Category Archives: Feature Stories

Even small mitzvahs count! Feeling good while doing good!

My granddaughter getting her postcards from her family’s mailbox.

Do your little bit of good where you are; It’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” Desmond Tutu.

This morning, as I have done almost every Monday morning for the past four years, I mailed out a small stack of postcards. Just call it my very small attempt to do little bits of good.

In January 2012, my husband Larry and I were still living in Upstate New York. Doris Calderon, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer, needed to undergo extensive treatments at Sloan Kettering in New York City. She and her husband Marty recruited several friends to make weekly visits with Marty’s 99-year-old mother-Rose, who resided in the Memory Enhancement Unit (MEU) at Daughters of Sarah Senior Community in Albany. 

Thus began a friendship between Rose and me that continued until her passing over two and a half years later.A couple of months into my visits, I coordinated with the social director for the MEU to conduct activities with other residents. Doris returned, thankfully healthy, but I continued my visits with Rose and residents of the MEU.

In the fall of 2012, during one of my visits,  I struck up a conversation with a young man whom I had seen maneuvering his wheelchair around the building. This began a a second friendship at Daughters of Sarah in which I visited every week. Marc was thirty-four years old and had become a quadriplegic after a freak motorcycle accident when he was 16. After many years at home, he had moved to Daughters eight years earlier.

When Rose passed away after her 101birthday, I continued my weekly visits with MEU residents as well as Marc. Most of the time, Marc and I chatted in his room. When I finally got the courage to take him for outings in his fully equipped handicap accessible van, we took impromptu field trips —a Chinese restaurant, Five Guys, Walmart, a local mall. I treasured each of those visits with him. 

When Larry and I decided to relocate to Florida, telling Marc about our impending move was one of the hardest conversations I had during our transition. On the last visit before we left, I promised him that I would keep in touch with him. It is a promise I kept, mostly through postcards.

The first one I sent was corny: “Greetings from Florida!”with a picture of an alligator wearing a bikini. Soon after our move, we headed out to Colorado to await the birth of our grandchild. Marc received postcards reflecting the Rockies—moose, bear, majestic mountains. I scribbled out a short note telling him about our hiking adventures, and then about our beautiful new granddaughter.These were followed by postcards from San Francisco—cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge— when we visited our son before returning to Florida. 

When we came back to Albany for Thanksgiving in 2015, the first stop was Daughters of Sarah to visit Marc. On his wall were all the postcards that I had sent him from around the country. While there, I connected with the social director and arranged that I would also send weekly postcards to the MEU.

My message on Marc’s postcards usually were comments about the front image as well as personal updates and questions about how he was doing. Those addressed to the residents were aimed to foster discussion. “Have you been to Colorado?” “What winter sports did you enjoy?”.“What is your favorite Disney character?” “Have you ridden the cable cars in San Francisco? If so, describe what it was it like.” 

Most of the time, however, I was sending postcards from our home near Orlando. I became concerned that too many were Florida-centric.After all, how many pictures of alligators and Mickey Mouse could anyone want? Through the president of our community’s local travel club, I asked members for help in obtaining cards from other places. Soon, members were providing me with dozens of interesting postcards from around the world. . I let Marc and the MEU know I had not just returned from an around-the-world trip, but it has helped vary both the places and the messages I provide. 

By this time, my granddaughter was two years old. Living almost two thousand miles away from her was a challenge. Larry and I FaceTimed often, but I wanted to show her in writing that I was thinking of her. Eureka! Why not sent her a weekly postcard? Soon after we returned from Colorado in August 2017, I sent her a  postcard with a message saying how much we loved seeing her and signed “Love, Gammy and Zayde.”

When we visited in March, she proudly showed me a box with all the postcards she had received. One of my favorite pictures from that trip is the picture of her gleefully holding three postcards that were awaiting her in their mailbox in the town’s post office.

Now three postcards were being mailed out every Monday morning. Most of the time, they were triplicates, but Larry and I had fun finding some that were uniquely for our granddaughter. She got more than her share of Disney princesses and cute animals. 

My favorite? Our 2018 summer visit to Colorado fell during our granddaughter’s toilet training, and Larry and she had spent-(according to not only me but her parents) too much time watching a Pac-man Pooping video. Less than two weeks later, while on a tour of Norway, we mailed her a scatologically themed postcard which featured a little blonde Troll sitting on a potty seat with a big smile as the overflowing poop fertilizes flowers. Judging from both the wear-and tear and its prominent position on the bookcase in her bedroom, it is her favorite as well. 

Sending out weekly postcards takes little time but provides me with much joy in that I am keeping connected to friends and family no matter what the distance. 

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

The pooping troll that my granddaughter loved to receive!!


Into the Woods—a place for contemplation and renewal

Neva and I at Rainbow Lake July 2019

The mountains are calling, and I must go. John Muir

Across the street and behind the houses on the other side of my Upstate New York home was a wooded area. I remember it as a mountain . I am sure it would not look so imposing  if I viewed it now from my adult eyes 

On many a summer day I would take a path to the right of the Douglass’s home and head into the oaks and maples. I would sit on logs and imagine myself as Heidi or Lcittle Red Riding Hood.

This was a lone adventure. Although we were perfectly situated between the shores of Lake Champlain and Adirondack Mountains, our family never headed for the woods. 

When my parents purchased a cottage on Willsboro Bay, I replaced the trips to the woods with walks to The Point, an area about a quarter of a mile from our cottage that offered views of Lake Champlain and Burlington, Vermont. It was my get-away, my place to sit and think and deal with teenage angst.Even as a adult, I viewed The Point as one of my favorite places. I shared it with friends and, of course, Larry the first time he visited me in the summer of 1973. 

And then I finished college and married and started a family. Larry and I purchased a home with a private, wooded backyard. We biked along quiet country roads in Saratoga County. We took occasional short hikes into  the woods in Lake George or Vermont or Williamstown in the fall. But I felt that I had lost touch with the woods, with the mountains.

That all changed in 2003. Our daughter Julie moved out to Colorado after graduation  from college She took a “one-year” job as an environmental education teacher two hours west of Denver and in the middle of the Rockies. 

Julie soon fell in love with Colorado, the mountains, and Sam, not necessarily in that order. On our first visit in June 2004, she took us on easy hikes in Eagle and Summit Counties. By the following summer, Sam and she were trusting us to accompany them on longer, more challenging heights.

As our hikes became longer, so did the length and frequency of our visits to the mountains. Julie and Sam completed grad school degrees, got married, found jobs, and bought a house in Frisco, elevation 9096 or 9097 feet above sea level, depending on which tee shirt you purchased. In anticipation of the birth of our granddaughter in the summer 2015, we rented a place for several weeks, a tradition we have continued every year.

Frisco, located in Summit County, is amazing in the summer—once it stops snowing! This year a long hard winter gratefully came to an end June 21.Even my then three-year-old granddaughter had had enough. “I’m so over winter,” she said. “I am ready for summer and my birthday!”

When we arrived June 30, the still-snow topped mountains had already exploded in shades of green Our first hike was to Rainbow Lake, only a mile up an easy trail near Julie’s home. As we got more acclimated to the altitude, we hiked such colorfully named trails as Lily Pad Lake, Shrine Pass, McCulloughs’ Gulch, and Cataract Lake.  Creeks churned through meadows and fields. Columbines and wild roses and cone flowers peaked out between fallen logs and rocks on trails that led to waterfalls and lakes and vistas that took my breath away.

We often share the trails with both locals and others who have found, like us, that it doesn’t get much better than a beautiful summer’s day in the Rockies. We pack water and a snack and find a spot in the middle of the hike just to sit and take in our surroundings. 

Larry has found a pickleball league in Summit County (“We Play with an Altitude!”), and several days a week he heads out the courts. On those days, I get ready for my alone time to Rainbow Lake. 

I apply the only “make-up” I need, liberal amounts of sun screen. I put on my hiking clothes and lace up my boots, fill a small backpack with water, bug spray, dog treats and poop bags. I then pick up our granddog Neva, and we head up a trail to Rainbow Lake. Neva pauses frequently to sniff at her “pee mail” and to check out a squirrel or magpie. I savor the beauty surrounding me—the columbine growing from a dead trunk, the sunlight reflecting through the aspens, logs stretching over a small stream.

Once we get to Rainbow Lake, I let Neva off her leash and toss a stick into the lake. After a few dog paddles into the chilly water, Neva settles down next to me on my favorite rock. A beaver paddles away from its lodge and few ducks swim across the still water with its reflection of trees and mountains. A woodpecker hammers away on the bark of a pine tree. 

Images of Heidi have been replaced with images of Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Ridge Trail or Bill Bryson on the Appalachian Trail. It is my time. I am grateful to G-d for the opportunities open to me in the mountains and for the health to enjoy it. I am at peace. I am back to my Adirondack roots.

First published in The Jewish World, July 25, 2019. 

Malkah, the Queen of the Canine Sabras

Malkah, the Queen of the Canine Sabras.

Can a dog save a life? Marilyn Glaser knows so. Malkah, the Queen of the Canine Sabras, saved hers.

Marilyn had always wanted to live in Israel. When a blind date with a South African widower with the same wish to make Aliyah turned into a romance, the two  found a place just outside of Jerusalem and moved in together in 2005. Five years later, Marilyn was shocked when he announced he was leaving her. Angry and depressed, she knew that she needed to regroup and move on. 

Five weeks later, Marilyn was walking in her neighborhood  when a little girl came by holding a small brindle patterned dog. Marilyn hadn’t owned an animal for over twenty-five years since her two sons were children. But something inside her knew that she needed a canine companion to fill the emptiness she had felt since the painful breakup. She asked the girl for her mother’s number and made arrangements to claim one of the puppies in the litter. 

The following Saturday night after sundown,  Marilyn was handed a blue dishpan covered with a blanket. A tiny puppy, the only female of the litter,  peaked out from an opening in the blanket. Marilyn was in love from the first lick the three pound bestowed on her face.

When she had moved to Israel, Marilyn had thought about changing her name. Malkah, Hebrew for queen, had topped the list. “You are Malkah, my queen,” she told her new friend.

The first day they took a walk, Marilyn secured the tiny dog in a backpack and joined her friends, many also with their pets, who were doing their daily circuit. By day two, Malkah had enough of not being part of the action. She hopped out of her  doggie prison and strutted along with her longer-legged canine friends.

Malkah’s paternal lineage was unknown—Marilyn referred to him as a “traveling salesman”—but her mother was a French bulldog, a breed known for its high intelligence. She also exhibited the breed’s surprisingly high levels of communication and personality.“Malkah doesn’t just bark; she talks,”  Marilyn claimed. “If there is such a thing as reincarnation, Malkah would have been in her previous life a very intelligent, very talkative human.”

By the following winter, Marilyn had decided to return to the States and relocate to Kissimmee, Florida, where her brother Zach Siegel owned a home. With the help of a realtor, virtual tours on the Internet, and a February visit to the Sunshine State, she found a house in a fifty-five plus community a stone’s throw from her brother’s. She began packing up her house outside Jerusalem.

Marilyn briefly considered finding a new home for Malkah to spare the puppy the arduous move, but she couldn’t say goodbye to her constant companion. She went through the hours of red tape that was necessary to obtain government permission to bring a pet to the States. The hardest part was the 6,500 mile flight from Israel to Florida, which included a five-hour layover in Frankfort. Rules prevented the owners from seeing their pets, which were crated in a special department, until the plane landed in its final destination. In Orlando, Marilyn was relieved and delighted when Malkah exited from her crate happy and healthy.

The two of them quickly settled into their new house. “Malkah didn’t care where in the world she lived as long as she was with me,” said Marilyn.

In the meantime, Marilyn had reconnected with Lazar Lowinger, a Boston lawyer whom she had met through the Maccabi Games, she as a nurse for the USA team and he as a competitive Master’s tennis player.  When Lazar was widowed in 2011, Marilyn sent him a note of condolence. Their friendship, based on their mutual love of the international Jewish games and their strong commitment to Judaism, soon blossomed into a long-distance romance. In October 2015, Lazar retired from his law practice in Boston and moved in with Marilyn and Malkah. “Malkah didn’t care that Lazar joined us as long as she still slept on my side of the bed,” laughed Marilyn.

Marilyn, Malkah, and Lazar fell into a comfortable routine in Solivita. , took turns allowing them to walk her. She coerced them to feed her so much food that the vet finally put her on a diet. She “picked up some Spanish” and a few other languages from Lazar, a multi-linguist. And she charmed her way into the hearts of everyone who met her.

In April, Marilyn found a lump in Malkah’s throat. The vet broke the bad news. Malkah— eight years old and only middle age in small dog years—had lymphosarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer, and had less than six months to live. Malkah had been there for Marilyn when she was most needed. The two of them vowed to make sure they are there for Malkah until the end. 

Initially, Malkah showed no signs of her illness.Only three weeks later, however, Malkah’s health seriously declined. More tumors appeared on her body; she only ate when she was hand-fed, and she didn’t have the strength to meet them at the door, an eight year tradition. On a Friday, as Marilyn was preparing their Sabbath dinner, Malkah stumbled into a wall. She had gone blind. Marilyn called the vet to make arrangements to put Malkah to sleep. She shared the sad news with the congregation that night at Shabbat services. 

The next morning, Malkah lay in the back seat  on their car while Lazar stroked her and told her, “You are the best dog ever. Soon you will not be in pain.” While she drove to the nearby animal hospital, Marilyn reflected on Malkah’s life story from her first few months in Israel through her immigration to the States to her last wonderful years as a pampered, plump pooch who interspersed walks with her adoring owners with ear-flying rides in Marilyn’s golf cart. 

At 10 am, in a small sterile room at the animal hospital,Marilyn and Lazar said their last goodbyes. Malkah was so weak that it took almost no medicine to end her suffering. After she took her last breath, Marilyn and Lazar sobbed in each other’s arms.

They made the sad drive home in silence. No Malkah was there to greet them at the door. A half-opened bag of dog treats lay on the counter, and her dishes lay empty on a mat on the floor. Marilyn made scrambled eggs with lox for lunch. Both of them wished they could be sneaking Malkah a bite. 

Safe journey, Malkah. You are and will always be to those who loved you our queen, our Malkah.


Published May 31, 2019 in the Heritage Florida Jewish News. 

Finding My Voice

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the Passover story, Moses, despite his initial protests to G-D that he was “slow in tongue,” confronted the Pharaoh with the admonition “Let my people go!” After years of slavery, the Jewish people finally had found someone who spoke  out. I myself am finding my own voice.

I had an inauspicious beginning. When I was two years old, my mother had gall bladder surgery, necessitating a week’s hospital stay and no lifting—including her toddler—for several weeks. I stopped talking.  My mother told me again and again that that she could still feel me holding on to her apron strings as if my life depended upon it. 

By the end of kindergarten, I not only got my voice back but also some courage. When a classmate backed out of reciting a poem at the graduation ceremony that was to be held in only three days, I volunteered to take her place. Like Moses, I was “slow of tongue.” I can’t find the poem—something about being big and small and growing up—but I remember clearly stumbling over the last few lines and having to sit down in embarrassment.

I grew up a noisy household, with talkative parents and three chatty siblings. To this day, my sister-in-law tells us, “You get the four Cohens in a room and you can count on at least six conversations.” (Larry says it’s closer to ten) So by high school, I was not afraid of raising my hand and talking up in my classes.

 In my second attempt at public speaking, Mrs. Clute’s speech class in eleventh grade, I gave an impassioned speech against  the new leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who was promoting a more violent path for the Civil Rights organization.  “It is people like Storky Carmichael who give….” My speech was cut off by the hysterical laughter of my classmates. They didn’t let me ever forget my mispronunciation of Stokely’s name until I graduated. My tendency towards malapropisms—inherited from my mother who will be remembered for calling “organisms” “orgasms”—have kept me leery of unscripted public speaking my whole life.

Despite my early tainted history, I did find my voice as a teacher, gaining confidence in my ability to share knowledge with my English students.I gave presentations at several state and national teacher’s conferences, and spoke at a state-wide Hadassah luncheon in Albany, New York.

When I began writing for publication  in the 1990s and, more regularly for The Jewish World in 2013, I felt that found my true voice. Writing about growing up in a small Upstate New York town, getting married, raising a family, balancing a career and private life in the Capital Region of New York, and easing into a wonderful retirement became topics of gentle pieces—ones that people have compared my writing to  “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” And more recently, I have been the grateful voice of others through sharing the stories of Holocaust and cancer survivors, Jewish POW’s, a Renaissance man, and other menschen.

The recent political climate, however, has brought me back to the Passover story and Moses’ reluctant ascent into leadership of the Hebrews as they obtained their freedom and began their forty-year sojourn in the desert. Moses spoke out against social injustice. Can I do the same? And can I do it in a way as to not offend those whose political views are different from my own? 

In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, “ an article I wrote in 2016, I shared my decision that I would not lose friends and relatives over politics. I am proud to say that it is a promise I have maintained. But there are times that I cannot remain silent in the face of bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, and any form of hatred.

I could not remain silent after the Tree of Life massacre when I received one of those blanket emails sent to numerous recipients warning us that Jews must support Trump. With my husband Larry’s help, I wrote a response to the email that I subsequently sent for publication in the October 31, 2018, Orlando Sentinel. “Any American president who refuses to denounce Neo-Nazis, spouts rhetoric that incites hatred and violence, and defends attending a rally while Jews lie dead on a synagogue floor—‘we cannot let our schedule or our lives change.”  — is a disgrace to (alas) the six million and eleven Jews s a disgrace to the over six million and eleven Jews who died due to anti-Semitism.”

I could not remain silent when I was told by an idiot that he felt little sympathy for the federal workers impacted by the government shutdown as most of them “just sit of their duffs and do nothing all day.” I gave him a dressing down that included references to my own family members who were suffering from the impact of not getting a paycheck for a unneeded work stoppage that stretched out for thirty-five days. 

I could not remain silent when, after Representative Iihan Omar’s controversial comments regarding Israel, Democrats in the end released a spineless resolution. Phone calls and emails requesting money to support the Democratic Party are answered with my statement, “Not until the Democrats have the backbone to truly call out anti-Semitism. “

I could not remain silent when the president tweeted out disparaging remarks about John McCain and Barbara Bush (May their memories be a blessing). Even more disconcerting to me was that Congressional leaders , including McCain’s supposedly best friend Lindsay Graham, refused to call the president out for his inexcusable poor behavior. “It is just plain wrong,” I wrote in an email to Senator Graham. 

And finally, I cannot remain silent when well-meaning friends forward to me offensive emails. One was headed by the note, “Interesting video.” Attached was YouTube video originally published in 2009. As summarized by Snopes.com,  regarded as a highly reliable fact-checking source, that warned that Islam will overwhelm Christendom unless Christians recognize the demographic realities and begin reproducing again.” Snopes regarded the information as “mostly false;”  I regarded it as pure Islamophobia.

Another forwarded email, a musical video took us on a nostalgic trip down memory lane. “If only I could go back again/ to Mom and Dad and all my friends/I would feel safe with the people I know/From once upon a long time ago.” The stream of pictures that accompanied the Jesse Goldberg song showed slide after slide filled with only white faces. Another friend shared a list of the Shortest Books 2018, including Things I Did to Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize by Barack Obama; My Complete Knowledge of Military Strategy by Nancy Pelosi, and To All the men We Have Loved Before by Ellen de Generes and Rosie O’Donnell. In all three cases, Larry and I have decided that face-to-face discussions with the senders would be the most effective way to fight the implicit—and explicit—hate that is peddled in such material.

Recently, I attended a presentation by given by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization whose mission is to fight bigotry and seek justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. On the way out, I picked up their brochure, “Ten Ways to Fight Hate”  (https://www.splcenter.org/20170814/ten-ways-fight-hate-community-response-guide).  I thought of our own ten commandments, our Aseret ha-Dibrot, which give guidance on how we each can lead an ethical life. This Passover, let us all resolve to model our behavior after Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses Our Teacher): To speak up, to act, to pressure leaders, to educate ourselves and others, and to do all we can to combat hate in all its forms. 

A Memorial Day Tribute to a Jewish Hero

Albert Gellman Circa 1944

Private Albert Gellman was mad as hell.  It was June 1944, and his United States army unit of the 34th Division had been cut off behind German lines. Two of his buddies had just been killed in the battle, and Gellman knew “someone had to do something.”

This was not exactly the life a Jewish man from Albany had imagined. The son of William and Tilli Gellman, the twenty-six year old private first class had grown up with his parents and two sisters in a house on Washington Avenue that his father, a Russian immigrant, had built in 1923.

After attending Phillip Schuyler High School, Gellman became a partner at the Modern Food Market on New Scotland Avenue. In 1940, he married Marion Rosenthal, and their son Stephen was born in December 1942. Thirteen weeks later, Gellman received his draft orders and reported to basic training with the 135th Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division.

Initially stationed in North Africa, the regiment was soon sent to Italy to participate in the Battle of Anzio, a massive campaign launched in 1944 to capture Rome from the Axis Powers. Gellman and his regiment were given orders to push through the boot of Italy. “My father later told me the conditions were horrific,” his son Steve Gellman recounted. “Rain and snow impeded their path, and they often encountered mountainous terrain where the infantrymen had to climb hand over hand up cliffs.” Gellman, terrified of heights, was not comforted by his commander, whose only advice was as follows: “Don’t scream if you fall because you will expose others.” Many lost their lives falling silently to their death. 

On June 1, 1944, Gellman’s regiment was engaged in an assault against strong enemy forces in the vicinity of Castelleone, Italy. Four US tanks preceding the attack were knocked out of action by enemy anti-tank guns holed up in a group of Italian farmhouses. Gellman and fellow members of his  squad withdrew to a shallow ditch in front of area.

The  Americans shot at the enemy soldiers who were seen inside the buildings. One of the Germans hoisted a white flag of surrender, but the enemy soldiers refused to leave the safety of the farm house. 

The lieutenant asked for volunteers to take the guns out. Gellman had learned Yiddish while growing up. He believed this language skill, along with his very limited knowledge of German, would help. The 26-year-old private first class volunteered with Private Smith, another member of the regiment, to charge a machine gun emplacement guarding the left flank of the farmhouse. 

In his haste to reach the building, Gellman forgot his carbine rifle. That didn’t stop him. Brandishing a .45 revolver and loaded grenades, he ran into the yard yelling  “Komm raus Mit deinen Händen! (Come out with your hands up!)” Four Germans were so  startled that they dropped their weapons and immediately surrendered. While Private Smith was taking those prisoners back to their platoon  Gellman sprinted to the first house and told the solders in Yiddish to surrender.  By the end of the day, with the help of more Yiddish and some strategically lobbed hand grenades, Gellman had almost singlehandedly taken over thirty prisoners and had destroyed some of the German anti-tank guns.

 Using the information Gellman provided,  the army notified US navy destroyers off shore. The ships’ artillery leveled the farmhouse, taking out the remaining guns and any German soldiers who had refused to surrender.

Three days later, Gellman used the same technique to single-handedly capture an additional four German soldier who were holed up in an Italian farmhouse near their abandoned German tank. 

Gellman and his regiment saw more action in Northern Italy through the next several months. In the spring of 1945, Gellman was hospitalized with back pain and extreme battle fatigue. It was in the Italian hospital that Gellman was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for combat heroism.The award included the following, “Private First Class Gellman’s intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 34th Infantry Division, and the United States Army.” He was also presented with the Italian Military Valor Cross.

Gellman returned to the United States on a hospital ship. After a brief respite in the Army’s reassignment center in Lake Placid, he finished out the war as a military policeman in Albany. 

He was later presented with New York State’s Conspicuous Service Cross, three Bronze  Stars, and numerous other awards. Asked later how he felt about his actions, Gellman downplayed his moniker as a war hero. Gellman said, “I was shaking in my boots,” he later recounted.  “After all, I’m still a civilian at heart.” 

After the war, the Gellmans had two more children, David and Toby. Gellman initially ran an open-air fruit stand on Upper New Scotland Avenue. In 1948, he opened Al’s Market, adjacent to Modern Food Market, which he operated until 1955. Gellman continued to work the wholesale food industry for Service Food Company and Archway Bakery until his retirement in 1980. The family were members of Congregation Ohav Shalom.  He was also a member of  Jewish War Veterans Albany Post 105, the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans and Albany City Lodge of Knights of Pythias. 

His son Steve said that his father rarely talked about the war while he and his siblings were living at home. If he did, Gellman emphasized to his family his role. “I never killed them,” Gellman insisted.  “I just captured them.”

Steve, however,  clearly remembers one incidence in which he saw another side of his father. Just before his bar mitzvah, Steve was walking with his parents to synagogue when a drunk yelled an anti-Semitic epithet at his mother and then kicked Gellman. Steve watched as his father changed from the gentle man he knew to a killing machine. “Dad picked the man up, slammed him against a car, and put him in a headlock.”  The Gellmans did not press charges against the man, but Steve never forgot the expression on his father’s face. “It was like he was back in Italy,” Steve said.

It was not until forty-eight years after the war that Albert Gellman was able to confront his own demons. In 1998, the 76-year-old decorated World War II veteran entered counseling for post traumatic stress disorder.  The memories of horrors of war and the guilt and shame he carried for “leaving my buddies behind” finally surfaced and left him frequently in tears. 

It was after he had been to counseling that he was able to finally talk to his family about what he had endured. He had seen men blown up, had been begged by fellow GI’s in flames to be shot; he had killed German soldiers. These memories haunted him until his death at the age of 83 in 2001.

In 2006, Albany County Executive Mike Breslin and the Honor-A-Veteran Committee commemorated Gellman at a ceremony which included flying a flag in the late soldier’s honor. And the honors may continue. Gellman is currently one of 157 World War II Jewish War Veterans being considered for an upgrade to the Medal of Honor. Steve, who served in the US Air Force from 1960 to 1964, is working with the JWV to realize this goal. “With or without the Medal of Honor, I regard my father as a hero, a man who was bigger than life,” said Steve. “He sacrificed so much for this country, his time, his physical and emotional health. He truly represents The Greatest Generation.”

Thanks to Stephen Gellman for providing newspaper articles and other documents that were used to write this article.

First published in (Capital Region New York) Jewish World, May 16, 2019

Mel Toub, A True Renaissance Man

Mel Toub, September 2018

A few weeks ago, while Larry and I were at our synagogue for Friday night Shabbat services, a congregant asked our rabbi Karen Allen if the MiSheberach  prayer was appropriate for a 101-year-old woman who had just been paralyzed by a stroke and wanted to “let go.” The rabbi said there were many forms of healing. Sometimes it is in the form of a complete recovery. And sometimes, what was appropriate was a prayer for spiritual healing and peace. So yes, we said a prayer for the centenarian. 

The timing of the question was especially poignant for Larry and me. Earlier that day, we had learned that a dear friend, Mel Toub, had just been put in hospice care. As I write this, Mel and his wife Joyce are surrounded by their children and sharing stories and memories and—as always—their love. 

In December 2017, we had said good-bye to a friend who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer five years earlier. Milt and his wife Kathy had moved from St. Louis to our community in Florida as Milt wanted his last years in sunshine and warmth. As the prognosis  dimmed, they had moved back to Missouri. Soon after,  Milt called me to ask if he and I could work together on writing his story, one that could be read at his memorial. More importantly, he wanted to finish it before he so that he could look back on his life with a sense of completeness.

Hearing that Mel was also approaching the end of his long battle with prostate cancer, I called Joyce and asked if I could do the same for Mel not only from my perspective but also through the voices of his loving family and friends. With Joyce’s blessings, I composed an email and sent it to as many family members and friends as I could. “All of us love Joyce and Mel and wish we could do something to help. The only thing I feel that I can do is to make sure we capture Mel’s life and spirit in story of his wonderful life.  I am reaching out to you all to ask you to consider sending me stories and anecdotes about Mel that I can share with Mel as he takes this last journey.”

Within days, my inbox was filled with responses from around the country, all wishing to let Mel know NOW how much they love him. 

In email after email,  people spoke of Mel’s intellect, his love for Judaism, his musical artistry, his master carpentry skills, his gentle wit, his selflessness, and his quiet generosity. Marty Calderon, who regards his long time friend as the embodiment of a ’Renaissance man,’ said that Mel inspires those around him to “to live a fulfilling life, not to waste any time and to enjoy each day that is given to us.” Toby and Arnie Elman calls him simply—and perfectly— a ‘mensch.’

Mel was born January 6, 1949, in the Bronx, the second child of Joseph and Sonia Toub. Soon after, Joseph, Sonia, Arlene and Mel moved to Roosevelt, Long Island. They were neighbors with Howard Stern; family legend is that Mel even dated the radio personality’s  sister. Arlene recalled that their parents forbade their having a cat or a dog, so they had to settle for turtles. As he viewed life in a bowl must be boring, Mel invented games to enliven the two reptiles’ lives. One  consisted of transforming their record player turn-table into a turtle merry-go-round and giving each turtle a little spin around, a fairly successful adventure. The second game, Arlene recalled, didn’t end as well. Mel held the turtle by its tail and spun it around. The tail snapped off.

Upon completing Roosevelt High, Mel attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, where he obtained a bachelor’s and master’s degree in materials engineering. After a short time in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, he joined GE Silicones (now Momentive Performance Materials) in Waterford.. He spent his illustrative career there, developing several patents and, through a series of promotions, attaining the position of director of Application Development and Product activities prior to his retirement in 2012.

Mel is a brilliant and respected scientist, but it is his personal life that exemplifies his status as a true mensch. In September 1971, his first week in grad school, Mel met Joyce Silverstein. an encounter that can only be described as love at first sight.  Only six weeks later, he proposed. They got married in June 1972 soon after they both completed their graduate studies. Their son Josh was born in 1976, followed by Julia (1979) and David (1984) They settled in Clifton Park, and have become an integral part of both the secular and Jewish community. Long time friend Howie Vipler describes Mel’s  relationship with his family as his greatest source of pride.

Fern Hayden, immediate past president of Congregation Beth Shalom, recalls forty years of Mel’s contributions to the Jewish community. He and Joyce have served on the board, most prominently as religious/ritual chairs. In the sanctuary, Mel crafted  the ark doors, built  the book cases that held the prayer books, and most recently, modified the bima to accommodate a congregant whose stroke impacted her ability to climb the step to help lead services. 

It is Mel’s beautiful voice, however, that is most heralded by his fellow congregants. Nancy Cury, long-time friends, always angles to sit behind Mel and Joyce at services. “If we snag those seats, we are treated to their wonderful harmonies,” said Nancy. “They sway to the music, in their own little world, not realizing who is listening.”

Both Joyce and Mel have sung in the shul’s choir, and Mel has taken an active part in the service. He has chanted Haftorah for Shabbat and the High Holy Days, and his soaring rendition of Kol Nidre has provided the opening moments of almost every Yom Kippur for year after year, for many of his friends the highlight of the entire High Holy Day period.“If I close my eyes, I can hear his beautiful voice in my head right now,” said Nancy. “No matter who chants the Haftorah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in the future, the voice I will be hearing for the rest of my life will be Mel’s.”

Fellow congregant and long time friend Barry Hamerling regards Mel as the shul’s most valuable male member, one who is always there when he is needed.  Larry Fox recalled how Mel was there for him when Larry decided to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his bar mitzvah. Larry not only had not read Torah or Haftorah since he was thirteen but also was— errr-vocally challenged; “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket!” Larry admits. “Whether in sympathy for me or just trying to protect our Jewish traditions, Mel offered to be my tutor.”  To help, Mel produced a cassette that enunciated every syllable, a tape that Larry played over and over until he was able to complete what Larry regarded as an acceptable performance. “Mel’s friendship, love of music and his belief in the value of our Jewish life enabled him to bring harmony, although far from perfect, to the melody of my life,” said Larry. “I still can’t thank him enough.”

Along with his vocal talents, Mel is a serious bassoonist who has performed professionally in several orchestras and chamber groups in the Upstate New York area. Arlene recalls that they grew up in a home where music didn’t exist. “My parents never listened to music on the radio, and my only recollection of classical records in the house is that of an ‘Everbody’s-Favorite-Classics’ series that my parents must have felt obligated to buy—one each week—at the local super market.” Four years younger, Mel originally chose to follow Arlene’s choice of the clarinet. In high school, Mel switched to the bassoon, which became his passion and, with his professional musician’s license, his “second profession.”

When Charles Peltz took over as music director of the Glens Falls Symphony in 2000, Mel was already an experienced musician who had contributed much the orchestra.  Peltz said that he knows few people who have retained a love for their instrument and who have consistently met the high standards in his performances.  “That kind of devotion doesn’t come only from the  ability to show off one’s technique skill or in anticipation of reward,” said Peltz.  “Rather it comes from a person with a large heart for the deeper meaning of the things they do.” 

Every summer, Mel has attended the Glickman Popkin Bassoon Camp in Little Switzerand, North Carolina. Furthermore, Mel’s love for bassoon resulted in many summer tours with an orchestra composed of fellow musicians from across the United States that has brought both him and Joyce much joy. Meris Ruzow, a longtime friend, loved hearing about the places they played and the people they meet in places as diverse as France, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy , Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. 

In 2016, Mel and Joyce decided to buy a second home in Florida. One of the main considerations was choosing a location in which Mel could continue to perform.  Before they had even unpacked their boxes in their Naples villa, Mel had already begun practice with the Gulf Coast Symphony. Karen Gerhardt has fond memories of attending a performance  there with Joyce and her husband Les, who died suddenly of pancreatic cancer soon after their visit in 2018.

Twelve years ago, Mel was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Marty Calderon said that Mel told him soon after hearing the news that he felt as if “someone one crapped on his plate of food.” That is the worst he has ever spoken about his cancer diagnosis. He continues to live his life with grace, dignity, and humor. 

Mel had been an accomplished tennis and racquetball player in his youth. When he was in his sixties, he mixed those two sports with pickleball, finding the game offered a way to remain active without the physical demands of many other competitive sports. When Howie and Sandie Vipler visited the Toubs in November 2018, Mel played pickleball with them. The impact of his illness has curtailed further play.

In December,  Larry and I, along with Bernie and Chris Grossman traveled to Naples to have what had become our annual ‘Jews-eating-Chinese-food-on-Christmas Day’ tradition. When Mel saw a menu description of a dish containing leeks, he wondered out loud whether they were “Wiki Leaks.” Despite his growing weakness and obvious pain, Mel kept us all laughing throughout our visit. 

Soon after our December visit, Mel’s health began a precipitous decline. As Lew Morrison commented as the news spread of Mel’s worsening condition, “A cloud hangs over  all of us.”

“My father has instilled in his children his menschism and created a legacy that will continue to inspire his friends and family long after his passing,” said his daughter Julia.  “Although cancer will cruelly take his body from us far too soon, his spirit and soul will continue to flourish for generations.”

Borscht Belt staff reminisce about the glory days of Jewish Alps

From left, Marilyn Sommer, Robin Kauffman, Roberta Greenberg, and Nina Scudieri, all worked as counselors at the Homowak Lodge Hotel. Kauffman is the coordinator of the planned May 4 Catskill hotel staff reunion.


In the classic movie “Dirty Dancing,” Jack Weston’s character Max  Kellerman, the owner of the fictional Catskill resort, laments the changes down the road. “[I]t all seems to be ending. You think kids want to come with their parents and take fox-trot lessons? Trips to Europe, that’s what the kids want. .. It feels like it’s all slipping away.” 

The heyday of the Catskills have ended, but the memories of those resorts remain with those who shared those summers as staff and guests. “This was our Camelot, a place that has vanished but still has a place in the hearts and minds by the thousands whose life were shaped by this shared experienced,” said Patty Beardley Roker.  Roker shared this quote on the website for the upcoming reunion of Catskill staff members, which will be held on May 4, 2019, at  the Villa Roma Resort in Callicoon, New York, a Catskill hotel dating from 1944.

Roker and others have many a story to share of their time in the Catskills, often called the Borscht Belt. Borscht, a soup associated with immigrants from Eastern Europe, was a colloquialism for Jewish. Famous hotels of the area included The Concord, Grossinger’s, and Kutshers. But there were many smaller resorts and cottages too. 

The popularity of the Catskills starts at the beginning of the 20th century. Like many New York City dwellers before the advent of air conditioning, Jews  looked for places that would provide a respite from the summer heat.  Because of anti-Semitism, particularly in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, such choices were few. Sullivan, Ulster, and nearby counties offered working class Jewish New Yorkers, mostly Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, cheap land on which to build farms, bungalows, and hotels. 

One such family were the Brickmans. Soon after emigrating from Russia in 1908, Abraham and Molly realized that New York City, with its tenements, crowded streets, and poor air, was not for them. As Abraham had worked on the farms for the czars, they purchased farm land in South Fallsburg. Soon friends and relatives were coming up to Brickmans to escape the city’s summers, and the farm took on boarders.  The Brickmans’ daughter Anna and her husband Joseph Posner and their sons eventually took over the ownership.

Hotel Brickman had 300 rooms that accommodated over 600 adults and children. Along with adult activities, the hotel had a nursery, a day camp for children, and a teen program.

In 1965, 15-year old Patti Posner Daboosh began working in the resort’s office. When she was 26, she took over running the kitchen, supervising at times over 200 hundred staff members. Patti recalls fondly the diversity of the staff, which included college students and seasonal workers from the Southern states and from Central and South America. 

One evening, Patti walked into the kitchen and realized that one of the kitchen staff was feeding a homeless man. When Patti told the employee that he had to leave, he responded, “When he is finishing eating, I will ask him to leave.” Patti said that that encounter taught her humility. “The compassion this man had for this poor person taught me how to be a better person.”

In 1986, Patti’s father Benjamin, was 72, and Hotel Brickmans like many other Catskill resorts, were dwindling in popularity. The SYDA Foundation, a not-for-profit tied to promoting Sidda Yoga ideas, purchased the resort and converted it into an ashram. Ben had no regrets. “We will make new traditions,” he told his family. Patti reports Ben spent the next 20 years telling stories of his life in the Catskills. Patti eventually went back to college to obtain a degree in sociology, a path connected to the lessons she had learned from working with the diverse Brickman community. Patti now lives in Weaverville, North Carolina.

Mark Silverman, who now lives in Connecticut, also  had deep roots in  theCatskills. His parents, Ben and Elsie Silverman opened up a bungalow colony in Glen Wild in 1947 with Joe Kartin, Ben’s partner in their Flatbush butcher shop. What started as two bungalows in 1947 expanded to 16. Ben and his partner would switch off summers, with one commuting back and forth to Flatbush while the other partner ran the resort and a seasonal meat market.

The bungalows were simple, with a kitchen/living room/dinette, one bedroom, and a screened porch. Entertainment was also low-key—bingo or a movie in the community room, which was called The Casino in the Catskills. Most of the renters came for the entire summer, with the men in the family often commuting on weekends. 

Mark, like Patti, started helping his parents manage the resort as a teenager, keeping up the pool, mowing the lawn, maintaining the bungalows. Even after college, a stint in Vietnam, and his marriage to Diane Weissman, Mark continued to visit during the summers until his parents sold the resort in the 1990s. 

“Spending my summers in the country gave me a great appreciation for the outdoors, farms and woodlands in the area,” said Mark.  “I always knew that I couldn’t spend my life in an office, and this led to my career in agriculture and environmental science.”

Mina and Max Berjansky owned a bungalow colony in Monticello. In 1950, Susan Shapot Greenbaum, her parents, and her sister moved from the Bronx to join her grandparents. During the off-season, everyone shared the only heated home with only one small bathroom. In the summer, Mina and Max moved into the unfinished attic above the small grocery store, and the Shapots crowded into one bedroom and shared the bathroom with tenants. Max maintained the colony while Mina ran the grocery store, the only source of food during the week. Some of the guests shared a kokh-aleyn, the Yiddish name for self-catered bungalows, which was a large dormitory-styled house in which many families had a bedroom, a shared bathroom down the hall and one large shared kitchen, in which each family had its own stove, refrigerator and table. Other families had their own or one side of a two-family bungalow, complete with their own bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. Guests usually came up July 4th weekend and stayed through Labor Day. As in other Catskill resorts, the men frequently commuted back and forth to the city while the women and children remained all summer.

Susan said that her parents provided the low-key entertainment, including folk and square dancing, games, and masquerade parties for both the adults and the children. Every summer there was a “mock marriage” in which the tallest, biggest man was dressed as the bride and the smallest woman was dressed as the groom, with the entire wedding party following the “upside down” comedy act.

When New York State built the Route 17 expressway through the middle of their colony, the family moved into a house in Monticello. Later on, Susan tried working as a waitress at the Concord, one the Catskills largest resorts, but lasted only one week. “The regular staff were career people,” she said, “and they resented the college kids taking their tables and tips. I got pushed around often.”  She also spent one summer working as a waitress at Kaplan’s Delicatessen, the most popular eating spot during the summer months.

“Monticello was a great place to grow up—a quiet small town from September through June.” said Susan. “It was a busy, bustling place in July and August, with lots to do between the hotels, bungalow colonies and crowds of people hanging out on Broadway.  And it was always safe.”

Peter Vollweiler, who winters in Sarasota and summers in Upstate New York, saw the Northern Catskills through the eyes of his parents and relatives. The Breezy Hotel in Fleischmanns, Delaware County, one of the great hotels, drew many German Jewish Holocaust survivors, including Peter’s grandparents. Guests and older staff members generally didn’t talk about their war experiences but seeing the tattooed numbers on many arms showed their former plight. 

Peter worked at The Mathes resort during his summer school breaks from 1958 to 1963. He had a variety of occupations: pool boy, grounds “picker upper,” baby sitter, children’s dining room busboy, bellhop and chauffeur. The working hours were long with low pay, but the staff was treated very well. The fine European meals and desserts made it all worthwhile. Working with so many other young people, many themselves also children and grandchildren of survivors, was important to Peter. 

Marty Calderon, an Upstate New Yorker who retired in the Tampa area, worked two summers as a busboy and a waiter at the Pine Lodge near Monticello. Like Brickman’, the Pine Lodge was a mini-version of the larger resorts, “a small cruise ship on the ground.”

Like Peter, Marty remembered the long hours, which often extended from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. For his efforts, he made $75 a week, money which he brought home to his parents in New York City.

Marty enjoyed the camaraderie with fellow staff members, and the food was plentiful—and delicious. For two years, he worked at the resort during Passover.  “Before that experience, everything I had eaten during Pesach was dry and tasteless,” said Marty. “At Pine Hills, it was like a Viennese table at a wedding. I can still taste that sponge cake!

Joel Thaw, who lives in the Orlando area, spent every summer from birth to age 18 in the bungalow colonies. What he remembered the most was the freedom he had as children.  “We left after breakfast and didn’t return until before dinner. Everybody knew everybody, and the parents watched out for each other’s children.” He also worked a concession stand the summer of Woodstock, which took place in nearby Bethel.Joel remembers putting a 16-year-old in charge of the stand while he and a friend drove to the music festival in time to see Jefferson Airplane before driving back.

Chair Robin Kaufman, who vacationed with her parents and later worked at the Homowack Hotel, stated that already close to 100 people signed up. “We are going to make history,” said Robin. “This will probably be the first time that many former Catskill bungalow and hotel staff  will reunite together under one roof.” 

She reports that among those committed to attend are former “tummler extraordinaire” Larry Strickler and MC Mel Simons, as well as some of the musician who accompanied the greats. In addition to the reunion’s evening event, programs are set for the entire weekend. (Strickler will present an interactive program on Saturday afternoon. 

Kaufman by phone at  (401) 487-9646  or by email at rmkauff100@cox.net can provide details.

This article was first published in (Capital Region New York’s) Jewish World on January 24, 2019.