Sunday, November 2, 2014

Empty Shell

Image result for google images chinese box turtle

Everyone knew the big secret about Filbert the Turtle, so I guess it wasn’t much of a secret.

We got him the day we moved up to Westchester—we’re movin’ on up! as the Jefferson’s song went—from our small 2-bedroom in Queens.

The husband didn’t like Long Island and I didn’t like Jersey, so where’s an ambitious, young Jewish couple to go?

Westchester was the golden land—beautiful houses, magnificent trees, chill people—and only 25 minutes on Metro North to our jobs in NYC.

While the moving guys schlepped, I took five-year-old Zachary in one hand and the five months of Aaron in my belly and we set out to Petland Discounts.

It was like he was waiting for us.

I bought the whole kit and caboodle—including a pricey warming light—and set him up on a counter in our new kitchen, and invited every kid on the block to the first-ever Turtle Party.

Not to brag, but I kinda outdid myself at those parties, which became  semi-annual.

Turtle races (slowest wins, but you have to keep moving), design your own turtle shell, decorate a turtle cupcake—and, for a finale—Filbert himself would make an appearance while the older kids vied to touch him and the younger ones shrieked and ran away.

Filbert liked yellow pepper. Not red, not green, yellow.

I would cut it in fresh crispy chunks and put it on his dish across from the round rock my mother got him.

He would pivot, stick out his cute turtle neck, and clomp a u-turn, thwacking into whatever was there—the glass wall, the rock—and make for the pepper.

It was fascinating to watch him eat and kids would pop by just for the show.

He would stare the pepper chunk down, twisting his pointy little head from side to side, gauging the best way to charge.

Then- snap! His mouth would open and his whole body would thrust forward, closing over the pepper and tearing off the bite with a little shake of his head.

Then he would sort of step back, and do it all again: the stare, the twist, the charge, the snap, the bite, the shake.

It took a while to get through a chunk, but turtles aren’t known for speed, and anyway, a fatty like me could learn a thing or two from watching careful eating and savoring.

It was kind of exciting, having a turtle. Exotic, but not creepy like a rodent or scary like a snake.

And the reptile/human connection was very encouraging.

I would put Filbert down on the kitchen floor and walk in different directions. Damned if he didn’t follow me every time.

And he smiled. I swear this. Everyone remarked on it. He had a happy disposition and never complained if his cage stank or if I forgot to freshen his water in the evening.

When I would come into the kitchen he would do one of those clomping u-turns from wherever, come over and thwack against the glass, lifting one of those Maurice Sendak-ish zig-zag feet to say hello.

I would take him out and hold him right up to my face and stroke his shell, and he’d stick out turtleneck and pointy head as far as it would go so that I could pat it.

Once, he actually made a sound. I had him in full frontal, face to face, and he suddenly breathed out of his nostrils: “Hnnnsss.” 

Teeny bubbles came out of his nose and I couldn’t help laughing.  He never did it again.

I must’ve talked about him some at work, because when my bosses at Ogilvy called me in to give me a raise (!) they said, “We want to make sure to keep your turtle in yellow pepper.”

Filbert was the “Old Maid” in the special-edition-personalized-one-of-a-kind-game-deck for Zachary and Aaron I drew, that featured their instruments (Sax and piano—a match!) our cars (Honda CRV and Chevy Cavalier—a match!) and their hobbies (Yugioh and Nintendo—a match!). And Filbert was included in all holiday cards and greetings from the family.

My babysitter loved the tortuga. My Yiddish theatre friends admired the shuldkrit. Aaron’s Russian piano teacher played for the cherepakha.

Special, I tell you.

And then there was the divorce, the great leaving of Westchester, the acquisition of the dogs, the million gallon fish tank, the birth of the twins and the move to Jersey.

It was Sruli and me and our menagerie.

The twins loved him too—the dogs not so much—stereo screeching when I brought the turtle out and duet kvetching when I put him back and made them wash their hands.

He endured the rough handling of the Shabbos kids at Sruli’s shul in North Bergen, and the not-so-good-for-him shtips from the not-so-nice cleaning lady there, whom I begged not to sneak him tomato, dammit.

He starred at Show and Tell at Pre-K (Charlie and Johnny said EVERYONE got a chance to hold him—nebikh) and a few mothers called me afterwards to ask where to buy a turtle—their kids were desperate.

He was the Old Maid again in the special-edition-personalized-one-of-a-kind-game-deck I made for Johnny and Charlie (a match!)  Scrambled eggs and sunnyside up—a match!  Target and Walmart—a match! Filbert—oh no!

Filbert (and we) looked out onto four different kitchens before we moved him to our bungalow on the Jersey shore.

The move almost killed me; we had to put a lot of stuff in storage and work our moving trips around Sruli’s job at the temple and the twins’ school.

If Filbert felt our stress he never showed it.

His terrarium took up a lot of trunk space and we made a special trip primarily to move him. It was the end of March and the Jersey Shore was feeling like spring.

We set Filbert up in the Florida room and he would thwak the glass genially whenever I walked by.

He was still in hibernation mode, so he wasn’t eating the food I put out for him.

We went back up to North Jersey, planning to come back down in a week.

Three days later there was a snowstorm.

The bungalow had been set for 55 so I didn’t think there’d be a problem.

I didn’t think, or I would have called a neighbor down there.

I didn’t think, because I was crazy busy moving and arranging for Charlie Re’s open-heart surgery and interviewing for Sruli’s new job up in Maine.

And when I came down later that week, Filbert was lying on the glass floor of his terrarium, his limbs all splayed out, smiling.

I screamed. I picked him up. I held his stiff little self in the air. I stroked his head. Nothing.

I got on the internet and read that a warm bath can resurrect a turtle.

I bolted up and took out my best pyrex and filled it with warm water and placed Filbert inside. I stared at him, on and off, for twenty-four hours. Nothing.

I cannot describe my apoplexy.  I could not stop sobbing. Loud, uncontrolled sobs. I called the boys. I begged forgiveness from them, I begged forgiveness from Filbert. I had never, ever felt so guilty and so totally, completely out of control of my life.

I could not save Filbert.

I could not protect my daughter from her own heart. I could not help my son Aaron from having to start in September at a college he didn’t want to go to because his rich father refused to pay for the one he wanted to go to, and I couldn’t afford it myself. I could not deal with moving again and again. I could not guarantee that anything, forever and ever, would ever work out.

Nineteen years I had him, nineteen years, and now he was gone.

Nineteen years ago I was starting a new life, too. Here I was, doing it again, and I felt like a failure.

I couldn’t bear to bury him--in case the warm bath took a little more time to magick its resurrection.

I couldn’t bear to walk by the pyrex and see that smile.

I went outside near my little fig tree and dug a hole. I wrapped my turtle in a plastic Shoprite bag and placed him in the earth. I got a large flat piece of slate and wrote Filbert on it and drew a little turtle.

I said a blessing in Hebrew.

And then I went around the back of my bungalow, leaned my head on my hand on the corner and cried. Wracking, shaking cries. For a long time.

Three days I cried. On the fourth day, the family went to the boardwalk in Ocean City and I bought myself a small turtle charm necklace at my favorite artsy jewelry store and I haven’t taken it off. It’s the only thing that makes me feel better. Weird.

I write this now, 6 months later and I am still not whole.

But things have worked out. Charlie Re is, thank God, on the other side of a successful operation and she is fine. Aaron is making the most of his college life and his weekends are busy with his fabulous girlfriend.

Here in our new life in beautiful Maine, Sruli is working happily and hard, we have a house I love, and the twinkies are thriving. So are the dogs and the fish.

I still mourn Filbert and whenever I see a Turtle Crossing sign or a painting of sea creatures, or even a stuffed animal turtle, I turn away in shame. I think it will always be so.

In Kabbalah there is a concept of “Klipoth,” empty shells. The idea is that you have to fill those shells with goodness, with bravery, with kindness and thus will you create a better world.

On our very last day in South Jersey, as the moving truck sat in our driveway, I made a quick trip to Home Depot to get a few more boxes.

We were planning to leave in a few hours—going all the way up to Maine.

As I neared the bungalow I saw something in the road.

I stopped the car.

Ezekiel was beautiful, an Eastern Box Turtle, with a high domed shell and magnificent amber markings.

I checked the internet: red eyes, a male.

Filbert had been a female—that was the big, open secret. 

Apparently, the salesguy said he was male, but the maven at the register said—no the tail’s too short, he is a she.

Trouble was, by the time we got to the register, Filbert had been named-- after that nerdy turtle in Rocko’s Modern Life, Zachary’s favorite show—and it wasn’t like there were going to be any babies, so she was a he from then on. Modern Life indeed.

I showed Ezekiel to Sruli. “I see he already has a name,” Sruli said. “You know, he’s a wild turtle; you really shouldn’t keep him.”

I found a little plastic box and jabbed some air holes with a scissors. I stroked his shell.  After a bit, he poked his head out and looked at me with those red eyes. His mouth wasn’t naturally smiley—it came down to a tiny frowny point.

I figured I would stop at a pet shop along the way and get some food and a better box for the trip. I texted pictures of him to Zachary and Aaron and Ilana. I decided he would stay in my new kitchen, with me.

I felt filled up, elated. I was redeemed.

And then, a few hours later, I made the left turn out of the bungalow complex and passed the place where Ezekiel had been crossing the road.

I stopped the car. I took out the little plastic box. I crossed to the other side, in the direction he had been going.

Maybe I had saved his life by getting him off the road. But that wasn’t really enough, was it?

I put the box down gently onto the fallen leaves and grass and muck.

And then I did something I couldn’t do for Filbert.

I let him go.

Friday, August 8, 2014

My son, the musician

Image result for picture of moon and stars

My son, the musician, just got off the phone—he said no to the Job.

The Job was a full-time position, teaching music in a New York City public school for 50 thousand dollars a year. Plus benefits. He is 24.

Sruli and I are biting our fists but we support him. He has a dream.

He wants to play his baritone saxophone all over the world. He has a groovy new solo act. He has his own band. He belongs to other bands. He is constantly performing, practicing, composing and sending out emails to promoters. He never watches TV or flomps around the house. He dates and sees friends and has a “best friend who is a girl” whom we adore. He has played in Poland, Canada, Italy, and all over the US. He has over 5 million hits on You Tube.

 And he is very, very handsome.

Naturally, I am worried sick about him.

I couldn't do it. When I was his age, I wanted to be an actress so badly—the Joan Kusack-y best and funny friend of the Mila Kunis lead—but I didn’t have the nerve to leave my family, move to Hollywood and try my luck. And I was much cuter then. And thinner.

Religion played a big part, too.

I have told Zachary many times that this is his time. His time to dream.

Before you have a wife and kids, I urged. Realizing that when I was his age, I was married and he would be born two years later.

The funny thing about being a parent is that your kids think you can do anything and you kind of have to rise to it.

But lately, with Zachary, I am faltering.

His dreams are big and I have little time.

I promise him the moon; I can’t seem to make him a star.

I am crazy busy with my new life and getting everybody settled, and he is right in front of me, doing his Kundalini Yoga each morning, practicing, emailing and dreaming.

I know the true story of Vikram Seth, who lived on his parents’ porch in India for five years, writing his first novel. I wonder what his Mother was thinking, year two, year three, year four—and how she felt when he sold that novel, “A Suitable Boy,” for a million dollars.

I hope I will have a lot in common with Mrs. Seth. I hope I have her patience and her optimism.

I wonder every minute, every cotton pickin’ minute if I should put aside my own puny dreams of getting a book published and going on tour as an author: “The Jewish, Female, Straight David Sedaris!” and just sit all day making phone calls for him instead of kvetching out a few minutes here and there to write even my blog.

Right now I just give advice, rework an email, kvell over his new video. 

And feed him.

Sometimes I wish the phone would ring for me and offer me a job, teaching music to children, for fifty thousand dollars, plus benefits.

But I don’t know if I would say yes, either.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Lo Aleynu

My father has a weird Jewish expression that I grew up hearing constantly. It’s “Lo Aleynu” which means “not to us” which really means “whatever terrible tragedy you were just talking about should never descend upon our lucky heads.”

So if someone had (please whisper this word) cancer, it wasn’t just (please whisper this word) cancer, it was “lo aleynu cancer.”

Lo aleynu divorce, lo aleynu problems with their kids, lo aleynu not such a good year in the toy business.

The idea I got from all this, when I was young, is that we were more fortunate than everybody else. Everyone else could have something bad as long as we did not.

Of course this is not what my father meant at all.

The reason I bring this up now, is that my little girl had open heart surgery today. We spent the whole day in the lo aleynu hospital, waiting for our turn, crazed when it actually was our turn, and then on “shpilkes” which is a GREAT Yiddish word you should know, while the surgeon cracked open her tiny five- year-old chest, stopped her heart and lungs, sewed up the penny-sized hole in her left ventricle, restarted her heart and lungs, closed up her body and came out to the waiting room with a very enthusiastic smile and accepted, ok endured, my very enthusiastic hug.

And yes, I still believe we are very fortunate.

And not just because the surgery was (thank God) successful.

Because I saw a boy today who was on his sixteenth surgery. He was three-and-a-half.  And I met his parents who schlepped from rural Pennsylvania and are spending weeks and weeks in the city, and staying at Ronald McDonald house because it’s only 35 bucks a night and the social worker here at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital arranged it for them and their other little son whom they try to keep quiet in the waiting room.

And because I met a very orthodox woman whose nine-month-old is on his second surgery this week;  the infant’s tiny, pitiful hands wringing themselves silly as he lay all intubated and wrapped in gauze bandages.

And because every room around here tonight with its ICU monitors blinking red, green, blue and yellow (believe me, it’s not as pretty as it sounds) holds a fitfully sleeping child and a desperately-trying-to-sleep adult curled on the narrow window ledge, with a nurse carefully checking vitals by flashlight so as not to disturb—when suddenly, BEEP!--and the parent jerks up—and, well you know, that parent wasn’t really ever sleeping at all.

Because now, I see we are all in this together. And lo aleynu is NOT my kid versus your kid or my business versus your business. 

We are fortunate because we understand that modern medical science is the greatest thing in the entire #$%*ing world and that we are true beneficiaries here in NYC, and that saying lo aleynu or really believing in lo aleynu isn’t really going to stop anyone from having, as my little girl did, a Ventricular Septal Defect. And just because someone else’s kid has, lo aleynu, a Ventricular Septal Defect, my kid could still have it, too.

Today I realized that lo aleynu doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen to my family. It means that it shouldn’t happen to any of us. 

Your children are my children.

I am ashamed that I ever thought otherwise. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014


“And know that in life a person has to pass over a very narrow bridge. The main thing is not to be afraid.”  -- Rebbe Nachman

For five years we knew it was coming, but now it’s-- tomorrow. Our beautiful little girl, the one with the long pink-gold curls and the sage green eyes and the wide smiley mouth lit up with an impossibly cute little gap between her front baby teeth, is having open heart surgery to repair her Ventricular Septal Defect.

When we met with the surgeon (I feel like saying Baruch Hu u’Varuch Shemo like we do for God), I joked feebly that she was so tiny, how would the anesthesiologist be able to work with her? He looked at me and said,—“What? She’s HUGE!”

Most of these VSD’s are caught, as was ours, a few days after birth. A nurse leans in with her stethoscope and “Um, Doc? Please come here!” Most are repaired before the baby is a year old. Some heal themselves.

Our little girl’s did not. The hole—it is a hole in the wall between the right and left ventricle—was too large.

So we shlepped her to a pediatric cardiologist every few months when she was an infant;  then were told that we only had to come once a year. We were downgraded and we were happy.

We fell into a parental lull. We knew she had this “thing,” but there were no symptoms.  She ran, she climbed, she ate like a little chazir.

When we would think about it, we would look at her a little longer, or stroke her soft cheek an extra time. We would laugh about the major crush she had on her tall, Abe Lincoln-like pediatric cardiologist.  (Whom we thought was Jewish because with a name like Snyder and a practice in Scarsdale, we asked him what he was doing for the Seder and we were shocked when he told us he wasn’t a MOT.)

Then he looked at her heart with that groovy machine, paused, had me remove the stickies, dress her, and shoo her out into the waiting room to play with her twin brother.

“I see more leakage. And the heart is slightly enlarged.”  My husband’s face went white.
“It’s time.”

Our little twins were miracle babies, and maybe that shouldn’t figure into the cheshbon, or way of thinking, but the fact that they made us new parents again (at our age!) makes us kind of grateful to them. And weirdly protective. 

And also because, as my husband says, speaking for us and their older brothers and sister:
“We got attached.”

So we went down the checklist and got clearance from her dentist, called the hospital where she was born to affirm her blood type, found out who is going to be the designated directed blood donor (me), got a urine sample (nu, you go and try to get one of those from a five-year-old girl!) and are took her in for the pre-op echocardiograms and x-rays and blood work.

Our family and all our friends are being super-supportive and offering us places to crash near the hospital where we can sleep or shower, and offering to take her twin brother for hours, and offering to bring food over for my husband and me, who will be tag-teaming throughout the five day stay.

I guess they all know it’s gonna suck.

What I know is that I feel lucky. Because I am not the richest or most important person in the world, but my little girl is getting the best possible care there is. And I know that I will start crying when I say hello to the medical staff tomorrow morning and that I won’t stop during the three hour procedure, until they come out, poopoopoo, with a big thumbs up. And then I will really cry.

So pray and hope that the surgeon has a good night sleep after, say, a nice chicken dinner, and no one parks in his spot in the morning, and the elevator is working and all the papers are in order and the whole dang thing isn’t postponed like they warned us it might be if she has a cold or something like that, and that the cardiac support team is in good spirits and pumped (ha!) to save a little life.

And then go give your children a hug. From me.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Miles To Go

Today I took a road trip down memory lane. Not my memories, my parents’.

I drove my parents all the way from Queens, NY to Washington DC.  And back.

My mother’s beloved cousin, the one she grew up with like a sister, who is only three months younger, and who was also petrified of her formidable older brother growing up, is, unfortunately, very sick.

It was a good visit, a great visit. Bikur Cholim, as we Jews say, is a big mitzvah. When you visit someone sick, it makes both of you feel better.

The trip started out with a generational imbroglio over the GPS.  My father got into the car armed with printouts, maps and an array of instructions.

I looked at my mother. “What’s her address?”

I typed it in. 225 miles.  “We should be there by 2:30.”

My mother looked worried. “How do you know how to go?”

I pointed to the GPS.

“She doesn’t know,” harrumphed my father, from the back seat.  “She thinks she’s going to rely on that little box.”

I had affixed that little box to the windshield of their white Honda CRV with my own spit.  It was mine. My father, who owns 7 DVD players, 6 televisions, 5 remotes for each one of those televisions, 4 computers of varying sizes, 3 stereos and 2 keyboards, would never have a GPS.

I started to drive.

“Why are you going through the city?” my mother complained.  “The traffic is going to be horrific now.”

“I would take the Verrazano,” my father declared. “But she thinks that little box knows better than her father.”

The GPS did NOT know better than my father OR my mother and we got bogged down in the promised horrific traffic,and my mother was so antsy and anxious that it threatened to overwhelm her.

At least I know now where I get my shpilkes from.

“Tell me about our cousin,” I tried, as the “thru street” snared up, the truck in front of us lit up its “I’m going backwards” lights and the “there by 2:30” turned into 3:15.

My mother started talking, her hands gradually unclenching along with her memory.

I heard about the time the family rented a house for the summer in Atlantic City with a real butler and a real cook.

I heard about the cousin’s family grocery store, and her cool dad (I remember him!) who looked like something out of Guys and Dolls with his cigar and sexy lidded eyes.

How her beautiful, redhead mom (I remember her very well!) also worked all day in the store. I heard about her recipe for brisket. I heard about the fancy stores of yesteryear Philadelphia that she shopped in.

I learned which brothers didn’t get along, and who was jealous of whom. I found out about first wives, second wives, third wives and stepchildren.

Who died young and who was filthy rich. Who liked the ladies.

All fairly usual people stuff, but fascinating when it’s your own family.

And then we got there (4:30!) to the big beautiful house, where buttery daffodils bloomed like crazy and the  buds on the cherry trees were really really pink, and the air finally smelled like spring and new life, and my mother laid eyes on her cousin and they both started to cry.

My mother’s cousin is a fortunate woman, beautiful and comfortably wealthy with a devoted husband, fantastic kids and such cute grandchildren you could plotz, all of which and whom were in evidence.

But it’s really all about time, isn’t it?

Time you still hold onto at any age.

Time you borrow frantically against a relentless disease.

A few more hours of time with the only other person in the world who knows everything about you, because she was there at the beginning.

When it was time, our cousin hugged me and looked into my eyes. “I will never forget that you came to visit me,” she said. “I will never forget it.”

And then, a subdued 225 miles home, agreeing and agreeing again that it was great to see her, great that we all did this, and aren’t those grandchildren delicious?

And I thought that I should stop rushing so much; stop rushing through time.

And I cried because I saw today and better understood how little time there is of time.

And I have so much I still want to do.

And I know I will steel feel this way when I am my mother’s age and her cousin’s age.

And then I turned off the GPS and listened to my father’s directions to take the turnpike all the way to the tunnel, and I still managed to mess up one of the exits and we ended up having to take the long way around and didn’t get home until 1AM.

But we didn’t mind much, my father, my mother and me, because we were together.

Not lost, just lost in time.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Aunt Jenny is Always Right

My life goes to hell when I don’t listen to Aunt Jenny. 

I did it once and now I’m doing it again. The first time I didn’t listen, I got divorced. This time I wish I could divorce myself.

Aunt Jenny is always right.

Aunt Jenny wasn't just my alternate mother. She was my alternate universe.

We stayed at her house when my parents ran off to Vegas—a rather frequent occurrence, since my Dad was a mathematician and worked in probability and statistics. I always joked that he lost at the tables like everyone else—but he knew why.

Aunt Jenny was much tougher than my mother. She and my father had escaped the Nazi’s when they were children. Complete story includes a raging river with water up to their necks – Switzerland, Freedom --looming on the other shore. Unsurprisingly, she was unbelievably unspoiled, and looked at the finer things in life with a bit of a laugh.

She was truly beautiful; I saw pictures. Blonde with green eyes, bosomy, and possessed of  a big laugh and the kind of energy that makes men know you will make a great wife.

Uncle Max gave her a second escape—from her home at eighteen. They became quite the power couple in the neighborhood. Their living room was always full of people and parties. Every night they went out to movies, lectures, plays. They knew everybody and everybody knew them. This is still true. Just a few years ago, I was snorkeling off Grand Cayman and the guy next to me on the boat had been to their house.

Aunt Jenny got her PhD in French Existential Literature. She interviewed Elie Wiesel.  She taught at some of the best high schools in Manhattan before she and Uncle Max made Aliyah to Israel. Her two children are a respected doctor and musician and a master teacher and musician.

When I went to visit them in Jerusalem, some of their sixteen grandchildren crowded around me to hear stories about “Grandma.”

I told them what it was like to stay there, all those years ago. How different it was from my usual school mornings. How, when I was little—say in third grade—my storybook mother would silently enter my sister's and my bedroom at 7 AM--  using but the gentle sunrise to illumine the careful peeling off of our pajamas as we lay, like princesses, in bed. How she would dress us in our tights and jumpers, and walk us downstairs to a nice breakfast of Cocoa Krispies and low fat milk, toast, peanut butter, orange juice and kisses. Then she would drive us to the bus stop so we wouldn’t have to walk the three blocks and stand while we waited.

At Aunt Jenny’s, it was different.

At 7AM the light was snapped on.  “TIME TO GET UP!”  We barely opened our eyes, but Aunt Jenny was already on a whirl back down the stairs. “Hurry, get dressed!” she would call. Then, the killer: “I’M POURING THE MILK!”

“Aaaaaaaaah! Don’t pour the milk!” we would scream after her—bolting upright, grabbing our clothes, shoving our shoes on, wondering if we could risk a minute in the bathroom.

Uncle Max would be sitting at the giant glass kitchen table, with the curly wrought-iron base you could see right through to, a scoop of cottage cheese adorning his cantaloupe.

He would be on the phone with Bubby—his mother –in-law, Aunt Jenny’s mother.

“Hellooooo MA!” he would shout into the phone. “Vi gayst?” Then he would wink at us and set the receiver down carefully. Within one second, a stream of Yiddish would fill the air, continuing as we slurped our sodden corn flakes.

It was still going as Aunt Jenny hustled us out, and then ran with us, panting and in dread for four whole blocks lest we miss the yucky bus with the unfamiliar kids that we had to take whenever our parents went on vacation and dumped us with Aunt Jenny and Uncle Max.

Their grandchildren would scream with laughter.  Tell more tell more!

What I didn’t tell them was about the time Uncle Max bought Aunt Jenny a marquise shaped diamond. He wanted her to have it; he was already rich. She came by our house for her usual Sanka with my mother, the ring on her finger.  “I don’t know,” she said, doubtfully, looking at it this way and that. To my eyes, it didn’t go with her bitten-down nails, her “let’s wait for the next express bus to Manhattan because in ten more minutes it’s a dollar cheaper” and her general wardrobe from Filene’s.

But I remember wanting her to have it, I thought it was romantic. But I also remember being proud that she didn’t really want it, certainly didn’t need it, and didn’t feel like anything other than her scholarship and hard work determined—or displayed-- her value.

Which brings me back to why Aunt Jenny is always right.

When I was 15, she told me: “Always make your own money. Never depend on a man to support you.”

It drove me.  I watched the women of my mother’s generation, subservient and less-worldly. It’s why I refused two marriage proposals that came with the “offer” –a fiat, really—not to work.  And it’s why I found myself on the Scarsdale train every morning, shlepping in with all the other husbands.

I loved my job in advertising, and I loved that I was good at it, and I loved that I made a lot of money.

I left it for reasons that I thought were right at the time, and maybe they were. But it shook up my marriage, shook up my kids, and not making my own money has, frankly, made me into a less secure person.

Aunt Jenny always worked. Sometimes she had three jobs at once. She told me: “So what if I’m making twenty thousand dollars and he’s making a million. It’s MY twenty thousand dollars.”

So here I am, at a crossroads, older, poorer, and obviously no wiser.

A couple of shuls are interested in Sruli—nice, because our shul has just merged with another shul, and the other, more senior Rabbi, got the job.

I hope Sruli gets a new pulpit. He deserves it, and he really is a wonderful Rabbi.

Our music business is doing well, but it’s a music business.

“Always make your own money. Never depend….”

I got my advertising CV together. I’m starting to network. I’m finding that separate, proud, dependable place, getting back to myself.

Hold on a second, Aunt Jenny. I'll be right down.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

So Called

I’ve always hated my Hebrew name.  

Four ugly syllables long, arcanely Biblical, lending itself to an even uglier nickname—feh!—who needed it.

“It’s too ungepatchket,” I kvetched to my parents, using the only Yiddish word I knew, at five years of age.

Ungepatchket means “overly over the top” and I had just heard my mother employ this description after visiting the home of a wealthy woman near us in Queens, NY.

The whole family rallied to my Hebrew name’s defense.

“Look,” said my Pop Pop, when he came home from synagogue one snowy afternoon for Sabbath lunch at our house. “You were mentioned in the Torah portion today.”

Yeah, like that was me. Even at five, I wasn’t buying it.

And then, that September, I was enrolled in first grade at the Yeshiva of Central Queens.

Miss Fuchs, my Hebrew teacher came up to what would now be my pupik, and wore what they used to call Coke-Bottle glasses.
She held the roll book up to her distorted eyes, blocking her entire face.

But I heard her.

And I didn’t answer.

She called my Hebrew name again. And again.

And then something clicked.

“That’s not my name,” I called out in my best this is my very first real day of school in my entire life and I am going to challenge the teacher even if she is short of stature and basically blind, voice.

“My Hebrew name is Chana.” I gave (clever, eh?) my middle name, safely used already, by three or four girls.

“Oy,” said Miss Fuchs, sweetly. “Chana. Tov me’od, very good, Chana.”

And I was Chana—un-over the top, unvarnished, un-ungepatchket Chana for two months.

Until Parent-Teacher’s night.

I knew.

I was hiding under the piano when my parents got back, knew.

“Lisa.” (Not my Hebrew name.)

“Lisa.” (I crawled out from under the piano.)

“Lisa.” (I sat to face them in our living room, my feet sticking out and almost touching the big brass-topped coffee table from Israel.)

“You have a beautiful Hebrew name,” my mother said.

“We really love it,” my usually more formal father said.

“And it’s your name and we want you to use it,” they both said.

Of course I didn’t want to go to school the next day, and, as my mother pulled on my blue tights, dressing me while I lay like a princess in bed (she did the same for my younger sister, and I, of course, do the same for little Charlie Re (who LOVES BOTH her English AND Yiddish names, Mom and Dad!)) I realized I had no plan.

And of course, back then, before the age of self-esteem and sensitivity training, my miniscule Miss Fuchs started class by glaring at me, in Coke-bottle quadruplicate.

“You are NOT Chana!” she thundered tiny-ly.

And of course, back before the age of non-bully-training and pride of individuality, the entire class turned around, to look at me.

And so, as I remember this, forty-four years later, like yesterday, I realize that my parents were right.

They chose a name that they thought was beautiful, that they really loved—and from the Bible, yet!

And I realize that the old Hebrew adage “Kishmo Keyn Hu,” As his name is, so is he— she, in this case—has come to pass.

I am overly over the top. I am ungepatchket.

I am Elisheva.