My Cab Ride in Cuba

by Yasmine Moideen

“A donde?”

“Por la calle y la Calle trece.”

My friends and I entered the dented, sky-blue, 1954 Bel Aire landing on creaky seats, shutting the doors harder than we should have. We were in Havana, Cuba on a trip with our synagogue. It was nearing Shabbat, around 6:30 pm. That day, our group decided to split up and explore the city in small groups. The plan was to meet back at El Patronato (Temple Beth Shalom), the largest synagogue in Cuba, for Shabbat services around 7 pm. After walking around the hot, humid streets of Havana, my group of three found ourselves running late. We were strangers in a strange land, at the mercy of our broken Spanish, trying to make our way to services on time.

As we hurcarriedly drove through the streets, it began to drizzle. Our cab driver pointed out a fancy car parked on the street, with a Cuban flag and an American flag on the dashboard. He told us that this car was for President Obama’s visit; he was slated to visit Cuba in two days. This was a historic visit because President Obama was expected to begin the process of lifting the American embargo. Cubans refer to the embargo as, El Bloqueo. It has had devastating economic consequences for the Cuban people. With hesitation, I asked our cab driver, “¿Te gusta Obama?” “Do you like President Obama?” He said, “Si. La visita es una oportunidad para cambio.” “It is an opportunity for change.” He briefly explained how life in Cuba is difficult and that he has to work three jobs in order to provide for his family.

Soon it was 6:50 pm. The cab driver asked, “¿Buscando una casa?” “Is it a house we are looking for?54judaic tourism - cuba synagogue beth shalom” I said, “No. Es una sinagoga.” “It’s a synagogue.” He looked confused. I said, “Es un templo. Como una iglesia para los Judíos.” “It’s a temple, like a church for Jews.” He did a double-take and looked at me with curiosity. “Eres Judía?” “Are you Jewish?” He asked this incredulously.

I wasn’t surprised… I don’t “look Jewish” according to some. I was born in India and grew up in New York. I’ve lived in the Midwest for 30 years and have the accent to prove it. I have brown skin and black hair. I found Judaism at age 18, when I met a Jewish man who would later be my husband. Over the years, I grew to love the soul of Judaism, the search for your own personal truth. At the age of 46, I took the literal plunge into the mikveh. I officially became a Jew.

I frequently “out” myself as Jewish when I find the right moment and right person. I think I unconsciously observe people for signs of kindness and openness. Where I once feared not fitting into Judaism, I have found that others surprisingly embrace my Judaism. My “outing” forces people outside of their own narrow definition of what Jews are. I see them listening, curious, trying to connect the dots.

In that cab in Havana, my “outing” was by happenstance. Our cab driver said that he didn’t even know that there was a synagogue in that part of town, as Jewish life has had a precarious history. There are 1,500 Jews in Cuba, about 1,100 residing in Havana. Before the revolution, in 1959, Cuba had 15,000 Jews. After the revolution, many left. Under communism, people were not allowed to openly practice religion. They have survived so much. It’s both heartbreaking and inspiring to be reminded of the resilience of Cuban Jewry en route to Shabbat services.

cuba1As the Bel Aire pulled up to El Patronato, the rain let up and we realized that we were not, in fact, late to meet the group. We asked how much the fare was, and he told us that we could decide how much we wanted to pay. Oy… What to do? We spoke in hushed tones and decide on 15 CUCs. We hoped that it would be enough and that this amount of money would convey our gratitude for his service, and above all, kindness to us as Americans and Jews.

 

yasmineYasmine Moideen is a clinical psychologist. She lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with her husband and boy/girl twins, age 14. They are members of Mount Zion Temple, in St. Paul. Yasmine went with Mount Zion to Cuba in March 2016 on a mission trip led by Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker.

Posted in Inspiration, Religion, Shabbat, Synagogue, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Where Working is a Delight

leahby Leah Robbins, Administrative and Marketing Assistant

Almost two months have passed since I began working at Mayyim Hayyim. I have settled into my desk, built a challenging, but civil relationship with our computer systems and their quirks, and am actively growing as a member of this extraordinary team of women who keep Mayyim Hayyim running.

That being said, I sometimes find myself feeling insecure about the work I am doing, questioning whether or not the content of my responsibilities is as useful to this organization in proportion to the meat-and-potatoes that some of my colleagues do. After all, I would love to someday co-pilot Associate Director of Education, Leeza Negelev in leading an education program. But then I think, “Relax, Leah.. You’re only 22… Everything that takes place within these walls is holy work, and you get to play a critical role in creating the experiences we read about in our guest book.”

As I sit upstairs giving myself this promotional pep-talk, I start to smile. I can hear the joyous singing in the atrium between the mikvaot, as our guests welcome a new Jew into the world. In these moments I remember the gravity of the holiness in this building. Every day I watch our guests enter and exit the building transformed. People choose to come to Mayyim Hayyim for a variety of reasons, but they always leave looking slightly different than when they came in– their faces fresher, their smiles brighter, their shoulders a little less burdened.

On other days, my moments of inspiration are less obvious.

Often times, when the Mikveh Guides worry that they may fall into the mikveh while removing the pool covers, they call me downstairs to help. In those brief, but delightful moments, I get to engage with the physical mikveh waters. You would think that taking the covers on and off couldn’t possibly evoke any emotion other than worry that I too, might fall in, but in fact, that split-second contact with the water strikes me with profound awe and gratitude for the privilege to work at Mayyim Hayyim. What might appear to be an ordinary moment is fundamentally elevated into a spiritual one.

Everyday, at unexpected times, in unexpected places, I am reminded that my place of work is a sacred space. My place of work is a community hub of healing and simcha (happiness). My place of work actively challenges me as a Jew. My place of work makes a monumental impact on the continuity of Jewish life. How many people can say that?

Leah Robbins recently graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelors in Jewish and Women’s studies. She is also a resident organizer at the Moishe Kavod House and lives with her partner Madison.

Posted in Celebrations, Conversion, Healing, Immersion, Inspiration, Mikveh Guides, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mikveh Moments in Madagascar: Immersion and Conversion on the Other Side of the World

by Bonita Sussman

20160629_112346This past May, a delegation organized by Kulanu, an organization that supports returning, emerging, and isolated Jewish communities around the world, journeyed to Madagascar. It was the culmination of a long process that brought Malagasys into the Jewish faith through conversion.

After ascertaining that all the men in Madagascar who wanted to convert to Judaism were proudly circumcised (in Madagascar all men are, per the cultural norm) and they only needed hatafat dam brit (a symbolic blood draw done with a hemoglobin needle used by diabetics), our focus was redirected toward the mikveh. It was actually the first question we asked more than two years ago and the last question to be resolved only four days before we arrived with the Beit Din (the Rabbinical Court) to perform the conversions for what we thought would be 60 people. Little did we know it would turn into 120!

Petoela, the communal leader tasked with the responsibility of determining the mikveh location, approached the Parks Department and asked if he could construct a temporary structure to be removed after the dunking. The answer was, “NO!” Thereafter ensued a flood of halachic (legal) questions to the Beit Din. Could they dunk with loose fitting clothes on? There seemed to be precedents in the rabbinic literature for this, but the general consensus was: it may be permitted, but if potential converts told people they immersed with clothes on, the established Jewish community would most likely denigrate their conversions. Doesn’t everyone know immersion for real conversion must be naked?

Petoela had to go back to the drawing board. He finally found a river about an hour and a half out of town, long bus rides away. It was deep enough, but Peteola still needed to shore up the concern of privacy. After another flurry of emails, we came up with a tarp and wood structure.

The men lined up to enter the changing room and dunked one at a time. The women and children did too. Dunk first, say the bracha (blessing), “asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vstivanu al hat’vila.” It seems they all knew this bracha by heart with little coaching. Then two more times. The word, “kosher,” meaning that the immersion was done properly, from the mikveh lady and rabbis, must have sounded like words from heaven to the new converts.

After community members completed their immersions, the Beit Din drew them all together, the men first and then the women. Each group recited the Shema and V’ahavta followed by joyous dancing. MADAgascar mikva tent FIXED

When I told Elysha, one of the English- speaking Malagasy women, that I would be writing for Mayyim Hayyim about the Madagascar mikveh experience, I asked her what it meant to her. Elysha referred to the midrash that says that a convert becomes a like a new born baby. She said to me, “It is a unique experience to be reborn, I expected that moment for a long time. The mikveh was among the best days in my life.”

Bonita Nathan Sussman serves as Vice President of Kulanu. She is so glad to see that the Jewish men and women of Madagascar appreciated and valued the mitzvah of tevilah (immersion) as a cornerstone of their conversion. Mikveh is a mitzvah that has tied Jewish people together throughout Jewish history.

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Miracles as Usual

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

leezaphotoI’ve been engaged to be married since November, 2015. That’s a long time to ruminate, dread, panic, romanticize, and (sometimes) plan a wedding. I’ve done a lot of wondering “what it will be like to…” well, you name it. I’ve done some thinking on the oppressive past and present of the institution of marriage and weighed it with my desire for a tax-break. I’ve thought about why I want my relationship blessed by the loving attention of family friends. I’ve also done some online dress shopping. Maybe a lot.

I didn’t know how to imagine my bridal immersion. I just knew it would happen. As someone who teaches about the mikveh, I often spend hours thinking and learning about all of the different ways people have made this ritual their own. Yet when it came to my immersion, my head was swimming (water pun intended).

Every time I imagined it, I walked into a familiar wall. I wanted three generations of women present: my mother, grandmother, and sister. As someone who is very connected to my family, I wanted this transition to be witnessed by the weightiness of generations, the many struggles and successes that brought me to this moment. I wanted my grandmother, the matriarch, my mother, my rock, and my sister, my life-long friend and sometimes sparring partner.

So why didn’t I plan this mikveh party months before? Because the matriarch, the rock, and the friend are also the kvetcher (complainer), the chutzpenik (someone who doesn’t give a hoot), and the sometimes no-show. Yes, just like your family, mine is meshugene, too. (Can you tell I’m practicing my Yiddish?)

I was stuck between two worlds: I wanted to experience a powerful, ritual moment that would transcend time and space… and I wanted my family to be there. I knew that with all of the positive associations of a Jewish wedding, the day of would be full of these profound ritual moments (and it was). But the mikveh invoked my grandmother’s bridal immersion in a dirty pool in the remote woods of Uzbekistan, and for my mother, it was another potential indicator that her daughter would soon become a religious fanatic.

bab and leeza dancing

Leeza and “Bab”

Eventually, I settled on the fact that it would be whatever it was, and I just wanted them to show up. At one point in the planning process, getting everyone to Newton felt like it would be its own miracle. I did eventually let go of the expectations, but I decided that I really cared that we were together and that I had a pastrami sandwich afterwards. Although my sister’s flight didn’t work out, on the day of my immersion, Bab (babushka, grandma) and Mam were there.

When we arrived, we were greeted by Lisa Berman’s smiling face. I heartily toured my Bab and Mam as they “oo-ed” and “ah-ed” over the art, the Jerusalem tile, and the peace of mind they didn’t expect to feel. When it came to immersion, I had Lisa as my witness, and I told my family I wanted them to stand outside the closed sliding doors. I planned to immerse three times, and before the third, I asked them to share a blessing for me.

I went under the first time and “kasher!” Lisa’s voice boomed beautifully. I heard my Bab and Mam chatting behind the door. I took another breath and went under. “Kasher!” I said the Shehecheyanu blessing for my first (and hopefully last) bridal immersion.

Waiting for my family to chime in with words of hope and wishes for my happy future, I chuckled to myself as I heard them arguing about something from behind the closed doors. Lisa called out: “You can share a blessing now…” They did not hear.

Some moments passed.

I took matters into my own hands and yelled: “Bab! Mam! Stop chatting! Can you share a blessing?” And they did.

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Leeza and her Mam

No, I didn’t feel the heavens open up. I was slightly irritated, chuckling to myself, and also wildly grateful for both of them. My family made it there, and they came as themselves. After all, these are the two women who taught me the art of showing up as I am.

I left the mikveh feeling accomplished: I had let go of previous expectations, I’d articulated what I wanted directly in the moment, and best of all, we made it. I dried off, gave Lisa a big hug, and we headed off for that pastrami sandwich.

Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim and she loves her family, meshugas and all.

Posted in Celebrations, Immersion, leeza negelev, Marriage, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

My Journey to Recovery

by Ronna Benjamin

ronnaA little over a year ago, just after a “clean” mammogram, my primary care physician found a lump in my breast during a routine physical, and insisted on the ultrasound that saved my life. Countless women who have been through this sort of thing know what happened next: the biopsy, the agony of waiting for test results, the MRI biopsies, the final diagnosis (for me, invasive lobular carcinoma), coming up with a plan, telling the kids, mastectomy, chemo, losing my hair, radiation.

When I had finished my chemo and was just about to start radiation, I ran into a friend at synagogue who had been through a serious bout of cancer years ago. He told me that some of the hardest parts of my ordeal might be in the weeks after my treatments had ended.

I was surprised by this. After all, I could see the proverbial light at the end of the radiation tunnel, and I was looking forward to everything being over, getting my hair, as well as my life back. My friend explained that the months after treatment were not hard on the physical body, but they were the hardest on the mind. Why? For the first time since diagnosis, I would not be taking any positive action to get the cancer out of my body. And it is hard on the mind to take no action.

So, how does one get the cancer out of one’s mind after it has purportedly left the body? What action can you take to clear your mind when the treatments are over?
For me, that was the purpose of my immersion in the mikveh. I needed to do something– mark the moment spiritually so I could think of myself not as having breast cancer, but as having had breast cancer.

I am not a “God” person—not terribly pious (some might say I’m a skeptic), and I was surprised at how emotional I felt as I started the ritual cleaning; I could not stop crying. I loved taking things slowly, immersing in the living waters which felt strangely felt-like in texture. I loved how much the staff guided me through every step. And most of all, I loved having my friends, family and rabbi just outside, and hearing their prayers for me. And I loved the fact that I got to thank them for the love that they had shown me.
I don’t believe that there are magic cures for anything. But I do believe that mikveh immersion was a moment when I started to think of myself as a woman who had breast cancer. It was a deeply emotional and positive experience. The rest will just come in time.

After 28 years of practicing law in Boston and Brookline, Ronna Benjamin is now a partner and managing editor for the popular online magazine, www.betterafter50.com. Ronna writes a weekly (mostly) humor column about topics women in their fifties are concerned about: adult children, aging parents, anxiety and body image, and most recently, breast cancer. Ronna is a native Bostonian and loves to sail away with the husband she adores and her three adult children. 

Click here for more information about “Blessings for the Journey: a Jewish Healing Guide for Women with Cancer.”

 

 

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“I Wish…”, When You Want a Mikveh Do-Over

by Lisa Berman, Mikveh & Education Director

Expectations. Raised, lowered, managed. We can’t help it — we think about what an experience will be like and then we measure it. Was it as good as we’d hoped? What would we do differently next time? What do we wish had happened?

Mikveh is no different. I know from personal experience, and I know from reading our guests’ satisfaction survey responses.

As lovelyundo as my immersion might have been, I’d inevitably forget something, and that’s what I would remember immediately afterwards. I forgot to file my nails. I forgot something important I meant to focus on. I didn’t leave enough time to take a leisurely bath.

Ritual is intended to get us out of our everyday, ever-chattering brains. Yet even when we are in the midst of a ritual, it’s hard to give ourselves permission to let go of imperfections as we enact it. We notice the smudge on the silver kiddush cup, the crumbs flying from the challah to the carpet, the recalcitrant havdalah candle wicks.

Our guests here at Mayyim Hayyim report wonderfully positive experiences in our mikvaot. And yet they, too, yearn for something just a little more perfect now and then. Perhaps one of these “I wish…” observations will make your next mikveh visit even better.

“I wish I had allowed time in the days prior for deeper preparation.”

“I wish I’d taken more time to take it all in. I wish I’d stayed in the water longer.”

“I wish I’d brought music in with me.”

“I wish I’d taken more time.”

“I wish there’d been pen and paper for my friends who wanted to write blessings and feelings in the moment.”

“I wish I’d brought a friend with me.”

“I wish I’d had more time during the immersion for prayer and reflection and not felt rushed by the clergy waiting outside.”

“I wish I had created a blessing that my husband and I could have given my daughter before or after she immersed.”

“I wish I’d realized that I could ask to immerse alone.”

“I wish it could’ve gone on forever.”

And yes, you can take as long as you like (almost always), bring friends, immerse alone, or bring music in with you. Have it go on forever? Well, let’s talk.

lisa-blog-photoLisa Berman is the Mikveh and Education Director at Mayyim Hayyim, ensuring that all immersions are facilitated with dignity, respect, and modesty, and supervising the Paula Brody & Family Education Center.

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A Meditation on Marriage

by Shira Cohen-Goldberg

January 25, 2009. Here was this guy from JDate. He liked Ethiopian food and taught at Tufts University. He was four years younger than I, just out of grad school, and had a warm smile. When we met for dinner, my hair was still wet from the gym, and I had forgotten to put on makeup. He asked me questions, listened, nodded, and tilted his head in an ever-so-caring way. He wanted to connect and continued to smile warmly as we ate spicy food with our hands and talked about life in Boston, our families of origin, and the similar values that we shared despite growing up in homes 5,000 miles away from each other.

June 18, 2010. My first visit to Mayyim Hayyim. My mom witnessed me immerse. My future husband, that amazing guy from JDate, witnessed by a friend, also immersed.

June 20, 2010. Our wedding day. After a short courtship that started with a conversation, and led to a play, a hike, 10k race, a shared home, and a proposal, we publicly became each other’s beloved, and we were married.

June 20, 2016. We have been married for SIX shiracohenYEARS! We are still married. Two kids. Many immersions. Huge hurdles and lots of happy moments past. Perhaps many challenges accompanied by more joy, fulfillment, and laughter ahead.

***

A few weeks back, I found myself weighing in on a Facebook conversation about marriage in the observant Jewish community. The women were commenting on a column written by someone who wrestled for years to find her bashert, or perfect match, until finally, she found the right pathway to her husband, and was soon to be married.

“I’d love to read an article like this that doesn’t end with the person getting married, because what happens to those of us who never get married?” a friend shared. To her I replied, “I always thought that getting married was something to strive for, and that if I didn’t get it, I had failed. I am now married to someone I am completely compatible with, but [meeting him] was total luck.”

I have a lot to say about finding a life partner. I feel intense empathy towards people who are searching for that person, as my search was long and wrought. I had fantasized about being married since I was a child, and assessed potential dates for whether they were husband material for at least half of my life, pre-marriage. I remember at 16, asking my high school boyfriend whether he would convert to Judaism should our relationship lead to marriage. Perhaps much of this marriage excitement was fueled by being raised in a home where my parents were exceedingly happy together, and framed by being so identified with my mom. I was sure I would meet my future husband in college and get married upon graduation, just like she did.

But is it accurate to chalk my marriage up to “luck?” Upon our wedding invitation were the celebratory words from Psalm 118:24, recited at our most joyous moments:

“Zeh hayom asah Hashem, nagilah v’nismicha vo!” This is the day God has made, let us celebrate and rejoice in it!

That day was one of the best days of my life. It was a celebration of the true miracle that I met and was able to marry my best friend. This was a public proclamation of our love and commitment to one another.

But… What was God’s role in this? I do not struggle at all with my belief in God, rather my belief in God’s capabilities. The longer I live, the more I wonder whether God is responsible for creating and overseeing our personal miracles and calamities, or whether these are some strange combination of luck, circumstance, nature, and timing. The blessings. The sips of wine. The remembrance of Jerusalem. The broken glass. The lifting of the chairs and dancing that does not seem to end…

Why did I struggle for so long to find my beloved? Why do others never meet that person? How is it that after a decade and a half of searching, I found him? And finally: Wouldn’t it have been great if marrying the best person I know meant only simple joys from our wedding day until forever?

My husband and I are building a home. But the construction takes time, is full of effort and requires the many mundane, finite tasks to align and secure brick after figurative brick. As our God watches us do this work, I really don’t know what miracles God will/will not perform nor tragedies God will/will not prevent. What I do know, however, is that whatever day tomorrow is, it will be a day where the sun rises and sets, and for this reason alone, will be the day that God has made.

Shira M. Cohen-Goldberg serves on the board at Mayyim Hayyim. She and her husband are past participants of Beyond the Huppah: Creating the Jewish Marriage you Want, which will run again in the Fall 2016. She is a long-time member of the Cambridge-Somerville Jewish community and works as a literacy specialist at an educational non-profit focused on organizational change. She spends most of her time working and rearing her 4-year-old, Hallel, and toddler, Ya’ara, in partnership with her husband, Ari.

 

 

 

 

 

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