This Elul, I’m Not Trying to be a Better Person

Every year at this time of year, I brace myself for a new trek down the road of Teshuva. It’s a time to take stock of where I excelled, faltered and plateaued, and challenge myself to do better.

Truth is, as a Millennial, that’s the message I’ve been raised with my whole life, at every time of year:

If you will it, it is no dream.

Keep moving forward. 

Never, never, never give up. 

Don’t be afraid to be great. 

My generation has been trained to think that we are the heroes of our own stories. We can accomplish whatever we put our minds to: push boundaries, lead innovation, change the world.

But what happens when we don’t live up to those heroic expectations?

I know these phrases are meant to motivate, but now, I find them somewhat misguiding. It’s important to believe in ourselves, and to deeply feel that we have something important to achieve, but what I’ve found on my own journey is that sometimes, in the process of becoming a “better person,” I’ve also become intent on proving my worth. In an effort to show that I had something special to offer, I forgot the point.

In Tehillim 16, King David says, “the sorrows of those who hurry after another multiply.” Often it’s connoted that “another” refers to another god, but Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch purposely leaves “god” out of his interpretation. Today, we have Another of a different kind: an insistent emphasis on achievement.

In 2017, we can be anything we want. Doctors. Entrepreneurs. Creators. Global citizens. Or all of the above if we can figure it out. We have great expectations of ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities. But what happens though when someone doesn’t fit the mold of the ambitious go-getter? What happens when, in our attempt to become better, we lose sight of our true purpose: to be genuine stewards of the gifts G-d gives us. Sometimes, His plans for us aren’t epic. Sometimes, the arenas and challenges wouldn’t make a viral Instagram story or Times of Israel blog post. Sometimes, the greatest glory is considered unextraordinary compared to the expectations of 21st Century life.

Which is why, this year, instead of focusing on being a better person, I’m focusing on being a more grateful person, not just in sentiment, but in practice.

Instead of focusing on who I can be, I’d like to focus on who I already am, and build that person up.

Instead of being so intent on willing dreams into reality, moving forward, and never, never, never giving up, I’d like to bring back some real appreciation for what already is.

Because when I focus on the gracious gifts G-d gives me rather than the gifts I can give Him, I have more to genuinely offer in the long run.

And I think that’s really the point.



Privilege on Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut

Today was my first Yom HaZikaron in Israel and tomorrow will be my first Yom Ha’atzmaut. How do I feel?

A small exchange with a falafel shop attendant sums it up well.

I’d just finished with some banking business on King George Street. It was the middle of the day – my bank closes at 2pm on Sundays – so on my way back to work, I scouted the local restaurants for lunch-on-the-go.

Falafel never fails in that arena. As per usual, I asked for my order in Hebrew, and as per usual, the man behind the counter answered me in English. I kept on communicating in Hebrew, as incorrect as it might have been and tends to be.

Eventually, he caught on and smiled, thanking me for making the effort to speak the language of the land.

“I’m an olah chadasha,” I explained, “it’s important that I speak Hebrew as much as I can.”

His smile widened and he nodded with a look of pride that reminded me of my parents.. “Wow,” he remarked, “wow, that’s wonderful. You made aliyah – bless you, G-d bless you.”

I thanked and blessed him in return.

In those few minutes he made me feel like a hero; someone who’d done something superhumanly outstanding. But let’s be real – I’m a pretty typical new American immigrant. I’ve had my doubts and difficulties related to aliyah.  Yet, throughout this new beginning, through the peaks and dips, the joy and loneliness – I feel a deep  sense of privilege.

It’s my privilege to have the opportunity to build a life here.

It’s my privilege to travel the  1.5 hour bus rides from my basement apartment on a yishuv to work in Jerusalem.

It’s my privilege to break my teeth over Hebrew, to fall asleep to Israeli radio and wake up to it in the morning, noticing it stick slowly, slowly, more and more.

It’s my privilege to struggle with the uncertainties, feel awkward in the cultural differences…to feel rooted in a purpose and process so much bigger than myself.

It’s my privilege to be an active participant in yishuv Eretz Yisrael. I understand it’s not something every Jew is in a position to do. Each of us has our own destiny – I believe in that more than I believe in aliyah.

I’m just so grateful that mine led me here.


Your Main Educator

your main educator - piaseczner

A lot of  people walk around thinking that they’re owed something because their education wasn’t as good as it could have been.

  • It was my school’s job to make sure I knew how to speak Hebrew
  • It was my parents’ job to push me harder
  • It was my parents’ job to push me less
  • It was my Jewish college or Hillel’s job to create a more [fill in the blank] environment

Every educator – whether it’s a parent, teacher, counselor, clergy member – has a responsibility to make their domain of education the best it can be; to foster each and every individual’s growth. And you know what, maybe you’re right. Maybe they messed up.

But now that you’re old enough to care about your growth, advancement, and quality of life (and let’s be frank, you were probably old enough 10 years ago), they can’t care anymore than you do. They can’t make any more of a difference in your life than you’re willing to make in your own.

Decide who has the greatest impact on your life – other people or yourself – and own it.

Because only once we’re willing to own our stories can we really learn from others.

My Great-Grandfather’s Grave

Hearing about the recent desecration of headstones at Jewish cemeteries across the US hit a really personal nerve for me. Exploring and collecting the life stories of my ancestors is important to me, maybe more so than the average Millennial.  Look, there were times when I asked myself why I care so much about people who I never knew. I didn’t always care. As a teenager, visiting my ancestor’s graves was a nice ideal – an auspicious thing to do before the High Holidays – but not worth time away from my burgeoning present and future. As I think back today though, on my great-grandfather’s yartzheit, I feel that it is my duty and responsibility to ask my fellow Jews, both in the Diaspora and in Israel, to learn more about who they come from and to go visit their gravesites.


Amram gravestone

My great-grandfather’s gravestone, the National Capitol Hebrew Cemetery, Washington DC


It was the beginning of the next chapter of my life. After of a year of working and saving, I was finally beginning college. My family wasn’t spared from the negative effects of the Recession, so instead of enrolling in university right after my gap year in Israel,  I took a detour in the name of fiscal responsibility.

Another detour that I wasn’t thrilled about was the one to the National Capitol Hebrew Cemetery at the border of where D.C. and Maryland meet. My Bubbie and I were in the middle of a five day road trip from her condo in Florida back up to her house in Upstate New York. The deal was this: I’d help her pack up and drive her pristinely kept 1995 Nissan Maxima back Upstate, and at the end of our journey, the car was mine for keeps. With my college career starting along the winding, expansive roads of Rockland County, New York, this was a definitely deal worth taking.  Beginning my 20’s with a bank account full of cash, next-to-no-tuition (thank you, Rockland Community College), and a pair of wheels? Yes, please.

I had begrudgingly agreed to visit her father’s grave on our way up Route 95. Begrudgingly because I had a life to start in New York: college most days and evenings, and a part-time job at a New Jersey Jewish day school twice a week. Taking a pit stop in our fine country’s capitol meant missing the first days of both. My 20-year old mind had no patience for the past when the future I so anxiously awaited was nearly in my reach.

Still, I understood that I owed my grandmother the respect of paying respects, especially since she was giving me her car afterward. She’d mentioned that it had been at least 25 years since see last visited her father’s grave. Twenty-five years…nearly half of the amount of time since his passing in 1963. During that trip, she was determined to document his memory for generations to come, bringing along her camera. Accidentally, she left the camera in the rental car. She was crushed.

Amram Armand Levy

My great-grandfather, Armand Amram Levy, passed away when Bubbie was 16. They’d been living a simple yet idyllic life in Silver Spring, Maryland, enjoying a Jewish-ish suburban life in a two-bedroom apartment. When he suddenly collapsed from a heart attack, life as they knew it changed. My great-grandmother, Libby, packed up my Bubbie and her younger sister, and resettled near her parents in an even smaller two-bedroom apartment, in Albany, New York. Life left her – and her young family – with a gaping hole. My Bubbie described to me how, after her father died, she felt like an orphan, floating through life on her own. Without the resources or support system to help her, visiting his grave wasn’t even an option: her mother worked full-time, they didn’t own a car, the price of bus fare was too vital for their everyday needs. She could only dream of confiding in him, being close to the place that still kept his memory in this world. For many years, it was just a dream; a longed-for moment to anticipate for another time, another day.

When we finally spotted his gravestone, the dream became reality.

Suddenly, the lively, funny lady I knew so well was a girl, crying, “Daddy, Daddy. I miss you.” She rested her head on my shoulder, her warm tears falling onto my hair. Suddenly, the hard-nosed, laser-focused college student was softened and affected. I too began to cry, and felt something I’d never felt before.

It’s hard to put those feelings into words, but the first one that comes to mind is ‘timelessness’. Though I had two feet in this world and in the year 2010, I was also highly aware of my connection to a line of life that started long before me and will please G-d exist long after. There we were, great-grandfather, grandmother, and grandchild, all existing in the same moment. Together. In that moment, I knew deeply in my core, and without a doubt, that I’m not alone in this life, and that my part in it matters…my life story is eternally bound to those who came before me. With this eternal binding and embrace also comes great onus and responsibility: to continue the story and legacy vested within every generation, in my generation.

I got to school and work a day late. It didn’t change my life. Visiting my great-grandfather’s grave did. It’s a moment that will stay with me forever, and still serves as a guide and grace when I feel life is too big for me to deal with alone. If you know where your ancestors are buried, go visit them. Make a statement to those who want to erase our loved ones’ memories on this earth, and make it known, that though they might bring down their gravestones, they won’t bring down our loved ones’ legacies. Show the generations past, present, and future that you -and they- are a part of an eternal embrace, an epic story that is still unfolding. Have your own timeless moment for yourself, for your family, and for our future.

Just this week, my uncle, Bubbie, and cousins mounted plaques in memory of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother in our shul there, Congregation Beth Abraham Jacob. May their memories be a blessing and inspiration for years to come.




First, Bet on Yourself


We’re all still students, or at least, we should be. Even though some of us may have our academic days behind us, the School of Life never stops teaching.

That’s why I flip through Chovat HaTalmidim at least once a year.

You see, the Piaseczner was no softy. He wasn’t soft on teachers and he wasn’t soft on students. When it came to owning education, the onus was never on the other party. Sure, your parents and teachers could have been more encouraging. Sure, your children and students could have taken more initiative. In his book, what other people believe about you doesn’t matter. What matters is what you believe about yourself.

Allow me to serve as a test case.

I’m up to Week 4 of my job hunt. Overall, it’s been encouraging, thank G-d. Still – and I think this is true for most job seekers – doubts creep in. Is my limited Hebrew stifling my potential? How long will this take? How much more of my savings will I have to use?

Then, at the beginning of this week while I was taking my usual morning stroll around the yeshuv, my proverbial heels dug in: I want to make my life here? I want to give it my absolute best shot? No one’s going to bet on me more than I’m willing to bet on myself. It’s time to start living that way.

Not just feeling that way, not just thinking that way, but really living it with every ounce of strength and intention.

As the Piaseczner alludes, as long as we think someone else is deeming us reliable, dependable, or worthy, we’re not achieving what we’re capable of.

You want to be a writer? Write. Don’t wait to be noticed.

You want to speak Hebrew? Start speaking. And watch more Shtisel.

You want steady, stable, loving relationships? Be steady. Be stable. Be loving.

Others will bet on you once they see you’re already betting on yourself.

Confessions of an American Olah

Teudat Zehut ceremony

When you see the picture of me holding my Teudat Zehut with a full, hundred-watt smile, you probably are thinking that’s gotta be one of the happiest moments of her life. And it was. That crinkling thing I do with eyes is not something I know how to fake. The less of my eyes you can see, the happier I am.

Aliyah was the first big commitment I made without knowing the end result. Sure, I did college, work, and graduate school, and those all took commitment, but the difference was, I knew what the end product was supposed to look like: College resulted in a Bachelors of Arts. Graduate school resulted in a Masters of Science. Work resulted in smooth flowing events and project goals met. Aliyah was the first commitment I’ve made knowing with full awareness that there’s no knowing for sure what lies ahead. Of course, there are reasons that make the risk is worthwhile and give me deep optimism: my supportive friends and family, job opportunity, the go-with-the-flow culture that I thrive one….but of course, there are no guarantees.

Uncertainty is tough. It’s what held me back from making Aliyah the first time I attempted. It’s especially tough when you’re coming from a country where Jewish life is meaningful, rich, and fulfilling.

Golda Meir said: Israel was created, so that every Jew knows he can come home, when he has to or when he wants to.

When I first looked at my fellow olim from other countries, I thought, of course they made aliyah. Why would they stay in anti-semitic France? Or in rupturing South Africa? Sure, Brazil is a beautiful place, but c’mon, there’s not much going on there for a Jew.

I know. Very American of me.

Ask a few American Jews if they would congratulate a French, South African, or Brazilian Jew for making aliyah, and you’ll likely get a  unified  “of course!” When a Jew has to protect his life and heritage, there is no question. Yet ask the same people if they supports another American Jew’s choice to make aliyah because he wants to, and you are bound to get a flurry of different responses, ranging from passionate blessings, to apathy, to disapproving cynicism.

Perhaps most American olim are able to get past the deep ambiguity on the issue, but for me, it’s hard to shake. American Jews aren’t wrong. Life is great in America. It’s overflowing with possibilities in every direction…nothing is off limits. I mean, why on earth would I leave a country in which:

  • a Hasidic Jewish woman is a sitting judge of civil court.
  • there are institutions of higher learning that enable medical and law students to take off the least days possible for Jewish holidays (see: Touro College and Yeshiva University).
  • our beat boxers and a-capella groups are celebrated on national TV and in TIME magazine.

I mean, really. Things are euphorically good in America!

And then, that little voice – it claims to be a voice of reason – pushes its opinion:

You knowit’s takes a lot of chutzpah to leave all of that behind. 

That’s when the avalanche of doubt begins:

  • What, New York wasn’t good enough for you?
  • Look how many people try and come back.
  • Look how many Israelis come to America and stay.
  • What makes you think you’ll make it? Why not just be happy with what you have?
  • What, you think life in Israel will be better?
  • Isn’t marriage more important? You’re accustomed to American guys…why not just wait and find one who will make aliyah later?

It’s amazing how guilty one can feel for being ‘privileged’ to make aliyah out of choice rather than necessity.

Despite the questions and doubts, despite the myriad of eligible men, the richness of Jewish life, the stability, the familiarity, the comfort…making aliyah is the best thing I ever did for myself. Time will tell if it’s the best thing I did for my future husband, children, and grandchildren, but in the here and now, I’m content knowing that I’m living my truth. I didn’t come home because I had to. I came home because, for all of the uncertainty that comes with it comes one huge certainty.

I’m home. And I want to be home.

How Hamilton Prepared Me for Aliyah

Two weeks before I made Aliyah, I caught up with the rest of New York City and listened to the Hamilton soundtrack. Okay, I also watched several episodes of Ham4Ham and cast my lot into the daily drawing, thinking maybe G-d would grace my last weeks in the US with a ticket to Broadway’s most popular show (in case you haven’t heard, the only way to get tickets in a reasonable amount of time and for a reasonable amount of money is by entering a lottery. After each drawing, 21 lucky people get orchestra seats for $10 a pop). All year long, co-workers, friends, and the occasional fellow subway rider insisted that this musical was absolutely brilliant, like nothing else out there. Lin-Manuel Miranda has brought a whole new genre of auditory euphoria to the masses, and there’s no reason to miss out on the revolution.

But it’s rap, said the hesitant little voice in my head amid the sea of recommendations, and rap doesn’t speak to my soul. I was quite content with my classic Broadway playlist on Youtube, so, by fault or fate, I wasn’t going to embrace Hamilton unless something significant steered me toward reconsideration.

That something was the pre-Aliyah packing process. As a single twenty-something, I’ve only been able to accumulate whatever fit in storage-less Washington Heights apartments, my room in New Jersey, and whatever my grandmother let me store in her basement. I didn’t think it would take hour upon hour to unpack, sort, trash, clean, and repack all of my earthly possessions – but it did – and during those hours, I needed something to keep me awake. Leaving life as I knew it in the US to pursue what was up until this summer a longstanding dream killed my usual preference for sugary sweet pop songs. I listened to Torah lectures and TEDTalks, and those kept me going for a while, but there comes a time when music is the only thing that gets through to the heart.  Les Miserables, Cats, and even High School Musical kept me alert and agile, but I needed something more; something thought-provoking and relevant; something historic, idealistic, and cognizant of the space where dreams and reality meet. In essence, I was looking for something that reflected what I was going through.

I knew a little bit about Alexander Hamilton. During my time in the Big Apple, I visited the Museum of American Commerce and Hamilton’s (restored) Harlem house, both of which gave the basic narrative of his life story. The short version goes like this: Hamilton was born in the Caribbean to unmarried parents (a social blight at the time) in the mid-1750’s, where he spent most of his childhood. After his father abandoned the family and his mother died, the orphaned Hamilton was passed from relative to relative until he arrived in New York, where he put his smarts and drive to work. It didn’t take long for him to take off in the intellectual and political circles there, where he attended Kings College (now Columbia University), became a lawyer, noted writer, and eventually the second in command to General George Washington.

While I can’t vouch for Hamilton’s level of accuracy (there are plenty of other web pages dedicated to that), it aptly tells the tale of an immigrant who came “impoverished, in squalor” and worked his way up “by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.” Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton has a grittiness that’s ostentatiously idealistic, legacy-centric, and unceasingly eager to make a difference. As a new immigrant, each of those drives played a part in my choice to disassemble and reassemble my life. Thank G-d, life in America was and is good. I wasn’t running away from something, but toward the focus, values, and legacy that I want to define my life.

See, there’s something that Miranda’s Hamilton – and perhaps the real Hamilton – knew about being an immigrant: immigrants can’t be successful without believing their stories matter. Of course, everyone, whether they move to a new country or not, has a life story that matters. Immigrant stories, by default, amplify this truth because starting over – acclimating to a new culture, and language, and any challenges that ensue, all follow this one move they made. As I folded my clothes and nearly mummified my toiletries in cling wrap, I couldn’t help but feel that, like Hamilton, “I’m just like my country – I’m young, scrappy, and hungry” and that though I was taking a risk, I was also ready to put my all into “not throwing away my shot.” This is my way of “thinkin’ past tomorrow,” the next year, and the next decade.

For the last 68 years, Jews have had the shot to make Israel home. No matter where I lived or what I accomplished in America, I couldn’t get through a day without thinking about building my life in Israel. This year, I knew it was time to decide whether I really wanted to make Aliyah, or if  I would put away with my other forgone dreams. I tried to talk myself into staying at some points, believe me. Jewish life in America is rich, meaningful, and immensely growth oriented. Yet deep down, I always knew that if I didn’t take the historic shot in my grasp, I’d wonder about it every day of my life. So, Baruch Hashem, I’m here, investing everything I have, because I want to be a part of this miraculous unfolding story called The State of Israel.

It’s been a month since the big day, and though I’ve ceased binge listening to Hamilton, its sentiments have stayed with me. A new chapter of my life has begun: I’ve received my Teudat Zehut (Israeli ID card), experienced the DMV-style systems at the health clinic and bank, and formed friendships with Jews from across the globe who are also starting out at Ulpan Etzion. Though I left New York City, the words of Miranda’s Schulyer Sisters come to mind, with a few alterations, each time I get a glimpse at the Jerusalem hills:

Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.

History is happening in Jerusalem and we just happen to be

In the greatest city in the world.

Teudat Zehut ceremony

(Oh, and Bubbie, thank you for making me watch the Tony’s.)

Living Our Tefillot

Ever wondered what Tefillah is really about? Not prayer.

This week’s parsha brings us the intended definition for communicating with G-d.

It’s not about convincing G-d to change His mind.

It’s not about inflicting emotional pain as a means of changing His mind.

Tefillah is meant to connect us to our most beloved dreams and aspirations. The ones we are too afraid to admit, to even whisper. Because those deeply meaningful dreams, they seem impossible when we don’t know how they’ll ever be possible.

Yet when we allow ourselves to dream those dreams, we step outside the realm of human capability and that which we never could have imagined becomes reality, with G-d’s help.

Here’s what Rabbi David Aaron, Dean of Yeshivat Orayta (definitely worth visiting if you have the chance) explains how in this week’s parsha, Jacob demonstrates what tefillah really means:

(watch until 15:53 to get the gist).

In a sentence, what we call prayer is impossible without connecting to our most cherished dreams. That can be scary at times – downright petrifying – but where would we be without dreamers?

Whenever we rejoice at a meal – be it Shabbat, a holiday, a wedding – we sing a song of ascents, and remember that when G-d returns the returnees of Zion, we were like dreamers.

It’s scary to be a dreamer. Much more so than a realist. But perhaps, we can use more dreams for Klal Yisrael and what we can be and achieve. Perhaps we can dream together, and merit to see more than we could have ever imagined possible for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.


It’s Not What the World Holds For You, it’s What You Bring to it

This post is a little late because I only found out today (thanks to Google) that one of my favorite authors was born today. Happy Birthday, Lucy Maude Montgomery!

I confess, the quote below is not from the books, but I love, love, love the movies. And the quote I’m sharing comes from the not-so-accurate third movie, so, sorry literary enthusiasts.

Right Here

What brings Anne to life is the scope of her imagination. It’s the reason she can get past the major rejection she faces at the beginning of the book, and how, as her life in Avonlea unfolds, she can imagine the possibilities for her life as a student, writer, teacher, and friend.

The thing about imagination is, sometimes it doesn’t allow us to see what’s right in front of our eyes.

Out there is something or someone who will make me everything I want to be; everything I ever dreamed of being and becoming. Anne’s whole life as we know it is about we she imagines she can be (a writer, first-class teacher, not-redheaded, Cordelia,  etc).

I relate to that. There’s merit to having an imagination; to seeing that which isn’t real (yet)…that’s where hope comes from. But as Anne grows, and as I grow, the more I see that what I’m looking for is right here.

It is not in Heaven…Nor is it beyond the sea…rather this thing is close to you, in your heart and in your mouth, so that you can fulfill it.

For every hope and dream we imagine and hold onto, there is a reality in front of us; the strength and potential of the here-and-now which trumps all the hopes and dreams of tomorrow.

It is good to hope and dream, but the dreams dearest to us – belonging, love, a sense of purpose  – are in our hands, and are ready to be found if we muster the courage to fulfill them.

After all, ending up with Gilbert Blythe isn’t such a bad thing.