Monday, July 11, 2016

Finally making it 'Uptown' in downtown Columbus

A bit of whimsy in Uptown Columbus.
After a short and eventful road trip across north and central Florida, Wendy and I decided to take a detour recently on our way back to Atlanta. That's how we ended up spending an afternoon in Columbus, the place I still consider home -- at least in a sentimental fashion -- even though I haven't lived there in 40 years.

We pulled off the interstate at Tifton and maneuvered our way along a series of state highways and secondary roads, passing through a half-dozen or so sun-bleached towns and cities -- Albany, Dawson, Lumpkin and Cusseta -- before pulling into Fort Benning.

The massive military base makes up a third of what the locals refer to as the tri-cities. Columbus and its neighbor, Phenix City, across the Chattahoochee River in Alabama, fill out the rest of the metro area.

After clearing one last rise in the road, the skyline of Columbus and its two skyscrapers -- the government center downtown and the headquarters of AFLAC a few miles to the east -- came into view. At first blush the city seemed a clay-stained vision of what I had seen on previous trips. The heart of the community was nestled in a bend of the Chattahoochee, sprawling to the north and east like a creeping bit of kudzu.

If rumors and news reports of massive growth and redevelopment were true, then what I was seeing from a distance had little to do with reality and much to do with my aging memory. Uncovering the truth of such reports, however, would have to wait another hour or so while I attempted to put the lie to Thomas Wolfe's assertion that you "can't go home again!"

First stop was to visit my folks at Riverdale Cemetery.
The first stop was a visit to see family and friends, all resting comfortably in the Jewish section of Riverdale cemetery off of Victory Drive. The Feinberg family plot, nicely shaded by a towering oak tree, is surrounded by the graves of the men and women who once called Columbus home and were members of Shearith Israel Synagogue.

It's here that my mother and father can be found; so, too, my paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and a legion of cousins and family friends and acquaintances: The Hirschs, Kravtins Raabs and Myers; Shapiros, Cohens, Satlofs and Siegels; Levys, Behars, Scopps and Greens; Robbins, Funks and Witts.

Hidden away in an older section of the cemetery is my great grandmother, Bailey Feinberg, who was born in Eastern Europe in 1852 and died in Columbus in 1941. She's the woman my granddaughter, Bailey Levetan, is named after -- her great-great-great Bubbe!

My great grandmother, Bailey Feinberg.
All these folk, mostly immigrants from Russia and Poland, settled in the Chattahoochee valley a century earlier, bringing a bit of Yiddishkeit to the Deep South, creating a vibrant community that prospered and came of age during the Great Depression and World War II.

There were a few doctors, lawyers and accountants among them. But, truth to tell, they were mostly merchants, men who scratched out a living buying and selling stuff -- food, clothing, hardware and scrap metal; watches, rings, luggage and weapons. Stuff!

Some prospered. Others struggled. My father did both.

Wendy and I spent part of the next hour visiting the store where he managed to grow his business, Village Pawn Shop; and the site where he began the journey. Central Pawn Shop, on First Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets, is toast now; a mostly fond but fading memory of a different, simpler time.

It was a tiny place with linoleum floors and fluorescent lights dangling from the ceiling. Once inside, there was a jarring blend of merchandise: watches and rings; hats, caps, suits and leather jackets; tires and tools; pistols, rifles, shotguns and knives; luggage, footlockers and a wide assortment of musical instruments.

The store was hot in the summer, cold in the winter and filled with a bizarre menagerie of characters: addicts and prostitutes, professional gamblers, pool sharks and con artists; men and women struggling to get by and others hunting for bargains; cops in search of stolen merchandise and the occasional reporter in search of a good story.

Chattahoochee and RiverWalk big part of city's redevelopment plan.
Now, four decades later and this spot -- rechristened "Uptown" in recent years -- has been swept clean. The footprint across much of the area remains the same, but most everything has been reconfigured and remodeled. There's a decidedly upbeat and gentrified vibe that hangs lightly in the air.

Thanks to an innovative collaboration between the city's consolidated government, Columbus State University and Uptown Columbus, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the slightly sleepy and seedy business district has been re-imagined and revitalized. It's a happening place, attracting locals, students and the occasional tourist with a pleasant and eclectic blend of upscale restaurant and bars, retail shops and boutiques, historic buildings and a world-class performing arts center.

Perhaps most remarkable is the western boundary of the area, once a decaying eyesore filled with abandoned warehouses, overgrown thickets of underbrush and debris. Now the RiverWalk, a beautifully landscaped path, meanders alongside the Chattahoochee for 15 miles or so from downtown, alongside the city's historic district and Victory Drive, to the southern fringes of Fort Benning.

The path is wide enough to provide runners, cyclists and folks just our for a leisurely stroll plenty of room to exercise and enjoy the natural beauty around the trail. And if that isn't enough to get your heart racing, just know that Mother Nature, herself, has been given a makeover of sorts.

A few years ago the river was slightly rerouted and gussied up with some well-placed boulders to create a rush of whitewater for kayakers and others in search of a wet and chilly way to spend a few hours.

All that remains of dad's store is the address.
For me -- and I'm guessing for other folks of a certain age who once called Columbus home -- walking around Uptown can be a melancholy journey into the past. It's filled with warm and mostly happy memories, especially for members of the Jewish community whose relatives owned and operated a vast assortment of shops and businesses here.

My father owned a pawn shop on First Avenue. It was next to Suran's Furniture Store, which was around the corner from the Kravtin's Novelty Shop on Broadway. Next door were a cluster of businesses -- Blue Ribbon Shoes, Rainbow's Department Store and Tots and Teens -- all owned and operated by the Rainbow and Shapiro families.

Nearby, on the same block, was Aaron Funk's United Jewelers, Gus Mendelson's Fox's Pawn Shop and Sol and Harry's, a hugely successful clothing store owned by Sol and Harry Cohn. A block north was Phil Pomerance's Kiddie Shop, Charlie Stein's Huddle Shop and Victor Kiralfy's woman's store.

Turn the corner at 11th Street and walk a block east past Kirven's department store and Federal Bakery and you'd be just across the street from Miller's Delicatessen, home of the best corned beef sandwich (possibly the only corned beef sandwich) to be found in Georgia south of Leb's in Atlanta.

The businesses are gone, replaced by Uptown's move into the 21st Century. The changes, wow factor and all, can be a bit jarring and unsettling. Certainly what's become of my father's business is notable. All that remains of Central Pawn Shop today is its address, 1023, updated and prominently displayed across a green awning that welcomes folks to "The Abbey".

Turns out what was once a pawn shop is now a ministry for young adults, providing prayer, meals and financial support. Now that I think about it, nothing much has really changed. Given my dad's warm heart and caring soul, I'm pretty certain he was doing the same sort of mission work years ago in his little store.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A place of peace to mourn the victims of Pulse

Memorial for the victims of Pulse at Dr. Phillip's Center. 
The first thing that grabs your attention is a rainbow of color filling a massive set of windows in Orlando's Dr. Phillip's Center. It rests above an equally expansive lawn, a magnet of sorts for people in search of answers.

On this melancholy and humid evening, two weeks or so after 50 people were murdered at Pulse, a gay bar only a short distance away on the southern fringes of the downtown area, several dozen pilgrims wander about in quiet reflection. The public meeting spot, at least for the moment, has been transformed into sacred ground.

After all, this is the place a week earlier where 50,000 people gathered to mourn and memorialize the country's latest victims of terrorism and gun violence; the same spot where President Obama and Vice President Biden stood, heads bowed, to share a nation's grief.

"The Vice President and I told them," the President said of his meeting with family members of the slain, "that our hearts are broken, too, but we stand with you and that we are here for you, and that we are remembering those who you loved so deeply."

From a distance, the scent of jasmine offers a gentle welcome. The lawn, the site now of several impromptu memorials, is sprinkled with a jarring mix of stuff -- displays recalling the lives of the victims, messages offering prayers of hope and salvation; red, white and blue bunting and flags, burning incense (a sharp note of jasmine mixed with the coolness of lavender), and a vast array of flowers and flickering candles.

There are also hundreds of hand-written notes from friends, playful trinkets and spiritual gifts -- a small crucifix and rosary, a time-worn Bible and a tiny box holding soil, an attached note explaining, "from the Holy Land".

Flags, photos, cards and trinkets part of massive memorial.
On closer inspection, after days beneath an unforgiving sun and the torrid heat of central Florida, I note the flowers have begun to wilt, letters of love and remembrance to wrinkle at the edges and the colorful, patriotic banners to fade. In another few days, perhaps a week or two, the lawn will be swept clean and Pulse will become yet another painful memory of a place where evil once visited.

The names of the dead and injured in attacks stretching back decades are mostly forgotten in a world moving at the speed of light. Sadly, the locations are what we recall: Columbine, Blacksburg, Newtown, Aurora, Fort Hood and Charleston; San Bernardino, Chattanooga, San Ysidro, Washington, D.C. and Tucson.

The full list spans the country. No region is immune to the momentary madness of mostly boys and men directed by hate, fear and a grotesque anger fueled by job and personal issues, teen angst, mental illness and, most recently, cultural and ideological chauvinism.

As the sun sinks slowly below the horizon and the first stars of the night appear above the city's skyline, an agitated volunteer busies herself lighting a row of candles. A photographer kneels in front of a makeshift shrine and snaps a few photos and a family -- dad, mom and two youngsters --  take a final look around before disappearing into the shadows.

It turns out, for pilgrims and others, there is an answer to be found in this space. That becomes clear when I hear the thrum of music off in the distance. Downtown Orlando, after all, is filled with distractions for locals and tourists.

The noise feels jarring and invasive but it offers a painful, yet undeniable truth. Despite tragedy and death, heartbreak and misery, time never stops and life always goes on.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Stepping safely into the future

The New: Safe and sturdy and good for years.
The problem started with a small crack and a little creak, but now the lovely Miss Wendy and I are finally stepping into the new century with new steps.

Here at Grebnief central, we've managed to make our way into headquarters for years despite a shaky set of front steps that came with our home when we bought it decades ago. As I recall, Reagan was sitting in the White House, Dale Murphy was playing for the Braves and Indiana Jones was becoming a household name when we first stumbled into our new castle in the early 1980s.

Since we were young and agile, the rocky steps -- I mean rocky as in the steps were literally made of rock -- presented no major obstacles and seemed of little import as we zipped through time. Fast forward a few decades, and getting from here to there has, at times, become a wobbly affair.

And so it was that a few months ago I began searching for a solution that would both enhance the curb appeal of Casa Grebnief while making it safer for folks of all ages to make it into our castle. I won't bore you with the details; suffice it to say that I touched base with a variety of folks who offered a variety of ideas.

The Old: Rocky and wobbly and falling apart.
The good news is my good friend Irwin provided me with the name of a contractor who managed to transform my squiggly ideas produced on my iPad into reality. That he was able to do the work at a fraction of the cost detailed by other companies was icing on my metaphorical cake.

Now the lovely Miss Wendy is happy which, of course, means I'm happy, too. Both of us can now bound up our new entrance with little fear of stumbling or worry that the steps will crumble underneath our feet.

I'm thinking we're good for another 30 years. Well, at least the steps will be good. At that point in the distant future, I'm pretty certain it will be Wendy and me doing the creaking and crumbling.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Grand welcome comes with tiny cut!

Rite of passage: Grandpa Steve, Avi share special moment!
A bris is a memorable tradition filled with much high ritual, the moment when a Jewish boy -- for those who believe in such rites -- becomes part of the ancient covenant given by God to Abraham and his descendants.

It's part of the bedrock of Judaism, one of the numerous mitzvot, or laws, that are at the heart of the religion. It also offers up a distinctive mark -- both literally and symbolically -- that helped create and sustain the Jewish people for thousands of years, a community filled with rich and robust traditions, rites, ideas and laws.

Baby Boy Levetan's bris was such a happening, a gathering of family and friends to welcome him into our lives and community with love and good cheer eight days following his birth. Oh, there was also a mohel, trained in the practice of brit milah, the "covenant of circumcision," to whack away his foreskin.

Ouch and welcome to the tribe!

Say ahhhh: Avi with his mom and dad, Lauren and Josh.
It's also the moment when a child receives their name, when what already is becomes even more, defined and enriched by a back story that adds weight and context to a precious being at the starting point of life.

For those with even a smattering of Hebrew, baby boy Levetan's name -- at least his Hebrew name, Avraham Yisrael -- was first heard uttered by the mohel, Rabbi Ariel Asa, as he went about his liturgical chores. But it was left to Lauren and Josh to announce and explain the proper name that now will be forever linked to their son and all he will become.

Avi Kenneth Levetan, a euphonic blend of old and new, ethnic and modern, is inextricably meshed with the ganze mispucha, the entire family. The Hebrew and English names honor and recall a great grandfather and grand uncle from Lauren's extended family and both Josh's paternal grandfather and, most poignantly, his maternal grandfather, Ken Stone, who died last year.

Their collective lives offer up a rich tapestry of being that stretches back to the Pale of Settlement, spanning half the globe and the last century or so; men who both embraced the ancient customs of their ancient religion and communities while striking out for the New World and all the wonders to be found in America.

We are family: Bailey (l-r), Pops, Lauren, Avi, Josh and Bubbe.
All they were, in a fashion, will now be carried into the next century, a bit of spiritual energy comfortably resting in the heart of a sweet little boy.

Avi, sucking away on a cloth dabbed in a bit of wine, rested comfortably following the bris as family and friends feasted on deli delicacies at a celebratory meal, Seurat mitzvah, that is yet another custom of a folk who are defined by such traditions.

So this is my hope, Avi, a little postscript from your Pops on the day after your bris.

If at some distant time you find yourself surfing whatever passes for the World Wide Web in the next century and stumble across this post, you should spend a few moments reflecting on all that happened on this special day in 2016. Then take a moment to understand that even when you were little more than a vibrant idea and bit of flesh you were already part of something huge and ancient and, most importantly, from the very beginning you were loved.

With that, I'll sign off for now with this wish, offering up a priestly blessing (sort of) while quoting that ancient Talmudic sage, Mr. Spock: Live long and prosper, Avi Kenneth, live long and prosper!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Baby Boy Levetan makes his grand entrance

Only 2-hours old, Baby Boy Levetan ponders his future.
Life begins in an instant -- the blink of an eye, tick of a clock, a precious first breath. With a little push the darkness gives way to light and all that is and the potential for all that will be comes into focus.

So it was with Baby Boy Levetan, who joined our family and the world on Monday, April 25, at exactly 12:45 p.m.

It was a momentous day, of course, worth remembering even with all the static and noise and nonsense that jarringly speaks of a world gone slightly meshugga.

Johnny "Football" was indicted and John Kasich and Ted Cruz momentarily joined forces to best The Donald; President Obama announced that trade deals are good for the U.S. and every Republican on the planet agreed that he was wrong; the Hawks lost to the Celtics in OT in Game 4 of their playoff series and the Braves lost to the Mets in a season that was over before it really began; and Passover ebbed its way into day three, which means I remain five days away from a slice of pizza and big bowl of pasta!

Piffle, the mundane stuff of life; seconds ticking away while cosmic happenings wait gently on the horizon.

Josh, Lauren and the newest addition to their family.
Such are the musings I hold when writing this ode to Baby Boy Levetan, a gentle child just waiting to enter the arena, a baby that will one day carry memories of me and those of my generation into the 22nd Century -- Intimations of Imortality!

What wonders there will be out there, a time when technology will make this wondrous life we live today seem hopelessly simple and dark. The slight and tiny fingers that grasp my hand this moment might one day pound away at a super computer that easily changes the weather, or flips a switch that turns night to day.

I can only wonder at the sights and sounds that Baby Boy Levetan will experience in a life moving at the speed of light, a time of peace and plenty, I hope; a time when he, his sister Bailey and others can grasp and become all that they now hold only as potential within their tiny souls today.

Call such thoughts a prayer, if you like, the hopes of a dreamy Pops reading ephemeral tea leaves and pondering the future and the stuff of dreams!

Meanwhile, there's a bris a few days off, a bit of the ancient past filled with high ceremony and ritual that will carry us all into the future; a day when Baby Boy Levetan will be ushered into our Jewish community and, along with the rest of us, learn his name.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely ...

Worker tops pine hanging over my house.
Don't look now, but there's a man hanging out in my backyard. He's found a way to get up in the world, a job that you couldn't pay me enough to ever think about doing.

The guy was part of a package deal, one of a half-dozen or so workers who spent the day taking down a half-dozen or so pines hanging dangerously over my house.

Once upon a time, I was thrilled by the shade and greenery offered up by the trees. But after 30 years of growth -- where did the time go? -- I find myself holding my breath whenever the wind starts blowing and the trees start swaying.

Which brings me back to the guy in the tree. He cut his way up, trimming off branches until he managed to top the last 10 feet. After swaying about a bit he proceeded to work his way down, cutting off huge blocks of the trunk until there was none.

And then he did it again and again and again and, well, yet again.

The good news is that now, when local meteorologists start hyperventilating whenever the sky grows dark and the wind starts howling, I feel relatively safe in my comfy little home. Let them rant on with all that high-tech gear they now have at hand, offering up dire warnings of what can be expected when a low front out of the northwest slams up against a ridge of high pressure speeding in from the southeast.

It's just a bit of sound and fury, signifying, well, nothing.

And now for the  bad news. There are still a dozen or so towering pines in my yard; a benign grove of nature's bounty when all is calm, a menacing presence when the skies and my mind grow cloudy.

Do I think kablooey or just say phooey to the whims of fate? Should I simply hunker down and hope Mother Nature and karma are with me when clouds blanket my little corner of the world?

BTW, did I mention all this inner sturm und drang began when a 90-foot-pine came crashing down a few months ago, falling deep in my backyard into my next door neighbor's yard. Oh, and a few weeks later a second tree -- another pine, just as big -- fell into a second neighbor's yard.

The good news -- and, yes, there is good news here -- no one was injured and there was minimal property damage.

Meanwhile, I am now wondering -- and here, finally, is the point of this blog -- since no one was around when the trees toppled, did they actually make a sound when they crashed to earth?

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Walking, talking and exploring the world

Bailey out and about and having a ball.
Bailey and I were making our way to my car recently, maneuvering our way through the garage packed with the stuff of life -- boxes of old clothes, and little used cooking utensils, tools, garden supplies and a flat screen TV that was fried during a recent storm.

As she wiggled her way between the car and a couple of dusty storage bins, Bailey muttered over her shoulder: This is a tight fit!"

She tossed out the words with a tiny exasperated sigh that had me chuckling for an instant. But I had to admit she was right. It was a tight fit! What I couldn't quite figure out, however, is when and where in her very short life had she managed to pick up the phrase "tight fit" and learn to use it correctly.

To put this all in context, consider: I took two years of Spanish in high school and two quarters of German in  college. I also lived in Germany for 15 months, working closely with locals on a NATO base that also employed a handful of officers from Italy, Belgium and France.

Given my years of study and living abroad, it might seem likely that I was trilingual, certainly bilinqual, right? Au contraire mom ami! Truth to tell, about the only phrases I recall from my scholarly and experiential efforts are the oh-so useful queries, "Habla Español?" and, that's right, "Sprechen sie Deutsch?"

I absolutely had no idea all those years ago -- and certainly not now -- how to say "This is a tight fit" in German or Spanish. So, exactly what sort of magic are Bailey and other toddlers using to learn how to talk?

Mom and Dad cuddling with Bailey.
Anyone whose spent time around a baby knows that one of the grand joys of life is watching an infant grow and mature. The talking begins with cooing around the second month and quickly morphs into babbling about four months later.

By the time a baby celebrates their first birthday there's a really good chance they're talking gibberish -- and that's a good thing! Over the next several months they start using a few familiar words -- mama, dada, Cookie Monster, string theory! Okay, the physics reference is stretching the point; but only a year or so later, about the time the infant is blowing out two candles on their birthday cake, they know 50 or so words and managing to correctly use two-word phrases.

And then they're off to the races.

Bailey is 30 months young now, a bundle of endless energy that comes gleefully wrapped with an infectious smile and a crown of curly hair. Like most toddlers her age she's hit that maddening stage of life -- the terrible twos -- when her wants are much more important than her needs.

The fascinating part of all of this is the language thing -- I'm convinced that it really is magic -- plus her boundless curiosity about all those things that we jaded adults take for granted.

Kodak moment: Bailey, Bubbe and Pops at Shabbat sing
That means that both Bailey and I -- her parents and Bubbe; her fraternal grandparents, Janice and Steve; preschool teachers and extended family and friends -- are occasionally frustrated as she explores the world and wants to know, well, everything.

Her favorite phrase right now is "What's that?" My answers as we venture about, include: A leaf, a cloud, the moon, a car, a sign, an ant, the mailman, a rock, a bigger rock, a chocolate sundae with whipped cream, nuts, sprinkles and a cherry on top!

The good news is our mutual frustration turns to joy and amazement most days when Bailey, with little fanfare, hands me a leaf and announces that it is, in fact, a leaf; that she lets me know when it's time to go home and tells me to put her in the "car", then points out the clouds that fill the sky and the moon resting on the darkening horizon.

Meanwhile, the wonder of watching Bailey become Bailey can be found in a little vignette that played out earlier this week. She was spending the night with Wendy and me and we had just finished up the initial steps of preparing for bed: Fresh diaper, into pjs, books selected and read, then read a second time.

We were methodically working our way through stage two of the process, making sure her dolls, blankets, "lovies" and pillows were all in her crib and properly placed when, unprompted and delightfully, she began quietly singing the "Shema"! Those of you still with me and not a member of the tribe, just accept my word that this is a Jewish thing akin to saying your prayers before going to sleep.

Bailey finished up the little nightly ritual, then hugged me and her Bubbe tightly before snuggling under her blankets and waving us out the door.

Another day older, another day wiser, another day filled with love. Bailey had a good day, too. Oh, it also turns out she's bilingual. Bailey chanted the Shema, after all, in Hebrew!