Frank Lloyd Wright house at Crystal Bridges enriches our visit to Arkansas

Click this image to visit the Bachman-Wilson House website.

My late brother-in-law Bob Smith grew up in a Frank Lloyd Wright house.  His father, Melvyn Smith (Smithy) had taken a humanities course in college at Detroit’s Wayne State U.  When a slide of a Frank Lloyd Wright house appeared on a screen, he jumped up in the middle of class and declared, “Someday I’m going to have one.”

Pretty big ambition as Smithy and wife Sara were both elementary school teachers.  But they “scrimped and saved,” my sister says.  While traveling in Wisconsin, they visited Taliesin, Wright’s home and studio and met Smithy’s idol.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) in 1954, a photo from World Telegram & Sun originally taken by Al Ravenna—and now in the Library of Congress.

“All white from the tip of his head to the tip of his toes,” Sara recalled.  Wright was in residence and they met him.  Smithy confessed his dream and that the couple had been saving up.

“How much can you afford?” Wright asked.

“$!0,000.”

Not enough for him to build the house, Wright said.  But he’d design a plan for them; Smithy could oversee construction.  Wright advised him to find property no else one wanted, so it would be  affordable.  The couple found a swampy piece of land in Bloomfield Hills, MI, near the prestigious Cranbrook Schools and Art Academy.  They sent the lot plan and topographic info to the legendary architect. In the 1950s, Wright was designing Usonian (abbreviation of United States of North America) homes of mass-produced materials like concrete block and plywood.  He sent Smithy a plan.  Smithy served as general contractor, working hands-on after school and on weekends.  In a few years, the house got built.

Never was a home more loved.

When Smithy died, son Bob, who’d moved to California years before, created a foundation to oversee the house.  When Bob died, his widow, Anne, became responsible.  The house required costly renovation.  The Towbes Foundation (belonging to Anne’s late second husband, Michael Towbes) took over the stewardship of the Smith House and restored it beautifully.

So, the reason for this preamble…

Click this image to visit the Crystal Bridges website.

Because I admire and sometimes collect contemporary art, art destinations top my bucket list.  Among them: Crystal Bridges, the new Moshe Safdie designed museum in Bentonville, AR, largely funded by Sam Walton’s daughter Alice.

And Marfa, TX, the desert town adopted by minimalist artist Donald Judd in the 1970s.

My sister, who belongs to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, sent me an email.  SBMA was planning a trip to Bentonville and Marfa.  “Sounds like something you’d like,” she said.

Would I!!!  We signed up.

Click this image to visit the Marfa, Texas, website.

Anne’s taste is more traditional.  She agreed to the trip for me.  But a Godsign occurred for her.  We discovered Crystal Bridges had restored a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house from NJ and installed it on their grounds.  The knowledgeable assistant curator who wrote a book on the project, Dylan Turk, was our tour guide.  The Bachman-Wilson House is remarkably similar to the Smith House.  I kept elbowing my rapt sister, as Turk revealed details that described the Smith House,  down to the built-in seating, the vertical stacked lamp in the living room and the placement of the baby grand piano.

After his talk, my sister asked Turk if he knew there was an FLW Usonian house in Bloomfield Hills, MI.  “Of course,” he said.  “The Smith House.”

“This is Anne Smith!” I exclaimed.  He beamed at my sister.  “You’re Anne Smith?”  You’d think he’d just met Angelina Jolie.

Aside from loving art, I’m a house nut.  In all the homes I featured when I worked as a design editor, I never heard a story like that of the inspiration for the Bachman-Wilson House.  Marvin Bachman was a young architecture student.  In 1950, he became a Fellow at Taliesin.  The next year, Marvin was killed in a car accident.  His sister, Gloria Wilson, was devastated.  She’d been very close to her brother.  They’d visited museums and attended operas together and even shared a road trip visiting Wright’s homes.

Gloria and husband Abe drove to TN to see Wright’s Shavin House on which Marvin had been working.  To Gloria, the house was Marvin’s legacy.  She and her husband stayed to work on the house and helped the Shavins move in.

In memory of Gloria’s brother, the Wilsons asked Wright to design a house for them on a river in the pre-Revolutionary village of Millstone, NJ, south of Manhattan.  The site was once occupied by a historic inn, burned in 1928 after being purchased by a Jewish family.  Anti-Semitism still festered when the Wilsons, who were Jewish, were building.  During construction, someone wrote in the dust on the back of Abe’s car, “Dirty Jews—Get out of town.”

But the house was built, and the Wilsons lived there happily.  The baby grand Steinway piano in the living room had belonged to Marvin, an accomplished pianist.  The Wilsons’ daughter Chana began playing at 8.  She and fellow students gave regular recitals in the house.

After enduring 4 owners and many floods, the house has been moved 1200+ miles to Crystal Bridges’ grounds and meticulously restored.  The Bachman-Wilson House debuted to the public on 11.11.15, 4 years to the day after the museum itself opened: 11.11.11.  The name of the surprisingly good restaurant in the museum: Eleven.

(Bonus Godsign:  My sister considers the number 11  good luck.  Alice Walton must agree.  Anne says when you notice 11:11 on a clock, an angel is thinking of you.  The number of Anne’s NY apartment: 1111.)

Crystal Bridges has upped the game for Bentonville.  The museum building, spanning a river, is an architectural masterpiece.  An uber cool 21c Hotel opened nearby and displays challenging contemporary art.  Restaurants are good and shop owners credit the museum for the upsurge in tourism to this tiny town in northwest Arkansas.  Nearby, a transcendent chapel by noted Arkansas architect Fay Jones rises from the woods.  At Crystal Bridges our group bumped into Alice Walton 3 times.  She often escorts friends through the museum and enjoys welcoming strangers.

The Smith house is now affiliated with the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, which arranges tours.

Wright believed a home should complement nature and possess what he called “soul.”  The chapter on the origins of the Bachman-Wilson House concludes with a passage on its significance.  “Designed in the last yet most productive years of Wright’s life, the house represents the awakening of American architecture, the evolution of the American idea of home, and the profound influence one person can have on the architectural identity of an entire nation.”

If you enjoy traveling, you’ve no doubt found the experience is full of good and bad surprises.  Discovering the Bachman-Wilson House was a happy one indeed.  Brava, Alice, and the team that brought this terrific home back to life.  And thanks, Anne and the capable staff and members of of SBMA, for including me in a fine adventure.

 

Some of the SBMA members surround Alice Walton in center in purple.

 

Holocaust survivor Judith Alter Kallman survives the unspeakable and chooses life

Judith Kallman and her siblings before the Holocaust. From left: Judith, Robi, Rena, Turi, Bubi and Babi Mannheimer. Robi and Rena perished in the Shoah.

My sister’s friend Judith Kallman has now become my new friend, as well. When I first met her over lunch in NYC, she seemed so beautiful, cultured and gracious that I never could have guessed what she’s survived.

Click the cover to visit the book’s page on Amazon.

But she’s put it all down in her moving memoir, A Candle in the Heart.

“1942 was the beginning of the end,” Judith recalls.  At 5, she lived with her family in Piestany, Czechoslovakia. On April 1, the family celebrated the last Passover Seder they’d spend together.  That day 1000 Jewish girls were deported to Auschwitz, 50 of them from Piestany.

Judith’s father’s shop was taken over. The family moved many times, dodging the Nazis. Judith last saw her parents, an older brother and sister as they boarded a cattle car bound for a Nazi death camp.

Waving her away from the train, her father shouted, “Choose life. Go away.  Survive. Nothing else matters.” As the train moved off, Judith writes, “the vicious mob around us cheered and applauded.”

Protected by an underground network, Judith was separated from 2 surviving siblings. She and one older brother hid in haylofts and cellars and were moved from farm to farm. One winter day with snow drifts over 3 feet, they were smuggled, on foot, to Hungary. They landed in a lice and rat infested jail. After several weeks, a childless Jewish couple, restaurateurs Maurice and Ilonka Stern, took them in. They showered Judith with affection.

In March, 1944, Germany invaded Hungary, “and my world was turned upside down—again.”  Jews were required to wear yellow stars and submit to curfews and round-ups. They were forced into a ghetto. Judith and thousands more lived in freezing tunnels under the Glass House, headquarters of the Swiss legation, protected by Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, vice-consul in Budapest. When the tunnels were discovered, occupants were herded into the street by the Arrow Cross (Czech Nazis) and shot. Before the bullets reached Judith, a Red Cross vehicle pulled up. Swiss diplomats jumped out and halted the shooting.

She writes, “Once again, God had saved me from unspeakable carnage. It had to mean something, but I didn’t know what that was.”

After the war, rebuilding her life was “a daunting project, especially when the betrayals and murders of our families were often committed by neighbors and ‘friends.’” Her beloved foster mother died; her 2 surviving brothers emigrated to Palestine. Judith was sent to a summer camp she loathed.

She sums up what she’d been through as a child. “The months of running from place to place in Slovakia while my parents tried to save us, the separation from my siblings as we were scattered around the countryside to escape the Hlinka Guard; the winter trek to Budapest from Nitra; my experience in the Conti Street prison and the Glass House, all of that topped off by the death of Ilonka Stern and my exile to that disgusting summer camp, had taken their toll.”  She developed a lung disease that lasted for weeks and was sent to a sanitarium.

Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld. He designed his own uniform to wear as he searched through communities for survivors of the Shoah. He discovered that the official look of his clothing and cap opened many doors.

Meanwhile, Maurice Stern remarried. Once recovered, Judith was placed in an orphanage and Catholic school. In winter ’47-’48, Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld, a rescue activist from England, returned to Europe seeking Jewish children. He had previously organized Kindertransports that brought thousands of Jewish children to England. After the war, the Iron Curtain was falling around eastern Europe. Judith writes, “The antisemitism that allowed Nazi regimes to flourish across the continent remained rooted in its soil.”

Rabbi Dr. Schonfeld walked through dorms at convents and monasteries though assured there were no Jewish children. Passing each bed, he murmured the Sh’ma (the most important Jewish prayer). If children began praying with him, he packed their belongings and took them along.

Of her inclusion on what was the last Kindertransport, Judith writes, “I was not yet 11 years old, but I sensed we were moving toward better lives.”  In England, the rabbi insisted the exhausted children attend a Seder for the first night of Passover.  “Its significance was not lost on any of us.  As young as we were, we understood we were free at last.”

Judith and other orphans attended schools founded by Rabbi Schonfeld. She studied 4 languages. She was placed with yet another family and began learning ballet. She moved to Kfar Batya, a children’s village in Israel “filled with orphans from all over the world. Many had survived by their wits on the streets of Europe and Northern Africa.” Later, living in a boarding school in Tel Aviv, she reconnected with her surviving siblings. Because she could speak English, she escorted American visitors and greeted Eleanor Roosevelt.  She guided Moses Schonfeld, a journalist with the U.N., who turned out to be the brother of the rabbi who rescued her from Europe.

Among Judith’s many meetings with world leaders related to Israel, here she is with Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion.

After graduating, Judith began working for a bank in Tel Aviv and continued to guide American VIPs. One, Howard Alter, fell in love with and married her. He brought her to America where his family  embraced her. The Alters had 3 children. Judith enjoyed being a suburban housewife. Because of Howard’s investments in Israeli companies, the couple met Prime Ministers Ben-Gurion, Meir and Begin.

“And then,” she writes, “the bottom fell out.” Howard died of a malignant melanoma. Judith focused on raising their children and running Howard’s business. She remained single for 8 years until she met and married lawyer Irwin Kallman. They live in Greenwich, Conn. and have been happily married for 36 years. Because of Irwin’s involvement in political causes, the couple met at the White House with President Bill Clinton.

Judith had another special experience in 1982. She represented children from the Kindertransports, then living in the U.S. or Canada, on stage at a testimonial dinner in London for Rabbi Dr. Schonfeld’s 70th birthday. She presented him with a book written by the now-grown children he had saved and educated.

“The auditorium was packed with Kindertransportees, many with their children and grandchildren in tow. And there on the stage sat the one man largely responsible for their existence. The thousands upon thousands of people born of the remnant saved by the Kindertransports represented a victory.  …those who survived… were rebuilding the Jewish people all over the world.”

Her daughter Debbie’s college assignment led Judith to delve into her past. In the forward to Judith’s book, Debbie writes, “It has taken many years, but I know how determined she has been to bring this book into being. And when it is a question of having determination, my mother has few peers. Determination helped my mother survive—it was not just her desire to live that kept her going, it was also her insistence that she had no option but to choose life.”

Judith takes every opportunity to speak publicly about her experience. She writes, “I know my miraculous survival happened for a reason. I had to bear witness to my past, to speak for my parents and lost brother and sister. …I hope that readers… will learn something from these pages; to make better choices, to act when necessary, and to understand that we are all alike and all have goals and dreams.”

As an adult, Judith learned her parents and 2 siblings had been shipped to Auschwitz. “It happened to my family, as it happened to millions… Each one of those millions was a life, precious and unique.”

As are you, Judith Mannheimer Alter Kallman.  Gai gezunterhait.  Go in good health.

A photo of Judith’s Kindertransport.

Dr. Karen Hamad discovered ‘Brave’ in a little girl’s life—and carries on that legacy

Dr. Karen Hamad and her husband Dr. Jon Yenari

It’s not humanly possible to accomplish all that Karen Hamad squeezes into a day.

Somehow she manages it with spirit and grace. An internist/pediatrician at Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH), Karen’s also a mother, wife, activist, philanthropist, daughter, mentor, executive and self-proclaimed “collector of girls”—in no special order.

I met Karen when she was given an award by Girls, Inc., which encourages girls to be “strong, smart, bold and brave.” Karen’s acceptance knocked me out.

“I was not always brave and bold,” she said. “A special little girl named Molly first taught me that important lesson.” Molly, age 5, was in her final year of treatment at Tulane Hospital in New Orleans. Molly dedicated that year to fundraising for cancer research. Karen, then a jr. resident, befriended her. She convinced Molly’s parents to pierce Molly’s ears during her last surgery. When Molly woke up, Karen gave her a tiny pair of diamond studs.

“When she finally lost her fight, I dug deep, and found my own Brave,” Karen said. She walked into that tiny white church in rural LA, hugged Molly’s sobbing mother and learned that “sweet Molly would go to heaven wearing my tiny diamond stud earrings. Now whenever I need to find my Brave, I remember little Molly, and I can do what I need to do.”

There’ve been many times Karen needed to find her Brave.

She was the first female to join First Physicians Group at Blackburn Point. These “old school” doctors still visit patients in the hospital, unlike today’s common practice of turning hospitalized patients over to “hospitalists.” (She’s been with FPG for 15 years.) She broke 2 legs while running (due to an undiagnosed bone disease) and practiced in an electric wheel chair for 5 months. For 3 years she was Chief of Staff of SMH, an 800 bed facility—the 4th woman in that position in the hospital’s 90+ year history. She oversaw 900+ physicians. Recently, she became Associate Program Director of the new Internal Medicine residency program at SMH, including the IM practice of a new clinic in Newtown, an impoverished area of Sarasota.

And did I mention she rises at 4:30 a.m. to work out for an hour and see off 2 teenage daughters to competitive swim practice?

Dr. Karen and some of her Daughters for Life

If that doesn’t take your breath away, there’s this… Karen met Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Harvard-trained Palestinian doctor who lost his 3 daughters to an Israeli bomb in the Gaza War. He authored the book I Shall Not Hate and works for reconciliation. Karen and her mother Renee (another dynamo you’ll meet  in a future column) partnered with Abuelaish’s organization Daughters for Life. In support of that effort, they raised enough money (most from Jewish donors) to fund 9 full scholarships to Sarasota’s New College for girls from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

Karen and Renee aim to help young women from the Middle East “find their voice, change their trajectory and be the masters of their future.” They believe education is the key.  Karen says, “I’m struck by the inner strength they all show, as they leave their families, their cultures, their ‘normal’ to travel around the world in search of a better future. Many can’t go home until their education is done, for fear of not being able to return safely. And yet, they come, they laugh, they learn, and they grow… and through my relationship with them, so do I.” Karen often takes these other daughters for outings including a recent Arabic dinner for 40 at her mom’s home.

At one point, Karen’s life was derailed. Her father Samuel Hamad, from Palestine, moved to North America and worked his way up to president of pharma giant Bristol-Myers Squibb. In 2008, Samuel was diagnosed with liver cancer. He received a new liver and survived the transplant but then became sick and died. It was determined there’d been a medical error in the screening of the donor liver.

“Losing my father in this manner nearly broke me. I lost my mojo. Medicine had been my rock.” She couldn’t accept that “human error could take something so precious from me.”  She turned to prayer, asking God if medicine was what she was meant to do. She began receiving letters, calls and cards from patients thanking her for the help she’d given them.  Slowly those affirmations made her realize “being a doctor is what God intended for me.”

Karen’s a practicing Episcopalian whose mother was an Egyptian Jew (long since converted to Catholicism). Some of Karen’s Brave comes from prayer; some from a desire to inspire her daughters.

When named Chief of Staff at SMH, she says, “I was petrified. Disciplining physicians gone rogue, presenting to the Hospital Board, representing the medical staff to the media and public—all seemed terrifying.” But she decided her daughters “might be proud to have a mother who held such a position, who took a risk, who didn’t shy away from civic responsibility or leadership.” The position required sacrifice from the whole family, she says. But she’s confident in her daughters’ futures and knows she was “the best example I could be.”

Karen’s been married for 20 years to Dr. Jon Yenari, an “incredibly supportive” gynecologist she met while both were med students at Tulane. Jon’s of Korean and Japanese descent. Daughter Lauren was recently invited to be a debutante, which in Sarasota is more about a girl’s character than her social status.

Karen regards her daughter’s decision to accept with characteristic good humor. “Who could imagine that a girl who’s ¼ Jewish, ¼ Palestinian, ¼ Korean and ¼ Japanese could be asked to be a debutante?”

(Ed. note: God bless America.)

As we finished lunch, Karen mentioned her daughters’ high school district competition swim meets the next day. Karen was hosting 50 competitive swimmers at their home for dinner that night.

“Go at once,” I commanded. If I’d agreed to such a commitment (which I wouldn’t have), I’d have torn out of there.

Not Karen. She sat calmly until we were both ready to leave.

I went home and took a nap.

Drs. Hamad and Yenari with their daughters Lauren Renee at left and Sage Anisa at right

Octagenarian Beverlye Hyman Fead stays young with energy and fresh ideas

Beverlye Hyman Fead with some of her ceramics in Deruta, Italy.

While many of us cringe at the prospect of old age, Beverlye embraces it. At 83, this Renaissance woman is an artist, author, filmmaker, speaker and political advocate.  She’s also a wife, mother and grandmother.

And oh, by the way, she’s a 15 year stage 4 cancer survivor.

Beverlye giving one of her talks.

15 years ago Beverlye was diagnosed with 8 large tumors in her stomach, metastasized Uteral Stromal Sarcoma. Her doctor recommended brutal chemo and stomach resection.  He gave her 2 months to live. Though her grandmother, mother and 2 older sisters had died from cancer, Beverlye refused to accept the prognosis. She sought other opinions.

In a TEDx talk she gave last year, Beverlye said, “Things were so different when I grew up. We were told to look pretty, get married young, have children fast and keep our mouths shut. Well, I did 3 out of 4.”

Not keeping her mouth shut saved her life. The 4th and 5th doctors she saw suggested a different approach. They recommended an experimental treatment: injections of Lupron (then used to treat prostate cancer) and a daily pill of Femara (used to treat breast cancer). The treatment worked. Beverlye continues to receive Lupron injections and take Femara.

She’s still going strong—and still has 8 tumors.

Beverlye wanted to do something to help relieve others of some of the fear she felt when first diagnosed. In 2004, she produced an inspiring documentary, ”Stage IV, Living With Cancer.” She featured 4 young patients, plus herself, living with stage 4 cancer: a police officer, a college corporate relations manager, a marine who after 2 stem cell transplants participated in an Iron Man competition, and a teenage singer/songwriter who, 6 weeks after having her foot amputated, opened for Mariah Carey.

You can see the 16-minute video below. It begins with the dramatic text: “Not long ago a cancer diagnosis was considered a death sentence. In 1970 only 3 million Americans survived cancer. Today nearly 12 million Americans are cancer survivors.”

About this film, Beverlye says, “I kept finding other people who were also told they had little chance of surviving. They were still going 5 or 10 years later. It gave me hope.So I wanted to give others hope, and let people with cancer know—it is possible to beat the odds.”

This short film is sure to boost your spirits!

Beverlye has been a go-getter for years.  When she was 23, her older sister gave her a birthday present: 3 art lessons. Beverlye was off and running. She has painted, drawn, taken photos and made ceramics ever since. Her paintings were purchased by celebrities including Suzanne Pleshette, Walter Matthau and Ann-Margret. Ceramics she designed in Italy were sold in US stores.

Beverlye loves tackling new challenges. After receiving her diagnosis, she felt an urge to write. She took a class from then Santa Barbara poet laureate Perie Longo. Having recently lost her husband, Longo taught about writing as a way to work through grief.

Beverlye went on to write 3 books. I Can Do This: Living With Cancer, developed out of the work she did for Longo’s class. Nana, What’s Cancer?, written with granddaughter Tessa Mae Hamermesh (now a student at Northwestern) to explain cancer to children. Next, she started a blog, Aging In High Heels which she continues to write and turned into her 3rd book.

Certain beliefs keep Beverlye forging ahead. She gives frequent talks on what she’s learned from cancer and from aging. “Be your own health advocate. Be co-captain with your doctor.” She practices good nutrition, exercises regularly and visualizes goals.

Giving a TEDx talk on aging was a dream. She wrote it down. “Writing down what you really want makes you look for things that take you there.“ Having committed her dream to paper, she researched it online, found a class on honing a TED talk and shaped her idea. She contacted a TED organizer by email. Receiving an email back, she thought, “OMG, I’m gonna faint.”  The organizer listened to her pitch on the phone, then said, “You’re in.”

Beverlye says, “Usually they make you go through a song and dance with a recording or video. I think she probably figured she had so many slots filled with young people it might be good to add an old person.” She spoke last October 17 (she remembers the date) along with several others in a symphony hall on the west side of New York. It was, in a word, “thrilling.”

You can see that 9-minute TEDx talk video below:

Beverlye continues to seek new horizons. She works as an advocate for aging with Global Healthspan Policy Institute, a think tank. She has spoken before congress on cancer and aging. She writes for the Huffington Post and is starting a column with the Montecito Journal.

Beverlye speaks often in retirement homes. “I meet interesting and exciting people. Today’s  generation 60-90 is ground-breaking. They’re doing phenomenal things.”

Beverlye also enjoys time with son and daughter-in-law Jim and Leslie Hyman and twin grandsons Alexander and Gideon and with daughter Terry Hamermesh and granddaughter Tessa Hamermesh.  Beverlye’s husband Bob, a retired music exec, has drunk Beverlye’s Kool-Aid. He’s taking acting classes.

“We’re all hit with injuries as we age. Though we may look or feel years younger, we can’t kid our bodies.” She’s currently recovering from a hip injury. But neither cancer, nor age, nor injuries can keep this dynamo down.

I’m exhausted just thinking about all Beverlye’s got going. But she has no plans to cut back.

“As I approach my mid-80s, my objective is to keep finding and accomplishing firsts. It gets my endorphins going. My motto is: Dream it, See it, Do it. Old age is a blessing. We’re not all lucky enough to get here.”

Thanks for the pep talk, Beverlye.  You go, girl!  (beverlyehymanfead.com)

 

 

 

 

 

In their new book, Joseph Krakoff and Michelle Sider help others cope with loss

An illustration from the new book, Never Long Enough. (Click on the image to visit the book’s Amazon page.)

As a rabbinical student, Joseph Krakoff noticed how often people had trouble comforting others after a  death.

“With all good intentions, they’d say things that could hurt more than help.  Like: ‘He’s in a better place.’ Or ‘At least you had her for 80 years.’ The truth is no matter how long you’ve been with someone, you still want them by your side.”

Joseph became a rabbi and practiced at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, MI, for 16 years. In the last 3  years, he changed focus. He’s become senior director of Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network.

Rabbi Joseph Krakoff

While still a rabbinical student, Joseph did a hospital chaplaincy rotation at Sloane Kettering.  After class training and shadowing a chaplain for several days, he felt “ready” to visit patients on his own.  “The first patient I visited had just been diagnosed.  Minutes before, the doctor told her she had less than a week to live. Here I was—the rabbi who was supposed to have something brilliant to say to help in her distress. Yet I was clueless. I wanted to run out of her room.

“But I sat there, for 3 hours, as she told me her story.  Not only did I learn about this amazing woman’s life, but I learned there are no magical words that will heal a person’s body or heart. It is only our presence, our sincere caring and our authentic listening that can help heal their soul.”

After, Joseph wrote a poem about grieving. When he became a rabbi, and later a representative of hospice, he sometimes shared it. He noticed it seemed to bring comfort.

Years later, Joseph met psychologist turned artist Michelle Sider. Both were in Israel on a Jewish Welfare Federation trip of teachers and doctors.  Michelle taught art at the Frankel Jewish Academy in W. Bloomfield, MI. (Joseph’s daughter Atara and son Micah would someday be students in Michelle’s class.)

Michelle Sider

Michelle had suffered losses of her own. Her older sister Sheryl had died of a sudden heart attack at 36. “I never said goodbye to my sister,” she says.  Trained as a psychologist, she’d worked with many children who died from cancer. “Joseph’s poem grabbed me,” she says. “I realized I’d had so many losses.” She suggested turning the poem into a book with her illustrations.

And so began a 3-year project of re-writing the poem in brief lines which lent themselves to artistic images. In the end, Michelle became collaborator and co-author of, Never Long Enough—Finding comfort and hope amidst grief and loss. The book, Michelle says, “helps people slow down in the grieving process. It takes them through the emotional work that’s involved.”

Psychologist Gretchen Schmelzer agrees. In her book Journey Through Trauma, she writes, “In our everyday life we are so busy moving on to the next task or the next interaction… that it can feel like we never finish one thing before starting the next. A mindful goodbye allows you to fully absorb your experience.”

Joseph says, “Too often people wait until 1 or 2 days before they enter hospice to start dealing with relationships. A sense of honesty overtakes them at the end of their lives. The book can be useful for people doing their own life review.  It helps to heal the spirit.”

But, Rabbi K. cautions, there is no cure for loss. “Loss is loss. There’s no replacing important feelings. Most of us will be dealing with loss for the rest of our lives.”

An illustration from the book that Michelle adapted from a family photo..

Joseph thinks the best way to support someone suffering from loss is to “give them a hug or hold their hand. Being there establishes an emotional connection. It helps a mourner feel comfortable they can explore their feelings with you. After, they won’t remember your words. They’ll remember how you made them feel.”

The co-authors convey a compassionate message with no specific reference to religion or God. Joseph says, “The book crosses boundaries of race, religion, sexual orientation, age. We speak to the universal human experience of grief and loss, comfort and hope.”

Images illustrate emotions. They’re rendered in black and white through the painful observation: “The truth is that life is never long enough.” One image is particularly “gut wrenching” for Michelle. Her elder son Josh, 23, was leaving to join the army. She snapped a photo of him hugging his brother, and drew it to illustrate the line “one more hug.”

“None of us is guaranteed tomorrow,” Michelle says. “But our whole family fears the possibility of losing a child to war. It’s as though we’re under a looming cloud. We make sure every phone call ends with ‘I love you.’”

Toward the end of the book, color appears to illustrate the thought “Yet I will forever be thankful we had each other.” Blank pages provide space for “Memories & Reflections.”

Published by Read the Spirit, Never Long Enough is already being used by hospice workers, counselors and funeral homes to help clients cope with their feelings and encourage crucial conversations.

Thanks for sharing your souls with us, Joseph and Michelle.  And for helping our souls to heal.

Care to meet the authors in Michigan?

On Oct. 24, the authors will conduct a seminar on grief and book signing at Rev. Ken Flowers’ Greater New Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit.  On Nov. 5, at 1:30, they’ll speak at the Jewish Book Fair at the W. Bloomfield, MI Jewish Community Center (JCC). Books will be for sale at the JCC Book Fair and are available at House on Main in Royal Oak, MI, Book Beat in Oak Park, MI, plus the Amazon and Barnes & Noble online bookstores.

Friendship is a current beneath the surface of our lives

Having written this column for more than 3 years, I looked back at the columns I’ve published.  While I haven’t blogged directly about friendship, it’s a theme that runs through many of my stories.

Friendship is a current beneath the surface of our lives that buoys us and keeps us moving forward.

Here are just a few of my subjects who were saved or propped up by friendship…

Natalie Myerson and her overflowing community of friends.

Natalie Meyerson, 97 and ½, who has 45 “courtesy daughters,” friends really, who help her run errands, take walks and keep her independent and vital.

Tony Acosta, a tennis pro who happened to be hitting balls with some doctor friends.  When Tony mentioned he couldn’t catch his breath, they sat him down, took his pulse, and drove him to the hospital where he had multiple bypass open heart surgery.  They’re all back on the courts.

Doug Leith, a personal friend and fine golfer with a devoted group of golf buddies.  After Doug died prematurely of pulmonary cystic fibrosis and was cremated, his friends scattered his ashes on his favorite golf holes around the world.  They still carry some of his ashes in their golf bags.

Ellen Kahn, in her 90s.  She fled Berlin as a child on the Kinder Train.  She went on to lose both her daughters over the years.  She credits her friends for pulling her through.

Photographer Monni Must

Photographer Monni Must, who was inconsolable after losing her daughter Miya.  Monni’s friend Linda  Schlesinger-Wagner accompanied her to Europe several times, assisting in photo shoots that turned into a landmark series of books about Holocaust survivors.

I’m blessed with many good friends.  One is my husband, Burt.  The stage 4 cancer diagnosis I received 13 years ago was so frightening I knew I couldn’t make intelligent decisions.  I asked Burton to take over.  He was relentless in tracking down doctors, calling and re-calling, keeping notes, taking me to every appointment.   He saved my life.

Another dear friend of more than 50 years is Brenda Rosenberg.  Throughout my complicated diagnosis, Brenda also came to every doctor’s appointment.  She designed a card printed with the Misha Beirach (Jewish prayer for healing) on one side and a meaningful photo she’d taken on the other.  She cried with me when my head was shaved, designed my wig, talked me through many meltdowns.  This same Brenda Rosenberg is one of the guiding lights behind this book and the Women of Wisdom.

The Torah commands Jewish people to fulfill the concept of tikkun olam, or making the world a better place.  Brenda, I’m so proud of how hard you work and how much you accomplish in helping to heal the world.  On a personal and global level, thank you, dear friend.

 

 

Taking responsibility in the community: Alexis Farbman shines at her Bat Mitzvah

Alexis Farbman (center) with Farbman and Lazerson families around her on the occasion of her Bat Mitzvah.

I used to wonder why people got so carried away by their grandkids.  Now I’m one of them.

Burton and I are blessed to have 6 grandchildren.  The oldest, Alexis, just had her Bat Mitzvah.  In case you don’t know the word kvell, Oxford Dictionaries defines it as “feel happy and proud.”  Alexis’ Bat Mitzvah propelled it to a new level.

I must objectively state: Alexis is a mensch.  Sweet, smart, loving, fair, funny, generous and capable.  This is the girl who, at 12, created a spread sheet and figured out the details of our summer family Olympics.  That meant which t-shirt in which color and which size went to which member of 2 teams of 12 each.  (I was looking for sweatshirts.  Alexis said, “T-shirts are cheaper.”)  And which team member should play volley ball and which shoot hoops.  I was frazzled by the logistics; Alexis, cool.  This year, when it came time for the shuffle board competition, Alexis strode over to me with a pep talk.  “You’ve got this, Gigi,” she said.  (P.S., I didn’t.)

Bat Mitzvahs at Temple Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL, aren’t part of a larger service.  They are the service, entirely performed by the celebrant.  Rabbi Steve Lowenstein and Cantor Andrea Markowicz create a sense of warmth and informality.  (The rabbi’s talit, or prayer shawl, is made from a maize and blue U of M t-shirt.  Perfect for Andy’s family as he and Amy are U of M grads and have indoctrinated their daughters to Go Blue!)

I knew Alexis would be poised and competent.  I didn’t realize how grown up she’d  look in high heels, cloaked in her great grandfather’s prayer shawl.  Nor did I realize how verklempt (Yiddish for emotional) I’d be.  Surviving stage 4 cancer and living 13 years to be present for this milestone?  Wow.

Through blurry eyes I managed to read the opening blessing.  After, the rabbi asked what I‘d like to say to Alexis.  Instead of uttering something matriarchal or profound, I could only croak: “You knock me out, girlfriend.”

Nor was my emotional state helpful when it came time for Alexis’ grandparents, Carol, Bob, Burton and me, to sing 2 Hebrew blessings.  I was the only one who could carry a tune… sort of.  Ahead of time, Burton had practiced for hours.  I learned Bob had, too.  We must not have sounded too melodious because the rabbi chimed in.

Alexis read fluently from the Torah, using a left handed yad (pointer) to follow the Hebrew.  Her Torah portion, toward the end of Deuteronomy, discusses how God punishes Moses for losing his temper by forbidding him to enter the Promised Land.  Alexis drew a meaningful lesson from it.  She said, “It’s important to listen to one another.  If Moses had listened to God, God would have built trust in Moses.  I believe listening and trust can go hand in hand because listening leads to trust.”

Alexis excels at soccer and basketball.  She said, “If a coach is teaching a play, it’s necessary that all players hear and understand because one person can mess up an entire play…  We should all realize that listening to one another will help the world become a better place.”

A Bar (for boys) or Bat (for girls) Mitzvah calls for the celebrant, who’s turning 13, to do a good deed (mitzvah) for others.  This past summer Alexis volunteered at a non-profit, ministry-run restaurant.  The Front Porch is in Ellsworth, near  Charlevoix in northern Michigan, where our family spends much of the summer.  The Front Porch, staffed mainly by volunteers, has done wonders for the community.

Alexis helps out at the Front Porch restaurant as her mitzvah project.

Alexis spoke about her Mitzvah project.  “Ellsworth is a small farming town where many families are struggling financially and cannot afford things like eating at a restaurant.  The Front Porch is a miraculous place as it is a pay-what-you-can restaurant.  If you cannot afford to pay, you simply put the bill in an envelope and leave.  No one will ever know you could not afford your meal and you can enjoy the restaurant experience with dignity.”

Alexis bussed tables, cleaned booths, rolled silverware into napkins and took orders.  (One day Grandpa Burt rolled napkins with her.)  About the experience, she said, “I was able to really help a place I had gone to since I was little in a community I love.  I never realized how special a place this was and how much charity work went on behind the scenes.”

Alexis thanked the members of our family for the roles we play in her life.   Sisters Camryn and Lindsay “for being there for me and making sure we stick together. “  Dad Andy: “Shooting hoops, fishing, playing cards–you are always up for family time.”  Mom Amy:  “Running together and waterskiing… You give the best advice.”  (Ed note: Remember that, Alexis, as you grow into adolescence.)

Well done, Alexis!

As your mom said in her remarks, “You are good to the core… Your smile lights up an entire room.”  Everyone you meet knows how special you are.  Thanks for teaching Grandpa and me the true meaning of kvell.

Keep on knocking us out, girlfriend.