Belonging

When my grandparents came to these shores on a boat (in steerage), they were strangers in a strange land.  And they had nothing.  They remained that way their whole lives.

America.  Such a strange country, America,” is something my grandfather would say as he shook his head about something peculiar he read in the newspaper or saw in person or on TV (female wrestling was one such thing).

America.  Such a vondehful [wonderful] country, America,” is something my grandfather would say as looked at the success of, and integration of his children and grandchildren into, American society.

My grandparents were not of this country, although they were naturalized citizens.  They left their home countries to escape atrocities.  So, they were not of those countries either.

They were displaced people their whole lives.  But they felt safe here.  They were citizens here.  They loved this country.

Next to the pictures of Mom and Dad on their wedding day and our various graduation pictures, was a picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act. 

Because a person could do anything and be anything in America.  And America took care of its people who worked hard and raised the next generation of contributors to society (and tax revenue).

My parents and we, their children, grew up with a sense of belonging.

We belong.  This is our country.  We are Americans. 

And, in this country, we have the luxury of a prefix — Chinese-, Japanese-, Polish-, Russian-, Anything-American — because 

We belong.

That is not to say that being Jewish or of Polish, German, Russian and Prussian descent was easy.  Educational and employment discrimination, fights and name-calling of my parents’ generation gave way to schoolyard name-calling and social discrimination in mine.

And, in the next generation, there is still anti-Semitism.  Because prejudice will always exist.  Because crazy people vandalize synagogues.

But we belong to this country and we can, and do, succeed in this country.  But we had to work hard and deal with stupid people and prejudice along the way.  That is a fact of life.  But because I am a citizen, I have the same rights as the bigots.  With education, I can make sure they don’t lord over me.

I think about the Algerians and other North African people in France or “guest workers” across Europe.  These individuals and their families can be two or three generations in Europe and still not be citizens.  Bigotry and malice can cripple their advancement.  They are effectively ghettoized.

In Europe, Asian and African immigrants cannot be citizens. Even when two generations have lived there and no where else.  Even when the grandchildren only know how to speak French, Dutch, German, Flemish, etc. and not the language of their grandparents’ country.

And so they DON’T belong. ANYWHERE.

And they have opportunities. NOWHERE.

And their country of birth claims them as citizens. NOT AT ALL.

And they have bright futures and integrate into the larger culture without losing their cultural and religious identities.  NOPE. NOT HAPPENING.

(This sounds like the story of the Jews in Europe (other than, ironically, Germany) up until just before Hitler came to power.)

I wonder what would happen if these immigrants and guest workers, or at least their children or grandchildren, could be citizens.  I wonder what would have happened in my parents’ and my generation didn’t “belong” to our great nation.

What if they belonged . . . .

Let’s all ratchet it down some

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/texas-congressman-labels-obama-worse-hitler-article-1.2076035

Rep. Randy Weber (R-Tex.) said it’s ‘appalling’ Obama didn’t travel to Paris for the unity march on Sunday.

Dear Congressman:

Do you know what Hitler and his henchman did? 11 million people died ghastly deaths. (And — as an aside — do you know about the spike of anti-Semitism in France?)

President Obama is Hitler?  That is so offensive to anyone who has a family member who perished in that genocide in Europe.  Most of my family came here after the first World War.  Those who remained in Europe, perished.  A lucky few went to Cuba in 1938, when our nation closed its doors to refugees.

But what this nation forgets is that US soldiers — my Uncle Willy among them — were sent to concentration camps after being captured in the Battle of the Bulge.  My uncle survived, but, yes, Americans died in the concentration camps.  And America forgot these soldiers.

And what happened in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s was not a holocaust.  That is a ritual cleansing through fire.  What happened in Europe was a shoah, a CATASTROPHE. Not just for Jews but for 5 — yes, 5 — million more people.

So, call it the Shoah.  11 million humans were burned or starved.  Others survived, only to be scarred.

Shoah.  Shoah. Shoah.  SHOAH. Call it by its real name.

How dare you trivialize what Hitler did to Europe and its citizens. To families. To children.

And how dare you, by your comments, trivialize what happened in France this past week.  The terrorized citizens of that great City of Lights.  And, yes, especially the Jews among them.

President Obama should have sent someone to Paris. Bad decision. That is all. It isn’t mass murder.

The president should have been criticized for missing an opportunity to stand in unity with world leaders. The criticism should match the the offense.

What you said undercuts the validity of your criticisms of the president. It makes you sound rabid and crazy. There are very valid criticisms of President Obama (and I am a proud supporter of him).

But you have lost your credibility. Yes. Because you compared the president to Hitler. Because you sound crazy.  (Since our government started an unnecessary war in Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands, would you call our former president or vice president Hitler?)

Try being the sane, loyal and temperate opposition to President Obama’s actions and even some of the president’s supporters might agree with you from time to time.

Why am I so flipped out? Because what you said hit a nerve. Maybe when all Jews who knew someone in a concentration camp are no more, then it won’t be as visceral. I imagine that every group that has survived a slaughter feels this way. We aren’t any different. Our scars are the same.

In the meantime, please brush up on your history.

~ a proud citizen of the United States of America disappointed with the vicious rhetoric

Shirley Hirsch z”l (1925-2014)

Shirley could have been in the New York Times year-end edition of the Lives They Lived.  As a tale of lost and found.

She was born into a poor immigrant family and was, as they used to say, “not quite right”.  After her father died (her mother died in childbirth with her younger sister), she was put into a public-assisted halfway house system.  She was thereafter “dead” as far as the family — her surviving siblings — was concerned.  Ultimately, she ended up in a public assistance psychiatric nursing home.

One of her nephews discovered her existence 60 or more years later and began, with his wife, visiting her.  Through their interest and kindness, she spoke for the first time in decades.  And she kept talking, but not like a made-for-TV movie — it was intelligible, although often guttural.

**************************************************************************************************************

We buried Shirley today.  Forgive the non-adherence to the Jewish 24-hour burial rule, but her nephew only found out two years ago that he was Jewish (for another blog) and is trying to integrate that knowledge into his otherwise Christian life.

In most other respects, we followed Jewish tradition.

The usual litany of readings and meditations didn’t fit this particular situation.  I talked with my cousins about what we would say about Shirley during the graveside service.

My cousin showed me the poem he wrote.  There were no better words.  Rest in peace, dear Shirley.  We will remember you.

For Shirley:

She a little left
a little different
and we a little right
perhaps indifferent
but was it right
to let a loved one
cling fast
to family long past?
we forgot that past
while she forgot this present

Finally we unlocked the door
and dove right in
to days left behind
all day into the night
hiding in plain sight
We found each other
Surely we were ignorant
but we were not
we ran away from each other
and surely that was not right

Reunited, we clung fast
she managed soft whispers
of that past long gone
we hung on every word
as we held onto her hand
soaking in precious moments
making up that lost time
when we went left
and she went right
a family come full circle

and surely this is right.

Amen.

New Year’s Day in the Coffee Shop of the Undead

Ah, life in the Coffee Shop of the Undead is, well, hanging by a string.

Back story: http://40andoverblog.com/?p=5641; http://40andoverblog.com/?p=4858; http://40andoverblog.com/?p=5701; http://40andoverblog.com/?p=4435

Maybe not life, as much as sanity.  Ok, not sanity so much as functional insanity.  Life in the Coffee Shop of the Undead is measured by the functionality of those with dementia and other neurological disorders.

I guess it is also measured by physical compromise.  If you aren’t crazy, then you are most likely so enfeebled that, if you make it to the place from your house, you (actually, your home health aide) should do a victory lap around the (tiny) place.

So where else would Dad go to see his friends?  Regardless of Dad’s daily level of crazy, which hit the nuclear contamination levels today, he tips his hat to the elders already seated.  For over 50 years, some of them were just passersby on the street, but now that they are the surviving remnant, they acknowledge each other.  Others, like Marty and Joan (the kids of the group at mid-to-late 70s) get a real greeting.  Dad reserves the warmest greeting for Sam, his old friend.

But Sam wasn’t at lunch today. Always a worrisome sign.  Sam has Alzheimer’s and some other dementia diagnoses, but like any disease, he can function some days and not others.

After we left the coffee shop, we bumped into Sam just outside.  (I am grateful that Dad and he have known each other for so long that, even with his mental disease, he recognizes Dad (and us)).

We greet Sam.

Sam says, “I have some very bad news.  I was going to call.”

SOB and I hold our breaths.  Is it his companion, Norma?  Is it his ex-wife? His daughter? His granddaughter?

Sam continues.  “My brain is not working so well.  I have issues now.”

SOB and I exhale at the same time.  THIS IS NOT NEWS. EVEN TO SAM.  HE JUST CAN’T REMEMBER THAT IT ISN’T NEWS.

Dad — even with his nuclear-level dementia today — didn’t miss a beat, “if you would like company, we will come over or, food, we can bring it over.”

SOB and I marvel at the way Dad can summon the man he was for a friend in need. 

The man he was.  The totally addled man he is.  They live side-by-side in the same body.

That is why it is so hard to handle the bad days.

Because there will be good moments to give a child hope.

And then, a moment later, the child wonders where her daddy has gone.

 

Is a Kippah a Kippah if . . .

it is tattooed on your head?

I was in a museum the other day and a fairly heavily tattooed man was opposite me.  He had a very intricate, colorful design on his head in the shape of a kippah, which conveniently also covered his bald spot.  The design was continued on his neck.

The following doesn’t do it justice (it is not intricate or colorful enough), but just to give you an idea of what was IN this guy’s head:

44711_white_floral_bukharian_kippah_by_yair_emanuel_view_1So, does ink count as a head covering?  Does the pain of tattooing one’s scalp tip the balance?

Or are we all just grossed out?

 

Random Oddity in New York

I was talking a “small” break in my run through Central Park and mini-truck vehicle drove by.  It was official looking enough (only official cars are allowed in the Park on the weekends).

Except it had Geese Police emblazoned on its sides.

Whaaaat?  I looked around for a camera crew or at least Adam Sandler or some reporter from the Daily Show.  No one. This was apparently not a part of comedy skit or show.

In fact, this is for real.  In 2012, “Central Park Conservancy and the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation piloted a one-month program using an environmentally-safe method to attempt to reduce the number of geese in Central Park. The first step of the process included herding- but never touching or attacking- the geese with highly-trained border collies.”

Apparently there was too much poop in the Park.

And it needed to stop. 

Watch them in action!!!!  Courtesy of a random person on YouTube

And the program worked.

But I don’t think it is geese season; I guess it is fun to drive around as the GEESE POLICE.

And the band played some more

So Aunt Roz was finally correct.  Her younger sister, Shirley, is dead. 

But if you read http://40andoverblog.com/?p=5014 and http://40andoverblog.com/?p=5029, you will get the idea of the odyssey.

The shunted child of an immigrant generation.  The “not-right” child that was institutionalized.  And forgotten.  And to all who asked, she was “dead”.

But she was, in fact, very much alive.  In state-run assisted living buildings; in state run psychiatric facilities.  Aunt Roz visited her once and put a deposit on a burial fund.  Aunt Roz’s nephew discovered her existence by chance, by going through Aunt Roz’s papers after her death.  He did not let up until he found her.

Shirley is her name.  Shirley.

And then that nephew — my adopted cousin — claimed her as kin.  Which no one had done for over 60 years.   60 years. 

My new-found cousin visited this sister every other week and she started to speak after decades of silence.

Back story:  My cousin is Aunt Roz’s blood nephew; I am not technically related to my aunt because she and my (blood) uncle never married.  Before I had to contact my cousin upon my aunt’s death, I never spoke to him.

Shirley died today. 

But because of my cousin, she did not die as an unknown, unclaimed soul.  She died as a member of a family.

And so, she needed to be accorded the burial and last rites of a family member. And I needed to have her buried next to Aunt Roz so that they can figure it out in heaven (if such a place exists).  My cousin was crying at the funeral home.  Shirley’s ability to reach out to his wife and him and speak, if only in monosyllables, touched his gentle soul.

My cousin is by birth Jewish, but only recently discovered this. I sat with him in the funeral home as we talked through the ritual requirements of burial.  He held my hand so tight, I thought I would lose circulation.

Not because he was scared, but (I think) because he has only begun to discover his lost family and now they are gone.  And he didn’t know what to do with his pain.

Except we are his family.  We are not related by blood or paper.  But by love.

He is my cousin and I am his, his wife’s and his daughter’s.

He was embarrassed that I put out my credit card.  I know that he would pay if he could.  But he can’t.  And it is ok, because I, too, claim Shirley as one of us, if only to bring her out of the darkness and loneliness, and, post-humously, into the bosom of family.  Because that is what I must do and it is a blessing that I can afford to do this.

May Shirley live in our hearts in her death because we did not know her during her life.

Baruch dayan emet.

And the band just played on.

Many Yahrzeits tonight for close family.  I am too tired of death.  I couldn’t get it together to buy Yahrzeit candles.  But there are leftover Chanukah candles!!!

Two candles making one flame.  They are Aunt Betty and Uncle Billy.  Intertwined in death as in life.

IMG_1490

One candle for Aunt Roz. [I am now dealing with the actual death of her recently undead sister — more about that in prior blogs.]

One candle for all who have no one to remember them.  IMG_1492No one to remember them.  No one.  It doesn’t need to be family.  It just needs to be someone who says, “I will remember you for all that you were (and weren’t).”

It is important to remember more than just the righteous among us.  Because if that were the test, then I, for one, would become one of the nameless souls who came into and out of this world in the blink of an eye.

AND THEN ALL OF THE CANDLES BLEND AS ONE.

One Nation?

I believe in America, its promise and its endless possibilities.  I also know that, in America,  people live in abject poverty, without adequate schools, and in fear of deportation.

And I know that there are as many Americas as there are colors of skin, nationalities, religions, sexual identity and orientation.

We live in a fractured America.  Some of us cross any number of the shards.  Some, like me, can pass as Christian and straight.  If I even wanted to do so.  I am too old to hide.  But I am lucky; I have a choice.

But is any of us satisfied with this type of America?  Don’t we get tired, after every miscarriage of justice, of assuaging our horror and guilt, by saying, rather apologetically, “but there are good and kind people all across this country”?

Look, everyone has prejudices.  But that isn’t supposed to matter.  The point is that America is supposed to be one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Justice.  Justice.  Justice.

It isn’t just a word.  It is the basis of our nation.

It means that even if you steal, or sell cigarettes illegally, you don’t deserve to be tortured or killed.  Even more, you deserve treatment in accordance with the pettiness of the crime committed.  In other words, there shouldn’t be a bruise on you.

I was taught that wrongs will be done, but justice, JUSTICE, will prevail.

I believed in that.  I placed my faith in the systems of “justice” and government.  Because two generations ago, this country took in wretched poor refugees and gave them opportunities for work and their children a free education.  I grew up hearing, “G-d bless America.”

I still say, “G-d bless America,” except now I also say, “G-d save America”.

Because when our systems of laws and order fail, fractures of our nation becomes shards of glass on the floor.  Almost impossible to reassemble, but stronger if we glue the fragments back together.

Let us all glue this nation back together so that it is again: “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Rest in peace, Mr. Brown and Mr. Garner.

When the future loss seems real right now

I have chronicled Dad’s decline, and his surprising cameos in reality.

Something has changed.  I couldn’t articulate it until I bumped into SOB (sister of blogger) in the gym locker room.  Because why not discuss our deeply personal business when naked women are blow-drying their hair, I said:

“Something is different with Dad”

“He is winding down.  It is sad.”

“It isn’t just his heart failure —

SIDEBAR: everyone over a certain age is in heart failure.

— have you noticed that he doesn’t annoy us so much anymore?”

We both had a think about that.

Dad was once a maestro at making us nuts.  When Mom was dying, we knew that we would move in and disrupt our lives to care for her.  Dad was different; he was too damn annoying.

Now, we are talking about taking turns staying over (along with his 24/7 care) if necessary.

What is different? 

Dad is now a lovely old, nutty man who has — maximum — two or three habits that make SOB and me nuts.  That’s it.

Wait. 

Whaaaaat?

WHERE IS THE MAN WHO, WITHOUT EXERTING A MUSCLE, COULD MAKE ME NUTS BY TALKING ABOUT THE PRICE OF BANANAS OR COMMENTING LOUDLY ON OVERWEIGHT PEOPLE ON THE BUS? OR COULD BE PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE WHEN A CAB DRIVER WAS TALKING ON THE PHONE INSTEAD OF ASKING HIM TO END HIS CALL?

Yes, the change.  Dad being Dad as he is now doesn’t make me nuts.  (Dad’s dementia, however, makes me sad, mad and crazy.)

I wished that my father would stop torturing me all these years.  Now I understand the maxim: “careful what you wish for” because the quid pro quo in my case is too heartbreaking.

Thankfully, dementia is not linear.  The old Dad shines through sometimes.  Just this weekend, in advance of Thanksgiving, where we serve brisket instead of turkey, he asked:

“Did you remember to get the lean cut of brisket and did you find someone who knows how to carve it?”

Oh, Dad, the miracle of your annoying ways made my eyes well up when I responded:

“Daddy, I am good at a lot of things, but not carving brisket.  You may have to deal with the usual thick slices, ok?”

Pause.  Silence.  Resignation.  “Of course, darling.”

Ah, the gifts that can light up an evening sky.