Can’t Touch This

Since I work at a Jewish organization, I get put in situations like this on almost a daily basis. These were hilarious, and I couldn’t help but want to share it on this forum.

As I explained in Un-Orthodox, my husband and I are both Orthodox Jews. This in and of itself lends itself to hilarious situations (see: why I won’t eat that lettuce and “the bob-and-weave” at an engagement party), working at a Jewish org where I am the only orthodox person means that I get asked questions. Those uncomfortable questions that don’t always have a simple answer.

For example, a friend of mine came to visit me during lunch last week, and our 80-year-old intern (I’m not kidding. Trust me, I wish I was) came into the office and I introduced him. She has dark skin and is very exotic looking, so when he offered his hand and she told him that she didn’t shake hands with men, he looked at me like we both had 4 heads and they were all growing tentacles.

“She’s Orthodox,” I explained, “She doesn’t shake hands with men.”
“What language?” the 80-year-old intern asked.
“English. She’s Jewish. Orthodox,” I repeated.
“OH! Orthodox. Did you know that I’m related to the Ba’al Shem Tov?”

Today, one of my colleagues had a meeting today with a group of Jewish people, one of whom just celebrated her orthodox son’s engagement. She went on and on in the kitchen (where else?) about the relationship, the short engagement, and wait — the fact that her son has never, ever TOUCHED his bride-to-be.

Everyone gasped collectively and the volume went through the roof–

“Like they’ve never held hands?”
“He didn’t kiss her when she said yes?!”
“They’ve never even high-fived!?”

I could go on for hours, really. Since my office is right next to the kitchen, I got to hear the entire discourse, and as soon as it was over, I knew exactly what was coming.

My co-worker sauntered into my office and started with a caveat, “I hope this isn’t too much of a personal question, but –”
“I know exactly what you are going to ask,” I replied, my cheeks probably red enough to give away my answer.

As I convinced her that yes, there are people who really ONLY touch their husbands/wives/immediate family members in the Orthodox Community, and shunned her previous thought that that was such an “Ultra-Orthodox” thing to do, I told her that there were really normal, living, eating, breathing people who waited until they were married to touch for the first time. And yes, their marriages are normal. Yes, they have sex, and yes, they really do love each other. And they know they love each other before their wedding day.

My co-worker didn’t ask me why, but since I experience situations like this more-and-more freqently, maybe I should articulate why I won’t shake your hand/hug you/kiss you/square dance with you even if you are one of my closest friends.

Similar to Islam, Orthodox Jews do not touch members of the opposite sex they are not related to. Not because men or women have cooties, and not because we’re afraid that we might get automatically “turned-on” from a high-five. The reason is simple – that physical relations are holy – and holy things need to be kept separate. This concept plays a huge role in many of the facets of Orthodox Judaism; but shomer negiah is one that is often downplayed, ignored, and looked-down upon.

In today’s world, so much of what we do is public. We all have Facebook (except me!), we all update our twitter feeds and linkedin profiles, and we are all online, all the time. Even my diary is public and you’re allowed to read it, and I don’t even know who you are! Judaism, in general, is a religion that says that’s okay — great, even, as long as there’s an amount of self-respect that is preserved.

Keeping touch private makes it feel special, knowing that my husband won’t hug my friends or even shake hands with the women he works with (who I will never meet) makes me feel like I am more important than them. Which is allowed, because I am his wife. It keeps our most personal relationships private, adding a layer to our love that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

And it makes our relationship feel holy, for sure.


Weather Patterns

I really wish that I was sitting by a lake right now typing on my laptop instead of in my office, closed up on the 24th floor of a building.

Notice I said lake, not beach. I’m not a beachy kind of gal. I much prefer a woodsy waterside, without sand (I HATE sand), with lots of rocks and preferably, a quiet dock that I can sit on. With a book, or a notebook, or nothing at all.

One of my favorite memories comes from a weekend aside a beautiful body of water like the one I described — it wasn’t a lake, but a bay in Maryland, and my best friend took me down there for the weekend. Her mom, mom’s friend, my friend, and me loaded up the car and trekked all the way down to the Maryland bay (after one episode of car-sickness). We stayed in a beautiful lakeside cottage and spent all weekend antique-ing and next to the water. The sun didn’t come out once; we ate roasted chicken and garlic as we watched movies next to the floor-to-ceiling window panels; and we went swimming in the bay on a cloudy afternoon.

I just breathe better when I’m near fresh water.

Most days, I don’t even get to venture outside. But today, I couldn’t resist the sunshine (and I couldn’t put off my need to return a dress to Macy’s any longer!) so I decided to go outside.

It really feels like March, doesn’t it? It’s really insane to think that this time last year I was slipping and sliding down city streets in boots not equipt enough for icy conditions. And the year before that, the whole closed just a few weeks ago due to the biggest snow-storm to hit Philly in almost 15 years.  Jonathan and I were stuck in my house with no cable, no internet, and just enough heat to stay warm. We walked to the corner store to get six-packs of beer and my roommate made a snow angel in the middle of the street.

Tomorrow is groundhog day – a funny tradition, when you think about it. A groundhog sees his shadow, and the winter lasts an extra six weeks. The groundhog doesn’t see his shadow, and spring comes early. Except where there’s shadows, there’s sun. And the groundhog doesn’t even know what a shadow looks like.

When the weather patterns, we make memories. Sunny days like today remind me of Spring, of a promise for more.

I just never thought I’d see that promise February 1st.

p.s. If the groundhog sees his shadow tomorrow, it’s going to be a bad year for Punxsutawney Phil!

The Space I’m In

Don’t you wish that our brains had a magic “off” button? One that you could just hit when you wanted to sit in silence and just be without the stream of thoughts rushing by? For some reason, my thoughts always take the persona of the New York Stock Exchange in Times Square — digitized digital words flying by faster than I can put them into sense. Digital is so much more…severe than analog.  Letters lose their curves; words lose their softness when they are forced to confine to boxes; pixellated particles of thought.

Sometimes, usually at the worst times, my brain just turns on and won’t stop – I can’t make the thoughts slow, or change, and as soon as I break one thought’s downward or side-ward spiral, another one takes over and sweeps me away again.

But aren’t my thoughts what separate me from my body? What forms the bridge between the two? Without them, would I be able to engage my body, ask it to move, or stretch, or breathe deeply?

For me, associating with my body is somewhat…painful. Difficult. Irritating, to say the least. For as long as I can remember, I don’t remember my body every really working the way it was supposed to work. Looking the way that it’s “supposed” to look. Fighting against illness the way that my mind wanted it to.

The challenges associated with my body led me to take medication that poisons it — it was working too well, fighting against itself. Failing to recognize the “good guys” from the bad, and putting up equal ammunition against both of them. The overachiever inside me given flight.

In reality, my body functions, albeit not at full capacity. It does what it’s supposed to do (slowly), absorbing nutrients, creating new cells, discarding waste, pumping blood, taking in oxygen, releasing carbon dioxide.

It does what it’s supposed to do.

But it doesn’t explain why my best friend, mother, and husband still need to stop me every once in a while to say, “Ani Lo Guf.” I am not my body. I am thought. I am air. I am something divine, taking up space in a protected shell. What I am does not have physical confines. If we could just take off our bodies like we do our shoes…..

It would all make sense.

The Torah tells us that Adam and Chava didn’t have skin or bodies the way that you or I do. They had light. Light covered by a sheer substance most clearly resembling our fingernails – but not adult fingernails. The soft, malleable, baby fingernails that bend and shine and reflect light. They didn’t require tissue and muscle and blood to keep the light in their eyes alive — they were souls wearing shoes made of translucent fingernails.

I’ve spent the past few days grappling with what it means to be a soul wearing a body. To dissociate myself from the size of my thighs or stomach and to realize that I need to feed my soul more than my body needs to be fed at the same exact time. And to feed my soul, I need to realize what it feels like just to occupy this space. To get to know my body from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. That looking in a mirror won’t teach me what it feels like to let the light leak out.

New Year, New…Shoes?

So, it’s official – it’s a new year. 5772.

Ever since I can remember, Rosh Hashanah has always been one of my all-time favorite holidays. Something about the warm, sweet challah dipped in honey, the sweet honey or Jewish Apple cake dotted with sour raisins, the smell of brisket roasting in the oven…

For some reason, all of my holiday associations center around food.

Rosh Hashanah always meant the beginning of something. The beginning of the school year, the beginning of fall, the beginning of a beginning. This year, I celebrated with an entire new family, but missing one of my family members as well.

It was really beautiful, and made me really look forward to hosting our own Rosh Hashanah seudah at our house. I can picture the tablecloth, the centerpiece. I can see the simanim we would giggle over before stuffing our tummies full of yummy food. I can see the meal going on for hours.

Looking back at the past year, I almost can’t believe how much has changed. How much I grew. How much Jonathan grew. We went from taking walks and drinking Starbucks Hot Chocolate to packing lunches (for each other) and paying renters insurance. And I really couldn’t be happier.

A lot of things are changing; Jonathan got a new job working for Campbell’s soup, which he loves. I’m in school and working, and I’m starting to find time to breathe. We’re talking about travelling, about buying a house. We’re dreaming together. And I’ll take the beginning of a life of dreams anytime. L’Shana Tova, all.

Dor L’Dor

I met my father-in-law today for the first time.

We’ve been talking about going to visit for years, really, but he’s so far away. And I knew that it would be difficult, but I had no idea how hard it would really be. I know so much about him, but still so little. I know all of his memories. All of Jonathan’s memories of him, right down to the salami sandwiches he used to eat that drove my mother-in-law crazy enough that she’d kick him to the foot of the bed to eat them.

He always made Jonathan one, too.

I like to think that he’d like me. Ema says that he would have loved me; would have welcomed me into the family with open arms. From what I know about my father-in-law, I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t have welcomed me with open arms, whether he liked me or not.

I always knew that Jonathan grew up without a father. I always say that he raised his brother and sister, 7-year-old turned father and husband. One of my earliest memories of our relationship (I was 16!) I remember his mother being on the phone with the insurance company, for one reason or another. She didn’t understand what the insurance agent was saying, so she put Jonathan on the phone. Just like a wife would put her husband on the line to clarify, to toughen up the agent so that she could get what she needed. She had Jonathan for that.

When people ask him if it was difficult to grow up without a father, he always says no. He doesn’t have a choice about not having a father but he had a choice about whether to make it difficult. He chose not to.

But to reach each milestone without a father – that is difficult. When Jonathan walked down the aisle at our wedding, he walked down with his mother. I walked down with my parents, mom and dad. He’s smiling so wide; he didn’t even feel the emptiness on his right arm. But it was still there. And Jonathan’s father was on everyone’s mind in that moment. My best friends cried for him when they saw his empty arm.

Today, standing in front of a stone slab that read my father-in-law’s name, the reality sunk in for me, for the first time. The truth is, I never thought about Jonathan’s father as my father-in-law. He was always Jonathan’s father. But today, I realized.

Today, I really met my father-in-law for the first time. I realized that he’s not just Jonathan’s father, he’s my father now, too. And when we take our children to visit him, we’re going to be taking them to a concrete slab, and telling them that it’s their grandfather.

Today, my husband turned to me and said, “It really doesn’t get easier.”

From everything that I know about my father-in-law, he would be so proud of his oldest child. Everything that Jonathan does would make him very, very proud.

They say that on your wedding day, the souls of all of your family members come down from shamayim and stand beside you under the chuppah, to usher your now-complete soul into the world with the ultimate amount of holiness behind it. I know that Jonathan’s father, my father-in-law was there. I drank sweet wine out of his kiddush cup. Everyone felt his warmth.

And I know that in a lot of ways, he’s still here. But mostly, he’s in Jonathan. Even though he was so young when his father died, he has so much of his father in him. Their mannerisms, their passions, all the same – even the resemblance is uncanny. So, when ema says that my father-in-law would have loved me, I believe her. Because I love their son so much.

Today, I met my father-in-law for the first time. And we’re going to go visit more often.

I don’t know what you had for dinner, but tonight, we’re having salami sandwiches.



Bliss…Sheer Bliss

Just to end the week on a high note.

I received a blessing from one of my favorite teachers in Israel a few months before our wedding. He’s an elderly, holy, holy man. And he looked at me, in front of the whole class, and said, “I want to give you a bracha.”

“My bracha to you is – that on your wedding day…you love each other the least.”

Duck Duck…Duck

I must have been really tired when I wrote last night’s post — I was a little delirious and it doesn’t make as much sense on the web as it did in my head!

I’m trying really hard to write every day, but it’s a huge challenge, especially because I don’t want to end up sounding like a teen-angsty, emo blog (been there, done that. see: xanga.)

I even saved a list of “journal ideas” on my favorites bar at work so that I don’t have an excuse not to write. (You can call me a nerd if you’d like.)

I think that part of the reason this is so difficult for me is because I am secretly a foodie and wish that I was a.) a good enough cook and b.) was good with a camera so that I could write a food blog. I have plans to re-create one of my favorite cakes in the world tonight for shabbos, so maybe (if I’m feeling a little bit riskay) I will try and locate the digitcal camera to blog my baking adventures.

Since I’m not at home in my kitchen baking something scrumptious (I actually enjoy cooking more than baking – as much as I’d like to be a meticulous measurer and sifter, I actually hate the tedious repetition of those actions) and I need to go to the supermarket (which I was tempted to do on my lunch break but resisted once I remembered I was in center city where produce, grocery, and tax prices skyrocket), I will try to make the clock move a little faster by reminiscing about the dinner my husband prepared last night. Yes, he prepared dinner. Yes, he loves to cook. In fact, he’s a private chef, who owns his own business, The Cheffery.

So last night, Jonathan decided that he wanted to try out a new recipe that he’d been thinking about for a long time (seriously, I think that we could write a killer cook book if we just put our heads together and took the time to do it) and made….duck.

He cooked an entire duck. We bought it at a supermarket in Lakewood when we still had money (HA!) and it has been sitting in our freezer ever since. Since Jonathan’s business has been getting some catering orders, he needed the space in our freezer, so he decided he would cook the duck. And when I say “cook,” I am grossly undersating what he did to that duck. He brined it, marinated it, and smoked it. In tea.

Like I said last night, we live in an apartment on a busy street in a suburb right outside of Philadelphia, so I should have known something was up when I received a phone call from our upstairs neighbor. See, our apartment comes with a cute little balcony that we bought a cute little barbeque to go on (charcoal), and every time we attempt to use it, it results in a sea of white smoke and a campfire smell that drifts right past my neighbor’s living-room window. I, having worked late last night, had my phone on silent because I was giving a presentation, and missed her call.

So I was a little surprised when I walked into my apartment last night and my nose was tickled by the smell of something southern. I don’t especially like smoked foods (except for almost all kinds of smoked fish), but my poultry I like fried, roasted, poached, confit-ed, grilled, and pretty much any other way you can think of other than smoked. I wasn’t surprised to find Jonathan on the porch with a cigar and a glass of home-made sangria (I almost wish I was kidding) in hand, but I wrinkled my nose and said to him, “It smells like barbeque.”

“Good,” he replied, admitting the smell was the reason that my neighbor had called.

So we sat down to eat, and Jonathan brought over this gorgeous, glistening, amber duck with patches of a merlot stain. He put a slice of the breast on my plate, and as I lifted my fork to my mouth, I was so grateful he had decided to take that odd-shaped duck out of the freezer. It was heavenly. Warm, moist, and not too greasy. Jonathan has the ability to make foods taste like exactly what they are supposed to taste like. He makes chicken taste chicken-y, lamb taste lamb-y, eggs taste egg-y, pasta taste pasta-y, and I have yet to learn his secret. But last night, I ate the most duck-y tasting duck I have ever eaten.

Don’t believe me? Come over for shabbos lunch, because we’re serving the leftovers in a delicious duck salad.

I bet now you wish that we had taken a picture of that duck as much as we do.