Colorful Cozumel

A display of vivid Christmas colors continues to shine brightly throughout Isla Cozumel during its holiday aftermath. But wait a Mexican minute! 

centro ornaments (2)

The holdover decorations from Christmas past are not an exception to the rule, 

holly decoration (3)

because Cozumel’s sun-drenched colors are omnipresent and everlasting, no matter what time of year,

centro square

or time of day.

carousel and clock tower

Consider the remnants of Mexico’s sacred Day of the Dead celebration that still prevail around town,

coca-cola calaca

with calacas (skeletons)…

floral bug

engaging tourists and shoppers at every turn along Avenue Rafael E. Melgar (named after one-time appointed governor of Quintana Roo)…

i scream

…with whimsical retail marketing, 

snorkel calaca

and characteristic Mayan flourishes.

tattoo calaca

Holidays aside, Cozumel colors are as transparent as the azure waters that lure destination divers,

diver' fountain (2)

or apparent as the tropical breezes that sweep through lush palms,

tropic seas (2)

and adamant as cruise ship passengers,

carnival cruiser

who return religiously…

san miguel stained glass (2)

san miguel parish

chabad

ark.jpg

to experience the culture,

villa dolores

coral mural

mayan culture mural

the hospitality,

dive shop

and the cuisine:

casa denis exterior

Culinary cognoscenti have been enjoying authentic Yucatan fare at Casa Denis since 1945.

casa denis placemat

Three generations of the Angulo family have been serving locals and international travellers alike…

casa denis kitchen

with a mi casa es tu casa sensibility,

casa denis interior

using fresh ingredients at reasonable prices.

casa denis dinner

Yet for all the expected colors surrounding this island gem…

seaweed, sand and chaises at sunset

some things are best expressed in black and white!

overfishing mural
Overfishing by Jack Fox (South Africa)

The Angry Inch

On September 5, my grandnephew Ari unwittingly followed Abraham’s footsteps and entered into a covenant with God by sacrificing his foreskin to join the Tribe. He was only eight-days-old at the time, but had he been asked and able to answer, I’m certain he would have opted out.

Leah and I travelled to a Scarsdale, NY temple for the event, where we were greeted by Bubbe Debbie, Tante Ava, and most importantly, Ari, dicked out in Bubbe’s crocheted yarmulke creation. Presently locked in a blissful sleep, Ari had little clue of his near-future fate.

greeters

All guests were expected at 11:00 am sharp, but slow arrivals dictated a slower start, which was a good thing for Tante Marilyn–who like cock-work–arrived during the overture, and ran to the restroom with a change of clothes over her arm.  

“There’s no time for that,” I called out as she sprinted by.

“Nevermind,” she answered, and she was gone.

Inside the sanctuary, Ava stood steadfast as Ari’s chaperone, cradling him on a pillow that would hopefully cushion the inevitable blow.

Ava and Ari

Despite outsiders’ cries of trauma and mutilation, the notion of circumcision has stood the test of time for four thousand years, and the ceremony of brit milah, or bris marks the ritual of welcoming the newborn male into a society that connects all Jews through thousands of generations–from Abraham to the great-grandfather…

Great grandfather

to the grandfather…

Yohays

to the father…

David2

to the son.

Ari

Ari’s mohel (rhymes with recoil), who was hired for his steady hand (and because he only works for tips), stood resolute and cocksure before the congregation,

mohel blessing

as if to reassure Ari’s anxious Mommie,

fighting back tears

that he was more than a cut above the rest.

However, after the recitation of several requisite readings,

blessings.jpg

Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy command­ments, and hast given us the command con­cerning circumcision.

and blessings,

reciting the prayer

Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments, and hast commanded us to make our sons enter the covenant of Abraham our father.

I concluded the mohel was a touch long-winded, although I never considered asking him to cut it short. 

Finally, it was showtime. The sandek–in this case, Zayde Craig,

preparation (2)

the maternal grandfather–was called upon to hold Ari’s legs, while the mohel got a grip of Ari’s equipment.

before

Once the clamp was affixed and the ceremonial anesthetic (Manischewitz wine) was orally introduced,

clamp1

a flick of the wrist…

clamp

left little doubt… 

after

that Ari was in good hands. The mohel was a consummate professional who handled himself in the long run without getting the sack.

Afterwards, the parents exhaled, although mouth-to-mouth was necessary.

Yohay kiss

In fact, grandparents, and especially Ari felt the whole affair was sensational–even though he was all petered out and it was clear that he wasn’t all there.

Schein kiss (2)

 

The United State of Armories

There was another mass shooting the other day–only eleven days after the last mass shooting, in addition to 305 other mass shootings in the past 312 days–bringing the tally thus far this year to 328 DEAD and 1200+ WOUNDED.

With so many well-intended thoughts and prayers offered after each and every tragedy, there must be a reason why this keeps happening. Are we not thinking and praying enough?

Clearly, there must be someone or something to blame!

Donald Trump faults America’s preparedness. He said so when Nikolas Cruz shot and killed 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day.

If only the teachers had been armed…

And he mentioned it again after Robert Bowers opened fire on congregants at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during Shabbat morning services, killing 11 and injuring others.

If only there had been an armed guard at the temple…

Trump continues to echo National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre’s long-touted notion that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”

It’s a familiar refrain by 2nd Amendment activists and lobbyists.

Perhaps they are right, and pacifists have been blind to such an obvious solution…

WE NEED MORE GUNS TO STOP THE VIOLENCE!

America has 4% of the world population, but controls 46% of the civilian guns, globally. Suppose we put them to good use!

grayscale photo of a boy aiming toy gun selective focus photography

Therefore, all of us have the power and responsibility to prevent the next mass shooting by stationing one or more armed civilians at EVERY:

  • bar, restaurant, coffee shop, donut shop, pizzeria, take-out, drive-thru, food truck;
  • shopping plaza, shopping center, shopping mall, strip mall, retail center, department store, discount center, flea market, garage sale;
  • home center, dry cleaner, laundromat, pawn shop, liquor store;
  • firehouse, courthouse, post office, police station, municipal office, county office, state office, federal office, library, voter poll;
  • barber shop, beauty salon, nail salon, eyebrow threading salon, tanning salon, massage parlor, spa;
  • bank, savings & loan, credit union, financial service, investment house, loan shark;
  • realty, mortgage agency, bail bond agency;
  • gymnasium, dance studio, yoga studio, swimming pool, bath house;
  • amusement center, amusement park, dog park, park ground, fairground;
  • food fair, street fair, corn maze, pumpkin patch;
  • horse-riding stable, kennel, boat yard, pier, seashore;
  • public school, parochial school, charter school, vocational school, tutoring center;
  • college dormitory, fraternity house, sorority house, lecture hall, classroom, laboratory, library, bookstore;
  • church, chapel, synagogue, temple, mosque;
  • supermarket, grocery store, convenience store, bakery, butcher shop, produce market, fish market;
  • vineyard, brewery, distillery;
  • hospital, clinic, doctor’s office, dentist, veterinarian, pharmacy, physical therapist, LabCorp office;
  • parking lot, car dealership, gas station, car wash, auto body shop, auto repair, oil change service, tire shop;
  • concert hall, stadium, arena, theater, amphitheater, movie theater, bowling alley, circus tent, carnival, casino, racetrack;
  • bus depot, train station, airport, heliport, car rental, truck stop, rest stop, gas station;
  • cruise ship, riverboat, ferry, freighter, tugboat, tour boat;
  • cruise ship terminal, harbor, port, mooring;
  • radio station, TV station, internet cafe;
  • hotel, motel, trailer park, bed & breakfast, Airbnb, campground, homeless shelter;
  • VFW hall, Moose Lodge, convention center, social hall, catering hall;
  • cemetery, graveyard, funeral home;
  • bridge, tunnel, toll road, railroad crossing; 
  • warehouse, housing park, office park, industrial park, construction site, abandoned building;
  • haunted house, slaughterhouse;
  • museum, planetarium, sculpture park, art gallery, art studio;
  • factory, machine shop;
  • junkyard, trash dump, recycling center;
  • public restroom;
  • march, demonstration, parade, street performance, iPhone launch, rocket launch, victory celebration;
  • wedding, birthday party, prom, anniversary celebration, Ba(r/t) Mitzvah, Christening, Sweet 16, family picnic, school reunion;
  • gun store, shooting range;
  • etc. (in case I missed a place where gun violence might occur)

We can make a real difference with all of our guns, while reducing unemployment below 3% and giving Trump something tremendous to brag about!

Don’t you feel safer now?

photo of smoking shotgun
Photo by Ivandrei Pretorius on Pexels.com

Uncertainty: Chapter Twelve

Uncertainty: Chapter 11


Uncertainty: Chapter Twelve

I gently guided Eva into the kitchen. “Promise to keep your eyes closed tight until I tell you,” I warned.

“Oh, Bertie! Can’t I peak just a little bit?” she contemplated.

“Absolutely not! And ruin your…”

“!!! SURPRISE !!!” in our loudest voices.

______________________________

I opened my eyes and I couldn’t believe it! Everyone was standing around, and there was a birthday cake in the middle of the kitchen table for me.

“Make a wish!” everyone yelled out together.

I closed my eyes and immediately wished for the Nazis to go away and leave us alone. The ten candles were no match for my powerful lungs. I wound up, and took in a deep breath, and blew so hard across the cake that a couple of the candles fell over and melted some of the chocolate icing.

“!!! APPLAUSE !!!”

“It was a pretty good performance, so perhaps that will help make my wish come true,” I told myself.

My family broke out in song, with an enthusiastic rendition of Happy Birthday, which Bertie turned into an audition for the Berlin State Opera.

“This is amazing,” I announced, “but it’s not really my birthday. It’s not for another week.”

“That’s true, Pony…,” answered Berte.

(Sometimes Bertie called me Pony, after Emil’s little cousin, because when I was little, Abba and Eema often took turns reading “Emil and the Detectives” to me.)

“…but everybody here agreed to celebrate your birthday early,” she finished, and then she turned to Abba for guidance.

“But why, Abba? We always celebrate our birthday together!” I asked.

He stepped up to me, took my hands in his and crouched down to meet my eyes.

“Were you suprised?” he asked, and I answered with a nod.

Fantastish1! And I have an even bigger surprise for you tomorrow. Do you want to open your presents now?” he coached.

“Menil! Is that all you have to say to Eva?” teased Eema.

“But I promised not to give away the big surprise until tomorrow.” pleaded Abba. 

“Is there something you can tell her without giving away the surprise?” bargained Eema.

“Please Abba. Give me one clue, like Emil and the Detectives.” I begged.

Okay. But you can’t ask for more clues. Agreed?” he brokered, and we did a pinky swear on it.

“So, here’s your clue,” he continued, “You and Bertie are going on a special adventure tomorrow, and to prepare for your adventure, your mother and I have some special gifts for both of you. Would you like to see your presents now?”

I wrapped my arms around his neck to thank him, but then I remembered, “Abba, you never answered my question,” I told him in his ear.

“And what question was that, meyn lib2?” he wondered.

“Why are we celebrating my birthday one week early?” I wanted to know.

“No, siree! We did a pinky swear. Not another word from me,” he said abruptly.

Eema squatted behind Abba to meet my eyes. “Your Tattiand I believe it’s not safe in Germany anymore, so we made arrangements for you and Berte to take the train to Arnhem in the morning while it’s still possible.”

“Is it because of what happened on Hanukkah?” I guessed.

“Ah gezunt ahf dein kup4I’m so proud of you.” praised Eema, and she kissed the top of my head.

I tried to smile, but I could feel the tears building up inside me, and then I heard my voice quivering, “Why can’t all of us go together?”

“We already tried that, Pony. Remember?” she Bertie prompted.

I composed myself. If I was turning nine, then I needed to act like a grown-up. “What kind of arrangements, Eema?” I sniffled.

“There goes the surprise,” lamented Abba.

Eema pretend-cried to get my attention. She reached between Abba and me, and pulled a handkerchief out of his breast pocket to pretend-dab her eyes, and then she dabbed mine. That put a smile back on my face.

Tante Ilse took over the conversation. “Your Mama und Papa discovered something important called the Kindertransport5. It’s an organization that is rescuing Jewish children trapped in Germany–like you and Berte–and taking them to England for safety. But in order to participate, the parents must surrender their kinder, and also understand that legal adoption is possible in England.”

“Is that what we’re doing, Eema?” Bertie asked.

Eema slowly got to her feet by leaning on Abba for support. “I believe your Tante is right as usual–with one important exception…” Eema expressed.

“Which is?…” Bertie interjected.

“You have to promise me first!” insisted Eema.

“Promise what, Eema?” I asked, drawing the attention back to me. After all, this was supposed to be my party.

Eema’s mood suddenly turned serious.

She turned to Bertie, firmly stating, “Promise me…under no condition are you to ever separate from your sister. Do you hear me?”

“I promise,” Bertie pledged like a girl scout.

And then she turned to me, firmly stating, “Promise me…that you will listen to your shvester at all times, and you will stick to her like glue. Do you hear me?”

I gave Eema the same salute as Bertie.

Abba pulled himself up using Eema’s arm for leverage. “B’ezrat HaShem6, all of us will soon reunite in Holland,” he sighed. When he got to his feet, he lightened the mood again. “Can we open presents, now?” he called out. “And no more surprises for the day!?”


1Fantastic!
2my love
3father
4A blessing on your head
5Children transport
6God willing

Uncertainty: Chapter Eleven

Uncertainty: Prologue
Uncertainty: Chapter One
Uncertainty: Chapter Two
Uncertainty: Chapter Three
Uncertainty: Chapter Four
Uncertainty: Chapter Five
Uncertainty: Chapter Six
Uncertainty: Chapter Seven
Uncertainty: Chapter Eight
Uncertainty: Chapter Nine
Uncertainty: Chapter Ten


Uncertainty: Chapter Eleven

“My name is Menil, and I am a simple man, one hundred percent. There is not much to my story with the exception of three evident truths…”

“For one, I am neither German or Polish. I am ‘stateless’.”

“I earned this elusive title nearly twenty years ago after crossing into Germany to avoid conscription in the Polish Army. My decision was guided by my faith in Hashem, and grounded in my need to escape further anti-Semitic prosecution. Consequently, I forfeited my Polish citizenship, and automatically became a political refugee. While it was difficult starting out with so little in a new country with Rochel, my bride, it never deterred me from achieving my dream of building a prosperous business and raising a beautiful family. With Rochel by my side, we were unstoppable…until the Nazis decidedly interfered with our plans.”

“Another thing about me…I am neither a resident or a citizen. I am considered an ‘undesirable’ and ‘enemy of the state’.”

“I’m told by the Third Reich that my very existence is a direct threat to the government, and Hitler’s notion of Aryan perfection–along with anyone else who happens to be a Jehovah’s Witness, a homosexual, a gypsy, or a mental patient. As an ‘enemy of the state,’ I must surrender everything that I have ever worked for, and I am to be treated as a common criminal. And what are my choices for committing racial treason? Either I hide underground like a rat or face the likelihood of prison…or worse.”

“Lastly, I am no longer a tailor or a businessman. I am just a humble Jew, meyn Got.”

“When the Nazis see me, that is all they can see. After the Reichstag1 enacted the Nuremberg Laws on September 15, 1935, I became a stranger in a strange land. The Nazis could no longer see me as a man of substance or purpose. All they see is a Jew, nothing more: someone who is defined by the heritage of his parents and his parents’ parents; someone who is worthy of only ridicule and hate; and someone who is an age-old scapegoat for Hitler’s propaganda machine.”

“And what’s my take on all that I am? I ask because by looking at me, no one could ever predict these details about me. I certainly don’t appear ‘stateless’. My German is impeccable; I once owned property in the center of town; and I had the respect of the business community and the congregants who davened with me in shul.”

“No one would ever confuse me for an ‘enemy of the state’. I’m not an activist like some of the Zionists I know. I never go to meetings, and I don’t protest in the streets or sign petitions with my real name.”

“Most interestingly, I don’t particularly look Jewish. At least I don’t think so. My pale skin, green eyes, moderate nose and thinning hair makes me more likely to be mistaken for a goy. Berte, too. Her looks definitely come from my side of the family. Her blond hair and blue eyes alone have made her the envy of every Aryan parent. Eva, on the other hand, is the polar opposite. Her alluring looks come from Rochel’s side: black hair and dark mysterious eyes–the kind that draw you in.”

“Rochel has always hocked2 me that I’ve been living in denial, but there is no denying these three facts about me, one hundred percent. And regardless of how I present to the world, the Nazis have managed to remind me of ‘what’ I am on a daily basis. Of course, one needn’t look any further than my identity papers.”

“Passports are curious things. As an official travel document, it reveals our personal information: name, birthdate, country of origin, and a photograph of our likeness. To the average yutz3 or shmo4, a passport is a certified registration of identity and nationality for the primary purpose of international travel, but to a Jew, it’s meaningless and a curse. So there can be no confusion, all Jewish passports have been stamped with an identifying “J” in red letters.”

German Passport (2)

“In August ’38, the Reichstag passed the “Executive Order on the Alteration of Family and Personal Names,” which now requires Jewish men and women bearing first names of “non-Jewish” origin to adopt additional names: “Israel” for men and “Sara” for women. So now, I’m officially Menil “Israel” Strawczynski. How do you like that?!”

“Naturally, all of this nonsense is beside the point, because leaving Germany by normal means of passport and visa issuance is nearly impossible following the horror of Kristallnacht. Already, most countries around the world no longer want Jewish immigrants or refugees inside their borders–which they’ve made very clear by tightening entry regulations and keeping the numbers down for people like us.”

I shrugged. “Unfortunately, it’s much too late in the day for Rochel or me to formally cross the border to Venlo, but that doesn’t mean we can’t send the kinder ahead of us…We just have to figure out a way we can all reunite on the other side.”

Shaina Maidel whinnied and shook her head. She nudged my shoulder.

“I apologize. I don’t mean to kvetch5, but you’re such a good listener!”

I picked myself up from the bale beside the stall opening, and brushed the hay from my tush6. I grabbed the lantern and an apple to feed her from a nearby bushel basket.

“You’ve been very helpful,” I offered with the treat, and she snatched it from my palm.

“Now I understand why Bertie loves you so much. Good Night, Shaina Maidel.”


1Parliament of the Third Reich
2nagged
3fool
4jerk
5complain

6buttocks

Uncertainty: Chapter Ten

Uncertainty: Prologue
Uncertainty: Chapter One
Uncertainty: Chapter Two
Uncertainty: Chapter Three
Uncertainty: Chapter Four
Uncertainty: Chapter Five
Uncertainty: Chapter Six
Uncertainty: Chapter Seven
Uncertainty: Chapter Eight
Uncertainty: Chapter Nine


Uncertainty: Chapter Ten

Menil and I huddled under the blankets for warmth and held each other close. Yet we froze in fear of being discovered like two teenage lovers in the backseat of a Duesenberg automobile. We had heard a loud noise, and instinctively clung to each other in the back of the van, reacting to the present danger with the same heightened awareness as if we were hiding under Ilse Köhler’s kitchen floor. 

An hour earlier, we thought we had found the perfect spot to find some alone time…away from the kinder. But leave it to Berte to pick the same place at the same time as Menil and me. Vey iz mir!1 We lay very still and quiet on our mattress of worsted wool–eavesdropping on Berte’s confession–until I could’t bear another minute of her unhappiness, and thought I would plotz2. It broke my heart hearing Bertie pouring her heart out to Shaina Maidel.

We held our breath as she dragged her feet past the van, and we let out a collective *sigh* the moment we heard the barn doors close behind her.

Gottenyu!3 I don’t think I could have gone any longer,” I confessed to Menil.

“Me either,” he snickered. “That had to be the most uncomfortable half-hour of my life.” He took back his arm and flexed it back and forth, trying to restore some feeling.

His nervous laughter reminded me of the time he accidentally pinned Dr. Krupp’s hoyzen4 legs together while marking a cuff, and the steel scion nearly broke his neck trying to step off the tailor block.

I jabbed him playfully with my elbow. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it! Your tokhter5 is struggling, and all you can do is laugh!?”

“Of course she’s struggling. We’re all struggling, Rochel! Because none of this makes any sense!” he stated. “This is all my fault. I should have listened to my shvester6 from Pittsburgh in ’35, when she said to me, ‘Menil, it’s not getting any better. You need to get out while you still can!'”

“She begged me to leave, and I wouldn’t have any of it. She could have sponsored all of us in America, and I was an idyot7 not to listen to her.”

I tried to reassure him. “Menil, it’s not your fault. We both agreed to stay here as long as we felt safe.” I hugged him tight so he would know.

“I wanted to believe our life in Essen was a blessing, and we were deserving of it after the way we struggled in Lodz. Gott sei dank!8, we have a successful business, and a beautiful family, and we can raise our girls to honor HaShem’s9 commandments. Even with the meshugenah10 Nazis in Essen, was our life so terrible?”

“Of course not!” I declared. I ran my fingers through his thick sandy hair and kissed him deeply. When I pulled away, I noticed that his smile and his swagger had returned.

“You see! So I was right!…Back then, there was no good reason to leave all of this behind. And for what?–an uncertain future in America?” he questioned.

However, in 1937, anti-Semitism intensified in Essen. Hitler Youths were constantly marching in the streets; more Jews were being beaten and harassed for being Jewish; and more laws were enacted that discriminated against Jewish merchants, doctors, lawyers and teachers. It became obvious to me and the girls that things were getting worse, yet whenever I often brought it up to Menil, he always thought things would eventually return to normal.

I’d tell him he was living “in denial,” but he always answered back with, “I have no immediate plans of moving from Essen or Egypt.”

The final affront for me was on September 27th that year, when Mussolini and Hitler rode down the center of town in his motorcade. Thousands of cheering people lined the street and saluted “Seig Heil”11 and “Heil, Hitler.”12 

Berlin, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler

I was standing at the cross walk with Berte and noticed a frail woman in a wheelchair who failed to salute the Führer13 when he passed. That’s when a marching Brownshirt broke ranks and humiliated the old woman, forcing her to raise her arm. And when she couldn’t, he forced her to support her arm with the other arm. And when all strength failed her and her arms collapsed, he beat her and her attendant to the ground with a rubber truncheon while others looked on indifferently.

Maybe that’s when Menil finally came to his senses. We planned and practiced for the eventual day when our mishpocha could start over in the Nederlands. But we missed our one chance to cross the border together when it mattered, and now we’re in the van inside the barn at the farm, waiting to come up with another solution, because the Nazis are becoming more serious with each passing day, and it scares me.

“Max and Ilse have been telling us that people we used to know around our neighborhood are quickly disappearing. Families are being arrested and deported to concentration camps, and all the Jewish-owned shops are now reopening with Swastika flags flying on the outside. I feel like our life here is over…” 

Depression took hold, and grief overcame me. I buried myself in Menil’s arms. “…after all the hard work we put into it,” I sobbed. 

Menil consoled me, stroking my arms and back with his strong and nimble hands. “It’s all going to work out, Rochel. You’ll see. Bertie’s absolutely right. There’s no going back, and there’s no future staying here any longer,” he said with a hint of resignation. “We need to find another way out of Germany, but I’m not so sure we can do it as a family.”


1Woe is me!
2overcome by strong emotion
3Dear God!

4pants
5daughter
6sister
7idiot
8Thank God!
9The Lord
10crazy
11Hail Victory
12Hail, Hitler
13Leader

Uncertainty: Chapter Six

Uncertainty: Prologue
Uncertainty: Chapter One
Uncertainty: Chapter Two
Uncertainty: Chapter Three
Uncertainty: Chapter Four
Uncertainty: Chapter Five


Uncertainty: Chapter Six

Rochel and I jumped at the sound of the knock on the door, always aware of the present danger of being discovered by the authorities. Despite devising an escape plan in case of an emergency–such as now–and practicing our safety drill several times to perfection, we knew that should the time come, our lives depended on making no mistakes. We always knew we had to perform at 100 percent.

Nur eine minute1!” shouted Max.

Berte and Eva went first. They scurried through the cabinet door and down the hole in the floor as quietly as possible. Rochel and Ilse cleared the extra telers2, gopls3 and mesers4 from the table, and handed everything down to the kinder, while I frantically checked around the kitchen for anything out of the ordinary.

The rap on the door intensified.

Ich komme5,” Max reaffirmed.

Rochel and I awkwardly scrambled under the kitchen sink into the finsternish6, while Ilsa secured the floorboards from above, and replaced the basket on top as camouflage.

Nit ein vort!”7 I whispered, and tapped three times on the boards to signal the “all clear.”

_____________________________________

With everything secure, I opened the door to find two soldiers holding flashlights and standing at attention beside a high-ranking uniformed officer in a long black coat who easily fit Menil’s description of the Torah burner.

Guten Abend, meine Herren8. How can I help you?” I inquired.

“May we come in, Herr Köhler?” asked the Officer. He was carrying a handkerchief in his hand, and wiped his nose.

“Of course.” I stepped aside, and allowed the party to cross the threshold before shutting the door.

“My name is Oberpräsident9 Josef Terboven, and I’ve come for a favor. I realize it’s past the time of your operating hours, but I’ve been quite busy handling a sensitive Jüdisch10 problem in town, so I must apologize for the inconvenience. However, I’m reminded by my staff that the Christmas holiday is nearly upon us, and we’ve yet to dress a Tannenbaum for the Hauptbahnhof 11 square…which brings me to my point for being here at this late hour. With your permission, of course, I’d very much like to procure your best tree to display at our office,” he stated.

Wunderbar12! It would be my honor, Oberpräsident,” I feigned enthusiastically. “I’d be delighted to select the perfect tree for you, and deliver it personally, morgen früh13.”

“That is totally unnecessary, Herr Köhler. I wouldn’t think of troubling you any further. Besides, my men will see to it tonight, so you needn’t bother yourself about it in the least,” stated President Terboven, emphatically. “In fact, I insist!”

“In that case, perhaps I can assist by escorting you and your men through the feld14,” I replied cautiously, “to show you the very best selection, mein Oberpräsident.”

“I accept!” he nodded, “and appreciate the offer, Herr Köhler. But you’ll excuse me if I don’t accompany you, for I would much prefer to stay out of the weather. You see, I’m nursing a nasty cold at the moment,” he indicated, and dabbed his nose with his handkerchief.

I couldn’t help but notice the “SH” branding on the cloth–realizing that it must have come from Menil’s shop.

President Terboven turned to his recruits, “Bring me a tree that is worthy of the Reich, and see to it that Herr Kohler is treated with proper respect,” he barked.

Jawohl15!” responded both soldiers in unison with a sharp salute.

“In the meantime, perhaps I can persuade Frau16 Köhler for a tasse17 of heisser Tee18 while everyone is off in the woods.”

Natürlich!19, Oberpräsident,” I acknowledged. Yet I could feel the bile rising in my throat as I offered, “Mein Haus ist dein Haus20.”


1Just a minute!
2plates
3forks
4knives
5I’m coming!
6darkness
7Not one word!
8Good Evening, gentlemen
9Senior President
9Jewish
10senior president
11Central Station
12Wonderful!
13tomorrow morning
14field
15Yessir
16Mrs.
17cup
18hot tea
19Of course!
20My house is your house

Uncertainty: Chapter Five

Uncertainty: Prologue
Uncertainty: Chapter One
Uncertainty: Chapter Two
Uncertainty: Chapter Three
Uncertainty: Chapter Four


Uncertainty: Chapter Five

The first time I met Max Köhler, he came to the shop for two funeral suits–one for himself and one for his father, who was planting seedlings on his property at the time a heavy storm suddenly swept through the area and caused a big tree to crash down on him. He was being buried the next day in Heisinger cemetery, so the suits had to be rushed. Although Max was short on gelt1 at the time, we worked out an equitable arrangement that made my Shaina Maidel very happy on her seventh birthday.

Our friendship deepened over the years that followed, and we never hesitated to help each other or ask the other for help when it mattered. Yet I could not think of asking Max and Ilsa to risk their lives for us when the Nazis intensified their crusade against the Jews…but then, I didn’t have to. Max and Ilsa insisted on helping, and volunteered to shepherd us through our personal nightmare.

Of course, it so happens that Max comes from a long line of earth shepherds who have tilled the same twenty hectares of forest for generations. According to Max, his sliver of land was originally bestowed by a knight from the house of Broich to an ancestral squire who had saved his knight’s life in battle. Max has continued in his father’s mold, living in a 200 year-old stone farmhouse amidst a field of shrubs and trees he’s raised for commercial landscapers and residential gardeners.

Once the great reservoir was completed in ‘33, families throughout Westphalia would traditionally day-trip to the farm before Christmas, scouting here and there for their special fir tree in the forest and chop it down. Then they were off to explore the nearby castle, Schloss Shellenberg2, and finish the day with a boat ride on the Baldeneysee3.
Likewise, the farm became our escape from city life most every Sunday, but because of the Köhlers, it also became our salvation…although, the thought of Tannenbaums4 filling out in the fields was giving us shpilkes5.

The first Shabbos at the farm was a true celebration. Gott sei danke!6, we were all together and we were safe. We davened; we sang; we danced; and we passed around a bottle of shnaps7. But as we got closer to Christmas, it was impossible to know how long our luck would last. On those days we lived in fear, wondering if the Nazis would arrive one day and separate our family, while the goyim were enjoying the fresh smell of pine on their axes.

Those were the days we had to be extra careful, considering the steady flow of traffic to the area. Those were the days we went deeper into hiding. Those were the days we prayed the hardest…but not on Hanukkah! Hanukkah, was different.

_____________________________________

Living underneath the farmhouse kitchen was never easy, but we never complained. On days when the farm was open, the four of us hunkered into a crawl space and we kept very still. Bare bulbs hung from the center floor beam, lighting a path to the end of the wall, where a hanging sheet concealed a tall metal milk can meant for doing our business. Mattresses lined the dirt floor on one side of the beam, while the other side of the floor was used for storage and seating. Usually, Eva would draw and I would read, while Abba and Eema stitched special linings into our winter coats spread across the mattresses.

We studied in silence—under the kitchen floor—until we got the “all clear” signal from Onkel Max and Tante Ilse. We listened for three taps on the floor, after which Eva and I would race to remove the false floor under the kitchen sink cabinet and collect hugs from Onkel and Tante on the other side.

We lived without contact from the outside world—except for whatever news Onkel Max or Tante Ilse brought us whenever one of them returned from town. They would alternate, going every other day for supplies, so one of them was always around should there ever be an unexpected delivery or a visitor to the farm.

“What was it like in town today?” we’d ask, the moment we emerged from hiding.

We hung on every word. One day we learned about a boy on a bike who was hit by a tram while crossing the tracks. There was also news of the grand re-opening of Karstadt Department Store after the looting. On another day, we heard that Hirshland Bank was taken over by the Nazis. And we couldn’t believe that the Nazis were taxing Jewish people for the destruction of Jewish property on what was now being called Kristallnacht.

On December 10, Onkel Max came back from town with a surprise package for us, but he wouldn’t say what it was—only that it was special and it was dirty. Eva and I took turns guessing the contents of the sack, but Onkel Max was shtum8. Eema accepted the sack and disappeared with Abba. They soon reappeared carrying a blackened hanukkiah9 with candles in all eight branches, including the shamash10.

“Yippee! It’s Hanukkah!” gasped Eva.

“But it’s only the first night, and all the candles are staged,” I objected.

“Nevermind!” We are mazldik11 and brukh12 to celebrate when so many others have nothing but tsoris13, Eema defended.

“Tonight we celebrate for all eight days, and for all the Jews who are unable,” Abba informed.

“Can I help light the candles, Abba?” Eva asked eagerly.

Absolut14!” agreed Eema. “Tonight, all of us light all the candles.

Eema set the candelabra on the kitchen table, and lit the shamash, holding it as she recited, “Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam asher kidishanu b’mitz’votav v’tzivanu l’had’lik neir shel Chanukah. Amein15.”

Amein,” we responded, collectively.

“Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam she’asah nisim la’avoteinu bayamim haheim baziman hazeh. Amein16.”

Amein,” we answered.

“Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam shehecheyanu v’kiyimanu v’higi’anu laz’man hazeh. Amein17.”

Amein!” we shouted.

Eema handed the shamash to Eva with instructions, “Start on the left side, mein lib. Tsvey18 leyts19, and pass the shamash to Berte.”

Eva lit two candles and passed the shamash to me. Eema instructed, “Tsvey leyts, and pass the shamash to Abba.

I did as Eema asked, and the shamash rotated from Abba to Tante Ilse to Onkel Max and back to Eema, with each one taking a turn until the hanukkiah was aglow.

Afterwards, I helped Eema and Ilse in the kitchen, and we enjoyed a delicious holiday meal of brisket, tzimmes20 and latkes21. We ate by the light of the menorah, and for one shining moment everything in the world seemed normal, until a knock on the front door.


1money
2Shellenberg Castle
3largest of six Ruhr resevoirs
4fir trees
5anxiety
6Thank God!
7liquor
8silence
9Hanukkah candelabra
10helper
11lucky
12blessed
13trouble
14absolutely
15Praised are you, our God, ruler of the universe, who made us holy through Your commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights. Amen
16Praised are you, our God, ruler of the universe, who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in those ancient days at this season. Amen
17Praised are you, our God, ruler of the universe, who has given us life and sustained us and enabled us to reach this season. Amen
18two
19lights
20Jewish stew of sweetened vegetables
21potato pancakes

Uncertainty: Chapter Four

Uncertainty: Prologue
Uncertainty: Chapter One
Uncertainty: Chapter Two
Uncertainty: Chapter Three


Uncertainty: Chapter Four

We awoke to news of Essen from Maxwell and Ilse Köhler, our country hosts who had gone to town to acquire some of the supplies Rochel and I would need for our stay at the farm. It was to be our temporary hiding place until the Gestapo’s deportation campaign subsided, and when we figured it would be safe to cross into Nederlands.

The Köhlers reported that last night’s pogrom had spilled into the morning, affecting every Jewish community across the Reich. The Gestapo was responsible for torching more than 1000 shuls throughout Germany and Austria, destroying thousands of Jewish homes and thousands of Jewish-owned businesses, arresting more than 30,000 Jews who were expedited to Nazi concentration camps, and inciting riots that left nearly 100 Jews dead in their homes and streets.

Even now, the Jewish orphanage in Dinslaken, 28 kilometers north of us is still burning.

Polish Jews in particular were being heavily targeted by the Nazis as retribution for the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris days earlier by a Jewish teenager from Hannover whose parents had recently been deported back to Poland.

We all sat down to Ilse’s hearty breakfast of fresh-baked Bauernbrot1, marmalade, egg omelet with Gouda cheese, and chopped herring. We mostly ate in silence, using our meal as a last defense against discussing last night’s disturbing details. “There is to be no talking with your mouth full at the dinner table!” was a rule the girls were very familiar with, and with all of us still in shock, there was no fear of this rule being broken now. But a conversation about our future was undeniable and inescapable, and Berte and Eva were deserving of emmes2.

Then just as I was about to confess…

_________________________________________

Abba, do you have something you want to tell us?” Berte perceptively interrupted.

“There is,” Abba announced. “First of all, I want to apologize. Mutti3 and I are so sorry that your lives have been turned upside down.”

“It’s not your fault, Abba,” expressed Eva. “It’s those damn Nazis.”

“Eva! Don’t make me get the soap!” warned Eema.

“Sorry, Eema,” Eva quickly surrendered.

“You know your Tatti4 and I only want what’s best for you,” conceded Eema.

“That’s right,” Abba continued, “so Mutti and I have come to some bitter truths about our situation…and that means we will no longer be returning to our house. Your Tante5 Ilse and Onkel6 Max went by Ribbeckstrasse this morning to have a look around, and they discovered that there was nothing left of our home or the shop. So really, we have nothing to go back to.”

“But where will we go?” Eva was fighting back tears. “Are we going to the poorhouse?”

“They’re just things, my dear. I will miss them, and it is a big loss for our family, but we are lucky to be alive and be together, Gott Will7!” Eema looked up, trying to make a connection with God, but I was doubtful of an answer.

“And what about school? And what about Shabbat, which is coming tomorrow?” I interjected. I wanted everyone to know how clever I was.

“Ah gezunt ahf dein kup8,” gushed Eema.

Abba proceeded with straight talk. “For now, this is your home. We’re going to be living here with Tante Ilsa and Onkel Max for a bissel. But with some very strict rules, 100 percent,” he affirmed.

“Let me explain,” Eema interrupted–but now extremely sincere. “Your Tatti and I need to remind you that this is a secret that no one must ever know about…for any reason. Our lives depend on this. Farshteyn9?”

“Yes, Eema,” agreed Eva.

“Yes, Eema,” I agreed, and then I thanked Tante Ilse and Onkel Max for letting us stay in their house. But then I couldn’t keep it to myself any longer. I had to know. I had to ask

Abba, “Does that mean I get to see Shaina Maidel every day?”

Abba grinned back, “Whever you want, my shaina maidel.”

Abba stood, clasped both hands together to form a broadcast scoop, and brought them to his lips in a grand gesture to capture everyone’s attention. “Ladies and gentleman…May I please have your attention…I have an important announcement to make…From now on…we are officially in hiding.”

After the laughter died, he paused and looked as serious as the time I fell from Shaina Maidel the first time I rode her. “And no one is to know that we are here,” he continued. Everything that we need while we are here, Tante Ilse and Onkel Max will provide for us.”

“But that’s not fair! How come Tante Ilse and Onkel Max get to go out, but we can’t?” Eva started up.

“Your Tante and Onkel are grown-ups, and they are not going to do anything that will jeopardize our well-being,” declared Eema.

“But aren’t they going to be in big trouble if they’re not hiding with us?” Eva continued.

Abba walked around the table to where Eva was sitting. He wrapped his arms around her from behind, and leaned into her ear. “Nobody’s going to get in trouble if you follow the rules, 100 percent.”

“But what if Tante and Onkel get caught in town? Then who’s going to take care of us?” she persisted.

Abba’s mood changed, and I knew for certain that Eva’s relentless curiosity had finally gotten to him, and he would explode. He straightened up and playfully formed his large hands around Eva’s neck, pretending to strangle her.

Oy gevalt10! Too many what ifs! Genug11 with the questions, Eva,” Abba geshrign12.

Eva played along. She vigorously wagged her head to and fro to imitate being choked to death. She slowly closed her eyes and abruptly went limp. Then she ever-so-slowly rolled out her tongue. We gave her a standing ovation.

Tante Ilse reached across the table and grabbed Eva’s hand. “Don’t worry your pretty head about anything. Nobody’s going to hurt us, or hurt your family. Ich verspreche13.”


1German farmer’s bread
2truth
3mommy
4daddy
5aunt
6uncle
7God willing
8blessing on your head
9understand
10Enough already!
11enough
12shrieked
13I promise

 

Uncertainty: Chapter Three

Uncertainty: Prologue
Uncertainty: Chapter One
Uncertainty: Chapter Two


Uncertainty: Chapter Three

I drove the back roads to the farm with the van’s headlights off as a general precaution. Leaders of the Jewish community had informed me earlier in the evening that the Nazis were on high alert–canvassing the roads and making hundreds of arrests across town. The last thing Rochel and I needed was for something to go wrong.

There was no reason to return to the house and the store. It wasn’t safe there anymore, and anything of value had probably been stolen, destroyed or tossed into the street. At least we managed to grab the important things, like our coats and our papers before the pogrom spread through the neighborhood like a virus.

Packed suitcases and my sewing machine from Lodz were already in the back of the van (from our last attempt), hidden under a mattress of worsted wool that my angels were now using as bedding. Glancing back at them, both girls appeared to be fast asleep. It melted my heart.

Whispering, “This is not what we planned, Rochel. This is not how we intended to protect the kinder1.”

“I know, Manny. But it’s too risky to hide them at the farm. In fact, it’s not safe anywhere in Germany, right now. We’ll have a talk with them in the morning.”

_________________________________________________

Eema pulled the barn doors apart in darkness. The van quietly coasted into the open barn, and pulled up beside the Opel. Abba shut off the engine, exited the van, and joined Eema in securing the barn doors with a heavy chain through the handles of both doors.
Eema approached the back of the van and swung open the back doors before Abba could stop her. Whispering, “Rochel, let’s not disturb them. Let the kinder shluffen2 a bissel3.”
Eema nodded. She reached inside for the picnic blanket and spread it across our curled- up bodies, up to our faces.

I tried to stifle it, but I couldn’t help but sneeze. Eva stirred for an instant, but remained asleep.

Gesundheit4!” Eema answered reflexively. She paused for a moment and sniffled, “Lang Lebn5 my beauty,” before turning away.

I watched through the windshield as they slowly walked arm-in-arm to the front of the barn with a familiar closeness, and slipped into darkness.


1children
2sleep
3a small amount
4health/ bless you
5long life

Uncertainty: Prologue

Uncertainty: Prologue

The crash of shattered glass from the haberdashery shop below, and the chorus of discordant shrieks that followed was enough to drive Eva into Berte’s bed. With the covers pulled over their heads, the two sisters — almost four years apart — huddled together in darkness, listening in silence to a din of destruction coming from the street outside their bedroom window.

At once, the printed ponies on the quilt came to life from the flickering light that shone through the fabric that momentarily managed to insulate them from the unknown and the unthinkable, and they delighted in the illusion until Eema barged in and broke the spell.

“Mach schnell1, girls!” she commanded, the urgency quaking in her voice, “Grab a sweater and your dress coats. We have to move quickly. It’s not safe here.”

“Where are we going, Eema2?” asked Berte, peering out from under the blankets, but Eema was already out the door screaming something inaudible to Abba3 down the hall.

“Look Bertie!” Eva was tugging on Berte’s pajamas from behind.

“Not now, Eva! We have to listen to Eema.”

“But Bertie, the shul’s4 on fire!”

They ran to the window looking out from Ribbeckstrasse — their attention drawn to the commotion across the street.

Essen Synagogue (2)
Neue Synagogue burning, Photo Archive Ruhr Museum (photographer unknown)

Flames were darting through the top floor windows while white smoke billowed from the stone arches surrounding the facade. People gathered to gaze at the spectacle — as if in a trance — but nobody lent a hand to douse the blaze.

The Neue5 Synagogue of Stalerstrasse was Essen’s cultural and social epicenter for the 4500 Jews in town. The imposing freestanding stone monument with four striking copper cupolas was consecrated in 1913 from Edmund Körner’s designs,

Neue Synagogue (2)
Neue Synagogue, Essen (Ruhr Museum)

and considered to be one of Europe’s largest and architecturally significant synagogues of all time. Built to accommodate 1,400 worshipers, Bertha often kvelled6 at the size of the sanctuary. She marveled at the symmetry of the polished organ pipes above the altar, and how its acoustics would carry her from her seat beside Eema in the women’s gallery to the soaring dome high above her — as distant as the sky — where she could still hear the whispers of the men cloaked in talllit7 who were davening8 on the floor below.

INTERIOR (2)
Neue Synagogue interior, Beth Hatefutsoth Photo Archive

Eema also adored the Neue Synagogue, although she claimed that Piotrkow’s Wielka Synagogue9 outside Lodz easily rivaled its beauty and immensity.

Wielka Synagogue (2)
Great Synagogue, Piotrkow Trybunalski, Poland

It was there, at the August Oneg Shabbat10of-the-month social, that Eema first met Abba. The year was 1914, and Menil Strawszinski and Rochel Kolski were teenagers at the time. As the daughter and son of textile workers, their families thought Menil the perfect button to Rochel’s bow, and arranged a meeting for them at the Great Synagogue that night. However, they found themselves in the midst of a regional struggle for Lodz, with Nicholas II and Wilhelm II threatening the peace.

During the Oneg celebration, a gang of Russian Imperial soldiers entered the synagogue under the guise of conducting a mission to uncover the whereabouts of a hidden telephone with a direct link to the German command. Unable to substantiate their claim, the soldiers ransacked the room and roughed up several of the members who dared to interfere with their “investigation”. Menil’s pride was wounded, but most of all, his bruises and bloody nose were a reminder of the capricious violence that surrounded them.

Turmoil in Lodz continued under German occupation from 1915 until the end of the war, when the Polish state was re-established on November 11, 1918 and Poland’s independence was restored. But peace was ephemeral. Soon after, military conflict resumed when Polish armies pushed hard against Ukraine’s eastern borders — intended as a bulwark against future encroachment by the Soviets, who viewed Poland as a pathway to sowing seeds of communism in vulnerable post-war Germany.

On New Year’s Day, 1919, Menil turned 21, and two months later became eligible for compulsory conscription when the Sejm of the Republic of Poland enacted the Provisional Statute on Mandatory Military Service for all male citizens. With anti-Semitism flourishing through the ranks of the armed forces, and an uncertain future awaiting him at the Ukrainian frontline, Menil knew what he had to do. With their parents’ blessings, and a modest nadn11 of a sewing machine and seven bolts of wool fabric from the Kolski’s, Menil and Rochel were married in a quiet ceremony, and boarded a train to Essen, where a second cousin, once removed could offer them a fresh start.

Menil and Rochel’s migration to North Rhine-Westphalia was typical of thousands of other Jewish Poles who fled a fragile and defeated Eastern European landscape, hastened by the political instability and famine created by The Great War and the Russian Revolution.

Breadline in Piotrkow (2)
Breadline in Piotrkow

They arrived in Essen — under an opportunistic umbrella of social acceptance and religious tolerance — eager to capitalize on a climate of post-war possibilities, with hopeful prospects of putting down roots. Living by Jewish tenets of hard work and the value of education, coupled with their Christian neighbors’ encouragement and cooperation, the Jews of Essen seamlessly assimilated into a world of German mercantilism, and became an accepted part of Germany’s middle class.

At first, Menil worked two years for his second cousin as a pattern cutter and a tailor, while Rochel helped with the books and ordered the notions, but their dream was always to open their own retail shop in the city center. Their break came when Moishe Samuels invited Menil to his shop on Ribbeckstrasse to help him cut custom suits for the famed Hirschland family, a leader in Essen’s Jewish community and the world of finance. In fact, it was Isaac Hirschland, the family elder, who originally recommended the location down the road where the Neue Synagoue would subsequently be built.

After two years of working for Moishe and living in a small one-room flat above the store, Menil and Rochel arrived at the crossroads of their future. Moishe Samuels passed away after a prolonged battle with liver cancer, and Menil and Rochel acquired the business from his widow. They expanded into ready-to-wear menswear and boys clothing, with an emphasis on custom tailoring, and became the first in the area to showcase double-breasted jackets as part of their fashion line — all of which guaranteed the store’s success for years to come.

Not that there weren’t setbacks. The rising tide of German nationalism — as a response to communist rhetoric and activity — catapulted the National Socialist German Workers’ Party into power in 1933, resulting in an anti-Semitic city manifesto calling for random arrests of Jewish citizens, Jews to be fired from their jobs (regardless of their prominence), and Jewish-owned businesses to be boycotted.

München, Hitler bei Einweihung
Hitler and NSDAP-Reichsschatzmeisters Franz Xaver Schwarz, Hauptarchiv der NSDAP (Bild 119)

Strawszinski’s Haberdashery survived an initial wave of Nazi attacks on Jewish merchants, but repeated discrimination and Nazi-sponsored decrees took its toll on Menil’s bottom-line. His customer base was slowly shrinking, his supply lines were becoming unreliable, and his shipments were being poached by corrupt officials. There were times when Menil and Rochel felt like giving up, but where could they go? Everything that was theirs was invested in the shop, and now they had a family to consider.

Berte had just turned seven — the year Hitler was elected as Chancellor — and Menil cherished her with all his being. She would pretend to help him around the shop after school — dusting the mannequins, picking up loose pins, and sweeping the floor. She was his shaina maidel12Just last year, she had requested that he buy her a horse for her sixth birthday, and he couldn’t disappoint her. They drove to a local barn on the edge of town, and he let her pick out whichever one she wanted. Of course, Menil had already made the necessary arrangements with the farmer ahead of time, so Berte’s pick was limited, but she had to have the chestnut mare with the white face, and she named her Shaina Maidel.

Eva, on the other hand, was still in diapers at age 3, and clung to Rochel as if her life depended on it. There was no putting her down for fear of a crying storm that would only abate when she was back in Rochel’s arms. Menil and Eva had a different kind of bond. He felt he knew her heart better than anyone, even Eema. Maybe it was because they shared the same birthday. Or maybe it was because she always knew how to grab Abba’s attention when he was unhappy, and cheer him up. But oy13the crying! Gott sei Dank14, Berte could console Eva long enough to allow Eema to light and bless the Shabbos15 candles.

It was 1938. Strawszinski’s Haberdashery had managed to survive, and even boasted a modest 15-year anniversary celebration, but now the store was being looted by a riotous mob, and the shul was burning.

Tears welled up in Eva’s eyes, and her voice quivered. “Why isn’t anybody putting out the fire? And where are we going to pray on Shabbat?”


1hurry up
2mother
3father
4synagogue
5new
6expressed pride
7prayer shawls
8praying
9The Great Synagogue
10Sabbath celebration
11dowry
12pretty girl
13Oh, my!
14fortunately
15Sabbath

 

 

 

 

Rock of Aged

“Let’s get this shuttle moving!” shouts a middle-aged surfer dude in an orange muscle shirt at the volunteer driver of the tram parked curbside at the farthest reaches of Anastasia State Park’s parking lot by the beach.

“First of all, I’ve got plenty of empty seats to fill, with plenty of people still on their way. And secondly, you should have thought about getting here earlier pal, ’cause I been here since 5:30 transporting people to the concert. So stop complaining that I’m the one who’s making you late!” the driver retorts.

“Well asshole, I have no intention of missing the opening number because of you,” he bellows.

“You’re welcome to get off my ride anytime and call an Uber if you want, but otherwise, I suggest you shut the fuck up, and sit the fuck down, and wait patiently like the rest of these folks,” the driver threatens.

According to Joe and Jenny, who had come from Gainesville in celebration of their 10th wedding anniversary, the passengers on the tram were stunned into silence after this fiery exchange. The moment Leah and I took our seats on the tram, the mood seemed unusually somber for a group of mostly baby boomers who were on their way to attend a sold-out performance of Steve Miller Band with Peter Frampton at St. Augustine Amphitheater.

This was to be our maiden concert at the amphitheater–having purchased tickets over three months ago–knowing that we were taking a chance with the rainy summer weather, but choosing to risk it all for just a few hours of iconic rock and roll nostalgia.

At last the day had come, and despite the iffy forecast through late afternoon, the overcast sky had held firm, and it wasn’t long before we were on our way, barreling along the service roads…

shuttle (2).jpg

to the back door entrance of the amphitheater.

It was 7:05pm and the opening power chords of Something’s Happening were already resonating through the thick air. We bypassed the crowded concessions…

beer beer bar bar

and settled into our seats…

tent and stage.jpg

under the big top…

tent2

tent canopy

to lose ourselves in Frampton’s guitar licks.

amphiteater panorama.jpg

From the start of the evening, Frampton established a smooth repartee with his exuberant audience–thankful for the fans who’ve stuck with him through thick and thin.

At 72, Frampton has seen his share of sunsets in your eyes and lines on [his] face, affably referencing his musical longevity during the interludes between songs, and reflecting on the passage of time through his career–from his chart dominance to his subsequent free fall to his eventual resurrection.

The devotees in attendance who may have missed the ’70s, seized this downtime as the perfect opportunity for a bathroom break, but not without escaping playful ridicule from Peter..

“I wish I could pee. I really do,” quipped Frampton. Now I can only pee on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday… with the help of Flomax.

He’s willingly traded his teen-idol, cascading hair locks and bare-chested pop star status for a musician’s bald/bold appreciation of his instrument, and aptly demonstrated his guitar prowess throughout his set list:

  • Something’s Happening
  • Lying
  • Lines on My Face
  • Show Me the Way
  • Black Hole Sun
  • (I’ll Give You) Money
  • Baby, I Love Your Way
  • I Want You To Love Me
  • Do You Feel Like We Do

But the literal centerpiece was Black Hole Sun–“the best song [he’s] never written”–performed as an instrumental from the 2007 release of his Fingerprints album that garnered Grammy acclaim.

As if channeling Chris Cornell on the anniversary of his birth, July 20,

Black Hole Sun

Frampton commanded the stage with a mindful intent of demonstrating his guitar virtuosity,

Frampton makes a face.jpg

and he deftly acquitted himself in the eyes and ears of his audience.

And when the last shred had been wrung from his beloved Gibson, the crowd let him know how much they were with him and how much they cared.

 

After a half-hour intermission to reset the stage, the evening continued with Steve Miller and his band.

Steve Miller Band1

With a few exceptions, Steve Miller’s set list mimicked his multi-platinum Greatest Hits album, spanning the mid to late 70’s, and nobody in the crowd was disappointed, because they had come to sing along and Dance, Dance, Dance.

Set list

  • The Stake
  • True Fine Love
  • Abracadabra
  • Living in the U.S.A.
  • Space Cowboy
  • Take the Money and Run
  • Jackson-Kent Blues
  • Stranger Blues
  • I Want to Make the World Turn Around
  • Wild Mountain Honey
  • Dance, Dance, Dance
  • Serenade
  • Space Intro
  • Fly Like an Eagle
  • Swingtown
  • Rock’n Me

bass drum.jpg

From his early overture into blues-infused rock, to experiments in psychedelia, to a catchy collection of counter-culture anthems with mainstream melodies, Miller captured the songbook for a new generation of America in flux.

Steve Miller vocals.jpg

Midway through his set, Miller evoked a memory from 1965 that took him from San Francisco to New York for a performance of The Mother Song on NBC’s Hullabaloo with The Four Tops and The Supremes.

 

As Miller recounts, the $250 he earned from the gig gave him the confidence to shop for a new guitar at Manny’s Music, a cherished, legendary music instrument store located in mid-town Manhattan. Unfortunately, he discovered there was nothing he could afford. Rejected and dejected, he headed for the door, whereupon he discovered a cluttered barrel of buried guitars standing neck up with a posted sign: “Your Pick–$125.”

One guitar called to him–a 19-string sitar-guitar that he had to have. Along the way, Miller explained some of its unusual features: spool-like knobs, 3 pick-ups, and a mirror on the backside.

sitar guitar mirror.jpg

Of course, after 53 years it’s still in his possession, despite an offer of $125,000 from a bigwig music producer. This tale has been repeated at similar events for years and years–with fluctuating asking prices–but the audience was hooked on every word and ate it up.

sitar guitar

“Whadaya think? Should I consider selling it?” he petitioned the crowd.

Naturally, the crowd answered back with a resounding, “HELL NO!”

Miller put the instrument to good use in a soulful rendition of Wild Mountain Honey.

Thereafter, with each new tune, the audience responded with greater enthusiasm and a deeper appreciation of his classic hits.

The band returned with a raucous 4-song encore (if you consider Threshold to be a song rather than an intro)…

I'm a Joker

  • The Joker
  • Jungle Love
  • Threshold
  • Jet Airliner

And in an instant, the show was over. We were transported back to the here and now–no longer celebrating the soundtrack of our salad days from high school or college, but always reminded that “time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.”

Ironically, I spotted the belligerent surfer dude from before, who had embarrassed himself aboard our tram. Folks were filing past him to the exits, yet he seemed frozen in place–as if locked in a trance–holding onto a past that he was so impatient to embrace.

Doot-doot-doo-doo, tick-tock-tick…

Doot-doot-doo-doo, tick-tock-tick.

Wise Guys

It’s been one year since our visit to Mt. Rushmore, and what could be more American than re-posting this episode on Independence Day…

There’s no better way to celebrate the 4th of July, than a trip to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Sure, the crowds were large; that was to be expected. But once the cars were garaged, the pedestrian traffic was easy to negotiate. And with everyone looking up at the mountain, the Presidents’ faces and intentions were never obstructed.

GW

Jefferson

Roosevelt

Lincoln

It was also a time to celebrate family. There were plenty of kids riding in strollers, hanging from moms in carriers, or balancing on dads’ shoulders. Generations of families–many of them immigrants–had gathered to pay homage to the principles of freedom that make our country a beacon for the oppressed and downtrodden.

Seniors were being escorted through the Avenue of Flags by their grandchildren. Extended families organized group pictures at the Grand View Terrace, unified by their love of democracy and their reunion T-shirts.

All expressed awe at Gutzon Borglum’s grand vision and remarkable achievement–the transformation of a mountain into a national symbol visited by approximately 3 million people every year.

long shot

The 14-year process of carving the rock began with dimensionalizing the Presidents’ portraits through Plaster of Paris masks, on view at the sculptor’s studio-turned-museum.

Sculptor's Studio

Additional exhibits detail the construction of the memorial, and the tools used by workers, like the original Rand & Waring compressor, which powered the jackhammers for all the finishing work.

compressor

A little known fact is that Mt. Rushmore was once intended to be a tribute to the “Five Faces of Freedom,” but funding ran short when the Congressional appropriation approached $1 million during the Great Depression. Hence, the unfinished carving of the Great Ape to the right of Lincoln serves as a reminder that we are never far from our true ancestors.¹

Planet of the Apes

No less ambitious, and equally as impressive, the Crazy Horse Memorial is a work-in-progress located 16 miles away in the heart of the Black Hills–considered sacred land by the Lakota people.

Crazy Horse LS

Conceived by Korczak Ziolkowski in early 1940s,

crazy horse model (2)

the memorial, when completed will stand 563 ft. by 641 ft. across, and is expected to be the largest sculpture in the world. Already, the completed head of Crazy Horse measures 60 feet tall…

Crazy Horse CU

…twice the size of any of the presidents at Mt. Rushmore. While the first blast was conducted on the mountain in 1947, the current prospects for the memorial are to complete the outstretched arm during the next twelve years. There is no completion date available for the finished carving, which has been financed entirely by private funding since its inception.

Mt. Rushmore was created by a Danish American. Crazy Horse was created by a Polish American. And visitors to both destinations manifest the melting pot that has brought us all together as Americans. It’s our diversity that makes us strong, our ambition and determination that makes us great, and our compassion and sacrifice that make us whole.

These are the values reflected from the faces we’ve immortalized in stone. Yet, we would honor them more by living according to these principles.

Happy Birthday, America!

fireworks1

¹ Just kidding, but the photograph is real and has not been retouched.

A Touch of Blue

After dry camping (no utilities or hook-ups) for three days at Mathews Arm campground inside Shenandoah National Park,

Hawksbill summit

the threat of rain, the need for groceries, and the desire to charge our tablets and phones drove us off the mountaintops to Luray, the valley town nearest the Thornton Gap park entrance, and renowned for its fancy formations. But having previously explored so many other holes in the ground over the past year, including Luray Cavern at an earlier time, the lure of Luray—after shopping at Walmart—now lay in the living shrine to The Dukes of Hazzard, as memorialized by Cooter’s on US-211 West.

Steer 01

Cooter's ext.jpg

For those unfamiliar, The Dukes of Hazard was a TV show from the early 80’s…

D of H cast pic

that followed a rash of 1960’s programming that satirized rural Southern living, and fish-out-of-water sensibilities beginning with the Andy Griffith ShowThe Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, and Andy Griffth spin-off, Gomer Pyle USMC.

The Dukes of Hazard series popularized chase scenes with a Dodge Charger named General Lee that could catch air and outrun every Cherry Top….

Cooter's

and daisy dukes (short shorts worn by Daisy Duke).

Daisy Dukes (2)

With equal parts giftshop…

Confederate gifts

museum…

picture shrine

Cooter's Cruiser

fire truck

Boss Hogg Cadillac

fast-food fare, and live music venue…

Jamboree

Cooter’s has become the perfect one-stop Good Ol’ Boy stop-over. As Cooter is so fond of saying, “With free parking, free museum admission, and free music, if you’re not completely satisfied, we’ll give you your money back!”

Immediately, upon entering, I felt out of place—like I was intruding—even though I’m a big fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers Band. Perhaps a combination of morbid obesity, and full-color body tattoos may have automatically disqualified me from fitting in. But like a train wreck that’s almost impossible to ignore, I could not be dissuaded from gawking at the regulars,

staff

who come to Cooter’s to: consume heart attack chili, “so good it’ll kill ya!”; show the young’uns all the neat merchandise that Pops grew up with;

D of H merch

take foolish pictures with cut-out faces of the Hazzard cast;

Leah as Daisy Dukes

or take a $10 ride…

Munzter High.jpg

on a monster truck;

climb aboard

 

and enjoy country music with a decided “red (political) and white (racial)” edge.

Cooter's Garage Band

Richie, the bassist got the party started with some tunes by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, but the mood got serious with a rendition of Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the U.S.A. One-by-one, the crowd stood in obeisance as they sang from hearts solemnly covered by hands. Some of the crowd actually got weepy.

Richie acknowledged their emotional valor with some patriotic pearls, “We sure do love this country—finest country on Earth. But I don’t need to remind y’all ‘bout that, ‘cause this ain’t rocket surgery.”

Richie segued, “Now this here’s the part of the show where I like to ask our visitors where they’re travellin’ from. How many of you folks are from out of town?”

Scanning the room for volunteers brought a few announcements, “Pennsylvania…Maryland…North Carolina…” all met with applause.

Leah whispered, “Are we from New Jersey or Florida?”

“Well, besides the Airstream, there’s only one state I know where we own property,” I advised.

“We’re from Florida!” Leah called out. More applause.

Richie declared, “Then I declare, without even botherin’ to load all that data into GPS, that you people from Florida are the farthest guests from here today, and that makes you the winner!”

As if on auto-pilot from the other side of the stage, George on guitar intones, “Tell her what she’s won, Richie.”

“You bet, George,” affirms Richie. “She gets to pick our next song.”

[To Leah] “Any song, sweetheart!”

Leah panicked, “Quick, Neal. Give me a song!”

I felt like I needed to stand up for the Blue Team. “How ‘bout Blue Velvet,” I offered.

Richie, incredulously, “You mean that number by Bobby Vinton?” [singing] “She wore Blue Velvet, dah da dah, da dah.”

I felt like a contestant on Stump the Band.

Richie confessing, “I think that’s all we got for that one. Why don’t-cha pick somethin’ else?”

Pausing a moment, I suggested Blue Suede Shoes.

“Now, that song’s gonna be a part of our second set,” Richie previewed, “so gimme your favorite country group instead, and we’ll play a song from their songbook.”

“That’s easy. Play something from the Dixie Chicks,” I requested.

Richie didn’t expect the ambush.

Unfortunately for the Texas-bred Dixie Chicks, they were vilified by their fanbase when they spoke out against the Bush/Cheney Iraqi invasion, with some goons going so far as dispatching hate mail and death threats.

The still unforgiving crowd at Cooter’s became uncomfortably silent. People turned in their seats to stare, wondering, “Who is this interloper who dares to break the 11th Commandment at Cooter’s? Thou shalt banish the Dixie Chicks from all of country music’s memory.

Rita, the vocalist fronting the Cooter Garage Band put things in perspective. “It’s been ‘bout ten years since we did this, and I never thought we’d be performing it again, but we’re gonna play it for Florida, so please don’t hold it against us.”

The band launched into a stirring rendition of Some Days You Gotta Dance that even had the most ardent cynics tapping their toes and bobbing their torsos.

Not one to overstay our welcome, we left shortly afterwards in search of BBQ.

BBQ.jpg

Score one for the Blue Team.