Monthly Archives: October 2017

Lost and Found: A Torah crown and family return to community

 

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A proper home: The Gutensohn family (L to R) Gabriel, Karen, Peter, Kelly, and Liza.

“That doesn’t belong here.”

Peter Gutensohn stared at the large tarnished sterling silver piece almost hidden in a dusty corner of Lanier’s Historic Downtown Marketplace.

Peter had come in to the antiques mall in Kissimmee, Florida, on an early spring day in 2016 to look for a silver serving platter for his wife Kelly. He was a frequent visitor, often successful in his search for a specific old, beautiful object. And sometimes he bought interesting items “just because.” A few years earlier, Peter had found a Kiddish cup and a prayer book. Kelly had polished up the sterling silver goblet to use at their weekly Shabbat dinners. Their son Gabriel, who was six years old,  had confiscated the prayer book, refusing to let any of his siblings see the treasure he kept next to his bed.

Unlike the previous Judaica he had purchased at Laniers, however, Peter had a differenT intent for that day’s find. Despite its sad appearance, Peter knew that he was looking at a Torah crown, an object made to cover, protect, and honor a Torah scroll, the sacred parchments on which the first five books of the Tanakh are meticulously inscribed.

Peter asked how such an object landed up in an antique store in Kissimee. The owners told Peter that the Torah crown was one of many objects stuffed into an abandoned storage locker. The identity of the original owner was unknown. Forgotten? Left behind? Abandoned as the monthly fees for the space in the storage facility had become unaffordable?

No matter. After the management of the storage facility had made a good faith effort to find the renter without success, the unit was put up for auction and purchased by Laniers. The Torah crown, one of many objects in the unit, had sat in a corner of the store for months, gathering tarnish and dust, until it had caught Peter’s eye.

Peter felt  a sense of loss that such a piece of Judaica sat unclaimed, unused, unappreciated, He purchased the crown—along with a silver tray for Kelly—and brought them to their home in St.Cloud.

A tragedy early in their marriage had led them to reclaiming their Jewish roots that had been lost over the previous three generations. Peter’s Jewish great-grandfather had married a Catholic and assimilated. Kelly’s great grandparents had changed their names to hide their Jewishness. Peter had memories of conversations with his grandfather about Jewish food, and music; Kelly had early memories of lighting Shabbat candles with neighbors who were observant Jews. Otherwise, neither Peter nor his Kelly were raised with any religious affiliations or traditions.

Peter and Kelly had much in common. They both were one of four children with similar birth years. Both of their fathers were career diplomats, jobs that took their families around the world. Kelly and Peter first met when they were fifteen and seventeen respectively outside the library at their high school in Bangkok, Thailand, where both of their “embassy families” were stationed. Subsequently, their fathers were assigned to Seoul, Korea, where Peter and Kelly both attended college.

After their graduations, Peter joined the Marines and Kelly married an Army officer. Five years and two children later, Kelly was divorced. She and Peter reconnected while both their families were living in Washington, D.C..They were married in 1989.

In 1990, while Peter was in Kuwait for the first Gulf War, their first child together was born. Tragically, Joel died when he was three months old of what was first diagnosed as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Authorities later determined that Joel and two other local children had succumbed to lead poisoning linked to lead in the pipes of their municipal water supply.

Devastated by their son’s death, Kelly and Peter began a search for answers—and faith. “We were looking for something we could give our children,” said Kelly. “We wanted something bigger than ourselves, something we had not had.” They explored different denominations, questioning chaplains, pastors, priests, and rabbis in hopes of finding a spiritual connection.

Kelly’s best friend, who was Jewish, knew of the Gutensohn’s quest.  She invited Kelly to a

Friday night service at her synagogue. “The first time I went, it felt like coming home,” said Kelly,” like the piece of me that was lost had been found.”

Soon after, Kelly prepared her first Shabbat dinner for Peter and her two children, complete with blessings over the candles, the wine, and the challah and a traditional meal.. As the family grew with the birth of eight more children, Kelly learned more about Judaism, its traditions, its holidays. She taught herself and her children Hebrew. The family observed the Jewish holidays.

The family attended conservative synagogues, but they were not comfortable with the strong focus on tradition and the literal interpretation of scripture. While Peter was stationed in Virginia with the Marines, however, they were involved with a group of fellow Jews who met in each other’s homes for Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. And they celebrated Shabbat every Friday, including the Friday before Peter came home with Torah crown from Laniers.

Moved by the  by crown’s hidden beauty and its mysterious past, Kelly and two of their daughters began the process of polishing and restoring the intricate metalwork to its full shine. Family obligations filled their lives, however, and the still tarnished crown was hidden away in one of their closets for several months. Finally, in January 2017, the Gutensohns began in earnest to find a “proper home” for the Torah crown.

Their original intent was to donate it to the Holocaust Memorial and Education Center in Orlando. On further consideration, the family decided that the crown belonged not in an archive but part of a living, active congregation.

The Gutensohns had  attended services at Congregation Shalom Aleichem on Pleasant Hill Road in Kissimmee. Remembering the shul’s warm, inclusive atmosphere, Peter contacted Rabbi Karen Allen, who assured them that his family’s generous donation would be not only accepted but also valued and cherished.

On a Friday night in May 2017, just before services were to begin, Peter walked into Congregation Shalom Aleichem carrying the huge crown on his shoulders. Two weeks later, Peter brought Kelly and three of their children—Liza, Karen, and Gabriel—to services. Harry Lowenstein, a Holocaust survivor and one of the founding members of the shul, had brought the crown home to shine it to its full glory and had placed it on the synagogue’s Holocaust Torah. The crown now has a home.

On Yom Kippur, with Kelly and three of their children watching, Peter was given the honor of holding the Holocaust Torah during Kol Nidre. They are now active members of the synagogue, attending services, sharing the break-the-fast, helping to build the Sukkah. Their fifteen-year-old daughter Karen will be participating in Birthright Israel this December.

“This beautiful artifact has brought them back more deeply—individually and as a family—to their Jewish roots and identity,” said Rabbi Allen.

“Every Friday night when I light the Shabbat candles, I think about my grandparents and great grandparents,” said Kelly. “They thought that religion was a small thing to sacrifice  Looking back over the past 150 years, I see my family members with no anchor, no roots, and no identity. They gave up more than they could ever know.”

Jewish World, October

 

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The Torah crown restored to its full beauty.

 

Finding Beauty in the Body You Have Now

 

Virginia went to her grave hating her body.

A lifetime member of  Weight Watchers, I had been attending meetings in Clifton Park since 2013. I had reached a goal weight approved by my doctor, but I continued to find the weekly meetings helpful in keeping myself honest as well as connecting with other people—mostly women—who were fighting their battle against the scale.

When I moved to Florida in June 2015, I immediately joined a local Weight Watchers group, where I met Virginia, another “regular” who I guessed was in her late seventies. With the help of her walker, she was always willing to stand up and share her experiences on her weight loss journey. By the end of 2016, she had reached her one hundred pound loss milestone, and her self-confidence grew. Over the last year, however, she plateaued and then saw the scale inch back up. Hoping to lose at least fifty more pounds, Virginia tried hard to reverse her negativity. “Every day, I say to myself in the mirror, ‘Virginia, you are going to reach your goal!’” But she continued to struggle with her weight and self-image.

On August 24, Virginia was noticeably absent. “I have sad news,” said the leader at the start of the meeting. “Virginia passed away this past week of cancer.”

I was saddened, angry, and afraid. Saddened that we didn’t know she was dying of cancer. Angry that she went to her grave hating herself for being overweight, hating the person in the mirror for that number on the scale. Afraid that I too would be obsessed with the scale, not comfortable with my body, until my dying day.

As a young child, I was so small —sixteen pounds at two years old—my nickname was Peanut. But my family’s diet, heavy on brisket and bread and baked good and bowls and bowls of ice cream, along with genetics, finally won out. By eight years old, I was chubby.

When I hit puberty, I lost weight and gained height The good news was that I inherited my father’s long thin legs and striking blue eyes. The not-so-good-news, at least in my “striking blue eyes,” was that I also inherited my paternal aunts’ broad shoulders, short waists, and tendency to pile on the pounds. While never medically obese ( 20% over one’s ideal weight) my entire adult life, I found myself at times overweight. I joined Weight Watchers for the first time when I was twenty-six, beginning a lifetime of cycling in and out of weight loss programs.

Wherever I am on the scale, I have always been thankful for a healthy, strong body. My health indicators—blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar— are all in the normal range. I bike, hike, walk, take exercise classes, But l still have found myself unhappy with my weight and my body image.

While doing research for this article, I found that I am not alone. A 2012 study of women fifty and older published in International Journal of Eating Disorders found  that 71% were currently trying to lose weight; 79% felt that weight or shape played a “moderate” to “the most important” role in their self-concept; 70% were dissatisfied with their weight and shape compared to when they were younger; and 84% were specifically dissatisfied with their stomachs. In a similar study published in 2013 in the Journal of Women and Aging found that the majority of women aged 50 and older are not satisfied with the way they look, with only 12% of participants sampled reporting body image satisfaction.

The causes of obsession with the scale and our perceived negative self-image are as close as the television in our living rooms, the magazines on our coffee table, the movies playing at our local theater, the advertisements bombarding us daily. In a 2013 article on women’s body image in Slate, Jessica Grose notes that media images of ridiculously thin women surround us.”We live in a culture where thinness and beauty are highly valued for women and wealth and success are often considered to go hand in hand with a slim figure.” She cites the resulting negative effects: a preoccupation with diet, low self-esteem, low self-confidence and/or never feeling that one’s body is adequate.

The damage that such images creates starts in girls as young as nine and ten (over fifty percent feel better about themselves if they are on a diet) continues into middle age and, as in the case of Virginia, persists into old age. In her article Body Image: How It Affects Middle-Aged Women, Crystal Karges captures the continuum.  “The little girl who once felt ashamed of her body or unsure of her place in the world may find that she is still unable to accept or love herself in the later years of her life.”

Maybe society is changing. The Fat Acceptance movement seeks to change anti-fat bias in social attitudes. Companies including JCPenney, Nike, and Unilever have launched campaigns meant to change how gender is portrayed in their advertising. Even Mattel, who has faced criticism that its female dolls promoted unhealthy body ideals,  underwent a revolution.The 2016 line of Barbies introduced three new body types in addition to the stick-thin original—tall, petite, and curvy (or what I like to call zoftig).

My reaction to Virginia’s death and my subsequent research has been a learning experience for me. I now recognize that I can honor Virginia’s memory by being more accepting and appreciative of my own body—strong, curvy, healthy, imperfect—and  of those of others, no matter what their size and shape. I have promised myself to focus less on the number on the scale and more on the benefits I can obtain from maintaining a lifestyle that includes healthy food choices, regular exercise, moderation, and a positive attitude.

In the mold breaking JCPenney ad, one of the “real women” represented states, “You can’t love your body for what you hope it turns into without actively loving it for what it is today.” Virginia and all of us women who battle the scale and, more importantly, our self-image, need to love ourselves where we are right now.

RESEARCH

Cooper, Grace. “5 Empowering Ad Campaigns That Are Breaking the Beauty Mold.” July 6, 2016. https://verilymag.com/2016/07/positive-advertising-womens-body-image-beauty-standards-dove-nike 

Farrar, Tabitha. “Body Image of Women.”  2014 https://www.mirror-mirror.org/body-image-of-women.htm

Grose, Jessica. “Only 12 Percent of Older Women Feel Satisfied With Their Bodies.“ November 4, 2013.  older_women_and_body_image_only_

12_percent_of_women_50_and_older_feel_satisfied.html

Kargas, Crystal. Body Image: How It Affects Middle-Aged Women. July 18, 2017.  https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/body-image/body-image-how-it-affects-middle-aged-women

McConville, Sharon. “Middle Age Women and Body Image.”  June 29, 2017 https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/treatment-for-eating-disorders/special-issues/older-women/body-image

WHO BY WATER, AND WHO BY FIRE?

 

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Headlines from the Orlando Sentinel

During Yom Kippur, we Jews recite the Unetanneh Tokef, a prayer in which we ask G_d to inscribe us in the Book of Life for the coming year. This prayer will take on special significance for my husband Larry and me as we look back on our experiences with our first Florida hurricane.

The National Hurricane Center had been tracking Hurricane Irma since late August. Reports of its potential destructive path through the Caribbean and Florida were headline news by Labor Day. Despite the warnings, Larry and I decided to go ahead with our planned trip to visit an elderly aunt in Myrtle Beach. On Tuesday, September 5, we drove to St. Augustine, Florida, for a day of touring before driving the rest of the way to South Carolina. We were confident that we had plenty of time to return home by Friday to prepare for Irma’s predicted landfall that weekend. 

That confidence quickly faded. News of the devastation in the Caribbean from Irma was being updated hourly. On the streets, fellow tourists and residents, some who had just recently moved back into homes that had been damaged by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, were on their cell phone making evacuation plans. We filled our car with gas moments before the pumps ran dry. We stopped at the supermarket for some basics, only to find that the bread and water aisles were picked clean. Continuing north was out of the question. We drove back home the next morning.

By that time, Larry and I were being bombarded with phone calls, texts, emails, and Facebook posts from worried family and friends. Were we okay? Were we going to evacuate? We assured them that we were fine, but we were staying put. Our homes were built to withstand hurricane winds and rain, and Central Florida was not subject to storm surges. Furthermore, we were not in the path of the storm. We were more concerned about our family and friends who lived and/or owned homes on the coasts of Florida.  Which coast? As of Saturday, meteorologists were still trying to determine where the monster storm would make landfall.

So we, like the millions of other Floridians, completed all the necessary preparations. We stocked up on water, canned goods, toilet paper and wine-lots of wine. We filled both cars with gas. We brought everything from our lanai and in our  yard into our house and garage. We pulled out our emergency crank radio, candles and matches, flashlights and batteries. We filled our bathtubs and large pots with water and our freezer with bags of ice. We prepared a “safe room” in a walk-in closet in case of extreme winds or tornadoes. We checked in with neighbors to make sure they were ready. And we watched the “spaghetti models” on The Weather Channel for hours. Stupefacente! (Amazing in Italian)

Speaking of amazing, in between all these preparations, Larry and I were still living our lives—the calm before the storm. We went to the movies, celebrated our anniversary with dinner and champagne, took long walks around the neighborhood, and even went to a Pre-Hurricane Irma party on Saturday night. 

On Sunday, we hunkered down and waited for Irma’s expected landfall on—we were told—Florida’s west coast. Winds began to pick up outside our windows in the afternoon, followed by several hours of torrential rains and strong winds. Around midnight, just when we thought the worst was over, The Weather Channel announced that Irma was changing course. She was veering farther east and going over Polk County—sixty miles from our house. The next two hours were terrifying—at least for me. Larry had gone to sleep before the warning was issued. By  two a.m., with wind gusts reaching  between 74 and 100 miles per hour, I woke Larry and begged him to join me in our safe room. Larry refused, so I spent the next hour huddled in the closet with my laptop while Larry snored ten feet away. Once the winds calmed down, I joined Larry in our now safe bed.

By late the next morning, the weather had improved enough for us to venture outside. Yes! Our house was intact. Outside of a few missing shingles and some small downed trees, it appeared that our entire community had made it through the hurricane without serious damage. We never lost power or water. We had survived Irma! We even saved a catfish that was flopping in the gutter at the end of our driveway by tossing it back into the lake. 

Our relief was short-lived. We quickly learned of the extent of destruction outside our community. Millions of people across Florida were without power and water. Homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed. In Polk County alone, eighty percent were without power. 

In the week that followed Irma, Larry and I have questioned how such different situations could exist only a few hours or even blocks apart. Disney World and Universal opened for business as usual on Tuesday while people who lived on the Florida Keys could not even get back to their homes to assess the damage until Sunday. Residents of our community were playing mah jongg, watching movies, and doing yoga while friends in Naples and Boca Raton were dealing with gas shortages, mold, extreme heat, and sewage back-up. A member of our neighborhood blog wrote a post complaining about their recyclables not being picked up when less than a mile away residents near our community were waiting in long lines for water and FEMA packages. 

Fortunately, most members of our community, as many others across the state, pitched in to help. Many opened up their homes to friends and family until the victims could return to their homes. A group is collecting food, water, and money to aid people who work in our community but live in affected areas. Many are contributing to organizations such as the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and the Jewish Federation of Florida. 

Who by water, and who by fire? We were spared from serious consequences, but others weren’t. Now it is our responsibility as Jews, as human beings, to help others through tzedakah, through charity—to relieve the burden of the thousands of others who were not so fortunate.