Monday, January 30, 2012

Noshing My Way to Solvency

Some of you may have noticed I haven't been writing in my blog on a regular basis. That, my friends is a GOOD SIGN. It means I am employed.

It's only a temporary work situation, but let's not look a gift horse in the mouth. Work is work. Work is WONDERFUL.

Maybe you've already figured out this particular facet of my personality: I seize on things like a dog with a bone. When I have work, nothing else exists. All my energies go into the job.

That is why I completed my first assignment a full 14 days ahead of schedule.

Actually, that may have been the nosh.

The first day on the job, I found myself in the junk food aisle of my local supermarket, struggling not to take items off the shelf.

I did not succeed.

Here are the items I have purchased to fuel my creativity over the past 12 days:

Those Danish butter cookies that come in decorative tins (a two-fer).

Oreos (for the kids, so they wouldn't ask me for the butter cookies).

Apple chips (to give the illusion of not eating calorific foods). These were the first food item on which I'd ever seen the Halal symbol displayed, which made a funny juxtaposition with the Badatz Kashrut symbol!

Lotus Original Caramelised Biscuits (more about these soon).

Orbit Drops Nature Mint Flavor (I chew these with abandon making everyone in the vicinity plug their ears. The sorbitol causes me horrible IBS symptoms and I eat the darned things anyway).

The last two items are repeating items. I find myself restocking my supplies every day or so.

The Lotus biscuits are the best plain cookie for dunking I have found in Israel to date. I discovered them when my friend and costar from RYS, Avital Macales, brought them as a bread and butter gift when she came for a meal on Shabbes. When I saw my kids fighting over them, I knew they had potential.

They have this wonderful crumbly texture. They melt in your mouth. Bliss. Sheer bliss.

I tell myself that because they are individually-wrapped, I use up calories in peeling off the wrapping. But actually, all I'm really doing is contributing to the landfill problem. *sigh*

The noshing is a problem for me. It seems to be something I need to do when I sit at my computer working. But since my work is sedentary and I nosh, I can just about see my middle-aged waistline expanding on a daily basis.

I've had to come to terms with this one fact: carrot sticks just aren't going to do the trick. My nosh needs to feel rewarding. Carrot sticks and the like feel more like a punishment than a privilege.

I did buy myself a package of rice cakes at one point, using, as my rationale, the same idea as for the apple chips, but luckily, Malka, my 18 year-old ate them before I managed to get to them.

Eventually, I'll get the noshing under control. Probably when I feel my job situation is secure...

Are you an on-the-job nosher? What's your preferred nosherei?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Work Worth Doing

At Yitzchak's Bar Mitzvah Kiddush, our guests oohed and ahhed over my baked goods. For one thing, I had every other baker in the world licked for sheer quantity. Together with my sons Moshe and Yitzchak (the Bar Mitzvah boy), I spent the Friday afternoon before the Kiddush putting together a total of 25 well-packed trays of goodies.

I had baked double recipes of all my favorite bar cookie recipes starting two months before the bar mitzvah. I carefully double-wrapped each item for freezer storage as my mother had taught me: one layer of plastic wrap followed by a layer of aluminum foil. I marked the name of the item on the top of each package with a magic marker and over the course of time, filled my free-standing freezer to the brim.

Dov came home in the middle of our tray-making and stopped Moshe from throwing away a piece of aluminum foil wrapping. "Wait!" he cried. "Take all the foil and make a ball. It'll make a great photo."

Unfortunately, quite a bit of foil had already bit the dirt by then, but we still ended up with a sizable-enough foil ball for a Kodak moment.

The best compliment I received at the Bar Mitzvah Kiddush was from some guy whose name I didn't catch (we are new to our congregation). He said, "My wife never touches home-baked goods at Kiddushes [sic] since we moved to Israel. I told her she had to taste your cakes. But she was like, 'Oh God, do I HAVE to?' and I told her, 'Look, would I mislead you??? You have to taste something. NOW."

The man who told me the story continued, "She took a cake. Her eyes got HUGE. She said, 'OMG. You were right! This is fabulous.'

I have to tell you: you are the best baker in the entire State of Israel!"


I still get all aglow when I think of him saying that to me. After all, aside from honoring my son with what I know how to do well, this is the kind of praise that keeps my spirits high long after such events.Whenever I have a bad day, I pull one of these praise memories out of my head and top up my tank of self-esteem. It works for me.

Guests and friends at the Kiddush kept telling me, "You should do this for a living," and the discussion turned to practical means of how I might accomplish this feat of baking professionally.

It IS something I've done before. I even made a wedding cake, once upon a time, though the wedding didn't last much longer than the cake. Good thing I don't believe in karma.

With the Bar Mitzvah accomplished (except for buying thank-you notes for Yitzchak *making mental note to self*), things have settled down with me back into my usual daily routine.

But last week a dear friend called, asking if I would make two cakes for his daughter's Bat Mitzvah! One for her Shabbat Kiddush and a larger one for her party. I said I would.

Thus began my torment. What type of cake should I make? What color icing should I choose? There were a gazillion decisions to make.

When I make decorated party cakes, I tend to opt for either my yellow cake recipe or my chocolate mayonnaise cake for dyed-in-the-wool chocolate lovers. These are both cakes that are sturdy enough to hold up well for decorating.

The wheels in my head were turning. My chocolate mayonnaise cake is the easiest cake in my repertoire.

I spoke aloud to Dov. "Easy does it, right? I should just make my chocolate mayonnaise cake."

"Righto," said he.

But just because the question has been asked and answered, doesn't mean I'm done with my decision-making process. Just ask Dov. He will roll his eyes at you.

While Dov is rolling his eyes at ME, knowing I will NOT take his advice, I thought about how our friends really like chocolate. Once I brought an applesauce cake for dessert when they had us over for Shabbes lunch and they wouldn't touch it: "Why waste the calories when it's not chocolate?" they asked.

Besides being chocolate, my mayonnaise cake recipes uses almost no bowls and utensils. BIG PLUS. BIG TIME.

I don't have a dishwasher. I AM the dishwasher. There are numerous recipes I will never try simply because they use up too many pots and pans. I kid you not. Lots of dishes to wash are not a good thing in my book.

But something nagged at me. The chocolate mayonnaise cake was easy all right, but it wasn't the most flavorsome cake. Good fillings and frostings must be employed to make up for the paucity of cake flavor.

Here's the part where the good angel and the bad angels come and whisper in my ears.

"How can you make them such a boring, flavorless cake? You think you can maintain your rep as best baker in the State of Israel with THAT recipe?" asks the bad angel rhetorically, who wants me to be all obsessive in the kitchen, fuss my brains out, and make a million dishes to wash.

"Varda, your chocolate mayonnaise cake is MORE than acceptable and you are the only one who finds it even remotely tasteless. Why do you make things hard on yourself. It will only make you nervous and tense and you'll end up taking it out on your family," says the good angel who worries about the state of my mental health and wallet.

In this case, as is so often the case, evil did triumph over good, I am (NOT) sorry to say.

I knew that the only truly acceptable cake for this particular occasion was my marble cake which has subtle nuances of cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla along with a rich, moist, and tender crumb. I had no CHOICE, I cried to myself inside my head where no one could hear me. I  MUST make marble cake. And not only MUST I make marble cake, I must make 8 recipes of marble cake to make enough tiers for the two cakes.

If you are getting the idea that I am certifiable, you are not far off. I, who hate washing dishes, set out to make 8 recipes of a cake requiring no less than TEN mixing bowls alone. Not to mention 3 measuring cups 2 measuring spoons, 2 spatulas, and 3 sets of beaters. I am crazy. Truly.

But I have to say that I am taking great pleasure in making these cakes with extreme exactitude, a recipe at a time. I love leveling cups of cake flour and crouching down to eyeball the liquid in my measuring cup at eye level. I love the lovely figure-eights I make while folding the egg whites and the smell of the spices. I love checking the cakes for doneness and feeling certain about the signs of same as yielded by my beautifully-swirled cakes.

I continue to wrestle with my own idiocy over choosing the more difficult path. I tell myself: "Any work worth doing is worth doing well."

In spite of all the dishes.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Kitchen Alchemy

While I don't have much of a sweet tooth, I have always been partial to baking. Cooking? Not so much.

Here's why: baking seems like some kind of cool alchemy or perhaps like a human-sized version of Creation.

I had this children's cookbook when I was a kid. It was a  Peanuts cookbook, a collaboration between June Dutton and Charles Schultz, complete with comic strips to accompany each recipe. There was a recipe for boysenberry cobbler with a cute name: Boysenberry Cobbler for Beethoven’s Birthday. I had just learned to play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

That recipe tickled my imagination so much, I asked my mother if she would purchase the ingredients and help me along with the recipe. But first I made sure this was something I was going to like: "What's a boysenberry?" I asked.

My mom managed to find the boysenberries. We set to work.The recipe was just right for hands-on child cookery and called for the dough to be mixed by hand.

Somewhere buried in my mother's photo albums, in some dim and crowded storage area, is a photo of me, complete with pixie haircut and buckteeth, my hands in a bowl of dough, making that cobbler. Now in addition to having an exotic ingredient that actually sounded edible (boysenberries), the recipe specified that during the baking, the dough would rise above the filling and make a top crust. Therein lay the alchemy, or at least some culinary magic. Put the dough in the pan and the fruit on top but during the baking, they trade places!

I remember flipping the light switch on my mother's oven and sitting in front of the oven, my eyes glued to the show: a show that seemed better and more exciting to me than any sitcom going. I watched the cobbler bake and saw the moment that fruit and dough did their switcheroo. Oh MAN that was cool.

I was hooked.

Of course, the flavor of that cobbler, warm from the oven, was incomparable. Especially with vanilla ice cream. I watched the faces of my family members as they tasted my first attempt at baking.

I remember I had goosebumps to see their skepticism turn into surprised enjoyment. I had never felt so capable before. The response to my early dance recitals, school plays, and report cards paled in comparison to this new source of approval, not put on for my sake, being that I was just a kid, but genuine approval. They LIKED my cobbler, for real.

Through the years, I've repeated this sequence many times: researching a recipe with an intriguing name or ingredient; seeking out the special items needed to prepare the recipe; making the recipe; and watching the faces of family members and guests as they offer without volition, a primal reaction to something completely delicious, that I made myself with my own two hands. The process never fails to thrill me. Even when a recipe doesn't come out as I'd hoped, I take it in stride and begin the process all over again.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Crossing Lines

Last night I was checking my email when I heard the escalating voices of my 16 year-old and 13 year-old in yet another sibling squabble. Before I could find out what was going on between them, I heard the 13 year-old cry in the wounded sort of way that let me know he'd been hurt. "What happened?" I asked in the weary tone of a mother who has seen too many battles erupt between her children and who has learned that such battles are a fact of family life.

Moshe, the 16 year-old came right out with it: "I hurt him and I know it's wrong, but you need to know why I hurt him."

Um. No I don't. Which is what I have been telling Moshe for years.

There is no excuse for physical violence between brothers. Period. There is a relevant passage in the bible, Exodus 2:13: "Lamah Takeh Rayecha," "Why do you smite your friend?"

Moshe was punished with the loss of the computer for two days. That's pretty harsh, considering he's as much a media addict as any normal 16 year-old today. But punishment aside, I continue to puzzle over how I can get the concept across to him that violence in any form against a brother is unacceptable. No excuses. Ever.

This morning, a relevant thought came to me. In all the various cop shows I like to watch with my husband: Cold Case, The Closer, Castle, Lie to Me, and The Mentalist, there is always a point where the criminal breaks down and confesses the murder. The murderer's invariable response is to try to persuade the interviewer that the murder was justified. At the end of the heartfelt confession, the murderer is always surprised when he is handcuffed and his rights read to him.

He'd thought it was working: he'd thought he'd made the case for justifiable homicide and earned a get out of jail free card.

But no. The criminal is never right. While we may even sympathize with the murderer's claim of, "He done me wrong," we can never give ultimate approval to the ultimate act that crosses the line that must not be crossed. Even so, the murderer always gives it a good college try. He tries to cajole us into taking his side.

Moshe loves cop shows every bit as much as his parents do, so I thought telling him this thought I'd had might help him view his behavior in a different light. I'm still thinking over how I will broach the subject with him for maximum impact. But I think he will know exactly what I mean when I talk about the invariable denouement of all those cop shows and get the point I am trying to make. Murder/violence, has no ultimate justification except in self-defense.

Now, speaking of violence and crossing lines, I don't know why this happens, but it sometimes seems as though everything I read within a certain time period is interrelated. And that's what happened today. I came across an article by Alan Dershowitz about Gilad Atzmon, a self-professed self-hating Jew putting in an appearance at the Friends Seminary.

I was appalled. I assumed Friends Seminary to be a Quaker institution. How could a Quaker institution be hosting someone like Atzmon whose entire being is dedicated toward the elimination of Jews and the Jewish State? To my mind, Quakers were gentle, non-violent people. How could they actively ally themselves with someone so filled with hate?

I googled Friends Seminary and found a link to a statement by the principal of the institution explaining that Atzmon had only been invited to the school in his capacity as a musician. The statement was persuasive and I was relieved. Until a few moments later when I came across this item on the subject posted by CAMERA. I realized then that the principal's statement was a whitewash. Hosting a person like Atzmon, no matter in what capacity, had to be seen as a statement against Jews and the State of Israel. There was simply no other light in which to see this event: Atzmon is just too controversial a figure.

"Friends," thought I, thinking of the placid face that appears on every package of Quaker oats. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

I had posted all three links to Facebook: the Dershowitz article, the principal's statement, and the CAMERA blog piece. What I was really hoping was that my friend Rivkah Moriah would weigh in and shed some light on the Quaker response to doings in the Middle East. Rivkah was raised a Quaker but today is an Orthodox Jew whose son Avraham David Moses (May Hashem Avenge his Blood) was gunned down by a terrorist as the 16 year-old studied Talmud in the library of Mercaz HaRav, the seminary adjacent to his high school.
Avraham David Moses H"YD

Rivkah did see my Dershowitz posting and my half-formed thoughts on the subject. She responded:

"Quakers, as a group, have become very anti-Israel. They have bought the, 'Palestinians as victims, Israelis as aggressors,' propaganda, and many of them have stopped even paying attention to facts. It really does go against their heritage.

According to Quaker dogma, they should be pro-peace, anti-violence, but much of the community has taken on a Goldstone approach to the conflict. Not all of them, my mother for example. She loves Israel, is not against Palestinians, and is against violence. She tries to be open to hearing news and opinions that she didn't expect. She knows a surprising amount of Israeli history, knows how biased the Brittish were while 'implementing' the mandate, and she is aware that some Arabs are committed to destroying Israel.

But she is careful about what she says in certain circles, because she has sometimes been attacked for voicing a perspective like this. People who purport to be peace-loving and anti-violence, but who attack my mother for having her own, informed, opinion, should be ashamed of themselves. It's bad enough her grandson was murdered. She shouldn't have to see him turned into the aggressor.

... there is a surprising amount of flux between Quakers and Jews, but there is this aspect, as well. It is good you are paying attention, Varda, because the cultured intellectuals who advocate for ruthless killers should be condemned when there is carnage.

It also [Quaker philosophy] to a degree, has affected my hard-wiring. Nevertheless, I choose the Jewish approach that, when someone comes to kill you (and is thereby a rodef) kill him first. David Shapira is a hero."

I googled the phrase "Quaker Palestine" and was flooded with hit after hit of strong Quaker anti-Israel feeling. How had I not realized the depth of Quaker hatred toward Israel? I found, for instance, this long list of articles under the heading "Perspectives" on a website called, "Quakers With a Concern for Palestine-Israel Working for a Just and Lasting Peace." Every single article in this section was from an anti-Israel source. They might as well have labeled the page in the singular, since only a single perspective was offered: the anti-Israel perspective.

I had a vague memory I must have pushed away of Richard M. Nixon's Quaker background and his ardent anti-Semitism. I guess I knew all along that the Friends were only posturing in their stance of non-violence. The friendly face on the oatmeal package belied a creed bent on supporting suicide bombers, terrorists, and jihad.

I found Quaker website after Quaker website that blamed the victims of terror for their own deaths because of some supposed occupation that even the so-called Palestinian Arabs state does not exist. As recently as January 4th, 2012, Hamas co-founder Mahmoud Zahar said that Gaza is not under occupation. But our "friends" the Quakers, apparently know better and tell us that suicide bombings and Avraham David Moses' killing, for instance, is due to a root cause which must be addressed to restore peace to the area: occupation. 

So what if the Arabs themselves say there is no occupation? The Quakers are still going to stick to their narrative.

Which makes me wonder what the heck Dershowitz was doing, sending his daughter to study at Friends Seminary in the first place. 

But back to Moshe and his sibling squabble: the terrorist always justifies his terror, whether it is an older sibling terrorizing his younger sibling, the confessed murderer on a fictional television cop show, or the Quakers talking about getting to the root of the problem when they look the other way in response to Arab terrorism of Jews. 

But in every case, a line has been crossed that puts a person squarely into the realm of evil. My son is still young and I still have a chance to impart an important lesson to him about crossing lines and choosing good. I pray that he will learn the strength to always choose the right side of that line.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Bony Fingers

Years ago, my piano teacher, Ralph Zitterbart, showed me the difference between my hands and his own. His fingers looked skeletal from so much piano practice, while mine still retained quite a bit of chubby flesh around the joints. Piano fingers are not very attractive. But I was struck by the idea that Ralph could see how much or how little I practiced piano at home just by looking at my fingers.

Vladimir Horowitz's hands
After that, I paid attention to the fingers of artists like Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubinstein while watching their televised concerts. I worked toward getting my fingers to look skeletal like the fingers of these virtuosos. I fantasized about some maestro meeting me for the first time.

The maestro's eyes would be inexorably attracted to the visage of my skeletal piano fingers. His eyes would fill with respect and gaze into my own eyes, which would reflect competence and the burning, passionate fire of the consummate artiste!


A young Artur Rubinstein
Bony fingers are the bees knees, thought I, back in the days when I dreamed of becoming a concert pianist.

Today, bony fingers are still to be desired. But instead of fingers bony from piano practice, I think of working my fingers to the bone through the tap, tap, tapping of a different sort of keyboard. I make my living through writing, but writing jobs have been few and far between.

Today was a great day in the annals of bony-finger days. Sunday may be a day of rest in the US and other parts, but in Israel, Sunday is just another work day. I finally nabbed a small freelance job, a bone thrown to my less-than-bony-fingers by a friend, the editing of a Powerpoint presentation for robotic software.

I was already thinking about setting my house in order to free me for the work last night, which is when I got the call to do the job. I right away set about separating laundry and making mental notes on how to fit housework and work-work into my day.

The job ended up taking only one and one half hours to complete, which is a pity. I enjoyed so much allowing my powers of concentration and creativity to overtake me. It was like being inhabited by a different, wonderfully purposeful body. I hated for the experience to be over.

It was a good feeling to not only throw myself head and shoulders into the work, but to order my entire day around this project. My whole day gained focus, flavor, and energy thanks to this little bit of work.

It was all over much too soon.

I always think I work too hard and need a vacation. But the truth is I LOVE work. I love it to bits! Work gives so much texture to my day and makes life seem that much more worth living. It makes me feel good to contribute to the household finances and to have and use my skills.

How do you feel about work? Do you wish you had more work? Less work? Do you long for retirement?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Celebrities and Politics: Who Cares?

Every morning I wake up and start to panic: what will I write about in my blog today? I am always afraid that a new topic will not come to me. Yet like the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the new topics come to me with invariable predictability, each and every day.

It starts with straightening the items on my dining room table. I've written about the positive effects of housework on the thinking process. Straightening tends to be my first household task of the day. Then I go and sort the laundry and start a load going, if necessary. The next task I perform is dish-washing.

We don't have a dishwasher. Or rather, we do, and its name is Varda. It just isn't practical in Israel to use a dishwasher. We are a water-poor, energy-poor country. So, most of us here just roll up our sleeves and get cracking. That's what I do, anyway.

I don't need a Feng Shui expert to tell me that a water feature is conducive to calm, productive thinking. The minute the water starts running, so my thoughts begin to flow. This morning over breakfast dishes dotted with bits of oatmeal I remembered a status I posted on Facebook last week: Who cares that Katy Perry split up with Russell Brand?

That's when it hit me that this is a topic that has always aggravated me: the intimate doings of celebrities shoved into my face. I don't care what brand of toilet paper Angelina Jolie purchases. I don't care about her relationships, either. I shouldn't care. Neither should you.

But even worse than that kind of drivel, went my brain's train of thinking, is being exposed to the political pronouncements of said celebrities. What do I care what Matt Damon thinks about Sarah Palin or President Obama, just for instance?

What makes people sit up and listen when Paris Hilton makes fun of McCain or comes up with the "Paris Hilton Energy Plan?"

But the public eats this stuff up. We just love to see those pretty faces spouting their opinions.

I tried to find a rationale for caring what actors THINK. I came up with money plus power equals influence. We listen to The Donald, for instance, because of his immense wealth. Regarding finances, at least, he possesses a genius we mere mortals do not. Anyone who is good at his craft is someone worthy of respect that extends beyond the specific sphere of that person's expertise (though I wouldn't want to imitate Trump's marital record).

All well and good. But what about beauty? Are you going to let Heidi Klum dictate your vote in the next election?

To be fair, I love to listen to Jon Voight speak about Israel and the Jews. The reason? He's well-informed and high-profile.

I could say the same about Gene Simmons.

So it's not about a knee-jerk reaction: I don't think that all celebrities are vapid. If a celebrity has something to say that is reasonably intelligent, I'm all ears. And I think that celebrities can play an important role in spreading factual information that the media would rather hide.

The bottom line? Don't expect me to listen to you just because you have a pretty face. It's not going to happen.

What do you think? Should celebrities stay out of politics? Do you care what they think?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

No Cry No Woman?

Why do women like to cry so much? What is so desirable about sad songs and movies that make one cry? I just don't get it: why do women purposely buy books, rent movies, and download songs designed to make them cry? And if I don't get it, does that make me less of a woman?

I know I'm not imagining the phenomenon. SNL did a brilliant skit on just this topic:

But google the topic and there's just not much out there. I found an article about the average length of time a woman cries during the course of her lifetime (16 months), and another article further down that same page which said that tears wash away stress. I even found an article that details the response of men to women's tears and hypothesizes that women cry so they won't have to have sex. That same article states that the higher the level of testosterone, the less likely a person is to cry, which may be why men cry less than women.

However, none of this explains why women actively seek out opportunities for tears and why this writer is an anomaly in this regard. I hate touchy-feely music, chick flicks, and chick lit. All that stuff makes me cringe. Meantime, I really don't think I have high testosterone levels considering I have birthed 12 children.

The truth is, I hate crying. I hate the way it makes my face get all blotchy and spotted with red. I hate the way it makes my eyelids all puffy. And it never comes as a relief. In fact, when I cry, I feel I've come undone: lost some essential part of myself that was IN CONTROL until that moment.

Look at the music on my iPod and you'll see lots of happy music in the menu. Come by during Spring cleaning and you'll see me scrubbing away to Santana and Stevie Wonder. Who the Hell wants to clean to Dust in the Wind even though the title seems kind of, er, topical??

Seriously, here is my favorite song in the whole entire world. It's happy. It's LONG. I never get enough of happy.

You'll never see me choose the movie Ghost over Life of Brian. You'll never see me choose a book by Nicolas Sparks over one by Bill Bryson.

Crying? You can keep it. To paraphrase Carly Simon, "I haven't got time for the pain."

Do you look forward to a good old-fashioned chick flick and a pint of ice cream? How do you feel after the fact? Why do you think you like to cry?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Shameless Name-dropper

 Iconfess: I have this tendency to insert my kinda sorta famous uncle's name wherever and whenever possible. One friend teases me about this, calling me, "Shameless name-dropper," which is kind of funny considering I noticed my friend once referred to me as "Myron's niece." Leaving off the surname seemed to give my uncle's name even more cachet, something I noted for future use.

Of course, dropping the name "Myron Cope" into the dead center of light chit-chat is not at all the same as say, telling people that Brad Pitt is your brother in-law. Invoking the name of Cope doesn't make people go, "Oh. My. God." It's a humbler kind of celebrity.

Never heard of Myron Cope? I'm not surprised. But humor me. Type his name into Google and see what happens. As of this writing, I get 1,010,000 hits. Not bad for a Pittsburgh color commentator. (Brad's name gets 18,100,000 hits, but he has Angelina.)

I left Pittsburgh for Israel in 1979, just as Myron's star was beginning to really shine on the Pittsburgh sports scene. As a teenager, friends thought it kind of cool he was my uncle and I was often asked to imitate his sign-off line, "This is MY-ron Cope. On. Sports." But by the time my uncle passed away, in 2008, he was legendary in Pittsburgh: the most popular name in the city.

Now granted, Pittsburgh is not Los Angeles, Chicago, or even Atlanta. It's just Pittsburgh. To outsiders, Pittsburgh, despite its former glory as an important river town, is kind of a joke, associated with smoke-billowing steel mills and dirty skies. Even the name of my hometown is funny, and reminds you of nothing so much as your underarm.

But Pittsburgh holds a very warm and dear place in my heart. I am a third-generation born Pittsburgher on one side. My maternal grandmother was born there. My maternal maternal great grandmother lived in what is today Downtown Pittsburgh.

The story goes that after my mother was born, my grandmother went to stay with her mother during her recuperation. None other than Mrs. Mesta, a famed Pittsburgh socialite of the day, came to pay a call on my grandmother. My Pittsburgh roots run deep. And the twining of Pittsburgh and Myron is ineluctable.

Before Myron attained his eventual celebrity status in Pittsburgh, not everyone was sold on him. He had a speech defect and an obnoxious nasal voice that was curious in a TV and radio commentator and talk-show host. My Aunt Violet, Myron's older sister, once overheard someone bring up Myron's name after which some woman burst out with, "Oh, I can't STAND him." In a quiet, understated voice, my aunt said, "He's my little brother."

After awhile, though, Myron started catching on with Pittsburghers in a big way. A few years after putting that woman in her place, Aunt Violet was introduced to someone as Myron Cope's sister, to which she responded, "You mean Myron Cope is Violet Grodsky's brother!"

My mother was justly proud of her brother and kept me up to date on his progress and burgeoning celebrity status. The first time Myron's face graced the cover of Pittsburgh Magazine, my mom made sure to send me a copy and we used that magazine cover to decorate our Sukkah booth that year. I was proud of my uncle, even if not one visitor to my Sukkah recognized his face. He was a Pittsburgh phenomenon and that was good enough for me.

On my few trips back to Pittsburgh, I enjoyed testing the waters of my uncle's celebrity. I'd transfer from Kennedy Airport to the last leg of my flight from Israel to Pittsburgh and tell my seatmate in a hushed humble voice, "I'm Myron Cope's niece," and gauge the reaction. I knew my uncle had made it big when the news spread through the entire plane and people started buying me drinks!

The last time I saw Uncle Myron was some time before I managed to quit smoking. My mother had invited the whole family over for lunch in honor of my visit and when I went out on the porch for a smoke, Uncle Myron joined me. He queried me about the "Cigarette Nazis" in Israel: were they as bad in Israel as they were in the States, he wondered?

When I told him what was true at that time, that just about EVERYONE in Israel smoked, he said, "I guess I'll be making Aliyah in the near future, then."

I would have liked that. I would have liked showing him around, even if in Israel, it wouldn't be possible to show him OFF.

Myron Cope invented the Terrible Towel and arranged that all the proceeds would go to the handicapped.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Flawed to Perfection

A month or so ago, Dov and I were running errands together at our local shopping center when we ran into a friend. I watched Sarah’s face relax, the lines smoothing out as though controlled by some invisible puppeteer who’d let the strings go slack as she commented, “Thank God I ran into you two. So many couples have split up; it restores my soul to see the two of you still a couple, still together.”

What could we say? It was the truth. Too many of our friends’ marriages had fallen apart.

Religion doesn’t seem to be any guarantee that a couple will remain a couple. The residents of our fair town are by and large all Orthodox Jews who attempt to carry out the complicated minutiae of Jewish law in their everyday lives. But that hasn’t saved them from divorce.

It’s sad, but today it is remarkable when a couple stays together and unsurprising when they don’t. I had to wonder: is there some kind of secret to staying together that we, Dov and I, possess, that other couples do not? Because if there were some way for me to hit on the formula for marital success, I could share it and save lots of people heartache.

But I have no such formula. Our marriage is not the stuff of dreams. There are lots and lots of rocky patches, bouts of relationship insanity, and hair-pulling.

When things are at their most difficult, I think that we stay together by osmosis. We’ve been together so long it’s a habit. Maybe we’re too LAZY to get a divorce. Maybe we can’t AFFORD to get a divorce. But the bottom line is that I can’t see us apart.

A friend (who subsequently got divorced) once told me that I should try to see myself apart from my husband to see if I could envision how that would work; that this would give me the strength to actually go through with divorce. Looking back, that seems like dangerous, even BAD advice. But back then, for the sake of my friendship, I tried. I tried to see myself without Dov.

I could not.

I guess that some marriages are easier than others, but I really don’t know that for sure. All I know is that I am meant to be with Dov and Dov is meant to be with me. It’s not easier to be together, but in the long run, there is mutual satisfaction and working toward mutual goals. The rest is fluff.

If I had to pinpoint one reason Dov and I have stayed together so long, I’d have to say it’s that we grew up together. When you get to the point where you’ve been together most of your lives, you’ve got something solid and tangible. Like individual people, it’s not perfect, but it works.

The best tomatoes are never those pink, mealy hybrids piled high in supermarkets, but the cracked, irregular heirloom fruits you grow yourself in your own backyard. Our marriage is like that: imperfect, but full of flavor; still bearing fruit after more than 3 decades.

How long have you been married? Do you have "the perfect marriage?" What are your relationship secrets? 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Party's Over

The bar mitzvah of my son Yitzchak is now past tense. I woke up the morning after the party and the last thing I wanted to do was get out of bed. I was in a state of utter exhaustion and burnout.

Dov and I had really struggled to give this kid a kiddush and party to remember, but it was pretty much a do-it-yourself event. Or rather two events: the kiddush after services on Shabbes and the party Tuesday night. There were also the two big meals I made for our family for Shabbes, so make it three or four big DIY events.

I have good neighbors and friends and they pitched in. But I guess I did more than I'd realized. After I straightened up the house and did a couple of loads of laundry yesterday, I went back to bed and slept and slept and slept. I arose at 3:50 for one reason only: I had to daven mincha. Maybe two reasons, actually--I was afraid that if I didn't get up then, I'd be up all night, completely off schedule, and miserable.

I had choir last night and it was a pleasure to get back to doing something just for ME. I reveled in having the pressure off of me for a change. Then I went home and chilled with Dov for a bit. Finally, I went to sleep and wonder of wonders, slept through the night.

I guess I knocked myself out more than I'd known with this whole bar mitzvah thing, but I can look back at the event with a sense of joy and accomplishment. Dov and I strained to give Yitzchak a kiddush and party to remember and in that regard I believe we acquitted ourselves well. You can see in the following video (Credits: My son Natan Epstein, the videographer) that a great time was had by all.

Dov gave a little speech at the party in which he recounted incidents about Yitzchak that really illustrate the way he has always been wise beyond his years, a bit of a nudnik, but in lots of ways, an adult in a kid's body. I thought I'd share some of these stories, which are family stories but in this context, feel appropriate for sharing with the world.

I was always careful to say the Shema prayers with my children before they went to sleep at night. One Friday night, during synagogue Shabbes services, after the Shema prayer was said, Yitzchak just naturally segued into HaMalach HaGoel Oti, the next part of the bedtime prayers.

His little voice was so pure and sweet that no one wanted to stop him and so no one did, even though this was technically an interruption of the evening service. Yitzchak's rang out in the synagogue and everyone listened rapt.

It was a moment of great parental pride and joy for Dov. I wish I had been there.

At the time Yitzchak was born, we lived on an isolated, mountaintop settlement where there were few signs of civilization. We had no place to buy groceries or other supplies on the Yishuv. So when we moved to Efrat, the kids enjoyed the new atmosphere of consumerism they encountered.

One day, a neighbor started off to the grocery store. Yitzchak decided to follow along. He was three.

He crossed a busy street behind the neighbor and no one noticed. When they arrived at the supermarket and wheeled a cart into the store, Yitzchak did the same.

They piled groceries into their cart and Yitzchak piled groceries into his cart. Instead of the fruit, chicken, and canned goods of our neighbor, Yitzchak piled his cart with chocolate, potato chips, pop, and ice cream. When he deemed his cart sufficiently full, he wheeled himself over to the cash register and unloaded his stuff for the cashier to total.

That is when we got the phone call to come get him.

When Yitzchak was nine, the Sukkos festival (Festival of Booths) was fast approaching when Dov fell ill and was unable to build our Sukkah hut. A neighbor who was an important rabbi came over with his sons to do us the kindness of building us a Sukkah. The rabbi came out to my veranda, looked around and pointed to a certain spot, saying, "I think this is a perfect location."

But earlier, I had looked around on my own to see where the Sukkah should be built. I had pointed to the same spot and Yitzchak had pointed upward. "You can't build it here, because there is an overhang from the veranda of the apartment above us."

I pointed out the same problem to the rabbi. The rabbi admitted that Yitzchak was right! A nine year-old had spotted a problem the rabbi and I had missed!

This year, Yitzchak and Asher went out the first night of Sukkot for a custom we call "Sukkah-hopping." Kids go see neighborhood sukkah booths and neighbors put out treats for them. At one sukkah, a neighbor showed off a beautiful Esrog (citron) to my boys. It was large and particularly fine. Alas, as Yitzchak pointed out, the Esrog was not Kosher for sacramental use on Sukkos. The little lecture the neighbor gave my boys turned out to be educational all right--not for my boys--but rather for the neighbor who learned a thing or two from Yitzchak about what makes a citron Kosher or non-Kosher for use on Sukkos!

At Yitzchak's party, Malka put up a large poster board on which she'd made a collage of photos I'd gathered the day before. She left room for Yitzchak's friends to scribble their congratulations to the Bar Mitzvah boy. The photos we used in the collage depict Yitzchak at various stages in his life. I've scanned the photos and posted them here (not necessarily in order) so you can get the full flavor of this remarkable young man.