Reprise: Letters from Zada: Graduation

Note: I shared this three years ago. I think it merits reposting, especially for those who missed the early essays. I hope you enjoy!

For years I wanted to write about my family. When I started writing in a serious way a year and a half ago, I thought I would be focusing on my relationship with my grandmother, Nana. I have written about her, and I will continue to explore those memories and how they shaped me. I have been surprised, though, by how prominent my memories of Zada have been. Perhaps I shouldn’t be.

Zada was a storyteller. I remember running to the basketball courts in the park across the street from our house to retrieve my brothers, Mark and Steven. Zada was going to tell stories! Extended family was visiting our house in Canarsie and Zada was going to regale us with his tales of growing up on the Lower East Side and of his first car. Hearing that Zada was going to be sharing those tales, Mark and Steven set aside their game and came home immediately. Now that is testimony to how entertaining Zada was!

Fortunately, Zada wrote some of his stories to me in letters. I don’t have all of his stories, not by a longshot, but I have carefully stored the ones that I do have. The one I have shared below gives a number of insights into our family, including: (1) why the Spilkens speak so loudly 🙂 ; (2) why we prize our family so much; (3) where the emphasis on critical thinking began; and (4) how much education was valued. Perhaps you will find other insights.

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This is the letter that I have reprinted here. He alluded to stories ‘for another telling’ throughout this letter. Unfortunately I do not have many of them. I’m not sure if he actually wrote those other stories down. If other family members have them, please share!

Here in Zada’s own words:

June 1973

Dear Linda,

In a few days you will be graduating Junior High School. The first step in achieving a world of knowledge. It brings back to me thoughts of my own graduation and the indelible impression it made on my life.

I measure the fortunate circumstances in my life in milestones. The first milestone is becoming aware that you can read the printed word, and being able to imbibe and digest all the beautiful things that have been written. This also gives you the extreme pleasure in being able to formulate your own ideas and opinions.

All the other milestones are experiences that leave a lasting impression. With me it would be from the time I met my beloved, the thrill of seeing my firstborn and the satisfaction I had from the ones that followed. The sublime devotion they have accorded me. Becoming a grandparent and knowing the family will be perpetuated eternally. A boy growing up on the East Side of New York, and seeing Palm Beach for the first time (that is a story for telling later).

So now, dear Linda, I will try to tell you why my graduation affected me so that I carry the memory with me forever. My parents came to this country about 1905. For various reasons my father was forced to leave Poland (also for telling later). He left behind my brother Jack, Irving, and sister Lillian and myself, also most important of all, Mother. My father worked hard, long hours in order to make enough money to pay for our passage to America. Within two years he sent for us. We arrived at Ellis Island and were taken to our new home on Orchard Street, between Stanton and Rivington. This neighborhood was known as the lower East Side.

My father’s salary was meager, in order to supplement his earnings and allow us to exist, Lily and Irving went to work. My mother took in four boarders. In those days for $5 a week a boarder would get food and lodging. Now picture a four-room railroad flat, toilets in the hall, man and wife, three children (Jack came to America later) all in one flat. The fortunate thing was that my father and two of the boarders worked nights so that they were able to sleep days. In other words, it was quite a quiet household. That is why when I grew older instead of talking moderately, I shouted in order to make sure that everybody heard me.

Eventually things got better. Unions came into existence, more money was expended for salaries, my father’s wages were tripled. We were able to live in better quarters. We said goodbye to our boarders and moved to East New York, Brooklyn.

In the year 1915 East New York was the equivalent to what city people today think of as the mountains (the Catskills, that is). I must not forget to tell you that in the interim Bess, Ruth, Harry and Sidney became additions to the family. (We lost Ruth in our first year in East New York).

So now I am the oldest of the children going to school. In the year of June 1917 I am to be graduated from Public School 109, located at Powell and Dumont Streets. Finally the day arrives I am to be graduated and the only one of the family that will be present is my brother, Irving. Extenuating circumstances made it impossible for any others to attend.

Now let me set the picture of Public School 109. We did not have an auditorium, but an assembly room that at the most would have held about 150 people. There were about 60 students, and the like number of adults (the graduation exercises were held on a weekday morning accounting for such a small attendance).

Our principal was Oswald D. Shalakow. A real administrator and fine gentleman. There was no valedictorian, so our principal gave the graduating address. This is the problem he posed for us, and he expected answers:

A teacher leaves her classroom and forgets her wallet, it is open and money is in the purse. Two students enter the room individually. The first one sees the money and is tempted to take it, but he fights with himself, and finally he overcomes, leaves the room but does not take anything. The second boy enters the room, sees the money, leaves without giving a thought about taking the money.

The consensus of the graduating class was that the first boy deserves all the credit, because he had to battle his conscience and he had won.

But our principal explains to us that the second boy should get all the credit, because, his reasoning was that the first boy may someday succumb to temptation, and would not be able to resist taking the money. But the second boy is inherently honest. It never enters his mind to take anything that does not belong to him. It may be different today, morals being what they are. So form your own opinion as to who was right.

Now the diplomas are to be handed out, so the principal makes this request. Please refrain from applauding the individual, but when the last graduate is called, he would welcome a large round of applause for all of the graduates. Names would be called alphabetically and if people would applaud at the start they would get tired when it would come to the “Jays,” and it would not be fair to the boys that would follow.

The assembly room is quiet, the names are called, each boy as his name is called approaches the principal, receives his diploma, and returns to his seat. Now he comes to the “Esses.” He calls Charles Spilken. I rise, on my way to the principal. I hear a deafening clamor, take two pieces of marble and clap them together, that was what my brother Irving was doing with his hands. Understand that Irving had two very strong hands (more in a later telling). If the floor had opened up, and I fell thru, I would have welcomed that kind of calamity, I was so embarrassed. But years later when I looked back at that incident, I realized that all the emotion, all that happiness seeing his first graduation, especially that of his little brother, who was now on his way to becoming a somebody, because in those days to be educated was to reach the pinnacle of success. That he could not suppress the feelings within his heart, that he forgot everything, but to give vent to that pride.

That is really how my love of family originated. To love one another. To revel in each other’s successes, to be steadfast in each other’s adversity(ies). To have a ‘swelling pride,’ that cannot be subjugated by petty annoyances.

Then will I consider myself blessed, especially Dearest Linda if you can realize how proud you make your Zada, for being able to be present at the maturing of Linda Brody.

I’ll leave for West Palm Beach knowing that I am endowed with the best family a man can ever possess. May that feeling within me age, but never grow less.

Zada

Halloween Past and Present

Halloween has come and gone. Since we were out of town, I didn’t have to buy candy, so I dodged a bullet. Leftover candy is irresistible. Even if I bought things I didn’t like… wait, who am I kidding? There isn’t much candy I don’t like. I did miss getting to see the little ones dressed up as mice or rabbits or bumble bees or whatever adorable costume they and their parents devised. But, it isn’t the same without little ones of my own.

So many memories of Halloweens past….

When our children were growing up, we decorated (to be more precise, Gary decorated). Gary usually picked a theme and he would create elaborate scenes. One year he got dry ice and set up a witch’s cauldron. He made a giant spider using black Hefty bags and wire hangers, painted tennis balls red for the eyes, and set it up on the lawn. The next year he made a giant spider web. That spider and web were re-used year after year until they fell apart. His decorations were clearly homemade, and there was a charm in that. Without our kids to amuse with his creations, Gary doesn’t bother anymore. I don’t blame him. I loved that he did it for all those years. The only decorating we still do is carving pumpkins – and this year we didn’t even do that.

In the past, we stocked up on candy for the many, many, many trick-or-treaters who rang our doorbell in our suburban subdivision that was perfect for scoring a huge haul. Every year I would buy at least 10 bags of candy and then Gary would pick up more on his way home from work – God forbid we should run out!

Gary, Leah, Dan and I each carved a pumpkin; we lit them with votive candles and put them on the front porch. Gary would roast the seeds and enjoy them during the week that followed. Leah and Dan had homemade costumes, too – again courtesy of Gary who could do wonders with a box. I think Dan’s favorite was his ATM machine with the bag for the candy attached inside from the slot where you could make a deposit. That box still sits in his bedroom closet. Leah’s favorite was dressing as a chewable grape Tylenol. Gary turned to his trusty cardboard boxes to make the pill and I supplied a Halloween-themed turtleneck. That one is likely in landfill somewhere.

 

Unfortunately, due to recurrent ear infections both kids were quite familiar with those little purple (but tasty) pills. Lucky for them, though, they were never sidelined for Halloween – I believe each was able to trick-or-treat every year until they decided they were too old for it. That was not the case for me.

 

Halloween was a totally different experience for me growing up in Canarsie in the late 1960s. My children waited until it was getting dark to go out. We had to be finished by the time it was dark. We rushed home from school, changed into costumes and out we went. It was not safe to be out after dark – not just on Halloween, but any day of the year.

I don’t recall ever carving a pumpkin. We may have had some decorations – perhaps paper cut-outs of witches or ghosts that hung on the front door.

My Canarsie neighborhood was good for trick-or-treating. The blocks were short, the houses were close together. Each time you climbed the front stairs, there were two doorbells to ring. None of that mattered, though, if I was sick. Somehow October was a cursed month for me, and it remained so well into adulthood. Invariably I had an ear infection and fever. Okay, not every year, I did get to go trick or treating sometimes, but it happened often enough that it became a thing.

On those occasions when I wasn’t able to go, I would dress up in my costume (most often as a princess), sit on the steps of our foyer and wait for the doorbell to ring. Since my grandfather worked in a bakery, he brought home giant cookies for us to give, but those were for friends and children we knew. Everyone else got a small candy bar.  One time an older boy who I didn’t know saw the array of cookies and he stepped into the hallway and grabbed a couple as I yelled, “Those aren’t for you!” He made off with them, there was nothing I could do. I was so upset I went in and told my mom I didn’t want to hand out the candy any more. I don’t know why that rattled me so much – some combination of feeling powerless and disappointment in humanity. That was just who I was, even as a seven-year old.

On the years when I had to sit out trick-or-treating, my brother Mark would carry a second bag for me. I’m sure that roused suspicions and may have earned him some unwelcome comments, but he did it anyway. I had a paradoxical relationship with Mark. On the one hand, I spent almost my entire childhood dreading his teasing, his caustic jabbing at me. “Your shoes look like canoes!” (a comment about my big feet) “You were adopted!” A barrage of remarks that would get under my skin immediately.

Mom or Dad would have to separate us multiple times a day.

“Don’t even look at him!”

“Go to your room and close the door!”

Mom still wonders how we all survived it.

On the other hand, though, he went trick or treating for me. Mark was often my protector. It was fine for him to harass me, but not for other kids in the neighborhood. If I tripped and fell over a cracked sidewalk, he would stamp on the offending slab as if to punish it for hurting me. And, for all the teasing, we would do stuff together. Our older brother Steven couldn’t stand our squabbling and preferred solitary activities or being outside with friends. That left Mark and I to watch wrestling or baseball or F Troop on TV, that is when we weren’t banished to our separate rooms.

Another Halloween has come and gone. On to the next holiday, stirring up more memories.

My Favorite ‘Things’

This past weekend was very special. We celebrated my 60th birthday as a family. It was made special by the people who showered me with love. I am grateful and inspired by your words and deeds. The main planner of the lovely weekend in the Berkshires – with all of my favorite things – was Gary, with able assists from Leah, Daniel, Beth and our granddaughter.

Let me pay tribute to my favorite things – ‘things’ encompasses people, places and objects.

First and foremost, I love my family. Not just my immediate family, though they are the best. Many people would not choose to celebrate a milestone birthday with their mother, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews (and some other assorted relations). I would. So, Gary arranged to gather them.

I love the Berkshires. The wooded mountains, with enough autumn color to contrast with the bright blue sky, are lovely. Saturday provided us with crisp, cool air and bathed us in sunshine.

I love a walk in the woods, so we took a hike up Monument Mountain. Dan, Beth and our 17-month old granddaughter started out with us, but when it started to approach her nap time, they went back to the Inn. Gary, Leah, Ben and I continued to the peak.

It was the perfect hike in that some of it was easy, some of it was uphill which demanded more of us, and some of it was a little scary. When we got close to the top it got rocky, with some sheer drops. It required care and concentration – especially for this 60-year old. But the payoff was worth it – the views and the sense of accomplishment were satisfying. Leah led us through the tricky parts and kept an eye on me to make sure I was okay. Ben found me a great walking stick. We all got back to the car safe and sound.

I love a good sandwich with chips. As we made our way down the mountain, I pulled out my handy-dandy smart phone and pulled up Yelp and found a highly rated deli nearby. The wonders of modern technology! We picked up sandwiches and brought them back to the Inn. Our granddaughter was still napping so we sat in the common area and ate.

While I don’t generally love games, there are certain kinds of games that I do enjoy. Beth, our daughter-in-law, introduced us to one where you pick a letter (in this case m) and each person takes a turn naming a movie title that begins with that letter. We played as teams. Gary was my partner. He is not a movie maven, but he has a great imagination. He made up some great titles (The Mufti, Grand was a particularly humous one) and we laughed. That is one of my favorite things to do – laugh. He also surprised us with some legitimate answers.

Our room at the inn had a huge claw-foot tub. After lunch I soaked my weary legs and back in a wonderful hot bath. Yet another indulgence in a pretty great day. But there was more to come.

Next was the dinner party. I love food! This was a sumptuous meal. I had a cocktail. I had some wine with dinner. I visited with my favorite people. There were so many nice touches. Gary borrowed someone’s Polaroid camera (who knew they made them anymore?) and Leah took pictures and put together an album during the festivities (I can look at it and think back on this lovely time). Our granddaughter was a joy and made it through the main course.

Gary composed and read a poem for me. It really isn’t fair that he has so many talents. Others offered kind, loving words, too.

Daniel presented me with custom socks. I have a tradition of gifting socks. I also have a tradition of sending my children postcards from wherever my travels take me – including work which brought me to exotics cities like Buffalo and Rochester. I sent a postcard anyway. Dan has saved those postcards. Beth photographed them and had it printed on socks and made up two pair. One for Dan, which he was wearing that night, and one for me. How cool is that? It makes me smile to look at them, remembering the various trips. But, more than that, I get to reflect on my connection to my son (and daughter).

I love chocolate. The birthday cake was a celebration of chocolate. They plated it with a scoop of black currant sorbet. So delicious! What a way to end the meal!

Sunday morning dawned cold and rainy – not my favorite thing. But the kids, Gary and I gathered for one more meal. Hot coffee, a warm scone, berries, yogurt and granola hit the spot. One last snuggle with our granddaughter and hugs for our children. The weekend was over, and it was time to go home. I will keep the memories of my favorite things: my family, the beauty of nature, physical activity that pushes me just enough, laughter, delicious meals and decadent chocolate to top it off.

Thank you to all who made it possible, especially Gary, Leah and Daniel. I love you hugely!

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A view from Monument Mountain

Things to Consider

This past week I was participating in my family movie club (which works essentially the same way as our family book club which I have written about here). While we were on the call waiting for everyone to join, my aunt said she had a question for me about my last blog entry. Some of it seemed familiar to her, like she already read it. Yes, I acknowledged, some of it had appeared in previous blog posts but there was new material, too. She agreed and we left it at that.

I had a few reactions to her comment. First, I was very impressed with her memory! Clearly, she reads the blog, which delights me. I also felt a little guilty – like I wasn’t living up to my end of the bargain. At the same time, I am aware that not all readers have been with me from the beginning and, therefore, need more context. And not all readers commit the stories to memory!

But, this highlights a conundrum I face: how to keep a memoir blog fresh? Bearing in mind that I do have new(er) readers, and since I am working on a book that covers a lot of the same territory.

The truth is, I don’t know if I can. There are more stories to tell, but it is hard to balance my time. If I take the time to develop other memories, ones that don’t fit in the narrative of the book, then I’m not putting the time into the book. And then there’s that pesky life that interferes. So, I find myself struggling.

Plus, there’s one other thing – a much bigger consideration. When I started this process, I read a lot about writing memoir. One of the issues that needs to be confronted is deciding what to share – many things enter into this. Is it my story to tell? An event from childhood can have a profound effect but I may have been an observer of it, not the protagonist. Should I write about that? If I do, should I share it with that person first (assuming they are alive)? Do I need their permission?

There are other questions I need to ask myself: What is my point in telling the story? Is it simply an amusing anecdote? What are the consequences of the telling?

I told myself when I started this that I was writing toward understanding, not revenge. Frankly, I don’t have anything I need to get revenge for. I’m lucky that way. But, in telling certain stories it still may reflect poorly on someone. Some of my posts didn’t make Gary look so good – I believe more of them show him to be the caring, accomplished, loving person that he is – and he is a strong enough person to take it. He has only encouraged me. It is more complicated with other people.

I have no terrible tales to tell, but if I write about hurts and things that scarred me, inevitably flaws are revealed. If it is mine, I am free to choose to write about it. But you never know how someone will receive something I’ve written. In some instances, I have shared the piece before it was posted. Not so much for permission, though my children do have veto power, but rather to get corrections and to give a heads up.

When it is someone else’s flaw, it is hard. I have been writing this blog for over three years now. I’ve gotten this far without causing an estrangement. If I hurt someone, I have not heard about it (but maybe I wouldn’t). I’m getting awfully close to the bone. I want to take care of my relationships – they are more important than the blog. But I do think there is value in writing these stories. The feedback I get suggests that is the case.

All of this is my way of explaining why I may not have a fresh post each week. I need time – to process my thoughts, to, in some cases, give people a heads up, to consider the consequences, to do research (I want to get the facts right when there are facts), to talk to friends and family about their memories. And to work on the book and live a life!

Thank you for your patience, support and encouragement.

Transitions

I came to college carrying a lot of baggage. I was 16 when I arrived at orientation at the State University of New York at Binghamton (SUNY-B) in 1976. I brought my insecurities and inchoate self to campus with hopes of emerging confident, connected (to friends, a boyfriend would be good, too) and on my way to a successful career. An ambitious undertaking to say the least!

In the weeks before leaving, I went shopping with Mom for supplies. I got a real winter coat – winters were longer and colder than in Brooklyn (though I had no idea how much worse it would be!). I picked out towels and linens that had mountain scenes on them. I loved my new things. We packed up the car and left Brooklyn early in the morning in the middle of August. Orientation preceded the beginning of the semester, so when we drove out of Canarsie, I didn’t think I was coming back until Thanksgiving. I was excited and anxious.

My parents and I got to campus and were directed to my room, which was difficult to find. I was assigned to College-in-the-Woods, the newest of the dorm complexes on campus and supposedly the most desireable. The buildings were brick-red cinderblock structures with a quirky layout that included large rooms, intended to be triples, where the door to the room was outside the building. Those rooms weren’t part of the rest of the floor. Not only was the room set apart, but in my case, it was located in back of the building. When I opened my door, I saw a small driveway, garbage dumpsters and then the woods.  There was also a door to the rest of the dorm across a short walkway. The room was part of the all-male basement floor, called “the Pits,” of Cayuga.

Dad saw the set up that first day and was furious. He thought it wasn’t safe. We sought out the resident director to see if anything could be done to change it. Dad made his case that it was isolated and appeared to be poorly lit. The director assured him that it would be fine.

My Dad, who in my eyes was the strongest person in the world, single-handedly carried my full steamer trunk into the room. Mom helped me unpack and made my bed. Then, they got back in the car and headed home to Canarsie. I had to fight the urge to climb in and go with them.

My two roommates and I represented a microcosm of the campus. Sue was Jewish from Long Island. Sharon was Jewish from a suburb of Rochester. I was Jewish from Brooklyn. Jews were heavily overrepresented on campus, as was downstate. There weren’t many students from the local area, the Southern Tier, or from other parts of upstate New York. Despite the fact that I had traveled four hours from the New York metropolitan area, I was still surrounded by its people.

I hit it off better with Sue that first day. There were a lot of kids from her high school who lived in our dorm complex and she invited me to go meet them. I followed her to another dorm and was introduced to a well-built guy wearing a powder blue jumpsuit, platform shoes, his feathered blond hair styled like a male version of Farrah Fawcett, with impossibly white teeth. He was ready to hit the disco. I was wearing overalls, sneakers and was still fighting with my curly, out-of-control hair. I couldn’t think of a less appealing place to go than the disco. I was so intimidated I don’t think I made sensible conversation. After observing the scene for a while, I made some excuse and retreated to my room. This was going to be even harder than I thought.

Fortunately, there was a dorm-wide meeting where I spotted someone from my high school. Merle was a familiar face and though I didn’t know her well, our circle of friends from Canarsie overlapped. She was in a similar situation – tripled in a room that was outside the dorm. We bonded over our shared sense of feeling lost in our new surroundings; we found a lot to laugh about, too.

At that gathering we connected with two other girls, Alison and Dianne, from Island Park, which was on Long Island, a working-class suburb, more similar to our Brooklyn experience. The four of us became fast friends and spent a lot of time hanging out, listening to music and laughing.

Merle and I came up with a theory. The happier you were at home, the unhappier you were at college. If you came to Binghamton to escape a bad home situation or feeling like you outgrew high school, then college felt great. I made a lot of progress in high school, emerging from the pain of junior high, but I wasn’t close to outgrowing it. Merle’s experience was different in that she had a huge network of friends in Canarsie, some were going to Brooklyn College, some to other schools. Her boyfriend was at Brockport, hours away by car. She wasn’t accustomed to needing to make new friends. For both of us Binghamton proved to be a difficult place to do that. The combination of intense academic competition (so many students were pre-med or pre-law) and a pervasive sense of entitlement (born of their upper middle-class suburban upbringing) made it an unreceptive environment.

I found the campus atmosphere stifling. It felt unreal to me, not only was my room isolated, but the whole campus felt like an island. I couldn’t walk to a store. There was a commercial strip outside of campus, but it wasn’t very accessible on foot (there were no sidewalks) and there weren’t many shops like I had in Brooklyn (not that I had any money to spend anyway). I was used to reading three New York City newspapers every day. I was accustomed to watching the news on television every night. The only television available was in the common lounge and there was no cable, we didn’t get NYC channels. The local Binghamton newscast seemed quaint by comparison. I felt disconnected from the world.

My roommate situation didn’t help. Though I got along fine with Sue, we never moved much beyond that first day. Her social circle was not one I was going to join. Sharon, on the other hand, came to college not knowing how a woman got pregnant. She was naïve beyond belief. Sue offered her her copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Though I was totally inexperienced in that regard (I had a lot to learn from Our Bodies, Ourselves, too), I at least knew the facts of life. Sharon was a very odd duck. One of the things that was unique was that she could burp louder than anyone I had ever known. Each time she did, I couldn’t help myself, I would go, “Woah!?!,” a mixture of awe and surprise. I was taught to keep all bodily functions as quiet and private as possible, so Sharon was a revelation. Beyond that habit, we also didn’t have much in common, and she seemed a bit troubled. During midterms, she scratched her own face in a fit of anxiety.

I had my own struggles that first semester. My writing, which was a source of pride in high school, was criticized by my Lit & Comp teaching assistant and my Intro to Poli Sci professor. In fact, I received C’s on the first two papers I submitted. I was reeling.

Perhaps because they knew I was struggling, or maybe because they thought nothing of a four-hour jaunt in the car, Uncle Mike, Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara came for a visit. I took them on a tour of campus and then we went to get ice cream. One of the major positives of coming to the Southern Tier was discovering Pat Mitchell’s ice cream. It was a major draw if an on-campus event advertised Pat Mitchell’s – a far more appealing attraction to me than free beer. The store was located in Endicott, a solid 15-minute drive from campus, so it was a rare treat. Their chocolate chip ice cream was heavenly. It should have been called chocolate chunk – large milk chocolate hunks were surrounded by creamy, smooth vanilla creating the perfect spoonful. In a flash of inspiration, we asked them to pack up a quart in dry ice. I hopped in the backseat and we all headed back to Brooklyn to surprise my mother.

With my departure to college, my parents were empty-nesters. I wasn’t the only one enduring a difficult adjustment.

We all trooped into my parent’s house, me bringing up the rear. Mom was so shocked to see me, her jaw dropped. Then she sneezed. She didn’t stop sneezing for the 12 hours that I was home. The sneezing, runny nose and itchy eyes actually continued after I left. It was the weirdest thing. We didn’t understand what happened, but Mom developed some kind of allergy that she never had before, and it returned each September for the next several years. We joked that it was somehow connected to the trauma of me, her baby, leaving for college. Or maybe it was that surprise visit that shook up her immune system.

After that little escapade, I returned to campus and went back to work adjusting to my surroundings.

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Four friends, forty years later

 

A Disturbing ‘Happy New Year!’

So, this happened: Gary and I were attending morning services at synagogue last Tuesday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), when a man ran down the aisle naked from the waist down. The rabbi blocked his path as he was attempting to go up to the bimah (in our shul it is a raised stage where the rabbi and cantor lead services and where the Torah is housed). The rabbi yelled, “Get out! You can’t do this!” Four male congregants ran to assist the rabbi, escorting the man back up the aisle and out of the sanctuary. The naked man was yelling ‘Happy New Year!’ He did not resist the rabbi’s effort to block him or the men who led him out. The whole incident took only a minute or two. When the rabbi resumed services, he began by saying that though it is understandable that we react in anger to this disturbance, we must also remember to have compassion. There are broken people in our community, and we should have compassion for those who are.

I felt terribly sad. Gary and I stayed for the remainder of the service. I thought the rabbi handled the incident well. I thought his message was on point.

While riding home in the car, I learned Gary’s reaction was similar to mine. We were both aware that it could have been so much worse – from the man being aggressive or belligerent, to congregants overreacting and assaulting him, to totally disrupting the service. Gary told me he didn’t move to help because he thought the men who were closest had it under control – at a certain point if more people went over it would make matters worse. I agreed with his judgment. We were both unnerved that someone would do such a thing – we wondered what was going on in his mind.

When I got home, I looked at my phone (I had not brought it to temple) and saw that I missed a call from a friend who is also a congregant at our synagogue. Her voicemail asked me to call her back. I did. Our conversation shed a different light on the events I described above.

She had been at services and was in the lobby getting ready to leave because her husband was feeling uncomfortable about the man’s behavior. Let me give some context.

Probably a half hour to 45 minutes before galloping down the aisle with only a red Coca-Cola t-shirt on, the man was meandering through the pews wishing each congregant a happy new year. He stopped and shook each man’s hand and greeted each woman – Gary and I included. This is not the custom in synagogue. He was somewhat underdressed for the holiday wearing a plaid button-down shirt and beige corduroy pants (most men wear suits and ties). He was not wearing a tallit (prayer shawl which men typically wear on Rosh Hashana), but he did have a yarmulke on. I thought he seemed odd and I looked at him closely. I noted that he had a small hard cover book in his front pants pocket. I did not see anything that seemed menacing. Though his demeanor seemed off, I was not frightened.

After greeting each congregant, he climbed up the stairs to the bimah to see the rabbi – this was during silent prayer. The rabbi waved him off gruffly and the man turned around and climbed back down the stairs. Not long after, as he was standing in the aisle, a congregant, who I thought I recognized as a member of the temple board, approached him and invited him to sit next to him. He went willingly. They were seated a few rows ahead of Gary and me. I was very appreciative that someone reached out to connect with him. The two men appeared to engage in some conversation, and he stayed seated there for a while. Eventually he meandered away, but I didn’t see where he went.

The next time I saw him, he was loping down the aisle sans pants shouting happy new year, as I described above.

My friend’s experience was totally different. Her husband, put off by the man’s odd behavior, decided they should leave. He was uncomfortable and felt unsafe. They left the sanctuary and were in the lobby chatting with someone when they saw the man come back into the temple from a door that is normally locked. He was carrying a Husky tool bag (a small duffel bag). Alarmed, they quickly went down the stairs to the parking lot in front of the synagogue where a policeman was sitting in his cruiser keeping an eye on things. They told the policeman what they observed and urged him to go inside and make sure everything was all right. The policeman was reluctant to do so because he wasn’t supposed to intrude unless there was a call from inside the building. My friend and her husband were insistent. The policeman agreed and was walking toward the synagogue when another congregant came running toward them saying they needed help inside. Then the policeman ran in.

After the policeman ran in, my friend called 911 because she was concerned that a single policeman would be overmatched if the man had a weapon or weapons. The dispatcher assured her they were on it. She and her husband got in their car and went home.

As we discussed the incident, it was clear that my friend was very distressed. I understood that seeing the man come in with a duffle bag was very disturbing and I had not witnessed that part. If I had, I believe I would have done the same as she did in alerting the police. I also shared her concern about the door being unlocked.

Security at the temple has been a source of anxiety for years, not just as a result of the tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Anti-Semitic acts and rhetoric have flared up again and again over the years necessitating more elaborate security plans. There are volunteer ushers who greet congregants at the front doors (which are not locked) and stationed throughout the building. Their responsibility, as I understand it, is to greet members, help anyone who needs assistance, and keep an eye out (along the lines of ‘see something, say something.’) All other doors, other than the main entrance, are supposed to be locked. On ordinary days, when large numbers of people are not expected for services, even the front doors are locked, and you are either buzzed in or you have the code to punch in to gain entry. During holidays one or two police cruisers are stationed in the parking lot (last Tuesday there was only one).

While I agreed with my friend on some points, we had differences. She thought his behavior in the first instance, wandering about the sanctuary greeting everyone, merited more attention and perhaps a request that he leave. I wasn’t willing to go that far since at that point he hadn’t done anything wrong. My friend’s take was that a mentally ill person may be harmless, until they aren’t. My thought was that all people may be harmless, until they aren’t. How can we know?

The incident left me with so many questions:

What can the usher do? If I were ushering and a person came in with a duffel bag, would I ask them to leave it in their car? Would I ask them to explain why they needed it? Maybe I wouldn’t ask anything. Do we need metal detectors at the entrances of our houses of worship?

I can say with certainty that I do not believe that the answer is to arm the ushers!

If a person is acting oddly, is that enough of a reason to ask them to leave? What is odd behavior? I know it makes me uncomfortable if a person speaks too loudly for the circumstances, or exhibits vocal tics, or is seemingly disconnected, or highly emotional (without context).  That discomfort may correspond to an instinct that something is wrong or off, but that may not mean that the person is a danger to anyone. If we can’t know, do we err on the side of preserving our comfort (security) or the rights of that individual who may have a mental or physical disability? It is a painful choice to make. People struggling with these conditions are certainly deserving of compassion. As a society we don’t offer enough support in terms of treatment, prescription coverage or residential options.

Gary and I have processed this incident a few times since it happened. Yesterday we were discussing whether, if somehow we knew that the guy was going to get naked and run down the aisle, would we want him escorted out earlier. Gary said that he would – that he wouldn’t want us all subjected to that during Rosh Hashana services. I could see his point. On the other hand, if we could know that he wasn’t dangerous, was it really all that bad? Nobody got hurt. We both recognized, of course, that no one is clairvoyant and human behavior is unpredictable, so it was pointless to conjecture.

After my conversation with my friend, I wonder, if there was a congregation-wide conversation where these issues were discussed, would we be able to come to a meeting of the minds about the lessons learned from this incident? Would we agree on an approach for the future? Can we overcome our differences which stem from our respective values and fears? The frequency of mass shootings has frayed nerves and that makes it even more difficult to navigate these issues.

Please feel free to share your perspective by leaving a comment. Thank you.

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symbols of Rosh Hashanah

The Perils of Boredom

I was listening to a podcast the other day. The interviewer and the guest are both recovering addicts. The guest was talking about her recent relapse and how it all started with being bored. As a performer, she often has odd hours free. For her being at loose ends can be an invitation to drink. She will say to herself, what the hell, I can just have a nip.

Though I am not a drinker, this resonated with me. For me, faced with unstructured time and no particular task at hand leads to food. A well-worn pathway in my brain is triggered. One of my first thoughts is: what can I eat? I imagine for some that is a completely alien thought – as thinking about drinking is for me. But maybe it leads to some other self-destructive behavior – online shopping anyone? It got me thinking about boredom and its perils.

When I was a child if I went to my Dad and said I was bored, he had a singularly unhelpful suggestion, “Bang your head against the wall.” It was a quick way of dismissing me. It reflected his belief that being a parent didn’t include being an entertainer. We were expected to solve our own problems and make our own fun. I’m not endorsing that approach. I never used it on my children. But there is a legitimate point: there were always books to read or tv to watch. Sometimes that wasn’t appealing.

So, what is boredom? There are always things to do. Especially as an adult. Household chores await. Projects need starting. Paperwork is piled up. A closet can be cleaned out. Or, I can take a walk or call family or friends. Boredom must be a state of mind then.

Are there people who are never bored? My husband may fall into that category. His work life is so busy and all-consuming, in both time and mental energy, that the little free time he does have is critical for decompressing – exercise, gardening, communicating with our children and his parents. Not much is left over.

But some people who live busy lives can still be bored. Sometimes when I was at work, and my schedule was quite full, I knew I was going through the motions. I wasn’t really engaged.

Maybe that is the key – engagement. Finding activities, people, places, work that engage your brain so it can’t wander off into trouble.

One challenge to that is when you’re between tasks or appointments. Let’s say you have plans at 2:00 in the afternoon and now it’s noon. Do you start a project? Do you kill the time doing crossword puzzles? Do you continue eating lunch well past the portion you need for nourishment? This can even happen at work. There were countless times that I finished preparing for a meeting only to have it postponed an hour. Then what? A trip to the vending machine?

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Hmmm – what do I do next? A manicure perhaps?

This might not seem like a serious problem. There are real challenges in this world – many people are burdened with worries about money, safety, health, shelter, etc. But I’m thinking that being bored, being unfulfilled or not engaged, can lead to some of those problems. Just look at what started this whole train of thought – two recovering addicts talking about boredom as a trigger to use their drug of choice.

I know from my years of Weight Watchers that there are ways to disrupt that well-worn pathway to food. There are many other possibilities instead of snacks. The challenge is to stop long enough to change direction. I’ll keep working at it. As with many of life’s trials, I need to adjust my thinking.