Category Archives: Jewish Interests

A High Holiday Romance–or Two

The High Holidays are a special time, but it is even more special when family—and a little romance—are part of the season. 

In 1951, Larry’s father Ernie, a World War II veteran, was called back into the US Army. Larry’s mother Doris, along with Larry and Larry’s older sister Anita, moved from Schuylerville, New York,to Syracuse,  her hometown, to live with her mother Rose and brother Asher during Ernie’s deployment. 

Larry, who turned three shortly after their move, remembers riding the family coal truck with Asher and tagging along with Bubbie when she went to her card games. Relatives and friends, filled the house, including meal times, as Bubbie was a wonderful and plentiful cook. 

This was especially true during the Jewish holidays, a tradition that continued after Ernie returned home. Doris, Ernie, Anita, Larry, and later Marilyn and Carole would pile into the car before each holiday to share huge meals around a crammed dining room table in the flat on Jackson Street.

By the time Larry had completed his bar mitzvah, Bubbie Rose found making the huge dinners for the entire family for High Holidays was too much. Doris took over responsibility for not only the meals but also for opening up her house to friends and family. Doris spent weeks preparing the food, and the table showed it. Matzah ball soup, chopped liver, brisket, chicken, kishki, potatoes, kugels, several vegetables, honey cakes—it was a feast that was repeated on the evening before Kol Nidre. Then Doris would outdo herself with the Break Fast.

The 1973 High Holiday season especially stands out for Larry and me. In March 1973, Larry and I met at Jewish singles Purim party. We both knew fairly quickly that the connection we made over hamantaschen was special. We dated throughout the summer, and six months after our Purim meeting, we were both ready to commit. On a beautiful day Indian summer day. Larry took me to  romantic overlook at the Saratoga National Battlefield. As he was about to pop the question, he got stung by a bee. Man plans; bees sting. Oh well! Larry felt terrible, but I was clueless. 

Rosh Hashanah fell only a few days after the bee debacle. Larry and I turned down offers for a ride home from services. While walking home, Larry talked hypothetically about where we would live, how many children we’d like, our future dreams together. I finally kiddingly asked him if this was a proposal. He said “Soon.”

When we got to Larry’s house, we said hello to the family who were about to sit down for dinner. Larry and I went into a bedroom to drop off Larry’s tallit and my purse. Larry said, “Will you marry me?” I said yes. We started to kiss when Corky, the Shapiro’s wire haired terrier, jumped up and licked my face.

As I wiped Corky’s saliva from my lips, Larry and I made a pact: We would keep our engagement a secret until after the holidays. Larry’s father’s birthday was on Yom Kippur. We would announce our engagement at the Break Fast.

The next week  went by slowly, especially for me, who wanted to shout our news from the rooftops. After Yom Kippur services ended, Larry and I called my parents to tell them of our engagement. We then sat down with Larry’s family for-the-Break Fast dinner.

We brought out dessert and birthday cake. Ernie blew out the candles and opened a couple of presents. Then Larry was ready for our big announcement.

“Dad, I have a present for you too!”

“What?” said one of his sisters. “Another stupid tie?”

“No,” said Larry. “I am giving you a new daughter-in-law. Marilyn and I are engaged!” Everyone was thrilled. My now future father-in-law regarded it as one of his best presents ever. 

Larry and I were married on September 8, 1974. A few weeks later, we attended High Holiday Services with Larry’s family. After the last shofar blast we went back to the Shapiros  for their annual dinners, a tradition we maintained for almost twenty wonderful years. 

When Larry’s parents passed away only eight months apart in 1994, Larry and I hosted a Rosh Hashanah dinner at our home in Upstate New York for over twenty years until our move to Florida. Since our move so far from family, we have shared Rosh Hashanah dinners with our friends at each other’s homes. and our Break Fast with our fellow worshippers in the synagogue.

This year, the High Holidays are about creating new memories and celebrating another romance.  On a visit from his home in San Francisco this past January, our usually reserved son told us that he was “kinda sorta seeing someone,” a woman whom he had taken out for Chinese food on December 25. As Larry and I had similarly experienced many years before, Sarah and Adam both knew fairly quickly that the connection they had made over fortune cookies was special.They dated throughout the winter, and only six months after their Asian dinner, they were both  ready to commit. On a beautiful summer’s evening, Adam took Sarah to a romantic overlook in Bernal Heights. Fortunately, no bees ruined their moment. Adam proposed. Sarah accepted! They were engaged!

Adam and Sarah will be getting married in San Francisco in October 2019,on the same day as the 46th anniversary of the day Larry and I announced our engagement and what would have been Ernie’s 100th birthday. Life has come full circle. 

After the wedding, Larry and I will remain in San Francisco to attend Yom Kippur services with Sarah, Adam, andSarah’s parents. The six of us will share a pew in the synagogue. After the last shofar blast, we will all go back to Sarah’s parents’ house for their annual Break Fast, an event that will include Sarah’s Grandma Minnie’s blintzes. “As we prepare for this time of reflection, renewal and rebooting of our spiritual lives,” read their invitation, “ we wish you L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevuh!” And we wish our newlyweds much health, love, and happiness. 

My Zayde by Francis Cohen


My mother Frances Cohen with her brother Eli circa 1922.

In honor of what would have been my mother’s 102 birthday on September 1, I am sharing with you, my readers, one of her wonderful stories.

I was around four years old when Zayde (Jewish for Grandpa) came to live my parents, my brother, Eli, and me. 

Life had been difficult for my Zayde. His first wife died giving birth to my father Joseph. When she died, she also left a beautiful red haired five-year-old daughter Becky. Zayde could not raise two young children alone, so shortly after his beloved wife died, he remarried as he needed someone to take care of the children. His new wife was cruel to the children, and he divorced her. He remarried a third time to a woman who raised the children as her own. 

When Becky was twenty years old, Zayde brought Becky to American. He arranged with a matchmaker to get her a husband, and then returned to Europe. Soon after, when my father was fifteen years old, Zayde sent him to America to live with Becky and her husband Louis. My father worked in the garment district as a tailor, married my mother Ethel. 

In 1921, the war had ended in Europe, and the Germans had ravished the village of Ragola in Lithuania. Zayde wanted to leave to come to America to be with his grown children, and he begged his third wife to leave. She didn’t want to go, so Zayde came to America alone. He sent money to her for the rest of his life but could never persuade her to come to New York. 

When Zayde arrived in New York, my parents, my brother and I were living in a crowded three-room apartment that shared a bathroom with four people in the next apartment. Soon Zayde began giving Hebrew lessons, and he was able to contribute to the household. 

Despite the further crowding, I loved having my Zayde living with us. As soon as Zayde arrived, Zayde and I became very close. He adored me, and I loved him. He kept telling me that I reminded him of his first wife, the love of his life. 

Zayde soon found out what the rest of the family knew:  Becky’s marriage wasn’t a happy one. Becky had had several miscarriages, but she and her husband Louis never had any children. Louis blamed Becky and treated her terribly. Louis was also a show-off. They had a nice apartment and dressed nicely, but he never gave Becky enough money for food. He said, “The stomach has no windows. No one can tell you what you eat.”

Zayde and my parents felt very sorry for Becky. Besides having no children and a bad marriage, Becky felt guilty that her husband would not let Zayde live with them, even though they had a larger apartment than my parents did. Louis was so selfish that he would not even allow Becky to have her father over for dinner. Becky’s only option was to visit us to see her father.

When I was eight years old, Zayde took me to the Bowery Saving Bank and opened a trust fund for me with $700 he had saved for this purpose. He told me, “A girl has to have a dowry.” Here was an immigrant who could not speak English but was very smart. 

Four years later, in 1929, my Zayde died. I was devastated, and I couldn’t stop crying. My Auth Beau, my mother’s sister, set me straight. “I know how much you loved your grandfather. However, he was an old man and very sick. He was very frail and almost blind. Your mother had to take care of him around the clock. It was a blessing for him and your mother that he passed away.” I accepted his death but never forgot how good he was to me, his shayna maidelah (beautiful girl).

After Zayde passed away, my mother and father kept in touch with Becky and continued to invite her to our home. My mother tried to send me to visit Becky while Louis  was not home, but he caught me just as I was leaving, yelled loudly for me to get out, and I never went back to my aunt’s apartment again. 

When I was married in 1940, I took $500 out of the trust fund my Zayde had established for me and purchased furniture for our first apartment, including a maple bedroom set and maple furniture for our living and dining rooms. A few years later, the remaining money was used as the down payment on our first house. 

My Zayde’s legacy lives on through his great grand children. All of the children have at least one of the pieces of furniture we purchased with my Zayde’s trust fund in their home. The maple bedroom set, which moved with us our entire marriage, eventually settled in our bedroom in our cottage in Lake Champlain. My son Jay and his wife Leslie, who purchased the cottage in 2000, now have the set. Marilyn and Larry have a table and a bookcase in their home in Florida.

And Becky? Louis died two years before Becky, and at that time it was found that he had a condition that had prevented him from ever having children. After all those years of abusing my poor aunt, he was the one who was to blame. Two years later, my aunt died of cancer, and problems created by the multiple miscarriages. My only regret is that I did not spend more time with Becky. 

Into the Woods—a place for contemplation and renewal

Neva and I at Rainbow Lake July 2019

The mountains are calling, and I must go. John Muir

Across the street and behind the houses on the other side of my Upstate New York home was a wooded area. I remember it as a mountain . I am sure it would not look so imposing  if I viewed it now from my adult eyes 

On many a summer day I would take a path to the right of the Douglass’s home and head into the oaks and maples. I would sit on logs and imagine myself as Heidi or Lcittle Red Riding Hood.

This was a lone adventure. Although we were perfectly situated between the shores of Lake Champlain and Adirondack Mountains, our family never headed for the woods. 

When my parents purchased a cottage on Willsboro Bay, I replaced the trips to the woods with walks to The Point, an area about a quarter of a mile from our cottage that offered views of Lake Champlain and Burlington, Vermont. It was my get-away, my place to sit and think and deal with teenage angst.Even as a adult, I viewed The Point as one of my favorite places. I shared it with friends and, of course, Larry the first time he visited me in the summer of 1973. 

And then I finished college and married and started a family. Larry and I purchased a home with a private, wooded backyard. We biked along quiet country roads in Saratoga County. We took occasional short hikes into  the woods in Lake George or Vermont or Williamstown in the fall. But I felt that I had lost touch with the woods, with the mountains.

That all changed in 2003. Our daughter Julie moved out to Colorado after graduation  from college She took a “one-year” job as an environmental education teacher two hours west of Denver and in the middle of the Rockies. 

Julie soon fell in love with Colorado, the mountains, and Sam, not necessarily in that order. On our first visit in June 2004, she took us on easy hikes in Eagle and Summit Counties. By the following summer, Sam and she were trusting us to accompany them on longer, more challenging heights.

As our hikes became longer, so did the length and frequency of our visits to the mountains. Julie and Sam completed grad school degrees, got married, found jobs, and bought a house in Frisco, elevation 9096 or 9097 feet above sea level, depending on which tee shirt you purchased. In anticipation of the birth of our granddaughter in the summer 2015, we rented a place for several weeks, a tradition we have continued every year.

Frisco, located in Summit County, is amazing in the summer—once it stops snowing! This year a long hard winter gratefully came to an end June 21.Even my then three-year-old granddaughter had had enough. “I’m so over winter,” she said. “I am ready for summer and my birthday!”

When we arrived June 30, the still-snow topped mountains had already exploded in shades of green Our first hike was to Rainbow Lake, only a mile up an easy trail near Julie’s home. As we got more acclimated to the altitude, we hiked such colorfully named trails as Lily Pad Lake, Shrine Pass, McCulloughs’ Gulch, and Cataract Lake.  Creeks churned through meadows and fields. Columbines and wild roses and cone flowers peaked out between fallen logs and rocks on trails that led to waterfalls and lakes and vistas that took my breath away.

We often share the trails with both locals and others who have found, like us, that it doesn’t get much better than a beautiful summer’s day in the Rockies. We pack water and a snack and find a spot in the middle of the hike just to sit and take in our surroundings. 

Larry has found a pickleball league in Summit County (“We Play with an Altitude!”), and several days a week he heads out the courts. On those days, I get ready for my alone time to Rainbow Lake. 

I apply the only “make-up” I need, liberal amounts of sun screen. I put on my hiking clothes and lace up my boots, fill a small backpack with water, bug spray, dog treats and poop bags. I then pick up our granddog Neva, and we head up a trail to Rainbow Lake. Neva pauses frequently to sniff at her “pee mail” and to check out a squirrel or magpie. I savor the beauty surrounding me—the columbine growing from a dead trunk, the sunlight reflecting through the aspens, logs stretching over a small stream.

Once we get to Rainbow Lake, I let Neva off her leash and toss a stick into the lake. After a few dog paddles into the chilly water, Neva settles down next to me on my favorite rock. A beaver paddles away from its lodge and few ducks swim across the still water with its reflection of trees and mountains. A woodpecker hammers away on the bark of a pine tree. 

Images of Heidi have been replaced with images of Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Ridge Trail or Bill Bryson on the Appalachian Trail. It is my time. I am grateful to G-d for the opportunities open to me in the mountains and for the health to enjoy it. I am at peace. I am back to my Adirondack roots.

First published in The Jewish World, July 25, 2019. 

Malkah, the Queen of the Canine Sabras

Malkah, the Queen of the Canine Sabras.

Can a dog save a life? Marilyn Glaser knows so. Malkah, the Queen of the Canine Sabras, saved hers.

Marilyn had always wanted to live in Israel. When a blind date with a South African widower with the same wish to make Aliyah turned into a romance, the two  found a place just outside of Jerusalem and moved in together in 2005. Five years later, Marilyn was shocked when he announced he was leaving her. Angry and depressed, she knew that she needed to regroup and move on. 

Five weeks later, Marilyn was walking in her neighborhood  when a little girl came by holding a small brindle patterned dog. Marilyn hadn’t owned an animal for over twenty-five years since her two sons were children. But something inside her knew that she needed a canine companion to fill the emptiness she had felt since the painful breakup. She asked the girl for her mother’s number and made arrangements to claim one of the puppies in the litter. 

The following Saturday night after sundown,  Marilyn was handed a blue dishpan covered with a blanket. A tiny puppy, the only female of the litter,  peaked out from an opening in the blanket. Marilyn was in love from the first lick the three pound bestowed on her face.

When she had moved to Israel, Marilyn had thought about changing her name. Malkah, Hebrew for queen, had topped the list. “You are Malkah, my queen,” she told her new friend.

The first day they took a walk, Marilyn secured the tiny dog in a backpack and joined her friends, many also with their pets, who were doing their daily circuit. By day two, Malkah had enough of not being part of the action. She hopped out of her  doggie prison and strutted along with her longer-legged canine friends.

Malkah’s paternal lineage was unknown—Marilyn referred to him as a “traveling salesman”—but her mother was a French bulldog, a breed known for its high intelligence. She also exhibited the breed’s surprisingly high levels of communication and personality.“Malkah doesn’t just bark; she talks,”  Marilyn claimed. “If there is such a thing as reincarnation, Malkah would have been in her previous life a very intelligent, very talkative human.”

By the following winter, Marilyn had decided to return to the States and relocate to Kissimmee, Florida, where her brother Zach Siegel owned a home. With the help of a realtor, virtual tours on the Internet, and a February visit to the Sunshine State, she found a house in a fifty-five plus community a stone’s throw from her brother’s. She began packing up her house outside Jerusalem.

Marilyn briefly considered finding a new home for Malkah to spare the puppy the arduous move, but she couldn’t say goodbye to her constant companion. She went through the hours of red tape that was necessary to obtain government permission to bring a pet to the States. The hardest part was the 6,500 mile flight from Israel to Florida, which included a five-hour layover in Frankfort. Rules prevented the owners from seeing their pets, which were crated in a special department, until the plane landed in its final destination. In Orlando, Marilyn was relieved and delighted when Malkah exited from her crate happy and healthy.

The two of them quickly settled into their new house. “Malkah didn’t care where in the world she lived as long as she was with me,” said Marilyn.

In the meantime, Marilyn had reconnected with Lazar Lowinger, a Boston lawyer whom she had met through the Maccabi Games, she as a nurse for the USA team and he as a competitive Master’s tennis player.  When Lazar was widowed in 2011, Marilyn sent him a note of condolence. Their friendship, based on their mutual love of the international Jewish games and their strong commitment to Judaism, soon blossomed into a long-distance romance. In October 2015, Lazar retired from his law practice in Boston and moved in with Marilyn and Malkah. “Malkah didn’t care that Lazar joined us as long as she still slept on my side of the bed,” laughed Marilyn.

Marilyn, Malkah, and Lazar fell into a comfortable routine in Solivita. , took turns allowing them to walk her. She coerced them to feed her so much food that the vet finally put her on a diet. She “picked up some Spanish” and a few other languages from Lazar, a multi-linguist. And she charmed her way into the hearts of everyone who met her.

In April, Marilyn found a lump in Malkah’s throat. The vet broke the bad news. Malkah— eight years old and only middle age in small dog years—had lymphosarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer, and had less than six months to live. Malkah had been there for Marilyn when she was most needed. The two of them vowed to make sure they are there for Malkah until the end. 

Initially, Malkah showed no signs of her illness.Only three weeks later, however, Malkah’s health seriously declined. More tumors appeared on her body; she only ate when she was hand-fed, and she didn’t have the strength to meet them at the door, an eight year tradition. On a Friday, as Marilyn was preparing their Sabbath dinner, Malkah stumbled into a wall. She had gone blind. Marilyn called the vet to make arrangements to put Malkah to sleep. She shared the sad news with the congregation that night at Shabbat services. 

The next morning, Malkah lay in the back seat  on their car while Lazar stroked her and told her, “You are the best dog ever. Soon you will not be in pain.” While she drove to the nearby animal hospital, Marilyn reflected on Malkah’s life story from her first few months in Israel through her immigration to the States to her last wonderful years as a pampered, plump pooch who interspersed walks with her adoring owners with ear-flying rides in Marilyn’s golf cart. 

At 10 am, in a small sterile room at the animal hospital,Marilyn and Lazar said their last goodbyes. Malkah was so weak that it took almost no medicine to end her suffering. After she took her last breath, Marilyn and Lazar sobbed in each other’s arms.

They made the sad drive home in silence. No Malkah was there to greet them at the door. A half-opened bag of dog treats lay on the counter, and her dishes lay empty on a mat on the floor. Marilyn made scrambled eggs with lox for lunch. Both of them wished they could be sneaking Malkah a bite. 

Safe journey, Malkah. You are and will always be to those who loved you our queen, our Malkah.


Published May 31, 2019 in the Heritage Florida Jewish News. 

Finding My Voice

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the Passover story, Moses, despite his initial protests to G-D that he was “slow in tongue,” confronted the Pharaoh with the admonition “Let my people go!” After years of slavery, the Jewish people finally had found someone who spoke  out. I myself am finding my own voice.

I had an inauspicious beginning. When I was two years old, my mother had gall bladder surgery, necessitating a week’s hospital stay and no lifting—including her toddler—for several weeks. I stopped talking.  My mother told me again and again that that she could still feel me holding on to her apron strings as if my life depended upon it. 

By the end of kindergarten, I not only got my voice back but also some courage. When a classmate backed out of reciting a poem at the graduation ceremony that was to be held in only three days, I volunteered to take her place. Like Moses, I was “slow of tongue.” I can’t find the poem—something about being big and small and growing up—but I remember clearly stumbling over the last few lines and having to sit down in embarrassment.

I grew up a noisy household, with talkative parents and three chatty siblings. To this day, my sister-in-law tells us, “You get the four Cohens in a room and you can count on at least six conversations.” (Larry says it’s closer to ten) So by high school, I was not afraid of raising my hand and talking up in my classes.

 In my second attempt at public speaking, Mrs. Clute’s speech class in eleventh grade, I gave an impassioned speech against  the new leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who was promoting a more violent path for the Civil Rights organization.  “It is people like Storky Carmichael who give….” My speech was cut off by the hysterical laughter of my classmates. They didn’t let me ever forget my mispronunciation of Stokely’s name until I graduated. My tendency towards malapropisms—inherited from my mother who will be remembered for calling “organisms” “orgasms”—have kept me leery of unscripted public speaking my whole life.

Despite my early tainted history, I did find my voice as a teacher, gaining confidence in my ability to share knowledge with my English students.I gave presentations at several state and national teacher’s conferences, and spoke at a state-wide Hadassah luncheon in Albany, New York.

When I began writing for publication  in the 1990s and, more regularly for The Jewish World in 2013, I felt that found my true voice. Writing about growing up in a small Upstate New York town, getting married, raising a family, balancing a career and private life in the Capital Region of New York, and easing into a wonderful retirement became topics of gentle pieces—ones that people have compared my writing to  “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” And more recently, I have been the grateful voice of others through sharing the stories of Holocaust and cancer survivors, Jewish POW’s, a Renaissance man, and other menschen.

The recent political climate, however, has brought me back to the Passover story and Moses’ reluctant ascent into leadership of the Hebrews as they obtained their freedom and began their forty-year sojourn in the desert. Moses spoke out against social injustice. Can I do the same? And can I do it in a way as to not offend those whose political views are different from my own? 

In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, “ an article I wrote in 2016, I shared my decision that I would not lose friends and relatives over politics. I am proud to say that it is a promise I have maintained. But there are times that I cannot remain silent in the face of bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, and any form of hatred.

I could not remain silent after the Tree of Life massacre when I received one of those blanket emails sent to numerous recipients warning us that Jews must support Trump. With my husband Larry’s help, I wrote a response to the email that I subsequently sent for publication in the October 31, 2018, Orlando Sentinel. “Any American president who refuses to denounce Neo-Nazis, spouts rhetoric that incites hatred and violence, and defends attending a rally while Jews lie dead on a synagogue floor—‘we cannot let our schedule or our lives change.”  — is a disgrace to (alas) the six million and eleven Jews s a disgrace to the over six million and eleven Jews who died due to anti-Semitism.”

I could not remain silent when I was told by an idiot that he felt little sympathy for the federal workers impacted by the government shutdown as most of them “just sit of their duffs and do nothing all day.” I gave him a dressing down that included references to my own family members who were suffering from the impact of not getting a paycheck for a unneeded work stoppage that stretched out for thirty-five days. 

I could not remain silent when, after Representative Iihan Omar’s controversial comments regarding Israel, Democrats in the end released a spineless resolution. Phone calls and emails requesting money to support the Democratic Party are answered with my statement, “Not until the Democrats have the backbone to truly call out anti-Semitism. “

I could not remain silent when the president tweeted out disparaging remarks about John McCain and Barbara Bush (May their memories be a blessing). Even more disconcerting to me was that Congressional leaders , including McCain’s supposedly best friend Lindsay Graham, refused to call the president out for his inexcusable poor behavior. “It is just plain wrong,” I wrote in an email to Senator Graham. 

And finally, I cannot remain silent when well-meaning friends forward to me offensive emails. One was headed by the note, “Interesting video.” Attached was YouTube video originally published in 2009. As summarized by Snopes.com,  regarded as a highly reliable fact-checking source, that warned that Islam will overwhelm Christendom unless Christians recognize the demographic realities and begin reproducing again.” Snopes regarded the information as “mostly false;”  I regarded it as pure Islamophobia.

Another forwarded email, a musical video took us on a nostalgic trip down memory lane. “If only I could go back again/ to Mom and Dad and all my friends/I would feel safe with the people I know/From once upon a long time ago.” The stream of pictures that accompanied the Jesse Goldberg song showed slide after slide filled with only white faces. Another friend shared a list of the Shortest Books 2018, including Things I Did to Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize by Barack Obama; My Complete Knowledge of Military Strategy by Nancy Pelosi, and To All the men We Have Loved Before by Ellen de Generes and Rosie O’Donnell. In all three cases, Larry and I have decided that face-to-face discussions with the senders would be the most effective way to fight the implicit—and explicit—hate that is peddled in such material.

Recently, I attended a presentation by given by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization whose mission is to fight bigotry and seek justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. On the way out, I picked up their brochure, “Ten Ways to Fight Hate”  (https://www.splcenter.org/20170814/ten-ways-fight-hate-community-response-guide).  I thought of our own ten commandments, our Aseret ha-Dibrot, which give guidance on how we each can lead an ethical life. This Passover, let us all resolve to model our behavior after Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses Our Teacher): To speak up, to act, to pressure leaders, to educate ourselves and others, and to do all we can to combat hate in all its forms. 

A Banjo Player with a Jewish Soul

Bud Black was regarded by fellow musicians as a walking encyclopedia.
Bud Black on his beloved banjo!

John “Bud” Black career as a musician began in the 1930s as an 8 year old in bars near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Bud’s grandfather Bert loved to drink even more than he loved the Pittsburgh Pirates. So he would tell his wife he was taking his daughter’s “little buddy”  to a game. Instead he took him to local taverns. Bud would play the ukulele that his grandfather had purchased for him.

For the past five years,  people who came to services at Shalom Aleichem in Kissimmee, Florida, were met with an unusual but wonderful treat. They were greeted by a pair of musicians—Bud Black on the guitar (and occasionally the banjo) and Bill Willner on the snare drums. They played mostly songs from the 20s, 30s, and 40’s. Bud and Bill usually packed up their instruments about fifteen minutes before services began, but on occasion they would accompany Rabbi Karen Allen on songs from the Friday night service. 

While still in high school, Bud began playing the guitar professionally and performing on WKPA, Pittsburg’s hillbilly radio station. (Was this the station? It is now listed as a ministry station out of Lynchburg, VA) After graduating, Bud went into the US Air Force, where he worked on computers. After he completed his service, he took a job at RCA working on technology. Bud realized quickly that his first love was music and began working the nightclub circuit around Philadelphia and Atlantic City. 

By the age of ten, with a minimal training from one of his grandfather’s fellow barflies, Bud not only had added the guitar to his repertoire but also helped Bert make some money. Bud had an incredible ability to remember the name, lyrics, and artist of every song he played. As William Miller wrote in a 1997 article, Bert  took him from bar to bar, challenging anyone to name a tune his grandson couldn’t play. When they couldn’t “Stump the Musician”— which was often— Bert passed the hat.

Along the way, Bud married and had two sons, Scott and John. After his divorce, he had a relationship that resulted in the birth of  third son, Wes. .In 1986, the Delta Queen steamship company hired him as the ship’s “interlocutor,” where he would be able combine his talents as a musician, a comedian, and an entertainer. 

His fellow musicians regarded Bud as a walking music encyclopedia. His favorites were songs from the 1920s and 1930s,  but he also knew songs from “as far back as songs were recorded.”   And when he got bored singing the lyrics the “right way,” he would sing them backwards.  “Chattanooga Choo Choo” became “Agoonattahc, Oohc-Oohc;” “My Wild Irish Rose,” “Ym dliw hsiri esor.”

One of his friends remembered, “Bud was full of bull**, an entertainer and wonderful story teller. He took a 15 second story and turned it into an hour. But it was a stroll down memory lane.” 

“Bud had the largest record collection I’ve ever seen,” Howard Paul, a fellow musician on the Delta Queen, posted on Bud’s Facebook page. “He told an endless stream of jokes (clean and blue). For me, Bud was the missing link between vaudeville and nightclub lounge acts.”

Tim Aucoin, a fellow musician, stated on Facebook that he remembers afternoons playing together in the Texas Lounge on the Delta Queen. “Bud would say ‘Who wants to hear some country music? Great, how about a Lithuanian love ballad?’”

In 1989, Bud was performing on the second night of a three day cruise when Wendy Demby, a young woman on vacation from her job in New York City, approached him and expressed her admiration for his show. When she disembarked in New Orleans for the remainder of her week-long trip, Bud sought her out to share a few hours during a break in his job. Those few hours developed into a long distance relationship that resulted in Wendy moving down to The Big Easy. They were married in May 1990.

For the next ten years, Wendy maintained their home in New Orleans while Bud strummed his guitar and banjo up and down the Mississippi. Once a year, Wendy went along for the ride. In 1999, Bud retired from the riverboat but not from music. They moved to St. Cloud, Florida, when Bud took a job at Disney World, playing a various parks including in a roaming band in the Magic Kingdom.

Bud also entertained nursing home residents throughout the Orlando area. His music transported many to healthier, happier days. One time, after singing a song, a woman came up to him in tears. “My husband has dementia,” she said. “ But when you started singing that song, he started singing along. It is the first time he has spoken in years.” 

Wendy was Jewish and Bud was Christian, but they shared a mutual respect and appreciation for each other’s religion. They attended Sunday services at the Church of St. Luke and St. Peter in St. Cloud and Friday night services at Congregation Shalom Aleichem.  Initially, Bud played and sang with Norm Salinsky a former president, About five years ago, Bill Willner joined them. When Norm became ill, Bud and Bill began their routine before services. Bud had a collection of yarmulkes displaying  musical notes or Jewish holiday motifs—but his favorite was one embossed with his beloved Pittsburg Pirates’ logo. 

This past December,  Bud and Bill were planning to do some Irish songs for the March 15 service, which fell two days before St. Patrick’s Day. Unfortunately, Bud became ill in January and passed away on March 9, 2019, at the age of 88. 

At the memorial service at the Church of St. Luke and St. Peter, Reverend Longbottom played and sang some of Bud’s favorite songs, including many Irish tunes. The clergyman was joined by David Royer, who played Bud’s guitar. David was one of Bud’s first friends in the Orlando area, a friendship sealed by b’shert—David’s parents had sailed the Delta Queen and had spoken highly of a banjo player named Bud Black. In honor of Bud’s close connections to Judaism  and Congregation Shalom Aleichem, Wendy’s brother,Craig Demby said the Kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer.

Bud’s son John passed away in 2011 from complications of diabetes.  His oldest son Scott, a talented musician in his own right, lives in China and was unable to attend the memorial service. His youngest son Wes, sharing news that his girlfriend Daniela was pregnant with what will be Bud’s first grandchild, were there to say goodbye, along with many other friends and family members.

One of Bud’s favorite songs, “Dusty Old Dust, written by Woody Guthrie in 1940, is a fitting epithet for this talented musician. “So long, it’s been good to know ya/What a long time since I’ve been home/And I’ve gotta be driftin’ along.” Drift gently, Bud!

Sources:

Miller, William. “Buddy Black, The Delta Queen’s Colorful Interlocutor.” Vantage. March/April 1997. Pages 10-11.

Lind, Angus, “Life’s a song from way back for Bud Black.” (New Orleans)  Times Picayune. September 4, 1991. Pages E1,E5.

A Jewish neshama shining bright in Alaska

When Dr.  Liz Ross joins her fellow women congregants at Congregation Shalom Aleichem on the bima for the blessing over the candles, she pulls the hood of her kuspuk, her traditional Native Alaskan snow dress, over her head.  And on her neck, her gold Star of David catches the light of the flickering flames.   A business woman, a college professor, and a black belt in karate, Liz Ross also carries with her the love and respect of her double heritage: Judaism and Native Alaskan.

Dr. Liz Ross

Liz’s great-grandparents had fled their native Kyrgyzstan in the late 19th century to escape the pogroms. A fur-trapping family, they were nomads who lived throughout the then-Russian territory. Out of fear of discrimination, they rarely spoke about their Jewish heritage to their only child, Ola. “it was a taboo subject,” said Liz. “We were told there are some doors that should not be opened.”

In the 1920’s, Ola married Joe Nashoalook, a Native Alaskan who served as the chief of the Inupiaq village of Unalakleet in the Bering Straits region.Their daughter Anna, the oldest of the Nashoalook children, met her husband Arthur Ellis when he was stationed in Nome, Alaska during World War II. He continued in the Army for thirty years, a career that took Anna and seven of their children, including Liz, to military bases throughout the United States, Europe and Asia.

After graduating from high school in Colorado Springs, Liz began her post-secondary education in a community college before enrolling in the University of West Florida. During this time, Liz often visited her older sister Nancy who had been raised by a childless  aunt and uncle from Nome, Alaska, who were observant Jews. Experiencing this “taboo” subject for a first time sparked in Liz an interest in learning about Judaism that has lasted a lifetime. 

In 1979, Liz met her husband, Jeff Ross, and they were married in 1980. Over the next several years, they had four children. All of the children attended private schools through eighth grade. Their oldest son attended public school from eighth grade through his graduation. The other three of the children were home schooled, where they received an “eclectic” education which gave them the flexibility to join Liz on her trips to Alaska as well to travel around the world as a family. “I wanted them to understand all backgrounds,” said Liz. “There was so much prejudice, and I wanted them to be open-minded.”  Liz and Jeff are proud that all four attended college or trade schools.

A self-confessed “Type A” personality, Liz continued with her education despite her arduous schedule, She completed her bachelors and masters degrees in business administration in New Hampshire and a doctorate in finance and management from the Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.

In addition, the time spent with her observant relatives led Liz to study for eight years with a rabbi to reconnect with her Jewish roots, opening a door that her mother had kept closed. Her learning culminated in her formal conversion, complete with the mikvah, or ritual bath, in 2003. The rabbi said that since my mother was Jewish it was unnecessary,”said Liz. “As I wasn’t brought up with a traditional Jewish education, however, it was important for me to undergo a formal conversion.” She chose Leah as her Hebrew name, which is as important to her as her Inupiaq name, Kanuk (snow goose).

While the family established their home base in New Hampshire,  Liz split her time between New England and Alaska. She worked as a board member of the Thirteenth Regional Corporation, where responsibilities included procuring and implementing government contracts to invest in local business ventures.  She also volunteered as the CEO of the Native Village of Unalakleet Corporation, her way of giving back to her grandparent’s home. 

Being the only practicing Jew in this remote rural area of Alaska provided challenges.  Liz often observed the holidays and festivals on her own—baking challah, lighting Shabbat candles, and drinking grape juice—the best alternative to wine in a “damp” community that set limits on the amount of alcohol a person may fly in per month. Determining the Sabbath candle lighting time was difficult, as sunset happened as early as 3:30 in the winter and 1 a.m. in the summer. If Liz was in Alaska during the High Holy Days, she would travel to Fairbanks, the closest place with a synagogue. 

In 2005, Liz took a position as the program director of the master of business program at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. She also was the business and karate instructor for Rural Alaska Honors Institute, mentored the Native Alaskan Business Leaders, a student organization, and founded a martial arts class.

Liz also became the first Native Alaskan to teach the business class for the Rural Alaska Honors Institute. The six week summer-program was developed by the University of Alaska Fairbanks at the request of the Alaska Federation of Natives to encourage Native Alaskan high school students to finish college so they could bring back new ideas and business expertise to their villages. “You need to use your time here so you can grow, and then give back to your own communities.” Liz told her students.

Liz stated that most participants had grown up in small remote villages that could only be accessed by air taxis or dog sleds. “Many had never left their home villages,” said Liz. In addition, some students having grown up in a subsistence lifestyle  where all their food was obtained through planting, hunting, and fishing. “The students experienced culture shock the they found they could buy meat and vegetables in a supermarket.”

While in Fairbanks, Liz established her first official membership in a synagogue when she joined Congregation Or HaTzafon. Rabbinical students/cantors lead services during the summer months, while an ordained rabbi oversees the High Holy Day services. During the rest of the year, members of the Ritual Committee plan and oversee the Sabbath including, including the weekly oneg. 

The congregation has established that candle lighting time was 7:30 pm, no matter when sundown officially occurred. Long, cold Alaska winters, however, impacted many Jewish holidays.  Liz remembers building a Sukkot in several inches of snow and eating the traditional meals with heavy coats and snow boots.

In 2015, Liz took a position as executive director of the Small Business Development Center at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. Similar to her position in Alaska, Liz mentored members Native American tribes in Southwest Colorado through business education classes and entrepreneurial support. The move was, in part, driven by the need to be closer to her widowed mother, who was living in Colorado Springs. 

Liz in Alaska

After contracting an infection during a trip to Vietnam in 2017, Liz retired and moved to the home in Florida that  she and Jeff had purchased several years earlier. Her mother and her sister Karin live near by. A member of Congregation Shalom Aleichem in Kissimmee, Florida, Liz continues to teach classes in Jewish ritual to its congregants. 

 Liz strives to keep kosher, satisfying much of the requirements by keeping to a fish and vegetarian diet. Jeff, who is Catholic, follows Liz’s dietary restrictions up to a point.  “After almost 40 years together, we both have found a middle ground,” said Liz. “ Our values are conservative with a strong faith in G-d.”

Meanwhile, Liz keeps learning about both her Native Alaskan and Jewish heritages.  A Chinese quote, “Learning is a treasure that follows its owner everywhere” is embedded on Liz’s email signature—and in her heart.