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 3 2011

The relay race

My mother was recently in the hospital. She’s back home now, but not really home, not in her own apartment but in the rehabilitation health-care center of the independent-living facility that she has been living in for the past two years or so. It seems she had a pelvic fracture and had trouble standing up or walking. So she is there for them to look after her and give her physical therapy to help her heal. When they are not busy torturing her with exercise she spends most of her time in bed watching the television. I call her most every day and talk to her, ask her how she is doing, telling her about small things happening here in my home. Its really all I can do, living so far away. She sounds tired as I talk to her. She still manages to be cheerful but often she sounds tired. Anyone who has had to spend more than a few days in bed just watching TV knows how tiring that gets to be after awhile. You start wanting to be able to leave the bed and get on with your life. Start doing things again. But doing things has been getting harder and harder for her to do.

Talking to my mom makes me think of my grandmother. Not that my mom is anything like Grandma, she is definitely much nicer than my grandmother ever was. But the tired thing. It reminds me.

I remember a day, standing in front of the large bathroom mirror in my parents house with Grandma, looking at our reflections. We were dressed up for some holiday family get together. Grandma is in her 80s. She looks at herself and says she doesn’t recognize the person she sees there. She doesn’t feel as old as that person looks. She talks about how she used to be as strong as an ox but not anymore. I didn’t really understand what she meant then. After all, I was barely 30, strong and healthy, still.

I recognize my grandmother in the black and white photographs that I have from her. I see her in my mind’s eye in the story she told of herself, newly arrived and processed at Ellis Island after her 2 week-long journey from Poland in 1920. She was 20 years old then, just a few months older than my son is now. She sees her brother Nathan, standing there in the large hall, tall and well dressed, waiting for her. She runs into his arms, knocking off his bowler hat in the process. Her life is just starting. She has almost a decade of good years after that, and then the Depression starts. Her married life during the 1930’s, her thirties, bring with it all the years of economic hardship, but she struggled through it. Followed closely by the 1940s and the discovery that almost all of her family left behind in Poland were gone. In 1948, she and Grandpa made a nice wedding for their daughter and saw Evelyn start her life as an adult with my dad.

I didn’t know Grandma then. I was born when she was already in her 50s and probably younger than I am now. I can remember her loudly arguing in Yiddish with Grandpa in their kitchen in their house in Budd Lake. I was over their house when I was a kid, playing in the backyard. I saw a snake crawling through the grass. I ran into the house screaming, afraid of the snake. My grandmother ran out, grabbed a hoe and killed the snake. I thought she was the strongest and bravest person I had ever met. I must have been about 8 or 9 years old.

I think of my mom. I turn over in my mind, memories of her, mind photos you could call them. I think of her when she was a young woman and I was just a kid, in her 30s and 40s, active, working, volunteering, raising children. Competent, taking care of things. Getting on with her life. I knew her then but didn’t give her much thought. She was my mother. I took her for granted. When I was 18, my father and mother drove me off to Brooklyn with all my transportable belongings and delivered me to the dormitory at Pratt – starting me on my journey towards adulthood. They continued on their trip back home to Budd Lake to live their life, to retire, to move to a new home in Columbus, New Jersey, taking with them boxes of my stuff I had left with them in Budd Lake.

I’ve known four generations of my family now – Grandma Bertha, my mom Evelyn, myself of course and now my son. I’ve seen these generations as they go by. I’m 10 years older now than my grandmother was when I was born. I’m almost the same age as my mom was when I moved to Sweden. I’m at the age I am now as my son is starting his first tentative steps into adult life. Our generations overlap. They are like a part of a revolving relay race through time. Each generation handing on the baton to the next. A real relay race has an actual begininning, at the sound of the starter’s pistol. But this generational relay race has no real beginning – before my grandmother started, there were her parents and before them more parents; and hopefully, it has no end, though sometimes it does when the next generation isnt born. But my personal race has a beginning. It started with the oldest family member that I actually got to know – my grandmother and is continuing with my son. That is my snippet of the eternal ever-revolving relay.

In my snippet, my grandmother stands at the starting line, waiting for the sound of the gun. Off she goes, running as fast and as strongly as she can. Sometimes the path is straight and easy, sometimes it’s curving and difficult but she keeps on going. There ahead of her she sees the next member of her team. That’s my mom – there, jogging along the track in the hand-off zone. They run together for awhile, both running strong, working together. And there it is – the hand-off! Now its Mom who has the baton. She’s in the field now, running her own race. Grandma of course doesn’t stop running immediately after the hand-off. She keeps on going, slowing down gently, but still running along. Now Moms coming around the bend. I enter the track, start jogging in the hand-off zone. We both run together until finally, the time is right and Mom hands me the baton. I’m off! Running my race through Art School in Brooklyn, then life in New York City, then the big curve – moving to Stockholm. I’m now approaching the next hand-off zone. I see him there entering the field, my son Bevin. He’s starting to jog while I come up along side him. We run together a good pace while he comes up to speed. Soon, very soon, I will hand him the baton and he will be off on his own race as I wind down, slowing my pace, preparing myself to stand on the sidelines cheering him on, as my Mom is now doing for me.

This race of ours is a good one, as we all make it around our track in our individual legs of our journey. I hope my son gets to run a good race on his leg of the track and as he runs, remembers the runners he has met that have helped to hand him the baton.


Jan 28 2011

Choices

“You shouldn’t feel guilty for not being there to help her. You shouldn’t feel guilty that she is ill and elderly and alone, without family near her or many friends nearby. She made her choices and you do what you are able to do, when you can do it, to help her as much as you can. She’s where she is because of the choices she made.” This is what a friend told me recently.

But what kind of choices do we make in our lives? How much thought do we give them? How free to choose are we? And how responsible are we for our own choices and the choices of those near and dear? And even those far away?

I go into the supermarket to buy food for dinner. If I’m just coming home from working hard all day at my job and its getting late and I’m tired, Ill be looking for something quick and easy to make. Perhaps I buy a package of Bratwurst, enough for all of us and a box of instant mashed rutabaga. The bratwurst just goes in under the broiler for 10/20 minutes and the powered rutabaga only needs to be poured into boiling water and stirred and allowed to sit for 5 minutes. Voila! A tasty meal in under a half hour. Add some sliced raw carrots and you are all done.

But if I know that Ill be home most of the day and can spend some time and energy on making dinner then I will buy a different sort of ingredients. Perhaps I want to spend the time making a stew or even a roast. Maybe with a creamy potato casserole to go alongside the roast. For those kinds of meals I buy different ingredients. For the stew, I need to get enough stewing meat, a lot of nice potatoes, a bag of carrots, some onions, preferably the red kind, and maybe even mushrooms. For the roast and casserole I need to find a nice chunk of beef, a bag of potatoes, onions, cream, and a nice cheese to grate into the casserole. Ill also pick up veggies to include in a good salad and maybe even stop off at the local bakery to pick up a nice crusty fresh baked bread.

But for all three of these meals, the fast food and the slow food, I’m required to make choices. For the slow food dinners I might use a cookbook to guide me. It will tell me how long the roast should be in the oven and what temperature for it to come out good. For the fast food, I might read the ingredients on the package of the bratwurst and decide which brand of bratwurst based on what it says on the package. The box of rutabaga will give me instructions on the side of the box and might even give me ideas how to improve it.

But where’s the instructions for life? Where’s the cookbook that tells us what to do, in what order so that when we’ve cooked our life we haven’t burned the meal and ended up hungry?

When I moved to Sweden 23 years ago, both my parents were still alive, still living in the house I grew up in and still working. I admit I didn’t give them much thought when I decided to move so far away. I was more concerned about leaving my friends behind. Now things are different. My dad is gone since 1997 and my mom has moved twice since I moved to Sweden. The 10 years she and my dad had at the 55+ place called Homestead were good years for them and the 10 years there after my dad died were also pretty good. She had lots of friends and activities to keep her busy and I would come to visit once a year, usually dragging my family with me. Two years or so ago, she graduated from Homestead’s 55+ to Independent Living at Monroe Village. There she started off her stay by editing the Resident’s Newsletter, following a life-long love of writing, and she met Marty. Life was good and still independent was a key idea. But last week she ended up in the hospital because she had trouble walking. Now she is spending some time in Monroe Village’s health care center where they can keep a close eye on her and give her physical therapy to get her legs working again. I try to call her everyday. But life in the health care center is pretty boring. While she still sounds cheerful when I talk to her, she also sounds tired. Like life is getting too complicated, with all the medicines, and doctors and feeling in pain and not being able to walk or be in her own apartment. And I feel guilty that I’m not there to be of help to her. And here we come back to the choices we make in life.

I don’t mean only my choice to move to Sweden but also my mother’s choice to live where she lives. She chose long ago to live in Budd Lake NJ. That was pretty far from much of her family which were centered closer to New York. But it wasn’t really her own choice. It was made more by her parents who had bought a summer cottage there and eventually both my parents and grandparents decided to permanently move there – away from the rest of the family. Then when my grandmother died, my folks found Homestead and moved there, even further away from New York. But they loved living there so it was a good choice and an independent choice. Now she lives where she lives. Still independent.

And I feel guilty that I am so far away.


Feb 6 2010

Age boxes

There are all kinds of different ways to be reminded of the fact that we are jumping into a new age box, always going the same direction – towards the higher numbers. Sometimes it’s just noticing that the frown lines are still there when you laugh and that the laugh lines remain behind when you are no longer happy. If you are a saver like me you might discover that those old clothes that you have been saving since the 60s or 70s are back in style again. The only problem is that you weren’t also able to save the body that used to wear them. The new body that you have now is not quite the same as the old body that you used to have. The new body is now old – or at least getting there.

But it’s not just the stuff that is happening to our bodies that remind us that we are getting older. It’s the stuff that is happening to other bodies around us that also remind us. In the past month, two bodies within my circle of known human beings reminded me of my changing age. They reminded me by dying. One was elderly, the other, not so.
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