Archive | Light Lines

Sad, cruel results of Usher’s syndrome

Posted on 22 June 2017 by admin

Shakespeare calls music “the food of love.” Of course, he qualifies his statement with “if it be.”
But if he’d said something about reading, I’m sure the comment would be fully inclusive, with no “if” about it.
To read is to pan for gold, forever bringing up bright nuggets to hold (in your head, if not in your hand), to turn around and to admire. The gems found in reading are treasures beyond measure, often surfacing in the most unusual places when you least expect them.
Recently, after reading much about it, I shared here some of the golden nuggets I’d unearthed when reading about Tay-Sachs, a sad disease often connected genetically to Jews of Ashkenazic descent. And now I’m reading about another such disease: Usher syndrome.
The book that was my starting source isn’t scientific or medical; it’s a simple memoir called Not Fade Away by Rebecca Alexander, a young Jewish woman who has Usher’s — a genetic cruelty that steals from its sufferers both eyesight and hearing.
This is by no means a great book, but it certainly deserves reading because of its message. One of its reviewers wrote this about Rebecca, the “messenger”: “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.” We Jews already know such strength from the stories of some very different others — Holocaust survivors come quickly to mind. Now, here, we meet a fraternal twin whose brother is not afflicted as she is, learning how she has thus far successfully navigated her life path of ever-increasing loss, and continues to do so because she has no other choice.
Usher’s reveals itself in several ways. In the first, a child’s difficulties may be present and identifiable at birth. But in the third — as in Rebecca’s case — the onset is slow; because of this, and because the syndrome is rare, it is very difficult to diagnose. Her vision problems came first; the hearing loss came later — an additional, unwelcome surprise.
Rebecca’s theory on Usher’s source is straightforward: Jews with origins in areas such as Kiev — where both her father’s and mother’s families had their genesis — routinely experienced their communities’ decimation by forced military service, pogroms and similar random attacks. These resulted in a diminishing of marriageable choices, which in turn led to cousins marrying cousins. This smaller pool of suitable suitors upped the chances of those carrying “bad” genes ultimately having children together. But no one knew about genes — good or bad — in those days …
There is one member of our local Jewish community routinely encouraging us all to support the Foundation Fighting Blindness, the main organization supporting advancement of treatments for this devastating disease, because her own grandson has it, in its worst form. But thanks to modern medical science, he is on his way to an adulthood of education and accomplishment, which is what the author of Not Fade Away has already achieved.
Here’s what Rebecca Alexander tells us about her own life’s purpose: “As early as I can remember, my father instilled in us the importance of giving back to the community and to the world. There is a Hebrew word, tzedakah, that translates as ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice.’ It is generally used synonymously with ‘charity,’ but what it really means is a balancing of the scales — that charity is not an act of pity, or mercy or even necessarily goodness, but of justice. You give back to make the world a better, fairer place — when you have an abundance, you share with those who have less. This was always an idea that resonated very strongly with me …”
… as it should with us. The Foundation Fighting Blindness welcomes our interest in its ongoing efforts. Visit www.blindness.org to read all about Usher’s syndrome; then read Not Fade Away. Alexander has subtitled her story, a true “giving back” of her personal triumph over adversity, A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found.

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Seniors shouldn’t lose will, ability to stay productive

Posted on 15 June 2017 by admin

Modern medicine is working miracles in extending life expectancy. But the life experiences of three women have me wondering…
1. A local woman recently passed away at the age of 92. She had a long and distinguished career working with youngsters — she was a teacher of elementary schoolers, and the author of children’s books. Her extraordinary productivity was honed by a life of non-affluence; she had to work hard for everything she did that led to her many accomplishments. She even had to defer her second year of college and work instead to earn the money to return to school. But she did it!
However: the last few years of her long life were not productive at all; they were spent in the care facility where Alzheimer’s disease had sent her. I wondered: Even though she could no longer communicate in words or movements — could she think? And, if so — how could anyone know if — or what?
2. A woman recently called me — someone I had known well for a long time when we lived in the same city, but had seen only once since she moved away years ago. A voracious reader, she always shared her knowledge of books with others; she knew what would spark discussions in groups, what would enlighten people in classes, what would sharpen individuals’ knowledge and bring them joy.
She taught our Jewish teenagers in Sunday schools for more than half a century. But now — she is 96, with all the problems that old age can confer: Her physical mobility has waned; her hearing has virtually disappeared; her mental outlook even slid downhill to the point where she actually considered suicide. But of course she did not act on that, although she mourns her lack of productive activity more even than she would mourn her own death.
3. A woman in my old home town recently received something so simple, something most of us take for granted, something she had wanted for her entire life: a high school diploma. When she was a young child in a large family so many, many years ago, she was forced with a choice: Stay home to help out because of her mother’s illness, or continue in school. She was the good daughter who chose Option 1. But recently, at the celebration of her 105th birthday, surrounded by her grandchildren, great-grands and great-great-grands in the care facility where she lived, she finally achieved her goal: The same school district in which she had grown up presented her with an honorary diploma! Then, exactly one week later, she died.
Was this the final — maybe the only — item left on her bucket list? Was it fulfilling her life’s dream that gave her permission to say goodbye?
Old age is the growth industry of our time. Look at the number of care facilities already in operation, and the new ones being built. Reality says long lives await most of us. But within those lives, there are no guarantees. The first woman’s mind gave out long before her body. The second woman’s body has given out long before her mind. For both, productivity has come to an end. Does the first one even know that? The second one does, and the knowledge has threatened to kill her. But the third had a specific goal…
Years ago, I was privileged to hear Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross speak on caring for the aged. Her stress was on productivity: “When a person is lying in bed and can move only one finger,” she said, “we must find something productive for that person to do with that one finger…”
I hope the doctors working their miracles to extend life will also think of that. If we are to live long, we must have lives of productivity in mind and/or body, or at least with the possibility of achieving long-desired goals. The cures for these ills must come soon …

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Tay-Sachs story tough, necessary read

Posted on 08 June 2017 by admin

Recently, a very special gathering was held here: The Tay-Sachs Foundation marked its 60th anniversary with a national conference at the Marriott Quorum.
So: what is Tay-Sachs? It’s a disease caused by the absence of Hexosaminidase-A (Hex-A), a vital bodily enzyme. If you have it, you’re fine. But without it, cells — particularly nerve cells of the brain and spinal cord — suffer from the pileup of a fatty substance called GM2. Most often, sooner rather than later, this will be fatal.
The condition is rare, and inherited; it occurs when a child receives a mutated gene from both parents. Death most often comes within the early months or years of life. But sometimes, those with it live to adulthood. When onset comes later, the disease’s progress is slower. But there’s a sad trade-off: This extended life is filled with physical problems including tremors, muscle cramps and slurred speech.
Tay-Sachs has been on the list of “Jewish diseases” for a long time, and potential parents have been advised to seek testing; they are then advised that if both carry the gene, they should carefully consider the odds of occurrence as they anticipate pregnancy. But I was surprised to learn that, at the recent conference, many attendees — actually most — were not Jewish. It’s now known that the disease is by no means “exclusive.” The more learning there is about genetics, the better the decisions that can be made. But for a couple with the genes, whether to have or not to have children will be a choice with potential heartbreak.
These days, you can read about Tay-Sachs in an easily accessible variety of online sources; after you do, you may want to join the Foundation in its fight against this genetic destroyer of normal life. But I think your heart will be better touched if you first read a part of a little book written by Sherri Manning, a Tay-Sachs mother who is currently president of the Foundation. She tells her story in the imagined, rhyming words of Dylan James, the son that she and husband Brian lost at age 4. She calls it If Only I Could Talk.
Manning “hears” Dylan saying this at birth: “…an angel whispered to me, ‘It’ll be OK. That’s what mommies and daddies are for…They will care for you like no other, and love you forever more. But you see, angel Dylan, you are one of us. You are very unique … God has special plans for you. Your mommy and daddy will receive the news before you turn two…that you’ll never be able to run or play hide and seek…’ ”
Here’s what might once have been called the exception that proves the rule: Neither Sherri Manning nor her husband is Jewish. However, among the Jewish attendees were two local women, good friends who are both very active in the organization’s efforts, because one lost a son when he was only 19 months old. Now — some 50 years later — she rose to speak extemporaneously before the entire audience. Many thanked her personally afterward, because they have the very personal, very sad understanding of all she went through so long ago, and had now shared so freely with them.
For those of you who want to learn more about this tragic killer and join in the fight against it, the best source is this website: www.NTSAD.org (yes — that means National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases! The name alone points out how very much there is yet to learn…)
Sherri Manning concludes Dylan’s story with a rhymed statement about what his too-short life has taught others: “…love, laughter, innocence, hope and compassion…” Its final words are “And so my mission, Dear Lord, is accomplished…without ever having to speak a single word.” This book is not yet available in bound form, but Dylan’s mother has secured her copyright for publication.
I hope all of us will be able to read all of it soon.

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Weiner’s criminal actions gives us all bad name

Posted on 01 June 2017 by admin

So Anthony Weiner has finally confessed to the specific behavior that will earn him a jail sentence.
Not too long ago, the former U.S. Representative stood before a judge in his home state, New York, and confessed his sexual indiscretions. Many of them. But the one that finally brought him before the bar of justice was “sexting” a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina.
I first heard this on the radio, which I always listen to in the car. Much safer than texting (although I wouldn’t be surprised if Weiner had done more than a bit of that himself). When I got home, I watched the clips on television. The next morning, I read all about it in the daily paper.
My reaction was, I suspect, exactly what that of my Boubby the Philosopher would have been: “I hope to God this man isn’t Jewish!  That would be bad for the Jews!” But of course, he is. I had pinned my hopes on learning otherwise because his first name isn’t one most folks would consider particularly Jewish. But Anthony does, indeed, belong to him. (His father’s name, for the record, is Mort.)
I have been in rehab at what used to be Legacy Preston Hollow three different times in recent years. When you’re rehabbing from broken bone surgeries and knee replacements, as I was, the routine is simple: every day you have physical therapy, and if you’re not moved by the day’s activity offerings, you stay in your room and watch a lot of TV. Other than attending Rabbi Howard Wolk’s always-interesting sessions, I mostly stayed in my room and watched a lot of TV. And I have a clear memory of seeing Anthony Weiner making public excuses for himself, vowing to do better (which meant less of what he was doing in the sex department) in the future. I’m not sure exactly when that was, but appearing with this man in disgrace was his wife — near him but a bit behind him, looking downward, as if she’d been crying her eyes out: a classic picture of Stand By Your Man. When the long-running series The Good Wife began airing on television, I wondered if that poor woman had been its inspiration.
A Bronx native, Weiner began what might have become a distinguished public service career as a Democratic congressman from New York, making his first headlines with pleas in the U.S. House urging better health care provisions for emergency responders. But his later headlines went downhill from there, a toxic mix of sex and politics. His wife, Huma Abedin (a Muslim who never took his last name) was a right-hander to Hillary Clinton, which embroiled Weiner in some other problems during the last presidential campaign. But like a “good wife,” she was long-suffering yet forgiving: The New York Post noted, sarcastically, just a couple of months ago that she kept downplaying her husband’s indiscretions: “Fool her four times and she’ll still take you back” was its published remark.
But no more. I’m certainly not going to repeat here what you can find so easily (and in full) in both online and print sources these days: to follow the trail of his dalliances, in person and in pictures, offers the same sort of sick fascination as watching a snake swallow a mouse. However, it seems that Huma is quite human, after all; she has finally filed for divorce. And Weiner, now marked with a lifetime brand of sex offender, cried as he admitted that his actions were both morally and legally wrong, but that he could not overcome his “evil inclinations.” He will be sentenced Sept. 8 — perhaps to 10 years in prison.
Full disclosure here: One of my nieces is a senior attorney in New York’s Southern Federal District, where Weiner will be learning his fate. I have not asked her any questions about this.
She would not have answered them, anyway…

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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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