Saturday, September 23, 2017

It's Time for a Jewish Story, being the high holidays

It's Time for a Jewish Story, being the high holidays

By Fred Owens

I talked with my brother Tom, married to a Jew as it happens, and he paid for his daughter's Bat Mitzvah  -- we all went bowling after the ceremony -- but my brother and I didn't talk about that..  We talked about taking a hike this afternoon. Where he lives the weather is cool enough for that. And he said it's another good day and the world is not coming to an end  -- that seemed to be an oblique reference to the mad confrontation with North Korea. He didn't need to explain the comment, being my brother, we  can speak in short hand.

I said the world is not coming to an end today because there are too many library books out there being past due.

He said, you're right, we need closure on a lot of things before the world can end.

So it won't end. And that means we get another year to party, hence the holiday.

Marc Zappa
Marc Zappa was in my dreams last night. He was sitting in his front yard rolling a joint. He invited me to partake..... such a good friend for so many years. Eight years ago he and Kathy Woelke came with us to see the Leonard Cohen concert in Seattle. My date was Patti Detzer. I rented a room in Patti's farmhouse for two years, but I only went out with her that one time..... such a story, speeding down I-5 in the dark of evening, sitting in the back seat with Patti. Marc drove a black Saab. Kathy told jokes and stories. The Leonard Cohen concert was wonderful..... I haven't smoked pot in years. The stuff they grow now is much too strong.

I used to pick daffodils with Zappa. He used to offer me what I called a ten dollar joint, meaning one toke would space me out and I would work much slower and make less money, about ten dollars less .... Being paid for piece work... Lots of Zappa stories ...

I could also tell a few good stories about Patti Detzer, but she would track me down and hurt me. She prefers to tell her own stories.

But we're getting closer to the Jewish story, so pull up a chair, get comfortable and give us a listen:

A Jewish Story

By Fred Owens

dedicated to the memory of Moshe Holcer, 1912-2004

You’re Not Even Jewish
or How I came to Study Torah in the First Place
They asked me why. Why are you learning Hebrew? Why are you going to Torah class at a synagogue?  You’re not even Jewish.
But why is a dumb question. There is only one important question – Is it a good thing?
If it’s a good thing, then why doesn’t matter. If it’s a bad thing, then stop doing it.
I learned that ethical questions matter most of all. That’s the heart of Jewish teaching.
It was the summer of 1992, I was living on Blakeslee Street in West Cambridge and working as a landscaper.  And I was totally miserable.
I had just broken up with Helen. Her last words were, “Never call me again.” I was heartbroken, tormented, losing sleep, drinking too much, phoning friends late at night -- I didn’t know what to do.
But I had recently joined the Tikkun group, and we met on Sunday mornings for discussion. I had new Jewish friends  -- Daniel Gewertz, a film critic, Harvey Blume, a writer, Lois Isenman, a biologist, Diana Lobel, a PhD student in Jewish Studies, Debbie Osnowitz, with porcelain skin and a brilliant mind, Helene Benjamin,  who had an impressive collection of Teddy Bears in her Brookline apartment, Ted Pietras, in real estate in Boston’s South End, and Marty Federman, who was director of Hillel at Northeastern University.
Living in Boston was an ethnic opportunity for me. There were Irish gangs, Italian neighborhoods, and Armenian restaurants. I should have gone Irish, but that would have been too easy. Instead I picked the hardest one – Jewish. I was going to learn it and figure it out.
 Tikkun is a Jewish spiritual/political magazine founded by Michael Lerner who coined the phrase "politics of meaning." Hillary Clinton invited Lerner to the White House shortly after Bill Clinton became President. Lerner seemed likely to become a spiritual adviser for the Clintons -- possibly like Bill Graham had been for previous Presidents. But Lerner's presence at the White House caused a storm of controversy, and I still don't know why. He was a little hippy-dippy and lefty-lefty, but not very extreme. His views were not that unusual.
Anyway, in 1992, living in Cambridge, and wandering around town looking for something to do, I happened to notice that Michael Lerner was giving a talk at Temple Beth Shalom -- the famed "Tremont Street shul" near Central Square...... Never having entered a synagogue in my life, I dropped in that evening, I liked what I heard, and I liked the people I met, so I joined the group. They never said you had to be Jewish and I wasn't.
We met on Sunday mornings at people's house and apartments, maybe 12-15 people each week, and we discussed topics based on an article in Tikkun magazine. It was very interesting. The people in the Tikkun group were impressively articulate -- I mean, this was Boston. I never said much at the meetings, but listened in wide-eyed wonder and they called me, behind my back but kindly, "the space-case from Seattle,” because I was newly arrived from the West Coast.
That seemed apt. I was relatively in-articulate compared to my new intellectual companions. I felt just as smart and just as well read, but I have never had the ability to "hold forth" at meetings like this.
So I went to the Tikkun meetings and listened. The talk was really cool. I liked the rhythm of it. I wore clean clothes, but my shirt was always wrinkled -- I didn’t have an iron. It’s not that people were dressed for the occasion, but I felt conspicuous with my wrinkled shirt.
The meetings kept me from suffering – remember, I was heartbroken, obsessively reviewing the very wrong things I said to Helen – and she wouldn’t talk to me, not now, not ever. So the Tikkun meetings kept me from suffering for three hours every other Sunday morning. That wasn’t enough, but it helped.
One day --I was not really looking for a solution, but more or less on a dare -- I found the Judaica section at the Cambridge Public Library. I picked out the books in Hebrew.
It was very bold of me to even look at these Hebrew books. Loud booming voices were shouting from thunderous clouds, “Thou Shall Not” – you don’t look at these books, you shall not pass, it’s not for you – go back to being a landscaper, pick up your trowel, LEAVE THESE LETTERS ALONE.
I heard the voices, but I didn’t care. I was in too much pain. Kill me, so what!
I took the books home -- a Hebrew grammar, a Hebrew-English dictionary and a text of the Torah in Hebrew and in English – home to my furnished apartment on 42 Blakeslee Street in West Cambridge. I opened the books on the kitchen table and began to learn the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet.
In a way, it was easy, 22 letters in 22 shapes representing 22 sounds. How hard is that?
I learned the letters in a day. By late afternoon I was picking out words in the text. And I was drawing the letters on a big sheet of paper. I really liked their shape and the way they flowed.
It was love. It was infatuation. I was so absorbed. Hours passed in delightful study, and I never thought of Helen. I was almost happy. Relief! I could fill up my day.
 Although it was a little weird because, like I said, I’m not Jewish, and what if the Jewish cops find out and come over to my apartment and pummel me with sticks.
Oh, the Jewish cops wouldn’t do that. They don’t even care. Well, they do care. Of course, they want you to study the text in a respectful manner, but otherwise you’re welcome to it.
Except they don’t say that. They don’t say anything -- there are no Jewish cops.
But what about the booming voices from the thunderous clouds? Well, yes, those are completely real. The voices of divine spirits can put you in a world of hurt or shower you with blessings and diamond lights.
The divine spirits are real. I found out that night, after the day when I learned the 22 letters. I had the most incredible dream. I dreamed of black letters in a sea of golden flames.
I never had such a dream in my life, but that night I saw the letters in my dream, living, breathing and on fire.
The letters are alive! Shining black in a sea of gold-red flames!
When I woke up the next morning, I was astonished and full of wonder. And there was no one to tell.  I wasn’t going to waste this vision in casual talk. I never told anyone about this dream. There are some things you just know, but if you talk you just waste it.
I kept this dream to myself. The letters kept me warm, and I did not feel so lonely.
 One Sunday at the Tikkun meeting, Diana Lobel was reading a Hebrew text, and I looked over her shoulder and began saying the words aloud. She said, “You know Hebrew?” I said, “I’ve been studying.” She asked “With who?” I said, “By myself.”
She said, “Come to my class. We meet on Sunday night at 7 pm at Beth Shalom.”

I was going off the deep end, going to Tikkun meetings and then Torah class, and I was doing it because it filled my heart and mind in a good way. That was the ethical teaching – it wasn’t wrong to do this.  I got strong. I didn’t need to explain this, or apologize, or ask permission. I loved to learn and there was no limit.
So I began learning with her group – not such a big group, only three students, me, Bobby Vilinsky and a very strange, very thin young woman who seemed to have wandered in off the street.
Someday I will write a book about Bobby Vilinsky. We became great friends, and we often discussed his disastrous experiences with women or his latest digestive issues. He was an artist of great intensity and poverty.
Diana Lobel was a PhD student in Jewish Studies at Harvard. She had the pale look of a scholar, but she had bright, black curly hair. Diana had a way of seeming so unworldly, as if she did nothing but study and pray -- but that was not true, she was very worldly at the same time -- if she was paying attention. She often surprised me in that way.
We spent several weeks on the first verse, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” She said the whole of the Torah was contained in the first verse – or she may have said that, I’m not sure. But it sounds like something a Jewish scholar would say – that the whole of  the Torah, and all of the Law, and a vivid description of all time and all creation are contained in the first verse – so we studied it, from every angle, and believe me, there are many angles  -- more than you can imagine. The depth was incredible.
In the fall of 1993, after I had been in the Tikkun group for more than a year, Lois Isenmen invited the group to her house in the suburbs for a Shabbat dinner, the traditional Friday night meal.         
I had been doing her yard work, so I called her that week.
“Lois, do you want me to come and rake the leaves?” I asked her and she agreed.
The leaves fell from towering oaks in Lois her back yard. The yard sloped downward steeply from her red brick home. I raked up all the leaves and determined to build her a leaf-mulch pile down in the corner by the back fence. “If I drag all those leaves up the hill, into the truck and then off to the landfill that would cost too much money. What do you say if I make you a leaf pile and leave them here?”
Lois was wary. I could see her struggling with the notion. Sure, she could save money, but it would seem unfinished -- a pile of leaves left in the yard, when leaves are supposed to go away, leaving the grass bare to freeze and go brown in the winter. “Look,” I said, “I will make an attractive and tidy pile of leaves, it will look organic……way down in the corner, by the fence.”
“All right,” she said.
 It was November in New England, and I was “raking leaves for liberals” as I liked to put it. Making a few dollars, enjoying the fresh air, working in Cambridge and neighboring towns, raking leaves and resenting the affluence that surrounded me. “Why don’t they rake my leaves? What am I, some country bumpkin, blew in from the sticks?” I would mutter as I raked.
Lois lived in Newton, a Boston suburb, in the home where she grew up. I knew Lois from the Tikkun group. We shared our tarnished ideals every other Sunday, and this week in November, instead of the Sunday meeting, Lois invited us to a Shabbat dinner at her house on Friday night.
She was a biologist at Harvard at some institute – I can’t remember the name, but she was a Fellow -- what a lovely title, I thought.
I told her, “I work on a big scale, in the garden growing flowers, you work on a small scale growing bacteria in a dish, but we’re in the same line of work when you get down to it.”
Lois didn’t buy that comparison. She liked me, but she was wary.
For Shabbat dinner, in Lois’s dining room, it was formal, with a nice table cloth, but very relaxed. We were seven of us, all friends, seemingly unpartnered. Marty Federman was married, but even when we met at his house his wife did not appear... Lois had a relationship with another scientist, but she did not share any details.
So we were all single, as far as the group was concerned. But this week we would share a blessing and a meal together as a family.
We were all in our forties, except Gladys Damon who was probably past seventy.
Every Shabbat is special and it felt special that evening, as if our parents were there, because we had grown up by now, being past forty, and become our own parents, and because we struggled through a week of six days, fighting and lying, trying to make a living, and it was time for some good food and good company, no matter how the week had gone.
As we gathered at the table, Marty Federman, the most rabbinical of our group, deferred to Diana Lobel, the most devout. She said the blessing and lit the candles, and we began to pass the chicken, the broccoli, the rice, and the salad.
After we had filled our plates Diana said, “I would like everyone to take a turn in speech. Fred is the newest, if not the youngest member of the group, I would like him to pose a question for the group and then have each one of you answer from your heart.
I was embarrassed at being singled out as “new.” But I spoke, “I have been raking leaves all week. I am justified in my labor. See these hands – that’s how I labored. So, my question is, who is Jew and how are you justified?”
I turned to Marty Federman, well-fed, bearded, warm and deep, not a show-man or a comic, even a little shy. “Marty, who is a Jew, and how is a Jew justified?” I asked him.
“How do I justify myself?” he said. “I have studied this week, and searched for the one essential Yiddish word. If you only knew one word in Yiddish …. it would be? ….”
He made a long pause, you could see people wanting to guess – “Heymish…..Heymish, meaning homey and homelike…. That’s all of Yiddish in one word,”
Everyone nodded – home and family are the center of Jewish life.
“I am the director of Hillel at Northeastern University,” he said. “Many of my students are questioning their Jewish identity, so this is a good question for me. I’m a Jew because my mother is a Jew. We all know that’s the law. But some people say you’re a Jew if you do Jewish things. That’s a little broad for me, but I like the idea. Tonight we are all Jews,” he said, looking at me directly. “We are all Jews because we are gathered together on Shabbat for a meal and a blessing and the good company.
“Being Jewish means being part of a family argument that’s been going on for 3,000 years. We talk, we argue, we keep each other warm.
“And how do I justify myself, you asked. I wish I could justify myself. But why should I spoil the evening by telling you how worthless I feel and making a false show of humility. Your question is too hard.
“I will just say what’s on my mind. Don’t laugh….okay laugh, I can’t help it. This is it, No matter how much I study and how much I pray I still think that Moses looks like Charlton Heston. I can’t shake the image.”
No one laughed. This was very embarrassing, because everybody at the table knew that Moses looked like Charlton Heston.
“He’s such a goy!” No one said that, but Charlton Heston was such a goy. And as Moses! Such a mental pollution.
“It is awful to contemplate,” Marty said.  “God punished the Jews by making them wander forty years in the wilderness. He allowed the Temple to be destroyed twice and his chosen people were put into exile for centuries, subject to persecution and humiliation. He allowed many terrible things to happen to them. But when God made Moses, he made him look Jewish, or maybe like Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro.
“Still the image of Charlton Heston as Moses cannot be erased for people of our generation.  Such is the power of Hollywood -- founded and led by Jews  -- in creating false images that defy the First Commandment. Sin and sin,” Marty said and he took a sip of water, he was finished.
“You could write a book,” I said. It was dark outside, the chandelier lights twinkled, we stirred at the table, passing the broccoli and the rice, picking up dinner rolls, taking a sip of wine. I looked up from the chicken on my plate and noticed Diana Lobel, my Hebrew teacher, wreathed in an unworldly halo -- there was nothing on her plate. Even her glass of water was untouched. This disturbed me. We’re humans, we’re supposed to eat.
But the conversation continued.
Daniel Gewertz, film critic by occupation, was the next to speak. He was younger than the rest of us, closer to thirty.  His build was athletic and tall. I picture him wearing a Hawaiian shirt in the summer time, although I don’t know why I say that. He was a handsome fellow, but he seemed so unsure of himself.
“Who is a Jew, you ask. I wonder about myself at this time of year with Hanukah and Christmas coming up,” Daniel said. “I get anxiety. I don’t know what to think. People wish me Merry Christmas. And the music, Silent Night and All Ye Faithful, it’s everywhere, Season Greetings…The whole experience makes me cringe.
“It’s the way I was brought up. My parents were secular, never at temple, no menorah, nothing in our house that said Jewish. I think they would have skipped the whole thing.
“At Christmas we had a tree and decorations and a plastic lighted Santa Claus doll and I got presents. It was crazy. I knew we were Jewish. I was seven-years-old playing on the living room rug with a Lionel train, but I didn’t enjoy it that much.
“My parents laughed and shared drinks with friends and neighbors during the holidays -- just like everybody else. I mean, why not? We didn’t look different or act different. My Dad had a white-collar job, we lived in a suburban neighborhood. We had BBQs in the summer. We went trick or treating on Halloween, so why not have a Christmas tree too?
“I cannot disrespect my parents, they did so many wonderful things for me, they were such good people. But you just know, even when you’re only seven, when something isn’t right, and for me the memory never goes away -- every year in December it’s the same.”
That was Daniel telling his life. I heard this with wonder. For me, growing up a Catholic, Christmas was the most uncomplicated joy and pleasure. I knew that Christmas could be hard for people with bad families—being stuck at home with awful relatives and such. Or a lonely time for lonely people. But I never thought of it as being difficult for Jews. Hearing Daniel say it directly was quite a different experience.  Obviously it was difficult for some Jews. They cringed – that’s what Daniel said.
“But I’ll go out for Chinese this year like I always do,” he added.
Harvey Blume nodded. He was the most talented conversationalist in our group, but he had been quiet the whole evening. It was November and he was still tan, he had a burnished skin tone -- he hadn’t been to Florida, he didn’t work outdoors, but then I remembered – Harvey was on the street. His tan was not a matter of exposure, but an act of will. Harvey lived for the street and the drums.
So he and I did this rap thing, which made it kind of fun.
“Harvey, what’s your take?”
“My take? You’re the man with the rake. Figure it out yourself.”
“Well, I don’t want no fake. Are you a Jew?”
“Who’s asking?”
“You got a Brooklyn attitude, my brother,” I said and I smiled.
 “Yeah, now you got it. I’m from Bebop Brooklyn. On the street, with a drum, with the people, of the people and by the people -- we’re all on the street.”
“And you’re justified with a drum, so is it good to be a Jew?” I challenged him.
“Good, bad, but always interesting,” he said and he smiled.
Harvey lived in East Cambridge. He had written a book about a pygmy who was captured in Africa and taken to be an exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Ota Benga was the name of the pygmy and the title of Harvey’s book.
Now the room was going quiet, like we were coming to the end.
Then Diana began to speak. People relaxed because Diana had sat in the center of the table, as a guiding spirit, and now she would hold forth in a good way.
 “Here in Genesis it says there was a famine in Palestine and Jacob said to his sons, ‘I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.’
“It was a fateful choice. The whole history of the Jews hinges on this one verse. You want to yell from the audience, a hundred generations later – Don’t go – don’t go to Egypt. There’s nothing but trouble down there – slavery, corruption, idolatry, people worshipping monkeys. Don’t go. Stick it out in Palestine. The rain will come back and there will be more crops.
“But Jacob said it is better to live and not die. You can spin that, explain that, write a book on that, or a poem or a song. Fine. Interpret it as you will, and yet the meaning is plain – it is better to live and not die.
Jacob said that …….”
“Stop,” I said. I interrupted her. “Your plate is empty, you haven’t eaten anything.”
Diana looked at me, surprised. The whole table was silent. I couldn’t stand it. I was angry at her and she was my teacher! How could I be angry at her?
It was the food. “You don’t eat,” I said. I couldn’t explain. Words failed me. I picked up a piece of broccoli, picked it off my plate, and threw it at her.
Not at her, but I kind of tossed it or lobbed it over to her plate. Even so, such a physical act was deeply disturbing.
Food is food, you have to eat. Diana was not thin but she was becoming a little transparent. Some parental instinct in me wanted her to eat, for her own good and for my sake too. Eat, for God’s sake. I work in the fields where nature brings us food. My hands are callused. We don’t live by the spirit, but we need bread too.
Except I didn’t say anything. The dining room was tense. But Diana looked at me again, as if she understood. She smiled. She picked up the piece of broccoli and ate it, and she said “Thank you.”
Oh, I felt better. Like I had done something very wrong, but she said thank you, and that was that.
 The verse was about food, and it’s better to live and not die, and here she was not eating and how can you live if you don’t eat?
And it was over.  Table talk passed on to other things. Marty and Lois were huddling. Harvey got up to clear some plates. We might be moving back to the living room for dessert.
Then Gladys Damon spoke. “I have something to say.” Gladys was close to seventy or past it, from Manhattan’s West Side, but now retired in an apartment tower in Jamaica Plain. She was stylish, wore a tailored skirt, had good legs. She spoke in a honeyed tone with a good-natured irony.
For her, the plain meaning was only the beginning. It was better to live and not die and she would say sure, but she reminded me that refinement is what made life better.
“This happened to me during the war in 1944. My parents sent me to Smith College, one of the Seven Sisters. You know – Bryn Mawr, Barnard, Vassar, Radcliffe -- all those precious college girls from good families. I could pass, I don’t mean that how you think, but I had nice clothes, good sweaters and shoes.
“And to find a husband and get married, yes, but they hinted, the faculty suggested, and even said so, that we could be what we chose to be.
“I formed surprising friendships with girls who were very different than me.
“But it was war time, and we heard the news from Europe. In May of 1944, the Jews in Hungary – up to that time they had been safe – were being transported to Auschwitz to be murdered. More than 400,000 Jews were put on the trains.
“It was hard to find notice of this in the news. We heard news of stirring military action and home front preparedness -- that was the story -- marching to victory, rumors of the coming invasion of France, profiles of Eisenhower and Patton, the great leaders, but of the slaughter to come in Hungary, it was like a dark whisper. Letters came from Eastern Europe, reliable reports of the real story. We didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it, and yet I knew it was true.
“I knew it was true because it was far, far worse than anything I could have imagined -- this death and horror.
“But what is so hard for me to describe is the silence. We read those letters, but we were silent, we did not ask questions. We just sat there. We did nothing.”
Gladys was speaking without irony.
“We did nothing to save the Jews in Hungary. Roosevelt did nothing, Eisenhower did nothing. My parents, my friends at school, we did nothing. The Hungarian Jews were loaded on the trains. We knew it was their death and we did nothing.
“It was the most important moment in my life, and I failed.”
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Years later I still remember the silence that followed her remarks. It had been a good dinner and we enjoyed being together. In mid-November the night air was frosty and it began to snow as we said our goodbyes and walked outside to our cars. “Lois, thank you for such a lovely evening, you have such a nice home,” someone said.
I walked outside and noticed her privet hedge and how it badly needed a trimming. But that’s me, a landscaper and gardener, I can’t help noticing things like that.
But I thought about Gladys and how she said she did nothing. Not true. Her life was a triumph. It was better to live and not die.
A D’Var Torah
Where there is no bread there is no Torah, where there is no Torah there is no bread.
D'Var Torah means “a few words, a little lesson.” D'Var means “word” and Torah is that long hand-written scroll you see in the photo.
The Torah is the first five books of the Bible -- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers -- did I get that in the right order?
When they read and chant out loud from the Torah at a service, they have one person doing the chanting, and one or two others following closely to watch for mistakes. If the chanter mispronounces a word or something like that, then they back up a little to get it right.
So, did I get it right? I'm not Jewish, but I studied at the temple and I learned a lot of things. It's very complicated. It seems to be the delight of Jewish tradition to make things complicated rather than simple.....That makes for good mental exercise as well as spiritual development.
During those years of Torah study, I worked as a gardener and as a freelance writer. I worked with my hands on some days, toiling in the garden. On other days I wrote and used my mind. I found a saying from Pirkei Avot, a Jewish book of wisdom goes:
 "Im Ein Kemach Ein Torah, Im Ein Torah Ein Kemach." That means, "Where there is no Bread, there is no Torah, and where there is no Torah, there is no bread."
This saying answered the question, "What should I do with my life?" I should not choose between writing and gardening because I need both. I work on the land with my hands, because that is the source of our sustenance. And I write and study because I need to seek and serve the truth.
You don't choose one over the other -- Bread and Torah, Livelihood and the Spiritual Path -- both are essential for a good and balanced life.
The Korrect Keppah
Ted Kaptchuck is on the faculty at the Harvard Medical School. He wrote a book called "The Web That Has No Weaver" -- it's about Chinese medicine and it's a very good book.
Ted was a member at Temple Beth Shalom when I went there in the early 1990s. As you recall, I wrote that I first attended this temple to hear Michael Lerner give a talk. Basically, I liked the vibrations in this place, so I stayed for the next three years..... and why? Because of people like Ted Kaptchuck. Sure, he is a most distinguished author and a learned fellow, but also he was just kind of a cool guy......Ted used to pray up front in the sanctuary, up near the altar, but over to the side, even against the wall, always on the right side .... so he was sort of in front of us, but not in front....
Hey, that was a teaching -- Ted standing in front of us, but not in front of us. It's right from the book of Chinese Medicine -- the resolution of contradictions -- the realization of the underlying harmony.
But mainly I learned from Ted about wearing a hat. At a temple a man is expected to cover his head. I don't know why. They keep a basket of yarmulkes by the entrance in case you need one. If you don't put one on, someone might kindly hand you one.....It is not strictly, absolutely necessary for a man to wear a hat at the temple, but it would make them happy, so I did......Except I didn't like it. You can call them a yarmulke or a keppah, but if you ask me they're a beanie and they look stupid......I'm quite vain, and I did not like the looks of it.
But I wasn't about to SAY anything, I just took it as humbling experience, until I noticed Ted up front (but not up front) swaying and praying, and he was NOT wearing a yarmulke, he was wearing a black beret --- totally cool..... So that's it, I said to myself. You don't have to wear the beanie, you just have to cover your head..... So I bought a black beret like Ted's -- and it was cool.
Mornings with Maimonides
 Reading Maimonides is a superior way to begin your day. He was a philosopher, legal scholar, and physician -- his fame was worldwide, his authority was respected by Moslem and Jew alike. .... 1135 to 1204.
He was born in Cordoba in Spain into a distinguished Jewish family. Cordoba was at the height of cultural glory, but when Maimonides was almost a young man there was a change of regime, and a group of rabid Islamic fundamentalists stormed out of Morocco, conquered Spain, and established a harsh and intolerant regime. Many Jews and Christians were forced to convert to Islam at that time.
It was a difficult time for Maimonides and his family. They fled to the city of Fez in Morocco to live in a more tolerant climate.
But even in Fez, the persecution continued, and it is said, by some but not all historians, that Maimonides feigned a conversion to Islam in order to save his life.
Not willing to continue as a false Moslem, Maimonides traveled to Cairo in Egypt where he lived for many years. During those times Jews and Moslem lived together well. They sometimes shared a business together, such as goldsmithing. The Jew would go home on Saturday, his Sabbath, and the Moslem would go home on Friday, his Sabbath, and that way the shop could stay open seven days a week -- a pleasant arrangement, don't you think? But the Jews at that time, although prosperous and widely travelled, were a formally dependent people. They must pay a certain respect to the Caliph and they must, in certain ways, recognize the superiority of Islam.....That live and let live arrangement lasted until 1948 when the Jews declared independence, they would no longer bend a knee to the Caliph  -- and the fury continues since that fateful year of 1948 -- I wonder what Maimonides would say about that ...... I have a friend, an email correspondent, whom I never met, but he's a Jew and he was born in Cairo, and his family was expelled from Cairo in 1948, all the Jews were kicked out of Cairo, where they had lived for several hundreds of years, since the time of Maimonides ..... but they were kicked out so, naturally they migrated to Palestine, now Israel...... But my friend, an Egyptian Jew, has a more complicated story  -- before moving to Israel, they sojourned in Italy, where he acquired Italian citizenship as a young boy -- they then moved to Israel and that is where he grew up. Now this man owns a vineyard in the Judean Hills, called Domain du Castel. He makes fine wine and he hopes to stay on this land forever, but ----- BUT, he still keeps his Italian passport, because he knows he might not be able to keep his vineyard for all his days  --  for now, he does not bend his knee to the Caliph  -- do you think he should?

What happens after the Rabbi dies?
 Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2004. It snowed all night, unusual for early November. The streets were slushy. I got to Beth Shalom on Tremont Street sometime after 10 a.m., about midway through the morning service.
 The crowd was small. Jack Diamond and the other old guys are gone now. Jack used to go from man to man and woman to woman, around all the pews, and shake everybody’s hand -- every week. Otherwise I never talked with him.
 This week’s parsha was “mayim-chayim” or living water, from Genesis, about the time when Isaac was digging the wells.
 This was the passage I liked. Not that old family trouble about Jacob and Esau, but before that, when Isaac was a young man. He sowed and reaped a hundred-fold. He did such honest work in the fields, and all he got was few lines in the Bible. That’s what I was thinking.
The shul looked clean and fresh. I had not been there for six years.
People had gotten older. David, the cantor, had a touch of grey, a rounder face, but the same sweet voice, although still a little harsh on the high notes.
Ed, the president of the congregation, was a little bald now and he grew a mustache. He remembered me and greeted me warmly.
Beth was leading the service, carrying the Torah scroll through the congregation, singing “Mizmor l’David.” She looked up with a big smile and said, “What brings you back?”
I touched the scroll and brought my fingers to my lips, then I smiled back at her.
Still, I had this feeling of being a stranger, the odd man out. What was I doing there?
A feeling that wouldn’t go away, even though I learned that every one at Beth Shalom had the same anxiety of being out of place.
Beth finished taking the Torah around the congregation. Then David, the cantor, began to sing Adon Olam -- lord of the universe or God almighty or something like that, but it’s important, and always sung at the end of the service, only this time David sang it to the tune of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” So everybody smiled.
You can’t be really serious unless you make it laugh once in a while.
The service ended and we went downstairs for Kiddush. Kiddush refers to the blessing over the bread and wine, but, by extension, it means the meal itself, a social time.
Only the rabbi is gone now. Reb Moshe was 92 when he died. That was only three months ago.
Moshe was gone and so was the lemon vodka. That was his special brew, always at the Kiddush table in a half-gallon jug, as if sent in a cloud of vapor straight from Russia.
The vodka had a very pale lemon color, and just a little bit of sugar. Moshe had black diamond eyes and we could drink shots of neat vodka with him -- after the blessing, along with whitefish salad and bagels and other snacks.
But he has gone now and so was the vodka. Just fruit juice and some insipid wine, which I did not want.
It was the Egalitarians who did that. Moshe died and the Temperance ladies took over -- no vodka and no whiskey anymore. That was old-time.
I looked around the table. I saw Ari, the oceanographer, he had a young baby. I saw Ted Kaptchuk, a doctor of natural science, he had the same iron-grey beard. It was all very familiar.
The food was okay, all catered now, egg salad, pickles, challah bread.
I sat with Ed on the bench against the wall, near to where Moshe used to sit. Benny sat on my other side. He has a tough hawk’s nose that matched his pointed irony. He wore a black beret.
Diana Lobel came up and gave me a huge hug. She was my Hebrew teacher and she was very glad to see me, after this long absence. She had gotten thinner -- too thin, she never eats. Diana is so unworldly.
She told me she was getting tenure at Boston University and about to publish her book on Judah Ha-Levi, the medieval poet.
She asked me about various people. Harvey Blume? Yes, I knew he was in Brooklyn. Harvey had selected Beth Shalom as the shul he wouldn’t go to, which is a kind of status.
Marty Federman had been the Hillel rabbi at Northeastern University, but I had no news of him.
Ted Pietras was still selling real estate in the South End.
Then Diana moved off to another table. She rarely goes anywhere, but when she does, she floats around.
That left me with Ed and Benny on the bench, and I felt bold, like I could hold forth, so I concocted a legend about the making of the lemon vodka, how Rev Moshe mixed it carefully as a way of teaching, because for Moshe everything was a teaching, and the lemon was oval, like an egg, meaning birth, but the lemon was also bitter because life can be that way. So he added a bit of sugar to make it sweet.
And still the vodka was clear as ice, but now flavored.
That was my interpretation, and I paused. Ed and Benny’s faces were blank. They didn’t get it.  I knew what they were thinking -- “Hey, the space case from Seattle is back in town.”
But I wasn’t finished. I was bold. The lesson was about Isaac, who was a farmer, and I, alone in this group, had worked the land and known its rewards, and yet such work leaves you with few words.
Isaac was a good husband to his wife and to his land, but he was always ignored and passed over.
His son Jacob had no use for farming. Jacob lived by his wits. He schemed against his brother Esau, stole his patrimony and became a hero for that.
Was that right? The irony was so rich.
Ed and Benny didn’t get it. I had to scrap my campaign to make Isaac more important among the Patriarchs.
Is it my fault that I get these ideas?
I had a small talk with Janet Zimmern, because a long time ago we had dinner together -- some very good seared tuna at a nice restaurant in Harvard Square.
I always looked at Janet in a certain way, but she would only go out with me that one time.
At the end of the meal we sang the 23rd Psalm. Diana came over to say goodbye. She said how much she missed Moshe. I assured her that the shul seemed as good as it ever was. She sounded afraid. She said there had been tension between the Egalitarians and the Traditionalists. I said there has always been tension -- that it would be all right.
 I said, “Moshe believed in us, as much as he believed in anything. And if he believed in us, then we ought to believe in ourselves too. We’re his children. We can keep it going.”
Then I left.  I drove back to Helen’s house out in the country, where I was staying, wanting to tell Helen all about Beth Shalom, but frustrated. This was an experience I simply could not share with her. Words and gestures that meant so much to me, meant nothing to Helen.
She made dinner, some beans and rice that she had cooked the day before, plus some chard and other vegetables.
We ate by candlelight. The woods were still but for the bird song and a rushing brook, and the stars were shining in the sky.
There is still no solution. Moshe is dead. Helen doesn’t understand me, and Isaac gets no respect.

  • Temple Beth Shalom is still on Tremont Street, and still pleasantly divided between Egalitarians and Traditionalists.
  • Ted Kaptchuk wrote a book on Chinese Medicine, The Web That Has No Weaver.
  • Diana Lobel wrote a book on Judah Ha-Levi, a medieval poet, Between Mysticism and Philosophy: Sufi Language of Religious Experience in Judah Ha-Levi’s Kuzari .
  • Harvey Blume wrote a book about an African pygmy, who was imprisoned and brought to the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 and put on display in a cage, Ota Benga, the Pygmy in the Zoo.
  • Ted Pietras is still selling real estate in the Boston area.
  • Marty Federman’s whereabouts are unknown. ........ I wrote this story a few years ago. Only recently, a few months ago, I got a notice that Marty had died, so, in a way, his whereabouts are still unknown.               
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Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is  Fred Owens
My writing blog is Frog Hospital

Medicine, The Web That Has No Weaver.
Subscription Drive.
A $25 or $50 subscription to Frog Hospital comes with the promise that I will try my best. I have been writing this journal since1998. I have written some hundreds of issues of this journal, and some of it has been very good indeed and I would like to continue writing this, and I would like you to send me a check for $25 or $50 or punch the PayPal button.
You can find the PayPal button on the blog. Go to Frog Hospital.Or make out a check to Fred Owens and mail it to:
Fred Owens, 1105 Veronica Springs RD, Santa Barbara, CA 93105
Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is  Fred Owens
My writing blog is Frog Hospital

Monday, September 18, 2017


By Fred  Owens

This week's installment features sketches of our three parish priests when I was ten, that being the first part. The second part of this story was an embarrassment for Judy Muench in the third grade and later on it was a greater embarrassment for me. The third part describes Miss Marshall, our lay teacher in fourth grade. Not a nun. You could see her legs.

The cemetery was a key component of my landscape, being right up the street from our house. Dead people lying under slabs of marble with their names and dates chiseled. You could walk in there anytime and wander around. You didn’t have to be respectful like in church. You could run up and down the grassy aisles. And if we hit a ball into the cemetery we just hoisted ourselves up and over the cement wall onto the grounds and searched for the ball. You didn’t have to cross yourself or kneel or make an Act of Contrition.  Maybe teenagers wandered in there at night and did things we never even thought of. I don’t know. I only know it wasn’t spooky.
Up the street from our house on Forest Avenue, two blocks to the convent, then the cemetery, and on the same block was the playground and the grade school, and across Lake Street was the mighty, towering, brick church of Saint Joseph. The church was too awesome with stained glass and divine majesty.
Next to the church was the Rectory where Monsignor Newman lived with his bull dog and two assistant priests. Monsignor Newman was somewhere between  God’s best friend and God Himself.  Either way he was a most elevated person, and not a mean fellow.  Even in admonishment he did not strike terror into the hearts of small children. It only seemed extremely important to do what he said, if he actually spoke to you, which he did several times a year when he came into the class, with the bulldog, and handed out report cards from the sister’s desk in the front.
I always got a check mark for “practices self control,” meaning I was behaving like a whippersnapper, not totally out of control, but possibly subject to closer disciplinary attention. Monsignor  Newman would kindly point that out as he handed you the card, “Owens, it seems you have another check mark after your name. What can we do about that?”
I was too respectful even to answer back. I just took the card and walked back to my seat. Fortunately my parents didn’t care. It was times like that when I knew I had a good mom and dad. Or they just knew that I didn’t “practice self control” too well at home either. However, they also knew I didn’t torture stray cats and I was not headed for the penitentiary.
Back to the rectory. The other priests were Father Sauer and Father Bosen. We never, ever went inside the Rectory. It was a grand brick edifice, about the same size as the convent which held twenty nuns, while the Rectory held three priests plus a housekeeper who cooked and cleaned and fussed. Those three priests never had to lift a finger except they had to wear a black dress – cassock – coming down to their ankles – and hear confessions two or three times a week in a dark cubicle on the side of the church. Can you imagine how boring that might have been for Fr. Sauer, who enjoyed playing golf,  to sit in the dark confessional booth several hours a week and hear the same old petty sins over and over again -- I stole, I lied, I cheated, I had impure thoughts?
Impure thoughts was the good one, when they taught us to go to Confession in the second grade, because if you didn’t kick your little sister in the nose, or steal candy bars at the grocery store, then you had to come up with  something.  I had no idea what impure thoughts were, but it came in handy to fill out your quota of sins for the past month or so, because they made you go to confession. It was not like you had a choice.
So there was Fr. Sauer, dreaming of the golf course, but now hidden from view and sitting in the dark. You stepped in the door into this cubicle black as night and knelt down on the kneeler, and the priest slid open the wooden little door at the chin high opening, and then you had to confess something. You must have done something wrong.
“Bless me father, I have sinned. My last confession was two months ago. I was mean to my little sister although I didn’t really hurt her. I stole a candy bar at the drugstore, and I had five Impure Thoughts.”
That was good enough for a pass. Fr. Sauer, if it was him and you surely couldn’t know which priest it was sitting in the dark, would say, “Make an act of contrition and say five Hail Marys.”
Out the door and into the light. I knelt down on the padded riser in the pew and said my prayers of penance. I was willing to accept the general case of doing something wrong. I once said to Fitz Higgins, who read books in his leisure time, who played baseball poorly and didn’t even care that he played poorly, who began slouching even before fifth grade, who became an altar boy and seemed to enjoy that task, I said to him, “I know I did some bad things, but I can never remember what they were, so I just make up stuff when I go to confession, and then I think that’s wrong too – to make up stuff in confession. So what do I do about that?’ I asked  Fitz like he would know the answer. He didn’t know answer.
Fr. Sauer was dreaming about the putting green at the Evanston Country  Club. Par four and a whiskey sour after 18 holes. He was a handsome man and athletic. In summertime, on his day off, one time I saw him come down the Rectory steps from the front door, wearing a bright Hawaiian shirt over shiny pressed slacks.  I bet he had a girl friend somewhere.
Father Bosen was older and bald and not athletic and a bit detached from rambunctious school children. He had a smile which he put on his face for the children, and a warm chuckle.
He was probably gay, and probably celibate too, and cerebral. A private man, although he gave a good sermon at Sunday Mass.

I’m not done writing about the priests in the Rectory or the nuns in the Convent, or the school and the playground in between the Rectory and the Convent. Or the drugstore across the street from playground which was next to the cemetery. The drugstore where I bought candy bars for a nickel. And not, to be perfectly honest, where I stole the candy bars. I stole the candy bars from the grocery store.  Does it matter that I didn’t tell the literal truth to the priest at confession?
Look, I had to come up with at least three sins. Stealing, being mean to my little sister and Impure Thoughts. Years later I began having Impure Thoughts by the bucket.

By fifth grade we were still making jokes about Sister Beatina, the principal. She was enormously fat. Fifth grade boys can make a lot of fat jokes.
Another lunchtime classic that kept us laughing from third grade on was the Judy Muench disaster.  In third grade we had Sister Laverna. She was a small-sized bundle of energy who almost danced around the classroom. Such a lovely and lively women, we all adored her. Which was good because there were 63 kids in our class. This was a St. Joe’s school record that we took some pride in – the most kids in one class. It was a split class, the outer two rows by the window were fourth graders, and the inner four rows were third graders. It was controlled mayhem.
Judy Muench was a perfectly pretty little girl. I kind of liked her. She had brown hair in pig tails and a bouncy, hopeful smile. She wore a red and green plaid dress that day when Sister Laverna called her up to the front of the class for a recital. She came up to the front, a little nervous. She turned and faced her class mates in a rigid posture with her arms tensed. And she began peeing. Right through her dress and making a noisy puddle on the floor. “Sister, I’m going to the bathroom!” she cried with anguish, loud enough for the whole class to hear, and then she ran out the door and off to the girl’s room.
We dared not laugh. This was very awkward. Sister Laverna fetched a towel and wiped up the small puddle. Wasn’t this awful?
Little boys are not kind creatures.  Put four of us at the lunch table in the cafeteria, four trays, four cartons of chocolate milk. All the children laughing and talking. We told the Judy Muench joke for two years. Over and over again. “Sister, I’m going to the bathroom!” Laughing till we snorted. But at least we never teased her to her face. I always liked her. I walked by her house on the way to play with Fitz Higgins and if I saw her outside I said hello.
Just to balance this embarrassing episode, I will recount my own folly. Years later, in our senior year at high school, me and Doug Serwich and Nick Marsch got drunk on Country Club malt liquor. We broke into a duplex apartment under construction, just howling and throwing stuff around. The cops came and took us in to the station and called our parents. It was very shameful. Doug’s parents and Nick’s parents decided that I was the bad influence in this trio and forbad me from social contact with their precious sons.
My parents did not blame some other kids for my stupidity. The figured I was smart enough or dumb enough to make my own mistakes, so they said nothing about my choice of companions.
Truly, it was Nick Marsch who inspired this mini-crime spree. Nick was the second oldest of ten children from a very wealthy family. His Dad rode to work in a limousine. But Nick, who was smart enough to know better, became a midnight vandal, cruising the public junior high school near his house, breaking windows and tipping things over. Nick invited me and Doug to join him the night we got caught. Nick was basically responsible for the vandalism. Me and Doug could take credit for the drunkenness. Malt liquor – ugh!
But this was high school, many years after the Judy Muench incident in third grade, which was never mentioned but not forgotten. The Muench family was large. Mr. and Mrs. Muench were warm friendly parents. I really liked them.
So it was our turn to be embarrassed and ashamed.  We got hauled into the police station in Winnetka. Our parents collected us. Two weeks later we had a juvenile hearing, and our lawyer was Mr. Muench himself, in a grey three-piece suit with rimless spectacles on his nose and speckled grey hair around his ears, the epitome of dignity, standing before the judge, like a ritual repeated often enough in these leafy suburbs.
“These are not bad boys, your honor, but let this be a lesson to them, let them seriously consider how wrong it was that they acted. How careless it was to bring this shame on themselves and their families. We ask the court to be lenient because this was a first time offense. I know these boys and it will not happen again.” So we got off easy.

The other topic at the cafeteria lunch table was Miss Marshall the fourth grade teacher.  She had legs. This was astounding. She had legs because she wore a skirt and she wasn’t a nun. She was a lay teacher, the only one in the school, and you could see her legs. This was a matter of great fascination and discussion at lunch time.
She did not wear a habit. She didn’t live in the convent. She had her own home somewhere nearby and drove to school in her own car.  This was unusual.  Her dress  came down below her knees, and there they were – legs, bare legs, which was no different than what our mothers wore or what our older sisters wore, but at St. Joseph school, with all those nuns, Miss Marshall was different.  She wasn’t pretty, none of the kids said she was. But she was likable, far less stern than the average nun. I could tell her I needed to go to the bathroom and she would just nod her head, and then I could hang out in the john with my friends, because she didn’t keep track of how many boys had gone to the bathroom and didn’t come back. We had a way of making water balloons and throwing them out the window from the second floor. The nuns would never have let us get away with that, but Miss Marshall wasn’t strict and we liked her for that. And nobody talked back to her, because she stayed calm, and because the nuns would have found out and murdered us for that. Talking back was not done.
I loved the cafeteria. I loved the food. It was down in the basement. When class started at 8:45, the sisters took the milk order in each class room and everybody always wanted chocolate milk. It was a ritual – who wants chocolate milk? Everybody.
Down to the basement at 11:30, in line to check off our lunch cards, then grabbing a tray to go up to the steam counter.  Mrs. Tallman ran the kitchen. She never smiled like she was having fun or like she was glad to see us, but her heart was in it. Feeding all those kids, she was a saint, a stout woman in her late forties in a print dress, brushing a loose hair off her face, near to perspiration with running back and forth into the kitchen and coming back out with steaming trays – spaghetti, hot dogs, chicken, beef stew, grilled cheese sandwiches. I loved the food except for the beef stew. I loved the heaping trays of buttered French bread. They cut the slices on the diagonal from fresh-baked loaves and smeared them thick with butter and you could take two or three pieces. I ate a lot of French bread.

My life at ten was bound by Green Bay Road, Lake Street, the Ridge and the boundary with Kenilworth, another village.  I became geographically fixed on the grid. All the streets in all the towns and cities of the Midwest are fixed on a grid of even rectangles and squares. There are no hills to go around. No curves and very few diagonals. It is literally plane geometry and I always knew where I was. Being lost was not conceivable. As far as I knew the grid went on forever, out to the square corn fields to the west, and to the plane shore of Lake Michigan. In 1956 I had not yet become bored with this landscape.
To the north was Kenilworth, only three blocks that way, but a different town, not off limits strictly speaking but way, way uptown rich.  My little sister Katy went there to visit  Molly Packel. The Packels were  a large parish family and lived in a huge house with an expansive lawn.  Rene Packel was in my class. Rene was an exotic name for one thing, not Susan or Mary or Ann. She was Rene. And she was big and bulky, not fat, not stout, but just larger, so I liked her that way, plus she was smart. Like you could say something to her and it was all right, and she didn’t look back at you like you were stupid and stop bothering her. No, I had actual conversations with her, and I never tried to tease her. She was too big for that.
Those were my boundaries in 1956. Kenilworth, Green Bay Road, Lake Street, and the Ridge.
If you lived in someplace with mountains or even hills, you would not notice the Ridge because it was scarcely a rise in the landscape. Not higher than a two story building. You couldn’t even notice it was there, except everywhere else it was so flat. To me, at age ten, that was the hill and you could ride your bike down the hill without pedaling, even going a little fast. I never saw such a thing as a hill or mountain except in books or on TV.
The Ridge was a water divide. Water to the west flowed down the Desplaines River, which joined the Illinois River, and on to the Mississippi River and then  all the way to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.  Little rain drops flowed all that way to the ocean. And then if the rain drop fell on the other side of the Ridge, then it flowed into Lake Michigan only one mile to the east, flowed into Lake Michigan and then slowly flowed through the straits of Mackinac to Lake Huron and then south to the St. Clair river past Detroit with Canada on the other side, and then to Lake Erie with Cleveland on its southern shore, and then over the Niagara Falls thundering to Lake Ontario. From there, past  Montreal, through Quebec, down the St. Lawrence River, always going east and trending to the north, that little drop of water flowed in to the Atlantic Ocean in the cold north country.
But the divider was the Ridge in our village of Wilmette, and one way flowed to New Orleans and one way flowed to Quebec.

Thank you for reading this little story. Next time I will write about Leroy the class bully. Leroy was his name. I'm not making this up. He was a large kid with a big wicked grin like Ernest Borgnine in From Here to Eternity.

thank you,



Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is  Fred Owens
My writing blog is Frog Hospital