About wallcough

Trying to find beauty and joy in the world around me . I am many things, among them a quilter, a knitter, and an incessant reader. There is not enough time for them all, so I jump in between them as the mood hits me. Professionally - a rabbi; a hospice chaplain.

The Healing Power of Art

By Rabbi Julie Wolkoff. D.Min., CT

The day before Bob died, I was taking a quilt class. I was making one of the teacher’s patterns – I wanted to learn the technique and I wasn’t really interested in creating my own design. I came home with a small, almost finished piece. I had just the smallest bit of the binding still to stitch. But when I got home, Bob wasn’t feeling well and wanted me to take him to the ER. He looked at the quilt – a chair on the beach and asked, “Is that St. Martin?” One of the very last things he said to me, looking at the quilt, was “That’s cute.” It was his often said, positive response to my art projects.

My sewing machine and supplies sat in my car for another two weeks. Then they sat, untouched, in my house. My colored pencils and sketchbooks remained in their tote bag as I missed the last session in a class I was taking on drawing flowers. In the face of loss, I could barely contemplate getting through the day. There was no way I could do anything even remotely artistic. It was almost a month after Bob died when I started taking pictures again. I didn’t even use the digital Nikon he had bought me (us) a year earlier. I took my phone and tried, each day, to find something beautiful or meaningful to me. I had no words to share, but I could share images that reflected some of my emotions. Though the summer, I attended a bereavement support group and I took pictures. I had a structured journal and I was writing – raw words, words I haven’t looked back at, words that poured out my feelings – but it was in looking for beauty every day that I saw the good during my bad days.

Then after two months, I picked up my knitting. I didn’t have to think. There were patterns to follow. Muscle memory led me through and the meditative qualities of the work helped calm my raging mind. I figured out that patterns and prompts helped me. Rather than looking at a blank sheet of paper, they gave me a place to start. The result might reflect grief, or joy, or healing, or confusion, but there was a result. My goal was to not over-think, but to react and respond.


“Passing Through” Mandala

I explored self-discovery through mandalas. I didn’t do every prompt, but the ones I did do helped me. I used the mandala format to finish a sketchbook from The Sketchbook Project that I had bought last year and had planned to do last summer. I took a month-long on-line writing workshop. The daily prompts were not always interesting to me, but I wrote. Several times during the month, I responded to the prompt, then turned it around and wrote the opposite. Some of what I wrote ended up in a “Fiction Project” book and was sent off to the Brooklyn Art Library, a wonderful crowd-sourced library of sketchbooks, fiction, prints, photos, and other art. (You can find me on their site as “RavJulie.”)

Finally, I went back to my sewing machine. I had baby quilts that needed making. In addition, I had gone to the first meeting of my quilt guild last fall and signed up to take workshops. I didn’t even have my checkbook that night, but one of my friends had hers and she had one check left. She wrote the check so I could sign up.

A few weeks ago I was at one of the workshops. It was taught by Valerie Goodwin – an amazing quilter and teacher. (If you only click on one link in this posting, click on hers!) Her quilts combine art, maps, and architecture. The class was on”Haiku Quilts.” We each wrote a haiku (or several) that related to a place. We shared them with each other and then did small sketches based on a haiku. Finally, we each made a small quilt of our haiku as Valerie taught us her techniques.

I had been focused on ordering Bob’s grave marker and yahrzeit plaque, so perhaps it was no surprise that my first haiku reflected that. I wrote (and sketched) some others, but everyone in the class felt the first was the most powerful. It was challenging. It was cathartic.


cemetery paths
markers row by row – family
together again

It was, I think, the first in a series.

More than that, it was another reminder for me that art heals. Whether writing, painting, sketching, taking photographs, creating collages, knitting, quilting, or doing any number of other creative pursuits, art has been a source of healing for me and for many others. 



Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min., CT, is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and a past co-president of the WRN. Find her blogging at: http://fabricfiber.wordpress.com/










What Not to Say at Shiva (and What to Do and Say Instead)

By Rabbi Julie Wolkoff. D.Min., CT

At some point during shiva, I turned to my friend Steffi and made an off-hand comment – something like “mutter, mutter, mutter, class on what not to say at shiva.” Which is how I found myself giving a presentation a few days ago at LimmudBoston. To be perfectly fair, there were very few comments at shiva that landed on the “I can’t believe s/he said that” list. It was more the discomfort of those who didn’t know what to say, friends who later shared with me some of the comments that their families had gotten in the past during shiva, and some comments I got in the weeks after Bob’s death.

You can look on-line for things to say or not to say to people who are grieving. Most of the lists are very good. It’s important to remember that it’s not your job to “fix” things; nothing you say will “fix” things for mourners. The best words to say are those that recognize the person’s loss and recognize the person’s feelings. For example:

  • “I’m so sorry.”  “I am sorry for your loss.”  “I was so sorry to hear that X died.”
  • “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I care about you” or “. . . that I am here for you.”
  • “I can’t imagine how you are feeling (or – “I don’t know how you are feeling,”) but I am here for you.”
  • “I love you.”
  • “I will always remember the time when . . .” (share a memory or story)
  • Silence and a hug (or clasping their hands in yours.)

 When someone has died after a long illness, the family’s immediate memories are of the illness and the person’s decline. It can be hard in that moment to remember the person before the illness. One of the best things you can do in that case is to share a story about the person. If you didn’t know the person and you’re there because you know the family, look and see if there are old photographs and ask a question about them. One of my favorite questions for the spouses of my hospice patients is: “How did you meet?” I hear wonderful stories and the spouse has the chance to remember and share cherished memories. This type of question allows children and grandchildren to hear stories they may have never heard. It also gives friends and family who were present in the early days of a relationship a chance to share their perspective on how the relationship developed.

When a death is sudden, it is common for people to ask: “what happened?” Some people want and need to talk about it; they need to tell the story to understand what happened and make meaning of it. Others in the family may not be able to endure telling or hearing the story. It’s also possible that the mourner has just told their story before you arrived or has told it enough times today. “Would you like to talk about what happened?” is a better way to phrase the question. It gives the mourners the power to say “yes” or “no” – a great gift at a time when they may feel completely powerless.

In the what not to say category are:

  • “At least he didn’t suffer . . .” (How do you know?)
  • “She lived a long life.” (Not nearly long enough. Or maybe too long.)
  • “You’re so strong.” (Mourners may be in shock, they may be ‘sleepwalking’ through their grief. This is akin to “Don’t cry.” It denies the need to cry, scream, moan, and confront grief.)
  • “I know just how you feel.” (No. You don’t.)
  • “You’ll meet someone else.” “You can have another child.” (Really?)
  • “Time heals all wounds.” or “Time brings healing.” (The best thing I ever learned about grief was from Carla Sofka, Professor of Social Work at Siena College: “We grieve, five or ten minutes a time, for the rest of our lives.”)

 What can you do to help someone before, during or after shiva? Here are some of my categories of helpful actions.

  • Toilet paper & garbage bags – If you are helping organize shiva, check and see if there are enough basic supplies. This also includes paper plates, cups, and silverware. As much as we may want to be environmentally friendly, it is difficult to compost or recycle as hordes of people are coming in and out of the house. You can also be sensitive to where the garbage goes. My town does not have garbage pick-up. I was very grateful when my neighbor asked if I needed her to take my garbage to the dump and when my son-in-law arrived to specifically do a dump run. For people who live in places where they are limited to how much garbage they can put out each week, a really helpful action is to take a garbage bag home with you.
  • Offer specific help:
    • Clean out the fridge
    • Stay at the shiva home during the funeral / burial
    • Arrange for food for shiva / bring dinner to the family on the day(s) before the funeral
    • If you are comfortable doing so, let the family know you can lead the shiva minyan.

Be sensitive and understanding if your offers are refused. I had two people offer to mow my lawn before shiva. Even the most irrational person (and I was not always rational in my grief) would have recognized that my lawn was badly in need of mowing. However Bob always said that, left to his own devices, he would let the lawn go wild and in that moment I thought the lawn looked just like I felt. I thanked each of them and said “no.”

  • Food – If you are bringing food to a shiva minyan, be sensitive to the many dietary issues that may be involved. Does the family keep kosher? Are they vegetarian? Gluten free? It is good to bring things that won’t spoil if they are not put out right away. Shiva is not the best time for preservative free food; now is the time for the coffee cake with the two-month shelf life. Bring or send cut up fruit rather than a fruit basket. Few people know how to cut and serve a pineapple, and no one wants to take the one apple or banana. If you’re out of town, there are companies that ship food or you can contact a local specialty shop (for example, a cheese shop) and arrange to send something. While at the shiva house, ask if you can make up a plate for the mourners. They may forget to eat, but will do so if a plate is in front of them.

After shiva, help the family donate the leftover food. When I was a congregational rabbi, we had a relationship with a day shelter / soup kitchen a few blocks away from us. They were always thrilled with fresh fruit, sandwiches, casseroles, and anything that could add to the lunches and snacks they supplied every day. A food pantry might accept unopened food (like those coffee cakes.) If you can’t find a shelter or soup kitchen or it’s a holiday or weekend and they’re not open, call the local fire station. The fire station in my town was more than happy to take the leftover food from shiva when my friend Steffi called them.

Other things you can do at or after shiva:

  • Talk about the person who died. Mourners don’t want their loved one to be forgotten. It doesn’t hurt us to hear the name and it’s fine if we cry as you talk to us or tell a story.
  • Send a condolence card / letter. (Using the deceased’s name is best; if you don’t know the name then “your husband,” “your mother,” is better than getting the name wrong!)
  • If you have photographs & can get copies made – bring them and give them to the family. You can also email them or share them through a site like “Dropbox.”
  • Make a tzedakah contribution in memory of the person who died.
  • Open your calendar to some arbitrary day in the next 2 – 3 months and make a note to call the family.

It’s not easy to make a shiva call. It reminds us of our own mortality or our own losses or our fear of loss. We worry about saying or doing the “right thing.” But there are many “right things” we can do; the lists above are just a start. A simple “I’m so sorry” can be words enough. Our presence – sitting silently, giving a hug, making a phone call a few weeks or months later – says to the mourner that we are here, supporting them in their grief and offering comfort. Shiva visits also help to build and maintain the community that will one day be there for us as we face our own losses.


Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min., CT, is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and a past co-president of the WRN. Find her blogging at: http://fabricfiber.wordpress.com/



(Some of) What I Now Know About Grief and Loss

By Rabbi Julie Wolkoff. D.Min., CT


I thought I knew about grief. I’m a hospice chaplain and have been one for 6 years. I teach in-service programs on grief and grieving. I counsel people and follow them for bereavement support after a loss. I’ve led support groups and developed resource lists for mourners. I won’t recommend a book I haven’t read, so my bookshelves contain over 60 books on loss, grief, and bereavement.

In the past five months, following the death of my husband, I have come to realize that while I know a lot about grief and loss, there was just as much that I didn’t know. Here is some of what I have learned about grief and loss.

“Let people help you.”

One of my dearest friends told me this soon after my loss. My job is helping people. It is difficult to suddenly be the one in need of help. Some days it is difficult to even know the help to ask for. But I have learned that my friend was right. People are eager to help and it helps me to have their help. I have had friends help clean and sort my kitchen cupboards, hang new blinds, and feed me. Friends and family have given me the names of professionals to provide some of the services I have needed, and helped me revamp my wardrobe. Yesterday the man tuning up my furnace not only patiently explained the working parts to me (while Bob’s voice echoed in my head: “You’ve lived here how long and you still don’t know how the furnace works?”) but also helped me change the back door screen to the winter glass panel.

Much to my surprise, I have found help in the places that I least expected it. Staff members at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, Town Hall, the Registry of Deeds, pension funds, account services, billing departments, and banks have been nothing short of wonderful. They have been sympathetic and calm. The forms and questions that are novel, complicated, and mysterious to me are forms and questions that they have dealt with countless times. They have experience dealing with grieving people (and, perhaps, don’t want people crying at their counters lest others present think they are the cause of the tears.)

There are things that bereaved people will only discuss with other bereaved people because we don’t want you to think we’re crazy.

Everyone I know who works in hospice has stories of patients speaking with people we couldn’t see but who were very present to the patient. We’ve seen people reach up just before they die or call out “help me up.” I was with a family once and as they were telling me stories about my patient, a fan crashed to the floor on the other side of the room. We all turned to look at the source of the noise. When we turned back, their loved one was gone. A family member touched his chest and called his name and just as suddenly he was back. He died a short time later, after his family had left. I know that the falling fan was to distract us so his soul could leave. I still am not fully positive if his soul returned in response to the touch or if his body just started back up because it didn’t realize the soul was gone.

I have no problem sharing this story. I’m not concerned about whether or not those I share it with believe me. A disbelieving response doesn’t change who I am or what I know or what I experienced; it has no effect on my skills as a chaplain. However, the response of the “bereaved me” is very different from the response of the “professional me.” The bereaved me is not prepared to deal with skepticism or with people deciding I’m crazy or delusional or in need of therapeutic help.

I know that there are things that people who have lost a spouse or partner will only share in conversation with others who have lost a spouse or partner. And I believe this is also true for bereaved parents or siblings. We share them with others who share our experience. We might share in a bereavement group if we feel safe enough. We might share them with our closest friends and family, or we might not do so.

What you can do to help those who are bereaved.

Both personally and professionally, I know it can be extraordinarily helpful if clergy or support group leaders bring up issues such as dreaming of the person who died or hearing his or her voice. Because, really, there are times when we who are bereaved do think we are, or might be, crazy. We’re not going to bring it up; we’re just trying to get through today and maybe tomorrow. Anything you can do to help normalize our grief helps us understand that our reactions are normal; that we’re not crazy, we’re grief-stricken.

You can offer help. Not the general (and useless) “If there’s anything I can do, please let me know.” Trust me, we don’t know the answer to that, at least not at first. On the other hand, useful offers may include: “May I bring you dinner?” “May I pick up something for you when I go to the bakery?” “Do you need someone to drive your children to . . . (“school,” “Hebrew school,” “soccer.”)Here’s the name of someone I know who is a good . . . (“lawyer,” “handyman,” “snow-removal service,” “organizer”) for when you are ready.” “I’m available if you want someone to help you go through . . .(“his / her clothes,” “the files,” “the attic.”)

And it’s never too late to call or write. You feel badly because you didn’t get around to sending a card? It is as valued, if not more so, three or six months or a year later when every mail delivery doesn’t bring a slew of notes. It may be a better time to talk after a few months when the bereaved person isn’t being pulled in a million immediate directions and the calls may have dropped off. As we continue to move through and process our losses, we need friends as sounding boards, as supportive listeners, and as continued presences in our lives.


Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min., CT, is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and a past co-president of the WRN. Find her blogging her way through grief at: http://fabricfiber.wordpress.com/

How I Found my New Year

By Rabbi Julie Wolkoff. D.Min., CT

This year, for perhaps the first time in my life, I was not looking forward to the Holy Days. When I was a congregational rabbi, I approached these days with a mixture of excitement (a new year; new programs,) anticipation (the music that we only hear at this time of year,) terror (would my sermons be meaningful; would they speak to anyone’s needs and concerns,) and exhaustion. As a day school rabbi, I had school-wide schedules to modify to make room for extended prayers and special programs to plan. As the High Holy Day rabbi for the additional services at a local congregation, I would be running myself ragged to coordinate all that I needed to do for Yontif while doing my day job. And for the past 5 years as a congregant in the pews, I focused on Rosh Hashana lunch with family and friends while having the privilege of being spiritually moved by words and music that were so familiar, yet ever new when I was blessed to be able to listen and let them flow over me.

This year would be different. I would still be surrounded by words and music that stirred my soul. I would have friends and family sitting with me. But this year I would be sitting without my husband, z”l. We wouldn’t be working together to set up our Rosh Hashana lunch and complaining about how much work it was, and then enjoying the long afternoon with family and friends. Nor would we be away for Yontif, celebrating in a foreign country as we had been talking about and beginning to plan last spring.

This year I was dreading the words of the Mahzor: “On Rosh Hashana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be; who shall live and who shall die.” It turned out that Un’tnah Tokef was not the prayer that brought me to tears. Instead I was brought to a halt by the additions to Shalom Rav in the evening service, as the cantor sang, asking that we be remembered and inscribed in “Book of Life, Blessing, Peace and Livelihood.” So for Un’tnah Tokef, I knew to focus on the music, the cantor’s voice, and thoughts of “repentance, prayer, and charity” while accepting that I would not be able to read aloud the words “who shall see ripe age and who shall not.”

This year I didn’t find my New Year in the words and music I know so well. I didn’t find it in the family traditions or holy day rituals. I found it instead in an old / new ritual and in an article on letting go of our “what if scenarios” when we look at the future. As I read the article, I realized that I don’t want my life or my New Year to be filled with worries, with “what ifs.” I know that what we worry about rarely comes to pass, at least not in the form that we have spend hours obsessing and worrying over. I also know that worrying triggers stress and stress is unhealthy for our bodies and our souls. I have spent the past few months feeling the effects of grief on my body and soul; I don’t want to layer the effects of worry on top of that.

Instead of creating “what if scenarios,” I want to live in the world of “what is.” Rather than worry about what might come to pass, I want to ground myself firmly in the experiences that are taking place in my life. I want this year to be one where I learn and grow and change from what happens – good and bad, error-filled, and unexpected. I want a year open to unexpected blessings and moments of grace.

This morning I found my New Year at Mayyim Hayyim. As I immersed in the mayyim hayyim, the living waters of Mayyim Hayyim, I let go of the past year. I thought about how it changed me and shaped me. I reflected on the uncertainty that comes with a new year, and with every day of our lives. I prayed for peace, for healing, for direction, and for clarity. With each immersion I found myself more at peace with the new realities of my life and more open to see and experience what this year brings.

I don’t expect that the mikveh will magically make Yom Kippur and Yizkor easier. I know there will still be tears and sorrow and a deep awareness of loss. But I have found my New Year. I hold its blessings, its promises, and its hope in my heart. I look forward to what it will bring.

May we all be blessed with a year filled with happiness and joy, celebration and simcha, love and health and healing,  spiritual sustenance, and peace for us and all the world. May the sweetness of the Holy Days spread through every day of the year. May our blessings and our gratitude for them increase exponentially, filling our days to overflowing.

שנה טובה ומתוקה

Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min., CT, is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and a past co-president of the WRN. Find her blogging her way through grief at: http://fabricfiber.wordpress.com/

The Club No One Wants to Join

By Rabbi Julie Wolkoff. D.Min., CT

It was a nondescript room, but I knew I was in the right place. The table filled with packages of tissues was one sign. And then there were the words of the facilitator, welcoming us to “the club no one wants to join.” I was attending a bereavement support group.

Sitting around a table with people who had lost a parent or a spouse or a sibling, I found my community. There had been other communities of support: my family, synagogue, dear friends and colleagues,  co-workers (past and present,) and people I knew through social and recreational activities had been by my side since my husband’s death. People made sure that my family and I were fed, that the garbage got taken to the dump, that there was a minyan during shiva, that I didn’t have to sit alone at shabbat services. People listened when I needed to talk, sat with me, called and wrote but I knew I needed more.

I needed a bereavement group. I needed a place where people wouldn’t ask how I was doing – a question that makes me cry even when I’m feeling ok – but would understand the battered back-and-forth of my emotions. I needed people who did not know the “before” me, but who could meet and accept the current me, the one who is struggling to pull the pieces of my life together without knowing what the puzzle will look like when it is completed. I needed a place where it was fine to cry, to laugh, to listen, to offer help, and to just be present – all in the same block of time.

People who run support groups – something I do in my professional life, but am not doing right now – will tell you that just sitting with others who share your burden or concern can make you feel better. That is something I have found as a participant. No matter what is said or how many tears are shed, at the end of the meeting I feel better. Whether I have spoken a lot or just said a few words, I feel heard and understood and supported.

My family and friends, my colleagues and co-workers continue to be a source of hope and healing for me. I am grateful for their presence and support. But in “walking through the mud swamp” (another description by our facilitator of where we all are right now) it is helpful to slog through the muck with others who are standing just as deeply in it.

I knew the value of faith, community, and congregation before I was bereaved. I now know much more personally how very, very valuable they are; how important we are to one another. I am thankful that I have deep roots in each one. But right now, it is sitting in a bereavement support group, surrounded by people I have just met, but with whom I share so much, that I am finding the path to my future.


Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min., CT, is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and a past co-president of the WRN. Find her blogging her way through grief at: http://fabricfiber.wordpress.com/

The lovely month of May

By Rabbi Julie Wolkoff. D.Min.

In March, I wrote about making my own perfume. I’ve been wearing that spicy blend for the past two months, and I love it. But this month I’m not reaching for spice, instead I crave floral scents. Driving home a few weeks ago, the world was brown and drab.Image

Walking through that world, I can’t remember any particular scents. But suddenly – almost overnight – it seems, the drab brown surroundings changed to technicolor. It really felt like walking out of Kansas and into Oz. The colors of spring – neon green buds on the trees, the vibrant yellow of forsythia, the hot pink, light pink, and white of blooming trees, and the multicolored tulips – all screamed out: “Look at me!” And my nose started taking notice as well.Image

Last week I went to one of the local schools to vote. The trees lining the walk were covered in white blossoms and the mulch around them carried a fungal note. I walked in and didn’t think about my vote. Instead I sniffed and sniffed and thought – mushrooms.

Monday night I stopped at a local farm stand to see what I could find for my dinner. I paused on my way in to look at the pots of herbs. It seemed too early to plant basil or mint; growing up in the upper Midwest, you never planted before Memorial Day. Still, there’s no food smell more enticing to me than basil and I was strongly tempted to start a garden right there and then.

When I walked into the farm stand, I wasn’t consciously thinking about seasonal food. I was thinking about buying something prepared. That is, until I saw the ramps and the fiddlehead ferns. Four days later, after reveling in wild mushroom linguini with olive oil, mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns and ramps, my kitchen still reeks of ramps. ImageDriving the back roads for work, walking through my neighborhood, even going to the cemetery for a funeral, it is so easy to say 100 blessings on a day in May. It may seem too easy, but thinking of blessings helps me notice more than just the colors and scents. I see the way the blossoming trees line the busy shop-filled streets of a nearby town. I realize that the close-to-dying tree in my front yard has more life left in it than I had imagined. I think of so many family and friends who have May birthdays and I want to fill their homes with flowers and sweet scents.

In case the drab colors of the late winter and early spring masked my blessings, the burst of colors of May brings them back to me. Every day I remind myself to look, to feel, to smell. Every day I remember that these colors, these smells, are fleeting. The neon green will change to a light green, to dark green, and finally to yellow or red. The lilies of the valley and lilacs will remain fragrant only in memory and in perfume. The glorious spectacle in my front yard will once again be a tree that is dying. But I will hold the sights and scents of this month in my heart and I will remember that they will return when the year cycles around and comes back to spring.


There’s still life in this tree.



Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min., CT, is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and a past co-president of the WRN. Find her at: http://fabricfiber.wordpress.com/

Freedom’s Smell

By Rabbi Julie Wolkoff. D.Min.


Bottling my perfume.

Last month, on vacation, I spent a morning taking a perfume class. I  had looked forward to this for over a year. The experience was everything I hoped it would be. It was creative, fun and educational. It was challenging – there were so many oils to chose from and so many scents to sample in the process. When the morning was over, I had a bottle of my own perfume – a special, spicy fragrance.

Part of the challenge of making my own fragrance was choosing the premixed base to begin with. The images they evoked for me when I sniffed them were varied and surprising. One base reminded me of old bureau drawers. It wasn’t musty but it had that “furniture that has been in the family forever” scent. Another one made me think of hummingbirds. This was a light sugary citrus smell, and I could just imagine birds flittering around in response to it.

My final product, the one I bottled and brought home, included cranberry. Did I chose that scent because it is the state berry of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and very familiar to me? Do we respond more strongly to fragrances that relate to where we live or where we grow up?

As I reflected on my experience, it occurred to me that three of the fragrances I had played with that morning – rose, almond, and cinnamon – are smells that I associate with Passover. I joke that I won’t buy Passover foods until after Purim, but it seems that once Purim has come and gone I also begin to think of Passover scents. The rose reminded me of the rosewater in the pistachio macaroons I make each year. The almond carried the memory of almond macaroons and the cinnamon reminded me of the charoset.

And then I began to wonder – I know what Passover smells like, but what is the smell of freedom? Is it the combination of scents associated with the places we vacation – pine trees and woodsmoke for skiers; salt water and sunscreen for those of us who go to the beach? Is it the smell of fresh laundry or a clean room? Is it a scent that makes us feel safe, secure, and protected? What does freedom smell like?

The Israelites wandering in the desert complained that they missed the food of Egypt. Studies show that our sense of smell is an intrinsic part of how we taste food. Did the Israelites also miss the scents of Egypt? The Torah and Midrash speak of the taste of the manna that the Israelites ate in the desert. We learn that its taste changed according to the desires of the eater but the only reference to the smell is that the leftover manna stank. Perhaps for the Israelites who left Egypt the smell of freedom was the smell of rotted manna. For them freedom’s smell did not evoke positive memories. Maybe the 40 years of wandering were necessary not just for  a new generation that did not experience slavery but for a generation for whom freedom had a positive scent.

May we all be blessed this Passover with scents that evoke happy memories, create connections to our past, and remind us of the gift of freedom.


(With thanks to John and Cyndi Berglund and Tijon – for a fantastic vacation experience and for giving me so much to think about.)


Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min, CT, is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and a past co-president of the WRN. Find her at: http://fabricfiber.wordpress.com/

משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה

It’s Adar — Be Happy!


People who know me well know that Purim is one of my favorite holidays. As a congregational rabbi I used to decorate the sanctuary for Purim with balloons, crepe paper, banners, and more. I had puppets and masks for the different characters in the Megillah reading and baskets of masks and noise makers. It was a lot of work and a lot of fun, but it was just a single evening’s service.

Then I moved into the day school world. As a day school rabbi I marked every Rosh Hodesh with a co-worker, greeting the students with treats as the day began. But for Adar we outdid ourselves. In jester hats and brightly colored wigs, with noise makers in hand, we began the day and the month in a riot of noisy activity. I especially enjoyed the students I referred to as “The Mishenichnas Adar singers.” As my co-worker and I created a happy ruckus, they danced and sang behind us. We pulled out our costume boxes and added to them.

One of the things I love about the idea of increasing joy is that there are no specific instructions on how to do it. Each of us has the opportunity in Adar to do things that are joyous for ourselves.

When I was a congregational rabbi and a day school rabbi, I focused on creating joy with and for my community. Whether through special programs, or candy, or wigs, or masks, or hats, or noisemakers, I tried to create an “Adar spirit.” Since Adar falls during the doldrums of winter (at least in the places that I have lived,) it helps brighten up the days until spring finally comes.

In recent years it has become even more for me important to increase my joy in Adar. As a hospice chaplain I am reminded every day to seize moments and celebrate even the little things in life. As a rabbi who works outside the Jewish community, if I don’t create Adar joy there is no one who will do it for me. So when Adar comes, I increase joy in a big way through lots of small actions. I change my facebook photo to a funny one. I wear sparkly earrings and mascara. I put feathers in my hair. I tell more jokes. I look for every opportunity to bring joy into my day and into the days of the people I meet at work.

Last year both Rosh Hodesh Adar and Purim fell on our hospice interdisciplinary team days. Image

I brought bubbles and noisemakers and toys. And I convinced my mostly non-Jewish coworkers to come in costume on Purim and bring food for a Purim seudah. My Indian co-workers wore beautiful saris. Our priest came dressed as a priest. We had a princess, an Elmo, a dog with angel wings, and masks and beads for those without costumes. We had a great time.

This year Adar enters on the heels of more than 2 feet of snow. After shoveling and shoveling and shoveling, I can’t wait to increase my joy. I have the sparkles and glitter and feathers. Bring on Adar – I’m ready!


My bags are packed . . .

By Rabbi Julie Wolkoff. D.Min.

I love the photograph on the top of of this blog. It’s from May 2011, the most recent WRN conference. Each time I see it, I think of my colleagues and the times we have shared with each other over the years. For me, the WRN is the professional organization whose conference is the one that is not-to-be-missed. I have missed only one over the years and I can’t remember or imagine what was important enough to take its place.

This may sound like hyperbole, but its not. I has been almost 18 years since I was a congregational rabbi. Several rabbinic careers later, I am a rabbi working in the non-Jewish world. In short – no convention allowance and conference time counts as vacation days. My time off is precious to me and I don’t give it up lightly, but I can’t imagine not taking the days off for the WRN.

Over the years the WRN conference has been the place where colleagues have shared their most personal stories. It’s where we’ve struggled and, at times, argued over our rabbinates, our relationships with women rabbis in other movements (and with each other,) and with how we divided our time and tried to balance it between self, family, job and life in general. It’s been the place where we’ve maintained connections begun in rabbinic school and where we’ve grown new connections.

WRN conferences over the years have seen laughter and tears. More than once I have come home with a new vision for my rabbinate. It was for a WRN conference that I first took the Myer Briggs Type Indicator. I came away with a clearer understanding of why some parts of congregational life were easier for me than others and a deeper appreciation for other parts that challenged me and helped me grow.

I could go on and on about my feelings for the WRN, but instead I’ll share another photo. If the picture at the top of the blog is a small snapshot of who we are now, this one is one of who women rabbis were then:


I think it’s it’s 1980 (and if it’s not, I know one of my colleagues will post a comment and correct my date.) A historian or anthropologist could have a field day with this photo. There are the obvious differences: this one is black and white and our group photos now are in color; we’re more formally dressed – no sign of the jeans and t-shirts (and this year the WRN fleece PJ pants) that many of us wear in the newer photos; there are no babies or young children in this photo. And there are more subtle differences: if I’m correct on the year, the students outnumber the ordained rabbis in this picture; and my personal favorite memory – you couldn’t sit in the front row unless you were wearing a skirt!

But one thing is the same – both photos contain some of my dearest friends and both are filled with women who mean the world to me.

I’m counting the minutes until we see each other in Memphis. My bag is packed (almost) and I can’t wait to spend time with my beloved colleagues.

Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min, CT, is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and a past co-president of the WRN. Find her at: http://fabricfiber.wordpress.com/

“Buy. Buy. Buy.” – Not.

By Rabbi Julie Wolkoff. D.Min.        

     For the past several weeks my mailboxes, both virtual and real, have been overflowing with messages urging me to “buy, buy, buy.” As a result, I have been spending a lot of time hitting “delete, delete, delete” and tossing torn envelopes and catalogs into the recycle bag to take to the town dump. I will admit to succumbing to some of the messages. There were some things I had wanted that were now on sale or came with free shipping. But mostly I’ve deleted and tossed. As I take my bags to the dump, I wonder if the rising numbers on the “recycle thermometer” reflect the seasonal increase in mail or are just the town catching up on numbers as the end of the year nears.

     The mail that doesn’t ask me to buy, asks me to “give.” Some of these are also easy to delete. There are the organizations I gave to in order to honor a bar or bat mitzvah, the ones that got my name from someone else, and organizations that I just don’t support. There is a smaller pile of organizations I support or are on my “want to donate to” list.

     All this mail means just one thing – the holiday season is upon us. If the mail didn’t tell me, the blogs I follow would. I read the concerns of parents – Jewish and Christian – who struggle to teach their children the meaning of their holidays. They write and talk and share strategies to move beyond “buy” and “gimme” and “I want” to the deeper teachings of their faith. They talk about creating memories and family traditions. They talk about giving to others – reflecting on the needs of so many who don’t have the resources to buy and buy.

     It’s not always easy to balance the urge to give our family members and friends something special, something they want, something they will always remember against our desire to make our holidays meaningful in their own right. But as I look at my friends blogs and facebook postings, I don’t see mention of “stuff.” I see pictures of candles, dreidles and latkes. I see families gathering together to make and share memories. I see smiling faces and love shared from generation to generation.

     And as always at this season, I think of my favorite Hanukah memory. Every year my grandfather, Jonas, of blessed memory, would go to the bank before Hanukah and get crisp new dollar bills. He would get 24 small cards, eight each for my brother, for my sister and for me. He would put one dollar in most of the envelopes, but some envelopes would have two or three bills. Each night of Hanukah we got to choose one of our envelopes to open. 

     We gave a lot of time to choosing the envelope to open. We would flip through them with serious thought. We knew that most envelopes had just one crisp new dollar. We knew that all three of us would end the holiday with the same amount of money. If one of us had already gotten two or three dollars we knew that we would find an envelope with two or three dollars before the holiday was over. But the choice of the night’s envelope was a serious one. As an adult I can appreciate the time and effort Jonas went to each year to make a not very large amount of money into a momentous gift.

     If you were to ask me, I would tell you that I can’t remember any presents I got on Hanukah. But I remember the joy each night of gathering with my family to light the Hanukah menorah and the excitement of opening an envelope and finding a dollar.

     At this season when so much of what we read urges us to “buy, buy, buy,” may we all find ways to move beyond the commercial messages and find ways to create lasting memories – memories of family, of love, and of special traditions.

     Happy Hanukah!


Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min, CT, is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts. Find her at: http://fabricfiber.wordpress.com/