OyChicago blog

Royally Inappropriate

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4 Elul 5773 / August 9-10, 2013


Dan Horwitz photo

I don’t know if you heard, but apparently a royal baby was born in England recently. How fitting that in this week’s portion, Shoftim, Moses provides the framework for the Israelites appointing a king over themselves (the one whom God chooses of course) should they choose to do so once having conquered the Promised Land.

We learn that the Israelite king may not have too many horses, wives, silver or gold, and that he must have a copy of the Torah nearby at all times, which he must make a habit of studying regularly. Eventually, this allowance resulted in the coronations of our ancient kings, including Saul, David, Solomon, etc.

Ultimately, we learn that even though an allowance was created for instituting a monarchy, God was not thrilled that the Israelite nation decided that it desired a king. Hundreds of years later, in response to the prophet Samuel asking God whether or not to appoint a king per the wishes of the Israelite nation, God responds: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not be king over them.” [1 Samuel 8:7]

God is upset that the Israelite nation feels to need to have a human king, given that God’s own kingship should have been sufficient.

I struggle with the adoration and attention being given to the British royal family. Aside from the fact that America was founded as a reaction to the policies (and arguably the existence) of the British monarchy, monarchies inherently suggest that simply based on birth, some human beings are inherently better and worth more than others. This runs directly counter to the principle enshrined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”  Granted, while at the time of the Declaration that statement did not include women or minorities, it has (thankfully) since evolved.

The royal wedding cost British taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

Our contemporary understanding (informed by the Western liberal tradition) of what it is to be a human being and which truths we hold to be self-evident, coupled with our tradition’s emphatic statement that human kings are not pleasing to the Divine, should dissuade us from glamorizing an institution whose very existence runs counter to the spiritual ethos of both.

This week, consider making a contribution to HIAS or the Ellis Island Foundation in honor of the new royal baby.

This Shabbat, reflect on the Divine spark that resides within every human being, regardless of what family she or he is born into.


What New Moms Really Want

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Six gifts new parents secretly wish for that will make you their best friend.


Holiday Traditions photo x

I know that for many 20- and 30-somethings, it seems like everywhere you look, people are having babies. Pregnant women are swarming Chicago’s streets, and you can’t glance through your Facebook newsfeed without seeing a new baby (or five). Long before I had a baby of my own, when a friend would have a child, I would pop over to a baby boutique and get a cute outfit, a blanket or a stuffed animal as a gift, or if I was really on top of my game, I’d check out their registry and get the new parents something they needed.

Now that I've had a child of my own, I realize those are all viable options for supporting new parents and welcoming new babies. But what no one tells you – the gift giver – is that there is another list of great gift ideas, a secret list of things that newbie moms pine for, but more often than not, don’t have the courage to pipe up and ask their friends for.

You can’t register for these gifts, but if you could, I’m sure these would all have been at the top of my list. So, Oy!sters, I’m going to clue you in to the secret wishes of new moms, so that the next time you have a friend or colleague welcome a new baby, you can win the MVP award by offering the family one of these:

1. A home-cooked meal… or any meal that they didn’t have to cook themselves. 
For the first few weeks of Colin’s life, I was proud of myself if I could manage to microwave and eat an entire veggie burger without some distraction. Cooking didn’t truly resume in our house for an embarrassing number of months, and that meant that too often I ate over-processed foods or spent far more than I’d care to admit on take-out. I had several friends who were thoughtful enough to bring food along when they came to meet C, and it was the sweetest thing I could have ever hoped for. Whether it was a casserole, a chicken dinner or a box of Chewy bars, it was all thoroughly appreciated.

If you like to cook, make something simple that freezes well. If you don’t, pick up sandwiches or even some snack food that is healthy and easily consumed one-handed, since it’s rare for brand new moms to have both hands free. If you’re out of town, send a gift card to a fabulous local restaurant that you know delivers. Bring a large enough amount for dinner for two – either her hubby will eat the other half, or she’ll have leftovers for the next day as well. If you want to go the extra mile, take the lead and establish an account on a site to help coordinate meal delivery (like Take Them a Meal or Care Calendar) and spread the word to all of the couple’s friends via email or Facebook.

2. A hot shower without the baby watching/a blaring monitor. 
Visiting a new mom and meeting the new peanut is always fun. Seeing and snuggling a new baby and catching up with a new mom pal is wonderful. The only thing that could make the visit better?

If baby is sleeping when you get there, mention you would happily watch/hold him or her for as long as she needs to take a relaxing hot bath or shower. Mention, of course, that you’re not saying this because she looks filthy, but because most of her showers are rushed and she has to be attuned to the baby’s needs. Send her off and let her know you’ll give three loud knocks to the bathroom door if there is an emergency, but otherwise, she should enjoy the time to relax with baby safely cared for in the next room.

3. An hour or two of free babysitting/mommy’s helper-ing from a trusted friend. 
There is nothing like an extra set of hands when you need them. While some moms are comfortable leaving their kiddo with a sitter or trusted friend right away, others are more wary, even with the most trusted of friends. Offer to watch their baby while they run an errand or two, or while they take a much-needed break for dinner with their spouse or a mani-pedi. If they aren't ready to leave the babe behind, let them know that you are available as an extra set of hands, whether it is for a trip to Jewel, a visit to Buy Buy Baby or her post-partum follow up visit at the OB’s office (you’ll hang in the waiting room with her tiny bundle of joy, of course).  If she doesn't want either of these things, you can even offer to run her errands for her – just grab her grocery list and credit card and voila – best helper ever.

4. A cleaning lady. 
This one is tricky because of course, a cleaning lady doesn't come cheap. I spent the first eight months of Colin’s life making pathetic attempts to keep up with the housework. I couldn't keep up with the never-ending laundry pile, the bathrooms were a fright and our floors were in constant need of a good sweep and mop. What I would have killed for (ok, maybe not killed for) was someone to come in and just do it. Finally, we gave in and hired someone to come every six weeks for a deep cleaning, but in the early days, I would have loved it if our group of friends had chipped in and gotten us a visit from a cleaning person. Or offered to clean. Or to watch the baby while I cleaned so I didn't waste precious nap time cleaning instead of resting.

5. A dog walker. Or dog sitter. Or dog entertainer.
Getting out of the house with a baby involves quite the learning curve for new moms.  Add a leash with a hyped-up puppy at the end of it, and the first few weeks were truly just tough.  We had a dog walker for the first couple weeks to help with the mid-day walk, but the most amazing thing one of my friends did to help was to take our dog out for a few play dates to give her some much-needed exercise that our short strolls around the block weren't adequately covering. Eventually, she started taking Kenzie for slumber parties every now and then so we could have a bit of rest from the walking and the pup got a huge dose of love and affection.

While this is not remotely the same, I can only imagine that if I were writing about a second child instead of a first, this would read “someone to take my older child(ren) for a fun adventure that is extra special for the big sibling(s).”  Since I have no expertise in that department, I will just say that if my dog could notice the decrease in attention with a new baby, I’m sure that older siblings need that extra special time even more!

6. A beautiful picture of their child not taken with an iPhone. 
I was so sad looking back at our photos from the first two months of Colin’s life to realize that 95 percent of them were blurry, grainy, poorly focused shots that my groggy self had carelessly snapped.  If you have any photo skills, bring your camera along when you visit a new baby, and if mom approves, take some cute photos of the little one that you can send along later via email. Oh, and while I would never insist that mom stays in the picture, offer to take one of them together that you promise to share with no one but her, in case she hasn't been able to take many pictures of herself with the baby.

New and expectant mamas – if you covet any of the following things and are afraid to ask, I wrote this to give you an out.  Just casually share this link and maybe your friends will catch the hint and surprise you with one of the incredibly helpful things listed. And gift givers, congrats on becoming the best. friend. ever.


Two Charms

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The following is an excerpt from a piece first published on The Quaker, an online literary journal. Oy!Chicago has the permission of the author to republish it. To read the piece in its entirety, follow the link at the bottom of the post.

Two Charms photo

I watched my grandmother take her last breath. It was a Thursday night.

Bubbe—as we had come to call her, once she got past the point at which all Jewish grandmothers decide to give in to their age and allow their grandchildren to call them by this Yiddish term of endearment—had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just two months before. Bubbe, by then, had come to represent trips to Florida, hunts in the flea markets, and shelves of chatchke—the Yiddish word for useless stuff that manifested at Bubbe’s house as china figurines. She also made the fluffiest matzo balls this side of the Dead Sea. By that point, she always called us her “sweet girls,” all four of us bearing different combinations of our mother’s features. I’ve never seen a pair of cheek bones rise higher at the sight of me than when I walked through the door to find Bubbe at the sink, shaking the gold bracelets on her wrist, jingling like chimes, prepping some sort of meal to “put meat on our bones.”

She had always told me I was a good Kfesser, the Yiddish word for eater, and my love for food and cooking grew with every lesson she taught me. She also told me what a Kvetch—a complainer—I could be, so I stayed mindful of my humility and my blessings.

I sat in a hospice room on that Thursday night surrounded by my sisters—Abbee, 23, Rachel, 25, Jackie, 27. I’m 21 now, and as a frightened 18-year-old, I endured my first real loss that night. I know it was a Thursday because the weekend before had been my senior prom, and that Saturday was the last time my grandmother ever saw me. Thinking back on that afternoon, I realize she could not have passed away with a better final memory of me. My makeup perfect, my hair all done up in blonde curls. This was the way she had always liked me to look. When I look at photographs of her around my age, she exudes the glamour of the 1940s.

I had chattered nervously to her as she smiled, taking me in. I had kissed her forehead and rushed home to put on my emerald green dress and her favorite ring. She lent me her emerald ring. I cherish it, but haven’t worn it since. I’m not materialistic, truly. I’d rather spend an entire day outside in the dirt and leaves, rolling around with my horses in muck boots and a worn flannel jacket, but sometimes pieces of jewelry can hold more memories and moments than any scrapbook or failing human mind.

In the hospice room, a few of my cousins—a whole generation older than my sisters and I—lined the wall with their parents, my mom’s brothers and their wives, while my mother held her hand.

Mom had been the one to drive Bubbe all over the state for second opinions and alternative treatments. Mom had been the one praying, begging for her life, and Mom had been the one who spent the time, cherished each moment, and savored each meal and meeting just in case it would be the last. After her divorce from my father, I don’t think my mom ever took for granted even the briefest second she spent with someone she loved, in fear that it would all be over in the next minute. My mother is the strongest woman I know, and I think she’d say the same about her own mother, my Bubbe.

We had been watching her a few hours before she took her final breath. The rain fell onto the asphalt outside where the rest of Skokie, Illinois had fallen into a normal night’s sleep. The nurse told us we should take a walk outside. She said usually, mothers wait until their children have left the room to pass on. We all agreed, however, that, if we were talking about Bubbe, she’d want an audience, so we settled into our positions around the room.

She had spent most of my mother’s childhood playing hostess, and she had made the perfect 1950s housewife. She never left the house without her hair and makeup exactly perfect; she even vacuumed the floor in a dress and heels each morning. She had always had her hair “done,” and she had her eye makeup tattooed onto her face, the only exception she accepted to our religion’s taboos. Bubbe had my grandfather build a bar in the basement, separate entrance included, so her friends could drink cocktails and play billiards without interruption from the children. They were jitterbug champions in the ‘40s. They entertained every chance they could, and we were sure she relished the attention.

As we gave her our most focused attention in the hospice room, her breathing became shallow, and we waited, and watched. For a few moments, her breathing sped up, her chest rose, back arched as she struggled to breathe in short, airless gasps. We simply watched, and I can’t be sure now what we might have been watching for.

Why is it that family members rush home when they hear a loved one is about to die? Is it to say a final good-bye? Is it to witness God entering the room? Is it to sneak a possible peek at what it’s like to be gone, really gone?

When the doctors had first diagnosed Bubbe, my mom’s brothers, Bruce and Steve, teamed up to convince my mother to put her in the hospital full time. My mother had just moved her parents back to Chicago from Florida, and she didn’t want to put them through another residential adjustment. She bought them a spacious, first floor condo to compensate my grandmother’s inexperience with apartment living. She had lived in a house since the day she left her rigid mother’s apartment when she married, and she wasn’t willing to give up her own domain. Watching her pace back and forth from her bedroom to the kitchen in their apartment was hard for my mother. Her mom already was a domestic goddess stuck in a cramped quarters, so throwing her into what she would have seen as a prison cell would strip her of her final peace. After Steve and Bruce lost that fight, they withdrew all monetary and emotional support, and left my mother to carry the burden. As a result, their late presence—along with that of their children who followed the tug of their parents’ purse strings—was profoundly unwelcome. We had been there every day after school, had witnessed every doctor appointment, and watched her struggle to make it through every difficult day. We wanted to cherish our last moments with her, alone. They, however, had arrived mostly to ease their consciences. My grandparents were modest people, they didn’t leave behind any real money, but my mother made sure my sisters and I would receive Bubbe’s most meaningful relics.

I watched her chest rise again, deeply this time as she took in a louder breath, like a short gust of wind entering the car window when opened on the highway. Her chest fell, and I watched it there, waiting for it to rise again. She looked no different, if perhaps more peaceful even than before, but her chest didn’t rise. I waited, I didn’t blink for fear I’d miss it. All I felt around me was everyone else’s breath stop; they were waiting too, watching. For a few moments, the room became uncomfortably quiet. My mother broke the silence with a cracking sob and my sisters and I fell beside her—a heap of weeping women had just seen their fierce leader fall.

Continue reading on The Quaker.


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