Monday, December 30, 2013

Thank You VCCA

End of the year, a good year writing and publishing, “Hiding,” published in Ascent, named a notable essay in Best American Essays of 2013, “Hidden Messages,” published in Stone Voices, “The Groves,” published in Calyx, “Pilgrimage,” published in Ploughshares. And none would have been possible without the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts where I worked on every one of these essays. And my latest body or work, essays about Jews, Vichy France and the Second World War all began at Moulin a Nef, VCCA, France. In 2011 during a residency at Moulin a Nef, I was looking for new work, and I found it in the quiet village of Auvillar and beyond, in Beaulieu Sur Dordogne, in Paris, researching, interviewing, writing.
            So thank you, VCCA for the time, the space, the magic of Mount Saint Angelo, of Moulin a Nef, all made possible by a dedicated staff and the generosity of those who love and support the arts.

Happy New Year.

Friday, December 6, 2013

"Hidden Messages" in Stone Voices

The winter issue of Stone Voices, published by Shanti Arts is available to order both in print and on line. Stone Voices explores the strong connections between art and spirituality. You will find beautiful visual art and fine poetry and prose in these pages. I am so proud to have my essay, “Hidden Messages” in this winter’s issue. “Hidden Messages” is about a nine year old boy who was a courier for the Resistance during the Second World War and about Auvillar, a village in south west France, that still, today, mostly hides its Second World War history. I was particularly drawn to this boy’s story because we share the same family name: Hirsch. And our families both came from the Alsace in France. Were we related? Probably not. Still, I was fascinated. I pursued his story along the story of Jews in Auvillar. And as always, I punctuated my text with my own story, an American Jew growing up in the shadow of what became known as the Holocaust.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Atlantic Center for the Arts. New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Rain poured in sheets. The Commons, the stove, my coffee seemed miles away. Outside, wearing a raincoat, flip flops, carrying a purse over my shoulder, holding tightly to the handle of my red umbrella, I sloshed through unavoidable puddles, then along wooden walkways, up a ramp. Inside the Commons, I boiled water, pressed espresso roast coffee through a filter, then walked back to my room, coat damp, hems of my capris soaked. Holding my coffee mug in my right hand, I figured I'd walk through a hurricane for a mug of strong black coffee. Time curved back, and she was, here, matching my stride, my mother dead these last eleven years, talking in that easy way we had with one another, “Do you remember when I did?”
            And I saw her short torso bent at the waist, shoulders thrusting forward, her salt and pepper hair, a wild halo around her head. She'd closed her fist around the black handle of a metal percolator. The pot had a glass ball at the top where coffee would bubble up, then drip through a metal filter. I used to love watching that glass ball, filling with coffee, the color turning from tan to nearly black. That’s when Mom would turn off the gas burner.
Gas burner, that was the problem the day Mom walked out into the eye of the storm. The year was 1947. I was eight. We’d gone to a friend’s house on higher ground for safety, a house with hurricane shutters. Dad had just bought the Lingerlong Hotel in Hollywood, Florida, a two story rectangular building with about thirty rooms. To buy the place, he’d taken out two mortgages. Little did he know that without hurricane insurance, the storm would ruin him. We three, Mom, Dad and I lived in an apartment in the back, two bedrooms, a kitchen and a gas stove. The storm had taken down utility poles and left wires snaking in streets and on lawns. No electricity. That stove was Mom’s ticket to a cup of coffee. She walked out into the eye of the storm, then, triumphantly, hurried back, fronds of palm trees already swaying, rain falling. Inside, she set the coffee pot down onto a hot pad, filling the kitchen with the aroma of fresh brewed coffee.

Take me to a Starbucks once, I’ll find the store for you again. I have a homing instinct for coffee, and Starbucks brews an espresso that meets my taste. You can go on about bitterness, about the way the company has pushed the small vendor aside, and I do have great sympathy for that. When I can, I frequent independent coffee shops and buy books at independent stores. But, let’s face it, I often succumb to convenience, ease and consistency. Consistency. I mulled the word and its synonyms, stability, equilibrium. That was Mom, comforting me after Dad raged and called me, stupid, said I was rotten and no good. Later, Mom would hold me close, tell me my father didn’t mean what he’d said. For years, I couldn’t see her complicity, the way her words, gave Dad permission to keep on raging, keep on yelling, keep on making me feel smaller and smaller. Still, I took comfort in her body, touch healing as my ghostly mother walked beside me in the rain, all these years later, Mom, holding the handle of a metal percolator, me clutching my travel mug. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

In Moissic, photo by Susan Hillyard

I am in Moissac, France, a village about twenty kilometers north of Auvillar, searching for the house where Jewish refugee children lived during the Second World War, a "safe" house. I have an address, 18 le Port that I show to a woman in the Tourist Bureau. She sends me to the port where tourist boats are tied up a dock. This is not the place. Clearly, she did not choose to hear what I said—in French; yes, haltingly, but still French, la maison Juif. My companions, Eugene Gloria, a poet, and Susan Hillyard, a photographer, and I consult a map. We walk, looking for a street named, le Port. Eugene suggests I ask a group of men and women picnicking at the river for directions. They are French. One young woman who speaks English, points our way, but as we walk, I’m insecure, so I stop at a hotel, ask a man behind a desk, receive the same directions. I am writing about Jews and France during and right after the Second World War and about the attitudes of these villages, a collective conscience that some have and others don’t. For two years, now, I’ve returned to France, conducted interviews, visited a "safe" house in Beaulieu,  a village in the Dordogne. The house was run by the Jewish Scouts, Eclaires Israelites Francais, a normal scouting organization before the War, a resistance organization during the War. I’ve visited Moissac, the cathedral, the famous Abbey, all of the usual tourist sites which obviously did not include the house where Jewish refugee children had lived. Nor had I known that the Jewish Scouts had operated a safe house in Moissac, so close to Auvillar, the village where I generally stay. Finally, we find what we think is the correct street. Eugene finds a plaque affixed to number eighteen, but it is not a plaque that memorializes Jewish children or the people of Moissac. Eugene reads aloud—something about Napoleon, when suddenly, a window opens, and a head appears, startling me, startling Susan. Eugene stops reading. Half in shadow, voice speaks as if from a ghostly past, “Je suis Napoleon,” I am Napoleon.
            At that moment, I believe he is Napoleon. He’s smiling, joking. Again, I ask about la maison Juif. As I listen, intently, my frizzy hair flying he points, giving directions in both English and French, and this is when Susan snaps the photo of me and Napoleon.
We walk again. Now, my friends are impatient, Susan lagging behind, Eugene forging ahead, then stopping to ask if I’m sure there was a house in Moissac.
I snap. “Of course, I’m sure.”
Then, I apologize. This is my quest, not his, and I’m wondering why finding this house is so important to me. Why do I want to see bricks and mortar, windows, the door where those children and their caretakers entered and left. The door where before a German raid, the mayor would send a messenger to warn the directors, Shatta and Boule Simon. Always, their rucksacks were packed, their tents ready so they could leave, quickly, and head to the hills until danger had passed. 
Walking again, we leave the river, and now I’m sure we’re off track. Another hotel, another set of directions. This time we find a small plaza and there on a wall, two plaques, one honoring Shatta and Boule Simon, a second honoring the people of Moissac for opening their hearts and their homes to protect Jewish children during the dark years of the German occupation. And I realize this is where everyone was sending me, not to a house, but to this small plaza named for Shatta and Boule Simon. We read and linger, then I walk, hurriedly, back to number eighteen. The window is closed. No one says in a deep voice, “Je suis Napoleon.” I take a picture. Perhaps, this is the house. Perhaps, it isn't. Still, I’m satisfied. I don’t know why. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Caves at Pech Merle, France

Yesterday, visiting Pech Merle, an ancient cave near Cabreterts, a village in the midi-Pyreéneées section of France, I could not believe my guide’s words. The drawings in these caves are 25,000 years old, renderings of horses, mammoths, aurochs, pre-historic cows, bear and the imprint of a negative hand. These ancient people made art, painstaking, time consuming, beautiful, sensitive art. They drew with their hands on soft stone, etched with a tool on harder stone. They used pigment, magnesium oxide to make black, iron oxide to make red. Five hundred years later, an artist added spots to horses using ash. Dates can’t be exact. Scholarship continues to evolve. What is clear is the negative imprint of a hand on a cave wall. So, how did the artist create a negative image? Pretty sophisticated. He or she—and one print does seem to belong to a woman—placed a hand on a wall, and in the case of the smaller hand which I saw more clearly, it was a left hand. Then, taking colored dust into her mouth the artist spit pigment onto the wall. Careful, controlled little puffs. A single hand print took twelve hours. Did this artist work alone?  Did she have helpers, all taking dust into their mouths, all spitting. We don’t know. We do know that archeologists reached these conclusions about time using materials available 25,000 years before the Common Era. Then, they reproduced the artist’s process. Twelve hours for that hand. Thirty-two hours for a horse.
            Temperature and moisture continue to preserve these drawings, a fish with scales, a mammoth with long wooly hair. A theory is these caves were used for ceremonial purposes. Perhaps, though, this was an ancient artists’ studio, a place where people came to make art. I am particularly struck by the rendering of a bear’s head, its snout, it’s nostrils, seemingly quivering and picking up my scent as I stand where an ancient artist must have stood, etching his fine lines. How many hours for this bear’s head?
            Inside the cave, stalagmites and stalactites. On the ceiling rock formations that look like clouds, on the cave’s floor, standing rock that resembles columns. A foot print sunken down into what must have been mud, and I am imagining an artist, leaving the cave, heading home after a long day, exhausted, satisfied, knowing that she has left behind some essence of humanity on these cave walls.  

Sunday, October 13, 2013

What's New?

“Hey, Joe,” my dad would say to my uncle whose name was not Joe, but Seymour. “What’s new?”
            “Nothing much,” my uncle would say to my dad whose name was Leon. “What’s new with you, Joe?”
            Why Joe? Why not their names? A certain playfulness, I suppose. I remember their faces, their smiles, a glint in each eye. Intimate in their own way, my uncle and my father exchanged news. Perhaps a friend had moved to the suburbs. Or bought a business. Or lost a business. They talked about sports, those damn Yankees. And always there was something new. News. Today, I have news. The winter issue of Stone Voices will include my essay “Hidden Messages.” Stone Voices explores the many connections between art and spirituality. You’ll find visual art, poetry, stories, essays. It’s a beautiful magazine published in Brunswick, Maine, and I’m honored to be included in its pages.
Take a look at the preview for a taste of "HIdden Messages."
From the preview page, you can get to the Stone Voices website. You can also order a copy of the magazine which will be out in November and read all of “Hidden Messages.” Perhaps, you'll be so intrigued, you'll order a subscription. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

My Torah Portion, Genesis Verses 1-6 The B’reishit; The Creation

Each week in synagogue, the congregation reads a portion of the Torah, so that by the end of the year, we have read the first five books, yet again, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Each person at his or her Bar or Bat Mitzvah engages with the Torah portion for the week of his or her Bar or Bat Mitzvah. And so my Torah portion is The B’reishit, the Beginning-- Genesis verses one through six. And this is my drash, a word meaning interpretation. A drash can also be a story that helps elucidate another story. My drash is some of each. 
In the beginning, God creates heaven and earth, and still all is darkness. Then, God calls for light, and as God speaks, our world forms, day and night, sea and grass, sun and moon. God calls creatures into existence, fish and birds, cattle and beasts. An finally God creates Adam, a human. In the Hebrew Bible, Jewish Publication Society edition of 1917, this verse reads: “And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created him, male and female, created he them.”
We don’t usually hear this version of the story, a simultaneous creation of male and female. The story we usually hear is more vivid, and it occurs in verse two, chapter seven. Here, a key word changes. God becomes Lord. “The Lord formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.” Ah, yes, the man in the garden, God telling the man he can eat from every tree except from the Tree of Knowledge. Then, God saying the man should not be alone, so God creates a “help-meet” for the man. Help-meet, a word translated from the Hebrew meaning another corresponding to or equivalent to. Yet, most of us have learned to read this story in a hierarchical manner, that Eve, because she was created afterwards from Adam’s rib, is second to or less than.
Why has this story prevailed? The assumption is that an educated male elite prepared the bible for a male audience. Therefore, mostly male characters are in the foreground and mostly female characters are in the background, giving the impression of the subordination. And often the bible is taught this way. The question for women is: How can we more these women from background to foreground, from periphery to center?
If we look closely at the text we can see that in both stories, the earlier and the later, neither maleness nor femaleness exists before Eve’s creation. What prevails is the potential for both in the human. With Eve’s creation, God brings both maleness and femaleness into the world at the same time. This is a simultaneous creation.
Now, let’s consider Eve in the Garden. So much going on here, a talking serpent who deceives, Eve, who seeking knowledge, chooses to eat, then gives the fruit to her husband, who eats, too. They hear the voice of God walking in the Garden, and like children, they hide behind trees. God speaks first to Adam, asking if he ate from the tree. He blames Eve, telling God, “The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat.”
And Eve? She accepts blame, saying, “The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.”
Supposedly, this is Eve’s downfall, and traditional interpretations say she is responsible for the couple’s expulsion from the Garden. Well, who wants to live in Paradise, anyway? Paradise is bland and boring. I like Eve. No only does she act, she takes responsibility. You might say Eve gives us free will. She also gives us unpredictably, because always with choice we have unintended consequences. And so this story becomes a description of our world—good and evil, joy and suffering. A story of human life as we know it, grand and complex.
Engaging with this text is an essential part of Jewish life. I love teasing out these stories. Some may ask, Why bother? Because this text, in all its translations, has had and still has a powerful effect on Western culture, particularly on the way the culture views women—debates about social services, day care or no day care, debates about health care, coverage for pregnancy, abortion. And sadly, I still hear women and men excusing boys’ aggressive or inappropriate behavior, especially toward girls, saying, as a boy shoves a girl to the ground, “Boys will be boys.”
Years ago, wanting to set the record straight, I created a character I called Bessie and wrote a short story. Bessie is an older Jewish woman, widowed and struggling with a hip replacement. She takes a course on women in the bible, similar to one of the courses I took. Toward the end of the story, Bessie visits Lucy, her granddaughter who lives in California. Lucy is being raised Catholic. In this scene, Bessie, struggling with her new hip and with arthritis, has stayed in bed late. Lucy brings her breakfast.

Bessie places her fork on her plate. “You’re learning about Adam and eve?” she says to Lucy.
“My school has religion class. I’m supposed to go to church, too.”
Sunday morning.
Lucy sighs. “I think Eve’s a nerd, don’t you?”
Bessie tucks her napkin under the rim of her plate and motions. “You’ll put my tray on that desk. Then, you’ll come sit by me. I know a story that if you read it right makes …” Bessie pauses. “What did you say? Nerd?”
“Yeah, like jerk.”
“… a nerd into a smart cookie.”

The quotes from “Midrash,” by Sandell Morse, first published in the New England Review. Available at:

Friday, August 9, 2013

Midrash on the Shehecheyanu

Perhaps this is a prose poem, perhaps a prose prayer poem. I don’t know. But I’m on track, preparing for my Bat Mitzvah coming up at the end of September. The invitations are in the mail. It’s happening. And this is my midrash, a form of storytelling exploring meaning, on my favorite prayer, the Shehecheyanu.

I imagine a life infused with prayer, the shehecheyanu on my lips when I taste the first peach of the season, the first ripe plum, words to slow me down, to say as my Grandmother Sarah used to say, Taste, Sandella, taste—her mandelbread, her chicken soup, tsmis, sweet potatoes mixed with prunes, the taste of time, her fingers circling shabbos candles, my feet climbing mountains, first with Lucy, my beloved standard poodle at my side, then with Lucy and Sam, Sam a standard poodle, too, now with Sam, time working on all of us—the moments we had, the moments that Sam and I will have, the shehecheyanu on my lips, thanking Life itself for my strength, for the beauty of a wildflower, sky and clouds. Shehecheyanu, Hebrew for who has given us life, parents, grandparents, generations reaching back across a sea into unknown villages. Unknown cities. So many sustain us, grandchildren, children extending our lives with new families, in Yiddish, our machatunim—and our friends.

The shehecheyanu celebrates what is new or what feels new, a hike in the mountains, a baby naming, a Bat Mitzvah—so many moments in which to thank God, the God I do and don’t believe in, the God that means something different to each of us-- that I am alive. If only I could come to each day with that joy. I can’t. I don’t. But, silent or sung, the shehecheyanu can bring me there, Baruch Attah Adoini Eloheinu melach ha olam, shehecheyanu, vikimanu, vihigyanu, lazman, hazeh, Blessed are You, Adoini, for giving us life, sustaining us and allowing us to reach this joyous season, this moment in time.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Loop Over Franconia Ridge With Sam

I love challenge and drama. What better hike on a beautiful, yet cool, summer day in July than the loop over Franconia Ridge with Sam, my standard poodle, my favorite hiking buddy at my side. We left the parking lot at Lafayette Place in Franconia Notch at eight on Thursday morning. The temperature that morning was fifty-three degrees, and would perhaps reach seventy. Cooler in the mountains. No rain or wind in the forecast. Perfect. We entered the woods. At two tenths of a mile, the trail split, Falling Waters to my right, Old Bridal Path, our descent, to my left. Both trails are steep and difficult, but the Falling Waters Trail is a little more challenging, and with all of the rain we’ve had, I’d rather we hiked up a slippery trail than slide down. Sometimes, Sam took the lead; other times, he followed behind, always making forays into woods, then back to the trail. He’s been hiking since he was a pup, trained by Lucy, my older standard, who died this past spring. She was the more avid hiker, bounding ahead, finding the best route up and around a challenging spot of rocky trail. Sam waits until I give him a boost, then scrambles up. Always, he sticks close. I like that.
            The climb is rugged, but beautiful, exposed roots, rock stairs, boulders, loose gravel, water making slabs slippery, brook crossings where I managed to find stepping stones, where Sam waded. We stopped as everyone does at Cloudland Falls, an eighty foot cascade sending mist into the air. Soon the trail moved away from the brook, offering a brief respite from the steep, before rock steps began again. Most hikers summit Little Haystack in about two and a half hours. Sam and I made it in three, emerging from woods and onto the summit, Sam summiting before me. He senses opens space, a place to rest or perhaps to stand. He loves finding the height of land, standing and surveying, and I love seeing him there. A standard poodle is an anomaly in these mountains, although I see labradoodles and goldendoodles—but standards, true, regal, loyal standards—not many.
            From the summit of Little Haystack, Mount Lincoln is seven tenths of a mile north and Mount Lafayette at 5,261 feet, is nine tenths of a mile beyond Lincoln. The ridge is exposed, a three hundred and sixty degree view. Sections are steep. There is a knife edge where I call Sam back. This is where Sam began to fatigue, looking for scrub in which to lie down, low growing evergreens where he could find cool dirt. I’d peeled down to a sleeveless shirt. No way Sam could shed his thick black fur. We rested. I ate half of my sandwich, gave Sam water, fed him kibble.
            Along the trail, we’d made friends, a woman hiking with Sadie, her Golden Retriever, a couple hiking with two labradoodles. They’d kept Sam going. Now, they were no where in sight. I thought about turning back, but by then, the way back was as difficult or nearly as difficult as the way forward, and we were close, so close. I wanted to summit Lafayette, wanted to complete the loop. Loyally, Sam followed. He’d turned eight last March, and he was slowing down faster than Lucy had. Still, he summited ahead of me and was sniffing a backpack, looking for food, gathering both disapproving and approving glances when I arrived. Tired, exhilarated we found a spot of rock where we sat, looking out at mountains and sky.
After about a half an hour, we started down the Greenleaf Trail, a series of rock steps leading to the Greenleaf Hut, its green roof visible in the distance. Sam was reluctant. I leashed him. Not easy to climb down, holding a dog, so I let him go. He doubled back. Usually, after reaching a summit, we go back the way we’d come. I’m sure that’s what Sam wanted to do. He’d had enough. Luring him with treats, I leashed him again. He looked for scrub, lay down. I let him rest, then urged him on. After about forty minutes of stopping and starting, Sam lay on his side, head resting, tongue lolling, side pounding. Here I was with seventy pounds of exhausted dog, about forty minutes from the hut and another three miles down a steep trail. Seeing us, a kind man and his son stopped. He offered to inform people at the hut and ask them to send help. Generally, people at the hut are not sympathetic to people who exhaust their dogs. “Oh, don’t do that,” I said. “They’ll probably call search and rescue and send out helicopters.”
            The helicopter line was fantasy. Not the fear of search and rescue. This was my folly. Somehow, we’d get down. After half an hour, I rallied Sam, and we made our way to the hut where we spent another forty-five minutes resting on the porch. No dogs inside.
Sam drank water. He lay at my feet. My goal was to leave at four. That way, I figured we’d be out of the mountains by six-thirty—if we didn’t have to stop too often—and that’s what we did, climbing slowly and carefully, my loyal dog following until he sensed water and the end of the trail. He would and he did lead me out. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013


At the VCCA, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where the quiet is deep as writers write, composers compose and artists, sculpt, paint and draw, I leave my studio late in the day to walk before dinner. Behind the Center, a country road.The last of the cicadas lay dead, their orange and red wings faded and fading. They have completed their cycle. Another seventeen years will pass before they emerge. On both sides of the road grasses grow tall. So many birds here, blue birds, brown thrashers, mocking birds-- sparrows and robins, of course. After a severe storm, the intense heat is broken. It is hot, but air moves. There is a breeze. I turn at the crest of a hill. 

A train whistle sounds. I hurry along, half walking, half running. I want to watch the train from a bridge, as I am doing now, looking down on the freight rumbling past, open cars carrying lumber, closed cars, some of them probably refrigerated, shiny black drums I think are carrying oil until I read: Corn Products. Yes, oil, but a different kind than I’d had in mind, and I feel uneasy thinking about corn oil, the ubiquitous nearly hidden distribution of genetically modified seeds. 

The last two freight cars carry utility poles. I am disappointed. I'd waited and waited for the caboose, wanting to wave to a railroad man, as I used to wave long ago, a child sitting in the back seat of Dad’s car, Mom in front, all of us waiting at a railroad gate, Dad impatient behind the wheel because that’s the kind of man he was, irritable and quick tempered. What he hated most was waiting—waiting in line to buy a package of cigarettes or a newspaper. He refused to wait for a stool at a counter in a luncheonette, for a table in a restaurant, choosing to leave instead. Always, Mom and I trailed behind. Here, at this crossing, he was trapped, and I was climbing up into the front seat, kneeling in Mom’s lap, my upper body stretched outside an opened window, waving my arm at the railroad man, and he was waving back. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

After The Great Gatsby

After watching Baz Luhrmann’s, The Great Gatsby with my husband, my son and my granddaughter, we sat in Chipotle’s eating tacos and burritos, talking about the film—Luhrmann’s over the top party scenes, other scenes that were strangely like or unlike the novel. Some of us liked the movie; others liked portions. None of us was wholly enthralled, wholly engaged. My granddaughter talked about the acting, my husband about the party scenes. My son brought up the stereotypical Jewish character.
            “Which one was that?” my granddaughter said.
            “You didn’t get it,” my son said. His tone, both statement and question, remained kind.
            At fourteen, my granddaughter has experienced anti-Semitic remarks thrown at a Jewish boy in her class, Asian slurs thrown at her. She is both Anglo and Asian. My son, her father is American and Jewish, her mother Korean and Buddhist. I’m not sure how my granddaughter identifies, but she is very comfortable with Jewish rituals and Jewish holidays.
            My granddaughter guessed at the Jewish character. “Gatsby?” “Nick?”
            “Meyer Wolfsheim,” my son said.
            My husband talked about the character’s model, Arnold Rothstein, notorious for fixing the 1919 World Series. Maybe. As for me, I was thinking about literature, the Jew as villain, a theme that goes back to the New Testament. An English major, I remembered my anglophile professor lecturing and reading aloud from Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Such blatant anti-Semitism glossed over. Accepted. By everybody. Except me. In my one-armed desk, I shrank to my spine.
            Watching Wolfsheim on the screen, I felt disoriented. Who was he? Why was he dark skinned? Was the  director was playing back to a medieval stereotype—the Jew as devil with black skin and flashing eyes. Researching, I discovered that Luhrmann had spoken of a “non-controversial casting strategy.” Non controversial?  I found the Wolfsheim character both strange and offensive. Was Luhrmann contending that by casting the Indian actor Amitabh Bachchn in the role he had avoided a stereotype? Tom Buchanan calls Wolfsheim a “kike.” His name is Meyer Wolfsheim. Camera work exaggerates Wolfsheim’s lips, his nose. His features are coarse; he is coarse, a stereotypical Jew.
            Yet, my granddaughter doesn’t recognize him. In school, the buzz word is tolerance. Difference is played down. Both racism, anti-Semitism seem to be caught under an umbrella of anti-bullying. Yet, kids toss racist and anti-Semitic remarks. Better, I think, to let them know the history of those remarks. Why not have a discussion about stereotypes? Where they come from. Who perpetuates them and why. Why not let present day understanding illuminate a darker past? But a discussion of race and anti-Semitism would necessarily bring students to a discussion of class, perhaps a more sensitive subject in these United States than either race or Jews. And isn't that what The Great Gatsby is about, class in the greatest democracy on earth, a glass wall, a glass ceiling, the privilege of the Daisys and the Tom Buchanans?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Monday Morning

          This morning, I got up early to ride the number four Metro to Saint Germaine des Pres. Then, winding my way through a maze of narrow streets, I found it, Dore, Dore, my favorite shop to buy stockings and socks. This was my second try. I'd failed Saturday evening. I'd found the shop's website, announcing hours, Monday through Saturday, nine to seven. But I'm not buying stockings, I'm sitting at a bistro next door, drinking a double espresso and eating baguette with butter and jam. I am waiting, but I understand my hopes are in vain. Speaking French and see-sawing his palm, my waiter had said, "Mondays, sometimes, yes, sometimes no."
             So, I sit and I write, preparing for my interview with a woman I will meet this afternoon. She was a hidden child during World War Two, hidden in full view in an orphanage run by the Eclaire Israelites of France, the Jewish Scouts. The orphanage was a rented house in the main square of a Beaulieu sur Dordogne, a village in southwest France. I am writing about this village, about another villages in south west France. About Jews who took refuge in both places. Beaulieu was a friendly village for Jews. I like learning that.
              I check the shop one more time.

Ah, Paris. Ah, the French.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day

           I am in Paris alone, and I cannot think of a better way to spend this day, than letting it unfold. I passed part of the morning at my computer, transcribing notes, adding impressions Then, I walked to the Place Bastille to search for the entrance to the Promenade Plantee, an elevated walk built on the abandoned tracks of Bastille Railway Line. Here the walk is narrow, the gardens lush. People stroll; joggers jog; a few children ride bicycles, although bicycles are forbidden. They day is breezy and cool, partly sunny. Midway along the walk, I descend, find a patisserie, buy a small quiche, a bottle of water, then reenter the walk, passing the Jardin de Reuilly. Here, the walk turns surprisingly urban. Walking and searching for seclusion, I find a bench, eat and watch passersby, my thoughts drifting.
As the walk again becomes urban, gardens are strewn with winter’s debris. No one has raked fall leaves. Many of the city’s gardens remind me of Manhattan in the seventies when the city’s parks had been neglected. Money? Probably.
I’ve walked for more than three kilometers, one more until the end. But I lose my way. I’m on city streets. Making my way back to the Promenade, I descend at Gare de Lyon. In a bar, I order a double espresso and wonder what I’ll do next, go back to my hotel? Find the Musee de Nissim de Camondo? My phone rings. My son is calling to wish me a happy Mother’s Day, my husband to wish the mother of our sons a happy Mother’s Day. Their voices feel close. They feel close. Yet, I’m happy here at this far away table. This is the writer in  me, seeking not isolation, but the solitude of my own thoughts. I’ve come to Paris to go to the wedding of a friend’s son and to do research for a series of essays I’m writing about hidden Jewish children during World War Two. Today, though, I am absorbing the city.
            My metro stop is the Park Monceau, a beautiful eighteenth century park, filled with gardens, families, lovers. A carousel turns. There are statues, rock sculptures, small pools. Here, I’m happy to say, someone has raked. On the Avenue Monceau, I enter the Museum, built by Moise de Camondo, heir to a banking fortune, and mentioned in one of my favorite books, The Hare with Amber Eyes. In the book, Edmund de Waal, tells a the complex story of his family with simplicity (and I mean that in the best sense of the word) and grace. Waal’s family, the Ephrussis lived down the street from the Camondos, and like the Camondos, they were wealthy Jewish bankers. Inside the mansion, I walk with an audio guide, listening to stories of the family, of the house, its art, its porcelain, and as I listen I tried to imagine living in such wealth. Impossible.
Moise built the house for Nissim, his son, who, sadly, was killed in action during World War One. Moise’s daughter Beatrice wasn’t interested in the house or the art, so Moise donated the house to the Musee des arts decoratifs, upon his death, along with a foundation to fund it. He died in 1935.
Shortly, before the Nazi invasion in 1939, Beatrice converted to Catholicism. Thinking her French citizenship would protect her, she and her family stayed in Paris. An equestrian, Beatrice rode horses with German officers. In 1943, the family was arrested (Gestapo? French police?), sent to Drancy, a transit camp, then murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.  
            Meandering through the Parc Monceau, I sit on a bench, call my family in Colorado. It’s morning there, and my son has a made a frittata for breakfast. It’s ready, so we talk briefly. I speak with my grand daughters. It’s nearly six in Paris. Still, light, still breezy. I study a Metro map, then after three rides, I’m sitting on one of the large wide bodied boats that cruise the Seine. The motor is too loud, and it stinks. The commentary in four languages is overpowering. Still, I feel the comfort of motion, a slowing down, as if to settle the complexities of my day, the gardens, the carrousel, the children in the park, the sad legacy of the Camondos, their gift to the French state, their murder in Auschwitz.
            I’ve hardly eaten all day, and when I leave the boat, I realize I’m starving. Entering a restaurant on the Place d’Alma that I know will be overpriced, I allow myself to be seated at a table. I’m here because I like the décor, so French, scarlet banquettes, fringed lampshades, tinted mirrors, crisp white linens, attentive waiters. I’m here because I’m exhausted. My salmon is fresh, decent. Uneventful. Still, I’m content, sipping wine, watching traffic and pedestrians, the Eiffel Tower rising in the distance, my thoughts like wheels, turning and turning. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Memorial to the Victims of the Vel d’ Hiv

The memorial is easy to pass without noticing, which I did, Tuesday afternoon. What I didn’t know was that there are two memorials erected in memory of the 13,000 Jewish men, women and children who had been held in the Vel d’ hiv, a winter cycling arena, for six days in July of 1942 without toilets, with little food or water, minimal medical care as the temperature inside the locked airless building climbed and climbed, French police, guarding. All the Jews would be shipped to Drancy, a transport center, then to Auschwitz. This particular memorial, I assume, marks the exact spot where the Vel d’hiv had stood. It was torn down in 1958.
 I stand on the sidewalk of the Boulevard de Grenelle, just down the street from the Metro station, looking at a fenced plot of land, maybe forty feet by forty feet, the grass too tall and full of weeds. A daisy like weed blooms, a crumpled up piece of paper resting among its white flowers. Dandelions bloom. A low stone wall borders a garden. Like the grass, the garden is overgrown and very dry. A yellow hose coils on the ground under a faucet. A second hose lies among broken irrigation pipe. A plaque honors the dead. A red ambulance sits parked at the curb.
            In the sidewalk, a recessed date, a cigarette butt obliterating the last number, but I know the year this site was dedicated: 1994.
            A woman wearing faded jeans, a bold red and black striped shirt approaches. Flanked by two girls who look to be about twelve or thirteen, she rummages in her purse. The girls, too, wear jeans, sleeveless shirts, sneakers, one pair pink, the other white. I guess they are friends. The woman holds a tea candle, lights a match, then places the lighted candle onto cement just inside the iron fence. Silently, I recite the beginning of Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, because that is all I know, the first five words.           
As they leave, I speak in English. I’m assuming they’re German tourists. They’re Dutch. “That’s was so thoughtful,” I say “to bring a candle.”
“They read the book. Sarah,” the woman says, tilting her head toward the girls. “Sarah,” she says again.
            “Ah,” I say. Sarah’s Key.”
            “Yes,” she says.
            The girls nod.
            As we speak, the woman, mentions a second memorial, closer to the Seine. Without her, I would not have found the magnificent sculpture depicting a family of five, a pregnant woman and her husband, a woman alone, all victims of the Vel d’ hiv.
            I didn’t read Sarah’s Key. It is not a book I would choose. But, wanting an easy way to gather history, I saw the movie. I got the visuals I wanted and more, horror that stayed with me, sensationalist horror. I didn’t think much of either one, book or movie. How wrong I was to judge. Sarah’s Key brought this woman and these girls to the Boulevard de Grenelle, not just to look as I was looking, but to light a candle. And what does this meditation have to do with my Bat Mitzvah? I have been brought to a new place of learning. Dare I say of understanding? I’m too judgmental. But not so judgmental that I can’t learn.  

Monday, May 6, 2013

First Evening in Paris

        First evening in Paris. Bistro Le Temps des Cerises. In a park I have seen blossoms. Cherries? I don’t know. Tulips bloomed. And lilacs, that deep French blue. I have made my way to this tiny restaurant after studying a map. Inside, wooden tables sit on trestles, reminding me of my grandmother’s old pedal Singer sewing machine. The tables are low. I hardly have room to cross my legs. I order wine, a light rose, read the latest issue of Ploughshares, edited by Major Jackson, a poet new to me. In a profile of Jackson, poet Gregory Pardlo writes of Jackson’s double vision, encountering unflattering cultural allusions and still maintaining self confidence and pride within. Jackson’s work is grounded in a sensibility of having an ethical sensibility to his African-American community, and now I’m thinking about my Bat Mitzvah, and my reasons for continuing on my journey. Here in this Paris bistro, I have a flash of recognition. Like Jackson, I want to be responsible and responsive to my roots, my more recent roots and my ancient roots. And this is what my Bat Mitzvah is about, finding connections. This is also what my work is about, the reason I return to France, a country that gives me a glimpse of European Judaism. I could have chosen another country, but I have an ancestral link to France, and I love France, this bistro where I, a woman of certain age, feel comfortable dining alone. My fish arrives, a white fish I can’t name served on a bed of sautéed green beans and mushrooms, all seasoned with parsley, salt, pepper and  finished with olive oil and a balsamic glaze. Dipping a slice of baguette, I savor taste. I am both away and at home. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

Back On My Journey

In the fall when I decided to become a Bat Mitzvah, I also committed to blogging about my journey. I’d envisioned writing a number of short pieces, perhaps once a week.  that I would write more regularly. Easy, I’d thought. That’s not the way things turned out. I’ve been stalled. Family problems have intruded, certain of my sons feeling as if I’ve violated their privacy. I’ve been asked to change names. Perhaps, choose initials. But naming is an essence. I’ve had a hard time adjusting to what I must do. In addition, without regular classes or assignments, I’ve been focusing on other work, a series of essays about Jews in southwest France during WWII. And just this week, my beloved standard poodle, Lucy, died. She was failing, but her death came suddenly. Unexpectedly. And in recent months, I’ve been shadowed by doubt. Why am I doing this? Is my journey relevant? And for whom? I’ve proposed projects that involve my grand children, my children, most of whom—in my opinion—find my journey either a burden or unnecessary. “Why now?” one son has asked.
I think of Rabbi Hillel. “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if  I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”
As Rabbi Lev has said my Bat Mitzvah will be my Shehecheyanu moment. The Shehecheyanu, that most beautiful prayer I recite often when I hike in the mountains, a prayer people recite at the arrival of any long awaited occasion. Holidays come once a year, as does the first hike in the spring. Life cycle events come less often. Some of us get our Shehecheyanu moments at births, others at weddings. Some never get those blessed moments. Mine will come in the fall, a stopping point along my life’s journey. In the Shehecheyanu, we give thanks to the universe—some would say God—for sustaining us and allowing us to reach this moment, whatever that moment is.
And so, I’m back on my journey, and along the way, I will try to be more faithful to this blog. And I have a new date. Did I tell you? September 28, 2013. Sue Horowitz, musician, educator, friend is my guide. 

Sunday, March 31, 2013


I meet Lev at a sushi restaurant in Malden to talk about my Bat Mitzvah—our last meeting before he will leave for Austin. He looks tired, slow around his eyes. He is applying for nursing jobs, coming off of clinical training which means he’s been up at four every morning. And he’s been teaching—classes in Judaism. And as always, he’s been keeping up with his wide network of friends and colleagues.
I tell Lev I’ve identified my ten Jewish values, values I want to pass on to my grandchildren. Here they are in no particular order: Jewish identity, integrity, honesty, compassion, Tzedakah, forgiveness, love of life, love of learning, awareness, and family stories, what Nina, my granddaughter calls, “dead people’s gossip.” Gotta love it. And just when I thought I’d finished my task, another value surfaced: humility.
In a religious context, humility is easy. One is humbled in the face of God. But that’s not the kind of humility I’m talking about. I’m talking about teaching humility to a generation fixed on devices, smart phones, iPods, tablets. They take pictures of the food they eat, of their faces, sending these images out over the internet, gathering likes. Their Me is large, a blinding white spot in front of their eyes. And so you say that adolescence has always been a time of self-centeredness. And I will say, yes, but, not like today when kids are hardly forced to interact with a larger world. And so I asked Lev: how do I make humility cool? Can I make humility cool?
“Interesting,” Lev said.

Humility and humiliate share a root, and I understand the negative connotation of the word. Humiliation is shadowed by self-effacement, timidity, submissiveness. Yet, humility is positive value, one that opens a person to possibility. One who is humble is self-aware. She keeps her place in this world. And she can correct herself. The opposite of humility is arrogance, pride and self-importance, traits that harden like a shell. There is a softness to humility, a way of leaving space for others. Perhaps, we pass on the value of being humble, by humbling ourselves, visiting the sick, helping those less fortunate, as once again, doing and being become our best teachers.
Outside the restaurant, Lev offers to walk me to my car. I decline. We embrace, do not say good bye. Most people would not describe Lev as humble. I would. Always, he leaves me inspired to do more than I think I can, and he gives me space. 

Friday, February 15, 2013


A writer’s faith that the blank page will yield; a sculptor’s faith that she will find form inside of wood or marble, a painter’s faith in line and brush. Lev’s faith that the world will give.

My friend, Sue, has had a strong reaction to my blog post, A Bump in the Road. In a word, she is angry. She isn’t alone. Many of my friends are angry, not with me, with my son. Sitting on tall chairs inside the Stonewall Kitchen café, eating salads, Sue and I have talked about our families and our work, pleasant conversation. Now, Sue says, “I have to ask you. Why did you let your son off the hook? I don’t want to say anything bad about him—he’s your son—but what an opportunity this could have been for you and your grand daughter.”
My Bat Mitzvah. My grand daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, the two of us working together.
Sue touches her heart. “I kvell when I think about it.”
Ah that Yiddish word: joy beyond joy.
            But, Sue does not know my family, our past rifts and hard feelings. So many divisive moments. I didn’t want another one. Yet, I do want to become a Bat Mitzvah, a daughter of the commandments, a woman who commits herself to a Jewish way of life. I assure Sue I’m not giving up, but I need to find something that will give my projects and my exploration of values closure. I confess, “Sue, with all that I’m doing. I feel as if it’s not enough. Something’s missing. I’m sure Lev would have figured it out.”
Fork mid air. Sue tilts her head, pausing before she speaks. “You need the Jewish piece. The more traditional piece. One of the nicest Bat Mitzvahs I did….
Did she say? Did I hear? I don’t let her finish. “You do Bat Mitzvahs?”
Why didn’t I know that? Sue is a Jewish singer, songwriter, musician. A Jewish educator. Often she collaborates with Rabbi Lev. Of course, she does Bat Mitzvahs. Would she? Could she?
 “Nothing would give me greater pleasure,” Sue says.

And it is as if Rabbi Lev is here at our table, giving us his sideways glance. He has the most mischievous grin. And he has faith that if you get our of your own way and make room in your heart for possibility, possibility has room to breeze in. 

Visit Sue's website: Modern Jewish Music