Archive | June, 2014

Space…Astronomy….and the First Walk on the Moon

29 Jun

Forty five years ago, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.  Their adventure encourage so many children to dream of going into space as well.  Here is how it impacted my family.

My husband is the space nerd in my life. He watched the original “2001: A Space Odyssey” 21 times when it first came out. He helped start the astronomy club in high school and helped to make a six-inch reflector lens for the school’s telescope.

Eventually he went to CalTech, in Pasadena, CA, to study astrophysics and quantum mechanics. He spent a summer up on Mount Wilson doing research with a large telescope. He loved his time at CalTech. But he realized that there were others much more talented then he in physics, and left CalTech to become a doctor of medicine.

When I met him, he was in medical school. But the quest and the conquest of space was still an important part of his enjoyment. He loved learning about space. On one of our first dates he showed me the constellations. His “Sky and Telescope” magazines have been coming monthly to him for the entire 37 years we have been a couple. And yes, he does watch “The Big Bang Theory” on television each week.

His love of the night skies has influenced many of our vacations. A trip to Hawaii included a tour to the top of Mauna Kea where all the giant telescopes look to the sky. We saw the green flash at twilight and watched as the telescopes opened their eyes for the night, including the twin Keck observatories. We were standing in front of the CalTech Submillimeter Observatory telescope as it opened. My husband gleefully spoke to the students and staff inside. Oh heaven!

We then traveled partway down the volcano to look through much smaller telescopes to view the Milky Way galaxy, as well as constellations like the Seven Sisters and others. They are so much brighter and intense on a clear night on a high mountain in the middle of the ocean. We even saw twin suns, one a blue cooling star.

For a vacation in California, we went to the first ever SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial intelligence) Conference in Santa Clara during August 2010. We joined in the celebration of the 50th anniversary SETI program and honored Frank Drake, who founded SETI, on his 80th birthday.

I have even been on a private tour of MIT so Jay could see its campus and the graft of the apple tree that dropped an apple on Isaac Newton. Yes, the tree exists in a private courtyard at MIT!

To make her Dad happy from the moment she was born, our daughter was born on the 24th anniversary of John Glenn’s historic orbits around the Earth, the day after the MIR Space Station was launched, and during the time in 1986 that Halley’s Comet was in sight. What a daughter!  What a happy Dad! We really thought she would work for NASA one day.

My husband and son watching the start of an eclipse from a cruise ship near Greece.

My husband and son watching the start of an eclipse from a cruise ship near Greece.

Our children have benefited from their Dad’s sky obsessions. We have witness the aurora borealis in Alaska. Watched the Perseid’s meteor shower while lying on the ground at a castle in Hungary. They have traveled with us to stand in the moon’s shadow and experience the eerie silence of a total eclipse of the sun. We journeyed three times so far to the sweet spot where the longest duration of eclipse was to be found: the Caribbean, Hungary and Greece.

While wearing welders’ goggles to protect our eyes, we have reveled at first contact and then “ooohed” at the diamond ring that occurs immediately before totality and the aurora of the sun. We marveled that each aurora is slightly different. And enjoy those few minutes of staring straight at the sun during totality without worrying about eye damage.

Total Eclipse of the Sun 1998.

Total Eclipse of the Sun 1998.

With a six-inch reflecting telescope in our garage, our children experienced seeing the different planets and space elements up close. Our neighbors have, at times, turned off all their outside lights for a viewing party. We have watched lunar eclipses and meteor showers from our front yard. We stood outside our home with binoculars to see the comet Hale-Bopp streak by…even though it was not that great, to be honest.. and watched the transit of Venus from our back deck. Our son took an astronomy class in both high school and college so he could learn more about the sky.

My children and husband watching the transit of Venus across the sun through shadows.  My daughter has her welder's goggles on for when she actually looks at the sun.

My children and husband watching the transit of Venus across the sun through shadows. My daughter has her welder’s goggles on for when she actually looks at the sun.

As a 40th birthday gift, I sent my husband to Adult Space Camp in Huntsville, where he envisioned what life for him would have been if he did not have a heart murmur and could have been a doctor/astronaut. He bought an official NASA blue jumpsuit, which he wore for many years on Halloween to the children’s hospital where he works.

Both my children have attended parent/child space camp in Huntsville, Alabama, with their Dad. And my daughter attended four additional years of Space Camp: two years in Hutchinson, Kansas, at the Cosmosphere, where we have been members for over 20 years; and two years at Huntsville.   At Space Camp she got to meet Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, and have him autograph a book! We have all read books by John Glenn, Homer Hickman, and others who worked in the space program.

Originally she wanted to be an astronaut, but while in high school, at space camp in Huntsville, she changed her mind. “An astronaut came to talk to us,” she told me.  “He said that he was part of the ‘penguin’ group, the group of astronauts who will never fly.” WIth this information, my daughter decided it was not practical to plan on being an astronaut.

Through all this, I remain an interested accomplice because I also have a profound interest in space. Mine does not date to the movies or to my studies, but rather to July 20, 1969, when the “eagle” landed on the moon.

The anticipation had been increasing for over a week as Apollo 11 raced through space. At the bungalows that is all we could speak about as the spaceship reached each hurdle and passed on to the next step in its voyage. Would the rocket take off safely? Would they reach orbit around the moon? Would the landing ship detach correctly? Would they actually land on the moon?

In those days, 45 years ago, we did not have good television reception in the Catskills. In fact, the summer was ‘no television’ time. Most people did not even have a television in their bungalows.

But my grandparents had a year-round house with television reception. And a special exception was made for the moon landing. We were allowed to stay up so late that night. Many of us squished into a small space, sitting together on the floor, chairs, and couch, others standing as we watched the grainy black and white television.

Reception was going in and out, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. We stayed awake as Armstrong became the first man to walk on another surface besides Earth. We were mesmerized by the events. The adults were silent until both Armstrong and Aldrin were safely walking on the surface of the moon. Then there was cheering and a feeling of such excitement.

It was the event of the summer…till then. (Less than a month later, another closer event would also change our world: Woodstock.)

We were elated, exhausted, and extremely proud of what the United States did that night. Apollo 11’s crew members were our heroes.   What a night!

Then came the next round of anticipation. Would they be able to take off from the moon? Would they be able to connect with the orbiting Apollo 11 ship? Would they reach home? YES! They did!

During those July weeks, my interest in space and the night skies became forever part of my life. Now each time I travel with my husband to another planetarium (he wants to go to every one in the USA); or another space museum; or another eclipse; I feel that excitement bubble up. I am 14 again, watching the first men walk on the moon. We might have come to our love of space from separate places, but we share the excitement that the sky offers each and every night.

How World War I Saved My Family or My Grandpa Was A Draft Dodger

25 Jun

World War I changed the world! One hundred years ago, Europe became a place of desolation and devastation. Young men from both sides were killed. Millions perished. From all I have read, it was horrible. The use of gases so horrific that laws were later passed banning the use of these and all future chemical weapons. We know that sometimes they are still used. But the world peoples are united against them.

For my family, World War I actually saved my branch of a family. My Grandpa Nat, you see, was a draft dodger.   As he would explain it to me, Jews in Galicia did not really have a chance in the military. They were often put in the worst positions, meant to die. And if they survived, they were conscripted for 25 years. So they never were able to live a Jewish life or return to their families again.

In 1918, when my Grandpa was about 18, his life changed; he received the dreaded notice that he was to report for military duty. It sent his family into action. Nissan, as he was known in Europe, had to be smuggled out of Galicia to save his life.

Thus began my Grandpa’s two-year journey to salvation and survival. He left his home in the middle of the night with just those things he could carry and wear. His intention was to get to British Mandate of Palestine and join the efforts to create a Jewish homeland. But his first goal was to get to his cousins in Belgium.

He wandered through Europe during the battles of 1918 and the aftermath of the war. Slowly making his way to Belgium. He had no real passport. Instead he was using the passport of a dead cousin.

Eventually he made it to Belgium and his cousins. Their reaction to his wish to travel to Palestine was, “Why go to Palestine? It is a desert! Go to the United States, to the Golden Medina. You have an Uncle there. He will help.”

So my Grandpa contacted his Uncle Julius, known as Uncle Yidel to us all, his mother’s brother. Uncle Yidel agreed to sponsor Grandpa to the United States.  But he had one problem, he had been robbed along the way and had to work to earn the money to pay for his trip to the United States.  But finally, after about nine months, the last leg of his journey began. Fortunately for him, his uncle did sponsor him, because when he arrived in the port of New York City, and the immigration site of Ellis Island, he had just a nickel. Without a sponsor he would have been sent back to Europe.

Grandpa often would tell us that we could be whatever we wanted to be. “Look at me,” he would say. “I came to this country with just a nickel in my pocket. And look at what I have.” So we learned early on not to complain to Grandpa and to never give up!

I tried finding my Grandpa’s immigration information from the Ellis Island sites, but could find nothing. My Grandma’s was easy to find. So I often wonder what that passport actually said. And how old he was supposed to be? But in 1920, immigration procedures were not as intense and documentation was not as precise as it is now.

Tanta Molly and Uncle Yidel

Tanta Molly and Uncle Yidel

Uncle Yidel and his wife, Tanta Molly (also known as Malchik)  welcomed Grandpa.

Growing up in Europe, my Grandpa had been a yeshiva brocha, a student of Torah. He had a beautiful singing voice, and perhaps might have been a cantor. But instead, somewhere along the way, he learned to be a baker. When he first came to New York, he worked two jobs. One as a butcher, the other as a baker.  But it is as a baker that he prospered in America. He and Uncle Yidel started a bakery eventually owning a building in New York City. (My Grandma told me that when Grandpa proposed he told her he had a place. She thought he rented an apartment. She did not realize he owned the building!)


Grandpa in his bakery in West New York, New Jersey, 1942.

Grandpa in his bakery in West New York, New Jersey, 1942.

They separated the business after my grandparents married, and Grandpa and Grandma opened a new bakery in Linden, New Jersey.  But in the early 1930s, when my grandmother took their children to Europe for six months, Grandpa sold the bakery in Linden and opened a new bakery in West New York, New Jersey.  He kept this bakery for over 35 years.

Grandpa had many cousins in the United States. His parents were first cousins. So he was double cousins to many of the family. They helped him settle in. But Uncle Yidel was the most important. Uncle Yidel and Tanta Molly were always a part of our lives. They had one son, Ezra.

Whenever we went to see them, we were welcomed in Yiddish. Tanta Molly would come running out to hug us. She would call out our Jewish names: “ Tovaleh, Fagaleh, Chavaleh!” I asked my Mom, “Why does she put an ‘aleh’ on all our names?”

“It means little,” my Mom replied. “Well that did not make sense, Tanta Molly is littler than us!” Was my response. “It means she loves us,” Mom laughed as she said that. Later I found out the ‘aleh’ did mean little, but really was an endearment.

My Grandpa always missed the hills of Galicia. He often told me that he bought his property in the Catskills because it made him think of his home and his childhood. Many years latter when I traveled to that part of Europe, I saw he was right. The rolling, low mountains and hills do look like the Catskills.

My Grandpa forever missed his family. World War I did save him. He came to the United States. But his parents, siblings, and many aunts/ uncles/cousins stayed in Galicia. They all perished in the Shoah.

My Grandpa Nat was a draft dodger, but he never stopped fighting for the right to practice his beliefs and to protect his family in the USA. He loved America. He never traveled outside of the United States. When asked, his reply was always:

“Why would I ever want to leave here? It is the best place in the world.”

A Ride Around The Park

22 Jun

“Please Daddy! Please! Please! Please! Take us for a ride around the Park!!!”

Hudson County Park in North Bergen was one of our favorite places to go. We lived on 78th Street just off Boulevard East, and would often walk to the playground and the lake.   But our favorite thing to do with our Dad was to drive ‘around ‘ the Park.

Whenever Dad was driving us home, we would plead for this ‘treat.’ It was not a real ride around the Park. Instead it was a ride around the traffic circle in front of the Police Station. Dad would enter it carefully and then drive around the circle. If we were lucky he would do it two or three times. That was our very exciting “ride around the Park.”   My Mom thought we were all crazy, but we loved it.

Living by the Park was an adventure. Going to the playground was a favorite activity. We still had seesaws then and the merry go round. My brother was relentless in his active motions. I loved to go on the seesaw with him, a sort of excited fear. Would he let me go all the way up and down? Or would he jump off when he was down and watch me go flying? I had to hold on tight and have my legs ready to bounce!

As for the merry-go-round, this was a yellow circular toy on a pole. While some children sat on it, others ran in a circle while holding on to get it going as fast as they could, before they jumped on. It was not a good ride unless you felt like throwing up when you go off. And swinging was great fun. How high could we go and then jump off without getting hurt!

Children now no longer have these great fun activities. And to be honest, I do not know how my Mom kept from screaming at times. Although she did stop my brother from jumping off the seesaw, as I think seeing my sister and I fly through the air eventually made her nervous.

My brother and I rowing on the Lake in Hudson County Park.

My brother and I rowing on the Lake in Hudson County Park.

Walking around the lake was also fun. We always wanted to get to the island in the middle. We loved renting a row boat with my Dad and rowing over there.   But the best fun were the paddle boats. At first my legs were too short and my brother would yell at me to try harder, but eventually I could keep up with him. My sister was younger and would go with my Dad.

My Dad is rowing my Sister and me.  I think my Brother is taking the picture.

My Dad is rowing my Sister and me. I think my Brother is taking the picture.

When I got older, I would sometimes meet my old friends from when I lived on Third Avenue at Nungessers Bowling Alley or the White Castle. My Mom had strict rules, “Do not walk through the Park. Go up 78 street and then across Bergenline Avenue. “ Ha!   I always walked up to Park Avenue, entered the Park there and walked across.

When I got older, the rules changed. Something bad had happened in the Park when I was about 12 or 13. Now when I went to see my best friend, who lived around the corner on 77 and Park, our Dads would walk us. We would meet with our Dads at the top of 78th and Park Avenue. Eventually they calmed down. We were allowed to walk ourselves. But our Dads stood outside our homes and waited till they saw that we were together at the top of 78th street and then we would walk to the house we planned to play at!

Another friend of mine lived in red garden apartments next to where Stonehedge was built. I was allowed to walk to her place, but had to call the moment I got there! At the time I did not know what happened. But many years later, I was told that a girl was molested in the park. Something that was uncommon in the 1960s.

When I was in college I used the tennis courts at the Park. I spent two summers working in New York City. I would go into work with my Dad. One summer I worked at his office. My Mom and sister were in the Catskills. I think my brother was as well. In any case, Dad and I would eat dinner and then go to the park to play tennis. I played on my college’s inter-mural tennis team. So the summer practice at the Park was wonderful. On the weekends we would drive up to the Catskills.

I remember when the Boy Scouts held their giant Jamboree in the Park. My brother was in the Boy Scouts and he got to sleep in a tent at the park with thousands of other boys. There were tents everywhere! I wish I could find the photos. We could hear them at night, the noise was so loud!!!

Hudson County Park was an important part of my life. I do not think that a week went by, or even a few days, that we were not doing something in the park. Walking the trails or around the Lake. Meeting up with friends. Having a picnic. It was the best place to be.

When I was growing up it was Hudson County Park. No one called it North Hudson County Park. James Braddock was still alive. In fact, he lived up the block from me. We often saw him outside. He passed away when I was away at college. He actually died on my brother’s birthday. I am not sure when the Park was named for him. It is a great honor.

But to me, it will always be Hudson County Park. My memories for going for a ride around the park, or the playground, or the boats with my family and friends will cheer me forever.

Our Shul in the Catskills

18 Jun
Temple in Kauneonga Lake.

Temple in Kauneonga Lake.

Congregation Temple Beth El in Kauneonga Lake celebrated its 90 anniversary last summer. I only found out because my daughter asked me a question about the shul in the Catskills — the shul that three generations of her family had all attended.

To be honest, I was not sure that it even still held services. I live in Kansas now, and only go up to the Lake once each summer. Even less than I used to. When my parents were alive I would spend 7 to 10 days at our home in Kauneonga Lake with my parents and one or both of my children. But since they passed, at most I have spent a weekend.

So I checked. I went on line, and there it was a website for the congregation! I sent a donation in honor of the anniversary and in memory of my parents. And then I joined the congregation.

It brings back so many memories. The shul was founded in 1923. I think I started going there in the early 1960s. Maybe before. But my memories before then are not very accurate.

We spent every Rosh Hashannah at the shul on the hill in the Catskills. It was an orthodox congregation when I grew up. The women and girls sat upstairs in the balcony, while the men and boys sat downstairs. I actually liked sitting upstairs. We could look down on everyone and see what was going on, while we could be a little less formal.

But my Grandma Thelma and her good friend, Clara Wagner, rebelled one year. They said enough was enough. They did not want to climb the stairs anymore. So the congregation made a mehitzah for the downstairs and made the last three rows of seating for women. Grandma and Clara much happier, and keeping them happy was important. They were both very strong willed women!

I think they would be thrilled to know that there will be a woman rabbi there leading services this summer. Obviously men and women are sitting together and the mehitzah is down.

The shul was where we celebrated special events as well. My parents wedding anniversary was in June. One year, in honor of their anniversary, we held a special kiddish luncheon. My Grandpa Nat, a retired baker, baked plum cake after plum cake. Every oven was filled. Luckily he had saved many of his cooking trays.

The day of the kiddish was special. We were all there, family and congregation members. My Grandma asked Grandpa to sing in Yiddish for us. Grandpa had the best voice. His first song did not make my Mother happy. He sang, “Was is Geven ist Geven it Nitch Du.” My Mom said, “Daddy, why that song?” ‘What was, was and never will be again,’ is not what my Mom wanted to hear on her anniversary. (I think he was reliving her wedding, which occurred when my Dad was in the army on his way to Korea. It was a difficult time for the family, I have been told.)

My Grandpa laughed and then sang Tumbelalika and Schtetla Belz among other songs. There was some singing along, but mainly Grandpa singing to all of us.

We also celebrated my Grandma’s birthday there once or twice. Her birthday was in July. So perhaps her 70 or 75th birthdays were celebrated in the shul.

Grandpa was a cohen. He did not want to go to shul every week, but if no other cohen was available he went. In his younger days he would walk the mile or so to shul. But as he drifted near his 80s and older, he began to drive. He would park at Newman’s or across from Sylvia’s store and then walk the rest of the way. He just could not bring himself to drive all the way to shul on Shabbat.

I remember that a rabbi was hired that was a bit too orthodox for the shul. He put strings up around the syngagoue. As we walked to the shul, my Grandpa stopped and stood so still. “Vas Machts?” He turned to my Grandma. “I haven’t seen that since the shtetl!” He said. (Yes, he said it in Yiddish, but I don’t know how to write the entire sentence.)

I wanted to know what it was; it was an iruv. It makes a wall around the area of the synagogue or community so that people can carry things. You are not supposed to carry on Shabbat, but with an iruv up you can.

My grandparents had many friends at the shul. Among their closests friends were Abe and Clara Wagner. I can still see Abe, a plumber, down in a hole at my grandparents’ bungalow colony asking for some tool.   And my Grandpa laughing hysterically at the sight of the little red haired, highly freckled plumber in a hole.   Abe was so mad, “Stop laughing and hand me the tool.” But they both had a good laugh.

I remember going to their home many times with my Grandma and sitting and talking with Clara.

When Clara passed away, my grandmother was inconsolable for quite awhile. But when Abe remarried, she was welcoming to his new wife.

It was Abe who was there for my Grandpa when my Grandma passed away. We got the phone call from the hospital early on an August morning. My Grandpa refused to go to the hospital. He said, “She is gone, why do I need to go there.” They were worried about him at the hospital as he was in his 80s. So my Mom called Abe.

I can see it as yesterday. Abe spoke to my grandfather briefly, then he pointed at me. “Ellen, you come with me,” he said.

We went to the hospital, and while I signed my grandmother’s name over and over again on documents, Abe said. “Stay with them, I will be back.” At the time the emotion of signing Grandma’s name was all I thought of, nothing else.

We left when he returned. He had a big plastic bag of Grandma’s stuff. As we passed a dumpster, Abe told me throw it all out. “Your Grandpa doesn’t need any of that stuff,” he said.

I then turned to him and said, “Abe, I never saw Grandma.”
“Don’t worry, I took care of it,” He said.

And he did.

Grandma was buried in New Jersey, in our family plot. We, my parents, Grandpa and I, drove back to the Catskills from the cemetery. Grandpa sang, Johnny Mercer’s song, “Autumn Leaves” all the way back. “We promised each other that whoever remained would sing this song,” my Grandpa said. I still cannot bear to hear that song.

When we got to the house, all was ready. There was water by the door. There was a spread of eggs and other dairy items on the table. I am not sure if it was relatives or the Jewish community who prepared everything. But I know that many members of Congregation Temple Beth El came to sit shiva with my Grandpa. They were there for him for the many years he remained living at Kauneonga Lake.

My grandparents and parents always supported Congregation Temple Beth El. And as a community the people of the shul comforted my family.

I am so glad that services are still held at the shul on the hill, and that I have renewed my membership to support it and keep it alive.



Two Wonderful Dads!

14 Jun

I was blessed with a wonderful Dad. He had a love of people, all people, with the biggest heart. He once told me that when each child and grandchild is born, you do not split what you have in your heart. No your heart gets bigger. And that was my Dad.

He loved all of us. I was his favorite oldest daughter; my sister was his favorite youngest daughter; my brother was his favorite son. And that continued with his grandchildren. Each one knew that he loved them the most and the best, along with all the other grandchildren that he loved the most and the best.

My Dad was not perfect. But when it came to giving out love, he was the best.

Along the way, he and my Mom loved not only their children and grandchildren, but also their children’s friends and their children. So many of my friends’ children called my Dad and Mom, grandma and grandpa. Some did not have grandparents of their own. Others just felt like my parents were their grandparents too.

And I have friends who saw in my Dad and Mom, substitute parents. And my parents loved them in return. My Dad was more outgoing in his attention. But my Mom always sent them holiday greeting cards and had a special word.

One of my close friends was in New York on business. I told her, “You better let my parents know. “ She did not call them.   So who did she see walking down a street in Manhattan: my Dad. He had a few words for her.

Some of our friends got to see Dad in action in the Catskills. His enjoyment in being at the house in Kauneonga Lake was legendary. And the friends who came up, be they mine or my siblings, were always welcome with love. They all got to eat steak from the grill, or perhaps be part of the Sunday morning French toast breakfast. And if you were lucky you got to ride in the boat.

Dad loved to share his stories, his advice and his hugs and love with everyone.

I think when I looked for a husband, I wanted someone like my Dad; someone who would love and nurture our children.

My husband is a much quieter person than my Dad. But he has been a great Dad. One of his early concerns, before we had children, was that he would not have enough time to be with them. As a physician, he is often busy. But he found the time.

It was my husband who often gave them a bath, singing “Rubber Ducky” in a great imitation of Bert and Ernie. My husband has a great singing voice. He once won a talent contest on a cruise ship singing Rubber Ducky!

It was my husband who read to them every night before bed, when he was home. My reading was never accepted. My husband had voices for every character. I loved listening to him read as well. He read the entire child’s encyclopedia to my daughter. My son wanted dinosaur and lizard books.

He read every Harry Potter book to them. Even when they were in High School, they wanted him to read these books! He would lie in our bed, with our children in the room, reading for an hour or two. When he said, “That’s enough for tonight,” they would beg for more. Sometimes he gave in.

There were a few books he learned to hate. He had read “Pippi Longstocking” so many times to our daughter, that he hid it on a high shelf. He is 6’3” so it was easy for him. Years later, my daughter and I were cleaning bookshelves, and there it was. “Mom, Look! “Pippi Longstocking”! It didn’t get lost,” she said to me when she found it   I just laughed. What could I say?

Because he had such a busy schedule, I often took my children to lunch with him at the hospital where he worked. Wednesdays in the summer time was lunch date with Dad. We would pick up his favorite sandwich and spend some time with him. They loved it.

When they were older, my children had a dinner date with their Dad each week. Tuesdays were my daughter’s date night. They would try out all sorts of different restaurants and report back. She was in seventh or eighth grade when they started going out.   Wednesdays were my son’s night. Our son was younger, so they spent much time at a local pizza place. Those meals were usually a bit shorter.

As a freshman in high school, my daughter came home one day with an important comment. “Mom,” she said seriously. “I feel bad for some of the girls I eat lunch with. They never go out to dinner with their dads.”

They had been talking about parents, and my daughter had told them about her Tuesday night dinner dates with Dad. Several of the girls commented on how they would love it if they could have dinner with their dads.   My daughter thought all dads had dinner with their children.

My husband does not think he was the best dad. He was often busy or out of town. But when he was home, he was engaged and showed them attention. We took our children on trips all over the world. He taught them about the night sky because of his love of astronomy. He loved to teach and share his knowledge.

I am so fortunate to have had two wonderful Dads in my life: my father, who was a great Dad to me, and my husband who has been a great Dad to our children.

They are different in many ways, but the love they have for their children is the same.

I hope all Dads have a wonderful Fathers’ Day.

Watching Antiques Roadshow Inspired Me to Donate My Great-Grandmother’s Matzah Cover

12 Jun


Matzah cover made by my Great Grandmother Chava.

Matzah cover made by my Great Grandmother Chava.

Watching the Antiques Roadshow, a PBS show, is one of my favorite television experiences.   I started watching it with my parents years ago. Whenever they came to visit, this was one of their favorite shows. They got me hooked on it!

I love learning about different items of furniture, jewelry and knick knacks. It is a history lesson along with seeing the beautiful items. But every once in a while, someone brings in a special ephemeral item: photos, letters, a diary. In my opinion, these items should really be in a museum, some place where researchers and students and others can see the items and learn from them.

It drives me crazy. I even say it out loud. Occasionally we find out that the family did donate the item. Like when a family had the musical notations of the “Star Spangled Banner.” They donated it to a museum, and that made me feel good!

I often wondered: would I be able to do that. Would I be able to donate a family treasure to a museum? The answer is yes.

When my siblings and I were cleaning out our parents’ apartment we found two items that my brother, sister and I all wanted, but knew something special had to be done with them. One was a program from the 1930s for a benefit to help the Jews of Europe, the other was a cookbook in English and Yiddish to help immigrants learn to cook American meals.

My sister contacted the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park and asked if they would want these documents. The answer was a resounding yes. So we donated them. This way they will survive, and others who might be doing research or want to know about life for immigrant women would have these items. They will be protected. The curator told us that they had only seen one other program like ours, but it was from a Chicago event. Ours was from a New York City event.

The three of us were glad that we made this decision.

I recently made another decision to donate.

I am donating the matzah cover my great-grandmother Chava made in 1901 to the same museum. I have thought about this for several years, and decided it was the best choice for this family heirloom.

The matzah cover is made of beige linen and a teal silk. I think the silk was originally blue. On the matzah cover my great grandmother embroidered the date she made it in Hebrew letters and the words: “Seder shel Pesach” (Seder of Passover) in Hebrew. It has beautiful cut work embroidery made into a Jewish star (Mogan Dovid) with embroidered roses along the edge.

My mother gave it to me about 25 years ago for several reasons: first because I was named for my great grandmother; second, because I also do embroidery; third because my parents would come and spend the second night of Pesach with me; fourth because my daughter is the oldest grandchild. I think they thought I would pass it on to her.

But I will not.

The matzah cover was made in Galicia before the First World War. I think it was made for my grandfather’s first birthday, as he was born in 1900 on the first of Nissan. It came to the USA in 1932. My Grandmother took my mother, then age 2, and her brother, age 5, to Europe for six months. They stayed with my great grandparents. And my great grandmother gave the matzah cover and some other family items to my grandmother to bring back to the United States with her family.

At some point my grandmother gave the matzah cover to my mother. And then it became mine.

I used it every year for Passover. I would cover the matzah on the table before the meal. But as soon as the food and wine came out, I would switch to a matzah cover that I made. I did not want anything to happen to this cover because I was not sure how I could ever clean it without destroying it.

As the years have passed, it has become more and more fragile. I want it to survive. My great grandmother did not survive. She and most of my grandfather’s family perished in the Shoah. This is the only religious item she made that remains.

I also thought about donating my matzah cover because I had a mild infestation of fabric eating bugs. Ugh. They are gone now. And the matzah cover is safe. But part of me was worried. What if they had reached the cover? Perhaps there is something better I can do with this item?

First I asked my daughter how she felt about my donating this item. She thought it was a great idea.

So I contacted the museum and the woman who helped us with the other donations. She asked for photos.

And then she said yes, they would like the matzah cover for their collection. She told me that the matzah covers they had that were that old were all stained and in disrepair, while mine was in wonderful shape. Which is true.

I told her I wanted to use it for one more Passover before I donated it.

2014 Passover Seder.  Matzah cover in the middle of the table.

2014 Passover Seder. Matzah cover in the middle of the table.

She asked that I take photos of it in use. Which I did and you can see here.

She promised me that anyone in my family would always have the right to come and see it privately when it was not on display, although we would never be able to touch it again. (Probably a good thing as fabric decays.)

In August I will take my matzah cover from Kansas back to New Jersey, and then to its new home at the museum. I hope by sharing it with so many people, it will have continued life, and perhaps help people understand how extraordinary Jewish life was in Europe before the Shoah.

I donated the matzah cover on August 12, 2014.

As Spain Welcomes Back Jews Expelled in the 1400’s, I Share my Spanish Roots

9 Jun

“Grandpa’s family was originally from Spain,” my Grandma Thelma would begin her story with these words. “They left Spain because they did not want to convert. They were court Jews and could have stayed. But their Judaism was more important.”

I thought this was a ‘bubba meiser,’ just a myth and a bedtime story. And for many years, I did not believe the Spanish expulsion of Jews had anything to do with me. I thought it was enough that our family had been decimated by the Shoah. But it seems my grandmother was telling me the truth, and my family is both a survivor of the Spanish and German attempts to destroy the Jewish people.
Grandpa Nat portrait

My Grandpa Nat’s last name was Amsterdam. This is a somewhat unusual Jewish name. And, it seems, actually anyone named Amsterdam is related to me. The family started in Spain as wealthy Jewish merchants and financiers. Supposedly three brothers moved to Amsterdam in the early 1500s. And then a group of them moved to Denbitz and Mielec in Galicia, where they were given the last name Amsterdam.

I started to investigate the Spanish connection when I was in college. And then I got help from an unexpected source. The other story my grandmother told me had to do with the comedian Morey Amsterdam. I was told he was my grandfather’s cousin. He had to be, his name was Amsterdam. I was not sure how to contact him. But he actually contacted me. Morey’s son-in-law met my cousin, Gary, who was an Amsterdam. Since I had the family history, I was then put in touch with Morey Amsterdam. He was on a mission to find all the Amsterdams. He wanted learn all he could about our family. I am not sure he met all of us before his death. But he was relentless. He would send me information about other Amsterdams when he met them. He would give them my contact information as well. People called and contacted me from up and down the East coast telling me that Morey Amsterdam told them to call me. May his name be for a blessing.

In any case, he confirmed the story about our Spanish roots, and then told me more. But it was not Morey who really filled in the missing information. It was another cousin named Bob. His parents and my grandparents were first cousins who all came to the USA in the early 1900s. They stayed in touch in the USA. We have photos of them at family events. My grandparents attended Bob’s wedding.

Bob was a generation older than I, and as an engineer was meticulous about his research. He also got in touch with me through my cousin. That Amsterdam last name stands out. Bob was kind enough to send me his information. And I sent him mine. Since his last name is not Amsterdam, he did not have some of the contacts and information I had received. We filled in each others missing pieces.

The following is what we know and what we think. I have to thank him for all the help he gave me in investigating the family.

Our family has taken on other last names as well. Faya was the original name used in Spain. There are family members who have this name as part of their Hebrew name. This spelling was used up until about 1800. After 1800 the spelling became more Eastern European: Feuer. Other names in the family include Brenner and Asher. All have to do with fire, because they were Cohanim.   The families often intermarried. My grandfather had both a Feuer and an Amsterdam parent. They were first cousins. I have met others, including Bob, who also have parents from both lines. This is a tradition from the days that they were crypto Jews in Spain.

I actually can trace my grandfather’s family back to about 1795 with direct names. My Grandpa Nat’s parents were first cousins, Chava and Gimple. Chava’s parents were Hershel and Frieda; Gimple’s parents were Tzipporah (?) (Hershel’s sister) and Nissin (also a cousin of some sort). Siblings Hershel and Tziporrah parents were Tova and Nissin Amsterdam, and Nissan’s parents were Chava and Morris Amsterdam (My fourth great grandparents!) These names show up constantly in the family and continue today. I am a Chava, named for my great grandmother; my son is Nissan named for my grandfather, so the names continue.

There are many, many men named Nathan (Nissan) in the family. My Grandpa was given this name because he was born between Purim and Passover on the first day of Nissan, but also because it was an important family name.

After the expulsion, some of the family stayed in Spain and converted and became Catholic on the outside. However in their home they were still following the traditions of Judaism.  Through research by a cousin, we believe the family lived in Segovia, a city with a large Jewish population.

However a branch of the family left, we think they all moved to Portugal. We believed they lived in a port city called Oporto before they went to Amsterdam. But some stayed after the Portugal expulsion. The Spanish Inquisition impacted my family in other ways. One family member, Aaron Cohen Faya, was burned at the stake in Lisbon in May 1618. A poet, his secular name was Antonio d’Aguiar. We think d’Aguiar or Aguiar was the name of the entire crypto-Jewish branch of our family.

I have much more information about my Spanish roots. I could tell you about our coat of arms.   I could tell you about meanings of names and how names concerning birds, hawks and eagles are important in our family history.

But I think that as Spain welcomes back the Jewish families they sent forth during the great expulsion, it causes me to think of how it impacted my family. How my family had its own additional diaspora that caused them to travel from Spain to Portugal, to Amsterdam, then to Galicia.   I think about how some survived these moves, left Europe and moved to the United States or to Israel. But others stayed behind and perished in the Shoah. (See my blog, “Speaking Yiddish Always Brings Me Holocaust Memories.”)

My Spanish roots are noted. But more important, I look at what I can do because of my desire to learn about my Spanish ancestry. I found out so much about my family. Most Jewish families cannot tell you the names of ancestors back to the late 1700s. I can. Most cannot tell you that they are related to everyone with a similar last name. I can.

My daughter was at a party. I saw on Facebook that one young man had the last name Amsterdamer. I said, “He is your cousin.” She laughed. “Ask him,” I said. “Mom, I can’t do that. I hardly know him.”

But the next time she saw him she said, “My grandmother’s last name was Amsterdam.” He replied, “Then we are cousins.”

I am proud to have the Amsterdam/Faya/Feuer ancestry.

Why I love my pillow!

8 Jun

I love my pillow. It is a big, fluffy feather pillow covered in a rose color bunting. When I rest my head I have the happiest dreams and most pleasant thoughts. I miss my pillow when I am not home, and have a difficult time sleeping.

I did not realize my sleep depended so much on this pillow till about a year ago. Over the first 33 years of my marriage, I had many pillows. But I never slept as well as I did when I went to visit my parents in New Jersey and slept with my pillow. I just thought that when I was home with my parents, I was not worrying about them. But I realized that was not the truth.

My pillow started out as part of my grandparents’ feather bed. I am like the little child in John Denver’s song, “Grandma’s Feather Bed.” This song always puts me in a great mood. I hear that song and I am immediately smiling and singing along. And I think back to my Grandma Thelma and Grandpa Nat.

When I was a little girl, I loved sleeping at my grandparents in the winter. First of all, Grandma always put a lightweight flannel sheet over the cold sheets. Second…was the feather bed (or duvet). I loved when she threw it over me and it cuddled around me. It was so soft and comfy. Filled with feathers and love. Grandma always slept with me when I was little and staying at her house. She would whisper to me and sing me Yiddish songs under the quilt.

I loved that feather bed. In the mornings, I would wake up and snuggle in the warmth of the blanket. My grandparents would be downstairs in their bakery in West New York, New Jersey. Once I was ready, I would get dressed and run down the stairs to be with them, have my breakfast and start my day in the bakery.

They took the feather bed with them when they moved up to Kauneonga Lake, in the Catskills for the full year. I loved our visits over winter break, because Grandma always let me sleep with the feather bed.

But it did not last for long. Eventually Grandma decided it was time for the featherbed to be washed and the feathers sorted. There were not enough good feathers to make a duvet again. So Grandma had it turned into several pillows.   All I know is that I got one: my beautiful rose-colored feather pillow.

It is true that many people cannot sleep with a feather pillow. They have allergies; they do not like how they sink in; they have issues. But for me…a feather pillow is heaven. My feather pillow is especially wonderful!

My pillow came to college with me and was home whenever I needed it.

But when I got married, my Mom kept my pillow. She had it in a plastic bag on a high shelf. No one used it but me. Whenever I came home for visit, the rose- colored pillow came out for my bed.

My children did not like it or want to sleep with it, better for me. They are the only ones I would have allowed to use my pillow.

However, at home in Kansas, with my husband, I searched for the perfect pillow for me. I cannot tell you how many pillows I bought over the first 33 years of our marriage. I never found a good pillow. I never got really comfortable. I used two pillows. I switch pillows. I tried everything. But I never really slept well. I could not understand why. It never occurred to me that I needed that one pillow.

When my Mom had her stroke, I flew out quickly to New Jersey. My pillow was there at my parent’s apartment. Once again it was the comforter of my tears. Even though I could barely sleep, I still felt better with my pillow. I knew my Mom had kept this pillow for all these years just for me.

My Mom died a week later in the middle of the December 2010 blizzard. I was with my Dad, trying to make all the arrangements. While I juggled three phones and a computer, I held my pillow on my lap and at times had it behind my back supporting me. It helped comfort me.

I left the pillow at my Dad’s apartment. I used it whenever I went to visit him. But nine months later my Dad passed away. I spent that first night alone in my parents’ apartment with just my pillow for comfort. Later people asked how I could stay there by myself. It really was not difficult. I had so many loving memories. I had my pillow filled with feathers and love. I was fine.

I still left my pillow there, after that visit.

But 18 months later, when we finally cleaned out my parent’s apartment, the time had come. I told my siblings, I am taking my pillow. I found a box and stuffed it in along with a few other things. And shipped my pillow home.

And for the past year, I have slept the most wonderful sleeps. I have had the most wonderful dreams. My family still does not understand.

My daughter says, “Mom that pillow probably needs to be cleaned.”


It was cleaned 45 years ago. The feathers are probably 90 years old.   Why would I clean it? When I put my head on that pillow I am a little girl whispering with my Grandma. When I put my head on that pillow I am a teenager in high school. When I put my head on that pillow I am a young woman in love waiting for my wedding the next day. When I put my head on that pillow, I am visiting my parents with my two children. When I put my head on that pillow I see my Mom and Dad getting it down off the shelf just for me.

My pillow that I love is filled with memories that I love.

Finally Fixing and Focusing on my Succulents

5 Jun

Each May my Dad would begin to plan his summer plantings for my parent’s Catskills home. Over the years he had added gardens and flowers to the property that was once owned by my grandparents. Where my grandfather once had a large vegetable garden, something my Dad had helped with for years, my Dad decided to focus on flowers.

Some of my Dad's planters at the Catskills' house.

Some of my Dad’s planters at the Catskills’ house.

He loved to garden. In the spring and summer, it was at the Catskills property. My parents would drive into Monticello and go to a garden center and pick out the perfect annuals. These he would plant around the front of the house and in the now filled in koi pond. In the back of the house he always planted around the garden he put around the well. And all along the side of the house were more gardens. Of course he had plants on their screened-in porch as well.

He was always ‘puttering’ in the garden or with his plants. One year he was so upset with the deer eating his rhododendron, he went out and got hyena or coyote urine to keep them away.

When the summer was over, he would mulch his flowerbeds to be ready for the next year’s plantings.

My parent's large cactus plant!

My parent’s large cactus plant!

The rest of the year he focused on indoor plants. He had many succulents, including a beautiful flowering cactus and a large spiny cactus. He kept them in great shape. As well as many other plants that grew in their living room, kitchen and on their terrace.

My Mom and I had always joked about our winter ‘schlumbergera’ flowering cactuses (Also known as Christmas cactus). We fought over whose had more blooms. I will admit, my Mom and Dad won that battle.

His love of plants worked to my benefit, as twice a year my parents came to spend 10 to 14 days with my family in Kansas. They came every Passover and Thanksgiving, and since Dad needed to keep active, I kept a list of ‘chores’ for him to do. Which meant every spring, he and my husband worked on outside gardens. When we first bought our home, 29 years ago. It was brand new, with no gardens. Over the years we have put in massive gardens and plantings. My Dad helped to dig out the first gardens. And as the plants and gardens grew, Dad was in charge of mulching and weeding. He also helped in choosing the perfect new plantings each year.

A portion of my outside gardens.

A portion of my outside gardens.

When my Dad became unable to do heavy work, he would just do the mulching with my son. We hired a gardener for the other jobs.   And then when he could no longer even mulch, he would sit out on a chair and direct and chat with John the gardener. John and Dad had lots to talk about. Thanks to both of them I have wonderful outside gardens.

In autumn, Dad would focus on my inside garden. I had many succulents, both inside and outside. But it was my inside ones that Dad kept going. Every autumn he would repot those plants that needed the extra space. He would trim back dead areas, and keep my plants look wonderful.

When he was not here, I just watered and removed dead leaves. I waited for him for any repotting needs. I knew he loved to do it. When my children were little they always helped. It was a great bonding time for them.

It worked out just fine.

Then the unspeakable happened. My parents passed away nine months apart. It was a stressful time. My Dad did not come out in the autumn, as my Mom was ill. He did make it in the spring, but was unable to do his usual ‘chores’. When he fell truly ill, he ended up being in a hospital and then rehab for the last three months of his life.

My Aunt and Uncle and parents with the cactus planter my Aunt now keeps.

My Aunt and Uncle and parents with the cactus planter my Aunt now keeps.

At his shiva, it was obvious his lovely plants needed help. My Aunt Mickey took the planter with succulents that was on the coffee table. My brother took the living ivy and small plants. My sister took the giant cactus. Since I lived in Kansas, I did not take a plant. Dad would have been happy to know his plants were in good hands.

Over the past few years, since my parent’s deaths, I have not touched my succulents, except to water them.   Included in my plants is an aloe plant that is over 50 years old. It had been my husband’s Mom’s. It became mine when she passed away 30 years ago. It, along with my other plants, began to suffer. A friend of mine would occasionally cut back the dead leaves. At times she watered them when she came. But even with her care, some succulents did not survive. I would take the empty pots and put them away.

Eventually she told me that I had to re-pot and care for my plants. She was right. My Dad would have been very unhappy with me. Even though I was caring for the outside plants, I had ignored the inside ones.

For some reason, this May I finally got the inspiration to fix my plants. I bought seven new succulents for inside. I bought several new ceramic pots. On Memorial Day, after I went to a veterans’ memorial service, I repotted my plants and I planted the new succulents.

Just as my Dad always did, I put old newspapers on my counter. I got the potting soil and the new pots and plants. And for a good hour, I worked on my plants. Placing some of them on my kitchen garden window, and others in my planter. I planted so many that I ran out of room. So I put two on my cookbook shelf.

My kitchen window garden.

My kitchen window garden.

While I worked inside, my husband worked outside. He planted herbs and flowers in the flower boxes on our deck. He planted new yellow speckled lillies in one of our outside gardens. And we planted a beautiful new peach-colored rose bush, called ‘Cinco De Mayo,’ in our front gardens. I chose this rose bush in memory of my Mom. I plan to plant a blue hydrangea for my Dad. We have white ones, but he always wanted some colored ones in my yard.

As I finally fixed my indoor gardens and saw my planters filled with the life of new succulents, I felt a burden lift from my heart.


Uncle Stan And Garage Sales Filled Our Tool Needs

3 Jun

Every time my husband has to fix something around the house and uses a tool, I think of his Uncle Stan. He was a bundle of energy, with an ever-present unlit cigar hanging from his mouth.   But, he had one guilty pleasure, he loved garage sales. More important, he needed a reason to go. He wanted to go, but I think he knew he really did not need anything. So he searched for a reason to ‘investigate’ garages.

When my husband and I got engaged, we presented him with the perfect solution. My husband would need tools. Uncle Stan knew there was no way my husband’s Dad would supply tools or even know anything about tools. He was not capable of fixing things. In fact, whenever we came to their home for a visit, my husband’s Mom had a list of things for him to fix. We would definitely need someone to fill the tool void. And Uncle Stan was our man!

Uncle Stan believed it was unnecessary to spend lots of money on tools, when some people were basically giving them away at garage sales. He had a limit on spending. Most tools he bought were for under $5.00. Really most were for a dollar or two. And the best for my husband and I, we never paid a cent for any of these tools.   Uncle Stan did not pay for them either. He got all payments from my husband’s Mom.

After I was married, I was able to witness one transaction. We lived in a different city than my husband’s parents and Uncle Stan and his wife, Aunt Mat. Uncle Stan and his pals would go to garage sales early, early on Saturday mornings, when the sales were at their best, and before Aunt Mat awoke. When he was done, he would take his bag of goodies to my husband’s mother at the family travel agency.

Then the bickering would begin. The time I saw it, it went something like this.

“Hi Bubbles,” Uncle Stan said as he opened the door. ‘Bubbles’ was my mother-in-law’s family nickname.

“Not another bag of junk!” She said, as Uncle Stan entered the agency carrying a plastic bag that jingled.

“Bubbles, this isn’t junk,” Uncle Stan said. And then he saw me. “Hi Precious (everyone was precious to Uncle Stan) I got some more tools for your husband. Right here in this bag.”

Then he turned to my mother-in-law. “You owe me $20 this time,” he said.

“Twenty dollars! For that junk! Let me see it!” She exclaimed.

Price tag is still on this homemade nail and screw holder that Uncle Stan got for us for $1.00.

Price tag is still on this homemade nail and screw holder that Uncle Stan got for us for $1.00.

And out the stuff came. There was a screw driver; a really neat set of wrenches, all different sizes, in a pouch; a file; and some other stuff, including this very strange contraption that was somewhat circular and had tiny glass spice bottles attached by the lids and were filled with nails.

“This screw driver was a bargain, a bargain. I got for just $1.00,” He said. “It is a great one.”

“What’s this thing?” My mother in law asked, holding up the round spice jar thing. I wanted to know as well.

“It’s wonderful. You keep all your loose nails and screws in there. Someone actually made it. It is a great idea! It even hangs on the wall,” Uncle Stan announced. “He’ll love it.

“Well, I know where the loose screws are,” my mother-in-law answered. She was looking for her purse as she said it, but we know she meant Uncle Stan.

And we all laughed.   You see buying the tools at the garage sales was just the first part that he loved. The best part was haggling with my mother-in-law. She was a younger sister of his wife. Left an orphan when she was a teen, she came and lived with her sister and brother-in-law when she went to college at Washington University in St. Louis.

They had a most loving relationship, and buying the tools just gave them a reason to tease each other. Not that Uncle Stan ever really needed a reason to tease in the most friendly and loving way. He was always ready for teasing.

The tools were paid for, and Uncle Stan went on his way.
“See you next week,” he said as he walked out the door. My mother-in-law shook her head, “Not if I see you first!”

She turned to me. “I have lots of bags of tools and other stuff for you at home,” my mother-in-law told me. Maybe you can take a few with you.”

Not really. We were living in a small apartment.

But several years later, when we bought our home, and moved furniture there, the bags of tools came in the moving van. They filled an area of the basement. Besides tools, Uncle Stan got my husband containers, a toolbox, and even some power tools in carrying cases. All the power tools worked, Uncle Stan tested each one before he bought it. My husband set up a workshop in the basement with most of the tools, but some tools he put in the garage. Not to sell, but for easy access outside.

To be honest, there are some things that for the past 29 years, we still have no idea how to use or what they do. But we keep them, because Uncle Stan thought we might need them one day. And you truly never know.

I also have to admit there were some tools he could not find for us. But that turned out to be a blessing. It gave my Dad something to do. Once we bought our home, my parents would come to visit. It was my Dad’s great pleasure to go to an home improvement store with my husband. My Dad loved the Home Depot! He and my husband would spend hours walking up and down the aisles. And my Dad always found a tool or two that we needed to finish a project or start one, besides the items they really went to purchase.

Dad, Uncle Stan and my husband’s mom, Bubbles, are all gone. But their memories live in all the tools that help us keep our house in good shape. Most important, I cannot pass a garage sale without wonderful memories of Uncle Stan’s excursions to find us tools.