Category Archives: Jewish theme

The Bucket List



This past summer while searching for fresh ideas to use in the juvenile lockup where I lead a group, I flipped through a copy of “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” the kind of title placed to keep customers entertained while waiting in line to pay at a bookstore. Among the 1,560 bits of advice and wisdom there was this:

“Make your bucket list and keep it in your wallet.”

Since May of this year, I have been incorporating this exercise with the groups of adult male and female felons I see both in jail and in their halfway house-reentry programs.   It’s become the kick-off to a 4-week goal-setting group that I’ve created and of everything I’ve done with them for the past year this has been, by far, the most fascinating.

I’ve had a 22-year old black man just wrapping-up a two-year sentence for drug distribution share that he’s always wanted to learn how to ride a unicycle.  I’ve had a 50-year old white woman tell the group that her biggest wish is to fly a kite with her now adult children.  A middle-aged Latino man who has lost all contact with his children dreams of bringing them all back together for a family portrait.  Perhaps the most agonizing for me was having connected rather strongly with an initially very reticent 25-yr old man from South Boston who just yearned to “be normal,” which to him meant getting married, having children, and eating dinner together every night.  The day after he shared this, he had a near fatal heroin overdose in his room and after being hospitalized for three days, was sent back to jail.

As I’m handing out index cards and pencils I tell them that nothing is too small or too big as long as it’s legal and no matter how lofty could theoretically be achieved.  I give them about 10 minutes to brainstorm without holding back and then I ask them to share, which they almost always do.

To be fair, to level the playing field, I always share mine with them. I tell them that I keep it with me so that I can refer to it and cross things off once I’ve accomplished them. I read it out loud in the exact order it was written and when recently a young man said that he always wanted to visit his grandmother’s grave, “visit mom’s grave” got added to my list.  It’s interesting where and how our personal light bulbs are lit.  My mother has been dead for almost 28 years and I had never visited her grave.

Soon after adding it, I read my list to a group of men who had just begun the 4-week workshop.  I blew through it pretty quickly and a young man said,  “Whoa.  Wait a minute.  How long ago did your mother die?”  When I told him he asked, “What are you afraid of?”  Every week these people astound me for moments just like this.  The rest of the group joined the questioning and urged me to do it.  I don’t think they trusted my eagerness to do it probably picking up on a slight hesitancy in my voice.    So, when I made a concrete plan to go to Long Island where she happens to be buried, I promised them that I would go.  This past Thursday night at my last group before I left, one of the guys asked how I was feeling and if I was ready.  He then made me pinkie-swear that I wouldn’t back out.  It was that mutual tugging of our little fingers, that bond that I know as a parent you NEVER break, that guaranteed that I would make it.

I have indeed been afraid and I have been lazy.  Afraid of finding an overgrown jumble of thorns and tumbleweed around her grave and afraid of finding an empty headstone.  (In the Jewish tradition when someone visits a grave, we leave a rock on the headstone to signify that someone has been there.)   I have been to Long Island, less than 15 miles from the cemetery endless amounts of times since she’s died and I’ve always come up with excuses not to go.  Shame on me.

My brother and uncle explained what to do once I got to the cemetery–to check in at the front office, tell them who I was there to “visit” and they would give me a map of where to find my mother.  During the drive there, my husband at the wheel and my 12-year old daughter in the back, I found myself looking as the miles ticked down on the GPS, my heart racing as we got closer.  I pictured myself falling to me knees, crumbling in a mass of sobs and snot, and, on the flip side, not having any reaction at all.  I asked my husband and daughter if it would be okay for them to stay in the car while I found her grave and that I would wave them over when I was finished reacting in whatever way I did.

I got out of the car and scanned the headstones, knowing hers would be pretty close to where we were.  I slowed down when I spotted her last name, my last name.  Seeing  her full name, her dates of birth and death, and then her life roles listed, “Mother, Daughter, Sister, Grandmother,” on the footstone did it to me.  I bent down to wipe off the puddle of water that had formed from the rain and stared at those words and those dates.  I cried quickly, neatly and quietly before calling over my husband and daughter.  My husband came up behind me and put his arms around me, asking if I was okay.  I was okay.  I don’t think I felt any particular sense of closure (I wasn’t really looking for that) but I had made a promise, to myself and a handful of people who have become a strangely wonderful and influential part of my life.  I can’t wait to see them this week to tell them that I did it, to hear their cheers and receive their high-fives.

Next up is that pesky 5K.  After I do that, I will be rewarding myself with the biggest turkey leg I can find.


Jews Gone Mild

I will start by saying that I’m totally projecting.  I’M the Jew who went slightly “mild,” AND, “mild” rhymes nicely with “wild” of the posts from two summers ago, “Jews Gone Wild Parts I and II.”  I can’t have a bunch of hysterical and defensive Jews on my hand.  Not with this hangover.

In all actuality, I wasn’t all THAT mild.  I did begin drinking (wine in stadium size cups) at noon.  Less than 2 hours later, I was asking around for a menthol cigarette with a slight tinge of desperation.  Like so many others, camp is the ONLY place I smoke, every two years.  I swore up and down that I wouldn’t this year and well, I found myself buying my first pack of cigarettes in two years ($9.45??????  I remember when they were 75 cents.  I say this with full knowledge that I’m dating myself.)  I ordered the most non-cigarette of cigarettes, the “un”-cigarette-Virgina Slims Ultra Lights, words that have never come out of my mouth.  A young gay man standing behind me who I hadn’t noticed, whispered in my ear “Those are girly cigarettes” and I said “OOOH, GURL, SNAP” and we sashayed out of the gas station like RuPaul.  Okay the sashaying part didn’t happen.  Maybe in Provincetown but certainly not in Winsted, Connecticut.

I have said this before and I will say it again–there is NOTHING like being at a place where I spent 15 summers of my life.  Being with these people is like being at Woodstock without the acid and tents, and no one is naked, at least in public.  It’s bear hugs and lip kisses and rotating one-on-one time, bringing each other up-to-speed on the things that have happened during the two years since we’ve all been together.  With the women, it’s talking about the onset of menopause and how we pee when we sneeze and laugh.  I’m not exactly sure what the men talk about.

For reasons I don’t quite understand, my dear friend Beth was hawking Tootsie Pop Drops like a secret plant from the company.  They’ve been around since the ’70s and I’m not quite sure how she didn’t know this.  She developed a sales pitch and offered them to everybody.  Nothing buffered her enthusiasm more than when one of the guys said “They’re like Tootsie Pops but you don’t have to fuck with the stick.”

We watched from the bleachers as middle-aged men played 1/2 court basketball.  They wheezed and sweat but didn’t let-up for a second.  Like years before, one of them ended up injured and Beth and I watched in awe as our camp mate chiropractor worked with great patience and care on the what seemed like a very painful injury.  I offered up the (prescribed) painkillers I travel with and within seconds our resident anesthesiologist was looking it up on a drug reference app to make sure he could take it with alcohol.

The success of some of these people is accompanied by a humility I’ve never seen before. The publisher of one of the most successful magazines today and the owner of the most famous bakery in New York City who kicked-off our country’s obsession with cupcakes are experiencing the weekend like the rest of us.  They sleep in the bunks with their friends and have beers in their hands, putting their busy lives behind them without a thought.  There are attorneys, hedge fund managers, professors, great parents and butchers and bakers and candlestick makers.  I’m collecting unemployment but people came up to me all weekend saying “I love your blog posts about prison,” or “I loved your post about your best friend,” and I had NO idea they even read my work.  Based on Facebook comments everyone said how happy they were for me that I had found my true love, and based on my husband’s comments knew that he is a great guy.

I shared a hotel room with my friend Beth who is pretty sure she was bitten by bed bugs all over her arms.  Judging by the MANY burn holes in our blankets it is entirely possible.  She knows me VERY well and got my full-on rules about how she needed to conduct herself in our room as to indulge my well-known high-maintenance need for sleep.  On the first night when she was reading a library book with a very crinkly book jacket I got slightly hysterical.  On the second night when she barreled into our room at 3:30 in the morning I considered getting up and driving home.  The following morning when she woke up making sounds like an old man in a nursing home I resolved to get my own room next time.  We laughed with each other all weekend.  Her Brooklyn girl appeared for 48  hours.  There’s nothing quite like the Brooklyn girl in Beth.

Sadly, we have gotten to the age where we are starting to experience the death of many people we have known from summers past.  There are those who died in their twenties and those who have died in their ’70s.  We held a very touching candlelight memorial in their honor, floating lit candles, personal words written on paper plates, and floated them in the lake.  We used to do this on the last night of camp, writing memories of the summer just ending, so this time took on a very different meaning.  It moved us all as we thought silently of these significant losses.

We spent our last night at the same bar we had spent the night before, the hours ticking down until we had to re-enter our routines back home.  It’s a bizarro universe we’re in for 48 hours where full-on breakfasts for 5 people ends up under $40, and shots of tequila are served in little medicine cups.  Not only did I have my king-sized Tempur-Pedic beckoning me but I found myself really missing my husband, my daughter and even my lunatic dog.  With my head in his lap I showed my husband pictures and videos of the weekend on Facebook and I’m waiting for the onslaught that will appear today.  I will yell at my friends for posting bad pictures of me and force them to take them down.  I will get wistful for those lovely, smiling pictures of people whose faces haven’t changed in over 30 years.  It’s entirely possible that we will be doing this well into our 60s when we will still always feel like teenagers.

The Man At the Top of the Stairs

I’d stand, leaning on the hot metal counter, filling in little bubbles with a blunt golf pencil ordering the greasiest most fattening food to my heart’s content from the poolside snack bar. The college student working the grill never judged me while passing me my cheeseburger, fries and Hoodsie cup. No money ever exchanged hands and the total charge would eventually end up on my parent’s account. I was living the life of a member of Shelter Rock Tennis Club on Long Island.

It struck me only a few years ago the irony that the Club shared a gravelly unpaved parking lot with our temple. We certainly weren’t regular temple goers but there were a handful of times, after Sunday school (which was really nothing more than a group of restless teens wasting time in the basement of the temple) that I would trudge up the pebbled hill to meet my mother after her first tennis game of the day.

The Club was little more than just a constant reminder of how unfit I was, a super-sized version of most of my same-aged peers who hung out by the pool. There was a pair of identical twins who would move so fast in their bikinis that I got tired just following them with my eyes. There was another girl, built like a giraffe, who walked around scowling at the world (In a bit of astonishing irony, her father and my mother would ultimately die together in a double-suicide.) There were pruney and tanned older women and women in Pucci cover-ups. There was smoking and card playing and impressive dives from the high diving board.

I do remember rather fondly one of my very first crushes, a boy named David Kelman, surprisingly very blonde for a Jewish kid. One day we went off to trudge around the woods and swung at a cocoon on the verge of bursting, whacking at it with a long tree branch. I really had no idea that we undoubtedly interrupted some really critical life cycle, BUT for some reason, this made David want to hold my hand. Now, every time I see a cocoon, I think of the happy transformed lives about to enter into their new world.

I remember the “pop” sound of tennis balls in a state-of-the-art tennis bubble, the sucking of the heavy metal door in the steam room, and occasionally watching men play squash through a window in a separate building. I also remember walking into the men’s locker room at about 5 or 6 and my father SCREAMING at me while standing in his white briefs. I never did that again.

Between tennis games, men and women would eat lunch in the dining room. Most of the women would order the “diet plate,” a hamburger patty, side of cottage cheese and one half of a cling peach. My mother didn’t have to worry about what she ate, and actually, most of these women didn’t either. Even though I rather enjoyed scraping out grapefruit sections with a serrated spoon, when my mother and her friends weren’t around I certainly wouldn’t be eating a grapefruit for lunch. Again, when I’d eat with my friends, I’d sign a receipt and never think twice about the cost.

At the edge of the dining room, separating it from the lobby was a very large wooden, polished spiral staircase. On the day that I learned that the head chef lived up there I was completely fascinated and even slightly jealous. Every time I was there, I would tip my head to see if he was up there, willing this phantom man to appear. Would he look like the chef from Sesame Street who fell down the stairs with a stack of pies? Would he be old and black like our “chef” from camp who made the best fried chicken that to this day, is the best I’ve ever tasted? One lucky day, he DID appear, in his chef whites, his name embroidered on his chest pocket. I think he waved and then ducked back behind his secret door. (I think the waving and ducking part might be a false part of the memory.)

I tried to find the current yearly dues for the Club online, but to no avail. I know this was a privilege of upper-middle class life but one that really sort of bored me. However, I certainly wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to fill in little circles on an old fashioned looking computer card, have someone hand me a burger and fries, never to see the check.

I’ll Have The Corned Beef, Lean, A Pound of Chopped Liver, and the Chocolate Babka

Two nights ago a miracle in the form of an attractive 70-yr-old woman appeared, like Glinda the Good Witch in her ephemeral bubble, waving her magic wand. POOF! Leftover food from her Yom Kippur breakfast appeared on the empty kitchen countertop at my friend’s house. Bags of bagels and tubs of whitefish salad, piles of lox and pans of kugel materialized like the poppy field that Dorothy and her nice friends get high and fall asleep in. In my delight, I suddenly found myself clapping my hands like a seal.

Where I live there is no easy access to food like this. Twice a year Whole Foods trots out buckets of chopped liver and brisket and I stand in front of the case wide-eyed, like a kid watching someone put a final squirt of whipped cream on a sundae. The Whole Foods employees look rather horrified as they are faced with the task of spooning the chopped liver into takeout containers, undoubtedly thinking, “This is not in my job description.” I want them to believe me when I tell them that it’s better than ice cream, but clearly they don’t believe me. And, when people ask if it’s like pate, I don’t betray the integrity of what it is—chicken liver, chicken fat, onions and egg. Just like people call Target, “Tar-jay,” I don’t buy into this notion of “let’s make it sound fancy” because it’s NOT. It looks like cat food, it’s got tons of cholesterol, it smells, BUT, it is the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted.

It’s not an original subject, talking about a Jewish cultural connection to food. Every race and religion has one. My Puerto Rican husband will go to the ends of the earth for the perfect paella. An Asian co-worker of mine taught me to cook with bok choy and talked about the culinary wisdom her Thai father continues to pass on to her. We all love to gather around and eat food that is familiar to us with those that we have done it with before. My husband is not going to pick up the last remaining hunk of gefilte fish with his fingers like my brother would. New friends are not going to hang around in the kitchen and peel the skin off of a roasted chicken and shove it in their mouth like my sister would. At my former (Catholic) sister-in-law’s house, I would get a hand slap if I pinched a glob of stuffing, and be forced to eat the green jello mold that was a family tradition (no so bad, actually).

I will always give my father credit for creating one of the lovliest rituals of my childhood. Like Jews all over the the tri-state area, my father would get up early and hunt and gather. He would go to the not very originally named “Hot Bagels and Bialeys” which flashed in neon on a storefront, stand in line, and tell the guy behind the counter what to include in the baker’s dozen. They were picked from bins like the ones above, WAY before there were blueberry and chocolate chip bagels. The poppy seeds from the poppy seed bagels and the salt from the salt bagels would get mixed up with the onions from the onion bagels, so by the time he got home, the bottom of the paper bag looked like a dumped spice rack. We’d come back to them after eating, wetting our fingers and rolling them in the mixture, licking them off our fingers.

He would also go to what is called an “appetizer store” and get cream cheese and chives, whitefish rolled in wax paper, lox, muenster cheese and sometimes herring in cream sauce. With the resulting breath it’s no wonder we spent our Sundays in separate rooms.

When the question comes up, “What would you want your last meal to be?”, you know, which happens a lot, I would go for everything in both of these pictures. In honor of my mother, I might ask for a pot of boiled beef flanken which looks like this:

I’d throw in some rice pudding, a linzer tart and I’d HAVE to have mint chocolate chip ice cream, which incidentally, was the only thing Timothy McVeigh, Oklahoma City bomber, asked to have as his last meal. He certainly wasn’t Jewish.

The Year of the Jewish Husband

After a couple of years running through the vast sea of non-Jewish men, my friend Mark and I decided that 2010 would be “The Year of the Jewish Husband.” Our “dating” lives seemed to parallel each other. There was a period of time when we were both, um, “entertaining” black men, younger men, Latino men, and just plain old white guys (not “old” white guys, just your run-of-the-mill white guy.)

Both of us had quite a flurry of men after we had both ended long-term relationships, both with white Catholic guys. I was married for 7 years and Mark was with his lover for the same amount. 2010 seemed like the time to buckle down and find the man that our mothers always hoped we would.

In a previous post, “Heckling At The Matzo Ball With Cocoa Butter Mark,” I end with our very short-lived desire and effort to join JDate. I was in my sunroom lounging on a chaise, glass of wine nearby, laptop on my, well, lap, and Mark was undoubtedly at a Starbuck’s, complaining about noisy kids, with his laptop on a table. We said, “One, two, three, GO!” and logged on to the registration page simultaneously.

The questions went something like this:

“What tribe do you belong to?”

a) Ashekanazy

b) Sephardic

c) Really bad Jew

d) Other

“What am I?” Mark asked?

“Well you’re kind of dark so just go with Sephardic.”

“What dietary restrictions do you follow?”

a) I keep kosher, of course. That way I get to have 2 sets of Crate and Barrel dishes!

b) I put bacon on everything.

c) I’m on a liquid fast.

d) Other

“How many times have you been to Israel?”

a) HELLO, I was bar/bat mitvahed in Israel!

b) Never. I’m too afraid to fly.

c) Once but it was so hot I just stayed in my hotel

d) Other

At this point, I knew I wasn’t the type of Jew they were looking for, and after a quick search of “Men seeking Men,” Mark decided that he wasn’t either.

We gave up and went on to talk about other more pressing things, like who got eliminated on Project Runway or the cute black bartender we both had a little crush on at our favorite dive bar. Onward and upward!

Around three or 4 months after this, Mark met someone that he seemed very excited about. Mark has the great ability to be cautious, to not get ahead of himself when it comes to relationships, but I could tell that he was hopeful about this one. His last name is Nunez. From then on, he has simply been know as “The Nunez.” He’s Dominican and a real throwback to 2009 when, for me at least, it was “The Year of the Dominican.”

Not long after, just as I was about to throw in the towel on, I met my now remarkable husband, whose last name just happens to be Rodriguez. Yeah. Now, instead of “The Year of the Jewish Husband,” it has become “The Century of the Jewtino.” We have even invented a cocktail—a Jewtini which is a delightful combination of rum, Coco Libre and Manischewitz, which premiered at our Jewtino Passover. If we had a spokesman he would look something like Geraldo Rivera or Juan Epstein from “Welcome Back Kotter.”

We have both found true love in these incredible men. Everyone adores “The Nunez” and Ricardo Rodriguez. Mark and I have never been happier. He told this story at my wedding celebration and of course brought the house down (when he wasn’t tearing up as he is known to do). We have no regrets for closing out “The Year of the Jewish Husband.” We adore our spicy Latino men for everything they are and we love that we still bring out the “Jewish” in each other, throwing around the occasional Yiddish phrase while the men look on and grin.

Like A (Gefilte) Fish Out of (Its Jar Of Gelatinous Stuff)

Last night for work I attended a party at a home in the wealthiest suburb of Boston, which according to Forbes magazine has the 97th most expensive zip code in the United States. According to public record, the house has an estimated worth just shy of $2 million.

For 16 years I have made a living essentially asking rich (or as my boss has taught me to say, “well-resourced”) people for money for the variety of human services agencies I’ve worked for. I’m good at my job because I feel really passionate about the issues I’ve raised money for—at risk youth, the homeless, teen moms—and, I’m not afraid to ask anybody for anything.
These small events are a great and easy way to make money. Board members host at their lovely homes and invite their friends who also live in lovely homes so they can learn more about the work being done at our agency and ultimately whip out their checkbooks and give tons of money on the spot. I’ve planned about 30 of these and have been everywhere from an expansive apartment overlooking Central Park to sitting on couch cushions in a funky Park Slope townhouse, where I’m certain the hostess must have hid her hookah pipe before her guests arrived.
The picture above is the image Google came up with when I searched for WASP. I have absolutely nothing against WASPS. My best friend is the epitome of WASP. The couples at the party weren’t quite so…pink or young, and sadly there were no perfect labs there, but Boston, really because of its proud blue blood history, has a lot of people who look like this, much to their credit. And, I LOVE that woman’s dress.
Every once in a while, when I was still speaking to him, I would mention to my father some event or situation where I may have had conflict with a boss, or some other work or social conflict. The first question he would ask was “Are they Jewish?” It seemed like the most preposterous question in the world to presume that there was some rampant anti-Semitism in every interaction I had with non-Jewish people. In some cases I’ve been the first Jewish person someone has met and after that rather surprising admission I feel like they should meet another one first because I’m not exactly the poster child for Judaism. Even my first husband, a Catholic, ended up knowing more about my religion than I do.
I can’t know this for sure, but I think that most people feel most comfortable around their own. When I go to Long Island or Manhattan, I feel at home, like being there brings out the authenticity in me that isn’t the same in Boston. I have two Jewish friends here who I am very close to. When I first met the second one, we were out on our inaugural getting-to-know-you coffee, and I whispered to her, “Are you Jewish?” in the same way that people whisper about cancer. There was some instant understanding, like we belonged to a secret club. It’s just how it is.
I am very proud of who I am. People seem to learn quickly that I’m the child of a Holocaust survivor giving me some bizarro Jewish seal of approval. That being said, I wouldn’t know that tonight is Rosh Hashanah if I didn’t have Jewish friends on facebook all wishing each other a Happy New Year. I won’t go to services tomorrow or on Yom Kippur.
Of course, the people at the party were lovely and engaging. They didn’t condescend to the teenage mother who came to speak about our programs. Of COURSE I wasn’t the first Jew they had ever met. I might have been the least in shape person there, but certainly it’s not because I’m Jewish. It’s because I’m kind of a slug.
Sometimes, when I’m in a situation where the women are naturally blonde and the men are in Brooks Brothers I feel like this:
That’s my issue, and noone else’s. I am certain in SOME situations, that could be the case (as a matter of fact, with some statements said to me like “Jews are cheap, right?” and in one case, “Is it true that Jewish girls love to fuck?”) I’m reminded that maybe that is what I represent to some incredibly ignorant people, but in reality, not to the rest of my orbit.
So, to all of my delightful Jewish friends, I wish you a very Happy New Year and an easy fast.

Jews Don’t Camp

I know this assertion will create backlash and anarchy from all those Jews who love to camp, but until someone invents a portable Tempur-pedic mattress, or finds me a place like the above “guest teepee” on Ralph Lauren’s ranch, this Jew isn’t going camping. Spare me the “OMG, you would LOVE it,” or “Just try it once,” or “There’s nothing better than sleeping under the stars,” because I will ignore you. Yes, I went to sleepaway “camp” for 15 summers of my life, but the closest I ever came to camping there was sunbathing on a towel on the softball field.

I have also asserted that “Jews Don’t Golf, ” “Jews Don’t Hike,” “Jews Don’t Fish,” mostly to get me out of things I don’t want to do (The golf thing has been ruined for me after watching Larry David and his Jewish posse golf on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and I actually DID fish once off the Santa Monica Pier.)
Until I had my daughter I would have said that “Jews Don’t Sled.” Growing up on Long Island I don’t think I ever saw ANYONE sled, period. Noone came knocking on my door and said, “Hey, wanna go sledding?” My brother who lives in Vermont, got my daughter to try it at a fairly young age (he is the only one who gets her to try new things) and I tried it too, screaming and laughing the whole way down the little hill on the grounds of a church. Since then, I have tried tubing and loved it (I refer you to an earlier post, “Don’t Forget to Drag Your Feet”) and have recently discovered the joy of being pulled on my husband’s speedboat on a tube, bouncing on waves with water pelting my face.
I tried to rollerblade once because it looks so graceful and easy and, after putting them on, my friend left me standing in the middle of an empty parking lot off-season in Provincetown, and walked away as I stood there, immobilized by fear and unable to move. I begged and pleaded for him to come get me, and after catching his breath from laughing so hard, he took pity on me and pulled me to the car.
Those are things that have looked fun and I’ve tried them. Here are things that don’t look fun at all:
Jumping out of a plane

Bungee jumping

Standing up on a rollercoaster

Walking on stilts


Fixing a flat tire

Walking in stillettos

Sumo wrestling

Fire eating

Hot dog eating contests

Beer bongs

I think that having kids is a great barometer to get us to try new things, and maybe when my daughter starts to get over her own fears, of which there are many, I’ll get right up there with her and carve a pumpkin or something. Yes, in case you didn’t know, Jews Don’t Carve Pumpkins.

Secrets and Lies

When my mother committed suicide somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, 1985/86, someone made the decision not to tell her mother, who was about 90 at the time. This was a woman who watched 4 of her six children get taken away to concentration camps, witnessed as her husband was shot on a street in Belgium and had worked miracles to keep my mother and my uncle, the two youngest children, alive. As mentioned in previous posts, she somehow found her way to the Jewish Underground and found a couple to hide them in their Bruxelles-area basement for about 2 years.

The way I understand it is that she was told that my mother was living in Arizona in a restful and peaceful place where she couldn’t be contacted (I refer you to my post about my dreams.) I can’t imagine that she believed this and when I found out about it, I was stunned. I know it was to protect her but I didn’t agree with the decision.
My grandmother was a very loving woman, barely 4’11 who spoke only Polish and Yiddish and a smattering of English. She lived in a teeny little apartment in Brooklyn and was most proud of a painting she had of a fountain that when plugged in, lit-up and simulated falling water. When she knew I was coming to visit she’d fill her bowl of sour balls and go out to buy pound cake. She would wait outside for us and would beam with delight when she saw us, and walk us to the car, waving her sweet little wave when we left. She spent most of her time sitting on a bench outside with her friends with her cash stuck into her bra. She lived to be close to 100 subsisting apparently on boiled potatoes and Manishewitz.
My mother and her mother had a very strange relationship. On the Jewish holidays when my grandmother would come over and help cook Passover dinner, there was a lot of yelling in Yiddish. My grandmother would say “SHA” to quiet things down. I have absolutely no idea why my mother seemed to dislike her so much. What it did for me, was to model a mother/daughter relationship where my grandmother was so desperate for my mother’s love, and my mother just seemed annoyed all the time. One of my biggest regrets in my life was not taking the time to know her, while emulating my mother’s indifference and annoyance.
When she slept over, my grandmother would take her hair out of her tightly wound bun and I would be sort of freaked out by her silver hair that reached 3/4 down her body. She would brush it while wearing her white nightgown and often brush my hair while I just got annoyed that she would accidentally brush my face. She would take her clacking teeth out and put them in a glass and leave them in the bathroom. She never went out without lipstick.
Many years ago I found a document, written in French which came from an Israeli governmental agency addressed to my grandmother. It’s not so hard to make out the language that starts out (my loose translation):
Dear Mrs. Kempinksi, I regret to inform you that (three of my four aunts and uncles are listed by name with their birth and death dates and the concentration camp numbers they were assigned) and died here:
Malines (Mechelen) concentration camp was situated in a former barracks by the river in the city of the same name in Belgium. It was appropriated by the Germans in 1942 to serve as an assembly camp for all the Jews of Belgium and other ‘undesirable’ groups. The camp was divided into several groups including those to be deported; nationals of neutral countries or Germany’s allies; borderline cases (ie mixed race); political prisoners and, in the final stages of the camp’s existence, Gypsies.

There was a set of boy/girl twins. The girls first name was Minda which is now my daughter’s middle name. One of the sons is listed as whereabouts unknown.


I Played the Borscht Belt

“Star-studded live entertainment, exciting children’s day camp, teen and singles’ programs and daily Israeli dancing are only some of the constant activities featured!”

When I was about 5 yrs-old, my parents dragged me kicking and screaming to the Nevele Grand Resort in the Catskills. I think it was the poor man’s Grossinger’s but whatever it was, I HATED it. It couldn’t have been during the summer because by then, I already had spent 1.5 summers away at sleep away camp (another story altogether) and in the posed pictures from the trip, I’m rather fetching in red tights and a wool dress.

During the day I would get dumped at some ridiculous activity while my parents clearly did something similar to what is illustrated in the above photos. As I recall, in an act of defiance, I took out my frustrations on a paint-your-own plaster frog doing a rather half-hearted glazing job. This was the precursor to me dropping out of Girl Scouts for having to sew badges on a sash and getting kicked out of Home Ec for stealing samples of Noxema from the supply cabinet instead of caramelizing sugar in a double-boiler.

What I lacked in detail orientation, I made up for in the ability to sing. Perhaps it was because my father was an actual PAID night club singer (he and my mother met at a New Hampshire resort where he was the featured act and she was a rather come-hither receptionist) but at that age and well into my late teens, I was very confident performing. I suppose that it was this confidence that propelled me to go from table-to-table in the resort dining room like a mariachi band without the mustache and sombrero. Even though people weren’t slipping dollar bills down my dress to leave them the hell alone while they enjoyed their boiled beef flanken, I’m certain they were silently glancing at my parents with pity for having such an odd child. My infamy culminated in a rather demure rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” at the Friday night talent show.

At summer camp, I was always the one entrusted with the showstopping number of every musical. I didn’t have the leading-lady looks (one of the many factors leading to my years of self-esteem issues) but I had the powerhouse set of lungs that could belt out everything from “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy to “Somwehere” from West Side Story. I brought tears to the eyes of the audience with my performance of “Climb Every Mountain” at ten (I swear!) and did a great Ben Vereen in the opening number of Pippin. Now, I have nightmares that I’ve forgotten the lyrics to songs I’ve sung forever or I can’t find my costume.

I still have a pretty awesome voice. My medley of “Blackbird,” “Dream A Little Dream,” and “Where Is Love?” has gotten rave reviews over the years from my daughter. My sister and I are like the Jewish version of Wilson Phillips in our ability to harmonize to Crosby, Stills and Nash. Somehow, though, my confidence has jumped to other things but I really do hope to one day be able to again hit that one high note in “Climb Every Mountain” and to find the perfect person to sing “One Hand, One Heart” with at a karaoke bar.

A Modern Day Hate Crime

“I hate Jews. Kikes suck. Heil.”

The above words were posted on facebook by a 16-yr old who hangs around my stepson. They were posted on another kid’s page, the soft spoken best friend of my stepson and a boy I have grown to adore. This isn’t the first time that he’s left his i-phone unattended allowing anyone within reach to post what they want under the guise of his identity. One can always tell by the vulgarity and the button-pushing, boundary-breaking language that it isn’t him, but this had crossed a line that hadn’t been crossed before.

I felt like I had been sucker punched. I sat there and stared at the words. My reaction was so visceral, so raw, that I truly began to shake. I called my husband and with a tone of voice I didn’t even recognize as my own, said “Look at ___’s status update NOW.” I implored my husband to call my stepson to (a) make him aware of this post and (b) find out who had written it. He called without hesitation and it didn’t take long for my stepson to tell us who it was.

He happened to be sitting next to my stepson with a group of other kids and I demanded to speak to him. I absolutely lost it on him, my anger escalating the more I spoke. It is hard to remember exactly what I managed to spit out in my highly charged rage. He initially tried to make excuses, said it was a joke, that they always did stupid stuff like that, that he’d forgotten that I was Jewish, and if he had known that I was a facebook friend of ___ he never would have done it.

So, imagine for a minute, what this unleashed in me. I thought that young people were more enlightened these days. I thought that for the most part, we were beyond all this. I began to spew out the details of my own personal connection to the Holocaust, that my mother was a survivor and that ¾ of her immediate family had been killed and how DARE he refer to this as a joke. I left out the part about how many Holocaust survivors and scholars ended up killing themselves, including Primo Levi, who hurled himself down a flight of stairs, and writer Jerzy Kosinski who suffocated himself by wrapping a plastic bag around his head in his bathtub. I left out the part about my mother’s eventual suicide as the result of the sadness and loss that she was never able to shake.

I ended the conversation, after some conciliatory “Yes ma’ams” and “I’m sorry ma’ams” by telling this kid that he was not welcome in my home where he had once come for dinner, and that I hope that was the last I would be seeing of him. I was tempted to call his parents, but I had no idea who I might be up against. The tree created this apple. Who knows how far or close, it has fallen.

I don’t pretend to be a “religious” person. The last time I went to temple during the high holidays I felt like such a hypocrite that I decided that it might be the last time I try to fake it through another service. I listened to the sermon, appreciated the words that the rabbi said, but was quite frankly terrified by the ongoing discussion on the lack of an afterlife. However, like many other non-observant Jews, the cultural connection to who I am is very authentic. I’ve got this history that connects me very directly to the epicenter of anti-Semitism. Right now I am in the middle of a book about the American ambassador to Berlin during the cusp of Hitler’s rise to power. I am reading about Jews being randomly jumped and beaten to death for not “Heiling” as the SS paraded down the street. I am reading about how laws were being enacted to stop Jews from practicing medicine and law. Even though I would never pretend to possess all of the information to educate a 16-yr old, or a 90-yr old on the events that created someone like Hitler or the Holocaust, I know enough to muddle through the basics.

Sooner than later I’m going to have to explain to my now 10-yr old daughter how her grandmother died. Her best friend just did a book report on Anne Frank so I was able to at least tell her that my mother was also hidden, not in the attic, but in the basement of a family’s home. When I was my daughter’s age, I knew that my mother didn’t really want to be alive anymore, but I don’t want to open that can of worms just yet.

In the end, who knows if I taught this kid anything. My stepson has ended his friendship with him and I am no longer connected to even the friends of his I love on facebook. Maybe I should just look at this unfortunate blip as an opportunity to have discovered my inner activist. Or, maybe, I should just be terrified.