Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sexless and the Holy City: Procrastinate your way to success!

This past Chanukkah, I was sitting around making homemade menorahs with some of my friends and we were talking about emotions. Not in the way you would perhaps imagine: a scene of the Golden Girls at their kitchen table, around a cheesecake. Sharing memories, laughs and tears. No, we were talking about how hard it can be to allow ourselves to be comfortable with our emotions. I thought if so many of my girl friends have this roadblock, what's going on with the guys?

A quick survey of a handful of my guy friends confirmed what I was thinking: they have no problem feeling their emotions. If anything, many of them had a hard time getting out of them, they were so comfortable in their feeling. Meanwhile, I work at keeping myself either happy or mildly annoyed. Sometimes when I drive or cycle, a third emotion, road rage, will emerge. But I'm alway working to get back to happy. I'm just uncomfortable feeling anything else.

Then, I came across an article on procrastination. I have always been motivated by deadlines, aspiring to be one of those people who lives by, "Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today." But, other than occasional bursts of productivity here and there, I tend to be motivated by: this has to be done now.

Or at least I used to be.

The author describes the main force behind why we procrastinate: because we are uncomfortable. The project we need to do is hard or we're scared we can't do it well, so we avoid thinking about it, seeing what's new on facebook or talking on the phone, until we're so stressed by the deadline that we don't have time to doubt ourselves. Panic overcomes all other emotions.  I realized my discomfort with being uncomfortable wasn't only a dating liability, but a professional one too. I stopped what I was doing, walked over to the mirror and looked myself in the face: I hadn't left everything that was familiar and comfortable to made aliyah because I was scared of discomfort! What was I doing to myself? I was so caught up in my realization that I didn't notice my roommate standing next to me and asking me why I was talking to myself - now that was uncomfortable. I just smiled and went back to work.

And that's the strategy I've maintained over the past few weeks. When unproductive behavior starts knocking at the door I recognize what is happening, look for the emotion that I'm trying to avoid. Spend some time with it until everyone is comfortable, smile to myself, and resume work. I won't say that it's been easy, or that I haven't fallen off the wagon a few times since then. But the more I do it, the easier it becomes. I've gotten to know myself better, had more deep, meaningful conversations with friends, and my to-do list is shorter than ever. When it comes to life, whether it's with relationships or our professional life, the only thing to really be afraid of is the idea that we never really tried. That's an idea worth being uncomfortable with.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Best Things Happen When You Don't Get What You Want

I'm a big Rolling Stones fan. One of my favorite songs by them is You Can't Always Get What You Want. Despite the actual morbid words of the song the refrain is so true - sometimes you might find, you get what you need. This might seem like hopeful fluff, but I see it time and again in life. The following is the most recent example.

One of my good friends got married yesterday in the US. She really wanted to get married in Israel, where here and her chatan live, but for various reasons, it had to happen in the US. As anyone who has been on the internet probably knows, Jerusalem has suffered through an unprecedented snow storm. Who knows what would have been if she had actually gotten married today in Jerusalem as she had so hoped for.

So the next time something you really want doesn't pan out, rather than being disappointed or frustrated, I think the best thing to do is just sit back and smile, because something even better is coming your way!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Miracles: Seen and unseen.

Tonight is the last night of Hanukkah. In Judaism, the closer you get to the end of the holiday, the more special the time is, so there is a lot of powerful energy available for us tonight. Here is something short to think about as you light your candles.

In my opinion, the big miracle of Hanukkah is the fact that there was that one jug of oil waiting for the Maccabees after they beat the powerful Greek army. You know the Greeks tried their best to treif up all of the oil, so that the Jews would be left with nothing.  Unlike the Roman destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, the Greeks weren't interested in destroying the building, but the soul of the Jewish people. Symbolically to them, this meant extinguishing the light of the ever-burning Menorah.

But guess whose plans were thwarted.

As we know, there was one jug of oil that remain untouched, and fit for use to rekindle the light.
G-d hid that jar one from them, and set it aside for us. Who knows what else G-d has hidden away, set aside for us when we need it the most.

We are at the beginning of winter - months of cold darkness. We need to take this thought with us, to light the way. G-d is always working miracles for us. We might not see them - but when we least expect it, and need it the most, it will be there before our eyes.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Sexless and the Holy City: Wash, Rinse, Repeat

I was up late rehashing a relationship (with a guy we'll call Mr. Silicon Valley) that just ended with my platonic life partner over What's App (welcome to the future), when he finally just cut me off, "He's not that into you!! Delete his number, delete his texts, delete his emails and MOVE ON!" I knew he was right. And if the guy really wanted to, he still knew how to get in touch with me. As someone who enjoys uncluttering her life, this felt good. I was able to fall asleep pretty easily after that.

When I woke up the next morning, it was a different story. I still had something gnawing at me. I'm not the type to pine over a guy who isn't into me, B"H. Usually I can confidently chalk it up as: their loss, moving on. But there was something different about this situation. I tried to think - what was the thing that was bothering me the most about the way everything had unfolded? It struck me - I had gone out with a  different guy a few days ago who was really great, but very shy. I was the one carrying the conversation. During the date, I laughed to myself at how the tables had turned. Mr. Silicon Valley was always giving me a hard time about being too shy and withdrawn. I felt like G-d put me davka in that situation to recognize how silly my behavior with Mr. Silicon Valley had been, and to learn not to act like that again.

If Mr. Silicon Valley had been the first one to comment on this behavior, I could chalk it up as lesson learned and move on. But I realized, he was the third guy I had gone out with since January that I really liked, and he was also the third guy to tell me that he felt like I was being too shy and difficult to read, and therefore not want to continue things. That was the source of the discomfort I was feeling.

It's one thing to make a mistake once. It's another thing to make a mistake twice. But my heart sunk when I realized I did the same thing three times, over the period of almost a year. That's plenty of time to conduct a lessons learned and implement changes (as a former project manager, I always think in these kind of terms). I kept trying to remind myself that I did show that I had changed my behavior with this last date, but it wasn't enough to deflate the disappointment I felt growing in my chest, along with a determination to not keep making the same mistakes. I recognized a familiar cycle brewing:

1. Fail at something spectacularly
2. Resolve to change and never do that thing again!
3. Put too much pressure on myself, and inevitably fail

Wash, rinse, repeat!

This behavior isn't unique to me, by any means. The fact is, I can't think of one person I've met here in Israel who isn't a little hard on themselves. In order to make it here you have to be driven. The harder you are on yourself, the easier it becomes to fail, because when you put anything under too much pressure, it's bound to explode.

Fortunately for me, I'm incorrigible (and I bet you are too). You don't get to fail so many times unless you have the ability to constantly pick yourself up and believe in your ability to do better next time. Even if you don't enjoy the constant picking yourself up and dusting off before trying again, know that each time you get up, and can recognize what it was that you did before that was problematic, the more likely you are to not make that mistake next time. Who learns how to ride a bike the first time out? Who graduates college without failing a few tests? Who finds happiness in love without having their heart broken first? Not too many people. So, don't be so hard on yourself (I'm definitely speaking to myself here). If we focus on being grateful for every subsequent opportunity we have to correct these mistakes, to conduct ourselves in the way we really hope to, then the easier it is to align our behavior with our desired outcome.

Not that it will be easy, no matter what it is we are trying to correct. Growth usually only comes through hard work. Ultimately, slowly but surely we'll build the muscles we need to change our behavior. All we need in the meantime is to believe in our ability to do better and wait for the next opportunity to try. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Chanukkah: Stop holding yourself back

Hanukkah is the season of outward miracles. Those miracles (the oil lasting 7 days longer than it was supposed to and us winning the military fight against the Greeks) happened because we did something. This is known in Yeshivish as hishtadlut, meaning G-d helped us out because we put in some effort.

Life doesn't happen waiting for things to happen. That's how life passes you by. Existence is constantly being recreated. That means every moment is a new opportunity to do the things you've wanted to do, but for whatever reason were holding yourself back. We are ultimately the only ones who are responsible for succeeding or failing in life.

Every holiday on the Jewish calendar happens when it does because the space/time situation then has certain power, greater potential than normal. The Maccabees couldn't wait to return to serving G-d in the Beit Hamikdash. They had to start as soon as they won, and ran to the Temple. Technically, they shouldn't have lit the Menorah - it's not supposed to be lit if there isn't a continuous source of fuel, and it takes 8 days to produce the oil that can be used in the Temple. However, their desire was so pure and holy, that G-d made the oil of the Menorah last for 8 days. They took one step, and G-d did the rest.

We can all take advantage of this power, this is a gift being presented to us every year at this time. Over the next 8 days, every time you want to fall into whatever bad habit you are trying to break, if you can take the smallest step to move away from that habit, you will be amazed to see what you are actually capable of accomplishing.

I know you can do it, G-d knows you can do it. All that's missing is for you to know - and to do.

Chanukah: You don't actually have to gain weight

Did you know you could shred any starchy vegetable to make latkes? It's a good thing my granma is nifter (actually I feel horrible writing that, but you know what I mean), because she would not know what to do with the colorful latkes that come out of kitchens nowadays. When I was growing up, if the latkes were any color other than brown, you obviously did something wrong. I'm not a fan of using potata or sweet potatoes, as they are known here for latkes. They end up too mushy. But zucchini and carrorts are great add-ins. The color of the zucchini always makes me feel like I'm eating something healthy, and not just fried in enough oil to light my menorah for the next 8 days.

3 cups shredded kishu'im (zucchini)
3 eggs
1 package of that stuff that's not quite sour cream but not cream cheese
2 heaping cups of flour of your choice
a few shakes of baking poweder
a few more shakes of baking soda
about 1/8 c. xanthan gum (for fluffiness)
1/3 c. olive oil (canola also works)
big handful of walnuts (optional)

Ok, I am going to be honest. This isn't going to taste like 'cake' - as you may have notices, there is abosolutely no sugar up in here. None. But you know what - it's only 150 calories per serving, 9 grams of fat, plus lots of protein, fiber, and vitamins (especially if you use a mixture of white flour and spelt like I did).

Giant baked latke (aka Chanukkah Quiche)
3 eggs
1 cup flour
2 large shredded carrots
1 large onion
2-3 kishu'im (zucchini)

shred the veggies in a bowl together. Mix together eggs and seasoning and add to the mix. Then fold in flour. Use non-stick spray to coat the pan. Bake at 225C for an hour. I would have sauteed the onions a little first next time I make this to bring out the flavor a little more. Live and learn

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sexless and the Holy City

It was Thursday evening, the end the work week here in Israel. Most of the people in my office had already left for the day, and the lights were turned off in the stairwell. As I was slowly inching my way down trying to get my bearing at every landing, I was struck by how this was so symbolic of my life right now - I can't see what's coming and I'm cautiously moving forward in order to not get hurt.
I finally reached the street, and began my walk home. All the things that had been bothering me, but I was able to ignore while busy working, started to fill my head. These things aren't unique for an olah chadasha - trying to figure out how I'm going to make ends meet while building connections at an unpaid internship. A guy I had been seeing, and growing to like, just informed me he was leaving the country for a while for work, and thought we should put things on hold. And to top it all off, my computer, which is the source of my income, just wouldn't stay on.
Rather than dwell on my problems, I decided to use the time spent walking to calm my thoughts. Any time anxious ideas crept into my head: How are you going to afford this new computer? Will your Hebrew ever be good enough to continue in your career in Israel? Am I ever going to meet the right guy? I would brush them aside, and instead focus on the sound of the cars rushing home. After a while, the intrusive thoughts seemed to have given up, and I was able to appreciate how musical the traffic could be. The chimes of the light rail, the cacophonous car horns, the accelerating and breaking of the cars; it was actually quite relaxing.
I found myself in the middle of the suspension bridge in Jerusalem, looking out over the cars coming into and going out of the city. Not having to hurry home, I decided to stand there and just watch the river of vehicles flow by. After a few more minutes of just being and not thinking, an idea popped into my head. One of my dear friends here had been struggling recently with making G-d's will her will. She was also worrying about how she was going to support herself after making aliyah, and being in her 40s, if she was ever going to have kids of her own. She had been going through her own rough couple of weeks, but one day I noticed a change in her attitude. I had to ask, what happened? "I threw up my hands and said 'Hashem, Your will is my will.' I figured that if I gave up holding on to what I want my life to be, and just accept it for what it is, I'll be a lot happier. And I am!"
I whispered into the night, "Hashem, I don't know why you decided to send this guy away when I felt like things were getting promising, or why it was necessary for my computer to break. All I know is that I trust you, and there is no point trying to fight what happens in life." I stuttered as I tried to say the next words, and as I let go of the last remnants of my stubbornness, I shed a few tears, "I want my will to be Your will. I do. Instead of fighting against the tide, I'm going to just go with the flow." I stood there for a few more minutes until I had regained my composure, and resumed my walk home.
As I was coming down the other side of the bridge, I noticed an outline of an older woman ahead of me, unsteadily trying to make her way to the next light-rail stop. I asked her in the best Hebrew I could muster if she wanted help. The look of joy on her face completely melted any other feelings I had been dwelling on. As we slowly made our way, she talked to me excitedly in Hebrew and French. It was hard for me to understand it all, but we managed to exchange some small talk, and even some bits of Torah. We eventually made it to the station, and I told her that I would wait with her until the train comes. She gave me many blessings for good things in life, and pinched my cheeks as she said the man who gets to marry me is very fortunate. Then the train doors closed and she was gone.
 It took me a moment to appreciate what had just happened. I found my demeanour had changed - gone were the feelings of despair, which had been replaced with warmth and even a self-impressed smile that I was able to follow her heavily accented Hebrew. Once again, I was on my way home. I didn't feel so helpless and adrift anymore: whether it's with dating, work, or even my computer staying on, I can relax, because Hashem is in control. And when you just relax and go with the flow, you never know what might float by.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

G-d's Free Pass on Life's Tests

By: Shayna Chana Hulkower

I was recently catching up with an old friend over some delicious instant coffee at a local cafe (only in Israel), with a close friend. There was a pause in the conversation, she took a deep breath, and shared with me some problems she was having with her parents. Like many Jews who were raised one way, and then decided to become more observant, her parents were giving her a very hard time about her new lifestyle. She was distraught that her once close, loving relationship with her family was devolving into something you would expect to see on Jerry Springer. "Why does it have to be this way?" she asked out loud.

There are two types of uncomfortable situations in life: the ones we put ourselves in and the ones G-d puts us in. Rav Shlomo Wolbe says when we act less than tzaddik-like, we can find ourselves in situations where we are forced to make an uncomfortable decision. For example, rather than being honest and ending a relationship you know has no potential with someone after a few dates, you stick around for whatever reason (unsolicited advice side note - this is why being shomer negia is always a good idea!), and after being with that person for much longer, you still realize you don't want to marry them, and are forced to break up with them after they have invested so much time and energy into you and the relationship. These types of situations are easier to rationalize, because as long as you are honest with yourself, you will know how you got there.

Then there are the instances where you really have no idea why or how you are put in a situation.  I'm not talking about things like having a stranger fall asleep on you on the subway and deciding whether to push them off or let them shluff. I mean the really big things in life: a loved one getting sick, a parent who treats you in a hurtful way, a terrorizing boss. Unfortunately, almost everyone will find themselves in a situation where they say to themselves, "What on earth did I do to deserve this?!"

The answer is - you didn't.

All of us are here because there is something we didn't get right in a previous life. We can't ever really know what our tikkun is in this world, but chances are, if we are in a painful or upsetting situation, it is probably on purpose, and therefore, by doing the right thing, we are bringing ourselves closer to accomplishing our purpose in life. This may be cold comfort when in the middle of a painful experience, but if we can keep this idea in mind, it should help us to navigate through rough waters.
There are a number of explanations as to why we are put in uncomfortable situations: Rav Dessler explains in Michtav MeEliyahu that for most people, many of the lo tiseh - 'don't do' mitzvot aren't really such a challenge. That is, how many of us are really going to commit murder if given the opportunity. However, there are many more that we have real free will as to whether or not we'll actually commit. For example, you are buying an item at a store and the cashier accidentally gives you an extra $20 too much back - for many people there is a real temptation to keep the money, especially when you are short on cash. The main purpose of being in Olam Hazeh (this world), is that we are supposed to get through challenges in life, in order that we feel like we earned an awesome experience in the after-life.  So right away, we can see that challenges, big and small, are part and parcel for life.

The Ramban says that there are only tests in our lives when there is a suffeik (doubt) - that is, the person has total free will to choose right or wrong. He goes on to say that G-d only tests tzaddikim (holy people) when He knows they will succeed, and is only doing it because He wants to give the holy person more zchar (merit). Why should G-d give out free mitzvah points? Isn't the whole point of this world to work hard and earn Olam Haba? The fact is, that if someone has the potential to do the right thing, how can they ever benefit from that unless they are put in a situation to actually test it? This is an important insight to keep in mind. We have to be given experiences to live up to our potential. If G-d puts you in a really unpleasant situation, keep in mind that it's because He knows you can succeed. It's up to us to get ourselves across the finish line.

Knowing that the Creator of the Universe believes in our capacity to do the right thing, well, that should help to boost our confidence at least a little bit. Sure, it might not take the sting out of the situation, but it should at least help us to  get through it with grace and dignity. And maybe make it a little easier to behave properly the next time someone falls asleep on us on the bus.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

G-d Knows You're Insecure, and It's Cool

By: Shayna Chana Hulkower

Lech Lecha is one of my favorite Torah portions. There are so many geshmak (Yiddish for enjoyable) things we can talk about that are meaningful to our everyday lives, but I will settle for two short ideas.

We learn from Avraham this week that it's a Jew's natural disposition to be slightly neurotic. Let me explain: G-d has to reassure Avraham twice that he will have kids. First He says that He will have so many offspring they won't be able to be counted (13:14). But Avram (before he becomes Avraham, lehavdil, it's seems sort of like before a super hero gets his powers and their alternate identity), is still insecure and doesn't believe he's really going to have kids. I don't blame him, he's almost 100 years old at this point. We get stuck in ruts, to the extent that even when the Creator of the Universe tells you it's going to end, it can be hard to break a mind set. G-d has to literally say to Avram 'Al tireh Avram' (15:1) - 'Don't be afraid'. If you will allow me the poetic license, He's saying, 'Chill, it'll be cool, promise.' Everyone needs extra reassurance now and then. If G-d can reassure Avram and not be snarky, then we certainly have the potential to be a little nicer to each other when a friend, family member, or coworker is freaking out over something we think is trivial. Know that you can be Godly just by being patient and nice. You don't get stressed out, they get the reassurance they need, everyone wins.

The second idea was told to me by my brother, in the name of Rabbi Wolf of Aish HaTorah. I was complaining to him a while back about someone that I had to deal with on a regular basis and just frustrated the heck out of me. I wanted so much to let go of my feelings of dislike towards her, but she was just this magic combination of impatient, flighty, and insecure, and I could tell I wasn't the only one not amused by her behavior. It was so hard to get anything done with her, and often it created more work for me. However, I wanted nothing more than to put my feelings aside and learn to like her. It was quite the challenge.

As I was explaining (complaining) to my brother my conflicted feelings, and he stopped me in mid-sentence to get my Chumash. He fervently flipped through the pages until he found the passage he was looking for (it was quite cinematic). He pointed me to the part in the text where Avraham and Lot separate (13:9) and Avraham says: 'Please separate from me; if you go left, I will go right, and if you go right I will go left.' Avraham was the first guy to break into kiruv - trying to turn people on to monotheism and generally being decent human beings, so you know he had a ton of patience. But no matter what he tried, Lot still wasn't getting it. It was probably made all the more frustrating by the fact that they were related. So finally, he gave up. He said you go one way, I'll go another, and we don't have to be aggravated by each other anymore. My brother reassured me (how Godly of him!) that we don't have to get along with everyone. If Avraham Aveinu can get to the point where he says, 'I tried my best to make it work, we'll both be happier if we just move on,' then kal vchomer - all the more so for the rest of us. Move on (and away) from the person as best you can. Sometimes the square peg isn't going to fit in the round hole, and that's ok.

Shabbat shalom!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Rav Ovadia's Greatness Is Still With Us

By: Shayna Chana Hulkower

I had a chance to see Rav Ovadia and I never took advantage of it. And now, it's too late.

I'll admit, for an Ashkenazi baales teshuva from Long Island, my fascination with Rav Ovadia was rather unexpected for most people. At first, I thought he was cool for purely superficial reasons: the gold-trimmed robe and turban, the sunglasses at all times of the day and night (and even indoors). I could tell that Michael Jackson stole his look from the Rav. As I learned more and more about him, and his teachings, I was really impressed. Regardless of how things he said were portrayed in the media (and usually taken out of context to be inflammatory), he was truly a genius when it came to halacha. Rabbis from around the world would come to him with their impossible to answer questions. He was well-known for ruling on issues in ways different from most other Rabbis. For example - while riding a bicycle on Shabbat is generally not allowed, the typical reason given is the same one as for why we don't play instruments on Shabbat - because it might break, and we will fix it, and THAT is an aveira. Rav Ovadia ruled differently - he said that on Shabbat we are supposed to conduct ourselves differently than we do during the week. So, if most of the world rides their bike during the week (whether for commuting or exercise), then it's only right to davka not ride a bike on Shabbat, because your manner of travel should be different.

In fact, he has many famous rulings, such as: finding a way for women whose husbands were killed but missing in the Yom Kippur war to remarry without finding their bodies; and was well known for being lenient to ensure as many Jews were keeping the mitzvot properly as possible. He quoted Rabbi Yosef Karo, the writer of the Shulchan Aruch, who said that we should not be more stringent than necessary when keeping laws, because then we are adding to the Torah given to us by Moshe at Har Sinai, which is an aveira.

When I first came to Israel I lived in Har Nof. One of my favorite parts of living there, is every day on my way to school, I would walk past Rav Ovadia's house. There was a shorter route, but I felt that there was something special walking past the tzaddik's home on HaKablan. Almost every morning I would tell myself, next week I should wake up a little earlier, and daven at the shul below his home. Anyone could go, and from what friends of mine who had davened there told me, there was always space on the women's side, and maybe I could get a bracha from the holy Rav. I'm sure you can see where this story is going: despite living in Har Nof for 7 months, I never made it to his shul. Once I moved to Nachlaot, I would sometimes float the idea of going super early for shul, but mostly I was regretting not going when it was easier.

And here we are today - when the option to go has been taken away from me. The only person who is to blame is myself. How often do we put things off until tomorrow that we could really do today? Whether it's saving money, going to bed earlier, starting a diet, whatever - when we're actually in a situation to make the choice that will set us on the path to success, we postpone it until tomorrow. The problem is that when tomorrow comes, how often do we wish we had done it yesterday?

I'll never have another chance to be in the same room as HaMaran Ovadia, but that doesn't mean I can't learn from this mistake. The next time I have the opportunity to put my money where my mouth is and actually start doing the thing I really want to put off I won't. There is an idea that when a tzaddik dies, the middot that person excelled at are released into the world, and available for you and me to grab on to and incorporate into ourselves. If there is one thing that can be said about Rav Ovadia, he was prolific. I'm sure that some of his productive energy is there, and waiting for me to chop it. Let's keep the things that made him great with us. A tzaddik never dies as long as we keep being motivated by his greatness. Even though I can never see him again, I can keep his greatness with me at all times. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

How to be a tzaddik in 2 weeks

By: Shayna Chana Hulkower

The chaggim are over. Ben Gurion airport will resemble the exodus from Egypt for the next few days as chutznikim are going back to their world. There will be a little less English on the streets of Jerusalem, and this signs advertising 'second day minayn!' are being taken down. There is one lesson I learned from my American friends that I don't want to leave me so quickly.

From the end of Elul, when people started arriving for the 'Holiday Season', I was being overwhelmed with invitations to do every fun thing Israel has to offer. I demured on most of them, reminding my friends that while they are here on vacation, I am still in regular-life mode with work and other obligations. Over the next few weeks I was so impressed with how much ground they were covering during their stay. One friend living in Baka was going to the Kotel mamash every day. She told me she realized her trip would last 40 days, a number some have said to be a segula for visiting the Kotel, and so she saw it as an opportunity to have a little extra koach in her tefillot. Meanwhile, I live a 30 min walk away and don't get there more than once a week or so. Their schedules were making me tired just listening to them.

I was impressed with their stamina, but realized that they were just trying to make the most of their time in Eretz Yisrael. It's a special place, and as someone who used to visit here, I appreciate the desire to feel like you lived every moment here. The worst feeling is getting back to the US and thinking to yourself, "I had such an opportunity and squandered it."

If we are honest with ourselves, this is really what being in Olam HaZeh is about - we're figuratively traveling to this place and are expected to make the most of the time and opportunities we are given. When it's time to return from whence we came, we don't want to be left feeling like we could have done more. There is the most obvious push to stock up on mitzvot, since that is the main determining factor in where you sit in Olam HaBah - whether you are down on the 50 yard line or up in the bleacher seats. But there's more to it than that - it's how we made the most of the opportunities we're given to grow.

We just finished a season of deep introspection, finding within ourselves a profound desire to do better for ourselves this year (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), followed by recognition that G-d is the source of everything and faith that all His actions are good and good for us (Sukkot), ending with great joy and love for G-d and His Torah (Shimini Atzeret/Simchat Torah). Now we return to our every day life full of this growth and potential for the year. We don't have to fall back into our old habits. We can stick with the person we've become, and want to continue to grow into, and use that as the foundation to be even greater.

But it's not going to be easy, but I think I have an idea how to get us there.

No change in a purposeful new direction is ever easy. What's really hard is not changing. Allow me to explain with an example: having been in Israel for three months as an olah chadasha, I've been struggling to speak Hebrew. Part of the struggle comes from the fact that the community I've developed is predominantly English speaking. I've met people who have been here 1, 3, 5, 20 years even, and can't have a conversation in Hebrew. Yes, they can make it, but their lives are very difficult - not being able to give directions when a stranger asks on the street or figuring out what your electric bill means. These are the things that really make life here challenging - they close doors on job opportunities and friendships that make life here so gratifying. Trying to live a life not really part of the country you live in is much harder than spending 6 months breaking your teeth to have a conversation.

Currently, we are filled with a spiritual high from the chaggim, which we can use to power us for the entire year, or at the very least until Chanukah, when we get our next big spiritual infusion (not to discount Shabbat!). The question is, how to we maintain the level we are on, once we go back to our routine? The trick is to have a manageable goal in mind. When you are goal oriented you have a much better capacity to stay focused on what you need to do, and it's easier to get back on track when you most likely will fall off the wagon. Shlomo HaMelech wrote in Proverbs (Mishlei 24:16): A tzaddik falls seven times. If super righteous people can miss the mark and still be considered tzaddikim, it can only be because they still remember their goal and are able to get back on the horse, without throwing themselves a pity party in the interim.

Here is my suggestion: pick one thing that you felt very strongly during the Aseret Yamei Teshuva you wanted to change about yourself, and commit to working on that thing for the next two weeks. Why two weeks? A number of years ago, a couple from Aish HaTorah were moving to LA to do kiruv there. They went to Rabbi Berkovitz, who was the posek of the yeshiva at the time, and asked him for advice on moving their family to a place of a different spiritual caliber than Jerusalem. He told them to make all the decisions on how they will live their life in the first two weeks (where they want to send their kids to school, what level of kashrut they will keep, etc.). This was a period where their head and heart would still be immersed in life in Israel, and they would still have access to the clarity that life presents us with here, which is not unlike us coming down from the chaggim to regular life - no matter where we are in the world.

If we can think of the next two weeks as a limited period of time where we work towards maintaining the growth that we accomplished over the past month or so, then a couple things will happen: we'll be much more likely to stay on track because we have a goal that is completely attainable, and when the two weeks are up we're much more likely to have developed the habits that are necessary to continue with this new, improved way of life.

I'm looking forward to checking back in with you on October 15th to let you know how I did, as well as hear from you. And if you fall - just know that you are a tzaddik and can get right back up. We have a special power with us right now, just waiting to lend a helping hand to get you back on your feet, and back on your path to success.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Don't forget - you're not you anymore

By: Shayna Chana (Samantha) Hulkower

Something interesting happened to me this morning. During the Aseret Yemei Teshuva I decided to take on and give up a few things, just to challenge myself a little. One of the things I gave up was coffee - partially because I didn't want to have to worry about a caffeine withdrawal headache on Yom Kippur, but also as someone who drinks a lot of coffee, it was important to me to know that I could go without this thing; that I wasn't addicted to it.

As you can imagine, I was very much looking forward to my first cup this morning, after Yom Kippur. I had bought some of the good stuff - turkish coffee - last night. I was going about my normal morning routine, which included, without thinking, two heaping teaspoons of coffee. I let it sit and cook into the hot water with more patience than I would have expected from myself. Finally - I dove in. The taste, the smell, - even just seeing my favorite mug filled with this magical black liquid that was gone from my life, it all made me so happy.

About 20 mins later, I realized I wasn't feeling so well. My hands were getting jittery and I felt like I had more energy than my body wanted to deal with. "I guess I'm more sensitive to caffeine after going without it for so long," I realized to myself, and proceeded on with my day.

Then it hit me - I was different, my old routine wasn't suitable anymore. After Yom Kippur we are all changed people. Part of what makes Yom Kippur a Yom Tov is that we are supposed to expect that G-d is going to wipe our slates clean. How often do we take that for granted? It's a superficial comparison, but I think very fitting - I'm physically different now than I was 10 days ago. In Elul I could have had two cups of strong coffee and still fall right back asleep. There's no way I'm sleeping any time soon after that much caffeine. I'm much more sensitive, and the smallest amount makes a big difference.

Think about how you are different. All of those things you davened for over the past 10 days, and especially on Yom Kippur - you are that person now. G-d did His part, but wiping away and removing the blemishes on our souls that we created and made it so hard to change - but we are free of that now. The hard part for us is remembering that. We no longer have those bad habits we wished away - whether it's talking gossip, getting angry, over eating, whatever - we just have to stop and remember.

May we all have an easy transition to who want to be and not forget to utilize this gift we've been given. A good and sweet year to all!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Procrastination Frittata

By: Samantha Hulkower


1 very important task that you want to put off
3 tbsp olive oil
2 medium sized potatoes, washed
2-3 cloves garlic
1 or more persons to complain to, depending on personal taste
1 small onion
4 eggs
salt and pepper

First, wait until the day before an important task is due, this really enhances the flavor of the fritatta. Set up like you are actually going to do the task, then get the ingredients together. Once you feel like you might actually get started on the task, get up and start slicing the potatoes. I almost always leave the skin on my potatoes - it's a good source of fiber and nutrients and saves time (which is important since you have this thing you really should be doing). The thinner you slice the potatoes the faster they will cook. While you are slicing, warm the olive oil on medium heat on a stove top. Arrange the potatoes in the pan and cover. If you happened to have gotten your pots and pans off of Janglo (or some other such second hand site) and they don't have lids, you can cover the pan with a sheet of tinfoil instead. Let cook for about 10 mins.

While the potatoes are cooking, start dicing the onions and garlic. I always crush the garlic first to get the most flavor, and then chop. Now is an opportune time to multitask, and start complaining to a roommate or a friend on the phone how you have this huge thing you need to do today. Other items to include in your rant include: if you had only done the task yesterday you could be doing something else today, you really aren't the type to procrastinate, or my favorite which also happens to be in season right now - my New Year's resolution is to not procrastinate like this anymore. Add onions and garlic to the pan and replace cover. At this point you can also add any other vegetables you have in the fridge that you'd like to use up.

Sit down and review the progress you've made on your task. Frequently get up to check on the frittata, knowing that it still needs to cook another 5 mins. Sit down. Get back up and mix eggs in a bowl with salt and pepper, to your own preference. Check the vegetables in the pan to make sure nothing is burning. I like to flip the potato mixture, because usually by this point the ones on the bottom are crisp and yum. Eat a few without waiting for them to cool off, because you are busy thinking of how behind you are on the task and not that food taken out of a hot skillet will be hot, so you burn your fingers and mouth. Pour the egg mixture over the vegetables and re-cover. You can turn the heat down a bit. 

Sit down and check your email. Go on facebook, but don't get involved in any heated political discussions or stalking your current crush, as you don't want the frittata to burn. Sigh deeply at how much time you've spent making the frittata, and how you could have been almost done with the task if you hadn't started this procrastination technique. Get up and check on the frittata - if you like your eggs with more moisture, when the top is still wet, turn the heat off and flip the frittata and wait another min or two for the top to cook, if you prefer your eggs drier keep covered and cooking on low heat until the top is fully cooked.

Garnish with low-fat yogurt, seasonal herbs, and a growing sense of dread that now you actually have to work on the task. The frittata keeps for two days in the fridge, or until you stress eat it all in the middle of the night while trying to make your deadline. 


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Carpe Diem Forever

By: Samantha Hulkower

I've been thinking a lot about different things I want to improve in myself. Not just because it's Elul, but because the reality of making aliyah two months ago is finally setting in. I moved to Eretz Yisrael for multiple reasons, but one of the biggest motivators was that I wanted to feel like I was actively living my life. Things were pretty great in Washington, D.C.: I had amazing friends and a strong support network, a reasonably close drive to see my family in NY (with a stylish car to get me there), a good job, a promising career in a field I really care about, and I got to bike past the White House, Washington Monument, and Jefferson Memorial on my way to work (definitely a bonus for me). However, even though everything seemed perfect on paper, I felt like I was merely existing, not truly living.

So I left that all behind for what I'd hoped to be a more meaningful life in Israel. Here I continue to be challenged to learn a new language, acclimate to a new culture, develop a new social network, and restart my career, not to mention find work to support myself in the meantime. The first month was a blur.

With the adrenaline subsiding, as things settled down into a regular routine, I heard this voice in the back of my head say, with more than a tinge of panic - this is real. Not that I want to go back, but it was a reality check: all of the things I had been planning and dreaming and striving for the past two years are finally happening. Baruch Hashem! But also - Holy Cr@p! I have to actually live up to the high expectations I set for myself. I have to struggle through the challenging situations I knew I would be putting myself in. It was easy to want those things for myself while lounging in my airy studio apartment in my happening Columbia Heights neighborhood, or waxing poetic to my friends about how I want to grow, over craftbeers at one of the hipster bars down the street. But actually living up to those things, that's a challenge.

Almost every night, before I go to sleep, I reflect on what I accomplished the day before, what I wish I did better, and what I hope to do tomorrow. Almost every night I regret not going to sleep earlier, hoping that I can still wake up early and make the most of the next day. Just today, I ended up sleeping until 10:30am and missing the 7:30am tanya class I had started going to. I was mad at myself for ruining my streak with the class. I was mad at myself for wasting the morning and didn't do the errands I had planned. I was even mad that I couldn't experience the feeling of accomplishment after doing all that I had wanted to.

Now I was stuck with a feeling of anxiety and resentment and I wasn't living up to the expectations I had set for myself. I had moved to Israel to leave my comfort zone and push myself to be the person I know I can be, and here I am, still stuck in the same bad habits. I sat down over my coffee and tried to quiet my mind. Then it came to me:

Today is the first day of the rest of my life.

I'm sure we've all heard this kind of trite tripe before. Whether at a motivational talk at work, or even on a sitcom, when the protagonists come to some glib realization before the 22 minutes are up. But today, this was different. I deeply felt that the things I want for myself can happen - and will happen. I can happen, starting right now, if I let them. We're our own worst enemy when it comes to keeping ourselves from achieving our potential. Whether it's not getting upset over little things, reducing the sugar in our diet, calling our parents more often, changing our career to what we really want to be doing with our lives - whatever it is that is keeping you from being who you know you are; you can be that person starting right now.

Today is the day.

And if you mess up, that's ok, because you've already made the decision, you're on the way. You don't have to do anything as dramatic as quit your job and move to a new hemisphere to be you. Just know that you can, and once you believe in yourself, you will.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

New Year's Blessing

By: Samantha Hulkower

Earlier tonight, I was catching up with my brother in the Old City of Jerusalem before his trip to chutz la'aretz the next morning. Engrossed in our conversation, I felt a shadow fall over me, and looked up to see a Rabbi we both know standing over us.

The Rav looked slightly confused, and perhaps a little distressed. I had met with him last week, at the encouragement of several friends whom he had given particularly helpful advice to. After a while, he steered the conversation over to dating and said to me very pointedly, "Don't have platonic guy friends, it makes things too confusing." Now, a week later, here I was shmoozing - befarhesia - with a guy.

"We're siblings!" "That's my brother!" "We're related!" My brother and I shouted over each other.

Finally, recognizing my brother in the dark plaza, his face lightened, and he changed the topic to ask for help with something else. Once that was done, the Rabbi turned back to me, looked at me deeply and gave me the following blessing, "You should be able to finish up everything you need to this year, so you can start next year with a clean slate." He smiled, wished my brother a safe trip, and was off.

"What does that mean??" I asked my brother. I was so confused, I couldn't unfurrow my brows. "Heck if I know," he answered and changed the topic. We eventually wrapped up our conversation, and I began the walk back up hill, out of the Old City, trying to wrack my brain as to what the Rabbi could have been referring to. What in our conversation last week could have prompted him to make such a statement? For the next 30 mins, I was anxiously turning through ideas, when I realized that I wasn't going to be able to think of anything if I was trying so hard. I decided to meet my roommates at a gathering in our neighborhood, and put the matter aside.

As the night was winding down one of the organizers asked if I wouldn't mind being interviewed about my ideas on Jewish unity.  After answering the expected questions, the interviewer asked me for a blessing.

Without thinking, I opened my mouth, "May you have success with this, and all of your endeavors, may you always have clarity in your work and personal life, and may you finish all of the things you need to this year, so that you can have a fresh start in the new year."

"Great bracha!" the people around us chimed in. The interviewer smiled, "Amen! That was really great, thanks!" As I handed him back the microphone I could see on his face he was really happy with the blessing I gave him. I realized that maybe there wasn't some forgotten sentence or issue from my conversation with the Rabbi last week, perhaps he was just giving me a general blessing - why shouldn't it be any more simple than hoping I can tie up loose ends, and feel like I'm starting 5774 on a new page? Every Rosh Hashanah we all start a new cheshbon - the slate is clean and the possibilities are endless. What a wonderful idea to think that I should be able to not only start new, but finish everything I had begun 11 months ago.

And so, I'd like to share this blessing with you: in less than 3 weeks the whole world starts over again. I sincerely hope that between now and then, you are able to have the clarity to know what you need to do, and the ability to accomplish it, so that when the sun sets on September 4, you feel like you're closing the door on a full, complete year, and have the confidence to take on a new year.

Monday, August 19, 2013