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Archive for October, 2018


“These are people who were killed because they were Jewish, they are bodies of holy martyrs.”
—Rabbi Daniel Wasserman

Words do not come. A leaden ball occupies my lower half; a river of ice runs within. My hometown community suffered a loss that is larger than the holy souls whose lives were ripped from them as they worshipped. This wasn’t supposed to happen here, not here, in America. But this is not about me; rather, it is about my people, my town, my tribe, my family. It’s personal.

Despite the all-too-familiar terror attacks in Israel—Ari Fuld, Ziv Hajbi, and Kim Levengrond Yehezkel murdered within the past six weeks; despite the Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher murders in France; despite the shooting attacks at Jewish Community Centers—Los Angeles and Overland Park, Kansas;  despite attacks on Jews individually and collectively worldwide, this was not supposed to happen here. Certainly not in my town, on the streets where I walked, in a shul (synagogue) where I have been, the spiritual home of many people who I know. It’s not about me but it’s personal.

Pittsburgh: Stronger than hate

Pittsburgh: Stronger than hate

The synagogue shooting on Saturday, October 27th occurred on the 18th of the “bitter” month of Cheshvan, or MarCheshvan on the Jewish calendar. The month is characterized as being bitter because it has no holidays. Now it has 11 more yahrzeits, death anniversaries. A madman targeted Jews, came into our place of worship, and murdered 11 people, wounded 6 more, including brave responders from the Pittsburgh Police.

My uncle, who was a hidden child in Holland during the Holocaust said, “It feels a bit [like] when I was 7 or 8 and people disappeared and you did not know whether [they were] picked up or in hiding or what.” You simply did not know.

We awaited the names of the deceased, and as they were released on Sunday morning, we sighed and cried whether we knew them or not. Our family members were on that list; everyone I know knows someone who knew someone…. It’s not about me but it’s personal.

The first of the funerals are today. It is Jewish custom to bury the dead as soon as possible, but it was not possible in this situation; the funerals will continue through the week. I know the pain of the waiting—it is tense and confusing to those of us accustomed to quick burial. We Jews do not have wakes, our dead do not lie in front of us. Not usually, but this situation is beyond unusual. People are planning to arrive from all over to mourn with the bereaved families. However, my synagogue emailed a funeral notice with a request that only close friends and family attend shiva (the seven-day period after burial where people visit the bereaved to offer condolences and support). We all want to mourn together but we must respect the privacy of the families.

At the graveside, the kaddish prayer will be recited by the mourners. “Glorified and sanctified be G-d’s great name throughout the world…” it starts.  The ending is a call for peace, “May He Who makes peace in His heavens make peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.” Kaddish affirms the existence of a Creator and extolls Him. No mention of death or loss are contained in the ancient Aramaic words. It has always given me pause: in the moment of our deepest grief we raise our voices to G-d, to Whom else can we turn?

I’m having a hard time not reading the news, like I’ll hear something new, some detail that will help make sense of the shootings. We’re all talking about it: Pittsburgh, gun control, mental health; hate sites; online forums; Israel; safety; what to do. Glued to the radio, the streaming media, video clips, Facebook—I must consciously disconnect. My sense of safety and surety shivers in horror. What next? How? The questions keep coming. It’s not about me but it’s personal.

I pledge to make my corner of the world a place where light rules, and not the darkness. Do a mitzvah. Do many mitzvahs. I am Pittsburgh, but more so, I am a Jew. Let light reign.

  • Joyce Fienberg, 75
  • Richard Gottfried, 65
  • Rose Mallinger, 97
  • Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
  • brothers Cecil, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54
  • husband and wife, Sylvan, 86, and Bernice Simon, 84
  • Daniel Stein, 71
  • Melvin Wax, 88
  • Irving Younger, 69

They were murdered for the crime of being Jews. It’s not about me but it’s personal. I’m a Jew.

Hashem yinkom damam, “May G-d avenge their blood.”

Orange Holiday

The night glows with a just-past-full moon and jack o’lantern fairy lights festoon doorways and rooftops. The haunting season flourishes in the suburban area around my home. Or, as I like to call it, the Orange Holiday season.

The decoration mania surprises me, but not too much; after all, the “holiday stores” have been open since September. Blowsy fake cobwebs, oversized spiders with glowing green eyes, lookalike headstones planted in lawns—this is my America. In the suburbs, skeletons walk, pumpkins grin, a big ol’ spider hovers, and a tree posing as an owl supervises this nighttime array. Ceramic faux pumpkins laughed while I wrangled a tugging dog. One house even had a “laser show” with green ghosts flying around on the brickwork. Yes, flying. It moved! These are not Martha Stewart’s tasteful decorations; most of the ones I see are plastic, with LEDs, and reside in the dictionary under the word “tacky.”

Halloween yard decorations

Halloween yard decorations. © JustHavingFun

To stop a thief, light a light-Duquesne Light (Pittsburgh Press)

To stop a thief, light a light-Duquesne Light © Pittsburgh Press

Now this may not look so odd to you, but this display startled me. I was walking the dog down a sparsely lit side road and had forgotten to bring a flashlight. Peering ahead to prevent tripping over broken sidewalk, I noted which houses were completely dark and eerie. [An aside: Indoctrinated by the 1970s advertising campaign, “To Stop a Thief, Light a Light” promoted by Duquesne Light, dark houses look menacing to me, awaiting Bad Things To Happen. Note Chilly Billy on the same page.]

The houses that were lit loomed out of the darkness. Nearing the end of the block, the dog lunged for a car, yanking me closer to the Halloween house. He paused to sniff and I paused to click. How could I not? Ceramic faux pumpkins laughed while I wrangled the tugging dog. Will they attract many more trick or treaters banging at their door on October 31st?

What is this fetish to decorate the house exterior? If all the decor is outside, does one feel more festive inside? Why? You can’t see it if you are not outside!

If you don’t go the plastic or ceramic route, you can always carve your own pumpkins. (With all the pumpkins purchased, does anyone eat them or the seeds?) Have you noticed there are now professional pumpkin carving master tool sets for sale? This is a thing! “Sick of buying new pumpkin carving tools every year — only for them to break yet again?” the article asks. I didn’t know. I’m terribly behind the times, especially what is now “in” for the Orange Holiday. The dog does not care.

Halloween ceramic jack o'lanterns. © JustHavingFun

Halloween ceramic jack o’lanterns. © JustHavingFun

Soon the Orange Holiday will pass. If I recall correctly from walking the dog this way last year, this particular home will be ready for the “Red & Green” holiday soon, decked with rows of jolly candy canes lining the walk. We mark our seasons by the colors of the holidays. More on that observation later.

Happy Halloween!

Book Review by Capote

Other Voices, Other Rooms

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I’m a voracious and voluminous reader, I’d never read anything by Truman Capote. Other Voices, Other Rooms is his first book, written in 1948. Set in the rural South, it paints a strange-to-my-eyes picture of a world that passed and hopefully, is gone. I understand this book was semi-autobiographical, and sure that it was scandalous in its time.

I found myself captivated, however. Capote’s writing style is lush and descriptive, peppered with unusual sentence length and punctuation. I found myself rereading certain phrases which had the richness of caramel melting on the tongue. THIS is literature, I kept thinking. At the end of the book I had many questions.

I came away from it thinking that I was missing something, that I needed a discussion group or an English teacher to guide me through what I read. Maybe it was the time-bound language, the context of the story and my unfamiliarity with that place’s history, the juxtaposition of whites and Negroes, superstition and youthfulness, or the vague sexualization of the scenes that leave me feeling a murkiness when I tried to parse what I read.

What an odd opening for today’s reader: Joel Knox lost his mother who was estranged/divorced from his father. “Orphaned” and staying with a family friend (aunt?), a letter arrives from the father and prompts the friend to send him alone from New Orleans, a cosmopolitan city, to a place so rural that there is no transportation available. He catches a ride with a worker from the turpentine factory and is deposited in Noon City, which is hardly a city, and is more like a one-street town. After some time, Joel locates a ancient Negro man, Jesus Fever, with a mule who can take him to the family estate. Already the reader is thrown into a world that is very different from modernity.

The characters are exaggerated and mysterious. Joel comes to live in a home that doesn’t feel like a home. Surrounded with situational mysteries, the people he meets do not clarify the situation he is in. Idabel and Florabel, the twins who are a tomboy and a flirtatious belle, live somewhere in the swamp. The tension between Joel and Idabel is palpable and in a way, the two ends of a see-saw, going up and down. The adults Joel lives with, Miss Amy, his erstwhile step-mother, and her effeminate cousin Randolph, are mysterious and vague, and provide no guidance for the boy. Joel does not learn that his father, Mr. Edward R. Sansom, is bedridden and paralyzed until some time after he arrives. It is only much later that he suspects his father could not have written the letter summoning him. Joel feels closest to the servant Missouri Fever (Zoo), Jesus Fever’s granddaughter. Zoo is scarred by her former husband, Keg Brown, and relies on folk charms, religion, and superstition to protect her. Background characters include a Negro population who are voiced in dialect, and are distinct from the white inhabitants of the town. An inanimate character, their home, Sully’s Landing, sets the mood, too, being ancient, damaged, sinking into the ground, and having no indoor plumbing or electricity.

Like I said before, Truman Capote’s writing is lush and he creates vibrant pictures allowing the reader to peek into a world, feel the heat, and the mosquitos biting.

I felt a bit like Joel, exploring the unknown wilds of a new land. Every action had overtones and meaning he simply didn’t know at first. Only the sheen of manners and a deep desire for love and relationships kept him out of trouble and allowed him to navigate in this new scene. Is he naive? I think so. Is the situation unfathomable to him? It sure was to me! The undescribed illness that keeps him comatose (?) and bedridden for a few months in the fall creates a dependency upon Randolph, and that relationship is full of overtones I’m not sure I’m reading right. I felt restless at the end, unfulfilled.

I enjoyed the visit to this world. I don’t enjoy feeling like there’s something I’m missing, however. What am I missing in context having read it 70 years after its publishing, having grown up in modern cities, and after the Civil Rights movement. I’m certain to follow up by looking for literary critiques, both contemporaneous and modern, on this work.

View all my Goodreads reviews

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