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Teenage Play Dates

Last week, my son’s music teacher approached parents like me – parents with kids who love playing music and performing for others-  with what he thought would be a big imposition.

Would I mind picking up my child plus a few of their bandmates – and their instruments – at school and driving them around town on a December afternoon to play two different gigs?

Would I mind?

I was delighted!

Ever since the beginning of the school year, my son leaves the house at 6:15 on Monday and Tuesday mornings to make a 6:30  jazz band rehearsal. That’s A.M. That’s ungodly early for most and even harder for teen musicians.

But this is a dedicated bunch. And now they would have the opportunity to bring some Christmas joy through music to the Baldwin House in Birmingham and then play the lobby of the Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak.

Of course, to me, wearing my Jewish goggles, this was the perfect opportunity for me to help my son and his bandmates perform a Christmas mitzvah.  So, with my car loaded with six kids, a guitar, sax, bass, and I think a few brass instruments, we were off.

The Bloomfield HS Hills Jazz Band as well as the Bloomfield Hills HS String Ensemble alternatively played traditional and contemporary Christmas music to the delight of the residents of the Baldwin House. They came in walking, or with their walkers to take in the sweet strings and the bright jazz tunes. The only musician they could not hear, was my son.

Unfortunately, his guitar amp adapter fried out somewhere between the school and the gig. And in the middle of the gig, while the strings played we had the following text conversation.

Mom, can you see if there is a music store nearby to buy me a new adapter?

Now?

Yes, my adapter died and no one can hear me.

Sorry, but there is no way I can do that right now. You should have checked this before we left the house. 

It was working, don’t make this out to be my fault*~X( at wits' end

Again, I’m sorry there is nothing I can do for you now. Stop fiddling with your amp and stand up. You are performing. 

But, they can’t hear me. 

Fake it. The show must go on. 

So, in  this video, you may or may not see a young man  on the floor fiddling with his amp and then at the last moment stand up and pretend to play his guitar.

In between gigs, after we loaded up the car with kids and instruments, I did have time to stop and buy some batteries to power his next guitar.  I turned instantly from a villan into a hero. They were now playing the big room: the lobby at Beumont Hospital in Royal Oak.

Unless you are having a baby, or this is your place of employment, the hospital is a somber place to be. Especially this time of year. So what a nice gift it was for the musicians at BHHS to bring their talents to play in the hospital. The acoustics sounded fantastic.  The strings sounded sweeter

and the jazz music sounded happier

Weary doctors and nurses and technicians stopped from their rounds to take a listen. Some caregivers of patients even started dancing in the lobby.

The afternoon gave me the opportunity to socialize with other roadie parents who had devoted the afternoon to driving and listening. One mom of a senior cello player told me that she was getting some ridicule for letting her son consider pursuing music in college. But she said music, and playing the cello is the one thing in school that holds his passion and attention.

As I listened and sipped a cup of coffee from the hospital cafeteria, I thought how lucky my son is to be in a school with such a great music program that thinks “outside the school,” to allow them to play in public places. I also thought about the kids just down the road in Detroit, who may not have a music program in their school. Because when it comes to tight budgets, music is seen as frivolous. A luxury that poorly performing schools with low testing students cannot afford.

The last sentence is the farthest thing from the truth.

 I ask those who wish to cut music in schools: can common core make people want to dance? Want to make kids come to school at 6:30 in the morning? Can common core bring joy to a hospital or an assisted living facility the way music can?

This is my final post for 2013. I invite you to listen to these talented young musicians playing some holiday joy. Thank you for following my blog, for reading me and for writing to me.

Have a joyous Christmas and a happy 2014

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Merry Christmas From Staten Island

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The news from Staten Island, it’s not all bad.

For the most part, everything seems – SEEMS – like it’s back to normal after Sandy, the worst storm in Staten Island’s 300-year history.

The stores are hopping with Christmas shoppers.

The streets are typically jammed with traffic.

The noisy holiday revelry in local restaurants with present opening, reindeer antler wearing patrons lay on an extra surreal layer to this island that everything is okay.

Last night, my husband and I ate at Euro-trendy Alor Cafe. As we dined on crepes and roasted Barramundi and sipped our Riesling and Merlot, we listened to a trio of flamenco guitarists:

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All this normalcy takes place above “the Boulevard.”

Hylan Boulevard.

Drive below the Boulevard, in the neighborhood where I grew up and my parents still live, things get strange.

Everywhere, there are subtle and not so subtle reminders of how Sandy reaffirmed for many Staten Islanders why  the Island’s South Shore has the dubious distinction for being named  “Zone A.”

First, you notice the inspection postings that dot a front window on nearly every residence:

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Then, there are the police cars that are out on nearly every corner. All day and all night:

CedarGrove12 035 CedarGrove12 036But go even closer to the water. Look into the field out my childhood window and you see further evidence of the storm:

Sandy12 125A tiny house. In the field. Where there is not supposed to be a house. Never was there a house there before. Until Sandy took it off its foundation.

And on the other side of the field, some more harsh evidence of Sandy:

House on Fox Beach, still decorated for Halloween.

House on Fox Beach, still decorated for Halloween.

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On the other side of my childhood neighborhood are the eclectic bungalow-lined streets of Cedar Grove. Though I didn’t know anyone who lived here, I am thankful for the peacefulness these streets offered me in my teen years. These are the streets where I felt safe riding my bicycle. Many of these streets now have RED inspection stickers which mean that most of these houses are no longer safe to inhabit.

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Even the neighborhoods makeshift 9/11 memorial had been destroyed by the storm surge:

the site of a local 9/11 memorial. There used to be a statue and a plaque here, all gone.

the site of a local 9/11 memorial. There used to be a statue and a plaque here, all gone.

As I walked these streets in the low December sun, I thought to myself: Am I a disaster tourist? Am I just a gawker?

No. No I’m not.

I couldn’t bring myself to take photos of the most badly damaged homes. The ones reduced to rubble. I felt by taking photos of these homes, I would be just be further violating the homeowner’s dignity. FOX news and CNN took photos of the worst, only to chase the next big news story and forget about this place just weeks later.

In this tucked-away corner of Staten Island, I’m not a tourist, though I no longer live here. I want to show the world these secret streets, to show them in their continued state of misery. Even though the media has moved on.

Don’t forget this strong and dignified neighborhood, however modest their homes.

Still there are signs of hope. This beautiful  Spanish-mission styled church still stands:

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Outside of a makeshift relief center where residents can get food, drinks and even Christmas gifts, there is this tree, with a sign of hope and resilience:

CedarGrove12 027 CedarGrove12 028Merry Christmas to the people of Cedar Grove, Staten Island. I won’t forget you. I won’t be satisfied until you are rebuilt once again.

The First Christmas in 87 Years Without a Neighbor

No one lives here anymore, but a wreath was still placed upon the door

Do you believe that houses have feelings? I think they must. If they are old enough, and if they hold decades of family memories, of laughter and conversations and arguments, and now they are quiet, I think they must.

The house next door has got to feel very lonely this Christmas.  For the first time since it was built, in 1925, it stands empty. No tree. No family cooking dinner inside. No rush to open presents. Inside linger memories of 87 Christmases.  It must be waiting for the time it will once again be loved and lived in by another family.

My neighbor sadly passed away shortly before Thanksgiving.

The first time I met Charles “Bud” Strobel; he knocked on my door and politely asked if he could use my telephone. His was out of service, and he had to make an urgent phone call. At the time, Bud was a real estate attorney working on a house closing. At the time, Bud was 90 years old.

Bud lived to be 102.  Bud lived independently in the house that was his wife’s parent’s home for nearly all of those 102 years. He lived a life that set examples for us all to follow.  He always greeted us cheerfully from his walkway and bestowed other-era salutations to my children like “Hello chum!” and “How are you, my Huckleberry friend?”

Bud, according to his daughter’s beautifully written eulogy, was very athletic in college and throughout most of his life. Even into his nineties, my husband and I could see a sihlouette of him lifting small handweights through his bedroom curtain.  

No matter the season, he took daily walks around the neighborhood. Using a cane and a walker in recent years did not deter him from getting out for a stroll.  He drove his car until he reached his mid nineties. He always left the house dressed in khakis and cashmere sweaters to socialize with his friends at the Rochester Yacht Club.

One winter night, his daughter from South Carolina called me, worried that her dad was not answering his phone. Indeed, his car was not in the garage. It turns out that he was out for dinner at the yacht club with his “younger” friends who were in their 70s and 80s.

Bud loved the gardens around his house though he didn’t do much to care for them. That was his wife’s passion. After she died in 1997, her flowers and roses seemed to thrive on benign neglect.  

From her bed, as she lay dying, she watched the pink flowers of our crabapple tree bloom. Bud said seeing that tree bloom gave her great pleasure in her final days.

Each spring Bud came out of his house to mournfully gaze at the pink of the tree. We could only imagine he was thinking of his wife as the petals fell to make a pink carpet on the lawn.   

I never met Bud’s wife, as we moved here in 1999, the first family to move onto the block with kids in a generation. In some ways, like my gardening, Bud said I reminded him of his wife. He said that she and I were both “demon gardners.”

After the first year of tolerating these thorny barberry bushes that separated our properties,  I asked if he would be receptive to removing them and replace them with a perennial flower garden.

In his dry sense of humor, he quipped, “My mother-in-law planted those bushes decades ago. I’ve always disliked them. She’s long gone, so I can’t see why they can’t go now too!”

This narrow garden became a vehicle for many conversations between Bud and I in the summer. Each spring, he would come out of his house and ask me “Hey demon gardner, what are you going to plant this year?” And I would show him my bags of spring bulbs or the perrineals in pots I would plant.

I’m going to miss Bud.  He spent the last year of his live living down south near his daughter and he died peacefully there. 

The end of Bud’s life means the end of three generations, maybe four, who had memories in that home. Those memories, and the house that houses them, is a hefty bag to unload. Even now, that there is no one in the house, his daughters hung a wreath on the door before heading back south after Bud’s funeral.

Bud was a good neighbor and though I know I was busy with raising my kids for all the years we lived next door, I hope he thought we were good neighbors too.

I don’t know what is going to happen to the house. I don’t know how or when Bud’s family, who live in Texas and South Carolina, will return to Rochester to go through 87 years worth of stuff and put his house on the market. And, after 87 years, the house will need some love and TLC and a good hefty rennovation before it finds a buyer.

So, even though I’m not Christian, all I want for Christmas – for next Christmas – are new neighbors.

A Small Chanukkah Miracle at Checkout Aisle Number Eight

“Are you doing anything special this Hanukkah?”

I guess Steve the check-out cashier figured out I was Jewish. After all, from my grocery cart, I unloaded a bag of potatoes, onions, some Chanukkah napkins, blue and white M&Ms and a box of beeswax candles. 

“Not much,” I replied. “Just going to my son’s band concert tonight, and then down to New York City for a family occasion.” I didn’t want to say it was for a Bat Mitzvah. That’s just too complicated if you don’t know what a Bat Mitzvah is.

“Ooooh, New York City! That’s where they seriously get into Chanukkah! I mean, the big menorah displays, and the food — the matzah ball soup!  Even in the diners, they make French toast out of challah down in New York City,” he went on.

Now, you don’t have to be Jewish to love matzah ball soup or challah French toast. And, I am pretty sure, you can get challah French toast up here in Rochester.

But the sentimentality in his voice towards matzah ball soup, the way he so dreamily spoke of the menorahs as he scanned my clementines and sweet Mayan onions, I had to ask:

“Um, are you Jewish?”

Now, this is not a question I would ask a complete stranger. But around this time of year, when the enormity of Christmas seeps into every crevice of the American landscape, Jews have this desire to connect to one other, to stick together. Judaism as a topic of conversation is a subject that would be avoided by the most disenfranchised, unaffiliated Jew for most of the year. But talking about one’s Jewish identity in the face of Christmastime, is, like a plate of freshly fried potato latkes, on the table and up for grabs.  

At any other time of year, a suburban housewife and a 20something college kid working in a grocery store wouldn’t openly discuss being Jewish. But that night, right before the lighting of the first Chanukkah candle,  amidst the Christmas Muzak playing and the Christmas tree displays twinkling, it felt like the right time.

As he carefully bagged my groceries with the expertise only possessed by a Wegmans employee, Steven continued to tell me his plans for the Festival of Lights.

“Yeah, there’s this Chanukkah celebration thing going on at the University of Rochester tonight. From – you know – Hillel? I think I might check it out.  I haven’t gone to many Hillel events, but I think I should check it out.”

“Good for you!” I replied. This did my heart good. I told him that I worked for the Hillel – the organization that supports Jewish life on college campuses around the world –  a number of years back.  With so many negative statistics out there pointing out the demise of Jewish practice among today’s young American Jews,  Steven telling me of his plans to do something Jewish, to be with other Jews that night, just made me feel all warm inside.

Chanukkah is such a small holiday in importance on the Jewish calendar. But it celebrates something so big – the world’s first fight for religious freedom. It was the first time a people – though meek and small – said NO to an occupying power. Judah Maccabee and his brothers were the first who had the chutzpah — the balls, if you will — to say, NO! We will not stop being Jewish. We will not stop teaching our children how to be Jewish. You can put up statues of your idols, you can outlaw Jewish practice, you can threaten us, but we will survive.

And survive we did, and we have, in spite of history. And in spite of the dreary outlook for the American Jewish landscape, Steven, the college kid who worked at Wegmans, was going to go out of his way to celebrate Chanukkah, to celebrate being Jewish.

Happy Chanukkah to Steven and to all who celebrate freedom.

How a Sukkah is like a Christmas tree

Okay, so the headline of this post might shock and offend some, but please let me explain my bold statement.

Growing up in a predominantly Italian neighborhood in Staten Island, as the Chanukkah song from Adam Sandler song goes, I was the only  kid on the block without a Christmas tree. Our neighbors invited my family over for cake and tree decorating and we in turn invited them on Chanukkah to light our menorah, spin a dreidel and eat fried potato latkes.

 Even back then I understood that Christmas was a big holiday, and Chanukkah was a minor Jewish one. But Christmas trees still left me with a feeling of being on the outside, my nose pressed to the frosted window.

A menorah, no matter how big, even the ones that the Chabad Lubavich movement lights, just can’t compete with the smell of fresh pine, the twinkling lights and the tinsel to a Jewish kid on Staten Island. I even had my secret Christmas tree fantasies.  If I ever had a Christmas tree, it would be simple: just candy canes and white lights would hang off the branches of the Christmas tree of my dreams. And it would only be in my dreams, because I knew very well that there is no such thing as a Chanukkah bush.  

I did have childhood associations with Sukkot, the eight-day autumn festival of Booths, because of Hebrew school. I made the standard paper sukkah chains and ate within the large sukkah of my synagogue. In fact, the first time I was ever asked on a date was in a sukkah. It was in the seventh grade and a classmate asked me to go roller skating at Skate Odyesy as our teacher, on Orthodox rabbi, continually shushed us as he attempted to recite kiddush, the blessing over the grape juice. 

But because my family didn’t build a sukkah of our own, the holiday still felt remote to me. I didn’t have a sukkah to eat my bowl of breakfast cereal in, or sleep in.

Now, in adulthood, my family enjoys putting up a sukkah every autmn, and we have done so for eleven years. And because we have a family sukkah, I can now say why this celebration, one of the major holidays on the Jewish calendar, blows that overblown attention we give to that other holiday in December right out of the water.  Why? Because a sukkah fulfills the Jewish Americans’ need to decorate a large, religious object with branches and lights and have social gatherings within or around it.

Sukkot is known in Hebrew as one of the “three legs” of Jewish holidays, one of the three times of the year when the ancient Israelites were commanded to make a pilgrimage by foot to Jerusalem. Imagine Israelites building one of these temporary huts and sleeping in their fields under a harvest moon.

This same harvest moon shines through the roof of our family sukkah on the first few nights as we feast and sing. After a month of self scrutiny, asking for forgiveness, and finally, fasting on Yom Kippur, sitting within the walls of a sukkah is like getting a hug from God and feeling His forgiveness, as one Chabad rabbi in my college years so eloquently explained it.

In my neighborhood,  Sukkot is all around us. As we are finishing up our meal of brisket and sweet potatoes, our neighbor, an Orthodox rabbi, is starting his meal with his family within their sukkah. We can hear his voice as he joyfully sings the kiddush as we clear off our table. This is followed by the clanking of plates and the laughter of his grandchildren as they dine.  This coming outside to eat, either in these formal meals or sukkah hopping later in the week may be the last chance we get before the long Rochester winter, makes our neighborhood just feel more neighborly.

How is a sukkah not like a Christmas tree? For one thing, Jews are commanded by God in Torah to build one to remind us of the booths that the Israelites lived in during their wandering in the desert after we were freed from Egypt.  Plain and simple, it’s a mitzvah just to sit in a sukkah. I still don’t understand if there is a religious connection between a tree and the birth of Jesus, but I’d be happy to learn how this tradition got started.

So, now that it is December, I still admire Christmas trees, but with a knowledge and experience that the Jewish people have our time of year for our big celebrations with something to decorate and gather in. Come this Christmas, don’t feel bad for the Jewish people who have no Christmas tree. Instead, feel bad for the Jewish people who have not yet built, or ate, or slept, or dwelt in a Sukkah, back in September.

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