Category Archives: Florida

Storm lover wakes up to the realization that life is fragile

Eli Helfand 1919-2019

When I was six years old, I loved summer storms. As the sky turned dark, the thunder clapped, and the lighting shot across the sky, I would watch from the safety of our living room window. My mother assured me that the noise was just God bowling.

When I was sixteen, I loved summer storms. By that time, my parents had purchased a cottage on Willsboro Bay in Upstate New York  From the safety of our porch,  I would watch the rain come down in sheets and the waves rock our boat that was moored 200 yards off shore. 

When we moved to Florida, I still loved summer storms. But I soon learned to respect their intensity and duration. Our state has as many as 100 stormy days a year, and our climate means that these storms can happen any month of the year. Florida also has be dubious honor of being the lightning capital of the United States. I have been witness to their fury again and again from the safety of our lanai. And on several occasions, I have had to take shelter quickly as the weather changed too quickly for me to realize what was coming. 

But now, almost five years after our move, I now see these storms as a reminder as to how fragile our lives can be.

Last July, on what started out to be a beautiful July day a group of fellow residents were playing golf on the course in our 55+ community, Very suddenly, the sky darkened as huge black clouds moved in. The golfers, all seasoned Florida residents, knew what to do. They abandoned their game and headed for their golf carts and shelter. 

It was too late. A bolt of lightning struck two of the men. One was thrown to the ground, shaken but okay. The second person was struck full force, and the electric travelled through his body. By the time he was brought the the hospital, he was brain dead. The doctors kept him on life support long enough for his devastated wife and children to say their good byes. 

What are the chances of getting hit by lightning? According to Wikipedia, it is one in 700,000. For my neighbor, the odds were 1:1. 

What happened that fateful morning? Did they give each other a kiss before he headed out the door? And what were their last words to one another. “I love you! See you later.”Or was their conversation ordinary and mundane. “We need to pick up some milk” or “The Red Sox are playing the Yankees tonight.” Or were their last words those that she regretted? “You promised you would fix  that leaky faucet!”

I am 69, and my husband Larry is 71. The specter of death hangs over us a little more heavily than it did twenty—or even ten—years ago. Friends die suddenly from heart attacks or slowly from cancer. No matter, their loss is sad. 

Sad, but not tragic. To me,”tragic” is the death of a 31-year-old daughter to leukemia. Tragic is losing a nineteen year old granddaughter to a car accident on a rainy night one block from her home. Tragic is losing a sixteen year old grandson who had been severely disabled since he was a baby. And tragic is losing a husband from—literally— a bolt out of the blue. 

“Biz hundert un tzvantsig!” (May you live to 120!”) is  a popular Jewish blessing for a long healthy life. Each loss, whether the number of years were short or long, whether their death was sad or tragic, is my personal reminder to treat each moment with gratitude. “Life is so transient and ephemeral; we will not be here after a breath,” said Dr. Debasish Mridha,  an American physician and philosopher. “So think better, think deeply, think with kindness, and write it with love so that it may live a little longer.” 

Some of us are fortunate enough to live a great deal longer.My mother’s first cousin Eli Helfand passed away last April, three months after his 100th birthday. A World War II veteran and a graduate of Clarkson College, Eli spent almost all his working life in Richfield Springs, New York, where he owned and operated Ruby’s Department Store. He had two wonderful marriages, raised four strong, independent children, and got to enjoy his five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. 

What I remember most about my cousin Eli are our strong family connections. During the Depression, when his parents were struggling to get their Upstate New York store afloat, Eli spent summers and school vacations with my mother and her family in New York City. He introduced my parents and served as best man at their wedding. Eli drove the car that the newlyweds took from the city to Alburgh, Vermont. Mom shared the front seat with Eli’s mother Rose while my father sat in the back seat with all the wedding presents, including a floor lamp that Bill had to hold for the eight hour trip. My parents remained close to Eli and Florence, who attended my parents’ 60th anniversary. When Florence passed away and Eli remarried, he and Marty became an integral part of not only my parents’ life but also of mine. We visited them at their homes in Otsego County in New York as well as their retirement home in in Englewood, Florida. 

Eli and I share another close connection. His daughter Marsha and I are only weeks apart in age.  We spent time with each other as children as well as our four years as students at University at Albany. We have attended each other’s weddings as well as those of our children. 

In August, 1962, I spent a week with Marsha and her family at their cottage on Canadarago Lake. We played and replayed Ray Steven’s (what now would be considered politically incorrect)song about Ahab, “the sheik in the golden sand.” We baked cookies. We went swimming and boating. And when the storm clouds moved in, we ran back inside. From the porch windows, we watched the lightning flash across the sky and listened to the thunder echo off the surrounding hills. We turned the Ray Stevens second back on and danced around the living room in our bare feet. We were safe in the childhood belief t that life would treat us kind and that we would  live forever—or at least for one hundred twenty years. 

This Bibliophile LOVES Libraries!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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….

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

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