First Impressions

Note: I am returning to some of my earlier blog themes by exploring the beginnings of Gary and my relationship. I continue to work on a book which will examine how generational trauma (the Holocaust)shaped our respective lives and influenced the family we created together. That book is taking forever to complete and keeps getting interrupted by life, but I keep chipping away at it.

            Gary and I were home for the break between semesters of our senior year of college when I was invited to Shabbos dinner at the Baksts. I had been raised to know enough to bring something when you go to someone’s house for dinner – wine, a box of chocolates, flowers. I wondered:  what to bring? Of course, I wanted to make a good impression. Though I had met his parents once, this would be my first extended interaction. Wine was not a big thing in my family life, and I didn’t think it was for Gary’s either, and I didn’t know anything about it, so I eliminated that as an option. I thought it would be nice if I brought a homemade dessert. Mom had a recipe for cheesecake, maybe cheese-pie is more accurate, that I loved and was always a big hit. I decided to make that.

            It was not a complicated recipe. The base of the pie was Philadelphia cream cheese – how could it go wrong? I bought a pre-made graham cracker crust. I topped the cream cheese mixture with canned strawberry filling and fresh strawberries. It looked good. I was pretty sure it would taste good, too.

            I arrived at the Bakst home in Rosedale, a neighborhood strikingly similar to my own in Canarsie. Mrs. Bakst greeted me warmly. I gave her the pie, she thanked me and asked if it should be refrigerated. We agreed that it should, and she put it on a shelf in the refrigerator. We joined the rest of the family in the living room.

            I sat down next to Gary on the couch that was encased in plastic. I took note of the furnishings, so different from my parents’ living room. Aside from the plastic coverings, the style was more formal and classic. My Mom’s taste ran to the modern (for 1979); we had a red shag carpet and black and white houndstooth drapes in our living room. We chatted for a bit, Gary’s older brother and younger sister were there, too, and then we were called to the table.

            The dining room table was set with a cream-colored tablecloth. I didn’t know if the dishes were china, but they looked fancier than everyday plates. Before we sat down, Mrs. Bakst lit the candles, reciting the prayer and then covering her eyes as I had seen my Nana do years before. Mr. Bakst made the blessings over the wine and challah.  Mrs. Bakst served the first course, chicken soup. “I cook without salt,” she explained as she set the steaming bowl down before me, “because David has high blood pressure. If you want to add it, you can.” I nodded and thanked her. “I don’t think it needs it,” David said. “It’s better without all that salt.” I didn’t add any, though my tastebuds were accustomed to lots of salt. I didn’t know if my mom or dad had high blood pressure, I did know that Mom wasn’t shy about including salt to her recipes – especially chicken soup. I was impressed that Mr. and Mrs. Bakst were so disciplined about his diet. Diet and discipline weren’t connected in my family.

            Everyone took a slice of challah. I looked around the table for butter or margarine and saw none. It was dawning on me that the Baksts kept Kosher. Gary had probably mentioned that to me, but his eating habits at college didn’t strike me as all that different from my own. I didn’t have milk with meat either (though I had been known to have a cheeseburger now and again). I didn’t yet realize that there was much more to it than that. I was about to learn quite a bit more  – much to my chagrin.

            We finished dinner. I got up to help remove the dishes.  When I stood, I was horrified to see that there were two pink smudge marks on the tablecloth where my elbows had rested. I was wearing a burgundy chenille sweater. It had not occurred to me that the color would run on to Mrs. Bakst’s pristine cloth. I think my face turned the color of my shirt.  I briefly thought about whether to say something or to try to cover it with my napkin.  “Mrs. Bakst,” I stammered, “I’m so sorry, but my sweater….look.” She looked, “Don’t worry. It will come out when I wash it.” “Are you sure?” Among the many things I knew nothing about at 20 years of age was how to get stains out. “It’s okay,” she reassured me. I made a mental note to tell Gary to let me know if it didn’t come out so I could buy a replacement. Oy. I wasn’t making the impression I hoped.

            After clearing the table, we returned to sit and continue chatting. After a bit, Mrs. Bakst offered tea and suggested serving the pie. Though, we had talked about refrigerating it earlier, we had not specifically gone over its ingredients. I realized there might be a problem. I explained to her that there was cream cheese in the mixture. Mr. and Mrs. Bakst conferred and decided that we had waited long enough after dinner to have it. According to the laws of Kashruth, I would later learn, you wait a certain number of hours before consuming dairy after meat. Not everyone observes the letter of the law. I felt badly that I had put them in that position. But, it was going to get worse.

            Mrs. Bakst removed the pie from the refrigerator, and I noticed her looking at it carefully. She was reading the label from the pre-made shell which was still affixed to the plastic cover of the pie. “is it okay?,” I asked.

“I am looking to see if the crust is kosher,” Paula explained.

I didn’t know that a crust could be unkosher. I had not yet learned that food products came with symbols to indicate whether they were rabbinically supervised and if it contained meat, dairy or was pareve (contained no ingredients that were meat or dairy and could be eaten with either). If the crust included animal fat it could indeed be unkosher. Given that there was no symbol on the label, it was likely that it wasn’t kosher.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know. If you don’t want to have it, I understand. I can just take it home.”

Mr. and Mrs. Bakst conferred again.They decided we would have it on paper plates with plastic utensils. I felt embarrassed.

            As I drove my father’s car back to our house in Canarsie, I reflected on the evening. How many things could I get wrong? The remains of the unkosher pie sat on the passenger seat. I knew it would get eaten in my house. Though I was born Jewish, there was a lot I didn’t know. And my lack of manners was on full display! Not only were my elbows on the table, but they had stained Gary’s mother’s linen tablecloth! Hopefully the smudges would come out. I hoped Mr. and Mrs. Bakst saw some of my positive attributes – I did help clear the table….

            Writing this 43 years after the fact, I am mostly amused by my ignorance. At the time I wondered if it would be a fatal flaw in the eyes of either Gary or his parents. Obviously, it wasn’t, but I had some work to do, including understanding how Gary felt about Judaism’s rituals and practices and whether I wanted to integrate them into my life.

Gary and I survived my inauspicious debut with his parents. Five months later we were graduating from SUNY-Binghamton 1980

The Albany Book Festival to the Rescue

I thought this week’s blog post was going to be titled “The System is Broken.” The system I am referring to is elder care. It was motivated by my visit to my aunt at the Amsterdam Nursing facility. I will write that piece, but not today. Fortunately, I was rescued from that dark place by some uplifting experiences, and I decided to focus on those.

First, I will note the value of friendship. In the midst of my distress, I had a lovely dinner with my almost-life-long friend (we met when I was 14), Steven. We commiserated over our respective painful experiences of seeing our elderly parents, relatives and friends go through the indignities that aging can bring, especially when coupled with the limitations of the health care system. We found much to laugh about even as we covered those difficult subjects. We ate outside on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a refreshing breeze washing over us. A strong cocktail improved my mood. It was a much-needed respite. Thank you, Steven.

This was followed up later in the week with a zoom call with Merle. We lamented the state of our country, but then focused on our gratitude for the good fortune we both enjoy.

The crowning event, though, in shifting away from writing that disturbing blog post, was attending the fourth annual Albany Book Festival. Last year it was limited to a virtual event due to the coronavirus. This year it was a mixture – virtual and live. I was concerned about attending an in-person, indoor event and wondered whether they would be taking appropriate precautions. I read the Covid information on the website and my worries were eased. I assured Gary that if they weren’t enforcing the rules and the environment felt unsafe, I would leave promptly.

My well-thumbed program

The morning fog had burned off, leaving a bright blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds, as I drove the short distance to the SUNY-Albany campus. I parked my car and ran into an ex-colleague from my days working at NYSSBA. This was a delightful surprise, as I had not seen her in several years. We caught up as we walked to the campus center. Purple signs, SUNY-A’s color, directed us. As we entered the building, I was relieved to see each and every person masked; not just masked but wearing them properly, fully covering their nose. There were a lot of people, but the area was not overcrowded. So far so good.

I perused the program and decided to head to the auditorium to hear Nathan Philbrick talk about his new book, Travels with George. It is a combination history, travelogue and memoir; the George in the title is George Washington. I had not read the book, nor was I familiar with Mr. Philbrick’s earlier work, but I thoroughly enjoyed the relaxed but informative conversation that was facilitated by moderator, Paul Grondahl. Mr. Philbrick, who has written multiple history books about early America, talked about Washington as a flawed but great man. Sprinkled in were amusing and interesting anecdotes about Philbrick’s own life. To conclude the session, Grondahl asked the author about his prediction for our country’s future, in this difficult and contentious time, given his knowledge of the past. Philbrick reflected on other perilous times in our history, including in the immediate aftermath of Washington’s election when the United States was first forming as a nation. He responded, “I have faith in America.” He pointed out that it may take a while, likely years, to weather the current storm. He admitted that though he is a pessimist by nature, he still trusted in our institutions. My spirits lifted. I felt better. I realize he is just one person, but he struck me as well-informed, intelligent, and knowledgeable. I bought his book.

I picked another session to attend. This one featured a conversation with the newly-named New York State poet and author, Willie Perdomo and Ayad Akhtar, respectively. Again, I was not familiar with either man’s work. I am not well read in poetry.  I am always promising myself that I will read more of it, to no avail. I left this session motivated once again. We’ll see.

Both men were well-spoken, good-humored and insightful. It is no wonder that Mr. Perdomo is a poet. He spoke lyrically, expressively and meaningfully about his life-journey. I could have listened for another hour. Mr. Akhtar didn’t project the same warmth, but he too was insightful. I bought his novel, Homeland Elegies, which according to Barack Obama is ‘a powerful and searching examination of contemporary American politics and attitudes.’ I value President Obama’s book recommendations and look forward to reading Mr. Akhtar’s work.

After that session, I wandered through the exhibit hall, taking in the offerings of other authors and publishers. I looked out the window and saw the brilliant sunshine. I decided I wanted to enjoy the beautiful weather rather than attend more sessions so I headed home.

I was invigorated by the talent, intelligence, and diversity I had witnessed at the book festival. Though I cut my stay short, I had gotten what I needed: a reminder that there are creative, smart, interesting people who are engaged with complex issues. It made me feel better about the world, about the future. Though it doesn’t change the fact that ‘the system is broken,’ I felt more hopeful and energized. Next week I can write about elder care.

“Most Likely to…”

Ever wonder what became of the people who were voted ‘most likely to succeed’ in your high school class? I don’t have to – I was one of them.  Alan Schick and I were selected from the Canarsie High School class of 1976. Though I don’t think Alan is famous, I certainly don’t hold that against him, neither am I. Success and fame are not synonymous in my estimation. We are Facebook friends and as best as I can tell, he is a successful attorney and family man. I hope he feels he has a fulfilling life. [Alan, if you are reading this and would like to chime in, please do!]

I’ve been thinking about it recently and, naturally me being me, the designation raises lots of questions. I wondered if anyone has ever done of study: were those folks predicted to be successful by their classmates actually successful? How did their lives turn out?

Not withstanding that question, why do we select classmates as most likely to succeed in the first place? Who came up with the idea? All of those ‘senior superlatives’ are tricky and they can be controversial, too. I looked back at my high school yearbook.

my high school yearbook

We had some interesting titles: Mr. and Miss Canarsie, Mr. and Miss Soul, Class Flirt, Class Fox (separate from cutest boy and girl obviously).  What were we thinking with class flirt and fox? Popularity surely plays a role in all the selections. Why do we vote for any of the categories? I suppose it is fun, but is it?

Since I had all these questions I went to the font of all knowledge – Google. I typed in: Are people voted most likely to succeed successful? Voila! I found a piece addressing some of my questions on NPR (from 2011). It reported the following:

“A recent poll by the high school reunion networking site MemoryLane.com found nearly one-third of those named most likely [to succeed] came to regard it as a curse…” [Please note, it was not offered as a scientific study/]

Only 1/3, that doesn’t sound too bad. Apparently, another third of those polled said the designation had no significance at all, some had even forgotten about it entirely. One person quoted in the piece reported finding motivation in it. When things got difficult, he thought back on the confidence people had in him and it helped.

I can’t say I found it helpful, but I also wasn’t burdened by it. I do remember having some trepidation about attending our 30th high school reunion. I wondered how I would be judged, if people would be disappointed when I reported what I was doing. It turned out to be a nonissue. Though I chatted with people about my life, I don’t recall anyone commenting on whether I measured up to the label.

At the root of this lies a more important question: what does success mean? When 17- or 18-year-olds choose a classmate, what are the metrics of success they have in mind? According to that same NPR piece, most people polled said ‘rising to the top of your field,’ making a lot of money and becoming famous. By those standards, I wouldn’t make the cut. I didn’t have a field, per se. I worked in different government/nonprofit positions. I didn’t make a lot of money and I am not famous either (at least not yet, perhaps this blog will go viral, though I have been at it for five years and it hasn’t happened. Besides, fame is not my goal.).  Not mentioned as criteria: having a long, loving marriage, raising children to be productive adults, maintaining friendships and family ties, continuing to grow and learn. If those were the measures, I’d be solid.

Whether one was voted most likely to succeed, another senior superlative or if one escaped high school without a designation, everyone deals with the weight of expectations. One way or another, we have to sort out what our parents want for us, the hopes of our family and community and what we want for ourselves.

Some may have to overcome a lack of expectation; feeling that no one has hopes for them. We all have challenges making our way in the adult world.

Should high schools continue this tradition? I’m under the impression that some have stopped. Did you get voted one of these titles? How has that impacted your life, if at all? I hope you’ll share. I’d love to get a conversation started.

Successfully Replenished

Thank you to all who responded to last week’s post. Many of you shared, here on the blog or on Facebook, what you do to de-stress and refill yourself. So many good ideas were offered: physical activities (for example, bicycling and yoga are two that stay with me), talking to family and friends, sleep (of course we need to be rested!), cuddling with animals, grandchildren or spouses (not necessarily in that order) and crafting were some of the many suggestions. I am grateful to have more tools to call upon, though I know some are not a good fit for me.

Some crafts would be stressful. Anything that requires patience and fine motor skills is just going to frustrate me. Sewing, knitting and the like, which I have tried, are definitely not for me. I respect those who are creative in that way. I appreciate the product, but the process would make me crazy. While painting and drawing may be done more successfully if you have excellent fine motor skills, I think they can be done without that. Watercolors appeal to me. I may be signing up for a class or looking for some Youtube videos in the near future.

The idea of talking to friends or family is interesting. I definitely benefit from venting sometimes or from processing an issue with someone I love and trust (most often that would be Gary or Merle, though I have called upon others), but sometimes talking is the last thing I want to do.

Though no one mentioned this idea in the comments, we spent time with friends this past weekend who turn to their faith. I am quite sure they are not alone in calling upon God or whatever higher power one believes in. I think many pray for guidance and find it helpful. I believe our friends, in times of stress, call upon their pastor. I have heard and read of folks who believe that through prayer or reading the bible they received guidance through a sign or a peaceful feeling coming over them. I have not had that experience. Prayer is one of those things about which I have contradictory impulses. Intellectually I don’t believe in the power of prayer. I don’t judge anyone who does, in fact I envy them their faith. On the other hand, when I am most challenged, I find myself praying. Maybe it is like that saying ‘there are no atheists in foxholes.’ When my father was dying, I must have silently asked for strength to get through it, for the wisdom to know the right things to do for him and for mercy on him so he didn’t suffer, ten times a day, at least. I can’t say doing it comforted me or refilled me, not consciously anyway. But I did it, so maybe it served some purpose. Or maybe it was a form of meditation that centered me. At the time I believed that the best way to comfort myself was to sit by the ocean for ten minutes (it was a few minutes drive from the hospital) or taking a walk in the bird sanctuary that was also nearby. Either way, I did find my way through it.

This past weekend, spent with friends from medical school, was replenishing. Though their life experience is so different from Gary and mine, and their faith is so strong and central to their lives in stark contrast to ours, we have lots of common ground. We were in Cooperstown, New York which is a lovely, charming town and home to the baseball hall of fame. It also has a large lake, named Glimmerglass for a reason. A museum (not an art museum, but a museum nonetheless) and nature – two of my favorite things. Plus laughter, friendship and good food. Now back to real life, a bit tired, but refreshed.

Some scenes from our visit:

To whoever planted that field of sunflowers – thank you! We came upon it as we drove out of Cooperstown on our way to the AirBnB and we had to pull over to take it in.

Remember to Replenish

“Make sure you replenish yourself,” the doctor said. She wasn’t talking about fluids or food. This was advice I received from the therapist I started seeing (again) when things got difficult these last months. I took her words to heart, and it has made a difference.

My mom and my aunt face life threatening illnesses. I have been involved in their care, requiring hours in hospitals, doctor’s offices and on the phone. It is draining. My mother-in-law is also struggling. On a happier note we are again planning our daughter’s wedding – well, not wedding since they got married last December but the joyous celebration we should have had last year. And, while I enjoy the preparations, it too introduces stressors. And, then there is the usual stuff of life that takes time and energy. It has been a lot to juggle.

The therapist’s advice is not new to me. I have long been aware of the importance of not getting emotionally depleted. Making choices that are healthier than eating a sleeve of Oreo cookies (which is soothing while I’m doing it, but just creates another problem) doesn’t come naturally to me. When I am tense my first thought is almost always food related. Recently I have made better choices. I was particularly proud of myself when I didn’t turn to an old favorite, Mint Milanos, when I stopped at a minimarket after I left Sloan-Kettering. I got a bottle of water because I was thirsty, not hungry, and then I hightailed it out of there for a walk. It was a lovely evening for a trek across Central Park. I felt tension releasing from my shoulders as I skirted the lake and then headed uptown to our apartment.

What is replenishing? It is easier to tell you what is not. Years ago, when I was doing Weight Watchers, I went to many meetings where the discussion included ideas for stress relief. Taking a bath or other self-care practices were suggested. I tried that but I never found them helpful. I can enjoy a bath, but it doesn’t nourish my soul. Getting a pedicure is pleasant and seeing a fun color on my toenails makes me smile – but doesn’t hit the spot. I know for some of my friends, retail therapy is a good option. I find shopping stressful so that would clearly be counterproductive.

I have learned that seeing beautiful places and things works for me. Taking a long walk in nature is restorative – that walk through Central Park fit the bill. A walk doesn’t work quite as well if it is in my suburban neighborhood. I don’t have to be out in the woods or on a remote beach, but I need to be away from the ordinary, someplace quieter, where there aren’t reminders of all that needs to be done, where I can breathe. Going to the SUNY-Albany campus, which is a five-minute drive from my house, is sufficient. But, it is even better if it is someplace new, better yet if it is beside a river or stream. The sound of gurgling water and light reflecting off the surface is heartening.

My relationship with nature is funny. I love being in the sun. When I was a child, before effective sunscreens were on the market, I had to be very careful to avoid sun poisoning, wearing long sleeves and long pants at picnics, and limiting my time in the swimming pool or other outdoor activity. In a tropical sun, I had to stay in the shade; even if I was covered, it wasn’t enough. I don’t know if it is the lotions or age, but my skin is not as sensitive. Now I can enjoy being at the beach or pool, as long as I take proper care. I’ll even get a bit of a tan! So being out in nature is something I can enjoy more easily.

One catch though is that I am afraid of most animals. Some people hike with hopes of spotting a bear or a snake or whatever. Not me! I like birds (as long as they aren’t aggressive – Gary and I were once chased from a picnic table by a flock of hungry blue jays), chipmunks and squirrels don’t scare me either (I am so brave). Otherwise, I want to see animals in their natural habitats on television. I love CBS Sunday Morning’s moment of nature – it’s always too short. Despite my reluctance to engage with insects or animals, taking a hike is energizing, but it isn’t always an option. Time may not permit it.

Driving on backroads, checking out scenery and small towns, also works. It takes me out of my head and brings my attention to others’ lives. It is especially enjoyable when the town has charm, cute shops and something other than chain restaurants. But, even when the village is down on its heels, it is interesting to me; to imagine the lives being lived there.

Seeing art is another activity that fills me up. Outdoor sculpture gardens are a favorite. The creativity, the shapes and colors, the beauty can be inspiring. I love museums. Most offer lovely quiet spaces where you can immerse yourself in the paintings or objects. If a given exhibit is too crowded, I will seek out a less populated one. I’m not one to read every description or explanation, I prefer to just take it all in. Of course, going to a museum isn’t always an option either.

I have not listened to music as a way to decompress and refill myself. Given that the other activities I have mentioned take more time and effort, I should probably give music a try. With my I-phone a constant companion, it could be even more convenient than cookies!

Sometimes, when I am at my most stressed, visiting Mom or Aunt Clair in the hospital (I don’t like hospitals, does anyone?), just stopping to breathe and think about what I will do (the walk I will take) or reflecting on what I most recently did (watching the sunset on the bay at the Outer Banks or cuddling with my granddaughter) can help. It is a habit of mind I am developing – a way to comfort myself. Maybe that is the key. In that difficult moment, rather than imagining what treat I will pick up on my way out of the hospital, I can recall a moment of nature and beauty, or anticipate the next one, and get through the challenge. Fill myself up that way.

It isn’t easy to change patterns of thought that have been part of me for most, if not all, of my 61 years. But, I’m not giving up on being healthier. The coming year will likely bring continuing challenges, my mother and my aunt won’t be getting younger, and who knows what else may come down the pike. I can cope but I can do a better job of coping. If you have suggestions, especially those that don’t involve empty calories, I would love to hear them. What do you do to recharge your batteries? What refills you?

The Return of the Baksts

In October of 1989, when Daniel was 7 months old and Leah was almost 2 ½ , Gary and I took our first trip to the Outer Banks. Prior to that I had never even heard of it. I didn’t know it was a narrow barrier island that mirrored the coast of North Carolina – one of the earliest sites of colonial settlement and infamous as the resting spot for many shipwrecks. That trip was the beginning of a tradition.

It was thirty years ago when we rented a beach house with friends from medical school who also had two children. They were coming from the D.C. suburbs (I wrote a post about our experience with them – here). Since our children were young, we were not beholden to school schedules yet, we took advantage of that flexibility and went in the early fall. Late September and early October are wonderful times to be on the Outer Banks. The water is warm, but the days are not as brutally hot and humid as is typical in the height of the summer. The only downside is the threat of hurricanes is greater in the autumn.

In 1989, as I did before any trip, I went to AAA to get a triptik and guidebooks to help plan our route. We loaded up our Camry wagon, which did not have air conditioning, and made the trek. After that first year, we took that drive at least a dozen times over the coming years. We continued to meet our friends and, because we liked it so much, we went with family and other friends, too. We watched the narrow barrier island develop. The first few trips we saw wild horses roaming the sand dunes and munching on the wild grasses that abutted the properties. By the mid 1990s some horses were penned in next to the Corolla Lighthouse, the rest roamed the northern part of the island that remained undeveloped. With each trip we saw the wild areas become covered with huge beach homes and shopping areas.

A combination of school schedules, the kids’ other activities, a desire to use limited vacation time in other ways led to the end of our trips to the Outer Banks. I think our last time there was in 2001.

Fast forward two decades and our son went with his family to spend a week in Kitty Hawk (which people may know from the Wright Brothers, but might not realize is part of the Outer Banks). In 2019 they went with family and friends and enjoyed themselves immensely.  Gary and I frequently talked about going back, wanting to see how it has changed and to revisit great memories, but other places and opportunities kept taking priority. Until this year.

With Covid waning, we were looking for a family vacation that we could all be comfortable with and would fit everyone’s schedules. Going back to the Outer Banks was a great option. I found a home that would suit us, walking distance to the beach and with access to a swimming pool.

Our trip down was different than it was 20 years ago. It was just the two of us – our kids and their spouses and our grandchild were travelling from Massachusetts and Connecticut respectively.

No longer using a Triptik, GPS adjusted our route depending on traffic. We took some back roads through Delaware to avoid congested main roads. I have always enjoyed road trips, especially when we get to see towns and neighborhoods off the beaten path. This trip fit the bill.

One thing we noticed as we drove down the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia was the increased number of restaurants, stores and churches that catered to Spanish-speakers. We saw many iglesias and tacquerias. The demographics of the area must have changed. Much of the route was still sparsely developed, but there were more shopping centers (seeing all the chain stores and eateries, Gary commented “America has come to the Eastern Shore.”). Previously we saw more bait shops. There were still many places to buy a gun.

As we neared the bridge to the Outer Banks, traffic increased. We slowly made our way across the Wright Memorial Bridge which spans the Currituck/Albemarle Sound. It was early Sunday afternoon as we crawled north on Route 12 toward Duck, where our rental home was located. We passed development after development. When we last visited there were areas where there was just brush and live oaks. We saw bicyclists and runners along the road. Though it was clear that it was very densely populated in season, the homes, landscaping and shopping areas are tastefully done. There aren’t any big box stores (other than where you first cross onto the island), none of the buildings are higher than two stories, there aren’t any amusement parks or McDonalds (or the like). One could argue that it makes the area too exclusive and expensive, but there is no denying that it is lovely.

Throughout the drive, I was hit by waves of nostalgia. I miss the time when our children were young. I loved taking care of them, being involved in their everyday lives, taking them to see new places, and sharing adventures. Time marches on and I am blessed they are still a regular part of our lives, and they were willing to take this vacation with us, but as we drove along the familiar (but new in some ways) route, I had pangs of missing that earlier time. Thinking about our friends who we shared that time with, whose lives were shattered by the loss of one of their children, added another dimension of poignancy.

I am happy to report our week together was fabulous.

The weather was unbelievable – it was hot, and sometimes humid, but perfect for the beach and pool. We prepared great meals, enjoyed wine and each other’s company. We created new memories. As we were getting packed up to leave on Sunday, our granddaughter looked at me and said, “I want to stay here forever!” Me too, little one. Sigh.

It Takes a Village

It is painful to watch. Aunt Clair pushes her walker down the carpeted hallway, ever so slowly. After ten or fifteen steps she pauses to catch her breath. I had not realized that the hallway was so long. Seeing my mother and Aunt Clair move through the world, my perspective on all kinds of things has changed.

The hallway from the elevator to my apartment is not really that long, not for a healthy individual. I have taken my health for granted, but my eyes have been opened. I can stand up quickly from a couch or chair without a second thought. Getting up off the floor is a bit more challenging. I can stand at the stove and cook dinner without needing to take a break. I can go to the supermarket, carry my bags into the house and unpack them – all without stopping to rest. I can take a shower without considering whether I am strong or steady enough to do it safely. My mother and Aunt Clair can’t do any of those things.

I have never been particularly grateful for my body. I usually eye it critically. But, seeing what can happen as you age, I am re-evaluating. While I have achy joints, they all work well. Kein ayin hara (Yiddish for ‘no evil eye,’ or ‘I don’t want to jinx myself’), I can play tennis, go for a hike, ride a bicycle. People my age and younger are not able to do some of those things. I have taken to thanking my legs and arms for functioning so well.

Bearing witness to Mom and Aunt Clair’s experience has made me aware of many things I had not given much thought to previously. The cycle of life is on full display. We start as babies, dependent on others to meet our needs. Many end up back in that position. We don’t want to believe that about ourselves. After living independently for decades, taking care of ourselves, making choices about what we eat, when we eat, when we sleep, where we go, that slowly slips away. The fact that it generally happens slowly, may ease the transition. We adjust to the new realities, we lower our expectations. We draw the circle of our life smaller and smaller. We may make peace with encroaching age and the limitations it brings, but at some point it is demoralizing. I don’t know which is worse – watching someone you love go through it or experiencing it yourself. (I know the answer to that, but it is heartbreaking to observe.)

We may become physically or mentally (or both) incapable of the activities of daily living. We need help.

Who provides that help? In some cultures, the expectation is that family steps up and in. Multigenerational homes are the norm. That may work, up to a point. Sometimes the needs go beyond what can be provided. American culture does not have that expectation of families, but it doesn’t compensate for the lack of it. We value rugged individualism too much and the vulnerable among us pay the price. I don’t know what happens in other countries, particularly those that have the long life span that we enjoy. I should do some research. Insight from readers would be much appreciated – please feel free to comment.

In America, if one is financially able, one can pay for assistance. But even if you have means, and insurance, it isn’t simple. Accessing insurance, researching options online, finding reputable agencies or individuals, getting doctors to write the necessary prescriptions, filling out the paperwork or electronic forms to get reimbursement – is challenging and requires persistence and some skill with technology. You would almost think that the system has been set up to discourage claims or deny payment (sarcasm alert!). It shouldn’t be that complicated! Most of our elders are not equipped to take all of that on. So even if you have money, you still need support.

Not all of us have those financial resources. For whatever reason, not earning enough, not planning ahead or suffering an unexpected financial loss (caused by bad health, an economic downturn, a natural disaster or bad luck), one can reach their seventh or eighth decade without much in the bank. Are government programs sufficient to meet the need? I think it is fair to say they don’t. Some services are available, but there are gaping holes. What are we, as a society, willing to pay to provide for our elders? What level of service, what is the quality of life we want to guarantee?

As we live longer and longer, many outlast spouses and friends. Not everyone has children. This is the situation that Aunt Clair faces. She has been single her entire adult life and she didn’t have a child. She is a very stubborn woman which has been a blessing and curse. She fought pancreatic cancer six years ago, surviving treatment – more than surviving. She bicycled to and from chemo….in Manhattan! From her apartment in Greenwich Village to Sloan Kettering, at Third Avenue and 53rd Street, she pedaled each way. Sadly, the cancer returned six months ago. She has resumed treatment. Other unrelated health problems have emerged. For a person so independent, who continues to be mentally sharp, the new limitations are a rude surprise, nearly impossible to accept.

Aunt Clair has experienced both the kindness of strangers and the invisibility that comes with being an elderly woman. New York City has a reputation for being a cold place to live, and it can be, but Clair has stories that show another side. One time recently she had an appointment with a doctor she had not seen before and had difficulty finding the office. Turned out she was on the wrong street. After exhausting herself going up and down the block, a younger woman stopped to help. She stayed with her until they sorted it out and found a cab – Clair was in no condition to walk the two blocks. I am grateful to know that there are good Samaritans out there. I know my mom has benefitted from help when she has needed it, too.

What is my role, as a niece and daughter? Clair has other nieces and nephews, each with a full life and responsibilities, their own challenges. Only one lives in Manhattan, albeit not close to Clair’s apartment, the rest of us are scattered around the Northeast. Mom has two other children, a brother and several nieces who have generously stepped in – and yet, there are still needs. It truly takes a village. Personally, I have no idea how to balance it.

When I returned home from New York City, having visited Mom and helped Aunt Clair a bit for a couple of days, I needed to recharge my batteries. I am fortunate to have a loving, supportive partner in Gary. Together we went for a long walk in the woods. My spirit is improved, but I still have no answers.

Visiting Mom early in the pandemic – before she needed oxygen full time
Me and Aunt Clair four years ago when she was cancer free

The Journey Continues – Ethnicity

Note: Two weeks ago I posted the first part of an essay exploring my Jewish identity. I missed a week – life got in the way. The first part of the essay examined Judaism as a religion. Here is the second part of that essay.

The other strand of my Jewish identity is more deeply engrained and easier to define – my ethnicity. Wikipedia tells me that ethnicity can be understood as a group that shares a set of traditions, ancestry, language, culture (food, dress, rituals), among other things. Far more than the religion, I felt and continue to feel very connected to those elements; they are my history, they are part of my DNA.

            Do other ethnicities feel the same way? Is it the same for Americans of Irish or Italian descent, for example? I feel an affinity with other Jews – especially those whose origins are in the New York City area. The sense of humor, the cultural references and worldview tend to be similar to my own. When I meet someone who shares that, it feels like an old shoe in the best way, I am at home.

            Some cultural bonds are stronger than others. If I am traveling abroad and come across a fellow American, I may feel a connection, but I might not. Depending on where they are from, they may have totally different sensibilities. To the outside world there may be a definable American culture, but especially these days, there can be essential differences.

            I don’t feel the same kinship with Israelis. We may share a religion, but we are culturally quite different. Whether they are Israelis living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan or when I traveled to Israel, I notice striking differences. I love Israel and found it beautiful and endlessly fascinating, but it didn’t feel like home. The people are blunter, more direct (maybe that is a good thing, but it isn’t how I function). The food is wonderful, but not the things I was used to.

            There is a great fear among American Jews that we are being assimilated into nothingness – that there will be nothing left of Judaism as time goes by. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard sermons from rabbis warning of this, exhorting the congregation to renew their efforts to preserve our identity. I think part of the challenge is the divide between the religion and the ethnicity. Rabbis define Judaism in religious terms, which is understandable given their education and training, but perhaps self-defeating. In my experience, they don’t put much value on being culturally Jewish. For me, though, that is the stronger pull. And the culture isn’t just food and humor. It includes a set of values – questioning authority, being a mensch (a good, kind person), and valuing education are at the core. There is an intersection between the religion and the ethnicity in those values. I think for many the rejection or discomfort with the religion is about the emphasis on faith in God and on a text that is centuries old. That text has much to offer, the Torah is worth studying but for many of us it cannot be the source of all teaching. [I can imagine an observant Jew reading the last two sentences and being horrified and cursing my chutzpah. Who am I to pass judgment on the Torah, how could I be so disrespectful? I mean no disrespect. I am writing how I feel, how I experience the religion. I envy those with unshakable faith, who find comfort and guidance in the Torah.)

            I want a Jewish identity to survive in this world. After more than 5700 years of persecution, I don’t want to see us melt away into whatever country we happen to live. For some the religion will sustain them. Some may have found a comfortable combination of the two. For me, it is the culture. Will that be enough? I wonder what choices our children will make.

Notice the Disney menorah

My Journey

One of the themes of this blog has been exploring different aspects of my identity. One central question I have grappled with is: What does it mean to me to be a Jew? This is part of a longer essay.

            At 61 years old, I think I have finally figured it out. As a young person I was confused by the different strands of Judaism. It took a while for it to dawn on me that it is both a religion and an ethnicity. Those two things are not one and the same. When I was child, those strands were all tied up together.

            To further complicate things, as a religion there are different levels of observance. I have not studied other religions, so I don’t know if others feature such a wide range of practice. We have three main branches: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Each branch, as their respective names suggest, represents a level of practice of ritual. The Orthodox adhere to many rules and regulations. On the other end of the spectrum, with very few restrictions on everyday life is Reform Judaism. Beyond Orthodox, on an even further extreme we have Hasidism, recognizable as the men who wear black hats and side curls, and the women who wear wigs and modest clothes; they live in very insulated communities. We also have secular Jews, those who have been born into the faith but do not practice it. And, we have everything in between. Even if the family you are born into provides a place on that continuum (mine was even less than Reform), each individual needs to figure out where they fit in, if they fit in. It can be confusing; it certainly has been for me.

            Over the years I explored whether I accepted Judaism’s religious tenets. As a young person I immediately hit a stumbling block. One of its foundational beliefs is monotheism. I was, and continue to be, uncertain about the existence of God. Most religious Jews either don’t share that uncertainty or they ignore it and observe the laws and rituals anyway. I tried that latter path as I continued my journey.

            One of the troubling things I have found is the sense that the Jewish community stands in judgment of itself, judging those within it who make different choices. Each segment casts an eye on their own members assessing whether they are Jewish enough, on one hand, or are they too dogmatic or zealous on the other? Maybe I imagined those appraising eyes, but I don’t think so.

            The family that I married into was far more observant than my family of origin. This created a tension for me. I was willing to practice many of the rituals because of my respect for my husband and his family’s history as Holocaust survivors. I hoped the religion would ‘take,’ or I would take to the religion.

            When Gary and I married we kept a kosher home. We went to synagogue regularly, not just on the high holidays. I made seders. We hosted Chanukah parties where I made latkes and we lit candles all eight nights. We sent our children to Hebrew school. I studied with the rabbi myself. Our home features Judaic art and we have mezuzahs on our doorposts.

Our breakfront – always ready for Chanukah. You would never guess we were Jewish.

Despite all of that I never uncovered a belief in God. I never felt a sense of belonging to the community in our synagogue either. I liked our rabbi, but my connection didn’t go beyond that. I would have been happy to find a home there, but I didn’t. I continued to try to make it work, but then I hit another major obstacle – 9/11.

            After 9/11 it felt like a door closed, both in my heart and mind.

            On that never-to-be-forgotten Tuesday, a sunny, clear late summer day, life came to a halt: the airports closed, Amtrak shut down, regular television programming was suspended. Fear was palpable.

            My parents, who were retired, were visiting. Dad, recently diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, was facing chemotherapy. His doctors were in Albany, near me, though they lived in the Catskills, over two hours away. They were considering getting an apartment in the area so they wouldn’t have to deal with the long drives while he was being treated. That very morning, we were planning to look at some apartments. In fact, we did go to look at one, but everyone was so distracted we decided not to continue. They went home and I waited anxiously for Leah and Daniel to return home from school.

            Thankfully they came home safely but I couldn’t take my eyes off the television – the images of the towers coming down were seared into my brain. Watching the firefighters rush into the billowing smoke and ash while everyone else ran away from it filled me with awe and fear for them.

            It all felt so strange. Without airplanes flying overhead, without the Thruway truck traffic that I ordinarily heard even inside our house, there was an eerie silence. Whenever there was a loud noise, it was startling. Was that a bomb? Was that gunfire? Those possibilities had never occurred to me before.

            We had to re-evaluate the risks of everything. Some things returned quickly – Gary went to work, the kids went to school but other things were slower to come back. The second weekend after the attack, we went to synagogue, we did not want to give in to the terrorists.

            The four of us walked into Temple Israel’s cavernous sanctuary on that Saturday morning, as we usually did. Attendance was bit lighter than usual, but plenty of people were there. We took seats in our customary location and opened our prayer books. Like every other time before, I read the English translation of the Hebrew and listened to the rabbi’s sermon. This time a coldness came over me. Something was wrong. I felt alienated from the proceedings. It hit me that the words and rituals were separating us from other people, reinforcing our separateness. The people in the sanctuary might be drawn together by reciting and chanting the prayers, but we were walled off from everyone else who didn’t participate. How could this be a good thing? We needed unity.

            I thought about all the different religions in the world. Each with its own structures, physical and otherwise. Each tradition offers an identity to adherents – and by providing those identities, they necessarily define ‘others.’ If 9/11 proved nothing else, it showed how toxic that could be. Taken to its extreme, it results in violence and death.

            Of course, this wasn’t the first time that I questioned the value of religion. I was well aware of history and how often wars were fought in the name of God. Despite that, when Gary and I had children, we wanted to give them a foundation in Judaism. Neither of us had strong faith in God, per se, but continuing the legacy of our Jewish identity was important to us. We knew that they would make their own choices as adults, but we thought it was important to give them roots, especially in view of our respective family histories.

            In September of 2001, Leah had already had her bat mitzvah, she was 14 years old and a freshman in high school. Daniel was preparing for his rite of passage, he was 12, and his bar mitzvah was coming in six months. We had been attending services regularly for the prior 7 years to give our children that foundation. I knew we would continue our commitment through Dan’s special day, but something changed for me on that Saturday in September of 2001.

            I spent many years trying to focus on the good – the positive values, the moral compass Judaism offered and the community it created. I tried to overlook, or compartmentalize, the portions of the teachings that held no meaning, or worse, were terribly anachronistic. Clearly in the modern world we rejected animal sacrifice and slavery, though those practices were still included in our Torah readings.  Aside from those obvious ones, there were other stories and rules that didn’t resonate. Spending so much time on the minutiae of the rules of the Sabbath seemed pointless to me. The general idea of observing a Sabbath day, on the other hand, was genius. Putting aside work, turning off electronics and turning inward and focusing on family, is a brilliant practice. But splitting hairs over whether one could plant a seed in a garden on the Sabbath or carry a purse, frustrated me. Too much energy was spent on parsing those rules instead of digging for more meaningful guidance.

            I think, in that moment on that Saturday in September, something crystalized. I realized I had come to the end of the journey. I was done with trying to make the religion an integral part of my life. I could continue to practice the rituals that were meaningful to me, but I wasn’t going to struggle to be religious anymore. Letting that go didn’t happen all at once, but I knew something inside me had changed.  

Food Firsts

by Leah Bakst

Note: Last week I was chatting with my daughter Leah and somehow the subject of the first time we tried new foods came up. I’m not sure what brought it up, but Leah explained that she had particularly vivid memories of some of her experiences. The conversation took an interesting turn.

“If that were me, it might be a blog post,” I commented

Are you asking me to write a blog post?” She knows her mother well.

Would you?” I asked, not managing to conceal my hope.

“I’ll think about it.”

A couple of days later, during our next conversation, Leah reported, “I wrote something. I couldn’t sleep, it was 1:30 in the morning, and I thought I would make use of the time.”

While I was sorry that she had a poor night’s sleep, I was delighted with the product. I think you will be, too.


Growing up keeping kosher, there were things my family would never eat. Then there were other completely unrelated foods we’d never eat strictly due to family idiosyncrasies. As an example, my father considers green peppers spectacularly offensive and calls them ‘vile fruit.’ It’s a pretty great name, but an unconventional take on a fairly standard vegetable. Given these family proclivities, there were a number of common foods I had never tried as I approached adulthood. Maybe it was all the anticipation, maybe it was just being a bit older, but I have several particularly strong memories of some of my “food firsts.” I thought I’d share a few.

I don’t think there’s a deeper meaning or some lesson here (other than the fact that I really love food). But newness can make even the most mundane things an event. What are some memorable food firsts for you? I know my mom and I would both love to hear.

~~

The thing about a ham and cheese sandwich is that when done right it sticks to the roof of your mouth. I love that. It’s so American.

In high school I’d have them at friends’ houses. I might get offered some snack options: “We could have cereal, or chips, or we could make a sandwich…”

“Oh. Hmm. A sandwich? Yeah I guess I could go for that.” As if I hadn’t been mentally preparing my ham and cheese already.

Every time I ate one, I’d have to surreptitiously insert a finger into my mouth to dislodge the gummy amalgam that collected at the roof of my mouth. It was at once gross and wonderful.

And somehow every household had the same ingredients, as if they had all gotten some goy instructional booklet. Thinly sliced ham and white American cheese, each in their own clear plastic zip bag with that deli paper around it. In my mind, it was magic.

~~

I didn’t realize that actual regular people ate their eggs with runny yolks until college. Before then I thought “sunny side up” was just something characters ordered in the movies. I pictured Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally,” feigning an orgasm in the middle of a crowded diner. “That’s the kind of person who gets runny eggs,” I thought. Wild, brazen.

“Over medium” eggs were my gateway. I progressed from there. Perhaps my father – with his protective and slightly dogmatic tendencies – would not approve of my current predilection for soft-boiled eggs. (Seven minutes and forty-five seconds at a brisk boil.) But every morning I get a little thrill as I fork open my egg and the sumptuous golden yolk seeps onto the toast and greens. It’s rich on my tongue, and I’m willing to take my chances.

~~

Oysters are not only unkosher, on their face they’re incredibly unappetizing. The outside looks like a barnacle suctioned to some long-lost shipwreck; rough and knobby, cold and wet. Inside, they look mucosal.

It was a gray day on the Washington coast when I had my first. A group of us combed the shore, bedecked in colorful rain gear. I found a promising shell and bounded over to a friend to show off my bounty. As she confirmed that I had indeed found an excellent oyster, it dawned on me that I was expected to eat the thing. This wasn’t fishing; no one catches and releases an oyster!

She instructed me to insert the shucking knife near the hinge, and with a twist I revealed my mucosal snack. There was no backing down now.

I ate the oyster in one gulp. It was bright and briny. Salty and slick, but gritty with sand from a poor shuck job. It was as primal and energizing as the ocean itself.

I’m not sure I even liked that first oyster. Or my second or third for that matter, though I like them now. But in that moment, it didn’t matter. I felt brave and capable and sublimely connected to our vital, living world.

~~

One note: Many of my adult food firsts are definitionally unkosher because I grew up in a kosher household. This brings up some complicated feelings, and for me, this meditation on new food experiences would be incomplete without recognizing that fact.

You never forget which foods are unkosher. Before each carnitas burrito, each cheeseburger, each cup of New England clam chowder, there’s a tiny moment when your breath catches in your chest, and you renew your decision to step away from your ancestors. At least that’s how it feels to me.

I feel guilty every time. But I also can’t imagine going back. If I did keep kosher, it would assuredly be for my father. (Frankly, there are worse reasons to do something.) But I don’t believe in a higher power, I don’t believe in a spirit, a soul, a metaphysical anything. I certainly don’t believe there is a moral mandate to eat or not eat certain foods based on the laws of kashruth – if there were a god, I cannot believe they would care one iota about which foods I consume.

If my family is disappointed I’m not keeping kosher, I can’t imagine my lack of belief in a higher power is any kind of salve. Is this just adding insult to injury? I honestly don’t know.

I do know that it has taken years of wrestling with what I owe my heritage and what I owe myself to arrive at a tenuous equilibrium. Perhaps time will grant me more clarity. For now, I will at least be sure to savor all of the wonderous things I am lucky enough to experience, and cherish the strong ties to my heritage I am lucky enough to have.

This picture isn’t really relevant to the story, but I like it. Leah and I looking triumphant!