In Quest of the Elusive License Plates….

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Larry skipping to our car after finding a license plate from Chihuahua, Mexico

“Delaware!” my husband Larry yelled as we drove past a line of parked cars on Galena Street in Frisco, Colorado. “We got Delaware!”

In our life, “Getting Delaware” is a big deal. Within the first ten days of our five week search for license plates, we had gotten the license plate of the elusive Eastern seaboard state. Could Rhode Island be far behind?

Road Trip Entertainment

Today, while heading for their annual family vacation, children sit in the back seats of a SUV watching Toy Story or Frozen from a strategically placed rear-seat DVD system. When our children Adam and Julie were young,  high tech electronic baby sitters were not available.  We resorted to supplying them with books and food and some random toys to keep them busy.  

We also had aces up our sleeve. On long trips, I read them books—Superfudge and Tales of a Four Grade Nothing were the most popular. At night, we played P’Diddle. The first person to see a car with a missing headlights would yell the eponymous game’s name. The winner could punch his or her sibling in the shoulder. (Of course, Adam and Julie liked punching each other.) And if all else failed, we would pull out our old radio show cassette tapes and listen to Burns and Allen, Abbott and Costello, and the Lone Ranger. Not a Disney or Pixar movie to be found. Amazingly, we managed to get through our trips!

A New Game

For many years, our annual family vacation was spent at parents’ cottage on the New York side of Lake Champlain. The four of us would often take a day trip on the ferry from Port Kent to Burlington, Vermont. During those crossings, Larry encouraged us to check out the license plates. It became a game for us to see how many states we could find squeezed between bumpers. We could pick up ten or twelve states, mostly from the northeastern part of the country. “Dad would become pretty obsessed about our finding those license plates,” Julie recalled. 

Our game continued when our vacations expanded to Cape Cod. We would find an occasional Georgia or even California, but most people who headed to the Cape were from the New England and Mid-Atlantic states. A family vacation to Acadia National Park gave us a chance to expand our repertoire. I think that Larry was as excited to find that license plate from Alaska as he was to see Cadillac Mountain and Thunder Hole.

We Pursue the Plates

The children went along with their father’s fascination, but it wasn’t until Adam and Julie were out of the house and we began traveling out west to several national parks that his interest in tracking down all fifty-two plates intensified. and I became his mostly willing Pursuing the Plates Partner.

Fifty-two? That is part of “The Official Rules of the Game.” We are obligated  to find all fifty states, including both the yellow and turquoise New Mexico plates, and Washington, DC. We also track Canada’s ten provinces and three territories—including its newest Nunavut— as a bonus. (Bet many of you didn’t know all that information about Canada! See how much you can learn  plate pursuing!) Larry, the statistician, is in charge of keeping track of all our finds in his head and categorizing them by regions. I, the writer, am responsible for writing down each state as it is found and keeping the tally sheet with me at all times. 

Sightings Vary

No matter how complicated the rules, we are always able to pick off the big states—California, Texas, and Florida— quickly.  Non-contiguous Alaska and Hawaii are more difficult because of the distance—but we have found them almost every year.  Washington DC may be small in area, but anyone who has experienced the District of Columbia during the summer can understand why its 700,000 residents head out every July and August for cooler climes.  

The small states are the most problematic. As noted above, a license plate from Delaware is a coveted prize, as is West Virginia and New Hampshire. And Rhode Island? Legend says that Rhode Islanders consider any drive that takes more than twenty minutes a road trip. The probability of a “Little  Rhody” driving all the way to Colorado or Utah is slim. They usually are the last plates we find—if they are found at all.  

Many of the plates have been spotted while we are on the road, usually with Larry—the designated driver— behind the wheel.  Example: “Wait! Is that Maine in front of us?” Larry shouts.  He then speeds up the car and gets closer to targeted car to confirm. “Yes!  We got Maine!” We are lucky we haven’t yet “got”  a ticket for speeding or tailgating in the process.

And speaking of dangerous situations: Larry views every parking lot as a plethora of potential picks. He often takes circuitous routes through rows and rows of cars in search of an elusive New Jersey or West Virginia. I live in fear that my “Plate Patroller” will be so preoccupied in his hunt that he will get hit by a car backing out of a space. And sometimes, I am not afraid—just angry. As he usually has the keys to the rental car, I often find myself standing next to the locked passenger door, waiting in the rain or blazing heat or wind until Larry finishes his final scan and returns.  

Bounty Hunter in Action

At times, Larry has resorted to tracking down the actual drivers. While carrying groceries into our Colorado rental, Larry spotted a family sporting University of West Virginia sweatshirts walking into the condo next to us.  Larry tore after them to ask if they were from the Mountain State.

When they answered yes, Larry immediately followed up with the second, and more critical, question: “Did you drive your own car?”

”Sorry! It’s a rental!” 

Darn!

Unexpected Treasures

A few times, our search has yielded hidden treasures. We were walking into a Kansas City Royals vs. San Francisco Giants spring training game in Surprise Stadium in Arizona when Larry saw a license plate from Canada’s Northwest Territories. Not only was it the first time we had ever spotted a plate from that far-flung Canadian region, but also it was shaped like a polar bear!

We had another exciting find at Bahai Honda Key in Southern Florida, when we spotted a license plate from Germany. The owners—a young couple from Munich—had shipped their old Volkswagen van over to United States. After time in the Keys, they were continuing their journey through Mexico and Central and South America.

Now that we have Delaware, we only have eight more plates to go: non-contiguous. Alaska and Hawaii; New England’s New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont; Washington, DC; and West Virginia. Luckily for us, we have three more weeks in Colorado to find them. Wish us luck!

Update: An hour before I was to send this out, Larry found New Hampshire AND Chihuahua, Mexico! Wow! Only seven more to go!

Repairing the World

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The following is the first essay in my upcoming second book of essays, Tikkun Olam: Living Kind in an Unkind World. Look for it on Amazon soon!

The Shabbat prayer book in our synagogue includes the following meditation: “I harbor within—we all do—a vision of my highest self, a dream of what I could and should become. May I pursue this vision, labor to make real my dream.”

Melting glaciers and rising seas. The threat of nuclear war. The uptick of racist and xenophobic acts. Despite or maybe because of the current state of our world, it is more critical than ever for me to find “my highest self.” I am determined to use my moral compass to point me in a direction that follows my values and helps create change for the better for others.

Until recently, I did not consider myself an activist. I was—admittedly—marginally involved in the Vietnam War protests and the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment fight. Although I have voted in almost every local, state, and national election, I have minimally involved myself in campaigning. 

Recent headlines, however, have inspired me to become politically involved in the democratic process. In 2016, I participated in organized phone calls and mailings to support candidates in whom I believed. Two years later, I continue to be an activist. I participate in a grassroots organization to effect change at a local level. I contact my legislators on a regular basis through phone calls, emails, and letters. In addition, I have met with my United States representative, worked on post card campaigns, written postcards to encourage voter participation in recent off-year special elections, and provided financial support to organizations and publications that support my views. Even though these efforts are often met with defeat and disappointment, at least I have made a sincere effort to make a difference. 

In turn, I work to be more accepting of those whose political views differ from mine. I listen more carefully and non-judgmentally without rushing in with my own opinion. I have expanded my reading to include a wider range of media and publications in belief that my knowledge will help me better understand why people think like they do. Such research also gives me insight as to how the country and the world got to where it is today .Maybe—just maybe—if friends and family members talk and share and communicate, we can encourage our government to take a more bi-partisan approach. 

Finally, I strive to be kind. Whether it be coaching a local Special Olympics track and field team with my husband; extending a smile to strangers, or offering a helping hand to those impacted by recent natural disasters, I believe individual acts of goodness can make a difference. “Not all of us can do great things,” Mother Theresa said. “But we can do small things with great love.” 

Tikkun Olam, the Hebrew expression translated often as “repairing the world” is the Jewish moral principal that states every individual should leave this world better than he or she found it. This is the vision of my highest self. Through my voice, my writing, and my actions, I hope “to do small things with great love”—to make our country and this world a better place for our own and future generations.

Adapted from “Living My Values, The Jewish World, April 5, 2017

 

Beating the Odds

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Tony Handler (Courtesy of Jack Hall, Tony’s Grandson)

Eric Lagerstrom, a 29 year old from Gresham, Oregon, may have been the official male top finisher in the 2018 St. Anthony’s Triathlon, which was held on a beautiful April day in St. Petersburg, Florida. However, in the pack of over 3000 participants was an individual that many considered the true winner. Seventy-nine year old Tony Handler had completed his 300th triathlon since his “terminal” diagnosis thirty-five years earlier. “I beat Mr. Cancer again,” said Tony with satisfaction.

Waiting at the finish line, as she had done almost every time before, was his wife, Narda, his childhood sweetheart from Newark, New Jersey. “I think I missed only five races in his entire triathlon career,” said Narda

None of this seemed it would be possible thirty-five years earlier. In 1983 Tony was driving Narda and friends home from an evening out when he was seized by excruciating abdominal pains.  His friend took over the wheel and drove Tony directly to the hospital. The doctors in the emergency room determined that his stomach had ruptured and immediately operated.

Death Around the Corner?

Two days after the surgery, Tony was transferred to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. The doctors there gave the Handlers the devastating news: Tony  had pancreatic cancer and had at best two more years to live.

Tony, who was forty-five,  refused to accept the diagnosis. After several more surgeries, he was chosen to participate in clinical trials at NIH with nineteen other patients who shared his rare form of cancer.  A willing “human guinea pig,” Tony endured hours of medical protocols, innumerable experimental drug treatments,  and seven surgeries.

While undergoing the  regimen, Tony saw an article that stated  the city of Baltimore was hosting the Bud Lite Triathlon in July 1985.   “I  thought this would be a good way for me to fight the bleak prognosis.” 

Against the Odds!

Tony was not new to athletic competitions. Born in 1939 in Newark, New Jersey, to first generation Jewish  parents, he had participated in Weequahic High School’s cross country and swim teams, serving as the latter’s captain.

Cheering him on in the stands was Narda Mandell. Shortly after his bar mitzvah at Congregation B’Nai Jeshrun in Newark, Tony had met twelve-year-old Narda and they soon became a couple. “I was—and still am—his biggest fan,” said Narda.

After Narda completed high school and Tony completed his stint in the army, Tony and Narda were married on September 27th, 1959. Narda worked as a receptionist in a bank until their first son was born.

 In 1960, Tony was hired by IBM and spent the next 12 years working and going to Rutgers at night to earn a business degree.  Tony received a promotion to IBM’s  to its Washington DC office, and they moved to Crofton, Maryland, to be closer to the company’s Washington office. In 1983, they were living what appeared to be an idyllic life when their world was turned upside down.

Tony was determined to survive. He set his goal to compete in the 1985 Bud Lite Triathlon. Initially, he could only do a slow walk/run.  As his stamina increased, he began running two, five, ten miles. “Running made me feel as if I were fighting back,” said Tony. He dusted off his bike and rode the Maryland countryside. He found a local pool, donned goggles and a Speedo, and began swimming competitive laps for the first time since his high school swim team days. 

The Main Competition

On July 1, 1985,  Tony completed the Baltimore triathlon, which combined a one mile swim, 24.8 miles of bicycling and 6.2 miles of running. Tony was far behind the winning time of one hour and 55 minutes, but he had won a personal victory. “I only had one competitor,” said Tony, “and that was Mr. Cancer.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Cancer wasn’t done with Tony. He faced multiple bouts with six different kinds of cancer, including pancreatic, liver, prostate, and skin cancers, and twenty-one surgeries. 

Through it all, Tony continued his job as an IBM consultant. The management at the company were supportive, never hesitating in giving the time he needed to have the multiple surgeries and finish his recovery. After work and on weekends he continued to work out and participate in triathlons across the United States. “I needed victories wherever I could find them,” said Tony. “Every time  I crossed that finish line, I felt like I beat Mr. Cancer again.”

The Marathon Continues

In 1988 Tony received a promotion to senior consultant and was transferred to Tampa, Florida, where he continued to compete.

By the time he was approaching his sixtieth birthday, Tony had completed 200 triathlons. He set his goal even higher by signing up for the 2000 Florida Ironman Triathlon.  A back injury that was unrelated to cancer forced him to cancel. But in 2001, he completed the Panama City-based competition, which was composed of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2 mile run. He felt such a sense of accomplishment, he did again when he was 62.

When he retired from IBM in 2003, Tony and Narda moved to Solivita, a 55 plus active adult community located in Central Florida. 

Playing It Forward

As a cancer survivor, Tony was determined to “pay it forward.” Soon after their move, he organized the first annual community-wide three mile walk/run in Solivita to raise money for the American Cancer Society (ACS). Beginning in 2012, several Solivita clubs joined together to establish an annual Relay for Life event that supported ACS. Tony’s run/walk was folded into the community’s umbrella fundraising efforts. As of 2018, the combined efforts have raised over $700,000, of which $60,000 was raised by Tony’s walk/run event.

His story of survival and his fundraising have earned Tony state and national recognition. In 2013, Tony qualified to compete in the National Triathlon Age Group Championship in Milwaukee. At the concluding banquet, Tony was given  an award for being the  “Most Inspirational Athlete.” In 2015, Tony qualified to represent the United States on Team USA at the World Age Group Triathlon Championship in Chicago.  

In 2016, Tony was the recipient of the  “Geriathlete” award at the Growing Bolder Awards banquet in Orlando, Florida. He, along with other Central Florida seniors, was lauded for  “pursuing his passions and living lives of purpose while making a difference in the lives of others.    

Determination and Exercise

Sadly, Tony is the only surviving participant of the twenty original participants in the 1983 NIH clinical trials. Doctors at the Moffitt Cancer Center continue  to track Tony’s progress and oversee his life-saving medications and monthly chemo injections. His remarkable medical history has been the subject in professional journals and conferences. Researchers agree that what Tony often calls his “crazy exercise routine”appears to have been a factor in his longevity.

Along with their busy life in Central Florida, the Handlers enjoy the pleasure of three sons, one living in Maryland and the other two in Florida with their wives and five grandchildren. 

Tony views the St. Anthony’s Triathlon as another victory against Mr. Cancer, a fight he hopes to continue waging for as long as his body is able to.

“I beat the odds,” said Tony. “I just hope my story is an inspiration to other cancer patients to “NEVER GIVE UP.” 

Handlers

Narda and Tony Handler

Patriot Weissman was POW in World War II

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Staff Sargent Melvin Weissman

Melvin Weissman didn’t have to fight in World War II. 

As a machinist for an essential industry, he needed permission from his company to even enlist. He was first rejected by the army as he had flat feet. But the twenty-two year old was determined to fight for his county.

Undeterred, Melvin, along with several of his friends, tried to enlist in the United States Army Air Corp. This time, he was accepted, flat feet and all. When he said good-bye to his family, Weissman was overcome with emotion. “I knew I would never see my father again,” Weissman later told his daughter Diane Silverman. 

After basic training, Weissman was assigned as a flight engineer flying B-17s with the USAF, 94th Bomb Group, 331st Squadron, out of Bury-St. Edmunds, England.

Worries of a Jewish GI

Weissman had grown up in Brooklyn, the son of Nathan and Dora Weissman, Jewish Russian immigrants. He knew that “H” for Hebrew,  Jewish designation on his dog tags could cause a problem if he was captured by the Germans. He requested that his tag be changed to “P” for Protestant, to be worn on each bombing missions. 

Weissman and his fellow soldiers flew ten successful missions over Germany. On his eleventh mission, however, the plane was hit. He and several soldiers jumped out the plane safely; others lost their lives when the plane crashed.

When his parachute brought him into enemy territory, Weissman realized that he had accidentally worn the dog tags with the Jewish designation, the letter  “H.” He quickly tossed them away before a ten year old German boy found the scratched and bruised solider and turned him over to Nazi soldiers.

During his interrogation, Weissman was asked questions in English from a commander. In the same room, behind a screen, was another commander telling the interrogator in German what questions to ask the captured soldier.  Because his parents spoke Yiddish in their house, Weissman understood the Germans and knew the questions ahead of time. To further hide his Jewish identity, he gave his name as “Veismann,” a more German form of his Jewish name.

Weissman was sent to Stalag 17-B, where he remained a prisoner of war from January 11, 1944, to May 3, 1945. While he was in prison camp,  a neighbor of the Weissmans heard a blurb on the radio that Staff Sargent Melvin Weissman had been captured. His father, who was in failing health, said the he would believe this was true only when he heard from his older son.  A letter finally came to their Brooklyn address on April 2, 1944. Nathan Weissman died the next day.  Weissman’s premonition had come true. “My aunts told me he was just waiting to hear that Melvin was ok.” said Diane

In April 1945, as the war was coming to a close, 4,000 of the POWs at Stalag 17-B began an 18-day march of 281 miles to Braunau, Austria. The remaining 900 men were too ill to make the march and were left behind in the hospitals. These men were liberated on May 9, 1945. Those who survived the death march were finally rescued by American troops.

J is for ?

Weissman and his fellow liberated soldiers were shipped home to New York City. While sailing, Weissman was taken ill. When he arrived, he walked down the gang plank where doctors, pulling him aside, put a giant yellow J on his shirt. When he asked how they knew he was Jewish, they laughed. “We don’t know if you’re Jewish,” they said. “But we DO know you are jaundiced.”

Weissman spent three months in a hospital in New Jersey recovering from his imprisonment and subsequent illness. When a rabbi came in to tell Weissman that his father was dead, Weissman said, “I know. My mother and sisters never mentioned him in his letters, but I knew I was saying my last goodbye to him when I left for basic training.” 

Once he was healthy, Weissman returned home and got a job as a machinist for Templet Industries in Brooklyn, New York. He met Sylvia Laskowitz in January 1948. They were married six months later, on June 27, 1948. Their daughter Mona was born fifteen months later, and their second child Diane was born in 1953. 

Diane remembers a happy childhood, marred only by quirks that she attributes to his status as a POW. 

PTSD

“Dad was not a very trusting person except for his wife and two daughters,” said Diane. Although he never spoke about his war experiences while she lived home, Diane remembers hearing her father cry out in his sleep. She often found him sitting on the edge of the bed, covered in sweat. Diane did her best to soothe him, to try to help him move past his nightmares. 

By 2007, Sylvia, his wife of 58 years,  and Mona had both passed away. Weissman had severe heart problems and reoccurring bouts of  post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) As he was no longer able to live alone, Diane and her husband Mark moved him into their home in Clifton Park, New York. More war stories started coming out. Weissman talked about his time in the camp. Conditions may have been difficult for American soldiers, but he spoke sadly of the treatment given to Russian and Polish POW’s. He also recounted his long days on the death march and his rescue. 

By 2010, Alzheimers had set in, and Weissman became very combative, “a tortured soul.” After some violent episodes in which he threatened Diane physically, Diana and Mark made arrangement to move him to Albany Stratton VA Medical Center. Three days before he was to make the move, Diane found her father dissolved in tears. “What is wrong, Daddy?” Diane asked. 

“I killed a man!” sobbed her father. 

“Do you mean in the war? Do you mean you killed a German soldier?” 

“Yes.”

“Daddy, if you didn’t kill him, he would have killed you. And you never would have been married to Mom or had your daughters, your four grandchildren, and the great-grandchild you have on the way.” 

This calmed him. It was also the last coherent conversation Diane had with her father. Hero’s Way, the hospice unit of VA Hospital, provided the care the exhausted and haunted ex-GI needed in his remaining days. Seven weeks later, on September 11, 2011, Melvin Weissman quietly passed away. His great-grandson Judah Benjamin Rome, who was given the Hebrew name Moshe Dov after Melvin and a paternal great-grandfather, was born November 22, 2011.

Noting Veterans’ Efforts

For several years, Congregation Beth Shalom had had a low-key breakfast on the Sunday before Veterans Day. Soon after his father-in-law died, Mark asked Diane if she wanted to honor her father by having them sponsor the breakfast.

Diane agreed, but only on her own terms. The danish and coffee were accompanied by huge plates of Diane’s luchen kugel, homemade quiche, and fresh fruit. Between seventy-five and one hundred members of the congregation and their guests, many themselves veterans,  attended the elaborate brunch for the next six years until the Silvermans moved to Connecticut in 2016.

Diane still has the American flag that was draped on her father’s coffin, and she proudly displays it on the wall of her living room. “I brought it to every Veterans Day brunch, and I proudly display it on the walls of our home,” said Diane. “It is my way of remembering an American Jewish GI, a former prisoner of war, and the best dad in the world!”

Originally published in The [Capital District] Jewish World on May 31, 2018 and the Heritage Florida Jewish News on June 1, 2018

A Grand master in tennis and life—Lazar Lowinger

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Lazar’s father Julius, a Romanian jeweler, and his mother Manya Gilburd, a Ukranian, met in Cuba, where they both had come to join their families. After they were married, they planned to emigrate to America. 

In 1933, however, Julius accepted a position as a jeweler with a prestigious company in Belgium. Lazar, their only child, was born soon after. In 1936, with Hitler extending his grasp on Europe, the Lowingers returned to Julian’s native Romania to be closer to his mother and, according to Lazar, “in search of a better future.” Ironically, Marshall Ion Antonescu, who was later executed for war crimes, protected the Jews from being deported to concentration camps.

Life was still fraught with danger. While living in Bucharest, the Lowingers’ house and courtyard were repeatedly damaged by Allied Forces bombs. “Every day, I got up, went to school, and prayed that our house would not be destroyed and my family and I would not be killed,” Lazar recalled seventy years later. The family survived in part through Julius’ resourcefulness by using the gold coins he had hidden away to buy food, always difficult to obtain in the war-torn county.

Once the war ended, the family decided to return to Cuba. After a six month stay in Paris while awaiting their visas, the three emigrated in 1946. Two years after their move, Julius and Manya divorced. In 1950, Julius moved to Montreal; and sixteen year old Lazar and his mother moved to Boston where Manya’s brother was a butcher. 

A self-admitted poor student, Lazar dropped out of school and enlisted in Army’s Special Services Unit. While stationed in Alaska, he obtained his GED . Upon completion of his military service, he enrolled in Boston University then transferred to Sir George Williams in Montreal. He returned to Boston and was accepted to Suffolk Law School, graduating and passing the Massachusetts Bar Exam in 1962. 

Lazar’s credentials, as well as his linguistic abilities—he was fluent in Yiddish, Romanian, French, Portuguese, and Spanish—were beneficial in his job search.He was hired by Elijah Adlow, Chief Justice of the Boston Municipal Courts, who sought a Spanish-speaking lawyer to appoint as counsel for the increasing Spanish population in the Boston area. 

As the first Spanish speaking lawyer in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Lazar made his reputation as the “Spanish Speakers’ Lawyer.” Throughout his law career, including establishing his own practice, Lazar defended a wide range of clientele, from those seeking workmen’s compensation to those accused of murder. 

In addition, Lowinger wrote for El Mundo, the Boston-based Spanish newspaper. He also hosted two radio programs: a Spanish “Ask Your Lawyer” and a “coffee hour“in which Lazar debated with other Boston lawyers. Lazar and his wife Audrey Schwellung, whom he married in 1965, settled in Newton, Massachusetts with their two sons Jeffrey (1966) and Brian (1968), despite offers to relocate to Florida with its larger Hispanic population. “I liked being a big fish in a small pond,” said Lazar.

Lazar loved law, but he loved tennis as much, or even more. Immediately following the end of World War II, Lazar had played table tennis and a version of squash at a Jewish youth center. Lazar was encouraged by a wealthy friend of his father to play tennis. At first Lazar was not interested—he thought tennis was for girls— but he quickly fell in love with the game. 

Lazar carried that love across the ocean. He won his first championship at the St. Lawrence Tournament in Canada while a student at Sir George Williams College. He also played in tournaments in law school as well as with fellow attorneys and local judges in Bench and Bar. “I never won a tournament against a judge,” said Lazar. “That was intentional!”

In 1989, Lazar, who was fifty-two years old, was invited by his friend and Macccabian Hall of Fame tennis player Irving Levine to try out for the United States men’s Maccabi team. When he didn’t make the cut, Lazar went to Puerto Rico and organized the Puerto Rican Maccabi team. 

In 1991, Lazar participated for the first time as a member of USA Maccabi tennis team. Lazar has gone on to represent his country six more times, initially in the Masters (Ages 35 to 65) division. Heralded by the Boston Jewish Advocate as the ‘Maccabi Maven,’ Lazar moved up to the Grand Master’s Division(Ages 65+) in 1998. 

“Grand Masters has no age limit,” said Lazar. “I will be playing until they put me in a casket,” His two most recent medal, a gold and a bronze, were earned in the 2017 Games, when Lazar was eighty-two years old. 

Lazar has also participated in several Maccabi Pan-American Games. In 2015, Lazar was invited to his native Cuba to join the team that played in the 13th Annual Games in Santiago, Chile. He won two silver medals, Cuba’s first in that age category and Lazar’s sixth. 

At his first Maccabi Game, Lazar met Marilyn Glaser who had volunteered as a nurse for the USA team in the two previous competitions held in 1981 and 1985. They connected again as friends over the next twenty years, he as the competitor, she as the volunteer. When Lazar was widowed in 2011, Marilyn sent him a note of condolence. Their friendship, based on their mutual love of the games and the close proximity of their homes in Florida, soon blossomed into a romance. They now share a home with their dog Malka in Solivita, a fifty-five plus community outside of Orlando. Marilyn, former president of the community’s Shalom Club, is the current president of Congregation Shalom Aleichem, the local synagogue. Weather and health permitting, Lazar still plays tennis at least five days a week. 

Although Marilyn lived in Israel for six years, Lazar’s mutual connection and love for Eretz Yisrael grew as his role as visitor and competitor. “Every time I go to Israel for the games,” said Lazar, “I feel like I belong there.” 

 “Building Jewish Pride through Sports” is the Maccabi USA’s motto, one that Lazar has taken to heart. While taking responsibility for his own expenses incurred during the Games, he has raised over $60,000 for other American athletes. “My participation and my support of Maccabi USA is my way of expressing my Jewishness,” the Grand Master tennis champion stated. 

Lazar also is a generous supporter of Israel’s Tennis Centers, the largest social service agency for Israel children. ITC serves more than a half million children and their families since its first center opened in Ramat Hasharon in 1976. With 14 centers on the country, primarily in underprivileged communities, the not-for-profit Centers use tennis to promote the social, physical, and psychological well being of their students, to develop coaches, and to maintain the courts and facilities.

Are there more competitions in Lazar’s future? He hopes to participate in next Pan Am Games, set for Mexico City in 2019. He will be 85. Stay tuned….

10 decades of memories: Patriarch Geisler to note 100th birthday

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Southern Florida, will be rocking on May 17. On that day, Morty Geisler, a veteran of World War II and a successful businessman, will be celebrating his one-hundredth birthday. Dr. Warren Geisler, a retired Albany dentist and one of his six surviving children, shared stories about his beloved father. 

Mortimer Arthur Geisler was born on May 17, 1918, in Harlem, New York,  to Maxwell and Anna Grossman Geisler, both immigrants from Poland.Eighteen months later, Maxwell died in the Great Flu Pandemic. Life was tough for the family. Geisler grew up in a two bedroom walk-up with his mother, younger brother, and grandfather. They were supported by his grandfather and Anna’s three brothers.

Geisler, however, was bright and resourceful. After graduating high school at fifteen years old, he took a job as a stock boy in a haberdasher store. He made ten dollars a week, half which went to his mother.

In 1942, Geisler married Sylvia Sheer.  A year later, he was drafted into the army, where he, like many Jewish GI’s, Geisler encountered anti-Semitism. When some “Southern boys” began picking on him, he complained to his captain. Geisler never had any problems again. 

Geisler and six thousand other soldiers were shipped over to England. The soldiers were piled ten high in bunks in the bowels of a Liberty ship, which he remembered as a “floating cork.” Geisler and his division landed on Omaha Beach on June 9, three days into what would be known as D-Day.  He then followed General Patton’s 3rd Army through St. Low to Pont de Masson relieving Bastogne and crossed the Rhein and Ruhr Rivers on the way to Magdenburg where he joined General Simpson’s 9th Army on the way to Gottinger. His division was involved in closing the pocket in Hamm where 100,000 Nazis were captured and surrendered.

In May 1945, Geisler’s division entered Dachau concentration camp two days after its liberation. “My father witnessed the ferocity of the evil that the Third Reich had created,” his son Warren, a retired dentist from Albany, New York. ”Those images are still seared into his being until this day” 

“Thousands of corpses were scattered through out the camp,” said Geisler. “Survivors, mostlyJewish, were lice infested, walking skeletons. Still in their striped uniforms, these hollow-eyed slouched over beings managed to still smile as they thanked us GI’s for saving them.”

The war was still not over for Geisler. His division advanced to Pliessen, Czechoslovakia, where they faced off on the banks of the Elbe River against Soviet forces which kept  them from invading Czechoslovakia. Two weeks later he was transferred to Paris where he met up with his brother Maxwell and his recent French bride.

In October 1945, Geisler shipped out on the Queen Mary with 14,000 other GIs back to New York City. Five days at sea with seasickness was the tour du jour. My father never missed a meal and stayed top side for four of the days at sea. Once stateside he was honorably discharged two weeks later. The war and its battles were over.

Geisler found a job as a hosiery salesman for Ma-Ro Corporation, where he became its youngest national sales manager. In 1959, Geisler and  three other salesman opened Proudfoot Hosiery. As the eventual sole owner, Geisler licensed the first National Football League’s tube sock and the first non-slip sock. His company won the licensing for the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. He eventually sold the company, working for the corporations that carried his lines. He retired at 85.

Geisler and Sylvia had four children, Steven, Warren, Edward, and Jayne.  The Geisler was active in the Jewish community and were responsible, along with other Jewish World War II veterans for the founding of Temple Beth Emeth, a conservative synagogue in Hewitt, New Jersey. “They all wanted to work and provide for their families in a religious setting safe from the hell of the war’s mass murder and genocide,” said Warren. All three sons were bar mitzvahed there. Geisler was also a member of the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization that provides philanthropic work for numerous causes.

Sylvia passed away in 1971. A year later, he married Enid Friedman, a widow who had three children, Iris, Daniel, and Paul. While enrolled at Princeton University, Paul, a natural athlete and president of the college’s Big Brothers/Big Sisters,  was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer. After his death, the devastated parents donated a library in Paul’s name at the Israel Tennis Association(ITA) in Kyriat Shemona, Israel. 

Geisler’s experiences in the war, Sylvia’s volunteer work for the American Red Cross, and Paul’s legacy instilled in the six surviving children a sense of service and provided a cornerstone for philanthropic  work for the entire family. 

Geisler now lives in an independent living facility in Tamarac, Florida. Although he himself says he is “slowing down,” he paints (a skill he learned when he was ninety years old) and watches sports and operas. He and his 94-year-old friend Evelyn Mitchell step out often for dinner, she in her stiletto heels. “She drives; I buy,” quipped Geisler.

Seventy-three years later, however, the images Geisler encountered in Dachau continue to haunt him. “When I was growing up,  I remember tapping him on the shoulder to wake him up,” recounted Warren. “I immediately stepped back in fear as he jumped up as he were still defending himself.”  When asked to be video-taped the research department of Yad Vashem the world Holocaust memorial Jerusalem, he refused. “He still has nightmares,” said Warren, and he could not relive the horrors.

Geisler is devastated by the atmosphere of hate and intolerance seen today in the world, especially his beloved United States. “I want my children and grandchildren to understand that we are a great people, a great country,” said Geisler. “I worry how the new generation will survive all the current animosity.”

Meanwhile, the Geisler family is planning a big party later this month. His six surviving children as well the eleven grandchildren and five great grandchildren will be there to celebrate the life of what one of the surviving members of The Greatest Generation.

“Many GIs did their duty and sacrificed their lives, limbs, and even their sanity as asked by this nation,” said Warren. “May those who have died either in the war or as long-time veterans rest in peace.”

Geisler himself looks back with gratitude. “I’ve lived a long, wonderful life,” the centenarian said. ”I’ve had two wonderful marriages and seven wonderful children. I am truly blessed.” 

Happy Birthday, Morty. May you live 120 years.

Jewish World, 

Pictures are available through the following link: http://jewishworldnews.org/10-decades-of-memories-patriarch-geisler-to-note-100th-birthday/

The Titanic Fanatic

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Steve Mattis stands in his library, which is filled with Titanic memorabilia.

On March 28, 1956, nine-year-old Steven Mattis sat mesmerized in his living room in Philadelphia as Kraft Theater’s adaptation of A Night to Remember unfolded. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Walter Lord, the one hour television production told the story of the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. At first enthralled by the beautiful ship, the glamour of the first class passengers, and the contrast to the third class passengers circumstances, Mattis’ fascination turned to horror as he viewed the shocking climax: Three hours after hitting an iceberg, the British ocean liner sank into the North Atlantic Ocean. Over one thousand five hundred men, women, and children perished. 

It was a life-changing event. That night, Mattis cried himself to sleep. “I realized that my parents could not save me from all of life’s dangers,” he remembered.

In the years that followed, Mattis spent much of his spare time reading and researching everything he could learn about the doomed voyage. His interest in the supposedly “unsinkable ship” has expanded over six decades. More recently Mattis has thrilled innumerable people who have listened to his lectures on the subject. 

The Titanic did not play into his professional career. For thirty-seven years, Mattis taught Spanish, first in Philadelphia and then for seven years in Fort Lauderdale,Florida. In 2005, Mattis moved to Solivita, an active 55+ community in Kissimmee. A seasoned traveler—he has been on 117 cruises so far—he joined Solivita travel club and  spent the next twelve years organizing and leading trips for its members. His travels have taken him and the travel club groups to China, Tahiti, Antarctica, Alaska, Hawaii, the Mediterranian, and safaris in Africa.

In April 2012, Mattis participated in the 100th Anniversary Titanic Memorial Cruise. The MS Balmoral, which sailed out of Southhampton, England, retraced the doomed liner’s fateful journey. For Mattis and many of its 1308 other passenger—seventy relatives of people who had died onboard or who had survived—the highlight was the moving memorial service. The ship sailed to the site of the sinking to be there exactly one hundred years to the hour. The commemorative ceremonies began at 11:40 p.m. on April 14 when Titanic struck the iceberg and ended at 2:20 a.m., April 15, when she sank under the sea. 

The following fall, Mattis presented a talk with accompanying slides on his “trip of a lifetime” to Solivita’s Travel Club.Before embarking on  a cruise on the Amazon the following year, Mattis posted a question to fellow cruisers: “Would any of you be interested in hearing my Titanic lecture?” The response was overwhelmingly favorable. Over forty people showed up at that first lecture. The cruise director, impressed with the depth of knowledge and passion Mattis conveyed, encouraged the “Titanic fanatic” to add additional lectures to his repertoire and offer the package on future cruises. Mattis and his best friend, Andy Miller, complied, adding three more lectures.The rest, as Mattis says, was history.  

Starting with groups in Solivita and local libraries, Mattis expanded his audience to multiple cruise lines, including Azamara, Royal Caribbean, Silversea, Princess and Celebrity. His audiences have been as large six hundred people, often growing over the length of the cruise as favorite word of mouth reviews spread throughout the ship. 

Mattis’ lectures are —no pun intended—a tip of the iceberg regarding people’s interest in the ill-fated voyage. Traveling expeditions, numerous museums, special events, television shows, and eight movies still draws crowds. (Mattis himself has seen A Night to Remember fifteen times and James Camerons’ Titanic close to fifty.) 

What brings people to Mattis’ lectures on a cruise ship when they could be sunning by the pool or learning how to fold napkins? Mattis believes that this is a story into which people can put themselves. Mattis said that the fact that the Titanic took close to three hours to go down puts people into the story.”’Who would I have been in the Titanic?’ people ask.” Mattis said. “Would I have been a hero? A villain? A first class passenger steeped in elegance? A third class immigrant in steerage?” 

The irony—the pure tragedy—also sparks peoples interest. “There was great hubris by both the designers and the captain in thinking that a ship—with a shortage of lifeboats for partly esthetic reasons—could be unsinkable and could run at full speed at night through ice fields after warning after warning of the danger.”

Mattis often  tailors his lectures to his audiences, as he did in 2015 when he gave a lecture on Jews on the Titanic for Solivita’s Shalom Club. Mattis, whose family belonged to Brith Israel, a conservative synagogue in Philadelphia, takes pride in the way prominent Jews handled their fate on the ship. 

As did many passengers, Benjamin Guggenheim, the fifth of seven sons of the wealthy mining magnate Meyer Guggenheim, initially did not realize the fatal consequences that would result from the ships’s collision with the iceberg. “We will soon see each other again! It’s just a repair,” he said to the women and children he and his valet were helping into lifeboats. Once he realized that he and many others would not survive, he returned to his cabin and donned his evening wear. “We’ve dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen,” said Guggenheim. Mattis said later accounts described the billionaire and his valet as last seen seated in chairs in the foyer of the Grand Staircase sipping brandy and smoking cigars, ready to accept their fate without fear or hesitation. Their bodies were never recovered.

Two other Jews who lost their lives on April 15, 1912, were German-born Isador Strauss, politician and the owner of Macy’s Department Store, and his wife Ida Strauss. The couple were on the Titanic traveling back from a winter in Europe. Once it was clear the Titanic was sinking, Isador refused to get into a lifeboat, stating firmly, “I will not go before the other men.”  Ida handed her fur coat to her maid, Ellen Bird, as she left the lifeboat, said, “As we have lived, so will we die, together.” In what eye witnesses later described as a”most remarkable exhibition of love and devotion.” Isidor and Ida were last seen on deck arm in arm.

Broadway producer Henry Birkhardt Harris was more successful in convincing his wife, actress Renee Harris to board a lifeboat without him. Earlier that day, Renee had broken her arm in a fall on the Grand Staircase. Convincing her that he could not save himself as well as his disabled wife, Henry refused a seat and also perished. His widow, who became New York City’s first woman theatrical producer, remarried three times and lived until 93. 

Not all Jews were first class passengers.Leah Rosen Aks, emigrating to America from London, was on the Titanic with her infant son Phillip. Leah and her son were separated in the confusion when they were being loaded on the lifeboats. “Filly” was thrown into another lifeboat; the inconsolable Leah was soon placed on Lifeboat 13. Soon after Carpathia rescued the survivors, Leah was walking on the deck when she recognized her son’s cry. However, the woman who had caught Phillip, regarding the baby as a “gift from God,” claimed it to be her own. In a scenario rivaling King Solomon, Leah pleaded her case to the Carpathia’s captain. Only when Leah was able to identify a distinguishable birthmark on his breastbone was Phillip returned to his birth mother. Leah and Phillip were reunited with her husband Sam in New York. They later had a second son, Harry, and a daughter, Sarah Carpathia—named after the rescue ship.

Mattis also related another note of Jewish interest: The Titanic had a kosher kitchen. On board was a “Hebrew” chef, a non-Jew from South Africa, who had trained with a rabbi in Southhampton on previous White Line cruises. A kosher option was available to all passengers, including those in third class.

Over one hundred years later, all the passengers are gone, not only those that died but those who survived. Millvina Dean, who was two months old when the vessel hit the iceberg, died in 2009 at the age of 97. 

Mattis regards the time he spends sharing the Titanic’s stories as his contribution to the legacy of the ship. “The fact that this story stays alive and is of interest to so many brings me joy,” says Solivita’s own Titanic Fanatic.