Category Archives: Faith and Family

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!

Holocaust Stories Needed!

“You really need to talk to Harry.”

My friend Marilyn Glaser gave me this advice before one of our Friday night Shabbat services in our Florida synagogue. I was aware that Harry Lowenstein was a Holocaust survivor. But Marilyn, the shul president, knew I was a writer, and she knew his story needed to be preserved.

By this time, I had been writing for the (Capital Region, NY) Jewish World for over four years. The majority of my stories had been about my family: growing up in a small North Country town in New York; meeting my husband in 1973 to learning to live with him after our retirement in 2010; raising two children; moving to “The Sunshine State” in 2015. Up until that point, I had not tackled biographies. Fortunately, Harry was a willing story teller.

 As I sat at his kitchen table, I was riveted by his description of four years of hell, first in a ghetto and then in Nazi concentration camps. After liberation, Harry returned home to find that every one of his relatives had been murdered by the Nazis. He eventually made it to the United States, married Carol Sainker, raised three children, and owned and operated a clothing store in Kissimmee. Meanwhile, he was determined to carry on his family’s legacy. “I saw a synagogue burn,” said Harry, “and I was determined to build another one.” With the contributions from friends and fellow Holocaust survivors, the Lowensteins raised enough money to build our synagogue.

After Harry’s story was published, my writing became more diversified. I was still writing my sometimes funny, sometimes poignant family stories, but I also took pleasure from interviewing what I referred to as “ordinary people with extraordinary lives.” A woman who has raised over $150,000 for cancer research after losing her 32 year old daughter to leukemia. A man whose introduction to a doomed ship as a boy resulted in his becoming a “Titanic fanatic;” a group of former Catskill workers celebrating a reunion.

But the stories that moved me the most were about who lived through—or died in—World War II. Jewish soldiers. Concentration survivors who were haunted with their memories until their passing. Righteous gentiles who had rescued others from the horrors. 

I have never been shy about my retirement avocation and never fail to tell friends and strangers I am a writer. This summer, I shared this information with Eva Nozik, who was visiting Summit County, Colorado. 

“My aunt, Golda Goldin Gelfer, who recently passed away, was a Holocaust survivor,”Eva said.”You need to talk to her children.” 

She set up a Zoom call with Anna Livits and Sofia Zukerman, Golda’s two daughters, and other members of the Goldin family. The Nazis, they told me, invaded Glusk, Belarus, on June 22, 1942, Golda’s 14th birthday. Six months later, Germans and local supporters rounded up and murdered over 1000 Jews, including Golda’s mother Elke and her two sisters, Chaisoshe (19) and Malka (8). Golda and her father Meir escaped certain death by hiding in an attic and eventually finding their way into the forest. The two soon joined Soviet partisans in their efforts to sabotage the Nazi offensive until Belarussian liberation on July 4, 1944. Several revisions (and many nightmares about the Holocaust) later, it was finished and ready The Jewish World’s next issue.

Even before it was published,, Anna expressed her gratitude. “I don’t have enough words to thank you for the work you have done,”she wrote me in a December 13 email. “I had a dream today that my mom was smiling. It’s like  she was in peace that we remember her family, Elke, Chaisoshe, and Malka.”

The descendants of Meir and Elke Goldin have more stories to tell. They are eager to recount Golda’s time in the woods, her life in the Soviet Union after the war, her move with her children to the United States. They also want me to connect with the son of a cousin who survived “murder by bullets” by falling into the pit.And, by the way, they have a friend whose parents survived the Warsaw ghetto. 

Meanwhile, I have other stories on my “To Be Written” file. My cousin Eric (Z’L) Silverman came over on a stolen visa just before the war. Trudi Larkin Wolfe’s parents, both concentration camp survivors, recently passed away, but their oral history is preserved on video as part of Stephen Spielberg’s Shoah project, and she and her sister will fill in any gaps. Ruth Gruber, a brilliant Jewish woman who was appointed by the FDR administration to oversee the Oswego Project, a refuge for Jews that is the subject of a New York State Museum exhibit. And I made a promise to a friend that I would write an article about his father, who came to the United States in the early 1900s via, of all places, China.

After hearing Golda’s story at the most recent meeting of SOL Writers, my group of fellow writers said that I am “a woman on a mission.” “You make the unbearable bearable,” one said. “Keep writing.”

Despite my passion, I initially questioned about pursuing more stories about this terrible time in humankind’s history.The Holocaust has already been the subject of innumerable novels, memoirs, plays, movies, and, and even children’s books.

I found the answer in a teaching from Pirkei Avot, a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims from Rabbinic Jewish tradition. It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work,” wrote Rabbi Tarfon (46 CE-117 CE), “but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21) When the Anti-Defamation League reports that Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms have “cracks in enforcement” that allow Holocaust deniers to disseminate hate speech; when a school administrator in Texas can tell a group of educators during a training session to “have an opposing view” when teaching the Holocaust; when 77 years after Soviets liberated Auschwitz, anti-semitism is on the rise; I must continue to tell the stories. My writing will certainly not “complete” the work of masters such as Elie Wiesel, Victor Frankel, and Steven Spielberg. But I cannot use that as an excuse.Whether my articles and, in the future, my book is widely read or languishes in an Amazon warehouse, at least I did not “desist.”

But I need help. If any of you have a Holocaust story you would like to be preserved in writing, please contact me via email at shapcomp18@gmail. com. Those who were lost as well as those who survive deserve to have their lives remembered and honored. Never again.

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

I am exactly where I need to be!

Happy Summer!  Have you kept your New Year’s resolution?

Odds are, you haven’t. Each year, Strava, the social network for athletes, predicts the exact day when most people are likely to ditch their annual commitment to themselves. Whether it be the goal to lose weight, exercise more, or stop smoking, the majority throw in the towel (or throw out the scale) on the second Friday in January. A full 80% will have given up on it by mid-February.

If you have made it to the last days of spring, Mazel tov!

Up until this year, my list of resolutions were endless, so reflective of the person I am. On top of my list (for at least six decades) was to lose weight. Along with that annual goal, I have promised myself in the past to exercise more; read more books, watch more movies, play more piano, see more of family and friends, and write more articles, for starters.

But as I head into a third year where pandemic still hangs over our heads like the sword of Damocles, I have made peace with myself, My one and only resolution is based on an affirmation I stumbled across this past winter. Drum roll please!

“I am exactly where I need to be.”

These eight words summarize an entire philosophy based on the idea that I can be happy where I am at this very moment. It has grounded me when I find my mind racing with what I need to do next: the challah that needs to be baked, the article I have to get to Laurie Clevenson by the Monday morning deadline; the book I have to finish before it disappears off my Kindle. 

Full disclosure: Knowing myself, I will still working on those same items I have listed in the past. (I am already looking forward to writing several biographies of Holocaust survivors.) But I understand that I can reach those milestones without the help and pressure of resolutions. I can be happy in the “now,” not the future. I have given myself permission to focus on the journey, not some numerical destination.

Since I made this resolution on November 17, I already have over two months of practice behind me. I made a copy of it which I keep on my kitchen window sill When I find myself “falling off the wagon,” I quietly recite it to myself and get grounded again. It has the making of a habit! And speaking of habits…

I cannot remember where I originally saw this quote. Facebook? A friend’s blog? A recent book? It took me a few weeks—and the help from my Catholic friend—to find out my first person quote actually came from a prayer from St. Teresa of Avila, a revered leader of the Discalced Carmelite Sisters in 16th century Spain. The opening lines of her original prayer read, “May today there be peace within you. Trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.”

It took a little more digging to find a Jewish connection (Yes! There IS a Jewish connection!) St. Teresa’s paternal grandfather, a wealthy tax collector, was a Jew who was forced to covert to Christianity. He was condemned by the Spanish Inquisition for allegedly returning to the Jewish faith and was punished by being forced to parade around Toledo for one day a week with other insincere converts. He was later able to assume a Catholic identity. 

St. Teresa, aware of her ancestry, did not acknowledge it publicly because of prejudice in Spain at the time against Jews and Jewish converts. It appeared, however, that her heritage impacted her career in the church. She was recognized for bring a mystical Jewish strain reminiscent of Kabbalah and for giving comfort to many converts from Judaism who struggled to maintain a connection to Jewish belief and practice. As a leader and “doctor,” she directed her convents not to comply with the “statutes of purity of blood” which excluded Jewish converts to Catholicism from most religious orders, from the military, higher education, civil and church offices. 

In the 2012 off-Broadway play, Teresa’s Ecstasy, starring the Columbian playwright Begonya Plaza as well as Linda Larkin and Shawn Elliott, the nun’s Jewish heritage was seen as a driving force in her life and work. Plaza’s character, who in the midst of a divorce, and Larkin’s character, her Jewish lesbian lover, realize how much Teresa has become their role model in her commitment to faith, compassion, and human dignity.Yes, St. Teresa is a nun with a Yiddishkeit neshome, a Jewish soul. 

So now an adaption of a prayer written by a Catholic saint is now part of this Jew’s daily routine. It is the one of last thing I tell myself each night. I follow that with Jewish prayers, positive affirmations, and reflections on things for which I a grateful. I fall back to sleep quickly, and I sleep in peace, knowing I am exactly where I need to be.

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

SOURCES

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teresa_of_Ávila

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/quitter-day-coming-not-another-205100681.html?fr=yhssrp_catchall

https://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/a-nun-with-a-jewish-touch/

https://news.yahoo.com/news/saint-still-changing-lives-teresas-ecstasy-002524863.html?fr=yhssrp_catchall

https://www.inc.com/jeff-haden/a-study-of-800-million-activities-predicts-most-new-years-resolutions-will-be-abandoned-on-january-19-how-you-cancreate-new-habits-that-actually-stick.html

Bye bye Boomer? Who shall live and who shall die?

Was it time for us to retire Boomer to that Stuffed Bear Den in the Sky?

A couple of days after our son was born, my husband Larry came to the hospital with a huge brown teddy bear, his first gift to Adam. We named the stuffy “Boomer,” the moniker we had given to my ever expanding stomach during my pregnancy as well as a salute to our Baby Boomer status. 

Boomer occupied a place in Adam’s room in our family home through nursery school and beyond When the shiny nose fell off, I sewed on another one with black yarn. When the paws got torn up after too many rides on Adam’s Big Wheels, I covered up the bear’s bare spots with yellow felt patches. On Adam’s first day of kindergarten, we took a picture of Adam holding on to his bear before boarding the school bus.

By his bar mitzvah, Adam relegated Boomer to the top shelf in his bedroom. When Adam headed off to the University of Rochester in 1996, he left his companion behind. [Three years later, our daughter Julie brought her lovey Rerun with her to college. It now has a place of honor on her daughter’s bed.]. We put the brown bear on the pillow on Adam’s bed in the quiet, empty, amazingly clean room. Boomer waited patiently through Adam’s grad school and first jobs and trips across country and to Israel and Belize and law school. Alas, Adam never sent for him. 

When we packed up to move to Florida, I sent texts to our children with pictures of the things they left behind with the simple request: “Toss or send to you?” Adam claimed his Star Wars action figures, Zayde Ernie’s World War II helmet, and a couple of framed pictures. Boomer got a thumbs down.

In the end, Larry and I loved Boomer more than Adam did. Larry and I didn’t have the heart to throw Boomer in the trash. After some discussion, we carted him to Kissimmee, where he earned a spot on a bookshelf with our other cherished tchotchkes: Larry’s Otto the Orange mascot, a plush toy I had given him one Chanukah that played the Syracuse University’s marching song when we squeezed his hand. My two 7 inch high dolls in Mexican attire my father had purchased for me at a gift shop in Montreal’s Chinatown after wontons and fortune cookies at the Nan King restaurant; Julie’s doll with the green dress and matching bonnet that had prompted our then-fourteen month old daughter’s first complete sentence on the way back from a shopping trip to buy her a bed: “Oh-oh! Left Baby Bobbie on mattress at Macy’s,” she cried behind me from her car seat. “Go Back!”

I thought Boomer would find his way back home to Adam when our son’s wife Sarah delivered their own little Boomer in 2020. My hopes that I could pack him up in a box and ship him to California were quickly dashed. “I really don’t want it,” Adam told me. “And after 42 years, goodness knows what germs live in that toy! Toss it!”

Taking a good look at Boomer, I almost had to agree with Adam. I took pride in the fact that the black nose and yellow felt paws and feet I had sewn on over forty years ago were still intact. After too many years dealing with Florida humidity, however, the poor stuffed animal was definitely worse for wear.His now graying stuffing was peeking out of his right leg and exploding out of a side seam. His head wobbled, held onto the body with unraveling brown thread. His “fur” had begun to resemble that of a mangy dog. Still, we put him back on the shelf.

Eighteen months later, Boomer’s future was again jeopardy. Larry and I had managed to fit all that was needed for a seven week trip to visit our children in California and Colorado in two medium sized suitcases. If we had survived all summer with so little, why were our closets and drawers still packed with all the clothes we hadn’t bothered to bring?

It wasn’t just the clothes. Despite our purge when we made the move to Florida from Upstate New York in 2015, we (especially me) had somehow again acquired too much stuff. A kitchen full of housewares. Closets filled with unworn clothing. Old books that I was finally going to read while sheltering in place. A two-foot stack of nearly untouched New Yorker magazines. I was ready for a “pandemic purge.” The day before Rosh HaShanah, while looking in my closet to find an outfit for services, I found two dresses that I had not worn in three years. I threw them onto the guest bed. I followed them up with more items to recycle—clothes, linens, books, heavy sweaters I had saved “just in case.” By Yom Kippur, the pile covered the entire double bed. It was a new year, a new start.

But some things were non-recyclable, including a tattered teddy. “Maybe it’s time to say goodbye to Boomer,” I said to Larry. 

“No way!” he cried. “Besides, we need to keep him at least until our grandson is able to come to Florida to visit. He has to meet Boomer.”

Larry was right. The idea of putting Boomer into the trash broke both our hearts. I took out my sewing kit, pushed the stuffing back into worn cloth, and stitched him up. We called Adam and Sarah and asked them to mail us a couple of our grandson’s outgrown tee-shirts to cover up all the stitches. And then  Boomer will resume his special place on our shelf. Yes, in the end, we couldn’t—forgive the pun—bear to part with him. 

Boomer at 43.

Fradel’s Story: Fulfilling a Daughter’s Promise

I am posting this blog on September 1, 2021, what would have been my beloved mother’s (“Z”L) 104th birthday. It is with pride and love I announce the publication of my third book, Fradel’s Story.

What better way to start off Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, than to publish a new book? Fradel’s Story, my third book since 2016, is especially sweet as it was co-written with my mother, Frances Cohen.

Ever since I could remember, my mother was the family storyteller. Give her an opening, and Fran, or “Fradel” as she was known to her close family, would regale any audience with family stories any audience with stories of her grandparents’ and parents’ lives in Russia, her early years of marriage to “My Bill” Cohen, their life in small towns in the North Country. She told of raising four children, watching them leave for college and for marriage, and their returning with her grandchildren to visit her and my father in their beloved cottage on Lake Champlain. 

As my parents got older, my mother realized that she needed to record these stories. We never were one for video cameras and tapes, so she began jotting them down on lined paper, usually the five by eight notepads. The writing was messy, with words misspelled and whole sections crossed out, but she began to keep a written history. 

In 2006, after a number of health setbacks, my three siblings, our spouses, and I insisted that my parents sell their condo in Florida and move back up north That May, they moved into Coburg Village, an independent living facility only four miles from our home. 

Soon after moving in, my mother called me to tell me she was joining Coburg’s monthly writing group to finally finish all those stories she carried in her head and on those scraps of paper. When she brought her first story to the group, her accounting of why she and my father moved to Coburg, she was surprised to find that the group enjoyed her writing style. “They loved my story, Marilyn!” she told me. “They said I have a real flair for storytelling!” After that, my mother’s voice in phone calls after the monthly Wednesday meetings was filled with pride. 

Mom rarely had difficulty finding a topic and writing it down with pen on paper. However, the group leader requested that the stories be typed so they could eventually be published in the semi-annual collection and distributed to Coburg residents. My mother asked me to type them. While I was at it, could I, “My daughter the English major,” do some proofing and minor revisions so that they would read more smoothly? 

Thus began our five-year collaboration. Every month, about a week before the group met, my mother would give me her hand-written story. I would do some editing, including spelling, grammar, and even some tightening of the narrative. Her oral stories evolved into polished narratives,— funny, poignant, sad, and sometimes painful, but always entertaining.

When my father passed away in November 2008, my mother’s contribution for December was an open letter to my father. She wrote that she was moving into a smaller apartment down the hall. “Wherever I go, you also go in spirit,” she wrote. Grieving quietly, she continued with her life at Coburg, going to the concerts, visiting with friends and family who were always stopping by to see her, and continuing with her writing. All the children asked her to write about our births and early childhood, but she always postponed those stories, focusing on the Old Country, her childhood, her Bill. 

On December 22, 2010, my mother had a heart attack. The doctors recommended hospice care and living her remaining time to the fullest. She complied, enjoying visits and calls from the children, grandchildren, her extended family, and the many friends she and my father had made in Coburg and in their lifetimes. She kept writing. 

In February 2011, with my sister Laura and me sitting close by, my mother shared her story, “The Birth of My First Child,” with her writing group. She described her joy in having a beautiful little girl and her fears that she would not be able to be a good mother. The last words, written in pencil on the bottom, were “To be continued….” She died four weeks later, the day of the club’s March meeting. 

I had made a promise to myself that one day I would gather her stories in a book. When COVID-19 shuttered so many of my activities, I decided that it was time. Over the past eighteen months, I have worked on editing, filling in the gaps, and finally ordering the stories in chronological order to make the book flow smoother.

I too had family stories, articles I had written over the years capturing memories of our old Victorian in Upstate New York, our cottage on Lake Champlain, my father’s obsession with boats, bugs, and bats; my mother’s words of wisdom; my siblings’ accomplishments. I decided to include those in the book.

By this March, I was ready to send my first draft to my editor, Mia Crew. She was responsible for formatting the book for paperback and Kindle format as well as inserting the 80+ photos, many of them family pictures that dated back to 1914. Fradel’s Story has been launched on Amazon, in time for my target, September 1, what would have been my mother’s 104th birthday. 

My parents were not wealthy people. They had little of material value: a wedding ring, my Grandmother Ethel’s engagement ring, two beautiful, framed pictures of my father at thirteen and my mother at six, a few nice dishes. As my siblings and I sadly dismantled Mom’s apartment, my daughter was surprised that I wanted so little. “It’s okay, Julie,” I said. “I have her stories.” 

And now, I can share them with my large close knit family, with an incredible network of friends who personally knew my parents or knew their legacy, and hopefully hundreds of others who may find their own lives reflected in this collection.

Marilyn and Fran at Coburg Village, Rexford, New York, October 2006.

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

Bud Black, Interlocutor Extraordinaire

For the past five years,  people who came to services at Congregation Shalom Aleichem in Kissimmee, Florida, were met with an unusual but wonderful treat. They were greeted by a pair of musicians—Bud Black on the guitar (and occasionally the banjo) and Bill Willner on the snare drums. They played mostly songs from the 20s, 30s, and 40’s. Bud and Bill usually packed up their instruments about fifteen minutes before services began, but on occasion they would accompany Rabbi Karen Allen on songs from the Friday night service. 

John “Bud” Black career as a musician began in the 1930s as an 8 year old in bars near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Bud’s grandfather Bert loved to drink even more than he loved the Pittsburgh Pirates. So he would tell his wife he was taking his daughter’s “little buddy”  to a game. Instead he took him to local taverns. Bud would play the ukulele that his grandfather had purchased for him.

While still in high school, Bud began playing the guitar professionally and performing on WKPA, Pittsburg’s hillbilly radio station. (Was this the station? It is now listed as a ministry station out of Lynchburg, VA) After graduating, Bud went into the US Air Force, where he worked on computers. After he completed his service, he took a job at RCA working on technology. Bud realized quickly that his first love was music and began working the nightclub circuit around Philadelphia and Atlantic City. 

By the age of ten, with a minimal training from one of his grandfather’s fellow barflies, Bud not only had added the guitar to his repertoire but also helped Bert make some money. Bud had an incredible ability to remember the name, lyrics, and artist of every song he played. As William Miller wrote in a 1997 article, Bert  took him from bar to bar, challenging anyone to name a tune his grandson couldn’t play. When they couldn’t “Stump the Musician”— which was often— Bert passed the hat.

Along the way, Bud married and had two sons, Scott and John. After his divorce, he had a relationship that resulted in the birth of  third son, Wes. .In 1986, the Delta Queen steamship company hired him as the ship’s “interlocutor,” where he would be able combine his talents as a musician, a comedian, and an entertainer. 

His fellow musicians regarded Bud as a walking music encyclopedia. His favorites were songs from the 1920s and 1930s,  but he also knew songs from “as far back as songs were recorded.”   And when he got bored singing the lyrics the “right way,” he would sing them backwards.  “Chattanooga Choo Choo” became “Agoonattahc, Oohc-Oohc;” “My Wild Irish Rose,” “Ym dliw hsiri esor.”

One of his friends remembered, “Bud was full of bull**, an entertainer and wonderful story teller. He took a 15 second story and turned it into an hour. But it was a stroll down memory lane.” 

“Bud had the largest record collection I’ve ever seen,” Howard Paul, a fellow musician on the Delta Queen, posted on Bud’s Facebook page. “He told an endless stream of jokes (clean and blue). For me, Bud was the missing link between vaudeville and nightclub lounge acts.”

Tim Aucoin, a fellow musician, stated on Facebook that he remembers afternoons playing together in the Texas Lounge on the Delta Queen. “Bud would say ‘Who wants to hear some country music? Great, how about a Lithuanian love ballad?’”

In 1989, Bud was performing on the second night of a three day cruise when Wendy Demby, a young woman on vacation from her job in New York City, approached him and expressed her admiration for his show. When she disembarked in New Orleans for the remainder of her week-long trip, Bud sought her out to share a few hours during a break in his job. Those few hours developed into a long distance relationship that resulted in Wendy moving down to The Big Easy. They were married in May 1990.

For the next ten years, Wendy maintained their home in New Orleans while Bud strummed his guitar and banjo up and down the Mississippi. Once a year, Wendy went along for the ride. In 1999, Bud retired from the riverboat but not from music. They moved to St. Cloud, Florida, when Bud took a job at Disney World, playing a various parks including in a roaming band in the Magic Kingdom.

Bud also entertained nursing home residents throughout the Orlando area. His music transported many to healthier, happier days. One time, after singing a song, a woman came up to him in tears. “My husband has dementia,” she said. “ But when you started singing that song, he started singing along. It is the first time he has spoken in years.” 

Wendy was Jewish and Bud was Christian, but they shared a mutual respect and appreciation for each other’s religion. They attended Sunday services at the Church of St. Luke and St. Peter in St. Cloud and Friday night services at Congregation Shalom Aleichem.  Initially, Bud played and sang with Norm Salinsky a former president, About five years ago, Bill Willner joined them. When Norm became ill, Bud and Bill began their routine before services. Bud had a collection of yarmulkes displaying  musical notes or Jewish holiday motifs—but his favorite was one embossed with his beloved Pittsburg Pirates’ logo. 

This past December,  Bud and Bill were planning to do some Irish songs for the March 15 service, which fell two days before St. Patrick’s Day. Unfortunately, Bud became ill in January and passed away on March 9, 2019, at the age of 88. 

At the memorial service at the Church of St. Luke and St. Peter, Reverend Longbottom played and sang some of Bud’s favorite songs, including many Irish tunes. The clergyman was joined by David Royer, who played Bud’s guitar. David was one of Bud’s first friends in the Orlando area, a friendship sealed by b’shert—David’s parents had sailed the Delta Queen and had spoken highly of a banjo player named Bud Black. In honor of Bud’s close connections to Judaism  and Congregation Shalom Aleichem, Wendy’s brother,Craig Demby said the Kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer.

Bud’s son John passed away in 2011 from complications of diabetes.  His oldest son Scott, a talented musician in his own right, lives in China and was unable to attend the memorial service. His youngest son Wes, sharing news that his girlfriend Daniela was pregnant with what will be Bud’s first grandchild, were there to say goodbye, along with many other friends and family members.

One of Bud’s favorite songs, “Dusty Old Dust, written by Woody Guthrie in 1940, is a fitting epithet for this talented musician. “So long, it’s been good to know ya/What a long time since I’ve been home/And I’ve gotta be driftin’ along.” Drift gently, Bud!

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

Sources:

Miller, William. “Buddy Black, The Delta Queen’s Colorful Interlocutor.” Vantage. March/April 1997. Pages 10-11.

Lind, Angus, “Life’s a song from way back for Bud Black.” (New Orleans)  Times Picayune. September 4, 1991. Pages E1,E5.