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Big things, little men( and women)

Yesterday I asked my grandson what his homework was and he replied, “ democracy.”

With everything going on in the world, I wondered if civics class is part of the grade 5 curriculum or was his teacher following the papers, and like the rest of us, jaw dropped at the bullies in the world who use the word democracy but truly mean their own brand of personal democracy.

With Premier Ford overturning Justice Balobaba’s ruling that attempted to stop the reduction of 47 municipalities to 25, people like angry children screamed,” You can’t change the rules in the middle of the game. It’s not fair.” And so our Premier asserted, “Oh yes I can”, and he did, ignoring and trampling on our legal system by calling out the “ not withstanding clause “ from our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Much like the Republicans in the States who give lip service to their president, our government demonstrates no backbone, knowing that unless they support the direction of their leader, they will suffer personal loss of their positions. In deed, some pundits say Ford’s decision to decrease 47 to 25 is a move based on petty grievances and previous lack of support at council.How incredibly disillusioning: that rather than stand up and assert what is right, greedy souls pander to their party leader: for personal gain . A panoply of articles from Marcus Gee and Martin Regg Cohn to private citizens on editorial pages in our national papers and even The New York Times are discussing our constitutional crisis. Writes Stephen Marche in nytimes.com,

And from Italy to the Philippines to Canada, this cannibalizing populism is swallowing traditional Conservatism whole. Mr. Ford snuck through to the leadership on a voting system that ranked ballots. He won neither the popular vote nor the greatest number of constituencies. But the Progressive Conservative machine is behind him already. It operates on inherited loyalties, antipathy against scandal-plagued opponents, time-for-a-change sentiments and basic self-interest.

Others rightfully are attacking Caroline Mulroney, Ford’s attorney general, for her gutless consent, even her father acknowledging the travesty of Ford’s actions that undermines our Charter. Can anyone who believes in rights and freedoms, the breadth and wisdom of our Charter, honestly believe that a premier’s petulant wishes should commandeer the Illustrious notions that underpin a free democracy. Instrumental in the development of the Charter’s “ not withstanding clause”, former Prime Minister of all of Canada Jean Chrétien, Premier Roy Romano’s, 12 th Premier of Saskatchewan and jurist Roy McMurtry declared that Ford is violating the spirit of our Charter in using the clause because its intent resides in exceptional situations, “ only as a last resort and careful consideration.” These contributors assert, “ We condemn his( Ford’s) actions and call on those in his cabinet and caucus to stand up to him.” Sadly, they will not. I think of Mickey Mouse swatting flies with a hammer. And I think how history will judge these spineless ones, their silence, their tacit approval of wrong, for self- serving benefits.

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Ford says he embodies democracy in spite of an election ballot of only 58% of the population. And some suggest, the people in the burbs who elected him really don’t care about these big issues , happy that big daddy is loud, boisterous and returns us to the era of Father Knows Best. But in these worst of times, especially as we shriek at Trump’s behaviour in overriding justice to our south, we should be holding our democracy closer, ensuring our little men don’t personally rewrite through their own perspective what pertains to our overarching, hard won freedoms. After Ford’s decision to override Balobaba’s ruling, people symbolized their opposition; papers reported “protests rock house” detailing a 70 year old woman, daughter of holocaust survivors, taken away in handcuffs. Bill Davis, former 18 th Premier of Ontario , a key architect of the 1982 repatriation of the Constitution was infuriated, adding his name to the mounting list of people opposed to Ford’s manoeuvres to get his own way. Amnesty International and hundreds of other Ontarians were/ are enraged. Yet the Colossus strides, upturning buildings, destroying order, simply because he can.

Canadians who pride themselves on being more civil, perhaps more intelligent and thoughtful than those in the States are in the same boat with having elected a leader with no scruples, values or awareness of the true meaning of democracy. Where money and business stand in for culture, caring and cooperation, these men did not hide their hearts’ desire of smashing all that they cannot understand or value. The lack of empathy, compassion and awareness of diversity in society does not mean anything to their personal drive for success, and rename their boastful slogans “ democracy.” How do you explain this to a fifth grader? In deed, why would you?

In trying to approach the notion to my grandson, I enumerated the multiple levels of society, federal, provincial, local, explaining each had a person who responds to the voices of the peoples they represent. I gave examples, contrasting “ our democracy” with autocracies, oligarchies and monarchies. My husband said it best and most simply, that the word comes from the Greek that means “ people”.

I thought of the Shakespearian line from Measure for Measure,

…So you must be the first that gives this sentence…. O! it is excellent To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous/ To use it like a giant.

And too, the music and lyrics of Hamilton pounding in my head: the story of man with such strong values and belief in government that he supported Thomas Jefferson against Aaron Burr because Hamilton demurred,” The former had principles; the latter none.”Hamilton in his Federalist Papers, Hamilton’s deep reflection, Hamilton’s belief in government, Hamilton a giant, Ford a fly.

To the innocents of our days, with their first study of democracy, I refuse to profer examples of our present day abrogation of what small men do in the political arena, rather returning to Hamilton, Kennedy, RBG, Hannah Arendt whose stood for more than just themselves. Marche from The New York Times,

Conservatism is no longer a political ideology in the recognized sense, but a repository of loathing and despair. It’s where people thrust their hatred of modernity — of globalism and multiculturalism and technocratic expertise, but also of the democracy that fostered those systems in the first place. By giving high office to buffoons, by choosing thugs as their representatives and by revelling in nastiness for its own sake, the Conservative brand now is principally a marker of contempt for political order itself.

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Rosh Hashanah Reflections

On Passover, we ask, “ Why is this night different from all others.” Yet it holds the sameness of all other holidays: our religious gatherings at nightfall when all of the precious people of our family come together around the festive table to celebrate our history, our faith. So here we are again at Rosh Hashanah. All of us dressed better, in a happier mood, relishing the food, the time, the love that binds us at the beginning of the new year and the demise of the old one. Here we all are again, anticipating a clean slate, forgiveness, expectation as gleaming as our grandchildren’s shining faces. I’d often heard of family “ brogus” being set aside at holiday time so that bad feelings could be relinquished as the new year arrived.

Heralding the brightness of new beginnings along side the darker desire for atonement and reflection, we will watch as Poppa points to those Rosh Hashannah symbols represented by rosy apples, dripping honey, warm challah and sparkling wine, his prayers sanctifying them, the children’s unblinking eyes glued tightly on him.In unison, we will yell, “ Oi- men”, and laugh, delighted to pass the fruits of the earth to one another, the work of our hands, the blessings of G-d. These repetitions provide the hallmarks of enduring memories throughout our lives.

For me, the days of preparation for dinner is a combination of old favourites of the perfectly stuffed turkey, but also another attempt to emulate my mother-in- law’s excellent gefelte fish . Mine either lacks correct spicing or too watery even after my yearly attempts to follow her loose descriptions of “ pinch of this…handful of that..you’ll know when…” Usually the food receives compliments but I believe the fish is consumed as part of the New Year pattern :that fish precedes soup which proceeds kugels en route to multiple deserts. Still I wonder if some special ingredient has been omitted from my fish.

My buby Molly was legend in her realm of cookery, but my Aunt Goldi confided that the” family” cabbage rolls were transmitted to others without the squeeze of lemon so that the original recipe could go to the grave with the original chef who no doubt thought it a family secret to forgo one ingredient in the recitation of ingredients. So like a story whose sections are embellished or deleted in the telling, some element is omitted – even between relatives- so the result cannot be served completely in tact.This troubles me greatly.

And because my mind always leap to other places, it flies to the whispered repetitions of coveted foods in women’s sections in concentration camps during the Holocaust where a scrap of paper or smidgeon of shoe leather was the repository for a special recipe. These lost moments of a tangy smell, a sweetened taste, a loving glance around the table stimulated familial celebrations of beloved faces and cherished voices, and a necessary hope that life would be restored, the madness disappeared and rituals restored; that the food, the preparation, the coming togethers were only just stalled until the entire mishpucha would once again reunite, safely around the burning candles that dripped streams of wax on a fine linen table cloth passed down throughout the generations.

At this time of year, I, too, hold close the memories of my parents and the Rosh Hashanah dinners at their house. Never a thought was given to the work that necessitated my mother to rise even earlier than usual or fall into her bed, energy depleted, after the last plate dried. There were squabbles over who would sit next to my father who always commanded the head of the table. He quietly beamed at us, taking in our families, while chanting the prayers, his pronunciation of certain vowels differing from our Hebrew School learning, we noted, wondering why.

My mother darted back and forth, serving and occasionally perching, her legs aching from the last days of cooking, cleaning and now placing her dishes before us . Her mother, I recalled, disappeared into the kitchen to eat by herself, no doubt also collapsing into whatever chair available: to suck chicken feet – if I glimpsed her behind the swinging door to the dining room where uncles sported dark fedora hats and aunts like preening peacocks were festooned in special navy dresses, and we, cousins, waited expectantly for the moment when we might depart the table heaped with food, bound into the rec room below to hoot, shout and play games without adult supervision.

We were not religious people but we came together as a family at these holiday suppers, reminding me of Bella Chagall’s memoir Burning Lights as she narrated the annual arrivals of her far flung family in the shetl, Vitebsk, at the end or commencements of the harvests, family on horseback, in carts, the women bearing heavy pots, depicted in her narration of unending dinners that continued late into the velvety nights under Russian skies.

Many years ago my son invited his university friends to Rosh Hashanah dinner and I set myself the task of making as many different kugels as I could find ; fortunately all but the potato could be frozen. From zucchini to eggplant to sweet potato with raisins, I scoured cookbooks that offered an impetus to create the puddings. Finally at table, we chortled, attempting to identify the vegetables that all began and ended with eggs, onions and matzoh meal, even foods resembling that cycle of creation and endings of our rituals. Since then, though, the meal has been pared down to only two potato kugels, one sweet , one plain, three or four fruit pies, of course, a honey cake and at least one other completing desert, usually chocolate, contributing to eating ecstasy. The laughter, the camaraderie, the delight of being together, sharing a meal whose very basis is the reason we gather at dusk.

Although the table heaped with offerings is the centre of focus, one year, post -dinner wrestled for attention as we received a midnight call, requiring immediate babysitting. Perhaps unable to battle all the kugels, soup, side dishes, meats and deserts crowding his space, grandson number two decided to exit six weeks early. He was named Aaron, the high priest.

But, as well, this time of year holds unforgettable events- sad events that marked our life. My father succumbed to polio one Labour Day weekend when I was 18 months old. Interestingly, no one ever mentioned Rosh Hashanah that year, arguing whether it had been “early” or “ late.” I imagine in my mind’s eye, the family dinner, quieter than usual, especially my buby Molly at the edge of tears, and my mother clutching me as I, more than a year, squirmed in her arms.

And my mother again- close to 92, so many years later, shortly after hearing the shofar blown in her hospital room, passed from this world of beginnings to another.

Perhaps because this is season of my father’s polio, she was always anxious around Rosh Hashanah as a period of transition, likely focusing on holiday preparations to banish frightening thoughts from her mind. She is, not surprisingly, is at the periphery of my thoughts during these days. Now as I age , there is so much I would share with her: questions I would ask ( about knitting, for sure), so many fears or doubts I would look to her for assurance : that all would be well and turnout fine. She was so fearful herself, often struggling tenuously to hold our world together like a jigsaw whose pieces might suddenly fall asunder and require reassembling by her able practical hands, handling and rearranging our lives, a task she completed as in the child’s story of The Little Red Hen that she never ceased to cite in deference to the lack of assistance by her family: “ALL by her self”, she would loudly affirm, moving between the real and the storytale, endowing herself with magic to erase our troubles and difficulties she had encountered but overcome in our lives. She, our mother, always silently praying, that this New Year would be better than the last.

If she were still on this earth and we were meeting for Saturday lunches, I might behave slightly differently, not avoiding difficult conversations, attempting to banish them into non- existence, probing more deeply and certainly, more sensitively. Not merely scoffing at her refrain that she wished she had become a nurse or an interior decorator. With greater compassion and kindness, I would NOT counter now, to change the subject,”Well, an orange cannot be an apple”. Truthfully, as she pondered her life, combing through lost opportunities, I was afraid to listen, not wanting to be hurt by some detail I had not all ready heard.

My parents had a wonderful way to celebrate Rosh Hashanah beyond our family gatherings. Yearly they would travel to the North where in Ontario at this time of year, the air is crisp, the autumnal leaves ripe on the trees, a kaleidoscope of colours. They might spend a day or several, driving through the beauty of nature, their thoughts far from the city. I stayed behind, but one year, cracked open the bottom drawer of a dresser in their bedroom. Heaped inside were the remnants of their life before and during my father’s polio. I poured over the barely readable postcards sent from the hospital where he had spent nine months when he was only 28 years old, robbed of the muscular power of his limbs.

In their exchanges, they write my name as “Paddy”, as an Irish person would. Or maybe the crosses on the “t’s” are sloppy and resemble “d’s”, but the fragments break my heart as I glimpse the broken communication between my parents. Tears overrun my eyes as I sense the immense difficulty even a few words has taken to produce their daily interchanges, but I sense in the scribbled half formed letters the depth of my father’s love for my mother.In my talks to her, I do not want to re- awaken these knives of pain and so we did not unshovel the past. Perhaps this why she does not speak of the missed holiday dinner that separated them.

So I approach the New Year with a mixture of emotions, grateful but longing for my mother’s company, pondering my relationship with my father, but also anticipating a supper with most of my children and grandchildren present, observing their fingers coated with honey , and their chomping Honey Crisp apples carefully chosen by my husband.

I enjoy the look of the table with my grandmother’s silver and her fine dishes: ones I refused, but finally belligerently accepted, because they are heavily ornate, not my style at all. Now I am happy for their place at my holiday table, a silver treasure, their quality beyond cost and symbolizing that I am a thread in my family that has unwound, as evidence of immigrant migration from Poland. I gaze too at the fine porcelain tableware, wishing I had investigated the stories the plates must withhold, although remembering my mother had related: that a peddler would come to the door weekly, selling one precious spoon or dish – and my grandmother would save and save until she could afford to purchase one here, one there , until she had put aside enough dollars to complete a full set.No wonder that even at 90 my mother precariously stoops to pick up a penny!

I wonder what my grandchildren will take from my suppers. Will they joke about the kugels, the unending offering of deserts, some strange detail that I imparted such as my grandmother’s delicious dun- coloured handmade wine from purple plums, or the reminisces of rollicking fun I shared with my cousins. Or the disgusting slurp of sucking chicken feet?

This year, the first ever, my family from Philadelphia will arrive for the family dinner completing the circle . How excited am I ,covering their beds with toys and new clothes.Usually we fill that absence at Thanksgiving at there house, but it happiness of happiness, joy of joys, on Sunday night -in person – they will be here, participating in traditions that are saturated with love: from the planning of foods to the folding of napkins to covering the them” with uninvited hugs and sloppy kisses, steeping them in Rosh Hashannah adoration.

The traditions etched in my mind and body have indeed shaped me as a person, a Jewish person acculturated by my laxity of making the traditions fit my life, weighing the precepts of giving anonymously, living a honest life, not fasting when sick, sadacka, for example, scoffing at burying dishes in the earth, or not eating shrimp, etc: the strange bits I discover when reading the translation of Torah portions written in another age…

Rather, it is the meaning of passing down a closeness, a memory of what it means to belong to a religious ritual- even briefly -that is initiated by an old and sacred story, a story that interrupts the workday to stress what is the most significant and meaningful in my life, that “time out of time”: as T.S. Eliot might conjecture, ” the still point of the turning wheel”. The family at the core of one’s life, the family that even when we’re gone will continue to interrupt the stream of their lives to sit down at dusk to reinvent and participate in a that yearly event that reaffirms difference but continuity in Jewish lives.

Stories of ordinary people

There is the factory girl, the immigrant, the son of the truck driver and the lonely lady who owns the bar. These are just ordinary people, people who come and go, grapple with life’s manipulations and tribulations. They are not self serving types. They do not blame their circumstances on others, rather they are merely dreamers searching for a way to improve or change the conditions of their days and weeks and years.

The factory girl is spunky, outspoken, denying but entranced by the fellow who works at the park. She keeps returning ,magnetized by his charisma, fascinated and like the moth to light drawn to danger.

The immigrant born in the Carribean knows he’s an outsider. Constantly his upbringing is the hand that smacks him and taunts him, causing him to talk too much but somehow his sense of self pushes him forward to excel beyond his caste in society.

The son of the truck driver also feels locked up by the closeness of his upbringing on a street where his cousins have inhabited forever. He spies a guitar, takes his mom’s pay check for lessons, but cannot commit to lessons. So he quits, bumbling around, disquieted by his circumscribed life.

And the woman who was once married is bored but resigned to her café in a hot and dreary place where nothing ever changes,she reminiscing about the romance of movie stars.

These human stories, these snippets of nondescript people we know personally, whom we pass on the street were the windows through which I peered last week, gleaning their tales, their thoughts in New York. The stuff of stories on Broadway, the quiet, unassuming, penetrating experiences of those quiet introspective types trying to figure out where home is and why they must stay or seek out alternatives to their present states yesterday, today or tomorrow.

The factory girl is Julie Jordan in Carousel, a mill worker who falls in love with the wrong guy. Standing toe to toe, able to meet him eye to eye but uninterested in committing to him, she does fall and falls hard for the man who is more interested in unlawful deeds than committing to a traditional life of responsibility.Complicated types both she and her guy Bill are torn up by emotions they cannot control, she rationalizing and standing by her man, acknowledging but unable to leave his abuse. In this retro piece, Julie at first is admirably strong but cannot move away from his flame.

Strangely for a modern day audience, we are shown Bill’s fate in which the playwrite produces on stage a surrealistic landscape of an in-between heaven populated by angels in ragged flounced gauze. Bill is allowed to return to earth for a final chance at redemption, but his strong “ man’s” inability to confess his weakness underlines his hubris.The strong man shown weak, the weak woman made strong by the difficulties of life, their voices made eloquent in songs that have persisted although the dramatization renders an anachronism, sweet but perhaps silly. The strains of “You’ll never walk” alone divorced from Jerry Lewis’s telethon now an ardent plea for the desire for help when the everyday storms threaten to topple you.

The Caribbean is Alexander Hamilton , Lin -Manuel Miranda’s brilliant creation of the driven outsider whose brain, wit and insight propel him upward in society to sit beside and guide George Washington. His writing , his thinking, his intelligence and charisma are the catalysts to upper class society, marriage and the builders of the emergent America of 1776. Still his jealous arch rivals, especially Aaron Burr, riddle his life with intrigue, opposition, betrayal and eventually death. There has been,as well, love by the upper class Schuyler girls, but instead of the tickle of fame, it is the power of a sexual liaison that undoes Hamilton’s rise in government. Hamilton cannot be praised enough, music, acting, words, the trajectory of events reaching out to grab, shake and mesmerize those present , privileged to share the hopes of the boy who comes to America and suffers by the hands of his jealous rivals who lack values that transcend petty personal gains.

It is Springsteen who is in a sense the American Dream as he stands before us, reciting poetry others have gleaned in his music. Not a fan, I am drawn in by the words that create indelible images of his mother’s high heels that clack along the floor that turn into slow dancing steps as she declines into Alzheimer’s; and the tension at the bar when as a boy he is sent to wrestle his father from his stool, a man with haunches like a rhinoceros: these words that hold fast in my mind .So much and so deep a Catholic he marvels how well his education has seated that religion in his soul. Yet desperate to leave the shelter of his small town, he flees as fast as he can in an open back truck under the canopy of night stars. His language of a young man’s pain piercing his own present day successful acceptance.

And the other lady, Dena, a typical Israeli in Betatikvah not Petatikvah who plays host to The Band’s Visit entertains an Egyptian musician from Alexandria for one night , he along with his fellow band members , witnessing the life of those out of work, aimless, who roller skate, cry out their fears, meet at cafes, listen to the baby’s cries, the belligerent racist, who go on existing, their own silent music also producing a rhythm.

As in the best books, we lose ourselves in the narratives of those who resemble, maybe a lot or a little, ourselves, reminding us of our own struggles, our boredoms, our helplessness or lack of control, of the bullies, the places and spaces that lock us in, but how passages can be opened even slightly by the temptation of love and human desires. We entrap ourselves in these stories, transfixed, forgetting our own personal anguishes, embracing those who say or sing it more loudly and more eloquently than in the silent thoughts that bang around in our own heads. These people speak and give voice for us, and like augers transform our thoughts into pictures that allow us to stand outside ourselves, creating potent catalysts to release us from ourselves. It is a release, a wonder to truly observe ourselves and as TS Eliot would suggest- knowing the place for the first time and although we view with awe and horror, we watch others involved , knowing the circumstance, the community but freed from the pain of the experiences. Schaudenfraude.

Broadway where every step is in pattern, where every note is perfectly on key, where life is larger than life and we sit in the audience, both watcher and participant, acknowledging , knowing in our heart of hearts that a writer has communicated what our fumbled words are unable to express, what our failed looks have failed to connect, what our pinched hearts are feeling. And it is magic. It is what Aristotle imagined in his unities- the pity and the terror of the stage that can trigger a catharsis. Or a moment’s epiphany.

Synagogues in the South,Part 2

When I travelled with my aunt and uncle in Europe, I noticed they always searched out synagogues. I found this rather strange as neither one was an observant religious shul- goer. He, a World Federalist, she, a Voice of Women( VOW) member, had humanistic leanings, rather than specific Jewish ones. Yet, culturally, they seemed to be concerned with yiddishkeit and ancestral roots. Interesting, as he was the son of a British ha’ sun( cantor) , and her mother, a community leader in raising money for Jewish causes, even selling bricks to build the old Mount Sinai Hospital on Yorkville in Toronto. Besides just historical, their fascination had to do with discovering Jewish migration , and as I am now passed their ages when I accompanied them so many years ago, barely out of my teens, I find myself emulating their search, comprehending their motivation and wanting to piece together my own Identity as a Jew.

We are in Charleston and my American cousin suggests we make our way to Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim( KKBE) , the oldest synagogue, as well as the founding Reform Jewish Congregation in the United States. He tells me his son Josh was Bar mitzvahed in this unique landmark. So although we are only in Charleston for a day and a half, we decide the synagogue is first on our list of “ what to see”.

Fortunately our hotel, the Dewberry, is close to Calhoun, and remarkably the Synagogue on Hasell Street is less than two blocks walking. The outside of the building is in deed impressive with its huge menorahs and its colonnade of massive white pillars. There is a large marble tablet above the doors that proclaims the Sh’ma( Deuteronomy 6:4)and we ring to be let in. Larry opens the door for us. He is about to dash off, as he is a member, not a tour guide, running some errands. Although he obviously has business to attend to, he kindly locates a key to the sanctuary so we can spend a few minutes there.

He provides us with a pamphlet that answers some of our queries, stating the first reference to a Jew in the English settlement of Charleston occurred in 1695. By 1749, a sufficient number of Jews attracted by freedoms of religion who had come to South Carolina, previously gathering to pray in one another’s homes, organized Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim and within fifteen years, the building is erected. Most likely survivors of the Spanish Inquisition, this Sephardic Orthodox Congregation in 1824 petitioned to change the liturgy to a briefer Hebrew version.

The more progressive element of the congregation who had wanted but were denied an English service (also in 1824) eventually persuaded the rest of their group to install an organ: this was the first time a synagogue had introduced instrumental music into worship. In 1973, KKBE joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism.

The design and construction of the present synagogue emulates the form of a Greek temple and is consistent with other religious architecture in Charleston circa 1830, coinciding with the beginning of the Reform Judaism movement that had its roots in Germany. In 1790, President George Washington had congratulated the congregants and wrote,

…May the same temporal and eternal blessing which you implore for me, rest upon your Congregation…

According to Larry’s pamphlet, the great Charleston fire of 1838 destroyed the first cupolated Georgian synagogue building , but was replaced in 1840 on the original site of the first. The second great Charleston fire occurred in 1861. The synagogue was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1980.

Standing in the grand, airy sanctuary we note the white cupola above our heads. Two tiered ,the original separating women, with that impressive organ and beautiful bima, the feeling of the sanctuary is light- filled and awe- inspiring. The ark is crafted from Santo Domingo mahogany. Above it are carved these words,” Know Before Whom Thou Standest.” Two Corinthian columns stand at each side of the ark, continuing the underlying Greek theme. Beautiful glass windows represent symbols from the Bible and date from 1886.

In the Barbara Pearlstine social hall , Larry points out several works of art by a well known Charleston artist William Halsey, son of a congregant. The mural depicts the city’s destroying fire along with two menorahs, one with six and one with seven branches, to represent the synagogue’s original orthodox status and now the present day reform one. A second Halsey mural portrays the revolutionary patriot and legislator Francis Salvador who hailed from England, arriving in South Carolina in 1773. Salvador was the well educated son of an aristocratic Sephardic family, the Marrano name of “Salvador “was taken in response to the Inquisition which either tortured and murdered Jews or forced their conversion, although many practiced in hiding.

A diorama also illustrates Salvador’s scalping and demise on horseback by Cherokee Indians. More than twenty members of the congregation fought in the American Revolution. Larry is obviously very proud of these artworks that proclaim the early congregants’ contribution to the country :Francis Salvador as the first identified Jew to be elected to an American legislative body and the first to die for the cause of American liberty. Another wall steel sculpture, again by a synagogue member, William Hirsch, interprets the prophets of consolation and admonition.

We journey on to Savannah,Georgia and we are privileged to spend more than an hour at Congregation Mickve Israel dating from 1773. Here the chief docent, Jules, relates the origins of the synagogue. He narrates the story that dates back to the Inquisition in Portugal of Dr. Samuel Nunez in 1733, who ministering to the king, hides his Jewish background. When it is revealed he is still practicing his Jewish faith and traditions in private, Nunez arranges for a day at the shore to be the means of escape to London. He, his family and friends are welcomed by the Bevis Marks Congregation in England .Later, forty- one Jews , both Sephardic and Ashkenazi from German shetls , arrive by ship, the William and Sarah, to the Georgian colony. These Jewish settlers brought with them a safer Torah, one of the oldest Torah scrolls in existence in America, as well as a circumcision kit.

In 1741, the War of Jenkins Ear causes the congregants to worry that the Spanish might reclaim Britain’s outpost here. Fortunately the former Portuguese-conversion Jews regain their security and freedoms in Savannah when the Spanish are unsuccessful in their takeover.

We sit in the sanctuary as Jules narrates the historical background. Our eyes search out the original Gothic chairs, in deed, the Gothic revival architecture layout is reminiscent of stately churches, its ceilings pointed and arching many, many feet above our heads. The supporting columns are also in the Corinthian style, melding with the pointed arches of the Gothic style. The stained glass windows as well feature symbols associated with Judaism such as the spread fingers of the Kohenim, olives, menorahs, an ark, a lion, a crown with entwined grapevines as backdrop: no human bodies as dictated in the Ten Commandments. At the very back, two more windows coalesce in the Art Nouveau style contributing to the softened light created by the other windows.

Jules takes us to the ark and opens its doors. The congregation is very proud of their Torahs, our docent highlights The Slany Torah, one of 1564 Czech Memorial Torahs confiscated and saved in Prague during the Nazi occupation, 1939-1945. Before World War II, there were about 350 synagogues in the Czech Republic. On Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, the Nazis destroyed 50 synagogues along the Sudetenland border region.

Creating a storehouse of goods confiscated during World War II in Prague, the Nazis collected artifacts. Although believed that Hitler was intending a museum to the extinct race of Jews, Leo Pavlat in a journal article,1. says the museum’s collection had been in place from 1906 and in 1939, all ready holding 760 items representative of Prague and Bohemia.

Yet the narrative goes that in 1942, several prominent Prague Jews persuaded the Nazis to allow artifacts from abandoned and destroyed synagogues to be stored in Prague, where a museum would be opened. Of the more than 100,000 artifacts , there were 1,800 Torah scrolls, labeled ,indexed, and given a provenance. According to the narrative, all of the Jews who participated in this project would be deported to Terezin or Auschwitz, with only two surviving. One Torah collected during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia is now on permanent loan at Congregation Mike Israel and used weekly at services. The Torah is inscribed with its provenance, “This Scroll came from Slany and was written in 1890.” It came to Savannah in 1968.

A condition for custodianship of a Czech Torah is that it must be maintained in perfect condition, used regularly and returned if a synagogue is re-established in that town. In 1458, Jews were officially expelled from Slany , more Jews removed during WWII, and unfortunately in the present day population of about 15,000, no Jew remains.

Jules turns on a tape, and we listen to Hebrew chanting. I’m caught off guard and feel tears collect in my eyes. Later my husband contributes that he thinks it is the synagogue that unites Jews, perhaps more than Israel, for in these places, we all sing the same songs, have studied the same ancient prayers, stand before the ark, familiar and welcomed by our traditions, uniting us as Jews. He is moved as well. I concur that we both feel we are a continuing strand that has unwound across continents, yet part of a tapestry that persists in holding us together- no matter where on earth we might find a welcoming synagogue: a living legacy that rekindles our proud sense of being Jewish.

Upstairs in the museum, there are the two deerskin Torahs described by Jules in that journey by the intrepid Dr. Nunez. Here too are reproductions of letters to the congregation by every American president, beginning with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe on to Roosevelt, Obama, etc.2.

In 1997, a recipe for charoset, a Passover mixture of fruits and nuts essential to the reading of the Haggadah was found from the congregation, dating to 1794. 3.

We have a plane to catch but notice more people are arriving, drawn to this synagogue, as if to rekindle and nourish their Jewish souls, a symbolic coming home and coming together of Jews spread across the diaspora.

1. The Jewish Museum in Prague during the Second World War European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Spring 2008), pp. 124-130.

2. George Washington to Savannah, Georgia, Hebrew Congregation, May, 1790, George Washington Papers at The Library of Congress. Accessed November 22, 2011 in Wikipedia.

3. Nathan, Joan (April 16, 1997). “Retracing Jewish Steps, Through Haroseth”. The New York Times.

Apologies

Please excuse the three versions of my most recent blog. Apparently, according to Howard, the first and second are in tact, the third ( last sent when the others did not appear on his iPad) with many repetitions.

The damn publishing process here scrambles my paragraphs and frustrates me. So sorry, but if you read repetitions, go to another.

Bloggingboomer, ready to scream.

To the Mountains, Part one

With the craziness of climate change, we were fortunate to be invited to my cousins’ place in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Their summer retreat is located at the zenith, the tippy top of one of the mountains in North Carolina and truly you feel as if you are perched at the crest of the world. With several foggy overlapping layers of clouds, mountain and sky, you might be in Shanghai-la, gods overlooking the world below. It was on the surveying porch where we had breakfasts and dinners, constantly held in awe of the transforming view. Here too, my cousin Jon might snooze from time to time, rendered so restful that he sank into the gauzy vistas of beauty.

We drove along the tips of those mountains, shifting our perspective, attempting to seek out our viewing spot from our initial encounter with them at Jon and Elaine’s place, incredulous to ride on to the peaks where only an hour before we had observed them, wonderstruck. The cascading falls en route, refreshing, crashing, beautiful.

From here we travelled to other charming towns such as Brevard that claims Andy Griffin’s Mayberry cop and Asheville known for its quaint shops, burgeoning food and artist scenes. Best of all was a trip to one of largest estates in America the 150,000 square feet, Biltmore property, erected by the Vanderbilt Family in the late 1880’s, requiring the labor of well over 1,000 workers and 60 stonemasons!

The Vanderbilt family, comparable to J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew W. Mellon, and John D. Rockefeller, monopoly holders were to be described by Thomas Carlyle in his 1843 book, Past and Present as “ robber barons”, unscrupulous, ruthless and unethical businessmen. Cornelius Vanderbilt in the time of no regulations rose from operator of one small ferry in New York Harbor to dominate vital industries. In the realms of railroads, steel, and petroleum, consumers and workers were exploited by these powerful men who emulated their European counterparts of kings and tyrants.Yet, much of their legacy paved the new world with beauty, mimicking privilege, taste, and class of another world. Yet, later, an attempt necessary to bolster the estate’s financial situation during the Great Depression was required; Cornelia Vanderbilt and her husband opened Biltmore to the public in March 1930 at the request of the City of Asheville, which hoped the attraction would revitalize the area with tourism.

Notable guests to the estate over the years included authors Edith Wharton, Henry James, Presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama. Films too have been shot here such as Peter Sellers’ Being There, Robin Williams’Patch Adams, Ritchie Rich, Forrest Gump and the Hannibal movies.

With inns, restaurants, a winery, equestrian station, gardens, shops and lavish forests festooned with lambs, goats, horses and cows, the Biltmore Estate is in deed a mansion worthy of a prince. Gardens designed by Frederick Ohlmstead( of Central Park fame) and architect Robert Morris Hunt, along with the Sargent Singer portraits enshrine the family. Drawing on French Renaissance chateaus that Vanderbilt and Hunt had visited in early 1889, such as Château de Blois, Chenonceau and Chambord in France( we’ve been to these chateaus with the kids ) and Waddesdon Manor in England, Biltmore incorporated steeply pitched roofs, turrets and sculptural ornamentation, embellishing this lavish palace with celebrated art works and tapestries from Europe’s 15-19 th centuries. I also noticed Albrecht Durer engravings.

The 250 rooms in the house include 35 bedrooms for family and guests, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, three kitchens and 19th-century novelties such as electric elevators, forced-air heating, centrally controlled clocks, fire alarms, and a call-bell system.

Fortunate for our visit was a Chihuly glass installation in the estate’s six tiered gardens. Strangely organic, Chihuly’s diverse array of multicoloured balls, squiggles, stems and glassworks pieces fit perfectly into the various gardens, enhancing the grounds. Whimsical, part manmade, part plant, each installation melds with a setting of bright flowers, shadowy nooks and groves, sunny exposed spaces, or greenhouses that suggest an elision of human and nature.. To the mountains

With the craziness of climate change, we were fortunate to be invited to my cousins’ place in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Their summer retreat is located at the zenith, the tippy top of one of the mountains in North Carolina and truly you feel as if you are perched at the crest of the world. With several foggy overlapping layers of clouds, mountain and sky, you might be in Shanghai-la, gods overlooking the world below. It was on the surveying porch where we had breakfasts and dinners, constantly held in awe of the transforming view. Here too, my cousin Jon might snooze from time to time, rendered so restful that he sank into the gauzy vistas of beauty.

We drove along the tips of those mountains, shifting our perspective, attempting to seek out our viewing spot from our initial encounter with them at Jon and Elaine’s place, incredulous to ride on to the peaks where only an hour before we had observed them, wonderstruck. The cascading falls en route, refreshing, crashing, beautiful.

From here we travelled to other charming towns such as Brevard that claims Andy Griffin’s Mayberry cop and Asheville known for its quaint shops, burgeoning food and artist scenes. Best of all was a trip to one of largest estates in America the 150,000 square feet, Biltmore property, erected by the Vanderbilt Family in the late 1880’s, requiring the labor of well over 1,000 workers and 60 stonemasons!

The Vanderbilt family, comparable to J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew W. Mellon, and John D. Rockefeller, monopoly holders were to be described by Thomas Carlyle in his 1843 book, Past and Present as “ robber barons”, unscrupulous, ruthless and unethical businessmen. Cornelius Vanderbilt in the time of no regulations rose from operator of one small ferry in New York Harbor to dominate vital industries. In the realms of railroads, steel, and petroleum, consumers and workers were exploited by these powerful men who emulated their European counterparts of kings and tyrants.Yet, much of their legacy paved the new world with beauty, mimicking privilege, taste, and class of another world. Yet, later, an attempt necessary to bolster the estate’s financial situation during the Great Depression was required. Cornelia Vanderbilt and her husband opened Biltmore to the public in March 1930 at the request of the City of Asheville, which hoped the attraction would revitalize the area with tourism.

Notable guests to the estate over the years included authors Edith Wharton, Henry James, Presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama. Films too have been shot here such as Peter Sellers’ Being There, Robin Williams’Patch Adams, Ritchie Rich, Forrest Gump and the Hannibal movies.

With inns, restaurants, a winery, equestrian station, gardens, shops and lavish forests festooned with lambs, goats, horses and cows, the Biltmore Estate is in deed a mansion worthy of a prince. Gardens designed by Frederick Ohlmstead( of Central Park fame) and architect Robert Morris Hunt, along with the Sargent Singer portraits enshrine the family. Drawing on French Renaissance chateaus that Vanderbilt and Hunt had visited in early 1889, such as Château de Blois, Chenonceau and Chambord in France( we’ve been to these chateaus with the kids ) and Waddesdon Manor in England, Biltmore incorporated steeply pitched roofs, turrets and sculptural ornamentation, embellishing this lavish palace with celebrated art works and tapestries from Europe’s 15-19 th centuries. I also noticed Albrecht Durer engravings.

The 250 rooms in the house include 35 bedrooms for family and guests, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, three kitchens and 19th-century novelties such as electric elevators, forced-air heating, centrally controlled clocks, fire alarms, and a call-bell system.

Fortunate for our visit was a Chihuly glass installation in the estate’s six tiered gardens. Strangely organic, Chihuly’s diverse array of multicoloured balls, squiggles, stems and glassworks pieces fit perfectly into the various gardens, enhancing the grounds. Whimsical, part manmade, part plant, each installation melds with a setting of bright flowers, shadowy nooks and groves, sunny exposed spaces, or greenhouses that suggest an elision of human and nature. The Chihuly installation soon ends, returning the gardens to an alternate state, no doubt, also magnificent in colour, style and elegance.

Sadly we left the warm chaos of our cousins, their children and grandchildren preparing for the the mountain Community’s Spoon competition, which- no surprise- involves spoons. I am sad to report that the Christmas family with their overly long arms took the Golden Spoon😟 this year. As well, the family’s other grandkids from New York had come to North Carolina for summer camp so we met them in a happy tangle of sprawled bodies, lazy meals, retreats to tablets and easy banter.

On to beautiful lCharleston and then Savannah. I’ll be including a piece on these cities’ synagogues in next week’s posts so no need to describe here the arrival of Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in the 17th Century to the southern United States.

However, outside of Charleston, we did spend half a day at Middleton Place House whose namesakes played prominent roles in the colonial and antebellum history of South Carolina. John Williams, an early South Carolina planter, likely began building Middleton Place in the late 1730s. His son-in-law Henry Middleton (1717–1784), served as President of the First Continental Congress, and Middleton’s son, Arthur Middleton (1742–1787), was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. So the grand three – building residence with approximately 500 surrounding acres is steeped in stories. The house possesses interesting artifacts in the library, bedrooms and dining rooms. The reassembled four sets of silver candlesticks, a child’s Noah’s ark, a curved shaving bowl and a discarded robe extended a presence of the early occupants.

At Eliza’s slave house,( eventually a freed person’s house) considered lavish for its raised foundation, wood floors, divided room and windows , we listen to early slave history. Our well informed guide tells us that the Middletons began business in sugar cane, but their second year’s production was wiped out. Wise enough to draw on the expertise of slaves from West Africa, likely Ghana, their product turned to rice that was shipped worldwide.The guide is unflinching in his description of treatment exacted on the slaves captured in Africa, explaining that perhaps 10-14 million persons perished during this time, underlining, too, the terrible boat conditions that recall for me the film Amistad.

Sadly the formal gardens are not in bloom. Henry Middleton ( 1880’s) purchased 253 different species, including 52 types of flower seeds, 54 sorts of bulbs, 71 hardy herbaceous plants, 41 varieties of greenhouse plants and 35 kinds of vegetable seeds from England. The estate reports some of the country’s oldest oak trees. There is a heavy downpour so we only briefly tour the stables, coopers, pottery makers and seamstresses. It is the words of the guide on the slaves’ lives that remain with us.

Savannah must be beautiful in better weather. It is breathless in these dog days of August. We manage the elegant synagogue and a trip to Jones street, voted “ the most beautiful in America “. We’re remembering “ in the gardens of good and evil”, while strolling among the grand houses framed by low hanging Spanish moss, moving slowly through picturesque garden squares that frame statues, both majestically spouting water or solidly recalling heroic battles. It’s a slow amble, enjoyable- coolish in the heat.

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our ten days, gaining new information about the South , and renewing our bonds with our hosts, my dear cousins whose kind invitation initiated this ramble.

The Sex Ed Debate

Ontario’s Education Minister, Lisa Thompson, now presently unavailable, announced that the province will revert to a previous version of its sex education curriculum when students return to school in the fall. The older curriculum will remain in effect until the government completes parental consultations for feedback. The decision follows promises made by Premier Doug Ford during his leadership campaign earlier this year.However, consultation for the one under discussion resulted from in progress discussions that lasted years, and included 4,000 parents( one from each elementary school in Ontario), 2400 educators , 700 students from grades7-12, and170 key organizations , according to Nancy Veals in today’s letters in the Toronto Star. Having written teacher guidelines myself, I decided to look at the Health and Physical Education Guideline, revised for the Ontario Curriculum, grades 1-8. Thoughtful, constructive information , attention to context, the multi- faceted development of students are all addressed in the document.

I came to understand this methodology when I worked as a Program Officer at OCT, developing both the standards and numerous Additional Qualifications courses for Ontario high school teachers. The process is very serious, the researcher combing through multiple documents – from requested to unsolicited briefs and papers, interviewing and holding interactive consulting sessions, actively listening to concerns, then working through oral and written reports and transcripts, comparing and contrasting with similar curricula, consulting more , reviewing more with colleagues, testing and requesting, omitting and adding information in order to attempt to get it right and reflect the needs and aspirations of our communities. The result is somewhat formulaic but not one taken in haste, nor without deep thoughtful considerations, sensitivity and allowance for teacher pedagogy and implementation that meets the needs of students.

With the arrival of Doug Ford’s government, his promise to do away with the sex ed has been fulfilled. And every newspaper reflects the weighing in of diverse view points. Even an article by professor Debora Soh from York university stressed the role parents play in communicating trends, values, issues of a sexual nature. On July 17 she wrote in The Globe,”..science-based sex education has been shown to be effective, leading young people to delay becoming sexually active and increasing the likelihood that they will engage in safer sex practices when they do.”

To the queries, lacuna, confusion regarding the scrum, I suggest they all cast their minds back to their own foggy years of pre adolescence and those wonderful teenage years: when teenagers either ignore, distrust or adamantly do the exact opposite of what their parents wish them to. And if we are really honest here, how many parents or guardians are even having “ the talk”, but when they do, projecting their own righteous values on their kids. “ We take the approach that the best teachers are the parents, not the special interest group,” remarked Ford.

Parents are busier. Or so they think, and so self consumed with matters of importance these days barely even joining their offspring for a meal, or rarely sitting quietly without a tablet at a meal in a restaurant, so where and when does the Premier imagine these conversations will actually take place?

These important interchanges regarding sexting, abuse, sexuality are exactly necessary when you want an educated and sensitive adult to diffuse the embarrassment, shame and diversities of becoming, particularly if the parent finds the topics awkward to approach.That is not to remove the onus on parents to have these discussions, but the reality is that they may not be occurring or maybe even happening too late. To say parents are always the best teachers is disingenuous, for parents most often communicate bias. “ Soh underlines, ‘It brings us to the question of who gets to dictate how a child is raised – should it be the responsibility of the parent or the state? Sexual education cannot be blindly outsourced to the education system. As uncomfortable as it may be, parents must be savvy about the issues their kids are contending with in 2018’.”

I absolutely concur, and admit that I decided to stay home in my children’s early years because I did not want a nanny or “ other” to ground them in values that might be inconsistent with my own. I wanted those kidlets shaped by my ideas, ideals and rules. But that is not to say I did not anticipate that eventually they would become aware of multiple perspectives, learn to weigh, judge and think for themselves too, becoming their own personal critics, arbiters, holding viewpoints arrived at after consideration.But yes, I hoped and strove to underpin this with universal standards of care, responsibility, commitment, cooperation, kindness, compassion and caring. But even by kindergarten and the early years, kids have imbibed with their mother’s milk the lay of their parents, the accepted behaviour, the boundaries set or to be breached in their homes, on the street or at the playground of the daycare.

And yet to the issue of bias, a friend retold the situation wherein a kindergarten teacher, her colleague and a student teacher were in involved in an instructional session regarding the presentation of the curriculum guideline material. Following a frank and helpful session, the student teacher firmly stated, “ That’s not what I was taught in co-op”, her instruction all ready immovable and set, her mind unwilling to be open. So it rests with teachers, to be willing to listen and find the appropriate ways to sensitively instruct their students, as in remembering Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences: that we all learn differently and concrete, theoretical, visual, oral and aesthetic understanding, particularly of personal lessons such as sexuality must be taught in a manner that makes sense to the student and the context. Sex Ed is a huge topic as it now extends way beyond sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and developing bodies. In all situations, knowledge, reflection and wise instruction are the tools that have to be given to prepare our children for our brave, new world.

Even back almost 60 years I can remember being sent to the drugstore to buy a box of Kotex for my mother and innocently querying to the pharmacist, “Whatever that is?”I also recall a booklet handed out by Disney entitled “Personally Yours” with diagrams of our inner organs, certainly a mystery to my grade 3 or 4 self. We were certainly privy to tales of bad girls, not “going all the way,” and fear of pregnancy back then- days before the pill. To locate a paperback edition of Peyton Place or glimpse a copy of Playboy incited shivers of excitement. Sex Ed from that era of official documents was likely a paragraph, a few lines, and of course, did not even envision a world of cyberbullying, sexting, suicide, pedophilia, consent, and more, but today the rise of social media requires savvy regarding the plethora of issues that are at the toddlers’ fingertips who nonchalantly encounter tablets along with their plush toys: all ready fodder as customers, at the disposal of sellers, mindbenders and manipulators.

At the AGO, my 6 year old grandson on entering the washroom, noted a transgender sign. Without judgment or reaction, he merely observed it.I could see the symbol had been normalized, no big deal, to him. Whether his parents had presented the topic or school instruction had prompted his knowledge, it was obviously not an issue, only noted, and I marvelled and was assured by his reaction, hoping most kindergarteners were like him.

Yet in discussion with a friend this week, several thoughts shared by her friends who teach primary became clear. The elementary school teachers had been teaching values , actually the standards of care, which must always be present in whatever transpires in and out of the schoolyard, for example, during recess: that no one touches your body unless they request permission first- as in respect , responsibility. An essential baseline upon which to move outwards towards more prickly concerns.

On Friday, again I read, that new teachers are not being prepared for these topics- because the curriculum is in limbo. The Star writes,” Typically, when there is a new curriculum, there are some new resources…for school boards to support our teachers…the curriculum we were using in 2014 was the 1998 curriculum…[ which] wasn’t changed until 2015”.

Not controversial to my mind, I read the 2015 Sex Ed booklet which states, according to grade,

Grade 3: Identify the characteristics of healthy relationships, including those with friends, siblings and parents. Describe how visible differences, such as skin colour, and invisible differences, including gender identity and sexual orientation, make each person unique. Identify ways of showing respect for differences in others….

Grade 4: Describe the physical changes that occur at puberty, as well as the emotional and social impacts. Demonstrate an understanding of personal hygienic practices associated with the onset of puberty. Identify risks associated with communications technology and describe how to use them safely. Describe various types of bullying and abuse and identify appropriate ways of responding.

Do we roar against the learning of fractions or writing a coherent paragraph? By allowing our children access to public schools, we deign that we give over to the community appropriate access to the development of what it means to be a healthy, contributing member of society, and we do give away some control.

Yet there is always room for parent dissent and I certainly recall Gloria’s parents in Grade 13 arguing against Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage and so she was given another book for study, and another student’s sensitivity to animals that permitted her to forgo the watching of Out of Africa ( although at present I do not recall the harming of any animals in that film). The point is that making soup for thousands cannot meet the appetites of all, and we make provisions for those who wish to omit the peppery parts. Yet to toss it out would be a waste because the cooks have laboured hard and long to achieve the best results possible, knowing that not every single person will herald its new arrival on the menu.

My concerns leap towards a Trump world wherein women’s rights, access to abortion, new social realities and even the “ fake press” are objects for derisive scorn. We prepare for the onslaught against our selves and our babes through education, through expanding our knowledge, only returning to the past to examine and understand the mistakes of the past history, not ready to repeat them, refusing to glean information and improvement from them.

I believe this is called wisdom in learning.

.

Something about Mary

We kind of felt that my mother was not allowed friends. Certainly there was Mrs. Feld next door.should she visit for a cup of tea, my father barely acknowledged her existence, his dark brooding eyes flowing over her. And I too should I arrive home from school and find Mrs Feld there, was disappointed not to be able to command my mother’s full attention.When my mother had once been overwhelmed by her life and retreated for one solitary weekend at her parents, it was Mrs. Feld who resurrected our mother whose therapy consisted of cleaning, and if still down, she instructed my mother,” Clean everything again.”

Mary did not really come into the picture until my father passed away, Mary the neighbour across the road having observed my mother’s fidelity and never ending support of her husband. And so Mary thought, this woman could use some long suffering support too.My sister and I had our own lives so we didn’t pay much attention to hearing about the wondrous Mary except to suppress yawns-at the mention of Mary’s name -more than we would like, her compassion and kindness, according to mom, clearly canceling the small offerings we doled out. And should there be a small family celebration, my mother’s request that Mary be included on the guest list made us boil, but as ever dour and unsmiling, Mary would accept our invitations, only given to appease our mother.

Mother and Mary would make small trips together, Mary the driver, to Niagara on the Lake and longer flights to California where Toby, my mother’s sister lived and like two Thelmas and Louise I imagined the women kerchiefed heading down the A1Ahighway towards Lachlan, a lesser Las Vegas, Toby, a hot shot on the penny slots. I never enquired about hotel accommodations or dinners, but these trips must have been successful for they were repeated several times. And when my mother grew old, it was, in deed, Mary who would trek to her apartment midtown on the weekly Tuesday evening when the two, with Mary physically propping my mother, would be greeted at their local fish and chip place on Laird where apparently Mary was well known. All mushy peas aside, “ the girls” forfeited the fries for salad.And later on the phone, my mother would reiterate the wonders of Mary.

Even towards the last days of her life, my mother enjoyed Mary’s visits, she taking several buses from Finch and Yonge to ease my mother’s entrance to a world without her best friend. It had become a mantra,” if you only have one friend like Mary..”: which of course we mocked.

When my mother died, I felt I must maintain the friendship to assuage my mother’s ghost. Although I had never known the woman and wondered at my mother’s ravings about the laughter and good times shared, I’d never experienced the other side of Mary’s unsmiling serious face. But I felt in gratitude for all of what Mary had done, perhaps in place of what I might have, so I felt I should get to know Mary. In deed I often wondered at her choice of Mary’s Marilyn Monroe purse, slight hints that Mary a war bride and former figure skater might be more than the cool exterior I had observed.

And yes, I began to know a more complex person who had emigrated from the UK, a person who seemed to always to be at the centre of unusual events, a risk taker and quite lovely person.

Just last week there was the tale about the 5am arousal in North York in which the screams of a rooster on her front lawn drove her from her bed to explore the commotion. From Mary’s description this was no ordinary bird and I began to visualize a peacock of sorts, lush green feathers trailing behind its tiny dark feet, an immense ruff of royal red , a thickly textured body, a presence worthy of a king. Quiet Mary after calling the city , commandeered three construction workers nearby her house to give chase and eventually grab the bird. One of the pursuants in awe of the magnificent bird remarked that he recognized the rooster from his home in Turkey. A Turkey rooster?

Another long unravelling story dwelled on an illegal immigrant with wife and crying baby who had been hired by Mary to reinforce her basement. Obviously compassionate to the tales this man was spinning, she sweetened his salary, but the work began to slow down as he complained of other jobs, unkind bosses, requiring better tools. And so Mary “ helped him out”, drawn in by his woeful stories, cribless infant, hungry spouse, instability in his new country. But even Mary began to realize that Tom was not being truthful. First when she discovered the tools they had bought together had been returned for cash. And soon the $5.00 put through her mail slot from time to time also stopped appearing.

Our determined Mary was not deterred and set out to confront him face to face. She knew his mother in law had worked down the street apparently as a cleaning lady and Mary was intent on tracking him down. As she described it to me, although warned by a friendly officer not to go to his apartment, she went with a friend to an abandoned address , some place deep downtown, and persuaded a suspicious land lady to allow her into his place, where she sat and waited. My sense of the living spot was decrepit a dank hole between two leaning walls, no evidence, no surprise, of wife or child, a place like a garage, thickly encrusted in dirt and decay. The cleaning lady mother in law appeared and explained Tom did not live there anymore, and invited Mary to leave.

Upset on being duped, lied too, and still intent on being repaid, she continued her quest. Legally she was told even should he be found, which was unlikely, there had been no written contract, he likely had no money, a professional liar, and with no listed address, the case was fruitless. She had not been coerced, only a kind person taken advantage of by an unscrupulous workman.

Last I saw Mary, she did not mention Tom who had been her festering topic for months. Yet I thought of her as the avenging angel even putting herself in peril, Marilyn purse tightly tucked over her arm as she tracked him to his covert subterranean lodging.She had been kind, fair, drawn in ,moved by his stories. But the intrepid Mary had not been intimidated by police warnings, or even venturing into the lion’s den. Foolish as it might have been.

I guess our lunches revealed the Mary my mother knew: the witty, trusting, woman Mary who made my mother’s life so much better, a true friend I’ve grown to know and respect.

Insides outsides

Sandra Martin in The Globe today( Saturday) writes about her turning 70 trip to the Galapagos and segues into boomer thoughts on aging.Perhaps because of two events in the last week, I too ( maybe too often lately) also ruminated on the disconnect between my insides and outsides.But yes, I too marvelled at the blue footed boobies, the ancient lumbering tortoises and the need to preserve the fantastically coloured crabs. Even if it meant not flushing toilet paper!

Martin writes,”Going to the Galapagos was a chance to meditate not on mortality, but longevity , since I’m not the only one getting older these days.” She continues to state that “[f]or the first time, there are more Canadians over 65 than under 14…Modern medicine maybe not have vanquished death, but it has certainly pushed it to the sidelines.” Yet always mindful of my mother’s attitudes towards doctors and hospitals, like COD liver oil, the remedies must be accomplished quickly, distastefully but nonetheless endured so I make my annual visit to my physician, my attempt to get in and out as quickly as possible, avoiding as many tests as possible. Unlike many who arrive with a lengthy list of aches and pains, I surmise that decrepitude is the price for living longer- and anyway should some bodily distraction resist self- healing, I’ll make a separate appointment for a more detailed examination of putting said part under a microscope.

The doctor enquires, “ How are the eyes?””Dry- I’m taking Drops”. “ How are the bowels?” “Better in California, but we’ve all ready discussed it .” “ When was your last period.?” I look quizzical, laughing, wondering .He embarrassed demures,” I have to ask.” “Too long ago to remember…how about 55?…”

My mind wanders to my mother with whom I wish I could now more fully empathize who would reiterate at 90 ,”It sure ain’t the golden age.” Not quite at that stage, I sometimes think there is a disconnect with my mind, my registering of sensation, thoughts in my interior, and the reflection in the mirror. As I say to my husband even when we’re in our finery, well, at least cleaned up for our Saturday night date ritual, “ Old is old”. Where the stomach although not sagging or huge, still protrudes. Where even the devices of glasses and hearing aids do not bring the world into precise focus or sound. Where feet occasionally trip or an afternoon nap is soooo sweet. The doctor enquirers,”How is your energy level?” Do I tell him I fancy a snooze around 3 or pause when climbing the three flights to my painting class? No. I respond, “ Not like Howard’s” who rises at 5 to exercise and then can count 20,000 steps more in a day, nonstop activity. So I think I am a bonus to this doctor at the beginning of his day, the picture of health that still bends and straightens, pretty much as I have for years. Besides, he has others- truly ill patients to follow. No doubt some younger, perkier, most likely still have monthly flow.

At my Pilates studio, there was a celebration of our instructor’s new venture as she rebranded. On a perfect afternoon in a truly lovely affair, her clients gathered to toast her. As I looked around, I noted most were of my vintage, well heeled, about my age, more or less. And my husband added upon observing the crowd,” all with straight, upright postures and good backs.” She has worked hard to support her clientele, her knowledge obvious upon viewing us as a cohesive group. And on the inside hidden from the well polished exteriors the fears and foibles of aging, of life, of avoidance or repair of age-related affirmities, of change. It at that moment, while imbibing and snacking , chatting and relaxing, the beautiful surface of healthy bodies has gathered to assert the possibilities of health, exercise, good aging.

For me, turning 70 was the line in the sand, viewing myself standing on the other side, “ the waiting room” as coined by my daughter-in-law’s grandparents. Although they joked about the approach of that new dimension of personal evolution, that twilight zone that awaits us all, reaching that age is sobering. And although those morbid thoughts are not my constant companion, they are inescapable upon gazing into the mirror or surveying the wonderful photos from the Pilates event. I used to joke with my students how amazing Georgia O’Keefe’s face was as each line, crevice and ditch represented signs and symbols that reflected the wisdom of events in a life, possibly well lived, or able to record the pain but also joys that accrue in every day encounters. Still as I scan the faces of Millennials or those younger such as the muscle bound fellow overlapping my seat at the Jays game Friday, the secret is : not one of us escapes and you too will get old and lose that robust beauty, that gleam of the solidity of step and body you are presently experiencing.It is the secret that even if we know, we tend to forget, erase, ignore as we leap two flights of steps or reach for the highest shelf with no clawing pain in our shoulders.

However, to combat the decline of the physical is the inner life, because the interior of a person, an oldster, a boomer is so rich: contemplating the joy of a grandson racing through the Bata Museum collecting clues; the appreciation of the table bouquet of fuchsia and orange blooms this week at the Law Society; cuddling against my husband’s warm body when I cannot sleep; watching birds wolf down the seeds at the feeder and a squirrel mount pole to get his fair share; the cool of the pool on these inexplicably humid days; the joys of sensation;the still( for how long?) deep discussions and thoughts on books like Waking Lion and the quick sarcastic interchanges by email with my irreverent friend in La Jolla whose sparkling wit makes me laugh, the satisfaction of painting that that has improved just a bit and serves as a retreat into mindfulness, and less occupation with jarring or sad thoughts. Being able to live, more or less, without pain with three herniated disks. These are my bowl full of gratitude while I persist, my accumulated wealth, the thoughts I collect and bank in my head.

I think my mother knew that one has little control in life, that it happens to you, that fate and luck play a role and one can only alter so much, try as we may, that we must work with what we have. So we strut and fret our hour on this stage, ranting silently at technology that changes our words, doing what we can to clear the chaos. And like my wise mother, an ordinary but extraordinary person building a house on sand to be swept away but hoping some fragment or particle , some idea will have taken root in her children: of her, of her ideals, her way of doing things, her desire for a better world lived out in an unassuming, virtuous thoughtful way, we push forward against the world, events these days so horrorful of immigrant children, trade sanctions, stupid people in power,

For always roaming with a hungry heart

Much have I seen and known…

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

And although I never figured that poetry gleaned and memorized in university would stay with me and persist so strongly in my head, it has -and expresses sentiments more succinctly, more sweetly (these lines pilfered from Tennyson in Ulysses),

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are…

Lip Service and Children

My father used to scold me,” Don’t be so sensitive Pat”. And so I was, and am, now accepting my emotional responses are who I am.

But this week has been a strange and terrible one, one that actually caused a change in policy decreed first ,but later denied by Trump. Well at least it was reversed. The one about tearing children from their parents, recalling images of the holocaust, the gas chambers… where the separation ended in tragedy and death.

Recently I read an article by motherless Rwandan refugee Clementine Wawariya and although now living in the States, she has a problem with the words we use such as genocide. She writes,” I hated the word immediately. I did not understand the point of it then. I resent and revile it now.. it is tidy and efficient. It holds no true emotion. It is impersonal when it needs to be intimate: cold and sterile when it needs to be gruesome. It’s hollow, disingenuous, the worst kind of lie.The word genocide cannot tell you, cannot make you feel, the way I felt in Rwanda. The way I felt in Burundi….it’s not like the holocaust…the killing fields in Cambodia…ethnic cleansing in Bosnia…There’s no catchall term…You cannot line up atrocities like a matching set. You cannot bear witness with a single word.”

One might say we should celebrate the power of the people to protest, who caused the President to reverse his ruling, but ironically, I suppose, the entire horror show makes me feel helpless.As all of those victims of holocaust, genocide and autocratic societies must have, the words cool containers for the lives destroyed . In wondering what these victims could do, they must have experienced that knowledge that they were helpless, their fates determined by others or one other, and they played no role in choosing their own fate, changing the outcome of heedless power.

The images of children, the detention centres, the callousness and ease with which the proclamation came down takes one ‘s breath away. It’s more useless talk about a kinder society and instead of living out those values, the words are given lip service. Just yesterday I was told a story of school bullying where in spite of parental attempts to diffuse the situation and even direct appeals to a principal and the perpetrators’ parents, the victim was continually shadowed with whispers of ‘ loser’ from October to June, until that school year ended. How did she manage?, I asked . The mother reliving that agony related, “ therapy.” In spite of a year of torture, the mother quietly asserted she did not think much of the school. And again I thought, everyone has made such a big deal about bullying and when the beast is identified, it is ignored, the jeers and guffaws, silent looks, threatening calls and vicious silent attacks that erode children’s confidence and never ever leave them.

I taught at Northern Secondary and one year we had a principal Jim MacCarron. He was a big guy, over 6 feet tall and almost that wide. It was the years of burgeoning gangs, and I was told as well, that at the south doors, if you wanted, you could get any drug you wanted, but no one stalked or bugged you. We had kids from all over at that school, close to the size of a small city- someone said 2100- maybe, some came to play football, the so- called gifted hung out there, learning disabled and hard of hearing adolescents, regular kids, all co- existing in a dilapidated school , truly much like a community of diversity. Anyway, big Jim got word of a race riot that was building on the grounds. He did not wait. He waded right into the thick of it, right dead between the thick bodies of gangs ready to fight, and guess what?It dispersed, the rats drew back, and the scene fraught for explosion disappeared. I’m not saying Big Jim was perfect, but on that day, he demonstrated to the school, he was a person who took action.

Today it feels like the talk is just talk and while it is great that issues are out in the open, it seems to be more of the same, little change and improvement. All that is booming is technology that has created its own set of problems .

And how scary is it that my four year old grandson must be instructed how to play dead should a gunman enter his classroom, so I worry there is more talk than role models who lead by example.

And the despicable Corey Lewandowski aid of repulsive Trump mocked a 10-year-old girl with Down Syndrome who had been separated from her mother as she illegally crossed the southern border. He, in his stupidly and display of callousness, brazenly and embarrassingly cried out, “Wah- Wah.Wah.” What a world. You can put a child’s picture on a Gerber package, but obviously it holds no impact on adults with no values, morals or compassion. There are no words for that low level piece of trash, representative and extending the American government. Mrs. Trump’s Jacket from Zara said it all.

The values we once strove to uphold are mocked: honesty, compassion, goodness have been trampled upon and the leader of the free world deplores sharing, support, only intent on self- proclamation, self- serving politics. Who cares if human rights are ignored or dictators who have their own families murdered are lauded and exulted as being smart or good guys?. How is it possible that our own little Fords with scant knowledge and little apology for their ignorance have been elected here? Crass and repugnant. And even our own Justin Trudeau has promoted a pipe line that will destroy aboriginal lands, pollute the environment when two- faced he has pronounced he is for the reverse. Where have the people of honour gone?

Perhaps these are just some of the reasons I deplore politics. It’s so easy to say the right things, to stroke the consciences of the world, but double deal. And of course in Trump’s case, he just lies, not bothering to even give mouth service to what we had once been taught was for the good of others and the promotion of a just and humane society. The beast has been let out of the cage and the world has been darkened . Yeats wrote,

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Our good friends in La Jolla say they are embarrassed to be Americans with Trump at the helm. And yet people still support him, do his biddings. And the little weasel Jeff Sessions quotes from the Bible for rationale of separation of parents and children . With an arrogant smirk. And as in the crusades, the mindless find words to back up their idiotic stance, fundamentalists well versed in twisting whatever is available to toughen their stand, even though separation of state and religion is the rule. From homosexuality, abortion, child marriage, child abuse, slavery, terrorism, some advocate chants a verse , believing he has legitimized his horrendous argument. How hideous is all of this.

And yes, people are standing up. Even Stephen Colbert who nightly shines a light on the evils of Trump in the Whitehouse encouraged his viewers to call and protest the degradation of children to their representatives. And perhaps the photo ops of the distraught children helped so the policy was reversed. Well, at least that. And as brash as Robert De Niro twice affirmed at The Tonies, “F**k Trump.”

My mother used to lament that she hoped that she would leave the world in a better place for her children than she had found it. I too have that wish for my grandchildren, but I fear it will not be so.

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