Category Archives: Jewish Holidays

The Lost Mural

My father, Bill Cohen, (Z”L) loved to play Jewish geography, and he proudly shared with us how the  first synagogue in Burlington was founded in his grandfather’s kitchen.  As we lived on the New York side of Lake Champlain, we visited many aunts, uncles, and cousins who lived in the Queen City and the surrounding areas. One was Uncle Paul Pearl (nee Pesach Ossovitz), who learned the peddling trade from his uncle Archic Perelman and went on to oversee 27 Pearl’s department stores in Upstate New York and Vermont. And then there were Uncle Moe Pearl, who owned several businesses in the area, and his wife Bess; Ruth (Pearl) Kropsky and her husband Isidore; and Aunt Ida and her husband Max Ahrens. May their memories be a blessing and live on in Congregation Ohavi Zedek and its beautiful “Lost Mural.”

When the Pels family, my Burlington cousins, attended the High Holy Day services  for the year 5733, Congregation Ohavi Zedek had a welcome new addition: the restored “Lost Mural” in the foyer, completed in June 2022 by the Lost Mural Project. Since the story starts in part with my great grandfather Isaac Perelman, a founding member of this Burlington synagogue, I am happy to share it.

Although Jews had settled in Burlington as early as 1848, the 1880s saw an influx of Eastern European Jews facing persecution by Russians in all phases of their personal, professional and religious lives. One of the early settlers was my great grandfather, Isaac “Itsak” Perelman, who came from Čekiškė, Lithuania.  Others came up from New York City to escape work in the sweat shops; a few migrated from Plattsburgh, New York, as it didn’t have an orthodox shul.  Most became peddlers in northern Vermont, selling their wares from horse or man-drawn carts. 

Initially, a group of ten Jewish men—only two had families with them, met for services in members’ homes, a former coffin shop, or the second floor  of an office building.  By 1885, the Jewish community of Burlington,Vermont, recognized the need to  organize a synagogue. Eighteen men met in Isaac Perelman’s kitchen.Having already procured a layman leader/Kosher butcher, they purchased  a lot for $25, formerly the site of an old stone shed at Hyde and Archibald streets. With $800,  they built a synagogue  building, naming  their new shul Congregation Ohavi Zedek, (“Lovers of Justice.”)

Over the next few years, the Jewish population of Burlington continued to grow.  My own relatives aided in the increased number: Isaac and his wife Sarah alone had six surviving children; his brothers Aaron and Jacob also had large families. By  1906, there were 162 Jewish families. The area in Burlington, dubbed “Little Jerusalem,” was laid out like the shtetls in the residents’ native Lithuania with houses and kosher bakery, kosher dairy, and a kosher butcher. Two more synagogues were built, including Chai Adam (“Life of Man”),  and Ahavath Gerim (“Love of Strangers”). The three synagogues built a Hebrew Free School together in 1910, the Talmud Torah.

In 1910, Chai Adam commissioned a 24-year-old Lithuanian immigrant and professional sign painter named Ben Zion Black to create a mural for $200. The completed project had prayer walls and a painted ceiling. The centerpiece is a 25-foot-wide, 12-foot-high three part panel, created in the vibrant and colorful painted art style present in hundreds of Eastern European wooden synagogue interiors in the 18th and 19th centuries. The mural featured the Ten Commandments in its center, golden Lions of Judah on either side,  with the artist’s rendering of the sun’s rays adding light. Blue and red curtains and pillars filled the side panels, all representing the artist’s interpretation of the Tent of the Tabernacle as described in the Book of Numbers and the Book of Exodus

In 1939, amid a decline in  Jewish population,  Chai Adam synagogue merged with Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. The former Chai Adam building was sold several times after 1952 and later was converted into a carpet store and a warehouse. 

In 1986, the former Chai Adam synagogue was  purchased by a developer with plans to renovate the building into multiple apartments. Recognizing that the future of the mural was in jeopardy, Aaron Goldberg,  the archivist for Ohavi Zedek Synagogue and a descendant of Ohavi Zedek’s  founding immigrants, persuaded the new owner to seal the mural behind a false wall, in 1986. Archivist Jeff Potash, Shelburne Museum’s Curator of Collections Richard Kershner, and architect Marcel Beaudin worked with Goldberg, all hoping it might be reclaimed at some later date.

Before being hidden, archival quality photographs of the Lost Mural were taken and paid for by Ben Zion Black’s daughters. Much of the painting was destroyed during the renovation but the mural over the ark was covered by a wall.  It remained hidden until 2012 when the former Chai Adam building again changed hands. 

In 2010,  Goldberg partnered with his childhood friend and former Trinity College of Vermont history professor Jeff Potash to establish The Lost Mural Project with plans to establish a new home for the Lost Mural and restore the work to its original glory. They reached an agreement with the next owner of the Chai Adam building, the Offenhartz family, that the mural would be uncovered and donated to the Lost Mural Project. This was done with the understanding that the Lost Mural Project would be solely responsible for all costs of stabilizing, moving, cleaning and restoring the Lost Mural. 

In 2012, after more than two decades, the false wall was removed to examine the Lost Mural. According to one of the curators involved in the project, Black’s creation had sustained extensive damage with “the painting hanging off its plaster base like cornflakes.” Over the next three years, the Lost Mural Project raised substantial funds from individuals, businesses and foundations for the mural’s paint to be stabilized.  In May 2015, the mural, encased in steel and weighing approximately 7.500 pounds, was moved to Ohavi Zedek in a marvelous feat of conservators, construction and engineering. 

Following the mural’s move, the Lost Mural incorporated, rebranded and tirelessly sought funding for the mural’s cleaning and full restoration with the help of its board and Madeleine May Kunin,  the former Vermont Governor and US Ambassador to Switzerland. By 2022, they had raised over one million dollars from local, state, national and international donors.

During 2021 two conservators hired by The Lost Mural Project began the painstaking task of cleaning the mural. Using the archival photos taken in 1985, they used a gel solvent and cotton swabs to remove  the darkened varnish, dirt and grime from the painting’s surface. During the 2022 year, a second team of conservators from Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts began the infill, coloring and final restorations. According to Goldberg, the pandemic was in this case a blessing as it gave the team of workers the space and quiet needed to complete the project in the shuttered shul. 

“So many things could have gone wrong with the mural, but it survived through fate and circumstance,” says Goldberg. “It’s not just a surviving remnant. It’s a surviving piece with an astonishing history.” 

Ohavi Zedek’s Senior Rabbi Amy Small, who saw the 2022 restoration step by step, views the Lost Mural  Project as a universal immigrant story. “It’s significant not only to the Jewish community and the descendants of those early settlers of Burlington, but also to other immigrants in the United States, which offered safety for Jewish and other families fleeing from many parts of the world.”

The Friends of the Lost Mural were presented with a 2022 Preservation Award by the Preservation Trust of Vermont. “The Lost Mural…not only exemplifies the rich history of creativity and resilience in Burlington’s Jewish community,” stated Ben Doyle, its president. “ It inspires all of us to remember that the Vermont identity is dynamic and diverse.”

The completed project was unveiled amid much fanfare in June 2022. Governor Kunin was honored for her contributions, and a Vermont Klezmer band provided the music. Dignitaries both in attendance and through Zoom highlighted the importance of the project. Joshua Perelman, Chief Curator & Director Of Exhibitions And Collections, National Museum Of American Jewish History called the mural  “a treasure and also a significant work, both in American Jewish religious life and the world of art in this country.”

Many of the descendants of the original Lithuanian Jews who settled in Burlington over one hundred and fifty years earlier were present, including descendants of Isaac and Aaron Perelman.

“[The mural] tells us a remarkable story of a thriving Jewish immigrant community from Lithuania and the successful efforts of their descendants to preserve their cultural legacy today,” H.E. Audra Plepyte, the ambassador of Lithuania to the United States stated in remarks shared with Ohavi Zedek. “The Lost Mural is not lost anymore.”

The Lost Mural Project, an independent secular nonprofit, is seeking donations to replicate the green corridors on the original painting that did not survive. Its educational mission is to share the story of the Lost Mural and the lost genre of the East European wooden painted synagogues with people and facilities around the world.More information, including details of the Mural’s miraculous journey, can be found at https://www.lostmural.org/donate.

SOURCES

Thanks to Aaron Goldberg , Jay Cohen, Janet Leader, Rob Pels, and Rosie Pels for their contributions to this article. 

Rathke, Lisa. “Long-hidden synagogue mural gets rehabbed.” August 17, 2022. AP Wire story; numerous sources.

Sproston, Betty. Burlington Free Press. February 22, 1995.

https://lostmural.squarespace.com/ekik-lithuania

https://www.news4jax.com/entertainment/2022/08/16/long-hidden-synagogue-mural-gets-rehabbed-relocated/

https://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/burlingtons-lost-mural-is-restored-to-its-original-glory/Content?oid=35853053

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/synagogue-mural-restoration-vermont-apartment-180980614/

My cousins Rosie, Robert, and Molly Pels stand in front of completed Lost Mural

Keep calm and carry on? A return to tradition

Flashback to March 14, 2020. COVID-19 was the top news story. My daughter Julie and her family were leaving for the Orlando airport after a week’s stay. We had spent a few days on the beach and been delighted  by news of the birth of our grandson in a San Francisco hospital. We had cancelled our planned visit to Magic Kingdom the day before Disney announced it was closing the park that weekend. Instead, we spent hours in a community pool making sure we weren’t too close to anyone else. 

Julie’s last words as she got into her rental car were, “Mom and Dad, promise us you will stay safe!” She begged us to skip our plans to see Death Trap, which was being performed by our local theater group that evening. She must have called her brother, because Adam FaceTimed us an hour before we were to leave for the play. “If you stay home, I will keep the camera on your new grandson for the next hour.” Seeing our grandson won. We had no idea we would be feeling its effects—masks; sheltering in place; cancelled trips; cancelled events; hours of Netflix’s and puzzles; new variants; tragically, loss of friends to the virus—for the next two years.

Within the first month of the pandemic, I decided that celebrating with a Sabbath dinner every Friday would bring some joy. I polished my grandparents’ candlesticks; bought a new Kiddish cup on ebay (I must have lost mine in our move); brought out my embroidered challah cover, and located a friend’s challah recipe I had always meant to try. With some difficulty—the whole world decided along with me to make bread—I purchased flour, yeast, and sugar to make the traditional Shabbat bread. And I mixed and kneaded and braided my first challahs. Delicious! 

The following Friday, I was a little more confident. I made four small ones, and shared one with president of our (closed down) shul and one with a friend whose wife had just been placed in memory care.By April, I had totally embraced not only the baking process but also the spiritual elements. I learned that it was appropriate to say prayers during the kneading process, a way of feeding the body and the soul. I initially prayed for my family as well as our country and for all impacted by the pandemic. But my prayers soon extended to the sick, the grieving, the lonely. I kept a Mi Shebeirach list on my phone as reminders and often played Debbie Friedman’s version of the beautiful prayer as I kneaded the pliant, soft dough.

We developed a rhythm: Every Friday afternoon I baked the challahs, and just before sunset, Larry would head off in our car, delivering two or three still warm fragrant loaves to needy people in our community. When I couldn’t physically share them, I attached pictures of the challah onto an email with a note. “I kneaded prayers of healing into this loaf of bread. Thinking of you. Love, Marilyn.”

By the time Larry and I were finally able to travel to see our children and grandchildren in June 2021, I was a seasoned challah maker—to a point. Baking bread in someone else’s kitchen proved to be a challenge. In San Francisco, I realized the sound of the mixmaster cranking out the initial steps of challah process woke my grandson from his nap. In Colorado, the 9100 foot elevation resulted in loaves that looked more like amoebas. I had to learn to work around nap time and altitude. 

Meanwhile, I was tweaking my technique. I replaced the butter in my friend’s recipe with canola oil, which meant less noise and more kneading time, my favorite party of the process. Rocky Mountain challahs, I learned, needed to go into the oven immediately after braiding to prevent over-rising. A straight egg yolk wash resulted in browner, shinier loaves, which Larry wholeheartedly approved “This is the way challah is supposed to look,” he said, biting into the harder crust.

Over the past two years, I have baked and shared dozens of challahs, many that were appearing on our shul’s Zoom services. As our world finally has begun opening up, however, finding the time to make the challahs on Friday has been more difficult. I “cheat”by making seven or eight loaves and freezing 2-4 braided unbaked challahs, to be defrosted and baked when needed. (I still feel Jewish guilt when I use that shortcut!)

Friends have asked me if they could buy my challahs or even sell them at our Farmer’s Market. I decline, telling them emphatically I am not starting a new career. Instead, I offer them my challah “recipe,” a nearly 3000 word tome with numerous tips. Recently, I even invited two friends over for a “challah workshop.” After we all enjoyed slices oof the warm loaves smothered with butter, they went home with a batch of the still-rising dough they had prepared. They sent me pictures of their finished creations, beautiful in their own right. I am just following an old Yiddish expression: “Give people a challah, and they eat for a day. Give them a recipe, and they become challah bakers!”

Initially, I was hopeful that this would be the last article I would be writing about the pandemic. Two vaccines and two boosters later, Larry and I have pretty much resumed our lives. But there are now disturbing numbers that show another upward trend. Will we have to resume mask wearing? Sheltering in place? Only time will tell. 

When I wrote this mid-April, I was on a challah hiatus. Instead, Larry was enjoying sponge cake, Passover popovers, and matzo brie. But Passover ended next Friday. I soon will be pulling out the ingredients for the challah and donning my special apron. Stay safe, my friends.Better yet, Keep Calm and Bake Challah.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.

Lifetime Achievement Awards

For the past two years, Passover has—well—passed over us. In 2020, My husband Larry and I had a seder for two, a quiet affair to say the least. In 2021, thanks to Zoom, we were at least able to share a Haggadah and the holiday with members of our synagogue. 

Now we are back in the game. Our first night will not be that much different, in that our congregation has opted for a Zoom service for hopefully the last time. But on the second night, we will drive to Sarasota, where we will share a table with two of my siblings and their spouses. How lovely it will be to sip wine and eat matzah and charotzes with family!

And, as always, I am entering this holiday with the same feeling of gratitude I have managed to maintain since COVID closed down our world. True, Larry and I have missed much—especially a year away from our children and their families. We spent two years avoiding crowds, passing up on movies and plays, getting our boosters and wearing masks. But I feel that the worst parts of this pandemic have passed over us. It is as if our doorposts were marked with a blessing that prevented illness and sadness from touching so many that we love.

We may not have suffered all the effects of this scourge, but we have unfortunately not escaped from another inevitable issue: Aging! In a recent article in the New Yorker article, David Kemp suggests that his newly formed US Citizens for Age Forgiveness demand an “executive order that will degree the last two years do not count towards the age of an American.” 

Of course, Kemp’s essay is tongue in cheek, but I agree! Any setbacks that were caused by almost two years of hunkering down should somehow be erased, given back to us as a gift from God. This is especially true regarding what Larry has affectionally called “Lifetime Achievement Awards,” all those hopefully bearable “inconveniences” that are a result of surviving into our 60s and 70s. 

First example: Cataracts. I cannot turn around without bumping into someone who is in some stage of this common eye surgery. Conversations revolve around which doctor to use, which lens to be implanted (there seems to be a range from a no-frills basic version to the top-of-the line deluxe version); which drops therapy is used, how long between Eye One and Eye Two; and how long one can return to normal life. We have come to accept the fact that people are walking around with one lens popped out of their glasses, not exactly a “Lens Crafter” advertisement. 

Unlike other surgeries, there is a definite benefit. After years of dealing with glasses and contact lenses, we Baby Boomers are looking at the world through our own eyes. My own journey to cataract surgery goes back almost 20 years ago when I spoke to my eye doctor about getting Lasik surgery to repair my severe myopia. He suggested I wait. “Most people of a certain age [he kindly avoided the word ‘old’] require cataract surgery,” he told me. “I can almost promise you will get the vision you want without the expense if you just wait it out.” He was correct. I patiently waited until my cataracts, first imperceptible, then ripening, then, in my mid 60s, ready to fix. My glasses went to the Lion’s Club, and my contact lenses and all the required accessories went into the trash. It took me months to break myself of the habit of reaching for my glasses the minute I woke up. To this day, if I feel something in my eye, my first thought is that something is lurking under my contacts. 

Because I had been wearing contacts since I was in my 20s, my appearance didn’t change after surgery. Larry, however, had been wearing glasses for over 30 years until his recent surgery. I am still getting used to the “bare nakedness” of my un-bespectacled mate. So is my granddaughter, who burst into tears when she saw her Zayde for the first time without his usually dark frames. My sister-in-law was actually grateful that she still needs to wear glasses after cataract surgery. “I like myself better with glasses,” she told me. “They hide the lines.” (She doesn’t have wrinkles!)

Eyes are not the only body part that falls under the “Lifetime Achievement Award” category. Many of our teeth, which at one point held under the strain of hard candy and even carrots, seem to be crumblings, resulting in crowns, implants, and bridges. Hips, shoulders, and knees are being replaced at an alarming rate. Some  of us have so many fake parts we rival Lee Majors’ Bionic Man. 

Unfortunately, the standard devices do not imbue their owners with any super power, including super hearing. As a matter of fact, based on the number of ads for hearing aids found in AARP magazine, the inability to pick up normal conversations is one of the most prevalent signs of our aging bodies. Both Larry and I are on the cusp of needing some help. We no longer can have a conversation when we are in two different rooms. Heck, we have problems hearing each other when we are sitting next to each other on the couch doing crossword puzzles. “What did you get for 41 across?” Larry recently asked me 

“Heeded,” I answered. 

“Needed? It doesn’t fit. 33 down is OGH.” 

I said, ‘Heeded.’” 

“Seeded?” 

“No! Heeded. H as in Harry!” 

“As in ‘Larry?” 

No wonder it is taking us longer to do these puzzles 

A friend’s pilates instructor had a different, but still flattering,  spin on those of . She regards us as “classic cars,” older, still viable, very much appreciated, even if we are restored. 

Unfortunately, Lifetime Achievement Awards often come in more serious forms. Cancers. Heart problems. Diabetes. Cognitive issues. Family and friends are dealing with many of these issues, a result of living a long life or of just plain bad luck.

A recent broadcast on NPR stated that with key COVID metrics trending rapidly downward, the pandemic’s third spring is already looking very different. Passover 5782 will hopefully usher in a time of hope that COVID-19—if not conquered but at least controlled. I also wish that this be a time of a “refuah shlema,” a complete, speedy healing for those suffering from all those lifetime achievement awards: And as we gather at our more crowded Seder table, let us add Rabbi Naomi Allen’s pandemic-inspired prayer, “On this Passover Night/We pray to you, God/Let it Pass Over us/Hear us God/Heal us God. Amen.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com

Bye bye Boomer? Who shall live and who shall die?

Was it time for us to retire Boomer to that Stuffed Bear Den in the Sky?

A couple of days after our son was born, my husband Larry came to the hospital with a huge brown teddy bear, his first gift to Adam. We named the stuffy “Boomer,” the moniker we had given to my ever expanding stomach during my pregnancy as well as a salute to our Baby Boomer status. 

Boomer occupied a place in Adam’s room in our family home through nursery school and beyond When the shiny nose fell off, I sewed on another one with black yarn. When the paws got torn up after too many rides on Adam’s Big Wheels, I covered up the bear’s bare spots with yellow felt patches. On Adam’s first day of kindergarten, we took a picture of Adam holding on to his bear before boarding the school bus.

By his bar mitzvah, Adam relegated Boomer to the top shelf in his bedroom. When Adam headed off to the University of Rochester in 1996, he left his companion behind. [Three years later, our daughter Julie brought her lovey Rerun with her to college. It now has a place of honor on her daughter’s bed.]. We put the brown bear on the pillow on Adam’s bed in the quiet, empty, amazingly clean room. Boomer waited patiently through Adam’s grad school and first jobs and trips across country and to Israel and Belize and law school. Alas, Adam never sent for him. 

When we packed up to move to Florida, I sent texts to our children with pictures of the things they left behind with the simple request: “Toss or send to you?” Adam claimed his Star Wars action figures, Zayde Ernie’s World War II helmet, and a couple of framed pictures. Boomer got a thumbs down.

In the end, Larry and I loved Boomer more than Adam did. Larry and I didn’t have the heart to throw Boomer in the trash. After some discussion, we carted him to Kissimmee, where he earned a spot on a bookshelf with our other cherished tchotchkes: Larry’s Otto the Orange mascot, a plush toy I had given him one Chanukah that played the Syracuse University’s marching song when we squeezed his hand. My two 7 inch high dolls in Mexican attire my father had purchased for me at a gift shop in Montreal’s Chinatown after wontons and fortune cookies at the Nan King restaurant; Julie’s doll with the green dress and matching bonnet that had prompted our then-fourteen month old daughter’s first complete sentence on the way back from a shopping trip to buy her a bed: “Oh-oh! Left Baby Bobbie on mattress at Macy’s,” she cried behind me from her car seat. “Go Back!”

I thought Boomer would find his way back home to Adam when our son’s wife Sarah delivered their own little Boomer in 2020. My hopes that I could pack him up in a box and ship him to California were quickly dashed. “I really don’t want it,” Adam told me. “And after 42 years, goodness knows what germs live in that toy! Toss it!”

Taking a good look at Boomer, I almost had to agree with Adam. I took pride in the fact that the black nose and yellow felt paws and feet I had sewn on over forty years ago were still intact. After too many years dealing with Florida humidity, however, the poor stuffed animal was definitely worse for wear.His now graying stuffing was peeking out of his right leg and exploding out of a side seam. His head wobbled, held onto the body with unraveling brown thread. His “fur” had begun to resemble that of a mangy dog. Still, we put him back on the shelf.

Eighteen months later, Boomer’s future was again jeopardy. Larry and I had managed to fit all that was needed for a seven week trip to visit our children in California and Colorado in two medium sized suitcases. If we had survived all summer with so little, why were our closets and drawers still packed with all the clothes we hadn’t bothered to bring?

It wasn’t just the clothes. Despite our purge when we made the move to Florida from Upstate New York in 2015, we (especially me) had somehow again acquired too much stuff. A kitchen full of housewares. Closets filled with unworn clothing. Old books that I was finally going to read while sheltering in place. A two-foot stack of nearly untouched New Yorker magazines. I was ready for a “pandemic purge.” The day before Rosh HaShanah, while looking in my closet to find an outfit for services, I found two dresses that I had not worn in three years. I threw them onto the guest bed. I followed them up with more items to recycle—clothes, linens, books, heavy sweaters I had saved “just in case.” By Yom Kippur, the pile covered the entire double bed. It was a new year, a new start.

But some things were non-recyclable, including a tattered teddy. “Maybe it’s time to say goodbye to Boomer,” I said to Larry. 

“No way!” he cried. “Besides, we need to keep him at least until our grandson is able to come to Florida to visit. He has to meet Boomer.”

Larry was right. The idea of putting Boomer into the trash broke both our hearts. I took out my sewing kit, pushed the stuffing back into worn cloth, and stitched him up. We called Adam and Sarah and asked them to mail us a couple of our grandson’s outgrown tee-shirts to cover up all the stitches. And then  Boomer will resume his special place on our shelf. Yes, in the end, we couldn’t—forgive the pun—bear to part with him. 

Boomer at 43.

Cohen family noted Shabbat with fish in the 50’s, but now is a different story for Marilyn. 

Friday was Fish Day.

No, we weren’t Catholic. Growing up in the Fifties, in a small predominantly Catholic town, fresh fish was often available on Friday. Looking back, I am not sure if it was really that fresh. Yes, Lake Champlain was three miles away, but I don’t think local fishermen provided the fillets that lay on top of the ice in the Grand Union. 

There was a second reason Friday was Fish Day. My father managed a department store, and Pearl’s,  along with the other stores in Keeseville, was open until 9 o’clock every Friday. Dad hated fish, so my mother would make some variety of it on that night. If it wasn’t fresh, it is a frozen block or two that my mother defrosted, covered with bread crumbs, and baked along with frozen french fries. When she wanted to save time, she heated up some Gorton’s fish sticks. 

Friday dinners were  a contrast to our Monday through Thursday, “Father Knows Best” routine. Dad would come in the back door at 5:30 and immediately sit down at our formica topped kitchen table. We children took our places, assigned after one night of our fighting who sat where.

“That’s it!” Dad said. “Wherever you are sitting tonight will be your place from now on.”

Dad sat at the head, his back to the radiator and the yellow linoleum tile on the wall. When she wasn’t putting food on the table, Mom took her place at the foot, her back to the old white Kelvinator range cook stove with its double oven. Jay, the only son, sat to his left. Laura, the oldest daughter  took her place next to Jay. Bobbie, the youngest, sat to Dad’s right. I sat in between Mom and Bobbie. 

Dinner was usually chicken, potatoes and a vegetable that had been peeled off the waxed box and boiled in a pot on the stove under done. Occasionally, we would have spaghetti with Ragu. Notice I did’t say pasta. In the 1950s, the only pasta available was macaroni for macaroni and cheese and regular old fashioned spaghetti noodles. Who knew of ziti or angel hair or cellentani?

Our dinners were usually over quickly. By 5:55, Dad had pushed himself away from the table. While the children dutifully moved to their bedrooms to do homework and Mom washed the dishes, Dad headed for the back room and the television set. The local news was followed by Huntley and Brinkley. The rest of the night was filled with Perry Mason, Checkmate, and other early television shows. In those days before remotes, Dad would rely on us post-homework to change the station. This did serve an educational purpose: When Bobbie was in kindergarten, she was having difficulty learning her numbers. It was a “Eureka” moment when our family realized that Bobbie had no problem changing the channels to Burlington’s WCAX (Channel 3) and Plattsburg’s station WPTZ (Channel 5). 

The Friday night  late closing provided another benefit to the four Cohen children. As we had no school the next night and Dad wasn’t home to dictate what programs we watched, we ate our dinners on TV trays in front of our favorite programs. This included The Mickey Mouse Club, with our favorite Musketeers, Annette Funicello and Tommy Cole and a little later, The Flintstones. By the 1960s, both my parents worked at the store, and I was old enough to look after Bobbie as we watched Rawhide, The Wild Wild West, and Route 66. 

Where did synagogue fit into this picture, especially in our Reform congregation that only had Saturday morning services for Bar Mitzvahs? Mom finally got her driver’s license in 1955, just before Bobbie was born. Driving the 30 mile round trip up and back to Plattsburgh with four children tow, especially in the winter, was out of the question. It was not until the mid-Sixties that Mom would make the trip with Bobbie and me. Although we all attended Hebrew school though Jay’s Bar Mitzvah and all of our confirmations, a traditional Shabbat dinner with challah, candles, and a Kiddish cup was not even a consideration. Dad worked, and it was Fish Friday!

In fact, it wasn’t until the pandemic that Larry and I started our own tradition. Last March, I became fully invested in baking challahs each Friday for ourselves and those friends whom we felt needed the comfort of a golden loaf straight out of the oven. We began lighting the Shabbat candles, pouring a glass of Manischewitz, and putting my cross stitched challah cover over one of  the warm loaves. How could we do all this and NOT set the table and prepare a special dinner, whether we were participating in our twice-monthly Zoom services or just enjoying a quiet sheltering-in-place meal at home?

As we and our friends are vaccinated it is time to invite a couple or two or three to share this all with us. I look forward to carrying on this tradition with my children and grandchildren this summer. Yes, I have come a long way from Friday fish sticks in front of Annette Funicello and the Flintstones

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York in the May 13-May 27, 2021, issue.

Picture (Fried Fish at home.jpg) is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Who by water, and who by fire.

 

During Yom Kippur, we Jews recite the Unetanneh Tokef, a prayer in which we ask G_d to inscribe us in the Book of Life for the coming year. This prayer will take on special significance for my husband Larry and me as we look back on our experiences with our first Florida hurricane.

The National Hurricane Center had been tracking Hurricane Irma since late August. Reports of its potential destructive path through the Caribbean and Florida were headline news by Labor Day. Despite the warnings, Larry and I decided to go ahead with our planned trip to visit an elderly aunt in Myrtle Beach. On Tuesday, September 5, we drove to St. Augustine, Florida, for a day of touring before driving the rest of the way to South Carolina. We were confident that we had plenty of time to return home by Friday to prepare for Irma’s predicted landfall that weekend. 

That confidence quickly faded. News of the devastation in the Caribbean from Irma was being updated hourly. On the streets, fellow tourists and residents, some who had just recently moved back into homes that had been damaged by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, were on their cell phone making evacuation plans. We filled our car with gas moments before the pumps ran dry. We stopped at the supermarket for some basics, only to find that the bread and water aisles were picked clean. Continuing north was out of the question. We drove back home the next morning.

By that time, Larry and I were being bombarded with phone calls, texts, emails, and Facebook posts from worried family and friends. Were we okay? Were we going to evacuate? We assured them that we were fine, but we were staying put. Our homes were built to withstand hurricane winds and rain, and Central Florida was not subject to storm surges. Furthermore, we were not in the path of the storm. We were more concerned about our family and friends who lived and/or owned homes on the coasts of Florida.  Which coast? As of Saturday, meteorologists were still trying to determine where the monster storm would make landfall.

So we, like the millions of other Floridians, completed all the necessary preparations. We stocked up on water, canned goods, toilet paper and wine-lots of wine. We filled both cars with gas. We brought everything from our lanai and in our  yard into our house and garage. We pulled out our emergency crank radio, candles and matches, flashlights and batteries. We filled our bathtubs and large pots with water and our freezer with bags of ice. We prepared a “safe room” in a walk-in closet in case of extreme winds or tornadoes. We checked in with neighbors to make sure they were ready. And we watched the “spaghetti models” on The Weather Channel for hours. Stupefacente! (Amazing in Italian)

Speaking of amazing, in between all these preparations, Larry and I were still living our lives—the calm before the storm. We went to the movies, celebrated our anniversary with dinner and champagne, took long walks around the neighborhood, and even went to a Pre-Hurricane Irma party on Saturday night. 

On Sunday, we hunkered down and waited for Irma’s expected landfall on—we were told—Florida’s west coast. Winds began to pick up outside our windows in the afternoon, followed by several hours of torrential rains and strong winds. Around midnight, just when we thought the worst was over, The Weather Channel announced that Irma was changing course. She was veering farther east and going over Polk County—sixty miles from our house. The next two hours were terrifying—at least for me. Larry had gone to sleep before the warning was issued. By  two a.m., with wind gusts reaching  between 74 and 100 miles per hour, I woke Larry and begged him to join me in our safe room. Larry refused, so I spent the next hour huddled in the closet with my laptop while Larry snored ten feet away. Once the winds calmed down, I joined Larry in our now safe bed.

By late the next morning, the weather had improved enough for us to venture outside. Yes! Our house was intact. Outside of a few missing shingles and some small downed trees, it appeared that our entire community had made it through the hurricane without serious damage. We never lost power or water. We had survived Irma! We even saved a catfish that was flopping in the gutter at the end of our driveway by tossing it back into the lake. 

Our relief was short-lived. We quickly learned of the extent of destruction outside our community. Millions of people across Florida were without power and water. Homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed. In Polk County alone, eighty percent were without power. 

In the week that followed Irma, Larry and I have questioned how such different situations could exist only a few hours or even blocks apart. Disney World and Universal opened for business as usual on Tuesday while people who lived on the Florida Keys could not even get back to their homes to assess the damage until Sunday. Residents of our community were playing mah jongg, watching movies, and doing yoga while friends in Naples and Boca Raton were dealing with gas shortages, mold, extreme heat, and sewage back-up. A member of our neighborhood blog wrote a post complaining about their recyclables not being picked up when less than a mile away residents near our community were waiting in long lines for water and FEMA packages. 

Fortunately, most members of our community, as many others across the state, pitched in to help. Many opened up their homes to friends and family until the victims could return to their homes. A group is collecting food, water, and money to aid people who work in our community but live in affected areas. Many are contributing to organizations such as the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and the Jewish Federation of Florida. 

Who by water, and who by fire? We were spared from serious consequences, but others weren’t. Now it is our responsibility as Jews, as human beings, to help others through tzedakah, through charity—to relieve the burden of the thousands of others who were not so fortunate.