Why are you the way that you are?

“Free soup for the holidays!” I called, holding out a steaming hot bowl of fresh chicken soup to people passing by. It was so cold my breath rose in a cloud and the tip of my nose was numb, but it was worth it to know that my volunteer work was helping to keep others warm.

“There must be something wrong with it if you’re selling it for that,” a man snapped irritably at me as he stomped on by. I wasn’t the only one who heard him. My friends all turned to me incredulously; one even took a couple steps in the man’s direction before giving up.

“Um, what?”

“What did he say?”

“Why did he say that?”

A moment of scattered, confused titters, before we all got back to work. We weren’t just giving out chicken soup. We had vegetarian soup and latkes* with apple sauce as well, and people were free to take as much as they wanted. There was no spiel people had to listen to to get the food, no self-promotion listserv they had to sign up for. The food wasn’t even labeled with the organization we were part of. Anyone could just come right up, take some food and leave, no questions asked. I couldn’t think of anything farther from selling short of literally paying people to eat.

For the rest of the evening I was met with small smiles and wide grins, quiet thanks and startled delight. Given just how cold it was and the rate at which people were hurrying from one warm building to another I was pleasantly surprised by how many people stopped for a quick chat and some lovely affirmations- thank you for your great work, this food is delicious, you have a great holiday too, keep on doing what you’re doing. 

Those words made me feel warm in a way the soup couldn’t. But by the end of the night, I was still thinking about that man.

It wasn’t that I was mad at him, or upset by his abrasive tone. It wasn’t like his comment was even that extreme. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that someone would take time out of their day to be mean to someone they didn’t know, doing nothing that affected them personally, doing something that only could affect others positively.

“I’m great at complaining about a lot of things,” I told my friends as we packed up, “but free, fresh, hot food on a cold night? I’m having trouble finding the negativity in that one.”

His words followed me to the train, past the turnstyle, through the tunnels. They floated beside me as I hastened home, eager to get warm at last. As I rounded the corner to my apartment I was reminded of a quote from The Office, of all places:

“Why are you the way that you are? …I hate, so much,
about the things you choose to be.”
–The Office, Episode 22

Was it a choice to be harsh? I wondered silently, thinking of my experience as a mental health counselor. That evening’s stranger could have been going through any number of things that caused his mood to dip, his outlook to darken, his instincts to turn towards immediate suspicion. None of that could have happened by choice. But he couldn’t have been forced into the decision to share that pain out loud with me, surely?

Could it be that he just needed an outlet, and my presence served as one? Did he want someone else to hurt, so he wouldn’t be in pain alone? Did he want someone else to hurt, so he could feel more powerful, more in control of his life?

Or was he just genuinely worried about the soup?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It’s the sixth night of Chanukkah, and as I hold the shamash** I puzzle over this holiday’s meaning. Shechinah*** brought us light for eight days once, but it is our obligation to keep that light going. I’ve been a pessimist about a lot of things this year; I’ve been somewhat ill, I’ve been very busy, and most of all, I’ve been living in America under Trump. In the way that I used to mock-grumble ‘Thanks Obama’ I now honestly mutter ‘Fuck Trump’ and that negativity permeates even the positive news that comes my way. It’s easy enough to make physical light. Spiritual, emotional, metaphorical light? Much, much harder.

I want to be more cheerful, more hopeful, more light. So I can’t help but ask, why are we the way that we are? Can we choose another way to be?

And even if I, personally, could become a more positive, giving, optimistic person, should I automatically assume that others have the same capacity of choice as I do, or more, or less?

I don’t believe the human mind is built to be able to constantly comprehend all the possible choices it has. I get overwhelmed with more than three ice cream flavors. What with all the little decisions we must make day to day it’s much easier to narrow our choices down, pick automatic responses, and follow well-worn paths of behavior rather than think about all the potential rewards and consequences of our briefest, smallest actions.

But still. Maybe the first choice I can make is deciding to believe I actually have a choice at all. It seems better to try to change and fail than never to try where I could have succeeded. Maybe I can turn away from just one commonly traveled path of grumpiness and snapping and defeatism and push my way past all the weeds and trees, all the ‘long shift at work’s and the ‘but my body hurt’s, to forge a new path of hope and joy- or, if not that, at the very least kindness.

My Rabbi asks me to make a toast after lighting the candles. It’s not easy making an unexpected toast in front of a big group of people, all of whom up until this point have had no reason to think of me as a bad toast-maker. I think about turning him down. I think about making a choice.

I raise my glass.

“This has been a dark year in America for many of us.
But it is an undeniable fact that light shines more brightly in the dark. May we all continue to shine our lights, our advocacy, our activism, our being true unto ourselves and unto others, more brightly than ever in the times to come.

L’Chaim.”
–Davy Ran, Episode 1

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A New Addition to the Family; !ברוך הבא מישה

Note: This is a happy story, but it has some unhappy parts (mentions of animal abuse).

Some people say that we all have superpowers. They’re just so mundane that we barely notice. But we all have that friend who always hits every green light when driving, or who always catches falling mugs, or who always wakes up right before their alarm.

A humble brag: I believe my superpower is to make rescue dogs feel safe, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’ve interacted with rescue dogs my entire life. When I was born, my mother’s Canaani Pupik*, rescued from the heart of Jerusalem, curled around me and refused to move. That dog held me more than anyone else in my family. She had to personally vet every person who came near me, every single time. She helped me learn to crawl, and then to walk, and most importantly to be kind and gentle and responsive to what animals were telling me. I intuitively understand dogs in a way I know has surprised a lot of people around me. I understand the tonal variations when the bark, or whimper, or whine, or howl. I understand body language and facial expressions and tail positions.

(And, of course, I also understand the magical healing power of pieces of chicken.)

Knowing what different signals mean allows me to have real, individual, meaningful dialogues with dogs, and I think that’s the core of their trust. It isn’t always immediate, but it’s faster than average, and it always comes.

Those of you reading may know about my rescue chihuahua/terrier mix Bina**. We rescued her at age 6 from a puppy mill. She was one of the mothers, kept in a cage her entire life, separated from her children and beaten right up until we got her out. I hate typing it but it is important to acknowledge. Bina was mistreated so badly that 13 years later we still see the effects.

Things weren’t and still aren’t perfect. I’ve worked for 7 years as an abuse counselor and I see the traumatic responses I’ve learned to recognize in humans reflected in her behavior too. Sometimes Bina gets confused when I approach and starts to cower and growl before realizing it’s me. Some days she refuses to come out from her dark, safe corner under the kitchen table. Certain things trigger her more than others- someone moving their leg too fast, or a hand hovering over her head.

I learned to work around these triggers and Bina’s personality has blossomed beautifully. Even now she still continues to learn and grow. She’s resilient in ways I can’t fully comprehend. The old addage about how old dogs can’t learn new tricks? Ridiculous. My traumatized 19 year old chihuahua is constantly learning new things to this day. She creates new playful games (the current one is “run and chase me, then turn around and I’ll chase you!”). She learns new ways of cuddling (right now it’s “on top of your head”) and requesting affection (right now it’s by slapping us in the face with her paw. So, that one’s a work in progress). Bina was among the most abused dogs I’ve ever worked with, and she trusts me enough to let me move her food around while she’s eating, to let me shower her with kisses, and to let me sleep by her side. A level of trust which, by the way, she has withheld from every professional Dog Whisperer we’ve had over to help (she actually bit the last one in the nose).

So when I heard my mom adopted*** another rescue dog from the local shelter I was over the moon and ready for another 13+ years of superpower use.

This dog had been dropped off by a family at a kill shelter at the age of 7. They complained that she howled too much (we have never heard her howl once) and she set off their allergies (A. After 7 years? B. she’s hypoallergenic). They did not provide the shelter with her medical history or even her name. The dog was a Havapoo, a designer breed and so an unusual rescue. It is likely that her previous owners bought her from some fancy pet store and were completely unvetted and thus unprepared for her to get bigger, to grow up, and to demand actual care and attention like every dog does. I cannot begin to express my anger over this.

When the dog was left at the shelter she was malnourished and dirty, her body covered in alternating bald spots and unbelievable tangles of fur. Her teeth were in terrible shape, her eyes filmy, her nails uncut. When approached she would take on a clearly unnatural submissive posture, even though she didn’t know any actual commands. At 7 years old she had not been spayed or even house trained. When my mother met her, her tail was down so far my mother thought it was broken.

But the dog was small enough to carry and she was in need, so my mother took her home and gave her as much love as the Ran family has to offer (the limits of which have yet to be found). We named her Misha, which was the closest acceptable name related to her most immediately obvious endearing quality- how she loves to mush herself up against people when she gets excited. We also call her Mishi, Mushy, Mushu, Mishka, Mishkeleh, Mishinke, and Oh My God Stop Licking My Face.

After several months of living in my mother’s home it is clear that this dog is a blessing straight from the Shechinah. She has never bitten, never howled, never scratched. She’s sweet and loving down to her core, and incredibly smart to boot. But up until I came to visit she did not play with toys or people, had a low tolerance for cuddling and kisses, and did not come over often to request attention. She was continually apprehensive about meeting people, taking at least several hours to warm up to them, though there are many people she still refuses to even go near.

But I am happy to say that my powers did not disappoint me and I am certainly the exception to the rule. Coming home I didn’t even make it out of the elevator before this giant ball of fluff was zooming in to kiss me and cuddle me and wag her tail so furiously her whole body wiggled. Once she was done and presumably dehydrated from licking every bit of exposed skin I had she rolled over for belly pats immediately. And when I stood up, she stole my hat and never gave it back. It’s her favorite- and only- toy that she plays with.

img_6512.jpgHat Hugger 2Misha leaving Eygpt w_hat & boneShe also sleeps on it, eats on it, and yep, I had to buy a new hat.

Since meeting this little light I have never slept alone. Misha insists on lying down where she has a perfect view of my face so she knows immediately when I wake up. When I am awake, she begs for attention every half hour or so. I ask myself every day, how could someone give up such a brilliant, sweet, funny, wonderful dog like her?

However it happened, may I never stop being grateful that she found her way into our lives. My superpower was built just for this purpose and I am ready to serve. ❤

With love and joy and pride and haircuts, we welcome this gorgeous scientist puppy into our home!!!

(Apologies to Bina because I didn’t write her a welcome post, since I was like 11 when we got her. I think she’s okay with it though.)

 

*This means bellybutton in Yiddish. I don’t know either. Our next dog was Itzik (tiny“he who laughed”) and calling out “Pupik Itzik!!!!” when walking them outside was an Experience.

**This means understanding in Hebrew. Every dog in our house has to have a Jewish name, I don’t make the rules, but I do enjoy them.

***On Election Day no less. This is the dog of the Revolution.

(P.S., if anyone wants to talk about this shelter/potentially adopting, hit me up. 💜)

“Boker Tov, Machaneh Na’aleh”

After spending all day looking through old photos (wow I was tiny)(ok I’m still tiny) it’s time for a proper Na’aleh, holy cow, ilysm post. On and off from 2001-2008 I got to go to Na’aleh. In the ‘on’ times, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to go there. In the ‘off’ times, I missed it pretty much nonstop. Time worked differently at Na’aleh. Someone once described it to me as a place where “the days are weeks and the weeks are days”, and I can’t think of a better description. I felt in the span of minutes I learned and grew and experienced enough for a lifetime, and yet in a blink 2 months would fly by.

For a long time I thought of Na’aleh as a great gift that summer would bring. But I haven’t been to Na’aleh as a chanichol for 8 years, and it’s still such a huge part of my life. My Na’aleh-born love of singing, of dancing, of nature, of ruach, of avodah, of making big ma’agals with everybody in it… that’s with me every day, all the time. I’m a pro at coming up with group activities that don’t cost any money and don’t need many props and sometimes come out pretty silly. I’m even better at sneaking in (okay, sometimes it’s pretty obvious) learning about Jewish culture and social justice.

Y’all, the world is hard sometimes, and Na’aleh gave me tools I could not have done without. Confidence, friendship, leadership abilities, an emphasis on tikkun olam and hagshama, ideals I try to live my life by. Na’aleh was a summer camp, but it is also a movement, a support system, a way of life, a beautiful lens through which to see the world. I’m heartbroken that kids next year won’t get to experience this in quite the same way, but I can’t be too sad because I have faith that Na’aleh lives on, in spirit and hopefully again in physicality.

15 years after being rained on in Shohola, I still get to see and hug and speak with my Na’aleh friends all the time. In the past couple years I’ve even reconnected with people- some of my best friends!!!- with whom I hadn’t spoken with in ages, only to feel like no time had gone by. Because Na’aleh is a family and family means we shared some pretty weird experiences growing up and I can’t wait to experience more together. I’m here forever for my fellow HaboHeads, and I encourage y’all continue to hit me up, because I’m always just a click away. Laila tov, Machaneh Na’aleh.