I’m tired of people thinking I ‘retired’ from my job as a rabbi because I’m a mom


If I had a dime for every time someone asked me why I “retired,” I would be a very rich woman. Please, let me set the record straight: I am not retired, I did not retire, and I don’t plan on retiring any time soon. Since when does leaving your job to take care of your family equal “retirement?”

I would say that this transition, if it had a (good or appropriate) name (and don’t get me started on the term “off-ramping”), is quite the opposite of retirement.

It’s been almost three years since I left my post as a rabbi at a dynamic and vibrant congregation to be a mother full-time. My third child had just turned one, and I felt a profound tug towards home. I wanted to spend more time with my young children; I wanted to be a firmer anchor in their lives. And so I decided to change gears and veer away from the path I had paved since ordination.

At the time, I wrote:

“I am not retiring or taking leave of the rabbinate. On the contrary, I will continue to be a rabbi in every respect of the word. My pulpit may focus on different issues and my congregation may be a bit smaller, but it is a vital rabbinate all the same. The Torah I teach will likely be rooted in sports and toys and imaginary friends; it will be filled with itsy bitsy spiders and twinkly little stars and soaked in laughter and tears.  It is the Torah of motherhood, and while I’ve spent part of my days studying it up until now, I’ll now spend all of my days immersed in it.”

These days, I am wholly immersed in the Torah of motherhood, from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep, and often many moments in between. And as magical as so many of these moments are, there are just as many that feel, well, not so magical.

As the primary caregiver, I am the point person for all things child-related and, most often, the first responder for diaper duty, tantrum defusing, meal prep, and all the other glam aspects of stay-at-home parenthood. And while I don’t adhere to any particular dress code or leave home to go to an office, I take great umbrage when the totality of what I do is not classified as “work.”

Parenting is work. Motherhood is work. Raising children is work. It must be understood that leaving a paid position to take care of one’s family is still a transition from one job to another. One job may be part of the “work force” as it is most traditionally defined, but the other is also, most definitely “work,” despite the lack of benefits, the absence of any salary to speak of, and the general lack of esteem given to such domestic roles. Child rearing is intensely challenging, utterly demanding, and downright exhausting work.

Full-time parenting is certainly not akin to “retirement,” and any mere suggestion of the pairing is actually quite offensive. (If only a full-time parent could fill his or her schedule with golf and tennis, pickle ball and pinochle!). Moreover, just because a parent leaves his or her job to care for family doesn’t mean he or she is abandoning their career! Leaving a job doesn’t mean vacating the work force forever. The path out is not one without a return; and yet, far too often, the return is near impossible to find.

It aggravates me when people assume that I left my career forever when I stepped away from the pulpit. It frustrates me when I find myself fielding questions as to why I “left the rabbinate,” and how I’m taking to “retirement.” It’s maddening, it’s demeaning, and it’s short sighted. Not only do I picture myself returning to the rabbinate, I don’t feel like I ever really left.  I am still a rabbi, even in my primary role as a mother. I am still a rabbi in the way I think and the way I act and in the way I raise my children.

I may have stepped away from a traditional career path, and I may have left the every day work of a pulpit rabbi to do the every day work of a “mother rabbi.” But far from diminishing my rabbinate, it has enhanced it tremendously. I believe I am a better rabbi now than I was three years ago.

And yet, until we as a society legitimize the work of the parent, I, and many others like me will remain on the outside, looking in—when we never should have been ushered “out” in the first place.

This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing website for smart, savvy moms looking for a Jewish twist on parenting. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for daily digests here.

Parenting: The Torah of motherhood


My road from twice-a-year Jew to Torah-study groupie took 40 years. With the heady days of the High Holy Days, Sukkot and Simchat Torah still fresh in my mind, it’s worth examining how I got here. 

During my youth, my family and I attended synagogue only during the High Holy Days. Even then, like most adolescents, no matter the Jewish preschool, Jewish summer camp, bat mitzvah or confirmation, the rabbi’s sermon was my cue to flee the sanctuary with my sister to find the other kids in the parking lot tearing into a purloined challah snatched from the synagogue kitchen.  

As I got older, I began to appreciate the meditative, communal experience. After every High Holy Days season, the spiritual renewal that filled me had me vowing I’d be back the very next Shabbat. But, inevitably, by the next week the excuses came readily — “I’m too tired,” “We’re out of town” or “I’ll go next week” — until the weeks piled up and the High Holy Days were back again.

So what happened to make me a Torah- study groupie? Eleven and a half years ago I became a parent, which means I am now the mother of a middle-schooler, and I need as much help as I can get. As kids get older, the problems get thornier. I pine for inspiration and guidance, for clues to being a better parent than I often feel equipped to be. When a friend gushed about Torah study, calling it her weekly “vitamin,” I decided I had nothing to lose. And while I have dog-eared my share of parenting books, ranging from sleep training to sibling rivalry, I have found that the biggest questions are answered in The Great Big Parenting Book — Torah. 

It’s a best-seller, but it’s not an easy read. It doesn’t give away its wisdom to those hoping for a quick skim. For example, during the High Holy Days, we read one of the Torah’s grimmest parenting stories — the Binding of Isaac. Those are pretty words for a nightmarish chapter — a father leading his son up a mountain, tying him to a rock and preparing to sacrifice him with a blade through the sternum. What parenting advice could I hope to get from that catastrophe?

At my synagogue, Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades, Rabbi Amy Bernstein, who is also a mother, gleaned something positive out of this horror story. “God stopped Abraham,” she said, “before he hurt Isaac. Sometimes we need a voice from God to stop us from hurting our kids.” 

To the sanctuary full of well-meaning parents, she wasn’t talking about physical hurt. My mind catalogued those moments when I wished I could take back certain words I’d uttered. Greeting my sixth-grader after school with, “How much homework do you have?” instead of “Hi, kiddo, it’s great to see you.” Nagging my second-grader to finish his homework instead of paying attention to the imaginary world he is creating with Legos. Sharing with my friends stories I considered “cute” but that would embarrass my kids. Telling my children in any given moment what they are doing wrong instead of what they are doing right. These are the times I need an inner voice counseling restraint, an angel on my shoulder advising, “Don’t criticize. Don’t pile on the stress. Bite your tongue.” I know my sons would appreciate it if I were to bite my tongue during baseball games, instead of singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” from the bleachers. (Restraint is so hard!) I resolved to try harder.

With the new school year well under way, there’s another kind of hurt I am even more troubled by — the pain inflicted by their peers, the slights, ribbing and put-downs that can penetrate guileless thin skin, or even thicker skin. My son’s friends engage in banter that tiptoes along the line of insults, jokes that cut, a contest of one-upmanship, which my son frequently reports in dejected tones. One boy gets made fun of for the color Gatorade he drinks or for wearing glasses. Another is ridiculed for liking the Clippers or for the color of his shorts. They toss the word gay around as pejorative. Did I mention that these are their friends? I struggle with how to handle this not-quite-bullying-but-hurts-just-the-same comments. I need ancient wisdom to tell me how to be a loving guide through pre-adolescence and beyond, to salve the injury of having your feelings hurt by those you know best. 

I think back to the story of Isaac’s near-catastrophe and find two more clues. First, God didn’t intervene until the harm was imminent and irreparable. By the time God stepped in, things looked pretty bleak for Isaac. Barring Isaac pulling some sort of superhero moves, bursting through his restraints like the Hulk, kicking Abraham’s weapon down the mountain and shouting, “What the hell was that, Dad?” God had to intervene. But only at the last possible moment.

Great. I need to wait until there’s a metaphorical knife at my kid’s chest before stepping in? That seems too much. But since my Jewish mother’s instinct is to jump in at the slightest hint of a problem, it’s good to set a high bar. Usually I’m ready to call in the cavalry when he’s over it. It’s not easy to see that kid struggling on the rock, but if my kid can get out of the mess on his own, I have to let him. 

Second, I think about what to do with hurt feelings that linger. I imagine what a modern therapist might tell Isaac to make sense of what happened: “What Abraham did had nothing to do with how he feels about you. He loves you! He had his own issues.” I can tell my son the same truth, that when people say mean things, it usually means they are suffering. It has nothing to do with him. I can show him his power, praise his good heart and instill in him the self-reliance to tell his friends to knock it off, to stand up for himself or to walk away. And the choice is his. 

A of couple months into the school year, the reports of meanness are getting farther apart. I’m quite sure that, as usual, his bruises hurt me longer and deeper than they bother him. I need to remember that he is more resilient than I am. Like Isaac getting up off that rock, brushing himself off and walking down the mountain, he is moving on with the rest of his story. 

I may not have appreciated what Judaism had to offer when I was a child and all I wanted was for the services to be over, but I am grateful to have kept the connection to my family’s faith all these years. It’s there for me now when I need it. Every week, I’ll be back in Torah study with the group of intelligent, curious souls, mining more of our ancient stories for modern parenting gold.


Laura Diamond is the editor of the anthology “Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood” and is working on her first novel. She is a member of Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.

Learn to listen to your own kid, not the voices in your head


There is some unwritten statute of limitations on how long one can whine about a crappy childhood, a negligent parent, a few too many chicken pot pies, summers with the grandparents, days spent on Greyhound buses and with dubious caregivers and creepy neighbors. There is just a moment in an adult’s life when the complaining and sad-sacking about how our parents got divorced, or lost custody, or bailed, or otherwise stank up the joint is just kind of pathetic. Let’s face it, that moment had come and gone for me.

Then I had a child myself, and twinges of pain in that amputated leg known as my relationship with my mother started to send fiery jolts into my nervous system. I thought I would get a do-over (as opposed to my childhood, which was a do-under), but instead I got something unexpected: When my son was around 18 months old, I started to freak out. Whatever it is that made her look at the job of motherhood the way an angry teenager views a Friday night shift behind the Frialator, whatever she had, maybe I caught it. 

This is the day, I would think, driving my toddler to day care, or swinging him at the park, or slipping a Grover T-shirt over his giant, blond head, this is the day it happens. This is the day I start to suck at this. This is the day I start to hate it. This is the day of reckoning, when I realize that I’ve been judging my mom for not enjoying my company or any part of raising me, but I’m no better. And this is the day the symptoms start manifesting in me. This is the day I realize that while I see other mothers having moments of both great struggle and magical, indescribable delight, I will only experience the former, because there are just some bullets you can’t dodge.

When I started to panic about my ability to be a parent, it wasn’t about physically being there or providing, it was about something else; it was about the ineffable ability to enjoy my child, because as sure as I won’t forget the phone number of Haystack Pizza down the street, or the smell of the back of a city bus during Indian summer, or the look of abject boredom on my mom’s face across the dinner table, I also won’t forget the feeling of being a tedious wretch, a burden that was ruining everything.

Here’s where having an OK childhood rescues you. Most new moms, I gather, realize early on that the venture isn’t wholly exalted.

They catch on to the reality that normal might mean 17 thrilling, awe-inspiring minutes in a 12-hour day of parenting. Kids can be annoying, they can dawdle, they can cry uncontrollably at what to us is nothing (the green cup is dirty, here’s the yellow one; see you in 27 minutes when you have come back from the brink of insanity). They can be scary, flying off couches and spiking high fevers. They can be, as a matter of course, a bit dull, unless watching the same video of a garbage truck dumping a bin of trash into its hopper repeatedly on YouTube is somehow gratifying for you.

It was about a month into my panic when I turned the ship around. And by the ship I mean my Honda. My son, on the way to day care, uncharacteristically moaned from his car seat, “Don’t want to go to school.”

We pulled over into the parking lot of an Albertsons. I stared back at him.

“Want to ride train,” he said. A tear fell onto his puffy coat.

That was the moment, wedged between a meth-head blasting classical music from his station wagon and a Mini-Cooper glinting in the sun, that I became not a women running from a fear that she will fail at parenting, but a woman running toward one simple day at the mall with her baby. And off we went to the indoor mall in Sherman Oaks with the Ladybug train that runs past the chain stores all day long. Phoning day care to say we wouldn’t make it, cancelling any plans I had for that day, I knew that nothing could make me happier, and in knowing that, I was at least partially free.

If I love being with this boy, even just to share a Wetzel and ride a rickety indoor train for hours, if I love this more than anything else I could possibly imagine doing today, then I can stop worrying. If I had been playing tag with the bogeyman that was “turning into my mother,” this was one very small, yet somehow enormous, “NOT IT.”

No one in my family is sentimental, and I think that’s OK. I don’t have a baby book for my son, I didn’t keep track of when he got his first tooth or tricycle.

That’s why lately, pregnant with my second boy, when I have syrupy thoughts about the baby I can only just now feel moving and kicking, it’s like a million cars turning around in a million parking lots. I love you already, I think, as I rub my hand over my stomach. Sappy. However, when I find myself thinking that this little being is good company already, and enjoying him even now, before he is born, I feel myself turning and turning in the right direction.

In a way, it’s not about my own mother anymore. I may not honor her, specifically, but as I think about that commandment I think the best I can do is to honor motherhood in general, and I can only do that by letting myself get better at it as I go. It’s on me now, as it has been for a very long time.

It’s on me to know that sometimes it’s OK to be less than thrilled with the minutiae of motherhood, the ordering of diaper cream online, the scraping of uneaten carrots from an Elmo plate. It’s OK.

As long as there are days, and they will come when I can’t predict them, when my main function in this life is not to drive my babies forward, but to turn them around. If I can find supreme usefulness in sitting on a train to nowhere, just staring at my baby as he stares into the world, just taking him in and letting the smell of his hair and the feel of his chubby hands fall into the pages of the baby book in my mind, I am not just avoiding becoming my mother, I am getting to stop at all the stations she missed. “All aboard,” says my son to the mall conductor. All aboard.

Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me” (Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.

Chasing parental boredom while catching some foreign films


I was in seventh grade when my dad took me to see a Turkish movie exploring the lives of five prisoners given a week’s home leave in the aftermath of a coup d’etat.

Why did he take a kid to see the movie “Yol”? To teach me a valuable lesson about suffering? To expand my world-view beyond Brandeis Hillel Day School and ballet class and working weekends at my mom’s coffee shop? No. My dad wanted to see the movie.

And if I wanted to hang out with my dad, that was the deal. Yol.

Not only did I see that movie — which consisted mainly of tight shots of tortured souls walking up hills into wind — but also a multitude of other age-inappropriate films, thanks to my Pops and his bi-weekly Sunday visits during which he dragged me to everything from documentaries about coal mining and obscure folk singers to lengthy Swedish films. At the time, I really cared more about Swedish fish.

Now that I am a parent, I realize that my dad was onto something, and I’m looking for ways to emulate him.

My dad’s concept was to choose an activity that he loved and bring me along, thus he would never be bored or resentful that he was doing something lame like hanging out watching me try on clothes at Wet Seal. If he could convince me to share his love of art house films, he could kill two birds with one long, boring cinematic achievement: He could spend time with his kid while enjoying a favorite pastime.

You might think, wow, what a selfish dude.

Maybe his daughter was exposed to things that were adult and therefore disturbing. Or maybe his daughter was bored. Or maybe he should have sucked it up and gone to the mall, or perhaps to see “Footloose,” which involves teens in perhaps emotional prisons, but not actual prisoners.

To that I say, yes, it was uncomfortable watching some of the films, and confounding at times. On the other hand, I loved hanging out with my dad on Sundays, and I didn’t really care what movie we saw. Maybe, to his credit, because he was doing exactly what he wanted to do, he exuded a certain happiness and calm. And kids read that kind of vibe. So, I never got the feeling my dad didn’t want to hang out with me.

There should be a word for that in Turkish.

As the mother of a 2-year-old, I thought it was a stroke of genius when I saw a father at a skateboard park with his toddler. This little girl was an incredible skateboarder, shredding, as one might say, on a giant half-pipe. When I spoke to the dad while marveling at his girl, he told me they go there four afternoons a week. This guy, I realized, had found his Yol, an activity that wouldn’t suck the life out of him, something that might somehow enrich his daughter’s life (while maybe jacking up her shins or teeth) and one that he could do without too much personal sacrifice. Sure, this guy could have sat through an endless series of tea parties, but he would have hated that, so he taught his daughter to skate and now he has a skate partner for life. Or at least until she is old enough to decide whether to resent him.

So I continue searching for my Yol.

Loving my child is no problem. However, filling toy dumpsters with torn-up bits of paper towel before dumping them over into a plastic garbage truck is more depressing than an Ingmar Bergman film festival (yes, my dad took me to one, so I know). At this point, the things my boy likes to do — play with trucks, fill pails with sand and water to make sand castles, your basic hide-and-seek — well, those are wrenchingly, painfully dull.

Turns out, the word Yol is actually Turkish for “the way,” and I need to find mine. Hopefully, it won’t be headed uphill into the wind.

Season’s end means mixed emotions for mom


It’s 2 p.m. on a Saturday, and I’m sitting with a dozen other women in the bleachers on a field in Palos Verdes.

I’ve had to get up at 6 a.m. start driving at 7 a.m. to get my son here at 8 a.m., and I know I’ll be here for at least another couple of hours. I’ve lived in Southern California for 30 years and driven around quite a bit, but I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting Palos Verdes.

There are some pretty houses here and quiet streets, and I’m told there’s a golf course or two nearby, but for the life of me, I haven’t been able to find a bathroom or a place to buy a cup of coffee anywhere in the area. So I’m irritable and hungry and more than a little sunburned, wondering out loud why I have to spend my Saturday in this fashion — it’s not as if I don’t have a life, you know, or as if I’m doing the world a favor by sitting here.

I’m not feeding the homeless, or doing a beach cleanup, or raising money for Hadassah and ORT and the Israel Defense Forces. I’m here because my youngest son, who is 14 years old and in eighth grade, is playing goalie on a lacrosse team for his school.

Never mind I didn’t even know what lacrosse is, or how to spell the word, until my son started playing three years ago. Lacrosse is what my kids call a “white person’s sport” — like rock climbing or sailing — stuff you do on the East Coast if you’re white and Catholic and go to Maine for the summer every year. My son doesn’t consider himself “white,” but I’m told he’s a good goalie, and he loves his teammates and takes great pride in representing his school, which is why I’ve been getting up at the crack of dawn to go to his games all season or driven at night to faraway fields to pick him up.

One thing I’ve learned through this experience — aside from the fact that there are no bathrooms or coffee shops in Palos Verdes — is that I am not, and will probably not become, what you’d call a lacrosse mom.

Not that I don’t celebrate a win or hurt when his team loses, but I’ve been around this block — with other children and other sports — twice already, and I’ve emerged from it more or less unscathed.

I’ve been through 12 years of team sports, swim meets and tennis matches, not to mention five-day-a-week practice sessions and all the additional driving and mental juggling that go along with having three kids playing sports at the same time, and I have yet to take any of it as personally as I see some other parents do.

I don’t get as passionate about winning or losing, am not willing to change my kids’ schools so they can play on a better team, don’t keep a mental tab of the season record of every team my child might play and of his teammates, as well.

As far as I’m concerned, unless the kid’s bound for the Olympics or playing in the World Cup, I’d rather not wander the desert for 40 years — or sit in these dusty bleachers — so he can play a game.

On the way home later, I take a few wrong turns, get completely lost and finally have to stop and ask directions from a guy who’s selling cherries from the back of his truck. By the time we actually get on the freeway, I am nothing if not relieved that I’ve survived this day and will live to tell my husband about it.

Next to me, my son, not the demure type, is unusually quiet.

“Aren’t you glad you won?” I ask.

He nods.

“Are you tired?”
“No.”

We drive some more. Then he says, “You know mom, this was my last game in middle school.”

I take a minute to process the information. Yes, it’s true, the school year is about over. Yes, next year, my son will be in high school. He might or might not play sports, but either way, he’ll be too old to have his mom go to his games.

My two older kids, who are in college, similarly banned me from every high school activity they were involved in except, mercifully, their graduation.
This is good, I think.

This means I’m done with the games and the driving, the water bottles and orange rinds and end-of-season pizza and trophy-giving. I’m done with having to be “team mom” because no one else wants the job, having to report to the school’s “parent sport coordinator” like we’re Marines in the midst of a war, getting e-mails from her or some other top-ranking “sport mother” about proper protocol for serving cake at victory parties. Done with standing on a soccer field for two hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon when I could be writing or working out or doing whatever else people do when they have a life.

I’m done with watching my kids race across a grass field and marveling at the beauty and strength of youth. With holding my breath every time they serve, gasping when they miss, feeling elated when they don’t. With seeing them volunteer to take the penalty kick that will win or lose the championship game and asking myself where they got this kind of confidence. With watching their tanned, slim bodies glow in the water against the afternoon sun as they glide back and forth through the lane, wondering how much longer they can keep the pace, how much longer I can hold on to them before they slip out of my hands and away to where I won’t see them.

Gina B. Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her new novel, “Caspian Rain,” will be published this fall. Gina Nahai’s column appears monthly in The Journal.

Letters to Mom


Dear Mother,

Here we are again on the plains of Bethel. We’re in the 10th month of our 10th year in Canaan. Sorry I haven’t written. There were
so many things happening, but none of them so important to justify my negligence. The famine, Pharaoh, Avimelech, the war — they all came and went and I remained the same. I wanted to believe that this move to Canaan would open a new chapter in my life, but boy was I disappointed.

You remember the day of my wedding? Such joy! Such innocence! I thought it would be only a matter of time before I became a mother. But with every year that passed, the dream seemed more remote and unreachable. Everyone was celebrating motherhood and parenthood, the little voices of children filling their homes with joy and happiness. And me? Nothing. I felt alienated and rejected. I felt their furtive glances as I was passing by, as if I was carrying a curse, a terrible disease.

You were the only one who understood, but there was nothing you could do. God alone can count the tears I shed, day after day, year after year, praying, yearning for a child that will redeem me from my solitude, from my agony and my shame. Oh, was I glad to go when the Divine order came to leave Haran. Just go away and leave behind me all the pitying, mercy filled, hypocrite faces. Yes, it was difficult to go and leave you and Dad behind, but I did it not just to fulfill the Divine commandment and follow my husband, but also because I secretly hoped that the move will bring a change, a blessing. But this was not what God wanted.

Abram says that I am a righteous woman and that God enjoys my prayers and supplications. I appreciate that, but enough is enough, we’ve spent 10 years in Canaan and nada. I want to have a child. I want to have a child!

Love,
Sarai

Dear Mother,

Sorry it’s been a couple months since I last wrote you. We’re at the Oaks of Mamre, and I’ve figured out a solution. It’s painful, but I can live with it. I will have Abram marry my maidservant Hagar (remember, the Egyptian girl?). She will be the surrogate mother of my child. Don’t try to dissuade me. I’ve made up my mind, and I know of several respectful families who have gone through this process successfully.

Love,
Sarai

Dear Mother,

It’s over; she’s gone. We don’t know where or when, but she has disappeared from Be’er Sheva. I should be happy, I should be celebrating, but I’m not. I feel terrible. I didn’t mean it to happen like that. All I wanted was to have a child we could call our own, but things got out of hand.

This tricky, treacherous, no-good maid knew very well how to rub it in. “I’m tired,” “I’m nauseated,” “I feel so hungry,” “I crave this” and “Sorry, I can’t bend down to bring you that, Sarai.” All very subtle; not the kind of things a man would notice.

Don’t get me wrong, Ma, I love and respect Abram. But why is his quest of justice reserved only for foreigners? Sodom and Gomorra deserve justice, with all their sins. Meanwhile, I’m abused daily by this Hagar. Do I not deserve justice? These things pass right over his head.

That’s why I blew up. Justice is all I want! He should give me the same treatment he gave Sodom. He stood up to defend those sinners, why not me? And all he said to me was: “Well, what do you want from me? She is your maid. Do whatever you want with her.” And, believe me, I did just that; I didn’t give her a free moment.

But now she’s gone, and I feel miserable. It all swelled up in me — all the anger and frustration, years of sterility, endless nights of crying and, worst of all, the notion that my husband doesn’t understand me. So I took it all on her and I am not so sure I did the right thing.

Love,
Sarai

P.S.: Last night I had a terrible dream, my descendants were persecuted by hers, tortured and expelled, and that voice kept echoing in my mind: “See what you’ve done. See what you’ve done!”

These letters were not unearthed in the hills of Canaan, but they offer a possible interpretation of the events in this week’s parsha.

Rabbi Moshe Ben Nahman, however, does suggest that Sarah should not have tortured Hagar, and that the persecution of Jews by Muslims in the 11th and 12th century is a direct consequence of that behavior. The message that no action goes unnoticed or unaccounted for and that communication is essential to a healthy family and society reverberates to this day.

We can only imagine how different things would be if the protagonists in the story would talk with one another, try to define the problems and solve them, instead of being swept away by emotions. How often do we channel anger and frustration at the wrong people? Did you ever interpret someone’s action in a certain way and gave them no chance to explain before attacking?
By telling us the story with all its intricate human relationships and the tragic outcome, the Torah teaches us an important lesson about our daily interaction with the people surrounding us. And this lesson is as applicable in American suburbia as it was at the hilltops of Canaan.


Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at haimovadia@hotmail.com.

Comforting Mothers Without Mothers


“My childhood skidded to a stop on a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of my 15th year, with my mother’s first mammogram results,” writes Hope Edelman in her moving new book, “Motherless Mothers: How Mother Loss Shapes the Parents We Become” (Harper Collins). For Edelman, her mother’s illness and subsequent death from cancer two years later in 1981 were the beginning of a journey of loss, self-exploration and eventual emotional redemption that has spanned nearly a quarter-century and spawned three well-received books on the subject.

“I wanted to find ways to help women cope, and even thrive in the absence of a mother,” says Edelman from her home in Topanga Canyon.

A native New Yorker who graduated from the Northwestern School of Journalism, Edelman first explored “mother loss” while studying creative nonfiction writing at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the late 1980s. She discovered that, other than a few pieces of clinical work gathering dust in university archives, women seeking guidance and reassurance had few resources.

Her first book, “Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss,” published in 1994, fused her own experiences with research and with excerpts from interviews with hundreds of women. She received thousands of letters from women who heard their voices expressed in her pages. The book became a New York Times best seller that sparked dialogue and helped pave the way for a more open discourse on the subject.

In the midst of this success, her own life was about to change dramatically — a seismic shift that would inspire her next major book project.

Edelman was living in New York in 1996 when she began dating Uzi Eliyahou, an Israeli high-tech executive based in Los Angeles. Seven months into their whirlwind long-distance relationship, she discovered she was pregnant. Within the year, she was married, living in Los Angeles and the mother of Maya, now 8 (Eden, 4, followed a few years later).

Through this experience, Edelman became convinced that as a motherless daughter, she faced a unique and different set of challenges that she wanted to share with both laypeople and medical professionals.

She was motivated in part by a disturbing interaction with the first gynecologist she saw after becoming pregnant. When faced with Edelman’s particular concerns about coping, as a pregnant woman, with the loss of her own mother, the doctor just wasn’t interested.

“Let me know when you get it figured out,” he told her.

She later heard similar tales of insensitivity from other women.

Edelman hoped that in her book she could help doctors and psychologists develop empathy for the experience of the motherless mother.

“As with most of the women I interviewed, the big question that arose was, ‘How will I know how to be a mother?'” Edelman says.

Other issues that loom large for soon-to-be or new mothers include the fear of dying young, the anxiety of losing a loved one and the desire to give their children an emotional security they did not have themselves.

“I’m about to reach the same age my mother was when she died,” Edelman says. “And that looms large.”

In the course of her research, Edelman discovered that becoming a mother often brought the pain of her mother’s passing into the forefront, but that the process of pregnancy, birth and childrearing can be healing. Even so, there’s a multigenerational effect to account for.

Since most women keep photographs of their late mothers prominently displayed in their homes, the pictures spark curiosity, and discussion.

“We talk about my mother often and openly,” Edelman says.

Another unexpected result of motherhood has been reconnection with faith.

“My mother was the center of Jewish identity in our house,” Edelman says. “When she died, our family’s connection to Judaism loosened.”

According to Edelman, the mother typically serves as “kinkeeper,” the one who brings friends and family together for holiday meals and rituals.

“When a Jewish woman loses her mother, she loses the most important role model for how to sustain a Jewish home.” Edelman says. “You are suddenly without the person who is primarily responsible for cooking Shabbat dinner or preparing the seder. We became religious orphans when my mother died.”

It was her older daughter, Maya, named for Edelman’s mother, who helped bring the family back into the Jewish fold. Edelman and her husband enrolled Maya in school at Chabad of Topanga. Maya soon came home bursting with knowledge about all of the holidays. “She wants to observe all the holidays,” says Edelman. “It’s a connection I only recently made,” she added, explaining that the process of Jewish ritual and community has helped heal the wounds of her mother’s premature passing.

Edelman is pursuing a variety of writing projects, but doesn’t want to overlook a main theme of her work: the importance of spending meaningful time with your family.

“There were far too many 14-hour days in the past three years,” Edelman says. “I’m enjoying spending more time with my husband and children.”

Hope Edelman regularly holds one-day Motherless Daughters writing workshops For more information, visit

After the Miscarriage


When my doctor informed me, in the seventh week of my first pregnancy, that I had miscarried, he accompanied the news with what he surely thought was a comforting idea.

He told me that God wanted perfect children, and this was His way of making it happen.

It was the first of several inappropriate and unhelpful comments that people would offer me. I drove off from the appointment sobbing, ran a red light and smashed my car.

The pain and anguish of infertility has been passed down from matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel to women today. But while our traditions have given us words to say and ways to act during other lifecycle events — death, birth, marriage — there is little guidance for how to help a friend or loved one deal with the loss of a pregnancy or the pain and despair of infertility.

When, after a second miscarriage, my husband and I reached out for support to friends and family — many of them in the happy throes of birthing and raising their own families — we were surprised by some of the comments we got in return.

On several occasions, friends advised, “Perhaps reducing stress by relaxing more could be helpful,” implying that stress had caused these miscarriages.

“I know so many people who have adopted and then gotten pregnant.”

Uh, OK. This helps me how?

Then there was this chestnut: “Covering your hair leads to healthy babies” — except, of course, for the countless healthy children born daily to those with uncovered hair.

From others I got: “It was meant to be,” or “it will work next time” or “at least it happened early.”

Everyone surely intended to be helpful, but they missed the mark.

What I really needed were people who were there just to listen, and fortunately I had friends and family members who understood this. Some realized the importance of calling to say hi, perhaps while their children were napping, rather than when they were crying or playing in the background. I appreciated the friends who would call on a spur of the moment and invite me to coffee, just the two of us, knowing I still found larger groups somewhat intimidating.

Miscarriage and infertility can be as isolating as they are painful.

Raising a family has always been a desire and priority of mine. After my first miscarriage, I picked myself up and quickly regained hope. I knew that this was quite common. Surely this was just a small bump in the road, and nothing to be too concerned about.

After a couple months of healing, physically and emotionally, I became pregnant again. My husband and I were filled with renewed hope and joy. But my new doctor informed me that a certain hormone level of mine, one that is a good indicator of a healthy pregnancy, was lower than normal.

I was convinced that this pregnancy would be strong and there was just something that seemed right about it, but after several week I miscarried again.

This time I was overcome with a grief that lingered. For a long time, I would cry for no apparent reason. I had trouble facing my friends, walking into my synagogue or being around pregnant women. I felt scared, ashamed, lonely and angry. I wondered whether I had done something wrong, been a bad person or perhaps had been lacking in faith.

Throughout this time, many of my friends were announcing their pregnancies, having children and announcing second pregnancies. Pregnancy and motherhood began to dominate the conversation. I felt as though I had been excluded from a club that all my friends were joining.

Pregnancy began to take over my thoughts. I felt as though this aspect of life was becoming unattainable.

Yet time has a way of healing wounds. Slowly, my husband and I have picked ourselves up and prepared for the process once again. Sure, there have been times that I retreat, avoiding contact with my peers and preferring to stay home alone. But we are now seeing a fertility specialist, and while it adds to our stress and poses different problems, we are optimistic.

If you have friends or family members in my situation, you can provide solace and support. Don’t blatantly avoid the topic, which just makes it the elephant in the room. Don’t play the cause-and-effect game (i.e., “Perhaps if you just relax and let things happen it will work out”). And don’t make empty promises: “It will all turn out OK.”

But absolutely do call periodically just to say hi and chat. And look for ways to hang out one-on-one or in small groups (e.g., coffee, dinner). And you can say things like: “I know it’s been hard lately. Please don’t hesitate to ask if I can help in any way.” By saying this, you already have.

Infertility and miscarriages remain largely taboo within the Jewish world, but there are ways that you can help a loved one through those difficult times.

Andrea Lesch Weiss is a social worker who lives in Los Angeles with her husband Jonathan. She can be reached at andreaweiss@gmail.com.

 

Once Upon a Kvetch


"I never get any sleep, I never have sex and how many Jewish holidays can there be in one month?" Karen Schilling-Gould says in her comedy revue, "The Shlepperellas: Mothers Gone Mad."

She and co-star, Linda Merriweather, kvetch about cooking for Rosh Hashanah between driving carpool, fixing the toilet and "worrying about having to repent for the time and money I’ve just spent on the outfit to wear to temple to repent in," Schilling-Gould says.

It’s the latest mom tribulation-fest to emerge from the ranks of the baby boomers, like Iris Krasnow’s "Surrendering to Motherhood: Losing Your Mind, Finding Your Soul" and the Bay Area troupe, the Drama Mamas.

"We take the things that totally exasperate us, find the humor in it and put it in our act," Schilling-Gould says. "Like the fact that we’re sick and tired of saying we’re tired."

"And underarm flab," Merriweather says.

In fact the flab inspired a "Shlepperellas" song, "Vecha Flesh" ("soft meat" in Yiddish): "You reach for something in the cupboard, and you smack yourself in the face," Merriweather says.

While the Shlepperellas have earned good reviews for their humor, their beginnings weren’t so funny. Back in 1991, a freaked-out Schilling-Gould, then the mother of 8-month-old twins, attended a mom’s support group after learning she was expecting her third child.

"Has anyone ever had this many children in this short of a time and is it possible to survive," she asked group members, before bursting into tears.

Participants suggested she meet Merriweather, who had already experienced having three children in 16 months.

The two women ultimately founded the Shlepperellas in 1999 after discovering a mutual love for improvisational comedy. So how did they come up with the name? "We shlep a lot," Merriweather says.

"And we feel like Cinderella," Schilling-Gould adds. "As in, ‘Cinderella, get my clothes. Cinderella, get my shoes.’"

But there’s a glass slipper as well; family life is ultimately fulfilling for the Shlepperellas. And the show helps them deal with the aggravation: "It’s like a good therapy session," Schilling-Gould says.

The Shlepperellas perform Sept. 12 at the University of Judaism. Tickets, $36 general admission, $30 group rate, benefit Yad B’Yad Los Angeles, which provides services for underprivileged children in Israel. For reservations, call (323) 658-5021.