Category Archives: Jewish Interests

Fradel’s Story: Fulfilling a Daughter’s Promise

I am posting this blog on September 1, 2021, what would have been my beloved mother’s (“Z”L) 104th birthday. It is with pride and love I announce the publication of my third book, Fradel’s Story.

What better way to start off Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, than to publish a new book? Fradel’s Story, my third book since 2016, is especially sweet as it was co-written with my mother, Frances Cohen.

Ever since I could remember, my mother was the family storyteller. Give her an opening, and Fran, or “Fradel” as she was known to her close family, would regale any audience with family stories any audience with stories of her grandparents’ and parents’ lives in Russia, her early years of marriage to “My Bill” Cohen, their life in small towns in the North Country. She told of raising four children, watching them leave for college and for marriage, and their returning with her grandchildren to visit her and my father in their beloved cottage on Lake Champlain. 

As my parents got older, my mother realized that she needed to record these stories. We never were one for video cameras and tapes, so she began jotting them down on lined paper, usually the five by eight notepads. The writing was messy, with words misspelled and whole sections crossed out, but she began to keep a written history. 

In 2006, after a number of health setbacks, my three siblings, our spouses, and I insisted that my parents sell their condo in Florida and move back up north That May, they moved into Coburg Village, an independent living facility only four miles from our home. 

Soon after moving in, my mother called me to tell me she was joining Coburg’s monthly writing group to finally finish all those stories she carried in her head and on those scraps of paper. When she brought her first story to the group, her accounting of why she and my father moved to Coburg, she was surprised to find that the group enjoyed her writing style. “They loved my story, Marilyn!” she told me. “They said I have a real flair for storytelling!” After that, my mother’s voice in phone calls after the monthly Wednesday meetings was filled with pride. 

Mom rarely had difficulty finding a topic and writing it down with pen on paper. However, the group leader requested that the stories be typed so they could eventually be published in the semi-annual collection and distributed to Coburg residents. My mother asked me to type them. While I was at it, could I, “My daughter the English major,” do some proofing and minor revisions so that they would read more smoothly? 

Thus began our five-year collaboration. Every month, about a week before the group met, my mother would give me her hand-written story. I would do some editing, including spelling, grammar, and even some tightening of the narrative. Her oral stories evolved into polished narratives,— funny, poignant, sad, and sometimes painful, but always entertaining.

When my father passed away in November 2008, my mother’s contribution for December was an open letter to my father. She wrote that she was moving into a smaller apartment down the hall. “Wherever I go, you also go in spirit,” she wrote. Grieving quietly, she continued with her life at Coburg, going to the concerts, visiting with friends and family who were always stopping by to see her, and continuing with her writing. All the children asked her to write about our births and early childhood, but she always postponed those stories, focusing on the Old Country, her childhood, her Bill. 

On December 22, 2010, my mother had a heart attack. The doctors recommended hospice care and living her remaining time to the fullest. She complied, enjoying visits and calls from the children, grandchildren, her extended family, and the many friends she and my father had made in Coburg and in their lifetimes. She kept writing. 

In February 2011, with my sister Laura and me sitting close by, my mother shared her story, “The Birth of My First Child,” with her writing group. She described her joy in having a beautiful little girl and her fears that she would not be able to be a good mother. The last words, written in pencil on the bottom, were “To be continued….” She died four weeks later, the day of the club’s March meeting. 

I had made a promise to myself that one day I would gather her stories in a book. When COVID-19 shuttered so many of my activities, I decided that it was time. Over the past eighteen months, I have worked on editing, filling in the gaps, and finally ordering the stories in chronological order to make the book flow smoother.

I too had family stories, articles I had written over the years capturing memories of our old Victorian in Upstate New York, our cottage on Lake Champlain, my father’s obsession with boats, bugs, and bats; my mother’s words of wisdom; my siblings’ accomplishments. I decided to include those in the book.

By this March, I was ready to send my first draft to my editor, Mia Crew. She was responsible for formatting the book for paperback and Kindle format as well as inserting the 80+ photos, many of them family pictures that dated back to 1914. Fradel’s Story has been launched on Amazon, in time for my target, September 1, what would have been my mother’s 104th birthday. 

My parents were not wealthy people. They had little of material value: a wedding ring, my Grandmother Ethel’s engagement ring, two beautiful, framed pictures of my father at thirteen and my mother at six, a few nice dishes. As my siblings and I sadly dismantled Mom’s apartment, my daughter was surprised that I wanted so little. “It’s okay, Julie,” I said. “I have her stories.” 

And now, I can share them with my large close knit family, with an incredible network of friends who personally knew my parents or knew their legacy, and hopefully hundreds of others who may find their own lives reflected in this collection.

Marilyn and Fran at Coburg Village, Rexford, New York, October 2006.

Realizing What I Have Missed

Up until now, I thought that maybe I hadn’t missed that much in the past 16 months. My husband Larry and I had our health, had managed to keep a level of contentment throughout the pandemic. We missed our family terribly, but we had frequent Zoom calls with our children and grandchildren.

Even throughout our two weeks in California, I had felt pretty good. Larry and I had hugged our fifteen and a half month grandson, overwhelmed with emotion. I knew I had missed a huge chunk of his first year, but I took comfort again from the hours on Zoom and FaceTime. We were starting our in-person relationship late, but I didn’t dwell on what we had missed. He knew us. He came to us. We savored every minute with our visit with our son Adam, our daughter-in-law Sarah, and the beautiful little boy who had been named after two of his great grandfathers.

But then, after our flight to Denver and an easy drive  up to Summit County, we hugged our granddaughter. (She had been warned: We would be hugging her so hard that she would squeak!) But who was this taller, more beautiful, more poised person? Where was the little girl with whom we had last hugged goodbye in Florida in March 2020? The gap between her and this person who     poured her own tea, rode a two wheeler, swam underwater in her community pool was so great. Yes, we had missed time with her, with her new cousin, with all my children that we can never make up. 

And I hadn’t realized how much I had missed our time in the mountains. On our third day, I finally made the hike up to Rainbow Lake, a short distance from our daughter’s home and our summer rental. As I walked up the trail, I took in the columbines and the wild roses and the aspens. Then I reached the lake, my happy place, the spot in which I find peace and contentment. How could I forgotten how much I love this spot over 9100 feet above sea level in the Rockies? Had it been almost two full years since I had sat on the log and drank in the beauty that surrounded me?

Larry and I had spent the Fourth of July in Frisco for at least ten years. We watched the parade down Main Street with Sam and Julie, then, six years ago, Sam and a very pregnant Julie. The next few years, our granddaughter watched from her carriage, then her father’s arms, and then as a participant on a tricycle in the Cavalcade of Children. 

This year, however, we headed out of town and, by 11:30 a.m., five humans and one dog were floating down the Colorado River. Sam manned the raft while Julie completed the entire trip, including some level 1 and 2 rapids, on a paddle board. Larry, our granddaughter and I found spots on the raft and took in the beauty surrounding us. We spotted a bald eagle perched in a tree, Canadian geese gliding along the shore, red cliffs rising above us, the Rocky Mountaineer weaving its way on the train tracks above us, fellow travelers on rafts and kayaks and paddle boards and inner tubes catch the currents with us. It was a beautiful Fourth, made even more special in contrast to last year’s isolation in our Florida home. 

The day ended with our granddaughter reading Go Dog Go, one of our favorite children’s book, to Larry while sitting on his lap on a rocking chair in her bedroom. Behind them, the window gave us a view the sun set in the aspen tree. 

As we finish our time in the mountains, Larry and I  have also been able to connect with the friends and extended “mishpacha” (family) that we had not seen since August2019. We took in outdoor lunches and evening concerts with dear friends from North Carolina. We celebrated our granddaughter’s birthday with Sam’s family by riding the Georgetown Railroad, eating lunch along side Clear Creek, and singing “Happy Birthday” over cupcakes and a candle-that-refused-to-stay-lit in a breezy park. After two full years, we are again finding our Colorado rhythm. 

Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht is an old Yiddish expression meaning man plans and God laughs. Recent events have shown us how unpredictable life can be, whether exemplified in a terrible pandemic that has lasted for months or a catastrophic building collapse that happened in seconds. On a personal level, these past eight weeks of my reconnecting with family and friends has made me  realize how much I  have missed, how much time I have lost, and how important it is to never take what I cherish for granted. 

First published in (Capital Region, NY) Jewish World July 2021.

“Farklempt!” Overcome with Emotion!!

Yiddish may be one of the world’s more obscure language, but it has given us words which are no less than perfect. Someone may have “nerve,” but chutzpah reflects a shameless audacity that says it better. Being a “good person” is nice, but being a mensch brings that individual to a high level of honor, integrity, kindness, and admiration. One can complain, but when one “kvetches,” he also adds a layer of whining and fretting that really captures the moment.

Another word that Yiddish does best is farklempt, overcome with emotion. I can count on one hand how many times I have ever needed to use this word or felt its power. The day I held our newborn son. Three years later, when I held our daughter. And six years ago, when I lay eyes on my two-hour-old granddaughter. And now, I can use it again: When we were finally able to hold our grandson for the first time.

Our grandson as born in March 2020, a few days before the world closed down due to the pandemic. My husband Larry and I were on Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, with my daughter Julie, her husband Sam and our granddaughter when our daughter-in law-Sarah went into labor in a San Francisco hospital. Our son Adam announced their newborn’s  official arrival late that night via phone calls and texted pictures. 

By the time Julie and her family flew back to Colorado later that week, the impact of COVID-19 on our lives exploded. We promised our children that we would “stay safe” and shelter-in-place. Larry and I had made reservations to fly out to California later in the month, but we had no choice but to cancel and wait until things improved. Little did we know at that time that that wait would stretch out for over 15 months.

Thanks to social media, we got to see a great deal of our “San Francisco Kid.” Adam and Sarah called frequently and focused the camera on our beautiful new grandchild so we could watch him sleeping, nursing, bathing. Then, as the months dragged on, we saw him learning to crawl, learning to walk, speaking his first words. But we were unable to hold him in our arms.

Larry and I tried to repeat certain rituals so that our grandchild would know us. Each time we connected, I would sing “The Wheels on the Bus.” As the months progressed, I went beyond blinkers going “left right stop” and coins going “clink clank clink.” I introduced dogs barking and ducks quaking and pigs oinking and cows mooing, “Isn’t that crazy?” I would ask him 3000 miles away. “Ducks and pigs and cows on a bus??”Larry, meanwhile, would move two fingers against his lips and say, “Bu bu bu ba!” 

By the time our plane landed in SFA in mid-June, Larry and I were beyond excited and also a little nervous. How would our grandchild  react to these two people whom he had only seen on a small screen. Would he cry? Turn away? After hugging my daughter-in-law Sarah until she couldn’t breathe, Larry climbed in front of the Honda Civic with Sarah, and I tucked in the back next to our grandson’s car seat. He looked at me as if to say, “Who is this lady?” I gently touched his arm, but he pulled it away. I softly started singing “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round…” His eyes got big, and he burst out into a huge smile. And Larry? As soon as we got out of the car, Larry lifted him out of the car, held him with one arm, and with the other hand, did his “Bu bu bu ba! routine.”The baby laughed and, for the first time ever, imitated Zayde perfectly. Our grandchild knew us both.

Our visit has been Grandparent Heaven. It has been  filled with hugs; “besos for bebe” (kisses for baby!) in honor of his Hispanic caregiver; beautiful smiles; hours reading Go Dog Go and Brown Bear, Bear, Who Do You See?; innumerable playings of songs by Rafi; multiple trips to city parks;a special day at the San Francisco zoo; and a few very precious baby sitting stints. As promised, I even pulled off two Shabbat dinners with fresh baked challahs and candle lighting via Zoom with the rest of our family. 

Soon Larry and I will be heading for our second “farklempt” moment. We will be flying to Colorado to be united with Julie, Sam and our granddaughter, again over fifteen months in the making. Yes, we have spent hours and hours on FaceTime with our Rocky Mountain family, but I will be overcome with emotion when I can finally hold them in our arms.

Through the past year, Larry and I have said again and again how grateful we were for our physical, financial, and financial health. But again and again, what we missed most was family. The next step will be getting all eight of us under one roof. That moment will be for me the end of this long, difficult time. Until then, I will savor our time with our family, time that has become even more precious, more important, and more cherished after so long deprived. 

Pushing away the webs of memory lane with hacks, humor and husband

Now that I am in my seventies, I am thrilled that I have acquired so much knowledge. My brain is a virtual 20 volume set of World Book Encyclopedia of both useful and not-so useful information. Unfortunately, as a result, my ability to quickly retrieve a necessary fact sometimes fails.

Please understand. I am well aware that our memory is often no joking manner. I have too many dear friends and family who have cognitive disorders due to dementia and—heaven forbid!—Alzheimer’s. A very close relative struggles with recall because of a stroke she had five years ago. She has made tremendous strides since the first few days when she told us that she had been flown to the hospital in a “bulldozer.” But I know she is embarrassed when she can’t find that particular word. Those that love her keep reassuring her that it is not a big deal. We all have our moments when the words just won’t come. 

This inability is most seen when need to recall someone’s name. Sometimes I blame it on what I call “You are out of context!” situation. The most memorable—and most embarrassing—incident of this phenomena occurred thirty years ago. My husband Larry and I were in the lobby of Proctors, a theater venue in Schenectady, New York, when a man with a vaguely familiar face greeted us warmly. I looked at him and said, “I am so sorry! I forgot your name! How do you know us?”

“Marilyn, this is John Smith [I have completely forgotten his actual name!],” Larry said. “He is our children’s swim coach!”

“Oh, John,” I said. “I am so sorry! I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on!” Gulp!

As a classroom teacher, I took pride in my knowing my students’ names. Seating charts helped on the secondary high school level. When I taught adult education, however, enrollment was done on a rotating schedule. New students appeared every other Monday, and I didn’t require seating charts. Remembering names became a challenge, especially when my students had variations of the same name. When confronted with a Shaquana, Shaquilla, Shaquina, and Shakuntula in the same classroom, I struggled but triumphed in the end.

I have often used mnemonic devices to help. For example, I often see my neighbors Hope and Tony walking their golden retriever Abbey. At first stymied by our encounters, I now remember them with the phrase “Abby Hopes Tony will take him for a walk.” Easy peasy!

I was so proud of myself for devising this trick, I shared my method with them.Other times, it is best I keep my trick to myself. Two sisters who could almost pass as twins are often in my exercise class (when I was able to GO to exercise class! Damn pandemic!). I mixed up “Sally” and “Jane”for a while until I started paying this little mind game. Sally, who is married, wears a silver ring. The other sister, who one day shared with me day her unhappiness with her untoned arms, is remembered as Jiggling Jane. As long as Sally is wearing her wedding band and Jane is wearing a sleeveless top, I will never mix them up again!

This pandemic has had some limited benefits, and one is that we have an excuse when we forget a name. When someone greets me warmly, I reply,”I can’t see your face behind the mask. Can you tell me who you are?” Great excuse, right?

I have also been bailed out by modern technology. Our synagogue meets on Zoom, and most participants, whom I already know, have their names displayed. I have little patience in any video conference settings for those that refuse to “get with the program.” As far as I am concerned, they will be referred to “iPad 2” or “555-100-1111” until further notice. 

This doesn’t’t work in our neighborhood’s Olympic-sized pool, where neither masks nor name tags—are required. In those situations I use the “55 plus community” excuse. “ We live in Solivita where memory is just a memory,” I say. “Please tell your name again.”

I tried this approach recently, and the woman smiled and answered “Ingrid.”

Then I had my own AHA moment! “Ingrid! I knew that! By the way, do you remember my name?”

“No,” she answered sheepishly.

“Marilyn,” I said. It’s Marilyn. And I resumed my swim, content in the fact that I was not alone in my affliction! 

The loss of recall isn’t limited to people. After twelve months without sushi, Larry and I purchased a tray of California rolls at the local Publix. That evening, at dinner I was savoring each bite when I realized I forgot the name of the “green stuff.”

“Larry, what is this called?” 

“Wasabi,” Larry answered.

Five minutes later, I had to ask again “What did you say this green stuff called, Larry?”

“Wah-SAH-bee,” Larry said, drawing out the syllables.

The next morning, the first thing I thought about was the delicious California rolls we had eaten the night before. It took a long second to get the word for the “green stuff” out on my tongue. 

“Wasabi! Wasabi! Wasabi” I said to myself.

An hour later, Larry and I were taking a walk when we saw another couple walking towards us.

“Quick!” Larry said. “His name is Bob. What is his wife’s name?”

“Wasabi!” I quickly answered. 

So, now when either Larry and I are in doubt, we just substitute our code word for our Failure to Remember. Wasabi. Wah-SAH-bee. For now, it’s working.

First published in (Capital Region, NY) Jewish World April 29-May 13, 2021. 

There’s a good vegetable store and a lovely park down the street…

If I were still living in Upstate New York, I would be thinking about planting my flower garden. Thinking—not planting—as it never seemed safe to put the annuals into  the ground until Memorial Day weekend. Before I knew better, I had planted the fragile blooms too earlier and watched them die before they even rooted, hit by a late frost.

Not that I or any member of our family were known for our green thumbs. My family’s track record for killing all but the most hardy plants dates back to August 1952, when we moved into our house in Keeseville, New York. While the inside of the house needed plenty of work, the previous owner, Laura Gardener (how appropriate!) kept a beautiful yard.A huge hedge of tiger lilies bordered the front of the house alongside a pristine lawn. In the back was a beautiful flower garden filled with fragrant phlox, lovely lilies of the valley, rose bushes, and a bird bath. At least that was what Laura and Jay, my two older siblings, remembered. By the time I first could recall the yard, it had already shown the neglect that my parents, who grew up in New York City apartments, had bestowed on Ms. Gardener’s labors. Sadly, it never regained its floricultural splendor while the Cohens lived there.  

When I was around twelve, my father decided to put in a vegetable garden in our side yard. As with most of my father’s projects, he was the idea man and I was the unwilling implementer. We may have gotten some tomatoes that year, but by the next spring, grass was growing on the small plot and the experiment was over.

The idea man/implementer plan also worked for my father over twenty years later at the family cottage on Lake Champlain. One fine June morning, Dad showed me the roll of black mulch he had gotten on sale. “It’s for my vegetable garden,” my father announced. “ Dad,” I said. “You don’t have a vegetable garden!” “I will soon,” he told me, pointing a tray of tomato and pepper plants and a hoe resting on a small patch of land next to the garage. “Start digging.” For the rest of that summer during my weekend visits, I was like the Little Red Hen—planting, weeding, watering. Dad, however, was in charge of harvesting— proudly showing off “his” yield.

Meanwhile, Larry and I were already living our own “Better Homes and Gardens” experience. On a beautiful fall day in 1988, our realtor showed us our future home.We liked the house but especially loved the large front yard and woods offering privacy in the back. When a squirrel ran across the plush lawn, we were sold. (To this day, I swear that the owner had hidden behind a tree and released that rodent on purpose.)

While Larry mowed, I planted. On or soon after Memorial Day, I would go to the local garden place and fill my car with red impatiens, begonias, salvia, and some coleus. I would clean up the rock garden on the side of our property and the area underneath the bushes along the front. I would dig and plant and water and weed until my back hurt. In a throwback to my making-mud pies-days, my favorite part was getting dirty, so dirty I often had to strip off the top layer of clothes in the garage before walking back into the house. 

By the end of July, however, my enthusiasm had wilted with the humidity. I had grown tired of the heat, the bugs, the occasional snake, and the sight of almost everything I planted failing to thrive. I encountered success in only two areas: Although the other annuals usually died an early death, the impatiens continued to bloom until the first frost. In addition, my hosta plants were the envy of the neighborhood, growing ridiculously big and needing separating every season until I had hosta growing around three sides of the house. 

Any attempts at our growing a vegetable garden provided a bounty— not for us but for the wildlife and the insects. As had happened with my flowers, early June’s enthusiasm was followed by August’s failure-to-thrive. I learned that the vegetable stand on the corner of Grooms and Moe Roads was a tastier, less work-intensive alternative to hours in a garden to gather a few tomatoes and sad looking peppers.

After mowing lawns and raking leaves for over 35 years, Larry had turned over those jobs to our neighbor’s son, who had started a lawn care business. Maybe it was time for me to hang up my gardening tools as well.

I found my escape when we relocated to Florida. Our community has a home owner’s association (HOA), whose fees include lawn care. I can leave all our landscaping chores to the wonderful people who descend on our property every Tuesday. After they mow our lawn and trim our bushes in trees, the workers munch on the cookies I gratefully place on their water cooler. A few extremely hardy potted plants on my lanai satisfy any urge I have to tempt fate to kill the un-killable. 

Not all my neighbors have abandoned in their gardening gloves.Many have turned their lanais into a virtual greenhouse with hundreds of potted plants, fountains, ponds, and even in one friend’s home, a koi pond! For others, the lanai also serves as a vegetable garden, with shelves of herbs and large planters filled with tomatoes, a variety of peppers, and even eggplants. On our frequent walks, we have seen screened in courtyards filled with raised beds filled with flowers and vegetables. And each month, one home sports a “Yard of the Month” sign in recognition of the owners’ dedication to their outdoor displays of flowers and landscaping. 

Thank you, but no thanks. Outside of an occasional snip on a wayward bush, I am happy with our lawn service. If I want to see lush gardens, my husband Larry and I can take stroll in Bok Tower Gardens, a beautiful 250 acre garden and bird sanctuary only a short 40 minute drive. Now that we are vaccinated, we will again be able to enjoy Epcot’s annual International Flower and Garden Festival, complete with topiaries of our favorite Disney characters. Yep, this girl has switched out her hoe-hoe-hoes for a simpler life. Ho! Ho! Ho!

First published in (Capital Region New York) The Jewish World. April 15-April 24, 2021. 

Image courtesy of cdc on upsplash.com.

Purim Question: To Mask or Not to Mask

“We’re having a celebration for Purim,” the president of our synagogue announced excitedly at the end of a recent Friday Shabbat services on Zoom. “We’ll read the Megillah, watch some Purim music videos, and drink some wine. Can’t wait to see your costumes!”

From our end of the computer, Larry and I exchanged looks. I had already found a Purim song by the Maccabeats and a presentation by Mayim Bialik that made me happier than reading the whole Megillah. After months of avoiding baking except for of my weekly challahs, I had already decided that I would forget the diet and make hamantashen. But a costume? Maybe one of my numerous COVID masks. As to costumes, the jury is still out.

My first memory of a Purim costume came when I was getting ready for the Purim festival for our synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom in Plattsburgh, New York, when I was about eleven years old. Along with the games and food, there would be the yearly prizes for best costume. My mother had helped me cut out a huge replica of the Ten Commandments pasteboard, and we put the Roman numeral numbers in thick marker. We created a beard out of black crepe paper.Once  I put on a robe and a shmata (piece of cloth) on my head, I thought I was the best Moses in the history of the world. I just knew I was going to win the best costume award.

Unfortunately, the adults judges did not agree. I don’t remember who won, but I remember it wasn’t me. Being the rational, calm child that I was, I had a melt down in the car on the 30 minute ride home and continued to carry on when we got home. When I look back, I realize that my costume certainly wasn’t original. In fact, every year parents had come up with the same idea. But I was crushed and swore off Purim costumes for twenty-two years. 

On March 18, 1973, however, a group of my friends decided to go to a Purim party sponsored by Albany Jewish Singles. Those of you who know me know what happened. Although I did not wear a costume into the party, I did change into a long, flowered dress for an impromptu Purim spiel (Yiddish for an informal theatrical production) that I, along with the six others in our assigned group, pulled together. I was Esther to a cute guy named Larry Shapiro’s Ahashuarus. He and I shared a hamantashen. By the end of the night, I knew that I would spend my life with him. As a friend with my camera captured at least a dozen pictures of the skit, we have a photo journal of those first minutes of our meeting. Meeting at a costume party on Purim was a wonderful way for Jews to meet. Over the years, however, I have often had to explain to my non-Jewish friends that Larry and I met at a PUR-im party, not a porn party.

Despite this very positive experience, it took 44 years for Larry and I to participate in another Purim event. A year after we moved into our active adult community in Florida, we were roped into performing in a Purim shpiel for the Shalom Club. Written and produced by long time members of the club, the story was irreverent, campy, and ridiculous.

 Larry, who served as the emcee, pushed his Prairie Home Companion theme. Announcing that the show was sponsored by the Hamantashen Council , who wants you to know“Hamantashen: It’s Not Just for Purim any more.” I played a Vanna White wannabe, strutting across the stage with posters held over my head announcing not only the number of the act but also when the audience was to boo for Haman and applaud for the heroes of the day.Other members of the social club played the more familiar roles—Esther, Ahashuarus, Mordechai, and Haman.

 We were so bad we were good. The audience loved us!

So why am I so against dressing up for Purim this year? First of all, we are having the celebration on Zoom, not at the synagogue. Do I want to put in all the time and effort to create a costume to wear in front of a computer?

More importantly, after wearing a mask on my face for the past twelve months, I find nothing exciting about purchasing a mask that does not provide COVID protection. We have built up quite a collection to get us through the pandemic. Larry usually goes for solids, but I prefer a statement. One mask proclaims in big letters,“Because I care about you and me; another is emblazoned with butterflies, my “totem.” My favorite is the one I purchased in memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that has her portrait and one of her iconic quotes, “Fight for the things you care about. 

If I wanted to get into the holiday spirit, Etsy the online company, offers a variety of Purim themed COVID masks, bearing pictures of hamantashen, masks, and Megillah scrolls. I can even invest in a personalized mask that proclaims even a “Quarantine Purim 2021. The Shapiro Family.” Another simply states, “This is my Purim costume.”

Next year, when we can hopefully celebrate without social distancing and without required masks, we may reconsider. This year, however, unless the president of our synagogue twists our arms a little, Larry and I will stick to the story, songs the hamantaschen, and maybe too much wine to fit into the holiday. Chag Sameach!

First published in The Jewish World February 18, 2021

Catch Me If You Can

Can a book change a life?

Our tenth grade English class was deep into The Scarlet Letter, the classic by Nathanial Hawthorne. I was mesmerized not only by the writing and the story, but also by its symbolism. Hester Prynne carried her shame on her chest every day, the bright red letter A which identified her as an adulterer. Things weren’t bad enough in Puritan America without her having to not only hold her beloved Pearl in her arms but to have her shame emblazoned for all to see.

Our teacher, Mrs. Frances Clute, was a friend of my parents She and her husband John had spent time with my parents, and she knew me well.

One day, after class, Mrs. Clute asked me to stay a little longer. As the rest of my classmates dashed out the door for Mr. Kennedy’s World History class, she pulled out a small book from one of her desk drawers.

“This is Catcher in the Rye, Marilyn,” Mrs. Clute told me. “I know how much you love The Scarlet Letter. This is also a book that deals with symbolism. I am giving it to you with your promise not to share it with any of your classmates.”

I was grateful for her trust. Even if I knew nothing about J. D. Salinger’s 1951classic, I knew she trusted me and saw in me the enthusiasm and the intelligence to handle its content and meaning.

I probably read it all that night, the whole story of Holden Caulfield, his depression, his flight from his private school, his trip to New York. I read how he wanted to save his sister Phoebe from any dangers that she would experience. I “got” the meaning of the “catcher in the rye,” the person who wanted to always protect those whom he loved.

I also saw why Mrs. Clute had been furtive in her gift. The book had language that was certainly not in books  usually selected by Keeseville Central School. I now don’t remember if it contained the “F” word, but it had other language and actions that were certainly not broadcast in our small upstate New York town. What made it great was the symbolism, the depth of the story behind the words.

I had already decided that I would be a teacher. After reading Salinger’s classic,  however, I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. I would spend my college years reading other classics, and then I would go on to teach others to love literature as much as I did.  I followed that dream. 

Looking back,I realize from my older eyes how shallow my understanding and appreciation of great literature was in college.There are classics that I read and hated, Moby Dick probably the most memorable. (I had to read it in one week. It was about a whale.) 

In my first teaching job, I was assigned to share Brave New World, 1984, and Night with juniors and seniors in our school small town near Albany. I realized that not only did they not understand the books’ meanings. Most of them couldn’t even read. I had been a last minute replacement for a man who decided in June to pursue his doctorate, and all the students had signed up to be in “The Cool Class with the Cool Teacher.” I was not the cool teacher.

In the years that followed, I have tried and failed to read other classics, including Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, One Hundred Years of Solitude. I missed the depth in so many books.

It is January, and as I have every year, I have those four books on my “To Read” books. I probably will never get to them, preferring the New York Times best sellers and ones recommended by my bookish friends. But maybe, in honor of Mrs. Clute, I will take my copies of The Scarlet Letter and Catcher in the Rye down from my shelf. While sheltering in place during this pandemic, I will revisit my friendship with Hester Prynne and Holden Caulfield. And, even though I know I have still a great deal to learn about literature and symbolism and the classics, I will accept that Mrs. Clute recognized that I had that spark in me. And for that I will be forever grateful.

Picture Credit: By Mary Hallock Foote – The Scarlet Letter – edition: James R. Osgood & Co,, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11264794 

Fallow 2020 may help us reconnect with what we have

In her book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, British writer Katherine May recounts her own “sad” time where she was forced to hunker down after family illness. “Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of hour human experience,” she writes, “and wisdom resides in those who have wintered.”

We are all “wintering” now through this pandemic. As we welcome good news with the rollout of the vaccines, we also grieve for those we have lost, those who remain ill, and all of us who have had our lives upended. But there WILL be a spring. I am not sure if I ever want to go back to the phrenetic pace of our previous life. 

My whole life has always been about filling up my calendar. I thought this would change once I retired to Florida, but the last five years have been even busier. My days—and in many cases Larry’s as well—were filled with concerts and theater subscriptions and annual Disney passes and movies and dinners out. I scheduled so many events that neither  Larry nor I could keep up, resulting in revelations of upcoming plans mere hours before they occurred. “You were going to tell me about this WHEN?” Larry asked, as he dressed quickly to get to an afternoon tribute band concert being held in our 55+ community. “Sorry, sweetheart,” I responded as I quickly threw on some makeup. “I thought our tickets were for the evening show!”

Our lives were also filled with trips to visit our children as well as to see places on our bucket list. When we weren’t away or running around to our innumerable commitments, we also enjoyed visits from friends and relatives. We refer to  it as “The Tourist Season,” where our sunny home in Florida looked much more enticing than their snow and ice covered homes February through April.

That life as we knew it drastically changed in March.

Our daughter Julie and her family had flown in from Colorado on March 7 for a week, just as COVID cases were beginning to spike. We stayed in a rented cottage on Indian Rocks Beach, celebrated the long distance birth of our grandson on March 8, and enjoyed the sunshine. We felt safe on the sparsely populated beach. Once we got back to  our home, however, we cancelled our plans to visit Disney World and prepared all our meals at home.

On Saturday, as Julie’s husband Sam packed up their rental car for the trip to the airport, Julie pleaded with us to shelter in place until this was over. “Stay home, Mom and Dad,” she begged. “This is really serious.”

Despite her entreaties, my husband Larry and I were still debating whether to attend our community theater group’s production of Deathtrap. “This will be our last foray for a while,” I reasoned. “We should support our friends who put so much time preparing.”

One hour before we were to leave, our son Adam called from California. “If you promise not to go to the play,” he told us, “we will spend the next hour Zooming with you so you can watch your six-day-old grandson.” We complied. Outside of trips to doctors, the supermarket, and small, socially distanced outdoor meetings , we have kept our promise for the past nine months.

But maybe, for those of us fortunate enough to have survived 2020 without major physical and financial catastrophes, this year has been a break from our normal “Rush, Rush, Rush” routine. Larry and I have found a new rhythm that has given us respite in unexpected ways.

Each morning, we exercise, sometimes together (bikes, walks) and sometimes on our own (Larry’s pickleball and my swims). After lunch, we spend a leisurely hour or two n the couch doing duplicated crossword puzzles, working silently until one or both of us say, “I need help!” I find time to write while Larry satisfies his passion for history and sports with the help of Google. After dinner, a shared affair, we watch a Netflix or Amazon movie and read. I say a prayer of gratitude every day that I am going through this difficult time with Larry, my soul mate and best friend.

We both have appreciated the power of online technology, allowing us to keep up with far flung family and friends. Adam, and his wife Sarah have kept up their part of the bargain, Face Timing with us several times a week with the camera trained on our ten-month-old grandson. Although we have yet to hold him, we have at least been part of his life, watching him sleep and poop as an infant to seeing him experience applesauce for the first time, pop his first tooth and crawl backwards. 

Thanks to his long, elaborate stories, our five-year-old granddaughter often checks in with Zayde. She asks him to retell the story of how Wicki Wolf was foiled again by the forest denizens, which include “good” wolves, moose, and even a visiting alligator who somehow survives the Colorado winters. Julie and her husband often share the screen. Frequent emailed pictures and videos of both grandchildren keep us further in touch.

True, there are times that I fear we have maxed out on Zoom. Synagogue services and board meetings. Book clubs and writing groups. Planned meet-ups with siblings and cousins and friends. But we still have much more down time that allows us to savor what we have rather than rush to taste something new. Although physically distanced, we have become more emotionally connected with the people for whom we care and even reconnected with those whom we lost touch in the frenzy of busier schedules.

As 2020 end, I know I join millions of others in being glad it is over. A popular meme summarizes those feelings: “2020. One Star. Very Bad. Would not recommend.” I look forward to a healthier, happier, and more huggable 2021. But I also hope that I will retain the lessons I have learned as I experienced my own wintering.

First published in (Capital Region, New York) Jewish World, January 7, 2021

A Hallmark Hanukkah: Why I Still Like Cheesy Christmas Movies So Much!

Even though the pandemic has altered our world, my husband Larry and I will still maintain many of our traditions this Hanukkah. Eating latkes with applesauce. Lighting candles each night. “Betting” on which candle lasts the longest. Watching Hallmark Christmas movies.

Wait! Hallmark Christmas movies? When did that become a tradition?

For as long as I can remember, I have watched Hallmark movies. For many years, the famous card company aired shows specific to the holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and of course Valentine’s Day. Each two-hour made-for-television episode touched my heart. Many were based on classic novels, such as The Secret Garden or Sarah Plain and Tall, while others were originals. And as much as I loved the shows themselves, I especially enjoyed the tear-jerking commercials. (Did you know you can Google them? Watch them with a box of Kleenex next to you!)

In 2001, after the major networks dropped the specials, the company launched The Hallmark Channel. Building on its many fans during the holidays, the channel has churned out 136 Christmas shows to date. That means a great deal of “Deck the Halls” and “Jingle Bells,” their favorite seasonal songs, as the movies are touted to be about the spirit of the season, not any one religion in particular.

The plots of their Christmas movies fall into two categories. If you have watched only one or two of the productions, you have pretty much seen them all. 

Plot one: A high-powered business dynamo needs to learn the real meaning of life, which can only be found in a small, idyllic town inhabited by incredibly cheerful people who, despite their low-paying occupations (favorite include cupcake bakers, store clerks, and staff at a huge inn with no guests in sight except the small cast), can still afford enough Christmas decorations to cover EPCOT. 

Plot two: A kind, hard-working woman finds out that the incredibly handsome mystery man she’s dating is actually the king of a tiny but wealthy country named after a countertop (Cambria) or china pattern (Winshire). Twenty minutes before the movie ends, a conflict erupts based on a misunderstanding – but no worries! It will be resolved with a kiss one minute before the snow starts and two minutes before the credits roll.

Up until this past year, Hallmark was all about white, heterosexual Christians. People of Color were seen only as the best friend or the minister who marries the happy couple; LGBTQ+ characters were never seen at all. This policy was upended last year, when the channel pulled an advertisement that featured two women kissing at the altar. Soon after, scriptwriters began churning out stories that highlighted more diverse romances, including LGBTQ+ couples and interracial relationships.

What’s still largely missing, though, are stories about Jewish couples. Loving Leah (2009) was the closest to a true Jewish romance, featuring a non-observant Jewish bachelor who feels compelled to marry his rabbi brother’s widow to honor him via the ancient Jewish law of yibbum (levirate marriage). 

For me, though, the channel’s attempts at celebrating Hanukkah have been major fails. 

Holiday Date told the story of Joel, a nice Jewish boy who agrees to pretend to be the boyfriend of Brittany, who is headed back to her small Pennsylvania hometown to celebrate Christmas with her family. Hilarity allegedly ensues when Joel (who grew up in New York City, certainly surrounded by at least one or two Christians) has no idea how to decorate a tree or make a gingerbread house or sing “Deck the Halls.” Moments after the ruse is uncovered, Brittany’s mother comes out of the kitchen holding a tray of potato latkes and wearing an “Oy vey” apron. Of course, the two end up together, promising to observe both Christmas and Hanukkah. 

The plots of the other two 2019 Hallmark Hanukkah movies, both involving interfaith romances, made Holiday Date look like Casablanca. This year, Hallmark tried again. Love, Lights, Hanukkah!, which first  aired on December 14. recounted  the story of Christina, who was raised Italian Catholic by her  adoptive mother, discovers through genetic testing that she is 50% Jewish. Over the next eight days, she finds her family and romance. While I loved the acting, (both Mia Kirshner and Ben Savage are Jewish!) and some very authentic Jewish moments, especially those that involved singing the prayer when lighting the menorah, I still wished in the end that somehow Christina would change her name to Channah and completely embrace her Yiddishkeit roots. Oh well! Maybe next year  Hallmark will make a movie about two Jews who fall in love over dreidels and potato latkes without a Christmas tree in sight! 

So why do I – along with many others who likely keep mum about their penchant for Hallmark movies – love these films? Simple. They’re mindless, sweet, non-political, non-violent, and always guaranteed to result in a happy ending. I still cry every time King Maximillian and Allie embrace at the end of A Crown for Christmas. (Take that, you wicked Countess!) 

These feelings hold even truer in 2020: I need a break from COVID-19 and the elections and the transition. So grab the dreidel-shaped sugar cookies and hot chocolate: I’ll yet again be indulging in the holiday season with Hallmark Christmas movies!

Published on ReformJudaism.orgwebsite December 24, 2020 and in the (Capital Region New York) Jewish World on December 10, 2020.

Bud Black, Interlocutor Extraordinaire

For the past five years,  people who came to services at Congregation 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. 

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.

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.