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.

Mandy Patinkin is about joy and doing mitzvahs!

My interview and subsequent story was published in this week’s (Capital Region NY) Jewish World. Mandy’s tour includes Proctors Theatre in Schenectady as well as several venues in Florida. Mandy is a real mensch! Catch his show if you can!
https://jewishworldnews.org/singing-acting-stories-mandy-patinkin-is-about-joy-and-doing-mitzvahs/

Tour dates: http://www.mandypatinkin.org/schedule.html

“I want the world to know there was a Holocaust:” A survivor’s story

It was not until Estelle Nadel was in her forties that she was able to share with her grown children the full account  of her experiences as a Holocaust survivor. Now, knowing that there are few left speak out against those who deny that six million Jews were murdered in history’s most horrible chapters, she feels compelled to share her story with the world.

Estelle Nadel [nee Enia Feld] was five years olds and living with her parents, and four siblings in  Borek, Poland, when World War II broke out. Her father Reuven and older sister Sonia worked in a nearby refinery; her older brother Moshie worked at an airport. Her mother Chaya supplemented their meager living by raising and selling vegetables. An excellent baker, she used those skills for the weddings and christenings of their non-Jewish neighbors. 

Although life as Jews in Poland began to immediately deteriorate under German occupation, Reuven, a devoutly religious man, remained optimistic. “He always told us that nothing will happen to us, that [God] will take care of us,” Estelle said. This all changed sometime in 1942, when the Germans ransacked the Feld home looking for weapons and valuables, of which they had none. 

Two weeks later, the Nazis began rounding up the Jews for deportation.  Chaya, Estelle and her two younger brothers, Stephan and Mel watched in horror crouched in a nearby field as Reuven, Sonia, and Moishe were herded into nearby cattle cars taking them to places unknown. Realizing they could not return home, Chaya procured a hiding place in the attic of a sympathetic neighbor’s  home. Three months later, Chaya was recognized by another Polish neighbor while on one of her nocturnal searches for food. She was arrested, brought to the local jail, and shot that morning by a German who was responsible for killing any found Jews. 

The three siblings remained together in their hiding place until Mel, who was fair and blonde, decided to leave and pass as a non-Jew. Soon after, the Gestapo pulled Estelle and Stephan out of their hiding spot, beat Stephan, and moved them to the same jail in Jedlicze where Chaya had been killed three months earlier. The jailer threw the two into the basement, where they spent a cold, terrifying night, certain they would follow their mother’s fate in the morning.

A small barred window high up in the cell became their salvation. First Stephan squeezed through the tight opening. A few minutes later, Estelle was able to make her escape. She realized that her brother had run away and lefter her behind. 

Distraught about her brother’s abandonment, the seven-year-old found herself frightened and alone. She wandered into a garden in a nearby home, where a woman spotted her and brought her inside. The woman, the wife of one of the Polish jailers,  refused to hide her but acquiesced to Estelle’s pleas to take her through the fields to the local  bathhouse. From there, Estelle  found her way to where her uncle, her aunt who was ill with cancer,  and their daughter were being hidden by Karowskis, a Polish Christian family. The following morning, Stephan joined them. The group hid for two years in an attic over a stable, where they could not even stand up. 

In 1945, Russian soldiers marched in and liberated the area where Estelle and her family were hidden from the Germans.  The group returned to Borek, where the aunt died of cancer and  Estelle and Stephan were reunited with Mel. Despite their “freedom,”  they knew people were still hunting down Jews. The refugees obtained false papers and left Poland first for Czechoslovakia and then Russian-occupied, Hungary. The uncle, a sister with whom had had been reunited, and his daughter left for Australia upon the invitation of another sister. The three siblings then fled to a safer haven, American-occupied Austria, where they landed in a displaced person’s camp. An American solider, hearing that they were orphans, suggested the three siblings go to America. The Joint Distribution Committee, part of HIAS, agreed to sponsor the orphans. 

After two years of setbacks and red tape, and Estelle, now 12, and Stephan arrived  in New York City on April 1, 1947, where they reunited with Mel, who had arrived earlier and had already obtained a job in New Jersey. “He already had a job in New Jersey and was all dressed up, he looked already like an American,”Estelle said.

Stephan started his own job search, while Estelle stayed in a hotel room watching American television to learn English. Soon after, Stephan told his sister that he could not care for her and she would be  better off in foster care. Initially crushed by her brother’s decision, Estelle was adapted by a family named Nadel in Long Island. They  later relocated  to California, where the seventeen-year-old Estelle met Fred, whose last name was also Nadel.  The couple married and spent most their lives in the San Fernando Valley, California. Fred ran a  scrap metal business, and Estelle operated  a jewelry business while raising their three sons. A few years ago, they relocated to Colorado to be near two of their sons and their families, which now includes five grandchildren.

It took many years for Estelle to talk about the six years of terror and displacement during WWII. Although she never hid the fact that she was a Holocaust survivor, it was only when her children were adults that Estelle was able share the details of her story with them. She took the advice of her daughter-in-law, who was a teacher, and began speaking  about her experiences in local school.   Now 88, Estelle has told her story for over forty years in hundreds of venues, including schools, religious organizations, and other public forums first in California and later in Colorado and Wyoming. She and her two brothers have also videotaped their experiences through Spielberg’s Shoah Visual History Foundation. Estelle is currently working with MacMillion publishers on her graphic novel, The Girl Who Sang: A Holocaust Memoir of Hope and Survival, which she hopes to be alive to see. 

Before their move to Colorado, Estelle returned to Poland with her two brothers and other relatives to retrace their past lives. They confronted the man who turned in his mother, who indefensibly had no remorse, and had a tearful heartfelt reunion with members of the Karowski family. Stephan had a face-to-face with the German prison guard, who said that he had placed them in that particular cell in hopes they could escape through the barred window. On Holocaust Memorial Day, Estelle and family members joined others in  the annual International March for the Living (ww.motl.org) The participants, who number in the thousands, walked  silently from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp complex built during World War II.  It was there through its  Book of Names that Estelle was able to confirm her father, sister, and brother were murdered in Auschwitz. 

Estelle returned to the MOTL event four more times as both a participant and one of the survivors through the Los Angeles-based  Builders of Jewish Education, which sponsors an experiential education program for high school students to learn about their Jewish past, present and future. The two-week experience is built around the group commemorating Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) in Poland and celebrating Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) in Israel. In 2022, after a two year hiatus due to COVID-19, the number of survivors able to physically attend has been so reduced that the  first-person accounts are now provided via Zoom, a change that saddens Estelle. She hopes to attend again in the future.

Surviving the Holocaust was a matter of faith; speaking about her experiences is a matter of truth.“It took me many, many years to be able to talk about it,” she says. “I’ve talked now, hundreds of times, and things have not changed. I still cry every time. I re-live the whole scenario.”

Although her past is filled with pain and loss, she still calls her survival and her life a miracle. As a witness to the Holocaust’s horrors, she feels compelled to speak out and to  rebuke those who deny that it happened. “There are very few survivors left, and I want the world to know that there was a Holocaust,” she says. “There’s so much denial, that every time I get a chance to tell my story, I feel like I’m doing something against it.”  She also hopes it will prevent future holocausts. “People need to remember what can happen when others demonize races or ethnicities or religions,” she says. “When the stories remain crystalline, maybe the world will see fewer genocides.”

First published in (Capital Region, NY) The Jewish World, on January 5, 2023. 

Should auld acquaintance be forgot?

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot auld lang syne?” Traditional New Year’s Song

The first time Larry and I met Milt at a neighborhood pool, I thought he was one of the “tribe.” Milton? Loessberg? Sounded Jewish to me. But within ten minutes, Milt informed me that he and Kathy were newlyweds and had met through their church. So much for guessing someone’s religion by a name! Standing waist deep in water, the four of us found other things we had in common: politics, travel, enthusiasm for life, and—especially for Milt and me—a love for journalism and the news.

Milt’s father was a civilian worker for the US Army when he had a heart attack. Milt’s mother was a few months pregnant when she became a widow after her husband, a civilian worker for the US Army had a heart attack. She eventually remarried, and Milt’s step-father became the only father he ever knew.

Tapping into his strong English and writing skills, Milt decided to go into journalism. During his studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Milt learned how to interview people and find out about their lives. In the end, his newspaper career focused on advertising and sales, and those listening skills helped him. “People tended to open up about their own situations, their business careers, and sometimes even their personal lives,” said Milt. “My people skills made the job interesting and increased my sales.”

Milt explored all of California as he traveled through the state for his jobs with different newspapers. Wherever he went, Milt took a camera, photographed the places he visited and mailed the pictures to his mother, who always “helped me find my best traits.” She recognized that Milt had a talent for photography. When Milt came to St. Louis for a visit, she told Milt that she had gotten in touch with a company that produces post cards. “She told them that I would be very good at supplying postcard views of nature.”

Even though he didn’t get the postcard job, Milt kept taking pictures. Building on his mother’s encouragement, Milt enjoyed photography as a lifetime hobby, He had a show in a small gallery in Affton, Missouri, as well as in other venues. He also joined the Art Association of St. Louis and nature photography club. “Photography was a way to give others pleasure and fulfill a personal need,” Milt said.

Beginning in his fifties, Milt developed macular degeneration, and his eyesight deteriorated. Thanks to modern technology, he continued his photography. “It’s amazing how many pictures in my collection have been taken with my trusty iPhone,” said Milt. “Many people have been fooled into thinking that they were taken with a professional camera because they are professional grade photos. “

While living in California Milt got married, a union that lasted 25 years. When Milt got a job offer with the St. Louis Post Dispatch, however, his wife decided to stay on the West Coast while Milt returned home. He treasured those years as it gave him a chance to reconnect with his failing mother. And—eventually—to meet Kathy.

Milt and Kathy both had lamented to a mutual friend from their church how it was hard to meet people. They were introduced in 2010 and connected quickly.Their wedding on September 8, 2012, was a joyous affair, attended by all of Kathy’s nine siblings and their spouses, officiated by Reverend Sallie Fox, and preserved in a lovely video. 

As they had done during their courtship, the two newlyweds traveled throughout the heartland of America. Their most influential vacation was a guided bus trip from St. Louis to Albuquerque, New Mexico, which allowed them to see the Old West. They were especially fascinated with Route 66, an interest that lasted their entire marriage. “I can come up with sixty-six reasons we love Route 66,” Milt quipped. The iconic highway was filled with American history:  refurnished motels, antique shops, old cars, and quality and service reminiscent of another time. “Kitch and nostalgia doesn’t exist any other place else in the world,” said Milt.

Three years after they were married, Milt was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When Milt’s cancer went into remission, they made a deal that they would go to Florida for a few years, “as a four-year adventure” and would return to St. Louis when Kathy turned 65. They found a lovely home for the two of them, their cat Eddie, Kathy’s crafts, and Milt’s photos in Solivita, a fifty-five plus community near Kissimmee.

From the day they moved in, Milt and Kathy took advantage of every opportunity to soak in all Florida had to offer. Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, Bok Tower Gardens, Gatorland, St. Augustine, Sanibel Island, Captiva Island. If it was on the Florida map, they were headed to it. They bought a golf cart, and the two of them tooled around the neighborhood, checking out the best place to see alligators or catch a sunset. 

And we often joined them. On December 26, 2016, the four of us took long ride on their golf cart to all the homes that were decorated in Christmas splendor. No, there wasn’t any snow. But there were plenty of lights and Santas and reindeer in between the palm trees. 

By February 2017, however, Milt’s health declined as the cancer spread through his liver and kidneys. When Kathy went back to Missouri to visit her family in March, she called Milt to say she found “the perfect house.” They decided to move back to St. Louis, in part to make sure Kathy could be with family as they navigated through the last months of Milt’s illness. In June, the four of us took one last trip to City Walk at Universal. Milt was obviously in pain, but he wasn’t going to let that ruin his night. We ate Mexican food, took in the crowds, watched the roller coasters zoom over our heads. 

Kathy and Milt moved back to St. Louis that July. We communicated by email and by phone. When we Face-timed, I could see that. Milt was thin and pale. But he was still cheerful. “My father died at 32,” Milt told me. “I have had so many more years than he did. How lucky I am!”

Their last trip was by car to the annual balloon festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in October 2017. With Kathy at the wheel, they drove on parts of Route 66. The morning of the festival, the lines to get on the shuttle buses where ridiculously long. Kathy and Milt waited 45 minutes in the freezing cold and found out they weren’t even half way to the bus. Disheartened, they finally accepted the fact that Milt physically couldn’t handle the crowd and the weather. They went back to their hotel, opened up the curtains, and—-there up in the sky were the balloons in their full glory. “The view was as good as being there,” said Kathy. The trip was a success

Even in his final days, Milt was optimistic. “I got some good news,” he told me during one phone call. “The doctor said I wouldn’t benefit from anymore treatments. I am going on pain medication, and hospice will be coming. It’s wonderful that such help exists.” The last time I spoke to Milt, he was tired and confused from the disease and the morphine. True to form, however, Milt still had an enthusiasm for life despite his weakened state. He passed away less than ten days later, on December 15, 2017.

Five years later, Kathy is settled in St. Louis. She has not been back to Route 66 but hopes to complete the trip someday. Recently, however, one of Kathy’s sister and her family recently visited Santa Monica and sprinkled some of Milt’s ashes in their bay. Milt, you finally completed your journey. May your memory be a blessing to Kathy and all who knew you.

Is This Any Way to Stop Hate?

In 2021, ADL reported 2717 antisemitic incidents throughout the United States, a 34% increase over 2020. The recent mass shooting in Highland Park, Buffalo, Colorado Springs, and Virginia, are deplorable testimonies to the level of hate in this country. More recently, the New York Times YT has reported on the “unsettling stream of anti-semitism. [“Between Kanye and the Midterms, the Unsettling Stream of Antisemitism,” 11/4/2022] More recently, the NYT has reported on the “unsettling stream of anti-semitism].Then why does the online behemoth Amazon continue to sell material that profits from that hate? And more personally, why am I trying to be a David to Amazon’s Goliath?

Much has been written recently about the Kyrie Irving’s eight-game suspension after the Brooklyn Nets’ basketball star tweeted a link to a documentary containing antisemitic messages. Hebrews to Negros: Wake Up, Black America, is based on book of the same name by Ronald Dalton, Jr, which espouses virulent misinformation including Holocaust denial and claims of an international Jewish conspiracy. 

Although too few members of the Nets team spoke out against Irving’s actions citing reasons as insubstantial as “I just want to play basketball,” other notable athletes spoke up.”Charles Barkley said that The National Basketball Association’s (NBA) commissioner, Adam Silver, himself Jewish, “dropped the ball” when the NBA didn’t immediately suspend him. Shaquille O’Neal said “we gotta answer for what this idiot has done.”

The most eloquent quotes came from Kareem Abdul Jabbar. In June 2020, the retired basketball player admonished celebrities who failed speak out against the antisemitic comments by Ice Cube, DeSean Jackson, and Stephen Jackson. “If we are going to be outraged by injustice, let’s be outraged by injustice against anyone.” He reiterated his concerns after what he perceived as a tepid response to the recent anti-Semitic comments by Kayne West and Kyrie Irving. “A number of Blacks expected support from Jews during the Black Lives Matter movement, and they got that help,” he stated. “But when the reverse was necessary, we ended up with silence…for weeks.” He went on to say, “If we don’t protect everyone, we don’t protect anyone. “

What many people, including myself until recently, may not be aware of is that Amazon offers both the book and DVD version movie on its website. The controversy has only caused a massive spike in sales. On November 4, Hebrews was the number one book in Amazon’s Religion and Spirituality and Social Sciences categories. As of Monday, November 28, the book was ranked #1 in the Christian education category in Kindle. What is even more disturbing to me is that Audible, a division of Amazon, is now offering the audio book as one of its free options with a trial membership. 

Requests by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and other groups to stop its sale were first met with deafening silence. In a letter addressed to Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL’s CEO, stated, “By platforming this film, and other clearly hateful content, you are knowingly and willingly propagating antisemitism.” 

Other influential groups have also taken on the fight. On November 10, over 200 leaders of the entertainment industry, including Mila Kunis, Debra Messing and Mayim Bialik, released a letter through the non-profit entertainment industry organization Creative Community for Peace urging Amazon and Barnes and Noble to stop its sale. “At a time in America where there are more per capita hate crimes against Jews than any other minority, overwhelmingly more religious-based hate crimes against the Jewish people than any other religion, and more hate crimes against the Jewish people in New York than any other minority, where a majority of American Jews live,” the letter reads, “it is unacceptable to allow this type of hate to foment on your platforms,” Soon after, Barnes and Noble, as well as Apple, removed the material. Amazon, however, had not. 

As I read all this disheartening news on the days leading up to Ere of Yontiff, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the Jewish activist in me kicked in. In the midst of my husband Larry and I prepping a 22-pound turkey, assembling stuffing, and peeling five pounds of potatoes for our eleven guests, I got onto Amazon’s customer service chatline, expressed my concerns, and then was told that my remarks were being forwarded to the business department. I then hammered out a letter to the editor regarding the issue and emailed it my local paper, Orlando Sentinel, who published it on Saturday, December 3, issue with the headline, “Kyrie Irvings hurtful views still spreading.” A victory!

On Cyber-Monday, I upped the ante when, through the same Amazon chatline, I requested a callback from a real person with whom to speak about my concerns. Judging from the typing in the background, the representative took copious notes. After a couple of brief holds, I was told that the issue was passed to the appropriate channels. My comments regarding what I regarded as “offensive” material would be reviewed and someone would be in touch at an indeterminant date. Later that day, I got a follow-up email from the Amazon representative. “I am delighted for the warm and nice approach you gave me on the call,” she wrote. “It was indeed a pleasure helping you.” As gratified as I was by her lovely note, I rightfully held off pressing “Yes” to the “Did I solve your problem?” button. 

I also Googled to find other outlets selling the book or DVD. Only one other retailer, BooksaMillion, has continued the sale. An Etsy seller removed its sale immediately after I wrote him stating that its sale was violating its anti-discrimination policies. Another victory!

Alas, in the end, requests by the Anti-Defamation League and other groups to stop its sale have been rejected. Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, himself Jewish, stated on 12/1/2022 that the online retail behemoth has “to allow access to those viewpoints, even if they are ….objectionable and they differ from our particular viewpoints.”

If the ADL and the Creative Community for Peace have not been able to persuade Amazon leadership, why am I entering the fray? I feel as if I am David battling Goliath, ending unknown. But stone by stone, I will keep using my slingshot. Or maybe, during this Hanukkah holiday, I should feel more like the Maccabees, who overcame incredible odds to vanquish a much larger enemy. 

I got encouragement from a fellow SOLWriter and a dear friend, Ginny Campbell, who wrote in response a draft to my Orlando Sentinel submission, stating that my letter and work as a writer was “shining a light in a dark world. ” What a beautiful metaphor for me to contemplate as we celebrate the Festival of Lights! Ginny’s words will add an extra glow to my Hanukkiah candles. 

In the midst of your holiday shopping please do your part to shine a light in a dark world. Please urge Amazon and other retailers to remove these titles and others that profit off attacks on targeted populations. Rather than give more stuff to people who already are overwhelmed with stuff, consider contributions to the ADL, which is fighting anti-Semitism every day. We all need to lessen the fire of hatred, not add to its flames. 

Happy Japchae Day!

Thanksgiving is hands down my favorite holiday. I love celebrating with a large group of family and friends. I love reflecting on all for which I am thankful. And I love foods that we traditionally load onto our holiday table: the turkey (especially tasty when eaten while it is being carved), Ocean Spray whole cranberry sauce, my mother’s stuffing recipe, Marilyn’s World Famous Chocolate Chip Cookies, Anita’s rugelach, Adam’s vodka infused apple pie, and Hannah’s japchae.

Wait! Japchae? What is a Korean recipe that features translucent sweet potato noodles, thinly sliced beef, and vegetables doing on our Thanksgiving table?

For many years, Larry and I spent Thanksgiving with our cousins Freya and Randy. We literally had to travel over the river and through the woods to their Washington County home—which I referred to lovingly in Yiddish as in ekvelt— to share the day with at times over 30 family members and friends. Their daughter-in-law Hannah, a first-generation Korean-American, brought japchae every year, and I considered that to be as traditional as apple pie. In 2014, the holiday was especially sweet as our daughter Julie and her husband Sam had told us that they were expecting a baby in mid July. Larry and I were so grateful to harbor the secret throughout that memorable weekend. 

True, a few Thanksgivings were not exactly times of gratitude. Larry’s 78-year-old grandmother Bubbie Rose passed away on Thanksgiving morning in 1974, three and a half months after she beamed throughout our September wedding. My father passed away a week before the holiday in 2008, much to the annoyance of the congregant who was responsible for arranging for the food at the traditional Jewish gathering after the funeral. “I hope you realize this is a lousy time to ask people to help set up a shiva minyan,” she informed me. Fortunately, members of our Upstate New York shul gladly showed up. And despite our grief in both occasions, we were all grateful for their long lives and all the blessed memories we share.

In 1984 the day before our family’s planned departure to visit my Pennsylvania siblings for Thanksgiving, a section of our garage door hit Larry on the head when the spring snapped. Fortunately, Larry avoided what could have been a catastrophic injury by mere millimeters. Upon the advice of our doctor, however, we cancelled our traveling plans. A quick supermarket run to secure a turkey and all the fixings and a Blockbuster run (remember those?) for a stack of family friendly movies resulted in a quiet cozy long weekend. We were grateful for that unexpected intimate family time. 

The most sobering Thanksgiving came in 2016. As we were packing for our flight the next day to Colorado for a gathering with our son-in-law Sam’s family in Fort Collins, our daughter Julie called to tell us that our 15-month-old granddaughter was in the hospital with pneumonia in a hospital a mile from their Rocky Mountain home. By the time our plane had landed, she had been rushed to Denver’s Children’s Hospital. 

The next few days are still etched in my memory: Our wan granddaughter, connected to oxygen and IV’s, rushing to hug her Zayde. Julie and Sam holding their daughter as she watched endless repeats of Frozen on their iPad. Her wails every time a nurse entered the room. Our 120 mile round trips to the hospital while listening to the depressing news of the recent presidential elections. Adam rolling out a vodka-infused crust for the apple pie. Sharing a lovely Thanksgiving dinner with Sam’s family around a table missing three important people.

As Larry and Adam headed to the airport, I remained behind to provide needed help as Mountain Girl continued her recovery. Despite the circumstances, I have to say that week caring for my granddaughter, still connected to oxygen by a three foot hose because of the 9100 foot altitude, was precious. We sang and danced to “Wheels on the Bus” and “Rubber Duckie” and “The Alphabet Song.” We stacked toys and put together puzzles. She learned how to walk up and down the stair. I fed her so many blueberries, her favorite food, that she had numerous “blueberry blowouts,” for which Gammy was responsible. It was not the Thanksgiving we had planned. But we were thankful for modern medicine that saved her life and that provided the needed interventions, including a twice a day nebulizer, that resulted the healthy, thriving second grader she is today.

By the following year, Larry and I, who had moved to Florida that June, headed up north. Thanks to dear friends who let us “house sit” while they visited relatives for a week, we again shared a wonderful Thanksgiving with Larry’s huge extended family. Freya and Randy had passed the Thanksgiving reins to our niece Laura and her husband Paul, who had recently purchased a home in Guilderland, New York. The buffet table was laden with almost all the Shapiro traditional food except one. Hannah bypassed on making japchae. Oh well! We still had plenty to eat.

Maybe it was because airports were especially crowded on this holiday weekend. Maybe because we weren’t used to the cold. Or maybe it was because I no longer could depend on Hannah for japchae. In 2016, Larry and I decided to join a large group of friends from around the country and the world at a nearby resort. By the second year of shredded salty turkey over gluey mashed potatoes and subpar pies, our friend Peter declared that Larry and I should host a Thanksgiving potluck at our home. 

We happily agreed. Plans were going smoothly until we realized a few days before our scheduled Thursday feast that Peter and his wife Margaret were flying home on Thanksgiving Day. “I thought you Americans had all your holidays on Monday,” he said. No, Peter, I explained. Thanksgiving is ALWAYS on Thursday!

Fortunately, everyone was able to adjust their schedule, and we celebrated Thanksgiving on Ere of Yontiff—Wednesday. I prepared a 22-pound turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and my World Famous Chocolate Chip Cookies. Everyone else filled in with their own favorites. I was hoping the Hunters would bring scones and clotted cream. Instead, their contribution of two bottles of Moet & Chandon champagne worked out, as did the orchid they brought that continues to bloom. Not surprisingly, no one brought japchae.

We got to celebrate our International Thanksgiving one more time before COVID shut down the world, necessitating that Larry and I share our 2020 meal with extended family on Zoom. By 2021, however, we were up and running with the understanding that everyone bring their favorite dishes and COVID-vaccine infused arm. 

What a joy it is to know that 2022 is ushering in what I hope to be a new string of large gatherings of friends and family!

You may be reading this the day after Thanksgiving when Larry and I will be eating leftover turkey, stuffing, and apple pie. Meanwhile, we will have had what we hope will have been a wonderful day with many of our “regulars” as well as several new friends. We hope the day will be joyful and uneventful. If not, I will find reasons to be grateful—no matter what challenges pop up and even if we don’t have japchae!

Remembering wonderful past Thanksgivings, including our 1979 gathering with our family in Pennsylvania!

Still seeking the perfect gift: Holiday shopping!

As we gear up for Chanukah and Christmas, I am sharing on my blog a story I wrote for The Jewish World seven years ago.

I have never looked forward to holiday shopping.

It has little to do with spending the money. I don’t even resent the time in the malls with all the Christmas decorations and music and the token Chanukah menorah stuck sadly in a corner. My main problem is that I never feel up to the task of finding the “perfect” gift.

I have a few memories of shopping for the holidays when I was growing up.I had my stand-bys: “Night in Paris” for my mother, a carton of cigarettes and a bar of chocolates for my father. The first year my sister Laura came home from college, she gave me a beautiful cable sweater that I thought was the height of sophistication because it came from my “big sister.” Through my college years, finding funny and appropriate gifts for my suite mates made the days before we left for winter vacation enjoyable. 

It became more challenging once I married into Larry’s family. Chanukah was a much bigger deal than it had been in my family. My sibling and I had not exchanged Chanukah gifts for years, and here I was looking for presents for ten adults and the seven grandchildren. Even if we weren’t all together on the first night of Chanukah, Larry’s sisters seemed to know what to get everyone and have it delivered by mail if necessary. I just always wondered what to get everyone and second guessed all my choices. 

When gift giving became even more difficult was when, in 2000, I moved from the classroom into an administrative post. When I was teaching, we did a “Secret Santa,” which meant I was only finding little gifts for one person. Once I took on my coordinator position, the number of people to whom I gave gifts grew exponentially.  It would have been simpler if I had been a wonderful baker or a clever seamstress or a skilled woodcrafter. Unfortunately,  I had neither the talent nor the desire to pull together a “one gift fits all” idea and implement it by the time the holiday season arrived. Gifts reflecting my own holiday —sugar cookies in the shapes of menorahs and Star of Davids;  potato pancakes ready to reheat; a Chanukah bag with a dreidel, Chanukah gelt, and instructions on how to play—seemed inappropriate. 

So, I would land up wandering around malls or craft shows the weeks before the holiday searching desperately for gifts. I truly cared about the recipients and wanted to show that caring in appropriate gifts. I just was at a lost to find a “token” present that satisfied me.

Four years before I retired, I decided keep track of the financial impact on spending for just my workplace. I was shocked to realize that I had spent $500 on tchotchkes.* This had to stop.

So the following November, before Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holiday shopping season, I approached my fellow co-workers and asked if we could forego the gifts and instead make a contribution to a charity. They quickly signed on, and for the next few years, we pooled our gift money and sent a generous check to the Regional Food Bank. Everyone at my agency got a card with a note that said, in the spirit of the season, a gift had been made to the Regional Food Bank. What a relief!

The first December after I retired, the holiday season was mellower. Larry’s family got together for a Chanukah dinner, with all of us agreeing before hand that Chanukah presents would go to the two great-grandchildren but not to each other. We have continued that tradition.

My perspective on gift-giving also changed when Larry and I purchased a fully furnished home in Florida and needed to divest ourselves of thirty-six years of house. Larry took it in stride, but I struggled with the process until I realized much of the stuff we decided to leave behind was someone else’s treasure. The couple that cleaned our house fell in love with a chalk drawing of a draw bridge in Shushan, New York,  that she and her husband drove past every day when they lived in Columbia County. Several of my crewel pieces found their way to relatives’ homes, and a photograph of waves crashing on a New England coastline went to a dear friend whose family has had a summer home near Brunswick, Maine, since 1925. Our Early American deacon’s bench is now situated in our next door neighbor’s sunroom. Moments before we backed out of our driveway on Devon Court for the last time, Blossom took a picture of the two of us on the bench, smiling through our tears.  How I wish I had gifts from the heart to offer to friends and family all the time no matter what the season!

This year will be our first Chanukah with a grandchild. My first inclination is to shop for eight gifts  to be opened each night, but I know at even her very young age, Sylvie Rose doesn’t need more toys or more clothes. I have already promised her that, when she is a LITTLE older,  I will take her to  Disney World and buy her a princess dress. I have children’s books written and signed by a member of my writing group. My journal includes stories of her life, and I hope to share all these stories, some as part of a book,  with her as she grows. Those will be, like those special pictures and that deacon’s bench, gifts from the heart. 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York, in the November 12, 2015 issue.

The Lost Mural

My father, Bill Cohen, (Z”L) loved to play Jewish geography, and he proudly shared with us how the  first synagogue in Burlington was founded in his grandfather’s kitchen.  As we lived on the New York side of Lake Champlain, we visited many aunts, uncles, and cousins who lived in the Queen City and the surrounding areas. One was Uncle Paul Pearl (nee Pesach Ossovitz), who learned the peddling trade from his uncle Archic Perelman and went on to oversee 27 Pearl’s department stores in Upstate New York and Vermont. And then there were Uncle Moe Pearl, who owned several businesses in the area, and his wife Bess; Ruth (Pearl) Kropsky and her husband Isidore; and Aunt Ida and her husband Max Ahrens. May their memories be a blessing and live on in Congregation Ohavi Zedek and its beautiful “Lost Mural.”

When the Pels family, my Burlington cousins, attended the High Holy Day services  for the year 5733, Congregation Ohavi Zedek had a welcome new addition: the restored “Lost Mural” in the foyer, completed in June 2022 by the Lost Mural Project. Since the story starts in part with my great grandfather Isaac Perelman, a founding member of this Burlington synagogue, I am happy to share it.

Although Jews had settled in Burlington as early as 1848, the 1880s saw an influx of Eastern European Jews facing persecution by Russians in all phases of their personal, professional and religious lives. One of the early settlers was my great grandfather, Isaac “Itsak” Perelman, who came from Čekiškė, Lithuania.  Others came up from New York City to escape work in the sweat shops; a few migrated from Plattsburgh, New York, as it didn’t have an orthodox shul.  Most became peddlers in northern Vermont, selling their wares from horse or man-drawn carts. 

Initially, a group of ten Jewish men—only two had families with them, met for services in members’ homes, a former coffin shop, or the second floor  of an office building.  By 1885, the Jewish community of Burlington,Vermont, recognized the need to  organize a synagogue. Eighteen men met in Isaac Perelman’s kitchen.Having already procured a layman leader/Kosher butcher, they purchased  a lot for $25, formerly the site of an old stone shed at Hyde and Archibald streets. With $800,  they built a synagogue  building, naming  their new shul Congregation Ohavi Zedek, (“Lovers of Justice.”)

Over the next few years, the Jewish population of Burlington continued to grow.  My own relatives aided in the increased number: Isaac and his wife Sarah alone had six surviving children; his brothers Aaron and Jacob also had large families. By  1906, there were 162 Jewish families. The area in Burlington, dubbed “Little Jerusalem,” was laid out like the shtetls in the residents’ native Lithuania with houses and kosher bakery, kosher dairy, and a kosher butcher. Two more synagogues were built, including Chai Adam (“Life of Man”),  and Ahavath Gerim (“Love of Strangers”). The three synagogues built a Hebrew Free School together in 1910, the Talmud Torah.

In 1910, Chai Adam commissioned a 24-year-old Lithuanian immigrant and professional sign painter named Ben Zion Black to create a mural for $200. The completed project had prayer walls and a painted ceiling. The centerpiece is a 25-foot-wide, 12-foot-high three part panel, created in the vibrant and colorful painted art style present in hundreds of Eastern European wooden synagogue interiors in the 18th and 19th centuries. The mural featured the Ten Commandments in its center, golden Lions of Judah on either side,  with the artist’s rendering of the sun’s rays adding light. Blue and red curtains and pillars filled the side panels, all representing the artist’s interpretation of the Tent of the Tabernacle as described in the Book of Numbers and the Book of Exodus

In 1939, amid a decline in  Jewish population,  Chai Adam synagogue merged with Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. The former Chai Adam building was sold several times after 1952 and later was converted into a carpet store and a warehouse. 

In 1986, the former Chai Adam synagogue was  purchased by a developer with plans to renovate the building into multiple apartments. Recognizing that the future of the mural was in jeopardy, Aaron Goldberg,  the archivist for Ohavi Zedek Synagogue and a descendant of Ohavi Zedek’s  founding immigrants, persuaded the new owner to seal the mural behind a false wall, in 1986. Archivist Jeff Potash, Shelburne Museum’s Curator of Collections Richard Kershner, and architect Marcel Beaudin worked with Goldberg, all hoping it might be reclaimed at some later date.

Before being hidden, archival quality photographs of the Lost Mural were taken and paid for by Ben Zion Black’s daughters. Much of the painting was destroyed during the renovation but the mural over the ark was covered by a wall.  It remained hidden until 2012 when the former Chai Adam building again changed hands. 

In 2010,  Goldberg partnered with his childhood friend and former Trinity College of Vermont history professor Jeff Potash to establish The Lost Mural Project with plans to establish a new home for the Lost Mural and restore the work to its original glory. They reached an agreement with the next owner of the Chai Adam building, the Offenhartz family, that the mural would be uncovered and donated to the Lost Mural Project. This was done with the understanding that the Lost Mural Project would be solely responsible for all costs of stabilizing, moving, cleaning and restoring the Lost Mural. 

In 2012, after more than two decades, the false wall was removed to examine the Lost Mural. According to one of the curators involved in the project, Black’s creation had sustained extensive damage with “the painting hanging off its plaster base like cornflakes.” Over the next three years, the Lost Mural Project raised substantial funds from individuals, businesses and foundations for the mural’s paint to be stabilized.  In May 2015, the mural, encased in steel and weighing approximately 7.500 pounds, was moved to Ohavi Zedek in a marvelous feat of conservators, construction and engineering. 

Following the mural’s move, the Lost Mural incorporated, rebranded and tirelessly sought funding for the mural’s cleaning and full restoration with the help of its board and Madeleine May Kunin,  the former Vermont Governor and US Ambassador to Switzerland. By 2022, they had raised over one million dollars from local, state, national and international donors.

During 2021 two conservators hired by The Lost Mural Project began the painstaking task of cleaning the mural. Using the archival photos taken in 1985, they used a gel solvent and cotton swabs to remove  the darkened varnish, dirt and grime from the painting’s surface. During the 2022 year, a second team of conservators from Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts began the infill, coloring and final restorations. According to Goldberg, the pandemic was in this case a blessing as it gave the team of workers the space and quiet needed to complete the project in the shuttered shul. 

“So many things could have gone wrong with the mural, but it survived through fate and circumstance,” says Goldberg. “It’s not just a surviving remnant. It’s a surviving piece with an astonishing history.” 

Ohavi Zedek’s Senior Rabbi Amy Small, who saw the 2022 restoration step by step, views the Lost Mural  Project as a universal immigrant story. “It’s significant not only to the Jewish community and the descendants of those early settlers of Burlington, but also to other immigrants in the United States, which offered safety for Jewish and other families fleeing from many parts of the world.”

The Friends of the Lost Mural were presented with a 2022 Preservation Award by the Preservation Trust of Vermont. “The Lost Mural…not only exemplifies the rich history of creativity and resilience in Burlington’s Jewish community,” stated Ben Doyle, its president. “ It inspires all of us to remember that the Vermont identity is dynamic and diverse.”

The completed project was unveiled amid much fanfare in June 2022. Governor Kunin was honored for her contributions, and a Vermont Klezmer band provided the music. Dignitaries both in attendance and through Zoom highlighted the importance of the project. Joshua Perelman, Chief Curator & Director Of Exhibitions And Collections, National Museum Of American Jewish History called the mural  “a treasure and also a significant work, both in American Jewish religious life and the world of art in this country.”

Many of the descendants of the original Lithuanian Jews who settled in Burlington over one hundred and fifty years earlier were present, including descendants of Isaac and Aaron Perelman.

“[The mural] tells us a remarkable story of a thriving Jewish immigrant community from Lithuania and the successful efforts of their descendants to preserve their cultural legacy today,” H.E. Audra Plepyte, the ambassador of Lithuania to the United States stated in remarks shared with Ohavi Zedek. “The Lost Mural is not lost anymore.”

The Lost Mural Project, an independent secular nonprofit, is seeking donations to replicate the green corridors on the original painting that did not survive. Its educational mission is to share the story of the Lost Mural and the lost genre of the East European wooden painted synagogues with people and facilities around the world.More information, including details of the Mural’s miraculous journey, can be found at https://www.lostmural.org/donate.

SOURCES

Thanks to Aaron Goldberg , Jay Cohen, Janet Leader, Rob Pels, and Rosie Pels for their contributions to this article. 

Rathke, Lisa. “Long-hidden synagogue mural gets rehabbed.” August 17, 2022. AP Wire story; numerous sources.

Sproston, Betty. Burlington Free Press. February 22, 1995.

https://lostmural.squarespace.com/ekik-lithuania

https://www.news4jax.com/entertainment/2022/08/16/long-hidden-synagogue-mural-gets-rehabbed-relocated/

https://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/burlingtons-lost-mural-is-restored-to-its-original-glory/Content?oid=35853053

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/synagogue-mural-restoration-vermont-apartment-180980614/

My cousins Rosie, Robert, and Molly Pels stand in front of completed Lost Mural

You can go home again!

Thomas Wolfe famously stated, “You can never go home again.”  Larry’s sister and brother-in-law are living proof that one should never say never.

When he returned from military service after the Korean War, Larry’s father Ernie collected Doris and their two children Anita and Larry from Bubbie Rose’s house in Syracuse, and they moved into an older house on Avery Street in Saratoga Springs. By the mid-sixties, the family had expanded with the birth of Marilyn Pearl and Carole. Mom and Dad decided to build a new house less than a mile away, on the corner of Lake and Iroquois Drive.

When construction was finished in July 1964, Anita was already away at college in Rochester, and Larry, who missed the old house and neighborhood, would live in the new house for only eighteen months before he headed to college in Boston. Marilyn Pearl and Carole were young enough to adjust quickly to the move and, in retrospect, to live enough years  at Iroquois Drive to create many happy childhood memories. Dad loved the oversized two car garage that held his tools, a large workbench, and his golf club, and the family room that had a section for a regulation sized pool table. 

It was Mom, however, who was most excited about her “dream” house. She loved the new kitchen with its ample cabinets, and, as she hated the heat, appreciated the central air conditioning. Her mahogany table and buffet, which barely squeezed into the house on Avery Street, worked well in the new dining room. A large china cabinet displayed her crystal and china, and the living room was large enough to hold an oversized couch, several chairs, tables, and a piano. Mom took a great deal of pride in her new home, and it showed. She was  a meticulous housekeeper, and it was rare to see anything out of place or cluttered.  Every tabletop shined, the floors were polished, the carpets were vacuumed, the closets and drawers were organized, the bathrooms gleamed; even the laundry and storage rooms were spotless. Even though she employed outside help, she  was known to clean before and after the cleaners. As a matter of fact, one of our  favorite ‘Doris’  stories is that Mom scrubbed her kitchen sink  so vigorously that she literally wore a hole through the porcelain.

Mom also loved to entertain.  She was a wonderful cook and baker, and she enjoyed having her children, grandchildren, friends, and out-of-town relatives to her house whenever she had the opportunity. She often spent the weeks before major Jewish holidays planning her menu, cooking, baking, and freezing much of the food in preparation. Once the holiday arrived, she would open up the dining room table to its full length, her china and crystal would be set, and at her dinners the table would be laden with her specialities: brisket on Rosh Hoshanah, tongue and chopped eggplant at the Yom Kippur Break-the Fast, and matzoh ball soup and roasted chicken on Passover. And when the dinner was over, Mom insisted on doing the dishes as “No one can do them as well as I can.” As she got older, we worried that all her cooking and cleaning was too much for her, but she told us that she loved doing it, and we knew better than to argue with Doris Shapiro.

After they retired, Mom and Dad spent part of the winter in Florida in a condo. Dad loved the sunshine, the pool, the golf courses, and the activities, but Mom missed her friends and her home in Saratoga. When I visited her in early April 1994, she was already packing up the apartment and looking forward to returning to Iroquois Drive and her beloved Saratoga Springs and to get ready for the Passover seder.

She never made it home. On the way up North, Mom had a heart attack while visiting Carole in Charleston, South Carolina, and passed away during open heart surgery on April 26, 1994.  Dad was devastated by the loss of his beloved Doris. He himself had to have open heart surgery that summer, but when he died on December 20, the doctor said that Dad had succumbed not from cardiac disease  but from a broken heart.  

After Dad’s funeral, their beautiful home sat empty and quiet. It seemed as if the house, as well as the family, was in mourning. We initially discussed cleaning out the house and putting it up for sale, but the grief was still too raw to do put these thoughts into action.

Fortunately, the house never had to go on the market. After many years of living all over the country, Carole’s husband Bill was to retire from the Navy in June 1996. Throughout the years, they had always said how much they missed being close to the family. With Mom and Dad gone, they were even more certain that their hearts and lives belonged in Saratoga. They had the perfect solution:  They would buy the house from the estate and move from Charleston, South Carolina, to Iroquois Drive.

Eighteen months after Dad’s passing, when the Leakakos family pulled into the driveway on a beautiful June afternoon, even the house seemed to be smiling. That first summer,  the four siblings and their spouses amicably divided up the contents, some as designated by Mom through handwritten notes, some as chosen by each for sentimental reasons. Then it fell to Carole and Bill to figure out what to do with the remainder of the contents Mom and Dad had accumulated over their thirty years in the house. Many of the duplicated and unwanted items were given to local charities; with the help of a rented dumpster, the outdated or unusable were tossed. Within a year, Mom and Dad’s vacant house became the warm, welcoming Leakakos home, and the six people and one dog settled comfortably into their new residence.

We all agreed that Mom must have rolled over in her grave when her house, her pride and joy, changed hands. Mom may have been a meticulous housekeeper, but Carole, by her own admission, did not follow in her footsteps. Her style was more “I have two active boys and a dog that sheds” casual. In addition, despite the effort to merge the two households, Carole and Bill had difficulty parting with many of the duplicates, and the house seemed a little crowded for quite a while.  Carole had also collected crafts and treasures while moving around the country, and many of the items she had collected filled any remaining nooks and crannies. Not surprisingly, no one cared that the house was not up to the old standards as long as the house was again filled with the Shapiro family.

And very often, it was. Carole may not have inherited her mother’s insistence for an immaculately clean home; however, she did inherit her mother’s love of entertaining.  She and  Bill have continued the tradition of having Iroquois Drive be the center for family gatherings, birthday and graduation parties, and holiday dinners.  Their Passover seders are epic: they have had up to thirty-five people in attendance, with people seated not only at the massive dining room table but also at as many extra tables as they could as needed. The china and crystal have been replaced with paper plates and disposable silverware, but it is unimportant to all those who gather around their table.  Everyone who is invited brings their own specialties to share, and we all share in the clean-up. Carole and Bill are excellent hosts: welcoming, relaxed, gracious. 

So, Mr. Wolfe, you can go home again.  And to my dear Carole and Bill, we are glad you did.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York, in the March 14, 2014, issue.

Where have you gone,Bullet Joe?

Like many other boys who grew up during the 1950s and early 1960s, my husband Larry collected baseball cards. Each spring and summer, Larry would walk, run or bike to the corner market near his home in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he would exchange his nickel for a new hot-off-the-presses pack of cards. Once he entered high school, Larry lost interest and never again got caught up in the rush of completing a major league season’s set. There was only one exception, a caramel-coated summer when Larry took our family on a sweet journey to complete a set of cards highlighting baseball players from almost eight decades before.

Through the classic song, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” baseball has always been linked with a popular popcorn and peanut confection that included a prize in each red, silver, and blue box. In the summer of 1993, one of the snacks’ promotions was a series of reproductions of two dozen 1915 baseball cards. Larry decided to buy a three-pack combo in order to see what the cards looked like.

Of course, like the saying associated with a famous potato chip, Larry just couldn’t stop at just one. After obtaining his first three cards, replicas of Christy Mathewson, Napoleon Lajoie, and Walter “Rabbit” Maranville, he was hooked—and determined to collect all twenty-four cards. Every time he went shopping, he brought home three to six more boxes to see which cards he could add to his pile. 

Our children, Adam and Julie, more than happy to eat the sweet treat, soon joined their father in his quest. Forty-five boxes later, along with thirty duplicates, we were up to fifteen of the two dozen cards. As we all became more determined, we bought and ate more boxes. We learned that the hot summer weather would make the contents of open boxes sticky and soft, and the solution was to keep them in the refrigerator. The sugar coated treat became the snack of choice and the number one offering to anyone who came to visit. 

As the weeks progressed, and the refrigerator became more filled with half-eaten, somewhat stale boxes, the quest became even more difficult. Seventy-two boxes later, we had collected twenty-one cards, as well as doubles, triples, and even quadruples of baseball immortals such as Ed Walsh of the Chicago Americans and Fred Clarke of the Pittsburgh Nationals. Unfortunately, there was not a Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker, or Leslie “Bullet Joe” Bush to be found. 

In frustration, Julie wrote a letter to the company asking if she could be sent the three missing cards. (She decided not to add a suggestion that there be more peanuts in each box.) She received a relatively quick but, alas, disappointing response. The letter politely stated that it would not be fair to the collectors of their toys and cards if obtaining such items was as simple as writing and asking for them. As an act of good will, the company provided her with a fifty cent coupon good on her next purchase and a print-out listing fellow card collectors with whom she might be able to negotiate a trade. 

Rather than giving up our quest for the last three cards, we not only used the coupon but also kept buying and eating more. Larry was thrilled when, after 90 boxes, he finally got Honus Wagner. Unfortunately, almost every card for the next six boxes was—you guessed it—Honus Wagner. Tris Speaker arrived just before we left for Cape Cod for our annual vacation. We now needed one more card: “Bullet Joe” Bush

My hope that our vacation would include a respite from the snack was not answered. The day we arrived at our rented cottage at the Cape, I unpacked while the rest of my family headed out to pick up groceries. They came back with a week’s supply of food and a two-week supply of the snack.

Then three days into our vacation, while Larry was on a day trip to Nantucket with a friend, Adam opened a box and found the elusive Bullet Joe. Three months and 138 boxes into our mission, our collection was complete.

We were still not done. Larry realized that with so many duplicates, we were only a few cards short of two complete sets. It took another two weeks—twenty-one boxes—to complete the search.

Our family still reminisces about the summer of 1993 and our quest to find the elusive Leslie Bush. Even today, when we head to a spring training game or even a regular season match-up, Larry will buy the familiar red, silver, and blue box to get into the spirit of the game. I, for one, settle for the peanuts.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Was teaching high school a good idea?

I realized early in my adult life that there is a big difference between the career I envisioned and the job I actually had.

I wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember.  I would set my dolls around my stand up chalk board and teach them the alphabet. By the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to go to college for a degree in teaching. My love of reading, combined with my interest in creative writing, made English education the right choice. Keeseville Central had a day every spring called Student Teacher’s Day.  Those of us who were interested and considered responsible were allowed to take over the classes of the teachers for the entire day.  In both my junior and senior years, I had the opportunity to take over for two of my English teachers.  I spent hours preparing lessons  on Greek and Roman mythology, The Outsiders by S. J. Hinton, and vocabulary.  I absolutely loved this opportunity to play “teacher for a day,” and it confirmed my career path. 

For my first two years at Albany State, I fulfilled several credits taking required courses, including American and English literature survey courses as well as biology, French, and music.  By my junior year, however, I was taking classes that allowed me to learn and participate in the classroom. My methods course required our putting together a unit plan on a specific topic, and my submission on the theme of War and Youth, not only received an A but also was used as a model for several years in the English education department. In my senior year, I finally had a chance to actually teach through my student teaching assignment in a high school in Schenectady, New York.

I thrived in front of a class, and I flourished putting together the lesson plans, the quizzes, the tests.  I spent hours planning and producing the necessary paperwork, but it was worth every minute to implement it. I was rewarded in the end with a five plus out of five score for my student teaching, with my advisor writing in his evaluation that I was a born teacher who was a natural in front of the classroom.

As the graduation date grew near, I started applying for a teaching position.  It was a tough time to get a job; there were not very many openings, and despite excellent evaluation, I couldn’t even get an interview.  In late June, however, a month after graduation, a break came through.  A high school English teacher had handed in his resignation the last day of school as he had decided to start a master’s program, and the principal wanted to fill the position before he left for his summer vacation.  I interviewed for the job and was hired on the spot.  

There was only one difficulty: the teacher I was replacing taught very unusual classes. Along with a standard tenth grade English class, he also taught numerous electives on such topics of supernatural fiction, science fiction, the police state in literature, and the American cinema. Because students had already chosen their courses that spring, I would be responsible for developing and implementing the curricula for the classes.  Over that summer, I read the novels and started creating plans.

The tenth grade students I greeted that first day took the change in teachers in stride, but the juniors and seniors who had signed up for the electives were disappointed to find that their anticipated teacher was gone and instead had a new, young teacher with high ideals and higher expectations.

This challenge was even made more difficult by what I learned from the students.  My predecessor had held seances during the supernatural classes, and the students in the cinema had spent time making movies. The initial comments from many entering my classroom were “Who are you? And what happened to the fun guy?”

I was at a complete loss in the Police State in Literature course:  The books ordered for the class included Brave New World, 1984, and Night. Meanwhile, many of the students were reading two or three years below grade level, certainly way below the level of the novels attached to the course. Especially problematic for me was teaching about the Holocaust. I was one of two Jewish teachers in the entire district in a school district with no Jewish students.

The result was an absolute disaster.  Despite a supportive principal and and supportive faculty, I was in over my head.  I spent every minute out of class working on lesson plans, projects, quizzes, including most weekends, but the plans that had served me so well in Methods and student teaching fell flat.  In addition to my difficulty with the implementation, I also was challenged by maintaining discipline. I was twenty-two years old, highly idealistic, and totally out of tune with those students who lacked motivation and any interest in what I was trying to do.  Although the majority of the students were good, a small group made it a point to see if they could disrupt my class. They talked, they threw spitballs, they refused to participate. It was a horrible year. After spending years dreaming about being a teacher, I realized that nothing I had done in college had ever prepared me to handle a real class, a real job.

By June, I was exhausted, stressed, and seriously wondering if I could learn enough from my first year to handle a second year in the classroom.  But the worst moment of that first year was yet to come.  About three weeks before graduation, yearbooks came in, and students were passing around their own copies for signatures from classmates and from teachers.  Two seniors, the children of highly respected members of the community,  came up to me with their yearbooks. With big smiles on their faces, asked me to autograph my picture. When they handed them to me, I was shocked and stunned to see that they had both drawn swastikas around my picture. I slammed the books shut, refusing to sign and making some comment about how some day they would look back on their yearbooks with shame. I told the principal, who called them in, but I don’t remember  the outcome of that discussion.

I did return in September.  I was more confident, more organized, more prepared, but I found teaching high school an uphill battle, a completely different experience than what I had dreamed.  I left in January, eighteen months after I started, enrolled in University of Albany’s master program in reading, and subsequently got a job teaching adult education.  It was in that scenario that I found my niche; classes were small and individualized, low-key, and I found it easy to relate to adult students, many of them highly motivated and focused in their wish to improve their reading and writing skills and obtain their General Equivalency Diploma (GED).

It has been almost fifty years since I walked out of my first teaching position.  I still think back to that experience and wonder if I could have done more to find a way to hold on until I gained enough experience and maturity to handle the real high school classroom.  I also wonder what happened to those two students who got so much pleasure that day from seeing my face when I saw those hated Nazi symbols next to my picture. Did they forget about it as soon as they graduated? Did their yearbooks land up on a dusty shelf, never to be looked at again?  Or do they occasionally pull out that book like I have done with my own high school yearbook, reminisce over pictures of their friends and their club shots.  Or do they come across my picture and felt regret, embarrassment, and shame? 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York, in the February 27, 2014, issue.