Category Archives: Family

Boy, you gotta carry that weight, carry that weight a long time…

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I have to be honest, Rosh Hashana never really feels like a new year.  I don’t know if it is because I am a convert, or if it’s because I live life on the Gregorian calendar, I don’t even know if other people feel this way.  But generally it’s just a nice day to spend with family, go to services and eat.   The feeling I get on December 31st is not the feeling I get on Erev Rosh Hashana; the anticipation, the traditions, the leave-it-all-behind attitude to start anew, none of it is there.

However, this year it feels a little bit more like December 31st is fast approaching.  I feel rundown and long to take a deep breath.  But I also feel hopeful.  That’s generally how I feel as the year ends.  The last two weeks have been complete madness.  For days I worried about the safety of my loved ones (and, admittedly, about the safety of some of my worldly possessions).  I packed up my apartment, prioritized my belongings and went on a journey northwest (Tampa).  The northeast (Orlando).  Then braced for the inevitable (Irma).  My parents decided not to join us on that journey at the last minute.  It, inevitably, caused a huge blowup before we parted ways.  I left in tears and filled with regret.  I wondered if I would see them again.  I cried for some of the drive and apologized as best I could from afar.  Another blowup followed a day later.  We were all on edge and not handling it well, at all.

Yet, what followed was a week of witnessing humanity at its best.  Family and friends from afar checked in filled with love and concern.  They all helped as best they could.  My sister sent me weather updates when we lost power and had no radio, my mother-in-law helped us find dog-friendly accommodations, a cousin I reconnected with online offered here home, another offered her calming voice.

The monster storm passed and we were all safe.  I felt great relief when I was able to communicate with my parents again, despite the spotty cellular signal.  We got on the road early Monday, eager to reunite.  We returned to find our city rattled, but not broken.  Our homes were fine, albeit dark and hot.  I made friends with neighbors and we helped each other as best we could; we shared information, food and comforting words as necessary, even some laughs.

Sleeping in our apartment without electricity to power our air conditioning was not easy (especially for Finch and my mid-western husband, in that order), but we were quickly taken in by my aunt and uncle who had electricity, with love and a spare room to share.  The news from loved ones trickled in: my friends were safe my grandparents were safe, extended family members were safe.  Facebook became a lifeline for information and everyone was willing to share what they knew and offer what they could.  My grandmother was able to send a few e-mails from Cuba to let us know she was okay and how things were progressing there.  My grandfather’s home in Key Largo weathered the storm for the most part.  Some weren’t so lucky, like my aunt, but they knew their material losses would be restored with their loved ones by their side.  I felt infinitely grateful.

This week I have seen the worst of Miami make a comeback -the rude drivers, the short tempers, the self-centeredness- but it will not phase me (too much).  I am grateful for the safety of my loved ones, I am grateful to have weathered the storm both literally and figuratively, and I am grateful for an unexpected lesson on letting go of the stuff.

Before we left on our evacuation journey I secured what I felt was most important (family pictures and what I consider heirlooms) and felt at peace with coming back to an empty wardrobe and no electronic distractions. I had never felt so detached from the stuff that clutters my apartment.  It was freeing.  Now, I won’t lie and tell you I am not psyched to have come back to a closet full of nothing to wear and hours of mindless television to watch, because I am, totally; I have invested a lot of hard-earned money into both.

Still, I will carry that feeling into the new year with me, this new year that is feeling so new.  I will carry that gratitude and freedom, I will carry that love and that view of humanity into 5778 (and through what’s left of 2017).  I am taking my leave-it-all-behind attitude to start anew, carrying with me only what is necessary and truly important, and trying to peacefully leave all of that other stuff behind.

Shanah Tovah Umetukah

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My Genealogy Project: I’m a collage of features and qualities.

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“When you look in the mirror you see not just your face but a museum.  Although your face, in one sense, is your own, it is composed of a collage of features you have inherited from your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on.  The lips and eyes that either bother or please you are not yours alone but are also features of your ancestor, long dead perhaps as individuals but still very much alive as fragments in you.  Even complex qualities such as your sense of balance, musical abilities, shyness in crowds, or susceptibility to sickness have been lived before.  We carry the past around with us all the time, and not just in our bodies.  It also lives in our customs, including the way we speak.  The past is a set of invisible lenses we were constantly, and through these we perceive the world and the world perceives us.  We stand always on the shoulders of our ancestors, whether or not we look down to acknowledge them.”  – The Horse, the Wheel, and Language by David w. Anthony

I’ve graduated law school, found a job I love, met a wonderful man, fell in love, planned a wedding, got married, settled into our temporary home, adopted a furry baby, learned about cruelty free cosmetics and made the switch, researched food labeling and conscious producers and made that switch, educated myself on improving my financial management and opened a retirement account, and then ran out of projects.   And politics?  Well, let’s just not talk about that.  What could I possible put all of my extra mental energy into?  Genealogy.

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On and off I’ve delved into family history throughout the years.  I collected lots of information last time my paternal grandmother visited the U.S. over a decade ago and since then I have added bits here and there, but never really took the time to take it any further.  I am not sure when the world became so fascinated with genealogy and websites like Ancestry, Family Search, My Heritage, and Geni started popping up, but by the time I joined the trend there was a wealth of information out there.  I was able to fill in a lot of blanks, find reference documents and connect to unknown family members with ease.

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Then, genetic genealogy caught my attention.  Sending off a sample of my DNA to Family Tree DNA, Ancestry or 23 and Me could not only genetically match me to remote family, but could also provide some insight into where I am from, geographically.  I was hooked.  Now, I know, it’s scary to send off your DNA and have it stored forever by some company.  The term and conditions you must consent to are complicated and all vary – some won’t sell, some will sell, some will release your genetic information without your personal information for medical research, some will provide some of your personal information.  Add to that the lack of certainty in the geographic results, although the continent matches are probably pretty solid anything more specific is a little iffy, and the fact that these results are constantly being updated as the companies get new data and make internal changes.  You may reasonably ask, what’s the point?  Personally, I found it simply fascinating, innovative, and valuable and I did not care about any of the other stuff.  My parents, grandfather and I were all tested with Family Tree DNA.  I chose Family Tree because they had great reviews as to the certainty of their geographic estimates, good terms and conditions and were having a holiday sale.

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We received our initial results before the 2017 update and were all generally surprised, especially my mother (who happened to have traces of British Islander and Native American DNA).  After that, I threw all caution to the wind.  I ordered the Ancestry DNA tests for my mother and I (results still pending ) and uploaded our raw DNA information to Gedmatch, DNA Land and My Heritage (I can say their Terms and Conditions are fair and you do not have to agree to the Consent Agreement, I also like that they changed their Terms and Conditions after their users complained about certain terms).  With the DNA results I have also been able to connect to people, although our actual relationships are still a mystery.  I am somehow related to a doctor who lives in California, a programmer/analyst at UCLA, and a perhaps distant cousin who lives in Virginia.

Before taking the DNA test I had also made some great connections through Ancestry.  Using their “hints” I met a cousin from a side of the family that had lost contact a couple of generations ago and we have become very close primas.   I highly recommend Ancestry if you want a place to start.  It’s not cheap, but they do offer a free trial and their website is the best; it’s got the most resources and it is the most user friendly.  Less user friendly, but with vast resources and free is Family Search, it’s actually the site where I began my research more than a year ago.

The highlight of this process was probably hiring a genealogist in Cuba who amazes me every day.  With limited resources (and unbeatable prices) she’s truly helped me expand and deepen my knowledge of my family’s history.  In this process I have learned that my maternal second great grandmother attended Harvard for a summer in 1900 as part of a special session hosted for about 1,500 Cuban schoolteachers to train in American style education after the Spanish-American war.  On my paternal side I have learned that my great grandfather was born in Key West while his father was working for Jose Marti and the freedom of Cuba.  His family eventually returned to the Island and one of my great uncles went on to be a writer.

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If you choose to begin your own genealogy journey, be prepared for anything; be prepared to be disappointed, frustrated, and confused.  Be open-minded about what you may find.  A lot of what you may have been told or believe about your family history may be wrong.  Be open to the possibilities and the history, try not to impose your modern views and believes into the lives of your ancestors.  So far I have more questions than answers.  I have hit countless walls and made many mistakes.  Every time I learn something new it creates a myriad of questions in mind. I still struggle with the idea that I won’t ever know everything about everyone and that some ancestors will always remain a mystery and their stories, sadly, died with them.  But I have learned so much about myself in the process and I have fallen in love with each story, with each person.  Every minute devoted to this task has been worthwhile and it feels quite exceptional to find human stories lost to time and bring them back for posterity.  I think my personal project can turn out to be a lot more than that in the future.

Shabbat Shalom

All You Need is Chesed

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“Mankind’s true moral test . . . consists in its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.” ― Milan Kundera

I have never doubted my Jewish soul.  Yet more and more I feel it revealing itself to me.  For my year of change I embarked on a journey to humane and cruelty free living.  It has not been easy; it has been challenging and at times it feels impossible, but I will not give up.  More and more I have excised things from my life that come as direct result of the suffering of a helpless living creature.  I have researched the food I eat and try my best to purchase strictly humanely raised and certified humane.  I have found that the most difficult item has been milk, I have yet to locate milk that is certified anything but “organic” and that means nothing in terms of how the cow is treated.  Organic Valley has grass-fed and “pastured” dairy products, but that doesn’t seem to be regulated.  I have found great eggs (conveniently sold in the Fresh Market and Winn-Dixie), meat (sold at Whole Foods, just ask the butcher), and chicken (sold at Publix by the Greenwise) that are now staples in my home (FYI, there’s an app for that!).

So I decided to shift to the next cruelty free aspect of my home, an area I have indulged in for decades: cosmetics.  I was horrified to find out most of the products I was using come from companies that test on animals.  I was horrified.  I simply could not continue to be this consumer, so I started researching.  First, I learned that a lot of companies basically lie about their animal testing, which is shameful.  Second, I learned that most companies are forced into animal testing because their products are sold internationally and other countries have rules about that sort of thing, like China.  Thankfully I was able to find great guidelines online from several sources like Peta and Paula’s Choice.

What I also learned along my journey is that my newfound passion is super Jewish.  On my quest to learn about cruelty free living I came across the phrase tza’ar ba’alei chayim.  According to Wikipedia it “literally means the suffering of living creatures.”  It turns out that I have been concerned with tza’ar ba’alei chayim, a little known mitzvah, my entire life.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis explained that while medical research on animals is acceptable if it will save human lives, animals should not be subjected to pain during these experiments or be used in frivolous experimentation, like for cosmetic testing.  In terms of consumption, Professor Richard Schwartz notes that although “Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, today most farm animals – including those raised for kosher consumers — are raised on ‘”factory farms”’ where they live in cramped, confined spaces and are often drugged, mutilated . . . and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise and any enjoyment of life before they are slaughtered and eaten.” I am, therefore, inclined to believe that consuming an animal that has been made to suffer is not keeping kosher.  Rabbi David N. Young is quoted in The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic as explaining:

 God commanded Adam and Eve to be vegetarians. That was what God wanted for our dietary practices. God commanded Noah to eat whatever he wanted, as long as it was dead. That is what humans want for our own dietary practices —unrestrained omnivorism. In ultimate wisdom, God offered a compromise: God commanded Moses concerning prohibited and permitted meats and forbade boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. These were developed and evolved by the Rabbis of the Talmud into the dietary laws called kashrut. If we are able to live by this compromise, that is wonderful. If we are able to live closer to what God wants and go vegetarian, even better.

There is another phrase that I feel goes hand-in-hand with tza’ar ba’alei chayim and that is shomrei adamah.  According to an article on My Jewish Learning humanity is charged with the task of protection and renewal of the earth, “[w]e are told very early on in our Jewish history of the importance of ruling over our lands responsibly, of tilling and tending to them as shomrei adamah, guardians of the land.”  It is a natural extension to think that includes all of the living things on earth and this extension is clear from several passages in the Torah.  In 2007 the Union for Reform Judaism adapted from Edith Samuel’s Your Jewish Lexicon an installment of 10 Minutes of Torah that directly addresses these mandates:

The Torah shows exquisite sensitivity to the feelings of animals —sensitivity rare in the ancient world. On the Sabbath, domestic animals as well as human beings must rest (Exodus 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:14). Deuteronomy 25:4 prohibits the muzzling of an ox while it is threshing (it may want to eat). An animal may not be slaughtered on the same day as its young (Leviticus 22:28). Before the days of tractor, farmers were forbidden to plow with an ox and an ass yoked together (the ox, being larger, might cause pain to its smaller partner). Deuteronomy 22 spells out additional injunctions for Jews living an agrarian life: If you see an ox or an ass collapsed on the road under its burden, you must help it get on its feet; if you find a stray sheep or ox, you must return it to its owner or, if the owner is unknown, you must care for it until the owner claims it.

The Rabbis of the Talmud and of later generations went even further: Jews were enjoined never to sit down to eat before their animals had been fed; they were prohibited from buying an animal unless they could afford to feed it; and hunting for sheer sport is brutally cruel and hence forbidden to Jews. Slaughtering animals for food must be done as quickly and as painlessly as possible to avoid unnecessary or prolonged torment for the animal. In Modern Hebrew, tsa’ar ba-alei chayim is refers to the mitzvah of the “prevention of cruelty to animals.”

Further, Judaism101 notes:

In the Bible, those who care for animals are heroes, while those who hunt animals are villains. Jacob, Moses and King David were all shepherds, people who cared for animals (Gen. 30, Ex. 31, I Sam. 17). A traditional story tells that Moses was chosen for his mission because of his skill in caring for animals. “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said ‘Since you are merciful to the flock of a human being, you shall be the shepherd of My flock, Israel.'” Likewise Rebecca was chosen as a wife for Isaac because of her kindness to animals. When Abraham’s servant asked for water for himself, she volunteered to water his camels as well, and thereby proved herself a worthy wife (Gen. 24).

Tza’ar ba’alei chayim really seems rooted in one of my favorite (and sometimes most difficult) things about Judaism: thoughtfulness.  You are encouraged to think beyond yourself even about things that may make you uncomfortable or may create difficulties.  Sure, it is easier to live in ignorance and to lead your busy life day to day as best you can, but it is much more meaningful to make time to think about your life and how your actions affect others.  Tza’ar ba’alei chayim also goes hand-in-hand with tikkun olam, the call to repair the world through social action, and with another of my favorites, chesed, loving-kindness.

So in furtherance of this mitzvah I have decided to share my favorite cruelty free products and I welcome any and all comments and suggestions you may have on this topic.

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While fully recognizing the Jews don’t have a patent on humane living, but simply because the lessons here stem from Jewish teachings and values, I encourage everyone to be a little more Jewish on this issue.

Shabbat Shalom

The Name Game

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     A long, long time ago William Shakespeare penned the all too fitting line “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” and although I am not one to disagree with good ol’ Will, I think it is a pretty small-minded assertion made by a thirteen year old.  A rose would certainly retain its smell if it would have been named begonia instead, but then it would belong to an entirely different family or whatever.  Sure, a rose does not derive its identity solely from its name, it’s just a word, but its name comes from its discovery and its  development, which stem from its familial DNA.  Similarly, a name does not define a person, but my guess is that it is a reflection of their history, of their background, of their family.  I know that if I decided tomorrow to change my name to Princess Consuela Banana Hammock I would still look the same, think the same, have the same friends and family; none of what is important in my life would actually change.  However, what would this name reflect in terms of me and my history?  Nothing.   That name would have no trace of my ancestors’ struggles, travels, and unions.

 
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     We all come from somewhere, and our names are a fascinating clue as to where that somewhere may be.  Tracing back and linking our names with others, and theirs with others still is basically all we have to know where we come from.  It is how I know a certain Tuscan gentleman traveled as a sailor on an English fleet to Cuba, fell in love, and got married in a church I’d never even heard of before.  It is what I looked for  in the very long list released not too long ago to learn if I had any connection to the Sephardim.   It is what anyone studying genealogy goes off of to reach as far back as possible. How can anyone just hit delete on all of that?
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     You may wonder what brought on this very thoughtful rant, well, I am glad you asked.  This is yet another thing I have to think about thanks to my project of the year: The Wedding.  Everyone keeps asking what my name “will be,” if I am “keeping” my name and just about everyone seems to have an opinion.  Here’s why this is not as easy as it seems:  First of all, because of how names are used in this country the only way for my future children and I to share a name is for me to take the name of their father, which is totally not cool.  I get it, you cannot possibly keep all of your ancestors’ names because then the list would be endless, but in many other countries you at least get to have your father’s and mother’s last names.  It was totally puzzling when I came here and I was suddenly informed my mother’s last name was no longer part of the name I was legally given at birth, the name on my birth certificate.  So there that went, a part of my identity, the history stemming from my maternal side was suddenly nothing but a memory.  Sure, okay, it sounds dramatic, because I will always remember my mother and her history and her background, but what about the future?  I know, we are still stuck in a patriarchal society and this has been the case for far too long, and I won’t go into a rant about it, but c’mon, we both know that plays a very significant role in all of this.  Still, that is not the point of this exercise.  This is about who I “will be” and what of myself I will be “keeping” for future generations.
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     Where I come from is a major part of my life and of who I am.  I want to reflect that wherever I go, from the second I introduce myself.  I don’t want to hide my heritage or my history in any way.  I may have adopted a different religion, moved to a different country, speak a different language, but those things don’t change who I am at my core. Instead these things add to my heritage, to my history.  So I had to take all of this into consideration when asked about changing my name.  Like I said, I want to share a name with my children and I definitely want to reflect the fact that my fiance and I are becoming a family, and with that we are also merging backgrounds and histories.   Still, I can’t help but wonder why can’t men do that same? Probably because even the most evolved man still lives in a patriarchal society and it is not a concept that is even entertained… but I digress.

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     I have definitely struggled with this topic, I have thought about it, I have gone back and forth, I can see both sides.  My parents carefully and thoughtfully chose my first name and my last names are an occurrence of life and circumstance.  My surnames reflect so much history and connect me not only to them, but to their parents, and their parents’ parents.  It is a daily reminder of where I come from and the lives that were led before me.  When I introduce myself I am sharing so much history in a brief moment and  I know that so much of that history and that identity is already hard to see through my red hair and my Miami dialect.  I am unwilling to part with anymore of myself.  I am, however, ready to connect my story, my history with someone else’s. I have no doubt that the differences in our backgrounds, in our heritages, in our beliefs will enrich future generations.  Thus adding his name to my name seems like an important symbol of this steadfast belief.  I will gladly carry that weight of complex emotions, of unsettled feminist contradictions within myself, of attaching a name to myself despite not being directly connected to it.  I will learn as much about it as I know of my own and I will pass that down to future generations.  Yet, at the end of the day I “will be” the same person, with the same name my parents gave me and I will be “keeping” my name and the identity attached to it.  But I will also be adding a name, a new aspect of my identity and my history, a symbol of our love, our connection and most importantly  our future.

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Shabbat Shalom and, if you are observing, may you have a meaningful fast.

If I Ran the Circus

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Planning a wedding often feels like being amidst a dizzying, exciting, loud, colorful circus.  It’s part balancing act and part lion tamer; I have to balance the interests and and desires of others with our own,  I have to keep the roars of excitement of others at bay so that I may hear our own, often much quieter, voices.  All of my time and energy is going into putting together a few hours of what is basically seen as entertainment.  Every tiny aspect of wedding planning snowballs and I can’t help but think that a lot comes from expectations that have been created by the very industry.

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I have been spending a lot of time on a very wedding-centric website so I can figure out how to organize a wedding without losing myself.  We wanted something very small, a deeply meaningful ceremony followed by a short and nontraditional brunch gathering.  Most of that has basically been thrown out of the window.  It was supposed to be very small, but that turned out to be generally hurtful and impossible, so now we are aiming for small.  It was supposed to be here,  then it was there and now it is at a different place altogether.  My dress was going to be something off the rack from Nordstrom (or maybe even Nordstrom Rack), as were there bridesmaids dresses, and the Groom and his groomsmen were going to wear suits.  Now I am wearing a white gown (which was quite a find, so that kind of worked out), after what felt like endless discussions and changes the bridesmaids are wearing bridesmaids dresses (which I hope are well within budget), and the Groom and his groomsmen are wearing tuxes because it was quite difficult to coordinate.   Open bar or no bar, maybe a limited bar with specialty drinks,  themes, floral arrangements, bouquets, programs, vows, bands, music, growing guest list, invitations, dietary restrictions, it is all exhausting and expensive and it all feels increasingly meaningless, who is it all for?

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As I have undoubtedly mentioned before I never thought I would get married.  It wasn’t something I realistically considered and eagerly planned for.  I don’t say this to sound cool, or detached, or evolved, or whatever.  I say this as a reflection of my current relationship.  I never wanted to get married (for the sake of a wedding or to just be married or whatever), but I unquestionably want to marry Greg.  I love him, I love us, I don’t need to think twice about interweaving my life with his forever, I am actually eager to experience all of the messy, happy, complicated bits.  So naturally, I think,  that’s what our wedding should be.  We should be making those vows before G-d, our immediate family, our closest of friends, and celebrating the moment however we see fit; no expectations, no meaningless traditions, no pretense, just unconstrained love.  I can only hope that there are no hurt feelings, no disappointment, no bitterness as a result of following our hearts.

Fragile

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   On and on the rain will fall like tears from a star, like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say how fragile we are, how fragile we are
     For the last few weeks I have been working on some whiny blog about wedding planning. The draft is still sitting and I am sure it will eventually see the light of day, but something more relevant was stirring inside me, a feeling, a thought, I just couldn’t shake. Lately I have been thinking of just how ridiculously happy I am.  I am deeply in love with someone who is beyond amazing, I don’t even really know what words to use to describe how I feel about him and how I feel about us.  This pushed me to think of what my life would be like without him, without us, with just me again.  I wondered if I would rather never have known his love or the bond we share or if it would be better to have had it for whatever too short period of time.  I honestly struggled with that horrifying thought, but at the end of the day I cannot imagine not relishing in every single moment we share together, for however long the powers that be choose that to be.
     I know, it’s crazy to jump from the best to the worst, but in the blink of an eye it could be true.  I can’t fathom my life without him by my side, we are a unit now, two people so intertwined that we are almost one; we share everything, words, thoughts, space, time, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  To some it seems excessive, suffocating, but to us it is perfect.  We spent a lifetime without one another, hoping that we would find someone we could feel this way about, and now it is just so easy to be together.  So basically my life would suck without him, that’s the simplest and most honest way it can be phrased.  I think about it often, which is probably not normal, but I have my reasons.  I mean, it is probably impossible to be this happy forever, right?  Regardless of how long I have patiently waited and how nonexistent my love life was before him this life cannot be permanent, I cannot possibly be that lucky.   And then something terrible happened this weekend.
     I am very close to my aunt, my mom’s sister.  Despite not growing up anywhere near her or even really knowing her, in the last few years I have formed a very strong bond with her and her lovely family, beyond just that I-love-you-because-you’re-family thing.  She’s amazing, strong but vulnerable, smart, funny, kind.  She is an all-around great woman, a great mom, a great wife.  Her life had fallen into place, she found that special kind of love, she gave birth to two astonishing daughters, who have turned into strong, beautiful, smart teenagers, she was making plans and living life just like the rest of us.  Then on Sunday, in the blink of an eye, her husband was gone.  He was an incredible man, an incredible husband, an incredible father, an incredible chef.  He was a happy-go-lucky dreamer I got to spend too little time with, but I felt so glad to have as part of my family.  The second I got the call I fell right into her shoes, it was a fear I had been irrationally struggling with in my own life for some time now. I knew, and yet I couldn’t fathom, exactly how she felt, how her daughters felt, and my heart shattered.  It isn’t fair, it just isn’t fair.
     My aunt and her husband had that special kind of love not everyone gets to experience in a lifetime; they loved each other earnestly, deeply, passionately, completely.  There are no words I can say to her or my cousins that will even begin to help them feel whole again, that can help them heal, that can help them continue to live their lives with the same sparkle they always carried.  I understand well that is now something they will always feel the weight of, and we will all help them carry that weight, but that won’t fix it.  It is heart-wrenching to think this happened to them, and I truly wish it never had, I wish it was a nightmare we could all wake from and shake-off while sharing some homemade honey beer.  The only thing I can say is that I am thankful for the life he had, for the fact that he was in our family, for the love he had and expressed for my aunt, for the unbelievable father he was to his daughters.  I know that doesn’t fix it or bring peace, it wouldn’t to me if I was in her shoes, but during this time I hope it can provide some comfort that it is better to have had him in our lives for this time, than not at all.  There is no rhyme or reason for what happened, there is no excuse or explanation, it is awful and unfair, but I hope that someday the memory of his love for her, of his jokes, of his antics, can once again bring a smile to her face and not just bring pain to her heart.
     Life is unsettlingly fragile and we must love each other, deeply and loudly, while we are here.

My Big Fat Jewban Wedding

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I don’t get the ‘party’ element of a wedding, it is just not in my nature to be excited about a room full of people drinking where the music is too loud to talk and the faces are too many to remember.  I like casual, relaxed, and limited social settings.  I love spending time with friends, listening to their lively rants and sharing some of my own.  I like deep and meaningful relationships and exchanges where I can hear my thoughts and their words.  I like knowing everyone in the room and having the time to have a valuable exchange with them.  This unquestionably expands to my wedding day.  I want a room full of people happy to share the moment with us, a room full of people we know and love who won’t care about the shade of the tablecloth or the temperature of the salmon.  I want laughter to ring louder than the music.

I always thought we would just go down to the courthouse and be married, since I’ve never really understood weddings except for legal purposes.  Furthermore, that way we could avoid the awkwardness of planning a nontraditional and totally uncool reception,  but after a reasonable discussion between two attorneys we reached a reasonable settlement.  If it was to take place, my fiance and I discussed our wedding in similar terms.  We both wanted something small and meaningful and we agreed that the ceremony was the most important part.  We both continually and tirelessly emphasized the importance of the ceremony, of our vow before G-d and our loved ones to be together for the rest of our lives.  Without that, I figured, we might as well walk down to City Hall during our lunch hour and be legally bound.  Still, neither of us knew absolutely anything about Jewish weddings.  I asked Greg, hoping he could be a helpful resource and as far as I can recall he could only offer a chuppah, some wine and the breaking of the glass.  “When do we say our vows?”  I wondered, he shrugged.  “When do we kiss?”  I asked, he googled.  We were hopeless, so I turned to the only resource I could think of: books!

My sister sent me books, my friend who had just gotten married sent me books, and then I rushed to the library for more books (I owe $30 in overdue fees).  Here’s some of what I learned:

The Jewish wedding ceremony is a two-parter, consisting of the erusin and the nesuin. The erusin, or betrothal, was a ceremony that traditionally took place about a year before the second part of the wedding ceremony and it is sort of the equivalent of a modern engagement.  Traditionally the erusin begins with the hakafot, the act of the bride circling the groom seven times to set aside sacred space and ward off evil spirits.  Thereafter the groom says Haray at m’kudeshet li b’ataba’at zu k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael (Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring, according to the tradition of Moses and Israel.) and then gives his bride something of value (now we use a ring, and halakha states that wedding ring must be a pure, solid band, so that its value may be easily assessed). However, traditionally the groom presented the bride with a coin and not a ring.   Similarly a traditional wedding custom in Spain consisted of the groom presenting the bride with 13 coins known as arras, which represent his commitment to support her.   By following these formulaic steps the woman was thus set apart exclusively for that one man for the purpose of procreation.  Hooray! 

The second part of the ceremony is the nesuin (from the verb “to carry”) and it is in vast contrast from the legal nature of erusin. This is where love, spirituality, and connection to G-d enter the picture with joy and the timeless quality of two people loving each other.  It begins with the sheva brachot, the seven blessings and end with the breaking of the glass.  The latter custom has a plethora of fascinating explanations, from medieval superstitions that the shattering of the glass would ward off evil spirits to the more common interpretation that the shattering of the glass is a reminder of the destruction of the Temple, a reflection that even in moments of greatest joy we remember the sadness and lack of wholeness in the world.  My personal favorites are that a broken glass cannot be mended and likewise, marriage is irrevocable and it is a transforming experience that leaves individuals forever changed and also said to represent that the couple’s happiness will be as plentiful as the shards of glass (or that their children will be as plentiful as the shards of glass).   Traditionally the following song is sung after the glass is shattered: “Siman tov u’mazel tov, mazel tov siman tove (3x) Y’hei lanu Y’hei lanu, y’hei lanu, u’lichol Yisrael (2x)” (It is good and fortunate sign for us and for all Israel).  Interestingly enough it is also an Italian wedding tradition to break a glass when the ceremony is complete and to then count the shards of glass that remain to indicate the number of years the couple will stay happily married. Mazel Tov!

The Jewish wedding ceremony is to take place under a chuppah. According to The Creative Jewish Wedding book by Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer “throughout Jewish history the chuppah has been most commonly interpreted as a symbol of the matriarch and patriarch, Sarah and Abraham. It is said that Sarah and Abraham’s tent was open on all sides to let guests know that they were always welcome to come in. Because both Sarah and Abraham were thought of as having special relationships with God, their tents marked a sacred space where God’s presence could be felt upon entering. So, too, in contemporary weddings, the chuppah serves to create a sacred space, both open and private. It is open for all the bride and groom’s friends and relatives who are present to witness their covenant to each other. At the same time it is private, creating a feeling of warmth and intimacy that surrounds the special couple.”  Another pivotal element of the Jewish wedding is the  ketubah. Ketubah means “writing” or “written” and came to refer to the written marriage contract that is signed and read as part of the Jewish wedding, it traditionally contained the obligations of the husband to the wife, but currently can describe just about anything the couple wishes to include.

The we could be married by one o’clock thought still crosses my mind sometimes on very stressful days, it would be so simple, so fast, and then so over.  Yet, after reading countless books on wedding traditions I can’t help but want to incorporate so much history and meaning into the day we make that forever vow.