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Getting Beyond the Blah

“What would constitute a perfect day for you?”

That’s the question I pulled from the mason jar holding 86 such questions, each written on a mini sticky note and then folded over. I named my creation Beyond the Blah Jar.

My new girlfriend Anie had to answer per the rules of Beyond the Blah Jar. She was sitting next to me on the couch, on the middle cushion. We were tired, approaching the end of our March weekend together, but she didn’t hesitate responding. “Today!”

Today, a day she’d spent entirely in my presence, was my new girlfriend’s perfect day? I forced my lips to remain within the boundaries of my face.

We began the day with scrambled eggs and coffee with heavy cream (for me, tea for her). That sated us before we hiked around Claude Moore Park in Sterling, Virginia, and then drank India pale ales at Lake Anne Brew House. Anie’s perfect day was now ending with me, dinner, a movie, and Beyond the Blah Jar.

“Oh wait,” Anie added. Her face held an “aha” expression. “I thought the question asked for a recent perfect day. Did it mean what is my ideal perfect day?”

I laughed. Yes, that was how I took the question, though I wasn’t complaining about Anie’s response to her interpretation of it.

My idea to create Beyond the Blah Jar hit me after attending Even Further Beyond the Tent in February. Anie, I, and some 35 others attended this follow-up to the original Judaism-focused retreat hosted by GatherDC and its former improv comedy-loving, eccentric rabbi. This retreat didn’t lead to increased understanding of my Jewish identity like the original had. Instead, it led me to delve deeper into myself and my relationships with others. Even Further Beyond the Tent taught me it was OK to ask questions.

The jar’s first 36 questions came from a study now known as The 36 Questions That Lead to Love. I didn’t include those to trick Anie into falling for me; I suspected both she and I had already begun sinking. I just happened to have recently read the Modern Love essay referencing the study, and the study just happened to have included questions like:

What is your most treasured memory?

What is your most terrible memory?

If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone?

What a question. My initial thought is that’s a question neither Anie nor anyone else would want to be asked. It leads to too much vulnerability; it’s too hard to create the pulmonary pressure and tongue placement required to verbalize the response we feel is most truthful.

But on second thought, I wonder if part of us wants to be explicitly asked that question because some truths are too hard to reveal to the people we care most about on our own, without the encouragement of Beyond the Blah Jar.

If I were asked that question, maybe I’d say I’d regret not having told my brother that the way he treated me during the years I received and recovered from cancer treatment was perfect, that I wouldn’t have wanted anything from him beyond what he gave, all those days and nights he spent hanging out watching sports and movies with me and carrying on as if little had changed in our lives besides him occasionally having to press pause to empty the contents of my puke bucket into the toilet.

Yes, I think, I may say that if asked that question, but I’m unsure if I could say that outright. I don’t think I could say to him directly, like during a halftime commercial break while watching a Redskins game together, “So, if I were to die, I’d most regret not having told you, ‘Thank you.’”

Yes, sometimes it’s easier to die than to find the courage to reveal a truth openly. Sometimes, we need encouragement. Sometimes, we can only reveal a truth when forced to confront an inquiry from Beyond the Blah Jar.

Once I finished adding the 36 Questions That Lead to Love, I added two of my own questions. I stole the next 12 from Tim Ferriss’s book, Tools of Titans, and pirated StoryCorps for Beyond the Blah Jar’s remaining 36 questions.

StoryCorps’s mission is to record, preserve, and share others’ stories. StoryCorps inspired me to virtualize my jar on occasions when my coffee table with the jar propped on it wasn’t around. For example, when I would visit my parents at their Manassas, Virginia house, the same one in which I grew up.

Four times since then, my parents have answered my questions from my virtual Beyond the Blah Jar, and I audio-recorded them. Mom’s answers included stories about her zayda and where her passion for social work stemmed from. For another question directed at both of them, their answer led to a story about our summer vacations during my childhood. My, how they sacrificed their own passions and joys so my brother and I could pursue and have ours!

Of all their answers to my questions, I most enjoyed the one about how my mom allowed my dad’s parakeet, Felix—who she says always tried biting her, probably out of jealousy for her taking my dad’s attention away from him—to share their residence. That’s young love. She didn’t, however, allow for a replacement Felix once he died.

All those questions and answers are now preserved in Beyond the Blah Cloud Drive (aka Google). I decided to preserve the conversations because I don’t know how much longer my parents will live and I want to always be able to hear them. It’s not that they are terminal; we just don’t know how long anyone will live because health and longevity are privileges, not promises. People tend to carry on just fine, but every once in a while they don’t.

My parents have been married for 44 years. It’s my turn for young love. I don’t take it for granted. We can’t assume people will live, or stay lovers, forever.

Anie realized she likely misinterpreted the way the question was intended to be understood, but she didn’t offer a replacement response. So her day with me was her perfect day…at least, her one perfect day compared to the previous six or so.

I then shared my ideal perfect day, and we returned the folded sticky note to Beyond the Blah Jar, where it awaits my or my guest’s actual or ideal response the next time the note is pulled.

There wasn’t much time left with Anie that weekend. It was getting late. Maybe one plunge into vulnerability each day is enough, so we returned our attention to the comedy we’d begun watching earlier. Laughing with Anie felt so good.

If anything, Beyond the Blah Jar has taught me that if you don’t have both beyond the blah—and some blah—in your life, then you’re not fully living.


About the Author. Benjamin Rubenstein  is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you!  Benjamin is the author of the Cancer-Slaying Super Man books. He earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. You can subscribe to his quarterly newsletter.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Meet Sam: Jewish Twin of the Week!

Want to nominate your amazing Jewish friend to be featured on GatherDC? Send his/her name, brief blurb, and contact info to info@gatherdc.org.

Sam and his twin sister, Hannah

Allie: What brought you to DC?

Sam: When I graduated, I got a job in DC doing higher education research with EAB. I grew up in Westchester, New York – and found DC to be a lot more diverse and fun than I expected!

Allie: What does higher education research entail?

Sam: EAB does education and technology research and provides services to make academic institutions more financially sustainable. It might sound a little boring, but one of the cool things about it is that most finance people are not going to work at a university if they’re in it for the money. Finance officers at colleges are there because they value the importance of higher education. So, when we talk to them, we talk about finance as a means to provide more education to more students in a more sustainable way.

Allie: Awesome. Okay, new topic – what’s your favorite smell and why?

Sam: Vanilla. It brings back memories of baking in my kitchen with my family. I personally love baking – making pies, cakes, and cookies. My twin sister is also a pastry chef, and I’m often told that I’m not allowed to bake because it’s her thing. She is pretty legit, she went to culinary school and got a degree in baking and pastry arts.

Allie: What is it like being a twin?

Sam: I loved being a twin up until teenage angst happened. [When we were teens], both of us were not the biggest fans of each other. It often felt uncomfortable in high school because the other person was always there. My twin sister and I have become a lot closer over the last five or six years, and it’s great having someone my age to talk to about the issues we both deal with.

Sam on Beyond the Tent

Allie: In other news, I heard you went GatherDC’s last Beyond the Tent retreat. What was that like?

Sam: A friend of mind from college (and previous Jewish Person of the Week Margaret), went on Beyond the Tent with GatherDC and had a great experience. Because of her, I met a bunch of people who also went on Beyond the Tent, and they convinced me to go. In college, I spent a lot of time doing dialogue intensive programs with race groups, and was missing the opportunity to develop strong relationships through dialogue experiences.

I really didn’t know what to expect from Beyond the Tent. Immediately, when I arrived, Rabbi Aaron started to facilitate an intensive ice breaker experience. I was hooked on trying to unpack my own experiences, and prior understanding of what my personal American Jewish identity was. This was something that fascinated me, and I was really eager to get into it. I’ve never taken the time to unpack what Jewish culture, tradition, and morality meant to me. It was really great to have the opportunity to do so in an environment where I was pushed to think about those ideas.

[Editor’s Note: Applications for the next Beyond the Tent are now open. You can apply to be a part of Beyond the Tent this July]

Photo Credit: Skidmore Women in Business

Allie: If you had an entirely free day to do whatever you wanted in DC, how would you spend it?

Sam: I would start by kayaking on the Potomac River and then have brunch at “Farmers, Fishers, Bakers” in Georgetown. Then, I would walk along the National Mall and play frisbee with some folks. After that, I would go back somewhere and play board games for a little while, and then see where the night takes us.

Allie: Do you have any favorite board games?

Sam: Right now, I’m in the middle of Season Two of Pandemic Legacy. I’m playing it with three good friends. 

Allie: What 3 celebrities would you most want to have as a part of your entourage?

Sam: Anna Kendrick. Chris Pratt. Lin-Manuel Miranda. That would be a weird and fun group of people to hang out with. My sisters and I were very into the show “Everwood”, and there is an amazing scene of Chris Pratt doing karaoke in one episode, so I imagine he could join in with any random singing that may break out and be fine.

Allie: What is a skill you want to learn this year?

Sam: I grew up going to a lot of improv and comedy shows in New York City, and when I got to DC I decided it was something I wanted to learn. I started doing improv with the Washington Improv Theater, and want to spend more time working on that this year.

Allie: What’s at the top of your life bucket list?

Sam: I want to move to London.

Allie: Complete the sentence: When Jews of DC Gather…

Sam: We go deep

 

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

 

Meet Eric: Jewish Board Gamer of the Week

Want to nominate your amazing Jewish friend to be featured on GatherDC? Send his/her name, brief blurb, and contact info to info@gatherdc.org.

Meet Eric: A mensch who hosts game night Shabbats, enjoys Latino Disney movies, and dreams of celebrating Passover “next year in Barcelona”.

Side note: Eric is also helping plan the Jewish People of the YEAR Celebration where we’ll toast to awesome young adults (like Mr. Schwartz) who have been featured as Jewish Person of the Week this past year, and everyone who makes our community so amazing!

Allie: What brought you to DC?

Eric: I moved down here for a job after graduation and moved in with a friend from college. I spent the first year in DC hanging out with work friends and friends from college, and then I discovered GatherDC.

Allie: How did you get involved with GatherDC/ DC’s Jewish community?

Eric: My Jewish life was very ingrained in my college experience at Cornell. But, after graduating I had almost no Jewish friends, so I went to a GatherDC happy hour by myself. I saw one person at the happy hour who I knew and he who told me about GatherDC’s Beyond the Tent retreat. I didn’t know anyone else going, but ended up making a lot of close friends, some of which I’m still friends with today – almost 2 years later.

Allie: What was your experience like on Beyond the Tent?

Eric: Beyond the Tent was a lot of fun, and a way to escape the busy life in DC, and have introspective conversations that we don’t get to do in our normal day-to-day life. The retreat showed me that there is a lot in DC in terms of Jewish life. I learned about Mesorah DC on the trip, and went on a Miami trip with them where I met a lot of other friends. These two trips were the avenues from which I built my social circles in DC, and then I became an Open Doors Fellow for GatherDC because I was interested in helping others have the same experience that I had.

Allie: What’s your favorite way to spend Shabbat?

Eric: Game night. Some friends and I will host a Shabbat dinner through OneTable, and we’ll play CodeNames, Avalon, Drunk/Stoned/or Stupid, What Do You Meme, and Cards Against Human.

I’ll take on cooking with my roommate or girlfriend, we’ll do a small reflection on everyone’s week, eat, and then head to the game part.

Allie: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Eric: A life quote I always live by, and has been recently popularized by my favorite NBA Team (The Philadelphia 76ers) is “trust the process”. To me, this means doing everything and anything it takes to get to your long term goals. At the end of the day we all want something, and it may not look like it’s the clearest road to that path, but if you keep driving down that road – with hard work and good timing – you can get there.

Allie: What’s your favorite Disney movie?

Eric: “The Three Caballeros” – I’m Latino and grew up watching this movie, it was made in the 1940’s I believe, and I highly recommend this movie!

Allie: If you could be anywhere right now, where would it be and why?

Eric: I studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain and would give anything to be back there.

Allie: What’s your favorite Passover food?

Eric: I was just introduce to it this weekend. My girlfriend’s family makes gravlax which is sushi grade salmon with dill, and avocado.

Allie: Complete the sentence: When Jews of DC Gather…

Eric: They are welcomed with open arms.

 

 

 

 

 

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Meet Ben, Ben, Ben, AND Ben! (yes, you read that right)

GatherDC’s winter 2018 Beyond the Tent retreat was an amazing experience for young adults to get outside of DC for a weekend, unpack 21st century Judaism, and explore their Jewish identity over deep, meaningful conversations. Among the 30 participants, zero were named Rachel…but FOUR were named Ben! This week, the Bens of Beyond the Tent share their unique perspectives on Jewish DC and life in general – proving, once and for all, that not all Bens are the same. Get to know them…

 

Ben D. – Former Jewish Guy of the Week!

Allie: Where does your unique name come from? Do any of you have a cool story behind why you were named Ben?

Ben D.: I was going to be named after my grandfather, Sidney, which is now my middle name. As a result, my hebrew name is Simcha.

Ben F.: It was passed down from my great-grandfather.

Ben R.: I don’t know. Does that make me a bad Jew? Fake Jew? Typical Jew?

Ben L.: No, but my family and I grew a bit tired of our names last year (we’ve been using them for decades…) and so we used nicknames for a few good months. I went by Josh.

Ben F.

 

Allie: What do you love most about living in DC?

Ben D.: DC brings the best and the brightest young people from around the country, who come here specifically to make a difference in the world. DC is a springboard for young leaders.

Ben F.: Great collection of educated citizens that aren’t afraid to challenge the establishment. Ask questions, drive for change, and push forward.

Ben R.: All within a few miles and by way of a mass-public transportation train, there’s movies, comedy, craft beer, rock climbing, pour-over coffee shops, and challenging hikes. What else is there in life?

Ben L.: The monuments at night.

 

Allie: If you could pick a new name for yourself right now, what would it be and why?

Ben D.: I usually go by my full name “Ben Droz”, (rhymes with “Ben Rose”).  I like it just the way it is.

Ben F.: Staying with Ben. Simple name but yet plenty of clever nicknames.

Ben R.: When I was 26 years old, my first book was published. I had unlimited options for the name that was published on the cover: I could have chosen Ben, Benjy, Ben-jammin, Ben-jammmmmmmmmin, Benjamin, or an alias. I chose Benjamin, the name by which my loving parents chose to call me. And, I’m sticking with it.

Ben L.: Josh. Worked before. Could work again.

Allie: I hear you all recently went on GatherDC’s Beyond the Tent retreat with Rabbi Aaron! First, how was it? Second, was it weird, awesome, or both meeting 3 other Bens?

Ben D.: Beyond the Tent was a great experience, to get out of the DC bubble and make time for deep reflection. It helped to highlight that any person can define Judaism for themselves. I am used to there being other Bens around throughout my life, which is one reason why I usually go by my full name. But this time, we made up more than 10% of the whole group, so yes, that was both weird and awesome.

Ben F.: Beyond the Tent was a mind-changing experience. Rabbi Aaron encouraged us to ask difficult questions and not to be afraid to stand behind our beliefs. In terms of meeting all the Bens, I think we embraced it – it was like our own little breakout group in itself.

Ben R.: Beyond the Tent impacted my life positively, partly because I was one of four individuals named Ben. Never again in my life, I’m certain of this, will I be in the same place with three other friends named Ben. That’s “Beyond the Awesome”.

Ben L.: It was a thought provoking weekend. I’m a regular attendee of the weekly secret underground gatherings of the Bens, so nothing too new.

 

Allie: Favorite thing to do on a free Sunday in the city?

Ben D.: There are always so many events in DC that I like to see what is going on and base my decision on that.  Last weekend I randomly went to the Zoo, which was fun.

Ben F.: Go for a run along the National Mall.

Ben R.: Watch professional football. Oh wait, I live and die by the Washington Redskins and football season is over? Dang it!

Ben L.: Park. I really enjoy not having to use the meter.

 

Allie: Favorite Jewish food? Ben R., we already know you hate hummus

Ben D.: Chicken Soup.

Ben F.: Might be a classic choice, but Apples and Honey.

Ben R.: [haha. Yep]. Not hummus.

Ben L.: My mom’s challah. All of her’s are good, but I’d say that 1 out of 4 is truly something divine, especially when my two year-old niece helps. Shout out to Maya, Talia, and Andrew, my favorite Jews in DC!

 

Allie: Any surprising facts about yourself?

Ben D.: I had a spiritual experience at Burning Man and now want to incorporate spirituality into my life in new ways.

Ben F.: I was born without two normal teeth and with all 4 wisdom teeth. Call me strange I guess!

Ben R.: Every morning, I touch my three tattoos and say aloud a blessing of gratitude about having my third chance in life and about accepting myself and others as we are. Thanks to Beyond the Tent, I realize now that, for me, this is a deeply Jewish and spiritual ritual.

Ben L.: I used to tear it up at table tennis tournaments as a kid.

 

Allie: Favorite Jewish holiday and how do you celebrate it?

Ben D.: Passover, because there is so much relating to the holiday (I follow sephardic food rules so that I can still enjoy rice and lentils). I like to celebrate by re-interpreting the Haggadah from a post-modern perspective.

Ben F.: Rosh Hashanah. And I try to spend time back home to reminisce on the year prior and look at new ways to seize the future.

Ben R.: Purim because my friend is baking me hamentashen. Ask me again in April, and I may say a different holiday if a friend bakes me something else.

Ben L.: Havdalah. I like to hear the candle’s flame slowly go out in the wine. Judaism places a lot of emphasis on transitions throughout one’s day, week, or year and when in crisis, and I think that’s smart.

 

Allie: Complete the sentence: When the Jews of DC Gather…

Ben D.: They will always find connection and meaning.

Ben F.: If meeting for the first time, you’ll probably get a first question like what you do for a living or where are you from.

Ben R.: They still congregate around the hummus.

Ben L.: You’ll never be the one with the best question or the best answer. That means it’ll be pretty exciting.

 

 

 

 

 

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Meet Anna: Jewish Peace-Maker of the Week!

Anna loves sandwiches, rainy Sundays, West Wing, and teaching Peace Corps volunteers how to facilitate transformative workshops worldwide. Get to know this super cool, peace-making lady and how fate and Bullfrog Bagels led her to a life-changing experience!

Allie: I hear you have a pretty cool job with Peace Corps. Tell me a little bit about that.

Anna: I am a training specialist for Peace Corps, with a focus on leadership development, diversity, and inclusion. I write and design and facilitate trainings for Peace Corps staff who then take what they learn to the volunteers.

Before starting at Peace Corps, I was a facilitator for camps and outdoor education spaces, concentrating on how we can learn outside of a traditional classroom. Then, I become a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia and fell in love with the organization. As a volunteer, I did a lot of trainings in cross-cultural communication, gender empowerment, and life skills work with local community members.

Allie: How did you wind up in DC?

Anna: I’m from Arlington, VA originally and love the area. I moved back to DC after I returned from serving as a volunteer in Ethiopia. It’s been a hard transition coming back from the Peace Corps, and I feel like I’m still getting used to the American way of life. I sometimes wish people would slow down, look at each other more, and talk to each other more – but that’s sometimes the reality of DC. But I still love it.

Allie: How did you get involved with Gather?

Anna: A friend of mine was trying to convince me to go on Gather’s Beyond the Tent retreat (EDITOR’S NOTE: Applications are currently open for the next Beyond the Tent retreat taking place February 9-11, okay I’ll stop now). I was hesitant. But one morning I was grabbing a Bullfrog Bagel at The GreenBee, and the Beyond the Tent team was there by total coincidence. They bombarded me and wound up convincing me to go.

I went into Beyond the Tent with pretty much no expectations and it really was mind blowing. It helped me connect to my Judaism more than I ever had by learning that there are no rules to what it means to be Jewish. Rabbi Aaron Potek (GatherDC’s Community Rabbi) and I are now best friends, I’ve joined a Rosh Chodesh group through people I met on that retreat, and have been much more involved Jewishly around the city because of that weekend.

Allie: What’s your favorite way to spend a free Sunday in the city?

Anna: Going to brunch where I have three different kinds of beverages: a seltzer, a coffee, and a Bloody Mary. Then, I’d have a delicious sandwich, because I just really love sandwiches. Then, there’d be a sitting in the park period to digest said brunch. Suddenly, it would start to rain, which gives me a perfect excuse to go to a movie. Then, I go grocery shopping and cook for the week. I love to cook, it fights off my “Sunday scaries.” To finish the day, I’ll go back out for Sunday evening drinks with my friend at a nice wine bar, and then go hang out at home with my roommate or girlfriend.

Allie: Best piece of life advice?

Anna: One saying from the community I lived in in Ethiopia called Shambu, is that when things go wrong, you say “The rain is raining.” Yeah, it’s raining, you can’t change it. You have to manage and accept the realities and be able to move forward.

Allie: Favorite show to binge watch right now.

Anna: I’m currently rewatching “Happy Endings,” which was cut short prematurely. But my go-to is “West Wing.”

Allie: Complete the sentence: When Jews of DC Gather…

Anna: We unite.

 

 

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.