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The things I’ve learned from Community Theater

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mmcastWordlessly, a bearded man dressed completely in black pointed at me and gave me directions.

“Hold this.” He whispered, shoving a clump of black curtain into my hand.

“When Frumma Sarah finishes singing, open the curtain from here very quickly so we can wheel her backstage,” the man in black ordered. “This will be your job at every performance.”

And just like that, I had my first job in community theater. While my son was doing his thing onstage being a shtetl boy, I had my part backstage helping Fume Sarah get offstage. And I did my job proudly, all the while pantomiming Frumma Sarah’s motions and words, with another stagehand who I had not met until that final tech dress rehearsal, every night I was not in the audience watching my son with pride.

I was a suburban mom. This other stagehand was a young woman at most in her 20’s. We had never met before that night, but though “The Dream,” we had an instant connection. And at that moment, I realized: I am not a soccer mom. I am a stage mom!

That was last year, the year my son came home buzzing about how he wanted to audition for Fiddler on The Roof with a local community theater group. He heard about it from a poster hung up at his new school. I drove him to every rehearsal and instead of dropping off and running home or going for coffee, I hung around.

This year, I was asked to serve on the board, and perform on stage, as a member of a long-standing mainly volunteer community theater group in the Detroit Metro Area.

As a transplant, getting involved in community theater has proven the best way for me to plug into a community. Now that the curtain has closed on our most recent production, here is a few things community theater has taught this newbie:

You cannot produce any old show you want - Planning to produce a show in community begins nearly a year before opening curtain. Music Theater International has strict licensing guidelines and a catalog of shows available for community theater production that is regularly updated. Nothing running on Broadway, or that is a Broadway national tour, can be produced. And licensing rights for some musicals, especially the Disney genre, are extremely costly. Being that our company is geared to be a family, multi-generational theater company also restricts our choices. Hair and R.E.N.T. are definitely no-nos.

 Everyone counts: To the untrained eye, a theatergoer might think that the female lead with the canary-like voice or the dancer with the highest kicks or the tenor with the sweetest crooning is the most important facet of a musical theater production. But the ones you see on the stage, we are just mere puppets. It is everyone else: the sound engineer who follows the script line by line during every performance, whose fingers fly across the soundboard making sure your mike is hot only when it needs to be,  the stage manager and their fearless tech crew who wheel stage sets around 180 degrees or pull the grand curtain open and shut within seconds, they are the backbone of any good production. As is the props master, whom months before opening curtain thought of every detail, and where it needs to be when not on stage, who matters. As is the costumer who hunts around at thrift stores and begs borrows and steals if she has to just the right costume from other community theater groups, who is up late at night sewing and resewing hemlines and taking in trousers, that’s who matters in a show. Not to mention (and OF COURSE they need mention!) the multi-piece orchestra that plays at your feet from the pit, whose musicians will even throw in their own laughter if a joke onstage falls flat. I don’t understand why they can’t join us on stage for a bow each night.

You gain an insane appreciation for people who actually want to do musical theater for a living  – As much as I loved being in a performance, towards closing night I was wiped. How do people do this and keep it fresh, some for 3,000 performances in a row? Maybe it is because most of our company is slightly older than professional Broadway stars. But Broadway stars, for eight performances a week, have to give it all to their audience, even when they may not have it all that night. Even if they are under the weather. Or had a fight with their boyfriend. One night, while driving to rehearsal, I heard Seth Rudetsky on the XM Broadway Channel interview an actor who passed a KIDNEY STONE on stage while he played Horton in Seussical the Musical. After all, the show must go on, and the paying audience does not care if you are passing a kidney stone. When you need to be on stage, you must be on stage. Even if you have to pass a kidney stone. Or even pee. Yes, perhaps of all the things I learned about being on stage is that performers do not get to use the bathroom any old zany time they want to. For thousands of performances. Yet, they have to keep themselves hydrated? How is that all supposed to even out?

Hair and Makeup - This again speaks to the immense appreciation I have gained for professional actors, because this business is way too high maintenance for me, an otherwise hermit-like writer, when it comes to tending to hair and makeup prep that is worthy of the stage. To get myself ready for performances, I spent hours watching Youtube videos on how to create the perfect Gibson Girl updo from the Edwardian era. I found videos on proper contouring and learned how to apply blush not to my cheekbones but underneath.  The first time I tried to apply my makeup, I looked more like a Geisha girl than someone who lived in River City, Iowa, but thanks to our volunteer makeup artist, a woman in her 40s who is also a national champion figure skater (!!), I got it looking just right.

Community Theater is not high school theater – You know where my favorite place in the theater is? Not on stage, under those hot bright lights, but deep backstage. Where the darkness is lit only by a string of lights. Where the smell of sawed wood and paint lingers in the air.  Where you can find random things like an old stove or a stripped down Chevy Convertible from shows past. Graffiti that says things like “Best Cast Ever Guys and Dolls ’86” Because if only for a second, I can pretend I am backstage in my own high school. But this is not high school theater, even if this may have been the high school of others for many decades. It wasn’t mine. And as a transplant, few, if any of the audience members knew me, let alone knew me from high school. I also got that lonely transplanted feeling after performances, watching my fellow cast mates surrounded by adoring family and friends, awkwardly balancing bunches of flower and candy in their arms while they posed for a picture. When you are a transplant, this post-performance shower of adoration can feel a bit thin.

*sigh*

But this post is not about being a transplant. It is about showbiz! So let’s move on:

Breath Support, Personal amplifier – Just as a choreographer tells a dancer how to move their body, a great vocal director will tell you how to move your lips, teeth, tongue in such a way that you would believe that you never knew how to move your lips, teeth,  tongue and even the roof of your mouth (did you know you can move the ROOF of your mouth?) before he taught you. Every note has choreography and a dynamic, and a good musical director will get this out of you if he has to beat it out of you to make sure you are sounding like a well-supported ensemble, a chorus capable of producing that building wall of sound. You might think that singing in the shower or singing in your car is singing, until you have taken actual formal instruction from a musical director. There really is a difference.

Community Theater truly is a community- My son discovered something that I learned this year. Yes, the cast and crew become like family. After all, in the intensive weeks leading up to opening curtain, you will see them more than your actual family. They are there for you – totally there – to celebrate your birthday, to say a community prayer of healing if you have a loved one in the hospital, to root for you if you are waiting on that job offer after months of unemployment. They are there for you to change you out of one costume and into another in under 90 seconds. Or loan you a favorite antique hatpin to keep your hat from flopping over your face, because, really, who owns hat pins in this century? They are there for you to hold your hand and wipe away a tear when it all becomes too overwhelming. And, if your cast is lucky enough to contain some medical professionals, they will do what they have to do to keep you healthy for those crucial last rehearsals leading up to opening night. Believe me. A month after closing curtain, and I am going through deep withdrawal missing my theater family. I cannot wait to do it all again next year!

Join me on the Road 2 College

For some us, it feels like we ourselves just graduated college.

How is it, that now we have children who are old enough to begin the college application process.

If you are a veteran college parent, or just getting started with having conversations with your teen about getting started down the path to college, I invite you read my series on the new online newsletter called road2college.

 

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Staying Close, Hanging Together – One Detroit Family stays put for seven generations

Rebecca Nodler, 10, Oak Park; Seymour Zate, West Bloomfield; Adele Nodler, Oak Park; Danielle Nodler, 6, Huntington Woods; Alvin Nodler, Oak Park; and Gladys Zate, West Bloomfield

Above: 

Rebecca Nodler, 10, Oak Park; Seymour Zate, West Bloomfield; Adele Nodler, Oak Park; Danielle Nodler, 6, Huntington Woods; Alvin Nodler, Oak Park; and Gladys Zate, West Bloomfield

 

I’ve lived in my house for nearly four months now. And for the most part, my walls are blank.

After going through the home selling and buying process, I guess I’ve grown used to the “staged” look of a house.

No clutter.

Keep it impersonal.

The seller shouldn’t display too many family photos lest the potential buyer cannot envision their own life in the house.

Every few evenings, I hear a banging sound: it’s my husband’s vain attempt to hang a few more pictures on the wall, only to have ME take them down. No. I’m not ready. I don’t want that picture there. I never liked that baby picture from SEARS in the first place.  I’m going to develop more photos on Shutterfly. Big ones. I promise. That was for the old house, now we’re in a new house.

Wall arrangements have become somewhat of an obsession of mine. My blank walls have become empty canvasses I don’t want to screw up. I’ve taken out library books about decorating walls. When I watch TV shows or commercials, I find myself ignoring the dialogue of the characters but looking instead at the set. I know there are set designers who have perfectly adorned the walls with the right balance of small and large frames. More than any other decor, the stuff you hang on your walls makes your house a home.

Maybe I’m not home yet. Because a few weeks ago, I visited a house that was just that. 

Adele and Alvin Nodler’s house in Oak Park, the place where I interviewed Adele and her cousins over tea and homemade cookies for an article in the Detroit Jewish News,, is not big or fancy.   But it’s been their home for nearly 50 years. No designer was hired to decorate, but what it is decorated with is love. There are family photos from many generations on every possible surface. 

I came away from that interview not only with a great story on the importance of keeping family ties,, but a lesson learned in how to make a house a home.

Here is just a little of their story, published in the October 17 issue of the Detroit Jewish News: 

Families come in many sizes.

Then there are families like the Levins that are so large and tightly knit that they have their own anthem. And a custom-designed logo.

Last Sunday, Oct. 13, the Levin clan, with most of its 200 members residing in Metro Detroit, sang their anthem and performed an original variety show in their logo T-shirts as they celebrated the 65th anniversary of the Levin Family Club at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.

Joshua Chynoweth, 13, of Livonia lights a candle on the anniversary cake.

Joshua Chynoweth, 13, of Livonia lights a candle on the anniversary cake.

“We have lots of writers and performers, but no directors,” joked Adele Levin Nodler, 72, of Oak Park, who has been treasurer of the club for 48 years.

The Levin story is familiar to many Jewish American families. They are descendants of immigrants who fled persecution in Eastern Europe and wove themselves into the fabric of American society. What is unique about the Levins is how strongly they held onto family ties and Jewish traditions for seven generations.

“Family togetherness is a legacy that was given to us by our grandparents and is one we will pass onto our grandchildren and beyond,” said Nodler, as she sat with her husband of 49 years, Alvin, brother Seymour, 81, and her cousin Gladys Zate, 87, in her Oak Park home.
The love of kin was evident on the walls and bookcases adorned with family photos from every generation.

The Levins can trace their Detroit roots back to 1905 when Adele’s father, Morris Yellen, escaped Poland at age 16 to avoid the Polish draft. Yellen changed to Levin at Ellis Island. Working for years as a baker, he saved enough money to return to Poland and bring the rest of his family to Detroit. The Levins became established bakers and grocers and had stores on Chene Street.

The family would often gather on Saturday nights after Shabbat to play cards. In 1948, those casual card games evolved into the Levin Cousin Club.
Early Detroit Memories Adele and Gladys also recall living upstairs from one another in the same big house on Elmhurst Street. Adele was the oldest of five siblings; Gladys had three sisters. It was there the cousins started writing and performing shows about the funny antics that went on in their family.

The cousins recall fond memories of celebrating Jewish holidays in Detroit.
On Simchat Torah, they danced with flags toped with apples in Beth Jacob synagogue on Pingree Street and dined at kosher restaurants on 12th Street after Shabbat.

They also remember having large family seders — as many as 75 people — at the home of their uncle, Meyer Levin.

“As a kid, you’d have to sit very still at my Uncle Meyer’s seder. If you moved, you would get a knibble, or a pinch on the cheek,” said Gladys, who recalls her mother making gefilte fish for the seder from fish she kept in her bathtub.

The pace of life — and the state of Detroit — has changed since 1948. Parts of the family live out of town. The bakery on Chene Street and the old house on Elmhurst Street are no longer there.

To compensate for the distance, Adele and her siblings and their descendants chat on a weekly Thursday teleconference call to “catch up and wish each other a good Shabbos.”

“No matter what anyone is doing, we stay committed to that call. Even my grandchildren participate, and the one thing they notice is there is a lot of laughter,” said Adele, who taught middle school in Oak Park for 30 years.

“Though we don’t see each other all the time, there is a constant feeling of togetherness because of the Jewish family traditions we have built over the years,” said Michael Nodler, 43, of Oak Park. He offers backstage support to the show with his brother, Harold Nodler, 44, of Huntington Woods.

The family show is all the more meaningful to Michael this year as his son, Joshua Nodler, 12, a seventh-grader at Norup International Middle School in Oak Park, approaches his bar mitzvah.
Joshua created a PowerPoint slide show for the evening that traces his family’s history.

The show comes every five years; every year, they meet for a summer picnic, a summer hot dog roast, Chanukah party and Purim party.

The secret to a close family, Adele advised, is never hold a grudge.

“Our parents taught us you don’t stay angry at each other,” she said.
“Yes, we had fights and disagreements.
Sometimes someone would not play fair at a family card game. But you work it out and stay close — that is what’s most important.”

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A Warm Embrace

athomedetroit

athomedetroitThe first month of the school year is almost over, and with it a month that marked the Jewish High Holidays. Though the early mornings and late nights are starting to take their toll, though the unfamiliar hallways I walked through in my son’s new high school make me sometimes wish we were back in our old digs and routines in Rochester, things are going well so far in Detroit. 

One part of my Rochester life I am sorely missing is my weekly routine of writing my newspaper column.  Fortunately, I have picked up several writing assignments in the Detroit Jewish News. 

Here is my first piece, and it’s about (what else?) being a transplant. 

With the sound of the shofar, the High Holiday season signals the promise of a New Year.  We pray for a sweet year of new blessings and opportunities. For the rest of Jewish Detroiters, all this “newness” will happen in the same old familiar surroundings among family and old friends you’ve known for years.

For my family of five freshly-minted Michiganders, everything about 5774 is new.

Last year, as my family prepared to celebrate Sukkot, General Motors announced it would be closing the Rochester, N.Y., research facility where my husband worked and moving his job to Pontiac.  We lived in Rochester for 14 years. It was the only home our three children, ages 16, 14, and 10, had ever known.

After the shock of the news settled in and after my three children realized that no, their friends’ families in Rochester could not adopt them, it was time for us to pull together as a family.  The year 5773 was a journey filled with months of living apart from my husband, long-distance house hunting in a fiery-hot Detroit suburban real estate market, researching school districts, and many long and emotional goodbyes.

Moving can be a curse. In the Book of Deuteronomy, however, the Torah challenges Jews to find the blessing within the curse.

Contrary to what many of my New Yorker friends think, moving to Detroit is not a curse. Beyond the headlines of Detroit’s bankruptcy, we are enjoying the brighter sides of Michigan culture. In the short time we have lived here, we traveled to take in the beauty “up north,” savored homegrown cherries and blueberries, and climbed the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

I am learning how to make a Michigan left, which is scarier than a New Jersey jug handle.

We even stood on the curb of Woodward to witness the ultimate show of car culture in last months’ Dream Cruise

We found the blessing in the warm reception we received throughout Detroit’s Jewish community.  During a house-hunting trip that fell smack in the middle of Pesach, friends here hosted us three times for meals. Our children, also blessed with long-standing friendships forged at Camp Ramah in Canada, were invited for Shabbat meals and out to the movies to meet other new kids.   These friends have acted quickly to enfold our children into their social circles even before the moving vans arrived.

While we unpacked and set up our physical home with only one kid in tow (my oldest left Rochester on a bus headed for Camp Ramah), time was ticking for the quest to find a spiritual home. Belonging to a synagogue has been and will always be a top priority to our family. Not because we have to get High Holiday tickets, or have kids who need Hebrew school or a Bar Mitzvah date.   It is because here in Michigan, far away from family, we need a community.

During our “shul shopping,” we were happy to learn that we have many choices. Every congregation we visited this summer gave us warm welcomes on a level we never experienced in other communities. We were showered with greetings and given honors on the bimah within every sanctuary. Everywhere we go, people simply rave about their synagogue

One night, before going to sleep in our new home, I expressed to my husband about my worries of finding employment. He had his work. My kids had school. Once again, like many in my position who move to another town for a spouse’s job transfer, I would have to reinvent myself.

“Don’t worry,” he said.  “I’ll make the living. You go out and make us a life here.”

Wise and true were his words. While my husband worked at his office, I worked at finding doctors, pediatricians, dentists and orthodontists. I finalized details of moving out of one house and moving into another. I phoned school counselors on both sides of the move to assure the proper transfer transcripts and my kids would be signed up for the proper course work for high school. I did all I could so when they got off the bus in Detroit, sad to leave camp and even more saddened to be leaving all that was familiar, their biggest worry in their first days here would be how they were going to get through all that dirty laundry.

This year of transition has taught me many things. My kids are capable of stepping up more around the house. I can trust my husband to buy our next dream house even if I only saw it on Zillow. Most importantly, this move has reaffirmed for me the importance of keeping connected to the Jewish community. You never know where the road may take you, but our kehilah kedosha, our holy community, will always be there to take you in.

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How to go to the ER as a Transplant

ER

Thankfully. I seemed to be the only patient in the ER at Henry Ford that night.

If you live in the same town where you’ve lived all your life, chances are you have big pool of people to pull from when, upon filling out the many forms one fills out in life,  you have to list an emergency contact. There are parents, siblings, your best friend from the sixth grade who you still live near enough to make power walk dates every Wednesday morning after the kids get on the bus.

By the time I left Rochester, after living there for 14 years, I finally had two friends I could count on to list in the event of an emergency. Besides my husband.

The other night, I woke up from a dream screaming. I cannot recall the dream, which is unusual for me, but I do remember thinking that I hope I didn’t wake the kids because I screamed pretty loudly. Perhaps the nightmare was my body’s defense system kicking in, because upon being awake, I noticed a strange stabbing pain in my mid back.

At this point, I was on antibiotics for a bad bladder infection.  You know, the kind that makes you feel like you have to run to the bathroom every ten minutes.

(Was that TMI? If so I apologize but this detail had to be added to frame this story and my frame of mind that night.) 

I tried to relax. I tried to stretch out my back with some yoga on the floor. That did nothing. The stabbing came back and it was traveling from one side to the other.

I tried to relax some more, but the pain kept coming back. It was around 2:30 a.m. Scary thoughts kept going through my mind. Like how my grandfather, at the end of his life, needed dialysis. Was I going into kidney failure? Like how my mom has a history of kidney stones. Would kidney stones be my inheritance?

And that night, I had no one to wake and share my troubles with. Because the only person you should wake with such pains and thoughts in the middle of the night is your husband.

And my husband just left for a two-week business trip to Japan.

And I had three sleeping children who had to wake in a few hours to catch the school bus.

So, what does a transplant in an emergency situation do?

They try to diagnose themselves online. THIS is bad advice, because when you try to self diagnose online, the Internet proclaims that you may die within eight hours if you do not seek medical attention.

So, I called my new medical practice, the one that has known me all the way since … last month.

Contrast this to the OBGYN my mom went to: one doc, who delivered both my brother and I. My mom was his patient for decades until the day he retired.

A sleepy doctor called me up, listened to me list my symptoms over the phone, and told me it was not out of the realm of possibility that I might have a kidney stone, and if I did, I might soon be in excruciating pain and I needed to immediately head to the nearest Emergency Room.

“Feel better,” she said as she hung up her line and went back to sleep.

Trying to find some humor in this, I thought to the Seinfeld episode where Kramer passed a kidney stone.

Once again, my life is mirroring that of Cosmo Kramer. On a sit-com, kidney stones are hilarious. In real life, even the possibility of one is no joke.

So, at this point, I really had no choice but to drive myself, in the middle of the night, to the ER.

So here is what I did, and what I can recommend to you, if you are out there somewhere in a new city and find yourself in a similar bind:

  • Go with your gut. Don’t feel stupid or think you are a hypochondriac if you think you are really in need of medical attention. When you are a new transplant, you are  all you have for your family. Get help.
  • Use Facebook – In the months I have moved here, indeed I have met some great people. Of course, nothing substitutes the comfort level from a lifelong friendship, but I already have a feel of who would reach out to me in a crisis. I wrote a FB message to some select new and local friends telling them of my situation. I gave them my cell phone number and that of my 16-year-old daughter and asked to please keep in touch.
  • Keep using Facebook. When I was waiting for test results in the ER, I had no signal for my cell phone, but I could still use Facebook to see the flood of people who responded to my first message, who called to check in on my kids, who offered me whatever I might need. Including one of my new friends who visited me at 6:15 in the morning at the hospital. Say what you want about our addiction to social media, but in a situation like this, it gave me peace of mind.
  • Teach your kids to be independent – This is something you can start doing right now. So when the time comes and you have to kiss and wake your teens at 3:30 a.m. to say “Mommy has to check in to the emergency room now, please wake yourselves up, take care of yourselves and make the bus on time,” they will give you a half-awake hug and say “Don’t worry mom, we’ve got this.” I don’t know if it was those summers at sleep-away camp, or all my years of nagging, but something worked.
  • Pray. Seriously. The whole ride to the ER, I talked to God and asked Him to please watch over me and my kids. Please help me get through what ever I have to get through.

When I got to the ER, I felt like my prayers were somewhat answered. The ER was EMPTY. No one in the waiting room. I got triaged by a very nice nurse, was whisked into my own room,  examined by a nurse and a doctor, had a CT and the results  from my CT, all in the span of 4 hours. If you have ever been treated at an ER, you know this is neck-breaking fast.

So?

In the end, my pain was NOT a kidney stone, but just residual pain from my bladder infection. But the doctor said I did the right thing by listening to the signals my body was giving me.

In the end, my friends here asked me why. Why didn’t I call them to take me to the ER? Why didn’t I call to have someone stay with my kids? Why? Because I know you are busy with lives of your own: kids, jobs. Because, maybe I’m not yet ready to try the strength of these limbs on these sapling friendships just planted two months ago.

In the end, I got home to see my kids out the door for school. They were dressed, brushed, fed, and packed their lunches. Their world went on without me. The sky did not fall because I wasn’t there one morning of their lives.

I hope you never have to go through the same scare I did when you are the new person in town. But know you can get through it too.

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In the Circus of the Transplanted, don’t Look Down – or Back

circus 001

About nine years ago, it seemed like my family and the extended family of my husband wished to run away and join the circus.

So, in honor of my mother-in-law’s 60th birthday, we booked a family getaway to Club Med Sandpiper in Florida.

Fearless flyers that they are, my WHOLE family, with the exception of my then-pregnant sister-in-law and my husband’s 80something grandmother, had no qualms of climbing a narrow, straight-up ladder nearly 50 feet to the trapeze platform.

It was a slow week there – the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas – so my flipping and catching in-laws had ample opportunities to perfect their trapeze swinging, hanging from their knees, and even getting caught by the muscular trapeze artist who effortless swung from a trapeze on the other side of the net.

Then, at last buckling to the pressure to suck it up and get over my fear of heights, it was my turn.

At 15 feet up, and unharnessed (adults didn’t get a harness until we stood above on the trapeze platform), I just lost it. And started to cry. But a Sandpiper staff member wouldn’t let me give up.

From the opposite side, she nimbly climbed the ladder until she was eye level with me.

“You’ve got this. Just hand over hand. And don’t ever look down.”

I made it to the top. I swung. It was all captured in this very unflattering picture of me.  The look on my face shows I would have been MUCH happier if I just stayed on the ground watching the rest of my circus-crazed family.

Image

This has been a surreal summer. Summer usually offers a welcome change of pace, even though it can be lonely at times when friends all scatter and go off on vacation.

But  when the shortening days of August arrive, they serve as a signal that it’s almost time to go back.

Back to routine.

Back to the friends, neighbors, faces and places that are so familiar.

Back to school.

Back to normal.

In the life of being a multiple-city transplant, there exists three rings.

There is the ring of your own upbringing and the family and friends you’ve left behind in your hometown.

There is the second ring of the surrogate “family” you’ve just left behind in the town you made into your new hometown but was truly your children’s hometown. The only place they’ve ever called home in their memory.

Now, I stand in the third ring of the new city. At the edge of a new school year in a school district that is completely unknown and strange,

it is easy to get sucked into all those memories and thinking about all those familiar places and people with whom you usually reconnect at summer’s end. But right now, thinking of old friends and places I’ve left behind in Rochester, thinking about how hard it will be for daughter to say those last good-byes to her friends as they board one bus and she boards another, is just too hard. It’s too sad right now to look back.

Years later, I’m taking the advice from the circus lady: don’t look down.

When my kids get off the bus from camp tomorrow and step into their new life, into their new home they have not yet seen and into three separate school buildings, this time, I will play the role of the seasoned circus pro, telling her kids from the other side of the ladder not to look back and down, but only, if only for the next few months, up and forward.

Detroit: The New Jerusalem? “Shul” shopping and Tish B’Av

downtown
downtown

view of Downtown Detroit from the Eastern Market

To my dear readers: This post is mainly about American Jewish culture. It has lots of unfamiliar lingo to those not exposed to Judaism, so my complete understanding if you skip reading this. Or, if you want to get an inside glimpse of what goes on in the minds of practicing Jews in the face of moving to a new place, do read on.

Have you recently entered a house of worship when it is not a major holiday or occasion going on? Chances are there will be plenty of room in emptying pews. Congregations merge with one another as membership dwindles.

This is an age when less Americans seek out organized religion, and regular attendance to religious services in churches and synagogues gives way to baseball and soccer fields. Perhaps it is there, where they understand the cheers for the players rather some antiquated texts and chantings, where they feel the most connection to community.

A rabbi I knew, when confronted with a person who would say: “I feel spiritual but I don’t want to get involved with any organized religion” responded by replying, “Judaism is very unorganized.”

My husband and I go against the grain of our contemporaries. As soon as we move to a new town, and not long after we purchase a home, we go looking for our second home, a synagogue or shul.  It’s not because we have kids that need to go to Hebrew school. It’s not because we need a Bar Mitzvah date. It is because, away from family, we need a community.

Fortunately, we have many choices in a city with a Jewish population of about 70,000. That more than three times the size of the Rochester Jewish community we left.

We went to two different synagogues. Were we ignored? Did we sit quietly praying unnoticed?

Hardly.

The first house of worship we entered, about four individuals approached us – during the Torah service to find out our story. Were we from out of town? Visiting? Just moved here, well WELCOME! Eyes in pews across the aisle in faces middle-aged, elderly, familiar and unfamiliar all at once, turned our way to see the newcomers in their midst. One congregant, through family connections to the Jewish community in Rochester, actually was told to look out for us.  The men on the bimah threw a stern look our way to be quiet as he whispered about the degrees of separation on how he was connected to Rochester. Another man approached us and asked if our nine-year-old son would like to lead Ein Keloheinu or Adon Olam from the bimah. These are prayers at the end of the service usually bestowed to be led by children. I knew my son knew these prayers cold, and he is not a shy kid. But still, we just got here.  As I expected, with a smile, he turned the invite down. He has been such an easy-going kid through this whole process, but he is a kid and it was too soon.

The next Shabbat morning, in the second synagogue we tried on, came an even warmer response. The welcomes. The excitement of the newness of us.  An older Israeli woman who sat in front of us explained: “You see? No matter where you go, the siddur, the words, the Hebrew prayers and melodies? They are all the same. No matter where you go you are always home.”

We were honored with an Aliyah to the Torah. In my experiences in our former synagogue, this is not something that was bestowed upon us until we were members for several years.

My son spent some time in the service and some time playing cards with about seven other children in the social hall. The fact that there were seven children in the synagogue in the middle of the summer was a promising sign. During the lunch after services, we were introduced to more people who were excited and passionate to tell us about their congregation.

The third synagogue I went to alone.  It was Jewish Detroit’s community-wide observance of Tish B’Av, meaning the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the saddest day on all of the Jewish calendar. It is the day when in Jerusalem, both of the Great Temples were destroyed, when the Jews in ancient Israel began their exile from their land, an exile that lasted two millenia. On this day history recorded countless other acts of persecution and massacres put upon the Jewish people including the Spanish Expulsion of the Jews.

I only began to observe this somber, little known holiday in the summers my children started attending Camp Ramah. To add to the somber mood, worshipers remove their shoes, sit on the ground. Under low lights, and at camp, with the aid of only a candle or a flashlight, the Book of Lamentations, or Eicha, is sung to a haunting chant. If you’ve never heard it, take a short listen here and the sadness comes through even if you don’t understand the Hebrew.

 

I sat alone on the floor, shoes off as a symbol of communal mourning. Each chapter was chanted from a member of a different area shul. Yet even when sitting alone, I never feel isolated or a stranger within a shul. Even after two weeks, there were some familiar faces. The guy with the Rochester connection who was told to look out for us sat nearby. The young woman rabbi from the first shul. I watched her as she sat on the floor, followed along in the prayer book for a while and then watched her as she closed her eyes just to meditate on the sadness of the chanted words.

And the words are indeed sad. It is sadness of Jerusalem likened to a raped woman. Childless and friendless abandoned by all humanity. Her streets are filled with ragged people walking through burned out ruins. It was a time when Gd, because of our baseless hatred and corruption, delivered us into the hands of our enemies.

An ancient, outdated story?

As I read the words of the Book of Lamentations, both in Hebrew and English, another city came to mind. The city to where I just moved. With its blighted houses and skyscrapers. With its government on the brink of bankruptcy.

But then, in the last chapter, hope.

In the back of the synagogue were some very young faces. White faces and black faces. But all young faces. These were the congregants of the Downtown Detroit Synagogue. Founded in the 1920’s, it is the last standing synagogue in Detroit proper. And instead of aging and decrepit members, its members were young. Way young.  These were the determined young people living in urban Detroit. Waiting for Detroit to come out of its destruction. Making it happen by living and working in downtown Detroit and not like the rest of us in the ‘burbs.

In our shul shopping quest for the ideal synagogue for our family, I know that this synagogue is not the one we will be joining. But out of all the synagogues I have visited or heard about in Detroit, the existence of the Downtown Detroit Synagogue is the one that gave me the most hope.

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Living in Michigan, Week One

the first and biggest glaring difference that struck me at my arrival to Michigan: legal sale of fireworks.

Guess what, everyone? I’ve made it to the other side. And I’ve unpacked enough boxes to rationalize that I’ve earned some time to write you my very first blog post as a Michigander!

The long months of goodbyes are over.

And the hellos to new neighbors and friends are beginning.

Most of the uncertainty is also gone. I’m sitting in my new house. The kids are registered for school. And after my first week of being a freshly minted Michigander, it’s not so bad. In fact, it’s great.

Off the bat, Michiganders are living-out-loud, go out-of-your way NICE. And they are proud to be from Michigan.

Take our first morning in town. With no pots and pans, and not even a table to eat upon, we had to dine out for every meal, including breakfast (oh well.).

It was a Sunday and I wanted to buy a copy of the Detroit Free Press from the vending machine outside this local diner. A woman seated in a booth next to us saw me fishing for some change. Without me asking, she offered me some quarters in exchange for some single bills. How nice was that?

The second (and third) instances I caught on to the kindness of the people of Michigan was at the grocery store.

Now, as I have written in some of my “Good Bye to Rochester” posts, and I knew this would come, but leaving Rochester has put me in a bit of a mourning period for Superior Mother of all grocery stores.

So, on one of my first trips to a supermarket here (and that’s all it is, just a supermarket), I   must have been mumbling to myself on how much I missed Wegmans or how I couldn’t find anything in this dingy Michigan grocery store when another customer, a woman my age approached me, looked me in the eye, and actually inferred: “Are you alright?”

This brought me to some clear distinctions between Michiganders and New Yorkers: Most New Yorkers try to avoid looking one another in the eye at all costs. Ever look someone in the eye in a crowded subway car? Unless you want to start a fight, I bet you wouldn’t.

And, if you are in New York, and you happen upon someone mumbling to themselves, you walk the other way.

But here this woman was, actually caring  about my well-being because of my grocery store aisle mumbling. I simply explained I was new in town, well, in STATE, and I was having a hard time finding my way around. Even in a grocery store.

When I found the stuff I was looking for, I got on a check-out  line behind a tall African-American man. After putting all his items on the belt,  he realized he had forgotten a few items he wished to purchase. He turned to me and said:

“Ma’am, why don’t you go ahead of me. I might be a while.”

Again, I was astounded by the kindness.

Another unexpected find at the supermarket: fireworks.

Two years ago, Michigan recently passed a bill allowing for the public and legal sale of fireworks. So, along with picking up your milk and eggs at the supermarket, in the days leading up to July 4, you could also stock up on Bone Breakers, Power Surges and Detonators

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This new development is receiving mixed reviews from Michigander retailers and consumers.  But, if increased availability of fireworks is making you edgy, you can also pick up a nice bottle of Chardonnay or Merlot. Sale of wine and liquor is also legal in Michigan supermarkets. You can even purchase some Mondavi “Private Label” at Target.

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Moving In:

With the arrival of the moving van and the hard work of our movers (a shout out to professional movers everywhere: thank you for your back and arm breaking work. Our head mover in Michigan was working with four torn ligaments in his rotator cuff. Didn’t stop him from hauling in box after box and participating in bringing up some heavy dressers up to the bedrooms. I believe he is scheduled for surgery this week and I hope the moving company is picking up his medical bills.), it is starting to feel like home.

We couldn’t find our  placemats right away. Instead, we are dining on the plethora of paper used to wrap all our possessions. Add some crayons, and it’s like we are eating out at Macaroni Grill!

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Next time, I’ll write about walking and bike riding in the Motor City.

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Just some thoughts before I go

jodifoster

It’s tomorrow.

Tonight, my kids will lay their heads down in their bedrooms in this house for the very last time.

Tomorrow, they’ll wake up early, duffel bags in tow, and leave their rooms, and this house, and this town as they catch the bus for camp. I usually have very mixed feelings about this departure – sad that we’ll be apart for a summer, but happy not to have to do their laundry or dishes for an entire summer, a parental sabbatical, if you will.

Tomorrow, I will nave no mixed feelings, as tomorrow the packers are also coming to pack us away for Detroit.

Get the mop, people!  I’ll be a puddle on the floor.

I guess if you’ve lived in a place for a while, the days before a big move can feel like somewhat like a mourning period. You long to hang onto the familiarity of the same streets and buildings. I will miss the sidewalks. I will miss knowing exactly what stars I’ll see during what time of year from the window above my bed.

The other night I took a final walk around the neighborhood with the husband. It is all we feel like doing Even though summer is heating up and there really is so much to DO in town (can you say, International Jazz Fest??),

Rochester International Jazz Festival

Rochester International Jazz Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

did you ever think there were this many people in Rochester who like to go out?

did you ever think there were this many people in Rochester who like to go out?

We are ready to go. Like Jodi Foster’s character in Contact, as she sat strapped into a chair on that weird launch pad, saying over and over again.

jodifoster

Ready to Go.

Ready to Go.

The next morning, husband and I woke up and went through our usual morning routine.  We have been apart for four months now save the weekends, so the bathroom with the two of us in it has been kind of … cozy.

sharesink

I brushed. For the full two and one half minutes required for proper dental hygiene.

And he waited.

I then flossed.

Still he waited.

Then I cleansed and moisturized.

All the while, husband patiently waited. Isn’t he a darling?

Then, a realization. An epiphany!

In just a few days, husband and I will have his and her sinks!

sink

Good Bye, Rochester!

P.S.: This will be my last post for a while, as I’ll be going off the grid during the move. Good thing I have one guest blogger lined up. A shout out: if any of you have a moving story to share about MOVING, write away, I’ll need some guest bloggers in the weeks to come as I come out from under a house worth of boxes!

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Meat Mixed with Cheese? That’s Just Gross, Mom

haveacow

haveacowThis is going to be one of those blog posts where you may have to be Jewish, and a Jewish person who observes some level of Kashrut, or what’s known as “keeping kosher,” to appreciate.

But even if you are not Jewish, and are just curious about the daily decisions people make when they observe religious dietary laws, please do read on.

I’m always hungry for blog hits!

My family move from New York to Michigan looms ever closer. But you wouldn’t know that by the amount of food left in my freezer. Each night, I try to use up one or two items in the freezer.

Tuesday night, it was time to use up the vegetarian beef crumbles. Wegmans (of course I was going to mention Wegmans in a blog about food, right?) has created this great vegan product called “Don’t Have a Cow” Beef Crumbles.

Disclaimer here: this food product does NOT have a kosher certification. However it is labeled as vegan, so this is good enough in my kitchen.

Like I said, not all would consider the way I keep kosher, kosher. But it works for our family. 

Back to the main story…..

I’ve used these fake crumbles many times before with a thumbs up from the kids. It was great in vegetarian chili and Sloppy Joes. I thought it would also be great in a baked pasta dish. What could be bad???

So there I was in the kitchen, using up a two boxes of pasta, a jar of tomato sauce, some mozzarella cheese and good, FULL FAT ricotta cheese from my fridge… my Italian neighbors back in the old neighborhood in Staten Island would be so proud of me. Then, defrosted from the ever-increasingly-empty freezer, I added the fake beef crumbles.

I mixed all the ingredients together and popped them into the oven. The cheese melted so dreamily, a wonderful smell filled my kitchen.

I am going to win the kids over with this creation, I thought.  My kids will gobble this down, I mean, it’s pasta covered with CHEESE!

With “meat” in it. It’s like we’re being baaaaad!

Dinner time. Baseball game rained out. No rushing. Perfect. I spooned out plates of baked pasta. I awaited upon their approval.

“Mom, what’s IN this pasta?”

“The texture is WEIRD!!!”

“Even if the meat is fake, it just doesn’t feel RIGHT to eat this!.”

My first reaction was to get really mad. And feel completely unappreciated. But on further examination of their reaction to this meal, I realized that I have raised truly Kosher eating kids.

From their earliest ages, of asking which forks need to be used with which meal, I have raised children who will go even into adulthood that what they eat reminds them of who they are. Even if, every once in a while, they screw up by setting the table with the wrong set of silverware, or ask if pepperoni can be picked off the last piece of pizza in the public school cafeteria, the level of kosher observance we have instilled in them will remain long after they leave our family table for tables of their own.

In our house, the kitchen has become our test lab for being Jewish.

Question for you: If you are Jewish and keep kosher, at any level, what eating choices have your kids made, inside or outside of the house, that make you realize you’ve done a good job in instilling Jewish values in their eating habits? 

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