By Toby Klein Greenwald
Some people give tzedakah or sponsor lectures in memory of their loved ones. The more affluent write sifrei Torah or donate rooms, or buildings, or Torah programs.
After Rebekah Chaifetz Saltzman’s mother passed away, she wrote a book, dedicating her book to her mother, Ruth Greenberg Chaifetz (Esther bat Sarah v’Yitzchak), “who always knew what to do, in every situation.”
And not just any book. Remarkably, only two years after her mother’s death, Saltzman’s 312-page book was on the shelves, beautifully organized and laid out and a treasure trove of information.
But one would expect nothing less from an author whose day job has been as a professional organizer. She told this reviewer that officially she opened her business in 2012, but “I have been organizing as my side hustle since around 1999. My clients are mainly from Israel, US, Australia, England, and Canada. Because I do online group sessions, I have a global population. In person, I service central and northern Israel.”
“Organized Jewish Life, The Essential Guide for Planning Jewish Holidays, Events, and Every Day” will guide you, inform you, and even entertain you. It has three main sections called Holidays, Jewish Life Cycle Events, and Adulting. There are concise and colorful explanations of every Jewish holiday and lifecycle event, for which the author notes basic laws and customs, user-friendly instructions, comprehensive checklists and tips, and short historical backgrounds.
How is this book different from other books about Jewish holidays and practices?
It includes organizational tips that anyone can translate to everyday life. For example, Saltzman advises how to declutter your home and your mind, how to “reduce and reuse,” how to manage laundry and food shopping (“…how to simplify your life while enhancing and maintaining the joy…”), all in the context of Jewish holidays or life cycle events.
Among her most important bits of wisdom are: Ask for help when you need it, offer help to others, and know your limits.
Regarding the laws and customs, Saltzman has several disclaimers that, when in doubt, one should consult one’s rabbi or halachic advisor. The book is for both Israeli and Diaspora audiences, and is clearly targeted at the religiously observant, yet within those parameters she is inclusive, referring to yoatzot halacha (women halachic advisors) on issues such as mikvah and niddah, ideas for how to celebrate the birth of a daughter (simchat bat) and bat mitzvot, and, thankfully, she also includes Sephardic customs which was a personal treat for me as I have several Sephardi or part Sephardi children-in-law. For the first time I got an answer to my question: How is it possible to have a Mimouna, which includes food items made from flour, so soon after the end of Pesach? Her “Dinner after the fast” section cites customs of Jews from France, Morocco, Greece, and Bulgaria.
Among the many things I love about this book is the fact that Saltzman has scattered through the book “Critical Notes” and tips that are highlighted and usually address health and safety issues. She has a note on fire safety in the section on burning chametz before Pesach. The chapter on Purim includes a Critical Note about alcohol safety. The Yom Kippur chapter has a Critical Note on health issues relating to fasting, in which she also advises to consult with one’s doctor and rabbi.
Saltzman explains in detail the “Traditional Jewish Wedding,” and her wedding chapters, totaling 28 pages (!) include issues relating not just to laws and customs, but to financial planning, and the critical importance of having a halachic prenuptial agreement (“Refusing to sign a halachic prenuptial agreement is a giant red flag.”). She advises on the qualities to look for in a kallah or chattan teacher (one who discusses the laws of family purity and relevant marital issues with the bride and groom), gift giving and receiving, setting goals with your partner, and much, much more.
Saltzman advises the bride and groom: “Be kind to your partner during discussions about home life, money, childrearing, and the like; they can bring up many old issues.” Their parents will also appreciate these chapters.
In her “The Week Before” checklist of eight items, she includes such essentials as “Double-check that the ketubah is correct,” something that anyone who has waited an extra half hour or more for a chuppah to begin can attest to being useful in avoiding an unnecessary annoyance. Her Checklist 19, “Disclosures and Fine Print,” is essential for every potential bride and groom to read before the engagement.
There is a very well written chapter on mikvah that explains things in a comprehensive yet engaging way; Saltzman was a mikvah attendant. In a section called “Why the Mikvah,” she expresses her dissatisfaction with the translation of “pure” and “impure” for the words “tahor” and “tamei,” a comment I recently heard from another woman who has taught the laws of mikvah for many years.
There are extensive notes on the first year of marriage, where she writes in her summary paragraph, “For every situation there’s always someone who can help.”
She does not shy away from complex subjects. Her chapters include Pregnancy and Birth, C-sections and multiple births, and both breast and bottle feeding. She relates to post-natal depression, and there is a very sensitively written chapter on infertility, including male infertility. Her checklist here includes difficult issues and asks the questions: “Will you tell people about your struggle? If so, who will you tell? How much will you tell?…. When will you start to consider adoption or surrogacy?” and much more. Her comments afterwards include: “There are no wrong choices. Do what feels comfortable for you.”
There is a section on Baby Loss that includes a piece called “Supporting a Grieving Friend.” Saltzman offers rituals for stillbirths and discusses miscarriages and termination. There is also a chapter on adoption.
All Saltzman’s chapters on Jewish celebrations include the financial planning aspect. I smiled at the question on the planning of bar and bat mitzvot: “Will any grandparents be contributing to the budget?” In the chapter on Chanukah she discusses gift-giving and general issues of parenting. She cites the time of the Omer, between Pesach and Shavuot, as an opportunity for personal growth. Naturally, she relates to all the actions central to Jewish life such as the blessings on Shabbat and holiday candles.
Saltzman continues to tackle difficult issues throughout. Her chapter on divorce has a haunting checklist titled: “If You Need to Leave Right Away for Safety.” There is a section called, “There Is No Shame in Being Divorced,” and she deals with the problem of get refusal (in which the husband refuses to give his wife a Jewish divorce) and is adamant, again, about the importance of having a halachic prenup.
There are some unexpected treats. Her chapter on Rosh Chodesh includes a chart of the Hebrew months and their special characteristics. It will come as no surprise that Elul’s is “Repentance” or that the month of Adar includes “Strength, Good Fortune, Happiness and Joy,” but it was new to me that Tevet is the month of “Divine Trust and Grace,” or that Iyar brings with it “Introspection, Light, and Natural Healing.” When I asked her what her source was for this, she replied, “Mostly it is things I have learned over the years, or ways I relate to the months myself.” I usually devour footnotes, but I think Saltzman made the right decision in focusing on her message and deciding to not burden this volume with endless historical and halachic footnotes. Anyone seeking more extensive sources or information on the issues can easily find them online or in other books. Her comprehensive Appendixes include transliterations of blessings, a Glossary, and three pages of valuable Additional Resources.
Saltzman shares personal memories, which makes the book eminently relatable. She describes how she decorated their own family sukkah that was designed by her father and built together with her uncle. She describes the challenges of building and sitting in a sukkah, depending on which climate one lives in, and includes tips for those who sleep in the sukkah.
The advice in “Time Management in the Kitchen,” that appears in the Purim chapter, can be used anywhere any time. Her very extensive chapter on Pesach, together with a detailed timeline, includes the gem that her mother would set the Seder table one to two days before Seder night. She tells you how to avoid pre-Passover slavery, and what to do when in the weeks leading up to the holiday, noting how to schedule your time for the tasks at hand.
The Three Weeks, Nine Days, and Tishah B’Av also have a chapter that includes historical background and the various levels of mourning and deprivation.
Saltzman will teach you how to save space, how to take a road trip, how to stay calm, think ahead, be a part of the community, budget, and manage your guest lists. In general, she illustrates how planning in advance is essential, and G-d is in the details. Her tips are both wise and imaginative.
She offers “Do’s and Don’ts for Guests,” writes about gift-giving in general, and on a budget, and states, regarding the latter, when discussing weddings, “Your presence is a present. It’s a mitzvah to gladden the bride and groom, so plan a fun dance or something festive for them. Memories are also gifts.”
She also takes us through everything relating to end-of-life issues, death and mourning, shivah, right down to the yahrzeit candle and ordering the headstone. She advises on how to declutter the home of the deceased afterwards.
Part three of the book is called “Adulting” and its topics include shalom bayit (peace in the home), hospitality, gratitude, setting up your home, buying, renting, home supplies, how to save and be efficient, even how to fold and hang clothes, and how to keep your wardrobe to a manageable minimum.
Saltzman dedicates three excellent pages to “setting up children for success” in which she discusses the thorny issue of teaching children organizational skills that will help them in life. She also tackles the daunting issue of how long to keep children’s papers, tests, and artwork!
Saltzman has an excellent chapter on achieving zero waste, which she clearly aims for, as she strives for a happy home. A companion product, “The Organized Jewish Life Shabbat and Holiday Planner,” has places for guest lists, menus, recipes, budgets, and checklists for getting ready for the big days.
This is an extraordinary book and a fitting memorial to Rebekah Chaifetz Saltzman’s mother. At many points in the book, I found myself thinking, “Okay, that’s something I must do.” I also found myself tearing up, remembering our own simchas and other events, and remembering my own mother.
As we approach the new year, this is the perfect time to renew the organization of our homes and our Jewish lives. This book will take you through the Jewish year and through life, and you will probably end it being more organized, and certainly inspired. n
Organized Jewish Life, The Essential Guide for Planning Jewish Holidays, Events, and Every Day, published 2022 by Balagan Be Gone Press, and “The Organized Jewish Life Shabbat and Holiday Planner” are both available at Amazon. The reviewer is an award-winning journalist and theater director and the editor-in-chief of WholeFamily.com.