The Dead Place

Fort Lauderdale Cemetery

POMPANO BEACH, FLORIDA

I seem to have lost my bearings, both as to space and time.  Funny how traveling can do that.  Once you’re out of your regular routine, it can be hard to remember what day it is or where you are.  For me, this effect has been compounded by the fact that I developed flulike symptoms somewhere around the Carolinas.  Upon our arrival in Florida, I more or less collapsed in our hotel room bed, sending my wife off to visit the friend she came to see.  I slept most of the day while they took a day trip down to Key West.  Only in the cool breeze of the evening did I venture outside to sit on one of the deck chairs overlooking the hotel pool.

Everything is so white here:  The furniture, the cars, the blinding midday sun.  It’s a Florida thing, I’m told, everything is white to reflect the intense sunlight.

For years, Florida’s Gold Coast has struck me as “the dead place.”  If you believe in hell, the climate here will give you a preview of coming attractions.  Not long ago, my father reminded me of a book he read years ago, Dying in the Sun, about retirees who leave the Northeast and Midwest to live their golden years in South Florida, endure illnesses, and be buried there.

Dad loves gallows humor.  He tells me that the only topics of conversation when you run into a fellow geezer in South Florida are:

  • Where you went to eat and did you go “early bird”
  • What the doctor said
  • “You hear who died?”

After an absence of a quarter of a century, I again find myself in the land of the dead.

South Florida. U.S. 1, known locally as Federal Highway. Late night Denny’s run.

“Got any fresh decaf?” I ask the server before I even sit down.

“I can make you a fresh pot, honey,” she replies before waddling off to the kitchen.

My wife and I peruse the menu and I spy our server sitting side saddle at a booth a few feet across the room. “You ready yet?” she calls out to us, not making a move in our direction. The poor woman weighs about as much as I do. The place is nearly empty, so she must be taking an opportunity for a moment’s rest. I can see how it would be tough for her to stand on her feet for an entire shift. Still, my wife is appalled at what passes for customer service in this place.

We attempt to put together our orders.

“Got any soup?”

“Nope, we throw it out at 10:00.”

“I’ll have oatmeal…”

“Nope, we only have it until 2:00.”

“Grits?”

“Nope.”

“Well then I’ll have a toasted bagel.”

“Nope. Only in the mornings. You can have an English muffin.”

It seems that the Grand Slam has become the Grand Strike Out.

We are used to good service at Denny’s all over the country, so we are unpleasantly surprised. We soon learn that this is not an anomaly. A few nights later, in Grants, New Mexico, I order potatoes and get rice. I order broccoli that arrives so cold, it is obvious that it is just out of the freezer, having seen insufficient time in the microwave. Getting a refill on my coffee is next to impossible. It is clear that customer service is not a priority. Disgusted, we give the remainder of our gift card to an elderly couple on our way out.  Denny’s had been crossed off our list.

But tonight, something else is on my mind.  It could be the combination of being sick and the weird feeling of being in a strange environment that was once familiar, decades ago.  After visiting the graves of one set of grandparents in New York City earlier during this trip, we have now stopped at the graves of my other set of grandparents, my Dad’s folks, near Fort Lauderdale. I had been to the cemetery in Queens many times as a kid with my parents, had a horribly emotional experience at my grandfather’s funeral when I was 21, and last set foot in the place at his unveiling, some 35 years ago. Aside from the stone bench being moved, a curb being installed and the cemetery having become even more crowded than it used to be, I found that not much had changed in the intervening decades. Back in the sixties and seventies, my parents would drag us out there a couple of times each year. I’d bring a siddur (prayer book) and read the Kaddish in the original Aramaic while my mother cleared the graves of loose greenery and then just sat there while my sisters, my father and myself grew increasingly restless and impatient. I was too young to appreciate Mom’s grief over her mother’s loss.

But here in Florida, this was different. For one thing, I did not attend either funeral and had never been to the graves before. For another, this was a mausoleum rather than a traditional six-feet-under burial site (although there were plenty of those on the grounds, too). I expected the graves to be indoors, in a building, but they were not. I knew the bodies had been cemented into a wall, but I did not expect the wall to be outdoors!

The elderly, chatty clerk at the desk in the tiny super air conditioned office of our hotel in Deerfield Beach insisted on drawing me a map of how to get to the cemetery.  It was not as if he was intimately familiar with the place; it’s just that he tried to map it on Google and couldn’t get his printer to cooperate when I informed him that I had to go because my wife was impatiently waiting for me in the car.  Not wanting to let me escape without assistance (a reflection of his kindness, as I could have mapped the route on my phone in a fraction of the time), he settled for a low-tech solution by consulting the map on his computer screen and hand drawing a facsimile therefrom.  His directions turned out to be perfect.

When my wife pulled up to the curb near an open door to the cemetery office, I stepped inside only to find that this was the location of a funeral.  I was sent around to the other side of the building.  There, we were told to pull into the rabbi’s space to wait for an employee who could assist us.  A woman emerged a few minutes later, spoke with us through the car window and then went back inside to retrieve a form.  I was to write down the names of the deceased.  The employee left and returned a few minutes later, stating that there were multiple people buried there with the same names.  She asked me for my grandparents’ dates of birth or death.  I wasn’t sure about my grandparents’ DOB, but I knew my grandfather had died in 1996.  When she next returned with a map of the property, the employee informed me that I had erred, that Grandpa had actually died in 1992.  This came as a surprise to me, as he and I had one of our best conversations in 1993, when my grandparents traveled to New York to be with my father during his surgery.  The depth of incompetence possible in customer service never ceases to amaze me.

Following the map, we drove as close as we could get to the block section where my grandparents’ remains are entombed.  I still had a little way to go on foot, negotiating the block numbers in the blazing South Florida midday heat, remaining in the shade as much as possible.  My grandparents’ marker was located on the top row of a mausoleum block stacked six high.  I found a nearby bench from which I could crane my head to read the writing high above me.  The marker (matzevah, as we call it in Hebrew) was unremarkable.  It contained my grandparents’ years of birth and death, not even full dates.  Not a word of Hebrew was in evidence, not even their Jewish names.  As disappointing as I found this, I suppose it reflects the reality of the situation:  Neither one had a religious bone in their bodies.  (And Grandpa, in fact, openly disdained and ridiculed religion of any type.)  There were two standard icons in the corners, a Star of David and a menorah, just like on hundreds of other nearby stones.  A cookie cutter memorial.  Except, I noted, for some brief descriptive information.  Grandpa was etched in stone as “a loyal friend” (Note to self:  Ask Dad about this.  This is a side of Grandpa with which I am totally unfamiliar.) and Grandma was “a beautiful, gracious lady.”  Gag.  As if this weren’t bad enough, the lower edge of the stone read “in love forever.”  While I initially found the sappiness intolerably saccharine, thinking about this for a few days left me with a sense of veritas.  My grandparents remained quite solicitous of each other into their elder years and, I had to admit, did indeed remain in love with each other all their lives.

And I am pleased to report that, cemetery office weirdos notwithstanding, the stone did indeed list the correct year of my grandfather’s death, 1996.  It’s hard to believe that twenty years have already elapsed since then.

Summer, 1996.  I am out of work (again) and living with my sister’s family in Boston.  I have developed a serious internet addiction that involves volunteering for AOL, staying online all night and sleeping during the day.  I am on a 14.4K dialup connection, due to which my family can’t get through to us late at night with the news of my grandfather’s death.  My brother-in-law in California IMs me to have my sister call our parents at once.  Mom and Dad offer to pay for a plane ticket for me to fly to Florida for the funeral, but I decline.  The thought of flying makes me incredibly anxious, exacerbating my panic disorder.  If I just stay here in Boston and don’t think about it, I’ll be alright, I tell myself.  I don’t feel emotionally stable enough to travel to a funeral 1,500 miles away.  I will crumple, I know, perhaps have one of my hyperventilation episodes like I did at my other grandfather’s funeral in 1980, and just make it worse for everyone.  I don’t think about how I might feel 20 years later.

I bid adieu to my grandparents’ graves, pick myself up off the bench and walk back to the air conditioned shelter of our car as quickly as I can.  I do not know how people manage to live in such a hellacious climate.  The sweat pours off my face and neck and I know I need a drink of cold water immediately.  As I open the car door, the blast of refrigerated air is as welcome relief as a man could ask for.

We’re done here.  Let’s go home to California.

 

 

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Connecticut Dreams

rest area

ON INTERSTATE 95 NEAR DARIEN, CONNECTICUT

Well, well.  This morning I find myself at a crowded rest area along the Connecticut Turnpike.  It feels like a return to the scene of the crime.

For three years, I drove back and forth on this highway nearly every weekend, traveling between law school in Massachusetts and my parents’ home in New York.

More than a quarter of a century has elapsed since then, and it shows.  This is now a mega rest area, a veritable food court containing the likes of Pinkberry (a smoothie joint), Cheeseboy (melt sandwiches), Sbarro, Chipotle, Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s and a couple of other places I can’t remember.  It certainly is a far cry from my late night stops for fish fry and ice cream at HoJo’s on the Post Road in Milford.  But time moves on, and this transplanted Californian passing through the Nutmeg State feels as if he’s been lifted by a tornado and plonked down in the middle of another era/planet/zeitgeist.

Then again, after you’ve been on the road for a few weeks, all the truck stops, gas stations and rest areas start to look the same.  Case in point:  When we were in Manhattan, my wife asked me where one would find the Orthodox Jewish communities where men walk the streets in their Hasidic garb, including long black coats and trailing strands of white tzizit (prayer fringes).  I considered driving over to Williamsburg in Brooklyn, but this proved unnecessary.  We saw a few Orthodox down on the Lower East Side in the Rivington Street area and a few more in my suburban hometown in Rockland County.  But it was at the rest areas on the highways that we saw the most Hasidim of all.  They were there on the Palisades Interstate Parkway near the George Washington Bridge (Sign in the window:  “Kosher sandwiches sold here!”) and the one at the northern end of the Garden State Parkway in Montvale, New Jersey (we were thrilled to have made it all the way there from Brunswick, Maine on a tank of gas!).

But here in Connecticut, a class of middle school girls has burst rowdily into the rest area (surely they must have adult supervision somewhere?), causing my wife to have to wait in line  to use the ladies’ while I lean uncomfortably against a high table watching the bored young employee at Cheeseboy with the dreadlocks make it obvious to all the world that he’d rather be anyplace else but here.

I belong here, but I don’t.  I am of this place but I’m not.  I cut those strings long ago when I boarded a plane for California and allowed those pretty blue and green ribbons tethering me to my beloved Connecticut to float away into the same sky shared by the 747 bound for SFO.

And yet, I can’t seem to let go.  True, this place no longer seems like home.  And yet.

And yet.

Connecticut (yes, my Connecticut, dammit, the one 3,000 miles from my current residence!) is the only state in which I am a member of the bar and licensed to practice law.  (Not that I have ever done such a thing.)  After law school, I could not find a legal job anywhere (blame it on Reaganomics, the weak New England economy, my poor class ranking and no-name law school, insufficient initiative on my part —  you choose), returned to my previous work in the printing industry back in my hometown in New York, and worked my way back to Connecticut.  After two years in a dead end job and nothing but rejection letters from law firms, I started driving to Connecticut every weekend to pick up the Sunday papers.  Eventually (after bothering that poor HR lady every week for months), I was hired as a desktop publisher and moved to a tiny rented room in Connecticut, an unheated sun porch where I froze my caboose off all winter.  How proud I was to have those blue and white license plates on my car!  Yes, I did it!  I am Connecticut and Connecticut is me!  With no law firm willing to hire me (“oh, you’re hungry, you’ll find something!”) and my entire family having migrated to California, I sealed my fate the day I boarded that silver bird and yelled “Open sesame!” at the Golden Gate.

The memories, the conflicting feelings, they all come back as if not a day has passed.  Am I really here or is this just a dream?  It is lunchtime and hungry travelers swarm and swirl around me, claiming tables, calling to each other loudly across the cavernous space, searching for the rest rooms way in the back, beyond my line of vision.  Coffee!  Food! A line forms at Dunkin’ Donuts and Cheeseboy remains forlornly abandoned.  As if on cue (doesn’t it always happen this way?), an email pops into my phone from (of all damned things!) the Connecticut Judicial Branch, Client Security Fund.   How did they know I was in town?  Did I trip some invisible, emotional sensor, triggered by GPS and bitterness?

“Invoices for the 2016 client security fund fee have been mailed to attorneys licensed to practice in Connecticut who are required to pay the fee pursuant to Practice Book section 2-70…”

Every year, I pay the fee rather than resign my bar membership based on the off, off, off, minuscule, nonexistent chance that I will ever practice law a continent away in the only state in which I may legally do so.

Why can’t I seem to press “delete” on this dream?  Face reality, you idiot, this dream is dead!  What’s with the pretending?  Just who am I trying to fool?  This is getting to be some clingy, enabling relationship worthy of a daytime serial drama.  It has long outlived its usefulness and I should have cut the cord twenty years ago.  So why can’t I just let go already?

My wife appears with two large iced teas and we are on the road again.  Next stop will be lunch in Westerly, Rhode Island at one of my favorite sandwich shops from when I lived there in the early 1980s.  See?  Clearly, I am hopelessly stuck in the past.  Perhaps this is an innate hazard of getting old.

As for you, Connecticut, thou Constitution State, yea Nutmeg State, I will continue to secretly sing hymns of praise to your ocean shores, your green hills and the richness of cultural life in your cities.

And, like lovers everywhere, I shall sigh.

 

Cemetery

Cemetery

QUEENS, NEW YORK

My knees don’t work very well anymore.  Neither does my back, or any other part of my body, for that matter.

I bend over slightly as I scan every inch of ground around the edges of my grandparents’ gravesite, hoping to find a tiny stone to place atop the marble slab that bears the surnames of my grandparents and parents.  My surname.  A part of me is here, I realize, among the tightly squeezed together matzevot, stone markers and monuments, that seem to go on for miles in this cavernous Jewish cemetery next to New York City’s LaGuardia Airport.

The biting wind chills me through despite the sunny day, reminding me that May in New York is a lot like October in California.  I snap photo after photo with my iPhone, attempting to capture the gravesite from different angles so that all parts of it may be examined by my mother back in California, who is so concerned that it was not being cared for properly.  “They used to send me a bill every two years,” she tells me on the phone across a continent, “but then they stopped sending them.”

The late afternoon sun is raising havoc with my amateur photography efforts, casting shadows of me holding my phone upon nearly every image.  I move back a few inches, a bit to the side as I retake photos that didn’t come out very well the first time.

My efforts to find a pebble finally pay off.  Despite several attempts, it quickly becomes apparent that I can’t bend over enough to pick up such a tiny object.  I find a thin twig of some length nearby, a larger target that I am just able to grasp.  I use it as a tool to drag the pebble through the dirt until it is right up against my shoe and I can just reach it.  Victorious, I place it atop the large marker with our family names that sits at the rear of the plot.

It looks so lonely.  It is the only stone upon the otherwise bare, shiny surface of the marble slab.  Nearby, other markers are graced by a half dozen stones of considerably greater size, indicating that many family members have been there to visit recently.  It has been more than 30 years since I have been here last, on the occasion of my grandfather’s unveiling, a year after his death.  I know perfectly well that no one has visited our family plot in at least 15 years.

I have a hard time explaining to my wife why we place little stones atop big stone markers at Jewish cemeteries.  We don’t bring flowers or greenery, I explain, because we believe that we came into this world with nothing and should go out of it in the same way.  It’s not about how much money we accumulated or how many adornments others choose to bring to honor us.  In death we are all the same, a reminder that in life, too, our similarities far outweigh our differences.  Adding a pebble or small stone to a stone marker adds no substance that wasn’t already there.  It is a custom, a tradition, that is difficult to explain to anyone who did not grow up with it.

My mother’s parents are buried on a gravesite that holds eight plots, “four in the back and four in the front,” my mother tells me.  She herself wishes to be buried there, even though it she lives nearly 3,000 miles away.  My father says that, as far as he is concerned, we can stuff him in a gunny sack and throw him in a river.  Or have him buried in a veteran’s cemetery.  He really doesn’t care.  But it is here that he will end up one day, I know.  My sisters’ remains will end up in distant states, not here.  So it is extremely likely that the four plots at the front of the gravesite, nearest the road, will remain forever vacant, free of stones and ivy, but covered with rich green grass in the summer and piles of snow in the winter.

As for myself, following my visit I confirm to my wife what I have told her for years:  I am to be buried near our home in California, not transported on a plane to a city and state in which I have not resided for decades, a place in which I no longer belong, either in life or in death.

I suppose this sums up our few days here in New York:  It is clear that I no longer belong here, that whatever ties I once had to this place have long been severed.  In upper Manhattan, we happen to pass the hospital where I was born.  I point it out to my wife, but it means nothing to me.  We eat dinner at what once was my favorite hangout, but now serves as only a vague reminder of a less than halcyon past that may have been real or imagined.  “You see that woman eating all by herself at the last stool at the edge of the counter?” I tell my wife.  “That was me,” I say.  “That was me.”

On the way out of Queens, we are stuck in the perennial traffic jam that is the Cross Bronx Expressway.  While my wife drives, I take out my phone and begin composing an email to my parents, uploading photos.

Later, my mother calls me, expressing gratitude for the pics.  They are exactly what she wanted to see, she assures me, now confident that the gravesite is indeed being cared for.  “You saved me a trip to New York,” she tells me.

“Did you talk to them?” my wife asks me. At first, I think she is referring to my parents.  But then I realize she means my grandparents, whose graves we visited today.  “Of course not!”  I reply.  “Why would I talk to dead people?”

That may seem a bit harsh, but my grandmother died when I was five years old and, much to my mother’s chagrin, I barely remember her. My grandfather lived a lot longer, and I had a good relationship with him well into my teenage years.  He wanted to see me graduate from college, and that he did.  He was there in Albany on my graduation day, passing on rather suddenly about two months later.

I suppose I am not telling the whole truth.  I have indeed “talked” with my grandfather on occasion, and have even felt his presence in my life at certain moments.  I think of him every year on his birthday, September 7.  I am acutely aware that he has influenced my life in more ways than I realize.  But it is not on a cold and windy day, in a place where tens of thousands of stone markers are crowded together, in a world of ivy and marble and pebbles, an entire nation away from where I live, work and love my family, that I would go to have a talk with him.  That place is no more than a symbol.

For in a real sense, Grandpa will be with me always, wherever I am and wherever I go.

 

 

Eggplant

eggplant

The Vegan Files

My mother told me a lot of stories when I was growing up.  Some made me roll my eyes with the morals they were meant to convey and others I just plain couldn’t believe.  But then there were some that I never got tired of hearing no matter how many times she repeated them.  Most of these had something to do with Yiddish words or with the intricacies of observance in the Jewish faith.

One of my favorites went something like this:  A boy raised in an observant Jewish home married a nice Jewish girl whose parents didn’t keep kosher.  However, she was determined to learn kosher cooking.  While an inexperienced cook, she did her best to please her new husband.  He related many times how much he loved lamb chops, and she was glad to oblige.  To the kosher butcher shop she went, intent on picking out the finest lamb chops ever cut from a young ovine.  At dinner that evening, the young bride burst into tears when her husband offered his critique: “It’s okay, but it’s not like Mama made it.”  Not one to give up easily, the wife tried again and again and again, asking the butcher for recommendations and trying out various types of lamb chops, consulting cookbooks and trying different preparation techniques, spices and garnishes.  Alas, it was all to no avail.  Each time, she would be deflated when her husband reported “It’s just not like Mama made it.”  In desperation, she finally gave up on lamb chops from the kosher butcher and prepared the kind of dinner that she grew up with.  Apparently, this kosher thing just wasn’t working out, so she might as well cook what she knew and loved.  She went to the local supermarket and bought pork chops, which she prepared using her mother’s time-tested recipe.  To her surprise, her husband’s face lit up with the very first bite.  “Finally!” he cried, “Just like Mama used to make!”

This wonderful story came to mind while working on my memoir recently, when I got to the part where I was describing my dislike for the lunches that were served at the yeshiva (Orthodox Jewish school) that I attended in my elementary years.  Most days, I brought a sandwich from home, which suited me just fine.  Thinking about the school lunches, I remember how heavily breaded the dry fish cakes were.  But most of all, I remember how much I disliked the tomato soup that was often served.

“What’s wrong with the tomato soup?” my mother would ask.  “Is it too sweet?  Too salty?”  At the age of eight, I couldn’t come up with a coherent explanation.  I just couldn’t put my finger on it.  The bottom line was that it just wasn’t like the tomato soup that my mother served at home.

Years later, I came to realize that the school’s awful tomato soup was homemade, while my mother’s delicious soup was Campbell’s out of a can.  My mother bought Campbell’s because her mother did.  Both of them kept kosher.  Neither had any idea that the “natural flavors” listed in the ingredients include meat juices left over from processing dead cows and pigs.

Like the young husband in my mother’s story, I had no idea that my “kosher” food at home was anything but.

I experienced a similar situation when it came to cheese, which was once among my favorite foods.  I mainly grew up on processed American “cheese,” packaged Swiss cheese and cottage cheese.  My father loved to indulge in tiny bricks of “smoky cheese,” which he particularly enjoyed on apple pie.  I would taste it and fail to understand how anyone could stomach the stuff.  As an adult, I branched out and learned to love feta, bleu cheeses, Brie, cheddar, gouda and provolone.  Over the years, my parents became more adventurous as well, and they now regularly enjoy Muenster and Havarti.

Well, wouldn’t you know it, I got schooled once again, this time courtesy of Trader Joe’s.  About five or six years ago, I was shocked to discover that, right there on the label of some of TJ’s most delicious cheeses, the ingredient “animal rennet” was listed.  Now I understood why the Orthodox Jewish friends of my childhood would only eat Miller’s kosher cheese.  After my lesson from Trader Joe’s, I gave Miller’s a try and found the taste to be disgusting.  Apparently, you had to use the scrapings from the stomachs of cows and sheep to get the enzymes that made cheese taste so delicious.  It was Campbell’s tomato soup all over again!  I related this sad information to my parents, to no effect.  As far as my mother is concerned, cheese is dairy and therefore kosher.  Oy.

When it comes to flavor, it seems that most of the time non-kosher wins.

After I became a vegan, I learned that excellent minestrone soup can be made using vegetarian tomato sauce and fresh vegetables.  My wife is a master at this.  I also learned that bland food can easily be flavored with any number of spices, no meat juices needed.  My go-to spices are black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder and oregano.  I also use mustard (both yellow and Dijon), lemon juice, green salsa (I don’t much care for the red), pepperoncini and jalapeños.  For baked yams, cinnamon is a must.  And then there is vegan margarine, olive oil, vinegar and soy cheese to flavor vegetables.  Even tofu, which many won’t eat due to its bland nature, is delightful when doused liberally with spices and baked.

My favorite vegetable remains the eggplant, which I learned to love as a teenager when my father would take me out to little Italian joints for eggplant parmigiana.  My wife still prepares this for me regularly.  She slices the eggplant, I douse the slices with canned tomato sauce and spices, and in the oven it goes.  About 40 minutes later, I apply slices of soy cheese to get nice and melty.

Just as in the case of tofu, many won’t eat eggplant because it is bland.  Believe me, it’s not bland at all when I get done with it.  Garlic rules!

Years ago, I learned that eggplant, like tomatoes, are nightshades; for a very long time, both were thought to be poisonous.  But what I didn’t know (until we saw it on the Cooking Channel the other day) is that eggplant is, of all things, a berry!  How can something as large and lovely as an eggplant be compared to a little strawberry or blackberry?  Strange how nature works.

Even worse, however, I learned this week from Jeff Guo’s Wonkblog entry in The Washington Post that the eggplant emoji is suddenly enjoying a spate of popularity.  Initially, I was delighted.  I had no idea that my favorite vegetable, er, berry, had, in all its purple glory, found its way into the land of text messaging.  That’s when I learned that (gulp) the beautiful eggplant emoji has, uh, a sexual meaning.  Now why would anyone go ruin a thing of beauty by smutting it up like that?

Gutter minds notwithstanding, the eggplant emoji will continue to bring a smile to my face.  Please feel free to send it to me anytime.  But only if it means you’re inviting me to dinner.

I’ll bring the soy cheese.

 

Yizkor

Yizkor

A few days ago, one of my favorite bloggers, Rachel Mankowitz, posted a poignant piece about the Mourner’s Kaddish.  In the Jewish faith, this is a hymn of praise to God recited in synagogue by the recently bereaved.

I particularly enjoyed Rachel’s post in light of the fact that I have recently been thinking about Yizkor, the Memorial Service for the Departed that we Jews read at certain times of year in honor of lost loved ones.  The word yizkor is generally translated as “remembrance,” derived as it is from the Hebrew verb yizakher, “to remember.”

Unlike the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Yizkor prayer directly addresses our relationship with family members who have passed on.  My Hebrew is not very good, but the English translation mentions the fond memories of times we have shared together and the influence that our loved ones have had on our lives.  Specifically, the prayer refers to the ways in which the sterling qualities of those whom we have lost have inspired us to reach for the ideals for which they stood.

As a child, I was always told to step out of the sanctuary when the Yizkor prayer was being read.  It is a very sad prayer indeed, and I can certainly understand why some of us choose to insulate children from death, particularly references to the idea of the eventual deaths of their moms and dads.  Later, as an adult, I learned that many congregations subscribe to a tradition of having all those with two living parents step out during the Yizkor prayer.  Not just children, mind you, but adults as well.  Even old curmudgeons like myself who still have both father and mother.

On the other hand, I have listened to some rabbis pooh-pooh this tradition, encouraging congregants of all ages to participate in the Yizkor prayer.  Even the young among us have some distant relative or friend who has died, right?  And then, of course, we can always remember the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

A few weeks ago, we celebrated the holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and our holiest day of the year.  It is a very solemn occasion on which we completely abstain from eating and drinking (even water) for more than 24 hours.  In addition to listing our sins, asking God for forgiveness and vowing to do better in the coming year, we think about the poor, the lost and lonely in our communities from whom we have turned away despite their desperate need of our help.  One effect of fasting is seeing what it feels like to be hungry, at least for one day.

Traditionally, we spend the entire day in the synagogue praying on Yom Kippur.  Around the middle of the service, after the Torah reading, we take a break to say the Yizkor prayer.  We not only think of family and friends who played important roles in our lives in years gone by, but we also acknowledge that we ourselves are headed the same way, sooner or later to fade into history.  The idea is that we shouldn’t think so highly of ourselves when we all end up moldering in the grave.

My father, who is either an agnostic or an atheist (depending on whom you ask), despises organized religion and despairs when he is reluctantly dragged to synagogue by my mother on Yom Kippur and other holidays.  This year, my mother reported, he was delighted that she agreed to stay home because they both had bad colds and they didn’t want to end up sicker.  In past years, my father would spend a short time in the sanctuary (perennially dressed in shorts, much to my mother’s dismay), then head outside to sit in a folding chair between the front door and the kids’ playground.  Before long, he’d be fast asleep.  One year, when I was down in the Central Valley visiting with my parents for the holidays, the rabbi came out and asked my father why he had left the service during the Yizkor prayer.  “Surely both your parents are not still alive!” he said incredulously.  Dad explained that it is true that his father is no longer with us, but that he was well loved and respected by all who knew him, lived a long life, and would not appreciate people saying prayers for him.  My father spoke the truth.  My grandfather harbored an even greater aversion to organized religion than my father does.  In fact, Grandpa used to make fun of me any time I donned a yarmulke or said a blessing over the food.  He felt it was all a bunch of hocus-pocus.

This year, I spent Rosh Hashannah (Jewish New Year) with my parents, but was unable to travel to be with them for Yom Kippur due to having to work the day before and the day after.  Attending synagogue in a suburb of Sacramento, I left the sanctuary during the Yizkor prayer in accordance with the tradition in which I grew up.

Even without the Yizkor prayer, I couldn’t help thinking about family.  My grandmother died when Mom was still in her twenties.  Dad, however, had his father until the age of 62 and his mother (who died following a fall at the age of 97) until he was 73.  As fortunate as he was, and as lucky as I am to still have both parents, I can’t help recognizing the fact that I am rapidly approaching those ages myself.  And as the strains of the Yizkor wafted out of the open door of the sanctuary, I found myself thinking of how many more Yom Kippurs are left before I, too, will stand and face the holy ark with my little paperbound copy of the Book of Remembrance and tears streaming down my face.

Praying for Rain on Rosh Hashannah

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MADERA
Today is the last day of the year on the Jewish calendar, the dregs of the month of Elul, our new year’s eve. This is a day that always leaves me reflective, and all the more so if I am visiting my parents out in the country.

My elderly parents have an elderly cat, an 18 year old Siamese named Taffy. The furry beast is full of fleas, but my mom wonders whether she should let her pet in the house notwithstanding, since Taffy has been coughing so much. You see, California is on fire. Here, on the cattle-grazing ranch land at the dead center of our huge state, the fires are far to the north and south. The smoke, however, travels for hundreds of miles and scents the air even here. The news broadcasts warn children, the elderly and those with respiratory conditions to remain indoors. Mom reminds me not to open any windows.

My wife is not with me for this trip as she has work obligations on Monday. This weekend, however, she paid a birthday visit to a friend who lives high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to our east. She texts me that the smoke-laden air is totally unbreatheable. Even down here on the valley floor, local high school and college football games are cancelled due to the smoke. Everyone hides indoors and runs the air conditioning full blast against the 100 degree heat and uncharacteristic humidity.

Back home in Sacramento, we have to be careful how we enter and leave our home. Open the door, step outside and quickly pull the door shut behind you. Leave the door open for 30 seconds or so to deposit groceries on the counter or haul out a sack of trash and the smoke alarm goes off.

My mother settles for locking her cat in the laundry room with food and water. Taffy will have none of it and meows up a furious storm until Mom lets her outside again. Mom says she doesn’t want to get bitten by fleas. The feline spends the night in the garage.

Driving down Highway 99 through California’s normally fertile Central Valley, I notice a billboard erected at the side of the road. “Pray for rain,” the sign exhorts us.

The epic drought in the West, now in its fifth consecutive year, has rendered much of the state a tinderbox. The grass in the highway median, the citrus groves, the waving rangeland where the cattle are fattened on their way to becoming Big Macs and porterhouse steaks, the stately old growth forests, all are just sitting ducks, dessicating in the sun, awaiting consumption by hungry flames barreling over the ridge. Everything in the path of the blaze is destroyed, leaving nothing but charred remains. Water and red-hued flame retardant is dropped from the sky by helicopter and airplane. CalFire erects firebreaks but can barely get one fire under control before another breaks out somewhere else in the state. Thousands of acres are consumed. Four firefighters are in the hospital after sustaining serious burns yesterday.

And yet the flames remain unsatisfied. What’s next?

The leafy trees in your backyard. Your house.

Dozens of little towns are evacuated. Residents stuff families and pets into their cars, grab what belongings they can, and flee. Horses are rescued by distant farms with spare paddocks, stables and horse trailers for transport.

Heading down Interstate 5 to work on Thursday morning, I saw plumes of smoke off in the distance. The billows were heading in our direction. I turn on the radio and learn that yet another fire, this time in a local park, had been reported at six o’clock that morning. A haze blankets downtown Sacramento and I dash from the car to the door of the office building where I work, attempting not to inhale the smoky air.

Governor Brown declares. a state of emergency.

My parents are fighting off a plague of ants. Desperate for water, colonies of ants enter through every crack or crevice. We spray and spray, killing ants by the dozen as they congregate in the kitchen sink, in the bathroom, even on the toilet seat.

My mother steps outside in the heat for a few minutes to water the few trees on her property that haven’t already died. She lets Taffy in for a brief respite in the air conditioning. Mom says her cat appears to have gone blind in one eye and isn’t seeing too well with the other. When she calls for Taffy, the old cat gropes around trying to find her.

“I’m afraid she’s not long for this world,” Mom tells me.

“We’re not long for this world,” my father quips in retort.

Dad turns 82 in November. My wife and I have made plans to drive down for his birthday.

I wonder how many more times I will visit this big house out in the country to celebrate Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish new year.

Tonight I will don a white shirt and tie, and we will drive into Fresno to attend the synagogue service marking the start of the High Holy Days. Tomorrow morning, we will go again to hear the blast of the Shofar, the trumpet that is supposed to wake us from our slumber, our stupor, the well-worn grooves of our lives that leave us blind to the neediness and suffering of others. We will greet each other with “L’shana tovah,” may you be blessed with a good new year.

And I know I will be praying for the safety of the firefighters, for the evacuees and their homes, for an end to the drought and the conflagrations that are burning up my home state of California.

I will be praying for rain.

Eliminating Homelessness is Possible

I would like to take a moment to sincerely thank Shannon of Dirt ‘N Kids and Janon for their kind and insightful comments on last week’s post about paths toward ending homelessness and Utah’s successes in this regard.

I can summarize my thoughts on your responses in three general statements:

  • Yes, it’s all about money.
  • It is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.
  • You have to start somewhere.

Yes, it’s all about money.

Some say that the only certainties in life are death and taxes.  I would add “poverty” to that short list.  As a man who unabashedly worships God, I think of the following Bible verse:  “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you:  Open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”  Deut. 15:11 (JPS)  The dual lessons here are:

  1. There is no such thing as “eliminating homelessness,” despite the appeal of the phrase as a sound bite. Even if it is possible to assure that those who are taken off the streets are provided with homes for the remainder of their lives, there will always be more individuals and families who will fall into homelessness due to the effects of the economy, mental illness and substance abuse.
  2. As homelessness is an ongoing issue, beating it back will require ongoing infusions of money. Even if we were collectively committed to ensuring that everyone has a roof over his or her head, that commitment must continue among those who come after us or we will quickly find ourselves right back where we started.  The Biblical command to “open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land” is an edict for all time.

Shannon, you are right to be concerned about taxes and utilities.  These are part and parcel of the costs of housing and must be covered by the public-private partnership that secured the house, apartment or single occupancy unit in the first place, as was done in Utah.  In terms of taxes, essentially the municipality must be willing to forgo the income that could otherwise have been collected on these units.  The loss of revenue is but a tiny fraction of the public funds that would have been expended on the individuals involved had they remained homeless.

You also ask about rules for sharing with others, medical requirements, hygiene and general cleanliness.  While all of these concerns make perfect sense to me, in the big picture none of them matter.  The philosophy in Utah is that when the keys are handed over, the newly homed individual essentially has free reign.  The home is treated as a gift of unconditional love, no strings attached.  The result of this is that there were a few cases in which the residence was totally destroyed and/or the beneficiary violated the law and ended up in custody.  This is why, in Salt Lake City, some of the homeless who were unlikely to be able to live successfully in an unsupervised environment were sheltered in single occupancy rooms in a location where they can be checked up on daily and where critical mental health and substance abuse prevention services are available on site.  As to the extremely rare cases in which the residence was trashed, I read that the individual was provided needed services and then given yet another home.  While the agape love nature of such actions is delightful to see, those are the situations that make everyone nervous due to the very real potential for negative press and public backlash that could bring the entire endeavor tumbling down like a house of cards.  Each time something like that comes up is a moment of collective breath holding accompanied by hope that the public realizes that, as the Jackson 5 sang back in the days of my youth, “one bad apple don’t spoil the whole wide world.”

Finally, Shannon, you asked about food.  This was handled in a number of different ways, and I regret that your wonderful idea of a community garden was never mentioned in the articles I read (I am definitely a fan of your “lasagna” worm fertilization technique).  Some of the newly homed are receiving job training and job search assistance in an effort to get them back onto their feet financially.  Many others were helped to apply for Food Stamps.  Finally, in some locations, such as the single room occupancy facilities, the local food bank made regular deliveries to the residents.

Janon, you incisively point out that “a Housing First program in a large city would require a large line item in the city’s budget directly associated with the program, and it will always be a target for cuts.”  As I mentioned above, the difference between a temporary fix and a permanent solution will be whether those who come after us remain committed to the same goals and are willing to fund them.  Ironically, when times are bad and programs are slashed to accommodate the shrinking public fisc, that is exactly when an increasing number of people are in danger of becoming homeless if homes are not provided.  This is why layers upon layers of protection are needed, not unlike Shannon’s worm composting program.  Housing First must be a joint effort of federal, state and municipal governments, religious organizations (like Loaves and Fishes here in Sacramento) and private philanthropy.  Like an extended family in which various members step in to help in different roles depending on what is required at the moment, each of these parts must be willing to step up when another falters.

It is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.

Last week, I wrote about Henry and a few of the other homeless people with whom we have recently had contact in this area.  They all have stories to tell, although not all of them are willing (or able) to tell those stories.  They all had mothers and fathers once; few were born homeless.  Homelessness, like so many things, exists at the intersection of chance and choice.  Many homeless individuals never really had a chance, having suffered through horrible childhoods and turbulent adolescences that saw them tossed out to the vagaries of the four winds at an early age.  I am fond of noting that mental illness seems inevitable among the homeless, including those who weren’t mentally ill when they first hit the streets.  A few years of being assaulted, arrested, robbed, starved, exposed to the elements and subject to the disdain of nearly everyone would be enough to catapult nearly anyone into abyss of mental illness.

As I pointed out in my post about Henry, rapidly gobbling down any food that comes your way is a common behavioral pattern among the homeless.  If you haven’t eaten in a while, I can’t reasonably expect you to observe Emily Post table manners and to say grace before chowing down.  If you don’t eat it all immediately, it will likely be stolen from you.  And, as if that weren’t enough, competing with you in your panhandling endeavors are those who are no more homeless than I am, but choose to take advantage of the opportunity to engage in a bit of fakery to see whether they can get something for nothing.  For those of us who would help the homeless, we are left with the difficulty of distinguishing between the truly homeless and the charlatans.  If we don’t want to “go there,” we can simply help anyone who asks (within the extent of our resources) without making judgment, or, more commonly, can resort to averting our eyes and helping no one.

The latter option is perennially tempting to government, as the cost of social services staff and programs to determine who is “deserving” of assistance can run nearly as much as providing that assistance does.  And when it comes to local governments, state legislatures and, yes, Congress, deciding whom to help, there are always Tea Party Republicans and naysayers back home in the district to provide ample chastisement about the waste of public funds.  After all, how appealing is it to spend money on an intractable problem?  Tomorrow, there will be more people who need to be helped, even apart from those “just looking for a handout.”

This is why it is imperative that those whom we elect to serve us remember that it is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.  Those of us who care need to write and call our legislators and testify before legislative and Congressional committees to let our representatives know that we are not blind to the suffering that is occurring all around us.  While we are limited as to what we can do as individuals, together we can move mountains.  Ending homelessness is not an election campaign issue or a line item in a budget.  It is forging a path through the rhetoric to put roofs over the heads of our neighbors who freeze, burn and are soaked from sleeping outdoors and show up at hospitals with hypothermia and pneumonia.  These are the people who are routinely abused, assaulted and killed as if they were some kind of trash rather than someone’s son, daughter, mother, father.

The biggest mistake of all is thinking that it can’t happen to you.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.

You have to start somewhere.

The jaded among us say that every public program, every act of generosity done by a church or an individual, is flawed (and likely motivated by some hidden agenda, as well).  Some of the “undeserving” will be the beneficiaries of our largesse along with those who are “truly deserving.”  This line of thinking is rather sad.  Those of us who attempt to walk in the path of God know that every act of kindness is perfect.  As your mother told you when you were little, it truly is the thought that counts.

While we’re on mothers, another thing that they like to say is “little kids have little problems and big kids have big problems.”  As Janon astutely points out, the same is true of municipalities.  It is a lot easier for a state with a relatively small population, such as Utah, to erase homelessness than it is for a more a populous place to do so.  I was recently pleased to read that Medicine Hat, Alberta is the first city in Canada to eliminate homelessness.  Then again, Wikipedia tells me that Medicine Hat has a population of just 61,180.  This is a far cry from such populous places as Los Angeles and California.  (On a side note, one might think that Canada, with its socialist-oriented policies, would not have much homelessness.  Anyone who reads Dennis Cardiff’s blog, Gotta Find a Home, on a regular basis knows that this is anything but true.)

One thing to consider is economies of scale.  First, large scale operations cost considerably less to operate on a per capita basis than smaller operations do.  Second, populous cities and states have larger tax bases than less populous places do.  There are more businesses and more people paying property and income taxes.  Generally, there are more churches and other charitable organizations in the area.  And hopefully, there are more philanthropic minded individuals available to assist than there would be in a more rural or remote area.

In places like California, where there are so many in need, the scope of the problem may seem insurmountable.  Providing housing for all of our homeless may seem an impossible dream.  Fortunately, Housing First is a big dream that is turning into reality.  However, it takes time, it takes resources and it takes commitment.  It can’t be done alone or by just a few, and it can’t be done in a day.  It takes the collective will.

We will never be able to convince all the naysayers that housing the homeless is a just cause, and we will always contend with competing priorities for limited resources.  But that doesn’t give us license to sit on our rears, turn the other way and do nothing.  We have to start somewhere.

As the Talmud teaches us, “whoever saves a life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.”