Sunday, April 19, 2020

"God gathered the scattered of Israel"

Today would have been my father’s 84th birthday.

My father and me
He and my mother parted ways before I turned three… and I never saw him again – until last year.
I did research over the years, hoping to meet him. I found his social security number, his mother’s maiden name, his US army record… eventually, I found out that he had died at the too-young age of 53. My information pretty much stalled out there for several years.
Then a miracle of modern science presented itself. I signed onto and did the DNA test in hopes of finding out more about my father’s side of the family. I found a few links to family tree builders on my mother’s side, but nothing about my father. Then offered its annual half-price sale for full access for six months. With a certain amount of trepidation (because it was costly, even at half-price), I asked the Dearly Beloved if I could indulge. Of course, being the Dearly Beloved, he said yes. I signed up, and spent the night in self-recriminating dreams, wondering what was in my mind, spending all that money for perhaps a clue or two... or maybe nothing. And then it became morning…

The photo that started it all
I logged onto the site and found a photo of my father I’d never seen before. I wrote to the woman who had posted the photo.
Hi, Jeanne. My name is Ruth Eastman, and I am Norbert Winston's daughter. I was delighted to find a photo of him I'd never seen in your file! Can you give me any other information? Are we related, or was he in some way a family friend? At 62 years of age, finding even a glimmer of my past is fascinating and inspiring. I look forward to hearing from you. Regards, Ruth (Ruti) Eastman

Jeanne  the wife of a half-brother I never knew I had  was quick to answer, and we began a lovely correspondence, sharing pictures, memories, small bits of information about Daves and my father, about his and my dear mothers, and about our children.

My brother Dave and my sister-in-law and new best friend Jeanne

A few days later, I awoke to a very special message:

Dear Ruti, I have a link to something you may be quite surprised and happy to see. Several years ago I found a video record of your Dad speaking of his Holocaust survival. It is quite amazing and was particularly interesting to see how much he looked and gestured like my husband Dave. It is under his nickname Kip Winston and the site is United States Holocaust Memorial. I think you will be fascinated. Looking forward to future correspondence. All the best, Jeanne

Jeanne was right. I was and remain fascinated. One Generation After, a Boston-based oral history project conducted by the children of survivors, had interviewed my father. Thanks to Janet Seckel who conducted the interview and the videographer, Wolf Krakowski, I spent an hour and a half with my father, recorded almost exactly a year before he died, listening to him tell his story. 
My father was three years old when the war began, and six when he arrived in the States; so most of his impressions of the war are made up of feelings: terror, panic, confusion. But a few memories are clear.
Norosz and his cousin Yanusz were playing in the yard with a pony. Yanusz was a year or two older than Norosz. Suddenly, bombs were being dropped from planes. The mother of Yanusz, Bronya, called out to the boys in a panic to come inside... Norosz ran toward the house, but Yanusz was slow to respond. A bomb landed on his head and and blew him up... all over little Norosz.
My fathers memories of those years included bad smells and bodies and looks of hatred on the faces of Poles... There was a lot of death in the ghetto. I dont remember a day towards the end, walking outside, when I didnt see bodies. Then all of a sudden, we started hearing of people being taken away...
It was January of 1941. Little Norosz and his parents were on a train in a cattle car with about 200 other people, destined for Treblinka. My father was now four years old, and the war, too, was young. When the train tipped over in the snow and Jews began to stream out into the woods, the German soldiers were perplexed. Were they expected to deliver live Jews, or would dead Jews be acceptable? No one wanted to bring down the wrath of the Reich with a bad decision. So they faltered for a few moments before they made the choice and began shooting. Those few moments allowed a brave and decisive man  my grandfather, Samuel Fienjstien  to grab his wife Rita by the arm and his small son Norosz by the hair and save their lives. 
We ran and ran and ran into the woods... it seemed like hours! We marched around for days. I dont remember how we ate or slept or where, sometimes in barns. We were more afraid of the Poles than of the Germans. The days and hours became weeks... At some point, we found a hunters shack... In order to keep people away, my father put out a sign on the shack that said cholera. That kept people away. My father was a very clever man,” he smiled proudly. 

My father remembering his father
One day a man came to the door  Dr. Braun  who said that perhaps he could help us.” Dr. Braun, a Polish Jew, stayed with the family in the cabin for several days, sharing their food. My father remembered a very significant moment during those few days. In an eerie reprise of the experience he had as a small boy at the beginning of the war, he was playing outside near the cabin when a German plane decided to use me for target practice. Dr. Braun heard the airplane, saw what was going on, ran out and jumped on top of me and got hit, he caught about four of these slugs in him...  they didnt kill him, but that was the end of our staying in the cabin. Sam persuaded a farmer to take Dr. Braun to a doctor. They knew this was dangerous, but they knew he would die of his wounds if he didnt get care. 
There is more to the story of my familys survival and eventual emigration to the United States. But this and one followup story resonate for me, a few days before we observe Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs Remembrance Day.
Twenty years after he was almost strafed by a German war plane, my father ran into Dr. Braun in a Tel Aviv cafe. They renewed their acquaintance, and my grandfather flew from America just to meet the man who had saved his sons life.

Dave has often wondered where you were and if you are healthy and happy.  

Thanks in part to you, lovely lady  my sister!  I am indeed very happy; and thank God, we are healthy.
We are all living through this horrible COVID-19 plague, and I dont know when we will finally meet in person. But I am so grateful to you for filling a big empty space in my personal history. And I am grateful to God for the friendship with you and my brother and your dear family. May our friendship grow for long, healthy, happy years!

Some of my family on the Dearly Beloved's 69th birthday -- Photo credit: Micha Paul
Important postscript: There would only be three people in this photo, if our forebears hadnt escaped or otherwise survived the Holocaust. Thank you, God, for the amazing gifts You have given us. Sam and Rita, Norbert and Sandra... I know you are all smiling from your places in Heaven. A lot of courage and blessing built a special family. May we continue to make you all proud.

The title of this post comes from Tehillim 68.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

A Happy and Kosher Pesach to You!

13 Nisan 5780.

Here is a little drash I heard years ago from “A Famous Rabbi.” (I’m always embarrassed that I cannot remember which famous rabbi...but the concepts are of no less value for my lapse in memory.)

Mere weeks ago, we were greeting each other with the words “Chag Purim sameach!” Have a happy Purim!

At this time of year, we greet each other with “Chag Pesach kasher v’sameach.” May you have a kosher and happy Passover.

But we have that backwards, says the famous rabbi.

Photo by Shannon Nuszen from Purim 5778
At Purim, who cannot be happy? We don’t need to be reminded to be happy. With all the costumes and makeup, kids’ games and parades, feasting and copious amounts of alcohol... who could not be happy? What we need to be reminded of is to keep it kosher: eat and drink for the right reasons, in the right amounts. Remember why we’re doing this. It’s not just mindless drunken revelry, chas v’shalom.

During the buildup to Pesach, it’s all about kosher. Not a speck of chametz anywhere. Clean, clean, clean. We are immersing ourselves in learning and relearning elevated thoughts about the meaning of the holiday. The last thing we need is to be reminded to keep the holiday kosher. (We must be reminded, of course. But last.) What we might forget is to be sameach, to be happy. We get so caught up in the minutiae of cleaning and clearing out the chametz that we forget to have fun. We worry ourselves and our families into unnecessary stress, leaving out the joyfulness that is part of renewal.

The Dearly Beloved was doing the "Box of Plagues" before there was a box of plagues.

Our kids have always looked forward to the yearly signs of the times.
This year, we’re trapped in our homes either with too many people in too little space, or by ourselves in a seemingly vast and lonely cave. Now, more than ever, we must figure out, each at their own Seder table, how to be happy in this holiday. This may be more challenging than the backbreaking work of scrubbing and sanitizing and searching and destroying every hint of chametz. But we are up to the task. In crisis, we find out what we’re made of. I know we can find joy in the work of becoming our finest selves. We can make the pursuit of excellence fun for our kids and satisfying and pleasurable for each other.

What the well-dressed shopper is wearing to the makolet: pearls, mask, matching gloves.
Wishing you a chag Pesach SAMEACH v’kasher!

Sunday, April 5, 2020

How will you live in the post-Coronacaust era?

11 Nisan 5780.

Our lovebud tree, struggling bravely to overcome a blight
Locked inside our homes, we have some time on our hands to be introspective. Some people are alone or have only a significant other at home. Others are busy from morning till night trying to entertain and occupy children of various ages. Still, even for busy families, there are moments to reflect.
Funny how little the stuff matters now. When will I wear my watches again? They are tucked into a drawer with the other nonsense that I used to cram into my little purse, such as ID, credit cards, the bus pass... all the formerly-critical "don't leave home without it" flotsam and jetsam. I haven't touched my change purse in weeks.
On the other hand, the lipstick and blush, the pearls and the earrings… I am still making a point to wear those, as the Dearly Beloved still must look at me every day. What does it cost me to make his heart happy with a little color and fru-fru? (And lest I be accused of being sexist or too 1960s, he also is going to the trouble to look charming for me. You kids will do things your way…)
How much clothing does a person need? Certainly not all that I have in closets and cupboards. I'll probably spend this time deleting it from my possession. (Or at least preparing it for deletion. Who is accepting other people’s things these days?)
What angry words, moments of ego, careless jokes have I uttered that didn't need to be shared, and certainly will have no place in a better, fresher, cleaner post-Coronacaust world?
What really matters?
More than 30 years ago, I was in the US army. Cold showers were the rule during basic training. Even now, decades later, I will never, ever take for granted a hot shower.
Less than 30 days ago, I was able to travel about freely with and among other people. I was able to hug my children and grandchildren, record music in a tiny studio with my husband and sons, join together with friends on Shabbat, sit in a cafĂ© and listen to the chatter of families, sit in a movie theater surrounded by my fellow humans and the smell of popcorn, watch people gathering together at the Kotel to cry and pray for those they love and for redemption... Whenever this ends, I will never, ever take for granted the freedom to be around human beings.
I will remember to appreciate the feeling of sun on my face (without a mask), the sounds of neighborhood children, the little kids in the neighborhood who would surprise me with a hug. I will think carefully before acquiring. What do I really need besides food and beverages to eat and drink, warmth and shelter, something to read, a little paint and music, the company of kind people? There is a lot I can give up to others, because time is of the essence – and fleeting.
When this Coronacaust ends, I hope and pray that those of us who are privileged to survive will treat each other better, without harsh language, with the considerateness born of knowing that everyone has lost someone they loved, that no one has missed out on being affected in one way or another. In this we are all equals. I hope we will strive for cooperation for the greater good rather than fighting for the biggest piece of the pie. 
May we learn whatever we can from this terrible tragedy, and come out of it our very best selves yet.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

New Regs Dictate Fashion Choices

8 Nisan 5780.

I don’t usually ask for fashion guidance… but with the new regulations – “You must wear a mask when leaving home. If you do not own an actual mask, a scarf will do.”– I really need advice. (My friend Shannon has Trump masks, Hillary, Iron Man masks, the Hulk… Still thinking about those possibilities…)

I have some options and want your fashion sense. After all, over the years, your comments have caused me to actually match colors and patterns in a way that finally gets compliments, and no doubt gives my dear mother nachas in Heaven. So, tell me your thoughts. The options (unless Shannon persuades me to mask up like the US president or a former presidential candidate, or a superhero) are:

Dig out a pretty scarf combo, that works with the dress...

or that (thank God) never used and probably expired gas mask from years ago.

What’s your advice? Corona fashion is beyond my understanding…

 Okay. Your votes will determine how I go and get some business done before the next set of regulations takes effect. Looking forward to your fashion-conscious wisdom. Mama will be proud.

Photos taken and used with permission by the Dearly Beloved, pretty much the only human I've seen in a couple of weeks.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Five Crisis Management Languages

27 Adar 5780.

Most of you are familiar with the excellent book by Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. Written in 1992, the book revolutionized how many of us understand the unique language by which our beloved expresses and understands love. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it for enhancing even great relationships. There is nothing that sweetens even the best love affair like understanding what makes your dear one happy and implementing the nuances of his particular way of feeling loved.
During the Time of the Coronavirus/COVID-19 – may it be shorter than anticipated! – I am learning that there are several languages for coping with crisis. Here are five that I have discovered by communicating with friends online:
1.     Facts and figures
2.     Action and routine
3.     Spirituality
4.     Humor
5.     Virtual battle
Susie* has been finding every shred of data she can about the course of this disease. She has read about different countries’ efforts to “flatten the curve” of the rate of infection in order to best treat the sick; she knows how many minutes the virus can survive on a particular object, and she knows how long to wait before she can safely handle anything without gloves. She knows that masks don’t protect people from getting the virus and should be reserved for health care workers and for those infected. She is not going out of her house unless absolutely necessary; she can visually calibrate two meters within a centimeter. And she wants to teach these facts to everyone.
Jennifer’s house has never been cleaner, more organized. She’s up at five, has exercised by six, and is baking or cooking her first new creation by seven. She is staying busy, and the sense of accomplishment raises her above her natural tendency to worry. Since it helps her so much, she is anxious to post recipes and photos to encourage her friends. She isn’t showing off. She really thinks others will gain as much peace from activity as she does.
Edna turns on the music as soon as she rises in the morning, lights a lavender-scented candle, and breathes deeply as she bends into a deep Uttanasana pose, nose to knees, finding her comfort in the flowing motions of yoga. Lena listens to every rabbi she can find on the internet who speaks of the deeper meaning of the pandemic, and recites fervently every recommended prayer and her daily-assigned portion of Tehillim. Each of these women finds strength and comfort in her language of coping and shares warmly with her friends.
Dierdre loves the cute memes and “in your face, Disease!” jokes her friends send, and passes them on as quickly as she can to as many people as she can. After all, laughter is the best medicine, right? Humor has always been her go-to method for dealing with any crisis. She recognizes that she sometimes doesn’t filter the funny… but this is war, isn’t it? Come on, people! Don’t let the terror get you down! And anyway, if she keeps laughing, there isn’t time to cry…
During the frequent battles that keep Israel in a state of tension, Rex distracts himself with war movies. There is a vicarious sense of fighting the bad guys, and in the end of the movies Rex prefers, the good guys defeat evil and save the day. During the pandemic, Rex is watching movies about global contagion and movies where superheroes fly into the fray and turn around what appears to the rest of us to be uncontrollable madness. He may or may not share his movie recommendations with his friends – but they definitely help him to cope with the feeling of helplessness.
Just as in The Five Love Languages, one person may choose to employ more than one of the crisis-management languages.
The point here isn’t to present a psychologically accurate assessment, nor even to give you coping mechanisms. You have your own, dictated to you by your very own crisis-management system. The point is to try to remind you that we all speak different languages. Susie needs facts and figures to give her a sense of power over the crisis. Jennifer needs to stay busy. Edna relies on soulful music and meditation to keep her mind healthy, while Lena prefers prayer and words of wisdom. Deirdre distracts herself by finding whatever scraps of humor she can in the situation. Rex watches movies that are initially immersed in crisis and disaster, but out of which simple human beings become superheroes. There are, no doubt, more coping languages.
The bottom line is that we all find comfort differently. I ask two things of you. First of all, understand that your friend isn’t shallow because she finds in humor what you find in prayer. She just copes differently. Secondly, before you send out that shotgun-blast of funny memes or doomsday data, know your audience. It just takes a bit of pre-send scrolling through her Facebook page. If this one is depressed by knowing exactly how many minutes or hours an object stays contaminated, think twice about sending. Information is good… but you can gently ask her, in your own words, if she’d find that information useful. If she’s an empath, sending her a video of a dying man isn’t needed to keep her at home. She’s already there, feeling intensely his pain, his wife’s tragic prayer, his children’s fear. And if she is wounded by those who see the situation as funny, who seem to be trivializing it with sarcasm – while this is certainly a legitimate way for you to fight the battle against fear and depression – don’t send it to her. She won’t get the joke.
Prayer and words of wisdom are always good but will have little effect on those who don’t speak the language. Share. Don’t inundate.
Be cautious of sending out facts or even seemingly “rabbinically-approved” concoctions that are guaranteed to protect you from contamination. There is so much that even the experts don’t know; but certain things are universally understood at this point. Stay home as much as possible. Keep your distance. Wash your hands.
And in the meantime, let’s remember that we’re all in this together. All of us, more than ever before in our lifetimes. Let’s understand each other as best we can, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and try to speak or at least tolerate each other’s unique coping languages.

*All names are made up. I am not referring to you specifically, love. Everything you have sent to me has been appreciated and either learned from or delightfully distracting. I'm just listening to everyone as best I can. Keep being yourself. You and I  we're doing fine.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Maybe it's time we let the old ways shine.

14 Kislev 5780.

One can criticize old time radio for a lot of things: racism; sexism; excessive smoking and drinking; stereotyping of nearly all groups. In many ways, we've come a long way, baby, to paraphrase an old TV commercial (ironically targeting women to buy cigarettes). But there are other features of old time radio that call me back to the golden oldie airwaves rather than to Netflix, even though those airwaves are synthetically reproduced via the internet: the short, easy to digest stories; the moral messages in nearly every type of story; the beauty of the English; the lack of foul language; the discreet shade of innuendo or intimation covering overt sexuality and violence; the clearer line between Good and Evil.

Advertising and public service announcements (PSAs) surrounding old time radio stories were charming in both their language ("unpleasing breath,") and in their understanding of the country's need to pull together during war time. Every man, woman and child was enjoined during these announcements to support the war effort, not just through purchasing War Bonds, but by a general belt-tightening. The public seemed proud to comply. I can't even imagine how difficult it would be today to persuade people to give up their luxuries for a common cause, much less to conserve their use of necessities. Small wonder our elders were considered the Greatest Generation.

Here's an example of a PSA that was quite common during World War II. A mystery program ended with a reminder to purchase Kolynos Toothpaste for "teeth that make a good impression," relieved of "dingy surface stains... to reveal the natural brilliance of your teeth to add so much to the charm and personality of your smile." And then --

"And this is Mr. Keen with one last word. I've been asked to bring to your attention the important fact that our country is still faced by a critical shortage of tires for civilian use. The tires you have now must last you indefinitely. Do not be misled by announcements that huge quantities of synthetic rubber are being made. They are, but they are required for military use. So do everything you can to make your tires last as long as possible. Drive only when necessary at under 35 miles an hour. Keep your tires properly inflated and inspected. Recap your tires as soon as they need it, and share your car with others. Good night, and thank you all." -- Bennet Kilpack, playing the role of Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, 3 February 1944

We have learned so much, added so much to the world of technology, medicine, philosophy, and in some countries only, the rights of human beings... but we have lost a lot, too.

Sometimes it's worth taking the time to retrace our steps, to listen a little to the old ways, to see what we can, perhaps, recapture of what was good.

Happy 71st birthday, Coach, aka the Major, aka the Dearly Beloved. Thanks for putting up with all those hours of OTR over the years.

The title is a rephrasing of a lovely modern song my sons sing and play well. They are right, and I am also right. Stay tuned for an upcoming recording.

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.