Monthly Archives: April 2010

Frames of Reference

by Ferida Wolff (Cherry Hill, NJ)

One day I saw an ad in our local Jewish newspaper for a series of Kabbalah classes to be held at the Jewish Community Center. I asked my friend if she would like to go, as we were both interested in mystical traditions. She would and we went.

The teacher was a real deal Lubavitcher rebbi. He wore the black suit. His head was covered with a black hat. He had the beard.

The class consisted of mostly men and a few women. The men were there more to show what they knew. The women were there to listen. We were there to learn. The rabbi was soft-spoken. We hung on his every word.

When the series was over, the rabbi said that he would be willing to teach a private class in someone’s home. My friend and I excitedly waited for the end of class to speak with him. We were interested, we told him, in learning more. We assumed that we would be joining others with the same desire but it seemed we were the only ones who asked. This caused a problem for the rabbi. First of all, we were women, not the traditional target for teaching the Jewish mystical system. Then there was the issue of who we were personally. I was culturally observant, sharing holidays and simchas with my family and friends but didn’t keep to the religious dictates. I even taught yoga and studied Buddhism. My friend was a good Roman Catholic familiar with the Tao. We both practiced Qi Gong and meditated. Not the typical Kabbalah students. We were surprised when he agreed to teach us.

But there were conditions. We would meet in my house where, I surmised, he would feel more comfortable. He wouldn’t shake our hands and wouldn’t eat any food I offered because I didn’t observe kashruth. (Eventually he would take tea from a Styrofoam cup but not in the beginning.) If one of us couldn’t make the class, it would be cancelled; he could not be alone with a woman other than his wife. My friend and I respected his strong need to remain within certain boundaries as he respected our intense desire to learn.

We met once a week for a year-and-a-half, just the three of us. We discussed passages in the Tanya. We explored ethics. Our talk was animated and exciting but it was our silences that were enlightening. Often, after we had chewed on a topic for a while, we would lapse into a satisfying period of non-verbal communication that was almost a meditation, each of us deep into our own connection with the topic. We would emerge from it smiling, feeling full, knowing we had come to a new awareness.

The orthodox side of my family could not believe that I was studying Kabbalah; they knew my orientation. My friend’s family members just shook their heads. Meanwhile, we were walking a spiritual path that expanded our understanding of the larger picture of existence.

During the week, my friend and I continued the discussion – between chores and work, after dinner and sometimes before breakfast. The concepts were not easy; they demanded attention. We never knew when an enlightened thought would hit us, and, ready as we thought we were for clarity, we were never prepared when it struck. Like the time I was taking my morning shower and suddenly felt myself shatter. It was after we had been discussing the shattering of the vessel that led to creation. I had no sense of my skin holding myself together. It seemed that I was floating adrift and far from any recognizable landmarks. For a moment I had no idea where I was, what I was, where I belonged. Tears streamed down my face but they were tears of wonderment not sadness. I had experienced my own shattering of the vessel of self. I was free!

When I told the rabbi, his face lit up. He took my hand in his, a gesture that was both startling and profound. We smiled at each other, not speaking; we were both somewhere beyond words.

I was surprised that with my interest in so many spiritual disciplines, my freedom came through Kabbalah. My friend said she understood. She still went to church but because of her universal explorations she saw the rituals more as portals into meditation than as requirements for her spiritual practice. She continued to go because it was the place where she knew to connect with the Mystery. She said I couldn’t help connecting with the Mystery through Kabbalah because it was related to my being Jewish. These were our frames of reference no matter what we studied.

The class eventually grew and we started meeting at the rabbi’s house. People brought many perspectives to the table and not all of them were Jewish, but Kabbalah gave us all something to integrate into our own personal frames of reference.

Ferida Wolff’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Moment Magazine, Midstream, Horizons, and Woman’s World, among other periodicals. An author of seventeen books for children and three essay books for adults, she has also contributed stories to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and HCI’s Ultimate series, as well as online at www.grandparents.com and as a columnist for www.seniorwomen.com. You can visit her website for more information: www.feridawolff.com or her blog at http://feridasbackyard.blogspot.com/

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Writing Practice: Counting the Omer

Over the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot we count the omer each day, marking the period between our liberation as slaves in Egypt and our receipt of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

It’s a period of counting when we reflect on the link between slavery and freedom, and it’s a time when we can reflect, too, on the blessings of our lives.

You can use these days to count your blessings and to think about how your life is different in freedom than it might have been in slavery.

Why not take a moment to make a list of blessings that you are grateful for each day?

Then choose one of these blessings and ask yourself why you feel it’s a blessing.

How does it change your life into something remarkable?

What is it that makes something– or someone– a blessing?

You might describe how you first came to understand this something or someone as a blessing.

And then you might expand your thoughts and discuss how you’ve grown or changed as a result of this blessing in your life.

For more information on counting the omer, visit:
http://www.aish.com/h/o/lac/48971726.html
http://www.jewfaq.org/holidayb.htm
http://www.chabad.org/generic_cdo/aid/130631/jewish/Sefirat-HaOmer.htm
http://www.ritualwell.org/holidays/countingtheomer/
http://www.uscj.org/Counting_the_Omer_an6375.html

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Tuesdays, With Minyan

by Mali Schantz-Feld (Seminole, FL)

Minyans were for the men of my family during my childhood in Brooklyn, NY more years ago than I would like to confess. Decades later, at an egalitarian Conservative synagogue in St. Petersburg, Florida, my daughter was invited to read from the Torah at Thursday morning minyan before her Bat Mitzvah. A few years later, for my son’s Bar Mitzvah, the scenario was a bit different. I kvelled over his beautiful voice chanting his Torah portion, but, later in the service, I chanted Kaddish for my mother, who had suddenly passed away. A celebration of life, a comfort in death, I felt her presence, along with a connection to the others in the small group and to my heritage.

Fast forward three years: Rosh Hashanah, a time for resolutions. A plea from the bima floated from the speaker’s mouth and rested on my shoulders. Although only ten people were needed to  recite Kaddish, read Torah and other prayers, often, attendance was less than ten. So, adding to my Jewish New Year’s resolution to exercise more, I resolved to get my soul in shape along with my body by attending Tuesday morning minyan.

I was nervous. The “regulars” could daven in Hebrew faster than I could keep up in English. Grabbing on to a word here and there, and depending on the kindness of strangers to point out the place, I looked around at the small band of “minyanaires.” A 90-year-old, with a European accent and white hair reminiscent of my grandfather’s, read from the siddur words that obviously had been etched in his mind years ago. A variety of people stopped by before starting their day’s business—lawyers and doctors removed their suit jackets to put on their tefillin, chatting about the latest stock market news one minute, engrossed in prayer the next; men in jeans;  women, some in running suits and others dressed for success; out-of-towners and members of other congregations. Anyone with a few spare minutes was encouraged to stay for coffee and a bagel afterward.

After a while the Hebrew words and familiar faces became my friends—seniors with their mischievous smiles and ready jokes; the accountant and handyman who kept everyone on the right page; the woman who lost her husband to cancer at a time in life when they should have been enjoying empty-nest syndrome together. Someone volunteered to recite Kaddish for a previous “Minyan-keeper,” a poet, with a gray beard and leprechaun-like stature who unlocked the chapel doors and announced pages for so many years. The regulars dedicated the chapel’s eternal light in his name so his inspiration would preside over the minyans indefinitely.

At the minyan, not all come to say Kaddish. But all come to start the day with thankfulness, integrity, faith and love of Torah. It’s tough to drag myself out from under cozy blankets to arrive at the synagogue at 7:45 a.m. But when I see the smiles on the other nine faces, knowing that  I’m the one who makes the minyan complete, I really feel like a “perfect 10.”

Mali Schantz-Feld, a professional writer for twenty years, has written on topics ranging from medical breakthroughs to the national economy. She has won writing awards from the Florida Magazine Association, the Florida Freelance Writers Association, and the national Jesse H. Neal Award for Editorial Excellence. She loves sharing the warmth and significance of Jewish traditions and heritage with family and friends.

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The Sabbath Snowstorm

by Barbara Waxman (Cherry Hill, NJ)

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”  This is one of the Ten Commandments, but how many of us “remember”?

I woke up on a recent Saturday morning around 3 a.m. feeling like a child as I looked out the window.  At first all I could see was white. The snowstorm had arrived, and so, too, had the Sabbath.

In preparation for the storm, we had gone to the food market on Thursday evening.  The lines had been long, the shelves had emptied rapidly.  People had been patient.  But there was an air of excitement. A snowstorm had been predicted!  So many times in the past the predictions had turned out to be nothing more than exaggerations. This time was supposed to be the “big one.”

On Friday, we made two more trips to the store.  We had to prepare.  On my last visit, I only had to get lettuce so I didn’t take a basket.  The celery looked good, and a mild onion would enhance the salad.  The pre-cut cabbage would make a wonderful slaw.  A few other unexpected items and my arms were full.  I stood in the express line. The woman in front of me offered to share her basket. We formed a bond talking about the preparations for the storm.

At home, I cooked and cooked.  I had food for dinner and beyond.  I was tired but satisfied.

As the sun set, I lit my Shabbat candles.  We said blessings, offering gratitude for our safe haven in the storm.  After dinner, the snow came  down lightly.  We went to sleep.

In the morning we could enjoy the gift of the Sabbath: the snowstorm.  We stayed home and cherished the day.  For the first time in a while, we weren’t pulled to rush around doing “things.”  We could just “be.”

Sometimes we need to be reminded.  Sometimes we need to remember that the liberation of the Sabbath is a gift to be enjoyed.

Born in Philadelphia  and now living in Cherry Hill, NJ, Barbara Waxman is a wife, mother, grandmother, and business person.  She has always been a student and teacher in the school of life.

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