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

Yom Kippur

Last Wednesday evening was the beginning of Yom Kippur; it turned out to be a particularly poignant one. As many know, Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It is a solemn day of reflection where we ask for forgiveness for our transgressions from our fellow humans and from God. Those who doubt God’s existence, even avowed atheists, can find meaning in the holiday. We look inward to see how we can do better in the year to come. Sometimes the observance of Yom Kippur resonates more than other years. This one did, perhaps because it has been such a difficult year on so many levels.

The ongoing health challenges facing my mom and aunt have been hard with so many decisions to make; coming to terms with problems that are beyond my ability to solve, has tested my spirit. I hope I am meeting the moment. The limitations COVID has placed on us, which makes dealing with everything yet more complicated, has been another test. I am not the most patient person, but I have had to be more so than ever. The sense that our country is at odds with itself, with no healing in sight, adds to the strain. Well over 650,000 Americans have died of Covid – an unfathomable number. It didn’t have to be this way.

As I look back on the year, there were bright spots. The country did elect Joe Biden (for some readers that may not be a bright spot, but for me it was). An even more positive thing was our daughter’s wedding. Despite the obstacles Covid introduced, we had a magical, intimate weekend of celebration.

From our magical wedding weekend

We were also able to have a family vacation at the Outer Banks. Sometimes I lose sight of the bright spots, so it is good to reflect and remind myself.

The beach at Duck, North Carolina

One of the reasons this Yom Kippur may have been more poignant was that it is the first since Gary’s Dad, David, died. Though we had not actually spent the holiday in person with him in many years, we were very connected. Gary would call just as we concluded the evening meal before attending Kol Nidre to wish David and Paula an easy fast, and then when we broke it the next evening, he would call again to wish them a happy new year and compare notes on how the fast went. This was his tradition with his dad for all the years that I have known Gary unless we were physically all together. There was a painful emptiness where David would have been.

Once again Gary and I livestreamed the service from a Manhattan synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun. Gary was not comfortable attending our synagogue in person due to the continued presence of Covid in the community. We participated from home. I downloaded the mahzor so we could recite the prayers – actually Gary recited, I listened.

Our new-fangled observance: Gary davening while I listened

Part of the Yom Kippur service is called Yizkor. It is focuses specifically on remembrance of those who have died. In preparation for that part, the rabbi suggested that those at home have a photograph, or an item associated with their loved one close by. Gary grabbed an old polaroid of David in which he is surrounded by the family at his home in Liberty. I took a wool cap that was my dad’s that Gary continues to use. We put those items on the coffee table next to the computer screen. It surprised me how much emotion they evoked.

Before the actual Yizkor prayers, the rabbis, there were two conducting the services, shared poems. One was especially powerful.

Michiko Dead

BY JACK GILBERT

He manages like somebody carrying a box   

that is too heavy, first with his arms

underneath. When their strength gives out,   

he moves the hands forward, hooking them   

on the corners, pulling the weight against   

his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly   

when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes   

different muscles take over. Afterward,

he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood   

drains out of the arm that is stretched up

to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now   

the man can hold underneath again, so that   

he can go on without ever putting the box down.

I thought the box was an fitting metaphor for grief. We have all had the experience of struggling to carry a heavy load and grief is just like that. Though we learn to cope, we adjust, we never put it down. The experience is fresher for Gary, but it is a message that resonated for me, as well.

I think we don’t talk about grief or loss enough. It makes us uncomfortable. I don’t want to dwell there, but those emotions are powerful and an important part of our lives. As soon as someone mentions a person who has died, or talks of their sadness, the impulse is to gloss over it and change the subject. Maybe if we didn’t do that the grief would be easier to bear.

One other thought on grieving that we don’t speak about. It is the grief we feel when someone we love is dying. They are still with us, but they might have a terminal illness, or the aging process is taking its toll. Sometimes our mourning begins before they are gone. That is even more of a taboo subject. We don’t know how to talk about death, unless it is an abstraction, or even if we should. There must be a healthier way to live with the certainty of death rather than ignoring it or dressing up our feelings so we can store them tidily away.

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.  

The Cycle of Life

I just re-read last week’s blog post. This week’s could be quite similar. In this time of coronavirus, one day doesn’t vary much from another and that adds up to a sameness week to week. There were some differences. The prime one being I didn’t get to cuddle and play with my granddaughter. Oh well. I did get to babysit my great-nephew. He is almost 15 months old and fascinated by cars, trucks and buses. Fortunately, his house has a big picture window in the living room that looks out on a busy thoroughfare. We watched red cars and blue cars and yellow buses go by for quite some time.

One of the extraordinary things that is happening in our family is that a new generation is emerging. Aside from my granddaughter, I now have five great-nephews! The newest arrived less than two weeks ago, on March 24th. The oldest will be four in August. Four of them have the last name Brody. My father’s name carries on! So as not to be left out, the most recent arrival was given the first name Brody! When I was young Brody was not a first name (though I think both of my brothers were regularly called Brody by friends), now it is, and we are all delighted. It will be quite something when the five of them get together! Mass confusion might ensue, but what fun!

As we are at the beginning of a new season, a season of rebirth, I am acutely aware of the cycle of life. We are greeting new family members; we have said goodbye to others. No matter how long a life they have been granted, it doesn’t feel long enough. At the same time, we don’t want to see them suffer. There is a time to die. It is all so bittersweet. It is the way of the world.

Yesterday, the final day of Passover, is a day when Yizkor is recited. Yizkor translates as ‘may He (God) remember;’ it is a memorial service that is conducted four times throughout the year. In Judaism we commemorate the anniversary of a parent’s (and other immediate family members) death (the yahrzeit) by lighting a candle. We also participate in Yizkor and light a candle then too. Gary is not yet comfortable attending services in person, so he livestreamed from a New York City synagogue. Throughout the year we have done that and found it to be surprisingly meaningful.

Of course, our thoughts of David, and my father, and others who have died, are not limited to those occasions. I asked Gary yesterday what brings his dad to mind. The list was long – from mundane things like having a nice stretch of weather to elections in Israel – all things he would share on his daily phone call with him. We agreed that the most painful part of the loss is the finality of it. Many believe that we will be reunited with our loved ones when we ourselves die. I imagine that is a very comforting thought. I can’t say I have that faith. Instead, I comfort myself with memories that have become part of me, lessons that I was taught, the love that I was given and still carry with me. It isn’t the same as having their physical presence, but it is something – something significant. My father and my grandparents are part of my DNA and are, in turn, part of my children.

I marvel at our family’s the next generation. I will share the memories, the lessons and love and hope that they carry it forward.

I’m Tired

I don’t have a blog post prepared so I am winging it. The past week was a tiring one. It started off with a dental appointment to put a crown on a tooth that had previously had root canal. The process of preparing the crown left my mouth sore. I don’t know about you, but I don’t enjoy when they insert the tray with the gooey stuff in my mouth to make an impression of my teeth. I remind myself to breathe so I don’t gag. I prefer not to have someone putting their hands in there to drill either- the vibrations cause my ears and sinuses to ache. Invariably my jaw is sore afterwards. It took a couple of days for that to settle down. Great start to the week.

Then I went down to New Jersey to accompany my mom to her pulmonologist appointment. I wanted to go (Mom, don’t feel guilty!!). I don’t mind a road trip. I listen to podcasts, NPR and music. As long as traffic isn’t bad, I’m good. I wanted to be there to hear directly what the doctor said, to support Mom and to spend some time with her. The issue is that the visit to the doctor was not great. I’m not going to go into details, but we left with more questions that we arrived with. Mom is doing okay, but not as good as we would like and frankly, I worry about her. (Mom, don’t feel guilty!!) It is hard being 3.5 hours away.

That night, after the unsettling appointment, I had a zoom bookclub. I signed up for an offering from my local library – the club meets virtually to discuss 7 Pulitzer Prize winning novels that explore the American experience. The assignment for this meeting was Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow. I’m not going to digress too far on this, it could merit its own blog post, but I would describe the read as a slog. Reading a book should not be a slog. I fought through it, at least in part out of respect for my fellow bookclubbers. The facilitator of the session, who I like very much, opened the meeting by confessing that he couldn’t get through it! Part of me regretted that I had put in the effort, but, in fact, I’m glad I did. It wasn’t great timing in that I had other things to do, but I did get something out of the experience. One thing I learned: I will not read another Saul Bellow novel. I read one in college, Herzog, which I also remember as a painful experience. I think two is quite sufficient for my lifetime. I may write more about Mr. Bellow’s novel another time. I enjoyed our discussion which centered on whether we feel an obligation to finish a book we have started. What do you think?

The week proceeded with preparations for Passover. Last year we did a virtual seder which worked out pretty well, all things considered, but certainly isn’t what we prefer. This year, since Gary and I are fully vaccinated, our children came and we zoomed with my husband’s sisters. I love having a full house. I loved having Leah, Ben, Dan, Beth and our granddaughter here.

Our granddaughter woke up at 4:15 a.m. Saturday morning. I didn’t want her to wake her parents – she was starting to cry and we had the monitor in our bedroom – so I went in to her. She settled quickly. I didn’t. I got back into bed and thought about everything I needed to do. About 6:00 a.m. I fell back to sleep. Our granddaughter woke up at 6:15 a.m. Fortunately, Gary was happy to get her and I fell back to sleep for another hour and a half. Despite that I got up not feeling particularly well rested. A small price to pay, but as I get older it gets harder to rebound. I thought to myself, “I don’t want to be 61!” as I brushed my teeth. Of course it is better than the alternative.

During the weekend we laughed, we chatted, we prepared the seder meal (three of us combined efforts to make the turkey and it paid off), we ate multiple meals actually. We played Trivial Pursuit. My granddaughter not only chose me to put her to bed both nights, but said, “Nana, I love you.” Nothing is better than that. I will treasure the memories and look forward to the next time we get to be together.

Now it is Monday morning. I don’t have a blog post prepared. But that’s okay.

Passover bouquet on my dining room table

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

Adventures in Wedding Planning

My daughter is getting married. This is a joyous time for our family, but as anyone who has planned a wedding knows, it is also stressful. So many decisions to make, so many people to please, so many opinions and so many preconceived ideas – how could it not be fraught? And, it brings back memories of my own wedding.

It was 1982 – an eventful year I have chronicled on this blog (here). Before Gary left for medical school in Pittsburgh, we wanted to get a few of the wedding essentials nailed down. We started by thinking about a venue. I had visions of a ceremony outside on a lush hillside, the sun shining down on us, a gentle breeze carrying the scent of my bouquet. We’d be dressed in relatively informal attire. Maybe I wouldn’t even wear a gown. That was my fantasy; I was introduced to reality quickly.

If we were going to be married by a rabbi and have a wedding in the sunshine, we would have to do it on a Sunday. A rabbi would need to wait for Sabbath (Saturday) to end before performing the ceremony. We both had large families with many coming from out of town, Sunday would be inconvenient.

We both wanted the ceremony to be officiated by a rabbi – I doubt Gary would have considered another option. In my ignorance, I did not realize that we would need to wait until after sunset to walk down the aisle on Saturday. Maybe we could have found a Reform rabbi who could conduct the ceremony earlier in the evening, but that was not going to fly with Gary’s family. It seemed to be the consensus of our families that the wedding should be on a Saturday night.

With Gary starting medical school that fall, we began planning for the following summer, the summer of 1983. Sunset was quite late. I learned that we couldn’t gather our guests until 9:30 pm!! Not only would it not be an afternoon wedding, it would be after midnight before Gary and I finally said our vows!

My education in wedding matters continued as we visited venues. We liked Terrace on the Park, which was located on the grounds of the old World’s Fair in Queens. The ballroom was at the top of a tower, high above Flushing Meadows Park. It had great views. It didn’t serve kosher food. This was the next lesson in my learning process. My family would be fine with that, but the Bakst family needed it to be certified kosher. I had never heard of a mashgiach before, but I learned that we needed to hire one to oversee all the food preparation to ensure that the rules of kashruth were observed.

Our venue options were getting narrower – we looked at a couple of synagogues that had large social halls. Each one offered a unique feature. It seemed that showcasing the bride in some way was part of their shpiel. For example, one salesperson enthusiastically described how they had a pedestal on which the bride could stand while it rotated – the audience could appreciate her beauty from every angle. I shook my head in disbelief – I had no desire to pose like a cake topper.

Eventually we visited the Seaview Jewish Center, where the salesperson made his pitch for my dramatic entrance. They had a curtain behind which the bride would wait before walking down the aisle, her body lit in silhouette so guests could anticipate with bated breath the reveal. I told him that I was not interested. Once we got past that, the venue offered a number of advantages. It was kosher, conveniently located in Canarsie, not far from my house, the ceremony and reception would be in the same building, and they presented a reasonably priced package deal. It even included a band. Sign us up! My parents put down a deposit and we had a date – June 11, 1983

The next wrinkle came when Gary got to medical school and found out his semester didn’t end until June 30th. Uh-oh! After a brief spasm of panic, I called the Seaview Jewish Center, and, to our great relief, July 30th was still available. We made the switch.

Our planning continued. Now I needed to look for a dress. At that stage of my life, I was as fit  as I had ever been. I could sometimes get into a size ten, though 12s were more reliable. Mom and I went into the city to the famous bridal building. This was a place in the garment district in Manhattan where designers had their showrooms. For a limited time on the weekend, they would open their doors to shoppers. You could try on samples and order a dress at greatly reduced prices. Everyone talked about what a great deal it was for a high-quality gown.

I was nervous about trying on dresses, of course. I had trouble imagining myself as a bride. I perused the magazines, looking at the styles, the hair-dos, and none of it looked like me. The dresses I saw were flouncy and tiered, with a lot of lace – more fitting for a Southern belle than a Brooklyn tomboy. But, Mom and I had heard so much about the bridal building, and we didn’t know of many alternatives, so off we went.

We arrived at 1385 Broadway, to what looked like a standard-issue office building. We checked the directory in the lobby and picked a few places to visit. We went to three or four showrooms on different floors – each with the same result. The largest sample size they offered was a six. I couldn’t even get my arms into it, much less the rest of my body! One of the salesgirls suggested that I hold it up in front of me to see if I liked it. One place had a dress in a size 20 that I could actually put on. It looked like a giant white tablecloth. I wanted to cry.

Needless to say, our outing was a disaster. We gave up. I don’t know who felt worse, Mom or me. Mom said we would find a dress somewhere else. We got on the subway and went back to Canarsie, my worst ideas about my body confirmed. Even though I was in the best shape of my life, I still couldn’t try on a dress.

Mom asked around and learned that Laura Ashley, a designer who made dresses more my style, had a line of wedding gowns. The following weekend Dad drove us to the shop in Manhattan. I had never gone into a clothing store on Madison Avenue. I was doubtful as I climbed the stairs. Alas, we hit pay dirt! There, in the lovely store that smelled like lavender, on the sales rack (!) was a dress, just my style and just my size. It was a simple white cotton Swiss polka dot gown with a v-neck, short sleeves, fitted to the waist. It had minimal frills, no train, just touches of ruffle on the bodice and sleeve. It was as if it was made just for me and it was only a little over $100 (about $260 today). What a relief!

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There were other hiccups in the rest of the planning process, but I had some nice surprises, too. I loved our invitations. We picked a heavyweight white paper with cranberry colored ink. The envelope was cranberry with white lining. Mom and I took an adult ed calligraphy class at South Shore High School specifically so I could address the envelopes. I took to calligraphy. I was able to reproduce the pen strokes that the teacher demonstrated. It was a great project for me.

In a way planning a wedding is a test of the relationship. Can you disagree in a constructive way and come to a resolution? Can both parties compromise? Do you share the same values? The answer for us was yes. I communicated this thought to Leah as she and Ben began their journey. They are off to a great start!

One final observation: Based on my experience shopping for a mother-of-the-groom dress several years ago, and going with Leah for her dress more recently, I believe stores offer a wider range of sample sizes. Hopefully no one has to repeat my experience at the bridal building!

A Meditation on Christmas

Note: The following post is written by Leah Bakst, my daughter. Thank you, Leah, for your thoughtful, interesting contribution.

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I’m no expert on schizophrenia, but as I understand it there are two important categories of symptoms. Positive symptoms are things that are extra or added to the average experience. This could be something like hallucinations or delusions. Then there are negative symptoms – things that most people experience that can be absent in someone with schizophrenia. Like experiencing pleasure. Thankfully, most people have rich experiences of pleasure, but these feelings can be missing in people with schizophrenia.

In the same way that there are positive and negative symptoms associated with particular disorders, I think we also understand our identities through both things we Do and things we Don’t Do compared to the average experience. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the context of being Jewish at Christmastime.

In my experience of Judaism, there are definitely things we do:

  • Eat bagels (with cream cheese and lox!)
  • Fast on Yom Kippur
  • Hold Seders on Passover
  • Light candles on Chanukah
  • Ask lots of questions
  • Gesticulate

And many things we don’t do:

  • Eat milk and meat together
  • Eat shellfish or pig products
  • Eat leavened foods on Passover
  • Work on the Sabbath
  • Believe in Hell

There’s a lot of food-related stuff.

In my immediate family, there was one critical addition to the “Don’t Do” list: celebrate Christmas.

We did not have a tree. We did not have lights. We didn’t sing Christmas carols. Obviously, we didn’t go to church. We didn’t watch Christmas movies (with the critical exception of Die Hard, which, yes, is a Christmas movie, fight me). We didn’t have stockings or ornaments. No eggnog, or Christmas cookies. (I did taste eggnog for the first time last year, and I finally get it. It’s delicious. And mixes oh-so-well with bourbon.)

There were absolutely things we did do on Christmas. As the stereotype goes, we went to the movies where we saw many people we knew from our local synagogue. We also ate Chinese food. These were our own Christmas traditions and absolutely left me feeling like a part of my own special community.

There were challenges though. In high school, I sang in a select choir that went caroling. It was by no means mandatory, but most of my friends would bundle up and go to the local shopping plaza to sing and make merry in the few days prior to Christmas. I couldn’t imagine purposefully missing an opportunity to make music and have fun with my friends, so I went. But there was a discomfort that tugged at me. This was something that We Didn’t Do. And if I define myself by not doing that thing – not being part of the community that carols – then what does it mean if I go right ahead and sing along?

That wasn’t the first time I was presented with a challenging choice around Christmas music. In my public elementary school, we sang songs about Jesus in music class around the holidays. As a born participator, I decided that I would sing the songs only up until the lines that seemed religious. During those moments I stood silently, feeling out of place while my classmates sang with gusto around me, not knowing if the line I was walking was the right one.

Later on, the studio where I took dance classes took part in a Christmas parade. As before, I couldn’t imagine missing out and I happily danced the parade route to Mariah belting “All I Want for Christmas is You.” That one didn’t bother me so much. And I appreciate my parents letting me find my way – they certainly didn’t tell me I couldn’t dance in a Christmas parade. I guess this wasn’t something We Didn’t Do, but it wasn’t exactly something We Did Do either.

Now I’m older, and engaged to a non-Jew. My blond-haired, hazel-eyed sweetheart of Swedish descent, who formerly self-identified as a “Jesus freak.” Though he’s no longer particularly religious, he grew up very connected to the Protestant Christian faith and his family has many lovely Christmas traditions that they continue to keep.

As we work to weave together our two lives and traditions, he has lovingly embraced my areligious Judaism. He lights Chanukah candles with me, has fasted on Yom Kippur, and enthusiastically supports my quest to host Passover Seders in our small apartment. He loves the questioning nature of the Jewish faith, and the outward emotionality and warmth of many Jewish people. He has managed to embrace a set of traditions, an ethnicity, an identity that isn’t his without feeling like he has lost or diluted himself. It is a shining example of being a partner.

For some reason, it feels harder on my end. This is the second Christmas I have celebrated with his family. They are such wonderful people and have welcomed me so warmly. I feel unendingly lucky to be marrying into this loving, generous, and kind family.

But.

(There’s always a but, isn’t there.)

Christmas feels uncomfortable.

We gather in a house with a beautiful wreath on the door and single candles alight in each window. Late on Christmas Eve, we pile the presents under the tree, and set up the nativity scene on the mantle. Christmas morning we grab a cup of coffee and unwrap fabulous gifts. And only after the whole room seems fully blanketed in an array of colorful paper and ribbons, do we clean ourselves up for Christmas dinner with family friends.

None of this is particularly religious. I’d even go so far as to say it’s quite fun! But a small voice within me continues incessantly: this Isn’t Something We Do.

What do I do with that voice? That itchy feeling?

And why is it so easy for my fiancé to bring new traditions into his ken, and so much harder for me.

I know there’s an easy and obvious answer, but it isn’t really an answer at all. When he celebrates Chanukah or Yom Kippur or Passover with me, he is not at risk of being unwittingly assimilated into a dominant Jewish culture. There is literally no chance that if he’s not careful, there won’t be anyone who continues to celebrate Christmas or carry on the Christian tradition. After all, the American tradition is, by and large, a Christian one.

It’s not the same for me. My family made it through the Holocaust by the skin of their teeth. In my particular branch of the family, there are four grandchildren. That’s it. Two boys, and two girls. If things go traditionally, that means only the boys are carrying on the family name, and it is all on their shoulders to keep that alive. What a terrible and strange burden. We survived all of that only to… just kind of get swallowed up by American life?

And if part of how we define ourselves as Jews is by the things We Don’t Do, then will my children really be Jewish if they do those things? Is that the first step on a gradual slide into losing our Jewish identity?

And whether or not that’s true, do these questions fundamentally insult the many people out there (family members of mine and otherwise) who consider themselves meaningfully half-Jewish? As if their connection to the religion and tradition does not pass some purity test because they also observe some Christian traditions?

I’m really not sure where this leaves me. At the moment, I’ve been treating it all like a mosquito bite: the best remedy is not to scratch it and let it be, and trust that my body will eventually take care of itself. If I just let myself participate in these traditions, then maybe over time I’ll learn that I have not lost any of myself at all. In fact, I’ve gained a beautiful connection to my new family’s traditions. That would be a holiday movie-worthy ending.

But for right now, I don’t have that certainty. I’m just doing my best not to scratch and trusting in the knowledge that my fiancé and I can figure it all out together.

A Disturbing ‘Happy New Year!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The incident left me with so many questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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symbols of Rosh Hashanah