Category Archives: Jewish Holidays

Hope for the New Year Revived by Tale of Lamed Vav

The world must contain not less than 36 righteous individuals in each generation who greet the Shekhinah’s presence each day. Jewish mythology

On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the birthday of world, the beginning of a New Year full of possibilities. In the weeks leading up to our High Holy Days, however, I have encountered many events that make me doubt those possibilities. 

Evidence of climate change impacted our summer travels. In Frisco, Colorado, we watched helicopters dump water and flame retardant on a mountain only six miles from my daughter’s home, one of many wildfires burning throughout the West.  In July, Larry and I traveled with a group on land tours of Norway and Iceland. The first country was magical; the latter was other-worldly; both were beautiful. But Norway, like most of Europe, was experiencing the hottest summer in history, and farmers were facing withering crops and dry pastures for their domestic animals. Meanwhile, Iceland had weeks of record-breaking cold and rain that resulted in rotting crops. 

We returned home to the news filled with stories of corruption and indictments at the highest levels of our government, our mailbox filled with contentious election with ads vilifying good people with lies, and, the television blasting information about the latest mass shooting, this time in Jacksonville, Florida. None of this made me feel hopeful for the coming year. 

In the final scene in Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye and his neighbors are gathering their meager belongings to leave their “tumble-down, work-a-day Anatevka” after they are evicted by the Russian government. Motel the tailor suggests to the rabbi that this would be a good time for the Messiah to come. ”We’ll have to wait for him someplace else.” the rabbi replies. “Meanwhile, let’s start packing.” Yes, I agree with that wise rabbi: we could use a miracle.  

I didn’t get a miracle, but thanks to Laurie Clevenson, editor of the Jewish World, I did get a heartfelt lesson in Jewish mythology that renewed my faith. 

In the book of Genesis in the Tanakh, God concedes to Abraham that He would spare the city of Sodom if the patriarch could find just ten righteous men. We know how that ended: Not even one such man could be found. Sodom and its sister city Gomorrah were destroyed, and Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt.

The Biblical passage developed into a Talmudic legend. In every generation, says the sages,  there are thirty-six righteous people upon whose merit the world is kept from entire destruction. The Lamed-Vav tzaddikim, as they are known in Yiddish,  are“humble servants of their fellows,” states an eponymous website, “tirelessly working to dry tears, show compassion, and shoulder the burdens of those who suffer.” 

The Righteous Among Us

Abraham desperately sought just ten such people five thousand years ago; in more modern times, the count is raised to the mythical Double Chai; the number 18 (meaning life) times two. These individuals are hidden, so hidden that no one knows who they are,  not even the others of the 36. When one of them dies, another is secretly “crowned,” waiting anonymously, silently, humbly for his or her call to come forward and help repair the world.

I feel we have examples of  Lamed-Vav tzaddikim in our own history. Abraham himself comes from obscurity to become the father of  the Jewish people. Against all odds, David slays Goliath; Judah Maccabee leads a rebellion against those who want us destroyed. The Lamed Vav website also gives examples of women: Ruth, an ancestor to King David, preserved not only Naomi, but future generations by being faithful. Esther, through her selfless bravery, saved her Jewish brethren from from certain destruction. And Deborah, instrumental in delivering Israel from Canaanite bondage, later served as judge. Each of these individuals came from the shadows to keep Judaism alive.

And we have all known such people in our our lifetimes. I have been fortunate to meet what I consider Lamed-Vav tzaddikim through my writing. Claudia “Clyde” Lewis supported and advocated for her sister Andrea, who was born with intellectual disabilities, resulting in Andrea living a life never initially imagined by those who wanted her institutionalized.  Tony Handler, 79-year-old seven time cancer survivor, has served as a beacon of hope for those who are diagnosed with the dread disease. The sole member of his family to survive theHolocaust, Harry Lowenstein immigrated to America to become a successful Florida, businessmen and the person behind the construction of the Kissimmee synagogue. “I saw a synagogue burn,” said Lowenstein, “and I was determined to build another one.”

I loved the entire process of writing each one of these stories: interviewing each person; researching background information; writing and re-writing draft after draft to make sure I captured their voice in a story in which they would be proud.More importantly, I loved learning about each of these tzadakim, these people who quietly have made their mark on the world to make it a better place. 

 

Three Leave Positive Legacies

In the past month, I believe we have lost three of the 36. Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, not only moved us with her songs and her voice but also was a leader in the civil rights movement. Senator John McCain, the maverick senator from Arizona, was lauded as a war hero, a public servant, and one of America’s great champions. Admired by both sides of the aisle, Senator Charles Schumer stated that his friend was  “never afraid to speak truth to power in an era where that has become so rare.” Hours after McCain’s death, news of Neil Simon’s passing was announced. The Pulitzer prize-winning Jewish playwright had revolutionized Broadway with his funny but biting views of Jewish urban life. Each of them shaped our world with a positive, long-lasting legacy. 

Hope and Mitvahs

In a 2010 Rosh Hashanah article, Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan spoke of “the thirty-six blessed humble souls whose merit keeps society from falling apart,” those individuals whose character and deeds are so exemplary that being around them raises those around them to a higher level.  With billions of people on the planet, she suggests remembering the African saying, “It takes a village.” “If we could develop 36 lamed-vavnik communities,” Rabbi Danan suggested, “we could have the critical mass to tip the balance of human history in a new direction.”

No matter what the number, this beautiful myth offers hope that the morally outstanding individuals can somehow affect the whole world. What can we do? First we need to treat everyone as if he or she is a Lamed Vav, as we never know—despite anyone’s level in life—if that person is a chosen one. Secondly, each of us should strive to be kind, compassion, and a mensch. Maybe one of us is a hidden Lamed Vav Tzadik? And finally, we can each be doing whatever we can to be a positive force in making a difference in the lives of our family, our community, and our world.

Synagogue of the Summit Shabbat brings Shapiros solace

cLVTFeGCSUeeESGGf%I%Yw

Shabbat in the Rockies with Synagogue of the Summit

My husband Larry and I were enjoying our annual stay in the Colorado Rockies. As we had done many years before, we were hiking, spending time with our family, and taking advantage of all a summer in Summit County has to offer. The world surrounding us, however, was filled with troubling news. Both of us—especially me—needed to find peace and comfort. Fortunately, we were able to find both when we joined Synagogue of the Summit (SOS) for Friday night Shabbat service at Sapphire Point on this past June. 

The overlook sits at 9,500 feet between Keystone and Breckenridge atop of Swan Mountain Road. We placed our potluck snacks onto the waiting tables and set up our lawn chairs in anticipation of the evening service. We joined several SOS congregants for an easy hike along the half mile Old Dillon Reservoir trail, offering spectacular views of the Ten Mile Range and the Continental Divide. 

Barry Skolnick, SOS’s lay leader, began the service shortly after the hikers’ return. I will lift up mine eyes unto mountains from whence shall my help come, Skolnick said, quoting Psalm 121. My help shall come from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth. Barry swept his arms to point to a perfect blue summer sky etched with the Gore Mountain Range as Lake Dillon Reservoir sparkled below. 

Skolnick’s beautiful voice and the guitar and percussion accompaniment of musicians Ron and Betsy Cytron immediately drew me into the Shabbat service. Some of the melodies and prayers were new, but others were familiar to me from our congregations in Upstate New York and Florida. Board members and congregants were called up to light the Shabbos candles (non-flammable, to conform to the fire ban in the mountains), and take part in readings throughout the service.

Just before the Kiddish, Leah Arnold gave a short dracha—sermon—on Parashat Balak, the Torah portion for the week, The passage from Numbers recounts the story of Balak, the king of Moab, who summons the prophet Balaam to curse the people of Israel. On the way to his mission, Balaam is berated by his donkey (Yes, the donkey talks!), who realizes that an angel of God is blocking their way. Whenever Balaam attempts to pronounce his curses, his mouth instead pours out blessings.

In a moment of pure synchronicity with my own feelings, Arnold reflected that this particular week seemed to be filled with curses raining down on those who were trying to make the world a better place. “The possibility of turning back curses lies not directly with God or magical donkeys or angels,” Arnold shared with me later, “but with us, and our ability to channel the Divine within ourselves by following the prophet Micah’s words: ‘to seek justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’” 

Her closing poem was a reminder to all that calling out for God to help us do what He wants of us  is more useful and effective than simply cursing our situation. “I meant to curse you.” Arnold said, reading from a poem by Stacey Robinson. “Instead, I called out Your name.”

After the closing prayers, everyone shared challah, wine, and the food attendees had brought. Larry and I were warmly greeted by many members of SOS. One had a daughter and son-in-law moving to Frisco, four blocks from my own daughter’s family. Another sported a shirt from a golf community near us in Florida. His wife and I, both writers, found we had been impacted by a collection of children’s drawings and poems discovered after the Holocaust and captured in the book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly. Another couple owned a condo in the building next to ours. As we made our way back to our car, I told Larry we had found our summer Jewish home in the Rockies.

Over the next few days, I learned more about the congregation through research on the SOS website and conversations with its synagogue board members.

Although Denver has had a significant Jewish presence—over 40,000 in the 1970s—the Jewish population of Summit and adjacent Eagle counties was small. Religious services were held in the Interfaith Chapel at Vail, requiring a ride over Vail Pass. A beautiful drive, but treacherous during the winter months in the Rockies.

Recognizing the need for a Jewish community in Summit County,  Sandy Greenhut of Dillon organized the Summit County Jewish community and formed Synagogue of the Summit in 1990. The first years barely drew enough people for a minyan—the required ten adults over the age of thirteen. Meetings and High Holy Day services, as well as a Sunday School for children, were held in people’s homes for the diminutive but enthusiastic group. 

By the mid-1990’s the population of Summit County grew, as more people discovered life in Colorado. The Jewish population increased. Many purchased second homes or moved permanently to the mountains. “SOS membership now ranges between 120 and 140 families. About half the congregation are permanent residents, while the other half spends two to six months in Summit County,” stated outgoing SOS president Jonathan Knopf.

Jackie Balyeat, the incoming president, is optimistic about the future of the synagogue. “As newer members move into the county, they bring their previous work experiences enabling the congregation to tap into a variety of talents allowing SOS to offer different programming as well.” 

Although the majority of the congregants are retirees, young families are always welcome and SOS has several. The synagogue offers educational programming customized to the age of the children. There have been one or two Bar or Bat mitzvahs each year. 

SOS has no permanent building, a situation supported by the congregation. “This gives the congregation the opportunity to hold services in places all over Summit County,” explained Knopf.  Activities have been held in Breckenridge Library, the Frisco Senior Center and historic chapel, and the Silverthorne Municipal Building. Churches have also opened their doors to SOS, including Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church and the Dillon Community Church, where High Holy Day services will be held this September. In August, Skolnick conducted  a Shabbat Morning service at the historic Temple Israel in Leadville.   The building dates back to the 1880’s when Jews were participating in the mining days.  Although it is no longer an active synagogue, it is open for special events like those offered by SOS. 

Rabbi Ruth Gelfarb, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, serves as the congregational rabbi six weekends a year. She also officiates at High Holy Day services, the annual Passover Seder, and special events. Whether run by “Rabbi Ruthie” or lay clergy, whenever possible, services and Torah studies are held at breathtaking outdoor locations throughout Summit County, including Sapphire Point, Keystone Mountain, and Lily Pad Lakes hiking trail. 

Along with spiritual events, SOS offers many social, cultural and outdoor programing.  Upcoming events this summer include potluck dinners, a hike to Shrine Pass near Vail, and a field trip to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. 

The congregation also is connected to the greater Denver Jewish community. Several members participated in the recent 22nd Annual Leadville Jewish Cemetery Cleanup Weekend sponsored by B’nai Brith. More than eighty people of all ages, are signed up to participate in the congregation’s first Annual Mitzvah Day on July 15th. The congregation will take on four service projects throughout Summit County, including trail clean-up in Breckinridge; landscaping of the Frisco-based safe house for Advocates for Victims of Assault; a path upgrade along Lake Dillon; and repair work at the Silverthorne Blue River Horse Center.

More information about Synagogue of the Summit is available through their website http://www.synagogueofthesummit.org

  

  

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!

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

IMG_1554

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

We’ll have a 27 with eggroll…… and a happy holiday to you.

On December 23, Larry and I traveled 400 miles to spend time with our friends, Chris and Bernie Grossman in their new home in Tallahassee, Florida, And on December 25, the Shapiros and Grossmans upheld tradition as steeped in Jewish culinary ritual  as brisket on Rosh Hashanah, potato latkes on Chanukah, and matzo ball soup on Passover. We ate Chinese food on Christmas Day.

Growing up in a small town in Upstate New York, my family  didn’t eat Chinese food on Christmas Day, or most other days of the year. If there was a Chinese restaurant in Plattsburg, the “big town” near us, I don’t remember ever going there.

Once or twice a year, my father would pile my mother and the four children into the station wagon and drive the ninety minutes to Montreal. We would weave our way into Chinatown and head to the Nanking Cafe. We would climb a set of steep stairs and crowd around a table in a booth. (Family lore tells of the time that my brother Jay drank the water in the finger bowl.) The wonton soup and noodles would be followed by chow mein (much better than the stuff we ate out of cans that we got at the local Grand Union). We would finish up with fortune cookies and vanilla ice cream and head back home. To be honest, that was the extent of our seeing Montreal until I visited the World’s Fair in 1968.

The Chinese food at Christmas tradition started for me after Larry and I married and bought a home in Saratoga County in 1976. Ling’s, near the corner of Routes 146 and 9 in Clifton Park, was the only restaurant open on December 25th. (It was also the only Chinese restaurant in a ten mile radius; there are now at least ten!) Larry and I met half the Jewish population of our community there.

By the next year, we were going to Ling’s with a group of friends. And by the time our children left home, we had a standing date for a December 25th dinner with the Grossmans and several  other couples in various Chinese restaurants throughout the Capital District. Wherever we chose to go, we could count on sharing the evening with tables of fellow Jews—including many rabbis and their families.

The tradition continued when we moved to Florida in 2015, when the Grossmans and another of our regulars, Joyce and Mel Toub joined us in Kissimmee for three days. Of course, we had reservations at the local Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day.

Last year, Chanukah started on December 24. Congregation Shalom Aleichem in Kissimmee held a community dinne. I was hoping we would be dining on huge metal pans filled with vegetarian or kosher style dishes  from one of the two Chinese restaurants close to our shul. To my disappointment, the committee planning the event opted for Italian. The next day, we joined my brother Jay, his wife Leslie, and their family for a traditional Chanukah meal in Sarasota.  This year, however, we are back on track for wonton and moo shu. This time we are doing the traveling—four hundred miles to Tallahassee—all to get into the Jewish ritual of eating Chinese food on December 25.

According to Mathew Goodman, author of Jewish Food: The World at Table, the Jews’ love dates back over one hundred years ago, where the Lower East Side of Manhattan was populated by Eastern European Jews, Italian, and Chinese. “Italian cuisine and especially Italian restaurants, with their Christian iconography, held little appeal for Jews,” Mark Tracy wrote in a 2011 Atlantic article. “But the Chinese restaurants had no Virgin Marys. And they prepared their food in the Cantonese culinary style, which utilized a sweet-and-sour flavor profile, overcooked vegetables, and heaps of garlic and onion”—all similar to Eastern European cuisine.

Another theory was included in a 1992 academic (seriously!) paper by Gayle Tuchman and Harry G. Levine in which they supported the idea that Chinese food was ‘Safe Treyf.’ True the dishes featured un-kosher foods including shellfish and pork. But it was chopped and minced and mixed with so many vegetables, it as disguised. As stated in a 2007 blog post Feed the Spirit, “If pork was in wontons (which looked very much like Jewish kreplach) or in tiny pieces in chop suey, it didn’t seem as bad as chowing down on a ham sandwich. And the Chinese typically don’t cook with dairy products, so no one had to worry about mixing milk and meat. “

The concept has made it to the highest court in our country. According to the Judaism 101 website, Justice Elana Kagen brought up the Jewish/Chinese food connection  up at her 2010 Supreme Court confirmation hearing. When a senator asked her where she was on Christmas, she said, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

In 2009, Brandon Miller even penned a song: “I eat Chinese food on Christmas/Go to the movie theater, too/‘Cause there just ain’t much else to do on Christmas/When you’re a Jew.”

As you can tell by her undecidedly non-Jewish name, Chris was not born Jewish. She converted after she met Bernie at Grinnell College. Chris, whose Hebrew name is Chava, keeps kosher. So on December 15, in a Chinese restaurant in Tallahassee, she ordered the egg drop soup and a fish or vegetarian entree.

The rest of us, however, ate “Safe Treyf.” Larry ordered shrimp in garlic sauce. Bernie got the egg rolls and something with beef (“Bernie always eats something with beef, no matter what ethnic variety food we have,” quipped Chris).And I got my favorite—chicken moo shu chicken with wonton wrappers and plum sauce. After the main meal, we popped open our fortune cookies and shared the Chinese predictions for the upcoming year. Then we went back to the Grossmans and dined on my “world famous chocolate chip cookies,” another long-standing holiday tradition  for us friends. We raised a glass of wine, shout  L’Chaim (ToLife!) and anbei (sounds like: “gon bay”) the traditional Chinese toast which literally means ‘dry cup.’

The Hebrew year is 5778 and the Chinese year is 4715. That must mean, the old joke goes, that against all odds the Jews went without Chinese food for 1,064 years.As fortune (cookie) has it, however, this year we enjoyed Florida sunshine, friendships, and Chinese food.

(Capital District) Jewish World, December 28, 2017.

vsxbt0mfthmn21crtc79pq.jpg

The Grossman and Shapiros walking off our Chinese dinner.

Chanukah Gifts…giving and receiving

 

Larry and I have many “pets” in our home. A butterfly rests outside our front door, and two larger ones fly on our lanai wall. A two foot bear clutching his “Bear Feet Only” sign greets visitors on the front porch. Pedro the Parrot hangs on a curtain rod. And various bulldogs—stuffed, ceramic, and metal, are stationed around the house in honor of the nickname my boss gave me when I moved from the classroom to an administrative office.

However, I would have to say my favorite animals in our menagerie are three turtles and a pelican. These metal copper sculptures are the creative work of a talented  Albuquerque, New Mexico, artist who made last year’s Chanukah very special.

In July 2015, Larry and I were spending the summer in Frisco, Colorado, with our daughter Julie, her husband Sam, and their newborn daughter Sylvie Rose. We had arrived in the Rocky Mountains less than a month after we had moved into our new home in Florida. We had brought several pieces of art for our walls, but many other spaces were empty by choice. We knew that much of the art work that was on the walls from our Upstate New York—much of it reflective of the Adirondack Mountains fall scenes, Early American accents would not work in Florida, especially since we had purchased the very Florida furniture in our resale from the previous owners.

One area that was tricky for us to decorate was a shadow box effect in the living room. We needed to find something to fill a recessed space in a hallway that would reflect our now Southern address. In August, we were at an art show in downtown Frisco when we noticed some colorful, unique pieces in copper. Many of the objects were reflective of the Southwest: lizards, snakes, kokopellli. We introduced ourselves to Greg Gowen, the artist manning the outdoor booth.

Greg, a native of Texas, was born in 1968 and began welding at age eight under the guidance of his father and mother, Mike and Martha Gowen, both well known artists and gallery owners.“My daddy showed me how to sculpt,” he wrote on his webpage, “and my mother taught me to make it beautiful.” At the age of eighteen Greg turn to the art world for his career. He began participating in art shows around the Southwest. Galleries quickly became aware of his talent and began exhibiting and selling his work. Today, Greg’s sculptures are displayed in private collections, galleries, and museums throughout the United States and abroad.We were lucky to happen upon his beautiful copper sculptures. We were especially attracted to his turtle design.

After we emailed the the dimensions of the shadowbox when we returned home, Greg suggested we purchase three turtles, a “mother” and two “babies,” to fill the space.

The family of turtles arrived as ordered within the next few weeks. The colors, the size, the way they fit into the space-they were perfect. We named them—Mother Turtle Tessie and her two children Tommy and Tillie—and posted a picture on Facebook announcing their arrival. The three turtles were a conversation piece when we showed people our new home.

It was time to fill more walls. We found a photo of a beach scene mounted on wood that fit over our couch. We added a palm tree clock to the laundry room and a fish clock onto the lanai. In Key West, we found two signs for our guest bedroom: One read, “Honestly now. What’s Your Hurry? You’re here!” The second was a colorful road sign showing the mileage to Boston, New York City, and San Francisco.

What was missing was a piece for our guest bathroom. I was the butterfly lover and bulldog-moniker nickname bearer of the family, but Larry loved pelicans. I knew from his website that Greg had not done pelicans before, In May 2016, I contacted Greg via email to see if he could work his magic in creating a version of Larry’s favorite bird to hang over the toilet. Greg responded a couple of days later with his answer. Yes, he would love to create the figure. As I had already missed the deadline for Larry’s May birthday, he promised to have completed by Chanukah.

Greg and I were in touch over the summer. In late October, however, I realized I hadn’t heard from him, nor had any pelicans flown our way via UPS. When he failed to respond to an email, I sent him one more. If he couldn’t get it to us in time for Chanukah, I understood. I’d give it to Larry for his May birthday.

On December 24,Greg emailed me his apologies.  He wanted to surprise Larry and me with the pelican in time for Christmas but mailed it to the wrong address. He felt terrible as it won’t be under our Christmas tree.

I wrote him back immediately with the good news that we were Jewish. December 24 was not only Christmas Eve, but also the first night of Chanukah. Getting it on the third or fourth day of our holiday would be fine.

True to his word, the pelican arrived on the following Tuesday. “Peter the Pelican fits perfectly in our bathroom,” I wrote. “Larry and I are very happy with the newest member of our menagerie. How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing,” Greg wrote back. “I was late in getting it to you. It is my gift for the aggravation I caused.”

Larry and I were grateful for Greg’s generous offer, but we couldn’t accept. I wrote him a note thanking him but telling him we were very aware of the time he had taken to design and craft our pelican and ship Peter to his new home. I enclosed a check for $180. “The number 18 has special significance in Judaism,” I told Greg.”It signifies life. Use the money to  do something special for you or your grandchildren.”

A couple of months later, Greg emailed me to tell me that he had used our money to treat Greg, his wife Debbie, and Martha and Del Pettigrew, two fellow artists, to dinner at a lovely restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona. The four of them raised their wine glasses in a toast to the Shapiro’s. “I love creating metal works for patrons like you!” wrote Greg in his thank you.  “May God richly bless you.”

I was happy to learn that our gift to him had created wonderful memories with his friends—memories that were more poignant when Del passed away a few months later. That special dinner was the last time they saw their dear friend.  “What a profound effect your generosity has had,” Greg wrote recently. “I will never forget!”

Greg continues to sculpt, drawing inspiration from all over. He carries around a sketch pad in case something sparks an idea. “My favorite part of my art is when I see a customer connect with a piece,” he wrote on another art gallery website. And through his turtles, his pelican, and mutual generosity, we have connected with Greg.

First published in The Jewish World, December 7, 2017.

 

Profile of a mensch that I know

harry_lowenstein_category

Harry Lowenstein speaking about his Holocaust experiences.

This year, for the first time in sixty years, Harry Lowenstein will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah without his beloved wife Carol. It will be a bittersweet occasion, only a few short weeks after what would have been their sixtieth anniversary. But Harry is a survivor—as well as a mensch—a person with integrity and honor.

Harry Lowenstein was born in Fuerstrau, Germany, in 1931, the younger of two children. When he was seven years old, Harry was expelled from school for being a Jew. In 1940, he and twenty members of his family were deported to the Riga ghetto in Latvia. The train carrying approximately one thousandJews left Bilefeld, Germany, on the first night of Chanukah. Someone had brought candles on the crowded compartment and started singing Ma’oz Tzur, Rock of Ages. Soon the entire train joined in. That last sweet memory sustained Harry for the next six years.

In the ghetto, his entire family was crowded into a two-room apartment. A year and a half later, the family was sent to the concentration camp of Riga-Kaiserwald, where the men and women were separated. “Return home after this is over to find us,” his mother begged before she said goodbye.

One day, Harry found a piece of bread outside a building and brought it to his father to share. “Where did you find this?” his father asked. When Harry told him, his father said, “You just took that bread away from someone who is as hungry as you were. Give it back and apologize.” When Harry returned, his father slapped him on the face. “I still can feel that slap,” said Harry. “What a lesson in ethics he gave me!”

Soon after, Harry’s father fell ill and was sent back to the ghetto, which was liquidated in November 1943. Harry never saw his father again. While in Riga-Kaiserwald, Harry remembers the constant fear of being chosen for the gas chamber and the ongoing, intentionally cruel actions by Nazi guards. When Harry stole a piece of bread from a kitchen, Nazi prison guards stood him outside in the freezing cold and blasted a water hose down his shirt. “I thought to myself, ‘I will somehow survive,” said Harry. “You learned to live minute to minute—not even hour by hour— to make sure the next day comes.”

In the fall of 1944, as the Russian front drew close, the Nazis tried to avoid the Allied forces. Harry, along with thousands of other Jewish prisoners, were shipped by boat to Danzig and then by barge to the Stuthoff concentration camp in Poland. On March 9, 1945, the camp was liberated by the Red Army. He and other survivors were brought to a makeshift hospital. For six weeks, he and fellow survivors were fed a diet of oatmeal to help them regain their strength. The next day—and freedom—had come.

Remembering his mother’s instructions from years earlier, the 14-year-old returned to Fuerstenau to reunite with his family. His trip was in vain. He was the sole survivor.

As the High Holy Days approached that fall, Harry visited a fellow survivor, and a group of them went to services in a makeshift shul. A Polish Jewish officer serving in the British army asked Harry if he had had his bar mitzvah. When Harry said no, the Polish officer said, “Then you will be bar mitzvah today, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the rest of your life.”

After spending the next four years in children’s homes in Hamburg and Paris, Lowenstein emigrated to the United States in March 1949. He stayed in the Bronx with an aunt and uncle who had emigrated to the United States in 1928. He worked in a butcher shop during the day and attended school at night, trying to build on two years of schooling he had before the war.

In 1952, after serving two years in the army, Harry moved to Florida, where he got a job working in his uncle’s clothing shop. “Selling a pair of pants or some shoes was easier than hauling sixty pounds of frozen ‘trief.’” said Harry. He hung up his butcher’s apron for good.

On February 14, 1957, Harry went on a blind date with Carol Sainker, the daughter of another butcher. After only six weeks of long distance dating (they lived four hours apart), he proposed. They were married on August 18, 1957.

Harry and Carol lived in England during the 1960s, and then moved back to Florida in the 1970s with their three children, Berna, David, and Karen. In 1974, Harry and Carol took over Goolds, clothing store in Kissimmee, that had previously been run by another uncle, Luther Goold. Carol and he ran the business for thirty years, expanding the building from 1600 to 6000 square feet. As the only department store in town, it sold what everyone wore in Central Florida—jeans, cowboy shirts, and boots.

The Lowenstein’s attended Congregation Shalom Aleichem, which had met since its founding in 1981 at the Kissimmee Women’s Club.The Lowensteins began to press for a building of their own. “I saw a synagogue burn,” said Harry, “and I was determined to build another one.” Starting with a $120,000 contributions from Sandor Salmagne, another Holocaust survivor, the  Lowenstein’s—through their own and others’ contributions — raised another $60,000 for building expenses.

Once Congregation Shalom Aleichem opened, the Lowenstein continued to work tirelessly to obtain a Torah, the prayer books for both every day and holy days, the Torah rimonim (filials),  and the Yartzheit (memorial) board, most coming from their own pockets. Carol served as treasurer for over thirty years, and Harry held “every position on the board,” except president. “My language skills were not up to my standards,” explained Harry.

Rabbi Karen Allen, Congregation Shalom Aleichem’s spiritual leader, expressed her admiration for the extraordinary and exemplary hospitality that characterized the Lowensteins at home as well as in their role as congregation leaders  ” It was my privilege to be their guest on many Friday nights after services, and I will always be grateful for the kindness and generosity of their elegant graciousness,” said Rabbi Allen.”It is easy to understand how such caring and sensitive people could have created a successful business that for so many years contributed greatly to the growth of our community.”

Their daughter Karen remembered her parents as “the most loving couple” with an old school work ethic that they instilled in their children:“Be honest, put in 110%, be truthful, and remember that being on time was being late.” Karen has especially fond memories of the High Holy Days. “My mom would spend weeks cooking. On the night of the dinner, the table was set with our best china, silverware, and crystal, with flowers gracing the center.”

Unfortunately, Carol faced major health problems throughout most her life. She experienced her first heart attack at thirty-eight, and that began years of cardiac issues.  “Each time she was hospitalized,” recalled Karen, “we thought it was the end. We were blessed to have her for so long.” Carol died peacefully on February 10, 2017, at the age of eighty-one.

Despite his grief, Harry remains intensely committed to the Congregation Shalom Aleichem, its building and its spiritual aspects. He quietly continues his tzedakah—his charity—to many others.

As he has done for many years, he gives frequent talks about his Holocaust experiences to local synagogues, schools, and other public venues. Video accounts of his first person narrative are on file in both The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida in Orlando and Stephen Spielberg’s the University of Southern California Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

Harry shows no bitterness about his experiences in World War II. “The Nazis couldn’t take away from me who I am in my heart.” said Harry. “They could not change me. I was and still am a Jew.”

And most importantly, Harry is a mensch. I know many people who share this sentiment: May you live for many more High Holy days in which you make your life—and Carol’s memory—a blessing.