Category Archives: Upstate New York

Borscht Belt staff reminisce about the glory days of Jewish Alps

From left, Marilyn Sommer, Robin Kauffman, Roberta Greenberg, and Nina Scudieri, all worked as counselors at the Homowak Lodge Hotel. Kauffman is the coordinator of the planned May 4 Catskill hotel staff reunion.


In the classic movie “Dirty Dancing,” Jack Weston’s character Max  Kellerman, the owner of the fictional Catskill resort, laments the changes down the road. “[I]t all seems to be ending. You think kids want to come with their parents and take fox-trot lessons? Trips to Europe, that’s what the kids want. .. It feels like it’s all slipping away.” 

The heyday of the Catskills have ended, but the memories of those resorts remain with those who shared those summers as staff and guests. “This was our Camelot, a place that has vanished but still has a place in the hearts and minds by the thousands whose life were shaped by this shared experienced,” said Patty Beardley Roker.  Roker shared this quote on the website for the upcoming reunion of Catskill staff members, which will be held on May 4, 2019, at  the Villa Roma Resort in Callicoon, New York, a Catskill hotel dating from 1944.

Roker and others have many a story to share of their time in the Catskills, often called the Borscht Belt. Borscht, a soup associated with immigrants from Eastern Europe, was a colloquialism for Jewish. Famous hotels of the area included The Concord, Grossinger’s, and Kutshers. But there were many smaller resorts and cottages too. 

The popularity of the Catskills starts at the beginning of the 20th century. Like many New York City dwellers before the advent of air conditioning, Jews  looked for places that would provide a respite from the summer heat.  Because of anti-Semitism, particularly in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, such choices were few. Sullivan, Ulster, and nearby counties offered working class Jewish New Yorkers, mostly Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, cheap land on which to build farms, bungalows, and hotels. 

One such family were the Brickmans. Soon after emigrating from Russia in 1908, Abraham and Molly realized that New York City, with its tenements, crowded streets, and poor air, was not for them. As Abraham had worked on the farms for the czars, they purchased farm land in South Fallsburg. Soon friends and relatives were coming up to Brickmans to escape the city’s summers, and the farm took on boarders.  The Brickmans’ daughter Anna and her husband Joseph Posner and their sons eventually took over the ownership.

Hotel Brickman had 300 rooms that accommodated over 600 adults and children. Along with adult activities, the hotel had a nursery, a day camp for children, and a teen program.

In 1965, 15-year old Patti Posner Daboosh began working in the resort’s office. When she was 26, she took over running the kitchen, supervising at times over 200 hundred staff members. Patti recalls fondly the diversity of the staff, which included college students and seasonal workers from the Southern states and from Central and South America. 

One evening, Patti walked into the kitchen and realized that one of the kitchen staff was feeding a homeless man. When Patti told the employee that he had to leave, he responded, “When he is finishing eating, I will ask him to leave.” Patti said that that encounter taught her humility. “The compassion this man had for this poor person taught me how to be a better person.”

In 1986, Patti’s father Benjamin, was 72, and Hotel Brickmans like many other Catskill resorts, were dwindling in popularity. The SYDA Foundation, a not-for-profit tied to promoting Sidda Yoga ideas, purchased the resort and converted it into an ashram. Ben had no regrets. “We will make new traditions,” he told his family. Patti reports Ben spent the next 20 years telling stories of his life in the Catskills. Patti eventually went back to college to obtain a degree in sociology, a path connected to the lessons she had learned from working with the diverse Brickman community. Patti now lives in Weaverville, North Carolina.

Mark Silverman, who now lives in Connecticut, also  had deep roots in  theCatskills. His parents, Ben and Elsie Silverman opened up a bungalow colony in Glen Wild in 1947 with Joe Kartin, Ben’s partner in their Flatbush butcher shop. What started as two bungalows in 1947 expanded to 16. Ben and his partner would switch off summers, with one commuting back and forth to Flatbush while the other partner ran the resort and a seasonal meat market.

The bungalows were simple, with a kitchen/living room/dinette, one bedroom, and a screened porch. Entertainment was also low-key—bingo or a movie in the community room, which was called The Casino in the Catskills. Most of the renters came for the entire summer, with the men in the family often commuting on weekends. 

Mark, like Patti, started helping his parents manage the resort as a teenager, keeping up the pool, mowing the lawn, maintaining the bungalows. Even after college, a stint in Vietnam, and his marriage to Diane Weissman, Mark continued to visit during the summers until his parents sold the resort in the 1990s. 

“Spending my summers in the country gave me a great appreciation for the outdoors, farms and woodlands in the area,” said Mark.  “I always knew that I couldn’t spend my life in an office, and this led to my career in agriculture and environmental science.”

Mina and Max Berjansky owned a bungalow colony in Monticello. In 1950, Susan Shapot Greenbaum, her parents, and her sister moved from the Bronx to join her grandparents. During the off-season, everyone shared the only heated home with only one small bathroom. In the summer, Mina and Max moved into the unfinished attic above the small grocery store, and the Shapots crowded into one bedroom and shared the bathroom with tenants. Max maintained the colony while Mina ran the grocery store, the only source of food during the week. Some of the guests shared a kokh-aleyn, the Yiddish name for self-catered bungalows, which was a large dormitory-styled house in which many families had a bedroom, a shared bathroom down the hall and one large shared kitchen, in which each family had its own stove, refrigerator and table. Other families had their own or one side of a two-family bungalow, complete with their own bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. Guests usually came up July 4th weekend and stayed through Labor Day. As in other Catskill resorts, the men frequently commuted back and forth to the city while the women and children remained all summer.

Susan said that her parents provided the low-key entertainment, including folk and square dancing, games, and masquerade parties for both the adults and the children. Every summer there was a “mock marriage” in which the tallest, biggest man was dressed as the bride and the smallest woman was dressed as the groom, with the entire wedding party following the “upside down” comedy act.

When New York State built the Route 17 expressway through the middle of their colony, the family moved into a house in Monticello. Later on, Susan tried working as a waitress at the Concord, one the Catskills largest resorts, but lasted only one week. “The regular staff were career people,” she said, “and they resented the college kids taking their tables and tips. I got pushed around often.”  She also spent one summer working as a waitress at Kaplan’s Delicatessen, the most popular eating spot during the summer months.

“Monticello was a great place to grow up—a quiet small town from September through June.” said Susan. “It was a busy, bustling place in July and August, with lots to do between the hotels, bungalow colonies and crowds of people hanging out on Broadway.  And it was always safe.”

Peter Vollweiler, who winters in Sarasota and summers in Upstate New York, saw the Northern Catskills through the eyes of his parents and relatives. The Breezy Hotel in Fleischmanns, Delaware County, one of the great hotels, drew many German Jewish Holocaust survivors, including Peter’s grandparents. Guests and older staff members generally didn’t talk about their war experiences but seeing the tattooed numbers on many arms showed their former plight. 

Peter worked at The Mathes resort during his summer school breaks from 1958 to 1963. He had a variety of occupations: pool boy, grounds “picker upper,” baby sitter, children’s dining room busboy, bellhop and chauffeur. The working hours were long with low pay, but the staff was treated very well. The fine European meals and desserts made it all worthwhile. Working with so many other young people, many themselves also children and grandchildren of survivors, was important to Peter. 

Marty Calderon, an Upstate New Yorker who retired in the Tampa area, worked two summers as a busboy and a waiter at the Pine Lodge near Monticello. Like Brickman’, the Pine Lodge was a mini-version of the larger resorts, “a small cruise ship on the ground.”

Like Peter, Marty remembered the long hours, which often extended from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. For his efforts, he made $75 a week, money which he brought home to his parents in New York City.

Marty enjoyed the camaraderie with fellow staff members, and the food was plentiful—and delicious. For two years, he worked at the resort during Passover.  “Before that experience, everything I had eaten during Pesach was dry and tasteless,” said Marty. “At Pine Hills, it was like a Viennese table at a wedding. I can still taste that sponge cake!

Joel Thaw, who lives in the Orlando area, spent every summer from birth to age 18 in the bungalow colonies. What he remembered the most was the freedom he had as children.  “We left after breakfast and didn’t return until before dinner. Everybody knew everybody, and the parents watched out for each other’s children.” He also worked a concession stand the summer of Woodstock, which took place in nearby Bethel.Joel remembers putting a 16-year-old in charge of the stand while he and a friend drove to the music festival in time to see Jefferson Airplane before driving back.

Chair Robin Kaufman, who vacationed with her parents and later worked at the Homowack Hotel, stated that already close to 100 people signed up. “We are going to make history,” said Robin. “This will probably be the first time that many former Catskill bungalow and hotel staff  will reunite together under one roof.” 

She reports that among those committed to attend are former “tummler extraordinaire” Larry Strickler and MC Mel Simons, as well as some of the musician who accompanied the greats. In addition to the reunion’s evening event, programs are set for the entire weekend. (Strickler will present an interactive program on Saturday afternoon. 

Kaufman by phone at  (401) 487-9646  or by email at rmkauff100@cox.net can provide details.

This article was first published in (Capital Region New York’s) Jewish World on January 24, 2019.

Coincidence? Or could it be b’shert?

Coincidence? Or Could It Be  B’Shert?

In 2012,  Rochelle and Bill Willner, attended services at Congregation Shalom Aleichem in Kissimmee, Florida. Former members, they were there for the first time in two years to check out the new rabbi. Before the mourner’s kaddish, Rabbi Karen Allen asked if anyone was observing sheloshim, the thirty day period of mourning. A woman whom they didn’t recognize announced that she had recently lost her aunt Yetta Weiner.

Immediately after services ended, Rochelle approached the mourner. “Excuse me,” said Rochelle, “ but Yetta Weiner is MY aunt!”

It didn’t take long for Rochelle and the “stranger” Marilyn Glaser to realize they were second cousins. Yetta was the wife of David Weiner, brother to both Rochelle ’s and Marilyn’s grandmothers.

The coincidences didn’t end there. Both Marilyn and the Willners lived on the same street in Solivita, a fifty-five plus adult community near the synagogue. Rochelle had attended Marilyn’s wedding over forty years earlier when she had gone as her father’s date. Her mother, the originally invited guest, had had surgery. Marilyn didn’t recall meeting her that day, but it was confirmed when the two of them found Rochelle’s picture in Marilyn’s old wedding album. 

Since that night, Marilyn and Rochelle have become  not only cousins but dear friends.  “I speak to Rochelle at least four times a day,” said Marilyn.

How Did This Come About?

What would have happened if Rochelle and Bill hadn’t come that night to check out the rabbi? If the rabbi hadn’t asked for the first time if anyone was in period of mourning? If Marilyn hadn’t announced Yetta’s name? So many coincidences! 

Or where they? According to some Jewish theologians, there is no such thing as coincidences. Hashgacha Pratit , or Divine Providence, is the concept that that G-d is actively involved in each of our lives. American author and inspirational speaker SQuire Bushnell calls it a godwink. “Every so-called coincidence or answered prayer is God’s way of giving you His small, silent, communication,” says Bushnell, “A little wink saying, ‘Hey kid! I’m thinking of you…right now!’

It even has been cited in both historical and scientific context. The German analytical psychologist  Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity to describe meaningful coincidences—the “acausal connecting principle” that links mind and matter and supersedes cause and effect. 

Rochelle choses to call her reunion, b’shert,  a Jewish expression which means ‘meant to be.’ Whatever it is called, sometimes events align in such a way that it feels like God or some universal force is directing the action. 

I believe strongly that some universal force was at play in our decision to move to the same community in which Marilyn  and the Willners reside.  In December, 2014, Larry and I were staying in a Central Florida resort in Kissimmee. A rainy day prompted a visit to Solivita, and the minute we drove through the gates, I felt that this was the place in which we would retire. After looking at new models, a realtor took us to a resale, and Larry and I fell in love with it. Never spontaneous people, we put a bid on it the day we were to fly home to Upstate New York. 

Although the bid was turned down, Larry and I continued to lean towards buying a home in Solivita. S We had been looking at retirement homes ever since my sister Laura had purchased one in Arizona eight years before. Once we returned home, however, we both wondered if it was the right choice. I was always a “second guesser,” and tended to research every major decision ad nauseam and still rethink and sometimes regret my choices. 

The  day after we came back home, I headed to the library to research all Central Florida retirement options, including  reading back issues of Where to Retire magazines. Usually there were at least ten copies, but on this day there was only one issue on the shelf: the May/June 2014 issue highlighting Kissimmee Florida with a cover picture of a happy couple from—yes—Solivita! Inside, Gabby and Joe Thomas recounted finding the “beautiful” community with the help of Gabby’s mother, who bought a house on an adjacent street. “It was all meant to be,” Joe was quoted as saying about their move.

I brought the magazine home and said to Larry, “This is a sign” By the following June, we had sold our house and moved to Solivita. Coincidentally,  I met Gabby within the  first week when we both attended a Weight Watcher’s meeting. 

Did the Stars Align?

Fortunately, moving to Solivita is one decision in which I never looked back. We love it here. And like Joe Thomas, I feel that it was meant to be-b’shert.

Laurie Criden also felt it was b’shert at work when she met her second husband.  In March, 2008, Laurie was still reeling from the recent loss of her father and the dissolution of her twenty-eight year marriage. Her active involvement in Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York’s large reform synagogue, helped her “keep my balance.” 

While meeting with the rabbi to discuss the shul’s Second Night Passover seder that she was chairing, he asked her how she was doing. Laurie jokingly said, “I guess I’m waiting for something better to come along.” At that exact moment, Mark Criden,  the temple’s executive director ,tapped her on the shoulder to let her know that her meeting was about to begin. Although previous encounters had been “polite hellos,” by the time the two of them entered the meeting room, Mark had invited her to join him at a friend’s for the first night seder. They were married a year later and now share their time between Buffalo and Sarasota, Florida.

Was It Chance?

Julie Thompson Berman shared a story of a day filled with too many coincidences to be just chance. Just before she and her husband Bill moved from Maine to Texas, they decided to visit Endicott College, Julie’s alma mater in Beverly, Massachusetts. As they wandered around the campus, they came across Julie’s old dorm, which had been converted into an administration building. 

As chance would have it (or was it chance?), all the doors in the building were unlocked. They climbed three flights of stairs to Julie’s old dorm room which was now a meeting room. There they met current students, who were thrilled to hear about Julie’s experiences forty years earlier. 

The visit brought back a flood of memories for Julie, and she regretted not keeping up with her three college roommates.  “I wanted to  tell them where I was how I was thinking of them. Unfortunately, I had lost touch and no longer had  their contact information,” Julie said. 

  The Berman’s next stop in their nostalgia tour was The Barnacle,  a restaurant  in nearby Marblehead, Massachusetts, where Julie and Bill had shared many special dinners during their college courtship. While waiting for their table, a woman who was already seated walked across the room and asked, “Are you Julie Thompson?”

When Julie answered yes, the woman hugged her. “I am Cherie, your roommate from Endicott!” Cherie and her husband, who lived across the state, were in Marblehead visiting family. The four of them shared a table talked for two hours after lunch and remain in touch. “I still think about that day and all the things that had to line up to make that reunion happen,” said Julie four years later. 

The three stories above represent just three “b’shert” moments. I would love to hear more from my readers! Please share them with me by emailing me  at shapcomp18@gmail.com

Pickleball makes a dink shot among sports lovers…

Pickleball, Pickleball, how I love the game,/Pickleball, Pickleball, what a silly name/ When I play, every day, my body is in pain/ But you know, I can’t stop, unless it starts to rain!! (Parody sung to tune of O Chanukah!)

What? You haven’t heard of pickleball! Have you been living under a marinated mushroom?

Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America. According to the USA Pickleball Association, there are over 3.2 million pickleball players in the United States alone, 5,000 indoor and outdoor courts in the United States; and at least one location in all 50 states.The game is being introduced to kids and teenagers in physical education classes in middle and high schools.

Pickleball was the brainchild of former Washington State representative Joel Pritchard. Summer, 1965, he and two friends came home from golf to three bored families. Their attempt to play badminton was thwarted by the fact that a shuttlecock was no where to be found. Undaunted, they retrieved a Whiffle ball, improvised some paddles with some plywood, and lowered the badminton net to compensate.  His wife Joan dubbed the game “pickleball” after the “Pickle Boat” in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats

Although pickleball languished in obscurity for almost fifty years, that all changed when Baby Boomers began to retire. Many “seniors”  still wanted to compete and win at a sport but lacked their youthful running abilities According to an article on the AARP website, pickleball, which  combined elements of badminton, tennis, and table tennis, filled that need. Games usually last 10 to 15 minutes, so players can take frequent breathers. Since the court is small and most people play doubles, there’s no serious running — making it easier on the knees. The lightweight paddle and plastic ball reduces the chances of tennis elbow; having two people on the team reduces the area of play. 

My husband Larry picked up the game when he turned 65 and joined Southern Saratoga YMCA in Clifton Park [New York].  Larry had been involved in sports his entire life—basketball, baseball, and track in his youth and running and cycling as an adult. In pickleball, he has found camaraderie as well as the ability—to quote Jimmy Buffet—“to grow older but not up.” He has participated in several tournaments but prefers to play for the exercise, the fun, and the socialization. During the summer, Larry plays with the Summit County pickleball league in Colorado. As the group plays at over 9100 feet, their tee shirts proudly proclaim, “We Play With An ALTITUDE!”

When we moved to Florida, one of Larry’s  requirements was that the community had an active pickleball presence. Solivita, which is isted by www.55.com as one of the top five 55+ communities for pickleball, has seventeen outdoor  courts. The Smashers, the largest sports club in Solivita, has over 1000 members and growing. Along with hosting the Polk Senior Games, the club also holds Sadie Hawkins, Halloween, and Yearling (new players) games. 

Tom Leva, the Smasher’s president, first played the game in pickleball in 2007. After moving to Solivita in 2008, Tom, who had a history of heart problems, lost 40 pounds and was soon playing the game competitively and teaching new players. Although reoccurring cardiac issues has curtailed his game, he has remained on the board and has been behind the expansion and improvements of the pickleball courts. 

When they moved to Solivita in 2015, Dave and Patti “Smith” were tennis players who were not going to ever play that silly game called pickleball.  After their neighbors gave them paddles and took them out to play, they soon became self-professed pickleball addicts.  They enjoy sharing their love of the game with others and meeting so many interesting people. Patti is looking forward to playing in the Florida Senior Games in December.

Sandie and Howie Vipler, fellow YMCA pickleballers, recognized soon after picking up the game in 2012 that Clifton Park lacked outdoor courts. Howie reached out to Phil Barrett, the town supervisor, who agreed to fund painting pickleball lines on  some of the town tennis courts. They have moved themselves and  their equipment to Virginia, where they continue to play almost every day. 

Meanwhile, Sandie, who has a sports resume that includes downhill skiing, kayaking, cycling, and golfing, regards pickleball as her favorite. She plays pickleball 5 to 6 days a week for 2 to 3 hours a day. She revels in the compliments she gets from new competitors, including “You play tall for a short person” and “Wow, look at the wheels on her!” At 68 years old, Sandie vows that she will be playing until she can no longer walk.

That hasn’t stopped Brenda Taylor. Brenda had to have a leg amputated after a 1998 motorcycle accident and desperately wanted to find a way to get exercise while in her wheelchair. Except for an extra bounce before returning the serve, the rules are basically the same. Her proudest moment playing the game is when people compliment on her backhand shot. 

Mel Toub had played tennis and racquetball in his youth. Now in his late sixties and facing health challenges, he has mixed those two sports with pickleball. “Pickleball has wide appeal to both folks who used to play racket sports in their youth and to seniors who wish to remain active but no longer have the stamina or physical ability to play more demanding sports like basketball, soccer, and tennis,” said Mel.   “The learning curve to play pickleball at a socially acceptable level is fairly quick, so pickleball becomes a route to a new activity and new sets of friends.”

The game is growing internationally, with many European and Asian countries adding courts. Personal friends from England, Wales, and Canada have gotten hooked on the game after playing in Florida, Rob Harvey located an indoor pickleball facility near his home in Barhead, Alberta. “The game is great for eye-hand coordination. It keeps me  limber and helps the joints.” Pickleball also helps him keep in shape for his  summer baseball league.

Lynda and Steve Gorwill from Wales fell in love with the game after playing the game while on vacation in Florida. Last year, Lynda applied for and received a grant from Wales’ sports council to establish a pickleball league in her town. Although she has had roles in an English soap opera, Lynda still considers one of her proudest moments  was winning a silver medal in her first pickleball tournament in Abingdon Oxforshire, England.

Margaret and Peter Hunter were “kitted” with paddles and balls while visiting Larry and me in Solivita last November. “Within two minutes we were captivated, line, hook and sinker.” They are looking to returning to our area for another American Thanksgiving and another month of pickleball and miss it when they are at home in England. 

Not that pickleball doesn’t come with its hazards. Sharon and Rick McKelvey both ended up with torn meniscus surgery after a year of playing at Solivita. “That wasn’t fun,” said Sharon, another admitted addict,  “but it didn’t stop us from returning to the game.” Debbie Pratt broke a vertebra in her back after she took a bad fall moving backwards to return one of Larry’s volleys. She no longer plays pickleball, but her injury certainly didn’t scare off other women in her RV resort on the West Coast of Florida, who are appropriately called  “The Sweet Pickles.”

Marta Groess, a lifelong athlete and a member of Smashers, says that the most important feature of the game is that it is FUN! “I  tell new players that if they aren’t laughing, they aren’t playing the game right.”

Linda Kuhn, the Smasher’s treasurer, hadn’t played a sport since high school but now she is addicted, sometimes playing 2 to 4 hours in the Florida heat. “Pickleball gives me such a sense of contentment,, Linda said. The game  has reaffirmed my decision that as I age, I am going out with a roar!”

Is pickleball a Jewish game. Well, it certainly isn’t called “kosher pickle” ball! Until that happens, many people-Jews and non-Jews alike—can find America’s favorite new sport fun. 

Originally published in The Jewish World. October 4, 2018

Of miracles and gratitude: ‘Make new friends but keep the old…’

 

 

Two years ago, Peter and Margaret Hunter, friends from England, visited us in our home in Kissimmee, Florida. They brought two bottles of Moet Chandon Brut Champagne, which we tucked away for a future occasion.

This week, the Hunters were back in Florida, and Peter asked us if we had drunk the wine. When I told him it was still sitting in the box, he admonished me.

“That kind of wine doesn’t age well,” said Peter. “It doesn’t last unless refrigerated properly. We’ll pop it open next week before we head back to the other side of the pond!”

During Chanukah, we celebrate miracles: There was only enough oil in the Eternal Light to last for one day, but somehow, it lasted for eight. I was thinking about the Hunters and the wine in relationship to our upcoming holiday. Yes, Chandon Brut Champagne doesn’t last long, but our friendship with the Hunters, that began on a Jamaican beach, gets better with age. And I began to reflect on special friendships in my life that miraculously have stood the test of time and distance between us.

Betsy Odams Porter and I met in second grade and immediately became best friends. Betsy was beautiful, with thick red hair, and a single child.  We  spent hours at her home, playing with her Madame Alexander dolls. In seventh grade, Betsy and her family moved to Texas, and I was devastated. She and her parents came back for a visit when we were sixteen. A few years later, my father got the phone call that Betsy’s father had died in a car accident. After that, Betsy and I shared an occasional letter.  She reported that she had two sons, had divorced and gone back for her master’s in nursing, and then had remarried.  And then came Facebook. We reconnected, and in 2011, Betsy and her second husband visited Larry and me in Clifton Park. She still was beautiful, still had her gorgeous red hair, and still loved me. “My best friend!” she cried as we shared our first hug in over forty years. She was the first friend to call me after to Pittsburgh tragedy to express her grief and outrange.

It took me a while to find a friend to be as close with as Betsy, but in high school, I met Chris Allen, who was a year behind me. Chris was brilliant and compassionate and a wonderful listener. We shared confidences and Simon and Garfunkel and lots of notes. She was the one who encouraged me to pursue writing, and she was the one who suggested we take a summer  class at Plattsburgh State in 1967. For my high school graduation, she gave me a blank black journal in which she inscribed “For your writing. “ She was my soulmate. Unfortunately, we lost touch while we were in college. I didn’t even invite her to my wedding, a decision I regret to this day. But two years ago, she came to visit me at my brother’s cottage on Lake Champlain. We walked and talked for an hour and a half, and we hadn’t missed a step. We still keep in touch with snail mail, and I will be in touch when I head north to visit family and friends. 

I met my college roommate Denise Gorham Donato my first day of college, and we bonded immediately. Within a week, she nicknamed me ‘PTuke’, a moniker that stuck through college and beyond. We were so different: I was intense, organized, and feverish in my need to complete every assignment with a few days to spare. Deni was outgoing, spontaneous, and the queen of the all-nighter. She worked several jobs, including one at Dom’s sandwich shop on Central Avenue. When she came home around 11:30 pm, I would wake up and we  would catch up while munching on tuna subs she brought home in long white bags. Until this day, I can’t smell an onion without thinking of our midnight snacks. 

A month after our graduation, Deni married Phil and settled near Syracuse. Larry and I would visit her when we went out to visit Larry’s Uncle Asher and Aunt Fran. The four of us went to a Syracuse University game in the snow and kept in touch with an occasional letter. After Asher passed away, Fran moved down to Murrells’ Inlet near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. 

When we moved to Florida,  Deni and I lost touch for a while. Last September, I sent a note to Deni, telling her about the publication of my second book and checking in with her.  Both of us were shocked when we realized that she owned a condo only one mile from Fran’s place in South Carolina. The four of us met for dinner this year when she and Phil came to Orlando for Phil’s  reunion with college friends. We plan on meeting up in Murrell’s Inlet this winter when Larry and I visit Fran. 

Judy Lynch and I met in 1984, when her daughter Katie and my son Adam were on the same tee-ball team. We met up again when our two younger daughters bonded when they were on the same swim team. It is a friendship that has lasted over twenty years, through our children’s high school years through  Katie’s death from leukemia in 2009 and through the Lynch’s part-time residence in Boston and our move to Florida. When we talk, we have to reserve one or two hours of free space. Our cell phones have often come close to losing battery power before we finish. 

In 1987, a year after I had gone back to teaching at the Capital District EOC, Susan Hoff Haynes came on board as a new academic instructor. What started out as mutual hatred changed when Sue called to talk. We found out that our similarities were so much more than our differences. Along with our friend Melanie, we became ‘The Three Amigas.” Mel passed away from non-smoker’s lung cancer the month before Larry and I moved to Florida. Sue has come down to see us for the past two years on Martin Luther King’s Birthday and already made plans to make it three in a row this year. Each time she comes, she and I swim laps, attend a book club, talk politics, and share confidences, just like we have done since 1987. We don’t miss a beat. 

In 2008, Larry and I spent a week in Jamaica, where we met up with the Bunny Bunch, several couples who had already met over Easter Week at the same resort for several years. It was through our many visits to that Caribbean Island that the friendships grew. When Larry and I moved to The Sunshine State, we curtailed our Jamaican trips. However, members of the Bunny Bunch, including the champagne-bearing Hunters, now come to see us at Thanksgiving. Larry and I share our American holiday with fellow American,British, and Canadian friends. 

Since moving to Kissimmee, Larry and I are grateful to have met many people in our fifty-five plus community, in our synagogue, in our greater community. As we celebrate the Festival of Lights and share the joy of this holiday season and secular new year, I am grateful for the joy of establishing new friends.  I am also grateful for the  miracle of sustaining so many long-time friendships, including the ones I highlighted above. These ties,  like the oil in that temple lamp, have lasted long and well. 

The Creature Calls…..

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The Creature of the Black Lagoon display at Wakulla Springs State Park, Tallahassee, Florida.

While my husband Larry and I were visiting friends in Tallahassee, Florida, recently, the four of us went to Wakulla Springs State Park. The 6,000 acre wildlife sanctuary offers a magical forty-five minute boat ride that takes its passengers past cypress groves, lovely springs, and a plethora  of wildlife. Our tour guide, a woman named Connie, navigated the boat through a narrow, shaded section of the ride and announced that this was the area in which Creature of the Black Lagoon was filmed in 1954.

Fear, Shock, Disgust?

I was all too familiar with the Creature of the Black Lagoon. When the movie arrived in Keeseville, New York, in 1955, my nine-year-old brother Jay had made plans to see it with a group of his friends. My mother, busy with a newborn, insisted that Jay take me, his five-year-old sister, along. We walked around the corner to the old theater in our small Upstate New York town, my brother grumbling all the way. The first fifteen or so minutes were fine. The minute I saw the huge black amphibian-like creature emerge from the water, however, I became so frightened that I started screaming and crying. Jay had to leave his friends and popcorn behind to bring me home. “I told you I didn’t want to take her with me!” my brother loudly complained to my mother. It was years before he took me to the movies with him again. The next horror movie I saw in its entirety was Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, when my college showed it on one of its movie nights.

Nightmares for Weeks!

I didn’t fare any better with scary television shows. On November 11, 1960, my parents hosted a party for a group of their friends. My sister Laura and my brother Jay were supposed to be watching me in the family room while the adults congregated in the living and dining rooms. I insisted on staying awake, even when the Twilight Zone came on. The episode Rod Serling introduced that night was “Eye of the Beholder.The now classic told the story of a young woman lying in a hospital bed, her head swathed in white bandages. She awaits the outcome of a surgical procedure performed by the State in a last-ditch attempt to make her look “normal”. In the end, the doctor and nurses, who are only heard but not seen, remove the bandages to reveal a beautiful woman. As the medical team gasp with disappointment and revulsion, the camera moves to their twisted, grotesque faces. Beauty, it seemed, was in the eye of the beholder. In a scene reminiscent of what happened five years before in the movie theater, I screamed in fear and went running into the living room. The guests all trickled out as my parents tried to calm down their hysterical ten year old. 

The end result was—well—“horror-able.” I had nightmares for weeks. Laura and Jay were grounded for months. And it took years for me to watch the complete episode—ten months short of forty years, to be exact. On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1999, one of the cable stations offered a Twilight Zone marathon. The-episode-not-to be-named was shown between 11:30 pm and midnight. I watched it until the end, when the beautiful woman (played by Donna Douglas of later Beverly Hillbillies fame) was led out of the hospital by an equally handsome man to a place that accepted “ugly” people as their normal. It was only until the credits rolled did I turn the station to Dick Clark’s show and watch the ball drop at Times Square to mark the new millennium.

Avoidance Works

For my entire life, I have avoided scary movies unless they are very old (The original versions of Phantom of the Opera and Frankenstein), very funny (Little Shop of Horrors; Young Frankenstein), or very well acted. (Silence of the Lambs; The Sixth Sense).

However, let’s face it. Children’s movies can be scary. Larry was so traumatized by the Wicked Witch of the West when he first saw The Wizard of Oz as a four year old that he refused to watch the annual television broadcast for years. The evil queen in Disney’s Snow White was as frightening to me when I was a child as Hannibal Lecter was to me as an adult. And the sea witch Ursula in The Little Mermaid still chills me to the bone when she appeared in her plump purple presence both on film and on the stage. But these animated antagonists who provided the tension in the children’s classics didn’t scare me enough to turn them off.

Once I became a parent, I shared my love for fairy tales with all their heroes and heroines and scary villains with Adam and Julie. Thanks to Blockbuster and our VCR, we watched Dorothy, Snow White, Cinderella, Aladdin, and Ariel confront and conquer their demons again and again and again.

In 1991, when Adam and Julie were thirteen and ten respectively, Beauty and the Beast was released. It remains one of my favorite movies of all time, up there with Casablanca and Schindler’s List. I was drawn to Belle’s intelligence, her feminist streak, her strength. And I loved the Beast, with all his bluster and bellows, for his transformation into a loving, caring individual once he both received and gave the gift of love.

Monsters Everywhere

Julie told me this summer that my two-year-old granddaughter Sylvie loved the music from the movie, and I was more than willing to share my enthusiasm with her. Together Sylvie and I listened to the sound track, watched some clips on You Tube, danced to the title song across the living room floor, and sang the songs on the way to her daycare. By the end of the summer, I had purchased the movie and downloaded it to my laptop. Sylvie sat on my lap and watched mesmerized the entire length of the film.

When Larry and I returned to Colorado in October, however,  Sylvie’s attitude changed. Yes, “Little town, little quiet village…” was fine. But the minute the Beast arrived on the scene, Sylvie hid her face in her hands and said, “I no want to watch the Beast! I scared!” My showing her that short segment triggered a fear of all monsters, the ones in her closet, the ones under her bed, the ones hiding in the trees. 

So the movie is off the radar for a while. Maybe by next summer, she will realize that Gaston, the handsome but chauvinistic and selfish oaf, is much more frightening than the considerate, loving Beast. Maybe she will have to wait five or ten or even forty years to watch the movie in its entirety. And maybe, like Rod Serling’s classic, she will realize like my heroine Belle that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Originally published in The (Capital District) Jewish World, January 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Grossman and Shapiros walking off our Chinese dinner.

My house was a very, very fine house….

Version 3

And Marilyn makes five….Me in Potsdam 1952.

 

My mother Frances Freydl Cohen wrote down many family stories to share with her children and grandchildren. The following story describes our home in Potsdam, New York.

In 1948, my husband and I were living in New London, Connecticut. Now that the war was over, my husband Bill was concerned that his job was insecure. When my brother Eli offered him an opportunity to become a partner in his retail-clothing store in Potsdam, New York, we decided to make the move.

The big problem was that there was a big housing shortage. The only place we could find to live was a small new two-bedroom house that was barely adequate for Bill, me, and our two children.

Our first winter in Potsdam was a very traumatic one. Our six-year-old daughter started first grade. She came home with everything but an education. First she came down with measles. One month later, she came down with the chicken pox. Each time, she gave the illness to her two-year-old brother.

Spring finally came and my parents were finally able to visit us. The couch in the living room opened to a bed, so our living room became our guest room. We bought a double collapsible bridge table and our living room also served as a dining room.

Laura wanted to take piano lessons, so my parents bought her a small reconditioned upright piano that just fit on one wall.

Things were running smoothly. Our children made friends. We made friends. We especially loved going to the outdoor movie theater in the summer. The admission for a whole family was nine dollars. We would dress the children in pajamas and they slept on pillows in the back of our red station wagon while we watched the movie.

Things changed when I realized that I was pregnant with my third child. Babies are little but take up a lot of room. The kitchen was so small that I could stand in one place, open the fridge and take a chicken out, turn around and wash the chicken in the sink, turn again and place the chicken in the oven. Where would I put a high chair in that small kitchen?

But Bill and I always planned on more children, so all the family was thrilled when our daughter Marilyn arrived in September.

Picture our home nine months later. In addition to our couch, two chairs, and a piano, we had the following in the living room:  a playpen, a baby carriage, toys, and shoes and boots on the floor as we did not have a foyer or a garage. The master bedroom now had a crib and a dressing table for the baby. As it was a new house with no trees and situated on top of a windy hill, the house was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. In addition, the basement always had water, the depth depending on the weather. Despite the crowded and less than ideal conditions, we were happy in our little home, which we called the “Rubber House” as it stretched.

We were even happier when my brother’s wife announced that they were going to have their first baby. Two months before the baby arrived, I planned a baby shower for her. The day of the shower, we collapsed the playpen and the baby shower and opened the double bridge table. Bill took our three children to my brother’s. I served tea sandwiches, dessert, and coffee to eight women. We all enjoyed opening the baby gifts.

Soon after that, I could no longer put off the gall bladder surgery that I needed since my first symptoms appeared when I was pregnant with Marilyn eighteen months earlier. The surgery was difficult and the recovery even more so, especially with three children. Fortunately, Bill and my brother waited until I recuperated fully to tell me that the store could not support two growing families.

In a short time, we decided to open a store in Keeseville, New York. Bill went to Keeseville to plan to open the new store, and I stayed in Potsdam to sell the house.

One day the agent called to tell me that he was bringing a couple to see the house. The sun was out, and it was 90 degrees outdoors and indoors. But miracles do happen. By the time they arrived, the sun went down and a strong wind came up. The basement happened to be fairly dry that week. When the couple arrived, they said our place was the coolest in town and our basement had the least amount of water.

Now that the house was sold, our family was ready to start a new chapter in our lives in Keeseville New York in our eight-room house.