A Surprising Friendship

I wonder sometimes how much of what I remember is real. This is especially true of my friendship with Susan.

 

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Me, in front of my house, at the time I became friends with Susan

I didn’t have many friends on my block. Somehow East 91st Street had an inordinate number of bullies and I was a target of their ridicule. Here are just a few examples: I was riding my bike when a couple of kids chased me thrusting a stick at my spokes hoping to knock me off, I was spat on as I walked home from synagogue on Rosh Hashana and my cat was mistreated (I wrote about that here). This was all at the hands of the Italian kids who lived at one end of our block. My brothers were occasionally called into service to scare them off. I knew enough not to generalize, after all, each of my brother’s best friends were Italian. But given all that I experienced, my friendship with Susan, who was also Italian but lived at the other end of the street, came as a surprise.

Susan was popular on the block and in my class. She was blonde and blue-eyed, with an up turned nose. She was rail thin. She was everything I was not. She could do a round-off, cartwheels and handstands. I will allow that I was athletic, but in a different way. I felt rooted to the ground by my thick bones and muscular frame. I could run and throw a ball, and my balance was good, so I didn’t feel clumsy, but I was unwilling to hurl myself into space to do any kind of gymnastics move. I didn’t have Susan’s grace or fearlessness, which is why this next part is so surprising.

Susan and I spent long hours teaching ourselves tricks on our bicycles. The street next to her house which abutted the weeds had very little traffic, so we would ride up and back endlessly, perfecting our moves. Starting simply by riding with no hands, ultimately, we were able to stand on our seats in an arabesque, one leg extended behind, our arms outstretched. I felt like I was flying. When we thought we were good enough, we invited our parents to watch our circus act. My mother was aghast. I think back and wonder, did I really do that? It seems so out of character. But, I did.

Susan loved horses and would draw them again and again. I came to share her enthusiasm, learning to draw them and reading horse-themed stories like Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague. She and I would gallop around her side lawn, her corner house had enough property to be considered a lawn, unlike the postage stamp we shared with our neighbors.

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I’m probably around 15 years old here, but that is the ‘lawn’ we shared with our neighbors – the bane of my father’s existence.

Susan and I were in the same class at PS 272. In 4th grade there was something called a ‘slam book’ that was all the rage. It was book made up of looseleaf pages fastened together, each page contained a list of favorites. Favorite TV star, favorite football team, but it also ranked the cutest girls in the class, smartest boys, etc. It was a measure of popularity and caused me great anxiety. The book made its way up and down the rows of the class while our teacher, Mrs. Feinberg, faced the chalkboard. For a while this was a daily occurrence. Kids ranked things and wrote comments anonymously. I was always afraid what I’d find when the book arrived at my desk. I think once I made it to fifth cutest in the class. Susan was always in the top three. In choosing to be my friend, I felt anointed, touched by her popularity.

Everything was so different about Susan’s family. Her mother, Maria, reminded me of June Cleaver. In my mind’s eye, I see her wearing a dress, with an apron, kitten heels and pearls. Her hair styled, lipstick applied. My mom and my Nana wore housedresses and slippers.

I remember one time Susan and I had a plan to practice our bicycle tricks. I rang her doorbell and was invited into the kitchen where her parents were each enjoying a bottle of beer. I don’t think I ever saw beer at my house. I can’t recall a single time. I knew what it was, I saw enough commercials during baseball games, but I didn’t know anyone who drank it. Susan was begging her father to let her have a taste. He relented. She took two quick swigs and we went out to our bicycles. Susan joked that after drinking the beer she wouldn’t feel it if she fell on her head. She giggled. I was shocked.

Susan’s Dad, Tony, was the executive chef at the Carlysle Hotel on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. The same swanky hotel where Presidents, Prime Ministers and celebrities stayed when they came to New York. Which raised the question: why did Susan’s family live in Canarsie?  I don’t know the answer to that, but, not surprisingly, they didn’t stay long.

At the end of 4th grade, Susan’s family moved to Wycoff, New Jersey. It might as well have been another country. We did see each other one more time. My parents dropped me off at their suburban house where Susan’s mom served, among other things, sliced homegrown tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese, dressed with basil, olive oil and salt and pepper. I had no idea tomatoes could taste that good. It was a revelation. At the end of the weekend, they drove me into the city to meet my parents at the Carlyle. We were given a tour of the kitchen. I was too young to appreciate what I was seeing. I know my parents were impressed. That was the last time I remember seeing Susan. We lost touch. She went on with her suburban life, not just drawing horses, but riding them. I went back to Canarsie, read the rest of the Chincoteague stories, and tried to find a place to fit in.

 

 

 

A Brooklyn Sojourn

Imagine my surprise when I opened my email a week and a half ago and found out I was a semifinalist for the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize! I couldn’t believe it. I submitted a piece, Nana’s Table, which you can read here, to a contest sponsored by the Brooklyn Film Arts Festival.

It was Friday night, December 15th, and I was sitting at the island in my kitchen, with Gary, Daniel and Beth. Daniel and Beth had just driven up from New York City to spend the weekend with us. We would be celebrating Hanukkah the next day with more of the family coming to our house. We were chatting easily, I was mindlessly playing Text Twist on my computer, when a new email popped up. I saw the subject line ‘Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize.’ I swallowed hard and opened it immediately. When I saw that it said that I was a semifinalist for the prize, I held up my hand and said, “Sorry to interrupt, but you’re not going to believe this!” I proceeded to read the email to them. They were as excited, or more so, than I was.

The email explained that semifinalists were invited to read a portion of their story at an event scheduled for the following Wednesday evening (December 20th), which coincidentally was my father’s birthday. He would have been 85. Maybe it was a sign.

The reading would be held at St. Francis College, in Brooklyn Heights. I did a quick check of my calendar and saw that I had a hair appointment, but that could easily be changed. There was nothing to keep me from going. Dan and Beth said they would come, too. The email asked for an RSVP, so I sent a quick response saying I would attend. With more than 20 people coming for our Hanukkah party the next day, I didn’t have time to give it more thought. I had salads to prepare, potatoes to peel and presents to wrap.

Saturday passed in a blur, busy from the moment I woke up until I went to bed that night. My brother Mark had driven down to New Jersey to pick up my mother so she could attend the party. My in-laws were able to come too – in fact we planned to celebrate my father-in-law’s 95th birthday. Cousins, in-laws, nieces and nephews mingled and ate potato latkes. I misjudged the amount of food – usually I have too much. Not this time. After the bowls of tuna and egg salad and the platter of lox were ravaged, I made more, and sent Mark out on an emergency lox run. In my family we don’t need a beer run, we need more lox.

Lying in bed after the party, exhausted, I started to think about the logistics of the next few days. I decided since Mark had schlepped to Jersey and back to get our mother, it was only fair that I should drive her home. In an unfortunate bit of timing, we had promised the use of our New York City apartment to a colleague of Gary’s whose daughter was having surgery in a city hospital on Monday. So, I couldn’t just drive Mom back and stay in the city for the week.

After leaving my mom at her place in Freehold, I had time alone in the car – my first private time since Friday night. I could finally think about the upcoming reading and what it meant to me.  I was surprised at how validating it felt. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I think sometimes, in an effort to protect myself from future disappointment, I don’t allow myself to take pleasure in accomplishments. The refrain in my head usually includes messages that devalue whatever it is I did.  In this case, between feeling proud of myself (there I said it!), I thought things like: Probably nobody good entered the contest. Or, I have no chance. And, I hope I don’t embarrass myself. My brain ping-ponged back and forth.

The reading at the college was free and open to the public. I went back and forth in my mind about inviting people to it. Should I post something on Facebook? I looked to see if the Brooklyn Film Festival had it listed as an event that I could share. Finding nothing, I decided I didn’t feel comfortable creating something. I felt like I would be imposing on people. Or maybe I just didn’t want to be disappointed if no one came.

I drove back to Albany. I did my usual things, every so often getting hit with nerves at the thought of appearing in front of a bunch of strangers and sharing my story. Though I presented programs and trained small and large groups during my previous professional life, this was different. This was sharing a piece of myself.

In order to simplify things, Gary and I decided I would stay at a hotel Wednesday night. We didn’t want to ask his colleague to leave our apartment, he was already dealing with a stressful situation with his daughter. I was able to get a good rate at the Marriott near the Brooklyn Bridge and we decided I should think of it as a treat. The hotel was only a few blocks from St. Francis College on Remsen Street, it would be convenient, too.

I took Amtrak down to the city on Wednesday and arrived early in the afternoon. I hopped the A train and found my way to the hotel. Fortunately, they had a room available even though it was before check-in. I made myself comfortable, took a shower and practiced my reading. Although I didn’t put anything on Facebook, I did email Merle and another long-time friend who lived in Manhattan, Steven, to invite them – making it clear that I knew it was short notice and I would understand if they couldn’t make it.

Steven responded that he would be happy to come and he would meet me there. Merle wrote that she would come, as long as she had recovered from the bug she was battling. Happily, she did and she came to the hotel at about 4:00.

I got a text from Aunt Clair that she would come, too. I had a small but mighty rooting section: Dan, Beth, Aunt Clair, Merle and Steven. I knew my mother, Leah and Gary would be sending positive thoughts even though they couldn’t physically be there. I felt very lucky to have so much support.

Merle and I left the hotel and met Aunt Clair at the Burger King down the block. We walked together to St. Francis College. As we were about to go in, Dan and Beth joined us. We found our way to the Maroney Theater on the 7th floor. There were a few people in the theater setting up the podium and microphone. It was a small theater with a performance space at the front and rows of seats upward from there.

We took seats in the middle, not too close to the front, but not too far back either.

More people started to trickle in, including Steven. We all chatted and joked, and I tried to relax while taking it all in.

A young man distributed a sheet of paper that turned out to be the program.

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I was slated to be the second reader of ten. I studied the other nine names and titles of their stories. I looked around the room – there was a wide array of ages, races and sexes. I wondered who the writers were.

The program was supposed to begin at 7, but we had arrived early. About five minutes before 7 the same young man who passed out the program asked for our attention. He wanted to take attendance to see if the readers were present. Several were still missing. We went back to chatting and waiting, more people arrived. The theater was getting pretty full.

At 7:10, it was decided that the program should begin regardless. The young man stepped up to the podium and tapped on the microphone. It was working. I was relieved because my voice does not project well and I have difficulty sustaining any volume. He introduced the first piece, but the woman wasn’t there. That meant I was going first.

I took a deep breath and went down the aisle stairs and took my place at the podium. I read Nana’s Table, fumbling only once or twice over words. I couldn’t see the audience very well with the white spotlight on me, but I looked up every so often trying to make contact with my family and friends. The room was very quiet, as I read. It felt like people were listening intently. Toward the end of my reading someone’s cell phone went off, but they silenced it pretty quickly. I didn’t let it distract me.

There was applause when I finished and I returned to my seat. And just like that, it was done. The young man introduced the next writer. Different stories of Brooklyn unfolded. A range of experiences were recounted. A young African-American man described growing up in the projects where gangs dominated, but he found community there, too. A Latina wrote movingly about her mother’s and sister’s struggles in Sunset Park, sadly known as ‘Gunset’ Park at the time. Another shared her story of taking a class at Brooklyn College with Allen Ginsburg, the beat poet.  A retired police officer, who like me started writing when he retired at age 55, told his story of deep regret at not helping a childhood friend who grew up with him in Coney Island. Two other stories, like mine, focused on relationships with grandparents. A picture of a borough filled with people of different ethnicities, but similar pains and struggles, was painted.

After all the stories were read, all the authors were invited to the front. We received a nice round of applause and then the emcee announced the winner. The retired cop won the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize for 2017. I can’t lie, I was a little disappointed. But, the whole thing had been an enriching experience. Dan told me several times how proud he was of me. Leah sent texts with the same message. I knew Gary and my mother were eagerly awaiting hearing the result. Their collective pride in my effort was very meaningful to me.

Hearing the other stories, sharing mine, confirmed that I was on the right track, to borrow a phrase from my father-in-law. I was doing what I should be doing.

Everyone with me had enjoyed the evening immensely. Steven said, “Sign me up for your next reading.” I smiled and thought, “I hope there is a next reading.”

It was late by the time it concluded. Dan and Beth, who had work the next morning, gave me hugs and went back to Manhattan, as did Aunt Clair. Steven, Merle and I went out to dinner at an old-style Italian restaurant on Court Street. After enjoying several glasses of chianti, warm Italian bread and a variation on eggplant parmigiana, we parted ways. I went back to the hotel.

I woke early the next morning and took a walk. I hadn’t been in Brooklyn Heights for many years. I found my way to Brooklyn Bridge Park, which didn’t exist the last time I was in the neighborhood. It was a sunny, brisk morning. I marveled at how beautiful it all was. I counted my blessings as I walked.

 

 

Calling on Canarsiens

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I’m not sure what people from Canarsie call themselves – Canarsiens? Canarsie-ites? Either way, I’m asking for your input.

I started this blog with the hope of painting a picture of my life in Canarsie, Brooklyn in the mid 1960s through early ‘70s. It was a time not unlike today, in some ways. It felt fraught, dangerous even. So much was changing and violence, in the form of urban riots and crime, was lurking. I grew up acutely aware of those crosscurrents.

Others growing up in Canarsie at the same time had different perceptions. I deduce this from conversations I have had with friends and from comments posted on the Internet. This isn’t surprising, of course, one would expect different experiences. But some have described an idyllic childhood in which neighbors looked out for each other and children played together in harmony (mostly). Which made me wonder: was my experience the exception?

I want to explore that question. If you (and please feel free to pass this request on) grew up in Canarsie and graduated from either Canarsie High School or South Shore from about 1973-1977 and would like to share your memories, I would like to interview you. Please send me an email at LBakst.Canarsie@gmail.com and I will follow up.

The three major topics I am interested in exploring are: family life, ethnicity/race relations, and perceptions of safety. I am particularly interested in memories of the boycott of schools in response to the busing plan in Canarsie in 1972-73.

This is not going to be a scientific study by any means, but interviews can yield important perspectives. I am hopeful that I will gain more insight into a broader range of experience and then I can share those insights on my blog, either as part of my stories or separately. I will keep the information anonymous, unless you are willing to speak for attribution.

Aside from satisfying my personal curiosity, I’m hoping it will help paint a more detailed picture of that time and place, which in turn should lead to a better understanding of who we are now. I hope the conversation will be interesting to you, too! I hope to hear from you.

The December Dilemma – Part 2

Note:  As a reminder before picking up my story where I left off, Santa Claus had come to the daycare center. I attended and gave Leah and Dan gifts instead of allowing Santa to deliver them and the daycare center agreed to form a committee of parents and staff to look at the holiday celebration for the future.

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Photo from the ADL

As Amy promised, a committee was formed. The committee decided that a survey of parents would be helpful in determining what steps to take.  Since I had a master’s degree in public administration and was on leave from a doctoral program in public policy, I had taken several classes on social science research methods, so I volunteered to help with the survey design and collate the results.

It’s funny but I remember very little about the survey itself – I don’t recall what questions we asked. I do remember, quite clearly, that several parents used the open-ended question to explain that this was a Christian country and if others didn’t like it, they could go back where they came from. For Gary and I that would mean going back to Queens and Brooklyn, respectively – which were (and are) still part of this country, though some might like to deny it.

I was shocked and hurt. While it was only a small number who expressed their view in such an extreme way, I hadn’t expected it. I was especially distressed that this represented views of people employed by the medical center, a group that I thought would be more enlightened.

Despite my dismay, I collated the results and prepared a summary. Frankly, I don’t recall what the survey said in terms of Santa Claus visiting, but I think it must have been inconclusive. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the information the survey did provide and give the daycare center administrators feedback on what to do for the coming year.

Once again, I left work and got on the bus to go to the center. A stop after mine another woman got on the bus and I recognized her as a parent from the center. I believe all parents were invited to attend the meeting, even if they had not participated in the committee. We smiled at each other and she sat down near me.

“Are you going to the meeting?” I asked. She nodded and we introduced ourselves and started chatting. I explained how Santa’s visit the year before had affected my family and that I was hoping that the center would consider changing how they celebrated Christmas. She nodded sympathetically. “I can see how that would be difficult,” she said.

We continued chatting as we got off the bus and found our way to the conference room. The meeting had quite a turnout – all the seats were taken. Extra chairs were brought in, not everyone could fit at the table.

The room felt tense to me. I don’t recall why I felt that way, but I know, even before a word was spoken, that I felt defensive. I told myself to breathe and relax.

The director and assistant director led the discussion. I reported the results of the survey, including sharing some of the disagreeable (to me) comments. Perhaps not surprisingly, the conversation devolved. I made my case: Santa Claus may be considered an American symbol to many, but not to non-Christians. Also, Santa can be seen at malls, community centers, churches, on television, etc., so if a parent wanted their child to experience a visit with Santa Claus, it wasn’t difficult to arrange.

The assistant director was outraged by my comments. If looks could kill, I would be dead. “Why should the children be deprived of Santa’s visit?” she asked, leaning across the table, accusation in her eyes. This was clearly a very personal thing to her, as it was to me.

“I was there when Santa came,” I reminded her, “and several kids were crying and others didn’t seem to care.” I was thinking that this should actually be the central point.

“I saw children having fun!” she retorted.

This wasn’t going well. I was getting angrier and angrier. At that point, I stopped participating.

The meeting continued for a bit longer. The director, to sum things up, said that they (the staff) would make a final decision about Santa and inform parents within a week. I left thinking they were going to keep things as they were, given that the staff seemed so invested in it and there weren’t very many parents objecting.

As I walked out of the meeting and headed back to the bus stop to go back to work, the woman I came in with stopped me. “It would’ve been much better if you could have explained it the way you did to me on the bus. You were too strident.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to cry. I told her I would’ve like to have done that, too. I kept walking.

I sat on the bus thinking about what she said. Was it me? Did I present my case poorly? I know I was wound up, and I probably did come across too strong. But, I couldn’t help myself. I felt under attack.

The daycare center kept its policy of having Santa visit. We went through the same process as the year before.

One day, as we approached Christmas, one of Dan’s teachers, who had been Leah’s the year before, asked us if we had gotten our Christmas tree yet. I said no and left it at that. What was the point of explaining it yet again? Was it willful ignorance?

Leah was to start Kindergarten the following fall. She would be attending School 16, the public elementary school a few blocks from our house. The Albany Jewish Community Center (JCC) offered an aftercare program with transportation from School 16. We looked at whether it made sense to move Dan at that point, too, so that they would continue to be in the same place.

The JCC daycare program was more expensive (Dan was three when we were considering this) – plus the medical center took the cost of day out of the Gary’s pre-tax salary. We had to considered whether we could afford to make the move.

It wasn’t much of a decision to make. We moved to Dan and Leah to the JCC that summer so they would be settled in before Leah began Kindergarten in the fall. In many ways, it was a relief. While Gary and I weren’t interested in putting our children in a Jewish setting for their education or care, it did make things easier for the time being.

It wasn’t the end of our battles over Christmas celebrations, we had a few in the public schools, but none so painful and fruitless as that first one.

The December Dilemma

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Celebrating Leah’s birthday at Kidskeller (daycare center). Dan is to her right.

It was late fall of 1990. I went through the revolving door of my office building to leave for the day, as I did five days a week. By the time I emerged on the sidewalk, every thought about work evaporated. It was like crossing into another world, one totally focused on Leah and Daniel (my children, aged 3 years and 18 months). If I offered to bring something from home to a colleague at work, let’s say a book, by the time I got to the street, the thought was gone. No chance I’d remember to bring it. The next day I’d arrive back at the office, realize I had forgotten and apologize to my colleague. It was hopeless. My brain was on overload.

In the fall of 1990 Gary was in his second year of his endocrine fellowship, his fifth year of post-medical school training. I was working full time for the New York State Legislative Commission on Expenditure Review. Leah and Daniel attended a daycare center, Kidskeller, that was part of Albany Medical Center, where Gary was in training.

Each day I’d leave work, take a bus to VA hospital where our car was parked. I would take the car to the daycare center and pick up the kids and drive home. Sometime later in the evening, Gary would call and I would put the kids in the car and pick him up. Honestly, I don’t know how our marriage survived those years– at times we were hanging on by our fingernails.

On one particular day, I got to Kidskeller and was getting stuff from Leah’s cubby. As was often the case, there was a note from the head of the program with information about upcoming events. I quickly read it and saw that Santa Claus would be visiting the center in a few weeks. I took a deep breath, folded the note and put it in the bag with Leah’s other stuff. The same note was in Dan’s cubby. I would read it more carefully later that night.

After Gary got home and had dinner, I showed him the note, which asked parents to bring a small wrapped gift for their child so that Santa could distribute it when he visited.  We were not happy. I resented being required, in effect, to get gifts when money was so crazy tight. I also resented having Santa Claus imposed on us – he was ubiquitous already! While some Jews may partake of Christmas rituals, we didn’t. I enjoyed the lights and decorations that brighten the season, but we didn’t exchange gifts or acknowledge Santa Claus and we didn’t want that for our children.

We were surprised that a daycare associated with a medical center would approach the holiday without recognizing the awkward position in which it would put non-Christian parents and children. After discussing it, Gary and I decided that it was likely too late to ask them to change the plan, but we would talk to the director so that maybe other plans could be considered in the years to follow. In the meantime, I would come to the center at the appointed hour with a gift for Leah and Dan and give it to them myself.

The next day I stopped by the day care director’s office and asked if I could schedule a time to meet with her. I told her it was about the center’s plans for Christmas. She readily agreed and we set aside some time the following week.

I arrived at the meeting as relaxed as possible. I knew there was nothing to be gained by going in loaded for bear.

“Amy, I wanted to explain how the plan to have Santa Claus come to the center, and give gifts to the kids, put Gary and I in a difficult position,” I began.

I went on to explain that we didn’t view Santa Claus as a secular figure and that we didn’t observe Christmas. She listened. I think it came as a surprise to her that we were troubled by Santa Claus, as she didn’t see him as a religious symbol at all.

We agreed that there wouldn’t be any change to that year’s plan. She understood that I would come with my own gifts for Leah and Daniel. We also agreed that the center would form a committee of parents and staff to discuss holiday observances and make recommendations for the future. I was pleased that she was willing to do that.

The day of Santa’s visit arrived. I left work, taking my lunch hour, to go over to the center. Santa was scheduled to visit Dan’s room first. The children, who were between 18 months and two years old, were sitting on the floor in a circle. Their care givers and a couple of other parents were spread throughout the room. Dan climbed into my lap. Santa was led in by the assistant director. Santa sat in a chair and read off each child’s name, inviting each to come up and get their present. After some cajoling by an adult, most of the kids toddled up to Santa. Only one or two cried. The adults were smiling and laughing. I gave Dan his small gift. Santa left and moved on to the next age group.

I left Dan and went to Leah’s room. She was with the 3-4 year olds. While some of the kids were still reticent, more of them shared the excitement of the adults. I gave Leah her present. She seemed a bit perplexed, but was always excited to get a gift.

I went back to work, struck by the feeling that Santa’s visit meant more to the adults than the children.

When I went back to pick up Leah and Dan at the end of the day, one of Leah’s teachers asked Leah if she would hang the ornament they had made on her Christmas tree. Leah turned to look at me, not sure how to answer. I smiled and said, ”We don’t have a Christmas tree, but we’ll give it to someone who does.”  Cathy said, “Oh, you don’t? Hmmm.” I took Leah’s hand and we went to get Dan.

Driving home, Leah asked, “Why don’t we have a Christmas tree?” I explained that we aren’t Christian and we don’t celebrate the holiday. We celebrate other holidays. “I wish we celebrated Christmas,” Leah said wistfully. “I understand, Leah. We can still enjoy the lights and stuff. We just won’t be observing it in our house.” I changed the subject, “What should we have for dinner?”

I hadn’t expected to confront this so soon. She was three and a half.

That wasn’t close to the end of it.

(My next blog post will relate what happened with the day care center committee and the following year’s holiday season.)

 

On Turning 58

Tomorrow is my birthday. I have ambivalent feelings about birthdays. A legacy of my Nana and Zada is my belief that one should celebrate whenever possible, since there is plenty of heartache in this world. I also believe that even though showing appreciation for the people you love should be a regular thing, and not dictated by the calendar, birthdays, holidays and Mother’s Day, etc., are good reminders. I don’t think there are that many of us walking around feeling over-appreciated.

On the other hand, in my family we didn’t make a big deal out of birthdays – only milestones, like 13 for my brothers and 16 for me. There is an amusing anecdote about my brother Mark’s 11th birthday. As noted in previous posts, my grandfather was a baker and he would bring home surplus goods from the commercial bakery where he worked. One year there was a birthday cake that hadn’t been picked up and it was fortuitous because it was also Mark’s birthday.  Zada brought home the large, day old cake with white icing. So what if it said, in pastel blue letters, ‘Happy Birthday Manny’ on it?  And, so what if it was a little stale?  It would have been a shame to let the cake go to waste. We lit the candles and sung a very off key version of the birthday song and had a good laugh about it.

There was a small part of me that wished we observed birthdays like other kids’ families. Some even stayed home from school for the day! That was out of the question in our family.

My birthday often falls on or near the Jewish high holy days. The story I heard was that my mother thought she was having indigestion from Rosh Hoshana dinner, when in fact, she was in labor. Apparently, her labor with me was fast and furious and I arrived before they had a chance to administer the anesthesia. In those days, they knocked women out when delivering babies. I emerged, all 9 pounds 15 ounces of me (!), without the benefit of her being unconscious. Poor Mom!

For the most part, I like the fact that my birthday falls during the Jewish New Year celebration – as long as it doesn’t fall on the actual day of Yom Kippur (our day of fasting). The high holy days ask us to reflect on the year we finished, make amends for our sins and consider how we will do better in the year to come.  As someone who is introspective to begin with, it is a good fit with my birthday.

The problem, though, with birthdays and the high holy days, is the other reminder they provide: time marches on and, as we get older, it seems to march faster and faster. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by our total inability to control it. The number 58 doesn’t mean anything really, I am the same person. On the other hand, I’m freakin’ old!

I look at my mom, who is still young at heart. There are real issues, limitations, imposed by aging, but if we are lucky enough to have a sound mind (or relatively sound :)), there is no reason we can’t be engaged and interested in the world. There is always more to learn. My parents were/are great role models in their continuous quest for knowledge and insight.

Having observed Yom Kippur this past weekend, I approach my birthday with gratitude. We were fortunate to have Leah, Daniel and Beth with us for the holiday – the first time in many years that we have been able to be together. Unfortunately, I also had an ear and sinus infection, but I reveled in our time together. As residue of the holiday, tomorrow I will still be thinking about how I can make myself a better person, a better family member, friend and citizen of this troubled world. And hopefully take a moment to celebrate, too.

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Shana tova.

Reflections on Newport

Note:  I know I said I was taking the week off, but then I felt like I needed to write this and share it. So, it’s Tuesday. It is my blog and I make the rules 🙂

Newport, Rhode Island encapsulates much that is great about our country and, at the very same time, much that isn’t. The duality that defines our history plays out there.

Today: Newport is beautiful. The views of the ocean, with ships of every size and shape dotting the water, are spectacular. Families enjoy themselves at the beach or strolling the streets, looking at the over-abundance of charming shops and restaurants. Old and young amble the cobblestone streets. A surprising number of folks speaking languages other than English. Though predominantly white, there were many people of color.

Today: As we walked by, a homeless man was sweeping the sidewalk that he claimed as his own. He had his meager things set up against the low decorative wall that separated the park from the street. It is hard to miss the income inequality so evident in Newport. The huge mansions, the extraordinary wealth of some – how much is enough? The conspicuous consumption, in contrast to those sleeping on a bench.

We took a trolley tour of Newport. The tour guide did not ignore the fact that the original wealth of Newport was built, at least in part, on the slave trade. She also acknowledged the role of Native Americans in assisting the colonists. It is a complicated history, filled with the duality that is our country’s history. Rhode Island was also the colony founded on religious freedom, but it profited from the slave trade and from piracy. These contradictory strands are not easy to reconcile.

We took a tour of the Touro Synagogue, the oldest temple in the United States (though I would’ve sworn that they said the same of the synagogue in Savannah). The synagogue’s founders were descendants of those who had escaped the Inquisition. I had not remembered a pretty significant event associated with the Touro Synagogue (Gary recalled learning about it, though I’m not sure if it was in Hebrew school or in American History), but learning of it made quite an impression on me, so I would like to recount it here (the photos below are of the exterior and interior of the synagogue).

 

After Rhode Island ratified the Constitution in 1790, George Washington came to visit. He stopped in Newport before heading on to Providence and was greeted very enthusiastically. The leader of the synagogue, Moses Seixas, presented him with a letter. Here is the letter (I know it is written in a style that is difficult, but I think it is worth the effort):

Sir:

Permit the children of the Stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits – and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.

With pleasure we reflect on those days – those days of difficulty, and danger when the God of Israel who delivered David from the peril of the sword, – shielded Your head in the day of battle: – and we rejoice to think that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate of these States.

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People – a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance – but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: – deeming every one, of which Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental machine: – This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good. 

For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under and equal and benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men – beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: – And, when like Joshua full of days, and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.

Done and signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort Rhode Island August 17th 1790.

Moses Seixas, Warden

We visited the synagogue just two days after the 227th anniversary of the letter. George Washington was quite moved by this expression of support and wrote a letter in response:

Gentlemen:

While I receive with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of affection and esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

The citizens of the United States have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

George Washington

I think that the two letters are pretty damn impressive.  In Newport, they read Washington’s letter publicly every year on its anniversary. Though we did not attend, it was read on Sunday, August 20th outside on the grounds of the synagogue.

I recognize that Washington may not have been including women, African-Americans or Native Americans when he used the term ‘people;’ he was, after all, a man of his time. I am also not a believer in God as credited in these letters. But the ideas, of moving beyond tolerance and allowing all citizens the freedom of their conscience are still revolutionary and the letters remind me of that. These ideas are still relevant and timely in 2017.

When I was a child we learned American history in public school. I remember learning how different groups contributed to the founding of our country. A prominent person from each group (Crispus Attucks – African-Americans, Haym Solomon – Jewish-American, Baron Von Steuben – Prussian-American, Lafayette – French-American, Tadeusz Kosciuszko – Polish-American) was studied to show that the success of the Revolution was based on the contributions of many different groups. I felt proud of that history. I believed in the ideals of the Revolution – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. My understanding of ‘all’ was more inclusive than our forefathers (and my understanding continued to expand as I became more educated), but I loved the idea of America. I felt pride when the national anthem was played, especially during the Olympic Games!

Something changed as I grew older. The pride I felt was tempered by the realization that we were not fulfilling our ideals, we were falling short of our promise. I have been especially discouraged since the election of Trump. Reading these letters, though, even in the context of their time and understanding the limitations, reminded me of our potential. They remind me of the ideals at the heart of our country. This is something to be proud of and to aspire to fulfill.

While I don’t subscribe to American exceptionalism (because it implies superiority), I do believe in our potential. Perhaps there is a parallel between Jews being the ‘chosen people’ and American exceptionalism. I was always uncomfortable with being labeled chosen, that idea could be translated as arrogance or supremacy. Instead, maybe being ‘chosen’ or ‘exceptional’ can be thought of as a responsibility to fulfill, not as a birthright; an ideal to work towards, not an entitlement.

I come back from Newport reminded of the roots of our country, both good and bad. I hope we all can agree on the merit and meaning of the values that were at the heart of our founding. I hope we find our way forward with a shared understanding of the potential of this country.