|That's me, Pattie Weiss Levy.
A Modern-Day "Ima"
on a Modern-Day Bimah
new content posted every WEEK!)
Thursday, September 29, 2011
A Word From the Weiss
L'Shanah tovah, everyone. A happy and a healthy to all of you. Seems like
only yesterday that it was 5771. Well, here's to a better 5772!
This is a
new year for me in more ways than one. It's now been a full 12 months since I began filling this space
as NiceJewishMom.com. Someone asked me recently if there were ever a week in which I simply had nothing to write
about. That's a concern that you might imagine would keep newspaper columnists, bloggers and other life
cataloguers awake at night. But no.
I'm not saying my life is so eventful and action-packed that there is
never a dull moment. Yet it's actually my fantasy to have just one week without some personal conflict, calamity
or other tsuris to relate. Instead, it's been more than 52 weeks now, and so far not so good. As the
mother of two children, however mature and independent they may be, I have no shortage of material. Or misery. As Roseanne
Roseannadanna (a.k.a. Gilda Radner) would say, "It's always something."
More often than not, something unwelcome that I cause myself.
An integral part of marking the Jewish New Year is to issue apologies to those whom we have hurt or harmed in any way. So
let me start out by offering a heartfelt mea culpa -- to family members I have been cross with
too often, good friends I haven't crossed paths with often enough, anyone I've offended by anything I've written, and also
to all of you. Because this week I've had more than my share of tribulations, trauma and family drama to report, but I have
too much else to do to come through.
Yes, I got halfway through writing my
post yesterday, but then an appointment with a shofar -- not to mention a pot of matzah ball soup, a raisin challah,
two roast chickens, three bottles of Manischewitz and eight mocking birds (I mean guests for a holiday dinner) -- somehow
got in the way. I promise to finish by next week and to try to do better in the months ahead.
In the meanwhile, you can check out my story about the annual Rosh Hashanah ritual of Tashlich if you
haven't read it already. Speaking of which, here are some other provocative thoughts to chew on, passed on by a
Jews have a custom of throwing bread crumbs into
a body of water during the High Holy Days to symbolically cast away their sins. Once, a rabbi was asked what kind of crumbs
should be used for this purpose. He replied as follows:
For ordinary sins, use white bread.
For exotic sins, French bread.
For particularly dark sins, pumpernickel.
For complex sins, multi-grain.
For twisted sins, pretzels.
tasteless sins, rice cakes.
For sins of indecision, waffles.
For sins committed in haste, matzah.
(For sins committed in less than 18 minutes, Shmurah matzah.)
For sins of
having chutzpah, fresh bread.
For committing arson, toast.
For committing auto theft, caraway.
For being ill-tempered, sourdough.
For silliness, nut bread.
For not giving full value, shortbread.
For excessive use of irony, rye bread.
For telling bad jokes, cornbread.
For war-mongering, Kaiser rolls.
For immodest dressing, tarts.
For causing injury or damage to others, tortes.
For racism, crackers.
racism, Ritz crackers.
For davening off-key, flatbread.
For being holier than thou, bagels.
For unfairly upbraiding another, challah.
For trashing the environment, dumplings.
For sins of laziness, any very long loaf.
For sins of pride, puff pastry.
For lying, baked goods with Nutrasweet and Olestra.
For the sins of the righteous, angel food cake.
For selling your soul, Devil's food cake.
For lust in your heart, Wonder bread.
For substance abuse, stoned wheat.
For petty larceny, Stollen.
For timidity, milk toast.
For risking one's life unnecessarily, hero bread.
For being hyper-critical, pancakes.
For over-eating, stuffing bread or bulky
For gambling, fortune cookies.
For being snappish, gingerbread.
For impetuosity, quickbread.
For negligent slip-ups, banana bread.
For dropping in without warning, popovers.
Just remember, whatever form of baked good you may choose, you don't have to show your crumbs to anyone!
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
A Word From the Weiss
When the oversized invitation on exquisite antique vellum arrived, our first
reaction was that the date in question was a Saturday in mid-September, and we didn’t necessarily want to spend this
last gasp of summer sitting in temple or rubbing elbows (and assorted other body parts) with my husband’s distant relatives’
friends, the real (nice Jewish) housewives of New Jersey.
It didn’t help that the bar mitzvah service began bright and
early and the reception wouldn’t end till nearly midnight, and we lived well over 100 miles away. Sure, it might be
a bit of a shonda to beg off, but this shindig clearly was going to require our shelling out for at least one night
at a hotel, as well as a good five hours of traveling roundtrip.
Then we stepped back, caught our collective
breath and began factoring in other, far more significant considerations.
As an only child, my husband ends up spending much more than his share of time with my sizable and rather
voluble extended family, and he rarely gets to see his own. Although we barely knew the people who’d invited us, our
attending might mean a lot to his Cousin Maurice, the grandfather of the bar mitzvah boy, and his sweet wife Margie, with
whom we have a warm relationship. Our declining would insult, or certainly disappoint, them.
Plus, having children in their early 20s, we are well past the bar mitzvah stage ourselves now, but not quite
into the wedding phase just yet. We rarely get asked to a family gathering any more that isn’t – face it –
a funeral. Wouldn’t it be nice to catch up with the clan, many of whom are now in their 80s, at an occasion marked by
a rousing Kiddush, rather than a hearse-led procession and a recitation of the Kaddish?
So, although we did that gauche thing that we sorely resent whenever it happens to us – deliberate
until just past the RSVP date -- we finally phoned two weeks ago to accept.
Then I set about making all of
the necessary arrangements. Even though this was my husband’s family, I knew, as the resident nice Jewish mother, they
would fall to me.
It wasn’t just a matter of finding a hotel and then Mapquesting directions from our house to the temple,
the temple to the hotel, the hotel to the reception, the reception back to the hotel, and then finally from the hotel to nearby
New York City. (Like many a nice Jewish mom, I would use our needing to be in the metropolitan area as an excuse to drop in
on our kids the next day.) I also had to deal with that hairy and highly sensitive topic integral to attending virtually
every Jewish simcha, The Gift.
As everyone knows, you can get away with buying a relatively affordable actual present for a bat mitzvah
girl (although God knows how many Tiffany bracelets any one girl can truly use). But as the mother of a former bar mitzvah
boy, I know how many fountain pens any 13-year-old can truly use – zero. So when it comes to male-oriented gifts, money
is the way to go.
The question is, how much must you give? This is an incomparably complex sum as difficult to calculate as
the gross national product, and even grosser when you factor in all the salient considerations. Like how close you really
are to the hosts of the event, how much they’ll be spending to entertain you, and how much they gave to your kid.
I was totally incensed years ago when, after my wedding, my father demanded to know what each of his relatives
and friends had given as gifts. He claimed that he needed this information in order to reciprocate for their children in kind.
At the time, I found his question vulgar and intrusive. But now that the booty-giving baton has been passed to me, I see that
full disclosure is de rigueur, or at least completely warranted. After all, you don’t want to slight people
who have been generous with your own offspring. Neither do you want to be overly indulgent with families who’ve been
So I sympathized when a friend recently divulged her own near-disaster in this area. She and her husband
had been invited to the out-of-town wedding of some other close friends’ son. Only her husband was able to attend. Before
he left, she emailed their own son asking how much these people had given when he’d been married the previous year.
Unfortunately, he didn’t respond… until, that is, her husband had arrived and placed their card with a check
enclosed inside a large box designated for such gifts. It turned out that these people had given their son twice as much.
Never mind that only one of them was attending, in this case; they didn’t want to risk appearing cheap. With luck, my
friend managed to contact her husband by cell phone at the reception, and he’d had to go fishing as discreetly as possible
in the designated gift receptacle until he’d retrieved their card and replaced the check with double the original amount.
In our case, we hadn’t invited the bar mitzvah boy’s parents, Gregg and Claudia, to either of
our children’s simchas because, as I’ve indicated, we aren’t at all close. But we felt keenly indebted
to Gregg’s father, Cousin Maurice, who had attended and been strikingly generous with our children at their events.
So when we’d been invited to his granddaughter Samantha’s bat mitzvah five years ago, we had viewed this as a
chance to reciprocate. Never mind that we had never even met her or her family. The U.S. military may have done away with
its own policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” but there was a good chance that Maurice, like my own father,
would inquire how much we’d given, and we didn’t want to risk appearing cheap.
When we were unable to make it to their next child’s bar mitzvah two years ago, I still sent a sizable check along with
Barely knowing these people, I hadn’t recalled how many children they had. But having received the
latest invitation, I now knew there was a third. Unfortunately, since that first bat mitzvah, we had shelled out for 14 semesters
of college and were no longer feeling quite so flush. But I remembered that these people had gone all out with food and drink
at that first affair. And once again, we certainly didn't want to appear cheap.
Instead, I decided to economize
a little by booking a relatively affordable Holiday Inn on Hotels.com. Then I turned my attention to another potentially pricey
area -- what to wear.
As I noted, we’re not into the wedding phase yet, so I haven’t acquired a new dressy dress in
ages, and it seemed like a waste of dough to consider buying one now. Yet the fancy dress I’d bought most recently was
the one that I’d worn to Samantha’s bat mitzvah five years ago. How could I repeat? (Not that anyone there would
probably have the slightest recollection what I’d worn. I couldn’t tell you what any of them had on that night
even if peace in the Middle East depended on it.) Then again, I had plenty of older options that were arguably the worse for
lack of wear. The two dresses I’d bought for each of my children’s receptions had been worn only once
and languished in my closet ever since.
The minor miracle was that I discovered I was still able to squeeze into
both of them, even though 12 and 9 years had elapsed since I’d first worn them, respectively. So what if neither
fit exactly the same way that it once had. It closed up? Close enough. Never mind, also, that it was a bit early in the
season for burnt velvet, of which the one of more recent vintage was made. A sudden cold snap was predicted to be on tap for
the weekend. I’d pack both numbers and see what I was in the mood for on Saturday. I might even let my husband choose.
Unfortunately my husband was scheduled to work until late on Friday night. But we didn’t anticipate
quite how late. He returned home shortly before 1 a.m., and by the time he’d finished packing it was 3. We’d planned
to leave as close to 8 a.m. as possible, but not surprisingly slept right through the alarm. By the time we were dressed and
driving, it was already past 9:30 and we had miles to go – 112.7 of them, to be exact.
I was behind the wheel and stepped on it. (If a state trooper stopped us, surely he’d understand that
we had to make it to the temple before the Torah was returned to the ark.) But even risking a speeding ticket was useless.
We ran into countless construction delays and didn’t arrive until after noon. We entered the sanctuary just as the cantor
launched into “Adom Olam.”
We hadn’t merely missed the Torah
and Haftarah readings. We’d managed to miss the entire service. This was the closing hymn.
I chose two chairs in the peanut
gallery – the bevy of prepubescent boys and girls who’d sought refuge from the rabbi's scrutiny in the very
back rows. My husband whispered that he wanted to join his relatives further up. Reluctant to call attention to our egregiously
late entrance, which had set a new record even for chronic latecomers like us, I shook my head vehemently.
“But there’s Cousin
Joan,” he protested. “And look, there are Marc and Carolyn.”
“I don’t care if it’s Moses himself,” I shot back sternly. “This is so embarrassing.
Please don’t move.”
Of course he did, anyway. But no one cared. His relatives were so pleased to see him
that they didn’t notice. And the people integral to the affair were way up front and didn’t see. As everyone filed
out, Claudia, the mother of the bar mitzvah boy, paused to greet us. “How about my little Erik?” she kvelled
proudly. “How’d he do, would you say?”
If I were being honest, I would say I had no idea. But I couldn’t lie to her in temple. So I just nodded
enthusiastically, bid her a hearty mazel tov and gave her an appreciative smile.
Just seeing the platters at the
Kiddush luncheon afterwards made me glad we’d come. Smelly, cold fish may not be everyone’s idea of a feast. But
there’s only one thing more redolent of my youth than smoked whitefish, and that is schmaltz herring (pickled
herring in cream sauce). I never think of buying it because my husband recoils at both the sight and scent. But I enjoy it
so much that, at the risk of not fitting into either of my dresses, I had seconds and then still added a couple more slimy
slabs of it to my dessert plate.
But mostly it was the unmistakably delighted expression on Maurice’s face as he rushed across the room
to welcome me that made me know we’d been right to come.
It was also nice to catch up with
always-upbeat cousin Carolyn and her son Marc, an affable confirmed bachelor who impressed me by remembering almost everything
we’d discussed the last time we met, whenever that may have been.
But I spent most of my time there talking with Cousin Joan, who, as the only person I know who lost a child in the World Trade
Center on 9/11, is the most stalwart person I know. Understandably, she had been heavily on my mind in recent weeks. Just
getting to give her a hug and pass on our warmest wishes, I realized, was enough to have made the trip worthwhile.
With Round One wrapping up, we
repaired to the hotel, where I put up my feet for a moment and promptly passed out. Next thing I knew, it was time to dress
At this point, I dared to broach the issue of my wardrobe dilemma to my husband. He asked hopefully (and
not at all helpfully), “Is either of the dresses short and slutty?”
I responded with my best withering gaze (and must say I have a pretty good one), then admitted that both
dresses were long. “What is it with men? I asked. “This is your family event. Wouldn’t you rather that I
wear something elegant and tasteful?”
He responded with his best leer (and I must say he has a pretty
good one too). “Yes, it’s my family’s event, and I am a man,” he allowed. “That’s why
I’d like you to wear something short and slutty.”
So I opted for the dress in which I felt the
best, hoping I wouldn’t be overdressed. One look around as we entered Rockland Country Club, though, and I realized
that the prospect of being too farpitzed (dressed to the nines) would not be a problem.
Also, that I would have fit in far better if only I had taken my husband’s advice. If he was seeking
short, slutty, slinky or smutty, he’d come to the right place.
Although both the temple and the country club were located in New York’s Rockland County, across the
Tappan Zee Bridge, Gregg and Claudia live just across the state line in the Garden State. No wonder more than a few members
of the supporting cast looked far less like our rather frumpy Connecticut cohorts (the Junior League done Jewish-style) and,
indeed, more like the Real Housewives of New Jersey.
Then again, judging from the hors d’oeuvres being passed around, we clearly weren’t in Connecticut
anymore… or at any other bar or bat to which we’d ever been. Although as Reform Jews we don’t keep kosher,
we tend to serve at religious and other events in a manner often characterized as “kosher style.” But here they
had clearly thrown not just caution, but all of the most basic laws of kashrut, to the wind.
“Lobster roll?” asked
a young waitress sweetly as I entered the cocktail area. Her tray was laden with translucent Thai rice pancakes wrapped around
pink-and-white morsels of succulent seafood. Not so-called “sea legs,” either. This was the real thing.
Another pretty girl followed closely in her tracks with plump, savory-looking discs lightly dusted with paprika.
“Crab cake?” she inquired politely. (I kid you/Yid you not!)
Oh, well. As they say, when in
New Jersey (or its environs), do as the Jersey Jews do. So I downed two of each, followed by a rare lamb chop (which may not
score quite as high on the trayf Richter scale, but is not exactly a kosher cut of meat either).
Similarly pushing the envelope – along with the outer limits of decorum -- was the attire
of many a female guest, featuring sequins, tassels, and tawdry embellishments of every ilk, from peek-a-boo bustlines to bejeweled
necklines and deep-plunging backs. My husband struggled valiantly to keep his tongue from hanging right out of his mouth.
But (with all of the high-test libations being doled out liberally at the open bar) who could truly blame
him when he eventually lost that fight and literally let it all hang out?
As for true glamour and dazzling good looks, no guest could hold a candle to Samantha, the
former bat mitzvah girl, now all grown up and sporting a bronze strapless mini-dress and at least five-inch-high black stilettos.
If she hadn’t truly been a woman when she’d first mounted the bimah back in 2006, sometime during the
ensuing five years she’d clearly become one, and then some.
All of these tantalizing tastes and sights,
though (along with the smorgasbord of sushi, and prime rib sliced to order) were merely the warm-up act. We had a whole meal
and evening of entertainment ahead of us. And with luck, dinner was soon served.
The instant I entered the main
party room to the deafening strains of the DJ’s sound system, I remembered how ear-splitting these post-service celebrations
can be. Good thing I’d already chatted up everyone we knew at lunch because the music was loud enough to prohibit conversation
with anyone beyond your immediate neighbor, and even that was a strain. Luckily, I ended up between my husband and Maurice’s
engaging other son, Jamie.
I’d only encountered Jamie, who lives in Denver, twice before in my life. We’d first met briefly
nine years ago, when he had accompanied Maurice to my daughter’s bat mitzvah. But I had gotten to know him fairly well
when we’d spent the afternoon together at Maurice’s house after Samantha’s bat mitzvah. A refreshingly candid
and forthright fellow, Jamie had confided openly back then about his young son Colin, who had been born with a rare condition
called Angelman Syndrome. This neuro-genetic disorder, which affects only one in 15,000 births, is marked by developmental
delays, seizures, lack of speech, and walking and balance disorders. Its victims, who have a normal life span, tend to smile
radiantly and laugh mirthfully (although the syndrome is named not for this inexplicable exuberance, but the doctor who first
diagnosed it, Harry Angelman).
That day, Jamie had confessed to me his fears about what the future might bring. How
would they manage to care for Colin, who was then 3 and unable to walk, once he had gotten too large for them to lift? Meanwhile,
his wife Jane was now pregnant again. What if their next child were also born with the affliction?
I’d been relieved to later
hear that his second son had been born free of medical issues. But I hadn’t laid eyes on him since.
I was similarly thrilled to hear
now that Colin had since learned to walk, so Jamie's other great source of dread had never come to fruition.
Sadly, because the boy remained so difficult to care for, he and his wife were unable to travel together. Jane and I
had never met, and she was not there once again.
So after my husband and I had taken a lengthy and vigorous turn on the dance floor (lengthy and vigorous
enough to make me regret that choice of velvet), it crossed my mind that maybe I should ask him to dance. Meanwhile, might
my husband not have livened up the party for poor CaroIyn, who, as cheery as she continued to look, had lost her own husband
Robert 25 years ago this week?
Yet I’ve hardly danced with another man in decades and I felt a little shy to
ask. (Yes, I may be a Nice Jewish Tiger Mom when it comes to my kids, and a lioness with my husband, but I can still revert
to being timid as a mouse in many a social situation.) Besides, many a real housewife was readily available should he feel
moved to get in the groove.
So I settled for making conversation over the cacophonous din and disco beat. The adversity Jamie had dealt
with in recent years made me hesitant to waste time on small talk, though. Although no one has ever accused me of having too
sunny a disposition, I sensed that he was one of the most cynical people I’d ever met. Yet he was also among the most
sympathetic. He was quick to tell me that there would be no bar mitzvahs on his end; his wife was not Jewish, and he didn’t
believe in organized religion of any kind. Yet I found myself telling him about cruel hardships I’d endured since last
we’d met, things I would hesitate to tell relatives of my own whom I’ve known for my whole life.
And however inappropriate that
might seem at a festive event, and however much my misfortunes might pale in comparison to his own, his response was to reach
out and hug me empathetically, a reflex clearly as instinctive as a puppy wagging its tail.
And that felt more inspiring than any spin on the dance floor, more uplifting than the sight of the bar mitzvah
boy being hoisted high on a chair during the hora.
So did his telling me repeatedly about his friend's wife, whose web
site and blog "HungryGirl.com" had resulted in a multi-book deal and TV show on The Food Network. (Hungry girl?
How about a hungry mom? I'm hungry. I'm always hungry!)
Good thing dinner was about to be served. But first came
the traditional candle-lighting ceremony, in which people integral to the event were given the honor of lighting candles on
the birthday cake. That’s when I detected a surprising thing. At this family’s first bat mitzvah, they’d
evidently had two other children. But in the interim, yet another had joined their ranks. Although Gregg is in his 50s, Claudia
had given birth to a third son, now 4. That meant we could look forward to attending another such event nine years from now.
By then, Maurice’s offspring would have easily recouped his full investment in us. But I had better start watching
what I ate if I expected to fit into my old dresses by then. On the other hand, maybe by then they’d be so tight
that they would pass for long and slutty.
But this was no time for dieting now. After all of those hors d'oeuvres,
the main course would not involve
the conventional choice of meat or fish, but both. The waitress came around to inform us one by one that we would be
eating red snapper, as well as what she called “brazen beef” (as if the meat were heaped with chutzpah, rather
than braised in broth). She was just checking that no one had any dietary restrictions, she explained. What she didn’t
bother to mention was that the fish was served in a cream sauce. Good thing that we had no religious compunction about mixing
milk and meat.
It was around this time that I noticed another unexpected thing. Gregg and Claudia, who’d been busy
making the rounds of the room, weren’t just saying a quick hello at our table. They were seated with us. Never mind
that we’d never had so much as a single real conversation with either one of these people, and that it remained too
loud to remedy that here. We had been given the honor of being placed at what was essentially the head table.
Although my husband’s mother had been one of 11 children, his relatives’ ranks had suffered so much attrition
over the years that they could no longer fill their own table at a fancy affair. Gregg and Claudia had chosen to sit with
her parents and sister and his brother. As the next closest relatives there, the honor of filling out the seating had fallen
What if we hadn’t come, believing that it was too just much of an effort to make and, after all, we
were just distant relatives and essentially superfluous to the event? Would some real housewife and her husband simply have
taken our place?
And what about that notion of being distant and therefore superfluous? Erik, the bar mitzvah boy (who by
all reports did a bang-up job on the bimah) had a huge posse of friends present -- not just boys from his many sports teams,
but girls dressed in their own junior-sized glitzy regalia. Yet it takes an adult community of committed Jews to welcome a
bar or bat mitzvah child into their ranks the day that he or she becomes a woman or man.
Certainly, the closest friends and relatives are most vital to the
event. But we were there to represent the ancestors, the many progenitors in my husband’s family who came generations
before. And that’s what becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is largely about.
It’s also about dancing.
Dancing your butt off. For it is indeed a joyous celebration. While everyone wrings their hands about rampant intermarriage,
another Jew has joined our ranks! Our people will live to see another day after all, with many more generations to come. So
after dinner, my husband and I danced a whole lot more, rubbing elbows and hips and sequined butts with many a housewife on
By the time we were saying our
drawn-out Jewish goodbyes to Maurice, Margie, Jamie and Co., I realized how glad I was to have been there. We’d been
well-fed. No tears had been shed. We’d had so much fun, in fact, that it was hard to tear ourselves
away. So after being the last guests to arrive that morning, we were the last ones to leave that night.
And face it, just as what you get
out of most situations depends on what you give, showing up is always better than not showing up. We made the effort. We were
there. And given the chance, we would gladly go again in a heartbeat. In fact, I’m hoping that wedding phase will start
kicking in soon. I’m not sure I want to wait another nine years.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
A Word From the Weiss
All too often, we all start sentences with those seven wistful words -- “I don’t remember the last time I…”
– then follow them up with some activity that we ought to do more often: “I don’t remember the last time
I went out dancing.” “I don’t remember the last time I took a nice, hot bath.”
Or, “I don’t remember the last time I called my mother.” (Well, hopefully not that one.)
But there was one activity about
which I recalled exactly the last time I’d done it. And I was painfully aware that way too much time had managed to
elapse ever since.
I’m talking about going on a mother-daughter getaway, one of those spontaneous and incomparably special
adventures that we need desperately and relish thoroughly, yet somehow never get around to planning because life and whatnot
get in the way.
I took such a trip with my daughter Allegra, her good friend Samara, and Samara’s mother Laurel back
in September of 2004. Laurel had noticed an irresistibly cheap, end-of-summer promotion advertised by a Catskills-style hotel
nestled in the Berkshires. The girls, then 14, had been separated all summer and were about to return to high school.
My son, meanwhile, had just left home for his first year of college. Men always seem to go away for golf outings, fishing
trips and other sporting events. Why not us?
The hotel, called Eastover, decidedly had seen better days, yet offered more than enough diversions to fill
our one overnight there, from swimming and horseback riding to skeet shooting and archery. There was even a herd of buffalo
on the premises to visit. We also managed to fit in a thought-provoking modern play at nearby Shakespeare & Co. Yet it
was the joy-provoking camaraderie that made the weekend so memorable. The excursion proved to be so invigorating that
we vowed to make it an annual event.
Yet you know how it goes, especially when four busy people try to
synchronize their schedules. At least one of us always couldn't find the time to fit in even a single night away.
“Next year, for sure,” we kept resolving. How easy it is to put things off in life, knowing that there will
always be another chance.
Seven whole years managed to sail by in this way. Then suddenly, last week, we ran
out of “next years.” Laurel has been offered a job in another country. Samara has one year of college left, but
Allegra graduated in May and is moving on with her own life. We realized that it was probably now or never. And we came to
a unanimous decision.
The only questions that remained were what, where, and how? Everyone
else seemed too busy to take any initiative, so I sprang into hurried action.
My first inclination was to try duplicating our previous experience as closely as possible. But that rundown
resort, I soon discovered, was under new ownership. The quality of the premises had gone up precipitously. So had the prices,
though. Meanwhile, all of those wholesome, old-fashioned activities had been purged. The stables had been transformed
into a banquet hall, the horses and the buffalo presumably sold or put out to some other pasture.
To top that off, the place remained under construction. I still went to the effort of convincing
the new owners to waive the new two-night minimum and let us stay only on Saturday night, just in case the girls
truly had their hearts set on it. (“We have to do Eastover,” Allegra had written to me. “This is not an
option, it’s a necessity!”) Then I began hunting for better alternatives.
That resort is located in lovely
Lenox, MA, which is also home to Tanglewood, the tranquil summer music venue. Its programming had just wound up for the season.
But a bit further up the road is another bucolic mecca, Kripalu, a serene yoga center. This former monastery features spare
yet pricey overnight accommodations, but also offers one-day passes. For $100 on Saturdays and $75 the rest of the week, you
can go for an entire day, eat three healthy, vegetarian-oriented meals and take life-enriching classes in everything from
meditation and “The Enchantment of Chanting” to something called “The Yoga of Yes.”
That may sound a little too touchy-feely for some people, but I’ve done it twice before and had an
incredible time. I was heartened to call and discover that it had a world music concert (a new-age genre that Allegra enjoys)
on Saturday night. So I was frustrated to email everyone all of these options in great detail and hear back that Allegra wasn’t
available to leave New York City until sometime Saturday morning. (I hate to be my late father’s nice Jewish daughter,
but even when it comes to Zen experiences, I'm a zealot about getting my money’s worth. What’s the point
of paying $100 apiece to spend a whole day somewhere when you aren’t going to arrive until mid-afternoon?)
This, though, was nothing compared
to the major setback in store for us later that night.
At Laurel’s urging, I decided to nix the pricey resort and, after a lengthy search, negotiated a very
affordable rate for The Yankee Inn, a newly renovated motel with both an indoor and outdoor pool.
No one seemed too enthusiastic about the only current offering at Shakespeare & Co., a play called War of the
Worlds, adapted from the H.G. Wells sci-fi novel and based on the infamous radio-show hoax created by actor Orson Welles
that threw listeners into a panic back in 1938. (The girls probably didn’t know the difference between the author and
the beefy Citizen Kane star, despite Orson having an extra “e” in his name and at least 300 extra pounds
on his frame.)
Everyone seemed intrigued, though, by another literary adaptation I found, based on the Chaim Potok novel
My Name Is Asher Lev. This production, about a young Jewish painter whose artistic ambitions conflict with his parents’ values
and the rigid strictures of his Hassidic upbringing, had been playing to rave reviews at the Barrington Stage Company, in
nearby Pittsfield. Unfortunately, it was finishing its run that weekend. When I’d first looked, there’d been four
seats together. By the time I got the go-ahead to buy them, it was completely sold out.
For the rest of the day, till well past midnight, I continued checking online periodically to see if
someone had turned tickets back in. I also kept phoning the box office, manned by a poor young woman who clearly didn’t
want to be my new best friend. “The show is sold out for the rest of the run,” she kept replying patiently, then
not quite so patiently.
Finally, I came up with an assortment of other options and figured that I’d let
the girls choose as the weekend unfolded. Besides, what difference did it really make what we did? As long as we were together,
we were guaranteed to have a great time.
Or were we? Just before I shut the lights at 1 a.m. on Friday night,
Allegra phoned with big news.
Back in mid-August, as regular readers of this space may recall, Allegra’s longtime boyfriend learned
about a promising job opportunity in Los Angeles. Stevo, a talented guitarist who aspires to be an audio engineer, was recommended
by a close friend to a man who is opening a new recording studio. Stevo soon flew to L.A. for an interview. The man was encouraging,
but repeatedly delayed giving him an answer. Finally, a call came in late Friday night. Stevo had landed the job!
As wonderful as this development
might sound, it had a major downside. He would need to move back to the West Coast, where he grew up, before the end of the
month. He and Allegra had just moved to New York, where she was about to begin her own dream job. So she would be staying
One look at her face when she arrived at noon on Saturday told everything. She had barely slept all night
and then cried throughout the long drive home. How much would she possibly enjoy a single moment of the weekend? Then
again, maybe a brief respite from romance with her mom, her best friend and her best friend's mom was just what
she desperately needed.
As it happens, her friend Samara had just returned from working all summer on the West Coast, where she'd
met someone very special. Josh, a nice Jewish boy who lives near San Francisco, seems determined to keep the
relationship going, even though Sam has another year at Smith, in Northampton, MA, then may be applying to med school. Throughout
the weekend, the girls commiserated about their plights and joked about visiting their beaux together, even though Josh
is in the Bay Area and Stevo bound for L.A.
It was just as well that Laurel and I were bunking together, because we had plenty of issues to commiserate
about as well. I hesitate to divulge any deep personal confidences, of which we shared many. Suffice it to say that we are
each married to older men – my husband is more than a decade my senior, and Laurel, who is in her mid 50s, has a husband
who will turn 78 next week. I’m sure our husbands sometimes kvetch to others about how contrary and crotchety
their wives can be. Now it was our turn to play that game.
As for recreation, it turned out that I’d gone to far more
trouble than necessary. Samara and I had both packed copious snacks and a bottle of wine, and upon arrival we were all
more than content to sit at a picnic table outside devouring cheese and crackers, fresh fruit and vino. We got so carried
away gabbing and gulping, in fact, that we forgot to go for a swim.
Having packed four pairs of yoga
pants (just in case anyone else had forgotten theirs), I proposed that we repair to Kripalu for dinner, where the ample buffet
costs only $18 and is heavy on healthy items like stir-fried tofu and kale. Having brought mostly silk and lace, the girls
held out for something a bit more festive. They preferred to get all dolled up and find a stylish café downtown.
Before leaving, just in case, I gave one more call to the box office about Asher Lev. “We’re sold
out for the rest of the run,” a now-familiar voice said with a sigh.
It was just as well. Or Welles. We spent so many hours traipsing around town comparing the menus of the restaurants
that by the time we were ready to choose one, many had already closed for the night. This included the newly renovated Kemble Inn, a posh B& B that recently added
a restaurant, where we were still offered a tour of the premises, complete with a gleaming chandelier in the bright central
hallway and a gorgeous eggplant-hued velvet chair in which Allegra demurely posed, looking radiant and thoroughly content.
We finally settled on a cozy Italian
eatery named Frankie’s, where the food was far more upscale than the homey red-and-white checked tablecloths suggested.
Here we toasted with yet more wine, devoured delicious fare like my chicken piccata with copious capers and haricots verts,
and shared yet more confidences about our romantic histories (although Laurel merely blushed the color of the chianti when
her daughter went a little overboard with the camaraderie and dared to ask whether she’d ever slept with her own
high school boyfriend).
Afterwards, we were too bushed to have seen a play or done almost anything else. The girls came to our room
in their pajamas to chat, but soon we were all ready to turn in.
to forego spending the next day at
Kripalu, sensing this would be too much structured activity and that all the girls really wanted to do was hang out. Instead,
we slept late, then reconvened for breakfast, which included omelettes made to order, a surprisingly posh touch for what was
essentially a modernized motor inn.
Then we arranged for a late checkout so we’d have time at last for a swim. How content and exhilarated
the girls seemed, splashing around together before repairing to the adjoining hot tub for a soul-soothing soak. (Was it their
tendency to behave like conjoined twins that made people keep asking all weekend if they were sisters? Despite a certain resemblance
between them, Sam, who is Jewish, looks a lot like her dad, who is of Indian descent. Allegra's looks,
meanwhile, favor her own father's. Lord knows she doesn't look like me.)
After packing up, I made one last call to my reluctant contact at the Barrington Stage box office. You get
only one guess about what she said. So I finally gave up and called Shakespeare & Co. War of the Worlds turned
out to be much more appealing than any of us had anticipated, a rather camp romp in which the cast recreated a 1930s
radio variety hour, then descended into horror and mayhem under the onslaught of a mock invasion from Mars. (All's well that ends Welles, you might say.)
After this matinee performance, we meandered into town for the one
thing this mother-daughter excursion had been missing, a little shopping at my favorite store in Lenox, Shooz
(no explanation necessary). Then our daughters instantly neutralized this one distinctly girly interlude by
suggesting dinner in a rather rowdy sports bar with assorted beers on tap, a venue far more befitting a father-son outing.
It was fun, though, and as Cindi Lauper says, that’s just what girls want to have.
By the time we’d topped off
the meal with ice cream at ever-popular The Scoop, everyone was beyond relaxed and positively glowing with good humor.
Sadly, though, our much-anticipated getaway was coming to a close and it was time to leave for home.
Samara had driven her own car from school on Saturday and rendezvoused with the rest of us en route, whereupon
Allegra had joined her for the remainder of the trip. Now Laurel proposed that she ride with Sam for the first leg back, noting
that we moms hadn’t had any alone time with our own daughters. We readily agreed.
What a spectacular time we’d had, maybe even better
than the original trip seven years ago. We’d refueled our psychic engines. We’d laughed. We’d cried. We’d
done everything but see that Jewish play (although God knows we'd tried).
So as you can no doubt imagine,
I was a little stunned when we took off in our respective cars, and within five minutes Allegra broke down crying pitifully.
Then she exploded, full-throttle, at me.
She was still stewing about an unfortunate remark her dad had made
just before we'd left. She was still brooding about a far more innocuous comment I’d uttered on the way there.
But mostly, she was just worn out from keeping her distress bottled up all weekend. She had struggled to hold
in her feelings, she said, in order not to ruin the experience for everyone else.
Or perhaps she’d been genuinely distracted by all of our hilarity, feasting, and female bonding.
And now that we were returning home, reality had abruptly come back to roost.
I hesitate to betray her confidence
or offend her in any way, but the exchange that followed was probably a typical one between young people and their parents.
She accused me of all sorts of ludicrous things, like hating her boyfriend (something that could not be further
from the truth). She even went so far as to suggest that I was thrilled that he was obliged to leave.
I denied everything that she was
saying. I tried to defend myself. But I was so shocked to be verbally assaulted after all the fun we'd had and all that I’d
done to make the trip a success that I couldn't help getting steamed and yelling right back. I told her that I didn’t
deserve such treatment. I guess some retort I fired back must have seemed cruel and mean, because she actually shrieked at
me, “You’re mean!”
At this, I decided I couldn’t stand to listen to another word. That’s
what I told her. Then, until Laurel rejoined us for the final stretch, we rode for nearly 40 minutes in painful silence.
And so, as much as she’d endeavored to avoid it, she did ruin the weekend for me.
I probably should have anticipated her anguish, knowing how little time she’d
had to digest the difficult news before we’d left. But having her despair burst out now so suddenly and
brutally simply shattered my composure. It was as though the last 36 hours had pumped up my spirits like a giant balloon,
then it had been burst, not with a pinprick but a big poison dart.
One pathetic outcome was that once we had
arrived home, I in turn took my angst out on my husband. After deserting him for the weekend, I didn’t come back relaxed
and brimming with anecdotes and good cheer. I was far more miserable than I'd been when I left. Allegra, still fuming, insisted
on taking a 10:30 p.m. bus back to New York, so he drove her to the station. I crawled into bed to sulk and lick my wounds.
If you read here two weeks ago about the elaborate plans I made for my son’s 25th birthday, only to have them
scuttled by Hurricane Irene, you’ll recognize a familiar pattern in my life: I jump through
hoops to please my kids, but in the end I can't make them happy. Yet they have little trouble making me unhappy,
because my efforts not only sink like a stone but are too often not appreciated. Double whammy for Nice Jewish Mammy.
had left that night, we'd made a cursory attempt to hug and make up, but that did little to smooth my ruffled feathers. I
woke up the next morning feeling morose, and continued to brood all day.
Above all, though, I
was angry at myself. Whether or not my daughter was ungrateful, instead of lashing back out at her I should have tried to
console her. I knew that she was in excruciating pain and hadn’t mean anything she said.
I also couldn’t help thinking of all the times that my husband has
let himself get sucked into heated arguments with her, and I’ve chided him that he’s the adult and should
have the self-restraint not to react when at the ripe old age of 21 she still occasionally erupts like an adolescent.
Yet after all the trouble I’d gone to over the weekend, mostly with her in mind, it was hard
to step back, take my own advice and be a mature, thick-skinned grownup. I guess all of us are capable of being a little
adolescent at times, at almost any age.
Once again, at the end of our journey, my traveling companions
and I had resolved to make our getaway an annual event, or certainly not to let seven more years pass before repeating it.
But now all I could think in my tormented state, I must confess, was, “Never again!”
When my good friend Liz emailed to ask about my weekend, I poured this sorry tale out, with a little less detail, but
no less heartache.
“I think it's unfair that kids, even adult ones, make their parents into punching bags
when they're upset or confused about something,” she replied. This was a tendency her own 20-year-old daughter
often inflicted on her, she noted. Yet she assured me that no matter how bad I might be feeling now, I wasn’t a bad
“I wish you were my mom,” she added. “But if you were, I wouldn't want you to
internalize my unhappiness. I'd want you to be steady and there for me.”
Point taken. I began to consider that
I might be the one who needed to call and apologize. Yet I remained so despondent that I wasn’t quite ready
to do it.
The silence of the ensuing hours was almost unbearable.
Of course there are days when I don't hear from my daughter. But I don't remember the last time this happened only because
we actually weren't speaking to each other. So it was with enormous relief late that afternoon that I heard the phone ring
and saw Allegra’s number on the caller ID.
“I’m really sorry about what happened,” she began
plaintively. “And as stupid a thing as it might be to say, I hope it never happens again.”
“Me too,” was all I could
“I really don’t want you to think that I didn’t appreciate the weekend, because I did,”
she quickly added. “We all did. We had an amazing time. It was all so lovely, and you did so much work.”
I told her I knew that she appreciated
it, and that I was glad we had gone. Then we chatted about the weekend and her impending first day of work. And before I knew
it, I was scrambling to print out some glossy headshots she needed for an upcoming audition, then racing out to mail them
before the post office closed. In other words, I was once again her adoring personal assistant-slash-slave and we were already
back to normal.
I may be the adult, but I’m glad she proved to be a bigger man than I am by apologizing first. Mostly I'm glad it's
over. I don’t remember the last time I felt so stricken, then such a sense of relief.
I’m also glad once again that
I went to all that trouble to plan our mother-daughter excursion. Honestly, I don’t remember the last time I had so
But mostly, I don’t remember the last time I did something for the last time. So I hope I can remember
all this and keep my cool no matter what happens with my daughter over the next few weeks. Boyfriends may come, and boyfriends
may go, but I'm her mom. Her nice Jewish mom. I'm not going anywhere.
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Word From the Weiss
In a dramatic role reversal so abrupt that it’s liable to give me the bends -- a form of divers’ disease I would
normally never get, since like many a nice Jewish mother I refuse to put my head underwater – my son started grad school
this week, three years after finishing college, while his younger sister, who recently graduated, started work. (Will wonders,
let alone tuition bills, never cease?)
Then again, my son only has to attend classes one day a week, allowing
him to continue working on the other days. This means that both of my children are now employed.
Happily employed. Productively
employed. Gainfully employed? Well, that’s another story entirely, one that goes back several years. Maybe even decades.
Ten months after my husband and I were married, we moved into our first house, a fairly modest starter home
that needed a lot of work. Most of that work never got done. Within just a few months, I learned that I was pregnant. A second
child soon followed. Who could think about moving after that, let alone think? We stayed there for 14 years.
The closest thing to a family room that little old house featured was a tiny alcove off the living room.
Our children’s toys invariably migrated out of this nook and took over the entire first floor, where they appeared to
divide and multiply faster than fruit flies. Every time my father visited, he would take one look and shake his head in disgust.
“What is this, a toy store?” he’d ask. “Why do kids have so much stuff these days?”
What he really meant was why the heck did mine? I hadn’t been indulged like that. “You really ought to
donate some of this junk to poor children who have nothing,” he would scold repeatedly.
Ashamed by our vulgar display of bourgeois materialism-- since my husband and I, not our offspring, were
clearly the ones to blame – I began to realize that it wouldn’t be enough to simply pare down our excess inventory
of playthings. Also, as admirable as it might be to give away a bunch of used items we didn’t need any more, that wasn’t
exactly the height of true charity. I needed to start planting the seeds of philanthropy in our children before they grew
up thinking that life was simply about having lots of things. The problem was they were still so young. How to approach this
at such a tender age?
When Thanksgiving rolled around, I learned that our town was holding a turkey drive,
collecting food donations to ensure that all residents got to enjoy a holiday meal. So I drove my children, who were then 3 and 7, to the supermarket. Overflowing with rapture about my mission, I invited them
to help pick out appealing holiday choices. Instead, they began hitting each other with fruits and vegetables in the produce
aisle. They were more bent on doing bodily harm to one another than helping anyone else.
I realized that they were too young
(and/or too well fed) to understand what it felt like for others to often go hungry. I needed a different
way to get them engaged -- another way to talk turkey, or lack thereof.
The following Thanksgiving, I undertook
the food drive shopping all by myself. Afterwards, I showed my kids everything that I’d bought and asked them to help
me assemble bags filled with all of the customary turkey fixings for four different families. I asked them to imagine how
any children in those homes would feel seeing their moms unload all of the wonderful goodies they would get to eat, then asked
them to write or dictate letters and draw pictures wishing all those people a happy Thanksgiving.
Maybe because these tasks were fun and well within their skill sets, this new tack met with much greater
success. Both kids seemed to exhibit genuine empathy as they eagerly pitched in, then gladly accompanied me to deposit our
offerings at Town Hall. We repeated this exercise for several more years.
Yet thinking of others once a year
surely wasn’t enough.
So we began participating in our temple’s annual Yom Kippur food drive as well – not by purging
our cabinets of canned goods we’d probably never get around to eating ourselves, but by buying bagfuls of new groceries.
When the kids became old enough, I turned this into a bit of a competitive event, challenging them to take advantage of store
sales in order to see how economically they could each fill an entire shopping cart.
And although you shouldn’t
need a special occasion to display social awareness, we soon added another holiday as well – one that we didn’t
even celebrate ourselves. Each Christmas, we ordinarily sat at home feeling left out while the rest of the world presumably
opened gifts and had the time of their lives. Instead, we found a way to join in on the celebration -- by helping another
group that wasn’t having such a grand time either. On Christmas Day, we would go visit a nearby shelter for battered
women and their children, bringing wrapped new gifts for the youngsters, along with treat bags for their moms that we had
filled with candy, cosmetics, and other goodies they might enjoy.
This enterprise required a bit of a learning curve, I must admit. The little girls at the shelter seemed
to look askance at the black Barbie dolls we brought the first year, so we switched to more generic and far less controversial
presents, like arts and crafts kits. Meanwhile, their mothers seemed underwhelmed to receive nail polish, being already equipped
with perfectly executed manicures donated by a nearby salon. Who knew?
In fact, this charity soon became such a popular recipient of local largesse that we eventually had to move
One day, the year that my daughter entered middle school, a catalog arrived in the mail. It was from Oriental
Trading, the popular purveyor of party goods, and it was filled with pages of tchotchkes geared toward Valentine’s
Day. This was an occasion that had never been so much as acknowledged in the Jewish day school my kids had attended for elementary
school, being deemed much too goyishe (along with the ultra-pagan, ghoulish pageantry of Halloween). Now, suddenly,
it was fair game. And surveying all that frilly pink and red mishegas, I knew it was guaranteed to sell to my daughter’s
classmates like hotcakes and put any designated beneficiary in the black.
With the school’s permission, and guided by the dictates of my daughter’s prepubescent tastes,
I ordered $300 worth of paraphernalia from these pages. Then we set up shop together in the school’s front hall. For
the first two weeks of February, we ran a sort of Valentines variety store, selling stuff animals, bracelets, hair ribbons
and other such froufrou items, supplemented by baked goods made in our own kitchen and by a few other motivated mothers and
Our inventory got depleted so rapidly that each night, we’d have to take a portion of our earnings and
comb local stores for heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and other holiday goods on sale. Then we'd sell them the next day for
double the price. Each day, the clamoring crowd of kids armed with wallets was so thick and acquisitive that we needed to
enlist all of my daughter’s friends to help sell.
It was better than any lemonade stand any kid in history has probably ever run. By the end of that week,
we’d raised over $900. Sure, it required that initial $300 investment, a sum I wouldn’t have considered taking
back. But it was the mother of mother-daughter bonding experiences. It gave my 11-year-old an enormous sense of capability
and a taste for how good doing good can feel. And how often do you get to make a donation and functionally triple it with
a matching grant?
Since we’d used the students to serve as our customers, we decided to make them our recipients as well.
Both of my children were involved in the school music program, so, with arts funding being cut everywhere, we had the money
earmarked for that. We repeated that sale for two more years and managed, among other things, to replace the auditorium’s
antiquated speakers with new equipment that they presumably use to this day.
There was another long-range outcome. My daughter seemed permanently hooked on activism.
This became evident when she began
preparing for her bat mitzvah and undertook a so-called “mitzvah project,” a fund-raising effort not required
but strongly encouraged by our synagogue. Along with preparing to read from the Torah before the congregation for the first
time, she also would demonstrate her newfound sense of social responsibility by raising money for a cause of her choice.
Choosing a cause was easy. We read about a local organization that was funding musical instruction for children who
couldn’t afford it. Allegra had long been taking piano lessons and loved nothing more than to sing. Gifts of Music,
as it was called, was ideal.
The challenge was finding a way for a 12-year-old to raise any significant sum. At another mother’s
suggestion, she began collecting bottles and cans from our neighbors to bring back to the supermarket for the return fee,
as well as exchanging our own empties. But at a nickel a pop, this enterprise was going at a snail’s pace – not
to mention motivating her dad to drink beer with a little too much gusto.
So one day, after baking and decorating
a batch of sugar cookies, she decided to walk around the block, selling them from door to door. Not only did she manage
to unload the entire lot, but one nice neighbor was so impressed with Allegra’s artistry that she hired her to bake
dozens of cookies for her niece’s upcoming birthday party.
This netted $50, the equivalent of returning 1,000 cans. But even more compelling, it planted a brand new
idea in her brain, something she named Cookies for a Cause. For the next few years, until she graduated from high school,
Allegra would continue to advertise her baking services around town. I donated the ingredients, of course, helped her bake,
and invested in an inventory of cookie cutters vast enough to open a bakery. She, in turn, donated her time and effort, with
100 percent of all proceeds going to Gifts of Music.
Particularly popular were her autumn leaf cookies, painted with a sugar glaze in vivid shades of red, orange
and gold to resemble maple leaves falling from the trees. She also supplied children’s birthday parties, a bridal reception,
and a baby shower or two. But most orders came in around Christmas, Halloween and Valentine’s Day. So once again the
holidays became the hub of her philanthropic efforts.
By the time she was a high school senior, though, the bulk of her attention had been diverted away from baking
(and I don’t mean just by boys). There were college applications, lots of homework, and singing performances with her
school’s jazz band. But rising consciousness of the world at large brought a brand new cause célèbre.
During her junior year, Allegra had taken a class in human rights from an impassioned woman widely regarded to be the
most inspiring teacher at the school. The curriculum focused on genocide, child slavery, and other atrocities happening around
the globe. Allegra became so inspired that she chose to continue it with an independent study on the same subject
during her senior year with that teacher, Liz Devine, serving as her advisor.
This independent study largely revolved around Allegra’s founding a student organization at her school,
William H. Hall High, called the Hall Human Rights Coalition. Attracting an astonishingly wide membership, this group sponsored
fundraisers and teach-ins to enlighten other students and the surrounding community about ongoing human rights infractions.
Most memorable was a public rally they staged in front of Town Hall that fall to raise public awareness and protest the Rwandan-like
genocide then occurring in Darfur.
Hundreds of adults as well as students turned out to listen to a full roster of speakers, from a state senator
to our very own rabbi. Allegra was the first to take to the podium, though, urging the crowd to ignore the media’s tendency
to dismiss her peers as an apathetic, disengaged “Generation Y.” Their presence at this event, she said, was living
proof “that student activism is not only alive, but thriving.”
My most unforgettable moment,
however, came just as people began to assemble, waving placards and shouting slogans urging our government to do more. Mrs.
Devine, who is of roughly my vintage, turned to me to say that she hadn’t seen activism like this in several decades,
and that what it really called for was some music. They had a sound system already hooked up. Did I have any CDs in my car
that might do?
“You must be kidding,” I replied.
Her face fell instantly. “Nothing at all?”
I shook my head. “On the contrary,” I said, “what I meant was, you must be kidding to even imagine
I wouldn’t. What would you rather have -- The 60s Groovy Hits, The 60s MORE Groovy Hits, or Spirit
of the 60s, discs 1 and 2?”
She nearly hugged me as her eyes lit up like tiki torches. “Now you must be kidding,”
she said. “You expect me to choose? How about all of the above?”
I ran back to my car to fetch my
stash. And suddenly the last 35 years dissolved in a giant dose of déjà vu as the soundtrack of my own anti-war
youth ruled again, blaring “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the Byrds, “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas
and the Papas,” Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” and of course the ultimate peacenik anthem,
“Get Together” by The Youngbloods:
now, smile on your brother
Everybody get together,
Try to love one another right now.
Right now! Right NOW!!!
And for one brief moment, for the first time in decades, that’s exactly what we did. Everyone listened. People cheered
and chanted. The scene was so illuminating, so electrifying, that it felt like change was there in the
air, or at least the realm of possibility.
few months later, we saw a story on the CBS Evening News about The Memory Project, an nonprofit organization founded by a
young man named Ben Schumaker who had undertaken to have American students paint portraits of young orphans in developing
nations who had no photos to keep from their childhood. “How nice,” I said.
But what Allegra said was, “How can I get involved?"
to her school’s art department the next day, and within a few weeks she was hosting the nation’s largest exhibit
of these portraits to date, with 78 paintings of Mexican orphans done by her classmates on display and a silent auction that
raised hundreds of dollars for the cause.
So why, you may ask, did we end up paying for her to attend New England Conservatory,
a rigorous music college at which academics took a pronounced back seat to practicing and musical proficiency, and activism
was glaringly nonexistent?
just that Allegra was so serious about pursuing a career in music, her greatest passion, that she realized she would have
to make a sacrifice – to give up studying human rights and any other academic field in great depth in favor of honing
her craft as a jazz vocalist.
Yet her belief remained that music isn’t just another art form, but rather one that can be used to
serve some greater purpose (and I’m not referring to a religious one, or suggesting she'd like to become the world’s
first jazz cantor). “Music is a universal language,” she says, “one
that I believe can best be used as a vehicle for social change.”
So, once she'd arrived at
NEC, activism there was no longer non-existent. By sophomore year, she had founded another student group.
Musicians for Humanity, as she named it, strove to raise awareness and promote advocacy for
social causes by holding fund-raising concerts. For one, they teamed up with Jazz’d for Life, another Connecticut-based
nonprofit, to fund a holiday dinner for poor children in Haiti. Another, held last spring, raised funds for tsunami relief
Allegra’s great fear as graduation approached was that her musical degree might enhance her prospects as a singer,
but limit her from pursuing her other life goal. She'd long known that she’d need to take a “day job”
to pay the rent, but doubted that any nonprofit organization, particularly in the human rights arena, would take her seriously.
was heartened to come across an interesting job opportunity on Craigslist.
recuperating from wisdom teeth surgery, Allegra had broken down one night, lamenting that she’d been applying for jobs
since returning from her summer travels and had yet to receive so much as an acknowledgment from a single prospective employer.
She sounded so discouraged and distraught that I had to stifle an impulse to laugh.
“Honey, you’ve been job-hunting for all
of three weeks,” I reminded her. “In today’s economy, there are many people who've been grappling with those circumstances
Still, I took pity on her because she’s so eager, and because I knew she’d been filing applications almost
relentlessly, writing heartfelt letters that really deserved a response. So I decided to take a look at what was out there
and within her capabilities myself.
online clearing house for finding everything from housing and used furniture to lost pets, also lists employment opportunities
in a wide range of areas, from accounting and finance to web design. But none of those categories really relates to my daughter.
So I decided to check under “all jobs,” then plug in key words that applied to her ambitions. These words included
“music,” “jazz,” and “singer,” obviously. But given her history, the first one I entered
was “nonprofit,” and you wouldn’t believe what came up.
small New York nonprofit organization was searching for recent college grads to serve as interns by teaching a class in Human
Rights at various inner-city high schools.
“Building on the energy, talents and passion of its young members, the Advocacy
Lab gives students direction and specific tools to raise awareness and promote social justice around human rights issues affecting
youth,” the ad said. “The students are empowered with the skills, knowledge and resources necessary
to become future leaders, engaged members of the global community, and able to enact change in their daily lives.”
Because the job was unpaid, I assumed they were not
expecting applicants with stellar credentials. I forwarded this instantly to Allegra, along with other postings seeking waitresses
at jazz clubs and a receptionist for a record company. (OK, I also sent one seeking singers and dancers for a music video,
even though it noted that this production would “include some top less scenes.” But that's only because this seemed
like a surefire way to check if she would actually bother to read anything I sent.)
Apparently, she would. But that first ad was the only
one to which she responded.
“This is perfect!!!” she emailed back instantly. “I will apply
Within 15 minutes, she had drafted a cover letter that she asked me to proofread. Half an hour
later, she called.
“They responded already!” she squealed. “I have a phone interview tomorrow
That, I must confess, is when I stepped back and began to think about what I’d just done.
The plan had been that Allegra would get a paying day job to support herself while she continued to seek singing engagements
on the side. This internship was not only unpaid, but would require that she make a commitment through the entire school year.
Should she be offered a full-time paying job before June, she would have to turn it down.
She was so gung-ho
about this prospect, though, that I didn’t have the heart to discourage her. The phone interview went well. They went
on to check her references (including a glowing one from her old friend Mrs. Devine). And within two days, she had been hired.
The training took place over Labor Day Weekend, where Allegra met her nine fellow interns, all female and fanatically
impassioned like her, and got a taste of the basic curriculum. She called after session one.
“Oh, my God, it was amazing!”
she gushed. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge. But usually I’m a little bored and distracted in a
classroom, and here I was totally engaged.”
She’d already begun drafting her first lesson plan. “I can’t wait until tomorrow’s
session,” she exclaimed. “This is perfect for me. I could do this for the rest of my life and be happy!”
I pour out this lengthy saga not to bore you, I hope, and certainly
not to gloat, but mostly to present what you might call a portrait of the activist as a young woman. People often complain
that the younger generation seems self-involved, ignorant about global issues and geared toward personal gain. Maybe
that applies to many of them. But I know from witnessing my own daughter’s evolution that it isn’t universally
People often scratch their heads when they hear how we’ve encouraged both of our kids to
pursue creative careers, which threaten to be risky at best in terms of remuneration. How do I defend that the fact
that the day job my daughter chose isn’t risky, but simply pays nothing at all?
The only way I can explain it is
to go back to the beginning and try to determine what it is that fired her up somewhere along the line. Although I do my share
of donating money to the Jewish Federation, the local Jewish book and film festivals and assorted other causes, I assure you
that she didn’t get this way from watching me.
It may have been any or all of the experiences I just related and the many people who encouraged or inspired
her along the way. (It didn’t hurt that one of her best friends’ fathers is Chengiah Ragaven, a renowned peace
activist once exiled for 25 years from his native South Africa, where he was a pre-eminent leader of the anti-Apartheid movement
during the 1960s. He's egged her on a lot.)
Or maybe it was just something innate in her character. My son grew
up in the same house and took that high school human rights course as well. He’s hard-working, good-natured and scrupulously
ethical, but not especially keen on social causes.
He also never became one of those earnest, often self-righteous kids who ask friends to donate to a designated
charity in lieu of bringing them birthday gifts. (That’s what Allegra did when she was 12, managing to raise money to
buy a goat or cow or some other form of livestock for a poor family in South America after another catalog, from Heifer
International, arrived at our door. And yes, many kids brought presents to her party too, although she didn’t need them.
More than a decade later, altruistic or not, she still had too much stuff!)
Make no mistake, she’s no Mother Teresa by any means. She’s a fairly normal, regular kid. She
likes to go out. Loves good food, clothes and makeup, and hanging out with friends. She does her share of drinking, no doubt.
She even talks back to her nice Jewish mom. But when she is good, she’s not just very, very good. She's a better man
than I am, Gunga Din!
The fact is that I heartily endorse the idea
of young people giving back to society by performing some form of public service before they go into full throttle seeking
their fortunes, the way many in my generation once joined the Peace Corps (although I must confess that I never did that
And so, although Allegra longs
to be self-supporting, the parental subsidy will continue for now.
Maybe this latest adventure in activism will lead her somehow to where she ultimately wants to go. Although
she intends to sing professionally, she also talks of starting her own non-profit group someday. She still hopes to use
music not just to entertain, but to call attention to causes in which she believes. Perhaps that doesn't require making
either pursuit take a back seat to the other. Maybe she can indeed "have it all" by becoming, on some level, a
sort of Jewish Angelina Jolie of jazz.
At least for the moment she’s happily employed. Productively employed. Gainfully employed? Well, that
depends on what you mean by “gainfully.” Someone is bound to benefit from her efforts. At the very least, the
young students she aims to inspire.
And so, along with singing about the A Train, she’ll soon
presumably be taking it. She starts teaching at a Harlem high school next week. My dad would probably scold me about the location.
But I think that he'd be proud.
|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