Friday, April 29, 2011

When It Hits Home

It was a one-two punch that hit Birmingham on April 27.

First, there were the 70-80 mph straight line winds that came fast and fierce in the early morning, uprooting many trees and snapping many more off at mid-trunk. Power lines were down; roads were blocked.

Then eight hours later, it began again. This time it was twisters, moving in packs across the state, defining their paths with wreckage. Then came the monster – a gargantuan, relentless mile-wide spinning mass of immense power and fury that traversed 185 miles of our state. Those of us who still had power saw it on TV – first as it approached Tuscaloosa and then as it approached Birmingham. We watched it bearing down on our city skyline, on the UAB complex. Even the weatherman said, “Wow.”

Downtown Birmingham was spared as the tornado plowed a path just north of the city center, utterly shattering Pratt City as it did the Rosedale community of Tuscaloosa. The loss is immeasurable.

Eighteen people died in the Birmingham area – over two hundred in the state. I wonder how many more lives might have been lost if not for the remarkable work of our local TV weathermen. I stayed tuned to Fox6 and tracked the imminent paths of the storms with meteorologist J.P. Dice and his team. Day to day, these guys report on the mundane warm fronts and cold fronts that pass through our area, but on April 27 they demonstrated their passion for what is surely the highest calling of a meteorologist: saving lives.

J.P. Dice was single-minded in his determination to identify the communities, the streets, even the local businesses that were in the paths of the multiple storms that raced across Alabama, and to alert us to the exact time we could expect to be affected. Alone in my house and uneasy about the trajectory of the storms that were moving through Shelby County, I was profoundly grateful to be told, “A tornado will cross I65 near the Shelby County Airport in 10 minutes. If you’re not in your safe place, go there now.” I went, and I continued to follow Dice’s reports on my portable radio. When that storm passed, it was followed by another within the hour. Again, I followed instructions. I think a lot of others did, too, and I believe J.P. Dice and his fellow meteorologists can be credited with saving lives in the Birmingham area.

As in other natural disasters we’ve seen, the worst devastation hit communities of limited resources. Why? Only God knows why He allows the things He allows. We don’t even dare to ask, because we know His thoughts are unfathomable. Still, I have to trust Him. I know there are many others in our community who trust Him and are asking for His mercy and blessings. I’ve read reports of people who lost their homes and all of their material possessions, yet are praising God for preserving their lives. I’m humbled by this evidence of faith. If I’m ever tested in such a way, I hope I’ll be able to respond with praise and thanksgiving to the One to whom my life belongs.

I want to help, as I know so many others do. Already the community is mobilizing and organizing, and the need for help will be ongoing. There are things we can do. We can donate money to community relief organizations. I chose to donate to the Tornado Recovery Fund established by the Birmingham Jewish Federation, which is coordinating efforts with local relief agencies and will give 100% of the money collected to community relief. (‘Tornado Recovery’ in the Comments box.)

Hands On Birmingham is a clearing house that is gathering volunteer information and will make contact when specific volunteer opportunities arise. I registered on their website.

The people of Birmingham are a generous people, a caring people. I believe we’ll come through for the ones who need us now.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Guest Blogger - Milton Rabinowitz

This story was written by my late father, Milton Rabinowitz, who taught me how to tell a story. It's the first piece in a 'text and picture' album he created about the life of his father, Hyman Rabinowitz, an entertainer and liturgical music arranger on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the first quarter of the 20th century. Because of his rich and impressive basso voice, my grandfather was known professionally as Chayim Bass.

by Milton Rabinowitz

The house lights were on. I could see that the show was a sellout. I was ten years old, sitting with my mother in the Clinton Theater (a half block north of Delancey Street) waiting for my father to come out on the stage and sing. I was holding an aisle seat for him.

The attraction that day was a special showing of the much talked about German silent fantasy movie "The Golem." Big deal. Over on East Third Street, the American Theater had a Douglas Fairbanks thriller, and, glumly, that's where I wanted to be.

Everybody in the movie house was talking and laughing and waving to one another. It was a big party. The manager walked out on the stage and motioned to the pit. There was a piano fanfare. Finally the noise flattened to a few coughs, whisperings, and shushes. In Yiddish, the manager announced that this motion picture was a special event on the East Side. "The Golem" was a folk legend. An ancient clay monster, dug up in Prague, is brought to life by a rabbi. He charges it with the mission of saving persecuted Jews.

Befitting this solemn occasion, the manager said, there was an extra treat. The well-known bass vocalist Chayim Rabinowitz was engaged to render an appropriate prelude in song: "Eili, Eili" (God of mine, why hast thou forsaken me?) Big deal. I had been hearing his songs every day of my whole life.

There was a brief spatter of applause as my father appeared from the wings and went center stage to stand in front of the big white screen. As usual, he wore a dark suit, a white shirt with a stiff, removable collar into which one of his pre-formed ties was inserted, and a black yarmulke. My father bowed, nodded to the piano in the pit and began the mournful song. His bass voice was soft and controlled as he sang of his love of Torah and the laws of God.

Then something spellbinding happened. It seemed, somehow, that he was no longer singing to this audience. Everyone sensed it. He was alone with God. His face was turned heavenward, his palms up and the quiver in his voice entreating. It was theatrical magic. Or was it? His deep voice and those tragic words were perfectly wedded. I saw that my mother was weeping, but there were handkerchiefs out all around us. Was this the same man who could make people laugh and shout with ribald songs at Opatowsky's Restaurant and at Warschauer Society parties? The anguish of each word was in my father's hands and body.

When the notes reached the upper register of the song's climax, he was the ultimate supplicant. It was "Sh'ma Yisroel, Adonoy Eloheynu, Adonoy Echad!" -- (Hear, O' Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One!) and it was over. There was a beat of absolute silence and then a roar rocked the theater. The spell was broken and my father's stagecraft took over. He bowed a few times to the right and left, backing gracefully off into the wings. The house lights were turned off abruptly and "The Golem" began.

After awhile my father came down the aisle, found us in the dark, and took his seat. He placed a small carrying bag in my lap as if it were meant to be mine. It had the nice, solid feel of lots of money in coins. For me? I was surprised, delighted, and naive. My father had been paid directly from the box office receipts. My hands groped around trying to locate the opening of the bag. My mother promptly took it away from me. She was quite content to keep its weight in her lap for the rest of the evening.

I believe I understand now the reason for the unusual intensity of my father's performance that day. I think he was harboring a dire secret that had touched his own mortality. And in the way he knew best, he implored God to witness that the tears flowing in the theater were for him. God was moved and granted my father one year more.