A Tale of Two Microwaves

Full disclosure: I’ve always had food issues.

As a toddler I was often caught gnawing on a stick of butter or hiding green beans in the recesses of my high chair; as a child in Hong Kong, I refused to eat the fragrant Cantonese dishes and opted only for sticky rice. My sophisticated palate however, upon returning to the states, graduated to such delicacies as Campbell’s soup and Swanson’s frozen TV dinners.

As a teen, I became aware of the cruelty involved in the production of animal products and became a sporadic yet zealous vegetarian. As a teen, I also became aware of the cruelty involved in the weight loss culture and nurtured a warped body image. To an adolescent girl in the toxic ’80s, food quickly became the enemy.

Today I consider myself in recovery — daily I am in heated negotiations with breakfast or signing a treaty with lunch or starting a cold war with dinner. The enemy never retreats; I need the enemy to survive. An alcoholic triumphs by avoiding alcohol while the victim of an eating disorder still must eat. So triumph rests on the mantra I am not my weight.

And like Jacob and his hip wrestling with G-d to become Israel, I wrestle with ugly voices from the past whispering a moment on your lips, forever on your hips. But what does any of this odd confession have to do with working at an orthodox Jewish girls’ school?

Well into my second year of teaching at this Yeshiva, I have finally begun to see food as a bracha, a blessing.

It’s common knowledge that observant Jews glorify HaShem, G-d, by following the Halakha, or divine law handed down to Moshe in the Torah and revisited by rabbis for centuries. The literal Hebrew translation of Halakha, incidentally, is “the way to walk” rather than merely “the law.” And one of the beautiful ways they walk is by keeping Kashrut, or eating only what is kosher.

Hence the two microwaves in the faculty lounge where I work — I use the one labeled NOT KOSHER. So when I heat up my tasteless veggie chik’n or leftover kung pao tofu, I get a little reminder from above that I’m breaking G-d’s heart. Or as my students would respond: #funnynotfunny.

Obviously as a follower of Jesus, I accept His death on the cross as a new covenant, one that frees us from the legal obligations to the original Sinai Covenant. To a Jew, that statement is blasphemy; to a Christian, it is freedom. The kind of freedom only Messhiach, or Messiah, could bring as explained in Colossians 2:13-14 and even Jeremiah 31:31.

But that doesn’t mean the Jewish devotion to eating clean and compassionately and with a fear of the Lord isn’t absolutely enchanting — liberating actually — to this woman who was taught to see food as evil.

I’m inspired daily by the passion my Jewish colleagues have for HaShem. Nowhere have I seen such an awareness of His power, His love, His commandments, and His importance than in the presence of our rabbis, our mechanechet, Chumash, Talmud, and derachim teachers, as well as our Israel guidance and other counselors. And while many of my students are still figuring it all out (I mean, they are teenagers), they model the same devotion.

Last May I decided to put together gift bags to encourage my AP English students as they approached the juggernaut of the College Board’s national exam and dreamed of that elusive perfect score of 5. Mini bubble wands, Play-Doh (to shape the number 5), and glow sticks quickly filled each neon bag. Of course, Wrigley’s peppermint Cobalt 5 gum would be perfect… purchased! And promptly returned to CVS because NOT KOSHER, Candice.

How beautiful. How good. How instructive to know G-d cares even about chewing gum. That G-d cares even about what, how, and when we feed our bodies. That G-d cares even about how we treat His animals. That G-d cares even about microwaves.

When I gave birth for the first time, I finally saw my body as powerful, creative, and worthy rather than weak, unruly, and worthless. Witnessing first hand G-d’s people keeping Kashrut has been a similar experience for me — incredibly personal and difficult to capture here in the confines of this web log.

Suffice it to say, I now see food as a means for connecting to G-d, my creator and savior, who blesses me in untold ways. And while I use the lesser microwave at work, I am a greater person for being on that campus. Barukh HaShem, and Thank G-d.

#shanatova #christianity #judaism #yeshiva #kashrut #bodyimage #eatingdisorderawareness #englishteacher

Say Yes to the Righteous[dr]ess

This summer my very SoCal teenage daughter had quite the “what do I wear?” dilemma — only it wasn’t the typical which-shorts-go-best-with-my-halter-top. She was hired to babysit for several my orthodox Jewish colleagues, and she didn’t own any appropriately modest clothing. (Side note: I cannot say I did not enjoy, even perhaps relish, her conundrum.)

My daughter’s mad rush to Fox Hills Mall echoed my own mad rush of sorts the previous summer as I prepared to teach at a school that required all female staff wear skirts (hems beneath the knees) and tops that cover both the elbows and the collar bones. Only I experienced a deeper level of grief because I had to say farewell to the plethora of smart pantsuits hanging in my closet (pants suits that I swear mock me as I pass them by each morning). Now I reach for the maxi skirt to don my new frum fashion.

A most compelling argument for modesty was first introduced to me by author Wendy Shalit in her groundbreaking early 2000 book A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. Shalit dismantles the prevailing Bachelor in Paradise culture and exhorts us to end the sexualization of girls, which sadly is all too relevant today. In short, she declares that modesty equates to self respect, a virtue that is in short shrift (no pun intended) lately. As amazing as Shalit’s work was, is, and continues to be (her online support group called ModestlyYours is worth checking out), she’s merely echoing what the Orthodox Jews have been living out for centuries — tznias, or modesty.

The discussion about clothing took an interesting turn for me, however, this Sunday at church when my pastor delivered a sermon titled, “You are What You Wear,” the second part of a three part series called Be Strong. Essentially, he gave an exegesis of Paul’s urging to the Ephesians to “put on the full armor of God” in order to stand against evil (6:13). The first garments mentioned are the “belt of truth” and the boots “fitted with… readiness” (6:14-15). During the time Paul lived, the Apostolic Age as Christians call it, or 30 to 50 Common Era as the Jewish people call it, Roman soldiers used belts to hold up their lower body armor, so of course this garment would be of the utmost importance. Likewise, twisting an ankle on the battlefield would mean certain death for a Greek hoplite, so well supported foot cover was essential.

And anyone who’s ever played the party game Oregon Trail can attest to the importance of a good pair of boots. Without them, the harsh realities of 19th Century pioneer life settle in and, well, result in your leaving the table only to loiter awkwardly behind your friends while munching on pita and hummus.

Speaking of hummus, the ancient Israelites were not allowed to have weapons or an organized militia under the rule of any of their many oppressors. So does this battle dress imagery fall short when addressing my Orthodox Jewish friends?

Absolutely not.

Look to the startling description of HaShem in Isaiah 59:17 — “He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head…” which Paul’s exhortation all but recites. You see, clearly the Israelites understood that God is omnipotent, and that he alone fights their battles. Knowing God’s manner of dress mattered as they faced Pharaoh, the Babylonians, the Romans, even the so-called Christians. Because HaShem was “wrapped… in zeal as in a cloak,” they could stand firm in faith not fear (59:18). I would also add that while they did not have shields and armor, the Israelites did clothe themselves in traditions, prayer, and community as they do so beautifully today. And let’s not forget the IDF, but I digress.

I think Paul and Rashi could agree on this very point — that the sincere person of faith must purpose to get dressed spiritually for each day.

Disclaimer: Before I continue, let it be understood I do not believe in shaming people for how they dress. (Learned this lesson the hard way. Let me just leave it at that.) Nor am I judging the choices women make. Finally, I am not ignorant to the complexities modesty plumbs in today’s Judeo-Christian community as well as the secular world at large.

As a Christian, getting dressed spiritually for each day essentially means “cloth[ing] yourself with Jesus” (Romans 13:14). The goal, of course, is to emanate His compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. The reality is that the best most of us can muster on a typical day, and maybe I’m the outlier here, is a few prayers and a quick look at the Bible. Also, as a community, we don’t really have a sense of what constitutes modesty save for the general concept of not causing your neighbor to stumble in lust, which really boils down to not wearing two piece swimsuits at summer camp. I would also argue that we as Christians haven’t figured out how to connect the whole “put on the armor of God” thing with how we actually present ourselves to the world.

From my limited perspective this initial year of teaching in an Orthodox Jewish school, I believe they have figured out how to connect it all. To them, getting dressed spiritually means something so much more.

It means prayer or Tefillah every morning and every afternoon and evening. But this prayer is not a solo activity with hands clasped and eyes closed. It’s communal with hands clasping a seder and eyes open to read God’s word… and mouths moving, speaking God’s promises, standing, sitting, standing. Believe me, it is a sight of true beauty and wonder, and my first day of work was deeply impacted by it.

The pursuit of righteousness inherent in the modern Orthodox is also linked to how they actually dress. In Jewish history, many communities would agree upon specific styles of clothing in order to recognize one another as a fellow Jew. In order to be united as one people, they emphasized conforming to one unique look. In a sense, the community’s survival depended on it. Also, the idea of women wearing skirts instead of pants is born of the sentiment that women should have an identity which is significant and their own. I envy that shared identity, and I am happy I get to be a small part of it now (if you saw us all on a field trip, believe me, you would know that we are together).

While modesty is the general aim for single as well as married women, the covering of one’s hair with a sheitel, for instance, applies to only the married, a practice that took me somewhat by surprise.

In my previous schools, a teacher would never be allowed to wear a beret, a ball cap, or a head scarf. How do they get away with it, I wondered that first week. In my previous schools, no one (that I knew of) wore a wig for that matter. Why does everyone have such gorgeous, perfect hair every day, I questioned to myself, secretly planning to see my stylist post haste.

Of course I soon learned that covering one’s hair is a way of honoring your husband, a way of protecting what is private and intimate, a way of remaining holy and committed. It’s a metaphoric helmet of salvation for a marriage. But mostly, it’s an act of love. (Especially in this August heat!)

Being in no way near qualified to get into the Talmud, kli gever, or beged isha, I will leave it at this… my beloved newfound Jewish community has taught me the importance of connecting my spiritual life to my daily choices, and that one powerful way to do that is by saying yes to the righteous[dr]ess. Baruch HaShem and Thank God.

#modesty #wendyshalit #judaism #christianity #yeshiva

L’Chaim, Sir Isaac Newton!

My father’s favorite refrain during my childhood was “Action and reaction!” Typically this wisdom would come after my brothers broke another household fixture while wrestling each other from room to room, or my screaming in the rear-facing seat of the family station wagon because someone took my Hubba Bubba chewing gum.

“Caaaandice,” his voice unfolding my name with the precision of a kosher butcher, “Action and reaction!”

This, from the marine engineer who studied Newton’s Third Law of Physics at the U.S. Naval Academy. While I once saw this phrase as mere hackneyed platitude and, admittedly, somewhat of a joke easily and frequently parodied by us kids, I now view it with a bit more reverence. In no way do I understand the scientific implications, but its rudimentary concept came to life for me during my first year teaching at an Orthodox Yeshiva high school.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Two months into my new job, tragedy descended upon the Jewish community — the vicious hand of antisemitism struck again. This time in the shape of an AR-57 and three Glock 357s. An October Shabbat morning at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh quickly became the all-too familiar scene of spilled Jewish blood. In the midst of my horror and outrage that weekend, I grieved for my colleagues and my students. But I also wondered what to expect come Monday morning.

How will my new Jewish community react to this action of evil? And how should I, a Christian, react, both to them and to the fact of a growing global antisemitism?

But I didn’t have to wait until Monday. Their response was immediate (after sun down, of course). Our faculty WhatsApp was chiming like the bells of Notre Dame or, more relevantly, the car horns on the 405 behind my house. You see, silence wasn’t an option. Life wasn’t paused. No one was unsure what to say or what to do. The messages flooded out — very human messages reminiscent of David’s Psalms. But confusion, anger, and despair were overshadowed by stories, people, and plans.

In short, the way my new Jewish community reacted to the evil of this attack is with a resounding L’ChaimTo Life!

I’ve come to learn that the 1st Century (C.E. or Common Era) Jewish scholar, Rabbi Akiva, is credited with the first L’Chaim toast in the Talmud; his invaluable teachings also explain that life is Torah knowledge. And that when the Jewish people gather and together shout L’Chaim, they are shouting for goodness, for peace and blessings to rain down. But one doesn’t make a toast alone. One cannot clink wine glasses to the air. Especially since, according to Chabad.org (yes, I watch their videos), the literal meaning of L’Chaim is not “to life,” but “to lives.”

“Caaaandice,” my Heavenly Father whispered with the tenderness of ocean foam, “to lives.”

Experiencing the aftermath of the Pittsburgh attack along side my colleagues and students taught me that the Jewish people seem to know better than the rest of us that a life not shared is unlivable. I walked onto campus Monday morning to find candle-laden table displays of 17″ x 11″ glossy photos of each of the shooting victims. One of our rabbis shared stories from his time living in Squirrel Hill. We sang. We prayed. We even laughed. But of most impact to me was the school-wide assembly which included our students’ sharing the precious details of each of the victims’ lives.

For a moment, these people were no longer dead — Joyce Fienberg Z”‘, Richard Gottfried Z”l, Rose Mallinger Z”l, as well as the other eight victims were made alive through the words of our students.

Later that year, a few of my students flew to Poland to participate in an event called The March of the Living. Thousands of Jewish youth march together from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hashoah, as a tribute to all victims of the Holocaust. But it doesn’t end there. The second leg of the trip is to Israel, to their homeland where they march from the Kikar Sofra (City Hall) to the Kotel (Western Wall) where an epic, and I mean epic, celebration breaks out.

What apt symbolism… from the ashes of Auschwitz to the milk and honey of Jerushalayim.

Sadly, there will always be actions motivated by hate. But the Jewish community gets it right — the only Godly reaction is to live, to lives, and to life. L’Chaim, Baruch Hashem, and Thank God!

#baruchhashem #tolife #pittsburghstrong #strongerthanhate

Image result for march of the living
2019 March of the Living outside Auschwitz

Towards Another Beginning

In one of his final interviews, Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist Sam Shepard explained that the “most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning.” While he was discussing one of the most unpredictable of fields — the theater, I apply it to another rather unpredictable profession. The one I chose twenty-one years ago. Education.

Fourteen months ago I made the decision to jump ship. Not from teaching, but from a special little school that had been my home for the majority of my career. A home I had the privilege to help build along side my husband. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, this exodus was incredibly painful and anything but easy.

And yet, God.

You see, I thought I was bobbing in the open water alone, cast away, abandoned, lost. The amazing colleagues, the Christian fellowship, the beautiful students, the husband’s surprise coffee deliveries. Lost, lost, lost, lost.

Perhaps. But then again, God.

The creator of the universe did not just comfort me in my time of transition, nor did He merely open a door to another teaching position. No, he pulled the magic trick of the century. In the priceless words of Annie Dillard, I “finally understood that [I’m] dealing with a maniac.” God is that outrageously good and perfect and generous.

And to anyone who would argue that point with me, I say look at the ship that He sent to rescue me. My new beginning, my new school, the Yeshiva I now call home. Look a little closer and you’ll see the face of God.

His eyes sparkle with Torat Yisrael, or the commitment to learning Torah. His complexion shines with Medinat Yisrael, or the celebration of the State of Israel. His smile radiates with Chessed, or the devotion to community. And his voice rings out with Tefilah, or prayer each morning and each afternoon.

Only God could drop me into a place where Psalm 121 is read in Hebrew over the loudspeaker every afternoon. Not to mention the worship songs during the spontaneous school-wide Kumsitz, which literally means “come,” “sit!”

Sunday I sat listening to the sermon at my church, Journey of Faith. It was titled “Transform Together,” and was part of a larger sermon series titled Gadgets. The general idea is that through God, everything fits together; through God, all people are connected.” As a self-proclaimed tried-and-true introvert (INFJ, to be exact), the connection part of God’s plan causes me some social anxiety at worst and the occasional awkward handshake at best. (One of the perks of working with Orthodox men — no handshaking.)

But this time it made sense. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he urges us to be “a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (12:1 NIV). I’ve never quite mastered the holy and pleasing part of Christianity (and by the way, if any of you have, please shoot me a 21-day plan, so I can get started). But I am here to say the Orthodox Jewish community gets it.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I’ve never witnessed Christians living out Romans 12:1 — I certainly have. One specific example is my late mother-in-law who contributed in great part to my faith. But this time I see it in legion. And it is breathtaking.

The irony of my choosing to teach Melville’s epic novel Moby-Dick to my first class of 12th graders at this new school is not lost on me. [Spoiler alert — although, shame on you if you haven’t read it!] In the epilogue, Ishmael is left bobbing in the expanse of the Pacific Ocean while his ship and ship mates have all been drowned. Melville writes, “The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? –Because one did survive the wreck.”

It was the whale ship named The Rachel that picked Ishmael up. It is the Jewish community that has invited me aboard. And I sail across this new beginning with a glorious wind on my face. Baruch Hashem and Thank God!

Sivan is the New June

It’s finally summer, and I could pretend I want to party like it’s… well, like it’s 5779. But I’ve decided the only chagiga fit for the ending of this beautiful school year is starting a blog.

I’ve now celebrated twenty-one Junes — seven in a secular private school, thirteen in a Christian school, and one at an Orthodox Jewish girls school. Only this time I see June of 2019 as the Hebrew month of Sivan in the year 5779.

What else do I see in a new way?

  • I see more clearly the power and beauty of God, and I am unable to contain my excitement.
  • I see for the first time what community and family should and can look like, and it enchants me.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I consider Him my personal savior whose death was ransom for my sin. And I recognize that none of that matters where I teach. And that’s fine with me. It’s complicated — and I look forward to exploring this issue in my blog, so buckle up.

In fact, let me explain what to expect:

  • The Church today is disconnected from its Jewish brothers and sisters, and, in a sense, from the life of the Jewish man we follow. My hope is to find some connections that will enrich all of us. How can 21st Century Christians love God and each other better?
  • I will explore cultural, biblical, spiritual, philosophical, historical, culinary, traditional, literary, legal, gender, political, personal topics and more! Each Sunday evening the pastor at my church delivers a pithy sermon; I plan to use his messages as occasional spring boards for my posts. How do observant Jews see the message, experience it, live it, even disagree with it? And how does that inform our Christian walk?
  • My goal is not to reach but to honor the modern Orthodox community, of course. Realistically, I am speaking to the wider Christian community. Chief of all, however, is to reach the depths of my own heart, my own faith. Perhaps in doing so, a few readers will also find new paths toward God. And if that happens, then Nachas all around!
  • If I don’t mess this up too much, perhaps this blog can be a space where both Jews and Christians feel blessed, honored, challenged, and united. Perhaps we can all cry out to the Creator of the Universe in a unanimous Baruch Hashem & Thank God.

Each week for the past nine months, my family has listened to my observations about teaching the daughters of the Orthodox community. They’ve enjoyed hearing the many hilarious mistakes I’ve made (just wait… I will share them here eventually) as much as I’ve enjoyed teaching them how to pronounce seemingly endless Hebrew phrases.

Of course, life teaching English at a Yeshiva high school is more than misplacing the Tefilah (prayer) sheets or learning to pronounce the gravelly wet “ech” in Derech Eretz (high character). So much funnier. So much lovelier. So much more.

My life has changed in a remarkable, magical, God-shaped way now that I am a sometime-sort-of-bumbling non-Jewish member of this beautiful Jewish community. And that’s what I hope to share here. Baruch Hashem and Thank God!

#christian #englishteacher #yeshiva #losangeles #judaism #modernorthodox #journeyoffaith #zerotohero

May these blogs be to you as savory bourekas.

“For to miss the joy is to miss all.”

— Robert Louis Stevenson

Welcome to my blog. I hope to offer engaging observations, challenging questions, meaningful introspection, and endless Nachas as I explore faith, learning, and life as a Christian English teacher at an Orthodox Jewish Girls School. I invite you to subscribe and, of course, to comment on what I write. As always, Baruch Hashem & Thank God!