The 40 Year Old Bat Mitzvah

The Meaning of Life!

Posted in philosophizing, spirituality by Juliet on June 7, 2010

I’m driving home from class.  Yeah, it’s my adult bat mitzvah class, but nothing incredibly spiritual is discussed (just Hebrew grammar rules, probably about as non-spiritual a topic as you can find.)

U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” is playing on the radio.

I’m eating toast.  (Weird, I know.  I love toast.)

There’s not much traffic – just me on a ribbon of dark highway.

Suddenly it hits me:  I figure out THE MEANING OF LIFE.

It’s two seemingly contradictory ideas that you have to hold in your head at once.

1)  I am nothing.  Look up at the stars, at the vastness that is the universe.  I’m smaller than the smallest speck of infinitesimal dust.


2)  I am everything.  The universe and everything in it was created just for me.

So there’s me driving.  There’s the road, U2, the  car, the toast.  But then I see it like a special-effects scene from a movie.  The camera jumps back from the road to the city, then the continent, then the planet, which is like a sparkling Faberge egg clasped in a child’s hand, and the child is me.

[tweetmeme source=”batmitzvahat40” only_single=false



Posted in holidays, philosophizing, rituals, soulfish, spirituality by Juliet on March 31, 2010

Delicious...and dangerous?

It is a Passover seder tradition to set out a cup of wine for the prophet Elijah (Eliyahu Hanavi.) The rabbis could not agree whether we drink four cups of wine or five during the seder. They came up with a quintessentially Jewish compromise: drink four, and set out the fifth cup for Elijah, who will tell us the answer when he returns to herald the coming of the Messiah.

Fairy? Faerie?

Our older daughter, Eva, lost her first tooth during the summer between kindergarten and first grade. It was spectacularly bad timing that we happened to be reading the Spiderwick books, which feature evil fairies.

“Maybe the tooth fairy will come tonight!” we told her as we showed her how to put her tooth under the pillow.

“You mean she’ll be here, like in our house?” Eva asked. “She’ll see my room?” Even finding a golden dollar coin under her pillow couldn’t relieve her distress at having her personal space invaded by a possibly malevolent three inch tall creature with magical powers and spiky fingernails. (In one of the Spiderwick books, fairies tie a girl to her bed by her hair as she sleeps, as a “prank.”)

Jane, age four, reacted this Passover to the story of Elijah about the same way.

She kept asking, as it grew darker and darker that night, “When is that guy coming?” Two days later she was still worrying.

I tried soothing her.

“He’s not a real, actual guy. He’s not going to walk in.” (Though Orthodox Jews around the globe prayed very fervently at their seder tables this Passover for exactly that thing to happen.)

“Is he pretend?” she asked.

“Well, not really pretend.” Nobody else at the table came to my aid, and to make matters worse, Eva was listening too, in that pretending-not-to-listen way that third graders do.

“He’s more like an idea that we like to think about.”

As the words were coming from my mouth, I thought (silently in my own head, of course): “Like the tooth fairy.”

Whenever people want to point out the ridiculousness of faith in something you can’t see, they say, “So you mean you believe in the tooth fairy? What about the Easter bunny?”

And of course I don’t believe in those things. (And not just because I’m Jewish.) And I do believe in a God that I can’t see, hear, or touch.

I sense God’s presence, and I know. And it’s not the wonderment of a child finding gifts on Christmas morning or digging into the jelly beans at Easter.

It’s what some would call “blind faith,” and though it may be blind, it still is faith.

The Universe Is Sending Me a Message

Posted in philosophizing, spirituality by Juliet on March 29, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about angels lately.

Not Hallmark greeting card angels, but biblical angels. Jewish angels.

In Bereishit (Genesis) angels are sent to perform duties, or as messengers or helpers. These are worker bee angels, if you will.

I put the question out there on Twitter last week: Do you believe in angels? I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the past few days.

In reply, here’s what the universe served up:

While running back and forth through a hallway at our four year old’s preschool carrying pitchers of water to fill the “sea-life activity table,” a book literally jumped off the shelf right in front of me.

It did jump.

Nothing else fell. Nobody else was in the hall. There wasn’t an earthquake. Nobody pushed the bookcase.

I bent down to pick it up and saw it was about…angels.

The next morning, while browsing at a used bookstore, my four year old kept handing me her picks for me to read.

“Here, mom. You should read this one.” (A book about gardening. Then a book about the civil war. Then a romance.)

She did that five or six times, and yup, the last book she placed in my hands was the exact same book about angels.

I bought it. I will read it. Stay tuned.

A Book of Angels
by Sophy Burnham
Ballantine Books, 2004


Posted in personal growth, spirituality by Juliet on March 28, 2010

It’s hard to be spiritual when you have a migraine.

I have friends who suffer from frequent headaches – migraines, even – and I consider myself lucky that I only have them a couple of times a year.

I have a high pain tolerance (just ask my dentist, or the obstetricians who delivered our daughters with drug-free natural deliveries), but I absolutely hate feeling queasy, and I hate headaches. Enter the migraine.

From my journal, March 21, 2010, 2:30 am:


don’t feel good



This feeling, feeling bad, will get worse.

Luckily I know that self-talk is a powerful tool. Since I’m a writer, my self-talk occurs on the written page:

It’s just a feeling.

It’ll pass.

Fear. Push through it.

BE GENTLE ON MYSELF AND KNOW THAT I AM SAFE. I am safe. I am loved. I am worthy. I am nurtured. I am nourished.

Remember that day when I felt so sick and panicked and wrote in my journal to “talk myself down”? It worked.


worn out
spread way too thin

I haven’t been sleeping enough. I started out tired then ran around all day. I ate aged Swiss cheese and drank red wine. I had chocolate and mustard and tangerines. I did a lot of driving. I was under stress.

I sat up all night flipping channels. Finally, at around 5:45 am, I wrote this:

I am fine. I am loved and cared for. I am SAFE. What a pretty sunrise behind the pink blossoms of the nectarine tree.

I cancelled everything and spent the following day napping, eating dry crackers, and resting with the cats. Sure enough, I did get better, and soon, too.

The Afikomen Diaries

Posted in holidays, rituals, soulfish, spirituality by Juliet on March 27, 2010

(Originally published on Thanksgiving Feast on April 1, 2009.)

The Afikomen Diaries – Thanksgiving Feast

A friend (who shall remain nameless) mentioned the other day that she was heading to Best Buy to get her kids electronics for afikomen presents.


Ninety nine percent of you are asking, “What’s an afikomen present?” (The other one percent just navigated away to to see if there are any going out of business deals on ipods.)

The afikomen is a piece of matzo broken at the beginning of the Passover seder. It is wrapped in a napkin and hidden. Later in the night, before the seder can conclude, the afikomen must be found and eaten (as a very dry cardboard-textured “dessert.”)

Frequently, what happens with the afikomen is effectively a ransoming. Kids aren’t stupid, after all. (They even manage to arrange that it is found by both kids at the same time so they both get prizes.)

So is this something we parents should encourage? Is it the right thing to do? It sounds an awful lot like bribery, or blackmail, or something.

There are similarities to be drawn with Chanukkah, really. It’s been the “Jewish Christmas” for at least half a century. According to Grandma, in her childhood the kids got “a little gelt” – a few coins. This was the Depression so maybe kids got a penny or two. Now it’s Wii and bikes and tennis racquets and Mac Books.

Jewish holidays tend to be show and tell events. We do things a certain way or eat certain foods as a tangible reminder of whatever the takeaway of that particular holiday happens to be.

For instance: Shavuot? Eat cheesecake. Really. I am not making this up.

Passover is complex. It is to be understood on many levels.

It is about spring. Spring is time for new life, hope, optimism.

It is about freedom from slavery, both literal and metaphorical. We fled Egypt – Mitzrayim – with only the clothes on our backs. The symbolism of the matzo, of course, is that there wasn’t even time for the bread to rise. Bereft of everything, we were also weightless. There is a reason they call it a “thrill of fear.”

For all the rich freedom from slavery symbolism, it is ironic how much back-breaking and expensive labor and preparation is involved, especially for women. At our last Torah study session before Passover, we were discussing all the to-dos surrounding the holiday and the jaws of the several non-Jews in the class dropped. Yes, it is more than just eating matzo, having a seder, and not eating cake for a week. “Extensive” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Even with all the hard work, though, Passover is my favorite holiday. And perversely I enjoy it the most in years when I’ve followed the rules the most closely.

So back to the afikomen. Some sources say the tradition of giving an afikomen reward is a recent one, dating back only about 200 years (in a centuries-old tradition, what’s a century or two?) It was created from Talmudic wisdom urging parents to find a way to keep the children awake until the end. (Show-and-tell is for all of us, but for none so much as the children.)

Kids love Passover. They stay up late and drink wine (diluted with water)*. Everyone is gathered together and the entire table dotes on them. They get to do fun stuff with the plates. It’s religiously-sanctioned playing with your food. Why do they need a bribe?

Living in a predominantly non-Jewish area, sometimes I feel like I’m constantly telling the kids, “We don’t do that.” “Sorry, we can’t, because we don’t do this.”

No sitting on the Easter bunny’s lap. No Santa’s lap either. No Christmas tree. No caroling. Deciding what I let the girls do and don’t do is like hitting a moving target. Do we trick-or-treat? We decided to, but it’s not like they even like it that much. (They are much happier standing at the door in their costumes passing out candy.) And what about Valentine’s Day? Our religious observation like so much else in life is a work in progress.

Meanwhile, I try to really do it up for the Jewish holidays. I want our kids’ childhood to be about all the things WE DO, not those relatively few things we don’t. We can have a full-on major Torah-ordained, steeped-in-tradition holiday every single week if we observe shabbat.

That’s why Eva got all decked out for the Purim carnival a few weeks ago. She wore a floor-length Queen Esther dress with dress-up heels. (She even managed to eat pizza, play Lazer Tag, and jump in the Spongebob jumpy in it.)

At Sukkot, we build and decorate a sukkah, even though neither of us are handy, I can’t watch Scott use a nail gun, and we’re already tired out and holidayed-out from the High Holidays, which fall right before. Not only do we build and decorate the thing, but we try to always have a party with tons of friends and neighbors.

At Chanukkah, we give gifts. We probably don’t give our kids as many gifts for Chanukkah as others give their kids at Christmas, but it’s not a skimpy spread by any means.

So what to do about Passover, and the afikomen? I don’t think it’s ipod-worthy (not, at least, for my three- and seven-year olds) but I will probably end up raiding my gift cupboard.

I’m not above lusting after pastel-colored Easter egg decorations, cute door wreaths for every season, and the three-foot tall faux chocolate bunny I see every time I’m at Marshall’s during spring. I won’t buy my kids Easter baskets but if someone else gives them one, I am truly grateful for their thoughtfulness and Scott and I eat most of it. In essence we are all works in progress and that is where I am, now.

* I like to think our Jewish relationship with wine is “continental.” There is an intense cultural loathing of the “shikker” (“drunk.”) We are notable lightweights and our most famous wine (sweet Manishewitz) is horrible. But on the other hand, wine is intertwined with our blessings, our traditions, and our celebrations. My kids enjoy a “finger-dip” of wine and occasionally will have a small amount of real wine in one of those teeny little plastic cups during kiddush (blessing over wine.)

One morning at preschool, the kids sat down to their snack and the grape juice was served in tiny plastic cups. (Who serves dark stainable purple grape juice to preschoolers? I guess that’s why it only happened once during all of preschool.) Eva, who was three at the time, turned to the teacher sitting next to her and remarked, “I see we’re having wine.”