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This week especially let's affirm to each other that we all are cousins, one family, one nation, and that the values we share and the love and respect we have for each other are deeper and more important, and more worth preserving than whatever divides us.

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January 1 is the 21st anniversary of my mother’s death as well as a time to remember two special people I’ve lost this year. My mother listened. When anyone spoke to her, she opened her heart to their words. Once when I was home for a visit, I answered the doorbell and at first didn’t see anyone. Then I looked down. Outside the screen door was a 5- or 6-year-old girl who lived up the street. She had come to our house all by herself. She said, “Can I talk to Mrs. Petsonk? She’s my friend.”

My husband’s younger sister died this fall of a sudden cardiac arrest. She’d had a lengthy undiagnosed respiratory illness at the beginning of the COVID season. She finally recovered, and then months later suddenly dropped dead. She’d had several tragedies in her life: a son, born three months premature, who was severely disabled and died at age 16. A daughter, born at term and apparently healthy, who died of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). But she never lost her sense of humor. She always joked around and helped other people laugh at their frustrations. Not until I saw her, eyes closed, on a ventilator, did I realize that Elise simply did not look like Elise without her mischievous smile.

Then there was Yitz Buxbaum, a Maggid (story-teller) and teacher, who died of cancer in December. I remember one of his classes called, “How to eat an apple like a Hasid.” I can’t give you his exact words, but I remember their sweetness. He held up a red apple and said, “Say the blessing thanking God for fruit, but don’t eat it yet. First consider its beauty, the roundness, the redness, the sweetness. Think of how it came to you. The tree had to grow for years before it could produce fruit. Think of how it will nurture your body, flow through your bloodstream, give energy to your cells.”

Following Yitz’s example, every breakfast becomes a meditation. Where did the tree come from? From a seed. How amazing: that little brown seed produced this graceful and sturdy tree. How amazing: a spark of life in an ocean eons ago produced multi-cellular organisms. How amazing: that life learned to take energy from the sun and grow. How amazing: the tree of life branched and branched till it learned to make seeds, and trees, and me.

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I'm Judy Petsonk. I’m the author of Taking Judaism Personally: Creating a Meaningful Spiritual Life, and the co-author, with Jim Remsen, of The Intermarriage Handbook: A Guide for Jews and Christians. In my new novel, JUSTICE: MACCABEES AND PHARISEES, I tell you how the fierce rivalry between Alexander Janneus, King of Judea, and Shimon ben Shetakh, the leader of the Pharisees, led to the transformation of Judaism from the animal sacrifice of the Second Temple to the rabbis of today. But I tell the story from the alternating points of view of Shimon's ex-wife and of Shimon's best friend.

In the sequel, QUEEN OF THE JEWS, I introduce you to a real queen — dead, unfortunately — who ruled the independent nation of Judea in the century before Jesus was born. She was a contemporary of three Cleopatras, though not the one you’re thinking of. Though you may never have heard of her, she has had an enormous influence on your life and Western civilization in general. Her chaotic, colorful times may remind you a lot of our own. Like Queen Salome Alexandra (Shalom-Zion), the heroine of the novel, I am the mother of two young adults, I’ve been married for over 30 years, and I’m ‘a woman of a certain age.’ But my husband and children are truly lovable and bear no resemblance to the family of Shalom-Zion.

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