Thursday, August 14, 2014

Singing Hatikvah and finding hope in Israel

Blogger's Note: I came across this column recently, first posted here in 2012, and thought it worth sharing once again. 

IDF soldiers during special ceremony in Jerusalem.
There is much still swirling around my noggin as I process the ups and downs of my most recent journey to Israel earlier this month. What lingers about at the moment is a very special happening during the first week of the trip as I transitioned yet again from flabby civilian to IDF volunteer. I’ll explain.

On this particular morning in early May, I joined with a group of volunteers from around the world – Australia and New  Zealand; Israel, France, Germany, Holland, Russia and Poland; the U.S. and Canada – shuffling about on an asphalt parade ground on a massive IDF base near Tel Aviv.

We were all volunteers for Sar-El, an organization that places people on IDF installations in Israel to help out as needed. Mostly the work is cosmically menial; but it’s work that needs to be done and it releases “real” soldiers to handle more important tasks.

Each morning after rolling out of our bunks in our oh-so spartan quarters, getting cleaned up and dressing in uniforms – yes, we wear IDF-issue outfits; how cool is that – dining on a hearty breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, cheeses, yogurt and all the tomatoes and cucumbers we can scarf down in 30 minutes, we join with a company of young solders for morning flag raising.

On this day, our madrichot – that would be Tamara and Eleanor, our guides and commanders – decide to take the morning ritual to a new level. We’ll not just heft the iconic blue and white banner of the Jewish state into the sky over Tel HaShomer, but also sing Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.

Hatikvah manages to be both uplifting and melancholy, an anthem that poetically speaks of hope and the Jewish soul, all wrapped up in a musical score of aching beauty. For most Jews, certainly those of us raised on the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland, the melody rests lightly in our hearts and souls, easily recalled whenever the first mournful notes are played.

The problem is that the words are in Hebrew, a remarkably difficult language to learn – especially for foreign volunteers who are often older than Israel itself. It’s one thing to say hello, shalom, in Hebrew; it’s a bit more rigorous to recall and recite the sophisticated lyrics of the anthem.  

So while a few brave and bilingual volunteers begin singing, the rest of us stumble about, humming the tune and sounding off whenever the word Hatikvah is mentioned. Meanwhile, the company of regular soldiers nearby, young men and women drafted into the IDF and serving out their time as laborers, stare at us in bemused silence, trying to figure out why we’re singing their national anthem.

But like the country itself, there’s something contagious and endearing about Hatikvah, both the words and the melody. The silliness of the effort gradually morphed slowly into a grand effort, the mournful tune giving way to the stirring anthem that has sustained and unified the Jewish people for decades now.

Even some of the young troops are caught up in the moment as together we share the words of the poet Tali Herz Imber, “Our hope is not yet lost, The hope of two thousand years, To be a free people in our land, The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

I can’t help but think that on this day, if only in a very small way, I’m part of the ancient promise, first whispered to Abraham; a vision that is no longer simply a hope, but today a reality.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Remembering Dad: A lesson in what matters most

Me and my Dad in the early 1950s. 
Blogger's note: This is a column I wrote for the AJC back in 1996. My daughter Lauren has been hocking me for months to post it on my blog. This, then, is for Lauren -- and my Dad.

There's a beautiful story I stumbled across recently that captures something truthful and transcendent about the human condition.

A little girl comes home and tells her mother she's confused.

It seems her Sunday school teacher has told her that God is bigger than we are but manages to live within each of us.

The little girl wonders how this can be. "Wouldn't God break through us?" she asks her mother. Of course, God does "break through" each of us when we're doing Godly things.

Ever notice the joyful look of people working really hard to help other people? Every notice how some people who seemed lost in their own lives find meaning and hope when they reach out to support a friend or stranger?

Helping ourselves by helping others isn't a new belief. It's a concept that is detailed and embraced by most religions around the world and by people of faith who intuitively understand the importance of charity and good deeds. It's a lesson I've been taught since childhood.

That it's taken me years to comprehend says much about my inability to learn things quickly and little about my teacher.

There was a man in my life who attempted to teach me the lessons of giving by example. His life was a constant reaching out. There were big things. Money to charity. Time devoted to civic and religious organizations. Taking care of his wife and children.

But it was the small things that  I remember most, the day-to-day efforts to reach out, to do good, to let God "break through" his life.

An example: It was one of those sultry summer days, hot and humid and threatening to rain. We had stopped at a small market, a mom and pop operation that sold milk, bread and cold drinks. While we talked to the owner, a neighborhood boy -- shirtless and shoeless, wearing only shorts -- came in to buy a drink, reached into one of those slush-filled boxes that were popular in the '50s and pulled out an icy "Co-Cola".

Just as he turned to leave, the bottle slipped and crashed on the floor. The boy froze. He stared at the mess and seemed dazed.

It wasn't till years later that I realized that the dime he had spent that afternoon was probably all the money he had in the world, that there was a good chance he had saved his pennies for a week or more, eagerly anticipating this treat.

My mentor reached over to the drink box, pulled out another bottle of Coke, popped off the cap and handed it to the boy. The youngster held onto the bottle like it was worth its weight in gold.

It was a tiny gesture, certainly devoid of any cosmic import in the overall scheme of things. And yet it speaks to the heart of what we humans are all about when at our best.

My friend and teacher is now 82. He does volunteer work in Columbus, both for the Police Department and for a local hospital.

He stays busy and reaches out to others.

It's a lesson I'm just starting to appreciate.

It's a lesson my father -- William Feinberg, called Bill by family, friends and strangers -- continues to explore in his journey through life.

A footnote: My Dad died in 1997, a year after this column was published. Hundreds of people attended his funeral, many of them there to pay their respects to a man who had touched their lives through his good works. Honorary pallbearers included representatives of the city's police department, where he worked as a volunteer, and Saint Francis hospital where he had logged over 2,000 hours as a volunteer.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Life with Bailey: Short visit turns into grand adventure

Rule No. 1: If Bailey is happy, everyone is happy!
It was a cold and blustery day last January when Bailey, her mom, dad and doggie sisters dropped by for a short visit. Their home had been hit hard by the "arctic vortex" that blew its way across the region, dropping temperatures into the single digits and causing all sorts of weather-related problems.

My daughter and son-in-law's house was temporarily afloat, one little leak spilling gallons of water across much of the main floor. At first glance it seemed a minor, if troubling issue that might take a few days, perhaps a week or so, to fix.

Absolutely no problem, both I and the lovely Miss Wendy figured. Here was a perfect opportunity for all of us to hunker down and weather the storm; spend some quality time with the kids and really get to know Bailey, our precious little granddaughter, up close and personal.

I did mention this all happened last January, right? If you look at a calendar and crunch the numbers, that means we've been together for five months now. The good news is we're all still talking to one another and, even better, this little adventure is nearing its end!

In just a few days, Bailey, her parents and doggie companions will be schlepping back home and Wendy and I will once again become empty nesters! Despite the challenges that come with four adults, a baby and two dogs living in close quarters, I'm thinking it will be a bitter-sweet moment when the gang moves out and the house goes quiet.

The silence will be especially heavy in Bailey's room, filled with a crib and changing table, toys, diapers and the heady, soft scent of a baby. Her yips and yaps, cooing, crying and laughter have become part of the space, hanging lightly in the air and my memory.

It's not often that grandparents get to experience the first steps a newborn takes into the world -- eyes focusing, rolling about, sitting up and reaching out for sounds and colors. But Wendy and I have watched with expectant glee as Bailey mastered all these little things, her babyish ways ever so slowly morphing into what has become her unique personality.

What lingers around heavily at the moment is the soliloquy she offers up some mornings, a quiet cooing that spills lightly into joyous squeals, signaling the start of a new day. I've lain awake in my bed, watching the early-morning shadows march across the ceiling and, filled with contentment, listened to her soaring song.

A moment later, standing at her crib, I've watched Bailey glance about and, spotting me and whoever else has the morning watch, break into a smile that never fails to warm my heart. Find a way to package such innocence and spread it about, and the curse of cynicism would be vanquished from the world.

And so it's on this cosmic note that I choose to remember this bit of life, an adventure that I'm thinking we'll be sharing for years to come. The story will most always begin on a melancholy note, "do you remember back in 2014 ..." And at least for a moment we'll recall the donuts and fleas, web connections and Sesame Street, stacks of laundry, shared meals and walks around the neighborhood.

But mostly I'll recall Bailey's soaring song and the morning smile that filled my world.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"Miss Wendy" moving on to exciting new chapter in her life

A wonderful life: Bubbe and Bailey creating new memories
It was way back in the early 1980s when the lovely Miss Wendy opened a special door that will be closing on a euphonic, if melancholy note next week.

We had just moved to East Cobb and our daughter Lauren was starting pre-school at the JCC. Back then the school was housed at Congregation Etz Chaim, the synagogue that we stumbled across shortly after moving into this little corner of the world.

Wendy, being Wendy, got to know the teachers and administrators at the school quickly, so it didn't come as a surprise when I learned that she would be joining the staff as a part-time worker. Actually, it all made sense.

For a decade or so, Wendy had worked in various offices doing mostly secretarial chores. It was decent work but, well, not really a career. That all changed the first time she sat in a classroom surrounded by a group of youngsters, held up a book of colorful pictures and created a story that both entertained and enlightened the children.

The lovely Miss Wendy had found her calling.

As Lauren got older and moved on to elementary school, the part-time gig became a full-time job. Over the years Wendy worked with just about every age group, helping youngsters find their way as they took their first tentative steps into the world.

She continued her important work in the summers as a camp counselor, eventually becoming a director of one of the JCC programs at Shirley Blumenthal Park. And then she blinked.

Now, nearly three decades of work spread out from there to here, a bit of time filled with the stuff of life -- playing and learning, laughter, tears and memories.

Hundreds of young students -- many part of her legion of "teddy bears" -- have made their way through her classroom, learning their letters and numbers, stories about a fella named Waldo and a warrior named Judah, songs and dances and how to make matzo. They've also learned important lessons about how to get along with one another from a woman who's lived her life smoothing out rough corners with a joyful heart and a constant smile that most always lightens the heaviest load.

And here's just one way Wendy can measure her success. Walk along with her into any shop, restaurant, grocery store or park, movie theater or synagogue, and within moments her students -- many now  grown with children of their own, others just a year or two removed from her class -- spot "Miss Wendy" and most always offer up a warm hello, a few words of shared memories and, occasionally, a little embrace followed by words of thanks.

I'm the guy standing nearby, the one who is occasionally greeted as "Mr. Wendy." And although I often roll my eyes and tap my feet impatiently, the truth is that I couldn't be prouder of my wife and what she accomplished in a world that was once unfamiliar, but now is partly defined by her personality and good work.

For Wendy it's time to retire and move on to new adventures; time to create more memories, especially as a Bubbe. But "Miss Wendy" and the children she taught and loved will always be part of her life, warm thoughts that she can embrace in the golden years of her life.  

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Bailey Update: Six months and counting!

Bailey, Bubbe and Pops share a special moment together.
My daughter Lauren is so excited that her daughter Bailey is now six months young that she's pulled together a video to celebrate. Truth to tell, I'm pretty darn excited myself. If you need a little smile and want to celebrate along with us, click on this link: Happy birthday (sort of) Bailey!

It's been an exciting adventure so far. Bailey is wiggling about, holding herself up, mostly, turning over a bit and starting to chow down on real food -- finally!

There has been a little playing about with sleep. After only a month or so, Bailey was sleeping through the night. For whatever reason, a few weeks ago she started waking up before the sun peeked over the horizon. So Lauren has tweaked the feeding schedule and we're almost back to a full night's sleep. Can I get an amen out there!

Meanwhile, as some of you know, Bailey, her parents and doggie sisters, are spending quality time with me and Bubbe. There was a little frozen pipe problem back in early January that forced Bailey and her folks out of their home. So we've all been living the good life together.

There's nothing like waking up to a baby yelling for breakfast each morning, especially when she offers up a morning smile that will melt your heart.

Happy half-birthday, Bailey. And just think, only another six months and you'll be ONE!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mother Nature thows an icy punch; we battle back!

Lauren and I finally make it home!
So the plan last week was to take a few days and visit the Big Apple; eat our way across Manhattan, attend a few Broadway shows, do a little shopping and enjoy some wintry weather.

We managed all the things we could control -- food, shows and shopping. But Mother Nature held on to all the white and fluffy stuff that we were hoping would turn the area into a winter wonderland. Turns out you really shouldn't fool around with Mother Nature.

She decided to follow us back to the Land of Cotton and unleash her wintry bag of tricks. It's been frigid the last few days in my little corner of the world and today all the white and fluffy stuff we were hoping to spot in New York is covering the ground here.

My neighborhood certainly looks like a winter wonderland, but a few inches of snow in the deep south causes all sorts of problems, especially when it turns to ice. The entire region is in gridlock at the moment, major highways and thoroughfares, boulevards and secondary roads filled with vehicles quickly going nowhere!

My daughter Lauren, a teacher in Cobb County, headed home when school officials called it quits in the early afternoon. The 20-minute commute took at least three hours and she ended up abandoning her car in a church parking lot about a mile from our house.

I trekked through the ice and snow -- now there's a phrase I don't use very often -- to meet Lauren on the last leg of her journey. Together we slogged through the wet and chilly stuff, working our way around slippery spots and the occasional car that had lost its battle with the elements.

In fact, just a block from our neighborhood, we came upon a sedan that was inching its way around a particularly treacherous curve in the road, its wheels spinning on a carpet of ice. Somewhat foolishly we volunteered to push the car over a slick spot in the road. It's a battle we lost. A moment later the car and its driver were in a nearby ditch. 

I'm pretty sure there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of cars in ditches across the metro area or abandoned on highways that, for the moment, have become expansive and chilly parking lots. Thousands of folks are stuck where they are, hunkered down and hoping to make it through the night.

So I'm really happy to report that everyone in my family has made it home. We just had a splendid dinner -- thanks, Josh -- and my granddaughter Bailey has been fed, diapered and is fast asleep in a warm and toasty room.

This, then, is my long and windy way to simply announce that Mother Nature might have won a few skirmishes on this cold and chilly day. But I'm thinking, at least for the moment, we won the battle!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Pastrami, focaccia and babka -- oh my!

Like all things Italian? Then you'll want to visit Eataly!
The lovely Miss Wendy and I decided recently we needed a brisk winter break from the Land of Cotton. So earlier this month we took a trip up north for a tiny taste of the Big Apple.

Truth to tell, we enjoy a bit of snow and a wintry chill -- at least for a few days. That's why we're willing to venture into Manhattan in January. There's something special about the area when the temperature plunges into the teens and snow falls gently across Manhattan.

Unfortunately, during this most recent trip it wasn't white stuff falling from the sky but a wintry mix of rain and sleet. No matter. We still managed to nosh our way through several delis in Midtown, enjoy two Broadway musicals -- Motown: The Musical and Kinky Boots -- stroll about the East Village on a food tour and make our annual pilgrimage to Zabar's to stock up on babkas. Can you say yummy!

Oh, we also visited The Jewish Museum to take in a special exhibit featuring the iconic work of Marc Chagall and, just as memorable, dropped by Max Brenner in Union Square for a cup of splendid hot chocolate.

I could easily pause and whisper Dayenu at this point, agreeing with the Passover ditty that, yes, this is all enough. But what lingers in my mind at the moment is the hour Wendy and I spent at Eataly, a specialty market on Fifth Avenue featuring a cornucopia of goodies to whet the appetite and soothe the soul.

The expansive space -- it's sort of an IKEA for the stomach -- is filled with a rich assortment of goodies, all with an Italian accent. It covers just this side of 50,000 square feet and includes pastas and grain products, chocolates and sweets, bread, pastries and other such delights, meats, poultry and fish, a wide assortment of wines and, of course, an entire corner devoted to olive oil!

Food and beverage stations are strategically placed around the perimeter, offering up delightful aromas that both tingle and tease the senses. If there's a problem, it comes with simply trying to get from here to there, pushing through the crowds of locals and tourists that fill the market throughout the day in search of a tasty treat.

It's a battle worth fighting! After all, to the victor goes the spoils. For Wendy and me that meant we walked away with a veggie sandwich: a tasty garden delight nestled between two hearty slices of focaccia, and a cup of bourbon chocolate gelato!

A day later we were back home, feasting at least for one evening on all the left-over goodies -- pastrami from the Carnegie Deli and babka from Zabar's; a bit of focaccia and a huge case of indigestion. 

Turns out the really good news is we were warm and snug back in the Land of Cotton. Two days after leaving New York, yet another blast of arctic air spilled across New England and the wintry mix we had slogged through turned to snow -- lots of snow!

I'm thinking if our little winter adventure had been a day or two later I'd now be writing about our miserable delay at LaGuardia, and the delights and surprises of Eataly and Broadway would only be fading footnotes.