I hate Halloween… omg did I say that out loud?

I’ve been dreading today. Like one dreads a visit to the dentist. You know what’s coming – a lydocaine shot in your gum, that awful drilling sound into your tooth, lying with your mouth open, getting a cramp in your jaw and needing to swallow. It’s bearable, but definitely not enjoyable. You do not look forward to the appointment. That’s how I feel about Halloween.

We didn’t celebrate Halloween in South Africa when I was growing up. It was something I knew about only from watching The Cosby Show and Three’s Company. It looked like a lot of fun, I will admit – dressing up, trick-or-treating with friends, candy, spooky smoke, hilarious mishaps. Fun but completely foreign. American. Definitely not Jewish. Something I would never have the opportunity to participate in. And yet here I am, three decades later, living the Halloween dream.

It starts on October 1 in my house. “What should I be for Halloween, Mom?” For someone who really prefers spontaneous to planned out, this is like hearing the whine of that drill on my tooth enamel.

“Can we talk about costumes closer to the time? Why don’t you think about it in the meantime, and we can discuss in a few weeks.” And please, please don’t ask me again until then, I silently pray.

But they do. They ask me every few days. They come up with all sorts of ideas that involve me going to Target, or to that Spirit Halloween store that suddenly pops on every corner as soon as school starts in August. Catalogs arrive with glossy photos of elaborate knights and fairies, Skylanders and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They beg for costumes that cost over fifty dollars, and when they realize that is definitely not happening, they start looking on Amazon for the versions that are sixteen dollars.

We have bins full of costumes – in all sizes and for all genders. We’ve been celebrating Halloween for almost a decade with two, three and finally four kids. I announce that I am not buying anybody a costume this year – find a costume from what we have, or make one I declare. I feel quite proud of myself actually. I am encouraging them to be resourceful and creative! They’re a little disappointed, but they realize I’m serious.

I loved it the first few years – when there were two kids to dress up, and we could go trick-or-treating early in the evening because they had to be in bed by 7pm. When they were too young to know about carving pumpkins. We would ooh and aah at our neighbors’ amazing jack o’lanterns, and scary Halloween decorations. We would collect a little bit of candy, but the oldest didn’t like candy, and the youngest was too young to eat it. It was low-maintenance, easy, something we watched more than did.

But ten years and an additional two kids later, it’s a full-blown, all-consuming, month-long planned operation. And I have to execute it all. The costumes are just the start. “When are you going to buy candy, Mom?” This was two weeks ago. Again, too far away to think about. “When are we going to the pumpkin patch, Mom?” Umm, I can’t even figure out today’s schedule, so how about let’s not?

The emails from school and after-school are relentless. “Your child may dress up for school on Halloween.” Read: your child must be in costume on Halloween, or else he/she will be the only child not in costume. Can’t have that.

“Your child may attend ballet in her costume.” Really? Revision: “Actually, we’re not having ballet the day of Halloween.” Really?

“Your child can wear his costume to the soccer game on Sunday.”  What?? Who can play soccer dressed as Rafael the Ninja Turtle?

“Please parents, come to the Halloween party our class is having” – as if they’re not going to eat enough sugar today – “and stay for the hour-long parade around school” (reschedule the vet appointment, and definitely that dentist appointment, and anything else you may have had planned for today), “and don’t forget, all today’s after-school activities and homework clubs are canceled.” It’s Halloween!

Okaaay, I decided yesterday – something’s gotta give. It may as well be me. Orange is actually my favorite color. And I adore pumpkins – they’re quirky, and lovely to look at and to touch. My husband carved them with the kids while I was out of town. At the next request for candy, I climbed up on a chair and found two huge bags in the pantry – yes, they’re from last year. Listen, candy is candy and the nagging stopped. (But I do understand if you don’t want your kids to come trick-or-treating at my house). My hopes of staying home and sitting on the porch handing out my stale candy were dashed, when every one of my kids looked at me with wide eyes and asked if I was also going trick-or-treating this evening. Yes of course, I replied, we’re all going.

My little girl improvised from top to toe, and went from being a vampire to a biker and back to a vampire. One son used the other son’s costume from last year and is a banana – he really didn’t want to be a banana but he made it work with good cheer and excitement. The school parade was adorable – every child had an incredible costume and a huge smile! There was even a fifth grade flash mob to Michael Jackson’s Thriller.


This morning, my daughter announced that she couldn’t sleep last night.

“Why couldn’t you sleep, Sage?”

“I was just so excited, Mommy. I can never sleep when I’m excited about something.”

The sun is shining, clear sky, California Fall at its best (it always rains the day after Halloween in the Bay Area) – and who doesn’t love orange velvet cupcakes decorated with black frosted spiderwebs? Let’s just be excited!

Innovation? Nah… Tradition

Split families are all the rage in Jewish Bay Area, California. It’s rare to meet anyone who is “born and bred” San Francisco/Oakland. Most of our friends grew up somewhere else in the United States: Cherry Hill, Los Angeles, Baltimore. We’re the token South Africans, but we feel at home because we’re all transplants. The Golden State tempted us all west with the lure of exciting opportunity, entrepreneurship and innovation. The white sailboats decorating the blue of the beautiful Bay, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the enticing hilly streets of San Francisco are an exquisite added bonus for those of us who have chosen to make our home here – even with the swirling fog that forces us to wear fleece hoodies and Patagonia jackets in June and July.

But maintaining communiy without family is challenging for breakaway entrepreneurs. Extended generational families bring history, stability and tradition to Jewish life. Grandma makes challah every Shabbat, this uncle’s homemade chopped liver is at every holiday meal, the cousins always do a play on Channukah.

Growing up, my family would have Shabbat every week with my grandparents, aunts and uncles. Every week. For the first 24 years of my life, that’s where I would be on a Friday night. The location would rotate between my grandmother, mother and aunt. Sometimes friends would join, but the core remained the same – Family. My father would sing the Kiddush in his distinct gravelly voice, the melody as cozy to me as my favorite sweatshirt. Nobody else ever said Kiddush. My brother and cousin would say Hamotzi – sometimes engaging in an irreverent competition to either be in sync or see who could finish first. We would look forward to a different desert at my aunt’s house (marshmallow pudding or youngberry tart), or to my grandmother’s minestrone soup (we never had minestrone soup at home: my mother – ambassador of raw, firm vegetables – hates tomatoes stewed, souped or sauced).

We loved being together – talking, laughing, gossiping, arguing. It got better as I got older and could actively participate in conversation – when I went away to college that family Shabbat tradition of familiar togetherness was something I craved and longed for. And then I abandoned it completely when I moved to San Francisco, joining the many other transient Bay Area Jews who left their families and traditions behind.

We’ve become each other’s families in our community across the Bay – we spend Shabbat and holidays together, we shlep each other’s kids, picking up essentials for this one at the butcher and that one at Costco. And we are the innovators of new traditions.

My family has recreated the Shabbat from my life in South Africa – some weeks it’s just the six of us, but most often we have parts of our Bay Area Family over. And we always use our Kiddush Fountain. Made from plated silver, with intricate patterns of vines and grapes, it’s beautiful to look at. The Kiddush cup stands on an elevated piece in the center of a tray, and eight little cups form a perfect circle around it – a tight ring of tiny mouths waiting to swallow the blessed grape juice that is poured through. The best part is that you can see the eight little rivers of grape juice flowing through the silver riverbeds and into the waiting cups. It’s Shabbat entertainment. We feel a tiny thrill of pleasure as the rivers flow, and the guests murmur “oooh.”

In this new iteration of Shabbat tradition, my oldest son says the Kiddush. He doesn’t sing it like my father does, but he has his own unassuming rhythm that has made it as comfortingly familiar as my dad’s. He pours the grape juice into the Kiddush Fountain, making sure the cups are perfectly aligned under each riverbed, or else the dark purple juice will miss the cup and pool onto the tray.


The Fountain is made in Israel but doesn’t come to us from there. It’s from the Judaica store at the Jewish senior home in Pretoria, South Africa, and my parents gave it to us on one of their many visits to California – they always feel they need to bring more than themselves.

Because my biological family is scattered over the Earth – parents, brother and in-laws in South Africa, brothers-in-law in Miami and London – when the grandparents or uncles come to visit, it’s an event! It’s not for three days, or just for Rosh Hashana, or the last days of Sukkot. It’s to make up for all the time since we had Shabbat together a year ago, the last time my mother made her chicken soup and we heard my father sing the Kiddush. In addition to the Jelly Babies and Woolies pajamas, gifts include challah covers, handpainted matza boxes, the perfect white Shabbat tablecloth.

Of course, we use all of it every Shabbat and holiday – that’s why they shlep it. We think of them, and we miss them, and we wish we were celebrating all together with our historic traditions. And sometimes they are with us on Rosh Hashana or Pesach, and they see how seamlessly their gifts of Judaica have been incorporated into our lives and are part of our creative new traditions.

Shabbat in the East Bay two weeks ago was a family fiesta – three families plus ours. Nine adults, and millions of kids of all ages. It was loud and festive, there were tacos and chicken soup, beer and guacamole, lemonade spilled on the carpet, and we finished a gigantic bottle of gin. We didn’t know it at the time, but we lost one of the tiny cups from the Kiddush Fountain. I’m pretty sure it was inadvertently thrown into the recycling.

No more fountain from the Fountain. No more flowing rivers. If we pour the grape juice through it now, one river will pool onto the tray in an unsightly, dismal purple puddle. So this past Shabbat, Daniel individually poured the Kiddush juice into each tiny cup… he doesn’t have the steadiest hand. There were no rivers and no “ooohs.”

Yet, we had a wonderful dinner. Instead of chicken soup and tacos we had brisket and kale salad. It would be easy to let our traditional sentimentality puddle in a stagnant pool of frustration over the dysfunctional Kiddush Fountain. But I prefer to harness the opportunity – we will find another way to use it. Daniel’s hand will get steadier as he gets older, his brothers will start to say Kiddush. Maybe we’ll find a replacement eighth cup on eBay or even in the shuk in Jerusalem. It’s possible we’ll lose even more cups, and at some point the tightly-knit ring of waiting mouths will be completely mismatched. Opportunity, innovation… tradition.

Aunts are always awesome

She doesn’t know it yet… I’m going to be her first confidante, her strongest ally, her biggest fan, and the one who takes her to cool rock concerts! When her mom is bugging her, she’ll vent to me. When her dad won’t let her go out with a boy, I’m the one she’ll send the “wtf” text to. I’ll take her shopping and out for lunch, and she’ll drink her first beer with moi.

But for now, she’s two. She lets me pick her up only when her mommy is not around. Which is hardly ever – first-time moms with only one kid don’t let the kid stray too far for too long! When we’re together, she only has eyes for my daughter, and sometimes for my sons. She wants to play with her cousins and chase the dog and draw pictures. And she prefers her Granny to me. For now.

G-d knows I’m not a toddler-whisperer anymore! Having had four of my own, I don’t really ‘do’ two- and three-year-olds these days. I will hold and snuggle a newborn baby (that smells good and has just been burped) for at least an hour – okay 45 minutes – with all the love and patience in the world! Or I’ll gossip about school and friends and irritating brothers with second grade girls at the kitchen table all afternoon.

But two-year-olds… not so much – even if they are related by blood, and have a cute fountain ponytail on the top of their heads. They have no attention span, they throw tantrums, they make a mess, they don’t kiss you when they’re supposed to, and worst of all they need snacks in little tupperwares – I loathe little tupperwares: the lids always go missing and they take up unnecessary room in the fridge.

My sister is an amazing aunt to all ages. She engages her nephews and niece in activities, conversation, fun no matter what. She bakes them cakes on their birthdays, and has instilled a love of art in at least two of them that they never would’ve received otherwise. I’m a reader, not a drawer. They do all love to read. My own aunts are pretty awesome too – one cooks all my favorite dishes whenever I come over, and she and I will share a love of the written word forever.

My mother’s sister is eight years younger than my mom, so she was cool before she even knew she was cool. Actually, she always knew she was cool. She took us shopping for writing paper in an off-beat store in Johannesburg just before the writing paper craze hit third grade. So cool. She showed us how to put on eyeliner – a skill she learnt from watching her sister, our mother, but it was way better when she did it. Friday nights were much more fun when she came over for Shabbat. She listened to me worry about my friends, delighted in my talk about crushes, nursed my broken 16-year-old heart. And she’s still cool. She’s like a mom, but she’s not my mom. She’s my friend-mom. My mom-friend.

Most days I feel like a shitty mom for one reason or another – too impatient, no milk in the fridge, signed the homework without really looking at it – but I’m not a shitty aunt. Oh, I know I’m not super-engaged with my niece right now but she always wants to go to “Nicki’s house.” She can already feel the lure, the promise of fun, the intoxicating appeal of rules bent for a little while. That’s my siren-call. And my rocks are padded. It’s enticing, but still safe.

I don’t have to tell her she can’t have ice cream before dinner. I’m not the one to drag her away from the TV. I don’t care if it’s her nap time now, so we can’t go to the park. We’re going! I have my own kids to create those boundaries for. She is my happy, jump-on-the-bed, no-rules-for-now kid. She’s mine, but she’s not mine.


I don’t have the attention span right now to chase after a two-year-old, but when she throws her little arms around my neck for the briefest of hugs I feel the promise of the years to come. “Nicki,” she says, with a little smile on her lips. She’s precious in her not-mineness – she trusts me completely, knows I’m not her mommy but I sound like her mom, and for a moment she buries her face in my neck. I feel like hers, and she feels like mine.

I lift her up with her belly on my legs, and she holds her arms out for just a few seconds before grabbing my hands again… the two of us engaged in a perfect balancing act of laughter and boundless flight.

Kiteboarders do come back

It’s complicated. I never doubted I would one day live in Israel again. I believed so strongly that I would raise my kids in that vital country. We would have Shabbat barbecues on the beach on Friday evenings, and make family tiyulim to rich and interesting locales – places laden with Jewish culture and history and connection and meaning. We would celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel’s Day of Independence – with the entire country, and feel that we would burst with pride at the perseverance and success of the small but mighty nation. Every holiday would be infused with meaning and festivity, not because we were doing anything extra-special to celebrate, simply because we were living in the Land of Milk and Honey… My children, and I, would feel Jewish because of the very earth we stood on every day, and we would understand what that meant and never take it for granted.

But… it’s complicated.

Friday nights we celebrate Shabbat in our dining room in Piedmont, California. My daughter and I light the candles, and my oldest son says the Kiddush. His brother makes the blessing on the wine, and then all four kids hastily chirp a cacophony of out-of-sync blessings on the challah. We have brisket or crock-pot chicken, rice and salad, and it’s very traditional and enjoyable – a lovely cohesive way for a big family to end a busy week of work, school and shlepping. In the spring and summer months, we often have Shabbat dinner on the deck, watching pink, yellow-gray and fire orange streaks paint the inky-blue sky as the sun sinks into the San Francisco Bay.

It’s not a barbecue on the beach in Herzliya.

Weekends are fun – most often we go to services on Saturday mornings, reinforcing our commitment to our religion. The kids have soccer games, or birthday parties – which have been on the calendar for at least a month or more – and sometimes we have a Family Fun Day in San Francisco, or at Stinson Beach. We are not lacking for a rich and varied life! We live in a breathtakingly beautiful place, surrounded by water and expansive bridges and green rolling hills. Daily shlepping presents exquisite views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the fog from the Pacific hanging over Twin Peaks.

But always I am searching for meaning. In the times I spend with my kids, during precious nights out with my girlfriends, or a special dinner in San Francisco with my husband. “Am I happy?” I ask myself. How would I even know happiness? It’s something you recognize retrospectively, I know. I imagine that true happiness is not accompanied by a consistent feeling of emptiness, no matter how charmed and glamorous ones life may appear to be.

I was 13 years old when my family made Aliyah from South Africa. It was a heady time for me! I took flight in Israel – where from as young as five, children could live a life of relative freedom and independence, parents safe in the knowledge that their kids would not fail to return home at the end of a day of school and friends. I would ride the bus to the beach with my friends, or go to Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv with my sister. We would do the grocery shopping for my mom, and pick up my baby brother from preschool. By stark contrast, South Africa in 1988 was not a place where a teenage girl could experience any kind of independence – it was hardly safe for us to walk around the block, much less to school. By dinnertime we’d spent more of the day in the car than anywhere else.

Along with the addictive, intoxicating freedom I was high on that year in Israel was also a deep, fulfilling connection to everything around me: the air, the earth, the people, the language. I could never have articulated it at the age of 13, but I felt it. Life was spontaneous. Social plans were never made a month in advance! My parents and their friends would decide that morning to get together for an evening on the beach. My friends invited me to their birthday parties two days before. We were too busy living today to make plans for tomorrow, or next week.

When my parents decided to return to South Africa, I vowed I would go back to Israel for the army – which was what all Israeli high school graduates did. As much a rite of passage as essential to the protection of the country.

Of course, it’s complicated. I didn’t go back. I went to university in South Africa, I met a wonderful guy, and carried on with my life as a Jewish South African – still clinging to the belief that one day I would go back. I would make Aliyah again.

One weekend afternoon, my boyfriend and I were having a conversation about our future. “When we live in Israel,” I started to say, but didn’t get to finish the sentence. “Israel?” he laughed. “What will I do in Israel? Pick oranges on a kibbutz?” I didn’t see what was so outlandish about that, but to an almost Law graduate I guess it’s a pretty preposterous option!

Now there was doubt. In the glorious image I had of us happily picking oranges on a kibbutz – I didn’t even want to live on a kibbutz! – was the realization that it wasn’t about when I returned to Israel, but if.

My love for him outweighed my love for Israel.

We have visited a few times together, and each time I am physically overwhelmed by how much I belong in that country. Of course, it is idealized when it’s a vacation. When you’re staring at the Mediterranean watching the sun sink into the water from the terrace of a four star hotel, would you want to be anywhere else? I understand that is not real life. But I can never shake the inherent sense that I am my best and most complete self in Israel. Fulfilled. Happy. Present in my happiness.

My husband loves Israel too. He loves the beach, and Jerusalem, and the pulse of Tel Aviv. He loves the food, and the markets and speaking Hebrew. He feels connected to it religiously and culturally. But he doesn’t want to live there. That is my dream.


I have to let it go. As I fly west towards California, feeling Israel painfully shrink behind me, I am acutely aware that this is my reality. I have to live in it, be present in it, and somehow sustain that spirit of happiness and fulfillment I feel as soon as I breathe in the Israeli air. As I move closer towards the great Pacific I now call home, I leave my dream for now to float above my beloved Mediterranean with the kiteboarders that mesmerized me on Herzliya beach. They catch the wind every afternoon, and glide towards the sun as it inches into the clear blue water. Full of hope, and color, and life. L’hitraot.