This is based on a true story. Names have been changed.
“Mom, Jonah really likes coming over for dinner.”
Elias told me on a dark winter night early last January.
A year had passed, and so had another high school musical season. This time, my son was now in high school and Jonah, a senior, had been in another musical together and were now at the beginning of forensics season.
No, we’re not talking CSI-styled forensics. No, this was not about a bunch of high school kids investigating the scene of a crime. Forensics, when taken from its original Latin, forensis means ‘in open court, public’, from forum. Say forensics to any high school kid in the midwest, and they know it’s all about speaking, oratory and acting competitions that take place in the winter and spring months.
More on forensics later.
Back to the kitchen we go.
So, I was in the kitchen making dinner. Dark and cold and snowy outside. School had been in full swing now for a few weeks after a two-week Christmas/winter break.
Jonah was now living with another family in the school district, who had traveled without him over winter break, which meant that Jonah spent a lot of time during that break alone.
Alone was a thing that Jonah had grown accustomed to, since about the age of nine.
But after having him over for several family dinners with not only my youngest but my son and daughter home on college break, including his first Shabbat dinner with homemade chicken soup and challah, and another special birthday dinner for my husband, I think he started to realize what he had been missing out on all these years.
Outside of hanging around the kitchen table, I was getting to know Jonah through various outings, like the time over MLK weekend when my son and I went out with him to see a movie and go for dinner at the nearby mega mall.
“Mom, Jonah said before he came over here for dinner, he never really had a home cooked meal.”
To this day, I cannot wrap my brain around that sentence.
To me. food, especially prepared my grandmothers and mothers and aunts (and YES I know there are men and uncles and dads who cook, but not in my family) and then eating that food as a family, is the foundation of loving family bonds and relationships.
An absence of that, that was the first real sign to me of the extent of Jonah’s neglect.
Over time, I learned that when he lived with his mother, who was a substance abuser, Jonah and his brother had mostly survived on eating cereal for dinner. Or a can of tuna. Or PB & J sandwiches.Or hot dogs.
To this day, if offered a hot dog, he’d politely turn it down for something else.
Over time, I learned Jonah lived with his father full time because of his mother’s substance abuse. Jonah said his father expected him to cook dinner.
Nothing wrong with that in different situations.
I started cooking in middle school for my family when my mom went back to work, but only after years of learning by mom and grandma’s side, and mom would prep meals more than halfway and leave me copious notes on the kitchen table when I got home from school. And, considering how broken Jonah’s family situation was, some home cooked meals provided by his dad could have provided that nurturing he needed.
Basic rule: If you are a parent, it’s your job to provide meals for your kid. Leaving raw meat in the fridge and expecting your kid to cook it doesn’t cut it.
Worse yet, according to the story, his dad would leave him and take off for the weekend or the week with his new girlfriend, without leaving a contact number or a family member to look after him. Was his big brother still around at this point? I cannot remember the timeline just right.
So, from the getgo, Jonah said he prided himself on being a “DIY” kind of guy. He had basically raised and cared for himself. Since around age 9 or 10.
And somewhere in this timeline, he had made calls to Child Protective Services, both at his mother’s and father’s homes. But upon inspection of his father’s home, located in a nice, upper middle class subdivision cul de sac with food in the fridge and pantry, CPS found nothing to be wrong.
What does neglect look like to peers in the halls of an upper middle class high school?
It might be hard to detect. Jonah was always nicely dressed with the clothes he had purchased with his own money working two jobs. He had saved every receipt in hopes of getting this money back somehow.. from someone or some lawsuit?
… Maybe his shoes were worn, because he’d been wearing them since the seventh grade. But other than that, he always was nicely dressed.
But when it comes to one’s health, friends of the neglected may start to notice, especially when these friends compete with you in forensics. Jonah may not have had family bonds, but his friends became his family.
The multiple team rehearsed after school every day. I realize it now that my son’s team practiced maybe more than most because Jonah was the director. In his chaotic teen years, perhaps he felt this was the one place he could be in complete control of every scene block, every plot twist.
Indeed, during the season, multiple team members often make each other the center of their lives, with all the teen drama, for the duration of forensics season, which runs from late December auditions until the end of April with state finals.
When multiples spend most of their free time together after school rehearsing, all day on Saturdays and sometimes, sleep overs and parties on Saturday nights and then of course, brunch on Sundays, someone is bound to get sick. And if one gets sick, the rest are bound to catch it.
A few years back, when Jonah had a hacking cough and fever and his dad had instructed to pray it away, a forensics teammate was so worried about him that she pleaded her mother to drop off some OTC cough medicine at his house.
And she did. Only to get called into the office that week by his father and counselor for a rash scolding. The father telling the mother to stay out of his business.
Flash forward to the winter of 2018. It was a particularly deadly strain of influenza was going around if you can recall.
Perfectly healthy, young people being struck horribly ill, or even dying from it.
Health care professionals urging all to get their flu shots.
Since turning 18 and living independently from his father, Jonah had figured out a lot for himself. Even FAFSA! (We’ll get to that in another post).
One thing he didn’t have access to, and didn’t have time to figure it out, was access to healthcare.
Since his estrangement from his dad, he had no health insurance. Not like his dad took him to doctors. Or believed in keeping up with immunizations.
One night last winter, Jonah came to sleep over. He was coughing pretty badly.
I felt his forehead. It was pretty hot. But he refused to take any medication, not even Advil.
“As it is,” he shrugged it off with a laugh, “My family has very strong immune systems, and we just fight it off, whatever it is, and we eventually get better.”
I expressed my concern and his need to see his pediatrician right away.
“You can’t afford to wait it out, Jonah, this could get very bad. You have to get better and see your doctor, they’ll give you a flu shot.”
Problem is, he told me, he had no doctor, and no access to healthcare.
To this I just shook my head.
It was very generous and kind of the family who took him in, considering they hardly knew him or his family situation. But, did it not trouble them that he had no access to healthcare?
How could they let him use their car, but not care if he has health insurance? Was he under their auto insurance policy?
I mean, what if he got in a car accident?
What if he needed an emergency appendectomy?
What if his cough is bronchitis or pneumonia and he just needs an anti-biotic?
What if, and who even knows if his immunizations are up to date?
What if… and what if… other horrible scenarios played out in my mind. I am a Jewish mother, after all.
So, at that point, on a cold January Saturday night, what could I do?
The night went on and Jonah’s cough got worse. Finally, Elias came up from where they were crashing in the basement and said Jonah needed some relief.
Mr. DIY gave in to my maternal suggestion. I think I gave him some OTC cough suppressant. Or NyQuil. Or something.
To cut the fever and the cough. To make it better.
All this time, I just wanted to make him better.
The next morning, I sent him back to where he was staying with two quarts of my homemade chicken soup.
Because at that point, before he lived under my roof, that really was all I could do.
So what is the difference between a kid who is cared for and not cared for in the suburbs?
The difference is, the other kids have parents or even a loving guardian to take care of them if they got sick.
The other kids had doctors.
And Jonah at 18 had no living memory of seeing a doctor. Ever.
Next up: Some statistics on LGBT youth
All what I am going to tell you in this post and consequential posts is true. Or based on the truth.
At least that is what he told me.
Only the names are made up.
……It’s early February and that means another season of the community theater company I volunteer with is in the books.
I was in musicals and student theater competitions in high school. The memories I had from being in shows, even just being in ensemble, were some of the best of my life.
So when my youngest came home in the fifth grade to be part of a community theater production of Fiddler on the Roof, how was I to say no?
Newly transplanted (I used to write about being a transplant a LOT), we knew next to no one in our new suburbia. So getting involved with a community theater production run out of our town’s rec department that encouraged kids to be in shows with their parents seemed like the perfect way to meet people.
Community theater led my son to the middle school and the high school stage.
It led me back to the stage too, in roles like a pick-a-little lady in The Music Man and a dead nurse in Addams Family and Mrs. Teevee in Willy Wonka.
And the stage also led Jonah to my family.
The first time I saw my “fourth child” he was on stage.
It’s now surreal that I ever thought of him that way. As my fourth child.
We – my son, older son and oldest daughter, did not know him. Only of him.
Tall and gaunt, with dark eyes and cheekbones that most thespians had to find the most skilled makeup artist to contour in, he played the part of the Bishop in Les Miserables.
Now, he didn’t have the biggest part, and I thought I knew all the boys in our high school who were the theater kids, but this kid seemed to have come out of nowhere.
He gave a standout performance with a deep, sweet baritone voice and later on in the play, he’d be one of the barricade boys that passionately fought and died for the cause.
Little did anyone know that off stage, he was fighting his own battles.
But after the show, kids did start to hear.
That he had no mom.
That he barely had a dad.
Because dad said no son of his could be gay and he had to find another place to live upon turning 18.
And until then, he could pay his own way, including paying for food, clothing and yes college admission fees too.
So, the Bishop worked two jobs. The role of a babysitter and the role of a waiter on top of playing the role of a high school junior.
Back then, in November of 2016, I didn’t realize the role I would come to play in this teen’s life.
In a year’s span, I would come to play to Jonah the role of the mom of a good friend and soon the role of an adult he could trust. Later, I played the role of an advocate and a full-on Sandra Bullock The Blind Side grizzly bear mama.
And later than that, and even though it may have caused pain and confusion, I played the role of mom. Or .. .like a mom.
My role as mom, what he wanted, what I wanted for him, eventually got us both into some trouble.
But in between all that, there were some happy memories and laughs.
I try to hold onto them the most.
One night, over a family dinner, discussions led to as they always did, musical theater. My son Elias and Jonah were listing their favorite musicals and what roles they would love to play most.
I am not sure if by this time he had already moved in yet, but in the winter of 2017, he had started coming around the house a lot for dinner.
He had already been kicked out (or left?) his father’s house and was living with another family of a student he hardly knew. They took him in and treated him more like an exchange student.
They did not get involved. But they let him use the extra car.
For my son, it would be the lead in Catch Me if You Can. Don’t ask me what the male lead’s name is, that’s a job for my son.
Jonah wanted most of all to play Link from Hairspray.
“Oh I could totally see you in that role,” I said, readying at the stove with a pot full of pasta.
Two teen boys at home meant for a LOT of pasta.
“Um, I don’t know,”my son said into his pasta dish., “I mean, Link is attracted to…”
“–Yeah so what,” Jonah beat my thoughts to the punch. “As an actor when I get on stage I can become ANYONE. I mean, come on… I played a BISHOP!”
We all laughed at that one. The irony of it.
So, for a while, I played the role of the stand-in mom.
For reasons that will later be revealed, be it partially his fault or partially mine or no one’s fault at all. I play the part of a stranger.
But writng about it helps. Helps the pain.
I just wish the kid would have stuck to theater.
Is anyone still out there?
Do I still have any readers left?
Well, if all my readers and followers have dropped away, I cannot blame them.
Why would anyone follow a blogger who, well, has not posted in nearly a year and her last post, written the day after the Parkland Shooting, was, well, so dreadfully dark?
If you are still out there, dear faithful readers, it’s been quite the year in my household.
And for me.
My paid writng gigs have landed me lots of great stories.
I wrote about Detroit’s March for Our Lives.
I’ve been writing about, and continue to write about, unfortunately, anti-Semitism.
But that was not the biggest thing that happened.
Not even having ACL reconstruction surgery was the biggest thing that happened.
Here is a photo of me sunning myself, full metal brace and all, in July.
Yay that was fun.
But if I wrote about the biggest thing that happened to me in 2018, it would seep out of the confines of a humble blog post and become..
I don’t know…
A cautionary tale?
So, readers, I’m asking you, and if I change the names to protect the innocent…
Would you want to hear how I tried to save a life this year?
A life that was so previously broken that by the time I got to it there was little I could do?
Even though I spent the better part of 2018 making it better?
Even though I think I may have done more harm than good, for he and I both, now looking back?
Dare I write something so personal, and something that does not yet have an ending because right now it is not very happy and I so want it in my bones a happy ending?
I see it has been so long since I’ve posted that even privacy and sharing settings have changed and I cannot share this on Facebook.
That may be a good thing.
So that means that only YOU, my true followers, my subscribers, can read this.
So, tell me if you are intersested, and I will start sharing this story.
And thanks. And I hope you’ve missed me.
I’ve missed writing in my own voice.
I think it’s time I returned to it.
“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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.