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 


Feb 9 2016

Still Obsessed

I just started my second reading of An Echo in the Bone, Diana Gabaldon’s seventh novel in her Outlander series. I’ve gotten as far as the Prologue.

The body is amazingly plastic. The spirit, even more so. But there are some things you don’t come back from. Say ye so, a nighean? True, the body’s easily maimed, and the spirit can be crippled – yet there’s that in a man that is never destroyed.

And barely as the last word was read, my eyes started to fill with tears and I realized I was crying.

How? Why? Am I that much of a sentimental sap? I never thought so before. I have been reading and re-reading these books (and watching the TV series by Starz) since discovering first the show and then the books in the beginning of 2015, after my friend told me about them a few months earlier. And I can’t seem to stop. I can’t seem to be able to leave the world that Gabaldon has built and come back fully to my own. What is it about Jamie and Claire’s love affair and adventures and marriage and life that makes me want to be there with them instead of in my own life?

Granted, the last 4 years have been difficult ones, filled with sorrow, disappointments, illness and changes.

In 2011 my mother got sick and at the very end of that year I spent the last month of her life by her bedside in New Jersey watching as she slowly passed away. You can read about that month I spent with her under Saying Goodbye to Mom. On a cold January day my family and I said our final goodbyes at a wonderful funeral (if one can call a funeral wonderful) and a joy-filled Chinese lunch (her favorite sort of food) with friends and family. And then I returned to my home and my life in Stockholm. Once back here I managed with great help from her Finance Guy, Dave, to settle all her bills, tie-up loose ends, and pull together what needed to be done to file her estate income tax forms. Done! Chapter settled and closed! Or so I thought.

Then 2 years later, I received a letter saying I was being sued for unpaid property taxes! It seemed that the person who had been renting the property that I had inherited from my mom had not been paying said taxes as he should have been and now I was required to pay a huge sum of money in back taxes and interest. I almost had a heart attack. As luck would have it, I actually had a lawyer who could help me and even just enough money to save my property. The stress from dealing with all that finally ended up causing me to decide to start taking anti-anxiety meds. It has taken the last 2 years to finally work out the situation. I don’t believe in writing gratitude lists but I am very grateful for my lawyer Gary. He saved my sanity. What I have left of it at least.

Then just after finding out I was being sued, I heard that my job as a graphic designer, that I enjoyed and liked working at was soon going to end. IGBP was going to be closing down at the end of December 2015 and as I write this I am now officially out of a job. And looking for a new one. I think…..

And as a last straw, in October of 2014, my husband got sick. He developed an aneurysm that started to bleed right at the top of his spinal cord where all those little nerves are gathered. He spent 2 months in hospital, needed brain surgery and almost died. He is home now and still himself but the bleeding affected certain nerves leaving him dealing, for the past year and a half, with a number of physical disabilities and has  affected the way we see and live our life together – how we go forward. Oh, and did I mention those added anxiety and stress levels???

Sooo, as I said above, the past 4 years have been pretty crappy and I find myself often not really wanting to crawl out of bed.

But when I do, I find myself still standing and even still able to make a joke. But I am almost afraid to open my email – who knows what disaster awaits me there. I don’t feel very much like socializing since I am boring even myself with my negativity about life and my lack of enthusiasm. I don’t want to keep spreading it around my friends or I won’t have any left, friends that is. Facebook and Twitter are my main social outlets – I don’t have to get dressed or put on my face for that! Or even leave my bed!

I need to concentrate on finding a new job but I don’t seem to be able to muster much enthusiasm for that task either. Being a graphic designer is how I have earned my living most of my life and actually is the only work skill I really have. But, I don’t know – images are just all starting to look very grey. Words are what fill my head now. But getting the energy to sit myself down at the computer to write – that is so hard too. Its as though my computer has become my enemy and I can’t dare to face it. All my shoulda, woulda, couldas get saved to the very last minute before I can bring myself to attend to them. And I find myself getting very sloppy by the time I actually get to them. And its the sloppiness that bothers me. The not caring. The lack of … whatever it is I am lacking. Perhaps its just the will-to-do that’s missing.

So I lose myself in Diana’s world. Its not the same as when I read over and over again Peter and Wendy (the original book about Peter Pan) as a child or lost myself in The Lord of the Rings as a teenager. Its not just escapism.

Its like that prologue I quoted at the top of the page, that started me crying: I think I reacted to it because I too am looking for that part of me that is still not destroyed. The me that is still left. Her words are filled with that sort of thing that seems to be speaking to me directly.

Her story of Jamie and Claire’s life, of how they are as a married pair – I wish I had that as an idea of a life together. I almost wish I had read her books when I was young, in my 20s. My parent’s married life, the only example I had, was not really happy and I admit to avoiding pairing up for a very long time because of their example. In reading how Jamie and Claire are with each other, it gives me a different model to follow in my own marriage. I almost wish I had learned those things 30 years ago.

So I continue my Outlander obsession. Reading and rereading over and over again. Each time finding small bits and pieces that leave me weeping, with sadness or joy but still engulfed in tears, sharing their lives. Waiting for mine to recover and figure out what my next stage will contain. I sometimes wish I had Jamie’s resilience to disaster and hardship but maybe I have more than I think I have. I’m just waiting for it to bounce back so I can discover who I am again.


Dec 16 2014

One light at a time

Tonight is the first night of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. Chanukah is not one of the major Jewish holidays but because of its closeness to Christmas it has taken on much larger importance in the Jewish calander.

The holiday actually has nothing at all to do with Christmas. It celebrates an event that took place approximately 165 years before Jesus was even born. The name Chanukah comes from the hebrew verb meaning “to dedicate” and that is what the holiday commemorates: the rededication of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem after it had been desecrated by the local Greek-Syrian rulers. Jewish forces led by Judah Maccabee (Judah the hammar) revolted against these rulers and eventually won the war against them and restored the Temple. The story goes that there was only found in the Temple enough oil for the holy lamp to be lit for one day but a miracle happened and the oil lasted for 8 days, enough time to make more oil. So today we light candles for 8 days to remember the miracle of the oil. And eat oily foods like latkes and fried donuts.

But the real story, the back story, was probably not so wonderful. Judea, the Jewish kingdom that Jerusalem was the capital of, was a conquered kingdom, ruled by the Greek-Syrian Selucid Empire, the local remains of what had once been Alexander the Great’s empire. During the time when the events of the story happened the lure of the hellenic culture was very strong, even in the Jewish kingdom. The hellenized, secular Jewish faction was in conflict with the Jews who were much more consevative and felt Jews should live strict Jewish lives and not follow the Greek hellenistic way. When Antiochus Epiphanes, the Selucid Emperor, sided with the hellenized Jewish faction, the conservative Maccabees revolted and cast out him and his forces. The whole thing was in effect a civil war, Jew against Jew, with the help of some outside forces. But the religious leaders who came after the war didn’t want to commemorate and keep remembering a civil war, Jews fighting against Jews, so they came up with the miracle of the oil in the Temple and Jews once again being able to be Jews. They felt it was better to remember the positive and put aside what was evil. So to this day, when we celebrate Chanukah we celebrate by remembering the miracle of light. A much better thing to remember as I see it. And when we light the candles on our Chanukias we always add one more candle each night. Each night we add more light!

menorahs

I now own 3 chanukiah, as the special 9-armed menorah is actually named. The largest is a silver and gilt one that my mother bought for me sometime after the birth of my son – for us to use as a family. The smallest one, on the right, is a gift given to me by my cousin Karel when I moved here to Stockholm so that I could remember my family back in New Jersey while I celebrated the holiday here in my new homeland. The third one, the middle-sized one in the front, is actually my newest yet my oldest. It is the one that my family lit thoughout my childhood and which I only brought back with me to Stockholm after the death of my mother three years ago. The two larger chanukiahs use the customary chanukah candles one buys in any judaica shop. The small one uses birthday candles.

Tonight, the first night, my son Bevin and I will light all three and Bevin will be given a small gift. The holiday is about the lighting of the candles and presents are not really relevant. The giving of gifts on each night of Chanukah is more a response to the gifts children get for Christmas. The more important thing is to light the candles.

In these dark days, when a member of the Swedish parlament says that Jews can never be considered real Swedes, when Islamists and Palestinians claim that the Jewish people have no right to be in Jerusalem, when synogogues are once again being burned, and Rabbis are attached, I am glad I can light my Chanukah lights together with my son, in freedom, in my home, in the land I live in. The candles remind me that Jews lived in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago, before Christianity existed, before Islam existed. Now we live in many countries. We know how to live as Swedes and as Jews. As Americans and as Jews. Being Jewish is a plus situation. It isn’t an either/or proposition. We can be both a true citizen of the country we live in and a Jew at the same time. We know how to integrate without losing our identity. We have been doing it for over 2 thousand years. In this cross-cultural world we live in, this is something we can teach the world.


Nov 27 2014

Giving thanks

Today is Thanksgiving. At least in the United States it is. And it is one of my very most favorite holidays.

When I moved to Stockholm over 27 years ago, I made a vow that I would celebrate Thanksgiving here every year, with a big turkey and all the fixings. I couldn’t do it on the normal Thursday it was celebrated because that was an ordinary working day for those of us living here in Sweden so I did it on Saturday. For my very first Swedish thanksgiving, I had to special order a turkey. Large turkeys on the American Thanksgiving scale were extremely rare here. I went to Östermalms Saluhall, a pricy, old fashioned food hall. There they had a shop that sold all sorts of fresh fowl. When I placed my order with the clerk he asked me how large I wanted my large turkey to be. He suggested an 11 kilo bird and I could come and pick it up the next week. Now you have to understand that at this time I had only lived in Sweden for less than a year and my grasp of the metric system was a bit hazy and 11 kilos sounded like a small, reasonable size. After all, I was used to my mom’s 24 to 26 lb turkeys from my past. Well, imagine my surprise a week later when I went to collect my bird. 11 kilos is about equal to 24 lbs! I barely managed to lug it home on the subway. It barely fit in my small apartment stove – the pan sat on the bottom of the oven and the stuffed bird had less than half an inch of clearance all around it. But it all worked out. We invited 2 other Swedish/American couples to share our Thanksgiving with us and we had leftovers to keep us happy for a long time.

Since that first time, I have made a bird every year but one. Some years I only roasted the bird and then Håkan and I drove it and ourselves to someone else’s apartment or house which was bigger than our little 1-bedroom place. After we enlarged our apartment 15 years ago, I have only had to move the turkey from the oven to the kitchen counter. Every year we invite the two families we have known since Bevin was little and who have kids he counts as friends. And each year we add a couple of others to fill out our table.

The one year I missed was the year Bevin was born. He came along in November and we were so stressed with our newborn we had no time or energy to think about dealing with a turkey that was bigger than our new little darling.

And today is Thanksgiving once again. I haven’t ordered a turkey this year. I told our friends there would be no invitation to sit around our table with us this weekend. Like that November day 23 years ago, I’m not up to doing a big shindig. Tomorrow, Friday, Håkan is coming home, after almost 2 months of being in hospital and rehab. So our little family is going to take it easy this weekend. Maybe I’ll just buy a large fresh turkey breast and some sweet potatoes and make some gravy – just for the three of us – for this year’s Thanksgiving holiday. Because this year, at this time, I am really very thankful.