Month: September 2015

L’Shana Tova

September is the beginning of the fall season. When I lived in the Midwest and the calendar turned the page to September, I looked forward to the beautiful fall colors, cool breezes and a return to pursuits I had left behind in June. For me and for Jews around the world, September also means the High Holy Days are approaching.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is first. Jewish families attend services and listen to the blowing of the shofar. We spend time with family and friends, getting together to enjoy traditional foods such as chicken soup, brisket and honey cake. We wish each other L’shana Tova, a good year. Ten days later, we meet at the synagogue for Yom Kippur, a time for fasting, introspection and forgiveness, both for our own misdeeds and those of others. We pray for a good year for ourselves, family and friends.

Although my husband and I both grew up in more conservative homes, we have been Reform Jews for most of our married life. We have grown used to services that are primarily in English and usually not more than two hours long. This year, our synagogue is searching for a new rabbi and an interim rabbi presided. It quickly became obvious that he must be conservative. The service included more Hebrew and didn’t skip a page! It was three hours before we heard the Shofar blown and finally arrived at the last page in the prayer book. On the way home, my husband and I compared this service to the ones of our childhood and we reminisced about the High Holidays in our small towns.

B’nai Abraham, the synagogue of my childhood, was located in Virginia, Minnesota, a small iron ore mining city 200 miles from Minneapolis. Over the years, the congregation ranged from 50 to 70 Jewish families. In our home, preparation for the High Holidays began a month before when my mother would (literally) haul me to Duluth, the nearest big city, to shop both for school clothes and a few special outfits for the High Holidays. Our first stop after the 60 mile drive was usually a visit with Cousin Minnie who lived on one of the impossibly hilly streets in the city. She always served us drinks and sweets and I would sit quietly, wondering if the house was going to slip its moorings and we would go tumbling down the hill to the bottom of the street.

Our next stop was Oreck’s, the department store in downtown Duluth which was, thankfully, on a level street nearer to Lake Superior. My mother would deposit me in a dressing room while she roamed the store, looking for appropriate clothing for me to wear to synagogue. Sulking, I would try them on, rejecting every outfit until she finally made the decision for me and we could move on to the hat department. In those days, hats were fashionable and a head-covering was imperative at the synagogue so I usually ended up with a small pillbox hat that languished on the shelf in my closet for the rest of the year – until another one joined it the following September.

Once the clothes were hung safely in our closets, the kitchen became the hub of activity. My mother worked hard to produce traditional meals for her family, not an easy job since she had been raised in an orphanage and had learned to cook as a new bride. The recipes for all the traditional dishes had been passed down with love from my aunts and cousins who had probably inherited them from the previous generation.

Chicken soup simmered, honey cake sweetened the air, potato kugel baked until it was covered with a crisp, crunchy top layer. My mother made her own noodles for the chicken soup, kneading the dough, rolling it out into impossibly thin layers before cutting it into long skinny strips. The strips were laid out to dry on a floured sheet that covered our dining room table for several days. We lived in an apartment above our grocery store and to this day, I wonder if the enticing smells that drifted down the steps increased sales during the Jewish holidays.

On Rosh Hashanah eve, my father and brother went to services and the women (my mother and I) waited at home, setting the table and getting the meal ready for their return. The next morning, we were all expected to attend services, but once I was in my teens, I procrastinated as long as possible. Finally I would give up and put on the new wool plaid skirt, cashmere sweater, nylons, patent leather black shoes, and pill box hat and go out the door into a 75 degree September day. We lived two blocks away so I could walk by myself, leaving as late into the morning as possible.

Built like a traditional European synagogue, the building had a balcony which was originally where the women sat. By the time I came along, the balcony was only used by children looking for a place to giggle, whisper and escape the service below them. But downstairs, many families still used the traditional seating. My father, brother, uncles and male cousins sat in the first two or three rows to the left of the bema. The men of other families who had been in Virginia since the synagogue was built in the early 1900’s, had inherited other front row seats. The women, children (and a few younger men) sat in the middle and back rows. I always sat in the back and as close to the door as possible for a quick escape route.

Sometimes during the High Holidays, our small congregation would hire a student rabbi from another city to lead the service. But most of the time, services were led by Sam Jaffe, an older member of the congregation who had the most knowledge of Hebrew and of the service itself. The men stood on the small bema, davening and praying, all on a different page. I never understood Hebrew and had no idea what the service was about so my main preoccupation was usually how long it would be before I could leave. I would give my mother hopeful looks every ten minutes, waiting for that moment when she would give up, take an exasperated breath and favor me with a nod of her head. And I was off, down the street and running for home, anxious to take off the new clothes that were sticking to my back and scratching my legs.

One year, when I opened the large double doors of the synagogue to go outside, I was surprised to find many of the men of the congregation standing on the steps, huddled around a transistor radio broadcasting one of the games of the World Series. Prayer had been superseded by a baseball game.

On Rosh Hashanah afternoons, we usually went to Aunt Bess and Uncle Carl’s home, located in the second story of a large house just far enough away for us to take the car. The living room was usually crowded, every chair taken by my aunts, uncles and cousins. The children sat on the floor, leaning against their elders’ legs. I always gravitated to the dining room table, groaning with home baked Rosh Hashanah goodies. A core of women (my mother included) stayed close to the kitchen, making coffee, cutting cakes and washing dishes as they appeared. My most indelible memory of those Rosh Hashanah afternoons is the pungent smell of my Uncle Carl’s cigar which, to my memory, was always in his mouth. To this day, I love the smell of cigars.

Yom Kippur came ten days later. In our home, we ate a traditional meal before the Kol Nidre service, but when we finished, we were expected to fast until dinner the next evening. As usual, my family would leave for services by nine the next morning and I would follow several hours later. At services, I kept my eyes on my father and when he got up to leave around noon, I would follow him. At home, I usually found him in front of the refrigerator, door open – my signal that it was okay to eat. My mother would yell at both of us but Dad would wink at me and I knew it was okay.

When I left home and went to college in Minneapolis, a friend invited me to attend a Reform Sabbath service with him. I was surprised to find that most of it was in English. I could read the words and understand what was happening. But even then, my friend had to explain much of it and tell me when to stand. Understanding the service made it much more meaningful and I realized that, even though I had grown up in a unique Jewish environment that I would always treasure, I felt more at home in a Reform synagogue where the prayer books and rituals were also in English. I finally could comprehend the services and the underlying meaning of our holidays. I already knew what it meant to be Jewish from a cultural perspective and now I was learning what it meant to be Jewish from an educational perspective. I believe my grandparents, parents and aunts and uncles would approve.

With loving remembrance to my grandparents, Charles and Jenny; my parents, Paul and Sophie; Uncle Carl and Auntie Bessie; Uncle Fred and Auntie Ann; Uncle Chaim and Auntie Pia.

 

Help! I’m stranded in the Philippines.

 

When I turned my cell phone back on after my dentist appointment, it rang immediately. It was my husband calling to tell me our house phone had been ringing constantly for the past hour. A swell of anxiety crept up my neck. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Have you checked your email lately?” he asked.

I clicked on my mail and a long line of new messages appeared. They were all forwards from friends and had “Greetings!” in the subject line. The first sentence was always some version of “I got the following email from you. It looks like you’ve been hacked.” The rest of the email consisted of the following (reprinted in its exact form):

I really hope you get this fast. I could not inform anyone about my trip to Davao, Philippines. Am in Philippines to see my ill cousin she is suffering from Kidney disease and must undergo Kidney transplant to save her life the condition is critical.

Kidney transplant is very expensive here, so I want to transfer her back home to have the surgery implemented. I really need to take care of this now but my credit card won’t work here. I traveled with little money due to the short time I had to prepare for this trip and never expected things to be the way it is right now. I need a loan of $2, 950 USD from you and I’ll reimburse you at my return. I will really appreciate whatever amount you can come up with. If not, get back to me. I’ll advise on how to transfer it.

Jean

My first reaction was relief that everyone in our family and many of our friends were not only all right, but smart enough to know a hoax when they see it. My second reaction was how wonderfully funny the email was. I would definitely give the hacker kudos for creativity and chutzpah! But I think anyone who knows me also knows I don’t have a cousin in the Philippines. And I would never capitalize the word “kidney” unless it was in a title or the first word of a sentence. (Okay, maybe they wouldn’t notice this) Add to this the fact that my husband is a physician who would certainly know about kidney disease and would be in close contact, if not traveling with me, on the trip.

So I was feeling pretty certain that no-one I knew would send money to the Philippines. Then I got an e mail from a high school friend who moderates a “Classmates” blog for the men and women from my high school class. She had heard from several people who were concerned about me. I had not been in touch with them for many years so they knew nothing about my present circumstances. And then I understood how this plea for money could be effective.

Almost everyone who called and emailed suggested that I change all my passwords. So I got to work. First there was the internet search engine; then my email and finally, my blog. With my husband’s help, I managed the first two but the blog threw me. Every time I tried to change it, I would get the wrong message. Finally, I checked my handy notebook of important phone numbers and called the help desk. Two hours later, my helper gave up and sent me an e mail with step-by-step directions on changing my password. I really didn’t blame him; he wasn’t the first help desk to give up on me. Then I called my in-house help desk: my husband. He was in the next room and couldn’t very well walk away – after 54 years of marriage, he was stuck!

At one time, I knew more about computers than my husband. Our son had introduced the first computer into our house when he turned 13 and was flush with gift money after his bar mitzvah. He wanted to spend it on a computer. We were perplexed. Why would he want a computer? What possible use could they be?

He bought a Franklin, one of the few choices at the time. I wasn’t very interested until I learned that you could not only write on the computer, but you could even make changes and corrections. I could throw out my case of white-out! I could forget cutting and pasting. I started to read the instruction book and when he left for school, I sat down in front of the machine and began to check out word processing. Within a few days, I was madly in love. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship – with occasional bouts of anger and separations when my computer had a sudden blackout or tried to show its superiority by losing my most recent work.

Then Barry retired and began consulting from home. Very quickly, he not only became proficient on the computer but also tackled the inner workings of this mysterious machine. Much to his chagrin, he became my “Help Desk”. My pleas for help when the computer let me down were usually frantic (I tend to make a lot of noise when the computer is not behaving) and probably much too frequent. But he has never failed to handle my cries for help with patience and humor.

And so he stepped in again and helped me change passwords. Now I have so many completely unrelated passwords that my notebook with the list has become my most treasured possession.

Yes, this hacking is a nasty nuisance but all the news is not bad. I have heard from a lot of people I hadn’t talked to in months or even years. Once they were certain I wasn’t in the Philippines and didn’t need money, we had lovely conversations and caught up on the time we hadn’t been in touch. My three children called to warn me and my son even offered me a kidney. I thanked him and told him to be sure and keep it on ice.

But I do worry about the hacker a bit. Maybe he or his cousin really do need a kidney. Or maybe he got fired and needed quick money because his wife was pregnant and his son was very ill. Most probably he was just looking for a quick way to make money. But his assault on my computer demonstrated three things:

  1. I have very considerate friends
  2. I desperately needed new passwords and a better firewall! (Done!)
  3. I’m still in love with computers and word processing (Except for ten minutes ago when my entire contact list disappeared)

 

Where Has The Time Gone?

 

Where has the time gone?

I heard my mother say these words many times when she was in her seventies and eighties. She was looking back on her life and couldn’t believe she had reached this age. When I heard her say these words, I would pat her on the back and say something inane like, “Oh, Mom, you’ve still got plenty of time left.”

But now, in my seventies, I understand. She wasn’t thinking so much about the end of her life as she was about the rush of the years gone by. They had passed so quickly, too quickly. And now I’m asking that very question: Where has the time gone? Why hadn’t I paid more attention to each event? Why hadn’t I savored every moment?

These thoughts came to me because we are spending two weeks in Upstate New York in a condo on one of the Finger Lakes. I look out our window and see this beautiful expanse of water, dotted by swimmers, boats and kayaks and think about my childhood summers. We had a cottage on a small lake in Northern Minnesota. Every chilly morning I would dress in layers, beginning with my swimming suit; then a t-shirt and jeans, followed by a sweatshirt pulled over my head. As the morning wore on and the temperature came up, the layers would come off until I was back down to the swimming suit. Then I would plunge into the lake, swimming with the joy of summer and youth

But those days passed too quickly and I reached junior high and adolescence. My family became less important than my friends and the lake was not fun unless a friend came along. Boys and parties, football games and dances, clothes and girl-friends took precedence. The angst of beginning the journey to adulthood and dealing with new emotions colored every event. The future was like a cloud in the sky, shifting each day into another shape.

When high school was finished, college began. I moved into a dormitory, away from my family, and made new friends. For two summers, I worked as a counselor at summer camps and when the sessions ended, I found even a few short weeks at home before school began were too much. My most important work during these years (besides studying) was to choose a major and a direction for my life but these decisions were elusive. One minute I was certain of my future; the next second everything had changed. In my junior year, I met a special young man and a large part of my future was decided.

The next thirty years went on forever and were over much too quickly. We raised three children, moved more than ten times and I continued to vacillate between professions, moving from nursery school teacher to journalism and finally into communications and public relations, with newspaper writing on the side. Our children grew up and left home and suddenly, we were back to the beginning.

When I think of those years now, the busiest time of my life and perhaps the most important, they feel like hundreds of puzzle pieces spread on the table with part of an event here and another piece of it over there. It would take me another lifetime to put them in the proper order.

Now we are retired and finding new challenges and activities, enjoying time with friends and reading books we never had time to before. However, sometimes I wonder: why didn’t I pay more attention at each stage, carefully placing every memory into a special file where I could revisit it any time I felt like it and say to myself, “Ah yes. That’s where the time went. I remember that.”

But in a way, I do have that file. I have my own memories plus the memories my husband, my brother and my three adult children share with me. I even have the newest memories made this past week when both of our daughters and our granddaughter joined us at the lake. Yes, the time went fast and yes, I wish I had savored more of it, but then, that’s life. I don’t know if you can fully live each moment if you spend all your time worrying about how fast it is passing. Because, the bottom line is we are, even in our 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, still living every day and still making new memories. So, I expect that, even twenty years from now, I’ll still be saying, “Where has the time gone!” At least, I hope so.

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