Three Visits With My Parents

Mahzor

Have prayer book, will travel . . .

Among the effects of having one’s children early is that when you’re old and would like your kids to take care of you, they’ll be old, too.  Granted, they won’t be as old as you are, but old nevertheless.  As in you’ll be able to go out to eat together and both of you will get the senior discount.  Both of you will be getting Social Security checks in the mail.  I mean, think about it.  When you’re 85, they’ll be 65.

I visited my parents three times during the month of September.  That’s a total of 18 hours of driving.  The first time was a birthday party for my wife’s little niece.  Then came Rosh Hashannah.  And finally, Yom Kippur.

My parents are 83 years old and they don’t go to synagogue anymore.  My father never went to synagogue to begin with (being somewhere on the agnostic/atheist spectrum) and my mother has had some type of falling out with the synagogue she had been attending.  There are three synagogues in her area, and she finds them all to be money-grubbing.  I am inclined to agree.  I appreciate the need of a synagogue to pay the light bill and the expenses of keeping up the building, not to mention the cost of running its programs, but the strong-arm tactics that they use to squeeze money out of attendees are a bit much.  These days, many synagogues have financial directors who want to see your tax returns to determine how much you earn and to calculate how much you should be paying toward support of the congregation.  It has become fairly standard in the United States for synagogues to charge non-members hefty fees for attending High Holy Day services.  And even organizations like Chabad that claim never to require payment of participants hold an endless round of dinners and speakers before or after services, requesting that attendees pay hefty fees for attendance.  Disclosure:  I do support one of our local Chabad congregations and, frankly, I’m getting sick of their constant emails begging for money.

In my mother’s case, the discomfort engendered by this situation is exacerbated by the fact that she drags my reluctant father with her every time she attends synagogue.  This is mostly because my mother doesn’t drive anymore (she’s perfectly capable, but has chosen to have my car-loving father do all the driving for the past 20 years or so), but also because she won’t go anywhere alone.  She says it makes her feel like a widow.  (In some respects, she is.  My father won’t admit that he’s lost a large part of his hearing, which has already resulted in some dangerous situations in which he could not hear my mother calling him.  Also, they sit in separate rooms and do their own things most of the time.)

At age 83, my parents seem to feel that they are at the stage of life when they can pretty much say whatever they want without consequences.  This has borne some interesting results.  It has caused a number of ugly moments between Mom and my wife, for example.  And when it comes to synagogue, my father, a nonbeliever, feels compelled to comment on the rabbi’s teachings or even challenge them outright.  The rabbi’s young son doesn’t help the situation by running out of the sanctuary to loudly announce to his mother “He’s at it again!”

Patio

On the patio at Mom and Dad’s.  Notice the hummingbird at the feeder.

My mother says she’s tired of “getting it from both ends” (the rabbi and my father).  Under the circumstances, I don’t blame her for passing on synagogue attendance.  For both Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, I made the trip down to the Central Valley, mahzor (prayer book) in hand and held my own little service for Mom’s benefit.  On Rosh Hashannah, we did this at the kitchen table (with my uninterested father sitting out on the patio), and on Yom Kippur, outdoors.  The weather was fine (unlike the freezing cold temperatures that we remember from High Holidays of yore on the east coast) and we got to watch the hummingbirds at the feeder and the sheep next door while we atoned for our sins and prayed for forgiveness.  It was a kick to get my cantorial singing voice on and, all told, it was a rather moving experience to spend this time with Mom.  I can’t help but wonder how many more opportunities I will have to do this.

Sheep

Mom had a large container full of salad that was past its prime, so I got to feed the sheep next door.  There were only three rams and the entire flock of ewes was pregnant.  Baaaa!

The weekend after Rosh Hashannah, still hanging out at my parents’ house, Mom decided to lay a heavy on me by providing instructions for her burial.  This is not as simple as it sounds.  She wants to be laid to rest with her parents at the family plot in New York City.  My wife and I visited the graves of my grandparents there both this year and last during two trips to the eastern seaboard.  Two plots occupied, six more vacant.  It was hard not to think of a time when two more plots will be occupied.  I now know that my mother wishes to be buried directly in front of her mother.  I also know which funeral home to use, as well as a little about what must be done to fly a body from Fresno to LaGuardia.  Uh, um, I guess I wasn’t really ready for this.  But guess what, it looks like the time has arrived for me to grow up and face the facts.  My parents aren’t going to be around forever.

Perhaps the most intriguing factor in this little drama is the uncertainty involved.  Will Dad go first?  He keeps pointing out that, statistically, the husband usually dies before the wife.  My mind fills with pictures of supporting a grief-stricken Mom on a cross-country flight, preceded by taking a screamer down the 99 in the middle of the night when we get the news.  How fast can we throw a week’s worth of clothes in a suitcase?  Yikes.  And then, what would become of Mom?  She doesn’t want to live all alone in that big house way out where the cattle graze on the rangeland.  There is no room for her to live with us in our rented tiny house, where my wife and I are barely able to keep from tripping over one another.  She could always go live with one of my sisters (either the one in the Bay Area or the one in Boston), which I know would not be a particularly pleasant experience for her.  She wants me to retire so my wife and I can come live in her house and take care of her.  Let’s just say that this is unlikely.  There are too many reasons to count.

But what if Mom went first and Dad were left all alone?  He is a loner by nature and probably wouldn’t mind being in that house by himself.  But he doesn’t cook and, despite everything, I suspect that he’d be horribly lonely.  My wife and I were discussing this recently and we agreed that he probably wouldn’t live long if Mom went first.

Let us not forget that there is, at least from my perspective, a third scenario.  As I started off this post my mentioning, when you have children early, they get old right along with you.  I am no spring chicken myself.  Nor am I in the best of health.  What if I shuffle off this mortal coil before my parents do?  My wife knows that I am adamant about being buried here in California rather than having my dead body dragged across the country to a final resting place in (ick) Queens.  (My sisters don’t want to be buried there either, with the likely result that the remaining four plots will remain unoccupied for the next hundred years or so.)  But what of my parents then?  My father, who has long since informed me that if I die he will never forgive me (?), might not last long due to grief.  Perhaps the same is true of Mom.  I certainly hope not, but there it is.  I suppose my sisters will be particularly angry with me for dying when they realize that they now have to deal with Mom and Dad.  I giggle thinking of this.

Sigh.  The whole situation brings on a feeling not unlike that of an impending train wreck that cannot be avoided.  We are clearly heading down that track and all I can do is close my eyes and hold on tight.  I keep telling my parents that, considering their relatively good health, there is no reason that they should not live to 100.  I seriously hope they do.  I figure that things will eventually fall into place, one way or another.

In the meantime, my parents solicited my assistance in planning a celebration in honor of their 65th wedding anniversary.  Sixty-five years of fussin’ and fightin’.  Sixty-five years of bickering and cussin’.  (Mom is bewildered that Dad goes around muttering “Shit!” and “Pain in the ass!” under his breath all day, failing to realize that he is referring to, um, her.)  Their anniversary date is Christmas Eve, just 78 days from this evening.  My sister and her husband are expected to be in California for other reasons around that time, so we’re hoping to arrange for all of us to be together.  We are planning to split the festivities into two parts.  One part will be with my sisters and some of the grandkids near my parents’ home in the Central Valley.  The other part will be with my wife’s family near our home in Sacramento (most of them live 40 to 80 miles north of here).  They are thinking of having a dinner at a Golden Corral, a family buffet place just down the street from us.  They want streamers and balloons.  And invitations.  Thoughts of printing costs and hand calligraphy flashed through my pea brain before I broke the news to Mom about a little thing called Facebook Events.  She knows we do most things electronically these days, but doesn’t want to know about it.  Fine, whatever works, she says.

By the way, I have been trying to convince my parents to purchase iPhones.  They have pre-paid cell phones, although they don’t know how to use most of the features (neither do I).  I think I made my best pitch yet when we were discussing the anniversary party.  Mom says she doesn’t know when it will be held exactly, as she doesn’t know when the school at which my sister teaches will be on vacation.  It’s a Jewish school, so she thought that Sis might be off during Hanukkah rather than around Christmas.  My sister recently moved from Dallas to Boston, so I am not aware of her current employer.  “What school is that?” I asked Mom.  She didn’t know either.  So I whipped out my phone, Googled Jewish day schools in Boston, and checked out a couple of links before Sis’ pic popped up on her school’s website.  Then it was just a matter of clicking around a bit to find the school calendar.  You’re in luck, Mom, she’s off between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

My parents were appropriately impressed by what can be done with a smart phone — at least enough to allow me to show them the simple icons and the ease of accessing features.  “We’d never use most of that stuff,” my mother protested.

Guess what you’re getting for your anniversary, Mom and Dad!

 

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Passover Food Challenges

With the eight days of Passover starting Monday night, I find myself feeling a bit nostalgic.  I first led a Seder, the traditional family dinner at which we recite the story of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, at the age of six.  Neither of my parents were able to read the Hebrew and Aramaic from the Haggadah, and I had already been attending an Orthodox Jewish school for two years.  We hold two Seders, on each of the first two nights of the eight-day holiday, and I have attended at least one nearly every year of my life.

This year will be an exception.  I thought about driving four hours to visit my parents and attend a Seder at their synagogue, but that would have required me to take two to three days off work.  I could attend a communal Seder at one of the area synagogues, but even then I’d have to take at least a day off work.  The Seder can’t start until sundown, and usually lasts until well past midnight.  That makes it tough to get up for work at 4:30 in the morning.  So I will have to skip the Seder this year, although that doesn’t mean that I will “pass over Passover.”  The holiday comes with many dietary restrictions and I plan to honor as many as I am able.

As bad as I feel about not attending a Seder, the whole matzo situation makes it even worse.  Matzo is the traditional crackerlike flatbread that we eat for eight days to remind us of the unleavened bread pulled abruptly off the hot rocks of Egypt before the loaves had time to rise when the Jews were thrust out into the wilderness without a moment’s notice.  Granted, it gets old after four or five days, but I know I will miss it.  Made of only wheat and water and baked for less than seven minutes, it’s not a food for the gluten-sensitive.  Sure, I could order an expensive box of gluten-free matzo online, but it wouldn’t be made of wheat and therefore wouldn’t satisfy the ritual requirement of the mitzvah.  So what’s the point?

At the Seder, we eat many traditional foods, including a green vegetable (always celery in my family) dipped in salt water, super hot horseradish, and the delicious haroseth (apples and walnuts chopped up fine, seasoned with cinnamon and a dollop of grape wine).  We drink four cups of wine or grape juice.  And then there is the dinner, which at my parents’ house always included hard boiled eggs (dipped in the salt water left over from the celery), chicken soup with matzo ball dumplings, gefilte fish (cold fish patties with salty fish jelly), homemade borscht (beet soup, usually served cold) and then meat, potatoes, carrots and dessert.  My mom usually served homemade applesauce before we put the tea on to boil and broke out the honey cake and coconut macaroons.  It’s hard to leave a Seder without being utterly stuffed.

Of course, as a vegan, I no longer eat most of these things.  And being gluten-free clearly does not help the situation.  Traditionally, on Passover we eat no bread, corn, rice, cereal, pasta, legumes or anything that might become leavened.  This means no corn, including any prepared item containing corn syrup.  It means no beans, including soybeans, which means no tofu.  In other words, most of my vegan protein sources are off-limits for the next eight days.  Most Passover desserts contain dairy, eggs or both, so those are out for vegans.  It makes an already difficult holiday just this side of bearable.

So what do observant Jews eat during Passover?  Lots of meat and fish, lots of eggs and lots of dairy.  Good luck, vegans.  We do eat fruit and some types of vegetables.  In my case, I go through many pounds of potatoes and carrots, plus some eggplant, zucchini, spinach, broccoli and mushrooms, and lots of salad.  My favorite fake burgers, made of pea protein, are out.  So is my fake cheese and anything made with vinegar (think mustard, salad dressing, pickles, olives, hot sauce).  I flavor everything with black pepper, garlic and lemon.  I eat lots of plums, apples, bananas and citrus.

In the old days, my Passover breakfast might be cottage cheese with fruit and matzo with cream cheese or fried eggs or matzo brei (pieces of matzo dipped in egg and fried).  Now, it’s potatoes.  In the old days, my Passover lunch would typically involve tuna on buttered matzo and hard boiled eggs with maybe a slice or two of tomato.  Now, it’s potatoes.  Maybe with some carrots or plain salad with lemon.  Very boring and largely protein-free.  I try to remember to eat spinach or broccoli each day, as they each contain a small amount of protein.

My mother has always referred to Passover as “a hard holiday.”  However, the difficulties are tempered by many delicious traditional foods and lots of Passover sweets.  None of those benefits accrue to those eating a vegan, gluten-free diet.  True, you can be creative, particularly if you cook.  I don’t.  I am highly fortunate that my wife is willing to boil pounds of potatoes and roast vegetables in the oven for me.

And yet here I am, with Passover not yet begun, already looking forward to the holiday being over.  I suppose I should look at the bright side.  Perhaps I will gain an improved perspective on the hardships faced by my ancestors who, having escaped slavery due to the Lord splitting the Red Sea, wandered in the desert for forty years.

Eight days seems mighty reasonable by comparison.

 

Hamantashen? Not This Year

hamentaschen

We’re just a couple of weeks away from Passover and eight days of matzo, but I’m still thinking about Purim, now a few weeks in the rear view mirror.

 Several years ago, not long after I began writing this blog, I marveled at my amazing good fortune at having hamantashen show up in the break room at work around Purim time.  I had been craving these little jam-filled triangular cookies, probably owing more to nostalgia than to their flavor.  But there I was, working out in the desert, feeling exiled to the Diaspora as only a Jew can.

I’m fairly sure I was the only Jew in our little Colorado River town, and the last thing I expected was that anyone would have ever heard of hamantashen, much less have known where to get some.  I knew I could find something resembling the prune, apricot or cherry filled treats that I associated with the reading of the biblical Book of Esther each spring, if only I had the will to make the four-hour round trip to Palm Springs or the five-hour drive to Phoenix and back.  Granted, they wouldn’t be the same as the buttery pastries I remember from Pakula’s Bakery, now long gone mainstay of my hometown of Spring Valley, New York, but any facsimile would do in a pinch.  And I felt like pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming when a package of hamantashen showed up on the round table in our break room.  As if out of thin air, an answer to prayer, were they really there?  Yes, I answered with the first taste.  Supermarket variety, to be sure, but it felt like a care package from home, shlach manot.  They turned out to be a gift to the staff from a former manager, now retired, who knew nothing of Purim when she picked up some cookies at a supermarket over in Indio.  It felt like nothing short of a Purim miracle.

Here in Sacramento, hamantashen are available at several retail stores.  And yet the irony is that, this Purim, I tasted none.  As it turned out, there are things other than miles that would distance me from hamantashen.  The bottom line is that when you’re vegan, gluten-free and have to watch your sugar intake, special holiday foods cannot be taken for granted, even when they are readily available.

I pondered whether, with the right ingredients and a bit of ingenuity, it might be possible to create hamantashen that would satisfy my food limitations.  Vegan margarine could easily substitute for butter, and a little oil or applesauce for an egg.  There are plenty of artificial sweeteners out there.  But what of the flour?  Could hamantashen be made of rice flour, almond flour or amaranth?

Yes! Turns out that, a fee years back, April Peveteaux over at Gluten is My Bitch posted a yummy-looking recipe for gluten-free, dairy-free hamantashen.  Sub applesauce for the eggs, bring out the Sweet ‘N Low or Splenda, use sugar-free jam for the filling, and I would venture to say we’re there. I don’t bake, but I hope someone will try it out and let me know whether it’s worth the effort.

I found another such recipe courtesy of Lisa Rose at realfoodkosher.com. She suggests using a combination of rice and almond flour and substituting coconut oil for butter.

And then I found a hamantashen recipe that is not only vegan and gluten-free, but also free of refined sugar (it calls for maple syrup), as well as this one that uses agave nectar.

Anyone want to make me some hamantashen?  Must be gluten-free and vegan.  I should have asked my mother-in-law.  She made me a batch a few years ago and they were some of the best I’ve ever eaten.

Short of homemade, however, I suppose these are my favorites, if only because I don’t have to prepare them.  At about a dollar an ounce, the price seems fairly reasonable.  The only time I ever ordered hamantashen through the mail, they came mostly broken, including more crumbs than I knew what to do with.  But those were “fresh” bakery-style, not packaged, so I suppose the result was to be expected.

I guess there’s not too much that you can’t buy online these days.  Maybe next year, eh?

Growing Up Jewish and Racist

My wonderful wife has a heart of gold. After all the years we’ve been married, she still amazes me. For one thing, she cares deeply for people. For another, she has an intuitive understanding of others that’s almost scary. Words will come out of her mouth that are dead-on perfect while I’m still muddling through my feelings and trying to figure out what’s really going on.

Like last week, for example. We were having lunch in a nearby restaurant on Saturday afternoon. I started chattering about police-involved shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement when my wife’s comment stopped me in my tracks. “Am I the only one who feels like walking up to a black person and apologizing?” she asked.

No, my dear, you’re not. That’s exactly how I feel, though I hadn’t been able to define it. And I suspect there are a lot of us white folks out there who feel the same way.

I can hear the criticism now. “Feel sorry for what? I didn’t do anything to them.” Well, there has to be a collective sense of guilt. For referring to those with a different skin color as “them,” for one thing. There is no “them.” There is only “us.” An injustice done to one is an injustice done to all. We are all connected.

Each Passover, observant Jews read the Haggadah’s warning that he who fails to acknowledge his freedom from slavery on the grounds that he was never personally a slave to the ancient Egyptians is a sinner who, had he lived in Egypt in those times, would not have been deemed worthy to be redeemed.  Dare we ignore our brothers’ legacy of slavery and their continued oppression and marginalization in modern times?  We do so at our peril.

This puts me in mind of the prejudices deeply instilled in me during my upbringing. Trust me, these early influences are extremely difficult to overcome. Intellectually, of course, I know better. But it is frightening how those preconceived notions continue to sit there in my subconscious, waiting for the right moment to invade a split-second thought.

I grew up in a lily white suburban neighborhood where I rarely encountered anyone who looked different than I did. Segregated neighborhoods resulted in de facto segregated schools. Oh yeah, also the teachers all were white. And this was in New York, not Mississippi!

I attended a very large junior high and I don’t think there were ten black kids in the whole danged school. They must have lived right on the district line. The only black kid I remember was named Leroy (hanging my head in shame) and he was constantly in trouble. I watched him set a fire in the boys’ room once.

At home, blacks were schvartzers (or worse, if my parents were angry). The Yiddish word just means “blacks,” but was always uttered in a tone dripping with contempt. By the time I was five years old, I knew that a vast chasm stood between “us” and the schvartzers.

Us: People of the Book. Value education.
Them: People of the Street. Can’t speak English properly.

Us: Doctors, lawyers, accountants.
Them: Maids, cooks, janitors.

Us: Married with two children.
Them: Single women with five kids by different daddies.

Us: Hard-working. Law-abiding.
Them: On Welfare. Criminals.

Us: Sip of wine in synagogue.
Them: Bottle of wine in a paper bag on the street corner.

Us: Kosher
Them: Hazer (pig) lovers

Us: Academic track. College bound.
Them: Detention, suspension, things too horrible to mention.

Us: Success.
Them: Failure.

I learned early on to stay as far away from the schvartzers as possible because they were no-good troublemakers. They would steal your money, beat you up and kill you.

I am crying as I write this.

There is no pennance I can do that would begin to atone for the hate instilled in my heart when I was a kid. Al het shakhatanu… For the sin which we have committed. The sin of hate, for which there is no forgiveness.

Can hate and fear be unlearned?  Can I forget my father’s ugly racial slurs, cruel jokes, imitations?  Can I replace these memories with love and blot out that evil forever?

And then I went to high school and the world changed overnight. It was 1973 and we were now integrated. Uh, sort of.

A lot of the seniors were still hippies with their faded denim jackets, ripped jeans, flower decals, beads, peace sign chains, pot smoke. The school was beyond capacity, bursting at the seams courtesy of the baby boom. And a few hundred of us were black. (I hadn’t yet heard the term “Hispanic.” Oh, you mean Puerto Ricans?)

The school district was heavily into tracking. The extent of one’s exposure to teens of another race largely depended on one’s track. “B” class? (Remedial level) Nearly all black. “O” class? (Average track) About 3 whites for every black. Advanced placement or honors class? Lily white.

Well, everyone has to eat. The cafeteria, you would expect, would be the great equalizer. You would be wrong.

The student newspaper denounced the lunchroom’s “invisible line.” The white kids sat on one side, the black kids on the other. I thought it was just plain dumb. No one dared cross over to the “wrong” side. This self-imposed racial segregation was accepted by most of us as an ironclad rule that could not be violated. I don’t recall any brave soul from either camp ever attempting to break down this barrier.

After a year and a half of accepting without understanding, my mother took a job an hour and a half away and I found myself in another giant high school, this one on the edge of farm country. White as the January snow. I learned what an evangelical Christian is. They learned what a Jew is. I came to the conclusion that being different just wasn’t worth it. I stopped wearing a yarmulke when I ate my tuna sandwich in the cafeteria. I joined the chorus and figured out that it wouldn’t kill me if I sang a song with the word “Jesus” in the lyrics. But the impromptu prayer meetings after school was where I drew the line. So I was never a real native, even though most of the time I could pretend. What if my skin were black? Would I have been able to blend in then? And would I have been welcomed at the prayer meetings?

Flash forward to the present. My efforts at color blindness have met with mixed success. I say “mixed” because there are so many interracial relationships now that I often couldn’t make a racial identification of a particular individual if I tried. I am far more interested in what a person knows and what someone can do than I am in what he or she looks like.

Case in point: My family has become a melting pot. (Whispering: And I love it.). My twice-divorced sister-in-law had married two Hispanic men. We have a lot of fully and partially Hispanic nieces and nephews as a result. They all grew up and many of them got married, to spouses of every race, skin color and cultural background. So when we attend our grandniece’s third birthday party (Hispanic mom and African-American dad), we know there will be a piñata, hard core rap music, and American burgers and hot dogs on the grill.

We all need to be involved in narrowing the cultural chasm, the racial divide instilled in me as a child that I continue to struggle to overcome. I see my landlord as a role model. He and his wife are Ukrainian-Americans. His wife emigrated as a child. He owns his own business and rents us a house that he built with his own hands. They home school their children, attend a Russian church, speak excellent Spanish and hire employees of every race and culture. If the American Dream still exists, surely this is it.

I was disappointed recently when I read about how a “Black Lives Matter” posting on an employee white board (!) at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park was crossed off and replaced with “All Lives Matter.”

Really? With the epic gun violence and shocking murder rate in our country, I am led to believe that life is cheap. It’s hard to believe that “all lives matter” when the pettiest slight will get you shot and no one seems to care if you live or die.

So all lives matter, eh? Do white-skinned people have to worry about racial profiling? Do white-skinned people have to worry about being automatically thought of as criminals? Do white-skinned people have to suffer the indignities of serving as the butt of tasteless jokes based on racist stereotypes? Do white-skinned people resign themselves to being shooting targets for the cops? Do white-skinned people have to live life knowing that many consider them utterly disposable due to their appearance alone?

I was relieved that Mark Zuckerberg chastised his staff for crossing off the “Black Lives Matter” sign. Insisting that “all lives matter” diminishes the pain and suffering experienced by African-Americans. The aggressor is not entitled to share in sympathy extended toward the victim. And don’t tell me that you never did anything to “them,” that what happened to “them” is not your fault. Let me say it again: There is no them! There is only us!

We’re all responsible for this horrible mess. I bristle when I hear the words “check your privilege,” but it’s true! I enjoy white privilege that my darker-skinned brethren will never have. And although I can’t undo that, I can only hope that this privilege will erode through a combination of education, exposure and cultural melting. For it is only then that our nation’s ideal of E. Pluribus Unum will become a reality: Out of many, one.

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.

 

 

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.