Posts Tagged ‘Torah’

Nature or Nurture?

The last two weeks in my home town I’ve been cleaning out my house.

Discarding tangible “stuff” that is a microcosm (or is that macrocosm?) of who you are and from whence you came is completely emotionally exhausting, thrilling, and terrifying.   I have dozens of boxes full of tens of thousands of loose photo prints, photo albums, negatives, and slides of family members, from sorrowful sepia portraits of impoverished great-grandparents left behind in tsarist Russia, to oodles of shots of my grandchildren participating in all varieties of childhood activities.  I have a hundred magazines and newspapers and journals containing articles I wrote over the past three decades about every topic imaginable, from Jewish culture to pop culture; health issues and political interviews;  travel; camping;  extreme sports; and weird museums.  All of these my husband is dutifully scanning and documenting.

I’m just now getting to stored boxes from my deceased parents, which  include amazing revelations about them both (it turns out that my mother, who throughout her life complained about how stupid and inadequate she felt, was a National Merit Scholar, junior high school valedictorian, and captain of her debate team (who knew!?); my father was friends with actress Mitzi Gaynor and served as her legal counsel, and was qualified to argue cases in the US Supreme Court; he survived unscathed through hundreds of beach landings in the South Pacific during WWII as a Lt. Cmdr of a fleet of LCIs, as well as a kamikaze attack, only to be hit by a streetcar in San Francisco during his discharge from the Armed Forces and was confined for months to a wheelchair in a veterans’  hospital there).

I was my father’s only child and there is nothing of mine he did not save.  Hence I have every bit of correspondence we exchanged (he was a workaholic and rarely home when I was awake, so we used to exchange notes (example, age 4:  “Dad, I am so angry at you I don’t even want to give you a kiss!”; at age 9, I wrote an “Amicus Curiae” brief in third person arguing in legalese why I deserved a raise in allowance).  In my visits to his office I was given free rein to record my thoughts on a Dictaphone (a needle scratched into a piece of cylindrical celluloid, to be played back at a later date on a special machine); one such celluloid recording is labeled “my daughter’s  thoughts on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy” — I was 6 1/2 years old at the time.  My parents also saved every single report card from nursery school through high school (I confess I was not a stellar student and rarely worked to my potential, according to my teachers’ comments).

There are two things I find most fascinating:  the observational essays I wrote as a pre-teen and teenager are still entirely relevant today (why I loved my parents; an analysis of their marriage (I was a precocious little brat!); what life was like in Israel before the 1973 Yom Kippur War; why Judaism was important to me; and, perhaps even more unsettling, the realization that for better or worse, the person I was at the young age of 4 years and 2 months, based on my preschool evaluation, is basically the same person that I am today.

According to that report card, I was “physically agile and active; good in both small and large muscle control;” I ate “well” and “willingly and enthusiastically participated in all activities, especially music and stories and craft work.”   As part of a group, I “got acquainted with others with self-assurance, enjoyed one ‘special friend’ but could include others if necessary”; usually preferred to lead, and reacted to other children in a “friendly but sometimes indifferent manner.”  Under “temperament” I was “sociable and flexible, sometimes critical; but popular with the children.”   According to my father, in a series of letters he wrote his parents when I was ages 2 – 10,  I left my socks and shoes discarded all over the house.  I had many interests but lacked the staying power and self-discipline to develop expertise or finesse.  I was highly opinionated.  Whether it was a game of Candyland or a school debate, I hated losing so much that rather than possibly win at something, I avoided all forms of competition in any subject.

Fifty-two years later, I am still all of the above!

Every person is given talents and weaknesses, good traits and bad; we were designed to be dependent on others’ talents where we are lacking so we can learn and practice give-and-take, cooperation, humility, gratitude and love.  But what if we have a natural propensity for a certain character weakness – – for example, anger, or inappropriate compulsive or immoral behavior?  Are we forever doomed, or is it possible to change negative character traits and flaws that are inherent and seemingly genetically programmed within us?

According to Jewish philosophy, using the Torah as a moral compass, it is our life’s task to overcome character flaws and to constantly strive to better ourselves.  It is no coincidence that much of the Bible reads like a soap opera; not one of the people mentioned in the Bible is free of sin or the temptation of sin; indeed their “saintliness” is more a result of the toil required in changing  and overcoming their “natural” negative traits into genuinely positive ones; growing and developing via a string of disappointments, trials, tribulations and joys, into the leaders they eventually become.  We vicariously experience their successes; equally we mourn their failures; but they are “real” so that we, too, can empathize and emulate  them and at the same time realize that positive change is not out of our reach nor impossible, no matter how formidable.

Living in Maine I have consciously and conscientiously  made several positive personal changes within myself, yet reading that nursery school report card was certainly humbling.  I still  have so far to go – – so many things to work on and improve about myself and in my interaction with others.  I realized this:  I guess, ideally, we’re never “done” and perhaps precisely this  – –  more than any other reason – –  should be our motivation for wanting to live a long life.

As I read my parents’ words and reflect on the legacies contained in the myriad of cardboard boxes, I hope that my own “stuff” will be a sort of legacy for my own children, both the good and even the baggage, from which they will grow and develop and soar.

P.S.  Still working on picking up my socks!

Shabbat in the Maine Woods

I could really relate to this and next week’s Torah portions.  Avraham is out in the middle of nowhere, recovering from several life-changing experiences, and he decides to seek out guests.  So he leaves his tent doors open, waiting.

Well we didn’t leave our door open (too many bugs and falling leaves) but somehow we found Shabbos guests, the “P’s.”  And they are both Jewish!  Who knew?  They live two mountaintops away, and like everyone who comes and settles in this part of Maine, they are “interesting” (in a good way).

First, a bit about my Shabbat preparations.  I had forgotten to bring a small blech from our “home town” (the stovetop piece of metal that keeps our food warm), and I didn’t want to keep the propane oven running the whole of Shabbos (propane is expensive and we’re conservation-conscious).  That’s when I realized we could use the top of our soapstone woodstove!  The night was cold enough so that a crackling fire would make things cozy and comfortable, in addition to serving as a food-warmer.  I’ve attached a photo so you get the idea…


Soapstone Woodstove as a Shabbos blech (hotplate)


Back to the “P’s.”  It’s a second marriage for both, nearly 20 years strong.  Both were idealistic hippie-ish kids in the 70’s, children of affluent doctors and lawyers and academians, suburban Jews on the East Coast, and both were part of the “Back to the Land” movement that was prevalent way back then – a kind of predecessor to the “green” movement of today, when people bought cheap land on which they grew what they needed to eat and live, building teepees and cabins and yurts, sometimes living communally and sometimes as hermits, raising families and becoming generally self-sufficient.  Many couldn’t hack it – it was a hard life; some realized that there was little romance in having to toil at all hours in extreme weather; with little guidance or experience many found handling tools and livestock beyond their ken; for some the isolation was too great.  But those that made it became modern-day homesteading pioneers.

Mr. P came to Maine simply because land was cheap.  He bought an entire mountain – several hundred acres – and with his wife and a couple of babies they started to carve out a home.  And I do mean carve – literally.  By themselves, they started excavating a long, winding road up the mountain to their home site, cutting trees, removing stumps, smoothing, laying gravel up the steep incline.  The house itself sits on ledge – solid bedrock.  Mr. P had to shave the granite so it would be flat enough to place his foundation.  They were too far from power lines, nor did they have the funds to think about (or desire) having electricity, so they put in some solar panels and a small generator for the most basic needs they couldn’t do without.  And slowly, every day of their lives for 30 years, they toiled (and continue to toil) to build and maintain their house and property as it sits today.

The challenges were immense.  An experiment with a windmill tower as a power source ended when it was hit by lightening, and the entire house burned to the ground, leaving them with only the clothes on their backs (Mr. P and his 3 children were fortunately not home at the time).  The fruits of their years of toil were over in minutes.  Yet, the next day, he walked to the bottom of his driveway and found the back of his pickup truck piled full of food, clothing, toys, and written offers to help him rebuild – all from neighbors (“neighbors” in these sparsely populated parts can mean people living 10 miles away) who were just being “neighborly” in the way often-reticent Mainers are.

Mr. P’s marriage ended, but 6 months later he began his providential relationship with the current and like-minded Mrs. P.  She works as a teacher in a school for high-risk teens; Mr. P works as a private consultant and installer of solar-powered systems for people living off the grid, as well as a mason, a carpenter, a woodsman – a jack-of-all trades, completely self-taught.  They may not be “rich” but they pay in cash and have no debts.     They use only what they need.  They are happy.

Their life is not an easy one.  Their road up their mountain is too windy and steep to plow in the winter, so they park at the bottom and walk up in snowshoes.  Come November, they buy all the non-perishable food they will need for the next four months – huge commercial-sized barrels of rice, oats, beans, flour, powdered milk and condiments.  Mrs. P spends the summer canning and preserving the multiple fruits of their orchards and the vegetables from their large garden.  Any fresh food is brought up in backpacks.  Since bad weather is no excuse for not appearing at her work in school, Mrs. P must climb down the mountain to her car when it is still dark in the early morning hours, sometimes in blizzard conditions and gale-force winds, with a windchill temperature of –25.  While it’s impressive under any circumstances, it is all the more so when you realize they are in their late 50s.

We met the P’s when I was looking for someone to install our solar array, so we could divorce ourselves from the heavy hand of the power company.  It’s not that we were so into being “green” as it was a practical consideration:  we knew it would be expensive to power our home in the winter in Maine, and the power company could charge whatever they felt like for that privilege.  We were (and are) generally worried about what will likely be a very limited income for us once my husband retires (or G-d forbid, loses his job in the current economy) and how the heck we will pay for the most basic of needs (power, heat, etc) as we age.  So we decided we’d attempt to live as self-sufficiently as possible, and not let outside forces dictate how we’d power our home and to what extent, based on affordability.  Plus, here in Maine, the weather is so bad that power outages are a fact of life.  We have a back-up generator (powered by an underground propane tank) but it’s noisy and annoying and can take half a day to recharge the house’s batteries.  Solar seemed like the best option (yes, despite the severe winters, there are plenty of sunny days with brilliant blue skies, and solar power is based on the amount of light, not the amount of degrees outside).

The P’s invited me up to their place to see for myself how a self-sufficient household is run.  That’s when I noticed a yellowed photograph of one of their sons wearing a tallis – a classic bar mitzvah picture.

“Um, excuse me for asking – but are you Jewish?” I gasped.  I had yet to meet a single Jew anywhere within 50 miles.

Not only are the P’s Jewish, but they are very proud hosts of an annual Passover seder – where 40 Jews (and some with their non-Jewish spouses) gather amid lots of food, Manischevitz wine, charoset and the Four Questions!

“You’d be surprised to know how many Jews are hiding in these parts,” Mr. P confided.

So we invited the P’s for dinner.  They especially enjoyed the Shabbos zemiros (songs) and discussion about the weekly Torah portion.  We got another surprise when they told me about what a wonderful Sukkot gathering they had this year – for twenty people!  Apparently one of their Jew in the Woods friends had recently taken an interest in rediscovering his roots – and had been corresponding with a Chabad rabbi in NY via the Internet.  The rabbi offered to send some rabbinical students with a portable sukka… and the rest is history.  The Lubavitchers drove 7 1/2 hours up the 95 in a rented pickup truck that they had converted into a portable sukka – and over lox and bagels the P’s rounded up 20 Jewish souls to celebrate the Sukkot holiday for their very first time.

Life in Maine just keeps getting more and more interesting…


Our Shabbos table overlooking the Maine Woods