My latest student sat before me sullen. Sad even. Completely disengaged. The chid complained of a headache, even a stomachache and could NOT find the strength to sing.
The child had not a chance to review the sentences given to it to study months ago. The child’s iPod had also mysteriously stopped working, so he/she could not listen to the melodies of the chanting either.
I get it.
To many emerging young Jewish adults, studying for one’s B’nei Mitzvah may not be your thing. You’ve got a life, for gosh’s sake! That life is full with homework and friends and sports and has nothing to do with chanting a strange language in a building you hardly go to!
And what does all this Hebrew mean that I can barely read and hardly understand?
And how am I going to find the time to study?
When it comes to hunkering down and preparing for one’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah, many obstacles can get in the way. In a recent post on the Jewish culture blog Kveller, a rabbinical student even honestly put it out there: why put your kid through the motions of having this Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony if it is devoid of meaning, when a small percentage of Jewish adults even volunteer to read from the Torah after they reach that milestone day.
Here is why.
Like it or not, kid, you are the next link in this 5,000 year chain that cannot be broken.
Last night, after my student left and after dinner and dishes, I watched a PBS special: Space Shuttle Columbia: A mission of Hope, about the 10th anniversary of the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. What made it all the more tragic was it was the first time an Israeli, Ilan Ramon, son of Holocaust survivors, took a trip to space.
And on this unique mission to space that bonded this unique multicultural team of astronauts was
a tiny Torah.
A Torah that survived the Holocaust.
A Torah that had been used to prepare a boy for his Bar Mitzvah in the hell of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. A boy that survived and grew to be an old man living in Israel still in possession of this tiny scroll.
A Torah that, when Ilan Ramon heard of its story, he knew it had to accompany him in space.
For all of the Jewish people.
I’m not going to retell the story here. I won’t do it justice. But if you can, watch with your family Mission of Hope, and you will understand the Big Picture of why joining the Jewish community as a fully participating adult is an incredibly precious honor.
If that’s not inspiration enough, then look at this photo below:
this is a recent picture of men, Holocaust survivors, who never got to be Bar Mitzvah boys. Until today.
Now, stop kvetching, stop whining, and go study.
In this week’s photo challenge, bloggers were asked to present a photo about “beyond.”
To many this conjured up images of city and bucolic landscapes.
For me, I thought of the beyond as the Great Beyond.
This fall, a few days before Halloween, I visited Boston and walked the Freedom Trail. Along the trail is the Granary Burial Ground, the ancient cemetery where many of this country’s earliest patriots are buried.
Perhaps she was not a patriot, but it is believed that this cemetery is believed the final resting place of Mary Goose.
Though she rests in the great beyond, Mother Goose’s poems have been read to children through the centuries, to the present and beyond.
Here is my piece that ran in the October 28, 2012 Living section of the Democrat & Chronicle:
For a soldier deployed in Iraq, a good day is a slow one spent on the base, learning to squeak out a tune on an old violin in the company of Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers. For a soldier deployed in Afghanistan, a horrible day is one spent in full battle, watching your commanding lieutenant dying on the ground from a gunshot wound to the gut.
It is this wide range of wartime moments, pulled from the letters written by soldiers who fought, or are still fighting, that are the building blocks of the play Letters Home. Written for the stage in 2007 by Chicago’s William Massolia, the award-winning play makes its Rochester debut at 7 p.m. Friday in the Nazareth College Arts Center.
Letters Home is a series of dramatic monologues set against a backdrop of photos and video taken directly from soldiers’ blogs and websites. It aims to shed a non-political light on the everyday life of soldiers in an 11-year war that still goes on today although few Americans feel directly affected by its impact. Massolia hopes to expose his audiences to the toll this war has taken on thousands of their fellow citizens.
“As we move on to more than a decade since the start of the war, it is becoming part of our history while still being fought in the present. I hope the play gives people with little connections to the military a better understanding of what it means to serve one’s country during wartime,” Massolia, the artistic director and founder of Chicago’s Griffin Theatre Company, said in a phone interview while his cast ran through a technical rehearsal for an Atlanta performance.
Massolia and actor Michael Bartz, 24, of Chicago, who plays several roles in the traveling production, say reception to the play varies depending on how many audience members are part of military families.
In one scene, he plays Sgt. Jeremy Lussi, who wrote that the most gratifying part of serving in the war was cheering local children with gifts as simple as a pen or a piece of candy.
In another scene, Bartz plays Sgt. Cory Mracek, who died on Jan. 27, 2004, just eight days after arriving in Iraq. In Mracek’s letters, he repeatedly asks his family why he has not heard from them. Across the stage, an actress playing Cory’s mother is wrenched with guilt, knowing her son never received the letters she sent before he died.
Bartz says he knows when there are military families in the audience. Even if he cannot see their faces in the darkness, he can hear their reactions.
“During a performance, you can hear the sobs, and it definitely gets to me while I’m up on stage,” says Bartz, who has a friend who lost both legs in Iraq. In such moments on stage, and in post-performance conversations with those who have lost loved ones in battle, “you can feel their pride and pain.”
Ryan Flynn and Claude Jordy, combat veterans in their late 20s who are now Nazareth College students, are not sure they will see the play. The material, they say, may hit too close to home.
Jordy keeps the letters he wrote in Iraq and Afghanistan in a shoebox. He does not reread them, but says it is a comfort to have them because they are a part of his history. After he graduates, the native Texan hopes to become a college history professor specializing in American military history.
During an 18-month deployment in Nazaria, Iraq, Jordy was so focused on his mission as a sergeant in the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division, he could almost forget “that the other side of the world still turned.” One day, he received a letter from his parents with a picture of his little sister. Her arm was in a cast. Only through that letter was he updated of little details such as a sister’s broken arm back home in Texas.
“The longer you are deployed (over there), you start forgetting the reason why you are there in the first place,” he says. “Those letters from home remind you why.”
While the veteran soldiers said they often wrote home about the long stretches of doldrums they faced, they rarely went into detail about the conditions they endured or the battles they witnessed.
“Every soldier has a different experience. Each of us had different ways of coping. I can’t speak for all soldiers, but when I wrote home, I never wanted to worry my family about the things I saw,” says Flynn, a native of Rochester who is studying information technology.
Flynn and Jordy say Letters Home is a good idea if it sheds light on what a soldier must cope with while at war. Perhaps it can also lead to an understanding of what they go through as they transition back to civilian life as students.
Nazareth College has 63 veterans enrolled as students this year. That number is expected to double next year, says Jeremy Bagley, coordinator of veteran student enrollment and support services at the school. Bagley is a vital resource to student veterans, helping them get special grants for tuition and fees and internships with vet-friendly businesses and organizations. Bagley also provides veterans who are students with assistance in areas such as figuring out complicated financial aid packages or talking about the difficulties of transitioning from the military to a classroom setting.
Now that he is a student, Flynn says he has had to “lighten up” to adjust to the college campus culture.
“It took me a year to relax and adjust to campus standards. The urgency to hand in a paper on time is just not as intense as combat urgency,” says Flynn.
I have a Facebook friend who lives right around the corner from me. In the privacy of our own kitchens, we use Facebook all day to stave off the isolation that comes with being a freelance writer or a painter. We chat and exchange ideas and opinions, sometimes the same, sometimes different, on Facebook nearly every day but rarely get together in real life. A teacher and avid photographer as well as mother and artist, Carol blogs at watchmepaint.
This week, when Carol graciously shared my column about finding the true meaning of Memorial Day on her Facebook page, she added a comment saying she would pay her respects by visiting a little-known cemetery in Brighton where there are graves that predate the Civil War. She described where it was to me and I still could not picture how a graveyard could exist hidden away one of Rochester’s busiest highways. So, being it was a gorgeous morning in May, I posted back “Take me with you!”
Every town has an old cemetery. The Brighton Cemetery, walking distance from our neighborhood, was founded in 1821 with some of its earliest graves dating back to 1814. Though the name served its purpose at the time, this part of Brighton was annexed to the City of Rochester in 1905. The cemetery now sits in Rochester’s 21st Ward, or for my reference point, three blocks away from the East Avenue Wegmans.
it is located on Hoyt Place off Winton Avenue:
This is a street I’ve driven past thousands of times without ever knowing what mysteries it contained. It is a street that time seemed to have forgotten, paved in the 1820s at the time of the building of the Erie Canal. As time passed, this part of the Erie Canal gave way to Route 490.
Tucked away into this street are centuries old mansions:
And then.. the Brighton Cemetery:
This week leading up to Memorial Day, find an old forgotten cemetery in your town. Dust off a gravestone to see who is buried there. You will be surprised to see that the many streets in your town just very well may be named for the names on the graves you find there.
And, if you see a grave marked with a flag, take some time to care for it. If the flag has toppled over, prop it back into the ground. Brush off the grass clippings that may be clinging to the stone. Read who the person was and the wars in which he fought.
Isn’t this a far better way of observing this holiday than, say, taking advantage of a mattress sale?
The other morning I phoned my sister-in-law in northern New Jersey. I needed to know her Hebrew name for an honor she was receiving for the morning service at my son’s Bar Mitzvah, now only days away.
Now, I should have known this, and certainly my husband should have known his sister’s Hebrew name, but we didn’t.
I called her cell phone a few days ago after 8:45 in the morning. With four kids in school, she had to be up. She is always on the go. Instead, a very groggy voice answered.
“I am. That’s my Hebrew name.”
Oh, of course, that’s why I was calling. But why did she sound so tired?
“Why arent’ you up? Don’t you have kids to get to school?” Fool that I was, with the glorious November day outside, and the fact that Western New York again survived the latest storm to hit the east coast unscathed, I was not thinking about how bad things were back in the NYC/NJ Metro area. The now-dubbed Halloween snowstorm had turned the streets of parts of New Jersey into what looked like a war zone. With downed trees and downed power lines, it was even too dangerous to go trick-or-treating.
“I’m sleeping at a friend’s house. We have no power and no heat.”
She sounded so sad. She still had no power after two days. The kids had no school for two days straight. But the one thing that seemed to make her the saddest was:
“You should see my block. We lost so many big, beautiful trees.”
In the winter, when the snow is wet and heavy enough to put a coat of sugar on every last branch and twig, my street looks like this:
Sadly, even trees don’t last forever.
The snow-laden trees above were planted because they were fast-growing trees for Rochester’s first suburban development. They are now almost 90 years old.
Trees planted closely to houses are dangerous when they age and begin to rot from the inside out. Last weekend, our neighbors took down one of these trees. The bottom trunk was this big:
This tree saw 90 years of changes of seasons, survived ice storms and blizzards. It saw generations of school children off on their first day of school. It was a home to birds and squirrels who played in its branches. But it lived out its days and succumbed to “crotch rot” of all things. Now, where its branches once stretched out, there is a whole punched into the sky where it once stood.
When snows fall heavy before the leaves drop, trees come down before they get a chance to live out their days. Back in New York City, Central Park lost 1,000 trees; trees that were just beginning to peak in their fall splendor of color. Trees that were planted generations ago so that we may enjoy them.
The other week, my son got a gift from a relative in honor of his Bar Mitzvah. In the true Jewish tradition, a ring of trees had been planted in his name in Israel. It’s a good thing we are headed there this winter to water them!
Now after this devistating storm that cancelled trick-or-treating and felled countless trees close to home, it seems like New York City needs new trees just as much as the land of milk and honey. The Central Park Conservancy is now asking for donations to restore its tree population.
Do you have a favorite tree? How would you feel if it were destroyed or it had to come down? Or, did you lose a tree to the Halloween storm? If so, I am sorry for your loss. Why don’t you write about it here?
Yesterday, both my sons were glum and grumpy. They were missing their big sister who had just left for sleep-a-way camp for the entire summer. My youngest simply missed her because she was his big sister. My oldest, he was just mad because HE wasn’t going to camp the whole summer.
So, to cheer them up, I cleared my day for an activity that would set us soaring and put us all in a good mood. We embarked on an extra long bicycle ride. On their bikes, they had to get along as brothers. They could not cut each other off because they would crash. The older one had to stay with the younger one and remind him about traffic rules like staying to the right of traffic, look out for parked cars, and stopping at stop signs.
Finally, after winding our way through side streets we had discovered in a previous bicycle ride. we made it to Brighton’s Buckland Park. Finally, I could let my guard down, if just a little, and feel free to let them ride in safety the park’s dirt bike trails that took us through tall bulrushes filled with red-winged blackbirds and over wooden bridges. On the paths, I didn’t have to think about a car coming up from behind them or, well YELL at them to get off their bikes and walk them across the busy intersections.
The other night, as I was drifting to sleep, came on the Late News that a 15-year-old boy had been killed while riding his bicycle. He was not wearing his helmet.The next day, my husband came home from work and let me know that the boy was the son of a man who worked at his office. When you live in a small town, the local news is very local.
Today, I also read about a woman in her 50′s who had just died from injuries she sustained while bicycling. She also was not wearing her bicycle helmet.
But, back to our joyful bicycle ride……
On our way home, I saw a kid of about 13 on his bicycle. We both came to a stop at a 4-way Stop intersection. He said “Hi” and I said “Hi” back.
Yeah, he had left the house with his bike helmet. But somewhere away from his mother’s eye – he took it off and strapped it not to his head but the handlebars of his bike.
Little did he know there are a lot of other mothers out there.
“Put on your helmet.” I said. No pussy-footing around this time, no saying “I’m sorry for being pushy” or “I hope you don’t mind saying..”
I just said it:
“Put on your hemet. A kid your age was just killed this week on his bicycle and HE was not wearing a helmet.”
Maybe another kid would have snickered and flipped me off. But all this kid said was:
And the helmet went right back on his head.
IF YOU SEE SOMEONE, PARTICULARLY A KID THIS SUMMER WITHOUT A HELMET, BUTT IN AND TELL THEM TO PUT ONE ON!
A few years back on a visit to see the family in Staten Island, I went into a neighborhood Dunkin Donuts to get my daily cup of Joe. Actually, I was on my way to visit my grandmother, who was very frail and suffering from dementia. And, to tell you the truth, at this point in her life, she was slowly ebbing away from us, slowly dying.
I don’t know if I ever saw my grandmother in good health. Though she always gently lectured us about getting the right amounts of calcium, sang the praises of eating fish for “brain food,” and questioned me into my 30′s about if I was maintaining a “slim” weight. Her body began to feel the ravages of osteoporosis in her late 60′s.
I consider myself lucky. I have never had a weight problem. And I try to stay active with enough weight-bearing exercises and eat calcium rich foods. I know I won’t be young forever, but I want to be able to stand on my own, walk on my own, until my last days on this earth.
Meanwhile, back at the Dunkin Donuts….
Ahead of me on line stood a rather large man.
Dunkin Donuts had recently introduced its DDSmart marketing plan that aimed to put more low-fat nutritional items on its menu in addition to their traditional offerings of Boston Cremes and Munchkins.
As I looked at the lower fat options for reduced fat Blueberry Muffins (450 calories compared to 500 in a regular blueberry muffin) and skim milk Vanilla Lattes (130 calories in a medium-sized drink compared to a 200 calorie Latte made with whole milk), the guy in front of me turned to me, as if reading my mind, and said:
“Low Fat-Low Shmat. Will it really make a difference? Enjoy your life, because no one gets out of this world alive.”
If you live a spiritual or religious life, there are times when sad, untimely events strike you so hard you want to throw up your hands in rage and ask WHY? But if you live a spiritual or religious life, you are given the coping tools that make you realize that sometimes we don’t have the luxury to question and mope, but instead answer through acts of kindness through the community.
And how do we respond as a community? We mourn. We sing. We dance.
A Bar or Bat mitzvah is a major milestone in a Jewish 12 or 13 year old’s life. It is the first day they are counted by the community as a Jewish man or woman, even if by contemporary standards they are still too young to vote or drive. And in the joy of planning and all the silly details – the guest list, the centerpieces – it’s easy to lose sight of the meaning of the day. But in these silly little details, there is so much joy in planning your child’s coming-of-age occasion for moms and dads. This is how it’s supposed to be.
But life doesn’t always go as it is supposed to be.
We got Stephanie’s simple yet stylish pink and brown Bat Mitzvah invitation in the mail. Though her parents were long divorced, though her mother was not Jewish, mom and dad’s names were both on the invitation. Their names stood together for the first time in perhaps many years in celebration of the daughter they raised who was now about to become a Jewish woman.
Just days later, we learned that the Bat Mitzvah girl’s mother died of cancer.
How does a community come together? We do so in mourning.
How do you enter the house of a girl who is supposed to be excited about her upcoming Bat Mitzvah instead of mourning the death of her mother? You enter it very quietly, brushing off your shoes as best as you can from the latest Western New York snowstorm. You nod but don’t smile to the people in the crowded living room, some of them there to mourn the passing of their own parents. Parents who died when they were in their 50′s and 60′s. Not at age 12.
Stephanie sat quietly near her father and the rabbi, but was soon accompanied by her friends, my daughter among them. My daughter had become a Bat Mitzvah just the year before. I thought about what I was doing five weeks before her Bat Mitzvah. I thought about the unfairness of it all.
Then, the rabbi began the service. When it was time to recite Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of the mourner, it was not the time to shake our heads and ask why. Sometimes there are no answers or explanations. There is not the question “why” but “what are you going to do about it?” And almost telepathically, we just knew. Instead of one voice, many voices uttered these ancient words. Voices of her teen friends who stood by her, to put arms around her. Voices of the older members of the congregation, who carried her small mourner voice in theirs.
After kaddish was over, there was silence. And then,
“Hey, well, we have a lot of coffee and cake, so can I offer anyone some?”
Stephanie managed a cheerful voice, trying to break the sadness in the room with an offer of coffee and cake. A child who had just lost her mom was not crying but offering us the good deed, or the mitzvah of hospitality.
How do we act as a community? We sing.
Five weeks later, Stephanie sat poised and beautiful on the bimah, (pulpit) on her big day. I had the honor of sitting next to her for a bit as I waited for my turn to read from the Torah.
“I’m really nervous,” She whispered.
“It’s okay. That’s perfectly natural,” I said, trying to still my own fluttering heart. ”Do you know I get nervous every time I read too? Just take deep breaths and know that everyone in this room loves you….. And by the way I just love your earrings!”
One compliment on the tiny blue rose earrings that adorned her lobes got a smile, and then she was ready.
She did her Torah reading and it went off without a hitch. Then, it was time for the reading of the prophets, or the Haftarah. This is usually a much longer, solo chanting. Unlike being surrounded by clergy and congregants when reading from the Torah, reading the Haftarah can seem like a long, lonely walk.
Stephanie’s sweet voice held through until about the last few sentences. Then, as she anticipated that the hard work was almost over, she slipped. A slight mispronunciation of a word. A wrong note. If you have ever missed a line in a play or forgotten the lyrics of a song you are singing during the performance, you know that feeling of absolute unraveling. But under the circumstances, it was a completely normal and almost healthy unraveling.
Perhaps it was the slight error that threw her. Or perhaps it was the knowledge that her mom was looking down on her from heaven instead of with her on Earth from here on in that finally caught up with her, but it all seemed to come to a head. At that very moment, before the whole congregation, Stephanie dissolved into tears. And there were still a few paragraphs to go, the blessings after reciting the Haftarah.
Sometimes people say they don’t like going to church or synagogue because they don’t know how or what to feel. Or, they don’t understand the Hebrew. But on that Shabbat (sabbath) morning, there wasn’t one dry-eyed soul there that didn’t know what to feel. Or what to do.
We were not going to let this young lady falter. Not on her first day of being a Jewish adult. So, one by one, we stopped our own crying enough to give her our voices. We sang those final blessings right along with her. Without a cue from the rabbi. Without the consensus or a vote or a ritual committee meeting. We just knew what to do. And it was perhaps the most powerful moment – more powerful than any rabbi’s sermon or cantor’s reciting of the Yom Kippur prayers - this sanctuary had witnessed in a very long time.
How do we act as a community? We dance?
When you are a guest at a Jewish party, you have a job to do. You have to add joy to that room to increase the joy of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah kid, or a bride and groom. And you do it by dancing. That night, we whirled and danced as much as we could. Because we were truly happy for Stephanie and so grateful for the lesson she taught us that day about courage and community.
*the names of those who I mentioned in my blog have been changed.
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.