Spiritual Competition

Better ChurchMy rabbi mentioned this last week in synagogue. What does it mean to be spiritually competitive? You can pray longer, more fiercely, and adhere to the rules more than the next person? Your sleeves are longer, your hair more covered, your house more kosher? The notion of being more-more-more sort of cancels out the notion of spirituality, don’t you think?

In the reference last Shabbat, it was to look at the story of the Tower of Babel, seemingly out of place in the middle of the chapter on Noah and the flood. In between the horrible reckoning of ruining the world except for Noah’s family and the carefully selected animals, and the mandate to “be fruitful and multiply,” is this story of the building of a tower.

the Tower of Babel

the Tower of Babel

It struck me, first, that the Torah says all people spoke the same language and basically got along. A good thing, right?

And then it says that because of this, God dispersed the people all over the world, among lands and languages.

Hmmm…why not celebrate that all people understood one another (metaphor) and worked together (to build the tower)?

It seems that the reason for the tower was to climb closer to God. That once all people were united, they believed they could reach God, rather than fear/respect God, and so they set out to physically, literally connect.

Which led God to think, hmmm, they’re too drunk on power (pun intended for anyone who knows this parsha); I’ve got to knock them down a peg to realize what it means to be human.

And so we were forever scattered over the earth, to walk among our segment of people and speak our particular language, forever running into communications conflict (metaphor) with the rest of the world.

tumblr_lmvsg5U2ub1qenh2co1_500It’s a powerful notion. My Rabbi, Aaron Bergman, followed this notion of spiritual competition with the following words:

“Spirituality is not far from you; it is in your mouth and in your heart. You already know enough to be spiritually connected.”

So basically we don’t have to go far, or climb high, or pull out tricks and maneuvers, to connect with God. From where we stand, with the language we speak, we have exactly what we need to do so.

I can live with that. And I agree with it besides.

I’ve never believed in the notion of an intermediary or a distance between us and God. It’s not turning our faces skyward and begging to be heard. It’s that quiet internal voice that knows.

BrickIf we believe, as I do, that God lives in each and every creature, then we can access the idea that we are godly in our very existence – without having to do much. And when we strip away the superficial and the worries and the human-ness, we get close to God.

So easy.

10525760_950693971612979_9165815285687221472_nTomorrow night, I will walk around the neighborhood with my kids in the cold snow-flurry night as they collect Halloween candy. And then we will traipse home, our bags and bellies aching with sugary overload, to sit down at the table to a Shabbat dinner – where we bless the candles, and the wine, and the homemade bread, and give thanks for being who we are, in this group called family together, on a beautiful quiet night.


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The Days are Getting Packed Again

I swore I wouldn’t let this happen.

busy1I vowed that once I returned from my travels, I would make sure my days didn’t get too full, so I could focus on the work and spread out the meetings. But alas, the days are filling up and I am faced with running from meeting 1 to meeting 2 and beyond, just to get everyone in.

How does it stop? How can I take back control of the planning? It’s simple. Just do it. And don’t worry about reaction.

Yesterday, I drove to Lansing to speak to a packed ballroom about storytelling as a means for growing business. Then I shared a lovely surprise lunch with a client before driving home. After that, it was a conference call with another client to plan a website, a bit of personal time (just a bit!), chaperoning the middle-school choir concert, attending the middle-school choir concert, and a ballroom dance lesson with my husband.

In between, of course, I fit in client calls and work updates, and smaller tasks I could whip off. Oh, and I walked through the neighborhood to get some fresh air and exercise, decidedly the best decision I made all day.

Ok, ok, it’s my fault I see. Why do it all in one day?

too-busy-to-runThat’s the existential question I can never answer.

On the one hand, why not fill our days so that we don’t waste any moments? On the other hand, why not savor the moments and trust that it will all get done, it will all work out?

Perhaps that’s the existential question.

Today’s another full day: 9:30 meeting, 11:30 interviews, 1:30 meeting, pick up kids at 3:30, ski club meeting with the big boy at 7 pm. I’m making veggie soup now so it’s ready for dinner. Have to buy bread for sandwiches since the loaf we originally got fell to crumbs.

And somewhere in all of it, there’s the work to do. There’s the face time, yes, but also the work. The focused, quiet work.

In his wonderful New York Times blog about busyness pervading our culture, writer Tim Kreider insists that we must not give in to the societal pressures to fill our days crazily as a badge of success. He writes:

“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

Shame on me for falling prey to the pressures so soon after returning from The Best Place on Earth. We go away to find ourselves and come home to forget once more.

It doesn’t have to be this way and by my life, I won’t let it.

So here’s the charge:

Get through the already-scheduled busy day before me and then STOP. Stop scheduling, stop running, stop saying yes blindly because I feel I have to. Start filling in pockets of empty time on my calendar so that I can create. So that I can breathe. So that I can BE.

Screen-Shot-2014-09-11-at-1.25.11-PMBecause I am so much more mySelf in my travels than I allow myself to be at home, make my daily life a journey and an adventure. Treat meals like the discovery they are in foreign lands, and time like the gift it is when away.

Walk along streets just for the purpose of walking them and duck into museums when they cross my path. Spend time with people and listen to their words. Notice the sun and the air, the sunrise and its inevitable descent, the wind in the trees, the squirrels in the yard.

Yesterday, I must admit, it wasn’t all as packed as I made it sound.

I forgot. I forgot the moments, that I had moments and noticed them and took the time to breathe. Perhaps we really do wear our busyness like a badge of honor when really it’s a disability. So here’s another attempt to recount the day:

* On the drive home from Lansing, I sang along to very loud favorite songs in the car, remembering how much I loved them.

156613468* I walked for 40 minutes under colorful trees, grateful for every little detail of my life, breathing in the fresh fall air and noticing the clouds move across the sky, hearing the crack and pop of golfers on the course nearby. On the walk, I encountered an old friend and stopped to talk, energized by the connection. Her girls hopped around rocks in a yard so happily.

* I got to hang with my son and his choir buddies before the concert, and then I got to see him perform a solo.

* I loved the taste of the date milkshake I made while enjoying part of an old Downton Abbey episode before heading to the concert. It was so quiet in my house.

I finished the conference call while sitting in my car in my driveway and while there, I saw the most curious thing: little fat birds flitting between the lights on my garage.

There were so many of them, in their little bodies, and tufts of feathers and fat bellies, and it seemed that they communicated to one another as they went from one side of the garage to another post at the edge to the fence to the trees.

They moved quickly and with intent. And I just sat there and watched, watched their wings flutter and their beaks peak into crevices and listened to their shrill tweets of communication.

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Fine Print

The credit card charge was higher than I had expected, and so I called the company to find out what was up.

“Oh, it’s in the contract you signed,” the phone representative said. Really? I saw $29.95 every three months, not $38.95 every month.

1408555944120“It’s in the fine print of the contract that you signed when you clicked ‘agree,’” he said somewhat defensively.

Fine print. I don’t know about you, but I call that sneaky. If you want to charge an amount, say it up front. Be bold. Be honest. Believe your product is worth that. But really, give all the information. Don’t sneak it in.

We all have documents that highlight some information and downplay others. It’s the way of the world. The details we get nervous about, though, are the details we really need to focus on.

askWhy, exactly, do you feel hesitant to charge that? Is it not quite the right price? Then don’t charge it.

Be bold about what you want. It’s the way of the world. Hiding and omitting and going in the back door won’t get you anywhere.

Lots of people comment that I am direct in my comments. Yes, I am. Some people hate that. Some people hate me for it. Others say, it’s just the way I am, and I love those people for letting me be me.

But I really don’t understand why anyone would tiptoe around the truth? I mean, can’t we take it?

Last week, our lovely Israeli tour guide emailed and asked if he had done something wrong. On the contrary! We loved him and his expertise in taking us around Israel and showing us so many different histories and stories.

Why, I asked? Apparently the tip we gave him was insultingly low. He didn’t use those words – I did. We were given bad advice. Of course, we quickly rectified the problem and wired him the proper amount.

I am so glad he spoke up. Some people might say, what nerve! What gall! How dare he!

But no. Ask for what you want and deserve.

It’s the only chance you have of ever receiving it.

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Lauren Francis-Sharma: Til the Well Runs Dry

TillTheWellRunsDrySometimes, your mission is right there in front of you and you don’t even realize it.

That’s how it came to be for Lauren Francis-Sharma, the author of ‘Til the Well Runs Dry, an historical novel based on her own mother’s journey of being born in Trinidad and being left behind when her mother traveled to the States. Francis-Sharma’s mother came to the United States when she was 19, and the author was born two years later.

A resident of Kensington, Maryland, the first-generation Catholic American is married to a Hindu and is the mother of two children. A former corporate attorney, she always wanted to be a writer, “but I lived in a house with immigrant parents and that was poo-pooed. I did what every immigrant child does, goes on to become a doctor or lawyer. During that process, I was secretly writing, and I could not get published.”

Lauren Francis-Sharma, author of 'Til the Well Runs Dry

Lauren Francis-Sharma, author of ‘Til the Well Runs Dry

She wrote two novels before temporarily giving up. She became a mother and stayed home with her children, when her grandmother had a debilitating stroke.

“She was always very independent and she’s kind of a hero in my family,” she says. “My mother would say, ‘If it weren’t for her choosing to leave Trinidad, you wouldn’t have the life you have here.’ That was always in the back of my head.”

She traveled to Brooklyn to sit beside her grandmother’s hospital bed and realized, “I don’t even know this woman. I knew her story, but I didn’t really know her.”

Can we ever truly know our forebears? We hear the stories they choose to tell us, and those shape us, definitely, but what of the stories we never hear? The photos locked away in a cabinet, only to be stumbled upon after someone’s demise?

“I spent a lot of summers in Brooklyn with her, but I knew nothing and I felt this incredible sense of loss at that moment,” says Francis-Sharma. “I realized even if she could speak to me then, I would never really know the story.”

map-of-trinidad-and-tobago-7aA few months after that awakening moment, the author traveled to Trinidad for a funeral and happened to travel to a village where her grandmother was from. That’s the setting where this captivating novel begins.

“I was thinking about her growing up there, and one decision, to take a job as a domestic in the U.S., changed the course of everybody’s life in my family,” she says.

She knew the story was compelling but wavered on whether she could succeed with writing, as she’d been trying to do for so many years. Ultimately, Francis-Sharma was determined to succeed. She enrolled in a class called Extreme Novelist, which forced her to write for 90 minutes every day, and she “learned to write even with noise in the background,” an important talent because she was the mother of a 3-year-old and 5-year-old at the time.

It took two years to finish the novel. Then, Francis-Sharma attended a Thriller Fest conference in New York to meet literary agents, transformed from her daily Under Armour  gear to her blue lawyer’s suits, dusted off and pulled from the back of the closet.

“I sat down in front of 12 agents, apologizing about how I didn’t have a thriller, but insisting, ‘You want to hear about this book.’ I was shaking. I left that day with 12 requests for submissions, and a week later I had an agent.”

And the book came to fruition.

Barbara Jones, executive editor at Henry Holt and my long-time mentor and friend

Barbara Jones, executive editor at Henry Holt and my long-time mentor and friend

Francis-Sharma’s novel was published by my long-time friend and mentor, Barbara Jones, executive editor at Henry Holt publishing.

In a surprise, writing this book deepened the author’s sense of identity.

“Because I grew up in Baltimore, there wasn’t a huge Caribbean population around me,” she says. “My parents had a few friends, but I heavily identified with being American and African-American. I think people knew that my parents were from some place, and I would say Trinidad, and they’d be like, ‘Oh your parents are from Jamaica.’”

“What was going on in my home was very different from what was going on outside of my house. My private life was very closed, I didn’t share the food we ate, we hid our differences.”

Writing this book, she says, was a self-discovery of sorts, sometimes from a touristic viewpoint at arm’s-length and sometimes deep in the core of who she is and always has been.

2 PABUSS FRANK FARRELL“There’s a part in the book where my protagonist shows up in New York and she is standing outside Port Authority,” she says. “I physically went to Port Authority to write this scene, and I was standing there, and I was like, it’s not just me, Lauren from Baltimore, writing this. Now, I am this person who grew up in a small village in Trinidad and I am thrust into this city and I have no connection, no idea of what to do or where to go, that sense of being so alone, how am I going to make it, that fear, and I thought about my grandmother at that moment.”

“This is who she was at the core. She wasn’t very adventurous; she was borderline fearful of a lot of things. How does that person with all these fears turn into the person who makes it? Who comes here and doesn’t run back home, but sticks it out? I learned a lot about her, even if she wasn’t telling me that story, by trying to trace some of those steps.”

The journey of writing this book also taught its author to understand the sacrifices that all mothers make.

“When we parent, we begin to dream mostly for them,” she explains. “And that dictates so much of what we do from day to day.”

Check out the book. (You can buy it here.) It is a worthwhile read that will have you hanging on every turn of events.

And stay tuned for Francis-Sharma’s next project – still in the historical fiction genre, with strong women characters of color. “I like stories that are deeply character-driven but also have plot and so I’m trying to stick with that,” she says.

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What’s In a Name?

hello_my_name_is_green_card-p137479488881801156envwi_400A childhood neighbor’s father died this past week, and I sent off notes to her and her husband with my condolences. She married a man from my high school class, and I noticed on the Facebook profile her maiden name, how I know her, and her long-married name, the evolution of her identity.

She’s been married a long time and so probably it is familiar to call herself by the new name. But it reminded me of the ways we are never truly our own identity, just a conglomeration of those given to us by others and by circumstance.

Once long ago I tried to write an essay about how we never really decide who we are in name. Others decide it for us.

From birth, when our parents bestow on us a name chosen with care and determination, often linked to beloved relatives long since past. Sometimes the name comes with meaning deliberate and profound.

character namesSometimes it’s just the name of the era, a whim, following the crowd as we do in so many other ways. After all, you hear about all the Jennifers and Jasons of a certain time, given way to the Sophies and Aidens of the next generation.

And we are anointed with our father’s surname, the patrilineal descent that is so hard to escape. Some families hyphenate, giving homage to the mother, which is really homage to the mother’s father down the line.

When women marry, they face the dilemma of whether to change names or not, and so much depends on when they marry and how much they have accomplished. Some keep the maiden name, some take the married name, some combine the two.

My first marriage, I eagerly changed to my husband’s name, believing it prophetic, since his name of German origin really means writer. 

But then the marriage ended and I carried on his name – linked with my children, forever linked to an unsuccessful union, too.

We tell ourselves stories of who we are and who we want to be. I debated dropping the surname and just going by my first and middle names indefinitely and forever. And when I was poised to marry Dan, I continued the internal debate, since he had no feelings on the subject whatsoever.

In the end, you know, I took his surname because it just seemed the next step in the process of life, but I think about it still. I am a Golodner now – what does that mean?

My children’s friends often call me Mrs. Schreiber because that’s how they know my kiddos. And in a way, that is my best, longest-lasting role yet.

But I have to admit – I don’t know that I am a Schreiber or a Golodner or a Cohn. I have books and articles bylined in all three, and they are all me. At the same time, none of them are. The consistency is the voice, and how can we possibly name that?

4772661367_81831113ec_zThis neighborhood friend and her name – I’m sure she never gave it much notice. She’s in a lasting marriage with a sweet man, and so the family are all united in name and in mission.

The other day, I had an hour-long conversation with my ex, a very nice one at that. Perhaps it’s a turning of the tide to an era of collaboration and kindness. I sure hope so. And at the end of it all, as I hung up the phone, I pondered these liaisons we take up and drop as we go through life.

We ended so many years ago and we were never quite eternally happy together, though we tried to be. Our children shuttle back and forth between us, and we nurse the wounds that never heal, the questions of what-if and maybes.

I live now with a lovely man whom I love and have fun with. A good choice, definitely, a happy, harmonious home, with extensive tentacles reaching out in directions of ex’s and ex-families still linked to us by our beloved children.

How can we possibly choose one definitive name for who we are? For so many years, all I wanted was union and love and marriage. And now that I have it, I wonder if deep down inside, we all aren’t ultimately living alone, even if we share moments and hours and days and years with people we’ve designated as favorites.

And so what is the name for that? I love the idea that at a point, we choose to be who we are and we slap a name on that, chosen carefully and poetically. Or perhaps our names don’t really matter, like our external appearances which grapple us lifelong.

The concept of who we are living deep within and having nothing to do with the superficial details is one that is hard to grasp – but I know it to be true. And so no name could quite capture the essence of who I am.

The web and weave of a life and an identity is too complicated and detailed to really grasp. Perhaps the lesson is simply to live and be still, to recognize goodness in all its forms, and to not cling to any one name as the changing winds bring them in and send them out.

We humans have an insatiable need to name things, categorize, own and distill. But that’s not what the world is like. The animals roam freely in the forests and savannas, wholly unaware that they have been named. It can’t rein them in, no matter how hard we try.

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The Comedown After a Trip

Jet lag is waning, thankfully, so I rolled out of bed at 5 a.m. I love the stillness of the early morning, when all is dark and quiet, save for the radiators wheezing awake.

travel-quote-hero__mainI’ve been home now for 43 hours, and the comedown is full-on. The excitement of travel – the anticipation of going somewhere beloved, of an adventure, of being away from it all and from everyone, of putting work and home on hiatus for a week.

That’s the adrenaline rush. And then you’re in it, fully on vacation, hiking mountain paths and traversing stone streets of an ancient city and eating the fresh vegetables that grow in Israel every day of the calendar year. Fresh pomegranate juice on the street side and Jerusalem bagels in their long, doughy, sweet-sesame bites.

Inevitably, it ends, and you want it to. We got to a point where we had done all we wanted to do and were eager to come home to the kids and to life-as-usual. And so you begin the descent, the long journey home, literally and metaphorically.

And when you encounter the long lines of immigration and customs, of security to leave Israel, of waiting in airports and carousing through duty free shops and waiting to get on the plane only to find out that the wine and olive oil you planned to carry on absolutely won’t be allowed past the gate, so you have to reconfigure and in a flash check the backpack that was intended to be a carry-on under the plane.

So the going home consumes a lot of energy, and it’s good because it makes you just want to be home. In my own shower, my own comfortable bed instead of the rock-hard hotel beds, and with the familiar sounds of my children in adjacent rooms breathing easily in the night. The comfort of being surrounded by my sweet kids in copious hugs and sweet voices.

I am home. My comfortable house, the monotonous rush of city traffic beyond my windows, the gorgeous fall days of changed leaves and cool sun and eager faces turned up to leave the school building for freedom. My morning coffee in a mug I bought years ago.

It’s day two of being home and all the goings-on of leaving and of exhilaration of having been away are past. Now I am settling into life-as-usual and just being here and I have to admit, the melancholy is settling in.

melancholy_baby_by_twisted_wind-d5ti9hePerhaps it’s part remaining jet lag exhaustion and part overwhelm for the workload to get back into. I did some of the work yesterday, eagerly, happily, reconnecting with lovely clients and turning to the content of long-awaited projects that need and deserve my attention.

The plan was to work through the weekend, but I have to say at this early-morning vantage point, I feel just too tired. Where to begin? Where to rest? And I had wanted to make Shabbat an actual day of rest.

Perhaps it’s as Emerson says, “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.”

Or perhaps it’s as Gustave Flaubert wrote, “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”

What I found in my travels was the familiar. The reminder of why I once became religious, to sanctify the moments and quiet the days, to instill balance into a workaday life and a world gone mad.

Haleakala-SunriseWhat I found in my travels was the peace and brilliance of a passionate people who love the land they inhabit and have a sense of purpose in their days – the very religious, yes, and the very secular, too.

What I found in my travels every time I went away this year was the best part of me. Now the challenge is to find that sense of purpose and of identity in the paths I walk here, in the walls I call my home.


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The Art of Living Simply


When you live in an ancient city, your focus is on quality of life and meaning, not on taking up more space or acquiring more stuff. It simply isn’t possible.

On the plane home from Israel, we sat beside a young man originally from Cincinnati, who as a bright college grad decided to move to Israel permanently. He now works for a tech company and travels the world hawking his software.

His happiness just radiated from his face while he spoke.

What courage, what determination, what sense of self to have at 22 to pick up and move around the globe to another country!

If you’ve read my blogs for the past week, you’ve seen how enamored I am with the land of Israel. I am proud to be American, but I am even prouder to be a Jew, and when I walk along the stone streets and breathe the sweet air of that land, I feel stronger, happier, more intense than anywhere else.

Big houses are nice, but as we acquire more, more, more, what do we lose?

Big houses are nice, but as we acquire more, more, more, what do we lose?

Except I live here. And as I listened to the young man speak, I realized how caught up we all get in the trappings of a western life.

We don’t mean to. It’s easy to follow the masses toward bigger houses, bigger cars, newer this, and newer that. In a place like Israel, the standard of living just doesn’t allow for most people to keep focusing on up, up, up – they believe UP was the move to Israel, period.

Up in spirit, if not in material surroundings.

Yogananda-Live-in-the-momentWhat a concept! It was the same in India, though different of course. People aren’t constantly grabbing for more, more, more – it’s not the culture. They are preoccupied with different pursuits – peace of mind, peace on the streets, peace between people.

And so I return to my American life imbued with the passion of Israel, hoping I can maintain it like I hoped when I returned from India, with my priorities leading the way.

dwyl2-300x276Here’s what I want:

* Meaningful work, with meaningful clients, that allows me to comfortably pay my bills and save for the future.

* A quiet, beautiful, enriching home life, where I can pull my children close and appreciate our surroundings and our family.

* Good and easy health, motivated by the right tasty fresh foods and the right constant exercise and activity, where we are not chasing a goal on a treadmill that goes nowhere, but engaging in Life, capital L intended, and it just falls into place.

SpiritOfShabbat_email* A rich spiritual life. We agreed at the end of our journey that we need to make Shabbat, a true day of rest. While we won’t be toe-the-line religious, we want to shift to making Saturday a day of quiet and of connection, having our rituals and Sabbath meals together, saying goodbye to the day with Havdalah, and not shopping, running, making plans. Going to synagogue as a family. Going to synagogue when the kids aren’t with us. Living our spirituality.

* Slowing down, spending less. This is the kicker. We all fall into the trap of wanting more *things*, pursuing the next glamorous something. No more. I want to truly strive to be happy with what I have, imbued with a sense of purpose and place, and build the relationships that build a life.

What a takeaway from one week-long trip! But if you’ve ever been to Israel, you’ll understand it.

It’s funny how we go away to come home to ourselves. Happiness and peace don’t reside in a physical landscape; they emanate from within to the community outward.

On the way home, our plane was filled with Chassidic Jews – women in long skirts and thick tights, high collars and long sleeves; men in black suits and white shirts, side curls known as peyoss dangling along their cheeks and tall black hats stowed in the overhead compartments.

f93686f472e6a45c854d9a18e9f57bf8That was never my world, even when I was religious, but there is something about it that I admire. The sense of purpose, the sense of community, the clear path cut out for you from the day you’re born. No way of life is perfect, I know, and believe me I have my issues with rigid religious communities.

But when you know your mission, you can’t help but find peace. That’s the point of it all. The people I know who move to Israel, their mission is to live in the Jewish land and dedicate their life to it. How can you not be happy when you’re guided by purpose and place?

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Try to Understand this Love of the Land

View of Tel Aviv from Jaffa

View of Tel Aviv from Jaffa

Today is our last day in Israel…until the next time.

That’s the thing about Israel, at least for the Jews. Once you come, you keep coming back. You realize that as wonderful as life is wherever you live, it’s a short time since we have been safe and prosperous and without persecution as the main preoccupation.

I know that sounds fatalistic and reeks of a persecution complex. I had buried it for a while, but I could never quite eliminate it. Because the truth lives deep, deep within.

imageToday, we toured the Diaspora Museum, also known as the Museum of the Jewish People, on Tel Aviv University’s campus. It begins with an exhibit of antiquities and tradition, showing Jews from biblical times until today observing ritual and tradition.


Bar mitzvah.

Torah learning.

imageOnly after we establish the foundation – the written word, the rituals, the connection between all Jewish communities and eras – can we dig into the culture.

Some people insist they are only “culturally Jewish.” I understand it. Tradition is a yoke, burdensome, oppressive at times. I’ve taken it on and thrown it off.

But without the foundation, the meaning, the ancient tradition shared by Jews who have stepped foot on every continent around this planet, there is no culture.


This quote on the wall of the Museum of the Jewish People refers to the blessings in daily prayers that call for goodness in the land of Israel. Jews pray three times a day for this place.

In the taxi on the way to the museum, I sneezed. The driver, who was speaking rapid-fire Hebrew on his cell phone to a friend and laughing it up, broke the conversation to say, “labriut,” bless you, in Hebrew. It literally translates as wishing someone good health.

In the taxi ride back from the museum to our hotel, the driver had a Hebrew book on his dashboard: Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard. We could not get him to stop talking about how brilliant Scientology is and how rebellious he is to his Jewish family, that if they don’t accept his new religion, he will simply disappear. (He can’t wait to leave, to live in America, because he feels no connection, no relevance, to the tradition. Sad.)

The generations revolve and go in and out of acceptance. One generation clings to tradition, the next one throws it off with a yank. The next generation to come returns to tradition, and on and on and on.

imageRegardless of what we believe, observe, or say, we are infinitely linked – by generation, by experience, and by birth into this tradition. We can kick it to the curb but as history shows, it follows us wherever we go.

This week, I’ve been reading Herman Wouk’s The Hope, which chronicles in historical fiction the creation of the state of Israel, the salvation for the Jewish people, and the strengthening of Jews from all over the globe on this tiny sliver of land.

We have endured throughout the millennia, despite terrific attempts to wipe us out. And now, we have a little sliver of homeland, a place where all Jews can come and be accepted into the embrace, no matter their history, no matter their belief.

Here, we are welcome.

Here, we are invited to stay.

In most places, we have to ask how to pay and when. The welcome and hospitality are infinite.

In most places, we have to ask how to pay and when. The welcome and hospitality are infinite.

Here, a taxi driver, a college student, a hummos vendor, a businessman resemble someone we know from way back. Family.

We will be back. We will return. Israel beckons her tantalizing finger, her come-hither look, and we respond. It is inevitable. I cannot stay away.

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The Only People at the Hotel

imageSunday morning, Tsfat, Villa Galilee Hotel.

We are the only guests left. Sunday is a weekday, a workday, for Israelis, and they left in droves yesterday.

imageSo our table is the only one in the dining room, set with my favorite, Israeli breakfast, and the coffees available are the ones I drink at home.

This land of Israel, so fresh, so intense, so poetic. Yesterday, we traveled from one mountaintop to another, overlooking Lebanon. It’s quiet now. The last time I was here, in the north, 19 years ago, people went back and forth across the border through the Good Fence, though you could hear guns and bombs in the distance.

The view into Lebanon from Israel's north.

The view into Lebanon from Israel’s north.

Now it is quiet. And there is no movement between the two countries. Hezbollah controls the south of Lebanon, backed by Iran, and white U.N. trucks traverse the roads. Israel keeps a watchful eye on its borders. Don’t come too close or we’ll show you what it means to mess with Israel.

From Mt. Bental, looking into Syria.

From Mt. Bental, looking into Syria.


The Banias waterfall

Then we drove east to the Syrian border, also quiet, though Al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Syrian Army battle daily, tossing bombs you can see from the top of Mt. Bental.

In between, we hiked along the Banias waterfall and river, just south of Mt. Hermon, Israel’s highest peak. We saw flocks of birds and beautiful cranes in the Hula Valley. We had another incredible day in this incredible place.

At 2:30 a.m., the kids called. Three days of radio silence as they celebrated holiday and Shabbat with their father. Then, quick, fill in all the details, all the blanks, and our voices connect in a virtual hug. Three days until I can hold them again.

Hula Valley

Hula Valley

For now, the fresh mountain air comes in from windows and doors and piano music plays overhead. A man reads a newspaper in Hebrew. Dan is 47 today. He reads the headlines on his phone.

Breakfast was incredible. Little squares of light and fluffy quiche, smooth cheeses, vegetables and Israeli salad drizzled with olive oil pressed not far from here and fresh squeezed lemon. Halvah so good, and a custard dessert and fresh plum jam drizzled over cake. Fresh, fresh, fresh.

imageYesterday, lunch was on a kibbutz called Dag el Dan, fish from the Dan River, and the young woman who worked there said, “I was not born in the north but I came here for school and now this is home. I love it.”

In Israel, you hear testimony of love of the land, love of the people, love of the place. Intense passion for identity and connection. Who you are and where you are from intimately intertwined.

At the nature preserve yesterday, there was a poem about taking flight, mounted on the wall of the observation platform where you can get the best views of the beautiful cranes:

I am the wings of the kingfisher
A flash of turquoise
Just as an opal reflects the sun

Listen closely
to the whisper and rustle of the purple grasses
they are my voice

I am carried
by the fingers of the wind that caress your cheek

Here, wherever your gaze alights
I abide
all that is beauty
I am become

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How Can I Explain my Love for Israel?

Even for a writer, there are sometimes no words for the incredibleness of this place.

Right now, I sit on a mountaintop with absolute perfect Shabbat silence outside my open window, the occasional bird squeaking and a distant dog barking. Last night, the sun set behind the mountain range here in the north of Israel, quite close to Lebanon, as teenage boys sang the prayers to usher in the Sabbath.

They stood in the street for there were no cars anywhere around, and welcomed the Sabbath bride. Women stood on the perimeter, which was for me the only damper on the beauty of the moment. I love this tradition of my ancestors, and hate how the most fervent and most poetic of the observers have evolved it into a women on the sidelines kind of religion.

Where can I find such holiness in a day? Even if you observe outside of Israel, it isn’t the same. There is a holiness to the land that contains it in the dirt and rocks and in the sunshine and in the air.

The air here…magical. Fresh. Clean. Brilliant. Sweet.

Even in the extreme heat of an Israeli summer, I cannot imagine wanting to be anywhere else.

But I digress. Now is fall and the perfect time to be here. Not too hot, not too cold, the crisp night a single perfect kiss on every lip.

We met a man, an artist, David Friedman, originally from Denver, here in Tsfat for the past 35 years, making art about the Kabbalah. And in his explanations I saw the chakras. The unity in the meaning. The universality.

Here, the buildings are made of stone and the tables are laden with the freshest fruits and vegetables and cheese and wine pressed from a vineyard just a few miles to the east. We are close to Lebanon and to Syria but here, we are infinitely safe.

When we left, everyone wished us a good trip and urged us to “be safe.” I say it every time someone questions the wisdom of traveling to this Land: I have never felt safer anywhere else, including my home of the United States.

I love this place. I love it deep within my soul. I can’t believe it took me seven years to come back. It won’t be that long before I return, mark my words.

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