|That's me, Pattie Weiss Levy.
A Modern-Day "Ima"
on a Modern-Day Bimah
new content posted every WEEK!)
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
A Word From the Weiss
Barely a week after we’d ecstatically reunited with our daughter in Hong Kong, it was hard to believe that we already
were obliged to bid goodbye to her and that bustling city. But we would be back again soon for more adventures before we returned
home. Besides, this farewell was only temporary. Allegra would later join us in Bangkok.
But first we would fly to Beijing
for four days, our first visit ever to Mainland China.
While in Hong Kong, we had entrusted Allegra and her supremely savvy boyfriend JP to oversee what we did, where we went,
and nearly every morsel that we consumed. Now, suddenly, we'd be in a brand new and unfamiliar country entirely on our own.
Well, not entirely on our own.
Our good friends Amy and Rich had taken a similar trip a few years earlier, and they’d spent countless hours imparting
advice about essential “don’ts” (don’t overpack; don’t drink the water), as well as equally
crucial “do’s” (do bring quick-dry underwear, do make sure to eat Peking duck there, and be sure to bargain
for everything you buy).
Equally invaluable, they gave us contact info for the private guides that they had
employed in both Beijing and Bangkok. And although five years had passed since their own journey, both men promptly emailed
back agreeing to assist us.
We also accepted Allegra’s recommendation of a travel agent based in Hong Kong.
And although I ultimately opted to choose all but one of our hotels myself, I let her book our flights and arrange for us
to be picked up and returned to each airport.
My husband seemed a bit peeved to learn that I’d shelled out extra dough for the luxury of having all of that
private transportation. But when we arrived in Beijing after dark not speaking one word of the local language, it was an incalculable
comfort to be met by a man with a sign bearing our name and whisked safely and effortlessly away.
No less gratifying was our arrival at our hotel in a centrally located area of the city known as Wangfujing. I’d
chosen the Beijing Hilton because it was within walking distance of many of the city’s main attractions, but also because
we’re members of the chain’s Hilton Honors program. I figured this might make us eligible for a room upgrade.
Indeed, that upgrade was bestowed without our even asking. Hiltons tend to be modern, well-run hotels, but when we opened
our door on the 11th floor, I was, well, floored. Our room was not merely a room; it was a plush cavernous suite more than
50 feet long, with an immense walk-in closet, separate his and hers sinks in the mammoth marble bathroom, and a spacious living
room area with a sweeping view of the city.
OMG, was all that for the two of us? Or maybe us and a small developing
Speaking of which, when it comes to mainland China, forget “developing nation.” Not to mention
Little that we saw in Beijing was
humble. Almost everything, rather, was huge, from the many palatial hotels (which all looked like they’d eaten one of
our American hotels) to the glitzy car dealerships lining many of the six-lane thoroughfares traversing the city.
Meanwhile, everyone (not just tourists
like us) was shopping their tucheses off.
Asked for recommendations about where to eat dinner, the concierge
sent us to an enormous shopping mall next door. Fly all the way to China to eat dinner in a mall?
Yup. It turned out the options in there were endless.
Forget whatever you imagine about Communist China. That six-story
behemoth boasted nearly every Western mall store known to man, from The Gap and H&M to Zara, Sephora, and Forever 21.
The dining options were similarly copious. We ended up at a “hot pot” spot, a culinary phenomenon enormously
popular with the Chinese (although with my husband not so much). They place a humungous steaming cauldron in the center of
your table and you order from a vast assortment of ingredients, including vegetables, noodles, and meats sliced paper thin.
You dip these items into bubbling broth (much the way we eat fondue), then fish them out with chopsticks.
My hubbie enjoyed the ingredients that I chose well enough. He just didn’t seem to appreciate having to cook his
He appreciated even less that at the Haagen-Dazs booth (yes, they even had that), two tiny scoops went for 59 Chinese
RMB (about $10). We agreed to forego this splurge in favor of cheap sundaes at McDonald’s (yes, they had that too, as
well as Subway).
The next morning, our hotel provided the most bountiful breakfast buffet I’ve ever seen, including eggs made to
order, pancakes, waffles, French toast, quiche, chocolate croissants, lox, and assorted cereals and cheeses, plus innumerable
Chinese delicacies including fried noodles, dumplings, stir-fried vegetables, and several kinds of congee.
Most novel of all were the iced bottles of freshly squeezed cucumber, carrot, and watermelon juice, along with fresh
fruits including one I’d never seen before – dragon’s eye fruit, sliced open to reveal a lily-white melon
studded with teeny black seeds. Yum!
After washing it all down with multiple cappuccinos made to order, we
set out for the city’s top tourist attraction, The Forbidden City.
It was just a short walk away. But we never made it.
The road leading there was lined with shops selling cheap souvenirs,
from colorful embroidered purses and satin robes to folding fans, silky scarves, tote bags, t-shirts, and canisters of loose
tea with rather novel names (like “Decision Markers Eyebrow”).
All of these items were at least potentially cheap. As our friends had so aptly conveyed, prices were highly
negotiable, so I let my husband handle all transactions. Unlike me, he loves to hondel – maybe a little too
At one shop, while I selected a bejeweled peacock-shaped hairclip to bring Allegra,
he got to chatting with the owner after they settled on a price (around a buck!).
Her English was surprisingly fluent,
and she seemed ecstatic about the chance to hone her skills even more while comparing notes about American TV. “Breaking
Bad!” she exclaimed breathlessly, adding, “Prison Break!”
Before I knew it, she had summoned her whole family to pose for photos with “Grandma,” as she
called me, including her niece, an adorable toddler named Nu-Nu. Then we bid them a fond farewell. But Chinese goodbyes are
a lot like Jewish ones, apparently. That is, we said it and left, but our new friend wasn’t ready to let us go.
Instead, she kept pace with us for blocks, babbling away until we happened to reach an art gallery in which both her
husband and brother were selling their paintings.
We agreed hesitantly to say a quick hello, but their work – traditional watercolors painted
on white silk scrolls – turned out to be so lovely (and so reasonably priced!) that we actually agreed to buy two. Both
of our choices were by the woman’s husband, though, and when her brother expressed profound insult at having his artistry
passed over, we caved in, rather than creating an international incident, and took two of his, too.
Sadly, after all of these detours,
by the time we reached the Forbidden City it had already closed for the day. So we headed to Tiananmen Square.
You may know about this vast landmark, named after the Tiananmen Gate (“Gate of Heavenly Peace”), from the
infamous student demonstrations held there in 1989. But it’s now mostly a flower-lined promenade popular with tourists
and residents alike – so much so that hundreds of people were lined up to go through Security at the entrance.
We weren’t quite sure how
to proceed until an older Chinese fellow with a toddler hoisted onto his shoulders came to our rescue and told us to stick
with him. That toddler, I suddenly realized, was none other than Nu-Nu, and the man was the father of Ms. Breaking Bad,
an artist in his own right (yet mercifully with no paintings on hand).
Of all the 21 million people who live in Beijing, we just happened to walk into him? Was this just sheer coincidence
or bashert (Yiddish for meant to be)?
Who knows? After finally making our way through the sea of people,
we prevailed upon some fellow tourists to snap a photo of us in exchange for our snapping them.
Having been cautioned by our friends, I made sure to watch out for pickpockets. But that didn’t mean my wallet
As we made our way out, we suddenly were greeted by two Chinese women who seemed overjoyed to meet us.
They said they were schoolteachers visiting from a town three hours away and asked if they could walk along with us to practice
Soon, they weren’t content to just walk with us, though. Wouldn’t it be better to go somewhere
and get better acquainted over tea?
By then it had grown dark, and we were more inclined to go out for dinner instead.
But after walking all day, I was tired. And thirsty. Why not sit down for a nice cup of tea?
Besides, in the interests of diplomacy,
it seemed rude to refuse their kind invitation. I soon came to realize, though, that diplomacy was not exactly their own cup
The older of the two, who said that she taught English to young children, kept making comments that might be considered
blunt at best. After asking to see pictures of our family, she said that our daughter looked Indian. Another relative, she
noted, looked Mexican. But most of all she kept wondering aloud why my husband appeared to be so much older than I am (because
at 11 years my senior, he is so much older than I am).
What she may have lacked in tact, though, she
more than made up for in bravado, or whatever the Chinese equivalent is for chutzpah. She pulled us into a tiny tea
house, where we were given a private room, then ordered a pot of tea for us all to share, along with two plates of crackers
to snack on. A pot would be more economical than single cups, she explained.
Economical? Not quite. When the bill finally came, they made no move for their own wallets, although the tab, including
a beer for my husband, amounted to $66.
Were they really innocent school marms on holiday from far out of town,
or were they crafty locals in cahoots with the tea house? Feeling taken advantage of, maybe even duped, we were more than
ready to bid our new friends a not-so-fond farewell.
But hearing that we were headed for dinner, they offered to show
us the most famous Peking duck house in all Beijing and insisted on escorting us there personally. When we arrive, they insisted
on walking us in and offered to help us order. But my husband, no longer minding his P’s and Q’s, assured them
we could take it from there.
Or could we? This so-called famous restaurant turned out to be a humble hole in the
wall where they barely spoke a word of English. Only with great effort were we able to communicate that we wanted half a duck
(a whole one would be too much for two). As for vegetables, they were only available with a hot pot. My husband flatly refused.
Somehow, though, by writing out what he wanted to say, he was able to carry on a lengthy conversation with our affable
young waiter, who looked like an Asian Adam Levine. The waiter looked up every word on his phone, one by one, and pretty soon
they were chatting about everything from the fellow’s hobby (collecting coins) to sports.
Best of all, whether or not the place was famous, their duck – served the traditional way with thin pancakes,
hoisin sauce, and shredded scallions – was absolutely divine.
Early the next morning, we were picked up at our hotel by our friends’
trusty guide David. When I’d emailed him a month earlier, he had responded almost instantly that “David is right here in Beijing waiting for you.” (His real name, of course, was not David. That was simply the
moniker that had been bestowed on him years earlier in a language class, when the teacher had chosen new identities for everyone
in the room, declaring, “You’re Tom. “You’re Dick.” “You’re David.”)
Whatever his name, for the next two days we were thrilled to call him our guide. His English was flawless, and
his manners, driving, and camera skills impeccable. Best of all, as a former high school teacher who now worked full-time
as a professional tour guide, his knowledge of Chinese history and tourist sites was seemingly inexhaustible, particularly
about our first destination, the Great Wall of China.
Initially, our travel agent had offered to send us on a tour of the Great Wall departing at 8 a.m. We had declined,
on the grounds that we are not morning people and didn’t want to see anything at 8 a.m., least of all a wall. She countered
that we needed to leave that early because the Wall was four hours away from Beijing. To which my husband replied that he
wouldn’t travel that far to see anything – especially a wall, however great – and that he’d be perfectly
happy just to see a picture of the wall.
Well, having now seen the Great Wall, in person, let me tell you a thing or two.
Number one, the section of the
wall we went to, called Mutianyu, was no more than a 90-minute drive from downtown Beijing. Number two, they don’t call
the wall “Great” for nothin’. It may be the single most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in my entire
life, and it was well worth flying all the way to Beijing (or even to the moon, if necessary) to visit.
Not all portions of the wall you can see today are original parts, and not all of the Wall that originally existed still
remains to be seen. However, some areas are well over 2,000 years old. And although many now lie in disrepair, about 5,500
miles still remain.
Taking many dynasties to complete, the Great Wall was created to help protect the Chinese Empire by keeping
out the Huns, Mongolians, and other warlike neighbors.
What is difficult to appreciate, unless you are actually there, is that the wall is set high up in the
mountains, where it snakes circuitously throughout the natural terrain.
Those mountains themselves are vibrant green
and utterly magnificent to behold. Yet even more astonishing is that the building materials used in construction, including
massive stones weighing hundreds of pounds apiece, were lugged up there by hand.
No wonder many people evidently
perished on the job. Since there was nowhere to bury them so high up in the mountains, workers who died on the job –
and there were many – were often buried inside the wall, David told us. “So it is said that the Great Wall is
not just the largest wall in the world, but also the world’s largest cemetery.”
Yet hiking along a meandering stretch for an hour or so, I wasn’t struck by any maudlin sense of death. Rather,
I was overcome by a new appreciation for the enormity of life, the immenseness of history, and how small in the scheme of
things I really am.
Continuing our history lesson after a bountiful Chinese lunch, David took us to a nearby cloisonné factory, where
we viewed the ancient art of making exquisite vases and other decorative objects. The process – which involved gluing
wire in intricate patterns onto copper vessels and then painting them in eight separate layers – was so elaborate, and
the colorful results so dazzling, that I was soon dying to buy one.
But they were very expensive and my husband restrained me, asserting that I didn’t really need a vase because
they don’t do anything other than sit around on the shelf.
No matter. I stewed all the way to our next stop, a jade factory, where we learned how traditional Chinese jewelry,
carved dragons, and other such figurines were made.
I didn’t stint myself there.
The next day, despite our preference to sleep in, we started off bright and early because we had plenty of ground to
cover, much of it hallowed for the Chinese.
First stop was the 600-year-old Temple of Heaven, a round structure
set in a vast park, which has the distinct distinction of being the oldest wooden building in the world.
This tall temple was painted a deep crimson shade, far deeper than the ruddy wedding gown worn by a bride-to-be whom
we saw posing beside it. Many couples come there for wedding photos, David noted, and Chinese brides favor red, not white.
“Red is a lucky color for the Chinese because it is the color of blood,” he explained. “We use blood
to ward off evil spirits.”
There were no evil spirits evident at the Forbidden City, the splendid palace spanning
180 acres and featuring 980 buildings, which served as home to 24 emperors for nearly 500 years – just thousands of
fellow tourists from all around the world.
The city was said to be forbidden because no one was allowed to enter without the emperor’s permission. Commoners
were banned until the Chinese Revolution of 1911.
Speaking of “forbidden,” the emperor lived there with
his wife and 72 concubines, David said. Senior officials were permitted in for ceremonies and government business, but no
men other than the emperor were allowed inside the inner court, where the concubines lived, with the exception of the many
eunuchs chosen to run the premises. (The emperor evidently didn’t welcome any competition in the romance department.)
As for the concubines, they were not necessarily chosen for their stunning looks. Those in the Forbidden City were required
to be of Manchurian descent, and judging from pictures that David had seen, he believed that many were far from ravishing.
Far more beautiful courtesans were housed separately at the Summer Palace, which the emperor visited regularly year-round
by voyaging via a manmade canal by dragonboat.
That seaside Shangri-la was our next stop, and the most dazzling destination of all. No wonder this serene hideaway
was where the emperor’s mother also chose to reside. Did he make his way there so often to patronize his spare gal pals,
or to hang out with dear old mom? Who knows? But David knew plenty about one particular mother, the most famous of all, known
as the Empress Dowager Cixi.
Initially a mere concubine herself, she rose steadily in the ranks to actually rule herself for 48 years after her husband
died in 1861, when their son was only 6.
David’s eyes lit up like Chinese lanterns as he described the luxurious lifestyle that she enjoyed. Every day
she bathed in milk, he said, and ate pearl powder, believed to beautify the skin. And every night, she had 128 different dishes
prepared for her dinner and never let anyone know which one was her favorite, lest she be poisoned, he said.
Nice as it is being a nice Jewish
mom, maybe nice emperor’s mom would be nicer.
But 128 dishes a day? Talk about wretched excess! It was daunting enough when David took us to a popular dumpling house
and ordered eight different varieties including egg and tomato, which were surprisingly delicious.
From there, we went to a government-owned tea factory, where we tasted many varieties of the brew, including oolong,
lychee, Emperor’s pu-eh, and a fruity concoction called Sweet Lover… and we loved them all so much that we purchased
some of each.
Then it was on to a Chinese acrobat show, featuring high-wire acts, a pyramid of dancers riding a single bike, and eight
men circling inside a metal cage on motorcycles.
Talk about full days! Not to mention unforgettable. But the one
thing I hope I never forget is the advice that David gave us. When we told him about our earlier encounter with the two ladies
who’d taken us to tea – or maybe just taken us – he shook his head.
“Here’s my suggestion
to you,” he said. “Never follow the stranger.”
We woke up the next morning to chilly temperatures
in the 50s and torrential rain. No matter. Sadly, it was already time to pack and leave for the next leg of our trip.
But first we needed to attend to
one important piece of unfinished business.
My husband insisted on retracing our steps to the not-so-famous duck house to track down his new best friend. He’d
felt terrible that we hadn’t had any American coins to add to the fellow’s collection when we ate there, and he
wanted to deliver a few.
I thought it was a little nutsy, given our limited time, but I also thought it was
So, I am happy to report, did the waiter.
Only then did we go shopping for a few last
souvenirs to bring home:
A little stuffed panda in a pink satin jacket for Allegra.
A black T-shirt embellished with Chinese symbols
And plastic golden cat with a waving paw, considered a symbol of good luck.
Then, in a souvenir shop, I took
a shine to an ivory silk scarf printed all over with one large, black repeating Chinese character. The salesgirl said that
it cost 999 yuan (about $163), which sounded beyond exorbitant. But when my husband balked at the price and began walk out, the salesgirl called after me, “You have a very clever
husband,” and let it go for a tiny fraction of the price (though still probably too much).
He was so flattered that he bought
a second scarf for one of our friends back home.
When we got back to our hotel to
collect our luggage, I showed a staff member my purchases and asked what the Chinese character on my scarf meant.
She turned it in various directions,
studying the markings carefully.
“It is an animal,” she finally said.
“What kind of animal?”
I asked, intrigued.
“It is the animal ‘cow,’” she replied, explaining that cows were highly valued
in ancient China for their ability to help with farm work.
“Cow?” I asked incredulously, more than a little deflated.
“That’s it? Are you sure? It doesn’t mean something nice, like, you know, ‘Long life,’ or ‘Good
“No,” she asserted earnestly. “Just cow. But madam, it is an excellent cow, and it means you are excellent,
I’m not convinced that either is true. But we had a truly excellent time in Beijing.
Next week, my Asian adventures continue at our next stop – Bangkok.
Friday, October 17, 2014
A Word From the Weiss
The temperature was already tiptoeing past 90, with humidity hefty enough to wilt a rock,
when we landed in Hong Kong at 5 a.m. after a grueling16-hour flight. I’m not complaining, mind you. The only people
who have any right to complain in this scenario are the ones who heard me screaming when I first spied my daughter’s
face… and given the decibel level of my audible joy, that may have included all 7 million or so residents of Hong Kong
and half the population of mainland China.
Then again, who could blame me? Allegra had been halfway around the globe since early July, ever since she had begun
singing at the Hong Kong Four Seasons hotel, a three-month engagement that had since been extended through January. Although
we conversed daily on WhatsApp, and even faced off occasionally on Facetime, never had we been apart for close to that long
since the day she’d been born over 24 years ago.
Having never been to Asia, my husband and I had decided to treat ourselves to three whole weeks in the so-called Far
East, during which we’d visit Beijing and Bangkok as well. Yet given that our daughter was stationed halfway around
the globe, we planned to spend the majority of that time in Hong Kong.
Life is short. Vacations -- even lengthy ones
like this -- are shorter. We wanted to see as many parts unknown as possible. But mostly, being a nice Jewish mom and
dad, we wanted to see her.
The feeling was apparently mutual, because despite my endless entreaties she had stayed
up all night to meet us at the train station holding a homemade welcome sign.
After taking turns embracing our long-lost and much-missed child, we took a cab to her apartment for a much-needed nap.
Then, since it was still too early to check into our hotel, we set off to meet Allegra’s new boyfriend over lunch
at their favorite dumpling place.
She and JP had first met soon after she had arrived. He had gone to college at Oxford, in England, with Tom, the son of my husband’s
best friend from prep school. Knowing that JP had recently returned to Hong Kong after living in Europe for many years, Tom
had asked JP to please look in on Allegra.
Looks like he liked what
We, meanwhile, had been looking at him only in the occasional photos that Allegra posted on Facebook. So
it was a delight to discover that he had not just a charming British accent, but a radiant smile that truly lit up the
room and a magnetic personality to match.
It didn’t hurt that he was fluent in both Cantonese and Mandarin, along with English, German, and other languages,
no doubt. Never mind that most menus offered basic English translations. We were happy to let JP and Allegra order food for
us, give our address to cab drivers, and take charge of nearly everything else that might get lost in translation for the
duration of our time together.
That included taking a trip to JP's tailor after lunch because my husband wanted to order a custom-made suit,
something that we’d been told was de rigueur in Hong Kong. We figured we should get him measured asap, so that
it would be ready by the time we left.
He’d never had anything made to order before, and it was fun picking
out both the fabric – a dark pinstriped cashmere-wool blend – and silk lining in a rich claret red. Only then
did we learn the price, which was not exactly the bargain that we’d anticipated. No matter. Life is short, as I said,
but the sleeves and pants would not be. The finished product was guaranteed to be a perfect fit.
Afterwards, we strolled back to our hotel, which Allegra said would be a 15-minute walk but ended up taking well over
an hour because we kept stopping every five feet or so to gape at something we’d never seen before.
The streets were teeming with open storefronts purveying everything from
dried fish, aromatic spices, and raw or roasted meats and poultry to ornately carved coffins and T-shirts printed with oddly
distorted English phrases.
“Rolling Stom,” read one.
But make no mistake. Regardless of its many touches of quaint, local flavor, Hong Kong is a booming metropolis even
more upscale and modern, in many ways, than New York. Shopping malls and designer boutiques offering Western luxury goods
abound. The residents, particularly women, are almost aggressively stylish, their impossibly flawless sub-zero-size physiques
adorned in high heels and lavishly color-coordinated get-ups.
By late afternoon, we were ready to pass out from the withering heat and humidity, but it was time instead to get all
dolled up for the moment that we’d been breathlessly anticipating for months.
As the resident singer at the Four Seasons, Allegra's duties consist entirely of performing every Friday and Saturday
night at Blue Bar, a posh club widely considered to be the top jazz venue in Hong Kong. I know – tough job, but somebody’s
gotta do it. Somebody in high heels and a glitzy evening gown. And that somebody is my little goyl.
We normally attend most of her performances
in NYC, so it had been agonizing to know that she’d been singing in this classy place for months and be unable to go.
Yet let me tell you what was even more agonizing: to be there at last, in a setting even more glamorous than I had ever
imagined, and be unable to keep my eyes open!
After helping ourselves to the bar’s lavish spread of complimentary
hors d’oeuvres, we were welcomed warmly by the management and members of the Bob Mocarsky Trio, the top-notch jazz band
with which she performs. I was so thrilled to view them in the flesh after seeing them only on Facebook that I could hardly
It was also a thrill to discover that after performing there regularly for many weeks, Allegra sounded better than ever
(if you ask me).
But her gig spanned five full hours, from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., and between the 16-hour flight
and the 12-hour time difference, even Krazy Glue couldn’t have kept my eyelids from drooping.
It made no difference that I eschewed
the club’s many fancy martinis in favor of a lotus-flavored mocktail.
Fortunately, we would get to see her
perform four more times before we left.
Unfortunately, my eyes would have to stay unglued a little longer, because when we returned to our hotel at 2 a.m.,
our air-conditioning was kaput and the room was sweltering.
On Allegra’s advice, we had booked a place a block from her
apartment called The Traders, operated by a chain called Shangri-La. Whether or not the Four Seasons was within our budget
(make that a big NOT), we wanted to stay as close to her as possible.
The Traders (which has since changed its name to The Jen) was ultra-modern and comfortable, but not without a/c. The management
sent up a technician, who banged loudly till 3 a.m., to no avail. At that point they offered to move us to another room, but
I was too beat to move a muscle, let alone a suitcase. So they vowed to repair it the next day, and to compensate for
our inconvenience upgraded us to eat most of our breakfasts in their exclusive top-floor club room overlooking the harbor
It’s hard to say which was more divine – the vast Western and Asian breakfast buffet (including eggs, lox,
quiche, assorted croissants, fried noodles, fresh fruit, and the Chinese breakfast food of choice, a thin gruel called congee)
or that gorgeous room and view. But it would be safe to say that we got over our disgruntlement real quick.
also didn't mind letting Allegra
and JP take charge of our agenda over the coming days and escort us to many of Hong Kong’s most popular tourist sites.
We taxied along with a small group of their friends to The Peak, at the apex of Mount Victoria (the highest point
in this mountainous seaside city), where we took countless photos of the surrounding panoramic view, but mostly snapped each
We boarded a ferry to lush Lamma Island, where we hiked and bathed in the mild yet murky waters, cooling off by sipping
fresh coconut juice straight from the shell.
We had fun hondeling (bargaining) for silk scarves, traditional
Chinese fans, and other souvenirs in the bustling outdoor Ladies' Market across the harbor in Kowloon.
But most of our activities, I must
confess, revolved almost entirely around food.
We dined on the famous soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung, located in a Kowloon shopping mall. (Dumplings, especially ones filled with hot broth, are big – really big -- in Hong Kong!)
We devoured nitrogen ice cream made right before our eyes and all manner of Asian cuisines, from spicy Thai delicacies
at a casual food court to flavorful banh mi thit and other Vietnamese specialties
at Bêp, their favorite luncheon spot.
And on Sunday morning we indulged in a lavish spread of dim sum, which included not only a sumptuous variety of noodles,
dumplings, and emerald green Chinese kale, but (to my mild horror) a tiny, glistening, roasted brown pigeon, tiny head, beak,
Other than that last bit, perhaps, we loved every bit of it, but mostly we relished the company we kept. After all,
I'm just a nice Jewish mom. I didn’t really care one whit what we did or where we ate, as long as we did it
One night, en route to a stylish Asian fusion eatery in Kowloon called Spice, JP insisted that we take a brief sudden
detour. After wandering in the muggy air for hours, my husband’s shirt was notably damp, to put it delicately. JP was
worried that he would be uncomfortable in the air-conditioned restaurant and wanted him to buy another shirt.
We looked at the shop’s offerings and promptly purchased a striped blue polo, but mostly we looked at each other
incredulously. For days, we had been pestering JP to teach us to say various key phrases in Chinese – “Thank
you.” “Where’s the toilet?” “How much does this cost?”
But now even English failed us, because the only word that would possibly do was “mensch.”
That is in no way to suggest that we were ready to give up on our terrible
"Chinglish" or consider trading in our chopsticks.
To my great surprise, instead of growing weary of
eating Chinese food both day and night, I soon found myself craving more of it… and craving nothing else.
In fact, after several days of eating like the locals, we found ourselves taking our new environs happily
in stride and no longer gawking at sights like the kiosks inside the subway station, which were stocked with snacks consisting
mainly of assorted dried fish… and (I suspect) dried bugs.
And yet we still felt very far from home, particularly
on Rosh Hashanah.
As happy as we were to celebrate the Jewish New Year with Allegra, we sorely missed being with her older brother Aidan
and his girlfriend Kaitlin. It also felt strange to be unable to attend services at our own temple, as we always do.
Allegra's friend Matt, a nice Jewish boy from Chicago, had invited us over for a holiday dinner. Knowing this, I had carted
from home a big braided challah, some extra wide egg noodles to make a kugel, and a pair of white Shabbat candles from my
agreed that under the circumstances, the meal alone would suffice as a way to observe the holiday. But when we woke up
that morning, Allegra reconsidered.
"I feel weird we're not in temple," she texted to me.
"Me too!" I texted back.
set off across town in search of the Ohel Leah synagogue, a modern orthodox congregation that serves as the epicenter
of Hong Kong's Jewish life.
We traipsed up and down steep, narrow streets and alleyways in the brutal heat, but we simply couldn't
find it. It was so humid and it seemed so hopeless that we were tempted to give up. Then again, how in good conscience could
we? At last, after arriving at what we thought was the right address but seeing no sign of a synagogue, we asked a guard in
uniform. He pointed to what looked like a posh apartment building sequestered behind formidable iron gates.
That was a synagogue? Who knew?
A lean and somewhat belligerent Israeli-sounding man
interrogated us. Who were we? Why were we there?
Never mind that we were two very sweaty alta cockers (old fogies)
and a nice Jewish girl in a pretty beige polka dot dress with a silk bow in her hair. He demanded to see our passports and
made us open our handbags for careful inspection.
Satisfied at last that we were "there for the right reasons," as they say
on the TV show The Bachelor, he informed us that holiday services had just concluded, but we were welcome to join
them for the kiddush.
this meant a thimble full of ritual wine and bit of challah. But after descending three floors into the safely secluded social
hall, we stepped into a vast banquet room to see several hundred well-dressed Jews seated at round tables for ten.
We quickly found seats at a corner table with a young
Israeli ex-pat couple -- a diamond merchant and his pregnant wife -- and then the feast began.
I thought it was a simple vegetarian meal with assorted
salads, challah, and couscous, but then the wait staff carried in platters groaning under pounds of brisket and roast
potatoes, and when we had eaten our fill of this, they planted a plump roasted pullet on every table. Then came honey cake
with non-dairy ice cream for dessert.
It was all delicious. But oy! How would we ever eat dinner at Matt’s now?
belting out the Birkat Hamazon (the prayer after eating), the rabbi came over to greet our family personally, and
told us that his very first pulpit had been in Norwich, CT, not far from where we live now.
Small world when you are a Jew!
Then the rebbetzen, his wife, with multiple
children clinging to her skirted suit, came over to meet us as well and to recruit Allegra for their young professionals social
group, noting that they had many single Jewish men who were members, but “not so many single Jewish women.”
our many new friends goodbye, we spent the afternoon wandering the streets, trying to work up an appetite as we slowly gathered
the ingredients for dinner.
we joined JP and went to Matt's apartment to help prepare yet another meal.
This one, though, would be a little less traditional.
had brought that bag of Manischewitz wide egg noodles from home, fully prepared to help Allegra make a lukshen kugel
using the recipe listed on my web site. However, it turned out that they expected me to whip up some matzah ball soup
this, Matt proffered a round canister of matzah meal.
"Do you have shmaltz?" I asked, referring to the chicken fat traditionally
used in the dough. "Seltzer? How about an onion?"
None of the above, he admitted sheepishly. But he did have some dark greenish duck fat
rendered from the duck stock he’d made the night before, which would serve as the base for my soup.
have the recipe I always use, the one that had been handed down from my great grandmother to my grandmother to my mother to
me. But that was the least of my challenges. Matt’s kitchen wasn’t even equipped with measuring cups or spoons.
a recipe, several key ingredients, or much of the necessary equipment, I simply would have to improvise. No matter. We had
matzah meal and eggs. And using the duck fat, baking powder to add leavening, and onion powder in place of the onions I usually
use to infuse flavor, I did my best to create a mixture with the right basic consistency.
And to my relief, the balls I made puffed right up and
floated to the top of the pot.
Meanwhile, Allegra whipped up a luscious noodle kugel topped with toasted
almonds, with JP serving as sous chef.
chopped duck liver that Matt had prepared and served with matzah may not have been quite kosher.
Neither was the mammoth brisket that he slow-roasted on a gas grill, nor his tsimmes, created from carrots,
purple Chinese sweet potatoes, and plump red dates, exactly what Grandma used to make.
we consumed it all at a table on the rooftop of Matt's building, by the light of the moon and those white tapers that I’d
brought, which we anchored into two empty beer bottles in lieu of candlesticks. And as the five of us sang the blessings over
the candles, wine, and bread, I would honestly say that I'd never felt closer to G-d... or home.
week: Our Asian adventures continue in Beijing and beyond.
Thursday, September 18, 2014
Word From the Weiss
For months now, I’ve been alluding to the big trip I will be taking to visit
my daughter in Hong Kong. Well, it’s time for the alluding to be over. Let the eluding begin!
That is to say, my husband and I are
about to embark on a three-week trip to Asia. In addition to spending time with Allegra, who is singing at the Hong Kong Four
Seasons for seven months, we’ll also travel to Beijing and Bangkok and a Thai beach. And as much as I would love to
take you along for the ride, the fact is that I’m anxious about schlepping my computer on such an elaborate
journey. This also may be the only time I ever get to visit these distant destinations, and I don’t want to sit in a
hotel room writing when I could be out climbing the Great Wall or devouring dim sum or pad thai.
This is my way of saying that I have no intention of breaking up with you, but I’m about to take a break for three
full weeks. I hope you won’t forget me while I’m gone.
With that in mind, let me assure you that I will
be back in mid-October with exciting new adventures. Not only will I be hanging out with my daughter in many exotic locales,
but we’ll be observing Rosh Hashanah in Hong Kong and then Yom Kippur in Bangkok. How cool (albeit unorthodox) is that?
And if you actually find that you miss me that much (as if!), feel free to “friend” me on Facebook, where
I’m sure I will be posting plenty of pictures as Patricia Weiss Levy.
Yet whether or not you miss me, I promise that I will genuinely miss you. Then again, I cannot tell a lie. It may be
a great relief to take this much-needed respite. As of this week, I've been writing in this space for four years and have
only taken off two weeks in a row once, when we went on our last real family vacation to Italy three years ago.
What I have never taken (since I was
a zaftig teen, anyway) was a three-week trip. Seems impossibly extravagant, doesn't it? It’s
just that after taking a 16-hour flight, I feel we should get our money’s worth and see as much of Allegra and another
continent as we can.
Still, I must admit that I’m feeling a little guilty about leaving all of you behind, especially during the High
Holy Days. (Shouldn’t I be home posting tips about making kugel and brisket?) But what I’m really feeling guilty
about (nice Jewish mom that I am) is leaving behind our dog. You know where I’m going and that we will be back
soon. How do I explain that to Latke?
Never fear, however. She will be having a vacation of her own with her many
friends at Wags, her favorite puppy “playcare” center. Also, just before leaving, we treated her to an extra special
day on which I can safely say she had the time of her life.
Our local JCC swim club was once again hosting a Doggie Funday, held after the facilities closed for the summer, but
just before they drained the pools.
When Latke attended this illustrious event last year, she not only had a total blast
diving in and out of the kiddie pool with reckless abandon, but also entered the talent competition, in which, to our amazement,
she managed to clinch third place.
Although she thoroughly impressed the judges with her ability to leap over a stick, I doubted that reproducing the same
trick a year later would produce the same results. So the moment that we decided to attend again, I began wracking my brain
for a new stunt.
They say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but at 2½ Latke is far from
old. As a Portuguese Water Dog, she’s also pretty sharp as canines go. However, we’d spent much of last summer
perfecting her jumping skills. With only a few weeks left, we might not want to stick with the stick, but she’s still
a dog. We couldn’t be too ambitious.
My first impulse was to attempt that oldie but goodie, getting Rover
to roll over. Detailed instructions that I found online indicated that this could be achieved by holding a fragrant treat
by her ear while she was lying down and getting her to follow the scent. When that didn’t work, I tried manually rolling
her over. Gravity and growling intervened.
A clerk at the pet supplies store suggested getting her to stand
on her hind legs and pirouette by holding a treat above her head. Latke was very interested in the treat. Spinning, though?
Not so much. She’d balance for a few seconds on her toes before planting her paws painfully on my stomach. Sharp as
she is, a ballerina she’ll never be.
As a last resort, I tried capitalizing on a novel skill that Latke already possessed. For years, we have been playing
a sort of three-card Monte game in which I conceal a treat in one of my hands, hold them both closed, palm down, in front
of her and get her to choose which one it’s in. She is pretty good at this feat, but let’s face it – it’s
not all that impressive. She hits one hand with her paw, and if she doesn’t get it on the first try, then she always
does the second time around because there’s only one other choice.
What would make the trick more impressive was if she could get it right every time (which seemed possible if I resorted
to using VERY SMELLY treats). Better yet, what if I could teach her to know her left from her right? Or at least appear to
know her left from her right?
We worked on this for awhile, with me exclaiming “Left!” and looking pointedly
toward my left hand, then doing the same thing with the right. Any luck? Yeah, right! Latke was happy to keep practicing, but it remained
a clear case of hit or miss. Maybe it was time to give up and simply stick with the stick.
The day before the big day, with none
of her new skills quite ready for prime time, we came up with a final inspiration. We went to the store to buy a Hula Hoop.
I figured she could jump through that as easily as she could leap over a stick, but it would look like it was something new.
We bought a very impressive lemon yellow hoop with bright pink plastic doohickies that lit up on contact. Latke took one look
at this and ran the other way.
Until, that is, her bff Zoey came over. Zoey, at about 6 months, may be only a puppy, and less than half of Latke’s
size at that, but she took one look at the treat we were brandishing on the other side of the hoop and stepped bravely through.
And not to be outdone in the treat department, so instantly did Latke.
They practiced this new prowess until it was perfected and we were out of treats.
The next morning, before leaving for
the JCC, I dressed Latke in her costume, a shocking pink feathered boa I had found in my daughter’s closet. This may
sound a little over-the-top as dogwear goes. But it was so light that she didn’t notice it, and even smiled for the
Then I took her into the yard to practice jumping through the hoop one last time. She took one look at it and ran again.
We were back to square one.
With only minutes left to prepare, we couldn’t begin to teach her a new trick
now. The best we could do, we figured, was demonstrate all of her half-baked skills hoping that one would work.
My husband came up with a clever name for this circus act: Cirque de Lat-Kay. I quickly fashioned a sign on my computer,
adding a pretty pink tulle bow. We were off!
Before you cast any aspersions about my trying to get my dog to perform,
let me just mention that under most circumstances, I am far from a competitive person. No, it’s beyond that. I am probably
just about the least competitive person you know.
Growing up in a family of fiercely competitive people, I quickly
learned when I was young that I was never going to win and set about learning instead to lose graciously.
As time went on, I began to realize
that other people enjoyed winning so much more than I did that it was in everyone’s best interest that I lose. So the
real challenge for me became to lose not just graciously but deliberately without making it too obvious.
So when it came to Latke winning or
losing, I didn’t care because she wouldn’t care. The person who would care was my husband, and I wanted
to try for his benefit.
Besides, in the end, win or lose, it is always much more fun to participate than just
sit and watch.
The moment that we arrived, we discovered that there was once again a whole lot of participating to do.
Dozens of dogs and their owners had
gathered for the fun and games in store.
First, everyone lined up for the doggie dash, a nearly 2-mile, on-leash walk-run around the property.
this was pretty cool, but after it was iver she was all ready to cool off. One look at the adult swimming pool and she took
a sudden leap in, only to think better of it and scramble out with a whole lot of tugging from us.
Then I did my best to dry her off because the talent show was about to begin.
A black and white dog named Phred (yes, Fred with a Ph, “just to be different”) impressed everyone by catching
a Frisbee (or was it a Phrisbee?).
A dinosaur of a dog named Daisy perched on her hind legs to retrieve a treat (although
the most notable part of the act was her sheer height, which exceeded that of her young owner).
Latke watched intently as her next competitor, who looked a lot like her, simply sat and gave his or her paw.
Then it was our turn up at bat. My
husband donned a wizard’s hat I had brought while I held up our nifty sign for all present to see.
Latke balanced on her hind legs just long enough to snatch a treat without leaning on me, which looked somehow much
more impressive performed with that pink boa on.
Then she leapt over her good old stick in both directions before
catching a bright pink ball that lit up in her mouth.
Dare we even try for the grand finale? Nothing ventured, nothing
gained. We held up the hoop. I proffered a treat. She didn’t leap, but didn’t run either. Dogs are nothing if
not natural performers. Egged on by an appreciative audience, Latke stepped through. One small step for a previously skittish
dog. One giant leap for canine-kind!
Raucous applause ensued.
Next up, unfortunately, was Charlie, a little spaniel who had come in first last year.
Last year, all Charlie had done, as
far as I can recall, was a whole lot of standard dog stuff like sitting and giving his paw. The secret weapon in his act was
his pint-sized owner, who looked too damn adorable to settle for second-best.
This year, that owner had grown a
bit. But so had Charlie’s repertoire. He sat. He gave a paw. He went down on all fours. And then, with stunning aplomb,
he rolled over.
It took the judges only moments to come to a decision.
Charlie, no surprise, nabbed first
But then – big surprise – Latke came in second!
Our prize was merely a certificate bearing her
name. Still, victory was sweet.
Maybe losing, however graciously, isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be –
in my book, anyway – after all.
Although I knew we had already garnered our share of recognition for the day, I still entered Latke in the costume contest,
requiring us to parade around in a circle with the other pets who had dressed for the occasion. As glam as Latke looked still sporting her flaming pink boa, there were many
other worthy contenders, including one of the saddest clowns I’ve ever seen and Charlie, our arch rival, who looked
awfully cute all dolled up in his itsy bitsy sailor suit.
First prize, however, went to the dog in the football jersey, with an owner to match. Together, they made a great team. Touchdown!
The next event – dog who looked most like its owner – was one contest for which I was content to sit out
and watch. But others were less proud and I must say the winners made quite a spectacle of themselves. Almost literally.
I let Latke take off her fine feathered regalia for the next competition, a race through an obstacle course, for which
she made a good enough showing to come in fourth place.
But soon enough it was time to do what we’d really come for all along – not to win. To jump in! All summer
long, I had felt guilty every single time that we had gone to the club for a swim on a hot, sunny day and left poor Latke
languishing inside at home. Now was her moment to make up for lost time.
Last year, it had taken a ball tossed into the water to get her to dive in. This time, she needed no props, nor encouragement.
There were countless other hounds already having a blast in the water and she eagerly joined the wet and wild throng.
So, however, did several children
present, who didn’t quite get the idea that the kiddie pool had been taken over by other bathers for the day. Diving
in with dogs may be even more exhilarating than swimming with, say, dolphins, but I hope that these youngsters’ mothers
hosed them down afterwards. After seeing many a dog squat in the water (including my own, I must confess) I can assure you
that I bathed Latke.
But first she got to swim her fill and then some, and by the time we left we had one very wet, waterlogged, yet thoroughly
satisfied pooch. And the knowledge that we now had a full year to pick, learn and perchance perfect another talent for her
bag of tricks.
Assuming that they hold the event again, in which case you know we will be there.
Here, for those who may not get it, is the great thing about dogs. Sure, they’ll jump through hoops for you (or
at the very least walk reluctantly through them). But far better is how boundlessly they love you, even if you only take them
swimming once a year. They erupt in full-blown ecstasy whenever you just return from taking out the garbage. Can you imagine
how Latke will react when we return from Asia after three long weeks?
Right now, it’s a little hard to imagine leaving her behind for so long. But that’s a small price to pay
for getting to see my daughter’s face for first time in three months.
And I know somehow that Latke will
forgive me for going. I hope you will too. See you after September. After Columbus Day that is. Don’t forget
to check back then.
Until then, happy new year!
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
A Word From the Weiss
Sorry that I posted so late (yet again!), but thanks to Labor Day it was a very
short week last week, and I’ve been laboring frantically ever since just trying to catch up.
The best thing about Labor Day, if
you ask me, is that you don’t – labor, that is. The closest thing I did to work all that weekend –
beyond swimming languorous laps in the local JCC pool – was to prepare an epic end-of-summer feast including grilled
salmon, chicken, corn on the cob, and some succulent trayf that I’d prefer not to name.
Yet the fact is that along with a national holiday that celebrates work by avoiding it, the past two weeks have included
two other major events that obliged me to plead for time off from that triumvirate of taskmasters for whom I work –
me, myself, and I.
The first was the anniversary of the
birth of my firstborn child. You might think that our son Aidan would have better things to do on his 28th birthday than hanging
out with his poor old nice Jewish mom and dad. We assumed that too. But the birthday fell midweek, and he preferred to celebrate
with his friends at a jazz club the following Saturday night.
Besides, he has never been much of a party animal, particularly when it comes to his own birthday. Sure, I threw some
pretty elaborate festivities in his honor back when he was a kid, notably including an X-Men-themed party when he turned 8
and a soccer match (for which I tie-dyed t-shirts for all his friends) the year that he turned 9.
But he now far prefers to keep things low-key. Modest and unassuming to the max, he hates to toot his own horn and hesitates
to ever make himself the center of attention. A few years ago, when someone asked him what he’d been up to lately,
I heard him reply, “Not much.” That wasn’t true then and could not be further from the truth now.
Let me tell you about some of the “not much” that he’s up to these days (since as his
supremely proud nice Jewish mom, I am a little less reticent about it). He just began his Ph. D in English at Columbia University
last week, even though he’s busy writing a book, a biography of musician Lou Reed, which is due to his publisher
in November. He’s also an active jazz journalist on staff at both The Village Voice and JazzTimes
magazine, still works occasionally in his “spare time” as a stagehand in TV and film, and continues to play a
weekly gig in a Big Band Era swing band at a nightclub in New York.
Yet he somehow still found time to go out to dinner
with us on his actual big day.
Given that the occasion fell on a Wednesday, the same night as Aidan’s weekly gig, we decided to stay overnight
and go hear him play afterwards. The awful truth is that we hadn’t been there in over a year, which made me feel awfully
guilty. It’s just that Wednesday nights are awfully tough because my husband still has a regular job, we live over two
hours away from NYC, and the gig runs extremely late, from 8:45 to 11:45 p.m.
But first we met Aidan and his girlfriend Kaitlin at Becco, a bustling Italian eatery a few doors down from the club
on West 46th Street. We love this place largely because it has a nightly special that is among the best deals in town. Called
Sinfonia di Paste, it includes a choice of a phenomenal Caesar salad or mixed antipasto appetizer, followed by unlimited servings
of three different pastas of the day – that is, all you can eat for a very reasonable $22.95.
All three pastas that day were scrumptious, as always, and after we’d eaten all that we could eat, I suggested
that we order a dessert with a candle so we could sing to Aidan. He adamantly declined, having truly eaten his fill…
until, that is, I readily agreed, proposing that we save the dessert and singing for later at the club instead. That made
his cheeks grow ruddier than the marinara sauce on the linguini we had just devoured.
“I don’t want anyone at the club to know that it’s my birthday!” he declared. (Big surprise.)
So rather than deprive a nice Jewish mom of singing to her son, he succumbed to a slice of chocolate mousse cake served with
a loud and hearty serenade from half the Becco wait staff. (Not exactly low-key.)
As stirring as that may have been, I must confess
to one maudlin moment. My daughter Allegra called from Hong Kong via FaceTime to wish her brother a
happy birthday, which let us see her and her see us. I had already been beyond sad to have her miss a big family
occasion, but imagining how she must have felt to glimpse her whole family sitting around the table celebrating
without her was unbearable. So I'm sorry to confess that I completely lost it and (despite Aidan's attempt to head me
off at the pass by entreating "Don't cry Mom!") my eyes unleashed a flash flood.
But then, for his sake, I managed to pull myself together. Besides, it was time for presents.
The truth was that we already had made him go buy his own gift earlier in the
week. He’d desperately needed a new computer to start his six-year program at school, and it seemed more prudent to
let him go pick one out himself than for us to presume to choose it for him.
To me, though, buying him something so utilitarian -- albeit from Apple, and no matter how pricey -- smacked
of the days when my parents would give my brother and me new socks, mittens, and PJ’s for Chanukah. How much fun is
So I surprised him with a few unexpected tchotchkes, including a nifty new speaker to amplify
the music that he’ll listen to on his new MacBook Pro. Useful? Yes. But also fun.
Then it was time to rush over to the
club in time for the performance to begin.
Swing 46, on West 46th Street between 8th and 9th avenues, is a jazz and supper club in the center of the theater district
with live music seven nights a week. Aidan plays the bari saxophone there as part of the Stan Rubin Orchestra, a.k.a. SRO,
a 16-piece combo that performs jazz standards in the style of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. If you are looking for
an authentic swinging throwback to better days gone by, Stan is your man. He and his troupe have been on the music
scene long enough to have played at Grace Kelly’s wedding in 1956.
Despite Aidan's desire to keep things low-key, Kaitlin had invited several of their friends to join us, including
two of Aidan’s former college roommates. It seemed a little sad and unfair that we got to socialize with the birthday
boy’s friends for hours while he labored onstage. But the fact is that, as much as Aidan hates to toot his own horn,
he loves to play it – his saxophone, that is. And at least he was able to join us for two long breaks.
What he was not able to do was join
us on the dance floor, on which we managed to thoroughly embarrass ourselves, despite any skills we managed to glean during
the club’s nightly swing-dancing lesson. So my husband decided to horn in on Aidan’s act by dragging Kaitlin out
on the dance floor once or twice. Talk about embarrassing!
Then suddenly, to my surprise and delight, the band launched into a jazzy rendition of "Happy Birthday."
But it turned out that they were just singing to a patron who was there celebrating her own special day. Aidan, as planned,
told no one about his own simcha.
So the most memorable moment of the evening occurred when the band’s longtime singer, Lynn McCune, took the stage
to croon several jazzy numbers. She always performs with such passion and verve, swiveling her hips sassily as she sings,
that as she passed me after taking a bow, I congratulated her by declaring awkwardly, “You’ve still got it!”
I realized as I said this that it was a pretty lame and corny thing to say. But it was not nearly as corny or lame as
what my husband thought I’d said. Hearing loss runs in his family, and at 70 he has more than his share of
it. (Once, when I called upstairs to ask him if he had any laundry, explaining that I was washing reds, he replied, “Fred?
But his hearing issues are particularly challenging in a loud room, and between the music and the din of the crowd,
this place was really LOUD. So after Lynn passed, he asked me to repeat what I had said to her, explaining that what he thought
I’d said was, “You go, goddess!”
Ever since then, he has continued to cheer me on with that bizarre exclamation whenever it remotely applies.
Which brings me to the other major
event that made me abandon my usual labors.
I have written about it in this space before, and I’ve been
there far more often than I’ve written about it. But the antiques and collectibles show in Brimfield, Massachusetts,
was on last week, and two unusual things happened there that made this Brimfield like no other Brimfields.
This lively event, which bills itself as the largest outdoor antiques show in the country, is held three times a year,
for six days at a pop, in May, July, and September. My cousin and I go there at least once each summer, but this year she
convinced me to go all three times, which I must confess didn’t require a whole lot of arm twisting.
Of course, there is never anything that we really need. Until we see it, that is. With over 5,000 dealers from throughout
the U.S., we’re guaranteed to spy countless things so compelling that once we see them we can no longer live
Adding to that sense of must-have-or-I’ll-die is that most of the prices are far from high, and nearly all are
extremely negotiable. If you pay full price, then you are a fool. For those who like to hondel (Yiddish for “haggle”),
this is a bargain-hunter’s heaven.
This time around, I seemed to come across more gotta-haves than I ever have. These included a lovely antique Lusterware
plate (marked $8 but for which I only paid $6), and a Noritake bowl featuring swans on a lake, marked $12 but surrendered
for only $9.
Then there was the orange polka dot teapot (also marked $8 but relinquished for $6) and a glass condiment bowl with
a glass-bead border that was priced at $10 but I got for only $7 because I “bundled it” with the matching glass goblet and serving platter. (The more you buy at any booth, the more willing the merchant is to give you a
Our greatest score, no doubt, was at a booth stocking vintage clothing and jewelry, from which I walked away with three
pairs of earrings, two pins, and two necklaces – including this black and white “statement necklace” –
for a measly 30 bucks all told.
But my sense of buyer’s euphoria over all this booty would soon enough go bust.
I was killing time in another tent while my cousin haggled over a lamp when I happened to glance down at a table and
see some items that made me recoil in horror.
There, arranged neatly in a shallow glass case, was a collection
of German World War II medals, Hitler figurines, and other such memorabilia embellished with swastikas.
Although I’ve seen them in books
and newsreels, I’d never seen one up close.
“Let’s go!” I barked sharply to my cousin, interrupting
her chat with the merchant.
“O…K.,” she agreed reluctantly, clearly mystified.
“Now!” I added, punctuating
my initial overture with a clearly urgent command.
“Did I do something?” the merchant asked, bewildered
to see us beat so hasty a retreat.
I merely glared back, so shocked by the gruesome sight that I could barely
speak. “Yes, you did,” I finally managed to mutter back almost under my breath.
“Am I allowed to know what it
is?” he persisted.
We were 10 yards away by the time I turned back in his direction to answer. “You’re
selling Nazi memorabilia?” I cried. “Seriously? That’s… that’s disgusting!”
The vendor, a disheveled older man with wispy white hair and matching stubble on his cheeks, simply shrugged. “Hey,
just ’cuz I sell it doesn’t mean that I agree with it,” he replied defensively. “But there’s
a market for the stuff. Why not keep an open mind?”
“An open mind?” I shouted back over my shoulder. “Really?
Are you kidding me? Have you ever heard of the Holocaust?”
How dare he tell me to keep an open mind? Was he out
of his mind?!? Six million Jews and many people of other faiths were brutally murdered during the Holocaust. This
is not the sort of thing that should be commemorated with knickknacks. And even if there are sick people out there
who collect such items, that doesn't make it perfectly fine to display them in places where nice, well-meaning people will
casually encounter them.
Perhaps I should have stayed and tried to explain how deeply offensive this was. But
what was the point? He wasn’t going to change his business to accommodate me.
At the same time, I began to think,
how entitled was I to my righteous indignation? Yes, it was despicable for anyone to try to make a profit by trading in Nazi
On the other hand, there were many more booths there offering Civil War mementos. This included a large wooden sign
emblazoned “AMPUTATIONS.” (Who in G-d’s name would actually buy that?) But there was also no shortage of
Aunt Jemima figurines. I saw many of them that day, along with a copy of the children’s book Little Black Sambo.
Aren’t these things similarly offensive, commemorating slavery as though it were an institution to be remembered
fondly and even used to decorate one’s house?
Clearly, there’s a market for these, too. Of course, I would never consider buying one. And yet when I saw them,
as uncomfortable as I felt, I said nothing. I simply cringed silently inside and walked away.
But who cares if there’s a market
for all of these items? There’s a market for drugs. Does that make it OK to sell them?
Selling Nazi and slavery memorabilia
may not be against the law. But what sorts of people have such low morals that they’re willing to profit from trading
It was so upsetting that it sucked the joy out of the entire experience for me. But it would be eight more
months before Brimfield resumed again. And we'd driven over an hour to get there. So we didn’t leave.
Instead, we proceeded to remain on
the prowl for more (and more innocuous) treasures. And minutes later, I happened upon one that made up for my earlier distress.
My husband always enjoys seeing my finds when I return from these excursions, but none of the tchotchkes I’d
bought so far were truly for him. I wanted to return with some small gift. So I stopped into a tent that I often frequent
which stocks men’s shirts.
Well, not just any men’s shirts. Hawaiian shirts. Loud, colorful Hawaiian shirts. My husband actually likes these
things, and so do I. The louder the better, if you ask us.
The last time I’d been to Brimfield, I’d bought one for him and another for Aidan. They both seemed to be
enjoying these items so much that I wanted to buy some more.
Typical of transactions at Brimfield, the vendor
– an affable fellow with a white ponytail named Gary – said that the three shirts I selected cost $15 each, but
if I took all three I could have them for $30. I didn’t really need three, but it was an offer too good to refuse.
This particular vendor also sells t-shirts, records, and other music memorabilia. After paying, I saw some other customers
leafing through a large album of rock posters. And to my amazement, there on one of the pages was a vintage 1986 poster featuring
“Wait! I need that!” I exclaimed, not even waiting to ask the price, which turned out to be
a mere $15 (evidently the magic number at that booth).
As the vendor wrapped it, I explained that my son was writing a book about Reed.
He replied that not only was he a
longtime fan of the late musician, but one of his best friends had been the manager of The Boston Tea Party, a historic club
in Boston at which Reed’s original band, The Velvet Underground, had often played back in the ’60s.
Aidan had been telling me that he
needed more information about “The Velvets,” but had been unable to contact anyone intimately involved with the
I asked the man if his friend might be willing to be interviewed for the book. He was confident that he
would, adding that he and his friend knew everything about the band. Or as he put it, rather graphically, “We can tell
you about every time that a Velvet peed and where he did it.”
I instantly phoned Aidan to pass on the news and the man’s contact information. And I’m happy to report
that they connected, Aidan got to speak to the friend, and it was a great interview.
Talk about must-have experiences!
I would say without reservation that in all my years at Brimfield, this may turn out to be my greatest find ever, and it didn’t
cost me a cent (beyond the 30 bucks that I shelled out for three very loud and very colorful shirts).
I also would wager that this may prove
to be my best gift to Aidan of all… not that I can claim to have been clever to find it. For in the end, it was really
a matter of beshert (meant to be).
Meanwhile, still stewing about my earlier experience, I finally wrote
to the man in charge of Brimfield telling him about my close encounters with relics of the Third Reich.
“As a Jew, I was genuinely sickened by
the sight,” I told him. “But I don't think you need to be Jewish to object to the Nazi Party being treated as
a subject for nostalgia. There are plenty of events in history that belong on our shelves because they remind us
of better days gone by. Genocide should not be among them.”
I urged him to establish rules restricting what vendors may exhibit there, assuming that such guidelines don’t
exist already. After all, there were limits to what should be acceptable, I argued, especially at such a wonderful and welcoming
place as Brimfield.
“I don't recall ever seeing sexually explicit merchandise there,” I observed. “I
find Nazi memorabilia to be far more obscene. I don't care if someone will buy it. It doesn't belong there, and
that doesn't make selling it right.”
I don’t know if he will respond, or if my remarks
will have any influence. But I feel better to have tried. At the very least, it is always worth the effort to stand up for
your beliefs. Or as my husband would say, “You go, goddess!”
Friday, August 29, 2014
Word From the Weiss
Common wisdom tells us that we should live every day as though it were
our last. For the past week or so, I’ve been trying to live every day as though it were the last day of summer.
That means fitting in final swims, backyard barbecues, dining al fresco, and everything else that I coulda-woulda-shoulda
done since Memorial Day.
But let’s face it. Instead of luxuriating in the last gasp of summer’s warmth, I’ve found myself weighed
down by the annual back-to-school blues. The crazy part is that I’m not even going back to school. It’s just that
almost everyone else I know is, from good friends who teach to my son Aidan, who began his Ph.D. at Columbia this week, leaving
them less available to hang out with me… until school lets out again nine months from now.
Then again, there was
one recent day that I actually returned to the halls of academia, however briefly, myself.
It all began with an email from my friend Roxanna, who is involved with the Women’s Leadership Council at the
United Way. In it, she asked if I was available to help her and her daughter Scarlett create literacy kits for young
children at a local magnet school the following Monday morning.
That is, was I willing to help kids get
hooked on books? How in good conscience could I refuse? So I promptly clicked the link that read “Register here.”
And then, life being as busy as it is, even in summer, I promptly forgot all about it.
Until the following Monday morning,
that is. Having been away for a hectic weekend, I lingered lazily in bed leafing through my interminable stream
of junk email on my phone. Then, still too groggy to start the day, I turned my attention to Facebook.
That’s when I saw that Roxanna,
an avid poster on FB, was already at the school.
The event had begun at 8:30 a.m. It was already
past that. But I didn’t dare punk out. Instead, I sprang into action, throwing on clothes and shrieking at my husband
that I had no time to walk the dog. No time for breakfast or coffee either. By 9, I was in the car.
Too rushed to have looked up the
address of the school, I simply consulted Siri. “Directions to the Dwight-Bellizzi School!” I bellowed.
“Sorry, I cannot provide maps and directions in Belize!” she chirped back.
Argh! I decided to try, try again.
“Directions to Dwight-Bellizzi School!” I repeated, enunciating every single syllable.
“I could not find any places
matching Dwight Believes Me School!” she replied.
School!" I corrected.
It was no use. "I could not find any places matching "Tweit bellies
So I went to Maps on my iPhone, typed in the name of the school, and hit “Start.”
The step-by-step directions that
ensued sent me through an area glutted with both rush-hour traffic and heavy construction delays. The trip had been
estimated to take 21 minutes, but 21 minutes later I was only halfway through town.
Eventually, I reached the highway,
and the cheery voice on my phone directed me to get off after several exits, then take a long series of twists and turns before
it deposited me halfway down a road called School Street, whereupon it informed me that I had arrived at my destination.
My destination? I was in a manufacturing company's parking lot in the wrong town.
At this point, I frantically Googled
the actual address of the school and learned that I was still 21 minutes away. It was now past 9:30. The event had begun an
hour earlier. All I really wanted was a cup of coffee. And a bagel. Was there any point in proceeding?
“Who is the idiot here?”
I began to wonder. (Don’t answer that.) I also wondered if I had the chutzpah to show up so egregiously late.
One thing I am not is a quitter, however. I’m just a nice Jewish mom. And to not show up after agreeing to help would
not be nice.
So I rerouted myself again and, as they say, the third time was the charm. I arrived at the Dwight-Belizzi Asian Studies
Academy at 10, only to realize that it was indeed only 20 minutes from my house, never mind that I’d already spent an
hour in the car.
Never mind also that I was now 90 minutes late for a three-hour event. The principal of the school greeted
me warmly out front and personally escorted me to the cafeteria.
Inside, dozens of women, most of them dressed in white t-shirts emblazoned “LIVE UNITED,” were seated at
long tables busy at work. I quickly spied Roxanna and wondered if I should dare go greet her. Wouldn’t this just point
out how late I was?
Better late than never, as they say. But before I could approach her or even consider grabbing a cup of
coffee and a bagel (both of which were in abundance, to my delight), a nice woman named Laura rushed over to find me a seat
and explain what the task entailed.
Rather than assembling actual literacy “kits,” we were there to embellish books. Each volunteer was given
two children’s picture books and asked to make 3-D decorations to insert throughout to enhance the illustrations. This
would help bring the book to life by literally letting the story pop off the page and make reading more fun.
“Are you a creative person?”
Hmmm. How should I answer that?
After my daughter chose “Bat Mitzvah on Broadway” as her party theme when she turned 13, I made all the
elaborate centerpieces for the tables myself using posters from assorted Broadway musicals. I also wrote a song for her to
perform at the party, fashioned place cards in the form of theater tickets, handmade the sign-in board and party favors, and
printed all the invitations at home, tying each with a gold satin bow.
More recently, I made all the party favors, invitations, etc. for my husbands 70th birthday. I’ve also given
up on finding greeting cards that suit my needs and begun creating them myself using a computer program from American Greetings.
A professional artist I am definitely not. But there’s nothing I enjoy more than turning almost everything, short
of doing the laundry, into an imaginative art project.
“Creative enough,” I said.
So she handed me a pair of books, then indicated the collection of colorful paper, pompoms, and other materials scattered
on a nearby table and told me to help myself.
I turned my attention to the first book, The Snowy Day,
written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. I’d never seen it before, but later learned that it was a 1962 children’s
classic, with illustrations that had earned him the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1963.
Keats, I also later learned, had actually been born Jacob Ezra Katz and raised in Brooklyn, the third child
of Benjamin and Gussie Katz, a pair of poor Polish Jews.
His book focused on a boy
named Peter exploring his neighborhood after the first snowfall of the winter. The inspiration for it, according to Wikipedia,
had come “from a Life magazine photo article from 1940, and Keats' desire to have minority children of New
York as central characters in his stories,” something that previously had been rare. In fact, during the Civil Rights
Movement, the book apparently had been banned in many schools.
Peter appears in six more of Keats’ 22 books, but this was the first one that he had both written and illustrated
himself, unleashing his full creative potential. The result? The book remains so popular that in 2012, 50 years after its
debut, it came in fifth on a list of the top 100 picture books of all time in a poll conducted by School Library Journal.
“One winter morning, Peter woke up and looked out the window,” it begins. “Snow had fallen
down the night before. It covered everything as far as he could see.”
It felt a little anachronistic to be looking at snow before Labor Day. Then
again, I figured it would be a
snap to embellish simply by adding a variety of paper snowflakes to almost every page. So I helped myself to glue and white
paper in a variety of weights, seized a pair of scissors, and began snipping away.
It had been quite some time since I had made a paper snowflake, however. Decades, no doubt. And sadly, this turned out
not to be one of those riding-a-bicycle things. You know, the kind of skill that just comes back to you like magic.
To my best recollection, in order
to get a flake to have six matching sides you needed to fold a piece of paper three times and then snip some of
it away. Well, the best I can say for my feeble attempts is that no two examples of my artistry looked exactly alike. But
this was all kind of impromptu. (If my daughter had chosen a snowy bat mitzvah theme, say, "Bat Mitzvah on
Mt. Everest," I would've figured it out.)
I fared far better as the story developed. At one point, Peter, the pint-sized protagonist, realizes
that he is too young to engage in a snowball fight with the bigger boys, so he contents himself making a smiling snowman.
And so did I. (Mine had a carrot nose, stick-figure arms held akimbo, and a jaunty black hat.)
Later, “he picked up a handful of snow, and another, and still another, packed it round and firm, and put the
snowball in his pocket for tomorrow, then went into his warm house.” I had little trouble fashioning an actual tiny
pocket out of bright red felt -- a pocket that poor Peter would later be dismayed to find empty -- simulating stiches with a
black magic marker.
Best of all, perhaps, was the scene in which Peter soaks in the tub while thinking
about his many adventures. The rubber ducky I glued on was thinking about snow, too.
And while Peter and the rubber ducky thought about snow, I began to think about something else.
I suddenly remembered a children’s
book that I had written nearly 20 years ago, back when my daughter Allegra, who is now 24, was still in kindergarten.
It wasn’t exactly a storybook
like this one. Neither was it destined to be a children’s classic because I never even made any attempt to get it published.
But thinking about that now filled me with regret. For I originally had written it just to entertain Allegra, but then, like
Keats, or Katz, had decided to use the project in part as a way to include children whose ethnicities were too rarely encountered
in your typical children’s book.
At the time, Allegra was attending a public school with an extremely
diverse student body. And when I went to read it to her class, I inserted the names of each of her 25 classmates.
A takeoff on the classic children’s
rhyme, “Mary had a little lamb,” my book had 26 variations on that theme, some of which I endeavored to illustrate
myself as well. As you can see, none of these were close to Caldecott Award material. Oh, well. I tried.
We all know that singsong verse
from the time that we can talk:
Mary had a little lamb
Whose fleece was white
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.
But there are plenty of other things beyond snow that are white. Just think about it…
Allegra had a little lamb
Whose fleece was white
And everywhere Allegra went
The lamb took a shower.
Daniel had a little lamb
Whose fleece was white as a cloud
And everywhere that Daniel went
The lamb got lost in the crowd.
Luis had a little lamb
Whose fleece was white as soap
And everywhere that Luis
The lamb jumped rope.
Mariah had a little lamb
Whose fleece was white as a ghost
And everywhere Mariah went
The lamb would order toast.
Caleb had a little lamb
Whose fleece was white
as a sail
And everywhere that Caleb went
The lamb wound up in jail.
Mei had a little lamb
Whose fleece was white as rice
And everywhere that Mei went
The lamb would skate on ice.
Quiana had a little lamb whose
Fleece was white as a sneaker
And everywhere Quiana
The lamb would hide and
There were almost endless
possibilities. Well, if not endless, then enough white stuff for every letter of the alphabet, from milk and eggs to teeth,
a bone, and a bride.
My favorite, however, was the final rhyme.
Zachary had a little lamb
Whose fleece was white as a dove
And everywhere that Zachary went
The lamb fell in love.
As I recall, the children to whom I read it seemed thoroughly entertained, in part because they were hearing their friends’
names included in a book. But mostly because in one case I was only able to come up with a single potential rhyme.
Ryan had a little lamb
Whose fleece was white
And everywhere that Ryan
The lamb had a booger.
Sorry! I left out salt because all I could think of to rhyme with that was “Oy, gevalt!” But honestly,
how could I possibly leave out sugar? (And if you can think of anything else to rhyme with that, then email me now or forever
hold your peace.)
Anyway, whether the lamb’s fleece was as white as a tooth or cream or snow, it was time for me to
go turn my attention back to The Snowy Day. For as a Johnny come lately (or nice Jewish mom running on Jewish time
and then some), I was way behind the rest of the pack. By 11, everyone else had finished adorning both of their allotted volumes
and I was only halfway through my first.
Plus, Roxanna had noticed me at last and come over for a photo op with Scarlett and a woman named Ebony... a photo that
she would soon post – where else? – on Facebook.
So I made a few more rather sad-looking snowflakes
and decided to call it a day.
At least it was a day on which I had done my best to show up, however late, and to
do my bit to promote children’s literacy. (G-d knows what my blog promotes. Being Jewish? Being a mom?)
But after I’d gotten home (which took only 20 minutes), I decided that
gluing some decorations into a single volume hadn’t been nearly enough.
So I wrote to Roxanna and Laura,
who seemed to be in charge of the event, asking if the book I had written so many years ago might be of any possible use.
Perhaps I could go back to that school (now that I know where it is) and read it to some classes, inserting the students’
names. Or perhaps I need to figure out a way to get it published, so that I could donate some copies (and then maybe next
time people can come in and – dare I suggest it? – glue pictures of soap and rope and ghosts and
toast into them).
Who knows? I’ve never published a children’s book and, as creative as
I may or may not be, I’m not convinced that I know how.
In any case, summer’s over. Maybe it’s
time for me to go back to school. Perhaps Tweit bellies E school... if Siri and I can find it.
|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!
|LEVYS! MEET THE LEVYS! WE'RE A MODERN JEWISH FAMILY...
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