Category Archives: Florida

Coincidence? Or could it be b’shert?

Coincidence? Or Could It Be  B’Shert?

In 2012,  Rochelle and Bill Willner, attended services at Congregation Shalom Aleichem in Kissimmee, Florida. Former members, they were there for the first time in two years to check out the new rabbi. Before the mourner’s kaddish, Rabbi Karen Allen asked if anyone was observing sheloshim, the thirty day period of mourning. A woman whom they didn’t recognize announced that she had recently lost her aunt Yetta Weiner.

Immediately after services ended, Rochelle approached the mourner. “Excuse me,” said Rochelle, “ but Yetta Weiner is MY aunt!”

It didn’t take long for Rochelle and the “stranger” Marilyn Glaser to realize they were second cousins. Yetta was the wife of David Weiner, brother to both Rochelle ’s and Marilyn’s grandmothers.

The coincidences didn’t end there. Both Marilyn and the Willners lived on the same street in Solivita, a fifty-five plus adult community near the synagogue. Rochelle had attended Marilyn’s wedding over forty years earlier when she had gone as her father’s date. Her mother, the originally invited guest, had had surgery. Marilyn didn’t recall meeting her that day, but it was confirmed when the two of them found Rochelle’s picture in Marilyn’s old wedding album. 

Since that night, Marilyn and Rochelle have become  not only cousins but dear friends.  “I speak to Rochelle at least four times a day,” said Marilyn.

How Did This Come About?

What would have happened if Rochelle and Bill hadn’t come that night to check out the rabbi? If the rabbi hadn’t asked for the first time if anyone was in period of mourning? If Marilyn hadn’t announced Yetta’s name? So many coincidences! 

Or where they? According to some Jewish theologians, there is no such thing as coincidences. Hashgacha Pratit , or Divine Providence, is the concept that that G-d is actively involved in each of our lives. American author and inspirational speaker SQuire Bushnell calls it a godwink. “Every so-called coincidence or answered prayer is God’s way of giving you His small, silent, communication,” says Bushnell, “A little wink saying, ‘Hey kid! I’m thinking of you…right now!’

It even has been cited in both historical and scientific context. The German analytical psychologist  Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity to describe meaningful coincidences—the “acausal connecting principle” that links mind and matter and supersedes cause and effect. 

Rochelle choses to call her reunion, b’shert,  a Jewish expression which means ‘meant to be.’ Whatever it is called, sometimes events align in such a way that it feels like God or some universal force is directing the action. 

I believe strongly that some universal force was at play in our decision to move to the same community in which Marilyn  and the Willners reside.  In December, 2014, Larry and I were staying in a Central Florida resort in Kissimmee. A rainy day prompted a visit to Solivita, and the minute we drove through the gates, I felt that this was the place in which we would retire. After looking at new models, a realtor took us to a resale, and Larry and I fell in love with it. Never spontaneous people, we put a bid on it the day we were to fly home to Upstate New York. 

Although the bid was turned down, Larry and I continued to lean towards buying a home in Solivita. S We had been looking at retirement homes ever since my sister Laura had purchased one in Arizona eight years before. Once we returned home, however, we both wondered if it was the right choice. I was always a “second guesser,” and tended to research every major decision ad nauseam and still rethink and sometimes regret my choices. 

The  day after we came back home, I headed to the library to research all Central Florida retirement options, including  reading back issues of Where to Retire magazines. Usually there were at least ten copies, but on this day there was only one issue on the shelf: the May/June 2014 issue highlighting Kissimmee Florida with a cover picture of a happy couple from—yes—Solivita! Inside, Gabby and Joe Thomas recounted finding the “beautiful” community with the help of Gabby’s mother, who bought a house on an adjacent street. “It was all meant to be,” Joe was quoted as saying about their move.

I brought the magazine home and said to Larry, “This is a sign” By the following June, we had sold our house and moved to Solivita. Coincidentally,  I met Gabby within the  first week when we both attended a Weight Watcher’s meeting. 

Did the Stars Align?

Fortunately, moving to Solivita is one decision in which I never looked back. We love it here. And like Joe Thomas, I feel that it was meant to be-b’shert.

Laurie Criden also felt it was b’shert at work when she met her second husband.  In March, 2008, Laurie was still reeling from the recent loss of her father and the dissolution of her twenty-eight year marriage. Her active involvement in Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York’s large reform synagogue, helped her “keep my balance.” 

While meeting with the rabbi to discuss the shul’s Second Night Passover seder that she was chairing, he asked her how she was doing. Laurie jokingly said, “I guess I’m waiting for something better to come along.” At that exact moment, Mark Criden,  the temple’s executive director ,tapped her on the shoulder to let her know that her meeting was about to begin. Although previous encounters had been “polite hellos,” by the time the two of them entered the meeting room, Mark had invited her to join him at a friend’s for the first night seder. They were married a year later and now share their time between Buffalo and Sarasota, Florida.

Was It Chance?

Julie Thompson Berman shared a story of a day filled with too many coincidences to be just chance. Just before she and her husband Bill moved from Maine to Texas, they decided to visit Endicott College, Julie’s alma mater in Beverly, Massachusetts. As they wandered around the campus, they came across Julie’s old dorm, which had been converted into an administration building. 

As chance would have it (or was it chance?), all the doors in the building were unlocked. They climbed three flights of stairs to Julie’s old dorm room which was now a meeting room. There they met current students, who were thrilled to hear about Julie’s experiences forty years earlier. 

The visit brought back a flood of memories for Julie, and she regretted not keeping up with her three college roommates.  “I wanted to  tell them where I was how I was thinking of them. Unfortunately, I had lost touch and no longer had  their contact information,” Julie said. 

  The Berman’s next stop in their nostalgia tour was The Barnacle,  a restaurant  in nearby Marblehead, Massachusetts, where Julie and Bill had shared many special dinners during their college courtship. While waiting for their table, a woman who was already seated walked across the room and asked, “Are you Julie Thompson?”

When Julie answered yes, the woman hugged her. “I am Cherie, your roommate from Endicott!” Cherie and her husband, who lived across the state, were in Marblehead visiting family. The four of them shared a table talked for two hours after lunch and remain in touch. “I still think about that day and all the things that had to line up to make that reunion happen,” said Julie four years later. 

The three stories above represent just three “b’shert” moments. I would love to hear more from my readers! Please share them with me by emailing me  at shapcomp18@gmail.com

Pickleball makes a dink shot among sports lovers…

Pickleball, Pickleball, how I love the game,/Pickleball, Pickleball, what a silly name/ When I play, every day, my body is in pain/ But you know, I can’t stop, unless it starts to rain!! (Parody sung to tune of O Chanukah!)

What? You haven’t heard of pickleball! Have you been living under a marinated mushroom?

Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America. According to the USA Pickleball Association, there are over 3.2 million pickleball players in the United States alone, 5,000 indoor and outdoor courts in the United States; and at least one location in all 50 states.The game is being introduced to kids and teenagers in physical education classes in middle and high schools.

Pickleball was the brainchild of former Washington State representative Joel Pritchard. Summer, 1965, he and two friends came home from golf to three bored families. Their attempt to play badminton was thwarted by the fact that a shuttlecock was no where to be found. Undaunted, they retrieved a Whiffle ball, improvised some paddles with some plywood, and lowered the badminton net to compensate.  His wife Joan dubbed the game “pickleball” after the “Pickle Boat” in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats

Although pickleball languished in obscurity for almost fifty years, that all changed when Baby Boomers began to retire. Many “seniors”  still wanted to compete and win at a sport but lacked their youthful running abilities According to an article on the AARP website, pickleball, which  combined elements of badminton, tennis, and table tennis, filled that need. Games usually last 10 to 15 minutes, so players can take frequent breathers. Since the court is small and most people play doubles, there’s no serious running — making it easier on the knees. The lightweight paddle and plastic ball reduces the chances of tennis elbow; having two people on the team reduces the area of play. 

My husband Larry picked up the game when he turned 65 and joined Southern Saratoga YMCA in Clifton Park [New York].  Larry had been involved in sports his entire life—basketball, baseball, and track in his youth and running and cycling as an adult. In pickleball, he has found camaraderie as well as the ability—to quote Jimmy Buffet—“to grow older but not up.” He has participated in several tournaments but prefers to play for the exercise, the fun, and the socialization. During the summer, Larry plays with the Summit County pickleball league in Colorado. As the group plays at over 9100 feet, their tee shirts proudly proclaim, “We Play With An ALTITUDE!”

When we moved to Florida, one of Larry’s  requirements was that the community had an active pickleball presence. Solivita, which is isted by www.55.com as one of the top five 55+ communities for pickleball, has seventeen outdoor  courts. The Smashers, the largest sports club in Solivita, has over 1000 members and growing. Along with hosting the Polk Senior Games, the club also holds Sadie Hawkins, Halloween, and Yearling (new players) games. 

Tom Leva, the Smasher’s president, first played the game in pickleball in 2007. After moving to Solivita in 2008, Tom, who had a history of heart problems, lost 40 pounds and was soon playing the game competitively and teaching new players. Although reoccurring cardiac issues has curtailed his game, he has remained on the board and has been behind the expansion and improvements of the pickleball courts. 

When they moved to Solivita in 2015, Dave and Patti “Smith” were tennis players who were not going to ever play that silly game called pickleball.  After their neighbors gave them paddles and took them out to play, they soon became self-professed pickleball addicts.  They enjoy sharing their love of the game with others and meeting so many interesting people. Patti is looking forward to playing in the Florida Senior Games in December.

Sandie and Howie Vipler, fellow YMCA pickleballers, recognized soon after picking up the game in 2012 that Clifton Park lacked outdoor courts. Howie reached out to Phil Barrett, the town supervisor, who agreed to fund painting pickleball lines on  some of the town tennis courts. They have moved themselves and  their equipment to Virginia, where they continue to play almost every day. 

Meanwhile, Sandie, who has a sports resume that includes downhill skiing, kayaking, cycling, and golfing, regards pickleball as her favorite. She plays pickleball 5 to 6 days a week for 2 to 3 hours a day. She revels in the compliments she gets from new competitors, including “You play tall for a short person” and “Wow, look at the wheels on her!” At 68 years old, Sandie vows that she will be playing until she can no longer walk.

That hasn’t stopped Brenda Taylor. Brenda had to have a leg amputated after a 1998 motorcycle accident and desperately wanted to find a way to get exercise while in her wheelchair. Except for an extra bounce before returning the serve, the rules are basically the same. Her proudest moment playing the game is when people compliment on her backhand shot. 

Mel Toub had played tennis and racquetball in his youth. Now in his late sixties and facing health challenges, he has mixed those two sports with pickleball. “Pickleball has wide appeal to both folks who used to play racket sports in their youth and to seniors who wish to remain active but no longer have the stamina or physical ability to play more demanding sports like basketball, soccer, and tennis,” said Mel.   “The learning curve to play pickleball at a socially acceptable level is fairly quick, so pickleball becomes a route to a new activity and new sets of friends.”

The game is growing internationally, with many European and Asian countries adding courts. Personal friends from England, Wales, and Canada have gotten hooked on the game after playing in Florida, Rob Harvey located an indoor pickleball facility near his home in Barhead, Alberta. “The game is great for eye-hand coordination. It keeps me  limber and helps the joints.” Pickleball also helps him keep in shape for his  summer baseball league.

Lynda and Steve Gorwill from Wales fell in love with the game after playing the game while on vacation in Florida. Last year, Lynda applied for and received a grant from Wales’ sports council to establish a pickleball league in her town. Although she has had roles in an English soap opera, Lynda still considers one of her proudest moments  was winning a silver medal in her first pickleball tournament in Abingdon Oxforshire, England.

Margaret and Peter Hunter were “kitted” with paddles and balls while visiting Larry and me in Solivita last November. “Within two minutes we were captivated, line, hook and sinker.” They are looking to returning to our area for another American Thanksgiving and another month of pickleball and miss it when they are at home in England. 

Not that pickleball doesn’t come with its hazards. Sharon and Rick McKelvey both ended up with torn meniscus surgery after a year of playing at Solivita. “That wasn’t fun,” said Sharon, another admitted addict,  “but it didn’t stop us from returning to the game.” Debbie Pratt broke a vertebra in her back after she took a bad fall moving backwards to return one of Larry’s volleys. She no longer plays pickleball, but her injury certainly didn’t scare off other women in her RV resort on the West Coast of Florida, who are appropriately called  “The Sweet Pickles.”

Marta Groess, a lifelong athlete and a member of Smashers, says that the most important feature of the game is that it is FUN! “I  tell new players that if they aren’t laughing, they aren’t playing the game right.”

Linda Kuhn, the Smasher’s treasurer, hadn’t played a sport since high school but now she is addicted, sometimes playing 2 to 4 hours in the Florida heat. “Pickleball gives me such a sense of contentment,, Linda said. The game  has reaffirmed my decision that as I age, I am going out with a roar!”

Is pickleball a Jewish game. Well, it certainly isn’t called “kosher pickle” ball! Until that happens, many people-Jews and non-Jews alike—can find America’s favorite new sport fun. 

Originally published in The Jewish World. October 4, 2018

Beating the Odds

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Tony Handler (Courtesy of Jack Hall, Tony’s Grandson)

Eric Lagerstrom, a 29 year old from Gresham, Oregon, may have been the official male top finisher in the 2018 St. Anthony’s Triathlon, which was held on a beautiful April day in St. Petersburg, Florida. However, in the pack of over 3000 participants was an individual that many considered the true winner. Seventy-nine year old Tony Handler had completed his 300th triathlon since his “terminal” diagnosis thirty-five years earlier. “I beat Mr. Cancer again,” said Tony with satisfaction.

Waiting at the finish line, as she had done almost every time before, was his wife, Narda, his childhood sweetheart from Newark, New Jersey. “I think I missed only five races in his entire triathlon career,” said Narda

None of this seemed it would be possible thirty-five years earlier. In 1983 Tony was driving Narda and friends home from an evening out when he was seized by excruciating abdominal pains.  His friend took over the wheel and drove Tony directly to the hospital. The doctors in the emergency room determined that his stomach had ruptured and immediately operated.

Death Around the Corner?

Two days after the surgery, Tony was transferred to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. The doctors there gave the Handlers the devastating news: Tony  had pancreatic cancer and had at best two more years to live.

Tony, who was forty-five,  refused to accept the diagnosis. After several more surgeries, he was chosen to participate in clinical trials at NIH with nineteen other patients who shared his rare form of cancer.  A willing “human guinea pig,” Tony endured hours of medical protocols, innumerable experimental drug treatments,  and seven surgeries.

While undergoing the  regimen, Tony saw an article that stated  the city of Baltimore was hosting the Bud Lite Triathlon in July 1985.   “I  thought this would be a good way for me to fight the bleak prognosis.” 

Against the Odds!

Tony was not new to athletic competitions. Born in 1939 in Newark, New Jersey, to first generation Jewish  parents, he had participated in Weequahic High School’s cross country and swim teams, serving as the latter’s captain.

Cheering him on in the stands was Narda Mandell. Shortly after his bar mitzvah at Congregation B’Nai Jeshrun in Newark, Tony had met twelve-year-old Narda and they soon became a couple. “I was—and still am—his biggest fan,” said Narda.

After Narda completed high school and Tony completed his stint in the army, Tony and Narda were married on September 27th, 1959. Narda worked as a receptionist in a bank until their first son was born.

 In 1960, Tony was hired by IBM and spent the next 12 years working and going to Rutgers at night to earn a business degree.  Tony received a promotion to IBM’s  to its Washington DC office, and they moved to Crofton, Maryland, to be closer to the company’s Washington office. In 1983, they were living what appeared to be an idyllic life when their world was turned upside down.

Tony was determined to survive. He set his goal to compete in the 1985 Bud Lite Triathlon. Initially, he could only do a slow walk/run.  As his stamina increased, he began running two, five, ten miles. “Running made me feel as if I were fighting back,” said Tony. He dusted off his bike and rode the Maryland countryside. He found a local pool, donned goggles and a Speedo, and began swimming competitive laps for the first time since his high school swim team days. 

The Main Competition

On July 1, 1985,  Tony completed the Baltimore triathlon, which combined a one mile swim, 24.8 miles of bicycling and 6.2 miles of running. Tony was far behind the winning time of one hour and 55 minutes, but he had won a personal victory. “I only had one competitor,” said Tony, “and that was Mr. Cancer.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Cancer wasn’t done with Tony. He faced multiple bouts with six different kinds of cancer, including pancreatic, liver, prostate, and skin cancers, and twenty-one surgeries. 

Through it all, Tony continued his job as an IBM consultant. The management at the company were supportive, never hesitating in giving the time he needed to have the multiple surgeries and finish his recovery. After work and on weekends he continued to work out and participate in triathlons across the United States. “I needed victories wherever I could find them,” said Tony. “Every time  I crossed that finish line, I felt like I beat Mr. Cancer again.”

The Marathon Continues

In 1988 Tony received a promotion to senior consultant and was transferred to Tampa, Florida, where he continued to compete.

By the time he was approaching his sixtieth birthday, Tony had completed 200 triathlons. He set his goal even higher by signing up for the 2000 Florida Ironman Triathlon.  A back injury that was unrelated to cancer forced him to cancel. But in 2001, he completed the Panama City-based competition, which was composed of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2 mile run. He felt such a sense of accomplishment, he did again when he was 62.

When he retired from IBM in 2003, Tony and Narda moved to Solivita, a 55 plus active adult community located in Central Florida. 

Playing It Forward

As a cancer survivor, Tony was determined to “pay it forward.” Soon after their move, he organized the first annual community-wide three mile walk/run in Solivita to raise money for the American Cancer Society (ACS). Beginning in 2012, several Solivita clubs joined together to establish an annual Relay for Life event that supported ACS. Tony’s run/walk was folded into the community’s umbrella fundraising efforts. As of 2018, the combined efforts have raised over $700,000, of which $60,000 was raised by Tony’s walk/run event.

His story of survival and his fundraising have earned Tony state and national recognition. In 2013, Tony qualified to compete in the National Triathlon Age Group Championship in Milwaukee. At the concluding banquet, Tony was given  an award for being the  “Most Inspirational Athlete.” In 2015, Tony qualified to represent the United States on Team USA at the World Age Group Triathlon Championship in Chicago.  

In 2016, Tony was the recipient of the  “Geriathlete” award at the Growing Bolder Awards banquet in Orlando, Florida. He, along with other Central Florida seniors, was lauded for  “pursuing his passions and living lives of purpose while making a difference in the lives of others.    

Determination and Exercise

Sadly, Tony is the only surviving participant of the twenty original participants in the 1983 NIH clinical trials. Doctors at the Moffitt Cancer Center continue  to track Tony’s progress and oversee his life-saving medications and monthly chemo injections. His remarkable medical history has been the subject in professional journals and conferences. Researchers agree that what Tony often calls his “crazy exercise routine”appears to have been a factor in his longevity.

Along with their busy life in Central Florida, the Handlers enjoy the pleasure of three sons, one living in Maryland and the other two in Florida with their wives and five grandchildren. 

Tony views the St. Anthony’s Triathlon as another victory against Mr. Cancer, a fight he hopes to continue waging for as long as his body is able to.

“I beat the odds,” said Tony. “I just hope my story is an inspiration to other cancer patients to “NEVER GIVE UP.” 

Handlers

Narda and Tony Handler

A Grand master in tennis and life—Lazar Lowinger

Lazar’s father Julius, a Romanian jeweler, and his mother Manya Gilburd, a Ukranian, met in Cuba, where they both had come to join their families. After they were married, they planned to emigrate to America. 

In 1933, however, Julius accepted a position as a jeweler with a prestigious company in Belgium. Lazar, their only child, was born soon after. In 1936, with Hitler extending his grasp on Europe, the Lowingers returned to Julian’s native Romania to be closer to his mother and, according to Lazar, “in search of a better future.” Ironically, Marshall Ion Antonescu, who was later executed for war crimes, protected the Jews from being deported to concentration camps.

Life was still fraught with danger. While living in Bucharest, the Lowingers’ house and courtyard were repeatedly damaged by Allied Forces bombs. “Every day, I got up, went to school, and prayed that our house would not be destroyed and my family and I would not be killed,” Lazar recalled seventy years later. The family survived in part through Julius’ resourcefulness by using the gold coins he had hidden away to buy food, always difficult to obtain in the war-torn county.

Once the war ended, the family decided to return to Cuba. After a six month stay in Paris while awaiting their visas, the three emigrated in 1946. Two years after their move, Julius and Manya divorced. In 1950, Julius moved to Montreal; and sixteen year old Lazar and his mother moved to Boston where Manya’s brother was a butcher. 

A self-admitted poor student, Lazar dropped out of school and enlisted in Army’s Special Services Unit. While stationed in Alaska, he obtained his GED . Upon completion of his military service, he enrolled in Boston University then transferred to Sir George Williams in Montreal. He returned to Boston and was accepted to Suffolk Law School, graduating and passing the Massachusetts Bar Exam in 1962. 

Lazar’s credentials, as well as his linguistic abilities—he was fluent in Yiddish, Romanian, French, Portuguese, and Spanish—were beneficial in his job search.He was hired by Elijah Adlow, Chief Justice of the Boston Municipal Courts, who sought a Spanish-speaking lawyer to appoint as counsel for the increasing Spanish population in the Boston area. 

As the first Spanish speaking lawyer in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Lazar made his reputation as the “Spanish Speakers’ Lawyer.” Throughout his law career, including establishing his own practice, Lazar defended a wide range of clientele, from those seeking workmen’s compensation to those accused of murder. 

In addition, Lowinger wrote for El Mundo, the Boston-based Spanish newspaper. He also hosted two radio programs: a Spanish “Ask Your Lawyer” and a “coffee hour“in which Lazar debated with other Boston lawyers. Lazar and his wife Audrey Schwellung, whom he married in 1965, settled in Newton, Massachusetts with their two sons Jeffrey (1966) and Brian (1968), despite offers to relocate to Florida with its larger Hispanic population. “I liked being a big fish in a small pond,” said Lazar.

Lazar loved law, but he loved tennis as much, or even more. Immediately following the end of World War II, Lazar had played table tennis and a version of squash at a Jewish youth center. Lazar was encouraged by a wealthy friend of his father to play tennis. At first Lazar was not interested—he thought tennis was for girls— but he quickly fell in love with the game. 

Lazar carried that love across the ocean. He won his first championship at the St. Lawrence Tournament in Canada while a student at Sir George Williams College. He also played in tournaments in law school as well as with fellow attorneys and local judges in Bench and Bar. “I never won a tournament against a judge,” said Lazar. “That was intentional!”

In 1989, Lazar, who was fifty-two years old, was invited by his friend and Macccabian Hall of Fame tennis player Irving Levine to try out for the United States men’s Maccabi team. When he didn’t make the cut, Lazar went to Puerto Rico and organized the Puerto Rican Maccabi team. 

In 1991, Lazar participated for the first time as a member of USA Maccabi tennis team. Lazar has gone on to represent his country six more times, initially in the Masters (Ages 35 to 65) division. Heralded by the Boston Jewish Advocate as the ‘Maccabi Maven,’ Lazar moved up to the Grand Master’s Division(Ages 65+) in 1998. 

“Grand Masters has no age limit,” said Lazar. “I will be playing until they put me in a casket,” His two most recent medal, a gold and a bronze, were earned in the 2017 Games, when Lazar was eighty-two years old. 

Lazar has also participated in several Maccabi Pan-American Games. In 2015, Lazar was invited to his native Cuba to join the team that played in the 13th Annual Games in Santiago, Chile. He won two silver medals, Cuba’s first in that age category and Lazar’s sixth. 

At his first Maccabi Game, Lazar met Marilyn Glaser who had volunteered as a nurse for the USA team in the two previous competitions held in 1981 and 1985. They connected again as friends over the next twenty years, he as the competitor, she as the volunteer. When Lazar was widowed in 2011, Marilyn sent him a note of condolence. Their friendship, based on their mutual love of the games and the close proximity of their homes in Florida, soon blossomed into a romance. They now share a home with their dog Malka in Solivita, a fifty-five plus community outside of Orlando. Marilyn, former president of the community’s Shalom Club, is the current president of Congregation Shalom Aleichem, the local synagogue. Weather and health permitting, Lazar still plays tennis at least five days a week. 

Although Marilyn lived in Israel for six years, Lazar’s mutual connection and love for Eretz Yisrael grew as his role as visitor and competitor. “Every time I go to Israel for the games,” said Lazar, “I feel like I belong there.” 

 “Building Jewish Pride through Sports” is the Maccabi USA’s motto, one that Lazar has taken to heart. While taking responsibility for his own expenses incurred during the Games, he has raised over $60,000 for other American athletes. “My participation and my support of Maccabi USA is my way of expressing my Jewishness,” the Grand Master tennis champion stated. 

Lazar also is a generous supporter of Israel’s Tennis Centers, the largest social service agency for Israel children. ITC serves more than a half million children and their families since its first center opened in Ramat Hasharon in 1976. With 14 centers on the country, primarily in underprivileged communities, the not-for-profit Centers use tennis to promote the social, physical, and psychological well being of their students, to develop coaches, and to maintain the courts and facilities.

Are there more competitions in Lazar’s future? He hopes to participate in next Pan Am Games, set for Mexico City in 2019. He will be 85. Stay tuned….

Who Made the Hamantaschen?

 

DSC_0037One of the nicest parts of our community in Florida is our diversity. Often, while I am working out in my exercise class or enjoying a concert or eating in our small bistro, I am struck by the number of people from all cultures, ethnicities, and countries that live here. An example of our melting pot was seen in the Shapiro’s Who-Made-the-Hamantashen Tale.

In May 2016, my husband Larry and I purchased tickets for a Flores de Mayo celebration that was being sponsored by our community’s Filipino Club. I had met several of its members through my cardio ballroom dancing class, and they had hyped up the event for several weeks before the May event. “Lots of fun! Great music,” one of the organizers told me. “Just bring a dish to share with your table.”

Although not familiar with Flores de Mayo, I knew of Cinco de Mayo, the Hispanic celebration held every year on May 5 that involved food and colorful costumes. We bought the tickets and made arrangements to sit with our friends Farida and Abdul whom we first met at a cocktail party for new residents of our fifty-five plus community.

Farida and I reconnected at the cardio ballroom class and struck up a friendship. She mentioned casually that she was involved in ballet when she lived in Egypt. One day, she shared a picture on her iPhone—a stunning portrait of her as Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s curse in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Faridah was not just a dancer, she was a prima ballerina for an Egyptian ballet company. “Faridah,” I commented,” you are a ballet dancer like Billy Joel is a piano player!”  Not only was she involved in dance. Her daughter-in-law, a beautiful, vibrant Hispanic woman, taught the class.

I put the event on our calendar for the date in May and tucked the tickets away until I grabbed them on our way out the door that evening. When we arrived at the venue where the event was being held, the lobby filled with women in elaborate Filipino costumes and men in suits. For a moment I thought I was at a formal ball, not a Flores de Mayo program. When we entered the ballroom, we breathed a sigh of relief. Everyone in the audience was dressed in Florida casual—tropical shirts and shorts for men; capris or skirts and nice tops for the women.

We rushed to claim our two seats just as the formal program began. Filipino couples  began filing into the room, each group behind a large icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary. No, Flores de Mayo was obviously not related to the Hispanic holiday. Adapting quickly, we sat back and enjoyed the pageantry, the costumes, and the musical and dance entertainment that followed.

I later learned that Flores de Mayo is held each May to celebrate the finding of the True Cross in 320 C.E by Helena of Constantinople and her son Constantine the Great, emperor of the Roman Empire. The Santacruzan, which we had observed, is the ritual pageant held on the last day of religious Catholic celebration.

Once the program was over, we were able to say hello to our table mates. What struck me immediately was the diversity represented not only in the room but at our own table. Larry and I were enjoying a Filipino celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary with Velma, our next door neighbor who was African American; our friends who had emigrated from Egypt and whose son was married to our Hispanic cardio ballroom instructor; and our down-the street-neighbor Nancy, whose last name spoke clearly to her husband’s Polish ancestry. We all unwrapped our “potluck” snack items: my hummus and chips; Velma’s fruit platter; Farida and Mohammed’s dukkah, a popular Egyptian dip made up of herbs, nuts and spices; and Nancy’s hamantashen.

Hamantashen??

“Nancy,” I asked. “Did you make the hamantashen?”

“Yes,” she said. “An old family favorite.”

“I didn’t know you were Jewish,” I said.

“I’m not,” she said. “My mother got the recipe from her German neighbor.”

“And she was Jewish?”

“No,” Nancy said. “She was Christian like us. She told my it was an old Russian recipe.”

So here were Larry and I, two Jews, at a table celebrating a Filipino Catholic holiday with an African American, two Muslims whose grandchildren were half Hispanic, and a Christian who made the best hamantashen I had ever eaten. Who knew?

The following March, I was in Colorado doing baby sitting duty for my granddaughter during Purim. Larry called me to tell me that someone had dropped off a plate of hamantashen. He didn’t recognize the woman, so I asked him to describe her.

“She is a woman about your age and your height with grey hair,” he said.

“That describes half the women in our community,” I said. “Maybe it was someone from the Shalom Club.” I listed a number of names with no success.

It wasn’t until I returned that I realized who had dropped off the hamantashen. While getting ready for my cardio ballroom class that was being taught by the Hispanic daughter-in-law of my Muslim friend, I spotted Nancy lining up in the back of the room.

“Nancy, did you bring hamantashen over to Larry last week?” I asked.

“Yes,” Nancy said. “I don’t think Larry recognized me.”

“No, he didn’t,” I said. “But he loved them and even saved some for me. How did you know it was Purim?”

“What’s Purim?”

It didn’t matter. Nancy’s hamantashen, no matter what her background, are the best. And her hamantashen will be served in our home this Purim. Chag Samaech!

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

Floridian Shapiro notes her Tu B’Shevat refuge and credits its creator Edward Bok

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Larry and I in front of the Singing Tower carillon at Bok Tower Gardens.

Jews annually celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the day in which it is believed “trees come of age.” For those of us who live in Central Florida, there is no more fitting a place to honor the Jewish “Earth Day” than at Bok Tower Gardens. The sixty-acre sanctuary in nearby  Lake Wales was the gift of Edward Bok. Bok, the son of impoverished Dutch immigrants became a successful publisher, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a humanitarian and an advocate of world peace and the environment.

From Rags to Riches

Edward William Bok was born in Den Helder, Netherlands, in 1863. After a series of bad investments brought his father to financial ruin, the family immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, in 1870 to start a new life. Bok senior enrolled the children in school the day after they arrived in Brooklyn although neither of his sons could speak a word of English. 

Financial woes continued, and the family found itself in dire poverty. The two sons worked tirelessly to support their mother, who had lived most of her life with servants, by taking over all the household chores, picking up coal on the streets to light their fire and cook their food, and washing the windows of a bakery shop after school to supplement their father’s income. 

By 13, Edward Bok quit school and became an office boy for Western Union Telegraph Company.The youth used every spare minute in self-study, With his paltry savings, bought encyclopedia and studied to absorb its information.

Bok made an Horatio Alger journey in the publishing world. His rapid ascent included positions at the Henry Holt and Company, Charles Scribner’s Son, The Brooklyn Magazine and as co-founder with his brother, of the Bok Syndicate Press. In 1889, at the age of 26, he was hired as editor of Curtis Publishing Company’s The Ladies Home Journal. In 1896, he married the boss’s daughter, Mary Curtis, and they had two son. 

During his thirty year career, Bok used his position to champion causes, including social and environmental issues.

From Rags to Riches

By 1919, the 56-year-old self-made millionaire had achieved his two goals of education and achievement. He retired from the Journal, and wrote his autobiography The Americanization of Edward Bok, which won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize. It was now time to pursue his third goal: service to his country.

Throughout his life, Edward had been guided by his grandmother’s mantra to “make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.” In the next several years, Bok used his wealth to create several awards, including the American Peace Award.

Edward also to help the world environmentally. During his family’s visits to their winter home in Lake Wales, Florida, he had often wandered up to nearby Iron Mountain,(a notable Florida “peak” at 298 feet above sea level) to view the vistas and the sunsets. Although acreage was initially targeted for development, Edward purchased the land to establish a place that would “touch the soul with its beauty and quiet.”

Sanctuary

In 1922, Edward commissioned Frederic Law Olmsted, Jr., an American landscape architect whose credits included the National Mall, the Jefferson Monument, and the White House grounds, to carry out the task. Under Olmsted’s direction, a year later, the barren sandhill had been transformed into a subtropical garden filled with trees, flowering bushes, flowers, and a reflecting pond that attracted squirrels and over one hundred varieties of birds. 

Not yet satisfied, Bok wanted to bring the gift of music to his garden. He commissioned architect Milton B. Medary and stone sculptor Lee Lawie to design and construct a 205-foot neo-Gothic and art deco Singing Tower carillon, one the world’s largest and, according to many carillioners, the most acoustically perfect bell tower in the world.

In December 2015, Larry and I visited Bok Tower Gardens for the first time. Impressed with its beauty, we took out a membership and have returned again and again—by ourselves or with family and friends. Sometimes we just walk through Olmsted’s well-designed garden paths, which offer hidden recesses, contemplative resting spots, picturesque vistas and breathtaking views of the Singing Tower. Each season brings its own beauty, including spectacular displays of azaleas, camellias, and magnolias.

Dutch Tikkun Olam

More often than not, we take a tour given by one of Bok Tower Gardens many volunteer guides. Each visit has brought greater appreciation for this hidden gem—its history, its flora and fauna, its music, its architecture, and more insight into the genius and generosity of Edward Bok. 

On the pathway leading into the gardens is an arch which is inscribed with Edward’s grandmother’s admonition to “make the world a bit more beautiful.” Each time I see those words, I think how closely they reflect tikkun olam, the Jewish concept that suggests humanity’s shared responsibility to heal, repair, and transform the world.

.Edward’s beautiful garden, stunning carillon, his sixty-five acres of trees and flowers and bushes and vistas, is his legacy, his gift, his way of making the world a better place. 

And in today’s political climate, I also think of how the son of impoverished Dutch immigrant contributed so very much to Central Florida and his chosen country. To Edward Bok and every other immigrant who has come to our country to find a better life and who, through their journey made our country better—I say thank you. 

Sources include The Edward Bok Legacy by Margaret Smith, Bok Tower Gardens website, and Wikipedia.

Originally published in The (Capital District)  Jewish World, January 25, 2018