Category Archives: Faith

Storm lover wakes up to the realization that life is fragile

Eli Helfand 1919-2019

When I was six years old, I loved summer storms. As the sky turned dark, the thunder clapped, and the lighting shot across the sky, I would watch from the safety of our living room window. My mother assured me that the noise was just God bowling.

When I was sixteen, I loved summer storms. By that time, my parents had purchased a cottage on Willsboro Bay in Upstate New York  From the safety of our porch,  I would watch the rain come down in sheets and the waves rock our boat that was moored 200 yards off shore. 

When we moved to Florida, I still loved summer storms. But I soon learned to respect their intensity and duration. Our state has as many as 100 stormy days a year, and our climate means that these storms can happen any month of the year. Florida also has be dubious honor of being the lightning capital of the United States. I have been witness to their fury again and again from the safety of our lanai. And on several occasions, I have had to take shelter quickly as the weather changed too quickly for me to realize what was coming. 

But now, almost five years after our move, I now see these storms as a reminder as to how fragile our lives can be.

Last July, on what started out to be a beautiful July day a group of fellow residents were playing golf on the course in our 55+ community, Very suddenly, the sky darkened as huge black clouds moved in. The golfers, all seasoned Florida residents, knew what to do. They abandoned their game and headed for their golf carts and shelter. 

It was too late. A bolt of lightning struck two of the men. One was thrown to the ground, shaken but okay. The second person was struck full force, and the electric travelled through his body. By the time he was brought the the hospital, he was brain dead. The doctors kept him on life support long enough for his devastated wife and children to say their good byes. 

What are the chances of getting hit by lightning? According to Wikipedia, it is one in 700,000. For my neighbor, the odds were 1:1. 

What happened that fateful morning? Did they give each other a kiss before he headed out the door? And what were their last words to one another. “I love you! See you later.”Or was their conversation ordinary and mundane. “We need to pick up some milk” or “The Red Sox are playing the Yankees tonight.” Or were their last words those that she regretted? “You promised you would fix  that leaky faucet!”

I am 69, and my husband Larry is 71. The specter of death hangs over us a little more heavily than it did twenty—or even ten—years ago. Friends die suddenly from heart attacks or slowly from cancer. No matter, their loss is sad. 

Sad, but not tragic. To me,”tragic” is the death of a 31-year-old daughter to leukemia. Tragic is losing a nineteen year old granddaughter to a car accident on a rainy night one block from her home. Tragic is losing a sixteen year old grandson who had been severely disabled since he was a baby. And tragic is losing a husband from—literally— a bolt out of the blue. 

“Biz hundert un tzvantsig!” (May you live to 120!”) is  a popular Jewish blessing for a long healthy life. Each loss, whether the number of years were short or long, whether their death was sad or tragic, is my personal reminder to treat each moment with gratitude. “Life is so transient and ephemeral; we will not be here after a breath,” said Dr. Debasish Mridha,  an American physician and philosopher. “So think better, think deeply, think with kindness, and write it with love so that it may live a little longer.” 

Some of us are fortunate enough to live a great deal longer.My mother’s first cousin Eli Helfand passed away last April, three months after his 100th birthday. A World War II veteran and a graduate of Clarkson College, Eli spent almost all his working life in Richfield Springs, New York, where he owned and operated Ruby’s Department Store. He had two wonderful marriages, raised four strong, independent children, and got to enjoy his five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. 

What I remember most about my cousin Eli are our strong family connections. During the Depression, when his parents were struggling to get their Upstate New York store afloat, Eli spent summers and school vacations with my mother and her family in New York City. He introduced my parents and served as best man at their wedding. Eli drove the car that the newlyweds took from the city to Alburgh, Vermont. Mom shared the front seat with Eli’s mother Rose while my father sat in the back seat with all the wedding presents, including a floor lamp that Bill had to hold for the eight hour trip. My parents remained close to Eli and Florence, who attended my parents’ 60th anniversary. When Florence passed away and Eli remarried, he and Marty became an integral part of not only my parents’ life but also of mine. We visited them at their homes in Otsego County in New York as well as their retirement home in in Englewood, Florida. 

Eli and I share another close connection. His daughter Marsha and I are only weeks apart in age.  We spent time with each other as children as well as our four years as students at University at Albany. We have attended each other’s weddings as well as those of our children. 

In August, 1962, I spent a week with Marsha and her family at their cottage on Canadarago Lake. We played and replayed Ray Steven’s (what now would be considered politically incorrect)song about Ahab, “the sheik in the golden sand.” We baked cookies. We went swimming and boating. And when the storm clouds moved in, we ran back inside. From the porch windows, we watched the lightning flash across the sky and listened to the thunder echo off the surrounding hills. We turned the Ray Stevens second back on and danced around the living room in our bare feet. We were safe in the childhood belief t that life would treat us kind and that we would  live forever—or at least for one hundred twenty years. 

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.