Doing It with Intention & Invention

“I didn’t want to sit around and get gifts or play tacky games,” said New York law student Julia Frankston-Morris. Instead, two dozen of Frankston-Morris’s friends and relatives surprised her with what turned out to be a hilarious weddingshower alternative. Guests were asked to come as some other woman, real or fictional, to impart marital advice. “My mom dressed up as Rosie the Riveter, overalls and all,” Frankston- Morris recalled. “She brought me a tool kit, ‘Something every woman should have,’ she said.” A cousin channeled Eleanor Roosevelt, adored by Frankston-Morris’s late grandmother. One friend invoked Frankston-Morris’s own mother, sporting mother-of-the-bride clothing. Frankston-Morris recalled the party as “a great way to get chizuk, or strength, from friends and family before my big day.”

And for her wedding day, she wanted a women’s tisch, modeled on the often-raucous, traditional men-only celebration for the groom, where friends and relatives gather around a table (tisch, in Yiddish), toasting, singing, discussing. So, on the morning of her June wedding, early-arriving guests snacked on cereal at a breakfast bar (“Breakfast is my favorite meal, said the bride). Then, along with her closest women friends and family, Frankston-Morris belted out fast-paced Jewish tunes, banged her fists on the table and threw back shots of whiskey passed around by her mother — all at 11 AM.

“I love singing,” says Frankston-Morris, 24, “and I knew that I wanted to prepare for my huppah [wedding ceremony] after having a tisch of my own. We succeeded in getting everyone at least a little buzzed,” she recollected. Not every bride wants what Frankston-Morris did, but that’s precisely the point. What she created had meaning for her, and set the tone she wanted for her day-long Orthodox wedding celebration in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Single-malt Scotch aside, not all celebrations have such energy. Here’s how it often goes: You volunteer to host your cousin’s wedding shower, or your best friend’s birthday party, or a Shabbat dinner. You’re thinking about the setting, the menu, and maybe even the signature cocktail. Twisted up by logistical curlicues, you realize that you’re planning a gathering with all the requisite aspects but haven’t figured out how to give the celebration meaning for the specific celebrants.

Lots of us can get right into the obsessional aspects of partyplanning, and there’s always the risk for women of falling back into the traditional gender roles around Jewish holidays and lifecycle celebrations — the women in the kitchen (or on the décor committee), the men getting all the good lines to speak in public. But looking at celebrations anew is not just about becoming the Jewish Martha Stewart. It’s giving yourself permission to go deeper — to go beyond the usual and sometimes superficial rites to mine the tradition for more. To really put your mind to exploring the significance of the event — for you.

Can meaning be orchestrated or induced? Yes, especially if we think of a celebration as an opportunity to instill joy as much as it is an exercise in planning and coordination. What we’re talking about here are ways to take the measure of the celebrants and guests — and acknowledge their uniqueness. Everyone warms to being known — and to knowing. That’s why asking guests to present personal wisdom or wishes to the celebrants, to come with a toast, to wear something that resonates for the honoree — doing things with intent is what we’re talking about here.

As Jews, we’re enjoined to perform all our acts of daily living with kavanah, intention, but holidays and milestone lifecycle events in particular deserve to be imbued with extra delight. How to do this without turning back the calendar to the days when public ritual was male turf and women the party planners? In the 15 years since Rabbi Karen Bender has led congregations in New York and California, she has seen a marked uptick in the number of congregants who want to infuse their celebrations with significant content. “but they’re not sure how,” says Bender, now at Reform congregation Temple Judea in Tarzana, California.

Why now? The economic downturn is not the only reason people are looking at relevant and significant ways to celebrate beyond lavish spreads and exotic settings. More likely it’s that women, historically the people responsible for home-based Jewish rituals, are increasingly knowledgeable about Jewish public as well as private practice of these traditions, and therefore are increasingly comfortable with tweaking and personalizing them.

New iterations of these traditional celebrations strive for more meaning to the celebrant and more impact on the guests. Because lavish bat and bar mitzvah parties came under attack well before the current recession, they’ve already been a testing ground for new ways to celebrate, emphasizing good deeds, tzedakah opportunities, and the like. For decades we’ve experienced “twinnings” with Jewish youth in countries where they couldn’t celebrate themselves, special tzedakah projects, community service.

Jewish celebrations have often been occasions for reaching out to others — the Eastern European shtetl tradition of throwing open a wedding feast to everyone in the town (“One of the few times a poor person got a good meal,” said one guest, looking back); the Passover injunction to “Let all who are hungry come and eat”; the mitzvah of inviting visitors in the synagogue to your Sabbath table. Many still keep at least the latter two traditions. In their New York City home, writer Nessa Rapoport and artist Tobi Kahn always set a few extra places at their Shabbat lunch table, assuming they will see some people at services that morning to join their meal along with the previously invited guests.

What about other moments that present occasions to celebrate: a toast to the graduate, a mazal tov on winning the Nobel Prize? Rabbi Susan Schnur wonders why we don’t create more celebrations and ceremonies for landmark events, like “fledging” a child setting off to college. “How about Kiddush at Kennedy Airport” for someone who’s headed to Israel for the summer?

Ellen Jacobs, who masterminds music and other performance events at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn (and once made a gigantic menorah from dozens of cans of He’Brew beer), is convinced that thinking through each element of an occasion–from invitations and themes to how the food is served–can set the course. “I’m always thinking, how do you make an occasion joyous? How do you stage a happy moment?’

Some of Jacobs’s first memories, she said, were shaped by the emotional jolt of endorphin-filled celebrations. As a child in Talmud Torah classes in Norwich, Connecticut, Jacobs thrilled to complete each book of the Torah, a milestone always marked with a festive party, in the Jewish tradition of a siyyum after a portion of text study has been completed. “I couldn’t wait to finish the book in order to have the party,” Jacobs recalled.

In adulthood, Jacobs, 62, of Manhattan, has been an active organizer of occasions major and minor in her professional and personal life, from birthdays and congregational fundraisers to showers, baby-namings, Passover seders and her own daughter’s wedding. And she says the rush she felt as a girl remains to this day. “My great moments are during a party that I’ve orchestrated and rolled out, when that party reaches a point where most people are reacting to the cues and they’ve participated, they’ve given something. That’s when I get the satisfaction. They’ve done their best with the tools I’ve given them. You can’t orchestrate someone’s great time — some people are too guarded or just don’t want to get close — but they can still get something out of it. For me it’s really a transcendent experience.

“You have to set the stage for a party at the beginning. It’s the people that make the party, and you sometimes have to give them a tool to step away from themselves a little bit. Props work to level people, they break down the wall people can have around them, Like being onstage, you have to close out the rest of the world at the start of a party — not for the whole party, but til it gets going.” “There’s an obligation when you’re a guest at a party — you’re there to help celebrate something. At one party, the host made the obligation explicit. For her Friday-night 50th birthday party, my friend Merle gave each entering guest a red-thread bracelet for good luck, and a handwritten note in a small envelope. The note had an individual instruction for the evening: ‘I would like you to meet (for example) my friend Ellen tonight.’ And that was each guest’s task before the party was over.”

When she begins to create any happy occasion, Jacobs’ primary concern is to figure out how the guests will feel a sense of being somewhere special — and different — from the moment they enter the room. She likes to shake up the expectations, but always in a way that feels germane to the event being celebrated. “You can’t let a party be generic or boring, where even the conversation seems to be about the same old thing,” Jacobs says. “I like it when people are chatting about what’s happening at the party.” Ellen Jacobs says such investment, which doesn’t have to be onerous or complicated, is integral to joyous celebrations. A sense of the dramatic helps, too; you can see the celebration “almost as a stage set.” Providing monogrammed hats (with the baby’s initials) at a bris, or candy cigarettes and lacy fingerless gloves at a 50th birthday (as she did recently), is, in her playbook, sometimes all that’s needed. Jacobs calls such items “transformative objects. As soon as you put them on you emerge as a slightly different person,” she said, adding that donning these unfamiliar items can mitigate some of the stress of mingling; they give people something to talk about.

For a bridal shower the bride-to-be, who was from another city, didn’t know the guests very well, Jacobs decided she’d better seed the conversations even before the party started. Each of the 50 attendees was instructed on the invitation to bring a gift inspired by a particular holiday on the Hebrew or Gregorian calendar; Jacobs’ goal was to give everyone a role in the celebrating — religious Jews, secular Jews, non-Jews. “ The person who always hosts a Yom Kippur break-fast got Yom Kippur, and had to find a gift that had meaning for that holiday. The woman who decorates the synagogue sukkah each year got Sukkot. People who were religiously observant got ‘Shabbat lunch’ on their invitations. Or ‘Friday night dinner.’ Others got Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Labor Day, New Year’ Eve. People were excited about the gifts they’d brought. From the moment guests arrived at the shower, all they talked about was what holiday they had and what gifts they’d brought.”

Jacobs’s careful advance planning (a bridal shower she hosted for a friend’s daughter gestated in her thoughts for nine months!) is one of Jacobs’s inviolable rules. “You have to leave time for the ideas to generate. You can’t just throw a party and not get pleasure from it! It has to feel as great as the Hebrew school party when I was 10 years old.”

Jacobs’s own favorite holiday traditions? “These aren’t original to me, but I love doing them. For Rosh Hashanah I lead a little ceremony over a platter filled with symbolic New Years foods, like pomegranate (packed with mitzvot) and fish heads (a reminder to be a leader and a symbol of good fortune for the coming year).”

In addition to carefully assigning seats for Shabbat and holiday meals, Jacobs likes to place a card at each setting with a question related to the Torah portion that week, or the holiday at hand, or even about religion and politics. “The question could have to do with anything from what’s happening in the world, to ‘What does God mean to you?’ to ‘What would you serve Golda Meir (or Sarah Silverman) if she came to your house for lunch?’ ”

Elizabeth S. Bennett is a freelance journalist in New York City.  She writes about culture, food, business and technology for print and online publications.

To a Very Sweet New Year

by Lily Starr

“I didn’t grow up with holidays being overly important. My parents were Holocaust survivors, and the holidays were painful; most of their family was gone. My memories are of being scared of being a Jew. I don’t fault my parents for this, but being Jewish was no joy or pleasure, it was a burden; we would do a Maxwell House Passover, a basic Rosh Hashanah dinner. I was determined for Judaism to be joyous for my kids, to feel good, to leave them with strong, good powerful memories, visual as well as intellectual memories.

“Every year at Rosh Hashanah I give out about 250 specially packed jars of honey to family and friends. I’d always found holiday cards formal and cold, so for a couple of years we sent small baskets with honeybears. Then, eight years ago, I started what has become a major pre-High Holidays project.

“I started looking for honey. I was driving through Pennsylvania and saw a market with buggies, the Amish country, with interesting honeys. I found unprocessed honeys, artisanal honeys. I started off using canning jars, which I sent to the beekeeper — a sweet nice guy; I feel like I’m working with a nice gentle soul, it’s good karma — to fill. Then it elevated with the bottles. I start looking for bottles in late spring. Now they’re from Italy, with glass stoppers. I lust after these Italian bottles. My daughter always puts in her vote for which bottle.

“I hand deliver about 200 and send about 50 by mail. We’re known for it in the community. People ask, ‘Are you the Starrs who do the honey?’ It’s a way to connect with people — family, friends, people we’ve had a nice connection with over the past year, or someone who’s had a hard year. It’s unusual; you can’t buy it.” And the recipients of Starr’s packages are often struck by the message that underlies the obvious care she takes: that the holiday is important, and worth the effort.

“As an adult, I studied with the Wexner Heritage Foundation, and this deepened my understanding of Jewish history and values and texts. I concluded that teaching about the holidays and Judaism can’t just be intellectual. It has to be visual and auditory too. You have to make things look beautiful.”

Every year Starr builds and decorates an elaborate sukka with materials ranging from traditional wood to PVC pipe for the frame. “We still haven’t figured out how to make the best sukka,” says Starr. With a different structure each year, Starr cuts and drapes fabric panels anew each year to meet the specs of the revised setup. Last year, she planned panels of green and red fleece to represent apples, and the sweetness of the New Year.

“The fleece looked terrific, and the best part was that my daughter and her friends used the material to make scarves, which were distributed to the homeless on Christmas day; the colors worked.”

Starr tries to blend lessons into most of her family’s celebrations. In 2007, when she read the reports about appalling conditions endured by wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., she decided to focus on Americana with the Purim baskets she was preparing to send to relatives, friends and a handful of Jewish soldiers at the Army hospital. She gathered “Uncle Sam” hats, baked hundreds of hamantashen, and instead of the traditional small bottle of wine or grape juice, opted to include vodka with red, white and blue labels.

When the hospital informed Starr that alcohol couldn’t be delivered to underage soldiers, she was nonplussed. “I said, ‘“If they’re old enough to go to Iraq and get their legs blown off, they’re old enough to have a shot of vodka’.”

Seder Homework

by Rabbi Susan Schnur

Howdy, Seder attendants 5769/2009!

Second Seder by the Schnur-Fishdogs will begin promptly at 5p.m. If you are late, you will have to wait outside until next year. Parking inside our pyramid is probably possible. Give Susan a call and she’ll tell you how exactly we park our Egyptian chariots here in Goshen.

This Year’s Spiritual Homework

You must bring (in your head):

1. Two very specific things you are really grateful for, big or small, holy or mundane, of more or less obvious import. Examples: “My sister.” “My coffee maker.” “The Aeneid.” “The way my boyfriend says ‘I adore you’ in Urdu.” (We add these to the Hagaddah’s gratitude list of Dayenu.)
2. One enduring question you have had for years but have never really answered to your complete satisfaction. Your lifelong question might be big or small, profound or profane: “How do airplanes work?” “What is envy?” “How do ideas spread?” “Is my nose shaped funny?” (We will add this to the Four Questions.)

You must also bring (in physical object form):

3. An object that represents something you shlep with you. Granted, we shlep a lot of things we maybe shouldn’t through our 40-year desert treks, but there are also those shlepped items that are completely worthwhile, completely gratifying. What is something you’ve shlepped — at the expense of a sore back, a slower pace, having hands too full to carry something else (all metaphorical, of course) — that is/was worth it? Something you’ve held on to — even though it was hard — because it was worth it? E.g.: “Keeping kosher.” “Calling my parents every day.” “Being polite at work when I’m exasperated.”

Spiritual homework is a mainstay of our seders. It always makes folks think about their participation in the seder ahead of time; they feel enfranchised, so they are more enthusiastic and participatory. It also lets guests learn about one another, so there’s lots for them to talk about during the meal-part of the seder. The “questions” homework was particularly great, because answers were far-flung and brainy and highly amusing.

I like to take elements of the seder — like the centrality of questions (the 4 questions) that are otherwise stale after years of years of recitation — and make them alive again by coming at them from a different angle. Last year I probably did a little boosterish teaching about Judaism in relation to this homework assignment — how dialectical thinking is central to classical Jewish thinking, how we don’t care about answers that much, that excellent questions are far more interesting than most answers.

I probably talked about how Rilke says the following: “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, some day far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Longjohns and Big Brassieres — Unconventional Bar Mitzvah Décor

by Nan Klein

Two of my sons had as their bar mitzvah portion Ba-Midbar [about the Children of Israel sojourning in the desert]. For the first, I made the room look like the desert: a tent in the room, pottery and broken pottery, all natural. For the second one I did the travels of the family from Poland to the U.S.: photos of family members, blowups of the family and their experiences, back to the greatgrandparents, Ellis Island. The entire room was decorated to look like the Lower East Side. I went onto e-Bay and collected longjohns, big brassieres; I hung them on clotheslines. I filled a pushcart with antique items — pots and pans and things like that.

“For the Friday night dinner before the bar mitzvah the tables were set like old fashioned Shabbos tables. I found recreations of Depression glass saltshakers and napkin holders. How long did it take? My husband could tell you I had become obsessed. I have so many props I’ve used over the years… .

“For three of my four boys I had an upshirin [a ceremony and party celebrating the boy’s first haircut at age three]. Whoever has a young child, it’s the most amazing party! It brings such yiddishkeit to people attending the party. The premise of upshirin is that a fruit tree you do not cut until the fruit tree is three years old; this gives the tree its strength. For a little boy they get their yarmulke. You teach them a word or letter in the Torah and give them a piece of candy, so Torah is always studied with sweetness.

“This is my favorite party. You wake up that morning and you have a baby and when you go to bed that night you have a little boy.”

But Wait! There’s More!

Racing to RSVP
After Daniel Biss ran for State Representative in Illinois in 2008, “I started having Friday night dinners for friends who’d been active in the campaign. They’re very informal. Each month, I invite the same couple dozen people, and each month, a different set of people show up. I make a different soup each time; my wife, Karin Steinbrueck, learns a new napkin-fold each time; and people usually seem to enjoy themselves.” The trick for the guests seems to be to respond quickly enough to get a seat at the table. Here’s the idea: keep the pool of invitees large and fairly constant, put an RSVP deadline in your email, and you’re practically guaranteed that the guest list will shift every time.

Hanukka gelt to give, not get.
A ninth-grader explains her family’s holiday philanthropy, collecting all the charitable appeals from the months before the holiday, then voting each night on how to give away money. “Eight Lessons from Hannukah, Useful All Year,” by Anna Schnur- Fishman. lilith.org

Tone matters
Eve Coulson hosts a Lilith salon in Princeton, New Jersey, which meets to discuss each new issue of the magazine. Her emailed invitations always include highlighting an article she thinks will kick off the conversation, announcing a potluck vegetarian dinner with her personal promise that there will be enough to eat, and these lines: “Everyone is welcome to join us. Please come even if you haven’t read the article, heard of Lilith, or joined us before. Feel free to bring a friend — my list is somewhat random, and therefore undoubtedly (and unintentionally) incomplete. Looking forward to seeing you soon!”

You were there
Many of us acknowledge that, matza balls aside, Passover is all about who gathers at the table. Knowing this, the Greenspuns ask their seder participants to sign and date the back page of the hagada she or he is holding. Just seeing who used that book in years past makes every guest — even first-timers — feel part of a continuum.

Walking down the aisle
In some Orthodox circles the bride and groom recite tehillim (psalms) to themselves as they walk down the aisle. One wedding invitation included a card asking for the name of anyone the guest would like the bride and groom to think of as they walk, similar in concept to the blessing recited for someone in need of healing.

Costume party
It’s not just for Purim. We’ve heard of Passover seders where guests wear long robes to create sartorial simpatico with the ancient Israelites. “At first, people may feel kind of silly. But then they get into it,” said Nan Klein, “acting out portions of the hagada.”

Write it all down
When their daughter Felissa was about to become bat mitzvah, Raquel and Aryeh Rubin helped her create a ceremony respecting the strictures of their Orthodox congregation while staking out new ground for female participation in their South Florida community. Then, with family photos and learned commentary, plus thoughtful words from the bat mitzvah girl herself, they made a 40-page book about the experience. Toward a Meaningful Bat Mitzvah is available from targumshlishi.org