Archive for July, 2011

Wedding in the Woods

July 28, 2011

Photo by Paulina Sliwa. Fabric for Sophie's dress is from her grandmother's first sari.

It finally happened. After all the planning and discussing and deciding, the list-making and ordering and organizing, on Sunday Sophie and Henry got married.

(click on the thumbnails to see full size)

Saturday afternoon we gathered at Camp Kiwanee, on a lake south of Boston. Think tall pine, rustic cabins, picnic tables encircling a fire pit. Garlands of ribbons were strung between the trees. We swam, played games, visited, shared grilled goodies and a feast of potluck sides and desserts, sprayed on bug repellent and built a fire.

By the time we got around to making the flower arrangements for the wedding lunch tables, it was dark, so we worked by flashlight, grabbing random stalks of Queen Ann’s lace, sweet William, zinnia, daisy, and dozens of other multicolored varieties from their tubs, cutting the stems to size, and planting them in the field of mason jars that covered the table. We figured that whatever we did would look great, and when we came back to look by light of day, we weren’t disappointed.

The main event happened late Sunday morning, on the porch of the lodge. The lake behind created a beautiful setting, if an extra challenge for all the nice people who’d brought their cameras.

The ceremony blended elements from Sophie and Henry’s religious backgrounds and political principles, without mentioning any gods or being explicit about the politics. A friend officiated, certified for the occasion by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The chuppah they stood under was a bedspread crocheted by Henry’s great-great grandmother, supported by poles Sophie’s brother fashioned from driftwood he gathered on the banks of the Hudson and then cut, buffed and oiled. A vase of white roses memorialized three pairs of grandparents. Indian designs on the floor, stenciled in chalk dust, marked the specialness of the space, and the occasion.

Photo by Paulina Sliwa

We sang “Enter, Rejoice and Come in,” a Unitarian hymn Henry’s mom remembers hearing when she was pregnant. We heard excerpts from Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the decision that made marriage equality legal in Massachusetts, parts of Kahlil Gibran’s “On Marriage,”  and Charles Darwin’s notes to himself on the pros and cons of getting married (con: less money for books; pro: a soft wife on the sofa). A friend performed a stunning rendition of Bellini’s “Vaga luna, che inargenti,”  accompanied by another friend on keyboard.

After the vows and the exchange of rings, guests read a reworked version of the Jewish Seven Blessings (a process I described here.)

Sophie’s grandmother performed a Zoroastrian blessing. A silver tray held a variety of symbols, which she explained: rice for plenty; fish for festive feasting; cloves, nutmeg, cardamom and cinnamon for savoring life; pomegranate – for its tartness, to add zest and color to life; betel nut – for life’s more astringent and bitter passages (with hopes that these be few); and coconut, sugar, nuts and raisin for times of plenty and sweetness (with hopes that these be many). She hung flower garlands around Sophie and Henry’s necks, marked their foreheads with red kumkum paste and tossed rice over them. To ward off evil, she broke an egg at their feet.

Then Isaac pronounced them married, they stamped on a pair of wine glasses, and everyone applauded.

Lunch was delicious barbecue, followed by delicious pie.

People made toasts. In mine, I recalled the first time Sophie and Henry met, eight years ago. We were dropping Sophie off at college. Just as we climbed out of the car, another first-year student came walking up the sidewalk between his parents. He looked at Sophie and said, “Sophie?” and she looked at him and said, “Henry!” They had already met online, and recognized each other in person right away. I had been a little apprehensive about my older child leaving home, but, as I said in my toast, Henry’s warm greeting reassured me that she would be among friends.

I talked about the attributes that make these two such good friends (caring for each other, giving each other space, enjoying each other, being similarly serious while not taking themselves too seriously), and suggested that a strong friendship makes a good foundation for a strong marriage. Finally, I thanked Sophie for bringing Henry and his family into our family, and thanking Henry for reassuring me that now, as I watch Sophie embark on this next phase in her life, she will be among friends once again.

Among all the planning and discussing and deciding, the list-making and ordering and organizing, figuring out my toast was one of the easiest thing I had to do. I just told the truth.

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The Myth of the Mosque

July 22, 2011

My July column for the Jewish Voice and Herald is a follow-up to a post I wrote back in May.

Have you heard about the Grand Mosque in Paris? According to the story, while the Nazis and the Vichy government murdered 11,600 French Jewish children, 1700 were saved with help from the Mosque’s rector. You can read about it on the web and in a picture book. Some accounts mention children being given Muslim aliases. Others say kids were hidden in underground tunnels. One version describes someone being smuggled down the Seine on a barge, inside an empty produce barrel.

It’s a great story. Too bad it’s not entirely true.

Ethan Katz, an historian of French Jewish-Muslim relations, says that while some Jews clearly were rescued through the Mosque, the number is probably exaggerated. And the rector also exposed some Jews who were trying to pass as Muslim. So while the story is basically accurate, it has been stretched and simplified – that is, turned into a myth.

And one person’s hero story can be another’s cautionary tale about a blunder. At Pakistan Defense Forum, one of many websites that carry the story, a reader comments, “Stupid mistake. I wonder how many of those Jews we saved ended up as Israeli citizens living on some poor Palestinian’s land?”

Last month, my husband attended a conference in Paris, and I tagged along. When I realized our hotel would be near the Mosque, I decided to go there. Which version of the story would they tell? And how would they spin it? I pictured a commemorative plaque, and imagined meeting the imam. Maybe I’d talk to someone who remembered those days.

The first morning of my husband’s meetings, I set out on my own, meandering through the Latin Quarterin the general direction of the Mosque. I admired a 17th-century church.

I took pictures of passageways, store windows, flowers, graffiti.

The unmistakable clamor of children at play echoed through the streets. The wall that hid the schoolyard was affixed with a plaque.

“In memory of the children, students of this school, who were deported between 1942 and 1944 because they were Jewish, innocent victims of Nazi barbarism with the active complicity of the Vichy government. They were exterminated in the death camps. Never forget them. January 11, 2003.”

The sign didn’t mention anyone being saved, let alone through the Mosque. But according to my map, I was almost there. Wasn’t it likely that some of the rescued children also attended this neighborhood school?

A staircase descended a wall of flowers.

Workers in white coats stood outside a hospital, smoking. I stepped into the Jardin des Plantes, taking a moment to enjoy the smells of growing things.

Across the street, I found the Mosque.

The arch of the windows was unmistakable. A doorway opened to a courtyard café, where some women chatted and snacked. They wore Western clothes, their heads bare. Continuing along the outside of the building, I caught sight of the minaret. A sign announced the daily prayer schedule. Another explained that the Mosque was built in 1922 to honor North Africans who’d helped France during the First World War. There was no mention of the conflict that followed.

A women in a turban and a flowing dress, her skin the color of French coffee, accepted my three Euros admission. Two men quietly mopped the gleaming marble floor of the broad courtyard inside. [Click on images to expand.]

Kaleidoscopic mosaics and stone window screens pierced with patterns as intricate as fine lace lined the colonnade.

School children sprawled comfortably among the fountains and steps of the garden, drawing pictures.

The effect was at once dazzling and austere, expansive and enclosing, a welcoming sanctuary from the workday world of the street, a physical embodiment of prayer.

The woman in the turban was conducting a tour. “Regardez les colunnes,” she said, pointing to the columns. But the rest was lost on me. Even if I could have followed her accent, I lacked the vocabulary.

When I set out that morning, I hadn’t expected to discover that my historian friend’s skepticism was unfounded. At best, I’d hoped to find evidence that at least some Muslims in Paris considered the myth of 1700 saved Jews cause for pride. What I came away with were impressions I hadn’t even thought to expect: the uplifting sound of the school yard and the awe-inspiring beauty of the Mosque.

I also came away with a new understanding of Kaddish. The central liturgy of Jewish mourning doesn’t rail against death. It praises life. Standing in those spots where terrible things happened, where some were sent to their deaths, and others saved from extermination, my overriding experience was of life renewed. Listening to those children and experiencing that sacred architecture, I was wordlessly magnifying and sanctifying the privilege of being alive.

To Life!

July 21, 2011

I haven’t posted here for a while, or written much of anything. There’s just been too much living going on. First it was our trip to France, and now it’s our daughter’s wedding.

Sophie and Henry are marrying on Sunday. Sophie’s brother flew from to Colorado so he could drive his grandparents east for the occasion. They’ve been here about a week. Their visit is coinciding with a stupefying heat wave, which forecasters promise will break just in time for the nuptials. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

In the meantime, our days have been a mix of wedding-related errands and houseguest-related activities. Polish silver to be used in special blessing ceremony. See where David works. Buy fruit for the salad we’re bringing to the Saturday night pot-luck. Go to the beach. Discuss seating arrangements. Take father-in-law to Walgreens to refill a prescription. Think about wedding toast wording. Visit the gardens at Blithewold. And through it all, concentrate on keeping cool, literally as well as figuratively.

In my regular life, when I’m not sharing my home with David’s parents or getting ready for a family wedding, I don’t spend much time thinking about what it means to be my age (54). But all this switching back and forth between being a daughter-in-law and preparing to become a mother-in-law has been simultaneously disorienting and starkly orienting. I am the fulcrum between octogenarians and newlyweds.

It’s a great place to be. Between making lists and moving fans from one room to the next, it’s good to take a moment to appreciate just how lucky I am to be spending this quality time with loved ones from the generation before mine, and helping my daughter embark on a life with a partner she and we love.

Things We Did In Languedoc

July 7, 2011

click on the thumbnails to see the photos full size.

We booked a week at “L’Ecritoire,” a one-bedroom home in the medieval village of Caunes-Minervois, just north or Carcassonne in Languedoc. It was hard to resist a place called “The Writery.”

The flight from Paris to Toulouse took an hour, faster and cheaper than high-speed rail. Driving our rented car from the airport to our village took another hour and a half.

Caunes-Minervois is a “commune,” pop. 1600. The heart of the village is the medieval city – a maze of two- to-four-story stone buildings packed shoulder to shoulder along narrow cobblestone lanes built against the side of a steep incline at the foot of the Montagne Noire. The Argent Double river, dead dry in late June, passes around and through the town.

The distinctive red marble quarried in the mountains above the village can be found at Versailles and the Paris Opera House. Hiking trails lead through the marble yards and past remains of stone walls erected during the Bronze Age. The view from the mountain is of vineyards extending across a rolling countryside, with the Pyrenees rising along the Southern horizon.

Most days were sunny and hot. But closed windows and shutters and thick stone walls kept the houses comfortably cool.

Most of the roads through the village are too narrow for cars. But that’s okay, because everything you need is right there. We bought our breakfast croissants and our lunchtime baguettes at the little store across the street from the town hall, about a three-minute walk from our place.

The Abbey, also three minutes from our place, is a conglomeration of spaces built in the 8th, 17th and 18th centuries. Services are still held in the sanctuary. Other parts of the building are used for art exhibits and concerts.

The region’s two main industries are tourism and wine. We visited the closest winery, Chateau Villerambert-Julien, a five-minute drive out of town, and bought a couple of bottles of Minervois. That’s a combination of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre grapes.

We shopped at the market at St. Chinian, and then strolled along the Canal du Midi.

We drove to the other side of  the Montagne Noire to visit the village of Minerves, where we had lunch and walked along the dry river bed through the natural tunnel.


We hiked to the ruins of four Cathar castles perched on a steep ridgeline in Lastours.

We admired the rock formations in the grotto at Limousis.

We brought a picnic lunch to the marble quarries.

And we spent a lot of time just wandering through the village, especially after dinner, when it was cooler. The light lingered until nearly 10 pm.