Pondering Jew

Making Family Memories of a More Important Kind

June 9, 2016 1:40 PM

When I first heard the word in grade school, I didn’t know exactly what it meant; I just knew I hated doing it. My family and I were on vacation in Washington, D.C., and I asked my mother about the plans for the day. She told me the activity would be more of this thing called “sightseeing.”When I first heard the word, I didn’t know exactly what it meant I was mystified that anyone could actually find it fun.

Everyone knows that when you travel with kids, it’s not really a vacation, it’s a trip. And inevitably, there will be memories, some more fond than others. But what kinds of memories are made when you take your family every summer to visit a cemetery? That’s what my husband and I did by going to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s resting place in Queens, N.Y., every year for his yahrtzeit on Gimmel Tammuz, the third of Tammuz.

The trip we took as a family on the Gimmel Tammuz in 1994 is almost a total blur. I mostly remember the moment we arrived at the Old Montefiore Cemetery after driving through the night, the moment I realized we forgot to grab shoes for our 7-year-old son, Izzy.

A few years later, we decided to take our second family trip to the cemetery in honor of the Rebbe’s yahrtzeit. That was when I recognized the importance of this journey as an opportunity to thank the Rebbe for being G‑d’s emissary, for making our family what it is.

The Rebbe and his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe, are buried side by side inside an open-air concrete edifice known as the Ohel (Hebrew for “tent”). You don’t have to be Lubavitch or even Jewish to be among the hundreds of thousands of people who visit the Ohel every year; all you need is a desire to share with the Rebbe what’s in your heart and soul, and to ask for his assistance.

Our early family trips for Gimmel Tammuz taught me that the bodily inconveniences of this annual pilgrimage—brought on by crowds, exhaustion and weather challenges—had to be construed positively. Fortunately, the people behind the Ohel scene get better every year at preparing for the yahrtzeit commemoration and the growing number of visitors. Tented coverings make it more comfortable for the men and women waiting in their separate lines; there are lots of security people and water coolers, and videos of the Rebbe playing on well-positioned monitors for inspiration.

Some years, a Gimmel Tammuz trip meant going right into the Ohel. Other years, itIt meant standing in line for hours meant standing in line for hours. And in the years when we took our young children, it meant telling them that no matter what happened, we were having fun. It also meant making sure they wrote to the Rebbe. Even before they could actually write, I would tell them to express something to the Rebbe in a pan (an acronym for pidyon nefesh, the note one writes asking the Rebbe to intercede in prayer for those being written about). I remember one year this entailed drawing pictures on nine or ten pieces of paper (Sholom) and a lot of complaining about not being able to find the right pen (Rivky). I just wanted them to get comfortable writing to the Rebbe, so they would eventually be able to share openly whatever was in their hearts.

Now that my children are grown, going to the Ohel for Gimmel Tammuz is a different experience. My head doesn’t spin quite the same way it did when the police would call out “TWO MINUTES. TWO MINUTES . . . THE NEXT GROUP IS WAITING,” as my older girls and I tried to pass a squirming, sweaty toddler among ourselves, hoping to collect our thoughts for an auspicious two minutes with the Rebbe.

But no matter what my circumstances are on Gimmel Tammuz, the most meaningful words still come from me effortlessly, just as they did then:

“Thank you, Rebbe . . .”

Everything after that is a bonus.

Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes about Jewish spirituality.

Picture This: Dozens of Offspring Before You Hit 60

June 9, 2016 1:26 PM

Pictures don’t lie, but they don’t tell the whole truth either. They just capture a moment—no, a split-second—in time. Our family recently captured such moment when Zev and I—plus every child, child-in-law and grandchild—lived together in our house during Passover.

But the picture doesn’t show my mind saying “Thank you, G‑d” in a continuous loop as the photographer snapped away. You can’t see Pictures don’t tell the whole truth all that went into this journey that began almost 30 years ago, when our lives changed course from being self-directed to G‑d-directed.

But at least you can see the most profound reflection of this changed course: the children we were blessed to bring into the world. And the fact that our six married children have all chosen to continue to lead a G‑d-directed life and have been blessed to bring children into the world to live the same way shows that G‑d is truly in the picture. Even if you can’t see Him.

Nowhere did I ask for more of Him than with these children—begging Him for every one of them, especially for the ones that came later, the ones I wanted so much for reasons I didn’t even try to understand. Only G‑d could give me the temerity (OK, chutzpah) to step into my womanly role as the akeret habayit, the foundation of the Jewish home. Only for Him would I try to become a strong Jewish mother, somehow sure the Rebbe’s teachings could show me how. And, if by chance along the way, I had any doubts about whether or not this whole package was the Truth, I wouldn’t let them derail me. (You can’t see these doubts either, but I can tell you now that I had them, especially at times when my mother would challenge me: If it’s so wonderful, why don’t more people do it?)

Instead, I stayed focused on the Chabad families around us that had become dynasties—beautiful, large families focused on doing incredible G‑dly work. They also started with two people who stayed firm in their commitment. I could do that, doubt or no doubt. I wasn’t afraid to ask Him endlessly for what I wanted: a big family.

Part of my reason for wanting this was simple economics. We had the strollers; we had the high chairs. The carpets were already stained. The variable costs of having another child were minimal compared to the overt miracle G‑d would be providing. How could I not want more? Our kids wanted big families, too. Mordy, our oldest son, once questioned why people who have a million dollars want 2 million, but they don’t want more “priceless” children.

I remember walking through Yad Vashem when our youngest son, Sholom, was around 3, and all I could do was ask G‑d for another child. What better way to exact revenge on those who tried to exterminate us?

Trust me, there wereWhat better way to exact revenge? plenty of times when I wished I didn’t want children so badly, especially because there’s only so much you can control when it comes to having a baby. Maybe that’s what I relished about the whole process: that I so clearly depended on G‑d’s kindness.

I never wanted to be “done.” During the years when our family kept growing, people often asked how many kids we wanted. Zev used to answer jokingly, “We always thought 14 would be nice.” I always wanted to say, “As many as G‑d gives us. Plus one.”

Family size is a very personal issue—I know that. And I’m not trying to tell anyone else what to do. I’m just grateful to G‑d that He gave me the big family that I prayed for—that I still pray for. Continuously.

Even if you can’t see it in the picture.

Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes about Jewish spirituality.

When I Stopped Being Religious About Shabbat

June 9, 2016 1:12 PM

Everybody laughs about the Ten Commandments becoming the Ten Suggestions, but nobody even suggests remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy anymore. And I know why. Shabbat observance smacks of everything that’s wrong with religion.

As someone who started keeping Shabbat only so that my new Torah-observant friends would eat in myIt’s not easy to amuse yourself on Shabbat “I-promise-it’s-scrupulously-kosher" house, I was dragged into Shabbat observance kicking and screaming.

It’s not easy to amuse yourself on Shabbat, especially if there are kids around. For starters, you can’t cook, drive or use electricity. These are just a few of the forbidden acts, which all originate in the 39 melachot, the “creative work” the Jews did when building a portable sanctuary (the Mishkan) so they could worship G‑d in the desert.

I barely know what some of these 39 activities are, such as “winnowing” or “threshing.” I can’t imagine being the slightest bit tempted to do these activities on Shabbat, but you’d be surprised at the daily tasks that are forbidden because they are derived from these melachot. I just know that many years ago when I was locked out of my house one Shabbat day with all my young kids, and I had to entertain them outside until an hour after sundown, when I could open my electric garage door, I understood with new clarity why so many Jews gave up on Shabbat. Because keeping Shabbat is hard.

The lights started to go out on Shabbat observance in America when our ancestors arrived here. They needed to put food on their tables, and most jobs demanded working on Saturdays. Not to mention that their whole reason for coming to America was to escape persecution for being Jewish.

I can tell you that, for me, trying to keep Shabbat all at once is one of those things that actually is as hard as it looks. That is, until you really care about every tiny detail of your relationship with G‑d.

Until you care about every tiny detail of your relationship with G‑d, Shabbat is just a bunch of annoying restrictions. It’s religion. And in those early years, the only thing harder for me than Shabbat was the fact that entire Fridays had to be spent in the kitchen preparing for it—winter, spring, summer and fall.

I thought it would stay difficult like that forever. Twenty-five hours where the main focus was to avoid doing things like accidentally flicking a light switch. (I remember how troubled I was when I learned that we were accountable for the sins we commit inadvertently, albeit less so. I wondered: Is there limited space in heaven?)

It took years for me to learn not to think like that. Don’t forget, I had lived into my adulthood sure of my existence and questioning G‑d’s. My idea of religious Jews was that they were obsessed with these commandments in their excruciating detail in order to propitiate a G‑d who is as scary as He is unseen. They exchanged miserable lives in this world for what they hoped would be a big payoff in the next one. So my thinking went.

My new friends weren’t like that though. They loved being observant Jews. But I didn’t, especially not on Shabbat, when I had to get all those kids ready exactly by the appointed hour. I felt about Shabbat like Cinderella felt about midnight. Shabbat was when bowls piled in the kitchen sink, overflowing with multi-colored muck (also known as Shabbat cereal) gurgling up in a drain I was forbidden to clear with the electric garbage disposal.

But I hung in there, all the while learning Chassidut, trying to wrap my head around the idea that little, tiny me can please G‑d endlessly just by not turning on the light on Shabbat. And by doing all the other mitzvahs, too.

I just had to stop being religious in order to try to bridge the gap between the two of us. Shabbat wasn’t G‑d’s way of calculating special “plusses” and “minuses” for us on a designated day of the week. It was a day for enjoying closeness to Him without worldly distractions. I just had to understand Him better so that my desire for closeness to Him could grow.

This took time, but Shabbat became the day when everything about G‑d seemed more beautiful and profound. It was the day when a flower’s intricacy could inspire me to laugh more with my children. The day when food that always tasted good tasted like Shabbat.

I can tell you unequivocally that now, so many years later, all of Shabbat actually feels different. Maybe it’s that I don’t have to entertain all those kids anymore. Maybe it’s the pleasure I have in knowing that I hung in there for Him, even though it was so hard for me at first. (I realize now the value in taking things slowly.)

Or maybe it’s that IShabbat is G‑d’s favorite day of the week appreciate that Shabbat is G‑d’s favorite day of the week. It’s the day that’s closest to the way life will be for us in the era of Moshiach, when we will perceive G‑dliness effortlessly.

That’s why I have begun trying to light my candles early. Some people say it’s a mitzvah to do this. It’s also my way of showing G‑d that, finally, I want more Shabbat in my life, not less.

Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes about Jewish spirituality.

Rivky’s Golden Life

June 5, 2016 9:16 PM

“Is it me, or is it always either really hot or really cold here?” Zev asked as we walked through Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, N.Y. There wasn’t a cloud in sight; it was the end of May, but it felt like August. The sun was intense, a force to be reckoned with. It was a fitting day for the funeral of Rivky (Deren) Berman.

Because she was born with Bloom syndrome, pain and challenge were interwoven into Rivky’s life the entire 29 years she was on the planet. She and her family were challenged in ways that would have undone most people, but for them, being broken-hearted never darkened their love of G‑d or their love of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

I knew Rivky ever since she came from Stamford, Conn., to Pittsburgh, Pa., for high school at Yeshiva Schools. (Her great-grandparents started the school.) Even though I wasn’t related, she called me Tante Lieba. (Her husband, Shmulie, whom she married in 2012, won my heart over immediately when he also used this Yiddish term for “aunt.”)

I always hoped she liked me because I sure knew she didn’t need me: Rivky was blessed with a huge and loving family. (And when I say huge, I mean huge; and when I say loving, I mean loving.) Because I was on the periphery, I could only project how poorly I would have dealt with her circumstances—her tiny stature attracted stares, and she was in the hospital as much as she was out. Yet I knew she would be annoyed by my doing that because, by some mystical miracle, she didn’t feel sorry for herself or think less of herself—at least no more, and quite possibly less, than “normal” people do.

In spiritual terms, her life was golden: She deeply affected many, many people who will carry forward her life lessons. Surely, G‑d will compensate her well in heaven for her work here. But what about the rest of us? We who are that much weaker without Rivky in the world to remind us that anything is possible?

I watched Rivky as she ended her high school graduation speech when she introduced the line that defined her life: “Everything is OK in the end, and if it’s not OK, it’s not the end.”

Her words paraphrase G‑d’s promise to us, His assurance that the Messianic era will be the glorious end to all that pains and confounds us. The Rebbe has told the world that Moshiach is waiting to come, waiting to end the pain, waiting to make everything OK in the end.

But it’s up to each of us to demand it—not for Rivky, but for us. We need to tell G‑d that this is not OK.

Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes about Jewish spirituality.
Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes about Jewish spirituality.
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