Monthly Archives: July 2016

What Makes Us the Same? Trip to Shoah Museum Inspires Writer to Find Commonality

 

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On a recent visit to Portland, Oregon, Larry and I visited the Holocaust Memorial. A pathway strewn with bronze sculptures of unfinished lives—a violin, a teddy bear, a torn prayer book, —brought us to a curved wall. Two columns were engraved with the brief history of the events that led to Hitler’s rise and its unfathomable consequences on Europe and the world. Plaques etched with memories from survivors are placed on a wall representing barbed wire. One read “As I looked back, my mother turned her face to avoid mine and my little sister gave me a frail and knowing wave;” another, “The fear has never left me.”On the back of wall were carved the names of family members of Oregonians who were lost in the Shoah. Below the names was the following statement:

Our precious life rests not on our ability to see what makes us different, one from another, but rather on our ability to recognize what makes us the same. What ultimately defines us is the moral strength to believe in our common humanity, and to act on this belief.

These words struck me especially hard on that beautiful June afternoon. Larry and I had flown out of Florida just days after the Orlando Pulse tragedy. As I stood in front of the memorial, I was overwhelmed with grief for all those lost in the Shoah.  I also thought of those innocent lives lost to another madman who could only focus on differences and destroy so many lives with another act of senseless violence.  I began to reflect on my own live  and question as to whether I had done enough to focus on “what makes us the same.”

As a child, I knew I was different from most of the people in our small upstate New York town. Along with one other family, we were eleven Jews in a Christian town, an overwhelming .5% of the population. There were a few anti-Semitic instances: A teenage boy yelling “Heil Hitler!” and giving me the Nazi salute as the six-year-old me played innocently on my front yard; “lost” invitations to parties by those my parents tagged as anti-Semites; whispered jokes about my Jewish nose that went unnoticed by my teachers. For the most part, however, the people Keeseville embraced us, shared their Christmas trimming with us; came over for matzoh brie around our formica covered kitchen table. We focused on what we have in common.

Although exposed to diversity on our family’s visits to New York City , as a student at University at Albany, and through—as always— countries and cultures explored through reading, my everyday encounters rarely took me far from my white, Judeo-Christian environment. This changed, however,  when I took a teaching position with the Capital District Educational Opportunity Center

The EOC, a  division of Hudson Valley Community College, offers tuition-free academic and workforce development opportunities to disadvantaged and educationally under-prepared New York State residents sixteen years and older. Through my interactions with staff and students, I learned to appreciate many different cultures and backgrounds and their personal struggles. A Muslim pharmacist,  after being imprisoned in her native country for giving medicine to a Christian, disguised herself as a Bedouin to flee to Egypt then to Albany. A young man had escaped with his family as one of the Vietnamese boat people. Both completed our GED and College Preparation Program and  then graduated from Hudson Valley Community College. One of my fellow instructors had overcome a troubled background in Schenectady’s inner city to graduate from the cosmetology program, open his own salon, and then come back to the EOC to instruct hundreds of cosmetology students in the technical and life skills to succeed in his chosen field.  I may have taught my students essay writing and grammar and study skills, but the people I encountered at the EOC taught me about courage and dignity and overcoming incredible obstacles. Our differences were secondary to our common goal of creating a better life for ourselves and our families. We all believed in our common humanity and acted on those beliefs. Even when I moved out of the classroom and into an administrative position, my greatest joy was meeting with students, having them share their stories with me, and promote the EOC through its many different success stories.

In the past few weeks, our country has experienced numerous tragedies that resulted from actions by those who failed to believe in the common humanity. Orlando, Florida. St. Paul, Minnesota. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Dallas,Texas. The list of cities where incidents of senseless violence continues to grow.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,” wrote the late Elie Wiesel, “but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” My protests may not take me to the streets, but it will take me to the written word, where I hope I can make a difference.

But maybe, it must start with children. When we lived in Clifton Park, our next door neighbors were an interracial couple—he a Caucasian from Massachusetts and she a Whitney Houston look-alike from Jamaica. We shared our yards and our lives with them and their four children who had inherited their mother’s brown eyes, mocha skin, and curly hair. One day, Julie and Katie, who were the same age, were shopping for matching lockets.  When we brought the jewelry up to the counter, Julie, my blue eyed, blonde haired daughter, announced to the sales clerk, “I know we look like twin sisters. We’re not. We’re just best friends.”

Best friends. Or just friends or neighbors or fellow citizens. Whatever it takes, let us all strive to recognize what makes us the same, to prevent injustice, to repair the world. Tikkun Olam. Amen.

Big Wheels and Big Hills

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Summer mornings on our neighborhood in Upstate New York during the 1980s were quiet—until eight o’clock  At that hour—designated by the parents to be  late enough to ‘start the engines’— the garage doors on almost every house opened one by one. A fleet of children, all sitting low on seats of their Big Wheels, flew down their driveways and began circling the ‘track’ that surrounded the grassy knoll in the middle of the cul-de-sac The Daily Devon Court 500 was officially in session.

Biking had been part of  life since I was a child. I spent hours riding a second-hand three speed on rolling hills past apple orchards and Lake Champlain beaches  Larry and I pedaled through the back roads of Albany County, me on that ancient three speed and Larry on the bike he had ridden to deliver newspapers in Saratoga Springs. Once our children graduated from Big Wheels to two-wheelers, the four of us took family outings on the Mohawk-Hudson Bike Trail.

When we turned forty, Larry and I traded in our relics for lighter, more efficient ten speeds. Larry had to give up competitive running in 1996 due to an injury, and he began biking more frequently. He encouraged me to join him, and we pedaled our way around Southern Saratoga County.

Cycling became a social event.  For a couple of years, a group from Congregation Beth Shalom met on Sunday mornings in the synagogue parking lot for a ten to fifteen mile circuit. Larry and I were enjoying our biking.

And the length of our rides together increased: twenty miles, thirty miles at a clip. As a members of the Mohawk Hudson Wheelmen, we participated with several other riders in metric half centuries, one in which I rode the sixty-two miles in honor of my sixty-second birthday. Larry completed a hundred miler with a more hardy friend.

Despite all my biking, I never was totally comfortable on hills. While Larry gleefully viewed them as a challenge, I dreaded every long, steep incline. I usually made it with a great deal of effort. Once in a while, however, I had to resort to getting off the bike and pushing it to the top.

My fear of hills prevented me from taking advantage of all the all the biking trails near Julie and Sam’s home in Summit County, Larry had taken some rides with Sam, but I bowed out. On our visit in July 2012, however, I had several months of biking long distances in New York under my belt. Larry and I finally took Sam up on his offer to join him for what Sam billed as an easy, fairly flat twenty mile ride around Dillion Lake

“There is a little incline at the beginning of the trip,” Sam explained while we adjusted our seat height on our rentals and snapped on our helmets, “but I am sure you two can handle it.”

As Sam had promised, the first four miles on the bike trail, were flat and straight. Then we arrived at the bottom of Swan Mountain. I craned my neck to view the bike lane that ran along a fairly busy two lane highway. The summit appeared to me to be five miles away,

“Sam, this is not a little incline,” I said. “This is a mountain! How long is it?  And what is the increase in elevation?”

“We go from 9100 to 10200 feet, an 11,00 foot ascent over about a mile,” Sam conceded. “I promise we’ll take it slow.”

Within one half mile, I was huffing and puffing. And sweating. My shirt was stuck to my back; under my helmet, my hair was glued to my head; my socks were drenched. I even had sweat running out of my ear canals.

“I can’t do it,” I yelled to Larry and Sam, who were riding with little effort 200 yards in front of me. “I’m going to walk the rest of the way. I will meet you at the summit.”

“Are you sure?” Larry asked. They barely waited for breathless “Yes!” before they pedaled off and left me to push my bike to the top.

Fifteen minutes later, I met up with Larry and Sam at the Sapphire Point Overlook.

“I made it!” I said to Sam. “It’s all downhill from here!”

Then I took a look down the trail. Whatever goes up must come down, but this down was a steep descent on a narrow, serpentine bike path crowded with other cyclists

“What the heck, Sam?” I exclaimed. “I thought climbing up was bad, but I can’t handle going down this obstacle course!”

“Sorry, Marilyn, but it’s the only way back to our house without adding another ten miles,” said Sam. “Just take it slow.”

“Don’t worry!” said Larry. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Larry’s ‘right-behind-you’ promise lasted an even shorter time than Sam’s ‘we’ll-take-it-slow’ promise. Terrified and white knuckled, I kept hitting my brakes. Larry couldn’t bike slowly enough to follow behind and had to go ahead. I prayed all the way down to the bottom, where I caught up with Larry and Sam for the second time that day.

The remaining miles were less dramatic. And, by the end of our vacation, I had actually forgiven Sam.

Since my bike ride from hell, however, I haven’t attempted a repeat in Colorado.These days, I love riding through my mountain-free community in Florida—elevation in the Orlando area peaks out at eighty-two feet above sea level. Big hills—like Devon Court’s Big Wheels—are in my rear view mirror. And that is fine with me.