The Threads that Bind Us

Our family gathered in Groton, Connecticut for a wedding this past weekend. We converged on the Mystic Hilton, coming from upstate New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Virginia and California. On Friday as we were each on our way, my brothers and I received a text from our aunt reporting that she and my uncle ‘made a stop to tell our loved ones the good news about our trip,’ meaning they visited the cemetery in Saddle Brook, NJ where my father, uncle and Nana (among other family members) are buried and shared the happy news of the upcoming nuptials. She included several pictures of the graves. I appreciated that they had done that, as irrational as the gesture may be.

I don’t believe that going to my father’s gravesite puts me closer to his spirit, but at the same time visiting is a demonstrable show of respect. In the Jewish tradition, when you visit the grave, you leave a small rock or pebble on the headstone as a tangible sign that someone was there – at least that’s the reason I have in my head and heart when I do it (there is likely some obscure reason for the ritual that dates back to ancient time, but I have no knowledge of it). I was glad that my aunt and uncle did it on our behalf. When we gather for these milestone events, it is bittersweet. We are thankful that we have something so special to celebrate, but also painfully aware of those who are no longer with us.

While chatting with one of my cousins, I mentioned that my aunt and uncle had done this, and she explained that for her going to the cemetery was an empty experience. Her mother died 35 years ago, and she still feels her mom’s spirit with her all the time, she is in regular communication with her (just to be clear, she didn’t mean that literally) but she doesn’t feel anything at her gravesite. I know other people feel the same way and have no need to go. My cousin wasn’t casting judgment on those who find meaning in a visit, but it just doesn’t do anything for her. On the other hand, I have a friend who visits her parents’ graves regularly – she finds it comforting. I’m trying to decide how I feel about it – not just with respect to loved ones who have died, but also in terms of what I want for myself.

This isn’t a subject most people want to talk about – all topics revolving around death tend to make people uncomfortable. I have always found it interesting and, more than that, important. I want to sort out my conflicting emotions, in part to plan for it so my children aren’t left with painful decisions when the time comes.

I have a recollection of an irreverent George Carlin comedy routine where he lamented that cemeteries were a waste of space. He suggested the land could be better used for affordable housing! (He was equally merciless about golf courses). Seriously, it is reasonable to ask whether our burial practices make sense from a use of resources and an ecological point of view. Is it sustainable?

Some of our feelings about this are probably the product of the traditions, either religious or cultural, we observed growing up. In my mother’s family, when she was a child, they went to the cemetery at least annually to pay their respects. She even remembers picnicking there! For her those were warm memories. The departed were still included in their lives. Though that tradition was not continued in my childhood, we never picnicked, I was aware that Mom and her brothers went at least yearly to the cemetery. As an adult, after my dad died, I took Mom to the cemetery a few times. Dad is buried in Mom’s (the Spilkens’) family plot, he lies near his mother-in-law. In life he loved being part of their family, it seems appropriate that he rests there. There is a spot for Mom, when the time comes, next to Dad.

The photo my aunt, Barbara Spilken, sent

Cremation was not considered when Dad died. It is my understanding that cremation was frowned upon among Jews. That attitude seems to be changing, and apparently was not rooted in agreed upon Jewish law. More Jews are choosing that option these days. Then you have to decide what to do with the cremains – scatter, bury/place in a mausoleum or keep in an urn somewhere. For other Jews, like my husband, irrespective of tradition or law, the legacy of the Holocaust makes this an unacceptable option.

On our drive back home from the wedding I asked Gary what he thought about all of this, including whether it was meaningful to visit the cemetery. He finds comfort in the idea of leaving a marker behind. He also expressed a desire to go to visit his dad, who is buried in Liberty, about a 2 hour drive from our home. Regardless of whether we go regularly, or not, Gary believes it is fitting that his dad’s existence has a marker, a place and a stone that memorializes his life that will be there for decades, maybe centuries, to come. He wants that for himself, too. Gary noted that he had not visited deceased family, he was thinking especially of his Bubbe, who are buried on Long Island in many, many years. He would like to, but couldn’t see making a separate trip, it is long and inconvenient, only for that purpose. If we were traveling in the area, then he would make a point of going. The location of the cemetery is obviously a factor in the frequency of visits.

Though I can’t articulate my reasons, it is important to me that I visit Dad’s grave once in a while – I can’t say how often it should be, though annually feels about right. I think of my dad all the time of course, but there is something about the visit to the site that formalizes it. Time and effort are carved out to honor my relationship with him by being there, looking at the inscription on the stone and placing a pebble on it to signify my presence. I am glad I can pay my respects to Nana and Uncle Mike at the same time.

I am of two minds for myself. I like the idea of being scattered in the wind, in a particularly lovely spot. I also see the appeal of leaving a marker, even if my children and grandchildren don’t visit. There would be a place where my existence was noted. I suppose the two are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps that is the answer I’ve been looking for – my cremains strewn about a lovely spot, (could they fertilize a garden?), and a memorial marker somewhere (a bench in Central Park?). Maybe I’m on to something here.

Do you visit loved ones at the cemetery? Does it feel meaningful? What do you want for yourself?

It is ironic that this piece started with the family gathering for a wedding but explored our recognition of death, but that is the nature of life. We gather for these events. The judge who officiated the ceremony, and it was a beautiful one, began with “Dearly beloved….,” just a word away from “Dearly departed…” It is all of a thread.

A Remembrance of Aunt Diane

Note: I wrote and posted a piece about my Aunt Diane in September of 2016, not long after I started this blog. I have updated and edited that essay in her memory. She died Monday, April 25, 2022. She was 92. She joins her sister, Clair, who passed away this past November, and her brother, my dad, Barry, who died 17 years ago, in the unknowable great beyond. They were each unique and important to me and I miss all three.

When we met at the burial site for Aunt Diane this past Wednesday, the rabbi told us that death takes us all, no one is spared.  He went on to say that the ritual of gathering at the cemetery reminds us to recommit to living life meaningfully. He told us that we were fortunate to be able to leave that afternoon though Diane could not– we should make the most of the time we have. He urged us not to waste it. I stood in the chill wind, somehow it is always colder and windier at cemeteries, I took in the huge expanse of grave markers as far as my eye could see, and I understood the truth of his words.

It’s funny how I hadn’t noticed it before – the likeness around the eyes. The line of the brow. The particular shade of blue, flecked with gray. The first time I saw Aunt Diane after my father died, the likeness unnerved me. During subsequent visits it comforted me. I felt like I got two-for-one: a visit with Dad, too.

My father was the middle child, one sister (Diane) three years older and another sister (Clair) two and a half years younger. They were three of the smartest people I have ever known. It’s kind of amazing that three siblings could each be so sharp. They had different personalities to be sure, but they shared incisiveness, a capacity for insight and intelligence that was as impressive as it could be intimidating. They also shared lively, large, blue-gray eyes. I always wished I had inherited those eyes.

In a traditional Jewish family, especially of that era (Dad was born in 1932), the son was the prince. Typically the family’s aspirations were tied up in the success of the son. Not so in my dad’s family. While I take pride in the fact that it was the eldest daughter who became the doctor, it seems that my father was overlooked. By his description, corroborated by Aunt Diane, he was not given encouragement or attention by his parents. It is a mystery that will never be solved.

Visual evidence of the family dynamic: photo taken at my dad’s bar mitzvah in 1945: Diane (16 years old) seated in front, (l-r): Clair (10 years old), Selma (my grandmother), Leo (my grandfather), Barry (my dad, age 13).

Growing up I didn’t know Aunt Diane that well. We celebrated Passover and Thanksgiving together most years, but those were large gatherings and didn’t provide much opportunity to have intimate conversation. I knew that we all respected Aunt Diane and called upon her whenever there were medical issues that needed to be addressed. I remember her reassuring presence at the hospital when I had eye surgery, by an ophthalmologist she recommended, when I was 5 years old and again when I was 21.

But the relationship between my father and his older sister, while loyal and loving, could also be tense for reasons I didn’t understand. Or maybe the tenseness related to her husband, Paul. Dad and Uncle Paul had different sensibilities, they didn’t share interests or humor. They each liked to laugh, but not at the same things. It was not something spoken about, just something I sensed. It would take some unusual circumstances for me to get to know Diane on my own.

I was preparing to go to Columbia University for graduate school, but housing wasn’t available when the semester started. It was September 1980 and Columbia was rehabbing a building on 80th Street and Columbus Avenue that would be offered to graduate students. I reserved a studio in that building, but since it wasn’t ready, Aunt Diane and Uncle Paul offered to let me stay with them to spare me a 90 minute commute (each way!) from Canarsie. I lived with them for almost two months, making the easy trip from 104th and Broadway to 120th and Amsterdam where the School of International and Public Affairs was located. And, I got to know Aunt Diane. I can’t say I got to know Uncle Paul.

I spent any number of hours talking with Aunt Diane about a range of subjects, from national politics (lamenting Ronald Reagan’s nomination to be President) to Israel to health care policy to personal values. I learned she was a lot more liberal than my parents! I learned about her history, about the challenges of going to medical school as a Jewish woman in the early 1950’s where she faced both anti-Semitism and misogyny. She was a trailblazer and a free-thinker; a woman before her time, especially in terms of male and female roles.

One area where Aunt Diane was distinctly more progressive than my parents was in her attitude toward premarital sex. I knew she and Uncle Paul took a more relaxed view of the subject so I asked her if Gary could stay over with me. Gary and I had already been together for a year at that point and he was working at a lab at Columbia Presbyterian, even further uptown (on 168th street). Gary was living at home with his parents in Rosedale (Queens), leaving him with a monumental commute to the lab. Aunt Diane explained that she had no problem with it, but was not comfortable allowing something that would go against my parents’ wishes. While it was true that my parents would not sanction that in their home, I thought they would be okay with it if she was – after all, I had been away at college for the four previous years. I think my parents took an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to the subject. I suggested she talk to my mom about it. I was not privy to that conversation, but a day or two later Aunt Diane told me that Gary was welcome to stay over.

Aunt Diane was a pediatrician who worked at a clinic in a hospital on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, her patients were mostly children of immigrants. During one of those conversations she told me she didn’t believe money should be part of the relationship between a physician and her patient. As a result, she spent her career practicing in the clinic and working for the New York City Department of Health, organizing continuing education for doctors. I always respected that choice, but today as an adult fully aware of the implications of that decision, I admire it even more.

After Uncle Paul died in 2010, when Gary and I were in Manhattan, we would sometimes meet Aunt Diane for a meal, often at the diner in her neighborhood.  She still lived in the same apartment she shared with Paul on the Upper West Side, the same apartment I stayed in back in 1980, and the same one I visited when I was a child. We met her as she walked ever so slowly with a cane, making her way down Broadway. We took a booth at the Metro Diner and chatted. We talked briefly about her health status; she had medical issues, as any octogenarian would. But mostly we talked about other things, she told us stories of her adventures in Israel with Paul in the 1950s.  She asked us questions about our lives, discussed advances in medicine with Gary. As one of those meals concluded, she invited us to join her to see a movie, A Tale of Love and Darkness, based on the book by the same name by Amos Oz. She was meeting a friend to see the movie at 3:00. We would have loved to go, if only we didn’t have another commitment (which we really did have – her offer was much more appealing!).

Those meals became less frequent as time went on and Aunt Diane’s mobility and cognition declined. I will continue to think back on them, though, particularly whenever Gary and I go to that diner. I saw my father in her eyes while we sat in that booth, especially how they crinkled up when she laughed. I am grateful I got to see them for as long as I did, but also so sad that I will see them no more, a connection to my dad extinguished. I will miss Aunt Diane’s wisdom, her stories, and insights. Her memory is surely a blessing.

Dad with his sisters

Mom with her sisters-in-law

Widening the Lens

I feel like a voyeur, but I can’t help myself. As I continue to sift through my aunt’s things, I am captivated by letters from my grandparents (my father’s parents). I hold certain impressions of them based on childhood memories and stories I heard throughout the years. The letters confirm some of those ideas, but also shed new light and offer a different perspective.

March 7, 1975

Dearest Clair,

So how be you ketzel? Do not forget M.D. appointment and Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam is by far the best Uncle anyone ever had. We are as we were, thank the good Lord. I am now in my glory that my “friends” have gone home…..

There is so much to unpack in this brief beginning. First, the date. March of 1975, I was finishing my junior year of high school. Grandma, the writer of this letter, was 69 and would be dead 9 months later. The letter gave no hint of her failing health, she may still have been without symptoms. About four months after this, she would be diagnosed with liver cancer and things went downhill fast from there. She died December 19, 1975.

She wrote from Florida to her ‘dearest’ daughter living in New York City. Clair was the baby of the family. I doubt there were letters written to my dad that began Dearest Barry. That isn’t to say she didn’t love my dad, but I don’t think they shared the warmth revealed in these letters. Again and again, in notes from both of her parents, Clair is addressed with terms of endearment. There are many possible explanations for the absence of evidence of that affection for my dad. To the best of my knowledge, Dad didn’t save letters. Dad also had terrible handwriting, more like chicken scratching, so he may not have kept up correspondence with his parents. But, there is something more. My memory was that there wasn’t much warmth between Dad and his parents. I’ve written about their complicated relationship before. If these letters to Clair are indicative of their bond, there was a great deal of it between Clair and her parents.

Photo of Grandma and Grandpa taken by Clair around the time of this letter.

I guess it should not be surprising. Siblings can have different relationships with their parents. I can think of examples of that in our extended family. One child sees their dad as heroic while another seems him as seriously flawed. One child may feel secure in the love of a parent, another may not. Growing up I saw things through the lens of my father’s perception. Reading these letters widens the view. It doesn’t change his reality but adds to the picture I have of his family.

Which brings me to the word ‘ketzel.’ I had to smile when I read that. Dad called me that all the time when I was a child.  Ketzel means kitten in Yiddish. I didn’t know that growing up, but I recognized by the tone of his voice that it was a loving term. Ketzel is not a word I heard much if at all over the years since Dad died. Reading this letter in her Greenwich Village apartment brought my dad to me. I also didn’t know that it was a familial term – I only knew my dad used it but it makes sense that it would have been inherited along with their DNA.

Reading this letter, and the others, brought back other voices. It is nice to ‘hear’ Grandma’s voice.

Her voice comes through loud and clear. “So how be you, ketzel?” The phrasing of that is so Grandma. She was born in America, but her speech patterns had the inflections and syntax of the shtetl – at least that’s what I think it is. To me it is identifiably Jewish. Grandma was funny. She was quick with a quip, but she also had an amusing way of putting things – just like the opening of this missive.

“Do not forget M.D. appointment…” A Jewish mother reminding her daughter to take care from afar. Judging by the mounds of paper I sorted through in Aunt Clair’s apartment, she heeded her mother’s advice. She followed up on several medical conditions. Today we can access test results and other information from patient portals. Clair was ahead of her time. She kept copious records of various tests and lab reports, on paper and CDs.  

“Do not forget… Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam is the best uncle anyone ever had.” She is reminding Clair to file her taxes – which I’ll say more about momentarily. But, what a great line! Though Grandma was American born and wasn’t as close to the immigrant experience as her husband, she had a deep appreciation for her country. For whatever reason, Aunt Clair was reluctant to file her taxes. It might have been straight up procrastination, or maybe something else was at play, but Clair struggled with this her entire adult life. Taking care of details, like filing paperwork, was the bane of her existence. Filing her taxes late (or not at all some years) may have been an expression of her rebellious nature. While Clair believed in government, a subject she and I discussed many times over the years, she wanted it to be run fairly and competently. It often fell short of the mark in her estimation, and it is possible she was showing her disapproval. Her mother, in this letter, was prodding her to take care of business – but unlike the medical appointment, she didn’t listen.

Another interesting tidbit from this letter – “We are as we were, thank the good Lord.” Again, interesting syntax, not your typical ‘we’re fine.’ Grandma was thanking God that her friends had gone home. The rest of the letter goes into the details of their friends’ visit that went sour, recounted with Grandma’s trademark blunt humor. I am a bit surprised that Grandma references God, given their lack of faith, but I don’t think it represents serious reverence for a higher power, more likely just a turn of phrase.

As I read these letters I get drawn into that world, adding to the picture I already have of my dad’s family. The letters offer a glimpse into a relationship I had no access to before. It feels odd to be peeking over their shoulders, but it doesn’t feel wrong. I have an enriched understanding and by disclosing it on this blog my family can share in it too.

This effort has brought up so much rich material, there is more to explore. I hope you will find it as interesting and thought-provoking as I have.

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.

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 Family Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Summing Up

What is left to tell? Paula and David began their life together in Queens, New York. David continued working at the pickle factory. Paula was a homemaker and managed their finances. She was very frugal and even with David’s modest earnings, they were able to put away some money. Eventually they bought a car, and a few years after that (in 1963), they were able to buy a house in Rosedale, Queens. Rosedale bordered Nassau County, Long Island and had the look and feel of a suburban neighborhood, even though it was in the New York City limits.

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The Bakst house in Rosedale, pictured in 2018. Photo captured from GoogleMaps. David sold the house in 1990 (give or take a year).

Their oldest child, Rochelle, arrived 18 months into their marriage. Paula’s mother and sister, Lea and Sofia, flew up from Cuba to meet the newest generation of their family. Four years after that, in 1956, Paula and David’s first son, Steven, was born. Lea and Sofia came north again, this time on permanent visas. They stayed and lived with David and Paula. It was tight quarters, six of them, in their small apartment with one bathroom, but it was nothing they couldn’t manage given all that they had been through.

Gary arrived in 1959 and was the baby of the family for 8 years, until Doreen entered the picture. Now the Bakst family was complete. David, as he envisioned when he spoke to Uncle Nachum years earlier, moved up to become the general manager of the food distribution company that the pickle business grew into.

In their early years in New York, David and Paula attended night school to learn English and, in time, they became United States citizens. They straddled two worlds. They were a product of their Eastern European shtetl childhoods, a world that had been destroyed by the Nazis, and they bore the scars of that trauma, and now they were trying to fit into the modern American society of the 1950s and 1960s. They embraced much of what America offered, but were also anxious about their ability to understand American institutions. They continued to seek out the company of family and friends that shared their shtetl experience. The generation gap, a common experience of that era, was alive and well in the Bakst household.

Not too long after her arrival, Sofia met and married Marvin Bressler, and began her own family. The Bresslers also settled in Rosedale. They had three children, a girl and two boys.

Lea continued to live with Paula and David, until her death, of a brain tumor, in 1973. She was 80 years old. She was the only grandparent the Bakst children would know.

Bernie didn’t leave Cuba until after the communist revolution in 1959. He was a businessman enjoying his life in Havana, and in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of the Batista government, Bernie made a lot of money. With some reluctance, he, along with Nachum, Bushe, Solomon and Mary, left for Florida. The aunts and uncles, and their children, settled in North Miami Beach, a community of Cuban-Jewish exiles. Over the years, Paula and David would visit when they could. Nachum lived a long life, well into his nineties.

Bernie eventually moved further north and became a successful businessman, marrying, and starting a family in Woodmere, on Long Island (a short distance from Rosedale). He and his wife had two children.

As a result of their extended time in Cuba, Bernie and Sofia, in particular, developed an affinity for its culture and maintained a connection with it throughout their lives. As part of his business in America, Bernie owned a warehouse in Union City, New Jersey (a community with a lot of Cuban immigrants). Gary worked there a couple of summers and has vivid memories of the experience. Gary commuted from Rosedale to Jersey, with his uncle. Bernie drove like a maniac, waiting until the last minute to dart across three lanes of traffic to get to the exit of the highway. And, Bernie would play a game with the tolls at the bridges, tossing one coin at a time, hoping the wooden arm would go up before the full fare was paid. Bernie employed a number of Cuban men at the warehouse. Gary remembers the men cooking a communal lunch, pork spiced with garlic, pepper, onion and coriander, as well as the smell of strong coffee. Gary also picked up some Spanish words that weren’t taught in high school.

David’s sister, Batya, lived in Israel for 7 years, with Fishel and their daughter Rochelle. Batya left Israel and came to the United States to get a divorce (she wasn’t able to get a divorce in Israel). She lived with David and Paula while she waited for it to go through. After a year, Rochelle joined her mom in New York. Though Batya regretted leaving Israel, she felt she had no choice. In time, she remarried and had a son, Ben, and she became an educator. She and her family lived blocks away from the Baksts in Rosedale.

Batya carried her own brutal memories, one of which she shared in a speech she delivered at the Rosedale Jewish Center, where she was being honored as a woman of valor. With her children, Rochelle and Ben, in the audience, Batya recounted her time in the work camp (the one she was miraculously rescued from by the Iskra Partisan Brigade). She told of one particularly horrific experience. She was walking across the camp compound and she heard a slight thud and a small mew as a piece of balled up laundry fell to the ground nearby. Batya didn’t see who had dropped it and thought it might be a kitten so she bent down to see what was in the bunched-up fabric. She found an almost newborn baby girl, barely alive, seemingly frozen. Without thinking, Batya quickly scooped her up, held the bundle to her chest and hurried to her bunk. She tried to warm the baby. Over the next day or so, Batya smuggled water and milk and fed her as best she could. She seemed to be reviving, and Batya named her Ilana. She didn’t know what she was going to do with her, she was just going from moment to moment trying to protect the baby. At one point, much to Batya’s distress, Ilana started to cry, bringing a German soldier to investigate. The soldier grabbed the baby, and to Batya’s everlasting horror, he plunged a bayonet into her. Batya shared this memory from the bemah in the synagogue. It was the first Ben, who was about 14 at the time, had heard the story. Though he knew his mother had endured suffering during the Holocaust, he didn’t know the depth of her anguish until then. Batya died of a rare type of cancer in 1982, she was 57 years old. Her daughter, Rochelle, lovingly cared for her in her final days. When Ben became a father himself, he and his wife named one of their sons after Ilana.

Paula and David didn’t often speak of their wartime experiences with their children. For the older children, Rochelle and Steven, the impact of the trauma was more apparent. Paula was still having nightmares when Rochelle was young. Gary and Doreen were more removed from it, as Paula and David healed and as their economic circumstances improved. All four of the children, though, were acutely aware of the legacy they carried.

Out of the ashes of the destruction of Ivye and Sernicki, new generations took root in America. The Baksts and Silberfarbs had 11 children, who in turn had 15 grandchildren and, to date, two great-grandchildren.

A Tense Conversation

Note: At the end of this piece, Gary offers his perspective.

It was the beginning of our relationship. Gary and I had long conversations about our histories, comparing our families, and sharing our dreams for the future. I knew the broad outlines of his family background, that his parents were Holocaust survivors who had not been in concentration camps. But, I didn’t yet grasp the impact of that on Gary. On one particular autumn night, with a particular conversation, I touched a nerve and, thus, I began to learn.

We were in the living room of the apartment that he shared with two friends. It was late at night, as it often was in those days when we hung out and talked into the wee hours. I was sitting on the floor with my back against the chair he was sitting in, his legs framing my arms.

It started as an innocuous conversation, at least it seemed so to me, about his need to take the MCATs (the medical school entrance exams) and the timing of the test.

A little background might be helpful. Most pre-med students take the MCATs at the end of junior year so that they can apply to medical school during senior year. This sets them up to go directly from college to med school. Since med school is four years and there is additional training required beyond that, which often takes anywhere from three to ten years, many want to be as efficient with their time as possible. Unfortunately, Gary wasn’t in position to do that. His junior year had not been terribly successful. He lost motivation and stepped off the track he had been on, and didn’t take the MCATs. It was now the 1979-80 school year, our senior year, and the test wasn’t available to be taken very often. I think it was offered maybe twice a year. Gary’s next opportunity would be in the Spring, but he hadn’t filled out the application yet.

In order to take the test, Gary had to fill out some paperwork, write a check and mail it in. Paperwork wasn’t a strong suit for Gary, as I was beginning to learn. But, it turned out there was more to his procrastination than met the eye.

“So, let’s fill out the application now and you can mail it tomorrow,” I helpfully suggested.

“You don’t understand,” came the testy reply.

“What do you mean?” I asked, moving to turn around to face him.

“You don’t understand the pressure I am under,” his voice was tight. I heard anger, frustration and anxiety.

“Explain it, then.”

Explain he did. A torrent of words describing high expectations placed on him from as early as he could remember. “It’s good to be a doctor,” his father, David, told him when he was in Kindergarten. It was an idea David repeated regularly over the years. Gary was a good student, it was clear he was intelligent from the get-go. The seed was planted early and his father could be relentless. It was assumed he would go to medical school.

This story isn’t unusual among Jewish families. Many children were on the receiving end of those messages. My response, thinking I was supporting his vision for himself, was to say, “But you can do whatever you want! You don’t have to be limited! You don’t have to be a doctor.”

“You’re not hearing me!” Now he was angry. Gary didn’t, and doesn’t, get angry often. He was angry now.

“I feel like I do have to be a doctor! I will disappoint my father, let down my entire family, if I’m not!” He went on to describe how things went at family gatherings, how it was assumed he was on track to go to medical school. His parents, not aware of the particulars of college and graduate school, didn’t know where Gary was in the process. He was carrying 22 credits that semester (and would have to carry an equivalent load again the next semester), to make up for junior year and to graduate on time. He explained how so much was wrapped up, for his father in particular, in his earning a medical degree.

At first, I stuck to my thought that Gary could do what he wanted. “You’re great at explaining things. You could be a great science teacher,” I said. After all, I was thinking, both of my parents were teachers. I thought it was an admirable profession.

“You’re still not getting it!” Gary exploded.

I recoiled at the power and emotion behind his words. I retreated, “Okay. Okay.”

We agreed that it was late and we weren’t going to solve anything in that moment. I told him I wanted to understand, and we could talk again after we both got some sleep. We said good night and I went back across the hall to my apartment.

It was the beginning of my understanding the impact of his parent’s Holocaust experience on Gary and how it shaped him. No child wants to disappoint their parents, I certainly didn’t, but there was a more intense sense of responsibility and deeper obligation for Gary, knowing how much his Mom and Dad had gone through, how much they suffered. Gary had this opportunity that they never had, and he felt a duty to make the most of it regardless of his own wishes. I was beginning to appreciate the weight of that.

I think our conversation was also a step along Gary’s journey to sort out what he actually wanted for himself and what others expected of him. He began to acknowledge that it was okay to factor in what his father wanted, after going through an internal rebellion. And, over the course of the next two years, it would become clear to him that he did want to be a doctor.

Of course, there was also all the other anxiety that every pre-med student deals with: getting good grades, scoring high enough on the MCATs, getting into a program (preferably in the United States!) and succeeding in one. Under the best of circumstances, it is a fraught journey. Not nearly as fraught as the journey his parents had taken, but challenging nonetheless.

Some thoughts from Gary:

We all should pursue our own dreams.  Right?  That seems straight forward enough and yet that very question was at the heart of my dilemma back when Linda and I had that tense conversation.  To be fair, that idea, the belief that each of us can and should do what we want to do, is something that many in the world would find laughable. It is a luxury many don’t have.

Many people are just trying to survive and it is for those who are fortunate enough to grow up in the right county and in the right circumstances to even think about such questions.  How many people dream of picking up garbage or cleaning hotel rooms?  Of working endless hours picking fruit on farms, or working in mines?  On top of that, many people really don’t have a dream.  We fall into whatever and we do our jobs and earn our paychecks and the world keeps spinning around.

But back then, I firmly believed I should pursue my dreams.  And, while I had no reason why being a physician couldn’t be my dream, I had one really big problem:  My father wanted it for me more than anyone.  And that left me with the dilemma.  Did I want it or was I doing it for my father?  And how could I do it if it wasn’t for me?  And how could I not do it after all he had been through and all that he seemed to have emotionally invested in my becoming a doctor?

As it turns out, medical school was four of the best years of my life and being a physician has allowed me to utilize my inclination to think scientifically and serve people in a most important and personal way.  It has brought me a tremendous sense of purpose, a sense of doing something meaningful.  And it has given me financial rewards beyond what I would have ever imagined reaping.  As it turns out, it was the perfect decision.

But at that time, it wasn’t clear to me whose decision it was; where did my father’s will end and mine begin?  Certainly, complicating all of this was the fact that my parents are Holocaust survivors.  The children (and I’m sure grandchildren) of survivors have common traits.  We tend to be anxious.  We tend to be driven.  We tend to live with the guilt that comes from the fact that we never had to endure what our parents did.  They were getting shot at.  I was more concerned about whether Keith Hernandez would get the lead runner out when fielding a bunt.  They didn’t have food.  I was annoyed when my brother changed the channel on our TV.

Even now, if you ask me whether I should feel guilty, I think the answer would be yes, I should.

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Graduation day from SUNY-Binghamton, May 1980 – we made it through to the other side of that conversation.

 

 

 

The Wedding

The Silberfarbs arrival in Cuba was greeted with a warm welcome, a furnished apartment and opportunities to work. David’s arrival in the United States, while supported by his uncle and aunt, wasn’t quite as warm. And, it started with a much more trying trip across the Atlantic, than the Silberfarb’s plane flight.

David, and 548 other displaced persons, left Bremerhaven, Germany on the Marine Flasher on January 7, 1949. The Marine Flasher was an American ship that was built to carry troops during the war in the Pacific. In 1946, it was refitted to ferry emigres across the Atlantic. It made many such trips until it went out of service in September of 1949. The American Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC), a Jewish charity which was involved in organizing and funding these trips, made efforts to comfort the traumatized passengers, many of whom were concentration camp survivors, or like David, battered by the relentless effort to endure the war. The AJDC provided kosher food to those who required it, they had novels in Yiddish available, and religious services were conducted on board. But, they could not control the weather.

David’s journey was a particularly challenging one. The North Atlantic was stormy in January and the seas were rough. In fact, the arrival of the ship was delayed by heavy gales. According to a newspaper article at the time, the Marine Flasher had to slow down to withstand the storms. David recalls that even the sailors were sick. David didn’t think he’d survive the waves crashing over the sides and his intense sea sickness. He was never so happy to set foot on land as when he disembarked on the pier of Boston Harbor on January 17th.

His cousin, Benny, Uncle Willie and Aunt Rose’s son, met him at the harbor and drove him to Brooklyn. David had never seen buildings so big or a city so densely populated as New York. In Europe, the tallest building he had seen was two stories! He moved into a room in a house in Brooklyn and he began work for his uncle at First National Pickle Products.

He put on overalls every day, took the subway to Kent Avenue and moved pickle barrels at the warehouse in Williamsburg. David didn’t feel good about dressing like a laborer and hoped for a time in the future when his work would be more professional. In the meanwhile, Uncle Willie took him to the Lower East Side to get a suit. David took pride in his appearance and looked forward to the weekends when he would don his suit to go to synagogue and socialize with fellow ‘greeners.’ Greenhorn was a term used to describe the newcomers. While it may have been meant as a pejorative when used by other Americans, when David and his community used it, they were acknowledging their shared experience.

David went to dances and sought out the company of the few survivors from his hometown. It had been customary, dating back to earlier waves of Jewish immigrants, to create organizations of ‘landsleit,’ people from the same shtetls in Eastern Europe. There was an Iwie Society that met at least annually and David became active in it.

Though David met single women during his first months in New York, his mind and heart were still with Paula. In order to ensure that Paula still had his attention, Aunt Bushe insisted that Paula send a photograph of herself to her boyfriend in New York. She took Paula to a photographer’s studio. Whether the picture did the trick or not, he continued to correspond with her, and they planned his visit.

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Though this isn’t the photo that was taken at the studio, it is from the same time. Paula in 1948 in Cuba.

But before David could visit, Uncle Nachum flew up to New York to talk to him. Since Paula’s father had been tragically murdered, Nachum took it upon himself to look out for his niece’s best interests. He went to the pickle factory and talked to David there. David felt self-conscious in his overalls, knowing Nachum was a successful business man. Paula’s uncle asked David about his future. David explained that he aspired to move up to management and he looked forward to the day when he could discard his overalls, but this was his job now and he worked hard for his uncle. Nachum asked, “Do you love Paula?” David, without embarrassment, replied unequivocally, “Yes.” Though Nachum may not have been impressed with David’s current station in life, he saw something in David’s resolve that gave him confidence. He gave his blessing so that David could visit Paula and then he returned to Cuba.

David flew to Cuba in November of 1949, 10 months after his arrival in Boston.

Uncle Nachum and Aunt Bushe were particularly welcoming to David when he arrived in Havana. He was invited to stay in the guest room of their home. David felt very comfortable there. Lea, Paula’s mother, also treated David warmly as they renewed their relationship which was first established in Ranshofen. It became increasingly clear to David that he wanted to make a family with Paula, and fortunately, she agreed. At the end of the three-week visit, they decided that he would come back to Cuba the following September and they would marry.

David flew back to New York and shared the good news with his aunts and uncles. He asked Uncle Willie and Aunt Rose to come to Cuba for the wedding. He continued to work hard and save his pennies.

Paula and her family planned the wedding. The date was set, September 3, 1950, at Havana’s main synagogue. At the last minute, Uncle Willie told David that they would not be going. He told him that it was too hard on Aunt Rose to travel. David was profoundly disappointed and hurt. Though he was excited about his marriage, he was deeply sad that he had no family to stand up for him, that he would walk down the aisle alone. It is traditional at Jewish weddings for both the bride and the groom to be accompanied by their respective parents when they walk down the aisle. David missed his father desperately.

When David got to Havana, he shared his disappointment with Uncle Nachum. Nachum offered to accompany him, with Bushe, to the chupah (wedding canopy), and they did. Paula was accompanied by her mother and brother. David also wanted to acknowledge his parents at the ceremony. He asked the cantor to recite El Maleh Rachamim, the Jewish prayer for the dead. The cantor objected, saying that it wasn’t appropriate to chant that prayer at a simcha (a celebration). David insisted. He explained that it would make him feel better, it would help him to feel his parents’ presence at this milestone in his life. After quite a bit of back and forth, David prevailed. The cantor sang the prayer in memory of Berl and Rochel. David felt that his parents were blessing this momentous occasion.