Last week, I was in Ikea with my kids in the badatz kosher cafeteria there.

(Even though I’ve lived in Israel for more than 11 years’ now, I still find kosher Ikea wildly exciting.)

It was the last days of Summer, and the cafeteria was packed with all sorts of people and their kids. Ahead of me in the queue was a cute-looking frum woman with a long skirt, long sleeves and regal head covering, who had a handful of younger kids holding on to her by her skirt.

Every two minutes, this woman took her massive i-Phone out of her bag, and started obsessively checking the headlines on Arutz 7. She’d scroll down for a couple of minutes, go over and check her emails, put the phone back in her bag (usually because some kid was tugging at her pretty aggressively, to get her attention) – and then two minutes’ later, repeat the whole ritual again.

I stood behind her for 15 minutes, and I saw her do this at least six times.

There are many things to be said about why i-phones are bad – like how easy they make it to access all the smut and degradation on the internet, especially for men; or how they chain people to work and checking their emails all the time, even when they’re meant to be hiking in nature with their families and relaxing; or how they suck people into a self-absorbed, pretty immodest culture of taking selfies and checking their appearance every 10 seconds.

But today, I just want to focus on one aspect of why i-Phones are so bad, which this one, average frum woman in Ikea really encapsulates: i-Phones give us no time to really ‘be’ with ourselves. I-Phones are addictive, because surfing the internet is addictive, and it fills the ‘space’ and the time that we’d otherwise be left alone with our thoughts.

People are so miserable today, and so uncomfortable with themselves, and so uncomfortable about the notion of exploring what they really think and feel about their lives and their relationships, that escapism has become the Number 1 ‘self-soothing’ activity of our generation.

The equation goes something like this:

Time to think = an opportunity to recognize what’s not going so well in my life, or what is maybe not so healthy or helpful = an impetus to change or improve = a push to actually do something different = SCARY AND DANGEROUS!!! = stay away from thinking at all costs.

i-Phone = escape into news, facebook and fantasy = no time to think = can keep busy at all costs = COMFORT ZONE = go back to sleep, everything’s fine (and don’t forget to take your anti-anxiety medication…)

i-Phones cut us off from thinking and being, and as a result, they distance us from our own souls.

They waste our time on addictive behaviors like obsessively checking emails, Facebook or Arutz 7. They suck us into a fake, plastic, superficial world that’s full of spiritually-dead, emotionally-ill people who spend so much time online because they also can’t just ‘be’. They prevent us from really interacting with the people standing right in front of our faces, because we’re too busy scrolling through old email conversations and sharing new stuff we just found out about.

And that’s if we’re ‘only’ using them for ostensibly kosher reasons.

If the sites we happen to visit are morally corrupting in anyway (which is like, er, 99.9% of the internet…) then the spiritual problems connected with i-Phones only continue to grow.

Do you really want to be immersed in a world where God is absent, people descended by chance from monkeys and where anything goes, morally and socially? And if by chance you really want that for yourself, is that what you really want for your children?

No-one needs an i-Phone.

(I know there are supposedly haredi ‘rabbis’ who are carrying around their i-Phones and claiming they need them to serve the community, but it’s all just fluff and excuses put around by people who forget that God is running the world, and that emails don’t have to be answered within 20 seconds of being received. Can you imagine Rav Ovadia using an i-phone? Or Rav Kanievsky? I rest my case.)

We don’t need to carry-on buying into a culture that has made ‘escapism’ and ‘keeping busy’ it’s bywords, because it’s dead from the soul-down and is trying to run away from all the human misery it’s created with its God-less, heretical and materialistic approach to life.

Take a moment and imagine how different that woman’s trip to Ikea could have been without her i-Phone.

Maybe, she’d have started a conversation up with one of her kids, and learnt something very helpful. Maybe, she’d have given another kid a hug, or a back tickle, to alleviate the boredom of waiting in line. Maybe, she’d have noticed that she has nothing to say to her family, and that would have made her wonder why that was the case, and what needed to change to get her back in touch with herself and with them, more?

Instead, she checked her emails and Arutz 7 six times, until it was her turn to order the schnitzels and fries.

Life is so, so precious. Every moment can be used to reach out to others, reach up to God, or to reach inwards, to our own souls.

But when we’re carrying an i-Phone around, it’s so much easier to turn on to the emptiness of the internet, than to tune in to our own lives and loved ones.

I’ve been going to Uman for something like seven or eight years’ now, and in that time, I’ve seen it blossom from the worst sort of primitive, third-world country shtetl into a place with wifi, porsches and more kosher restaurants and hotels than many parts of Tel Aviv.

Mostly, it’s a good thing. But sometimes, I yearn a little for the utter simplicity of Uman even eight years’ ago. When I went back then, there was no cell phone access, and you’d be lucky if the electricity supply would hold out for a whole five days. Back then, I was still passing elderly Russian ladies taking their sleds down to the local water pump to get their H2O for the day.

The first place I stayed had two showers for 50 women – both of which opened straight onto the front door – and to say it wasn’t luxurious is kind of the understatement of the year. I had to bring my own toilet paper. I had to bring my own snacks (although breakfast and supper was catered on my trip.)

The snow was piled so high, that February, and the Ukrainian taxi and coach drivers were still palpably anti-semitic, but as they were the only people who actually had a van / car / coach at that time, you just had to put up with it or walk all the way back to Kiev.

Physically, it was really hard going. Spiritually? It was probably the most intense trip I ever had.

Not easy – really not easy – but powerfully transformational in a whole bunch of ways. That first trip was the only time that I ever had the Kever to myself for a little while, because going to Uman was still something a little ‘fringe’ that only hard-core crazies would do.

Not any more.

Uman has literally exploded over the last year or so.

Just now when I went, I saw at least three new hotels, and least three new kosher restaurants, plus big signs for people to come buy a luxury flat in a new development being built right up the road from Rabbenu on Pushkina Street.

If I’m honest, I wasn’t so happy that the commercialization of Uman is roaring ahead. Uman was the one place I didn’t have to worry about my usual inability to buy luxury properties, and where I could just disappear into my soul for a few days without any materialistic distractions.

This time, I went for a couple of days with my kids and husband and I struggled mightily to tap into the spirituality in Uman that usually just blows me away from the second I step off the coach there. I know it’s always different when you go with your kids, especially teenagers. From previous experience, I knew we’d have to budget more for food and souvenirs than we did for tzedakah (which is not the usual way of things, when me and my husband go there by ourselves.)

They wanted to eat pizza and chips, and go to Gan Tzofia, and buy all the cute Ukrainian handicrafts that I usually don’t touch with a bargepole because hey, I really don’t like giving those people any more of my money than I have to. But kids are kids. And one of the lessons I’ve been trying to learn recently is that God wants balance in the world, even when it comes to spiritual matters.

If Uman was minus the chips, and the ‘fun’ and the nicer accommodations, my kids wouldn’t want to keep going back every year.

That’s the reality. It’s the reality for a bunch of other people from the West, too, who really wouldn’t last 5 minutes in the Uman from 10 years’ back.

But I still felt pretty out of place in comfortable Uman. I still had to leave the Kever – which had been taken over by yet another rock-star Rabbanit doing a very loud ‘Amen’ festival for two hours, where her followers basically just chanted ‘Amen’ to everything she said – and go for a long walk round to the lake.

I sat there for half an hour, looked at the gorgeous trees, the beautiful water, did my best to avoid the big disgusting crucifix thing on the opposite bank of the lake (hey, it’s still GALUT after all) and tried to figure out what was bothering me so much.

After a while, I got it: normally, Uman is the only place in the world where I feel like really belong, in some weird way. Not that I want to live in the Ukraine, or even stay there for more than a couple of days, but normally, the spiritual vibe is so strong in Uman that everyone is talking about God, and being pretty real and honest, and you feel connected to yourself, and to God, and to your fellow Jew so much more.

This time, that seemed to be missing for me, and I felt its loss keenly.

Sure, I had a great plate of chips and chicken thighs instead, but for the first time ever, my soul felt more in exile in Uman than in Jerusalem.

Probably, this is a good thing. If Uman – one of the weirdest, most spiritually-intense places in the world – is finally going mainstream, then maybe the intense soul-connection that is Rebbe Nachman’s hallmark is finally making it out to the masses of Am Yisrael. Or, maybe God is showing me that just like Am Yisrael had to knuckle-down and get more ‘gashmius’ when they finally got out of the Desert and entered Eretz Yisrael, that now it’s also time for me to get a little more grounded and gashmius-minded again.

Maybe.

Truth is, I wouldn’t mind a luxury flat in Jerusalem. Or even, not such a luxury flat in Jerusalem….

Maybe that’s the lesson that I went to learn this time in Uman: that while it’s very important to pray, and to work on the spiritual side of things, sometimes, you also need to take a break from your devotions to eat a yummy plate of chips, sightsee and buy chatchkees for your kids, and in its own small way, that’s also somehow serving Hashem.

I haven’t been doing as much ‘Sefirat HaOmer’ stuff as I hoped on the blog this year, partially because it took a lot of effort to get ’49 Days’ out, before the Omer, and partially because I’ve had a heck of a lot of stuff going on since Rosh Chodesh Nissan.

But in this, the last week of counting the Omer, and heading into the last days, I have a story to share with you that sums up very nicely the power of today, ‘The spiritual dimension focusing on gratitude.’

As you may or may not know, my eldest started Ulpana (religious girls’ boarding school) last year, and really has been hating every minute.

The school she ended up in as miles away from civilization, surrounded by desert, and has a bus that gets to it precisely once a week from Jerusalem.

If she misses that bus (as does occasionally happen…) it’s a 5 hour round trip for me or my husband to drop her off.

But that’s not all: the school itself is well-meaning but SOOOO boring. There is no library, two extra-curricular classes (either pottery, or drama), no sports (they didn’t even have a sports teacher, the first two months) – and absolutely nothing to do to keep the girls occupied after classes are finished.

My daughter has been going slowly bonkers there for months, but decided to stick it out because she persuaded her best friend to go to that school too, and she felt super-guilty about leaving her in the lurch.

Then three months’ ago, Hashem did a miracle: The best friend flunked out of school, and her parents yanked her out and put in the local high school. With that problem resolved, my daughter was free to find another place.

Just one difficulty: every single school we applied to, that she was even remotely interested in, told us that they were full. By last week, with just two weeks’ to go, things were looking pretty desperate, and I had no idea where else to try.

Cue: the unexpected phone call from a new ulpana who mistakenly thought I’d tried to contact them. On the face of things, it didn’t sound so promising: The girls get up at 5.30am to go and work in the fields for a couple of hours before really starting the rest of their day.

Hmmmm.

My daughter is NOT a morning person. Still, the headmistress sounded so darned enthusiastic and plain nice, that I asked my daughter if she’d attend the open day, just to see. “Look, God arranged for them to phone me out of the blue,” I explained to her. “So maybe, this is the place!”

Silence.

But she agreed to go along to the open day that happened to be last Thursday. I risked a text mid-day, to ask her how it was going.

‘Good!’ came back the reply.

For the first time in months, I started to hope that maybe, just maybe, we’d found my daughter a school she could be happy in.

Long story short, my daughter came back glowing, so happy to have met girls on her wavelength, and willing to try crazy ideas like getting up at 5.30am to pick tomatoes…

The school accepted her formally this week, and for the first time in a year, I heard my daughter giggle again.

She hasn’t giggled for ages.

In the past, I’ve tried marathon prayer sessions to get things to move, school-wise , for my kids, and sometimes they’ve worked a treat. This time round, I didn’t have the energy to do that. But God showed me that He still cares, He was still looking out for my daughter, and He loves us anyway.

Even without a six hour hitbodedut, God still pulled the right string, to get my daughter into the right school, at the right time.

But if I want her to get up at 5.30am in the morning, something tells me that a bit more praying may still be in order.

😉

> You can buy 49 Days: An Interactive Journal of Self-development on Amazon and on the Book Depository

Last Thursday was Israel’s Independence Day, or Yom Ha-Atzmaut, and it’s always an interesting day in my household.

We don’t really fit the mold, religiously or communally, in myriad ways, and Yom Ha-Atzmaut always seems to underline that with a vengeance, because there are so many different decisions to make, like:

  • Do I hang a massive big flag outside the front of my house, like one of my kids wants me too? (even though we’re in a very chareidi neighborhood in Jerusalem that really doesn’t like that stuff so much?)
  • Do I stick an Israeli flag on my car, like another one of my kids really wants me too? (even though I’m worrying someone might deface it and / or try to vandalize my vehicle?)
  • Do I let my kids listen to music, even though it’s smack in the middle of the Omer, where you’re not meant to listen to music until you’ve got up to L’ag B’Omer, on the 33rd day?
  • Do I let myself listen to music, even though I’m not really 100% convinced that this is completely a chag the way the more hard-core dati leumi crowd (like my kids…) thinks it is?
  • Does my husband say Hallel? Does he say takanun?
  • Do we do the BBQ / Mangal thing (like 99% of Israel…) or pretend it’s just a regular day (like Meah Shearim, many former Gush Katif people, and my husband’s yeshiva?)

Questions, questions.

This year, I said: ‘OK! We can do the flag on the car!’

It seemed like a reasonable compromise between the various camps in my home. And we also decided to do a BBQ with my husband’s learning partner from yeshiva and his family, so at least they could talk Torah while we cooked the hotdogs.

Just, the flag thing wasn’t as simple as I thought. My daughter stuck the flag on, when we went to school. But the next morning, found it on the backseat, because my husband took it off when he went to daven in Meah Shearim (worried that someone would vandalize such an obviously Zionist car).

So, she stuck it back on – and he took it off – every day for a week, and sometimes, it happened multiple times, depending on where we were going and who was driving the car.

Finally, the day before Yom HaAtzmaut itself – someone DID vandalize the car, right next to where we lived, and snapped the flag off, leaving only a small, plastic stump to celebrate the holiday.

Over lunch, we discussed a little bit the whole ‘is it really a holiday’ thing.

Personally, my views on the subject seem to change every year, but this year I found myself in a place of quiet gratitude to God that there is an Israel to live in, however flawed, secular and difficult things still can be here, but still thinking that there’s a lot of work to do before we can really celebrate making it ‘back’, in the fullest sense of the word.

The day before the chag, a terrorist stabbed two old ladies in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona, so like Rav Arush says, we can’t even celebrate walking safely in our streets just yet, let alone ‘redemption’ in the true spiritual meaning of the word.

Maybe next year, things will change enough to make it easier to know what to do with the flags, and the music, and the BBQ. I mean, if Moshiach and the Temple is here, then it’s a no-brainer that we’ll nip down to the altar for a wicked lamb shwarma, and then catch the sold-out concert by the Levyim in the Sultan’s Pool, as the fireworks go off over the new Jewish neighborhood of Silwan.

A girl can dream, can’t she?

Since a few weeks’ before Pesach, I’ve been feeling pretty strange.

Yes, Pesach was very hectic this year, with lots of family coming out to Israel. Yes, I got hit with the ‘mystery’ illness that kept me feeling exhausted and out of it for around a month. Yes, my kids are both pretty unsettled in their schools, my husband is still pretty unsettled in his career, and I’m still trying to work out what I want to do when I grow up.

All these things are really just variations on a theme that has been reoccurring periodically in my life for decades: that feeling that I don’t know what I’m doing with myself, and that my life feels a bit empty and purposeless.

I’ve tried to fill that space with writing, with books, with classes, with praying, with working like a dog, with holidays, with exercising like a crazy person (many years’ ago, now…) and occasionally, even with cleaning my toilet.

Sometimes they work, more as a distraction than anything else. Usually, I have to go and do some big prayer-a-thon to get underneath the icky feeling and just reconnect back to myself, and then back to God. And THAT’s when I get some relief and some clarity and some inner peace.

(If you’re wondering, I often have to do a longer hitbodedut every week, to keep on top of the empty, pointless feeling that can swirl around me not infrequently.)

But given all that, this period of time still feels different from the usual meaningless / pointless / confused / frustrated feelings I get.

I don’t know about you, but this period of counting the Omer has been pretty intense so far. Every day seems to bring its fair share of deep, introspective work, and insights. I’ve been getting intense dreams, experiencing some weird things, and God has sent me some huge messages about what I need to work on and fix, still.

Like, I had one dream involving people I hadn’t spoken to for years, already, which made me realize I was still pretty upset at them and harbouring a huge grudge. Who knew?

Or, I had a conversation with one of my kids that left me literally gasping for breath. She mentioned something nonchalantly, like kids do, and I suddenly lost my voice and couldn’t breathe for a few seconds.

Gosh, clearly some deep, internal button had been pressed.

Who knew that stuff was still so tightly-wired up inside, and reactive?

So since Pesach has ended (and really, even before it began) I’ve been caught up in a bit of an internal maelstrom, where I know God is expecting big things of me, but I’m still finding it hard to really identify them, or give Him what I think He wants.

And it’s intense.

Do you know that Rav Eliezer Berland is in prison in South Africa, and has been kept there for over a month, already? Do you know what terrible trials and difficulties he’s going through?

Part of me feels that it’s only right that my life should feel so intense and unstable at the moment, because how can a huge Tzaddik like this be suffering so much, and we just sit here carrying on, business as usual?

In fact, the situation with Rav Berland is what makes me think, more than anything else, that this period of time is unusual, even though parts of it feel all-too-familiar. Things are getting shaken up. Things are getting broken down. Things are changing.

In which way, and what that means, I have no idea. I hope it’s going to lead to Moshiach and the temple, peacefully. But it feels like we’re definitely entering unchartered waters in some way at the moment, at least to me. And without my hitbodedut to keep me afloat, I think I probably would have sunk under all the pressure and intensity a long time ago.

Getting into Pesach this year was such a slog for me.

Around two weeks’ before the holiday, I had another dose of my pre-Pesach ‘mystery’ illness, where I start feeling so weak and horrible, it’s all I can do to get out of bed, let alone clean my skirting boards.

It’s happened like clock-work three years’ in a row now, and while the first year I was seriously worried I was dying, by this stage I KNOW it’s a spiritual / emotional thing – which makes it easier to deal with, in some ways, but still pretty challenging when it comes to actually getting stuff done for Pesach.

This year’s dose of spiritual malaise took me out for three days, and when I finally had the energy to get out of bed again, I had just over a week to get EVERYTHING done. Which is when my yetzer kicked in big time.

It started reminding me about all those people who get taken away to luxury hotels for Pesach… and all those people who have family around to make Seder for them and share the load… and all those people who can afford to get cleaning help, at least occasionally, to do what must be done before the holiday.

Dear reader, I moped around feeling so sorry for myself, and so unfortunate, and so ‘low’ in so many ways, leading up to Seder night.

I really felt like I was trapped in the land of bad middot, and I had no idea how I was ever going to get out of it.

What was keeping me going was the thought that hopefully, Seder night would be the breakthrough I needed, to stop feeling like such a sad loser and to see things start turning around again.

Seder night arrived – but my enthusiasm didn’t. The first half an hour, I sat there staring at the other three people around the table, and I just wanted to cry. Just me and my immediate family AGAIN. Another year where I felt more dead than alive, going into the Festival of freedom and redemption. Another year where despite my best efforts to grow, change and improve, my life still seemed to be stuck in a very despairing, negative place.

Sigh.

Of course, I’m a grown-up, so I didn’t say any of this stuff.

I just sat at the table with my pretend fixed smile on my face, trying to make out like I was really enjoying the whole proceedings. But underneath? I was drowning in misery.

Just then, the kid who is my mirror (and who’d also been feeling really unwell the week leading up to Seder) spoke up:

“I hate Pesach!” she declared loudly and with feeling, before we’d even got up to singing ‘Ma Nishtana’. “I hate it even more than Purim!” (Which is saying something, because this Purim she spent the whole holiday violently throwing up.)

Long story short, I suddenly realized that God was not going to let me get away with my secret despair, and that something had to change pronto, or else we were about to have the worse Seder ever.

When you have a small family like mine, everyone has to participate at Seder, and sit at the table, because one missing person is really a whole world.

I was off ‘missing’ in my head, and my kid decided to absent herself to go sit on the couch, leaving my husband and other kid desperately trying to raise everyone’s spirits and rescue our Festival of Freedom.

Just then, I stopped moaning and started thanking God.

‘Thanks, God, that me and my kid both hate Pesach. Thanks, God, that hard as I try to be a good Jew and keep mitzvot, somehow or other the rug keeps getting pulled out from under my feet, and I can’t seem to give You the joy, happiness and enthusiasm I’d really like to. Thanks, that I often go into these holidays feelings so lost and lonely – even more than usual. Thanks that I am NEVER going to be the subject of a Feldheim biography on ideal Yiddishkeit…’

Suddenly, the cloud lifted a little, and my kid came back to the table.

Next, I asked my family what was the worse Seder we’d ever had – and as everyone remembered this bad experience or that, I suddenly realized that every single one of our ‘worst’ Seders had been with other people. Here I was, moaning about it being just us, while actually, ‘just us’ was a pretty good deal!

We could all take the Seder at the pace we wanted to; it was much more relaxed and informal; I hadn’t killed myself making 18 side-dishes for guests; no-one was arguing about who was going to sing Ma Nishtana; I wasn’t being bored to death by the 100th dvar Torah…

Hmmm.

Maybe things weren’t so bad after all!

A few minutes later, me and my mirror had seriously cheered up, and we were both actually (whisper this…) enjoying ourselves.

Later on in the week, I spoke to some relatives about how their family-filled, luxurious Seders had gone. One had ended up in hospital with their kid on Seder night thanks to a serious asthma attack, while the other was completely exhausted from being up until five in the morning, and couldn’t wait for their ‘real’ holiday to begin.

Hmmm.

Pesach continued to be challenging in other ways this year, but the unifying theme throughout the last week (at least for me) is that appearances can be very deceptive, especially at this stage of the game.

The more ‘shiny’ and ‘successful’ and ‘sociable’ it looks from the outside, probably the worst it’s actually feeling.

I learnt that lesson big time this Pesach.

I hope God’s going to help me to remember it.

And so, it is Pesach

This year has gone by in such a blur, that I almost can’t believe Pesach is here again.

What? So soon??!

How did that happen?

On the one hand, I’m so looking forward to having a week off from cleaning and writing and just plain thinking; but on the other hand, I’m kind of feeling a bit lost in the chag this year.

In the past, I feel that I’ve prepared much more for the holiday than I have this year.

There were years that I cleaned more (much more); years where I listened to more classes about leaving Egypt, and all that stuff. Years where I had lots of guests for seder (or even, some guests for seder).

Last year, I came into Pesach so finished that all my super-machmir habits kind of got smashed, and it’s interesting to see that my lack of oomph is continuing 12 months later, albeit in a much gentler and less dramatic way.

I just don’t really have energy for Pesach at the moment, it seems.

Not the cleaning, not the cooking, not the spiritual preparation, nothing.

On Shabbat, Rav Arush told the yeshiva to try and get everything done by Thursday afternoon, so that we’d have the energy to actually enjoy the seder a little bit, and to grab hold of some of the spiritual light that comes down on that most special of nights.

So now, I’m trying to get it all there, wherever ‘there’ actually is, by Thursday. But the idea that I’m somehow going to get filled up with light this Seder night seems quite bizarre to me, if I’m honest.

A few weeks’ ago, I realized that at least for me, ‘Egypt’ is my bad middot and negative character traits. Am I really going to be able to kick free of them once and for all, on Seder night?

Am I really going to get redeemed from the endless rush that seems to be my life, and everyone else’s?

Am I – and everyone else that I know – really going to finally accept the idea that there is more to life than the relentless chase after money?

You know, I have a few friends that I’ve known for ages and ages who I haven’t seen smile, properly, in about five years. Is that going to change, this Seder night? Are all the sad, stressed, lonely, lost people out there finally going to get redeemed, and start enjoying their lives the way God intended?

I SO hope so.

But, I’ve hoped for these things, and more, in years’ past, too.

Why is this seder night going to be any different from usual?

Ma nishtana, ha lila hazeh?

I guess I’ll have to wait for God to show me.

Drone view of a city

Well, how was your Purim?

Uplifting? Joyful? Stressful? Spiritual?

My Purim was actually quite nice, in a very non-standard way. This year, I decided to dress up as the ‘Doctor of the Soul’. I had a blue medical hat stuck on my headscarf, plus a plastic stethoscope and a big sign that I pinned to my top that said ‘Doctor of the Soul’, to make it clear.

In shul, an older American lady leaned over to me and told me: ‘I like your outfit, it’s cute’.

Aha! I thought I’d managed to identify another Breslev anglo in my area! Things were looking up!

Then she ruined it by leaning back over and stage-whispering:

‘What is that, anyway? A psychiatrist?’

On to the megilla reading.

They banned loud stamping and exaggerated musical instruments and groggers at the mention of Haman, so it went pretty fast – except for the fact that the older Moroccan woman directly in front of me decided she was going to read the megilla loudly herself – and completely out of sync – with the official version. It was like some weird simultaneous translation, or something.

I came home, I made challah (!) for the first time in months, I tried to wake up at midnight to pray, and mumbled something for about two minutes before conking out again – which was good, because at 5am I was woken up by some loud puking noises.

Hmm. We hadn’t even got to the stage of drinking the alcohol yet, or crazily stuffing in all the junk from the mishloach manot, so what was going on?! Turned out one of my children had stomach flu.

I have one bathroom and guests coming for seuda, and most of the morning she was running in there about every half an hour to throw up.

Hmmm. I decided to leave that up to God to sort out before the guests came, because in the meantime I had to hear megilla and then deliver my mishloach manot.

I got to shul 10 minutes before the megilla reading was meant to start – to discover they’d managed to lose the key to the aron hakodesh. We were waiting around 25 minutes before someone remembered which bookcase they’d shoved it behind, and they could unlock the Torah scrolls and get on with reading the megilla.

I ran home for the next stage of Purim: deliver the baskets of goodies.

This year, I decided to give 4 mishloach manot: 2 for people who lived close who I really like; and 2 for people who lived close who I really don’t like – thus, keeping all opinions satisfied.

I also decided to do ‘worthwhile’ baskets, with good wine and nice pastries, instead of the usual chocolate bar and waffley things – and one of my ‘don’t really like you’ recipients was clearly shocked when I handed it over, in a good way.

They reappeared at my door a few minutes later with a reciprocal bag of goodies, and heaped blessings on my head, including that we should merit to buy our own apartment soon. I took that as a really good sign, as that was most of my Purim ‘ask’ this year, but clearly they didn’t know that.

The puking kid went to sleep the whole time the guests were here, so that got resolved. The seuda was very relaxed and pleasant. And I was ready for Shabbat two hours early, for a huge change.

That night, I walked down to the Kotel for Friday night prayers, and a woman dressed as a huge silver bird came over to me and wished me ‘shabbat shalom’.

Hmmm.

I got to the Wall, and there was a flock of swallows spinning and turning all over the place right next to the wall, which is a pretty unusual sight – I don’t remember seeing that before. So given the bird woman, and then the unusual flock of birds, I decided to look up the ‘song’ of the swallows in Perek Shira when I got home.

Here’s what it said:

The swallow is saying, ‘So that my soul shall praise You, and shall not be silent, God my Lord, I shall give thanks to You forever.’

I liked that very much.

There’s a Breslov idea that Purim in many ways marks the beginning of the year. Just before the Purim seuda last year, my husband finally made it out of the depressed state that had engulfed him for months after our business went bust and we ran out of money, and went back to work the week after Purim.

I don’t know what amazing turnarounds and miracles await me this week, Bezrat Hashem, but I know they’re coming.

A little while ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who told me about the latest ‘parenting craze’ to be sweeping the frum world, at least in Israel.

In a nutshell, this new system or shitta is telling parents, particularly mothers, that they have to find out what their problem is, in order to raise their kids properly.

Apparently, the thinking is like this: if you can help the parents to uncover the ‘fatal flaw’ or big emotional problem, or personal issue that defines them and their approach to everything in life, including how they parent their kids, then you’ll help them to change their behavior, and peace will reign in Gotham City.

I know, it theoretically sounds great doesn’t it? There’s just one problem: it’s a load of baloney, and in practice it’s going to end up doing far more harm than good to everyone involved.

How do I know all this?

Simple: in our quest to be better Jews, and better people and better parents, me and my husband have been through a whole bunch of shitot and systems based on ideas that sounded good in theory, but were actually useless (at best) or very damaging in practice.

Christians believe that people are ‘fatally flawed’ as a result of the ‘original sin’ where Adam and Eve brought death into the world. By contrast, Jews (especially Breslev-friendly Jews) believe that people are fundamentally good, and that the real them, their soul, is only good and holy, just it got caught up in a bunch of klipot (evil husks) and yetzer haras (evil inclinations) that it needs to fight off and fight through.

That’s the work of this world, and it really can take 120 years to achieve it.

But what’s happening in even the most frum circles is that people are taking a bunch of half-baked ideas rooted in the heresy of modern psychology and psychiatry, or in the idol-worshiping notions of Christianity or the Eastern religions, and then concocting all sorts of ‘workshops’ and ‘parenting courses’ that aren’t based on truth, and only serve to drag participants’ vulnerabilities, difficulties and yetzers out for public scrutiny, without giving them a real solution for how to actually resolve them.

I know so many people, my husband included, who have been caught up and hurt in all the frum public confessionals happening all over the place.

But however these things are being dressed up and sold to others, they’re all based on the same basic principles: encourage people to admit their biggest hurts, deepest secrets and darkest shames in front of a bunch of strangers; then, have the group’s ‘guru’ explain to them – publicly – what their problem is, how it’s affecting them, and why it’s so bad. Then – leave them to deal with it. Alone.

If they start to struggle, or feel even more alone, depressed or ‘bad’, explain to them that either:

  • They didn’t get what they’re meant to be doing, or they didn’t complete the program and process properly and it’s their problem they’re so broken and can’t be fixed;

And / or:

  • Promise to give them the answer to their problem in the next workshop (or six…); or the next private coaching session (or 10…); or the next super-expensive private retreat.

I have seen people keep coming back to these ‘gurus’ and the hugely profitable organisations they’ve built on the back of other people’s suffering for literally years. For as long as they are in touch with the ‘guru’ and the system they’ve built, they’re hopeful that the answer, whatever it is, is just one more group meeting away.

But it doesn’t work like that!

Quite the opposite: as time goes on, the participants split into 2 camps: increasingly despairing, angry, empty and cynical, or completely detached from the reality of who they really are, and what’s really happening in their lives and in their relationships.

Neither of these modes is emotionally healthy, or compatible with yiddishkeit.

So what’s the answer? Where are all these frum gurus going wrong, and why are they doing so much damage?

In a nutshell, you can sum it up like this: what helps people to be better parents, and to treat their kids nicer, and to be happier people, and to be able to deal with their issues and flaws appropriately, is when they concentrate on seeing the good in themselves, and developing more self-compassion.

Remember, God arranged the world as a mirror, to show us who we really are, and what we really need to work on. If we secretly believe ourselves to be selfish monsters, or hateful failures, or fatally-flawed and unfixable in some way, that’s the ‘self’ we’ll see reflected back to us from the people in our lives, and especially our children.

The more ‘down’ we get on ourselves, the more we dislike ourselves – all for the best motives in the world – the more we’ll be irritated by, dislike and probably mistreat our kids, who are just our mirrors. By contrast, the more we learn to see the good in ourselves, and to judge ourselves with compassion and understanding, the more that inner goodness will shine out of our kids, too.

(If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like Rebbe Nachman’s Azamra, you’re dead right.)

There’s a lot more to say about this, and I think I will be coming back to this idea again and again on my blog. But for now let me leave you with this:

The single biggest thing you can do to improve your parenting, and help your kids, and to build the world, and to become the fulfilled, happy Jew God created you to be, is to learn how to love yourself, and to concentrate on finding all the good He placed in your soul.

That’s it.

And if your course, workshop, or frum guru is not telling you that, or if it’s telling you to focus on your problems, flaws and issues, then run away as fast as your legs can carry you.

Time and again in my research about what makes people feel ‘alive’ and what makes them feel the opposite, God-forbid, having a well-defined sense of purpose comes pretty close to the top of the list.

If a person really understands why they’re alive, if they really get what’s the point of being down here, then that knowledge by itself can transform their life in so many good ways. I was musing on this while I was reading Viktor Frankl’s classic work, Man’s search for meaning, where he writes about his experiences in the holocaust, and the conclusions he drew as a result.

Frankl was a secular Viennese psychotherapist who lost his parents, wife and all of his siblings bar one sister during the war. In the book, he describes how his ‘professional interest’ in how his fellow prisoners were handling the indescribable suffering of being in Auschwitz and other death camps was a big reason why he survived the war.

As soon as he could take a ‘professional interest’ and start to ponder the psychological implications of what he was witnessing and experiencing, Frankl explains that the experiences themselves became easier to manage in some way.

In one particular poignant passage, he describes how imagining he would share his new insights into human nature kept him going when he was enduring a particularly hard day of forced labour outside in the freezing Polish winter.

Another popular tactic he employed was talking to his wife in his head, and escaping into those imaginary conversations. And thus, he survived the war, and went on to develop Logotherapy, his own brand of psychotherapy where the emphasis was firmly put on encouraging his patients to find some sort of meaning to life, in order to heal their emotional problems.

While Frankl is not ‘anti-religion’, he’s clearly wasn’t an observant Jew – and that’s a real shame, because Judaism would’ve have furnished a clear-cut ‘meaning to life’ that would have prevented him from trying to re-invent the wheel.

Let me give an example I was pondering on recently:

The more I read and learn and experience, the more I realize that it’s almost impossible to raise our children without causing them some sort of severe psychological damage, with far-reaching consequences for their sense of wellbeing, emotional and physical health, and spiritual connection.

For years, I thought that if you were a healthy, well-adjusted, emotionally-balanced person, then your kids would turn out OK (just for the record, I haven’t actually ever met someone like this, but for argument’s sake, let’s pretend they exist.) But God’s been showing me recently that EVEN the most well-meaning, spiritually-connected, tuned-in, compassionate parents are STILL messing their kids up.

How can we not? Is it up to us to decide if we have to experience huge financial pressures, for example? Or severe illnesses? Or traumatic moves to different cities or different countries? Can we help it if we get depressed sometimes, or super-stressed, or overwhelmed by the difficult experiences each of us has to face? We don’t pick for our kids to have horrible teachers, or nasty bullies, or traumatic experiences with terrorists every few days.

And all this stuff leaves an indelible mark on the soul, and causes things like anxiety, fear, anger, panic, despair, and a whole bunch of other things, too.

So I was pondering: Why?

Why does God set things up that it’s impossible to raise our kids as completely whole, emotionally-healthy human beings who don’t have anxiety, panic, worry, sadness and all the rest of it?

As usual, Rav Arush gave me the answer. I was reading his new book about saying thank you and seeing miracles when he explained that our difficulties are what brings us closer to God. We suffer, we hurt, we get overwhelm, and then we actually turn around and have probably the first honest conversation of our lives with our Creator.

We realize we can’t do it by ourselves, that we need Him to help us out, pronto. And that’s the whole point of being alive.

It’s so easy to get so caught up in the secular view of the world, which sees everything as being somehow in human control and ‘solve-able’. Depressed? Take a pill! Anxious? Take a pill! Stressed? Take a pill! (You get the idea…)

But I realized that I’ve also fallen into that trap a bit, by blaming myself for all of my kids issues. Now, here’s where we hit the fine line: OF COURSE I’m to blame for my kids issues, if I take God out of the picture. I mean, I made aliya, I ran out of money, I keep moving, I’m the one who got angry, stressed, depressed, overwhelmed and who all too frequently took it out on them.

But I’ve been working on all that stuff as much as I can, and the more I clear away, the more God shows me that something had to mess them up, as that’s the whole point. It’s only in their brokenness that they’re going to get closer to God, and build their relationship with Him. So yes, God used my bad middot to do the job for a while, but now they’re receding, I see He’s still piling the pressure on my kids: terrorists are scary; ulpana is challenging and sometimes lonely; friends are frequently unpredictable and draining etc etc.

And that’s the way it’s meant to be.

To put it another way, our suffering is what gives our life meaning, and what ultimately makes it worthwhile. I know that’s a bizarre idea on many levels, but recently, it’s been coming into clearer and clearer focus.

The meaning of life, what gives our lives purpose, is to get closer to God. Full stop. That’s why God fills the world with pain and suffering, and doesn’t give us all mansions, yachts and perfect health. At some point, hopefully the equation will change, and people will want to get closer to God even amidst their bounty – I think that’s the promise of Moshiach.

But we’re not quite there yet (at least, I’m not). Which means that each day still has its measure of pain, and its share of challenges. But I’m no longer wondering why it has to be that way.