There are many magazine articles and blog posts that feature sumptuous photo spreads of gardens in full bloomed glory. Beds of perfect tulips. Rodent and insect-free vegetable gardens bursting with a unbitten, sun-ripened bounty.
This blog post will not be one of those. This is for the rest of us.
Any chance of me having one of those gardens, where the sun actually ripens tomatoes on the vine before the first frost, is gone. I missed out. For whatever reason – maybe it was procrastination, or maybe for lack of believing that winter would ever end this year – I missed the March 1 deadline in signing up for a plot in the Brighton Community Garden. Yes, I believe that day in March, we were under a blizzard warning.
Gardening up North can be frustrating. The season is very short. Veteran Rochester gardeners warn the uninitiated not to plant anything in the ground before Memorial Day weekend. I received gasps of horror when I informed some that I had planted my tomatoes two weeks ago. But they had become so leggy and pale looking under my basement grow lights, I really had no choice.
And my flowers? I’m trying not to have a meltdown after the bunnies in my garden CHOMPED off the heads the poppies that I have waited all winter to bloom. At least those red bugs have not attacked my Asiatic lilies. At least not yet.
That perfect garden is just not going to happen. So, this year I am just going to relax and keep it in perspective. I think about the ravaged midwest and how lucky we are in boring, tornado-free upstate New York. I think of the farmers who rely on the land and ideal weather conditions to make their living.
It has been one soggy spring, one of the rainiest in record in Western New York. In fact, in April, Western New York received 5.81 inches. So far, in May: 3.32 inches. Upstate farmers are weeks behind in planting their peas and corn. And the farmers at my East Hill CSA have already warned us that this year’s crops are getting a late start because of the soggy conditions.
This year, I am leaving my garden primarily up to nature, because I think She is the best gardener after all. I will embrace my failures.
The Zinnias that I started from seed in the winter are quite puny and can really use some sun and heat:
And tomatoes? These are the ones I planted from seed back in February, they also need some sun and need to dry out:
But some plants do well in cold wet weather. Here is a picture of the arugula I started from seed way back in the winter:
But nature is the best gardener. I call these volunteers. This year, if it is not a weed, I’m letting it grow. And who cares if they are not in perfectly straight lines. If it is a seedling left over from last year, I’m letting it be and will let it grow:
That will go very nice with the cucumbers that will grow on this vine, also a pop-up volunteer:
And as for perennial flowers. If you see one of these growing in your garden, jump for joy. It is not a weed, but the start of a beautiful lupine:
Leave it alone, just where it is, and it may grow up to look just like its mom:
Since I started blogging, the post that has received the most amount of views is my post Hey … vs. The Love Letter. It has received over 4,000 views and that’s without being freshly pressed — when a blogger’s post is hand-picked by the WordPress editors and prominently displayed on the website’s front portal.
Now, I don’t know if people read all the way through my post, but it goes to show that there are those out there that still believe in love letters and the power of the written word for the sake of romance. In spite of advances in technology.
In this post, written in January during National Letter Writing Week, I pondered if my generation, the Gen Xers, will indeed be the last that will pen physical, hand-written love notes, or even letters in general. Call me old-fashioned with my fears. I don’t like the notion of how texting is replacing plain talking, or how e-book readers are replacing paper books. But fearing new technologies is nothing new. Even the invention of the printing press brought on apprehension. In fact, a character in Victor Hugo’s proclaimed medieval novel Notre Dame de Paris states that the invention of the printing press would kill architecture, the way humans communicate. I wish that Victor would have stuck around long enough to see the works of Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry.
But here’s where I back up my point that sometimes old-fashioned ways, like letter writing, can’t be replaced:
Last summer, at a prolonged stay at my parent’s house, I got, well, bored. So, I started snooping through the closet in my brother’s old room (sorry, bro!). In an accordion filing folder, I found some very old letters. Letters with two separate penmanship: one so flowery it should be regarded as an art form, the other, more masculine and primitive.
Love letters. Between my grandparents. Way before they were great-grandparents or even parents.
I don’t think that two people were more madly and crazy in love than my grandparents. Or fought as much as my grandparents. I mean fights that involved throwing a can of corn across the room or driving away from a family dinner all the way back to Brooklyn fights. But they still flirted with each other all the way into their 80′s.
But even into their 80′s, they still flirted with each other. At family gatherings, my grandfather would take me around, point to my grandmother, and whisper to me “Hey, aint she cute? Ain’t she sweet? She’s all mine.”
My grandparents had two anniversaries. One,was when they eloped in September 1939. They actually ran away in the middle of the night, headed upstate New York, and found a justice of the peace to marry them. An asthmatic one at that. I remember my grandmother recounting the ceremony, mimicking how the justice wheezed between reciting the vows. That was the anniversary my grandfather recognized.
Afterwords, none of my great-grandparents approved to this elopement. And I think the way it went was that my grandparents were not allowed to cohabit until they had a proper Jewish wedding, which happened three months later. That’s the anniversary my grandmother recognized.
So, in these letters, I found one from my grandfather, Milton, that I think contained my grandfather’s plot to take my grandmother, Pauline, away to get hitched.
Dated August 29, 1938 my grandfather writes
I received your second letter this morning after I sent my fourth. I got my days changed to Sunday and Monday off. (Grandpa worked night shifts for the New York Daily News). That goes into effect this Tuesday. Find our all the arrangements for Saturday, September 7, so that we don’t get mixed up. Try and come in early enough to get to the shower (?) about 9:30 but don’t forget to allow some sleep as I’ll be working Saturday morning. Will they be surprised?! Boy, oh Boy!
Some talk about my grandmother being away somewhere…. I don’t understand that part, but then….
I found lipstick on my blue tie that I wore Saturday nite but I won’t make any attempt to clean it……I’ll see you Saturday night and then all day Sunday and Monday and don’t go kick me home early….
and …after a bit of more plotting and even some sqabbling about my grandmother “putting on airs” the last time they met…
“You don’t know what a funny, but a lost feeling I get when I see a couple on the street or a couple kissing or a fellow saying I got a date. Nobody loves me except you. ….I love you alone, Milton.”
Then, I find a letter from my grandmother, not dated. But even back then, and they must have been in their late teens, my grandmother was nudging my grandpa about his health:
“I won’t see you on the nights you can’t manage to get your eight or nine (NINE??) hours of sleep each day. Your also going to watch your diet closely. Believe you me!”
And on the letters and their love went, for 67 years. By the way, My grandfather, a second generation photo engraver for the New York Daily News, was in fact a victim of new technology. In 1982, he was given a buy-out package along with the other photo engravers at the New York Daily News.
His job was being replaced by something called…. the laser printer.
The other night, I was the featured speaker at the Installation Dinner of the Rochester, NY chapter of Hadassah. For those of you who wanted to know what I spoke about, here it is, all 20 spoken minutes of it, though changed slightly as I had some visual cues for some of the jokes. And some of the jokes, well, it’s a Hadassah thing, so you may not understand. Also, if you are not up on the Jewish faith, there is a LOT of jargon that you may not get, so if you want to skip this post, I will understand. But it was an honor to speak and a great evening I’ll remember for a long time.
Hadassah is an organization known throughout the world for promoting Zionism and Israel, supporting advances in medicine, and advocating Jewish education. Any art lover the world over surely knows about the Marc Chagall stained glass windows that grace the chapel in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital.
But, when I think of the Rochester chapter of Hadassah, the Rochester Hadassah Cookbook immediately comes to mind.
I have to tell you, I got this cookbook by way of Berkeley California. I had just become engaged to my husband, Craig. He was in graduate school. I was – uummmmm, hanging out and enjoying the California scene!
We got the Rochester Hadassah cookbook as an engagement present by way of a grad school friend of Craig’s named Mike. Mike was born and raised in Rochester. Mike came back to California after a trip back East and presented us with this book as an engagement gift from his mother.
And I said “Oh, Rochester. That’s somewhere upstate, like near Poughkeepsie!”
At that point in my life, I had no connection to Rochester outside of this cookbook. Rochester was the furthest thing from my mind. We were living in California but that was temporary for us East Coasters. Craig would finish his PhD, and then we were moving back to New York City, center of the universe!
We did move back to New York City. Well, New Jersey actually. Craig found a job in the suburbs and I also found one – in Manhattan. Complete with a three-hour round trip commute on New Jersey Transit!
I landed this great job at a growing high-tech public relations firm. It was a time when they couldn’t find people fast enough to perform quality account work for the burgeoning, brand-new high-tech industry. Ah, I miss the 90’s!
My boss was a stunning, statuesque blonde woman of 35. She had the corner office of our Park Avenue suite. To the north, her view faced uptown to Grand Central Station. To the West, she overlooked Park Avenue. She loved living the life of a single Manhattanite PR executive. However, she would tell us many times that her parents in Florida wished she would marry and give them grandchildren already. When she visited them, she instructed us to call her often on her cell phone, so her parents would see how important she was back at the office.
Sitting in my cube as a lowly – NO rising – account executive, I would imagine what it would be like to live that kind of life. Most of my co-workers were in their 20’s and single. Half their salary went to paying rent.
The other half – alcohol.
At 28, I was already the old married lady of the office, and Craig and I were starting our family.
After a few years and two kids later, we moved up to Rochester for Craig’s employment. It was then I learned that Rochester is waaaay further upstate than Poughkeepsie.
My company back in New York City still wanted me. They even offered to set up a virtual home office. But, reality set in. I was staring down at our first long Rochester winter with a one year-old and a three year-old as my only companions. I didn’t know a soul in town. Virtual office or not, I realized that building my social network here for my family would be more important than racking up more media hits for IBM. So, I politely said thanks but no thanks, and became a stay-at-home full time mom.
Stay-at-home moms rarely stay at home, as you know. Those first few years here, I spent most of my time at Wegmans, the Strong Museum of Play, and the JCC. When you’re the new mommy in town, people are very interested in getting to know you. I realized that the Jewish moms I was meeting were fulfilling the mitzvah to welcome new Jews into the community. We were invited as a family for Shabbat dinners on Friday nights and, during the week, playdates for the kids and I. I’ve heard that this courtship is called “mommy dating.”
More than a few times, I would eat something prepared by a prospective mommy friend and say,
“WOW, this is great, where did you get this recipe?”
And one woman after the next would reply, “I made it from the Rochester Hadassah cook book!”
And I would reply, “OHHHH, I have that cookbook, I’ve had it for YEARS! I think I’ll start using it now.”
The JCC opened up to me a network of great women who believed in giving their kids a Jewish education in early childhood. I’m now over the rainbow from my own kids’ preschool years and teach preschool myself. I am in forever debt to people like Tzippy Kleinberg, Andrea Paprocki and Emily Fishman at the JCC and later, Randi Fox Tabb at Keshet preschool for planting the very first seeds of Jewish knowledge for my kids. Now that I’m a preschool teacher, I see the appreciation parents show when their little ones come home singing “Shabbat Shalom – Hey” or say a bracha every time they put a cookie in their little mouths.
Becoming a new parent can be the road back to Jewish observances. In fact, a 2002 study by the Jewish Early Childhood Education Partnership described Jewish preschools as the Gateways to Jewish Life. The time to get young families rooted back into Jewish community life is when their children are between the ages of birth and three years of age.
I remember when my son Nathan was in his first year of preschool at the JCC. I had an “aha” moment – a moment you knew that the Jewish foundations you lay for your child are really sinking in – in all places but at Michael’s.
Nathan was just 2 ½. I picked him up at the J and we went schmoozing at Michael’s. From his seat in the shopping cart, he spied one of these big fake terra cotta gardening urns.
“Mommy” he said, in an angelic voice that only two and one half year olds have “They have a really big – Kiddush cup!”
By the way, Nathan is now well into his Torah studies as he becomes a Bar Mitzvah this November.
In addition to giving my children a Jewish education in their earliest years, being a stay-at-home mom afforded me the time to continue my own learning. When living in New Jersey, I admired women who could get up and read Torah on Saturday mornings or who were involved with other aspects of Jewish communal life. But my three- hour round trip commute into the city left time for little else during the week.
Why did I decide to learn to read Torah later in life? I have to confess, it’s the rush. I have to get my adrenaline rush somewhere. For one thing, I hate roller coasters. The only time I rode one was on a dare from Craig on the boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California. Craig jokingly said he would not marry me unless I rode the famed Big Dipper, a classic, rickety wooden roller coaster. As expected, I hated every second of that 60-second ride. But I guess it was a religious experience because I kept praying aloud to God to please get me off!
So, if I want to get my heart pumping, I sign up for a Torah reading.
I encourage more Jewish women to also get on this thrill ride. And don’t think, “I can’t do it because I didn’t grow up reading Torah,” because neither did I!
Growing up within my very Conservative synagogue in Staten Island, New York, boys preparing for their Bar Mitzvah were required to attend services on Saturday morning. Girls were required to go on Friday night. Girls would chant their Haftarah on Friday night and boys would be called to the Torah on Saturday morning. It was never questioned or debated if girls should have a larger role. That’s how it was.
We were taught that after our B’nei Mitzvot, boys were still required to go to shul but girls didn’t have to. Our rabbis, all Orthodox, said that girls were more spiritual by nature, thus relieving them of the obligation to attend services. They said if men were not required to go to shul, they would never go.
It’s true. Spirituality did come naturally to me. Each Friday night, I followed along with all of the melodies of Kabalat Shabbat. I never thought about the fact that after my Bat Mitzvah, I would not be asked to join a minyan if they needed a tenth, because I was not a man. I would not be asked to read from the Torah or participate in services. It made me feel as though I didn’t count, and on a certain level, as a Jewish woman, I didn’t.
That summer, my parents took our family to Israel, where I was to have a Bat Mitzvah ceremony at the Kotel! Imagine that! In my 13-year-old mind, I envisioned me chanting my Haftarah, the Kotel behind me, and all of Jerusalem listening!
Well, my actual “Bat Mitzvah” ceremony went something like this: I stood in a white blouse and a flowery skirt outside of the Kotel Plaza. I really did have a copy of my haftarah to chant. But a rabbi in a black hat from some agency handed me a siddur, and asked me to read the Shma in English.
“But, I have my Haftarah! And I can chant the Sh’ma in Hebrew,”
“That’s not necessary. You are a girl. Just read it in English.”
Tova Hartman, a lecturer in the department of gender studies and education in Bar Ilan University wrote in her book, Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism, that living in Israel, she “knew there is no recipe or a structure on how to join Orthodoxy with feminism. In her own life, in order to give her daughters a model of religion she could live with, she had to form her own shul with a group of like-minded people, even if that meant she had to leave certain loyalties behind.”
Please don’t misunderstand me. I do have great respect for Orthodox Judaism. I admire their commitment to observing Shabbat, the hospitality they extend to guests on Saturday afternoons for lunch, and their dedication to a Jewish day school education.
I can also understand the values that Orthodoxy places on mothers as the first Jewish educators in a child’s life by being charged with creating a Jewish home. But even Blu Greenberg, author of How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, commented in her book On Women and Judaism that “leaders of Orthodox halacha (law) must recognize that the general effect of exempting women from prayer conditions them to a negative or indifferent attitude toward prayer altogether.”
My feminist notions aside, when I became a mother, I appreciated why it is that women are not obligated to participate in time-bound mitzvot which could interfere with their tasks of mothering. But what I cannot accept is where “not obligated” evolved into “not allowed.”
My horizons on the role of women in synagogue life expanded when I moved out to California. Aside from daring me to ride roller coasters, Craig encouraged and taught me how to lead kabbalat shabbat at the Hillel at Cal Berkeley. There, the rabbi was a woman. For the first time, I heard the matriarchs mentioned next to the patriarchs in the chanting of the Amidah. Women lead services, had aliyot, and read from the Torah. This was so common, in fact, that once, a non-Jew came to our services and quietly asked, “Are men allowed to read from the Torah?”
I learned how to read Torah at age 37 thanks to a six-week adult education class led by Chazzan Martin Leubitz at Temple Beth El. On the first day of class, Chazan Leubitz informed us all that he had signed us up to read Torah in six week. That would be our final exam.
For me, I have come to realize that learning Torah is not an exercise in perfection, rather an act of participation and performing the mitzvah of studying Torah as a full-fledged member of the Jewish community.
Connections in the Jewish community, actually, would you believe a conversation in the women’s locker room at the JCC - led me to landing my column at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. Writing this column has been a return to my first love of newspaper writing. It has also given me a reason to set up a home office, with a corner office in my kitchen. To the south of my lavish two square-foot corner office – I have an excellent view of the piles of laundry that pile up in my family room. To the East, there are dishes in the sink and groceries to put away. Directly before me is my blank computer screen, which I must fill with 600 well written words every week.
Writing my column is like riding a bicycle up and down a series of hills. All year long. On deadline day, I pedal the hardest. I do a lot of the writing – as I did this speech, in my head, long before I sit down to my computer. I think about it at red lights, on walks, on line at Wegman’s. Writing takes a lot of rewriting, moving paragraphs around, weaving and reweaving them until every word fits into place.
It’s like that feeling you get when you untangle a necklace.
Then, I hit send. And I can finally coast downhill, for about a day. I finally pick myself up from my cushy corner office to the mundane never-ending tasks of laundry and dishes. I also take some time to get in a workout. A shabasana, the restive pose at the end of my Wednesday night yoga classes, are divine and well deserved after hitting send on my column.
Then, the search continues again. Because most of my connections are in the Jewish community, lots of people pitch me with Jewish story ideas. But, I’ve had to gently turn a lot of them away. When it comes to my personal identity, I am a Jewish American. But for the sake of the wider audience of the Democrat & Chronicle.
I’m not a Jewish reporter, I’m a reporter who is Jewish.
Between the lines of my column, however, Jewish themes can still be found. A day devoted to cleaning up our parks or collecting unwanted pharmaceuticals – those are the values of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world. Events that speak on helping care for our seniors or events at a senior center? That is Gimilut Hasadim – acts of kindness.
So I try not to comment or cover too many events or issues that impact the Jewish community.
Except for the recent incident where some teens were caught and charged with the hate crime of burning a swastika in Brighton. On the night before Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Rememberence Day. I had to speak out on that.
After a lot of back and forth with my editors, who questioned if such a heavy topic was the right fit for the Our Towns section, they agreed to keep my words. I thank them immensely for hearing me through on this. As I stated in last week’s column, I love covering the good in our communities. There is so much bad news in our world and I’m honored to be able to bring to readers news on events where they can participate and help out their community. But suddenly, this columnist who is Jewish became a Jewish columnist and I had to speak out. Because, what do we mean, when we are saying “Never Again?”
You have to remember that when the news broke, our community was immersed in daylong Yom Hashoah observances. Included in this was a community wide program for teens: a staging of the play “What Will You Tell Your Children” written by Rochester native Jessie Atkin upon her return from a Journey for Jewish identity trip in 2005, where Jewish teens from the United States and Israel spend time together here, visiting concentration camps in Poland, and finally in Israel. I’d like to thank Jodi Beckwith for directing the play and to our Jewish education leaders for bringing the event to our children.
And how was this play received by our teens, many who never experienced anti-Semitism first hand? To give you an idea - there were about 250 kids in the room to watch the 90 minute performance. Suzie Lyons, the director of Education at Temple Brith Kodesh, noted that only 11 kids got up the whole time to use the bathroom
Have you ever been on the receiving end of hearing a racial or religious joke? Usually, the joker defends his joke by saying – it’s okay, some of my best friends are: Black or Jewish, Chinese, you fill in the ethnic group.
On a positive note, I want to bring to your attention the overwhelming response of coming together in the Jewish and wider community. The morning after the swastika was burned, the Home Acres neighborhood had a vigil attended by Brighton Town Supervisor Sandra Frankel who called it a despicable act. In last week’s editorial page, the hate crime received a “thumbs down” by the D&C. There were several letters to the editor – one jointly written by leaders in the Christian and Muslim communities – condemning the act.
Our Jewish youth, many who know this boy, a student at Brighton High School, are struggling. They are searching for a rationalization why he may have done this, they think – there must be a reason, There’s got to be a reasonable answer.
Seventeen is an extremely vulnerable age where friendships run thick and rule supreme. And the apparent betrayal of a friend at age 17 is painful to accept. I’m sorry, but I don’t think that this young man was considering the feelings the Jewish kids he knew when he allegedly planned to burn a swastika. Or maybe he just thought it would be okay to do this as a joke, because after all, some of his best friends were Jewish!
Both boys have pled not guilty which means that they will have another hearing in town court on May 25. This leaves us with many questions. Was this an isolated event or should we fear a wave of similar copy cat crimes? Did these boys really understand the gravity of the timing of their act or do they truly comprehend what horrors were committed under the symbol of the swastika? And if they didn’t, where are we going wrong, in our school system, in our discussions at home, that we are not telling our youth enough about that very dark chapter in human history.
To leave you on a positive note about this, I want to tell you about the group of seventh graders I had the pleasure of teaching this year at Temple Brith Kodesh. They were absolutely dreamy, I mean it! While they are not exactly enthralled about learning about the minutia of the Hebrew language, the topic of carrying on Jewish identity, especially as they face post Bne’ Mitzvah life, keeps them engaged. On the Macro level, they have a very strong sense of who they are as Jews. After the swastika incident, the debate arose in my class whether middle school trips to Washington D.C. should include a mandatory visit to the US Holocaust memorial. Some students, in light of what just happened, thought it should be a priority to visit the museum for all students – Jewish and non-Jewish. Others thought that the serious theme of this museum would overshadow what may be the first time a young student visits our nation’s capital. But it was good to see my seventh graders debating and discussing, trying to work it out. And again, not one of my students asked to leave the class to go to the bathroom, can you imagine?
So, my advice to you tonight? I guess it is to maintain a focus in your life on Jewish education, from the earliest years of our children and well into our own adulthood. While raising a family, keep a hand in your own profession, however small, and as much as your family and your own sanity can handle. Mothering is the best job of all. But don’t disappear, don’t let your own individuality get folded and lost into the lives of your husband and children, just as egg whites get folded into the batter of a Passover Sponge Cake, which a recipe can be found within the pages of the Rochester Hadassah Cookbook. Thank you for listening.
The first time Mrs. Robin and I met, I don’t know who was more startled.
I had just gotten home from grocery shopping and was walking from the driveway to the front door when WOOSH! Out flew a Robin from the front Hedge. She didn’t fly far. She just stayed on our lawn, watching me patiently as I unpacked my groceries.
Now, we have an old Tudor with these long, boring hedges that border our front windows. They are very dated looking and for years, I have wanted to get rid of them to plan a more updated landscape.
Now, I wouldn’t dream of getting rid of them.
Because, day after day, Mrs. Robin and I kept giving each other our startled greetings right at that same spot. The same flutter of her wings. The same patient vigil as I cleared out of her way and went inside the house for good.
I knew it was too much to be a coincidence. She must have built a nest there. And after days of searching, I finally spotted her handiwork: a perfectly small, matted circular nest, tucked into the thickest part of the bush,right at shoulder height.
And, it afforded me this view:
Robin’s egg blue. Is there not a more beautiful color?
Now, as tempting as it is to check, I know birds might abandon their nests if disturbed too much. But at our last check, the baby chick has started to open its mouth! And, as far as Mrs. Robin, she stays very still when we come near. Only her eye is visible from her nest, but I think she understands that we are not a threat.
Congratulations on your baby, Mrs. Robin. Feel free to raid my garden for a never ending supply of bugs and worms for feeding time.
So, so much for Post-a-day.
These days, I’m lucky if I can post-a-month.
But I have so many ideas to write about but working, parenting, track, baseball and concert season are getting in the way. So is that chocolate milk that my son just spilled on the kitchen floor.
So, before I have to be in two directions at once, here are some topics I have been meaning to blog about. You pick what I should tackle first:
- More Love Letters: This time, the ones I found between my grandparents before they were married.
- The Robin who made a nest in our front shrub.
- The African Burial Ground in downtown Manhattan
- Transitions from childhood to teen-dom
- What we saw at Ground Zero
Gotta go and watch my youngest play ball!
It’s been a cold dark week. The news nationally, while triumphant, stirred up a lot of questions and decade-old images. What is closure anyway?
Locally, a hate crime has been committed in our town. Our high schoolers are wrestling with the news that this action was allegedly committed by someone they consider a close friend.
But, yesterday the sun finally came out. May is nature’s reward to Rochesterians for sticking it out through the long winter.
So, to forget it all, I took a walk in Rochester’s Highland Park. This park is known for its vast lilac collection – one of the nation’s largest. And with it, Rochester hosts one of its most popular festivals.
So, before the crowds, and the vendors selling fry bread and fried artichokes and – fried everything arrive. I took a walk in Highland Park and snapped the following photographs:
Leon Posen, a congregant from my synagogue, passed last week. He lived to the age of 94, blessed with a long life that could have been cut very short. His passing is still a sad one. Leon was a Holocaust survivor.
As the years and decades stretch away from World War II and Hitler’s war against the Jews, there are fewer people to tell first hand accounts of what happened in the ghettos and the concentration camps in Europe.
So who will bear witness in generations to come? Even if we don’t have a direct personal connection to the Holocaust, it is our turn to hear as many accounts as possible, and then tell them to the next generation. This is the only way to keep the vow of Never Again.
In Rochester, about 300 area Hebrew school kids in grades 6-12 watched their peers put on a play called “What Will You Tell Your Children” written by local playwright Jessie Atkin about her trip as a teen to the concentration camps in Poland. The play focused on the reactions of contemporary teens as they toured Auchwitz and faced anti-semitism and a general lack of understanding of Judaism at home.
I wonder if this new take on the Holocaust – telling the story second-hand and not directly from survivors’ accounts - actually disturbed,unsettled, and horrified the young audience enough to make them really remember. To make them relate. Was it too much of a softball throw in teaching the Holocaust? Is there – should there ever be — a gentle way to teach the Holocaust? How can it be unforgettable if we do not teach the inhumanity and the horror?
As the students watched the play, I watched the students. And then, I looked them as a whole – a bunch of healthy, creative, sometimes fidgety, teens and preteens. This was the same age demographic that Hitler selected for his Terezin concentration camp in Prague. A room with this many kids, multiply that number until you reach 15,000 kids. That’s how many died in Terezin, I thought. I shivered.
In my Hebrew school, we were spared nothing. My teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Berkowitz, was born in a displaced person’s camp in Cypress. The one depicted in the historical fiction novel “Exodus” by Leon Uris. He was the child of concentration camp survivors. Because of this, in our Holocaust education, we watched many horrible films shot in grainy black and white of the ghettos and camps filled with emaciated bodies. Some tortured and barely alive, some already dead.
But, still, it happened to someone else’s family, not my family, all those years ago. They were disturbing and yes, the first year I really learned about the horrors, I spent many nights curled up at the foot of my parent’s bed to sleep.
Now, I live in Rochester, a small town with an unofficial, intimate club that no one wants to belong to, yet they are proud members of it. Rochester has many Holocaust survivors whose families are now second, third and even fourth generation survivors.
It wasn’t until I had friends in this club, that I began to think: if his mother, if her grandfather didn’t survive, than this friend wouldn’t exist, or certain friends of my children would not be here.
Unlike the Yom Hashoah services of my childhood, when it seemed that everyone in my synagogue attended, it seems that Yom Hashoah services are attended mainly by those directly touched by the Holocaust, survivors and their decendants, leaders of the community, particpants in Rochester’s march of hope or our teen trip to the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. So, going to these events, I still feel, thankfully, disconnected.
But in 2006, I had the privlelege of attending in Los Angeles the United Jewish Community’s General Assembly. That year I was the recipient of my community’s young leadership award, along with my traveling companion, Ron. Ron has the biggest heart of anyone I know, and lots of energy. An entrepreneur, he always seems to have three or four business ventures going on as well as several philanthropic projects. This is the kind of guy he is: we were stuck in an airport on the way home waiting for a delayed flight. It was late and people were crabby. Ron goes to the only remaining open store in the terminal, buys a bag of candy, and walks around, offering candy to the stranded travelers.
One part of the trip, young leadership delegates from around the world were taken to L.A.’s Museum of Tolerance. The museum, chronicles the Holocaust and current genocides in world history. Sadly, it shows visitors that vows of “Never Again” cannot ring true. In the decades since the Holocaust, there has been genocide in Cambodia, the Balkans, Rawanda, Sudan. Our docent said that the museum has been a destination of feuding gangs of LA to teach them the consequences of hate.
Further into the emotionally-charged museum, we came to the tail end of the Holocaust exhibit. There, transported from a concentration camp, in the corner of a dark room, was an actual bunk where prisioners slept, stacked three levels deep. Two to three men slept on planks on a bed the width as narrow as a twin bed. In the background, behind the bunk, was a life-sized photo, a well-known photo of survivors of Barrack 66 in Buchenwald. In this photo, is an emaciated Elie Weisel. I had seen this photo dozens of time in my life. Then, all of a sudden, Ron grabs me by the arm and points. Impossibly, my friend Ron’s face was peering out from the bunk one level above Weisel.
“Stacy!’ my friend cried, “That’s my DAD!”
And that is my degree of separation from the Holocaust. What is yours?