|That's me, Pattie Weiss Levy.
A Modern-Day "Ima"
on a Modern-Day Bimah
new content posted every WEEK!)
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Word From the Weiss
This being summer at last, I would like nothing more than to blabber on breathlessly about spending last weekend at my brother’s
beach house on tranquil Fire Island, or about my daughter’s current excursion on Birthright (the incredible program
that sends Jewish youth ages 18 to 26 to Israel for 10 days... for free). And that’s what I would
do, were it not for an ugly, scary word that somehow got in the way.
I am referring to a six-letter word that is
one of the most frightening known to man because it evokes another six-letter word that is the scariest word known
Let’s not talk about the second one. I even hesitate to say the one that got in the way.
I had one last Wednesday. The results were due on Monday. And so, as I think you'll understand, no matter
how much I kept trying to relax and enjoy my family last weekend, or to fret over my daughter’s packing travails and
the safe arrival of her transatlantic flight, there was a big, black UFO (unidentified fear-inducing
object) hovering in my mind at all times.
My misadventures in Medical Purgatory began last winter when, during my annual physical, my internist
poked around the center of my neck and asked me to swallow. “Oh, look, you’ve got a nodule in your thyroid,”
he observed nonchalantly. Never having noticed anything unusual in there, I found this to be surprising news.
To my added surprise, he proceeded to evince no concern about this condition whatsoever. Were I writing a magazine
article and not a blog, this would be the part where I'd explain why he wasn't concerned, then provide all sorts of useful
information highlighted by bullets. Suffice it to say that a high percentage of people have nodules in their thyroids,
and yesterday on Today they said that women are 12 times more likely to be afflicted than men. Yet roughly
90 percent of thyroid nodules tend to be benign. Thus my doctor's disinterest and, for many months, mine.
A few weeks ago, though, I began
to detect a strange tingling in my neck, particularly after I ate. To be honest, I couldn’t tell after awhile whether
these sensations were occurring spontaneously or being provoked by my probing the area repeatedly, trying to find
the mysterious lump and detect what the heck was going on in there. When these strange symptoms failed to subside in time,
though, I decided to go back to the doctor.
But wait. For the moment, what I’d really like to do is go
back to Fire Island.
My older brother bought a house
in this secluded beach community off the coast of Long Island last year, after being a longtime summer renter. As a highly
successful criminal defense attorney, Joel had never exactly been known for having a gentle, laid-back disposition. But since
starting to pass most of his fair-weather weekends there, his natural crustiness and frequent irascibility seemed
to have washed away into the frothy waves of Long Island Sound.
“Uncle Joelly,” as my kids fondly
call him, and his wonderful wife Karen had hosted us for several weekends last summer, and all were so thoroughly enjoyable
that we couldn't wait to return. It was particularly appealing to be invited for last weekend, though. My son Aidan
lives in Manhattan and could easily hop a train out and meet us to celebrate both Father’s Day and my husband’s
birthday, which fell early last week. Meanwhile, while driving back on Sunday night, we'd be able to deposit our daughter at JFK, where she was staying at
a hotel with a friend prior to their flying out early Monday.
The only drawback was that this required Allegra to finish packing for Israel several days in advance.
This, of course, might also be seen as a big plus. Allegra has never been known to be either decisive or close to a light
packer (not to cast any aspersions, since I’m guilty of both charges myself). Like many people, she also can be a bit
of a procrastinator when it comes to things she has little desire to do. Left to her own devices, she might have put
off the task long enough to risk missing not just her plane, but the entire ten days.
Complicating her efforts was a
desire to pare the belongings she'd be lugging around down to a bare minimum. For one thing, there presumably was no need to primp for the Promised Land. For
another, the friend who was joining her was very decisive and a very light packer, and she might ridicule Allegra mercilessly
if she showed up with a steamer trunk full of clothes.
And so I watched sympathetically as she kept eliminating cherished
items that she'd envisioned herself wearing while climbing Masada or touring Tel Aviv. I also was distressed to hear
a loud crash after I left her room and later discover that she'd dropped another cherished item, a blue ceramic plaque
that had been sitting in there for years, cracking it in two. “Celebrate life,” it had read. I'm not just
superstitious. I'm super-superstitious. This was a bad omen, I thought.
Yet finally she condensed everything into a small overnight bag, which would have to suffice for three weeks in
three different locales. After Israel, the girls planned to visit Istanbul. Then we hoped to join Allegra for a family vacation to Italy. This was
a trip I'd been touting to everyone for ages, but had never actually made any reservations for because of my secret,
still unresolved health issues. Would we actually be able to go? Only my doctor could say for sure.
When I returned to see him, he
seemed a little dismissive of my concerns, and even asked if my discomfort might be addressed by simply taking Tylenol.
Still, he sent me for both blood work and an ultrasound.
The blood work showed that my thyroid was functioning normally.
The ultrasound was not as encouraging. It indicated that there were actually two nodules, and one of them had irregular edges,
evidently not a good thing. And so the dreaded biopsy was scheduled.
This was a fine-needle biopsy, a relatively minor procedure performed under local anesthetic. Both my cousin,
who’s had several of these, and my doctor assured me that this would not be terribly onerous or painful. Both my cousin
and my doctor lied. I don’t really want to discuss the sensation of having several needles plunged into my throat
while I was fully awake, even with the benefit of an injection of Lidocaine, which proved to be a literal pain in the neck
itself. Suffice it to say that Tylenol was useless. Ditto Ibuprofen. I was in enough discomfort for the rest of that week
to wonder if Fire Island was do-able.
But we all remained determined to go. So it was disappointing to
wake up on Friday morning to impending thunderstorms. My brother proposed that he continue monitoring the forecast, and if
it didn’t improve soon then we join him for dinner at his main residence, sleep over and leave for the beach in
He called back shortly before noon to confirm Plan B. It was just as well. Allegra was still packing. She
also was agonizing over what to use as a carry-on. Her lime green tote bag, which boasted a sturdy zipper but was
large and clunky? Or a funky canvas shoulder bag that was easy to carry, but wide open at the top?
Where, or where are the ideal options in life? Why must almost everything be a compromise, a choice between boring
but built for the long haul, or funky but defective?
Driving west on I-84, we watched the sun coyly sashay out and the temperatures
flirt with 80 degrees. I phoned my brother to suggest he reconsider. But he always has been the resolute one between
us. I waffle and waver, and am always willing to reassess and keep changing course until the very last minute. He has the
certitude to make a firm decision, then stick to it, no matter what.
As it turned out, there was no "what." He’d called it right. Swarthy clouds soon
brought down the curtain on the sun's cameo appearance. A fiendish storm took center stage for the rest of
the day and night. So we had a restful, fabulous dinner at his home, then hopped a ferry early the next
My brother’s Fire Island house is located in a sedate section known as Lonelyville, but he
calls the place “magic,” and I can see why. Strolling endless stretches of pristine sand, I could sense much
of my angst take flight with the gulls gliding over the sea. Still, the risks of my situation flooded my mind, rocking
my sense of equilibrium as if it were a light dinghy pitching to and fro in a gale. When we gathered for
cocktails on the upper deck of his cottage at dusk, I raised my gin and tonic for a hearty group toast, but felt little effervescence
When we joined a crowd at the public dock at sunset to watch a magnificent, blazing orb plummet gracefully into
the farthest reaches of the sea, I swooned. Yet I couldn’t help wondering how many more such sunsets I might live to
The moment I awakened on Sunday, the dreadful news I might receive the next day smacked me in the face. It was
Father’s Day, and I strove mightily not to let the undercurrents in my mind undermine anyone else's good mood.
But as earnestly as I tried, anxiety continued to lap up relentlessly
against my resolve. As I snapped pictures of my kids lolling on the beach, I couldn’t help thinking about how much
in flux their lives still were. At 24 and 21, they were no longer children. But I had no doubt -- no doubt at all -- that
they still needed me.
My kids needed me, and I, in turn, still needed to be there for them both. But how much longer would I?
I wasn’t being melodramatic, just facing the facts. OK, maybe I didn’t know all the facts. I did know that
there were several different kinds of thyroid you-know-what, and most of these had a relatively good prognosis. Only one variety
was deemed untreatable. But what if that was the one burgeoning inside me? I couldn’t imagine not living to
attend my children’s weddings someday, to get to be a grandmother to their own children, or witness the wonderful
things they each still hoped to achieve. Yet now those dreams seemed to be slipping out of reach like fine, white sand sifting
through my toes.
Cars are banned from Fire Island, and discontent should be as well. I kept trying to banish maudlin thoughts and savor
the joys of being not only still alive but ensconced in a slice of paradise. But as we sped back to shore on the ferry
that evening, I couldn’t help wondering if I’d ever return to that blissful haven again. And
when my brother wrapped me in his arms to say goodbye, whispering that he loved me and knew I’d be fine, my composure crumbled
like a sandcastle succumbing to high tide.
When we reached Allegra's hotel,
she was still debating the bag dilemma. She brought the green tote in, then returned to the car for the other one
instead. And I thought, I’m the source of all that indecision. I'm a breeder of self-doubt and uncertainty,
rarely confident about what to do. But there was one thing of which I was certain. She was flying off the next
morning, and I didn’t want to ruin her trip. How could I relay horrific news to her while she was so far away from
And yet, considering how life too often works out, it seemed almost
inevitable that terrible news would arrive just after she left. What would I tell her? Should I simply lie? Wouldn't the truth be instantly apparent when we canceled our trip?
I slept fitfully that night and
awakened truly petrified. Reluctant to wait a moment longer, I phoned the doctor’s office before 9 and asked
to make an appointment for that day, assuming that he might want to discuss the results in person. The woman who
answered confirmed that my test results were sitting there, but said that the doctor wasn’t in yet and someone would
call me back.
Then hours went by, and no one did.
I sat in my living room throughout the day, too paralyzed with worry to do a thing -- read, write or even eat. The
only calls I received were from my husband, brother, son and daughter (who phoned prior to takeoff hoping for some news).
The other three checked in repeatedly as the hours ticked by, sounding anxious despite their continued assurances that everything
would be fine.
I could have phoned the doctor again, but didn't want to make a pest of myself. My husband happened
to have an appointment of his own with another physician in the office that afternoon, and he inquired about my situation.
He was told that my doctor had needed to go out briefly, but he would return soon and call me. He didn’t, though.
Finally, just before 5:30, the phone rang and a nurse told me that they doctor had reviewed my results and wanted to
see me in his office at 11:45 the next day. Hearing that, I began to cry. I couldn’t believe my ears. It wasn't just
that I'd have to endure yet another night of uncertainty. All I could surmise was that the news was so horrible that it
couldn’t be relayed over the phone.
I pleaded with this woman to please,
please tell me something, anything. But she just kept repeating what she’d already said. Sobbing openly, I begged
her to have the doctor phone me himself that night. She agreed to relay the message. But he never called.
So I prepared myself for another unnerving, wakeful night.
But having worn myself out with worry, I drifted into a deep sleep. The next thing I knew, it was morning... and the start
of a very different day.
I sat up in bed, and I suddenly thought: Wait a second. What have I been thinking?
When did I become such a fragile flower, a leaf trembling in the wind, a simpering wimp? I’m not a weak, suffering
creature about to keel over. Other than for this recent blip, I’m pretty much a picture of perfect health. I maintain a normal weight. I take
no medications. I’m relatively active and generally brimming with energy. And even if this thing turned out to
be really bad, I was an ideal candidate to recover.
I thought back to the many times that my mother
had told me throughout her long battle with breast cancer that she was going to fight it and survive and be a role model for
her children and mine. So what if she hadn’t ultimately prevailed? I, too, was going to fight, if necessary. I was going
to be a role model who won.
As my husband drove me to the doctor’s office, I maintained
my steely composure. The doctor kept us waiting for nearly an hour. But at last he walked in and revealed the results…
which, despite my earlier fears, were far from dire.
How dire could they be when they weren’t remotely
A relatively small percentage of the cells collected had been classified as “atypical.” This
could simply indicate inflammation, my doctor allowed, but it also might be much more serious. Looking grave, he urged
me to undergo another, far more invasive biopsy and then, regardless of the outcome, consider having my thyroid
removed entirely. Otherwise, I might need to continue having it monitored every six to twelve months with unsavory tests
throughout my life. Why not just get it over with and take synthetic hormones to regulate my metabolism?
In my newfound unflappability, I hesitated to accept his grim admonitions. He might be right. Then again, he might
not. Weren't there any less drastic diagnostic measures to try? I wasn't eager to submit to unnecessary
procedures. I also wanted to get a second, more expert opinion.
I remained far from appeased by his perfunctory apology about the night before, which he essentially shrugged off,
noting that he hadn't received my message until that morning. Even so, to his credit, he managed
to secure me an appointment with a specialist only two days later.
This fellow, a respected endocrinologist, was much less alarmed about my prognosis and far more reassuring.
He said it was actually in my favor to have multiple nodules -- a single one is considered more suspicious -- and believed
the strong likelihood was that there was no malignancy. He referred me to a surgeon to consider having the nodules removed,
just to be sure. But even if worse came to worst, the prospects for a full recovery were 98 to 99 percent.
"You're going to live a long, happy life," he declared in a very
I, for one, am convinced.
I don’t blame myself for
having succumbed to panic and jumped to alarmist conclusions. But I’m ready to move forward now. I want to be there
for my children, and will do whatever is necessary to assure that this happens. Then again, I'd like to keep all
of my original parts, if possible, for as long as possible.
It occurred to me yesterday, soon after I'd perked up and come
to my senses, that I had somehow started down an unfortunate and unintended path. Having cared for both my parents through
terminal illnesses, I know what life is like when you enter the health system and your days begin to revolve around medical
visits and procedures. But I've always been the caretaker. I'm not ready to be relegated to the role of needy patient
I greatly admire my brother’s certitude and decisiveness,
and his ability to swiftly choose a course of action and then stick with it, no matter what. I often wish I were more
like him. But sometimes it’s also good to be able to turn on a dime.
Once, while we were visiting Fire Island last summer, his daughter, my sweet niece Suzannah, accidentally
boarded the wrong ferry and ended up in a distant town. (And even then, her newly mellowed-out dad failed to become
irate.) Now, I thought to myself, I too accidentally had gotten onto a wrong ferry – a dark boat headed for a destination
to which I definitely did not want to go. Last week, I was sitting on that ferry, and it was about to sail,
but there was still time to get off.
Maybe I was crazy, and maybe at
some point soon I’d have to board it again. But for now, all I wanted was to go back to my normal life. Better yet,
I wanted to go to Italy. So, excuse me, and excuse my language, but I was getting the f--k off.
And so I did. I got off the ferry
to fear. I simmered down and stopped freaking out. At that moment, I suddenly grew ravenous, having barely eaten
in days. So I drove to the nearest Whole Foods and bought almost everything in sight.
Then I came home, glued my daughter’s broken plaque back together again, and started looking at flights
Perhaps things will take yet another turn as time goes on. But for now I’m feeling
hearty and hopeful. Not to mention defiant. So, for the moment, all I want to worry about is packing. I want to
bring everything. Beautiful summer dresses. Short shorts and slacks. As well as Capri pants… to actually
wear on the gorgeous Isle of Capri! Sorry, everyone, I know I should pare down, but I may actually bring a steamer trunk full
of options. I can picture myself wearing them all. Toto, we’re not in Health Purgatory anymore. There’s
no place like Rome. I may even never come back. So stay tuned for my new site: NiceJewishItalianMom.com.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Word From the Weiss
Beneath my skeptical, acerbic and rarely ecstatic exterior, I’m just a mom who can’t say no. So when I
proclaimed here two weeks ago that I had absolutely no interest in attending my 35th college reunion this past weekend, I
should have taken a tip from teen idol Justin Bieber -- Never Say Never -- or, not to date myself,
Sean Connery as James Bond: Never Say Never Again.
I had many a valid reason to avoid this event: No one I knew was
going. I’d attended my 25th, a decade ago, and hadn’t really enjoyed it. Plus, my husband’s birthday was
on Monday, and I believed he’d prefer celebrating it with friends over the weekend, rather than wandering around my
alma mater searching for long-lost friends of mine.
Yet he was the one who wanted to attend and kept trying to persuade me to reconsider. It wasn’t just
that he’d dragged me to his own reunion two weeks earlier and felt obliged to reciprocate. He remained convinced that
it would be fun. (Clearly, he knew nothing about Brandeis, I countered, where the closest thing to fun was finding a half
bottle of Manischewitz left over from Rosh Hashanah.) He also insisted that it would provide an ideal opportunity
to promote my blog. (Clearly, he knew nothing about me. I was born devoid of the self-promotion gene. I
may enjoy writing about my life, but I break out in hives at the prospect of having to hype the results.)
So why did I suddenly relent last
week, on the last possible day to register? Maybe, having enjoyed my husband’s recent reunion despite the infinite dread
leading up to it, I thought it might be worth giving my own school a second chance. Maybe, despite my reticence,
spreading the word about my Jewish Web site to other Jews of my vintage made sense.
Or maybe it was just some lingering
sense of unfinished business – the same loose ends that had first sent me on this sentimental journey 10 years
Somehow, last Saturday, we found ourselves driving 95 miles to Waltham, Massachusetts.
The last time we’d made this
trek, a decade ago, we’d come with both our children in tow. They’d been too young to leave behind. Besides, I’d
wanted to show them off, and in turn to show them the rolling campus built high on a hill upon which Mom had actually once
been young herself.
I'd embarked on this journey fantasizing, I must confess,
that I’d spy someone familiar across the lawn, and he or she would run toward me with arms extended, then wrap me in
a big hug and exclaim, “Oh, my G-d! It’s you!” or “Is that really you!?!”
But to my disappointment, not to
mention embarrassment in front of my family, not one person had recognized me. Just before we’d left, a woman
who’d been in many of my classes had allowed that I looked vaguely familiar. But no one had lit up at the sight of me,
and we’d been obliged to sit with total strangers at all the meals.
Even so, I remained hopeful about
this time and wanted to look my best. So, recalling the scorching heat during our last excursion, I’d set aside a sunhat
and sleeveless, summery new outfit. When I awakened to unseasonably chilly air and unexpected showers, it was difficult
to switch gears. I simply threw a sweater and light jacket into my bag. When we arrived to frigid winds and heavier rain,
I’d realized that even wearing both would barely suffice.
The school had sent a caravan of golf carts driven by current undergraduates to transport people from
the parking lot. A nice gesture. But speeding through cold, driving rain in an open vehicle was far from comfortable or fun.
I arrived at registration soaked and shivering. Was this what passed in New England for mid-June?
Given my ambivalence about attending, it didn’t help to be accosted by a female classmate I had never before met. I'd
been disappointed to see that they'd printed only my married name on my "Hello, My Name Is" tag -- no
one would ever recognize me that way -- and was pleading for a Sharpie to change it.
“Let’s go! Let’s
go! You’re holding up the line!” this woman whined in a shrill voice.
“I’m going to miss
the barbecue!” she added, continuing to fuss. “They’re going to run out of food!” I assumed that she
was mostly kidding and making a feeble attempt to be funny. When I turned to face her, she cheerily thrust out a
hand and introduced herself. But along with missing the self-promotion gene, I guess I lack patience and charm. The moment
I heard her piercing voice, which somehow reminded me of my mother’s – and not in a good way, I might add –
I remembered what I hadn’t liked about the school in the first place, and I began to wish that I could turn around and
go back home immediately.
Which is almost exactly what I
responded to her aloud. (I may also have mentioned something about desperately needing some medication.)
The woman laughed nervously, not
sure what to make of me. My husband stepped up quickly and tried to stifle my tirade and, just as futilely, to be affable
enough to make amends.
So it was a bit unfortunate to make our way over to the barbecue shortly afterwards
and see that (this being a Jewish school) they weren’t close to running out of food, but had a very limited choice of
seating. Inside a massive white circus-style tent large enough to hold every class in attendance, four round tables were marked
with purple balloons emblazoned "35th Reunion." Two of these were filled to capacity. A third was occupied by only
a small group, including the woman I'd just bitched out. And the fourth was completely empty.
You get one guess which one I made a beeline for.
“Oh, c'mon! We’re not coming all
the way here and sitting alone,” my husband protested sternly. But I hunkered down, buried my face in my cheeseburger
(the kosher meals were clearly being served elsewhere), and refused to budge.
By the time I’d started in
on dessert (rewarding myself despite bad behavior with both a brownie and gi-normous sugar cookie), two seats opened
up at one of the previously full tables. My husband dashed over and glared at me relentlessly until I followed
There was only one face there that I recognized, and it belonged to a nice woman named Lisa who hadn’t
attended the school, but worked in the development department. I recognized a fellow English major named Dov at the adjoining
table, though. A tall man sitting beside him also looked distantly familiar. Hearing this, my husband hurried over and asked
him if he recognized me. He peered over, squinting.
The school had gone to the trouble of creating a large round button
for each alumnus bearing his or her yearbook photo from 1976. (Only I hadn’t been provided with one, having registered
at the very last minute). Getting a gander at this guy’s 21-year-old self, back when he’d had an ample head of
hair, I grew even more convinced that I’d seen him regularly around the campus, although his name failed to ring
a bell. So when he leapt up and strode over to greet me, I gladly extended my hand.
To my great surprise, he bypassed my handshake, opting instead to wrap me in an enormous hug and kiss
me on the cheek. Blushing, I hugged and kissed him back. Then we stood there blabbering for several minutes. Only later would
I realize that this was almost exactly what I’d come there to find. Yes, it would have been nice to actually have been
remembered. But being welcomed warmly was a close second, and almost as good.
After a few minutes, this fellow
returned to his own table. But it occurred to me soon afterwards that, while chatting, he had admired the bright blue Brandeis
rain poncho Lisa had been wearing and complained that the reunion committee had failed to issue one to him. In fact,
I’d picked up an extra at registration, intending to give it to my daughter as a souvenir. But as I knew, she was
21, had recently graduated from another school and would rather get soaked to the bone than be caught dead in it. So I wandered
over to his table a few minutes later, explained this and offered it to him.
He thanked me profusely and inquired
about my daughter, noting that he had a son the same age. It turned out that his son was a rising senior at Brown,
from which my own son had graduated. We were still lost in conversation when the barbecue ended, and he invited us to
accompany him and his friends to the next event, a panel discussion at the college’s relatively new business school.
While waiting for the activity to begin, we all gathered around a large table chatting, and I found myself readily
joining in. I also remembered why, as politically incorrect as it might be to say, I find it so comfortable to hang out with
other Jews. Although we’d just met, with little effort we were able to uncover common ground and communicate almost
in shorthand (by which I don't mean Yiddish, although that certainly helps).
Someone mentioned a relative’s impending wedding, and we began to discuss religious intermarriage.
As I noted, we Jews can be an awfully fussy lot. Even in this age of rampant mixed marriage, it’s not enough for many
of us that our children wed within the Tribe. We want them to stick to our own sect, and tremble at the prospect of their
ending up with someone far more or less observant than we are. G-d forbid that a child who was raised Reform end up keeping
kosher and refuse to eat in our own homes, or that an Orthodox offspring settle down with someone who eats trayf
and has no qualms about letting milk and meat meet.
At this, my new friend volunteered a touching story about his own
sister. While in college, she’d fallen in love with the son of some close friends who were similarly Reform. Her parents
had discouraged her from becoming engaged at such an early age, though, and she’d ended up marrying a Jew who was infinitely more
observant, although the marriage turned out to be extremely happy. The friends’ son soon married as well.
Sadly, a few years ago, both the sister and her former boyfriend had died young, ironically within a few months of each
other. But there was a bittersweet ending to the tale: His sister's husband had eventually wound up getting remarried...
to the earlier boyfriend’s widow.
Other alumni began to arrive, and soon we were ushered into the panel discussion. Four accomplished classmates
had been selected to discuss their careers since graduation and reflect on how Brandeis had impacted their lives. One, Susan
Abramson, recalled how she’d planned to be an English major, but quickly switched to the school’s renowned
Judaic Studies program, aiming to become a rabbi. Back in the 1970s, this was virtually verboten for a woman, and
nearly everyone had discouraged her. Even her own rabbi had said, “You can’t. But one of her Brandeis professors
had told her, “You can!” She was now the senior rabbi at a Reform congregation in Burlington, MA.
She also was able to laugh now
when looking back on the days when she’d walk in to officiate at a bar or bat mitzvah and hear people whispering, “There’s
the woman rabbi!” Or the times when she’d answer the phone at her temple, hear the caller ask to speak to the
rabbi, and often, rather than enduring their confusion or astonishment, reply, “He’s not in.”
A second panelist, Doug Katz, was
a professor of neurology at Boston University who treated people with severe brain injuries, including a young woman who'd
made a miraculous recovery from a horrific car accident and -- as though it were bashert (destiny) – turned
out to be a student at Brandeis.
The third, Louis Woolf, had originally gone into packaging at a large
corporation, but soon concluded that “selling a new razor or shampoo to people was not meaningful.” He credited
Brandeis's tradition of social consciousness for his choice to go into health care management instead.
He since had made it his mission to "transform the experience of aging" through his role as president of Hebrew
SeniorLife, a huge conglomerate of elder care facilities and senior housing communities near Boston. (How moving, he observed,
to asked someone in their 80s what they wanted to accomplish with the rest of their lives and have them respond, as many
did, “No one has asked me that in decades!”)
Then there was David Yoffie, a dean at Harvard Business School, who'd graduated summa cum laude from Brandeis,
earned a Ph. D from Stanford, and had been teaching at HBS since his mid-20s. The author or editor of eight books, he'd lectured
in 30 countries and served on the board of Intel and many other corporations.
As we listened to these people's
spiels, I could see my husband’s mouth fall open repeatedly and I felt strangely vindicated. After years of hearing
him prattle on about his own alma mater, Princeton, and its many illustrious graduates, I could see that he was impressed.
I also suddenly remembered what I’d loved about Brandeis. Along with everything these people had alluded to –
the spirit of social consciousness, the encouraging professors – was the caliber of the speakers themselves. Nearly
every student I’d encountered at the school had been articulate, focused, capable and driven. Not to mention –
dare I say it? – Jewish. I felt a growing sense of long-forgotten pride to be among them.
When the discussion was opened
up to the group at large, I was tempted to air some of my own history, but didn't have the nerve. Along with being reticent
in front of large groups, I also feared that anything I said would be disingenuous. Brandeis may have helped hone my mind
and open many doors. But I hadn’t been there long enough to honestly contend that it had influenced my character, values
or sense of self.
Many people who spoke noted that the school had been their first choice, or their last. But it hadn’t
been among my choices at all. I had never even applied there.
My attendance had come about somewhat circuitously. I originally enrolled at Kirkland College, a progressive
and artsy college that had been founded as the sister school of Hamilton, in upstate New York. But following my
sophomore year, I returned from a summer studying Shakespeare abroad to realize that I was miserable there in a
multitude of ways. It seemed too late to transfer, since I was a junior. So I elected to take a visiting semester at
another school (something many colleges allow students to do without their actually matriculating or needing to apply).
I wanted to be near Boston because my brother was attending law school there. Also, I’d been living at Hamilton
with two girls who'd put up a large Christmas tree in our suite that December, placed a Star of David at the top, and
then joked that it was a Chanukah bush. Going to a school with a Jewish affiliation seemed like just what the rabbi ordered.
Little had I anticipated just how Jewish an experience Brandeis would turn out to be. Professors routinely peppered their
lectures with Yiddish phrases without anyone raising an eyebrow or requesting a translation. The buildings, trees, and even
rocks -- anything you could pin a plaque on -- were imbued with the names of Jewish donors. Then there was the time that I
was doing The New York Times crossword puzzle in the student union, a favorite pastime back then. I’d been
stumped by a Biblical reference and randomly approached a young couple sitting nearby.
“You should know that,”
the boy chided his companion. “You’re a rabbi’s daughter!”
“Well, you should know that,
too,” she retorted. “You’re a rabbi’s son!”
With all the kvetching and arguing
going on (put two Jews in any room and you're bound to get at least three opinions), sometimes the experience seemed almost
too Jewish. But at least I felt like I belonged.
I was so much happier at Brandeis that I stayed on for a second visiting semester. This concluded in the middle
of my senior year. I had a choice of either returning to Siberia (upstate New York) or officially transferring to Brandeis,
where my grades had been consistently high enough for me to be readily accepted.
Unfortunately, in order to graduate, you were required to be on campus for at least two years, so a Brandeis diploma required
taking an extra semester. My father agreed to pay for this.
What he was not willing to pay for was a third option, proposed
by the chair of the English Department, who happened to be my advisor. I'd already fulfilled all of my academic requirements,
he noted. So why not stay for two extra semesters, take graduate courses, and earn a Master’s concurrently?
My father told me why: I was
already too well-educated for my own good, he said. No man was going to want to marry me if I had an advanced degree.
As ludicrous as this may sound in 2011, it was impossible to convince him otherwise. I was lucky, I'll
admit, that he was willing to shell out for one extra semester, considering that tuition had just reached what
then seemed like the impossibly hefty price tag of roughly $5,000 a year.
I got my B.A. from Brandeis -- magna cum laude, I might add. Yet having entered as I did, I didn't get to live
on campus, never set foot in a dining hall, and failed to meet the majority of my classmates, as you normally would over
the course of four years.
The upside was that no one there got to know me well enough to gossip about me or treat
me like a nerd. The downside? I never did totally connect.
No wonder, glancing around the room now, I felt like an imposter.
Other than the English major I’d recognized at lunch, all of the faces looked so foreign that I felt as though I were
crashing someone else’s reunion.
That didn’t prevent me from hastening to the school bookstore the moment that the discussion broke
up and buying myself a large blue coffee mug. “Brandeis,” it read in Hebrew letters. My memories, however
limited, were real, and deep inside some stirrings of genuine school spirit were beginning to reawaken.
After our seating problems at lunch, my husband and I resolved not to arrive late for dinner. Even I was no longer willing
to sit alone. But we needn’t have worried. We were immediately approached there by a woman named Ellen, one of the people
we’d sat with before the panel discussion, who greeted us like we were old friends. And, as if we were
old friends, I found myself revealing to her some of the most intimate details of my life.
I wasn’t sure why she gravitated toward us when she’d known plenty of other people there for
over 35 years. She was also far more religiously observant. (While the rest of us chowed down on pasta with chicken
in a creamy sauce, she requested the kosher meal.) But she too was articulate, focused, capable and driven... and inclined
to share intimacies as well.
Her husband, an accomplished yet introverted physicist, had declined to join her for
the weekend, but she told us a story about how they’d first met. Being 14 years her senior, he’d been married
once before. As it happened, his first wife also had been named Ellen. When they’d divorced and begun dividing up their
household possessions, they'd quibbled over a pair of Lucite bookends imprinted with each of their names that a friend had
given them as a wedding gift.
Her husband had suggested that they either split them up or his first wife simply keep them both. But
his wife had demurred.
“No, you should have them,” she’d insisted. “You’re
much more likely to find another Ellen then I am to meet an Irv.” Soon after, he’d been introduced at temple to Ellen
No. 2 -- Ellen from Brandeis. Although different in many ways, they were evidently far more like a pair of bookends. They’d
been together now, I believe, for more than 30 years.
After dinner, I spent some time visiting another table and chatting with the people there. I even ended up gabbing with
the woman who’d accosted me at registration and realizing she was actually very nice.
after dessert had been cleared, and the staff had resorted to the subtle hint of turning the lights, my husband was still
trying to drag me away. “You told me that you had nothing to say to anyone?” he asked. “You’ve been
talking nonstop for three hours!”
By now, it was nearly 11 p.m. We’d packed suitcases in case we decided
to stay overnight and attend the parting brunch in the morning. But I was eager to get home and sensed
that I’d already gotten everything I’d come for anyway, and maybe something more.
Yes, I’d managed to pass
out about half a dozen business cards, but this was not a ploy to promote my Web site, merely a means to stay in touch
with people or get them to forward photos. (I'm still awaiting some shots that captured me with my arms around former
I’d also rediscovered some things about my distant past. And although not all of them were positive,
many were, and even painful memories aren’t necessarily best forgotten.
Best of all, I’d remembered
not only why I’d gone to this school in the first place, but far more significantly, why I’d elected to stay.
It wasn’t just the academic prestige, the tradition of political awareness and or ideals of social responsibility. It
was the people. Unfortunately, I’d never managed to meet most of them before, and, 35 years after graduating, I will
probably never become genuine friends with them now.
Or will I? Being
far from my 80s, there's a lot I'd still like to accomplish with my life. And as I’m beginning to learn, you really
should never say never.
We met, at long last, this time around. I think some
of them even kind of liked me. And although we may not be matched bookends, at the very least someone is bound
to recognize me if -- no, when -- I come back in another five years.
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
A Word From the Weiss
The last three weekends have sent me on a series of celebratory excursions in quick succession, as I’ve documented in
what might strike you as excruciating detail. Yet all these sources of pleasure and pride come at a price. I woke up the morning
after Memorial Day and realized that it was already Tuesday and I was hopelessly behind. I’m not just talking about
unanswered emails and un-tweeted tweets. (Yes, I’m on Twitter, although I have yet to send pix of myself in compromising
positions to any men. I’m talking about being behind, not having one, or any other potentially titillating
So let’s just say I was in arrears. Out of whack, I mean. Make that off schedule. Whatever. Let me
count the ways.
April may be the cruelest month, but June is the busiest, and just because we’d been away for three consecutive weekends didn’t mean we had to stay
put for the coming one. We were off-off-Broadway bound. Saturday night was the annual Patrons Dinner for The Prospect Theater
Company, a musical theater group based in Manhattan. My husband and I try to attend this event every year, not only because
our son is involved with the company, but also because we love musicals and love to support the arts (along with Jewish causes,
of course), and all four shows the Prospect produces annually are invariably exceptional. But I had yet
to purchase tickets to the dinner or their current production, I Married Wyatt Earp (based on the memoirs of a young Jewish woman who left her devout family in
Brooklyn and became the bride of the legendary lawman), let alone book a hotel for the night.
After much deliberating, procrastinating,
hesitating and negotiating, all four of my family members had pretty much agreed to take a vacation together in July. But
here it was, the last day of May, and I had yet to book flights, let alone any accommodations.
Worst of all, our longtime rabbi was leaving
our congregation for a new position, zei gezunt (he should live and be well), and I’d offered to write
and sing a song in his honor at the temple on Friday night. I’d managed to scrawl some lyrics on the back of an envelope,
but had neglected to find any backup singers, let alone arrange for any of them to rehearse the number with me at least once. It’s scary enough having
to sing in front of a few hundred people. To do it unrehearsed? Note to self. Make that eight notes:
So, last things first: Believing the song situation to be the most
urgent, I emailed our talented temple pianist, Natasha Ulyanovsky. By the time she’d responded, it was late that afternoon,
and she was only available at 8:30 that very evening. So I frantically went about lining up vocal reinforcements. A nice fellow
named Jeff Smith, who’s long played a vital role in my temple’s Purim spiels – or actually three vital roles, having portrayed Mordecai, King
Ahasuerus and the villainous Haman many times over -- gladly agreed to help. I also easily collared my husband and hoped to
nab a few others coming out of choir practice, which would directly precede my rehearsal that evening.
Then I emailed my good
friend Pat, reminding her about my musical tribute. She’d been engaged to serve as emcee for the festive
oneg Shabbat at which people would speak on the rabbi’s behalf following Friday night’s service.
She’s often recruited for such purposes, given her theatrical background, overall vivacity, and finesse behind a mic.
Yet this particular assignment was generating far more tsuris than she’d bargained for.
So many people were clamoring
to extol the rabbi’s virtues that she’d been obliged to issue an all points bulletin urging everyone to limit
their remarks to two minutes or less. To her distress, though, several had adamantly balked at this plea for brevity.
Two of the 18 participants on her roster insisted on speaking for an estimated 15 to 20 minutes apiece.
They outright refused to consider making do with any less. One explained that he needed the extra time because he planned
to talk about the history of the temple.
“What is this history he’s going to speak about?”
she wondered aloud to me. “Our temple’s history, or the history of our people since the destruction of
the First Temple?”
Another fellow, a former president of the congregation, acquiesced to keeping his remarks
down to 120 seconds, but stipulated that he’d participate only on the condition that he be allowed to go first. He was
unwilling to be part of the“pack,” he declared.
Pat’s message also had requested that each speaker submit a few biographical details to help her introduce
them. Yet many responded with personal bios so extensive as to require nearly two minutes themselves. They wanted Pat to mention
their career prominence in the community, positions of leadership they’d held, various and sundry awards they’d
won, and so many activities they engaged in that you’d think the event were honoring them.
OK, I don’t mean to
be catty or malign anyone, least of all fellow Jews who are willing to take 120 seconds or more out of their busy schedules
to participate in Jewish events in general, and to pay due respect to a dedicated rabbi like ours in particular.
Then again… were these people
on the level? What could they have been thinking?
All I can say is that hubris evidently is not reserved for celebrities and political figures like Anthony Weiner, the married
(and unfortunately Jewish) Brooklyn Congressman whose personal integrity and mayoral aspirations disintegrated on Monday during
a press conference at which he tearfully acknowledged exchanging lewd photos and sexual banter with several women via Twitter
and other social media forums over the past three years.
I don’t mean to equate the presumptuousness of these fellow
congregants with the sheer, sleazy arrogance of Rep. Weiner and others of his ilk. Then again, speaking of his ilk, isn’t
it bad enough to have Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the newly resigned head of the IMF, under public scrutiny and worldwide derision
for allegedly sexually assaulting a hotel maid? When these travesties unfold involving sexual misdeeds and other scandalous
conduct by people with clearly Semitic names, all I can think at first, I must admit, is “This is bad for the Jews!”
Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I can’t help worrying that the rest of the world will think these
weasels are actually representative of the entire Jewish community. And for that reason alone, I believe we need to hold ourselves
to a slightly higher ethical standard. Sue me, sue me, what can you do me? I’m a Jew. That's why all I could
think during the media frenzy over the last big scandal last month was, “Thank G-d Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t!”
Clearly, the chutzpah of a few good Jews at my temple who wanted to be recognized for their positive endeavors
and public service pales by comparison. Then again, as I said, what could they have been thinking?
So late Friday afternoon, I could
not resist firing off a last-minute email to Pat.
“Please add to my intro that I enjoy tennis, soft jazz and a fruity chardonnay, and that I Twitter regularly and
blog weekly as NiceJewishMom.com,” it said.
“I also want to remind you that it says in my contract there will
be only blue and white M & M's and chocolate ruggelah in my dressing room. Also, my backup singers must stand
at least 10 feet behind me at all times. I don't mind being in a group scene, but I want it to be readily apparent that I'm
the leader of the ‘pack!’ ”
I signed myself as the person most responsible for the rabbi playing
the role of “Hatach” in the world-famous Congregation Beth Israel Purim spiel circa 2003-2011… never mind
that the rabbi himself has long chosen to play this pivotal role of the go-between who conveyed urgent messages between Queen
Esther and her cousin Mordecai.
Meanwhile, I managed to recruit a reasonably robust crew of five backup singers, including
Jeff, my husband, and three other Purim regulars, and our one and only rehearsal went extremely well. Yet I soon learned that
doing things at the last minute can come back to bite you in the tush.
Although I’ve written the lyrics
for our temple’s Purim spiel for the past 10 years, a professional singer I’m not. So it was a little disconcerting
to arrive for services on Friday night and find the sanctuary not just full but overflowing, as if it were Yom Kippur.
Why was this night different from all other Friday nights? Because Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, our esteemed senior rabbi, was
leaving West Hartford, CT, after 14 years for new horizons and much wider pastures. While many another 65-year-old might have
been ready to throw in the tallis and retire, he was about to embark on a new adventure as the next president
of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, a group that promotes Reform, Progressive and Reconstructionist Judaism in Israel
and 44 other countries worldwide.
Our minions may be much more intimate in scope, but my shul is one of the largest Reform congregations in
the Northeast, with around 3,000 members, and nearly all of them have had Rabbi Fuchs preside over some simcha or
another during his tenure. So an impressive number had shown up to wish him well in his next venture –
a far more substantial group than might normally appear. Ever. No wonder Rabbi Michael Pincus, the longtime assistant
rabbi who will succeed him, quipped that he was a little worried the new incoming assistant rabbi might imagine that this
was a typical Shabbat turnout.
Following the service, which was replete with celebratory speeches and many a rousing tribute
song itself, the entire crowd proceeded into the temple’s cavernous social hall. I surveyed these masses, seated
at round tables set with colorful fruit platters, sliced cheesecake, and ruggelah (both chocolate and in assorted
fruit varieties), and I gulped. I was excited. Exhilarated. Eager to please. Yet utterly terrified.
It's far from uncommon for people to have a phobia about public
speaking. But how many of us are remotely comfortable singing a solo before a sizable crowd?
Would I start on the wrong
note? Forget the words? Trip in the impossibly pointy high-heeled shoes in which I could barely walk, but had chosen
to wear anyway because they matched my dress so well?
But these worries would have to wait. There were many speakers before
me, and evidently not all of them had gotten the memo about keeping it brief, or were willing to abide by it.
During the past decade-plus, Rabbi Fuchs had
been a prominent fixture in their celebrations, integrally involved in many a Jewish holiday, marriage, baby naming and
bar or bat mitzvah.
But in participating in all those life cycles, he’d also presided over a whole lot of death. So the theme that
emerged in many a speech was along rather grim lines: “He was there for me when my father died. Then my mother came
down with a terrible disease, and she died, and he officiated at her funeral, too.” The intent may have been to convey
admiration and gratitude, but the prevailing imagery was heavy on caskets and shrouds.
Of course, the testimonials themselves were moving. Yet as felicitous as the event was meant to be, given the preponderance
of the funereal theme, a cheery lot these speakers were not.
So I hoped to provide a small breath of fresh air
when Pat finally signaled that we were up next, and my little troupe prepared to take the stage. What I didn’t count
on was having the fresh breeze begin blowing during my introduction.
Pat identified me as the temple’s
longtime Purim lyricist and one of her closest friends. But as she explained to me later, she felt that a little more levity
was warranted to liven things up. So she continued speaking as I strode -- or, more accurately, teetered -- toward
“Pattie would also like you to know that she enjoys a fruity chardonnay,”
she added. “And that she’s the person responsible for Rabbi Fuchs portraying the role of Hatach in the world-famous
CBI Purim spiel from 2003 to 2011.”
Everyone else involved was a past, current
or future president of the Hebrew Home and Hospital. My claim to fame? Drinking!
If only I hadn’t sent that email
to her so late that afternoon, maybe those words wouldn’t have remained poised on the tip of her tongue.
“None of that was intended to be spoken aloud,” I would seethe to
her later, feeling a little like Congressman Weiner, publicly humiliated in a room teeming with onlookers and essentially
hoisted by my own high-tech petard. But now I could only groan, grin, grab the mic, and pray for courage and the right key.
No such luck. As I sounded the first notes, in a strained, wispy falsetto, I panicked, convinced that the eminently
gifted Natasha had for some perverse reason inadvertently transposed the song into a key much higher than the one in which
we'd rehearsed. For a confirmed alto like me, this was not a good thing.
Then I realized that I was simply singing up a whole
octave. So I lowered my voice by the next line and tried to remember what my daughter, the actual professional singer,
had coached me to do – hold the mic horizontally straight out in front of my mouth like a cigar, not
vertically like an ice cream cone, and try to breathe from deep down in my stomach... however the heck you do that.
My song was modeled after the one the rabbi had sung for Purim back in March. This year, I’d written new lyrics
to music from Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, featuring songs by Holly himself, the Big Bopper, and other early rockers
from the late ’50s. “The Bubbeh Challah Story,” I called it. But the rabbi, a prolific lyricist himself,
always opts to write his own words, and he had elected to sing "Oh, Esther," based on “Oh, Donna,” by
Never mind that this song had not been included in the original
show. I approach these endeavors in a spirit of collaboration and enormous flexibility, and in my book, the Rabbi is always
right. That's one of the many reasons, I would venture, that we get along so well.
My words mentioned the popular quiz
he’s conducted during Purim each year, in which he grills the younger generation on Megillah trivia,
and alluded to one of his rabbinical pet peeves. They also poked fun at him. But only a little.
to the tune of “Oh, Donna” by Ritchie Valens)
Oh, Rabbi! Oh, Rabbi!
Oh, Rabbi! Oh, Rabbi!
You are our rabbi
is your name
Here at Beth Israel, you rose to fame
Now we’re all gonna miss you
you leave us, what will we do?
What will we do?
Since ’97, we’ve mostly stayed awake
Through seven hundred sermons, give or take.
we’re all gonna miss you
When you leave us, what will
What will we do?
(BRIDGE) Now, if there’s one point
You’ve made throughout your days
“Kids, get Confirmed –
Don’t be bar mitzvah
Each Purim morning,
One of the answers on your Purim
Now we’re all gonna miss you.
When you leave us, what will we do?
will we do?
At least we know in good hands we’ll rest
Pincus has learned from the best
Still we’re all gonna
When you leave us, what will we do?
What will we do?
Oh, Rabbi! Oh, Rabbi!
Once I’d located
my key, I also found my footing and began swaying from side to side. The Rabbi lit up with delight. The crowd also seemed
to awaken from what was either a sugar- or tedium-induced daze and begin to laugh. At this, I loosened up and sang with greater
confidence. Meanwhile, I could see my husband leading his “pack” in some lively doo-wop moves of their own.
He may not be the strongest singer in the group, but he’s a natural performer and knows how to entertain.
Then, following a round of fervent
applause, I teetered back to my seat and helped myself to a hefty slice of cheesecake and some fruit, not to mention a ruggelah
After about 10 more speakers had said their pieces – their entire pieces, although no one
nattered on for more than about 10 minutes – I was approached by several people who had enjoyed my lyrics and even seemed
inclined to compliment my vocal delivery. Not to mention my shoes. When we got into the car to drive home, I was still glowing
with elation and relief.
“Well, that went well. We really killed!” I gushed to my husband.
“Huh?” he asked.
“After all my worrying, we didn’t blow it, after all,” I explained. “I’d say we nearly
brought down the house.”
“The house?” he echoed, genuinely mystified. “What are you talking
“You know,” I said. “Our song.”
husband eyed me with a skeptical glare, although he should have been in an agreeable mood, having scarfed
down at least two slices of cheesecake himself.
“You were fine,” he replied, damning me with the faintest
praise I’ve ever heard. “But I don't know what you're talking about. It wasn’t a show. All those
people who spoke? That huge outpouring of emotion? They were the people who killed. They were all totally sincere. We
were just singing.”
OK, the fact is that I made my own heartfelt speech to the Rabbi with a deluge of
true emotion on Purim, back in March. After 14 years and a full decade of spiels, I’d been unable to begin to imagine
Purim, or life, without him, and I'd found myself shedding more than a few tears. But this weekend hadn't been the time
for an encore, I’d decided. What it had called for from me instead was a show of homage in the form of a song…
and a little levity… even at his expense. And, yes, as it turned out, at my own as well.
I must admit that I remained a bit miffed at my husband for the rest of that night. I’d begun
to have visions of joining my vocally gifted offspring in a mother-daughter act. Taking our show on the road, á la
Gypsy. "Startin' here, startin' now, everything’s coming up roses for Nice Jewish Mom!”
But maybe that was a bit premature,
and I should stick to writing lyrics. Or blogs.
Believe me, I still think we killed. I was right on key. I didn’t
miss a word or a beat. So what if I didn’t hold the mic just right, and I breathed up from my lungs, like a regular
person? At least I didn’t mention shrouds or a single disease, even once.
Still, perhaps none of us is truly
immune to arrogance or excessive pride. When it comes to allegations of hubris, maybe I shouldn’t fancy myself
quite so much higher than Anthony Weiner, humbler than the former temple president, or holier than thou.
The celebration continued throughout the weekend, including a gala dinner dance on Saturday at which the
Rabbi was ebulliently hoisted in a chair during the horah. Or so I gather from photos posted on the synagogue’s
Web site. We went off as planned to see the Prospect Theater Company’s play, which was fantastic and, at $25
a ticket, a true bargain. (It’s on through this Sunday, June 12. For tickets or further information, go to www.prospecttheater.org.)
I also managed to book a cheap last-minute hotel on Hotwire.com, then score two discounted second-row
seats for the Sunday matinee of a phenomenal, over-the-top Broadway musical, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. So it’s
unlikely that I’m going to mend my dreadful tendency to leave things until the very last second any time soon.
Meanwhile, to my relief, no one has mentioned the embarrassing part of my intro at the oneg yet.
But if anybody was actually paying attention, maybe it just will result in a little white wine coming my way someday. I really
do enjoy a fruity chardonnay.
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Word From the Weiss
I would like to say that I’m one of those selfless people who think only of others, but the truth is that the others
I mostly think of are my children. Friends are also a top priority, and I’d gladly go out of my way to help almost any
stranger on the street. Yet when it comes to sublimating my own needs and desires to please my significant other – Mr.
Nice Jewish Mom – well, as he’d probably be the first to tell you… not so much.
OK, let’s be perfectly honest.
Not at all.
So when he asked me to join him for his 45th college reunion over Memorial Day Weekend, my initial reaction
was somewhere between an audibly begrudging “Ugh! Sure, if you really want to go,” and “No! Sorry!
Just shoot me now!”
For one thing, I’m not outgoing by nature.
I often find it taxing to gab at length with good friends. To sustain prolonged chitchat with strangers? For several days?
That’s not just taxing, it’s torture. (Just waterboard me now.)
For another, I knew exactly what
to expect from his Princeton University reunions. I’d already attended two of them, and as far as I was concerned, that
was two too many.
To my enormous relief, he quickly decided to forego these festivities when he learned that attending the
event, including three days of meals, entertainment and various other activities, would set us back $750 exclusive of
My pass to get out of hell free flew out the window when we got wind that our son would actually be performing
there (at the reunion, that is). Aidan has long played the bari saxophone in a Benny Goodman-style swing band every Wednesday
night in New York. This band originated at Princeton more than 50 years ago and still performs there regularly. The class
of 1955 had hired them to play at a dinner dance last Friday night.
Never mind that I was born in 1955, and everyone
there would presumably be 21 years my senior. I could tell my husband was still dying to attend, and this factor
easily sweetened the deal.
He negotiated a reduced rate for us to attend the reunion for only one night and day.
He also persuaded our daughter, who’d be moving home from college the night before we left, to accompany us. And suddenly
I found myself willing to renegotiate too.
And yet I still spent much of the next two weeks moaning, groaning, whining, kvetching, and barely concealing
my dread. And that was before I realized that I would spend the four days following my daughter’s graduation in Boston
helping her pack up all her belongings, then arrive home utterly exhausted the night before we left. The last thing I wanted
to do at that point was unpack, repack, and drive five hours south in heavy holiday weekend traffic.
But my husband had already shelled out hundreds of dollars for
the ordeal – I mean privilege. So I moaned, groaned, kvetched a whole lot more, repacked, and then got in the car.
We arrived a steamy and emotionally
stormy five hours later, just in time for the dinner.
Having been before, I knew the drill. Everyone from the alumni to every single family member in tow would
be decked out from head to toe in the school colors, black and orange. Since this palette derived from the school’s
mascot, there would be a jungle of tiger stripes on view as well, thanks to colorful costumes issued at reunions
past. My husband, in fact, upon exiting the car, popped the trunk and slipped on a hideous, Hawaiian-style shirt that I hadn’t
laid eyes on since the 40th reunion, five years ago.
No doubt I had a matching one buried somewhere. And I do mean
buried. Fortunately, while foraging in my closet, I’d come across a far more appealing option -- a cocktail
dress in an abstract black-and-white animal print with a wide orange band at the hem and just below the bodice. Upon
arrival, I found myself the envy of many a woman there, besieged by queries as to where on earth I’d found it. This
helped to melt my icy demeanor at once. Well, at least a little.
Also attracting attention was another wife who had shown great sartorial ingenuity. As she explained to me
giddily twice in quick succession -- having preceded us to the cocktail party by an hour and perhaps three martinis --
she’d been obliged to improvise because she’d put on a little weight lately and had left her “shaper”
at home. Presumably, the outfit she’d brought to wear wouldn’t close. So she'd fastened the accessory issued to
all female attendees this year, a voluminous tiger-print scarf, just below her waist. Instant skirt. And Princeton fashion
history had been made.
“What's a shaper?” I demanded, after duly admiring her resourcefulness,
“and where the heck can I get one?”
But there was no time to stand around discussing ladies’ lingerie,
nor to linger over the last remaining Swedish meatballs. We were hustled into a cavernous dining hall. Dinner was served.
Despite my husband’s enduring attraction to his alma mater, in candid moments he often admitted to having reservations
about his time there. One of his chief gripes was about the archaic homogeneity of the student body. Back in his day, 1962-66,
there were not only no women whatsoever enrolled, but also very few Jews. Many of his preppy and decidedly Gentile classmates
had openly treated him as a social misfit and something of an oddball. At times, memories of their bald contempt still stung.
One of the reunion organizers, Tiny Morgan, with whom we had our picture snapped
(and who, as you can see, is far from what his nickname might suggest), had gone so far as to give him
an ersatz award at graduation, pronouncing him Least Likely to Succeed.
So I braced myself to be seated
with a bunch of contemptuous snobs. To my surprise, we found ourselves instead facing our good friend Jay Lagemann, a former
classmate of my husband's, and an immensely likable couple from Massachusetts. The husband, Dan, was a publisher. The
wife, Suzanne, was a food writer who had penned several books and now jars and markets her own pasta sauce at www.heirloomtomatosauceco.com. Both were nice, Jewish, and couldn’t have been friendlier or more simpatico.
Another couple they knew soon joined us. That husband was also an author and turned out to be a regular
contributor to Field & Stream, where I’d had my first job in publishing, as an editorial assistant years
ago. We’d never met, but knew many people in common. Although his wife was blonde, bubbly, and clearly not a landsman
– she looked like she belonged in Lilly Pulitzer, if Lilly came in orange and black, not just pink and green –
I worried that she and the other woman might resent me. Not that I fancy myself a hot number, by any stretch of the imagination.
It's just that I’m ten years younger than my husband and most of his cohorts. It didn’t help that the dress I
had on showed way too much cleavage. (Normally, I wore a camisole underneath, but it was 90 degrees, way too hot for even
one extra layer.)
Maybe I’m being overly sensitive. But in my experience, most women don’t
exactly relish socializing with other women a decade their junior. It’s not merely a matter of being consumed by different
life cycles and issues. With women my own age, I more or less manage to fit in. With my daughter and her friends, I feel
like a respected voice of reason... and the only one who can afford to pick up the check. When I’m around women in their
30s and 40s, I become painfully conscious of what I once was and no longer am.
But neither of these women seemed
inclined to ostracize me in any way. On the contrary, the blonde made the ultimate gesture of female bonding; she announced
an urgent need to visit the ladies’ room and insisted that I join her.
Inside, I once again encountered the woman in the improvised skirt, who eagerly recounted the story
behind her fashion inspiration all over again. She explained that the “shaper” she’d referred to was a girdle.
(For anyone unfamiliar with this outdated term, just think Spanx with a little less Spandex, minus the spunky marketing
campaign.) On second thought, I think I'll pass.
Back at the table, dinner was winding down. And as much as we were
enjoying ourselves and our newfound friends, it was time to move on to our son’s gig. Fortunately, our daughter, Allegra, had
just befriended a handsome young underclassman who offered to drive us there in a golf cart, explaining that the
venue was all the way across campus.
En route, we passed many a bandstand from which emanated assorted genres
of live music. One of these scenes appeared to be swarming with activity. “The Beach Boys are playing there tonight,”
our youthful guide divulged.
“The Beach Boys?!?!” my daughter and I squealed in unison. “Are you serious?”
He was indeed. But we already had a prior engagement with the Stan Rubin Orchestra.
SRO, as it’s known, had attracted an energetic crowd of onlookers and dancers, many of whom were decades away from their
70s, as evinced by their wild tattoos and even wilder dance moves. Allegra was almost instantly recruited as a dance partner
by a recent graduate, who, typical of this Ivy League outpost, was distinctly nerdy in a techno-geek kind of way, but
well-versed in swing dancing and more than happy to be her tutor.
Our own command of swing steps was loose at best – we’d taken a few lessons prior to our
wedding, to no discernible avail, 27 years ago -- but we had plenty of fun faking it through several numbers, after which
I was happy to take a seat and watch Allegra twirl and Aidan play.
To our disappointment, Aid barely
got to chat with us after the music had ended before packing up his instrument to catch a ride home with the band. (We’d
invited him to stay overnight, but he’d already made plans for the weekend that did not include Princeton or his folks.)
Then we began the long trek back to our car, with our undergraduate friend and his nifty golf cart nowhere in sight.
By now, we were exhausted and dripping from the heat. But we somehow revived upon reaching the tent where the Beach Boys allegedly
A security guard at the gate told us it wasn’t actually The Beach Boys, but just one of them –
a Beach Boy – and that he was either taking a break or possibly finished for the night. But we decided to take
our chances anyway.
Moments later, to our delight, the lights flashed on and the musicians revved up. Yet it was a trio of women, not boys, who
took the stage. Decked out in tasseled mini-dresses and towering beehive wigs, The Party Girls, as I think they're known,
crooned through a lengthy medley of tunes recorded by The Supremes, Shirelles and other girl groups of the
‘50s and ‘60s – everything from “Stop in the Name of Love” and “My Boyfriend’s Back”
to “The Shoop Shoop Song” (better known as “It’s in His Kiss.”)
If he loves you so
It's in his kiss.
That's where it is!"
Singing along animatedly, I found
myself remembering all the lyrics and busting out dance moves I hadn’t used in decades as our daughter joined us on
the dance floor. Somehow, she seemed to know nearly all the words, too. (Talk about female bonding experiences!)
When we were too tired to shimmy for one more second, we reluctantly resumed our journey back to the car… only to stop
at two or three more concert venues and dance through a song at each, drenched with sweat and doubled over with laughter.
We didn’t check into our hotel until nearly 2 a.m.
The first Princeton reunion I’d ever attended was exactly 25 years ago. I know that because I was excruciatingly pregnant
at the time with Aidan, who is now 24, and spent much of the event complaining that I was at a weekend-long
beer party, unable to have a sip. Now I realized that I’d probably been better off the first time, because I woke up
Saturday with a doozy of a hangover. By the time we’d made our way back to the campus, after picking up some Father’s
Day goodies at the official college store downtown, it was already time for lunch.
Although there were dozens of tables set out in a tent for my husband’s class, there didn’t
appear to be a trio of consecutive open seats anywhere. We surveyed the crowd chowing down and chatting energetically,
and I experienced a wave of the social isolation I imagine my husband often must have felt 45 years ago. What in G-d’s
name were we doing here?
Then I spied three free chairs, waved my family over, and plopped my plate down.
Within moments, I heard the man beside me mention USA Today, the newspaper at which I’d landed my very first
reporting job back in the early ’80s. It turned out that he’d been a staff writer there at the same time, and
we knew countless people in common. We got so caught up comparing notes and reminiscing that my husband and daughter grew
bored and wandered off.
But soon I had to tear myself away as well. It was time for the main event.
At Princeton, the reunion business is a well-oiled and ultra-efficient machine, presumably geared to fan
school spirit and garner a never-ending supply of donations. All colleges have some version of this, I suppose. But nowhere
have I seen more flagrant displays of school pride than at the annual Princeton alumni parade, better known as the P-rade.
Every class in recent history, from the one with the oldest living members to the group that's about to graduate,
lines up in chronological order. Most classes draw such entensive participation, especially when celebrating any
multiple-of-five anniversary, that this ends up drawing a cast of thousands to cavort through the campus.
proceedings go on for so long
that before lining up, I inquired if either of my family members needed to use the facilities. “You don’t
want to have to pee during the P-rade,” I observed. At which my husband grew incensed.
“When it gets to the point where
you’re telling people to go to the bathroom, you’ve officially become an old person,” he scolded, noting
that my mother had been notorious for this characteristically Jewish habit, often volubly demanding to a group
at large, “Does anyone need to ‘make’?”
Nudgy or not, my suggestion turned out
to be prudent advice because there were more than 20 classes preceding ours. And one of them -- the class of
‘86, which had taken the lead because they were celebrating 25 years and had a mammoth turnout -- took
what felt like 25 years to pass.
Every few minutes, as their legions strutted by, our group would break into the official Princeton
cheer: “Rah, rah, rah! Tiger, tiger, tiger! Sis, sis, sis! Boom boom boom bah!” To which would then be appended
three cheers for the number of the class we were honoring. “86! 86! 86!” This seemed strangely tribal, and rather
sophomoric for men in their mid-60s and beyond. But the energy and enthusiasm exhibited were so infectious that my daughter
and I soon found ourselves eagerly chanting along.
Adding a liberal dose of local color was the fact that each passing group was outfitted in
their official class regalia, ranging from vividly striped or printed sport jackets in various permutations of Halloween hues
to tangerine colored polo shirts and Bermuda shorts. Many within my husband’s contingent were bedecked in striped denim
overalls worn over orange shirts, having long ago been designated “The Overall Class,” although I’ve never
quite understood why. (Do they favor farmer clothes? Do they mean to suggest that they’re especially well-rounded? Or
are they arrogant enough to fancy themselves reigning over all the rest?)
Although Princeton didn’t go coed until 1969, there were plenty of wives marching by their men,
and few had hesitated to put a tiger in their tank -- or tank top. Some simply improvised with feathered boas, brightly
colored hats, and other orange accessories. But many classes had provided official costumes for
the wives as well, notably the group of women dressed in novel trompe l’oeil T-shirts printed to make it appear as if
they were deeply tanned, exceedingly well-endowed and wearing skimpy tiger-striped bikinis.
Several participants also had not fur-gotten costumes for their canine companions, although my heart went
out to what were literally, in terms of both temperature and attire, a bunch of truly hot dogs.
Further embellishing the atmosphere
were the countless props on hand, or more often in hand. Our friend Jay Lagemann, an accomplished sculptor from Martha’s
Vineyard, had fashioned a comical, collossal-sized tiger statue to which my daughter and many another reveler flocked
to be photographed alongside, as if it were a celebrity.
Then there were the innumerable placards that many of the marchers held high. This being Princeton, some
of these announced the credentials of the “Aluminaries” who were carrying them: “Nobel Prize for Physics”
or “Ambassador to Greece, Mauritius and Zimbabwe.”
Others served to make this trek across campus
a true trip down Memory Lane, by noting historical events and popular songs from graduation years gone by: “1961
– Elvis inducted into the Army,” “Yakety Yak – The Coasters,” and “The Drifters
– Save the Last Dance for Me.”
Still others wryly sandwiched social commentary with historical
“1971 Long Hair -- 2011 Longing for Hair,” declared one.
“1961 Television Networks
-- 2011 Social Networks,” noted another.
But societal evolution was nowhere more apparent than in the faces of the alumni themselves as our class wended
its way through the gauntlet, being resoundingly saluted by class after class. “66! 66! 66!” Those of the earliest
vintage were uniformly male and overwhelmingly white. Members of the younger generation were not just able to cheer with much
more volume and verve. Their ranks distinctly displayed far more gender and ethnic diversity.
After waiting for over an hour in the scorching heat, then walking a considerable distance, I was so drenched
and drained of energy that I couldn’t imagine how the many alumni who’d graduated before I’d even been born
had managed to endure… other than the prudent yet admittedly paunchy few who’d eschewed walking in favor of golf
carts. Yet I could plainly see that they’d been there and had been out in full force. “NOT ONE ’51’ER
EVER MARRIED ELIZABETH TAYLOR” one of their signs proclaimed.
But as we made our way from the parade’s endpoint to our class's next event, a Caribbean
cocktail bash featuring frozen margaritas and pina coladas, I could also see at last what had brought these aging revelers
back year after year.
All of the activities may have been silly and a bit too saturated with alcohol. The loud costumes
and even louder chants may not have been quite seemly for Ivy-League-educated adults. But put it together and what have you
got? Actual unadulterated fun.
I’m not saying I’ll think twice in the future before denying my husband any request, whether
modest or monumental. I’m not saying I have the slightest interest in attending my own 35th college reunion, which is
coming up next week. (No one I know is likely to be there. I’m still far from gregarious by nature. And face it, Brandeis
always has been far more about academic achievement, political activism and keeping kosher than having fun.)
But maybe I’ll hesitate at
least a little before going into full-throttle whining and kvetching the next time I’m invited to do something I only
think I won’t enjoy.
Meanwhile, I can hardly wait until the 50th in another five years. 2016!
|That's me. The redhead on the right. But that is NOT my baby.
No, sir, that's not
my baby. How could any mother smile beatifically while her own child wailed? Never mind that neither of my offspring
ever cried so plaintively, as far as I recall (not while I was there to nurture them through their every perceptible
need... although my son still complains that I often dressed him in garish and girlish color schemes, scarring him FOR LIFE).
Besides, I'm distinctly beyond prime
delivery age ("Kitchen's closed!" as my mother might say), and my kids had departed the diaper stage by the
dawn of the Clinton Administration. Now in
their 20s, both are currently living on their
own, in not-too-distant cities, although each manages to phone me daily. In fact, to be exact, several times a
day, then sometimes text me, too. (That may sound excessive, and emotionally regressive, but I subscribe to
the Jewish mother's creed when it comes to conversing with kinder: Too much is never enough.)
Two demanding decades spent raising two kids who are kind, highly productive and multi-talented, who generally
wear clean underwear (as far as I can tell), and who by all visible signs don't detest me are my main credentials
for daring to dole out advice in the motherhood department.
Presenting myself as an authority on all matters Jewish may be trickier to justify.
Yes, I was raised Jewish and am biologically an unadulterated, undisputable, purebred Yiddisheh
mama. I'm known for making a melt-in-your-mouth brisket, not to mention the world's airiest matzah
balls this side of Brooklyn. My longtime avocation is writing lyrics for Purim shpiels based on popular Broadway productions,
from "South Pers-cific" to "The Zion Queen." Then again, I'm no rabbi or Talmudic scholar. I
can't even sing "Hatikvah" or recite the Birkat Hamazon. Raised resoundingly Reform, I don't keep kosher, can
barely curse in Yiddish, and haven't set foot in Israel since I was a zaftig teen.
Even so, as a longtime writer and ever-active
mother, I think I have something to say about being Jewish and a mom in these manic and maternally challenging
times. I hope something I say means something to you. Welcome to my nice Jewish world!
|LEVYS! MEET THE LEVYS! WE'RE A MODERN JEWISH FAMILY...
In coming weeks, I will continue
posting more personal observations, rants, and even recipes (Jewish and otherwise). So keep reading, come back often,
and please tell all of your friends, Facebook buddies, and everyone else you know that NiceJewishMom.com is THE BOMB!
The family that eats together (and maybe even Tweets together):
That's my son Aidan, me, my daughter Allegra, and Harlan, my husband for more than 26 years, all out for Sunday brunch on a nice summer weekend in New