Thursday, August 8, 2019

Old Ruti's Post of Practical Cats

7 Av 5779.
When I was a girl, we grew up with cats named Horatio P. Worthington and Thadeus P. Morley. I can't remember how much input we children had in the names. Maybe my mother made them up entirely, and our job was mere life-long memorization and appreciation. Maybe it was a group project. In any case, the mesora stuck, with the usual generational tweaks. After all, post-1960, you can't give a cat the initial "P" for "Pussycat" with a straight face. Such is the tragic usurpation of language by the prurient. But I digress -- and the chow line is forming.

Outside my door awaits Winston Katrick O'Boogie IV for his bowl of Friskies, augmented by Shabbat leftovers. Crouching on the artificial grass some meters away, looking abused and resentful, Mrs. Efluvia Katharine Hissinbottom, aka Hissbutt, waits her turn. Nearby scamper her progeny: Stop, Drop and Roll. They will not be permitted indoors. They are being paid in advance to hang around outside.

During our first five years in Neve Daniel, we were relieved (especially after life in rat-infested Baltimore) to meet nary a rodent. Cats crept everywhere -- but the trade-off was fine with us. In year six, something or someone killed off all the local feral cats... and in the space of a few months, I had the unpleasant duty of catching in my home and killing two mice and one rat. (My manly men were incapacitated by squeamishness and unwarranted rodent compassion. You should have heard the existential angst!) Little by little, cats tentatively reappeared, and I have done my best since then to employ them with bits of leftover fish and chicken.

My son is sure that I will become the local cat lady, inviting into my home dozens of Snowballs and Mittens and Fuzzywuzzys. Nope. Not happening. The best my greedy grimalkins can hope for is a little steady grub, and to be greeted by a classy name.

I think Mama is smiling in Heaven, happy that I take pride in folding towels like she did, that I teach people to peel mushrooms the way she taught me to, and that I name cats with cat-tail long and equally crooked honorifics.

There are goodhearted people in your community who make it their mission-of-kindness to round up cats and cart them off to the ASPCA for neutering and shots. Find them, join them, and keep the rats away while keeping the feline population at a healthy level.

The title is offered without any particular apologies to T.S. Eliot. He's dead; and in any case, he wasn't particularly fond of my kind of cat.


Monday, July 22, 2019

Meta Me Some Old Time Radio

19 Tamuz 5779.

The Narrator, played by David Eastman
Last year, I wrote about the best birthday ever, when my loving children paid money to have me thrown out of an airplane. It really was the best birthday present ever -- until now.

It started as a day like any other day. We decided to visit our kids and grandkids in Modi'in. After a particularly great visit with the small daughters of one of our young couples, we helped see them off to bed, and decided to go for a walk to let the parents rub two or three complete sentences together in private, something all parents of active kids appreciate.

The Dearly Beloved was acting slightly odd (though I'd become used to this after the last couple of months. More later). He was watching the time -- not normal -- and insisted that we make it back to the apartment by 9 PM. Okay, fine...

Dex Ranger, played by Joshua Eastman
We reentered the apartment to shouts of "Surprise!" and "Happy birthday, Ema!" from the crowd of Eastmans. This was extremely surprising, because my birthday isn't for another two months. Better still, the computer was open and facing me, offering not one but two overseas families sending real-time wishes and smiles. I was feeling happy, overwhelmed and confused all at once. But it got better...

For two months, the family was preparing for a blockbuster surprise. (I was relieved to discover that the Dearly Beloved's recent tendency to quickly douse whatever he was doing on his computer whenever I entered the room wasn't due to a sudden fascination with Things He Shouldn't Be Viewing on the Internet, or worse.) Here's the scoop.

My family knows that I love Old Time Radio (OTR). Back in simpler days (mostly before I was born), there was no internet and no television, and families gathered around the radio to be entertained by dramatized stories, often ending with positive moral messages. Hallmarks of such radio plays were the public service announcements and commercials with college-educated English, clever sound effects, and mood-setting organ music woven throughout. Since they were recorded live, the background history is full of behind-the-scenes stories that still make me smile nearly as much as the comedies.

Constable Huxtable, played by Dani Eastman
Of all the stories, my favorites were the murder mysteries. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, variously interpreted by the great actors of the day, offered intriguing puzzles to be solved. Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe gave us hard-boiled detective fiction and some great prose. (See especially The Red Wind with Van Heflin and Gerald Mohr for a taste of artfully-penned stories-for-your-mind.) During my formative teen years, a group called Firesign Theatre produced a delightfully irreverent parody of OTR called Nick Danger, Third Eye. Never as interested in television (which requires sitting still) as in radio, my internal playground was always filled with the sights and sounds and characters from the old classics.This hobby continues even now, as it's much easier to clean a house to audio rather than visual entertainment. Music is for writing. Rabbis' lectures are for erev Shabbat. And OTR stories are for adding immense pleasure to every day.

Back to the future...

The Secretary, played by Daniella Eastman

A couple of months ago, my son Josh sent out to all our sons and daughters-in-love a script for an hour-long radio play called The Day That Time Forgot. (Click on the title to listen to the radio program on YouTube, but only when you have a good hour to spare.) The participants were instructed to send Josh their lines via Whatsapp voice recordings, and they were asked to make an in-costume black and white photo. They did, surprisingly, around exceedingly busy lives, and in total secrecy (which is not easy for such a communicative family. Kudos). Their accents and acting were marvelous! Josh wove the entire collection of disparate recordings together with sound effects, the requisite organ music, and a Firesign Theatre level of humor.

Mrs. Gloria Miles, played by Tova Eastman

Jimmy the Fist, played by Yoni Eastman

Molly Featherhammer, played by Naomi Eastman


Seamus Rajah O'Culty, played by Aryeh Eastman


Momma Lonny Ranger, played by Ayala Eastman

Velvel Gezhunt, played by Sam Bosley

Vladmirova Gezhunt, played by Michelle Bosley

Sterling Shimmers, played by Sima Eastman

Supreme Detective Texas "Dex the Tex" Texas Ranger, played by Avi Eastman

Fun behind-the-scenes facts you can only get from an insider:
  • Sam, my only non-Jewish son, got all the good Yiddish lines, and performed them with an expertise borne, no doubt, of something buried deep in his genetic makeup. (His maternal grandfather was Jewish.)
  • Tova is from Maryland, with its unique southern-ish accent, while Naomi is from Monsey. The ladies swapped accents for their dramatic performances. Delightful!
  • The grandkids act as well as the adults! Who knew?
  • The script is loaded with clues and jokes that only family will get, as well as proof that the playwright did a lot of research into OTR! Nice job, artistes!
Now, how can you possibly top this birthday??? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode, brought to you by Rx Brand Cigarettes and Dino Bone Coal!

All photos of the stars are presented in order of appearance in the play to avoid, yet again, that familiar canard that Ema has a favorite child. Her clear favorite child is the old guy who appears last because, as the Sages have taught us, "Aharon, aharon haviv," the last is the most beloved. That's you, Dex the Tex, you big dog, you. Thanks for helping me raise up all them cute pups.

Glossary - Meta: a bit of modern slang-play for the Kantian concept of das Ding an sich, the thing in itself. More clearly, making a radio play about the mystery radio show industry isn't meta. Making a radio mystery play about making a radio mystery plays is. Does that help?

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Only a Click Away

14 Tamuz 5779.

Through Vacation-Colored Glasses, by Dani
The hardest thing about making aliyah is, of course, being separated from friends and family.

Thanks to technology, we can at least talk inexpensively (and even for free!): Internet phone lines, various forms of "face time," Whatsapp and other instant messaging platforms have replaced long-distance phone calls and email... which long ago replaced handwritten letters for most people. (Disclaimer: I admire those of you who still write letters and postcards. They are beautiful and meaningful, and can be treasured in the special teak-and-ivory box I save for the purpose. But I'm part of the say-it-and-send-it-now crowd, unashamedly.)

Life is busy. Making time to be in touch, especially for those temperamentally of few words, can be challenging. While some of us in the family chatter away on one or another of our various Whatsapp groups, others have been more reticent. We miss them; and while we respect their need for a little less communication, we long to hear their voices.

I'd like to give credit to my far-away (for now) son, Josh, for his brilliant contest that has created a solution for our family.

Unexpected Blossoms, by Sima
Josh knows we are a family of quips and quotations, and that we love a good competition. He designed the "Eastman Pic Challenge" on Whatsapp as a means of enhancing our family communication.

The rules -- at least before each week's evolution -- are fairly simple. Each person can submit up to five photos to the Whatsapp group each week. They can be about anything except family members (and especially kids), because it's no fair using family to sway votes. If the caption is clever, it can increase the points.

Legoscape, by Michelle







Each week's winner gets to choose next week's theme; and while the photographer doesn't have to stick to the theme, more points are available for thematic shots. At the end of the week, everyone gets to vote for first, second and third place (and on heavy-participation weeks, even fourth and fifth place), and an honorable mention. Abba and I frequently cheat here and vote for multiples; but that's the benefit of being old. AHIP: Age Has Its Privileges.

Nostalgic, by Josh

Josh calls himself the Arbitrary Arbitrator, meaning that he gets the final say about the vote tally, and how the rules will change.

We are used to this: Josh declared at the age of five that his life career goal was to be a benevolent dictator. Also, he spent his entire childhood creating amazing board games and role-playing games for his brothers.



All of the brothers changed the rules to games such as Monopoly, Risk, Life... and their friends tolerated and loved the changes in equal measure.
Nature's Nesting Doll, by David

But the Arbitrary Arbitrator arbitrates with the assistance of some fairly sophisticated tech program algorithm... and honestly, we don't care. Somebody is going to win a bottle of something... and will no doubt share. (If he or she lives on the other side of the pond, we'll just have to share virtual l'chayims. Like I said -- we'll work it out.) When the contest ends, Josh plans to make a book of the favored shots for family members to have and to hold. And knowing this gang, there will be future (and of course, modified) Challenges to come.

The Challenge has all of us looking at the world with more attention to detail.

Soft, by Aryeh
We're seeing things around us as we've never seen them, finding visual secrets to share with each other. We're not just using our cell phones to zone out of what's going on around us. We're using them as a means to engage.

Focused, by Ayala
Why So Cirrius?, by Lowenthology
Best of all, the family is communicating at an unprecedented level. Even the quiet ones are participating more than ever before.

There are no politics. There is gentle teasing, but it's all done in good taste. There's a lot of cheerleading.

Since Josh's in-laws are also in the game, we are getting to know them better. (Gosh, they have wonderful senses of humor! They fit right in.)

I'm not sure what I enjoy more: finding out how each of my family members' minds work, how they see the world around them -- or that they are sharing with each other at an unprecedented level.

Way to go, Josh.


Butterfly Flowers, by Abba

If Life's a Beach, I'll Take It, by Tova

The Ever-Flowing Circle of Life, by Naomi

If you're looking for a way to enhance long-distance family or old friend communication that is not taxing but fun, I recommend your own Whatsapp Pic Challenge.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

"They stole it from us."

8 Sivan 5779.

For Goldie. May you be comforted.

Reb Velvel Pasternak, zt"l. Photo credit: Naava Pasternak Swirsky
Oh, man.

I hurt every time light and music leave the world.

In 1986 or so, the Dearly Beloved and I began to become enmeshed in All Things Jewish.

We didn't know where this would lead us — but we were entranced. Part of what grabbed us was the music. And the humor. And the love of culture, old and new.

One friend gave us books to help us on our path toward understanding. Another gave us cassette tapes. (Remember those?) One of the most precious was a lecture by Velvel Pasternak about the origins and history of Hasidic music. I think I listened to it a hundred times. His humor and his love of all things Jewish made Reb Velvel's class a lot deeper than "bidee-bum-bidee-bee." I fell in love with the music of my European ancestors, and felt as if I had a door into my people's culture. Spouting bits of wisdom from Reb Velvel's lecture made me sound as if I understood a little about Jewish music, and that gave me a foot in the door...

I remember our wonder when Reb Velvel taught about music that was "rescued" from non-Jewish sources, music discovered floating outside the windows of churches and taverns, that later found expression in holy Jewish niggunim. (You think we invented "Maoz Tzur," right? It came from "Rock of Ages," a very not-Jewish hymn. Some Jewish farmer was walking past a church after plowing his field, and suddenly, a lovely tune filled his mind and soul. All he had to do was put words to the music in his heart...)

"If it's used in a Jewish way, it becomes Jewish," Reb Velvel intoned. And how we laughed when he quoted an elderly Jewish man regarding the tune of a niggun which proved to have a non-Jewish source: "Don't vorry. Zeh stole it from uns."

Years later, after a few more wonderful teachers and much blessing, my family and I were able to make aliyah as full-fledged members of the Jewish tribe.

Ruti and Shira. Photo credit: a kind Israeli passerby
The passion I had since childhood found expression at last: a word-person without any particularly grand ideas of her own finally had What To Say, thanks to the holy land of Israel. And I found other writers who shared my vision about this precious land and its people, and we became friends...

And one of those friends was the daughter of Reb Velvel — because God loves to put people's hearts together.

Shira Pasternak Be'eri is one of the people I consider to be a gift to the Jewish family. Like her dear father, her heart swells and beats and dances for the Jewish people. She takes such pride in encouraging and teaching. She is known in the J-Blogosphere as the Fairy Blog Mother. Even when she has been going through the loss of her father — for such loss never happens overnight, in an eyeblink — she has continued to pop up in our writers' community, encouraging a writer who is just starting out, teaching another about the ins-and-outs of publishing, reminding the "old hands" to read the stuff of newcomers and to comment, to keep the fire burning...

Just like her dad.

May those who know continue to teach and encourage.

May those who are privileged to learn remember the source of their wisdom.

Thank you, Reb Velvel, for all the gifts you have added to the world of music, of writing, of ahavat Yisrael. May you rest in peace.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Playing with the Grave Issue of Conversion Annulment

7 Sivan 5779.


It's unusual for a play to keep me from sleeping well. But I was in for one of those patented tossing-and-turning nights after watching Miriam Metzinger's play at Jerusalem's Khan Theater a few days before Shavuot.

Directed by Yael Valier as part of her debate-provoking Theater and Theology series, In a Stranger's Grave strikes very close to home for me. Two religious Jewish sisters prepare for the funeral of their mother in Israel, only to receive the shocking news that the burial society will not allow her to be buried in the Jewish section of the cemetery next to her husband. Their once-pious mother had discarded Jewish observance after the death of her husband, resulting in the rabbinical court questioning her original commitment at the time of her conversion to Judaism decades before.

When my husband and I converted to Judaism in 1989, we were deeply touched by Frankfurt's Chief Rabbi's words just prior to our immersions in the mikvaot: "What was before no longer is. Once you go through this process, there is no undoing it. If chas v'shalom you would decide not to live as Jews, you would still be Jews, and would have to answer to God for failing to live up to your responsibilities." He said these words as a "last chance" for us to change our minds. But what resonated for us was "once a Jew, always a Jew," and with that privilege came responsibility. We understood that our Jew-ness could never be taken away.

In 2008, our world shifted tectonically. The unprecedented annulment of conversions that had been supervised by Rabbi Hayyim Druckman changed the lives of some of our friends, and created a ripple effect causing converts everywhere to doubt the security of their status within the Jewish family.

Throughout the following decade, we were personally affected by the Rabbinate's hesitation to accept conversions as valid which had been performed outside Israel. Were it not for the extraordinary efforts of our yishuv Rav in advocating on our behalf, not one of our four sons would have been permitted to have a kosher wedding in Israel.

Metzinger's play fairly addresses many questions. In the words of Yael Valier: "Can anyone but the convert judge the sincerity of her conversion? Can Jewish status be annulled? Can the pain of the individual ever trump the needs of the community? Must a society take risks that could lead to the erosion of its own values?"

The play's characters struggle with these questions, and the audience feels them, along with the conflicting and shifting loyalties toward and between the sisters, portrayed by Devorah Leah Jaffe and Avital Macales. Macales plays Esther, the central figure in the drama, whose sanity threatens to desert her under the weight of this life-altering emotional earthquake. Jaffe plays her sister Chana, struggling to keep her family together, even as she and Esther face the reality that it is not only their mother's Jewish status that is in question...

As a convert, I found all my anxieties welling to the surface, as the debate raged on stage. I tried to be fair to the rabbi representing the burial society. Played by Howard Metz, the rabbi's concerns for the larger Jewish community were deftly but compassionately expressed. Bakol Ruben Gellar, Charles B. Davies, Mordechai Buxner and Syma Davidovich all played the roles of friends, family and colleagues whose loyalty to the two sisters fluctuates sadly and believably throughout the story. (I joked with these actors after the play that it was good there was a question-and-answer period following their performance, because it gave me a chance to get over being mad at them.) Our hero is Rabbi Aaron, played by David Golinkin. In essence "playing himself," as Valier pointed out, Rabbi Golinkin argues passionately on behalf of the inviolability of conversions, bringing many textual proofs to support his position. Happily, the play is allowed lighter moments through Aharon Naiman's characterization of a police officer, during humorous and tender moments with the volatile Esther.

After the play, there was a discussion between Valier and Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopes Cardozo, himself a convert. Their discussion and the audience's questions touched on the personal as well as the larger Jewish community's needs. Not surprisingly, a large part of the discussion centered on whether the needs of the Jewish community are being met by the rulings of Israel's Chief Rabbinate.

I hope that the discussion will continue well beyond the drama depicted on stage in In a Stranger's Grave. It is an important discussion with far-reaching ramifications. This is not an easy play to watch, but I strongly recommend you take the chance of a sleepless night. Our Jewish family — our greater Jewish family — needs to address the questions Miriam Metzinger's story so adroitly presents.

In a Stranger's Grave is sold out! To be put on a first-to-know list in advance of our fall run, you are encouraged to send an email to Contact@TheaterAndTheology.com.

Photo credit: Yael Valier



Saturday, April 13, 2019

Mental Gymnastics and the Holy Shabbat

9 Nisan 5779.

Years ago, when the boys were young, we played board games or card games on Shabbat. It was a great way to spend the long summer days and made wonderful family time. My sons were competitive, a trait they inherited from their dear father. Their wizardry with reinventing games, rewriting rules, and creating their own games still astounds me. The games were never boring. But how to keep score, when you couldn't write things down on this very holy day?

One of the boys came home from yeshiva with the idea of bookmarking page numbers in books. No writing, and scores were logged. This was later replaced by the many-sided dice that came with role-playing games. Give each person three dice, and scores into the hundreds could be tallied. Oh these ingenious Jews...

This clever device has been extrapolated to fulfill other Shabbat needs met so easily during the week with pen and paper or keyboard. You know how you only remember certain things on Shabbat? When you can't write yourself a note to take care of it later? God has such a witty sense of humor... Well, He created us, and He gave us the gift of innovation.

Today I remembered two things I had to take care of. I only have the time to notice the dust and spider webs on Shabbat. Honestly! I never see them the rest of the week! But how was I to remember? I laid a packet of plastic flies used for the Pesach Seder on my desk. When Shabbat ended, the flies would remind me of spiders, which would remind me of spider webs...

Later in the day, it suddenly occurred to me that a friend had written a really lovely note to us about an interview the Dearly Beloved had given about American football in Israel. I had shared it with the Dearly Beloved, and we had both enjoyed it -- but to my chagrin, I realized that I had never responded. The email must be nearly two weeks old! Not wanting to risk forgetting again, I placed a clown decoration near the flies. Why? Because the clown would remind me that I owed a response to our friend -- a medical clown.

The human mind may be fallible. Jewish law may be challenging. But with God's help, we can always come up with ways to keep the rules, and still remember what we must do for the other six days of the week and for our commitment to our fellow man. I like to think that God approves of His children's efforts to keep His rules while using the creativity He gave them.

Shavua tov! What memory tricks work for you when you can't use pen and paper?

Monday, January 21, 2019

I am planting for my children

Tu B'Shevat 5779.

"May your roots go deep while your branches reach toward Shemayim." -- Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak "Jay" Novetsky of Michigan

While the sage Choni was walking along a road, he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked him: “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” replied the man. Choni then asked: “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?” The man answered: “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of life in Israel is watching established communities or homes destroyed in pursuit of an elusive peace. Or destroyed punitively in a property dispute, as if monetary compensation -- you know, the way the rest of the civilized world handles such matters -- simply isn't enough.

Those of us watching on the sidelines feel so impotent. What can we do? In the words of twelve-year-old Zipporah Nuszen, "Sometimes you just have to take things into your own hands. Sometimes, you just have to take responsibility."

Moved by the plight of the residents of communities such as Amona, Ofra and Kfar Tapuach in the Shomron, and our own neighboring village here in Yehuda, Netiv HaAvot, Zipporah decided to do something with her own hands to protest the destruction of her fellow Jews' homes. Her bat mitzvah project was to plant 72 trees -- one for each destroyed home in those four communities -- at the entrance to the new yishuv of Amichai, where the displaced residents of Amona will live.


While the whole family gave its blessing in a heartfelt video at Zipporah's bat mitzvah celebration, Mrs. Shannon Nuszen, Zipporah, and her sister Samantha were the only members of the clan who were available this sunny Tu B'Shvat to actually participate in the planting.


I appreciated Sam's usual sense of humor. "Mom would never let us dig holes in the ground in Houston. But here, we get to dig holes everywhere to our hearts' content!"

There were speeches from the rabbi of Amichai and other members of the community, most of which were in Hebrew (so I could only understand the gist of the message). One resident, Manya Hillel, gave a lovely talk in English, quoting an old Chinese saying reminiscent of our own Jewish story of the man who plants a fig tree: "The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. And the second best time to plant a tree is today."

Manya spoke about the trees planted twenty years ago, with all of the hope that planting entails, and the tragedy of having those trees violently ripped away. "One day, maybe twenty years from now, you will be able to come to Nuszen Park here in Amichai... and tell your children about when you planted trees here, and perhaps pick some olives."

People came from throughout the Shomron and Yehuda (Judea and Samaria) to participate in planting trees, which is considered one of the special mitzvot when dwelling in the holy land of Israel. It was cathartic to "get our hands dirty," to feel like we were doing something positive toward ameliorating a terrible situation. No, of course, the problem will not be solved until we choose sovereignty over poor political band-aids, and until our legal system is restructured so that property disputes are solved financially rather than destructively. But in the meantime, we build.

Women, men and children worked and dug, gently settled young saplings into new nests, lovingly placed fragrant soil around their roots to give them a safe home in holy earth.

There was energy here, and hope, and a quiet defiance.

Most admirably, people who had been displaced came to support the project. The presence of Rabbi and Anita Tucker gave us all a lot of strength. Trees were planted by residents of Ofra and Netiv HaAvot. I complimented them on not sitting around feeling sorry for themselves -- which would be completely understandable! -- but instead coming to be supportive of their brethren.

"We're all family," said David Den Heijer, a resident of Netiv HaAvot whose home was recently destroyed for the sake of a meter of disputed space.

And Anita Tucker summed it up. "You have two choices in this situation," she said. "You can choose this [a thumbs up], or you can choose this [a thumbs down]." Anita always chooses to add light, rather than to succumb to the darkness.

Much like the Nuszen family.

How do you fight darkness and the destruction of your people's homes?


I admire that the accepted Jewish way is not to meet destruction with violence, but with planting, creating, building, bringing new life.

The Dearly Beloved sporting his Gush Katif orange sweatshirt ('just for the Nuszens") while breaking through rocks to make way for his olive tree.

Our future is the children. That has always been true, and especially here in these holy, disputed communities.

"You want me on that wall. You need me on that wall!"
My brief moment of fame: a selfie with "the selfie king," MK Oren Hazan. I admire that he took the time to come and speak in a location that may or may not get him piles of votes, and that he said beautiful words about the project of this remarkable family.

On our way home, we and our South African friends, Razi and Chaya Baruch, decided we should make a pilgrimage every twenty years to visit "our trees." With his typical pragmatism, the Dearly Beloved recommended we drop by every five years. It was agreed, and now it's a date!