Holiday Heartburn


I had this crazy dream the other night where all across my neighborhood, in all the Jewish homes and on all the dining tables, the only thing being served to celebrate the High Holy Days was brown rice and seaweed.

I’m not sure where this Spartan nightmare came from, but if I had to guess, it would be that I’ve been talking too much lately with a couple of religious Jewish women who want to start a mini-revolution on how Jews eat.

These culinary rebels believe that it’s difficult to connect with God and the spiritual demands of the Holy Days while we’re injecting 3,000 calories of eggplant salad, hummus, brisket, potatoes, sweet and sour chicken, honey cake and cookies — and then desperately reaching for the Zantac.

In other words, they believe that kosher and holy eating should reflect not just what we eat, but how — and how much — we eat.

This is a painful time for me to consider such notions, with my blessed mother cooking enough food for a Third World country as we prepare for the annual rite of nonstop holiday meals for 20 people. It’s fair to assume that my mother, and probably most of the mothers of her generation, wouldn’t know what to make of a movement that called for light eating and portion control.

It’s not just the old generation. Food, particularly large quantities of delicious food, is a traditional and accepted way of honoring guests and holidays. In my hometown of Montreal, you know how much someone is honoring you by the variety of protein they serve you. If they serve you, for example, brisket, chicken, meatballs and lamb, they probably want you to hire their daughter for a summer internship. If you only get chicken, you probably owe them money.

Here in Pico-Robertson, most of us have, I’m not kidding you, about 125 Thanksgiving-level meals a year. Do the math: Just the two Shabbat meals a week account for 104, and when you throw in all the annual holiday meals — which include, by the way, not one or two but eight elaborate meals for a holiday like Sukkot (four meals in the first two days and four more in the last two days) — well, that’s a lot of Zantac.

This injection of many millions of guest-honoring calories is one reason why people walk very slowly around here during the holidays.

But one observant Jew who never walks slowly is the trim and perky Deborah Rude (pronounced Ruday), one of the culinary rebels of the neighborhood. Rude, a mother of two, bills herself not as a dietician, but as a “livitician” (“Don’t diet, live it!” said the slogan on her business card).

I checked out her office the other day, and, as I pondered the display of flax seed oils, pumpkin seeds and other organic goodies, I couldn’t resist asking her if she remembered a specific moment when she snapped — when she knew that her future would be devoid of starch and protein overload.

It turns out that moment was six years ago, at a Shabbat lunch she was invited to in the Hancock Park area. As she recalls it now, all the food platters on the table had a variation of one color: brown. The overcooked potatoes, the kugel, the cholent, the chicken, even the green beans, she said, were “brownish.”

She promised herself that day that in the future, all her Shabbat meals would have lots of color, freshness and variety — and, most of all, be served in small portions. In fact, when she hosts her Shabbat guests today, she actually serves the portions herself and never leaves any tempting platters on the table.

“The less we eat,” she said, “the more energy we’ll devote to singing and speaking words of Torah.”

That noble sentiment is shared by another health rebel of our neighborhood: Susan Fink, a mother of four and a member of B’nai David-Judea Congregation.

Fink is hip to the dangers of caloric overload under the cover of religious celebration, but her big thing is the spiritual and physical value of exercise. She’s a personal trainer whose goal is “to promote a healthy lifestyle for mind, body and spirit.”

Many of her clients, she said, are fellow observant Jews who see exercise as a way to enable their continued indulgence of those neverending festive meals.

Fink tries to set them straight — “two bites of kreplach can be the equivalent of 30 minutes on the treadmill,” she warns them — but it’s not easy.

“We the Jews are very attached to our food,” she said, in a sharp burst of understatement.

It is this deep attachment to food that my friend Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller reflected on when I asked him for his thoughts on the subject.

First, he quoted a rabbinic scholar and ethicist of the 19th century who connected the Hebrew root for eating with the Hebrew root for destruction, suggesting a dark side of culinary indulgence.

Then he got more spiritual.

“Not eating is not suffering,” he said, “it’s elevating ourselves to a state of transcendence. The fast, on Yom Kippur, reminds us how little material we really need; that we can do with less meat, with less bread, with less of everything. It makes us soar away from our animal side toward our holy and spiritual side.”

Of course, this is the same guy who once served me about five courses when he had me over for dinner, and who made a special announcement at a recent Hillel retreat that “all of you must try these amazing desserts!”

I guess you can call it the disconnect between our intellectual instinct and our primitive urges; between knowing the value of moderation and succumbing to that extra helping of noodle kugel; between understanding the benefits of high-fiber nutrition and surrendering to our grandmothers’ mouthwatering tradition.

If Judaism is about negotiating the tension between opposite impulses, this is surely a very Jewish subject.

Have an easy fast.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

New kind of mikveh washes off ritual’s negative image


“I’m pretty much your classic disaffected Gen-X kind of gal. I have too many shoes, I work too hard, I’m cynical, I’m broke. So when it came time for me to immerse before my wedding, I figured I’d bring some friends, we’d hang out, I’d get wet, we’d go eat, and that would be the end of it.”

That’s hardly the end of it for “the bride,” a character in “The Mikveh Monologues,” a play about the experience of immersing in the Jewish ritual bath that will be performed Dec. 17 at the Wadsworth Theatre as a fundraiser for the establishment of a new, nondenominational mikveh in Los Angeles.

The bride, along with the bat mitzvah girl, the convert, the father and son and the recovering cancer patient, among others, all tell their stories on stage in a show that follows the format created by Eve Ensler for her play “The Vagina Monologues.” But this time, instead of rhapsodizing about a once-shameful and hidden part of women’s bodies, they enthuse about an experience little-known among most Jews today, save the very observant — the mikveh.

For the last two centuries the ritual bath has been used most commonly by women for purification, so they can resume marital relations following their menstrual flow. A mikveh, which requires a body of natural water that often has been channeled into a man-made structure to serve a religious community, is also used by brides, for conversion rituals and, occasionally, by men before major holidays. But it is the association with women’s menstrual cycle and the perceived antiquated laws of niddah (marital purity) that have given the mikveh a bad rap in modern times.

“For a lot of people, the mikveh’s been associated with a lot of negatives — the second-class status of women, the denigration of women’s bodies,” says the play’s co-author, Anita Diamant. Premiering in 2005, the play was created as a means of fundraising for Mayyim Hayyim, a state-of-the-art nondenominational mikveh opened in 2004 in the largely Jewish community of Newton, Mass., near Boston. Diamant, best known as the author of “The Red Tent,” founded that mikveh, which has spawned a movement for alternative ritual baths nationwide, including one that is planned to open in 2010 in Los Angeles.

Not to mention that many mikvehs, which are generally supported by small communities and private donations, tend to be small, dingy places with dank reception rooms and stern supervisors (known as “the mikveh lady”) who oversee the correctness of the immersion and proclaim it kosher. In other words, the entire experience can be somewhat unpleasant — especially for converts, for whom this is a mandatory part of their entry into Judaism.

In the last decade, however, the notion of what a mikveh might represent has begun to change. Along with many other ritual practices that involve strict rulings on women’s participation — such as reading from the Torah or the megillah — many feminist-minded people have been rethinking how they might reclaim their practice in new ways. This includes a wide swath of non-Orthodox Jews who have begun to observe the laws of ritual purity and many others who are using immersion for non-traditional uses: to mark personal transitions, much like the myriad characters in “The Mikveh Monologues.”

The play tells the stories of real-life people, some of the 3,800 who have immersed at Mayyim Hayyim.

With the renaissance of interest in the mikveh, it was only a matter of time before someone would want to rethink the physical structure of the bath itself. And like many revolutions, this one started with one dreamer: Diamant, whose best-selling novel about Jacob’s daughter, Dina, popularized the genre of Jewish historical fiction.

While Diamant was writing her novel, she was also working on “Choosing a Jewish Life,” a book about converting to Judaism. In the process, she went to the only mikveh in the Boston area open to non-Orthodox Jews — and which was only available to them on Mondays from 9-11 a.m.

“It was not built to welcome people to Judaism,” Diamant said. “I felt increasingly that we were not performing the warm welcome we owed people coming to Judaism.”

She imagined a mikveh that would be warm and welcoming and open to the entire community for different uses.

“I want a mikveh. Not my own, personal mikveh in the backyard, but a community mikveh that I can call my own,” Diamant wrote in “Living Waters,” a column that was later reprinted in her book, “Pitching My Tent”:

“I want a mikveh where converts will linger at the mirror, before and after the blessings of immersions that symbolically transform them from not-Jewish to Jewish. In my mikveh, there will be gracious room for song and blessings, for hugs and champagne, for gifts of books and candles. My mikveh will provide liberal time and space for savoring beginnings. Brides and grooms (gay and straight) will come, separately, in preparation for marriage. Setting aside the lists, and plans, and the rush, each will read a poem or a psalm …”

She describes a holy place for use on holidays and celebrations, to mark sad times and transitions, where women could “find new ways to celebrate all the unheralded passages of their bodies as they see fit,” and men could also make use of it. An educator would replace the mikveh lady, and tours would be given to b’nai mitzvah students and prospective converts and delegations from around the world. “

I want a mikveh that is as nourishing as the rain, inspiring as the ocean, sweet as childhood swims in the pond…. And when you surface, the one word on your wet lips is Ahh. Or perhaps Ahh-men.”

The mikveh she describes was eventually realized in the Mayyim Hayyim facility she set in motion. To get it built, though, Diamant talked about her idea to anyone who would listen, and Barry Schrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, essentially told her, “You’re going to have it to it yourself,” Diamant recalled.

First Person – My Upfsherin


The upfsherin (hair cutting ceremony) took place on the last day of Shevat — an auspicious time for a healing ritual. The day before Rosh Chodesh (first day of the month) is observed, in the medieval mystical practice of Yom Kippur katan (little Yom Kippur) — a day for cleansing, purification, and preparation — just what shaving my head represented, as I began my fifth week of chemotherapy.

The upfsherin fell on the cusp of the months of Shevat and Adar — also propitious. The landscape of Shevat, in which we celebrate the rebirth of the trees, is a vegetative mirror of a bald head. Yet inside those leafless trees the sap is rising, life-giving elixirs watering it back to life. While we know that spring will come, the trees of Shevat often look like brittle sticks. Healing seems unlikely. This same feeling is hard to escape amidst chemotherapy’s limitations.

But Adar comes, with its joy and celebration. Lifting the weight of winter and of the fluids that run through the trees, swelling the buds and propelling green shoots in preparation for spring, Adar is the month of reversals. In Megillat Esther, stories of gloom and doom surprise us with happy endings. Destruction that seemed determined is overturned. The Jewish people survive and flourish. I embrace these metaphors for my healing journey, linking my bodily resurrection to that of the sycamore tree in my garden.

This is not the first time I have turned to that tree for guidance. In 1995, for the year after my father died, I retreated to the company of the tree. I sat for long periods, looking at the tree, thinking about my father. Looking through the skylight in my office, the seasons’ changes in color and texture against the California sky reflected my internal changes. The tree’s efforts to hold onto its leaves, as the autumn winds pulled, became my own resistance to letting go of my father and facing the starkness of winter without his protection. The hole in the trunk, where a branch had been cut away many years before, became my early wounds, reopened with this new loss. The burst of green, that appeared overnight to propel my tree into springtime, expressed my own rebirth of energy. By the summer, I was ready to leave my tree companion to teach and to study.

Once again my tree teaches me of the paradox of constancy and change that is the grace of the seasons. Embracing my tree as a companion weds me to life — and to the life-affirming progression of the seasons. It carries me forward, on the wings of time, beckoning me to use time as a healer.

For the upfsherin, I decorated a chair with ribbons in purple, green and gold — Mardi Gras colors — to mark the mutual healing for my beloved hometown and my own body as we confront the floods of toxic chemicals. I put a sheet on the floor to catch the falling hair. I explained the ritual’s intention and plan and introduced a prayer, affirming my vision for healing, encouraging others to join in:

Dear God:
Gimme a head with hair
Long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming,
Streaming, flaxen, waxen
Give me down to there
Shoulder length or longer
Here baby, there mama
Everywhere daddy daddy
Hair, hair, hair,
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
My hair

Then the cutting began. People held a lock, made a snip and gave a blessing. I received my blessing and asked each person to cut a length of ribbon for themselves, requesting that each sight of the ribbon move them to pray for my healing, the healing of New Orleans, the planet and all those who suffer.

The blessings ran from heart-rending pleas for my safety to humor. One friend told me, that he had just purchased a tree and was going to mulch it with my cut hair. My ex-husband reminded me of my mother’s dictum, “There’s nothing more temporary than a haircut.” Between blessings, my guests chanted the short healing prayer of Moses when his sister was stricken with disease: “El na rafana la (God please heal her).” I responded — to the blessings and to each crunch of the scissors — with tears and laughter. When the blessings were finished and my hair lay in piles on the floor, Peter, my hairdresser for 25 years, swooped down with electric clippers and completed the job.

Newly a woman with a buzz cut, I spoke about being a walking testimony for the disease of the planet. I prayed for the courage to not cover the truth in order to protect those uncomfortable with the anomaly of a bald woman and perhaps in denial about the state of the earth. I spoke of the link of my healing to the healing of my city of New Orleans and to all those who suffer.

Then we took the sheet out to the garden. And while we sang the “Misheberach,” we sprinkled the hair among the roots of my tree — to nourish it as it nourishes me. I hope a bird chooses some of my hair for a nest.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.