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Aunt Betty

“Aunt” Betty was a central part of my life almost from day one, or so it seemed to me.  Raised in my father’s store, doted upon by his employees, I came to view all of them as surrogate parents and grandparents, but I was always especially close to Aunt Betty and her husband, “Uncle” Calvin.

Many  of my earliest memories include her, mostly in her tiny office in Dad’s store:  “Aunt Betty, I wanna play on the ‘puter,” my two-year-old self would beg, and she’d lift me onto her lap and have me “help” with the bookkeeping work she did for my dad.  “Press F1,” I remember her coaching me, “now press Enter, okay, now wait just a minute, press Enter again.”  And the bright blue screen with the funny yellow and red letters would flash and blink and I would snuggle against Aunt Betty, secure in my knowledge that I was loved.

We’d go out to lunch too.  There was a café about a block away from the store, and although Dad could ask anyone to take us there for lunch, I usually begged for Aunt Betty to be the one.  Many times, we’d meet up with a friend of hers while at the café—I don’t remember anything about her except that her name was Nancy, but Aunt Betty, Nancy, my sister, and I would eat at that café almost every day, and I ordered a tuna sandwich on toast every time.  Funny, the details that we remember….

Sometimes at the store, when she wasn’t so busy, we played school.  “This is high school,” I’d write in big block letters on a Post-it note that she’d stick to the wall of the office.  My star pupil Aunt Betty was surely old enough for high school, I thought, after all, this was the “highest” level of school that I knew to exist.

We played school at her house, too, when I’d go there in the evenings, or sometimes for the day, after she retired.  Aunt Betty loved collecting bells, and the racket we made as we rang them to get each other’s attention must have been hard on anybody’s ears—except maybe those of Aunt Betty, who was hard of hearing in one ear and nearly deaf in the other.  Family lore has it that that’s why I, severely hard of hearing from birth, am able to speak as well as I do—because Aunt Betty spoke loudly enough to hear herself, thus making it easier for me to hear her.  I suspect this is why I always had more of a Southern accent than anyone in my family (though I’ve since lost most of it)—because Aunt Betty was about as southern as it was possible to be, and I picked up much of my early speech from her.

When I was four, I was the flower girl in her daughter’s wedding.  I don’t remember much about that wedding, except that I treasured my dress and wanted to wear it at every opportunity for months afterward, maybe years, until it was obvious that I’d long ago outgrown it, and I reluctantly let it get packed away in the attic of my mother’s house.  Not long after that, Aunt Betty’s first two grandchildren were born, two weeks apart.  I remember looking at “Baby” Audrey and “Baby” Dylan with awe, amazed that two human beings could really be that small.  I was just as fascinated by the blanket that Aunt Betty had knitted, which she’d worked on for months before, and I begged her to teach me how to knit.  She complied, and today I’m knitting a blanket for a friend who’s expecting—using that same pattern from Audrey’s first blanket.

The whole family loved Aunt Betty and Uncle Calvin.  I think that after the divorce, they were some of the only people to remain close with both of my parents, and that was a blessing, though I hardly knew it at the time, because their house served as a neutral ground for us to get away from the bitter custody battle that went on for years.  Sometimes, we’d spend the night there.  When we were little, my sister and I would sleep on either side of Aunt Betty in the big bed with the orange blanket, and as we grew older, we moved to a guest bedroom with twin beds, each with a picture of one of her two children on the wall above it.  On days when life at home was particularly trying, or maybe because I just didn’t want to stop being coddled by my surrogate aunt/mother/grandmother, I’d hide under one of the beds when it came time to go home.

Little did I know just how bad it would get at home—but Aunt Betty and Uncle Calvin were there for that too.  Though they lived a few miles away, and I wasn’t yet able to drive, they always offered to pick me up from wherever I was—even from my father’s house, at least a twenty-minute drive for them each way.  In my teenage years and beyond, every time I’d come home from school for a vacation, they were among the first people on the list for me to see—and often, she’d call me before I’d even been home for a day, before I had a chance to call anybody.  Knowing that my grandparents were increasingly incapacitated, I leaned on Aunt Betty and Uncle Calvin for support more and more when home life was unbearable.  Sometimes even then I’d spend the night with them, which brought back memories of being tiny. They’d cook amazing meals—I think Uncle Calvin is secretly a world-famous chef, though if you ask him, he’d say he was only ever a mailman—and we’d sit and play cards and talk for hours.

They have been a pillar in my life for years.  I never thought it possible that they wouldn’t be there.  Certainly they’d be there when I returned from my year in Israel.

But I opened my Facebook page this past Thursday night, ecstatic from a great night out, to this message, from another of my “aunts” who worked at the store.

Chana,
Your dad just called me and told me Betty died. I’m sorry,I know you two were close. Shabbas is about to start… say a prayer and know that she is with G-d. Think about all the good times you had with her and remember she will always be with you.
I Love You !!!! Anne

Not quite believing what I was reading, I went to my email.  Dad’s email, a response to an article I’d sent him the day before, confirmed the terrible news.

I couldn’t believe it.  How could she be gone?  I knew she’d been unhealthy for years—first breast cancer, then a stroke, probably more strokes as I watched her memory deteriorate over the last few years.  Yet she’d always been so busy, active in garden clubs, bridge games, and various charitable organizations.

I miss you, Aunt Betty.  As Anne says, you are with G-d.  Wait for us on the other side, and know that the world is a better place for your having been in it.

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Busy!

I owe a massive update.  Basically, in the time since I wrote my last post I’ve acquired a totally different set of classes, a bunch of new friends and chevrusas, a volunteering opportunity, and a job.

I’ll start with the academics.  Over the last few weeks, there’s been a lot of upheaval in my text classes.  As I’ve said in previous entries, we learn chevrusa-style, which ideally leads to a long-term partner, learning styles that complement each other, and helping each other grow and learn.  For months now, my chevrusa has also been my roommate.  We’re both fine with this in theory, but a little while ago we both decided that we should get out of our comfort zones and actually start interacting with other people.  This plan was put into effect when she went to America to visit her family for a few weeks.  I was left chevrusa-less and figured that I’d establish a new one while she was gone.

The problem with this was that a few girls moved up to my level and between the difference in experience and the fact that they were missing all of our background information from the year meant that they were quite a bit behind the rest of us.  Since I was missing a chevrusa…guess who I ended up with?  Now, on one hand it reflected well on me that our teachers trusted me to get these other girls up to speed, but it meant that I was slowed down and not learning much at all, and in the parts of class where we all came together and learned I could tell that the whole environment was different and just not working for me anymore.

So I went to the teacher, to ask her about moving up to the next (and highest!) level.  Her first response was to tell me that she didn’t want me to move up for personal reasons, because she didn’t want to lose one of her best students, and I was one of the only ones who consistently knew what was going on, and besides, if I left, she worried that there would be some kind of mass exodus of the couple of other really advanced students.

Although I’m flattered by how she’d described me, I didn’t think that was a legitimate reason–it shouldn’t be my responsibility to singlehandedly keep the class afloat–and I told her so.  Then she added, “I don’t think you’re a hundred percent ready, but if you really want to move up, I won’t stop you.”

Well now, that’s something else entirely, if I’m not ready.  I had to concede that she was probably right–after all, I’ve only been reading Hebrew for about eight years (and that’s merely reading, not all of this translation and interpretation and such), and I’d be moving into a class full of people with 12+ years of education in the Orthodox school system.  Still, she agreed to talk to the head rabbi.

The verdict came in a couple of days later: I was to move up within a week, as soon as the higher-level class finished up the unit it had been working on.

I’ve now been in this class for three sessions, and I’m really glad I made the switch.  Both my former teachers and my current teachers warned me repeatedly that I would really be “stretching my muscles” and would be welcome back in the lower level if I felt it was too much, and I wouldn’t be in my comfort zone at all, to which my response every time was “If I’m not going to be in my comfort zone, I’d rather it be too hard than too easy.”  After all, I’m here to learn, right?  Also, I really like my new classmates.  My friend Vivi has become my chevrusa, and though she’s very easy to talk to and get to know, I feel like I know her even better for having to work with her all morning.  (She and I’ve also been comparing matchmaker stories.  It’s fun.)  Now Vivi and I have, in addition to our chevrusa, been working together on typing up the packets that my new teacher hands out, to make it easier on future students, since we all struggle to read our teacher’s handwriting.

Outside of classes, I’ve also been doing a lot of learning in chevrusa.  My friend Yaelle and I have recently decided that we need to learn together, as each likes the sorts of questions the other raises in our lecture classes.  We’ve started going through Shalom Arush’s “Garden of Emunah” (emunah being the Hebrew word for faith).  Neither of us knows much about this book, but we both want to work on our emunah, so we figured this book would be a good place to start.

Lately, I’ve also been roping Yaelle into going over my upper-level stuff with me.  Normally, we don’t have homework, but I’m feeling behind enough and slow enough in my new class that I’ve been going over stuff the night before we actually do it, just so I’m more with it.  The other day, I started to do that, and Yaelle decided she’d join me.  She’s not in that class, but her text skills are actually really good, and she was tremendously helpful.

Okay, so there are my new chevrusas–Vivi and Yaelle.  Now for the other new friends, which leads into the volunteer opportunity.  Esther, a relatively new student with a vibrant personality.  With her fervent “Baruch Hashem!”s and “B.H.!”s, she brings to mind one of those “Praise the L-rd!” type Southern Baptist ministers–and freely admits it!–despite being a Canadian Jew.  Anyway, so Esther announced in class one day that an organization she’d once been part of as a student was now looking for new tutors, and we were ideal candidates to volunteer.  So I sent an email to the organization–based out of Hebrew University, geared toward irreligious students who don’t know much about their heritage but are interesting in learning–and the head rabbi responded that he was looking forward to meeting me and we were starting the following Monday.

Monday came, I still wasn’t sure exactly how to get to where I needed to go, and Esther wasn’t in school that day!  Nor did I have her phone number.  But my new friend Michelle asked me out of the blue if I was planning on “doing this volunteer thing” and when I told her yes, she said she too was going, and Esther had given her directions beforehand.  So off we went.  There’s not actually that much to tell about the evening, except that there was some amazing lo mein and sushi (normally they do bagels.  Orientation is apparently special.), and some opening speeches, and we were told we’d find out sometime next week who we’d be working with.

As for the job, it’s not actually that exciting–sweeping and washing dishes for a lady who is pregnant and on bedrest–but it pays 25 shekels an hour, and if I’m going to be here long-term I really need to figure out some kind of income that I can legally acquire before I make aliyah and/or get working papers.  Unfortunately, that pretty much limits me to cleaning and babysitting, but I’ll take what I can get.

Oh, and let’s talk about  this past Shabbos.  By Wednesday, I was secure in my plans to visit the city of Netanya–and then that evening the school Shabbos coordinator came by my apartment to tell me that that had fallen through.  Well…so Wednesday night is VERY late to start planning Shabbos, considering that most people have been preparing for it since Sunday!  So I started frantically calling people, but it was late enough that nobody was answering.

While waiting for someone else to pick up, I distractedly looked at my email inbox.  In one of those amazing Divine Providence moments that are so popular in fiction, I saw that I’d received an invitation to dinner from Shabbat.com, a website on which I’ve signed up as a guest.  Also, the invitation was local, in my neighborhood–in fact, two buildings down from me!  With immense gratitude to Hashem, I made one last call–the last local number in my cell phone, and my last hope for any Shabbos hospitality unless anyone returned my calls–and reserved an invitation for Shabbos lunch.  There–in a matter of seconds, I went from frantically trying to ensure that I’d be able to eat on Shabbos (believe me, it is rather difficult for a single girl with a less-than-ideal kitchen to prepare Shabbos for herself and manage to conform to all of the Shabbos laws in doing so!  Aside from that, it’s awfully lonely.  Going to a family is an unwritten rule around here.), to both meals totally set up, with minimal effort on my part.

Dinner, the invitation from Shabbat.com, was interesting.  Neither of us knew much of anything about each other (though they knew from my profile that I’m local, single, and 20-something and I knew from their profile that they have eight children and a great track record for satisfied guests)–and then we found out that she’d graduated from the same seminary I’m learning at right now, and my rabbi, Rabbi S., had made her shidduch!  She also gave me a bunch of networking advice, including the names of two shadchanim (oh, Jewish mothers….) and the location of a public library in our neighborhood that I’d never known.  When I commented on their wall-to-wall bookshelves, she insisted that I borrow some, and tried to send me home with ten (!) books.  Knowing I’d have to schlep up six flights of stairs, I opted to take four.

…and then I spent most of the rest of Shabbos reading.  It’s a welcome break from the insanity that my life has become, what with working on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings, this tutoring thing on Mondays, chesed on Thursday afternoons, Shabbos prep on Fridays, and trying to fit in outside learning with Vivi and Yaelle whenever we can.  Good grief!

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Perspective

A few months ago, I wrote about starting my chesed project with the “Cohen” family who…didn’t really seem to need much help.  I remember being confused as to why a stay-at-home mom of three healthy kids needed my help when people like my roommate were helping families with totally incapacitated kids.  Whatever the reason, I got assigned to this family, and I haven’t questioned it…what do I know about how this chesed system works?

And then I went to this one family for Shabbos; they live in my Jerusalem neighborhood and I get set up with them through my school’s Shabbos placement program.  I’m pretty sure they’re both affiliated with the seminary.  Anyway, so this family has six kids under 15, and the most luxurious house I’ve ever seen in Jerusalem.  Even having two stories is something rare over here (my apartment has that, but there are also nine of us living there), but it was more than that.  They had totally redone their kitchen, and it had two of everything (making keeping kosher really easy).  Now, in kosher homes, two ovens is standard, but two dishwashers?!  Most Israelis don’t even have one.  And they also had an island in the middle of the kitchen (also something I’d never seen in Jerusalem), and ridiculous amounts of counter space.  There were also I think five bedrooms and ample living room space for them, their six kids, and the seven guests they had for that Shabbos meal.

And then I gave them regards from my flatmate V., on her request.  The response was enthusiastic: “Oooh, V.! We love her!  She used to be our chessed girl!”  And I think my jaw hit the ground, because why in the world would THIS family have needed chessed?!  They were just so put-together; amazingly well-behaved kids, wonderful hosts, clean house, amazing food, and I just don’t know what they would have even needed help with.

Who would have thought…?

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L’Chaim!

On Thursday, one of my friends IMed me to ask why I hadn’t updated lately and to tell me that she missed my posts.  Sorry for the lack of updates…I’ve been busy and preoccupied…but know that all is well.

As for the title–when my friend told me that, I assured her that there’d be an update really soon, because I had an exciting post brewing.  I’d hoped to have the post up before Shabbos but that didn’t end up happening; anyway, here it is now.

Wednesday, on her way out the door (literally–she was heading back to America for a few days to spend time with her family), my roommate said in passing, “Oh by the way, M is getting engaged tomorrow.  But DON’T say anything to her–she doesn’t know!  Oh yeah, and a bunch of us are going to have a l’chaim for her.”  M is a classmate of ours, who’s been dating this guy for a year and we’d all known it was only a matter of time before they got engaged.

Naturally, I pumped my roommate for more information, but all she could tell me was “Ask D; she’s arranging everything.”  So I went home, cornered the first flatmate I could find to ask about what the roommate had said (and got scolded “Shhhh, she doesn’t know about it!  We’re supposed to pretend we don’t know either!” to which I responded “Umm, she doesn’t live here, so I don’t see what the problem is….”).  My first question, of course, was “what in the world is a l’chaim?”  (I do know it is a Hebrew word meaning “to life!” and is used as a toast, but to “have a l’chaim” after an engagement is something I was unfamilar with.)

(Also, I think I am overusing parentheses in this post….)

Anyway.  So a l’chaim is apparently the first engagement party, an informal affair that is quickly thrown together by the kallah’s friends, that happens before the “official” engagement party, called a vort.  M’s l’chaim was set for 10:30 that night, in her apartment, though she didn’t know about it.

So we all sat around and schmoozed for awhile, waiting for M and her chosson (Hebrew/Yiddish term for fiance) to arrive.  Every time the door started to open with a new guest, we all sat at attention, sure that this time it must be M, waiting to yell “Mazal Tov!”  There were a few false alarms, much to our amusement.  And then M and her chosson finally arrived.

“MAZAL TOV!!!!!” we all yelled, and a few other remarks followed, such as “Yeah, (chosson), you finally did it!” and “Can I see your ring?!”  And then all the girls joined hands and started dancing.

Much wine was poured, there were toasts (I guess that’s where the “l’chaim” part comes from!), and snacking, and then I headed out pretty early along with a few of my roommates.  “Pretty early” actually meant that we got home after midnight, and it’d been a really long week, so I think we were justified in wanting to get out of there early….

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