Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Something New Under the Sun

To celebrate November 23, 2010, the first birthday of my granddaughter Myra Laine, I'm posting an essay I wrote shortly after she was born. All I can add is aptly summed up in this lyric by Marshall Barer from the Broadway show "Once Upon a Mattress."

Yesterday I loved you as never before,
But please don't think me strange;
I've undergone a change,
And today I love you even more...

OK, it's happened to me. I've heard about it, read about it, seen the effects on others, and even wondered what all the fuss was about. Now I know. It's happened to me: I've beheld my first grandchild for the first time.

Myra Laine Layman. Myra Laine, as dainty and perfect as a baby girl can be. Tiny - only five pounds -- with ballerina legs and pianist fingers and a mouth like a rosebud. And I'm smitten.

Her grandfather calls her Zuzu (go figure) and it suits her. Now Zuzu populates my thoughts as I cook ("Zuzu will like this casserole because Zuzu is going to be a girl who loves vegetables"), shop ("Wouldn't that little dress look cute on Zuzu?"), clean out closets ("Zuzu can dress up in this hat"), read the paper ("I have to save this cartoon for Zuzu"), walk the dog ("I'll take Zuzu here and show her this dogwood tree"), and on and on. I'll tell her stories, make up songs for her, dress her up in scarves and pearls, teach her how to bake Challah and custard pie, and read and read and read to her. I'll teach her big words and funny rhymes and how to tap dance and crochet and harmonize.

I remember when my mother saw Myra Laine's daddy for the first time. Just one week old. She flew down from New York to Richmond and my husband picked her up at the airport. She rushed into the house with a hug and a kiss for me, then tiptoed into the bedroom where the baby lay sleeping in his bassinet. She approached him. When she beheld him, I heard an intake of breath, and then she uttered a sound I had never heard before: it was both a sigh and an exclamation of the deepest awe and satisfaction, as if she had lived every day of her life just to see that face and to make that newly-minted sound. The sound of a first-time grandmother. I heard myself make that sound when I beheld Myra Laine.

My husband's respected friend and mentor used to tell him, "There's nothing new under the sun." My husband recalled this the other night as we were talking about our Zuzu. "He was wrong," my husband realized, "Every time a baby is born, there is something new under the sun." A new life to be lived, a new little creature that has never been before, a new being infused with God's special purposes and designs and treasures. For our pleasure, for His glory -- something new under the sun.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Curtis Files - The Last Song

Curtis Files was in the audience at Dream Mecca Studio at the Daniel Day Gallery on Friday night. I was there to hear 2Blu & The Lucky Stiffs, and they were making some beautiful music for the full house at the stylish, offbeat venue on 6th Avenue South in Birmingham.

Curtis, an old-time blues singer -- 81 years old, I'm told -- was introduced as the upcoming act for next Friday night. Later, when the band invited guests to sit in, Curtis took the floor. "I'm ready," he said, "At least I've got to hope I'm ready."

The band laid down a rhythm, but Curtis said, "I'm not feeling it." He turned to the band, raised his hand, and they became his. "Give me a twelve-bar blues in A." The drummer laid it down and the bass and guitar started the slow, familiar progression that settles deeper in your soul every time it comes around. "Put some B.B. King in it," Curtis directed, and the guitarist did. We were all feeling it.

Curtis started to sing:

"I have had my fun if I never get well no more.
I have had my fun if I never get well no more.
All of my health is failing;
Lord, I'm going down slow,
I'm going down slow."

His voice was a little tight -- he hadn't had time to warm up -- but it was strong and melodic. He sang another verse:

"Please write my mother and tell her the shape I'm in.
Please write my mother and tell her the shape I'm in.
Tell her to pray for me,
Forgive me for my sin,
For all of my sin."

Curtis turned and handed it off to George Dudley, the guitarist, who took it up a notch. It was good. Curtis was leading and the room followed. His groove was immediate and visceral, and we all went there with him. He was in it with all his heart. Then his heart gave out.

We watched as he bent forward from the waist, then continued forward and down, grasping the speaker as he reached the floor. He rolled onto his back. He was still.

The audience sat aghast for a frozen moment.

911 was called. A pillow was placed under his head. A small group gathered around him, holding his hands and speaking to him. People prayed. A man and a young woman stepped up and performed CPR. We heard a ragged breath. Hope filled the room.

The paramedics arrived and did their job. Their poker faces didn't tell us anything. They took Curtis to the hospital.

Stunned and subdued, we talked quietly for some time. Then the band took the stage again and began to play. The music was good. It was passionate and powerful. Bruce Andrews' harmonica told the story. The room was a single-minded congregation.

The phone call came: Curtis didn't make it.

The music stopped. A woman sobbed. People gathered in twos and threes to comfort one another. We drifted out into the night, burdened and, somehow, blessed by what we had witnessed.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Presentation at "Darkness into Life" Opening Reception

Here is the text of my presentation at the opening reception for the Darkness into Life Holocaust education exhibit at Parnell Memorial Library in Montevallo, Alabama on Nov. 7, 2010:

I grew up Jewish in New York City, and my own back ground is Ashkenazic -- Eastern European. My grandparents grew up in shtetls -- little villages -- in Poland. They came to this country in the early 1900's, so they were safe during the Holocaust. My family never spoke of the ones who stayed behind and I don't know their stories. I wish I did.

The culture I was raised in was the culture of the Eastern European Jews. It's a passionate culture that traveled with us to Ellis Island and to cities around the globe, and it took root wherever we were planted. I'd like to share a little bit of that culture with you today.

My grandparents spoke Yiddish, a richly idiomatic language with elements of both German and Hebrew. Yiddish words like chutzpah, glitch, shmooze and oy vay have worked their way into the American vernacular, so most of us speak a little Yiddish without even realizing it. I never really learned the language as a child, except for what I picked up around the dinner table. My parents both spoke Yiddish, but usually when they didn't want the kinderlach -- the children -- to understand what they were saying.

The music of the shtetls was Klezmer, a style that is distinctive in its upbeat wildness, yet the songs are almost always in a minor key. It's folk music that borders on jazz in its spirit, and it always makes us want to dance. You'll experience Klezmer music this afternoon, thanks to our band led by Alan Goldspiel. By the way, Alan is open to suggestions for a name for this new band. The current frontrunner is "Goldspiel and the Gefilte Fishes." You can see why he needs some input.

Gefilte Fish, by the way, is fish cakes cooked in broth and served with horseradish. It's a standard on Jewish holidays.

What can I say about Jewish food? It's made with the simplest ingredients -- a chicken, a carrot, a potato, an onion -- the foods that were available in the shtetls. Savory dishes that are slow-cooked to bring out all the goodness. Rich pastry doughs filled with fruit and nuts. Oh, the flavors! Smoked whitefish. Pickled herring. Golden braided loaves of challah on Shabbos - the Sabbath. And you haven't had brisket until you've had Jewish-style brisket.

Today we'll have some nosharei -- little snacks -- so you can get a taste of Jewish cooking. You'll sample mandelbrot -- almond bread (my mother's recipe), rugelach --- little pastry rolls with sweet fillings (a friend's recipe), and apple kuchen -- apple cake squares (my grandmother's recipe) -- all prepared for us today with a little help from my friends. And no, I'm not planning to open a Jewish bakery in Montevallo, but would it be such a bad idea?

Humor is one of the things that gets us through the hard times, and we've had some hard times. But we can still laugh, and we often laugh at ourselves. For a wonderful overview of Jewish humor and the Yiddish language, I recommend the book The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten. He uses classic Jewish jokes and anecdotes to illustrate the meanings of Yiddish words. It's very entertaining!

And while you're at the library -- the wonderful stories of 19th century writer Sholom Aleichem tell the tales of life in the shtetls. One of his stories, "Tevye the Milkman," became Fiddler on the Roof. His stories about the town of Chelm -- a shtetl populated entirely by fools -- are classics of Jewish folklore. Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer also told the tales of the shtetls in his short stories. One of his stories, "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy," became the movie Yentl.

Learning was a priority for my family and for all the Jewish families we knew. The educational accomplishments of our children make Jewish parents and grandparents kvell -- be filled with pride, and Jewish children take on the mantle of learning with enthusiasm and dedication. We like to make our elders kvell.

In talking about Jewish culture, I've saved Jewish mothers for last because I could write a book, and someday I probably will. I am a Jewish mother and -- what can I say? Everything you've heard -- it's all true. We're so passionate about our children that it sometimes makes us -- and them -- a little neurotic. But at the heart of the Jewish mother is a woman who just wants all good things for her children, and like the writer Elizabeth Stone, feels that becoming a mother means having your heart walking around outside your body.

A friend of mine pointed out to me that it's a trait shared by all mothers. Yes, I agree, but I think we're just more vocal about it. My own sons can fill you in if you want details. Of course, they have a wonderful Gentile father who helped balance some of the mishegas - the craziness -- and I think they've turned out OK.

I know some of you had Jewish mothers. And I know some of you are Jewish mothers. You know who you are. And here in Alabama there's another category -- the honorary Jewish mother. And you know who you are.

Our Jewish mothers sang Yiddish lullabies to us, they fed us chicken soup with matzoh balls floating like clouds on golden broth, they told us to study hard and stand up straight and wear a sweater. They kvelled over us and they blessed us. I'd like to dedicate this occasion to the memory of my own mother and to the Jewish mothers who were lost in the Holocaust. Zichronam l'vracha -- May their remembrance be for a blessing.

And I hope you'll feel at home in our celebration of Jewish culture this afternoon. You're certainly welcome to partake.