Sunday, April 27, 2014

Dear Hashem: Take care of my brother.

eli with baby GZ

NOTE: One year after my brother Eli's death in 2014, I published a book about the intertwining of our lives and his struggle with schizophrenia. This post and many other writings are included, in slightly different form, in that book.
Please wait until the ride has come to a full and complete stop is now available in print and Kindle editions.

Through laughter and tears, I invite you to come share my final journey with my brother.
You think you know crazy?  Maybe, maybe not. 

My family’s idea of crazy is a little different from most, although I’ve discovered that once I admit this, the stories sometimes start coming out of the woodwork.  We’re not alone, but our family craziness is still, I think, a little nuttier than most.

Our stories include dashing from a festive Pesach meal to bolt the door against my brother.  Visiting him while he’s tied in restraints to a bed… or in a special visiting room, holding a joy buzzer that will hopefully bring nurses if he gets violent.  Calling the cops to coax him to hand over the puppy he is attempting to raise… or kill. 

Or just standing by over the years, watching a clean, sweet-smelling, cuddly little boy (“Eli rhymes with belly, rhymes with jelly”… I swear my early love of doggerel came from having such an easily-rhymed, easily-teasable little brother) turn into a haggard, scarred, toothless, decrepit smoke-and-beer smelling old man of 43.

My little brother is schizophrenic.  Technically, he has schizoaffective disorder, which is just about the craziest of the crazy – bipolar and broken in the mind.  He hears voices, instructions, he sees things, he is full of paranoia about the world around him and everybody he sees exists as only a 2-dimensional character in a play for which only he knows the plot.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Naomi’s Bunkbed Rules


    1. no shoes
    2. no rude noises
    3. do as your told
    4. only bring a pillow to prevent lice
    5. no food on my bed
    6. avoid putting fingers & hands in mouth
    7. no more blankets
    8. not alot of dolls (get lost)
    9. consider a doll like mine BIG
    10. have fun, Naomi ♥


The dictator of the upper bunk.

(For some reason, she enjoys writing script even more now that she’s here.  I think because it sets her apart from the other kids in her class, who are only learning how to print.  Sadly, she has not finished learning the capital letters, so she just sort of guesses.)

Good Shabbos!!!

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Humbug Haggadah: HuffPo picks 25 “new” Haggadahs, to which I say bah.

Just the folks you want all up in your seder business… the ever-scandal-rousing Huffington Post brags this week that New Haggadahs Offer Unique Passover Experience For Every Seder Table.  In this case, they’ve decided to mix in where they’re not wanted by stirring up the pot and dishing up 25 “new” Haggadahs.

Now… before you get all riled up at me for being reactionary, please know:  I am all FOR new haggadahs.  In fact, I personally buy a new haggadah every single year.  (At least one!)  So I totally love new haggadahs.

But there are haggadahs, and then there are haggadahs. 

There are haggadahs that are all about Pesach, and then there are haggadahs that are all about other things – fair trade, for instance, or vegetarianism.  A few people this year (through facebook) tried to get me interested in connecting the idea of agunot (women whose husbands refuse to grant them a get, a halachic divorce, meaning they can’t remarry) with the liberation of Pesach… but I held strong.

It’s not that there aren’t other important issues.  But for one night, the seder night, I believe the focus should be on Pesach.  Plain and simple:  the story of bnei Yisrael leaving Mitzrayim and its emotional, psychological and spiritual ramifications.

There is also an argument that focusing on another issue helps make this old, old story of Pesach “relevant” – fulfilling the idea that every person should see him/herself as if he/she personally left Mitzrayim, which is very difficult for us today.  To which I say, really?  Like if you cannot see pictures of modern-day slaves in shoe factories in China, you will have no concept of slavery, and no understanding of what it meant for Hashem to free us back in Mitzrayim?  Well, okay, then.

A few distracting haggadahs

Here are some of the “distraction” haggadahs I spotted, kind of randomly, in the Huffington Post list (all descriptions are from their site, not by me!):

#6, Vegetarian Haggadah.  While many Haggadahs are vegetarian-friendly, the Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb is distinctly focused on vegetarianism and animal rights. Meat is never mentioned, and in its place are traditional veggie dishes your ancient ancestors might have eaten.

#9, LGBT Haggadah.  The Pride Freedom Seder Haggadah is an LGBT-friendly Haggadah dedicated to gender and sexuality equality. It is also a sober affair, substituting wine for water in solidarity with those in recovery.

#14, Humanist Haggadah.  This Humanist Haggadah invites Jews and non-Jews alike to participate in the Passover festivities. It highlights Passover as a celebration of life and uses the rebirth of nature in springtime as a parallel story of liberation.

#19, Haggadah for a Chocolate Seder.  There's no seder like a chocolate seder. A Haggadah for a Chocolate Seder is more than just a delicious seder alternative; it's also a statement on how organic and fair trade products continue the values of liberation highlighted by Passover.

#22, Unitarian Universalist Haggadah.  A Passover Haggadah for a Unitarian Universalist Seder is a Haggadah for anyone wishing to participate in the seder, whether Jewish or "Jew in spirit." As the Haggadah expresses, "Seders have a universal appeal because of the values being celebrated:  freedom, striving against oppression, and the enhancing of liberty for all."

A chocolate seder?  A Unitarian seder?  Not all the examples are this extreme, but almost all of them are about something other than Pesach, in my opinion.

A few good haggadahs

So what are some “new” haggadahs that don’t distract from the core message, haggadahs that really are all about Pesach? 

I asked a few friends on facebook (okay, I asked everybody; a few bothered to answer).  Here are their recommendations:

There are also a few weird new “novelty” haggadahs every year.  Here are two that jumped out at me… in both cases, somewhat literally.

As for me…Did I buy a new haggadah this year? 

Darn tootin’ I did! 

I already own Jonathan Sacks’ original Pesach haggadah, which features a (good) translation by Shlomo Riskin, alongside divrei Torah by Rabbi Sacks.  But this year, he released The Jonathan Sacks Haggada, which apparently features his own translation and a nice new cover.  Call me a sucker but as a stranger in a strange land (albeit my own holy land), I wanted something reassuringly English and familiar, and Yiddishkeit doesn’t get much more English than Rabbi Sacks.

image(I hope there’s not too much overlap between the old haggadah and the new one.)

What about you?  Will you be buying a new haggadah – or have you already bought one?  Do you have an old favourite you’d like to recommend?  Feel free to drop it in the comments section below!

Previous haggadah-related posts:

Also… to help you get in the Pesach mood, instant-download your copy of my PDF Pesach / Passover Lapbook over here at CurrClick.

Or this FREE printable “On Pesach” Passover mini-book (grab it free over at my kids’ books blog).

Monday, April 07, 2014

Ouch – do we miss homeschooling.

IMG_00004337The first day of Pesach break (okay, it’s really the second!) seems as good a time as any to take a deep breath and evaluate how the school year is going for us so far.  The year of schooling and not-homeschooling.  A year of literally HUGE continental shifts.

It’s also great timing because we did our annual (this year NOT) homeschool matzah bake this morning.  It was weird and very, very different.  But there’s a science-y edge that might be interesting and that got the homeschooler in me just a little revved up after gathering dust for a few months.  (click through to read all the details and maybe even try it out yourself!)

For the past few years, during March break, and every summer for a couple of weeks, the kids went to day camp.  It was like school – a nice break, gave them a chance to be with other kids and socialize “normally” for a change, gave me a few days off… etcetera.

We were happy to do it because we always knew that at the end, we’d go right back to homeschooling at the end.

And when camp was over, we never missed it – the routine, the friends, the teachers.  The kids never mentioned any of it again until it was almost time for camp again.  We’d all just settle right back in, hardly missing a beat.

But now… now that homeschooling itself is gone?  The word “missing” isn’t enough.

It aches. 

Missing homeschooling is a constant ache.  Not “something missing” like you get your hair cut and your head is lighter and you do a double-take when you look in the mirror. 

This ache is “something missing” – like a death in the family.

Something missing:

  • My kids:  They’re not the same.  When we see each other now, they are tired and pretty much all “learned-out” for the day.  They are also predictably more unpleasant – to me, to each other.  Still nice kids, but different.
  • Me:  After being home for almost 9 years, I’m out all the time.  Stuff around the house, cooking… not me.  Between ulpan and appointments and other classes, and now work, it feels like I’m either heading out or coming home constantly.
  • Leisure:  Homeschooling wasn’t all about leisure, but it was an important ingredient.  Naomi needed it to write her little books, and GZ needed it for all his imaginative play.  These days, they don’t have much; it’s rare and precious.
  • Socialization:  Yeah, the kids are getting it at school.  And we’re meeting adults and getting out and seeing people.  But we’re not socializing together – moving around in the world and hanging out with adults and kids the way we’re used to.

This all sounds pretty weak given that I started it by invoking the phrase “a death in the family.”

On some level, I thought it would just be about going to school or NOT going to school, but this decision (which couldn’t be helped in so many ways) has so many more consequences than I could have imagined.

I keep thinking that if our core reasons for sending the kids to school change, we could homeschool again.  But I honestly don’t know if it will ever happen.  And if and when we do… will things ever be the same again now that their minds have been “tainted” by school?

What were those core reasons?

  • We need to learn Hebrew – full-time ulpan is impossible with kids at home
  • We need to find work – again, very, very hard with kids at home
  • The kids need to learn Hebrew – school is the best way to do that
  • The kids need friends – and again, school is a quick way to acquire a built-in peer group.

GZ was amazed a few months ago over how many more friends he has this year than last year.  But then again, he also cries every day that he doesn’t want to go to gan. 

And I think he’s realizing that even though he knows a lot of kids now, they aren’t really his friends.  In fact, some are just the opposite.  He has said “it will be 107 days before they want to be my friend.”  I have assured him that the kids just don’t know how cool he is, how many jokes he knows, what kind of a sense of humour he has and how much he knows about so many subjects.  He’s still buying it, but he wishes they’d catch on quicker.

Naomi Rivka is a social bunny, and she is well-loved, not just liked, at her school.  Especially compared to the rest of the kids, she is quiet and delicate and poised and demure.  Having taught her for the first 8 years of her life, and having seen what Israeli schoolchildren are like, I imagine it’s like having a small adult in a class of baboons.

I fear that she will become a baboon, too, before much longer.

Have the core reasons changed?  Well, not much. 

  • Ulpan is no longer a full-time concern, true.  But I just started a new job.  Granted, it’s part-time, 20 hours a week.  And Ted isn’t working and could take over when I’m not here.  But it’s also temporary, a mat leave position.  So that means in four to six months, I’ll be jobless again and need to re-evaluate yet again.  And yet, if it can happen once, it could happen again.  Or something else could turn up, equally part-time, equally ideal.  Or I could strike it rich in the lucrative field of writing kids’ bookscould happen!!! :-D (big zany grin)
  • The kids do sort of know Hebrew – a bit.  The “learning” stage could conceivably go on for years; at what point could you decide they know enough and pull them out??? 
  • The “friends” thing has been a bit of a letdown.  They’ve met more kids with whom they have more in common just through the small English-speaking chevre (crowd) here in Kiryat Shmuel.

But here’s another thing that has happened.  Watching how much Naomi Rivka is learning in limudei kodesh (Jewish studies), and how fast, has completely undermined any sense that I could ever hope to do it myself. 

Take Chumash, for example.  Where, last year, we learned one new passuk (sentence) every 2 weeks, these days, she’s learning a chapter a week.  We took 2 years to learn the first part of Lech Lecha – her class zoomed through it (having started at the very beginning of Bereishis) a couple of months ago already.

This is Grade 2, I tell myself.

These are Israelis, I tell myself. 

They know what they’re talking about – literally.  They speak the language, and always have, and so will your children if you don’t mess things up. 

This is the holy land; the formula is tried and true, I tell myself.  Leave it to them to teach the kids; it’s easier. 

And also, I ask myself:  why move to a new homeland and then decide you want your kids to stick out more than they already do?

There is great emphasis placed here on “klitah,” absorption.  To absorb is to choose a school where you think you’ll fit in… and then fit in.  Don’t mess with the system, work within the system; be absorbed.

Overall, the system works.  I have seen it, and I believe in it.  But, but, but.

Sometimes, absorption hurts.  Not a small hurt, but a great, big wound, in the very centre of my life.

Of course, self-absorption can hurt, too.  Like when it’s 11:00 pm (in Israel, 23:00) and time to sleep because I have work in the morning in a city two hours away and I’m still not in bed and the laundry’s still not hung up, and I’m sitting here trying to convey just how sad I am to be apart from my kids every day and wondering pointlessly how to fix it.

I guess you’ll have to take my word for it.  The laundry calls.

If you are homeschooling, appreciate it.  I want to throw all kinds of wonky wisdom at you like, appreciate it and hold them close and sleep in more.  Like think of me and – what?  Hesitate?

That all depends:  am I a cautionary tale, or just exactly what I’ve always been… a mama trying to figure out what’s best for her kids, her family, her life?  Trying to live the dream Hashem has dreamed for all his people, for all eternity.  Maybe, maybe.

I may not get a chance to blog here again before Pesach…

So whether you’re absorbing or being absorbed or just plain absorbent (don’t all parents need a bit of that?), have a happy and kosher Pesach… from the entire MamaLand cast & crew!!!