Thrilled to be published on the Jewish Women Archives Blog.
When I was in high school I participated in something called “Outward Bound,” three weeks of hiking and canoeing in Northern Ontario, Canada. They made us prove we could climb back into a canoe we had fallen out of before the trip began… it took me an hour of trying to pull myself into that canoe and I was bruised from shoulders to wrists for weeks. Still, the trip was absolutely gorgeous and even now, years later, I can close my eyes and see the otter lying on his back next to my canoe, the moose swimming quickly across the river, the geese taking flight, small blueberry plants and endless trees and greenery as far as the eye could see. I can remember the metal drinking cup I kept in my canoe to dip into the clean water of the river, the camaraderie of new friends, and the strength I gained from paddling and portaging each day. I also remember that I wore the same long underwear for 21 days straight, that the tent was still cold even in my sleeping bag, that I desperately missed hot showers, or any showers, that on the last day we ran out of food. I can remember the monotony of paddling for hour after hour and wondering aloud if we would ever “get there.” But most of all I remember the deep sense of spiritual awakening that came to me through my trek in the wilderness, a sense of who I am, and where I wanted my journey to take me.
The parashah this Shabbat begins the book of Numbers, Bamidbar in Hebrew –“In the Wilderness.” This is a book of difficult times for the Israelites. They lose faith more than once, complaining of the desert hardships and the monotony of the food. They don’t feel God’s presence in spite of the many miracles and wonders God provides. But this is also the book in which our covenant with God is cemented as a nation and in which we accept the Torah into our lives. This is a book of revelation, of God, and of our own spirit. Many commentators have asked why God’s revelation of Torah took place in this wilderness? Why is this revelation part of the book of Bamidbar, in the wilderness, not in the land of Israel? Perhaps, it is precisely the harshness of the wilderness that forms the necessary environment for the spiritual growth and closeness to God that follows. Perhaps each of us, as we travel through life, must cross expansive challenges in order to find the inner strength to hear the still small voice of God calling out to us.
“The wilderness is a frightening place of extremes—of dangerous animals, of searing heat and punishing frost, of scarce food and water. There, a minor mishap can become a life-threatening emergency. And so, when we venture into the wilderness, we go well equipped, just as our ancestors tried to be. Parashat Bemidbar opens the desert trek with a precisely described sense of order. Moses is like a scoutmaster, preparing his charges for the rigors of the road. There is a census, and then a detailed description of the arrangement of the camp, replete with visual imagery of colorful pennants under which our ancestors marched. They were well organized in the beginning—as befits the start of an expedition.” As the book of Numbers proceeds, the people break rank, they cry out against God, they demand to return to Egypt, they lose faith. But in the end, the wilderness is the place in which we receive our Torah, the wilderness is where we are sanctified as a people.
The book of Jeremiah recalls this time in the wilderness fondly: God says ”I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown.” (2:2) The wilderness is a time of perfect love between Israel and God. Conversely, the book of Psalms describes the desert trek as 40 years of incessant complaining: “For forty years was I wearied with that generation, And said: It is a people whose hearts go astray, And they have not known My ways.” (95:10) Both accounts are true. The desert was a place of fear and complaint, of loss… but it was also a place of inspiration and love. We have both memories as our inheritance as we grapple with our own relationships with Torah and God.
A midrash, a teaching of the rabbinic era, claims that a voice calls out every day from Mt Sinai. God’s voice calls from the wilderness searching for those who are lost. The rabbis explain, “when a person loses a gem they return to look for in the place where it was lost… So, too, did God “lose” Israel in the wilderness when Israel lost faith. And since it was in the wilderness that God lost Israel, it is in the wilderness that God waits and calls out for Israel to return.” (Aggadat Bereshit, 68). Even now, God calls to us, but we are at such a distance, we can not hear It is not a physical distance, but one of faith, and as we approach the holiday of Shavuot, we are asked to find our way back that mountain, find our way back to our covenant with Torah.
One of the scariest parts of my outward bound trip was the “solo” –three days and nights I spent alone in the woods, with only a whistle to call for emergency help. I was 16 or 17 years old, I’d never been alone for three days in my own home let alone in a green forest wilderness. I was allowed no distractions to hide from my fears, no books, no TV, no music, no one to talk to. It was just me, my thoughts, and all of creation around me. I had my own revelations during those three days. I learned the world was a little less scary than I thought. I learned I was stronger than I thought. I learned that there are magic moments, moments of glory, to be had in the still of the night when all distractions are removed.
Our lives are filled with the hustle and bustle of family, friends, work, and hobbies. We keep calendars to keep track of our many activities and our many responsibilities. We spend our days surrounded by the creations of humanity: walls, roofs, technology, medicine, literature, and art. We lead full and interesting lives. Somewhere in that hustle and bustle is a voice calling to us from Mt Sinai, the still small voice of God calling from the wilderness.
Sometimes we need to return to the wilderness, a space away from the dazzling city lights, the immensity of human invention…. We need to travel to a place, where there is only God and God’s creation. For some of us this spiritual trek begins with the physical leave taking of the bustle of daily life. For some of us, we carve out a space of wilderness in our minds and souls, independent of the material world. This is scary… we may feel impossible… but we also remember the wilderness in our national memory as the time we felt perfectly in union with God… and so we strive forward. It is in the wilderness that we can hear the divine voice and remember our purpose as people and as Jews. The wilderness speaks—hamidbar medaber—and in it a person may discern the voice of God. In the wilderness, the Torah may reveal itself once more.
Tonight we will begin the celebration of Shavuot, God’s revelation to us of the Torah. We will study and pray through Monday and in that study, in that prayer, we will ask God to reveal to us each the Torah once more. But Torah is central to our daily lives as Jews, not just to Shabbat and holidays… and so we need to find daily spaces to engage with the divine.,. to find the wilderness within and without and to hear God’s voice.
My thanks to Rabbi Daniel Nevins for inspiring this Dvar Torah.
Than you also to Michael Poulin, fellow Outward Bound traveler, who provided this picture of my teenage self as we were departing on our wilderness trek.
My family had a beautiful mother’s day weekend together in Rochester, the halfway point between Binghamton and Toronto. It was not a weekend without tears or stress but I find I remember only the joyous moments: Exploring a new children’s museum, Eliyana’s first meeting of a real horse, and watching our daughter play and laugh with her cousins. We are blessed. I am reminded of how lucky we are each day. This week my husband accidentally left our mini ipad on the roof of the car. It is gone. I count my blessings. In a world of car accidents, our daughter, our family, arrived home safely. My heart goes out to those for whom this is not true, and this week to the families and friends of those who lost their lives on the Philadelphia – New York train. May God comfort them and give them strength in this time of mourning.
Our parasha this week, Behar Behukotai begins with counting, the counting of a sabbatical year and of the year of jubilee. Seven weeks of years -7×7 years, 49 years, to the jubilee when the land is returned to its original owners, freedom returned to those enslaved, and compassion returned to those in debt. We count and with every day counted, we acknowledge: “There but for the grace of God go I.” We know that each of us could at any time fall and be dependent on our neighbors to help us again find our footing. Each of us could be victim of an accident, a theft, a mishap… And so we count, we count our blessings, we count on our community.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch commented that our three patriarchs each exemplified different stages in the recognition of divine blessings in their lives. He based this on a midrash that pointed to three verses, one for each patriarch, that noted they were blessed in everything (kol). Rabbi Hirsch calls attention to the words that precede “everything,” noting the differentiation for each of the Patriarch in their acknowledgement of the blessing.
Genesis 24:1: “And Abraham was old, and well stricken in age: and the Lord had blessed Abraham in everything“.
Genesis 27:33: (After Isaac discover’s Jacob’s deception) “Then Isaac trembled violently, and said, ‘Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate from everything before you came, and I have blessed him?’”
Genesis 33:11: (When Jacob meets with Esau after years of separation) “Accept, I pray you, my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything.”
Abraham represents the most basic type of awareness. He appreciates the goodness, the riches bestowed on him. In connection with him, the word kol is preceded by the preposition ba, meaning “in everything.” It was relatively easy for Abraham to be conscious of God’s blessings because through God he achieved prestige and wealth. Isaac embodied a more advanced stage in the acknowledging divine blessings. In his case, the Torah uses the expression “from everything.” Isaac was a person who actively transformed adversity into goodness. When Isaac was confronted by setbacks or afflictions, he knew how to transform them into positive opportunities to serve God. According to Rabbi Hirsch, Jacob exemplified the ultimate stage in this religious evolution. He declares simply “I have everything” without any qualifying prepositions. (Rabbi Eliezer Siegel)
I have to disagree with Rabbi Hirsch, for me, Isaac, is much more the model for counting blessings. Life is hard. There is tragedy. There is pain. There is loss. To look at life when faced with adversity and actively count one’s blessings is faith.
This week my colleague and friend, Rabbi Ilana Garber, started chemotherapy. She wrote a beautiful prayer that she recited as she entered the mikvah prior to treatment, thanking God seven times for her many blessings… Seven dips in the mikvah for her wedding, seven circles around her husband under the chupah. She ends with this seventh blessing:
“God, You are good because Your compassion never ceases, and You are merciful because Your kindness never ends. I am choosing “may’olam kivinu lakh” – we always have hope in You – as my mantra. I do and I will always place my hope and faith in You. I need to have hope and faith in me. Always. Blessed is the Eternal One who gives me the ability to remember those blessings which are still mine to affirm and the strength to arise anew each day.”
May God help each of us to count our blessings, to give us strength in times of adversity, and to comfort us in times of grief.
Some dear friends visited Mexico recently and brought us back a tiny Mexican embroidered dress for our soon to be two year old daughter. It is beautiful and I can’t wait to to dress her in it. But as I held it in my arms a little later, I burst into tears. My beloved grandmother had a dress like this. She cherished it and wore it on special occasions each summer. I can picture in my mind her joy at seeing Eliyana in just such a dress. I can see my Bubie sitting in our living room, or our garden laughing in this dress, enjoying time with her grandchildren. I can almost picture her holding my baby, but then the tears well up again and the picture disappears. My grandmother lived to be almost 93 years old. I was blessed to have her at my wedding at age 87. I was blessed to share with her the wonderful news that Tim and I had been matched with a beautiful little girl for adoption. I was blessed to share my daughter with her in skype and pictures… but they never met. My grandmother passed away before Eliyana received her citizenship papers. We couldn’t bring her to Toronto to place her into my grandmother’s loving arms. I take comfort in the stories my sister and mother shared with me… of my daughters pictures plastered all over Bubie’s nursing home room… of her stopping every nurse, aide, and visitor to show off her beautiful new greatgranddaughter. But with every new milestone, there is a small stab of pain that I can not share it with my Bubie. I miss you Bubie. You are always in my heart.
Parshah Tazria-Metzora is part of a lengthy Torah discussion on the laws of tumah v’taharah. These we translate to English as ritual “impurity” and “purity”. But the English can not come close to revealing the depths and layers of meaning in tumah and taharah which have more to do with a holiness and life force internalized and depleted. When are we tamei “impure”… when life force has been withdrawn… after child birth, after a woman’s menstrual period, after a man’s seminal emission…. Likewise tazria is not “leprosy, “ but a spiritual illness. It may have physical identifiers, but its root cause is in our souls. We have injured our souls through misguided actions, and now there is spiritual illness…. Or we become depleted of the goodness, divinity within and we need to replenish, to reconnect with God.
Picture every person as a living Torah, an embodiment of the word and light of God. According to midrash, it was through the Torah that God created the world. The Hassidic mystics adapted this idea to suggest that the Torah is the very energy and life-force of Divinity as it fills the world and the human self. Each person is instilled with the divine spirit of Torah, a spark of God. We become a living Torah in the words we speak, the actions we take. There is a fountain within of living waters, of mitzvot flowing from God. Sometimes the chanels to the divine become stopped up, or the divine spark within is shadowed or even depleted….
We stand this week halfway to the great revelation of Sinai. Picture yourself, as you stood in body and soul at Sinai and personally received that Torah, personally entering into an enduring covenant with God, with all of Israel. God filled us, as a vessel is filled with water… We are the Torah that was handed down to Israel… We are the mitzvot. We are the vessel for the divine in this world.
We read in Exodus 27:20, as the Israelites built the Tabernacle:
וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית—לַמָּאוֹר לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר, תָּמִיד.
You shall instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.
A remarkable commentary on this verse suggests that the light was one meant to fill our souls with the divine. “The Sefat Emet, a late nineteenth century hasidic master wrote: “atah tetzavvehet benei Yisrael” (“You shall ‘instruct’ the Israelites”) may be read as the transformation of the people, each of them, into a living mitzvah. Make them, the people of Israel, into mitzvot in the world—tetzaveh et benei Yisrael. Guide each Jew toward the embodiment and ensoulment of the mitzvot; help them become mitzvot themselves.”
“How does a person become a living mitzvah? Through affirming the presence of the sacred in the world and by the love and compassion we show toward others. When we “become mitzvot,” we contribute meaningfully to the building of the sacred “lighting” (ma’or), the luminous presence of God in our world. We bring light into the world. We become instruments of the ahavah rabbah, of God’s love for us, through the mitzvah of Ḥesed, kindness and compassion toward our fellow human beings.”
As we count the days until Shavuot, we can meditate on our souls as living Torah. Have we become depleted, unable to continue to give? As vessels of God’s light -is our flame diminished, tamei? The Torah tells us to renew ourselves in the waters of life. Physically we can visit a mikvah. What are the waters of a mikvah? They are living waters, river, lake, ocean or rain… We affirm the sacred in the world, the base of life, of God, water. Remove our outer layers, make ourselves vulnerable, and immerse ourselves in that affirmation of God, the creator. We open ourselves again to be refilled as vessel of light and holiness, and to be again the embodiment of Torah. As we prepare to welcome Shavuot, to renew our covenant with God, we affirm once again the sacredness of our world and ourselves. We immerse ourselves in Torah, in mitzvot, in goodness and kindness.
My thanks to Dr Eitan Fishbane for inspiring this Dvar Torah and allowing me to use his beautiful words.
Proud to be published again in www.myjewishlearning.com. My thanks to Bechol Lashon for including our story in their series. Click here for my experience crafting a doll and a positive environment for our family.
And it came to pass at midnight, that the LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the first-born of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead. And he called for Moses and Aaron by night and said: ‘Rise up, get you forth from among my people, both ye and the children of Israel; and go, serve the LORD, as ye have said.
— Exodus 12:29-31
The plagues are a difficult part of our Passover story. More than one great Jewish scholar has addressed the issue of discomfort with the idea that the plagues were a demonstration of God’s greatness to the Israelites and/or the Egyptians. Couldn’t God’s miracle been accomplished without pain to others, to innocents? Some point to the culpability of the entire Egyptian people who benefited by Israels slavery in silence. Their punishment was deserved. Certainly there is a poetic justice in the tenth and last plague, the death of all Egyptian firstborn children. It parallels the beginning of our story when Pharaoh commanded the midwives to throw all Jewish baby boys into the Nile river. But while it may work on a thematic literary level, it leaves those of us reciting the plagues each year at Seder with a spiritual tension, especially when we reach the tenth. How can our feast of freedom include the ritual remembrance of children’s deaths on our behalf?
The answer for me is found in Elijah’s cup. Our Passover Seder does not simply ask us to look backward, it asks us look forward. We pray for a time when Elijah will announce the coming of the Messiah. We pray that next year we will be in Jerusalem, the first step in the messianic age. We pray that next year all may be free. We have left mitzrayim, we thank God for our freedom, but we acknowledge that we are not fully free until all are free. Our seder is about redemption. Our exodus from Egypt began that redemption, but it is not yet complete. We still pray, still year for our redemption, for the coming of a time when we are one with God and the enslavements of life are behind us.
The tenth plague is the most horrifying element of the Passover story. First born Jews to this day commemorate this awful event on Erev Passsover with the Fast of the Firstborn. The Torah does not try to sugar coat it. We are told the Israelites painted their doors with fresh lamb blood as a sign for death to passover their homes. It doesn’t get more grisly than this. Midrashim talk of the wailing and crying throughout Egypt that night. I have officitated at funerals of parents who are burying their child. No matter the age, it is a parent’s worst nightmare. It is an unendurable pain and we are commanded to remember this in our seder.
So much of our religious lives is spent in study, in searching for answers. But with the tenth plague, there is no commentary that can remove the raw violence, the unfairness of death brought to children. Instead, we are invited to sit with our own discomfort. What Torah does this bring to our souls? We sit with our tension and our guilt and feel more deeply the horror of this ritualized human pain.
Until the time of the messiah, there will be innocents who suffer at the hands of their fellow human beings. It is our job fight against this evil, to look it in the eye and name it. We speak for those who can not speak themselves, for the children whose voices are snuffed out by the world’s cruelty.
Each seder we recite the questions of the four children: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the one who doesn’t know how to ask. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, added a fifth child, the child of the holocaust, the child whose life was ended, whose voice was silenced forever. (published in The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.) This special prayer is to be inserted into the Passover Seder before opening the door for Elijah.
THE FIFTH CHILD -THE ONE WHO CANNOT ASK
On this night, we remember a fifth child.
This is a child of the Shoah (Holocaust), who did not survive to ask.
Therefore, we ask for that child — Why?
We are like the simple child. We have no answer.
We can only follow the footsteps of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, who could not bring himself to mention the Exodus at night until Ben Zoma explained it to him through the verse: In order that you REMEMBER the day of your going out from Egypt, all the days of your life. (Deut. 16.3)
We answer that child’s question with silence. In silence, we remember that dark time. In silence, we remember that Jews preserved their image of God in the struggle for life. In silence, we remember the seder nights spent in the forests, ghettos, and camps; we remember that seder night when the Warsaw Ghetto rose in revolt.
In silence, let us pass the cup of Elijah, the cup of the final redemption yet-to-be. We remember our people’s return to the Land of Israel, the beginning of that redemption. Let us each fill Elijah’s cup with some of our wine, expressing hope that through our efforts, we will help bring closer redemption.
We rise now and open our door to invite Elijah, the forerunner of the future which will bring an end to the nights of our people. We sing as they did.
Ani Maamin b’emunah shleimah, beviat Hamshiah, V’af al pi she yitmameah, im kol she ani maamin. I believe in the coming of the Messiah, and even though the Messiah may tarry, in spite of this, I still believe.
I want to share with you this beautiful poem from Valerie Cox called The Cookie Thief:
“A woman was waiting at an airport one night,
With several long hours before her flight.
She hunted for a book in the airport shops.
Bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop.
She was engrossed in her book but happened to see,
That the man sitting beside her, as bold as could be.
Grabbed a cookie or two from the bag in between,
Which she tried to ignore to avoid a scene.
So she munched the cookies and watched the clock,
As the gutsy cookie thief diminished her stock.
She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by,
Thinking, “If I wasn’t so nice, I would blacken his eye.”
With each cookie she took, he took one too,
When only one was left, she wondered what he would do.
With a smile on his face, and a nervous laugh,
He took the last cookie and broke it in half.
He offered her half, as he ate the other,
She snatched it from him and thought… oooh, brother.
This guy has some nerve and he’s also rude,
Why he didn’t even show any gratitude!
She had never known when she had been so galled,
And sighed with relief when her flight was called.
She gathered her belongings and headed to the gate,
Refusing to look back at the thieving ingrate.
She boarded the plane, and sank in her seat,
Then she sought her book, which was almost complete.
As she reached in her baggage, she gasped with surprise,
There was her bag of cookies, in front of her eyes.
If mine are here, she moaned in despair,
The others were his, and he tried to share.
Too late to apologize, she realized with grief,
That she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief.”
You just don’t know what you don’t know, you know?
One of the challenges in being a working mom has been dinner. Too many exhausted evenings turn to calling for a pizza. For months I have been questioning working parents and trolling the internet for the magical solution to working full time, caring for a two year old, and having healthy family dinners. To every blogging mother who tells me to have my toddler cook with me I say “Are you kidding me?” To those websites whose great mystical insight has been to encourage me to cook after my kid has fallen asleep at night I say “hrumph!” My daughter goes to sleep between 8 and 8:30pm and it’s all I can do to stay awake with her. The minute she is down I head for bed. Some parents told me they can cook a dinner during a single sesame street episode. Some nights I work until 6pm… Others suggested “snack for dinner,” carrot sticks, crackers, and cheese. This was popular with husband and child. One parent told me she cooks and freezes three different dishes every weekend. Hmmmm. I’m not quite there, but my new motto is: “If I have time to make one then there’s time to make two and put one in the freezer.”
Here’s my personal system. It’s still a work in progress.
1. The rice cooker is my new best friend. I love it because I can set it and leave it… for hours. It keeps the grain (and beans) warm and fluffy. This can be applied to a crockpot too.
2. Baby steps: My goal right now is two home cooked meals a week, one from me, one from my husband. If we surpass that, bonus! And no guilt.
3. If I have time to make one dish, I have time to double or triple it and put some in the freezer in dinner sized containers for another time. Favorite freezables are chili, quiche, lasagna, shepherd’s pie, and pumpkin pancakes
4. Shortcuts are not a cop-out. Salad in a bag is not a sin, neither is pre-herbed frozen fish. I check labels for additives, salt, fat content and if it’s ok for my tummy, it’s ok for our table. Soak dry beans when possible and don’t sweat the canned beans when I can’t.
5. Prepping makes all the difference. I bundle the prep so I’m only actually cooking/prepping once or twice a week. A dinner of hot dogs (organic kosher beef or turkey no nitrates and tofu in our home) is do-able if there are already pre-cut carrot and celery sticks in the fridge… If I’m already cutting for a recipe, I get the veggie sticks done and bagged in the fridge for later.
6. Hide vegetables in everything. If I can puree it, I can hide a vegetable in it. There are even lentils and spinach in my pumpkin pancakes. It easy to hide spinach, kale, carrots, broccoli and more in any tomato sauce using blender or immersion mixer.
7. Forget diversity. Culinary experimentation is not do-able right now. My husband and I brainstormed 14 meals we enjoy eating, are simple to make, and nutritious. The list is accompanied by a set grocery shopping list for ease. If we only ever eat 14 different meals at home for the next 3-5 years, great. We are mostly vegetarian so here’s the list:
1. Grilled cheese on whole wheat bread w tomato soup
2. Fish (frozen, herb encrusted), microwaved sweet potatoes, and broccoli/peas
3. Snack for dinner: cheese, fruit, veggie sticks, whole grain crackers
4. Whole wheat pita, hummus, cucumbers, tomatoes
5. Bean or lentil chili w salad and rice
6. Rice cooker: brown rice and beans/lentils with spices, salad
8. Bean tacos w cut veggies/salad.
9. Whole wheat pasta / veggie infused pasta w sauce (or veggie pasta salad – I just added flavored oil and vinegar)
10. Personal pizzas on naan bread and veggie sticks.
11. Hot dogs / veggie burgers and veggie sticks.
12. Lentil loaf, potatoes and salad.
13. Tofu veggie stir fry or curry (grocery store curry sauce)
14. Vegetable lasagna and salad.
Of course I just committed to weekly veggie boxes from our local CSA farm so this may all go out the window this summer.
And…. weekend pancakes are a must…
Will keep you posted.
As an adoptive mom I worry what my daughter will feel about her family when she grows old enough to understand her story. I am the white mom of an African American daughter. I wonder if our bond will stay as strong once the realities of the world invade our family’s cozy threesome. I thank God every day for bringing Eliyana into our lives. We both had long hard journeys that brought us to each other. I had to travel through infertility, anger, and guilt before I opened my soul to new possibilities. She lost a birth family, endured three different orphanages and countless caregivers, all in her first eight months of life. Now we belong to each other, heart and soul. Every night I sing to her and tell her the story of how we came to be a family. We have a favorite game we play. I am not sure which of us invented it… Eliyana calls “Mama” and I call “baby,” back and forth through giggles until we come together in hugs and kisses. I pray that we are always this close, always this joyful in our bond to each other.
I have to thank Michaela DePrince and her mother, Elaine, for sharing their story in Taking Flight. Michaela watched her parents and neighbors murdered by war in Sierra Leon then walked for days with her orphanage to the relative safety of neighboring Guinea. She was four. She writes in clear memory of wanting a new family, parents to protect her. I cried uncontrollably at her and Elaine’s meeting. From the moment Elaine enters Michaela’s story, she is mama, never anything else. In her acknowledgements, Michaela thanks her parents and her birth parents. There is no bracketed “adoptive” to her “mom and dad”. She doesn’t see them as white or secondary. She sees them as Mom and Dad. She has not lost her connection to the birth parents she loved. She is not diminished in her African heritage. She valiantly pursues her dream of being a ballerina and shares her story to inspire the next generation of young black dancers.
In her book, Michaela describes the prejudice she experiences from white clerks who follow her suspiciously in stores, from ballet companies who can’t envision black prima ballerinas, and from strangers on the street who assume she is her elderly parents paid caregiver. She also describes the prejudice from the black community who assume her white mother doesn’t know how to apply hair extensions to her head (she does) and isn’t providing enough skin lotion to make her skin gleam. In the end, Michaela makes her own decisions, wise beyond her years. It is a hard road, but Michaela chooses to use it to inspire others and for that I am eternally grateful.
I was especially touched by Michaela’s relationship with her mother. In the hotel room in Africa after they first meet, Elaine provides dresses and snazzy sparkly sneakers to her new daughters. Michaela is overjoyed but starts to look through the suitcase for the ballerina shoes she has been dreaming her future mother will bring. Elaine says “what are you looking or dear heart?” Michaela pulls out her prized and only possession, a magazine picture of a ballerina. They don’t yet speak the same language, but somehow Elaine assures her daughter that yes, she can take dance lessons when they get to America. At $80 a day for point shoes, and more for professional level ballet school, that was quite an investment in her daughter’s happiness. She could have stopped at making sure this child had love and a full stomach, but she made sure to give her daughter her dream.
I hope one day, I will take Eliyana to watch Michaela DePrince dance. I hope our lives will be full of wonderful women and models like Michaela. I pray that we will have the courage and confidence to move beyond ignorant comments and pursue all our dreams. Perhaps the world will change and grow over the next twenty years. I hope we become a kinder more humane people. No matter what life throws at us, I pray my daughter will know I am there for her, to help her achieve all life should bless to her.