Community through a Cookbook: my Speech Before Hadassah
The other night, I was the featured speaker at the Installation Dinner of the Rochester, NY chapter of Hadassah. For those of you who wanted to know what I spoke about, here it is, all 20 spoken minutes of it, though changed slightly as I had some visual cues for some of the jokes. And some of the jokes, well, it’s a Hadassah thing, so you may not understand. Also, if you are not up on the Jewish faith, there is a LOT of jargon that you may not get, so if you want to skip this post, I will understand. But it was an honor to speak and a great evening I’ll remember for a long time.
Hadassah is an organization known throughout the world for promoting Zionism and Israel, supporting advances in medicine, and advocating Jewish education. Any art lover the world over surely knows about the Marc Chagall stained glass windows that grace the chapel in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital.
But, when I think of the Rochester chapter of Hadassah, the Rochester Hadassah Cookbook immediately comes to mind.
I have to tell you, I got this cookbook by way of Berkeley California. I had just become engaged to my husband, Craig. He was in graduate school. I was – uummmmm, hanging out and enjoying the California scene!
We got the Rochester Hadassah cookbook as an engagement present by way of a grad school friend of Craig’s named Mike. Mike was born and raised in Rochester. Mike came back to California after a trip back East and presented us with this book as an engagement gift from his mother.
And I said “Oh, Rochester. That’s somewhere upstate, like near Poughkeepsie!”
At that point in my life, I had no connection to Rochester outside of this cookbook. Rochester was the furthest thing from my mind. We were living in California but that was temporary for us East Coasters. Craig would finish his PhD, and then we were moving back to New York City, center of the universe!
We did move back to New York City. Well, New Jersey actually. Craig found a job in the suburbs and I also found one – in Manhattan. Complete with a three-hour round trip commute on New Jersey Transit!
I landed this great job at a growing high-tech public relations firm. It was a time when they couldn’t find people fast enough to perform quality account work for the burgeoning, brand-new high-tech industry. Ah, I miss the 90’s!
My boss was a stunning, statuesque blonde woman of 35. She had the corner office of our Park Avenue suite. To the north, her view faced uptown to Grand Central Station. To the West, she overlooked Park Avenue. She loved living the life of a single Manhattanite PR executive. However, she would tell us many times that her parents in Florida wished she would marry and give them grandchildren already. When she visited them, she instructed us to call her often on her cell phone, so her parents would see how important she was back at the office.
Sitting in my cube as a lowly – NO rising – account executive, I would imagine what it would be like to live that kind of life. Most of my co-workers were in their 20’s and single. Half their salary went to paying rent.
The other half – alcohol.
At 28, I was already the old married lady of the office, and Craig and I were starting our family.
After a few years and two kids later, we moved up to Rochester for Craig’s employment. It was then I learned that Rochester is waaaay further upstate than Poughkeepsie.
My company back in New York City still wanted me. They even offered to set up a virtual home office. But, reality set in. I was staring down at our first long Rochester winter with a one year-old and a three year-old as my only companions. I didn’t know a soul in town. Virtual office or not, I realized that building my social network here for my family would be more important than racking up more media hits for IBM. So, I politely said thanks but no thanks, and became a stay-at-home full time mom.
Stay-at-home moms rarely stay at home, as you know. Those first few years here, I spent most of my time at Wegmans, the Strong Museum of Play, and the JCC. When you’re the new mommy in town, people are very interested in getting to know you. I realized that the Jewish moms I was meeting were fulfilling the mitzvah to welcome new Jews into the community. We were invited as a family for Shabbat dinners on Friday nights and, during the week, playdates for the kids and I. I’ve heard that this courtship is called “mommy dating.”
More than a few times, I would eat something prepared by a prospective mommy friend and say,
“WOW, this is great, where did you get this recipe?”
And one woman after the next would reply, “I made it from the Rochester Hadassah cook book!”
And I would reply, “OHHHH, I have that cookbook, I’ve had it for YEARS! I think I’ll start using it now.”
The JCC opened up to me a network of great women who believed in giving their kids a Jewish education in early childhood. I’m now over the rainbow from my own kids’ preschool years and teach preschool myself. I am in forever debt to people like Tzippy Kleinberg, Andrea Paprocki and Emily Fishman at the JCC and later, Randi Fox Tabb at Keshet preschool for planting the very first seeds of Jewish knowledge for my kids. Now that I’m a preschool teacher, I see the appreciation parents show when their little ones come home singing “Shabbat Shalom – Hey” or say a bracha every time they put a cookie in their little mouths.
Becoming a new parent can be the road back to Jewish observances. In fact, a 2002 study by the Jewish Early Childhood Education Partnership described Jewish preschools as the Gateways to Jewish Life. The time to get young families rooted back into Jewish community life is when their children are between the ages of birth and three years of age.
I remember when my son Nathan was in his first year of preschool at the JCC. I had an “aha” moment – a moment you knew that the Jewish foundations you lay for your child are really sinking in – in all places but at Michael’s.
Nathan was just 2 ½. I picked him up at the J and we went schmoozing at Michael’s. From his seat in the shopping cart, he spied one of these big fake terra cotta gardening urns.
“Mommy” he said, in an angelic voice that only two and one half year olds have “They have a really big – Kiddush cup!”
By the way, Nathan is now well into his Torah studies as he becomes a Bar Mitzvah this November.
In addition to giving my children a Jewish education in their earliest years, being a stay-at-home mom afforded me the time to continue my own learning. When living in New Jersey, I admired women who could get up and read Torah on Saturday mornings or who were involved with other aspects of Jewish communal life. But my three- hour round trip commute into the city left time for little else during the week.
Why did I decide to learn to read Torah later in life? I have to confess, it’s the rush. I have to get my adrenaline rush somewhere. For one thing, I hate roller coasters. The only time I rode one was on a dare from Craig on the boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California. Craig jokingly said he would not marry me unless I rode the famed Big Dipper, a classic, rickety wooden roller coaster. As expected, I hated every second of that 60-second ride. But I guess it was a religious experience because I kept praying aloud to God to please get me off!
So, if I want to get my heart pumping, I sign up for a Torah reading.
I encourage more Jewish women to also get on this thrill ride. And don’t think, “I can’t do it because I didn’t grow up reading Torah,” because neither did I!
Growing up within my very Conservative synagogue in Staten Island, New York, boys preparing for their Bar Mitzvah were required to attend services on Saturday morning. Girls were required to go on Friday night. Girls would chant their Haftarah on Friday night and boys would be called to the Torah on Saturday morning. It was never questioned or debated if girls should have a larger role. That’s how it was.
We were taught that after our B’nei Mitzvot, boys were still required to go to shul but girls didn’t have to. Our rabbis, all Orthodox, said that girls were more spiritual by nature, thus relieving them of the obligation to attend services. They said if men were not required to go to shul, they would never go.
It’s true. Spirituality did come naturally to me. Each Friday night, I followed along with all of the melodies of Kabalat Shabbat. I never thought about the fact that after my Bat Mitzvah, I would not be asked to join a minyan if they needed a tenth, because I was not a man. I would not be asked to read from the Torah or participate in services. It made me feel as though I didn’t count, and on a certain level, as a Jewish woman, I didn’t.
That summer, my parents took our family to Israel, where I was to have a Bat Mitzvah ceremony at the Kotel! Imagine that! In my 13-year-old mind, I envisioned me chanting my Haftarah, the Kotel behind me, and all of Jerusalem listening!
Well, my actual “Bat Mitzvah” ceremony went something like this: I stood in a white blouse and a flowery skirt outside of the Kotel Plaza. I really did have a copy of my haftarah to chant. But a rabbi in a black hat from some agency handed me a siddur, and asked me to read the Shma in English.
“But, I have my Haftarah! And I can chant the Sh’ma in Hebrew,”
“That’s not necessary. You are a girl. Just read it in English.”
Tova Hartman, a lecturer in the department of gender studies and education in Bar Ilan University wrote in her book, Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism, that living in Israel, she “knew there is no recipe or a structure on how to join Orthodoxy with feminism. In her own life, in order to give her daughters a model of religion she could live with, she had to form her own shul with a group of like-minded people, even if that meant she had to leave certain loyalties behind.”
Please don’t misunderstand me. I do have great respect for Orthodox Judaism. I admire their commitment to observing Shabbat, the hospitality they extend to guests on Saturday afternoons for lunch, and their dedication to a Jewish day school education.
I can also understand the values that Orthodoxy places on mothers as the first Jewish educators in a child’s life by being charged with creating a Jewish home. But even Blu Greenberg, author of How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, commented in her book On Women and Judaism that “leaders of Orthodox halacha (law) must recognize that the general effect of exempting women from prayer conditions them to a negative or indifferent attitude toward prayer altogether.”
My feminist notions aside, when I became a mother, I appreciated why it is that women are not obligated to participate in time-bound mitzvot which could interfere with their tasks of mothering. But what I cannot accept is where “not obligated” evolved into “not allowed.”
My horizons on the role of women in synagogue life expanded when I moved out to California. Aside from daring me to ride roller coasters, Craig encouraged and taught me how to lead kabbalat shabbat at the Hillel at Cal Berkeley. There, the rabbi was a woman. For the first time, I heard the matriarchs mentioned next to the patriarchs in the chanting of the Amidah. Women lead services, had aliyot, and read from the Torah. This was so common, in fact, that once, a non-Jew came to our services and quietly asked, “Are men allowed to read from the Torah?”
I learned how to read Torah at age 37 thanks to a six-week adult education class led by Chazzan Martin Leubitz at Temple Beth El. On the first day of class, Chazan Leubitz informed us all that he had signed us up to read Torah in six week. That would be our final exam.
For me, I have come to realize that learning Torah is not an exercise in perfection, rather an act of participation and performing the mitzvah of studying Torah as a full-fledged member of the Jewish community.
Connections in the Jewish community, actually, would you believe a conversation in the women’s locker room at the JCC – led me to landing my column at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. Writing this column has been a return to my first love of newspaper writing. It has also given me a reason to set up a home office, with a corner office in my kitchen. To the south of my lavish two square-foot corner office – I have an excellent view of the piles of laundry that pile up in my family room. To the East, there are dishes in the sink and groceries to put away. Directly before me is my blank computer screen, which I must fill with 600 well written words every week.
Writing my column is like riding a bicycle up and down a series of hills. All year long. On deadline day, I pedal the hardest. I do a lot of the writing – as I did this speech, in my head, long before I sit down to my computer. I think about it at red lights, on walks, on line at Wegman’s. Writing takes a lot of rewriting, moving paragraphs around, weaving and reweaving them until every word fits into place.
It’s like that feeling you get when you untangle a necklace.
Then, I hit send. And I can finally coast downhill, for about a day. I finally pick myself up from my cushy corner office to the mundane never-ending tasks of laundry and dishes. I also take some time to get in a workout. A shabasana, the restive pose at the end of my Wednesday night yoga classes, are divine and well deserved after hitting send on my column.
Then, the search continues again. Because most of my connections are in the Jewish community, lots of people pitch me with Jewish story ideas. But, I’ve had to gently turn a lot of them away. When it comes to my personal identity, I am a Jewish American. But for the sake of the wider audience of the Democrat & Chronicle.
I’m not a Jewish reporter, I’m a reporter who is Jewish.
Between the lines of my column, however, Jewish themes can still be found. A day devoted to cleaning up our parks or collecting unwanted pharmaceuticals – those are the values of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world. Events that speak on helping care for our seniors or events at a senior center? That is Gimilut Hasadim – acts of kindness.
So I try not to comment or cover too many events or issues that impact the Jewish community.
Except for the recent incident where some teens were caught and charged with the hate crime of burning a swastika in Brighton. On the night before Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Rememberence Day. I had to speak out on that.
After a lot of back and forth with my editors, who questioned if such a heavy topic was the right fit for the Our Towns section, they agreed to keep my words. I thank them immensely for hearing me through on this. As I stated in last week’s column, I love covering the good in our communities. There is so much bad news in our world and I’m honored to be able to bring to readers news on events where they can participate and help out their community. But suddenly, this columnist who is Jewish became a Jewish columnist and I had to speak out. Because, what do we mean, when we are saying “Never Again?”
You have to remember that when the news broke, our community was immersed in daylong Yom Hashoah observances. Included in this was a community wide program for teens: a staging of the play “What Will You Tell Your Children” written by Rochester native Jessie Atkin upon her return from a Journey for Jewish identity trip in 2005, where Jewish teens from the United States and Israel spend time together here, visiting concentration camps in Poland, and finally in Israel. I’d like to thank Jodi Beckwith for directing the play and to our Jewish education leaders for bringing the event to our children.
And how was this play received by our teens, many who never experienced anti-Semitism first hand? To give you an idea – there were about 250 kids in the room to watch the 90 minute performance. Suzie Lyons, the director of Education at Temple Brith Kodesh, noted that only 11 kids got up the whole time to use the bathroom
Have you ever been on the receiving end of hearing a racial or religious joke? Usually, the joker defends his joke by saying – it’s okay, some of my best friends are: Black or Jewish, Chinese, you fill in the ethnic group.
On a positive note, I want to bring to your attention the overwhelming response of coming together in the Jewish and wider community. The morning after the swastika was burned, the Home Acres neighborhood had a vigil attended by Brighton Town Supervisor Sandra Frankel who called it a despicable act. In last week’s editorial page, the hate crime received a “thumbs down” by the D&C. There were several letters to the editor – one jointly written by leaders in the Christian and Muslim communities – condemning the act.
Our Jewish youth, many who know this boy, a student at Brighton High School, are struggling. They are searching for a rationalization why he may have done this, they think – there must be a reason, There’s got to be a reasonable answer.
Seventeen is an extremely vulnerable age where friendships run thick and rule supreme. And the apparent betrayal of a friend at age 17 is painful to accept. I’m sorry, but I don’t think that this young man was considering the feelings the Jewish kids he knew when he allegedly planned to burn a swastika. Or maybe he just thought it would be okay to do this as a joke, because after all, some of his best friends were Jewish!
Both boys have pled not guilty which means that they will have another hearing in town court on May 25. This leaves us with many questions. Was this an isolated event or should we fear a wave of similar copy cat crimes? Did these boys really understand the gravity of the timing of their act or do they truly comprehend what horrors were committed under the symbol of the swastika? And if they didn’t, where are we going wrong, in our school system, in our discussions at home, that we are not telling our youth enough about that very dark chapter in human history.
To leave you on a positive note about this, I want to tell you about the group of seventh graders I had the pleasure of teaching this year at Temple Brith Kodesh. They were absolutely dreamy, I mean it! While they are not exactly enthralled about learning about the minutia of the Hebrew language, the topic of carrying on Jewish identity, especially as they face post Bne’ Mitzvah life, keeps them engaged. On the Macro level, they have a very strong sense of who they are as Jews. After the swastika incident, the debate arose in my class whether middle school trips to Washington D.C. should include a mandatory visit to the US Holocaust memorial. Some students, in light of what just happened, thought it should be a priority to visit the museum for all students – Jewish and non-Jewish. Others thought that the serious theme of this museum would overshadow what may be the first time a young student visits our nation’s capital. But it was good to see my seventh graders debating and discussing, trying to work it out. And again, not one of my students asked to leave the class to go to the bathroom, can you imagine?
So, my advice to you tonight? I guess it is to maintain a focus in your life on Jewish education, from the earliest years of our children and well into our own adulthood. While raising a family, keep a hand in your own profession, however small, and as much as your family and your own sanity can handle. Mothering is the best job of all. But don’t disappear, don’t let your own individuality get folded and lost into the lives of your husband and children, just as egg whites get folded into the batter of a Passover Sponge Cake, which a recipe can be found within the pages of the Rochester Hadassah Cookbook. Thank you for listening.