Friday, October 29, 2010

Healing ritual is all about community

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of “Interesting Jewish Stories and Facts” (IJS&F). Today, let’s spend some time exploring the why of shiva.

I’m at home, sitting shiva for my mother who died over the weekend. The Hebrew word literally means seven, in this case detailing the number of days you spend mourning the loss of a relative.

There are many rituals and rules associated with sitting shiva – covering mirrors in the home, not shaving, sitting on a low stool, sharing meals and eating certain foods. Essentially, regular activity, both work and play, is interrupted, a constant reminder that something has changed.

Judaism is a religion of laws, rituals and customs. There’s much that deals with the cosmic and divine, but where I think the religion gets just about everything right is how it deals with death and dying. I doubt there were any psychologists doing work as grief counselors when our ancestors codified the mourning process. But someone – or some group – in our distant past understood the importance of grieving and made it part of the faith.

Shiva, just one part of the mourning process, makes it clear to Jews living in a world that moves at warp speed that it’s all right to take time to mourn a loved one. It’s okay to miss a little work, skip a party or ignore the marathon football fest that eats away at our lives each weekend in the fall.

Earlier this week, a good friend who feels little connection to the details of Judaism, performed a mitzvah, paying a shiva call and spending time with me. Later that evening, surrounded by dozens of people – friends and family, colleagues and acquaintances – I realized what I should have told him when he said he really didn’t “get” this Jewish thing.

There’s lots about the faith I don’t understand, but as I grieve the loss of my mother, I “get” the importance of shiva. There’s something healing and healthy about being surrounded by people, many simply offering a word or two of understanding, others sharing their own grief and sorrow.

Years ago, my father use to drag me along with him when he made shiva calls. I always felt awkward and out of place, and never knew what to say to the grieving family. As often as not, I stood in a corner and said little. Hey, I was a kid! Today, I realize that’s okay. Simply being in the home meant something to the family.

The minyon held each evening of shiva in my home is important; so, too, the food that’s been brought over by family and friends and the schmoozing that fills the night. But the most meaningful part of the whole exercise for me is simply walking from room to room, seeing family and friends with one another – talking, laughing, arguing, eating, drinking … living!

And so it goes.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

We say goodbye to a Woman of Valor

Eulogy for Helen Schekman Feinberg, delivered by her son Ron Feinberg at Riverdale Cemetery in Columbus, GA; Oct. 26, 2010.

It’s a vague memory from the early 1960s, possibly more fiction then fact. My brothers and I are playing a hotly contested game of knee football, scurrying across the living room carpet when one of us knocks up against a side table and a figurine crashes to the floor.

My mother peers in from the kitchen, than hurls herself in our direction, shouting that she had told us over and over again not to play in the house and pelting us with licks from the cotton slipper she has pulled from her foot. Each blow lands like a snowflake.

First my brother Larry begins chuckling, then me, followed by Gary and Ian. In minutes all of us are howling, including Mama. Welcome to life and discipline in the Feinberg household.

My mother wasn’t a doctor or lawyer, not a waitress, sales rep or clerk. Today she would probably be labeled a stay-at-home mom. In the 1950s and ’60s she was a housewife, a role she cherished from the moment she met my father during the dark days of World War II, married and eventually settled down here in Columbus.

Her days were filled with the stuff of life – cleaning, schlepping and cooking. My mother wasn’t a religious woman, but in her prime her brisket, kugel, matzo ball soup and chopped liver made for a spiritual experience. All of this was her American dream come true, a vision she shared with an entire generation that had come of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Get quiet enough right now and you might be able to hear some of the voices of her close family and friends. Many are nearby – Abe and Ida, my grandparents, just over the rise back there; and my father, resting here now for well over a decade.

Glance about and there’s an entire community, the Jews of Columbus who discovered that life could be good and rewarding in the land of cotton. For that generation of my family, my mother is the end, the last member of the “Greatest” generation. I like to think that she’s with the family now, perhaps sitting out on the porch of the old house on Second Avenue with Daddy, Stella and Harry, Lou and Ester, Sam and Theresa, Itchy and Flo, Morris and Sarah, Ester and Sammy.

At her side is a display stand of tchotchkes – all her Japanese figurines and artistic figures of Buddha, a Chinese dragon of Jade and lots of plastic flowers. She’s relaxed and comfortable, but what she’s really thinking is that the yard needs raking and the porch needs a good dusting. That’s my Mama!

There’s a rich scent of cologne mixing with the huge magnolia tree in the front yard and around her neck and on her fingers are a mix of precious stones – diamonds and rubies, and a batch of CZs – go figure!

Of course the real precious gems of her life are out here – her family. You gave meaning to her life and brought joy to her days. She was proud of all her boys and their wives, and took special delight in her grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandson.

It was left to many of them – Mom’s special grandchildren – to teach her late in life that it was okay to share her emotions, that saying I love you is as natural as dying your hair red and teasing it a foot high. It’s a lesson that took hold and brought her comfort I think in her final years.

I saw her heart grow, even as her mind faded. Saying I love you became the touchstone that allowed her to share her love, while reminding her she was loved.

Just a few weeks ago, when the circle was nearly complete, I was attempting to feed Mama lunch. She was losing the ability to swallow and was taking little of the pureed goop I was offering. Finally, out of frustration I called out to a nearby aide and told them they’d need to take over.

I stood to leave and bent over to whisper goodbye. Before I could speak, she turned and in a raspy, pain-filled voice said, “I love you”. Those were the last words I would hear my mother speak.

I have shared with some of you what a memoir of my mother might look like. The first section, DEATH, would be about my father’s life and passing a dozen years ago. LIMBO, the second section, would focus on my Mom living in Atlanta, years of independence and joy; sadness and isolation.

The third section, HELL, would detail her fall into the bottomless pit of dementia, a painful, humbling experience that offers lessons on just how vulnerable we are as humans. But it’s the final section where my mother now rests. REDEMPTION. In her struggles the disease wiped clean the armor we build about ourselves and the only pure emotion that remained was love.

In the last hour of my mother’s life, a dozen of us filled her tiny room in the Jewish Home in Atlanta. Time moved, yet stood still. A sacred thing was happening and we were being offered the privilege to watch. There was near silence, just the slight hiss and hum of a machine offering up oxygen. Mama took a breath, her chest heaved and she took yet another breath. It was agonizing to watch, yet mesmerizing.

The veil we know little about was being slowly pulled aside. One journey was ending. Another was beginning. There was sadness, but no longer fear. There was ache, but no longer anger. There finally was total silence.

Just a moment earlier there had been another soul in the room and now it seemed gone. But where? I’ll leave such metaphysical musings to the poets and philosophers among us.

But this much I know is true. At least part of my Mama’s soul now rests in the hearts of all who were there and all those who loved her. The rest I like to think is making its way to a place where pain and misery don’t exist, the beauty parlor is always open and house cleaning is an Olympic sport.

Zikh-ronah liv-rakha … may my mother’s memory be for a blessing. Amen

Saturday, October 23, 2010

We kept our promise of love

It was a cold day in December. I had stopped by my mother’s condo to check on her and found her staring off into space, lost in thought. The previous months had been troubling. There had been several episodes that my brothers and I could no longer ignore and we had begun discussing the possibility of moving Mom into an assisted living facility.

She knew something was wrong. Years earlier she had watched her father fall victim to a particularly virulent form of dementia and mom was certain she was now headed down a similar path. Sadly, she was right.

On this night she was momentarily lost in despair, frail and growing weaker, but strong enough to understand what the near future held. She was frightened and after only a moment or so broke into sobs.

Words failed me. I watched her for an instant and then realized that now I was the parent and needed to console my child, a role that would play out dozens of times in coming months. I held my mother and tried to calm her.

I quickly understood that all I had to offer was the truth. I told her she had a large and loving family, four sons, their wives, children and grandchildren – at the time, even three great-grandchildren. I made her a promise. We would be with her every step of the way. We would all get through this thing together.

The darkness came quickly. It robbed her of her memory, her hopes and dreams and replaced them with hallucinations, tremors, anxiety attacks and fits of paranoia. Occasionally, the fog would lift and I would be able to spend a few special moments with Mom, talking about her childhood, friends and relatives that for the moment she once again recalled.

Such good days became less frequent, however, as the disease took hold of her mind and she lashed out at many of us, no longer realizing who we were. But a promise had been made. We would all get through this together. So we made sure she got the best care. We took her to the brightest specialists we could find and had her hospitalized twice at one of the best geriatric facilities in the region.

Then we struggled with rousing her after she had become over medicated and eventually managed to wean her off several toxic drugs that had left her helpless and unable to take care of any of her personal needs.

The journey grew darker yet, the disease finally robbing her of the ability to move around freely, then leaving her unable to articulate her thoughts. So it was that just several weeks ago I found myself sitting with my mother at a dining table in the William Breman Jewish Home, feeding her a mix of pureed veggies, realizing that now she had even lost the ability to swallow.

Frustrated and angry, I called out to a nearby aide and told her she’d have to finish feeding my mother. I leaned over to tell Mom that I was leaving and that I’d see her soon. She opened her eyes, looked directly as me and said, “I love you”. Those were the last coherent words I’d ever hear her say.

My mother died this evening. For days her boys, daughters-in-law, grandchildren and a great-grandchild – who, btw, just months earlier had given birth to the next generation, a great-great-grandchild – had sat with Mom as she battled for breath and another moment of life.

Nearly two years earlier I had held her closely and made a promise. We’d get through this together. I like to think my family kept that promise and that even during the darkest moments my mother managed to sense she was never alone and that she was loved.

God filled with mercy,
Dwelling in the heavens’ heights,
Bring proper rest beneath the wings of your divine presence,
Amid the ranks of the holy and the pure,
Illuminating like the brilliance of the skies the soul of our beloved,
Who has gone to her eternal place of rest.
May You who are the source of mercy
Shelter our mother beneath Your wings eternally,
And bind her soul among the living,
That she may rest in peace.
And let us say: Amen.

GOOD TIMES: The entire family gathered for Mom's 85th birthday (photo above), a wonderful evening of celebration two years ago. She was 87 when she passed away at the William Breman Jewish Home in Atlanta.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Offering a hand to those who are sick

It’s Friday and time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today we explore the concept of gemilut hasadim, acts of loving kindness.

You see them coming and going at The William Breman Jewish Home, men and women visiting the sick. Many, like me and my family, are spending time with a parent. Others are visiting friends and still others are volunteers. All are carrying out one of the most ancient of Jewish traditions, bikur holim, an act of loving kindness, gemilut hasadim.

The belief, among the faithful, is that this mitzvah can be traced all the way back to a visit God had with Abraham, when the patriarch was recovering from circumcision. So today, when Jews visit someone who is ill they are, essentially, emulating God.

Well, maybe. I’m not certain I know many people who are thinking about things cosmic and divine when they pull into the Breman. It’s a wonderful facility, but it’s a tough place to visit. There is much life and fun here, thanks to the good will and professionalism of the staff. But there is also much death and dying.

And perhaps that’s the point of the commandment. It takes a little effort, and in reaching out to those who are sick, we all find a bit of healing inside ourselves also.

Our ancient ancestors were wise and understood there are rules and guidelines needed to build a civilized society. There are all those iconic commandments we learn in childhood, prohibitions against murder and stealing, lying and cheating. They’re important and serve as a solid foundation for nations to build upon, grow and prosper.

But what defines us as humans, beings filled with a sense of what is right, wrong and Godly, are acts of loving kindness, gemilut hasadim, that we find detailed in the Torah and fleshed out further in the Talmud.

It’s these acts that bring us together and create community. It’s loving kindness that offers light when all seems dark. It’s how I’ll be spending my time this Shabbat.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I remember Mama

There it is, the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s where I’m hoping my mother is today. The journey has been dark and painful, but now it’s nearing its end.

The confusion, anxiety and paranoia that took hold of my mother’s mind over the last two years is giving way to the calm that rests just the other side of eternity. It’s right there in the near distance, just waiting for her to step forward.

It’s a sacred time for Mom and for all of us, her family. We spend our days sitting with her, making sure she is comfortable with lots of help from the nurses, aides and other professionals at the William Breman Jewish Home and Weinstein Hospice.

There’s something special about these last days, moments when each of us in our own way can offer a whispered goodbye. Each gesture my mother makes as she sleeps, each word she manages to utter has a power that is inexplicable.

My brother Larry tells Mom he loves her and he hears her respond with similar words; my daughter hears her grandmother call out a small endearment, “Hey, Pa,” one of the names Mom used for my father; she flinches and we flinch, she breathes easily and so do we.

Last night, as the nurses spent a few moments making Mom a bit more comfortable, I stepped out of her room and found myself in a nearby public area that features a large flat screen television on one wall. There was no one in the room, but a black and white movie was playing.

I couldn’t recall the name of the film and only had a vague memory of the story. A young woman wanted to be a writer. Her mother was chatting with her, offering words of encouragement and advice. She was telling her daughter that she needed to write stories about what she knew.

It all felt so familiar, and as the daughter (Barbara Bel Geddes) listened and then protested, “But Mama, I haven’t done anything,” my throat tightened and tears began to spill down my cheeks. The movie is an ode to motherhood, focusing on the life of a Norwegian family in San Francisco around the turn of the last century.

The daughter realizes that her family is what she knows best and that her “Mama” could easily be the focus of a story. The film ends with a postman delivering a letter from a publisher, buying her story, and the family sitting around the kitchen table as the young author begins reading her manuscript.

As the camera pulls back and the music swells, Barbara Bel Geddes reads the opening sentence of her story and the title of the movie, “I Remember Mama”.

Next door, my family was together, remembering our Mama. The ebb and flow of life has stopped momentarily and we wait. The light beckons.

A GOOD DAY: Me and Mom (photo above) all dressed up and ready to celebrate at my daughter Lauren’s wedding.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cool, creamy, tasty and totally addictive

It’s calling my name and it’s impossible to resist. Even at 2 in the morning, I can feel the tug of the freezer and the tiny pint of rich vanilla ice cream waiting there for my warm embrace. Who am I to say no to such passion?

A bit overstated, but unfortunately true. I’m addicted to ice cream – the cool, creamy texture; the sweet, dee-licious flavors; the sugary high that whisks away all my problems and concerns, at least for a moment.

So I try to keep away from temptation, hiking around the challenge offered up in the frozen desserts aisle at my local supermarket; driving blocks out of my way to avoid the ice cream and yogurt shops that beckon from the distance in my little corner of the world; standing way in the back of the room when everyone else is singing happy birthday to whoever is celebrating and the cake and ice cream takes center stage.

I fail miserably, of course, again and again! For years I managed to keep the stuff out of our house, but in recent months I decided what the heck. My plan was to keep things simple and only bring in a tiny little pint of ice cream and make it last for, um, a couple of days. Do you know how quickly a pint of ice cream can be eaten? I do – and we’re not talking days or hours!

For what it’s worth, I’m certainly not an ice cream snob! Mayfield or Blue Bell work for me just fine, thank you very much. But my little problem has been growing recently and tumbling out of control, now that I’ve dipped into a can of Sheer Bliss.

That’s not a euphemism but the actual name of a new, 100 percent pure, premium ice cream that has caught my attention. Depending on where you live and shop, you might have spotted it in your supermarket’s freezer section. It comes in a non-porous tin can, all the better to protect the quality, taste and longevity of the product. If that sounds like info from a press release, it’s because it’s info from Sheer Bliss’ website.

I have no idea if the cute little can protects the ice cream inside. All I can tell you is the company’s basic product – we’re talking chocolate and vanilla – is as good as it gets. It’s rich and creamy, infused with a taste that only comes from using fresh, all natural ingredients – those, mon ami, are my words!

Which brings me back to my 2 o’clock wakeup call each morning. Sheer Bliss has my number and continues calling my name. Try it if you dare. Just don’t say you weren't warned!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Studying Torah in serach of a really ripe tomato

It's Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Torah is at the heart of Judaism and study is at the heart of Torah. Here's why.

Sometimes there are three of us, sometimes a half dozen or so. We stay busy delving into the mysteries of the Torah, led by our guide in search of “tomatoes”.

On this weekly journey, Rabbi Pamela Gottfried – brilliant, witty and always fun – helps us dig our way through the weekly parashah, ignoring the greens that spill across the pages of the holy text, looking for at least one ripe tomato, a nugget of absolute truth hidden in Judaism’s spiritual salad.

It’s actually in the digging that one of the core beliefs of Judaism can be found. Other religions ask their faithful to spend much time and effort focusing on things cosmic and divine. Jews, at least the Conservative movement I follow, lets God pretty much take care of God, suggesting instead that the faithful attempt to lead really good lives – help the poor, the sick, those in need – and spend just as much time as possible in study.

This effort to understand the Torah can be traced back at least 2,000 years to a famous story found in the Talmud about Rabbi Hillel. Apparently a pagan approached the sage and told him he would be willing to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the whole of the Torah in the time he could stand on one foot.

Hillel replied, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary.” If the line sounds familiar, that’s probably because the concept has its roots in a wide range of world cultures and in its most familiar form – Therefore all things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them – is commonly known as the Golden Rule and attributed to that other famous rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. It all becomes even clearer when we update the rule to modern English: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!

But I digress. What is often lost in the translation of Rabbi Hillel’s charge is the final line. After saying that most of the Torah is simply commentary, he then tells his pagan questioner to “Go and study it (the Torah).”

And that’s what generations of Jews have been doing for centuries, digging deeply into the moral and ethical teachings that some believe were written by the hand of God. Of course, there are many who believe the divine words of the Torah is the collective wisdom of our ancient ancestors, men and women attempting to create a people and nation from scratch.

Today the work and study continue, for us here in the Land of Cotton at classes offered by local shuls, held at synagogues, private homes, conference rooms in offices buildings and retail shops in shopping centers.

Rabbi Gottfried’s class is both sponsored and held in the offices of a smart physician, a mensch who knows how to heal the body and is pretty certain, I think, that Torah is all about healing the spirit. So once a week we gather, schmooze a bit about life and snack on the tasty goodies provided by pharmaceutical companies hoping to grab a bit of the doctor’s business.

Eventually we get around to the heavy lifting, pushing aside the leafy greens filling the week’s parashah, looking hard for one really ripe tomato, a bit of spiritual truth that connects us with our ancient traditions and beliefs.

SPIRITUAL QUEST: Jews in funny hats and side curls have been studying Torah (photo above) for centuries, exploring the text closely to unearth the hidden secrets found in the ancient words of God. Today we wear jeans and feast on fruit and cheesecake while studying. It’s a different time and different vibe, but the words of Hillel still rest quietly above our study hall.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The importance of three special words

“I love you” isn’t a phrase that was tossed around much by my Mom and Dad when I was growing up. My parents were of that generation that did great things, but had a bit of a problem sharing their emotions.

My brothers and I felt loved and safe; we just didn’t actually hear the word “love” very often. It all seemed to make sense that my father wasn’t warm and gushy. After all, he was forced to do battle in a world that was tough and complicated. But Moms are supposed to be warm, caring and loving. I think my mother had all of those qualities; she just wasn’t use to actually saying the word “love” out loud.

In recent years, after my father died and my Mom moved up here to the Land of Cotton, “love” started creeping into her vocabulary. I think Mom’s grandchildren helped her understand that it was okay to share her feelings. It was a little awkward initially, but eventually “I love you” became the accepted phrase for saying goodbye.

About two years ago, my mother’s battle with dementia had reached a point where we could no longer play like she was simply having a little problem with her memory. She would often get lost when driving to meet a friend – yes, she was still tooling around in her Crown Victoria; forget appointments, birthdays and anniversaries. She also talked about having vivid dreams, which turned out to be hallucinations.

Then early one morning, my brother Gary received a call from the police that Mom had contacted them because she couldn’t find one of her babies. Even odder was that she was certain the baby was inside one of the lamps beside her bed.

As her world grew ever darker, my mother seemed to grab hold of three words that provided her comfort – I love you! At the end of phone calls or after short visits, she would offer a quiet goodbye, then add those words of endearment; all somewhat strange for a woman who had spent years tapping down her emotions.

There was an urgency and quiet plea surrounding this new word play, a need she now had to know that she wasn’t alone and that in loving, she was loved.

I mention all this because of a little episode that happened earlier this week. As I’ve detailed here before, my mother is lost in her own mind, struggling to handle the most basic sorts of things that define each of us as human.

Fortunately, she’s now a resident at the William Breman Jewish Home, a nursing facility that offers top-notch care. During a visit earlier this week, I arrived just in time to help her with lunch. It’s a melancholy ordeal – the child now the parent, the parent the child. Meals for my mother are no longer about tasty treats and quiet dinner conversation. They've become a mushy blend of mixed colors and success is all about the intake of nutrients.

On this day it was a struggle to get her to take a few bites of the greenish stuff – a puree of broccoli and spinach – or even a spoonful of chocolate pudding. After 15 minutes of frustration I was ready to wave the white flag and turn the work back over to the nursing home aides.

I bent down to whisper my goodbye and tell Mom that I would see her later. Without hesitation, she looked up with a momentary gaze of recognition, then said in a breaking, painful voice, “I love you”!

I like to think that for an instant the fog had lifted and that warm memories of me, my brothers and father became part of her life once again. In that moment, hopefully, was the quiet love that has always swirled around our family and once again my mother knew – as we all need to know – that she wasn’t alone.

SPECIAL SIGN: Even when you don't hear the words (photo above), the symbol for "I Love You" brings comfort.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cuddly and cute and thinkng about tomorrow

I wasn’t sure if it was Chip or Dale, but a cute little chipmunk – well, aren’t they all cute? – has made my yard his playground for the last several months. And no, the bug-eyed fellow in the photo here is not the diminutive critter dashing about my property.

If I had time to grab my camera, this is pretty much what he (or, um, she) looks like. Heck, they might be cousins; both have that oh-so sweet chubby cheeks and wide-eyed stare thing going on. I’m just saying …

I imagine it takes another chipmunk to easily tell one from the other. My guess is the little squirrels – yes, essentially chipmunks are tiny squirrels – carry all sorts of exotic diseases, but from a distance they seem harmless and, well, cute

They also have a little something to say about the human condition. At least that’s what I was thinking when I spotted Emile – hey, I have to call him something – scurrying around my patio earlier this week. Chipmunks are obsessive-compulsive planners. Emile knows the days are growing shorter and cooler. It’s time to get ready for winter.

So my furry friend stays busy now collecting stuff to keep him and his family comfy in the coming months. We’re talking nuts and berries, the occasional bird’s egg, small frogs, worms and fungi. Yech! Oh, and a few bits of bread, pretzels and roasted peanuts! You know, your basic comfort food!

Here’s one additional factoid before I wrap this all together and wow you with my insight into chipmunks and what their behavior has to do with you and me. It turns out those chubby cheeks aren’t just about cuteness. Chipmunks have cheek pouches that allow them to carry multiple food items to their burrows for storage. Who knew?

So, Nor, what's it all mean? I'm glad you asked. The days are getting shorter and cooler. That’s meant as a metaphor. It’s time we started filling our, ahh, pouches with nuts and seeds. Another metaphor. Because I fear there’s a long, frigid winter stretching out in front of us and you can never have too many tasty worms hidden away in storage. Just saying …

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tasty food, but not worth the wait!

First we pray, then we eat. It’s a weekly happening for a dozen or so folks, all members of my shul just outside the Land of Cotton. Last week, the minyon group twirled the foodie wheel yet again and this time it was decided we’d visit Hong Kong Star, a new Chinese restaurants that’s received mixed reviews.

There were only eight of us and we were seated quickly in a far corner of the main dining room, an upscale-looking place of polished floors, stone accents and low-level, indirect lighting. This obviously wasn’t just another family-style Chinese restaurant, one of the ubiquitous joints that dot strip malls, well, just about everywhere.

Despite the swell ambiance, Barry was feeling a bit anxious. He’d quietly gone along with the group’s dining decision, even though he’d visited the “Star” before and found the service lacking. But on this night, all was going well – menus provided quickly, along with drinks and bowls of fried wonton.

Then our waiter, Mr. Peepers – tall and angular, a large pair of glasses set high on a boxy face – disappeared. He passed within shouting range a few times, but it was at least 10 minutes or so before he managed to make it back to our table to detail the specials and, finally, take our orders.

The good news is everyone seemed to agree that the food was fine, even dee-licious! Dennis and Debbie went for the bamboo diet steamer, a large bamboo container overflowing with chicken and broccoli. A cloud of steam puffed its way toward the ceiling when Dennis uncovered the container and I recall him sighing contentedly as he worked his way through the dish. Ditto Debbie!

Irwin scarfed down the chickeny thing in front of him and seemed pleased with the effort – of course they could have brought him a fried brick, doused in soy sauce, and he would have been happy. Go figure. Barry enjoyed the salad he ordered and Malka, JoAnn and Gary were all nearly orgasmic with the Fresh String Bean “Three Star” dish they each picked, one of the specialties of the house featuring veggies, chicken, beef and shrimp.

I was playing it safe, but was absolutely thrilled with the Mongolian Beef I selected – bite size slivers of beef, sautéed in a tasty, rich broth infused with ginger, garlic, soy sauce and dark brown sugar. The chefs at Hong Kong Star add a nice dusting of chili to the mix, then plop a little flower on the side of the plate for color. It all worked. Unfortunately, nothing else did!

Barry got his salad before all the other meals were delivered, but asked for oil and vinegar and salt and pepper. He got the dressing about 15 minutes later, around the same time a few of us were finally getting our meals. The salt and pepper arrived a bit later.

The “Three Star” special was apparently really special because Mr. Peepers didn’t manage to get the dish to JoAnn and Malka until most of us were half through with our dinner. Gary, meanwhile, was still left waiting until the waiter’s boss came by and announced they’d run out of string beans, but had just sent someone out to the market to fetch more.

Gary said thanks, but he’d pass and would simply graze a bit off of JoAnn’s plate. Apparently still trying to get it right, Mr. Peepers showed up 10 minutes later with another plate of the “Three Star” special, just in time for dessert!

Wait, the hi-jinks continued. In his haste to clear the table – I guess there was a get-us-out-of-here vibe hanging over our area at this point – Mr. Peepers dropped a few serving pieces on the floor, then grazed Debbie’s face with a folk as he attempted to make a final exit.

I don’t imagine the minyon group will be returning to the Hong Kong Star anytime soon. The restaurant has a pleasant look; a nice, modern vibe and tasty food. But the devils in the details and right now Satan is holding court at the “Star” and causing problems.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Vienna Holocaust sites odd and bizarre

It's Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today we visit Vienna and explore two unique memorials to the victims of Nazi madness during World War II.

A controversial monument, hidden among the grandiose pieces of Alfred Hrdlicka's Memorial Against War and Fascism in Vienna, continues to draw attention and debate. It can be found at the Albertinaplatz, just across from the Albertina Museum.

At first glance, the sculpture looks like a hunk of rock, covered with barbed wire. But after studying the piece for a moment, you'll be able to make out the form of a bearded man on his hands and knees, scrubbing the street with a brush.

It's meant as a remembrance of what happened to many Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their supporters after the Germans marched into Austria in 1938. The barbed wire was added after locals and tourists began using the sculpture as a bench.

Many people, including Simon Wiesenthal, the noted Nazi hunter who was headquartered in Vienna, found the piece offensive. Wiesenthal used his considerable clout to lobby for a more appropriate memorial and was eventually successful.

The new memorial is cold and stark, difficult to embrace. But British artist Rachel Whiteread's "Nameless Library" stops tourists cold when they stumble across it in Vienna's Judenplatz.

With its sharp edges and familiar, yet bizarre facade, the Holocaust Memorial (photo above), dedicated to the 65,000 Austrian Jews slaughtered by the Nazis, begs for a moment's study. It's meant to be a library, but one turned inside out, the concrete siding composed of blocks molded to look like books with their spines turned to the inside.

The aim, Whiteread told the Guardian newspaper a dozen years ago when the memorial was unveiled after years of controversy, is to "invert people's perception of the world and to reveal the unexpected." Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

How I ended up naked at the airport!

There’s a good chance if you know where to look, you can now spot me au naturel. I know that’s an image most of you will pass on, given the opportunity.

It’s not something I planned. There’s a reason God created clothes and I’m sure I top the list of people who need to keep covered up when possible. There were a few folks, however, who wanted to take a peek recently at what I might be hiding underneath my duds and they aren’t the sort of people you argue with these days.

What with the photo above and the details offered so far, I imagine the rest of this post will be, um, anti-climatic! Nevertheless, here are the juicy details.

The lovely Miss Wendy and I were at the International airport just outside the Land of Cotton a few weeks ago, headed to Phoenix to visit our niece and nephew-in-law. We weaved our way through the ubiquitous security line where Miss Wendy danced her way through the little gate that beeps if you’re wearing any sort of metal. She wasn’t and it didn’t – beep, that is!

Meanwhile, I was pulled aside and sent toward door number 2, the glass encased, full-body scanner that has caused a minor ruckus at airports around the globe. Apparently, some passengers object to being digitally undressed, even in the name of national security.

Truth to tell, I was thinking the whole scanner thing would be fun, sort of a high-tech carnival ride. I was ushered into the enclosed space, told to place my feet on the painted feet at my, ahh, feet, then instructed to raise my arms above my head and form a pyramid with my hands. Don't ask.

It wasn’t until I was all stretched out there, glancing at one guard glancing at me, while another fiddled with a computer console, that I realized I was just sort of, ahhh, hanging out. I wasn’t sure, but it seemed like there was a little smile playing across the face of the computer tech. Might have been my imagination!

After a moment or so, I escaped the scanner, then was asked by yet another guard if it was okay if he “patted” me down. I said sure, but added that this wasn't the sort of thing I generally did on a first date! Actually, I nodded my okay. At this stage of the process, I didn’t really think I had much of a choice.

Although feeling somewhat used and abused, I managed to meet up with Miss Wendy a few moments later. I asked if she had enjoyed the experience as much as me. She wasn't amused.

In recent years, I’ve taken to wearing just the minimum when flying – jeans, shirt, loafers, underwear. When I fly off to Israel in a few weeks, I think I’ll save everyone the bother, and simply wear a towel.

ALL FOR SECURITY: Full-body scanners (photo above) are now being used at many airports to check for hidden weapons and contraband. Officials have promised that images will not be stored on databases. Yeh, right!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Drinking wine and feeling young -- again

I’m feeling young today – very, very young. Turns out my personal “Fountain of Youth” was waiting for me at Figo Pasta, just on the fringes of the downtown area of the Land of Cotton.

Weekend eating pals, Susan and John, met up with me and Miss Wendy at the popular Italian-style eatery to break bread – dipping choices included a peppery virgin olive oil and a rich, sweet marinara sauce. But I digress.

The foyer is where you order, first glancing at an expansive menu that stretches for several feet across one wall, then giving your order to the greeter-cashier-maitre d-sommelier-tallish-blondish-youngish woman behind the counter.

Friends Susan and John went for something suitably Italian and saucy and Miss Wendy played it safe and ordered ravioli, filled with mushroom puree and amusingly and tastily sprinkled with a salmon-infused sauce. I decided to try out one of the specials, a Chianti risotto with caramelized onions. It all sounded very Italiany and safe. Wrong! It ended up tasting like an old dishrag – tepid, mushy and the color of faded beets. But I digress.

I thought I might like a glass of wine with dinner, so I checked out the expansive wine list stretching for several feet on the wall opposite the dinner menu. I settled on the house Pinot Grigio, mostly because I like saying Pinot Grigio. It sort of rolls off the tongue and makes me feel very, um, continental.

I placed my food order, including the wine. And that’s when a worm hole opened up, transporting me, Miss Wendy and the tallish-blondish-womany cashier back in time! “Could I see your ID,” she asked. The last time I was carded, Richard Nixon was in the White House and Elvis was wearing spandex and playing Vegas; Jimmy Carter was still Jimmy “Who” and Barack Obama had just started middle school.

“My wallets in the car; I don’t have my ID on me,” I said. Gee, I felt like a teenager again, trying to pull a fast one. But this little lady was much too clever. She wasn’t going to fall for the old wallet-in-the-car ploy. “Sir, I need some ID!”

Fortunately, the always lovely Miss Wendy came to my rescue, saying the drink was, ahhh, for her, then pulling out her ID just in case the age issue was raised yet again. The waiter gamely played along, delivering the wine to Miss Wendy who, I’m pretty sure, can now be charged with illegally buying booze for a minor.

I, of course, kept checking over my shoulder as I sipped the unremarkable house vino, expecting to hear the wail of police sirens before being whisked away to jail. Truth to tell, I’d put up with much worse if I could actually manage to transport myself back in time 40 years, even if only for an hour.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Holiday offers good excuse to celebrate

Yep, it’s Friday again; time for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Members of the tribe will be celebrating today. Here’s why.

It’s time to do a little dancing with the Torah. Simchat Torah is being celebrated today by Jews around the world, the observant finishing up the last chapter of the Five Books of Moses before immediately turning back to the opening chapter of Genesis to begin the annual process all over again.

On this day the quiet solemnity of the synagogue takes on a different vibe, filled with members literally dancing and singing in a joyous celebration that can last for hours. Across the sanctuary, Sefer Torahs are opened and read while everyone present – men, women and children – are honored with aliyot, praising God for giving the Jewish people the Torah.

What the holiday really means depends on your faith. Among the celebrants are Jews who believe the Torah was written by the finger of God, its stories the literal truth and the 613 laws detailed in the Chumash divinely ordained. At the other end of the spectrum are Jews who wouldn’t know the difference between a Torah scroll and a Toro lawnmower.

A decade or so ago I took part in a popular Jewish studies program that explores Jewish history, ethics, rituals and traditions. The two-year course is Torah based and students come from a wide-range of backgrounds and beliefs.

During one particular session on ethics that was digging into some esoteric concepts of purity, a fellow student blurted out what seemed to be his honest worldview – all of this religious stuff is absolute nonsense and stupid. What he actually said, I recall, was a bit more profane than the watered down version I offer here.

Truth to tell, I was stunned, not so much because he didn’t believe in the literal truth of the Torah, but that he seemed certain there was nothing of worth to be found in the ancient text. After his short tirade, there was silence, an awkward vacuum that was waiting patiently to be filled.

For whatever reason, I spoke up and agreed that there was much in the Torah that made absolutely no sense at all. But then I said to label it all “stupid” was a pretty stupid thing to say. Toss aside any cosmic beliefs in the divine and you still have a text that is filled with moral concepts and beliefs that can be found at the core of what most of us consider civilized behavior. Ignore all that and there still remains profound parables that are both literate and filled with meaning, and achingly beautiful lines of poetry that have become part of Western culture.

I paused then, trying to recall one or two lines from the Torah to make my point, and for some bizarre reason the first bit of text that popped into my mind was Adam’s joyful declaration on learning God had created a companion for him: This is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. This shall be called Woman, for from man was she taken.

I imagine there were many in the room, including the guy I was lecturing, who thought I’d picked an absolutely “stupid” bit of text that illustrated his point perfectly – the Torah is filled with misogynistic fairy tales that are meaningless, from a time when “might made right”.

I would argue that if you study the Torah openly, understand the context, and push aside the ebb and flow of contemporary politics, mores and beliefs, the essential truth of the statement remains just as valid today as when it was written thousands of years ago.

Adam, we learn, is thrilled to have a companion. The lesson is that humans are not meant to live alone. All the rest is, um, commentary. It’s also poetry. I imagine if the same line was written today, it would read something like: G-man, OMG! This is 2G2BT. THNX dude!

So today I celebrate with the millions of Jews around the world who find meaning in the words of the Torah, connection to an ancient people and belief. I also celebrate my distant ancestors, poets who knew how to work and play with words. TFLMS!