Apr 11 2013


It’s now been 26 years since I left New York City and moved to Stockholm, leaving behind friends and family. For the past 15 years, I have been celebrating Jewish holidays here with a group of Jewish/American/Swedish families which, except for some occasional changes, have stayed pretty much the same. When we first started gathering, most of our kids were about the same young age. Now, a number of those kids are no longer kids but young adults starting their journey of independent life.  Throughout the years, we have tried to gather together each year to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover. This year we managed it once again. Everyone contributes something to the evening and I’m the one who assigns out the jobs – what to bring, who helps with what, etc. I am also the one who leads the service. I usually try to say a few words before starting the age-old ritual of telling the story of the Exodus to our children. The following is what I said this year.

Hi Everyone,

I am very glad to see you all here. Just in case no one remembers, I’ll remind you all that I usually like to tell a little story as an introduction to our Seder celebration. Last year, we didn’t have a Seder because it was fairly recently after my mother died and I didn’t feel up to organizing one.

I wasn’t sure if I was up to it this year either but here we are. I seem to have learned something this year and I think it relates to the reason we are here now, today and I want to tell you about it. One of the main characters, in the story we are about to tell, is this guy named Moses. Now while Moses ended up becoming a great leader of his people, he was far from perfect. He had a temper, got mad at things which he thought weren’t right, and wanted things to be done the way he thought they should be done (or depending on what you believe, the way God told him they should be done). Well, the past few weeks I’ve been feeling a bit like Moses. And I want to explain why.

This year the process of getting all of us to this place, here, this evening, had quite a few twists and turns. When I first floated the idea of doing our Seder again this year, I was very hesitant, but I was told “Don’t worry Hilarie, you don’t have to do it alone. We will help you.”  So I gathered my strength and decided to go ahead with it.

In an effort to be democratic and not dictatorial I asked which day would the group prefer to meet – Thursday or Friday. Pretty much everyone, except Janet (who told me she had to work a half day that Thursday) said both days would work fine. So in trying to be considerate towards Carly’s plans for vacation, the Shevin’s plans for the countryside, Risa’s undecided vacation plans, Marina’s busy schedule and Barbara’s, too, I choose Thursday. But then 2 weeks later, after I’ve sent out the plans for the day, suddenly everyone is coming back with telling me that they are working on Thursday. And will be late, and don’t have time, and can’t do the complicated things. As I sat there reading these emails, I wondered how come no one told me this earlier? Where was all the help that I was promised?

And like Moses I got angry, and annoyed and very disappointed. I didn’t know what to do with those feelings. So last week I spent my whole session at my shrink’s talking about it. First she asks me, “But why do you have to be the one to do all the planning and organizing?” I sat there and looked at her for a while. It’s not the first time I’ve discussed this group with her. Finally I said, “Because it’s my tribe, I’m their Rebbe.” Now like Moses, I too, am far from being a perfect person. One of my less likable traits is that I often have a hard time accepting people as they are. So my shrink listens to what I said, and she sits back and says, “hmmm… But you know these people Hilarie, you know what they are like, who they are, what to expect from them. Why can’t you accept them for what you know they are?” I sat there and suddenly this calm came over me and I realized she was right. And all the anger, the annoyance and the disappointment disappeared. So I set to work to solve whatever problems there were to organize this evening. And here we all are. I am among my family, surrounded by them. 

So let us now start to tell the story of how a much more important, imperfect leader led a very unruly folk out of slavery in Egypt to freedom.

And we did. We told the story of freedom, we asked the 4 questions, we talked about the 4 types of people and we blessed 4 glasses of wine. And then when the ritual was all over we served up the dinner and ate, food from our memories – hard boiled eggs, gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzah balls, lamb with roasted potatoes and parsnips and lots of desserts. Our children ate and talked and joked with each other like cousins. And these friends, these parents, these new “siblings” that I have gathered and brought together to eat with me and share with me. My minyan, my Jewish family here in Stockholm. And it was a very good Seder.

Dec 19 2011

Good shabbos

Friday December 16

Today I told my mother. At first I thought I shouldn’t. I told all the nurses and her aids not to tell my mother that Marty had died. But he hadn’t been to see her since I first arrived here and perhaps even before that. He called Mom’s room phone the day after I got here – in the morning – to say he wasn’t feeling so well and wouldn’t be coming by. But he didn’t talk to my mom – I answered the phone for her. I gave her the message though she seemed barely aware enough to understand what I was saying. He called the next day also, in the afternoon, to tell us he was in the hospital. Two days after that, on Monday, he called again to say he was leaving the hospital and was going to be placed in Health Care, where my mom is. Monday evening, the nurse came over to let me know that Marty had arrived and settled in and I went over to see him and meet his daughter who, like me had gone to Pratt. The next day he was dead, gone, so shockingly quick.

Until the day he died, he called mother practically every day to let her know where he was and when he was coming over. A friend of my mom’s told me of the time my mom was down by the entrance to the dining room expecting to meet Marty there but he was late and my mom got very upset, not knowing where he was. But now he’s not calling or coming any more. And my mom is still here, lying in her bed asleep and waiting. So I told her. So she could stop waiting. So she would know that he hadn’t decided to abandon her.

The question everyone seems to ask me is “How did she take it? How did she respond? Do you think she understood you?” I have no answer for those questions. I’m not sure. I think she heard me. How much she took in, I don’t know.

On Friday afternoons at 4:15, some of the Jewish residents here gather to hold a Shabbat candle-lighting service. I attended one in August with my mother. It was a lovely service. I felt I needed to go again, tonight, to welcome the Sabbath, to say hello to God, just in case he’s listening. I entered quietly. I sat towards the back, off to the side, picked up the booklet they created and use and the service began. The two women in the front, the leaders, lit the candles, saying the blessing. Then they chose people from the audience to read passages from the booklet they use. “You there, Evelyn’s daughter, from Sweden, I don’t remember your name, can you read the next section?” I did and that felt good – to be included, nameless or not.

As the service was about to end, I saw from the first row a friend of my mom’s, who she used to play canasta with, motioning to me with hand gestures as though to say do you want to eat with us. I nodded my head and met them outside the auditorium. I had been adopted and was being asked to join them for dinner. At their table they had challah and a bottle of kosher Manicheivits Concord grape wine. One of the women at the table said the blessing over the wine and the challah and we continued to eat our Friday night shabbas dinner. It was a good way to start the weekend.

Jul 25 2010


You can pick your nose.
And you can pick your friends.
But you can’t pick your friends’ nose.
That rhyme has rattled around in my head ever since I was a little kid. I don’t know why. So much other stuff doesn’t seem to be able to stay in there but that little ditty does. I always thought it was funny for some reason. The idea of picking one’s friends. It’s not the same with family. You can’t pick your family. They become attached to you the moment you are born. And they follow you for the rest of their lives. When I was much, much younger I used to wish that we could also pick family. One goes through a certain period of one’s life when FAMILY is either embarrassing, annoying or just plain irritating. It isn’t until you move far away from them that you realize just how important FAMILY really is.
Continue reading

Apr 22 2010

Laundry day

I did laundry today.
If you are alive and live in our modern world its safe to assume that you wear clothes. Perhaps, if you live in Florida, you probably wear fewer clothes than if you happen to live in Sweden like me. But since one can’t go around naked you will be wearing clothes of one sort or another. And if you wear clothes there is a really good chance that the clothes you wear will eventually get dirty. And unless you are someone who is a bit strange, you will also eventually want to wash your clothes. That’s what I was doing today. I washed a whole week’s worth of dirty clothes for 3 people.

Many years ago, when I first came to Sweden, I got invited to a dinner party. One of the guests there was a man who had spent some time living in the US. For some reason that I no longer remember, the conversation turned to American washing machines versus Swedish machines. This guy said that he felt that American machines didn’t do a good job washing clothes. After all, they only take 20 or 25 minutes for a complete wash cycle and they don’t have very high water temperatures. I couldn’t take this lying down. I asked him how dirty did he feel that his clothes actually got in this day and age. I said that 150 years ago, when most people worked in the fields, took a bath maybe once a month, and washed their few items of clothing when weather permitted, then, yes, clothes got really dirty and probably were very hard to clean. But today, we sit in offices, rarely working up a sweat, we generally shower every day and we own a lot of clothes, changing them often and washing them frequently. How dirty can they possibly get?

Now an average Swedish washing machine takes about an hour (sometimes more for the higher temperatures) to run through a complete cycle. It uses very little water and can wash at temperatures as high as 90 degrees centigrade (194°f). The wash tumbles around and around banging against the bottom of the drum as it falls down. I likened it to a mechanized version of when women (it was always the women) went down to the riverside to wash clothes by banging them against the rocks near the water. I guess this guy felt that high temperatures, a long wash cycle and hard treatment was what was needed to wash clothes. I think of that discussion each time I turn on a washing machine here.

In my apartment I have one of those washer/dryer towers in the guest bathroom. Not all apartments have them. If you don’t have one then you have to go down to the laundry rooms on the first floor to wash your clothes. In one room there are 3 washing machines in varying sizes and a large tumble dryer. The washing machines are not like the large American top-loaders. They are front loaders and once you close the door and start the machine, if you forgot to put something in, a sock let’s say; well, that’s too bad for the dirty sock – it has to wait for another machine load in order to be washed. In addition to the washing room, there is another room that has a big heat fan blowing into it and plastic-covered cables strung up above my head that you can hang clothes on so they can dry in the heated room. I usually let stuff dry for a bit in the tumble dryer, to get most of the wrinkles out and then hang them up to finish drying in the drying room. My building has a system whereby you book a day and time that you will be doing laundry by locking your laundry room “key” into the appropriate slot. There are 5 available times each day, seven days a week to pick from. It’s not permitted to do laundry after 11pm or before 7am. You might not always get to choose exactly the time that you want to do laundry because someone else’s key might be in the slot you wanted to take. But I guess that’s what you have to put up with if you live in an apartment building. It’s sort of like having to accept living next door to a noisy neighbor.

I started the previous paragraph by saying that I had my own washer/dryer in my apartment. So, if you were paying attention, you probably are wondering why I do laundry down in the laundry room. It’s because I like doing laundry down in the laundry room – or, at least as much as anyone can like doing laundry. Each week, I do anywhere from between 3 loads to as many as 6 loads of laundry. I will have the entire drying room filled with hanging pieces of clothing. I’m very organized about the way I hang stuff up. Things like my underwear that dry easily can be hung up in corners which don’t get a lot of heat. Things like jeans and heavy shirts get hung up right in front of the fan. And I’m very careful how I hang each piece up – I don’t just throw it over the cable. I carefully stretch it out over the cable so it hangs as straight as possible. I have a very strict no-iron policy in my home. If a few minutes in the tumble dryer isn’t enough to get rid of the wrinkles then it doesn’t get bought. If something actually manages to get past the no-iron radar then it rarely gets worn or it gets worn wrinkled.

After a couple of hours hanging in the drying room everything is dry and ready to pluck. Or at least, that is what I imagine I’m doing as I go through the room taking down the dry clothing. I imagine myself walking through an orchard picking apples. I then take the newly washed and plucked clothing to the mangle room. I forgot to mention there is a third room – the room with the mangle in it. The mangel. You wind fabric around a large wooden roller and then it gets rolled between 2 large grey marble slabs, flattening the fabric. A mangle here in Sweden is a machine that is used to press flat bed sheets, pillowcases, curtains, and tablecloths. The one in my mangel room dates back to the 40s when my building was first built. It’s now out of order and I have never used it. But the room has a long table that is perfect for folding clothes on. After folding all the clothes in neat piles I carry everything back to my apartment and I don’t have to think about doing laundry again till next week.

Now if you are still paying attention you will realize that I never said why I don’t use the washing machine in my own apartment. When we renovated our apartment 12 years ago I thought it would be great to have my own washer/dryer. Then I could do laundry when ever I wanted or decided to. And of course I did. I would be doing laundry 2, 3 or even 4 times a week. There was always some form of laundry in process. There might be wet stuff in the washer, drying stuff in the dryer, half dry stuff hanging on the rack, (even up in my apartment I didn’t dry clothes completely in the dryer because they either shrunk or got very wrinkled and I already told you how I felt about ironing), or piles of folded stuff waiting to be put away. I was doing laundry all the time! I was thinking about it all the time. I was at the mercy of dirty clothes! I had lost control of my life. I started to hate the sight of my laundry hampers! Five minutes after one hamper was empty it started to fill up again. I started to feel like the Greek king Sisyphus, doomed to push a huge rock up a mountain only to have it roll down to the bottom so that he would have to do it all over again, day after day. That was when I decided to go back to the peace of the laundry room. I might not always get the exact time I want but its close enough. While it does take me 5 or 6 hours from start to finish, its over in a day and I don’t have to think about laundry for a whole week. With my memory I usually am able to completely forget about dirty laundry until the overflowing hampers remind me that its time again. And if there is some sort of laundry emergency I still have the machines in my bathroom that I can fill up whenever I want to. Once again, I’m in control and for a recovering control freak like me, that’s a good feeling.

Dec 29 2009

Julbord (or smorgasbord to you on the other side of the duckpond)

Before the new year arrives and the Christmas holiday becomes a memory, I thought I would talk a little bit about the Swedish custom of the Julbord. To my friends here in Sweden, Ok, you dont have to read this. You already know what Im talking about. But to those of you still back in my mother country, you might find this interesting.

The Swedish word smörgåsbord is a combination of the word smörgås which means sandwich (or literally “buttered”) and bord, which means table; so a smörgåsbord is literally a sandwich table, which is a bit of an understatement since there is a lot more than sandwiches on it. The classic Swedish Julbord is a large smörgåsbord traditionally eaten with family and friends on Christmas Eve. From the beginning of December, most restaurants offer, for a fixed price, a Julbord dinner several times a day until just before Christmas. While they vary in size and price, these Julbords offer an astonishing selection of Swedish dishes. And if you go to eat Julbord with Swedish friends and family, it’s a good idea to know how to do it.
Continue reading