In the latter months of 2012, Alexandra Van Hasselt was searching for family members on the internet. In her efforts she would make contact with Ron Van Hasselt, a distant cousin on her father’s side. In his own research, Ron came across information regarding one of his relatives, David Van Hasselt. He found a book in which David Van Hasselt’s death in the Mauthausen concentration camp was documented. The book he found was the book I authored, Jew Face. David Van Hasselt was the first cousin of my mother Sipora and someone very special to her.
After having contact with Alexandra, Ron would forward her my contact information. Alexandra’s father, Vince, would subsequently contact me via email. Vince’s father was Eddie Van Hasselt, the brother of David and also my mother’s first cousin. As good fortune would have it, Vince, together with his wife Melanie and daughter Alexandra, were living in Florida, less than an hour from my mother, who at the time was 90 years old. They would meet, Vince and I would meet in New York, and little by little the whole family would get to know each other and a special connection would develop between many members of my family, and Vince, Melanie and Alexandra. But of all the relationships, perhaps the most special of the relationships was between my mother and Alexandra. Having grown up in a household with diverse culture, my mother played piano, sang, and had a tremendous love for the arts. Alexandra, a young girl of 15, was already a very talented dancer, with a beautiful singing voice and a growing love for acting. The bond that would develop between these 2 newly acquainted cousins, separated by 85 years, was as unique as any imaginable. They would sing together, have long talks with each other, and form the most unlikely of friendships. In Alexandra, my mother saw her younger self, a young lady filled with talent, joy and promise. In my mother, Alexandra saw a kindred spirit, whose age and experience and love, gave her extra encouragement to pursue her dreams and be someone who my mother could live through vicariously. For Alexandra, although saddened by mother’s passing in 2017, that special relationship would always stay with her.
All of this would be what would make today, October 30, 2022 so special. Today I got to see Alexandra perform in Jerry Herman’s play, Milk and Honey. Based in Israel in the early 1960s, this wonderful production was playing at the Wick Theater in Boca Raton, Florida. As I sat there, next to 2 of my brothers, my sister-in-law, and Vince and Melanie, watching Alexandra perform on stage with her powerful and talented presence, in a play about Israel, the magic of what took place 10 years ago and in subsequent years, came back to me in full force. I felt an almost mystical connection between past and present, made even more palpable by the young character in the play who was 9 months pregnant and due to give birth at any time. Her name, Sipora. After the play when I asked Alexandra how it felt when she learned that there was a character in the play of that name, the same name as my mother, she replied that it was very special and that on this day she had thought about my mother a lot.
I know I am far from alone in feeling that the importance of telling the story of what took place under Nazi-occupation can’t be overstated. But I’ve also felt that in telling the story and opening up this connection with the past, we have the opportunity to witness the continuation of life in its most poignant manner. In 1941, when word of David Van Hasselt’s death would reach Amsterdam, it would fall on my mother, a young woman of just 19, to inform David’s mother, Vince’s grandmother, of the death of her son. Today, more than 80 years later, David’s great niece Alexandra would perform on stage in front of 3 of Sipora’s children, and his nephew Vince, in a story about nothing other than Israel, the Jewish state. With all the trials and tribulations life has to offer, it is hard to find something more indicative of how life goes on, and even thrives, as this connection between past and present.
The play and the performance were beautiful, but perhaps nothing was more beautiful than the lesson learned from all the events surrounding it for me and my family. The lesson that what we do matters, and that who we come from stays with us forever.
The day after my mother passed I wrote a piece entitled, “An Angels departs”. Today as a special milestone approaches I offer you this piece, entitled, Remembering an Angel.
Sixty years ago this Saturday, January 1st, my mother and father were celebrating my mother’s 40th birthday together with friends in Cincinnati, Ohio. During a game of Canasta, my then very pregnant mother started laughing so hard she went into labor 2 weeks early and I was born the very next day. While I embrace my upcoming birthday with gratitude, it is somewhat bittersweet, because I know I will not be alone in remembering and missing my mother on what would have been her 100th birthday.
When I saw the upcoming date, 1/1/22, I couldn’t help feel like it looked familiar to me. It was then that I remembered how much my mother embraced the uniqueness of the numbers representing the day of her birth, and how these numbers signified this very special day approaching. There are so many things to say about my mother, Sipora Groen, born Sipora Catharina Rodrigues-Lopes. The thing I say to people most often, partially because it sums her up so well, but also because I know she would have liked it, is if you didn’t like my mother, you didn’t like anyone. She was warm, loving, jovial, and as social as anyone you will ever meet. But what very possibly made her so special, was that she was so very much more than that. Some of her greatest attributes were so understated that they could easily be missed by the casual observer. This was very simply because she was never who she was for show, she just was who she was, and was blessed with qualities most never acquire.
Some of the strongest and most intelligent people we meet or know of, show off these qualities on full display for all to witness and acknowledge. I do not say this disparagingly, since these qualities are meaningful and positive, I merely state this to emphasize one of the most remarkable things about my mother. When it came to her strength and intelligence, she was one of the most non self-promoting people you could ever meet. Highly intelligent, she had no trouble sitting in a room of people and allow them to take center stage. Whether it was wisdom or natural inclination, she understood that her intelligence was just another tool she could use to improve her life and the life of those she cared about, not something to show off to others.
Her strength was not something she ever used to achieve a dominance over others, rather a means of helping other and dealing with experiences that might have crushed the spirit of people with lesser means of coping.
My mother was just 13 years old when her mother passed away of natural causes. Left with a brother almost 3 years younger and a father struggling emotionally from the loss of his young wife, my mother had to deal with hardships most 13 year olds do not have to face. When the Nazis invaded Holland 5 years later she would have to face a different level of hardship, one almost impossible for most people to even comprehend. She went into the war with a fiancé who would subsequently be one of the 75% of Dutch Jewry murdered by the Nazis. Her father and brother would be taken to Auschwitz and murdered as well. Many friends and family perished in this time, and had in not been for my father, Rabbi Nardus Groen, my mother would have very likely met the same fate. She came out of the war with her newborn son Marcel as the one thing she had to live for, and had to spend many of those early months quarantined away from him due to illness. Eventually my father would return from military service and begin to build a family together with her.
My parents would be together till the death of my father on June 13, 2007. I always say that there was only one thing my father feared, and that was being without my mother. While in many ways my father was the strongest man I’ve ever known, I am not so sure he would have been able to live 10 years without my mother with as much fulfillment as my mother did without him for her last 10 years. My mother loved and respected my father dearly, and I truly believe the one thing she missed in her last ten years on earth was her husband of over 60 years. Even so, her incredible wisdom and inner strength drove her to rebuild those last years and recreate her life in a truly remarkable way. About a year after my father’s passing, give or take, one day she turned to Marcel and said, “he’s not coming back.” From this point on she rebuilt her last years into one final chapter of an extraordinary life, spreading joy, love and strength to whoever was open to receiving it from her. She was “Oma” (Dutch for grandmother) to so many, and made the term one of endearment to so many who had never even heard it before.
As I sit here, nearing what would have been her 100th birthday, there is still something I find thoroughly amazing. My mother was a short, gentle, physically unassuming woman. She sometimes looked at life with a simplicity that made her appear to be a young soul, for those of us who believe in such a thing. Yet more than 4 ½ year after her body left this earth, her presence, her very soul still guides me and supports me in a way I could have never dreamed possible, and I know from others who knew her that I have not been alone in feeling this way.
So while I am not alone in wishing my mother was here on earth celebrating her 100th birthday with those she loved and who loved her, I know that her birthday was, and still is a cause for tremendous celebration, something I will do with the joy I know she would have wanted from all of us.
Over the years, those who have followed me know that I write my best when what I write comes from the heart. As I am on the brink of an important personal milestone, what I write today is as much from the heart as anything I have ever written. What I want to share with you today are some of the most important life lessons I’ve learned in my 60 years on earth.
So if you ask yourself what is it about me that makes the lessons worth listening to, it’s simple. I am a very happy man. While I may not be the most successful of people by the standards of some, should a wealthy individual with many acquisitions be seen as a success if said individual is not happy? Well one of the important lessons I’ve learned, and one I will share right away, is that my personal happiness or success is not determined by how others judge their own. So I will leave that question unanswered, because it has little to no bearing on me.
One of the big questions we face is whether or not life should be looked at through the big picture lens or as a series of events. The truth is, as balance is one of the most important aspects of life, being able to identify events and the big picture as 2 major elements in a good life is very important. Friendships, and relationships as a whole are a perfect example of the application of this balance. There are people with who we share great moments and people with who we have long lasting meaningful relationships. Our most treasured relationships are with those that encompass both. However, part of that for which we need to be grateful are those who are in our life in whatever capacity it turns out to be. The concept of accepting someone for who they are is not only poignant, it is critical to maintaining relationships that will last and most likely enhance our lives.
All these theoretical concepts are nice, but when push comes to shove how many of us are able to put aside our egos and preconceived notions in order to maintain these relationships? It’s a good question and one that no one person is qualified to answer. I will say though, that up towards the top of principals I live by is the notion of not losing sight of the objective. To put too much emphasis on being respected or making a point, knowing full well that respect can’t be forced and ideals can be imposed, is taking a potentially pleasant or meaningful gathering and turning it into a conflict. Whether you justify it or not, you’ve lost sight of your objective. Or if you go on a vacation and one bad experience, be it with a place or person, occupies more space in your head than the thrill of your trip, you have lost sight of your objective.
Now of course I know that some things are out of our control and no matter what we do we can’t change them or make them better, but this leads me to an even more important lesson I’ve learned, one that we’ve heard often and one I work to apply every day of my life.
The lesson I am referring to is one of the core principals in living a happy and fulfilling life. It is understanding that we should only focus on controlling that which we can control, and knowing how to accept, or at the very least come to terms with that which we cannot control. The age of COVID-19 is a more important time in which to apply this principal than any other time I can remember. At least from a communal perspective. It is hard to believe that we live in an era in which dealing with how people treat each other during a pandemic is an added problem to contend with, but as we all know, it most certainly is one. I am not knowledgeable enough to speak in absolutes when it comes to COVID, and whether or not I feel anyone else is or not. All I can do in every aspect of my life is to treat others in a way I feel is fair and decent and take any actions or precautions I deem appropriate for me or anyone else for who I am responsible. Disease, illness and death are not good things I can change with a positive attitude, but my attitude can have an impact on how I and sometimes others can deal with or come to terms with these issues.
Don’t get weighed down by the need to avoid living a life with some or many clichés. Each moment is precious. There! I said it, fully aware of what a cliché it is. Does that make it any less true? Absolutely not. Appreciation for what we have now is as important as appreciation for what we have had till now. Being in the moment allows us to get joy from a brief encounter with a stranger, a delicious food, a refreshing drink, or a beautiful sunset or vista. While an individual moment rarely is special enough to alter an entire perspective, the cumulative appreciation makes the love of these moments more than just brief experiences, they make you the person you should desire to become and helps give you the added strength to deal with life’s more challenging moments.
Before I share with you what I have come to believe is the most important thing I have learned about life, I am going to briefly, and as safely as possible address what are arguably the 3 most highly debated subjects to discuss. Money, religion and God.
I am of the belief, another belief I know I share with others, that when it comes to all 3, each individual needs to decide for themselves how much importance they each get, if any. Most people who say they don’t care about money have either so much that is no longer a concern, or feel that what they have in life is enough to make them happy. Whether you care about money or not, the one piece of advice I would offer, is do not let money control you or define you.
Religion may forever be debated as coming from God or man, a matter I will not debate in this piece, but no one can ever convince me that using religion to harm another human being is anything other than a perversion of what one claims to be an ethical pursuit. If you believe in any religion, use it for good.
While some may have put God and religion in the same category, I firmly believe these are 2 very separate discussions. Religion is about dogma and personal and communal behaviors. God is rooted more in belief of a higher power, and in my opinion, there may be nothing more personal, nothing more unique than each individual’s perception of the existence or lack of existence of God. The impact of the subject of God may very well be compared to a snowflake. No 2 people look at it entirely the same way. While much of what brings me peace, guidance and happiness is my trust in God and the plan in place, I make it a point to accept this as a perspective very personal to me, regardless of whether or not it is agreed upon or totally dismissed by another.
So where do other people fit into all of this discussion of a happy and fulfilling life? While I see this subject as I see so many others, very personal and individual, for me it is simple. We are put on this planet to live with others. I know that we are born alone and we die alone, but the time in between is a different matter entirely. We live in a world with other people. While I recognize that many may be less comfortable with strangers than I am, and some may be skeptical or suspicious of other’s intentions, one of my most important credos is as follows. Meeting someone I did not know when I woke up in the morning is one of the things that makes life worth living. It always has been the case for me and I intend to do my utmost to make it a sentiment I hold with me for the remainder of my days. To the people I have met, loved, helped and wronged, I thank you all for helping to make me who I am today, and know that I am truly sorry for when I wronged you. It was never about causing you pain, it was only a result of being what we all are, flawed creatures.
All of these lessons enrich my life and make challenges easier to deal with, but when all is said and done, the one principal that truly dictates how I live my life is one taught in Jewish teachings. It is the lesson in Pirkei Avot, The lessons of our fathers. It is the simple and most powerful sentence teaching how to live a happy and fulfilling life. While I know of many people who know this sentence, for those who are not familiar with it, is goes as follows.
Who is the rich one? The one who is happy with their portion.
There is no more sound formula for a happy and fulfilling life than the true understanding of this sentence. It is easy to wake up with so many of your goals achieved and with excessive good fortune, but what happens when it does not all go the way that you planned? At one point or another everyone has to face sadness or disappointment. I can tell you with clarity, understanding and complete honesty that my life has gone very differently than I hoped or expected it would when I was a much younger man. However, I can also say that as I sit here today, just days shy of my 60th birthday, that I am a very happy man. Because my happiness is not dependent on what I will get or even how much time I will get in the future, but on what I have been blessed with today. Life itself is a gift, and I am truly happy with my portion in this life. I wish the same happiness for all of you.
Each time I thought about what to write on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks I came up with something different. I wanted to recount what I saw and how I felt that day. I wanted to talk about an answer I got from a relative who was born after it happened when I asked her how she perceived it when hearing about it as an event in history. Finally I thought about writing about how I wonder and question what we actually have learned from that day. My head was spinning so much I decided not to write anything. It was then that I realized what I needed to write, and that it would be short and poignant. So here it is.
There are some things we are obligated to remember whether we want to or not. When it comes to moments, days or periods of time of horror, it’s not a competition. So while I know the numbers of deaths pertaining to some events may be significantly higher, it does not diminish the importance of remembering 9/11. I remember how almost everyone I met post 9/11 either knew people who perished, people who were there and survived, or were one degree away at most from knowing someone who was there. I fall into the category of knowing or having known people who were there or in close proximity. That being said, the reason I am obligated to remember this day is because of what I saw, what I heard and even what I smelled.
I saw the first tower burning from my apartment in Queens. I saw people crying on the streets. Most notably an older couple who looked as though they may have had a child in one of the buildings. I saw people covered in grey ash as I crossed the 59th street bridge. And I saw trails of smoke from where the towers once stood.
I heard the sirens all over the city. I heard the sounds of throngs of people walking uptown, without hearing many voices as so many were stunned into silence. I heard people crying around every turn. And I heard radios blasting everywhere with only one thing broadcasting, the news of what was perceived to have taken place.
I smelled a smell that I almost do not want to describe, as it may very well have been that of structures burning and people dying. I smelled it on 9/11 and I smelled it for days to come.
It is an awful truth that mankind is capable of terrible evil, but it is also true that ignoring it, acting like it never happened not only does not make it go away, it adds fuel to the fire. We need to remember 9/11 because if good remains silent it leaves a vacuum far too often occupied by evil. So not only do I urge everyone to remember, I urge everyone to do something good in honor of those killed on that day. Even if it is just hugging someone you love. Remember the day and do it honor by filling the void with goodness.
The world we live in is filled with uncertainty. Even before COVID-19 sent us into uncharted territory, economic challenges, regional conflicts and bad actors on both the local and global stage had us concerned not only for the well-being of future generations, but for our immediate future as well. There are so many questions to which we seek the answer. Fortunately, if we are able to identify it, the answer to the most important one is within our grasp. That question is, how do we deal with everything life is throwing at us? If we understand an important lesson of the upcoming High Holidays, we open our minds and hearts to understanding how best to move forward in difficult times.While much of the secular New Year is fundamentally different from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, there are some critical and meaningful similarities that may be of greater importance today than they have been in many of our lifetimes. The true observance of Rosh Hashanah is not structured around counting down the end of one year and starting another, nor is the celebration meant to be in party form with music and champagne. The Jewish New Year, while not a sad holiday by any means, if properly understood is a deep holiday of critical religious and spiritual importance to the year ahead. While that is something not normally associated with the secular New Year, it does begin to represent the place where the days have some significant similarities. Maybe most importantly, when it comes to self- introspection and improvement.The idea of a New Year’s resolution is a positive and life affirming concept. What we resolve to do is a reflection of what we deem important and the type of person we are, and the idea of making ourselves better in its basic form is a positive endeavor. In simplistic terms it is what is most similar between the secular and Jewish New Years. But if we look deeper we actually find that what differentiates the 2 holidays is most represented by the concept we deem most similar.A New Year’s resolution is for the most part, a promise to ourselves. We want to do something important in our lives or we want to develop or improve a character trait or ability. We often make New Year’s resolutions with a calm smile and relaxed demeanor. After all, as much as we would like to do that which we set out to do, at the end of the day, should we fail, we are not accountable to anyone other than ourselves. The greater accountability that provides us, the stronger character we have and the greater chance we have of accomplishing our goals. But the reality is that even the very strong, while demanding of themselves, feel somewhat less pressured, knowing that they made that rule for themselves.Gale Sayers, the great Chicago Bears Running Back, was widely known for his friendship with his teammate Brian Piccolo who died of cancer in June of 1970. He told the story of the friendship in his book “I am Third”, in which he stated, “The Lord is first, my friends are second, I am third”. In thinking about the critical aspect of Rosh Hashanah, this quote came to mind. The idea of putting God first, loved ones second, and ourselves third, speaks directly to the idea of true accountability. In many ways it is the same as the idea of Bayn Adam L’Makom and Bayn Adam L’Chaveyroo, which translates into Between man and God, and Between man and his friend. Jewish commandments are divided into those 2 categories. Commandments relating to the relationship and actions for God, and commandments relating to the actions towards our fellow human being. Ultimately these 2 categories create a breeding ground for true accountability.To some, accountability implies difficulty and hardship. The extra effort and emotional investment connected to accountability is seen by some as a negative. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Accountability is not the gateway to pressure and exhaustion, it’s the gateway to true happiness. It makes us focus on that one thing in life which we have the best chance of controlling, our thoughts and our actions. It allows us to create a breeding ground for personal growth, improved relationships, and a more promising future. It’s everything that so much of today’s society is not. It is not about finger pointing, assigning blame, or criticizing on social media. It is about looking at ourselves, being honest about who we are and making ourselves better. It is what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are all about.While the secular New Year stands alone as a day by itself, Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a 10-day period culminating in Yom Kippur. It is a time when we look into our hearts, see what we’ve done wrong, what we can do better, and how best to move forward. Our accountability to God and our fellow human being is meant to guide us in the year ahead. If we do this, while it is unrealistic to expect everything will be perfect in our lives, I can promise you the following. Your life will improve and you will be happier. You will be closer to controlling the one thing, and maybe the most important thing that you can control. Your thoughts and actions.May God give all of you the strength to look to yourselves, accomplish your goals and have a wonderful year head.Shana Tova.
While the comments you made yesterday addressing the controversy regarding your promotion of the movie “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake up Black America”,were certainly an improvement from comments previously made or conspicuously not made, “accepting responsibility” as you cleverly stated, is not enough. As a proud Jew and son of Holocaust survivors, I demand to hear the following words out of your mouth. “I apologize”, or “I am sorry for the words that I said and the pain that I caused.”
You see, anyone who has followed you over the years knows that you think you are smarter than everyone else. As it happens though Kyrie, the world is not flat, and Jews are not the devil. So, you are clearly not as smart as you think you are. I would guess that no one is as smart as you think that you are. That being said, because of your arrogance, it is striking to me that in your statement, you never mention anti-Semitism, and you never apologize to the Jewish people. Saying you take responsibility, in Kyrie speak, is a clever way of addressing it, without saying you did anything wrong.
Just in case you do believe you did nothing wrong, let me make it clear to you. As Rich Eisen beautifully stated after you accused Nick Friedell of dehumanizing you for of all things holding you accountable for your actions, your behavior dehumanizes us as Jews. And frankly I can’t help but think that somewhere in your thought process you felt that not apologizing to Jewish people and not mentioning anti-Semitism specifically, kept you in good stead with the likes of Kanye West and Louis Farrakhan.
Tell me I am wrong Kyrie. Let me hear you say you are sorry. Then, and only then will your words mean anything to me. In the meantime, if you don’t care for Jews, you might consider getting the hell out of Brooklyn.
I am actually writing this letter more to those within the Black community who believe they should be listening to you in regard to your stance towards Jewish people than I am to you directly. I am writing this because it is my hope that people will begin to understand that not only are your words hateful lies, but they also do a disservice to the community you claim to represent. You see, not only should Jews not be seen as the enemy, to anyone truly looking to help people of color, they would recognize that Blacks and Jews are natural allies.
It’s ironic. I am someone who usually is most disgusted in situations such as these because of the unwarranted attack on my people. As a proud Jew and Zionist, I see the world as a melting pot of people of all races and colors. Every person I meet, regardless of color, race, nationality, sexual identity, or social status, starts off exactly at the same place with me. I once met a woman who when I told her that I do not see color, responded to me by saying that she felt my statement was the epitome of white privilege. While I chose to remain silent, I generally tend to avoid wasting my breath on idiots, I did think to myself that a white woman deciding what is right and wrong for the Black community is actually the epitome of white privilege. Remembering what I thought that day, and always making every attempt to not be a hypocrite, I will not sit here today and claim to know what choices black people should make. I will however say that to portray another community as the enemy of your community solely for the purpose of garnishing attention, and with so little merit that it is of detriment to your ability to work positively with that community, is cynical and selfish.
I want black people to know that about 50 percent of civil rights lawyers in the south in the 1960s were Jewish. I want them to know that about 50 percent of the whites that marched in Mississippi in 1964 against the Jim Crow laws were Jewish. I want them to know that Colin Powell, the first African American Secretary of State spoke Yiddish, having learned it from a shopkeeper that employed him at a young age.
Do these points I make mean that everything Jewish people do towards people of color has always been correct and even decent? Of course, it doesn’t. But within every community there are the good and the bad people. What is important to know is that over the years Jews and Blacks have suffered similar attacks of hate, often fought for the same causes, and often worked their way from the bottom to the top. Barack Obama’s first Chief of Staff was the son of a man who fought for Israel’s independence as a member of the Irgun, an underground Jewish organization battling the resistance of Jew haters to the creation of the Jewish state.
So, to any of you in the Black community reading this who want to know the truth, you should know that there is not one group in the entire United States of America more of a natural ally than the Jewish people. And if you choose to believe otherwise because an attention seeking, self-serving, money hungry man who happens to be the same color and was once somewhat talented tells you otherwise, you are not only hurting me, but you are also hurting yourself.
I urge you to not let anyone tell you how to think, least of all someone hiding behind similar skin color claiming to be your advocate.
I could start by saying that I have no personal stake in the success of this movie, but that would not be entirely true. You see Mr. Zuckerberg, not only do I have a stake in it, you do as well. I do not know you, so I do not claim to know how you feel about your connection to the past, but I do know you are a Jewish man who has never hidden from that fact. It must be understood that the survival of the Jewish people will always be connected to acknowledging and remembering our persecution. So I ask you, does the future of the Jewish people mean anything to you? Or are the policies of Facebook so out of touch with reality and are you so detached from the operations of this giant you created that we are subjected to this ignorant and highly detrimental stance?
My personal issues towards this matter can be best explained by telling you a little bit about my background. I am the son of Holocaust survivors, and the importance of this and how it relates to me personally is not by any means exaggerated. When I see Facebook banishing a movie with the title “Beautiful Blue Eyes” because as the ruling states, it violates the policy against content that “includes direct or indirect assertions or implications about a person’s race,” knowing a little what the movie is about, I am in utter shock and disbelief. The title of the story is based on someone who is part of the story, someone with blue eyes, who was murdered by the Nazis. As someone whose father had eyes the color of a blue ocean, knowing that both his parents and younger sister were also murdered by the Nazis, it’s hard to imagine one of the 3, if not all of them, not having blue eyes. And had my father not been blessed to survive, his blue eyes would not have stopped the Nazis from murdering him as well.
But the stronger message here may come from relating to the story of my mother and her side of the family. Whether Facebook chooses to acknowledge this or not, the Nazis often identified their victims, particularly their Jewish victims, from their physical appearance. This was as evident in the Netherlands as anywhere else. My mother, born in Amsterdam and of Sephardic Jewish descent, looked different than most Dutch people at that time. My father, who had red hair and blue eyes, could, for all intents and purposes, hide in plain sight. My mother, with dark hair, brown eyes, and a darker complexion, immediately was recognized as being Jewish. It was only through the help of my father who worked with the resistance, and the hand of God, that my mother survived. But sadly, her father and brother, with similar physical attributes were taken to Auschwitz and murdered. The importance of my mother’s appearance was so significant and so important in understanding what took place that I even named the book in which I chronicle their 5 years in Holland during the Nazi Occupation, as “Jew Face”. https://hollandsheroes.com/general-book-information/ And just like “Beautiful Blue Eyes”, the title was based partly on a character in the book, my mother, and partly on an incident that took place.
As someone who is proud to be Jewish and forever cognizant of the past, present, and likely future threats we will always face, my reasoning for calling the book “Jew Face” was clearly not a racist or bigoted attack on, of all people, my fellow Jews. Maybe the point can best be made clear to you and anyone who may choose to bury their head in the sands of Woke Beach, by sharing the following anecdote.
After the publishing of my book, close to 5 years after my father’s passing, my mother would occasionally speak to various institutions about her experiences during those horrific times. She would often use the book as a guide in telling the story, and when on one occasion she informed the audience of its title, “Jew Face”, a woman commented to her that, “this is an ugly title for a book”. My mother’s immediate and instinctive response was, “it was an ugly time”. Maybe this is what you and the people who work for you are not comprehending. Sometimes to make a point, a point that can ultimately promote love and understanding and even save lives, you need to say and do harsh things. To avoid this in the name of equality or standards is at best shortsighted and divisive, at worst it is out and out dangerous. In fact, this application that states it violates the policy against content that “includes direct or indirect assertions or implications about a person’s race,” is so out of touch with the reality, it is closer to Holocaust denial than it is to enforcement of a ruling in the name of the common good.
I urge you to look at this situation with a broader and more educated perspective and realize that decisions such as these are counterproductive to what you claim to be important.
There are some celebrities that have such an important and frequent impact on your life that they become important to you. Till about 6 or 7 years ago I considered baseball my favorite sport. While the game and players have changed to the point that I no longer feel that way, I still do, and probably always will consider Vin Scully to be the greatest sports announcer to ever live. So, on the day of his passing, I feel compelled and happy to pay him this tribute.
I know that I am far from alone in feeling as I do. The accolades that have poured in since Scully’s passing reveal how so many people feel the same as I do. It gets to a point where it is no longer that we think he was great, we know that he was.It is that rare occasion where it transcends from opinion to fact. Vin Scully was great.He had the most pleasant voice to listen to, never grating, and never spoke in an awkward fashion.He told stories, painted pictures, and had an unmatched ability to know when to be quiet and let the actions on the field, or the noise of the crowd speak for itself. He called the game as though he loved the game as much as anyone watching, and he helped you get lost in the pleasure and excitement of the competition on the field.
Even if he had not called my personal all-time favorite call in sports history, I still would have felt exactly as I do. But in honor of the loss of this legend I present you with the last play that took place in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.
Recently, as I was working on the book regarding the story of my Uncle Bram’s violin, I came to the conclusion that there was one book that could help me at the very least, try to get some sort of grasp on what Bram went through as a teenager transported to Auschwitz with his father. The book I am referring to is “Night”, by Elie Wiesel. While the impact of reading it was profound, it was nevertheless different than I anticipated, and one might argue even more important.
In September of 1943, 22 days shy of his 19th birthday, my Uncle Bram was murdered in Auschwitz. As I work on giving him the legacy he deserves, through having his memory be remembered in a way that not only gives respect to his memory but also inspires others, reading “Night” seemed logical, albeit difficult. While the impact it had in regard to my work was powerful, it was not what I expected.
When I wrote “Jew Face”, I often successfully tried to feel like I was with my parents as young adults going through the trial and tribulations of evading murder by the Nazis. But trying to do this with someone who was in Auschwitz is an exercise in futility. Probably a fortuitous one. The pure horror described by Elie Wiesel in his book, and the countless accounts and images provided over the years show the devastation as best it can, but the generations that follow are inevitably limited in what they can feel.
In his preface Wiesel writes:
“Only those who experienced Auschwitz know what it was. Others will never know.
But would they at least understand?
Could men and women who consider it normal to assist the weak, to heal the sick, to protect small children, and to respect the wisdom of their elders understand what happened there? Would they be able to comprehend how, within that cursed universe, the masters tortured the weak and massacred the children, the sick, and the old?”
I am not quite sure what it means to understand the unimaginable. I am not sure how to comprehend an army’s mission to dehumanize an entire group of people. Millions of people. I thought that maybe reading the book I could somehow feel like I was there. At least enough to help me write more about what it must have been like for my lost Uncle and millions of others, including so many others in both my mother’s and father’s families. I will not go as far as saying I reached anywhere close to that point, or if I ever will. I do know however that in finishing it something else, maybe even more important happened. I felt an increased sense of responsibility. A responsibility to do more than just read, or even write a book. A responsibility to do something significantly more important than relating to the horrors. My responsibility is to consistently tell the story. To make sure continuing generations know what happened. To let them know that those places that still stand where events leading to the murder of 6 million Jews or where monuments of remembrance have been placed are so much more than tourist attractions. They are the representation of the very soul of those we remember. They have the sanctity of a cemetery, and they give life to the souls of those taken from us by vicious murderers.
I sat down to read “Night” hoping something important would happen to me. While it was not what I expected, I came away with something far more important than I anticipated. An increased determination to make sure the world knows what happened and never forgets. To let it be otherwise would be more than tragic than I could imagine, and substantially more dangerous.
While I urge you not to hate me for the fact that I’ve never really liked Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, and therefore have no personal stake in the game, I do recognize that their product is popular worldwide, and more relevant to this conversation, popular in Israel. I also know that if I did like the product, I definitely would have stopped using it when they chose to boycott Israel, and I would have found myself in a tough position now that their ice cream will once again be sold in Israel.
Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s parent company released the following statement. “The new arrangement means Ben & Jerry’s will be sold under its Hebrew and Arabic names throughout Israel and the West Bank under the full ownership of its current licensee.”
While I applaud the efforts of American Quality Products, Ltd. and its owner Avi Zinger, this whole thing leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. No pun intended. It feels a lot like a divorcing couple that got there because one person walked out of the marriage and then came back because they realized they need the economic benefits the marriage offered. You really want to say, thanks but not thanks.
But my quandary regarding the whole matter is quite obvious. While I’m still disgusted with Ben & Jerry’s, and I do not mean the actual taste of the ice cream, I also do not want to push a narrative that takes business away from an Israeli owned company. I guess I am just going to have to swallow it and say, great news. And again, I don’t mean the ice cream.
Before you deduce that you are reading the rantings of someone delusional or at the very least a little off, I urge you to continue reading. I realize that by telling you that I have always been mildly obsessed with the concept of time travel and that my obsession was recently satisfied unexpectedly does very little to argue in favor of my sanity, but nevertheless on my recent trip to Israel that is exactly what happened. I did indeed experience time travel.
When you are a writer you have a tendency to choose words or phrases carefully. It is no accident that rather than saying “I travelled in time”, I wrote that “I did indeed experience time travel”. Allow me to explain. Prior to this recent trip, I had not been to Israel in 28 years. 37 years ago when I moved from Israel back to the U.S. I finished off a stint in which I had lived for 3 1/2 years out of 5 living in Jerusalem. Naturally in that time I traveled to different parts of the country, establishing my own personal relationship with various places and people. When I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport I tried to recognize the place, but I would be lying if I said that I did. In fact, my passage through immigration and customs was so easy I almost felt as though I was in the wrong country. When my friend Danny, whose wedding 28 years ago was the reason for my last visit, picked me up from the airport to take me to his home in Bet Shemesh, while it had been more years than I like since I had seen him, the difference was hardly enough to be shaken by the change. But on the trip to his home, a trip that included part of the original road to Jerusalem, I started to feel that sensation that I knew I had been here before. When I got to his and his lovely wife Anna’s home, and saw his family over the next few days, a family that I had not seen for well over 10 years and of which sons were of age to have changed significantly since I last saw them, I had my first brush with time travel. The next day when Danny had a party and I saw 10-20 people I had not seen in at least 3 decades, I experienced it again. I looked at their faces, I saw the same people, even felt the same feelings, but they had changed. Some more than others, but all of them, myself of course included, had changed. There was the female friend that had been my daily phone call for an unspecified amount of time when I was 16 and arguably my best friend at that time, and that very memorable female that I “went out with” when I was 15 who were very much the same even decades later. All of these experiences pulled me back to the past, but in that healthy way that only made the present more enjoyable.
When I went to Tel Aviv, and visited the area by the beach with the steep steps looking towards the Sheraton Hotel, I could almost feel the time I was there, I am going to estimate 37-38 years ago, the moment a pregnant woman stumbled, only to be caught by the man standing with her, and the subsequent near cardiac arrest I suffered at seeing what thankfully only almost happened. When I looked at the beach nearby I could only look at it and smile inside and out and remember some moments that could only be described as magical.
When I went to Jerusalem and walked to the address where Richie’s Pizza once was and to the location where I think the American Difference once existed, all the way down to the spot where I loved Cafe Atara’s world famous onion soup on Ben Yehuda Street, I felt all these sensations of travelling in time. When I sat at the base of Ben Yehuda, where it meets Jaffa Street, the spot know as Kikar Tzion, Zion Square, I felt an almost mystical connection to my past, present and future. As I wrote in a previous post, that moment made me feel something I did not remember feeling since at least the last time I was there.
All these brushes with time travel only enhanced what was turning into an incredible trip and one that I not only will remember for quite some time, but one that changed me for the better and very possibly forever. That all being said, it was not till I went to Hashmonaim to visit my friend Yonah and his wife Rhonda that time felt as though it had stood still, jumped forward, and shifted all over the place all at once. To understand this better a little historical context is needed.
Some time in between 1981 and 1984 I met Yonah in Israel. He was in a Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem, and as I was prone to do, I went there to visit a friend, or friends. Yonah and I did not take long to become friends, and when we both ended up back in the NY area, the friendship continued and grew. To the best of my recollection, Yonah was at Bar Ilan University with the mutual friend that was the bride at the wedding where I met my once future now ex-wife in September of 1989. I was to be married in September of 1990 and prior to my wedding I shared an apartment with Yonah in Kew Gardens, Queens. As is customary at a Jewish wedding following traditional law, 2 witnesses are required. These witnesses need to be Sabbath observant and not related to the bride or groom and should be someone special to the people getting married. My bride made her choice, my choice was simple. My choice was Yonah. Months later, as a married couple, my wife and I would attend the wedding of Yonah and Rhonda.
The months and years later are a little hazy for me, but one Shabbat at the Lloyd’s in Teaneck, New Jersey not only stands out for me, it is in some ways one of the epicenters of my time travelling experience. I tend to think that based on the age of Yonah and Rhonda’s oldest daughter, and the fact that I can not recall my ex wife being there, this likely happened after my marriage ended in 1996, making it approximately 25 years ago, give or take a year or 2. You know you enjoyed a Shabbat at someone’s house when it sticks in your memory for so long. I remember going to synagogue with Yonah, marveling at how I had never met anyone so demanding of perfection from the Torah reader other than my father of blessed memory, and how there was a man praying with us who had lost a daughter in a terrorist attack in Israel. I remember Rhonda being the most natural, genuine and fun hostess you could ever ask for, and I remember their absolutely gorgeous little daughter Aviva. Aviva could not have been older than 3 or 4 at the time. I do not remember if their second daughter Shira had yet been born-sorry Shira. I’ll make it up to you later in this piece-but seeing as she would have been a baby, she may very well have been and I just do not remember. The one memory that is most etched in my brain of that weekend has always been Aviva wearing a hockey jersey that was so much bigger than her it dragged on the floor and covered her feet. I almost remember, but can’t be sure so no need to thank me Aviva, arriving with and giving her that jersey, but that fact is the smallest and least important fact of this story.
My journey in time at Hashmonaim actually began the moment I saw Yonah. One of the most important things I have learned as I have gotten older is that there is a reason people become friends and that regardless of time or circumstances, that which connected you once, be it spoken or unspoken, instantaneously or over a certain period of time, ultimately has a very good chance of connecting you again. That explains why it took under 2 seconds from the time I saw Yonah for me to feel like I was in the presence of a special friend, and that I had just stepped out of a time machine, just to see my friend 25 years later.
When I went into their home I soon realized that Rhonda had clearly not gotten the memo and did not look much different than she had 25 years ago. But her personality and warmth was so much like I remembered it that I still felt as though I had travelled these 25 years forward. It also needs to be said that when it comes to details, moments, even some conversations that took place decades earlier, my memory can be so uncanny that I blow some people’s minds. I guess I am a savant when it comes to that. But the pinnacle of sorts of this time capsule, was in the kitchen of their home. I almost do not remember moving in what I think was close to an hour and a half there. I walked in and met 2, maybe 3 people I had never met before. Their daughter Shira, I’ll remember you for sure this time, their son Rafi, and their daughter Talia. I said earlier that I do not remember moving. While Rhonda stayed as long as she could before she had to get to something previously scheduled, and Shira and Yonah needed to branch off for a bit to attend to work related matters, the other 2 stayed, and as I remember, they moved as little as I did. Talia seemed transfixed in awe over what she was hearing from everyone, and Rafi reminded me even more of why Yonah and I became friends, because I knew in listening to him speak, that had we been contemporaries, I likely would have become friends with him as I did with his father. I even went as far as thinking that had I met him, hearing him speak I would have felt as though he reminded me of Yonah, even if I had not known Yonah was his father. Also, for the record, it is not as though Rafi had nothing else to do less than 1 week from his wedding. And Talia had such a similar face as Rhonda that I would have seen something very familiar in her as well.
But all of this time travel experience coalesced when Aviva, now a wife and mother and living next door showed up to visit and said that she knew by looking at me that there was something familiar in my face that she remembered and I could still see the face of that 3 or 4 year old girl, now as a grown woman. While it seemed as though all of us were talking about absolutely everything that ever happened, Rafi found a video of his parents wedding. It needs to be said that I was already overcome with emotion on numerous occasions before I saw this-I understand if the kids remember me as their Dad’s crybaby friend-this video tipped the scale. I saw a video of me and my ex wishing the newlyweds a Mazal Tov. Even more overcome by the emotion that time travel induces, I will be forever grateful to Shira for compassionately asking if I was OK. In case I didn’t answer you then Shira, the honest answer could have been, I was never better.
None of these memories, flashbacks, or yes, jumps in time were anything other than a positive experience. When I recall a great evening with my step brother of sorts, Gaby, and meeting one cousin I never met and another I had not seen since he was 16 years old, he is now 44, time was jumping happily all over the place, and I was its center of gravity. We are where we are meant to be, and if we do not accept that and embrace that fact, it is not the fault of what happened then, it is the fault of what we did next. This visit to Israel, this travel in time did not bring closure to my past, it brought continuation, in all the right ways. When I got into the car and left Hashmonaim, while I was transported back to the present, I realized more clearly than ever the role my past had in making today as good as it was.
In recent conversations with close family it was brought to my attention that I tend to remember the dates of some of the most uncommon events. I know that I quit smoking on August 4, 2004. I know that I had previously quit smoking on Jan 28, 1986, and that on that day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in space. And I remember that one year ago I slipped on the ice, hit my head on concrete and that by the grace of God what could have been much worse is now just a scary and impactful memory.
It was Saturday night February 13, 2021, one year ago today and a Saturday night. I was dating someone at the time and we decided it would be a good idea to go out on this Saturday night for Valentines Day rather than get caught in the throngs of people all celebrating the following day. After our dinner we went to visit some friends in the neighborhood where I live. The forecast was for snow starting in the early part of Sunday, but till even though the forecast was for very cold weather, no precipitation was due to arrive till morning. Well as we all know, the weather people do a decent job, and certainly help us plan our days, but they are far from always being right. This was one of those nights they got it very wrong, and all havoc broke out over Long Island. Ice storms caused slick roads and slippery sidewalks. Accidents were happening all over the Island and hospital emergency rooms were starting to get busy.
When my date and I left the house we were visiting, we saw the weather wasn’t great, but due to the nature of the ice storm we didn’t see what was actually taking place. She stepped out, slipped and grabbed onto the railing of the stairs. As I saw her do this I was stepping out onto the concrete in front of the door. My feet flew out in front of me, my body flipped up, and I landed on the concrete squarely on the back of my head. I do not remember the exact moment of impact, but I do remember feeling almost as though I bounced up a little. I got onto my knees and put my hand on the back of my head. My date had the presence of mind to ask me a very relevant and critical question, “can you move?” I was able to get to my feet and carefully got back into the house.
Holding my head and feeling confused and scared I heard at least 3 people asking if they should call an ambulance. When I took my hand away I heard the same people all say almost immediately, yes, call an ambulance. The next few minutes remain a blur to me, but I do remember seeing more of my own blood than I had ever seen. I remember my friend that took control and comforted me till the ambulance arrived. Due to the conditions the 2 EMS workers told me that it would be too dangerous to put me on something as it would likely lead to them slipping and falling with me, so instead I was taken down the stairs carefully with someone on each side. I was then taken to the hospital 1 mile away.
Here are the main points I remember. My blood pressure was something like 185/125. Even with a bandage around my head the blood was still trickling down my neck. I remember that I had an awful headache, but I don’t remember the pain. When the ER Dr. looked at my head she said, “Good job”. My reply was to ask, “does that mean it is not so bad?'”, to which she replied, “No. It means it is good that you’re here. Some people don’t need to be here. You do need to be here.” They took a CT Scan of my head. I remember the fear of not knowing what was happening. How bad it might have been. Feeling dizzy, wobbly on my feet and unable to focus. But I also remember how nice the staff was. When I needed to use the restroom they asked me to wait till a nurse who looked at least 7 months pregnant could accompany me to the door, instructed me not to lock the door as she waited outside for me. And I remember a degree of relief when the Dr. came back and said my CT Scan was negative. But she also said something I will never forget. She said, “I was relieved to see your scan. I was not sure you were going to be OK until I did.” She then proceeded to give me 5 staples to close the wound- I was given the choice between staples and stitches-and soon I was able to return home.
While I was fortunate to not find myself in danger of serious long lasting effects or worse from the fall, I was not prepared for what came next. As I have said often since, and anyone who has had a concussion concurs with me, you may know what a concussion is, but unless you’ve had a concussion, you don’t understand a concussion. The headaches and blurred vision were symptoms that kept me off the road for 3 weeks and symptoms I had heard of often before so I was not surprised by them. I hated the feeling, and was thankful when they dissipated, but I was not shocked to experience them. What I was not ready for was the emotional impact I felt for weeks more. I remember feeling a sense of panic at a red light. Sitting and just starting to cry for no reason, and having dreams that frightened me and confused me. I remember time lapses that felt almost like what a time jump might feel like if time travel were possible. From February 13 till about May 1st I felt some or all of these symptoms, and now I realize exactly how bad a concussion can be, and of course I remember how grateful I was heading into the warmer weather feeling like myself again. Except for one thing.
There’s a reason I didn’t write this piece in May. I couldn’t. Every time I tried to write my mind darted all over the place. I couldn’t focus. From the time I started a sentence till the time I finished it my train of thought would jump somewhere else or disappear. But there was something I was doing that had already helped me that I continued to do. I forced myself to get to bed on time in order to get at least 7 hours sleep. By the end of the summer I found myself slowly but surely getting back to where I once was and ready to write again.
There are many emotions and feelings I have when I look back at what happened a year ago today, but none greater than a feeling of gratitude. I am thankful to the friends that helped me, I am thankful to the hospital for the great job they did, but most of all I thank God. In the scheme of things what happened to me a year ago is not such a big deal, but it was not that far from being a very big deal, and as I look back I realize how lucky I am. This is the reason I share this story. If you ever have had or ever do have an incident like the one I had, I hope this helps you, as telling it to you as helped me.
As we approach the end of 2021, it is my hope for each and every one of you that the year ahead brings you peace and happiness. We never know for sure what is coming, who we will meet, who we will lose and experiences we will never forget. So much of it is out of our control. It is my wish for all of you that in controlling that which we truly can control, our attitudes and approaches towards life, that we make the most out of every single day. Look inside our hearts and minds and work every day towards being the very best version of ourselves, and making the most of the blessing of every single day we have on this earth.