Monday, August 29, 2011

What Used To Be Home Pt. 6

(remember to visit for the most recent episodes of Natania's escapades.)


As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, heart of the nation's greatest city. Drawn by the magnetic force of the fantastic metropolis, day and night, great trains rush toward the Hudson River, sweep down its eastern bank for one hundred and forty miles, flash briefly by the long red row of tenement houses south of 125th street, (bell begins and continues) dive with a roar into the two and a half mile tunnel which burrows beneath the glitter and swank of Park Avenue, and then. . .(bell and crash of brakes)
(majestic voice. . .)

Grand Central Station! . . .
(normal voice) crossroads of a million private lives, gigantic stage on which are played a thousand dramas daily.

Many of us of a certain age will remember these lines, which, for you less fortunate mortals who do not know, served as the weekly introduction to the long-derailed radio program entitled -- in case you couldn't guess -- "Grand Central Station." It's not as if the program itself was so memorable (it wasn't). I can't even remember what day of the week or what hour it was on. But that iconic introduction, intoned with such fervor got your attention big time, as only it could be done on radio in those days of yore.

These days, most of us don't get the opportunity to ride the rails -- unless you're like our friend Danny, who makes a practice of it (subways, metros, commuter light rails and their ilk aren't really the same). But there we were, about to take Amtrak from Washington D.C. to New York for the second phase of our journey to what used to be home. But first things first. We weren't going anywheres until we had visited Barbara's mother one more time to say goodbye; it would be quite a while, we thought, before either of us saw her again. So we began the day -- as we had done every day except Shabbat -- with a drive to the Hebrew Home in nearby Rockville.

Our timing couldn't have been better. Just as we arrived, so did the social worker, whose job it was to develop a discharge plan so that my mother-in-law could return to her apartment at the Homecrest Residence the following day. What was her suggestion? Round the clock aides to take care of Gwen. "Why do I need that? It's too much." Anyone who knows Barbara's mom can just hear her saying that, which is exactly what she did say. After much persuasion, we pretty much got her to agree to that for the first week or so, and if was indeed too much, the number of hours could be reduced. The best laid plans of mice and men......... The next day, she was back in the hospital for we can't remember what, probably another tussle between the food she was eating and the bag that was collecting it. She was released a few days later back to........the Hebrew Home. Just when you think you're good to go....

There was just one more thing for me to do before we left the Hebrew Home. Every day, our routine had been that I would wait for Barbara in the large lounge on the main floor while she used the nearby "facilities." There usually wasn't much doing in this lounge -- except for the one day when one of the rehabilitation patients was giving a for-real concert on the piano for his family. So I would stand by the large tank of tropical fish and watch them swim around; at least they were moving. The first day, I noticed a real tiny fish, maybe a quarter of an inch long, hiding among the rocks along the bottom of the tank. Somehow it knew not to venture forth too far, or it would be dinner for one of the larger specimens. My self-appointed task was to check out every day to make sure it was still there -- which it always was, even though it might take some time for me to locate it. No doubt, if it played its cards right, it would grow enough to take its rightful place with the big guys. But it would have to do it without me and my solicitude. My tour of duty was over.

All we had to do now was drive back to Wheaton, return our rental car, have someone from Enterprise drive us to the nearest Metro stop, take that to the Union Station in Washington D.C. , pay an arm and a leg for two tickets to New York, and finally take the subway the few stops up to Frank and Abby's apartment (my brother and sister-in-law) -- all the while shlepping our suitcases hither and yon. A walk in the park!

Anyone who knows trains -- not just Danny -- knows that if you're coming up from Philadelphia or Washington, DC, you're not going to arrive at Grand Central Station. You will find yourself at the other terminal, Penn Station, or what is masquerading as Penn Station. The real one, a masterpiece designed by McKim, Mead, and White, was demolished in 1963 and replaced by a structure whose extraordinary banality cannot easily be described. The making-lemonade-out-of-a-lemon side of the story is that the fury generated by this act of incomprehensible vandalism saved Grand Central Station from a similar fate. Just the opposite; the powers-that-be have pretty much restored it to its original pristine condition, by a process which I call 'de-uglification.' Perhaps the following, from an article I came upon in a recent Wall Street Journal Weekend edition, will help you understand what I mean. The journalist was interviewing an Austrian sculptor who had purchased a ch√Ęteau in a small village in southern Austria.

"'...the house was hideous, really. Six apartments built into the main salon for rent. Nobody wanted to buy it.'........ As he started tearing down the walls of the tiny compartments, he rediscovered staggering windows from the Renaissance; marvelous mural paintings and ancient carvings resurfaced magically from the past.............."

"Resurfacing magically from the past." What's scary is that so often someone(s), with malice of forethought, would cover up, paint over, or even demolish something of evident beauty and replace it with something whose ugliness is equally obvious -- leaving it for future generations to spend mega-bucks to remove what should never have been there in the first place. The Union Station in Washington, DC seems to be a compromise. Much of the original beauty of its eclectic design remains; but the constant threat of 'food-court-isation' hovers in the air, much like the rhetoric of unrepentant politicians.

We soon were on our way, the train gliding through places you wouldn't get to see (maybe not want to see!) from any other vantage point: old and not-so-nice neighborhoods with dilapidated row houses, industrial zones, and areas where trees and scrub brush still grow and cars only arrive when they are abandoned; going from Baltimore, Philadelphia, Camden, Newark, and finally Manhattan. Now the trip down Memory Lane, to places which used to be home, would begin. If I were asked to take a map (assuming you could find one) and color in 'my old stomping grounds,' the first area would be my old neighborhood in The Bronx. It must be at least thirty years since I revisited my old haunts on E. 208 St. and the adjoining blocks, and I may never get back there again to see the condition of the buildings where my friends lived or where I delivered The Bronx Home News (a Bronx edition of the NY Post) after school; or to see if the huge tree in the yard next to our house is still standing. But to this day, I can still take a mental tour of the neighborhood with my mind's eye. No tour guide required.

More to the point, I would have to color in much of Manhattan. If I have twenty years of memories about Moshulu Parkway, I have fifty or so years more recent ones about the borough that I came to know by the time I was in high school. Even when I was living in other boroughs or other states, I was almost always commuting in to work, to play, and to photograph. So I have a lifetime of memories. How would I feel when I would come face to face with these streets and buildings? Even if the stores were no longer there (like The Record Hunter on 42 and 5th where I could purchase LP's for $3.98 and, on a good day, $2.98; or the movie houses we would haunt to see W.C. Fields' "The Old Fashioned Way" or Alan Resnais' "Hiroshima Mon Amour?") I would remember where they were, what I had been doing, and with whom.

What about the people we were planning to see, especially the ones on whom 'Fortune' had not smiled? At least Jerry could now sort of smile. Shortly after Barbara and I left for more Jewish pastures, Jerry was about to leave their house and head to the airport to meet a friend. His last chore before going was to bring something that was in the entrance way down to the basement; except that he tripped going down the stairs, and seconds later he became forever a paraplegic. Kind of a bad break. Very hard to come to terms with -- especially if it's you. We took the 'F' train out to Park Slope in Brooklyn to see him and Joan, and we walked down a block filled with restored brownstones. Even if we didn't remember which of these buildings was theirs, it would have been hard to miss, the one with the big, white lift mounted on the side of the steps leading up the the entrance floor. No one thought of steps as being an impediment when these grand old edifices were erected.
We were let into the house by one of the round-the-clock attendants (whose name was Monday, even though we were there on Sunday). Jerry was sitting in his wheelchair, which I guess he does a lot of, and over a brunch of bagels and....., we were filled in on some of the details of their lives over the past few rather traumatic years. The lift was a biggie; that and the van service which the City provides is Jerry's magic carpet to the rest of the world. Except that the lift was, shall we say, problematic. The original measurements were wrong, and hence the lift wasn't really mounted correctly. We have a lot of that attitude here in The Land: it's good enough; it's almost even; no one will notice. Much of it for us is annoying, but imagine if you have one way to escape your four walls (without rounding up a few policemen to physically carry a wheelchair with a big guy in it) for an evening out, and the @@@&&&$$$$ lift doesn't want to cooperate. That's more than annoying. Through some very tough times, Jerry has regained his good spirits. What could possibly have been a very depressing visit, really wasn't; and I'm glad we had the opportunity to see them.

Another friend is the polar opposite. Barbara had known his wife for many years, and we had always kept in touch somehow. Then the wife died suddenly after a medical procedure, and life for this fellow -- and he'd be the first to tell you -- has never been the same. B. is one of the few people with whom I never argue, no matter what he says, because I long ago realized that he is one of the few people I've met who is demonstrably more gifted intellectually than me, and I'd rather just absorb his train of thought than interrupt him with my version of reality. What would you say to someone who tells you that he felt more at home in the Polish village he visited in which members of his family were murdered than he did in his stay in Israel? Or that he considers Jewish observance "primitive," but he has always kept a kosher home for aesthetic reasons? After retiring from his teaching position at the City University, he turned his strange sense of reality to artistic endeavors, making small sculptures similar to what Joseph Cornell had done. His apartment is filled with them along with a mansion's worth of memories of his departed wife, who did so much for him. All I could do as we left, after tea and cookies, was wish him the best, G-d speed, may tomorrow be brighter than today. Which I guess you could wish anybody you cared about.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What Used To Be Home Pt. 5

(After a brief interruption, we are returning to our regularly scheduled series of articles, "What Used To Be Home." You are also welcome to visit, which contains the musings of my daughter, Natania.)


It took more than one trip, traversing several malls, but in the end we purchased almost all the housewares, the clothing, and the odds-and-ends we were looking for -- everything except the elusive road map. Before we had left The Land, I had printed out a list of every synagogue in Silver Spring, about eight in total, as well as every kosher restaurant and market in the area. That's why I needed a map, so we could sit in Gwen's apartment and figure out where we at point A were in relation to point B and C, and where point B was in relation to point D. That's where a GPS is of limited use. I had already figured out that I was nowhere near any of the synagogues on my list. My plan for Shabbat was to stock up on take-out and spend a quiet day in the apartment. Despite the fact that this residence is under the auspices of the local Jewish Federation and the food is kosher, it's not really designed for Sabbath observance, and I'll say no more on this subject. But Barbara sensed that she was too stressed out to start dealing with enough take-out food to hold us through Shabbat. She suggested that, instead, we contact one of the local synagogues to see if some worthy family would host us. As long as Barbara was the one doing the phoning, I had no problem with her idea.

I seemed to remember that the Kemp Mill Synagogue was the largest one in the area, so I suggested that she start by calling there first. It was already Thursday morning with a full day's activities planned, (including our trip to the funeral home chronicled in article three) so there wasn't much time to lose. The synagogue administrator was dubious -- only one day before Shabbat -- but she agreed to contact the people in charge of shul hospitality and have someone get back to us. Sure enough, within an hour or two, Barbara's cell phone started to ring. By the middle of the afternoon, we were set: staying with family A, having Friday night dinner at family B, lunch the next day with the rabbi and his family. No take-out food, no lonely Shabbat for us!

I'd like to think that every Orthodox Jewish community in the American exile has some unique quality, something to write home about. One thing you couldn't fail to notice in suburban Silver Spring is the deer population. Because of the large green belt going through the area, there's a bunch of these critters wandering around -- not just in the evening when you would expect to see them. Throughout the day on Shabbat, we saw a family of deer perambulating nonchalantly around the well-manicured lawns. I guess the deer realize that hunting season is canceled on our day of rest.

There may have been a few deer, but there were Ph.D's here by the bushel-full. Almost every family we met had at least one of these highly educated folks, and most of them worked as scientists in some Federal agency -- Washington D.C being a commutable distance using the local Metro. A very distinguished crowd, and a very hospitable one at that.

Because of the distance to the synagogue, we were invited to join a small minyan at our hosts' neighbor's house on Friday night. Therefore, it wasn't until Shabbat morning that I, accompanying the fellow with whom we were staying, got to the main shul, the aforementioned Kemp Mill Synagogue, a mile or so from where we were staying. Walking through the very large lobby towards the main sanctuary, I noticed a bulletin board with a Vision Statement on it. I couldn't stop to look at it right then and there, but I made a mental note to check it out later. I figured that, if they took the trouble to post it smack dab in the middle of the lobby, it might actually mean something.

(Fair disclaimer: the terms 'vision statement' or 'mission statement' are matters of great interest to me. I spent three years working on a strategic plan for our former congregation in Teaneck, and I, and a number of other folks put in a lot of time and effort translating into concrete terms what we understood to be our fellow congregants concerns. While some things were accomplished, I'm not convinced that the plan itself remains the living, breathing document for the folks who remain behind (the woman who worked with me as a co-chair made aliyah with her family the same year we did!) that we intended it to be.)

When I had the chance later to look at what was in plain view on the bulletin board in the KMS lobby, I was mightily impressed. These folks weren't kidding around. Looking at this vision statement -- written eight years ago -- which I found recently on their shul web-site (actually it is a mission statement, but I'm not about to quibble), I noticed the following statement:

"If a synagogue is viewed merely as a place of prayer and Tora study, a location where people gather in order to fulfill their religious obligations, then one Beit Kenesset should not be all that different from another. However, if a particular group of pray-ers and learners are striving to become something greater than the mere sum of their collective presences on Shabbat, Yom Tov, and during the week, then it becomes necessary to articulate the nature and values of the religious community that they are looking to create."

I admit that these sentences don 't quite have the urgency and oratorical pizazz of the opening words of the Declaration of Independence (When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another...), still, they do say a mouthful. More than a mouthful. Imagine that: people are being asked to articulate something, to have a vision, to have aspirations! People are being asked to think about who they are and what values they as a community have -- for real, not just because some rabbi got up and used up fifteen minutes of time after the Torah reading -- to a captive audience.

I read the entirety of their statement, and I thought back to the pleasurable Shabbat we spent at KMS. There was something special about the building itself. There are lots of shuls of all stripes that are large, ornate, and intimidating. When you walk in them, you can almost hear the rustling of dollars bills, the millions that were spent in putting up the edifice. It must have cost a pretty penny to build this beit knesset; just purchasing a plot of land that big must have been a bundle. But here I felt something beyond the money spent, a sense of simplicity, airiness, and inclusion. For example, the mehitzah is a glass panel dividing the large, light-filled sanctuary in half -- so that there are as many seats for women as for men -- and the distaff members can even see and hear what's going on. Gee, if I were a woman, I might even want to show up.

After the davening and the bountiful kiddush (with suitable adult beverages), I, along with a young couple who were also invited, walked back with Rabbi Jack Bieler for lunch with him and his wife (Barbara and Ms. Bieler had left earlier). Inserting myself into a discussion of the role of the modern rabbi, I seized an opportunity to ask the rabbi a question. I had noticed him walking around at the kiddush with a basket of lollipops, something which few Orthodox rabbis would dream of doing. Rabbi Bieler was more than happy to share his philosophy with me. Simply put, he doesn't want the local youth to be intimidated by THE RABBI, so that they are reluctant to come over and ask him something. In other words, if the rabbi is his own 'candy-man,' then he's not just the austere figure on the bima. If a child can come over for a lollipop, then you can have a conversation. An interesting approach.

It's funny what one remembers. We had a wonderful, relaxing conversation at lunch, but I can't remember any of it (just as I can't remember anything of the stimulating d'rash that a young bat mitzvah girl had given after the davening). What sticks with me is the poster that was on the wall facing me. No Judaic kitsch reproduced in the thousands for the Bielers. Here was something different, a copy of what had once been plastered on a billboard, advertising a long-forgotten Yiddish melodrama. Imagine the scene: an observant Jewish man and woman sitting in their parlor (decor: Old-world oppressive, c. 1920), looking askance at their 20 something year old daughter and her new beau, who, from the looks of him, had not seen the inside of a shul in many moons.

Was the poster there only for its aesthetic value? As a reminder of by-gone days? Was it there to make a point? As a challenge to a modern day rabbi? There was a time when the little scene depicted on the poster and fleshed out on the stage was the reality of Jewish life in American: young people fleeing what they saw as the dour, oppressive religion of their parents. Today, the opposite is true: young people fleeing the stifling secular ideologies of their parents, looking for a little tradition, a little structure. Some of them seek inspiration from the Judaism that their families had abandoned. Maybe that's where the Rabbi Bieler's of this world come in: to get their attention -- even more important, to get their children's attention. I am not planning on joining KMS; it's too far a journey on a Shabbat morning from our home a little bit east of Yerushalayim. But the congregation and the rabbi certainly had my attention while we were there.