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Friday, November 7, 2014

 A Word From the Weiss

Bangkok Grand Palace October 2014.JPG       I can honestly say that I’d wanted to visit Thailand for my entire life, or ever since I first saw the 1956 movie version of The King and I starring the iconically bald Yul Brynner.
        What I cannot honestly say is that it ever even crossed my mind to see what it would be like to spend Yom Kippur there. But my daughter is living in Asia right now, and there was nothing I wanted more than to be with her, especially around the High Holy Days. So my husband and I found ourselves marking the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar in the land of golden idols and pad Thai.The King and I with Yul Brynner.jpg
        We flew there after brief sojourns in Hong Kong and Beijing. Nice Jewish Dad
 had seemed mildly annoyed on this multi-city jaunt when he learned that I had shelled out for private escorts to and from every airport we’d visit. But when we arrived inBangkok airport 2.jpg Bangkok after midnight and the man meant to retrieve us was nowhere in sight, that annoyance turned to seething madness with a side order of rage. By the time we finally found the fellow and were whisked off to our hotel downtown, it was going on 2:30 a.m., and that rage? There was nothing mild about it.
But this feeling soon turned to bewilderment on both our parts as we noticed that the streets were still glutted with traffic and people out partying on a Wednesday night. Was it a national holiday, perhaps?
Nope. No holiday. Just a night. That is to say, pick a night. Any night. It will all be the same. Bangkok, it turns out, is that proverbial destination: the city that never sleeps.Bangkok partiers.JPGBangkok skyline by Harlan Levy.JPG

        Over the next few days, we’d get little shut-eye ourselves as we tried to take in the many wonders and diversions that this ancient yet oh-so-modern metropolis has to offer. Good thing I’d hired another private guide to drive us wherever we wished to go.Our driver Yong.jpg
Our friends Amy and Rich had recommended Yanyong Makepoowadol to us, having engaged him on their own trip to Bangkok in 2009. "Yong" (as he advised us to call him in lieu of that mouthful of syllables) was a taxi driver, but he was happy to become our private escort for 2,800 baht per day. And lest you think that sounds extravagant or hoity-toity, let me point out that this amounted to a measly 85 bucks.Bangkok Reclining Buddha 1.JPG
Starting on the afternoon after we arrived, he drove us to many a temple. And when I say “temple,” I don’t mean anything related to rabbis, cantors, or reading the Torah. We saw sitting Buddhas, standing Buddhas, and the world’s largest reclining Buddha. There were golden Buddhas and also a big green jasper one known as the Emerald Buddha.
        Yes, i
f there’s one thing you can say about Bangkok, it’s that they have a whole lotta Buddha going on!Bangkok Golden Buddha and admirers.JPG
Our first stop was Wat Traimit – the Temple of the Golden Buddha – which houses a 5,500-kilo, solid gold statue of Guess Who that is over 700 years old.
This would be the first place on our trip that we would be obliged to remove our shoes before entering the building – a Thai custom – and it would surely not be the last.Bangkok button.JPG
It would also be the first place that we would discover another Thailand tradition – not one reflecting the country's rich, respectful culture, but rather the booming Thai tourist industry. The moment we arrived, a guy with a camera surreptitiously snapped our photos, and when we exited the temple he proffered two kitschy photo buttons depicting us at the site. This, of course, was not a gift. He wanted 150 Thai baht (about $4.50) for the pair.Bangkok's Grand Palace.JPG
Never mind that we already had taken plenty of selfies while inside. How could I resist?
From there we hastened to the Grand Palace, an immense complex of ornate structures that served as the official residence to the kings of Siam starting in 1782.Harlan and friends at Grand Palace.JPG
To be honest, I can’t tell you too much more about this because Yong – not being a licensed tour guide – declined to take us in and show us around the premises. He merely dropped us off, and we proceeded to spend an hour or two oohing and ahhing at the golden parapet-topped pavilions and doing what everyone else there was  – taking photos of each other mimicking the poses of the various golden idols on guard.Pattie at Grand Palace in Bangkok.JPG
But Yong later did corroborate one key fact that made all the difference in the world to me. He said that this palace probably had been where the real-life events that inspired The King and I had transpired.
        Shall we dance?King and I dancing scene.jpg Shall we dance?
A couple more Buddha sightings and we were all set to sample some of the authentic Thai cuisine I’d been longing to taste. (Although Jews and Chinese food go together as well as lox and bagels, Thai is my hands-down take-out of choice.)
So I am sorry to report that our first glance at a local menu did little to whet our appetites. Although I don’t keep kosher, these dishes were not for the faint of heart (or stomach):
    Bangkok pad Thai.JPG         
 Spicy Raw Fermented Pork Salad
 Fried Fermented Chicken Knuckle
ried Serpent-Head Fish in Sweet and Sour Sauce
Grilled Pork Neck
Thai Papaya Salad with Raw Shrimp
Bangkok Pattie eating dinner.JPG
Yet we still dared to venture beyond the standard pad Thai to sample such delights as Tom Yum soup, green curry chicken, Massaman curry, and stir-fried morning glory (a green leafy vegetable similar toThai iced tea in Bangkok.JPG broccoli rabe). After washing this down with a Thai iced tea, I was ready to praise Buddha!
Although there was plenty more to eat and do in downtown Bangkok, we wanted to explore more of the country and decided to venture outside the city on our second day.Bangkok floating market.JPG
Our first stop with Yong was the famous floating market at Damnoen Saduak, about an hour’s drive south. There we paid around $60 to be conveyed for about two hours through a murky, narrow canal in a small wooden motorboat. On either side, vendors were hawking Thai clothing, figurines, handbags, spices, and other such souvenirs.Damnoen Saduak floating market.JPG
These goods were lined up right alongside the water, so that we could pull up close enough to buy anything to our liking without ever having to leave the boat. Prices, as we'd been told, were a concept as fluid as the waters in which we floated. So I soon found myself hondeling for a small “jade” elephant which was probably just green plastic, a bag full of fragrant, burnt-orange saffron, and a pair of colorful Thai silk scarves with elephant designs. (For the last of these, the merchant wanted 500 baht, or about $15 apiece, but my husband managed to negotiate down to two for that amount.)Bangkok floating market photo we bought.jpg
The excursion also gave us an opportunity to observe the Jewish ritual of Tashlich, customarily performed between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in which you cast bread crumbs into a body of water as a means of symbolically casting away your sins.Chocolate croissant we used for Tashlich.jpg
My husband and I did this as the boat sped along using the only bread product that we had on hand, a small chocolate-filled croissant that I had sinfully filched from breakfast.
Sadly, at our next stop, we already would commit a brand new sin to atone for next year.Feeding the elephant in Bangkok.JPG
All things touristy in Thailand are embellished with images of elephants, but our next destination let us get up close and personal to the real thing. Barely a stone’s throw from the floating market was the Chang Puak Camp, where we were able to not only see many towering, tusk-toothed mammoths, but actually ride on one.
First, we got to feed one of these behemoths a full basket of bananas, which she seized with her bristly, serpentine trunk and Hoovered three or four at a time, peels and all.Bangkok elephant ride.JPG
Then we climbed aboard a small, canopied bench suspended atop another beast’s back while our driver – a tiny Thai man in a red and yellow circus-like uniform – straddled her neck and led us amid palm trees along a series of narrow paved paths.
        This was not the most romantic ride I’ve ever taken, but it was surely the most aromatic. I kept wondering if anyone had ever fallen off… or fainted from the fumes. And when our leathery, lumbering steed plunged neck-deep into a wide, running stream, it was all I could do not to scream.
        Yes, sir, that's my baby.JPG
For a small additional fee, the camp also offered the chance to pose with an adorable baby elephant who was performing tricks in a fenced-in ring. This deal included a second photo op with an even cuter critter, a baby monkey who went bananas upon being placed in what he clearly recognized as a nice Jewish mom’s lap.Baby elephant in Bangkok.JPG
Only later did I learn that riding elephants is extremely inhumane and, as at least one website noted, "should be removed from your bucket list." They are not built to carry people (let alone three at once), and this could potentially damage their spines. They also may be subjected to many forms of abuse at these riding camps (although not necessarily the one that we visited).
I certainly never would have done it if I had known… and it is with more than a little regret that I display photographic evidence of my grave transgression here.Tea for two at the Bangkok Mandarin Oriental.JPG
But I have no regrets about visiting our next venue, the incomparably luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
        This elegant and tranquil haven is widely reputed to be the best hotel in the world. And even if it is not within your budget to stay there (make that a big NOT for us), I had read that it was recommended while in Bangkok to at least stop there for a drink.
Arriving a bit early for cocktails, we opted to forego the special drinks on the menuMandarin Oriental Hotel pastries.JPG (including a Thaijito made with Mekhong rum and fresh lemongrass and lime). Instead, we took a seat in the exquisite lobby and ordered pastries and small silver pots of tea.Macarons at the Mandarin Oriental.JPG
These elegant confections (a mini blueberry cheesecake and Coffee Caramel Nougat Delight) may have been the most delicious things I have ever tasted in my life. Or would that be the Mandarin’s own French macarons, which came in 20 tempting shades and flavors, including mojito, tiramisu, salted caramel, and squid ink, as well as one called Elvis (flavored with the King’s ultimate not-so-secret passion, peanut butter)?
Of course, we were destined to soon go from this feast to famine, for the next day was Yom Kippur. We woke up to grapple with one of those proverbial Jewish dilemmas. No, not pork at half-price. Rather, a free hotel breakfast on a day when you are supposed to fast.
I will not tell you how my husband fared, faced with the obligation to forego the lavish buffet provided each morning at our trendy hotel, The Aloft. But he readily agreed to accompany me to services at the nearest temple, the Chabad House in Sukhumvit.Bangkok Chabad House Pattie.JPG
As in Hong Kong on Rosh Hashanah, we struggled mightily to locate this synagogue, sequestered on a side street far from the main road. But we finally found our way into the sanctuary of the Beth Elisheva Jewish Center, where about 60 men and 18 women (none of whom appeared to be Asian) were already in the midst of a holiday service.
In keeping with Orthodox tradition, the two sexes were separated, with the men seated around the rabbi in front and the women secluded in a balcony up above. It was bad enough that I had to observe the most sacred day of the year in a foreign country, away from my family, friends, and regular shul. Did I really need to sit all alone in the back, only able to view my husband way across the room through the sheer white lace of the mechitza?mechitza separating women from men.jpg
No matter. I was relieved to be among my people and able to daven in this distant land. And I felt immediately welcome when the rabbi’s wife hastened over to greet me.
Hearing that I was from Connecticut, she asked if I knew Rabbi Joseph Gopin, head of the Chabad House in my town.
“Of course!” I replied. OK, as a Reform Jew, maybe I didn’t exactly know him personally. But I received regular emails from him, as well as from his wife, Miriam.
Hearing this, the rebbetzin grew very excited and noted that, although she hailed from L.A., her first job as a teenager had been as a counselor at the Gopins' summer camp.
Once again, small world when you’re a Jew. Nu?Bangkok Chabad House sanctuary.JPG
Assuming that we’d be separated, my husband had made me agree in advance to a plan to leave after exactly an hour. But that hour came and went without him making a move or so much as trying to catch my eye, so engrossed was he in the rabbi’s sermon.
I was pretty enthralled myself. The rabbi, whose name was Kantor, had not only a very down-to-earth, haimishe manner, but also much to say that really struck a chord. One thought that still reverberates to this day had to do with the world’s first Jew, Abraham.
I can’t give you his exact words because it is verboten to write in an orthodox shul. But the gist of it was this: Too many people today remain stuck on therapists’ couches for years, decrying their miserable childhoods and ill treatment at the hands of bad parents. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is always possible to rise above your upbringing, misfortunes, and other past experiences and take charge of your life.Bangkok idol.JPG
Abraham, after all, grew up with a father who sold idols. No, he didn’t just sell them. “In his day, he was the Walmart of idols – or the IKEA of idols, you might say,” Rabbi Kantor said. But instead of dwelling on this fact, he came up with the concept of there being one G-d and one G-d only and became the most influential figure in history.
Yom Kippur was the time to reflect on your life in the past year and try to do better. And if you really resolved to do better, despite anything that had gone before, you could.
Well, we may have been barred from food that day, but this was food for thought.
The actual food would come later. Or would it?Purse stool at Breeze in Bangkok.JPG
When our friends Amy and Rich had told us about their own trip to Asia, they had repeatedly raved about one thing and one thing only. If we did nothing else on this entire three-week trip, we needed to eat at a restaurant atop a posh hotel in Bangkok.
Not only was the view magnificent from this place, on the 52nd floor of the Lebua hotel, but the service was so attentive, Amy said, that when she had placed her purse on the floor beside her, a waiter had instantly brought over a white leather stool and placed her purse upon it.  
The name of this lofty restaurant was Breeze.
        Alas, it was NOT a breeze getting up there.Pattie breaking the fast in Bangkok.JPG
After temple, we waited around until close to sunset (although I must confess that I broke my fast late that afternoon because the oppressive heat and humidity made me feel like I was going to faint).Lining up for Skytrain in Bangkok.JPG
        Then we boarded the Skytrain, the city’s ultra-modern raised subway line, which highlighted to me just how much more civilized Thai society is than, say, anyone you’ll ever meet in New York. (These people are so polite that they not only bow to each other endlessly night and day but also line up in single file just to board the subway!)Bangkok Arts and Cultural Center sculpture.JPG  
We took this to the Bangkok Arts and Culture Center (Thailand’s version of the Guggenheim, with a similar corkscrew-like interior) and ogled the surprisingly modern art.
There was more than enough there to keep us enthralled until it closed at 8 p.m. Then we set out by Skytrain for Breeze.
We got a little lost, and by the time we arrived it was already around 9:30 pm. By now, I was starving, but an elegantly dressed hostess in the lobby looked us up and down and said that we could not go up in the elevator. Although my husband had brought a fresh shirt to change into from the decidedly damp and dangerously loud Hawaiian one he was wearing, he still didn’t pass muster. His open-toed sandals were prohibited by the restaurant's dress code. So we were given the boot.The hostess at Breeze gave us the boot.JPG
We were a 45-minute drive from our hotel. It was too late to go back and change. But after the way our friends had kvelled about the place, I said that I was going up there come hell or high water. I told the hostess we’d go buy a pair of shoes and be back.
"Madame, the kitchen closes at 11:30 p.m.," she said. I assured her we’d be back way before then.
"Where the heck am I going to find shoes at 9:30 on a Saturday night?" my very sweaty and beleaguered husband asked in exasperation as we exited to the street.
"I don't know,” I admitted, making no effort whatsoever to conceal my own mounting exasperation. “But I can promise you that we are BUYING THEM!!!"Bangkok Hindu festival.JPG
, he had a point. All of the nearby stores were closed. But after trudging for many blocks, we came upon a raucous annual Hindu festival underway in the surrounding streets that was jam-packed with gazillions of people.Bangkok Hindu festival slippers.JPG
This was lined with booths at which they were selling all sorts of hazzerei, including Indian food and figurines, jewelry, baby shoes, colorful children's slippers, and yet more sandals.
        No actual shoes, though.Dancing dragon at Bangkok Hindu festival.JPG
Soon we heard deafening music approaching, and I was nearly run over by a band of crazed dancing men in bright yellow garb flailing around a giant paper dragon. My husband ran ahead to snap a photo of this spectacle. I merely tried to get out of the way, but failed miserably. One of the dancing men crashed into me, nearly knocking me down.
        When I pulled myself together and dusted myself off, I realized that my husband had vanished in the crowd. We had no cell phone service or way to contact each other. It was past 10 and I’d barely eaten all day. What now? Taxi back to our hotel all alone?
I nearly began to cry.Bangkok Harlan with rubber shoes.JPG
       Then, as I made my way through the crowd, I saw him. He was at a booth selling... men's shoes!
        They were black rubber loafers that were practically weightless and cost only 100 baht (about 3 bucks, that is).Bangkok rubber loafers.JPG
He quickly found a pair in his size that fit perfectly! They had open backs, but his pants would cover that. They looked like real shoes and for our purposes were just fine.
When we returned to the hotel lobby at 10:45, the hostess seemed happy to see us and said that she'd reserved us a special table. She brought us up to the 52nd floor personally.
        Our friends were right. The view at night was breathtaking!Breeze waiter and free appetizers.JPG
The service was also impeccable. (Just ask my handbag, which was placed on the promised stool.) We were served complimentary appetizers (amuse-bouches, as they say en francais), including peeled cherry tomatoes marinated in plum sauce, flanked by four colorful sauces.Bangkok's Breeze friend noodles.JPG
        Then came THE BEST Chinese food we have ever had! EVER!
Altogether, it was truly a meal to remember... And although our friends had warned us that it might run over $100 apiece, it cost only $146! (Plus 100 baht for shoes.)
After dinner, a waitress took photos of my now happy and well-shod husband and me posed arm in arm against the twinkling skyline of a vast and beautiful, sophisticated city that truly never sleeps.Harlan and Pattie happy at Breeze.JPG
Then we were sent up to Skybar, the world’s highest open-air bar, which boasted an even more spectacular view ten stories above breathtaking Breeze.  
I don’t know if the rabbi was right – that you can break free from the past, become a different person, and achieve your dreams. But I certainly achieved mine that night.
        It just goes to show-- where there's a will there's a way! Or at the very least... shoes!

8:24 pm 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Word From the Weiss

       With Allegra at her Four Seasons gig in Hong Kong.JPG 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.Allegra and the supremely savvy JP.JPG
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.Rich and Amy.jpg
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 do be sure to bargain for everything that 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 we'd visit.Our escort at Beijing airport.JPG
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.flowers in Beijing Hilton Wangfujing lobby.JPG
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.Beijing Hilton bedroom.jpg
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 nation?
Speaking of which, when it comes to mainland China, forget “developing nation.” Not to mention “small.”Grand Hotel Beijing.jpg
        Beijing Hermes boutique.JPG
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 for breakfast) 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 and then eat dinner in a mall?Beijing mall with big rabbits.JPG
Yup. And it turned out the options in there were endless.
Forget whatever you imagine about Communist China. That six-story behemoth with giant red rabbit sculptures inside the entrance boasted nearly every Western mall store known to man, from The Gap and H&M to Zara, Sephora, and Forever 21.Beijing hot pot Pattie.JPG
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 husband hated the hot pot.JPG
My hubbie enjoyed the ingredients that I chose well enough. He just didn’t seem to appreciate having to cook his own dinner.They even had Subway in Beijing mall.jpg
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).Beijing Hilton breakfast my plate.JPG
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.Dragon's eye fruit with melon.JPG
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.Beijing souvenir shop.JPG
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”).Decision Markers Eyebrow tea.JPG
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 much.  
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!”Pattie with shopkeeper's family in Beijing.JPG
Before I knew it, she had summoned her whole family to pose for photos with “Grandma,” as she dubbed 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.
Imagine that!Beijing gallery with artist brother.JPG
We agreed hesitantly to go in and say a quick hello, but their works of art  – 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.Beijing crowd in Tiananmen Square.JPG
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 on 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 in tow to sell).Nu-Nu and grandpa in Tiananmen Square.JPG
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.Pattie and Harlan in Tiananmen Square.JPG
Having been cautioned by our friends, I made sure to watch out for pickpockets. But that didn’t mean my wallet was safe.
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 their English.
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 of tea.Beijing ladies in the teahouse.JPG
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.66 bucks for tea?!?
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 arrived, 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.Peking duck house waiter and Harlan.JPG
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.The Peking duck was divine.JPG
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.”)David was the perfect guide.jpg
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.BeijingTheGreatWallofChina1.jpg
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.The truly Great Wall of China.jpg
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.The Great Wall -- Pattie and Harlan.JPG
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.Mountains near Great Wall 2.JPG 
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.”What a Great Wall.JPG
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.Beijing cloisonne factory.JPG
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.Beijing cloisonne vases.JPG
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.Beijing jade dragon.JPG
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.Jade happiness pendant.jpg
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.Temple of Heaven by David Liu.JPG
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.Beijing bride at Temple of Heaven.jpg
“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.Pattie at the Forbidden City by David Liu.JPG
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.)Concubines of the Forbidden City.jpg
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.Beijing Summer Palace.JPG
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.Empress Dowager Cixi.jpg
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.Pattie and Harlan at Summer Palace.JPG
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.Beijing dumpling lunch.JPG
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.Beijing tea tasting.JPG
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.Beijing acrobat show cyclists.JPG
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.An extra tip for our Beijing waiter.JPG
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 sweet.
So, I am happy to report, did the waiter.
Only then did we go shopping for a few last souvenirs to bring home:Panda with pink jacket.jpg
A little stuffed panda in a pink satin jacket for Allegra.
A black T-shirt embellished with Chinese symbols for Aidan.Lucky golden money cat.jpg
        And a 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.Beijing saleswoman and my 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.
        My Beijing silk scarf.jpg
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 luck?’”An excellent cow.jpg
“No,” she asserted earnestly. “Just cow. But madam, it is an excellent cow, and it means you are excellent, too.”
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.
11:55 pm 

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Word From the Weiss

Hong Kong skyline shot by Harlan Levy.JPG       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.Mother and child reunion.JPG
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.Allegra and Dad reunited in Hong Kong.JPG
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.Allegra with welcome sign in Hong Kong.JPG
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.Allegra and JP.JPG
       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 he saw.
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.JP and us at our first lunch.JPG
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.Hong Kong tailor first fitting.jpg
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.Hong Kong shop with roast ducks.JPG
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.Spice Girl in Hong Kong.JPG
        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.Hong Kong shop with produce.JPG

“Rolling Stom,” read one.
        (Spell-check, anyone?)Galleria shopping mall in Kowloon.JPG
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.Pattie dressed for Blue Bar.JPG
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.Allegra at Blue Bar.JPG
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.Allegra and us at Blue Bar first night.JPG
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 contain myself.Allegra at Blue Bar first night.JPG
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.Pattie passing out in Hong Kong.JPG
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.Traders hotel Hong Kong.jpg
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 below.Traders club room breakfast.JPG
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.
        We 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.Allegra and me at The Peak.JPGAllegra and friends at The Peak.jpg
        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 other.We've got a lovely bunch of coconuts.JPG
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.Harlan and Pattie at Din Tai Fung dumpling house.JPG
We dined on the famous soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung, located in aDumplings at Din Tai Fung.JPG 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.JP and Allegra with nitrogen ice cream.JPG
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, and all.Dim sum (minus pigeon).JPG
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 together.Harlan Allegra and JP.JPG
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.Harlan in new striped polo in Hong Kong.JPG
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.”Allegra with noodles.JPG
That is in no way to suggest that we were ready to give up on our terrible "Chinglish" or consider trading in our chopsticks.
o 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.Hong Kong subway snacks.JPG
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.We missed Aidan and Kaitlin.JPG
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 and Matt on Rosh Hashanah.JPG
At least 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 synagogue.
We’d 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.Ohel Leah Synagogue.jpg
So we 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?Allegra in polka dot dress and bow.jpg
        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.Hong Kong synagogue.JPG
I assumed 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?Rabbi and rebbetzen of Ohel Leah Synagogue.jpg
After 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.”
After bidding 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.Allegra and JP cooking on Rosh Hashanah.JPG
Then we joined JP and went to Matt's apartment to help prepare yet another meal.
This one, though, would be a little less traditional.
I 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 as well.Matt cooking in Hong Kong.JPG
Noting 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.Pattie making matzah balls.JPG
I didn’t 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. Yikes!My matzah balls puffed right up.JPG
Without 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.Kugel in Hong Kong.JPG
        Meanwhile, Allegra whipped up a luscious noodle kugel topped with toasted almonds, with JP serving as sous chef.Matt's chopped duck liver.JPG
The 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.Tsimmes Matt made in Hong Kong.JPG

But 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.Rosh Hashanah table we set in Hong Kong2.JPG

Next week: Our Asian adventures continue in Beijing and beyond.Pattie in Hong Kong.jpg

4:13 pm 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Word From the Weiss

Pattie in orange hat.JPG        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.Bangkok lit up.jpg
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.ITALY 2011 meet the Levys.jpg
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.Kugel I made.jpg
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.Latke and pals in pool 2013.JPG
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.Latke leaping up last year.JPG
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.Latke three card Monte.JPG
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.Latke three card Monte 2.JPG
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.

Latke and Zoey with hula hoop.JPG
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.Latke and Zoey with hula hoop 2.JPG
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 camera.Latke in pink boa.JPG
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.Cirque de Lat-Kay sign.JPG
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.Doggie Funday On your mark.JPG
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.
Latke thought 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.Doggie Funday A tall order.JPG
Then I did my best to dry her off because the talent show was about to begin.Phred catching Frisbee.JPG
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).Doggie Funday talent contest.JPG
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.Harlan in wizard hat.JPG
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.Doggie Funday Charlie rolled over.JPG
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.
Upstaged again.
It took the judges only moments to come to a decision.
Charlie, no surprise, nabbed first place. Again.Doggie Funday 2nd place certificate.JPG
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.Send in the clown.JPG
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 theCharlie the sailor.JPG 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.And the winner was....JPG
First prize, however, went to the dog in the football jersey, with an owner to match. Together, they made a great team. Touchdown!Dog looks like owner.JPG
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.Doggie Funday obstacle course.JPG
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.Latke in pool 2014 3.JPG
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.Latke in pool 2014 1.JPG
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.Latke in pool 2014.JPG
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.Latke and me 1.JPG
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?Latke will jump through hoops for me.JPG
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!

5:57 pm 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Word From the Weiss

Pattie keeping cool.JPG        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.corn on the cob.jpg
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.
        Aidan's 28th birthday cake.jpg
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.Aidan and friends on his 28th at Fat Cat.jpg
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.Aidan's X-Men birthday cake.jpg
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.Aidan's soccer 9th birthday party.JPG 
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.Aidan and Kaitlin.JPG
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.Becco.jpg
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.Becco Sinfonia di Paste.jpg
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.Aidan and birthday cake.JPG
“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.Allegra called from Hong Kong.jpg (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.Aidan's birthday dinner at Becco.JPG
        But t
hen, 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.MacBook Pro.jpg
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 that?
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.jpg
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.Swing 46 Aidan's friends.JPG
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 – hisAidan with his bari sax.JPG 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!Harlan and Kaitlin dancing at Swing 46.JPG
        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.Swing 46 Lynn singing.JPG
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? Who’s Fred?)Swing 46 Stan Rubin Orchestra.JPG
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!”Swing 46 dance lesson.JPG
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.Brimfield tchotchkes.JPG
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.Susan and me at Brimfield.JPG
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 without them.Brimfield Lusterware plate.JPG
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.Brimfield Noritake bowl.JPG
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.Brimfield teapot.JPG
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 theBrimfield condiment dish.JPG matching glass goblet and serving platter. (The more you buy at any booth, the more willing the merchant is to give you a break.)Brimfield statement necklace.JPG
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.Nazi memorabilia.jpg
“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!”old man at Brimfield.jpg
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 collectibles.Amputations sign.jpg
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.Aunt Jemima figurine.jpg
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?Little Black Sambo.jpg
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 in atrocities?
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.Brimfield Hawaiian shirt.JPG
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.Harlan in Hawaiian shirt.JPG
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.Brimfield shirt guy.JPG
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 Lou Reed.
“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).Lou Reed poster.JPG
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 group.
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.”Aidan in Hawaiian shirt.JPG
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.”Pattie shopping at Brimfield.jpg
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!”
5:02 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.

Comments? Questions? Just want to kvetch? Please go to GUESTBOOK/COMMENTS.