Archive for September, 2011

Effie

September 26, 2011

Wedding party: David, Big Grandma, me, Effie.

Effie Gale worked for my family for more than 40 years. Every Wednesday, she rode the New Jersey Transit bus from her home in Roselle to ours, in Montclair. There she vacuumed, dusted, cleaned the bathrooms, mopped the kitchen floor, put new sheets on the beds, and ironed my father’s handkerchiefs. When holidays were approaching, she washed the wine glasses and polished the silver.

When I was small and my mother was attending library school, Effie stayed late and prepared dinner. Her fried chicken was a rare, special treat. It set a bar few other versions have met. After we grew up and had homes of our own, Effie baked us zucchini bread – a foil-wrapped loaf for each of us when we came to Montclair for Thanksgiving. Sometimes there were fragrant stalks of rosemary from her garden.

Effie sometimes fed us, but she didn’t eat with us. On Wednesdays when we were home, my mother would prepare our lunch and set up a separate tray for her – a woven place mat, a folded napkin, a glass of milk, a plate full of whatever we were having, and dessert. While we ate in the kitchen, Effie ate at the end of the dining room table. Afterwards, she would carry her tray into the kitchen and compliment my mother on the meal.

I didn’t think anything about the arrangement until I was visiting home from college.

“Why the separate tray?” I asked. “Why don’t we just all eat together?”

“Effie prefers it this way,” my mother said, and that was the end of the conversation.

Effie called my mother “Mrs. Horowitz,” sometimes, “Mrs. H.” My mother and everyone else in the family called Effie, “Effie.”

When she wasn’t working for my parents, Effie took care of my grandmother’s house in Elizabeth. Eventually, she also commuted to my aunt’s apartment in New York City. She attended all of our weddings, and the funerals for both my parents and my grandmother. She admired our babies when we brought them home to visit, and long after she retired, she continued to ask after us and send us her love through our aunt.

Effie knew all about our family, but my brother and sisters and I didn’t know much about hers. At Christmas time, she visited her sisters in Louisiana, where she’d grown up. When her husband died, my grandmother and my aunt attended his funeral. Earlier this month, when Effie went into the hospital, her son phoned my aunt, who spread the word to the rest of us.

He called her again on Saturday to say Effie had died.

Effie had an elegant beauty, a bright smile and a good hug. She hummed while she worked, and welcomed “help” from two generations of children. She stayed with my mother and my grandmother through their final illnesses, a comforting, confidence-inspiring constancy as health-care workers of varying qualities came and went. By the time my mother was taking all her meals in her bedroom, Effie was carrying her tray upstairs and they were eating lunch together.

She leaves her son, her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. She was 91.

Resolutions

September 23, 2011

A rabbi and a blogger walk into a room one week before Rosh Hashanah.

The rabbi says, “So, how are you preparing for the holidays?”

The blogger says, “Erm… umm…”

The rabbi is probably just making small talk, mentioning the first thing on his mind. For the last month or so, getting ready for the approaching holidays has consumed him and everyone else at the synagogue. There are sermons to write, Torah readers and shofar blowers and curtain openers and ushers to assign at multiple services, tickets and schedules to send out, programs to print, chairs to set up, sound systems to check, Torah scrolls to roll to the right sections and dress in their seasonal white coverings, and on and on.

For lay people like the blogger, there are also prescribed activities for the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. The shofar is sounded every morning, and an extra psalm is inserted in the daily order of prayers. People who are hosting holiday meals have menus to plan, honey cakes and special round challahs to bake, chicken soup to make.

And all Jews, whether clerics or congregants, are supposed to spend these days scrutinizing our souls, ferreting out our faults and seeking forgiveness from people they have wronged.

When my rabbi asked me that question yesterday, I considered each of the obvious possibilities, and crossed them off in turn. What had I been doing to prepare for the holidays? Not a damn thing.

“Do you have your tickets?” he suggested kindly, seeing that I was at a loss.

I had come to the synagogue to practice delivering a sermon I’m scheduled to give a week from Saturday. I do this about once a year. I have trouble projecting, and the acoustics in the domed sanctuary are funky. Last year, people complained that they couldn’t hear me, and my rabbi had gently offered to give me some pointers.

The practice went well. He got me to stand directly in front of the mike, made some good editorial suggestions, and said nice things about my text. But what stayed with me afterwards was that offhand question, and my lame response.

What a bad Jew I am, I berated myself. What kind of chutzpah will it take to stand up there in front of everyone, sermonizing about the high holidays when I don’t even practice what I preach?

It took me a while to realize what I was missing. How am I preparing for the high holidays? For one thing, I’ve been working on this sermon. In it, I compare the spiritual reckoning at the heart of  the liturgical season to the more, well, down-to-earth reflection farmers and gardeners engage in as the growing season draws to a close. Part of my point is to show how the old prayers can still be relevant. But my larger, less explicit agenda is to suggest that there isn’t one right way to do religion.

I love organized rituals. They build community, create an aesthetic experience, preserve history, inspire introspection, provide a framework for expressing universal emotions. But at the end of the day, they’re a construct. A means, rather than an end. And if the point of the high holidays is to remind us of the fragility of life and to encourage us to make the best of it, well, sometimes the best place to have those thoughts isn’t in a room full of people singing in Hebrew, but all alone with the sagging stems of your tomato plant.

How have I been preparing for the high holidays? I have been savoring the last of my peppers and tomatoes, and planning next year’s garden. I have re-committed myself to my new book, and resolved to keep the faith with my old book, and my agent. I’m getting back into gear at the gym and trying, once again, to shed those stubborn five pounds. I’m reminding myself that I have as much right to be heard as someone who might answer that question much more conventionally, and resolving to speak into the mike. I’m thinking about thinking about scrutinizing my soul. And if I have done anything in this past year to hurt anyone of you, I’m asking your forgiveness.

Happy new year!

Memory Shtick

September 16, 2011

Here’s my September column for the Jewish Voice and Herald of Rhode Island, about my dad’s yahrzeit. Regular readers of this blog might remember that I wrote about this same topic a few weeks ago. That’s how it’s been going lately. I post something on the blog, and then refine and retool it for the column. Maybe it’s cheating to post both versions here.  Or maybe it’s silly to think people are reading this stuff that closely. In either event, I’m sorry — for my sleaze and my hubris. I’ll work on both this Yom Kippur. And probably post something about that, too.

My father died seventeen years ago, on the 13th of Elul. Judaism prompts me to observe that date. When I can, I do. I say Kaddish, make a charitable donation, sometimes light a candle. But the date I really associate with losing him is the secular one. In my mind, the tragedy didn’t occur two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, but on August 20th, during a family vacation on Cape Cod*.

How can I forget those awful drives between the beach house and the hospital? The far worse one, to the cemetery in New Jersey?

Irv Horowitz grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and spent decades as Assistant National News Editor at the New York Times. He had an exacting eye for detail and little patience for stupid mistakes. He was also very friendly, and funny.

He brought home lots of jokes from work. He told one of his favorites standing up, acting out the story as it unfolded. A desperate mother holds her baby in the window of a burning building. A man from the crowd shouts, “I’m a wide receiver for the New York Jets — I’ll catch your baby!” The woman drops the child, and as the wind blows the baby first one way, then the other, the wide receiver adjusts his run, barely managing to snag the baby at the last second. The crowd goes wild! I can still see my father playing the part of the hero. Beaming, he raises his arm in triumph — and spikes the imaginary baby to the ground.

Election years, Dad coordinated the Times’ coverage of the national political conventions. When the speechifying was over and the exhausted staff packing up, my father would stand in the center of the press area, sing a circus song, and pantomime a juggling act, tossing invisible balls his head and deftly catching them behind his back – a celebration of the job just completed.

The shtick was especially funny if you’d ever seen him at home. As my mother lovingly put it, “When Daddy changes a bulb in the overhead fixture, the first thing he does is drop the screw.” Pouring a diet Pepsi for her, he inevitably spilled the ice. From the living room, we would hear the cubes skittering across the linoleum, and my father berating himself, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

Klutzy? Absolutely. Hard on himself? You bet. But my father was far from stupid.

I remember him when I get stuck on a crossword puzzle he would have knocked off in minutes. When I wonder if something I’ve written would have met his high standards. When I think aboutCape Cod. I don’t need his yahrzeit to feel close to him. So why do I observe it?

Not out of a sense of obligation. My father wasn’t much of a synagogue guy. He had a habit of removing his glasses and covering his face with his hands during the rabbi’s sermon, a gesture we interpreted as embarrassment over the inanity of the message. I don’t recall him ever saying Kaddish for his own parents. He never asked, or expected, anyone to say it for him.

A story is told: Rabbi Akiva meets a dead sinner who believes he has no son. Akiva finds the man’s son and teaches him Torah and certain prayers. He then brings the boy to minyan. When the child leads the service, his father’s soul is redeemed. The lesson: an orphan should say Kaddish in case a parent needs help getting into heaven. But in my theology there is no heaven. And if there were, there’s no way my honest, hard-working dad would fail to make the cut. So it’s not out of concern for his soul.

And yet each year I go. Or, if I can’t, wish I could. If I’m not doing it for him, I must be doing it for me. Why? Because seventeen years later, it still hurts – not constantly or acutely, but enough. Saying Kaddish lets me give my grief its due, if only for the duration of the prayer.

But saying Kaddish isn’t  just about feeling good. It’s also about doing good. And maybe the fact that my father’s yahrzeit falls in Elul, a month of reflection, is relevant after all. In a refinement of the Akiva story, the child doesn’t redeem his father’s soul by praising God. He does it by causing the congregation, in their response to his prayer, to do the same. If it’s good to do good, it’s even much better to inspire others to do the same.

Traditionally, the orphan’s good deed is compelling the minyan to recite, “May God’s great name be blessed forever.” I don’t see blessings as magical formulas. But I do believe we honor our parents’ memories when we sow the seeds of goodness they left in our care. Saying Kaddish reminds me that my life can magnify and sanctify my father’s memory. Whether or not he would have seen it that way.

*Photo is from a color slide taken by my mother, Marjorie B Horowitz, at the rented house in Truro, August 1985.

Skyline

September 7, 2011

You could see the New York City skyline from the house in Montclair, NJ, where I grew up. Strung across the horizon, a shadowy gray line of type by day and a sparkly necklace at night, it told you which way was east, stabilizing your internal compass. Like Jerusalem or Mecca, it was also a spiritual anchor – where my father went to work every day, where anything worth reading was published, where the museums and theaters and restaurants and concert halls that really mattered were located, where the Yankees played and the TV signals originated.

When I was in high school in the early 1970s, I got nervous about nuclear holocaust. New York City seemed liked the likeliest target, and the thought of how close we lived kept me up at night. One night, I dreamt about the proximity.

New York is so close, my dream-self thought, the image of the skyline stretched across my dreamscape, that I can see every building from my window.

It’s so close, I thought, the visual zooming in like Google Street View, that I can see every window.

It’s so close… I realized, as the visual zoomed in once again, incredibly, to Times Square. In those strictly analog days, the only animated ad in Times Square was the smoker who blew rings made from steam. In my dream, every billboard was a TV screen showing a different, full-color movie. The City wasn’t just close, my dream was telling me. It was the place where anything was possible.

When the city blacked out in 1977, we saw the skyline turn off. First it was there it then it wasn’t, as if someone had simply flipped the light switch.

When the World Trade Center went up, I didn’t like it. The towers were too big. Too rectangular. Too far south. They skewed the scale of the entire skyline and threw off the composition, drawing the eye to the left, away from the Empire State and the Chrysler buildings, where the viewer’s attention belonged.

Eventually, I got used to the towers. When we drove down from Vermont with our kids in the early 1990s, Sam would catch sight of the skyline and shout, “I see the Two Twins!” His older cousins who are twins lived in Montclair. The “Two Twins” seemed a suitable monument.

My parents died in 1994 and 1999. By September, 2001, another family was living in our childhood home. I don’t know whether anyone was there at 9 am that Tuesday. If they had been, they would have had a clear view of the devastation.

I was at my desk in Vermont, writing a picture book tentatively entitled One With the Wind, an idealistic little story about what a small world we live in, and how something as seemingly insignificant as a sneeze can have a ripple effect that’s felt two continents away.

David called from his office and said I might want to turn on the TV. What I remember him saying is, “The whole world seems to be on fire.” As I stood watching the buildings collapse, one of my first thoughts was, “At least Mommy didn’t have to see this.”

After college, I lived in Los Angeles, where west was the Pacific and east was the San Gabriels, when you could see them. When we moved to Vermont, east was the Green Mountains and west was Lake Champlain. Now east is Narragansett Bay. It’s been a long time since I relied on the New York City skyline to let me know where  I am.

But the memory of New York as the shining city out the window — of living so close to, but not in, something so important — still anchors me.

I don’t get back to Montclair much these days. My visits have been infrequent enough so I’m still startled by the way two sets of new owners have altered the family house, and by the lack of World Trade Center on the skyline. I stare at the house, trying to put it back to the way it’s supposed to look. I stare at the space where the towers should be, trying to put them back.

It’s a strange feeling, and by now sadly familiar, this sense of something you love being so close and so beyond reach.

Hurricane Theology

September 2, 2011

I hate how people invoke God during disasters. “God sent the storm to teach us to work together” isn’t nearly as offensive as “God sent the storm to smite the Sodomites.” But it’s really just a matter of degree. “God will get us through this” only works if you believe in a God who’s strong enough to pull you from the water, but either too weak or to mean to keep the flood from happening to begin with. “God set the laws of nature in place and then stepped aside” is an okay out. But why would you believe a God like that would care about whether the quarter cow in your deep freeze defrosts?

As it happened, God did care about the quarter cow in our deep freeze. The Almighty cared enough to give us advance warning, courtesy of those snazzy NOAA satellites, of when God was sending the big storm, how big it would be, and where it would hit. The Lord cared enough to plant within my atheist husband’s brain the forethought to bring a pile of quilts and blankets down from the attic so we could insulate the freezer if the lights went out. When the lights did go out, and then stayed out, God gave my non-believing life partner the idea of buying dry ice. That would have been enough. But then God went above and beyond by directing us to the welding supply house that was selling dry ice on a first-come-first served basis. We popped that cube of super-cold into our freezer, and the meat was saved. Go, God!

God sent the gust of wind that ripped the huge limb off our silver maple. But The Source of All Being cared enough about us, our house, our garage, our car, our neighbors’ cars, our neighbors’ house and our neighbors to make sure that limb landed safely on the lawn.

That same gust, by the way, or maybe one like it, pushed our tomato plants sideways. But The Ruler of the Universe cared enough about my Brandywines and Supersweets to spare all but a few of the fruits. (And later, when it was all over, God showed God’s good, salt-of-the-earth taste by giving us the idea of turning the tomatoes we doubted would ever ripen into super-delicious fried green tomatoes. Nice one, God!)

After the storm blew over, God wanted to make sure we knew what a bad ass The Big Bopper could be. So The Holy One sent us and about half our neighborhood out to admire the fruit of God’s wrath. We oohed and aahed over trees cracked in two, trees toppled from their roots, utility poles askew, electric lines dangerously sagging, boats wrenched from their moorings and blown ashore. Awesome, God! We’re seriously impressed!

Monday morning God got in touch with God’s gentle side. It might have been the most perfect day ever, weather-wise. And with the electricity still out and lots of cleaning up to do, there were all sorts of reasons to be outside. The Creator wanted us to love our neighbor, so God got us working together. The head builder on the ballroom project across the street brought his chain saw over. The neighbor whose house and cars God hadn’t crushed with that limb chipped in. By lunch time, the mess was cleaned up.

It’s really important to God that we celebrate the Sabbath by turning off the internet and interacting with friends and family without the mediation of a screen. It’s an appealing idea, but it’s been a hard sell. So HaShem decided to get us used to the idea by keeping our electricity turned off for an extra day.

We played Scrabble by candle light, with a physical board and wooden tiles. We admired how many stars were visible without all that light pollution. We liked the quiet. We worked our way through the fresh mozzarella, the halal goat and the shrimp, thanking God for our gas stove. We had filled our bathtub and an enormous pot with water, but didn’t need either. We thanked The Big One that we don’t depend on an electric pump, and when we replaced our water heater we didn’t opt for the on-demand system. As darkness fell each night, we thanked The Lord for the gift of Shabbat and the big box of sturdy, scentless, long-burning Shabbat candles we keep for Friday nights.

It was all very romantic. It made us feel ever so strong and resourceful. But when the lights came back on, at around 2:30 Wednesday morning, my first thought was, “Thank God.”

Then I heard what had happened in Upstate New York, and I started seeing the pictures out of New Jersey, and the even more heart-wrenching images from Vermont, and I thought, “Yo, God. WTF?”