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Paying forward lesson easily glossed over

Posted on 25 May 2017 by admin

She’s the only friend still left from my elementary school days.
Patricia (she was Patty then) now lives in Denver, but we keep in good touch, often reminiscing about our shared, early hometown experiences.
Malcolm Cowley, a distinguished American writer, was also a Pittsburgher, and during the time I was studying at the city’s university, he returned to his hometown to teach some literature courses. Sad but true: His classes were not required, so I took none of them.
Patricia attended another college but enrolled in one of Cowley’s courses as a grad student. So she asked me recently — since we’ve both exceeded that “certain age” — if I’d read his book The View from 80. She had, and wasn’t much impressed. I hadn’t, but easily found a used copy online. Its less-than-75 pages made for one fast, easy read.
Cowley (born 1898, died 1989, just before his 91st birthday) wasn’t Jewish. Patricia isn’t, either. But I found something distinctively so in this little book, because the author paraphrases the “parable” that you, I, and probably every other Jew knows: about the man who, planting a tree he’ll never live long enough to see bear fruit, explains to a questioner that his descendants will. That’s what his planting was all about: Someone long-gone left fruit trees for him, so he was paying it forward.
Here’s what Cowley has to say: “Very often an old person’s project has to do with things that live on and are renewed … He plants trees to profit another age. Cicero quotes an earlier author as saying this, and himself continues, ‘If you ask a farmer, however old, for whom he is planting, he will reply without hesitation, “For the immortal gods, who intended that I should not only receive these things from my ancestors, but also transmit them to my descendants.” ’ ”
Cicero’s “immortal gods” came much earlier than Cowley’s singular one; he’s such an Orthodox Christian, he describes himself as one who shrives: that means seeking forgiveness for sins, then doing penance and finally receiving absolution. But I just wondered: Who might that anonymous pre-Cicero author have been?
I found that our Pirke Avot is not the source; It’s from the Mishnah, a product of the Common Era’s third century; Cicero died almost 50 years before CE even started. I’m sure Malcolm Cowley had read extensively, but I suspect not much in Jewish texts. Of course he read Cicero — surely in the original; for scholarly men of his time, Latin and Greek were regular educational givens. He may even have read some Hebrew. So I’m guessing now: If one of those texts was Ethics of the Fathers, might he have assumed that it predated Cicero?
Whatever. I’m recommending Cowley’s little book to everyone who’s growing older (and who isn’t?) because I’d already come to believe, even before reading it, what he preaches: Everyone has a story to tell, made up of many individual stories remembered from the course of a lifetime. He recommends “telling” your story by writing down memories from childhood to the present.
Now, here’s my truth: Without our stories, we will virtually cease to exist. Therefore, I’m devoted to our Dallas Jewish Historical Society’s oral history project, which gives us all the opportunity to tell our life stories that someone else will write down, for access in perpetuity. (How many of us have come to adulthood full of regret that we never asked our parents or grandparents to sit down with us and tell us their life stories? This sorrow isn’t something we want to pass on to our own descendants!)
I suspect that friend Patricia, not knowing Pirke Avot, glossed over the tree-planting tale very quickly, and I’m at least reasonably sure that she has no idea of how it reinforces, if not echoes, Judaism’s own story. As I send her my “review” of Malcolm Cowley’s little book, I’ll be sure to mention this!

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Evolution, religion and house gnats

Posted on 18 May 2017 by admin

The Dallas Theater Center has brought Inherit the Wind back to a local stage. Once again, we can live the infamous Scopes trial about science versus faith in the classroom.
But — how far have we come in more than nine decades? Texas continues to argue about public school textbooks: how to teach ninth-graders the coming-into-being of birds, animals and especially humans. This day and age isn’t all that modern when deciding how to pass on information about such vital matters.
Do you believe the Biblical creation story? Or do you believe Darwin’s theory of evolution? Can both really be taught in the same classroom at the same time? Are young minds able to handle this controversy, reasoning clearly enough to formulate their own conclusions — especially when some parents want their children to reach one conclusion while some prefer the other?
I’m thinking back now to my first day in college and my very first class: introductory zoology, which involved dissecting a frog. But before that came a disclaimer from our instructor, a graduate student teaching assistant, which I’ll paraphrase here: “I’m a scientist,” he said. “And I’m a Catholic. I believe in God and the Bible, but I also believe in science and evolution. This is how I make both work for me …”
Then followed the part I’ve never forgotten that I can recall virtually word for word after more than 60 years: “I believe that God created Adam and Eve, and put them into the Garden of Eden, just like the Bible says. But then along came Sin. So God made them leave that beautiful place, but not in the form they were in then. Instead, He took them down by the water that He’d already created, reduced them to amoebas, dropped them in and said ‘Now, work your way back!’ And that’s how we have evolved…”
What a wonderful, simple (OK — simplistic) answer to the whole question! I remember Ed Zadorozny’s words better than I remember the innards of the poor frog I cut up that day.
Recently, I suffered a Passover return of sorts: A plague of flying insects invaded my home. Thirty-three years in the same house, with never anything like this before! By day, they flew straight for the windows; at night, when everything else was dark, they flew to the TV screen. So I flew to Home Depot’s garden department for information.
“They’re not houseflies,” I told the expert. “They’re gnats,” he said. “Flies are attracted by odors. Gnats like light. And they’re attracted by house plants.” But I’ve never had any of those, because I have a truly black thumb and can’t grow anything. I once killed a small cactus garden just by breathing on it! The only outdoor work I’ve ever succeeded at is weeding! So why did they choose me?
The infestation lasted about 36 hours, making me wonder how long the Egyptians had to suffer from their bugs. A swatter was totally ineffective against them, so I had to resort to a spray that kills flying insects — something I find environmentally unsound in principle and truly offensive in the odor department. And afterward came another unappealing task: gathering up and disposing of the little black bodies littering every windowsill.
I would like to be in on those textbook debates. Did God create such annoying creatures? If so, for what purpose? Or did they just evolve from amoebas, developing wings and flying out of the water, but moving no further along on God’s — or Darwin’s — evolutionary scale?
Next Pesach, when I dip wine from my Seder cup as the plagues are read, I’ll recall this assault. But today, I’m remembering Ed Zadorozny, and wondering, Where are you now, with your elementary wisdom, when our sophisticated educators really need you? And this-coming weekend, I’ll be seeing, again that old (1955) play about an even older (1925) event, the Monkey Trial.
Maybe you’ll join me?

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Remembering voice from past

Posted on 11 May 2017 by admin

In the not-too-far-distant past, works of fiction usually carried — somewhere in those informative pages before the story starts — a disclaimer like this: “Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”
So much for that. Today, I’m going to talk about some real people, but without giving their names. They are not fictional. I’m bringing them to you for reality’s sake, because once again, I’ve been reminded that what we humans call coincidence is when God arranges something but chooses to remain anonymous.
Two sisters “of a certain age,” both of whom live in our TJP circulation area, became b’not mitzvah during a recent Shabbat morning service at a local congregation. I had met them only once before, years ago, when their extended family had a reunion in Dallas. But the pair have another sister who lives in Indiana, and I’ve known her for years, because we’ve been together many times during some annual conferences of the National Federation of Press Women. She invited me to attend this simcha, and I did. However, it’s been quite a few years since our last meeting, so we both had to say “Are you …?” when we first looked at each other.
The two of us were sitting and talking quietly before the time for the service to start, and other conversations were swirling around us. Somehow, I heard a name from the past. “Are you …?” I asked, because I didn’t recognize her either. And it took her more than a moment to recognize me. Her late husband, gone now for almost a decade, had been the incredible editor who gave my freelancing start as a Dallas Morning News contributor when I was new to the city. And I had been one of the eulogists at his funeral! When she got the positive answer to her “Are you …?” question, she said, “It’s funny. This very morning I was taking a long walk and thinking about (no name here!), and I remembered what you’d said about him. It was so comforting…”
But what was she, the widow of a truly devout Catholic, doing here in this synagogue, obviously at home and among friends? “I’m converting,” she told me.
One of the necessary basics in a long journalistic career is the constant need to ask questions. Sometimes they are prying questions, but those are not to be shied away from. Everyone has the right to ask anyone any question — as long as the asker grants the askee the right to say “I prefer not to answer that.” So I asked: “Why have you chosen Judaism?”
Surprisingly — or maybe not so surprising — I got the same answer I’d recently received from another converter-in-progress, and from others in the past: It boils down to “I just couldn’t believe that ‘Jesus thing.’” (I’m sure my readers who have been after me for years to become a “Messianic Jew” are annoyed as they read this, but that’s OK; you’ve annoyed me that long, too. I know who you are, but I’m not going to name your names, either…)
Well: The two b’not mitzvah, wearing beautiful kippot and tallitot brought home from Israel’s Women of the Wall, were sure in their knowledge and effective in their readings and commentaries. I will carry their mental pictures with me, because I may not have occasion to see either of them again for a long time. But I will see their sister — the one from Indiana — this-coming fall, when our presswomen’s organization convenes in Birmingham, Alabama.
And I will see the woman who is my favorite editor’s widow, and whom I hope will now become my friend, in a short time, at her conversion ceremony.
(If any of you recognize the person I’m talking about here, you don’t have to tell me who you are; I already know. I’m sure I’ll see you very soon, too, when we’ll get to offer congratulations instead of condolences!)

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1st Israel trip memories still fresh as dates

Posted on 04 May 2017 by admin

The spring season is filled with so many celebratory and commemorative occasions for us as Jews; it’s almost overwhelming how much of our shared history occurs within such a tight calendar time frame.
Of course, everything begins with Pesach, when we relive again — every year — the seminal occasion in our people’s history. But this year, it was less than two weeks after the joys of our Seder tables when Yom HaShoah was with us once again — the yearly distressing but necessary reminder of the second occasion in our existence that took the Judaism we had long taken for granted and changed it forever …
And then, in quick succession: Just earlier this week, we had the solemn Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for all who fell in the struggle for the new nation’s independence — which was on the calendar for the very next day, and is always marked in our communities with an annual day of celebration (this year, a major event this Sunday at the Dallas JCC).
But now, after looking backward, I’m looking ahead. Again, in less than two weeks, we’ll have another great date to celebrate: May 24 will be Yom Yerushalayim. This is the day that marked Israel’s 1967 victory in the Six-Day War, with the reunification of Jerusalem under the young nation’s control. Please note: This year is the 50th anniversary of that long-awaited event!
Twenty-five years ago, at the quarter-century mark, my late husband and I were in Jerusalem for the celebration of that day. The whole country was alive with excitement; my memories are crowned with recurring sounds of the Israel Symphony’s concert that night. We had gone on a rather standard trip to Israel for first-time visitors — just a dozen of us, with our then-rabbi and his wife. They had a friend who was a tour guide and arranged for him to lead our group, and we thought he was exceptional. (Later, I learned that all Israeli tour guides are exceptional; the government wouldn’t have it any other way.) In our group there was one woman, a widow, who was quite a few years older than the rest of us; she was the first who, when we climbed out of the waiting van on our ride from the airport, got down on her knees to kiss the ground of the Holy Land.
Now I’m a widow, just as old as that woman was 25 years ago. How very elderly she looked to me then, and how quick I was to offer assistance (among other things, to help her up from her knees after that emotional kiss). She is gone, as are nine others of the dozen who took that trip with the local rabbi and his wife, who have long since moved off to another synagogue in another part of the country. Only three of us remain here, alive and still members of the same congregation: That one couple has since visited Israel again, as my late husband and I were also able to do.
Our second trip was different from the first in many ways: Its length was about the same, but we skipped some of what we had done before in order to see many places that were new to us. And that visit was at a different time of the year from Yom Yerushalayim. While it had its own great moments, none was quite as exciting as celebrating that 25-year anniversary.
I’m not anticipating a third visit to Israel, but very soon I’ll remember and honor that first exciting time, and the second — also memorable, but in a very different way — by reading a favorite short story written by a pioneer in early Jewish settlement days … by eating the freshest dates I can find at a local market … and by emptying my Blue Box and contributing its contents to the Jewish National Fund. Dayenu!
For me, that will have to be enough!

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Penn. congregation disbands; flood of memories return

Posted on 27 April 2017 by admin

Here’s a post-Passover tale as bitter as maror, yet sweet as kosher-for-Pesach sacramental wine.
How can this be? It came to me as a story on the front page of my hometown’s venerable daily newspaper, sent by the relative who started me on a crusade I now call “correspondence by clipping.”
I happily give credit to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and its reporter Peter Smith for making me aware.
Of course I have personal connections with the subject, Temple Hadar Israel of New Castle, Pennsylvania — not close enough to be a suburb of the big city, but with a Jewish population not large enough to support a congregation of its own any longer. This “Glory of Israel” will soon shut its doors forever. But this Passover, it opened them extra-wide.
THI was already a hybrid, created years ago by the merger of two other very small congregations. Southwestern Pennsylvania had a slew of those back in the ’30s and ’40s, reaching even into the ’50s, when I was first confirmed and then a teacher in one of them. My family’s home was closest to a small shul whose Jewish educational needs were among those coordinated and supervised by an organization created just to serve this regional amalgam.
The classes in each were tiny, as were our synagogues themselves, both in membership and physical size. In B’nai Emunoh, my earliest spiritual home, all our classes met in unwalled but separate areas of the sanctuary, which was the first-floor conversion of a two-story residence. The family owners lived upstairs, and tradition moved us upward for our final school year into its own “sacred” reaches. Looking back, I realize how much of my Judaism I learned right there, in Mrs. Simon’s kitchen.
(By the way: Confirmation itself was a major joint event. All of us prepared separately for it, then came together at a large, centrally located synagogue in the city itself for the big ceremony. Further sidelight: Our gift that year was Preface to Scripture, the newly published book by one of the era’s most influential Reform rabbis, Pittsburgh’s own Solomon Freehof. My autographed copy now “lives” with other seminal Jewish works on a shelf in the University of Pittsburgh’s Israel Heritage Classroom!)
However, time took its inevitable toll. My little home shul has stayed alive and well thanks to Chabad, which partnered with it to move many new, young Jewish families into the old community. But aging stalwarts and the non-return of college graduates to their roots have brought about the demise of most. Hadar Israel, however, is celebrating life throughout the time of its passing, going out in the blaze of the Glory that is its name.
A few days before the start of the Pesach just past, the shul’s Christian neighbors were observing Jesus’ Last Supper — which of course was itself a Passover Seder. And so the synagogue invited them to its own Last Seder, with attendance reaching about 90! One of the guests was a Catholic who had grown up with Jewish neighbors; he was sad to see the small number of congregational children there, he said, but happy that they were part of the ritual and “learning to carry on the tradition as they get older.” Just another juxtaposition of the bitter and the sweet.
So — what happens now? THI has made its peace with the present. The property has been sold, funds directed toward perpetual cemetery maintenance, Torahs moving to new homes — one returning to its origins, for a new synagogue in Poland. Other artifacts will go to the Jewish archives section of Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center. And the members will travel to congregations east of them in Pittsburgh, or west into Ohio: “There aren’t many choices in between,” one member said. Actually, there are none, as all other nearby shuls have already closed.
But I know from my own experience the important, lasting memories that Hadar Israel’s members will take with them …

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Reading for my Boubby

Posted on 20 April 2017 by admin

My Boubby the Philosopher, of blessed memory for more than a half-century, hailed from Berditchev. Her mother died birthing her, and her father did as widowers with small children who needed care often did at that time — married a widow with small children who needed a breadwinner.
His new wife already had two daughters and wasn’t thrilled to acquire a third, so Boubby grew up much like Cinderella, with two overindulged stepsisters. But the marriage got her to America in time — although the ship’s manifest listed her as the family’s maid.
“In time” means she missed the pogroms and the Babi Yar massacre in her native Ukraine. That Jewish community was blasted to smithereens by Russian and Nazi persecution. Here, she led the life of a fairly typical immigrant woman: taking care of home and children and putting up with the foibles of her hardworking husband, while both observed their Judaism as they had learned it far from America. She never spoke of knowing any Ukrainians.
Now, just in time for Yom HaShoah, comes a new book that hopes to educate Jews about Ukrainians, and vice versa. Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence means to fill in gaps of knowledge and bridge years of misunderstanding. That’s a big order for just over 300 pages, but its ample size, attractive cover and profuse maps, photographs, and other illustrations qualify this volume for coffee-table status.
The two men who took on this daunting writing task have stellar qualifications. Paul Robert Magocsi chairs the Department of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Toronto. Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern is the Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies at Northwestern University. Magocsi has taught at both Harvard and Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. Petrovsky-Shtern won the National Jewish Book Award in 2013 for The Golden-Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe. Magocsi has had some 800 publications focusing on East-Central European history; Petrovsky-Shtern is frequently interviewed by The Associated Press, National Public Radio, and even Al Jazeera about the current situation in Ukraine.
Advance publicity for this impressive undertaking clarifies what the volume is trying to do: It wants to introduce both today’s Jews and those of Ukrainian Christian descent to the great rabbinic scholars, Hebrew and Yiddish writers and major Jewish thinkers of past Ukraine;  It hopes to let them know that Jews developed the market economy which helped turn villages into towns and then into cities, and inspired Ukrainian social activism.
“Jews and Ukrainians, more often than not, were agents of somebody else’s colonialism, and both were victims of that colonialism,” it says. “Different socially and economically…quite often they were hideously turned against one another and commissioned to produce mutual hatred…” But the authors jointly explore some lesser-known efforts by both groups that managed to challenge the hatred, and tell of their results.
Because Ukraine is a part of the world that’s constantly in today’s news, the book’s presentation of both past and present is aimed at educating all people as well as Jews and Ukrainians. The University of Toronto Press, its publisher, says “an important moral factor” brought together the two authors for this major effort:  “They believe emphatically that Jews and Ukrainians know little about each other, and what they do know are common misconceptions…They are committed to overturning generalizations…Most people are unaware that ethnic Ukrainians and Ukrainian Jews have a common 1,000-year history…”
The two authors have different religious backgrounds: Magocski is Protestant, Petrovsky-Shtern is Jewish. But they share geographic roots:  Petrovsky-Shtern was born and raised in the Ukraine that was also the home of Magocski’s ancestors. They know, and want others to know, the millennium of history shared by ethnic Ukrainians and Ukrainian Jews.
My Boubby the Philosopher augmented and gave meaning to her repetitive daily life with ample doses of reading. The Bible was her favorite, but she would have loved reading this book. I’ll read it for her, in her memory.

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Rose reminds us of value in photographs

Posted on 13 April 2017 by admin

The play began with a shiva, which clearly telegraphed that it would end the same way. The play was Rose, written in 2000 by Martin Sherman. It was presented in Dallas by Wingspan Theatre Company at the Bath House, one of the city’s cultural centers. It’s a one-person, two-hour monologue that encapsulates the history of our people from the Holocaust to modern Israel.
Rose is the title and only character, who sits throughout – not on a hard wooden bench, as she says she should for a shiva – telling her story. She is old, at the end of her life, and was played convincingly by accomplished local Jewish actress Barbara Bierbrier, who I’m sure won’t mind my saying that she’s no spring chicken either. But then, neither am I …
I went to the play because I knew what Rose would be about, and because I’d recently missed an important shiva myself. Back in my hometown, my son’s mother-in-law recently passed away at age 86. She had been ill for a long time with an inoperable abdominal tumor; at the time she herself thought was appropriate, she refused all further treatments and entered hospice care — in her own home, augmented by the loving presence of her children and our shared granddaughters and great-grandsons. Although near the very end she could no longer move or speak, she had managed to remain herself throughout.
I could not attend the funeral and shiva because Ruth Ann’s practice was totally traditional; she had asked in advance that whenever she died, she wanted to be buried immediately — within 24 hours — with a simple graveside funeral. The time came on a recent Thursday morning; the rest was the next morning. It was a cold, snowy Friday in Pittsburgh. My son told me, rather ruefully, that his dear mother-in-law had made her request last summer, when she had a spell that looked near-death to her and everyone else. But she recovered, and nobody thought to ask her if those initial requests could be set aside in case of inclement weather.
And of course there was no way I could get there in less than 24 hours. But I called the deli that Ruth Ann always used when she needed trays for any occasion, and asked it to send a standard shiva tray. They won’t need it, I was told. Ruth Ann was well-known and respected in her community as a longtime teacher in its leading Jewish day school; by the time I called, there had already been orders placed for enough shiva trays to see everyone through the afternoon following the funeral, and to feed all the family on Shabbat. So I ordered platters of vegetables and fruits for Sunday. I had several emails and calls of gratitude — for two days, all they’d been eating was lox, bagels, tomatoes and onions!
But maybe through her shiva, my dear Ruth Ann, who had been my friend in high school, my sorority sister in college, and a constant figure in my life even after I had moved far away from her, long before our children met and married, taught our younger generations an important lesson. It was my son who called to verbalize: “We were all sitting there, passing around old snapshots,” he told me. “And everyone was touching them, and remembering things. You can’t do that with pictures in our cellphones…”
That, and the text of Rose, made me finally, fully understand why survivors of all tragedies — from the Holocaust to our recent wind and fire home destructions — try hardest to rescue their family pictures. Why they are the soul-soothing presences at shivas — even in the play, where Barbara Bierbrier painted them so vividly with her words.
(If Dallas’ great theater figure Rene Moreno had been Jewish, we would have been sitting shiva for him. Rose was the last play he directed. His funeral was on the day of its final performance.)

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This Passover, I offer heartfelt bon appétit!

Posted on 06 April 2017 by admin

Passover already — so quickly? Well, this happens annually, and this year is no different from all other years …
For me, it’s a good time to remember when I was a child who always envied my down-the-street friend Phyllis because her birthday was in early April. Mine, in mid-July, often decimated annual party attendance because it was camp season; sometimes I was at camp myself, so there was no party at all.
But when spring came around again, I realized I had no reason to envy Phyllis. Yes, she had a party every year, but also had the same cake every year: sponge. Because her big day always fell right in the middle of Pesach!
Try to imagine a light, airy, but oh-so-plain spongecake, no frosting, straining unsuccessfully to support its growing number of candles as the years passed. Not a pretty sight! That’s what I remember most. The other memory is that Phyllis always cried because she never had a “real” birthday cake!
Things have much changed since then — happily for me, since I’m no baker. What comes out of my oven for Pesach are wonderful mixes that come out of boxes first. Sometimes little pans even come right out of the boxes with them!  A small variety serves just fine for desserts, especially if augmented with special treats like chocolate matzo, or a fabulous Seder plate made entirely of chocolate. Nobody cries at my house!
And I’m no cook, either, but I do have two Passover specialties to pass along. One is the gefilte fish I “invented” myself. I just buy the appropriate number of jars of the best fish available — always the sweet kind — remove the pieces, getting rid of all traces of liquid or jelly, and place them on a baking sheet. Now, here’s the “secret”:  sprinkle them with a little garlic powder and more than a little fresh-ground black pepper, put the pan into a very low oven, and let the fish dry out. A thin slice of fresh carrot is optional, but it’s easier to pull some chunks of cooked carrot from the soup pot and add cut rounds from them at serving time.
That takes me right to the soup, which I must have — if only to assure easy decorations for the fish!  And I do make wonderful chicken soup, because I follow basic instructions that are the essence of simplicity from my ancient copy of Sara Kasdan’s Love and Knishes, subtitled An Irrepressible Guide to Jewish Cooking. She has said that “If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then knishes will get there faster… and stay longer.” I don’t make knishes, but here’s her foolproof soup recipe (augmented by a comment or two of my own):
Into your largest pot, put 4 to 5 pounds of chicken (Sara recommends a whole young hen, cut into quarters; I’ve had excellent results with an equal poundage of legs and/or thighs. Either way, trim off all excess fat first). Pour over 3 quarts salted (one tablespoon or less) cold water, cover and bring to a boil. At that point, uncover, reduce heat, and add a whole peeled onion (make a couple of cuts in it to release its juices), one bay leaf, several peeled carrots, and at least four celery tops (the leaves will add more flavor than the stalks). Then put the lid back on the pot and let everything simmer until the chicken is tender, which will be about three hours. (You can take a peek every so often and skim if you think it’s necessary.) Afterward, remove the chicken, strain the soup, chill it, and get rid of all congealed fat on the surface before putting back the amount of chicken you want in it, plus whatever carrots you have left after topping the gefilte fish.
And with that Passover “Bon appétit,” I wish us all a happy and delicious holiday!

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Important parts of life can’t be stolen

Posted on 30 March 2017 by admin

It should have been a time for well-deserved rest and joyous reflection, returning home after a truly meaningful family occasion miles away.
But when Malka Amster turned the key that opened the door to her Dallas apartment, she found it had been ransacked.
Of course all her jewelry was gone. But she cried hardest over one item: a small gold ring, bearing the red and white stripes of the Polish flag overlaid with the initials P.C. — for Pola Cymrot. Her mother. A Holocaust survivor.
“It wasn’t a particularly beautiful ring, or even valuable,” Malka told me. “But I always wore that ring when I needed something a little extra, a little more confidence, the feeling of being special.” She hadn’t needed any of that in Florida, where she had gone to meet her new grandson at his bris.
All but one other of Pola Cymrot’s family were among the Nazis’ Polish victims. She grew up in the Warsaw orphanage of Dr. Janos Korczak, the Jewish author/pediatrician who ultimately died with his young charges in Treblinka. But before that, Pola had reached working age, so the Nazis moved her at 15 to make bombs in a munitions factory. Yet somehow she managed to hold on to her little signet ring.
Malka’s grandson is named Elan Gavriel in memory of the uncle she never knew, her mother’s brother Elimelich. He was only 12 when Malka’s own grandmother, recognizing that all were surely doomed, allowed the boy to join a band of young people attempting an escape to Siberia. But somehow, he was lost in the woods, and no one could ever learn what happened to him.
“This was a particularly difficult loss for my mother,” Malka said when she told this sad story at the bris. “She knew that the other members of her family had been murdered, but she never knew what ever became of her dear, sweet little brother.”
Pola met her future husband after the war, at a wedding in Poland. “He was a handsome partisan on crutches,” Malka says. “It really was love at first sight. The fact that they were both wearing the same tweed jackets gave them a reason to talk to each other!”
Passing time brings with it many challenges and changes. Malka had her own, although thankfully not like those of her mother. She came to Dallas four years ago to start a new life for herself, bringing many skills with her. A professional Jewish educator since 1978, when she became the University of Denver’s first Judaic studies graduate, she also studied with President Kennedy’s White House physician and has had a private muscle therapy practice since 1987. Additionally, she is a trainer of classical horses!
As a newcomer to our city, “I decided to see some Jewish films,” Malka says. “I loved 3 Stars Jewish Cinema, and asked if I could volunteer.” Soon afterward, she accepted her current position as its managing director, which gives her the welcome opportunity to spread Jewish arts and culture more widely through an ever-increasing number of film showings. At the same time, using one of the six languages she speaks fluently, Malka also facilitates a Yiddish group at Shearith Israel.
“One can never be prepared to come home to an apartment that has been burglarized, or the feeling of invasion and loss,” she said. She appeared on Fox 4, making a public “no questions asked” offer of $1,000 for return of the ring that survived all the horrors of the Holocaust, only to be stolen from a quiet Dallas apartment. No takers so far.
Yet: “It’s the important things in life that can never be stolen,” Malka says, with philosophical resignation. Does she mean her new grandson? Her current satisfying activities? Her memories? She didn’t specify. And I didn’t ask.

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Quick study in Jewish mother-daughter dynamic

Posted on 23 March 2017 by admin

I don’t think I’m a typical Jewish mother.
I don’t cook very much — actually, next to nothing. As I’ve been aging, I’ve been doing so in the same home where I’ve lived for the past 33 years. I’ve made no attempt to move closer to either of my two children. I’ve always been independent. But I didn’t realize until very recently how important independence is.
My daughter was just here for a long weekend. We’ve made short visits to each other over decades; when I go to her, I feel like I’m walking on eggshells. And this time, as always when we’re on each other’s turf, we fight.
So why does this happen? Is it a normal part of the Jewish mother/daughter relationship? Maybe because she hasn’t been a typical Jewish mother, either. She has two sons, but became a widowed single parent before the older of them had even graduated from high school.
I know she has recurring thoughts that she didn’t do everything she should have for those children, because I have the same guilt about what I did, and didn’t do, for her and her older brother. Maybe Jewish mothering is always fraught with regrets. Maybe her eggshells feel to her here as fragile as mine do there. …
So we had a three-day visit during our beautiful early spring. I planned many things for us to do together: Walking the downtown arts district to see the varied architecture. Having lunches of our choice from the food trucks at Klyde Warren Park. Shopping at Central Market (a special treat for someone who lives in central Illinois, the home of Aldi’s!), and exploring NorthPark Mall (a special treat for someone to whom Kohl’s is big-time!). The Chili Cook-off. Tea at the Arboretum, with plenty of time to enjoy the beauty of Dallas Blooms. And even though I’ve never been a cook, and she’s used to that, I managed to turn out one passable supper, featuring delicious hamantaschen (baked by my Sisterhood sisters, not me!), for a post-Purim dessert treat.
I used to bake hamantaschen, package them up and send them to my children. But I hated every minute of the process; baking has never appealed to me any more than cooking.
I was only nine when I made my first pie “from scratch”; after I saw it disappear 10 minutes into dessert, I knew it was also my last — I wanted to put my energy into things that would live longer than that. I have the kind of visual memory that lets me put myself back into key situations of my past and see them again exactly as they were, so I can recall watching my mother take a pan of cookies out of the oven and saying to myself, “When I grow up, I don’t want to stay home and bake cookies. I want to go out and do things!”
And I can recall, just as clearly, that my daughter was about that same age when she said to me — as I rushed to leave home after a thrown-together supper so that I could cover a story — “When I grow up, I don’t want to go out to meetings. I want to stay home and bake cookies!”
Maybe that’s why we fight — because being such opposites actually makes us very much alike. Even as a working mother, she has always found time to bake those cookies. And even when I was a stay-at-home mom, I found opportunities to go after outside stories. Maybe those inside-outs keep us from understanding each other when they should really make it easier to do so.
I guess a Jewish mother never stops being a Jewish daughter, and a Jewish daughter grows into being a Jewish mother, and both fight for their elusive freedom from each other when it’s not what either really wants. I’ll try to keep all that in mind for our next get-together.

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