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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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Read it and eat: Gefilte Manifesto

Posted on 16 March 2017 by admin

We all know some books of the “read it and weep” variety. But here’s one that challenges you to “read it and eat.”
The catch is, you’ll have to cook what you’ll eat yourself — unless you’re lucky enough to be somewhere in New York within easy getting distance of The Gefilteria.
If you’re of Ashkenazi descent but have given up on your bubbe’s cuisine, The Gefilte Manifesto is the cookbook for you. For authors Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, it’s an outgrowth of their joint venture into venerable Jewish culinary adventures at their business, The Gefilteria. Located in Brooklyn, this is where they plan, prep and sell the results of New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods, which is the subtitle of their tome. They worked in this kitchen together for five years before committing their “secrets” to print.
A chance meeting led to these two dedicated cooks, both from traditionally Ashkenazi homes, discovering how much they shared a liking for all those good old foods of their childhoods. But in this world of today, Jewish Millennials would like those foods only if they were ramped up to their healthier expectations. So Yoskowitz and Alpern set about making the changes demanded by potential customers — and by themselves. The result? Eastern European “cuisine” morphed into a new specialty that started with gefilte fish.
Their Gefilteria website explains: “We took the classic dish and re-imagined it, making it colorful, gluten-free and responsibly sourced, with non-GMO olive oil and the highest quality fish. And we also made sure it tasted really great!” Young Jews tried it, and liked it. Dinners hosted by members of this adventurous generation started to pop up. Seeing a good thing, the Gefilteria principals expanded their offerings; the book includes recipes for soups, breads, main dishes and side dishes, and even suggests creative ways to use up your leftovers.
And pickles are almost as important as the gefilte fish! Yoskowitz apprenticed in pickle-making on an Urban Adamah, one of a fellowship of Jewish farms that “cultivate the soil and the soul to produce food.” There he learned the kind of fermentation that pickles and preserves without vinegar — the authentic way of his forefathers.
“Not only does that pickle have a lot of flavor,” he says, “but it’s good for your digestion. It’s probiotic. Eating a pastrami sandwich with a full sour pickle next to it — it’s the best way of helping digest that fatty pastrami!” Yoskowitz likens the good effects his pickles have on the stomach to those provided by yogurt!
The most expert Jewish cooks and food authors are kvelling about The Gefilte Manifesto. Leading the pack is Mollie Katzen, who helped usher in the age of vegetarianism with her famed Moosewood Cookbook. She gives lavish praise, saying it “…beautifully manages to frame traditional Ashkenazi cuisine with perfect twists and newness. It’s no small feat to retain the character of an old, emotionally held culinary culture while imparting fresh life to the standards. Jeffrey and Liz nailed it, not only with outstanding recipes, but also with history and stories and context, impeccably written.”
And Leah Koenig, author of Modern Jewish Cooking, says that this even more modern book “…digs deep into our Ashkenazi ancestors’ recipe boxes, pulls out time-tested favorites and lost gems, and finds ways to make them taste at once fresh and innovative, and utterly authentic.”
To learn more about The Gefilte Manifesto, just type those words into your browser. You can definitely find the book itself on Amazon — or maybe even at Target!

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We’re mourning silent voice in DFW harmony

Posted on 09 March 2017 by admin

The true measure of a man is not, as some folks misguidedly think, the state of his finances. And it is not measured by how many mourners attend his funeral.
What matters most is how many people loved and valued him at the time of his death, because of what he had done before it.
I have no idea about Bruce Feldman’s finances. But I do know that the mourners at his recent memorial service came in a huge number, and all of them were people who had loved and valued him during his life, and who will miss him sorely now that he is gone.
The sanctuary of Anshai Torah — both downstairs and upper level — was fairly bursting for the service that preceded Bruce being laid to rest. The congregation’s two rabbis sat on the bimah, rising to do their parts: the younger, newer one offering a psalm at the start; the one who is older — in both senses of the word — spoke words of his own that revealed how long he had known Bruce, and how much he respected and appreciated him.
It’s impossible to count the number of young students whom Bruce readied for bar and bat mitzvahs. One father told me it was Bruce’s incomparable teaching touch that helped lead a recalcitrant teen into solid adulthood. I wondered, looking at the crowd, how many parents sitting there had similar memories. And I wondered how many of the youngsters sprinkled through that crowd, now preparing for their own entrances into adult Judaism, were wondering, too: Who will be their tutor now? A tough act to follow …
I knew Bruce because my misfortune of breaking enough bones to go into rehab three separate times was my good fortune: I recuperated and had physical therapy at the Legacy Preston Hollow when it was under the aegis of our Jewish Federation. Now I’m healed, and L-PH has been sold. But I was there for High Holy Days when Bruce conducted services for full-time residents and short-timers like me and when he led Seders of amazing beauty and meaning. I was honored because he called upon me to read long passages from the Haggadah, and chant the blessings over the Rosh Hashanah candles.
Yes, chant. I can no longer sing as I used to. But Bruce’s voice never lost its resonance, and was always a soothing, integral part of Jewish holidays in that place. In his honor and memory, Kol Rina — the men’s choir of Anshai Torah — sang at the service. I know how much they missed him at his usual spot in their midst; their music was beautifully muted for the occasion.
Bruce gave to many not only his voice, but also the very special gift of his presence; on occasions when rabbis had to be with their congregations or with their own families, he was the surrogate whose time and talent was ever available. That was a gift also from Bruce’s family, who understood why he was not always with them on those occasions, so gladly lent him to those in greater need than they. And of course, some of those family members also spoke their overflowing love at the service, with eloquent goodbyes.
We were under threat of a storm that day, but rain fell for only a few moments while we were inside, barely leaving traces as we left the synagogue. As I stood waiting to join the crowd of exiting cars, I looked up into the still cloud-filled sky and saw a flock of birds, winging in changing formation high overhead, then disappearing into the thick, grayish-white distance. Were they singing as they flew? Bruce Feldman’s earthly heart had given out; perhaps these messengers were on the way to welcome him to his new heavenly home.
A sad postscript: Herschel Feldman passed away soon after his brother; that funeral was last Monday morning. May the family be doubly comforted.

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Reporter plans ‘maximum flash’ in final days

Posted on 02 March 2017 by admin

He’s had a hell of a nasty medical history already, but has handled life very well.
Remarkably well, considering diabetes and two prior cancers. He and his longtime wife live in a nice North Dallas house, and he’s held an excellent local job for the past 28 or so years. Not easy, juggling serious illnesses and keeping up with work. But now, this combo has become virtually impossible.
He is Jeffrey Weiss. Maybe you’ve read him over those past almost three decades. He’s taken some necessary breaks, but always gotten back on the ever-bucking horse that carries career journalists outside of themselves to report on the facts, fantasies and foibles of others. Only now, he’s reporting on himself.
And maybe you’ve been reading his own installments on his own health “adventures” in the Dallas Morning News. They started last Sunday on the front page, with Jeff’s declaration that if he’s destined to flame out, he wants to do it with the maximum flash possible. This time, he has glioblastoma, a brain tumor that’s a virtual death sentence.
First, he noticed that his writing was becoming garbled; he knew what he wanted to say, but couldn’t get the words out right. He thought maybe he was just tired — with his medical history, who wouldn’t be? But rest didn’t help. And then came the trouble with one eye, the diagnosis, the question-mark-shaped cut that removed a chunk of his skull so surgeons could excavate the tumor. They got 95 percent of it, then replaced that piece of his head.
Jeff and his wife have no children. Marni is a nurse, which has probably been a very good thing in the past and is certainly more so now. She knows what’s happening, and what her part in it is and will be. She takes care of that, while Jeff worries about making sure he takes care of everything he’s put off for so long — and which of us hasn’t put off finalizing some necessary documents, writing down those “what if?” plans because we don’t know how to plan for things if we don’t know whether or not they will ever be real? Especially if we don’t want them to be real. … But for Jeff, everything is real now, and he knows what he has to do.
For someone in his situation, he’s in a good place. Years ago, when I did some heavy-duty freelancing for the DMN, I worked with an editor who developed an eventually fatal illness. I learned then that the paper would not leave such a person hung out to dry. I hope that’s still a policy as true now as it was then.
I know Jeff has company insurance, and enough discretionary funds that he and Marni plan to take a trip, soon, to Miami — his home town — then board a ship for a weeklong cruise, doing nothing at all but sailing and relaxing. They both need it. They both deserve it.
I have a hard time getting my head around the fact that Jeffrey Weiss was born the same year I graduated from college! How is it that some of us are granted long and at least relatively healthy lives, while some are plagued with serious problems early-on and faced with an untimely ultimate end?
When I posted Jeff, with some trepidation, to ask if he’d permit me to write about him here, he posted back virtually immediately: “Absolutely use me!”
But I’m really asking all of us to use ourselves. Will all the congregations in our area unite in putting Jeffrey Weiss’ name on their mishaberach lists? In the long run, his body will run its own course. But our prayer is for spirit as well as for body. He’s already way ahead of us on that; still, some extra help can’t hurt.
If you haven’t read Jeff’s take on himself in the paper-on-paper, just go to dallasmorningnews.com/jeffweiss for the whole story.

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Got it? Reading toward sisterly connection

Posted on 23 February 2017 by admin

My sister called from New York with an imperative: “Read this book — Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart.”
She said she was confused at first, but after persevering, she figured she had “got it.” And she wanted to know what my conclusion would be.
So I found the book at the JCC’s Tycher Library and began to read. I must admit, I haven’t finished it yet. I haven’t even gotten very far — just about 100 pages out of a whopping 350. But I already understand what she meant by “getting it.”
Little Failure is a rough Russian translation of what two concerned parents called their puny, asthmatic baby soon after they brought him home. His first six years were a constant battle between childish desires for a normal childhood and adult worries about health. And then, at seven, this “little failure” was transplanted, with those parents, to America, one family among the many “rescued” Soviets we all worked so hard to bring here and resettle some 40 years ago.
Currently, my “pleasure” reading has been almost entirely Philip Roth. I’m trying to understand how one man could write in one lifetime some 30 books, every one of prize-winning quality. Where does all that productivity come from? Now, I think Roth is a useful tool to help me figure out Shteyngart. And vice versa.
No writer of fiction makes things up out of whole cloth. Writers write what they know, what they’ve gleaned from their own experiences. Roth’s most honored novels have grown out of his own life experiences. Shteyngart has already written a trio of novels, none of which I’ve read (yet), but all of which hint to me by their very titles that they must have his sharp wit and cutting-edge irony, most of the latter directed at himself. I can’t imagine otherwise about The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, or Absurdistan, or Super Sad Love Story. These came relatively early, but were after he’d honed his English skills to the same sharp points he jabs the reader with in Little Failure. This autobiographic memoir was written in 2014, many years after he landed here in the United States.
I don’t think I’m stretching — at least not too far — to read a kinship into the works of these two talented but very different writers. Both are born Jews, but disaffected in their different ways. Both were adored sons of overprotective mothers, and grew up to kick over the traces that are still so much shining through their writings. Roth, who created a fictional “hero” who grew up to marry Miss New Jersey, writes a biting tale of one of his own wives; Shteyngart has chosen a Korean woman as his life partner. Both draw themes from and about their childhoods — even when their characters are adults: the old neighborhoods, current events of their growing-up days (for Roth, Hebrew school and polio, among others; for Shteyngart, the overpowering figure of Lenin coupled with food shortages and primitive medicine). I wonder if they have ever met. I think they should…
It’s as dangerous to judge a book one hasn’t finished reading as it is to do what the old saw says not to: judge it by its cover. But I’ll try. The covers of Roth’s books, for the most part, give only the merest pictorial hint of what’s within. But Shteyngart’s memoir is quite different; here is a little boy “driving” a little car, but he’s not looking at whatever road is ahead — he’s staring sideways, at the reader, with dark eyes set into a face that might be either serious or sad, depending on the viewer’s interpretation.
My sister is an astute reader. I want to ask her what she thinks of that cover photo (one of many childhood photos of Shteyngart scattered throughout this book). But I’ll wait until I’ve finished Little Failure and can tell her — I hope — that I also “got it.”

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End-of-life talk not pleasant, but necessary

Posted on 16 February 2017 by admin

It’s time to talk. About something difficult, something so terrifying to many that it’s almost taboo.
The topic is end of life. That’s what The Conversation Project is about.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ellen Goodman began this effort in Boston several years ago. This year she will turn 76 herself, and knows personally that end-of-life issues must be discussed by everyone. Like all the more usual kinds of insurance, The Conversation is something to be had well in advance of need.
There’s a helpful little booklet, Your Conversation Starter Kit, with this tagline: “When it comes to end-of-life care, talking matters.” It’s a tool for action, a guide that pulls no punches. No one wants to confront these issues, which makes talking about them something to avoid. The booklet acknowledges, “Parents are reluctant to ‘worry’ their adult children; children are reluctant to bring up dying with their elderly parents. We like to say ‘It’s too soon,’ when we know it’s always too soon until it’s too late.”
The Conversation Project isn’t about wills, health care proxies or advance directives; ideally, these should be taken care of after the conversation, because they are legal documents that will come into play at the very end of life and after it. This project helps people define what goes immediately before.
I turn on my radio and hear a respected financial adviser speaking, but not about money. He is asking people to think about where they want to be when they have received a terminal diagnosis: At home? In hospice? Hospitalized? Whom do they want with them when finality approaches: As many family members as can come? A few nearest-and-dearest? Clergy? What will they want: Warmth? Hand-holding? Favorite music playing? Someone reading from beloved books? Prayers? Or just plain peace-and-quiet? I realize that he is speaking beyond his usual issues, advising listeners to think about the very kinds of questions that can be asked, and answered, during The Conversation.
Someone who has already been personally involved with this project has said that “some of the issues that are part of the conversation include sharing what’s most important to you, knowing who you want — or don’t want — to be involved in your care, and worrying that you won’t get enough care — or that you’ll get overly aggressive care. Participating in the project can alleviate the awkwardness and discomfort of sitting down with our loved ones to uncover desires regarding end-of-life decisions. One of the final acts of love is knowing and following the end-of-life wishes of those we hold dear. This isn’t an easy task…”
For all who are interested in easing the way toward having this most important conversation, Congregation Beth Torah has scheduled an initial meeting to explore preparation for it. Leading discussion on how to approach the many vital, even critical, issues will be Peggy Papert, a social worker well-known in Dallas for her 15-year directorship of Temple Emanu-El’s extensive Caring Congregation program. This first conversation about The conversation project will be held in a private home, beginning at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23. To RSVP and get specific location information, email inclusion@congregationbethtorah.org.
Laurie Miller, president of Apple Care and Companion in Dallas, is spearheading the effort locally. “This is not just for the person at the edge of death,” she says. “It is a road map to provide awareness for all of us.” Conversation starter kits are being distributed by the Dallas Area Gerontology Society (DAGS), a nonprofit voluntary organization.
The old saw says nothing is inevitable but death and taxes. Well, we’re in tax season now, and will be, again and again, every year for as long as we live. But we’ll die only once, and we don’t know when that one time will be. Having the conversation far in advance of need can help assure that end-of-life desires are clearly expressed and understood. And that they will be followed.

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