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Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Word From the Weiss
Passover plague masks.JPG
        Happy Passover, everyone! I hope that the holiday has brought you a little levity along with all the brisket, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread. Having had both of my children home myself, I really can’t complain. But neither can I mask the fact that the past week has felt far less like a feast of freedom than a recreation of the ten plagues.frog.jpg
No, never fear, I haven’t been infested with lice, cattle plague, or frogs to my knowledge, and my first-born is doing just fine (kinahurra!). My last-born, however? Well, not so much.
It all began last Friday, when a horrific thing happened. Rather than leaving Latke, my Portuguese Water Dog, at home for the whole afternoon while I did a mammoth shopping trip for Passover, I chose to take her along for the ride. We stopped briefly at the bank first, then I decided to take her for a quick walk before entering the supermarket.Latke loves to play.jpg
It was a beautiful spring day and Latke, who at 2 years of age is still full of pep, was delighted to spy another dog being walked nearby. Being incomparably gregarious and genial in nature, she is inclined to greet every single person or creature she sees. When we crossed the street to approach the other dog, however, its owner instantly crossed to the other side, an unmistakable sign that they had no interest in fraternizing with us.
Well, the owner wasn’t interested, anyway, leading me to intuit that the other dog was not a good candidate for a casual meet and greet. His pet, though, was plenty interested. Not, however, in a good way.
On the contrary, with its solid, muscular build, narrow eyes, and pointy ears, what it looked like was a pit bull, and an angry one at that. I wasn’t quite sure, but the way it was chomping at the bit to get to Latke, I didn’t want to get close enough to let Latke become lunch.Pit Bull terrier.jpg
The owner, a middle-aged man in a t-shirt, struggled to yank his young charge in the opposite direction, but that did little to deter it from growling menacingly or straining mightily to reach us. Latke did not get notably discouraged. But I directed her firmly down the block.
Then, suddenly, I heard yelling behind me and turned to see the dog racing across the street toward us. It had pulled so hard that it had managed to sever its leash in two. I rushed to rein in Latke, who'd ventured many feet ahead of me on her retractable leash. But it was already too late.
The next few moments were just a blur.Pit Bull charging.jpg
Before I could reach Latke, the other dog proceeded to climb on top of her, pinning her to the ground belly up as it bit her all over savagely. Shrieking, I fell to the ground before them and tried desperately to pull the assailant off, but it was too strong for me.
Within seconds, though, the other owner reached us at last and managed with great effort to grasp and extricate his pet as it continued to snap and snarl.
Just at that moment, a passing driver halted abruptly and rolled down his window.
        “Do you want me to call the police?” he called to me.
“Yes, please!” I cried before I even realized that the driver was one of my neighbors.
The other man had already rushed off with his dog, evidently toward his car, parked in the lot of the adjoining supermarket. But before he could disappear, my neighbor drove in, accosted him, and continued chatting with him until the police arrived. That’s how I later learned that the man was a Vietnam Vet and his pet a rescue dog that he had recently adopted.
Meanwhile, I also dialed the police as I hastened to put Latke in my car. She had her long tail tucked so far between her legs that I thought at first it had been bitten off.
Inside the car, I tried to calm her and examine her all over as best I could. Although she had many wet and matted areas on her coat, I didn’t detect any blood.Police car.jpg
The policeman who arrived within a few minutes summoned an Animal Control officer to the scene, and she agreed with me that I should bring Latke to our vet asap. Then she went to interview the other dog’s owner.
I called my vet’s office, which was fortunately less than a mile away, and was assured that they would take us at once. Before leaving the scene, though, I drove over to where the officer was chatting with the dog’s owner to tell her that I was going.
When I reached them, the other owner looked at me impassively and said nothing.
        “You know, you could at least apologize!” I called to him.
He looked at me blankly and just shrugged. “Sorry,” he said, “but my leash broke.”
“Your leash broke?” I retorted. “Yes, but your dog also happens to be vicious!”
We proceeded to have a little altercation about that, but the officer soon cut it off. “This is no time to rehash the whole incident,” she barked. “Your vet is down there. Go!”Latke with leg wound.JPG
Latke’s chocolate brown fur is so thick and curly that they couldn’t find anything significant on her but one small gash. But when we were finally allowed to leave, I noticed that she was limping badly. So we went back inside and they looked again. And sure enough, they found a puncture wound on her leg so deep that it required staples.
They wanted to keep her overnight for observation, but I begged them to do the procedure as soon as possible and let me take her home. She was so distressed that I figured the best thing for us both was to return to our normal routine if at all possible. And with luck, they agreed.
The bill came to $280, not including the return visit we would need to make 10 days later to have the staples removed. But another Animal Control officer who happened to be present checked with the first policewoman and learned that the other dog’s owner appeared to be cooperative and had offered to reimburse us for any expenses.Closeup of Latke's leg wound.JPG
We’ll see.
Poor Latke has been healing steadily, although until the staples come out she was supposed to wear a cone around her neck and be restricted from doing almost anything. As for me, I totally shredded the skin on one of my fingers while trying to restrain her. And even though that has begun to heal too, I feel like I have been traumatized for life.
        Meanwhile, sadly, that episode turned out to only be the first of many plagues on our house.
With all the drama, my husband and I didn’t get to bed until nearly 2 that morning. Then, at 5:30 a.m., we were startled out of a deep sleep when the phone began to ring.Allegra.jpg
It was our daughter Allegra, and the moment we answered she burst into tears. She’d been up all night with unbearable abdominal pains, and they were getting worse.
Now, had this occurred a few days later, we might not have been terribly alarmed. After all, when following a diet consisting mostly of matzah, matzah brei, matzah pizza and matzah balls – aided and abetted by brisket and the occasional coconut macaroon – who among us doesn’t have abdominal pains, or at least some form of gastric distress?matzah.jpg
This, however, was last Saturday morning, two days before Passover even began. We had yet to even open a box of matzah. So we could only imagine what was wrong.
As a nice Jewish mom, I was tempted to throw on clothes and drive straight to NYC. My husband, however, insisted that Allegra take a cab immediately to the nearest emergency room.
Over the next few hours, I stayed awake fielding text messages from her as she underwent tests and languished on a gurney in a hospital hallway, hooked up to an IV.patient on gurney.jpg
Meanwhile, I dressed and packed a bag, expecting to depart at a moment’s notice. Yet Allegra kept begging me not to come. And when it was finally determined that she had some sort of terrible E. coli infection, she just wanted to go home and sleep all day.
That was Plague No. 2. “Please tell me that bad things don’t always come in threes!” I emailed anxiously to my good (and Gentile) friend Kathy, who lives in London.
“That trinity/threesome thing is just Christian gobbledygook,” she replied reassuringly. “Jews are far too sensible... aren't they?”Harlan's car with scuffs.JPG
Sensible? I don’t know about that. As for lucky… apparently not that either. Or not us, anyway. For when pulling into the garage late that night, my husband misjudged the distance and smashed into the side, badly scuffing both the paint job on his car and the garage wall.Kaitlin and Aidan on Passover.JPG
I’m happy to report that Allegra rallied enough to make the trip up from the city with Aidan and his girlfriend Kaitlin the next day. And (although I nearly collapsed after three days spent cooking nearly the entire meal from scratch), on Monday night we had a lively and spectacular seder, made all the more memorable by our having chosen to include our good (and Gentile) friend Sally, who had never experienced the infinite joys (or potential gastric distress) of matzah ball soup, charoses, carrot tsimmes and gefilte fish.Sally and me on Passover.jpgGefilte fish.JPG
Afterwards, everyone was in too much of a food and four-cups-of-Manischewitz stupor to move a muscle, so I cleaned up the entire mess myself, then got up at dawn to bake Passover popovers for breakfast before the kids departed early the next morning.Passover table I set 2014.JPG

Passover popovers I baked.JPG       
Then I changed all of the bedding, reset the table all over again, and recreated all of the side dishes from scratch, because we had invited friends from near and far for the second seder, and as a true ballabusta I have too much pride to serve day-old veggies.
We had just as spirited and uproarious a meal the second time around, if not moreso (even though by then I was truly ready to collapse). And although by the end of the meal almost everyone at the table was surreptitiously checking their cell phones, I was inclined to believe that our hard luck had disappeared along with all the chametz.Passover seder 2 with plague masks.JPG
But no.
The next night, Allegra phoned at 10 p.m. to say that she’d just gotten home after a long day of work to discover that the quart of matzah ball soup I’d sent home with her had already spoiled, and that one of her roommates had helped herself to most of the Passover rolls I’d sent home with her, and all but two chocolate-covered macaroons.
We keep Passover by avoiding all bread, pasta, rice, corn, and other chametz for all eight nights, so she had almost nothing in the house that she could eat for dinner.chocolate-dipped macaroons.jpg
This may sound like a rather minor problem, but I must confess that it irked me to no end… even though Aidan assured me that the roommate's behavior was not unusual. Why, back when he was in college, he said, he’d returned to school with a large plate of homemade potato latkes I’d made for him for Chanukah, only to find the next morning that one of his (non-Jewish) suite mates had already devoured them all.
I suppose it’s gratifying to see that non-Jews can become enamored of our cooking to the point of losing self-control (and all sense of propriety). But can they appreciate what it’s like to subsist almost entirely on matzah while enduring a whole week of bad luck?Technical difficulties.jpg
That, apparently, is what was happening to me. For the next day I tried to log onto my website only to discover that, to my unmitigated horror, it no longer existed. Yes, three-plus years of blog entries had simply vanished into the stratosphere. I desperately phoned my web-hosting service and was put on hold indefinitely while they investigated.
After what felt like an eternity, someone came back on and explained that they were having technological difficulties and hoped to remedy the problem within a few hours… as they eventually did. But until then, I must admit, I could hardly breathe.
        Our water heater was leaking.JPG
Then the next night, while cleaning up dinner (brisket and matzah ball soup… again?), I discovered that the water running out of our tap refused to get hot. Sure enough, down in the basement, a steady stream was gushing out of the boiler, which had chosen that exact moment, after 10 years of faithful service, to suddenly go kaput.
But we got a plumber to come over the next morning, and $1,860 later – which is a whole lotta bread (pardon the expression on Passover) -- we had hot water once again.
Normally, by now, I’m counting the days until Passover is over because I don’t think I can survive another day of eating matzah (not even matzah pizza). This year, I’m looking forward to it being over because I’m not sure that I (and/or my bank account) can survive another day.matzah pizza.JPG
Then again, it’s times like these that remind you how important it is to get a grip. Yesterday, one of my neighbors’ houses caught fire, leaving one family member in critical condition. Yes, my dog suffered minor injuries last week in a brutal attack, but that family’s poor dog actually didn’t survive.
And what about the spate of freak tragedies that have begun occurring around the world? My children just came home for Passover. The high school kids who went on that fateful bus tour to colleges in California, or were lost on that ferry in South Korea? They are never coming home again.
I would much rather lose hot water for a day than be in hot water, like South African Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius, or Connecticut’s former Governor John Roland. And even if those horrifying leaflets that ordered all Ukrainian Jews to register weren’t actually legit, I’m still lucky to be free to celebrate Passover with whomever I choose and however I choose (even if hosting two seders back-to-back did put me over the edge).frog image 2.jpg
I guess that one way or another, this still qualifies as a happy Passover. So bring on the vermin, the cattle plague, the darkness or boils. Come what may, Monday night is just around the corner. And by my count I only have two more days of matzah to go… and only three or four more plagues until Passover passes over again.

4:34 pm 

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Word From the Weiss

seder plate with Manischewitz wine.JPG        What would you say is the most significant part of the seder, the ritual meal that we Jews will consume in the coming week to mark the beginning of Passover?
         Is it the Four Questions chanted by the youngest child present, beginning with the inimitable words, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Is it the crisp squares of matzah we eat in place of normal leavened bread?
The four cups of cough-syrup-like Manischewitz kosher wine?matzah ball soup I made.JPG
Or the steaming bowl of chicken soup laden with light-as-air matzah balls?
OK, I’ll admit it. That was kind of a trick question.
Obviously, it’s hard to imagine Passover without any and all of the above… along with the parable of the Four Sons, the ritual dipping of parsley into saltwater, or biting into a glistening slab of chilled gefilte fish smothered in bitter, beet-red horseradish. However, the word “seder” translates as “order,” and, if you ask me, it’s impossible for everything to seem like it’s genuinely in order unless my entire family is all together.Aidan Kaitlin and Allegra.jpg
With luck, my kids will both be coming home this year, as always, to celebrate the holiday over a home-cooked meal, along with Aidan’s wonderful girlfriend Kaitlin. And yet the truth is that we’ve sadly reached a stage in life when being all together is utterly impossible because my dad's been gone some 15 years, and my beloved mother passed away five years ago this week.Bunnie young with camera.JPG
Although in some ways it feels like that happened only yesterday, it’s simultaneously hard to fathom that a full five years have already managed to come and go without her. And although a day rarely goes by on which she doesn’t spring vividly to mind, we’re destined to always think of her at this particular time of year, not just because I couldn’t possibly make the seder without her family recipes, but because we lost her in early April.
Bernice Lichtenstein Weiss Groves, known as Bunnie (or Grandma Bunnie) to all, was not only “exquisite and shapely” by her own account, but also the single most upbeat person I ever hope to meet. I can still hear her distinctive, voluble voice resounding on our telephone answering machine, assuring us exuberantly that she was “absolutely fine” as she raced from a hair appointment to her weekly writing class, to be followed by an evening at her card club, The Bridge Deck – a message she left only a few days after undergoing surgery for cancer.Energizer Bunny.jpg
The Energizer Bunny, indeed.Bunnie at 53.jpg
After graduating at the top of her high school class, she attended Brooklyn College, then earned two Master’s degrees and taught thousands of children with learning disabilities to read before she retired as the curriculum coordinator at a private school at the age of 74. And I use the word “retired” loosely. Ceasing work simply gave her more time to devote to all the activities mentioned above, as well as her two book groups, tennis, Mensa, the MT Nesters club she had co-founded at her temple, and of course her two children, four grandchildren, and her own mother, who lived to be nearly 98.
Meanwhile, she endured plenty of hardship in her life, from the loss of her only sibling to cancer at a relatively early age to my father’s daily derision and relentless infidelities. Yet nothing – and I mean nothing – could ever manage get my mother down.
So I’d like to tell you that we planned a special dinner or other event in her honor. But my daughter Allegra was going to be away in California last weekend, when the actual yahrzeit fell. So even though my husband and I were going to NYC, it seemed only right to wait until our entire family could all be together – on Passover itself, that is.Yahrzeit memorial candle.jpg
Still, I thought about her all day Saturday and was alarmed when it dawned on me suddenly early that afternoon that I had neglected to bring a yahrzeit candle from home.
I’m a big proponent of the custom of lighting a memorial candle to mark the anniversary of a loved one’s death, and I couldn’t imagine forgoing this tradition on such a significant milestone. So when my husband proposed going to the Lower East Side to look at art that afternoon, I readily agreed.Hester Street the movie.jpg
He’d read an article in The New York Times endorsing various galleries in that area of the city, some of which were situated on Hester Street. I instantly had visions of the classic 1975 movie named after that street, about a Jewish woman named Gitel (played with verve by Carol Kane) who emigrates from Russia in 1896 to join her husband Yankel, only to learn that he has already assimilated and fallen for a far more Americanized dancer.Grandma Mary's family circa 1914.JPG
I had photos of my own relatives from around the same era, when my mother’s mother’s mother, Bubbe Chaia, came over from Kiev to join her husband, Zeyde Shmuel, who had preceded her to Brooklyn with two of their sons and started a laundry.
Surely, if there were anywhere in all of New York City where I could easily track down a yahrzeit candle to light in my blessed mother’s memory, Hester Street was it.Hester street panorama.jpg
The moment we exited the subway at the nearest stop, Canal Street, though, I realized that I was in for culture shock… or at the very least a rather rude awakening.
We made our way past the insistent Asian woman entreating me to come see the bargain-rate designer pocketbooks in her shop – “I have Prada, Coach, Kate Spade. You like?”Prada handbag.jpg
Then we turned a corner and walked till we reached the street sign that we sought. It indeed read Hester Street. But this was certainly not my great grandmother’s Lower East Side.Hester Street sign.JPG
OK, I was not born yesterday, nor do I live in a cave (although central Connecticut sometimes feels like one). I am well aware that the Lower East Side has long been overrun by hipsters, even if it still houses many Jewish meccas like Katz’s Delicatessen, where the famed “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in When Harry Met Sally was shot.Hester Stree tdining on pasta.JPG
What I didn’t quite anticipate was that Hester Street also runs through the heart of Little Italy. So instead of encountering butcher shops and delis offering corned beef and hot pastrami on rye, we found ourselves passing young urban dwellers dining at outdoor cafes on dishes heaped with pasta. Forget about candles. Pass the Parmesan, please!Christmas in New York.JPG
Forget about Judaica shops offering Hagaddahs, seder plates, and other wares for Passover as well. Even though it was early April, forget about Easter, too. On Mulberry Street, between Hester and Grand, evidently it is always Christmas in New York.
Yule logs, yes. Yahrzeit candles, no.Cannoli cart on Hester Street.JPG
My husband has always been a sucker for hot dogs sold by street vendors, and little doubt had hoped to find a cart on the Lower East Side purveying kosher franks. There were, in fact, plenty of street vendors here, but no hot dogs, kosher or otherwise. Cannolis, yes. Yahrzeit candles? Non.Coffee You Can Sleep When You're Dead.JPG
Also in abundance were kitschy shops meant to cater to the brisk tourist trade. While passing one, a poster caught my eye that brought my vivacious mom to mind. (Coffee, yes. Candles? Nope.)
As we continued making our way through the area, Little Italy soon gave way to a large variety of Asian markets and fruit stands. Could this really be the Hester Street once known to be the center of Ashkenazi Jewish life? Kumquats, yes. Yahrzeit candles, no.Hester Street lobster farm.jpg
In fact, let’s forget about kosher food of any kind. Lobster, yes. Lox? Not likely.
And although Chinese lettering seemed to prevail on most signs in sight, other ethnicities clearly had found a firm foothold in the old shtetl. Curry, yes. Candles? No.Hester Street curry shop.JPG 
Eventually, these myriad cultural outposts gave way to more high-tech emporiums that reflected the influx of modern life. Ironically, the vast majority of these stores sold chandeliers, lamps, and other lighting fixtures. The obvious subtext: Let there be light.
Light, yes, from halogen and fluorescent to CFL bulbs. But yahrzeit candles here? Not likely.Hester Street lighting shop.JPG
By now, it was getting to be late in the afternoon. My husband was ready for me to relinquish my mission and make a beeline for one of those art galleries before they closed.
And truth be told, my mother would have understood and forgiven me if I had. She may have been the quintessential nice Jewish mom, but not in the sense of being the classic self-sacrificing yenta who would have whined, “Maybe you forgot you had a mother?”Bunnie and Allegra with me before prom.jpg
She was someone who had loved life and all that it had to offer, and would have preferred that I enjoy the spring day and, more importantly, not antagonize my husband.
Then again, on the other hand, my mother had been someone who was persistent beyond the point of sanity and who never, ever gave up, under any circumstances. And in that respect alone, if nothing else, I am proud to say that I am my mother’s daughter (just as my daughter is mine).Chinese Hispanic grocery.JPG
So while my husband ducked into one of those many galleries listed in The Times, I decided to make what was essentially a hail Bunnie pass and pop into the mom and pop market on the nearest corner. Never mind that it didn’t seem remotely promising.
After all, the sign on the yellow awning above it read “Chinese Hispanic Grocery.” Lychee nuts, yes. Flan, no doubt. But how would they know what a yahrzeit candle is?
Yet as I made my way past the dairy case, canned goods and innumerable Goya products, my heart began to race as I saw an entire section devoted to, believe it or not, candles.candle display in Chinese Hispanic grocery.JPG
And I'm not talking about scented candles or tapers to place in candlesticks. Right above the cleaning products, there were three entire shelves crammed with candles in jars.
These jarred candles came in almost every color you could name. Some bore labels with the likenesses of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and a wide variety of saints.Hindu devotional candle.jpg
Others appeared to be Indian devotional candles embellished with Hindu gods.
        Most were as tall as, say, a can of tennis balls and were likely to burn for a week (as opposed to a standard yahrzeit candle, which burns for 24 hours more or less).
But there amid them, on these shelves, was an entire case of low white candles.white candle in a jar.jpg
They didn’t say “Yahrzeit” on them, or have the usual Hebrew writing of some kind. But they were otherwise pretty much exactly what I was looking for. So I bought one.
And under the circumstances – and for only $1.29 – this candle would surely do.
        Florian Pumhosl Rabbinical Map Panel.jpg
Then, with a sense of true satisfaction bordering on triumph, I joined my husband at last in one of those recommended art galleries. But I must confess to feeling more than a bit baffled (and frankly like a total square) when I finally got to glimpse the do-not-miss work of Austrian painter Florian Pumhosl in the Miguel Abreu gallery on Eldridge Street. For it consisted entirely of white ceramic panels printed with a series of narrow brick-red lines.
Only later did I learn that these underwhelming and incomprehensible abstract designs were based on a map of Israel made by a 19th-century European rabbi.
And maybe that was as close to a hub of Jewish life as I was gonna get that day.Vanessa's Dumpling House.jpg
But all was not lost. On the way out, I noticed a crowd of young urban hipsters filing into a rather nondescript-looking storefront known as Vanessa’s Dumpling House. And following their lead, we discovered what may be the best dining deal in all of NYC.
A mere dollar there would buy you a quartet of fried dumplings doused in sesame oil. Two servings, for only $2, would more than suffice the average appetite for dinner.Vanessa's dumplings.jpg
Of course, at these prices we could easily afford to explore even more of the vast menu. So we also indulged in a hefty sesame pancake stuffed with shredded Peking Duck ($2.50), another sesame pancake filled with slivered carrots, cucumbers, and cilantro ($2.50), and a plate heaped with steamed baby bok choy in soy sauce ($3).Pattie eating Vanessa's dumplings2.jpg
And after buying more than we could eat for only 10 bucks, we squeezed in at a tiny table between two young grad students and a group of young artists, musicians, or whatever the heck they were, chowing down on fast food even cheaper than McDonald’s.Vanessa's Dumpling House diners.jpg
And I realized that, in the end, maybe this was the same Lower East Side it had always been, a cultural crossroads where anyone just starting out could find dinner, a life... and a memorial candle, if need be.
When I texted Allegra afterwards to tell her about the wonderful place I had found, she quickly replied thanks anyway, but she knew all about it and had even eaten there herself.Yahrzeit candle on Allegra's dresser.JPG
She also told me that there had been a perfectly good, authentic yahrzeit candle sitting right on her dresser all along.
No matter. When we got back to her apartment that night, I saw that she was right. But I said a little prayer as I lit the candle I’d tracked down at that Chinese Hispanic grocery anyway.Aidan Pattie and Harlan after brunch.JPG
The next day, we met Aidan and Kaitlin for a lovely brunch at Café Henri in the Long Island City section of Queens. Then, exploring the surrounding neighborhood, I wandered into a second-hand shop and spied something that I couldn’t possibly resist: a pretty glass butter dish with a lid in the shape of a rabbit.
The owner had probably put it out thinking it would sell during the current holiday season. I, of course, wasn’t thinking about Easter at all. I was thinking about my mom.Bunny butter dish.JPG
I’ll put it out when we toast to my mother during Passover next week, and for every year to come. It may look a little out of place beside the seder plate and the cup set out for the prophet Elijah. But after my recent trek, I’ve really come to appreciate the idea of a cultural mix. Plus, now I know that wherever she may be, Grandma Bunnie will always be with us for Pesach after all.

8:31 pm 

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Word From the Weiss

Pattie sick.JPG        Normally, you go to the doctor after noticing that you’ve come down with something. But last week it was only while at the doctor’s office that I first recognized a strange and rather alarming symptom in myself.
I had called for an appointment that morning after what I assumed to be a virus appeared to be getting worse. My regular physician, alas, was booked solid. But one of her partners had an opening, and this being a Friday I’d readily agreed to see him rather than coughing my way through a whole weekend without a diagnosis and possible meds.Jewish Film festival 2014.jpg
When the doctor entered the examining room at last, I quickly chalked up my affliction to the Jewish film festival, which we had been attending nightly for the past week. As wonderful as the films had been, many other patrons had been coughing their brains out, including the woman who’d been sitting next to me two nights before my ailment began.Doctor with no bedside manner.jpg
The doctor, a stern, humorless fellow who'd evidently missed the entire course on bedside manners, did not appear convinced – about the source, anyway.
        “Have you been around anyone else who was sick?” he asked.
I thought hard. “Well,” I finally replied, “my son did seem a little under the weather when the kids came home for Purim. But that was more than a week before this began.”Allegra and Aidan at Purim.JPG
Perhaps I was just trying to elicit some rachmones (Yiddish for “sympathy”) by broadcasting subtly (or maybe not so subtly) to this stony-faced fellow, whose last name was Cohen, that we presumably shared a personal bond. (To my frustration, he didn’t pick up on any of these details or evince the slightest interest in them.)
But it occurred to me afterwards that there was something else peculiar going on.
I fear that I’ve developed a sort of speech impediment that might be likened to Tourette’s Syndrome. No, I don’t find myself exhibiting facial tics or inadvertently uttering random obscenities. (And far be it from me to make light of a very serious neurological condition.) But after three-plus years of writing a Jewish blog, my automatic response to almost any question seems to be to blurt out something Jewish, even if it is only related in the most tangential way.Jewishexclamations2.jpg
And/or to start kvetching at once as only a real Jew can.
Add to that a tendency to let the few Yiddish words I know spew freely, and there you have it: NiceJewishMom.com Syndrome.
        Oy! Vey iz mir!
        Granted, it doesn’t take that much to span the gap between almost any topic and my Jewish heritage… or to find something to kvetch about. Especially these days, which are turning out to have more than enough Jewish activity – and tsuris – to go around.Womens seder selfie with Pat and Liz.JPG
Why, no sooner did Purim end than I attended a massive so-called Women’s Seder two nights later. Sponsored by the local JCC, it had been scheduled nearly a month before Pesach actually begins. But that didn’t prevent my friends Pat, Liz, and Amy from joining me and 300 or so of our Jewish sisters to dip parsley into saltwater, eat charoses spread on the Bread of Affliction, and dance around the room manically to the strains of folk singer Judy Silver crooning “Miriam’s Song,” while taking an unprecedented number of selfies.
          Womens seder Miriam's song.jpg    
        And the women dancing with their timbrels
Followed Miriam as she sang her song
Sing a song to One whom we’ve exalted
Miriam and the women danced and danced
        the whole night long!
The next night, my husband and I finally got to see Book of Mormon. Granted, it was only the traveling road company, and yes, I realize it wasn’t exactly a Jewish event. But maybe that’s only a matter of opinion, because almost every Jew in town appeared to be there.
Book of Mormon image1.jpg        
        Our shirts are clean and pressed
        And our haircuts are precise
        We are the Army of the Church
        We are the Army of the Church
        We are the Army of the Church
        of Jesuuuus Christ!!!

Jewish film festiva laudience.jpg       
The following night, that Jewish film festival got underway. Encompassing 10 days, 23 films, and 13 different countries, the 18th Mandell JCC Jewish Film Fest was a hotbed of culture… not to mention germs and gossip. And although we couldn’t possibly attend the whole thing, we came pretty close, and that’s when the real tsuris began.
        The opening night included an early dinner, as always, held in the lobby of a local movie theater. Knowing that it always sells out – since every prominent Jew within miles goes to this illustrious event to see and be seen – I had purchased tickets months ago.
       Unfortunately, I also had purchased tickets to another event the same evening, not having anticipated the conflict.Mardi Vaz at The Society Room.jpg
      The second event was a night of food, fun, and fashion held once or twice a year. Conceived as a lively girls’ night out for women of all ages, it gathered wares from various designers, makeup vendors and beauty salons in a giant banquet hall called The Society Room to offer an evening of shopping and pampering, complete with free samples of assorted food, wines, and liqueurs.
        I had been to this extravaganza many times before and always had a great time. The company sponsoring it was called VAz, combining the first initials of its co-founders, two young women named Vanessa and Alana. And given that it occurred in March, they had given it a Mardi Gras theme and called this installment “Mardi VAz.”Mardi Vaz patrons.jpg
        Although these two events overlapped, Mardi VAz began at 4 p.m. and the Jewish film festival didn’t commence till 5:30, so I figured that I could go to the first for at least an hour or so. I’d purchased a pair of tickets to it, hoping to bring a friend. But given how little time I would spend there, I invited my husband to go with me instead.
        Having joined me there once before when a friend had canceled out last-minute, he knew it was a great place to imbibe for free, as well as to get an eyeful of attractive young women. So it didn’t take a whole lot of kvetching to convince him. His only reason to hesitate was that he was reluctant to leave our dog home alone for so many hours. So I asked the teenager who lives across the street to walk Latke while we were gone.
        Shortly before we left, however, two major complications arose.Latke on Daddy's lap.JPG
       One was that I heard from the mother of the teenager, a boy named Santiago, that their entire family was going out for the evening, so he would not be able to help me. That meant that my husband would not be able to join me for the first event either.
       The other was that my husband took Latke for a walk just before I left and came back to announce that her stomach was evidently upset, if you get my drip… er drift.
        Normally when Latke has indigestion, I feed her boiled chicken and rice. However, a thorough search of the pantry indicated that we were all out of rice for once.Carolina rice.jpg
        Given that it was nearly time for me to leave, my husband proposed a solution. He would go to a nearby take-out Chinese restaurant and get some already cooked rice from there.
       Moments later, I got a text message from my neighbor. Her son had decided not to join the rest of the family and would walk Latke after all.
      The problem was that I was dressed and all ready to go out, but my husband was not. So I told him to shower and dress quickly while I picked up the rice instead. And to avoid abandoning Latke for any longer than necessary, I took her along for the ride.Chinese takeout carton.jpg
        After leaving the takeout place with my little white carton in tow, I began to pull out of the parking lot, Latke perched in the passenger seat beside me. Halfway out of my space, though, I noticed that a large green commercial van was pulling out two spaces down from me. So I stopped my car and waited patiently, giving the van the right of way.
        It proceeded to maneuver out of its parking spot, making an arc toward the back of my car, but stopped with an ample number of feet between us. Then, perhaps not seeing my car, it abruptly resumed its arc toward me, slamming into my car nice and hard.
        When I say “nice and hard,” I don’t mean “nice” at all. Latke and I were both badly startled and had our brains scrambled like an egg for matza brie. The van had collided with me with so much impact that I had little doubt it had made a sizable dent in the rear of my car.green van.jpg
        My response was to slam down hard on my horn in outrage. At that, the van began driving away as fast as possible, given that we were in a rather busy supermarket parking lot.
       Shocked by both the impact and the affront, I turned my car off instantly, leapt out, and tried to glimpse the van’s license plate before it could totally disappear. But I could only make out the first four characters, which appeared to be 900C, before it was gone.My car after hit and run.JPG
        Incensed, I returned to survey the damage. To my amazement, there was no dent, only a few scratches around the bumper. But the fact is that my car is over 12 years old, and it had more than its share of scratches already. It also has a small, rusted nick on the fender, a remnant of the summer that my daughter drove it when she was still a teen.
        Incredulous yet thoroughly relieved, I jumped back in, patted Latke, who was still shaken by all of the excitement, and stuck the key into the ignition to drive home.
        That, at least, was my intention, but the car refused to turn over.key in ignition.jpg
        Rather, to be more exact, it appeared to still be on, in that the dashboard was all lit up. When I inserted the key, though, it turned all the way to the right without any resistance, and the motor failed to respond in any way. The car appeared to be dead.
        With luck, the garage to which I go for repairs was only a block away. When I called them, though, they couldn’t begin to fathom what was wrong. They also couldn’t spare anyone to come check it out on the spot or begin working on it until the next day. My only recourse was to get AAA to tow it to them and leave it there overnight.
        According to AAA, the current wait time was about 90 minutes. It was already 4:15. Not only was I going to miss that first event, but I might not even make it to the second.
        When I explained my predicament, they offered to put a rush on it, estimating that I might see a tow truck as early as 5. While I waited, I phoned my husband to relay the not-so-good news. He quickly came to retrieve the dog and rice and take them home.tow truck from AAA.jpg
        With luck, a tow truck appeared not long after he had gone. The driver tried to start the car himself, but soon gave up, confirming my worst fears. The car was indeed still on, in that the dash was all aglow, but it would not turn over. Evidently, I’d turned it off so abruptly when I saw the van begin to burn rubber that I’d broken the ignition switch. There was no way to turn it on so it would drive, or turn it off so the battery wouldn’t die.AAA tow truck and driver.jpg
        I pretty much kept my composure, though, until the guy from AAA estimated that the damage would cost more than $500 to repair. Then, as I watched him load my car onto the back of his truck and drive off, I kind of lost it.
        My husband found me standing in the parking lot alone, tears nearly freezing in the tracks they’d traced down my cheeks. The last thing I wanted to do at this point was go to a fancy dinner. Even a nice Jewish one. But we’d already missed one event and had paid handsomely for this one. It made no sense to stay home.
        “If only we hadn’t been out of rice for the first time, like, ever,” I moaned forlornly as my husband drove us to the theater….
        “Or if only you had gone to pick up the rice instead of me, as originally planned…
        “If only Santiago hadn’t changed his mind, so you had stayed home with Latke....
        “If only we had decided to feed Latke dog food even though she was sick…”
        “Dayenu?” my husband interjected, interrupting my woeful litany of coulda-beens.
        “Huh?”I asked.
        “Dayenu!” he repeated emphatically, giving the name of the classic Passover song. “It would have been enough!”
        He was referring to the tune we chant each year during the seder, in which we enumerate all the ways in which God blessed the ancient Jews by parting the Red Sea and delivering them from their oppressors when they were slaves unto Egypt:Passover Haggadah.jpg
        Had He destroyed their idols and not slain their first-born,
        It would have been enough! DAYENU! 
Had He divided the sea for us and not brought us through it dry-shod,
        It would have been enough! DAYENU! 
Had He brought us through it dry-shod
       and not drowned our oppressors in it,
       It would have been enough! DAYENU!...

       And I suddenly realized that I’m not the only one with Nice Jewish Mom Syndrome; the only one who uses every possible opportunity to mention some random Jewish thing.
       I also realized that maybe I was better off counting my blessings instead of my troubles.
        Or so I thought… until I got the repair bill a few days later, and it was for $690.
        That’s when I realized that I had functionally spent $693 to buy a quart of rice.
        A quart of takeout Chinese rice… for my dog.Latke with Chinese food.jpg
        And for the next few days I was so depressed that I could hardly get out of bed.
        I was angry at the driver of that dark green van.
        I was angry at the universe.
        But most of all, I was angry at myself.
        There are those people who consider writing a blog rather self-indulgent, and even though it’s an unpaid job, and a thankless one at that, I could hardly argue with them. Yet I spend most of my spare time doing things for other people (or animals, like my dog). And while I don’t expect any compensation or real reward of any kind for that, neither do I expect to get kicked hard in the tuches, and that is exactly what this felt like.
        I also couldn’t believe that I had done something so stupid, even under duress. Plus, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things I’d rather have done with that dough.Pattie Life goes on.JPG
        Since I don’t have a paying job, I can’t make up the difference by working harder. We simply have to spend less. My husband has proposed that we refrain from going out to dinner again for the next few months… and counting the $400 it cost him to fix his tailpipe when he backed into a snow bank, I don’t think we’ll be dining out till Tisha B’av.
        Or maybe even Yom Kippur.
        But the fact is that this stuff happens, and we all make mistakes, and life goes on.
        Sometimes, the only thing you can do is just be more careful in the future, hope for better luck next time, and try to forgive, not only the culprit, but also perhaps yourself.
        Kinahurra. Zei gezunt! You should live and be well! Dayenu!
12:24 am 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Word From the Weiss

Pattie in King and Oy garb.JPG        Happy belated (by now very, very belated) Purim! You may think it’s supremely cavalier or dismissive of me to be finally posting about this festive occasion a full 12 days after the fact. You might even surmise from the delay that I regard it as a second-tier holiday – say, the Jewish equivalent of Columbus Day versus the Fourth of July.
        If so, you would be wrong. Dead wrong! Purim rates so high in my book (and my household) that all other activity virtually ceases right before it, and afterwards I need at least a week to recover, making it the religious equivalent of having the flu or a laparoscopic appendectomy.
But now that I’m finally back on my feet, and at my computer, my abject apologies, and also, in honor of the holiday we celebrated with hamantaschen last week, a quiz.
Just three words: “Home for Purim.”
Is this...Waiting for Guffman DVD.jpg
        A)   A new mash-up sung by Madonna and Jewish reggae wrapper Matisyahu?
B)   The name of the movie-within-a-movie in the classic Christopher Guest send-up Waiting for Guffman?
        C)   One of the Ten Commandments followed in the home of Nice Jewish Mom, ranking right behind “Call your mother” and “Thou shall not kill”?
D)   None of the above.
              Madonna as Game of Thrones character.jpg
        OK, Kabbalah-holic Madonna, who evidently took the Hebrew name Esther when she converted in the late 90s, did dress up for Purim this year as “Daenerys Targaryen,” a character from Game of Thrones. Yet the 55-years-young diva has not yet to my knowledge recorded any overtly Jewish songs (unless you count “Material Girl,” which could arguably be considered an anthem of sorts for many an affluent young Jewess).Levys at Purim 2012.JPGFor Your Consideration.jpg
        As for B) although “Home for Purim” was indeed the name of the movie-within-a-movie being filmed in a Christopher Guest spoof, it was not 1997’s Waiting for Guffman, but rather For Your Consideration, from 2006, in which a trio of actors in a B movie erroneously become convinced that their performances are creating “Oscar buzz.”
As for my own personal Ten Commandments, I can assure you that I never have and never will issue a decree commanding my kids to come home for Jewish holidays. Why would I? They already choose to do it themselves.
And when it comes to coming home for the holidays, in our house Purim happens to be chief among them, ranking as even more de rigueur than the High Holy Days. That’s because, as I’ve mentioned in this space many a time before, I always write the annual Purim spiel for our temple, and then I perform in it… as does Nice Jewish Dad.The King and Oy image.jpg
Each year, I choose a different Broadway musical, from West Side Story to South Pacific, and rewrite the lyrics so that it conveys the age-old story recounted in the Megillah. Last year, I created “Kiss Me, Esther,” based on Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate. This year? The King and Oy.
We began rehearsing weekly starting right after New Year’s, an epic effort that dominated my life as always throughout the entire winter. So it was a bit disconcerting to have my daughter Allegra admit two weeks ago that she had a scheduling problem.
One of her two roommates in NYC was turning 35 the day before the spiel. Courtney wanted to celebrate with Allegra, my son Aidan, and his girlfriend Kaitlin. But the spiel was being performed here in Connecticut early on Sunday morning. Allegra didn’t want to disappoint her friend on such a significant occasion. Nor did she want to disappoint me. Yet there was no conceivable way that she could manage both events. Unless…Courtney.jpg
“Is there any chance that Courtney would be willing to come home for Purim with you?” I asked. “We could do something really nice to celebrate her birthday here.”
Yes, it seemed a little improbable. Courtney isn’t Jewish. And who would rather mark such a major milestone in suburban Connecticut when they could go out in NYC?
But I am here to tell you that miracles do happen, and I am not just talking about the Red Sox finally winning the World Series or the parting of the Red Sea. Because to my infinite delight and utter amazement, Courtney readily accepted our rather dubious invitation and said she would be more than happy to come for Purim.The King and Oy full house.jpg
Had she not, I would have understood, of course. But the fact is that even if we get a huge turnout for the spiel each year, with upwards of 500 congregants turning out, it doesn’t mean quite as much to me as being with and cheered on by my own kids.
So as the weekend approached, I went into full-scale party mode. Never mind that we had three dress rehearsals that week, and that I was busy putting the finishing touches on the program for the show, which I also am in charge of creating each year.Courtney's birthday cake.jpg
I ordered a beautiful birthday cake in fashionable black and white embellished with a big black bow, multiple curlicues, and Courtney’s name embossed in hot pink.white and black jacket.jpg
I bought an assortment of gifts, including a chic black and white blazer that I thought would look very Audrey Hepburn on the birthday girl, who’d recently bobbed her hair.
And I assembled an assortment of hors d’oeuvres and wines with which to toast.Courtney imbibing on her birthday.JPG
As for the birthday dinner itself, we deliberated at length about whether to eat in or take everyone out. But in the end, we realized that I am, in essense, the Purim queen, and should the queen really be shopping, cooking, and cleaning on Purim? We considered going out for Thai food, to get us in the mood for The King and Oy. But Courtney had her heart set on Chinese, so we went out for that instead.Allegra and Courtney in Connecticut.JPG
Afterwards, we came home for cocktails and cake. Courtney loved it all, including all of her gifts. Then she said that all she wanted to do next was play board games.
Seriously. (A “material girl” she is not.)
She didn’t mean Monopoly, however. Allegra had brought along an assortment of hipper games from the city, the kinds that young people apparently play these days. And the one Courtney chose did not involve a board, nor was anyone bored playing it.Cards Against Humanity.jpg
The name of the game was Cards Against Humanity, and this is how you play: Everyone starts with 10 white cards, each bearing a random and rather odd phrase. Then each player in turn chooses a black card bearing a question, and all the other players select the white card from their hand which offers the silliest possible answer. The person who asked the question chooses which is the most ridiculous, and eventually the player who has the most answers chosen wins.
Be forewarned that many of the answers are extremely tasteless. Here are the most printable examples I can find, reflecting three rounds from the game we played.

Question: What is there a ton of in heaven?
1)    Sexy pillow fights
2)    Daddy issues
3)    Full frontal nudity
4)    Advice from a wise old black man
5)    Synergistic management solutions
        Question: The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History has just opened an interactive exhibit on:
1)    Hulk Hogan
2)    A mating display
3)    My collection of high-tech sex toys
4)    An asymmetrical boob job
5)    Horrifying laser hair removal accidents
        Question: Coming to Broadway this season, _________ the musical.
1)    Puberty
2)    Switching to Geico
3)    Lactation
4)    Barack Obama
5)    Incest
        The winning answers were Daddy issues, a mating display, and incest.
        Nice.Geico gekko.jpg
Even nicer, though, was that all of these festivities did a bang-up job of distracting me from Purim the musical, which was not about incest, puberty or switching to Geico (although those are all now in the running as potential themes for next year).
        Here’s the thing. Purim, for which we all dress up in costume à la Halloween, may be the closest thing we Jews have to a genuinely fun holiday. (Yom Kippur, on which we fast and search our souls – not so much fun. Tisha B’av, on which we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and exile of the Jews, also not a barrel of laughs).
So, like all of the other regular cast members in the spiel, I look forward to it with bated breath and try to make it seem like we’re having a ball up there.
The sad truth, though, is that I am far from a natural performer or someone who craves the limelight. I’d just as soon stay behind the scenes and let others perform my words… or I would if we had a vast reservoir of talented thespians to do it for me.Waiting for Guffman.jpg
Instead, our rather motley crew of players vividly brings to mind that first Christopher Guest movie I mentioned, Waiting for Guffman, in which a ragtag group of amateurs at a community theater butt heads while rehearsing “Red, White, and Blaine,” a musical revue about the history of their fictional Missouri town, all the while eagerly anticipating the arrival of a major New York theater producer, in hopes that their corny cabaret may be destined for Broadway.Beth Fox as Vashti.jpg
This is not to in any way malign the talents of the dedicated few who invariably snag the lead roles in our off-off-off-offffff Broadway Purim production each year.
My friend Beth Fox was once again supremely sassy as Queen Vashti, the first wife, who adamantly refuses to perform before the king and his men in the nude, crooning “I Won’t Dance” to the tune of “Shall We Dance?” from The King and I. It began like this:
I won’t dance! (No! No! No!)
For I have self-respect and I have pride! (Oh! Oh! Oh!)
When he rants (Oh! Oh! Oh!)
I don’t like how he makes me feel inside! (No! No! No!)
      Beth Fox as Vashti in gold harem pants.jpg  
There’s no chance (No! No! No!)
That I’ll sell my own soul to keep my crown!
I must pack my possessions
For I will make no concessions
I must flee from this flawed romance!
With the clear understanding
His demands are too demanding
I won’t dance! (She won’t dance!) I won’t dance!
                  Mitch Cohen as King.jpg
        Meanwhile, Mitch Cohen, a longtime veteran of our spiels, was also thoroughly convincing as the bon vivant yet boorish King Ahasuerus as he serenaded Esther, the young Jewish queen-to-be, to the tune of “Hello, Young Lovers.” It began,
         selfie with king and friends.jpg  
        Hello, young Esther, whoever you are
Such beauty I’ve never seen
Romeo just found his new Juliet!
Marry me! Be my queen!
        Hello, young Esther, my wish on a star
Who knew such wishes came true?
Sending our selfies on Snapchat tonight
They will say I love you!...
        And Jeff Smith, a Purim stalwart dating back to long before my time, was stellar as always as the noble Mordechai, who entreats the young queen to save the Jews from wicked Haman (sung to the tune of “I Whistle a Happy Tune”):
       Jeff Smith as Mordechai.jpg
        Although you may feel afraid
And under great duress
Go tell the king you’re a Jew
No one will ever guess you’re not brave!
        Forget you are filled with fear
Put on your finest clothes
Go tell the king you’re a Jew
And no one will suppose you’re not brave!
        (Bridge) The result is unexpected
But wonderful as well
For when you face the things that you fear
Your fear goes straight to hell!...
        (Are you a little surprised that I would use the word “hell” in a song sung in synagogue? Don’t be. The only surprising thing is that the director, Cantor Pamela Siskin, actually let me.Cantor Pamela Siskin The King and Oy.jpg
        Then again, it was also her idea for me to be giving a pedicure to Vashti while she sings and to pretend to get shicker
(sloshed) on champagne during Queen Esther's song.)
        When it comes to the production values, however, let’s face it.  We don’t have much of a budget for costumes or props. And when I say “not much,” I mean nada.
The only reason Nice Jewish Dad and I looked remotely authentic and presentable in Thai-type garb this year was that, as usual, we bought matching costumes ourselves.TheKingandOy cast members.jpg
Then there is the quality of the cast. Every winter we hold auditions (and I use the term very loosely). But this being a temple event, we automatically accept all comers. And many of those comers are either 8 to 12 years old or coming up on 80.
That is not to suggest that youth has the corner marketed on talent (although it does have the market cornered on being able to dance or move around freely on stage). Fred FitzGerald, another old hand in our Purim lineup, managed to embody the dastardly persona of the wicked-to-the-core Haman once again this year with as much bravado and stage presence as the entire post-pubescent cast of Glee combined.Fred Fitzgerald as Haman.jpg
But no matter how many times I’ve been through this amateur enterprise myself, I still approach it with a peculiar mix of monumental pride and mounting dread.
That’s because, although I hung up my shingle as a prospective Queen Esther about a dozen years ago, my husband and I still assume lead roles by narrating the generic script that I wrote, which holds the production together.
To add a touch of drama and humor, that script is structured as a dialogue, with one person telling the inspiring story of Purim and the other offering silly answers (although not quite as silly or outrageous as the ones in Cards Against Humanity).Pattie and Harlan narrating King and Oy.JPG
In past years, I’ve made my husband play the fool (requiring less acting prowess). This year I decided to shake things up by switching places with him.
For example, Narrator No. 1 notes, “Now, the song we just heard mentions a king,” then asks his sidekick, “Can you tell me the name of the king in the story?”
Narrator No. 2 (making a wild guess) “Elvis?”Elvis.jpg
To breathe fresh life into the tale and convey it in terms that young people will relate to, I also insert a wide range of current cultural references. So when Narrator 1 asks about the identity of the one person who refused to bow down to wicked Haman, his partner guesses, “Kanye West? Kim Jong Un? Oprah?”
Although we always read directly from the script, rather than trying to memorize it, this still remains live theater. That leaves it wide open to calamity. During the final dress rehearsal this year, I accidently omitted a whole page of dialogue and an entire song.
And so even after rehearsing for weeks, I worried as always that I’d make a major flub in front of everyone. Never mind that it always goes off without a hitch, and if someone messes up – and I prove to be the mess-ee – everyone enjoys it anyway.
So having a houseful of guests to distract me may have been just what the rabbi ordered. It wasn’t until I got into bed late the night before that I remembered I would be performing before hundreds of people the next morning. My mind seized up with terror. Yikes! But within minutes I fell asleep.My family in front row.jpg
The next morning, when I saw hundreds of congregants filing into the sanctuary, I was again seized with a moment of pure panic. But then I saw my kids, along with Kaitlin, Courtney, and my Cousin Susan, in the first row, and I overflowed with pure joy.
Also there to witness my one moment of glory each year were a few good friends: Liz, who had journeyed up from NYC just for the occasion; Pat and Michael, who’d gotten up at dawn after baby-sitting in Boston for their grandson while their son and daughter-in-law were in the hospital giving birth to a new baby; and Suzy and Stan and Suzy’s parents Marty and Lorry, who never fail to show up for this, even early on a Sunday morning when most people would rather sleep in.
As I said, good friends (but I don't blame anyone who didn't show up).TheKingandOyPattieandHarlan.JPG
The Glantzes admired the matching costumes my husband and I were wearing, like a pair of Asian salt and pepper shakers, and asked if we were going to lead off the procession of players that would start from the back of the sanctuary and march up to the bima when the spiel commenced. And even though we had rehearsed it differently for months, with my husband in front and me in the rear, I realized that they were right.The King and Oy finale shot.jpg
So as the band launched into “March of the Siamese Children,” I seized my husband’s arm and we strode triumphantly up the aisle. Maybe it wasn’t actual glory. But it was actual joy.
And as the age-old story from the Megillah slowly unfolded, I could see that I was not alone.
I am delighted to report that there were only a few hairy moments, like when my husband inadvertently read one of my lines, so we had to switch parts for a page or two. But who knew?
So once again it went off without a hitch, and before I knew it we were raising our arms high at the end of the grand finale, a closing number sung to the tune of “Getting to Know You,” but entitled – what else? – “Getting to Know Jews.” It started like this:The King and Oy grand finale.jpg
        Getting to know Jews
Getting to know all about Jews
There’s no one like Jews
No one who prays like we pray
        Getting to know Jews
Putting it our way – in Yiddish
Vey iz mir, gornisht
Gezunt, gevalt! (That’s our gestalt!)…
        Every year, my daughter, a professional singer in NYC herself, likes to speculate what the show would be like if it were performed in New York by actual professionals. That, of course, would be a dream come true for me. But I kind of like this dream as is.Michelle Meyer and Ella Oganjanov.jpg
A large part of the thrill is doing it with and for people who get few if any other chances to seize the spotlight in their lives, if only for a moment. Yes, of course, it might be stellar if it starred Emma Stone as the daring young queen who saves the Jews. But I would much rather share the stage with Ella, a 75-years-old-plus Russian redhead who had a heart attack last year, but was still back beside me on the bima once again.
Courtney, Aidan, Kaitlin, Allegra and me.JPG
After the show and making an appearance at the lively Purim carnival that followed, we went out to celebrate with our entourage over a post-Purim brunch.
But first, as usual, people began asking me within seconds of the spiel ending what I’m planning for next year. “The Book of Haman” (based on Book of Mormon)? “Esther Get Your Gown” (based on Annie Get Your Gun)? Or forget about Broadway musicals altogether and do a Beatles spiel? (As someone suggested, “Across the Jew-niverse?”).Pattie in King and Oy dress 2.JPG
Are they crazy? Or just full of chutzpah? Who can even think about that? I take my spiels one Purim at a time. And even if and when I make up my mind, I’m not telling anyone. Not even my kids. If they want to know, they’ll have to come home for Purim. Again!
5:41 pm 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Word From the Weiss

Everything bagel with cream cheese.jpg        The dire news leaked out on a Tuesday afternoon last month and instantly began to spread faster than you can shmear cream cheese on an "everything" bagel.
The Crown was closing. The Crown was closing!
The Crown Market? Closing? Oh, say it wasn’t so!
Established in 1940, this haimishe, family-owned supermarket had long reigned as a cornerstone of my local Jewish community, selling Glatt kosher meats, sliced Nova Scotia lox, schmaltz herring, potato latkes, and other such delicacies for the past 74 years.
There are enough Jews in my town for it to boast a vibrant Jewish community center, a Jewish swim and racquet club, an annual Jewish book festival, an annual Jewish film festival, and multiple synagogues serving every conceivable Judaic sect, including the temple to which I belong, which is among the largest Reform congregations in the Northeast.
And yet whenever I try to convey to people just how Jewish the area I live in is, I always hasten to point out that we have a full-size kosher supermarket to call our own. You might call it, in essence, the crown jewel of Connecticut Jewry.The Crown Market exterior.jpg
OK, maybe The Crown Market didn’t exactly look like a crown, or much of a jewel. After 74 years of purveying everything from hot pastrami on rye to hamantaschen, the big brick building on Albany Avenue had grown to look a little dated both inside and out.
But that, let’s face it, only added to its old-world charm. There was nothing like the sights and smells of the freshly prepared specialties in its bakery and deli departments to transport you back to the days when you visited your grandparents in Brooklyn and got to dine on lokshen kugel, lox, bagels, and your bubbie’s homemade chicken soup.The Crown deli department.JPG
“It’s unique!” declared my cousin Susan, who since moving to Connecticut has shopped there regularly for the fresh-baked rye bread, sour pickles and creamy whitefish salad. “Nowhere else do you have a Jewish Mom and Pop supermarket, except in Brooklyn.”
And so my entire women’s book group, the Shayna Maidels, was ready to plotz.
“Really? I can't believe that! When and who did you hear it from?” wrote a member named Ruth when news of the store’s imminent demise circulated among our ranks within seconds.
“Hard to believe! When? Why?” responded another member named Renee.
But their No. 1 concern, along with distress over all of the lost jobs and how we’d manage now during major Jewish holidays: What were we going to do without The Crown’s tuna?The Crown tuna on pita bread.JPG
Personally, to be perfectly honest, I’d never been a devotee of the store’s special tuna salad, a practically pureed version prepared with some sort of secret ingredient that they have never deigned to divulge. I prefer my own recipe, light on the mayo, yet heavy on the celery... and motherly love. But I was apparently almost alone in that regard. Everyone else seemed to consider it a lifeline, about as integral to survival as oxygen.
And at the thought of doing without it, along with The Crown’s matzah ball soup, mandelbreit, and prune danishes, they all went into mourning en masse, hook, line and sphincter.
OK, it might sound a little extreme for us to be ready to sit shiva for a supermarket. But there you have it. This felt more like losing an old friend, or even a whole way of life.
Never mind that this was the one place on earth where it takes me 45 minutes just to  pick up a loaf of challah, and I have to put on stylish clothes and makeup just to buy milk, lest all of the yentas I invariably run into there begin to gossip that I’m looking a little shvakh.The Crown seven layer cakes.JPG 
        So e
veryone went into total shock. Including me, of course. After all, The Crown had long been there at many of the most pivotal moments of my life. It had catered the big dinners we’d held on the eve of both our children’s bar and bat mitzvahs. It was where I went for rugelach or seven-layer cake each time I made a shiva call. (A good Jew never arrives anywhere empty-handed, least of all to a house where people are in mourning.) And it had known exactly what kind of spread to supply after each of my parents and my mother-in-law had died and we’d needed provisions for people paying shiva calls to us.
Although I like to fancy myself a true ballabusta – one who cooks most traditional Jewish foods from scratch – it also had long served as my mainstay on important Jewish holidays. Now where would I ever hope to find freshly made gefilte fish for Passover?Gefilte fish.jpg
Yet the unfortunate truth was that I rarely shopped there anymore, other than for major occasions. If I had known they were in trouble, I would have gone in more often. Then again, if I’d gone in more often, maybe I would’ve known that they were in trouble.
        In making the grave announcement, the owner cited the rising prices of goods and the record cold weather we'd been battling all winter. Indeed, a disproportionate number of people flocking there for kosher chickens weren’t exactly spring chickens themselves. All that snow had no doubt been enough to make elderly customers stay home.The Crown shoppers.JPG
There also may have been some issues about how kosher the place really was. Their choice to stock trayf like clam juice was viewed as an affront by some clientele.
But the main issue, no doubt, was mounting competition from local chain stores. There were already a Big Y and a Whole Foods Market nearby, and within the past six months or so a so-called “Neighborhood Market” run by Walmart had opened its doors.
Although The Crown may have the market virtually cornered on many Jewish items like kasha varnishkes, some of these stores had shown the good sense to offer kosher fare themselves. And let’s face it, there was no way a solo business could compete with such rivals when it came to items like detergent, diapers, and paper towels.Walmart Neighborhood Market.jpg
I don’t know about you, but I’m usually too busy to visit more than one store in a single day, and I’m inclined to save money whenever possible. So more often than not, I’d opted to go to the places where I could find everything on my list at the lowest price.
That, to me, had seemed like showing sechel -- good sense. Now it seemed like a shonda.
Yes, as with most issues of the Jewish persuasion, there was more than enough guilt in this case to go around, and I instantly blamed myself as much as anyone else.
But if I was part of the problem, could I also be part of the solution? Suddenly, I was ready to shell out a bit more for everything if that would help keep The Crown open.The Crown Market crown logo.jpg
And I was far from the only one. Every Jew I knew seemed eager to do the same. But was it too late? Or might some local hero still rise up and turn The Crown around?
“There’s only one person in this community who can save it,” asserted my good and well-informed friend Arlene, who was feeling under the weather and craving Crown chicken soup.Chicken soup.JPG
“Who?” I replied, proceeding to barrage her with the names of various rabbis and big machers (Jewish movers and shakers).
        I got it on the third try.
great Jewish hope she had in mind was a prominent businessman named Henry Zachs. But Arlene said he had already made overtures to the current owner, and it was too late.
Word was that the store would close by early March, or as soon as its inventory ran out.The butcher department was almost bare.jpg
So I went shopping there that very night. The place felt like a funeral parlor. Patrons pushing carts wandered throughout the aisles in disbelief, fighting back tears. There already had been a stampede of devotees snapping up the last of the kosher chickens. The meat case, normally brimming with quartered pullets, was nearly bare.
Seeing that, I rushed over to the bakery counter, where the usual happy-faced cookies were now sporting frowns. I opted instead to snag the last pound of chocolate-covered macaroons, even if Passover was more than a month away.The Crown Market sad cookies.jpg
What about the longtime employees who’d served us there for decades? I was relieved when an unfamiliar woman behind the deli counter called out my number. What would happen to Eddy, my favorite clerk in the takeout department, the 5 O’clock Shop, whom I’d known for nearly 20 years? I couldn’t bear to look him in the eye.The Crown Market Eddy in deli.jpg
When I got home, I discovered that a petition was already circulating online asking the owners to do whatever possible to allow this deeply cherished store to stay open.
        “The Crown Market is an institution serving both Jewish and non-Jewish members of the community,” it stated. Offering the area’s largest supply of kosher meats and prepared foods, “It provides a valuable community service and another option to the big box stores that surround it.” So it urged the owners to renegotiate their lease and seek community support to remain afloat.
Without hesitation, I signed and forwarded it to almost everyone in town I know.
One friend, to my surprise, wrote back something that sounded a bit snippy.
“Don’t they need business and money? How is a petition going to solve anything?”
Yet nearly everyone else seemed to feel like I did – that it was at least worth a try -- and quickly added their names.
And they were far from the only ones. Within a week, nearly 2,000 people had signed as well, hundreds also posting comments about what The Crown meant to them, some from as far away as California and Tel Aviv.The Crown Market mandelbreit.jpg
“The Crown is indeed an icon,” wrote Steven Bernstein of West Hartford, CT. “I will mourn their closing with much sorrow. (Their mandel bread -- my family's Friday night dessert of choice throughout my childhood -- is unmatched in the world.)”
“An institution such as the Crown and all that it has offered for so long cannot be allowed to 'go under'!” wrote Heske Zelermyer from Delray Beach, FL. “…Owners: change your goals, it's not only about money, it's about a Jewish community and history and loyalty.”
“Like my mother before me, I have spent most of my married life shopping at the Crown,” wrote Rhoda Peskin of Longmeadow, MA, noting that she and her husband drove there regularly, making the hour-plus round-trip to stock up on kosher meat and other items they couldn't find closer to home. “…Please find a way to keep the Crown open,” she pleaded. “Pesach will be here sooner than we think!”The Crown lox platter.jpg
Many people wrote to suggest that the place remain open, but that they eliminate the grocery and produce aisles and just retain the kosher meats, deli, bakery, and takeout sections and put in tables so that people could meet there to eat and schmooze.
Kind of like a kosher Starbucks, only with lox, smoked sturgeon, and coffee cake.
Meanwhile, Colin McEnroe, widely known locally as a newspaper columnist and radio talk-show host (although not a Jew) tackled the issue in his weekly blog.Colin McEnroe.jpg
The Crown is not just food. It’s culture,” he wrote. He proposed that it be reincarnated as something he called CSK -- “Community Supported Kosher.”
“If you love this market, you buy a ‘share,’” he explained. “Every month, they deduct $100 from one of your cards, and you have that much credit.”
Personally, I wasn’t convinced that either move was quite the way to go. But I did think it was time for the whole community to come to The Crown's aid together.It's a Wonderful Life.jpg
Forgive me for referencing, of all things, a Christmas movie, but perhaps this was the moment when we needed to reach into our collective hearts and pocketbooks and cough up whatever we could, the way the citizens of Bedford Falls do for good ole George Bailey at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. We needed to be there for The Crown because it had always been there for us, not just at Pesach but day in and day out, at key moments of our lives – assorted simchas, busy nights when we were too beat to cook, and every year on Yom Kippur, when we broke the fast with its luscious store-made cheese blintzes.
And so I chose not to write about it in my own blog quite yet, hoping that if I waited a bit, some miracle might occur and permit me to pen a happy ending.
In the meanwhile, I began shopping there every day for the first time in years.Macaroons from The Crown Market.JPG
After biting into one of those scrumptious chocolate-covered macaroons, I decided to go back to buy another pound to store in the freezer until Passover.
I also stocked up on staples like toilet paper and Tide, not bothering to check the price.
I even bought a tiny container of that famous tuna, just to give it one more chance. Turned out to be much better than I remembered. My husband took one bite and quickly inhaled the rest. Then he insisted I go buy another pound.
        So I went back again the next day.Harlan eating Crown Market tuna2.JPG
And on my way out, I struck up a conversation with the customer service manager, who divulged that there was not only a ray of hope, but an actual reprieve in the works.
He said negotiations were still under way and that an announcement wouldn’t be made public for a few more days. But as large as the Jewish community is here, it’s a very small town when it comes to spreading gossip, and it couldn’t be kept under wraps.
That very night, the news leaked out online, and it was widely broadcast the next day.
Henry Zachs, a prominent local philanthropist and the founder and CEO of Message Center Management, had indeed come forward to lead the effort, along with Alan Lazowski, chief executive of LAZ Parking, and Brian Newman, a past president and chairman of the board of the local JCC.Henry Zachs in The Hartford Courant.jpg
"The community really, really came together,” Zachs told the Hartford Courant. “People from all denominations, people that were unexpected."
Zachs declined to say how much had been raised or what the purchase would cost. But I later heard from a friend that they had managed to raise about $1.8 million from over 40 investors, most of whom agreed to ante up at least $25,000 apiece.The Crown 5 O'clock Shop.jpg
"We are blessed to have a community that cares so deeply about saving this precious asset, as well as saving valuable jobs," Zachs said in a prepared statement, according to the Courant. "We are honored to be part of this local communitywide effort, all working together toward the common goal of ensuring that The Crown Market... can continue to thrive for future generations."
Those generations may not see the exact same Crown we now know and love. After 74 years, it is slated to be brought into the Top Chef era with an organic department, along with a much-needed facelift both inside and out.Kosher pullets at The Crown Market.JPG
It was later announced that the store will not only be spared the chopping block, but continue to sell chopped liver and other wares without interruption.
Indeed, the next time I stopped in to stock up on tuna for my husband – and OK, I’ll admit it, for me to nosh on too – the butcher case was packed with plump kosher pullets again.The Crown's Eddy smiling again.JPG
I also had no hesitation about placing my deli order with Eddy, who was beaming.
        Needless to say, the smiley faces were back on the happy cookies, too.
And so, like The Crown itself, I get to have my happy ending, after all. Or do I?The Crown cookies happy again.jpg
I worry that this episode is just one example of much more pervasive problems in modern Jewish life. My temple, as sizable as it may be, struggles due to dwindling membership to pay its bills and continue to support programs like its nursery school (and how can anyone really be surprised, with family dues topping $2,500 a year)?Aidan with kippah in third grade at SSDS.JPG
Many Jewish day schools are also in jeopardy of closing due to declining enrollment, thanks to rising tuitions and fewer families opting for a Jewish education. My friend Arlene has heard that there are only four kids enrolled in kindergarten at the local Solomon Schechter Day School. Back when my children both attended, it was packed.
“I think there’s a bigger problem here,” she said.
Can we afford to count on there always being a big macher to rush to the rescue?
Who knows? All I know is that we cannot afford to continue taking the schools, stores, and other institutions on which our Jewish future rests for granted.Hamantaschen I baked.JPG
We need to support them by joining and/or just showing up. We must continue to use them or we will surely lose them.
I will still bake my own hamantaschen this Purim (please see my recipe if you want to, too). But from now on I intend to keep chowing down on The Crown’s world-renowned tuna, whatever the heck that special ingredient is. Maybe it's schmaltz. Or motherly love.

11:24 pm 

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That's me. The redhead on the right. But that is NOT my baby.

     No, sir, that's not my baby. How could any mother smile beatifically while her own child wailed? Never mind that neither of my offspring ever cried so plaintively, as far as I recall (not while I was there to nurture them through their every perceptible need... although my son still complains that I often dressed him in garish and girlish color schemes, scarring him FOR LIFE).
     Besides, I'm distinctly beyond prime delivery age ("Kitchen's closed!" as my mother might say), and my kids had departed the diaper stage by the dawn of the Clinton Administration. Now in their 20s, both are currently living on their own, in not-too-distant cities, although each manages to phone me daily. In fact, to be exact, several times a day, then sometimes text me, too. (That may sound excessive, and emotionally regressive, but I subscribe to the Jewish mother's creed when it comes to conversing with kinder: Too much is never enough.)
     Two demanding decades spent raising two kids who are kind, highly productive and multi-talented, who generally wear clean underwear (as far as I can tell), and who by all visible signs don't detest me are my main credentials for daring to dole out advice in the motherhood department.
     Presenting myself as an authority on all matters Jewish may be trickier to justify.
     Yes, I was raised Jewish and am biologically an unadulterated, undisputable, purebred Yiddisheh mama. I'm known for making a melt-in-your-mouth brisket, not to mention the world's airiest matzah balls this side of Brooklyn. My longtime avocation is writing lyrics for Purim shpiels based on popular Broadway productions, from "South Pers-cific" to "The Zion Queen." Then again, I'm no rabbi or Talmudic scholar. I can't even sing "Hatikvah" or recite the Birkat Hamazon. Raised resoundingly Reform, I don't keep kosher, can barely curse in Yiddish, and haven't set foot in Israel since I was a zaftig teen.
     Even so, as a longtime writer and ever-active mother, I think I have something to say about being Jewish and a mom in these manic and maternally challenging times. I hope something I say means something to you. Welcome to my nice Jewish world!   
In coming weeks, I will continue posting more personal observations, rants, and even recipes (Jewish and otherwise). So keep reading, come back often, and please tell all of your friends, Facebook buddies, and everyone else you know that NiceJewishMom.com is THE BOMB!
The family that eats together (and maybe even Tweets together): That's my son Aidan, me, my daughter Allegra, and Harlan, my husband for more than 26 years, all out for Sunday brunch on a nice summer weekend in New York.

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