questions in a vault

For the past three years between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — often called “The Days of Awe,” or Yamim Noraim in Hebrew — I’ve participated in 10Q‘s question-a-day online activity. Once you sign up, the organization prompts you on each of the ten days to go to its website and answer that day’s question. (If you miss a day, you can go back to previous questions.) The questions are designed to get you to reflect on the past year and make commitments for the coming one. After Yom Kippur, your answers “are sent to the secure online 10Q vault for safekeeping. One year later, the vault will open and your answers will land back in your email inbox for private reflection.” I’m doing it again this year.

a lovely M.A. Hadley plate from my mom; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

a lovely m.a. hadley plate (a family tradition) from my mom; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The website is not explicitly Jewish (I’m not sure why), but I can’t see the timing as anything but. I’m guessing, though, it wouldn’t occur to non-Jewish participants and might just seem like an interesting exercise, if an oddly timed one.

Update: My friend Melanie tells me that the organization behind 10Q, Reboot, intends “to make Judaism relevant to those who are secular/completely assimilated.” I think this extremely interesting, because this exercise appeals to me, too, as a religious Jew. (Plus, I am sort of fascinated by secular or humanist Judaism.)

I was pleased — and not a little surprised — when I got my answers from 2012 at the end of last month. I actually did some of the things that I wrote that I wanted to, and where I didn’t, it’s because it’s still a live issue for me. I voiced my waning support for the president, I talked about my parents’ efforts to be more involved in my Judaism, and I wrote about my ongoing struggle with my weight.

On Day 8, I was asked and I answered:

Is there something (a person, a cause, an idea) that you want to investigate more fully in 2013?

Your Answer:

Tefillin!

Indeed, my experience wearing tefillin while praying has been one of the best things about rabbinical school for me so far.

While looking through my photos from two years ago to include in this post, I was struck by what I left out. I was definitely in the thrall of my first few weeks of rabbinical school; I wrote quite a bit about it, at the expense of other important events in my life, like my bat mitzvah! For this year’s questions, I definitely need to use my photos from last year to jog my memory, which I recently discovered is quite poor. While I was in England this summer, I saw two old friends (one from college and one from my first job in D.C.), and both of them remembered so many more things about our friendship that I did. On the plus side, it was totally amusing to hear stories that I seemed to have forgotten.

It’s not too late to join in the 10Q fun if you’re interested: we’re only on Day 5!

up close and personal

Knowing I was going to be in D.C. last week, I made an appointment with my friend Emily, non-profit account manager by day, photographer by night, and all-around awesome person. I was inspired by her post “Headshot How-To.” As she notes, “there is something SO empowering about having a set of (professional) photos of yourself that you feel really good about.” So I decided to take the plunge: I’ve been surprised by how often in the past year I’ve been asked for a headshot.

pearce family, 1992; photo by chris pearce

pearce family (with dog Calvin), 1992; photo by chris pearce

I’ve had professionally pictures taken of me a few times in my life. My dad’s brother is a photographer, and for many years he took our family photo for my mom’s annual Christmas card. His directions inevitably led to at least one member of the family putting a hand halfway into a pocket. These sessions, and his staging, provoked howls of irreverent laughter from my brother and me — but after the fact. Always after the fact. Levity was not encouraged during the Pearce family Christmas card picture taking, my uncle being a very somber fellow and my mom and dad taking the portraits very seriously.

When I was in high school, a family friend took pictures of me during my senior year for my yearbook page. (At my college prep school, each senior got an entire page to do with what s/he would. Almost everyone did professional photos with favorite quotations and inside jokes. It was a mixture of trite and precious.)

photo by xx

photo by mark gail, washington post

And of course there was also the photo that ran in a Washington Post story about Rosh Hashanah in the fall of 2009. I talked with one of the paper’s religion reporters while volunteering at a pre-High-Holidays event at Sixth & I; she called me back the next day to set up an appointment with a staff photographer. The session took place in the upper balcony of the Sixth & I sanctuary. However, I am wearing my “Super Jew” t-shirt, which perhaps undercuts any professional possibility for that photo.

As Emily when she had her headshots taken — even though she herself is a photographer — I was nervous before the session. Since I was traveling, I had limited wardrobe choices, and I spent half of the morning wishing for various tops that I had left in my closet at home. Then, I don’t wear make-up, but I convinced myself that I should have had it done. Same thing with my hair.

In spite of all of my worrying, I am thrilled with how the pictures turned out. Emily is such a positive, upbeat presence, and she kept saying encouraging things — “You’re doing great!” — in such a way that I actually believed her. And she’s right: It does feel great to know that I have these photos. I’ve updated all of my social media profiles, including the “About Me” page of this blog, on which I had been using an old picture of me taken by my mom during a family vacation to the beach. I was wearing a strapless dress, so in the headshot version it looks like I’m not wearing any clothes, which is probably not exactly what one should be going for in that situation.

But I’ve been using it because it had that indescribable quality of just seeming like me. That’s how I ended up choosing the picture for my senior page. And it’s what I ended up loving about the photos that Emily took: They look like me. No make-up, no-fancy-hair, simple-shirt-wearing me. And that’s what is so empowering.

P.S. If you need a photographer, I obviously highly recommend Emily. Her speciality is birth story photography, but she takes other assignments. And if she’s not available, she can recommend someone else (almost) as fabulous!

return

empty road sign; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I opened the front passenger-side door and sat down, glancing at the three other people waiting for me in the car as I shut the door. He smiled at me: “You miss home. Not just your family. You must if you’re taking pictures of a sign by the side of an empty road.”

I felt the tears begin to form. “I do miss home. Sometimes so much I can’t allow myself to think about it.”

I’ve never been to this particular place before, but I instinctively feel it as familiar.

I’m at a rest stop in Ellinger, Texas, on Highway 71 between Austin and Houston. I stand at the edge of the small parking lot, on a curb that gives way to a shallow ditch that runs alongside that empty road that passes by green fields and that seems to end at the horizon a couple hundred feet away. Even in mid-September, the heat rises from the road in shimmery waves, the exhaust from cars on the highway and in the parking lot adding to the 90-degree air temperature.

The empty road dead ends into the highway, and across the intersection the arrows of two black-and-white signs, both with “71” inside an outline of the shape of Texas, point in opposite directions: north and south. A few abandoned tin-walled structures sit behind the wooden fence that separates highway from field.

Back on my side of the highway, three signs give the distances to the local Baptist, Lutheran, and Catholic churches, down the empty road that must become fuller past the horizon. Another sign advertises pecans for sale beyond the furthest church.

Peh-CANHS, I think. That’s how we say it here. Not PEE-cans, as they do elsewhere.

Walking across the empty road to take my photograph, I see an enormous white canvas that the church signs have obscured. “Romney-Ryan 2012” is backwards, since the logo faces the highway. I wonder whether it sits on public land at the same time that I know that few will care. This stretch of highway and this empty road is red.

Small white clouds only intermittently dot the expansive blue sky, which I always think seems bigger in Texas. Or was I just taught to think it so? Would I really recognize this landscape as Texas if the outline of the state were removed from the road sign?

I am a Texan, but I haven’t lived in Texas in 12 years. And there’s a chance that I might not again. When my nephew was born, the hospital gave his parents a discharge sheet congratulating them on “the birth of your new little Texan.” Will my children be so-called? What does it mean that he is a “Texan”? What does it mean that I am?

I love my family and Tex-Mex and Shiner Bock and Longhorn football and Astros baseball and bluebonnets and mesquite trees and the hill country and the car ride from Houston to Austin on a hot day.

I don’t love the death penalty and retrograde politics and homegrown presidential candidates and heat and humidity and traffic and suburban sprawl. I’ve become an East Coast urban Jew, like my husband, and so much of my former home has become an anathema to me. And perhaps I have become an anathema to it.

Molly Ivins said, “I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults.” She knows the mixed feelings that come with loyalty to a state that is often easy to deride as buffoonish. How can I be homesick and horrified at the same time?

In his memoir of his life under the ayatollah’s fatwa, Salman Rushdie writes about his and others’ dilemma as Indian writers but expats in the United Kingdom:

Who were they, and to what and whom did they belong? Or was the idea of belonging itself a trap, a cage from which they had been lucky enough to escape? He had concluded that the questions needed to be rephrased. The questions he knew how to answer were not about place or roots, but about love. Who do you love? What can you leave behind, and what do you need to hold on to? Where does your heart feel full?

He is surprised when a writer still living in India explains that his writing, that of a native son, is “highly problematic” in the country.

I claim Texas, but would Texas claim me?

As I fly back to Boston, it doesn’t feel like home. I like it, and I may one day grow to love it, as I did D.C. I think that home is Texas, and I always leave a part of me there. It’s a part that wouldn’t know what to do in Boston.

Rushdie calls this migrant consciousness. I moved because I couldn’t do what I want to do there. So I’m here now, and I am grateful and blessed. But the move required the construct of a new identity. You can’t ever go home again.

My parents have lived in Texas for more than 40 years. My grandparents were born and went to school in Texas – and moved back in retirement; my aunt and uncle did the same. My cousin moved to Madison after college for graduate school and then work and moved back several years later. My brother never left.

Re-entry into my “real life” has been very hard this time around. Enrollment in rabbinical school has amplified the differences between who I was and who I am. Will I ever feel whole in either place?

open thank-you letter

Dear –,

I am writing this here because I don’t know how to write you directly — and because what I have to say deals directly with my journey to the rabbinate, which this site chronicles. I am writing on the off-chance that you have found or will find my blog. I know it is at least a possibility. And if you don’t make your way here, I’ll feel better at least putting this out there in the universe.

I’ve thought about you often in the past year as I applied to rabbinical schools and reflected on my reasons for doing so. Almost every time I answered the question, “Why do you want to be a rabbi?” (and it’s been asked quite frequently, in various contexts), I alluded to you.

Things did not end well between us, and that still does not sit well with me. But I want to tell you how much I valued your support at the beginning of my Jewish journey. I’ve had the opportunity to tell everyone else who helped me along the way.

You were the first Jewish guy that I dated, and maybe the first Jew with whom I was close. You made the fairly obvious to most — but stunningly  liberating to me — observation that I did not have to remain in the religion of my family of origin. It was a revelation. And you knew of what you spoke, because your mother is a convert.

I went to shul with you for the first time, I opened a siddur with you for the first time, I stood on the bimah with you for the first time. You encouraged me to learn about Judaism, and you helped me to realize that I have a Jewish soul. You’re who I think of when reading Anita Diamant‘s words:

[T]he fact is , many people find a home in Judaism as a result of falling in love with a Jew. As one Jew-by-choice wrote, “What better way to discover Judaism than through love? People sometimes say deprecatingly, ‘Oh, she converted for marriage.’ Or, ‘Oh, he converted for her.’  . . . The point is: in these instances, the non-Jewish lover sees the beautiful in his beloved and identifies with it. What is it but the Jewishness of the Jew that he wants? And so he chooses to become a Jew himself. This is not something to scoff at.

It’s hard for me to see how I would have gotten here, on the cusp of the beginning of rabbinical school, without you. We did not last, but what I gained from you lasts yet.

Thank you.

bat mitzvah

after the ceremony, with the sefer torah; photo by gay lee pearce

My bat mitzvah ceremony was almost two months ago, and with all that has happened since then, it seems even further in the past. But yesterday in Hebrew class our book included a text about the ritual of Orthodox boys’ first haircuts — traditionally at the age of three, on Lag B’Omer, at the tomb of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai in the Galilean town of Meron, in case you’re interested — and one of the book’s exercises asked us to reflect on one of our own meaningful Jewish rituals. Since I have to do it in Hebrew, I may as well attempt it in English first . . .

I completed the adult b’nai mitzvah class in June, after seven months of study. The group of 15 — all young adults in the D.C. area — met for two hours each week; the class was held at Sixth & I and was the first of its kind for the synagogue. Sixth & I hired an outside rabbi to teach the class, a woman I had first met — and loved! — when she taught one of the sessions of the Jeremiah Fellowship I completed a year ago. As I noted at the end of our ceremony dress rehearsal, I am likely one of the few who can say that her bat mitzvah prepared her for rabbinical school. I don’t know what this first step in my journey to the rabbinate would have been like without all that I gained from the class, the rabbi, and my classmates.

We read about prayer and the liturgy, talked about the holidays, learned how to put on a tallit and lay tefillin. We wrote d’vrei torah and practiced leining our parts of the parshah. Even after all these years of my adult Jewish education, it continues to thrill me that there is always more to learn.

The class was an interesting mix of Jewish backgrounds. A few people had had b’nai mitzvah as teenagers but had not found the experience particularly meaningful and hadn’t been involved in the Jewish community since then. Like me, others had never had one, despite having been raised as Jews, and some of us weren’t raised Jewish. I in particular was in a different place in my Jewish journey than everyone else, as I began visiting and applying to rabbinical schools shortly after the class started. But we all shared a desire to deepen our commitment to Judaism.

In addition to the opportunities for spiritual and intellectual development and liturgical proficiency, the class also gave me a glimpse into the future. A curious thing happens when you say that you are planning to become a rabbi, probably not unlike what happens when you say that you are studying to become a rabbi, or that you are a rabbi: in the class and elsewhere, people began jokingly referring to me as “rabbi,” asking me questions about Judaism, and deferring to my leadership. More than one person whom I do not know well at all wanted to talk about G-d in the course of otherwise fairly pedestrian conversations. In all of those moments I felt acutely inadequate.

I am going to rabbinical school because I don’t have answers, in more than one sense. I need and want to know more to be able to serve the Jewish community, and I am well suited for the rabbinate in part because I don’t require certainty.

The class was my first experience of being a part of a Jewish community with the “rabbi lens.” As rabbinical school became a reality, what I wanted to get out of the class changed. I watched the rabbi teach and observed how she handled the class and its questions. I listened to what others said about why the class was meaningful to them. I led one of the rehearsals when the rabbi couldn’t make it to class. I began to feel less a part of the class and more an aide to the class. Of course, this position came with risks. After a tense second-to-last service rehearsal, in which we were all nervous and on edge, I snapped at one of my classmates. She was understandably upset with me, and righting that wrong and repairing that relationship (which I am happy to report did happen) took on a different import. I felt a power imbalance and a new responsibility — and the crushing guilt that must always come with being a “bad representative” of a group’s leadership. I knew it behooved me to make amends, no matter the extenuating circumstances. I asked myself for the first, but presumably not the last, time, “Can I be a good rabbi if I . . .?”

part of the amazing card my friends gave me, with pictures from their own b’nai mitzvah

The service itself was wonderful. For some reason I’ve always been cavalier about milestones, ceremonies, and celebrations. I don’t remember attaching much import to high school or college graduations, and I was fairly blasé even about my wedding (noting again for my reader(s?) that this was not my attitude towards my marriage). And it took me a while to warm to the idea of this one: My cousin found out about it a few months prior and said to me, “Hello!? You have to tell us about these things!” But the excitement came. I practiced every day, I invited friends and family, I got my hair done, and I bought new clothes (a true sign of how meaningful I held the occasion, since I loathe shopping; the best present I’ve ever gotten was when my mom bought me a wedding dress and sent it to me).

At the Saturday morning service on June 4, 2012, I gave my d’var torah, I led the amidah and the second half of the Torah service, and I had two aliyot. Almost of this involved carrying a tune, and the truly hilarious part of the day was finding my family in the social hall downstairs after the ceremony and hearing each of them exclaim as they hugged me, “I didn’t know you could sing!” I didn’t either, and I am happy to now have the confidence that I can lead services and not embarrass myself.

I remember Sixth & I’s rabbi, acting as gabbai while we read Torah, giving me a hug after I finished my aliyah, and saying, “Nice job, rabbi.” I remember that so many of my friends came to support me. I remember my mom’s thrill at meeting the rabbis who helped us lead the service, women who were both holding at least one of their small children after the ceremony. It’s not clear to me what my mom’s conception of being a rabbi is, but she turned to me as we were leaving the synagogue and said, “See? You can be a rabbi *and* have kids!”

I almost started crying when I saw my father-in-law after the service. He has known more than his fair share of tragedy and thus is understandably staid, with a deadpan sense of humor. He drove 12 hours from his home in Louisville, Ky., to attend the service, a generous gesture from a fairly cynical atheist and generally non-practicing Jew. His face lit up when he saw me after the ceremony, and with a huge smile that I’ve never seen, he told me what a great job I did. In my mind I can still see his expression, and I think it would have been enough just to have that memory.

death of a mensch

On Monday I woke up thinking about him, a man I never knew — and didn’t even consider the existence of until last week.

On Sunday I attended the funeral of the father-in-law of the rabbi who taught the b’nai mitzvah class I completed in D.C. last month. Her in-laws are local, and since I consider the rabbi one of my mentors and one of the reasons I decided to go to rabbinical school, I — along with a classmate who also knew her in her past job — made the drive to a small town outside of Boston to be a part of the mitzvah of k’vod hameyt, honoring the dead.

His death on July 4 was a random accident, one so terrible that the rabbi, one of the most articulate and thoughtful people I know, just shook her head when I saw her: “There’s nothing to say.”

There certainly isn’t much to say about his death, although the rabbi who presided over the ceremony did a yeoman’s job. He took to task the chief of police who had declared the accident “an act of G-d.” “Oh, really?” he rejoined scathingly. “That is not G-d.” And then he cautioned the large crowd that allowed only standing room in the sanctuary by the time the service started, “Before you ask, ‘Why?’, I ask you to consider whether there is any answer to that question that you would find satisfactory.”

There was certainly, though, very much to say about his life. From his obituary: “Loved nature, music, writing short stories, studying Torah, discussing politics, dancing with [his wife], and the Red Sox. His goodness and love will be missed.”

The service started with the synagogue’s cantor, who had known him and his wife since she began her job at the congregation. (They were involved in selecting the rabbi as well.) Next was his sister, then his son (my rabbi’s husband), then his daughter. And then his wife.

His son talked about how his father had taught him how to be a father. The rabbi and her husband have two children, and he recalled how much joy his father had gotten out of being a grandfather. And he sounded like the best kind of father and grandfather. The son recalled, “Dad could do anything. Wrote down the wrong gate and missed your flight? Let dad know: he’ll fix it. Don’t understand how student loans work? Ask dad: he’ll explain them. Get lost on the way to an important meeting? Call dad: he”ll get you there.”

A heartbreakingly young woman, his daughter talked about all of her many childhood activities that her dad never missed: Practices, performances, meets, competitions. In school he stayed up late with her the night before a paper was due in case she needed help breaking through writer’s block. She ended up in technology, the same field as his, and she spoke fondly their attending a recent conference together. There he introduced her to a colleague as his daughter; later, the man found her again and said, “When your father introduced you, I didn’t realize that you are actually his daughter. I thought he was saying that you were like a daughter, that he was your mentor.” She recalled at the service, “The colleague wasn’t wrong. He was my father, but he was also my mentor.”

Last was his wife, who was unbelievable. And by that I mean that I almost couldn’t pay attention to what she was saying because she was so unexpectedly poised at a moment when everyone around her, including people who hadn’t even known him, were sobbing. She shared how they had met, in college: two atheist, anti-Jewish Jews. They bonded over activism and late night philosophical talks, but, although she wasn’t all that interested in marriage, she didn’t want to move in with him if they were unmarried. “I told him that I didn’t understand that. If two people wanted to commit to one another, they should just do it, go all the way.” And five months after they met, he asked her to marry him on bended knee and with a toy ring with a green stone (which she promptly dropped, losing the stone, as soon as he handed it to her). So at ages 18 and 19, they were married, in a Jewish ceremony to satisfy their parents — and one entirely in Hebrew “so that we couldn’t understand all the stuff about G-d.”

I wish there had been time to hear more about their journey together from kids to having grandkids, from rebels to pillars of the community, from G-d denying to G-d embracing. But what followed next was well worth that omission.

His wife explained that she had asked people from various points in his life to speak about him because what she had known about him was not all there was to know about him. We then heard from a childhood friend and one from his young adult years, then from a member of the synagogue’s men’s group that he founded, and from a colleague. We heard about his mischievousness, his reflections on Torah, and a vacation dinner in a nice restaurant that ended with his young son covered in spaghetti and chocolate ice cream. A woman from a job or two ago said that after several people had left the company, they committed to getting together for dinner every few months to stay in touch. She had been in charge of scheduling those dinners, and he was always the hardest one to nail down. But, she added, after hearing that day what others had to say about him and his commitment to his family, friends, and community, she understood why he was always so busy.

I loved his wife’s tribute, her acknowledgement that she doesn’t own the memories of him, that all of the community carries pieces of him — then and now. This is how remembrance stays alive, and I am blessed to now be a bearer of his life and death as well.

And then she began to talk about the night he died. They had attended a James Taylor concert, just one of the activities that had begun to form the shape of their (soon-to-be) retired life. They sat on the lawn and talked about their ballroom dancing lessons and their financial future. The last song of the concert, she informed us, was Taylor’s “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You.” And the cantor joined her at the podium, and they invited everyone to sing. And when we weren’t spirited enough, his wife admonished us to sing louder and to clap harder. It was hard to do through my tears. But she just laughed and clapped and sang.

In the end, she concluded by thanking him for their 43 years together, declaring, “I regret nothing.”

“I regret nothing.” How many of us can say that about our relationships? About our lives? About anything? How many of us can say that, whether we actually don’t experience regret, or whether we have made peace with our mistakes?

I just want to stop. And thank you, baby.

How sweet it is to be loved by you.

these are a few of my favorite things

Leaving D.C. wouldn’t be complete without waxing nostalgic, so following is a list of my favorite memories from my almost seven years in the District. It was hard to rank them, so don’t read too much into the order.

7. Riding in Bike DC. I just participated in this event last weekend, and it was especially meaningful because of my upcoming departure. On that beautiful Sunday, I traversed the 25-mile route with the constant mental refrain of “I love this city so much.” We got to ride almost the whole time without competing with cars, and I especially enjoyed Rock Creek Parkway, K Street, and the George Washington Parkway — the latter of which was a unique, and not to-be-duplicated, experience. It was amazing to head up the Potomac along that scenic road.

home page of The Washington Post on September 19, 2009

6. Shouting at Elena Kagan. In July 2010, I went for a run on Capitol Hill in the middle of the day. As I passed the Supreme Court (just east of the Capitol building), I recognized the diminutive woman walking along the opposite side of the street, whose image had dominated the news in the months leading up to her Senate confirmation. It took a few moments for this to register in my brain — and of course I was still running as I was thinking, “That’s Elena Kagan!” — so by the time I decided to “say” something, I had to yell.

cars on o st nw, just south of logan circle; photo by salem pearce

“Congratulations on your nomination to the court!” I shouted back at her. She turned around, smiled, waved, and shouted back, “Thanks!”

5. Surviving Snowpocalypse. I’m including this one in part because of where I’m headed next: soon several feet of snow will be a regular occurrence. On December 20, 2009, a historic storm dumped almost two feet of snow onto the greater-D.C. area. Everyone panicked: store shelves were emptied of milk (for some reason snow requires an increase in lactose consumption), and the entire city shut down. The storm made local blog Capital Weather Gang the must-read it’s become. This Texas girl had never seen so much snow at once, and my personal record held until the advent of Snowmageddon two months later.

with dan gordon at the new nationals park; photo by dara oliphant

4. Attending opening day at Nationals Park. For the past five years, I’ve shared Nationals season tickets with a group of friends, so we managed to get three tickets to the first regular season game, on March 30, 2008, at the new ballpark along the Anacostia. It was so cold that evening that I had to buy a red Nationals hoodie to stay warm. Then-President Bush threw out the first pitch — and was booed, much to my pleasure — I ate a hot dog from the kosher cart near our seats, and, best of all, Ryan Zimmerman hit a walk-off homer to lift his team over the Braves, 3-2.

chuppah at sixth & i; photo by matt goldenberg

3. Getting married at Sixth & I Synagogue. (I should note that I am here talking about my wedding — as opposed to my much more important marriage and relationship with my husband, lest my readers get the wrong idea.) The building is beautiful, and as I’ve documented well on this blog, Sixth & I has been the center of my Jewish life in D.C. On October 25, 2009, we stood under the chuppah, under the lofty dome, and made a commitment to each other. Sometimes I still can’t believe that we were able to have our wedding in such a meaningful place.

2. Having my photograph in the Washington Post — twice. Oddly enough, both were because of Sixth & I. The first time was September 18, 2009, right after my conversion. I had volunteered at an Erica Brown Rosh Hashanah event at the synagogue a few days earlier, and there I fell into a conversation with a Post religion reporter, who called me the next day to ask if a staff photographer could take my picture for the story. The photographer and I met at Sixth & I — and the resulting photo (above) was taken in its balcony. It appeared on the Post homepage as well as on the front page of the print edition.

enjoying the first fruits of sixth & i’s kosher food truck

The next time was May 22, 2011, the day after Sixth & I’s kosher food truck, Sixth & Rye, debuted. I dragged my then-intern along with me to wait in the hour-long line, and it was worth every second. Again, I just struck up a conversation with the Post photographer who was covering the event. The resulting photo (left) appeared inside the A-section of the print edition; my hands also appeared on the front page of the website and on the iPhone app.

1. Meeting Michelle Obama. On January 21, 2009, the day after the president’s inauguration, my husband and I got to go to the White House; I had entered and won the lottery that the administration held for 200 District residents to meet their newest neighbors. After a bit of a wait, in a line that snaked around the public rooms of the presidential residence, we made it into the room where the first lady stood. (Apparently we missed the president by just minutes!) First of all, Mrs. Obama is tall (and she was wearing flats on this occasion). Second of all, she has that quality that is the hallmark of all great politicians: the ability to make you feel like you are the only person in the room. I shook her hand and told her it was an honor to meet her. Third of all, she is a funny and charming lady. The man in front of us told her he was a Tuskegee airman and then shared a short anecdote. She punched him lightly on the shoulder and said, “Get out of here!”

And that is when I fell in love with Michelle Obama, way before all the rest of y’all.

a peeps profile

Note: This post, originally published on my Tumblr, was the second in a two-part series about our cats that I wrote as a birthday present for my husband. The first part is about the boy cat, Miju.

In late 1998, a small black-and-white cat was born, and Joe Grossberg adopted her two years later from the Washington Humane Society. Records indicate that Joe paid $65, provided by his mother, since the cat was a Chanukah present and (meant to be) a friend for her big brother.

She was being fostered in the Adams Morgan apartment of Marjan Philhour along with many other dogs and cats. A solitary and … tempermental creature, the little cat was often on edge in this environment. So naturally, she bit Joe when he first visited. And thus, Joe met Peeps.

photo by katie jett walls of red turtle photography

Over the years, Peeps has gained more names than pounds. Because of her size, people always think she’s a kitten. But she’s not; she’s full grown.

Peeps’ hobbies include sunbathing, staring at the wall, sleeping in the puff chair, eating cat grass, and jumping on bookshelves. She would more often opt to be alone than with others, but she at times likes to snuggle underneath a blanket. She earned the nickname “Spider Peeps” via her intrepid climbing to the top of wherever she can mange to get.

Peeps’ favorite food is tuna. She gets a can twice a year — on her birthday, and then again on Miju’s birthday; she devours each serving in one sitting. She also likes ice cream, milk, and coffee, much to Joe’s chagrin.

Peeps is not good at understanding the concept of “the phone.” She is good at detecting arrival at the apartment. She likes sniffing and hates being brushed.

Peeps’ most prized possession is her cardboard scratcher, which she somehow managed to gain dominion over, despite her brother’s alpha cat tendencies toward all their other shared possessions in the apartment. On the few occasions he has dared to use it, her eyes turn black upon hearing the noise of claws on cardboard, and she shoots over to it and hisses and bats at him until leaves.

When she wants to be petted, Peeps rolls over on her back and shows the potential petter her “secret dot.” A majority white cat, Peeps has seven black patches (seven being a mystically significant number in Judaism), including one not readily able to be seen. Her face is half-black and half-white, like a yin-yang symbol, or a black-and-white cookie.

In her free time, Peeps studies Torah. She recently became bat mitzvah (on her 12-1/2 birthday) and has shown supernal devotion to learning. Indeed, as Joe is fond of noting, Peeps is an angel from heaven.

All About Peeps
Full name: Peeps Labanit Choni Hamagel Chetzi v Chanukah Heather Feather Grossberg-Pearce

Nicknames: Pea, Peebee, Peapod, Peasoup, Peek-a-souk, Peashoot, Peashoot Salad, Soup, Soupy, Soupy Sales, Soupselah, Peepselah, Bubelah, Spider Peeps, Speep, Bean, Beanselah, Chetzi

Breed: domestic black-and-white shorthair

Gender: female

Birth date: November 15, 1998

Adoption date: November 14, 2000

Total adoption cost: $65

Adoption weight: 5.3 lbs

Current weight: 6.1 lbs

Likes: talking to Joe, sitting on the heater, sleeping in the couch crack, eating cat grass, barfing up cat grass, grooming, small cakes, Torah study, alone time, smelly clothes and shoes

Dislikes: being picked up, large groups of people, other cats, sneezes

a miju memoir

Note: This post, originally published on my Tumblr, was the first in a two-part series about our cats that I wrote as a birthday present for my husband. The second part is about the girl cat, Peeps.

In the summer of 1999, a small orange cat was born, and Joe Grossberg adopted him the following July from the Montgomery County SPCA. Records indicate that Joe paid $75, made a $20 donation to the organization, and spent an additional $5 on a “box.”

The kitten still had the rather unfortunate name of Tommy Tune when his foster mom, Kim Deserio, entrusted Joe with his care. After some brainstorming, Joe quickly invented a new name and Miju was (re)born.

photo by katie jett walls of red turtle photography

By all accounts, Miju was a rambuctious kitten, a quality he continues to exhibit today. In those early days Joe would come home from work to find Miju bouncing off the walls. Miju was also very soft and very sweet: As soon as Joe picked him up in the shelter, Joe just knew this one was the one he wanted to adopt.

Now fully grown, Miju is deceptively large because of his fluffy coat (which is simply luxurious), but also in comparison with his sister (who is just a very small full-grown cat).

Miju’s hobbies include yowling, eating flowers and other plants, sleeping in the box at the bottom of Salem’s closet, and chasing after his baby sister. Miju feels that focus should always be on him, so, for example, he insists on lying between Joe and Salem when they are in bed. At Passover this year, Miju tried to sit on the seder plate.

The need for attention also makes a very afffectionate cat. Miju is a champion head-butter and loves to sit next to new people (particularly if they pet him).

Miju and Salem engage in an ongoing power struggle for control of what should be Salem’s pillow. He slept with Joe for six years before Salem came along, so in his mind, she’s sleeping on his side of the bed.

Miju’s favorite food is string cheese, and he knows as soon as Joe opens a package. His eyes widen, and he camps out in front of Joe until the treat is gone. Meanwhile, he generally lets his sister eat most of his birthday tuna. However, Miju has to eat the shabbos wet food before she does; in fact, it takes six seconds or less for Miju to appear in the kitchen once the wet food bowl clinks on the counter on Friday night.

Miju is not good at sunbathing or sitting in cat beds. He is good at relaxing on the back of the couch. He loves being brushed with the Furminator and drinking water out of glasses. If he were allowed outside, it is thought that Miju would like to climb trees.

Miju has a heart murmur, a tiny nick in his right ear, mottled gums, and (according to Joe) only five nipples. And he defies convential wisdom about cats by being kind of a klutz. But as Joe is fond of noting, he is still perfect.

All About Miju
Full name: Miju Boon Grossberg

Nicknames: Mooj, Mista Mooj, Mi-juuuuuuuuuuu, Mookie, Mee-who, Mijou, Miju Las Vegas, Mijulicious, Hazzan

Breed: domestic medium hair orange tabby

Gender: male

Birth date: August 15, 1999

Adoption date: July 9, 2000

Total adoption cost: $100

Adoption weight: 7.8 lbs

Current weight: 10.3 lbs

Likes: licking books, batting at any small object that can move, sitting in the highest place in the room, stalking Peeps, grooming Joe

Dislikes: belts, having his undercarriage brushed, grooming himself

the first night (and day)

I’ve just turned 18 years old, and I am on my first trip abroad. (Or perhaps my second, if you count the spring break seven months earlier that I spent in Cancún, which I don’t, because back then you didn’t need a passport to go to Mexico, and I didn’t speak a word of Spanish either at the resort pool or at the local bars, the only places I went the entire week.)

I’ve just gotten off the plane in San José, Costa Rica. I should be at college, but six months earlier I had collapsed, a sobbing mess, on the floor of my bedroom when my mom told me that she and my dad couldn’t afford my dream of Brown University. Through my tears, I cursed the college counselor who had gotten me excited about Brown but had never warned me that the financial aid package might fall short — even after my mom’s negotiations with the admissions office.

I had earned a National Merit Scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin, where both my parents and my maternal grandparents had matriculated, and I had been accepted to its prestigious Plan II Honors Program. The award covered tuition and fees for four years. But I was 17 and wanted to get as far away from my parents as possible — not to mention not do anything remotely like what they had done.

Declaring it “unfair” that they were unwilling to pay $20,000 a year for my education, I announced that I wasn’t going to college after all — at least not right away. I deferred acceptance to UT and Plan II and arranged for my scholarship to go into effect the next fall. Then I used the earnings from my summer job as as administrative assistant at an oil and gas company — at a rate of $7.50 an hour, which I remember seemed like a fortune at the time — to sign up with a program called Interim.

Interim was a fairly unsophisticated, family-run program when I got involved, led still by its founder and his daughter. They connected me with the Centro de Educación Creativa, which accepted me as a volunteer for three months. The Centro was then a bilingual elementary school (it now goes up to grade 11) in Monteverde, a small mountain town in the country’s famed cloud forest. Upon arriving in San José, I was make my way to the Hotel Aranjuez. The next day, I would take the twice-daily bus to Monteverde, where a man named Chris, the school’s executive director, would meet the bus and take me to my new home.

But I’m still in the airport, paralyzed by the tasks that lay before me: I have to exchange money, and find a cab, and communicate my destination to the cab, and then spend the night by myself in a hotel. My mom later told me that putting me on the plane to San José was the hardest thing she had ever done. Of course, I was blissfully unaware of her concerns. Hell, I didn’t even know enough to be concerned myself. I was too excited about leaving Houston, about doing something different. It was only as the plane began to descend in Central America, a place I had never been and where I knew no one, that I began to wonder what exactly I was doing.

I don’t remember exchanging money and only vaguely recall the cab ride, which seemed to take forever (and to wind through some sketchy neighborhoods). Since I had no idea where the hotel was, I could only fervently hope that the cab driver was actually making his way to it.

I checked in — that Chris fellow made good on his word and had made a reservation in my name, as promised! — and was shown to my room. I remember the feeling of utter terror that I felt when the door closed and I was all alone in a foreign room in a foreign country. What had I been thinking?

I called my mom with her credit card and tried to hold back my tears — and my desire to beg her to let me come home again that night. I fell asleep crying into my pillow.

My bus wasn’t until 2:30 p.m. the next afternoon, and I spent the entire morning in the hotel. I tried to talk myself into at least walking around the neighborhood, but I was too scared. (It was a sketchy neighborhood!) I ate breakfast in the lobby/dining area and read until it seemed reasonable to call a taxi to take me to the bus station. I arrived an hour before the bus was scheduled to depart, and I waited, still terrified. (Did San José have nothing but sketchy neighborhoods?) The time of departure came and went, and there wasn’t even a sign of the bus. I began to panic. What if I had missed the bus? What if Chris had gotten the time wrong? What if everyone in Costa Rica was having a laugh at my expense and there was no bus to Monteverde?

At about 3, a taxi deposited at the station what was obviously another American student, and he seemed to be waiting for the bus to Monteverde, too. He had with him only small duffel bag and a guitar, and he sat down and began to pluck at its strings, totally unconcerned with a) the fact that he was late to the bus and b) the fact that there was no bus! His cool, collected calm grated on me in my disquiet. He noticed me and introduced himself. “You going to Monteverde?” Relieved, despite myself, to be able to talk to someone about my bus concerns, I opened the flood gates, confiding in him my theory that in all likelihood, the bus to Monteverde didn’t even exist!

He stared at me for a long second before snorting and bending back over his guitar. “We’re in a different time zone now,” he said drily. “It’s only 2 o’clock.”

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