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Who Pays for the Tombstone? Who Attends the Wedding?

Since 2013, I’ve written a monthly advice column for the Detroit Jewish News.  I love writing it and thought it would be meaningful and gratifying to expand the love to my Read the Spirit family.         You don’t have to be Jewish to have tsuris! (troubles, heartaches, problems.)  You just have to have a trouble, problem or dilemma that plagues you by day and disturbs you by night.                                  Write to me at deardebra at renmedia dot us or use the form that accompanies the column.               

photo credit: Emma Darvick

photo credit: Emma Darvick

Dear Debra

I am the oldest of three brothers.  Our middle brother died this year and it is time to order and pay for his headstone. Baby Brother says he does not have the money, but will reimburse me when middle brother’s estate is settled. I know very well that my brother could afford to contribute his share, but chooses to spend his money on lavish vacations, kitchen renovations and expensive designer clothes by Ralph Lauren.

Baby Brother has pulled this kind of shenanigans before and I’m tired of it. What can I do to make him pull his fair share in this?                  Big Brother

Dear Big Brother,

Start by dropping the terms Big Brother and Baby Brother, which reinforces the roles of responsible vs irresponsible siblings.

If you can pay up front for the headstone, have your brother sign a promissory note stipulating his commitment to repay you when middle brother’s estate is settled. Provide the executor of your deceased brother’s estate with a notarized copy of it as well. Your personal attorney can guide you here.

If by “shenanigans” you mean that your brother has wiggled out of other financial commitments, you may have to be prepared to pay for the headstone yourself, or take him to court. But if by shenanigans you mean he lets others make the first move and then ponies up, you can be reasonably confident you will be reimbursed.

Since Jewish law requires that a tombstone be prepared to mark the deceased’s burial plot, you might consider ordering one for yourself when you purchase the stone for your deceased brother. Should you predecease your remaining brother, you will not have to worry if he’ll come through.

Dear Debra,

Two days after I RSVP’d to my younger niece’s wedding, an invitation to her older sister’s wedding arrived!  These out-of-town weddings are six months apart.  We cannot afford to go to both.

I am peeved that my sister didn’t warn me before I RSVP’d. Wouldn’t it have been more considerate to space the weddings more widely or have one big affair since many of the same people will be invited to both? My sister has already made noises that she expects me to attend both.                                                                          Aggravated Auntie

Dear Aggravated,

Would that we could dictate how our hosts should organize their affairs. But we can’t. If the financial impact makes attending both weddings out of the question for your husband and you, perhaps you can divide and conquer.  Let your husband attend one wedding and you attend the other. Or let hubby off the hook and you attend both, kind of a one-for-the-price-of-two solution that also pleases your sister who is expecting you at both. Just be sure to let Bride Number One know immediately that you will be attending solo. Once you have decided how you will handle the RSVP’s, shift your attention from aggravation to celebration. Jewish weddings are called simchas for a reason — simcha means happiness, and that’s what every bride and groom is entitled to on their wedding day.

Dear Debra,

I am a long-time member of a committee at synagogue. Each committee member signs up at the beginning of the year for that year’s commitments.  The chair has this annoying habit of sending out reminders at least every two months. He knows I am happy to do this job, I have never forgotten and have asked him not to send me these reminder emails.  Shall I chalk it up to his eccentricities?                                Perplexed

Dear Perplexed,

I’d bet a dozen bagels he wishes he had a whole committee of folks who never needed reminding and never forget to show up!  Then he’d be free and clear to go fishing, read the latest New Yorker or check out a new restaurant in town. Even the most dedicated folks sometimes forget to show up and welcome extra reminders.

The committee chair has likely assembled all his volunteers in one address file. You don’t really expect him to include your name for the first mailing, delete it for all subsequent ones and then reinstate it the next year, do you? Next reminder you receive, simply hit the delete key, disposing of the annoying email and maybe your peevishness, too.  Better yet, before deleting the chairman’s reminder, hit reply and acknowledge all his hard work. What you call eccentric, I’d call practical. And often thankless.

 

Playing Favorites and Tortured by Texting…

Since 2013, I’ve written a monthly advice column for the Detroit Jewish News.  I love writing it and thought it would be meaningful and gratifying to expand the love to my Read the Spirit family.         You don’t have to be Jewish to have tsuris! (troubles, heartaches, problems.)  You just have to have a trouble, problem or dilemma that plagues you by day and disturbs you by night.  The reader who penned Problem Number Two, took this invitation literally.                                                                       Write to me at deardebra at renmedia dot us or use the form that accompanies the column.               

1. My spouse’s parents play favorites with their grandchildren, and my children are starting to notice, asking why Grandma and Grandpa don’t pay the same kind of attention to them as they do to their cousins (and it’s not that these other grandchildren need them more for any apparent reason) . How should we handle this?  UnFavored

Dear Unfavored,                                                                                                                                                   Familial favoritism should be the 11th Thou Shalt Not. Has your husband discussed with his parents that the children have noticed the favoritism? If 1) he has and they haven’t changed or 2) he cannot or will not bring it up, then you have to take the initiative . Tell your in-laws that  you’ve missed having them around and would love to see more of them. Invite them to share a new family tradition — a weekly Skype or family outing. Hopefully they will respond in kind.  But if they remain scarce, you will have to help your children learn a painful and important life lesson: we cannot change others, we can only change our reaction to what life throws us. Be sure you give them the message, as much as is needed , that their grandparents’ behavior has nothing to do with them. They are the biggest losers for missing out on joyous time with some pretty terrific grandkids.

2.   My husband’s work expects him to be available 24/7. He sleeps with the phone beside the bed to catch incoming texts.  The problem is he doesn’t hear them come in; I do. By the time I wake him to take the text, I can’t fall back asleep.  Help! Sleepless

Dear Sleepless,                                                                                                                                                Even the Creator of the World granted Himself weekly rest after Her labors were completed!                        It seems quite awful that your husband has to be available 24/7. But since you didn’t ask me to weigh in on that one, I’ll keep mum. And here’s my advice on what you did ask about: Set hubby’s phone to vibrate and slip it beneath his pillowcase. If the sound of the incoming text doesn’t stir him, hopefully the motion will and the sound of the vibration will not disturb you. . You  might also  try sweetly whispering, as he is falling asleep, that you are turning his phone off (but don’t).  Perhaps the anxiety of missing an emergency text will prompt some part of his sleeping brain to keep one eye (or ear) open so you can keep both of yours shut.

My Third Mother Has Died

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My grandmother, Clara and my mother around me at my Confirmation.

I knew that the call, or email, would eventually come. Word that Clara had died.  She was over one hundred after all. No one lives forever. But when such news arrives it still lands like a fist to the heart.

Clara was the mother of my first love. She welcomed me into her family at a time when divorce had shattered my own and my parents’ attention was often elsewhere.  Like my grandmother’s, her love was unconditional, joyous, bottomless, steady. She was a Holocaust Survivor who told me she made it through by hiding in the forests. At sixteen I believed her. In my fifties I came across the truth and wept.

When her son left for college I would still visit after school every now and then, grateful to hang out, to be fed cakes and other sweets whose names had as many consonants as they had ingredients. When he came home on break I was ecstatic. Yes, for the obvious reasons but also because I could visit with Clara nearly daily. She wove me into their family as deftly as she sometimes braided my long hippie hair — into a crown ’round my head, much as her mother must have braided hers and her sisters’.

Her son and I broke up, stayed in touch sporadically, saw each other and one another’s families if our returns home coincided. He became religious and moved to Israel. He is now the father of many, a grandfather several times over. One by one, the dozens whom Hitler murdered are being given new life in their namesakes.  Clara once said that she lived so long because all of her loved ones had given her their years. No doubt in my mind that when the next great-granddaughter is born, she will be called Clara, or its Hebrew or Yiddish equivalent. Will she have Clara’s green eyes? Her beautiful smile? Her strength and ready love? I will never meet her but bless her just the same. Your great-grandmother was a wonderful woman, little one. She lived through hell and back. She came to this country to make a new life, a good life.  And she was a haven for a lost soul and whose light still shines upon me to this day.

From Rainbows to Ruination?

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Martin captured this after a rain shower in Sedona.

Each year, the cycle of reading the Torah (Hebrew Bible) begins anew. Across the world, in every synagogue the same parasha (section) is read, either specific selections for those synagogues on a triennial cycle of reading, or the entire section. Yesterday we read the section titled Noah. Again and again we do this, reading the same texts. And it is never the same experience, for we are different each year. Year after year, we come to the text from different places in our intellectual and emotional growth. Noah, animals, rainbow, and then in the same section the story of Babel, the building of a tower in an effort to reach the Divine. Same stories, different insights. Each and every year.

This year, something new struck me as I read the story of Babel. The floodwaters have receded; we have read the groupings of Noah’s descendants; we are told that from these groupings, nations were formed and branched out across the earth. And all of these nations speak the same language.  Driven by hubris and ego, they set out to build a city and a tower whose top would reach into the sky “to make a name for ourselves” the text tells us, “else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

Well God wasn’t too keen on human beings using the commonality of their language to build a tower to the heavens in an effort to be known far and wide. “If as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose will be out of their reach.  Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” 

And that’s where this year’s reading stopped me in my tracks. So that they shall not understand one another’s speech.  Coming off a week where Jews in Israel are being stabbed and murdered willy nilly and the world pretty much stays silent, or in the case of one reporter reality is completely distorted, where the phrase I just can’t understand you echoes between spouses, siblings, friends and more, I wondered at this Divine intervention. Don’t think me blasphemous for questioning God’s motivations in this chapter. It is the Jew’s birthright. We are called the People Israel because yisroel means “to struggle with God.”

What a legacy for us all not to be able to understand one another’s speech! The people of Babel were punished for using their commonality of speech to go where they weren’t supposed to go and think thoughts of grandeur and ego they weren’t supposed to think. I sat there pondering this as the Bar Mitzvah boy continued his fluid and confident chanting of the rest of the section. What if we all still spoke the same language? Would we continue to conspire in the wrong direction? Would we have found a way toward understanding one another’s hearts and plights?

We use the phrase “we speak the same language” as short hand for “this person and I, we are in tune with one another. We understand one another.”  Sometimes when we “speak the same language” with someone, words are unnecessary. We know what the other is trying to express; we know what the other needs without their having to ask; we know what to do because by saying “we speak the same language,” we are saying the other isn’t really other, but us.

I have no resolution for this column. Nothing as pretty and breathtaking as a rainbow.  I wonder at this week’s juxtaposition: in the section that forever joins the rainbow’s glory to God’s Promise that He will never again destroy the world, we seem to be on that path nevertheless because, our speech Divinely confounded, we no longer understand one another and cannot seem to find the way to do so.

It was called the Spanish house

A neighborhood icon bites the dust.

A neighborhood icon bites the dust.

Anyone who walks this neighborhood knew which one you were talking about when you mentioned the Spanish house. It was one of the town’s oldest. The one with the red tile roof. The one whose charming arched front door had been treated like a fine painting: matted first with a beautiful arch of stone, then a filet of pale plaster, and then framed with a carved wood surround. It was the one sitting way back on a large swath of land, shaded by maples dating back close to a century. Anyone and everyone knew which one you meant when you sighed over the beauty of the Spanish house. Martin and I dreaded what we knew was coming the day we saw a construction company’s sign on the front lawn and an orange portapotty toward the back.

When we walked by today, the sound of the backhoe’s bucket shattering those beautiful terra-cotta tiles shattered something within me too. I know that I’ve crossed well into middle age because I now ask in the face this change and supposed progress, “Is nothing sacred?”

I guess it’s a sign of a recovering economy that may trickle down to those manufacturing the timber and the wiring, the insulation and the fittings. Another McMansion is about to go up. I can’t help but think it’s also a sign of an appalling lack of appreciation for what once was. I know, I know, this diatribe is a precious lamenting of one era’s manse being replaced by another. There are bigger things to protest. A home demolished in a Michigan neighborhood is nothing in light of the massacre in South Carolina or the deaths from the heat wave in Karachi.

Martin and I walked over to the police officer who was watching the demolition from his patrol car. Perhaps he was required to be there, (un)building codes and all.  Or perhaps he was there as we were, another gray-haired and saddened bystander.  “I hope they leave the Moose House alone,” he said. “The owner died last month.”  I knew instantly the one he meant. The sweet yellow shingled house a few blocks down from here. The one with the kelly green shutters and the huge antlered moose head that hung to the left of the home’s front door. The moose whose antlers were strung with lights at Christmas time. The moose that a friend’s daughter visited on their daily walks, bringing him a handful of Hershey’s kisses. Sometimes, she would even tell the moose stories before leaving her foil-wrapped gifts on the bench beneath her antlered friend.

We’ve been living in this neighborhood for three decades and then some. When we arrived, I was nine months pregnant with my first. Over the years, I’ve watched the block’s nearly two dozen kids take flight. I guess that now qualifies me for geezer status. I hope it also qualifies me for bard or chronicler or storyteller. That way, if a young one overhears the elders talking one day and asks, “What’s the Spanish house?” or “What’s the Moose house?” I’ll be able to answer.

Hopefully saner heads, and a moose head, will prevail.

Hopefully saner heads, and a moose head, will prevail.

Continuing Passover’s Thread

i-hM8DHW4-X3Passover Seder ranks as every Jew’s number one most favorite, most highly attended, most fondly remembered, most eagerly anticipated of any holiday dinner of the year.  OK, you’ll hear good-natured kvetching from the women who spend the weeks cleaning the house for Passover, days to weeks preparing the food, a day or two setting the table(s). But all of that fades away the minute the friends and family arrive, with more food, with other friends, sometimes with a newborn or two about to celebrate their first Seder. It is the most joyously AdobeOLS-X3celebrated Jewish ritual of the calendar, the most open to creativity, the one with the huge mix of pathos, humor, memory, innovation, tradition and more. If Pesach were a magnet, Jews would be the iron filings.

Two years ago I described a special Seder we hosted out here in Sedona. Our kids came in from both coasts. My sister-in-law and her partner joined us. Martin and I created a biblio-drama that included a walk through an actual dry bed replete with horses (living, not drowned) standing at the shoreline, and meaningful and memorable discussions the whole night through. But this year, this year can be summed up with Passover’s defining question: Why is this night different from all other nights?

AdobeOLSBecause this year we will be with neither beloved friends nor family. This year we will celebrate with fellow Jews most of whom we know only by name and nod; a handful of whom we can call friends, newly minted. This year, at Sedona’s wonderful synagogue in the desert, we will retell Passover’s epic story of liberation with people we will have just met and sing Dayenu by joining our voices to voices we’ve never heard. And we will be and feel perfectly at home. This is the magic of Passover, the magic of Judaism. This is the true staying power of Judaism. We Jews are turtles, carrying our religion, our learning, our memories and our connections on our backs. All we have to do is connect with even one fellow Jew and we are home.

There is a lot to be said for being home for the holidays, for having one’s children fly in, drive in, come and add another thread to the cloth of family traditions. Schedules didn’t permit our kids to be with us for Passover this year. They left yesterday after a wonderful week’s visit. This Friday and Saturday they will be celebrating in their own homes, leading their own Seders, and joining other families at theirs. Will we miss them? Absolutely. But not to distraction.

I want my children to create their own traditions. I want them to weave their own threads into their own fabric of Jewish life. I want them to take the Seder experience into their hearts by making it theirs, coming to know the satisfaction of innovating, of sharing their knowledge with others and putting their own twist on what they loved best from home. I want them to retell the story of liberation with a Hagaddah of their choosing (there are literally hundreds to choose from!) and lead their own discussions on the four children wise, wicked, simple, and the one who didn’t know enough to ask. Through liberation comes return.

And so my children — Elliot, Emma, and now Elizabeth — I bless you in Passover’s spirit. May you come through the high waters of fear and uncertainty unto the shores of safety and triumph. May you come to know your heritage in a new and joyous way. May you make new friends and deepen bonds to old. May you carry your shell wherever you go, find fellow Jews, and be home.

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Entering the New Year Freshly Restored

Baylinson beforeThe restoration of a painting is as good a metaphor as any this time of year. Rosh Hashana begins Wednesday evening.  We are in the waning days of the month of Elul, a time given over to introspection as Jews prepare not only for the New Year but for Yom Kippur’s day of atonement ten days hence.

I inherited the painting at the left from my mother. It was done by a Russian emigre painter – A. S. Baylinson – in 1939.  He was an artist of some note in his day, and had shows at the Art Institute of Chicago, here at the Detroit Institue of Art and elsewhere. The Metropolitan in New York has some of his work in their collection. How my grandfather came by this painting, I do not know. Perhaps he bought it outright. Perhaps he took it in trade for medical care. Or maybe his and Baylinson’s connection was personal.  Perhaps they were landsmen, Russian emigres both who came to America early in the 20th century in search of a better life and much distance from murderous Cossacks. Maybe the painting was a gift from one grateful American to another. It hung in my grandparents’ home and then in my mother’s.

By the time the painting came to me the canvas was torn, yellowed with age and discolored by decades of cigarette smoke. It was large, dingy, costly to restore, and I wavered about what to do with it. Relegate it to the basement? Hang it as is? Put it out on trash day? It carried memories of a woman whose mothering ran more to Dali than Cassat. Happily, restoration won.

Ken Katz of Conservation and Museum Services did a masterful job in bringing the Baylinson, as it was always called at home, to life. Carefully, painstakingly, he and his staff worked over the summer removing varnish and nicotine, patching a gash in the canvas, damage that likely occurred during one of my mother’s moves. They matched paint and brushstroke so well that I cannot tell where the canvas had even been torn. It was quite exciting to unwrap the painting when Martin brought it home last week. The dahlias seem to dance in new brilliance, their petalled faces crimson and proud. The marigolds are lively once again, no longer weighted and wan beneath varnish and nicotine. And surprise! The vase on the pie crust table is not green but a silvery white. I wish I could show my mother and ask if this how she remembered the painting growing up? I’m sure it hung in the living room.  Did she read on a couch within its view? The Baylinson now hangs in the entry way of our home. I smile every time I see it. She looks good, this painting, hopefully as beautiful as the moment in 1939 that Mr. Baylinson looked at his work, declared, “It is good,” and laid down his paintbrush.

All of which brings me to the work of Elul, Rosh Hashana and restoration. This has been a cataclysmic year.  My mother died. My son married eleven days after her funeral. I was in a car accident two weeks ago (not my fault.) Last week I needed emergency dental work. My jaw still hurts. My heart is mending. My soul still soars at the memory of Elliot’s and Elizabeth’s wedding. As this Jewish year draws to a close, there are hurts to forgive and forgiveness to ask for. There is a patina of pettiness and impatience to wipe away and the hope that the face I show in this new year will project kindness and welcome. Instead of relegating my missteps to my inner basement or sending them to the trash unexamined, I strive for restoration. Even if no one can see where we’ve been patched, the rips remain just beneath the surface. I embrace this month of Elul, for Elul invites us to restore ourselves, to take long walks and think back over the past year. Elul reminds us that restoration is possible. Even if we are torn, even if we have been dragged hither and yon and none too gently, even if our faces are clouded with care and grief, we can do the necessary work and restore our personal canvas.

And so a still life painted by a Russian emigre, owned by another, then his daughter and now his granddaughter, has a new home. She is once again bright and gleaming. May we all be so as we move into this New Year.

Baylinson after