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Plagues at Passover

A hole in the universe: that’s how it feels to me.

If you were to skim your email, you might believe that life has gone on as we always lived it. Macy’s has its sales, David Yurman and Lagos are making you drool over new jewellery fantasies, Shoppers Drug is reminding you to claim points. But layered in the news and emails are letters from CEOs and Presidents of Air Canada, Marriott, Loblaws, Rancho La Puerta, to name just a few, explaining new reduced hours, closures and in the case of Bristol Farms in San Diego, the necessity of wearing a mask to be allowed entry for food shopping. Apparently that’s the law in California.

With Passover the past few nights, a new unexpected way to gather: not in person, but by zoom. How strange it was. My son, Jordan setting up the links, sending out the Haggadah pdf. Ironically enough, the Haggadah resembled the one my parents and grandparents used so many years ago at those family seders that overloaded the entire living room on Atlas Avenue. But the Haggadah, the one distributed free of charge by Maxwell House coffee, has found its way onto the internet. The same yellow cover with the same serpentine drawing of the deer, the same archaic language.

But we gathered at 5:30, Jordan and family in Toronto, my sister-in-law too, my daughter with her sweetly dozing newborn in Alberta, my other daughter, her husband and children in Philadelphia and of course, Howard and myself. Howard had shortened the Seder to salient pieces for the sake of the children, unable to squirm about, leave the table for a few minutes, search for the afikoman, play with their cousins.

The adults were fully aware the meeting was symbolic and a way to come together when we were unable to actually greet, hug ,squeeze and physically meet with one another on Passover, usually the children’s favourite holiday. The youngest Aaron stands at attention, performs The Four Questions and in my mind, I hear my daughter, Erica, shortly after my father’s passing, chant in her lilting operatic voice a rendition so soulful that all burst out clapping and insist she continue. And she complied with Somewhere Over the Rainbow, her little head seeming to float over that sad evening. Our memories of my father were hanging in the air above us, linking our lives in a way we had imagined impossible just months previously.

Present day, we circle back to Erica’s children to identify the “ Order of the Seder” in the introduction. Courtesy of PJ Books for children, the Passover story has been decanted earlier to the children in Philly, they finding Eliahu’s seeking out and sipping wine from glasses in every Jewish house most intriguing and hilarious .”We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt” we read, stopping to explain background and some context.

We only pause on the probes of The Simple Son, eclipsing both The Contrary and Wise sons this year. In the text, The Simple Son is instructed, “…With a strong hand, The Lord brought us out from the House of Bondage, “. Likely incomprehensible to the children at the table -and three year old Georgia in pink velvet is gyrating to the music in her head, but no one wants to query the archaic word “ bondage”, nor are further explanations offered. Usually we laugh at Moses taking his rod in his hand, but that section has been excluded along with the other rabbis spinning the tale. If life were normal, we would have made silly jokes, paused for explanations, further interpretations or correlations, making it intelligible for the little ones.

We slide onto the plagues “Blood. Fire. Pillars of Smoke.” I’m recalling years back my four or maybe five year old first born grandson, once happily sloshing the wine in his cup suddenly enquiring into the meaning and horrified to murmur, “THOSE are not good things”and repulsed, pushing his cup away, the dawn of reasoning corrupting his innocence from a splash to a slash in his thinking. He looks in horror at the red wine streaming over the edges of his plate, shuddering. We continue on with the plagues, Howard adding Covid 19. No comment. Just sad nods.

I suggest Erica’s oldest participate by reading the plagues in English. He moves within the range of zoom now and I feast on his clean blond looks, his clarity and confidence in listing the horrors of “pestilence, boils, locusts” smoothly. He neatly returns to his seat, disappearing from the purview of the camera, relieved he hadn’t pondered the final indictment, “slaying of the first born.” Later, she tells me he has had a hard time falling asleep.

From there, to singing Dayenu, “It would have been enough.” Usually the rollicking renditions loud and joyous, and repetitious as in unison we would have all shouted and laughed, “ Enough, enough”, but now quieter, smaller smiles and the grownups silently reviewing the last months of self isolation and social distancing, wondering how much longer will the dark restrictions of 2020 continue. Enough in deed .

We move on to explaining the reason for Matzoh, unleavened bread, and Moror, bitter herbs, and again I stop to proffer a meaning in everyday language. So I offer, “They had to leave so quickly that their bread did not rise” : by way of translation. Ariel our oldest, softly adds, “Yea, like me having to depart for Alberta so suddenly.” I peer at the screen for children’s reactions but the sun that is setting obscures my perception of the six of them, my “ treasures” as my mother would have referred to them. Technology has them in its grip even if the story in the Haggadah does not.

That night even though we were all in our own homes, I dressed for the occasion, putting on makeup for the first time in weeks, choosing real clothes instead of sweats as I thought of my mother’s jaunty scarfs worn for special occasions; and even after days and days of exhausting preparation, she took the time to look nice. I notice Erica’s children are nicely turned out, too, girls in party dresses. Remy, age 5, with two red blotches on her cheeks, for she chooses her child’s version of makeup to coalesce with her beautiful deep green party dress.

We lift our glasses for a second cup of wine. We make the matzoh sandwiches of charoset and moror . We go to the door, open it for Eliahu. This ritual usually occurs at the conclusion of the Seder, but tonight it’s part of the shortened service condensed especially for the children. We’re missing welcoming the velvety night, the magical darkness at the end of the rituals, the children gathering around the cup and proclaiming , “The wine is going down!” as they are enveloped by a starry night.

Maybe that is part of the reason Passover has been identified as even the grownup children’s favourite holiday . When they were young themselves, they had searched for the Afikomen, the hidden matzoh and retrieved it for money or prizes; they would have learned The Four Questions and participated in their assigned spots and watched with huge eyes the disappearance of wine, raucously joining the adults in rounds of Dayenu. In the rambling of prayer most often in incomprehensible Hebrew, they had been allocated real places for their voices and had observed themselves as crucial to the festivities .

So we say goodnight, Happy Passover, Stay well, see you soon.

Each returns to their home.

But we are happy for the communion, the imperfect coming together, the being with one another, even the recitation of the plagues.

How strange these days. My eyes fall on my flowers, the centrepiece for the evening’s proceeding: pinks, purples , whites, tulips, snapdragons, hyacinths, ranunculus, muscari and one whose name I cannot recall , but has these lovely thin twisting stems. The colours, the shapes, the diversity of form, all supported by the green of the leaves and stems that stand tall.

Flowers give me hope. A reminder that there is still laughter, beauty and love in this world. Even when there are plagues.

Where is Mummy?

I write for a magazine in San Diego. It’s a glossy production with a wide range of topics that attempts to connect with the city’s diversity from holidays and theatrical shows to important political issues of the day. It’s left leaning and I like that. I am pleased to be listed on their roster of writers. And when the major Jewish holidays arise, the editor invites me to produce something on Rosh Hashana, Chanukah and Passover.

For the last four years,I have contributed articles that deal with family, but I actually worried about this year’s request. After scouring my mind, wanting to add something new, cull a deeper memory from my treasure trove of family gatherings, I felt I had reached the end. But as luck would have it, we met with a cousin of Howard’s who commented on the role of water in Passover.In our reunion, she mentioned the role of water at Passover.” Water?”, I query. “ Yes”, she retorted, surprised, amazed I hadn’t considered it before. She enumerated, “Moses was found in the water…the ten plagues where water is turned to blood…the Red Sea parting so we could escape from Egypt…travellers thirsty in the desert, that according to the Midrash, are sated by water from Miriam’s miraculous well…we dip our greens in salt water…and we wash our hands often with water during the Seder…”

I demure at her wealth of examples, for my mind had always fastened on the symbols on the Seder plate, not water. A new perspective refreshes my thoughts, uniting the past, the present and the future . For even now I reflect on the wondrous bounty of water here, especially when we returned from some spots in Africa and Asia: where in most places in North America ,one can turn in a tap, and miraculously water flows and you can drink or bathe without fear. Once you experience water that comes out of a faucet, not gathered in the street or in a rain barrel, you never again take it for granted, marvelling at the luck of feeling it stream over your body or the availability of sippping it when thirsty.

And this new thought did in deed trigger fresh ideas although the old standbys of our family gatherings, freedom, the diaspora, but especially- again- the food set me writing so I found I could in deed build an article for the magazine. Yet rereading my words, I was struck by the absence of the central figure in the holiday: my mother. My mother, dead tired from the preparation and with no help at all, still greeted us with a smile at the door, took the babies from our arms, hugged us with “ Yom Tov”, returned to the kitchen, set the table with the Rosenthal China ( used only only holidays), served, cleaned up, played with the children, mentioned her aching legs, bid us good night and dragged herself to bed. My mother the queenpin, both emotionally and physically, was not mentioned in my piece.

And I wondered why.

It has been more than five years since her passing and most days she is the angel on my shoulder, chatting with her, hearing her views, receiving her insights, both good and bad. But as we move away from the trauma of a beloved’s death in time, the picture becomes more balanced, and we see both the good and the bad of our parents. In deed I marvelled that as my mother grew older she could cast my grandmother, the unyielding matriarch, terrible and repressive to my own mother’s growing up : as a woman herself overwhelmed with caring for every landsman from Poland off the boat whom my grandfather encountered on the street and dragged home for shelter and food.

My mother’s observations of her mother had softened as she herself aged, comprehending the burdens my grandmother must have endured, torn from a position of wealth and esteem in Europe to the place of a servant here in Canada: bereft of parents, cousins, familiar cousins, with no welcoming landscape of home. Arguing to reinstate what I had experienced myself such as choice indictments as “ Send her to commercial” or her harsh disregard of a African violet on (Grand)mother’s Day and my mother’s own longing for an education, a maternal cuddle or simple word of praise, I rejected her kind words of my buby. My mother’s renewed revisionist thoughts perplexed me, but perhaps she had fashioned a vision to sustain herself.

For me, it was the opposite as although my mother had sustained and supported me in so many ways, I felt angered by her casting me as “pretty” to my sister’s “ smart”, polarizing us from our earliest days into enemy camps, both of us hungering even now for the opposite’s description: my deep need to prove I was more than my façade, yet obsessed with my outer appearance. My mother’s words dictating and describing me burned into my sense of self.

And perhaps worse yet, her passing on of humongous fears and paralyzingly worries that went beyond the Jewish stereotype of the Jewish mother. And yet I’m fully aware of her terrible life, first as an abused daughter, then the wife of a polio victim, unaided by family, who like The Little Red Hen, she often quoted, “ did it herself.”.And yes, she did it all herself- and did it incredibly well. A rooster who soothed our feathers and created a world of safety. And as I write this, I feel the guilt of betraying my mother ,for she achieved so much, always lamenting her own lack of education viewed as frivolous and stupid by her mother, considered the family’s ugly duckling, so much taken away in her own life.

And yes, as a mother, I know you never get it right: that the overhanging grapes of your past can shade and sour your soul and just as you rage at your mother, you castigate yourself for the errors, omissions, lost moments you wish you had seized or alternately let go. But as you age, you reflect on, acknowledge your life, regret or embrace, and you realize how central a role your parents, your guardians play and it is so easy to blame or alternately laud them, praising or damning them to the extreme.

And because I loved my mother so deeply and knew the central stabilizing place is not just Passover, but our broken lives, I was amazed that in my piece for the magazine she was no where to be found. This surprised and bothered me immensely. Where was mummy?

Was I finding the balanced picture, locating my resentment, rationalizing, empathizing with her as an older woman? Had I lost her in the swell of tumultuous memories?

Or maybe, more accurately, in the Passover that is coming soon, I knew in my heart of hearts, she would be absent, not present to hold it all together, to bind us by her presence, to reach out at the door and hug me close, kissing the dear heads of the children and grandchildren waiting in a knot for her welcome. And my subconscious knew what my conscious mind this year could not accept.

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’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.


Last night my California cousins breezed into town. Leaving the raging fires behind, their arrival heralded our first serious snowfall as they continue on their way to treacherous Jerusalem for a family celebration. We gathered at my sister’s for the visit. Good souls that they are, my cousins reconnected with relatives, the last surviving of their ( and my mother’s )family: one past 90 in a hospital, the other close to 90 as spry and interesting as she always was, barely a year ago setting off by herself to India. I always figured because she was French, she had a lot of style- and obviously longevity . And actually Berthe is family by marriage, and she has the edge. Still it is wonderful to hear that people of her generation are mentally and physically alert, vital and engaged. Gives one hope.

When we get together with the cousins who departed for warmer climes when I was 10, whether here or in California, our shared past inevitably comes up, but interestingly new stories are often added: or perhaps I’ve forgotten them- such as actually knowing that my eldest cousin accompanied my grandfather to the theatres where he designed the stencils for their walls. Maybe I knew, but forgot, that beside the swing in their house on Atlas south of Eglinton, there were troves of paint. I certainly remember Buddy the dog. And maybe even, I had heard about the pizza delivery man passing the forbidden treat to nephew and uncle through the basement window to avoid my grandmother’s detection. I guffaw to recall that my grandfather actually tasted and enjoyed shrimp, a most unkosher delight.

I recall to my other cousin the terrible purple and black check coat and beret type hat complete with hideous pompon that I loathed to wear to school, trudging resentfully in my cousin’s handmedowns to WestPrep. And perhaps that was the reason I vented my misery on my younger sister whom my mother finally agreed to allow walk herself to school so I wouldn’t use a scarf to lasso her around her head, and drag her here and there on that perilous journey. As I sit here maybe 60 some years later, I can feel the anger in my body of having to shepherd my sib in that ridiculous clown coat. I suppose even then, I was aware of the importance of pretty clothes uplifting the spirit.

We review our shared past, the stories distorted or believed true by individual members of the family. We laugh, shake our heads at the incongruity of the narratives my cousins are privy to during this brief stay. In our postmodern world we now realize that each storyteller believes his or her perspective of abuse, inequalities or slights to be the correct one, their particular bias informing their view on familial relations.We chortle at the realignments that we think bear no resemblance to the ones we have grown up and old on. Still we laugh, open- mouthed at a tall tale about an apartment building.

My sister produces some of my mother’s old photographs: first husbands and wives are recalled, and we debate who the little boy might be held by the neck by our grandmother in a shapely brocade dress and hat with a veil in a formal bar mitzvah picture, but even the names of Uncle Abe( who lost a leg when it was run over on a Brooklyn Bridge), and his second wife Ethel do not shed light. For the very first time I see Uncle Marks who came first from Europe, went to Boston and became a senator, his wide white moustache suggesting a bandito. I mention the family star, a second or maybe third cousin, definitely removed😜,Howard Shore, international musician, composer of numerous films scores, but he is discussed without surprise or envy, just another relation, son of Bernice and Mac , sister to Frances, Thelma, Irving and Sylvia. My sister contributes,” Terry just died”; who is Terry? I ponder. I recall my mother telling me Mac and Bernice started “ Gift’o’Fruit” so many, many years ago.

When the original family name is recalled, I explain that in fact, we are pronouncing it in correctly, for our explorations at Pier 21 to discover the true dates of our family’s arrival were futile. Futile until a Nova Scotian librarian activist produced a book that inventoried Jewish Polish names so that we could identify through the ship’s manifest the boat, the SS Amsterdam, our grandmother, mothers and aunt’s names and descriptions that had been tallied eloquently in fine penmanship. To this documentation, I remember my mother relating how painful the metal combs pulled through their hair were, digging deeply into scalp as the guards checked heads for lice. But as well, she would recall the red, red tulips they glimpsed at the port of Holland.

We note the number of cousins intermarrying in the shetl in Poland, responsible for the disease of “ the shakes” passed on even into this generation. We collectively shudder at what might still await us by this incestuous gene pool. Hopefully marrying beyond the village gates in Canada and the US has weakened the passage of such diseases.

But if the old or regenerated tales are the sand through we sift to find our common shells, we only begin in this way to rekindle the feeling we shared as energetic cousins thrown together because of blood, strange in a way because our mothers were not close at all. And yet the strong bonds developed as kids are real, we still wanting to be in each other’s lives. The famous stories of Sunday visits or Passover hoopla in the basement while grown ups droned on upstairs are legend, Allan the leader of the kids, commanding the battles between stuffed animals and rubber soldiers, the rest of us , rolling on the floor or jumping up on the bar. My visits to LA as a grade 10 student alone , changing trains in Chicago , with my lacquered hair and pink polyester pants newly purchased at Eatons ,still sharp in my head, and with the languid days roasting in a yellow pockadot two piece on Hermosa Beach, or riding on the backside of a motorcycle were the stuff of adolescent dreams, rescuing me from my dreary life where my existence of nose cosies, and shapeless winter wear dragged me down.

Best of all, we continue where we left off so many years ago. As we survey our wrinkles, curly hair, grasping one another close, we re view the past but also look forward to continuing our presence in one another’s lives. In an art review today a critic refers to Shari Boyle’s “ bridge art”, saying “[i]t’s work that identifies and reinforces our connections; ancestral legends, family histories, psychological landscapes, our struggles, fears and desires: The stuff of being human”( Chris Hampton, the Globe and Mail, December 14, 2017). These meetings with people we love and happen to be related to are like that, part of our personal tapestries bound by the the shared, lost and retrieved narratives- precious and binding ribbons. How lovely to be related to these treasured personalities.

Naming and Food 

My new granddaughter’s name in Hebrew is :Tova Shoshanna. The first name “ Tova” means good and the second, Shoshanna ,connotes for my daughter a happy memory of a beloved Hebrew school teacher who showered her students with delicious delicacies, thereby making after school learning sweeter.

I like the idea that Jews are, in a sense, double agents, in that they have public names, but also private secret ones in a foreign language, Hebrew, as if a secret code ring will only reveal their true identity to the persons who know the covert language.

People play fast and loose with the naming, some insisting that the letter of the English and Hebrew be the same so for example, the” J” in the English one Jordan and the Hebrew one Joseph ( actually Yosef) be related by the first letter of each. When I named my children, I wanted the meaning of the names to coalesce so that Jordan’s second name Bryan, strong, warrior, and meant the same as the name Israel,  ( written in Hebrew or Yiddish -Ysrul, for the person named) .

Yet totally unrelated, my grandfather’s name in English was Sam, no doubt , someone assigning the Jewish monikers, Sam and Sarah, to all Jews, even though my zaida had arrived from Romania early in the 20 th century, not post war. What connection had Sam to Ysrul- a name my daughterinlaw insists does not exist at all !(curious and curiouser, says Alice).

And because the vowels in Hebrew are added at the bottom of the letters in Hebrew, Ithought I would again play with the interchange between the English and Hebrew names so that I changed my grandmother’s name Molly to Amanda for my elder daughter, Ariel’s second name, (which for some reason she deplores) and which means well loved. But Sam/Ysrul’s wife was Molly, Malka, or queen in Hebrew (someone more than a hundred years ago following the first letter “M” rule) so I figured in my own strange logic that since there are no real vowels in Hebrew, I could transliterate and add the” A” to Molly’s” M “and make it Amanda. Besides queens such as Purim’s Queen Esther were extremely well loved as in Amanda.

And similarly , my husband Howard’s Hebrew name is El Channon, the El disappearing into the first consonant “H” for Howard so his mother must have figured likewise. In the end, the child winds up having two separate names, usually only being called the secret one in a Hebrew Schoolroom when he or she is called formally to the Torah.
Or to confuse even more, if the English name given is actually a Hebrew one such as  Orly or Shira , it stands in both languages.

I like the idea too that Shoshanna is associated with a delightful food experience for my daughter. When I taught English at Northern Secondary, twins Helen and Mia, who worked at Phipps bakery were given the cakes that did not sell after two days. Over German chocolate cake or peach pie, we would discuss Shakespeare or Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale, lessons made more palatable by an atmosphere that included coffee and cake. The entire tone of the classes changed. Instead of bleary sleep-filled eyes and lax limbs, students perked up in their early morning class, providing powerful insights to discussions. I too looked forward to the excellent bakery’s leftover treats that could feature foamy meringue, streams of bursting blueberries, and gooey moist caramel embedded in their baked goods. I am forever a patron of the bakery restaurant pondering which to select for my family’s birthdays, such as The Celebration Cake or Dad’s Special, their offerings as delicious as they were twenty years ago.

As well, sharing a desert or a meal seems to me an important feature of bonding to Jewish families. Marc Chagall wife’s memoir,Burning Lights from her life in Vitesbek, Russia, evoked for me the holiday meal, of a clan gathering and being together so many years ago. And for secularized Jews who may go light on the services, meeting for the family meal to inaugurate the beginning of a new year( Rosh Hashanah), or commemorate a biblical tale or triumph over slavery such as Passover , is based on our coming together to eat symbolic foods.There is the lamb shrank, the bitter herbs and the all time favourite of Chorosets, which is a mixture of apples, nuts and wine to commemorate the mortar Jews were forced to make for their bricks in Egypt under Pharaoh.

My favourite story concerns one of my grandsons on Passover. Thinking it great fun to dip fingers into the wine glass when reiterating the Passover Plagues, but not comprehending the Hebrew words, he enquired what were the words we were singing out, associated with dipping his fingers. Solemnly explained, they were the plagues of grasshoppers, darkness, frogs, locusts… death of the first born, he stopped and open mouthed, eyes huge, announced , “Those are not good things.” Indeed, they are not.

But the connections with food and love do continue. And I think fondly of finding something especially delicious to greet my grandsons when I get them at school. When the elder was at daycare, he developed a passion for macaroons, then just becoming popular. The tiny pastel- coloured gems were his delight for awhile. His brother, a chocolate addict is wild for the golden coins, Lindt bunnies and an entire wide range of anything sweet and chocolate. Tonight for their pickup, I made a special trip to the Chocolate Messenger to purchase the chocolate marshmallow treats adorned with multicoloured sprinkles. Their interest in cupcakes, even from Bakes and Goods, that uses Belgian chocolate and to my mind, the best bar none in the city, wanes and waxes. The occasional bag of sun chips or cheesies may suffice although I much prefer something homemade..

This is all to say that my daughter in naming her child reached deep into her store of memories that included a beloved teacher’s name, one that was fused with food. On Friday nights, my mother prepared her fricassee, chicken soup and roasted chicken, but her fricassee was outstanding. When asked what was the special ingredient she used, her answer was always the same: love.

Leaving San Diego 

As my sojourn in San Diego is coming to an end, I am reflecting on what makes this place a home for three months. Years ago I would watch Survivor and one of the finale shows would glimpse a participant traversing the island, pausing to review or recount an event, a person , an emotion experienced in haste but reflected on in leisure, as if sampling a sweet or meaningful food that had lodged in their consciousness, but in the quiet of being mindful, the thought re- emerged for consumption.

So here too are my thoughts on my refuge from the bruising Canadian winters. Above all is the clear cerulean sky that is the backdrop to trees and walks in this city. There is almost an aural clarity to that sky, the picture perfect backdrop I associate with Giorgione paintings in Italy, the limitless of space that theNorthern Italian painters created in the looming expanse above their heads. In Joshua Tree National Park, it was the same- emitting that refreshing blueness: that if you stare too long, you will be turned to stone. I have noticed hummingbirds recklessly dart into those orange flowers with their extended necks, crows play with the currents, allowing the wind to swoop them higher to soar on inclement puffs of wind and flocks of gulls move together over the breaking waves on the beach. In the Galapagos, it is different as the colours of vegetation and wildlife contrast in their setting, dazzling red crabs and the naughty turquoise footed boobies strongly observable against the black and grey rocks, but here, it is all one, meshing and coalescing indivisible , perhaps a total mindfulness of setting.

How often Howard and I remark on our location here because we never imagined that within 10-20 minutes, all necessities of life could be gleaned: from food to book groups to exercise to windowshopping. With my sturdy feet, a bottle of water and sun visor, I set off for yoga or pilates, secure in knowing the level of instruction is confident, attentive and challenging. There is no judgment in classes, but careful teaching provides for variation in exercise, attuned to “ mature” bodies whose necks, shoulders or backs might not be as limber as in youthful arrogance and ignorance when all is accepted as functioning and moving gracefully. The Community Centre not only welcomes all, but offers a plethora of programs to educate mind, spirit and limbs. It is here too that a friendly face is always willing to acknowledge an outsider, making them feel welcome.

I engage in yoga here, twisting and grunting and extending, but never properly balancing (as in the tree, pose), fascinated by the names of poses such as happy baby who grabs the soles of the feet or, two and three, feet arranged for battle. What always comes to mind is Maxine Hong Kingston’s book Warrior Woman whose battles, I recall, had to do with her paths through and into life. I find it strange that a non competitive exercise commandeers the name of “warrior” for a stance. Before the classroom mirror, do I look fierce, ready to battle? No, for my arms and legs, each wanting to wander off and sit with the the bougevvilla or sift the sand stands at the ready.

At home my Pilates person will endeavour to realign my parts, correcting my errant head and re-aligning my hips. But for the meantime, there has been no pain, only the reawakening ache of new muscles, different from my routines at home. The reformer instructor at a private establishment is young and when I enquire that I think my zoas muscle is protesting when I go up or down a hill, she dismisses my query by responding, there are lots of muscles in that area. It is a group class that meets on Sundays and I recognize the Pilates exercises but with arms outstretched, legs rotating, head bobbing up and down, my co- ordination most times is lacking. She comes to correct and last week when I feared placing my feet on the movable bar might cause me to tumble, she gently reorganized my trembling parts into safe and correct positions. I may be the oldest of the eight people on the reformers, a few slightly younger, but mainly the women are in their 30’s and this is a level one class! I challenge myself and feel proud as my shaking legs practically knock against the walls when thankfully, the 55 minutes have been completed.

And my California friends. Yesterday I met a former Canadian for coffee. We began by attacking Trump, totally in sync. And somehow we veered into guffaws and laughter that shook us from the inside out. My other passel of amigas feels genuine- even having known them for such a short time. Yesterday one reached over to warmly touch my arm, conspiratorial in her understanding of a shared confidence. Our former condo owners are like guardian angels always checking in,, offering insight , warmth, care and camaraderie. I can pop up stairs or call for a favor. Like a steady current, they ensure my security, as friends known a lifetime. And the newest friend is a kindred spirit. She, like my Wednesday lunch companion, discusses books, family, reminisces about our prior lives and we share a deep connection. This is a kaleidoscope of varied personalities.I am mindful of the Le Petit Prince and the fox whose regular meetings bound them in spirt. But truly, what could be more delightful than expressing one’s thoughts under a brier of twisted branches beneath that fabulous sky?

As an added sprinkle to my cupcake are my cousins who live in Laguna Beach and LA, the very people who began my enchantment with this state when I was young. Meeting with them reawakens my original delight that helped ensure an awkward 15 year old could build confidence and procure enduring friendships. I return to those memories of my cousins, embracing them time and again as the backbone of my writing. The recollections and renewed conversations refresh me.

As an added perk, my writing is more often published here- first in magazines, then in journals. I will have two pieces on Celebrations and Passover in The Jewish Journal. The editor wrote in an email that my pieces always make her cry. I was touched. I feel a connection built through our exchanges, and next year hope to meet her face to face. Several years ago, I was contacted by a travel magazine to travel with “ real” writers to Nevada. I imagined this was the kickstart to a new career, but it did not happen so this little surge of articles tickles me immensely: small publications here and there occurred, but here it has been closer to a little flurry.Pleasing.

So with a heavy heart, I leave but am anxious to meet my.brand new granddaughter,Georgia Parker, and return to my wonderful Toronto friends, my cosy house and lovely children and grandchildren.

Always I am in awe that these three months are due to my mother’s careful saving who like the elves turning straw to gold, provided us with the means to extend our path into the California climes.

Passing thoughts on Passover

This weekend marks the beginning of Passover ( written last week ), but when my mind ruminates over the week, it is peppered by certain landmines. There is the unexpected passing of purple Prince and my sister’s mother-in-law, yet also the Queen’s 90th birthday and how we will be remembered. Watching the queen age over time from the slim attractive spritely ingénue to the well turned out dowager, I chortle at the formal portrait eclipsed by her granddaughter holding her purse. “ Granny, can I please hold your purse?” Time works its ravages. Yet Elizabeth II endures to oversee children and grandchildren. Can anyone ask for more?

My children feel I am lately maudlin and depressing, particularly in my blogs, but it is difficult to stand at this point in my life and view all that has unfolded behind, me as the protagonist in a landscape that has been so altered in almost 70 years of living. We, the boomers who would always gyrate or sway to the songs of our youth, flowers in our hair, beads jangling at our waists who would never fall to the ways of our own parents. But of course, we did and do, as time is the great leveler.

 I was always fascinated by TS. Eliot. As early as high school, we studied The Wasteland and later, it was these words in Burnt Norton of The Four Quartets that informed many papers I wrote,

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.


The subject of time pondered by poets and prophets and philosophers. It moves like a thief: we do not see it, but feel its impact on all things human and constructed. In ways, it softens the edges of grief and helps us endure the hard times. We say, If we can only get through this day, then…It also provides us with the support of memories that endure as bulwarks , for example, of Passovers past.

Passover, the food and the grand seder meal all combine to resurrect memories. When my son, Jordan, was little, he politely confronted my father, asking if we might do the seder in English. My father in his rust-coloured sweater pondered for maybe a minute before saying, “No”. It would proceed as always. Today we use both languages, sometimes whipping through the program, but still pausing in the parts that are central: as we spill the wine for the 10 plagues; or loudly proclaiming” Daienyu- it’s enough all ready”, we proclaim together. Let the troubles end, we’ve sustained enough. Just move on-


As a child I remember the service going on interminably as I waited to be released to play and tumble with my cousins after dinner. The best was a dun-coloured raisin wine concocted by my grandmother in her basement for the event. She sat in the kitchen while we ate, sucking on chicken bones, her duties that began and concluded with the food. No Cuisinart or freezing, just lots of chopping/hucking, mincing, preparing that no doubt fostered her desire to sit quietly by herself outside the voices that rose and fell over the eternal service. No welcoming smile or loving hand, a person enclosed in herself. As I do Rosh Hashana dinner, and even with the advent of all the modern technologies to aid in cooking the meal, I now comprehend her exhaustion and desire to just decompress with her aching bones in a chair.


Yet my own mother, dead on her feet, was always present at these celebrations, a smart scarf at her neck and attempt made to “ dress up.” And she did not complain of the laborious hours spent – so that my sister and I would find something trivial to complain about until my father would eventually bark, “ Can’t you two ever get along?’


Only at the first seder after my father’s  death, was my mother seated, a guest at the seder, quiet, alone, in the sea of voices. My younger daughter for some reason that night stood to hauntingly sing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and my son whispered, “ I miss him so much”. We were all stuck in her erry voice connected through time to my father’s missing presence.


As well at my mother’s last seder, my older daughter warmly and comfortingly curved to my mother, explaining where we were in the service, an interchange with Baba that evoked a slow smile from her precious face. These snippets of memories during those times together are set in my consciousness as I recreate and visualize my family, the ambiance of those nights.


Over the years, I heard of people at Passover who created tents in their living rooms to pretend they were traveling in the desert. Others insisted on placing something like an orange on the seder plate: one of these things is not like the others- to underline difference. Above all, the Passover story is about freedoms. I lovingly laugh at the play my grandson created for his playmates in which a mouse refuses to continue to be oppressed. He proclaims to his fellow mouselets, they can kill us, but at least we will be free. Echoes of Sunday morning Hebrew school perhaps?


This put me in mind of my teaching of the Post-colonial literature course and the book I sometimes taught “Imagining Argentina,” an award-winning novel by Lawrence Thornton. It dramatizes the Dirty War in 1970s Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the military government abducted anyone who opposed its tyrannical rule. We talked about the March of the Grandmothers in Plaza del Mayo and I showed my students the heartbreaking film, The Official Story. I used much the same line as my grandson. Stories are the same, no matter the culture, the place, the time.


Life is so much a mix of opposites with the bittersweet reminisces that remain and enliven our lives. As I look out towards my yard, it is gray and gloomy and raining and yet a robin just flew towards my window and the ducks who visit every year made a brief appearance yesterday: omens that spring is not far. So hopefully I can soon regain my sunnier outlook. Mea culpa, kids.

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