The table of Abraham

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In the Jewish Grace after meals, Birkat ha-Mazon, there are lines specifically intended for the guest to say: and this table shall be as the table of Abraham; all those who hunger shall eat from it, and all those who thirst shall drink from it, and it shall never lack bounty, always and forever. I find in these lines a very beautiful image of hospitality.

Our first dinner guest was sprung up on us quite unexpectedly. The memory stands out vivid in my mind; we were a newlywed couple, married perhaps for a month or so, and it was one of the first Shabbats we spent in our home. We were just returning from the evening service when a stranger came up to us and asked if he may have a dinner with us. We exchanged startled looks, but somehow (if not very eloquently) we must have given our consent, because half an hour later this man was seated by our table. It turned out that he is our neighbour, a middle-aged bachelor with no family living nearby. For as long as we continued to be neighbours, he was often our guest. He used to bake the most wonderful pita bread, and it was initially through trying to emulate him that our passion for bread-baking grew and flourished.

I am a scrupulous kind of person when it comes to receiving guests; I have good intentions of being hospitable and welcoming, and having my doors open to others, but when the rubber hits the road I often get these fretful nervous attacks, thinking that nothing is up to scratch – that the food I prepared isn’t fancy or plentiful enough, my home is not clean or orderly enough, my children not disciplined enough to allow space for adult company to talk.

But all this passes in my mind before the dinner or lunch takes place; once we are in the thick of action, I feel very glad for having done it, as there is nothing like the exchange, fellowship, enrichment of discussion, and generally just the knitting of hearts and communities together, that takes place ’round a dinner table. Leisure time is plentiful, the children play together, and there is that ease and laughter that accompany a good meal in good company.

I am beginning to relax. Around here, an impromptu invitation usually assumes that the guests are bringing some food with them, which turns every shared meal to a spontaneous pot-luck party. I’m telling myself not to fret about the additional side dish I did not have time to make, and think instead that washing dishes after everyone is already bountiful enough. :o)

It never ceases to impress me just how much our society lost by, when people stopped regularly congregating around the dinner table. Food, family, fellowship – the magical trio. Immediate family first of all, of course, but then the circle is expanded; others are included, made to feel welcome. Jokes are shared, discussions spring up, ideas are born. Once people dispersed for time-efficient gobbling up of substandard food from plastic TV-trays, a crucial element of togetherness was abandoned. As a clinical nutritionist I feel qualified to say that at least half of all our modern obesity and other nutrition-related maladies would be solved by the return of the family table. I truly believe there is no better way to make someone feel welcome and accepted, than invite that person to share a meal.

So my advice, to myself and to others, would be – take the plunge. Invite someone over; it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Perhaps you didn’t prepare dessert; perhaps your home has a lived-in look (a couple of kids will give that perpetual air to a house); but your hospitality will be warmly appreciated as you toss on an apron and continue smiling and chatting with your guests while you soap up the dishes in the sink.
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Tell lice to get lost

It's either cry or laugh..we hope you laugh

Our first encounter with lice happened a few years ago and, thanks to not being part of the mainstream educational system, we have only caught these creepy-crawlies twice since. Nevertheless, if your kids don’t live in a bubble, and if they have any contact at all with other children, odds are that some time or other, they will have lice.

As of now we’re battling these nasties again, with the drawback of Israel having a huge aversion to anything that includes washing or combing hair. Naturally, sometimes there is just no choice, and so I find myself facing, on top of lice, a screaming, thoroughly unhappy kid.

I’ve tried several over-the-counter remedies, and read many tips for home treatments – including smothering your hair in anything from mayo to olive oil to Listerine (by the way, if anyone has a good strategy to share, I’ll be most happy to hear it). I came across this article, which not only made me almost choke on my cup of tea with giggling, but also contains some really great tips on thoroughly de-contaminating your children’s heads and your home.

I think a huge factor here is how serious the people around you are about treating lice. When I was a child, back in our “Old Country”, lice was considered something to be treated ASAP. Once your parents found some on your head, they freaked out and you were isolated and kept at home (no seeing anyone) until there was no sign of lice or nits and every strand of hair was squeaky clean. Think children spent most of their time in neat little sterile boxes? Nope… hardly anyone ever had lice, because they were always treated on time. Lice were associated with terrible unsanitary conditions, such as in concentration camps or prisons. In Israel, the attitude is comparably very lax.

I’ve actually met some parents who have despaired of ever getting rid of lice completely, and settle on keeping their population down (just so they won’t crawl all over the child’s face and become a public shame). Their children always have lice, and they rationalize by saying “so what? Everyone has them!” The Israeli Ministry of Education isn’t very helpful, with its guidelines which forbid teachers and daycare workers from checking kids’ heads (so as not to “shame” anyone), and which declare that no child will ever be sent home because of lice, even if they are live, multiple, and untreated. If one of your children’s friends has head lice, it doesn’t take much to get an infestation. If left uncontained, it will spread to every person in the house.

By this time, I have given up entirely on over-the-counter treatments containing dimethicone, as they include a warning that one must not use them if pregnant or breastfeeding. Moreover, the cost of these does add up. So here is my preferred strategy at the moment:

1. Buy the biggest, cheapest container of hair conditioner you can find.
2. Wash your kids’ hair (and your own, if needed) with conditioner until quite sleek and easy to comb.
3. After going through the clean, wet hair with regular comb, take up lice comb (always have one in your parenting emergencies arsenal – metal, not plastic!). Remove all lice and nits you can find. Don’t obsess, though; a single treatment won’t cut it anyway.
4. Next day, repeat process with washing, conditioner and combing. Be tenacious, and keep at it as many days as necessary until you don’t find a single louse. It usually takes up to a week.

Tips:
* Once in every couple of weeks, do a lice check just in case. You never know, and you don’t want an infestation to go untreated.
* Sometimes, shortening girls’ and women’s hair is necessary in order to make thorough combing feasible and not tortuous, but there’s definitely no need to go to extremes and shave heads.

Turning 3

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My dear little boy is leaving toddlerhood behind and turning 3 tomorrow. Where does the time go?! This year his birthday falls on Friday, the very day on which he was born, just a few minutes before Shabbat, in fact. We barely had time to call my mom and say congratulations.

We have felt your absence so much, dear sweetheart, before you arrived to make our world brighter, and we’ve been thankful ever since that G-d chose to give you to us, and not to anybody else.

So happy birthday, Israel. I love you more than the whole world ten times over.

The emotional side of financial pitfalls

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I talk a lot on this blog about frugal strategies, saving money and financial independence, but there is another aspect, no less important, of financial difficulties – the emotional side of the matter. It isn’t enough to say, “OK, so we’ll tighten the belts and get over it”. Often financial challenges come with a heavy emotional baggage that needs to be dealt with.

Insecurity. The feeling of walking on rotten ice. Will things ever stabilize? What will happen tomorrow, in a year, or two, or ten?

Fears, some of them totally irrational and/or with little base in current reality. What if the washing machine breaks down tomorrow? What if the house needs repairs we can’t afford? How are we going to contribute towards our children’s future education/weddings?

Anger and resentment, towards all those people who can just walk into a store and buy whatever they need, without thinking about money.

You might end up in an emotional state that really warrants therapy, but the trouble is, if you’re really in the financial trenches, you probably won’t be able to afford it, and you might hold back from talking about your troubles with friends so that you won’t be taken for someone negative, or worse, someone who is indirectly asking for financial support.

Self-care is imperative. Eat as well as you can, keep up your personal hygiene, exercise (walking and running don’t cost anything), keep up hobbies and activities that make you feel good and don’t cost money. For me, this is usually writing, or finding a creative recycling project I can do at no cost, such as making candles out of old wax or soap out of old oil.

Keep a lookout towards the future. When things are at their low, it’s sometimes easy to forget all the many ways the situation can improve over time: a new job, a business opportunity, inheritance you can reasonably look forward to, ways to reduce one’s dependence on the money economy altogether. It really is tough to look ahead and think you are always going to be stuck when the cold season comes and you don’t have enough money to buy shoes, that you will never be able to afford good-quality, varied food in abundance (true, sardines and bone broth go a long way, but sometimes you really crave an expensive steak). Don’t think this way, because there’s no rational basis to it. Sometimes one really has to live day to day.

And, as a believer, I always keep my eyes on G-d and His divine guidance, which has never forsaken us so far. Indeed, we have experienced many small miracles, from unexpected gifts of furniture to finding a bag of almost-new children’s clothes just when we needed them most.

If you become depressed, you might miss out on opportunities to improve your situation as you wallow in misery and don’t dare to look up from the ground. So keep an eye on that. Whenever getting out of bed or tackling daily routines seems difficult, do all you can to get help and support, because this isn’t normal.

It’s tougher when you have children depending on you. I’ve sometimes found it hard to strike a balance between being open and honest, and not overburdening little children with circumstances beyond their control. I know my children are aware of the value of money, because we aren’t ashamed to say, “We won’t buy this because we can’t afford it.” They don’t seem traumatized or worried. But avoid making it seem as though the family is on the brink of disaster, because children can be extremely sensitive and become prone to anxiety.

Financial difficulties aren’t a picnic, but with wise strategy and cautious optimism, you can pull through towards a better future.

Vacations and holidays on the cheap

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I am just catching my breath after a string of Jewish holidays that lasted nearly a month, and afforded quite a lot of in-between days that are commonly used for family outings. As a family living on a budget, we almost always choose to avoid any sort of entertainment one must pay for (be it amusement parks, zoos, petting zoos, or even the swimming pool).

There are more than enough places, we have found out, that we can visit, and pleasantly spend our time in, without paying a thing, or paying very little: beaches, parks, historical sites, farms that encourage visitors without charging a fee, and so forth. Furthermore, we take advantage of having many friends who farm or homestead, and visit them (and, of course, invite them to visit us in return).

The price of gas, naturally, is a consideration as well. There are some lovely places that open their gates to the public for free, but as they are so far from us, just the ride there and back is pricey. We focus, therefore, on our area, and always find something new to explore. You should try it as well.

If you have family or friends who have gone out on vacation themselves, and left an empty house, they might allow you to stay in their place for free (and will sometimes be quite happy with the arrangement, if you throw some pet-sitting or watering the plants into the bargain). This gives you a whole new area to explore, with a convenient, free base.

Another expense that people often don’t think of is eating out. When you go somewhere, after a couple of hours naturally you will begin to feel peckish. This is even truer for children, who seem to become insatiably hungry the moment they are strapped to the car seat. So make sure to pack up healthy snacks for the ride, a nutritious lunch for the whole family, and a big bottle of water. Ideas for non-mess food: egg and/or tuna sandwiches, cold pasta, sliced fruits and vegetables, cold sliced quiches, hard-boiled eggs, a trail mix of nuts and raisins, and salads with stuff like lentils, quinoa or beans will keep you going for a long time.

Vacationing and family outings in general don’t need to be budget-breakers. Just try it and see for yourself!

Not all on our own

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Image: exhausted mom
Reading this excellent post made me think about many things. In essence I agree; Me Time is often over-emphasized, over-rated and, worst of all, over-indulged, as in the notion that you are allowed to do almost anything that will make you “happy” or more comfortable.

However, it is true that motherhood can be draining. It is a joy, it is the greatest project of my life, but it is also hard, hard work 24/7. I will even venture to say that so far, things haven’t even really become easier as the children grow. The challenges are simply different. Sure, I get more sleep now than I did when I had newborns, and my day is more orderly, but frankly, breastfeeding and changing diapers was more… straightforward than handling some of the behavioral problems and educational choices we are facing now.

Before we reminisce about how our great-grandmothers did it all on their own and didn’t ask for any help or time off, I would like to step in and say I don’t believe it was the case at all. Childcare wasn’t the exclusive task of the mother. Our great-grandmothers lived in a much more supportive community, and often close to family who could offer some help. A woman of that time could, perhaps, see her mother on a daily basis; or perhaps she lived near her sister, who had children of the same age, and each of them could take a turn watching the little ones. Or if there was no family nearby, neighbors would often step into its place. I’m not saying it always happened, but it was common.

When my two eldest children were toddlers, I had basically two choices: either I stay home with them all day, every day, no breaks (my husband worked long hours) – or I put them in daycare and I’m away from them all day, every day. But I didn’t want or need to be away from my children all day; I only needed an occasional break to refresh me and provide some variety. So I always had them at home with me, for better or worse.

In the past, it was common to let young children play outside and explore on their own – such young children that today it would be considered criminal neglect. The outdoors were safer, and there was almost always some responsible adult outside at every hour of the day.

My great-grandmother used to have a maid. Not a live-in maid, but someone who came on a regular basis and helped around the house. You will say, “it may be so, but she didn’t have a washing machine.” That is true – however, according to my Grandma, the children wore the same clothes all week and only got clean ones for Shabbat. You can imagine how those clothes looked at the end of the week (there were five boys in that family!). Can you imagine not giving your child fresh clothes to wear every day, perhaps more than once a day? If my daughters get a little stain or spill on their clothes – and it happens often, as you can imagine – they start to wail and beg for a change, and sometimes I have to put my foot down, especially if it happens an hour before bath-time.

So what is my point? Feeling tired and drained is bad enough. Feeling guilty because you are tired and drained and you don’t think you are supposed to feel this way is far, far worse. It is perfectly normal to want to feel refreshed and rejuvenated by doing something different. This doesn’t always have to involve spending time away from your family – I have learned to say yes to my husband’s offers of little escapades in the middle of the week, even if there are dishes piled up in the sink.

I have learned to put my feet up in the middle of the day for a short while, and to lock the bedroom door and say, “Mommy is resting”. Usually this means only a few minutes of lying down, with or without a book, but sometimes I manage to steal a cat nap.

I have also learned to enjoy my children more, and to participate in their fun activities rather than frantically say, “oh, good, they are occupied. Now let’s proceed to the next thing on the to-do list.”

I know there are moms out there who are struggling; who live far away from any family, and in places where it is uncommon to rely on friends or neighbors. Who spend all day, every day with their children and are so exhausted that a day in the office may seem like heaven sometimes. What I would like to say that it is normal to feel tired. It is normal to want help. And if you live in the way many live these days – a relatively isolated nuclear family – your best and only source of help will probably be your husband.

Before you feel guilty (“he has been working all day!”), remember that a break can mean not only putting your feet up, but also simply doing something different from what you did all day. I used to be all of a “no, no, let me, I’ll do everything” person. But then I realized that after my husband comes home, or on weekends – after he has had time to eat and rest, and do some of his own stuff, of course – he is perfectly happy to take charge of some childcare and household tasks, and doesn’t see that as a burden. There is a novelty in that to him, because it’s a change from what he has been doing all day and all week.

Would you go into the kitchen late in the evening and start cooking? I wouldn’t, because by late evening I have seen enough of the kitchen for the day. But my husband is often inspired to cook or bake after he has come home from work, or on Fridays. For him, it’s recreation, not a chore. Also, often I’ll have tired, squabbling kids in the evening, but the moment there’s a knock on the door, they run swift as the wind to open and are so good and happy when they are around their father. Why? Because we all benefit from a change. The children, too.

I realize there are also single mothers (and often not by choice) out there. My heart truly goes out to them and I hope they, too, find the right healing balance for themselves and their children.

Nutrition – defeatism, real change and investment of time

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While I was in university, several of our professors repeated that there is almost no way to acquire all the needed vitamins and minerals from the typical modern diet, and thus progressed to say that synthetic supplements in the form of pills, and artificial fortification of widely used foods, are recommended to the population.

It is true, they argue, that what would really be optimal is a whole series of radical changes in the modern diet, but since these aren’t feasible, supplements should be taken. Similarly, since people are unable to give up their sugar addictions, it would be useless to try and make them do that. At most, we should recommend artificial sweeteners to replace refined sugar, based on the evidence that these are harmless in moderate amounts.

To me, even then and especially now, such an attitude seems not only defeatist, but also very underestimating of people’s willpower, intelligence and determination. Shouldn’t we believe that in the light of scientific evidence and proper encouragement, many people will go to great lengths to do what is needed in order to gain good health for themselves and their children?

“Children will never give up sweets,” they say. Thus, it is acceptable to feed them ice-cream and highly sweetened milk products in order to reach the needed daily calcium intake. “Children don’t like vegetables,” and so, it is alright to give them sugar-bombarded, poisonous-colored breakfast cereal because it has some synthetic vitamins stuck in it by the benevolent food industry. This is saying it’s impossible for little children to like and eat with relish simple, wholesome and healthy foods.

True, it might be more challenging, but it isn’t impossible for the committed parent, especially as children tend to copy what they see. If we consistently sit down to good, proper family meals consisting of good healthy foods, this is what the children will see as their model. Food should be a prize, not a chore. We never make a fuss when our daughter trifles with her food, nor attempt to make her eat a full portion when she clearly has no appetite for it, nor offer rewards in the form of sweets.

“People don’t have time to cook,” and so commercially prepared meals indisputably become usual fare. The often overlooked fact is that the modern diet is correlated with the modern lifestyle – rushed, crazy, and highly stressful. If you want to eat healthy homemade food, it doesn’t mean you need to spend all day in the kitchen preparing gourmet meals, but it does usually mean investing more time in food preparation. It means slowing down to plan ahead and think. If the morning is always spent in insane rush of both parents hurrying to get the children out of the house and get out themselves, each going his own separate way, chances are that someone will reach for that box of sugared cereal, rather than make a simple and nutritious breakfast of oatmeal porridge, scrambled eggs and toast.

The habit of family meals is something else we have been robbed off. Even when the family eats together, it often means that they all sit in front of the television with their eyes glued to the screen, many times eating convenience food of inferior quality and taste. A lot more than nutrition is compromised; we are losing the fellowship of the family table, the easy conversation over dinner, the laughter and exchange of ideas, and what happens by-and-by – the training of children in good eating habits and proper behavior. Even with the quality of food in conventional stores so compromised, we would still all be far better off simply with the investment of time to prepare good, proper, simple, nutritious and economical meals.

Needless to say, a mother at home makes a huge difference. Most often, it is her who keeps the cooking fires burning; it is her who gathers the family around the table, nicely set, and offers delicious hot dinner, at the end of which her children will go to bed well-fed, full and sleepy. But of course, conventional nutritionists will not tell women to stay home, if at all possible, and cook for their families. It isn’t politically correct.

The only hope is that people will see for themselves that the lifestyle so many are trying to maintain is nearly always impossible to combine with good health and vibrant family and community life. Our homes have been empty all day for too long, locked up, dark and cold. Our freezers have been stocked, for too long, with food that will temporarily satisfy the hunger while offering no real health benefits. For too long, we have looked for the secret to health and long life in all the wrong places, giving in to the calorie counting craze.

My belief is that nothing will make a real difference unless home, family, and consequently the family table, return to occupy their traditional proper place in our society. This is far more complex than calories, fats, vitamins and DRI. This is about the whole course our life will take from now on.