Hold Me Closer, Tiny Stanza: Why Poetry is Essential for Anti-Racism

Full disclosure — my school received a D+ for Diversity on the California Niche high school rankings. Our entire student body is Jewish.

While at first I chuckled at that score, I do actually take issue with it. Even at a modern Orthodox all girls day school, diversity exists beyond just being Ashkenazi or Sephardic, beyond first, second, or third generation, beyond Russian, Iraqi, Moroccan, Argentinian, or Ethiopian, beyond speaking Hebrew, Farsi, French, Spanish, Yiddish, or Arabic, beyond Levite or Kohen or Chabad, beyond even the Valley or Beverly Hills.

But what of the diverse student body whom I teach? Yes, they are united in a shared faith, which I am blessed to witness every day Baruch HaShem. But they are also united in a shared community that extends beyond their neighborhoods or souls and well into the classrooms on our campus. And that’s no accident.

It’s systemic, institutional even.

I saw the fruit of such unity during my first all-school Purim chagiga two years ago. One of my many talented colleagues took to the piano and ushered us into a sing along; by the time he played Elton John’s Tiny Dancer, a crowd of students and teachers were gathered, belting out “blue jean baby,” “pirate smile,” and of course “Jesus freaks.” Bernie Taupin’s poetry had done what all poetry can do — connect people.

Poetry does what all schools should do.

While the education community is scrambling to update accreditation checklists of W.A.S.C. and other governing bodies to promote explicit inclusion of anti-racism standards, while local private, religious, and charter schools are facing a serious reckoning from BIPOC alumni for years of systemic racism, while brave students are speaking up about the adolescent trauma experienced because of institutions not seeing their lives as mattering, I listen.

I cry. I rage. I read and reflect and sometimes write. But mostly I listen.

Poems too ask to be heard. The word stanza in Italian means room. When we encounter a stanza, no matter how tiny, we are being invited by the poet into a room, an intimate space, an invented word-chamber intended for connection. Perhaps a classroom where we learn together the private meditations of life’s musicality… and pain.

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins portrayed poetry as a hedonist pursuit consisting of seven pleasures, but my post-Zoom, post-COVID, post-George Floyd self sees poetry as so much more. Poetry, I argue, is essential to the anti-racism movement, and here’s why:

Poetry increases our existence. It magnifies our being. It clarifies our knowing. It is an exploration of the myriad pathways toward others, toward self, toward the terrain of understanding and, ultimately, empathy. Like an avid bird-watcher strolling a wooded path through Central Park, like a jogger winding his way through a Georgia neighborhood, and like sacred breath tunneling urgently toward the lungs, every good poem awakens us.

The white space and black ink are both shaped and shaping.

The page is an invitation from the poet, and the reader, should she accept, enters in hoping to be changed. After all, a poem is at heart a rhetorical piece; each element is intentional and, like an education, expected to be meaningful. The painstaking selection of each word as well as its placement on the page is wholly significant. The syntactical choices bring life and beg response. The reader, if she’s holding up her end of the deal, shifts into altered expectations and assumptions. Nothing is accidental, and everything is beautiful. The good poem changes us the way a good school should.

But so much depends on the organization of white space and ink.

Thoughtful organization requires vigilance. Poetry too requires concentration, heightened attention, authentic focus. But before any of us can be truly alert, we have to know where we stand. When we approach poem, we look to the title, the point of view, the situation. We plant our feet in the speaker’s intent in order to allow language to move our minds. Once we know where we stand, we can focus.

Young students who are blessed to attend a good school, know where they stand.

My current students exude a confidence in themselves like I’ve never seen before. I have thought long and hard about this phenomenon, and in light of the systemic racism being exposed at schools across the country, I have clarity about the good work happening at my yeshiva. While supporting students might be easier at a school with a D+ in Diversity, there’s no taking away from our leadership’s commitment to the school’s mission. In short, it is a good school because it shapes and is shaped by its entire student body.

Jewish day schools do many things well, but what they do best is educate their students about who they are, where they came from, and what they represent. Courses in Jewish history, Halakah, the Holocaust, Israel, Jewish literature, Navi, Torah, Talmud, Ivrit, and much more establish each student’s place in a larger community, in the timeline of the Jewish people, in a vital understanding of their identity.

Not enough schools embrace this approach. Period. And while I know it’s more complicated than all that, I think other schools could learn from this model of effectively serving the demographics of their campuses. But these changes take concentration, attention, and focus — the very habits required by poetry.

When we read a poem, we pause as the poet paused, slide our tongue as the poet slid her tongue, and breathe as the poet breathed. Empathy develops. Suddenly we breathe for Eric Garner, we breathe for George Floyd. We breathe the shared human desire for justice.

I’ve enjoyed the beautiful music of Elton John and Bernie Taupin for decades, and I recognize the magic of their intimate creative partnership. It’s reminiscent of the intimacy between the poet and her reader which I argue is not unlike the intimacy between a school and its students. Both produce an experience that is corporal, spiritual, and strangely immortal.

The good song or poem, like the good school, reveals a portrait of the state of our souls, and the good reader looks closely at that portrait. We must enter the tiny stanzas, hold the tiny dancers of our souls. Until we can honestly do that, we will not realize that most of our souls, mine included, deserve a D+.

And until we see that need for systemic change, we cannot begin the grueling work anti-racism requires in both our hearts and our schools. Baruch HaShem and thank G-d! 

Check out this duet… it’s pure poetry.

The Ostrich in the Mirror, and Other Epiphanies from the Quarantine

One of the most talented people I know just posted a video of himself singing a classic song from my childhood — “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” A standard in my own father’s repertoire (second only to “On Top of Old Smokey” if I’m being honest), these sudden lyrics caused me a moment of nostalgia. But they also caused a sort of epiphany, something the world seems to be having quite a lot of lately. Well, memes and epiphanies, that is.

But my epiphany involves an ostrich, the last tissue, and one hella sassy creator of the universe.

Recently my Jewish brothers and sisters celebrated Purim, a holiday in honor of Esther and her heroic rescue of the Jewish people who surely would have been slaughtered at the behest of Haman. Side note: I am partial to this celebration because fifteen years ago my then-pre-school daughter and I collectively booed Haman while dressed as L.A. Dodgers Shawn Green and Mike LoDuca during her Gan‘s Purim celebration. That being said, a vibrant element of Purim is the costuming. Some call it the Jewish Halloween.

In fact, the well respected 19th Century rabbi known as B’nei Yissaschar speaks from the Megillah, explaining that the practice of wearing costumes echoes both the Jews’ pretext of worshiping Achashveyrosh’s idols as a means for survival and G-d’s false intentions of allowing his people to be annihilated, like ever.

So the wearing of masks is introduced at my school mere days before the wearing of masks is introduced across the globe.

I chose to dress as Lady Macbeth, hands bloodied with red Expo marker, a site I was sure would entertain. The student who chose to dress as Jesus and won the costume contest did not have bloodied hands. But she did have a crown of thorns. And as jarring as that was to me as a Christian, I was not angered or offended. To be a follower of Jesus at a Modern Orthodox school is to understand that Jesus not only means nothing to my community but that He also represents, rightfully so or not, the source of centuries-long antisemitism.

But back to Purim-costume-Jesus.

If Jesus is nothing but a crazy, blasphemous Jew whose overwhelming legacy is one of discord for the Jewish people, why shouldn’t he be a popular costume that garners much applause and laughter? (You know, like maybe a Jose Altuve jersey.)

While most of the world wrestles with the COVID-19 pandemic, I have replayed that singular scene in my heart and in my mind and in my soul ad nauseum.

And what I have been able to rest upon — or in, really — is G-d’s hands. His huge, pure, powerful hands. Hands that are free of blood, free of ridicule, free of stealing the signs of the opposing coaches’ hands, free of germs, free of despair. And, most importantly, full of “the whole world!”

Yes, antisemitism — G-d’s in control. Jesus’ sometime-piss-poor PR firm (read: us Christians)? G-d can handle it. The Astros? Please. But a pandemic? Yes, G-d is still sovereign.

So the question for me is not whether as a Christian I was complicit in the mocking of my savior — by people whom I love — but rather do I trust God enough. Is the whole world really in His hands?

Consider Job, or Iyov (איוב), from the Tanakh.

When Job dares to question G-d about his seemingly endless suffering, losses that had nothing whatsoever to do with forgetting to wash his hands or failing to do the Transylvania cough, he is met with a sass attack I’ve yet to see the likes of. Even from my seventeen year old daughter, who, by the way, tried to get out of our Kelsey “home church” Sunday evening one eye-roll by one excruciating eye-roll.

To no avail, however, as my should-have-been-a-pastor husband was teaching on Job 39:13-18 — the ostrich to be exact. Not the cliched head-in-the-sand ostrich, but the joyful, unmindful, sometimes harsh ostrich. Why would G-d answer Job’s teleological inquiry with this awkward bird? Why would you keep reading a blog that would mention this awkward bird? Ah, but here you are. And there was Job.

And here I am looking in the mirror and seeing an ostrich.

I too am G-d’s perfect imperfect creation, and I am floored with gratitude to know that I do not have to be anything else. I do not have to be anxious, focused, and always gentle. I’ll write it again — I do not have to be anxious, focused, and always gentle. Nor do you.

God points to the ostrich as an example of a creature whom He loves, for whom he provides, upon whom He smiles with pride. An ostrich. Me. You.

He tells Job the ostrich “flaps” its wings “joyfully” even though the stork’s feathers are far more beautiful. He reminds Job that the ostrich is careless with her eggs, but He still watches over them. He admits to Job that He “did not endow” the ostrich “with wisdom… or good sense.” Yet, he concludes to Job, when the ostrich runs, “she spreads her feathers,… she laughs.”

I am far from pleasing to HaShem. I am careless with my children. I am foolish and lack good sense — just ask my husband. But what is stopping me from stretching my arms to run with laughter? Toward life. Toward G-d.

Toward G-d.

I admit I’m drawn to the sassy side of the Lord, whether it’s Jesus’ flipping the tables of money changers in the temple or straight up punking Job and his puny complaints. The same hands that made this gigantic bird pop Job on the nose. Our G-d protects our “eggs” for us because without Him, we would surely end up stomping on them.

And that is why this verse speaks to me while my family is locked down at home fighting over the last tissue.

We are no better than the ostrich. We are but a filthy rag of a world in the wondrous hands of a mighty G-d. Baruch HaShem and thank G-d! (But still wash your hands.)

A favorite scene from Disney’s version of Swiss Family Robinson, 1960

We are All Just Waiting: In Line at Walgreens

This Christmas Eve I found myself bereft of those famous tidings of comfort and joy and instead found myself fit to be tied.

I was waiting in line at the Walgreens Photo Counter on the corner of Pico and Robertson. To make matters worse, I was picking up three Brockhampton posters I had ordered for my seventeen year old daughter who apparently has questionable taste in boy bands. But this mild frustration pales in comparison to the anguish I felt recently waiting to see my new baby niece. Aside from not understanding the delay, my emotions ran the gamut from anticipation to disappointment to rejection to resignation — every five minutes for the past thirty days, that is.

Tonight I was finally able to meet my beautiful niece, and as I was holding her I realized my waiting to see her parallels the waiting we experience this Advent season.

Advent is when Christians prepare for the birth of baby Jesus and marks the first season of the church year. Its hallmark is the waiting. For me, though, Advent loses a bit of its magic with each year. That being said, I am never less desperate for the birth of Christ. Let it be known, I am in great need of a savior! But I find myself to be disenchanted and a tad impatient. This year, however, I have been inspired by the observant Orthodox Jewish community with whom I work each day.

I now try to see this Advent season as a type of new year. But, like most people, Christians especially, I’m terrible at waiting. I’m even worse at waiting again and again for an event that already happened. Jesus was born. It happened. Advent is symbolic. The Orthodox Jewish community, on the other hand, is waiting for something that they believe has yet to happen. And the devotion to it is astounding.

I wonder if we just pretend to wait for Jesus each Advent season. Are the candles and calendars failing us? (My eleven year old’s next-level Advent calendar, for example, offers a new jar of slime each day. Yes, slime.) Not that much sillier than the traditional chocolates, really. And in our gluttony we even prepare for a second coming of our savior while the Jews raise their hands in the back of the room patiently whispering “ahem… we’d be satisfied with just one please.”

It’s remarkable that the Orthodox Jews have waited over 5,000 years for the arrival of the Messiah. And that they keep waiting. Anticipating. Believing. Desiring. In a sense, a perpetual wait at the eternal photo counter at Walgreens, but one that does not melt into indignation. I am unraveled at how joyfully and faithfully the Orthodox Jewish community waits for Moshiac now. But of course, a constant thread in the story of the Jews is patience.

Moses never entered the promised land after waiting forty years; in fact, he died on Mount Nebo overlooking the milk and honey he would never taste. Jacob had better luck although he too waited, laboring seven years for Rachel. Fast forward to Natan Sharansky who waited, praying — and playing chess against himself inside his head — for nine years in a Soviet prison out of stubborn resistance. Refusenik hero of the Soviet Jewry movement, he rebelled against a modern empire, demanding the right to practice his faith as well as emigrate to Eretz Yisrael.

Like Moses, he had to wait; like Moses, he led his people out of oppression; but unlike Moses, he did taste the sweetness of Yerushalayem.

God seems to have a thing for making his children wait. But it’s more than just delayed gratification or a lesson about difficult pleasures. I’ve come to see waiting as a type of fasting. When we wait, we focus. If you’re like me, you fixate and obsess and allow your mind to imagine what’s inside every cardboard photo envelope and poster tube behind that counter at Walgreens, but I digress.

When we have to wait, we suddenly have the uncanny ability to shed the unnecessary stuff that normally distracts us. In a sense, we become children. We grow antsy with expectation. Which is what I think God wants — us seated at His feet in anticipation for all the brachas, or blessings, He has in store for us in His own time. To receive our inheritance as His children.

Waiting, however, is also a quiet act of rebellion. I know I’ve stayed put more times than I would like to admit purely out of spite. Something to the tune of I am going to get this package mailed if it means I close down this post office. And while I like to think the four weeks of Advent are less combative, there is a very real element of determination to hang on from one Sunday candle to the next without falling prey to the consumer culture of Christmas. How can we preserve our identities in Christ surrounded by the darkness of a fallen world… and tinsel? Clearly I didn’t demonstrate it to nineteen-year-old Dylan, the newest member of the Walgreens Photo Team.

Like the Maccabees of the stunning Hanukkah story, however, who fought patiently to secure freedom for the Jews, we can be modern day Maccabees by resisting the urge to give up, lose faith, or walk away from God’s promises. Every day we win and lose spiritual skirmishes. But the real battle is in the waiting. If we redirect our rebellious, impatient hearts toward God by resisting the world and all its lies, our single tiny jar of faith can miraculously light the way for eight days and more. In this, I find great comfort and joy.

Ba’yamim ha’hem, ba’zman ha’zeh. In those days, as in these.

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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

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2019 March of the Living outside Auschwitz

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!