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.
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.
In the upcoming days the Jewish people will celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah. Known to many as the Festival of Lights, the first word that comes to mind when thinking about this holiday would have to be the word miracle. But with the question being which of the 2 miracles related to the holiday is most significant in the celebration, the question needs to be asked. What constitutes a miracle?
Most people identify a miracle as an occurrence that defies all human and natural powers. Most notably in Biblical history is the parting of the Red Sea. However, since the belief in a miracle more often than not goes hand in hand with the belief that God is somehow involved, there are many that search for explanations to these events, rather than acknowledging the existence of a miracle. The problem with a miracle, particularly in today’s world, is that it is, by definition, not something that can be proven. The individual event taking place often can be verified, but proving it was a miracle and not explainable by logic or science is another story.
To help get into this a little deeper we need to address the 2 miracles associated with Hanukkah. A large segment of the Jewish world that celebrates the holiday identifies primarily with the miracle surrounding the reason that it is an 8 day holiday. When the Jewish people returned to the Holy Temple after their victory against the Greeks and prepared to kindle the lights, they appeared to have only enough oil for one day. When the Menorah burned for 8 days instead of 1, this was seen as a miracle. Subsequently we celebrate Hanukkah for 8 days, lighting 1 candle the first day and progressing to 8 candles on the final day. While this part of the holiday may be seen by many as the miracle of Hanukkah, the true miracle is actually how we made it to the Temple to light the Menorah in the first place. This is the miracle of the Jewish people, with their leader Judah the Maccabee defeating the mighty Greek army. The irony of this is that winning a war is far easier to validate as a natural occurrence, albeit an amazing one, than is one day of oil lasting for eight. But even the prayer said during Hanukkah every day in the Amidah, the prayer of Al Hanisim, translated into English as About the miracles, the focus is put on the battle won by the Jewish army. The prayer says the following: In the days of Mattathias son of Yohanan the high priest, the Hasmonean, and his sons, when the evil kingdom of Greece stood against your people Israel in order to make them forget your Torah and violate your laws. You, in your enormous mercy, stood up for them in their time of great need, upheld their cause, judged their case, and avenged their oppressors. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the week, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the degenerates into the hands of those who cling to your Torah. And you made for yourself a great and holy name in your world, and performed a great salvation and miracle for your people Israel, as you do today.
This speaks entirely to the battle won and only later does it speak to how the Jewish people went to the Temple and lit a candelabra in dedication. Even then it doesn’t speak to it being a miracle as much as an action of gratitude. And afterward, your children came to the Holy of Holies in your House, and they cleansed your Palace and purified your Temple and they kindled lights in the courtyard of your Sanctuary and they established these eight days of Hanukkah to give thanks and to praise your great name.
So what does this teach us? Is a miracle a reality or is it a perception? Last February I slipped on the ice, hit the back of my head on concrete, was taken to the hospital by ambulance, was given 5 staples and suffered a concussion. When the Dr. in the ER saw the results of my CT Scan she said she was relieved to see that I was OK because based on her initial examination of my injury she wasn’t sure that I would be. It was clear that if I had hit my head a little harder I may very well have died or at the very least suffered a far worse injury. As it happened, by May 1st all the symptoms of the concussion had gone away. What very easily could have been a life changing event turned into nothing more than a bad memory. To me, this was a miracle. While certainly explainable by medical science, if for no other reason than the fact that God chose to make this no more than something I learn from, to me this was indeed a miracle.
I will never forget a few years back when someone asked Rabbi Moshe Novoseller, the esteemed uncle of my friend Rabbi Amiel Novoseller how he was doing, he replied, “an amazing thing happened to me this morning. I woke up”.
What constitutes a miracle? The truth is that only we can determine that for ourselves. If our level of faith is one that says that we believe every day we are alive is a miracle, then for us it truly is a miracle. If our level of faith is one where we need absolute scientific or medical evidence of why an event took place, and none other than an exceptional happenstance, then maybe that is what we call a miracle. Maybe the whole purpose of Hanukkah is to look at everything that takes place around us and make an honest analysis of why it happens. And maybe then we will see miracles where we never did before.
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.
It was a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon around 6 years ago and I decided to go into the city and enjoy some time walking in and around Central Park. Towards the later part in the afternoon I sat down in an area near 58th street to do some people watching. Looking around I suddenly noticed the man himself, Jackie Mason. This was the second time I had seen him relatively up close, the previous time being a few years back in an all-night deli on 7th Avenue when I walked up and said hello the way a fan does when they encounter a celebrity. So this time, seeing him nearby and on his cell phone, I made eye contact with him and nodded my head in respect. He proceeded to walk in my direction, stood about 6 feet from me and finished his phone call. After putting his phone in his pocket, he walked towards me and the following dialogue ensued.
Jackie Mason: “ Do I know you?”
Me: “No, but I met you once about a year and a half ago in a deli around the corner.”
Jackie Mason: “You think I should remember you?”
Me: “No, but I’m a big fan.”
Jackie Mason: “Did you ever see me on Broadway?”
Me: “No, sorry. I never did.”
Jackie Mason: “So now I know 2 things about you. Number 1, you’re an egomaniac. You think I should remember you from a year and a half ago. Number 2, you’re a f..ing liar. You say you’re such a big fan but you couldn’t spend $20 to see me on Broadway.”
After he grinned and I laughed, the conversation went on and got a little more serious. I told him who I was, a little about my history and of course, about my book Jew Face. I asked him if there was anything he might be able to do to help me get my book out there. He in turn took my phone number, said he might know some people and said he would be in touch.
And so began my friendship with Jackie Mason.
I am not sure if it was the next day or 2 days later when I received a call from him inviting me to sit and meet with him and a few others in a café in Manhattan. While it turned out that neither the people I met with that night nor any other night when joining him in the future would be able to do much to help my writing career, it soon did not matter to me. I was hanging out with Jackie Mason and it was fun.
While I can only speak to the part of his lifestyle to which I was exposed, it was very specific and very consistent. He would go out to dinner with one group of people, and the later in the evening go out for desert and a drink, be it coffee or soda in a café or diner with a second group of people. While I was part of a group he himself selected, it nevertheless was a group, and it appeared that he would decide who it was he wanted to hang with on any given evening and they would be called and asked to join him. In the beginning I was invited to the after dinner get-togethers, and while I don’t remember all the places I was invited to, I specifically remember the Applejack Diner, located on 55th street and 7th Avenue, Juniors, famous for its cheesecake, and the iconic Sardis, located in the heart of Broadway. To sit at a table in Sardis with someone who had his cartoon picture hanging up in Sardis, was beyond cool for me. And naturally, when walking the streets of Manhattan with a celebrity of Jackie Mason’s caliber, many people would stop and greet him, and very often ask for a picture with him. And if the person rubbed him the right way, they would get one.
Eventually I would be invited to some of the dinners with him as well. One time being in a French restaurant on the Upper East Side when one of the people joining us was his friend and high profile lawyer Raoul Felder. While I am by no means shy and I have the confidence to feel comfortable in the company of just about anyone, I also knew these people lived in a very different world than I did, so I was almost never the biggest talker at the table. I often spoke about my book and my parents’ story when being introduced by Jackie to someone new which more than likely was why he had a nickname for me. To Jackie Mason I would be known as the “Holocaust guy”.
The man loved politics. I always wondered if part of it was so that he would have enough material to make fun of at least some of it, but when he sat down and discussed his views he did so with a passion. While his interest in politics was strong, he never struck me as being partisan. Without getting into specifics, I still remember him equally hating different high profile politicians on 2 opposite sides of the aisle. His love for politics was so strong that if there was a major political event taking place, he was more interested in following the programming than he was the people he might have been with at the time.
He told a story of how Rodney Dangerfield once walked into a restaurant and started yelling at him, claiming that he had stolen his part in Caddyshack 2. It didn’t seem to bother him much and he seemed to actually see it as a funny story, especially since according to him Dangerfield had actually turned down the part.
There were 2 moments I remember clearly from my time with Jackie Mason. The first was crossing the street with him one late night, seeing him take his good old time not crossing at an intersection, and practically bear hugging him to pull him out of the way of an oncoming car. While he was fine with me doing what I did, very possibly saving his life, it wasn’t such a big deal to him because he wasn’t concerned. It helped me realize that part of what made Jackie Mason special was his lack of fear. Lack of fear of what anyone thought of what he had to say, and lack of fear of an oncoming car. Frankly, as someone who cared, I am relieved and happy he ended up passing away of natural causes.
The second moment was being invited up to his apartment. It was just once and just to meet him before we went to meet people at a café, but it still felt like an honor to be given that degree of trust and access to someone of his stature.
I remember him liking his favorite tables where he went, not eating anything with a face, and starting so many conversations with, Hello Hello.
One evening we were sitting outdoors at Applejack Diner and a man came over and engaged him in conversation. Apparently the man had seen Jackie at the Catskills in the past and knew some of the same people. When the man asked him if still ever performed in the Catskills, in that classic Jackie Mason form he replied, “No. I passed away.”
And now he has indeed passed away. While my time being part of his circle ended over 4 years ago, I remember the man fondly. That being said, I know that to many he a controversial figure. His humor wasn’t for everyone, he never held back his opinions, and he chose to live his life the way he wanted, regardless of whether or not fan, friend or family approved. I can honestly say that if I had to judge the man I would be lost. Since that was not my role nor place in his life I never tried and never will. I do know that there were 2 things about him that I loved. He was proud to be a Jew and he was funny. So very proud and so very funny.