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.

“Farklempt!” Overcome with Emotion!!

Yiddish may be one of the world’s more obscure language, but it has given us words which are no less than perfect. Someone may have “nerve,” but chutzpah reflects a shameless audacity that says it better. Being a “good person” is nice, but being a mensch brings that individual to a high level of honor, integrity, kindness, and admiration. One can complain, but when one “kvetches,” he also adds a layer of whining and fretting that really captures the moment.

Another word that Yiddish does best is farklempt, overcome with emotion. I can count on one hand how many times I have ever needed to use this word or felt its power. The day I held our newborn son. Three years later, when I held our daughter. And six years ago, when I lay eyes on my two-hour-old granddaughter. And now, I can use it again: When we were finally able to hold our grandson for the first time.

Our grandson as born in March 2020, a few days before the world closed down due to the pandemic. My husband Larry and I were on Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, with my daughter Julie, her husband Sam and our granddaughter when our daughter-in law-Sarah went into labor in a San Francisco hospital. Our son Adam announced their newborn’s  official arrival late that night via phone calls and texted pictures. 

By the time Julie and her family flew back to Colorado later that week, the impact of COVID-19 on our lives exploded. We promised our children that we would “stay safe” and shelter-in-place. Larry and I had made reservations to fly out to California later in the month, but we had no choice but to cancel and wait until things improved. Little did we know at that time that that wait would stretch out for over 15 months.

Thanks to social media, we got to see a great deal of our “San Francisco Kid.” Adam and Sarah called frequently and focused the camera on our beautiful new grandchild so we could watch him sleeping, nursing, bathing. Then, as the months dragged on, we saw him learning to crawl, learning to walk, speaking his first words. But we were unable to hold him in our arms.

Larry and I tried to repeat certain rituals so that our grandchild would know us. Each time we connected, I would sing “The Wheels on the Bus.” As the months progressed, I went beyond blinkers going “left right stop” and coins going “clink clank clink.” I introduced dogs barking and ducks quaking and pigs oinking and cows mooing, “Isn’t that crazy?” I would ask him 3000 miles away. “Ducks and pigs and cows on a bus??”Larry, meanwhile, would move two fingers against his lips and say, “Bu bu bu ba!” 

By the time our plane landed in SFA in mid-June, Larry and I were beyond excited and also a little nervous. How would our grandchild  react to these two people whom he had only seen on a small screen. Would he cry? Turn away? After hugging my daughter-in-law Sarah until she couldn’t breathe, Larry climbed in front of the Honda Civic with Sarah, and I tucked in the back next to our grandson’s car seat. He looked at me as if to say, “Who is this lady?” I gently touched his arm, but he pulled it away. I softly started singing “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round…” His eyes got big, and he burst out into a huge smile. And Larry? As soon as we got out of the car, Larry lifted him out of the car, held him with one arm, and with the other hand, did his “Bu bu bu ba! routine.”The baby laughed and, for the first time ever, imitated Zayde perfectly. Our grandchild knew us both.

Our visit has been Grandparent Heaven. It has been  filled with hugs; “besos for bebe” (kisses for baby!) in honor of his Hispanic caregiver; beautiful smiles; hours reading Go Dog Go and Brown Bear, Bear, Who Do You See?; innumerable playings of songs by Rafi; multiple trips to city parks;a special day at the San Francisco zoo; and a few very precious baby sitting stints. As promised, I even pulled off two Shabbat dinners with fresh baked challahs and candle lighting via Zoom with the rest of our family. 

Soon Larry and I will be heading for our second “farklempt” moment. We will be flying to Colorado to be united with Julie, Sam and our granddaughter, again over fifteen months in the making. Yes, we have spent hours and hours on FaceTime with our Rocky Mountain family, but I will be overcome with emotion when I can finally hold them in our arms.

Through the past year, Larry and I have said again and again how grateful we were for our physical, financial, and financial health. But again and again, what we missed most was family. The next step will be getting all eight of us under one roof. That moment will be for me the end of this long, difficult time. Until then, I will savor our time with our family, time that has become even more precious, more important, and more cherished after so long deprived. 

Route to Jewish life in States not always the same story

My family, like those of most of my Jewish friends, can trace their roots from Eastern Europe and Russia. The story of our lives have been captured again and again in movies and literature: Our grandparents, facing religious persecution and the fear of pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, fled to Der Goldene Medina, the Golden Country—America. Most landed at Ellis Island and started their lives and the lives of their children in New York City’s lower East Side. But other friends have shared stories that represent a more circuitous route. One such person is Hilda Gallant, whose own history starts not on Hester Street but in Havana.

Hilda’s parents, Simon Kiman and Golda Szejerman, were both born in Poland. When they were small children, their families immigrated to Cuba in 1925 and 1929, respectively. Growing up in the same Jewish neighborhood in Havana, the two eventually fell in love and married in 1950. Hilda (nee Gilda) was born eleven months later. By 1957, the Kimans were a family of five with the birth of two more daughters, Rose and Julie. 

Despite political tensions and the 1952 coup that resulted in the subsequent dictatorship under Fulgencio Batista, the Kimans lived a happy, comfortable life. Simon and his brother owned and managed a successful small variety store, while Golda was a full-time homemaker. Although they continued to speak Yiddish within their home, they also learned Spanish, the language of their adopted country. Hilda and Rose attended a Jewish parochial school, where they were taught secular subjects, including Spanish, in the morning. After a break for lunch, the traditional main meal, they returned in the afternoon for Hebrew lessons and Judaic studies.

In 1959, Cuba’s political world was upended. Open corruption and oppression under Batista’s rule led to his ousting by the 26th of July Movement, and Fidel Castro soon assumed leadership. Under his communist rule, all businesses were nationalized. Private ownership was forbidden, and Simon and his brother lost their store and their livelihood. As conditions in all areas, including education, deteriorated, the family made a decision to leave Cuba. Unable to get visas to emigrate to America, Simon and Golda applied and were accepted into Israel. A few months later, Hilda’s maternal aunt, uncle and grandmother also emigrated to Israel and lived across the hall from the Kiman’s. Simon’s family eventually immigrated to the States and settled in Philadelphia.

Out from under Castro’s iron thumb, Simon and Golda still found life in “The Promised Land” very difficult. Simon, who had no formal education or training, worked a job an orange packaging factory. Golda supplemented his salary by learning the diamond cutting trade. Struggling with Hebrew, they continued to mostly speak Spanish and Yiddish with other immigrants of similar background.Hilda and her sisters adjusted well to life in Israel as children.

When Hilda was approaching her 16th birthday, Simon and Golda yearned to be with their family in the States. They sent her to Philadelphia to live with her father’s sister and husband and her paternal grandmother. She shared a room with her cousin Henry in a tiny home. Although she received much love, she missed her parents and sisters very much. 

Although she found math and science courses relatively easy, Hilda found courses that required English proficiency a struggle. Fortunately several wonderful teachers took her under their wing and provided extra help before and after school. “Henry also helped by introducing me to American TV,” said Hilda. “It turned out to be a great tool in learning a new language.”

Rose soon followed, and in 1968, just before Hilda’s high school graduation, her parents, youngest sister and grandmother finally obtained visas to enter the US. The family was finally reunited. Hilda’s parents purchased a small food/variety store and then a clothing store, and the entire family found happiness in the very large and tight-knit Cuban Jewish presence in Philadelphia.

After high school, Hilda’s aunt insisted that she continue her education. “You are in America,” she told Hilda. “Women don’t rush off to get married and have babies after high-school. You need to go to college.”

Hilda enrolled at Gratz College in the Judaic studies program. She worked full time during the day as a bookkeeper to help support her family and took classes at night and on Sunday. Because of her time in Israel, Hilda spoke fluent Hebrew and became friends with many of her Israeli classmate, along with a part-time native Philadelphian.

Stuart Gallant had grown up in the “City of Brotherly Love,” the only child of first-generation Americans and the grandson of Eastern European/Russian refugees. Along with his public school education, Stuart attended the usual 3-days-a-week Hebrew school through his bar mitzvah. The rabbi of their Conservative synagogue of which his parents were co-founders enticed Stuart and some other boys to engage in additional learning including Torah reading and leading services. Raising the stakes, the rabbi then insisted that his students attend Shabbat services weekly “Until my high school graduation, I became a fixture at the shul,” Stuart said. “I read Torah on Saturday morning, taught Hebrew school and bar/bat mitzvah students, lead junior congregation and, in my senior year, served as president of the local chapter of United Synagogue Youth”.

After he graduated high school, Stuart enrolled in Drexel University for a degree in electrical engineering. Struggling to balance his new classes and the slew of Jewish holidays that fell on during his first weeks on campus, Stuart had to cut back on his attendance at services. His “school vs. shul” decision resulted in falling out with the rabbi. He stopped going to services, even avoiding driving near his synagogue. 

Despite his estrangement from formal religion, Stuart enrolled in Gratz College part-time to further his Jewish education. During one of his classes, he noticed the lovely young woman who spoke fluent Hebrew. Intrigued by what he thought was her Israeli background, Stuart asked her out. On their first date, however, Hilda called her parents to alert them that she might be late coming home due to bad weather. “She certainly wasn’t speaking Hebrew,” said Stuart. It was only after that phone call that he learned about Hilda’s Cuban-Jewish background. As a matter of fact, throughout their courtship and their marriage, Stu could not converse with Hilda’s grandmother since he never learned fluent Spanish—or Yiddish. 

After completing his masters at Drexel, Stuart began a career in biomedical engineering that took him and Hilda to Minneapolis, Baltimore, and eventually to California. Hilda initially stayed home to raise their two sons, Joshua and Avi. She eventually used her strong accounting skills in several jobs, including Stuart’s own medical device start-up company.

The “school vs. shul” decision long behind him, Stuart, along with Hilda, became actively involved in their synagogues through their lives. Stuart served on synagogue boards, Hilda called on her background in Judaic Studies to teach in a Jewish-nursery school. 

For Hilda, the journey that started in Cuba has recently brought her only 400 miles from her birthplace (although she would never visit!). This past year, Hilda and Stuart moved to Florida to be closer to their children and grandchildren, who live on the East Coast. Now that pandemic restrictions have eased that look forward to in-person meetings with their new neighbors as well as fellow members of their new shul, Congregation Shalom Aleichem, who have only been recently faces and voices on the Zoom services. Wherever they go, Hilda and Stuart’s rich background and warm presence will be a blessing. 

First published in (Capital Region) Jewish World May 27, 2021

Photo of Stuart and Hilda Gallant’s engagement printed with their permission.

Cohen family noted Shabbat with fish in the 50’s, but now is a different story for Marilyn. 

Friday was Fish Day.

No, we weren’t Catholic. Growing up in the Fifties, in a small predominantly Catholic town, fresh fish was often available on Friday. Looking back, I am not sure if it was really that fresh. Yes, Lake Champlain was three miles away, but I don’t think local fishermen provided the fillets that lay on top of the ice in the Grand Union. 

There was a second reason Friday was Fish Day. My father managed a department store, and Pearl’s,  along with the other stores in Keeseville, was open until 9 o’clock every Friday. Dad hated fish, so my mother would make some variety of it on that night. If it wasn’t fresh, it is a frozen block or two that my mother defrosted, covered with bread crumbs, and baked along with frozen french fries. When she wanted to save time, she heated up some Gorton’s fish sticks. 

Friday dinners were  a contrast to our Monday through Thursday, “Father Knows Best” routine. Dad would come in the back door at 5:30 and immediately sit down at our formica topped kitchen table. We children took our places, assigned after one night of our fighting who sat where.

“That’s it!” Dad said. “Wherever you are sitting tonight will be your place from now on.”

Dad sat at the head, his back to the radiator and the yellow linoleum tile on the wall. When she wasn’t putting food on the table, Mom took her place at the foot, her back to the old white Kelvinator range cook stove with its double oven. Jay, the only son, sat to his left. Laura, the oldest daughter  took her place next to Jay. Bobbie, the youngest, sat to Dad’s right. I sat in between Mom and Bobbie. 

Dinner was usually chicken, potatoes and a vegetable that had been peeled off the waxed box and boiled in a pot on the stove under done. Occasionally, we would have spaghetti with Ragu. Notice I did’t say pasta. In the 1950s, the only pasta available was macaroni for macaroni and cheese and regular old fashioned spaghetti noodles. Who knew of ziti or angel hair or cellentani?

Our dinners were usually over quickly. By 5:55, Dad had pushed himself away from the table. While the children dutifully moved to their bedrooms to do homework and Mom washed the dishes, Dad headed for the back room and the television set. The local news was followed by Huntley and Brinkley. The rest of the night was filled with Perry Mason, Checkmate, and other early television shows. In those days before remotes, Dad would rely on us post-homework to change the station. This did serve an educational purpose: When Bobbie was in kindergarten, she was having difficulty learning her numbers. It was a “Eureka” moment when our family realized that Bobbie had no problem changing the channels to Burlington’s WCAX (Channel 3) and Plattsburg’s station WPTZ (Channel 5). 

The Friday night  late closing provided another benefit to the four Cohen children. As we had no school the next night and Dad wasn’t home to dictate what programs we watched, we ate our dinners on TV trays in front of our favorite programs. This included The Mickey Mouse Club, with our favorite Musketeers, Annette Funicello and Tommy Cole and a little later, The Flintstones. By the 1960s, both my parents worked at the store, and I was old enough to look after Bobbie as we watched Rawhide, The Wild Wild West, and Route 66. 

Where did synagogue fit into this picture, especially in our Reform congregation that only had Saturday morning services for Bar Mitzvahs? Mom finally got her driver’s license in 1955, just before Bobbie was born. Driving the 30 mile round trip up and back to Plattsburgh with four children tow, especially in the winter, was out of the question. It was not until the mid-Sixties that Mom would make the trip with Bobbie and me. Although we all attended Hebrew school though Jay’s Bar Mitzvah and all of our confirmations, a traditional Shabbat dinner with challah, candles, and a Kiddish cup was not even a consideration. Dad worked, and it was Fish Friday!

In fact, it wasn’t until the pandemic that Larry and I started our own tradition. Last March, I became fully invested in baking challahs each Friday for ourselves and those friends whom we felt needed the comfort of a golden loaf straight out of the oven. We began lighting the Shabbat candles, pouring a glass of Manischewitz, and putting my cross stitched challah cover over one of  the warm loaves. How could we do all this and NOT set the table and prepare a special dinner, whether we were participating in our twice-monthly Zoom services or just enjoying a quiet sheltering-in-place meal at home?

As we and our friends are vaccinated it is time to invite a couple or two or three to share this all with us. I look forward to carrying on this tradition with my children and grandchildren this summer. Yes, I have come a long way from Friday fish sticks in front of Annette Funicello and the Flintstones

First published in (Capital Region NY) Jewish World May 13-May 27, 2021. 

Picture (Fried Fish at home.jpg) is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Pushing away the webs of memory lane with hacks, humor and husband

Now that I am in my seventies, I am thrilled that I have acquired so much knowledge. My brain is a virtual 20 volume set of World Book Encyclopedia of both useful and not-so useful information. Unfortunately, as a result, my ability to quickly retrieve a necessary fact sometimes fails.

Please understand. I am well aware that our memory is often no joking manner. I have too many dear friends and family who have cognitive disorders due to dementia and—heaven forbid!—Alzheimer’s. A very close relative struggles with recall because of a stroke she had five years ago. She has made tremendous strides since the first few days when she told us that she had been flown to the hospital in a “bulldozer.” But I know she is embarrassed when she can’t find that particular word. Those that love her keep reassuring her that it is not a big deal. We all have our moments when the words just won’t come. 

This inability is most seen when need to recall someone’s name. Sometimes I blame it on what I call “You are out of context!” situation. The most memorable—and most embarrassing—incident of this phenomena occurred thirty years ago. My husband Larry and I were in the lobby of Proctors, a theater venue in Schenectady, New York, when a man with a vaguely familiar face greeted us warmly. I looked at him and said, “I am so sorry! I forgot your name! How do you know us?”

“Marilyn, this is John Smith [I have completely forgotten his actual name!],” Larry said. “He is our children’s swim coach!”

“Oh, John,” I said. “I am so sorry! I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on!” Gulp!

As a classroom teacher, I took pride in my knowing my students’ names. Seating charts helped on the secondary high school level. When I taught adult education, however, enrollment was done on a rotating schedule. New students appeared every other Monday, and I didn’t require seating charts. Remembering names became a challenge, especially when my students had variations of the same name. When confronted with a Shaquana, Shaquilla, Shaquina, and Shakuntula in the same classroom, I struggled but triumphed in the end.

I have often used mnemonic devices to help. For example, I often see my neighbors Hope and Tony walking their golden retriever Abbey. At first stymied by our encounters, I now remember them with the phrase “Abby Hopes Tony will take him for a walk.” Easy peasy!

I was so proud of myself for devising this trick, I shared my method with them.Other times, it is best I keep my trick to myself. Two sisters who could almost pass as twins are often in my exercise class (when I was able to GO to exercise class! Damn pandemic!). I mixed up “Sally” and “Jane”for a while until I started paying this little mind game. Sally, who is married, wears a silver ring. The other sister, who one day shared with me day her unhappiness with her untoned arms, is remembered as Jiggling Jane. As long as Sally is wearing her wedding band and Jane is wearing a sleeveless top, I will never mix them up again!

This pandemic has had some limited benefits, and one is that we have an excuse when we forget a name. When someone greets me warmly, I reply,”I can’t see your face behind the mask. Can you tell me who you are?” Great excuse, right?

I have also been bailed out by modern technology. Our synagogue meets on Zoom, and most participants, whom I already know, have their names displayed. I have little patience in any video conference settings for those that refuse to “get with the program.” As far as I am concerned, they will be referred to “iPad 2” or “555-100-1111” until further notice. 

This doesn’t’t work in our neighborhood’s Olympic-sized pool, where neither masks nor name tags—are required. In those situations I use the “55 plus community” excuse. “ We live in Solivita where memory is just a memory,” I say. “Please tell your name again.”

I tried this approach recently, and the woman smiled and answered “Ingrid.”

Then I had my own AHA moment! “Ingrid! I knew that! By the way, do you remember my name?”

“No,” she answered sheepishly.

“Marilyn,” I said. It’s Marilyn. And I resumed my swim, content in the fact that I was not alone in my affliction! 

The loss of recall isn’t limited to people. After twelve months without sushi, Larry and I purchased a tray of California rolls at the local Publix. That evening, at dinner I was savoring each bite when I realized I forgot the name of the “green stuff.”

“Larry, what is this called?” 

“Wasabi,” Larry answered.

Five minutes later, I had to ask again “What did you say this green stuff called, Larry?”

“Wah-SAH-bee,” Larry said, drawing out the syllables.

The next morning, the first thing I thought about was the delicious California rolls we had eaten the night before. It took a long second to get the word for the “green stuff” out on my tongue. 

“Wasabi! Wasabi! Wasabi” I said to myself.

An hour later, Larry and I were taking a walk when we saw another couple walking towards us.

“Quick!” Larry said. “His name is Bob. What is his wife’s name?”

“Wasabi!” I quickly answered. 

So, now when either Larry and I are in doubt, we just substitute our code word for our Failure to Remember. Wasabi. Wah-SAH-bee. For now, it’s working.

First published in (Capital Region, NY) Jewish World April 29-May 13, 2021. 

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