These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

I’m Totally Semi-Qualified to Handle That!

Posted on August 18, 2013 by Naomi Bilmes

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From my blog:

Not much has happened this summer.

00aWait, let me amend that statement: Not much has happened this summer in the personal life of Naomi Bilmes. A good deal, in fact, has happened in the world. There’s the Syrian uprising, the confessions and apologies of New York politicians, the Pope’s near-sainthood, and Egypt’s decision to adopt a new type of government that we like to call “let’s protest and be violent.” There’s also a new disease called ‘obesity’ and a new god called Justin Beiber. Oh, and I assume sports is happening, too.

But back to the “not much” of my summer. I’ve dabbled in many leisure activities and I’ve even done a few things that fall under the category of “work” or “volunteering.” What this conglomerate of non-routine daily activity has proven is that I am semi-qualified to do a lot of things. (An English degree can do that for you.) For example: I can teach, but don’t have a certificate. I can cook and bake, but only kosher. I can write because I love words and I can conduct interviews because I’m curious. But I’m not an expert at anything yet (except being myself…because if I don’t do that, who will?) And as with most things, the more I learn, the more I realize that I know about five percent of what I thought I knew.

So here are the highlights of my “semi-qualified” summer:

1. Tutoring: During the winter of my discontent (March 2012), I began tutoring a middle-school-aged girl once a week. She did not need help with reading. She did not need help with math. She did not need help completing her homework. She did not even need help making friends. So what was I there for? Well, this girl used to go to a Jewish day school, but transferred to a public school. Her parents wanted her to continue her Jewish education, so they hired a few different tutors to add Judaism to her week. One tutor got Hebrew, one got Tanach, and I got Jewish Women in History. (I, obviously, was the winner.) But on top of that, the girl wanted to learn what I had to teach her. She’d already had a whole day of school and often had a whole night of homework ahead of her – but she was always totally engaged in the lesson and never gave me her “I’m a rebellious teenager” side (if she even has one). Needless to say, I was thrilled when I received an email from her mother asking me to continue our lessons this summer (I think my response included about eight exclamation points).

00bThis summer, our sessions morphed into Women’s Studies with a Jewish twist or Jewish Studies with a Feminist twist – call it what you will. Ecstatic to have a wider base of sources (thanks to my time at Pardes), I prepared topics including women’s obligation in tefillah, the Witch of Ein-dor, and the Shema. Per my student’s request, we covered some Jewish myths and legends (hence my Lilith kick), Jewish inventors, and, my favorite topic, God. We talked about the essential questions: Why do people believe in a god? Why do Jews believe in Hashem? What is the nature of God? What do you believe about God? Yep, I covered all these topics with a thirteen-year-old. We even read some A.J. Heschel and Mordecai Kaplan. And she loved it.

Lest you think she is a nerdy wall-flower, however, you should know that she had purple tips in her hair this summer and paints her nails with different patterns every week. She trains every other day for cross-country and likes to meditate. Let’s just say that hanging out with her twice a week was way too much fun to be called a “job.”

2. Gardening: This falls under the categories of “volunteering” and “things Naomi never thought she would do.” It all started, however, because of my friend Grace, with whom I have about 172 things in common. One day, she told me that she would be going to Elizabeth Park on Wednesday to do some weeding – did I want to come? Not really, but I love hanging out with Grace, and if she likes something, chances are good that I’ll like it, too. So I went. Surprisingly, I did enjoy it. It helped that the weather was beautiful, the roses smelled good, and we were technically “dead-heading,” which is different than weeding. And that the woman in charge was a slightly kooky flower-fanatic, with a very interesting personal life. After a few weeks of the “Wednesday Weeders,” however, Grace was out of town and I was tired of flowers. It was time to move to stage two: Vegetables.

I joined a group of volunteers at Westmoor Park’s ‘Plant a Row for the Hungry’ program. On Monday and Wednesday mornings, we harvested, weeded, and watered the large vegetable garden that provides veggies for the House of Bread (a local soup kitchen) and the Elmwood Community Center. I picked purple lettuce, yellow beans, green beans, purple beans, flat parsley, wispy dill, cinnamon basil, variegated sage, and chocolate mint. I weeded in between the rows of corn and, when that was done, moved to the perennial garden to attack some Mile-a-Minute vines that were choking the plants. I learned that a lot of men like to garden, and that I’m not the only young person who shows up to these things. I learned that I get tired and bored after about two hours of gardening (less if there is no one to talk to), but that working in the dirt can be wonderful if I’m getting fresh air, sunshine, and basil-scented fingers.

3. Cooking and Baking: During the summer of my discontent (summer 2011), I started “Friday Night Finales,” a Shabbat-oriented baking business. I printed out fliers touting home-made challah, cookies, brownies, blondies and cinnamon bread. I brought the fliers to the synagogue and bam – I had business. A lot of it.

This summer, I decided to raise the stakes (cue Iron Chef music): One cook. Your kitchen. A pile of ingredients. Go! I decided to advertise my Shabbat meal hosting skills, hoping to cook for members of the community. I thought it was a great idea. Lots of other people told me so, too. But only three families actually took me up on the offer (mine not included). So last week, I caved in and sent out an updated “Friday Night Finales” flier (this time offering gluten-free goodies, too). My inbox filled right away. I started baking. Let’s just say our kitchen smelled amazing all week long.

So many cookies!!

So many cookies!!

Before I realized that the cooking business wasn’t going to take off, I did have one especially memorable client. This family had two kitchens: one for meat and one for dairy. The granite counter tops shone with speckled white and brown rock, and the sleek metal pots and pans looked like they came right from Ina Garten’s kitchen. When I proposed some possible dishes, they said “All of it” and didn’t spare any of the ingredients I suggested they buy.

While I was cooking away with the New Yorker Fiction Podcast flowing through my earbuds, a young, blond woman wandered into the kitchen in search of coffee. She turned out to be the au pair for the ten-year-old twins. She’s the same age as me, and she’s from South Africa, taking a year abroad after university. We hit it off and had a great time chatting.

When we went downstairs so I could cook the Parmesan-roasted turnips in the dairy kitchen, two more young women walked in: the reading tutor and the math tutor. Four employees of one family were all standing in one room, outnumbering the family members currently in the house. I felt like part of a club. A club with very delicious turnips.

00gThe best part, however, was when I saw one of the twins in synagogue a few days later. “Your food was sooooo good!” she told me. “The vegetables didn’t even taste like vegetables!” Which is a compliment coming from a ten-year-old, I guess.

4. Spending time with my grandparents: This activity is neither “volunteer” nor “work.” Nor does it fall under the category of “things Naomi never thought she would do.” In contrast to the other three activities listed above, I am not semi-qualified to spend time with my grandparents; I am fully-qualified. Why? I love them. They love me. And there you have it.

Over the past few years, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know my Saba and Safta – with me as an adult. We talk about books, schmooze over the news, learn the parsha or play Scrabble. My favorite activity, however, is getting them to tell me stories about when they were younger. How did they meet? (Mutual friend.) Where did they go on their first date? (Friday night services) What were my dad and his siblings like when they were kids? (A lot to handle.)…and so on. My Saba wants me to stop blogging and instead write a book about my Safta. In preparation for this task, I took notes while listening to their stories – and I plan to use them. Just wait.

So that’s been my summer. I also picked up my guitar again, re-connected with old friends, rode my bike, went to free Sunday morning yoga at LuluLemon, went for walks with my mom, and picked blueberries with my dad. I attended two weddings of college friends and stared open-mouthed at Facebook as more and more engagements appeared on my newsfeed. I wore skirts all summer (except when exercising) and I had two adventurous Shabbats in New York City. I told numerous people what I plan to do with my life (it changes every time) and I struggled to keep up with the praying and learning that so enriched my life only two short months ago. Although it’s faded in and out, Jerusalem has stayed in my heart. I am so incredibly ready to go back.


Pictures of my summer adventures…