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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Yes, we can - as appeared in the Binah

The entire family was rushing frantically to finish getting dressed and close the suitcases. The van was scheduled to arrive in less than 15 minutes, the kugel still had to be removed from the oven and put in some type of a container, and the baby’s diaper had to be changed – again.

In the midst of what can only be described as a whirlwind of activity, my 10-year-old granddaughter Fraidy (not her real name) sat on the sofa, looking miserable and doing nothing. My daughter noticed some funny-looking spots on Fraidy’s face. A closer look revealed that the spots were also spots on her arms, and her legs, and, well, everywhere. And they looked like (drumroll) CHICKEN POX!

My daughter called the car service and asked them to come later. Then she called the doctor. As expected, the receptionist told her that there were no appointments available. “The doctor will try to fit you between the other patients,” she said. “But you’ll have to have patience. It might be a very long wait.”

But this was not an ordinary Erev Shabbos. My granddaughter, sister of the “poxing” (how’s that for a new word?) 10-year-old was getting married on Sunday, so this Shabbos was her chassan’s aufruf. If the as-yet-unidentified spots really were what my daughter thought they were, then (OH NO!) a lot of well thought-out plans would have to be changed. Quickly.

My daughter explained the situation to the receptionist. The receptionist giggled at the absurdity of chicken pox erev aufruf and told her that she would get her in immediately.

My daughter’s diagnosis was correct. Fraidy really did have chicken pox. Which is how I ended up having, in addition to my granddaughter, the Kallah, chicken-poxing Fraidy and her mother for Shabbos.

Several times during that Shabbos (as well as throughout the hectic few weeks prior to the wedding), my daughter asked me, “You know, Mom, I really don’t understand how you did it. How did you manage to take care of all the details involved in making a wedding and setting up a new apartment without family to help you?”

Truth is, I don’t know. It was hard, really hard, especially since all my Israeli neighbors had large, extended families, but somehow, we — by that, I mean all of us Americans who were living in Israel without our families — managed. And I’m glad that today, my offspring don’t have to go through what we went through.

I’m glad that my children have it easier than I did, but at the same time, I know that overcoming those challenges built me as a person. It strengthened my spiritual muscles — bitachon, emunah, being happy with what I have.

Every Monday night, I attend a middos workshop in my neighborhood. (Well, I TRY to go every Monday night, but I’m not always successful.) It’s a great group of women, from newly married to great grandmothers, yet, despite the vast age difference, we share a common denominator: we love to laugh and to talk, and we are serious about our self-growth. The women are hysterically funny as they honestly talk about their challenges, and triumphs. It seems that that no matter what middah we are working on, the path to attain it includes a realization that whatever we are going through is exactly what we need for our optimal growth. In other words, what we have, is exactly what we need.

The challenges I face are the ones I need to grow and strengthen my spiritual muscles. When I was marrying off my children, I needed the challenge of living in Israel sans mishpachah for my personal development, and my daughter needed the challenge of chicken pox erev chasunah for her personal development. And yes, I survived my challenge, and even came out stronger for it, and my daughter survived hers. My granddaughter got married (yes! MAZEL TOV!), and if it wasn’t for the wedding pictures (a 10-year-old with premature acne!), the story would most probably have been forgotten by the last sheva brachos.

Last Shabbos, when I was walking home with a couple of friends from my Shabbos shiur, one of the ladies shared a “bubby story.” “Bubby,” her 6-year-old grandson had said, “you’re so lucky. You’re so old that you don’t have a yetzer hara anymore.” Although he was right on one account (no, not that his bubby is old, but that she is one very lucky woman), he didn’t realize that no matter how old a person may be, he still has plenty of challenges. We all have a yetzer hara, and we all have work to do. We all have it within ourselves to use those challenges as stepping stones to growth.

We can do it. Yes, we can.   

Savor the Moment - as appeared in the Binah

A few days ago, I was rushing out the door, late for an appointment, when my cellphone rang. It was an old (both literally and figuratively) friend.

“I really don’t have time to talk now,” I said as I tried (without success) to fly down the stairs. “Can it wait until the afternoon?”

“Debbie, this is really, really important.”

“Okay, shoot.” I really was in a rush, and I did have a lot to do, but a friend is a friend, so I stopped to give her my full attention.

“How did you manage to lose the weight? Tell me what exercise to do. No matter how hard I try, I can’t manage to get it off. Tell me your secret!” she begged. I could hear the urgency in her voice.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But since I really was in a rush, I didn’t even bother trying to be diplomatic. “At this point in my life, I couldn’t care less about my weight. I’m just doing what I need to do to stay healthy.”

Later that evening, thinking back to that short conversation, it suddenly dawned on me: I had spent the last I don’t even know how many years of my life worrying about my weight, and trying desperately to attain the perfect weight (and secretly wishing that the clock would turn back a few centuries, and fat would once again become fashionable), while at the same time feeling like a failure at my inability to do so. But now, and I have no idea when or how it happened, my entire outlook has changed.

Yes, of course, I know that it’s important to look mechubadik, and I take care to dress in a becoming manner, but as far as I know, a perfect weight has never been a prerequisite for being a true bas Yisrael. In other words, I’ve stopped trying to be something I’m not. I don’t feel like a failure for not accomplishing the impossible and am (finally) happy in my own skin.

I wonder if this change of how I view myself is a result of growing older, a realization that the outer trappings are temporary (yes, we all know that, but that knowledge becomes much more real with the march of time), and that it just doesn’t pay to waste so much energy trying to do something that I can’t. 
Twenty years ago (yup, it was after the wedding of one of my sons, and his oldest is now nineteen) I wrote an article that appeared in Horizons, one of the first English-language magazines for the religious public, about how each of my many wrinkles has its own story. One was earned for the many nights I sat on the porch, wrapped in a multitude of heavy quilts, trying to help an asthmatic child breathe; another, for the moments of dread until I finally succeeded in accounting for all my family members after each bus bomb.
I laughingly commented that perhaps I should call myself a summer chicken, since spring has already passed. Today, I marvel at how I wrote that when, in fact, I was really so young.

But then again, age is relative; when I was a teenager, I viewed anyone over forty as being very old, and of course my grandchildren think I must be at least a hundred, or even, as I overheard one whisper to her sister, “Bubby must be at least a thousand years old.”   

Last week, I gave a talk at one of the seminaries in London. One of the girls asked me how I manage to stay so positive while living with a degenerative, incurable condition. I responded that every person has challenges. It just so happens that people are aware of this particular challenge because Binah requested that I do not use a pseudonym when I wrote my “Living with Parkinson's” series. Although we cannot choose our challenges, we can choose how we decide to face them, what we do with them. That’s our nisayon in life.

When I told my husband about the girl’s question, he commented that for a young person on the threshold of life, my challenge sounds horrific. But part of being older is the realization that life itself is a “degenerative, incurable condition”! Few of us escape the infirmities associated with old age, and all of us eventually succumb.

Or as my friend Tova who lives in a nursing home often points out when she hears the other women bemoan their fate, “What did they think? That they’ll stay young forever?” 

So I’ll enjoy the freedom of not being young, of not having to worry about the far-from-perfect figure, or what people think of me. Instead, I’ll rejoice in every moment, savor the simple things in life and count my (many) blessings.

Ice cream, anyone?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Bubby Blunders as appeared in the Binah

“It’s for you.” My husband handed me the phone.

I quickly finished the conversation I was having on my cellphone (ah, the joys of technology!) and turned my attention to the incoming call.

“Hello,” I began.

 “I see that you you’ve tried calling me several times today,” said a male voice.  

“Oh,” I gushed, “You must be the madrich l’boxing (boxing instructor). I’m so happy that you called me back. You’re one person that I really want to speak with. You can’t imagine how hard I’ve been trying to get a hold of you!”

“How can I help you?” he asked.

“I desperately need a madrich l’boxing.”

I can envision your confusion. Why in the world would an official senior citizen who is the midst of marrying off her grandchildren and who appears to be somewhat normal be desperately searching for a boxing instructor? No, I have not taken up boxing in my old age (although you never know…). But I do run an organization for people with Parkinson's. We are in process of expanding our rehabilitation program, and since boxing is an excellent exercise for people with Parkinson's, we want to offer our men’s groups boxing classes designed specifically for their needs.

“Okay,” he responded slowly. “So how can I help you?”

“We desperately need a madrich l’boxing for our Parkinson's rehabilitation program. We’re expanding the program and want to include a Boxing for Parkinson's class.”

“Boxing for Parkinson's?” I could hear the confusion in his voice. “Why do you need boxing for Parkinson's?”

“Don’t you know that boxing is excellent for Parkinson's? I thought you were a madrich l’boxing?”

“Yes I am, but…”

“And you never learned how boxing can help people with Parkinson's?”


“Did you learn to be a madrich l’boxing?”

“Uh.. um, why, yes, of course.”

“But you never learned about boxing for Parkinson's?”

“No….not really. Mah hakesher?” (What’s the connection)?

“Have you ever heard of Parkinson's?” I decided to get down to the basics.

“Why yes, of course,” I could hear the question in his voice.

Do you know what Parkinson's is?”

“Yes, but mah hakesher?”    

“So as a madrich l’boxing who has learned about Parkinson's, I’m sure you realize that boxing is good for Parkinson's. Boxing improves reaction time, balance, coordination, exactness, all that stuff.”

“Not really.”

Now it was my turned to be confused. After all, I had been told that this madrich l’boxing was an expert in his field, with lots of experience in working with the disabled. The conversation was becoming “curiouser and curiouser…”

In frustration I said, “I don’t understand. You’re a madrich l’boxing,” and at this point, although “boxing” is the word most commonly used to describe this particular form of martial art, I decided to add the less-used Hebrew word to emphasize my point (although I really had no idea what my point was, other than pure frustration). So I added, “a madrich l’igruf.”

Silence. Then, “Oh, excuse me. I must have the wrong number.”

Now, any normal intelligent person would have said, “Oh,” and quickly hang up the phone before getting into more trouble. But me being me, I blurted out, “Wait a moment. Maybe this is not a mistake. Who are you?”

“I’m the madrich l’bochrim at Ponovezh Yeshivah.”

When I said “boxing,” he heard “bochrim,” and when he said “bochrim,” I heard “boxing.”

Then I did something really, really dumb. Instead of saying, “Oh, you’re right. You definitely have the wrong number,” I said “Oh, this is not a wrong number. You must be looking for my grandson.”

My grandson, who had been with us for bein hazmanim, had been accepted into Ponovezh for his third year of yeshivah. As a new bachur, he was concerned about finding a suitable chavrusa and now, come to think about it, he had spent quite a bit of time making phone calls this morning.

The moment the words flew out of my mouth, I wished I could take them back. But alas, it was too late.

“Who’s your grandson?” I could almost hear his unspoken question, And which boy in our yeshivah would have a grandmother interested in boxing?   

“Yechiel Stern.” (a pseudonym)

“Yechiel Stern?” He sounded surprised. After all, Yechiel's other grandmother is the scion of a well-known Yerushalmi family. The type that makes kugels and cookies and sews clothes for the grandchildren. Certainly not the type that would be excited to find a boxing instructor.

It was a strange conversation. Eventually he realized that I was not the other grandmother, and that I was also not a secret fan of martial arts. He also told me to tell my grandson not to worry, that his chavrusos were all arranged for the coming zman.

I hung up the phone and went to the other room to share the story with my husband. “Do you think,” I asked, only half in jest, “that they would throw a bachur out of yeshivah because of his grandmother?”

This story will probably go down in our family annals as a classic Bubby Blunder. And the truth is, although there’s a lot we can learn from it – the importance of communicating clearly, of not making assumptions, of being dan l’kaf zechus, of thinking before blurting– I don’t want to make this article into a lengthy mussar shmuess. I just want to share it with you because even bubbies (or perhaps I should say, especially bubbies) need to have a good laugh sometimes.

It’s healthy. Just like boxing.  

Post Script:  I eventually found a boxing instructor. Zev is a champion boxer with a heart of gold. Gentle and firm. After the first session, Rex, a foreign worker who assists one of the men in the group, came over to me. “Debbie,” he said, “about the Wednesday boxing group…”

Rex was blushing.        

"Well, uhm, ah…”

It took a few more seconds until he finally blurted out, “In the Philippines, I was a champion boxer. And because of Eliyahu (the man he helps) I learned all about boxing and Parkinson. Can I also work with the group?”

So now we have two boxing instructors! 

The Seeds of a Pomegranate as appeared in the Binah

It's always so unexpected. I usually hear the music just as I'm in the midst of a telephone interview, or frying schnitzel for Shabbos, and as much as I want to rush out of the house, I can't.

But this evening, I was lucky. I had just returned home from some errands and was planning to run out to do some shopping for Shabbos when I heard the loud rhythmic music of a hachnasas sefer Torah. Only the tunes were different. No Toras Hashem Temimah, or Mah Ahavti Torasecha, but Sefardi songs that I was unfamiliar with.

I grabbed my shopping bag and raced out of the house in the direction of the music. And then I saw it, the large sefer Torah encased in a silver case, held aloft, swaying up and down to the beat of the music.

But this hachnasas sefer Torah was different. No shtreimels or rabbinical frocks. The men – barely a minyan - were clad in blue jeans and sandals, with small, white satin kippot perched awkwardly on their heads. Many of the women wore yoga pants, their stockingless feet pushed uncomfortably into sandals, their dyed, dirty-blonde, lifeless hair swaying in time to the music. As the music grew louder and the beat faster, some of the women started waving their hands in the air, others began rhythmically clapping. The small group, escorted by several police cars and armed guards, weaved its way through the crowded street. Busses stopped, traffic was backed up as more and more people — chassidim, yeshivah bachurim, American tourists — joined the procession, lichvod haTorah, in honor of the Torah.

Before my very eyes, the procession grew until it covered almost half a city block. The men held hands and danced in unity, a rainbow of Klal Yisrael, proclaiming through their actions their love of Hashem and His Torah.

A few days later I was invited to speak to a group of medical professionals about the unique challenges facing Orthodox Parkinson's patients in Israel. I arrived early and was told to wait in the secretary’s office until the meeting began. I nodded at the secretary as I entered her domain, but she was too engrossed in what she was reading to acknowledge my presence.

By her obviously dyed auburn hair, long, red nails, dark plaid pants and sweater, I assumed the book on her lap was either a novel or a woman’s magazine (not Binah). After a few minutes of completely ignoring my presence (How rude! Doesn’t she see that I – capital I – had arrived?!) she looked up from her book, smiled warmly at me,  and, in a loud voice began reciting the tefillah for cholim that is said at the conclusion of Tehillim, followed by a long list of names. When I responded “Amen,” she stood up, kissed the sefer Tehillim and gently placed it back on the shelf behind her.

“Sorry that I wasn’t able to greet you properly.” She was apologizing to me! After how I'd judged her! “I like to take advantage of my break to pray for the doctor’s patients.” I was feeling smaller by the moment (Forget the capital I. Now I wasn’t even a dot!).

I’m not about to propose that clothes are not important. Proper dress is informed by halachah. How we dress is a fundamental statement to the people around us, and to ourselves, of where we align ourselves, of our basic belief system, of who we aspire to be. But it’s not the only thing.

I’m over sixty (gulp. Actually, last Shabbos my grandchildren were discussing my age. One was positive that I’m “at least a thousand years old,” while the other was sure I must be over 90), and by now I really should know that we can’t judge a book by its cover (oh, I HATE clich├ęs!). But I’m human, and I usually do.

I know this is the wrong season to talk about how Chazal compare a pomegranate bursting with seeds to the simple man-on-the-street Jew, overflowing with love of Hashem and His mitzvos. But although I’m considered a senior citizen, I still have a lot to learn. And one thing I have to remember is that first impressions are just that; that I need to be open to look beyond the mask, to find the golden seeds within the pomegranate, even when (or perhaps I should write, “especially when”) that mask is my own.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


TO VIEW MY PARKINSON BLOG, PLEASE GO TO https://www.tikvah4parkinson.org/blog-1

Zev is a boxing champion, a boxing teacher, and a really great guy!  During his interview, I felt as if I had struck gold; soft and gentle, yet with a hard core that commands respect! So as of two weeks ago, Zev gives a "Boxing for Parkinson" group at our Wednesday Men's program. The guys love it!

Boxing is an excellent form of exercise for people with Parkinson. In addition to being a great cardio-vascular workout, boxing  strengthens balance and agility. And the men enjoy punching out their frustrations, as they literally -- and I mean literally - battle the disease. 

But thanks to our boxing class, I also discovered a hidden gem: Rex, the aide who accompanies Eliot to our program.  Rex is one of those people who stays in the background, never says a word, so I was a bit surprised when, last Monday, he asked to speak with me. 

"Debbie," he began. "It's about the boxing class..." 

I braced myself, assuming that he was about to give me some criticism. 

Instead he continued in his soft, melodious voice, "Well, ah..." he blushed "I'm a boxer. In the Philippines, I was a boxing champion. And since I work with Eliot, I learned all about boxing for Parkinson." 

Huh? You cannot imagine how many hours I spent on the phone until I found Zev. And the treasure was in my backyard the entire time! 

And to make a story short, that, my dear friends, is why Tikvah for Parkinson now has two boxing instructors, working together, as a team, to fight Parkinson.

One punch at a time.  

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

EXISTENTIAL PROBLEMS as appeared in Binah, April 19

When I was in kindergarten, my mother taught me to memorize my address and phone number just in case I would get lost. That was then. Today, although I have no problem remembering my phone number, I’m really not sure where I live. Okay, yes, I KNOW I live in Jerusalem. And I do know where my apartment is located, and I can even give accurate directions. But I don’t have an address, or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I have three addresses, but, depending on who I’m speaking to, they can all be wrong.

Until recently, our official address was 7 Shmuel Hanavi Street, and that’s the address we usually use— at least for mail and other official things. But the problem is that our building is squeezed between 97 Shmuel Hanavi and 101 Shmuel Hanavi, which means that logically, 7 Shmuel Hanavi  should be over a mile away. And that’s why, when people rely on their GPS instead of on my detailed directions, they end up completely lost and call me asking, “WHERE is your building? I see fifteen and five, but seven seems to have disappeared.”
Just to make things a wee bit more confusing, although our building is on Shmuel Hanavi Street, the entrance is from a small alleyway called Etz Hadar. There are two problems with this alleyway (at least as far as this article goes). One is that most people are not aware that it has a name. The second is that there are three alleyways circling our complex, and all three are called Etz Hadar. But since the Etz Hadar address works with the GPS (although not with the Israeli Postal Authority), I usually give that address to people coming by car. But more times than I can count, the person will say, “I got so lost trying to find you. Why didn’t you just tell me that you live on 7 Shmuel Hanavi Street?”

Because of all the confusion surrounding our address, the city decided to make things even more complicated and give us a NEW address. About two years ago, we received an official letter notifying us that from now on our address would be 32 Etz Hadar (I think. I’m not really sure). Posters were placed in all ten of our building’s entranceways, and we were given instructions to place a lighted number above our entranceway, with a warning that we’d be heavily fined it we didn’t.

I think we were the only one of the seventy-five families living in my building that took this seriously. When we realized that we were the only ones to do so, we quickly forgot our new address (which no one uses, including the post office and including official letters from that same office that informed us about our change of address).

But when the city changed our address, they also invested in new street signs. So, beneath the name of our alleyway there is now a large arrow pointing to our building with the numbers 32-40 underneath it, since — I kid you not — every entranceway in our building was given a different address! Therefore, when I tell people how to find my apartment, I always have to add, “Don’t look at the numbers of the street signs. Just follow my directions.” But more often than not, people do follow the signs and not my directions.

To make things even more confusing, my building borders four streets: Shmuel Hanavi, Etz Hadar, Chativat Harel and a second branch of Etz Hadar. Although Chativat Harel is a major throughway, most people have never heard of it. That’s because the street is only a block long! Actually, it’s one section of a long street that for the last half century has been in the midst of a major identity crisis, changing its name every few blocks or so. It starts off as Yirmiyahu Street, becomes Bar Illan Street, turns into Chativat Harel and finally changes into Sderot Eshkol. People coming to visit me by bus must get off at the Chativat Harel bus stop, but more often than not, no one, including the bus driver, has heard of Chativat Harel.  

But once people finally get to my apartment me, their reaction is usually something like, “What a great location! You’re right in the middle of everything.”

And we really are. My home is the best location. I’ve devoted a large portion of my life to creating it. It took me years of trial and error, of searching and learning, to realize that the recipe for finding it cannot be memorized. And as for directions, since each person understands things according to his own experience, the journey was not always easy.

On Purim, a friend called me in the middle of our seudah. The house was topsy-turvy and grandchildren were everywhere, while their parents were rushing back and forth bringing food to the table. I was enjoying every minute of it. “I don’t know how I got here,” I said to my friend. “Neither do I,” she responded. “It’s amazing! Who would have believed it – forty years ago we were two young kids, trying to find our way, and today, here we are. We've succeeded in creating a true Jewish home!”

And that’s the real reason why, when you come to my home, you’ll realize that, like every true Jewish home, it really is the best location.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

BEYOND THE SMILE -- as appeared in Bina Magazine

A few weeks ago I returned home from our local Shabbos shiur in an incredibly rotten mood. Ironically, the topic was simchah. The speaker, a dynamic young woman with a bouncy blonde sheitel and a sparkling, picture-perfect smile, bubbled effusively, “Our faces are reshus harabbim. They are public property. When you smile, the whole world smiles with you, but when you look glum, it negatively impacts those around you.”

Yes, I’ve heard this idea a million times. And I know that it’s true. Our emotions are contagious.

I can almost hear you asking the obvious question. If this is something the author believes to be true and has heard many times before, then why did hearing it at a shiur have such a negative effect on her?

Simple. People with Parkinson’s (like me) often develop what’s known as the Parkinson’s mask. That’s because their facial muscles sometimes become so stiff that they follow gravity in a downward spiral. And when that happens, unless they are consciously concentrating on putting on a cheerful countenance to the world, their mouths slide into a frown and they look, well, sad, or (even worse), spaced out. So when I am concentrating on something, be it on my writing, or my exercise, or even figuring out how to navigate Yerushalayim’s crowded streets, my mouth gets droopy, or, even more embarrassing, drops opens (without my even noticing it) and I look, well, not at all like the intelligent, thinking woman I aspire to be.

It’s frustrating. According to what I just wrote, if you see me sitting on the bus looking deep in thought, chances are that I’m just worried about my appearance, but if I look totally spaced out, then probably my mind is busy conjuring up ideas for my next article, or I’m solving some weighty worldwide crisis. 

Although I don’t want to confuse you, in truth it’s not so simple. Parkinson’s is one of those crazy on-off diseases. So although at times, I can be perfectly fine and look like the picture of good health, I can just as suddenly turn “off” and become incapable of doing almost anything, including smiling. So that means that when I appear to be an intelligent woman deep in thought, I might actually be thinking about something important, rather than concentrating and looking intelligent, but then again, I might not, and when I appear to be spaced out, I might (figuratively) be landing on the moon, but then again, it’s very possible that my feet are firmly on the ground.

So now that you understand (or, admit it, you really don’t. But I won’t tell anyone) why a shiur on simchah put me in a bad mood, I’ll also let you in on a little secret: It didn’t last long. A Shabbos nap, a bit of ice cream (the panacea for all problems) and I was back to my jolly old self —- even if I couldn’t maintain a Colgate smile.

As I write this, I am trying to think of what deep message this story contains, one that can inspire the reader to greater heights in her avodas Hashem. And the truth is, I can’t think of anything incredibly profound, other than the obvious: "Al tistakel bakankan, ela vameh sheyesh bo, do not look at the vessel but at what is in it." Looks can be deceiving. It’s the pnimiyus, a person’s essence that counts.

And as for the importance of smiling, yes, I agree it’s a good thing, and I will, if I can. But if I can’t, I won’t. But I’ll be more than happy to talk with you, and encourage you, and daven for you — and even more than that, I’ll try to be your friend. I’ll be there for you, in a real, way. And isn’t that what’s really important, even if I can’t always brighten the lives of those around me with a happy smile?