Monthly Archives: June 2018

Repairing the World

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.” 

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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