An Idea

I participate in a few writing groups. One of the groups is specifically for memoir. Last Thursday I shared a piece with that group which may be the introduction to my book. I say ‘may be’ because the project is still so raw, I can imagine that it might change. That aside, the essay I brought explored my identity as a secular Jew – a person who identifies with the culture (the values, humor, food and history) but not the faith in God. I was gratified to receive positive feedback from the group. One person in particular commented that I got it exactly right – it resonated with his own experience. It was encouraging.

Friday night I went to Sabbath services at a local reform synagogue because a friend was celebrating her bat mitzvah. It is quite an undertaking to achieve one’s bat mitzvah, especially as an adult, since it involves learning to read Hebrew and chanting in front of the congregation. My friend had been studying for a solid year. I was very pleased for her and know it was quite meaningful for her and her family.

Over the years I have flirted with the idea of studying for my bat mitzvah. When I was growing up it was not common for girls to go through the process. The first time I seriously considered it was when my children were getting further along in their Hebrew School education and I wanted to be supportive. I was the only one of the four of us who didn’t read Hebrew. We were going to services regularly at that point and I thought I would get more out of it if I studied. So, I took some classes with our rabbi. The classes had an unfortunate effect of reinforcing my lack of belief. Though I appreciated learning to read Hebrew (which I didn’t keep up so I no longer can), the discussions we had focused on the meaning of rituals and how they related to God. It left me cold. After trying a few different classes, I stopped.

I would not go so far as to claim that I am an atheist. I am in doubt as to the existence of a higher power. I am not in doubt, though, about the emptiness I feel when saying the prayers that are part of the liturgy of synagogue services. The God of those prayers, the God described in the Torah, doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t worship that God. But I like the feeling of gathering in community for common purpose.

Sitting in the sanctuary Friday night, I thought once again about becoming a bat mitzvah. And, once again, I rejected it. I keep running into the same wall – how can I go through the motions of professing a faith I simply don’t have. I do have faith, but it isn’t in that God. My faith is in the potential of humanity. (I can write about how that belief is currently being tested, but that is a subject for another time.)

I feel a kinship with other Jews – we often share a sensibility, as well as all the things I mentioned above that are part of our culture. I would like to nurture that connection.

While sitting through the service on Friday night, on the heels of my experience at Thursday night’s memoir group, I had an idea. Could there be a place for secular Jews? I started imagining a center of study (of our history), a place to explore and develop our shared values, to share food and humor. I could imagine celebrating holidays there, but without all the praying to God.

We are coming up on the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement. This period of time doesn’t need God to be meaningful to me. I have always appreciated it as a time of reflection, an opportunity for growth and to make amends with people who I have wronged. I would welcome the opportunity to gather with people to observe the holiday, to discuss the challenges that introspection brings. We could still blow the shofar as the symbolic reawakening that it is intended to be.

Does such a thing exist? One could argue that the Jewish Community Center (JCC) plays some of that role. But, it doesn’t really. Maybe it could, but so much of the emphasis there is on recreation and servicing specific populations (children and seniors) – as it should. Other programming is offered, but not what I am imagining.

The great fear of Jewish organizations is that the religion will die. After surviving centuries of persecution, it may die of neglect. The only areas of growth are among the Hasidic and Modern Orthodox. Conservative and Reform Judaism are shrinking and struggling. My future, as a Jew, will not be with Hasidism or Orthodoxy. I’m pretty sure my children won’t go that route either. Is there a viable alternative? Is it possible to create a movement of secular Jews?

 

Playgrounds and Parenting

Yesterday was the first time I went to a playground in many years. My children are well into adulthood. Now that we have a grandchild, I had reason to pay a visit. I saw so much, and probably through different eyes than the last time I spent any time there.

We were lucky enough to have our granddaughter, who I’ll call Lucy, was with us for a sleepover. [Her parents do not want her portrayed on social media and I respect their judgment, so I am not using her real name.] She is just over 15-months old, walking steadily, beginning to climb and enjoying the wonders of the outdoors. She liked picking up leaves and presenting them to us proudly. She also loves dogs – or “Doggies!” as she blurted out with glee every time she saw one. What better place to take her than Central Park, which as luck (or planning) would have it is down the block from our apartment.

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Plenty of leaves and acorns to pick up!

We took a few essentials, a hat, a sippy cup with water, put her in her stroller and off we went. The sun was struggling to break through the layer of clouds. The air was cool. Perfect weather for a visit to the playground. Lucy was alert to the sights and sounds – pointing and commenting with almost-words.

At the entrance to Central Park at 100th Street there is an extensive playground. I had walked past it many times before without paying much attention, and now I was about to get a whole new perspective.

It was ten o’clock on Sunday morning. I hadn’t given a thought to the fact that I was missing CBS Sunday Morning, until now as I write this, though I watch that show religiously. Grandchildren have a way of reprioritizing things.

The playground was busy, but not crowded. There were children of different shapes and sizes. We took Lucy out of the stroller and she started walking toward the sprinklers. I hadn’t realized there were sprinklers, so we weren’t prepared for her to get wet. Fortunately, she didn’t charge in – she was content to watch the water shooting up into the air. One boy, I’ll guess he was about 5, was wearing only his underwear, stood directly over the jet of water and seemed to enjoy pretending he was peeing. I wasn’t sure what I would have done if he was my child. That was the first of many similar questions I’d be asking myself over the course of the next hour.

What the child was doing was harmless and he was having fun. On the other hand, I would also want my son/grandson to learn “appropriate” public behavior. The mom appeared to be nearby. I didn’t hear or see her address him, but later when I looked over, they were gone. She may well have spoken to him privately or quietly or both. I wasn’t sitting in judgment; I wasn’t sure what “the right thing to do” was.

After watching the sprinklers for a while, we walked over to the area where there was a cement and brick climbing structure and slides once you got to the top. These were big slides! I imagined that from the top it would look like a mountain for a small child. Lucy was content to play with the sand at the bottom and explore the stones that made up the ladder. Several little boys were climbing. One was being watched by his older sister. She moved confidently up and down the structure, stopping to offer her little brother help. “You can do it, Milo,” she urged him. He followed her a couple of steps up, using his hands and feet. Then he seemed to get stuck in place. He started to whimper. His sister tried again to encourage him. “Follow me.” He couldn’t or wouldn’t. After a few more moments, she called “Dad! Milo needs help.” The Dad responded pretty quickly, climbing up, putting a hand on his son and encouraging him to continue going. Milo wasn’t having it. The Dad picked him up and carried him down. I didn’t hear what the Dad said to him.

Maybe I’m making too much of it, but parenting involves so many decisions, moment by moment. Was the big sister old enough to be watching him? Should the Dad have been closer by? Do you push your child to overcome their fear? If so, how hard? Again, I wasn’t judging the dad. I was reminded how hard it is to be a parent. And, for someone like me, where questions run amok, it could be torturous. I’m so glad I got through that stage! I will leave it to my children to judge whether I got it more right than wrong. With adult children, there are still parenting choices to make, but not every day! And they aren’t so vulnerable, they are more fully formed and can better withstand our mistakes.

Later when we were walking home, Gary observed that he wouldn’t have been sitting on the bench chatting with other parents if his son was Milo (who was quite a bit bigger than Lucy, and may have been two or three, but he was still in diapers). I said I wasn’t so sure what I would have done.

Being a grandparent is simpler. Our job was to keep Lucy safe. It was one morning of many for her. If we were more protective than her parents, she would recover. Better that way than the alternative.

 

To B&B or Not to B&B?

Gary and I are creatures of habit. Maybe most people are, I suppose, but we have our routines and we don’t often move outside our comfort zone. This extends to travel. Typically, when we are going to be away from home, I search the Marriott website for the nearest, least expensive property and book it. We like the reliability and predictability of it. We have only used airbnb (actually it was a different site, but the same idea) once and that was because we were traveling with friends and they found the property. It worked out fine, but we still didn’t feel comfortable planning our travel using it.

With this trip to the Canadian Maritimes (which refers to the provinces on the east coast – Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador), we took a step away from our usual tactic. It may have been possible to travel using only Marriott or Hilton brand hotels, but the places we were interested in didn’t seem to offer them. I still didn’t take the home-sharing approach, instead I booked bed and breakfasts that I found through Google and TripAdvisor. This may not sound that adventurous, but it was for us!

I researched various websites to plan where we would go and mapped out a route. We knew we would drive. Albany, New York (where we live) has a nice, small airport, but you can’t fly direct to many places. To fly to Halifax (the capital of Nova Scotia) would have us going first to Philadelphia or Newark. It would end up taking as much time as driving. Besides, Gary and I like road trips. Once that was established, I looked for accommodations. Bed and breakfasts abound in the places we were going. I looked at reviews and amenities (Gary MUST have wi-fi!) and made reservations. While I like the idea of B&Bs and have stayed in them a few times over the years, I did have some trepidation.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am not the most social person. I have written before about different approaches to travel (and not just travel, it could be waiting in line in a store). I am not inclined to initiate conversation. I’m not unfriendly, at least I don’t think I come off that way, but I’m just as happy reading my book or keeping to myself. Some of it comes from social anxiety, but some of it is just comfort with being quiet – at least in that setting.

Anyway, I thought staying in a B&B would force me to push myself…and it did.

The first place we stayed, Bailey House in Annapolis Royal, was an historic building, dating from around 1770.  The current proprietor decorated it with funky, brightly-colored art. Our room was lovely. There was one problem – the bed creaked. It was otherwise comfortable, but every time one of us turned over, we were reminded that the place was even older than us! The other parts of our stay more than made up for it. We were there for two nights and enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast with our fellow guests. Conversation flowed easily – some were American (from Sarasota and Atlanta), some from England and another couple from Halifax.

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The table set for breakfast at Bailey House

Some observations from our breakfast table:

  • We got great recommendations on where to eat and places to see both in Annapolis and our next stop, Lunenberg.
  • I learned that Booking.com, the website I used to make my reservations, takes an exorbitant percentage (15%) of the cut from the B&B owner. I could, once I found a place I wanted to stay, call it directly and make my own arrangement (one of the guests at the table had done just that). That thought had not occurred to me. While the website is entitled to make money, the size of the hit surprised me.
  • I found out that Nova Scotia was way bigger than I thought. Though I pride myself in knowing some geography, I was pretty ignorant about this. One thing about traveling, and talking to local people, you get a much better and more accurate perspective. If you had asked me before we went there, I would have said Nova Scotia was probably somewhat bigger than Rhode Island. I was way off. It is only a bit smaller than Ireland, or three times the size of Massachusetts!
  • This may be seem like a non-sequitur, but:  we learned that Sarasota has a vibrant arts community – including great live music. Next time we go to Florida, maybe we’ll stop in and get a different view of Florida (as I’ve written about before, I have a number of negative associations with the Sunshine State).
  • The world is small – a woman at the breakfast table, who now lives in Atlanta, was born and raised in Albany, New York and attended the synagogue down the block from our house)! We played some Jewish geography, mentioning names and places to see if we could find some commonality. We were successful. (Do other ethnic groups play a similar game?)
  • We had great conversations with all of the guests and did not touch on politics at all! Hallelujah!
  • The smell of coffee and freshly baked pastry is a wonderful start to the day.

None of the above would have been possible if we stayed at a Courtyard.

Each of the B&Bs we stayed in offered something different. In Lunenberg, the Sail Inn was also an old, historic building that was well located close to the waterfront and near shops and restaurants, and the bed didn’t creak! An Asian couple ran it, they spoke heavily accented English, and they had a young son who was very inquisitive. He noticed that Gary had engaged the emergency brake when we parked our car, and he wondered why. Gary explained. The boy followed up with a number of other questions. It was nice to spend time with a family.

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The view from the Lunenberg waterfront – a stone’s throw from our B&B

We had breakfast that morning with a retired German couple who were finishing up their trip. We chatted about similarities and differences in our countries. They explained that when Germany reunited, some West Germans wouldn’t travel to what had been East Germany, thinking that there was nothing worth seeing. The couple thought that was foolish and shared what they had seen, recommending Dresden, should we ever visit.

The next B&B was located in a suburb of Halifax and was a modern home. The couple who hosted, Norma and Bill, were retired teachers. The room we stayed in reminded me of my parent’s bedroom in the house where I grew up. It had furniture that looked exactly like the Ethan Allen colonial style that Mom and Dad had, with the same drawer pulls. Norma and Bill’s bookcase was also crammed with history books, many familiar titles that sat on my Dad’s shelf, like Will and Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History. I felt at home immediately. The hosts also took great pride in their garden, which was clearly lovingly tended. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to truly enjoy it, but it added to the charm as we came and went.

Norma also offered helpful tips. When we mentioned that we were planning to go back to downtown Halifax to get dinner and listen to some live music, she suggested taking the ferry, rather than driving. The ferry made things much simpler and added to our experience. The weather was lovely for the ride across Halifax Harbour and we got to see the city from another angle.

 

The view from the ferry as we approached Halifax

The next two places we stayed weren’t B&Bs, but were inns, the main difference being that they didn’t include breakfast. We stayed in Cheticamp on Cape Breton Island, just outside the national park (a breathtakingly beautiful place). The hosts at Cheticamp Outback Inn were also welcoming. They gave us a great orientation to the town, including a rundown of places to eat (there were only four or five options since it is a very small town!). Since they didn’t provide breakfast at the inn, we were pleasantly surprised when, on our first morning, there was a knock on our door and one of the hosts delivered two slices of homemade lemon loaf to tide us over until we went into town. Yum!

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One of many spectacular views from Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Our B&B was just outside the park entrance

Our final stop was the Chipman Inn (Pratt House) in St. John, New Brunswick. It was located in the heart of downtown and did not have an onsite host. The building reminded me of a Brooklyn brownstone. The room was spacious and charming. We were two blocks from the waterfront, the sounds of live music and the cries of sea gulls added to the character of the place. Gary and I took a walk and found many restaurants and shops. I had not expected to find such a vibrant, hip neighborhood.

 

Two of the numerous painted salmon we found around St. John

Our trip to the Canadian maritime is now done, committed to memory. The scenery, the food, the history, the accommodations all exceeded our expectations. It also turns out that making conversation with strangers over breakfast can be fun, informative and enriching. We may have to reconsider our travel routine for our next trip. Bed and breakfasts may become the norm.

One preconception was confirmed: Canadians are very friendly.

A Treasure

I turned to Gary, “I’m in my happy place.” I felt giddy. We were walking through the Historical Gardens in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. I love gardens. I don’t know when this started for me but everywhere we go, if there is a botanical garden or other type of public green space (arboretum, outdoor sculpture garden, etc.) I am drawn to it. I want to visit – it is more appealing to me than most other tourist destinations. I am not a gardener myself, so I am not sure how to explain this, but I love them.

Whether it is the conservatory in Central Park in New York City, the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon, the Chihuly exhibit in the New York Botanical Gardens, I feel a deep satisfaction looking at the meeting of nature and man. People have planted and tended these gardens and then nature puts on an awesome display.

I love the walking, the scent (even my compromised nose could smell the fragrance today), the colors, the breeze (if there is one and somehow there usually is). Yesterday was a perfect day for our tour in Annapolis Royal. The sun was brilliant, no humidity, a strong breeze to keep us cool, but not too cool. The idea behind this garden was to take us through the history of the area using gardens to show the changes in the region. Our tour guide was excellent, quite knowledgeable. We learned of the competing cultures – originally there was a First Nation tribe, then French settlers (who lived harmoniously with the indigenous people), then the British (who deported the French and were at odds with the local tribe), then the French attempted to reclaim the area. Some things never change – war, deportations, immigrants struggling to make a life. All of this told through the gardens. With the splendor around us, I didn’t get bogged down in the negative, though. Everywhere I looked I saw something gorgeous. Here is a small sampling, though my photography skills don’t do it justice.

 

I can’t think of a better way to spend the day. On the walk back to our bed and breakfast, we stopped in several art galleries. I bought a few things – a magnet to remember the trip, some postcards to send the kids, a couple of gifts for those who are watching our cats. The kind of shopping I enjoy!

As we walked, Gary commented that San Diego would be jealous of the weather. He was exactly right. There aren’t too many times or places where that can be said. Then to top it off we watched a lovely sunset, chatting with a likeable couple from Florida who were staying at our B&B.

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sunset on the Annapolis River

Whatever the rest of our vacation week brings, this was a day to be treasured.

Thoughts for a Monday Morning

I am not going to write at length about gun violence in this country. But I do want to comment on what I see as an irony after the two most recent mass shootings. As the majority of Americans get more and more fed up with and anxious about the frequency of mass murders, suicides and “regular” homicides (in sum the staggering rate of gun violence in this country), the more possible the great fear of the gun rights activists could be realized. If things get bad enough, maybe we will come for your guns, instead of common sense gun control legislation. The staunch unwillingness of the NRA to negotiate reasonable standards (background checks, allowing databases to talk to each other, outlawing high-powered automatic weapons) may create an untenable situation where the majority of Americans are willing to put even more limits on gun ownership. I certainly am.

I know most of my readers don’t enjoy my political writing much (judging by the number of views those essays get), so I will leave it at that and move on to other topics.

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As I work on my book, I asked my mother a few questions to fill in some gaps in my understanding of our family history. First, I want to note how fortunate I am to still have my mother to ask those questions! Her memory may not be what it once was, but she still has so much to offer. Since beginning this blog and undertaking my memoir, I’ve had many conversations with her that have enriched my understanding of events and of our family.

Recently I asked her questions about Zada (regular readers know Zada was my maternal grandfather, Mom’s father). Zada was the patriarch of the Spilken family. He was a lover of life and an optimist. Two of his children, my mother and her brother, Terry, were able to adopt that approach. His other two children…not so much.

Zada’s life was hard in many respects. I didn’t fully appreciate some of the challenges until Mom reminded me of some tragedies that I may have known about before but had forgotten or not thought about for decades.

Zada came to this country when he was three. His father was ten years younger than his mother! She already had three children by her first husband. Zada was the oldest of five more children. All eight were raised together in a tenement on the lower East Side. It was a hard life – everyone worked as soon as they were able. I recall Zada describing sleeping in shifts because their apartment was so small, and they had to take on a boarder to help pay the rent.

What I didn’t remember is that one of Zada’s sisters, Ruth, who was seven or eight at the time, was playing with friends on the roof of the tenement when she fell off. She was found dead on the sidewalk. I can’t imagine the horror. But family life went on – I’m not suggesting that lives weren’t changed by the tragedy, but Zada was able to maintain his spirit. Maybe Zada was unique, but my sense of things is that in those days (this would have been early in the 20th century), people expected tragedy. Accidents and fatal illness were more common and as a result the death of a child was not so unusual.

I am glad standards have improved so that our expectations for our children are higher. But I do wonder if we could use some of the fortitude that our ancestors had. I can think of numerous examples of difficult times Zada endured. He lost everything in the hurricane of 1938 (fortunately none of his family died, but they lost their business and their home with most of their possessions). His sister, Lily, died as a young woman of tuberculosis. He went bankrupt when he was 60 years old and had to go to work in a commercial bakery at that late stage of his life. His wife, my Nana, died prematurely at the age of 56. So much loss to endure, but his spirit remained upbeat. He continued to be engaged with the world, even after macular degeneration took his vision.

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Zada and me next to his Toyota Corolla in Canarsie (1973)

I was thinking about this after our book club read The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton. Hinton was convicted of crimes he didn’t commit in Alabama in the 1980s. He was on death row for 30 years until he was finally exonerated. The book follows his journey. It is a very powerful story. He makes a choice, while on death row, to reclaim his humanity instead of giving in to anger and bitterness. He chooses to establish relationships with fellow inmates and guards, he starts a book club, he escapes to his imagination. He has the love and support of his mother and one friend throughout. There is much more to the story, but I will leave you to read it.

During our book club we discussed whether we would have the strength to make the choice Hinton made. Some of us were pretty certain we wouldn’t have the wherewithal, others of us thought we would try. Of course, you never know unless you are tested. I hope to never be tested in the ways that Hinton or my Zada were. While my life so far has brought challenges, they have not been on that scale. I hope I will rise to whatever my future holds with the fortitude of my ancestors, especially Mom and Zada.

If…

If you want to find every bit of schmutz (translation: dust bunnies and other crumbs) in your house, have a 14-month old visit.

If you want to be reminded of the wonder of electricity, watch the face of a 14-month old when you flip a light switch on and off.

If you want to discover muscles you forgot you had, play with a 14-month old for two full days.

If you want to see the beauty of the wind in the trees, look out the window with a 14-month old.

If you want your heart to melt, get a hug around the legs from a toddler who nuzzles you when she is ready for a nap.

If you want to experience your heart in your mouth, watch that toddler walk like a drunken sailor past a glass and wood coffee table.

If you want to experience the full range of human emotion, spend 15 minutes with a 14-month old who goes from joy to frustration to laughter to curiosity to tears in that space of time.

If you want a smile, give a 14-month old a bite of a sugar cookie. Yum.

 

I had the pleasure of all of this, and more, over the past four days. It is also why my blog post is so late. I admit to being tired, physically, mentally and emotionally. I am also reminded that there is a reason we have children when we are young. But, it is all worth it. To be a grandparent is a privilege and I am keenly aware of that. I will treasure memories of these days.

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On a brutally hot day, she had the right idea! My precious one.

 

A Remembrance

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We didn’t see my paternal grandparents that often when I was growing up, especially compared to my maternal ones. Of course, it would be difficult to do that since we were basically living with Nana and Zada, while Grandma and Grandpa lived on the other side of Brooklyn. They didn’t drive and Canarsie was very inconvenient to get to by public transportation, so it was up to my Dad to drive us to visit. Dad had a strained relationship with them, but my mother believed that family connections needed to be nurtured. It was at her insistence that we visited them once a month.

They lived in an apartment on Prospect Park West. The huge park by the same name was right across the street from their building. We didn’t often venture into the park. On those few occasions when we did, we found the ground littered with shards of beer bottles, cracked pavement and only one working swing. Instead we amused ourselves inside, sitting next to the window counting cars by color or model, or watching TV. Grandma worried that we’d hurt ourselves on the marble coffee table in the living room so fooling around was kept to a minimum.

Grandpa sat in a club chair in the living room, reading the Forward (the Yiddish language daily newspaper) and smoking a cigar. He wore glasses and a hearing aid; even with that he didn’t hear very well. He didn’t initiate much conversation, but it was clear from his smile that he was delighted to see us. Grandpa was mostly bald and maintained a carefully groomed moustache, and overall appearance. Between his accent and manner, he offered a stark contrast to Zada. Zada was a storyteller and bon vivant. Zada was comfortable chatting with his grandchildren (or other visitors, for that matter) wearing only his boxer shorts and sleeveless t-shirt, sitting at the kitchen table having a meal in that state of undress. On the occasions that we slept over at Grandma and Grandpa’s, Grandpa wore pajamas and a robe. I suspect he did that every night, even when he didn’t have guests. Grandpa was buttoned up in all respects.

The apartment on Prospect Park West had two bedrooms – one for my grandparents and one that used to be shared by my aunts. Dad, I think, slept in the living room or maybe on a cot in the dining room. I noted that, like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, Grandma and Grandpa had twin beds separated by a nightstand. Another contrast to Nana and Zada and my parents, each of whom shared a large single bed.

Grandma wasn’t particularly known for her cooking, but we certainly didn’t go hungry. She had some specialties notably blintzes – rolled crepes filled with cheese or berries. She particularly enjoyed watching my brother Mark eat them with great gusto.

Grandma had a sharp mind. She could add numbers quickly in her head without resorting to pencil and paper, a skill I saw put to use any time we went shopping. She also had a good sense of humor, quick with a quip and a hearty laugh. My brothers and I spent a couple of New Year’s Eves with her and Grandpa. Guy Lombardo and his orchestra were on television ringing in the new year. The highlight of the night was Grandma dancing the twist. It was so incongruous: Grandma was short and stout, she had no waist to speak of and an ample chest, but there she was doing this ‘modern’ dance. She was actually barely moving. We all dissolved in laughter. We would beg her to do it again. And she would.