Apr 15 2017

Passover minyan 2017

As I sit here writing this post, the 5th day of Passover is almost over. My supply of matzah is already half eaten, though there is still more than enough left to do a matzah brei tomorow. This year, as usual, I attended 2 Seders.  The first one was a Swedish one – Progressiv Judendom i Stockholm’s Seder. I’ve been on the board of PJS for over 10 years and as a board member, I help out with all the activities we have done through the years. This year we did an especially good Seder. Eva Ekselius, with the help of Marianne Prager and Mats Frisk, led us through the Haggadah and even added other interesting tidbits of information. Marianne’s singing and Mats’ guitar playing were wonderful and helped to make it a fun evening in spite of the fact that I was in the middle of having a horrible cold. I can only hope I didn’t infect everyone I talked to that evening. Oh, and the food was good too!

And then, a few days later on Good Friday, I led my J.A.P.S.* Seder as I have been doing for almost the past 20 years. These people are my minyan, my family, that I feel like I gave birth to here in my adopted homeland. The Jewish People have a long history of moving from one country to another (not always as voluntarily as my choice was) and building from scratch, a full Jewish life in the new place. It wasn’t until I moved to the land of the blue-eyed blond that I discovered just how much the Jewish life I left behind in New York City meant to me. And how much I needed it. I knew I would miss friends and family but I didn’t know I would miss Jewishness. So I set out to rebuild it for myself and for my son. And 20 years down the line I feel I have succeeded.

The kids

The kids

At this point, we are 7 families with children (can we still call them children if most of them are not even teenagers any longer?) and a few who come on their own. This year the group was smaller than usual because a number of us were traveling to other places. But still we filled my Co-op’s party house with 20 people.

Before we start the seder proper, I always welcome my minyan with a little speech and even though I was sick and stressed and just plain tired and thought I would just skip the talk, I couldn’t let it go. As usual I had to say a few words. These are the words I said:

Welcome everyone
I won’t bore you with a long speech. I have a cold and don’t feel really up to long speeches.

We are a rather small group this year. A lot of our young people are not able to be with us. Many of our children are now old enough to have their own agendas, not just what their parents want them to do. This absence of our youngsters, made me think of the reason we are commanded to celebrate the Passover – to teach our children. To tell them the story of the Exodus, to remind them that once we, as Jews, were slaves and now we are free.

The oldies

The oldies

By commanding us to tell our children, the entire process of Passover becomes a generational event. To tell our children, we need to also have the mothers and fathers at the Passover table – mothers and fathers who once were themselves children, listening to the story their parents told.

My grandparents, immigrants from Poland before the second world war, were the first people whose Seder I remember being at. They didn’t do much story telling – mainly because they really didn’t know much about it themselves. But it always somehow felt very authentic to my child’s mind though my mother told me that my grandfather basically just said Kiddush and then we ate. But he said it with a strong Yiddish accent so I guess it just felt more real. After my grandfather died when I was ten, my mother and my aunt took over hosting the Seder – alternating years between them. By then, our families had graduated to using the free Maxwell House Haggadahs that many American Jewish families in the 1950s and 60s grew up with. Each year we would take turns going around the table reading portions from the color-coded and illustrated texts. It was a sort of Haggadah for Dummies. It told you with detailed instructions what you were supposed to do and when. We sat there and endured the boringness of the ritual, once again just waiting for the food without really understanding what the words meant.

It wasn’t till I was no longer a child and, on the outside at least, finally a grown-up, that I was invited to a Seder led by someone who actually knew what the whole thing was about. It was then that I realized that it didn’t have to be that meaningless mumble that it had always been my whole life. Since then, I have tried to lead a Seder that had meaning. I don’t know if I always succeeded but I tried. It has to be about more than just waiting for the food to show up.

Passover is truly about generations of parents passing on this story to their children and then they to their own children and so on and so on. My greatest hope (well maybe not my greatest hope but at least as it applies to Jewishness and Passover) is that my passing on of the Seder story to our next generation will continue into the future as it has for several thousand years past.

In addition to the absence of some of our children, when I look around this group I remember some who have celebrated with us who are no longer able to be here. Last year Marina’s mother, Rachel was here with us. Before that Danielle’s mom, Lydia celebrated with us and even further back my own mother, Evelyn. Now they are no longer able to share in our Seder or pass on what they know to their daughters who are still here.

So I want to start this year’s Seder by asking Danielle and Marina to join  me in lighting the candles, in memory of our mothers, as we once again start the yearly telling of the story of the Exodus  – of our people’s journey from slavery to freedom.

Chag sameach.

*Jewish American Parents in Stockholm

Photos are all courtesy of Danielle Shevin


Oct 18 2016

A Little Bit Extreme

When I was growing up my mother used to tell me “Eat your vegetables!”

When I was growing up, we started every school day with the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag and the Lord’s Prayer.
When I was growing up, we would watch with awe as NASA scientists built rockets that could send human beings to the moon.
When I was growing up, I learned about the Christian Crusades rampaging across Europe on their way to the Holy Land, while most of Islamic Spain and Portugal flourished in a golden age of science, medicine, trade, poetry and culture.
When I was growing up, people were marching for civil rights, for women’s rights, for equality for all people.

My mother’s idea of a correct dinner plate was one composed of 3 parts: there was a protein item such as beef, chicken or pork, there was some sort of starchy item such as rice or potatoes or macaroni, and there was some sort of veggie such as broccoli or asparagus or corn. We never had that all-American staple of the 1960s, the peas and carrots mix (with little pea-sized cubes of carrots) because I was allergic to the peas. My mom often served slightly unusual veggies like artichokes to keep me and my brother interested in them. But regardless of what type of veggie there was on my plate there were always the 2 other items there too. But today it’s not enough to eat veggies with every meal. You are encouraged to be extreme and you have to eat nothing but the veggies. You have to be Vegan and nothing that ever breathed oxygen should pass your lips.

The Pledge of Allegiance had no mention of God when first written, but it did by the time I was in school.  The Lord’s Prayer, a specifically Christian prayer was not a part of my Jewish experience. Nevertheless, to me, as I recited it every morning with my Christian classmates, the prayer was just words, without any strong significant meaning. The words certainly didn’t interfere with my identity as a Jew. I got my identity from my home and family. The Founding Fathers had as one of their very fundamental principles, the idea of the separation of Church and State. They were educated men, these inventors of our country. They knew about the horrors that State-sponsored religion had visited on Europe in the past (mainly by the Christian Church) and they wisely wanted to avoid this. So if we really wanted to do as the founders wanted, there would be no prayers at all in the public schools. But today the Pledge and the Prayer have become a battleground between those who don’t want them in the public schools and those who insist they should be there. Prayer in school, mainly Christian prayers, seem to have become a rallying point between those who fanatically believe that America is a Christian country and everyone should be a Christian or at least participate in Christian prayer and those who believe that a Christian prayer in a school is an infringement on their own personal non-Christian rights. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists and everyone else who have an alternative belief should be forced to endure it. Once again, a plate with a variety of flavors, is being rejected by the extremists.

In the days when we watched men travel to the moon, scientists were respected. Real science was taught in school. Darwin’s ideas about evolution had long been proven as fact. Exploring all areas of the world for more knowledge about life was considered important. We believed that life could be made better for everybody though science. But today Science is considered suspect. Scientists too. Scientific knowledge is rejected in favor of unfounded belief.  Evolution? A bunch of hooey! Climate Change? Just bunk! Moon landings?  A big conspiracy. Vaccines? Don’t do it because they cause autism. Rape? Not a big deal because you can’t get pregnant from it since the body rejects rape pregnancies. I am just waiting for the flat earth people to start demanding that to be taught in schools.

These days the Dark Ages are long over. The Pope no longer exhorts his followers on organized rampages across Europe in the name of God. But instead, a fundamentalist version of Islam is on a holy war against the non-believers, intent on wiping out all who believe otherwise. Extremism at its finest. It doesn’t really matter who’s God is in charge when the extremists insist on deciding who is right and who is wrong.  Everyone is sure to suffer.

The days of standing up for inclusion; for fighting for equal rights for women, for people of color, for the handicapped, for all minorities seem to be long over. Instead we have a presidential candidate who makes fun of the disabled, is vulgar and rude about women, who threatens to jail his opponent if he is elected. His followers at his rallies shout things like “Kill her.” or “Trump that bitch!” or “Build a wall — kill them all.” They threaten violence towards anyone in their midst who voices a dissenting opinion.The hatred for The Other has replaced the idea of equality for all which once ruled this land.

The world is definitely not like it used to be when I was growing up. And I’m not really sure about the reason for why this is. But now we are living in an age of extremism and I have to say that I am getting extremely fed up with it.


Oct 10 2016

Day of Atonement

This evening is the eve of the Jewish Holiday Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is probably one of the most important holidays in the Jewish Calendar. Unlike most of the other Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur is not celebrated by eating a large quantity of food. On Yom Kippur one is supposed to fast for the entire day. And one is supposed to atone for the sins you have committed in the past year – to say one is sorry, to ask for forgiveness and to forgive.

This evening is also the evening before I leave for my trip to New York City. I stand next to my bed and look at the piles of clothing and other things that I have been laying out – choosing what to bring and what to leave behind. Is this item what I want to take with me on my trip or is it something I want to and can leave behind me, unneeded?

I feel these piles are also an apt metaphor for Yom Kippur. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur one must ask forgiveness from those one has wronged. And on Yom Kippur you are judged whether you have done right. I have hurt people. I have said unkind things. For this I am so very sorry. And like the items on my bed that I choose not to bring with me on my trip, I would rather not carry my atonement and its subsequent forgiveness with me. It’s not enough to just ask for forgiveness. The other half of the equation is that forgiveness is given. Without that, the books can not be closed and the journey becomes harder to continue.

I guess when I was younger, I thought that by the time I had reached 65 I would have figured out Life, be settled – know where I have come from, know where I am, know where I am going. But even at 65, it is still all so confusing. Where am I going? How will I live my life? What am I doing?

Tomorrow I will be traveling to New York City – the city of my heart. The first time back to the East Coast in over four years. The place I left almost 30 years ago to live here in Stockholm. I will be staying there for a whole month – the longest time back there in over 20 years. I am no longer the same person that packed her bags in 1987 to move to a foreign land. How will it feel to be reunited with my heart? Will we even recognize each other?

And after that month, I will return here to my home, Stockholm, to pick up the pieces of my life once again, hopefully forgiven. With all my baggage, all the pieces taken with me and even those I thought to leave behind – all the pieces of my life.


Apr 12 2016

Civilization

My family — my husband, my son and myself — have been spending our summers at our little piece of property out in the Swedish archipelago since our son was almost 2 years old. The boy is now almost 25 so I’ll let you do the math on how long we’ve been going out there.

The property had been in my husband’s family since his parents bought the land in the mid 50’s. By the time we starting going out there, the larger of the two buildings (hand built by my husband’s father) had become a 25 square meter run-down, moldy cabin. While it had electricity, it had no running water. In fact there was no running water anywhere on the property, except when it rained and then the area that we would refer to as the lawn became a small lake that slowly trickled downstream through the grass. The only toilet facilities we had was the outhouse, a short walk down the hill from our cabin.

We spent the first 8 summers out there fixing up the small 2-room building: new roof, new paneling on the outside with a new coat of paint, a “kitchen” makeover with new windows, wood paneling on the ceiling, new floor tiles, paint and wallpaper. We kept the kitchen cabinets from the 1970’s and the tiny 2-burner electric stove (just gave them a very through scrubbing). We got our drinking water out of the 20-liter plastic jugs we filled from the hand pump a 5-minute drive down the road. Water to wash dishes and ourselves was delivered through a thick black hose run from the nearby lake to a tiny hot water heater hung up on the outside of the cabin. We never did manage to get rid of the moldy-house smell though.

We also never got around to fixing up the cabin’s “big” room; partially because we couldn’t agree on what to do with it and mainly because after 8 years of tiny-cabin life, we bought a larger, new pre-fab house. The factory-painted pre-fab was delivered on a big truck with 2 carpenters to put it together and 2 days later we had what looked like a complete new house. Lying on the ground next to it were all the building materials needed to complete the inside of the house. Because we considered ourselves “handy” we decided that we would finish the inside of the house all on our own. Every summer of the next 7 years we spent working on the Big House. We put up gutters and drainpipes. We spent a summer just on the floors; putting in all the insulation and the floorboards. Another summer we did the same for the ceilings. Another year a carpenter friend spent a weekend putting up all the inner walls and we spent the rest of the summer with insulation and screwing up plasterboard. My husband spent weeks standing on a ladder, holding a nail gun, putting up the wood paneled ceiling. Finally in the middle of the vaulted living room ceiling, he decided he had had enough!

The following summer, we called in a crew of Polish carpenters who spent 5 or 6 weeks of plastering, wallpapering, painting, window framing, laminate flooring installation and kitchen building. By the end of that summer the house was ready to live in. So in 2009, we spent our first summer in the Big House.

During all the years we spent working on the new house, we continued to live in our tiny 2-room shack: brushing our teeth at night, standing outside while holding a plastic cup as we looked up at the night sky; washing dishes outside on the bench attached to the back wall of the cabin, hoping the rain would hold off until we got them all done; hoping we didn’t have to poop at night because who wants to have to walk down to the outhouse in the middle of the night, though in July it never really got dark so that was sort of OK.

Even after we started to spend our summers living in the new big house, we still had no indoor water even though we had dug a well a few years earlier. The “bathroom” was used as a glorified tool shed and the sinks in the new kitchen couldn’t hold water. Life in the countryside had become more comfortable but we still continued to wash dishes on a wooden bench behind the new house, took showers only when the weather was warm and sunny, brushed our teeth out on the deck as we looked at the stars, and traipsed down to use our outhouse carrying flashlights when necessary.

But then last summer my husband decided it was time to become civilized. He bought a Cinderella incinerating toilet. He hired a carpenter to build us a real bathroom with tiled walls and floor, a real shower, a sink and vanity and a mirrored wall cabinet. And a plumber to connect our well and water pump to the inside of our house.

running waterThis weekend was the second weekend I have spent here in our new civilized country house. It is early April and still cold outside. And rainy. And mostly grey and dreary. But inside its warm and cozy. I washed the dinner dishes without having to drag them outside first. I haven’t gone down to the outhouse once — its probably all full of spiderwebs by now, left over from the winter, but I haven’t had the need to check. And while I haven’t tried out the shower yet, I know that I can use it without having to check the weather report first.

But with all this new unaccustomed civilization at my fingertips, I find that I am missing something. I find myself missing that close proximity with all the vagaries of nature: feeling the rain come down as I finish washing the last dish; the chilly air on my face as I make my way down to the outhouse; the cold wet decking under my bare feet as I go out to brush my teeth. Yes, civilization has its advantages, but at the same time it also tends to disconnect us from the natural world around us. And this former New York City girl is forced to admit that she misses that connection — even after all those years of complaining about it. The cold and the rain and the damp isn’t all that bad; as long as you can come into the warmth of civilization afterwards.

This story was first published April 10, 2016 on Medium.com 


Feb 9 2016

Still Obsessed

I just started my second reading of An Echo in the Bone, Diana Gabaldon’s seventh novel in her Outlander series. I’ve gotten as far as the Prologue.

The body is amazingly plastic. The spirit, even more so. But there are some things you don’t come back from. Say ye so, a nighean? True, the body’s easily maimed, and the spirit can be crippled – yet there’s that in a man that is never destroyed.

And barely as the last word was read, my eyes started to fill with tears and I realized I was crying.

How? Why? Am I that much of a sentimental sap? I never thought so before. I have been reading and re-reading these books (and watching the TV series by Starz) since discovering first the show and then the books in the beginning of 2015, after my friend told me about them a few months earlier. And I can’t seem to stop. I can’t seem to be able to leave the world that Gabaldon has built and come back fully to my own. What is it about Jamie and Claire’s love affair and adventures and marriage and life that makes me want to be there with them instead of in my own life?

Granted, the last 4 years have been difficult ones, filled with sorrow, disappointments, illness and changes.

In 2011 my mother got sick and at the very end of that year I spent the last month of her life by her bedside in New Jersey watching as she slowly passed away. You can read about that month I spent with her under Saying Goodbye to Mom. On a cold January day my family and I said our final goodbyes at a wonderful funeral (if one can call a funeral wonderful) and a joy-filled Chinese lunch (her favorite sort of food) with friends and family. And then I returned to my home and my life in Stockholm. Once back here I managed with great help from her Finance Guy, Dave, to settle all her bills, tie-up loose ends, and pull together what needed to be done to file her estate income tax forms. Done! Chapter settled and closed! Or so I thought.

Then 2 years later, I received a letter saying I was being sued for unpaid property taxes! It seemed that the person who had been renting the property that I had inherited from my mom had not been paying said taxes as he should have been and now I was required to pay a huge sum of money in back taxes and interest. I almost had a heart attack. As luck would have it, I actually had a lawyer who could help me and even just enough money to save my property. The stress from dealing with all that finally ended up causing me to decide to start taking anti-anxiety meds. It has taken the last 2 years to finally work out the situation. I don’t believe in writing gratitude lists but I am very grateful for my lawyer Gary. He saved my sanity. What I have left of it at least.

Then just after finding out I was being sued, I heard that my job as a graphic designer, that I enjoyed and liked working at was soon going to end. IGBP was going to be closing down at the end of December 2015 and as I write this I am now officially out of a job. And looking for a new one. I think…..

And as a last straw, in October of 2014, my husband got sick. He developed an aneurysm that started to bleed right at the top of his spinal cord where all those little nerves are gathered. He spent 2 months in hospital, needed brain surgery and almost died. He is home now and still himself but the bleeding affected certain nerves leaving him dealing, for the past year and a half, with a number of physical disabilities and has  affected the way we see and live our life together – how we go forward. Oh, and did I mention those added anxiety and stress levels???

Sooo, as I said above, the past 4 years have been pretty crappy and I find myself often not really wanting to crawl out of bed.

But when I do, I find myself still standing and even still able to make a joke. But I am almost afraid to open my email – who knows what disaster awaits me there. I don’t feel very much like socializing since I am boring even myself with my negativity about life and my lack of enthusiasm. I don’t want to keep spreading it around my friends or I won’t have any left, friends that is. Facebook and Twitter are my main social outlets – I don’t have to get dressed or put on my face for that! Or even leave my bed!

I need to concentrate on finding a new job but I don’t seem to be able to muster much enthusiasm for that task either. Being a graphic designer is how I have earned my living most of my life and actually is the only work skill I really have. But, I don’t know – images are just all starting to look very grey. Words are what fill my head now. But getting the energy to sit myself down at the computer to write – that is so hard too. Its as though my computer has become my enemy and I can’t dare to face it. All my shoulda, woulda, couldas get saved to the very last minute before I can bring myself to attend to them. And I find myself getting very sloppy by the time I actually get to them. And its the sloppiness that bothers me. The not caring. The lack of … whatever it is I am lacking. Perhaps its just the will-to-do that’s missing.

So I lose myself in Diana’s world. Its not the same as when I read over and over again Peter and Wendy (the original book about Peter Pan) as a child or lost myself in The Lord of the Rings as a teenager. Its not just escapism.

Its like that prologue I quoted at the top of the page, that started me crying: I think I reacted to it because I too am looking for that part of me that is still not destroyed. The me that is still left. Her words are filled with that sort of thing that seems to be speaking to me directly.

Her story of Jamie and Claire’s life, of how they are as a married pair – I wish I had that as an idea of a life together. I almost wish I had read her books when I was young, in my 20s. My parent’s married life, the only example I had, was not really happy and I admit to avoiding pairing up for a very long time because of their example. In reading how Jamie and Claire are with each other, it gives me a different model to follow in my own marriage. I almost wish I had learned those things 30 years ago.

So I continue my Outlander obsession. Reading and rereading over and over again. Each time finding small bits and pieces that leave me weeping, with sadness or joy but still engulfed in tears, sharing their lives. Waiting for mine to recover and figure out what my next stage will contain. I sometimes wish I had Jamie’s resilience to disaster and hardship but maybe I have more than I think I have. I’m just waiting for it to bounce back so I can discover who I am again.