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.

 

 

Passover Reflections

Well, I made it through Passover.  Eight days of dry matzo.  And, as a vegan, eight days of no protein.  That, of course, is not totally accurate, as some vegetables that I eat regularly even when it’s not Passover (spinach and broccoli, for example) contain some protein.  Nevertheless, I look forward to returning to my chick peas, my tofu, my Boca Burgers and all my other soy stuff.

I ended up attending only one of the two Passover Seders this year, but it’s better than nothing, which is what I’ve been stuck with on a few recent occasions.  “You can always read the Hagaddah by yourself,” my mother offered last week, before proceeding to complain about how pitiful would be the little Seder that she would have with just my father present.  “You’re supposed to have other people there,” she told me.  I bit my lip as I was thinking “You really should invite someone, then.”  Two of her children live four hours away and the other lives in Texas.  It’s not that easy for us to get away.  I begged off this year by citing the fact that I just changed job assignments a few days earlier and couldn’t very well tell my new boss “Thanks for hiring me.  May I have a day off?”  I didn’t mention anything about fervently desiring to preserve my sanity in light of the outrageous shenanigans that transpired during our most recent visit.

As fate would have it, I couldn’t have gone anyway.  The week had been particularly hectic at work with me interviewing applicants and trying to hire some new staff, starting to learn the details of my new job and assisting my replacement as she stepped into my former role.  The day of the first Seder, all hell broke loose, as it does from time to time in a busy office.  My boss was about to go out of town for meetings and needed dozens of things prepped for her.  I ended up working so late that I had to cancel my plans to attend a Seder at a synagogue about 30 miles away.  I settled for attending a Seder the second night, held at the rabbi’s home.

I had never met this rabbi before, nor had I ever attended his synagogue.  It is a Chabad synagogue, which has the advantage of being highly inclusive and welcoming to everyone (whether they can contribute financially or not), but has the disadvantage of being ultra-Orthodox, which is decidedly not my cup of tea.  As it is for many Jews whose incomes don’t allow them to support a synagogue beyond a small donation at the High Holidays, I am usually stuck with Chabad or nothing.  Most of the time, I choose nothing.  I have my prayer books and pray daily at home (or often, on the way to work while my wife zooms downs the freeway).  I wish things were different, but I do understand that someone has to pay the expenses of operating any house of worship (they have mortgages and utilities just like everyone else, and programs to run on top of it).  As our faith prohibits us from handling money on the Sabbath, we can’t just “pass the plate” like churches do.  Still, it is kind of sad that most synagogues in the Conservative movement in which I was raised do distasteful things like ask prospective members to meet with their financial officers or dun them for monthly payments.  Some have an established schedule of how much members are expected to pay based on their incomes.  No.  Just no.  There is something inherently wrong about being asked to pay to pray.  It’s not how God operates.

Passover, however, is a little different.  Other than the autumn High Holidays, Passover is arguably the most important Jewish holiday of the year.  It is deeply steeped in a plethora of traditions, among which is literally opening the door so that all who wish to join us may do so.  Chabad requested a donation of $36 per person, primarily to cover the food, as the Seder includes a full dinner.  I called the rabbi in advance and explained that no extra food should be prepared for us.  My wife is a very picky eater, I explained (traditional Jewish food is not her thing), and as for me, well, I’m a vegan, so there you have it.  I did pay $36, as I felt it was only fair to make some type of contribution.  As it turned out, my wife wasn’t able to attend, as she had to be up early for Easter service the following morning.

I arrived at 9:00 p.m., the scheduled start time of the Seder.  Half an hour later, people were still arriving, and we didn’t get started until 10:00 or so.  The rabbi introduced himself and shook my hand as I entered, after which I simply sat and waited for an hour.  Friends and family chatted amiably among one another, while I, who did not know anyone, sat in a corner and observed it all.  No one bothered to say a word to me.

Later, at the Seder table, two of the people sitting near me asked my name.  Eventually, one asked what I did for a living.  And that was about it.  I wish now that I had said “Actually, I’m a blogger, so smile!  You’re on candid camera!”

The young man seated to my right worked in a local health care facility and had to leave around 1 a.m. to make the start of his shift.  I heard him tell another attendee that he considers the Bay Area his home and rents a room there to which he repairs on his days off.  The young man at my left appeared to be the son of the woman sitting next to him.  He was one of those people who can only be described as of indeterminate age:  He could have been 13 or 25.  He remained silent throughout most of the Seder.  I suspect that he may have had some type of developmental disability.  When asked to read from the Hagaddah, he stammered out about two sentences in English and then refused to read when asked thereafter.

About 20 of us were present, seated around three tables.  We were urged to recite in the language of our choice, and I belted out the paragraph in Hebrew on the two occasions on which I was asked to read.  When it came to the traditional Four Questions, the rabbi wanted them recited in as many languages as we could manage.  Among those assembled, we managed to recite the passage in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian, Russian, Yiddish, English and undoubtedly a few other languages that I don’t recall.  In typical Orthodox fashion, one of the rabbi’s sons (no older than 12 or so) made explanations of several portions of the service in well-rehearsed, fluent Yiddish.  I remember this well from my nightmarish days at an ultra-Orthodox elementary school.

There was one Jewish story told by the rabbi that I had never heard before.  A verse of the Hagaddah states that the Lord gave Mount Seir to Esau as a possession, but his brother Jacob went down to Egypt with his sons.  “Whatever happened to Esau?” asked one of the rabbi’s sons.  “He died there!” replied the rabbi, before explaining exactly how.  Years later, when Jacob died, Esau attended his funeral.  Apparently, Esau, who had a reputation from his youth as a wild, uncivilized man, was carrying on and making trouble.  One of Dan’s sons (grandson of the deceased Jacob) was deaf and didn’t understand what was going on.  All he knew was that Esau was creating a ruckus at a solemn occasion, so the young man unsheathed his sword and summarily lopped off Esau’s head.  As the story goes, the head then rolled into the tomb of Jacob.  Although Esau’s body was buried elsewhere, his head will share his father’s final resting place for eternity.  Interesting, isn’t it?  I didn’t dare ask whether Dan’s deaf son spent the rest of his life in prison for murdering Esau.

Dinner, which occurs about two-thirds of the way through the service, didn’t even begin until after midnight.  Passing up the beef, the chicken, the fish, the soup and the traditional hard-boiled eggs, I still managed to eat fairly well just off the side dishes.  There was a beet and onion salad, a mango and avocado salad, pickled cucumbers and a sweet potato kugel.  And plenty of matzo.  Like many of the Orthodox, this rabbi used schmureh matzos, which adhere to the strictest of religious standards and are very carefully watched from the wheat field through the baking process to ensure that no leavening enters the product.  They are very thin, huge and round, and were extracted from large boxes bearing the name, address and phone number of the bakery in Borough Park, Brooklyn.  They were about half the thickness of the already thin rectangular matzos that I buy, but unfortunately these were pretty well burnt.  As they are flash baked for an extremely short time in pizza-style ovens, I don’t know how they had time to get in that condition.  While I was impressed that they had traveled all the way across the country to reach our table, I did not enjoy eating them.  All I tasted was — charcoal.

I left before dessert was served and before the second part of the Seder began, as it was well past one o’clock in the morning and I still had a 40-minute drive home.

On the way home, I thought about my parents.  They attended a Seder at a similar Chabad near their hometown on the first night of Passover, but were by themselves for the second night while I was at a Chabad Seder near here.  “Who could my parents have invited?” I wondered.  They don’t have any friends in the area.  Even though they’ve lived in California for 17 years, most of their acquaintances are still back in New York and New Jersey.  My parents have never been social people anyway.  They have always kept to themselves.  Somehow, that seems kind of sad, particularly for octogenarians.

I called my parents this morning, but we didn’t talk long because they were on the way out to attend services for the final day of Passover.  Now, a phone call with my parents, even the rare short one (most go on for more than an hour), is always an adventure.  I think of it a bit like a roller coaster ride.  I never know what is going to come out of my mother’s mouth.  She might say something insulting that will force me to hang up on her.  Or, as she did today, she might tell me an old family story that I’ve heard dozens of times before, repeated because, 50 years later, she’s still angry about what happened.  Or she could relate detailed stories about what’s going on with my sisters.  Or she might get into a bit of Jewish folklore.  She did that today, as well.

This time, she explained the reasons that Jewish parents do not name their children after themselves.  For example, you almost never find Jews with names ending in “Sr.,” “Jr.” or “III.”  The tradition, my mother told me, is that if a child is named after either the mother or the father, either the child or the parent will die.

“Oh, Mom, that’s a superstition,” I replied.

Actually, there is another more practical reason for this, she continued.  In the old days in Europe, large extended families lived together in compounds.  If a daughter had the same name as her mother, terrible things could happen.  Without electricity, they had very dark nights.  If the husband was in bed and called out for the wife, a daughter with the same name might come instead, get in bed with him, and the proceedings from there would be in the nature of incest.  To prevent this from happening, daughters are never named after their mothers.

To place this is in context, you have to remember that there is a long Jewish tradition of mistaken identity regarding the woman who is in bed with you, going back to the Book of Genesis.  Jacob falls in love with the young, beautiful Rachel, but, in a classic switcheroo, unknown to him, Rachel’s older plain-looking sister, Leah, is swapped out on their wedding night.  Jacob only figures this out after the damage has been done.  When it’s really dark, can any man truly be sure whom he’s having sex with?

The whole thing sounds beyond hokey in our current day and age.  Besides, it would seem that boys could be named after their fathers because they (one would hope) wouldn’t be called upon for command sexual performances deep in the night.  But then there’s that thing about either the father or the son dying.

How such ideas persist into modern times is beyond me.  But as I sat through the dozens of rituals that are part of the Passover Seder, I was reminded of the fact that tradition dies hard.

Purim, After a Fashion

hamentaschen

This week, we will be celebrating Purim, the Jewish Feast of Lots.  Over the years, I have discovered that most people outside of the Jewish community have never heard of it.

The name of the holiday is from the Hebrew word pur, which refers to the casting of lots.  The story goes that this is what Persia’s wicked prime minister Haman did to determine the day on which all the Jews in the kingdom would be killed.  Our people were saved thanks to the bravery of Persia’s new queen and her uncle, Mordecai, events that are enshrined in the biblical Book of Esther.

Today, Purim is celebrated by reading the Book of Esther in synagogue, with all those in attendance banging on noisemakers and tooting horns every time the evil Haman is mentioned, in an attempt to blot out his name.  Often, kids dress up in costumes interpreting one of the characters in the story.  In some places, a Purim schpiel or play is put on, often filled with satirical songs using modern pop tunes with lyrics changed to refer to the story of Esther and Mordecai.

My favorite thing about Purim has always been hamenthaschen, the little jam-filled pastries that we traditionally eat.  The word hamentacshen is Yiddish for “Haman’s hat.”  It is said that Haman wore a three-cornered hat, mimicked by the triangle shaped pastry dough.  The most traditional filling is preserves made of poppy seeds, known as mohn.  It’s a rather strange taste, and much more popular are jam fillings of apricot, raspberry, prune, apples or cherries.  Back in New York, our local bakery used to make two kinds of hamentaschen dough.  One was soft and flaky, like a Danish or croissant, while the other (my favorite) was a hard cookie dough.  Alas, this year I shall enjoy hamantaschen in the same manner as I did last year — in memory only.  There are plenty of recipes for vegan hamantaschen around (like this one or this one), but if you don’t bake and there aren’t any available to buy because you live in rural northern California, you’re plum (or prune) out of luck.

Heck, there’s not even a synagogue close enough for me to go hear the Megillah being read.  But come Wednesday evening, you can be sure that I will be reading the Book of Esther aloud at home.  I’m not sure what I’ll use for a noisemaker when I come to Haman’s name and I may have to substitute Speculoos from Trader Joe’s for hamantaschen, but at least I will be able to mark the occasion in some fashion and fondly recall childhood days of gawking at the enormous mounds of Purim pastries in the display case of Pakula’s Bakery.

Ninth of Av

Last week was the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, or the Ninth of Av.  This fast day is arguably a minor religious holiday (compared to the High Holy Days, Passover or Sukkot, for example) and often passes unnoticed by all but the Orthodox.

We have quite a few fast days on the Jewish calendar throughout the year.  Like many Jews, however, the only one that I observe is the granddaddy of them all, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).  Growing up, however, I attended a very religious Jewish school and was quite observant.  My memories of Tisha B’Av are not the best, which I suppose is fitting, considering the nature of the holiday.  The fast day always fell during summer vacation, so I had to watch for it on the calendar in order to avoid missing the date.  I was aware that it was a day of obligation and that I was expected to fast.  My parents and sisters, however, were nonobservant and had no interest in fasting.  I recall stopping at Dairy Queen with them on a sweltering summer afternoon and then remembering that it was Tisha B’Av and that I was not supposed to indulge.  As I was always obese, my parents didn’t mind a bit that I chose to abstain.  I would stew quietly as I watched them munch their Dilly Bars and ice cream sundaes.

Tragedies, mourning and hope

Tisha B’Av commemorates the date on which both the First and Second Holy Temples, in which we offered daily sacrifices to God as required by the Torah, were each destroyed.  The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians (under King Nebuchadezzar) in 586 B.C. and the Second Temple by the Romans (under the Emperor Titus) on this date in the year 70 A.D.  Other tragedies befell the Jewish people on the same date in later years, including the expulsion of the Jews from England (by King Edward I in 1290) and from Spain in 1492.  The latter event is known as the Alhambra Decree, signed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the very year that their speculative investment bore them vast riches when Columbus discovered the New World.  Interestingly, the Alhambra Decree was not formally revoked until 1968.

As you may imagine, Tisha B’Av is traditionally a day of intense mourning.  The destruction of the Second Temple and the razing of Jerusalem irrevocably changed the face of Jewish life, ushering in the exile (known in Hebrew as the galut) to the Diaspora that continues to this day.  Where we once were unified in the Holy Land given to us by God, our misdeeds resulted in nothing but sorrow and tragedy as we were scattered al arbah kanfot ha’aretz, to the four corners of the earth.  According to Jewish tradition, Moshiakh (the Messiah, Elijah the Prophet) will one day gather the dispersed from even the world’s most remote outposts and return us to Jerusalem where we will rebuild the Holy Temple and once again offer the sacrifices as prescribed by the law.  The Shemonah Esrai (18 prayers) that the observant recite three times daily reiterate our fervent wish for the return of Elijah, as we believe that constant prayers of yearning will hasten the Redemption “speedily in our days.”

Thus, while the theme of Tisha B’Av is certainly one of expressing grief over our losses, it is also tinged with hope for Redemption that we believe may be at hand.  The Torah closet is draped in black and we read verses prophesying doom (from Jeremiah), verses describing catastrophe (from Job) and the entire mournful book of Lamentations.  Yet we balance this with verses from Exodus describing repentance of sin and God’s grant of our request for absolutions.  Finally, we recite 16 verses from Isaiah, beginning with “Seek the Lord when He is found, call Him when He is near.  The wicked shall give up his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts, and he shall return to the Lord.  Who shall have mercy upon him, and to our God, for He will freely pardon.”  Is. 55:6-7  We know that the pain of what has been taken away from us will not last forever and will, in fact, be replaced by the joy of restoration in due time.

Rituals and culture

On Tisha B’Av, many engage in symbolic gestures that, in the Jewish faith, are associated with mourning the death of a loved one:  Ashes, sitting on low benches and refraining from all signs of joy or luxury (even extending to not wearing leather or jewelry).  Weddings, parties and even haircuts are not scheduled on Tisha B’Av or the weeks leading up to it.  From the days of my youth, I recall much cultural ribbing associated with these proscriptions.  For example, I remember my mother singing a Yiddish folk song that began with the verse “The wedding was held on Tisha B’Av and no one came.”  And then there was the Allan Sherman comedy album song (played on my father’s stereo turntable) about lost love that contained the clever rhyme “Oh why did she have to fall in love/I haven’t seen her since Tisha B’Av.”  Before I was old enough to appreciate the solemnity of the day, I remember thinking that both of these were hysterically funny.  At the risk of being sacrilegious, I now realize that injecting a bit of humor into a black situation is a psychological coping mechanism that helps us get past the gloom that is the order of the day.

The prayers and scriptural readings of Tisha B’Av are actually the culmination of a three-week period of solemnity beginning with another fast day, the 17th of Tammuz.  A number of disastrous events befell the Jewish people on that date as well, including Moses’ breaking of the first set of tablets of the law (upon witnessing the worship of the Golden Calf), the end of the offering of sacrifices in the First Holy Temple (due to running out of sheep during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem) and the Roman breach of Jerusalem’s protective walls that led up to the burning of the Second Temple.

The three weeks

The 21-day period between the two fast days is supposed to be a deeply introspective time, during which we reflect upon ways in which we can improve the state of the world through deeds of kindness and charity, and through forgiveness.  We all get caught up in our regular routines, spending our time in fulfilling professional and family responsibilities, and it becomes all too easy to overlook the needs of our community that stare us in the face daily.  Turning a blind eye to our homeless, our poor, our children, our elderly and our lonely is part of the reason that we suffered all the losses that we mourn at this season.  Our only hope of hastening the Redemption is to take assertive action to take care of those who most need us.

This three-week period of mourning that just concluded presages another time of introspection coming up at the end of next month.  The asarah y’mai teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, begin with Rosh Hashannah (Jewish New Year) and end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Informally, we refer to this period as the High Holy Days or, in Hebrew, as yomim noro’im (the Days of Awe).  Tradition holds that this is the time of the year that God judges us on our deeds of the past year and decrees our fate for the coming twelve months.  It is a time of prayer and repentance, of recognizing and confessing to our misdeeds and the needs of others that we ignored.  As many of us do on January 1, on the Jewish New Year we make resolutions for self-improvement.  Rather than focusing on personal goals such as weight loss, smoking cessation or increased fiscal prudence, however, our resolutions are other-directed.  We say in the liturgy that we “afflict our souls,” meaning that we search inside ourselves for the strength and motivation to bring our agendas closer to God’s agenda.  We seek to “avert the severe decree” by changing our ways, by being less selfish, by opening our hearts, our homes and our wallets.

Honoring our Father

While the month of Elul (an Aramaic word meaning “search,” as in “to search our hearts”), the final month of the Jewish calendar, is the direct lead-in to the High Holy Days, one could say that the current month, the month of Av, is the true start of our holiday season.  As we do at Halloween, we realize that the holidays are upon us even though we still have a couple of months to go.

The very name of the month of Av is fraught with meaning.  At its most basic level, av simply means “father.”  Many Christians are more familiar with another Hebrew word for “father,” abba, as the phrase “abba father” is found in many modern Christian hymns and sermons.  However, av is the word for “father” most commonly used in the Torah, perhaps most famously in the Fifth Commandment (kibbud av va’em or “honor thy father and thy mother”).

In our secular tradition, we honor dear old Dad on Father’s Day in June.  In the Jewish tradition, however, we have not just one day, but an entire month to express our appreciation to our av!  While, on one level, this underscores the deep reverence and respect for our parents that is an integral part of Jewish culture, the month of Av is equally dedicated to our Heavenly Father.   Av is a great time of year to increase the attention and affection we bestow upon our parents, or to fondly remember them and ponder the many things we learned from them and the many kindnesses they bestowed upon us.  But Jews the world over also find it an appropriate time to improve our relationship with God, to spend more time studying scripture, to spend more of our discretionary income on charity and less on Starbucks, and to spend more of our energy attending to the needs of our children, our elders and our community.

For the fasts of the 17th of Tammuz, Tisha B’Av, and the big one, Yom Kippur, are rendered meaningless unless our ritual practice spurs us on to action that makes our world a better place in which to live.

The Potty Chair in Heaven

Back when I was still working as a manager, several of my employees who had Spanish surnames and identified with Hispanic culture explained to me that they don’t speak Spanish because their parents never taught them the language.  Wanting their children to succeed in school and in the Anglo culture, their parents abandoned their native tongue and spoke only English at home.  These children grew into adults and regretted having lost a part of their heritage.

One of my employees made an effort to learn Spanish once she began working, but admitted that she’ll never speak the language anywhere near as fluently as she would have had she learned it as a child.  I had other employees who married spouses whose first language was Spanish and learned to speak the mother tongue that way.  Still others were never able to pick up more than a few rudimentary Spanish phrases.  At least one conveyed to me that she feels cheated.

I’m starting to feel the same way about Yiddish.

Granted, I’m one generation removed from where my Hispanic employees were.  My mother’s parents, who emigrated to New York City from eastern Europe in the 1920s, spoke fluent Yiddish, along with German, Polish and some Russian.  They studied English in night school preliminary to taking and passing their citizenship exams.  Once my mom and her sister were born, they spoke only English at home for the same reason that my employees’ Mexican immigrant parents did so.  They wanted their children to become good, successful Americans.

Late at night, after the children went to bed, things were different, however.  My mother would hear her parents having lengthy conversations, even arguments, in Yiddish and Polish.  She remembers my grandmother waking up in the middle of the night and saying something in Polish that sounded like “jestche shitago” (“the baby is crying”) and wondering why she was talking about Chicago.

My father is even one more generation removed from the Old Country.  His parents were born in the Bronx, and he never heard his parents speak any language other than English.

Although my mother’s parents mostly stuck to English when the kids were around, their conversation was peppered with the Yiddish words for those things that they either did not know how to translate to English or that had no exact English equivalent.  I picked up a tiny fraction of these Yiddish words and phrases from my mother as I was growing up.  While I can’t speak Yiddish, I’m grateful that at a least a few of those phrases stuck with me over the years.

Here in northern California, Yiddish is probably more exotic than Afrikaans or Esperanto.  In my native New York City, however, a handful of Yiddish phrases (or English-Yiddish hybrid words sometimes called “yinglish”) have made their way into common parlance.  Some of these eventually became known throughout the country via TV shows such as Seinfeld.  For example, most people in New York (and many more elsewhere) know that tokhes is a Yiddish word for your rear end.

When I was a kid, I would sometimes ask my mother to teach me some Yiddish.  She would comply by explaining the meaning of a few phrases, most of which I would promptly forget.  So it makes no sense to me that I should still remember kick der finster (“look out the window”).  Then there was the time that the entire family broke out in paroxysms of laughter at my attempt to say the word “moon” in Yiddish.  From my religious school education, I was familiar with levana, the Hebrew word for moon, which is often used in Yiddish as well.  Most commonly, however, the phrase telereh in himmel (literally “the plate in the heavens”) is used for “moon” in Yiddish.  Unfortunately, whenever I tried to pronounce this, it came out as tepeleh in himmel, or “the potty chair in heaven.”  I still crack up at the thought of shitting in outer space.

Today, my speech is mostly free of Yiddishisms.  What I’ve noticed, however, is that when I’m under a lot of stress, and particularly when I am visiting with my parents, my flat California accent devolves into Brooklynese and the Yiddish phrases come to my tongue unbidden.  Then there are other times when, from somewhere deep in my subconscious, things that I don’t expect come out of my mouth.  My favorite example of this occurred years ago when I was attending law school and renting a room with kitchen privileges from a woman who had probably never seen a Jew before.  Being a poor student, I was attempting to learn to cook by trial and error, and one day I asked my poor landlord if she had a ribayzin.  She stared at me as if I had lost my mind, and it took me a couple of seconds to realize that I spoken the Yiddish word that I had always used to refer to a hand grater.

My wife, a native of northern California and a Christian, didn’t know a word of Yiddish when we were first married.  Over time, she picked up quite a bit from me, causing me to understand that I still use more than a few Yiddish words that somehow sneak into my vocabulary when I’m not paying attention.  Not only does she know what I mean when I mention a ribayzin, but she herself often refers to schmutz (dirt).

When I get on the phone with my mother, however, all bets are off.  I catch myself referring to situations as fafaln (hopeless) or bashert (fated to be) and garments as being oesgevoxen (outgrown) or oesgekrokhen (the colorful Yiddish word for “threadbare” that literally means “crawled out,” as if the missing fibers had grown little legs and crawled away).  I may refer to a bad joke as schmaltz (the Yiddish idiom for “corny” that literally means “chicken fat”) or my grandniece as a shayna maydele (pretty girl).  If I’m having a pity party due to my current unsuccessful job search, I may intone oy vay is mir (“oh woe is me”).  If I’m upset with someone, I may suggest that he or she is in serious need of a zetz in kopf (smack upside the head).  I may refer to my unemployment check as a lokh foon a baygel (“nothing” — literally “the hole from a bagel”) or bupkes (“a hill of beans” — literally “tiny pieces of shit”).  And if I’m attempting to refer to someone as a senior citizen (not my parents, mind you), I’ll probably call him or her an alter kocker (“old fart”).

Make no mistake, Yiddish contains many earthy, raw, base, even obscene phrases, just as every language does.  Unfortunately, more than a few of these have become fairly well-known.  And let me tell you, some of these are fighting words.  For example, I hear that my mother and my sister recently had a screaming argument over the phone regarding the names of their respective cats.  (Sadly, I’m not kidding.)  My sister claims that my mother’s cat’s name is actually the Yiddish idiom for a certain male body part while my mother claims that my sister’s cat’s name is actually an anti-Semitic ethnic slur for “Jews.”

I try to stay as far away as possible from this kind of stuff.  If I need to get off the phone because it’s late, I might suggest that my mother gay schlufen (“go to sleep”).  But I won’t cast aspersions on anyone’s punim (face), nor will I refer to anyone as a meeskite (ugly) or a mamzer (bastard). 

And I most certainly will not tell anyone to gay in dred (“go to hell”).  I still remember the time, over thirty years ago, when my parents had a three-day fight after my father used that one on my mother.

Tripping Merrily Down Memory Lane: Ah, Summertime!

Rhode Island

Today is the first day of summer, so here is a beachy, bitchy story to the set the mood.  Now what’d I do with my striped umbrella and my Igloo cooler?

I visited with my sister for the first time in two years in Los Angeles last weekend.  The pics of her cats I expected, along with the chatter about her houses (she has one in Idaho and one here in Cali) and the whiny stories about how she is so mistreated at work.

What I didn’t expect was that she would start tripping merrily down Memory Lane.  And what really surprised me is that she focused on relatively pleasant memories.  More common, particularly in the presence of my parents, would be bitter accusations, allegations and general spewing of assorted venom.

You may think I’m exaggerating, but you don’t know my sister.  Her complaints about her childhood could fill volumes.  How she was forced to wear my hand-me-down T-shirts with holes in them, how she was embarrassed because my parents only bought store brand and generic canned goods, how my father allowed my mother to perpetrate all manner of unspeakable horrors while he looked on and did nothing.  And then there’s the famous Chinese jump rope story.

This incident occurred back at Summit Park when she was in Mrs. McCandless’s fourth grade class.  My sister, who was incredibly shy, gained some serious traction in the Great Age 9 Popularity Contest after my parents bought her a Chinese jump rope.  Suddenly, there were plenty of girls who desired her company on the playground.  That is, until said fancy schmantzy jump rope absconded from its home sinside her desk, courtesy of light-fingered parties unknown.

Well, clearly it was not her fault that the coveted plaything was stolen, right?  And so, to this day, Sis sings her plaintive done- me-wrong song, featuring daggered lyrics that place the blame for the return of her social status to that of nonentity squarely on the shoulders of our heartless parents who adamantly refused to lay out more cash to replace the Golden Object.

I think you get the picture.  So I did not expect the conversation to turn to fond memories of our college days.  Sis began explaining that the impetus for her change of major from physics to biology was her inability to understand the Krebs cycle and the unwillingness of her instructor to provide the slightest bit of encouragement.  “It’s really very straightforward.  If you can’t understand it, I don’t know what to tell you.”  And here I thought all these years that she had changed majors due to the sudden death of her faculty advisor.  “Not at all,” she corrected me.  “She was not my mentor.  In fact, she was an alcoholic who showed up to class late and drunk.  They found her dead in her bed.  Now I understand why, when I visited her during office hours, she was always fumbling around for things that she never could quite find.”

After that, we were on a roll.  We began reminiscing about Our Famous, Fantabulous, Freakin’ Amazing Summer at the Beach.  My mother had taken a new job in Rhode Island, and when we went on summer break from college, we were out of our minds with joy at finding that we now lived at Misquamicut Beach.  Two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean.  Close enough to catch a snootful of salt air anytime someone opened the screen door.  Close enough to crack open the windows at night and have the sound of the breakers lull us to sleep.  Close enough to smell the greasy funnel cakes and French fries.  Teenage paradise, baby!

Both my sister and I got jobs right away.  I worked downtown, away from the beach, in the production room of the local daily newspaper.  I was the only male proofreader on the premises.  I also filled in from time to time as typesetter on ancient keyboarding equipment that would  garner sniggers in the twenty-first century.  There was no screen; you had to learn to “read” the holes in the tape you were punching.  But I was a fast typist and, man, could I fly on that infernal contraption!  When I was banging out copy at 120 words per minute, the clatter and clamor of that thing could wake the dead.  I love, love, loved it!

Meanwhile, my sister worked at a beachside snack stand and public shower, spending all day standing over the Fryolator, filling orders for hamburgers, fish fillet sandwiches, fried clams and onion rings.  She came home every day covered in grease spatter, smelling like French fries and grinning from ear to ear.  Last weekend, however, she shared with us a story that I did not know about.  One day, two guys walked into Sis’ little booth and paid for a shower.  Instead of disappearing around the corner, however, they hung around urging my sister to “go into the back room” with them (there was no back room) and generally making lewd suggestions.  When it became clear that these two Neanderthals were not going to take no for an answer, my sister picked up the phone and called the proprietor, the huge Greek guy who also owned the big restaurant next door (the one that had the dining room with a panoramic ocean view that looked for all the world like the waves were going to come crashing right through the picture window).  He came right over, opened the register, returned the creeps’ money and told them to get lost.  “But we have sandy crotches!” they protested.  “I don’t care if you have sandy crotches!  Get the *** out of here!” he yelled.

You gotta love an employer who protects his employees from predatory beach cretins.

We both envied our younger sister, who was still in high school and hence had the good fortune of living at the beach all year long.  Well, sort of good fortune.  Sure, she had lots of friends, a cute boyfriend and unlimited opportunities for partying on the sand.  But she was also the new girl in town.  And she was Jewish.

Little Sister lives in Texas these days and was not present for our LA shindig.  But Big Sister regaled us with forgotten stories about how all was not roses and cherries for Little Sis down by the ocean.  None of the students at Little Sis’ high school had ever seen anyone so exotic as a Jew.  All they knew about Jews was that they didn’t celebrate Christmas, didn’t eat ham and had killed Christ.  Her boyfriend had to take a lot of flak as well.  Some miscreant scrawled “Scott and Jew” on my sister’s locker.

It was all coming back to me as my sister rolled back the years, describing how one of Li’l Sis’ classmates, out of genuine curiosity about Jews, asked her to please part her hair so she could see her horns.

My sister made references to the various beach houses in which we lived, my mother moving us from one to another whenever the landlord raised the rent.  As she described each house, I would punctuate bites of my bagel, cream cheese and lox by yelling out the address.

“There was the big one where you had to sleep on the couch in the living room…”

“59 Shore Road!”

“…and there was the one with the Pachinko machine…”

“81 Montauk Avenue!”

“…and the tiny little one where we didn’t have a phone…”

“5 Third Street!”

It was probably a good thing she stopped short of mentioning the following summer, as then we’d have been talking about 56 Winnapaug Road and the strawberry farm up in Hope Valley and summer school at URI in Kingston and driving lessons in the station wagon and trips to Town Beach and Bee Bee’s Dairy and Awful Awfuls at Newport Creamery and Bess Eaton Donuts and Vocatura’s Pizza . . .

Have a wonderful, sandy, dandy and safe summer, everyone!

 

A Forgotten Festival

Shavuot

This week we celebrate the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks.  As one of the shalosh regalim, the Three Festivals, it is one of the most important holidays of the year.  So I don’t understand why, in many quarters, the occasion passes by with barely a notice.

Shavuot is also known in English as Pentecost because it occurs fifty days after the start of Passover.  It is traditional to engage in the Counting of the Omer, in which each night is numbered and counted, starting on the night of the second Passover Seder.

Shavuot commemorates the Lord’s giving of the Law (matan Torah) on Mount Sinai in the wilderness.  Passover is the festival of freedom, at which time we remember how God, with miraculous acts, freed the Jews from slavery at the hands of the cruel Pharaohs of Egypt.  The Lord emancipated us so that we could become His chosen people, taking His law into our hearts to be an example to all the nations.

But first we had to learn God’s law.  As if the Ten Plagues in Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea weren’t enough evidence of God’s love for us, He further demonstrated His love by presenting the gift of the Law to us personally.  The Book of Exodus tells us that the Lord appeared in a thick cloud above Mount Sinai, amidst thunder, lightning, loud Shofar (trumpet) blasts and the mountain smoking.  All the Jewish nation gathered for the occasion, but the people were warned to keep their distance from the foot of the mountain lest they die.  We didn’t have to be told twice; with the earth quaking and the mountain on fire, we were understandably very frightened.

Finally, Moses was permitted to go up the mountain and bring back the Ten Commandments to the people.

Receiving the Law has often been singled out as the defining moment of our nationhood.  We were ex-slaves, wanderers in the desert, who only then acquired the unity and dignity required of a nation.  Our commitment to living a godly life is the glue that has held us together from Sinai to the present day.

With the acceptance of the Ten Commandments as the culmination of our history to that time (some would say ever), it is no wonder that the event occasions great anticipation that takes the form of counting the days from Passover.

Between the excitement leading up to the event and the awesome demonstration of the Lord’s power at the moment of the law giving, it is surprising to me that Shavuot is not a more widely celebrated holiday.  Among Orthodox Jews in the United States, the festival consists of two days of prayer in the synagogue, abstinence from work and enjoyment of wonderful holiday meals.  In Israel, Shavuot is a known and recognized holiday.  But among the Conservative, Reformed and other Jewish movements in America, Shavuot seems to be almost a forgotten holiday, not widely marked in the course of our workaday lives.  Each year, I have to look up the date of the holiday just to mark the occasion.

I think part of the answer to this enigma is that, as dramatic an occasion as the law giving was, today Shavuot lacks the pageantry of Passover, the High Holidays or even Sukkot.  Unlike Passover, we don’t clean our homes like crazy for weeks, then hold two Seders steeped in age-old ritual and accented with unusual foods.  Shavuot is not a fast day like Yom Kippur, nor do we blow the Shofar as we do on Rosh Hashannah.  We don’t decorate the Sukkah booth and shake the lulav and esrog.  In fact, other than reading the Book of Ruth and eating dairy foods, there aren’t a lot of special traditions associated with Shavuot that would make the holiday stand out.

If Shavuot is the ugly duckling of festivals, perhaps it is time that we bring it back to its rightful place of glory.  Perhaps we need to develop a new tradition, a standout minhag, that would appeal to children and adults alike.  As special an event as Shavuot is, we ought to figure out a way to show just how important it is to the history and future of our people.

Then again, perhaps the momentousness of the occasion is enough to make Shavuot stand out on its own.  Anything more would be gilding the lily.