Sunday, January 31, 2016

Reaching a huge milestone, Channah's Bat Mitzvah

As the sun set this evening, Channah reached the age of Bat Mitzvah. She automatically took a step forward in her life where she halachically takes responsibility for her own actions.  We went out for dinner as a family to celebrate the occasion.

 I keep thinking back to the night Channah was born. 5 weeks earlier Rachel's water broke. Channah blocked the hole with her head, allowing the pregnancy to continue in the safety of the womb. My Mom had come to join us for Friday night dinner in the hospital room. We sent her home earlier than we expected when fetal distress started to set in. Channah was born 12:45 am weighing a whopping 1320 grams. I didn't meet her for hours after she was born as she was quickly whisked away to receive medical attention. At 3:00 am I was kicked out of the hospital in order to let Rachel get some rest. I went bouncing down the street back to the apartment I was staying at. As there was no one else around, I excitedly shared the news with the security guard for the building. In the morning, I shared the exciting news with the strangers staying in the same guest apartment for the night.

A friend of mine wrote an article and used a quote that truly rings true in my head.  The quote is from Rebbe Nachman which had been a major song from my NCSY days. 

 כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד, והעיקר - לא לפחד כלל

'The whole world is a very narrow bridge. The most important thing is to have no fear at all'

The night Channah was born, I was completely clueless at how much danger Channah was in. I looked at the entire 6.5 week NICU experience as simply the path to bring her home. It never occurred to me that her life was in danger.

If someone told me at that time her Bat Mitzvah would be taking place in Israel with a Canadian theme, I would have thought they were crazy.

Tomorrow morning, Channah and I will be driving to the 'holy' city of Metula for the only hockey tournament in the world that has a daf yomi shiur.  Over 4 days, I will be playing in 5 games for the Grey Team as we attempt to win the tournament. In between games, Channah and I will be picking food from the fields for Leket, a trip to the hot springs, a 2 hour ATV ride of the area and a tour of how they make pomegranate wine. I truly look forward to this time to bond with her as a young lady, and truly see how much she has grown.

In two weeks she will be celebrating with a skating activity followed by an elaborate party with her friends. I would never have guessed the unique Bat Mitzvah experience combined with recently allowing Channah restricted access to WhatsApp, would break down the walls of isolation that Channah has been struggling with for so long.

The hospital Channah was born at follow their preemies for 6 years. Their research found that preemies tend to have a stubborn streak. They were not sure if the stubbornness was a natural character trait that increased the chance of survival or if it was a natural reaction to the NICU experience.

Channah is as stubborn as they come. At times it can be frustrating when she decides to start a battle of wits. Once you get through to her, she has the power to excel. Every teacher who has ever had her has loved to have her as a student. Her grades show it. She also has poise to handle the most difficult challenges that life can throw at her. She has always been something special.

Life can be scary. Sometimes looking back at what we have overcome together can be shocking when I realize how afraid I should have been. Without fear we can achieve anything. I am so proud of the young lady she has become.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Once Upon a December

On the Jewish calendar, this morning marked the morning I got up from Shiva 3 years ago. On the Gregorian calendar that happens tomorrow. It will hopefully mark the end of a period of intense self-reflection that I have gone through every December for the last 3 years. It is a time of emotionally reliving memories; both the incredibly painful ones, as well as happy ones. It is also a time of year for celebrating how far I have come and creating new happy memories.

2 years ago, I wrote a post about how December 31st would be a sad day for the rest of my life. Then this year, on December 31st, I found myself at a wedding for one of my cousins. I felt the love from the baalei simcha who have always been super caring towards me. At the family table I felt proud to be part of my family as the various family members connected the dots of my family tree. They could only see my family as a complete family because they were people I have been related to for my entire life or in 2 cases for their entire lives.

During this intense emotional time period, I couldn't help but to relate to the story of Yosef that is read during the same time of year. He went through tough times from the death of his mother as a young boy, to having his brother seeing him as a threat that sent him on the path to slavery and eventually jail. Through it all he managed to overcome every challenge rising to the 2nd most powerful person in all of Egypt. At the end of the journey, he saved his entire family. In the merit of overcoming such difficult challenges he did what only his father had done. His children would also be the heads of their own Shvatim (Tribes). His father's blessing to his children are the same blessing that father's give to their sons on Friday night.

Once the complete story is revealed to all, there is another angle that doesn't always get noticed. Yosef made every effort to show that he showed no ill will towards his brothers. Time and again we see that the brothers are skeptical that perhaps Yosef has been biding his time to take out his just payback. He could never truly unite his brothers into one cohesive family.

My life has changed so much over the last 3 years. I have changed so much during that time. I have made myself a better person. Although, technically I have a blended family, at its core, we are one cohesive unit.

With those around me, I often feel like I have the same struggles as Yosef. Some have accepted my family as a complete family and others haven't. Some see our family as Channah and I and then Peri and Shlomo, with a very clear divide, while others see us in varying permutations.  I find it very hard to relate to those who can't see my family as a single unit. The hardest is trying to figure out where I am holding with those who don't make it clear.  I also realize that in most cases the different permutations may be in part my fault.

Over the last number of weeks, I have seen clear examples of why I love this community so much. I have witnessed people reach the highest levels of chesed, while in the same breath have also seen the opposite, which saddens me to see.

I am looking forward to moving this summer to a new community who will only see my family as the complete unit that it is. I believe that it is a huge step to help in making our own happiness. A step to being accepted for who I am instead of what once was.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Fire and Ice

On Monday morning (First Day Channukah) I walked into the arena to play hockey. Sitting next to our teams bench (technically the penalty box) was a large menorah. My first reaction was that it was really cool moment. The more I thought about it the more I realized that it would be weirder if they didn't have one.  After all this is the venue for Channah's Bat Mitzvah.


As the week has gone on, Channukah can be seen everywhere. Bakeries are filled with Sufganiyot (Jelly Donuts). We went to meet up for breakfast with some friends at a hotel. Complimentary sufganityot were spread throughout the various concierge places throughout the hotel. Individual businesses set up their own menorahs. Around here some businesses close either early or for a couple of hours to allow employees to come home and light their candles with their families. Channah has been complaining that she wishes that she had 9 days off for Channukah as opposed to the 7 days she gets. She was shocked to discover that her first cousins in Montreal have school over Channukah.

A few weeks ago a friend had received some media attention over a book they received from a Jewish book club that included references to Christmas. They were so upset that they lodged a complaint to one of the large Jewish organizations that funds the books. This resulted in a huge dialogue both in favor and against the book clubs decision. On the one hand, the book represented the reality that they experienced as they balance their Jewishness with the Holiday Season around them. On the other, were those who felt that Christmas has nothing to do with Judaism and the books didn't belong in the mainstream community. After watching the discussion for a few days, I asked Channah if she knew when Christmas is. Not only did she not know but she was confused by the question.

There is one very noticeable difference between Channukah in Israel and Chul (the rest of the world). That difference can be seen in the dreidel. Around the world they have the letters Nun, Gimmel, Hey, Shin, standing for a Great Miracle Happened There. In Israel the Shin is replaced with a Pey, changing the meaning to a Great Miracle Happened Here.

This year has really driven home the point of how different Channukah is here. That point is perfectly captured in the difference between the two letters. In Chul the battle of Channukah is still playing out to this very day. How to balance the needs of the Jewish Spirituality with the overwhelming surrounding culture. For those in Chul the lights of the candles represent the power of a little light and it's ability to burn longer then could ever be expected and persevere through the dark days of winter.

For us in Israel the Great Miracle already happened here. While we still have spiritual battles they are both internal or amongst our own nation. We no longer have to battle the forces of the culture around us. We are still involved in a physical battle for our very survival. At times the losses are great we just want them to stop. We still have the candles to give us strength in the darkest of days.

Being so far away from family and friends has been a struggle. There are times that I wonder if it is a struggle I can overcome.  I don't miss Canada. I miss my friends and family and the support they are able to provide.  Distance makes those challenges harder.  That Menorah in the hockey rink, reminded me just how much and why I love living here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

We're Not in Canada Anymore

This morning Peri and Shlomo decided to accompany me to my hockey game. Shlomo loves watching the puck and it is always more fun when your family is there to enjoy it with you. It also helps when you have a decent game.

Towards the end of the 80 minutes on the ice an young frum couple walks into the arena. They happen to be in the area and saw the arena with the sign 'Ice Peaks' and wanted to know what it was.

They walked up to Peri and had this conversation:

Israelis: What is that thing they are on? Is it plastic and why is it so cold?
Peri: It is ice and it is cold to keep it frozen.

They seemed confused by the concept.

Israelis: Why is everyone dressed so warmly?
Peri: They are wearing padding.

They couldn't understand what padding was or why it was needed.

Peri explained the concept of a puck and the importance of having protection.

They then couldn't understand why 'the guy in the net' was dressed so warmly.

Peri explained that it was a thin shirt with lots of padding and very important.

They asked if the game going on was the only activity the could be done on the ice or were there other things to do on this ice thing. Peri told them that skating was a fun activity.

When I got off the ice they asked me where to get the things on my feet, so that they could go on the ice now. The idea of playing hockey was way out there. They thought that since no one was going on the ice after us that they would be able to try it out immediately. They then started calling all their friends to join them in trying out this new weird activity.

I am not sure if this qualifies as an 'Only in Israel' moment. It definitely qualifies as never in Canada.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

We Danced Round and Round in Circles

I was really nervous going into Yom Kippur this year. The last time I had tried to fast was 17th of Tammuz. That fast ended mid-morning when I almost went down. The meds I take require me to have balanced food intake throughout the day to avoid side effects. On top of that the panic attacks had returned. The day before Yom Kippur, I had a panic attack that was so severe I collapsed on the ice before allowing myself to bounce back. At one point I had been scared that if that ever happened they would never allow me to play hockey again. Fortunately, that is not the case.

I couldn't get a heter to eat from either my doctor or my Rabbi. I just focused on doing what I could. In the end it was one of the most enjoyable and meaningful Yom Kippurs I have ever had. Unfortunately sometimes when you take a huge leap forward you quickly take a small step backwards intsead of being able to carry on the momentum. That is the best way to describe the week of Sukkot.

Then on Sunday night, Simchat Torah had come around. Our family had our eyes set on enjoying this particular Simchat Torah for a long time.

The auction had wrapped up and the tables and chairs were being moved to set up for a night of dancing. A friend brought Shlomo over to me. I immediately took him and sang quietly in his ear the same words I sang to Channah on her very first Simchat Torah and every year afterwards until she was too old to dance with me. 

We danced round and round in circles as if the world had done no wrong
From evening until morning, filling up the shul with song
Though we had no sifrei Torah to gather in our arms
In their place we held those children, the Jewish people would live on
Am yisrael chai
I have written and told the story many times of why this song and Simchat Torah is so important to me including here and here. Shlomo and I danced together. I finally had that moment with my long awaited Sefer Torah.

Last Simchat Torah, Peri promised me that this year I would have Kol Nearim while holding my son in my arms. She made sure that she won the auction and that I would be able to have that special moment.

For the 3rd time in 5 years, I was under the tallit surrounded by children for that special Aliyah. Shlomo was in my arms and Channah was standing beside. With Channah's Bat Mitzvah coming up it was a moment that can never be replicated.  This Aliyah has transformed for me from one of sadness and hope to one of joy and happiness. All 3 of my children were there, to mark the occasion that even in the darkest hours we find a way to rebuild and find the happiness again. Just as the month of Elul, Rosh HaShannah, Yom Kippur we work on personal growth, we follow it up with the Simcha of Sukkot and Simchat Torah.

It happen to work out that over all of the Simchat Torah dancing I held two of our shuls 3 Sifrei Torah. I also held two of my three children. The day is about the death of Moshe and finishing the Torah and immediately transitioning to the very beginning with the creation of the world.

This year is one that is going to be filled with a lot of new beginnings. So far my family is off to a great start.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Watching the World Change

A trip to the cemetery on Erev Yom Kippor is a different way to experience and reflect on the upcoming day. There are the usual tables set up for people collecting money. Families with water bottles busy working on cleaning the kever of their loved ones. Just being surrounded by people who understand what it means to stay inside for Yizkor.

Then there are the changes that have taken place since the last visit. They are in the process of starting to build a new section in front of where Rachel is located. They also took a big chunk of the parking lot and turned it into a new section of the cemetery which already has a large percentage already full. I also noticed off to one side what looked like a kever for a baby. 

This year has been full of changes. My struggle for personal growth has been focused on life is different now. Challenges from the past remain in the past and although they may sometimes seem similar to ones I face now, I can handle them. Shlomo's birth has brought so much joy into my life. His bris was a reminder of just how much love is around me. Channah's entire class decided to surprise her by showing up to celebrate with her. Shlomo's daily 'Good Morning World' Facebook status have been constant reminders of how many people care about our day to day life. I had one friendship that was more than just burning a bridge. It was more like lighting the bridge on fire and then nuking the remainder to make sure it could never be repaired. This week the first steps were taken to rebuilding that friendship.

This summer we sent Channah to Canada for 6 weeks. It was a chance for her to spend time with all her different grandparents and build relationships with family that lives far away. It was an incredible experience for her and she grew up over the summer.

In the mean time over the summer we surprised Channah with a complete room makeover. The central focus on the changes was a bunk style bed with a desk underneath along with a super oversized brand new bean bag chair. Along with the new room we have given Channah a lot of responsibility to prepare her for the transition from Grade 6, to applying for schools for Grade 7 next year.

We have also been focused on putting together her Bat Mitzvah. In the end we have decided to do what is best for her by having a celebration in Israel for her friends and having something in Toronto over the summer for her family.

The biggest wake up call for me was friends making the decision to leave the neighbourhood. It was the one family that I really feel their absence.   Their absence is felt all the time. It really made me think about where my priorities should be for my family and the best way to attain them. With Channah needing to change schools and a lease coming to an end it is the perfect time to make the right transition.

Peri and I spent a good part of the summer looking at different communities. Evaluating the pluses and minuses of each community reflect where we see our future and what we would potentially have to give up to obtain them. It also confirmed what I already knew. This community has a lot of positives going for it, in spite of the local politics and incompetent administration. A decision has been made and we look forward to bringing it to fruition in the coming year.

During this time period there are 4 extra prayers into our 3 times daily Shmonei Esrei.  The first two ask for life. The third one is asking for a good life. Finally right at the end we ask for a good life with blessings, peace and prosperity. It is not that long ago that I went into Yom Kippor praying for 'time served'. All I wanted was life that just wasn't as much torture of it was up until that point. I have reached a stage where I don't just want life. I want a good life for my family that is filled with happiness where we can reach our potential. The fact that I can say that shows how much the broken pieces of my heart have healed.

Shannah Tova. Gmar Hatima Tova. Chag Kasher Sameach. May we not only be sealed in the book of life but sealed in the book of life for a good and prosperous year.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Pesach Round Up

This is the first time that it really struck me that Pesach is a time for both remembering and creating memories. It has been a theme that has carried it's way throughout the entire week.

During Hallel on Seder night, each new tune brought back a different memory transporting my thoughts to different points in my life. It was like an EMDR session without having to keep score during the process. Aside from a beautiful davening those memories put the reflective spin on the week of Pesach.

We all had a great time at the seder which was 100% focused on keeping the kids involved. It is the first time I have ever seen a decoy Afikomen. Peri made macaroons for dessert. Our hosts described the experience as going back to their childhood when you first opened the tin can and ate that first 'fresh' macaroon. Considering how rare they are in Israel, it probably had been a long time since they had that experience.

The entire night reminded me of the Seder in Bnei Brak that is mentioned in the Haggadah. The Rabbi's were so involved that they stayed up all night and didn't even realize that it was already time for davening. Our Seder had to be pushed along when we realized that we were 2 hours away from chatzot and we were still in the middle of Magid.

The Maharal points to some hints in the Haggadah's accounting of the seder in Bnei Brak as clues to what time of night it was. The Rabbis were sitting at the seder and not simply learning in the beit medrash and they were reclining and relaxing indicating that they were there out of enjoyment and not coercion. Our Seder ended at 1:30 more as a result of the adults running out of steam (kids dropped off through out the night) then out of any desire to end the Seder.

Last year we ate out at a restaurant over Pesach more out of the fact that we could then anything else. To me it is one of the perks of living in Israel. Eating outside while our hometowns were digging out of snow just added to the appreciation of how great it is to live here. This year we even had a chance to compare the differences in menus of Cafe Cafe and Rimon. This is becoming an enjoyable tradition for our family.

I also tried the Charoset flavored ice cream this year. My opinion was a little more favourable then most of the others I have read. Then again my job forces me to wade into the debate of what should flavoured coffee taste like on a regular basis.

We also did two major tiyulim over the week. The first was a trip to the festival in Mavo Moddiim. It was a chance for family time to relax and enjoy the greenery and the music while checking out some of the unique vendors. Channah and I also caught the end of a juggling act, while we went to check out a part of the festival we had missed on our way in because it was tricky navigating the stroller. Unfortunately Channah has been exposed to too much good talent that she just isn't impressed by a kid juggling three swords or blowing fire. When Scott Seltzer is your base level for juggling skills, I guess that is bound to happen. It also doesn't help that Channah used to watch Britian's Got Talent with her Eema or that Peri had introduced her to America's Got Talent the day before.

For our second major tiyul we teamed up with Nefesh B'Nefesh on their trip to Neot Kedumim. I have been on a lot of guided tours but I still managed to learn a lot including why wine was the staple drink in biblical Israel and some practical insights to the story of choosing Rifka as a wife for Yitzchak. Channah had fun doing the arts and craft project before it was time to head home.

We also got to spend an evening with adopted family before heading into the last day of Yom Tov.

On Friday Yizkor was a few minutes to reflect on what was and is no more. With a Bat Mitvah less than a year away, Channah stayed in for it as well.

On Friday night we enjoyed having guests. We decided to not go the kitniyot route for Shabbat this year, although I really wanted to.

It has been almost 12 years since I said that I would never agree to do Kvater again. I was tired of being embarrassed and humiliated by the experience. On Shabbat morning I found myself carrying a little baby boy towards the same chair that Shlomo had been in only a few months earlier. It was a completely different experience. There was so much love and hakares hatov in the decision to give us such an honour. It was really an incredible experience.

It is an obligation on each individual person to see themselves as if they have come up out of Egypt. For me this was not only a clear lesson that kept reoccurring through the week but will hopefully be inspiration to keep me on track through the next stage of personal growth.

The Jews who left Egypt didn't just leave for the sake of getting out of Egypt. They left for a purpose with a destination to get to. Unfortunately they were not able to let go of the baggage that had accumulated through generations of slavery. This made them unable to reach their full potential living in the land of Israel. That didn't mean their lives were devoid of meaning. In the desert they lived under God's full protection with all of their nutritional needs met with food falling from the sky and a chance to be close to God. That spiritual existence didn't allow them to experience what it was like to obtain a spiritual connection to God through mundane activities. They couldn't reach their full spiritual growth. It only took one generation to transition as a nation to be able to take the huge spiritual step forward.

In many ways I can relate the idea of what life was like in the desert. I have pulled myself out of some really scary places. Life is pretty good. I also feel that I still have not reached the point of being able to take the next step forward to fully embrace and maximize the potential of where I have come. We are working on ways to remove the stigma from Channah as the kid who lost her mother. I still need to learn to let go of some of my own baggage. It took the Jews who left Egypt an entire generation to make the complete spiritual transformation. I am well on the path to achieving it for myself.