Tag Archive | Brooklyn

Finally the dreams have stopped

When I woke up the morning on 9/12, like everyone else, I wished the whole thing was a dream.

Then, at night, images of the World Trade Center entered my dreams at least twice a month, for the next nine years.

It’s no wonder I dreamed about these iconic buildings, buildings I grew up with, beamed with pride at.

But the last time I saw them was looking out at them from my grandmother’s hospital window. It was July of 2001. Though they passed away years later, my grandparent’s health in earnest began to fail that summer. As I held her hand,I said to her “Hey, at least you have a great view of downtown. Look at the Towers. Look how beautiful they are.”

And they were on that day, across the East River. So crisp a view.

And just a few weeks before September 11, my dad had a heart attack. He did survive, to teach, to live, to continue biking and traveling, and enjoying his grandchildren. But I think it was the attacks of 9/11 that truly broke his heart.

So, is it any wonder my brain created for years images of the World Trade Center?

Sometimes in my dreams I would be falling, floating up, up, up, past desks and cubicles and giant, narrow office windows.

Other times, I’d be in an elevator, thinking, I shouldn’t be here, I need to get out of here.

In some dreams, I’d be outside, and there they were, the Twin Towers, just there, like they were a backdrop in a movie.

Or, they would appear as ghost buildings with police barricades around them. I’d walk past them and yell at them. Go away. You are gone. You shouldn’t be here any more.

Upon wakening, I wouldn’t always remember that I dreamed right away. Of course, it would hit me in the middle of my day. I’d be in the cereal aisle at the supermarket, and I would stop dead. Cold. Oh, God. I dreamed about them. I dreamed about the Towers again.

But now, 10 years later, the dreams have stopped. They stopped when Osama bin Laden was finally, justly, wiped from the face of the earth. They stopped when finally, Ground Zero was no longer just an empty, gaping hole but the beginnings of the newly emerging Freedom Tower. New York is rising again.

I know that putting a building back up cannot bring back the souls lost on 9/11, but it is my hope that this new, so carefully thought out complex of buildings and memorials can help ease the dreams and memories of so many of the families from tomorrow and onward. I wish them only the sweetest of dreams.

And After All, You’re My Wonder Wheel

on the moving car of the Wonderwheel with Craig

And how could I not visit Coney Island?

After all, it’s en route in our Island hopping tour – between Staten Island and Long Island.

My family plunked down its roots in Coney Island, on 21st Street. This is where my great-grandparents on my grandmother’s side lived. My grandmother with her three sisters and one brother.

This is the subway train stop that takes you to the boardwalk. The very spot where my grandmother and her sisters would stand and offer visitors and beachgoers a clean place to shower and change after beachgoing at their apartment  – all for a quarter.

On the boardwalk, there are signs of souvenir stores that are so old they advertise Suntan Oil – NOT sunscreen, or sunblock – but good, old-fashioned melanoma inducing suntan Oil.

This is the famed Coney Island boardwalk. On this spot – or around here somewhere –  my grandmother met my grandfather and told him to go home and grow up. They were married for 67 years. This is also the Boardwalk and the beach where my brother and my cousins and I ate chicken salad sandwiches with grapes and then had to WAIT on the beach blanket for 30 minutes before we can go jumping in the waves. It was a cruel ritual that we endured each summer.  

This is the Cyclone. My grandmother rode it, as well as my mother. Skipped a generation with me. Now, this week, my husband and son got a chance to ride its rickety hills.

Me? I agreed to ride the Wonder Wheel with the family.

My husband, two boys and my parents crammed into one of the moving cars that shoots out into nothing over the beach.

This is the sign that tells the rider just how old the Wonder Wheel is, and that there has never been an accident in all the Wonder Wheel’s 89 years.  This is the view up top of Nathan’s Famous Franks below:

And after a few hours, hot hungry and tired, we left the boardwalk to find our car which was parked by the Luna Park apartment projects. These were the apartments where several branches of the extended family lived for several decades.

I took a walk on the grounds. I looked up at the terraces where my cousins and I played tag.

The buildings were under a much-needed renovation. As I walked along memory lane, I noticed that the playgrounds of my childhood had been upgraded. Old school monkey bars and jungle gyms have been changed to the plastic, safer playgrounds of today.

But wait – some were JUST the same. The same concrete play structures were still there that I played on. So, for one more time , I climbed on them, with my youngest son:

I will not go quiet into that Kindle Light

I will not go quiet into that Kindle light.

I don’t ever see myself curling up with a Kindle, or a Nook, or any other e-book for that matter.

Kindle the eBook 2.0

I will not go quiet into that Kindle light.

I don’t ever see myself curling up with a Kindle, or a Nook, or any other e-book for that matter.

There has been so much news about books. The drop in the sale of physical books and the recent scanning of 5.2 billion books into digital form to study trends in culture and literature, as reported by the New York Times. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Barnes & Noble recently cited studies that suggest consumer spending on new physical books will fall to $19 billion in 2014 from $20.5 billion in 2009.

But books are more than carefully strung words. Books create communities and friendships. A book has physical attributes – the feel of its Tattered Cover, the texture of the dog-eared pages inside and the wonder about by whom the book has been previously held and read.

A few years ago, a friend of mine was making what she thought at the time a permanent move back to her home of Cape town South Africa. The trans-Atlantic container could only carry so much of her possessions, so she held a yard sale.

Among the precious things she agreed to part with was her vast collection of books. An avid reader, my friend always had a stack of books – from the library, finds at other yard sales or book sales – on her nightstand. From the pile of books that was spread on a blanket, I picked up “The Notebook” by Nicholas Sparks and offered her the asking price of a dollar. She refused to take money from me and instead, pressed the book into my hand, smiled, and just said “enjoy.”

So I took it home and read it. I’ll admit it wasn’t my favorite. But it was a book given to me by a friend, a friend I feared I would never see again short of a very long plane ride. So, the year she was away, I had her book on my shelf as a reminder of our friendship. I have given and received many previously enjoyed books, as a symbol of family and friendship. Before a family vacation, my doorbell rang and it was another friend, who, just because, wanted to give me a book to read on the beach. It was The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd.

I have also given my books away to friends: like Sarah’s Key and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan to my mom, and A Thousand Splendid Suns to my dad.

Can you do that with a Kindle?

Now I know that e-books have their advantages: less trees are cut down to make and read books, less clutter in one’s home, ease of traveling with multiple books, instant gratification of downloading the latest book, and so on. But the clutter of books is legacies of family and friendships that our society will lose with the emerging popularity of the e-book. No, I fear that this next generation coming up, if predictions hold true and purchases of physical books will fall away to one more screen that we must stare at for information. Something will be lost.

Because of paper books, a multi-generation legacy of books rests in my house.

My grandparents lived in a tiny apartment in Bensonhurst Brooklyn for over 60 years. In the foyer, they had their treasured library. Into each book that was added to their collection – books like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson- a seal was placed, saying that this book was part of the Library of Pauline and Milton Kasmere. Some of these books, with their spines embellished with fading gold lettering, are now propped on the bookshelves in my home. I hope that my kids will read these classics from the pages that their great-grandparents held, not an e-book.

In the future, what will we put on our bookshelves?

Now, call me a luddite, but I can go on about how much I like e-books, if only for sentimental reasons. I’d write more about my feelings and dislikes about e-books, but I am off to a book exchange at my son’s middle school – off to sort books that will be donated to a city Literacy project to share with inner city schools in Rochester.

Tell me, in the future, if physical books go away, will there be books to share and book exchanges to give away books?

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Remembering John – and James

Today marks the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death.

That day also ended my childhood and woke me up to the harsh realities of the world, realities that couldn’t be imagined away.

On December 8, 1980, I was in the 7th grade. I can’t remember when I started listening to the Beatles. My cousins were into them, and one of them won the Rubber Soul album (yes, not a CD, or a mp3 download, but a vinyl LP) from 101 CBS FM.   When playing cards or games at his grandmother’s apartment in Coney Island, if you made a move against him, he would break into lyrics from the song You Can’t Do That –  “I told you before — nooooo, you can’t to that!”

So I was well familiar with the Beatles by age 12, though maybe not who the individual Beatles were, or what John Lennon was all about.

I had just received my first radio alarm clock and my radio was tuned to an AM station 77 ABC – with  Don Imus in the morning. Don Imus spoofed everything and was always reporting fake news. So when I woke up on that dark December morning and heard that John Lennon was rushed to the hospital for a gunshot wound to the chest, I thought he might be joking. Sure, Imus, I thought, as I went downstairs to get my breakfast.

Then I went down to the kitchen and saw the news on TV – the pictures of Yoko Ono on her knees by the Emergency Room entrance and the announcement that John Lennon was dead.

That day also brings me thoughts of a classmate from the 7th grade. His name was James. I had a bit of a crush on James, though back then, in the brutality of junior high school, liking the wrong boy could get you teased to no end.

James was not exactly what other girls in the class thought of as cool or cute. He didn’t dress cool or act cool. He had thick unruly hair and thick glasses.

But what James  had going for him in my book was that he was SMART. Ahead-of-his-time smart.

For a seventh grader, he was certainly up on his politics. After all, what other seventh grader could write poetry that included references to Mohammed Ali as Cassius Clay or Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick incident? What other seventh grader could argue with our social studies in defense of Richard Nixon when most of us barely knew what Watergate was at age 12? James made Nixon impersonations all the time. And he drew great political cartoons. His other idols: Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather of CBS News, a network where he swore he would someday be gainfully employed.

If James was born 20 years too late and had a fascination with the 60’s, his favorite band was of course – the Beatles. So on the morning of December 9, when the world found out that John Lennon was dead, there was an announcement in home room to observe a moment of silence for the slain musician.

At that moment, James did another mature thing that could have a seventh-grade boy drawn and quartered.  He cried. Right at his desk, right there in front of everyone.

Now, remember I had  a crush on James, who didn’t seem to care that I existed. Who made fun of me about as much as anyone else in the seventh grade. But I couldn’t bear to see him cry. So, seeing that he had no tissue, I got up out of my chair (which I think was against home room rules), crossed the room, put my hand on his shoulder, and offered him one.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

He looked at me, took my tissue, and thanked me.

It truly was a Wonder Years moment that still remains an entry in my adolescent diary.

And now, 30 years later? I still miss John Lennon and wonder what more music he could have given us, what more he could have taught his son.

Now: my own kids love the Beatles. They sing and listen to their music. They have been to Strawberry Fields and have stood outside the Dakota.

Now: For a fifth grade biography project, Nathan, who is now 12,  found a book in the young adult section of the library that ironically was published three months before Lennon’s death.  To accompany the book report, we made a milk-jug headed John Lennon puppet, complete with the signature round framed glasses, long wavy hair and a New York T-Shirt. Nathan’s playing the guitar now, and I’m sure It Won’t Be Long until he will be asking for a Beatles song book.

And James? Last time I saw James – in person – was at an SAT prep class held at Wagner College back when we were in High School. The class was held at the student union, and one day, a Beatles cover band was playing in the cafe. James had a great time singing along.

I have seen James since, but on TV:  James is a news correspondent: though on FOX, not CBS.

Bye-bye Tar Beach, Hello Green Roof

Growing up in Brooklyn, if you couldn’t make it to the real beach on a hot summer day, all you had to do was go up to Tar Beach. Did you go to Tar Beach?

“It was really hot up there,” my mom told me on a recent visit, as she told me about how she and her friends would spend hours up on the roof using sun-reflectors even to maximize their tans. Ahh, the good old days!

Tar roofs, though hot and contributors to global warming, made great song material, though, you must admit.

The Drifters sang about the sun burning the tar up on the roof in “Under the Boardwalk” and how to forget all your cares “Up on the Roof.” Elton John sat up on his roof and kicked off some moss in “Your Song.”

Perhaps Elton should have cooled his boots for a moment and left the moss alone. Growing plants on roofs — from vegetable gardening to sophisticated sod membranes that soak up urban water runoff and cool the air — are becoming a required building material in cities like Toronto and Chicago. 

I know that tar roofs are not exclusive to Brooklyn, no matter how Brooklyn-centric my point of reference may be. In fact, cities  like Chicago, where new laws are in place requiring new buildings to have green roofing materials, the temperature on a tar roof can be 78 degrees hotter than that on a green roof.

Walk across any asphalt parking lot on a summer day and then walk across a green lawn. You don’t have to be a scientist writing a big fat feasibility study to understand how black top paved surfaces and roofs heat the earth and green areas have the potential to cool it.

In Rochester, NY, The Harley School is employing this technology as one long-term science project and can boast that they are the area’s first school to have a green roof. This sustainable technology will not only act as a natural insulator, keeping the school warmer in winter and cooler in summer, but it will teach its high school students about how buildings affect the environment.

The tar roofs of the past, according to environmentalists, are the bane of city living because they create urban heat islands and contribute vastly to water runoff.  Rather than being just a green trend, cities such as Chicago and Toronto require roofs of new buildings to include cooling, greenhouse-gas absorbing plants.

The Harley School on Oct. 18 installed two 10 x 10 ft. plots of hearty winter grass on the roof of their building on 1981 Clover St. The school spent $2,000 for materials and also received an in-kind installation and materials donation from Zaretsky & Associates landscapers in Western New York.  In order to grow a section of green roofing, school engineers had to assess if the school’s roof could withstand the additional weight of a weatherproof membrane barrier, two inches of topsoil, the weight of the growing plants, and the water they will retain.  The grassy roof serves as a natural insulator and will keep the building cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.  School officials expect to reap the benefits of these initial costs within 3-10 years.  

Peter Hentschke, a science teacher who will be working with Harley’s upper classmen on researching the impact of the green roof, said the project provides students with hands-on learning. The students will develop mathematical methods and equations to determine how much energy their school saves by comparing temperatures of the school’s different roofing materials. They will also calculate how water runoff is affected by the green roof.

 “Rooftop plants catch rainwater and runoff that would have ultimately run into the sewer and overburden water treatment centers. The students are tracking current rainwater runoff with water gauges and will track this throughout the school year,” he said.  

Chris Hartman, Harley’s social and environmental sustainability coordinator said the students are “all fired up” about learning about the green roof because it has real-world implications.  

“The Harley students are really in the driver’s seat of this project. They know that it is cool to have a green roof, but the challenge will be to come up with the methodology to show how green roofs have an impact in the world around them,” said Hartman. He added that students hope to share the data from the green roof with their classmates, and perhaps local colleges such as the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology.

If we all started growing green things on our roofs, perhaps by the time these kids graduate college, our cities would from above look less like Tar Beach and more like the ancient hanging gardens of Babylonia. I wonder what songs they will inspire by then.

What’s a Nice Jewish Girl to do about Halloween?


Some of my neighbors really get into decorating for Halloween

My birthday falls in late October. I will not disclose my age, and those of you who know me know what that number is.  Unless a birthday is one that ends in a 0 or a 5, birthdays at this stage of life are no big deal.

But think back to when you were a kid.  Those were the days when one counted down the days to their birthday party.  And if you were lucky enough to be born on the cusp of the Scorpio sign, birthday parties were all about Halloween. Late October babies have a built-in costumed, candy-corn flavored theme that is perfectly gift wrapped with a giant fake spiderweb and grooves to the music of a Monster Mash soundtrack.

Each year, even up through high school, I celebrated my birthday with a costume party. On my seventh or eighth birthday, my grandmother transformed herself into a gypsy storyteller to the delight of all my costumed friends.   My parents and grandparents even staged special effects, complete with a charmed stuffed snake to rise out of a wicker basket with the help of an invisible fishing wire.

All through childhood, my mother and grandmother were the master costume makers. My mom said that when she was growing up in her Bensonhurst, Brooklyn apartment, my grandmother would dress up as a witch and concoct costumes for every kid in the building.

And when it was my turn to dress up, mom and grandma could make me into anything I wanted because they both knew their way around a sewing machine.  Pity my own children this time of year. I cook, I bake, I garden, I teach, I read Torah, but I cannot even decently hem a pair of pants.

I wanted to be a sunflower one year: mom made me a sunflower. And then scarecrow, and Indian Princess, and even a hairdryer. And my final Halloween birthday party, I made a really convincing Boy George.

Halloween birthday parties, trick-or-treating and getting candy went on happily and innocently until the seventh grade. That year, Halloween fell out on a Tuesday which was afternoon Hebrew School.

Hebrew School started at 4:30 and let out around 6 p.m.  Through Chumash (bible) lessons, you could feel the tension in the class start to bubble like a witch’s cauldron: we were missing out on prime trick-or-treating time! We realized that by the time we got home, scarfed down some dinner and put on our costumes, maybe we could collect half a pillowcase worth of candy if we were lucky. But we had a plan.

“Rabbi,” one of our classmates sweetly inquired, “Can we get out of Hebrew School early today so we can go trick-or-treating?”

Yeladim!” He shouted, saying the Hebrew word for children. “Jewish children should not celebrate Halloween. It is NOT a Jewish Holiday! If you want to dress up and have fun, we can do that later in the year, on Purim.”

In unison, the entire class gasped in disbelief. Up till this point, we were all completely unaware that Halloween could have other meanings besides dressing up, running around the neighborhood and getting candy. And, in the streets of Staten Island, we didn’t exactly live in a part of the world where Purim, a costume-filled Jewish holiday in the spring, was universally celebrated.

We were not deterred that night, or any year after, from our right as American kids to trick-or-treat. Okay, Halloween is not a Jewish holiday. In fact, I knew even back then that Halloween must have some Christian implications, because all the parochial school kids I knew in my neighborhood had off Nov. 1 for All Saint’s Day.

Halloween must be okay because my grandmother, the most Jewish lady I knew, still loved Halloween. One year, my grandparents went to Greenwich Village to see the famous Halloween parade.  My grandmother had a blast and made friends with everyone, including “all the nice young men dressed up in the most elaborate costumes” who offered her a chair along the parade route.

My Yiddishe grandma, the one who made gifilte fish from scratch and sang me Jewish songs,  found delight in hanging out in the Village with the drag queens on Halloween!

I always wanted to go into the Village for Halloween, but it wasn’t until my grandparents raved about it did I got the nerve to go to one of the best places in the country to celebrate on Oct. 31.

I spent two Halloweens in the Village in my 20’s, although I didn’t wear a costume. Then, out in San Francisco’s Castro district, I dressed as Mona Lisa in a frame and my beloved dressed as the Mad Hatter.  People sang “Mona Lisa” to me. A few people even got the Elton John reference and sang a few bars of that song with us.  The streets got crowded, and my frame did get entangled with other costumes, but it was all in good fun.

Those were some of the most memorable nights of my life.  More than the candy, as  young adult I saw Halloween as a time when people can express themselves and become someone else for just one night. Halloween costumes break down barriers between strangers.   But beneath the costumes and candy, the darker messages that lurk below are just plain not Jewish.

I still love Halloween and my heart is tied to the Halloween memories of my childhood. But Halloween has shifted lower on my priority list.

After a month of putting energies into the Jewish fall holidays I mentioned in a recent blog post, I have little desire to turn my front lawn into a graveyard or put together a costume with a hot glue gun.

But we still carve our pumpkin. And I still let my kids go trick-or-treating.  But they well understand and love that come spring, we will be busy making hamantashen cookies and baskets of food for friends and neighbors for the Jewish holiday of Purim. In that way, they learn that Purim, when you walk around the neighborhood giving treats, is in essence the exact opposite of Halloween’s tradition of going around the neighborhood begging for treats.

Am I sending my Jewish children mixed messages? Maybe. Will I someday, because of Jewish observance, let go of Halloween go altogether? Perhaps.

But in the meantime, it’s still fun to walk the neighborhood’s darkened streets, check out the glow in the dark decorations, and maybe get a little scared.

There are no tomatoes like Jersey tomatoes

Our first house in Fanwood, New Jersey was on a street called Shady Lane. It was anything but shady. There were very few trees around our 1950’s Cape Cod, the former site of one of the countless farms that were sold to suburban developers.  The one advantage of living in a neighborhood that was once farmland: great soil.

“You have to dig a trench and plant your tomatoes horizontally to encourage the roots and make your plant less leggy,” my mom instructed as I planted my first garden.  My mom was raised in an apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, but knew all there was to know about tomato gardening from her tiny yard in Staten Island. 

So I planted my first tomato plants.  Jersey Big Boys and a few plants of cherry tomatoes. The support cages I surrounded them with were so tall it gave my neighbor, a chain-smoking retired firefighter, chuckle with skepticism.

“You really think they will get that big?”

But they did. Each night after work, I would come home to find new flowers on the plants that continued to grow and stretch inside their cages. Thanks to that soil and constant New Jersey sun.

The sun was merciless that summer. In fact, New Jersey in 1998 was under a severe drought alert and temperatures reached 90 and above. Every night, after my husband and I bathed our kids, I would haul out the bathwater, one bucket at a time, to water my tomatoes.  By the end of the summer, I had baskets of tomatoes to enjoy with my neighbors, who weren’t laughing at my puny tomato plants anymore. I brought in bags of cherry tomatoes to snack on in my office in Manhattan and left some in the break room for my co-workers to enjoy.

Contrast this with my garden in Rochester. My neighborhood: home to 80-year-old towering sun-sucking Sugar Maples. Unlike the loamy beautiful soil of New Jersey,  my Brighton neighborhood is the site of a former brick yard. You guessed it: thick, clay soil.

I love trees.  I have — no had – 10 trees surrounding my property. But with only an average of 165 sunny days in Rochester, and a huge pine tree standing in the way between my vegetable garden and the sun after 3 p.m., I did the unconscionable. I cut down that tree.  I wanted those red tomatoes that badly. Even so, my vegetable garden in Rochester, will never be so kissed by the sun as the ones back in New Jersey. The threat of frost lasts until mid-may. Days of clouds and rain cause blossom rot and blight. Last year, we received so much rain that if my tomato plants could dream, they dreamt of a sunny hillside somewhere in Italy. Or New Jersey.   

Only this summer did I witness what other sun-starved Brighton neighbors did to achieve that perfect, sun-ripened tomato: for $25, they reserved a plot of land in the town’s community garden. On a tract of land that used to be a farm. More on this community garden in a future post.

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