Dec 2 2017

Naming cats

In these days of darkness, when the hours of light are still lessening and humanity seems to be heading towards its own metaphysical darkness, two little sparks of light have entered my life. They have only been with us for a short time and from the beginning, before they arrived, I was very hesitant to give my approval. The thought of having to think about and take care of even one more living creature with needs, just seemed too much for me. But I was overruled. My boys wanted cats.

It’s taken the past week to decide on names for our new family members. Names are important. Names have power to shape the world, to create, to give form to an idea. And at the very least, to shape the living creature that belongs to the name. When I was 11 I hated my name. I so longed to be named Mary, or Susan or Barbara or Carol – names that were popular in the classrooms of my childhood. Who was named Hilarie? No one I knew at least. My mother used to console me by telling me that when I grew up, if I still didn’t like Hilarie, then I could use my middle name Ruth instead. I found that very comforting back then. It lasted me until I arrived at art school and had finally grown into Hilarie. But I sometimes wonder who I would be if I had been named one of those popular names of the 1950s – a name that when the teacher called it at least 2 or 3 girls in the class looked up. When the teacher called Hilarie, it was only me. And I think that has shaped me greatly. I have always felt unique, unusual, different from the rest, for lots of reasons, my name being just one among them.

So, since their arrival, the battle over the names to give our two new family members, our 12-week old kittens, a brother and sister pair, has raged on – spreading itself past our family and out over social media. Food names seemed to be topping the list, often based on color. The male kittie is your perfect “cute cat” shape with a round head and very dark eyes. He’s a very pale creamy yellow with faint tiger stripes on the lower part of his legs. The female was the one who caught Håkan’s attention when he first saw photos of them on his friend’s Facebook page. She reminded him of one of our first cats, Tingeling. She’s painted in mottled shades of dark browns on a rather skinny body with touches of tan in places. She has dark eyes in a dark face which has a splash of lighter tan across one side and she seems more nervous and hyper than her brother who is the epitome of cool, calm and collected. Except of course when he is attacking someone’s feet.

Because of his round, pale yellow head I wanted to name him Chickpea – not a very masculine name perhaps but cute. Håkan wasn’t too fond of it though. Janet Suslick suggested Garbanzo instead, a slightly more masculine sounding alternative. I wanted to name the girl Splotch because of the splotch of color on her face. Håkan didn’t like that at all. He claimed he had trouble saying it. He prefered Coco but I kept thinking of Coco Channel or coconuts and wasn’t happy. So the search was on.

Ebony and Ivory was a Håkan suggestion but he kept pronouncing it Ivie and emergency rooms kept coming to my mind, so no. I jokingly suggested Seven and Eight because they were the seventh and eighth cats I have owned in my life (and as a life-long Star Trek fan it made me think of Seven of Nine). Håkan started coming up with more This and That names but I wanted each to have their own name so I shot down Jack and Jill, Salt and Pepper, Punch and Judy, even Him and Her. Danielle Shevin started suggesting camera/photography related names so Nikon and Leica or Canon and Leica, and Agfa and Kodak were put forward.

Then I suggested Custard for the male instead of Chickpea – he looked like a vanilla custard – and the list of food names flooded in:
Linda Rosen suggested Hummos and Olive. Christin Walth suggested Root Beer as homage to Pepsi our late demised cat. Roz Davis said Ginger Ale to go along with the Root Beer. Maria Lindgren suggested Curry and Cinnamon. Nicole de Jong liked Custard and came up with Licorice for the dark one.

There were also suggestions of real names (of a sort) coming in:
Rich Bertrand suggested Frick and Frack. Emma Ockert said she named her cat Uma but had wanted Linus if it had been a boy so she thought we should use that. Cecillia Haglund had the audacity to suggest Trump and Kim Jon Un but I said I didn’t want to gag each time I called their names. Gunilla Langetz suggested Lisa and Sluggo which is the Swedish equivalent of the American cartoon strip characters Nancy and Sluggo. Lisa Tallroth suggested Smike and Suzie. Bo G Erikson suggested Fred and Ginger but since the ginger cat was the male that would have been confusing. Karel Littman suggested Wheatie and Wink but I wasn’t sure who would be Wheatie and who would be Wink. Danielle Shevin also came in with French names, Minette och Minou. Anne-Lise Christoffersen Schjetne suggested Kattastrofe and Sebastian. Kay Johannes suggested Patch instead of Splotch.

Finally we were worn down. Håkan was willing to go with Custard for the male and I was willing to call our dark brown girl Coco but spelled Cocoa like chocolate, instead of coconuts. Hopefully we have chosen correctly and they will grow into these names like I grew into mine until eventually we won’t even be able to imagine calling them anything else.

Cocoa and Custard

Cocoa and Custard

Its been almost 30 years since the last time we had baby kitties. These two will keep us on our toes. We can no longer leave our clothes laying about or they will be covered with cat fur. Pill bottles (or anything small enough to be moved by lightweight balls of fur) can’t be left out on the table or we find them lying on the floor. We have to shower with the bathroom door partly open so Custard or Cocoa can come in and use the facilities if they want. To wake up early in the morning and have a tiny cat climbing on my head tangled in my mass of hair is, in a weird way, comforting. I love watching them play cat hockey as they battle for the plastic milk cap across the living room playing field. Their tiny bodys are so filled with warmth and energy that they give me hope for our world and bring joy into our home.

I am glad I said yes.


Apr 15 2017

Passover minyan 2017

As I sit here writing this post, the 5th day of Passover is almost over. My supply of matzah is already half eaten, though there is still more than enough left to do a matzah brei tomorow. This year, as usual, I attended 2 Seders.  The first one was a Swedish one – Progressiv Judendom i Stockholm’s Seder. I’ve been on the board of PJS for over 10 years and as a board member, I help out with all the activities we have done through the years. This year we did an especially good Seder. Eva Ekselius, with the help of Marianne Prager and Mats Frisk, led us through the Haggadah and even added other interesting tidbits of information. Marianne’s singing and Mats’ guitar playing were wonderful and helped to make it a fun evening in spite of the fact that I was in the middle of having a horrible cold. I can only hope I didn’t infect everyone I talked to that evening. Oh, and the food was good too!

And then, a few days later on Good Friday, I led my J.A.P.S.* Seder as I have been doing for almost the past 20 years. These people are my minyan, my family, that I feel like I gave birth to here in my adopted homeland. The Jewish People have a long history of moving from one country to another (not always as voluntarily as my choice was) and building from scratch, a full Jewish life in the new place. It wasn’t until I moved to the land of the blue-eyed blond that I discovered just how much the Jewish life I left behind in New York City meant to me. And how much I needed it. I knew I would miss friends and family but I didn’t know I would miss Jewishness. So I set out to rebuild it for myself and for my son. And 20 years down the line I feel I have succeeded.

The kids

The kids

At this point, we are 7 families with children (can we still call them children if most of them are not even teenagers any longer?) and a few who come on their own. This year the group was smaller than usual because a number of us were traveling to other places. But still we filled my Co-op’s party house with 20 people.

Before we start the seder proper, I always welcome my minyan with a little speech and even though I was sick and stressed and just plain tired and thought I would just skip the talk, I couldn’t let it go. As usual I had to say a few words. These are the words I said:

Welcome everyone
I won’t bore you with a long speech. I have a cold and don’t feel really up to long speeches.

We are a rather small group this year. A lot of our young people are not able to be with us. Many of our children are now old enough to have their own agendas, not just what their parents want them to do. This absence of our youngsters, made me think of the reason we are commanded to celebrate the Passover – to teach our children. To tell them the story of the Exodus, to remind them that once we, as Jews, were slaves and now we are free.

The oldies

The oldies

By commanding us to tell our children, the entire process of Passover becomes a generational event. To tell our children, we need to also have the mothers and fathers at the Passover table – mothers and fathers who once were themselves children, listening to the story their parents told.

My grandparents, immigrants from Poland before the second world war, were the first people whose Seder I remember being at. They didn’t do much story telling – mainly because they really didn’t know much about it themselves. But it always somehow felt very authentic to my child’s mind though my mother told me that my grandfather basically just said Kiddush and then we ate. But he said it with a strong Yiddish accent so I guess it just felt more real. After my grandfather died when I was ten, my mother and my aunt took over hosting the Seder – alternating years between them. By then, our families had graduated to using the free Maxwell House Haggadahs that many American Jewish families in the 1950s and 60s grew up with. Each year we would take turns going around the table reading portions from the color-coded and illustrated texts. It was a sort of Haggadah for Dummies. It told you with detailed instructions what you were supposed to do and when. We sat there and endured the boringness of the ritual, once again just waiting for the food without really understanding what the words meant.

It wasn’t till I was no longer a child and, on the outside at least, finally a grown-up, that I was invited to a Seder led by someone who actually knew what the whole thing was about. It was then that I realized that it didn’t have to be that meaningless mumble that it had always been my whole life. Since then, I have tried to lead a Seder that had meaning. I don’t know if I always succeeded but I tried. It has to be about more than just waiting for the food to show up.

Passover is truly about generations of parents passing on this story to their children and then they to their own children and so on and so on. My greatest hope (well maybe not my greatest hope but at least as it applies to Jewishness and Passover) is that my passing on of the Seder story to our next generation will continue into the future as it has for several thousand years past.

In addition to the absence of some of our children, when I look around this group I remember some who have celebrated with us who are no longer able to be here. Last year Marina’s mother, Rachel was here with us. Before that Danielle’s mom, Lydia celebrated with us and even further back my own mother, Evelyn. Now they are no longer able to share in our Seder or pass on what they know to their daughters who are still here.

So I want to start this year’s Seder by asking Danielle and Marina to join  me in lighting the candles, in memory of our mothers, as we once again start the yearly telling of the story of the Exodus  – of our people’s journey from slavery to freedom.

Chag sameach.

*Jewish American Parents in Stockholm

Photos are all courtesy of Danielle Shevin


Oct 18 2016

A Little Bit Extreme

When I was growing up my mother used to tell me “Eat your vegetables!”

When I was growing up, we started every school day with the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag and the Lord’s Prayer.
When I was growing up, we would watch with awe as NASA scientists built rockets that could send human beings to the moon.
When I was growing up, I learned about the Christian Crusades rampaging across Europe on their way to the Holy Land, while most of Islamic Spain and Portugal flourished in a golden age of science, medicine, trade, poetry and culture.
When I was growing up, people were marching for civil rights, for women’s rights, for equality for all people.

My mother’s idea of a correct dinner plate was one composed of 3 parts: there was a protein item such as beef, chicken or pork, there was some sort of starchy item such as rice or potatoes or macaroni, and there was some sort of veggie such as broccoli or asparagus or corn. We never had that all-American staple of the 1960s, the peas and carrots mix (with little pea-sized cubes of carrots) because I was allergic to the peas. My mom often served slightly unusual veggies like artichokes to keep me and my brother interested in them. But regardless of what type of veggie there was on my plate there were always the 2 other items there too. But today it’s not enough to eat veggies with every meal. You are encouraged to be extreme and you have to eat nothing but the veggies. You have to be Vegan and nothing that ever breathed oxygen should pass your lips.

The Pledge of Allegiance had no mention of God when first written, but it did by the time I was in school.  The Lord’s Prayer, a specifically Christian prayer was not a part of my Jewish experience. Nevertheless, to me, as I recited it every morning with my Christian classmates, the prayer was just words, without any strong significant meaning. The words certainly didn’t interfere with my identity as a Jew. I got my identity from my home and family. The Founding Fathers had as one of their very fundamental principles, the idea of the separation of Church and State. They were educated men, these inventors of our country. They knew about the horrors that State-sponsored religion had visited on Europe in the past (mainly by the Christian Church) and they wisely wanted to avoid this. So if we really wanted to do as the founders wanted, there would be no prayers at all in the public schools. But today the Pledge and the Prayer have become a battleground between those who don’t want them in the public schools and those who insist they should be there. Prayer in school, mainly Christian prayers, seem to have become a rallying point between those who fanatically believe that America is a Christian country and everyone should be a Christian or at least participate in Christian prayer and those who believe that a Christian prayer in a school is an infringement on their own personal non-Christian rights. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists and everyone else who have an alternative belief should be forced to endure it. Once again, a plate with a variety of flavors, is being rejected by the extremists.

In the days when we watched men travel to the moon, scientists were respected. Real science was taught in school. Darwin’s ideas about evolution had long been proven as fact. Exploring all areas of the world for more knowledge about life was considered important. We believed that life could be made better for everybody though science. But today Science is considered suspect. Scientists too. Scientific knowledge is rejected in favor of unfounded belief.  Evolution? A bunch of hooey! Climate Change? Just bunk! Moon landings?  A big conspiracy. Vaccines? Don’t do it because they cause autism. Rape? Not a big deal because you can’t get pregnant from it since the body rejects rape pregnancies. I am just waiting for the flat earth people to start demanding that to be taught in schools.

These days the Dark Ages are long over. The Pope no longer exhorts his followers on organized rampages across Europe in the name of God. But instead, a fundamentalist version of Islam is on a holy war against the non-believers, intent on wiping out all who believe otherwise. Extremism at its finest. It doesn’t really matter who’s God is in charge when the extremists insist on deciding who is right and who is wrong.  Everyone is sure to suffer.

The days of standing up for inclusion; for fighting for equal rights for women, for people of color, for the handicapped, for all minorities seem to be long over. Instead we have a presidential candidate who makes fun of the disabled, is vulgar and rude about women, who threatens to jail his opponent if he is elected. His followers at his rallies shout things like “Kill her.” or “Trump that bitch!” or “Build a wall — kill them all.” They threaten violence towards anyone in their midst who voices a dissenting opinion.The hatred for The Other has replaced the idea of equality for all which once ruled this land.

The world is definitely not like it used to be when I was growing up. And I’m not really sure about the reason for why this is. But now we are living in an age of extremism and I have to say that I am getting extremely fed up with it.


Apr 26 2016

Passover 2016

This year was a very busy one for me Passover-wise. I organized or celebrated or participated in almost 4 Seders this past weekend. The planning process started many weeks ago for two of them. While not an actual Seder, the weekend started off on Friday evening with dinner at the home of the chair of the Progressive Judaism i Stockholm association. Together with other board members, I had a chance to sit down to a wonderful dinner and a lively conversation with Rabbi Eli Reich who would lead the PJS Seder that I would attend on Saturday evening. Later that night, at 12.30 am, I sat down with my cousins in New Jersey at their Seder via SKYPE. And finally on Sunday was my own J.A.P.S.* Seder which I have been leading since the late 1990s. 

I had the following words to say before we started this year’s Seder.

Passover seder 2016

Passover seder 2016

 

Hi everyone. I want to start off by saying that I am very glad to see all of us gathered here together again to celebrate Passover.

Two days ago, on Friday night, I was able to take part in the Seder that my cousins held in New Jersey. At midnight, my laptop sat on my kitchen counter while I prepared the matzah balls which we will all share later this evening. A similar laptop sat at the dining table in my cousin’s house in the US. Through the miracle of modern tech, I was able to say hello to my uncle & aunt and all their children and grandchildren. And they were able to see me sitting here in Stockholm as I listened to them saying the prayers and eating their matzah.  

I think our group of Jewish Americans here in Stockholm have been gathering, most of us at least, to celebrate this holiday since about 1998. Back then our children were all little kids and now as I look around, a good many of those kids are looking pretty grown up these days. When I used to make my list of who were coming to a J.A.P.S. gathering I usually grouped people by family and the emails went out to the grownups. But now our younger family members are starting to have their own position on my list. Many of you have had your own emails for quite awhile already. You, Carly coming with Peter, you have your own space on that list, as do Nadine with Mattias. As one gets to the point of volunteering your own contribution of what to bring to our holiday gatherings, you get your own place on the list. And that is as it should be.

For all the years I attended Passover Seders when I still lived in New York, I don’t think I ever brought anything more involved than a bouquet of flowers to either my mother or my aunt’s house. My Mother and my Aunt took care of all the food. My Grandmother while she was alive contributed the chopped liver.

The holiday of Passover is a time for looking backward, as we remind ourselves of the days when we were slaves in Egypt; a time for looking at the present and being grateful that we can live our lives as free human beings; and a time for looking forward when we end the service with the thought of next year in Jerusalem.

Probably the idea of looking back is why, as Passover draws closer, I often find myself thinking of past Seders which I have been part of with my family and my cousins.  Most of my family members were loud, noisy and opinionated and seriously lacking in any diplomatic skills. Traits which I have also inherited, for both good and bad. No one was able to finish a sentence before someone else butted in and every statement was met with a rebuttal. My father and my aunt, who both married into the family learned to keep pretty quiet. Each family gathering contained at least one argument about something and rarely did we get through a whole meal without someone leaving the table crying. We just accepted that as normal and saw no problem with it. I don’t know what the outsiders I occasionally brought with me must have thought of us. But regardless of all that, I still find myself remembering those Seders fondly because of the memory of family that they bring back. And that was something I missed, here in Sweden, family.

This group of people, all of you sitting here tonight are here because I gathered all of you together! I didn’t do it for any of you or to satisfy your needs. I did it totally selfishly – I did it for myself. Because I wanted a family that I could feel comfortable sharing Passover with. I had no way of knowing if the people I met almost 20 years ago would still be here with me, sitting in front of me, today. But here you are.

Starting in June I will officially be retired, a pensionär as we say here in Swedish. I have no idea how this happened. How did I get so old? I admit that it was not something I was looking forward to. But here I am. Standing on the brink of a new chapter of life.

The words at the end of the Seder about “next year in Jerusalem” are often believed by the orthodox to express the hope that in the future the Jews will return to Israel and rebuild the temple. I don’t take it so literally. I believe that it is a metaphor used to express the belief and the hope that we Jews will have a next year. And another. And another. That we will have a future.

And I for one can say, that as I enter this new chapter of my life, this uncharted future, I am so glad that I can start this journey with this family that sits before me.

So now let us start our Seder, and retell the story of our past, be grateful for our present and look forward to our future.

 

*J.A.P.S. – Jewish American Parents in Stockholm


Apr 12 2016

Civilization

My family — my husband, my son and myself — have been spending our summers at our little piece of property out in the Swedish archipelago since our son was almost 2 years old. The boy is now almost 25 so I’ll let you do the math on how long we’ve been going out there.

The property had been in my husband’s family since his parents bought the land in the mid 50’s. By the time we starting going out there, the larger of the two buildings (hand built by my husband’s father) had become a 25 square meter run-down, moldy cabin. While it had electricity, it had no running water. In fact there was no running water anywhere on the property, except when it rained and then the area that we would refer to as the lawn became a small lake that slowly trickled downstream through the grass. The only toilet facilities we had was the outhouse, a short walk down the hill from our cabin.

We spent the first 8 summers out there fixing up the small 2-room building: new roof, new paneling on the outside with a new coat of paint, a “kitchen” makeover with new windows, wood paneling on the ceiling, new floor tiles, paint and wallpaper. We kept the kitchen cabinets from the 1970’s and the tiny 2-burner electric stove (just gave them a very through scrubbing). We got our drinking water out of the 20-liter plastic jugs we filled from the hand pump a 5-minute drive down the road. Water to wash dishes and ourselves was delivered through a thick black hose run from the nearby lake to a tiny hot water heater hung up on the outside of the cabin. We never did manage to get rid of the moldy-house smell though.

We also never got around to fixing up the cabin’s “big” room; partially because we couldn’t agree on what to do with it and mainly because after 8 years of tiny-cabin life, we bought a larger, new pre-fab house. The factory-painted pre-fab was delivered on a big truck with 2 carpenters to put it together and 2 days later we had what looked like a complete new house. Lying on the ground next to it were all the building materials needed to complete the inside of the house. Because we considered ourselves “handy” we decided that we would finish the inside of the house all on our own. Every summer of the next 7 years we spent working on the Big House. We put up gutters and drainpipes. We spent a summer just on the floors; putting in all the insulation and the floorboards. Another summer we did the same for the ceilings. Another year a carpenter friend spent a weekend putting up all the inner walls and we spent the rest of the summer with insulation and screwing up plasterboard. My husband spent weeks standing on a ladder, holding a nail gun, putting up the wood paneled ceiling. Finally in the middle of the vaulted living room ceiling, he decided he had had enough!

The following summer, we called in a crew of Polish carpenters who spent 5 or 6 weeks of plastering, wallpapering, painting, window framing, laminate flooring installation and kitchen building. By the end of that summer the house was ready to live in. So in 2009, we spent our first summer in the Big House.

During all the years we spent working on the new house, we continued to live in our tiny 2-room shack: brushing our teeth at night, standing outside while holding a plastic cup as we looked up at the night sky; washing dishes outside on the bench attached to the back wall of the cabin, hoping the rain would hold off until we got them all done; hoping we didn’t have to poop at night because who wants to have to walk down to the outhouse in the middle of the night, though in July it never really got dark so that was sort of OK.

Even after we started to spend our summers living in the new big house, we still had no indoor water even though we had dug a well a few years earlier. The “bathroom” was used as a glorified tool shed and the sinks in the new kitchen couldn’t hold water. Life in the countryside had become more comfortable but we still continued to wash dishes on a wooden bench behind the new house, took showers only when the weather was warm and sunny, brushed our teeth out on the deck as we looked at the stars, and traipsed down to use our outhouse carrying flashlights when necessary.

But then last summer my husband decided it was time to become civilized. He bought a Cinderella incinerating toilet. He hired a carpenter to build us a real bathroom with tiled walls and floor, a real shower, a sink and vanity and a mirrored wall cabinet. And a plumber to connect our well and water pump to the inside of our house.

running waterThis weekend was the second weekend I have spent here in our new civilized country house. It is early April and still cold outside. And rainy. And mostly grey and dreary. But inside its warm and cozy. I washed the dinner dishes without having to drag them outside first. I haven’t gone down to the outhouse once — its probably all full of spiderwebs by now, left over from the winter, but I haven’t had the need to check. And while I haven’t tried out the shower yet, I know that I can use it without having to check the weather report first.

But with all this new unaccustomed civilization at my fingertips, I find that I am missing something. I find myself missing that close proximity with all the vagaries of nature: feeling the rain come down as I finish washing the last dish; the chilly air on my face as I make my way down to the outhouse; the cold wet decking under my bare feet as I go out to brush my teeth. Yes, civilization has its advantages, but at the same time it also tends to disconnect us from the natural world around us. And this former New York City girl is forced to admit that she misses that connection — even after all those years of complaining about it. The cold and the rain and the damp isn’t all that bad; as long as you can come into the warmth of civilization afterwards.

This story was first published April 10, 2016 on Medium.com