Tag Archives: Helen Redman

A Woman Awash

My Matrilineal Mothers, My great, great grandmother celebrating her 100th birthday

This picture inspires me, every day. I look at the faces of these Eastern European Jewish women, these warrior women, who endured, or whose progeny endured pogroms, violence, poverty, plagues, the Shoah, and who knows what else. They not only endured it, some of them survived to pray and to make family, connections, friendships, partnerships and eventually me and my children. We are the seedlets from their wombs. I love their strong proud faces, their soft smiles and the looks of endurance, the crags carved into their faces. And, and…none of them are a size four! All of the women pictured here are zaftig, even the birthday girl/woman/crone. These were women of girth and ground. Women who stood their ground and who worked and lived hard. This is my lineage.

Perla Barchilon, age 19 perhaps, she was married to my grandfather Jaimé at the age of 16. He was 20. She had five sons, who lived, and was a painter in Morocco. She’s in my blood as well as my children’s.

I have this Sephardic lineage running through me from the line of my father and his family. That lineage is more exalted and wealthy, and this line comes with art and rich stories. I know more about the men in this lineage. But I knew my grandmother Perla bat Doña Aicha Bendavid v’ Don José Barchilon, zichrona l’vracha, and her artwork is all over my home. My grandfather Chaim or Jaimé Cohen ben Don Aaron Cohen v’ Dona Sol de Ohana, z”l was the patriarch of my life and in their Moroccan home I learned to cook, to appreciate rich colors, smells and the life of warmth and passion that Morocco is. That lineage flows through my blood and I consider myself more Moroccan than any other nationality. My father’s grandfather was the head Rabbi of Tangier.

The Eastern corner/wall of my sanctuary/cave/meditation room, with a painting by Perla bat Aicha, z’l, of a Morrocan street.

Somehow, I’m here/Hi Ney Ni. I hope I make it to 100 and have grandchildren or great grandchildren standing behind me and a giant cake full of candles, like the matriarch above. I’ll be very ready to go at that point, but my death date or pull date, as I like to call it, is in the hands of the Divine. While I’m here on this earth, there’s lots and lots to do. There is also so much information, data, waves of images and messages, emails, texts and Instagram posts, tweets, alerts, podcasts, zoom chats, protests to attend, meals to cook, medicines to make and folks to help die and folks to help heal and…..it goes on.

As Rabbi Tarfon z”l who lived and died in the first century B.C.E. says:

You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it; if you have learned much Torah, great shall be your reward, for He who hires you will surely repay you for your toil; yet the requital of the pious is in the future.

from Pirkei Avot a text written down based on oral teachings in the first century B.C.E.

So, I’m not obligated to finish this work, but I am not free to desist from it either. This is not just my mantra, it is the mantra of most of the hardworking, justice seeking, world healing folks I love and connect with. The English translation here is not reflective of the feeling that the Hebrew has or the poetry of the teaching.

The future quoted here is Olam Ha Ba in Hebrew. This translates more closely as The World to Come, which could be tomorrow or in a thousand years. It’s in the hands of the Creator or you, what the World to Come is, it’s a verb form, a world that is coming, it’s not yet here, but it’s on the way. If you are able you can feel it, or sense it. The veil between this world/Olam Ha Zeh and Olam Ha Ba is very thin for some of us.

I long for Olam Ha Ba, sometimes with such an ache in my being that the tears and sobs flow out of me for hours. There’s just too much damn suffering, ugliness, meanness and stupidity down here on this planet for me to bear sometimes. And yet, bear it I must. I cannot bear it though, if I watch the news or listen to the news or imbibe the news in any form currently available.

I’m afraid I’m going to be burned at the stake for admitting that I do not participate in the news cycle. I don’t own a television, I don’t stream CNN live or watch the Trevor Noah Show or listen to NPR or Rachel Maddow or NBC, CBS, BBC, etc… you get my point. I get plenty of news from all of the people in my life who share tidbits with me. I generally know about something big within hours of it happening. Sometimes a day will go by before whatever “news” crisis, on the planet folks are spinning about, circles around and reaches me. I do not let the currents of world events, as reported on by others, who often wish for me to be hooked by their versions of the story, dictate my direction or life.

That being said, there is a trusted source of information that I am completely involved in. That makom/source is my cellular core knowing. This knowing will literally take me down to the ground when there are mass deaths or huge traumas on the planet. I have an internal weather vane that is tuned to certain frequencies. In the last two years, I’ve gone to ground in a huge way, before the news informed the world of these horrors. When Covid hit this world in a big way, I was already in a cave of my own making. I curled up in a ball, like a fox or a bear and I hibernated. I do this when I need to replenish or when the waves of the world hit me like a tsunami.

I could barely get out of bed for months, not because I was physically sick, but because the pain of the thousands of people dying in fear and alone was a tidal wave for me. I’m very sensitive, not really the right word, to death, my internal channel is tuned to the other side. When there are mass events of death, I feel it, not because I’m watching the news coverage about it, because I don’t do that, but because I’m just wired that way. I was bone deep tired and unable to rise up. I was sheltering in place before that was actually called for.

So, I went to ground, curled up in my cave/bedroom. I emerged very infrequently to eat an apple or take a bath. My husband had to fend for himself mostly. He’s used to my weird and wild ways. He would lie down next to me and tell me he loved me and ask what he could do, if anything. Mostly, he just accepted me and loved me. He is an Agnostic and doesn’t believe in a Divine Creator and cannot comprehend 98% of what I tell him I am experiencing. Miraculously, he doesn’t need to understand me, or take me apart and make sense of me, to love me. He’s just wired that way, wired to love me and I’m wired to love him and it works, amazingly well.

My mensch and I, photo taken by my Beau-Pere Kenny’s very talented sister Ellen Weissberg Whyte.

When I touch my man or am held by him, all my cells align and take a kind of deep breath. It’s a truly profound experience for me and it still happens to this day, 33 years since we first kissed, I feel the current of wholeness course through my body. It makes my toes curl, my heart race. I am giddy and soothed all at the same time.

There’s nothing subtle or mild about me or how I feel, love, pray, and live. I’m a lot to handle and as the husband of a dear friend of mine once said about me. “Jeez, could you have some f—–g enthusiasm already!” Which I translated as the usual, you’re just TOO MUCH!

And, I am too much, for a lot of folks, which isn’t really important, because I’m used to that now and I’m in really good company…but back to my cave. I didn’t share the depth of what was going on for me with anyone besides my husband. A few folks were worried about me since they weren’t seeing my posts and I was generally absent from so many activities online and elsewhere. Even when I’m in my cave, I still take care of what has to be taken care of, what is mine to take care of, like my parents and my children. Or when someone’s son in my community was murdered and they needed support to get their son’s body washed and prepared for burial, according to Jewish tradition. They needed to witness and lovingly wrap their beloved in a shroud with prayers during Covid. Everybody worries about you and thinks you’re crazy for extending yourself and endangering yourself to make that happen. But, this is exactly the kind of thing that pulls me, like a magnet from underneath the covers or the depths of my sanctuary cave. The call to serve and to do what is mine, not someone else’s to do.

The other call that came in, when I was deep in the depths of the pain of the world, was when George Floyd, z”l, was murdered. It was like an electric shock to my system and I just jumped out of my bed and started cooking and making medicines and cleaning and doing everything I could, in what I like to call Full-On-Nicole fashion. Even though the pain was searing, the call to make kindness alive and to help folks feel heard and seen and loved during this time of trauma and exposition of the true nature of our society, was stronger than the need to be curled up feeling the anguish. For me, the call came in and it came in loud and strong and clear.

George Floyd , zichrono l’vracha, by Marjorie Feldman, framed by Howard Feldman

I didn’t see the death of this man on the news. I felt it in my bones. I am a woman awash with the world’s doings. Life on this planet, the life of this planet is not something I am separated from, none of us are. When there is harm or grace, we all feel it. Whether it is a slight blip in our heart-beat or it takes us down to the ground, or out to our studios, or into the streets, we are all part of the same story.

In my tradition we say a prayer called the Shema, we say it three times a day. It cannot be completely translated. It’s a call to being and a chant and a reminder. The prayer itself is just a few words, but it is followed by a few paragraphs of prayers reminding us that if we adhere to this teaching the rain will fall in its season and the cattle will be happy and all will align, but if we fail to heed this call and we worship idols (like the television, entertainment industry, sports games, the stock market or the Kardashians) the rain won’t fall in its season and there will be famine, plague and basically consequences to our NOT taking care of each other and the planet. This is not the Holy One cursing us, this is us cursing ourselves, causing the damage by not heeding the call of the Shema.

Listen, Hear, All you tribe of Israel, all you who wrestle with the Divine, the idea of the Divine, Hear this, all of you who struggle to make the world a place of decency and kindness, who stumble and fall down, who make mistakes, but get back up again, and again, listen you tribe of humans of all colors and religions and creeds and genders,


We are all One, the Divinity is All One, is all encompassing, is everywhere at all times, holding us, watching us, shepherding us, rooting for us, wailing for us and with us as we stumble and fumble about. The Creator is with us and is through us and is us.

This call to Listen, to Hear, which implies you are directing yourself towards something perhaps not always loud or obvious, something that requires your active attention; this is something that I cannot ignore. I’ve always been a being who feels the blood trickle down my leg when the person next to me falls down and the skin on their leg cracks open, I get this in my body, it’s not an idea in my head, it literally fills my head and body like a gong sounding through my whole being.

I am awash in the feelings of this world and often of the next world as well. Sometimes folks who’ve crossed over are looking for support or help, especially if they died suddenly or violently, or they just have something they need to communicate before they move on to their next bathing of light, where they can be awash in the Creator’s love for them. Sometimes folks here on this earth are in so much pain it leaps out of their bodies and finds its way to me.

So, crazy as this makes me look and sound to those of you in the world who cannot see the dead moving through the room, like a waft of steam rising from a tea cup, or who don’t recognize the connections between things as being all part of some giant and unwinding narrative we are players in, I am very much affirming, again and again, that I am a woman awash in all of this.

Why do I need to assert this? There are many reasons, but the strongest call right now has to do with wanting to witness for folks that you can be fully awake, aware, and open, and also closed, quiet and taking care of yourself. There is no one way to serve. Maybe you need to go to ground, take a sabbatical or a break or just crawl under the covers for a week or months. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are depressed or mentally ill. It might just mean you are a human feeling the throbbing heart of our times and needing to be with all of what that is. Or maybe you do better going to a rally or a protest or writing hundreds of postcards or keeping track of all the lies and stories on the screens so that you can be a witness to what is actually being said. As long as it doesn’t poison you and make you forget how to enjoy the buds on the trees or the way the Holy One paints the sky each night, or the smile of your beloved, or just that we’re all in this together, imbibe away.

We’re most of us in good, good, really good company. We all have work to do that is uniquely ours. I hope you find your way through and into the places you need to be in and that you notice when your engagement with the “news” takes you away from loving, living and giving.

The real news is this, we are here on this earth for an eye-blink, even if we live to be a hundred years old, and while we are here, we have a task to continue working on, the work of making the world a better reflection of the love, kindness, intelligence, justice, harmony and Oneness it was meant to be and it is becoming, even if we cannot see its emergence yet.

My Mother’s mother Isabelle, bat Minnie, zichronah livracha, May her Memory be for a Blessing, my mother Helen Redman and little baby me. The mothers’ blessings passing through me back to the original Mother of us All, a long line and an amazing legacy of women successfully giving birth and surviving to make it to this moment and this time. I’m so grateful to all those who have come before me. May I live up to my lineage.

Moon and Mussar Musings on the Megillah

The 5 Faces of Paul oil painting -1981 by Helen Redman
The 5 Faces of Paul oil painting -1981 by Helen Redman

Like a cat circling her spot before she can settle down, pawing and prodding the cushion or the carpet or the bed-spread, I also, have to create and circle my space before I can manage to write.

This has been difficult for me lately. I’ve just been posting recipes. Recipes are safe and easy and do not require too much from me that involves delving into emotional or personal territory. It is not lost on me that folks respond more to my recipes than to my musings. I have a loyal following of muse-niks (those who appreciate my musings), but there is a much larger following of recipe lovers. So, if you are a recipe lover, this post is not a recipe for some yummy dish. It is a sort of recipe/play on the themes of Purim. Full disclosure, I do not know how to make Hamentaschen and this post will not result in a good cookie!

Apricot Hamentaschen, NOT made by me. This is the only cookie you will be getting from me!
Apricot Hamentaschen, NOT made by me. This is the only cookie you will be getting from me!

Tonight is Purim, and the full Moon is hanging brightly in the sky, urging me to get a little moon-mad, and instead of reading or hearing the Megillah being read, I am sitting in my meditation room, listening to flute music amidst incense and candles. Instead of dressing up and being wild and with a bunch of people, I am sitting quiet and still and writing.

This is a VERY unusual state of affairs for me. I have an internal barometer connected to the Jewish cycles of holidays, fasts, new moons, and all the weekly Torah readings as well. It is physically difficult for me to be absent from any of the rituals connected to my path. When I actually got involved with Judaism actively, as a young woman in the 1980s, it was with a profound sense of coming home and finally understanding and being able to make sense of so many things about myself. My family has been Jewish forever, but the practice part of that skipped a generation or two. This is not unusual and it is often the case that one generation will be very religious, the next one won’t be and then the grandchildren or great-grandchildren will find their way back. Many of us seem to spin on a generational wheel of sorts.

Some folks wander around or linger in one spiritual tradition or another and pick and choose that which works for them and discard or lay down the rest. Others are devotees of only ONE way to walk and be on the planet and with Holiness. Most folks are somewhere on this continuum, and of course there are those who completely reject any kind of spiritual path or directionality. It is not one size fits all, it never has been and it never will be.

My size and shape and relationship to Holiness is WRIT LARGE, I am the Jumbo size, extra-large variety in all my expressions. This is a difficult path, because it is not, in any way, quiet, petite, small, cute, sexy or easily dismissed, overlooked or ignored. People know when I am coming and where I am. I am louder without a microphone than most folks are with one. Friends with sensitive ears sometimes cringe  when I speak. I am asked to speak more quietly in many circles. My animation and volume are VERY strong. This applies in all areas of my life. If I had to name one of my “super powers”, I’d say it is my voice. Sometimes it feels like it literally can travel around the globe.

As I move through the thin middle place in the hour-glass of my life, and also as a result of my continuous mussar work, I am shifting things about myself all the time. I am actively looking at my volume and working to moderate it. I am adjusting the sands of my personality, grain by grain. I examine and attend to what goes on around me and through me very carefully. In Alan Morinis‘ most recent Mussar book, With Heart in Mind, I read the following passage today:

“Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-46) in the Mussar classic Path of the Just gives us another take on the spiritual value of fear. One who fears heaven ought not to be concerned so much with punishment from God’s big stick but with offending against the supernal glory that infuses our world. This is not fear of breaking a rule and catching the consequences, but rather acting in an unseemly way that besmirches the most precious, pure, and holy divine majesty, which, if we are sensitive to it, permeates every fragment of the reality within which we live.” pg 40

So, for me, who is “sensitive to it,” there is an element of fear/concern in my every awake moment. It is an undercurrent, not a blaring horn. Am I reflecting the supernal glory and holiness I experience accurately? Am I modeling healthy and loving relationship to the planet and all her beings? Am I remembering to be grateful, to engage others gently and with chesed/kindness? Am I living in a way that honors the creation and the creator? Am I living for Olam Ha-Ba and behaving in accordance with the “precious, pure and holy divine majesty” or am I just sleep-walking through my life?

These questions are not really answerable. There will never be a complete or finished answer sheet with checked-off squares, √ kindness done, √ honoring done,√ gratitude done. These are forever and all the time questions for me and they are part of my life and very real for me. How does any of this relate to Purim, you might be wondering?

Well, Purim is about many, many things, most of which we will never be able to grasp in this world/Olam Ha-Zeh. One of the things that I love and relate to the most about Purim is the idea of dressing up, trying on, the costume of your enemy or your dark side. This holiday is ancient and it asks us to get so drunk that we can no longer tell the difference between good and evil, between the heroes and the villains, between right and wrong, up and down, male and female, Jew and Muslim, and all the other polarities on the spectrum. It’s the one time of year you will see Santa costumes in Orthodox neighborhoods. It’s really funny, very straight men dressing as women, super religiously devout folks dressing up as clowns and Christian icons. It’s a weird wonderland of a holiday.

Nicole, not really in costume, revealing her third eye.
Nicole, not really in costume, revealing her third eye.

While we are simultaneously supposed to be getting really drunk, we are also meticulously supposed to be listening to every syllable of the Megillah (scroll of Ester), and it has to be read over if we miss a line or say one word wrong, from the beginning. “A megillah is a finely detailed account or book but the term by itself commonly refers to the Book of Esther.” ~Wikipedia emphasis mine!

So, Purim is a study in contrasts, extreme detailed focus on the script, and wild abandon of self and self-constraints. For those who have alcoholic tendencies, or who come from families with alcoholism, this can be a treacherous holiday. Many people imbibe and it can be difficult to be around. Folks get loud and strange, it’s truly not your usual religious service. You don’t have to drink to get expansive or loosen your boundaries, but this is one of the times in the Jewish religion where some kind of personality, boundary-crossing, mind altering substance is called for.

We are so very attached to our ideas of right and wrong, of good and evil, male and female, Jew and everyone else, black and white, trim and fit or large (and by society’s definition unhealthy just because of our size). Purim is the one Holiday that will still be celebrated once the Messiah comes. I will address the various and multiple views on Messianic consciousness in Judaism in the future. I mention it here only to underline my point.

This strange holiday, based on an ancient scroll telling a terrible story, with ugly and horrible things going on it, as well as miraculous and wonderful things; this model of alternative narratives and confusing roles is something that is so fundamental to the nature of this universe, that it will actually still have a place in Olam Ha-Ba.

What does that mean? For me, it means that I am never going to “get it.” I will never be able to wrap my head around anything and say, “I’ve figured it all out, I know the answer.” It means, I should expect to be surprised and confused and not think that Ha-Shem has a plan, like we do.

While talking with my dear friend and Rabbi, Naomi Steinberg, we were discussing our extreme frustration with the concept of “God’s Plan.” This idea is so human-centric. Naomi was expounding on the ridiculousness of thinking about the Divine having some kind of day-planner with notes about what was supposed to happen to someone on Tuesday at noon.

We use and need plans as humans, because the world is a majorly intense and confusing place to navigate. If I don’t have a plan, I might miss my appointment with the dentist or the job interview or the meeting with the principal or whatever??? I am a big planner, I am not demeaning plans, planners or planning (see my Organizing Optimally post for a real list of how to plans).

There is a huge difference though between my attempts to navigate and organize my life or events and how the Creator engages with the Universe.

Planning cannot be applied to the Divine, or to the Divine in each of us. That Holy spark reveals itself to everyone differently and in its own way and across space and time. I may think you look like a woman, but you may feel like a man. I may think you are someone to feel sorry for, because you are in a wheel-chair or blind but you may be wiser and healthier, in a deep way, than I could ever know.

None of us knows what is inside of others. Regardless, we have to try to make contact and reach across whatever divides us. We need to reach across the bridges of our differences and listen, listen carefully to EVERY word of each others’ scrolls. “Wait, I missed that part where you said you felt different, can you go back and repeat that again, so I really understand?”

Coup d'Oeil Marocain, 1971, pen, ink, collage on paper with (handpainted mat), 22"x16"
Coup d’Oeil Marocain, 1971, pen, ink, collage on paper with (handpainted mat), 22″x16″ by Helen Redman

We also have to play with who we are and be willing to actually be THE OTHER, to wear the skins of those we cannot imagine being, or to take a risk and wear the shape that is true to who we are inside, even when it doesn’t match who we are on the outside. It’s a crazy, wild ride. I only drank some mellow herbal tea tonight, but somehow I was able to expand without any mind-altering substances. I hope your mind and heart are a little more expansive as a result of these Moon-rich Megillah musings of mine. On the 15th of Adar, 5775, Shushan Purim, it was written and, at least, for now this marks the end of the Nicole-Zone Purimschpiel/Megillah. Amen!