Finding Wholeness

Just Helping a Friend

I told someone who asked that I was helping out a friend. Actually, I was doing a job and getting paid, working Mort and Betty’s food tent at the outdoor food fair Smorgasborg L.A., making sandwiches. Later, I would be helping to take down the setup, transfer utensils and leftovers to Craft Kitchen, wash dishes and generally clean up. (For which I received a living wage, Baruch HaShem.)

Megan, the chef and owner of Mort and Betty’s, named after her grandparents, really is becoming a friend. She has put together a vegan Jewish deli with plant-based versions of lox, whitefish, pastrami, latkes and challah bread. For better or worse, she’s got me eating pastriesagain, the babka and black and white cookies of my childhood. All the food tastes really good, although the resemblance to what it’s meant to be varies.

A guy came up to the booth with his son in his arms. Megan whispered that he had visited the booth last week too. He had been very skeptical about this vegan deli thing but is now a loyal repeat customer.

This guy was very friendly with a wide guileless smile, his hair in long dreads and a head scarf, wearing hipster glasses and pastel t-shirt. Like a lot of customers, he assumed that I was Megan’s mother. “Is this mommy?” he asked. I’ve gotten past displaying irritation at the question. “No, I said, “people assume that, but we’re not even related.” He recovered nicely, saying that “where he came from,” women “like her,” he said to Megan, “are all called Mommy.” Like her, meaning me, meaning, I guess, women of a certain age.

Where Dad was chatty, drawing Lisa the cook into the conversation, calling her the irreplaceable “person who adds the extra mustard, bringing the whole situation together,” the son was implacably stoic. With impressive commitment, he resisted each attempt by each of us three white women to make him smile, ignoring our waves and exclamations of “Hi!” and “How are YOU?”

Dad held his boy effortlessly in muscular arms, sparing him a trudge on near-molten asphalt. They were such a contrast, the dad so friendly and a little nerdy and the kid, closed mouth and dour as the judgiest of cats.

I discovered once again that I really am not used to being seen as I am—as the age I am. I don’t think of myself as Megan’s mommy and not because she’s my boss. More because, in that picture in my head, I’m closer to her age than to my own.

As I got into my car to drive back to our booth and pack it up to go, I looked at myself in the mirror. Graying hair escaping from the scarf in which I had tied it up. A webbing of fine lines that grew into crow’s feet around my eyes and creases like parenthesis around my mouth. At least, life gave me smile lines. Good bones, but the flesh drapes a little. Simply, I look every year of my age.

I’m not ashamed that when I could not find a different job, I worked for a deli, making sandwiches and washing dishes. I’m proud that I can do a fair day’s work for a living wage. I love feeding people and I loved it when people I know came by the booth and tried our food. I learned to quit telling people I was merely helping a friend.

But I was also very angry that it had come to that. I have two master’s degrees plus rabbinic ordination. I received smicha—ordination—when I was 56, when most people I know were just beginning to daydream about retirement. I had walked away from a career with the State of California, being a press secretary to a wonderful progressive elected official.

I had discovered certain spiritual joys. I had learned that sitting with a study partner before a daf—a page of Talmud—with our dictionaries and grammars, threading our way through a marvelously intricate debate about how to do justice in a particular case—a debate sprinkled with textual pyrotechnics, slamming texts from Prophets and Exodus and Psalms together to see what shakes down, the atom smasher theory of knowledge—was a profound connection with the Divine.

People in synagogue were already asking me about things when the rabbi wasn’t available, about texts and how to ‘do’ their lives, especially younger people. My training as a journalist, a listener, helped a lot. I really am fascinated by people’s stories, and I’m awed by knowledge of what everyone is carrying, all day, every day—a sickness, a family suicide, an unrequited love–and that they find ways to go on being a blessing to the world. And I discovered that, when they asked, I had what to say. Mostly, from our Jewish tradition, but also from decades of living in the world.

I learned to love swaying in song and prayer, the nattering in my head overtaken by the music of the assembly, the kahal. I learned how the activism for social justice which had defined my adult life was deepened and held by the tradition of my ancestors. I joined Jews in the streets and on the phones, fighting for universal healthcare, for union workers’ rights, to dismantle racism and homophobia and the other poisonous inequalities that scar our country.

When my boss termed out, I took out thousands of dollars in loans, found part time teaching jobs and followed by heart right into rabbinical school. I had looked at the salaries paid to pulpit rabbis and thought it was a good bet. And I was ready to settle into a small community and teach benai mitzvah students and counsel couples and lead innovative takes on traditional services. I couldn’t wait to share all the amazing Torah I was learning.

It should not have come as a nasty shock, but it did. Turns out that a single middle-aged leftist intellectual lesbian is not the person most synagogue boards of directors are looking for. For years, I shuttled through a series of college lecturer jobs and interim synagogue service and private students—all of which was profoundly rewarding in every way except for financially. I have had the joy of seeing students emerge from mikveh, from holy water, to become Jews. I have held people as they cried and was privileged to laugh with them again. I introduced new babies to the world, their mothers seated grandly in decorated chairs like the heroes they are. I have counseled families through a death and found ways to share the departed loved one’s story. Once, I held a funeral for a baby. I don’t know how, but it seemed to help.

Often, I was called back for job interviews, sometimes in the final round, but was never chosen. Once I applied for a job I was more than qualified for. I was emailed back right away. They asked me to send them a resume with dates filled in. I did that. On the day after that, I was emailed again with the news that my application would not be moving forward.

There is a happy ending to this. I am now the Los Angeles Program Manager for At The Well, hired specifically for communal outreach to women and non-binary people 40 years old and older. Finally, my years of experience, joy, failure and fear turned out to be an asset.

I work with people of a certain age in connecting body, soul and mind through the ancient practice of observing Rosh Chodesh, the first night of the Jewish month, new moon time. We learn to be safe in the dark with one another; we dip deep into the well of our tradition and nourish ourselves with it; we create new rituals. Every day, I am grateful that I took the chance and went back to school in my fifties, doing what I felt called to do.

On this month of Kislev, I savor the balance of healing darkness and vivid light. I have learned to relax into the deep slow growth which the long nights encourage. And I relish each Hanukah candle, each light of liberation as I embrace my new role.

I am making friends with the face and body I see in the mirror. Learning to accept that the serpentine torso of which I was so proud has widened and softened; no longer shocked to see echoes of my mother’s face and my aunt’s. Increasingly, the picture in my head looks like me.

Just Helping a Friend
Rabbi Robin Podolsky
Rabbi Robin Podolsky

Rabbi Robin Podolsky serves on the Board of Governors for the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din, writes at TribeHerald and, and serves as writing facilitator and dramaturg for Queerwise, a spoken word and writing group. She conducts workshops, rituals and study sessions, for Jewish holidays and other occasions, that combine modalities: text study, personal work and small group sharing, writing (except on Shabbat and Yom Tov), prayer and meditation.

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