Millennial Mishegas

Steven Chaitman

Steven Chaitman shares what's on his Millennial mind and brings some re-Jew-venating perspective to contemporary issues in our rapidly evolving world.

The Kvetching Intellectual

Kosher chaos

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Keeping a kosher home is a total pain in the you-know-what.

It has nothing to do with keeping milk and meat separate, or wanting to eat non-kosher meat because it’s more convenient. It has nothing to do with my past values or observance.

It’s the details that drive me nuts.

When Mollie and I talked about living together, keeping kosher was the first topic we discussed after, you know, whether we would live together. To that point, our dietary differences coexisted just fine. At restaurants, I could get anything I wanted, and she was okay so long as there were veggie options. At home, we cooked vegetarian meals in our respective apartments. So when we moved this summer, it was natural to keep kosher so that friends of all observance levels could come and eat.

I had long been prepared for the change. I was ready to be more selective in my meat purchases and to bid farewell to the homemade chicken quesadillas and add-cheese-to-anything-because-why-not mentality of my previous cooking life. All it would take was a little more vigilance at the grocery store and a viable system for separating milk and meat dishes.

Of course, this was a gross underestimate.

For starters, “dishes” are more than just plates, bowls, pots, pans and silverware. “Dishes” mean separate spatulas, separate serving platters, separate sponges and separate stuff that might never touch meat or dairy, but would probably come in contact with them at some point. So … separate cutting boards, separate mixing bowls, separate food processors and other expensive appliances – separate everything. Suddenly, our rather large kitchen with a floor-to-ceiling pantry seemed to me about four square feet.

When we started unpacking, everything I thought about this seemingly black-and-white transition crumbled into shades of gray. Before we could kosher everything, separate it and buy what we were missing, we needed to make food, and it wasn’t long before I lost track of which baking sheets or which utensil holders had already been claimed for dairy or meat. As someone who likes things in their logical place and doesn’t do things haphazardly, this was total anarchy.

Between this and the limitations of our apartment, how could we possibly do this right?

My instinct was to impose order whenever possible. So, despite my lack of kosher experience, I channeled my inner mashgiach (kosher supervisor) and declared martial halacha. Even as we were cooking, I would go through kitchen items and assign them to Team Milchik or Team Fleischik. My first edict was to distinguish the naturally divided sides of our sink, with each sponge expected to remain on its given side. I also split up our large collection of mugs onto different shelves, and pointed out that we only had one set of wine glasses and one set of Tupperware. And of my own volition, I informed my best friend and former non-kosher roommate, who came to stay with us a month after we moved in, that he could not heat up the sausage he brought home in any of our appliances. He ate it cold, and I felt no remorse.

When our friends and family ask how keeping kosher is going, Mollie describes me as “the enforcer.” Somehow, I have become more rigid than the person who it technically matters to, who one time sat down at the table with a dairy glass when we were eating kosher turkey burgers and didn’t notice until I said something.

If I’m going to live by new rules, I figure it doesn’t make sense to bend or break them. Then again, when I pour myself a beer to go with dinner, I don’t think about what I ate when I last used that pint glass. When I’m drying dishes, I use whatever towel looks cleanest. And technically, we only have one refrigerator and one microwave. It’s an endless battle against an onslaught of minutia. We can only do so much, and we should at least feel comfortable that “our kosher” is enough for us and those who care about us.

More than anything, I’ve realized my kosher police phase is not about becoming more observant, or doing things “the right way”; it’s about committing to values. Having a kosher home is my newest value. It symbolizes the life that Mollie and I are making together.

Any two people can fuse their lives together. A vegan and an omnivore can coexist; someone who loves to bake can live with someone who’s gluten intolerant. The difference is that keeping kosher together creates shared values, and in this case, shared Jewish values. We took on the challenge of koshering our apartment together, and it feels like our kitchen, not Mollie’s mostly kosher kitchen with my little shelf for treif.

We also have other shared values more important than kashrut. For example, energy and resource conservation are also important to us, so we don’t run our dishwasher empty in between milk and meat loads. We want to be intentional about our values, not ruled by them.

We are keeping kosher because we see the value it brings to our lives. In my case, I like that it forces me to be intentional about my home. Seeing dishes piled to the ceiling in one side of the sink while the other half sits empty will always remind me that even my daily activities, like eating, are steeped in my values, and sticking to your values can sometimes be a pain in the you-know-what.

Using our words, about Israel and always

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There are two things that I heard on the playground growing up that I’ve since learned not to be true.

The first – “it’s a free country!” I can think of a few bullies who used this gem to defend their inconsiderate and negligent behavior, not realizing that if it is indeed a free country, it’s everyone’s free country.

The second is the ancient comeback, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

If only. If only hateful speech didn’t hurt anyone. If only we could all look someone who said something malicious straight in the eye, say those 13 words and walk away unchanged. Maybe that works on the playground, but not in the adult world, and especially not today’s adult world.

That world would be Facebook, Twitter, and the comments section of online articles – any corner of the Internet where you are permitted access to a little text box with license to type-type-type away and ultimately publish whatever you want. As someone with a journalism degree, I will defend free speech until some future dystopian autocracy takes it away from me, but lately I’ve begun to feel as though maybe the online world would be more pleasant if there weren’t so many digital soap boxes and megaphones readily accessible.

I spend the larger portion of my work day looking at Facebook, (ahem, I manage JUF’s primary social media accounts …) so I’ve seen a lot of the good social media can do to bring together and forge community, but I’ve also seen the ways it can be used to peddle inflammatory speech and hateful misinformation. Watching JUF’s Facebook page since mid-June, when Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were first reported kidnapped, I’ve been blown away by the sudden intensification of both sides of this coin.

Not since the advent of Facebook has the Jewish community turned so urgently to social media to learn about, discuss and show support for Israel. Our page has gained 345 new fans since June 16 – about 100 more new fans than we average in an entire six-month period. If that’s not enough proof, just perform the eye test on your personal Facebook feed. The amount of articles shared and personal status updates about Israel have simply taken over the online part of Jews’ lives.

On the other side of that coin, more chatter about Israel means more negative chatter about Israel. Allies of the Palestinians and Gaza have been equally if not more prolific in voicing their condemnation of Israel; arguments have erupted between Facebook friends be they Jews debating non-Jews or Jews debating Jews; comment sections of articles have turned into verbal war zones. My job as JUF page administrator has turned into a 24/7 gig, constantly deleting hurtful/inciting comments from our posts.

As I click “hide” on pictures of bloodied children and ban users who write “Israelis are terrorists” beneath photos from JUF’s solidarity rally, I feel justified in my actions, though the First Amendment crusader in me squeals in anguish. On one hand, maybe everyone should see these attitudes exist, sad as they are. On the other hand, why should JUF’s peace-aspiring, community-rallying posts turn into battlegrounds filled with crude remarks and generalizations? The ability to hide behind a smartphone, tablet or computer screen leads far more often to poor exercises of free speech than paragons for civil dialogue.

Last summer I remember realizing the horrific extent to which people were willing to say hateful things on the Internet. The sheer racism, for example, of Twitter users slamming Major League Baseball for selecting a “non-American” in Marc Anthony to sing “God Bless America” at last year’s All-Star Game (Anthony, by the way, was born in Queens) was utterly appalling, and though I was disappointed to learn Jewish baseball slugger Ryan Braun had used steroids, it felt personal when Twitter users responded in anti-Semitic tirades.

It’s difficult to believe social media is a good thing when it can be used to spread such hateful and misinformed world views. If you believe these attitudes will exist no matter what, wouldn’t it make sense to limit how easily people can share them with the masses? And would doing so violate free speech, or protect people from the cancer of hate and prejudice?

It’s a catch-22 of sorts: social media has the power to bring attention to causes and rally people around ideas that would otherwise be overlooked, yet it can also galvanize groups of people whose evil, radical ideas would otherwise remain isolated and marginalized.

And we see that so clearly with all that has gone on in Israel and Gaza. For every article or status shared by a rational, empathetic peace-loving person, some frustrated, shortsighted person reaches for that readily accessible digital megaphone and voices a knee-jerk reaction full of sweeping generalizations. And what happens? The empathetic peace-lover feels threatened, their ire provoked, and they often cave into using the same ferocious style of language as the shortsighted soap-boxer.

Why? Because hateful language is powerful language. Its rhetoric is sharp and barbarous. The moment we read it on Facebook or Twitter we picture it sowing the seeds of hatred in the minds of those less-informed and nonopinionated and we feel a responsibility to strike it down before it’s allowed to fester. But we must combat that hate without stooping to the level of harshness and recklessness that ultimately perpetuates it.

Words do hurt us. Their blows are hard and their wounds deep. Multiply this by at least 10 when it comes to Israel and the Jewish people. Of course attacks on Zionism and Israel are attacks on Jews everywhere. The connection runs deep in a way so many others don’t understand, and as such we are predisposed to respond swiftly when Israel is under fire –whether by rockets or by words.

What we all must realize in our social media world, however, is the responsibility that comes implicit with uninhibited access to a text box and the freedom to hit “post,” “Tweet” or “publish.” Free speech is a right, and with all rights come responsibilities. What you have to say on social media is your prerogative; how you say it – that affects everyone. That’s what spreads. Not your thoughts, your ideas or your opinions, but the language you use to convey them. Even if what you say is a pile of misinformed lies, if you say it the right way, the facts can be easily and civilly corrected.

Imagine a social media world in which every time you hit “post,” “Tweet” or “publish,” a window popped up prompting you to review your comment for any hateful speech or language that might incite unnecessary conflict. Or what if your message had to be approved by pre-determined close friend before being published? It’s like when you work up the nerve to write that angry email to someone only to delete it 30 minutes later and never send it. Sometimes, thinking twice can make all the difference.

With all that said, the comment section is below. How will you use it?

Fighting back

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Cancer. It is humanity's most ruthless, devastating and unforgiving enemy. It steals lives, derails dreams and leaves countless people in sorrow. It attacks unexpectedly and unannounced, yet can be passed down through generations. And it is a faceless villain, one that can't be faulted, that can't be punished, that can't simply be convinced to stop.

I wish this was as hyperbolic as it sounds, but it just isn't. Those of you whose lives have been affected by cancer to yourself, a loved one or a friend surely understand. And I'm guessing that's almost all of you.

My story is this: Seven years ago my uncle lost a long fight with an inexplicable form of cancer; two and a half years ago, his father - my papa - succumbed to what had been a manageable cancer when an accident weakened his condition; a little more than a year ago, my friend Heather lost a five-year battle with a rare adrenal cancer at 25. And these are just the people who were closest to me.

Human beings don't like to feel powerless. We like to believe that if there is something wrong with the world, we can change it. In the case of cancer, the only thing we can do is write checks to people researching it in hopes they might discover a way to stop it.

So what I really want to write about is fighting back.

I didn't really realize that my journey of fighting back against cancer had begun the day I found out my uncle wasn't going to survive it. I was at college, preparing with my Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity brothers for our big philanthropy event, Rock-A-Thon. Every other year, Rock-A-Thon becomes the focus of our chapter; one brother sits in a rocking chair for 48 hours while the others collect donations around town and on campus for the American Cancer Society. I canned for the first day, then left for my uncle's funeral.

I wish I could say this symbolic coincidence empowered me to become a fierce advocate for cancer research, but it didn't. Two years later at the next Rock-A-Thon, I gave my time and energy to help us raise $50,000, and I did so proudly, but I knew I hadn't yet gone above and beyond.

Almost three years later and well removed from college, I could no longer lean on Rock-A-Thon as my vehicle for fighting back, and I knew I wasn't doing enough. That's when I took notice of what my friends Heather and Logan were doing through ACS' Relay for Life.

I had previously ignored Relay for Life in high school and college, but when I saw Heather's passion for Relay, and her unbelievable strength of spirit to organize a fundraising effort for the very thing she was personally battling, I decided to give it a try. I joined her team, Chemosaurus Rex, and even wrote a song to voice my hatred for cancer as a way to raise funds.

Raising money on my own, I finally felt I had stepped up and spoken out as someone willing to fight cancer. I had hidden behind AEPi's united front during Rock-A-Thon, raising money because it was expected of me and it was important work. I had yet to make my fight personal, believing there was little I could do on my own.

But there was a little I could do. I didn't need to write the check that would lead to a cure for cancer, but I needed to show the survivors, caregivers and other fighters in my life and my community that I would support them, that I was not going to be silent and do nothing.

When I finally did, I never could've anticipated the support I would find in Relay. These were others whose lives were (in most cases) more grievously affected by cancer that my own. Even though I didn't need their support in an active sense, being around hundreds of Relayers fighting similar emotional battles to myself was a comfort.

When we lost Heather last year, we lost the heart and soul of our team. Her spirit for Relay was infectious, as was her ability to appropriately nag me to make sure I was effectively fundraising. Last year, I raised another $1,000 for Relay because I simply had to - for her and for me.

Today I'm less than two weeks from Relay - and I'm struggling. I'm not close to my goal. More lives have been lost to cancer. Another year of asking my friends and family to support me yet not being able to show them any evidence of positive change - it's difficult. The fight is never-ending and cancer doesn't care that I have all kinds of other stuff going on in my life.

It's times like this when I am in awe of the survivors, the caretakers - those who don't have a choice about whether or not they wish to fight cancer that day. And I admire those who carry on the memory of loved ones, those with a bone to pick with cancer, the ones who fight back with every fiber of their being, because to them, there's no alternative. Their strength cannot be overestimated.

I'm still learning what it takes to fight back for a cause - I think we all are. But we can all be the allies and supporters of those in the trenches who've found the strength that we're looking for. We can cheer them on, thank them and recognize them. They are the champions of hope, and it is my hope we can all eventually join their ranks.

Taking myself to church

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This past Sunday, a gorgeous and sunny Easter morning, I put on my Sunday best and went to church.

Almost my entire family is Jewish, so this was completely voluntary. The gist of it is that Mollie and I were invited by her friend Lauren and her husband Jon to come to church and then have Easter brunch at their apartment. They had even gone so far as to prepare kosher-for-Passover options. Kosher-for-Passover Easter brunch? That kind of gesture you don't turn down.

In truth, I had been to a Sunday church service once before. During my final year of undergrad in Missouri, I had a friend who played keyboard in her church worship band. I could never come see her because every Sunday I was also busy leading music - for the religious school at the local synagogue. She had seen me leading services on Friday night before, so I wanted to complete the exchange, so to speak.

If you've never seen a church band before, it's like going to any popular concert - only much less rowdy and all the songs are about God and Jesus. The vocalists and instrumentalists are usually very talented, and they play a variety of catchy tunes, in between which the pastor offers words of prayer and later a sermon.

Before my first church band experience, my only frame of reference for this music was those TV infomercials for Christian rock compilation CDs and the occasional surprise while scanning F.M. radio stations. Praying in the form of popular-sounding songs in English that celebrated Jesus as the Son of God was not in my comfort zone, but I sang along when I could, mumbling through or pausing when certain lyrics conflicted with my beliefs. I couldn't bring myself to pretend that I wasn't Jewish for an hour or sing these words as if they had no meaning. Feeling all that, however, it still didn't take me long to realize that this easily could've been my life.

If I'd been born to a Christian family - something I had no control over - yet otherwise grown up the same person, I would be up on that stage, passionate and humbled to lead my community in songs of praise, believing these words with all my heart and soul. Faith is not genetic - but it is usually inherited. We can ultimately choose our religion and beliefs, but they often try to choose us first.

I remembered having this epiphany five years ago as I stood in church on Easter Sunday. I still whispered over the many lyrics declaring Jesus' divinity and celebrating his resurrection, but I also felt something stirring inside me as this passionate, emotional music and singing filled the room. I knew this feeling. I experienced it in synagogue growing up, at Jewish summer camp, at Friday night minyanim in Chicago. It's what happens when people get together and sing. When a community gathers - united by the same values, everyone looking for the same connection - and makes music, it is powerful. It is moving. Theology, customs, observance - these are just details. They mean nothing in the face of the raw spiritual energy created when people sing together.

So I didn't sing all the words, but I sang. I added occasional wordless harmonies and otherwise admired the beauty of the moment.

Even though I wasn't truly connecting to their music, I could see and hear and feel their spiritual passion. I know what this feels like. I feel the same way when I'm with my community, singing the songs I know with words I believe in. We both use music; we channel its energy for spiritual purposes, just with different words, and with different instruments. All faiths have this in common, even when we disagree about the details. It is only when we share with each other that we can discover the similarities amongst the differences.

I am grateful that my connection to music allows me to reach over the walls that divide people, to connect with others I would otherwise just identify as very different from myself. Next time someone asks me to come with them to their church, mosque or whatever kind of temple, I won't refuse the invitation - but I will ask if there will be singing.

One year

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This week I celebrated my first work-iversary at JUF. There was no public recognition in the office, no certificates, no cupcakes - just a nice email from HR. And that was just fine with me. Many of my colleagues have been here for decades, and I've been here for just one year.

But it's not "just one year." Not to me.

If you read my first blog (or know me well enough), you know this job didn't fall into my lap. It took me nearly four years after graduating to be hired for full-time employment. I spent those first few years reeling in various part-time jobs both paid and unpaid, while occasionally interviewing for the big fish. So the day I filled out my paperwork to receive a salary and benefits was truly momentous.

One year later, I am overcome with gratitude. Even though I've gotten used to my new routine, my weekly responsibilities and the monotony of daily commuting, it was little more than "just one year" ago that I used to contemplate how I had no idea what my future would look like. Now, those days seem distant.

In truth, I've accomplished a lot in "just one year."

Technically, one year is always 365 (or 366) days, or, for the Broadway fans among us, 525,600 minutes. But when we measure a year within a span of time, its value becomes dynamic; for every additional year that we do anything, a year becomes less and less statistically significant.

For example, I am 27, so for me, 27 years is "a lifetime." My grandparents, however, have lived three times as long. A year constitutes a significantly larger portion of my life than it does theirs. However, do the math, and the difference seems tiny: a year is 3.7 percent of my life, and about 1.2 percent of theirs.

I know - the writer is trying to do math. Apologies. The point is that the first year we do anything, that year represents 100 percent of our experience (as measured in years). As soon as we complete a second year, that decreases by half. As time goes on, this value decreases even more, but by less and less each time. So when we experience our first year - of life, a job, marriage, being a parent - we are experiencing it at its highest concentration. When we do something for the first time, it is never more potent. Just think of what a baby accomplishes developmentally in its first year of life. We never match that growth rate again in our lifetime.

Still, we value the accumulation of years in our world. There's a certain seniority to the way society works, one that says the more you've lived or the more you've done anything, the more qualified you are, the more credibility you have, the more respect you deserve. And there are good reasons for that. Our knowledge, skill, etc. unquestionably grows with every additional year - it's the rate of that growth that declines.

If I were to update my resume with all the new skills and experiences I've accrued in my first year with JUF, I would have a lot to add. A year from now, however, if I went to update it again, I would likely add or tweak a few sentences at the most. I will have twice the amount of experience, but not nearly the same amount of growth. Me in March 2015, however, is a more attractive hire than me right now. That's just how it is, and there's no faulting an employer who believes that years of experience equate to a greater knowledge and refined skills. What this does, however, is inadvertently send a message that one year of something is insignificant or unremarkable. One year means you're still a rookie, still in a honeymoon phase - still naïve. You haven't "been around the block."

All that might be true, but one year is the highest hurdle. After the first year of something, the second becomes easier, and then the third even smoother, and so on. Things start being taken for granted. The sheen wears off. The only thing that keeps us from dismissing one year of anything completely is the occasional heightened awareness that we're only given so many years, and how we choose to spend them is everything.

I worked hard and waited a number of my years to get to this point, when I can be fortunate enough to celebrate my first work-iversary. It seems small. It seems like just the beginning. It definitely doesn't seem cupcake-worthy. But just because it's a quite milestone doesn't diminish what it signifies.

You can always find reasons to celebrate. There's something worthy of special appreciation every day, but there's only one first anniversary, only one first time for everything, and "just one year" is gone before you know it.

Reasons why

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Most holidays stay the same from year to year, but not Valentine’s Day. She’s a rebel. One year she might be a happily anticipated, circle-the-calendar, make-you-write-poetry kind of day, and the next year she can become a dreaded, pointless Hallmark holiday that exists solely to humiliate you.

I never gave Valentine’s Day enough power to make or break how I felt about love, but I would be lying to pretend like the holiday wasn’t an annual reminder of the state of my love life. Given the day is somewhat unaffectionately known as “Singles Awareness Day,” I imagine I’m not alone in this annual contemplation. This year, I feel great about love; two years ago … well, I don’t remember how I felt, exactly, but it required some optimism. It’s hard to believe how quickly that can change. Love, as you’d expect from something so difficult to understand or quantify, is usually surprising and unexpected.

Valentine’s Day this year marks 17 months to the day that Mollie and I first met. We had been talking through an online dating site and arranged to meet at a bakery in Lakeview. We had a nice conversation and went our separate ways. We didn’t see each other again for two weeks. That day ended as unremarkably as it began, yet love had ever so mysteriously started to weave itself into our lives.

Mollie asks me from time to time why I love her. It’s a simple question, and I imagine many women (and men) like to be reminded every so often why their significant other thinks they’re special. The moment I hear it, my mind runs through the reasons like a computer through data, but nothing comes out my mouth. I know the reasons; I can parse them out as needed, but in the heat of the moment, there isn’t just one all-encompassing answer. So for the time being, and to not seem like I’m ignoring her, I’ll usually say something like, “because I feel it.”

Bad answer, I know. She usually lets me get away with it because she trusts me, but we have been talking a lot lately about couples who say, “I just knew so-and-so was the one,” “it was love at first sight,” “I felt it in my bones” and other variations on identifying someone as your soul mate. As the couple who met for the first time and barely talked to each other for two weeks (in fairness, those two weeks encompassed the High Holidays), that’s not us. All I “knew” was there was promise; that at the end of each of our first dates, I didn’t want it to be the last. Maybe that’s the exact same “I just knew” instinct, only less conscious and objectively less exciting.

We’ve heard these phrases that describe what love is supposed to feel like all our lives. We’ve often conditioned ourselves to believe that we’ll feel and think that exact way when we meet and fall in love with that “special someone.” Mollie and I have had to face these notions, stand our ground and believe in our relationship and story  even though “met online, waited a bit, and slowly started seeing each other more often” doesn’t fit with popularized, mainstream portrayals of romance.

In this sense, it would be contradictory for us to celebrate the queen of popularized, mainstream love – Valentine’s Day. We have the perfect excuse to be Valentine’s renegades – to honor our two-years-ago selves by defying the holiday’s enforcement of non-platonic, heterosexual love and not caving in to its trite customs. In fact, we’re kind of doing that this year, albeit inadvertently. Mollie received a rare babysitting opportunity for a sleepy infant (i.e. gold to a grad student) and I have permission to come with, so we are going to just relax and make fish tacos – romantic fish tacos.

But what’s wrong with taking one extra (albeit overly designated) day each year to go out of your way to express to someone you love that you still do? We all need reminders on occasion to go above and beyond for the ones we love – because they’re worth it. For people like me, who struggle to find the right words to say in the small, spontaneous moments, Valentine’s Day is a relief. It’s an opportunity to think about and plan out how I can express to those I love that I truly do in the way they deserve to see, hear and feel the other 364 days a year.

So to answer your question, Mollie, there are countless reasons why I love you. You’ll find 50 of them in your room when you get back home. Along with some chocolate (I’m not stupid).

Happy Valentine’s Day.

What I never thought I'd learn in Israel

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I met a man on the worst day of his life.

Of all the ways I imagined starting my blog post reflecting on my second-ever trip to Israel, this was not one of them. Now, it's the only way I can start it.

I would've rather focused on my premeditated idea of describing what it's like to see and experience Israel for the first time beyond the tinted windows of a Birthright coach bus. I thought I'd urge all of you to experience Israel through a lens of your own. That, or I had an idea to write about forming a charitable connection to Israel, which came to me the day before my trip when Aaron Cohen handed me a dollar and kindly insisted I give it to someone in the Holy Land who was clearly in need. I could blog about my quest to find the ideal recipient for this dollar, I thought, and come to some epiphany about giving.

But I can't earnestly blog about any of these things now.

I met JJ the morning of Friday, December 27, 2013, the second-to-last day of my trip. My girlfriend has been lucky to have many adult mentors in her life with who she maintains a close relationship. JJ is one of them. Mollie has made it a point to see him every time she is in Israel, so she wanted me to come with.

We met JJ at a café in Jerusalem, where we connected over some muesli and shakshuka, looked at recent pictures of his quickly growing children and even discussed the state of affairs in Israel. It was a pleasant and ordinary beginning to our Yom Shishi (Friday).

That afternoon we shopped at the shuk (market) for fruits and vegetables for Shabbat dinner, showered, and stowed our phones and laptops to enjoy our last Shabbat in Israel with Mollie's siblings and some friends. It was shaping up to be the relaxing end to our trip that we needed.

Right before we were ready to call it a night, we saw the news on Facebook. There had been a tragic accident that afternoon. JJ's youngest son, Roee, had died. He had been struck by a car. We had seen pictures of him that morning, playing in the snow that covered Jerusalem a not long before we arrived. He was not even two years old. The funeral would be held late Saturday night.

We sat awake into the early Saturday morning hours, stunned into silence. Shabbat afternoon we distracted ourselves and then made plans to get to the cemetery. We had no idea what to expect when we got there.

A cab dropped us off at Givat Shaul, where we waited in the chilly night air outside the chapel for some kind of cue. When the time came, we gathered shoulder-to-shoulder in the chapel, all of us wearing coats and jeans as if we were just stopping by, the crowd extending well beyond the chapel doors. When JJ's family entered, it was as if we were watching a film. The reality of the situation was impossible to grasp. His wife was convulsing, weeping; she and the other women of the family wailed something I could only describe as a soul tearing at the seams. They cried out in Hebrew, and through their weeping, the one word I could make out was "Lamah? Lamah!?" - "Why? Why!?"

The service was short. Psalms were chanted; JJ recited Kaddish through his tears; the family wept and hugged loved ones. No words were shared. What do you say about a two-year-old boy inexplicably torn from his family? That he was loved? That he should've lived a full life? These words offer little solace.

We walked down a long hill in darkness to the burial site, droves of sad and silent friends and family flooding the graveyard, wedging themselves between the raised stone tombs to surround the mourners. After a final Kaddish, we took a cab back to Jerusalem, still bustling on Motzei Shabbat. Hungry and chilled, we grabbed some food and hot drinks before packing for our flight the next morning.

I hoped my trip would strengthen my connection to Israel and clarify why I felt that connection. Now, I understand that the Talmudic phrase kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh (all Jews are responsible for one another) is not so much an instruction of an obligation to Israel and Jews everywhere, but a recognition of the abiding kinship we share from which that obligation stems. On Friday morning, JJ was a stranger; on Saturday night, I grieved for his family as I would for a close friend. Our connection to each other seems tenuous, but we both know what it means to say the words of kaddish, the feeling of sadness and anguish, the power of the words sanctifying God's name.

As Mollie and I headed to the airport early that morning, I remembered the dollar Aaron gave me, which was still in my wallet, forgotten in the whirlwind of the last couple days. Then I had an idea.

If I scrounged up another $17, I would have enough to do the one Jewish act I always found a bit cliché - plant a tree in Israel. What better way to memorialize Roee than to give life to something when it was unfairly taken away? And with Tu B'shevat, the "birthday" of trees, just around the corner, it could not be more fitting. I know a tree cannot fill the void JJ and his family have in their lives - nothing can. But if the worst day of a man's life can be a seed for anything good, even just a tree, it's something - something good where before there was only pain.

I hope Roee's tree will have the long and beautiful life that he could not. I hope it will stand for the endurance of creation and for life's bounty, even in the toughest of times. I hope it, and Roee's memory, will serve as reminders of the tough but moving words of Psalm 23: "Adonai Roee, lo echsar" - "God is my shepherd, I lack for nothing."

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