The straight line connecting Donald Trump’s new tallit to “Christians for Islam,” and a best practices suggestion

On my morning Facebook rounds, I caught this post by one of my offspring:

Poupsie.jpg
Clearly, my Photoshop skills are the equivalent of those of a four year old with an easel and finger paints.

 

In the way of Facebook, I could see beneath her post that a few other friends had posted articles about it, too.

At this point, shocking and seemingly inappropriate behavior is kind of the norm for this year’s GOP Presidential Candidate. (His cheerleaders and supporters are the ones who really scare me.)

I tried to imagine the reasons Donald Trump would be wearing a Tallit on Shabbat in a church. The best I could come up with was that maybe he was with a Messianic Jewish congregation. “Messianic Jews,” or as I refer to them, “Christians,” believe that Jesus is the messiah. As I understand it, that’s the foundation of Christianity – that Jesus came, died for our sins, was resurrected, rose to heaven, and will return. The righteous will be raptured and taken to heaven, the rest left on earth to a fate that is not fabulous.

Jews are still waiting for the Messiah to show up. S/He will establish heaven right here. We are supposed to help prepare for that time by doing what we can to help establish an earth that is as close to heaven as possible for mere mortals. That’s why you see so many Jews involved in social action, even those who don’t connect with the religious aspects of Judaism. Also, for Shabbat-Observant Jews (the ones who hew to keeping the Sabbath by not engaging in the 39 forbidden acts considered work), that time represents a taste of every day on earth in the Messianic Age.

So, my take on “Messianic Jews,” is that they can call themselves anything they want, but for Jews like me (who are still waiting for the first appearance of the Messiah), they’re Christians. My only real problem with Messianic types is when they go to small communities where there are no Jews and make presentations in churches to Christians who have never met a Jew in person. I saw this a lot when I was working as a religion reporter in a small community. I had never been able to articulate why I felt so viscerally offended at those press releases (which I ran, but only after I’d had someone else do the editing because my gut inclination was to round-file them, which went against my other gut inclination of everyone having equal rights to media access).

Then, when visiting one of my favorite United Methodist pastors at his church, which was one of the more conservative-leaning  (those UMs are a wide-ranging group – a true “big tent” denomination that swings from far left to far right), I saw one of those Messianic announcements on the church bulletin board.

I felt comfortable enough with Paster Kerry to tell him how I felt, and he felt comfortable enough with me to be genuinely interested, even though he didn’t understand what I could possibly find offensive.

And then, call it Divine Inspiration. Call it just plain inspiration. Call it Fred if you want. I looked at Pastor Kerry and said this.

“Imagine a kid from your church who’s been baptized, gone through your Sunday school and been confirmed,” I said. “Now, imagine him coming to see you during his second semester of college, all excited.

‘Pastor Kerry! Pastor Kerry!’ he says. ‘Did you know that Allah is the One True God and Muhammed is his last Prophet? I am going to keep the Five Pillars! I pray to Mecca five times a day, and I eat halal and observe Ramadan. But don’t worry. I’m going to still celebrate Christmas and Easter, because I’m a Christian for Islam!'”

Watching him make the connection was like one of those time-lapse films of a flower opening, only faster. The emotion with which he delivered his three-word response was a study in understated power.

“I get it,” he said.

But, I digress. Absent what I wrote above, when it came to Donald Trump and a Tallit on Shabbat in a church, I had nothing.

So I clicked on one of the articles. The answer was that Bishop Wayne Jackson of Great Faith Ministries in Detroit gave it to him as a gesture of love and hope.

“This is a prayer shawl straight from Israel. Whenever you’re flying from coast to coast — I know you just came back from Mexico and you’ll be flying from city to city — there is an anointing. And anointing is the power of God,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be sometimes in your life that you’re going to feel forsaken, you’re going to feel down, but the anointing is going to lift you up. I prayed over this personally and I fasted over it, and I wanted to just put this on you.”

There had been some speculation on Offspring’s thread that the Tallit might have been connected to Donald’s daughter Ivanka, who is Jewish. I could labor over a snappy ending to this post, but will go lazy by copying and pasting what I wrote (verbatim) on Offspring’s wall:

“Now, at least, it makes sense, even if it makes me kind of squishy and uncomfortable. I mean, what if Pastor Jackson had given Trump, say, I dunno, a Native American headdress? Or some other religious symbol from some other faith tradition? Maybe Jared & Ivanka will be able to explain the reason that a lot of Jews might find it a little … off-putting.

“That said, the spirit in which Pastor Jackson gifted it was pure, and he was probably reaching back to the roots of his Jesus, who lived and died as a Jew and so he probably feels some ancestral pull that way.

That said, it’s not something conventionally associated with Christianity and the Twister-like moves one needs to perform in order to explain it make it a poor choice.

“That said, The Donald complicated matters greatly by putting it on, when his best move would have been to have simply said thank you and brought it home to put away for his grandson’s eventual bar mitzvah.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Up from the grave to denounce a naked emperor

Helen&Me.jpg
Helen and me. I was so happy to get to see her, and I think she was happy to see me, too. Maybe even happier than she would have been to see Donald Trump. (Actually, I’m pretty sure she was happier to see me.)

Donald J. Trump is a man his supporters would avoid like gay pride parades if he were saying the things he says while unshaven and pushing all his worldly possessions in a shopping cart.

But he wears bespoke suits and lives and works in buildings with his name on them. So instead of being called out for what he is – the emperor with no clothes  – his rants are miraculously elevated to the level of worthy discourse. It would be lovely to live in a world where his call to bar Muslims from entering the US would signify the beginning of his being exiled from public life. Sadly, I know better.

I don’t often put words in the mouths of dead people. But I’m pretty sure that Helen Sperling, who died last week at the age of 95, would have excoriated Mr. Naked Emperor.

Helen was the first Holocaust survivor I ever met. I don’t remember not knowing her. But until a Sunday School morning when I was 12 and 60 or so of us sat on the floor in the Edelstein Room at our synagogue while Helen sat on a chair and told us her story, I only knew her as Paul and Franny’s mother.

Helen was the mother with the musical laugh and long hair worn in a braid down her back. My mother had short hair and a short fuse. I wanted the mother with the musical laugh and long hair. I loved being at the Sperlings’ house. I spent a lot of time there because Paul was one of my best friends until we turned 5. His sister Franny was two years older. She was beautiful and way too sophisticated to hang out with four-year-olds.

One day, which I only can tell you about because it became the stuff of legend for the mothers involved, Helen served a lunch that consisted of pretty much none of my preferred menu items. (In Helen’s defense, I was a pretty strange eater. I didn’t like peanut butter. I didn’t like jelly. I didn’t like tomato sauce. I didn’t like sweet things.)

But I had been taught to be polite, and to be a good guest. Good guests did not ask for food that wasn’t already on the table. Good guests did not say “I don’t like that!”

So, when Helen called Paul and me into the kitchen for lunch and sat us down, I evidently surveyed the repast and looked up at Helen.

“These,” I said, eyeing up the contents of one of the serving plates, “are the friendliest cucumbers I’ve ever seen.”

I know that Helen must have laughed and laughed in that moment, because she and my mother both laughed every time one (or both) of them recalled it – right up to last year, when I was in Utica for my Aunt Bessie’s funeral and had time either to go to the cemetery and see my dad or go hang out with Helen, who was 94.

I called Franny to make sure Helen was up for visitors. Sadly, Paul and I never re-established our pre-kindergarten bond (there’s always hope, and we do have our memories), but when I was 15 and Franny 17, we got close. Ten years ago, we reconnected. Aside from being a generally fabulous human being, she is is also an amazing aerialist, and my hero and inspiration in all things flying.

Helen was as full of life and as feisty as ever. That she needed oxygen to breathe and wasn’t so good at getting out of a chair did absolutely nothing to diminish her vivacity and power.

She exclaimed over the cream puff I had brought for her (“My favorite! How did you know?” What I didn’t say: “Because Franny told me when I called her to see if you’d be up for a visit.”) and lamented that she didn’t have anything to serve. I’d bought frozen fish sticks; Helen was thrilled to let me use her oven.

We yakked like girlfriends. I told her about my experiences as a reporter in Central Wisconsin, where a Holocaust denier had taken possession of a good deal of Public Square real estate. The denier used local media to broadcast her message, got herself invited to an eighth grade classroom to talk to students, and even arranged for a public talk at the local two-year university center. I spent three years there, I told Helen, and was most proud of two things I’d done. One was connecting a local coffee shop to Colectivo, a Milwaukee-based coffee roasting company, making it possible to get a great cup of coffee in the (relative) middle of nowhere. The other was getting a Holocaust survivor to come to talk to those eighth graders, and to give a public talk at the university center.

We talked about getting old and dying. She was ready, but as long as she could, she said, she would tell her story. I asked her if she’d recorded it.

“Yes,” she said, “I spoke with the Spielberg Foundation. (The disc is) in a vault, because until I’m dead, I want people to hear it directly from me.”

She told me about the bracelets she gave every attendee at the end of every talk. Blue, and engraved with the words, “Thou Shalt Not Be A Bystander.”

“I don’t have any here,” she said. Then, she remembered that she was wearing one. She took it off and gave it to me.

Helen was a staunch supporter of Israel. She also loved the United States, and the best of what both countries aim to be and represent.

There is no way she would have stood by while a well-dressed, charismatic political wannabe spouted religious hatred. She knew exactly where that led. Which is why she spent her life doing everything in her power to make sure no one would ever have to go there again.

Note: Even though Helen didn’t want any video of her telling her story while she was alive, I did find one – on one of her many visits to Union College, her talk was videotaped. Click here to see it. 

Rare steaks, raccoons and what Jewish mothers feed bees

Our Passover Seder last month was, for the most part, an unparalleled success. We fled Egypt from the dining room table and ate a lovely dinner that everyone seemed pretty happy about, although Mom’s “get up and go” got up and went shortly after the meal started. We helped her to the car. Sweetheart drove her back to the nursing home while the rest of us chanted the blessing after meals (okay, so not all of us chanted, but some of us did), opened the door for Elijah and read Psalms of Praise.

The part that wasn’t so successful, for me, was a meat thermometer failure. The roast ended up medium rare, way more done than I like. I’m a rare kind of person. And I love a rare kind of person. The kind of person who, a month after making an offhand remark about taking his beloved out for a fancy steak dinner, makes a reservation at a really fancy steak house.

“So you can get the rare meat you missed at Seder,” he said, as we raked up brush in the yard between watching the bees fly in and out of the hive on Saturday. Up until then, it had still been cold or rainy and not terribly nice. Bees don’t like going out in that kind of crummy weather any more than people do.

So I’d been worried about my fuzzy amber-colored pollinators. This past week though, when we opened the hive for the second time since installing our two-pound package of Carniolan bees, we discovered some great news.

Brood!

In a new hive, brood is the best thing you can find. It means the bees have accepted their queen and she is laying eggs. Brood means baby bees, baby bees mean more bees, and if they’re making more bees, they have enough to eat.

So, Hurray for our queen, Latifah of the Backyard Hive!

Also, I got stung for the first time. A bee flew into the back of my pants and probably freaked out. I pulled the stinger out and iced it. It didn’t hurt too badly. Alla, whose father and grandfather kept bees, says you’re a real beekeeper when you don’t notice the stings. I’m not there yet.

Beehive with top off
This is what you see when you lift the top off the hive. You loosen the ends of the slats, which are actually the tops of frames on which the bees draw comb and fill it with brood. (They also store nectar and honey in comb. Comb is kind of like an all-purpose storage facility if you’re a bee.)

I suppose I should get a suit at some point, but right now my only protective gear is a bee veil. Sweetheart doesn’t even have that. He coaches me from the sidelines between blowing puffs of smoke at the bees to keep them from getting any funny ideas about attacking while I’m lifting frames and looking to see if things are okay.

In other exciting beehive news, a raccoon tried to open the hive sometime this week. We’re pretty sure it was a raccoon because the rock on top of the hive was on the ground next to it. The top was jostled but not pulled off, which would make sense if whatever was trying to pull it off could only do it while sitting on it.

The raccoon rolled the rock off the left side of the top, then sat there trying to get the top off. I don't know if raccoons understand about gravity. Or physics.
The raccoon rolled the rock off the left side of the top, then sat there trying to get the top off. I don’t know if raccoons understand about gravity. Or physics.

The raccoon was probably after the sugar syrup we’re feeding the bees until we know there’s enough in bloom for them to get food on their own.

I’m not sure I’ll know before the bees do. What I am sure of is that that won’t stop me from trying to figure it out. We were en route to the restaurant when I realized I was scanning every patch of open space for dandelions and other blooming things. And it had nothing to do with pretty flowers.

It was because I’m a Jewish mother with a beehive.

The Great Millennial Mashup Family Seder of 2012: A story of deliverance from slavery

Friday is the first night of Passover, one of the bigger holidays on the Jewish calendar. I’ve been hosting since before Mom moved to Milwaukee, but since she’s been here there’s no way I’d ever be able to think of not hosting.

This will be the first Seder in years I haven’t had at least one of my daughters here. But that doesn’t mean I won’t have a full table. There’ll be 11 of us, including three relatives (parent types) and friends who are part of a Seder community I’ve gathered over the years. There’ll be some new faces at the table, too.

I’ve got most of the menu planned, and will spend the next several nights cooking – chicken soup, pignolis and roasting a beet (to sub in for the shank bone on the Seder plate) and a hard-boiled egg. Thursday night I’ll do a bunch of heavy-duty other prep – the charoset (I make Ashkenazic, because I like it!) and whatever else I can get done.

I’ve also gathered up the Haggadadot (the books we need to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt) and my box of plagues, which I’ve been adding to from year to year. A big box of plastic spiders I found on a post-Halloween sale rack will be making their Seder debut this year.

Passover items
A few Passover things – matzah, matzah cover, a Haggadah and, of course, my Box o’ Plagues!

There have been a lot of memorable Seders in my life, but one stands out. I call it “The Ultimate Millennial Mashup Blended Family Seder.”

My children’s dad and I split when the girls were 2, 4 and 7. Not surprisingly, his family wasn’t overly thrilled with me after that. Two years later, Ex remarried Dee, a widow with three children. She was also not thrilled with me. We all had that in common, at least. I wasn’t thrilled with me either, though for very different reasons.

That was more or less how things stayed, until Ex died in October of 2006. Along with having to deal with being widowed a second time, Dee was dealing with her father’s final illness. So I took to calling my former father-in-law Sidney every week to let him know how his grandchildren were doing, and also to check on how he was doing. That detente led to a genuine friendship, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened in late winter of 2009.

“What are you doing for Seder?” he said.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I guess I’m having one.”

“Invite me.”

I thought I’d misheard.

“What?”

“Invite me.”

“Sidney, would you and Mrs. Sidney like to come to my house for Seder?” I said.

“We’d love to.”

I’d started the conversation in one universe and ended it in a parallel one, a universe in which my children’s grandfather and his wife of 30-plus years were driving 75 miles and making a hotel reservation to spend the holiday with the woman who’d divorced his son more than 20 years prior.

A few years later, the requests got even more surreal. By the time they stopped, my Seder table was 21 people strong and included my husband, my mother, my children, three of my cousins, Sidney and Mrs. Sidney, Ex’s sister and brother-in-law from Texas, my wife-in-law (if you have a better term for the woman who marries your ex-husband and makes him happier than you did, I’m all ears) and two of her three children, including one who flew in from Israel. There were also the three or four orphans my youngest brought home, along with a friend from synagogue who I was sure would never come back but has every year since.

The Passover Seder is a celebration of freedom. Once we were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free. The Mashup Seder celebrated deliverance from a different kind of slavery. At that seder, we moved from a past chained to feelings that had separated and diminished us into one where, together, we celebrated a shared present and a hopeful future.

Teenage dating bans and skewed ‘benchmark Jewish male’ standards: A Dispatch from Misfit Hell

I don’t remember the exact point when my father announced that dating non-Jewish boys was off the table for my sister and me. It was before I started high school.

Dad’s explanation was simple.

Refusing to officiate at weddings in which the bride or groom wasn’t Jewish (if the bride or groom converted before the wedding, it was fine, because then they were both Jewish) did not square with letting his daughters run wild with non-Jewish boys*. Nor would he have any credibility encouraging teens and college students in the congregation to confine themselves to dating within the faith. (*We were both stick-straight.)

“Great,” I thought.

It wasn’t as if anyone was lining up to date us anyway. But now there wasn’t even anyone in the hypothetical lineup of the Chosen that I would have chosen.

When you grow up Jewish in a small community, you know who all the Jewish kids are because they were your nursery school classmates. None of the Jewish boys I would have wanted to date would ever have considered dating me. That included Nursery School Crush, who I’d chase from one classroom to another because I thought he was cute. He did not appreciate the attention. (By the time we were teenagers, NSC had only gotten cuter. And even less accessible. A leggy brunette I met in my 30s who went on a single date with him told me he liked “leggy blondes,” which, I realize as I write this, is a pretty accurate description of his mother.)

There were a couple of other cute Jewish boys in town, but I had a more realistic chance of dating one of the Beatles. Or David Cassidy.

Two girls in front of a 1970 Plymouth Valiant
If we’d been anywhere near cool enough to think of it, we could have formed a band called The Undateable Sisters. But if we’d been cool enough to think of that, we wouldn’t have been undateable.

I wasn’t cool, or pretty, or confident. I played cello, piano and guitar. I read books, listened to records and kept a journal. I was socially awkward and had a highly developed sense of where I didn’t fit – which was pretty much anywhere people my own age congregated.

Girls who lived in the “wealthy” suburb and went to the high school where boys like Nursery School Crush ruled fit. Girls with fabulous figures and wealthy parents – those were the ones Nursery School Crush and his ilk went for.

So, there it was.

And then, a boy named Ralph asked me to a dance September of my freshman year. He was not Jewish. I asked Dad anyway. Ralph was nice. And cute. And I was thrilled to be asked out.

Dad, as it turned out, had not been kidding.

Not only was I not allowed to go to the dance with Ralph, I wasn’t allowed to go at all. The dance was on a Friday night. On Friday nights, the rabbi was at synagogue, conducting services. What sort of message would he be sending to his congregants if his daughters were out at school dances instead of synagogue?

By the time the year ended, our father was dead, and the dating ban lifted.

I dated some non-Jewish boys and some Jewish ones. The Jewish ones didn’t work out so well. Somewhere between the end of my first marriage (to a Jewish boy) and the beginning of my third (to a non-Jewish one who owned a pickup truck and has a motorcycle), I figured out why I wasn’t as fond of those Jewish boys as my father would have liked.

We spent a lot of time at the farm where my mother grew up, because my parents were very close with her brother and sister-in-law. My cousins, all boys, were older than we were. When they weren’t watching westerns on TV, they were grabbing a gun from the cabinet and heading down the railroad tracks to shoot things, or work on an old car, pickup truck or motorcycle. They hunted, fished and drank beer, rode motorcycles and had bar mitzvahs.

Two men in a kitchen
My personal gold standard for Jewish male perfection, the slightly-older (and still pretty perfect) cousins.

Blame my cousins, who spoiled me forever for Jewish men by setting a bar that included hunting, being able to fix things, riding motorcycles and owning pickup trucks.

Newsmakers make news, religious fanatics make trouble and Mom’s community hosts a Debbie Friedman event with a millennial twist

It’s been a terrible week for the news business. Brian Williams has been handed a suspension without pay for six months, or as I’m calling it, “book leave.” Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show to have dinner with his kids. And Bob Simon, whose latest stop in a distinguished career was 60 Minutes, was killed in a car accident.

Which is senseless, but not as senseless as those three Muslim kids in North Carolina who got shot by their neighbor. Over a supposed parking dispute? And somehow, we’re searching for an explanation. The alleged shooter – who has confessed, btw, was an….atheist. Which explains it about as well as a Christian or Jew killing them would. Which is to say, not at all.

Then there’s Kayla Mueller, the young woman from Arizona who died in Syria after more than a year in captivity at the hands of those people who are doing terrible things in the name of Islam. Other than returning the world to the time when we lived in caves and threw rocks at each other, it’s hard to figure out exactly what they’re after.

I am starting to think none of this religion stuff matters very much except as a veil for mean people to hide behind and decent ones to wear in order to try and make the world and their lives better. Based on news reports about them, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Kayla Mueller fell into the latter category.

Moving on – as best we can after change happens – a few weeks ago was Debbie Friedman’s yahrzeit – the fourth anniversary of her death. Her birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks. She would have been 64. Not a day goes by when my mother and aunts – who considered most of their kid pile one amorphous group of offspring – aren’t thinking of her.

Debbie might not have lived as long as her family and friends and the millions (I am not exaggerating here) of people who loved her music wanted her to. My sister and I were sure we would hang out being old ladies together with Debbie and her sisters. But she lived long enough to be remembered by people she never met. Some of those people work at the nursing home where Mom lives. One, the music therapist and activities person, Amy, approached me about six months ago with an idea.

“What would you think about having a concert of Debbie’s music around her yahrzeit? I was thinking it would be really great for your mother to help plan and be part of it.”

What did I think? I thought it would be great. The next thing I knew, Amy had Trish involved. Trish is the activities director on the assisted living side of the house, where Mom lived before she moved to the nursing home. Trish’s daughter Lauren and my Alex were playmates from the time they were about four. Now they’re both married – to Canadians – and living above the 48th parallel. Anyway, Trish is an activities genius.

So I told Trish about The Box. Mom has saved every scrap of paper from Debbie’s career that she ever acquired. I had it in a box to send to Aunt Freda for what will surely be some Debbie Friedman Archive somewhere someday that scholars will seek out. People will have to wear gloves to handle stuff that was jammed into various bags and between pages in books until I was tossing and sorting things in advance of her moves to where she is now. Trish was very excited about The Box, and started making noises about a display table.

She also made noises elsewhere. By the time Concert Day arrived, there’d been a squib in the local Jewish paper and a slew of local rabbis and cantors had signed on to take part.

Mom and I each got to pick a song to sing. She picked L’chi Lach, because she loves it.

I picked “Set me for a Seal,” because Debbie wrote it for my sister and brother-in-law’s wedding and we sang it together under the chuppah. She taught it to me, and then, intermittently for the entire weekend up to the wedding itself, my cell phone would ring and I’d pick it up and say hello.

“How does it go again?”

So I’d sing it for her.

Anyway, what with the Parkinson’s and all, Mom’s voice sometimes gives out. Also, I didn’t want her to have to stress about finding a key in which to sing. So we decided to do it with cello backup. That way, I could follow her around. Also, I played the melody through once, bowing, and then plucked so she could hear but the cello wouldn’t overpower her voice. It worked well.

Mom sings L'chi Lach. I pluck.
Mother/daughter bonding: Stillish life with cello. That’s Debbie on the movie screen. Mom was singing L’chi Lach. When she had her bat mitzvah in 2004, Mom led MiSheberach, Debbie’s setting of the healing prayer. Debbie stood behind her and played while Mom sang. At this concert, Rabbi Steve Adams did that prayer and he asked me to play guitar. I stood behind him the same way Debbie had for Mom. It was my quiet shoutout to both of them.

We were first, but before that was the best millennial part. Thanks to technology, I was able to get Aunt Freda up on FaceTime and she got to see the 200 people who’d showed up. I introduced her to the rabbis and cantors, showed her the display table and then shoved the microphone up to my i-pad. She thanked everyone for coming, and heard the audible gasp of disbelief when she said that Debbie was so afraid that no one would remember her music.

We lost the connection somewhere between the first and second song, but it was a truly lovely and meaningful afternoon, and I felt connected to Debbie, my family and the community in a way I hadn’t before.

Everyone was backing everyone else up – we had a bunch of guitars, a mandolin, a drum and the cello. Mom got invited up to play timbrel when Amy sang “Miriam’s Song.”

That's Mom on timbrel for "Miriam's Song." Amy the activities goddess is playing guitar. Behind her are Cantors Lauren Phillips, Karen Berman and David Barash (with his tabla).
That’s Mom on timbrel for “Miriam’s Song.” Amy the activities goddess is playing guitar. Behind her are Cantors Lauren Phillips, Karen Berman and David Barash (with his tabla).

We were in front of a theater-sized screen with an image of Debbie on it. As the last song, we sang “T’filat Haderech (The Traveler’s Prayer).” But it was Debbie singing on the screen, and we all picked her key and played our instruments and sang with her. I was very involved in making sure I was in tune, in time and listening to the other musicians (this was our first and dress rehearsal as well as the performance) so it wasn’t until the song was over that I looked over to find Mom, crying her eyes out and pretty much a mess.

For a second, I felt like the worst and most selfish person in the world. Here I was, sawing away on my cello while my mother was falling apart five feet away and I hadn’t noticed.

Then, I realized that it didn’t matter. Trish, Amy and other people she knew and loved were there, comforting her and lifting her up. If Debbie could have seen it, she would have hugged those women and invited them to dinner.

Years ago, Debbie had given me one of her “This is how it is” talks about how Mom shouldn’t be living on Cape Cod anymore because the climate was bad for her Parkinson’s and she should be in California with her mother and Aunt Ann and she was trying to get her to move. All I could think was “Do you want to kill her? Because if you take her away from her community, that’s what will happen.”

I said something like “Good luck getting her to leave the Cape,” adding a silent “Let me know how that works out for you.”

By the time Mom was at a point where she had to move, Debbie was dead. Mom chose Milwaukee. We all loved the idea of Mom & her sisters together, but California wasn’t practical.

Debbie would have hated it too, and agreed. She would have been a regular presence in Mom’s life, calling, visiting, singing and comforting. What I realized in the moment after catching sight of my weeping mother, surrounded by so many loving women, is that even death hasn’t stopped Debbie from that.

Ruth Goldbas & Ernie Banks, who died old, and Baki, who died young

Four Februarys ago, I attended two funerals in the same week. It was the first time that had happened. A month later I was in New York hanging out with my niece and nephew. My sister had decided to fly down from Edmonton during their spring break, and New York is always a great place for a family rendezvous.

Funerals must have been large on my mind, especially as our cousin Debbie (z”l) had died that January. We were (and still are) still more or less reeling from that one as a family.

Anyway, I was telling Elizabeth about the two-funeral week when this slid out of my mouth.

“I know a lot of people,” I said, “and that means that one day I’m going to know a lot of dead people.”

Elizabeth burst out laughing and couldn’t stop. I accepted the invitation and joined her.

Sure enough, it’s four years down the road and my dead people list keeps getting longer.

This past Thursday, our family friend Ruth Goldbas died. She and her late husband Moses loved my parents, and Ruth played a large and quiet role in helping to salvage what was left of my family the year after my father died.

Once a week for that entire year, my sister and I would go to her house after school. Mom would meet us there when she got off work from her teaching job.

They had seven children, which I thought was the neatest thing ever.

Two were around our age, but way too smart and cool to pay attention to a couple of fatherless social misfits. To be honest, Debby and I probably weren’t great company at that point in our lives. That mattered not one iota to Ruth. She always treated us as if we were the most interesting people in the room, and always had a dinner prep job for us to do that made us feel welcome and useful.

When I went to represent the family at Aunt Bessie’s funeral this past September, I used some of my 36 hours in town to find out where Ruth was living and go see her. It was clear that she was not going to be around for a whole lot longer, but getting to experience her radiant smile again was a huge gift.

“I was sure that the Waldmans were in my past!”

We just sat there, happy as a pair of pigs in you-know-what and then dialed up Mom, so she and Ruth could have a chat. When her son David showed up, he snapped a picture of us.

Ruth Goldbas and me in September. Photo by her son David
Me and Ruth in September. Her son David took the photo, and her daughter Esther, who’d been up to visit the day before I showed up, had brought her the chocolate cake.

Like his son David, Mosie was an attorney. He even merited a mention in Roger Kahn’s book “Good Enough to Dream,” about a season Kahn spent with the Utica Blue Sox.

I mention this because on Friday, baseball great Ernie Banks (aka “Mr. Cub”) died. He never played for the Blue Sox, but he did spend a night at the Treadway Inn.  I know this because our dad took me and my sister there the morning Ernie and his fellow Cubbies were to play an exhibition game in Cooperstown at the Hall of Fame. We brought our autograph books and cameras. The autographs are long gone, but I have my memories of Ernie Banks, and of his teammate Ron Santo.

I took this picture of Ernie Banks in 1971, the year my father took us to get autographs from the Chicago Cubs. We weren't the only kids there, as you can tell from this picture.
I took this picture of Ernie Banks in 1971, the year my father took us to get autographs from the Chicago Cubs. We weren’t the only kids there, as you can tell from this picture.

Ernie Banks isn’t the only athlete I spent this weekend remembering. Baki may have made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame too, if he’d gotten a chance to grow up.

I was at work the Monday morning he died. It was 2005, and Baki was 12. His parents Marge & Andy are two of my dearest friends.

He wasn’t sick. He’d spent Sunday afternoon and early evening snow tubing with a group from synagogue. He went to bed happy, sharing a bed his nine-year-old brother, the way they always did. Their 16-year-old brothers shared another room, with separate bunk beds. M&A tucked four kids into bed that night. The moment before Marge went to wake them up for school was the last before her family’s life took a turn into a place no parent ever wants to go.

More than 1,000 people showed up for his funeral. On Saturday, about 50 of us gathered at the same synagogue for a Baki-centered memorial. There was some singing, some study of texts from Pirke Avot, and a lot of great storytelling. We shared our memories of Baki and what of him we have carried forward with us these past 10 years.

Baki was an astonishingly graceful and talented athlete.

He was a middle child who navigated the shark-infested waters of sibling competition with the same elegance he brought to his soccer and softball games; he had a quiet sense of mischief he deployed skillfully and well. There was more than one comparison to Buddha, and those making it were people who had known Baki, but not one another.

His soccer teammates told of having started every game for the season after his death “one man down” for the first 10 seconds. Baki’s jersey number had been 10, and that was their tribute. The year they were high school seniors, their soccer team went to the state championships. They started their game “one man down,” because, as one of his teammates said, “If Baki had been alive, he would have been here with us.”

Everyone who spoke had beautiful things to say. His grandmothers read of adventures they’d had with Baki dating from shortly after he was born through to his last birthday, a month before he died.

The most powerful moments of the afternoon, for me, centered around Baki’s classmates, teammates, brothers and the family friends who had been peers. Now young adults, they had experienced his death and mourned his passing as children. Seeing them express, as adults, with adults, the grief they felt as children in a setting where their friend’s memory was the focus, was profound.

It was important for them in a way that was different for the rest of us, possibly because when you’re a child, adults are in charge. They may not be able to control death, but they control a lot of other things. So a kid experiencing a friend’s death may not really understand that the adults are as absolutely lost as they are in this particular situation.

What I saw happen in those young adults, all with the same particular searing hole in their psyches, is as close as I’ve ever been to a healing event in a spiritual setting. For them, being able to pull those feelings out and air them in a setting where they were not only safe, but welcomed and encouraged, was transformational in a very different way than it was for us adult mourners.

I know a lot of people, alive and dead. Yesterday’s event gave some things to chew on in terms of how it is and what it means to carry forward the memories of those we loved, liked and cared for.

Today, it also makes me realize that down the line, if I’m lucky, someone will be doing that for me.