Category Archives: Feature Stories

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.

Repairing the World

The following is the first essay in my upcoming second book of essays, Tikkun Olam: Living Kind in an Unkind World. Look for it on Amazon soon!

The Shabbat prayer book in our synagogue includes the following meditation: “I harbor within—we all do—a vision of my highest self, a dream of what I could and should become. May I pursue this vision, labor to make real my dream.”

Melting glaciers and rising seas. The threat of nuclear war. The uptick of racist and xenophobic acts. Despite or maybe because of the current state of our world, it is more critical than ever for me to find “my highest self.” I am determined to use my moral compass to point me in a direction that follows my values and helps create change for the better for others.

Until recently, I did not consider myself an activist. I was—admittedly—marginally involved in the Vietnam War protests and the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment fight. Although I have voted in almost every local, state, and national election, I have minimally involved myself in campaigning. 

Recent headlines, however, have inspired me to become politically involved in the democratic process. In 2016, I participated in organized phone calls and mailings to support candidates in whom I believed. Two years later, I continue to be an activist. I participate in a grassroots organization to effect change at a local level. I contact my legislators on a regular basis through phone calls, emails, and letters. In addition, I have met with my United States representative, worked on post card campaigns, written postcards to encourage voter participation in recent off-year special elections, and provided financial support to organizations and publications that support my views. Even though these efforts are often met with defeat and disappointment, at least I have made a sincere effort to make a difference. 

In turn, I work to be more accepting of those whose political views differ from mine. I listen more carefully and non-judgmentally without rushing in with my own opinion. I have expanded my reading to include a wider range of media and publications in belief that my knowledge will help me better understand why people think like they do. Such research also gives me insight as to how the country and the world got to where it is today .Maybe—just maybe—if friends and family members talk and share and communicate, we can encourage our government to take a more bi-partisan approach. 

Finally, I strive to be kind. Whether it be coaching a local Special Olympics track and field team with my husband; extending a smile to strangers, or offering a helping hand to those impacted by recent natural disasters, I believe individual acts of goodness can make a difference. “Not all of us can do great things,” Mother Theresa said. “But we can do small things with great love.” 

Tikkun Olam, the Hebrew expression translated often as “repairing the world” is the Jewish moral principal that states every individual should leave this world better than he or she found it. This is the vision of my highest self. Through my voice, my writing, and my actions, I hope “to do small things with great love”—to make our country and this world a better place for our own and future generations.

Adapted from “Living My Values, The Jewish World, April 5, 2017

 

The Titanic Fanatic

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Steve Mattis stands in his library, which is filled with Titanic memorabilia.

On March 28, 1956, nine-year-old Steven Mattis sat mesmerized in his living room in Philadelphia as Kraft Theater’s adaptation of A Night to Remember unfolded. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Walter Lord, the one hour television production told the story of the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. At first enthralled by the beautiful ship, the glamour of the first class passengers, and the contrast to the third class passengers circumstances, Mattis’ fascination turned to horror as he viewed the shocking climax: Three hours after hitting an iceberg, the British ocean liner sank into the North Atlantic Ocean. Over one thousand five hundred men, women, and children perished. 

It was a life-changing event. That night, Mattis cried himself to sleep. “I realized that my parents could not save me from all of life’s dangers,” he remembered.

In the years that followed, Mattis spent much of his spare time reading and researching everything he could learn about the doomed voyage. His interest in the supposedly “unsinkable ship” has expanded over six decades. More recently Mattis has thrilled innumerable people who have listened to his lectures on the subject. 

The Titanic did not play into his professional career. For thirty-seven years, Mattis taught Spanish, first in Philadelphia and then for seven years in Fort Lauderdale,Florida. In 2005, Mattis moved to Solivita, an active 55+ community in Kissimmee. A seasoned traveler—he has been on 117 cruises so far—he joined Solivita travel club and  spent the next twelve years organizing and leading trips for its members. His travels have taken him and the travel club groups to China, Tahiti, Antarctica, Alaska, Hawaii, the Mediterranian, and safaris in Africa.

In April 2012, Mattis participated in the 100th Anniversary Titanic Memorial Cruise. The MS Balmoral, which sailed out of Southhampton, England, retraced the doomed liner’s fateful journey. For Mattis and many of its 1308 other passenger—seventy relatives of people who had died onboard or who had survived—the highlight was the moving memorial service. The ship sailed to the site of the sinking to be there exactly one hundred years to the hour. The commemorative ceremonies began at 11:40 p.m. on April 14 when Titanic struck the iceberg and ended at 2:20 a.m., April 15, when she sank under the sea. 

The following fall, Mattis presented a talk with accompanying slides on his “trip of a lifetime” to Solivita’s Travel Club.Before embarking on  a cruise on the Amazon the following year, Mattis posted a question to fellow cruisers: “Would any of you be interested in hearing my Titanic lecture?” The response was overwhelmingly favorable. Over forty people showed up at that first lecture. The cruise director, impressed with the depth of knowledge and passion Mattis conveyed, encouraged the “Titanic fanatic” to add additional lectures to his repertoire and offer the package on future cruises. Mattis and his best friend, Andy Miller, complied, adding three more lectures.The rest, as Mattis says, was history.  

Starting with groups in Solivita and local libraries, Mattis expanded his audience to multiple cruise lines, including Azamara, Royal Caribbean, Silversea, Princess and Celebrity. His audiences have been as large six hundred people, often growing over the length of the cruise as favorite word of mouth reviews spread throughout the ship. 

Mattis’ lectures are —no pun intended—a tip of the iceberg regarding people’s interest in the ill-fated voyage. Traveling expeditions, numerous museums, special events, television shows, and eight movies still draws crowds. (Mattis himself has seen A Night to Remember fifteen times and James Camerons’ Titanic close to fifty.) 

What brings people to Mattis’ lectures on a cruise ship when they could be sunning by the pool or learning how to fold napkins? Mattis believes that this is a story into which people can put themselves. Mattis said that the fact that the Titanic took close to three hours to go down puts people into the story.”’Who would I have been in the Titanic?’ people ask.” Mattis said. “Would I have been a hero? A villain? A first class passenger steeped in elegance? A third class immigrant in steerage?” 

The irony—the pure tragedy—also sparks peoples interest. “There was great hubris by both the designers and the captain in thinking that a ship—with a shortage of lifeboats for partly esthetic reasons—could be unsinkable and could run at full speed at night through ice fields after warning after warning of the danger.”

Mattis often  tailors his lectures to his audiences, as he did in 2015 when he gave a lecture on Jews on the Titanic for Solivita’s Shalom Club. Mattis, whose family belonged to Brith Israel, a conservative synagogue in Philadelphia, takes pride in the way prominent Jews handled their fate on the ship. 

As did many passengers, Benjamin Guggenheim, the fifth of seven sons of the wealthy mining magnate Meyer Guggenheim, initially did not realize the fatal consequences that would result from the ships’s collision with the iceberg. “We will soon see each other again! It’s just a repair,” he said to the women and children he and his valet were helping into lifeboats. Once he realized that he and many others would not survive, he returned to his cabin and donned his evening wear. “We’ve dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen,” said Guggenheim. Mattis said later accounts described the billionaire and his valet as last seen seated in chairs in the foyer of the Grand Staircase sipping brandy and smoking cigars, ready to accept their fate without fear or hesitation. Their bodies were never recovered.

Two other Jews who lost their lives on April 15, 1912, were German-born Isador Strauss, politician and the owner of Macy’s Department Store, and his wife Ida Strauss. The couple were on the Titanic traveling back from a winter in Europe. Once it was clear the Titanic was sinking, Isador refused to get into a lifeboat, stating firmly, “I will not go before the other men.”  Ida handed her fur coat to her maid, Ellen Bird, as she left the lifeboat, said, “As we have lived, so will we die, together.” In what eye witnesses later described as a”most remarkable exhibition of love and devotion.” Isidor and Ida were last seen on deck arm in arm.

Broadway producer Henry Birkhardt Harris was more successful in convincing his wife, actress Renee Harris to board a lifeboat without him. Earlier that day, Renee had broken her arm in a fall on the Grand Staircase. Convincing her that he could not save himself as well as his disabled wife, Henry refused a seat and also perished. His widow, who became New York City’s first woman theatrical producer, remarried three times and lived until 93. 

Not all Jews were first class passengers.Leah Rosen Aks, emigrating to America from London, was on the Titanic with her infant son Phillip. Leah and her son were separated in the confusion when they were being loaded on the lifeboats. “Filly” was thrown into another lifeboat; the inconsolable Leah was soon placed on Lifeboat 13. Soon after Carpathia rescued the survivors, Leah was walking on the deck when she recognized her son’s cry. However, the woman who had caught Phillip, regarding the baby as a “gift from God,” claimed it to be her own. In a scenario rivaling King Solomon, Leah pleaded her case to the Carpathia’s captain. Only when Leah was able to identify a distinguishable birthmark on his breastbone was Phillip returned to his birth mother. Leah and Phillip were reunited with her husband Sam in New York. They later had a second son, Harry, and a daughter, Sarah Carpathia—named after the rescue ship.

Mattis also related another note of Jewish interest: The Titanic had a kosher kitchen. On board was a “Hebrew” chef, a non-Jew from South Africa, who had trained with a rabbi in Southhampton on previous White Line cruises. A kosher option was available to all passengers, including those in third class.

Over one hundred years later, all the passengers are gone, not only those that died but those who survived. Millvina Dean, who was two months old when the vessel hit the iceberg, died in 2009 at the age of 97. 

Mattis regards the time he spends sharing the Titanic’s stories as his contribution to the legacy of the ship. “The fact that this story stays alive and is of interest to so many brings me joy,” says Solivita’s own Titanic Fanatic.

A present-day Shabbos goy in Kissimmee

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Cindy and Ruben Vazquez own Bellissimo Hair Salon in Kissimmee, Florida.

As I settled into my chair at the Shalom Club table at Solivita Club Expo, I put my pocketbook on the empty chair from the Bellisimo Hair Salon which was located next us. A few minutes later, a young Hispanic man asked me to move it so he could sit down.

“Hope you don’t mind,” he said.

“No problem!” I said. It’s your chair. And I put the bag on the floor.

A Shanda!

“It would be a “shanda” to put that nice bag on the floor!” he exclaimed.

I took a closer look at the speaker. He certainly looked Hispanic, not someone who is familiar with the Jewish word for shame or disgrace!

“Shanda!” I said. “Are you…errrr..are you Jewish?”

“No,” he said. “Better than that! I was a Shabbos goy on Long Island!”

For those who are not familiar with the term, a “Shabbos goy” is the Yiddish term for a non-Jew who performs certain types of work which Jewish religious law prohibits the Jew from doing on the Sabbath. And Ruben Vazquez, the son of Puerto Rican parents who came to New York in the 1960s is a self-acclaimed proud Shabbos goy!

A Warm Welcome

Ruben’s parents were born in Yabucoa Puerto Rico, and came to the Bronx in 1952 .  Ruben, their only child, was born in 1972. Ruben’s father, Ruben Vazquez Baez, was a professor of administration at City College in New York as well as a high school teacher at Park West on 50th St Manhattan. His mother, Gilda Vazquez was a supervisor at the Bank of America at the World Trade Center.

When Ruben was six, his family moved to Bayswater in Far Rockaway, Queens, on the border line of Long Island. At first, the Vasquez family was apprehension when they realized they were the only Hispanics—and the only non-Jews—in a modern Orthodox neighborhood. The first week they lived there, however, Mrs. Weiss brought them a pie. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” the rabbi’s wife exclaimed.

Ruben became friends with many of the children in the neighborhood. He remembers his friends and him using the yarmulkes as Frisbees. “The adults would not have been happy if they realized our game,” said Ruben.

 Learning the Rules

Ruben also began learning the complexities of the dietary laws. One day, he wandered into a friend’s garage while munching on a roast beef and cheese sandwich.

“Do you want half my sandwich?” Ruben asked his friend.

“No thanks,” his friend replied. “We don’t mix milk with meat.”

Ruben took the cheese off half the sandwich and offered the revised snack to his friend.

“Err…no thanks, Ruben,” said his friend. “I’ll pass.”

To earn money, Ruben started mowing lawns for his neighbors. He made more friendships and learned more about the “black hats.” They began to rely on him.

 A New Job

One Saturday, one of his friend’s mothers knocked on the Vasquez’ door. “Ruben, Moishe left the television set on in the upstairs bedroom. Do you think you could take care of it for me?”

Ruben gladly went over to turn off the set. Soon after, other Jews in the neighborhood were knocking on his door, discreetly mentioning hinting at some task that Ruben could “remedy.” His reputation as the Shabbos goy was set.

Meanwhile, Ruben was picking up many of the Yiddish expressions that peppered the conversations of his neighbors. They flowed off his tongue as easily as those who spoke the language of the “Old Country” regularly. He not only avoided sharing his sandwiches, but also understood the traditions that governed his adopted community.

 Cosmetology

When Ruben was going into is senior year of high school, his father asked him what he would like to study after his graduation.

“Cosmetology,” was Ruben’s quick reply. He had a great uncle and an aunt who were in the business, and Ruben had spent a great deal of time in their shops. “You can do anything you want—after college,” his father told him.

His first two years at Queens Borough Community College, Ruben studied liberal arts with a self-admitted minor in “looking for girls.” By his junior year, however, Ruben realized that he was interested in religion. A Catholic raised in a community of Jews, he completed a bachelors in theology. Over the next few years, he was involved in missionary work and even did some Pentecostal tent revival meetings. In between all of this, he got his certificate in cosmetology from the State of New York under an apprenticeship program.

He soon met Cindy Peguero, a transplant from Florida who also had a cosmetology degree. The two of opened two salons in Five Towns, Woodmere and Bensonhurst (Ragtime Brooklyn). They were also professors at Academy of Career Training and used their expertise to become platform artists and educators around the world , including Paris, England, Italy, Japan Thailand, South and Central America.

Jewish Clientele Again

In their shops in Woodmere, Ruben and Cindy catered to their modern Orthodox clientele. Ruben became an expert at cutting the hair and beards of the Orthodox men. He knew how to follow the Jewish rules on shaving, which were based on Leviticus: “You shall not round the corners of your head, neither shall you mar the corners of your beard (19:27)” .This involved very specific guidelines on how to shave the back of the neck and under the chin. Although most of the men didn’t wear payot, the long sidecars or sidelocks, the hair could not be cut above a certain spot on the cheekbone. Ruben could not work on the women’s hair (“That was a shanda!” said Ruben). That job fell to Cindy , worked with the women to cut their natural hair and fix their wigs.

Move to Florida

Ten years ago, Ruben’s parents retired and moved to Kissimmee, Florida. Ruben, Cindy, and their two children were spending more and more time in Florida. The visits increased when Ruben’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. The Vasquez’ decided to move south to be close to both their families. Ruben’s mother passed away in 2010. Ruben’s father has since remarried.

In 2016, Cindy and Ruben opened up Bellissimo’s, a salon down the street from a fifty-five community. They no longer are taking care of the modern Orthodox, but people from Solivita—many of them Jewish—have become their customers.

“Baruch HaShem!” said Ruben. With G-d’s help, my business will continue to grow!”

Originally published in The (Capital District) Jewish World, February 8, 2018

The Creature Calls…..

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The Creature of the Black Lagoon display at Wakulla Springs State Park, Tallahassee, Florida.

While my husband Larry and I were visiting friends in Tallahassee, Florida, recently, the four of us went to Wakulla Springs State Park. The 6,000 acre wildlife sanctuary offers a magical forty-five minute boat ride that takes its passengers past cypress groves, lovely springs, and a plethora  of wildlife. Our tour guide, a woman named Connie, navigated the boat through a narrow, shaded section of the ride and announced that this was the area in which Creature of the Black Lagoon was filmed in 1954.

Fear, Shock, Disgust?

I was all too familiar with the Creature of the Black Lagoon. When the movie arrived in Keeseville, New York, in 1955, my nine-year-old brother Jay had made plans to see it with a group of his friends. My mother, busy with a newborn, insisted that Jay take me, his five-year-old sister, along. We walked around the corner to the old theater in our small Upstate New York town, my brother grumbling all the way. The first fifteen or so minutes were fine. The minute I saw the huge black amphibian-like creature emerge from the water, however, I became so frightened that I started screaming and crying. Jay had to leave his friends and popcorn behind to bring me home. “I told you I didn’t want to take her with me!” my brother loudly complained to my mother. It was years before he took me to the movies with him again. The next horror movie I saw in its entirety was Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, when my college showed it on one of its movie nights.

Nightmares for Weeks!

I didn’t fare any better with scary television shows. On November 11, 1960, my parents hosted a party for a group of their friends. My sister Laura and my brother Jay were supposed to be watching me in the family room while the adults congregated in the living and dining rooms. I insisted on staying awake, even when the Twilight Zone came on. The episode Rod Serling introduced that night was “Eye of the Beholder.The now classic told the story of a young woman lying in a hospital bed, her head swathed in white bandages. She awaits the outcome of a surgical procedure performed by the State in a last-ditch attempt to make her look “normal”. In the end, the doctor and nurses, who are only heard but not seen, remove the bandages to reveal a beautiful woman. As the medical team gasp with disappointment and revulsion, the camera moves to their twisted, grotesque faces. Beauty, it seemed, was in the eye of the beholder. In a scene reminiscent of what happened five years before in the movie theater, I screamed in fear and went running into the living room. The guests all trickled out as my parents tried to calm down their hysterical ten year old. 

The end result was—well—“horror-able.” I had nightmares for weeks. Laura and Jay were grounded for months. And it took years for me to watch the complete episode—ten months short of forty years, to be exact. On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1999, one of the cable stations offered a Twilight Zone marathon. The-episode-not-to be-named was shown between 11:30 pm and midnight. I watched it until the end, when the beautiful woman (played by Donna Douglas of later Beverly Hillbillies fame) was led out of the hospital by an equally handsome man to a place that accepted “ugly” people as their normal. It was only until the credits rolled did I turn the station to Dick Clark’s show and watch the ball drop at Times Square to mark the new millennium.

Avoidance Works

For my entire life, I have avoided scary movies unless they are very old (The original versions of Phantom of the Opera and Frankenstein), very funny (Little Shop of Horrors; Young Frankenstein), or very well acted. (Silence of the Lambs; The Sixth Sense).

However, let’s face it. Children’s movies can be scary. Larry was so traumatized by the Wicked Witch of the West when he first saw The Wizard of Oz as a four year old that he refused to watch the annual television broadcast for years. The evil queen in Disney’s Snow White was as frightening to me when I was a child as Hannibal Lecter was to me as an adult. And the sea witch Ursula in The Little Mermaid still chills me to the bone when she appeared in her plump purple presence both on film and on the stage. But these animated antagonists who provided the tension in the children’s classics didn’t scare me enough to turn them off.

Once I became a parent, I shared my love for fairy tales with all their heroes and heroines and scary villains with Adam and Julie. Thanks to Blockbuster and our VCR, we watched Dorothy, Snow White, Cinderella, Aladdin, and Ariel confront and conquer their demons again and again and again.

In 1991, when Adam and Julie were thirteen and ten respectively, Beauty and the Beast was released. It remains one of my favorite movies of all time, up there with Casablanca and Schindler’s List. I was drawn to Belle’s intelligence, her feminist streak, her strength. And I loved the Beast, with all his bluster and bellows, for his transformation into a loving, caring individual once he both received and gave the gift of love.

Monsters Everywhere

Julie told me this summer that my two-year-old granddaughter Sylvie loved the music from the movie, and I was more than willing to share my enthusiasm with her. Together Sylvie and I listened to the sound track, watched some clips on You Tube, danced to the title song across the living room floor, and sang the songs on the way to her daycare. By the end of the summer, I had purchased the movie and downloaded it to my laptop. Sylvie sat on my lap and watched mesmerized the entire length of the film.

When Larry and I returned to Colorado in October, however,  Sylvie’s attitude changed. Yes, “Little town, little quiet village…” was fine. But the minute the Beast arrived on the scene, Sylvie hid her face in her hands and said, “I no want to watch the Beast! I scared!” My showing her that short segment triggered a fear of all monsters, the ones in her closet, the ones under her bed, the ones hiding in the trees. 

So the movie is off the radar for a while. Maybe by next summer, she will realize that Gaston, the handsome but chauvinistic and selfish oaf, is much more frightening than the considerate, loving Beast. Maybe she will have to wait five or ten or even forty years to watch the movie in its entirety. And maybe, like Rod Serling’s classic, she will realize like my heroine Belle that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Originally published in The (Capital District) Jewish World, January 11, 2018

Lost and Found: A Torah crown and family return to community

 

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A proper home: The Gutensohn family (L to R) Gabriel, Karen, Peter, Kelly, and Liza.

“That doesn’t belong here.”

Peter Gutensohn stared at the large tarnished sterling silver piece almost hidden in a dusty corner of Lanier’s Historic Downtown Marketplace.

Peter had come in to the antiques mall in Kissimmee, Florida, on an early spring day in 2016 to look for a silver serving platter for his wife Kelly. He was a frequent visitor, often successful in his search for a specific old, beautiful object. And sometimes he bought interesting items “just because.” A few years earlier, Peter had found a Kiddish cup and a prayer book. Kelly had polished up the sterling silver goblet to use at their weekly Shabbat dinners. Their son Gabriel, who was six years old,  had confiscated the prayer book, refusing to let any of his siblings see the treasure he kept next to his bed.

Unlike the previous Judaica he had purchased at Laniers, however, Peter had a differenT intent for that day’s find. Despite its sad appearance, Peter knew that he was looking at a Torah crown, an object made to cover, protect, and honor a Torah scroll, the sacred parchments on which the first five books of the Tanakh are meticulously inscribed.

Peter asked how such an object landed up in an antique store in Kissimee. The owners told Peter that the Torah crown was one of many objects stuffed into an abandoned storage locker. The identity of the original owner was unknown. Forgotten? Left behind? Abandoned as the monthly fees for the space in the storage facility had become unaffordable?

No matter. After the management of the storage facility had made a good faith effort to find the renter without success, the unit was put up for auction and purchased by Laniers. The Torah crown, one of many objects in the unit, had sat in a corner of the store for months, gathering tarnish and dust, until it had caught Peter’s eye.

Peter felt  a sense of loss that such a piece of Judaica sat unclaimed, unused, unappreciated, He purchased the crown—along with a silver tray for Kelly—and brought them to their home in St.Cloud.

A tragedy early in their marriage had led them to reclaiming their Jewish roots that had been lost over the previous three generations. Peter’s Jewish great-grandfather had married a Catholic and assimilated. Kelly’s great grandparents had changed their names to hide their Jewishness. Peter had memories of conversations with his grandfather about Jewish food, and music; Kelly had early memories of lighting Shabbat candles with neighbors who were observant Jews. Otherwise, neither Peter nor his Kelly were raised with any religious affiliations or traditions.

Peter and Kelly had much in common. They both were one of four children with similar birth years. Both of their fathers were career diplomats, jobs that took their families around the world. Kelly and Peter first met when they were fifteen and seventeen respectively outside the library at their high school in Bangkok, Thailand, where both of their “embassy families” were stationed. Subsequently, their fathers were assigned to Seoul, Korea, where Peter and Kelly both attended college.

After their graduations, Peter joined the Marines and Kelly married an Army officer. Five years and two children later, Kelly was divorced. She and Peter reconnected while both their families were living in Washington, D.C..They were married in 1989.

In 1990, while Peter was in Kuwait for the first Gulf War, their first child together was born. Tragically, Joel died when he was three months old of what was first diagnosed as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Authorities later determined that Joel and two other local children had succumbed to lead poisoning linked to lead in the pipes of their municipal water supply.

Devastated by their son’s death, Kelly and Peter began a search for answers—and faith. “We were looking for something we could give our children,” said Kelly. “We wanted something bigger than ourselves, something we had not had.” They explored different denominations, questioning chaplains, pastors, priests, and rabbis in hopes of finding a spiritual connection.

Kelly’s best friend, who was Jewish, knew of the Gutensohn’s quest.  She invited Kelly to a

Friday night service at her synagogue. “The first time I went, it felt like coming home,” said Kelly,” like the piece of me that was lost had been found.”

Soon after, Kelly prepared her first Shabbat dinner for Peter and her two children, complete with blessings over the candles, the wine, and the challah and a traditional meal.. As the family grew with the birth of eight more children, Kelly learned more about Judaism, its traditions, its holidays. She taught herself and her children Hebrew. The family observed the Jewish holidays.

The family attended conservative synagogues, but they were not comfortable with the strong focus on tradition and the literal interpretation of scripture. While Peter was stationed in Virginia with the Marines, however, they were involved with a group of fellow Jews who met in each other’s homes for Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. And they celebrated Shabbat every Friday, including the Friday before Peter came home with Torah crown from Laniers.

Moved by the  by crown’s hidden beauty and its mysterious past, Kelly and two of their daughters began the process of polishing and restoring the intricate metalwork to its full shine. Family obligations filled their lives, however, and the still tarnished crown was hidden away in one of their closets for several months. Finally, in January 2017, the Gutensohns began in earnest to find a “proper home” for the Torah crown.

Their original intent was to donate it to the Holocaust Memorial and Education Center in Orlando. On further consideration, the family decided that the crown belonged not in an archive but part of a living, active congregation.

The Gutensohns had  attended services at Congregation Shalom Aleichem on Pleasant Hill Road in Kissimmee. Remembering the shul’s warm, inclusive atmosphere, Peter contacted Rabbi Karen Allen, who assured them that his family’s generous donation would be not only accepted but also valued and cherished.

On a Friday night in May 2017, just before services were to begin, Peter walked into Congregation Shalom Aleichem carrying the huge crown on his shoulders. Two weeks later, Peter brought Kelly and three of their children—Liza, Karen, and Gabriel—to services. Harry Lowenstein, a Holocaust survivor and one of the founding members of the shul, had brought the crown home to shine it to its full glory and had placed it on the synagogue’s Holocaust Torah. The crown now has a home.

On Yom Kippur, with Kelly and three of their children watching, Peter was given the honor of holding the Holocaust Torah during Kol Nidre. They are now active members of the synagogue, attending services, sharing the break-the-fast, helping to build the Sukkah. Their fifteen-year-old daughter Karen will be participating in Birthright Israel this December.

“This beautiful artifact has brought them back more deeply—individually and as a family—to their Jewish roots and identity,” said Rabbi Allen.

“Every Friday night when I light the Shabbat candles, I think about my grandparents and great grandparents,” said Kelly. “They thought that religion was a small thing to sacrifice  Looking back over the past 150 years, I see my family members with no anchor, no roots, and no identity. They gave up more than they could ever know.”

Jewish World, October

 

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The Torah crown restored to its full beauty.

 

My Friend Marc

 

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He was easy to spot. In a room full of frail, elderly people, Marc and his motorized wheelchair loomed large. His six foot four-inch thin frame rested on the chair, his head on the headrest, and his face inches away from the straw-like device that, through his breathing, powered him around the Daughters of Sarah, a nursing home in Albany, New York. 

I had come to Daughters that afternoon to visit Rose, a 99-year old friend. But she had decided to attend a lecture, and I was waiting for her in the community room. So I used my free time to strike up a conversation with the young man, a rarity among the ancient. I found out that he had lived at Daughters for eight years, he was  thirty-four years old, and he maneuvered his chair around the building chatting with young staff members for companionship—the only people in the facility close to his age. I asked him if I could visit him every week before my time with Rose, and he said, “Sure!”

Maybe because he was just two months older than my son Adam. Maybe because he is just a genuinely nice person. No matter, we just clicked. Over the next few weeks, I learned more about his situation. He had become a quadriplegic in a freak motorcycle accident when he was 16—yes, he was wearing a helmet! “Since the accident,” Marc told me later, “I really feel I haven’t had much choice in anything in life other than give up or carry on.”

His parents have been there for him since they got the life-changing  phone call that their son had been in a terrible accident. “It was my strong-willed father who especially pushed me to improve my situation,” Marc said. “He posted a sign on my computer that read, ‘What can I do today to make myself more independent?’

For the first ten years, Marc had lived with his parents in their home near Sacadaga Lake. Finding good home health care to meet his needs became more problematic, and he and the family decided that Daughters was a better option for him. 

Marc never exhibited any bitterness about his situation, and he rarely complained even when he was uncomfortable from his kidney stones or he struggled with breathing. He loved his family and Westerns and fishing and stock car racing. I picked up 101 Things You Should Know About NASCAR from the library and studied the book so I could talk intelligently with him about the sport. To my husband Larry’s amusement, I even started following the results in the newspaper and caught some of the races on the television.

Marc also liked McDonalds, so I often stopped on my way to the nursing home in one the franchise’s restaurant a mile from Daughters. The bag of burger and fries left a tantalizing trail of non-kosher, or what Jews know as ‘treif’—aromas down the hallway. It took a few times for us to find a rhythm as I fed him: two bites of the Big Mac, two fries, and two sips of soda. Repeat. He loved chocolate, so I usually brought him brownies or chocolate chip cookies, which he saved for later.

Marc owned a fully equipped handicap accessible van, which was kept in the nursing home parking lot. It took me a while to get the courage to take him for outings. One beautiful fall day, however, I asked Marc if he wanted to go for a ride. “Sure!” he said with a huge smile. He guided me through the process of opening up the back door, pushing him up the ramp, pulling his chair back to compensate for his height, and locking the mechanism in place. 

We drove up the Northway and across the Twin Bridges. We got an ice cream cone at the Country Drive-In and then sat in a small park near the Mohawk River. The autumn foliage was at its peak, and the sky was a brilliant blue. We had a little scare when the battery light on his van went on. But I managed to deliver him and his vehicle safely back to Daughters.

Over the next three years, I visited Marc on a regular basis, even after Rose passed away. Weather permitting, we would take a field trip—a Chinese restaurant, Five Guys, Wal-Mart, a local mall. Our excursions taught me much about what Marc endures. Adults watched us furtively as I fed him wonton soup; children gawked and asked their parents loud questions as the two of us browsed an aisle in the Christmas Tree Shop. When we stopped in a hair salon, the beautician first directed her questions to me until I said emphatically, “Marc is perfectly capable of telling you how he wants his hair cut.”

There were many weeks I could not visit Marc—Larry and I  were traveling, either Marc or I  was sick, or bad weather prevented me from driving the sixteen miles down the Northway. But no matter, 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 that transition. Visits from other friends and family were—to me—too few and far between, and Daughters’ staff could not drive Marc in his van due to liability issues. 

As Larry and I packed up our house, we needed to find a home for four photo collages that we had created from our trips. We brought them to Marc, and he had them hung up on the wall next to his family pictures and a digital photo album we had gotten him the previous Christmas.

On the last visit before we left, Marc and I decided to keep in touch through e-mails. I also promised him that I would mail him a postcard every Monday. On my last visit, I gave him a hug and cried as I made my way across the parking lot past his big blue van to my car. 

When Larry and I came back the Albany for Thanksgiving five months later, our second stop with our rental car was Daughters. The first was a stop at Panera Bread for a brownie to bring to Marc. “We were in the neighborhood and thought you could use some chocolate,” I said, as we surprised him in his room. On the wall were the photo collages and all the the postcards that I had sent him from Florida and Colorado and California.

Marc continues to reside in Daughters of Sarah. He has had a couple of surgeries and more than a few health scares. His postcard collection grows, some I purchased during our travels and some given to me by friends and members of our community’s travel club.

In February, Marc celebrated his thirty-ninth birthday. He continues to carry on, to remain positive.

“I have some bad days when I am in pain or can’t breathe,” Marc told me. “But every day I get up and put a smile on my face. I try to make the best out of each day because I believe that someone always has it worse than I do.”

And every day, I am grateful that Marc is my friend.