Letters to my Younger Self:
A Rosh Hashana Reflection Project in Preparation for the High Holy Days*
Have you ever wished you could stand right beside your younger self and whisper, “Don’t worry—it’s going to be ok”?
We’ve all been through difficult chapters. In the midst of them, maybe we felt things would never change: our broken hearts would never heal, our situation would never improve, our dream would never be realized. Yet somehow, over the course of months or years, we moved through the darkness, one step at a time. And now that we’re older and wiser, we see things much differently.
Human beings have the capacity to endure and overcome immense challenges, to grow, heal, and change. We’ve done it before and we can do it again. Your story, posted on our website, will testify to that truth. Collectively, they are the whispered truths we wished we could utter to our past selves about what we now know about love and life, grief and friendship, about the world and about ourselves. It is our hope that these stories will remind all of us how much we have grown, lessons especially important during these challenging times.
We say of Rosh Hashanah, “hayom harat olam—today the world was born.” Not many years ago, in some mythic past, but TODAY. For indeed, every time we shed an old mindset and step into a new perspective, the world is reborn. Our prayer is that today is the day for that movement of the heart.
We wish you all a year of new beginnings, renewed strength and hope.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes
* Adapted from Ikar and its Rabbis Brous, Tsadork, Kasher and Lebell
“Crummy Times Happen To Other People” – Anonymous
I wish I had known this when I was 23 (and 33 and 43): Time heals nearly everything. You have to be patient and believe that your bad fortune or lousy luck will change. That the universe is not out to get you. That crummy times happen to other people.
You may feel stuck in the NOW. It may feel like it’s going to last forever, but seldom do our circumstances stay the same as we grow, as life moves ahead.
Many periods of my young adulthood stand out in my memory as hugely challenging times. I was laid off from jobs three times and could not imagine recovering. I felt underappreciated and overlooked by boyfriends I thought really cared for me. I needed to borrow money from my parents at a time when I considered myself independent. I was perennially sad on a certain day in October, remembering the child I gave up for adoption years earlier. I felt lost and alone when my parents died.
What did I do to rebound? Thankfully, I have close sisters and a few good friends who I leaned on for moral support and reality checks. I talked with therapists. I moved back to my hometown for a period of time to reconnect with my childhood. I wrote affirmations on an index card to visualize my value and look to the future with hope. I made real “pros and cons” lists when I was leaving long-term relationships.
All these techniques helped me learn a few important lessons:
1) Keep your own counsel, trust your instincts and your gut
2) The high-highs may be followed by the low-lows, but over time things pretty much level out, and a natural balance takes over
3) Most importantly, step outside your present state and imagine three months in the future. Realize that three months before this, life was different, and it will be different three months in the future.
I wish I would have known, “it’s all going to be ok” because that would have helped me cope. We change, and circumstances change, and we rebound from difficulties. Virtually nothing stays the same forever. That’s life…and it’s good.
“You’ll See Me Plenty” – Stephanie Blau
My teenage life was thrown off course,
I hit rock bottom with explosive force.
In the blink of an eye, everything changed,
All my bearings were rearranged.
Disoriented, confused, and in shock
My body was plastered to that rock.
The year was 1986, the last day of September,
An infamous date I’ll always remember.
I didn’t have an alarm clock next to my bed,
My dad woke me up every morning instead.
We embraced in our ritual hug goodbye,
Blissfully unaware that day he would die.
My dad, so vibrant and alive,
Died from a heart attack at age 45.
I was at school and wasn’t aware,
That was the last moment we would share.
I drove home from school later that day,
Familiar parked cars lined our driveway.
I cautiously walked through the front door,
And was unwillingly drafted into war.
A dark cloud enveloped the air,
Pouring drops of utter despair.
All my senses were activated,
Sight and sound were elevated.
The sight of misery was profound,
But not in comparison to a deafening sound.
A loud primal guttural roar,
From my eight-year-old brother curled up on the floor.
My sixteen-year-old brain couldn’t process his pain,
I thought perhaps he was going insane.
I didn’t notice my mom to my right,
Her sullen face was sunken and white.
Emotionally detached she began to say:
“Dad had a heart attack and died today”.
A serrated knife seared through my heart,
My entire world just fell apart.
I ran to my room and crawled into bed,
My life was over, I too felt dead.
I awaken to a tap on my shoulder,
She looks just like me but she’s older.
She wraps me in a tender embrace,
I’m transfixed by her familiar face.
I tell her that life isn’t fair,
I’m sentenced to a life of despair.
“I will never laugh nor smile,
No one will walk me down the aisle”.
She shows me a book in her hands,
It’s about my future, I don’t understand.
“I am you and you were me,
Your life becomes beautiful; I want you to see”.
“You will make typical mistakes,
Experience first love and some heartbreaks”.
“Courageously, you go to college far from here,
But return back home to start your career”.
“Psychotherapy becomes your passion,
Due to your empathy and compassion”.
“The best part of your future life,
Is becoming a mother and loving wife.
I challenge future me with disbelief,
“How can all that happen if I’m crippled with grief”?
Tenderly, she begins to explain,
How I bravely learned to embrace the pain.
“Grief is a wound deep in your soul,
Leaving you broken, less than whole.”
“But grief doesn’t define who you are,
Like any wound it becomes a scar.”
“Grief is important to feel,
It’s the essential fuel that allows us to heal.”
“You go on a journey of self-exploration,
Leading you to this transformation.”
“More loved ones in your life will die,
You grieve their losses and you’ll cry.”
“Nights are dark, but days are light,
Illuminating the things that are bright.”
“You develop strength and resilience,
Your inner light shines with brilliance.”
“You embrace life’s challenges with ease and grace,
A vulnerable pillar of the human race.”
She then gets up and heads to the door,
“Wait!” I say, “Will I see you anymore?”
Smiling, she responds, “You’ll see me plenty,
You’ll need me again in 2020.”
“I Would Be Okay” – Rich Abrams
It was the darkest time of my life. My wife of nearly 30 years had just passed away. For the last 14 months of her life, she was bed-ridden and suffering from dementia caused by radiation to her brain. I spent every day by her side, taking care of her, hoping desperately that a miracle would occur, propped up by my belief that love could heal any ailment, but knowing, deep down, that her 12-year battle with cancer was going to take her life. I tried to imagine what my life would be like when she passed away. Would I fall into a deep depression? Would I ever find love again, or would I, less dramatically, slowly dissolve into a life of sadness?
The day after the funeral, I was walking our golden retriever through the neighborhood, as I did on a daily basis. I knew how important it was to maintain certain routine activities. As I walked along the familiar route, my mind was full of dark thoughts. The balance of the world had swung violently to the ugly side. I felt powerless to alter its course.
I came to a familiar place where the road goes downhill, then uphill, with a side road to my right. There is a stop sign on all three sides. Every morning I observed cars routinely speed downhill and run the stop sign, well, because they can, and it’s really too much trouble to stop when no one else is around. That scofflaw attitude always angered me because it violated my concept of what it means to live in a civilized society where we obey the rules to keep everyone safe.
As I approached the intersection, I could hear the sound of a car engine roaring down the road. I knew from experience that car was going to run the stop sign. The black bile within me boiled over. I raised my fist and let loose a primal scream, “STOP SIGN!!!” The sound of screeching brakes filled the air. The car, having run the stop sign, had come to a dead stop in the middle of the intersection.
“I did it,” I thought. “I made him stop.” A sense of empowerment flowed through me. Then I saw the motorcycle cop on the side street get off his bike and wave the car over to him. I began laughing hysterically.
At that moment, at perhaps the lowest point in my life, justice miraculously came to the rescue. That pendulum had swung back just a bit towards a balanced world. A kind of equilibrium had been re-established in the universe. At that moment I knew—I just knew in the deepest part of my being— that I would survive–that I would be okay.
“It’s Going To Hit You At 40” – Anonymous
If I could talk to my younger self, I would tell myself not to be so afraid and not to try so hard to be accepted by my peers and relatives. I’d tell me that I am going to become who I want to be and I’m not going to have to ‘pretend to be her’ anymore. I’d also tell myself to relax and allow myself to have negative thoughts about my parents. I don’t need to please them because they will not withhold their love from me as I was afraid would happen.
I’d tell myself to let me go through the horrible teenage years and do what teenagers do and act like they act, because you can never stop the developmental process, and it’s going to hit you at 40. Even though I went through those years in 18 months, people expect it of a teenager. They do not expect, understand or approve when you do it at 40.
And finally, I’d tell me that people are going to like me for me. As one of my dear friends said to me, “You know what the matter with you is? You are a really neat person and everybody knows it but you.” I’ll allow myself to acknowledge it as well.
“Those Sounds Of Unknown Words” – Kiren Zucker
My parents were mid-century American pioneers. Both immigrated alone from India to the United States, speaking fluent English with those they met, as they had been taught, until they met each other. Their lives then grew, first with each relative who followed them to the United States, and then with their own children. They were determined that their U.S. born children would be true Americans, speaking English – American style; they would not be taught Punjabi. Yet, Punjabi was still spoken in their home as they conversed quietly, falling back on the familiar after days of forging careers, navigating life, and speaking English with their children. On those weekends when the house was filled with the extended family, however, Punjabi chatter rose to the rafters.
When I was little, those sounds of unknown words became familiar notes, weaving a song that felt like a cozy blanket. Now I see my teenage self, having mindlessly accrued a limited Punjabi vocabulary by osmosis but still unable to follow a conversation, feeling like an outsider at the kitchen table. I would whisper to her…
Mom and Dad are doing the best they can. Parents’ best intentions can be set askew or left unchecked in the clatter of daily life, as you will have to remind yourself when you are a mother. Your daughters will make that journey from India to the United States as toddlers, already accustomed to hearing words floating above them in a place that didn’t quite feel theirs. They will have to learn English in a new country among children who, each night of their tender lives, had fallen asleep to lullabies sung to them alone. These girls need you to know this feeling of being lost in a place called home, a part of your own unspoken connection that each adoptive mother must nurture with her children.
This childhood home of yours is your rock. Rocks don’t have to be perfect to offer a perfectly fine place from which to start. Don’t wander too far from the little girl who heard music in an unknown language and felt loved. As much as this moment feels like forever, it is not permanent. You will eagerly travel back to this scene before it resides only in memory. One day you will enter a sanctuary where songs are sung in another unknown language, and you will feel at home once again.
“A Chance To Grow” – Ellen Weisman
Looking back on my younger self, it would be difficult to reconcile with the woman I am today. Back then I was shy, quiet, naïve, not having the best self-esteem or self-confidence. I married at 19 not really having a clue about who I was and what life was about. I built a business with my husband, had a son and daughter. I still hadn’t learned to trust my intuition even when I had strong feelings and ideas.
I divorced at 35 with courage in the belief I could make a better life for myself and my children. That courage came from a strong faith in God and myself. Using my growing self-confidence, I stepped into a new world of dealing with the anxiety of dating. I viewed these hardships as a learning experience with a chance to grow. This was the start of my journey taking me on a path to becoming the Ellen of today.
I met my husband Art and we fell in love married and with him came two gifts, his daughters. Together we built a beautiful family. Life threw us some curveballs – major illness for both of us and extreme financial loss. This was the time when I learned the value of my strength and perseverance. Being an optimistic person, I had faith we would get through, giving me some hope. We were together 35 years but his many illnesses became untreatable and I lost him 3 years ago.
I have lost many family members, friends and beloved pets but nothing is so profound as the loss of a spouse and the unbearable pain of grief when your heart breaks in a million pieces. I have done the work dealing with my grief and thought after a couple of years I might see the light, then the pandemic hit. Four months of isolation and loneliness brought me right back to where I was at the beginning of my grief. I really have to dig deep and draw on my strength.
Looking back on my life I wonder, how did I get through it all, but maybe this has made me who I am and I like that person. She’s so much more self-aware. I would tell my younger self to have faith, stay hopeful, find courage, seek counseling and use meditation for calmness. Be part of a caring community.
“Let Them Help You” – Anonymous
Know that your kindness is a gift. Also know that you need help in this world, and you can find it. Go back to Temple – there are really good people there. How do you know? By what they do.
You have great friends that are very good people too. Let them help you and don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you see these people showing appreciation for you, in kindness with their actions and words, well, you will start to understand and believe what a really good human being you are.
“FEEL” – Jared Kliger
The kind invitation from Rabbi Paul to share my reflections takes me back to many moments in my life thus far, but two moments stand out. In the first, I did not know that things would work out. The growth process taught me what I needed to get through the second challenge. I hope my reflections on these two moments in my life will provide some meaning for others.
There was a time when I didn’t know whether it would be okay if I didn’t have mind-altering drugs in my system, even for a day. My addiction took me to a distorted belief that I HAD to have marijuana and cocaine. When I finally became ready to learn to recover, I didn’t know what…or how? I remember sitting on my twin bed at Chabad rehab center on a Saturday evening, about two weeks into my six-month program. There was nothing I had to do that night and I felt good about having survived two weeks. My usual arsenal of entertainment was no longer available to me, and I didn’t know what to do with myself in the moment. Then I realized…All I had to do was FEEL.
I remember meeting with my sponsor to share what I’d written about all the harm I’d done, resentments, and my role in all of it. We looked at patterns in my life and how I could change what I didn’t like in myself. Afterward, I went on a solitary walk so I could take in what had just occurred. And I allowed myself to FEEL.
My journey of recovery has now taken me through 22 wonderful years. Learning to face life’s joys and challenges head-on. And learning to FEEL.
Fast-forward to the second event. When my wife Renee was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I’m grateful to say that I was able to be present with her through the entire painful process. Sadly, the experience resulted in her passing in 2015. I chose to respond to this loss by facing my feelings head-on, just as I had learned in my drug recovery process. This time, I had developed the faith that things would be okay and now they are! I could not have imagined the fortune that has come my way since. In finding Sheryl, I have found a life partner beyond my greatest dreams.
“I Want To Be Sure” – Harvey Kalan
As I read the letter from our Rabbi Paul asking if I would like to write about a personal reflection, the first thing that came to my mind was my mortality. The words that are written in the Hebrew Bible, “who shall live and who shall die” is a very powerful verse to me. When I reflect on my own life and what I have passed on to my children and grandchildren, I think about what is important.
When I die and leave this earth, I would hope that the words on my headstone reflect that I was a loving person, a kind person and a fun person who loved to tell a good joke. This is what I want my children and grandchildren to remember about me.
My perspective of my future has a lot to do with my medical history. When I was a kid, I thought that I was indestructible and would live forever. But guess what? Eight years ago, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. My greatest fear was that it was malignant. I thought I was going to die. Thank God it was benign. After gathering my wits and discussing the diagnosis with my family, we started a treatment plan. I was treated by radiation for the tumor followed by a definitive surgery for my paralyzed vocal cords and esophagus. I am here today by the grace of God. This experience magnified how much I cherished my family, and everything else is “bubkis”.
When I look back at my lifetime of accomplishments as a surgeon, the places I have traveled, and the relationships that I have known, my brightest highlight is on family. I want to be sure that the rite of passage, or L’dor vador, has been completed.
I have told my kids and grandkids about my life growing up in Los Angeles. About friendships which started in childhood (“The Schmucks”) that have continued until the present, and my Conservative Jewish upbringing. I remember studying for my Bar Mitzvah, but causing havoc and often needing my parents to come to my rescue. There are stories of my kids, and grandkids doing similar shticks. If I can leave my children and grandchildren with a sense of pride in who they are and a desire to continue valuing their Jewish traditions, then I have done my job.
“Do I Talk To God A Lot?” – John DeRoy
I have to whisper, “Don’t worry – it’s going to be okay,” to myself on an almost daily basis. Blessed with twin daughters entering college, my wife and I are in the same Covid boat as all parents of college-age kids: do we let them move on campus, or do we keep them home for now? For us, the answer has not been so cut and dry.
At least for now, we’ve opted to let them go and experience this odd and frightening new reality, as both girls have been so looking forward to this next growth chapter of their lives. They’re attending different SoCal schools, each with its own “campus repopulation” plan; one stands a chance of some success, and the other has lower odds. At some level, I expect that all such plans are doomed to fail because even in the midst of a pandemic, young adults will find a way to congregate in large groups, socialize animatedly and loudly, and exhibit what would otherwise be considered normal college behavior – mask-free and not socially distanced. Their intentions are not to be defiant – they simply underestimate risk and overestimate rewards. It’s an immutable, neurobiological feature of adolescence that self-corrects with time.
As a family we’ve talked about the risks, the tradeoffs, and the strategies that need to be employed to make the on-campus experience work for all of us. And we continue to talk. The girls understand that they need to be keenly mindful of their decisions and behaviors 24/7, as these impact not just them but everyone around them, including those who love them from 150 miles (or more) away. (Unfortunately, even if they make the best decisions 100% of the time, there still are no guarantees.) They also understand that beyond typical parental angst when sending their kids off to college, our concerns for their health and safety right now require LOTS of communication.
Do I second-guess our parental and family decisions? Constantly. Do I worry? Yes. But then I tell myself, “don’t worry – it’s going to be okay.” Will it be easy? Absolutely not. Do I talk to God a lot? More than ever.
When feeling vulnerable, I remind myself that our girls are smart and will do the best they can – as will my wife and I – which is all I can hope for. Given this, no matter what happens, it really will be okay.
“Take The Time To Reflect” – Anonymous
“Don’t worry—it’s going to be ok”? Yes, it will be okay, maybe not always as soon as we wish. I always told my sons when life situations seemed so awful, that really those situations were not the worst thing that could happen.
We can get through these challenges but still, it isn’t always so easy for our minds and hearts to believe that. I find deep breathing is so helpful during stressful times. I also remind myself, how does it serve me to get so upset, so stressed out?
I began a daily gratitude journal at the start of COVID and it made me really appreciate what truly matters in life: the love and friendship of wonderful family and friends. The journal has made me reflect about how fortunate I am for so many things in life – being able to bake cookies, enjoy a good book, taking a walk, laughing, a beautiful sunrise or sunset.
It might not always be okay, but we need to take the time to reflect on our life, backward and forward and see all we have and that we’ll be okay.
“Compassion Floods My Heart” – Susie Guldbeck
What would I whisper to “younger Susie” … it’s a recurring theme that keeps cropping up as I get older. That theme is how resilient and resourceful we all have the capacity to be if you can live fully in the moment. That empowering experience is something that makes me feel completely alive and invigorated. The more present you can be, the more meaningful life will become whether personally, professionally or spiritually. It allows for your inner voice to be audible and embrace a state of serenity. We all have the power to choose to be exactly where our feet are planted today.
I would tell her to stop looking in the rear view mirror or so far ahead you don’t see, feel or experience exactly what’s right in front of you. I would tell younger Susie that if you allow yourself to be fully present you will recognize the richness of life’s blessings as they unfold.
As the older Susie I can say now that by doing so, gratitude and compassion floods my heart and allows me to fully appreciate my life with renewed grace. I would tell her to stay focused on being mindfully present at all times, good and bad, happy or sad and to always strive to live life out loud, one moment and day at a time.
As my Mom & Dad always said … EGBOK … everything’s going to be OK.
“Where God Resides” – Anonymous
You feel unsafe because you can’t get a guarantee that everything will be okay. The truth is that not only can you not get this promise – you don’t need it. What you have is an ability to slow down and connect with your inner self (where God resides) and actually BE okay. No matter what.
You can come back to this present moment, in any moment of your life, and really be okay. You won’t always be pleased with every circumstance, but you will be held in love and to your surprise, you’ll be alright.
“Puppies to Lick Your Face” – Leslie Levy
To 19 year old me,
I know you think this will go on forever like this. You think you’ll be locked up in this place for the rest of your life. You’ve grown accustomed to the nurses taking your blood pressure after you’ve consumed that delicious hospital food, the applesauce in those little Mott’s containers, the boiled chicken, the tapioca pudding with lumps that stick to the roof of your mouth.
You’ve gotten used to being woken up at 3 am with a flashlight shining in your face and the words mumbled “Just doing rounds.” You’ve gotten used to the lines of patients wrapping around the nurses’ station to receive those little paper cups with the morning, lunchtime, and bedtime pills. You’ve gotten used to the injections in your “hip,” which always seem to migrate around to the butt cheek, but no one ever mentioned that. You’ve grown accustomed to the sounds of other patients, some laughing wildly and some talking a mile a minute, and to the sound of the dreaded buzz whenever anyone entered or exited those heavy doors. Yes, you’ve grown accustomed to quite a lot. A lot which you never could have anticipated.
I wish I could just hold you and hug you and tell you that it’ll all be okay in a little while. I wish I could tell you all the wonderful things you’ll accomplish and the richness of relationships in your life that you’ll experience. I guess there’s no time better than now. You will get out of this hospital. You will get better and experience a full recovery. You’ll find the right medications, a wonderful caring doctor, you’ll make close friendships and find the love of your life and get married. You’ll be blessed with a wonderful and kind daughter who’s not afraid to speak her mind. You’ll have your own house to live in, with a yard that has fruit trees, persimmon and loquat and tangerines to snack on. You’ll have loving dogs and puppies to lick your face and depend on you to care for them. You’ll write books and deliver speeches on mental health issues and stigma and the recovery process. In short, you’ll make a difference in how people talk about and treat those with mental illness. You’ll become a smashing success, really you will. Here’s my S-Q-U-E-E-E-Z-E.