Sunday, May 31, 2009

Shavuot 5769

I am finding that cleaning out closets and drawers of items unused during the course of the 16 years we have been in this house is very liberating. I have been piling these items onto long tables in the garage while my car gathers tree detritus and pollen out on the driveway. The garage sale ad has been placed in the local papers, so there is no going back now. We are committed! I only hope that there is a person out there for every discarded item.

Wednesday, Adele and Ken both came for lunch with Mom, who was having an unusually good day. She was more alert than usual and was able to stay at the table in her wheelchair for a half hour. I made cheese and veggie omelets for all of us, including Stacey. We really enjoyed the time together. Thursday morning was good for Mom also, but by Thursday evening, she was the worst we have seen so far. Laying in bed, propped up, she was having trouble catching her breath even with the oxygen. We gave her Lorazepam and held her hand until she fell asleep. We tried gently to awaken her to eat dinner, but decided in the end to allow her to continue sleeping.

Laura called Thursday to say that she and Marc would not be able to join us for Shabbat dinner. Her daughter had begged her to babysit Friday evening so that she and her husband could prepare for their daughter Lily’s birthday party this weekend. When we called Jay to find out if he would still be joining us, we found that he would. Laura met us for lunch instead, picking me up so that we could meet Saul after his physical therapy at Pho Thai Nam. She was getting over a bad cold, and a large, steaming bowl of noodle soup made her feel a little better. I started preparing early for dinner because I knew we would be in synagogue all of Friday morning for Shavuot services. I made and Saul filled frozen chocolate mousse crepes in preparation for Yona’s baby-naming. I also made a batch of cheese blintzes, our traditional dairy food for this festival. I prepared a big batch of Israeli salad for dinner as well.

Stacey came early on Friday morning so that we could attend services. All the previous rancor that had occurred seemed to be absent from the sanctuary. I was pleasantly surprised to find the atmosphere as warm and spiritual as usual, perhaps because those who had come to worship have a desire to try to keep it that way and put political differences aside during sacred times. Rabbi Addison’s sermon brought tears to my eyes as he used the story of Ruth and Naomi to illustrate how, in divisive times, strong, understanding, and kind leaders, such as Boaz, can change the tenor of people’s interrelationships and bring about positive changes in society. Boaz, although a very powerful and rich man, treats his farm workers and poorer relatives as respected equals. He and Ruth eventually become the great-grandparents of King David from whose offspring a messiah is expected to emerge who will eventually bring about a peaceful and just world.

After services, we rushed home so that I could prepare the dough for my challah to give it enough time to rise before dinner. Since Pesach, there have been practically no backup loaves in the freezer. Beth and Paul joined us, along with Jay for dinner. Larry called from the road about 6 p.m. to say that he had just landed from Egypt and he wound up joining us for dinner a little late. Paul came late also. After we recited the usual blessing over the wine, I again found myself with tears in my eyes. Jay asked Saul and me to join hands. Then he recited the Eshet Chayil verse (A Woman of Valor) from memory that he would recite for Sandy, of blessed memory, on Friday evenings. I told him that Jessica’s father-in-law, Maury, recites it to his wife, Elaine, every Friday evening as well. For dinner, we had chestnut soup, Israeli salad, guacamole, corn-on-the-cob, cod lamaize, blintzes with sliced strawberries and sour cream, and kippered smoked salmon. As it turned out, we had leftover filling from the blintzes and leftover crepes from the chocolate mousse crepes. The serendipity of the situation caused us to invent a new dessert, chocolate blintzolis, a cross between a blintz and a cannoli. We added chocolate chips and Curaçao to the ricotta filling, rolled it up in the chocolate crepe blintz-style, brushed it with melted butter, and baked it until puffy. Because I wasn’t sure how they would turn out, I also made a batch of Roy’s hot chocolate soufflé in custard cups. We definitely had chocolate overkill for dessert with coffee, because both desserts were irresistible. Larry regaled us with tales of his tours of Egypt and Jordan while Jay reminisced about his journeys there with Sandy. Ari had Shabbat dinner with Jess and Alex in Baltimore. Mom was very testy right before dinner. First, she gave me a hard time because she wanted her breakfast immediately. Then she gave Beth a hard time about coming to the table. She also refused Saul’s attempts to bring her to dinner. Finally, after waiting a few minutes, Beth and I together convinced her to come to the table. She participated in the blessings pleasantly, had a few spoonfuls of soup and within about 15 minutes insisted on going back to bed. She apparently went right to sleep as we were monitoring her from the kitchen. We decided, before we went to bed, that she was sleeping soundly and we did not wake her to take out her teeth as usual.

In the morning, as we were preparing to go to synagogue, I went into her room to empty her commode into her toilet. Of all days, the toilet clogged so badly that I was not able to free it with 20 minutes of plunging. Saul finally came to my aid with a plumbing snake and was able to free the smelly clog. By the time Stacey arrived, I was somehow able to hurriedly shower, dress, and down a little breakfast, and we weren’t unusually late for services and yizkor (the communal prayer of remembrance for our loved ones which takes place four times a year).

Rabbi’s sermon on the second day of Shavuot dealt with Moses’ breaking of the Ten Commandments on viewing the sin of the golden calf. In one interpretation, God was pleased with Moses for destroying these most valuable objects because Moses, himself, had made a wise decision about ethical behavior and thereby created a great and memorable example to the people about choosing to act in a responsible and ethical manner. This shocking act roused and sobered the community from their revelry and prepared them for the responsibility of receiving the second set of the Commandments, which enjoins each individual to choose a just and righteous path to create a benevolent society where each individual has certain responsibilities toward the well-being of his fellow man, a reminder, I am sure, to the congregation to act individually in ways that will promote harmony and constructive behavior in these difficult economic times.

We decided not to linger over the lunch provided by the congregation, and when we arrived home around 1:15 p.m., Adele was here with Stacey. We persuaded Mom to be wheeled out for a few minutes to join us and had a lunch of leftovers together. Adele left shortly after that and Saul went to take a nap while I finished cleaning up the kitchen and Stacey sat with Mom. An hour later, Stacey came to find me just as I was dozing off because Mom was so agitated and feeling so terrible. I gave her the Lorazepam and sat with her for a few minutes. After a few minutes, Mom sent me off to take a nap also and Saul woke up and sent Stacey home about 5:15 p.m. Mom asked Saul if he would sit with her, so he put his laptop on her desk. Shortly afterward, when she needed to use the commode, he got up to leave, but she pleaded with him to stay and just look the other way. He heard a crash as she struggled out of bed and ran to catch her as she fell against her night table, doing some further injury to his shoulder. When he asked her to lean forward to get back into bed, she was so out of it that she leaned backward. He was able to get her back into bed unharmed and by then, she had forgotten about using the commode. Around 8 p.m., we went in to see about waking her for dinner, but again, she did not wake up to our gentle calling and we decided to let her sleep. Last night, I removed unused items from my bathroom closet and from under the sink of my bedroom vanity where I had stored things I forgot I ever owned for the garage sale. In cleaning out, I found our “bed buddy,” a years-old bean bag sort of heating pad that is warmed in the microwave. Saul found it invaluable for treating the ache in his shoulder, much better than the standard heating pad he had been using.

This morning, when Saul went into Mom’s room to see if she wanted to join us at breakfast, she was so confused that I heard him on the monitor explaining to her that her daughter Marilyn would be at the table. By the time I dressed and went to wheel her into the kitchen, she was better, but only stayed long enough to down a few bites before requesting to be wheeled back to her bed. When Adele arrived to visit Mom, we put in a call to our brother to discuss hiring another person besides Stacey so that we can have 24/7 coverage for Mom. The long haul we have had caring for Mom (she has been on hospice since September 1) has really begun to take its toll on all of us, including Mom. The cost of caring for her at home with 24/7 help will now probably begin to almost equal the cost of caring for her in a nursing facility, which her social worker Marion tells me is about $8,000 per month. We all feel that we have more control over her care if she remains at home, an option with which she has always been more comfortable as well and the reason that together we built this handicapped-accessible home in the first place.

Today was another bad day for Mom. Stacey was off, and in the afternoon, immediately after Adele left, she began calling for us every five to ten minutes to cover her, to tell us she had a stomach ache, to ask us to put her gloves on her hands which are like a favorite teddy bear is to a child. After an hour, again we had to resort to giving her medication to help her get to sleep and quiet her agitation. Even with all the support, and the fact that there are two of us at home almost full time taking care of her, the job of seeing her through all this is beginning to seem insurmountable. Tomorrow, the task begins of trying to find a suitable person to cover the times when Stacey will be away. Mom keeps asking us, in her bad but lucid moments, “how much longer can I live like this?” We are all really beginning to wonder how long we can keep this up.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Yona, G.G.’s and Beachcombers

I am beginning to worry that if I do not get up and blog in the middle of the night, I will not be able to keep up with writing about my life and my recipes.

Wednesday, while Saul had an MRI of his painful shoulders and then went to physical therapy, I cleaned the house, watered the garden, caught up with laundry, made Israeli salad, and began preparations for Jessica and the three girls to visit with a trip to Costco.

Thursday, I roasted a 25-lb. turkey on the Weber grill with lots of dried herbs from last year’s garden among the hardwood charcoal. Under the skin, was sliced elephant garlic and fresh pineapple sage leaves from this year’s garden. My two granddaughters are so opposite in their tastes that turkey is just about the only food they both like. Then, Saul and I decided to catch a 1:15 p.m. matinee at the IMAX theatre in King of Prussia. We caught the last day at the IMAX of the new Star Trek movie, by fortunate coincidence. We had great seats in the middle. The movie was enjoyable, but like all the big action movies lately, there was really no logical plot. If Hollywood is going to spend all those millions of dollars producing a visually stunning and imaginative blockbuster, can’t they at least afford some writer to come up with a good story line? The ghost of Gene Roddenberry in outer space must be turning over in his zero gravity environment. After the movie, we used up a $10 Internet coupon for a late lunch (or early dinner) at Bahama Breeze; and since we were on the same parking lot with Nordstrum Rack, we spent a half hour shopping as well.

My beloved leather handbag that I bought in Beijing’s Silk Market two years ago has begun to fall apart and I needed a bag for the summer. I found this one absolutely perfect large orchid leather Coach bag as soon as I walked into the store. It was reduced over $150 dollars from the original price, but was still very expensive. I decided that if I found shoes to go with it, that would be a sign that I was meant to buy it. I didn’t really think I would find orchid shoes, but sure enough, I found a great pair of Puma flats on sale that were white and dusty pink with a little trim of bright yellow. Close enough! I went back and bought the bag, the most expensive I have ever owned! It was really a fun day, and I don’t feel too guilty because I carry my handbags for years. When we returned, I made gravy and began to carve the warm turkey. It was falling apart as I was slicing, so we put it in the refrigerator to firm it up for slicing the following day.

I was up at 3:00 a.m. on Friday. I knew that Ari’s plane was due to land in Moscow around then and the part of his trip that was most worrisome to me was his landing and taking a subway to the hotel. At five I began to worry and Saul was annoyed at me with all my justifications of why I should be worried. At six, I convinced him to get out of bed to Skype our cousin Mark in Israel who only speaks Hebrew and Russian to find out the number of hours from airport to hotel by subway. Just as Saul sat down at the computer, Ari’s email arrived telling us that he was at his hotel and everything was fine. Within five minutes, we were Skyping with Ari and sharing the panoramic view from his window and taking a 360° tour of his suite at the impressive Swissotel in Moscow. After our conversation, I went out and planted a row of marigolds along the front of the garden. I showered off the dirt and Saul and I went out for lunch at a favorite nearby mom-and-pop Thai restaurant, Pho Thai Nam. Before dinner, we had this amazing technological experience of speaking with Ari live on Skype while, at the same time, viewing his day’s photographs in Picasa while he described them to us.

Only Faith joined us for Shabbat dinner this week. Larry is still in Jordan. We had defrosted homemade challah and garlic bread, butternut squash soup from Trader Joe’s, guacamole with pretzel chips, sliced turkey in gravy, black and white rice, Israeli salad, cranberry apple chutney, jumbo oatmeal peanut butter and raisin cookies, and strawberries dipped in individual pots of melted chocolate.

Saturday morning, Ken and Randi came with Randi’s sister Sheri to stay with Mom so that we could meet Jessica at Lion’s Gate to introduce Yona to her great-grandmother. Sima’s feet and ankles were very swollen, but she seemed really delighted to see all of us. After a half-hour visit, she wandered off from us into another patient’s bedroom to use the bathroom and seemed to forget that we were there. We had to go and find her a few minutes later when it was time to say goodbye.

When we all arrived back home, my mother was equally happy to meet Yona and see Sami and Izzy again. Both girls were very happy to have sliced smoked turkey for dinner with the black and white rice. They watched television, played with their toys, and were tucked into bed with a Shmuel story from their grandfather.

Sunday morning after breakfast, the girls went next door to play on Beth’s recently refurbished swing set. Saul and I set about gathering together everything we needed for an afternoon at the pool. Beachcomber Swim Club has been purchased by a new owner this year who made much-needed improvements, and it was an absolutely delightful experience to revisit those golden days of last summer when we frequently sat by the pool and watched delightedly as the girls enjoyed themselves swimming, doing arts and crafts, playing on the playground, or having their faces painted. Stacey had the weekend off and Jessica had chosen to stay behind with Mom and Yona, although I offered to stay with Mom instead. They spent the afternoon in Mom’s bedroom watching old movies, and Mom had a chance to spend a few quality hours with her new great-granddaughter. We were all exhausted after a day in the sun, so after a light dinner of “fishy burgers,” which Izzy requested, and which they both like, we took a 2-hour nap. Around 7 p.m., we headed out for the merry-go-round at Plymouth Meeting Mall, but found the mall closed. Amidst distant lightening strikes and gathering dark clouds of a looming thunderstorm, we attempted to salvage the evening with a visit to Freddy Hill for ice cream. Sami and I got a little wet running to the door. Saul got very wet gallantly retrieving an umbrella from the trunk because Izzy refused to get out of the car without one. The girls went right to sleep, again with a Shmuel story, when we arrived home at about 9:30 p.m.

To our disappointment, Jessica decided to head home early on Monday to avoid the heavy Memorial Day traffic. We understood. Alex had stayed home because the new puppy, Inky, has been chewing up furniture and shoes when left to her own devices and a dog sitter would not have sufficed. Jessica is a trooper when it comes to heading out on her own, but knowing she was travelling at the height of Memorial Day traffic would have worried us all. Every spare minute this week has been spent preparing for an imminent garage sale, so Saul and I spent the rest of Monday cleaning out 16 years of accumulated stuff in our large office closet. When we finished, among other things, we had a carton with over 1200 floppy disks, the accumulation of 22 years in the desktop publishing business. We checked on the Net about recycling them, but found out from our waste disposal company that they are not truly recyclable and can just be put out with the trash. Among them was the first floppy disk I had ever made. The office looks wonderful and neat now, and there is lots of room in the closet! I also got rid of bags of multiple copies of samples of work I have done. When I started my business, there was talk of a paperless society. I used to scoff at that in the beginning because my work generated reams and reams of paper. With the advent of the universal use of the Internet, email, and the cross-platform nature of today’s software, I truly have become almost paperless now.

Jessica called to take me up on my offer to make desserts for Yona’s baby-naming on June 13, so I will be busy in the kitchen for a while. Although Beth liked the original logo I designed for her new business, everyone thought the gyroscope design she had envisioned, and that I had executed, was too complicated. Another, simpler logo was designed by Haley in PowerPoint and needed to be made into a vector graphic. I had done this for Beth last week, but ran into a complication when we shrunk it down to business card size. Then, a simple job became very complicated as I attempted to create a special effect that would not cross platforms to pdf. I spent four hours trying every way I could to make it work. In the end, I went back to the original design and modified it to look better when miniaturized. The moral of the story is: use the KISS method—Keep It Simple, Stupid!

I am looking forward to the end of the week and the holiday of Shavuot which celebrates the giving of the Torah, including the Ten Commandments, to the Jewish people. I hope that people will put their differences aside and that the atmosphere in the synagogue will be as warm and spiritual as it has been in the past. I guess where my psyche is concerned, hope springs eternal. Larry will be back from his journeys with lots of stories. I was finally able, over a month ago, to make a date with my friends, Jay, Laura, and Marc to come to Shabbat dinner this week. I hope it is not cancelled. It may take a year to schedule another one.

I am really thankful for incredible blessings this week. Jessica came and went safely. Ari had a remarkable trip to Moscow and, hopefully, will prepare a guest blog as soon as he recovers from the jet lag. My granddaughters are healthy and beautiful. What more could anyone ask?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Thursday Meltdown… and the Refreeze

If you read my friend, and fellow congregant Elaine’s comment on the last blog post, you may notice that some of my worst fears were realized at the very well-attended congregational meeting on Thursday evening.

We arose early on Thursday morning. We had arranged for Stacey to stay with Mom from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. so that we could accomplish all of our errands together and attend the evening meeting that would decide whether the congregation would continue in its traditional home or move on to more handicapped-accessible quarters. When Stacey arrived, we went to get a haircut for Saul, pick up some items from Costco, and rush home in time to change clothes and rush out again to Naomi Taplar’s funeral, which was being held at Temple Sinai, our old congregation. We had not been back to Temple Sinai for almost three years and it was a very emotional experience being warmly welcomed by some of our old friends and ignored by others. Naomi Taplar, who was 78, died a few weeks after suffering a stroke. She had been a fellow religious school teacher at Temple Sinai for twenty-five years. Before that, she had also taught religious school classes at two other area synagogues. In the past year, she had been in an assisted living community near her daughter in New Jersey. She was a kind, friendly and learned teacher with an incredible intellect and love of education. She enjoyed being among people and learning from them, and she was a great friend and colleague. Many people attended her funeral and Rabbi Wohlberg did an excellent job in delivering a eulogy that conveyed not only the details of her life, but the essence of her spirit. When we arrived, we learned that she was being interred at the same cemetery where Saul’s father is buried, Mt. Sharon in Springfield. We decided, since Stacey was covering Mom anyway, to attend the burial service as well, driving our friend Faith the considerable distance. It had been pouring all day, and I really hate burials in rainstorms and snowstorms, but the sun came out about 10 minutes before we arrived at the cemetery, and stayed until we had visited Saul’s father’s grave. As it turned out, Naomi is buried only about 30 yards away from his grave and we were able, in just a few steps, to make sure that her grave had been filled in properly before we left. Rabbi Wohlberg and Cantor Friedman did a considerable amount of shoveling to make sure at least the coffin was covered before they left. Saul felt badly that he was not able to shovel because of his shoulder problems.

We drove back to Temple Sinai where the first shiva was being held, had a bite to eat, and offered condolences to the family. By the time we arrived back at home to change our clothes, it was 5:00 p.m. Our friends, Jerry and Betty, were joining us at 6:30 for the drive down to Melrose B’nai Israel-Emanu El. Rabbi Addison and Cantor Gordon tried to get the meeting started on a relaxed and peaceful note by asking the congregation to join them in singing “Le ma’an achai v’reay,” “For the Sake of My Brothers and Friends.” It was a valiant try, but after a presentation of both sides of the argument, the congregation slowly dissolved into an obnoxious, rude group as individual members came up to speak about their views. Saul spoke of his background with congregations as a child in Israel, and as a new immigrant to the United States. He stressed that the people are what make a congregation special, not their surroundings, but I began to get teary as he spoke, realizing that his eloquent comments were falling on deaf ears for the most part. As people became ruder and shouting became louder, the vote was called at 10:00 p.m., the time I had arranged with Stacey to be home. As I waited in line with Saul to receive my ballot, the teary eyes became a full-scale meltdown and I ran from the building in embarrassment, unable to control my emotions. I waited in the car for another half hour while Saul filled in my ballot as well as his and waited with Betty and Jerry to hear the outcome of the voting. In a relatively close vote, the congregation had voted to stay in the building.

We called Stacey as we were leaving in a thunderstorm downpour so heavy we could barely see out the window to apologize and let her know how late we would be coming home. Luckily, she has been wonderful and flexible about her hours.

I kept myself extremely busy on Friday, cooking, cleaning, and gardening, to keep from thinking about the previous evening’s discord, and, for the most part, it worked. Ari drove up from DC on Friday evening, stopping to have Shabbat dinner with Jess and Alex and holding our new baby Yona. Saul and I were so tired that we were unable to stay awake until he arrived a little after 11:00 p.m. Groggily, I woke Saul after thinking I had been asleep for only a few minutes. He looked at the clock and told me it was 11:15, so I told him to call Ari to find out his ETA. Unfortunately, Saul sees double without his glasses. It was actually 1:15 a.m. and we awoke Ari in another bedroom only to find out he had arrived two hours earlier. He forgave us in the morning. I could not face going to services on Saturday morning and we spent the time with Ari enjoying his company.

Only Beth joined us for Shabbat dinner this week as Larry is still in Egypt and Jordan. I took most of dinner from the freezer, including homemade challah, chicken soup, matzoh balls and dumplings, charcoal-grilled hamburgers, hot dogs, and Moroccan sausage, and Jumbo Oatmeal Peanut Butter and Raisin Cookies. I filled in with homemade guacamole with pretzel chips, and sliced tomatoes and onion. Mom joined us for a little bit of chicken soup, but did not stay at the table for more than a few minutes.

Saturday evening, Beth and Paul hosted us for dinner on Beth’s deck. Ari helped bring heavy boxes down from the attic for a garage sale we intend to have in a few weeks. We have an enormous amount of vintage clothing in the attic and we sorted through and washed some of it to take to try to sell at a store downtown about which Ari heard from his friends, Matt and Deb, called Buffalo Exchange. We used the errand as an excuse to enjoy a dim sum brunch in Chinatown. I was pleased that the store took about half the two dozen items I had brought, and most of the rejections were because the items were unseasonal. I really brought an assortment, not knowing what types of outfits or decades would be appealing. As it turned out, the $25 cash I was paid was just enough to cover the dim sum, so it would be necessary to find some other outlet for the vintage clothing. When we returned home, Saul found that outlet on the Internet—a site called Sazz Vintage Clothing that was willing to come and pay us to pick up all our clothing, and they did. Whatever they take that is not saleable will be donated to charities in the area and that makes us very happy. Beth and Paul joined us for dim sum. Paul was a dim sum virgin until now, not even knowing what it is. I think he liked it.

Ari headed back to DC early Sunday evening with a large pile of his freshly laundered and folded clothing that we had finished over the weekend in my larger washer and dryer. After a fews days of work, he will be leaving for his Memorial Day visit to Moscow.

Monday evening, we met Ken and Randi for appetizers and salads at Bonefish Grill in Willow Grove and caravaned back to our house for their visit with Mom. Tuesday, we met with a landscaper and a painter. Since Saul is in physical therapy for the pain in his shoulders and cannot help with the landscaping, and since I am beginning to feel my grandmotherly age and am afraid of doing damage to myself, we decided to break down and pay to have someone else dig, edge, plant, and move wheelbarrows full of mulch. We did our own masterful job of potting and arranging plants on our deck and gazebo, though. We are waiting to place the last planter of flowers into the arbor outside Mom’s room because a robin red-breast is nesting there. The egg just hatched, and we are waiting until the fledgling leaves the nest.

Mom has become noticeably more confused this week, perhaps because of the Lorazepam we have been giving her daily to quell her evening bouts of anxiety. Adele has been in and out visiting for most of the week and finds this dementia very disturbing as she feels she is practically a clone of Mom and fears that she might wind up in the same state. I just keep trying to reassure her that, while Mom would surely have preferred not to be a burden, there are many other more unpleasant ways to die. Most of the time, Mom is pleasant and looks extremely peaceful when she is asleep. Everyone has commented how relaxed and unlined her face has become. Losing your memory and developing Alzheimer’s is not usually a sudden, lightening-strike type of debilitation. Who is to say at what point along this continuum, on which day, the mind has become so bad that life is no longer worth living? Of course, none of us want to contemplate our end or the loss of our vitality in old age, but these problems arise from living through to the blessing of a full life. How much more unlucky many of us are to be cut down at an early age!

Like ice cream that has melted and refrozen, I feel the loss of some of the flavor and texture of my life this week. The ice cream can still be eaten and enjoyed after it melts down and has been refrozen. I can continue to enjoy partaking, but I fear it will never taste quite the same.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bricks and Stones

The old playground expression is “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” How untrue! In my years I have seen many lives destroyed by words, words that are the manifestation of evil, malicious, jealous, or misguided intentions. Through words, people can sometimes coerce, frighten, cajole or motivate others to perform horrific acts as easily as selfless and noble acts.

I recently attended an awards ceremony in which one of the speakers opined about the failure of Conservative Judaism to reach out to young adults and families, who statistically have shown themselves to be more interested in the spiritual aspects of Judaism than their predecessors, who enjoyed the more institutional and communal aspects of the religion that have always been the hallmark of Conservative Judaism. In the last few weeks, I have been extremely disturbed by a turn of events that illustrates for me just how far some people are willing to stoop to preserve the bricks and stones of their institution rather than the spirituality.

I believe I am in a unique position to comment on the state of Conservative Judaism in the Philadelphia area. Because of the egalitarian nature of this movement for men and women, and because of its foundation of traditional observance, Saul and I were always comfortable in the movement and tremendously involved in our synagogue’s life—teaching for many years, attending services, participating in events, cooking and serving dinners, making parade floats, studying Bible, assisting in fund-raising efforts, sending our kids to Camp Ramah, and all the other aspects of synagogue life that help develop strong family friendships and community involvement. These are the positive aspects of synagogue life that sustained our family and spurred our daughter to want to attend The Jewish Theological Seminary, where she met her husband.

Unfortunately, we have also encountered extremely negative effects on our family life that have caused us tremendous angst and suffering—rabbis accused of inappropriate sexual behavior; an executive director, (who was raised in the synagogue by founding members), who embezzled $10,000 from my small desktop publishing business which for 20 years produced an award-winning synagogue newspaper; having to testify in federal court to put that former “friend” in jail along with his cohort, the synagogue’s bookkeeper. No one will ever know the full extent of the millions of dollars they stole because prosecutors were only able to investigate the last seven years of the theft.

These were the major causes of angst, but there were many other less dramatic incidences of institutional failure, insensitivity, and downright malicious intent, enough, eventually, to cause us to leave many of our good friends and, in some cases, clients, behind in search of a kinder and more spiritually uplifting synagogue environment. For the last few years, we thought we had found it.

Although the building was shabby and unsuitable for the mainly elderly members, (many of whom could no longer comfortably negotiate the two flights of stairs necessary to reach the bathroom), the good karma in the sanctuary during services was palpable. Whatever differences of opinion had occurred in the past, most of the members seemed to have moved on from them and this congregation seemed genuinely to care for each other. The rabbi is a brilliant and engaging speaker who has shown himself, in recent years, to be approachable, empathetic and understanding.

But yet again, the carpet has been pulled out from under me. The good karma of this place has evaporated in a flurry of rabid disagreements, intolerance, disrespect, grandstanding, petty behavior, and malicious letter-writing. The members who care about the future of this synagogue have divided into two camps—those who recognize that the bricks and stones of the building are mooring us to a past that cannot long survive into the future, and those for whom the bricks and stones represent an unbreakable link to their family’s past that will be lost forever if they are forced to leave. In the effort to cling to, or flee from, those bricks and stones, some of the members appear to have forgotten that our love and concern for each other should supersede all else.

Our Jewish institutions that were set up in this country many years ago recognized a mandate to protect Jewish families from the ravages of a hostile environment. To this end, provisions were made to provide aid to struggling families and individuals through lending institutions that financed businesses, through chevra kadisha societies that provided proper burial, through subsidized summer camps, through occupational training programs, and through a host of other services to meet the needs and ensure the prosperity of our families. On a personal level, however, I have experienced and observed some very mean-spirited behavior on the part of individuals who begrudge their fellow congregants the opportunity to do profitable business with the synagogue. A lay member may donate thousands of dollars worth of volunteer effort for the benefit of the synagogue, but when a single dollar of profit is earned in their business dealings with the synagogue, there are those who will snicker that these volunteers are money-grubbing opportunists.

The failure to support and encourage those who supply services to our synagogues extends to exemplary and devoted educators who have had their contracts withheld by synagogue boards with hidden agendas, as well as competent rabbis and administrators who have been railroaded out of their positions by a few hostile board members. Somewhere along the line, many of us have lost the ability to rejoice in each other’s prosperity, to appreciate and reward our professional leadership, to provide networking opportunities for young and committed families, and to reach out to each other in friendship and mutual respect.

If Conservative Judaism is to die (and many think it is already dead), it is because it has failed to provide the welcoming, inclusive, and supportive environment that young people seek to nourish their spirit and enhance their life. The institution cannot expect that people will continue to commit their time and resources merely because that is what their parents did. To engage and encourage young people, it is necessary for all synagogue members to recognize that the well-being of the people within our building is far more important than the brick and stone structure that houses them.

Both camps have the survival of their congregation as a goal, but I fear the community will not survive the deleterious effects of the baseless hatred and contempt that has arisen from this controversy. I dearly hope that the animosity that has arisen between congregants over a vote to sell our bricks and stones and move to a more economical and feasible space will dissipate with the passage of time, that people will admit that they went too far in their zeal and that they will apologize to each other for their mistakes.

Monday, May 11, 2009

What About Mother's Day?

About two weeks ago, my sister Adele asked me what we should do about Mother’s day this year. My initial internal reaction was aiieeaaah! For many years now, as many as I can remember, I have been hosting our family’s Mother’s Day brunch, sometimes to my own immediate family’s consternation because they feel that I should have a day off and be waited on and pampered myself, and they are willing to do that for me if only I would lay down and allow them to do so. For many years, my daughter, as a synagogue educational director, had to work on Mother’s Day, anyway. A very long time ago, we planned ahead, braved the crowds, and went out to eat on Mother’s Day, an experience that not one of us cares to duplicate.

This may very well be Mom’s last Mother’s Day as she is at home on hospice and her health appears to be slowly deteriorating. My daughter has a two-week old baby at home in Baltimore. My son would have to drive for at least six hours on Sunday to be here for a brunch and back in DC to be at work on Monday morning. Stacey, who helps me care for Mom, really wanted to be with her mother on Mother’s Day.

I told Adele that I would wait until the last possible minute to decide on whether to have our usual Sunday brunch. As the day approached, Ari discussed my mixed emotions with me on the phone. “What would you really like to do?” he asked. “Would you like to run away entirely and go to the seashore, perhaps?” “I can arrange it, if you say the word,” he told me. “Do you want to come here and stay over for the weekend again.” I tried searching in the depths of my soul to see if I really felt like running away, if only for a day or two, from all these pressing responsibilities. I think what I found there is that I would not have felt right running away and would not have enjoyed myself. Neither could I stay at home, lay in bed and take it easy when a lot of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren would be coming to visit Mom. I let everyone know that I would decide last Tuesday, and on Tuesday, I decided to have the usual brunch.

It rained every day last week. In fact, it rained for eleven straight days. Each day, as I finished my computer work, I looked longingly out the window hoping to be able to get at least an hour’s work completed in the garden. No deal. The deck has been piled with heaps of dead leaves and the sodden detritus of last summer’s dead flowers. Everyone with whom I spoke seemed to be suffering from seasonal affective disorder. The only relief came from the fact that my miniature fig tree and my kaffir lime tree that had been wintering over in the garage are both fruiting and flowering since they have been brought out onto the deck.

Wednesday, Saul had a free day with no obligations. We used the time to take a trip down to Produce Junction in Glenside to buy plants at tremendously good prices. I bought two large braided hibiscus trees, two pink flowering mandevilla vines, two healthy gardenia bushes, a flat of multicolored petunias, various herbs, such as French tarragon and lemon thyme, a few pots of lantana and verbena, a rieger begonia, four cyclamen and four gerbera daisy plants, all for under $150.

Thursday was Saul’s last final. He went from giving his final, to meetings, to physical therapy for his shoulders, to an evening awards ceremony and dinner with me for our friend, Faith Rubin, who was one of this year’s recipients of United Synagogue’s Ateret HaKavod Award for her long-time and exemplary service as an educator and educational director. The dinner was a wine bar and buffet catered by Barclay and consisting of four themed food stations that served Asian, Italian, Israeli, and American Jewish cuisine. We dined on everything from pad Thai, to tortellini, to felafel, to hand-carved corned beef and brisket. Adjourning to the sanctuary of Adath Israel, we watched the presentations of awards and speeches, and then were treated to a dessert buffet. The evening out gave us a chance to catch up with many old friends and acquaintances whom we haven’t seen in quite some time.

Friday, we began potting up our purchases from Produce Junction. We finally got a break in the weather that allowed us to spiff up our view of the deck and gazebo as we begin our summer vacation. Beth and her friend Paul began planting our raised garden with veggies, as we are collaborating on the production of produce this year. Saul took advantage of the window of good weather and fired up the charcoal grill in the afternoon to grill juicy hamburgers, giant kosher hot dogs, and spicy Moroccan sausage, while I prepared the economical dishes of beef, barley and mushroom soup and barbecue beef from the second cut of brisket that I had not used up during Passover. When we discovered that only Larry was joining us for Shabbat dinner, we froze all the grilled meat and dined on the soup and barbecue beef. We also had homemade challah, fresh spinach salad with hard-boiled egg, avocado, onion and cucumber with hot sesame dressing, homemade potato salad, kohlrabi coleslaw, gezer chai (living carrots), and jumbo oatmeal, peanut butter and raisin cookies.

We drove Larry and Natalie to Kennedy Airport on Long Island for their Grand Circle trip to Egypt and Jordan. We ran into standstill traffic immediately after we dropped them off and asked our GPS to detour us. It detoured us right through New York City’s Chinatown and through the Holland Tunnel. At least we weren’t standing still. We had some dinner on the road at a Cracker Barrel in New Jersey before using the opportunity to visit Saul’s Mom at Safe Haven at Lion’s Gate, an excellent Alzheimer’s disease facility. We brought her some chocolate-covered cashews and a picture frame filled with the photo of her three great-granddaughters for Mother’s Day. We put up a few pictures on her bulletin board of various ones of us holding Yona, the new baby, and wrote names on the photos. She no longer seems to be able to remember some of the family’s names and she has lost the ability to speak in languages other than English, even Yiddish, surprisingly. Saul tried out Hebrew, Yiddish, and Hungarian while we were with her and she only nodded in answer and seemed confused. On this visit, we found her in her room, instead of in the common room with the other patients. She had barricaded her door with a chair and also had a chair barricading her closet door. She told us that someone was stealing her stuff when she left the room. When she opened the closet door, there were so many items of clothing jamming the closet, that she had difficulty removing them from the bar. If anything, we had marveled at her lack of paranoia that we had encountered on previous visits. Since her experiences in the Holocaust, she had always been paranoiaic. It is hard for us to say whether we just had encountered her on a bad day, or whether she is reverting back to her previous state as her disease progresses. When we returned home, I made a sour cream pound cake, this time with the cane sugar I was supposed to be trying out, and a brown sugar glazed sweet potato cake, also with the cane sugar.

I arose really early on Sunday morning to get ready for the brunch. I went into Mom’s room to empty her commode, bring her more Ensure and fresh water, and brush her false teeth with toothpaste so she could put them into her mouth. I reminded her that the whole family was coming to visit her for Mother’s Day thinking that would please her as she lately never wants to be alone. Then I vacuumed and put tablecloths on the tables, turned the cakes out of the pans, made the glaze for the sweet potato cake, changed part of my modular Dacor range into a griddle, made French toast with a loaf of Friday evening’s challah, and prepared batter for cornmeal pancakes. By then, Saul was up and went to check on Mom. We were surprised to find that she was freaked out by the fact that everyone was coming. She told Saul and me that no one was to come into her room and that they all were coming only to eat and not to visit her. We were absolutely shocked to see and hear this kind of behavior in the daytime. Adele came early to help me prepare, and she was equally shocked. We didn’t want to give Mom the usual medication for fear it would make her groggy. Two hours later, when my brother Ken came early after picking up a number of food items at Costco, and went into her room, all the angst was forgotten. Eventually, she spent about an hour at the kitchen table in her wheelchair, eating a bit of real food and happily schmoozing with her guests. When she could no longer sit up, her room was filled with lots of family and happy conversation. Erik brought her a gigantic gorgeous flower arrangement from all of us from his parents’ flower shop, Schmidt’s Flowers in Bristol.

Beth came over early and used my leaf vacuum to clean up the unsightly piles of leaves on the deck while I showered and dressed. At the brunch we had lox, pickled herring, and whitefish salad with cream cheese and bagels that Anne had brought from New York, a platter of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, mini sweet peppers, onions and radishes, sliced American and Monterrey jack cheeses, Manchego cheese (that both Haley and Randi went crazy over) with homemade membrillo, French toast, cornmeal pancakes made with the cane sugar so that Erik could partake (that Danny went crazy over) with real grade b maple syrup, cornbread muffins from Costco with butter and seedless raspberry jam, mixed fresh berries from Costco (giant strawberries, blackberries and raspberries) with whipped cream, a decorated chocolate cake from Costco, the two cakes I had made the previous evening, and Costco’s super premium vanilla ice cream. Although the deck and gazebo looked very inviting, the day was so windy that everyone ate indoors. After everyone left, Beth and Paul came back to plant the vegetables in the garden and begin to put up deer netting, while Saul replaced our garage door opener keypad which had died a few weeks ago, and a garage door spring, which had snapped suddenly a few days ago causing such a sound that we thought part of our house had collapsed. Then, he came in to watch Mom while I finally had an opportunity to get outside and pull some weeds, edge some beds, and pull out some ferns that were choking our cherry laurels.

Today, when Stacey came, Saul and I ran out to Produce Junction in Hatboro to check out a few more items that we needed to complete our plantings. The pickings were slim, but I did buy six New Guinea impatiens for $14, three more slightly sad leftover gardenia plants for $5 total, and a new wand for my hose for $5. On the way back, we stopped at Rhoads Gardens down the street from our home and bought a hanging basket with a plant loaded with cherry tomatoes and some live Spanish moss with which to cover our cocoa mat hanging baskets that we arranged on Friday. Everything we had seen at Rhoads Gardens was double to triple the price we had payed at Produce Junction. We had rushed back to meet with Mom’s social worker, Marion, at noon. As we were waiting in the checkout line at Rhoads, Marion tapped me on the shoulder. She had decided to go there also before our meeting just to take in the beauty of the flowers for a few minutes. Although Rhoads prices are high, they have some of the most beautiful and unusual plantings, structures and garden accessories that you can find anywhere. Mom was awake and pleasant this morning and afternoon. Darnice came to bathe her and change her clothes and she was very agreeable today. Adele also came and met Marion for the first time. While Darnice was bathing Mom, Saul and I, Stacey, Marion and Adele sat at the kitchen table and discussed our situation. Each time I speak with Marion, I learn a bit more detail about the whole situation and state of hospice and health care in this country. I hope that the system will be reformed under Obama. There are so many pitfalls and inequities as it stands now, not to mention the potential for catastrophic cost to those who are suffering. When Marion left, we went to Home Depot to get some bars to try to repair our outdoor solar lanterns and some Roundup to get rid of the weeds coming up between the blocks of our new slab of patio. We dined on leftovers.

I fell asleep at 6:00 p.m. this evening, in the middle of a shared phone conversation with Saul and Ari. When I awoke at 8:15 p.m., Saul told me he had given Mom her Lorazepam because she had become very belligerent with him when he declined to sit with her in her room. He actually feared that she might bite him when he went to remove her teeth for the night. We are sure that in the morning, she will remember none of this. I wonder if the stories of vampires and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde come from people who had to deal with sundown syndrome in bygone days.

Ari has booked a trip to Moscow for Memorial Day weekend. He found a round-trip flight for under $425 which gives him Star Alliance miles, allowing him to keep and upgrade his frequent flyer status. The Swissotel where he is staying is $160 per night as opposed to the $600-700 per night it usually costs. He tells me it looks on the map as though it is in the Kremlin, although it probably is just adjacent. I wish I loved to fly as much as he does! I might have enjoyed going there for Mother’s Day :-).

Monday, May 4, 2009

Living In Interesting Times

Last Monday, while on the way to Baltimore to see my new granddaughter, I made arrangements with my kitchen team to cook the scholar-in-residence dinner for 100 at the synagogue on Thursday afternoon, instead of Friday morning as we had planned. Everyone was able to accommodate me so that I could spend the weekend back in Baltimore with my family. Wednesday, I caught up with laundry, cleaned, napped, invited our friend, Faith, over for dinner to use up leftovers, and baked. Jessica told me that we would be celebrating Alex’s brother Aaron’s birthday on Friday evening. I baked, frosted, and decorated a carrot cake for him. I also made two batches of Jumbo Oatmeal, Peanut-Butter and Raisin cookies, a favorite of Alex’s family. I decided I still had energy left to try out the Sour-Cream Pound Cake recipe that I will be using for Haley’s wedding cake with the cane sugar I bought at Costco, because Erik is allergic to regular white sugar. I took out the huge bag of sugar to show to Faith and left it on the kitchen table. Then, I proceeded to make the cake and put it in the oven for half an hour before realizing that I had never opened the cane sugar. On auto-pilot, I had just reached for my canister of regular white sugar. When the realization hit, both Saul and I had a good laugh about my glitch, and his, too, because he was sitting at the table with the bag in front of him the whole time. I guess I will just have to make yet another one to try out the cane sugar.

Thursday morning, I went back to bed after cooking Saul’s oatmeal and slept while Saul finished up his last regular day of classes this semester. I went to Costco, when Stacey arrived to take care of Mom, to pick up frozen string beans for the dinner and other supplies for Stacey to spend the weekend here. I made Israeli salad to take for breakfast at Ari’s and packed up the rest of the items I had purchased to prepare the dinner. Jerry and Betty picked me up around 2 p.m. and we headed over to pick up Natalie. Then, we met Saul at Produce Junction in Glenside to pick up everything else we needed for the dinner. We arrived at the synagogue about 3:30 p.m. and set about preparing the pomegranate glaze, chicken, rice and Israeli salad that made up the Sephardic menu. We were joined by Irv and Tom, and together, we had a great time making prodigious quantities of food. We were able to finish up by 7 p.m. and spent the last 15 minutes debating about where to have dinner. In the car, on the way home, we decided at the last minute to have dinner at Jasmine in Glenside. It was a marvelous dinner in great company and the perfect antidote to the exhaustion we all were feeling. Stacey had arranged to stay over beginning on Thursday evening and had bonded with Mom very well.

Friday morning, Saul had a blood test scheduled at 9 a.m. with our doctor in Elkins Park. Since Stacey was here with Mom, I decided to accompany him and drop off some work for a client nearby. We packed most of our stuff for the weekend before leaving. When we returned, we had breakfast at home and finished packing. We were on the road at about 12:15 p.m. We had decided to go the long way over the Conowingo Dam and Route 1 to avoid the hectic drive over I-95. The more leisurely drive, which usually takes an extra half hour, took an extra hour and a half because of heavy traffic we encountered on Baltimore’s beltway, I-695. Alex was hard at work in the kitchen whipping up dinner for Yona’s first Shabbat. We had homemade and storebought challah, garlic bread from Costco, gazpacho with cilantro oil, seared tuna with avocado and horseradish sauce, glazed salmon fillet, quinoa with chestnuts and mushrooms, steamed artichokes, and steamed broccoli. For dessert, we not only had the three I had just prepared, but I also cleaned out my freezer from leftover chocolate almond bars and mocha mousse crepes from Passover. It was quite a feast! We were joined by Ari, Alex’s parents, Aaron and Stacey and their three children, and Naomi.

On Saturday morning, before services, Saul had his first encounter with a chiropractor, who was able to finally alleviate most of the pain in his right shoulder that has been keeping him up at night. Jessica had a much-needed adjustment also and was feeling better. It was my first visit to a chiropractor’s office, also, and I watched the procedures on the two of them with curiosity. Fortunately, nothing is troubling me lately. When we returned home, Ari, Jessica, Elaine, Saul, Yona and I joined Alex, Sami, Izzy, and Maury at services. Saul, Ari and I stayed with Sami at her services while the rest joined Alex as he led his special “Tot Shabbat.” We returned and had delicious leftovers for lunch. We had been planning to go out for a late dinner together, but during the afternoon, Naomi called with the disturbing news that their elderly Aunt Fran had died suddenly. The Weinberg family was converging at Jess and Alex’s to be together and discuss funeral arrangements, so Saul, Ari and I made plans to meet our friend Larry, who was on his way down to College Park for a baby-naming for other of his friends. Larry met us at Jess and Alex’s to see our new baby Yona, distribute some gifts, and we were soon on our way to his motel to drop off his car and luggage. We squeezed into Ari’s new Mercedes and headed out to Wheaton, where we had dinner together at the Hollywood East Café, one of our favorite haunts. Afterward, we dropped Larry back at his motel, continued on to Ari’s home, and went to sleep in preparation for our early morning gig at the Pearlstone Center.

Ari had agreed to take Jessica’s place registering bikers for the “Bike for Kayam Farm” fund-raiser on which she had been working for some time now. We were up on Sunday by 5:30 a.m. so that we could dress, make the one-hour drive, and be ready to work by 7:15 a.m. Pearlstone also had a yummy hot breakfast ready for us when we arrived. Unfortunately, by 8 a.m. the persistent drizzle had turned into full-scale rain. A canopy was set up to cover the registration area where some intrepid bikers had indeed shown up to register. Over 45 bikers registered and traveled the various distances on different routes of the journey. The monetary goal for the program was met. Only Ari was needed to work, so Saul and I sat in front of a wall of windows gazing out over a pastoral, if soggy, vista. Ari finished at 11 a.m. and we returned to Jess and Alex’s home to take Jess out to lunch. Jess chose a Latin-themed nearby restaurant that had an extensive breakfast buffet. The food was ample and delicious, if rather expensive. Unfortunately, Saul apparently accidentally ingested through cross-contamination, a food item to which he is highly allergic. A few hours after we arrived home, seven hours after we had eaten, he began vomiting and was up most of the night. Luckily, today he only needed to be at school to administer a final exam. He spent the rest of the day in bed.

Last Thursday afternoon, we learned that Beth and most of her division had been laid off by Toll Brothers. Beth had been planning to start her own business for some time now and has wasted no time launching it. I spent today designing a logo for her new venture, 7th Circle Engineering, LLC. By evening, it was ready, and she really liked my first attempt. We made a few modifications, and I was able to send her off with enough letterhead stationery to launch what we all hope will be a highly successful venture.

During the weekend, as happy as Mom was with Stacey, a problem developed where she suddenly became paranoid that she was being spied upon, that her checkbook had been stolen, and that her phone was bugged. Adele was away for the weekend also, so we were able to enlist Beth to put Saul on the phone to Mom to instruct her to take the pill that she needed to relax and calm her, Lorazepam. Beth sat and held her hand after that until she fell asleep. Ken checked in on her on Sunday and gave her another pill. By the time we arrived on Sunday evening, she was her usual self and extremely relieved to see us. This morning, she told me that she really missed seeing Stacey. I had given Stacey the day off. Mom’s nurse, Kathy, told me when she visited today that paranoia can be one of the symptoms of Mom’s condition.

The scholar-in-residence dinner went smoothly according to all accounts I have heard so far. Saul seems to be better this evening. Finals will be over on Thursday and what we consider to be the official start of summer vacation begins for us on Friday. It has been an interesting week, filled with very good as well as very bad times, almost as though life with all its ups and downs has been squeezed like an accordion into a very compressed state. I am trying hard to keep a sense of humor and an even keel through it all.