Tuesday, December 17, 2013

When the Beatles and the Platters Meet at Starbucks

It was a regular morning and I was listening to the radio before pulling into our local Starbucks. One of my favorite Beatles song was playing; “All the lonely people”. It is kind of a depressing song to start the day with;

”Where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?” But nevertheless, it’s a Beatles song and I was caught in a sentimental moment. I got out of my car and still had that song playing in my head as I entered Starbucks and was ready to order my beverage. It was a busy shift and the line was long. I was looking around and all of the sudden an answer came to my mind “This is where they belong…the lonely people, right here…at Starbucks” most of the people who were sitting in the comfortable couches were sitting alone. They were, of course, plugged in to their smartphones, listening to music and with their eyes on the screen. They looked busy. While I was still standing in line a wonderful song from the 50’s began playing at the Starbucks speakers, pushing aside the Beatles song. Does anybody remember The Platter’s famous song, “The Great Pretender”?

It goes by “Oh-oh, yes, I’m the great pretender

Pretending that I’m doing well

My need is such, I pretend too much

I’m lonely but no one can tell…

And a “Eureka” moment occurred; I was looking around at the lonely people, trying to look busy, pretending they are not alone. I thought to myself, everyone here can drink their coffee at home (and for much less money), why is it that they come here and sit here in public to drink their coffee? To me the answer is, to either meet other people or to not be alone. However, being plugged to their devices, they are preventing themselves from creating these human interactions that will eventually help them not be alone.

I got my beverage and left the store, I kept thinking how attached we all have become to our smart devices and the “added value” these little things are bringing into our lives. It used to be a means to make a phone call, then it became our day-timers, calendars and watches, then it also became our camera, later it became our emails, internet, pharmacy, bank, games and so much more. But the biggest thing of all is that it became our friend! We are never really alone, as long as we carry it with us.

That is a scary thought to me.

A couple of months ago I was planning to take my daughters on a road trip to Zion National Park (only two and half hours drive from our house). We were meeting a girlfriend of mine and her kids and were ready to hit the road, but then, I realized that I couldn’t find my phone. I remembered that the battery was running low and must have died, which made it even harder to locate it around the house. I was looking everywhere but couldn’t find it. Being concerned about driving in the dark, I decided to go ahead and leave for our two-day trip without my phone. I called my husband and told him not to bother looking for me as I am off the grid. Wow, 48 hours without my iPhone (didn’t take my laptop either) was such a liberating experience. All the gurus are talking about being in the present, doing meditation, and all the techniques to get our brains to quiet down; it is all so very simple – forget your smartphone somewhere! Giving yourself a break from the on going and demanding relationship that we have with these devices can generate a great sense of Zen and much more.

Not having my iPhone for 48 hours increased my attention to the magnificent nature I was surrendered by and elevated the depth of conversations that I had with my daughters and friends. Now I will be lying if I told you that I wasn’t a bit itchy from time to time, looking for my phone, wondering who might be needing me and what updates I might be missing, but being truthful I also knew that in the moments of “needing” the phone, I was also trying to avoid something else. For some people this “something else avoidance” could be having deep conversations, having to listen to other people’s opinion, doing some soul searching, reflecting on events, planning ahead, connecting with strangers, and even feeling an emotional pain. For some people, as soon as there is a glimpse of an emotional pain (a memory of a negative experience), we want to shut it down quickly. Almost like swallowing a “happy pill” to take the uncomfortable feelings away; our smart device is doing just that. I wonder what an impact we can have over our lives, if we don’t shy away from these feelings. If we do let ourselves be vulnerable and exposed. Being in the moment, even if it is sad and lonely. Feeling the real feelings without sugarcoating them. My two cents on this matter is that we can actually do miracles in our emotional progression. Being in a Starbucks alone and unplugged will invite other people into our lives. It can be a smile from another person, an eye contact, an expression, maybe even a conversation. If only we take the time to look at other people and initiate a connection, we might have a huge impact on a stranger’s day and perhaps even a stranger’s life. The power of human interaction can never be replaced by our smartphones. Having a stranger smile and say to us “Good Morning”, cannot be done by our phones. (No. Siri doesn’t count).

When the Platters and Beatles wrote their songs (back in the 50s and 60s) they couldn’t possibly have imagined that their songs will be “meeting” on a random morning in a Starbucks. However, they did raise awareness about the human need to feel connected to another. There are so many great things that technology has brought into our lives, including the smartphones, but let us be cautious with the emotional dependency that we might develop toward them. After all, as Thomas Merton said, “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.”

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Twas the 8th night of Hanukah and I looked at my menorah and realized something was missing from this holiday. I lit the menorah each night, check. I said all the prayers, check. I sent some gifts to my youngest family members, check. So what was missing? I was cooking dinner and I realized there was a lack of latkes this holiday season. Every year I complain about the amount of fat, oil, and yummy fried potatoes I eat but not one has crossed my lips this year. I wish I could say it’s because I’m on a diet and have lost a few pounds but no that holiday weight creep has already found me thanks to a brownie recipe I made from Pinterest. I had a moment of deja vu back to Erev Yom Kippur when I was sitting in synagogue thinking about what life was going to be like in the upcoming year with my new career. I was prepared for challenges but what came to my mind I wasn't prepared for.

It dawned on me that my job as a non-profit Jewish professional afforded me a level of engagement in my religion that was easy and comfortable. Over the past 20 years, I never once thought about things like what will I do for Sukkot, Yom Ha'atzmaut, or Hanukah. My Jewish identity was wrapped up in my job. I was fully engaged in Jewish culture through activities, holiday observances and weekly kabbalat Shabbat at our JCC. I lived and worked in the Jewish world but only attended synagogue on occasion. I felt fully engaged and full from all the latkes!

As I sat there thinking, the Rabbi began his sermon. I was fully expecting the usual ask for money, political speech or why we need to be behind Israel sermon. It was not any of those things. To my surprise, he began speaking about engagement at the synagogue. My first thought was “Ok, this is weird!” My second thought led me to start thinking about “now what?” I no longer work at a JCC and will have to actually “work” at finding ways to be engaged in Jewish life. I realized this is actually what most Jews have to do and shouldn’t be that difficult. Right? Wrong!

There’s a lot competing for my time. Now that it’s not my job to be at the Havdallah Hayride or Chanukah Choopla, will I make the effort I wondered?

Rabbi Robinson said it beautifully. “You want to be here, you want to make a connection. You’re good at connecting with others—you have a circle of friends and loved ones, and have no trouble schmoozing in your given circle. But when you come here, you’re alone, and miserable. Not because someone treated you explicitly poorly, and not because you’re not committed to the idea of being a part of the synagogue—you’re here, after all. But there’s a lack of engagement, a lack of comfort, a lack of connection. So you come, you have some chitchat, and you leave disappointed rather than renewed.” It was like he was talking directly to me. So where do I belong? I’m an intermarried gay Jew with no children. If you have a group that fits that description, please call me, I’d love to hear from you! I’ve read a lot of the articles written about the Pew study and all I keep thinking is “I am the Pew Study results”. I’m intermarried and my Judaism is based more on culture than in religion. Since I have no children, I don’t need the synagogue for Hebrew school. So why should I join? I’m not my parent’s generation who believed that we as Jews should belong just to belong. I believe it’s important to be involved but I’m not going to join just to say I’m a member.

Hanukah was my first Jewish holiday not working at a Jewish organization and I had so many opportunities to engage or even make latkes at home (Oy, the smell of oil is too much for me to deal with) but I didn’t. I realize now that I’m going to have to make a serious commitment to myself to engage in the community where it once was just easy and frankly part of my job. I’m calling this a HanukahFail but only temporarily as I know my next opportunity to engage comes every Shabbat.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Feast of Gratitude and Miracles: when the turkey meets the latke

Gratitude means thankfulness, counting your blessings, noticing simple pleasures, and acknowledging everything that you receive. It means learning to live your life as if everything were a miracle, and being aware on a continuous basis of how much youve been given”  -  Marelisa Fabrega

I was very skeptical about miracles, and never particularly grateful for what I had as I always believed I worked hard and I got what I deserved. I took everything for granted. It all changed when I almost lost my mom in a car accident. Although the doctors said there was not much they could do, they kept fighting for her survival. Since then, I believe in miracles and Im especially thankful for good health and for the miracle workers out there. This year, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving brought it all together for me- someone shared with me a few days ago.

Ive always celebrated Hanukkah since the day my saba (grandfather) gave me the same Hanukkiah Im still lighting 40 plus years later. With that Hanukkiah, my saba gave me the wonderful gift of tradition. I love Hanukkah, the celebration and its meaning. I love celebrating miracles, not only because life itself is one, but because I believe in those who create miracles and applaud those who keep believing.

When I moved to the USA, 15 years ago, I learned all about Thanksgiving, a joyous celebration of gratitude that was easily welcomed in our family tradition. Being grateful is something that my Jewish roots have always taught me, from the morning prayers to different rituals during the day. Judaism is a religion that constantly reminds us to appreciate life and its gifts. I love everything about Thanksgiving. I celebrate the good and the challenging, as one without the other cannot exist, and Im thankful for being alive and be able to overcome whatever life brings.

This year, Thanksgiving falls on the first day of Hanukkah, a rare fact that only happened once before, in 1888. I believe it is easy to celebrate both together, not only because latkes can go well with cranberry sauce, or the turkey can look nice on a table next to the Hanukkah candles, or maybe because both are a celebration of freedom from religious oppression and persecution. I believe Hanukkah and Thanksgiving can complement each other in a beautiful way: being thankful for the miracle of life and for those who make miracles happen!

That insight shared with me a few days ago made me think about so many things, but mostly about themiracle workers. It made me think about all of us who volunteer in different organizations to make the difference, and those who contribute with their donations to give hope and a better tomorrow to others, the ones who work in the non for profit sector, and the police officers and the fire fighters, and the teachers, doctors and nurses, the soldiers defending their country, and all the good people in this planet who one way or another decide to make it a better place. Anyone who still believes that something good can happen if we at least try, no matter how devastating reality can be some times, is a miracle worker to me. And to that miracle worker, I will dedicate this Thanksgiving that this year is holding the hand of Hanukkah, a celebration to feel gratitude for their miracles, day in and day out. An eternal gratitude for keeping the oil burning!

I invite you to think about the miracles in your life, the people who create them for you and the miracles that you create for others. Connecting with those miracles helps us understand our purpose on earth and to feel the gratitude and joy for our miraculous life.

Have a happy holiday and a life filled with latkes and turkey, miracles and gratitude!