The Story of My Aunt Shirley

My Aunt Shirley passed away a few weeks ago. She was my father’s sister. My dad died over 25 years ago. It’s just us now. If you think about the family tree, it’s my cousins and sisters and I that are now the living matriarchs and patriarchs on the Gershun side. That’s a lot of responsibility.

My daughter, Malina, and Aunt Shirley from our visit in 2012.

Aunt Shirley was certainly a matriarch and a hero. I am so proud to have been raised in a family of people who stand up for human rights and do the right thing. Please read this great article about how she helped persecuted Jews in the Soviet Union in the 1970’s.

 

 

Namaste

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This is for my Mother-in-Law. She asked me to write a blog post and when the MIL asks, the only appropriate response is to comply to her request.

I haven’t been going to Friday night services much lately. Kind of not much at all. Many excuses: the husband has been traveling, so have I, we are tired at the end of the week and don’t want to drive. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it when we go. I love going to services at the Aloha Jewish Chapel. We used to go almost every week. I guess I’m just a little bit lazy these days. We light the Shabbat candles at home, say Kiddush, eat dinner together and begin our rest ASAP.

I stopped going to Shabbat Torah study with Rabbi Schaktman last year when my youngest stopped her Saturday morning sailing lessons. I don’t prefer to drive into Honolulu on the weekends, but the simultaneous scheduling of her sailing and my Torah study was perfect timing. I didn’t stop because I didn’t enjoy it. Quite the opposite. She  found an alternative passion closer to home and then, so did I.

Yoga.

I discovered a Friday afternoon Restorative Yoga practice session and a Saturday morning Vinyasa session  at the Kroc Center nearby.  I enjoy each one very much. On Friday it isn’t really a choice of one over the other. I could go to yoga, shower and make it to services on time. I’m hoping to make that my routine one day soon. The only problem is that it doesn’t really allow for Shabbat dinner with family and that’s super important to me too.

On Saturday it has to be one or the other because they happen at the same time. Torah study or yoga. I have chosen yoga—for now. Until this weekend I reassured myself that it is a reasonable alternative. My yoga practice brings me peace. Besides the physical benefits, it can be a spiritual practice and definitely inspires me to look inward, or upside down or sideways. Today something happened to confirm the story that I have been telling myself. It opened my perspective to find many connections from yoga to Kabbalat Shabbat services.

Our teacher, Min Soo, starts with one of her teacher’s interpretations of the Yogi’s Creed from the Rig Veda. We recited it together. Well, I kind of mumbled along as I don’t really know it.

May we be protected together
May we be nourished together
May we work together for the greater good
May our practice be enlightening
And may there be no hate amongst us
Creating peace peace peace

Usually I sort of zone out at this point since I started practicing yoga for the benefits to my body and figured I’m not into the, “Mumbo jumbo new age stuff.” I went to my first yoga session about five years ago after I was having trouble water skiing and my brother-in-law, Neil, suggested that yoga might help with my balance. I truly believe he was not addressing my mental state, but over the years the breath and stillness have brought some balance to both my body and my mind. Not exponentially, but enough for me to keep practicing.

At first I wasn’t comfortable with prayer hands and bowing to say “Namaste” at the end. Then I learned that Namaste simply means, “I bow to you.” No harm in that. An interpretation I read on the Urban Dictionary website is also nice, “The Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you.” I can wrap my head around that. We’ve got spirit.

Today I finally listened closely to the words when Min Soo was speaking and it dawned on me that there some strong similarities in these sentiments to my Jewish values. Here are a few of the thoughts that passed through my head with my in and out breath:

  • Yoga is a personal practice, but we do it together. We accept ourselves without judgment. We don’t interfere with the others on their mats, but we soak up the positive energy of our collective practice. Sounds like Shabbat (or any other) services to me—without the Kiddush, Motzi and Oneg. Oh well, nothing’s perfect. We don’t always have to eat.
  • “May we be protected together. May we be nourished together,” sounds to me like the translation of some of our Hebrew prayers.
  • “May we work together for the greater good.” Hello…..Tikun Olam?
  • “Creating peace peace peace.” In Sanskrit: Shanti, Shanti, Shanti. In Heberw: Shalom, Shalom, Shalom. Do I need to explain this one at all?

Talk about finding balance. And at this point it isn’t an act. While I don’t think my engagement in this practice will ever overshadow any aspect of my being Jewish, it can certainly enhance it. These recent observations greatly assuage my Jewish guilt. No judgment there. Baruch Hashem.

Shanti Shanti Shanti
Shalom Shalom Shalom
Namaste

 

 

 

 

 

The story of the unhappy kugel

IMG_3985When Val asked me to make a kugel for this year’s communal Yom Kippur “Break the Fast” at the Aloha Jewish Chapel, I was excited to do so. I immediately thought of the recipe that I have for my mother’s kugel that she served at each of our family’s holiday meals (except Passover) and the memory fueled my excitement.

Her kugel is sweet and simple and incredibly delicious: pecans, butter, brown sugar, eggs and egg noodles. How can you go wrong? While not difficult to make, it takes a reasonable amount of time and a little bit of patience.

Years ago I looked up the meaning of kugel, confused by the different specimens I’ve tasted. I wondered how my mother’s noodle kugel could relate to the potato one served at Passover and the plethora of versions at other people’s holiday tables. Internet sources describe it as a pudding. I am inclined to suggest the word casserole—but not of the tuna variety.

I planned ahead for this one, buying the ingredients on my weekly trip to the commissary the Sunday before Yom Kippur. I set aside time to make it on Tuesday afternoon, before we went out to dinner and to services for Kol Nidre. There was no way I was going to bake a kugel on Wednesday afternoon, the same day I was fasting. Regardless of the fact that it would be inappropriate to cook on Yom Kippur, I knew that the enticing aroma of all of those delicious ingredients coming together in a spectacular kugel would be more than I could bear in my VERY hungry state before Yiskor and Ne’ilah. It would definitely slow the fast.

I timed it perfectly and it was the most beautiful kugel I had ever created. It felt so good to look at it and see visions of all the kugels that had come before at Gershun celebrations. It truly was my mother’s kugel. I finally had the right combination of ingredients, timing and patience to make this great achievement. I left it on the counter, slightly covered, to cool and would put it in the refrigerator when we returned from Tuesday evening services.

When we returned, before putting it in the ice-box, I decided to take a picture of the kugel next to the flames of the burning yahrtzeit candles lit for my mother and father. Maybe I’d post it on Facebook? Or maybe I’d just send the picture to my sisters so that they could kvell with me on this great achievement. Whatever the intent, perhaps it is my hubris that became a tragic flaw and led to the unhappy conclusion of this almost perfect story.

After I snapped a few shots of the holiday kugel (thank goodness I took a picture). I picked up the glass plate on which it rested, turned to the refrigerator, slipped a bit and dropped the whole thing on our stone tile floor. The glass plate splintered in tiny pieces. spraying across the kitchen floor and into the hallway. The kugel plunked straight down, lying in tact on the floor below my feet. It’s golden top sparkled with shards of the pyrex dish and I reluctantly imagined what lay beneath. It became unfit for any palate, let alone a holiday meal. My dreams of the perfect kugel shattered before my very eyes.

The end isn’t so sad. My husband helped me clean it up. The next day I showed Val the picture and told her the story. She shed a tear for my mother’s kugel, but understood. She suggested mac and cheese. No problem. After morning services, I easily whipped up a pan. No memories were invoked as it did not have the familiar delicious aroma to tease me. Services were nice, not too long. We wished each other G’mar chatimah tovah and broke the fast together as a community.

I’m the only one who really missed the kugel that holds so many memories of my mom and dad and the new years and ends of years that our family shared together.

L’Shanah Tovah.

 

Happy Birthday Gloria–Ethan, go nuts!

Happy first birthday  to my nephew Ethan. I appreciate that he was born on August 28 because that is also my mother’s birthday. So from now on, every year on August 28, I get to be happy for his birthday while I am a little sad when I think about my mom and miss her a bit more than I do on other days. I appreciate the balance.

The house in which I grew up at 5081 Somerset Street in Buena Park, California was a fun one. We were encouraged to play (as long as we got good grades and read a lot of books). My mom, Gloria, went to great efforts to provide the opportunities. We had tons of stuff to do outside beyond the requisite bike and bat: a swing set, a ping pong table acquired with blue chip stamps applied to pages of books with wet sponges, hippity hops, kick balls, and even stilts.

Inside our home we had cupboards of board games, floor space to play marbles and jacks and the living room was not formal. Instead, it was set up so that we could hang out with our friends and play air hockey or pachinko, color large posters and do jigsaw puzzles. We even had a player piano.

By the time that we were teenagers and entertained gentlemen callers on the weekends, there was a multitude of ways for a young man to occupy his hands in that room without ever touching one of Gloria’s daughters. She was fun and smart!

We were also encouraged to have a “collection.” Each of us had one displayed on shelves in our room: Martha collected miniature pianos, Betsy (boo) collected deer figurines and I collected dolls from around the world. In the family room next to the TV was Gloria’s collection: nutcrackers.

There was a big poster on the wall that said, “Peanut butter is love. Spread some around today.” Not only did it appropriately decorate her collection below, it was also an inclusive nod to my father’s particularly strong affinity for peanut butter. Nowhere in this blog post will there be even a hint of suggestion that either of my parents might have been a bit nuts. That’s because they weren’t.

Underneath the poster were two bookshelves about 3 1/2 feet high that held an odd assortment of nutcrackers shaped like animals and machines. On top there was a bowl of nuts (still in the shell) and the opportunity to step up to the counter to crack one and eat it whenever one so desired.

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Her collection included a great variety: a small wooden contraption that Martha actually made for her, gifts that relatives brought back from Israel over the years and my all time favorite which is a pair of woman’s legs that my Great Aunt Tee gave to her. I loved that particular nutcracker long before its suggestive nature dawned on me along with the impressive significance that it came from a woman who was probably born in the 1800’s!

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I don’t know how the collection started, but I do remember when it made a distinct transition. Well, I don’t remember exactly when, but one year my parents went on a trip to New York City. (I’m sure my sisters can provide more specific details.) It was a big deal because my parents didn’t travel much. They returned from New York City with Uncle Alf.

Uncle Alf was married to my Great Aunt Tee which makes him great too. They lived in Omaha. He did not go to New York with my parents. Nor did he return with them. From their great travels, my parents brought home a toy soldier nutcracker. It was like the one from the ballet that had a white goatee and moustache just like our Uncle Alf, so that’s why we named it after him.

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I don’t have the original in my home as I believe one of my sisters has him in her care, but it looks like one of these.

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It wasn’t until this very moment, writing this blog post that I noticed that both Aunt Tee and Uncle Alf had a connection in my mother’s collection. Hmmm…

With the addition of Uncle Alf to the general collection came a new focus: toy soldier nutcrackers. Once again, it was fun. Over the years my mom collected all kinds of variations on the theme. We purchased them for her as Chanukkah gifts, birthday gifts, “I saw this and I thought you might like it” gifts. She collected cheap versions and expensive ones. The collection grew—exponentially.

Fast forward several decades and 3 homes later to her lovely abode at 125th Street in Johnson County, Kansas where she and her adoring paramour Aaron lived together in her final years. Even there you could easily find her collection that followed from Buena Park. Even New York City’s Uncle Alf was present along with my old favorites: the legs, the squirrel and the gifts from Israel.

Aaron & GPG1, 1-23-10

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For a long time the nutcrackers had their own room. Gloria had shelves built in the guest room where they lined the walls to stand guard over sleeping grandchildren and out of town visitors. The impressive collection had expanded to posters of nutcrackers and bookmarks and pretty much almost anything that sported their image.

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Finally, about 5 years or so before she died, she was done. She did not get rid of them, nothing as drastic as that. When Aaron moved in and they redesigned the guest room as his office, the nutcrackers were respectfully relegated to the basement. Once again shelves were built and they were displayed, but not in such a prominent position.

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She politely asked us to stop buying them for her, she no longer had room or interest.

The only people who spent much time in the basement were her kids and grandkids when we came to visit and the cleaning lady. But the nutcrackers did not seem sad and neither did my mom. She was finding other ways to have fun.

After she died we tried to donate the collection as a whole, but did not find a willing recipient. Our affection for the collection was not to be found elsewhere. So we each took tokens to our respective homes for ourselves and our children, gave some to others with fond memories and the rest was finally packed away and dispersed to parts unknown.

Last month I went on a trip to Leavenworth, Washington with two of my childhood friends. While walking through this oddly themed Bavarian town we came across the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum. Imagine that! While we did not enter the museum itself, we browsed through the gift shop. My friends were very accommodating, having spent a significant portion of their adolescence enjoying the fun nature of my childhood home and cracking a few nuts in their tenure there.

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The gift shop was impressive and I saw many old friends in their collection, relishing the memories they prompted. It was bittersweet not being able to call my mom and tell her all about it, but a great photo opportunity.

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So, Happy 1st Birthday, Ethan. I hope your life is filled with fun and that you get good grades and read a lot of books. But most of all… today go nuts.

And mom, Happy Birthday. I miss you.

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Time for a change

If you are reading this, then you have probably noticed the new look. It was time for a change. We are rearranging and renovating the house and yard and the change has done us good. We are enjoying the space anew.

Did I mention that I am going to celebrate my 50th birthday soon. I am embracing the jubilee with a sense of celebration and renewal. I can be a creature of habit and have decided to make change, embrace change, try to change and change it up in any way I can, including the design of this blog. I hope you enjoy it as much as I am.

And the cool thing is, I can always change it again!

To give generously from the heart without asking for anything in return

The other day Teenager asked me if I would ever live in Honolulu. I thought for less than a second and responded with a solid, “No, I like the west side.” We’ve been spending a lot of time driving back and forth to Town lately and more than once the thought has crossed my mind how nice it would be to have a place where we could spend the night and avoid the traffic that plagues us on much of those journeys.

Then I thought of the congestion and the lack of space and the crowded coastline and I knew that I would not be looking to Honolulu as a place for my primary residence, not just yet.

Then, on Saturday morning, I arrived at the Yee King Tong Cemetery near Punchbowl (National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific) to meet my friend Shareen for our volunteer stint judging student essays in the Eddie Aikau Foundation’s annual Eddie Would Go essay contest and I totally changed my mind.

I turned left into the lane that leads to the cemetery and the adjacent Aikau home and entered one of those wondrous places I like to think of as “Real Hawaii.” If I could live somewhere like that, Honolulu or anywhere, I would move in a heartbeat.

I could feel the aloha the minute I arrived.

The foundation holds the annual contest as part of their mission to “share Eddie Aikau’s life, contributions and accomplishments while promoting education and the advancement of Hawaiian culture.”

Here is the 2012 prompt:

As a City and County lifeguard, Eddie Aikau often risked his life to make sure the beaches were safe for everyone. He made the ultimate sacrifice by giving his life in an attempt to save the crew on the Polynesian voyaging canoe ―Hokule’a‖.
Eddie’s actions reflected the Hawaiian values of KOKUA (to help) and KAHIAU (to give generously with the heart, without expecting anything in return).
How do these values inspire your actions and how do they influence your decision of who to help, when you can’t help everyone.

I read the essays thinking about the teenagers who wrote them. How lucky they are to have a role model like Eddie Aikau. They wrote with ease about Kokua and Kahiau. They told stories of helping their parents and their grandparents and volunteering with their churches and school groups to feed the homeless and donate clothes and toys. Kokua and Kahiau are  embedded in the aloha that runs in their veins.

I couldn’t help but relate the concept of Kahiau to that of Tzedakah–to give generously from the heart without asking for anything in return is certainly righteous. We give because it is right. And the highest form of giving is when the giver does not know the receiver and the receiver does not know the giver.

It all came together for me near the big mango tree in the side yard of Myra Akau’s house (she is Eddie’s sister). Kahiau, Tzedakah, Kokua, Aloha–In a place like this, no problem.

A walking tour of Nuuanu

I took a walk with my friend Linda today. We were waiting for our kids who were at Sunday school and decided to make good use of our time. She wanted to show me a few sites in the Nu’uanu area where Temple Emanu-El of Honolulu is located. I had no idea what a treat it would be.

We walked down  Pali Hwy from Jack Lane towards the city. I’ve never walked that way before. I always go up. We ended up on Nuuanu Avenue. I felt like a total tourist, enjoying looking at the Asian Temples and local graveyards that line the road. I had to take pictures and share them here.

I thought they were all beautiful, but found the Oahu Cemetery quite special as I looked at grave markers that hold names from ancient and recent Hawaii history. I also enjoyed a brief visit to the small Jewish section in the back.

Thanks, Linda.

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