Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Finding “Joy” As the Pandemic Drags On

There are many reasons to be sad and depressed as the pandemic drags on and “normal” life as we knew it at the beginning of the year now seems a distant dream after seven months of self-isolation. But as I communicate with friends and family who led far more active lives than we in retirement had been living, I hear reasons for appreciation (if not necessarily joy) for the slowed-down pace of life that people are now experiencing. My family is exceedingly lucky, being able to slow down without actually losing the source of their livelihood or exposing themselves to risky situations that are out of their control. The upcoming election with its constant bombardment of conflicting views and uncertainty about the future of this country threatens to undo any sense of well-being that we might steal for ourselves by trying to live in the moment. Nevertheless, we must keep hoping for a better world, doing what we can to bring it about, and trying to create small moments of joy for ourselves and those we love so that we all can keep our sanity until we emerge from under this dark cloud. In short, we must count our blessings and do what we can to create as many blessings as possible during these bleak times. 

As I look back on my photos since I last posted here on August 27, I realize that many of the photos are of food. Yes, in our family, and probably many others, beautiful food, lovingly prepared, is a great source of joy. We have just finished celebrating our High Holy Days and harvest festivals for 2020. We did not observe or celebrate in the usual ways this year, but there were many creative and meaningful ways that our clergy devised to bring us together in prayer and bring us joy. We have many new friends, met over Zoom, and Teams, and FaceTime, to whom we would have just given a nod at services in the past. In addition, people are not limited to their physical locations. People can access each other regardless of physical disability or even old age, which keeps us all from feeling isolated. We may not be able to give each other a hug, or a handshake, right now, but that does not keep us from interacting and sharing our lives with each other in a very personal and meaningful way.

Just having two of our granddaughters living with us, now, has been a great and constant source of joy for Saul and me. Although there are moments of bickering, frustration, and depression, I think we all appreciate how lucky we are to have each other. Sami and Izzy, while they are each attending their schools remotely, have bonded over playing video games, such as Animal Crossings, together, helping each other with schoolwork, discussing anime series they follow, cooking what they have decided they crave, taking long drives together to pick up take-out food, and visiting their Grammy, who lives about 45 minutes away, a few days a week. They, too, have their remote friends whom they cannot touch, but who appear regularly on their screens even though they may be 10,000 miles apart.

Lastly, there is no discounting the beauty of our weather and surroundings here in Florida. We have our own pool and hot tub which we can use all year around. We have a landscape that provides exotic flowers and fruit all year around. We have wildlife that never ceases to amaze. Almost daily, the sunsets alone are enough to produce joy, if nothing else does. It’s all in the appreciation!

Some of the other highlights of the last few months have been: Sami making ramen from scratch; celebrating Elaine’s birthday with a carrot cake; Izzy giving us amazing haircuts! watching our plants develop amazing flowers; preparing an Apple Honey Cake from my cookbook, Bubbie’s Kitchen, which I am preparing to put up online (I haven’t made it in over 30 years); getting round challot, both regular and rainbow prepared for Rosh Hashanah; making apple butter cookies, zucchini bread, and date bread sandwiches for the holiday and sending them to friends, preparing a requested Presley Bella Angel Food Cake for Ted’s 90th birthday and celebrating it together (socially distanced) on our lanai on a lovely evening; receiving a beautiful blue and white bouquet of fresh flowers from Elaine; enjoying lunch together on both days of Rosh Hashanah; a surprise package that arrived from Jessica and Alex containing a whole collection of adorable honey bears that contained many different kinds of honey to add to our “now vast” honey collection; Sami making gorgeous and delicious moon cakes for the Chinese Moon Festival on October 1 and sharing them with our neighbors; preparing with Sami Erik’s birthday cake, with a requested sour cream pound cake, layered with meringue, fresh mango, mango coulis, and cream cheese icing and celebrating with Haley, Erik, and Ken (socially distanced) on the lanai. Haley and Erik have rented a beautiful vacation villa nearby and will be here in Florida for the next eight months!

There was a lot about which to be joyful! My recommendation to all of us, to help us get through this, is to search out what small things you can do that bring you joy in your life, and even after the pandemic ends, and hopefully that will be soon, do whatever brings you and your loved ones joy on a daily basis.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Our Life in Covid Times

My last post ended with the statement “we have been very, very lucky,” and I still very much feel that way. Being retired, Saul and I have the luxury of staying home without worrying about losing a job, having our income curtailed, or, at this point, having to venture out into a potentially dangerous environment to gather supplies, food or otherwise. All our children have good jobs which enable them to work online, and they have been very conscientious and careful about exposing themselves. I really feel terrible for our granddaughters, who, while being extremely careful, are suffering from physical isolation from friends their age. As we have begun the school year, both Sami and Izzy are now living with us here in Florida and opted to take virtual classes, Sami at New College in Sarasota, and Izzy in a special high school program at Polk County College which will award her a 2-year Associates Degree when she has finished her two years of high school. Whether they will need or opt to take physical classes will have to be decided again in January, when a new semester begins. Yona opted to return to New Jersey with her parents at the end of this year’s Camp Bubbie and Saba, right after Sami’s birthday. As I have written before, Yona, while she enjoyed the very close months with her sisters, really enjoys being an “only” child. Camp Bubbie and Saba 2020 was as different from in previous years as most people’s lives are from their pasts in this “new normal” of 2020. Nevertheless, this family is nothing if not resourceful. I view this quality as our greatest strength. We had a great summer, even without Disney, Universal Studios, The Crayola  Experience, shopping, the beaches, myriad wonderful restaurant meals, and socializing with friends and family in the area.

I did a lot of cooking before the crew arrived in preparation, but I needn’t have bothered. The girls all enjoy cooking and baking as much as I and a lot of what I prepared for us is still in the freezer. The five of them and their dog, Inky, arrived at the beginning of June, having loaded their rented van with everything Izzy and Sami would need for their, at least, two years of living with us and Jessica followed behind in their car. Upon arrival, the van was immediately returned at Orlando Airport. Elaine, Alex’s mom, was put under quarantine by the kids for two weeks since she had ventured out to have her hair and nails done prior to their arrival. For those first two weeks, Jess stayed with us, sleeping on the sofa, while Alex and the dog stayed with his mother. During that time, Jess helped the girls rearrange and decorate their rooms to suit them. The results were pretty, interesting, and more livable and convenient for them to function in during these difficult times. They seem very comfortable with the results.

Saul and I have spent a lot of time gardening and caring for our new trees and plants. Unfortunately, despite my frequent warnings that he should wear gloves while gardening in Florida, he got a nasty sting that caused his hand to swell badly and required antibiotics and a few days of resting it with ice before it returned to normal. The fruit and flowers that surround us are a constant source of joy every morning when we open the curtains. Also a source of great joy are our pool and spa which are not only beautiful to look at, but very functional for relaxation as well. The visual stimuli around here are uplifting on even the bleakest days of rain, which are usually followed by magnificent rainbows and technicolor sunsets and sunrises. Even the birds, bunnies, and unusual insects are a source of amusement. My overwhelming reason for getting out of bed right now is putting up a Daily Love Letter from WWII. Each day I am communing with my 19-year-old mother and 26-year-old father as they endure the painful separations they experienced from 1941 until 1945. Given the hardships with which they were faced, Covid 19 seems like a piece of cake in comparison.

A really sad note that occurred in May was the sudden death of Saul’s cousin, Sylvia. She was the mother of the bride, Adi, whose wedding we attended in Israel back in October. Her family had taken her to the hospital for fluid retention, but she died suddenly from pneumonia the evening before she was due to return home. The only bright note was that we had a world-wide family Zoom session at the end of the shiva period. We were able to converse with relatives we hadn’t seen for many years, some of whom weren’t even sure how the others were related or who they were.

When Elaine was allowed out of quarantine, and the girls could finally embrace their dad, we had a socially-distanced Shabbat and invited our friends, Susan, Ted and Larry from the neighborhood. We set up separate tables on the lanai, but the weather was so uncomfortably hot that we decided to table Shabbat socializing until Florida winter arrives and we can sit outside without getting in the pool to cool off. That should probably be sometime in late October or November.

During the summer, Izzy and Yona sculpted and baked small decorative objects for their rooms. Izzy dyed her hair teal, but only half. Sami completed credits towards her degree in hospitality at Valencia College online. Sami indulged her formidable pasta making skills when she received her desired pasta sheeter and cutting attachments for our Kitchen-Aid stand mixer. This allows her to prepare the pasta single-handedly, without the necessity of another person to lay out the dough as it comes out of the machine. Both our original old shiny hand-cranked pasta makers were depositing flakes of chrome in the dough. Izzy baked a delectable olive bread and later on, we discovered that her pizza-making abilities are spot-on as well, not to mention her from-scratch pizza rolls augmented with her home-made tomato sauce and very authentic-tasting naan to accompany Sami’s amazing tofu curries. Yona’s specialties are cupcakes, cookies, and cinnamon rolls which we often distributed to neighbors and friends so that Saul and I, who should not be tempted in that department, could maintain our healthy vegan way of life. With the cooperative effort of the three girls, Saul and I enjoyed some amazing meals this past summer. They treated each other to elaborate breakfasts of omelets, taiyaki, pancakes, waffles and roasted, seasoned potatoes.

The Fourth of July celebration here in our neighborhood did not disappoint. We were able to pull up our pool furniture to our pool screen, which nicely protected us from the evening mosquitoes, and watch unbelievably elaborate fireworks set off by our neighbors on all sides for hours.

Not being able to visit the barber or hairdressers, Jess and Izzy gave pretty competent haircuts to Sami and Saul. Izzy, who had been practicing driving with Saul for a few weeks, was able to pass her driving test on the first time out, and can now legally drive alone in the car. Besides the blogging, organizing of old CD’s containing years-old photos and uploading them to Google photo, digital scanning of old photographs and slides as well as the thousands of pages of letters my family wrote during WWII, and just catching up with things on the “honey-do” list, Saul and I have not been bored in the six months we have been self-isolating. I never thought I would have enough time in my lifetime to ever read all those pages of letters, but I wish I had read them long ago because it would have given me such insight into my parents’ relationship and consequently a better understanding of our family dynamic all the years we were growing up. In whatever free moments we manage to put aside, we have been attending Shabbat religious services on Zoom every week, joining with others in the congregation to light Havadallah candles each week, taking Zoom classes, and schmoozing with others in Decaf, Davka and Dibbur sessions once a month. We even attended a book launching a few days ago by our former rabbi, Howard Avruhm Addison. We would never have been able to be present at an event taking place almost 2,000 miles away without the miracle of Zoom. Also on Zoom, Saul and Sami are tutoring students in Hebrew on Wednesday evenings, and teaching in the synagogue religious school on Sundays.

Alex had driven home with the dog after about three weeks in Florida. He returned again with the dog, who stayed with Elaine, a week before Sami’s 20th birthday at the beginning of August. We had an incredibly delicious Shabbat meal together to celebrate, for which Sami, as usual, made her own deliciously elaborate birthday cake. It was a three-layer sour cream pound cake. Each layer had a meringue circle on top, a ring of butter cream around the edge to corral a mango coulis topped with shaved toasted coconut, more butter cream to frost the top and sides, and a drippy glaze of more mango coulis. Sami loves mangoes! Since we are no longer buying annual passes to Disney World for the kids, we bought Sami a coveted Nintendo Switch for her birthday so that she could participate in gaming with her friends in college, her sisters, and one of her younger cousins who is feeling particularly isolated. After celebrating Sami’s birthday, Alex, Jess, Yona and Inky drove back to New Jersey where Yona can now have her life as an only child back, while she prepares to take virtual courses when school begins for her in September.

We are all trying very hard to cultivate those things that bring us joy so that we will not feel hemmed in or greatly limited by our new lifestyle during these very unsettling times. We are all trying to be very careful so as not to contract or carry the virus, but we find that beyond the limitations of not being able to socialize or entertain during social distancing in person, our life in Covid times has many advantages as well.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Somewhere Under the Rainbow

My daughter, Jessica, always tells me that she is upset when she sees a new blog post from me because it means that I haven’t been out living my life, that I have spent too much time writing about it. Well, that doesn’t really hold true anymore. I have now been sheltering in place because of the COVID 19 pandemic since the day after my 70th birthday, so it has now been over ten weeks. There is no end in sight for us right now because both Saul and I are in the high risk category. So, I have lots of time (more than I ever thought possible) to catch up with all the tasks in my life that I have let go because they took a back seat to going out and living my best life possible.  Writing this journal blog is one of many tasks that have been put on the back burner. Consequently, I have not written a word in here in almost two years. As a result, Saul and I have gone through hundreds of photos that we have accumulated over this period to prepare this gigantic post. Of course, much of the detail of daily living will be lost, but I am determined to attempt to catch up with the present day. Saul suggested I break this up into three sections, one for each year that has gone by. We certainly have had a wonderful life, so far!

June 4 through December 31, 2018

My previous post ended with my two older granddaughters choosing their schools for the year that would begin at the end of August 2018. I was really looking forward to the beginning of Camp Bubbie and Saba so that I would have them all for a few months before they began the academic year. It was a wonderful summer! Sami continued to perfect making her rainbow pasta. I finally was able to update my kitchen, something I had wanted since we moved here, with a giant double stainless steel sink and quartz countertops and matching backsplash. That gives me joy almost every day.

Shortly after we celebrated Adele and Larry’s 50th wedding anniversary, it was necessary for Larry to place Adele in a memory care facility in The Villages. Beth came in for a visit and we traveled the hour to visit her and were very pleased with the facility. Saul and I planted fruit trees along the side of our house, a cocktail citrus tree, a mango and an avocado, all of which are giving us fruit now. As usual, we had amazing adventures in the Disney Parks. Izzy added the extra dimension of the nearby Tree Trek Adventure. A set of obstacle courses in the tall tree tops nearby which takes most athletic adults a few hours to complete is a piece of cake for Izzy, She finishes all five courses in under a half an hour, only surpassed by the designer of the course. Yona was able to take advantage of the coupons we had won in the Disney trivia contests in the Yacht Club’s lounge, Martha’s Vineyard, and spent some time making beautiful ceramic objects. Izzy helped us design and build a rolling cart for our collection of orchid plants. Sami celebrated her 18th birthday at Il Mulino in The Swan Hotel with a large group of family and friends. By the middle of August it was time for the girls to head out for school. Jess ordered everything they would need in their respective dorms, and drove Izzy to her stellar year at American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina, a year that was to end abruptly and shockingly when the school closed down at the end of the academic year with no warning. Sami began classes over the summer at Valencia College to begin her hospitality degree, and left to begin her first year at New College in Sarasota as a Chinese major. Both had wonderful years and were very happy with their choices. That left Yona as our “only child” at the end of August. We were all very pleased to host five Israeli women who had worked as camp counselors in the U.S. over the summer. Yona really bonded with them and they treated her like a little doll. We had a marvelous time cooking together and visiting Disney attractions.

We celebrated Ted’s 88th birthday. Paul and Rif took a cruise and then came to visit us in November. The whole family was together for Thanksgiving and we all had the most wonderful time together. Saul and I were able to get a really reasonable flight to London, so after Thanksgiving, Ari, Saul and I flew out for a vacation in London that lasted several weeks. While Ari was here, we visited the Orlando car show to consider buying a new vehicle. After that, we wanted to test drive a Toyota Highlander Hybrid. The day before we were to leave for England, after breakfast, we decided, on a lark, to stop into a nearby Toyota dealership. We discovered that these hybrids were rarer than hen’s teeth. That became a challenge for Ari and he managed to locate the only one in Central Florida about an hour’s drive away. We not only test drove it, we impulse bought it that afternoon and drove it home to rest in our garage for the month we would be away.

Our time in London was incredible! Ari had moved into a new flat in Woolwich Arsenal thinking that the new crossrail line would be opening shortly and that he would only have a 15-minute commute to work in Canary Wharf. Unfortunately, the project appears to be stalled indefinitely for many reasons. However, Saul and I loved the brick and cobblestone, industrial feel of the neighborhood that was, indeed, a former military arsenal. We had a favorite mom-and-pop, French-style boulangerie down the street where we would frequently dine on a delectable “full-English” breakfast that was completely vegan, down to the oat milk in the coffee. On our third visit, the staff apologized that other people were occupying “our” table. One of the standout experiences that we planned while there was our visit to Cambridge University. What a remarkable town, incredible edifices, and amazing museums we encountered! The spectacular and imaginative Christmas decorations all over London and the special street performances were positively spirit-lifting through the long, dark, cold hours of London’s winter. An out-of-the-way, but extremely quirky and interesting tour that we took was of Eltham Palace, the boyhood home of Henry VIII that was purchased and restored to art deco grandeur by a very wealthy British couple. Although we had spent seven weeks tooling around London five years earlier, Saul and I had never been to the London theaters. Ari was able to arrange tickets for us to see The Lion King. The vintage theater itself was something to behold, and the show was brilliant! Ari flew home with us just before the family arrived in Orlando for winter vacation. Our New Year’s Eve party included members of our synagogue, Ed and Marian, with their granddaughter, who also attended AHA with Izzy. Of course, all through the family time together, our visits to the Disney Parks and breath-taking gingerbread constructions enhanced our experiences together.

January 1, 2019 through December 31, 2019

(click here for additional photos)

During the year 2019, many new friendships developed. Sami often made weekend forays here with new friends from New College. Izzy, living away from home for the first time, also formed lasting friendships with other students at AHA. Saul and I developed new friendships with congregants we encountered at SOJC, among them, Jeffrey, Louis, Rebecca and their son, Max. During our trip to Israel, Rif developed new and close friendships with her Israeli cousins. Our weekly Shabbat dinners continued and grew more elaborate as I learned to cook better and more varied vegan dishes. Rif joined us at the beginning of the year for a few months, as she had several weeks of therapy in Orlando with a technician that specialized in her type of cancer therapy. There were none qualified in New Jersey, and three here in Orlando. During that time, we took advantage of the Disney Festival of the Arts.

We were extremely glad we bought our new hybrid because it made our long road trip up and back from Greensboro, NC, especially comfortable for Elaine, Izzy’s other grandmother in Florida, and her Aunt Rif. not to mention Saul and me. AHA had scheduled a Family Weekend during the Valentine’s Day weekend and we were all eager to see her new environment. We had a super time there touring the amazing facilities and architecture of the school and being entertained by the students and faculty. On Saturday morning, Izzy and our friends’ granddaughter led the Conservative religious services. We had two absolutely incredible vegetarian meals at a restaurant unassumingly named Boba House which was probably one of the best vegetarian restaurants Saul and I have ever encountered, hence eating there two days in a row. I fell while we were going from building to building and scraped up my forehead pretty badly, but narrowly avoided doing much more damage from hitting the edge of some landscaping ties. So sad that this amazing school shut down the way it did.

Returning to Orlando, we had a wonderful time celebrating the special birthday of our next-door neighbor, Paul, at Ragland Road in Disney Springs, followed by dessert at Sprinkles. We attended the “Disney on Broadway” concerts, and tried the new Beyond Burgers at Beaches and Cream at Disney’s Beach Club Resort. We met one of Saul’s former students, Mercedes, and her mother at Animal Kingdom and caught the new “Up” Bird Show. We had lunch with Ken and Rif at the African-themed Disney restaurant “Sanaa” while we observed the wildlife from Animal Kingdom Lodge sauntering by the big windows. Ari sent gorgeous flowers for my birthday. Haley and Erik paid us a visit with their friends, Binky and Joe, and we all had dinner on the patio of the Columbia restaurant in Celebration on a perfect Florida evening. Saul and I also spent a fund-raising evening, compliments of our friends, Ed and Marian, enjoying the delectable complimentary hors d’oeuvres and buffet at the outstanding venue, M Bar, getting to know a few other congregants from SOJC a little better.

Our Passover seder last year was everything this year’s pandemic seder was not. Family and friends flew in from all over the country and the world and we had one of the most amazing seders, ever! We ended the holiday with sushi at Kimonos in The Swan Hotel on Disney’s Boardwalk. Izzy and Yona dressed up for “Dapper Days” at Disney after Sami drove back to school in Sarasota. We celebrated Mother’s Day with brunch at Boma in Disney’s Jambo House at Animal Kingdom Lodge, one of our favorite places here in Florida.

Beginning in June, Camp Bubbie and Saba began again and was just as wonderful as always. Jessica flew out to vacation with Ari and met him in Ireland. Izzy got her driver’s permit and took to driving like a duck to water. Along with our friends, I got to pilot The Millennium Falcon in the newly-opened Star Wars: Galaxy’s End section of Hollywood Studios. Ted, Susan, and Larry all built their own custom droids at the park, a fascinating experience. Our neighbor, Gary, who is a security guard at Disney, invited us all to the soft opening of Disney’s new mode of transportation, the Skyliners. I declined because it was such a hot day and I feared getting stuck up there. I was pooh-poohed, but a few weeks later, the day after I decided to try it on a cool evening, it did, indeed, get stuck and created all kinds of misery for Disney and its guests. Ted’s 89th birthday gift from us was a pair of custom-made socks with their photos on them. Ted is known for liking unusual socks.

We were invited to a wedding of Saul’s cousin Sylvia’s daughter, Adi, in Israel, and wonder of wonders, we were able to book the cheapest flight ever to London! Saul and I both flew for a total of $750.00 round-trip, which included an extra charge for one bag. After persuading Rif to join us on our adventures, she and Paul also booked a flight to London. From there, a flight to Israel is much more reasonable and takes about four hours. Virgin Airlines had just that month opened a direct flight from London to Tel Aviv. Despairing of the crossrail line opening anytime soon, Ari moved again to an even more beautiful two-bedroom, two-bath glass-walled flat on the 38th floor of a building on Canary Wharf overlooking the Thames. He can now walk to work in another high-rise tower about 10 minutes from his flat. Little did we all know what a boon that would be in “these uncertain times.” Saul and I arrived there first thing in the morning from Orlando, and Rif and Paul arrived from Philadelphia within hours of us. Ari had moved in the previous afternoon, so we were met with huge stacks of boxes and chaos everywhere. At first I thought his flat was tiny compared to the previous one, but as we all dug in to unpack and organize, I began to appreciate the beauty of the space. By lunchtime, with all of us working, almost everything had been unpacked, organized and stashed away.

The next day, the five of us toured the Tower of London and the Crown Jewels, returning to the flat on the Thames Clipper. During the week that we all spent in London, we also toured The British Museum, Covent Garden, Borough Market, The Masonic Temple, The Victoria and Albert Museum and the town of Greenwich and its market. We also saw a performance of The Book of Mormon at a much more modern theater than the one in which Ari, Saul and I saw The Lion King the previous year. We had really great seats, right up front, and thought the satire was very funny. We enjoyed the experience very much! We also had some great food while we were there, including an Indian restaurant, Farszi Café, just a few blocks from the theater and a Chinese restaurant, the Royal China on Canary Wharf near Ari’s flat.

At the end of one week in London, Paul flew back to the U.S. and Ari, Rif, Saul and I took the Virgin flight to Tel Aviv. I must mention that the Virgin Airlines flight was sooooo comfy and we discovered a new liqueur that Ari insisted we try that is offered complimentary on the airline—Amarula. It is made from a fruit of the same name and we all adored it. We found it in our supermarket on our first trip to stock up the three-bedroom, two-bath, apartment that Ari had reserved for us for three weeks. We finished the bottle before returning home. Our apartment in Israel was very comfortable and centrally located in Netanya, although the elevator in the building was a tiny little thing that we jammed ourselves into each time we came or went. Rif had not been back to Israel since she was a three-year-old, so did not really know some of her first cousins who grew up there. The mother of the bride, though, was raised through her teenage years in the U.S. and they were playmates for many years. Saul and I had spent two full summers in Israel with our kids (who each did a junior year of high school on a kibbutz there) and we and Ari had been in contact with them for many years. Although Saul and Ari both possess Israeli passports, Rif did not, and since they had no record of her at the airport, we got caught up in the red tape on arrival for quite a while. Our cousin, Shira, in Haifa was able to help us out in getting her an Israeli passport, but it took the better part of an afternoon to cut the red tape again. Another big glitch on arrival was that the rental agency only had one vehicle that would accommodate all of us and our luggage, and that had a stick shift! Luckily, Saul knew how to drive one, but hadn’t used the skill in almost 30 years. Our trepidation grew as we stalled quite a few times on practice sessions around the parking lot, but Saul got his chops back and the drive to Netanya, late at night, was uneventful. The rental agency came to our apartment and exchanged vehicles the next day.

Our first breakfast in Netanya was delicious shakshuka on Herzl Street, the main drag in Netanya. We also ate several times at one of our favorite restaurants on Herzl Street, Alonzo. The beach in Netanya was even more inviting than I remembered, and there is now an elevator that takes one down from the beautiful promenade up above. When we first stayed there, the long trek up a long, steep, sandy incline was really daunting after a day on the beach. One of our first road trips was to the Rosh Hanikra Grottoes, where we waited in line for almost half an hour for the packed cable cars to take us down. Of course, the highlight of any trip to Israel is the old city of Jerusalem. We traveled and spent the day there twice in the course of our vacation. The second time, we booked a guided underground tour of the excavations along the Western Wall. While in Jerusalem, we also visited the Arab market, the Jewish market, the Cardo, and The Holy Sepulcher. During our time praying at the Kotel and tucking our handwritten prayers into the cracks, Rif was pooped on by a dove that was nesting in the Wall above, which the surrounding women rushed to tell us, was a very lucky sign. No trip to Israel would be complete without a visit to the Beit HaShita kibbutz where Jessica and Ari had each spent a year in high school. Ari still has a very close relationship with his surrogate mother and little brother, even after all these years. In the cemetery on the kibbutz, we visited the graves of Amichai Yarchi, the omniscient director of the American Kibbutz High School Program, and Jessica’s surrogate father during her year there, Michael Seckel. We marveled at the magnificent sky over Mt. Gilboa from an observation deck and viewed the miles of banana trees under protective net coverings that blanket the kibbutz these days. That evening we happened upon a lovely restaurant, Kimmel ba Gilboa, where we had dinner as we traveled over the mountains. We visited the old city of Jaffa on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, and spent a day wandering in and out of artisan shops and art galleries.

The Friday before the wedding, we were invited to cousin, Sylvia and Moshe’s home in Netanya for Shabbat dinner. The wedding of Adi and Ayal was incredible! We got to catch up with family whom we hadn’t seen in many years. We enjoyed all the joyous quirkiness that goes on in an Orthodox Jewish wedding. We also couldn’t believe the quantity of food and drink that was served. The serving of cocktails and delicious hors d’oeuvres pre-wedding were followed by a sit-down meal at a table laden with plates of food that were replaced by the waitstaff every time they appeared to be a little bit empty and they were replaced within a moment. This was in addition to the selection of main courses and dessert. That was followed by a dessert bar. We left stuffed, sated, and happy.

We spent a remarkable day traveling to Masada and the Dead Sea area. This was the most grueling part of our trip and we were so delighted that Rif, in her tenuous condition of health, was able to handle all of it. We enjoyed the Dead Sea area so much that we were plotting during the whole trip as to how we could arrange to spend more time there. But, unfortunately, we ran out of time to make the trek back. Ari and Rif took some golf ball-sized chunks of salt/mineral crystals as souvenirs and for their healing properties. We found an amazing restaurant on the way back, LeNagev BaNegev, with a character of an owner/chef, in the city of Arad.

Cousins Shira and Mark invited us for lunch in Haifa along with several other cousins. Their apartment balcony has sweeping views of the mountainous city and Mediterranean port. We spent another day in Haifa when Shira helped us apply for Rif’s Israeli passport and for Saul to renew his passport. Although Rif and Shira barely knew each other, I was struck by how much they looked alike while I observed them having a conversation facing each other. I suggested they stand nose-to-nose so that I could take a photo to show them how alike their profiles were. Shira took us to see some of the sights in Haifa, including the Bahai Gardens, a ride on the Carmelit cable train, a tour of the downtown shopping district and the street market where we had a delicious lunch together at a restaurant owned by a family of Arab women. On our third visit, a week later, we picked up the passports which had been mailed to Shira, and we celebrated Shira’s birthday, along with cousins Eleazar and his wife Pirha, and members of her husband, Mark’s family at a nearby fish restaurant.

The weekend after Adi’s wedding, I agreed to help her sister, Meytal, make rainbow challahs to take when the bride and groom’s family met for a vacation weekend at Banyas before the bride and groom left for their honeymoon in Mexico.

Another highlight of our trip was visiting The Shrine of the Book, the museum that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls. Unbeknownst to us, the entire model of the ancient city of Jerusalem had been disassembled and moved to their grounds a few years earlier from its original location at the Holy Land Hotel, where Saul and I had visited it back in 1985 on our first trip to Israel. The new venue was so much more impressive, as it was possible to view the city from above and all the way around. Equally impressive was our visit to Yad Vashem. This iconic holocaust museum is quite different and expanded greatly from the one that we vividly remember visiting all those years ago.

We also spent an evening wandering around Tel Aviv where we met cousin’s of Rif’s husband, Paul, at a trendy new vegan restaurant called Anastasia. The imaginative food was delicious, but rather pricey. We passed an hour in the city on a pleasant, moonlit evening lolling around the famous Agam fountain, apparently a popular thing for Israeli families to do. We also took a walk along the seaside on the hotel-lined concrete promenade. We spent a day wandering around the ancient city of Safed, popping in and out of artists shops, and meandering the the narrow winding cobblestone streets looking for the historic Sephardic Ari Synagogue that we remembered visiting years earlier. Its existence has been obscured by the much wealthier Ashkenazic Ari Synagogue supported by the Chasidic community. The lone caretaker opened it for us when we finally found it by driving around the city. It was worth the hunt and was as quaint, spiritual and beautiful as we remembered. We left donations to maintain it with the caretaker. On the ride back, we stopped in Tiberius for a dinner of traditional Israeli dishes by the seaside. The food was delicious, but the experience was marred by our waiter who insisted that we pay much more than the price listed on the menu. He became really obnoxious and threatening, and rather than ruin our beautiful day, we paid the bill and left.

We spent a day touring Caesarea and were wowed by the extent of the restoration that has occurred in the last 35 years since we last visited this site. On our return to Netanya, we visited our favorite felafel joint, Musa, where the young proprietor, Gavriel Danan, on several occasions, prepared amazing overstuffed pitas with all the fixings (salatim) to order for us. He even made a “care package” for us to take back to Ari in London and refused to charge us for it. An observant Jew, he told Rif that he would add her name to the mishaberach (prayers for healing) that are recited at his synagogue.

Cousin Sylvia invited us over one evening for dessert, and we were joined by two other cousins, Srueli, and Willie, brothers who were kind enough to take a long bus trip from Jerusalem to Netanya and back to spend an evening with us. We spent a lot of time reminiscing about our parents and relatives, told each other stories that we had never heard about the previous generation, and took iPhone photos of our old photo albums to share.

Although we spent quite a few days enjoying the gorgeous beach in Netanya, Rif could never quite get enough of it, and we all were very sorry to leave our beautiful weather, comfy apartment, and meltingly delicious chocolate babkas behind when it was time to return to London.

One of the highlights of our second week in London, before returning home, was an invitation from Ari’s friend, Jen, who plays second violin with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, to hear a performance of “Belshazzar’s Feast” in which she was moonlighting, as the extravagant piece requires extra musicians and a full choir. The venue itself was a marvel of acoustic, mid-century modern design. Trekking to a restaurant, Brasserie Blanc, across the street before the performance from our rail stop was grueling for us as a wind-driven, icy rain besieged us as we crossed a long bridge over the Thames. The restaurant, however, was warm and cozy and we had a lovely meal there before braving the weather again to take our seats at the concert. London audiences are amazingly attentive and polite. Unlike here, you could hear a pin drop in the audience in the quiet interludes. The concert itself was awesome! Jen joined us briefly at the intermission and afterwards, we returned to the same restaurant together for drinks and snacks. We took an Uber back after that. Jen, by the way, was the friend who joined us two years earlier with her mother, Margaret, and friend, Seonid, to run in the Princess Marathon at Disney dressed as Pocohontas.

Our favorite palace to tour in England is Hampton Court Palace and we couldn’t wait to show it to Rif. Doing the tour justice is an all-day, physically exhausting undertaking, but worth it nevertheless. Afterwards, we recovered at a charming little pub, Henry’s Kitchen, down the street from the Palace.

Back at Ari’s flat in Canary Wharf, we spent a day wandering around the Museum of London, Docklands, and we prepared for the long flight home, savoring the spectacular views of London from his balcony, touring the semi-indoor gardens several floors up at Canary Wharf and enjoying “full English” breakfasts with giant lattes.

A few days later, Saul and I were back home in Orlando celebrating the special birthday of Susan’s friend, Chris, for whom I baked a carrot cake. Rif returned to New Jersey. Chris had flown in to Orlando from Chicago with a few friends to celebrate her birthday in the Magic Kingdom. During our day together there, Saul got the highest score possible in the shooting gallery that is the Buzz Lightyear ride. We were fascinated watching the production surrounding setting up the gigantic Christmas tree in the lobby of the Grand Floridian Hotel. As Christmas came to Disney, our children and grandchildren arrived for their Thanksgiving vacation. Jess, a marvel of organization, and Izzy went to Susan’s house to help her organize her garage so that she could park her new Tesla inside. We spent an afternoon with Ken visiting Adele at The Villages for her birthday. Ari looked very spiffy in his tux as he attended a company-sponsored holiday party in London. Sami decided to use our mandolin slicer while preparing one of our family meals and took out a slice of her thumb. Luckily,  the doctors at Celebration Hospital Emergency decided it did not need stitches.

After the family returned home, and before Sami returned ahead of her December 31 flight to Taiwan to do her (ill-fated) semester abroad, the three of us spent an afternoon doing the “gingerbread crawl” around the Disney hotels. In that pursuit, we visited the Saratoga Springs Resort for the first time.

Sami persuaded me to have a virtual reality adventure at The Void in Disney Springs. We chose to do a Wreck It Ralph adventure and it was an experience unlike any other I have had in my life. I am really glad she talked me into it. Rif joined us after her cruise again this year, and the Florida crew celebrated Chanukah together. Another celebration took place at a member’s jewelry shop in Disney Springs where the SOJC congregation joined to kindle the Chanukah candles and sing Chanukah songs. We celebrated Rif’s birthday with brunch at Boma this past year and took some shots of the flamingos around the back at Jambo House.

While Ari visited right before Christmas, and was here for an unusually quiet New Year’s Eve, we went again to visit Adele in The Villages. He stayed with us for a few weeks before returning to London, January 7.

January 1, 2020 through May 1, 2020

In the first week of January, before Ari returned to London, we had some amazing experiences and took some stellar photos in Animal Kingdom. Ari tried out the green cocktail, the one with alcohol, at Batuu Milk Stand in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the newly-opened section of Hollywood Studios. He pronounced it “not bad.” He and Rif also did the Millennium Falcon Ride while we waited. We caught rare close-up photos of a hippo and a gorilla at Animal Kingdom. Before Ari was due to leave, we scheduled a dinner at Tiffins in Animal Kingdom because none of us had tried it before and we figured it would be a new experience. It was really terrible, with tiny precious portions of passable food at a really exorbitant price. At least we had a competent waitress. Here, the chef was at fault.

We spent a very pleasant day in nearby Winter Park touring the exquisite Morse Museum which has one of the nation’s largest collections of Tiffany glass, including an entire chapel and its lighting and contents made of Tiffany glass. While Saul and I have visited many times, we had not realized that Rif and Ari had never been there. On another of our excursions, we drove to St. Petersburg to visit the remarkable Salvador Dali Museum. The self-guided tour is extremely interesting and has the unique feature of allowing you to point your smart phone at selected artwork which then causes the art to become interactive, move and be highlighted during the presentation.

Right after Ari left, his friend, Jen, arrived to begin a United States tour with London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Ari and Jen never seem to be able to be here at the same time. Jen had booked a quick flight here from Atlanta, avoiding a long bus ride with the orchestra, and we got to spend a whirlwind day park-hopping through Disney to celebrate her birthday, finishing with potent cocktails and amazing food at Chef Art Smith’s Homecoming Florida Kitchen in Disney Springs. We enjoyed shopping with her for the perfect Disney gifts to give to special friends in the orchestra. She slept over one night, and then we drove her to Vero Beach to meet up with the orchestra for a performance. She comped the three of us tickets to the sold-out concert and we were able to have the amazing experience of watching the orchestra and piano soloist rehearse shortly before watching the actual concert. We drove her back to Orlando afterwards, saving her an annoying wait for tardy buses, and deposited her at her hotel hours before those buses arrived with the rest of the orchestra. We arranged to meet her early the next morning to beat the crowd at Peter’s Kitchen China Bistro, a dim sum restaurant just a few miles from her hotel. While she had had dim sum before, she knew nothing of it being delivered on carts, and was so excited when they began to arrive at our table. After great dim sum, we drove across the street to the huge Dillard’s Outlet in Fashion Square Mall. Rif and I began hunting for clothes for her and saving her space in the dressing room. She wound up buying a whole wardrobe of clothes at unbelievable prices, as well as an adorable Kate Spade handbag for less than half the usual price as a gift for her mom’s birthday. After we deposited her back at her hotel, the orchestra left to complete the rest of their tour.

Jess flew down with Yona in the middle of January to attend a mandatory meeting at Polk County Community College in case Izzy would be accepted to their program, which allows her to complete an associates degree in her last two years of high school for free. Beginning in September of 2019, Izzy had been attending The White Mountain School in New Hampshire. When AHA closed down abruptly in June of 2019, Jess was able to get her into White Mountain, which agreed to take Izzy for the same reduced tuition they were paying at AHA. White Mountain’s focus was on athletics as well as academics, so Izzy was delighted with the ability to go rock climbing, skiing, snowboarding, etc. several times a week. Unfortunately, she found the academics somewhat lacking and did not feel challenged in that regard, but White Mountain does have a record of many of its students attending ivy league colleges. The Polk County program here in Florida, accepts students only by a strict lottery system, so we had no idea if Izzy would be accepted for the coming year. If not, she would have gladly returned to White Mountain. Fortunately, after a brief period when she was wait-listed, she was accepted into the program. As the pandemic hit in March, Izzy was on spring break, and never returned to White Mountain as they shut down for the remaining school year. She just received all her belongings this week that were still up at school.

At the beginning of February, we hosted a Shabbat Tu B’Shevat seder. Louis drove Jeffrey here to attend as they live in the same neighborhood, but unfortunately, Max was ill and Rebecca stayed home to care for him. I sent a care package. Paul flew in for Saul’s birthday, which we celebrated at The Wave in Disney’s Contemporary Hotel. We had an amazing meal there weeks before, but this time turned into one of the worst fiasco’s we have ever had at a Disney restaurant. It probably was caused by a totally incompetent waitress, or perhaps she was just having a really bad day. After we waited almost an hour, she came over to take our order. Then, we waited another half hour, watching all the people around us being served. When the appetizers came, Paul sent his back because it was all dried out, apparently from sitting under a heat lamp too long. After another half hour passed while we watched whole families around us that had come after us, eat, and go, our mains arrived and again Paul sent his back because the steak that he had ordered rare, arrived well-done and looking again as though it had sat under a heat lamp for too long. The manager, whom we politely told of our dilemma, offered to replace his meal, but by then we had been at the table for two hours and we were all exhausted. The waitress had also forgotten that we were celebrating Saul’s birthday, so when none of us felt like ordering dessert, she brought the reduced bill and no birthday dessert for Saul. Paul left that evening without having eaten anything. As I said, one of the worst restaurant experiences at Disney ever! We tried again at another Disney restaurant the next day in Disney Springs. Paddlefish was the seafood restaurant that replaced Fulton’s, which we used to enjoy very much. Disney had done a year-long renovation to the place and we had not been there because the menu did not seem very vegan friendly. The others loved it, but for Saul and me, it wasn’t very vegan friendly. At least they had a nice slice of key lime pie with a candle to celebrate Saul’s birthday. Afterwards, we stopped into a hat store and Paul and Rif bought Saul a beautiful panama hat, probably the only hat he owns that doesn’t look goofy.

In our ongoing week of celebrating Saul’s birthday, we booked the Africa-shaped table at Boma for brunch with friends and family. Boma is our favorite restaurant in all of Disney. Since it is a buffet, we know that it will never be the same again. Sigh! Before the pandemic hit, we caught some of the last shows at Disney on Broadway at Epcot. Sigh! Also before the pandemic hit, I baked 150 hamantaschen and mailed them off to Izzy at White Mountain for a special presentation she had prepared for after spring break. Sigh! I hope someone up there in New Hampshire found them in the freezer and enjoyed them!

While we were in Israel, Rif became enamored of the enormous, juicy pomegranates that grew everywhere. Although I told her I was too old to start pomegranate trees from seeds, she carefully preserved the inner seeds of arils she had eaten there and brought them down to Florida. Not wanting to disappoint her, we planted them and they sprouted. Many died eventually, but we now have one very healthy and surprisingly fast growing tree started from a pomegranate in Israel. That seemed to spark an interest in growing other fruit trees in Florida. She ordered us a blue vanilla ice cream banana tree and subsequently, we added two larger pomegranate trees to our collection here.

We had quite a few visitors from up north in February. One set of visitors were Michael, the father of Jessica and Alex’s friend Alice from Baltimore, and his companion, Barbara, who happens to be from Davenport, Iowa, an odd coincidence. They didn’t contact us until the end of their trip when their passes had expired, so we took them to make the rounds of all the free activities available at the Disney Resorts and we had dinner together at The Grand Floridian Café before viewing the Magic Kingdom fireworks from the patio outside. Our next visitor was Arlene, a friend from up north that we hadn’t seen in many years. She had been in southern Florida, visiting family. We picked her up at the train station in Kissimmee and deposited her at her hotel in Bonnet Creek near Disney Springs. We went to the Grand Floridian for a short-order dinner at Gasparilla Grill, and caught the fireworks over Cinderella’s castle from the patio outside. The next day we spent together at Animal Kingdom, catching the Lion King Show, It’s Tough to Be a Bug, Finding Nemo Musical, and Rivers of Light, among some of the other attractions. Right after that, we had another reunion with old friends from up north, Phyllis and Larry. They are big Disneyphiles and have been here many times, but never realized that we lived so close. They joined us for Shabbat dinner and we spent a day together in the parks, meeting for a yummy dinner at Chef Art Smith’s in Disney Springs.

My 70th birthday was on Thursday, March 5. We scheduled the most amazing day! In the morning, as soon as they opened, we met Larry and Ken for the semi-buffet breakfast at The Ale & Compass in Disney’s Yacht Club Resort. As usual, it was incredible, and they have a delicious vegan option that makes it one of the best values in Disney as far as we are concerned. We also have had the same waiter several times, and as usual, he was perfect. On this absolutely gorgeous Florida day, we caught the Friendship boat at the lighthouse on Disney’s Boardwalk and debarked at the International Gate at Epcot. We found Epcot, which is undergoing major reconstruction, filled with barriers that took us way out of our usual way of traversing the park. Many of the attractions were shuttered. It remains to be seen whether the grand plans for its reconstruction will take place, given this unprecedented and unanticipated shutdown. After a couple of hours in the park, we headed home. Ari sent a beautiful bouquet for my birthday. Later on that evening, Susan prepared an incredible repast in honor of my birthday, and the whole Florida crew had a lovely evening together there. My fervent hope is that we all can celebrate my 71st birthday together this way next year!

On Friday, March 6, we held what turned out to be our last Shabbat dinner together. By then, we were no longer embracing each other for fear of COVID exposure, and Saul and I decided that we would table the dinners until we had more information. By the next morning, having seen the dire news, Saul and I decided to self-isolate as we are both in the high risk group. As of this writing, we have been in self-isolation ever since. Within ten days of our decision, almost everything in Florida shut down, even Disney!

Sami had been in Taiwan since January 1, volunteering first for an Ananda Marga Yoga Center and then, as all the events shut down due to COVID and she was asked to move on, for the two weeks before her semester began, at a bed and breakfast. Once she was ensconced in her dorm and began classes in Taipei, she was thrilled with her choice. Her roommate was a dream and she developed a whole cadre of friends. She was immersed in the language and culture of the country. Taiwan is one of the safest countries in the world during this crisis. They took the pandemic very seriously from the beginning with the latest technology in contact tracing, and wearing a mask to protect others was de rigueur in the culture. They had very few cases, even though a considerable number of travelers from China usually go back and forth. Jess and Ari had booked a trip there to visit, beginning mid-March, months earlier, and there was a long debate about whether the risk of traveling and possibly being stranded was cause to cancel. In the end, Ari and Jess had several contingency plans in place, but no one foresaw the extent to which the whole world would be affected, and so swiftly. They had a wonderful, long weekend in the countryside, but problems arose within a few days of their arrival that no one could have foreseen. They were refused reservations at a hotel where they were booked to stay, and Ari managed to get them last-minute reservations at the Grand Hyatt in Taipei where he had stayed years earlier. Sami, who had filled in an hour’s worth of forms for her overseas program, letting them know that she was planning to stay for the semester, was, within a few hours of receiving permission, notified by the program that they were shutting down and that all their students all over the world should make arrangements to get home. Jess, who had just decided to return home early a few hours before that, was fortunate to be able to book Sami on the same flight to San Francisco, one of only 13 airports in the U.S. accepting flights from outside the country. From there, they were both on separate flights to Philadelphia and Newark. Ari decided to stay in Taiwan for a few more days, to catch his scheduled flight back to London. He had an interesting and unusual time, visiting largely deserted tourist sites around Taipei. He lucked out by being on the last scheduled flight out of Taipei before the airport shut down. All of them were put at risk on their travels home by the lax conditions in effect on the airplanes and in airports both in England and the U.S. They tried to be as cautious as humanly possible under the conditions, but all of us have been greatly relieved that none of us has contracted the virus so far.

Our Passover seders this year were shared in Zoom sessions. Elaine, Alex’s mom was our only at-home guest, as she had made sure to completely self-isolate two weeks before. The one saving grace was that everyone in the family could zoom in without the trouble and expense of long airplane flights. Our prep was a lot easier, too, as we didn‘t need to pull out large sets of dishes and pots and pans.

We are all extremely lucky that we can self-isolate in the manner that we have without wondering too much from where our next meal will come. Jess had, just a few weeks earlier, landed a full-time job with benefits working completely remotely. Ari’s huge office complex was shut down, and everyone was ordered to work remotely. Once he got himself a comfortable office chair and monitor, he is feeling a little guilty about enjoying working from home so much. Alex’s synagogue shut down, and he is working harder than ever remotely to maintain the programs at his school and congregation for which he is responsible. Sami has been doing very well taking her courses in Taiwan remotely, except for the fact that they are at 3:00 a.m. She is a bit sleep-deprived. She is also making bead and copper wire jewelry for her Etsy site. Her summer classes at Valencia in hospitality have just begun, but the overlap will be short-lived. Izzy is still able to work out and roller skate around the neighborhood in between her remote classes from The White Mountain School. She’s pretty bummed out that she can’t go rock climbing right now, though. Yona has remote classes also, but is filling in the time building gigantic Lego constructions, doing artwork, cooking, and reading.

Saul and I feel very blessed to be able to shelter where we live. Our only real foray out was a couple of weeks ago to deliver a birthday cake I had made to our friend, Susan, who lives down the street. We social-distanced on her lanai and participated in a celebratory Zoom chat with her friends from Chicago. Saul also had to visit our dentist to cap a broken tooth, but everything was kept extremely above-board and sterile. While we wait this out, we are blessed with our own pool and hot tub, our beautifully landscaped garden, that provides us with fresh herbs, tomatoes, and now, fruit from our trees. After a few kinks, we have made friends with Instacart and have managed to keep ourselves well stocked with food. In between, we have wonderful neighbors next door and across the street who shop for us when they go out and deliver to our door. My home has never been so well organized. I am blessed to now have the time to organize and read the thousands of pages of letters that my parents and their friends and relatives exchanged during WWII and publish them for all to see on my new blog, Daily Love Letters from WWII. I’ve had lots of time to publish all the new and delicious vegan recipes we have been preparing on my recipe blog, Recipes for Marilyfe As We Know It, as well. We have been very, very lucky!