Friday, July 30, 2010

Ancient citadel offers up ruins and reasons

It’s Friday and time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Let’s remain in Israel this Shabbat and visit the ancient fortress of Masada.

Israel is a land sweet with the rich texture of antiquity and bitter with the daily realities of politics and war. Trepidation hangs uneasily in the air like distant storm clouds that can't be ignored.

Ultimately, however, the transcendent melds pleasantly with the prosaic, and a dash across this country is remembered for the pristine waters of the Mediterranean and big city verve of Tel Aviv; the affable character of Israelis in small towns like Ra'nana and Yokneam; and otherworldly moments of spiritual connection discovered along the cobblestone streets of Jerusalem.

But it's the harsh and ancient beauty found atop Masada near the Dead Sea that lingers in my mind, the citadel rising up out of a tortured landscape, a striking reminder of one of the most heart-wrenching episodes of Jewish history.

The fortress is isolated and difficult to reach, just as it was more than 2,000 years ago when King Herod built two palaces at opposite ends of the rocky cliff. Even in an air-conditioned motor coach, the trip along the Dead Sea to the western end of the Judean Desert remains a bumpy, dusty journey. But it's worth the effort.

During a trip with friends from the Land of Cotton, we focused much of our attention on the modern state of Israel – its high-tech cities and citizens, even a top-secret air force base. But on one very special day, 30 of us traveled back in time to Masada, a place that in many ways continues to define and inform the Jewish people.

After reaching the craggy citadel and taking a few minutes to stretch and listen to a guide discuss the historical significance of the fortress, many in our group hopped aboard a waiting cable car that carried them to the summit.

But about a dozen of us, looking for a challenge and a little exercise, decided to hike to the top. The weather was perfect – deep blue sky, temperature hovering in the 70s, low humidity. Still, we're warned to walk slowly and to carry several bottles of water.

David Adelman, at the time a lawyer and Georgia state senator from Decatur, now the U.S. Ambassador to Singapore, squinted into the hazy distance, taking note of the dusty path that snaked its way up the eastern face of the cliff. He was dressed for the challenge – khaki shorts and shirt, hiking boots, wide-brimmed hat – and was looking forward to an enjoyable walk.

I was starting to sweat. A decade earlier – and 20 pounds lighter – I’d run the New York Marathon, but now I was standing at the base of a 900-foot cliff and feeling a little sheepish.

I smiled and recalled that it took a Roman legion nearly a year to make it to the top of the citadel. Of course, they were battling a small army of Jewish Zealots who had taken refuge there after the Romans conquered Jerusalem in the year 70.

We started slowly and quickly navigated the first 100 yards before taking in the view – an unearthly plain of sand and rock, devoid of any foliage or other signs of life, a surreal landscape that is at once menacing and beautiful.

We turned back to our task, bending into the mountain, shifting our bodies into second gear as the angle of ascent changed sharply. We ignored a jogger who passed our group and focused on the rocky trail that flattened out at the midway point.

Once again we paused to catch our breath. The morning haze had vanished and the view was spectacular. The monochromatic landscape – sandy brown everything – gave way to a widening band of blue, the Dead Sea, that is only a few miles to the east.

The trail became smaller, only a few feet wide, and steeper – nearly a 70-degree angle in some spots close to the summit. Adelman told me he climbed Mount Whitney in California a year earlier, a grueling ascent of more than 14,000 feet. I started to reply, but realized I needed to focus on my next step. I took hold of a guardrail and pulled myself up the last few yards, trying to disguise my heavy breathing.

At first glance, the summit was anticlimactic. It spread out for hundreds of yards, a softly rolling floor of rock, broken up by crumbling ruins – a bathhouse and synagogue, storerooms, towers and an apartment complex for royal guests of Herod.

Adelman is momentarily moved. He stops for a few seconds and takes a look at this place so rich in history, so inextricably linked with the Jewish experience.

"You can't help but realize that little has changed here in thousands of years . . . and the physical exertion contributes to the powerful experience," he says.

For centuries, Masada was more legend than fact. But explorers uncovered the ruins of the fortress in 1842 and in the 1960s archaeologists finally began scratching away at the ground here, gently sifting through stone and dirt and time. The story they unearthed is chilling.

For three years after the fall of Jerusalem, nearly 1,000 men, women and children clung to life atop the cliff. Food, enough for several years, was stored in underground caves and a sophisticated series of cisterns were used to collect water for drinking and bathing. The rebels launched guerrilla attacks from the fortress, raiding and harassing the Romans for two years, retreating to Masada for safety and to regroup. Imperial Rome was not amused.

In 73, the Roman governor Flavius Silva marched against the citadel with the 10th Legion, auxiliary units and thousands of Jewish prisoners of war. The Romans established camps at the base of Masada, laid siege to it and built a wall to keep anyone from escaping.

They eventually constructed a rampart of thousands of tons of stones and beaten earth against the western wall of the fortress and, in the spring of 74, Flavius Silva began his final attack. At first, the walls of Masada held. But as night descended, it became clear that the fortress would be taken when the Romans renewed their attack in the morning.

Eleazar ben Ya'ir, leader of the Zealots, gathered his men and told them that they and their families would die the next day or become slaves of Rome. But he added that if they had the courage, they could make a bold statement about freedom by taking their own lives. And so it was decided.

The first century historian Josephus Flavius, based on the account of two survivors of Masada who hid in caves below the summit, details how the men killed their wives and children, then cast lots to choose 10 men to kill those who remained alive. They then chose the one man who would kill the survivors. The remaining rebel then killed himself.

"And so met [the Romans] with the multitude of the slain, but could take no pleasure in the fact, though it were done to their enemies," Flavius wrote. "Nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of their resolution, and at the immovable contempt of death which so great a number of them had shown."

Masada is a melancholy place and a national treasure, the most visited spot in Israel after the city of Jerusalem.

As I glanced out over the Judean Desert, the mountains of Jordan shimmering hazily across the distant horizon, I noticed a fluttering shadow. Looking up, I saw an Israeli flag, whipping about wildly as a gust of wind ripped across the summit. The moment is rich with irony.

Thousands of years ago Roman soldiers stormed this place and defeated a band of Jewish Zealots. The Roman Empire has melted into history. But the Jewish people, the ancestors of Eleazar, remain alive in their homeland, atop Masada and across the state of Israel.

DESERT FORTRESS: Masada (photo above) sits high atop a rocky cliff, a remarkable archaeological site today that once was home for a thousand Jewish Zealots battling the might of Rome.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hot, hazy and crazy in the Land of Cotton

Let’s talk about the weather. If you haven’t noticed, it’s hot in the Land of Cotton. Dexter (yeh, that would be the pooch with the fluttering ears) seems to have found a solution to the problem.

Of course it is the summer and temperatures generally hover in the mid-90s around here this time of year.

Not that long ago, when I was 20 pounds lighter and running for fun, I enjoyed training in really hot weather. There’s something about jogging a few miles and sweating off a few pounds when the mercury is approaching the century mark that is, umm, sort of edgy – and perhaps such thoughts are brought on by heat exhaustion.

So, how hot is it anyway? I’m glad you asked.

 My sunglasses fog up each morning before I make it to the end of the driveway.

 A neighborhood kid recently cracked an egg on the hood of his father’s BMW, added a little cheese, and managed to pull together a tasty omelet. Not sure how his dad felt about dah yolk!

 While driving home the other evening, the humidity was so high, the lovely Miss Wendy had to keep turning on the windshield wipers to whisk away the sheen of moisture that made it impossible to see where we were headed.

 Birds in the backyard, apparently too hot to care that I’m only feet away, splash about in the small puddles I’ve left behind after watering plants on our patio. Ditto cats and dogs, butterflies, rabbits and the occasional chipmunk.

 Those patio plants, btw, are toast if not watered daily.

 My lawn, along with those of my neighbors and others across the area, is a wretched mess of scorched grass, weeds and bald spots – sort of like my noggin.

 It’s dangerous to just stand around outside, especially if you’re wearing cheap flip-flops and standing on asphalt. Rubber melts and so will you if you’re not careful.

 Storm clouds mass high overhead each afternoon, pulled together by the torrid temperatures, lashing out with torrential showers filled with sound and fury, signifying, ahh, it’s hot!

 That doesn’t stop the swell looking TV weather guys and gals from taking up valuable air time each evening, tracking with breathless wonder the thunderstorms sweeping across the area.

 Shorts, sandals, linen shirts, caps, hats and lots of sunscreen are de rigueur for dis dude!

 And what would we do without air conditioning, ceiling fans, fresh water, soda, slushies, freezonis (yep, there is such a thing), shakes, frozen yogurt and Italian ice?

Finally, September 22. That’s a day you’ll want to mark on your calendar – the first day of fall. Meanwhile, think cool thoughts.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

I'll take the wrinkled machine with a heart

I walked into my doctor’s office and went to the desk to sign in. But the sign-in sheet wasn’t there. It’s always been there before, but now it wasn’t. I glanced at the receptionist and she pointed to a high-tech gizmo that I had walked by on my way to her desk.

No sign-in sheet, no pen – just a sparkling new computer console. In fact, there were two gizmos, cheek by high-tech jowl, just across from the reception area. So I followed the receptionist’s outstretched hand to this new thingy in my life and tapped its screen.

It blinked and I realized, again, life was changing and it was time to learn one more computer program to make someone’s life simpler. And it appeared, at least in the short term, that someone would not be me.

With each touch of the screen I was prompted to take some sort of action – place my driver’s license on the conveniently located scanner pad; turn my driver’s license over and scan the other side; scan in my insurance card; turn my insurance card over and scan the other side; check my name, address, contact numbers to make sure they were my name, address, etc.

Despite my phobia with all things digital, I quickly managed to work my way through the process, tapping my way through the list of doctors, appointment time, reason for my visit, then quietly acquiescing to the machine’s demand that I go find myself a seat in the waiting room.

If I had known about the new gizmo when I walked into the office, I would have managed the entire check-in process without actually having any contact at all with another living person. And, well, I guess that’s the idea.

At least that’s the story my doctor is telling. I walked into his exam room at exactly the appointed time and mentioned to him how it seemed his office was really jumping into the 21st Century.

He grimaced. Dr. S just celebrated his 70th birthday and is having a bit of a problem embracing all the new changes that his profession is adopting. Don’t get me wrong; he’s been my doctor for over two decades and knows me, well, inside and out!

But not that long ago he was part of a two-man practice that shuffled along when warp speed wasn’t yet de rigueur. All that changed when his little pond and little office was bought out by one of those mega-practices that always seem to have “medical group, LLC” at the end of its name.

Just a year or so later and the little office was dumped, replaced with lovely new digs that feature designer furniture, track lighting, color-coordinated everything – carpeting, tiles, uniforms for the nurses and techs – and at least a half-dozen additional physicians.

I guess there’s nothing wrong with all of that – really, nothing at all; I mean, ahh, really. Oh, right, there is this one thing. While all the stuff has been updated, the attitude of the staff seems to be heading in the other direction.

Dr. S said if he was still the boss – he’s just an employee now – that he’d immediately fire a half-dozen or so folks, the ones he labeled rude, lazy and, ahh, fat! His words. He also said that everything has become so impersonal. Well, duh!

There’s no question that the digital age is going to create scientific breakthroughs – miracles, plain and simple – that will dramatically improve the quality of life for all of us, wiping out all sorts of aches, pains and diseases that today are thought to be incurable.

But hopefully our physicians and all those who are part of the “healing arts” won’t lose their humanity working alongside the cool efficiency of digital thingies. A machine might compute its way through a crisis, but it’s the care and compassion, kindness and empathy of the machine with a heart that will provide real healing.

There’s a name for those machines. Humans!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Look in right direction when visiting the wall

It's Friday, time once again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). This week I'm reaching way back in my vault of golden goodies to detail my first visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

I touched the Western Wall and felt nothing. It was cool to the touch and smooth. But God, if God was in this place, remained silent.

I felt alone and slightly embarrassed, waiting for some sort of divine revelation – a chill in the air, a booming voice, a whispered call of welcome. But God was quiet and, for the moment, the Wall held tightly to its ancient secrets.

The Kotel is among the holiest places in the world for Jews, one of the few remaining links to the ancient Temple built by King Solomon. It was destroyed by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE. The building of the Second Temple began nearly a century later and was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

One of the only parts of the structure remaining is a portion of the platform, the Western Wall, sun-bleached and worn by time, but a magnet for the religious, the righteous, fanatics and the curious. I was one of the curious during a trip to Israel several years ago, sponsored by the Jewish federation here in the Land of Cotton.

It was growing dark and Shabbat was approaching. The plaza in front of the Wall was filling with a colorful mix of people – haredim in gold caftans and fur hats, others in black coats and black fedoras; a small group of New Age Jews in white shirts and pants; and tourists in jeans and sweat shirts.

Many approached the Wall, caressing the stones before joining one of the numerous services that were just beginning. Prayer hung heavily in the air.

Tradition holds that this is where Adam, Cain and Abel brought a sacrifice to God, and Noah, too, and where Abraham came to sacrifice Isaac. This is also where Jacob dreamed of a ladder filled with angels moving between heaven and earth. And some Christians, Jews and Muslims believe it is this very spot where all the prayers of the entire world come and are elevated to heaven.

But I remained silent, no prayer on my lips, overwhelmed and intimidated by the spiritual pageantry playing out before me. And then God smiled.

It was the anniversary of my father's death, his yahrzeit, and there's a special prayer for such occasions, a prayer that can only be said in the presence of at least 10 other Jews. Finding a minyan, a prayer quorum, was of course no problem. But there was no way I was going to join one of the services by myself. I needed help.

Hirsch Minkowicz, one of the Chabad rabbis on the trip, found me standing alone and led me over to a group of men finishing the afternoon service. Another rabbi from the Land of Cotton, Binyomin Friedman of Congregation Ariel in Dunwoody, loaned me his prayer book.

So it was that I was able to stand before the Western Wall on a Friday afternoon in late November, fondly remembering my father as I recited the mourner's kaddish. The ancient prayer, which is in Aramaic, expresses the hope that God's name will be sanctified and the Kingdom of Heaven will be established on earth.

My words joined with the rich stew of prayers soaring skyward and for a moment I felt a connection with this familiar, yet alien place, and the warm presence of a cosmic force. And then the yeshiva bochers came marching into the plaza and God's smile turned to laughter.

There were probably 30 or so of them, mostly in their teens and early 20s, students at a nearby school overlooking the Wall. They could have been on an outing at Perimeter Mall or on the prowl in Buckhead, but this night they were welcoming the Jewish Sabbath, singing a festive song about Jerusalem.

They stopped in the middle of the plaza, continued their singing and formed a circle. And then they danced, moving slowly in a circle, stomping their feet.

I hesitated for only a moment before joining the group and was immediately welcomed. I hummed the familiar tune they sang, unable to recall the words, shuffled my feet and watched the world whiz by – fur-hatted haredim and sweat shirt-wearing tourists, soldiers and cops, students and rabbis. And in the background the Wall, stolid and solid, a cosmic link between the present and past.

The sky grew dark and the first stars appeared. It was Shabbat and God was in this place, in fact had always been here. I had, quite simply, been looking in the wrong direction.

CENTER OF THE WORLD: The Western Wall is all that remains of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, a magnet for the religious and righteous, fanatics and tourists.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How many turtles does it take to creep you out?

It’s just a little bridge, connecting the walking path I follow along the river several days each week. It spans a good-sized creek flowing into the 'hooch, just the other side of Roswell Road – that would be a main thoroughfare for those of you not familiar with the Land of Cotton.

Bits of debris – tree trunks and limbs, rocks and other such stuff – rise up out of the murky water that puddles into a lazy cove before spilling into the river. A blink of the eye ago – weeks, months, whatever – I spotted a few joggers who were leaning out over the bridge, pointing at something in the water. As I drew closer, I noticed what appeared to be, well, a turtle atop one of the logs, sunning itself in the morning light.

As the turtle enjoyed its perch, a second turtle – perhaps its mate – swam lazily in circles around the log, idly lapping its way through the day. Neither turtle seemed to be in a rush. This was their work and play, perhaps their mission in life.

I’ve passed this way often in the last few months, making a point to glance over the bridge, down into the nearby murky water. And as often as not, my turtle friend – or one of its relatives or mates, is sunning itself on an exposed rock or rotting tree trunk.

And so it was yesterday morning, as I glanced about on my morning walk. High atop a fallen tree branch, half submerged in the middle of the creek, a hefty turtle – at least two feet or so in circumference – sat smugly sunning itself, its neck stretched out in regal repose.

Just a few inches lower on the branch was another turtle and I smiled at this modest scene of nature, thinking briefly that there are probably people somewhere paying good money at a zoo to witness a similar tableau.

Then something caught my attention – a shadow, perhaps a falling leaf – and I looked slightly to the left and there, yes, was another turtle resting on another limb. Wow, it seemed I had stumbled into Turtle Town!

Have you ever been looking at something, thinking you know exactly what you're seeing and then, bit by bit you start picking up additional images and shapes? That’s pretty much what happened over the next moment or two – and, no, I wasn't having some sort of '60s flashback.

First there was one turtle, then two, then three, then, well, at least 22 at last count – all quietly sunning themselves on fallen branches and rocks. They were big and small, but all seemed to be of the genus Terrapene – that would be your basic box turtle.

One turtle is cute, two even cuter. But a whole bunch of them all gathered together becomes a little creepy. I felt for just an instant that I had stumbled into some sort of alternative universe and I was the star in a new Alfred Hitchcock thriller – THE TURTLES!

The moment passed but the ick factor has remained. All those turtles, bug-eyed and long of neck, sunning their glossy shells and snoozing through the day. Might be time to find a new route along the river or, better yet, open up a kiosk specializing in – that’s right, you know what’s coming – turtle soup!

Monday, July 19, 2010

A long and lonely road filled with sunshine

It was a long and grueling weekend – for my mom and family. I could write pages, detailing the health issues that had us spending days in an area emergency room and hospital, but it all can be summed up in two words – blood clot.

My Mom, gamely plugging away on that long and winding road we label dementia, was not feeling well toward the end of last week. Aides checked her out at the assisted living facility she now calls home and decided to call in the medics.

Her vital signs were good but she continued to complain about some vague discomfort – pain in her legs, a sense of unease and a small problem with breathing. At some point she used the words chest and pain in the same sentence. Bingo! That’s the magic phrase that will win you a trip to the local emergency room every time it’s uttered.

I met my daughter Lauren at the ER and the good news is Mom seemed to be more alert than I had seen her in weeks. She was kvetching, but alert. Her nurse pretty quickly had Mom tethered to an assortment of monitors and within the first hour or so had managed to draw enough blood to feed a family of vampires and keep a battery of techs busy for the evening.

The ER doctor – a friendly enough sort of guy with a shock of white hair, the body and facial features of Woody Allen – checked Mom out, examined her leg – which, btw, was swollen – and ordered up another series of more sophisticated and invasive tests.

The good news, I guess, is that within the next hour we learned that Mom had a blood clot dangling about in her left leg, that she was to be put on blood thinners immediately and would be admitted to the hospital for observation to figure out the next step in her treatment.

That next treatment ended up being one of those little medical miracles that are now available – a tiny filter implanted in her vena cava. It’s a simple device, “a tiny catcher in the vein,” that should snag any bits of a clot before any real damage happens in her heart or lungs.

This news was offered up early Friday and by that afternoon the filter was in place and Mom was back in her room recuperating. The family – sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren and others hovered about while Mom pretty much slept. My brother Larry, sisters-in law Amy and Betty Ann and niece Allison dropped by the following day to pay a short visit and learned that Mom was to be discharged.

I’ve been around hospitals now for a couple of years, taking Mom for various visits and exams; simple procedures and hurried emergency room visits. One of the happiest words you can hear in these places is “discharge.” It generally means that all is well and the ordeal is about to end.

Sadly, is also means that you’re nicely buried in the bureaucracy and there’s a good chance you’re going to be beaten to a pulp before you make your way out the door.

About eight hours after being told Mom would be released, my brother, sisters-in-law and niece managed to make it to the parking lot with Mom. The last two hours or so were spent waiting for a wheelchair to be delivered.

The family stayed busy chatting with Mom, telling her stories and teaching her songs, feeding her lunch and offering her snacks and water. I kept track with them throughout the day, planning to meet Mom and the others back at her assisted living facility.

We all finally managed to get together in the early evening. Mom looked haggard, but in reasonably good spirits. We got her settled and arranged for one of the aides to get her dinner. Betty Ann, one of the angels of the day, fed Mom bits of Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, while the rest of us stood around and made small talk.

The facility, about as good as these places get, is still pretty much buried down in the proverbial rabbit hole, dazed and befuddled residents wandering about, looking for relatives and friends, watching TV or staring off into space. Yes, a few of them are drooling.

For whatever reason, one of the other angels of the day, my sister-in-law Amy, began singing one of the songs they had taught Mom earlier that afternoon – “You Are My Sunshine”. Most everyone picked up the tune, a tiny chorus celebrating family and love.

Mom continued eating, hearing how she makes us happy when clouds are gray. For a moment I thought we might be disturbing a few of the other residents, but after only an instant I realized there was little chance of that happening. If anything, several of those nearby seemed pleased by the break in routine.

A few minutes more spent singing and chatting, then we said our goodbyes. As we were all headed out to dinner, Mom was being wheeled to her room. I overheard one of the aides ask her if she was happy to be home and Mom quietly whispered, “Oh, yes”!

Well, perhaps. I like to think in some fashion Mom was happy and in some fashion knew that she was connected to all those folks coming in and out of her life over the weekend.

Monday afternoon I was back visiting and checking on some pressing health care issues. Mom was in bed, pillows strategically placed about to keep her resting on her side. I mentioned the weekend, the hospital and minor problems with her leg. She nodded and smiled occasionally, but mostly drifted slowly away, her eyelids heavy with sleep.

I sat back, glancing out the window just feet from her bed and watched a few clouds roll by and a bit of sun streak across the lawn and into her room. It was about then that I heard a tiny sound and looked around at Mom.

It appeared she was sleeping peacefully, but she seemed to be softly humming. I leaned over but couldn’t make out any words. Then I recognized the tune, “You Are My Sunshine,” and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

It would seem that at least on this day, somewhere on that road she’s traveling, Mom no longer has to worry about skies turning gray. I like to think, if nothing else, she still remembers how much we love her and we'll make sure that her sunshine never goes away.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Living the good life with Granny and Pop

It’s me … Ella Rufus. You know, the really cute Westy-Shih Tzu mix. Hey, why hide it. I’m darn cute and I don’t mind yelping that out myself.

It’s a little difficult hitting these tiny keys with my paws, but I’ll try my best. My humans finally toddled off to bed – Granny Wendy snoring away and Pop Nor somewhere between here and there, listening to his iPod – old geezer probably tapping his tootsies to Elvis or, sheeesh, Frank gag-me-with-a-spoon Sinatra.

Anyway, this is the first chance I’ve had to power up Pop’s computer and vent.

First, thanks a whole barking lot Mom for dropping me off here today. So you get me use to playing with the big dogs at home – Joey and Maggie – and now whose butt do I have to sniff around? You ever spent time sniffing around the backside of your, ahhh, human grandparents? No, I didn’t think so.

Of course, unlike you and Dad, the grand folks do let me jump all over the furniture and sleep just about anywhere I wish – and I wish mostly to be right in the middle of their bed. In fact, the most comfortable position seems to be plopping on Pop’s chest, with my hairy tush in his face. It’s the most hair that’s been around that noggin in years.

Now let’s talk turkey. This kibble and bits crap has got to stop. You try eating little nuggets of cardboard for the rest of your barking life and see how you feel. And you wonder why I have to stop and sniff around every tree in the neighborhood. Two words – doggie gas!

Anyway, I pulled the old stare-at-Pop-and-look-really-pitiful-trick while he was chowing down on my favorite – a nicely marbled Porterhouse steak, cooked medium rare, pleasantly garnished with shitake mushrooms, a hint of garlic and a splash of Port. Before I got through begging, I’d managed to down half the beef before we began working on dessert – kibble-covered strawberries, lightly splashed with Kir and Cassis.

Now I guess it’s time to lick my butt and head off to bed. You know a dog needs her beauty sleep and if I can find that sweet spot right between Granny and Pop I should be able to get my usual 18 hours of rest.

Somebody wake me when the waffles are ready for breakfast. And Pop already promised me that we’ll be having parfaits for dessert because, well, everybody loves parfaits.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Oy, is this gonna be a really bad day!

It's Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today we explore the saddest day in the Jewish year.

Judaism is a religion of holidays, observances and rituals. A few of the holidays – Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Passover, for instance – are observed by many, ignored by many more. But they remain part of the fabric of the community, special days that continue to bring joy, comfort and meaning to the faithful and a sense of identity to others.

Lesser known holidays – Lag B’Omer, Tu B’shevat, Shmini Atzeret – don’t even register on the spiritual radar of most Jews, many who will fast on Yom Kippur, attend a Seder on Passover and exchange gifts on Hanukkah.

I mention all this to explain why the vast majority of Jews won’t be fasting this Monday and Tuesday, ignoring the Jewish Holiday of Tisha B’Av, arguably the saddest day in Jewish history. Despite its historical significance, the day – which begins at sunset Monday – has become just another tongue-twisting trivia question that offers little meaning in a modern world moving at the speed of light.

At least that’s the view of many. The faithful, meanwhile, continue paying attention to the lessons offered by this memorable day – the name literally means the 9th day (of the Hebrew month) of Av.

Why so bleak? It was on this very day in 586 BCE when the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Jews sent into Babylonian exile. Centuries later in 70 CE, once again on the 9th of Av, the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, this time scattering the remnants of the Jewish people in many directions – Europe and Asia, others spilling around the southern fringes of the Mediterranean and deep into Africa.

There are other bits of disturbing darkness associated with Tisha B’Av – Simon bar Kokhba, thought by some to be the Messiah and the commander of Jewish troops in revolt against Imperial Rome, was killed on this day in 135 CE; Jews were expelled from England on Tisha B’Av in 1290 and from Spain in 1492; On Aug. 1, 1914 (that’s right, Tisha B’Av on the Hebrew Calendar), Germany declared war on Russia; 27 years later, on the eve of Tisha B’Av, the Nazis began deporting Jews to Treblinka from the Warsaw Ghetto.

The actual biblical link to the day can be found in the Book of Numbers. Turns out the 12 spies sent by Moses to check out the land of Canaan returned on, yep, Tisha B’Av, ten of them delivering really bad news about the “Promised Land” that was supposed to be dripping with milk and honey.

The Children of Israel panicked and G-d, we’re told, wasn’t amused by their lack of faith. He (forgive my falling into anthropomorphism) decreed that forever more this date would become one of crying and misfortune for their descendants, the Jewish people.

For all these reasons, and many of a less cosmic and more subtle nature, observant Jews today fast on Tisha B’Av – beginning at sunset on the eve of the holiday and continuing for 25 hours. The really observant also don’t bathe, wear any sort of leather – such products are associated with living the good life – and abstain from sexual relations. Additionally, the really, really observant practice a few rituals – sitting on low stools, refraining from work – linked to sitting shiva, the traditional period of mourning for Jews following the death of a close relative.

Services are held in synagogues, somber affairs that feature the reading of the Book of Lamentations, followed by the kinnot, a series of liturgical lamentations. If the day’s darkness has yet to take hold, in Sephardic communities – for those who need to ask, trust me, you don’t need to know – it is also customary to read the book of Job.

Rabbis and others can offer up appropriate texts from the Torah and Talmud to explain the ongoing importance of recalling all this bleakness. I offer only one small thought, an artistic angle on this day of wailing.

To appreciate light, it’s often necessary to focus on darkness. It’s an aesthetic device that artists have understood and used for centuries to highlight their works of art. It’s an idea that also has merit, I think, when considering the nature of life.

MAN OF G-D: The prophet Jeremiah (illustration above), traditionally named as the author of the Book of Lamentations, wails in anguish following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Close shave means really big bucks

Big business, ad firms and marketing agencies have been toying with us for years, telling and selling the consumer – that would be you and me – all the sorts of things we need to make our life wonderful and perfect.

So we buy shoes that add a spring to our step, shirts and blouses that are stylish and lovely; trucks that are “ram tough” and cars that are zoom-terrific; we drink beer because it’s for the, ahhh, common guy and wine because it’s oh-so elegant. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea.

And all of that’s okay as long as we know it’s absolute bull and we’re buying stuff because, for whatever reason, we happen to like a particular product. All of this is preamble, my long-winded – but hopefully enjoyable and entertaining – way to expose one of the longest lasting and most successful marketing schemes to be lathered upon the American public.

It’s really cutting edge stuff – not the marketing plan but the product itself. I’m talking razors, both the thingy you hold in your hand and the blades that do the work. Two mega-companies, Gillette and Schick, dominate the market – between them they rake in over $4 billion annually. The corporations, not happy enough with this mountain of cash, continue to come up with outlandish products that essentially do the same thing the companies have been offering for decades.

All of this became clear during a recent shopping trip to my local supermarket where I spent 30 minutes sorting through an assortment of razors, blades, creams, deodorants, body washes and hair care products offered by Gillette, Schick and some smaller competitors.

I was simply looking for some additional blades for my Gillette “Sensor” when I spotted the latest addition to the company’s line – the Fusion ProGlide Razor, not to be confused with last year’s model, the Mach3 Turbo.

The Fusion ProGlide I have since learned comes with re-engineered low cutting force blades with thinner and finer edges; includes Fusion’s most advanced low-resistance blade coating, improved blade suspension and, drum roll please, has a 25 percent larger “lubraStrip”! Oh, right, it also comes with a re-designed handle.

By the way, just for the sake of comparison, at the bottom of the Gillette razor food chain there’s the Sensor Disposable Razor. You can pick up eight of these plastic gadgets for about the same price – $10, give or take – as one Fusion ProGlide.

The marketing gurus at Gillette actually make it a difficult choice which device to pick, writing in poetic, glowing terms about the disposable razor's nifty qualities – soft, protective layers over the blades, three spring mounted Sensor blades on a pivoting head, optimal shave indicator strip and a uniquely shaped, non-slip rubber handle.

Folks. It’s a RAZOR! They all come with a handle and a head that holds a blade. It doesn’t really matter all that much if it’s red, blue, gold or silver, if the handle is ergonomically engineered or an ice cream stick with a blade taped to one end.

Gillette, Schick and all the rest will continue rolling out new models, featuring 3, 4, even 5 blades – would that be the Mach5 Turbo Razor – as long as we continue to pay for such nonsense.

I suggest saving your money and growing a beard. Of course then you’ll probably need to start buying Gillette’s new TurboSudsShampoo, made especially for beards. And no doubt next year you’ll be able to purchase TurboSuds2, featuring lavender bubbles and an ergonomically designed rubberized grip.

SOMETHING NEW: Well, not really. Razors (photo above) have been around forever. The only thing new is the rubberized grip and the marketing hype!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

YouTube video shocking, funny -- life affirming?

A friend recently sent me a link to a video on YouTube, one of those home-grown efforts that show a few folks dancing. The mega-video site is filled with a gazillion such mini-movies -- cats and dogs doing tricks, kids singing and teens dancing; clips from popular TV shows and concerts, Broadway hits and blockbuster films.

But this video (link below) was different -- strange, a little bizarre and a bit shocking. It features a family -- a Holocaust survivor, his daughter and two grandchildren. They apparently spent time traveling through Eastern Europe recently, visiting some of the most hellish sites every created by the Nazis.

And at each place -- Auschwitz, Dachau, the Jewish ghetto of Prague -- they dance about to Gloria Gaynor's funky pop hit, "I will Survive"! The photography is okay, the editing lame and unsophisticated, the choreography and dancing really -- and I mean REALLY -- bad.

Did I mention that they're essentially dancing on sacred ground. Yes, I think I did. And I guess that's the point and the issue that will rub some people the wrong way, while serving as an affirmation of life for others.

I fall into the latter group, the affirmation of life camp. After only a moment of shock, and a few more moments of getting over the Elaine-like moves of the dancers -- you know, Elaine on Seinfeld -- I started to understand the celebration that was taking place.

The survivor -- and I have no idea what hell he lived through and witnessed -- has managed to live a full life, decades I presume that have been filled with joy and happiness and, obviously, a life that has connected him with the kids in the video. So when they boogie out in front of the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign at the entrance of Auschwitz, it seems to me they are both thumbing their collective noses at the dark memories of the Nazi war machine, while celebrating the life of this special man.

I've been to several of the places in the video, heard first-hand accounts from survivors and walked through the killing fields of the region. I've felt anger over what happened in these places decades ago and hatred for the monsters who brought such darkness to the world.

But I've never smiled when thinking about the Holocaust, never quite so appreciated the amazing miracle of life that the survivor community embraces. This video -- silly and amateurish -- is filled with love. So take a moment and check out the video right here, have a little laugh, then say a small prayer for the six million who didn't make it.

ICONIC IMAGE: Infamous sign (photo above) outside of Auschwitz in Poland, the Nazi death camp where at least a million Jews were murdered, reads "Work Makes You Free".

Sunday, July 11, 2010

What I'd like to tell the guy texting next to me

Give me a dark room, a bag of popcorn and the lovely Miss Wendy at my side, and I’m in movie heaven. It helps if the film has an actual story and not just a bunch of computer-generated explosions. But truth be told, I’ll watch just about anything.

There’s something relaxing and refreshing, especially this time of year in the Land of Cotton, to settle back in an air-conditioned theater and enjoy the flickering flash of make believe come to life. Two hours of such therapy and I’m more than ready to face the realities that fill our daily lives – sinking economy, wars in distant lands, an oily slick that refuses to be controlled … well, you get the idea.

So I find it irksome when my pleasant little get-away is invaded by the mindless blather of egocentric morons who can’t shut off their phones, BlackBerries and other such toys. Why the heck do these people pay good money for a movie when every few minutes they feel compelled to whip out their shortcomings?

I can forgive the immature antics of youngsters, not old enough to understand or care about the people sitting around them and how distracting it is for the light of a cell phone to flash on in a darkened theater. But when the jerk with the phone has lost most of his hair and has a paunch that he’s obviously been working on for decades, then I’m hard pressed to figure out what’s happening.

Have some people – men and women; this isn’t a gender issue – simply lost the capacity to relax or become so filled with self importance that they can’t imagine unplugging themselves from the outer world for an hour or two? And what, if anything, do they think about the people sitting around them, the people they are annoying with their childish behavior?

Over the weekend, Miss Wendy and I went to see Date Night, the laugh-out-loud comedy starring the sexy and funny Tina Fey and the, well, sexy and funny Steve Carell. Minutes before the film began, I counted at least a dozen folks chatting or texting away on their phones, ignoring their wives, dates and friends, busy yakking away about absolutely nothing with people who, if they were in the theater, these same people would be ignoring. What’s that about?

A few years ago, before this rude behavior had become epidemic, a guy was finishing up some sort of business on his cell phone as the trailers began to roll. Apparently unable to make himself understood, he shouted into his phone, “How much do you want?” Someone sitting behind me, apparently even more annoyed by the boorish behavior then I was, yelled out, “Pay her $100 … now shut down your frickin’ phone.”

I can’t imagine what this guy would have been shouting in the theater yesterday when, moments into the film, little digital lights began blinking across the room, a twinkling reminder that the magic of our high-tech age comes with a price.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Shoes poignant reminder of Holocaust victims

It's Friday, time again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). This week, let's remain in Budapest and visit a poignant memorial next to the Danube.

There's a bit of whimsy at play with this powerful memorial, a row of shoes along the Danube on the Pest side of the city.

The shoes can be found in the shadow of Hungary's impressive Parliament Building and, at first glance, seem a trifle, a bit of public art to amuse tourists and others on a stroll along the river's promenade. But the memorial's artist, award-winning sculptor Gyula Pauler, captures a dark moment in Hungary's history and makes a powerful statement with his simple design.

The story he builds around is heartbreaking. Through much of World War II, Jews in Hungary managed to hunker down and escape the wrath of the Nazi war machine. Eastern Europe was turned into a massive concentration camp and Jews from across the continent were being deported to death camps in Poland, Austria, Germany and other countries that had nurtured anti-Semitism for decades.

Inexplicably, the Jews of Hungary seemed safe. Life was tough, but not an automatic death sentence for them. In the fall of 1944, Russian troops had managed to battle their way into Hungary and peace seemed to be an idea that rested uneasily on the horizon. Sadly, in those closing days of the war, tens of thousands of Jews in the region were shipped off to the East -- Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka.

In Budapest, members of the Arrow Cross Party, the Nazis of Hungary, rounded up many of the remaining Jews and marched them to the Danube. They stripped them of their clothes and had them step out of their shoes on the embankment, where the men, women and children were shot and tossed into the river.

Sixty pairs of shoes, carefully sculpted by Pauler and arranged only feet from the Danube, dot the site where the Jews were murdered, and the melancholy memorial now serves as a silent prayer for the dead.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Now I've got a good reason to be ticked off!

The lovely Miss Wendy and I just returned from an emergency visit to the local fire station. I needed a little attention from one of the medics.

The episode began simply enough with my wife noticing a little blemish on the back of my neck. I’ve been spending way too much time outdoors in recent weeks, doing yard work and exercising, and Miss Wendy thought perhaps I might want to make an appointment with a dermatologist.

Then she noticed that the blemish had, ugh, legs and our little problem took on a bit of added urgency. She made an effort to remove the thingy that was clinging to my neck, just below the hairline – okay, there’s not much hair atop my head – but the critter wasn’t budging.

Just a day earlier, both of us had read an article in the local newspaper detailing the growing problem of ticks in the Land of Cotton. The little buggers have been multiplying like, well, ticks. Apparently the female of the species, in the last days of her life, can lay up to 3,000 eggs. And it seems my yard has become tick central this summer.

I can’t say that I recall actually ever seeing a tick before. But in the last week I spotted one climbing up my leg, another attached to my arm and now this most recent episode. Since the newspaper story made it very clear that removing a tick is a delicate procedure, we decided to seek professional help.

Five minutes later a medic was checking out my neck and figuring out the best way to remove the pest. If you yank at a tick, there’s a good chance its head, oh gross, will remain attached to your skin. Worse, if you pinch it too hard, there’s a very real possibility the ugly critter will regurgitate all manner of bacteria into your bloodstream.

In fact, it’s believed such puking is how people contract Lyme disease, a particularly nasty malady characterized by arthritic and neurological problems. All this was buzzing through my noggin – plus images of Sigourney Weaver battling that foul-smelling, disgusting Alien creature that came busting through the guts of its victims – as the medic slowly doused the tick with alcohol then gingerly pried it away from my skin.

Just to be safe, we now have the tick buried in two zip lock bags and stored in our freezer. Hey, that’s what the newspaper article suggested you do if bitten. Then, if you do become sick, the culprit can be examined and might help in a final diagnosis.

I’m hoping a month from now we can toss the tick, along with any residual worries. But to be on the safe side, I just had Miss Wendy strip search me. Okay, I know that’s an image you probably could have managed to live without. Too late now. Sorry.

OH, GROSS: Wet weather in the Land of Cotton this spring and early summer has provided perfect conditions for ticks (photo above) to produce and prosper in lawns, shrubbery and trees.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Don't look now, but the future has arrived!

First of all, you need to understand I’m a low-tech sort of guy. Back when I first started earning money playing with words, I did my work on a typewriter. That’s right, one of those little contraptions that had keys you pounded and a paper carriage that you tossed back into position after typing a sentence or two.

These days, other than my computer and a pretty ancient cell phone, I still remain rooted in the 20th Century. It’s not that I have anything against the magical devices that are being developed today. I simply fear I’ve reached that point of information overload that means for every bit of new stuff I try to take in, a corresponding amount spills out. In short, my bran is full.

With that as preamble, I stand before you today to sing the praises of one of those new-fangled, high-tech contraptions that recently hit the market with much rejoicing and good cheer, yet another winning item from the folks at Apple.

On a trip recently with Lauren and Josh – that would be my daughter and son-in-law – I was staying busy happily reading a book – something I learned how to do almost six decades ago and something I have managed to accomplish in pretty much the same way ever since. Basically, you buy a book, find a comfortable chair and turn to the first chapter. Every couple of minutes or so you turn the page.

No more. Welcome to the 21st Century.

Josh is a high-tech kinda guy. If the wizards of gadgetry manage to come up with an ice cream cone with a hard drive, he’ll be one of the first in line to purchase it – chocolate, vanilla and whatever other bells and whistles that can be added. So I wasn’t at all surprised when he announced that he’d recently bought not one, but two iPads!

And, thankfully, he’d brought one along. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, I’m not talking about some sort of high-tech sanitary napkin – such were the lame jokes when Steven Jobs announced the name for Apple’s new tablet computer earlier this year. Jobs and others holding Apple stock are still chortling all the way to the bank. Since it was released in April, a whopping 3 million iPads have been sold at about $500 a pop. You do the math!

After watching Lauren toy around with the iPad for a bit, I asked if I could try it out. Before leaving that place with the printing press a year or so ago, I had worked on a Mac for years and, once again, Apple has developed a product that is easy to learn and handle. With just a little prompting from the kids, I was off and running – checking my e-mail and Facebook page, surfing the web and spending time with the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

And then I stumbled onto the iPad's library. E-books have been around for several years now, but Apple, using its itunes paradigm, is positioned to move to the head of the class. With just a few clicks you can easily browse through hundreds of tomes, purchase, pay and download whatever you find appealing.

Whisk your hand across the screen and you can magnify pages or paragraphs, flip through chapters or find earmarked passages. The whole process is intuitive and, I’m certain, will be hugely popular – heck, it already is!

I’m also certain in another few months, certainly in the next few years, we’re going to see more such magic – just faster and smarter – and hopefully a bit cheaper. The future is looking bright for most everyone willing to jump aboard the high-tech bandwagon. The not so good news is a bunch of industries – book publishing, newspapers, magazines and other such journals – are toast.

And so it goes.

Monday, July 5, 2010

This trader knows how to attract a crowd

Miss Wendy and I had finished our Sunday walk – a grueling 6 mile jaunt along the river to celebrate our and the nation’s independence – and were dashing by a local grocery to pick up a few odds and ends. The minute I walked into the store I could see that something was up.

Off to the left in what market aficionados would call, well, aisle 1, there was a huge crowd, cheering and taking photos, everyone in high spirits. Grocery shopping can sometimes be fun, but buying a quart of milk and a loaf of bread brings with it only so much joy.

It took a little jostling and maneuvering to find a slight break in the pack of people, but I managed to peek over and between a gaggle of arms and shoulders and spotted a dozen or so kids around a large table. The youngsters were eyeing huge slices of pie topped with mounds of whipped cream.

The tension in the air was palpable as a guy sporting a flower lei around his neck raised his hand, counted to three, then blew a whistle. Without hesitation or encouragement, the kids dipped their heads and commenced to lap up the gooey mess with gusto.

And, as they say, the crowd went wild. Welcome to Trader Joe’s!

It’s not every supermarket that would take over a corner of one of its busiest aisles for a little fun and games. But that’s what this place is all about. I’m never disappointed when I visit.

The place is filled with the usual sort of stuff – that quart of milk I mentioned earlier and bread. But it’s also got fried rice laced with mushrooms and risotto in its frozen section, exotic brands of coffee and store brand cookies that are delicate and tasty. Trader Joe’s also has a small kosher section, its steaks and brisket – and this certainly is a subjective call, but I’m the one doing the writing here – of better quality than that offered by specialty shops and other nearby chains.

It also features an assortment of ethnic goodies under private labels that are whimsically named – Trader Jose’s (Mexican), Trader Ming’s (Chinese), Arabian Joe’s (Middle Eastern) – bought directly from local and international small-time vendors.

I imagine that if you spend time at the store and work behind the scenes, Trader Joe’s is possibly filled with the same corporate and bureaucratic nonsense that you’d find at other large enterprises. But the employees either manage to hide their angst or actually enjoy working at the place.

They run around the store, casually dressed in jeans and sports shirts, smiling and greeting customers, ringing bells and often giving out special prizes – congratulations, you’re customer 72 today, here’s a bar of chocolate!

On Sunday, the vibe was upbeat and fun. About the only person around who seemed at all irritated by the holiday festivities was me. I wanted to join the youngsters as they licked their plates clean. When it comes to pie, I don’t mind a little public humiliation.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Special day filled with special meaning

It’s a red, white and blue sort of day – the Fourth of July and time to celebrate our freedom.

For years this special day has meant that me and the lovely Miss Wendy were out of bed and out of the house before the sun had even thought about rising in the east. We weren’t alone. There’s a certain madness in the Land of Cotton on Independence Day that has nothing to do with history, national pride, beer or BBQ. Well, maybe beer! Let me explain.

In the early 1970s, a few folks had the idea that it might be really fun to get together on July 4th each year and, well, run down Peachtree Street. The first years they gathered together, only a few hundred hearty souls made the trek. Each year a few hundred additional nuts, I mean joggers, joined the celebration.

By the time I caught the bug in the early 1980s, The Peachtree Road Race had grown to a staggering 25,000 runners, become an Atlanta institution and the largest 10K road race in the nation. Those stunning numbers seem oh-so tiny these days, now that the annual trek through Buckhead from Lenox Mall to Piedmont Park has grown to 55,000 men, women and teens, attracting elite world-class runners and weekend joggers.

The first year I entered the race I had been running for six months or so, had gone from a sluggish, wheezing pace of 15 minute miles to a reasonably decent pace of eight minute miles – not great, but certainly respectable. The good news is I managed to run The Peachtree for the next dozen years or so. And I was nothing if not consistent. My pace never slowed. It also never got any better.

In those early years when the testosterone level in my body still had me suffering with alpha-male syndrome, I was out on the road at least five days a week, doing sprints and speed work at a track in my neighborhood, spending hours each weekend pounding the pavement for 10, 15, sometimes 20 miles.

I managed to lose 25 pounds, occasionally knocked a few seconds off my racing pace, and began running longer distances – half-marathons and, eventually, full marathons. But then something strange happened. Independence Day rolled around about five years after I had begun running and I was back on Peachtree Street once again.

Miss Wendy and my darling daughter – why, let’s just call her Nerual … yes, that would be Nerual Natevel today – were at their usual spots, waving signs and flags, shouting for me and the other runners as we made our way up a smallish hill toward the end of mile 5 of the race.

It was a splendid day, the sun still low on the horizon and the sky a deep blue. Thousands of runners filled the streets, thousands of spectators and volunteers nearby on the sidewalks and curbs. A local radio station had set up shop in the area, a disc jockey shouting nonsense and playing the theme from Rocky.

As the music blared and the crowd cheered, I spotted Miss Wendy and Nerual off in the distance, waving hello and shouting encouragement. For an instant time slowed and if there was music playing, it was the theme from Chariots of Fire. I had one of those epiphanies that gurus atop mountains offer up to their followers or therapists hunt for while you rehash your childhood. Why, I had already won the race, in fact winning really wasn’t part of the equation any longer.

It was Independence Day and all of us here were free, sharing the bounty and enjoying the gifts – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – promised by our forefathers. I continued to run for years, but with a different sort of passion. The joy came in the running, spending time on neighborhood trails, mountain paths and distant cities, often left alone with my thoughts, occasionally sharing the moment at races with hundreds of others.

The icing on the cake was always knowing that when the training was done and the race completed, Miss Wendy would be waiting for me at the finish line and that, ahhh, Nerual was happy and safe in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

HOLIDAY HAPPENING: It's hot and humid in the Land of Cotton in July, but these runners and thousands more take part each year on Independence Day in a bit of madness called The Peachtree Road Race.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Weeping Willow honors those lost in Hungary

It's Friday and time again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts. Today we visit the lovely city of Budapest and a unique memorial in the Jewish quarter of the city.

Behind the imposing Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest, in a park named for Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during World War II, is an imaginative, poignant memorial to the 600,000 Hungarian Jews who didn't escape the Holocaust.

The "Silver Weeping Willow," designed by the Hungarian artist Imre Varga, is an eye-catching maze of metal, slivers of silver that reach for the sky, then bend and fall to earth.

Thousands of metal leaves, many engraved with the names of the murdered, cling to the branches of the sculpture, swaying gently with the wind, glittering in the afternoon sun. Above it all, an inscription in Hebrew raises the mournful question, "Whose agony is greater than mine?"

On the day I visited the memorial, part of a congregational trip through Eastern Europe with friends from the Land of Cotton, only a few tourists and locals were scattered about. I couldn't help but wonder how fleeting and capricious life can be at times, that in fact my life might be dramatically different if one man many decades earlier had not, along with his family, left his home in Hungary to find a better life in America.

Joseph Klein, known as Joe or Joey to most of his friends and family, was born and spent his early years in a small village outside of Budapest, but came of age in New York. Of course he would never have met and married his wife Roz if he had remained in Hungary, and their two daughters -- the lovely Miss Wendy and my sister-in-law Ann -- would not exist.

That little wrinkle in reality would have continued to ripple across time and today there would be no Cheryl, Arlene or Lauren -- our daughters. Their husbands would have never known the joy of meeting and marrying their beshert and the following generation would be lost as well.

The fact that Joe and his family skedaddled when they did meant they would escape the Holocaust and his descendants would come into being. But what about the hundreds, the thousands, the millions who remained part of Eastern Europe? The tragedy of the Six Million murdered by the Nazis is not just their deaths but the future generations that were lost.

So I weep at the Weeping Willow memorial not only for those lost, but for those never allowed to experience this thing we call life -- the joy and sorrow, exhilaration and pain that comes with living. There loss is our loss, just one additional tragedy of the Holocaust and just one more reason to "never forget".

Honoring the dead: The Weeping Willow Memorial (photo above), is in a small park behind the Dohany Shul in Budapest, a unique remembrance of the thousands of Hungarian Jews lost in the Holocaust.