Wednesday, December 12, 2018


He awakens
To a glimmer of something
More vast than his eyes can hold
A sunbeam dusts the windowsill
And it is morning

His eyes widen,
His smile curls
To befriend the day.
Hands outstretched
Nothing is out of reach.

He inches forward, bounds and falls
Grasping the floor with his toes
Wholeheartedly trusting
Any surface he hugs to support him

I envy him lovingly.
For his world is surely bigger than mine
The colors brighter
The borders flimsier
And all he hears are songs.

My baby, my world.
A gurgling well of life
Tenderly nourished by his source
He knows no want.

I breathe in his contentment
And it fills me.

But sometimes
When the hum of the radiator
And warm milk
Lull him into a satisfied slumber, 
I meet my own world
Waiting, wanting.

Like a shadow that silently accompanies me
Lingering at the heels of each moment
Yearning to slip back into step with me

My world, my self
The person I was before him
And maybe still am
Slighted by my hands so eager to give
Intimidated by my full heart 
And righteous mission
Drowned out by the pitter patter of my slippers
As I chase his adventures
and not my own.

Is this what it means to be a mother?
When the tears of my child shake me awake
But I sleep through my own,
I wonder where I have gone.

They say motherhood changes you. 

That you grow
To house a deeper reserve of patience
And a heart brimming with selfless drive.
You coat your words in sweetness and wisdom
You are pressed to your limits
But then your limits dissolve
And you realize you are more powerful than you ever imagined.

His day begins with the sun
And my day begins with him.

What would I find
If I were to rise before dawn?

There might be wishes and dreams of my own to be found
Drifting among the shadows in the nursery
Pining for a mother to cradle them
And bring them to life.

But then, in a blink
At the first glint of morning
A soft cry will beckon me
And my inner space will slip through my delicate grasp
To invite my precious baby into my arms.
My big boy, 
My world,
Sturdier and more self-sufficient by the day.

Have I grown?
He surely has.

Monday, August 21, 2017

A Birthday

Each year on my birthday, I feel like I’m in two places at once. The past taps at my heels as tomorrow hovers over my eyes, and I don’t know which way to look. On the threshold of Elul, I glance back at the past 365 days that were entrusted into my care. Did I imbue them with light, are they vibrant and full? Or do they stand shriveled, betrayed, imploring me to turn around and give more?

I hesitate as year 28 greets me with a broad smile. I am strangely suspicious of it. How can I advance if I am indebted to the past? But the warmth and newness of Elul softens the weight on my shoulders and invites all of me in. When the King is in the field, the most important thing is to show up. Baggage and all. So I lug all those days with me, the ones that shine brilliantly and the ones with dark empty spaces. Because I can't just leave the past behind without fixing it. Maybe if I journey out to welcome the King, He'll help me do just that.

This year, I'll find a way to transform all those days and make them effervescent.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

We Don't Need Galus Anymore

I am a horrible procrastinator.

Let me restate that. I am actually an excellent procrastinator.

Which is precisely the problem. Procrastination is a trap that self-perpetuates because it works so well. The pressure is mobilizing. Hours before a project is due, each tick of the clock releases a surge of adrenaline that injects acute awareness, precision, and unwavering commitment into the task at hand.

A rabbi once told me that I procrastinate to preserve my self-image. Last-minute success is seemingly more impressive than planned, deliberate progress in which time is on your side. When you procrastinate and succeed, you triumph over the constrictive forces of time, sleep deprivation, and lack of resources. Success in the face of so many enemies is much more self-satisfying than the alternative. It's proof that you can not only succeed under convenient circumstances, but even under the most challenging ones.

The best part is that if you fail, you have an excuse. The circumstances didn't allow for success. Not enough time, not enough sleep. You can convincingly attribute failure to circumstance instead of to personal factors.

Unfortunately, when one relies on the circumstances created through procrastination, the necessity to draw on internal motivation disappears.

I think this phenomenon can teach us something about galus.

We ask when Moshiach will come. When will we want Moshiach enough for him to come?

But for us to really want Moshiach, we need to stop needing galus.

If we're really honest with ourselves, galus only continues because we're dependent on it. It squeezes out the best in us. Darkness and pain blinds us to our differences, unifying us. God gives us tribulations to force us to stretch beyond our natural abilities and raise us to our highest selves. We have a strange codependent relationship with galus in which we elevate it, and it elevates us.

Galus is difficult. God is challenging us to rise to the occasion- but if we only rise when there is an occasion, what's so impressive about that? Of course people come together in difficult times. Of course we will enter into fight-or-flight mode and conquer our natural inhibitions to tackle crisis situations. In a state of darkness and confusion, our light antennae instinctually perk up and we detect more opportunities to bring goodness into the world than we would if we were living in comfortable, peaceful conditions. It's simply our nature.

It's as though we need the challenging circumstances of galus to make us great. In a sense, we do. The purpose of creation cannot be actualized without our descent into galus. It's part of the plan. But galus is simply a means to an end.

The final test of galus is being able to say we don't need the darkness anymore.

We don't need the fear, the despair, the feeling of not belonging in this world. Historically, these were all necessary parts of our progress as a people, but now it's time to let go. We can be great without all of that. We can yearn for geula simply because it is God's deepest desire, and that alone gives it inherent worth. Any reason besides this is external, a symptom of the hardship of galus.

"L'chathila ariber: At the outset, go above!" This well-known chassidic melody proclaims that we shouldn't wait for a challenge to force out the best versions of ourselves. Instead of approaching life reactively- responding to challenges by acting in a heroic fashion- we must live proactively- be extraordinary at the outset, even when circumstances are ordinary.

We need to find the courage to tell galus we don't need it anymore. We need not the force of darkness and finality of rock bottom to propel us upward. We can live looking upward, even when we're comfortable. Sometimes I think it's my nature to be wired to fall deeply before I can ascend. Maybe this is true, but I just keep telling myself: Nature can't compete with the soul.

The essence of procrastination is a reliance on external circumstances to motivate success and excuse failure. We use the challenges of galus in the same way. Galus creates a sense of desperation that motivates us to be our best- and when we fail, it gives us an excuse. Our concern for self-preservation keeps us stuck here, and we confuse stagnation with progress.

Self-actualization does not come from perpetuating hardship. It sounds cliché, but dislodging ourselves from the vicious cycle of galus starts with believing in ourselves and having faith in the innate abilities that God gave us.

The Rebbe told us that Moshiach can only come from us. We need to do the work- not let circumstance do the work for us.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Leaving Chicago

I decided to move to Crown Heights a month and a half ago. 

After a lifetime of relishing in the small-town familiarity of the midwest, I felt it was time to make a change. A number of circumstances aligned in such a way that a window of opportunity swung open unexpectedly. I felt like God was practically shoving me out the door, mobilizing me with a firm resolve that quickly rendered itself immune to any attempt at negotiation. Within a matter of weeks, I managed to reduce my three years in Chicago to three suitcases bulging with bare essentials. 

I had many reasons for leaving Chicago- and my choice surprised no one. Most would agree that I didn't fit in there. The combination of my age, marital status, and spiritual outlook made me feel like an anomaly in that particular community. People frequently asked why I lived in Chicago when my peers were all in Crown Heights.

But as I sifted the non-essentials from my most important belongings, I felt the wholeness of knowing that I was carrying much more than the items on my packing list. Everything I couldn't transport in my bags, I carried inside me. The skeleton that remained of my material life was counterbalanced by a feeling of abundance, for I recognized the rich spiritual life flourishing inside of me per the nurturing hands of the Chicago community. Despite sometimes feeling like the odd one out, I can't deny how deeply I was touched by the numerous genuine, devoted community members.

I felt it was important to establish closure by expressing my immense appreciation to these special individuals in my life, so I made several arrangements to meet friends and mentors to say goodbye. But in these meetings, I couldn't hear their words and I floundered for my own. The fullness I felt overwhelmed me. I couldn't let anything in, and if I let anything out it would all tumble away. I was like a swollen suitcase, overpacked with bittersweet memories and fresh thoughts of the future that rippled with anticipation.

I tried to soften the potentially awkward silences with appreciative smiles. I repeatedly escorted my guests to the door too soon, as though I were fearful that every second spent together was another second that would later be missed. I curled away from each final moment, keeping it at arms length, banishing it to the periphery of my experience.

Maybe the reason Chasidim never say goodbye is because they can't. They can't help but shrink backwards and swallow their words at the prospect of goodbye, lost in deep admiration for their fellow Jew. A community of Chasidim has the potential to make an imprint on the core of a person, speaking to a place beyond the level of articulation. Maybe words would cheapen those parting moments, and my silence unwittingly honored the transcendent nature of those relationships.

I came to Crown Heights in search of something. I hope to reap the benefits of my new community, to find a comfortable social and spiritual home. But as I journeyed away from all that was familiar, I also became aware of my own potential to be a giver by virtue of the vast gift I had already received: A sense of wholeness and conviction cultivated by a community of passionate, truth seeking Jews. 

I realized that as much as there is to be gained here, there is even more to give. Now it's my turn to release those lessons of kindness and truth so they may flow into another crevice of the world and fill up someone else.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Day We Went off the Deep End

“Are you sure we’re doing this right?”

My friend Arielle glanced at me skeptically. We were laying on the dock overlooking lake Mendota, its splintery edge pressing into our stomachs. I was holding a frying pan. Today was the day we were to toivel our dishes, and we had decided to do it in the lake.

I shrugged, squinting into the afternoon sun. I had no idea what we were doing. I just knew I wanted a kosher kitchen, and from what I had learned, immersing new dishes in a body of fresh water was a required step in that process.

From across the shore, the inebriated chants of a fraternity party rang through the Sunday stillness. Arielle and I watched as one fellow guzzled the contents of a red plastic cup before bounding toward the water, where he cannon-balled into a pocket of lake that couldn’t have been more than a foot deep. He emerged wincing in pain, meanwhile earning the wild applause of his fraternity brothers.

“They’re crazy.” Arielle rolled her eyes. I chuckled in agreement, then shifted my attention to the large basket of dining ware at my side. “Let’s get to work.”

I surveyed the situation, assessing the distance between the dock and the surface of the water. Frying pan in hand, I inched my torso past the edge of the dock and stretched toward the water. To my dismay, the pan’s buoyant nature fought my attempts to submerge it under the surface, resulting in a five-minute splashing battle between me and the frying pan before I sourly admitted defeat.

I hoisted myself back onto the dock. I slid off my water-speckled glasses and clumsily tried to dry them with my shirt sleeve, which was also soaking wet. “This is going to be harder than I thought.”

“Agreed. But not as hard as explaining to my family how I spent my Sunday afternoon," Arielle chimed.

Arielle was right. What we were doing made no sense. The spiritual purity of our dishes would be achieved at the expense of cleanliness, and we would need to wash and sanitize everything before using it. Moreover, we were college students. We were supposed to be exploiting our newfound freedom! We should have been at the fraternity party two buildings down, venturing into the lake for sheer drunken entertainment- not because we were involved in some cryptic ancient ritual.

When I first began growing in my Jewish observance, the shifts in my outlook and lifestyle were largely propelled by a desire to make sense out of my life. I wanted to understand the truth about existence in order to find myself, to achieve the ultimate level of contentment and self-awareness.

But more often than not, my motivation worked against me. Judaism wasn't always comfortable and I didn't always understand. I often felt constricted and weighed down by my desire to understand, and I became frustrated when Judaism wasn't as fulfilling as I thought it should be.

This moment could have devolved into one of frustration. But as I sat there despondently, sighing over the ridiculous heap of kitchenware, something clicked. I realized the only way we were going to be able to accomplish our mission was if we stopped being so self-aware and started being more God-aware. This wasn't about fulfilling our needs, this was about fulfilling His. And God's desires are beyond logic, so the only way we could succeed at our task was to first surrender our own emotional attachment to the rational mind.

We needed to be willing to do something crazy.

That's what college is for anyway, right?

So Arielle threw off her sneakers and trekked into lake Mendota. Rather than tiptoeing around the mitzvah, we dove into it with full force. I cheered Arielle on from the dock, assisting her by trading out the completed dishes for those in need of toiveling.

She looked pretty crazy out there, standing waist deep in the lake while fully clothed, steeping our brand new utensils in smelly green water. But it was a good kind of crazy. A kind that made me smile inwardly, that inspired me to commit to a cause bigger than myself. She was embodying the kind of crazy the world needs, that will run to do good no matter the cost, that can wriggle free from nature's grasp and be whatever God needs you to be.

A few minutes later, Arielle waded back to shore, beaming. "I think that's the last of it!" she announced proudly. Satisfied, I retrieved the basket of freshly immersed dishes and accompanied her back toward our apartment building.

An unfamiliar calm set in as our mission came to a close. I felt like I had washed away a part of myself with those dishes. That heavy part of me, bound down by self-concern and a stubborn devotion to my own comfort, had started to thin away. Strangely, as we trudged back to the apartment, weighed down by soaking wet skirts and the heat of the Sunday sun, I felt a little lighter.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

My Name is Ettel and I Have a Double Identity

They told us to write down our names.

They gave us those Hello! My name is _______ stickers. You know, the name tags you slap onto your freshly pressed blouse as you smile clumsily at strangers in an unfamiliar room. Those stickers mean it’s the beginning of something, an encounter with a bright empty space waiting to be etched with experiences.

Today is the first day of graduate school. They want me to introduce myself and tell my story, to provide a colorful explanation of why I chose to be here when I could have been anywhere else in the universe. I care about making a good impression. But my story is still under construction and there’s no distinct theme, and sometimes I feel like I’m a character in a never-ending prologue with no Chapter 1 in sight.

A dozen other twenty-somethings are seated on either side of me in a semi-circle. They’re all fidgety and tentative, nervously shuffling through their welcome packets and staring alternately at the floor and the doorway.

Maybe the facilitator knows that everyone’s stomach is in their throat and their palms are sopping wet, so he’s trying to do us a kindness by simply letting us jot down our names and become acquainted with each other. A very non-threatening first assignment as graduate students. After all, everyone knows that a name is a given. A reflex. The safest possible starting point. But I have this habit of complicating everything, my name not excluded.

What is my name?

My fingers clenched around my pencil, I braced myself for the impending confrontation with the Hello sticker. Self-conscious that the rest of the room would observe my hesitation, I pretended to be intrigued by the course list in my welcome packet.

For everyone else, the instruction to write down our names brought a moment of relief. A meaningless space sandwiched between the important things on the agenda. Their calm only made me more flustered. My thoughts darted wildly in every direction and I was positive the entire room could hear my heart thumping frantically against my ribcage.

But somehow my inner voice expanded to fill that tiny space. It demanded that I decide right then and there who I wanted to be.

HELLO! My name is Ettel.

There it was. My scribbled identity, born of impulse or intuition or maybe something more.

The name felt awkward as its syllables escaped my lips, jerkily and one at a time. They all looked uncertain saying it back to me.

Your name’s not on the list, the facilitator said. I explained that I have two names. It’s kind of confusing…it’s a little complicated, I stammered.

Who I am is complicated.

I’m one of many in this semi-circle. I’m a student breathing in the freshness of a new start; shrinking in moments of self-doubt; wondering what is to come. Will this place unearth all my inadequacies and challenge all my truths? Will it strengthen me or will I stagnate here? There’s the part of me that’s scared of what this new beginning will bring.

But then there’s the part of me that knows my existence is stabilized by more than the sturdiness of this chair, the comfort of this space, the security of this educational path. My identity is connected to something beyond all of this. It’s something that doesn’t care about first impressions or A pluses or being “successful.” That part of me knows that everything is as it is meant to be and the story will start and end where it’s supposed to.

That's what Ettel represents. Every time others address me, that name will remind me that who I am is not so simple. I have layers and dimensions and unrevealed depths that spiral from an infinite source. The name channels my spiritual self and engages it in my daily interactions with the mundane world. By uttering "Ettel", the very people I fear will challenge my identity will be the ones to offer the most poignant reminder of it.

"Ettel." Repeated the facilitator gingerly. "Welcome to the program."

I feigned indifference as my peers studied me. My alternative name, my long sleeves in August, my bagged lunch in place of the free breakfast buffet. I could tell that I was, in some ways, a mystery to them. But I'm okay with that, because I don't entirely understand myself yet either.

What I do know is that my name is Ettel, and I think that's a pretty solid beginning.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Saying Goodbye to my Inspiration

I’ve only had my heart broken once.

It happened on an adventure. My companion grabbed my hand like a trusty friend and told me to close my eyes. He led me to a sunny field where the air smelled fresh and the birches donned a silvery glow. We stood there squinting at the sky as our faces flushed with warmth, then he clutched my shoulder and drilled his gaze into my soul. “Stay here forever,” he urged. He whispered promises of progress and transformation if I would make this place my home. Then he released his grip and fled.

His name is Inspiration.

We’ve all known him. He’s the one whose first appearance happens when we are most in need. His arrival is spontaneous. He’s the sudden surge of momentum that enlivens our cumbersome journeys, he's the headlight that clarifies clouded paths. He makes us fearless. We travel to far-off places without a blink, we shed the safety of our snugly worn identities and start anew.

But Inspiration takes off just as quickly as he comes.

No parting words, no drawn out goodbyes. Just a deafening silence and the stark awareness of betrayal. I remember the day he left. Externally my life remained unchanged, but my faith deflated and my movements forgot their meanings.

And then it was just me. Just me and God, residing in that faraway meadow, its once hopeful song of promise flattened by the dense, formidable night.

I sat there in the darkness, retracing memories of Inspiration in my mind’s eye. I recalled his flickering smile and his soft, encouraging words, I replayed his poignant pronouncements of all that was Good and True. Those words made me do what was right. Infatuated with his eloquent tale of an embracing and visible God, my own will fell listless in the wake of a newly-infused thrust to serve only Him. With each righteous act, Inspiration would nod approvingly and my heart would swell with a deep satisfaction.

I had regarded myself as an earnest servant of God, but a glimpse into the sinews of my memory revealed that God only loomed in the backdrop of each recollection, overtaken by the dramatic love story that blazed between Inspiration and me. The light of our love was so bright and the sounds so melodious that I couldn’t help but do all that Inspiration said was right- but I grew to love the light more than its source and the entity I bowed to was named Self-Satisfaction.

Now, for the first time since Inspiration fled, the lightless sky seemed a more fitting conduit for Truth than the light I once cherished. I realized that my fling with Inspiration was just a story God spun to lift me out from my constrictions and lead me toward Him. God knew that without Inspiration- without my freewill folding beneath the weight of my certainty- I never would have approached Him.

God’s hushed orchestration culminated in a moment of growth charading as tragedy. With Inspiration’s release from his mission, God invited me to share in a more inward relationship with him, one that proved impossible against the blinding light of Inspiration: A bond founded on the choice to commit.

I still reside in that field. Sometimes I think I spot my long-ago friend darting through the underbrush, but his outline is blurry and his face is always turned away. Those moments make me pine for my Inspiration, longing to see the world through his eyes once more.

I know he’ll return. I know God wants him to return, to sweep me up in a tangle of new questions and insights and longings, to rescue me from this shadowy place and catapult me to the next phase of my journey. 

But in the meantime, I know I have the opportunity for something even more valuable. I can connect to God Himself, in darkness and in light, in doubt and in certainty. It’s finally just the two of us.

Now the real love story can begin.


"I want nothing at all! I don't want Your gan eden, I don't want Your olam haba... I want nothing but You alone." (Hayom Yom Kislev 18)