Dispatches (soon to come) from the desert

Good things come in the most unexpected packages—

Two weeks ago my UPS delivery man hands me a package, no recognizable return address on the shipping label. I’m baffled, not that I don’t love a surprise.   But when that big brown truck barrels up my driveway, more often than not I can pretty much guess what’s in it for me. UPS tracking is a beautiful thing and I’d been alerted, via email, that something special was on its way.

Humor me, please. I’m a sucker for a great rock show, and when tickets went on sale in May for that mega Coachella festival in California known as Desert Trip, I managed to get ahead of the bots and scalpers. Anticipation tells me it’s a long, long time from May to September; yet somehow as the moment of arrival gets close it feels as if time has moved with the speed of a bullet train. Today those tickets would finally be in my hands and I can be forgiven for expecting a simple flat envelope with the passes inside. Clearly I was wrong.

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A three-day festival featuring the Rolling Stones/Bob Dylan, Neil Young/Paul McCartney, Roger Waters/The Who is a big deal and I don’t care if they call it Boomer-Chella or Oldchella or just good old rock ‘n’ roll. But it’s clear, from even the delivery of the passes, that a lot of thought (possibly over-the-top) has gone into this.

I open the box, the passes and wristbands jump out. There’s more, though, and I lift the insert. Voilà—my very own ViewMaster, the pièce de resistance in a boxful of memorabilia before the event has even taken place.
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Yes, it’s a carefully orchestrated/marketed event. But the spirit behind it counts for a lot. I was in Europe the summer of Woodstock, and even if the Desert Trip stars are in the twilight of their performing career or maybe because of it, you can count on some good old-fashioned dispatches from me.

In the meantime, there’s been the distraction of a presidential election that has gone from sublime to ridiculous to surreal and raised anxiety levels to new heights. Even at the worst moments I have managed to keep the faith that Hillary will prevail. That’s the realist, not the optimist in me, speaking. As we move into the final stretch, my own anxiety drops just a bit as I see a woman in a red suit handle herself with such aplomb before an audience of millions. There really is no contest here, and any sensible person sees it. But this country, alas, is clearly divided between the camps of sense and senselessness.

Awesome may be a word suited to rock concerts, but awe is world into itself, and to be in awe of the woman most likely to succeed as Madam President puts me in a good frame of mind for my upcoming trip—which just happens to come smack in the middle of the ten-day period known as Days of Awe in the Jewish calendar. There’s every reason to get a sense of grounding this time of year. For one thing, there’s that back-to-school mindset, so ingrained and so in tune with seasonal change. The air gets cool, leaves start to fall, a sense of hunkering down can’t help but take hold. Those of us brought up in reasonably traditional households have the added fact of the Jewish New Year. There’s this big, big book, we’re told, and in those ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God is watching very closely, giving us every chance to reflect, repent, do good deeds before deciding what the next year will bring.

I do my best.

I honor my parents’ spirit by attending services, notably Tashlich (when we cast off sins) and Yizkor (when we honor the memory of loved ones no longer with us).

I take time to reflect on my life, a very blessed one indeed.

I channel my mother by cooking brisket, and more, for the friends and family who will come for dinner. Chopping onions is not the only thing that brings tears to my eyes.

And this year, I go to the desert, if not with ancestors, at least with kindred spirits—my daughter, her boyfriend, and to bring it full circle, a dear high school friend who happens to live in Palm Desert. We lost touch over the years, and since reconnecting via Facebook, we’ve made up for some lost time via texts, emails, phone conversations. And just the other day I get a surprise package from her via USPS, the goodies she’s been gathering, just a glimpse into all the things to do/places to see in that valley where I picture a sublime sunset setting the stage for pure satisfaction.

 

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What is it about dessert?

I don’t do dessert . . . meaning, when I’m invited to dinner, I’m not the one you ask to bake. Not that I can’t be counted on to choose some exquisite, mouth-watering delights from our local French pastry shop.

On the other hand, you want a brisket as good as it gets, come to my house for Rosh Hashanah in autumn (or Passover when springtime rolls around). I have a few other specialties in my repertoire. But a baker I’m not. Maybe apple cakeit’s my lack of a sweet tooth—I was more of a vanilla ice cream kind of girl, with an appreciation for chocolate that extended to sprinkles on the cone; nothing rich ever appealed to me, and I was known to scrape whipped cream off birthday cake, though what’s there not to love about a Charlotte Russe?

My mother did not bake; my aunt was supreme at it. Both were very good cooks, and the Jewish holidays were nothing if not a foodfest. Somewhere along the way we may have lost sight of the spirituality, but family spirit demanded we get together. And eat.

These days, holiday celebrations are a mix of family and friends.   Everyone wants to bring something, so I assign side dishes. And dessert. A good friend of mine makes a mean flourless chocolate cake. This year she indulged me with a home-made sponge cake as well. My sister-in-law puts her sweet stamp on a traditional favorite, chocolate mandelbrot.

The point? You’ll never run short of dessert at any holiday gathering. Sometimes it can be over the top. A friend of mine always asks a cousin to bring just two or three desserts. The cousin can’t help herself. She brings at least twice that amount. All those tortes and cakes and cookies set on a table after a full meal make for a beautiful piece of art. And even if I’m forever baffled by what would possess someone to bring the equivalent of a cake per person, espcupcakesecially when asked to cut back, who am I to judge what amounts to generosity of spirit? And maybe there’s a metaphor behind it all: sweeten our world, sweeten our day.

The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as Days of Awe, intended for reflection and repentance.   We think of Rosh Hashanah as marking the Jewish New Year, though it actually coincides with the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, which begins in springtime, with its Passover celebration. In a word, Rosh Hashanah calls up the creation of the world, and Passover the founding of the Jewish people. No matter how you slice it, they’re seasonal celebrations. Tonight, observant Jews will have a big meal in preparation for a fast day. My level of observance has varied over the years, but I always fast on Yom Kippur and it has as much to do with connecting me to a tradition that is so much a part of me as it has to do with reminding myself that there are too many people in the world who go to bed hungry.

Fasting is a good thing to do for the body and the spirit. My body, with its fluctuating blood sugar levels,  has learned that if I skip dessert during the pre-fast meal, I’m not so hungry in the morning. My spirit, never more in the moment, has learned that there’s nothing so sweet as that first bite of a piece of challah after a day devoted to conscious non-eating. A day in which I’ve done my best not to think about what I might be missing.

 All photos are courtesy of Sara Dolin, whose baking skills far surpass her mother’s ;-)

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Spin-A-Gogue, Anyone?

My daughter calls me, no Talmudic issue, a simple statement: I don’t know if I’m feeling services this year. I can relate. I myself feel a little like a wandering Jew, not sure where my spiritual affiliation belongs. Call me a seeker. Call me a ‘Jubu’ (i.e., that charming acronym denoting those of us entrenched in the culture of Judaism but exploring/embracing Buddhist ways).

Call me a woman who cannot let Yom Kippur pass without spending some time in a synagogue. What’s the point in fasting, I ask myself, if not to be part of the ritualistic bigger picture? Even crammed into a sanctuary that swells during the holidays, I’m a part of a ritual that connects me to something beyond myself. The Yizkor service in memory of those gone from this world is just one reason to be there, the irony being that what takes the edge off hunger of a physical kind has me hungering for something else.

Just last week a New York Times article re: bringing more meaning and less over-the-top partying to that rite-of-passage known as Bar/Bat Mitzvah struck a chord.  How do we keep traditions alive, without too much diluting of them? With each generation further from the fold, how do we celebrate without the ache of what’s gone?

So when my daughter tells me about this thing she’s thinking about doing, Spin-A-Gogue, I laugh out loud, only in L.A. “I’d go with you if I lived out there,” I tell her. “Just for the experience.”  Not that she needed my blessing. Only one more thing, I said. If you do go, you have to write about it for my blog. She asked if I was paying ;-), at least for the class. So here it is, a guest blog post. My daughter’s spin on spinning in the Jewish New Year.

Take it away, Sara Dolin.

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Man, did the Jewish holidays come up fast this year, am I right?  Like usually you say “oh they feel early” or “oh they feel late” but this is like early, early, like still recuperating from Labor Day hot dogs early.

Los Angeles is full of “High Holiday Jews” (like me), and there’s no shortage of places to go—some free, some that make you pay for holiday services.  A little Jewish guilt, even 3,000 mile from family, goes a long way. Some years I’ve gone to services with friends feeling the same guilt, some years work has been too busy for me to feel okay about taking off.  This year, I was too distracted by life to make plans.  

Having spent the better part of the summer hobbling around on crutches (first in a cast, then a walking boot) because of a fractured ankle, the past few weeks of my life have been spent making up for lost time.  I was an avid exerciser before injuring myself, so getting emails from all the studios that I would spin at or work out at over the summer was pretty torturous for a girl who had a hard time just taking a shower.  This one really got my attention:

“Party like it’s 5774! We’re celebrating the Jewish New Year with Adam Goldstein at the Spin-A-Gogue on Thursday at 9:30 a.m. Ride to the best hits from Jewish artists.” 

I knew the class had to be fun, because Adam is a great and energetic teacher.  I thought about it: Be a good (holiday) Jew, and go to The Laugh Factory (hahaha I’m not kidding) or the Chai Center on Rosh Hashanah. Or mark the Jewish New Year by bringing myself back to something I’ve missed more than anything.

Growing up, going to temple on the High Holidays was not so much about the religious aspect as it was about seeing your friends from Hebrew School and gathering with families you grew up with.  It was a community.  You knew exactly who you would see every year. 

In spin classes like those offered at Flywheel or Soul Cycle, you’re in a dark, windowless room, with yes, some air circulation, but more importantly a lot of sweat.  You’re riding as a pack.  Sometimes a teacher will tell you to turn to the person next to you and hi-five them or say something inspirational like “you’re beautiful!” and you buy into it, because the energy is there and you’re feeling it. 

Since you’re in the dark, you can also choose to ride solo, which I where I am these days, at the back of the room, because I can’t keep up with everyone the way I used to. Not yet, anyway.  It’s not all bad, though, because riding solo is a time to reflect on my personal and physical goals. Spinning has been there to help me work through stress or whatever I’m dealing with in life.  It was hard for me to not have an outlet like that this summer, so now it’s more important than ever.  

If I was expecting to spin to Mandy Patinkin or Matisyahu, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Any artist with a family member who is Jewish clearly qualifies for the song list.  And anyone in the class with me has to be smiling about why we’re here.

Spin is my community, it’s my time for reflection.  How about I start the New Year spinning in the dark to Pink, Lenny Kravitz, Adam Lambert and Adam Levine, not alone, not with my family, but with other nomads looking for a little something more from life like me.

 

The worlds of our (Jewish) mothers

Many years ago, as a single woman living in NYC, I would spend an occasional Saturday afternoon with my mother. A little shopping, a little eating, a little walking.  On one visit, we sat at the dining table that dominated my two-room studio on the Upper West Side and, with absolute nonchalance, she removed a diamond pendant from her neck and placed it on mine.  “I want to see you wear this while I’m still alive,” she said.  A hard-working woman, she coveted diamonds for reasons far beyond their beauty and preciousness. A diamond ring or a pendant was something, yes, to adorn herself with on a night out;  but something less tangible more than tripled its monetary worth, namely the recognition that valuable jewels would be passed on to her daughter and son, who would then pass them on to their own children.

On this particular day there was a subtext, unspoken. I’d been suffering, in the aftermath of an oral surgeon’s incompetence.  In one fell swoop, she turned the diamond into a talisman, hopefully with the power to protect me.

This past weekend the daughter of a cousin of mine became a Bat Mitzvah. She sparkled during the service, from her glittery shoes to her ballerina dress to a small pendant around her neck.  And her words, echoing the wisdom of a thirteen-year old (whose tongue barely missed a trope in her chanting), sparkled as well. It was a ceremony and celebration made all the more poignant by the presence of her grandmother (my aunt)  in a wheelchair, a shadow of her usually imposing self. Cancer does that to a person.  There was an added poignancy for me, the timing of it all one week before the Jewish New Year.  These holidays always seem to be the true marker of a mother – the cooking, enough food for an army, nothing subtle about the nudging weeks ahead: you’ll be here – right?  In families like mine, traditions diluted with each passing generation, observance would become an assumption, more cultural and sentimental than religious in nature. We do the best we can to keep traditions alive. To remember.

Which brings me to two books in which journeys and mothers play a central part.

Felice’s Worlds, recently published, is essentially Henry Massie’s homage to his mother, a Jewish woman born in Poland who, through circumstance and her father’s prodding, was one step ahead of where the Nazi regime would have placed her. The opening chapter finds Felice about to enter Palestine, 1935, a young woman in an arranged marriage,  still in love with the man she is forced to leave behind along with the life they had planned (he a doctor, she an oral surgeon).  She has a bit of leverage, too, beauty coupled with intelligence. As memoir, it gets off to a promising beginning but quickly falls into a chronologically driven framework with no real narrative voice to propel it along.  The story of a Jewish woman who escapes the ravages of World War II and the Holocaust, only to find herself guilt-ridden about being a survivor – while amassing an extraordinary art collection – is a potentially compelling one that ends up being told in a less-than-compelling way.

Sometimes it has the feel of a son who wanted to make sure he got every bit of his mother’s extraordinary life chronicled. Sometimes it reads like the case notes of a psychiatrist (Massie’s profession). Once in a while Massie touches a nerve in his effort to understand things about his mother that he didn’t understand as a boy. And he certainly brings Felice to life via the spirit that really moves her to find her place in a new world, and, ultimately the world of art.  Also, the questions Felice raises re: her own Judaism and assimilation vs. orthodoxy are important ones.  And the way she comes to love and collect Abstract Expressionist art says a great deal about her: “There was no nostalgia in abstract expressionist art because it had never existed before. . . . It became my way of making myself at home in my new country without just assimilating myself into the comfortable existence that I saw around me.”  It’s in the weaving of it all together that Massie falls short.

The heart and soul of David Grossman’s exquisitely poignant novel, To the End of the Land, is a mother who does what would seem counter-intuitive when her son, recently released from the Israeli army, voluntarily returns to the front for a major offensive. Rather than wait at home and risk that dreaded knock on the door from the “notifiers,” she embarks on a journey. It’s a simple premise, even if it takes a leap of logic and faith:  bad news can only come if you’re home to receive it. She enlists a former lover to take this hike in the Galilee with her, pulling him from the life of a hermit he slipped into following his brutal torture as a POW years earlier. In the course of the journey, the son she is terrified of losing is kept alive via the stories she shares, ultimately rendering To the End of the Land a tale of revelation and reconciliation.

We are a ‘storying’  species — we live through stories, we pass them down to our children, we tell them in order to remember.  Two stories, a novel rich and riddled with nuance, a memoir perhaps less than sparkling but no less profound in what it adds to the collective narrative told about mothers and the ways in which we glorify them, turn them into heroines, remember and reflect on them.

 Photo © Abe Frajndlich