A Survivor’s Story: The Beginning

Note: In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am revisiting the beginning of my mother-in-law’s story. When most people think of survivors of the Holocaust, they think of concentration camp survivors. But, there are other important stories, of Jews who made it through by hiding and fighting alongside the Partisans in the woods, using guile and courage, and sometimes the kindness of strangers, to sustain themselves. That is the story of my in-laws. Another thing that is important to remember is the quality of life those survivors enjoyed before the wholesale destruction of their shtetl culture. Not only did millions lose their lives, but a whole way of life ended. This story brings some of that to life. The information for this post comes from Paula Bakst’s Shoah testimony. On August 17, 1995, Paula, David, their children (with spouses) and grandchildren, went to the Pines Hotel in the Catskills to be interviewed and taped as part of Steven Spielberg’s project.

Paula Silberfarb was born on February 15, 1931 in Serniki, Poland, a small town in the northwest corner of what today is Ukraine. It was a landscape of forests, meadows, marshes and rivers. The Stubla River ran along the side of the town and provided for her father’s livelihood as a boat-maker. It was a primitive town: there was no electricity or running water in their homes, no cars or trucks, the roads weren’t paved. They didn’t have a movie theater and only one family had a radio (and Paula never heard it).

Serniki was made up of Jews and Gentiles, and though they lived peaceably before the war, they didn’t mingle; they lived clustered on different streets. They spoke different languages: Jews spoke Yiddish, the Gentiles spoke a combination of Polish/Ukranian and Russian, but they were able to communicate. They didn’t socialize, though they did have business connections. The cultural and religious separation became important in the crucible of the war.

Paula was the middle child, with an older brother, Bernard, and a younger sister, Sofia. Though middle children are often attention seeking, Paula was not. She was shy and obedient. If Mother gave her a chore, she did it. If she was told not to do something, she didn’t. She left the troublemaking and risk taking to her older and younger siblings.

The Silberfarbs made a loving home. Their house consisted of three rooms: one large bedroom, where they all slept – her parents (Samuel and Lea) in one bed, Paula and Sofia in another, and Bernie in his own; they had a separate living room and kitchen. They also had a large one room apartment next door that they rented out. A lush, colorful flower garden adorned the front and side of the house; a vegetable garden in the back. Further behind the house, they had a field where they grew potatoes and wheat. They hired someone to help with that field. They brought the grain to the mill and Lea baked her own bread on a daily basis.

Paula was lovingly cared for by her mother and father. Lea was the primary caregiver, providing guidance and nourishment, in all senses, to her children. Her father, Samuel, was a boat builder. The boats were made of wood and powered by oars. Farmers used the boats to get their produce to bigger markets across the Stubla. Samuel purchased parcels of forested land from farmers, logged it and brought the lumber to Serniki to build the boats. When a boat was completed, the children would gather at the riverside to watch it launch. It was a community event. The business took a great deal of Samuel’s time, he wasn’t home much. When he was home, Paula fondly recalls him sitting on the side of the bed she shared with Sofia, before they went to sleep, telling them stories. He told tales based on Jules Verne’s books. Samuel was a learned man, he had gone to university in Kiev. He was in partnership with his father, Gershon, in the boat business.

Gershon, a widower, lived in his own home, bigger than Paula’s family home, near the market in town. He shared the house with one of his sisters. Gershon had an aristocratic bearing, with a square little beard. Other family members, aunts, uncles, cousins, both maternal and paternal, were scattered throughout Serniki.

Paula’s life was made up of family and friends and observance of Jewish rituals. There was one synagogue in town. Samuel went Friday nights, and the whole family joined him Saturday morning. The men sat downstairs, the women upstairs. Paula watched her brother, father and grandfather through small windows. Though some men in Serniki were bearded, Samuel was clean shaven. He was a modern man. After services, family and friends would come by the house. Samuel played chess while the children ran around outside.

Paula played with her friends, who were all Jewish. They played hopscotch and a game with sticks that involved tossing them to see who could throw it further. She also especially liked walking barefoot in the mud and puddles. Paula was particularly fond of one neighbor friend, Chaya. Once Paula stopped by her house and Chaya’s mother was making pancakes. She offered Paula one which she readily accepted. Paula was served the pancake on a fine piece of china, not an everyday dish. It made her feel special and was the kind of thing Paula noticed and appreciated, even 60 years after the fact.

In 1939 the Soviets invaded Serniki. Though she was frightened of the newly arrived Russians, Paula was eight when they took over, her day-to-day life went on largely unchanged. She wasn’t very aware of how it impacted her father’s business. The one major change was to her school life. In addition to attending cheder, to learn Hebrew and Torah, Paula went to public school. The public school had been run by Poles and Paula had already completed first grade when the Soviets took over. Though Paula’s father had taught his children the Russian alphabet and to read, the authorities made everyone repeat their grade, so she had to begin again. Paula resented it. She completed second grade in the Russian school. It was during her third year at school that life as she knew it completely changed.

In early summer of 1941, a father and son arrived in Serniki, on the run. They told the story of their town which was to the west; of being marched to stand at the edge of a ditch only to have the Germans shoot them in the back, causing everyone to fall in, one on top of another. The father and son fell just as the shooting started and were not wounded. They lay, feigning death, amongst the bodies until nightfall when the Nazis left. They climbed out over the corpses and ran.

The Jews of Serniki didn’t believe the story. They thought it was a plea for attention, for sympathy and for help. Paula’s mother, Lea, though, believed it. Lea said, “It is too terrible for a human mind to make up. A normal human wouldn’t make up such a thing.” This was the first Paula had heard about the atrocities – it was possible that the adults had heard things before, but she was shielded from it.

It was a good thing Lea believed it – that belief made all the difference.

Paula just after the war, in her early teens, but no longer a child.

A Daunting Task

The task was daunting. Four large cartons full of loose photographs sat on the floor of our study waiting to be reviewed and organized. Sorting them would be a difficult job – the contents of those boxes represented two long and eventful lives, spanning more than 70 years. When we were emptying out my father-in-law and mother-in-law’s house in Liberty, as part of their move to a new, smaller apartment closer to their children, we couldn’t take the time to decide what to do with each photo album and all the loose pictures we found. We set aside some of the framed photos on the wall to bring to the new place and put the rest in cartons. I volunteered to take the load to my house with the idea that at some point I would go through them to see what we had and organize them. Once I unloaded the car and put the boxes in our study — two years ago — it was easier to let them sit than to begin the project.

Then my father-in-law died – a month ago now. In the immediate aftermath, I opened a few of the boxes and grabbed some photos for my husband and his siblings to reminisce over when they did their Zoom shiva sessions. Questions about family history were raised. It felt like it was time to fully open the cartons and see what the contents could tell us.

Fortunately, last Thursday, while chatting with my daughter, Leah, I mentioned this project and she offered to help. On the spur of the moment she suggested coming home, she lives in the Boston area, the very next day and spending the weekend. The project was starting to feel a bit less daunting.

I went to Staples to get photograph containers. The material we would be sorting came in all different sizes. I bought various sized plastic bins. I had no idea how many we would need. I started with five. It turned out not to be enough.

Leah arrived and we got right to work. First, we strategized. We would leave whole photo albums intact. We thought we would start with a sort into three broad categories: photos from before and during World War II, the years in Cuba, and then the ‘modern’ era in America.

We dove in and found out that those categories weren’t going to cut it. There were a number of things that didn’t fit. For example, my mother-in-law saved thank you cards that included photographs from various weddings. That became a separate category. There were also various documents and letters among the photos. We set those aside in another pile. As we pored over the pictures, another issue emerged: we didn’t recognize the people and we couldn’t tell where or when the photo was taken.

I should note that it was not our job to decide if any of it should be thrown away. That decision would remain for Gary and his siblings once they knew what they had. Our plan is once it is safe to meet in person, the siblings will get together and look through the catalogue and decide what to do with it.

On Saturday, Leah and I spent about five or six hours sorting, learning as we went. We got better at recognizing faces. We started picking up on clues: clothes, background scenery like palm trees and wallpaper, the numbers at the bottom of the prints sometimes helped group items or names of photolabs. Gary used his phone and took some photos and texted them to the family to get their input. Slowly but surely, we made progress. At the end of the day on Saturday, when we decided to break for dinner, we had succeeded in emptying all but one box. We were left with many piles on our dining room table and a final box to go through on Sunday.

The table early on Saturday

Saturday evening I was surprised to find myself exhausted and parched. Something about the sustained concentration and the dust from handling old papers, left Leah and I mentally tired and very thirsty. It was a relief to relax and water myself!

The table when we began Sunday morning

We resumed our efforts after breakfast on Sunday. The last box contained whole photo albums, two of which we were hoping to find: Gary and his brother’s respective bar mitzvah albums. We were delighted to find them all intact and no loose photos to categorize.

We set about combining our existing piles and further refined our categories. It was painstaking because there were so many different ways one could organize things. We could have done it entirely chronologically, another option was to do it by people or family, and still another possibility was to group things by events. There was no right way to do it. We made our best guess at what would make sense and used a combination of those categories. We finished our task late in the afternoon.

Once Covid is over, we’ll invite the family to a photo-review party. That should be fun. Then the siblings can decide if they want to divide them up or digitize them or dispose of some of it.

So, what did the contents of those cartons tell us? I was struck by the many pictures of my mother-in-law smiling. It isn’t that Paula doesn’t smile, but when I think of her I see her in my mind’s eye with a serious countenance, especially in this last decade as Alzheimer’s robbed her of so much of her spark. It was good to reminded of her lighter side and to see her full of life.

The photos also show Paula and David living a life connected to others. Many pictures of family and friend gatherings over decades – the same core of people crowding around a table for a meal over the course of many years. One thing about living such a long life, many of the people in the photos are now gone. It is bittersweet but comforting to reflect on the richness of those lives.

Looking at the pictures over the years, it was also interesting and sometimes amusing to take in the fashions. The Bakst family went to celebrations in style!

Bakst Family 1969

I also realize how wonderful it is when there is a note on the back of a photo or in the margin of an album that gives the names of the people (especially babies!), the date and maybe the place. This might be less of a thing with digitized pictures since some of that information is embedded, but it was so helpful in this project. Interestingly many of the notes on the back of these photos were in another language – Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish and something we couldn’t recognize. We put a post-it on all of those so we could come back to them and ask for assistance with translation.

I couldn’t help but think about my own collection of photographs. When the pandemic began one of my early projects was to go through a couple of drawers of loose photos and organize them and I completed that to some extent.  I still have a large plastic bin in the basement that needs to be organized.

I have generally been good about creating photo albums. Whenever we come back from a trip, I make up an album soon after, even though the pictures are on my phone. I am not satisfied with scrolling through files of photos. I prefer to look at them in print, along with saved ticket stubs, maps and small memorabilia – almost like a scrapbook, but not going that far. I enjoy looking through our adventures from time to time. But, what will become of them when Gary and I are gone? I think about the many albums sitting in my mother’s place in Florida. She too documented her travels in albums, and she was lucky enough to travel extensively with my dad and even continued to after he died. I guess there is no avoiding having to make painful choices when the time comes.

The vast majority of pictures we sorted through over the weekend were of people, very few were of landscapes or other sites. It makes me think about the purpose of taking the pictures in the first place. These days, with cameras in phones, we have so many photos and videos. What will we do with them? Maybe they serve their purpose in the taking; in solidifying an image in our minds so that we can remember it better in the future. I’m curious how young adults feel about the photos on their phones – do they curate them or organize them? Do they look back at them?

Having undertaken this effort, I have a lot of questions. One random one: Why do we keep whole sheets of school profile pictures? You know the ones – the page of wallet-size pictures, followed by the same photo in a variety of sizes. I admit it is hard to throw away perfectly good pictures of our adorable children, but…..

I imagine that some of the material we found has historical value. Would a museum or research institute want it? The family may want to consider donating those items so that they are preserved properly.

We believe this is David’s membership card in a Zionist organization

Photography, no doubt, is also an art form. When Gary and I travel, or when we hike, I like to take some images of scenes that I think are particularly beautiful or interesting. I doubt anyone else would find them compelling.

I admit my brain is tired this Monday morning. But, I do feel a sense of accomplishment and hopefully it will be something the rest of the family will find enlightening when they can peruse the collection – once we emerge from this plague.

The table on Monday morning – I still need some boxes for the remaining items

Two Stories

Note: The following two stories are written by my mom, Feige Brody. She is 87 years old and resides in an independent living community in New Jersey. She has been taking time during this period of enforced isolation during the pandemic to reflect on important, formative experiences in her life. She has also tried to capture the flavor of the time. We hope you enjoy them.

THOROUGHBRED

The only time I came running home from school was when I was sure I had failed the Spanish Regents exam. That was the culminating test after three years of instruction. It included verbs, vocabulary conjugation, translation, grammar and, even history of Spanish-speaking countries. It was a high-stakes test before they used that term. If I failed, I might fail the class and it could affect my graduation.

            When I reached home, I ran to my bedroom and collapsed, sobbing into my pillow which woke my dad who had been sleeping. He came into my room, towering over me.  I felt I was a failure, a disgrace to the family.  He knew I was a decent student. I had made honor roll. But this was a disaster even though I had studied hard.  During that school year, I went every morning to an 8:00 a.m. class that Mrs. Kennedy, our Spanish teacher, held to give students extra help. She gave up her time and we gave up our sleep.

            I hated feeling I had disappointed my Dad who was proud to be the first in his family to graduate 9thgrade.  His schooling ended when he had to go to work to help support the family, so his younger sister and brother could continue their schooling. I continued sobbing and hitting my hands into the pillow.

            Dad, a gambler who loved sports and who had taken me to many afternoon ballgames and horse races, reminded me of the times we went to Aqueduct, Belmont and even Saratoga far away in upstate New York.  I knew about the jockeys like Eddie Arcaro, Ted Atkinsons. I knew the owners and the colors they used. I would stand at the finish line with the ground shaking beneath my feet, the horses thundering by, watching them with their nostrils flaring in a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds. 

            As he stood next to my bed, Dad reminded me of those races. This is what he said, “Every one of those horses are thoroughbreds and they all want to win but there can be only one winner. Every one of them continued running hard; no one ever gave up, even the last horse, because they are thoroughbreds.  And you are a thoroughbred.  You did your best, no one can ask for more.”

            I stopped sobbing and thought what a wonderful gift he gave me, what a compliment.  I’m a thoroughbred, I thought to myself. As he left the room, he reminded me, “The good times take care of themselves, the bad times we celebrate. If this is one of your bad times, think what you would like to do.” He gave me a small smile and left the room.

            I blew my nose, dried my eyes and turned my thoughts to how we might celebrate. I later learned I got an 83 on that test, enough to rescue me from failing the class for the year. The lesson I learned from my father was more important than that Spanish class.

LOCAL JOINTS

Veselka. The name feels like velvet on my tongue. I would be coming from work, heading to the LL subway line on a cold wintry day, when the aroma came wafting through the air. Veselka was a Ukranian restaurant in the East Village on 14th Street. It had unpronounceable main dishes, with a local crowd speaking Russian and a polyglot of other languages. The crowd was mostly first and second-generation Americans, longing for the food their parents and grandparents made. I would get a bowl of tasty, hot borscht and then I’d head home.

            I remember neighborhood Brooklyn restaurants, too. When I went to P.S. 191 and J.H.S. 210 I would go home for lunch. Every once in a while, my mother, who worked full time in the bakery, didn’t have time to go shopping so she gave me and my younger sister some money to eat out. Oh joy! I’d go to the Jewish deli on the corner, Bartnofsky’s. Despite its unglamorous name, my mouth waters thinking of it. The table would be set with sour pickles, mustard, ketchup, silverware, napkins and sauerkraut – the smell tantalizing as soon as I entered the store. I’d order a well-done hot dog with a side of baked beans or French fries. It cost 25 or 50 cents. If I didn’t go to Bartnofsky’s, I would go to the luncheonette where the very cute ‘older’ guy (probably not yet 20, making money for college) worked. I had a secret crush on him, my heart beat faster as I barely managed to blurt my order out. “Salami and eggs, please.” He smiled when he handed me the dish, making my day. Then I went back to school

On Saturday my sister and I would go around the corner, on St. John’s Place, to the Congress movie theater. We would be led by the matron to the children’s section and sat on grimy, often damp seats. After a whole afternoon of cartoons, shorts, a newsreel, and finally a main feature, we would exit to the blinding sun. Across the street was the very exotic Chinese restaurant. We would say hi to Joe, we couldn’t pronounce his real name, and he, in turn, greeted us in Yiddish. He would say, “One combination plate coming right up!” The food would come piping hot: wonton soup, egg roll, fried rice and chicken chow mein. The meal included tea and ice cream for dessert. All for $1.00!

            All of those restaurants are gone, lost to all but my memories. It isn’t just the food that stirs my reverie, but the clamoring of people coming and going, the good-natured shouting, “No, I want this table near the window!” And the rattling of dishes and clinking of silverware, and, oh yes, the wonderful scents. Every once in a while, I catch a whiff of something that brings it all back. It wasn’t Nathan’s or Juniors, the more known or established places in Brooklyn. Rather, it was the local joints where we would be recognized and treated as the neighbors we were that are etched in my memory and heart.

Observations from a House of Mourning

I have always thought there was wisdom in the Jewish rituals surrounding death since I first learned of them at age 11 when Nana died. That notion was reinforced this past week. Though it was my husband who was sitting ‘shiva,’ I participated in some of it and witnessed his observance. I know he drew comfort from it.

Sitting shiva involves stopping your routine obligations to stay home, saying Kaddish (the prayer after the departed) two times a day, refraining from life’s pleasures (parties, drinking, dancing, music, etc.), and reminiscing about the departed with guests who come to pay their respects. Immediate family, spouses, children and siblings, are obligated to sit. Extended family and friends provide meals and emotional support. Mirrors are covered in a house of mourning (to discourage being distracted by or dwelling on our appearance). The mourners sit on low stools (perhaps to reflect our low mood and not allow us to get too comfortable).

Judaism has a lot of rules and regulations, not just in regard to death, many more than the Ten Commandments. It offers guidance on everything from diet to sex, not to mention morality. Jews follow the rules to varying degrees. It can create tension in that members of the same family may have different interpretations, standards or expectations. Fortunately, though Gary’s siblings may have different approaches to adhering to shiva, it didn’t create division. They were respectful of each other’s choices and found common ground.

Covid, of course, added an extra layer of complication. Gary’s Dad specified a graveside service when he made his arrangements years ago, so we were outside for the funeral. Technically there was no limit on the number who could attend but, being mindful of the continued risk of the virus, the family limited invitations. The burial site is in Liberty, New York in the Catskills, about two-hours from our home. Gary’s siblings are spread across the lower part of the state, with each one at least an hour away from Liberty. It wasn’t possible to gather before or after the burial. David’s grandchildren came from Boston, Norwalk (CT) and Brooklyn. Usually the family would have a meal together afterwards, but between the pandemic and everyone’s homes being spread out, that wasn’t an option. Gary’s brother and sister-in-law thoughtfully packed a cooler with turkey sandwiches, potato chips and bottles of water. After the service everyone took a sandwich and ate it as they drove home. Until I took a bite of that sandwich, I had not realized how hungry I was. We had breakfast at about 8 a.m. and we got back into our car to return home at about 2:45 pm.

The weather cooperated. It was cold (it almost always seems to be cold when I am at a cemetery), but it was sunny. When the breeze picked up, it got a bit uncomfortable, but everyone came prepared with layers, so we managed.

 Our children, and their spouses and our grandchild, came back to our house. It had been a long, draining day. We were grateful to have dinner provided by friends. We talked about David and enjoyed time with our granddaughter. I think at various times each of us felt guilty that we were having too good a time. We took out old photo albums to look at pictures of David with the family over the years. Tears were shed and there was a lot of laughter. The truth is I believe that David would have been happy looking down on us, pleased that he was the reason we were gathered and reveling in each other.

Judaism requires that kaddish be said in a minion, a group of ten people praying together. With the Covid risk so high, the numbers keep climbing in our community, Gary was not willing to go to synagogue. His siblings and David’s grandchildren agreed to Zoom each evening so that they could say the prayer together. Gary would say it alone in the morning – alone was better than not at all. It was one of the many compromises made to these strange times. That compromise, Zooming with his brother and sisters, had an upside. I’m not sure how they would have handled things if we weren’t in the middle of pandemic since they live hours apart, it is possible each of them would have done their own thing, or maybe they would have met at someone’s house. It is hard to say. This way they met every evening from Monday through Friday at 7:00 and often continued chatting, sharing old photos, videos and anecdotes, for two hours or more. They agreed to meet once a week for the next month and then once a month until the end of the year in accordance with Judaism’s customs.

Gary’s family, like all families, has its tensions. They are bound tightly by their shared DNA and their parents’ Holocaust trauma, but they are also wildly different from each other. With a large age range from oldest to youngest, 15 years, their childhoods were quite different from each other as Paula and David became more acclimated to American culture and financially comfortable. The shiva process of sharing their grief and memories, even though it was virtual, was healthy. Again, David would have been pleased to see the four of them pull together in his honor, despite their differences in perspective and temperament. David was a uniter, he wanted peace, most especially in his family.

Shiva has drawn to a close. Gary returns to work today. He and his siblings begin the process of reentering community, at least to the extent they can given the pandemic. The grieving will continue. Each person mourns in their own way, on their own timetable. It took me years to reclaim my memories of the healthy, vital person my father was instead of the shell of the person he became in his final year. I don’t think that will be the case for Gary, but he will still need to come to terms with the loss of his hero.

No matter the nature of the relationship, no matter the age, losing a parent is painful and challenging. Rituals that bring families and friends together to offer support certainly help.

The memorial candle in our fireplace

David

Three generations: Daniel, David and Gary (not in the picture is the fourth generation, his great-granddaughter, who David is holding)

Regular readers of this blog and family members know that David Bakst has appeared many times in my stories and essays. My father-in-law had an extraordinary life. If you haven’t read his story, you can find the beginning of it herehttps://stories-i-tell-myself.com/2018/07/09/part-of-the-story/. Most recently I recounted that he led us in the blessings over the Chanukah candles and bread via FaceTime at Leah’s wedding. It was so appropriate that he did that. He loved to sing and daven (pray), he cherished his family and his Jewish identity was a source of comfort and pride. In leading us in those rituals, he fulfilled all three.

He died yesterday. He was 98 years old. On the one hand it wasn’t shocking, he had been in failing health in the last few months, but, at the same time, he seemed indestructible. It is impossible to count the number of times he cheated death in his long life. He was a Holocaust survivor after all. He was hospitalized any number of times over the last few years but rallied each time so we expected that he would do it again. He had such a strong will; he was an inspiration to all who knew him.

Gary, my husband and one of his two sons, would say that his father was the most optimistic Holocaust survivor he ever met (and he has met many survivors). David emerged from the ordeal and trauma of his war years with a fierce determination to live, to take joy, to continue his family name. Despite a lot of evidence to the contrary since he had witnessed the worst in human nature, he liked people; he was open to them. This is particularly unusual for someone who had his life experience. He wasn’t a fool, but he didn’t shut down. He radiated warmth, enjoyed a good discussion and engaged with the world. To the very end, when diminished eyesight and compromised hearing robbed him of reading the newspapers and watching CNN, he would ask Gary to fill him in on events in the world. As a devoted Zionist, he was always particularly interested in Israel; he followed U.S. politics closely, too.

David wasn’t perfect. He was impatient and he could be demanding. He was a product of his time and place, but his essential good nature led him to evolve. He respected the women in his life. The same cannot be said of many men from his generation. His care for and devotion to his wife on her long Alzheimer’s journey was so touching, we were in awe of his tenderness.

David left his children, grandchildren and great-grandchild a wonderful legacy. He persevered in the face of difficulties I can’t fathom. He reclaimed his humanity after being subjected to unspeakable horrors. His death is a terrible loss for the family, but he leaves us essential life lessons, as well as poignant and treasured memories. May his memory be a blessing.

David and Paula in the displaced persons camp circa 1947

More Wedding Reflections

I am still basking in the afterglow of Leah and Ben’s wedding weekend. To be fair, some of what I feel isn’t basking. There is a tinge of sadness because the big event is behind us and we have plunged into this darkest of winters. But, when I feel that melancholy, I look at the pictures and I am brought back to the joy, light and hope that filled the weekend.

I wanted to share more reflections. I wish all parents the pleasure I felt helping Leah to get dressed. It was just the two of us in her room at the Inn. She didn’t really need my help, only with her zipper, but it was a joy watching it all come together. Though she was stressed, it was a happy excitement more than any negative energy. Being a bride can be a lot, so much expectation and preconceived ideas about what one should look like. Leah made a bold choice in going for a red velvet dress, and it was the right choice. She radiated happiness. I can’t deny that she, like all women I know, struggles with body image, it seemed that she was able to put that aside and enjoy the moment. She was (and is) beautiful and she positively beamed.

Although Leah would not ordinarily wear a fur, the one she has on in the picture above is her Bobe’s (her paternal grandmother) which was quite meaningful to Leah. Though Leah has three living grandparents, they were not able to attend. Having her Bobe’s stole wrapped around her was a reminder that they were there in spirit. In addition, the headpiece she is wearing is the same one I wore 37 years ago (brought back to life by our florist).

Though the grandparents couldn’t attend, they did participate. We FaceTimed with my mom, who dressed for the occasion as if she was attending (looking beautiful) and she toasted the couple; and with Gary’s parents. Regular readers of this blog might remember that Gary’s mom is many years into Alzheimers. She was on the FaceTime call but it is hard to know what she took from it. While on FaceTime, we lit the menorah, sang the prayers, and said the blessing over the bread. Gary’s Dad led us in those prayers, even though he was in Florida. The wonders of technology!

Another pleasure from the weekend was working with a small business owner, Danny from Weathered Wood in Troy, NY. As we were planning this new version of the wedding, it was coming down to the wire, and the kids decided that it would be nice to have a chuppah (wedding canopy). Though they were not having a religious ceremony, the symbolism of the chuppah (recognizing that they are making a new home as a couple) was meaningful to them. This was three weeks before the wedding date. I had gathered information about chuppahs from round one of wedding planning and I had Danny’s business card. I called and he was more than happy to accommodate us.

We agreed that he would get to the Red Lion at 9:30 a.m. to set up. At 8:45 the room phone rang. Danny was at the front desk. Some people might be annoyed at a vendor being 45 minutes early; I was elated. I was awake for hours already and was delighted to get started. We chatted as he worked, and I learned what a struggle it has been for his business to survive Covid. He explained that normally he would have 30 opportunities to rent a chuppah, this year he had 5! Chuppahs aren’t his only business, he is an artist who works in wood and he maintains a shop in downtown Troy. He is barely holding on, hoping to weather the pandemic, but it is getting desperate. While I knew this was the case for many small business owners, it was jarring to face it in person with an individual who was clearly talented, hardworking and attuned to customer service. I write this both to bring more attention to something we already know but may be tempted to ignore (the strain on small, locally-owned stores ), but also to suggest that if you have an opportunity, you should visit Weathered Wood. He has many lovely items. (I also wrote a rave review on Yelp.) That’s it for my sales pitch.

The chuppah

Back to the wedding….one of the other joys of the weekend was reuniting with our son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. We had not seen them in three months! Way too long in the life of a two-year old. I was worried that our little one would be shy with us; that perhaps she would take a long time to warm up and we only had a weekend! Fortunately, while she was initially reticent, that lasted about two minutes. After that she happily climbed in Gary or my lap. We were back in our rhythm. She continued to charm everyone for the rest of weekend. She was the flower girl and she did it in her own special way. She didn’t drop the petals until after the ceremony and she ran up the aisle and back again, and it was perfect. We had the ceremony, cocktail hour, dinner and time hanging out afterwards, and through it all she was a delight. It was 10:00 p.m. when the party broke up and she had not fussed once. She played with toys, visited with us, and kept us entertained. Hanukkah gelt (chocolate covered coins) may have played a role but was used sparingly.

The next few months will be challenging. I will come back to my memories of Leah and Ben’s wedding weekend to nourish my spirits. Then I will look forward to Spring.

An Unpleasant Interlude in Jersey City

NOTE: This is another story written by my mother, Feige Brody, who during this pandemic has been reflecting on her childhood.

Chicago bustled and New York never slept, but Jersey City had no such energy. When my family lost everything in New London, Connecticut, with the hurricane of 1938, we moved in above Uncle Irving’s wholesale bakery in Jersey City, in a railroad flat. The best thing I could say about it was that it had running water and heat.

But we were really on the wrong side of the tracks. The railroad was on one end of the street and the other four corners had rundown bars. The men that frequented those bars were not called homeless then, they were called drunks and slept in the gutter or wherever they fell. The smell was horrific, of feces, urine and garbage, all mingling. I had to be careful where I walked never knowing what was under foot.

Simma (my sister who was not school age yet) and I were the only children on the block so there were no friends to play with. I went to school by walking to the corner where I could join kids who were coming from the right side of the tracks. After school, walking home they would turn at that corner and I would be alone. I was always terrified, with my heart pounding and my palms sweaty. I was afraid some drunk would be sleeping on the steps and I would have to climb over him to get home. Never once was I actually bothered, but the fear persisted for the entire year and a half that we lived there.

Across the street from my uncle’s bakery was a fancy saloon. The owners were very kind, and they let Simma and I play there. The floor was a high-polished wood and we would run and slide – back and forth. Sometimes we made up elaborate games with our paper dolls on that floor. We were allowed to play the piano, softly, and jumped up and down the steps that led to apartments. It may have been a saloon, but it was our playhouse. Once in a while a man would be at the bar talking to the owner, making arrangements for a party or celebration. Then Simma and I would sweep up our play floor and help set the tables to prepare.

One day, leaving the saloon in a hurry, I ran past the owner’s dog, who was gnawing on a bone. As I bolted past, he took a bite out of me! Dad rushed me to the hospital where I was surrounded by medical personnel all dressed in white. I was put in a bed with bright white lights shining down on me and once again I was terrified. I was given an injection with a huge needle into my belly to prevent rabies. Fortunately, we soon learned the owners had papers that showed the dog was not rabid, so I didn’t need more shots. Dad took me home. I never did get over my fear of dogs.

We were still in Jersey City in 1939 when Mother got sick with rheumatic fever. Fortunately, the Sisters of St. Joseph came each day to wash, feed, bring water and provide whatever relief they could. I continued to go to school and each afternoon coming up the stairs at the end of my day, one of the sisters would be standing at the top of the stairs, gesturing to remind me to tip toe and be quiet, because every noise would bring Mother more pain. The good Sisters were intimidating in their long black habits, leaving only a bit of their face showing, and looking so unfamiliar to me. I was sure they meant to be kind, but I was terrified of them. (Ironically, many years later I was a reading teacher at St. Joseph High School in Brooklyn and became friends with several nuns.)

With my mother being ill, her brother, Jackie, who had been living with us, left to stay with other aunts and cousins. Uncle Jackie was nine years older than me and was more like an older brother. He was the one who rescued Simma and I when I accidentally set fire to the curtains with a candle that I lit hoping to show Santa Claus the way to our apartment. With Jackie leaving, I was desolate.

I don’t know if there were pills that could have alleviated Mother’s pain, or maybe we couldn’t afford them, I will never know. While my parents would talk about the hurricane, they did not talk about her illness.

Since I could not stay in the apartment to play after school, I was left to my own devices. Though I knew it was forbidden, I went to the railroad tracks where older boys were playing. I would walk along, imitating those boys, balancing on the tracks, until I heard a rumble and then I hopped off and raced next to the train. I watched the train streak by, the conductor blowing the horn. It was a bit of fun in an otherwise dreary time. Once I fell and cut my knee and it bled a lot. I ran home and clomped up the stairs. I heard Mother cry out in pain. The sisters yelled at me, but one of them cleaned my knee. The skin healed over a small pebble that remained as a reminder. After many years it dissolved.

Eventually Mother recovered and in 1940, Dad having saved some money, bought a partnership in a Brooklyn bakery. We moved to the apartment above that store and Uncle Jackie was able to join us again. My third life began there. For the first time in a long while I felt safe in a friendly neighborhood, with lots of other kids. I realized the fear I carried in Jersey City was useless, there was nothing more to fear.

My mother (Feige) on the right, my Nana, on the left, years after Jersey City – in happier times

A daughter’s comment: I am so glad my Mom has written these stories. I know it isn’t easy for her, on several levels, but it enriches our understanding of her life. I am struck by the trauma she endured – losing everything in that devastating hurricane, moving to a cheerless place, worrying about her mother’s health, getting bitten by a dog. It was quite an eventful and painful early life. Yet, she was resilient. She did keep a fear of dogs, understandably (that was also reinforced by later scary encounters), but she was (and is) an optimist. She turned her attention to the bright blue part of the sky, as her father instructed her to do. Fortunately the third part of her life brought far more pleasure and much less fear. As the country emerged from the Great Depression, her family’s fortune turned for the better, too.

The Family Game

When I was growing up and my family gathered for holidays or special occasions we often played ‘the family game.’ After we finished eating, and there was always copious amounts of food, and after the table was cleared and the leftovers were stored, we adjourned to the living room. Paper and pencils were distributed to each person – all were expected to participate, young and old. We would toss out potential questions like: If you had only one book on a deserted island, what would it be? If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would you choose? What is your pet peeve? Etc, etc. We would agree on the question. Each person would write down their answer, fold the paper and drop it in a bowl. A reader would be designated. That person would go through each answer and we’d speculate on who might have written it. After we had gone through all of answers once, we would go back through a second time, voting on the likely candidate.

Sometimes people answered to get a laugh, but mostly they offered sincere responses. The process resulted in lots of jokes, lots of insights and some surprises. We learned about each other. My father would play a couple of rounds and then, if we were at home or if we were all gathered at a hotel for a bar/bat mitzvah, he would call it a night and go off to sleep. After another few rounds, others would retire for the evening, myself included. That would leave the hard-core night owls to stay up until who knows when. My mom, Aunt Simma, Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara, my cousin Laurie, and my brother Mark could be counted on to far outlast me.

I wasn’t yet a teenager when we started the family game. I don’t know who came up with the idea. (I think a version of this has been packaged as a real game recently, but we were playing it 50 years ago!) As people married into the family, they joined in. It was part of the initiation.

A couple of rounds from those years stay with me. I remember one in particular. We must’ve been getting desperate because the question was pretty convoluted. It was: What characteristic does the person on your left have that they haven’t fulfilled yet? What potential could they realize if they want to? Hmmm – that was pretty deep. I don’t remember who I had to answer for. Looking back at it now, I think it’s pretty cool that children were expected to answer that about an adult.  I well remember what Aunt Simma said about me. She said I could be cheerful.

I don’t know exactly how old I was at the time – I’m going to guess I was around 14 or 15. I found it to be a very interesting observation. It meant that she recognized that I wasn’t happy. In a strange way, I found it validating. I didn’t know I was being seen or that my sadness was noticed. Other than being the object of a lot of teasing by my brother and my uncle, I didn’t feel like I received a lot of attention. Her answer suggested that I was noticed, even if it was for having the potential to be cheerful.

It also made me feel hopeful. Maybe I could be happy? If Aunt Simma saw that potential, maybe I could grow into a cheerful person.

Now, at age 61, I can’t say I fulfilled that potential, but as a general rule, I’m not sad (and there is better living through chemistry to thank too). I think I bring positive energy to my friends and family.

I remember one other round of the family game that made an impression. We were playing at Livingston Manor, the home my parents retired to in the Catskills. The question asked us to name our pet peeve. My father and I said exactly the same thing: stupid people.

Neither of us were referring to people who had actual diminished mental capacity. We shared an impatience with people who don’t pay attention to what they are doing or don’t bother thinking before they act or are just oblivious to those around them. Especially when driving or providing customer service. By the time we played that round of the family game, my father had mellowed considerably but he still was impatient. I never had his temper, but I shared his frustration. I was amused that not only had we named the same pet peeve, but we labeled it using the same terms.  I knew my dad and I shared a way of looking at the world and this confirmed it.

Along those lines, once when Gary and I were visiting Aunt Simma in Florida many years ago, she asked me an interesting question – this was not part of the family game.

This picture is from the time we visited Aunt Simma in Florida that I write about below. Leah is about 7 months old.

She observed that my father stated things as if they were a given, when others might have a different view and she wondered if I didn’t find that difficult to deal with as a child growing up? I thought for a moment and said, “Honestly, no. Probably because 99% of the time I agreed with him.” Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, “Interesting,” she said. I smiled. And it was true. My life would have been much more difficult if I clashed with my dad, he was intense, opinionated and smart. When on rare occasion I did disagree with him,- it wasn’t pretty. Fortunately, though, I mostly saw things as he did. I will always be my father’s daughter.

I am grateful for memories of our family game. Maybe once Covid isn’t the danger it is now we can gather and play it.

I would be delighted to hear others’ memories of the game – the good, the bad, the ugly (if there was any of that).  Feel free to chime in.

New York City Isn’t Dead

Based on media reports one might think New York City has become a hell hole. My recent visits have not borne that out. Obviously, my experience is just that – mine. Anecdotal – limited to the times and places I have been. That time has been spent on the Upper West Side, which according to some reporting has been the site of a mass exodus. Data may reveal a decrease in population, but you never would have known it by walking through the neighborhood and strolling through Central Park this past weekend.

Gary and I celebrated my birthday in the city, joined by our daughter and son-in-law-to be. We traveled down on Friday evening. It was a beautiful, clear evening. A huge full moon hung over northern Manhattan as we crossed the George Washington Bridge. Leah and Ben, after taking a half hour to find a parking spot, arrived at our apartment. With so many Citi-bike stations and a wider bike lane eliminating parking spots from one side of Central Park West, street parking, which was scarce before, is now almost impossible to find. It is one of those trade-offs of urban living; convenience for car-owners versus encouraging eco-friendly biking. At least once a spot was found, we didn’t need our cars for the rest of the weekend.

Saturday was my birthday and Gary, Leah and Ben wanted me to choose our activities. I considered our options. Given how bike-friendly the city has become, renting bikes seemed like a good idea. The weather was supposed to be great. But many other people might have the same idea and I didn’t relish the idea of navigating heavy traffic. I looked up the Metropolitan Museum of Art, thinking if it was open, maybe it wouldn’t attract too many people. The website indicated it was open and explained the COVID guidelines – tickets were available for specific times, there would be a temperature check before entry, masks were required and guards would be ensuring compliance, sanitizing stations were placed throughout. The Met is a huge building. It seemed like it could be a safe space. We all agreed, and I bought tickets for a 2:00 entry.

We had a relaxing morning in the apartment. Gary and I went out and picked up bagels. That walk revealed some of the toll of the pandemic. A number of retail stores and restaurants were closed. There were more homeless than there had been before, but there were still families out and about and a lot of stores were soldiering on. Lenny’s, the bagel place we favor, had a line (properly spaced) out the door, and we didn’t encounter any aggressive panhandlers. The streets looked a bit battered, with the closed businesses and more trash, but nothing like what I remembered from 1980 when I was attending graduate school. The city may be staggered, but it isn’t on its knees like it was then.

We returned to the apartment and had our bagels and coffee and chilled out. We left at 1:00 so we could take our time getting to the museum, taking a scenic route through the park. We only had to traverse about a mile and change.

We entered the park at 100th street, hearing peals of laughter from the nearby playground. The vast majority of people were masked (with both nose and mouth covered!), including the children. Families were picnicking. A father was teaching his son how to play badminton. We passed cyclists, runners and rollerbladers – or more accurately they passed us. I noted many interracial couples, heterosexual and gay, of every age. We saw and heard musicians (jazz and classical), exercise classes and softball games. We even saw a group of dancers, wearing flouncy black skirts trimmed in vibrant colors, doing what appeared to be salsa. We saw birthday parties, a bridge table set up in the grass, paper table cloth flapping in the breeze, balloons tied to chairs. It was an extraordinary tableau, vibrant with life. Some may not have been socially distancing, it was hard to judge whether groups are families or households, but other than people who were eating, most were masked, and many were clumped in small clusters which suggested they were trying to maintain appropriate distance. We were able to walk with enough space to feel comfortable. The sun was shining, the air was crisp. It felt like life – maybe not normal but affirming.

I was reminded that life wasn’t normal by the persistent feeling that a hair was trapped between my mask and my lips. I stopped twice, moved to the side next to a tree, removed my mask and inspected it for the stray hair. I rubbed my fingers over my lips. I never did find it – it just kept irritating me. But I kept my mask on.

We arrived at the museum at the right time, had our temperatures taken and our tickets scanned. Some spaces were more crowded than others, but we still took in their extensive Impressionist collection. People were mindful of spacing, we found ourselves doing a dance to allow access to the works. They thoughtfully reprinted the identifying information cards in larger font so you could stand back farther and still see the artist’s name and description of the piece.

I have been to the Met a number of times over the course of my 61 years, but I am hardly a regular there. Each time I respond to the paintings and sculptures differently. One of the things I have come to appreciate more recently is the spaces that museums provide. The Met has a number of courtyards with walls of windows that offer views of Central Park and high ceilings so that it feels airy and open. The sculptures in those areas may not be my favorites, but I love the overall effect.

I had read a bit about an installation on the rooftop garden that I wanted to see. You had to take the elevator to the fifth floor to get there. They were regulating the flow of people, limiting the number in the elevator and preventing crowding on the roof. We found a long line to get on the elevator, with markings on the floor to designate proper distancing. The line wound itself around a room. We wondered about waiting, decided it appeared to move quickly, so we got on. It was well worth it – both because the room itself had some interesting pieces to look at and because the rooftop was fabulous. The installation, called Lattice Detour by Hector Zamora, was a wall made up of blocks that left open spaces, hence the name of the piece. It may not sound all that special, but it created cool shadows and great photo opportunities. The view up there was spectacular. The park and the city skyline were lit by brilliant sun against a pale blue, clear sky, with just wisps of clouds.

After enjoying the fresh air and views, we walked down the stairs instead of using the elevator, careful not to touch the bannisters. We were alone in the stairwell, just the four of us.

I got us lost looking for the American wing, but we found great pieces of modern art. It was nearing closing time. Leah and Ben were determined to find George Washington Crossing the Delaware, my left heel said it had enough (we had already walked five miles and still needed to walk home – a cab was not an option). We agreed to meet in the gift shop. Another thing I love, museum gift shops!

I picked out some gifts, paid for them, and went to sit on the front steps (those iconic steps) to wait for everyone else. The beauty of cell phones, I texted everyone where I was, so I wasn’t concerned about being separated. I people-watched as I waited. Again, the variety that is New York presented itself. One woman, dressed in a body-hugging black outfit, thigh high boots, blond hair blown dry to perfection, gold earrings glinting in the sunlight, confidently posed for her partner as he snapped pictures. Vendors were selling pretzels and hot dogs and people were buying.

It wasn’t too long before Gary and the kids joined me. We sat a bit longer, criticizing those who were not masked properly, but also noting how many more were. We began our trek back to the apartment.

Having been out and about for the whole afternoon, we decided we had enough exposure to the elements and ordered food in. So many choices! Once again, they deferred to me. We ordered Chinese from Red Farm. I poured some wine while we waited and reflected on the day.

Thank you, universe, for giving me a beautiful present. The only thing that would have made it better was having Dan, Beth and our granddaughter with us, but I had a FaceTime visit first thing in the morning. I was beyond grateful for the gift of the day. And, I was relieved to find New York City doing its thing in this new reality.

Catching Up

I missed my self-imposed Monday morning deadline by several days, but hopefully you will forgive me. After five months of pandemic limitations, we arranged a visit with our son’s family. We got to spend time with our beloved granddaughter! To add to the joy, our daughter and son-in-law-to-be came too! We were all extra-careful in the weeks leading up to the visit, no one had any symptoms (though every day  I imagined every symptom in the book!) and we decided to take the risk. They came for six days (Leah and Ben were here for four)! We picked blueberries (granddaughter ate every single one she picked, none made it to the bucket), we swam in our pool for hours, we watched 101 Dalmations and Onward many times over, we ate great meals and generally reveled in their company.  I put aside my writing. I took many photographs to help remember the wonders of a two year old. On Monday Leah and Ben returned to their work life and yesterday, in the midst of the downpour that was the remnants of Isaias, Dan and his family packed up and drove home. It was a bittersweet goodbye, but we were left with a treasure trove of memories.

Today I have root canal to look forward to – I’m not joking. I probably could have timed that better. The good news is that we already have another visit planned so it will not be so long until we see each other – just a few weeks, not an endless five months (assuming no spike in Covid or other disaster).

One other exciting thing since I last posted, the essay I wrote that was accepted to an online journal has gone live! (I wrote bout that in Victory! ) I am honored and excited to be included in this edition of Trolley, the literary journal of the New York State Writers Institute. The theme for the magazine was our experience during the pandemic – poets, essayists and visual artists contributed. I hope you’ll explore it. Here is the link to my story. Happy reading!

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