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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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Disability awareness should continue beyond February

Posted on 09 February 2017 by admin

Recently, I’ve doffed two imaginary hats in tribute to Joyce Rosenfield.
The first, for her commanding presidential podium presence at Dallas Section, National Council of Jewish Women’s recent 114th Birthday luncheon event. The second in retrospect, because I remember how, as a very young woman some 30 or more years ago, Joyce would tape tongue depressors to her fingers, don earmuffs and glasses smeared with Vaseline, and clomp around in ill-fitting shoes, all of which effectively illustrated many common disabilities to Jewish students much younger than herself — especially when she encouraged the kids to try out her “regalia” for themselves!
Since 2009, February has been observed as Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month, a designation adopted by a special education consortium. We can be proud that five years later, thanks to Yachad/National Jewish Council for Disabilities, it has also become North American Inclusion Month (NAIM), recognized with a U.S. House of Representatives resolution stressing nationwide educational and employment goals.
Today, “disability” and “inclusion” have achieved buzzword status, and are being used positively in effective efforts that we can support right here in our community. Here’s a sampling of events:
This coming Sunday morning, Shearith Israel’s religious school will host residents and clients of CHAI for a special Tu B’Shevat program. The next evening, CHAI itself will offer a special program at its office, designed to help parents better understand what to expect when their special needs children reach adulthood at 18.
Special Shabbat events are scheduled by several congregations: Rabbi Sternman will speak about inclusion Friday evening the 17th at Adat Chaverim; Rabbi Zelony will do the same the next morning at Beth Torah, where members of its Inclusion Initiative Committee will receive aliyahs. And Temple Shalom’s Sisterhood will welcome Chai members and their families to dinner after the evening service Feb. 24.
Dallas’ Jewish Family Service Special Needs Partnership works year-round to help further an inclusive community. The agency tells us that Studio Movie Grill offers a free family-friendly movie every month, featuring brighter lights, lower volume, and physical freedom for special needs kids and their siblings who need to move around during the show.
About its own programming, JFS is reminding parents, and other adults charged with caring for special needs children, of a conversation with agency professionals Feb. 22. That evening’s event, one in a regular monthly series, will focus on laws of special importance to their families.
The Union for Reform Judaism heralded this month’s start Jan. 26, when its daily “Ten Minutes of Torah” email post was themed to the Biblical reminder of our responsibilities to those with special needs. On behalf of the Movement’s Religious Action Center, Walter Bennett quoted Leviticus 19:14: “You shall not insult the deaf, or put a stumbling block before the blind,” pointing out that “…this commandment is not a reminder to treat all people equally. In fact, it singles out behavior that is unacceptable explicitly because of the people affected. Not cursing the deaf and not placing a stumbling block before the blind reminds us, first and foremost, about the ways in which people are affected by their disabilities…Cursing the deaf and placing stumbling blocks before the blind are not only reprehensible acts, but also diminish contact between people. This passage reminds each of us to dialogue continuously with those with disabilities.”
And here’s what Jewish Family Service will offer during its Feb. 28 board meeting, a fitting conclusion to Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month: Members will have their own inclusion experience, which promises to be composed of “interactive multi-sensory simulations of common disabilities.” That takes me back to Joyce Rosenfield, with thanks for grasping the idea of personal experience in special needs education early-on, and putting it into action.
Let’s make every month the same as February with our own actions. Start by contacting the Dallas Jewish Federation or any Jewish community institution for possible opportunities to participate.

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Friedan’s tense car ride prelude to speech of life

Posted on 02 February 2017 by admin

This is Groundhog Day, so I’m wishing a happy birthday to my daughter, who, like many born Feb. 2, has a special “groundhog birth certificate” and has learned to spell Punxsutawney correctly.
But today, I’m also thinking about Betty Friedan, who was born Feb. 4, 1921, and died 11 years ago — on her 85th birthday. Her stereotype-shaking The Feminist Mystique was published in February 1963, and has come to be considered one of America’s most influential books ever. Groundbreaking to some, insulting to others — these were immediate after-the-fact assessments. But I lived the book at that time, and here’s how it directly affected me:
After college and marriage (almost simultaneous, very common for upper-middle-class young women in the mid-1950s, who were supposed to earn husbands along with their degrees), I wrote for a weekly paper until my first child was born, when I did what was expected of me:  retreated to full-time homemaking. Unusual: I had worked up until the day of my delivery, since I was earning that other woman’s degree of the time, a “PH.T,”  for “Putting Hubby Through” his master’s.
He graduated; we moved to Chicago, where for several years — during which I had my second child —– I cooked, cleaned, did some sporadic freelance writing, pushed a stroller in the park, and attended Tuesday “Mothers’ Morning Out” at the local Jewish center. Then my husband took a new job that moved us, in the same year as Mystique’s publication, to the city’s farthest south suburban outpost — Park Forest, Illinois, the Organization Man town of William Whyte, whose own 1956 book was as groundbreaking in its own way as was Betty Friedan’s in hers.
There I scored a job with a large suburban newspaper chain that had an outlet office within walking distance of my home, so I could work part-time and be able to get back in the house before the kids came home from school. All the neighbor women were appalled except one: She’d gone to work full-time after consulting with her minister, who warned that her depression would escalate if she didn’t start doing something more fulfilling for herself.
I didn’t need my rabbi to tell me the same thing. But my husband made fun of my job and of my participation in a new-style women’s group, factors that heralded the end of our marriage.
Then I began full-time newspapering, writing on social issues including the burgeoning women’s movement and working with a sociology professor at the nearby state university who was a pioneer in women’s studies. She had managed to secure Friedan for a local speaking appearance, and on that day I was in my office while she made the 45-minute drive into the city to pick up the feminist icon. But Friedan was not in the hotel lobby at the agreed-upon time, forcing her “chauffeur” to abandon the car and rush into the lobby to call the room. When she finally appeared, Friedan was visibly unhappy and began to vent about how she was tired of travel, commitments, even resented the accompanying adulation, etc., etc., etc. The professor was appalled, and angry.
Here’s what I heard when my desk phone rang: “Harriet,” she screamed, “I can’t believe what I did!” For after having had enough of the continuous bad-mouthing, she pulled her car over onto the busy highway’s shoulder, reached across Friedan to open the passenger door, and said “Either you stop complaining, or you can get out here and find your own way back to the hotel!” After which Friedan closed the door herself, put her head back, and promptly fell asleep — silent for the rest of the trip!
Neither of those two women said a word to each other afterward. But that evening, I was front and center when Betty Friedan wowed a packed house with what may well have been the best speech of her long and controversial life!

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US connection to Ten Commandments slowly loosening

Posted on 26 January 2017 by admin

Usually, I don’t think too much, not too consciously anyway, about the Ten Commandments until Shavuot is almost upon us.
But this year is different. Two reasons: (1) the hoopla attached to the Trump election and inauguration; (2) the fact that I’ve done a major cleanup in my office and located something about those Commandments that shouldn’t have to wait for the holiday to be thought about.
The main file I emptied was huge, as piles of saved paper go. Everything old — some items by a decade or even more! They resided in an old-fashioned accordion-type file, with alphabetized compartments into which I’d thrown things more or less connected only by initial letters of their basic subject matter, and never looked at again. I was on the verge of just tossing the whole business into my recycling bags. But…but…but…
The desire to look before pitching won out, and I found a few treasures. The one that made me think of the Man on the Mountaintop early this year was a report from the Library of Congress quoting a presentation titled “Holy Moses! A Cultural History of the Ten Commandments in Modern America.” It was one of many talks by Jenna Weissman Joselit, then a Princeton professor spending the summer of 2007 as that Library’s Distinguished Visiting Scholar. More recently, she has become director of the Judaic Studies Program at George Washington, right there in D.C.
Let me quote a bit from what this prolific woman had to say a decade ago: “The Ten Commandments cast a long shadow over the body politic these days. Angry words about the appropriate role for the Commandments in 21st-century America fill the air, as proponents and opponents square off. Have they always been the stuff of controversy? Or is this a new phenomenon — the consequences of a rapidly changing world?”
I’ve seen this change during my own long life: America no longer seems to articulate, as it used to years ago, its prideful founding on Judeo-Christian values, which of course have their beginnings in our own Bible, with the Tablets — first written by the finger of God — that Moses brought down from that mountaintop. Today, the references seem to be all about Christian; the Judeo root that birthed the other is for the most part forgotten. How and why has this happened?
Joselit recognized it early. “Throughout much of the mid-19th and 20th centuries, Americans of all stripes identified strongly with the Decalogue and the figure of Moses, incorporating them into the domestic sphere as well as the public square — into the nation’s visual culture as well as its political rhetoric.” In her presentation, she cited many places in which the Ten Commandments once made regular appearances in our nation’s culture: synagogue and church architecture, plays and pageants in Sunday schools both Jewish and Christian, movies such as that huge epic by Cecil B. DeMille that we’ve all seen (and laughed after-the-fact at its pretentiousness), which she calls “legendary.” But most of these concrete references are long gone now. Yes, there are still six-pointed stars on our dollar bills, but hardly anyone notices them any more.
Joselit has too many credits to her name to list here. She has written many articles for a range of publications plus a column for The Forward; she has been a visiting professor at Yale, Temple, NYU and the Jewish Theological Seminary, and many other universities; she has served as consultant for many museums — Jewish and other — and as exhibit curator at the National Yiddish Book Center. And she has written a number of books on a variety of Jewish subjects.
But the one I think the most important is her newest. Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments will be released by Oxford University Press on April 28 of this year — just in time for the May 1 start of Shavuot!

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‘Stumbling’ on plain-sight memorials

Posted on 19 January 2017 by admin

Several months ago, I ran into (not literally, thanks be!) an old acquaintance in a Tom Thumb parking lot.
It was chilly, so the usual pleasantries of reconnection were short. But she made an urgent request. As a Jew who had successfully exited Germany in advance of the Holocaust, she asked me to tell our TJP readers about something that has happened since in her native country: the profusion of commemorative plaques — permanent, ground-level reminders of those many others whose lives ended in that horror of all horrors.
Stolpersteine — literally, “stumbling stones” — now mark many places where long-gone victims once lived or worked. Permanently imbedded into pavements, these are literal “stumbling blocks” in the paths of pedestrians who now walk the cities of 18 European countries. They cannot be ignored.
Gunter Demnig, an environmental artist from Cologne who had first worked on several Holocaust memorials since the early ’80s, came up with this new idea a decade later. Taking his lead from the Talmud — “A man is not forgotten until his name is forgotten” — the Cologne resident began the installation of these sidewalk stones in 1993. Since then, many thousands have been placed.
Following Demnig’s original, each stolperstein is a 10-by-10-by-10 centimeter brass-faced concrete block whose inscription reads: “HERE lived (or worked) NAME, born YEAR, FATE, and DATE AND PLACE OF DEATH.” It is set in front of the last place occupied by that person of his or her free will, before Nazi deportation. In addition to Jews, other victims are remembered, such as Nazi-defying Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and Romani.
By the end of two decades, more than 35,000 stolpersteine had been installed, most in Germany, but others in Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic. On July 3, 2013, the 40,000th stone was laid in the northern Netherlands near the German border. On Jan. 11, 2015, stone No. 50,000 was placed in Turin, Italy, preceding the 70th anniversary of the Auschwitz death camp liberation.
The original mission has broadened over these years to include certain others: surviving adults who were able to escape, and children who were saved. And the project has entered the most up-to-date realms of communication, including social media: A locator map is now available at www.stolpersteine-online.com, and the Stolpersteine mobile app provides updated pictures and data plus download assistance for searches. There is a YouTube video, a documentary film, and much more that can be accessed by the computer-savvy; the official website is www.stolpersteine.eu.
An interesting sidelight: Although more than 1,000 German towns and cities now embrace stolpersteine, Munich, where the Nazi movement originated, stopped allowing them in 2004, when its civic leaders decided that the city, so near to Dachau, was already surrounded by memorial sites. And surprisingly enough, strong support for continuing this ban has come from a leader of Munich’s 4,000-member Jewish community, Charlotte Knobloch, 82. She, who survived in hiding with a Catholic family, has argued that the victims are victimized again by people walking on their stones.
However, the ban has recently been lifted, due to residents like Peter Jordan, 91, who saw his parents’ stones dug up when it first went into effect: “It was as if they were deported a second time,” he said. And like 82-year-old Ernst Grube, who survived a concentration camp after losing his closest family members to the gas chambers: “The time has come for relatives to be allowed to choose their own way of remembering their dead.”
As I recently finished reading The Nazi Officer’s Wife, Edith Hahn Beer’s amazing Holocaust memoir, a single reference to one stolperstein in its appendix reminded me that it was high time to keep my pre-Thanksgiving promise. So I scurried off to learn enough to properly honor my autumn commitment to that old acquaintance’s request. The results are above, and I hope I’ve succeeded.
Now I’ll continue following the growing reach of this unusual project. Please do the same!

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