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.

A Jewish neshama shining bright in Alaska

When Dr.  Liz Ross joins her fellow women congregants at Congregation Shalom Aleichem on the bima for the blessing over the candles, she pulls the hood of her kuspuk, her traditional Native Alaskan snow dress, over her head.  And on her neck, her gold Star of David catches the light of the flickering flames.   A business woman, a college professor, and a black belt in karate, Liz Ross also carries with her the love and respect of her double heritage: Judaism and Native Alaskan.

Dr. Liz Ross

Liz’s great-grandparents had fled their native Kyrgyzstan in the late 19th century to escape the pogroms. A fur-trapping family, they were nomads who lived throughout the then-Russian territory. Out of fear of discrimination, they rarely spoke about their Jewish heritage to their only child, Ola. “it was a taboo subject,” said Liz. “We were told there are some doors that should not be opened.”

In the 1920’s, Ola married Joe Nashoalook, a Native Alaskan who served as the chief of the Inupiaq village of Unalakleet in the Bering Straits region.Their daughter Anna, the oldest of the Nashoalook children, met her husband Arthur Ellis when he was stationed in Nome, Alaska during World War II. He continued in the Army for thirty years, a career that took Anna and seven of their children, including Liz, to military bases throughout the United States, Europe and Asia.

After graduating from high school in Colorado Springs, Liz began her post-secondary education in a community college before enrolling in the University of West Florida. During this time, Liz often visited her older sister Nancy who had been raised by a childless  aunt and uncle from Nome, Alaska, who were observant Jews. Experiencing this “taboo” subject for a first time sparked in Liz an interest in learning about Judaism that has lasted a lifetime. 

In 1979, Liz met her husband, Jeff Ross, and they were married in 1980. Over the next several years, they had four children. All of the children attended private schools through eighth grade. Their oldest son attended public school from eighth grade through his graduation. The other three of the children were home schooled, where they received an “eclectic” education which gave them the flexibility to join Liz on her trips to Alaska as well to travel around the world as a family. “I wanted them to understand all backgrounds,” said Liz. “There was so much prejudice, and I wanted them to be open-minded.”  Liz and Jeff are proud that all four attended college or trade schools.

A self-confessed “Type A” personality, Liz continued with her education despite her arduous schedule, She completed her bachelors and masters degrees in business administration in New Hampshire and a doctorate in finance and management from the Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.

In addition, the time spent with her observant relatives led Liz to study for eight years with a rabbi to reconnect with her Jewish roots, opening a door that her mother had kept closed. Her learning culminated in her formal conversion, complete with the mikvah, or ritual bath, in 2003. The rabbi said that since my mother was Jewish it was unnecessary,”said Liz. “As I wasn’t brought up with a traditional Jewish education, however, it was important for me to undergo a formal conversion.” She chose Leah as her Hebrew name, which is as important to her as her Inupiaq name, Kanuk (snow goose).

While the family established their home base in New Hampshire,  Liz split her time between New England and Alaska. She worked as a board member of the Thirteenth Regional Corporation, where responsibilities included procuring and implementing government contracts to invest in local business ventures.  She also volunteered as the CEO of the Native Village of Unalakleet Corporation, her way of giving back to her grandparent’s home. 

Being the only practicing Jew in this remote rural area of Alaska provided challenges.  Liz often observed the holidays and festivals on her own—baking challah, lighting Shabbat candles, and drinking grape juice—the best alternative to wine in a “damp” community that set limits on the amount of alcohol a person may fly in per month. Determining the Sabbath candle lighting time was difficult, as sunset happened as early as 3:30 in the winter and 1 a.m. in the summer. If Liz was in Alaska during the High Holy Days, she would travel to Fairbanks, the closest place with a synagogue. 

In 2005, Liz took a position as the program director of the master of business program at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. She also was the business and karate instructor for Rural Alaska Honors Institute, mentored the Native Alaskan Business Leaders, a student organization, and founded a martial arts class.

Liz also became the first Native Alaskan to teach the business class for the Rural Alaska Honors Institute. The six week summer-program was developed by the University of Alaska Fairbanks at the request of the Alaska Federation of Natives to encourage Native Alaskan high school students to finish college so they could bring back new ideas and business expertise to their villages. “You need to use your time here so you can grow, and then give back to your own communities.” Liz told her students.

Liz stated that most participants had grown up in small remote villages that could only be accessed by air taxis or dog sleds. “Many had never left their home villages,” said Liz. In addition, some students having grown up in a subsistence lifestyle  where all their food was obtained through planting, hunting, and fishing. “The students experienced culture shock the they found they could buy meat and vegetables in a supermarket.”

While in Fairbanks, Liz established her first official membership in a synagogue when she joined Congregation Or HaTzafon. Rabbinical students/cantors lead services during the summer months, while an ordained rabbi oversees the High Holy Day services. During the rest of the year, members of the Ritual Committee plan and oversee the Sabbath including, including the weekly oneg. 

The congregation has established that candle lighting time was 7:30 pm, no matter when sundown officially occurred. Long, cold Alaska winters, however, impacted many Jewish holidays.  Liz remembers building a Sukkot in several inches of snow and eating the traditional meals with heavy coats and snow boots.

In 2015, Liz took a position as executive director of the Small Business Development Center at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. Similar to her position in Alaska, Liz mentored members Native American tribes in Southwest Colorado through business education classes and entrepreneurial support. The move was, in part, driven by the need to be closer to her widowed mother, who was living in Colorado Springs. 

Liz in Alaska

After contracting an infection during a trip to Vietnam in 2017, Liz retired and moved to the home in Florida that  she and Jeff had purchased several years earlier. Her mother and her sister Karin live near by. A member of Congregation Shalom Aleichem in Kissimmee, Florida, Liz continues to teach classes in Jewish ritual to its congregants. 

 Liz strives to keep kosher, satisfying much of the requirements by keeping to a fish and vegetarian diet. Jeff, who is Catholic, follows Liz’s dietary restrictions up to a point.  “After almost 40 years together, we both have found a middle ground,” said Liz. “ Our values are conservative with a strong faith in G-d.”

Meanwhile, Liz keeps learning about both her Native Alaskan and Jewish heritages.  A Chinese quote, “Learning is a treasure that follows its owner everywhere” is embedded on Liz’s email signature—and in her heart.

Nooks and Crannies House Holds Sweet Memories Decades Later

Our wonderful old house in Keeseville, New York in 1981

Larry and I have lived in three homes in our almost 45 years of marriage. All three have been lovely, especially after we made them our home with our personal touches.  None of the places we lived, however, ever could compare to the memories I have of the house in which I grew up with all its nooks and crannies.

In 1952, my parents moved from Potsdam NY near the St. Lawrence River, to Keeseville, on Lake Champlain. At the time, real estate was limited, so my father found the one house large enough to accommodate Mom, the three children, and a cat. It was an old but proud 1899 Victorian set on a pretty lot only a block from Pearl’s, the department store my father managed.  

The front entrance to the house required climbing seven steps to a small porch and a front unheated vestibule. A large oak piece with a mirror graced the right side; an old makeshift storage closet on the right side of the door held all the outerwear needed for the four seasons of Upstate New York. 

Beyond the foyer, a large living and dining room stretched out across the entire front of the home, with an oak arch dividing the two rooms. Guests often joined us around the large oak table for Rosh Hashanah, Thanksgiving, Passover. 

The blue sectional in the living room came from Pearl’s warehouse, never what my mother wanted, but what we could afford on my father’s small manager’s salary. I have memories of sitting on my mother’s lap on that scratchy couch, listening with my thumb in my mouth as she read me various Golden Books—the Brave Little Tailor, Dumbo. A piano, first an ugly orange upright and, in 1963, a small baby grand, filled up the rest of the space.

 Straight ahead from the front entrance was another door that opened up into the kitchen. When the house was first purchased in 1952, it was the saddest room: one single light bulb hanging from the ceiling, outdated appliances, cracked linoleum floors, a pantry covered with cobwebs and—to the joy of our cat—filled with mice. The first room to undergo a complete transformation, the finished room had wood cabinets, a stove with a double oven, a large refrigerator and enough space for hold a formica-topped metal table with six matching chairs. Just below the clock on the far wall was the hole in the yellow linoleum. It was the forever memory of the day when I was eight years old and threw a fork at my older brother, Jay (a fairly violent reaction to his teasing) which thankfully missed his head before lodging in the yellow tile wall covering. (I don’t remember getting punished.) The door to the right of the hole led to the originally only bathroom with its claw-toothed bathtub. In another fight with Jay,  he twisted my arm when I refused to stop bouncing an  orange against that infamous yellow wall. I passed out. (Jay got grounded for two weeks.) A back door led to a small unheated vestibule,  where fresh milk was delivered for years. 

Here I am around 1953 standing in front of our “Nooks and Crannies” house!

To the left of the kitchen was a small, dark room that became the office. Mom did the store’s bookkeeping on the massive metal desk. The wall behind her was covered from top to bottom with book shelves that held second hand encyclopedias, cookbooks, history books from American Heritage, tons of children’s books, and 75 rpm records ranging from classical masters to Frank Sinatra to Danny Kaye reading Hans Christian Anderson. A chair with a table lamp had served as my own gateway to the joys of reading on my own. 

A second door in the back of the kitchen led to an unfinished and unheated room which originally was a storage area and, through the back window, access to a 30 foot clothes line that was tethered to the house on one end and to  an old oak tree on the other end. Soon after we moved in, my parents converted it to a family room by adding insulation, paneling, and a tile ceiling. Two recliners faced the television, the one on the left my father’s retreat after dinner every night he was home. Mom took the chair on the right, usually engrossed in a book while Dad watched Perry Mason—originals and reruns. 

An enclosed staircase at the far left end of the dining room led upstairs to four bedrooms. The first on the left was my bedroom. A trapdoor to the attic—which was never accessed—provided a source of nightmares for me, as did the long, narrow closet that ran along the side of the room.  When Bobbie was born in 1955, she slept in the crib and eventually the twin bed next to me. Outside of her breaking a ceramic squirrel that held my glasses and watch, I don’t remember any fights occurring over our being “roommates” for the next eight years. 

Jay’s room was next to mine. A large closet had been cut to make the second bathroom that required walking through his room to use. It gave me a chance to check out his stash of Superman comics. When he found out I had touched them, he tossed them all out, a decision he lived to regret years later when such comics sold for some decent return. 

Laura’s room was next to Jay’s, which held two twin beds with pink bedspreads. As she was eight years my senior, I was in awe of the crinolines and poodle skirts that covered her floor and the make-up and costume jewelry that covered her dresser.  When she left on a fall Sunday morning in 1960 to enter Geneseo State College, I asked my parents five minutes later if I could move into her room. My mother asked me to wait until at least the bed was cold. To make her feel better, I waited an entire 24 hours. 

My parents’ bedroom was a treasure trove of nooks and crannies. The huge closet had a secret shelf that I found out years later held the store receipts and cash brought home every Saturday night until Dad could make the deposit at Keeseville National Bank on Monday morning. The maple bedroom set included a long dresser that held my mother’s green jewelry box and a glass tray that held Evening in Paris, a package of Sen-Sen mints, buttons, and safety pins. At the end of their double bed was a large oak chest filled with pillows and blankets, and when emptied became  a wonderful boat or train. A second “closet” was carved out of the space above the downstairs foyer. Also unheated, it served as a storage room and a spillover closet. My mother’s long, maroon bathrobe hung in that closet—when I wasn’t taking it out to play dress-up.

The main basement was accessed from still another door in the kitchen. Fourteen wooden steps with no railings led to a warren of four rooms that held, respectively, the washer and dryer; the old coal furnace; the “pantry,” which held extra canned food in case of a nuclear war, and a small room that held paint, Dad’s tools, and, behind a thick wooden door, paints and chemicals. A second basement, a root cellar, was under the family room and only accessible by a half door with a peg for a lock at the back of the house. I remember on several occasions my brother Jay and I, prodded on by an older neighbor  opened up the door that led to that dark root cellar, where we lit magic snake pellets in the dirt. We quietly watched them uncoil, turn black, and then turn to ash.  Years later, when I shared this secret with my mother, she was shocked. “You could have burnt the house down!” she exclaimed. 

Much changed over the 30 years my parents owned the house. The house’s three porches, one on the side, one on the front, and one behind the kitchen, eventually succumbed to age; it was easier for my parents to remove than replace. The metal kitchen cabinets were replaced with wood; the bathroom and its claw-toothed tub was remodeled soon after I went to college, the downstairs got carpeting.  In the late 1970s, Mom and Dad had the house sided in green vinyl, a definite improvement over the white chipped paint. 

In October 1981, my parents sold the house and moved into their cottage year round. Larry and I came  the weekend of the move  with Adam, who was three and a half, and Julie, who was six months old. Everything they wanted to keep was moved to the cottage, where they took up full-time residency until they were able to retire and live in Florida half the year. The rest they had put in a U-Haul for us to sort through once we emptied the contents into our one-car garage. That was the last time I set foot in the house, even though we have driven past it innumerable times. 

Like the last scenes in the movie, Titanic,  I often dream of the house and the memories it held for me and my family.  And one day, I will have the time and courage to knock on the front door and introduce myself to the current residents—the same family that bought it from my family almost 30 years ago.  I will ask if I can wander through my childhood home, and I  will checking all the nooks and crannies one last time—looking for traces of that brown haired, bespectacled child and her life in that old, nostalgia filled house.

The Value of a Thank You!

My friend Lazar Lowinger is a true polyglot. Born in Belgium, survived World War Two in Romania, lived briefly in France before emigrating to Cuba, then United States then Canada, Lazar picked up languages throughout his life. French, Romanian, French, Spanish, English, Yiddish, Portuguese, and some Hebrew. 

I, however, am a monoglot and a half. I took five years of high school French and squeaked through the one required semester on French literature in college. When Larry developed a kidney stone on our Quebec City honeymoon, I the opportunity to speak francais while my poor husband languished in his hospital bed awaiting the passing of his calcul rénal. Once we returned from our ill-fated first vacation as a married couple, I rarely  spoke another world of French—or any other language except English—for the several decades.

But then Larry and i moved to Central Florida, where many of the individuals surrounding our 55+ community spoke Spanish as their second—and even primary—language. Some transplants were not happy. “Thy live in America,” they would grumble. “They should learn English.”

My attitude, however,  was that we were neighbors, and I needed to pick up some espanol.  When Larry began coaching Special Olympics, I got help from one of the parents, Nelson Nieves, who took time from helping Larry with our athletes to tutor me in some basic phrases. Hola! Cómo estás! (Hello! How are you!) My accent wasn’t great, but those who heard me say the few words smiled. With additional help from Nelson and the internet, I added more basic Spanish words to my repertoire. 

I tried out my new-found learning while shopping. On a visit to Walmarts, I heard two of the sales clerks speaking Spanish. “Hola! Cómo estás!”  I said.They responded enthusiastically “Estoy bien!” One of the women asked me if I spoke Spanish, and I laughed. “Muy poco,” I said. “Very little. And my accent is terrible.” “You were trying,” she answered. “So many people look down on our speaking Spanish. We appreciate your trying.”

It was an AHA moment for me. My speaking Spanish was not only making me feel good, but it was a sign of good will for so many in my community. I was learning the power of hello, the power of language. 

Now that I was comfortable in Spanish, I realized that I could expand my repertoire. In January 2016, Larry and I took a Caribbean cruise, our first in over fifteen years. Besides our memories of sun and beaches and too much food, I remembered that many of the staff were from countries around the world. The thought of so many people working long hours for months away from their families to make our vacation better had always bothered me. Maybe the power of language could work to brighten their day. 

Whenever I saw a staff member—from the captain down to the busboy—I noted their name and, more importantly, their country of origin. Then I started asking them how to say thank you: In Indonesian, one said Terima kasih (Tir a ma KA see) ; in Filopino, salamat (Sa LA mat); in Thai khàawp-khun khâ., (khop khun mak kha). I wrote down each one I learned in a small notebook, which I carried with me as reference. And I used the appropriate thank you’s whenever I could, whether it be a man from India handing me my omelet or the young woman from Indonesia who collected our towels at the pool to  the head waiter from Columbia who took our dinner order.

Not only did it make me feel good, but it also had the intended effect on the recipient. Many looked surprise before breaking into a huge smile and a “you’re welcome” in their own language. Some ask if I had been to their country. I had a standard response: “No, but I wanted to show my appreciation in your native tongue.” Some used the opportunity to segue into a description of their country, encouraging Larry and I to visit. One of the other perks for me is that many of the staff recognized me as “The Person Who Said Hello” and reserved a special smile. 

After that first year, I came home and made a “cheat sheet” listing ways to say thank you in the languages that I learned. I brought that sheet with me the following year on a subsequent cruise and kicked myself for forgetting it this past January. Oh well! I still had a little notebook tucked away to start again. 

Since that first cruise, Larry and I both have tried to learn some words before traveling to any part of the world. Areas that spoke French and Spanish were easier for us. This past summer, however, trips to Norway and Iceland expanded our vocabulary a little more, not only with our thank you’s (Tansa Takk and Takk, respectively) but also with our search for the bathrooms (toalett and snyrting) 

I do have to say that Iceland, with its long words, proved more difficult. As a matter of fact, one of our fellow travelers shared the story of going into a shop. As he was checking out, the shop owner said that every foreign customer who could correctly pronounce the name of the volcano that erupted in 2014, causing major air traffic problems throughout Europe, would get a 10% discount. Rest assured. With a name like Eyjafjallajökull,* very few people get a discount. 

No matter how we say it—Toda Rabah! Gracias! Merci beaucoup!—the power of thank you, the power of language, can open doors and hearts to everyone.

*According to the Icelandic embassy in Washington D.C., it is  ay-yah-FYAH’-plah-yer-kuh-duh.

Mel Toub, A True Renaissance Man

Mel Toub, September 2018

A few weeks ago, while Larry and I were at our synagogue for Friday night Shabbat services, a congregant asked our rabbi Karen Allen if the MiSheberach  prayer was appropriate for a 101-year-old woman who had just been paralyzed by a stroke and wanted to “let go.” The rabbi said there were many forms of healing. Sometimes it is in the form of a complete recovery. And sometimes, what was appropriate was a prayer for spiritual healing and peace. So yes, we said a prayer for the centenarian. 

The timing of the question was especially poignant for Larry and me. Earlier that day, we had learned that a dear friend, Mel Toub, had just been put in hospice care. As I write this, Mel and his wife Joyce are surrounded by their children and sharing stories and memories and—as always—their love. 

In December 2017, we had said good-bye to a friend who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer five years earlier. Milt and his wife Kathy had moved from St. Louis to our community in Florida as Milt wanted his last years in sunshine and warmth. As the prognosis  dimmed, they had moved back to Missouri. Soon after,  Milt called me to ask if he and I could work together on writing his story, one that could be read at his memorial. More importantly, he wanted to finish it before he so that he could look back on his life with a sense of completeness.

Hearing that Mel was also approaching the end of his long battle with prostate cancer, I called Joyce and asked if I could do the same for Mel not only from my perspective but also through the voices of his loving family and friends. With Joyce’s blessings, I composed an email and sent it to as many family members and friends as I could. “All of us love Joyce and Mel and wish we could do something to help. The only thing I feel that I can do is to make sure we capture Mel’s life and spirit in story of his wonderful life.  I am reaching out to you all to ask you to consider sending me stories and anecdotes about Mel that I can share with Mel as he takes this last journey.”

Within days, my inbox was filled with responses from around the country, all wishing to let Mel know NOW how much they love him. 

In email after email,  people spoke of Mel’s intellect, his love for Judaism, his musical artistry, his master carpentry skills, his gentle wit, his selflessness, and his quiet generosity. Marty Calderon, who regards his long time friend as the embodiment of a ’Renaissance man,’ said that Mel inspires those around him to “to live a fulfilling life, not to waste any time and to enjoy each day that is given to us.” Toby and Arnie Elman calls him simply—and perfectly— a ‘mensch.’

Mel was born January 6, 1949, in the Bronx, the second child of Joseph and Sonia Toub. Soon after, Joseph, Sonia, Arlene and Mel moved to Roosevelt, Long Island. They were neighbors with Howard Stern; family legend is that Mel even dated the radio personality’s  sister. Arlene recalled that their parents forbade their having a cat or a dog, so they had to settle for turtles. As he viewed life in a bowl must be boring, Mel invented games to enliven the two reptiles’ lives. One  consisted of transforming their record player turn-table into a turtle merry-go-round and giving each turtle a little spin around, a fairly successful adventure. The second game, Arlene recalled, didn’t end as well. Mel held the turtle by its tail and spun it around. The tail snapped off.

Upon completing Roosevelt High, Mel attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, where he obtained a bachelor’s and master’s degree in materials engineering. After a short time in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, he joined GE Silicones (now Momentive Performance Materials) in Waterford.. He spent his illustrative career there, developing several patents and, through a series of promotions, attaining the position of director of Application Development and Product activities prior to his retirement in 2012.

Mel is a brilliant and respected scientist, but it is his personal life that exemplifies his status as a true mensch. In September 1971, his first week in grad school, Mel met Joyce Silverstein. an encounter that can only be described as love at first sight.  Only six weeks later, he proposed. They got married in June 1972 soon after they both completed their graduate studies. Their son Josh was born in 1976, followed by Julia (1979) and David (1984) They settled in Clifton Park, and have become an integral part of both the secular and Jewish community. Long time friend Howie Vipler describes Mel’s  relationship with his family as his greatest source of pride.

Fern Hayden, immediate past president of Congregation Beth Shalom, recalls forty years of Mel’s contributions to the Jewish community. He and Joyce have served on the board, most prominently as religious/ritual chairs. In the sanctuary, Mel crafted  the ark doors, built  the book cases that held the prayer books, and most recently, modified the bima to accommodate a congregant whose stroke impacted her ability to climb the step to help lead services. 

It is Mel’s beautiful voice, however, that is most heralded by his fellow congregants. Nancy Cury, long-time friends, always angles to sit behind Mel and Joyce at services. “If we snag those seats, we are treated to their wonderful harmonies,” said Nancy. “They sway to the music, in their own little world, not realizing who is listening.”

Both Joyce and Mel have sung in the shul’s choir, and Mel has taken an active part in the service. He has chanted Haftorah for Shabbat and the High Holy Days, and his soaring rendition of Kol Nidre has provided the opening moments of almost every Yom Kippur for year after year, for many of his friends the highlight of the entire High Holy Day period.“If I close my eyes, I can hear his beautiful voice in my head right now,” said Nancy. “No matter who chants the Haftorah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in the future, the voice I will be hearing for the rest of my life will be Mel’s.”

Fellow congregant and long time friend Barry Hamerling regards Mel as the shul’s most valuable male member, one who is always there when he is needed.  Larry Fox recalled how Mel was there for him when Larry decided to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his bar mitzvah. Larry not only had not read Torah or Haftorah since he was thirteen but also was— errr-vocally challenged; “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket!” Larry admits. “Whether in sympathy for me or just trying to protect our Jewish traditions, Mel offered to be my tutor.”  To help, Mel produced a cassette that enunciated every syllable, a tape that Larry played over and over until he was able to complete what Larry regarded as an acceptable performance. “Mel’s friendship, love of music and his belief in the value of our Jewish life enabled him to bring harmony, although far from perfect, to the melody of my life,” said Larry. “I still can’t thank him enough.”

Along with his vocal talents, Mel is a serious bassoonist who has performed professionally in several orchestras and chamber groups in the Upstate New York area. Arlene recalls that they grew up in a home where music didn’t exist. “My parents never listened to music on the radio, and my only recollection of classical records in the house is that of an ‘Everbody’s-Favorite-Classics’ series that my parents must have felt obligated to buy—one each week—at the local super market.” Four years younger, Mel originally chose to follow Arlene’s choice of the clarinet. In high school, Mel switched to the bassoon, which became his passion and, with his professional musician’s license, his “second profession.”

When Charles Peltz took over as music director of the Glens Falls Symphony in 2000, Mel was already an experienced musician who had contributed much the orchestra.  Peltz said that he knows few people who have retained a love for their instrument and who have consistently met the high standards in his performances.  “That kind of devotion doesn’t come only from the  ability to show off one’s technique skill or in anticipation of reward,” said Peltz.  “Rather it comes from a person with a large heart for the deeper meaning of the things they do.” 

Every summer, Mel has attended the Glickman Popkin Bassoon Camp in Little Switzerand, North Carolina. Furthermore, Mel’s love for bassoon resulted in many summer tours with an orchestra composed of fellow musicians from across the United States that has brought both him and Joyce much joy. Meris Ruzow, a longtime friend, loved hearing about the places they played and the people they meet in places as diverse as France, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy , Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. 

In 2016, Mel and Joyce decided to buy a second home in Florida. One of the main considerations was choosing a location in which Mel could continue to perform.  Before they had even unpacked their boxes in their Naples villa, Mel had already begun practice with the Gulf Coast Symphony. Karen Gerhardt has fond memories of attending a performance  there with Joyce and her husband Les, who died suddenly of pancreatic cancer soon after their visit in 2018.

Twelve years ago, Mel was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Marty Calderon said that Mel told him soon after hearing the news that he felt as if “someone one crapped on his plate of food.” That is the worst he has ever spoken about his cancer diagnosis. He continues to live his life with grace, dignity, and humor. 

Mel had been an accomplished tennis and racquetball player in his youth. When he was in his sixties, he mixed those two sports with pickleball, finding the game offered a way to remain active without the physical demands of many other competitive sports. When Howie and Sandie Vipler visited the Toubs in November 2018, Mel played pickleball with them. The impact of his illness has curtailed further play.

In December,  Larry and I, along with Bernie and Chris Grossman traveled to Naples to have what had become our annual ‘Jews-eating-Chinese-food-on-Christmas Day’ tradition. When Mel saw a menu description of a dish containing leeks, he wondered out loud whether they were “Wiki Leaks.” Despite his growing weakness and obvious pain, Mel kept us all laughing throughout our visit. 

Soon after our December visit, Mel’s health began a precipitous decline. As Lew Morrison commented as the news spread of Mel’s worsening condition, “A cloud hangs over  all of us.”

“My father has instilled in his children his menschism and created a legacy that will continue to inspire his friends and family long after his passing,” said his daughter Julia.  “Although cancer will cruelly take his body from us far too soon, his spirit and soul will continue to flourish for generations.”

Borscht Belt staff reminisce about the glory days of Jewish Alps

From left, Marilyn Sommer, Robin Kauffman, Roberta Greenberg, and Nina Scudieri, all worked as counselors at the Homowak Lodge Hotel. Kauffman is the coordinator of the planned May 4 Catskill hotel staff reunion.


In the classic movie “Dirty Dancing,” Jack Weston’s character Max  Kellerman, the owner of the fictional Catskill resort, laments the changes down the road. “[I]t all seems to be ending. You think kids want to come with their parents and take fox-trot lessons? Trips to Europe, that’s what the kids want. .. It feels like it’s all slipping away.” 

The heyday of the Catskills have ended, but the memories of those resorts remain with those who shared those summers as staff and guests. “This was our Camelot, a place that has vanished but still has a place in the hearts and minds by the thousands whose life were shaped by this shared experienced,” said Patty Beardley Roker.  Roker shared this quote on the website for the upcoming reunion of Catskill staff members, which will be held on May 4, 2019, at  the Villa Roma Resort in Callicoon, New York, a Catskill hotel dating from 1944.

Roker and others have many a story to share of their time in the Catskills, often called the Borscht Belt. Borscht, a soup associated with immigrants from Eastern Europe, was a colloquialism for Jewish. Famous hotels of the area included The Concord, Grossinger’s, and Kutshers. But there were many smaller resorts and cottages too. 

The popularity of the Catskills starts at the beginning of the 20th century. Like many New York City dwellers before the advent of air conditioning, Jews  looked for places that would provide a respite from the summer heat.  Because of anti-Semitism, particularly in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, such choices were few. Sullivan, Ulster, and nearby counties offered working class Jewish New Yorkers, mostly Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, cheap land on which to build farms, bungalows, and hotels. 

One such family were the Brickmans. Soon after emigrating from Russia in 1908, Abraham and Molly realized that New York City, with its tenements, crowded streets, and poor air, was not for them. As Abraham had worked on the farms for the czars, they purchased farm land in South Fallsburg. Soon friends and relatives were coming up to Brickmans to escape the city’s summers, and the farm took on boarders.  The Brickmans’ daughter Anna and her husband Joseph Posner and their sons eventually took over the ownership.

Hotel Brickman had 300 rooms that accommodated over 600 adults and children. Along with adult activities, the hotel had a nursery, a day camp for children, and a teen program.

In 1965, 15-year old Patti Posner Daboosh began working in the resort’s office. When she was 26, she took over running the kitchen, supervising at times over 200 hundred staff members. Patti recalls fondly the diversity of the staff, which included college students and seasonal workers from the Southern states and from Central and South America. 

One evening, Patti walked into the kitchen and realized that one of the kitchen staff was feeding a homeless man. When Patti told the employee that he had to leave, he responded, “When he is finishing eating, I will ask him to leave.” Patti said that that encounter taught her humility. “The compassion this man had for this poor person taught me how to be a better person.”

In 1986, Patti’s father Benjamin, was 72, and Hotel Brickmans like many other Catskill resorts, were dwindling in popularity. The SYDA Foundation, a not-for-profit tied to promoting Sidda Yoga ideas, purchased the resort and converted it into an ashram. Ben had no regrets. “We will make new traditions,” he told his family. Patti reports Ben spent the next 20 years telling stories of his life in the Catskills. Patti eventually went back to college to obtain a degree in sociology, a path connected to the lessons she had learned from working with the diverse Brickman community. Patti now lives in Weaverville, North Carolina.

Mark Silverman, who now lives in Connecticut, also  had deep roots in  theCatskills. His parents, Ben and Elsie Silverman opened up a bungalow colony in Glen Wild in 1947 with Joe Kartin, Ben’s partner in their Flatbush butcher shop. What started as two bungalows in 1947 expanded to 16. Ben and his partner would switch off summers, with one commuting back and forth to Flatbush while the other partner ran the resort and a seasonal meat market.

The bungalows were simple, with a kitchen/living room/dinette, one bedroom, and a screened porch. Entertainment was also low-key—bingo or a movie in the community room, which was called The Casino in the Catskills. Most of the renters came for the entire summer, with the men in the family often commuting on weekends. 

Mark, like Patti, started helping his parents manage the resort as a teenager, keeping up the pool, mowing the lawn, maintaining the bungalows. Even after college, a stint in Vietnam, and his marriage to Diane Weissman, Mark continued to visit during the summers until his parents sold the resort in the 1990s. 

“Spending my summers in the country gave me a great appreciation for the outdoors, farms and woodlands in the area,” said Mark.  “I always knew that I couldn’t spend my life in an office, and this led to my career in agriculture and environmental science.”

Mina and Max Berjansky owned a bungalow colony in Monticello. In 1950, Susan Shapot Greenbaum, her parents, and her sister moved from the Bronx to join her grandparents. During the off-season, everyone shared the only heated home with only one small bathroom. In the summer, Mina and Max moved into the unfinished attic above the small grocery store, and the Shapots crowded into one bedroom and shared the bathroom with tenants. Max maintained the colony while Mina ran the grocery store, the only source of food during the week. Some of the guests shared a kokh-aleyn, the Yiddish name for self-catered bungalows, which was a large dormitory-styled house in which many families had a bedroom, a shared bathroom down the hall and one large shared kitchen, in which each family had its own stove, refrigerator and table. Other families had their own or one side of a two-family bungalow, complete with their own bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. Guests usually came up July 4th weekend and stayed through Labor Day. As in other Catskill resorts, the men frequently commuted back and forth to the city while the women and children remained all summer.

Susan said that her parents provided the low-key entertainment, including folk and square dancing, games, and masquerade parties for both the adults and the children. Every summer there was a “mock marriage” in which the tallest, biggest man was dressed as the bride and the smallest woman was dressed as the groom, with the entire wedding party following the “upside down” comedy act.

When New York State built the Route 17 expressway through the middle of their colony, the family moved into a house in Monticello. Later on, Susan tried working as a waitress at the Concord, one the Catskills largest resorts, but lasted only one week. “The regular staff were career people,” she said, “and they resented the college kids taking their tables and tips. I got pushed around often.”  She also spent one summer working as a waitress at Kaplan’s Delicatessen, the most popular eating spot during the summer months.

“Monticello was a great place to grow up—a quiet small town from September through June.” said Susan. “It was a busy, bustling place in July and August, with lots to do between the hotels, bungalow colonies and crowds of people hanging out on Broadway.  And it was always safe.”

Peter Vollweiler, who winters in Sarasota and summers in Upstate New York, saw the Northern Catskills through the eyes of his parents and relatives. The Breezy Hotel in Fleischmanns, Delaware County, one of the great hotels, drew many German Jewish Holocaust survivors, including Peter’s grandparents. Guests and older staff members generally didn’t talk about their war experiences but seeing the tattooed numbers on many arms showed their former plight. 

Peter worked at The Mathes resort during his summer school breaks from 1958 to 1963. He had a variety of occupations: pool boy, grounds “picker upper,” baby sitter, children’s dining room busboy, bellhop and chauffeur. The working hours were long with low pay, but the staff was treated very well. The fine European meals and desserts made it all worthwhile. Working with so many other young people, many themselves also children and grandchildren of survivors, was important to Peter. 

Marty Calderon, an Upstate New Yorker who retired in the Tampa area, worked two summers as a busboy and a waiter at the Pine Lodge near Monticello. Like Brickman’, the Pine Lodge was a mini-version of the larger resorts, “a small cruise ship on the ground.”

Like Peter, Marty remembered the long hours, which often extended from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. For his efforts, he made $75 a week, money which he brought home to his parents in New York City.

Marty enjoyed the camaraderie with fellow staff members, and the food was plentiful—and delicious. For two years, he worked at the resort during Passover.  “Before that experience, everything I had eaten during Pesach was dry and tasteless,” said Marty. “At Pine Hills, it was like a Viennese table at a wedding. I can still taste that sponge cake!

Joel Thaw, who lives in the Orlando area, spent every summer from birth to age 18 in the bungalow colonies. What he remembered the most was the freedom he had as children.  “We left after breakfast and didn’t return until before dinner. Everybody knew everybody, and the parents watched out for each other’s children.” He also worked a concession stand the summer of Woodstock, which took place in nearby Bethel.Joel remembers putting a 16-year-old in charge of the stand while he and a friend drove to the music festival in time to see Jefferson Airplane before driving back.

Chair Robin Kaufman, who vacationed with her parents and later worked at the Homowack Hotel, stated that already close to 100 people signed up. “We are going to make history,” said Robin. “This will probably be the first time that many former Catskill bungalow and hotel staff  will reunite together under one roof.” 

She reports that among those committed to attend are former “tummler extraordinaire” Larry Strickler and MC Mel Simons, as well as some of the musician who accompanied the greats. In addition to the reunion’s evening event, programs are set for the entire weekend. (Strickler will present an interactive program on Saturday afternoon. 

Kaufman by phone at  (401) 487-9646  or by email at rmkauff100@cox.net can provide details.

This article was first published in (Capital Region New York’s) Jewish World on January 24, 2019.

Coincidence? Or could it be b’shert?

Coincidence? Or Could It Be  B’Shert?

In 2012,  Rochelle and Bill Willner, attended services at Congregation Shalom Aleichem in Kissimmee, Florida. Former members, they were there for the first time in two years to check out the new rabbi. Before the mourner’s kaddish, Rabbi Karen Allen asked if anyone was observing sheloshim, the thirty day period of mourning. A woman whom they didn’t recognize announced that she had recently lost her aunt Yetta Weiner.

Immediately after services ended, Rochelle approached the mourner. “Excuse me,” said Rochelle, “ but Yetta Weiner is MY aunt!”

It didn’t take long for Rochelle and the “stranger” Marilyn Glaser to realize they were second cousins. Yetta was the wife of David Weiner, brother to both Rochelle ’s and Marilyn’s grandmothers.

The coincidences didn’t end there. Both Marilyn and the Willners lived on the same street in Solivita, a fifty-five plus adult community near the synagogue. Rochelle had attended Marilyn’s wedding over forty years earlier when she had gone as her father’s date. Her mother, the originally invited guest, had had surgery. Marilyn didn’t recall meeting her that day, but it was confirmed when the two of them found Rochelle’s picture in Marilyn’s old wedding album. 

Since that night, Marilyn and Rochelle have become  not only cousins but dear friends.  “I speak to Rochelle at least four times a day,” said Marilyn.

How Did This Come About?

What would have happened if Rochelle and Bill hadn’t come that night to check out the rabbi? If the rabbi hadn’t asked for the first time if anyone was in period of mourning? If Marilyn hadn’t announced Yetta’s name? So many coincidences! 

Or where they? According to some Jewish theologians, there is no such thing as coincidences. Hashgacha Pratit , or Divine Providence, is the concept that that G-d is actively involved in each of our lives. American author and inspirational speaker SQuire Bushnell calls it a godwink. “Every so-called coincidence or answered prayer is God’s way of giving you His small, silent, communication,” says Bushnell, “A little wink saying, ‘Hey kid! I’m thinking of you…right now!’

It even has been cited in both historical and scientific context. The German analytical psychologist  Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity to describe meaningful coincidences—the “acausal connecting principle” that links mind and matter and supersedes cause and effect. 

Rochelle choses to call her reunion, b’shert,  a Jewish expression which means ‘meant to be.’ Whatever it is called, sometimes events align in such a way that it feels like God or some universal force is directing the action. 

I believe strongly that some universal force was at play in our decision to move to the same community in which Marilyn  and the Willners reside.  In December, 2014, Larry and I were staying in a Central Florida resort in Kissimmee. A rainy day prompted a visit to Solivita, and the minute we drove through the gates, I felt that this was the place in which we would retire. After looking at new models, a realtor took us to a resale, and Larry and I fell in love with it. Never spontaneous people, we put a bid on it the day we were to fly home to Upstate New York. 

Although the bid was turned down, Larry and I continued to lean towards buying a home in Solivita. S We had been looking at retirement homes ever since my sister Laura had purchased one in Arizona eight years before. Once we returned home, however, we both wondered if it was the right choice. I was always a “second guesser,” and tended to research every major decision ad nauseam and still rethink and sometimes regret my choices. 

The  day after we came back home, I headed to the library to research all Central Florida retirement options, including  reading back issues of Where to Retire magazines. Usually there were at least ten copies, but on this day there was only one issue on the shelf: the May/June 2014 issue highlighting Kissimmee Florida with a cover picture of a happy couple from—yes—Solivita! Inside, Gabby and Joe Thomas recounted finding the “beautiful” community with the help of Gabby’s mother, who bought a house on an adjacent street. “It was all meant to be,” Joe was quoted as saying about their move.

I brought the magazine home and said to Larry, “This is a sign” By the following June, we had sold our house and moved to Solivita. Coincidentally,  I met Gabby within the  first week when we both attended a Weight Watcher’s meeting. 

Did the Stars Align?

Fortunately, moving to Solivita is one decision in which I never looked back. We love it here. And like Joe Thomas, I feel that it was meant to be-b’shert.

Laurie Criden also felt it was b’shert at work when she met her second husband.  In March, 2008, Laurie was still reeling from the recent loss of her father and the dissolution of her twenty-eight year marriage. Her active involvement in Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York’s large reform synagogue, helped her “keep my balance.” 

While meeting with the rabbi to discuss the shul’s Second Night Passover seder that she was chairing, he asked her how she was doing. Laurie jokingly said, “I guess I’m waiting for something better to come along.” At that exact moment, Mark Criden,  the temple’s executive director ,tapped her on the shoulder to let her know that her meeting was about to begin. Although previous encounters had been “polite hellos,” by the time the two of them entered the meeting room, Mark had invited her to join him at a friend’s for the first night seder. They were married a year later and now share their time between Buffalo and Sarasota, Florida.

Was It Chance?

Julie Thompson Berman shared a story of a day filled with too many coincidences to be just chance. Just before she and her husband Bill moved from Maine to Texas, they decided to visit Endicott College, Julie’s alma mater in Beverly, Massachusetts. As they wandered around the campus, they came across Julie’s old dorm, which had been converted into an administration building. 

As chance would have it (or was it chance?), all the doors in the building were unlocked. They climbed three flights of stairs to Julie’s old dorm room which was now a meeting room. There they met current students, who were thrilled to hear about Julie’s experiences forty years earlier. 

The visit brought back a flood of memories for Julie, and she regretted not keeping up with her three college roommates.  “I wanted to  tell them where I was how I was thinking of them. Unfortunately, I had lost touch and no longer had  their contact information,” Julie said. 

  The Berman’s next stop in their nostalgia tour was The Barnacle,  a restaurant  in nearby Marblehead, Massachusetts, where Julie and Bill had shared many special dinners during their college courtship. While waiting for their table, a woman who was already seated walked across the room and asked, “Are you Julie Thompson?”

When Julie answered yes, the woman hugged her. “I am Cherie, your roommate from Endicott!” Cherie and her husband, who lived across the state, were in Marblehead visiting family. The four of them shared a table talked for two hours after lunch and remain in touch. “I still think about that day and all the things that had to line up to make that reunion happen,” said Julie four years later. 

The three stories above represent just three “b’shert” moments. I would love to hear more from my readers! Please share them with me by emailing me  at shapcomp18@gmail.com

Pickleball makes a dink shot among sports lovers…

Pickleball, Pickleball, how I love the game,/Pickleball, Pickleball, what a silly name/ When I play, every day, my body is in pain/ But you know, I can’t stop, unless it starts to rain!! (Parody sung to tune of O Chanukah!)

What? You haven’t heard of pickleball! Have you been living under a marinated mushroom?

Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America. According to the USA Pickleball Association, there are over 3.2 million pickleball players in the United States alone, 5,000 indoor and outdoor courts in the United States; and at least one location in all 50 states.The game is being introduced to kids and teenagers in physical education classes in middle and high schools.

Pickleball was the brainchild of former Washington State representative Joel Pritchard. Summer, 1965, he and two friends came home from golf to three bored families. Their attempt to play badminton was thwarted by the fact that a shuttlecock was no where to be found. Undaunted, they retrieved a Whiffle ball, improvised some paddles with some plywood, and lowered the badminton net to compensate.  His wife Joan dubbed the game “pickleball” after the “Pickle Boat” in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats

Although pickleball languished in obscurity for almost fifty years, that all changed when Baby Boomers began to retire. Many “seniors”  still wanted to compete and win at a sport but lacked their youthful running abilities According to an article on the AARP website, pickleball, which  combined elements of badminton, tennis, and table tennis, filled that need. Games usually last 10 to 15 minutes, so players can take frequent breathers. Since the court is small and most people play doubles, there’s no serious running — making it easier on the knees. The lightweight paddle and plastic ball reduces the chances of tennis elbow; having two people on the team reduces the area of play. 

My husband Larry picked up the game when he turned 65 and joined Southern Saratoga YMCA in Clifton Park [New York].  Larry had been involved in sports his entire life—basketball, baseball, and track in his youth and running and cycling as an adult. In pickleball, he has found camaraderie as well as the ability—to quote Jimmy Buffet—“to grow older but not up.” He has participated in several tournaments but prefers to play for the exercise, the fun, and the socialization. During the summer, Larry plays with the Summit County pickleball league in Colorado. As the group plays at over 9100 feet, their tee shirts proudly proclaim, “We Play With An ALTITUDE!”

When we moved to Florida, one of Larry’s  requirements was that the community had an active pickleball presence. Solivita, which is isted by www.55.com as one of the top five 55+ communities for pickleball, has seventeen outdoor  courts. The Smashers, the largest sports club in Solivita, has over 1000 members and growing. Along with hosting the Polk Senior Games, the club also holds Sadie Hawkins, Halloween, and Yearling (new players) games. 

Tom Leva, the Smasher’s president, first played the game in pickleball in 2007. After moving to Solivita in 2008, Tom, who had a history of heart problems, lost 40 pounds and was soon playing the game competitively and teaching new players. Although reoccurring cardiac issues has curtailed his game, he has remained on the board and has been behind the expansion and improvements of the pickleball courts. 

When they moved to Solivita in 2015, Dave and Patti “Smith” were tennis players who were not going to ever play that silly game called pickleball.  After their neighbors gave them paddles and took them out to play, they soon became self-professed pickleball addicts.  They enjoy sharing their love of the game with others and meeting so many interesting people. Patti is looking forward to playing in the Florida Senior Games in December.

Sandie and Howie Vipler, fellow YMCA pickleballers, recognized soon after picking up the game in 2012 that Clifton Park lacked outdoor courts. Howie reached out to Phil Barrett, the town supervisor, who agreed to fund painting pickleball lines on  some of the town tennis courts. They have moved themselves and  their equipment to Virginia, where they continue to play almost every day. 

Meanwhile, Sandie, who has a sports resume that includes downhill skiing, kayaking, cycling, and golfing, regards pickleball as her favorite. She plays pickleball 5 to 6 days a week for 2 to 3 hours a day. She revels in the compliments she gets from new competitors, including “You play tall for a short person” and “Wow, look at the wheels on her!” At 68 years old, Sandie vows that she will be playing until she can no longer walk.

That hasn’t stopped Brenda Taylor. Brenda had to have a leg amputated after a 1998 motorcycle accident and desperately wanted to find a way to get exercise while in her wheelchair. Except for an extra bounce before returning the serve, the rules are basically the same. Her proudest moment playing the game is when people compliment on her backhand shot. 

Mel Toub had played tennis and racquetball in his youth. Now in his late sixties and facing health challenges, he has mixed those two sports with pickleball. “Pickleball has wide appeal to both folks who used to play racket sports in their youth and to seniors who wish to remain active but no longer have the stamina or physical ability to play more demanding sports like basketball, soccer, and tennis,” said Mel.   “The learning curve to play pickleball at a socially acceptable level is fairly quick, so pickleball becomes a route to a new activity and new sets of friends.”

The game is growing internationally, with many European and Asian countries adding courts. Personal friends from England, Wales, and Canada have gotten hooked on the game after playing in Florida, Rob Harvey located an indoor pickleball facility near his home in Barhead, Alberta. “The game is great for eye-hand coordination. It keeps me  limber and helps the joints.” Pickleball also helps him keep in shape for his  summer baseball league.

Lynda and Steve Gorwill from Wales fell in love with the game after playing the game while on vacation in Florida. Last year, Lynda applied for and received a grant from Wales’ sports council to establish a pickleball league in her town. Although she has had roles in an English soap opera, Lynda still considers one of her proudest moments  was winning a silver medal in her first pickleball tournament in Abingdon Oxforshire, England.

Margaret and Peter Hunter were “kitted” with paddles and balls while visiting Larry and me in Solivita last November. “Within two minutes we were captivated, line, hook and sinker.” They are looking to returning to our area for another American Thanksgiving and another month of pickleball and miss it when they are at home in England. 

Not that pickleball doesn’t come with its hazards. Sharon and Rick McKelvey both ended up with torn meniscus surgery after a year of playing at Solivita. “That wasn’t fun,” said Sharon, another admitted addict,  “but it didn’t stop us from returning to the game.” Debbie Pratt broke a vertebra in her back after she took a bad fall moving backwards to return one of Larry’s volleys. She no longer plays pickleball, but her injury certainly didn’t scare off other women in her RV resort on the West Coast of Florida, who are appropriately called  “The Sweet Pickles.”

Marta Groess, a lifelong athlete and a member of Smashers, says that the most important feature of the game is that it is FUN! “I  tell new players that if they aren’t laughing, they aren’t playing the game right.”

Linda Kuhn, the Smasher’s treasurer, hadn’t played a sport since high school but now she is addicted, sometimes playing 2 to 4 hours in the Florida heat. “Pickleball gives me such a sense of contentment,, Linda said. The game  has reaffirmed my decision that as I age, I am going out with a roar!”

Is pickleball a Jewish game. Well, it certainly isn’t called “kosher pickle” ball! Until that happens, many people-Jews and non-Jews alike—can find America’s favorite new sport fun. 

Originally published in The Jewish World. October 4, 2018