Pondering Jew

Why I Didn’t Shake President Bush’s Hand

July 29, 2015 12:06 PM

It’s still hard for me to believe the irony. The first “Orthodox” rabbi I met refused to shake my hand, and fifteen years later I refused to shake the hand of the president of the United States.

When Rabbi Shalom Lipskar politely refused to shake my hand in 1987 at our first Shabbaton, I felt the utter humiliation of looking like an ignoramus in front of someone I wanted to impress.

If my husband had listened to my ranting when Rabbi Lipskar walked away—I became hysterical and demanded we leave the place immediately—it’s quite possible that my life would be very different today. I would have been “turned off” and joined the legions of people who want nothing to do with the “Orthodox” because of their manners, their dress, their way of thinking, their everything.

But once I overcame my embarrassment and started listening, I realized in the course of that very weekend that I actually wanted to become one of them.

Because what I ultimately sensed from Rabbi Lipskar’s refusal to shake my hand was his supra-rational commitment to Something Really Big.

Something Really Big, I quickly learned, was G‑d’s Torah. And suddenly, handshaking (and so much more) became a modern American cultural thing; not handshaking (and so much more) became a G‑d’s Torah thing. Which quickly became my thing.

But one thing surprised me about my rapid commitment to Jewish observance: how quickly I also became committed to not shaking men’s hands. I mean, I knew painfully well how embarrassing this encounter could be. And some rabbis are lenient with this law; they consider handshaking to be a professional, not personal, type of touch. Yet for some reason, I became determined to try to raise awareness among the general population, doing it one “no handshake” encounter at a time.

Initially I thought such encounters could spark curiosity about Something Really Big called G‑d’s Torah, but I don’t think they ever did. I had my succinct explanation (“Please understand there’s a religious prohibition against men and women shaking hands”) and my longer explanation, my attempt to clarify how the laws surrounding men and women touching/not touching are intended to protect relationships, mostly marriage.

But by the time I realized that nobody was too interested in the reasons why I didn’t do it, I had become committed to not shaking, even in difficult social settings. I even wrote an article for the Chabad women’s magazine about my “unshakable commitment.”

I submitted it on a summer morning in 2002, not thinking about the powerful timing of my action. Only later would I recognize the divine providence, that it was G‑d’s will for me to submit this article just a few hours before I was destined to meet President George W. Bush.

The circumstances surrounding our meeting were fairly straightforward. President Bush was in Pittsburgh to sign a bill with religious implications, which is why Chabad’s Washington-based emissary, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, wanted obvious Jewish representation in the audience. My husband, Zev, was president of Yeshiva Schools at the time, so he was the natural choice to accompany our city’s head emissaries, Rabbi Yisroel and Blumi Rosenfeld. (As Zev’s wife, I got to come along too.) Our backgrounds had to be approved for security purposes, but otherwise, all we had to do was show up at a hotel conference room looking like observant Jews.

Everything was going along fine until the president finished his official duties and jumped up to shake hands with people sitting in the first rows, which happened to include the four of us. The cameras were flashing as he and his extended arm bounced rhythmically from one person to the next. I saw that within seconds the president would be standing in front of my husband.

My arms glided smoothly around to my back, as I locked my hands together as tightly as I could.

And that’s where they stayed, frozen, even when the president was standing in front of me. I don’t think I exhaled, which was probably why I couldn’t speak. I also couldn’t believe this encounter was really happening.

Fortunately, after a few eternal seconds, the president looked back at Zev, whose beard must have reminded him about the handshaking protocol. He smiled at me in acknowledgement, then smiled at Blumi, then kept on bouncing.

Everything but my hand was still shaking after President Bush left the room. Mostly it was that I saw G‑d’s “Hand” in all this, that within hours of submitting my article I was put to the test, which somehow I passed: even when the president of the United States extended his hand, I didn’t shake it.

I don’t know if President Bush appreciated my commitment like I appreciated Rabbi Lipskar’s, but I do know it made an impression on him. Within hours of our leaving the hotel, Rabbi Shemtov called Zev to report what he heard from a White House staffer: President Bush was curious to know who “the Rudolphs” were.

Not everyone who hears this story thinks I did the right thing by not shaking the president’s hand. But I made a commitment, which, I don’t have to tell you, I’ve been able to keep ever since.

How could I not?

It was Rabbi Lipskar’s supra-rational commitment that started me on my journey back to Torah observance. As I see it, that’s what G‑d wants from me in my observance, too.

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

Why I Gave My Children Jewish Names

July 23, 2015 10:43 PM

Just over three years ago, my father had to go to the hospital after he took too much of the medicine that was supposed to help his Parkinson’s disease. One day he was himself, and the next he was completely delusional. His behavior got worse once he was admitted; he became so combative that he had to be strapped to his hospital bed. My siblings and I apologized to the nurses on his behalf, but to them it was simple brain chemistry: too much medicine equals temporary insanity. They kept assuring us that it would take a few days, but that he would be fine.

He ended up staying in the hospital for a week. During that time, I wondered if the man with the encyclopedic mind would ever regain any semblance of it. Of all the things that only he knew, what I wanted most to retrieve from him was my sister Steffi’s Jewish name. Somehow, neither my mother nor my sister could be sure of it.

Fortunately, the nurses’ predictions were correct. I wanted most to retrieve my sister’s Jewish nameSlowly he returned to his right mind, and we were all smiles when he left the hospital like nothing ever happened. I don’t need to tell you how this personal episode of The Twilight Zone gave me a new appreciation for Modeh Ani, the prayer said upon awakening, thanking G‑d for fully returning our souls to our bodies.

“You just took too much medicine,” we assured my father when he asked what he was doing in the hospital. “But you’re fine now.”

As quickly as I could, though, I confirmed a few essential facts: where at least some of his family originated (Ozeran, a shtetl near Minsk) and, of course, my sister’s Jewish name (Simcha Gittel).

His mind stayed sharp, but his body continued to decline as it had been doing for years. Six months after that hospital stay, my father passed away at home, quietly and without fanfare. As his aide Moishe tried to revive him, I whispered his Jewish name into his ear: Avraham Gershon ben Leah Rudda.

I had heard that a person’s name is connected to his essence, and I knew that hearing it could arouse something deep within him. Even though throughout his long life the name Avraham Gershon remained largely dormant within him, that name still defined his essence. And that’s what I tried to reach.

Jewish names are paradoxical. On one hand, a name appears to be superficial. On the other, the unique arrangement of the letters of our Jewish name forms the pipeline through which our very soul enlivens our bodies. Our name is the most outer manifestation of who we are, yet it is connected to our innermost selves.

I don’t remember when I asked my parents what my Jewish name was, but very soon after we became observant, I knew I wanted to use it. I needed all the spiritual help I could get, and calling myself by the name that’s connected to my soul seemed like an easy place to start. If G‑d calls me Lieba Yosefa, shouldn’t everybody? (Okay, maybe not Yosefa.)

I look back on the the naming of our children, remembering the drama before each name was decided. The first three kids have English and Hebrew names. By the time the next two were born, we were naming them only in Hebrew. The game-changer was our daughter Chaya Mushka, named after the Rebbe’s wife. I remember the conversation I had with my father, who initially protested a name which sounded so, so Jewish. It’s not easy to blend into the secular world with a name like Chaya Mushka.

“Why not Leah or Sara?” he asked, hoping to reach a compromise.

“Daddy, we already used those names,” I reminded him.

I pleaded with my father in a way that only a daughter can, and he acquiesced.

Chaya Mushka was a momentous name for our family. As I understood it, it was due to the Rebbetzin’s selflessness that the Rebbe was able to devote so much time to his followers. What better way to thank her for our family’s gift of Torah life than to name our daughter after her? Trust me, when you call your daughter “Mushkie,” you say “Chabad” wherever you go.

Mushkie’s unique connection to my father didn’t end with her naming. Mushkie had her first date with Nisson as soon as shivah for my father ended. They were married three months later, and just after their first anniversary they had a baby boy. They call him Avremi, short for Avraham Gershon.

I was surprised Mushkie and Nisson chose this name over a recognizable Chabad name. It took a leap on their part, not unlike the one my husband and I took when Mushkie was born.

It’s He undeniably shares the same soul powerunclear yet whether Avremi will have any outward similarities to his great-grandfather, but he undeniably shares the same soul power.

People with the name Avraham are said to be predisposed to kindness, as our original forefather was. Little Avremi is off to a good start; his name alone has brought happiness to a lot of people in this world.

And I can’t even begin to imagine the joy my father is experiencing in the next world.

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

I’m Getting Help

July 14, 2015 9:00 PM

I’m not embarrassed by my feeling that life is short and unpredictable and that I need all the help I can get. One of the ways I try to do this for myself is by saying Tehillim, prayers from the book of Psalms. Our sages say that if we knew the power of Tehillim, we would say them all day long. I remember hearing this and thinking it was almost too good to be true—all the help I need in one easy book? But then I thought, exactly how is it that a person can actually say them all day long?

I understand now that the suggestion was meant to encourage us to set aside time for regular Tehillim-saying, and to always prefer these prayers over “wasting time.”

I actually found saying Tehillim rather easy to do, and not only because of the tremendous benefit I trusted I was getting. I could whip out my book of Tehillim any time (preferably during daylight, though), almost anywhere, and I was on my way to getting Help from Above. Just like that.

Well, not exactly, I quickly learned. The sages also say that the words of Tehillim are more powerful if said in the original Hebrew. Not a problem, I thought, especially if it maximizes the spiritual benefit. But because I didn’t learn the language until I was over 30, saying the book of Psalms in Hebrew actually would take me all day long. It would also mean that nothing else would get done.

In order to start somewhere, I decided to say the daily chapters corresponding to every day of the Jewish month. This meant that by the end of every month I said each of the 150 chapters. (This routine also reminded me of the Hebrew date, which made me feel very, well, Jewish.) If someone was sick, G‑d forbid, I could help by saying Tehillim with that person in mind. And if I needed to catch up on these prayers, all I had to do was say Tehillim while standing in the checkout line of a store—leading to my early discovery that “checkout Tehillim” provided the added benefit of keeping me from becoming annoyed and impatient. Saying Tehillim in public did take a little getting used to, though. The sages say that the power of these prayers is maximized when the words are actually said, either audibly or mouthed, which meant I had to get comfortable moving my lips when strangers were around. This wasn’t as hard as I thought, probably because people almost never noticed.

In order to have this help handy wherever I went, I thought it would be good to carry a book of Tehillim with me in my purse. It turned out this wasn’t as easy as it sounded, either. If the book was too small, I couldn’t read the Hebrew letters, which meant I wasn’t saying the right words to get the maximum help. It defeated the whole purpose. But I did manage to find a mid-size book of Tehillim that could still fit in my purse. It even had an English translation, so I could understand at least some of what I was saying. Today there’s a free Tehillim app, so you don’t need a book at all, but I’ve been using my book for years and I still prefer it.

How these words do what they do, I don’t understand. I just know that these verses, mostly composed by King David thousands of years ago, helped him, and who knows how many Jews since his time, travel through the long and winding road of life. And that’s enough of a reason for me to trust that they can help me, too.

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

The Three Most Common Misconceptions about Religious People

July 1, 2015 9:23 PM

Most baalei teshuvah, returnees to Jewish observance, transform slowly and methodically, “trying on” each mitzvah to make sure it “fits” before adding another. My husband, Zev, and I decided to become completely observant after one (needless to say, very powerful) Shabbat experience. There was no changing our minds on this, although people certainly tried; they assured us we were making a huge mistake by “becoming Orthodox.” Surprisingly, however, once we “transitioned,” very few people wanted to hear anything about how we were adjusting to our new lifestyle. (The only exceptions were my mother’s friends, who apparently questioned her endlessly about our decision, so much so that I eventually hosted these women for a Q & A luncheon.)

Why was everyone else so quiet? Many of these people had been good friends, so I don’t think they feared offending us by asking if we missed cheeseburgers. I think they didn’t want to hear about our lives because they didn’t want to change their opinions about Jewish observance and observant Jews.

I know about these perceptions as well as anyone. I had plenty of issues with religion and religious people. In fact, it still surprises me that I was able to change my perceptions.

Here are three of my biggest misconceptions, and what I did to change them:

1. Religion Is a Crutch

I grew up with a prejudice against religious people. They were not too intelligent, and needed a spiritual crutch to get through life. Smart and strong and enlightened people didn’t need religion, so why would I want to “be religious”? It didn’t even sound like a Jewish concept, which may be why it was so off-putting. Still, I wanted to become observant; I just had to change my perception of religion.

Whenever I questioned if I had to be dumb to be religious, I would visualize the enormous books I saw on the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the homes of every observant Jew I ever met. Many of those books were volumes of the Talmud, books I could barely lift, much less read. The giant pages looked like unintelligible mazes to me. But I loved the fact that these volumes were beyond me—it meant I couldn’t dismiss them either. There were too many commentators over too many years to be fooling all of the people all of the time. These scholars, with names like Rashi, Tosafot and Maharsha, were smart and strong and enlightened all right, but in a realm of life that had eluded me completely.

2. Jewish Women Are Second-Class

A Jewish and female administrator from my graduate program didn’t mince words when she saw me several years after I decided to become observant: “I’m surprised you would do this. You were so intelligent.”

The prevailing opinion among onlookers is that “Orthodox” women are considered less important, so why would a modern, educated woman choose such a status? Why would someone willingly subordinate her identity, aspirations, independence—the qualities that characterize an autonomous woman—in order to follow Torah Judaism?

Two factors helped me get past this misconception early on. The first was seeing observant women in action. I remember one woman in particular. She was disarmingly funny, alive and intelligent. When I heard how many children she had, every fiber of my being understood, This is a superwoman.

The second factor was understanding that the Jewish woman’s gifts are spiritual, and can’t be measured in physical terms. From this perspective, G‑d’s regard for every Jewish woman is undeniable: He entrusts only her with the potential to combine heaven and earth by creating a child with a Jewish soul. The physical circumstances of her life determine if and how she utilizes this potential, but the gift is within her no matter what.

3. Observant Jews Can’t Do What They Want

Well, this one is actually true, at least sometimes. But like in a marriage, I am committed to doing what G‑d wants even if I don’t want to do it. On our “wedding day,” at Mt. Sinai, G‑d told us what He wants—it’s all in those big books and in books about those big books. When I do a mitzvah, my connection to Him strengthens, making it easier to do the next mitzvah, and so on. Ideally, I can become someone who truly wants to do what G‑d wants. After 30 years of trying, I’m happy to report that this does happen fairly frequently.

The good news is that, please G‑d, very soon, everyone is going to want to do what G‑d wants—all the time—with the coming of Moshiach. The Torah assures us of this. And, according to all those big books, G‑d also wants us to demand that He send Moshiach now.

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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