December 19, 2011

Happy Chanukah Nadine!

The rolling pin clicks as it glides across the soft dough, smoothing out creases in my mind. Holding the worn wooden handle, I nimbly guide the dough until it opens wide, becoming even, circular, shiny, tinged by molasses. With each gentle push, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger float into the air, flooding the kitchen with memories. I can hardly count the years now. Can it possibly be forty?

One December day in the 1970s (it must have been a cold and snowy Sunday), my friend Nadine and I decided to make cookies. We were two Jewish girls living in Toronto in the midst of Holiday Cheer; endless songs of Dasher and Dancer on the radio, holly wreaths hanging on our neighbours’ front doors, and old station wagons driving around with Christmas trees hanging from the trunk, sprinkling the snowy road with a spray of pine needles.

What were we to do? It would soon be Chanukah. Each year we would carefully arrange our coloured candles in the menorah until it looked like a box of Crayola crayons. We would try to sing ‘maoz tzur’ just like we learned it at Hebrew School, but never get past the first verse. We would eat our latkes with extra globs of apple sauce because we preferred sweet, and we would play dreidel games with chocolate covered coins, always gobbling them up before the game was even won.

We needed something new, sweet and creative: something us.

We must have been the first to discover fusion baking. We took a simple gingerbread recipe, bought a dreidel-shaped cookie cutter and created Chanukah cookies with the taste of Yuletide. Since Nadine’s dad owned a candy store, our creations transcended a regular cookie—they were quickly deemed masterpieces. We baked for our family, our friends, our teachers and for ourselves.

Each year our enterprise grew. We made more dough, expanded our cookie cutter collection and accumulated more interesting decorations. What was once a sheet of cookies soon became a full-sized operation with the kitchen becoming the rolling room and the dining room the decorating room.

Decorating was the real challenge as we wanted each cookie to be different. We had a collection of shapes for every mood and occasion; fierce Macabis, funny dreidels, proud shields, and delicate menorahs. We also had snowmen in three sizes and a star of David.

We met each year. We snacked on sprinkles and gorged on M&Ms. We talked. We concentrated on our cookie art and decorated in silence. We talked. We laughed. We sampled. Nadine took pictures. And our tummies ached.

We met each year. Nadine got married and one year baby Laura joined us, watching the operation with interest from her baby seat. I was then married and before we knew it, we had more company in the kitchen.

We met each year. Our babies crawled around underfoot, and soon enough, they could stand up and peer over the counter. They watched, their eyes wide in amazement. At first they ate. Then they rolled the dough, cut the shapes and decorated cookies. They even had tummy aches just like us. And when they lost interest, they would jump around the house together on a sugar high. Alone, Nadine and I would roll, cut shapes, decorate and talk until the last scrap of dough was used. We would take pictures and then split our booty. Tired, our clothes whitened by flour, floors gooey and crispy with errant sprinkles and nuts and licorice, we would sigh, “Well, there’s another year gone by.”

We met each year until I moved to Israel. That was six Chanukahs ago. Nadine’s girls are off at university and now Nadine bakes alone. My children, being a bit younger, still want to bake gingerbread cookies for Chanukah. We have fun and yes, we all get belly aches and end up with a sticky kitchen floor.  Yet I miss Nadine. Our talks. Our silences. Our sighs.

Forty odd years?

And now it is Chanukah. I carefully press the plastic Magen David shape into the pliant dough. I am preparing a tray of Star of Davids. I lift the spatula and place them in the pan in front of my eager decorating crew.  Faced with a blank canvas of gingerbread, my kids are silenced, dreaming up new ways to create their masterpiece. They choose candies from a colourful palette and sprinkles for brushes; gingerbread decorating is serious business around here.  They laugh, they munch. I marvel how the years have gone by. I put down my rolling pin and I sigh.

December 7, 2011

Deepest, Darkest Dryer Drama

You cross one errand off the To Do list and another mysteriously appears… 
This is a bbm conversion with my daughter about what happened yesterday.

Hi there.

Whatz up?

Bought new bedding today.


Hey, aren't you in class? It's 10:20.

Kind of.
Just had math test.
Scary hard.
Just want to see new cozy sheets.
Want to sneak home from school.
Buy anything else?

You must be bored. Yep, bought 2 new pillows.

Soft and fluffy.

Makes me want to sleep.


Don’t you have class?

Kinda….but your life is more interesting than biology.

Hard to believe. Got to do laundry.



You in class NOW??

Kind of, but verrry bored. Whaz up?

Dryer ate duvet cover.


Burnt to a crisp.

Finn crisp.
I crave crackers.

No joke. Looks like toast.

I want toast.
With butter and jam. Food at school icky.
You  eating toast?

No. Sheets are toast.


Roasted like marshmallows.

I so want marshmallows. How?

Deepest darkest dryer drama.

Bad dryer.

Evil dryer.

Nasty, possessed evil dryer.

Got to run.

Awwwww. How come?

Have to call dryer repair guy.


November 29, 2011

Yielding to a Dental Road Block

A few days ago, my dental hygienist's office called, asking me to please give my upcoming appointment to someone who really needed that slot. No problem. I am flexible. They gave me a new appointment for the next morning at 10:30. I worked, got in the car and drove there. I found parking and walked over.

 I arrived on time to find a very agitated woman waving around a slip of paper and shouting, "My appointment is at 10:30. I had to rearrange my whole day to be here. I had to drive from the next town to be here."

"Look," she shouted, gaining momentum. She shoved the paper in the receptionist's face. "Ït says Tuesday at 10:30."

The receptionist apologized. "I am sorry. There was a mistake."

Israelis are called sabras, those prickly pear cacti that are covered with a myriad of tiny thorns, almost impossible to touch, yet somewhere deep inside, sweet. Another toughened prickly pear, I thought, resigning myself to a long wait, and a heated battle. I sat back and opened my book.

The receptionist turned from the woman and looked at me. "Are you Nicole? Your appointment is at 10:30. The hygienist will be with you shortly." I sat down and felt uncomfortable. Yes. This was my slot. It was official. I closed my book. I could not concentrate.

 The woman across from me started up again. She had a grandchild on her lap who was growing as agitated as she was. I wondered what she was expecting to do with that toddler while the hygienist was digging around her gums. I squirmed as she started her tirade once more. It was so noisy, the hygienist came out to see what was going on. Yet as soon as she saw this woman's reddened face, the poor hygienist ran for cover, closing the door behind her.

 The waiting room was at a stand still. The appointment was mine. Someone in the office had clearly made a mistake. Yet someone had to give in. There is always a quick moment when we calculate our options before making a decision. We all want to be right. We all want to receive. We often feel that things are owed to us. Like this appointment. It was mine and they had already this appointment on me. Yet here we all were in a dental road block. Someone had to yield.

Israelis are compared to the fruit of a prickly pear cactus.
 I stood up and told the assistant that I will give my appointment to this woman. The receptionist looked surprised. I explained that I do not live far and will call in to make another appointment. I looked at the angry woman. She was silenced. Surprised. She had already put on her boxing gloves and did not expect this. A prickly pear cactus that had ripened in the sun, she sat down calmly and smiled. "Thank you very much," she said. Relieved, the receptionist smiled.

 I walked outside. The magenta sky was deep, full. The sun warmed me as I stepped onto the main street. It was alive with people; young mothers pushing strollers, people sitting in outdoor cafes, sipping espressos, reading newspapers, women carrying bags laden with groceries. My daughter's favorite busker, an old Russian man with a black beret and a twinkle in his eye, happily played 'Hava Nagila' on his accordian. I was just given a fresh moment. Unexpected. I decided to make use of it. Be in it.

 In our world, people value power and as a result, strong people are admired. Worshiped. The powerful win elections,fame and promotions. They also lead battles, run dictatorships and sweat shops. They are constantly clambering up a ladder of struggle, anger, conflict and hate.

 I recently learned in a Torah shiur that Judaism does not value power. In fact, it is just the opposite. Strength in Judaism is equated with giving in and giving up. Just plain and simple giving. When we yield, the world is a softer, gentler place. When we give, we are not 'fryerim,' as many Israelis believe. It does not hurt to peel off that prickly outer layer. When we give, we are trying, in our own tiny ways, to bring Hashem into the world.

 This Life Vest Inside video says it all.

November 22, 2011

Look up...there are stars in the sky.

"They say there's a chance of frost."
"Can you believe the Penguins beat the Islanders 5-0?"
"Just look at her in that slinky body suit."

Small talk. Everyone does it. But what are we really saying? Are we filling time? Blotting empty space?

Here in Israel, there's heated discussion about whether Beitar or Maccabi will come out winning the soccer championship and a precise measuring of Lake Kinneret's depth after each rainfall. And now, with the arrival of not-so-chilly winter days, every teenager must wear sheepskin fleece boots... Why? Because everyone else has a pair. Ugg! (Ask any Canadian about what real cold is and they will go on about how their red, chafed toes feel after walking through puddles of semi-frozen slush.)

Here in Israel, there are also many opportunities to hear inspiring words. Had a bad day? Need to reframe? You don't have to go far to hear amazing individuals tell incredibly valiant stories. I had such an opportunity on Sunday night. Batya Berg was in Ra'anana to tell over her life story. It was a story of the Holocaust, of poverty, of sickness and of persecution in Stalin's Russia.

But she was not here to tell us about suffering or sadness. On the contrary. She was here to teach us how to be happy and to see goodness in each moment and every mishap. You can read Batya's life story here. I will simply share two beautiful images she placed in my mind.

One is of living in a tiny, dank, apartment in Kiev, some 15 steps below ground. A dreary window revealed the sidewalk above and young Batya's view was of boots and shoes rushing by all day. She mentioned this to her father who said, "Yes, you are right. But when I look up, I see stars in the sky."

One other image is of poor Batya crying. Her family shared one pair of boots. Her father would go out to pray wearing the boots, then rush home so Batya could go to school, her feet swimming in the enormous boots. She would then run home so her mother could get bread, the only food the family ate.

One day, as little Batya was rushing home, she stepped on a nail. It tore a gaping hole in the sole of the boot. In tears, Batya told her father what happened. When he asked her why she was not happy, the confused little girl looked up at her smiling father. He explained. "You should be joyful that you have feet and can wear boots."

May we have the ability to see goodness in sorrow and to turn our moments in opportunities for hearing wisdom and sharing words of inspiration.

November 15, 2011

Inspiring Alyn 2011

The last time I posted was also right after the Alyn bike ride. Guess this event stirs me up. Perhaps because it’s just the most perfect way to spend a day.

Here I was riding through majestic pine forests. A soft, autumn sun dappled my arms and the sky was a magenta blue as only an Israeli sky can be. And as I ascended the hills, I urged myself on, challenging those quads, steadily, rhythmically breathing in the fresh mountain air. I entered into a silent space, a form of meditation.

And at the end of the day, as hundreds of riders entered the Alyn hospital amid cheers and drumming, flags and confetti, I cried. The sweat from my face mingled with my tears and I tasted salty crumbs, the leftovers of my uphill 1100-meter climb from Latrun to Jerusalem.

I first noticed the parents who stood lovingly stood beside children who beamed excitedly from wheelchairs. Moms smiled. Dads clapped. Young brothers and sisters danced beside siblings, some of whom could barely sit up on their own or breathe unassisted. Most of these kids would never ride a bike.

I looked at these people and admired their strength, their smiles, their positive energy and their gratitude. I too felt grateful that I could be here and that my donations would find a way to improve their lives. And I felt ever so thankful that I was able to ride my bike here; to drink a sense of liberation as the warm sun and fresh breeze tickled my face, my feet pushing pedals, sailing me up hills and across mountains.

I was also moved to see Arab families standing beside Israeli families and Orthodox Jewish families side-by-side with secular Jewish families. These families share goals for their children and this is the melting pot I dream of. I am privileged to see this and thank the Alyn Rehabilitative Hospital for making this a reality. In the future, why not have Arab riders pedaling beside Jewish riders? There is no better way to bond than by sharing in such a beautiful cause.

Yet another emotional moment was to see a former hospital patient completing the rigorous five-day ride. Itai is a young 14-year-old boy who had a brain tumour. After several difficult surgeries and years of physiotherapy, he recovered and decided to give back to the very hospital that saved him. Another young rider was gravely injured by a rocket but after years of treatment at the Alyn, he too is able to ride with the others--and to give back.

If we could all learn from these boys, the world would be a better place. We receive and we give. And when we give, more people receive.

I now have a new mantra for those challenging uphills in life.