This is my 52nd blog post of the year. I took a look back at 2018. It is New Year’s Eve day, a good time to reflect. Since, unlike our president, I want to be accurate, I will be honest and report that among those 52 posts there were 5 ‘placeholder’ entries, where I didn’t write a full piece. There were also 3 guest essays; thank you, Gary and Laura.
Reviewing the blog posts reminded me of the journey of the year. I wrote 13 pieces that traced the story of my in-law’s, Paula and David, survival through the Holocaust. The visits with them, the viewing of their Shoah testimonies the research that informed those pieces were enriching, challenging and, ultimately, life-affirming. There may be more to tell. I continue to research and think about their experiences and what they mean to me and my family. I will continue to share on the blog as it develops.
I shared personal concerns – about mental health, relationships and politics. Hopefully readers were moved or enlightened or entertained – maybe even all three (if that isn’t too ambitious)!
I posted photos of some of my travels. I am so fortunate to have been able to see some magnificent places, whether it was the Amalfi Coast or Central Park or my own backyard. Here are some photos I haven’t previously shared, of Boston, NYC, Central Park, and Five Rivers (an area not far from my house).
In prior years I have written more about growing up in Canarsie, though I did write some essays this year that explored that territory. In three entries I wrote about the trials and tribulations of navigating friendships while growing up.
I started the journey of this blog in May of 2016. Time flies. It is unbelievable to me that I have been doing this for 2 and 1/2 years! That’s a lot of words! And, I’m still finding my way. I’m still figuring out what I’m doing with this. Maybe 2019 will be the year that I have my ‘aha!’ moment and I will know where I am going with this project. Maybe I will find out that I have known all along – it is what it is. A series of essays: memoir, family history, exploration of relationships, travelogue, political commentary, observations and, once in a while, a poem. Maybe that will feel like enough, but I’m not there yet. I am still searching. I hope you, my friends, family and all readers are enjoying it so far. And, if you are, please consider sharing it with others you think would be interested. I so appreciate those of you who have done that by sharing links on your social media platforms. I also welcome your comments, they enrich the blog and add to the conversation. Keep them coming!
As we close out 2018, I wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year, filled with meaningful connections, love and laughter with friends and family, learning, and, most of all, peace. Thank you for taking the journey with me.
I’ve been feeling unsettled and I think it’s connected to a book I just finished reading, SaltHouses by Hala Alyan. It is a novel about a Palestinian family that spans generations, beginning in 1948 through the present day. The author is a Palestinian woman, who according to her bio has lived in a number of different countries, including Kuwait, Jordan and the United States. The book provoked a lot of thought about identity, a subject I am endlessly interested in.
The family at the center of the story moves around the Middle East quite a bit – they had homes in Nablus, Kuwait City, Amman and Beirut. They also spent time in Paris and Boston. Their moves are most often the result of war, but sometimes it is in pursuit of opportunity or a different life. Some of the issues they face resonated with me. Many of the characters struggle to understand their identity. Is it tied to the land from which they are exiled? Is it their religion? Is it about language, food, and culture? And, if it is about all of these things, then what does it mean when you live in a country that speaks a different language, eats different foods, practices religion in a different way or not at all? How do you navigate the different values and customs, preserving your own but adapting to the society you live in?
These questions, these tensions, are very much at the heart of the Jewish-American experience. I was surprised to find that the themes that the book explores were so familiar. I find it ironic that there is so much commonality when the situation in the Middle East might lead us to believe that there is little common ground.
I have to admit that the book made for uncomfortable reading at times. The story begins with a Palestinian family in Jaffa being displaced from their beloved home on the Mediterranean by the 1948 war – the war for Israeli independence. The story takes as a given that the displacement was wrong, no context is offered. I understand why this is the case, both from the perspective of these characters and in the interest of telling the story. It is actually instructive to understand that this is the perspective. The “need” to establish Israel as a safe haven for Jews is not part of this narrative. I suspect this is true not just for this novel, but that it represents a widely held view.
In the book, as more is revealed, we learn that the family wasn’t just displaced, but was subjected to barbarous acts. Though it isn’t stated explicitly, it is clear that sexual violence was perpetrated by Israeli soldiers. This is a very painful chapter. I don’t doubt that Israeli soldiers, in 1948 and in subsequent actions, did horrible things. I don’t believe the author included this episode to be provocative, it must be rooted in real events. Every army since the beginning of time has been guilty of those crimes. That is not an excuse. No doubt when you have been the victim of such treatment your view of the ‘invaders’ is shaped by that forever. Whether instances of these crimes were more or less common in that war is not known to me. The question becomes, what do we do with that? History is full of pain and degradation being inflicted on oppressed peoples. How do we acknowledge that and, yet, move on?
There are parallels between the Jewish and Palestinian experience. Jews have been subjected to violence, cruelty and unspeakable acts of brutality. We have been exiled many times throughout history. Each year, at the Passover Seder, we tell the story of our enslavement and exodus from Egypt. I have always found great meaning in this ritual, reminding ourselves of our history and to not take freedom for granted. In our family, my in-laws are Holocaust survivors (I have written a number of blog posts about their experience), we tell their stories to the generations that follow. I believe it is essential that we do so. Anti-Semitism surely isn’t dead and we must be vigilant. There may be another side to it, though. In telling and retelling the story, do we keep the wounds fresh? Having heard these stories, do we approach the world defensively, ready to be attacked?
While reading this book, I thought about the story being told to generations of Palestinians. What is the message and what are the implications for relationships, with Jews, with Israelis, with the rest of the world?
In education, there is discussion about creating trauma-sensitive classrooms, in recognition that many students come to school bearing the burdens of traumatic life experiences. I wonder if there is a broader issue: how do we, as a society, deal with traumatized cultures (if there is such a thing)?
In Salt Houses, there are no Jews or Israelis who interact in any positive ways with the protagonists. I wondered if this reflected the fact that most Palestinians would not have occasion to have a positive interaction with a Jewish or Israeli person, or if this was just the particular story of these particular characters. If it is the experience of most Palestinians, then it is a sad commentary. The only interactions depicted in the book are those between the characters and Israeli soldiers and then an incident at airport security in Tel Aviv post 9/11. Suffice it to say, neither the soldiers nor the airport security officers come off well. It left me wondering if there are more ordinary opportunities for exchanges, not fraught because of the power imbalance or the pervasive fear of terrorism.
I purposely chose to read this novel to push myself out of my comfort zone. Authors from other cultures, who write stories informed by their experience, have much to tell us. It is easier to read those stories when the oppressors are generationally very distant or culturally unrelated to me. Salt Houses presented more of a challenge. This book is certainly not the full story. I can’t read one book by a Palestinian woman and think I have the full picture any more than I can read one by an African-American man and think I understand their broad and varied experiences. But, my understanding has been expanded. It was unsettling, but I believe it is worth the discomfort inherent in thinking about hard questions.
As I reread my previous post about “The Match,” I realized there are some pieces of the story I wanted to add. Once again, the beauty of a blog presents itself: I can add to the history I am sharing whenever and however I want! Of course, hopefully I am keeping it coherent and interesting!
First, I want to explain how Albany, New York came to be ranked so high. The charms of Albany might not be evident. A number of my blog readers live in Albany and are well acquainted with its appeal, but not all of you are, so I will explain.
Some medical students, when they had breaks from school, went off for a beach vacation, Gary and I took the time to visit family. We’d start in the city, see Gary’s parents in Queens (Gary’s mom was kind enough to lend us her car so we could make the rounds), then mine in Brooklyn. We’d hit Jersey to see my brother and sister-in-law, Steven and Cindy. Then we’d travel up Route 17 to Middletown to see Gary’s brother and sister, Steven (so many Stevens in our lives!) and Rochelle. Finally, we’d go to Albany to visit my brother and sister-in-law, Mark and Pam, and, importantly, their sons, our nephew Joshua, and their newest arrival, Samuel Lee.
Mark began a campaign to have us come to Albany. Perhaps because of his fond memories of our grandparents and then our aunt and uncle living upstairs from us in Canarsie, Mark had visions of creating a family compound in Albany. He took every opportunity to lobby family members to relocate (his efforts, by the way, have paid off over the years. We don’t have a family compound, but some members have relocated, but more on that another time).
When we got to Albany, as part of our New York grand tour, Mark began the hard sell. He drove us around the residential neighborhoods near the hospitals, he showed us around the suburbs. He was on the verge of getting Gary carsick, but then he gave us quotes on property values. Gary had an appreciation for those numbers. We learned we might be able to afford to buy a house – not an option in most of the other places we were considering.
Mark pointed out that we were less than three hours from Boston and New York City, and only four hours from Montreal. He knew I loved those cities. He also dangled the offer of lawn passes to see the New York City ballet at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in the summer. During my teenage and young adult years I went to the ballet regularly with my mom, her sister, Aunt Simma, and her daughter, Laurie. We had a subscription. I loved (and still love) the ballet.
Our visit ended with us sitting on the floor of Mark’s living room playing with Josh and Sam.
That’s how Albany made it to number two.
When ‘the match’ revealed itself and we learned we were going to Albany, I think Gary was a little perplexed. His interview at Columbia had gone well. He had done research there before attending medical school in Pittsburgh. His grades and board scores were excellent. While he certainly didn’t feel like a shoo-in, it seemed like a reasonable bet.
We thought it was just one of those things that we would never understand. But not long after match day, Gary saw the head of Pittsburgh’s internal medicine department, Dr. Levy, and they chatted a bit. Gary learned that during the process Columbia had called Dr. Levy to express their interest in Gary but wanted to know if Gary would attend if they selected him. We were unaware that there was gamesmanship going on behind the scenes. Dr. Levy told them that Gary was planning to come to Pittsburgh. When hearing this, Gary was speechless – he didn’t know where Dr. Levy got that impression. Gary didn’t apply to or interview at Pitt. When Gary shared this with me, I wondered whether there was something that could be done. Gary believed that when you entered the match, you agreed to the terms, which would mean accepting the assignment. We also thought maybe it was for the best anyway – the stresses and strains of commuting and working at Columbia were daunting. Though neither of us put a lot of weight on fate, we decided to let it be.
And, finally, another word about the Firebird. The car, when last we left off, was sitting in a Breezewood, Pennsylvania service station, 123 miles away from me in Pittsburgh. After many phone calls, I had the car towed back to Pittsburgh to a recommended repair shop. They found a replacement engine. Since the car had been gifted to us with the understanding that we would return it when we no longer needed it, we wanted to repair it. The problem was that the cost was $1100, not including what we paid to tow it! I don’t recall now, but our credit limit on our Mastercard may not have been high enough to handle it. But, I was blessed with an unbelievably supportive father – I could always count on him. With Dad, if I even hinted at some difficulty, he was quick to offer his help. Fortunately, Mom and Dad were in a comfortable place financially at that point. I didn’t even have to ask; he knew we were struggling to make ends meet. He gave us the money, no strings attached!
Dad’s birthday is coming up, he would be 86, this Friday. It seems particularly appropriate to end this blog post with a remembrance of him and his extraordinary support and generosity. It may be almost 14 years since he died, but I think of him all the time and he is alive in my heart.
Towards the end of Gary’s third year of medical school, we were thinking about next steps. Though graduating from medical school is a significant milestone, it isn’t close to the end of the journey. Internship, residency and, likely, fellowship remained to be completed. And, before he could begin, he had to go through a process called ‘the match.’
Medical students choose a specialty and then apply for programs in that specialty. Gary chose internal medicine. The way it works is that he fills out an application, which includes his transcript, the scores on the different medical boards that are taken along the way, and references. I don’t recall all the specifics, but after the initial application, you would be invited for an interview if the program was interested in you. During the 4th year of med school, about four weeks were set aside so that the student could travel around for those interviews. Then, the student ranked his/her preferences from top choice to places they would accept. At the same time, the programs ranked their choice of students. The two sets of rankings were fed into a computer and voila! – a match was made.
So much went into this process; so many decisions along the way – from choosing the specialty to deciding what part of the country we wanted to consider. Although we enjoyed our time in Pittsburgh, we wanted to be closer to family so Gary focused his attention on programs in the Northeast – mainly New York (upstate and the metropolitan area) and Philadelphia. He scheduled the interviews and we created an itinerary. The Toyota Celica we had when I first came to Pittsburgh had died, we got tired of pushing it downhill to pop it into gear and donated it to a local vocational school, and we were without a car for a while. We were fortunate that Gary’s brother Steven bought a new car at that time and generously gave us his old one – a car way too cool for us, a Pontiac Firebird with a t-top. We gratefully accepted his gift, it would make the interview process so much easier and less expensive.
Gary left Pittsburgh early afternoon on the first Sunday in November to make a grand tour of Pennsylvania and New York, with his first stop in Syracuse. I would meet him at the end in Brooklyn for Thanksgiving. We said our good-byes, I wished him luck and he went on his way.
He was driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, not that far out of Pittsburgh (but far enough), when the engine light came on. Neither Gary nor I were knowledgeable about cars. He drove for a bit, thinking he’d get off the next exit. But, exits on turnpikes aren’t that close together. To make a long story short, he had to pull over onto the shoulder when he saw smoke wafting from the engine. A state trooper luckily came upon him quickly. The car got towed to the nearest service station.
At that point, I got a collect call from Gary, explaining that he was in Breezewood, Pennsylvania and was being told that the engine had seized. The car would be out of commission for quite a while, even if they were able to find a replacement engine. Gary was in something of a panic, his interview was scheduled the next day at 8:00 am in Syracuse. I went into problem-solving mode. We decided I would deal with the car. We got off the phone so he could look into transportation back to Pittsburgh and I would figure out how to get him to Syracuse.
A number of things fell into place: he was able to get a bus to Pittsburgh very quickly, then he grabbed a cab to the airport. I found and booked him a flight to Syracuse and arranged for a rental car. It looked like we would be able to pull this off in time to make his interview. It also meant that we spent hundreds of dollars we couldn’t afford, but that’s what credit cards (and parents, if you are lucky) are for.
The rest of his travels went well. When he finished all the interviews, we had some decisions to make. I put my policy analysis skills (I knew I’d find some use for them) into action to help sort things out. The task of figuring out how to rank the programs was overwhelming. Without going into the gory details, we made a matrix – yes, a matrix! The elements that were relevant to the decision were listed on one side (quality of the program, quality of life for us, closeness to family, affordability, etc.). I think we had something like 7 factors. We gave a weight to each factor (quality of program got the most weight, and quality of life was second). Then we ranked each program according to each factor and came up with a score. Much discussion went into this, as well as many hours of thought. While the matrix was helpful, it wasn’t an exact science. Ultimately, Gary ranked Columbia (in New York City) first, Albany Med second, I think one of the Philly programs was next and I don’t remember after that (maybe Gary does). I know he ranked ten programs
One of the considerations in this equation was what each program offered in the way of experiences. The sad reality was that this was in the midst of the AIDS crisis, before any viable treatment options were available. When Gary visited NYU (located in Manhattan) and Downstate (located in Brooklyn), the combination of the huge number of AIDS patients, their suffering and not being able to offer much to relieve their symptoms, was devastating. All hospitals were challenged by this crisis, but the internal medicine programs in those two locations were simply overwhelmed. I don’t recall if Gary included either of those programs on his list, or if maybe he ranked them at the bottom.
All the paperwork and interviews were done, now it was up to the invisible, giant (in my imagination anyway) all-powerful computer to do its magic. Match day was March 19, 1986.
All the students gathered in a large common room in the medical school at the appointed hour – I think it was noon. I took off from work to be there to get the news hot off the press with Gary. Each student’s name was called and they were given an envelope. Inside was a computer-generated letter that indicated the program.
Our hearts were thumping. I believe names were called alphabetically – it was good to be a Bakst. Gary went up and got the envelope and quickly made his way back to me so we could open it together. He ripped it open, our eyes scanned the paper and found…Albany. I looked at Gary to see his reaction – after all this was his second choice. I did not read disappointment. I felt a small let down and maybe a bit of surprise. Of course, I had no idea what would happen, and had no reason to assume he would get Columbia. We compared results with our friends – it seemed that everyone was happy with their placement.
We knew our families were waiting to hear where we would be going. We went over to the pay phones to call them. As we made the calls, and processed the outcome, we got more excited. Then we joined friends and went out to celebrate.
We would have a few more months in Pittsburgh, and then start the next phase of our lives together…in Albany, New York.
Sometimes I slip and say, “when we went to medical school.” Of course, I know that I didn’t go. In fact, when I would meet Gary on campus, we would take a short cut that went through the anatomy lab. I kept my eyes tightly closed, held my breath and he guided me through as quickly as possible. I wasn’t cut out for blood, guts or formaldehyde. But, I still feel like I went through it. Maybe because it was so intense. Maybe because our lives were totally consumed and structured by the demands of Gary’s schedule. Whatever the reason, now and again the phrase still slips out.
When I joined Gary in Pittsburgh, one of the things I was struck by, and people will be pleased to know this, was how seriously Gary and his fellow students took their learning. I don’t know if it is like this in other medical schools, but at Pitt, with a few exceptions, students were committed to learning all of the material. There was concern about grades, too, but the focus was actually on learning. They took their responsibility very seriously. Not only were they studying for a given test, they were trying to retain the knowledge beyond that test. Certainly, this was true for Gary and his circle of friends.
This was a contrast from my experience in graduate school, where my fellow students at Columbia were present and worked hard, but didn’t display that level of commitment, not even close. The med school students saw a connection between what they were learning and the quality of care they would later provide patients. I found it very reassuring.
The first two years of medical school were comprised of traditional classes. Gary lugged huge, thick texts on biochemistry and anatomy and physiology to and from the apartment – sometimes to one of the libraries on campus, more often downstairs to a room in our building. Ruskin Hall, where we lived, had a lounge on the first floor that was good for studying. There was a long wooden table with sturdy chairs and some more comfortable chairs against the walls. It was never terribly crowded, but there were always some people studying there. When he wasn’t in class or lab, that’s where I’d find Gary. It became a routine: every evening around 8:00 I’d bring him a cup of Maxwell House International Suisse Mocha (the instant mix). We’d touch base for a minute or two and then I’d go back up to the apartment, watch t.v. or read and go to sleep. I didn’t know what time Gary came up.
It could be lonely for me. Other than Gary, I didn’t know a soul in Pittsburgh. It took a few months for me to find a job, but even after finding one, it was hard to make friends. I was an outsider at work, being so young, a New Yorker and Jewish (I wrote about that here and here). My colleagues were married, with children and in a different place in their lives. Though it was fine for work, for the most part, I couldn’t make a connection that went beyond a celebratory drink during the holidays.
We did have a circle of friends from Gary’s class, which included some women. I did become friends with one who was in a similar situation, she worked while her husband went to med school. She was a copy editor at a publishing company. But her life took a major turn when she got pregnant and had a baby during the second year of medical school. We remained friendly, and we socialized as couples, but she, understandably, was preoccupied.
I tried some different things to network and branch out. I joined a group called Women in Community Development and edited their newsletter. I enrolled to get my PhD in Public Administration at the University of Pittsburgh and took a few classes, while working full time. I joined a gym near work. None of those efforts led to the kind of connection I wanted. Looking back, I think my loneliness and sadness were more about my general melancholia, not yet treated with medication.
I muddled through, trying to be as supportive of Gary as possible, while simultaneously leaning on him to fulfill all of my emotional needs (perhaps a contradiction in terms). The third year of medical school brought new and different challenges. Gary began rotations in the hospitals, each one exposing him to another specialty. Most med students, early on, made a choice: medicine or surgery. There were many specialties within each of those two branches, but the two areas called upon different skill sets. Surgeons tended to be action-oriented, take-charge, fix-it kind of people. Internal medicine drew problem-solvers, relationship-focused, detail-oriented folks. There was some trash talk between the two groups, with those choosing medicine disparagingly referred to as ‘fleas.’ I don’t recall a pejorative assigned to surgeons, but the general idea was that they wanted to operate first, ask questions later.
Gary chose medicine, not surprisingly. As a result, the medicine rotation loomed large for him. He was determined to ace it. It was the longest rotation, lasting almost three months, taking him to different hospitals with a long stint at the VA. The hours were brutal. Gary would leave the apartment at 6:00 am and get home around 9:00 pm, if not later, and then he would read/study. I don’t recall him having weekends off, and if he did, they were spent studying. There was just so much to learn.
One night, tired of eating dinner alone and feeling resentful, I asked Gary if he had to keep these hours. “Can’t you cut back a bit? Does everyone do what you’re doing?” Gary carefully explained to me that this was time-limited, the rotation would end. He felt he needed to go all out because it would be important for future choices. If he wanted to get a residency placement of his choosing, the better he did in this rotation, the more options he would have. I didn’t know it then, but this argument would become a recurring theme in the first ten years of our marriage: me questioning whether Gary’s long hours were necessary. This time I told him I understood, and tried to suck it up.
I don’t know how he did it, I barely made it through the ordeal. I have this unfortunate tendency when in a dark period to feel like it will never end. I find it a challenge to see light at the end of the tunnel. Fortunately, that isn’t a quality Gary shares – he certainly wasn’t seeing much light, literally or figuratively. It was the fall, he left in the dark and came home in the dark and spent most of his time in the dim fluorescent light of hospital wards.
Finally, the rotation came to an end. I arrived home from work and found Gary already in the apartment. This was a major step forward, he was never home before me. I hung up my coat, went to the bathroom and came out to greet him. He was standing by the kitchen sink, taking a glass of water, but looking quizzically at me.
“What?” I asked, feeling like I must’ve missed something. Turned out I had.
“Did you go into the bathroom?”
“Go in there again.”
I was perplexed but I did as he asked. I looked up and taped to the mirror was a piece of paper. I don’t know how I missed it the first time, though I do try to avoid mirrors. I recognized the format – it was the end of rotation evaluation. Gary got honors in Medicine! I screeched and jumped up and down. I threw my arms around him. We danced around the apartment. I later learned that Gary was one of only four students (out of 140) to achieve that distinction. Gary was well on his way to leaving his ‘imposter syndrome’ behind, and hopefully getting a choice residency when he graduated.