Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Chag Sameach!

Juggling Frogs frog with lulav and etrog, ready for Sukkot

Please note: this blog will be closed for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, from the afternoon of Wednesday, September 26, 2007 until after dark on Saturday night, September 29, 2007.

Comments made during this time will be put in a queue, to be moderated afterwards.

Chag Sameach!

7 Last minute Sukkot suggestions

Here are some last minute things you can do to make the holiday run a little more smoothly:

1. Draw some water. Rather than referring to the Water Pouring Ceremony that took place during Temple times, this is about drinking water for the table. Collect drinking water in large covered containers and keep it in the sukkah. If you serve water with ice in a pitcher at the table, you'll only have to bring out the pitcher with ice, and it can be filled outside.

This speeds up the serving time, minimize trips back and forth, and prevent spills. The empty containers should be refilled as they are used during the meal.

This is our water dispenser, that we keep filled with water throughout the holiday week:

2. Draw more water. If many guests are expected for the Yom Tov meals, the traipsing back and forth between Kiddush in the sukkah, washing hands in the house, and HaMotzi back in the sukkah seems interminable. Each trip is a fresh opportunity to track mud and leaves back into the house.

We avoid this by making a washing station outside.

Many years ago, I ... trash-picked ... found while "street shopping" through other people's abandoned junk ... discovered a rusty old ... rescued a discarded tray table in front of a neighbor's house. After a few coats of paint, it became our outside/sukkah butler cart and washing stand.

Any small table (or large cardboard boxes weighted with bricks or large vegetable cans) will do.

One plastic gallon-sized pitcher on top of the table fills the washing cup. Under the table (already filled today) we keep many containers of water for refills.

Everyone appreciates how this speeds things up when we're all hungry. After the rituals, the wine, the bread and the first course, people are more likely to relax and linger patiently if there is a gap between courses.

3. Make a door sign. Give guests a written welcome with directions to the sukkah. There is too much going on just before dinner, to monitor the front door.

It's helpful to mark the path to the sukkah well, to avoid losing or frustrating guests.

I made this "Baruchim Habaim" ("Welcome") sign with day-glow paint, which does a passable job of showing up at night. I had hoped it would almost look illuminated with the phosphors in the paint, but that was a pipe dream.

(Don't forget to turn on the outdoor lights to help the guests find their way.)

4. Use trays.

5. Plug in any devices that are needed for Shabbat if you live outside of Israel, where it is a three day holiday this year. Set up the blech, hot water urn, and any other heating device needed for cooking on Shabbat, but not needed for Yom Tov.

6. Use real food for the eruv tavshillin. This is probably obvious to everyone else, but it took us twenty years of marriage to figure this out.

We used to use a piece of matza and a boiled egg. It was only a few years ago that we learned we were obligated to actually eat the eruv tavshillin foods. Since then, when we made eruv tavshillin, we'd pass around the matzah and three-day-old boiled egg, in a scene reminicent of eating the Afikomen at the end of the Passover Seder.

Just this year, when I asked my husband to open the box of matzah, he held up one of the dozen round loaves of challah I had just baked, and asked, "Why don't we just use this?"

It was a "duh" moment, for sure. Why not, indeed?

Shortly thereafter, when I set about to boil the eggs for the "cooked food" needed for the remainder of the eruv tavshillin, I realized that gefilte fish is a cooked food.

Thus we've come full circle. Not only are we setting aside real foods prepared for Shabbat and Yom Tov together, but they're the foods we actually planned to, and want to, eat! What a relevation.

(Stay tuned for the next episode of "The Dense and the Obvious", where we'll watch our heroine discover that if you write menus in pencil, they can be erased...)

7. Let go. I fall short my ambitions every Yom Tov (and every Shabbat, too.) I have banners left undone, blog posts about sukkot art projects I never finished, recipes I meant to prepare, clutter piles unsorted....

Here are the banners that I didn't finish in time, won't finish in time, and must put away now for next year.

I have to remind myself prioritization is the defining manifestaion of free will, which is humanity's distinction and its gift. I did my best, even when that meant going to bed last night without baking that extra cake.

Submitting to the reality of time as a finite resource is difficult. Once I do, and admit to myself that certain expectations and flourishes must be discarded, I usually experience a cathartic release of nervous tension.

All those unrealized plans will be a head start for next year. We're not behind schedule; we're a full year ahead, see? That's my story and if we all stick to it together, it might as well be true!

I wish those celebrating Sukkot a chag sameach
and a wonderful weekend for everyone!

For more Sukkot projects, click here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

More decorations and projects for Sukkot

Continuing from the previous post, here are more of our family's favorite sukkah decoration projects:

Eighteen years ago, for our very first sukkah as a couple, I typed in the sukkot torah readings (careful to substitute a letter for G-d's name, just in case they were blown away in a tornado) and printed the text on certificate paper (paper with pre-printed decorative borders.)

These were laminated with self-adhesive laminating sheets. We used to hang them from our sukkah's canvas walls with large stainless steel safety pins. The grommets were a later adaptation.

sukkot torah readingsukkot torah reading
The texts are Yayikra 23:31-end and Devarim 16:13-16:17

They have held up well over the years.

Here is a chain that holds many fusible bead projects of varying vintages, hanging from clear plastic lanyard. chain holding fusible beads, packaging with letters

Have you noticed I like using chain? It is sturdy, relatively inexpensive, and you can get it cut to size at the hardware store.

It's easy to measure by links how far apart the projects should be, and it's very expandable.

Be sure to get coated or stainless steel chain, so it won't rust in the rain.

Projects can be added easily in subsequent years, enhancing how it looks, minimizing space, set-up and take-down time.

It's also nice that all of the children's projects form one display. That way, if someone made
gazillions of items, and someone else made only a few, it's still their project together. I find it remarkable how the children remember which items they made, and seem only to see their own work!

At the top of the picture to the left is a clear piece of packing material. I think it came from a thumb drive. Abigail (who was 8 at the time) strung beads in the Hebrew letters that spell "Sukkot", and we glued them to the clear plastic with a glue gun.

The package conveniently came with holes for hanging on pegs in the store.

Here are a few more banners:

Olive tree banner:  Rabbi Yehoshua asked how is Israel like an olive tree?Olive tree banner

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked, "How is [then nation of] Israel like an olive tree?"

[He answered,] "Just as the olive tree does not shed its leaves both in Winter and Summer, so will [the people of] Israel endure both in this world and in the the world to come."

(Menachot 53b)

It's hard to see in the picture, but the lettering on this banner (and many of the others) is painted with metallic fabric paints. If you can get them, they make for a very nice effect.

Ushpizot:  Female UshpizinSince the metallic paint in the letters reflects light, they sparkle in the lights of the sukkah at night.

Since we invite our imaginary friends, the Ushpizin, into the sukkah, we thought we should invite the ladies, too.

These are pomegranate cut-outs made of wood, available from Shulamit Ron, that we painted and then wrote names of the Matriarchs and Prophetesses.

They are connected by craft wire strung with beads.

We included Sarah, Rivka, Leah, Rachel, Devorah, Miriam and Ruth. Since this isn't a "real' tradition, I figured there are no rules, and just picked seven ladies.

Below the "Ushpizot", there is one of the tie-dyed dinner napkin mini-banners, described in the previous post.

It has a rainbow, and has the words to "Osheh shalom..." on it, and a picture of a dove with an olive branch.

In Boston, Jerusalem is to the East. Mizrach

This "Mizrach" (Hebrew for "East") sign is on the Eastern corner of the Sukkah.

It was made by folding a dinner napkin over a chopstick, and attaching letters cut from bright yellow foam. The dinner napkin has a pattern of leaves (the fabric came that way.)

Both the "hem" and the letters were affixed with a glue-gun.

Hide me -  from Tehillim

Here is (yet another) banner.

It has verse 5 from Psalm 27:

"כִּי יִצְפְּנֵנִי, בְּסֻכֹּה בְּיוֹם רָעָה: יַסְתִּרֵנִי, בְּסֵתֶר אָהֳלוֹ; בְּצוּר, יְרוֹמְמֵנִי. "

"He conceals me in His shelter in the day of evil;

He hides me in the shelter of His tent;

He lifts me up upon a rock."

For more Sukkot projects, click here.

Need some ideas for Sukkah decorating projects?

Here are some of our family's favorite home-made Sukkah decoration craft projects:

I have received many requests for Sukkah projects in the past two weeks. Now that our Yom Kippur machzorim (holiday prayer books - here are my new favorite, my old favorite, and the one our shul uses) are put away, and our Sukkah is up, I can to share a few easy, inexpensive, fun, and somewhat water- resistant crafts for Sukkah decorating.

Sukkot is a reminder of man's lack of control of the physical world, and his vulnerability to the weather. We leave the comfort of our homes to live (or at least eat our meals) in a hut with a leaf-roof (called, "scach") for a week. In order for the commandment to be fulfilled, the scach has to provide shade imperfectly, allowing a view of the stars at night. We're sheltered, yet open to the elements.

When the weather cooperates, we enjoy our soup despite a few leaves falling in it, and in the company of neighborhood squirrels and yellow-jackets. When it rains, we're not obligated to stay in the Sukkah, but all the decorations and crafts are off-limits for handling.

This means that the decorations will be subject to rain, wind, and (at least here in Boston) perhaps even snow. So, while we adorn the Sukkah with decorations, we need them to be waterproof and inexpensive, as well as beautiful.

The holiday of Sukkot is also at the tail-end of a month-long marathon of holidays. It starts four days after Yom Kippur. In that time there is much to do: building the Sukkah, obtaining a lulav and etrog, cooking holiday food.

Thus, home-made decorations need to be easy and not very time-consuming.

The challenge is to find Sukkah decorating activities that are cheap, easy, fast, weather-proof, beautiful, appropriate for the holiday, not too messy, and can be accomplished by groups of children with a wide age range.handprint banner

One strategy that works for our family is to use the summer to make some crafts for the Sukkah. This allows for more involved projects, and for paint to dry. In the summer, the days are long, and there is time to indulge in elaborate multi-step projects.

This isn't always possible or desirable. Often, we need to have Sukkah decorating art projects to make with large groups of children, either to decorate our synagogue's Sukkah, or as a classroom activity.

Sometimes, we just want to have the projects made closer to the holiday to make it relevant for the children.

Sometimes, we need to fill an empty space to replace decorations that were blown away or waterlogged last year.

My favorite projects involve all the children, like this banner made from the kids' hand prints. It was quick and easy to make.

To make it, let each child choose a color of fabric paint. Encourage them to choose dark colors that will show up at a distance.

Work with one child at a time, one hand at a time. Using a paintbrush, cover the child's entire hand with fabric paint. Ask the child to relax his hand, and press down firmly on all the fingers. Draw stems and make a pot. (Pot = trapezoid with long side on top, and a thin rectangle longer than the long side of the trapezoid just above, touching the trapezoid.)

Don't forget to write the date in fabric paint!

Six years ago, I bought this huge container of fusible beads for $11. We have used them for more crafts than I can count, for community events, and for birthday parties. We still have half the bottle left!

The beads are tiny colorful plastic tubes that melt when ironed. The system includes a rigid heat-resistant plastic plate with many tiny pegs. The beads are placed on the pegs, touching each other to the desired pattern.

When the pattern is complete, a piece of wax paper is placed on top (gently and carefully) and the beads are fused through the waxed paper with the iron. They melt and fuse together in about a minute of ironing.

I like to flip them over and fuse the back side as well. Don't forget to use the waxed paper in between the beads and the iron, or the iron will be covered in melted plastic, perhaps ruined.

Crafts made with the fusible beads will stand up to many seasons in the Sukkah, exposed to the elements. To make the decorations easier to put up, remove, and store, it helps to invest some time attaching them to something else that hangs.

Try to avoid using bare wire coat hangers, because they rust in the rain.

The stars in the picture to the left were made by different children over different years. At some point, I collected them, inserted a jump ring in the top, and strung them with plastic lanyard.

To keep the stars evenly spaced from year to year), thread the plastic lanyard through a pony bead, then through the jump ring, then back through the pony bead.

Before I had children (back when I had copious spare time on my hands!) I used the same type of Perler fusible beads to make
this sentence, one letter per square (hanging at the bottom of the picture to the right):

הזורעים בדמעה ברינה יקצורו (He who sows in tears will reap in joy)

(I'll try to update soon with a downloadable template for the letters.)

Hanging above that are painted wood shapes in the form of the moon and stars. These are available at craft stores for 10 cents to 25 cents a piece. Paint them, drill a hole at the top, and string beads on plastic lanyard to hold them.

We put the Ushpizin names on the stars.

For items painted with acrylic paint that you'd like to keep for multiple years, it can be helpful to spray them with fixative when they're dry. This will make rainwater bead up and not penetrate.

If you choose to use the fixative, wear gloves. That stuff does not come off skin, even with most household solvents. Ask me how I know.

Here is another set of letters, spelling out "baruchim HaBaim", or "Welcome". My son, Jonathan, made it when he was about 10 years old with the fusible beads.

Here is a closer view of the painted wooden shapes.

The birds, butterflies and dragonflies are each painted, drilled, fitted with jump rings, and attached via a length of clear plastic lanyard to one long 2" wide fabric ribbon. (The fabric ribbon isn't visible in the photo because it's behind the wood plank.)

The top of each lanyard is threaded through a hole in the middle of the width of the ribbon, and secured with a square knot.

The ribbon is hung at both ends. This allows a few dozen painted shapes to be hung (and removed) at once. It would take forever to hang them individually.

It is fun to watch all these flying animals sway in the breeze.

On the outside of our Sukkah we have a very large banner made from a tablecloth. It is 5' wide by 12' long. I call it the "Simcha Banner".

This was made by masking the width of both borders with pieces of paper all around, and placing large cut out letters in the middle. They spell out "zman simchateinu, mikrei kodesh , zecher l'tziyat mitzrayim" (Time of our rejoicing, sanctified, a remembrance of leaving Egypt.)

The banner then was spray-painted blue over the message.

When it was dry, newspapers were placed over the middle part, and the border was spray painted beige.

After the beige border dried, the inside half was covered with paper, and the outer border was spray painted purple. Then all the papers were removed, including the letters in the middle message.

The letters were filled in with bronze paint, and a bunch of biblical sentences about simcha were written in blue on the beige border. It's very hard to see, but the purple outside border was stamped all over with one of Shulamit Ron's stamps that says "moadim l'simcha".

Sentences around the border of the Simcha Banner include:

  • Ivdu et Hashem b'Simcha. (Serve G-d with joy.)

  • Or zaruah l'tzadik, v'lyishrei leiv simcha. (Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart.)

  • Moadim L'simcha, chagim v'zmanim l'sasson. (Festivals of joy, holidays and times of gladness.)

  • V'Samachta b'chagecha v'hayita ach sameach. (Rejoice in your holiday and be very happy.)

  • Od yishama be'arei Yehudah uvechutzot Yerushalaim: kol sasson, kol simcha, kol chatan, kol kallah. (It will be heard in the cities of Yehuda and in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem, the voice of gladness, the voice of rejoicing, the voice of the groom, the voice of the bride.)

I put grommets all around, and voila!

In this picture you might be able to see the stumps of the tree branches that had to be removed last year. From this angle, it looks like a normal tree, but from
the side it looks like half a tree! (In order for the Sukkah to be kosher, it can't be in the shade of a tree.)

Every year, we try to make a few new permanent crafts for the Sukkah. However, the bulk of crafts made each year are not so long-lasting.

The kids draw many pictures to adorn it, and we encourage them to do so. Here is where rain can be our friend. If every craft lasted forever, we wouldn't have room for a table!

Something I've found very helpful over the years is chain, the length of the Sukkah, fitted with clothespins every third link.

I attach it securely along the railing. A standard 8.5"x11" paper, held in landscape format, can be held with three clothespins. If held in portrait format, it takes 2 clothespins.

This chain can hold all of the last minute paper decorations that the kids make. Since it is about 3 feet high, and since clothespins don't require adults or knots, the children can hang their own work. This helps a lot.

Above the chain you can see the beaded chains. These were made by the children from pony beads (very inexpensive, waterproof, and easily for small children to manipulate, due to their large holes) strung on plastic lanyard.

To make it long enough to drape, plan for the finished beaded length to be about 150% of the length it will reach.

The banner that says "Ufros Aleinu Sukkat shlomechah" (Spread over us Your Sukkah/shelter of peace.) was made by a group of the children.

We put paper-cut-out letters on the banner.

Then they cut leaf shapes from kitchen sponges and sponge-painted over the paper letters in Autumn colors.

When the paint dried, the paper letters were removed and the shapes that remained were outlined in fabric paint.

Of course, the ultimate in one season use Sukkah decorations is the ubiquitous paper chain.

Every year, when I pack up the decorations after Sukkot, I prepare a bunch of 1.5" strips of construction paper, stick them in a bag, and place them on top of the decorations box.

This way, the children will have at least one craft's materials prepared and ready to go as soon as we open the box next year.

Believe me, if you do this, you will thank yourself next year.

I hope to post a detailed tutorial for these recycled craft mobiles soon.

The stars are shapes cut from the tops of plastic produce containers (such as blueberries, grape tomatoes, etc.)

These clear plastic shapes are then soaked in soapy water to decorate the Sukkah: remove the product label and a hole is punched on top.

The horizontal bar is made from a Popsicle stick. Drill tiny holes in the Popsicle stick with an electric drill for the ribbons to thread through, and it will hold up to the wind nicely.

The painted shapes are attached to the Popsicle stick with curling ribbon.

The big gold banner in this picture has a picture of a lulav and etrog, and "Hodu L'Hashem Ki Tov, Ki l'olam chasdo."

This is what we say when we shake the lulav during the Hallel prayer (hymns of praise) during the holiday.

The smaller "banners" below, along the railing, were made from dinner napkins.

(For Jonathan's bar mitzvah a few years ago, it turned out to be cheaper, easier, and less frustrating to buy tablecloths and cloth napkins in bulk, than to rent them from a linen service.

After the bar mitzvah, I washed them, and have used them for multiple other events since then. I hope to use them for the girls' bat mitzahs, too.

Whenever the white dinner napkins get stained, we use them for crafts like this.)

These 20" square napkins are the perfect size for children to decorate with fabric paints, tie dye, etc. I set grommets in the top corners to make them easier to hang. Every year, we add to the inventory of these smaller banners.

More to come... Stay tuned!

For more Sukkot projects, click here.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Extra seating for kids: A quick and inexpensive way to seat lots of children, with minimal storage (for Sukkot or birthday parties)

Materials used:

  • 5 bricks (not shown, but two of them usually go on the top of the table) (50 cents each at the hardware store)
  • A 52"x70" vinyl tablecloth ($2 at the department store or $5 at the supermarket) for every two tables you intend to make. This gives the table some water resistance. We usually cover them with another tablecloth when they're being used at a meal.
  • Duct tape (you must have some on hand...)
  • Storage container (Just to give you an idea of which ones I use, here's a link to a dozen of them for under $10 each, but they go on sale at the department store for about $6. And I doubt you'll need a dozen for use as tables...)
  • 2'x4' luan plywood, 1/2" thick ($2-$8 at the hardware store, depending on the quality of the wood.) I've always used the cheapest $2 type, and replaced the table-tops every couple of years after they warp from being left out in the rain too long.)

Instructions for making a table:

  1. Option 1: Cut the tablecloth in half width-wise, resulting in two 52"x35" pieces.
    Option 2: Cut the tablecloth 30" from each end, resulting in two 52"x30" and one 52"x10" pieces.
  2. Option 1: Duct tape the tablecloth to the plywood.
    Option 2: Duct tape the tablecloth to the plywood. Then cut the 52" x 10" piece, and use it to wrap two or three of the bricks. This makes the bricks more aesthetic, and keeps them from crumbling brick-dust on the table. It also makes the bricks less likely to snag the tablecloth.
  3. Set the storage container's cover aside. We won't be using it.
  4. Place three bricks inside the upright storage container.
  5. Place the vinyl-covered luan plywood on top of the open container.
  6. Place two bricks on top of the "table".

The three bricks in the container make it sturdy. The bricks on top of the plywood are not shown in the photo above, but should always be in place when these tables are used. Otherwise, the top will likely flip over when the children put pressure on it.

WITH THE BRICKS, we have used these "tables" for many birthday parties and as "kids tables" in our sukkah.

We keep three or four of these "tables" in our basement. They store very compactly, as the storage containers stack, and the bricks and plywood fit inside.

The last time I made them, was about four years ago. It cost under $20 to make 3 tables like these. Using the little plastic yard chairs (usually go on clearance at the end of the season for $3 each) we can seat 8 children at each table.

The nicest part is that the storage containers can be re-purposed if you decide you don't need them for use as tables.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova

In observance of Yom Kippur, this blog will be closed until late Saturday night, September 22.

Comments submitted during this time will be held in a queue, and moderated afterwards.

גמר חתימה טובה
May a year of health, happiness, prosperity, and peace be sealed for all of us.

Confessions of a Blogaholic: The Blogger's Vidduy

When we sin against another person, we have to ask forgiveness directly of him. We are not allowed to ask G-d for grace or mercy until we have made attempts to receive forgiveness from the person we have wronged.

This is something we're supposed to be doing year-round. Consider the ideal a "just-in-time-inventory" of apologies, where the supply repentance keeps up with the quantity of transgressions, without back orders. Unfortunately, none of us realizes this ideal.

Before Yom Kippur can function as a day of atonement, we must make things right between one another.

That's the rationale of the "asseret ymei teshuva", the period of the Jewish calendar between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This time is set aside to take stock, ask and grant forgiveness from one another, and resolve conflicts.

It's a quiet and serious time, a time for healing relationships. It's a time for introspection and for reaching out. In contrast to secular new year's custom, we celebrate the Jewish New Year by making amends, rather than resolutions.

Four months ago, when I started this blog, I would have thought it silly - perhaps inappropriate - to include "virtual" relationships in this interpersonal reckoning. Since then, however, I have discovered how interconnected and personal bloggers' interactions can become.

In this short tenure, I have come to feel close to a large number of people I've never met.

We follow the details of each other's lives with the concern of dear friends. We carry on extended relaxed sometimes life-changing conversations and unlimited passionate debates. We anticipate the publication of their next post like children waiting for treats.

We agonize, cheer, and kvell as families full of children grow and mature, yet we only know them by their nicknames. Their idiosyncrasies, habits and talents are know to us only through the details revealed by and limited to the perception and understanding expressed by their parents.

Despite differences that would otherwise separate us, we listen and we react. We learn from people who we never expected to know. They provide us access and insight to worlds and worldviews of which we otherwise would have been unaware. We change each other's minds.

Another strange subset includes bloggers whose articles I read regularly, but react only in my own head. For whatever reason, I've lurked. I have never commented, or sent an e-mail to these authors. Yet I think a lot about what they have to say.

There are the blog-less commenters whose profile links lead nowhere, and the commenters who we feel we know well, but only from what they've said on another writer's blog. They don't know that they effect us, that they are characters in our story, too.

There are the readers who are family or friends from our"real" life community who we know are out there, some of whom share their thoughts in comments, some privately, and some not at all.

And then there are the anonymous lurking readers, who intrigue and motivate without saying a word. When they eventually reveal themselves, they bestow a precious gift.

As a result of blogging, I care deeply about a bunch of people I don't ever expect to know.

It's natural to feel a connection with an author or someone with whom one corresponds. However, the bond between bloggers feels qualitatively different from the relationship between reader and author in more conventional venues.

  • Blogs articles are published quickly, without benefit or hindrance of an external editorial filter.
  • They are interactive, yet impose no obligation to interact upon the reader.
  • A blog's articles reach a worldwide audience immediately. They are exposed to completely untargeted markets.
  • There is no intermediary deciding whether or not an author should post.

  • "Rules" about structure and content are minimal.

  • Blogs surprise us. They are written in real-time. When we are left dangling over a cliff of suspense, the writer is hanging with us, also wondering what the next post will hold.

  • Authors appear suddenly, disappear with or without warning, and reappear at will.

  • We drop in unexpectedly and are not surprised to find we are welcomed immediately. It is like instantly joining an infinite set of communities.

All human relationships involve the risk of discord and the potential for growth. The nature of the Internet multiplies both the reach and the risks inherent in communication. We often forget that there are people behind the text.

While it is impossible to ask for mechila (forgiveness) to an anonymous multitude, in "virtual" life, just like in "real" life, you do what you can. Thus, it makes sense that many Jewish bloggers have included apologies and requests for forgiveness from their readers during this season. Some of these were delivered pro forma, some anguished, some meticulously delineated.

One of my favorites is lighthearted yet heartfelt, and very clever, by Mother in Israel. It is formatted like the vidduy, the formal confession of the Jewish liturgy. Here's another great one in a similar format at Stepping off the Spaceship, also inspired by Mother in Israel.

Continuing in Mother in Israel's style, I'd like to adopt all of hers and add follow suit.

Dear Readers, please forgive me for any transgressions I've committed against you, including but not limited to:

  • For the author who sent me and review copy of her latest book. I told you I'd write an honest review of it only IF I liked the book. It's sitting on my night table, heavily annotated, with coffee stains on many pages and sticky notes stressing its spine. You probably think I hated it. I was flattered to receive an advance copy, and delighted with your text. I'm just waiting for an opportunity to do it justice. I'm sorry it has taken this long.
  • For lurking, both actively and passively
  • For approving comments between other tasks, and forgetting to answer them in a timely fashion
  • For the memes I've ducked, and those I owe and plan to complete
  • For the material you've sent me that I haven't figured out how to work into a post yet
  • For the great post ideas and questions that were e-mailed to me but that I have yet to implement
  • For the post suggestions that I don't plan to execute, because they are out of my scope
  • For grammatical errors and silly assumptions
  • For posts that were rambling and self-indulgent
  • For that time I left the yeast out of the recipe (it's fixed now)
  • For posts that were oblique and incomprehensible
  • For articles full of untranslated Hebrew and Hebrish
  • For the many times I published an article, only to revise and correct it every 2 minutes for the next three hours, resulting in a flaky, changing publication
  • For wasting time that I should have been writing, obsessively checking traffic statistics instead
  • For a haphazard, incomplete, and overlapping category structure
  • For reading when I should be writing, and for writing when I should be reading
  • For broken links not fixed and graphics mysteriously disappeared
  • For questions unanswered and questions answered poorly
  • For offering unsolicited advice
  • For the appearance of having 'it' all together when I show systems that work for me. (I don't generally share the ones that don't, and it can make for a false impression.)
  • For those who came here from entering specific and explicit keywords in search engines, but landed on an irrelevant page, that had nothing to do with what you were seeking
  • For never contacting and thanking the two ladies who ordered Juggling Frogs clocks at the same time. You made my day, and I lost your contact information. I hope you're both enjoying them.
  • For being disappointed when traffic statistic show a high unique hit-to-pageview ratio, assuming that the readers all came briefly and don't want to stay
  • For being disappointed when traffic statistic show a low unique hit-to-pageview ratio, assuming that all the traffic that day came from one curious reader and that nobody else wants to visit
  • For bad puns, both intentional and inadvertent

For all these mentioned here, and those mentioned there, for those I don't know about, for those that I don't realize bother you, and for those that I forgot to mention, Dear Reader, I ask your forgiveness.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A sink full of holiday dishes to wash....

For the first seven years of our marriage, we spent Rosh Hashanah with my husband's Uncle David and Tante Ursula. It was one of the highlights of our year.

Then we moved home to Massachusetts. While our hearts filled with joy to be near our parents, we always feel a bittersweet lack on Rosh Hashanah away from Uncle David and Tante Ursula.

Whatever we manage to provide for our guests at our own Rosh Hashanah table, our best results are but an ambitious imitation of theirs. Whatever we happen to get right is due to witnessing the sparkling and passionate conversations, learned and inspiring divrei Torah, spontaneous and harmonious singing, delicious and elegantly presented meals, the atmosphere of generosity and appreciation, and the overall kedushah (sanctity) of their home.

As a young bride I found Tante Ursula's kitchen inspiring. I still do. It was spotless and efficient, yet open and warm. It was overflowing with both love and every tool necessary, yet it was without clutter or waste. It was a serious workplace adorned with fresh flowers and posters from the family's many travels. Visitors felt as comfortable relaxing over tea on the sofa, as stirring the soup while the pomegranates were being peeled.

The kitchen table held a freshly starched tablecloth in a bright, colorful floral pattern that was both elegant and uncontrived. It was perfectly ironed - without a wrinkle - yet not the least bit stiff. Her kitchen table was a place to linger for a chat after breakfast, to work a crossword, to polish silver, or to play a very unorthodox game of Scrabble.

On my first visit we had been married exactly one month. After dinner the first night of that first Rosh Hashanah, as Tante Ursula and I were putting the stock pots away, she paused and looked meaningfully at me. She said that when she was first married, her aunt told her, "One should always clean the bottom of one's pots just as carefully and as well as the inside."

Since we all hail from solid yekkish stock, earnest housecleaning advice certainly could be taken at face value. And Tante Ursula isn't prone to religious sermonizing. Her insights are more likely to be revealed via reflection on her irreverent quips or ironic turns of phrase. She keeps her soap-boxes neatly stacked in her closet.

Likely due to the Rosh Hashanah mood, or perhaps from the intensity of its delivery, or maybe because my eagerness to collect whatever wisdom from them I could absorb, I knew immediately that this advice could only be about everything but the pots.

The first part was easy. The outside of the pot is what's visible in public. If this is messy, others will make assumptions about its contents and about the cook. Yet nobody knows what's really goes on inside someone else's pot.

Clearly, the inside of the pot is our private behavior, either at home with family, or in solitude. The cleanliness of the inside of the pot is vital to the integrity of the meal. If you don't clean the inside of the pot, even the most savory roast will be spoiled. Washing the outside at the expense of cleaning the inside is an indication of misplaced priorities.

But the bottom of the pot? What difference could it possibly make if there is a stain that nobody sees, that never touches the food? Who has time to scour the bottom of their pots?

I have to admit, my first internal reaction to Tante Ursula's advice as we said goodnight, and I retired to the guest room, was dismissive. Whatever she was trying to tell me about homemaking, philosophy, or morality seemed like an exercise in over-achievement, a recipe for nurturing obsessive compulsive disorder. Even for a newlywed yekke with little responsibility and a very small apartment.

Overnight, however, the idea stewed and simmered (sorry, couldn't resist!) In shul, as I listened to the shofar blowing on that first day of the first Rosh Hashanah of my married life, I was preoccupied with Tante Ursula's pots.

The shofar, the trumpet-like instrument made from a ram's horn, is the main symbol of Rosh Hashanah. In fact, when the holiday is mentioned in the Torah, its name is "the time of the shofar blowing", not "Rosh Hashanah".

On Rosh Hashanah, we read the part of the Torah that describes Abraham's binding of his son, Yitzchak, to be sacrificed at G-d's command. First, G-d calls to Abraham. Abraham responds, "Hinneni" ("Here I am") , the rest of the events of the Akieda proceed. Eventually the ram stuck by his horns in the thicket is discovered, and everyone (except the ram) lives either happily thereafter or not, depending on whose interpretation you prefer.

Similarly, the sound of the shofar heralded the events at Mount Sinai. Just before the Torah was revealed to us, as one nation, we said a plural parallel to "hinneni", "Naaseh v'Nishma", ("We will do and we will hear/understand.")

This phrase, "Naaseh v'Nishma" represents Judaism's focus on the value of behavior before belief. Belief, understanding, and faith are experienced as a result of action. Performing a good deed with imperfect motives is preferable to refraining from acting, waiting until the motives are pure. Ultimately, over time and through repetition, proper motives will come to accompany proper behavior.

What a relief that ones merits can accrue directly from actions, which are concrete and observable! How liberating to be free of the need to produce faith on demand, or to expect it of others. We, the nation of Israel, struggle with G-d. We are not judged by the current status of the struggle, but by our willingness to engage in it, and by our behaviour.

I have always taken refuge and found comfort in this approach, because the "naaseh" part is in my hands. I control how I behave. That second part, the "nishma" - the belief, the understanding, the faith - often eludes me. When asked about personal issues of faith, I'd respond, "I'm working on 'naaseh' for now."

And that's why Tante Ursula's pots rattled me.

Does it matter if there is a mismatch between the spiritual level of one's thoughts if one behaves well both in public and in private? Is it enough to concentrate energy on the outside and inside of the pots, neglecting the bottom? Can't the bottom of the pot wait until later? How urgent is the status of the bottom of the pot?

A person could go a lifetime, never giving much thought to the condition of her pot bottoms. The kitchen would likely function well enough, wouldn't it?

However, it is difficult to imagine someone who takes care to clean the bottoms of the pots, not having spotless pots overall. This is analogous to one whose spirituality doesn't translate into good behavior. Such misguided values result in a meal we would not be eager to share.

Judaism's behaviorist philosophy leads me to imagine that even someone who never intended to take care of the cooking parts of her pots, would experience an improvement in this area. Scouring the bottom of a pot makes it impossible to ignore the parts that touch food.

The private, ineffable, "non-functional" aspects of one's spiritual life, like the bottoms of the soup pot, deserve the same diligent scrutiny and thoughtful attention as the outside. Tante Ursula's subtle lesson struck me then, and has stayed with me since.

It is of the most religiously motivating ideas I've experienced.

While distance prevents us from spending Rosh Hashanah with them, we think of them often during the holidays (and throughout the year). And for me, particularly when faced with a sink full of Yom tov dishes to wash.

I wish Uncle David, Tante Ursula, their children and grandchildren, the readers of this blog, and all of Israel a chatima tova. May a year of health, happiness, prosperity and peace be sealed for all of us.

May we all have the time, energy, and inclination to clean even the bottoms of our pots.

UPDATE (September 24, 2007): This article was also published at BeyondBT. Additional discussion may be found in the comments on that page.)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Friends of Juggling Frogs

Ticket to Join the In CrowdReaders, commenters, visitors, friends, family, and those I frequently read:
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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Gone Fishing (until Sunday)

frog with fishing pole and gefilte fish

Please note: this blog is closed for Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year.

It will not be updated from Wednesday afternoon, September 12, until Saturday night, September 14, 2007.

Comments made during this time will be put in a queue, to be moderated after the holiday.

שנה טובה ומתוקה שנשמע רק בשורות טובות לכל עם ישראל

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What is there to celebrate on September 11th?


September 11, 2001 was the 10th birthday of my friend's daughter, Dahlia. This was her reaction.

Life is our honor, our privilege, our gift, our victory.

Gretta is named after my beloved Grandma Belle, who died before I had children.
Here is a picture of Gretta, visiting Grandma Belle's grave yesterday. She is putting rocks on the gravestone, which is the Jewish custom for showing respect/attendance at a graveside.

May you be written in the book of LIFE for the coming year.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Teenage chicks gone wild: An adolescent gang is terrorizing our neighborhood.

Remember the turkey chicks? They've grown a lot over the Summer and have become a marauding horde, terrorizing the neighborhood's tidy lawns and flower gardens.

They're almost as tall as Emily now. The smallest is taller than Gretta.

The local residents are much less amused with them than they were in May.

On a related note, Mother in Israel says "teenagers are a tikkun". As I have a teen, a tween, and three 'in the wings', (my apologies - couldn't resist the ornithological pun) I find this attitude very helpful. "Tikkun" is a much better -more accurate and more positive - word than "nissayon" (test/trial) which I had been using.

A trial is an opportunity to fail, to be found lacking, to be found guilty. (Okay, it's also an opportunity to succeed, to be found competent, to be found not guilty, too. But show me a parent in the trenches of adolescence who sees it that way, and I'll show you someone whose confidence gives me an involuntary shudder of superstition. Sometimes, bliss is ignorant.)

Instead of thinking of this time as a trial, I'm going to try to think of it as an opportunity to repair. Instead of thinking of it as the bill coming due for how much trouble I caused my parents, I'll (attempt to) see it as an opportunity to 'pay down the balance' that I owe them.

Which brings me to my revision of the "Parent's Curse". The Parent's Curse is when parents see their child misbehaving, and say, "May you have kids just like you."

This always bothered me, not only because of the incredibly distasteful idea of cursing your own kids, but also because of the astounding short-sightedness of wishing for ill-behaved grandchildren.

Instead, when I to catch them doing something extraordinary, I offer them my Parent's Blessing: "May you have kids just like you." (G-d forbid they have kids just like me! If they do, I'm not babysitting.)

(Please give me 10 points for having the restraint and good taste to refrain from referring to "leaving the nest" or calling grandchildren "a feather in my cap". See the Savage Chickens: The Optimist Cartoon and Savage Chickens: Therapy Hut Cartoon for more foul advice.)

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Friday, September 7, 2007

Shabbat Shalom!

Please note: this blog is not updated on Friday nights or Saturdays. Comments made during this time will be put in a queue, to be moderated after Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom! !שבת שלום

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, and Shmini Atzeret 5768/2007 Meal Planners (free downloads)

photo of the Rosh Hashanah planner in use, pasted into a Moleskine notebook
Per request, here are my meal planners for your (free) downloading pleasure:

This is what I've printed and pasted into my planner/notebook (using 2/page to get it to fit).

Print it full size and put it on your refrigerator (or tape it inside a cabinet, if you want more privacy). If it is printed 2/page, it can fit in a classic-size Franklin Planner, with the paper cut in half.

As (I hope) you can see in the photo, I've highlighted the "one company meal between sleeps", and put "family only" in the guest box for the other meals.

Related posts:

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Rose Colored Glasses: Pink is in the eye of the beholder

Just before putting on her play sunglasses, Gretta said, "Look out, Mommy! You're gonna be all pink!"

Would that perspective were as easy to manage and share as a pair of sunglasses.

A friend called to vent this morning, about an interaction with a mutual friend that kept her up all night, agitating about her responses and replies. I know and care about both parties involved.

Both women are caring, loving, sensitive people. Both mean well. They are friends, and only want the best for one another.

The problem is they both know what's best for the other person. They just disagree about what that is. As a result, each feels the other disapproves of her life choices. And they're both right about that.

Yet the criticism they each sense comes from love and friendship.

It's as though one is wearing green sunglasses and the other blue. They're both looking at the same garden, yet can't understand why the other person continues to insist on describing the flowers by the wrong color.

If only they could switch glasses for just a moment, they'd understand.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Gretta, modeling FrankenDresses

This is an update for the FrankenDress post, because my fashion model was unavailable when it was written.

Monday, September 3, 2007

My Monster in the Mirror

Are you familiar with the Sesame Street song, "Monster in the Mirror" sung by the Grover (the hapless blue monster who speaks without contractions)?

In the real lyrics by Norman Stiles, Grover sings, "Wubba wubba wubba, wubba wubba wooo".

Here is a link to a video of Grover the Monster performing it.

It's a very cute song as written, but during the Jewish New Year season I always think of it with the following slightly modified lyrics: (Note: "mochel" is the Hebrew word for "forgive". We formally ask each other for forgiveness around this time of year.)

Grover: Saw a monster in my mirror when I woke today. A monster in my mirror, but I did not run away.I had to face my fear and look inside my head. Though the monster looked at me and this is what he said:

Chorus: He asked, "Won't you, mochel, mochel, mochel, mochel me?
Mochel, mochel, mochel, won't you mochel me please?"

He asked, "Mochel, mochel, mochel" so I asked him too: "Will you mochel me, and I will mochel you."

Monsters: Will you mochel me? Please know I mochel you.

Grover: Told the monster in the mirror, "I am kind of scared." Nervously smiled at him because he saw my soul was bared. Well, the monster wondered what to do, he smiled right back and then... The monster in the mirror sang this song again:

Chorus: He went "Won't you, mochel, mochel" and I sang along, cause "Mochel, mochel, mochel" is a proper song.

"Mochel, mochel, mochel" is a proper song.

Grover and monsters: Chorus (a capella/voices only)

Grover: He went, "Won't you, mochel, mochel" and I sang along, (instrumental music returns) 'Cause "Mochel, mochel, mochel" is a Tishrei song.

Monsters: "Mochel, mochel, mochel" is a Tishrei song.

Grover: Every mirror has a monster in it, do not doubt. This kind of situation does not call for freaking out. And do nothing that you would not like to see him do...'Cause that monster in the mirror, he just might be you!

"Mochel, mochel, mochel", you can join in too. Please will you mochel me? And know I mochel you."

Monsters: Will you mochel me and I will mochel you?

In Tishrei, "Will you mochel me?" is the thing to do.

Grover and monsters: Yes, please mochel us. We mochel you.

Unidentified monster: (spoken) We mochel you.

T minus 10 and counting... Do you know where your pomegranates are? (jGTD)

That's T for the Hebrew month of Tishrei. And 10, as in 10 days.

Rosh Hashanah starts on the first day of Tishrei. This year (2007, or 5768, depending on which calendar you're using) it begins on Wednesday evening, September 12. Counting TODAY, there are 10 days left until Rosh Hashanah.

What follows is my own non-exhaustive, imperfectly-edited collection of lists of things to freak out about consider before the Jewish ("high") holidays. I'm sharing them because it can be helpful to read such a list (not to adopt it completely, but rather) as a trigger to remember things that might otherwise fall through the cracks.

The list items are in no particular order.

If you don't find this type of exercise helpful, please move along. This is a ridiculously long post.

Spiritual preparation is not in the scope of this message. The purpose of these lists is to focus on the physical stuff to clear our heads for the Big Stuff to come.

I guess you could call this an exercise in Getting Jewish Things Done (jGTD? gJtd?)

(Disclaimers: Since this is my list, it is geared to our Ashkenazi, non-chassidic, yekkish (German-Jewish), orthodox family living outside-of-Israel (in the U.S.) Everyone's list will vary with their circumstances and customs.

We're hosts, not guests. If you're traveling, there will be scads of other stuff to do, such as acquiring hostess gifts, packing, etc. Personally, I'd rather cook for a month than pack for a week.

Please consult your local halachic authority about anything that differs from what you normally do. I'm not any sort of halachic authority. I don't even play one on t.v.

I'm not trying to tell anyone (other than my recalcitrant self) what to do. My goal is to help those who want to do these things remember that the time to do them is nigh.

Non-Jews are hereby invited to skip this post. Or you can stay and just smile and nod sympathetically like we do in December. Really, though, I can't imagine it holds any interest to those who aren't in this particular foxhole. Due to time constraints, I'm not going to translate the Jewish and Hebrew terms much. The website is a fount of legitimate and useful information, such as their Jewish Holiday Calendar overview.

I'm sure I've forgotten at least something vital. Please don't immerse this list in water or hold it while running with scissors. I'm cold, go put on a sweater...

Preparing for Rosh Hashanah

Scheduling notes for Rosh Hashanah

Starts Wednesday, September 12, 2007 before sunset, officially ends on Friday night, September 14, but since that coincides with Shabbat, it effectively ends Saturday night, September 15.

We affectionately (yet inaccurately) call this phenomenon (when a two-day holiday gets extended due to its sharing a time border with Shabbat) a "Three Day Chag".

Rosh Hashanah is two days long, even for those who live in Israel.

With the exception of Rosh Hashanah, those who live in Israel celebrate only the first day of the double-day holidays. Thus, they are unaccustomed to the "Three Day Chag" situation, as it only comes up for them when Rosh Hashanah falls on a Wednesday night, as it does this year.

Those of us who live outside Israel experience this more often.

Things to do before Rosh Hashanah

  • Start a list of questions to ask the Rabbi, even if you don't have any yet. Try to ask questions early, as his schedule includes all that we have to do, along with a dozen high-pressure, high-profile public presentations and a gazillion other details.

    If for whatever reason the questions don't get answered (or asked) before/during this Tishrei (for example, due to discovering a workaround that avoids having to ask), if they are written down, you can ask them next month, in preparation for 5769.

    If they're not written down, they'll fall victim to post-chag amnesia.

  • Slichot!! Find the Slichot machzorim, put the date (depending on your minhag) on calendar. We have them this coming Saturday night, September 8, 2007.

    Find out the time - is it midnight? 11:pm? 1:am? I don't know why, but every year we forget this.

  • Verify that there is a box of matzah for the three eruv tavshilins that are required this month. (I have a box still leftover from Pesach this year. Mustn't allow anyone near it.)

  • Get the holiday schedule, including the shul's davening times entered on the family's calendar.

    Make sure the shul schedule is available in hard-copy somewhere public. Ours is in the reference binder on our refrigerator. Enter the candle lighting times onto calendar - especially if you use an electronic one.

  • Prepare an Eruv Tavshilin on Wednesday, September 12, 2007 during the day.

  • We won't have many weekdays this month, so it is helpful to pre-pay bills as much as possible, so they won't pile up.

  • Look into chessed opportunities particular to the season - blowing shofar for hospital patients, inviting overlooked local residents (especially singles and those new to the area), delivering Yom Tov food, etc. Schedule these now before the quicksand of the schedule buries the opportunities.

  • Buy honey for baking and for serving. We dip the bread in honey for every Yom Tov meal from Rosh Hashana through Shemini Atzeret.

    This is a huge concession on the part of my husband, who considers honey a Class 3 Controlled Substance. He hates the mess. Even outside in the Sukkah.

    Note: This video was made by someone else, who has a better sense of humor than my husband when it comes to honey.

    A family tradition has developed around this, where the kids goad him on about it, with exaggerated reveling in this custom as though it were halacha. It is very effective: their eyes dance and my husband's jaw sets at the mere mention of honey.

  • Buy or cut flowers for the table.

  • Get an article of new clothing or jewelry.

  • Check that everyone has enough outfits and undergarments including new or at least run-free stockings!) that fit for three days of synagogue and company meals.

    Remember that the kids probably grew over the Summer. Inspect these clothes for missing buttons, stains, etc. Set them aside to minimize the day-of-chag screams of "Hey! That was MY skirt. Who told you you could wear it today? ......EEEEEEma!"

  • Dry cleaning submitted and picked up. Do you know where your (husband's) kittel is?

  • Obtain whatever Simanim your family uses.

  • Obtain "New Fruit" (something you haven't eaten yet this year, to justify saying shehechiyanu on the second day)

  • Medication/vitamins for the month (consulting your local halachic authority as necessary if there is a need to take the on Yom Tov.)

  • Buy tons of eggs. Everything, including the eruv tavshilin will use eggs. Can always make egg salad or serve them hard boiled. Eggs last a while.

  • Establish a set place for the onslaught of tzedakah mail that comes with this season. Either make special folder in your inbox for it, or, if you use a tickler file, pick a date to make decisions and write checks.

  • Schedule cemetery visits.

  • Locate the machzorim (specialized holiday prayer books). Do they need covers? (Helpful when saving/finding seats in a roomful of identical books, and for their likely return if they get left behind.)

    Does the family need any new ones for kids who are newly old enough to read from them?

    I like to prepare my machzor with a few tissues tucked into the cover, and with a cloth napkin (because we bow to the floor, but not on a bare floor) for Yom Kippur.

  • List of family members and friends to call and wish good new year/yom tov.

  • Wednesday: Turn of alarm clocks!

  • Check if we need any new dishes/serving platters. Set aside things to tovel (immerse in the dishes mikvah before first use) and some time to do that. (No, driving around with the vegetable peelers in the minivan for three weeks doesn't obviate the need to actually dunk them. )

    Also, might be able to think of a substitute/friend to borrow from/etc. if you realize it now and don't want to purchase or don't have the resources (energy, time, money, decision making skills....) to buy.

  • Especially for mothers: try to schedule some time alone for Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur-type thoughts, in the midst of all the hectic planning

  • Acquire hostess gifts. Stockpile a few extra bottles of wine and a few pareve treats (not nuts, just in case someone has the minhag/custom to avoid them on Rosh Hashana) just in case.

  • Get haircuts

  • List menus, even if only a blank template that says "Wine - Simanim - Bread - Beverages - Fish Plates - Soup - Main course + 2 sides - Dessert - Coffee/Tea" for each of the meals of the holiday. I use pre-printed mailing labels for this. (Not likely to have this downloadable for 5768, but I'll try for next year to have them here.)

  • Make a list of guests to invite. Invite them.

  • Make the guest beds (even if not expecting any - you never know who will have to stay over, and a made bed doesn't have an expiration date) and check the overnight guest accommodations (clean towels, etc.)

  • Check supply of/iron/purchase/prepare table linens.

  • Start a shopping list

  • Prepare any blog posts, e-mail messages or voice mail announcements to warn people you'll be unavailable for certain dates.

  • Purchase seat reservations at shul.

  • Start a bag for things to bring and (if allowed) keep at shul. For the children: diapers, toys, sweets. Will still need to add snacks for the kids on the day of...

  • Make provisions for kaparrot. Although in English that word contains 'parrot', we don't use birds at all just $.

  • Pack a stroller bag. (Uh oh! I just realized: we need a new stroller! The wheel housing broke a few weeks ago. Oy.)

  • Arrange/pay for babysitting for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

  • Any children's art projects made from now until Sukkot should be evaluated as potential Sukkah decorations. If there is a young child who doesn't attend school, make sure that child has a few pictures hung in the sukkah, so she/he won't be left out when everyone points out what they made.

    If necessary, anything can be 'laminated' by being slipped in a page protector. There should be something hanging in the sukkah from every child.

  • Make a plan for tidying up (at least the public rooms) that doesn't require doing much on erev chag.

  • Print some extra labels for food that is likely to be prepared during the chaggim. (Consult rabbi if this is okay and how to do it.)

  • This is a good time to have an empty inbox. That may not be realistic, but any extra moments spent toward this goal will be appreciated.

  • Clean out refrigerator and freezer to make space for Yom tov cooking. Cook as much as possible before the date in advance.

  • We don't use bread for tashlich, but if you do, you might want to set some aside.

  • Can't hurt to have extra apples and honey and pomegranates, etc. to serve as emergency hostess gifts. Can always use them in salads if not needed.

  • It's not a minhag, but we like to serve the 7 kinds at the Rosh Hashana table.
    Need to acquire these. (Note to self: put barley on the shopping list.)

    For a quick and tasty barley dish, prepare with a jar of spicy salsa. (Note to self: put a jar of salsa on the shopping list.)

  • Start baking round challot.

  • We don't send cards, but appreciate those we receive. We display them on a shelf until sukkot, when they'll morph into sukkah decorations. Still helpful to have a few cards on hand, in case need to reciprocate with someone who would be put off by not receiving a card.

  • Candles: Regular candles. In four weeks, have 10 candle lightings. Also check the stock of yartzheit candles both for transferring flame and for yizkor if necessary. (Thank G-d, we don't need them for this.) Have I mentioned there will be three 3-day chaggim chutz l'aretz?

  • Think about the status of the sukka from last year. Is anything broken? Can it be ordered? Need new scach?

  • Wednesday afternoon: Set cellphones, Blackberries, Palm pdas, and cordless phones up to charge, otherwise their power will drain over the next 3-4 days.

  • Wednesday afternoon: Run the garbage disposals before candle lighting time, so the sink drains will be empty and clear.

  • Polish silver (If you're into that sort of thing. Around here, we're fans of tarnish, calling it "patina".)

  • Wednesday (sometime): Empty the answering machine/voice mail so it won't overflow over the break.

  • Move the laundry to the dryer, leaving nothing in the washer to mildew over the break.

  • Try to have at least one dish to prepare with the kids, so they have sweet holiday preparation memories and no false advertising about the level of preparation required to make a holiday work.

  • Buy non-perishables NOW if haven't done so already. Also not a bad idea to have some emergency cake mixes, salad dressings, jarred sauces, etc. just in case homemade isn't possible.

  • Stock the refrigerator and freezer with ingredients as much as possible. Try to do a bit each day.

  • If you "do" GTD, try to get a weekly review done before Rosh Hashanah, but don't expect to do another until October. Brace yourself for October's to be a doozy.

Preparing for Yom Kippur

Scheduling notes for Yom Kippur

Starts Friday, September 21, 2007 before sunset, ends Saturday night, September 22. It's a special one this year, because it falls on Shabbat, although that has little impact on the preparations for it.

Things to do before Yom Kippur

  • Seuda Hamafseket - the meal before the fast. Write in bold the time it should end. Think about the menu. We do a carbo-loading menu for this, just like the runners of the Boston Marathon do to prepare. (pasta, but not beer)

  • Arrange for Break-the-fast food. (We bring it to shul.)

  • Find the time to really ask a mechila from people - especially from family members, not just a quick question while running to shul on the way to Kol Nidre, but actual time to really ask and receive forgiveness from one another.

  • Verify that everyone has non-leather shoes that fit. This can be a problem for the girls who wore sandals all Summer and their sneakers might not still fit.

  • Mark on the calendar a reminder to drink a lot of water on the days before the fast.

  • If you quit caffeine before fasting (to make it easier/avoid headaches) then write that reminder on the calendar, too.

  • Make honey cake or a reasonable imposter for erev Yom Kippur, where we ask for it, in the hopes that it will be the only time that year where we need to ask for food.

  • If you or a family member is pregnant, nursing or anticipates other health issues, ask the rabbi how to handle fasting, and how or when to break the fast if necessary.

Preparing for Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret

Scheduling notes for Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret

This one's a bit more complicated, schedule-wise. If you know the score, or if you don't care, I recommend skipping this explanation and its headache-inducing effects.

The first two days of Sukkot are a double-day-if-outside-of-Israel, work-restricted holiday. ("Yom tov")

Sukkot is technically seven days long, but it is always immediately followed by another (double-day-if-outside-of-Israel, work-restricted) holiday, called "Shemini Atzeret". This means that we can't take down the sukkah, write, shop, do laundry, etc. until after Shemini Atzeret.

This makes Sukkot feel like it is nine days long for non-Israelis, and eight days long for those who live in Israel.

Since the Israelis celebrate Shemini Atzeret in one day, that day is both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah for them. For the rest of us, Simchat Torah is celebrated on the second day of Shemini Atzeret, the day that feels like the ninth day of Sukkot. But, really, there are only seven days of Sukkot.

The 3rd through 7th days are also Sukkot, but these days are called "chol hamoed" (a somewhat oxymoronic term, meaning something like "everyday holiday days".) These days between the two sets of double-day-if-outside-Israel, work-restrictive holidays have their own rules. For jGTD purposes, the impact on the to-do list for these intermediate days is minimal.

With me so far? Good. Then you're ready to kick it up a notch. It gets even more complicated. No, I'm not making this up.

This year, however, the third day of sukkot is one of those Shabbat days that hugs the first two holiday days. And, this year, Shemini Atzeret's two days also bump right up into a Shabbat.

Thus, there are two weeks of Wednesday night until Saturday night "Three Day Chags" this year. The 9th day of the whole Sukkot-Shemini Atzeret stretch end on Friday at sunset, when Shabbat begins.

So, this year, Sukkot, which is always technically seven days long, seems like ten days long. Some people (inaccurately, but forgivably, because by then we're all exhausted) call these the "last days of Sukkot".

This makes sense (even though it's wrong) to most of us, because the schedule for Sukkot looks a lot like the schedule for Passover, in that it is a holiday sandwich, with intermediate days ("chol hamoed") in the middle, and double-day-if-outside-of-Israel, work-restrictive holidays on either end. (Make that sandwich with matzah on Passover, please.)

On the seventh and last real day of Sukkot, there is yet another holiday called "Hoshanah Rabbah". It follows the chol hamoed, not-completely-restrictive rules of the rest of the intermediate days of Sukkot, and has minimal planning impact on the schedule (mostly involving remembering to bring the extra willow leaves to synagogue that morning, and to expect a very long service that day - therefore a late lunch.)

So, for scheduling purposes and to summarize (If you read the above, you can understand my motivation for doing so), this year, Sukkot can be broken into three sections.

These dates are specific to those living outside of Israel:
  • The (work-restricted) first days of Sukkot start Wednesday September 26, 2007 before sunset and, officially end on Friday night, September 28, but since that coincides with Shabbat, they effectively end Saturday night, Septemeber 29th.

  • The (less restrictive) intermediate days of Sukkot (really start with Shabbat on the 29th, but Shabbat has its own restrictions) end on Wednesday night, October 3rd.

  • The (work-restricted) Shemini Atzeret start Wednesday October 3, 2007 before sunset and officially end on Friday night, October 5, but since that coincides with Shabbat, they effectively end Saturday night, October 6th)

Things to do before Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret

  • (Many of the same things that are on the list for Rosh Hashanah apply to Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret. I won't repeat them here, rather will say to check that list also...)

  • Prepare an Eruv Tavshilin during daytime on each of the Wednesdays before Yom Tov.

  • Mow the yard, at least where the sukkah is going to be. (Woot! As of last year, we now have the sukkah on the porch!!)

  • Replace broken outdoor lightbulbs.

  • Order any hardware for the sukkah that is broken or missing.

  • Was it windy last year? Do you need more scach? Order it now.

  • Shop for/order lulav and etrog set(s)

  • Make sure the pathway to the sukkah is company ready (at best) or not a hazzard (at a minimum).

  • If your rabbi/shul/minhag allows drinking on Simchat Torah, stock up on liquor.

  • Plan for simpler foods and fewer courses on Simchat Torah. People will be hungry, but patience will be at a minimum. There are likely to be many leftovers available by then.

General guidelines for all of the month of Tishrei


Get real. This is a month with 3 "Three Day Chag"s and 2 fast days in four weeks. There are going to be some mistakes. There are going to be some broken dishes. At least one kugel will burn. There will be stress. Expect it, and you can meet it, face-to-face. The stress that sneaks up on you is the real villian.

Try to find time to think Yomim Nora'im (High Holiday) type thoughts.

The food is important, but it isn't about the food.

If a guest (or anyone) offers help, accept it. This is a marathon; we have to pace ourselves. If nobody offers, ask for help.

Prevent burnout by firmly (but kindly) demanding that family members give you the help you need, even if that help is in the form of, "Please, will everyone leave the kitchen for a couple of hours so Mommy can keep track of the number of eggs in her recipes."

Don't get overwhelmed. Remember to breathe, and take breaks. The goal is not to be a drudge, even though some drugery is called for. Find ways to make tedious tasks joyful as possible, such as listening to music, setting aside a favorite yom tov treat just for Mommy, using a headset telephone to phone a friend while chopping vegetables, etc.

Hire help if necessary.

If you have a like-minded friend, even if across country or the world, make time to call and set a kvetch timer. 20 minutes of shared hassles become anecdotes, not whining. Made better in the retelling, just to know you have an audience, even a retrofit one.

Close the kitchen to snackers during cooking hours. It's helpful to have something they can take elsewhere - like outside - to nosh.

Loose ends

In your copious spare time (ha!) review the laws of cooking on Yom Tov. Knowing what you can prepare during the holiday and what needs to be done before-hand will help with prioritization.

If possible, bulk-prepare ingredients with electric devices before the holiday begins, rather than spending holiday time preparing foods manually.

For example, I like to measure the flour for certain recipes by weight. If I know in advance that I'll be making certain recipes on Yom tov, it helps to have it weighed in a paper bag before chag begins, rather than having to approximate the amount of flour in a manner I'm not accustomed to using, that will likely yield unpredictable results. If I need matzah meal, I could bang it up with a rolling pin on Yom tov, but I'd rather prepare some in a minute and a half in the food processor the day before. I can mix cake batter by hand, but much prefer to use the standing mixer, even if it means freezing the cake for part of the week.

Stock up on staples of paper goods - garbage bags, paper towels. They're not perishable.

Tearing paper towels is a great task for little kids. It's tedious and time consuming for adults, but the kids like it. They can't fail at this: If the towel tears, who cares? Now that school's almost in session, the kindergarten teachers will appreciate the cardboard tubes.

Make sure there is enough kleenex (doubles as pre-torn toilet paper) DIAPERS and wipes.

Must keep up with laundry, or have a strategy for doing so during the few scarce weekdays in September.

September is nuts this year. Imagine the calendar in the food processor. This coming Sunday is the last normal weekend until the second week of October. The Sunday after Rosh Hashanah, September 16, 2007, is a fast day, so don't plan any heavy lifting for that day.

Realize that the all the schools, community organizations and birthday parties will pile on on that Sunday after Yom Kippur. Plan a Defensive Calendar Stategy now.

At least (for those of us in the USA), we have some Sundays for catching up. Resist the urge to schedule much on any of the Sundays until 10/14 because there will be much to do.

"One Company Meal Between Sleeps"

We started a family policy over a dozen years ago, of "one company meal between sleeps." This means that (unless it is an emergency) we invite guests for either lunch or dinner on a given Yom tov day, but not both. This allows us to relax with the guests, and experience the meal without hurry and without burnout.

Before we instituted this policy, sometimes we were still clearing the table from lunch when the dinner guests started to arrive. Yom tov meals are supposed to be served b'simcha, not through clenched teeth. If the schedule is too grueling, then the fancy roast might as well be gruel.

Deciding far in advance which meal each day will be the "one company meal between sleeps" allows the family to accept invitations to be guests at someone else's table for the other meal.

Accept invitations sparingly, to keep the fatigue to a minimum. Being a guest "on your best behavior" can be tiring, too.

We like to serve a light menu at the family-only meals. This lightens the burdens of cleaning and setting up, and it allows time for naps and digestion. It also gives the children an opportunity to share their divrei Torah at a private meal.

Emphasize the parts of entertaining (and of the whole holiday season) that you like best, and that give your family the most joy. Yes, all that is required is required. But extra flourishes should come from the heart. The Pareto Principle applies to kugels and honey cakes, too.

Holiday Manuals

I keep a binder for each major holiday season, where I put the lists, a few package labels, my notes, receipts, and recipes pertaining to that holiday. I have fun with them, giving them titles and a colorful picture on the cover.

Some of the titles include "There's a Leaf in My Soup: A Manual for Sukkot", "MiShenichnas Adar: A Manual for Purim", and "You're Not Making This Fun For Me: A Manual for Pesach".

People invariably exclaim, "Oooo, you're so organized!" when they see the manuals on the shelf, but really, they're just a place to hold a random bunch of printouts and receipts. Half of them have almost no internal order at all. Toss one together, and see if your guests don't say the same thing.

For menu inspiration check the various Kosher Cooking Carnivals. Print a few extra recipes that appeal to you and toss it in the appropriate folder/binder/shelf, if not for this year, then maybe for the next.

When Tishrei is over, sit down and do a complete "brain dump to paper" about what worked and what didn't. Put this list, along with the receipts, recipe print-outs and whatever other holiday planning detritus you can find, in the binder. Next year, you'll be another year wiser and more experienced, and you'll have the binder as evidence to prove it!

Save receipts. They can help make up next year's shopping list.

(I plan to print a copy of this blog post and stick it in the Manual for next year.)

A word on Simcha and to-do-lists

Simcha, the watch-word for Sukkot, is roughly translated as joy. Rather than a hedonistic joyfulness, simcha is the expression of the joy of engaging in mitzvot (G-d's commandments).

Sukkot is called "Zman Simchateinu", the time of our joy. Similarly, Passover is called the "time of our freedom" and Shavuot the "time of the giving of the Torah".

All three of pilgrimage holidays are supposed to be joyful, but simcha receives extra emphasis on Sukkot. Tradition's formulae for jumpstarting the holiday simcha involve sanctifying physical enjoyments, such as drinking wine, eating meat, and receiving new clothing or Jewelry in anticipation of the holiday.

Much is written (of course) from a Jewish perspective, about the meaning and implementation of holiday simcha. However, I enjoyed some recent insight on this from a secular source. Gretchen Rubin, a writer empirically developing her own personal Theory of Happiness, blogs about her "research" experiences at The Happiness Project.

Last week, she posted her "Third Splendid Truth". She states that happiness is a four-staged process: anticipation, savoring, expression, and reflection.

Her model can give us a hint about maximizing our holiday simcha (a concept not identical with happiness, but work with me here...) 'Anticipation' and 'expression' are nearly unavoidable, given all that must be done to prepare for and accomplish the tasks required on the holiday.

'Savoring' and 'reflection', however, require conscious effort lest they be neglected. 'Savoring' can't happen in an atmosphere of burnout. Savoring is the antithesis of stress.

I posit that efforts undertaken to reduce stress are a necessary part of the mitzvah of simcha on the holidays.

The point of all this list-making is to reduce stress. The lists are tools that are intended to help with at least three of Gretchen's four requirements. 'List-making is nearly synonymous with "anticipation". Lists give us control and reduce stress so that the essence of the holiday can be savored. Reflection is inherrent in the debriefing, note-taking, and list-making that recommended after the holiday events.

If the lists induce stress rather than relieve it, then they are broken tools. Throw them out, replace them with something that works, or learn to use them properly. Don't let them injure you. (Use eye protection if necessary.)

May your name be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life and for all the best in the coming year.

So, what's on your list?

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If you liked this article, congratulations! You have great taste. Please brew yourself a cup of coffee.
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