Friday, August 31, 2018

7 Random Reminders from a Funeral During Elul



  1. Late summer sunshine on the Hudson is spectacular. When you look, you can find the beauty in creation. It’s out there.
  2. Karma, for lack of a better word, exists. What you put out into the universe comes back to you.
  3. Get behind a cause you believe in to help repair our broken world.
  4. The people in your orbit matter. Surround yourself with an ever-widening circle of those who bring you joy and help you laugh, cope, and get the most from this life.
  5. A long, loving relationship is a holy thing. Those who have one truly are blessed.
  6. Kudos to whomever developed Jewish mourning rituals. The thud of dirt on a casket stings, but laughter, hugs, and sweet memories salve the wound a little bit each day. Don't pick at the scab.
  7. Healthy eating is a noble goal, but when grilled cheese is (the only thing) on the menu, eat up. Sometimes you have to feed your body and your soul. The hell with the carbs.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

5 Reasons I’m Not Participating in #BlogElul This Year

Dear #BlogElul,

I’m glad you’re here and I hope a lot of people blog for you this year, but I’m not going to be one of them. As I told someone who asked me recently about doing a freelance editing job that she needed turned around quickly, “I am on overload...and I can't take on one more thing.”

I #BloggedElul (#BlogEluled? #BlogElulled?) consistently and completely in 2016 and 2017 and it was a meaningful exercise each time, but here are five reasons I’ve opted not to participate this year.
  1. When Rosh HaShanah arrives, I’m exhausted. I spend the weeks leading up to the High Holidays writing and editing countless blog posts and lots of web content for ReformJudaism.org. Add in #BlogElul and by the time the first of Tishrei arrives, I have little, if any, spiritual bandwidth left to do the work the holidays require. 

  2. I need more downtime. Blogging well (and the over achiever in me likes to think my posts are well done) takes lots of thought and time. Ironically, I wrote this in a #BlogElul post in 2016: “As we begin a new week – the last one of 5776 – may I begin to see with my 5777 eyes: less judgmentally, more compassionately, less harshly, and more patiently. Even as my eyesight and my heart soften, may I also begin to say “no,” so there can be time in my life for me – to read, write, think, or just be alone with my soul.”

  3. I am tired of multi-tasking. Often, I eat a meal at the computer; flit back and forth between paying bills and reading emails; start a task, get distracted (usually by technology), and only return to it hours later. On video calls at work, too, I'm baffled by people's ability to listen to whomever is speaking, ask questions, offer opinions, keep abreast of (and participate in) side conversations in the chat box, and read related articles, websites, and more, the links to which others constantly share. I. Can't. Do. It. All. I want enough time to focus on one thing at a time, including #BlogElul –– and to do it without distractions and without interruptions.

  4. One a.m. is not a suitable bedtime. Two nights each week I work out with a trainer. It is simultaneously grounding, invigorating, and physically exhausting. By the time I shower, eat, and take care of whatever else demands attention, it is often much later than I’d like. I’ve been striving for lights-out at 10:30 p.m. on those nights – and on the nights in between – and I'd like to hit that mark at least a few times a week.

  5. “Let’s get together soon” has become an empty promise. Recently, I’ve run into a few neighbors and emailed with some former colleagues whose company I enjoy. We chat or email briefly before the conversation inevitably ends with “Let’s get together soon.” Sadly, it rarely happens. I want time and energy to fulfill those empty promises -- and others -- with face-to-face companionship.
I think the bottom line here is that I need and want to slow down, to stop burning the candle at both ends, to focus – one at a time (and in a non-selfish way) – on people and activities I know will be fulfilling and meaningful to me, and perhaps even have time to discover some new ones as well. I believe that doing so will lead to less frustration, fewer empty promises, more sleep, and more enjoyment of simple pleasures, all of which will help me be my best self in 5779.

Shana tova , #BlogElul… see you next year,
~ JanetheWriter

Inspired by Ima on (and off) the Bima, this #BlogElul post may be the only one I write marking the days of the Hebrew month of Elul, which precedes the Jewish High Holidays and traditionally serves as a time of reflection and spiritual preparation for the new year.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Is There a Gene for Snack-Packing?

Early today – and I mean early – my sister and I set out for White Plains, which is about an hour north of New York City. Our destination was White Plains Hospital, where I’m enrolled in a clinical trial that seeks to determine if regular screening of individuals at increased risk of pancreatic cancer will result in early detection, if and when the disease occurs. (Poo-poo-poo… even though I’m not superstitious or anything.)

Thankfully, the endoscopic ultrasound, which is somewhat invasive and requires a “Propofol nap,” was uneventful with normal results (Keinehora… even though I’m not superstitious or anything), and by late morning, we were headed back to Gotham on the train.

Needing a snack to prevent “hangry” from setting in, my sister pulled from her purse a zip-lock bag filled with fresh cherries. Seeing them reminded me of my own snack buried in my bag: a zip-lock bag of almonds and pitted dates.

Chuckling over the similarity, my sister said, “You get that from your grandmother. Fanny lives.” Indeed, our grandmother lives on through us in many ways. Today it was through our matching zip-lock bags of snacks.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Honor Thy Father and Mother

We are a people in whom the past endures,
in whom the present in inconceivable without moments gone by.
The Exodus lasted a moment, a moment enduring forever.
What happened once upon a time happens all the time.
-- Mishkan T’filah
At tonight’s Shavuot learning program at Temple Shaaray Tefila, the 10 Commandments were taught by 10 different teachers, each of whom had 10 minutes to make a presentation about one of the commandments. Cantor Todd Kipnis, in teaching about the fourth commandment – Honor thy father and mother – shared an essay his mother wrote about honoring her mother at a time in their lives when their roles largely were reversed. The daughter became the mother; the mother became the daughter.

His mother’s essay provoked in me a flood of tears, not only because of what she wrote and how she wrote it, but also because of the memories it evoked of how our family honored my mother eight years ago on this exact date, May 19, 2010.

It was on that date that I wrote two entries on my mother’s CaringBridge site. First, this one:
As many of you already know, the last few weeks have been difficult for my mother. During this last week in particular, her condition has deteriorated significantly, and she has, despite medication, been in considerable pain. Yesterday, acting upon recommendations from both her oncologist and her long-time internist, my father, my sister, and I agreed that it is now time to follow her wishes and make arrangements for her to enter a hospice facility. Accordingly, we met at length with a hospice nurse, and within the next few days, we expect that my mom will be moved to Haven Hospice at JFK Hospital in Edison (right across the street from her beloved Temple Emanu-El). In the meantime, she is resting comfortably in the hospital, and we, too, are comfortable knowing that we are abiding by my mother’s wishes.

Many of you know, too, that the Festival of Shavuot, which began last night, is my mom’s favorite Jewish holiday. As Rabbi Bravo wrote to a few of her own colleagues yesterday, “Diana would have wanted us to celebrate this holiday, just as she loved Torah and let it be her guide through life. Ironically, she went into the hospital on Pesach, and here we are on Shavuot. Her family and I decided that just as she lived her life by the Jewish calendar, so is she planning her end of days in a similar way.”
Later that same day, having accompanied her (thanks to two kind, young women paramedics) on the ride from the hospital in New Brunswick to the hospice facility in Edison, I wrote this penultimate journal entry:
This afternoon my mother was transferred from Robert Wood Johnson to the hospice facility at JFK Hospital in Edison. When we left her, she was (as she has been for the last few days) unresponsive, but resting comfortably and in no pain. The speed of her deterioration on all fronts during the last several days has been notable and somewhat startling, even to a longtime family friend who has been together with us frequently during the last seven weeks. Having said that, we have reassessed our earlier thoughts regarding visitors, and would prefer that only family, clergy, and close friends visit. We want your memories of my mother to be filled with laughter, happy times, and much goodness. We are, of course, grateful for your outpouring of care and love on this site and invite you to continue to share your thoughts with us.
I know that we honored my mother well on that day. I like to think, too, that excepting for a few teenage temper tantrums, I honored her well throughout all her days, and that for the rest of my own days, I will continue to honor her memory and her well-lived life.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Happy Mother's Day, The Mums

Dear The Mums,

A belated happy Mother’s Day.

I didn’t get to finish this letter on Sunday because I spent the early part of the day cleaning my apartment. I know…I can hear your emphatic “Feh” loud and clear, but the windows were filthy and, as Amy would have said in her younger days, the garbage cans were “overfloating.”

In the midst of cleaning the windows, though, I received the sweetest text from Debbie Bravo, who, eight years ago at this season, was with us night and day. She wrote: “Good morning. Thinking of you on this day. I know it is always a hard day. I always think of your mom at this time of year because I know how much she loved that climb to Sinai.”

Here’s what I wrote back to her: “You are so sweet. Thank you. It was such a hard week for other reasons that the lead up to Mother’s Day sort of took a back seat. It did occur to me, though, that I can imagine my mom now taking up “Talmud Study for Beginners” in Olam haBa.

You probably already know that 10 days ago Aaron Panken was tragically killed when a small plane he was piloting crashed shortly after take-off. As I’m sure you can imagine, the entire Reform world is stunned. Even now, with the funeral and shiva over, it’s going to take a long time for the reality to sink in – most of all for his family, but for everyone else too. So, a new Talmud teacher is coming to Olam haBa – and maybe he’s already there, settling in, arranging some books in his office, putting together a syllabus. If he offers a class for lay people, I know you’ll be first in line to sign up.

In the late afternoon I went to Amy’s because she had to teach at a bankers’ meeting that night, so I stayed with Ian. At 15, he could have stayed by himself for the few hours she was gone, but it’s always more fun for both of us when I “babysit.” We brought in pizza for dinner and then I helped him with a history essay about British imperialism in India. (Sad to say, the kid got your feet, but definitely didn’t inherit any of your writing genes.) Certainly not a traditional Mother’s Day, but also not bad for a rainy Sunday.

In other news, tomorrow night I’m going to get all gussied up to go – for the first time – to Shaaray Tefila’s annual gala. The ticket cost me more than half a day’s worth of freelance work, but the honoree is someone who has been incredibly kind and caring since the day I met her, just five weeks after you died. You’d like Liz – she’s honest, forthright, studies Torah, has a lovely singing voice and a heart of gold, and is a lifelong member of the synagogue.

That’s about it from here for this week. I hope you had a good Mother’s Day and please don’t forget to sign up for a Talmud class. Maybe there will be one in time for Shavuot...that would be perfect for you!

Miss you….xoxo,
~ Boo!

P.S. It’s going to be near 90 degrees today and I’m schvitzing like it’s July. My turn to say “Feh,” a word that, thanks to you, increasingly is a part of my vocabulary!

Monday, May 7, 2018

Yes, It’s ThatTime of Year Again

Friends,

You know the least favorite part of my work on behalf of FORCE: Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered is asking for funds to support the critical work this organization so effectively accomplishes, but as Liza Minnelli rightly sang in “Cabaret,” “Money makes the world go round.”

You also know that your philanthropic donation (no matter the size) will help ensure that FORCE is able to continue to raise awareness about inherited genetic mutations (most people who carry them are unaware of their status), offer emotional support, provide practical, evidence-based resources and scientific updates, advance targeted research, advocate for protections on behalf of those in the hereditary cancer community, and more. Most vital of all, thanks to FORCE, no one has to travel this journey alone.

Lastly, you know that the FORCE community and the work to which we, a cadre of mostly volunteers, are deeply devoted mean so much to the countless individuals and families affected by hereditary cancer-causing mutations – including me.

For these reasons and so many others, I appreciate your support of this cause and am extremely grateful to have you in my life.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you,
~ Jane.

Friday, April 20, 2018

I Wasn’t Sick, But the Community Helped Me Heal


Tonight’s Shabbat service at Temple Shaaray Tefila used bibliodrama and storytelling to explore the themes of illness, healing, loneliness, and community associated with this week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora. I was honored to share my personal story of healing as part of the service.

Thank you, Rabbi Lenza… I’m honored to speak to you tonight. 

As I was thinking about how to share my story of illness – which wasn’t really illness at all – and the healing that followed, I realized it’s not only my story. It has everything to do with how this community responded and so, this is really our story...and it goes something like this…

In the spring of 2010, my mom died from aggressive breast cancer that ravaged her body in seven weeks’ time – literally from Pesach to Shavuot. During those weeks, even before my story began, Rabbi Stein called me regularly, just to check in. 

That summer, my sister and I got genetic counseling and testing for BRCA mutations. Indeed, a genetic mutation had been lurking in our family for generations. And, it had been passed along to me – significantly increasing the chance that in my lifetime, I would get breast, ovarian, and/or pancreatic cancer, as well as melanoma. 

An emotional roller-coaster ride ensued. At each turn was another doctor’s appointment, more reading and research, and intense loneliness. Still mourning my mom, suddenly I was a member of a club I never even knew existed – and I didn’t know anyone else who belonged. 

I wasn’t sick, but if I wanted to stay that way, I needed to educate myself and make some tough choices, choices that were made more difficult precisely because I was healthy. I was playing Russian roulette...and I’m no gambler.

I’d recently been attending the chapel minyan to say kaddish for my mom and I shared my news with a few people in the group. (It’s here that my story and the congregation’s story became one.) 

Four months later, I had the first of several preventive surgeries, skipping minyan for about five weeks while I recovered. During those weeks, Jesse Berger, whom I didn’t know well, called to see where I’d been; Brigitte Sion, challah in tow, came to visit on a Friday afternoon. 

With their acts of kindness and those of others in this community, I felt anything but isolated. Even now, all these years later, recalling those gestures warms my heart.  

Again, in July 2011, I disappeared from minyan – this time for more extensive preventive surgery that kept me in the hospital for five nights and out of commission until the fall.

As before, calls, visits, and well wishes, from the community and clergy helped sustain me. I was pleased to join what I dubbed (and this is a little PG-13) the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Bras,” whose comfy, post-surgery under-things were loaned to me by a Shaaray staffer who, as a fellow mutation carrier, had already been down this path. She knew exactly what I’d need while I recovered. When I returned to minyan after weeks away, the welcome I received fed my soul in ways that have stayed with me. 

It’s been almost seven years since my most recent surgery. Although physical and emotional scars remain, I am healthy – and doing everything I can to stay that way. I’ve recently enrolled in a clinical surveillance study designed to advance early detection of pancreatic cancer among those at highest risk. 

My experiences have made me an activist in the hereditary cancer community, particularly committed to raising awareness about inherited genetic mutations, especially in families like mine, where flawed genes often remain hidden until somebody dies. 

If you remember nothing else from this story, please remember this: BRCA mutations are considered rare, present in the general population in approximately one in every 400 to 800 people. In the Ashkenazi Jewish population, though, one in 40 of us – both men and women – carries a mutation, and 90 percent of carriers are unaware of their status. 

If you want to know more, let’s chat during the oneg Shabbat.

In the meantime, I’m so grateful to this community, and especially to the members of the minyan, for the concern, support, and kindnesses they showed me during my “non-illness” and recovery – and for the caring, kindness, and camaraderie I believe we show each other from week to week as we deal with the ups and downs in our lives.

Thank you and Shabbat shalom.