Thursday, 4 February 2016

The motherhood challenge

I'm not a person that shies away from posting pics on social media, though I understand why some do. But when I was 'nominated' this week in Facebooks motherhood challenge (post 4 photos that show how happy you are to be a mother) I had a range of responses. I've enjoyed seeing friends post their pictures, as I generally enjoy their pictures the rest of the time too. Yet my first instinct was to post something rather passive aggressive; photos of our kids, and of those that didn't become our kids, as 100 cell blastocysts sitting in Petri dishes before they were implanted (yes the clinic gives you those pics!) I resisted, but the voice of my teacher, colleague and friend Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner rang in my head from a 2006 class on baby blessings: 'every time you celebrate anything in synagogue it hurts someone else'. And so I haven't posted my 4 pictures.

There's another reason too, and perhaps this is why many of us need to post the happy pictures: being a mother is a challenge! It is a great blessing and joy, but it is also a challenge, and there aren't many places we are allowed to admit that. I could have posted a photo of the potty I emptied this morning, containing the largest poop I think any 3 year old is capable of. Or a photo of me at 11pm, 3am, 5am (on an  ok-ish night). There are no pictures for the anxiety about returning to work and the changes that you will have to figure out. I could have posted a picture of my 3 year old brother who became no older. I cannot conceive of how a mother (or father) functions again, other than knowing she must. 

Pictures are very subjective and the whole picture is rarely what they offer. Social media is an amazingly wonderful place to share, to celebrate, to keep in touch. But like any community one persons joy is another's pain, and this particular challenge made me too aware of that pain, and I know it is a pain many of you lovely blog readers know personally too. So I celebrate all of you amazing mothers, who put up and bring up and get up, along with your partners when you have them. But I also want to hold those of you who feel the pain of these beautiful pictures, and tell you that you too are wonderful, whole, brilliant people, and your community is holding you even when you don't feel it. 

Monday, 7 December 2015

Wisdom and Truth- an idea still in progress!


I recently attended an absolutely fascinating session learning about the scents of the Tanakh from an expert perfumier (organized by Rabbi Jeff Berger). We were given the opportunity to smell the essence of the Temple incense offerings and biblical plants, and to explore some of their deeper meanings. 
Smelling essence of olives and olive oil we were met by what was a surprisingly mellow and sweet scent, nothing like I would have expected. 
As we celebrate the Festival of Lights and the miracle of the olive oil of the Temple Menorah (among other things!) the olive tree itself traditionally has been a symbol of light - as its silver leaves shimmer and almost glow. Light is furthermore a symbol of wisdom, (enlightenment), which suddenly struck me as fascinating when we started smelling and discussing Almonds... 
The almond is a symbol of truth enclosed in innocence, truth which we have to work in order to see more clearly. This reminded me of the Almond blossom, the shape that forms part of the structure of the menorah, the lamp that needed to be relit when the Temple was rededicated.
At Chanukah we put our chanukiyot into the window to publicly declare the miracle, to increase light in the world, to witness our faith. But with these gentle scents it occurred to me that one of the many Chanukah messages might be much more subtle. Truth is something that can be hard to get to the core of -
It can be entrapped in hard casings, but not entirely impermeable ones. The truth of the almond is the structure that supports the glowing light of wisdom, which can grow, but can also be diminished, which may burn bright for short periods, but doesn't last (except with some serious miraculous/spiritual intervention). Perhaps it also suggests that Truth is the foundational support of wisdom, but they are not the same thing. Yet our human endeavor asks us to repeatedly return to try to break through the hard shell, and bring out wisdom once again. The truth may be elusive, and wisdom may take many different forms, but we should keep coming back to it, and joining with others to share its warmth and light. 
Chanukah Sameach! 

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Be fruitful and multiply... The Shmita cycle

A friend and former congregant recently wrote to jokingly challenge me on how I could justify writing so much about Shmita and not discuss the fact that I had the chutzpah to create a whole new life in the fallow year! 
It reminded me that in some senses my body is much more familiar with the fallow than with the fertile, and rather than constantly fighting the fertility with attempts to avoid pregnancy we have had to fight to produce. So it's ironic for sure, but also sweet to invert the power of Shmita in my life.
 But it also reminded me that this period of Shmita, of lying fallow, is there in order to allow greater fertility in the larger part of the cycle (which will restart this Sunday evening with the Jewish New Year). 
For me the power of Jewish time is in a clever design which manages to take us through cycles to help us live better. We have time set aside to mourn, so that we might learn to live again, time set aside to repent, so that we might do better and get on with living right, time set aside to go on all sorts of journeys, and time to rest so that we might engage and work better for the rest of the week. Likewise this year long Shmita isn't really about the year we live it, but about living better in the other 6 years. I have come to think of it as a sort of refresh button (as Shabbat is) which is just as much about the productivity and positive living it engenders after it's observance as much as the year itself.
So this Rosh Hashanah is as special if not more special than last year when we began our special Shmita year... This year is the start of the fertile period, when we engage, when we produce, when we think about how the Shmita year has changed us and what that will mean in how we live. It is a time to start making plans; where do we want to be in 6 years time? What do we want to have changed when the next fallow year rolls around? The time is now- let's go get fruitful!
Shanah tovah (happy new year!) 

PS The first thing I'm buying after my 'fast' is underwear :) 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Back to basics

This weekend it was the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month of this special Shmita year before the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashannah, heralds the start of our next 7 year cycle (it's not all about this final year!)
So to celebrate we urbanites treated our family to a visit to a pick-your-own farm, returning with an excited and grubby toddler, not to mention a glut of strawberries, Swiss chard, sweet corn, blackberries, courgettes and onions. We would never have purchased as many strawberries as we picked and then bought, so I will be cooking a lot this week, but then coping with local seasonal gluts feels like good Shmita practice.
The part that shouldn't have surprised me but did was just how tasty the produce was. We often feel like we suffer in the UK with inferior fresh goods, but the strawberries were better than any imported from Morocco, and I have never eaten corn so sweet. When I blessed God for the produce of the earth before biting into it, I had no idea of how conscious of that goodness it would make me through taste alone. A timely reminder, really, that Shmita would have been a powerful way to connect with what the land did and didn't produce. And to appreciate bounty when you did have it (presumably in the years after Shmita). As we agricultural tourists skipped through the fields today, it was really the exception that proves the rule of our increasing distance from our food sources. Whether it is the careful ignorance we allow ourselves about meat production, or the thousands of miles we will ship food so that we can eat strawberries in December. We may grow a few tomatoes or courgettes but very few of us have the time or ability to fully live from our own produce or the patience to only eat local. Shmita for me has in many ways been a reminder of much of this, and a motivator to do a little better myself in how I consume,  and as this weekend demonstrated, it may mean limiting ones ingredients (or not!), yet for those things you can source closer to home, and eat within hours of picking, your taste buds will be rewarded! Sometimes the simpler, local life brings fun, time together, and even an appreciation of what your community can produce. And in a Shmita year, that community would have been truly essential. 

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Behar-bechukkotai check in

The last shabbat or two shabbatot in Reform and Israeli communities we have been reading the portions of Behar and Bechukkotai, two of the Torah portions that teach us some of the rules about Shmita (sabbatical) and Yovel (jubilee).
So it seems like a good time to have a Shmita manifesto check in. 
Last week I received this email; 
It feels like this must be a good sign for the first of my Shmita commitments... If online traders are noticing my Shmita fast, and deciding to change their approach to my inbox, perhaps it will help begin next year with the refresh button functioning as I would hope it would- just as shabbat helps me reset for the week ahead, Shmita should help me begin the next cycle differently, refreshed. 
I won't pretend there have not been lapses in the fast- but it has been fairly solid, and most compromises have been second hand purchases, or items that I hadn't dared hope I might need having successfully planted the one kind of (human) seed Shmita allows and become pregnant (not that it was a total surprise, as regular readers will know, but with IVF I have always tried to keep my hope in check where possible). 
I have been particularly touched by what a change in attitude to what is worth clinging on to in my own closets has allowed others to let go of. A friend in need of a particular item that I had and hadn't really used (despite loving it) received said item- why should it sit in my cupboard while she spent scarce money that she really couldn't spare on a new one. In return, unexpectedly, I received 3 boxes of her daughters clothes, which have proved invaluable as the little one is continually outstripping the size labels in her clothes! Others have opened their lofts and cupboards to provide me with items they no longer needed, because I was humble enough to ask for if, rather than press order on a phone app that allows me to purchase in under a minute.
The second of my commitments was about pressing the reset button on my online usage. I originally thought I should cut my use of email and social media out before 7am and after 7pm. This was the hardest thing to do and the first thing I realised I would fail at. 7am isn't a difficult ask. 7pm just as the toddler goes to bed and the working day is officially over is the only real time for such things as social media! Email could still use some reigning in, but I have used time this year to reset out of control unread mails, and to shift how I use social media. Yes I've been on it post 7pm, but I have changed how I use it, particularly in relationship to its social nature. If there is a birthday and I feel the urge to reach out, I have made the conscious decision to personally reach out by phone or messenger, rather than a post to the wall (for example) and this in turn has led to re-connections and  real human connections, as I sense Shmita did for communities, transformed from relationships of commerce to those of mutual survival and support.
The other parts of the manifesto have somehow come more easily- skill sharing, cooking more from scratch, liturgy, reading appropriately, giving to food banks... And perhaps parts of the real Shmita also came more easily. 
The pieces that truly stand out for me the more I walk through Shmita and the more I teach about Shmita, the more it seems to me this whole exercise is about relationships; that between individuals and other parts of their communities, that between us and the land/environment, that between each of us and the anonymous makers of that which we consume, that between each of us and God. 
As we pass the half way point of the Shmita year, we also acknowledge the coming start of the next cycle. It is for me a realisaton that Shmita is not about 1 year. It is a cycle of 7 years, and now is the time to begin planning and thinking about the next 6. Where do I want to be when the next sabbatical begins? What do we want of our organizations? Our communities? Our relationships? Jewish time offers us opportunity of growth, journeying, improvement, togetherness. 
Is it ever too early to plan for the next Shmita? 

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Pesach Granola and Shmita

I wrote the following last week for submission to a comment piece in a Jewish Newspaper, but then the Israeli elections happened and other things needed commenting on (will be published this Friday, although of course has been said many times over now). 

I was just reading an online article about Passover cereal, and how to make your own, by simply buying matzah farfel (apparently the author’s home town of Dallas always has a run on said farfel), and some other wholesome ingredients like almonds, and honey, to make a Pesadich granola. I have to confess I had to look up what matzah farfel is. In case you are as ignorant as I, it turns out it’s broken up pieces of matzah.
 I am now trying to figure out why on earth a town would have a run on purchasing broken pieces of matzah. If you don’t find enough in your boxes of matzah, surely someone capable of making Pesach Granola could break up some matzah?
So begins our annual Pesach madness. With jars of salt water for sale, not to mention the various attempts to imitate our year round pleasures such as pasta, and the sugar coated imitation cereal which always looks promising…
This Pesach falls in a Shmita year – a Sabbatical for the Land of Israel, intended to balance the 6 previous years of free market consumption and growth. Perhaps this should be seen as an opportunity for the modern world too. For one week of this year, we could embrace the simple lifestyle at the heart of Shmita, by  trying to enjoy a simple, healthy diet; vegetables, fish, meat, potatoes, soup, home broken matzah!

 In the time of the Biblical Shmita, I imagine that communities would have had to have worked closely together to survive the restrictions of a year with no harvest and no planting, and that which was produced was not owned by anyone in particular. I’m not suggesting we all assume anything on the shelves of a kosher store is ours, every-ones, and no-ones, but that perhaps our lives, and our experience of Pesach, might be a little easier, healthier, and meaningful, if we allowed the balancing nature of Shmita to guide our Pesach diets, rather than a panic about all that is suddenly unavailable, and a reliance on over processed, over shipped pre-made goods. And if we can share these simple meals with our neighbours and community, so much the better.  

Monday, 23 March 2015

A Shmita Seder Plate

This Pesach is special - this Pesach is Pesach of the Shmitta year. So when we remember our own slavery, and journey to a home land, we remember the slavery we and others are still not free from, what the land means to us beyond home, and the responsibilities that come with our freedom. Here are some suggestions for an alternative, Shmita Seder plate to accompany your usual one (you can ask your guests to guess what on earth each one is about!) to help us remember the important messages of this year, and to enliven our seder conversations. But I'm sure you can come up with your own symbols and alternatives!
https://docs.google.com/document/d/1BvXaSmRQkDlsBgCcuFoQ9iVKilFa9yTqRqoQJLJR-78/edit?usp=sharing
Share your ideas below for all of us!