The Joy of Building Our First Sukkah

As I’ve become more observant and more familiar with mitzvot and halacha and various minhagim, I’ve been struck by the almost absurdity of the Yom Kippur-Sukkot transition. It seems odd to me that, hours after experiencing the most Awesome day of the Jewish calendar, after going through a grueling and soul-wrenching fast accompanied by walks to shul, much standing, and seemingly endless praying, one would immediately go out and begin building the sukkah in anticipation of Sukkot. Sukkot – zman simchatenu – the holiday of happiness – seems to be in stark contrast to Yom Kippur with all of its solemnity.

On top of the huge spectrum of emotions that seems to occur in hours, there are only 4 days to prepare. 4 days to build a hut, acquire a lulav and etrog (and one can spend hours selecting the best), and plan and cook meals. FOUR DAYS! Isn’t that a bit of a time crunch? Why did Hashem give us no lead time? There are 40 days from Rosh Hodesh Elul to Yom Kippur…many start preparing for Pesach weeks in advance…why this huge rush for Sukkot? Essentially, why is Hashem practically punishing us with this crazy schedule?? And why is this sukkah – this little hut – of such importance if, lets face it, not everyone is gifted with carpentry skills? Why all these challenges?

And then it hit me as my husband gleefully put together our first sukkah this week.

On Yom Kippur, vidduy lists all of our sins. We are faced with everything that we could have possibly done wrong over the last year. In our prayers we say that we are dust, that we are barely worthy, that we have failed – and that we hope to improve and do better next year. We pray for life so that we can be granted the opportunity to do better. During davening or during quiet introspection on Yom Kippur we mentally think of how we can do better: this year I will take on this new mitzvah; this year I will put into practice this halacha that I learned; this year I resolve to speak less lashon hara…we become creative and hopeful. Perhaps it is possible to change; I think I can! I want to do better! And by the time ne’ilah rolls around, we daven so hard saying, “Yes – I can do it – just give me the chance – I know I can!”

And then the shofar is blown, we wolf down food – and what do we do next? Run – don’t walk – to do the first mitzvah that we can. And run we have to because we only have 4 days. And the 4 days is significant because it is not a lot of time! There is no time to waste! If there were more time, such as more than 10 days, then there is greater opportunity for a person to waver in their convictions or for the schedule to become too busy to build a sukkah. It is the time crunch that drives a person to fulfill the mitzva, and if we were given more time, how many of us would opt out for the sake of convenience?

The look on my husband’s face is priceless as he shows off our sukkah. Knowing that he accomplished this huge mitzva, despite the many trips to Home Depot, despite the errors that delayed construction, I can read several emotions in his face: pride in what he built with his hands, satisfaction in fulfilling the mitzva for the first time, giddiness in all of the decorations and lights. But perhaps the most significant emotion is the feeling of “I did it!” – and it’s despite the odds, despite having no time between work and nightfall, despite the construction snafus, despite the bugs (it is Houston, after all). This mitzva is done! And possibly, if I can do this mitzva, then I can do others…

And isn’t that a great feeling to start off a new year?

First published on Oct 1, 2007

What is Torah Judaism (in 500 words or less) – #1?

I believe that the ultimate manifestation of Torah Judaism is Chesed, acts of loving-kindness. It’s not the number of times one davens in a day, or the type of kippah he wears, or if her hair is covered completely, not at all, partially, or only sometimes. It’s whether all that davening and all those halachic guidelines and all that learning yields a better person, a better Yid. Does the person smile more, give others the benefit of the doubt more frequently, look for ways to make peace with others (instead of always getting his/her way), help others in time of need (whether it’s a seat on the bus, or picking up a dropped object, or bringing a meal to a new mother/sick friend/random member of the community), encourage children to play with those who seem to have no friends?

If all of that learning and studying and rushing to classes and davening does not make one a better person, then it does not matter to me how many of the mitzvot that person observes, or how stringent; it means they are not taking the Torah’s lessons to heart.

Years ago, I was surrounded by loving, kind, and generous observant Jews, and that spurred me to grow in my own observance. I believed that the Torah guidelines make for a pretty good foundation for life, and I still believe that. We must always keep the big picture in mind.

This is the first in a series of defining Torah Judaism for our non observant co-religionists in 500 words or less.

Negotiating Family Dynamics

I apologize for my long absence from this blog. I will use the excuse that I have had no time to write anything meaningful, but below are my reasons:

1. I graduated, moved to Houston, and began a new consulting job in summer 2006.
2. My husband stayed at Penn State to finish his degree. This necessitated lots of logistics planning for holidays and weekend visits.
3. My job required me to travel to exotic locales such as Paducah, Kentucky and Birmingham, Alabama and most recently, to New Orleans on a relatively long engagement (which continues today).
4. We joined a shul, about which I posted earlier, and somehow I coordinated the shul’s annual gala in March.
5. We bought a house.
6. My sister had her baby a week before the gala, at the same time when I found out I am pregnant.
7. My husband graduated and moved down and has now started his new job.
8. Our lovely house needs a new kitchen and new windows, all of which will happen before the baby arrives.

That being said, it has been quite the year. But the most challenging aspect of it all has been negotiating family dynamics. Much has been written on this topic, some good and some bad, and I have had both experiences. I live within walking distance (by design) to my sister’s house and my parents’ house, neither of whom are kosher houses or observant in any way. However, it was important for me to raise my family near my family so I knew that compromises had to be reached. Perhaps some readers will not like my decisions so far, but I base all of my decisions on shalom bayit, both within my home with my husband and outside my home with my family. Some examples:

1. My mother and my sister buy kosher meat for us when they are expecting us, for which I am grateful. However, their dishes and their ovens are not kosher, and I suppose that once the dish is cooked, it is no longer kosher. Nevertheless, my husband and I eat their meals and appreciate their efforts. I am hoping to progress on this issue through conversation and by providing them with kosher utensils.
2. My family respects my refusal to eat in non-kosher restaurants. However, one time when I showed up at a non-kosher restaurant with a container of mac and cheese, my mom got offended and was vehement that I not pull it out. I learned the power of compromise – instead of bringing the box, I could order tea. I cannot make my mother uncomfortable and alienate her.
3. My family understands that we celebrate Shabbat. When we sing Shalom Aleichem at my house, it’s a beautiful thing. At our house, Friday night is more than just dinner. My parents love the peace that comes with it.

It is very hard for parents to not understand their child, and that is how my parents feel about me. They have not had good past experiences with observant people, both in the States and in Israel. Nevertheless, they respect me, and it is my responsibility not to push my boundaries too much too fast with them in fear of pushing them away.

Growing Without Bounds – One Small Step at a Time

When I was growing up, for New Years Eve I would sleep over at a friend’s house, eat bags and bags of M&Ms and watch some New Years program on TV until I couldn’t stand it anymore. In between talking with my friends about which celebrity is wearing what, we would write or discuss the resolutions we would take upon ourselves in the coming year. I remember how carefully I chose what my resolutions would be, how we would discuss the pros and cons, and how ashamed I was in thinking, oh I didn’t accomplish that in the old year, but surely I’ll be able to do it in the new year.

I have now realized that I should just as seriously take this upcoming New Year.

Not only is Rosh Hashana the time when we start to stand accountable for our actions, but it is also the perfect opportunity to commit to some resolutions. The resolutions should not be as lofty as “I will become more spiritual”, but rather they should be concrete, tangible resolutions that we can SEE ourselves doing. It is the last part – seeing myself doing the resolution – that I failed to understand when I was growing up. I didn’t see myself going to the gym every day, but my resolution was to exercise more. I was setting myself up for failure by committing to a resolution I knew I couldn’t fulfil.
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Why I Love My Houston Community

We just moved back to Houston from our sojourn at Penn State (technically, I moved back; my husband has a summer internship here but has to return to Penn State for his final year in grad school), and while we do NOT love the intense heat and humidity (weather report last 3 weeks: average of 95 and sunny) we have fallen in love with good ol’ Texas hospitality, Jewish style.

1. There appears to be a resurgence in observance, so there are several kosher eateries, at least 5 bakeries, and a plethora of kosher products in several supermarkets.
2. There is a growing population of young people becoming observant, including couples, which means that we will have friends to invite over. We are looking forward to becoming significantly involved in young people/young family activities (thanks to our strong Hillel background).
3. There are several new Jewish institutions, including one outstanding new shul that fits us to a T. It is small, heimish, and friendly, and filled with BTs. The focus is on learning and growing, with no step too small. It is practically like a giant support group.
4. Everyone I have met so far is willing to help us out in any way, whether it is furniture for our new place, or a Shabbat meal, or recommendations. Truly a representation of Am Echad.

This community excites me. It is not the same hum-drum community I left when I went off to college with its sense of “establishment”. This community is excited to try new initiatives, new learning programs, new family activities – whatever it takes to get more Jews together. I am ready to get started. YEE-HAW!!

Who am I?

Hillel asks: If I am not for myself, who is for me? I first want to know: who am I?

All of my life, I have felt that I am a member of three communities, each vying for attention. As a US-born citizen, I am naturally an American, but growing up as the daughter of immigrants in an Orthodox day school where my friends were all children of immigrants, I was illiterate in the culture of baseball and homemade apple pie. My mom didn’t bake apple pie at home because instead I was enjoying Russian desserts due to my parents’ Russian backgrounds. Both of my parents are from the former Soviet Union and we spoke Russian at home. I learned to read and write in Russian and sing Russian children’s songs. Many of my parents’ friends were of the Russian Jewish community. Finally, there were the Israelis. Since my parents lived in Israel in the 1970s, we were involved in the Israeli community, going to events, visiting Israel almost every year, and speaking Hebrew. My favorite records were of Israeli children’s music; I knew every song by heart and was fluent in Hebrew at a young age.
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In Gratitude to the St Louis Community

I can’t write another post without first thanking the community that helped set me on the road that I am on. In June 2002, I had just graduated from college and was living in my own apartment, on my own, in St. Louis. My boyfriend at the time (now husband) had inspired me to start keeping kosher, and so I decided that this new start in my life would be the right time to make the move. Even though I made sure to find an apartment within walking distance of a synagogue I knew about, I still did not know anyone in the area.

I knew that a good guide to kashrut would help me along with the details, as I already had a working knowledge of the subject, so I found a nearby Jewish library. When I walked in, no one seemed to be around, so I poked around until I found the kosher section and stood there reading and thinking. I suppose it was at this point someone from the back heard me, came out and offered some help. We introduced ourselves to each other, and that is how I met Rabbi Max Weiman of Aish HaTorah St. Louis (and a contributor here!). A little surprised at myself, I explained how I was living on my own, about to start a new job, and thought I’d keep kosher since my boyfriend was doing it and liked it. After helping me choose a book, Rabbi Weiman asked me if I had plans for the upcoming Shabbat. I wasn’t sure if I heard him right. Had I just been invited somewhere?
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Growing Step By Step

Since blogs appear to be the 21st-century diary, I would like to share with you how my husband and I have grown since I first posted on this website in January.

I started saying Tehillim when my mom went in to the hospital for a routine procedure and ended up staying there for two weeks fighting a nasty hospital-acquired infection. Given her fears and my anxiety of not being with her, I turned to Tehillim as a direct prayer to Hashem. I never said Tehillim before, and I didn’t even understand what I was saying, but reciting the Tehillim – saying something – somehow eased my fears and calmed me. Once my mom was discharged (and I flew to visit with her) I continued reciting Tehillim and I have found the daily practice to be my time with Hashem, a time when I can focus on what I want to accomplish and communicate that.
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Achdut at Gate 6

I recently spent two weeks in Israel, due to a family wedding and spring break, and I have always found that one of the most unifying, one-with-the-Jewish-people experiences ever is in the waiting area for the flight to Israel.

There is something to be said about being with a bunch of Jews getting ready to fly to Israel, our homeland. Jews dressed in all sorts of garb, listening to all sorts of music, speaking all sorts of languages – in the end, we are all Jews, and we are, as one, flying to Israel.
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The Spirit of Shabbat and My Car Alarm

In the community I was involved with in St. Louis in my pre-marriage days, a particular family hosted about 25 people each week for Shabbat dinner and I had the privilege to be their guest several times. It seemed to me that this family represented the epitome of the baal teshuvah experience: beautiful home filled with yiddishkeit everywhere, wonderful food that seemed without end, fascinating dvars, lively conversation. Both husband and wife came from very different backgrounds; she attended Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government while the husband lived a fun life in Brazil. Their adorable daughter symbolized the bright future that lay ahead for them, and quite possibly for all of klal Yisrael, so giving was their spirit and energy.
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Becoming Observant in the Land of the Nittany Lions

If I were to give one piece of advice to a couple engaged in the process of becoming more observant, I suggest this: move to a remote, slightly rural location with few Jews and an even fewer observant Jewish community. It has become apparent to me, since this is what my husband and I did, that not being in a Jewish community has had a direct correlation to our thought process and decision-making regarding our observance. We live in State College, PA – home to Penn State University and the Nittany Lions, and located within 3.5 hours of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Nittany Valley is home to football-crazed fans, about 40,000 undergraduate students, and more pizza shops than one can count. It is also our home since we got married 2.5 years ago, and remarkably, I can’t think of a better place to become more observant in Judaism.
Read more Becoming Observant in the Land of the Nittany Lions