Friday, October 19, 2012

To a Tea

When I was a little girl, my father had a Gemara Shiur-- a Talmud study group--of fellow professors. They met every Shabbos afternoon, about 15 men, and they rotated houses. When it was our turn the dining room table was laden—and I mean laden—with all sorts of goodies that my friends and I khalished over: seven-layer caked, sugar bowties, real bakery cookies with the jelly in the middle and colored sprinkles on top, fresh grapes and dried fruit, licorice, salty nuts, and my absolute favorite—chocolate covered almonds. All parve, of course.
My father would lead the shiur around that table, the enormous brown leather books open in front of all the serious men, a sea of sacred surrounding a profanely colorful spread.  All the wives would come too—and sit—with their own nosh—around the kitchen table, tsittering.
But here it is: at a certain point would come The Time To Serve The Tea.  Daddy would signal from the dining room and Mommy in the kitchen would jump up and Serve The Tea with all its fixins in frankly reverential silence. The women would wait, hushed. These were all their husbands and they did the same when it was their turn to host. Then—tea served—the tsittering would begin again.
Fast forward to when I was a young wife in Scarsdale. Robert organized a shiur, also with all the husbands we socialized with. As I set out the seven-layer cake, grapes, cookies, nuts and dried fruit I said, “Tell me when it’s time to serve the tea.”
Why, he said.
So that I can Serve The Tea.
He gave me a funny look.
“I don’t need you to serve the tea. I can serve the tea”.
He turned and started stacking up the china cups, got out the Chai, the Camomile the Peppermint, khopped the sugar bowl, and even cut up a lemon.
And just like that—I became not my mother.
Until… now. Maybe.
Every Shabbos afternoon after services we have a kiddish lunch here at the Temple. While I make the Friday night dinners for everybody, there are other people responsible for the Saturday kiddish. I’m grateful, because it’s pretty elaborate, with everybody sitting around the table-- Rosario passing plates and—hallelujah!--cleaning up.
Sruli has just finished doing services that started at 9:15 and he is the opposite of a morning person so by the time he sings V’shamru and makes Kiddish over the wine, designates the usual designee for the Challah, he plops down at the table. I take a plate, fill it with egg salad, regular salad and anything else I think he will like, and set it down in front of him. I keep an eye on, to make sure his water cup is full, and jump up when I think he needs seconds on the egg salad. I hustle to make sure the pepper shaker is within his reach. I carefully select a non-chocolate cookie and piece of cake for his dessert.
I throw some grapes on that plate, too.
Of course I also make sure to Serve Him Tea.
I’m a modern, educated woman who can support herself on the open market, runs a small business and deals with the world. All the women in this shul are modern, educated, and self-supporting. They are equal. They are wonderful and we have become friends. If I described how on tenterhooks my mother was (and IS—because she still does it!!) how alert she is, waiting for the signal to serve,  how careful to do it right—and how frankly elegantly she does it--they might laugh. Or worse, shake their heads.
Every time I serve Sruli, and it’s pretty obvious, every Shabbos afternoon at that kiddish,  I don’t say anything and none of my new women friends and congregants say anything.
But I see them watching. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Old Woman Who Lives in a Shul

Our living room sofas all face the same way. Mood lighting--- orange bulbed yahrtzeits. I serve mac and cheese in the milchig kitchen. Rotisserie chicken upstairs in the fancy fleyshig caterers kitchen. I use the coatroom to dry my black dresses. The kids scooter around a room with 40 foot stained glass windows. I sneak down the hall in my towel to the shower. Sometimes I run into the president of the board. Or the “prophet.” Sruli and I have midnight dates in the Rabbi’s Study. Tonight we are working on our computers and having tea and kichels.

We are living in a shul and Sruli is the Rabbi and I am the Rebbetzin and our kids are “The Rabbi’s sons and daughters.” To say that life has changed is…a ridiculous understatement. To say that my life is ridiculous is…not an understatement.

This past summer we were busy enough, what with the camp, shlepping to the camp, running the camp-- weekend gigs that got us home at 2 in the morning and we had to shlep to camp the next day—but who’s complaining?--- and 5 kids, 2 of them three. Camp was glorious—we love the new space in the East Village—enrollment doubled--and the kids and parents were clamoring for “just one more week!” The campers were completely delightful and delicious. I can’t even tell you the nakhes I got—watching them make friends with each other. But the biggest nakhes of all was watching my big kids really make the camp magical. It wasn’t just the classes they taught, it was the happy manic exuberance—one more all-out game of American Eagle—one more groovin’ shakin’ dance party-- one more race-around with everyone chasing—JUST to make the kids happy—just to delight them. And Aaron, getting up an hour early every single morning to run the subway pool from the Upper West Side.

Also Ilana was dealing with the last moans of craziness, which thankfully for all of us, is, after six insane years, amazingly over. She got out all her stuff (and I mean ALL—boxes and boxes and boxes and you can’t believe) but she marched into NYU a totally free young woman with a glorious future. Apparently, the night Sruli helped her move in, the elevator doors opened and there was a floor meeting already going on. Everyone stopped to stare at the new girl and Sruli smiled and said, loudly: Hi guys, I want you to meet my mother—and everyone cracked up. He’s great like that.

Of course the reason she moved in late was because we had just driven straight home from KlezKanada. Which was uniquely glorious this year. That lake—that lake! The carnival! Zachary’s Teenagers in Lvov! The Tish! Our KlezKids singing in Yiddish and little Johnny Xylo ringing his purple bell at just the right time in the hand-bell choir! It seems like a dream and it seems like it happened so long ago.

And then, the very next day it started—six weeks of hellacious hell—MOVING.  Packing, throwing out, boxing, shlepping and loading it all into the car.  Driving here to the shul. Unloading, shlepping and putting all these goddam boxes out of sight and into the tiny rooms here so they would be out of everyone’s way.  Two or more trips a day. Pack, load, drive, unload. We would fall into bed at three-in-the-morning ache-y and kvetch-y and miserable. I don’t understand how we got to own so much goddamned stuff. I did this every single day—every single day—for six weeks—except when we had gigs—that was like a vacation—with my heel-spur, yet, constantly killing me and my nerves completely raw. The only bright side is that my arms, while not Michelle Obamaesque, are nicer and a bisl ripped.

So now, here we are. Rabbi and Rebbetzin. It’s a riot. And I have to say, Sruli is a revelation. He was born for this. It’s like he has the best of the Talmud at the tip of his tongue, easily rolling off anecdotes, facts, halachic traditions. His sermons are smart, really smart—poignant, funny and filled with new thinking, modern thinking— he makes you forget sometimes that the Torah is over 3000 years old. He gets everybody singing. He is modest and gentle. He is welcoming. He blessed a seeing-eye-dog right from the Bima. (Coco BAS Menucha!) He dealt with a fight in the middle of Kabbalat Shabbat one time between the self-styled “prophet” and another, beloved congregant.  He did a brilliant job during the marathon that is the Hi-Ho’s—a trifecta of constant davening, sermons and fund raising. Tashlikh was magical. He held court at the parties in the Sukkah every afternoon and evening.  We did a kick-ass Simchat Torah with dancing for over an hour in the streets while he played and the disco lights flashed. He gets all the children to sing Adon Olam. He is always working now, always thinking about the shul, always preparing for Shabbos, for his conversion classes, his Judaism classes. We are starting a Klezmer Band next week, and hopefully soon—a Hebrew School.

And it’s cute the way he flips and re-flips his tallis over each shoulder constantly as he davens. The congregation eats him up and so do I.

Of course I am right there—making spaghetti dinners EVERY Friday night for everybody, arranging kiddushes, apple dippings, Dinners in the Sukkah. We perform a bit every Friday night. I am the children’s program director and resident storyteller and I meet and make sure to talk to everyone. I am also very much responsible for trying to grow the shul and the Hebrew School, Mommy and Me and Shabbat and all outreach to families is my responsibility. I enjoy every overwhelming second, but it is overwhelming.  

We are also playing Bar and Bat Mitzvah’s pretty much every Saturday afternoon and I (and, Thank God, Zachary) rush to get there first and set up so that Sruli can come as late as possible. Every day is an adventure.

The twins, by the way, think they are the luckiest children in the world. They live in a toy room.

There isn’t much privacy but then we’ve never been very private people. Our friends come to visit us and laugh. Even my parents laugh. Thank goodness.

I’m trying to calm down. I am trying to take care of myself. My stupid foot. I am trying to rid myself of unwanted belly fat. I am trying to toilet train the twins. I am trying to write.  I am trying to start work on next summer’s camp. I am trying to find yet another new home for Teddy, my beloved and gorgeous Pomeranian, who, barky barky, is not welcome here and who I need to find foster care for, ‘til Zachary gets an apartment next May.

I am trying to exult in this new, very weird, phase of our life.

I am the Old Woman who lives in a Shul.