Author Archives: shapcomp18

About shapcomp18

After thirty five years in education, I have retired and am free to pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a freelance writer. Inspired by my mother, who was the family historian, I am writing down my family stories as well as publishing stories my mother wrote down throughout her life. Please feel free to comment and share.

There’s a good vegetable store and a lovely park down the street…

If I were still living in Upstate New York, I would be thinking about planting my flower garden. Thinking—not planting—as it never seemed safe to put the annuals into  the ground until Memorial Day weekend. Before I knew better, I had planted the fragile blooms too earlier and watched them die before they even rooted, hit by a late frost.

Not that I or any member of our family were known for our green thumbs. My family’s track record for killing all but the most hardy plants dates back to August 1952, when we moved into our house in Keeseville, New York. While the inside of the house needed plenty of work, the previous owner, Laura Gardener (how appropriate!) kept a beautiful yard.A huge hedge of tiger lilies bordered the front of the house alongside a pristine lawn. In the back was a beautiful flower garden filled with fragrant phlox, lovely lilies of the valley, rose bushes, and a bird bath. At least that was what Laura and Jay, my two older siblings, remembered. By the time I first could recall the yard, it had already shown the neglect that my parents, who grew up in New York City apartments, had bestowed on Ms. Gardener’s labors. Sadly, it never regained its floricultural splendor while the Cohens lived there.  

When I was around twelve, my father decided to put in a vegetable garden in our side yard. As with most of my father’s projects, he was the idea man and I was the unwilling implementer. We may have gotten some tomatoes that year, but by the next spring, grass was growing on the small plot and the experiment was over.

The idea man/implementer plan also worked for my father over twenty years later at the family cottage on Lake Champlain. One fine June morning, Dad showed me the roll of black mulch he had gotten on sale. “It’s for my vegetable garden,” my father announced. “ Dad,” I said. “You don’t have a vegetable garden!” “I will soon,” he told me, pointing a tray of tomato and pepper plants and a hoe resting on a small patch of land next to the garage. “Start digging.” For the rest of that summer during my weekend visits, I was like the Little Red Hen—planting, weeding, watering. Dad, however, was in charge of harvesting— proudly showing off “his” yield.

Meanwhile, Larry and I were already living our own “Better Homes and Gardens” experience. On a beautiful fall day in 1988, our realtor showed us our future home.We liked the house but especially loved the large front yard and woods offering privacy in the back. When a squirrel ran across the plush lawn, we were sold. (To this day, I swear that the owner had hidden behind a tree and released that rodent on purpose.)

While Larry mowed, I planted. On or soon after Memorial Day, I would go to the local garden place and fill my car with red impatiens, begonias, salvia, and some coleus. I would clean up the rock garden on the side of our property and the area underneath the bushes along the front. I would dig and plant and water and weed until my back hurt. In a throwback to my making-mud pies-days, my favorite part was getting dirty, so dirty I often had to strip off the top layer of clothes in the garage before walking back into the house. 

By the end of July, however, my enthusiasm had wilted with the humidity. I had grown tired of the heat, the bugs, the occasional snake, and the sight of almost everything I planted failing to thrive. I encountered success in only two areas: Although the other annuals usually died an early death, the impatiens continued to bloom until the first frost. In addition, my hosta plants were the envy of the neighborhood, growing ridiculously big and needing separating every season until I had hosta growing around three sides of the house. 

Any attempts at our growing a vegetable garden provided a bounty— not for us but for the wildlife and the insects. As had happened with my flowers, early June’s enthusiasm was followed by August’s failure-to-thrive. I learned that the vegetable stand on the corner of Grooms and Moe Roads was a tastier, less work-intensive alternative to hours in a garden to gather a few tomatoes and sad looking peppers.

After mowing lawns and raking leaves for over 35 years, Larry had turned over those jobs to our neighbor’s son, who had started a lawn care business. Maybe it was time for me to hang up my gardening tools as well.

I found my escape when we relocated to Florida. Our community has a home owner’s association (HOA), whose fees include lawn care. I can leave all our landscaping chores to the wonderful people who descend on our property every Tuesday. After they mow our lawn and trim our bushes in trees, the workers munch on the cookies I gratefully place on their water cooler. A few extremely hardy potted plants on my lanai satisfy any urge I have to tempt fate to kill the un-killable. 

Not all my neighbors have abandoned in their gardening gloves.Many have turned their lanais into a virtual greenhouse with hundreds of potted plants, fountains, ponds, and even in one friend’s home, a koi pond! For others, the lanai also serves as a vegetable garden, with shelves of herbs and large planters filled with tomatoes, a variety of peppers, and even eggplants. On our frequent walks, we have seen screened in courtyards filled with raised beds filled with flowers and vegetables. And each month, one home sports a “Yard of the Month” sign in recognition of the owners’ dedication to their outdoor displays of flowers and landscaping. 

Thank you, but no thanks. Outside of an occasional snip on a wayward bush, I am happy with our lawn service. If I want to see lush gardens, my husband Larry and I can take stroll in Bok Tower Gardens, a beautiful 250 acre garden and bird sanctuary only a short 40 minute drive. Now that we are vaccinated, we will again be able to enjoy Epcot’s annual International Flower and Garden Festival, complete with topiaries of our favorite Disney characters. Yep, this girl has switched out her hoe-hoe-hoes for a simpler life. Ho! Ho! Ho!

First published in (Capital Region New York) The Jewish World. April 15-April 24, 2021. 

Image courtesy of cdc on upsplash.com.

A Swimming Smackdown: WWE One; Marilyn Zero

It was 7 a.m. Monday morning, and I was at our community pool to do my hour of swimming. I said hello to the one other person in the pool. 

“Hi, Marilyn,” she said. “Were you here on Friday for the big fight?”

“The f-f-ffight?” I asked hesitantly.

“Yes. I heard two people went at it when one of them wouldn’t move out of a lane. Everyone is talking about it. I am sorry I missed it.”

Crap!  In a 55+ community that thrives on drama, it appears that my confrontation with a fellow swimmer had gone—if not viral—then aquatic!

The day hadn’t started out well. I had overslept and gotten to the pool late. That meant I would soon be competing with all the pool walkers and exercisers who usually were just starting their work-out as I was finishing up my swim.

Initially, everything was going smoothly. The sun was shining. The water was warm. The walkers had arrived, but they were being respectful and keeping the necessary social distancing needed during the pandemic.

With ten laps to go, I caught through my googles an anomaly among the usual sight of grey haired ladies in skirted bathing suits and balding men in their knee length trunks. A giant of a man—over six feet and two hundred and fifty pounds of pure muscle —waded into the water and stood in the middle of the lane next to me. He was clad in pair of short orange trunks that showed off a huge tattoo over his toned abs. His shaved head and gold earrings glistened in the sun as he started doing a stretch routine. Although not directly in my way, his leg bending and arm swings felt too close. 

After paddling past him a couple of times, I stopped mid-lap and asked politely, “Excuse me, but would you mind moving over a couple of feet? I am afraid I might hit you.”

“I am in the middle of the next lane,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a problem. Besides, you should be in the middle of the lane as well.”

No matter that he could have been The Rock’s brother. I lost it. “Look,I have been swimming on this line for 50 minutes,” I yelled. “It wouldn’t hurt you to move two and a half &$#$%# feet so I can finish.”

Done with my tirade, I kept swimming, making sure to splash vigorously every time I went past him. I was going to show him who was boss!

When I finished my laps, I climbed out of the pool and, taking off my cap, goggles, and fins, I began drying myself off with a towel. My friend Pat who had just arrived with her husband for her pool walk, greeted me.

“Good morning, Marilyn! How are you doing today?”

“I was fine until this $*#? got in my way during my laps.”

“Who’s that?” she asked.

I pointed to the Adonis in the water.

“Adonis” began defending himself. “Hey! I didn’t do anything! I try to be respectful to my elders! Everyone heard and saw what you did!” 

“Him?” she exclaimed. “Why, that’s Dom! He’s my neighbor and he is really nice!”

“Well, not today!” I grumbled.

At that moment, my friend Sharon, who had overheard Pat’s comments, splashed over to put in her two cents. 

“Marilyn, I can’t believe you yelled at Dom,” she said. “He’s such a nice man!”

Okay, he may have been a little too close, but I was wrong. I took a deep breath, put down my towel, and jumped back into the pool. By this point, all the people in the pool were watching the drama between me and my sparring partner.

“I want to apologize,” I said.” My language and splashing was inappropriate.” 

“Hey, everyone has a bad day,” he said. He held out his hand. “I’m Dom.”

“I’m Marilyn,” I said, grabbing his hand in return. “Nice to meet you.”

I shared with him that I swam laps every Monday and Friday and always stuck to the lines to give fellow lappers room. He shared with me that he went to the weight room almost every day and sometimes stretched in the pool afterwards. 

“Yes, you LOOK like you work out!” I said. “You are really strongly built.”

“I spent my life with WWE,” he said. “I should be in good shape.”

“WWE? As in World Wrestling Federation?” I gasped. “You mean I went up against a WWE wrester?”

“Yes, but I won’t hurt you. As I said before, everyone has a bad day.”

I was climbing out of the pool when I stopped and turned around. 

“Hey, Dom! I do take umbrage with one of your comments,” I said. “You said you were respectful of your ELDERS. How old do you think I am?”

“I don’t know,” he said tactfully. “I’m 56.”

“Okay, I am your elder. I turn 70 in two weeks.”

“And you swim an hour each day?” he asked. 

“I alternate it with 20 mile bike rides or 5 mile walks,” I said proudly.

“Wow! I’m impressed!” he said. Wow! A WWE wrestler was impressed with me!

So on that equally sunny Monday morning, I had to deal with my new notoriety. I shared the entire Friday Morning SmackDown episode with Mary as she interrupted with gales of laughter.

“I shouldn’t have lost my temper,” I told her. “I apologized! I”m even going to bake a challah and drop it off at his house as a peace offering!”

So, I am now part of my 55+ community’s history. WWE One, Marilyn Zero. Maybe next time I should take on someone my own size. Or—maybe next time I should just smile and move over to the middle of the lane.

Meanwhile, I did drop off a challah to Dom, along with my apologies. We are now pool buddies. No more smackdowns. Just high fives!

Biking for RBG

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the legal pioneer for gender equality and the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, died just before sundown on Rosh Hashanah, I shared the country’s grief. What could I do to honor this gutsy, determined, badass woman? How could we continue her legacy in light of what we knew as the inevitability of her replacement with a woman who appeared to be the antithesis of whom NPR called a “demure firebrand?”

Writing an article that was published by The Jewish World (“RBG’s death alarms and saddens Marilyn as she hopes for a better world.” 10/22/2020) helped me, but could I do more? 

A few days later, a friend shared a link to a website that offered a way to honor the feminist icon. Run for Ruth was billed a virtual event to “celebrate the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her dedication to equality for all no matter where we are right now.” Participants could run, jog, walk, or, as I later earned, even swim to reach a total 87 miles —the number that reflected RBG’s age when she passed away. In addition, one could choose to donate to several charities earmarked as those representing RBG’s legacy through their support of women’s rights and empowerment.

The $29 entrance fee entitled each participant to a tee shirt with a picture of RBG wearing a crown; a digital race bib; and a finisher’s medal. It also gave one access to a website which one could put in individual mileage, compare results with others involved, and even print out a virtual bib. The guidelines said that  a minimum of 30% of registration proceeds would go to charity.

With visions of RBG smiling down from heaven, I sent in my online registration fee; donated money to Planned Parenthood, one of the charity options; and logged in for my first virtual entry–the 20 mile bike ride I took the day after Rosh Hashanah and two days after her passing.

No matter how or with whom I would put in the miles, I knew from Day One that I could not make my goal just 87 miles. Since the pandemic had hit, I had swapped fitness classes for 7 a.m., swims in an outdoor pool and, accompanied by my husband Larry, long walks and longer bike rides. I had already put 1000 miles on my bike’s cyclometer. Based on this knowledge, I set my personal goal for 870 miles by  the January 31, 202, deadline.

About four weeks and 230 miles later, I received the Run for Ruth race packet in the mail. The finisher’s medal, a large metal medallion on a striped ribbon, was pretty impressive but, in my eyes, pretty useless. I couldn’t see when I would wear it and put it aside to give to my five year old granddaughter. 

The bigger disappointment was the tee shirt. I had ordered an adult size large, but fit like a child’s medium. I couldn’t even get it over my head. I gave it to my petite niece and found an even cooler RBG shirt on Etsey for myself. 

Now that the focus was off the perks, it was time for me to put my pedal to the metal. Larry was a great biking partner, pumping air into our bike tires as needed, mapping out routes that avoided traffic, and scheduling hydration stops along the way. Our two hour walks were filled with conversations about  the family, politics, books, and movies. 

By the middle of October, I was fully invested in what I now called my “Bike for Ruth.” We were averaging over 19 miles on our bikes and over 5 miles on our walks, along with one or two of my solo swims. Each day, I recorded my progress on the website and checked my results compared to fellow participants. 

Amazingly, 1376 people ranging in age from 5 to 81 from had signed up for the biking event. Predictably, many had not gone more than a few miles before dropping out. (Hope their tee shirts fit better than mine!). A couple of hundred had reached their goal of 87 and were done. But there were hundreds more who were still cycling along.

The results page not only gave names, miles, ages, hours expended, and home town but it also listed rankings. And guess who was in the top 60 and climbing! Not only was I moving up the chart, but I was one of the oldest riders.

True, I had several factors in my favor. Others were dealing with snow and school and jobs and the pandemic, forget about hills! Mrs.-Retired-in-Flat-Florida could pedal and walk and even swim to her heart’s content. And I had the spirit of RBG urging me on. I was getting closer and closer to my goal of 870.

One day, however, I noticed a fellow Floridian had slipped into the top 25. One entry. One day. 1067 miles. And this person was 75 years old! Impossible!

I decided the best way to handle what I considered an unacceptable entry is that could ride more miles.  I upped my personal goal from 870 to at least 1068. 

By this time, it was mid-December, and Larry was getting concerned. Florida was experiencing its winter, and it had turned colder, windier, and even rainier. Could we speed this process up, maybe get done by January 1?

We both pulled the Smart Wools, gloves, and nano-puff jackets we usually reserve for our trips to Colorado and soldiered on. I hit 870 on December 21 and 1068—Take That, 1067-in-One-Day— on January 4. 

At this point, Larry said that I was on my own. I cranked out another 300 miles and hit 1367 miles on the last day of the challenge. I finished in 10th place out of 1376, with the next person close to my age in 56th place.

I was waiting for the drum roll, or at least a shiny certificate in the mail. I would have waited for a long time. As you remember, I had gotten my “finisher’s medal” two weeks into the race. And the black and white 5X7 online certificate listed in big letters my name and time expended: 109 plus hours. In tiny letters was my rank and wrong age of 69. So I created my own tribute that I have displayed on my refrigerator. It reads.Marilyn Shapiro. 10th Place. 1367 Miles. 70 Years Old. Then I got back on my bike.After all, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 88th birthday would have been March 15. And I am good for at least 880 or so miles before my pandemic pedaling finally comes to an end.

First published in The Jewish World, March 4, 2021

Purim Question: To Mask or Not to Mask

“We’re having a celebration for Purim,” the president of our synagogue announced excitedly at the end of a recent Friday Shabbat services on Zoom. “We’ll read the Megillah, watch some Purim music videos, and drink some wine. Can’t wait to see your costumes!”

From our end of the computer, Larry and I exchanged looks. I had already found a Purim song by the Maccabeats and a presentation by Mayim Bialik that made me happier than reading the whole Megillah. After months of avoiding baking except for of my weekly challahs, I had already decided that I would forget the diet and make hamantashen. But a costume? Maybe one of my numerous COVID masks. As to costumes, the jury is still out.

My first memory of a Purim costume came when I was getting ready for the Purim festival for our synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom in Plattsburgh, New York, when I was about eleven years old. Along with the games and food, there would be the yearly prizes for best costume. My mother had helped me cut out a huge replica of the Ten Commandments pasteboard, and we put the Roman numeral numbers in thick marker. We created a beard out of black crepe paper.Once  I put on a robe and a shmata (piece of cloth) on my head, I thought I was the best Moses in the history of the world. I just knew I was going to win the best costume award.

Unfortunately, the adults judges did not agree. I don’t remember who won, but I remember it wasn’t me. Being the rational, calm child that I was, I had a melt down in the car on the 30 minute ride home and continued to carry on when we got home. When I look back, I realize that my costume certainly wasn’t original. In fact, every year parents had come up with the same idea. But I was crushed and swore off Purim costumes for twenty-two years. 

On March 18, 1973, however, a group of my friends decided to go to a Purim party sponsored by Albany Jewish Singles. Those of you who know me know what happened. Although I did not wear a costume into the party, I did change into a long, flowered dress for an impromptu Purim spiel (Yiddish for an informal theatrical production) that I, along with the six others in our assigned group, pulled together. I was Esther to a cute guy named Larry Shapiro’s Ahashuarus. He and I shared a hamantashen. By the end of the night, I knew that I would spend my life with him. As a friend with my camera captured at least a dozen pictures of the skit, we have a photo journal of those first minutes of our meeting. Meeting at a costume party on Purim was a wonderful way for Jews to meet. Over the years, however, I have often had to explain to my non-Jewish friends that Larry and I met at a PUR-im party, not a porn party.

Despite this very positive experience, it took 44 years for Larry and I to participate in another Purim event. A year after we moved into our active adult community in Florida, we were roped into performing in a Purim shpiel for the Shalom Club. Written and produced by long time members of the club, the story was irreverent, campy, and ridiculous.

 Larry, who served as the emcee, pushed his Prairie Home Companion theme. Announcing that the show was sponsored by the Hamantashen Council , who wants you to know“Hamantashen: It’s Not Just for Purim any more.” I played a Vanna White wannabe, strutting across the stage with posters held over my head announcing not only the number of the act but also when the audience was to boo for Haman and applaud for the heroes of the day.Other members of the social club played the more familiar roles—Esther, Ahashuarus, Mordechai, and Haman.

 We were so bad we were good. The audience loved us!

So why am I so against dressing up for Purim this year? First of all, we are having the celebration on Zoom, not at the synagogue. Do I want to put in all the time and effort to create a costume to wear in front of a computer?

More importantly, after wearing a mask on my face for the past twelve months, I find nothing exciting about purchasing a mask that does not provide COVID protection. We have built up quite a collection to get us through the pandemic. Larry usually goes for solids, but I prefer a statement. One mask proclaims in big letters,“Because I care about you and me; another is emblazoned with butterflies, my “totem.” My favorite is the one I purchased in memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that has her portrait and one of her iconic quotes, “Fight for the things you care about. 

If I wanted to get into the holiday spirit, Etsy the online company, offers a variety of Purim themed COVID masks, bearing pictures of hamantashen, masks, and Megillah scrolls. I can even invest in a personalized mask that proclaims even a “Quarantine Purim 2021. The Shapiro Family.” Another simply states, “This is my Purim costume.”

Next year, when we can hopefully celebrate without social distancing and without required masks, we may reconsider. This year, however, unless the president of our synagogue twists our arms a little, Larry and I will stick to the story, songs the hamantaschen, and maybe too much wine to fit into the holiday. Chag Sameach!

First published in The Jewish World February 18, 2021

Catch Me If You Can

Can a book change a life?

Our tenth grade English class was deep into The Scarlet Letter, the classic by Nathanial Hawthorne. I was mesmerized not only by the writing and the story, but also by its symbolism. Hester Prynne carried her shame on her chest every day, the bright red letter A which identified her as an adulterer. Things weren’t bad enough in Puritan America without her having to not only hold her beloved Pearl in her arms but to have her shame emblazoned for all to see.

Our teacher, Mrs. Frances Clute, was a friend of my parents She and her husband John had spent time with my parents, and she knew me well.

One day, after class, Mrs. Clute asked me to stay a little longer. As the rest of my classmates dashed out the door for Mr. Kennedy’s World History class, she pulled out a small book from one of her desk drawers.

“This is Catcher in the Rye, Marilyn,” Mrs. Clute told me. “I know how much you love The Scarlet Letter. This is also a book that deals with symbolism. I am giving it to you with your promise not to share it with any of your classmates.”

I was grateful for her trust. Even if I knew nothing about J. D. Salinger’s 1951classic, I knew she trusted me and saw in me the enthusiasm and the intelligence to handle its content and meaning.

I probably read it all that night, the whole story of Holden Caulfield, his depression, his flight from his private school, his trip to New York. I read how he wanted to save his sister Phoebe from any dangers that she would experience. I “got” the meaning of the “catcher in the rye,” the person who wanted to always protect those whom he loved.

I also saw why Mrs. Clute had been furtive in her gift. The book had language that was certainly not in books  usually selected by Keeseville Central School. I now don’t remember if it contained the “F” word, but it had other language and actions that were certainly not broadcast in our small upstate New York town. What made it great was the symbolism, the depth of the story behind the words.

I had already decided that I would be a teacher. After reading Salinger’s classic,  however, I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. I would spend my college years reading other classics, and then I would go on to teach others to love literature as much as I did.  I followed that dream. 

Looking back,I realize from my older eyes how shallow my understanding and appreciation of great literature was in college.There are classics that I read and hated, Moby Dick probably the most memorable. (I had to read it in one week. It was about a whale.) 

In my first teaching job, I was assigned to share Brave New World, 1984, and Night with juniors and seniors in our school small town near Albany. I realized that not only did they not understand the books’ meanings. Most of them couldn’t even read. I had been a last minute replacement for a man who decided in June to pursue his doctorate, and all the students had signed up to be in “The Cool Class with the Cool Teacher.” I was not the cool teacher.

In the years that followed, I have tried and failed to read other classics, including Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, One Hundred Years of Solitude. I missed the depth in so many books.

It is January, and as I have every year, I have those four books on my “To Read” books. I probably will never get to them, preferring the New York Times best sellers and ones recommended by my bookish friends. But maybe, in honor of Mrs. Clute, I will take my copies of The Scarlet Letter and Catcher in the Rye down from my shelf. While sheltering in place during this pandemic, I will revisit my friendship with Hester Prynne and Holden Caulfield. And, even though I know I have still a great deal to learn about literature and symbolism and the classics, I will accept that Mrs. Clute recognized that I had that spark in me. And for that I will be forever grateful.

Picture Credit: By Mary Hallock Foote – The Scarlet Letter – edition: James R. Osgood & Co,, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11264794 

The Whole World is Watching

“I can’t keep silent, in light of how my country has changed her face/ Won’t quit trying to remind her in her ears, I’ll sing my cries/Until she opens her eyes.” Israeli poet Ehud Manor as quoted by Nancy  Pelosi, US House Speaker 1/13/2021

On Wednesday, January 6, I turned on the television to follow the United States Congress’ certification of the election of Joseph Biden as our 46th president. I listened in anger as Donald J. Trump delivered an inflammatory speech to thousands of protesters, egging them on to “take back the steal.” I watched in disgust as thousands of protesters, including one wearing a Camp Auschwitz tee shirt,  began their march to the Capitol. And I watched in horror as the insurrectionists, brandishing Confederate flags, Nazi symbols, and pitchforks, breached the Capitol. As members of Congress were evacuated, took cover on the Chamber floor, or hid in darkened offices, the riotors marched through the “People’s House,” vandalizing offices, graffitiing doors, and leaving behind a trail of destruction.

After summoning my husband to come immediately to see what was playing out in real time, I texted my children. “Are you watching the news? Protesters breeched the Capital. National Guard being called in” I wrote.”The entire Congress is behind locked doors away from windows!”

“Mom,” my daughter wrote back a minute later. “Everyone in the world is watching.”

That was confirmed soon after when friends in England emailed me with just a subject line, “What the hell is going on?”

“Another day in Trump’s America,” I responded.

Yes, just another day that many of us saw coming. Since announcing his candidacy and targeting Mexicans as “rapists,” Donald J. Trump has used his vitriolic rhetoric to disparage those who stood in his way and enflame those who supported him. In 2017, the president stated soon after the white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia ,that there were “very fine people on both sides.” His repeated inability to denounce neo-Nazis demonstrated to me that the lessons of World War II and the Holocaust meant nothing to him.

I also have been appalled by his comments directly targeting Jews.After the October 2019 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, Trump’s initial reaction was to criticize the Pittsburg, Pennsylvania synagogue. “If there was an armed guard inside the temple,” he said, ” they would have been able to stop him.” In August 2019, he accused American Jews of being “disloyal” to Israel by voting for Democrats. In December 2019, speaking at the Israeli American Council referred to the dual loyalty cliché, and then went on to call Jews involved in real estate “ brutal killers, not nice people at all.” During the Republican convention, Mary Ann Mendoza,  a Trump supporter was pulled from the event’s line up after protests of her promotion of anti-Semitic and QAnon conspiracy theories on her Twitter Feed. 

His comments and policies have also impacted Latinos, Muslims, Blacks, Dreamers, Africans (“shit-hole countries”), and Asians (“kung fu” flu). Even the disabled—including those who suffered physical or emotional injuries as a result of their military service (“losers” and “suckers”)—have been the target of the president’s disrespect and scorn. 

Meanwhile, since George Floyd’s May 2020 murder, the United States has come face to face with its long history of systematic racism. The president has only fueled the flames, In June 2020, in a precursor to last week’s violence, Trump and his administration ordered that law enforcement officers use tear gas and other riot control tactics to forcefully clear peaceful George Floyd protesters.The president then posed for photographers in what he perceived was his “law and order” stance that included his holding an upside down Bible. 

Despite his history of disrespect, cruelty, and divisiveness, between 21% and 30% of Jews (depending on poll used) still voted in November to give him another four years, citing what he and his administration had done for Israel (and their pocketbooks). In my opinion, they should be ashamed. Trump is an antithesis to every moral tenet of Judaism. He is a bully, a liar, a cheat, a womanizer, and a self-absorbed, unempathetic narcissist who has no respect for anyone who does not fawn over him—unless they are despots. And now he is being called a traitor to his country.

On January 13, the US House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump for a second time. Time will tell if the Senate tallies the 2/3’s majority to convict him. It may take years to determine the political, financial, and legal fallout for him and his sycophants.

In the weeks leading up to the November election, while I was involved in getting out the vote against Trump, I purchased a sticker from the Jewish Democratic Council of America that read “Tikkun Olam: Repair the World. Defeat Donald Trump.” He lost the election. Now he needs to lose all support and credence. Like Haman, may his name and legacy be drowned out by groggers, by history’s judgement, and by the voices all good people who recognize the damage he has done to our country and the world.

Sources

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/trump-defends-white-nationalist-protesters-some-very-fine-people-on-both-sides/537012/

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/09/trump-americans-who-died-at-war-are-losers-and-suckers/615997/

https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/25/rnc-speaker-pulled-from-schedule-after-she-tweeted-anti-semitic-conspiracy-thread.html

https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/27/us/pittsburgh-synagogue-active-shooter/index.html

https://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/election-2020/rioters-at-capitol-shattered-windows-graffitied-doors-left-behind-debris

https://www.timesofisrael.com/how-did-us-jews-vote-polls-offer-imperfect-take-though-big-picture-is-clear/

https://www.timesofisrael.com/un-says-trump-slur-on-shithole-countries-is-racist/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/12/09/trump-israeli-american-council-anti-semitic-claims/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/06/03/priest-stjohns-church-trump/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-says-that-jewish-people-who-vote-for-democrats-are-very-disloyal-to-israel-denies-his-remarks-are-anti-semitic/2019/08/21/055e53bc-c42d-11e9-b5e4-54aa56d5b7ce_story.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/with-kung-flu-trump-sparks-backlash-over-racist-language–and-a-rallying-cry-for-supporters/2020/06/24/485d151e-b620-11ea-aca5-ebb63d27e1ff_story.html

Featured image by Robert Couse-Baker

Fallow 2020 may help us reconnect with what we have

In her book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, British writer Katherine May recounts her own “sad” time where she was forced to hunker down after family illness. “Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of hour human experience,” she writes, “and wisdom resides in those who have wintered.”

We are all “wintering” now through this pandemic. As we welcome good news with the rollout of the vaccines, we also grieve for those we have lost, those who remain ill, and all of us who have had our lives upended. But there WILL be a spring. I am not sure if I ever want to go back to the phrenetic pace of our previous life. 

My whole life has always been about filling up my calendar. I thought this would change once I retired to Florida, but the last five years have been even busier. My days—and in many cases Larry’s as well—were filled with concerts and theater subscriptions and annual Disney passes and movies and dinners out. I scheduled so many events that neither  Larry nor I could keep up, resulting in revelations of upcoming plans mere hours before they occurred. “You were going to tell me about this WHEN?” Larry asked, as he dressed quickly to get to an afternoon tribute band concert being held in our 55+ community. “Sorry, sweetheart,” I responded as I quickly threw on some makeup. “I thought our tickets were for the evening show!”

Our lives were also filled with trips to visit our children as well as to see places on our bucket list. When we weren’t away or running around to our innumerable commitments, we also enjoyed visits from friends and relatives. We refer to  it as “The Tourist Season,” where our sunny home in Florida looked much more enticing than their snow and ice covered homes February through April.

That life as we knew it drastically changed in March.

Our daughter Julie and her family had flown in from Colorado on March 7 for a week, just as COVID cases were beginning to spike. We stayed in a rented cottage on Indian Rocks Beach, celebrated the long distance birth of our grandson on March 8, and enjoyed the sunshine. We felt safe on the sparsely populated beach. Once we got back to  our home, however, we cancelled our plans to visit Disney World and prepared all our meals at home.

On Saturday, as Julie’s husband Sam packed up their rental car for the trip to the airport, Julie pleaded with us to shelter in place until this was over. “Stay home, Mom and Dad,” she begged. “This is really serious.”

Despite her entreaties, my husband Larry and I were still debating whether to attend our community theater group’s production of Deathtrap. “This will be our last foray for a while,” I reasoned. “We should support our friends who put so much time preparing.”

One hour before we were to leave, our son Adam called from California. “If you promise not to go to the play,” he told us, “we will spend the next hour Zooming with you so you can watch your six-day-old grandson.” We complied. Outside of trips to doctors, the supermarket, and small, socially distanced outdoor meetings , we have kept our promise for the past nine months.

But maybe, for those of us fortunate enough to have survived 2020 without major physical and financial catastrophes, this year has been a break from our normal “Rush, Rush, Rush” routine. Larry and I have found a new rhythm that has given us respite in unexpected ways.

Each morning, we exercise, sometimes together (bikes, walks) and sometimes on our own (Larry’s pickleball and my swims). After lunch, we spend a leisurely hour or two n the couch doing duplicated crossword puzzles, working silently until one or both of us say, “I need help!” I find time to write while Larry satisfies his passion for history and sports with the help of Google. After dinner, a shared affair, we watch a Netflix or Amazon movie and read. I say a prayer of gratitude every day that I am going through this difficult time with Larry, my soul mate and best friend.

We both have appreciated the power of online technology, allowing us to keep up with far flung family and friends. Adam, and his wife Sarah have kept up their part of the bargain, Face Timing with us several times a week with the camera trained on our ten-month-old grandson. Although we have yet to hold him, we have at least been part of his life, watching him sleep and poop as an infant to seeing him experience applesauce for the first time, pop his first tooth and crawl backwards. 

Thanks to his long, elaborate stories, our five-year-old granddaughter often checks in with Zayde. She asks him to retell the story of how Wicki Wolf was foiled again by the forest denizens, which include “good” wolves, moose, and even a visiting alligator who somehow survives the Colorado winters. Julie and her husband often share the screen. Frequent emailed pictures and videos of both grandchildren keep us further in touch.

True, there are times that I fear we have maxed out on Zoom. Synagogue services and board meetings. Book clubs and writing groups. Planned meet-ups with siblings and cousins and friends. But we still have much more down time that allows us to savor what we have rather than rush to taste something new. Although physically distanced, we have become more emotionally connected with the people for whom we care and even reconnected with those whom we lost touch in the frenzy of busier schedules.

As 2020 end, I know I join millions of others in being glad it is over. A popular meme summarizes those feelings: “2020. One Star. Very Bad. Would not recommend.” I look forward to a healthier, happier, and more huggable 2021. But I also hope that I will retain the lessons I have learned as I experienced my own wintering.

First published in (Capital Region, New York) Jewish World, January 7, 2021

A Hallmark Hanukkah: Why I Still Like Cheesy Christmas Movies So Much!

Even though the pandemic has altered our world, my husband Larry and I will still maintain many of our traditions this Hanukkah. Eating latkes with applesauce. Lighting candles each night. “Betting” on which candle lasts the longest. Watching Hallmark Christmas movies.

Wait! Hallmark Christmas movies? When did that become a tradition?

For as long as I can remember, I have watched Hallmark movies. For many years, the famous card company aired shows specific to the holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and of course Valentine’s Day. Each two-hour made-for-television episode touched my heart. Many were based on classic novels, such as The Secret Garden or Sarah Plain and Tall, while others were originals. And as much as I loved the shows themselves, I especially enjoyed the tear-jerking commercials. (Did you know you can Google them? Watch them with a box of Kleenex next to you!)

In 2001, after the major networks dropped the specials, the company launched The Hallmark Channel. Building on its many fans during the holidays, the channel has churned out 136 Christmas shows to date. That means a great deal of “Deck the Halls” and “Jingle Bells,” their favorite seasonal songs, as the movies are touted to be about the spirit of the season, not any one religion in particular.

The plots of their Christmas movies fall into two categories. If you have watched only one or two of the productions, you have pretty much seen them all. 

Plot one: A high-powered business dynamo needs to learn the real meaning of life, which can only be found in a small, idyllic town inhabited by incredibly cheerful people who, despite their low-paying occupations (favorite include cupcake bakers, store clerks, and staff at a huge inn with no guests in sight except the small cast), can still afford enough Christmas decorations to cover EPCOT. 

Plot two: A kind, hard-working woman finds out that the incredibly handsome mystery man she’s dating is actually the king of a tiny but wealthy country named after a countertop (Cambria) or china pattern (Winshire). Twenty minutes before the movie ends, a conflict erupts based on a misunderstanding – but no worries! It will be resolved with a kiss one minute before the snow starts and two minutes before the credits roll.

Up until this past year, Hallmark was all about white, heterosexual Christians. People of Color were seen only as the best friend or the minister who marries the happy couple; LGBTQ+ characters were never seen at all. This policy was upended last year, when the channel pulled an advertisement that featured two women kissing at the altar. Soon after, scriptwriters began churning out stories that highlighted more diverse romances, including LGBTQ+ couples and interracial relationships.

What’s still largely missing, though, are stories about Jewish couples. Loving Leah (2009) was the closest to a true Jewish romance, featuring a non-observant Jewish bachelor who feels compelled to marry his rabbi brother’s widow to honor him via the ancient Jewish law of yibbum (levirate marriage). 

For me, though, the channel’s attempts at celebrating Hanukkah have been major fails. 

Holiday Date told the story of Joel, a nice Jewish boy who agrees to pretend to be the boyfriend of Brittany, who is headed back to her small Pennsylvania hometown to celebrate Christmas with her family. Hilarity allegedly ensues when Joel (who grew up in New York City, certainly surrounded by at least one or two Christians) has no idea how to decorate a tree or make a gingerbread house or sing “Deck the Halls.” Moments after the ruse is uncovered, Brittany’s mother comes out of the kitchen holding a tray of potato latkes and wearing an “Oy vey” apron. Of course, the two end up together, promising to observe both Christmas and Hanukkah. 

The plots of the other two 2019 Hallmark Hanukkah movies, both involving interfaith romances, made Holiday Date look like Casablanca. This year, Hallmark tried again. Love, Lights, Hanukkah!, which first  aired on December 14. recounted  the story of Christina, who was raised Italian Catholic by her  adoptive mother, discovers through genetic testing that she is 50% Jewish. Over the next eight days, she finds her family and romance. While I loved the acting, (both Mia Kirshner and Ben Savage are Jewish!) and some very authentic Jewish moments, especially those that involved singing the prayer when lighting the menorah, I still wished in the end that somehow Christina would change her name to Channah and completely embrace her Yiddishkeit roots. Oh well! Maybe next year  Hallmark will make a movie about two Jews who fall in love over dreidels and potato latkes without a Christmas tree in sight! 

So why do I – along with many others who likely keep mum about their penchant for Hallmark movies – love these films? Simple. They’re mindless, sweet, non-political, non-violent, and always guaranteed to result in a happy ending. I still cry every time King Maximillian and Allie embrace at the end of A Crown for Christmas. (Take that, you wicked Countess!) 

These feelings hold even truer in 2020: I need a break from COVID-19 and the elections and the transition. So grab the dreidel-shaped sugar cookies and hot chocolate: I’ll yet again be indulging in the holiday season with Hallmark Christmas movies!

Published on ReformJudaism.orgwebsite December 24, 2020 and in the (Capital Region New York) Jewish World on December 10, 2020.

Bud Black, Interlocutor Extraordinaire

For the past five years,  people who came to services at Congregation Shalom Aleichem in Kissimmee, Florida, were met with an unusual but wonderful treat. They were greeted by a pair of musicians—Bud Black on the guitar (and occasionally the banjo) and Bill Willner on the snare drums. They played mostly songs from the 20s, 30s, and 40’s. Bud and Bill usually packed up their instruments about fifteen minutes before services began, but on occasion they would accompany Rabbi Karen Allen on songs from the Friday night service. 

John “Bud” Black career as a musician began in the 1930s as an 8 year old in bars near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Bud’s grandfather Bert loved to drink even more than he loved the Pittsburgh Pirates. So he would tell his wife he was taking his daughter’s “little buddy”  to a game. Instead he took him to local taverns. Bud would play the ukulele that his grandfather had purchased for him.

While still in high school, Bud began playing the guitar professionally and performing on WKPA, Pittsburg’s hillbilly radio station. (Was this the station? It is now listed as a ministry station out of Lynchburg, VA) After graduating, Bud went into the US Air Force, where he worked on computers. After he completed his service, he took a job at RCA working on technology. Bud realized quickly that his first love was music and began working the nightclub circuit around Philadelphia and Atlantic City. 

By the age of ten, with a minimal training from one of his grandfather’s fellow barflies, Bud not only had added the guitar to his repertoire but also helped Bert make some money. Bud had an incredible ability to remember the name, lyrics, and artist of every song he played. As William Miller wrote in a 1997 article, Bert  took him from bar to bar, challenging anyone to name a tune his grandson couldn’t play. When they couldn’t “Stump the Musician”— which was often— Bert passed the hat.

Along the way, Bud married and had two sons, Scott and John. After his divorce, he had a relationship that resulted in the birth of  third son, Wes. .In 1986, the Delta Queen steamship company hired him as the ship’s “interlocutor,” where he would be able combine his talents as a musician, a comedian, and an entertainer. 

His fellow musicians regarded Bud as a walking music encyclopedia. His favorites were songs from the 1920s and 1930s,  but he also knew songs from “as far back as songs were recorded.”   And when he got bored singing the lyrics the “right way,” he would sing them backwards.  “Chattanooga Choo Choo” became “Agoonattahc, Oohc-Oohc;” “My Wild Irish Rose,” “Ym dliw hsiri esor.”

One of his friends remembered, “Bud was full of bull**, an entertainer and wonderful story teller. He took a 15 second story and turned it into an hour. But it was a stroll down memory lane.” 

“Bud had the largest record collection I’ve ever seen,” Howard Paul, a fellow musician on the Delta Queen, posted on Bud’s Facebook page. “He told an endless stream of jokes (clean and blue). For me, Bud was the missing link between vaudeville and nightclub lounge acts.”

Tim Aucoin, a fellow musician, stated on Facebook that he remembers afternoons playing together in the Texas Lounge on the Delta Queen. “Bud would say ‘Who wants to hear some country music? Great, how about a Lithuanian love ballad?’”

In 1989, Bud was performing on the second night of a three day cruise when Wendy Demby, a young woman on vacation from her job in New York City, approached him and expressed her admiration for his show. When she disembarked in New Orleans for the remainder of her week-long trip, Bud sought her out to share a few hours during a break in his job. Those few hours developed into a long distance relationship that resulted in Wendy moving down to The Big Easy. They were married in May 1990.

For the next ten years, Wendy maintained their home in New Orleans while Bud strummed his guitar and banjo up and down the Mississippi. Once a year, Wendy went along for the ride. In 1999, Bud retired from the riverboat but not from music. They moved to St. Cloud, Florida, when Bud took a job at Disney World, playing a various parks including in a roaming band in the Magic Kingdom.

Bud also entertained nursing home residents throughout the Orlando area. His music transported many to healthier, happier days. One time, after singing a song, a woman came up to him in tears. “My husband has dementia,” she said. “ But when you started singing that song, he started singing along. It is the first time he has spoken in years.” 

Wendy was Jewish and Bud was Christian, but they shared a mutual respect and appreciation for each other’s religion. They attended Sunday services at the Church of St. Luke and St. Peter in St. Cloud and Friday night services at Congregation Shalom Aleichem.  Initially, Bud played and sang with Norm Salinsky a former president, About five years ago, Bill Willner joined them. When Norm became ill, Bud and Bill began their routine before services. Bud had a collection of yarmulkes displaying  musical notes or Jewish holiday motifs—but his favorite was one embossed with his beloved Pittsburg Pirates’ logo. 

This past December,  Bud and Bill were planning to do some Irish songs for the March 15 service, which fell two days before St. Patrick’s Day. Unfortunately, Bud became ill in January and passed away on March 9, 2019, at the age of 88. 

At the memorial service at the Church of St. Luke and St. Peter, Reverend Longbottom played and sang some of Bud’s favorite songs, including many Irish tunes. The clergyman was joined by David Royer, who played Bud’s guitar. David was one of Bud’s first friends in the Orlando area, a friendship sealed by b’shert—David’s parents had sailed the Delta Queen and had spoken highly of a banjo player named Bud Black. In honor of Bud’s close connections to Judaism  and Congregation Shalom Aleichem, Wendy’s brother,Craig Demby said the Kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer.

Bud’s son John passed away in 2011 from complications of diabetes.  His oldest son Scott, a talented musician in his own right, lives in China and was unable to attend the memorial service. His youngest son Wes, sharing news that his girlfriend Daniela was pregnant with what will be Bud’s first grandchild, were there to say goodbye, along with many other friends and family members.

One of Bud’s favorite songs, “Dusty Old Dust, written by Woody Guthrie in 1940, is a fitting epithet for this talented musician. “So long, it’s been good to know ya/What a long time since I’ve been home/And I’ve gotta be driftin’ along.” Drift gently, Bud!

Sources:

Miller, William. “Buddy Black, The Delta Queen’s Colorful Interlocutor.” Vantage. March/April 1997. Pages 10-11.

Lind, Angus, “Life’s a song from way back for Bud Black.” (New Orleans)  Times Picayune. September 4, 1991. Pages E1,E5.

A Family of Stores

Before 23andme.com DNA kits, before genetic testing, before people poured through old census and courthouse records, our family had the best tool to connect with our ancestors—our parents, Fran and Bill Cohen.

Bill Cohen claimed he could sniff out family from ten feet or from 200 years away. According to Dad, we were related to Sir Moses Montefiore, a nineteenth century British financier and philanthropist; Stubby Kaye , American actor and comedian most famous for his role as Nicely-Nicely in Guys and Dolls; and Madeline Kunin, the former governor of Vermont. 

Dad didn’t regard fame as the only criteria to be considered mishpachah (Yiddish for a Jewish family or social unit including close and distant relatives ). If one had any Jewish connection, Dad would find some link no matter how obscure and embrace them as one of our own .

While my father connected, my mother, Frances Cohen, kept a more reliable account of our family tree. Even into her nineties, my mother could share the convoluted genealogical history of our huge family. To add to the complexity, my father’s grandfather married my mother’s great-aunt, first cousins married first cousins; and two sisters from Vermont married two brothers from Toronto.That is not only a great deal of mishpachah but a great deal of mishagas (confusion)! My brother Jay would listen for hours, jotting down rough drafts of the convoluted branches on yellow legal pads that he filed away for “later.”

Jay also spent a great deal of time talking to our parents about the chain of family run department stores that are intrinsically entwined into our family’s history.

Pearl’s Department Stores began in the early 1900s, when our maternal great-uncle Paul Osovitz, unable to continue in the New York City sweat shops because of respiratory problems, was given money by his older sister Lillian to start a business in Vermont. Initially living with his uncle Archic Perelman in Burlington, Paul peddled wares he carried on his back throughout the rural parts of Vermont and Upstate New York.He saved enough to purchase a horse and cart. As his business grew, he invited his brother Joe to join him. 

Paul and Joe opened up their first store in Alburg, Vermont. As people knew them as the “Perelman Boys,” they chose the name of “Pearl’s Department Store.” To make the moniker even more accurate, they and most of the family changed their surname to Pearl. They opened a second store in Swanton, Vermont. Joe eventually went back to New York City. Paul began building a small dynasty of over 20 stores, employing his relatives as managers and clerks. Our father, Bill Cohen, was one of those relatives, spending most of his life managing one of Uncle Paul’s stores in Keeseville, New York.

By the late 1980s, however, big box stores and highway systems like the Northway, rang the death knell for small-town family run businesses. Pearl’s closed its last store in 1988, only remembered through those that worked or shopped there and dusty records.

In 2015, my brother Jay, retired and always loving “minutia and trivia,” began researching the history of each of the stores and the families involved. He Googled the internet for news stories, advertisements, and pictures. He contacted historians in the stores’ towns. He reached out to the descendants of the relatives that managed or worked in Paul’s stores. He then expanded his research to include stores and businesses owned by mishpachah that were not connected to Pearls, including paternal relatives and my in-laws, who owned Shapiros of Schuylerville in Upstate New York.

Jay incorporated all his findings into a website he called afamilyofstores.com. “If you grew up in upstate New York (‘the North Country’) or in northern Vermont anywhere from the 1930s through the 1980s you probably remember a Pearl’s Department Store in your hometown,” Jay wrote on the site’s home page. “You went there with your mom or your friends. You bought your Wrangler jeans and your school clothes or a Christmas gift. A Pearl’s store was there before the Kmart’s, Ames, and Walmart’s and the Northway.”

The ongoing project, which Jay calls a “labor of love,” also drew on his interest in genealogy. His two sons began hounding him. “Learning about Pearl’s is fine,” they said. “But when are you going to pull out all those yellow legal pads you have stuffed in a drawer and create a family tree for posterity?” It took a pandemic to motivate Jay to dig them out.

Early in the COVID lockdown, my three siblings and I connected with our paternal first cousins through weekly Zoom sessions. As we continued to shelter in place, our group of seven expanded to include over 22 cousins, their spouses, and even their children. 

Each meeting was consumed by the question, “How are we all related?” Jay, who had screen shared his afamilyofstores.com website, offered to pull it all together. 

Using a template from ancestry.com, Mom’s notes, his website, and updated information he gathered from the Tuesday Zooms, Jay  meticulously created the framework of a family tree that will document both paternal and maternal sides of  our ever expanding family. When finished, it will include everyone from Moses Montifiore (Dad was right, as he was about Stubby Kaye and Madeline Kunin) to my nine-month old grandson, a span of over 200 years. Thanks to Jay’s efforts, we not only know our roots but also our far-flung branches.

Why don’t we all submit our DNA to one of the popular ancestry sites to learn more? Two reasons. First, our entire family history goes back to the shtetl in Eastern European. Those of us who have had tests done show us as 98% Ashkenazi (Jews with roots in Eastern Europe). No surprises there. The second reason is that—well— we have more relatives than we can handle! Jay said that he expects to connect the family tree to over 1000 people. 

And if we finally cave in, send a sample of our saliva to a testing site, and find even more? Bring them on! After all, we are Bill and Fran Cohen’s children. And we love our family…all of them. 

Published in (Capital Region, NY) Jewish World on January 7, 2020.