Sparks In The Sky

I truly believe that all art forms can honour Hashem and capture an essence of His glory in some small way. This includes music, paintings, and, of course, poetry. I’m always looking for meaningful Jewish poetry, and the other day, I found myself inspired by Ester Kazinik’s beautiful and talented poem, which she has kindly allowed me to share here…

She twirls the fire
Dances the drum beats
Her wings against the star
Filled sky and dies
Buried face up so she won’t miss the falling
Stars or fallen soldiers
Wings outstretched taut
She taught them all to fly with wings
She molded from warmed clay
Her nails scratching, etching marks down backs
Of hills- the mud slid towards bare trees
It was winter and white like snow
She glowed in the dark
Sparks from the bonfire
Danced up to the sky
She danced hard
Beating the earth with her feet
Hair wild in the wind
She whipped the colors against
Stretched leathers
Feathers in her hair declared
The rare beauty she had become
A crow and owl in one
Her talons aching for new flesh
Inhaling pungent smoke she choked and
Lay back on grass and willow
She danced spinning circles of light and energy
Altering the present and fluctuating time
Skirts spinning like a dervish a fervor
She stood still
Silent
Breathing
Fire

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Doing Chanukah Differently

Those of you who use social media are probably inundated with Facebook posts, Instagram photos, and witty tweets capturing the magic of Chanukah. Between recipes, adverts, and countless photos of other people’s cooking, it’s easy to feel panicked by the rapidly approaching holiday. But maybe, you don’t have to feel this way.

Every year, I say the same things to myself. This year, I won’t run myself into debt buying Chanukah gifts and food. This year, I won’t worry about the little things like menus and table decorations. This year, I’ll appreciate the fact that Chanukah is a meaningful holiday and not simply synonymous with gifts and food. And every year, I find myself running around like a headless chicken, tearing my hair out over how much money I’ve spent and the fact that all the other women on Facebook have already started cooking for *next* Chanukah and here I am without even a menu plan to my name.

Then this year, I decided that I was going to start doing Chanukah differently.

I looked at what had made the previous Chanukahs so difficult- miserable, even- for me. I think I spent too much money trying to win the affection of those around me, I realised. Chanukah isn’t really about gifts, and I was attempting to use gifts to make my family and friends choose Chanukah over the “other December holiday”, perhaps even trying to get them to like me more.

Then there was the food. All the time spent cooking “traditional” dishes which my family didn’t actually like. Day after day, year after year, they pushed my latkes around their plates before discreetly throwing them away, on top of whatever else it was I had laboured over in the hope that just this once, we’d have a “proper Chanukah”.

It followed the same pattern every year. I would begin Chanukah super organised, telling myself that this year, it would all go according to plan and I would have a happy family and a perfect Chanukah. By day three, I would have given up on the whole idea and spend the rest of the week alone, often in bed, crying about how it “all went wrong”. Some people just don’t learn. Until this year. This year, I learnt.

I learnt that no matter how much money I spend, it’s up to my family and friends whether or not they want to celebrate Chanukah. It’s no good plying people with gifts in an attempt to change their minds. I learnt that it wasn’t my job to prepare beautiful traditional dishes like the other women on Facebook did, if it came at the cost of shalom bayis and my own happiness. And above all, I learnt that a large part of my enjoyment of Chanukah came from who I spent it with.

When I cut my Chanukah gift budget in half, I also cut off the people who made the holiday stressful. Because, despite the number of times I told myself that true happiness came from within, and that Chanukah isn’t supposed to be this materialistic, I realised that it’s pretty much impossible to be happy when your efforts are being thrown back in your face. And when I took this step, and made plans with genuinely good people, I found that for the first time in my life I was genuinely looking forward to Chanukah.

Next week, you’ll find me with the people who truly care, as I look into the flickering lights of the Menorah and realise how lucky I am. Because even though Chanukah commemorates a certain miracle of oil, there’s no reason why I can’t recall the other miracles in my life- including the fact that this year, I won’t have to make latkes…

Parshas Vayishloch: The Woman Who Had No Voice

Every year, when I read Parsha Vayishloch, I am left at a loss for words. I’m not referring to the reconciliation between Yaakov and Esov, nor am I talking about Rochel’s death. I’m talking about Dinah. Dinah, who was raped, and ultimately failed- not by her brothers who slaughtered an entire village for her, but by the rabbonim who spent the centuries which followed blaming Dinah for what happened.

It starts with Rashi. Rashi, the trustworthy, respected rabbi, and writer of perhaps the most widely used Torah commentary, who casually drops the following statement; “[Dinah was known as the daughter of Leah, and not the daughter of Yaakov], because of her going out… since she (Leah) too was in the habit of going out, as it is said: ‘and Leah came forth toward him'”. We learn from this, apparently, that Leah’s habit of going out was “immodest” and unbecoming for a Jewish woman. She should have stayed in the tent, like Sarah Imeinu, and it’s heavily implied that had Dinah not gone out so often- and, indeed, had Leah not set this immodest example- she wouldn’t have been raped.

The blame falls on Dinah, and on her mother. Shechem, her rapist, gets his just desserts, when he and his village are killed by Dinah’s brothers, but they defend their decision by saying, “We could not let our sister be like a harlot”, a comparison which to me, in the 21st century, seems completely repulsive. The dismissal of rape victims as promiscuous women is a troubling trend which continues to this very day, and no matter what excuses I hear about it being the attitude of the time, it nonetheless leaves me speechless. The Torah is eternal. It is supposed to be unchangeable. So how can we excuse these statements by simply saying “that’s how things were at the time”?

And then, looking at modern articles and chiddushim on Parshas Vayishloch, the horrifying attitude towards Dinah’s rape continues. One Facebook page dedicated to modesty declares sincerely that Dinah’s rape was due to the fact that she showed her forearm, sending the message that it was her fault for tempting Shechem. If this is the message being sent to our young women, how can we expect them to feel at home in Orhodox Judaism? How can we expect them to feel empowered by their religion and ancestry when messages such as these are commonplace?

And so, after years of being at a loss for words, I’m speaking out.

I can’t change the Torah. None of us can. As an Orthodox Jew, I believe that the Torah is emes. It is the truth, and, for better or worse, we humans can’t take parts out, or add things in, or whitewash over the bits which trouble us. What we can do, however, is tackle these things head on; examine them in great detail, from every angle, until we understand them. Additionally, we need to take a look at the messages being sent out by contemporary rabbonim. Quite often, these messages are far from the truth. The “chiddush” about Dinah being raped because she wore short sleeves finds its basis in the words of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman, the first to suggest it, but could- and should- have been dismissed long since then. Instead, we find it used as an example of why tznius is important.

I am a huge advocate for tznius, but not in the context of preventing rape. This year, when we read Parshas Vayishloch, we need to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes, unaffected by the centuries of misogynistic victim-blaming which surrounds it. We need to put aside what Dinah wore, and how often she went out, and look at what we can do for the millions of Dinahs- rape victims- who have found themselves blamed and criminalised for what happened to them. The women without voices. The women who read these things in Jewish schools or on social media and blame themselves for what happens to them. The women who we, as a community, have failed.

Not Good Enough?

I’ve spent a lot of this week thinking about the issue of “who is a good Jew”, the subject of the article I wrote on Monday. Having read about the tale of the Kotzker Rebbe, who told his student that everyone is a good Jew, except he who already thinks he is one, I started wondering whether I fell into that category, and whether or not the messages sent by this statement were positive, or harmful. My thoughts went beyond “who is a good Jew”, to “who is a good person”, and I started wondering whether or not

As usual, my questions were answered by a woman named Chana Weisberg- a writer, editor, and star of numerous inspirational videos. Her latest video, titled “Enough of this Not-Enoughness”, tackled the issue of messages to better oneself. She spoke of how being told that one isn’t good enough is inherently harmful, when it comes with the added baggage of comparison. Comparing yourself to others, she tells us, is a surefire way to make “not enough” messages seem paralysing. But when you turn it around and compare your current situation to your potential, as opposed to someone else’s, you find yourself empowered and able to perform better.

The more I thought about Chana’s words, the more sense they made to me. In the past, I had always told myself, “That’s not good enough- your friend could do better“; I measured my own success by comparing it to other people’s, and was left feeling totally inadequate as a result. I hated myself for not meeting my own expectations, nor the perceived expectations of others who I compared myself to. But maybe, I realised, I should leave other people out of this.

Once I take my friend or rival out of the equation, all that’s left is my own potential. I can no longer tell myself that I’m a terrible person, because I’m comparing my actions against what I could be achieving, not what someone else could be achieving. I move the focus onto how I can do better, as opposed to wallowing in feelings of inadequacy, and constantly envying those around me- although I know, deep down, that they, too, have their own problems and likely do the same.

Do I still sometimes feel like I’m not good enough? Without a doubt. A lifetime of feeling insignificant and unable to succeed cannot be undone in a few days. But this week, I’ve caught myself thinking comparatively in terms of not being good enough, and adjusted my thought process accordingly. And, surprisingly, it seems to be working. I no longer judge myself for not being as “brilliant” as the women I was jealous of, and instead my thinking revolves around my own potential. Thanks to the Kotzker Rebbe and Chana Weisberg, I have finally found myself feeling slightly less inadequate- perhaps even confident…

Parshas Vayeitzei: Learning From Leah

This week’s Sedra tells the story of two sisters. It’s an oft-repeated tale; one of the sisters is younger, more beautiful, and loved by everyone, while the older daughter is less attractive and less popular, a fact which contributes to the turbulence of their relationship, which is marked by rivalry and jealousy. Needless to say, it’s the younger sister- Rochel, in this case- who attracts male admiration, and ends up with a marriage proposal from none other than Yaakov Avinu, who works for their father for seven years so that he can marry her. But then something happens, and when Yaakov wakes up the morning after the wedding, he realises that he is married to Leah, the younger sister, and that their father- the deceitful Laban- has tricked him.

Needless to say, Yaakov is not especially pleased by his discovery, and confronts Laban. But in the end, he promises to work for another seven years to marry the younger sister- so great is his love for the beautiful Rochel. Of course, it’s touching to hear of his dedication to her, but one is left feeling rather sorry for Leah. One can imagine just how hard it is to be the older, less attractive sister, who can only get married by accident, and then finds herself “hated” as a result.

I think that all of us have been Leah at one time or another. Growing up, the story of sibling rivalry certainly spoke to me, as I found myself feeling insignificant in comparison to my brother, who was better looking, more intelligent, and- I felt- better liked. As I grew older, I began to realise that he had his own problems, and his life wasn’t nearly as perfect as I had imagined. Once I realised this, our relationship improved and we became inseparable, but I still connect deeply with Leah on a personal level, as I struggle with feeling like the least attractive, least intelligent, and- above all- least interesting friend in my peer group.

But despite her unfortunate predicament, Leah’s story is one of brilliance. It takes time, but Leah has seven children- six sons, and a daughter- and we learn that her sons’ names allude to the fact that she was also a prophetess, as she predicted their futures. As if this wasn’t enough, we learn that Yaakov eventually admits that Leah is his “chief” wife, and the mother of the majority of his children. There’s also something unique about Leah: she is the first person to praise Hashem. After the birth of her children, she turns to Him and thanks Him for all he has given her, perhaps thinking of her transformation from the unloved woman who was sneered at to the mother of multitudes.

We can’t deny that Leah had a difficult life. But we learn from her that perhaps, it’s not being young, popular and attractive which matters the most in life. Although she encountered difficulties and opposition, and felt inferior to her younger sister, Hashem answered her prayers and gave her the children she so desperately longed for. What Leah lacked in popularity, she made up for in faith; her tears ascended to heaven and her prayers reached Hashem’s ears, and she made sure to set a precedent of thankfulness. It turns out that these things were more important after all; so if, like Leah, you’re feeling insignificant, remember the story of her life, and how Hashem blessed her.

Twenty

Today I turned twenty.

Lots of people will be surprised to hear this. I quite often receive messages from readers who presume I’m in my fifties or sixties- not exactly flattering, but it makes a nice change from feeling held back by my age in a world where people won’t take young women seriously, at least not when they’re talking about the Torah. But I digress. Every birthday, somebody- usually a relative- asks me, “How does it feel being a year older?”. In the past, my response has always been “I feel the same”. It’s true. What difference does a day make?

But over the past year, I feel that I’ve grown in leaps and bounds. I look back on who I was this time last year- and for the first time in my life, I’m proud.

Pride doesn’t come easily to me. It’s easy to say that that’s a good thing- and to an extent, it is. But not when you go through life feeling like a total failure because you simply can’t be proud of yourself. Until recently, I always used to laugh at the fact that people came to me for advice- whether it was through my website or study group, or friends messaging me looking for my take on an issue. My own life is a shambles, I would say. What on earth makes them think I’m qualified to help them with theirs?

Then today, as I thought about where I was on my 19th birthday last year, and what I’ve been through over the twelve months which followed, I realised that perhaps I am a somebody after all. Perhaps, I tentatively suggested to myself, I am a success. There’s no one size fits all definition for successful, but I think that being happy with where you are is a good place to start. Am I happy with my life right now? Not entirely. I, like everyone else, have problems, and doubts. I have nights where I dread the next day, and days when I don’t think I can face the world. But somehow, I always manage; and that is my personal success.

I’ve learned a lot over this past year. Way too much to put into one short post. I’ve learned about true friends, and fake ones. I’ve learned about love, and I’ve learned about heartbreak. I’ve learned who the people around me really are, and I’ve learned about the power of a few kind words, or a thoughtful message on a gloomy day. I’ve learned- albeit over the space of a whole year- that perhaps I’m not one of the beautiful young women on Facebook with perfect families and healthy diets and tight dresses and faces so beautiful they don’t even need Instagram filters (honestly, can you imagine that?)- and that’s ok. Above all, I’ve learned who I really am. And as I think about all I’ve been through, I realise that, at long last, I’m proud of myself. Not many people could have been through what I have, and come out smiling- or at least trying to smile, because who says life is always perfect?

If you’re, like I was, a young person doubting your place in this world, and perhaps even doubting your self worth, I have some advice for you. I was going to interject Golda Meir’s famous quote here- “Don’t be so humble, you’re not that great”- but thankfully I realised that maybe it’s a touch insensitive. Instead, I’m going to tell you to look at where you were a year ago, and realise how much you’ve grown. Look at the bad things that happened, and realised you survived them all. Look at where you are today, and realise that, if, despite all the hard times and insecurities and tragedies, you’re still here, in one piece, reading this, then you’re doing amazingly.

I’m probably going to finish writing this article, all about growth and thankfulness and all those other things which make you roll your eyes, shut my laptop, and start complaining about the weather, or something which happened on my birthday. And that’s okay. We can’t be perfect and thankful all the time, but we can stop and realise how blessed and amazing we are; as I just did, and as I hope you will, too.

Frumkeit and Femininity: My Interview with Franciska

Franciska is a successful singer. Through beautiful melodies, inspiring videos, and profound lyrics, her words touch and inspire listeners around the world. She is also a Torah-observant Jew, who combines her love for music with a love for tradition: no easy feat in the fast paced modern world. She tells us, “I was born in the States but grew up in Moscow in a Rabbi’s home. I moved to the States after studying at the Michalala seminar, and I graduated from Touro College in NY. I lived in Atlanta, Baltimore and now in Bala Cynwyd, or Lower Merion, near Philadelphia”. When asked about her musical background, she replies, “I started writing music when I was quite young, so my first album (which was released in 2012) was full of songs that I had composed as a child. To date, I have released 5 albums professionally and I’m already working on album 6. Additionally, I have 11 music videos and there are more coming out”.

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Frum Jews follow the laws of “kol isha”, which restricts men from listening to women singing, and, as such, means that observant singers such as Franciska can only perform in front of women. I asked her if this presented a huge challenge, and she told me, “Since the market isn’t that huge, I guess making it big isn’t the most unrealistic dream….however the ‘big’…isn’t actually that big, if you know what I mean”. On the other hand, she reflected that being a frum, female singer, was also inspiring, saying “The camaraderie between my so called competition is amazing. we are all in the ‘kol isha’ space together and we’re helping each other out. I love that I can sing about such spiritual and beautiful things; my music is my form of avodas Hashem and that’s one of the strongest parts of my Yiddishkeit”.

Franciska admits that her faith can, sometimes, prevent a challenge.”I try to get as much exposure I can, but at the same time I can’t perform at most events or venues. Even female catered events have male guests and the platform for me to perform live is very limited. Maybe others have different experiences, but this is hard for me”. She decides not to let her dedication to Halacha hold her back, though, stating that “My faith compliments everything I can do and my passion is bringing new music to ancient texts…. so without my faith and the inspiration I get from it, my music wouldn’t be the same”.

When I asked Franciska if she had any dreams, she told me that she longs to inspire and help other talented women. “I would really like to start a label and offer the environment and resources for all the talented women out there. Of course, this is a dream right now, because the amount of money needed for this is enormous and the market is not big enough to sustain such investment”. But Franciska’s dedication and willingness to work hard shines through, and leaves me wondering for how long her dream will remain just a dream. Her ability to inspire and influence seemingly knows no bounds, and she loves helping and encouraging others, telling me that when things are difficult, “A fan who reaches out randomly to tell me how I enhanced her prayer or her Jewish Holiday keeps me going. That’s all I need”.

When working in an area as volatile and fast-paced as the Jewish music business, perseverance and enthusiasm are both very important, as Franciska demonstrates when telling me about her plans for the rest of the year. “I’ll be creating music videos, and a new album! I’m going to keep going and I have a new show- in fact, I am booking up my tour dates!”. I walk away feeling inspired and amazed by what I’ve heard. In all my experience with the music world, I seldom find someone as unique and genuine as Franciska, and I genuinely believe that she is going to be the next big thing; one of the strong, inspirational Jewish women who are celebrated in her latest video:

Franciska can be contacted using the information below:
franciskakay@gmail.com
http://www.franciskamusic.com
1(845)-642-7636
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