Tag Archives: #Jewish

Keep calm and carry on? A return to tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Bialystok to Brooklyn: Part Three

Simova, Poland ➡️ Bialystok, Poland ➡️ Minsk, Russia ➡️ Moscow ➡️ Viana, Russia ➡️ Erkutcsk ➡️ Chita, Siberia ➡️ Harbin, China ➡️ Chanzhou, China ➡️ Darien, China ➡️ Sent back to Harbin ➡️Yokohama➡️Hawaii➡️San Francisco➡️Chicago➡️Brooklyn!

Unlike the majority of Eastern Europeans fleeing pogroms and poverty to America through ships sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, Harry “Chonie” Oshinsky took a journey over three continents. His trip took a dangerous turn in Darien, China, where he and his fellow travelers were arrested, accused of being part of a murderous gang. Here is the final installment of Harry’s incredible journey. 

Harry and his two friends were thrown into a prison, where they sat on a stone floor, fed a diet of foul rice, and listened as the Chinese prisoners who shared their cell were beaten with a rope. An attempt at a hunger strike backfired, and the three hand-bound boys were taken by train back to Harbin. 

Miraculously, the story of their arrest was carried in The Forward (Der Forvertz), which triggered a protest in the Yiddish newspaper. Harry’s sister, when she herself read in New York about the arrest of “Chunya Oshinsky and two other boys,” realized for the first time that her little brother was alive. 

Soon after Harry and the others were moved from the Russian commandant’s office to a prison close to the Jewish Committee House, where Harry and Yankel had stayed earlier in their journey. Although the bottom floor held hardened criminals, the three were taken to the second floor, where around 30 political refugees were held. Conditions were good: they were fed given a decent bed and taken outside each morning for fresh air. Ironically, some of the other prisoners were actually paying money to be there: “This was so much better than being on the front lines and risking one’s life in battle!”they told Harry. Again, Harry’s tailoring skills proved useful as the overseer often called on him to do alterations for himself and others.

As the prison stay extended into its fourth month, Harry realized that his only chance of release was to have money sent to him from America. Not knowing the address of his four siblings, he sent a desperate plea to Yankel, whom he hoped had already made it to America. He mailed a letter to “The Goldbergs, 22 Ludlow Street, New York.”Just as a bird gets lost from his home in a tree and gets caught and put in a bird[cage],” Harry wrote, “so this has happened to me.”

A few weeks later, Harry again faced the Russian commandant. The officials in the consulate had never been able to confirm he was a murderer; however, they decided to conscript him into the army. Before reporting, he made one last trip to the Jewish Committee House. Fate shone on him again! Two hundred rubles had been sent from America for his release!

On a bitter cold winter’s night in March 1917, Harry and three other Jewish refugees began their three day trek on foot back across China into Japan. Once over the border, they traveled by train and boat, at one point cutting across Korea to Yokohama.

They arrived at the Japanese seaport in time to hear the news that Czar Nicholas II had been overthrown. Three weeks later, on April 10, 1917, Harry and his companions boarded the Shino Maru

When the ship stopped in Honolulu, Harry was filled with “sheer happiness and joy” when he touched American soil for the first time. . His twenty-four hour stopover was almost extended when a tour of the island resulted in a chance meeting with a Jewish men’s clothing store owner. After hearing Harry’s story, the owner offered Harry a job as a tailor and salesperson. “I thanked him for his goodness,” Harry later recalled, “but I was determined to go to New York to be with my family.”

The Shino Maru arrived in San Francisco on April 29, where all immigrants were processed through Angel Island. The next morning, a representative of HIAS met with Harry to arrange for his train trip across the United States.

Harry arrived in Grand Central Station during the first week in May 1917. He heard his name being called; it was Yankel Goldberg, his friend with whom he had traveled until their separation in Yokohama. His siblings Zalman David and Leah did not recognize Harry until Yankel shouted to them, “Here! Here he is! This is your brother Chonie!” They fell into each other’s arms, kissing and crying. After a two and a half year journey, Harry was finally reunited with his siblings.

Settling in Brooklyn, he found employment in a factory that sewed soldiers’ uniforms. In a few weeks, he was making enough money not only to rent his own apartment but also to help support his siblings. He enrolled in night school to learn English and in dance school to improve his social life. In his spare time, he explored New York City and attended lectures about the ongoing war and politics. 

The November 11, 1918 armistice brought relief to Harry. knowing he would not have to return to Europe to fight in the war. Hewas able to send a letter home. ”I am alive and living in America.” A few weeks later, he received an answer. “Everyone is alive!” His sister was reunited with her fiancé, who had been a prisoner of war, and Poland was an independent country.

Eventually, Harry earned enough money to bring his younger draft-eligible brother Yitzchak from Poland to America. With Harry’s help, Yitzchak found a job as a salesperson in a Lower East Side candy store. 

After Harry’s parents passed away, his sister, now married with her own family, decided to remain in Poland. (Tragically, she and her family were later killed in the Holocaust).

During the Depression, Harry supplemented his income by opening a candy store he opened with his brother Yitzchak. The 

business that remained in the family throughout their lives.

 In 1927, Harry met Frieda, a young woman from his own area in Poland, and they were married that August. Harry and Frieda had two sons, Leonard and Robert (who both shortened their surname to Oshins). Both married and had children of their own. Robert and his wife Natalie settled in Schenectady and were active members of Congregation Agudat Achim. After a career working for the post office, Lenny and his wife Bobbe moved to Clifton Park to be closer to their daughter Cindy and her family and joined Congregation Beth Shalom.

Harry passed away in 1976, but he left his legacy and his history in a 12,000 word autobiography that was originally published in Yiddish in Der Forverts in the late 1960s. Lenny Oshins gave me a copy the document, which had been translated into English by Simon and Anne Paktor , friends of Robert and Natalie in Schenectady. 

Lenny (Z”L), it took me way too long to finally write your father’s story. I hope you, your parents, your wife, and brother are all reading this in heaven and k’velling over a life well-lived.

From Bialystok to Brooklyn: An immigrant’s trek across three continents

When reflecting on my family’s Jewish immigrant experience, I conjure up images of fleeing westward in hay wagons; crossing the Atlantic Ocean in crowded steerage; catching the first glimpse of the Stature of Liberty, and waiting and worrying in long lines at Ellis Island.The descendants of Harry Oshinsky, however, recall his much more circuitous—and grueling— trek. At age sixteen, Harry left his Eastern European home and traveled by train, boat, and foot through Russia/Siberia, China Japan, Hawaii, and San Francisco before reuniting with his siblings in New York City. Harry’s amazing two year long journey was originally published in Yiddish as a series of articles in The Forward (Forvertz) in the 1970s. In 2014, soon after I began writing for The Jewish World,Lenny Oshins, Harry’s son and my friend in Clifton Park, New York, handed me a 60 page manuscript—thankfully translated into English—in hopes I would shape it into a more succinct article. Although Lenny passed away in 2017, with the help of his daughter, Cindy Barnett, and his sister-in-law Natalie Oshins, both Capital Region residents, I am finally fulfilling a son’s wish for his father’s story to be told to another generation.

Harry (née Chonie) Oshinsky was born in 1898 in what was then known as Simova, a small Jewish community in the northeastern corner of Poland. Around 1904, Harry’s father, a hardworking but poor blacksmith, left his wife and children for more lucrative employment opportunities in New York City. He sent money and, over time, passage fare for the four oldest of seven children with plans to have the entire family reunited in Der Goldene Medina, the Golden Land, in the not too distant future. 

Soon after his father left, Harry began attending chedar (school)—the “classroom” tables and chairs set up in a barn—with several other Jewish boys in Simova. The six-year-old proved to be a bright, able student. Within a year, Harry was proficient enough in Yiddish to write the letters to be sent to America not only for his mother but also for other grateful wives who had been left behind. “I had to help keep up the romance,” Harry later recounted. Relying on examples from Yiddish newspaper and texts, Harry composed missives like the following:“My dear husband, I miss you so! When will you send for me?” 

As reports of pogroms in nearby villages began drifting into their town, the Oshinskys received a very welcome letter from their father “Get ready! You will be leaving soon for America!” Enclosed were instructions and tickets for their passage. After weeks of preparations, Harry’s mother and the three siblings piled into a horse drawn wagon driven by a hired agent to make the trip across Poland to the seaport in Bremen, Germany. Unfortunately, Harry’s mother failed the required physical when she was diagnosed with tracoma, a contagious and potentially blinding infectious eye disease. The four, crushed with disappointment, returned to Poland, settling in Ostrów Mazowiecka (commonly called “Ostroveh” by Jewish residents) near the family of a maternal aunt. Despite efforts by eye specialists in the nearby city of Bialystok to stop the progression of the disease, Harry’s mother eventually lost her eyesight.

The family tried to adjust to the new “normal.” Harry’s older sister assumed all household responsibilities while six year old Yitzchak was enrolled in a yeshiva. Although their father continued to send money , Harry, now twelve years old, decided he needed to help support the family by learning a trade. After completing a six-month apprenticeship, he found work as a “tailor boy,” traveling with his employer to small villages where he sewed peltzes, heavy coats, in exchange for room, board and the promise of clothing and shoes. He eventually returned to Ostroveh and found steady work sewing clothes for both civilians and the military. The skills he learned in the tailor trade and the knowledge he acquired through the establishment of nascent local unions shaped both his career and his lifetime commitment to workers’ rights.

Although his “formal” education had ended, Harry used every opportunity to  increase his knowledge. He read newspapers and devoured books he obtained from the town’s tiny attic library. His library “card” came with the commitment for him to provide community service through Bikur Cholim, a volunteer organization established to provide companionship and reading aloud to the sick, thereby strengthening his own literacy skills. He also frequently earned additional income as a “scribe,” writing letters and documents as needed in his community.

Just before Purim, 1914, Harry’s father wrote, “I am coming home!”  Since the family was not able to go to America,, he was returning to Poland. Within two weeks, Harry’s father began lecturing his son on the need for Harry to immigrate to America “where a person who sews with a needle and does tailoring can earn ten times as much as here.” At his father’s insistence, Harry found a job in Bialystok to get more tailoring experience in a “big” city. Harry made a good salary and began dressing like an American with a fashionable “hat and walking stick in my hand.” By August 1914, Harry had developed enough confidence to make plans to travel to America via Bremen, Germany, to New York City, the same route he, his mother, and two siblings had tried to take over four years earlier.

Fate of global proportions interceded: “The War to End All Wars” erupted in Europe. Ostroveh was filled with “tumult and noise,” recalled Harry. German planes flew above them. Polish soldiers, followed by peasants with horse and wagons, marched through the streets on their way to the front. Harry’s younger sister’s fiancé, who had just returned after serving four years in the army, was forced to reenlist. Harry and his father were required to register to work as part of the home guard, which provided weak and ultimately ineffective attempts to stop the encroaching Germans.

As the Polish army fell and the Germans moved closer to Ostroveh, Harry, who had just turned sixteen, was in imminent danger of being drafted into the army. Harry’s father, insisting that his son find whatever way possible to the United States, to safety, gave him the family’s passport as an illicit form of identification  With Europe engulfed in trench warfare and German u-boats lurking in the Atlantic Ocean, Harry and Yankel Goldberg, a friend also facing conscription, decided to take  an alternative but much more grueling route. Ellis Island was no longer their destination. Instead, the two would make their way across Russia/Siberia to China and Yokohama, a Japanese seaport, and first touch American soil on Angel Island Immigration Center in San Francisco. They boarded a train in Bialystok for Minsk, Russia, in late fall 1914. 

Although eventually reunited in New York City with Yitzchak, his youngest brother, Harry would never see again his parents, who died in Poland, or his younger sister and her family, who were murdered in the Holocaust. Harry and Yankel, the two refuges at least for the time being were free—at least for the time—and on their way to America.

Harry’s Journey Part I: Simova, Poland ➡️ Bremen, Germany ➡️ Ostrów Mazowiecka , Poland➡️ Bialystok, Poland  ➡️ Minsk, Russia

First published in (Capital Region NY) The Jewish World, February 17, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boomer at 43.

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.

“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. 

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

Friday was Fish Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in (Capital Region NY) Jewish World May 13-May 27, 2021. 

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

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. 

A Swimming Smackdown: WWE One; Marilyn Zero

It was 7 a.m. Monday morning, and I was at our community pool to do my hour of swimming. I said hello to the one other person in the pool. 

“Hi, Marilyn,” she said. “Were you here on Friday for the big fight?”

“The f-f-ffight?” I asked hesitantly.

“Yes. I heard two people went at it when one of them wouldn’t move out of a lane. Everyone is talking about it. I am sorry I missed it.”

Crap!  In a 55+ community that thrives on drama, it appears that my confrontation with a fellow swimmer had gone—if not viral—then aquatic!

The day hadn’t started out well. I had overslept and gotten to the pool late. That meant I would soon be competing with all the pool walkers and exercisers who usually were just starting their work-out as I was finishing up my swim.

Initially, everything was going smoothly. The sun was shining. The water was warm. The walkers had arrived, but they were being respectful and keeping the necessary social distancing needed during the pandemic.

With ten laps to go, I caught through my googles an anomaly among the usual sight of grey haired ladies in skirted bathing suits and balding men in their knee length trunks. A giant of a man—over six feet and two hundred and fifty pounds of pure muscle —waded into the water and stood in the middle of the lane next to me. He was clad in pair of short orange trunks that showed off a huge tattoo over his toned abs. His shaved head and gold earrings glistened in the sun as he started doing a stretch routine. Although not directly in my way, his leg bending and arm swings felt too close. 

After paddling past him a couple of times, I stopped mid-lap and asked politely, “Excuse me, but would you mind moving over a couple of feet? I am afraid I might hit you.”

“I am in the middle of the next lane,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a problem. Besides, you should be in the middle of the lane as well.”

No matter that he could have been The Rock’s brother. I lost it. “Look,I have been swimming on this line for 50 minutes,” I yelled. “It wouldn’t hurt you to move two and a half &$#$%# feet so I can finish.”

Done with my tirade, I kept swimming, making sure to splash vigorously every time I went past him. I was going to show him who was boss!

When I finished my laps, I climbed out of the pool and, taking off my cap, goggles, and fins, I began drying myself off with a towel. My friend Pat who had just arrived with her husband for her pool walk, greeted me.

“Good morning, Marilyn! How are you doing today?”

“I was fine until this $*#? got in my way during my laps.”

“Who’s that?” she asked.

I pointed to the Adonis in the water.

“Adonis” began defending himself. “Hey! I didn’t do anything! I try to be respectful to my elders! Everyone heard and saw what you did!” 

“Him?” she exclaimed. “Why, that’s Dom! He’s my neighbor and he is really nice!”

“Well, not today!” I grumbled.

At that moment, my friend Sharon, who had overheard Pat’s comments, splashed over to put in her two cents. 

“Marilyn, I can’t believe you yelled at Dom,” she said. “He’s such a nice man!”

Okay, he may have been a little too close, but I was wrong. I took a deep breath, put down my towel, and jumped back into the pool. By this point, all the people in the pool were watching the drama between me and my sparring partner.

“I want to apologize,” I said.” My language and splashing was inappropriate.” 

“Hey, everyone has a bad day,” he said. He held out his hand. “I’m Dom.”

“I’m Marilyn,” I said, grabbing his hand in return. “Nice to meet you.”

I shared with him that I swam laps every Monday and Friday and always stuck to the lines to give fellow lappers room. He shared with me that he went to the weight room almost every day and sometimes stretched in the pool afterwards. 

“Yes, you LOOK like you work out!” I said. “You are really strongly built.”

“I spent my life with WWE,” he said. “I should be in good shape.”

“WWE? As in World Wrestling Federation?” I gasped. “You mean I went up against a WWE wrester?”

“Yes, but I won’t hurt you. As I said before, everyone has a bad day.”

I was climbing out of the pool when I stopped and turned around. 

“Hey, Dom! I do take umbrage with one of your comments,” I said. “You said you were respectful of your ELDERS. How old do you think I am?”

“I don’t know,” he said tactfully. “I’m 56.”

“Okay, I am your elder. I turn 70 in two weeks.”

“And you swim an hour each day?” he asked. 

“I alternate it with 20 mile bike rides or 5 mile walks,” I said proudly.

“Wow! I’m impressed!” he said. Wow! A WWE wrestler was impressed with me!

So on that equally sunny Monday morning, I had to deal with my new notoriety. I shared the entire Friday Morning SmackDown episode with Mary as she interrupted with gales of laughter.

“I shouldn’t have lost my temper,” I told her. “I apologized! I”m even going to bake a challah and drop it off at his house as a peace offering!”

So, I am now part of my 55+ community’s history. WWE One, Marilyn Zero. Maybe next time I should take on someone my own size. Or—maybe next time I should just smile and move over to the middle of the lane.

Meanwhile, I did drop off a challah to Dom, along with my apologies. We are now pool buddies. No more smackdowns. Just high fives!

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