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.

Remembering Mr. Rogers

Mr. Rogers in his iconic zippered sweater.

The murder of eleven Jews while they were observing Shabbat occurred in the heart of  Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood.

The Reverend Fred Rogers and his wife Joanne owned a home and raised their two sons in Squirrel Hill, just two blocks from Tree of Life, the scene of the October 27, 2018, massacre.

Who was Fred Rogers? Why did his former neighbors in this predominantly Jewish section of Pittsburgh turn to Mister Rogers for comfort after the tragedy? And why, seventeen years after his death has he become everyone’s favorite neighbor?

For several months, I had been reading reviews and seeing the trailers for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the biopic starring Tom Hanks. I decided I wanted to learn more about Rogers before I headed to the multiplex.  I borrowed from our library Maxwell King’s biography The Good Neighbor: The Life and Works of Fred Rogers. I found the well-written, thorough account compelling and—well—fascinating. 

I was surprised. To be honest,I had not been a huge fan of the pleasant, bland man in the zippered knitted sweater and blue sneakers. My children frequently watched it when it aired on our local public broadcasting station (PBS). For me, the timing was perfect, as it acted as a calm, caring “baby sitter” as I prepared dinner. Years later, my children had only vague memories of watching the program.

But there was much to learn about the man behind the myth. I read about his difficult, lonely childhood in Latrobe, Pennsylvania; the taunts and bullying he endured (“Here comes Fat Freddy!”), and the respect he earned from his high school classmates through his music and leadership roles. I read about his meeting his wife Joanne at Rollins College, whose beautiful campus in Winter Park, less than an hour from us, has been a favorite place for us to visit.

I learned that Rogers originally planned on a career as a musician. After viewing television’s early programming, (“There were people throwing pies at one another!”) he decided that he wanted to find some “way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen.” And who best to nurture than pre-schoolers?

I learned about his initial television experiences in New York and Toronto first behind the scenes as a puppeteer and later reluctantly as a person in front of the camera. I learned that his interest in public television and the promise of commercial-free programming lead to his move to Pittsburgh to join  the local National Educational Television (changed to Public Broadcasting Corporation [PBS] in 1970) WQED in 1953.

I learned that he had gone back to college in his thirties to complete a divinity degree and was an ordained Presbyterian minister. His lifelong interest in religion and theology expanded to his studying Catholic mysticism, Judaism, Buddhism, and other faiths. Most importantly, I learned that Fred Rogers values were those shared by all religions: civility, tolerance, sharing, and self-worth. Combined with his grandfather’s affirmation to his sickly, over-protected grandchild, “I like you just the way you are,” these principals shaped not only the person but the message he repeatedly emphasized in all 912 episodes of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. 

Despite his saintly, other-worldly demeanor, Rogers—as his wife repeatedly proclaimed—was NOT a saint. He had a temper, was prone to self-doubt and depression. In order to vent after a bad day, he would bang loudly on the piano. In one of my favorite passages in King’s book, Rogers stubbornly refused to give into the demands of PBS executives regarding a small element of the script, and angry words flew. “Tell me,” one of the executives said to the other, “how old do you have to be before Mister Rogers no longer likes you just the way you are?”

Armed with all this knowledge, I recently went to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I was surprised that the script, based on a 1999 Esquire article by Tom Junod, focused less on Tom Hanks’ Fred Rogers character and more on the troubled angry reporter who is assigned to interview the television icon. But I loved the story, the acting, and the cinematography, which included miniature scenery that imitated the colors and scale of the original set.

In one of the tenderest moments in the movie (and based on a real life incident) Fred Rogers was riding on a New York City subway filled mostly African-American and Hispanic children on their way home from school. Rather than approaching him for an autograph, the children quietly began singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the program’s theme song. Soon, the entire car joined in. It brought tears to Mister Rogers’s eyes..and mine.

As noted in both the book and the movie, Rogers had never been afraid to tackle difficult topics for pre-schoolers—the death of a pet, sibling rivalry, divorce, and the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Whether through his well-worn puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe or through his “field trips,” Mister Rogers reassured children that there was good in the world.

The last episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired on August 31, 2001, but he came out of retirement to tape shows focused on the September 11 terrorist attacks. Rogers initially expressed concern that the specials would be of little value but then turned to a basic Jewish tenant to support his decision to go forward. “We all are called to be tikkun olam, repairers of creation,” he said.

On September 11, 2002, he shared his first anniversary message on prime-time.  “I’m just so proud of all of you,” Rogers told his viewers. “And I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead.” Soon after, Fred Rogers was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer and passed away in February 2003.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood continued on PBS as reruns. In 2006, Fred Rogers Productions began the development  Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, an animated children’s television series based on Rogers’s Neighborhood of Make Believe and premiered the show on PBS Kids on September 3, 2012.

Three months later, on December 12, 2012, a 20-year-old  killed 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In the midst of parents trying to explain the inexplicable to their own children. 170 Million American for Public Broadcasting shared on the internet an image of a tiny boy cradling Mister Rogers’s face. It was accompanied a passage from his1983 book, Mister Rogers Talks to Parents: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words.” The image went viral on Facebook, and within three days was shared over 88,000 times.

The “helper” quote went viral again after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, and the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. As Aisha Harris wrote in a 2013 article for Slate, “[The message] serves not only as a comfort to kids, but to adults as well, a reminder to ourselves that there is still much good amid the bad.”

The message was especially poignant for his former neighbors after an anti-Semite gunned down Jewish worshippers on October 17, 2018. The Fred Rogers Center, established at St. Vincent’s College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania under Rogers’ guidance before his death, immediately posted on their Facebook page a message tying the tragedy to Squirrel Hill’s favorite neighbor. “We’re holding Squirrel Hill in our thoughts today. “While we always believe in ‘looking for the helpers,’ we long for a day when there is no more tragedy born from hatred.” 

In an article published soon after in Yahoo news, Karen Struble Meyers, spokesperson for the Center, reflected on the question of what would Mister Rogers say. “Despite the deep grief in neighborhoods across the country, he would encourage us, just as he did after 9/11, to be good neighbors and to help the children in our lives to feel safe. His affirming message about our inherent likability and worth would bring comfort to many.” 

Mister Rogers’s legacy lives on not only through his quotes but also through television, books, movies, DVD’s and the Internet. This summer, my four-year-old granddaughter and I watched her favorite episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood  on You Tube videos and played with the small miniature replicas of the characters. Recently, she and I read A Busy Day in the Neighborhood together via FaceTime. “Daniel Tiger is always doing something new,” she announced. “I just like him.” And then she sang. “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day….” I happily joined in, as I wiped the tears from my eyes.

First published in (Capital Region, New York) Jewish World, December 26, 2019.

Marilyn Unplugged(?)

Marilyn surrounded by her screens

Thanksgiving is over! That means Cyber Monday was not far behind.

The term Cyber Monday was coined in 2005 by Ellen Davis,  the senior vice president of the National Retail Federation Senior Vice President of the National Retail Federation to encourage people to buy on-line. According to Adobe Analytics, Cyber Monday 2018 generated over $7.9 billion in sales, with one of the top sellers spent on smart phones. 

I will be one of those in the market. My iPhone 7, approaching its third year, is losing battery power. And, to be honest, the newer version offers a great camera. But when my cell phone cross the line from being a toy, a luxury, a “nice-to-have-one-but-I-don’t need it” to my constant companion? 

I didn’t feel that way about my first flip phone. In 1999, I talked my husband Larry into purchasing a Nokia 3210, convincing him for its necessity if we were stuck on the Adirondack Northway in a snowstorm. (That never happened.)The first model was followed every couple of years by the newest innovations. I probably misplaced those phones more times than I could count (See my earlier essay on losing things). 

The most notable memory I have of those earlier years of mobile communication was the day it drowned. One minute it was in my front pocket; the next minute I was watching it twirl in the air and land in a toilet. Forget the “stick it in rice” trick. I was too eager to see if I really had killed it and turned it on. Goodbye phone. 

By the time I got my first iPhone in 2014, I was using it—well—unconsciously. On a beautiful fall day, Larry and I went out of donuts and apple turnovers at Lakeside Farms in Ballston Lake. As Larry was putting our food on the table, he said, “Marilyn, put the phone away.” 

“What phone?” I asked.

“The one in your hand that you are playing on.” 

Yes, I had gotten so used to it that it seemed like just an extension of my hand.

And what was I doing on that phone when I should have been focusing on my date with my husband? Email. A latest Facebook post. Whatever.

I had —and have—become one of THEM:  One of the saddest sights I see is  a couple sitting at a table in a restaurant, each looking at their cell phones rather than talking to each other, Even sadder is the sight of a mother and or father looking at their cell phone while their child or children are trying hard to get their attention. “Mommy, Mommy! I have something to tell you!” “In a minute, sweetheart,” And the minute turns into five or ten. 

 I would like to say my attachment to my phone has lessened, but it has only gotten worse. Since the 2016 elections, I added digital subscriptions to the Washington Post  and the New York Times. I have become a 21st century version of my father, who spent hours watching cable television news. My iPhone allows me to check my email—often previewed with “Breaking News” notifications on the lock screen.  And only tonight, as Larry and I drove home from a restaurant, I was on my phone checking the latest on the impeachment hearings. “You have become your father,” Larry said. “On second thought, you are worse than your father!”

Since 2013, my avocation as a writer has only extended my screen time through the hours I spend on my laptop. Yes, much of the time is legitimately researching and writing my articles. (Case in point, I am tapping away on my iMac at 10:30 pm in hopes to get this article to my editors by noon tomorrow!) Bu I also waste a ridiculous amount of time reading emails and news articles, checking my Facebook accounts, and editing my 5000+ photos, and updating  electronic To-Do lists and calendars. 

Not only has my husband pointed out the error of my ways. My daughter has commented on numerous occasion on our visits to Colorado that I need to shut down my electronics.The most revelatory comment came from my sister  after Larry and I visited her and her fiancé last spring. “What I will remember most about this trip,” she said, “was the amount of time you spent on your cell phone.”

It is time for me  to take the advice of Tiffany Shlain, American filmmaker, author, and Internet pioneer. In 2008, Shlain’s father, Leonard, a surgeon, was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer. Recognizing the need to spend quality, undistracted time with him Shlain made a point to turn off her cell phone during her too short visits with him .

Soon after her father died, her daughter was born, and Shlain and her husband Ken Goldberg, decided to  extend the idea to a “Technology Shabbat,” a full day without screen use. Following the tradition and principals of their “close-knit Jewish family,”  they made the decision to turn  off all screens from Friday night through Saturday night, a commitment they have kept as a family since 2010. 

“The digital revolution has blurred the lines between time on and time off, and time off is disappearing,” she wrote in an August 11, 2019, article for The Boston Globe. “As for our leisure time, we’ve created a culture in which we’re still ‘working’ while we play: needing to photograph every moment, then crafting witty posts of our ‘fun, relaxing activities’ on Instagram, then obsessively checking responses. We can barely catch our breath in the tsunami of personal and work digital input, which results in us not being truly present for any of it.”

Shlain has published several articles and also has incorporated these themes in some of her films. In September,  she released 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day Week, a non-fiction account that according to the Amazon website “explores how turning off screens one day a week can work wonders on your brain, body, and soul.”

So, yes, I still want that new, improved iPhone for Chanukah. But  on Friday, December 27, before we go to our Chanukah Shabbat celebration at our synagogue, I will turn off new technological wonder, along my computer, my Echo Show and dots (Sorry, Alexa!),  and, hopefully unless Syracuse University has a  basketball game, even the television. And I will sit in my quiet house and read 24/6 to learn how we can create a “tech shabbat” in our own home.

Say Yes to the [Wrong] Dress!!

Our son Adam had his first date with Sarah on December 25, 2018. They got engaged on June 23. By the time my husband Larry and I met Carol and Dick, Sarah’s parents, in August, they had the rabbi, the October date, the venue, the DJ, and the photographer all lined up. All that was left to do was for them to send out the invitations and for all of us to figure out what we would be wearing. 

In August, Sarah found a beautiful long sleeve white lace dress. At the same store, Carol and Sarah’s sister Molly found their dresses; a long gold brocade for Carol and and a black off-the shoulder top with a lovely flowered patterned for Molly. Julie purchased a beautiful teal green dress on E-Bay, the same place she had found her wedding dress twelve years before. 

When Sarah and Adam asked our granddaughter to be flower girl, The Frisco Kid was thrilled—and prepared. “I will wear my Elsa dress” she announced. My daughter Julie gently explained that rather than her Frozen costume, Mommy would be buying her a special dress for her important role in the wedding. “Okay,” she said. “I will save the Elsa dress for MY wedding!”

Like my granddaughter, I originally planned on wearing a dress I already owned. I had purchased a cocktail dress the previous December for our community’s Shalom Club Ball.It was my favorite color—midnight blue—, and the v-necked sleeveless design fell perfectly on mid-knee. When I shared my decision with my maj jongg group, they objected.

“Your son only gets married once,” said Sharon, who led the charge. “You have been waiting a very long time for this! Get a new dress!”

Soon after this discussion, Larry and I celebrated our 45th anniversary by going out to dinner at a restaurant in one of Orlando’s largest shopping center. I suggested to Larry that we leave early so that we could look at suits for him(Adam and my son-in-law Sam had  already  purchased new suits) and at dresses for me. 

When we perused the men’s department at Macy’s, Larry refused to even try on a suit.”I don’t need a new one,” he said. “The one I have in the closet is fine.” His only concession was to agree to have a tailor remove the pants’ cuffs, definitely no longer in style.

I had better luck—or maybe a better attitude—in the women’s department. After several fails, I tried on a more sophisticated version of the midnight blue dress I had worn to the Shalom Club Ball. Sleeveless with a diagonal neck line, it had a beautiful silver broach on the right side. The saleslady who was helping me agreed with me that was perfect for the evening event. She suggested it would look even better if I also invested in some (expensive) shapewear that would smooth out some of my bumps and lumps. As the chances of losing twenty pounds by the wedding were slim, I agreed. Okay, the dress wasn’t a Size 10, but when I pulled the whole thing together— I looked pretty amazing, and Larry agreed. 

I asked the salesperson to snap a picture on my iPhone, which I sent to my mah jongg group. Within minutes, my phone was dinging like crazy. 

“Yay! You are going to look gorgeousssss!”

“You are one SEXY MAMA don’t play safe go for bold n sexy!”

“You go girl!”

Then the text messages took on a life of its own, where I became to topic of discussion.”She needs shoes to match the dress.”

“[Hair] updo would make it look better.”

“She needs new makeup.”

This discussion continued the following Friday at Mah Jongg. One by one, my “fairy godsisters”:helped me accessorize by shopping in their closets. Beautiful silver sandals. A glittery handbag. A midnight blue bracelet. “Sapphire” hanging earrings.

They had one more suggestion—a trip to Sephora. After a first class make-over, I dropped over $100 on makeup, including foundation, blush, and an eye shadow palette with some silver glitter. I was set!

I wasn’t going to risk a chance of losing the outfit on our flight out to San Francisco. So three days before we left, I packed everything I needed in my carry-on. I carefully placed the plastic clothing bag protecting the dress on top of the shoes, handbag and undergarments. Fortunately, there were no flight problems on our way out, and I hung the entire outfit in our hotel room closet.

That evening, Larry and I met Adam and Sarah for dinner. To our surprise, Sarah showed us Wedding Dress Number Two. She felt the simple white sheath reflected more of her personality than the original Seventies-design.

The days leading up to the wedding were a whirlwind of total happiness and joy. Friends and relatives flew in from around the country. Many took advantage of the beautiful weather and the San Francisco location to tour the area. The night before the wedding, Larry and I hosted a welcome dinner at Sarah’s parents’ home,

The morning of the wedding, my siblings and I took a bus tour of San Francisco while Larry and Adam had professional shaves. We all got back to the hotel in plenty of time to get ready. I put on my new make up, spent a little more time on my hair, slipped on my shape wear, buckled up my beautiful silver sandals, put on my sapphire earrings and bracelet, took the dress out of the plastic bag, and slipped it over my head.

“Larry, would you please zip me up?”

Larry finished knotting his tie and turned his attention to me.

“Marilyn, that is NOT the dress you bought for the wedding,” Larry said. “That is the Shalom Club Ball dress.”

I looked in the mirror. He was right. After all that, I had packed the WRONG dress. Not the dress I bought for the wedding and had spent three weeks accessorizing. Nope, it was the dress I originally was going to wear.

“I can’t believe I brought the wrong dress!” I cried. “I can’t believe I brought the wrong dress!”

In ten minutes, the Uber was coming to pick us up. There was no way in the world I could fly back to Florida and grab the right one. I shook my head and accepted the inevitable.

“I guess I will be wearing this dress to the wedding!” Fortunately, both were midnight blue with silver accents. The only touch needed  was a necklace to fit into the v-neck of the dress. Fortunately, my niece Laura had brought a sapphire and diamond necklace on a silver chain. Perfect!

When Larry and I arrived the wedding venue, we saw Sarah in her beautiful Wedding Dress Number Two and Adam in his new suit. Soon after, Carol and Dick came into the restaurant. Rather than wearing the dress she had purchased in August, Carol decided to wear the dress her own mother had worn at Carol and Dick’s wedding 48 years before.. 

Julie, Sam, and The Frisco Kid came in next. My granddaughter looked like a fairy princess in her pink and white flower girl dress and flower garland.”The only people wearing their first choices were Julie and Molly.  and the rest of the men, including Larry, whose old suit was perfect for the occasion.

To say the wedding was special is the understatement of the year. I may have brought the “wrong” dress, but Adam had married the right person—a smart, caring ,independent woman who was beautiful inside and out. And, in the end, that is all that matters.

First published in (Capital Region, New York) Jewish World October 31, 2019

An Unsung Hero Rescued by Three Teenagers

Before leaving for Colorado in 2017, my husband Larry was checking our packed bookcase for something to read during our week’s stay. He walked into the kitchen holding Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project. 

“Have you read it?” Larry asked.

“I don’t even remember having it,” I responded. 

Larry opened the front cover and found a note from Cindy Smith, a friend of ours from Clifton Park who had moved to Arizona several years before. 

“Thought you would enjoy this,” the note read. “My daughter Heather is good friends with Megan Stewart, one of the people in the book.”

“You HAVE to read this book, Marilyn!” Larry repeated both on the plane and on quiet moments in Frisco. I complied, and I soon was as enraptured as Larry. As schools and colleges across the country open, the story within  a story of a high school project that brought world recognition to a virtually unknown Holocaust heroine is worthy of retelling. 

In September 1999, Norm Conard, a high school social studies teacher in the small rural community of Uniontown, Kansas, encouraged his students to participate in an extracurricular project for the annual National History Day event. Conard gave a ninth grader, Elizabeth “Liz” Cambers, a folder with a clipping from a March 1994 issue of the US News and World Report entitled “The Other Schindler.” Circled in red ink were few paragraph about Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker. “She gave nearly 2,500 children new identities, and buried their real names for safekeeping,” read the first paragraph. The article outlined how the Polish social worker successfully smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto and to safety. When Cambers asked Conard if Sendler was famous, the teacher said that he had never heard of her.”You could check it out,” said Conard. “Unsung heroes. Anyone can change the world, even you.”

Cambers was intrigued and decided to use the snippet of information as a springboard for a National History Day project. Conard recruited two other students to work with her: classmate Megan Stewart, and an eleventh grader Sabrina Coons. Their research in the upcoming weeks included information from The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR) and first-hand accounts from Holocaust survivors in the Kansas City area who were willing to share their stories. The team decided that they could best represent Sendler’s story in the form of a ten minute play, which they called Life in a Jar, depicting scenes of Sendler interacting with the captives in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Over the course of the next three months, the team learned more of Sendler’s story. Most Polish gentiles did little in 1940 when Hitler herded 500,000 Polish Jews behind the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto while awaiting liquidation. Sendler, a Roman Catholic, mange to obtain a permit through her job as a social worker to enter the ghetto on the pretense to look for signs of typhus. Shocked by the deplorable condition, Sendler joined ZEGOTA, an underground group dedicated to helping the Jews. Realizing the inevitable tragedy unfolding, she persuaded parents and grandparents to allow her to bring children to safety. 

Sendler and others in the network took babies and children past the Nazi guards using many means of escape—smuggling them out in carpenter’s boxes, coffins, and ambulance, Once the children were outside the ghetto, she set up adoptions in the homes of Gentile Polish families or hideaways in convents and orphans. In order to keep track of the children, she and her network made lists of the children’s real names, put them in glass jars, and buried them in her garden. 

The three teenagers’ research stopped short of finding out what had happened to Sendler. Through the JFR, they learned that a son lived in Warsaw but letters to him went unanswered. Efforts to find Sendler’s burial place were futile as well. 

In late January 2000, the three teens performed a well-received dress rehearsal in Uniontown. Soon after, the JRF: shared stunning news. Sendler was alive and living in Warsaw, Poland.The girls immediately wrote a letter to the address given describing their play, asking several questions, and sharing their admiration for her courage. “You are one of the great women of the past century,” they wrote.

In February 2000, Mr. Conard and the three girls drove to Columbus, Kansas, for the state competition, where Life in a Jar won first prize in the performance category. News of the play spread rapidly, and they were swamped with numerous requests to perform throughout Kansas. 

Soon after,Sendler responded in Polish to their initial letter. With the help of a translator, they were able to understand in her own words why y she pursued the dangerous undertaking.  “During the war, the entire Polish nation was drowning but the most tragically drowning were Jews,” Sendler had written. “For that reason, helping those who were most oppressed was the need of my heart.” 

Further correspondences unlocked the other missing pieces of the story. In April 1943, Sendler was captured by the Nazis, severely beaten, and sentenced to death. However, the Polish underground bribed a guard at Pawiak Prison to release her, and she went into hiding until the war ended. Sendler subsequently married and had three children, one who had died in infancy.Ironically, her son Adam had died of a heart attack on September 23, 1999, the exact day that Mr. Conard had handed the original folder to Cambers. 

Under the “long shadow of Communism,” almost all references to the Holocaust were buried. In 1991, when the Iron Curtain fell, public recognition of the tragedy and celebration of the rescuers was stymied “by another kind of occupation,” the resurgence of anti-Semitism. Sendler’s story, like the jars with the names of the rescued children, had been buried until the high school students uncovered it.

Cunard and the three teens traveled to Washington DC in June 2000 for the national competition. Although Life in a Jar did not win a prize, the project had already taken on a life of its own. “This is way beyond National History Day,” said Dr. Cathy Gorn, Executive Director of National History Day, soon after the awards were given “You started out as students of history and you’ve become agents of history.” 

Immediately following competition, the group was invited to New York City, where they performed in front of an emotional audience of JRF board members, staff, and Holocaust survivors. “You tell a simple story,—a simple and dramatic story,” said one survivor, “that tells a simple and dramatic truth.”

When they returned to Uniontown, the group received requests to perform their play from groups throughout the United States. It was at one of their presentation that they encountered a miracle: John Shuchart, a local businessman, was so impressed with their performance that within two days he had raised the money for the group to go to Poland to perform the play in front of Sendler. 

In May 2001, the three teens and five adults flew to Warsaw.  Throughout their visit—during their numerous tours, interviews, and meetings with international press and public and private groups, Cambers, Stewart and Coons, were treated as “rock stars.” The highlight, of course, was their emotional meetings with Irena Sendler in her small Warsaw apartment. “You are our hero—our role model,” Conard said in a toast. “We will carry on your mission—your deep commitment to respect for all people. L’Chaim!”

The group made five more trips to Warsaw before Sendler passed away on May 12, 2008. In April 2008, Hallmark Hall of Fame released a movie version of Sendler’s life. Jack Mayer’s book was released in 2010 and was listed as one of the top ten Holocaust books for The Life in a Jar students continue to share her legacy through the play, the www.irenasendler.org web site, through schools and study guides, and world media. Founders and original performers.  Liz Cambers-Hutton and Sabrina Coons-Murphy still participate in the project when possible. Megan Stewart Felt works as director of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, which works with students and educators across diverse academic disciplines to develop history projects that highlight role models who demonstrate courage, compassion and respect. 

Professor Michael Glowinski, who had been rescued by Sendler when he was eight, summarized the feelings of all who had been touched by the Righteous Gentile. “Now you girls—you are rescuing Irena’s story for the world. You rescued the rescuer.”

First published in the (Orlando) Heritage Florida Jewish News, September 6, 2019

This Bibliophile LOVES Libraries!!

Marilyn surrounded by one of her favorite things….books.

Recently, my husband Larry and I saw The Public. We knew little about the movie when we joined a sparsely filled ballroom in our community. By the time the end credits rolled, however, the two of us as well as others in the audience agreed it was one of the best movies of which we had never heard.

Written, directed, and starring Emilio Estevez, the plot centered on a fictionalized account of an act of civil disobedience that turns into a standoff with police when homeless people in Cincinnati take over the public library to seek shelter from the bitter cold. Sweet, interesting, and well-acted, the movie had not garnered much praise or hype, but it gave a compassion view of the homeless. More importantly, it was Estevez’s love letter to public libraries. The camera often captured not only the beauty of the building but also the beauty of literature, with views of large posters of Thoreau and Frederick Douglas and Jane Austin prominently displayed. 

My own love of libraries started when I was five years old. When the books in our house weren’t enough, I walked to the small but well-stocked red brick building around the corner from our house in Keeseville. An early and voracious reader, I once did two trips to the library in one day to replace the picture books I had taken from the six foot shelf and finished in an hour. On my third trip, the librarian told me that I needed to read “bigger books” and walked me to the bookshelf that backed up to Cat in the Hat and Curious George. Embarrassed but intrigued,I soon fell in love with classics by such writers as E.B. White, Marguerite De Angeli, and Beverly Cleary. When I was thirteen, my father introduced me to Ed McBain and the 87th Precinct, and took out one a week, along with other popular fiction. That little brick building remains as one of my favorite places from my hometown.

By the time I went to college, the library became a source of research and studious solitude. Whether exploring the shelves or figuring out how to thread the microfiche into the machines, I used the library throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, conscientiously detailing my information on 3X5 index cards. In those days before computers, I also spent hours painstakingly typing in the source information into footnotes on the bottom of the white paper I had rolled into my Smith Corona.

When Larry and I purchased our first home in Clifton Park, I signed up for my first card in the library that was housed in an old schoolhouse provided in 1971 by the local school district for $1 a year. It looked and smelled like my old haunt in Keeseville. I was a little sad when the town built a newer but more institutional-like building a few miles away.

 As a child, I had been told that when it came to food, my eyes were bigger than my stomach. When it came to books, my eyes were bigger than my brain. With the new library’s increased size and volume, I started on a habit that I continue to this day, often taking out eight to ten items at a time. Fiction, non-fiction, DVD’s, tapes, magazines…whatever the library had to offer went into a huge tote bag I brought with me for that purpose. I also took care of Larry’s love for non-fiction, bringing him home books by David McCullough and Walter Issacson.

By that time, our children Adam and Julie were born, the tote bag also held children’s books. As a rite of passage, got their first library card as soon as they could sign their names. 

By the early eighties, I was debating whether to return to work or return to college for a master’s in Jewish Women’s Studies. After viewing the cost and the time, I decided to go the independent studies route. The wonderful librarians filled my requests for numerous books both on the shelves and available in area public and college libraries. I immersed myself in everything from Susan Brownmiller to Betty Friedan to Anzia Yezierska.When I finally returned to the classroom in 1986, I continued using resources from our local library to keep up with their ideas.

Sometimes, the library provided us withTMI—too much information. In high school, Julie did a research paper on Charles Dodgson, better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll, an English author most well known for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. Uncovering Dodgson history, which included a complicated relationship with the child Alice Liddell, who served as a basis for his most famous character, as well as his photographs of half nude children. In retrospect, Carroll is viewed as “a man you wouldn’t want your kids to meet.” 

In 2006, Shenendehowa opened up a beautiful new library almost triple in size of its previous facility. I visited the library at least once a week, carting home bags of books, magazines, and dvd. As many other town residents, I attended authors’ lectures, concerts, and special events, including a Holocaust Remembrance. 

When we moved to Kissimmee in 2015, Larry and I signed up for a library card even before all our boxes were unpacked. The Osceola library branch on Doverplum reminds me of the one story structure that Clifton Park built in the 90’s. Yes, t is smaller, but the librarians and its expansive website keep me in between the covers of enough books for me to satisfy my book addiction for the next hundred years.

Meanwhile, empty nesters since 2001, Larry and I travel more frequently. On one trip to Jamaica, I packed seven books for the seven day stay. Larry (and Larry’s back) protested. Soon after, I found out that the library had an extensive ebook collection. I now was able to travel with more books than I could ever read in one week on a device weighing less than 8 ounces. Although I still love the feel of a real book, I am grateful I have an alternative for travel (and reading in bed with the lights off). And through the miracles of the internet, I am now able to manage my account electronically, including my holds, loans, renewals, and all e-book downloads.

Not that we never buy books. I am a firm believer in independent bookstores, and I force Larry into everyone I see. We hit four in four cities in a recent trip in Alaska, and I visit The Next Page, a wonderful community resource in Frisco, Colorado. Each time my need to support these stores often wins over the need to stop stuffing our bookshelves. 

Thankfully, the easy access to libraries throughout my life has helped our pocketbooks. According to according to a 2018 study by Pew Research, the average hardcover book retails for an average of $27.50. As my yearly goal is to read 100 books, I save $2750 a year using my library, and that doesn’t even include the price of magazines and DVDs!

In The Public, the Jeffery Wright character states, just before he joins the standoff with the homeless, “The public library is the last bastion of democracy that we have in this country!” The American Library Association agrees. “Libraries ensure people have access to information and lifelong learning regardless of age, education, ethnicity, gender, language, income, physical limitations or geographic barriers,” states their website.  “With over 17,000 library buildings and bookmobiles in communities, public libraries are essential community institutions that deliver the resources their communities need to thrive.” Libraries have helped me and my family thrive, and I, like the characters in The Public, will continue to support them. 

First published in (Capital Region NY)Jewish World, October 17, 2019

A High Holiday Romance–or Two

The High Holidays are a special time, but it is even more special when family—and a little romance—are part of the season. 

In 1951, Larry’s father Ernie, a World War II veteran, was called back into the US Army. Larry’s mother Doris, along with Larry and Larry’s older sister Anita, moved from Schuylerville, New York,to Syracuse,  her hometown, to live with her mother Rose and brother Asher during Ernie’s deployment. 

Larry, who turned three shortly after their move, remembers riding the family coal truck with Asher and tagging along with Bubbie when she went to her card games. Relatives and friends, filled the house, including meal times, as Bubbie was a wonderful and plentiful cook. 

This was especially true during the Jewish holidays, a tradition that continued after Ernie returned home. Doris, Ernie, Anita, Larry, and later Marilyn and Carole would pile into the car before each holiday to share huge meals around a crammed dining room table in the flat on Jackson Street.

By the time Larry had completed his bar mitzvah, Bubbie Rose found making the huge dinners for the entire family for High Holidays was too much. Doris took over responsibility for not only the meals but also for opening up her house to friends and family. Doris spent weeks preparing the food, and the table showed it. Matzah ball soup, chopped liver, brisket, chicken, kishki, potatoes, kugels, several vegetables, honey cakes—it was a feast that was repeated on the evening before Kol Nidre. Then Doris would outdo herself with the Break Fast.

The 1973 High Holiday season especially stands out for Larry and me. In March 1973, Larry and I met at Jewish singles Purim party. We both knew fairly quickly that the connection we made over hamantaschen was special. We dated throughout the summer, and six months after our Purim meeting, we were both ready to commit. On a beautiful day Indian summer day. Larry took me to  romantic overlook at the Saratoga National Battlefield. As he was about to pop the question, he got stung by a bee. Man plans; bees sting. Oh well! Larry felt terrible, but I was clueless. 

Rosh Hashanah fell only a few days after the bee debacle. Larry and I turned down offers for a ride home from services. While walking home, Larry talked hypothetically about where we would live, how many children we’d like, our future dreams together. I finally kiddingly asked him if this was a proposal. He said “Soon.”

When we got to Larry’s house, we said hello to the family who were about to sit down for dinner. Larry and I went into a bedroom to drop off Larry’s tallit and my purse. Larry said, “Will you marry me?” I said yes. We started to kiss when Corky, the Shapiro’s wire haired terrier, jumped up and licked my face.

As I wiped Corky’s saliva from my lips, Larry and I made a pact: We would keep our engagement a secret until after the holidays. Larry’s father’s birthday was on Yom Kippur. We would announce our engagement at the Break Fast.

The next week  went by slowly, especially for me, who wanted to shout our news from the rooftops. After Yom Kippur services ended, Larry and I called my parents to tell them of our engagement. We then sat down with Larry’s family for-the-Break Fast dinner.

We brought out dessert and birthday cake. Ernie blew out the candles and opened a couple of presents. Then Larry was ready for our big announcement.

“Dad, I have a present for you too!”

“What?” said one of his sisters. “Another stupid tie?”

“No,” said Larry. “I am giving you a new daughter-in-law. Marilyn and I are engaged!” Everyone was thrilled. My now future father-in-law regarded it as one of his best presents ever. 

Larry and I were married on September 8, 1974. A few weeks later, we attended High Holiday Services with Larry’s family. After the last shofar blast we went back to the Shapiros  for their annual dinners, a tradition we maintained for almost twenty wonderful years. 

When Larry’s parents passed away only eight months apart in 1994, Larry and I hosted a Rosh Hashanah dinner at our home in Upstate New York for over twenty years until our move to Florida. Since our move so far from family, we have shared Rosh Hashanah dinners with our friends at each other’s homes. and our Break Fast with our fellow worshippers in the synagogue.

This year, the High Holidays are about creating new memories and celebrating another romance.  On a visit from his home in San Francisco this past January, our usually reserved son told us that he was “kinda sorta seeing someone,” a woman whom he had taken out for Chinese food on December 25. As Larry and I had similarly experienced many years before, Sarah and Adam both knew fairly quickly that the connection they had made over fortune cookies was special.They dated throughout the winter, and only six months after their Asian dinner, they were both  ready to commit. On a beautiful summer’s evening, Adam took Sarah to a romantic overlook in Bernal Heights. Fortunately, no bees ruined their moment. Adam proposed. Sarah accepted! They were engaged!

Adam and Sarah will be getting married in San Francisco in October 2019,on the same day as the 46th anniversary of the day Larry and I announced our engagement and what would have been Ernie’s 100th birthday. Life has come full circle. 

After the wedding, Larry and I will remain in San Francisco to attend Yom Kippur services with Sarah, Adam, andSarah’s parents. The six of us will share a pew in the synagogue. After the last shofar blast, we will all go back to Sarah’s parents’ house for their annual Break Fast, an event that will include Sarah’s Grandma Minnie’s blintzes. “As we prepare for this time of reflection, renewal and rebooting of our spiritual lives,” read their invitation, “ we wish you L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevuh!” And we wish our newlyweds much health, love, and happiness. 

My Zayde by Francis Cohen


My mother Frances Cohen with her brother Eli circa 1922.

In honor of what would have been my mother’s 102 birthday on September 1, I am sharing with you, my readers, one of her wonderful stories.

I was around four years old when Zayde (Jewish for Grandpa) came to live my parents, my brother, Eli, and me. 

Life had been difficult for my Zayde. His first wife died giving birth to my father Joseph. When she died, she also left a beautiful red haired five-year-old daughter Becky. Zayde could not raise two young children alone, so shortly after his beloved wife died, he remarried as he needed someone to take care of the children. His new wife was cruel to the children, and he divorced her. He remarried a third time to a woman who raised the children as her own. 

When Becky was twenty years old, Zayde brought Becky to American. He arranged with a matchmaker to get her a husband, and then returned to Europe. Soon after, when my father was fifteen years old, Zayde sent him to America to live with Becky and her husband Louis. My father worked in the garment district as a tailor, married my mother Ethel. 

In 1921, the war had ended in Europe, and the Germans had ravished the village of Ragola in Lithuania. Zayde wanted to leave to come to America to be with his grown children, and he begged his third wife to leave. She didn’t want to go, so Zayde came to America alone. He sent money to her for the rest of his life but could never persuade her to come to New York. 

When Zayde arrived in New York, my parents, my brother and I were living in a crowded three-room apartment that shared a bathroom with four people in the next apartment. Soon Zayde began giving Hebrew lessons, and he was able to contribute to the household. 

Despite the further crowding, I loved having my Zayde living with us. As soon as Zayde arrived, Zayde and I became very close. He adored me, and I loved him. He kept telling me that I reminded him of his first wife, the love of his life. 

Zayde soon found out what the rest of the family knew:  Becky’s marriage wasn’t a happy one. Becky had had several miscarriages, but she and her husband Louis never had any children. Louis blamed Becky and treated her terribly. Louis was also a show-off. They had a nice apartment and dressed nicely, but he never gave Becky enough money for food. He said, “The stomach has no windows. No one can tell you what you eat.”

Zayde and my parents felt very sorry for Becky. Besides having no children and a bad marriage, Becky felt guilty that her husband would not let Zayde live with them, even though they had a larger apartment than my parents did. Louis was so selfish that he would not even allow Becky to have her father over for dinner. Becky’s only option was to visit us to see her father.

When I was eight years old, Zayde took me to the Bowery Saving Bank and opened a trust fund for me with $700 he had saved for this purpose. He told me, “A girl has to have a dowry.” Here was an immigrant who could not speak English but was very smart. 

Four years later, in 1929, my Zayde died. I was devastated, and I couldn’t stop crying. My Auth Beau, my mother’s sister, set me straight. “I know how much you loved your grandfather. However, he was an old man and very sick. He was very frail and almost blind. Your mother had to take care of him around the clock. It was a blessing for him and your mother that he passed away.” I accepted his death but never forgot how good he was to me, his shayna maidelah (beautiful girl).

After Zayde passed away, my mother and father kept in touch with Becky and continued to invite her to our home. My mother tried to send me to visit Becky while Louis  was not home, but he caught me just as I was leaving, yelled loudly for me to get out, and I never went back to my aunt’s apartment again. 

When I was married in 1940, I took $500 out of the trust fund my Zayde had established for me and purchased furniture for our first apartment, including a maple bedroom set and maple furniture for our living and dining rooms. A few years later, the remaining money was used as the down payment on our first house. 

My Zayde’s legacy lives on through his great grand children. All of the children have at least one of the pieces of furniture we purchased with my Zayde’s trust fund in their home. The maple bedroom set, which moved with us our entire marriage, eventually settled in our bedroom in our cottage in Lake Champlain. My son Jay and his wife Leslie, who purchased the cottage in 2000, now have the set. Marilyn and Larry have a table and a bookcase in their home in Florida.

And Becky? Louis died two years before Becky, and at that time it was found that he had a condition that had prevented him from ever having children. After all those years of abusing my poor aunt, he was the one who was to blame. Two years later, my aunt died of cancer, and problems created by the multiple miscarriages. My only regret is that I did not spend more time with Becky.