Category Archives: Feature Stories

Remembering Mr. Rogers

Mr. Rogers in his iconic zippered sweater.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say Yes to the [Wrong] Dress!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yay! You are going to look gorgeousssss!”

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

“You go girl!”

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

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

“She needs new makeup.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Larry, would you please zip me up?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Unsung Hero Rescued by Three Teenagers

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

“Have you read it?” Larry asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Bibliophile LOVES Libraries!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.