Tag Archives: #jewishlife

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.

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.

Realizing What I Have Missed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

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

Fallow 2020 may help us reconnect with what we have

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

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

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

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

That life as we knew it drastically changed in March.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bud Black, Interlocutor Extraordinaire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

Measure for Measure: What Goes Around Comes Around?

Hindus and Buddhists call it Karma. Germans call it Schadenfreude. But do Jews have an expression to express fate or to express pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune? The closest corresponding phrase is “midah k’neged midah,” —“measure for measure.” One’s actions and they way they affect the world will eventually come to that person in ways one might not necessarily expect.

In a 2017 dracha, Rabbi David Wolfe described two Biblical passages from Bereishit (Genesis) that demonstrate this concept. In the first passage, Jacob takes advantage of his father’s age and blindness to fool Issac into believing hat he is his older twin Esau. As a result, he receives his older brother’s birthright/blessing.

Years later, Jacob falls deeply in love with Rachel. Agreeing to work for seven years for her father Laban, Jacob finally joins his bride under the chuppa. When he wakes up from the wedding night, however, Jacob realizes that under that heavy veil was Leah, the older and less desirable of the sisters. Rabbi Wolfe then calls on a midrash to explain the aftermath. Understandably, Jacob is very upset and demands to know why Leah tricked him. Leah ’s response: “You fooled your father into thinking you were your brother; I fooled you into thinking I was my sister.” In other words, what goes around comes around. 

Just past midnight, on Friday, October 2, President Donald Trump tweeted that he and the First Lady had tested positive for COVID-19.The president’s diagnosis came after he spent months playing down the severity of the outbreak that has killed more than 215,000 in the United States and hours after insisting that “the end of the pandemic is in sight.” He has downplayed the virus again and again. More egregiously, this cavalier attitude has been passed on to his supporters. Republican leaders have incorporated this non-scientific approach into their politics, resulting in dismissing the need for masks and social distancing; opening up cities and states way before it was deemed safe by experts to do so; and touting the “success” of such operations that in truth do not exist.

After initially experiencing some of my own Schadenfreude, my Yom Kippur prayers of repentance kicked in. I sought out the high ground, which I saw in the Book of Proverbs: “If your enemy falls, do not exult; if he trips, let your heart not rejoice” So summoning up my best self, I hope that the president has a “Refuah Shleimah,” a complete recovery. I hope even more that this experience changes how he views COVID-19 and its impact on those not able to take a one mile plane ride to the country’s top hospital after experiencing “mild symptoms.”

My husband Larry and I have seen our lives upended, as have our extended family and our friends. Aborted trips. In person visits replaced with FaceTime calls. Cancelled bar mitzvahs, graduation parties, weddings, Zoom funerals. Limited visits with relatives in nursing homes.

But what we have experienced is nothing compared to the physical, emotional, and financial impact it has on others. On March 31, 2020, my friend Kathy, who had returned from a cruise “under the weather,” sent out a FaceBook post that she was being admitted to the hospital for what she believed was bronchitis. Within two days, she was hooked up to a ventilator. Her brother Bryan kept us informed daily on social media, describing Kathy’s ordeal in ICU in which she almost died several times. When she was finally breathing on her own, she spent several more weeks in rehab. She returned home two weeks ago, only to be rushed back to the hospital for more surgery related to complications of COVID.. As I said, I hope for the president’s recovery, but I wish he could experience just a fraction of what Kathy has been through.

Kathy has survived, but at least seven people in our community have succumbed. In the Orlando, Florida, area, thousands have lost jobs as Disney and other theme parks, Central Florida’s main employer, have seen low attendance. The ripple effect has closed many of our area’s restaurants and other businesses. 

So, I know I join many Americans who hope that the Rose Garden Debacle, which lead to innumerable cases of this fast-spreading disease, will result in policy changes from President Trump and his supporters. Will the federal government finally organize a national response? Will masks and social distancing be mandatory everywhere, even when the president and like-minded Republicans are in attendance? Will first responders be finally given all needed supplies, including personal protective equipment (PPE) and enough tests? And will all leaders take a harder look at returning to Phase 1 protocols?

Or maybe I am just dreaming. On Sunday, October 4, I watched in disbelief as news stations covered the president’s commandeering a motorcade to greet his supporters outside of Walter Reed Hospital. Let us put this ten minute joy ride into perspective. Because of COVID, millions of us cannot see people we love. Because of COVID, thousands have had to lie in hospital beds with no contact with relatives. Because of COVID, many have DIED alone. But the president thought nothing of spending thousands of our tax payer dollars to get the adulation he cravenly requires. And he thought nothing of the danger he put his secret service staff (who were subsequently  put in quarantine) and others to pull off this publicity stunt.To use the words of a popular meme on the Internet: I don’t wish this virus on anyone. I hope the president has a speedy recovery.And I hope he gets demolished at the ballot box. That will be for me “midah k’neged midah,” the most satisfying measure for measure.

First published in The Jewish World, October 8, 2020.

Source

https://www.sinaitemple.org/worship/sermons/toldot-training-hands-esau-voice-jacob/s

I have had enough. Black lives matter.

In 1994, I attended, along with a number of my colleagues from the Capital District Educational Opportunity Center, an Office of Special Programs (OSP) conference in downstate New York. After the opening night’s dinner, I wandered over to  venders’s tables that had been set up in an adjoining room.  The items included many  that reflected the African-American population which OSP served: Kente cloths, African artwork, Maasai beaded bracelets.

I also saw books including The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Black Like Me.  I stopped dead in my tracks, however, when I saw The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews. A quick scan through the thin volume told me all I needed to know: it was an sickening, highly exaggerated  claim that Jews had a disproportionately large role in the black slave trade relative to their numbers.

Livid, I raised my voice to the vendor. “How can you sell a book filled with  anti-Semitic lies and garbage?” I demanded. “This is a New York state-run conference!” 

The vendor told me it was his right to sell anything he wanted. I marched back into the dining room, found our EOC director, and expressed my anger. When he downplayed the situation, I blew up. “If you don’t find a way to get rid of that book, I will walk out of this conference, get a bus home, and contact everyone I can in New York State to tell them that the OSP is condoning anti-Semitism,” I said.  “I won’t stay here if that vendor remains under this roof!”

Seeing not only my rage but also my determination, the director brought me over to the woman who ran the conference. She said, “I will take care of it.” The vendor wasn’t asked to leave, as I had hoped, but the book was no longer on his table—or any other table at that conference.

I later learned I was not alone in my reaction to the 1991 Nation of Islam publication. When Dr. Tony Martin, a black professor at Wellesley College, assigned the book to his introductory African-American history class soon after its 1991 publication, Jewish students protested and four national Jewish groups recommended the professor’s job status be reviewed. [He remained on staff as a controversial figure until his retirement in 2017.] Both the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith have published rebuttals comparing the book  to “the most infamous works of antisemitic propaganda in the 20th century.”Most importantly, the book’s thesis has since been refuted by mainstream historians, including the American Historical Association.

I had forgotten about that incident for twenty-six years. But when I saw the video of  George Floyd dying under the knee of a callous, arrogant white policeman on May 25,  I felt that same rage—and more. And I understood the incredible anger and massive protests that followed. If I could be so vociferous about a book, African-Americans, Caucasians, Asians—the entire world —had every right to say, “I’ve had enough. Black lives matter.”

In the weeks that have followed Floyd’s killing, I have become even more “woke.” Through discussions with friends, participation in newly found groups on social justice, and through voracious reading of both books and articles on the topic, I have learned that my empathizing with those who are the victims of systemic racism falls deeply short of fully experiencing their pain and anguish. It is time for me to speak out with the same voracity for George Floyd and against 400 years of systemic racism in our country.

I have always felt that as a Jew I understood discrimination, racism, and prejudice. Hadn’t I had students in my first teaching job draw swastikas around my picture in the school yearbook? Hadn’t I been  told that I was good at “wrangling a bargain” because I was Jewish? Hadn’t I read hundreds of books and articles bout the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust and attacks on Israel?

But I started to listen, really listen and reflected on my life as a privileged white person. When my son was home from college on his summer break, Adam used to go for his run at night to avoid the heat. I worried that he would be hit by a car. But I never had to worry that he, like Trayvon Martin, would be stalked and even killed because he was “in the wrong neighborhood.”

I reflected on s my Upstate New York neighbors, a bi-racial couple, had experienced. Their son was pulled over by the police because he was driving his father’s red sports car. The same young man was almost arrested when he was locking up his family’s restaurant, as the police thought he was breaking in.

The first week of the protests, I stopped by to chat with my Florida neighbor and just blurted out, “I am so sorry for all you have been through as a Black mother.”

“I know you have a good heart, Marilyn,” she told me. “But we’ve been fighting this battle for 400 years.”  One of her battles: When her family was living in Philadelphia, her son was asked to visit some of his white friends in their neighborhood. “I sat him down and told him no,” she said. His being in that section of town was too dangerous for a young Black man.

My friend Mayra opened up to me about her life as a Hispanic woman married to Robin, a Black man. Her family wouldn’t talk to them for years. Meanwhile, Robin, who had a very successful position as a supervising editor for a major network, had been pulled over and slammed against walls more times than he could count as police had questioned why he was driving in his own neighborhood.  Another time, Robin and Mayra were guests at a large party  of one of the network executives. Robin was talking to a co-worker close to the front door of the large home.  Incoming guests assumed he was the hired help and kept handing them their coats and pocketbooks

Another friend shared her story of how her husband Bill* was the victim of road rage, an encounter that began on a toll road ended just inside their community’s security gates. The car with a white man at the wheel drove through a parallel gate, pulled along beside him, and cut him off.   The man then jumped out of his car, berating Bill for passing him on the parkway ,and demanded to know why he was in the 55+ community “You obviously don’t live here,” he was told. The driver’s wife, who was in the passenger seat,  offered to get out their gun. Fortunately, the incident ended when Bill drove away.  Because it was captured on Bill’s dashboard camera, it is being investigated as a hate crime. But I know that his residency would never have questioned if Bill were white. 

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that before May 25, I didn’t “get it.” But I am trying to catch up. I feel like the demonstrator at a June 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in Bethel, Ohio, who held a sign reading, “I’m Sorry I’m Late. I Had a Lot To Learn.” May the memory of George Floyd be a blessing to his family and our country. And may we all continue to learn and move forward to a more equitable world. 

*Not his real name.

SOURCES

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1993/10/17/half-truths-and-history-the-debate-over-jews-and-slavery/6b2b2453-01da-4429-bd50-beff03741418/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1994/02/11/farrakhan-101-at-wellesley/6e55eea2-e9f1-44b9-8dd5-d2bfd36d3fbf/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

The_Secret_Relationship_Between_Blacks_and_Jew

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Martin_(professor)