my cousins became a Bat Mitzvah. Or stood under a canopy for their wedding.
What was lost last year, that feeling of relative innocence and safety, those lives lost that never got to celebrate Chanukkah, or Purim or Passover again…. could the sweetness of twins celebrating their third birthday, a woman being called to the Torah, and my chanting Haftarah counter that horrific day?
Could the intimacy in our small congregation, where those reciting Kaddish for a loved one feel safe enough to share a story of their deceased loved one, sometimes not pretty ones, counter the horror?
So now, it’s Oct. 27, the day after my birthday. The day that will now always be the day before Pittsburgh.
Okay okay, so I’m riding high on my opinion piece in the Algemeiner, so, while I have your attention, here is my next assignment:
Are you Jewish and “rewired?”
Using your new free time to dedicate yourself to Jewish learning or Jewish congregational life?
Do you or anyone you know who is recently retired who is dedicating their newly found free time to synagogue life? Taking up Jewish studies? Learning to chant Torah? Even becoming a rabbi as a second (or third!) career? If so, get in touch ASAP, my deadline is August 7. Feel free to share with potential sources NATIONWIDE. And I thank you!
This is the next installation in an ongoing series.
This is based on a true story.
Names have been changed.
The first few weeks of living with us, Jonah was a bit shy in the kitchen. He’d eye the fruit bowl in the center of the kitchen table and ask if he could have a banana. I told him, this is your home now, this is where you live, no need to ask permission anymore.
“”You’ll see, I really don’t need much food. I get by on one meal a day.”
That one meal a day he was referring to was his subsidized meal plan. Under the McKinney-Vento Act, Jonah was classified as an unaccompanied, or homeless, student. He received free lunches and I think breakfast was also covered at school.
Unless you are a social worker, or work with or are exposed to situations where homelessness in families with children is prevalent, most people have never heard of the McKinney Vento Act. Most in my affluent, upper to upper middle class suburbia could not imagine that there are pockets of their school population who are undergoing neglect and hunger. More on McKinney Vento in a later post.
Hunger, and in some drastic cases, starvation is a very real and present form of child abuse and cruelty. About a year ago, a husband and wife in Riverside, Calif., were arrested when it was discovered that they had chained their 12 children to furniture and starved them so much that a daughter, 17, was mistaken by police for being 10. They were sentenced to 25 years to life. Just this week, a 12 year old in Indiana died in a hospital of starvation at the hands of his parent.
Though not as drastic a case, hunger seemed a big factor in Jonah’s abuse. Taken into full custody by his father at age nine, on his account he and his older brother often had to fend for themselves for meals most days and nights. He talked about them being left on his own when his father went away for a few days, or even a week with not much food in the house. Estranged from family and knowing no neighbors, isolation was commonplace for years in his everyday life.
So, I wasn’t having any of this “It’s okay, I can get by on one meal a day” business.
A teen aged boy getting by on one meal a day? Yeah, right.
Did he understand he had landed himself in a Jewish home? And what that meant?
A home where the first thing I ask my children upon returning from school is are you hungry?
Soon, he started to warm up. He ate well. He helped himself to what was in the fridge. He could slurp down a can of peaches in one sitting. He could never pass up a bowl of baby carrots if I set them out, especially if they were accompanied with ranch dressing. He’d come down at night after dinner in his sweats on a study break and open wide the doors of the pantry, staring at its contents with his head tilted to one side like he was admiring a work of art.
And the most surprising food item he could not get enough of? Kosher for Passover Maneschewitz macaroons. The obligatory purchase in every Jewish person’s Passover pantry that lingers and sits there long after Passover is over? He went to town on them! No one else in the family would touch them. After Passover, the Kroger had them on sale for like 200 percent off the original price. So I stocked up!
In the months he lived with us, I kept tabs on his likes – just about everything – and dislikes – fish – but he’d eat it because it was the food that was prepared for him. He especially liked orange foods – like roasted butternut squash or caramelized sweet potatoes. This was perfect because my oldest son loved fish and hated orange foods so it counter balanced perfectly.
When it was finally my turn to sit down and the rest of my family was chowing away, I noticed he would be sitting there, still, food untouched.
Is everything okay? I asked.
Oh, yeah, he replied. I was just waiting for you to eat.
Wow, I could get used to this, I thought.
Living with little to no family guidance, no one had taught Jonah how to cook.
One busy weeknight, everyone but he and I were out of the house. He thought this was strange. Where was everyone?
Well, my oldest son was out – somewhere downtown with the car.
Eilias was at play rehearsal and my husband was at his tennis game.
So that night, I taught him how to make an omelette.
I taught him how to dice onions by cutting them in half and then scoring the onion with horizontal slices before cutting them vertically, all the while teaching him how to hold the onion bear-claw style with his other hand to avoid slicing his knuckles. How to crack and whisk an egg and how to swirl and tilt the pan and pull the cooked egg into the center so the uncooked egg can flow to the edges of the pan. I taught him how to make a salad too.
Salad and eggs, perfect young adulting food. I figured if you lived on your own, you could survive with the basic cooking knowledge of salad and eggs, and advance your culinary skills from there.
There were early morning celebratory breakfasts of blueberry pancakes out at a diner after we found his warmest winter coat that contained his wallet with all his identification, plus some cash he had earned, that had been left behind at a high school at a weekend public speaking tournament.
Competitive public speaking had been a huge part of his high school life. As public speaking season was coming to a close, I was prepared for Jonah to have a bit of an emotional crash. It’s natural for high school seniors to have a mix of emotions when something they had put their heart and soul into for four years was coming to an end. It may be their final bow on stage, or their last 100 meter dash… these things mark the beginning of the end of their high school years.
Jonah’s skill in directing and writing had taken his team to states. They made it to semi-finals, and it was a close call, but they did not qualify for finals. Also, something terribly tragic had happened to a family member on another team the day of states that drove many students to tears.
That night the tears continued around dinner time. Jonah refused to come down for dinner. Elias was in the room with him and I could hear Jonah talking to him, his words muffled in sobs. This was the part that troubled me most about their relationship, Jonah was leaning at times way too hard on my son emotionally. Elias was four years younger but, headstrong as he was, thought he was being a good friend by being an extra good listener, especially when Jonah was in a funk. But it was getting too much. Wasn’t feeling well. These were the times he would hole up in his room. These were the times I would stand at the threshold of a closed door, wondering if I should let him be or cross the line and be a stand in parent. But with Elias in the room too, I intervened.
I learned that there was a death in the family of a teammate at another school. Someone young. Cancer. There were tears in Jonah’s eyes. I noticed then how light brown they were in the center. And he had the tiniest freckles around his nose.
I sat on the bed with them and wiped a tear away. I told him that in a family, when someone is feeling very sad, that it matters to all of us, even if we cannot take the sadness away, that we are all here for each other to listen. I understood Jonah and Elias were pretty tight. And he had a lack of trust in adults. But he needed to know when he was really really sad, sometimes it was too much for Elias and he should come to me to talk.
I then urged him to come and eat. He said he was not hungry. I left it there, sent Elias down for dinner and gave Jonah his space. With highly-driven and ambitious teens, it was not out of the realm of reason to not feel like eating in the face of sadness or disappointment. I witnessed it myself with my college friends. Especially after being so dedicated to a competition that didn’t go as well as expected.
Next morning. Sunday. I made French toast. Jonah still refused to come down. Nope. You’re not skipping another meal. So at my insistence he he came down, but he wasn’t happy about it. He looked pale. Terrible actually. He passed on the French toast and opted for one plain piece of bread, and then he went back up to bed.
A few minutes later, he threw up. He crawled back into bed and I met him there with a cool washcloth.
“I truly feel like I’m dying.”
“You’re not dying,” I reassured him. “It’s just a stomach bug.”
He threw up again about 20 minutes later.
So now, I had a sick kid that was not my kid in my charge.
I have weathered many illnesses as a mother of three. I have called in ear infections and strep throats and fever to my pediatrician’s office on almost every national holiday and in the wee, wee hours of the night. I have hosed puke off of comforters on subzero Western New York February nights while my husband attended conferences in the south of France. But they were my kids. After a while, as a mom, you know how your kids get sick. You know how they tolerate pain and discomfort and what kinds of patients they are.
I’d only really known him a few months. I had no idea. No benchmarks.
The scariest part for me was I was not sure if the puking was because he was physically sick, or if this was emotional. I knew that there were issues about food while he lived with his dad. How he was often afraid to leave his bedroom when his dad was home to go to the kitchen and eat.
So what else to do? I called the highest authority I knew of caring for the sick: my mom.
Mom, Jonah’s really sick, and he’s so thin and he will not stop throwing up.
Mom talked me down off the panic ledge. You can do this, she said. You have taken care of three children for 22 years when they were sick. Treat him like you treated them and he will be fine.
I IM’ed some the moms of his teammates to see if anyone else was sick. Sure enough, a sister of a teammate also had it. I was also worried if there was a salmonella outbreak at the conference. This was also during one of those romaine lettuce recalls. He likes salad. Did he eat the salad?
Twenty minutes later he threw up again. Pretty violently. He apologized for not making it 100 percent to the toilet.
Even when sick, he was so sweet and polite.
I said that’s okay. After we washed up, I met him on the floor in the hallway. He wasn’t moving around too well.
He said he was scared. I’m scared too, I replied. I worried about him getting dehydrated.
Then I took his hand. Promise me I said, that you are not forcing yourself to throw up.
He answered back, I promise, I would never intentionally want to feel this sick, I swear it.
The one bit of good news here is within the few weeks of living under our roof, we navigated through the red tape of his healthcare situation and he had secured a Medicaid enrolee id and established him on a healthcare policy.
His bridge card had not yet arrived in the mail – he’d changed his address to ours – but on a yellow legal pad, we had his official enrollee i.d. number. That number was his golden ticket. With it, we were able to select a Medicare health plan. I also helped him select a doctor – a family physician, a friend of mine and a gentle wonderful mother of four.
So when he asked if I could take him to the nearest urgent care, I said absolutely. I helped him on with a sweatshirt and we headed out. I sat with him in the empty waiting room. Helped him fill out the forms. Sat next to him as he lay on the exam table, his long legs dangling off the edge as he lay there curled on his side. I rubbed his back as he dry heaved into a bucket provided by the nurse. Poor thing.
The physician’s assistant treated his nausea with an injection. I stepped out of the room for that.
And just like that, the vomiting stopped. But he was pretty weak and worn out. For two days or do, I kept him home on a diet of applesauce, toast and juice pops. On the third day, he was all better and back to school he went.
And on that loveliest of late April Sundays after our visit to urgent care he spent the rest of the day sleeping off the stomach virus from hell. Hours into the afternoon, I got a text from him to come up and see him. His windows were open. The neighbor’s kids were playing joyfully, loudly outside.
“Do you think there is any way you can see if those kids could play more quietly?”
At that, I had to chuckle. “‘No, I am sorry you are feeling like hell, but I am not going to ask my neighbors kids outside to play more quietly. That’s part of living in a neighborhood.”
I left the room, smiling to myself at his request. Kid, I’d move mountains for you if I could. But there is no way I am going to ask the neighborhood kids to play quietly outside on the first nice day of spring on account of your stomach bug.
In a beautiful verdant Costa Rican cloud forest in December of 2017, my love and I went for a hike.
I forged ahead as I usually do when my beloved hears a bird.
I think, oh, that bird is making such a beautiful sound, and then I’m over it and move on.
But this trip was for my husband. A bird-lovers paradise for a birder on his 50th birthday. He needed to identify it, watch it, and record it meticulously in his lifer list.
So, I, the impatient one, headed up a ridge, probably (definately) took up too much height in my step, securing my right foot into a tree root…
when there was a pop and a buckle.
I screamed so I must have scared all the birds away.
I could put no weight on my right leg whatsoever. It was bent at a weird angle and I could not straighten it. Pain radiated down my calf into my shin. Even though I knew that from past experience, the pain would go away and I’d regain mobility, once I worked up the nerve to straighten my leg and get the ligament back into place.
But I was in pain and scared. And I was on a trail in a cloud forest in Costa Rica.
Come on! My beloved coached me. You can do it! Pop it back in like you always do. You’ve done it before—-
But it fucking HURTS!!
I screamed at him. And he ignored my screams and my pleads to just leave me in the jungle and I could crawl back to the lodge where we were staying about a mile away before sundown. And he propped me up. And I put my weight on it, felt just where the ligament was stuck on the outside of my knee, grit my teeth and with a scream, POPPED it back into place.
I hobbled out of the jungle and sat on a bench just outside our villa retreat, soothing myself to the sound of the brook that flowed through the resort and into the trout pools that provided our dinner each night.
I was relieved to not be in pain. My knee had been giving way like this for five years now. After the new year, I promised to have it looked at.
But then the new year gave me a new challenge and I put off getting my knee checked out. One more time.
Back in civilization:
It was a Wednesday in early April and my favorite time of the week when my favorite instructor at the gym taught a quick yoga class at noon.
The night before was Jonah’s first with our family. In his unpacking he came bearing a gift, some chocolates, plus a card expressing gratitude and happiness for us welcoming him into our family, for expressing that with us, he felt like he had finally found the family he thought he would never in his life hope to have.
And I was also happy to have him at home with us. But the mental and physical preparation it took to prepare to move him in, coupled with a trip back to see the family for holiday bookended with a 12 hour car ride, then followed by a day of going up and down flights of stairs to move Jonah out of one house and into another, I needed some me time.
Ever tried yoga?
The first time I took a yoga class was back in 1993 out in California by a sunny blond instructor named Sunshine. I swear it, that was her name.
I’ve been doing it on and off ever since. Every class, almost every class, has resulted in leaving me in a state of bliss.
And I was really looking forward to that Wednesday class. I needed some bliss. I had a lot of work ahead of me.
In the month to come, I would be contacting and meeting with social workers, lawyers and school counselors. With Jonah we had to somehow locate his parent’s divorce papers to see what he was entitled to and if it was met. We had to get him a healthcare plan. After he had emailed two dozen teachers and staff in his high school saying he did not feel safe in his father’s house before he either left or was thrown out on his 18th birthday, we had to figure out how to attain his records from Child Protective Services, to see if any teachers filed a report with CPS.
And he had no health insurance.
There were lists upon lists floating in my head.
But in yoga, there is just the breath.
Return to the breath.
No interacting with lists.
Just let them be. Put them in a cloud and float them away.
About 10 minutes into the class, a woman came in. Late. Dragging with her a heat lamp. Smelling of stale cigarettes.
Annoyed, I got out of warrior one and was about to move my mat to the other side of the room when
There was a pop. And a buckle.
At first everyone in the class thought my hopping toward the exit was hilarious and the calm in the room was broken by nervous laughing.
I made it out of the yoga studio onto the main floor of the fitness center, to the dismay of my poor yoga teacher, who kept trying to check on me, as I writhed in pain on a mat.
Come on, I tried to will myself, just pop it back in. Straighten out your leg!
If I knew someone who could hold my hand, I would have had the strength to do it.
But I looked around and there was no one I knew there at the gym that day.
And after about a month of listening to Jonah’s accounts of abuse and neglect, my mind and my body just reached their breaking point.
I lay on the gym floor and cried for help. A personal trainer, who months later would tell me how well I was recovering, as I worked through my PT exercises, said to sit tight. He was calling an ambulance.
Eventually, help came in the form of two EMT guys. I was able to get up on my own performing a one-legged downward dog.
I’ll show them! I thought.
They said they were very impressed.
I took what I hope will be my only ambulance ride. All along I thought, no, I haven’t got time for this. I have a new kid to take care of, we have lists, we have to get things figured out before college starts. I have no time to be broken.
In the days after I hurt myself, I told him, maybe this was meant to be. My family took him in to help him out, and in turn, he was helping me out. He stepped up by doing more chores. He helped with dishes and swept up after dinner.
Two days into my leg not moving, he met my friend in the driveway as she and he brought in groceries she picked up for me.
Aside, I told here how badly I felt, that I hurt myself like this at a time when I was supposed to be the one helping him.
“Hey,” she assured me, nodding to Jonah as he put some produce in the fridge as I lay on the couch. “He wanted to be part of a family. This is what family does for each other.”
Three days later, I did manage to pop my leg back into place. But I knew that this was not going away on its own.
A visit to an orthopedic surgeon and an MRI later, it was determined that not only was my ACL torn, it was completely gone. I would need a complete ACL reconstruction. Plus a miniscus repair to top it off.
I would need surgery. And about six months of recovery.
I got the news on a weekday morning over the phone.
For some reason, Jonah was not in school, so it was just me and him at home.
He came down from his room and saw I was on the phone getting some pretty bad news. He waited for me to get off, patiently, leaning on his forearms on a kitchen chair.
By the look on my face, he must have known something was up.
Now, I know putting this in perspective, this should be the worst thing to ever happen to me. I’ve had friends who have fought cancer, who died from cancer. This was nothing.
But, to me it was something.
“Are you okay?” he asked me.
“I will be. I am just a little scared, and I’m in for a long recovery and I am afraid of being in pain, I guess.”
Then, he straightened up.
“You look like you can use a hug.”
And, you know, at that very minute, I really did need a hug. If he were not home, I would have had to deal with that phone call in an empty house, my son and husband hours off from the end of their day.
And he came over to where I was standing by the fridge and he gave me a very big long hug.
Thanks, kid, thank you for that.
This is the next installation in an ongoing series.
This is based on a true story.
Names have been changed.
Upon my move to my current town, I was so excited when we bought our house, I jumped up and down so hard there was a pop and a buckle. My right leg bent in such a way that a leg should not bend.
Did you ever play with a Barbie Doll and bend its legs at the knee in wrong way?
Yeah, like that.
I thought at the time it was a temporary thing. That a few weeks of rest, and then a few weeks of physical therapy, I’d be over it.
That was not the case.
My family made the big decision to welcome Jonah to live with us in his final months before college starting in early April, right after Passover. He headed to a country cottage with friends for spring break, and we headed to our family to New York for Seder and a bite of the Big Apple.
There were just a few things I wanted to have in order at home before Jonah moved in. My oldest son agreed that he would give up his room and sleep in the basement for the summer. He was a college man now. He didn’t mind. He liked the privacy. He had the whole basement to spread out, be close to his instruments … access to the TV all night….
So I cleared out drawers and one of our double closets to make room.
Jonah said no worries, he didn’t have much stuff anyway.
I made room in our home. We all did.
Another thing I wanted to happen was to fix the shower in the kids’ bathroom.
Right before we headed to New York, Elias came to me one morning with a metal rod.
“Hey mom, was this supposed to come out of the tub? Because now the shower won’t work.”
A call to a plumber, a wrong part ordered, and I realized I was not going to have the shower fixed before Jonah’s move in date.
So, for about a week after he moved in, until we finally ordered the right part and then instructed people that you have to GENTLY pull the lever to change the water flow from the tub to the shower, we all shared the same shower in our master bedroom suite.
First world problem, I know, but it was instant family bonding with me hiding under my covers in bed as the three men in my house took turns ducking in and out of a very busy bathroom before sunrise.
More on that first week later.
First, let’s move Jonah in.
On a sunny morning in April I drove across town to the home where Jonah had lived since October when he turned 18.
The SUV was empty. I folded the seats down to make room for his stuff, which he said he didn’t have a lot of.
I made room.
He greeted me happily at the door. I was excited. Nervous. I think so was he.
The only others in the house was a large (friendly) dog in a crate, and a cleaning person.
No one to help him with his stuff.
No one to see him off.
To say goodbye.
I thought it odd, but Jonah said he had a nice goodbye dinner with his host family the night before and everyone was at school or work.
So, we began to move his stuff into my car.
He had already transferred most of it to the downstairs living room to save us some flights, but there was some more clothes upstairs in the room he stayed in.
A few boxes of books.
Some childhood mementos. Stuffed animals. Yearbooks from middle school. I think some photo albums.
And lots of clothes.
Up and down and up and down the uncarpeted stairs we went until everything he owned fit in the back of my SUV.
“Are you a little sad?”
“No, not at all,” he answered. “I’m very happy. The M’s were good people and we had a nice conversation last night. I’m just excited.”
Okay, I thought. I wondered, was this family going to miss him, now that he was moving out? Would they keep in touch?
After we closed the hatch, we were off.
Then, a bit of an awkward silence.
I mean, I think most teens do not have much to say to the parents of their friends. I mean, as adults, we are hardly human. I remember being completely uncomfortable around the parents of my friends.
But this was the beginning of an arrangement that was completely different from most teens have with most of their friends’ parents. If he wanted us to help him, we were going to have to accelerate this get to know each process, he would have to trust us, and with his background, trust was something that would be hard to win.
So we sat in silence and drove.
And he.. he did this thing, this quirk that would become endearing to me at times when he didn’t know what to say.
He clucked his tongue, alternatively with humming a tune. Not that I minded. The kid could sing. He is a born crooner that always reminded me of a throwback from a different age. He sang and hummed all the time, while doing the dishes after dinner, folding his laundry in his room, sometimes doing his homework, all the time in the shower… those were the good memories.
So.. we were on our way to his new home but first, a stop to the records office at the high school.
My first line of business with him was to make sure he had a check up before college, and for that, we needed his immunization records, if he had any, and we needed to figure out health insurance eligibility.
He had taken the day off. Second semester high school senior. Into his three top choices for college. We both figured that getting other parts of his life in order, like his financials and establishing health insurance, etc, took priority over sitting in class.
There was still silence in the car, so, I took a breath and broke it.
“You know, Jonah, I really don’t know what I am doing. And I’m going to make mistakes with you, probably lots of them. ”
He nodded in understanding.
“And I’m not a social worker. I’m just a mom who cares for her children, and you are a good friend to one of my children who needs some help. I’m just going with my heart here, okay?”
Okay, he said.
We pulled up to the high school and in about 20 minutes he emerged, his immunization records in hand. That was easy.
First step accomplished. First of many.
Then we drove home and unpacked.
That was a Tuesday.
After a week on the road to see family and then a day of moving Jonah out of one home and into another, my body and soul were in serious need of me time.
Me time would be the next day at Yoga.
I couldn’t wait.
I temporarily fell off the blogging bandwagon, but again for a good reason of chasing after the news for my paid writing jobs.
But then I saw Hamilton. And for a $10 donation to Broadway Cares/Equity fights AIDS, I got a pen.
A pen to write my story.
So, let’s get back to this story.
The story I started about a month ago which I plan to tell piece by piece until its end. Even though people are telling me to get on with it, get over it.
People, this is my getting on with it and getting over it.
If you need to binge read to be all caught up on the story so far, you can start with this post. and then continue from there.
Again, names have been changed to protect identities.
If you know who I am talking about, please kindly shut up and don’t reveal who I am talking about.
….. 3 p.m .
A sunny afternoon late March
I drove home after working out as quickly as I could at my son’s bequest. There was something important he needed to tell me. Some kind of proclamation. An announcement.
The smell of a fresh-baked chocolate something hit me as soon as I opened the door to the mudroom off the garage. A smell that would lead me to undo the benefits of my workout.
There they were, Elias and Jonah, baking up a storm, there were measuring cups, bowls and an empty box of Dunkin Hines on the counter.
“Mom, Jonah has something big to tell you.”
Now this was after a week of figuring out just how I could take in another kid, well, young adult, really, into my family’s life.
A week where my husband and Jonah and I had met, without his tag along friend Elias, my son, to discuss how his life had gone so far, and where he wanted his life to go, and how and what kind of help he needed – both from us and hopefully a good therapist – for him to get there.
We came to the agreement that in order to live with us, there would be chores.
No problem with that. He’d done most of the chores when he lived with his father.
We came to the agreement that he would need to seek out therapy to deal with the alleged trauma of why he needed a home in the first place.
And we agreed that he could not drive our car. Not because we did not trust him with our car, but that we just did not have the budget to insure another male teen driver under the age of 25 on our policy.
With that understanding, driving Mr. Jonah around would be my responsibility. No problem there, nothing Mrs. Mom the chauffeur wasn’t used to, what’s one more kid to drive around?
So, to make sure I had covered everything, I overstepped my boundaries and, in advance, called the director of the day camp where he would be working at that summer to see how he would get there if he had no car.
Was there a bus that picked up the campers and where and when did it pick up and is it okay if Jonah rode that bus to camp too, because he has no car?
Because I had to ask.
Because, ultimately, I would be playing the mom. And moms think of everything.
“You know, I don’t know who you are lady, and I know Jonah,” the camp director told me over the phone. “He is an amazing kid, but he is an adult and to my knowledge he has not yet sent back his employment contract for the summer and I shouldn’t have told you that either.”
I knew that in the off-season the camp director was an attorney. I stammered. I had nothing to say, and I guess he caught on that I was a bit stymied for my lack of saying anything over the phone.
“It’s okay, lady, I know you are just trying to help him out,”
“That’s right, I am. And I am just trying to cover every scenario in terms of what he will need over the summer.”
“I know. It’s okay. If he can make it to the bus in the morning, he can ride it to camp.”
So, legally or illegally I had settled that.
But still, on that drive home from the gym, I thought he had made his mind up to live with Sabrina’s family. And I had to be okay with that. This was not about me. I still am telling myself that. It never was about me.
Do you ever have to tell yourself that?
This was what would be best for Jonah.
But there they were, Elias and Jonah in the kitchen, with big smiles on their faces.
And they had baked me lava cakes. If my memory served me correctly, they also bought whipped cream and strawberries for a garnish. The works.
“What’s all this?” asked. A very Merry Poppins sort of question. I joined them around the granite island, an island we would have many conversations around, and laughing, and arguing, and sometimes tears, in the months to come.
And then Jonah spoke. He said he knew Sabrina’s family offered him to live with them as well. And it would probably be more practical because they would have let him drive their car.
“But, I have to say, since I have been coming around here, no one, not even my aunts or uncles or my grandpa, has treated me more like family than you or your family in a very long time. If it’s okay with you, can I live here?”
And then we hugged.
And just like that, like the inside of a lava cake, My heart melted.
Next up: A move. A complete tear.
This is the next installation in what is based on a true story.
Names have been changed.
As winter turned to spring in 2018 and I got to understand more of Jonah’s plight, I realized I might be in over my head.
In his young life:
He had watched the tearing apart of his family. :
An oldest brother who was profoundly autistic and needed round-the-clock care.
Divorced parents at nine.
At age 13, watching his second oldest brother’s leaving his father’s home, also at age 18 to never return.
Being taken away from his mother’s care because of her own substance abuse.
And then, estrangement from his dad at 18.
Each night, I had a hard time sleeping thinking about all that trauma he had yet to process. There are many I know who have taken in shelter dogs who suffered abuse. Here I was, with no education, psychology or social work background, thinking about taking in a human. A rescue human.
Now, looking back, when I feel like a failure, I have to repeat to myself: I, and others, about six other families before me, in fact – we did all we could. Every time I feel that I failed him I circle back and repeat to myself: we could not undo in three or four months what had been damaged over the course of at least 10 years of abuse and neglect.
But we sure did try.
“Why should we wait until the end of the school year? If he is not happy in his current situation, let’s get him out of there now, let’s help him.”
Enter my helper. Sabrina.* My co-grizzly bear mamma. My … well, we had another nickname for each other, another term, I’m not sharing that.
We had met up at the Riverfront on a shivering cold but sunny March morning. With about 10,000 other protesters. March for Our Lives. The shock of the Parkland shootings were so fresh in all our minds. The wanting and need to embrace all our terrified teenagers by doing something en mass.
Sabrina is tall. Tells it like it is and straight to the point. Spiky short hair and bright blue eyes that shine out behind a collection of the most colorful, cool, mod, rad spectacles you could ever hope to pull off the look yourself but you know you wouldn’t get away with it.
I only had heart and Google at my resources. She was a licensed social worker, had worked serving her community for years in the non-profit world and knew who to call and what to do. Her son was also friends with Jonah. For years, when Jonah would ask for a ride home, Sabrina always noticed, no matter the time of day or night, Jonah would always let himself into a dark, seemingly empty home.
Before the March headed out along the river and Hart Plaza, we shot ourselves in a selfie the best two middle-aged ladies knew how. We texted it to Jonah.
“Hi Jonah. We have a plan. Let’s get together soon.”
Over the next several months, she was my partner in all this. God bless my husband for none of this would have happened, but there was enough upheaval at work for him to invest his time and increase his stress load.
So, it was Sabrina and I who were on the phone on an almost daily basis for weeks at a time, arranging meetings with social workers, school principals and administrators. Making doctors and dentist appointments. Two Jewish moms sometimes tripping over each other to help a kid who for so long had no mom at all to go to bat for him.
As it turned out, Sabrina’s family had also offered Jonah a place to live. They had a
little more room, a lot more room and food wise, did not keep a kosher home like we did.
A crash course in keeping kosher. Now there are levels of keeping kosher. Though my family is not the most strict, we do have separate dishes, pots silverware for meat and dairy. We do not mix meat and dairy. No cheeseburgers or Parmesan anything here.
We do not bring non-kosher meat into the house. There is a way to prepare food, to clean up from the food, that keeps the kitchen kosher.
Now, what non-Jewish kid who up until a few years ago had no Jewish friends would want to put up with that on a daily basis?
Not to mention access to a car.
A car. An 18-year-old teen-aged boy and access to a car. So he could get to his job as a summer camp counselor, go out with friends, have that freedom that only a car can give you.
What 18-year-old boy is going to turn that down?
Forget it, kid. I’ll still be here, but you got offered a car? Good for you.
There is no way Jonah is going to live with us after an offer like that, I thought to myself, about a week after March for our Lives.
I was getting used to the idea of having him come to live with us. More than used to. I was starting to get attached.
I had just finished an afternoon workout at the JCC. In the shower, I told myself, this is not about YOU. This cannot be taken as a personal rejection. He has to do what is best for him.
This is not a competition.
Let him go. You’ve got enough going on.
Let him go where he wants to go.
After towelling off, I checked my phone to see there was a text from my son.
“Mom, when will you be home? We have something waiting for you, it’s a big surprise!”