Monthly Archives: December 2015

Hometown Tours

A number of years ago, Larry’s sister Carole had her annual Fourth of July party in her backyard in Saratoga Springs. What made this party special is that our niece and her significant other had made the trip up from Virginia, the first time he had ever been to Saratoga County.

Katie wanted to show Swamy around the city, and Larry offered to give the tour. We piled into the Prius, Larry behind the wheel with Swamy next to him for the best view. Katie and I took seats in the back, and we began our excursion.

Larry’s first stop was not the race track or the Hall of Springs or Congress Park. Nope. He immediately drove to Avery Street and parked outside a white two-story colonial. “This is our first house in Saratoga,” Larry explained. “I spent hours playing stoop ball right there on those front steps. My friend Tommy lived down the street, and Al lived around the corner.”

When Katie and I suggested that Larry show Swamy more of Saratoga Springs tourist spots, he assured us he was getting there. But the next stop was in front of another house down the street. “That is where my piano teacher lived,” he offered. “His wife was my fourth grade teacher.”

My niece and I began to giggle. We knew where this was going. Our next stop was in front of one of the gates at the race track, where Larry sold newspapers and, when he turned eighteen, beer to the patrons. This “site” was accompanied by a story as to how Larry was once accused of not having the exact amount of money at the end of the day, and how he had proven his honesty to the manager. We saw the field where Larry played baseball into the summer nights, his old high school, and the outer limits of his newspaper route.

Swamy did get to see a little of the true tourist places but only as we drove by on Larry’s sentimental tour of the “real” Saratoga Springs. By the end of the hour, Katie and I were laughing out loud. Swamy, who is a sweet gentle soul, smiled throughout and offered an occasional “Very nice!”

Recently, I shared this story with my friend Marcie. Rather than thinking it was funny, she told me that she totally got it. Completely. Marcie had grown up in Boston, and after her daughter graduated Northeastern, she insisted that the two of them take a tour of the “real” Boston. Marcie drove her daughter to her old synagogue Agudath Israel, the house where her father had lived in the once thriving Jewish neighborhood of Dorchester, and her old school, Girls Latin. “My daughter thought that she knew Boston because she had been to Fenway Park and walked the Freedom Trail,” said Marcie. “But she knew nothing unless I introduced her to the Boston that was my home.”

It then hit me that one’s home town, no matter how heralded or how small, was not about the tourist spots. It was about memories. Keeseville is just a dot on the map. When Larry first visited me there in 1973, I didn’t bring him to Ausable Chasm, our one claim to fame. He and I took a walk over the swinging bridge and the steep steps up to Pleasant Street. We circled around past my old high school. I pointed out the church right across the street. “When I was a child, all my Catholic friends crossed themselves when they walked past it,” I told him. “I did it for a while until my parents explained to me that Jews ‘didn’t do that.’” Then we walked home over the keystone bridge.

For over thirty-six years we did similar tours for our out-of-area Clifton Park guests. No visit would be complete without a drive past the little red school house where my children went to nursery school, a walk through the Vischer Ferry Wildlife Preserve, and a stop for apple cider donuts at Riverview Orchards in the fall or ice cream at the Country Drive-in in the summer. None of these places would be in Lonely Planet or even local “What To See” guides in the Capital Region. To us, however, they represented what best in our hometown. Not to say that we wouldn’t bring guests to the State Museum or the Saratoga Battlefield or even Cooperstown. However, when it comes to important, we know.

Our home in Florida is less than forty minutes from Disney; Legoland and Sea World are even closer. When guests come, I am sure that these world-famous attractions may be on top of their ‘must see’ list. But after only few months, we already had selected off the grid locations, starting with the view of Pacer Pond from our lanai. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Larry and I woke up to the sight of four birds, two lizards, and an alligator that Larry named Brutus, whose size rivals anything one can see in Gatorland. We found a great custard stand down the road, and the Disney Wilderness Preserve is only four miles away.

So, my dear Larry, now I ‘get it’ too. You showed Swamy the best that Saratoga Springs had to offer you, and I know you will do the same for our future Florida visitors. Just warn them about Brutus before they step out into our back yard.

The Candle Debacle

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Growing up as the only Jewish family in our small upstate town of Keeseville had its challenges. Most people were very accepting, but at times we Cohens felt as outsiders. Unfortunately for me, one of the worst experiences I had was because of the problems arose when I was included.

As many of the Catholic children attended a parochial school through sixth grade, most of my friends were Methodists. We were a close group, sharing not only the classroom but also dinners at each other’s homes and frequent sleep-overs. Knowing that I was Jewish was never an issue, and they were happy to share my holidays and to share theirs.

While my classmates in Keeseville were Christian, I also had a group of Jewish classmates at the synagogue in Plattsburgh to which my family belonged. I rarely saw them outside of synagogue as the shul was fifteen miles north of us. As they and their families lived near each other and socialized with them, I considered them acquaintances but certainly not close friends. As a matter of fact, I felt like the Country Mouse to their City Mouse existence in the big metropolis of Plattsburgh. Therefore, I felt as if I lived two different lives: my Jewish life consisting of Sunday school and Friday night services in Plattsburgh, and my secular life consisting of secular school and close friendships in Keeseville.

When we were all in around sixth grade, the Methodist church had a special event planned for their youth. Two sisters, elderly and either widowed or never married,  offered their home to have a weekly get-together in which each of the participants were to make Christmas candles. The mothers of the girls called my mother and asked if I could join them. My mother gave her permission. Glad to be included, I joined the group despite some discomfort that I, the Jewish girl, was participating in a Christmas activity.

Over a period of four weeks, around eight of us climbed the stairs to the ladies’ apartment above one of the stores on Front Street. We melted wax and crayons and then dipped strings into the hot liquid. The two ladies then hung up the candles, let them dry, and had them ready for us the following week. While the other girls created layers of red and green and decorated their creations with holly, I chose blue and white for my candles in honor of Chanukah.

On the last day of our candle making adventure,  we all gathered at the usual time and began putting on the final touches of our masterpieces. One of the ladies announced that she had a very special surprise. The church had contacted the Plattsburgh Press Republican and asked them to do a holiday story about our candle making project. “So, young ladies, she announced, “the reporter will be coming this afternoon to take pictures and interview you all for the article,” she said. “Isn’t that exciting?”

It may have been exciting for my friends, but I immediately panicked. What if my Jewish friends saw my picture with a group of Methodists making Christmas candles? Would they look at me unfavorably, as a further outsider to their life in Plattsburgh? I knew that I could not be in that picture, a public statement that I joined Christians in their religious school events.

“Thank you very much,” I said to the two ladies. “But I don’t want to be in the picture.”

“What do you mean?” one of the ladies asked.

“I don’t want to be in the picture,” I replied. “I enjoyed making the candles, but I don’t want my picture in the newspaper. If my friends in Plattsburgh see it, they will think I’m not acting like a Jew.”

I grabbed my candle and left. Little did I know what havoc I had wrought.

By that evening, my mother had received several phone calls from my friends’ mothers. They said what I did was rude and shameful. My actions indicated that I ashamed of associating with Christians. As a result,  I had not only embarrassed not only myself but also my parents and sibling, the only Jewish family in our town.

My mother was upset and told me that she agreed with the other mothers. My father, however, understood. “You learned a lesson from this, Marilyn,” he told me. “Never put yourself in any situation in which you feel uncomfortable and would feel ashamed.” Fortunately for all of us Cohens, the tempest I created calmed down fairly soon. My friends certainly forgot about it, and the adults moved on to other, more current kerfuffles in our small town. Peace and goodwill returned.

Fifty-five years later, I still look back on this incident with remorse, especially for bringing the wrath of the Keeseville Methodists on my mother. I also have a much more mature perspective: I appreciate how difficult it was for me as a child of to reconcile the need to be accepted by my Christian friends while not betraying my Jewish heritage.

I haven’t had anymore “candle debacles” since that incident in Keeseville.  This doesn’t mean that I still don’t struggle with the holiday season. I, along with many other Jew, still walk a fine line between sharing the joy of the holidays while maintaining my Jewish identity. It’s a dilemma I first faced as a child and continue to face today.