Memories of Passover Preparations

When I was a kid, one of the early indications of the great importance of Pesach (Passover) was that a couple of weeks before the holiday my grandmother would go to the basement to take inventory of her Passover products and dishes/utensils. This was remarkable not for the work that was accomplished, but for the fact that she walked down the stairs.

From the time I was a small child, my Bubby suffered from crippling arthritis. Her mobility was very limited, and from the time I was about 8 years old, when she was in her mid-70s, she used a walker to get around.

Steps were a particular challenge for her. While she continued to sleep in a second-floor bedroom until the last year or so of her life (she died shortly after my 20th birthday), she almost never went to the basement. So, when she took her annual trip down the stairs, it left an impression. It meant that Pesach was serious business.

The selection of Passover foods has always been limited in Charleston, West Virginia, where I grew up, so for years my grandparents made an annual pilgrimage to Cincinnati during the month before Pesach to visit my aunt and go shopping. Meats and cheeses went in the basement fridge or back porch freezer, and non-perishable items were laid out on a ping pong table in the basement that Zayde set up before the holiday.

The Pesach dishes were also stored in a large cabinet with a barrel bolt lock in the basement (never to be touched during the year), and a week or two before the holiday, they were taken out to be washed over the laundry sink, a job that usually fell to my mother.

Even though she was no longer able to perform some of the labor associated with the holiday, Bubby was still in charge. Her foray into the cellar, which lasted an hour or so, enabled her to take stock of everything and let the family members know which utensils were needed first to begin food preparations. Eventually, the dishes would be brought upstairs and stored in the pantry on a counter top and in a free-standing cabinet that Zayde brought down from the attic each year.

As a kid, I had some modest responsibilities leading up to the holiday, such as dusting shelves of knick knacks, and setting the table on the seder nights, but the anticipation of the holiday, and watching as older family members brought out the Pesach dishes and foods, was very exciting. As my sister and I grew older, we helped bring items up or down stairs, and annually we were warned to be careful, and reminded of the time, long before we were born, when Zayde had accidentally dropped a whole stack of plates on the stairs, breaking them.

These memories flood back every year as I set up folding tables in my basement to hold the foods I have purchased and the dishes, pots, pans, and utensils that will soon be brought out of plastic bins and cardboard boxes. The Pesach cabinet that Zayde brought down from the attic is now stored in my basement, more than 200 miles away from their old Quarrier Street house. I don’t really have space for it in my kitchen, and I haven’t used it much in recent years, but it is standing at the ready, a stalwart of Pesachs gone by.

Pesach celebrates the redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt, which enabled us to solidify our national identity and begin the journey to receive the Torah and, more than 40 years later, enter the land of Israel. It is the critical story of our people hood. The story of Yetzias Mitzraim (the Exodus) is one that captures our imaginations not just once a year, but throughout the year, and in our daily prayers.

And so, I guess it makes sense that it takes, on average, about a month of gradual preparations to get one’s home and one’s heart ready to spiritually experience the Exodus again.

The rabbi of my shul, Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, gives an annual sermon a few weeks before Pesach in which he reminds everyone of the importance of removing chametz (loosely translated as leaven) from our homes, which involves extensive cleaning and checking. While this process can be arduous, he reminds us that we should find it “ennobling.”

I doubt that Bubby would have described her Pesach preparations as ennobling — she did not mince words in noting that Pesach places extraordinary burdens on women — but she also took these responsibilities upon herself without complaint. Despite her physical limitations, she continued to do the majority of her household cleaning by herself.

She took great pride in having a home that was clean and orderly, and preparing delicious meals that were more than just physically nourishing. On the seder nights, she was exhausted, but full of laughter and pride.

At the seders, my grandparents would often tell stories about their parents’ observance of Pesach — the songs they sang, the foods their mothers prepared, how or where they obtained matzah, wine, and kosher meat in the towns where they lived. (Bubby’s parents made their own wine, including during Prohibition.) As we retold the national narrative of the Jewish people, they were also transmitting our family narrative, an informal practice that is part and parcel of the seder experience for many, if not most, Jewish families.

As the days unfold leading up to this year’s Pesach, I am tired, absent-minded and anxious about forgetting important details. Every time I check things off my long to-do lists, I think of several more things that must get done. It’s overwhelming, but it’s also deeply meaningful.

Returning to the rabbi’s drasha (sermon) about the cleaning being “ennobling,” I have come to realize that it satisfying to work for a holiday whose practice is festive and even magical. Educators these days talk about “experiential learning,” which is learning through doing. In a lot of ways, the seder itself is experiential learning, but I’ve come to realize that the cleaning is too. It’s the physical application of a spiritual task. Without days or weeks of effort, planning and exertion, the holiday would not have the same level of anticipation and excitement. The holiday is the goal, but the process of preparing is half the journey.

And, of course, Pesach is inescapably about family: family members working together to create a special holiday atmosphere, and passing down family recipes, memories, and jokes.

With unleavened bread and simple ingredients, we create a little bit of magic, just at the time that spring is magically transforming our world from brown to vibrant color.

This year, while I was in the basement, cleaning and reorganizing to make space for all of my Passover products, my kids came down out of curiosity to see what was going on. Instead of complaining they were bored or begging for screen time, they stayed close by, playing with their art supplies and talking about the foods they look forward to eating on Pesach.

In the coming days, I’ll give them small jobs to do, and in future years, their responsibilities will increase. For now, though, it is heartening just to see them curious about what is going on. Bubby and Zayde would be proud.

A little night music

It’s that moderate time of mid-winter, when the days start to be noticeably longer, and the weather milder. In the gentle breeze, there is a scent of something fresh and full of promise.

Although it is after dark, the temperature is well above freezing, so there is less urgency to rush, less danger of discomfort from the cold. I exhale and relax for a moment when out on an evening’s errand.

By the grocery store, the street violinist is fiddling her tunes. In all these years, I have never stopped to give her a tip. I see her face, and notice she is aging. Even familiar strangers grow older over time.

When my groceries have been paid for and loaded in the cart, I pass her again on my way back to the parking lot. I linger for a moment and decide to put a dollar in her hat, a small thanks for the melodies she has entertained me with for nearly two decades.

She greets me with a smile. One song has ended, and she is debating what to play next.

“I am trying to think of romantic songs,” she says, and then I remember that it is Valentine’s Day, a holiday that I don’t really celebrate, though not out of bitterness or cynicism.

I suggest the old standard “Isn’t it Romantic,” but she doesn’t know it. I thought it was Gershwin, but later find that it’s Rodgers and Hart.

She asks me to hum it, and I try, but it doesn’t ring a bell for her. And yet, it has sparked an idea. She has been playing popular songs of the day, the stuff the kids listen to. Maybe she should play some of the classics from musicals. There’s that song from “My Fair Lady” she likes.

She places the violin beneath her chin and uses her bow to summon “On The Street Where You Live,” a song I love.

I become conscious of the time, and that I must be going, but as I move along, those lovely notes carry me into a happy, romantic dream.

Our darkest day

On Saturday morning around 10 a.m., as is typical, I was getting ready to leave the house with my kids to walk to our shul (synagogue) in Squirrel Hill. Even though services begin before 9 a.m., youth activities don’t start until 10 a.m., so my goal is to get to shul then, though we usually run later. On this particular occasion I was aggravated by our lateness because I knew we had to hurry to hear the Torah reading by the boy celebrating his bar mitzvah that day. It was also raining lightly and I was fretting about whether my kids and I had chosen the right shoes and jackets for the 15-minute walk.


A few steps outside our house, it registered with me that I had been hearing sirens nearby. Since we live in a city neighborhood that is crisscrossed by a few major thoroughfares, and since we are relatively close to several hospitals, it’s not unusual to hear sirens. It is unusual,  however, to hear multiple sirens, or sirens that go on for a long period of time. As we walked, my kids and I talked with concern about what was going on. To calm them and myself I pointed out that over the summer there had been a kitchen fire in a house on our street, and four fire trucks had come, more than seemed necessary. Maybe lots of sirens meant the response was overly cautious.


We live about a block and a half west of Murray Avenue, one of the main commercial streets in Squirrel Hill, which also offers access to the Interstate system. Our synagogue is on the lower part of Murray, a block away from the Interstate entry ramp. As we approached Murray, the sirens grew louder. Slowly, I began to grasp that something serious was going on. When we were around the corner from my sister’s house, I noted that the sirens were not going toward their block, which was a relief. I thought next about my husband, who was already at our synagogue. I soon determined that the sirens coming from lower Murray were moving up the hill, away from the shul. My kids speculated that maybe something had happened at the JCC, at the corner of Murray and Forbes avenues. By the time we reached Murray, I looked toward the intersection with Forbes, and saw an emergency vehicle cross the intersection and keep going, so we knew the JCC was fine.


Maybe it was a bad car accident, we thought, or maybe there had been an incident at one of the college campuses in that direction. “I hope they are able to help the people who need help,” I told my kids.


As we progressed on our walk down Murray Avenue, one by one, a series of approximately 20 emergency vehicles passed us, including a City of Pittsburgh fire department SUV, several ambulances with the names of suburban emergency services, and quite a few unmarked cars and SUVs with flashing red and blue dashboard lights, some of them likely high ranking city police officers or federal officials. I marveled that all of these people had mobilized so quickly on a Saturday morning. The more vehicles that passed, the more I was certain that something very bad had happened.


I held onto both of my kids’ hands and kept them steadily moving toward our synagogue. When we arrived, the door was locked, which is not typical, but within seconds, a shul member standing guard let us in, recognizing that we belonged there. Inside the front hallway, there were at least a dozen people, including the shul president and a board member who I knew was involved in security upgrades for the building. I asked the president if he knew what had happened. “There has been an incident at Tree of Life,” he told me. My heart sank, fully aware now that there had been a violent attack on the Jewish community. I was advised that the building was on lockdown, and that the children should either be in their group activity rooms or with me at all times.


After stowing our coats on the coat racks, we went upstairs to the group rooms, which were locked. The coordinator of the children’s activities had a key to let the kids into their respective rooms. After leaving them there, I proceeded into the sanctuary, where the bar mitzvah boy, with remarkable composure, was reading from the Torah. On my way to my seat, a friend stopped me to say that she had seen my husband who was concerned that I would not be able to enter the synagogue, but she assured him that the guards would recognize and let me in.


Within moments, the rabbi made an announcement to explain that we were in lockdown because of an active shooter at Tree of Life. As the morning went on, he updated us to say there were reports of multiple fatalities, and that the synagogue would remain in lockdown until the shul’s custodian got an all-clear message from 911. He said he did not think it would be necessary for us to evacuate the building, but if it were, we should evacuate quickly and not pick up our children, since they would be evacuated separately by their group leaders.


The service continued more or less as usual, with the bar mitzvah boy reciting the haftarah. In the rabbi’s sermon, he urged everyone to try to focus on the bar mitzvah celebration since little accurate information about the attack was yet available, and because opportunities in life to celebrate are so fleeting. After the sermon, the bar mitzvah boy led Mussaf, and later gave a d’var Torah. Throughout, there continued to be periodic sirens, which heightened our fears, as did the rabbi’s admonition not to stand too close to the windows, just in case.


As I sat through the service, it was difficult to concentrate on what was going on. I was thankful that we appeared to be safe, but on edge about the possibility of multiple shooters or multiple incidents in our dense neighborhood. I shuddered at the horror of trying to evacuate everyone safely from the sanctuary and classrooms. I began racking my brain about friends who attend the three congregations that meet at Tree of Life and worrying for their safety.


By the time the service concluded, the rabbi announced that the shooter had been apprehended and the lockdown had been lifted. My kids came out of their group rooms to join me in the sanctuary, and before we went downstairs to the kiddush, I quietly told them that a bad man with a gun had gone into a different synagogue and killed some people. I wanted them to hear it from me, and not from someone else. They accepted the news, and were eager to go to the kiddush, but they would have many questions later in the day.


At the kiddush, there were some 300 people, all putting on a brave face and trying to join in the celebration of the bar mitzvah boy and his family, but the looks in our eyes were full of sadness and anxiety.


In the crowd I found my close friend and coworker to discuss whether any of our other coworkers attend services at Tree of Life. She remembered some, I remembered another. We hoped they had not been there, but had no way of knowing. We would find out that night that one of the severely wounded is the husband of a fellow coworker of ours at Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh.


My husband and I had invited another family for Shabbos lunch, so we found them in the crowd and tried to coordinate leaving together. Just after we got on our coats and were preparing to leave, my sister came into the front hall of the shul. She had received several anxious calls from family members and wanted to be able to tell them we were OK. I assured her that we were, and she told me that she, her husband and kids were also fine.


We walked home with our guests and did our best with them to have a normal Shabbos meal that would be fun for our kids. We mostly succeeded. After they left, the rest of the day seemed interminable, with no ability on Shabbos to check the news or to call friends or relatives. I sat in my living room to read the weekly Torah portion, and was interrupted repeatedly by my daughter’s incessant questions about what had happened. Most of them I could only answer with, “I don’t know” or “I have the same questions.”


As the afternoon wore on, our landline began ringing periodically with calls from concerned family members. Not being able to answer, my anxiety level rose even higher, feeling bad that I could not ease their fears, and worried that perhaps other bad things had happened in other places.


I debated knocking on our neighbors’ doors to see if they knew anything I did not, but I was also afraid of what I would find out. Similarly, I debated walking to the home of the coworker who I knew was a regular attendee of services at Tree of Life, but I was terrified of what I would find out, and this was later confirmed when I learned that her husband was in critical condition.


Shortly before 6 p.m., my kids and I ate supper and my husband, who had napped, came downstairs to join us. During the last hour of Shabbos I read to my kids, trying to lift the mood for all of us. Then, immediately after Shabbos, we gave our kids permission to watch a movie on DVD, and we picked up our phones to begin calling and texting relatives and friends who had been trying to reach us for hours.


Being digitally connected again gave us a few answers, but did not ease the dread of wondering who the 11 victims had been. I was saddened, but not surprised to learn that my coworker’s husband was among the injured, as I knew he was a pillar of the Dor Hadash congregation. As a hospice nurse and chaplain, he is among the kindest and most generous people I know, as is his wife.


This morning, I learned the names of the 11 people who were murdered yesterday. I didn’t know any of them personally, but through social media and the news I found that friends knew many of them well. This afternoon, reading a New York Times article about the victims, I realized that I did recognize one of the victims, Cecil Rosenthal. Cecil, who died alongside his brother, was developmentally disabled and was a fixture in our community. Over the years, I’d seen him at numerous events, always with a smile on his face. I learned from the article that he and his brother, who was also developmentally disabled, greeted congregants every week at Tree of Life, and handed them prayer books turned to the correct page.


So, now that the shock and the dread have begun to subside, I am left with devastating sadness. At moments I feel paralyzed, wondering how to focus on anything but the tragedy. At others, I am determined not to let the acts of one hate-filled murderer derail the goodness in my life, my neighborhood and my community.


With this is mind, I took my kids this afternoon, as planned, to a local production of the musical “Annie.” The girl who starred in the show is the daughter of a friend whose family has had a generations long connection to Tree of Life. I messaged my friend last night, to let her know I was thinking of her and would be at the production. She found me at the intermission today and we embraced.


“Annie” is an upbeat, fun musical with undertones of tragedy. Even as a kid, the songs sometimes made me tear up, and in the darkness of the theater today, it was hard to keep from sobbing. Fortunately, there were no young children orphaned in yesterday’s horrific attack, but we were all victimized in a different way. One friend’s husband is fighting for his life, and another friend was traumatized by witnessing the deaths of his congregants. We are all shaken by the knowledge of the proximity of the attack, and our extreme vulnerability. The attacker made no secret of his desire to kill all Jews. He killed 11, but he was coming for all of us.


We humans compartmentalize our knowledge of danger to permit ourselves to function in daily life. So when anti-Semitic attacks happen in other places, it is “over there,” far away, so that we can feel safe. This time, the attack was in my neighborhood. My daughter asked me why the shooter picked that synagogue and not another. While the news suggests he picked it because they hosted a refugee Shabbat, he could have just as easily walked into my shul, or my workplace, or any of the many other Jewish institutions in our neighborhood and opened fire. I can’t separate myself from the reality that he was coming for me too.


The people who died yesterday were the best of us: people who prioritized their faith and their community. Several were health care professionals, and the others were elderly people and the disabled, the most vulnerable among us. They were the shul regulars, who came on time and came every week, so that those of us who come later can count on there being a service. They cannot be replaced, and as time goes on we will feel their loss more and more.


However, as many others have already said about our Squirrel Hill community, this will not destroy us. We will tighten our security and close any loopholes, but we will continue to be the caring and close knit community that is so special. As Jews, we have collectively been through unbearably dark times, and we will come through this as well. I pray that our community and our nation will come out to the other side of this wiser and safer, as well as more thoughtful about the way we conduct public discourse. At my core, I agree with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s determination that we are better than this.


May yesterday be our darkest day, and may we greet tomorrow’s sun, like Annie, with renewed optimism. Today’s staging of the musical was preceded by a moment of silence and a rendition of “Hatikva,” Israel’s national anthem which means “The Hope.” “Hativka” was composed before the state of Israel was a reality, and kindled hope in some of the darkest times in Jewish history. If hope could prevail then, I pray that it will again.

Home, or something like it

When I moved into my first apartment on my own (following a year of graduate school, in which I shared an apartment in New York City), I arrived with a couple of suitcases of clothes, a cot, two folding bookcases, and a table and chairs which I would eventually assemble on my own. Several boxes of books and other belongings arrived later that week via the postal service. My lease began two days before my first job in Pittsburgh, so there was little time to settle in. My mom helped me drive my things up from Charleston, WV, and had to quickly depart, so there I was, alone in my studio apartment, a rectangular space with a tiny galley kitchen (not quite wide enough for the refrigerator door to open all the way) and a bathroom.

At around the same time, my grandfather was considering selling his house and moving into an assisted living apartment, similar in scale to a studio apartment. When I looked around my small abode, which had just two windows, both on the same wall, I comforted myself that this was not to be my forever home. I used to say, “I don’t think this is the last stop before assisted living.” I was 23 years old, and I was right.

Since that fateful move in 2000, I have moved six more times, five of those times within the same Pittsburgh zip code. All of this movement, and its attendant expansion and contraction of belongings, has given me pause to consider the meaning of having a home. But first, a recap of my sojourns.

My studio apartment was a safe place to live, but it was never fully comfortable. I quickly purchased a real bed, and assembled not only my table and chairs, but also a desk, office chair and a small nightstand, and purchased a dresser and TV stand, but there was not enough room for a couch. It was a place to eat and sleep, and I even entertained a bit, but it wasn’t home. I stayed there for three years before moving up (literally) to a one-bedroom apartment with a balcony porch on the third floor of the building.

This move provided space for a comfortable sofa, and offered more privacy since I could entertain guests in a room other than the one in which I slept. As a renter, my decorating options were limited, but I put up some curtains, arranged my knick-knacks on the built-in glass shelves outside the kitchen and hung up some hand-me-down art prints. I also acquired some antique chairs from my family. When the light from the apartment’s several windows and porch door illuminated the rooms just so, they had a bright and cozy feel. It wasn’t a palace, but it was a nice place to live.

The next two moves were for a happy reason, and happened in quick succession. In July 2008, three days after getting married, my husband, Jonathan, and I watched as movers put most of my belongings on a truck to Baltimore. Whatever didn’t fit into the truck went into my 1989 Ford Taurus (which was to survive a few more moves). I bid Pittsburgh a teary goodbye, thinking Baltimore was a long-term move.

Even though we both relinquished various belongings and pieces of furniture before moving into a two-bedroom apartment, between our remaining belongings (honestly, most of them were mine) and all of our wedding presents, we had towers of boxes in our new place. While we were still figuring out where to put everything, five weeks after we got married, my husband was laid off from his job. We weathered that storm surprisingly well, but not without considerable worry.

When faced with the question of what to do next, my husband was willing to consider a return to Pittsburgh, and a friend who was a recruiter lined up some interviews for him. Two months after moving away from Pittsburgh, I returned with my new husband. We moved into the best place available in September in a neighborhood where most rentals come and go with the academic schedules of the local universities. That is to say, we took what we could find.

It was the first-floor of a two-family home, with three bedrooms, wood floors in the living and dining rooms and the most outdated and hideous bathroom I have ever had – narrow, with ancient faucets, and walls sponge-painted in bright orange and green. The kitchen was spacious, but drab. There was an off-street parking space, up a steep driveway, and steep stairs to enter the house, either by the front or side doors. It was drafty and cold in the winter, but pleasant in the warmer months, with a porch to sit on and a yard big enough for the sukkah, even though said yard was in front of the house, not behind. As we settled in the home, we discovered that the number and size of the closets (tiny) was wholly insufficient. One bedroom became something of a walk-in closet, with one wall lined with a hanging rack. We had a washer and dryer in the shared basement, which we could also use for storage, though we limited what we put there because it was so dilapidated and dirty, with rotting wood storage areas and various debris in dark corners.

Newly married and optimistic, we told ourselves we would endure this less-than-perfect living space until we could afford to buy a home. We thought it would only take a year or two to save up. We over-estimated our savings power, and underestimated the complexities of our lives and our fortitude to deal with the apartment’s growing list of deficiencies, including some unpleasant plumbing issues and comically bad service from the rental company’s handymen (one guy badly cut his hand after clumsily unscrewing a light fixture, another provided seriously inept service for minor repairs).

Two years in, we were out. With a nearly year-old baby and a savings plan derailed by job loss (again), we knew buying a home was far off in the future. When friends were moving out of their similarly sized but much nicer half of two-family home a few blocks away, we told them we wanted it. Several weeks later we were there, enjoying the comforts of its much newer and more spacious bathroom, which, unlike our departed abode, had been updated within the last 30 years. There was also a clean and semi-private basement with built-in shelves for storage, and the architecture of the place was very charming, with a decorative fireplace, two upstairs porches, a split staircase, and some lovely nooks which were perfect landing places for my antique chairs. We also had not one, but two garage parking spaces in the shared driveway behind the house.

We lived there for 4 ½ years, making many happy memories, including the birth of our second child, Jonathan’s completion of graduate school, and many festive holiday meals and gatherings with friends. One of our frequent Shabbos guests dubbed our home Chateau de Jablow, since it was on the high side of our hilly street, with a long winding set of stairs leading up to it.

While I personally loved this place, it was not without its drawbacks, including drafty windows, and blistering heat in the summer. Because it was on the second floor with many windows, and no central air, the indoor temperature (before we installed air conditioners) on oppressive days would rise to close to 90 degrees. Also, the apartment’s electrical load was severely limited, so we had to be careful how many appliances and gadgets we used at once, especially in the summer, when the air conditioners were in use.

Despite these drawbacks, it was a big disappointment when we had to move. When we signed our lease, the building was owned by the family of our downstairs neighbor, a lovely elderly woman who was a Holocaust survivor in her late 80s or early 90s. In the fall of 2014 she passed away, and soon after her children sold the house.

The new landlord intended to do major renovations, which were warranted, but which meant that we had to move on a short timeline. We were once again looking for a place to live at an off time of year. After looking at various apartments, ranging from over-priced to too small, we decided to rent a single-family home that was up for rent after the homeowners had been unable to sell it. The rent was high, but the house had an updated kitchen with nice appliances, a newer bathroom, plus a powder room on the first floor and a bathroom in the basement. The house also had a carpeted family room, in addition to the living room and dining room. We signed the lease, thinking we might eventually buy it, and moved in a week after Pesach.

Unfortunately, distracted by the number of rooms, we didn’t fully account for the size of the place, which was tiny. Even though it was a standalone house, the living space was approximately the same as the apartment we had moved from, with most of the rooms smaller than what we had previously, including the extremely narrow kitchen. Even though we gave away or discarded a significant number of belongings and some furniture before moving, we felt cramped in the space. Once again, we tried to appreciate the assets (more yard space! built-in bookcases!) and overlook the deficiencies (no driveway or off-street parking and, from time to time, mice in the house).

As we closed in on the two-year mark of living there, our landlord decided to put the house back on the market. We had the option to buy it, but it wasn’t the right place for us. While we tidied things up for the real estate agent to show the house, we were scrambling again for a place to live. We thought it might finally be the right time to buy, but the options on the market were extremely limited. We had lucked into one of the sparsest buyers’ markets ever. Determined not to be stuck again in off-season for rentals, I started scouring online listings and aggressively questioning friends who were moving from rentals that summer.

In early May 2017, I found our next landing place, an attached house with hard wood floors, a decent sized kitchen that had been updated within the last 20 years, plus deep closets and ample basement storage. There was only one bathroom (plus a Pittsburgh potty in the basement), but the rent was reasonable, and there was a driveway, a yard and a garage space for one car. We were sold. Or rather, we were leased. Ten weeks after we got the word from the landlord that the house we occupied was up for sale, we had moved into our latest, greatest (and also imperfect) rental.

All of this moving spurred a range of emotions and reflections. We were frustrated to have been forced to move, and not be able to buy a home. We were also grateful not to have owned any of the places we had rented. We were wistful about the fairytale of giving our kids a stable house in which to grow up. When they reflected on their childhood, where would home be for them? We were stressed about the expense of moving, and the knowledge that we will again move, hopefully to a home we will own, and not under tremendous time pressure.

It has been tempting for us to wallow in self-pity about our transient life, but I know that we are in fact extremely lucky. We have never been homeless, or lived in a place that was unsafe in any way. Even our most stressful moves have paled in comparison to the stress that many others experience even more frequently, as they are forced out of homes with little or no notice, with limited or no resources to find a new place to live. Low income families often have to sell or discard their belongings, or have them taken away, when their housing situations are insecure. Plus, we have friends and relatives who have moved even more times than us, and while we have never had to uproot our children from their school and friends, we know many others who have.

We have also benefited from the generosity of friends and family, who have provided emotional support, home-cooked meals, places to stay during move times, and elbow grease to assist with moving, furniture assembly and repairs. Our families have also helped us overcome the financial burdens of frequent moving.

It boggles my mind to consider how many belongings we have shed in our moves, but this has been positive, as we are blessed with an overabundance of things, and a tendency to hang onto items that are no longer needed. Our life is a lot leaner, in a good way, than it would otherwise be, and we are still overflowing with belongings.

I realized after our 2015 move from Chateau de Jablow that I was grieving for a home I had loved, but the more I reflected on what I loved about the apartment, I realized that more than the charming architecture and brightness of the place, I loved that we had been happy there. That helped me learn to enjoy our subsequent homes.

Nearly 10 years after we married, my husband and I are finally gaining the stability to eventually own a home. We don’t know when that will happen. For now, we are not in a rush to move again. We know that houses are full of imperfections, drafts, critters, and outdated kitchens and baths, so the allure of owning something isn’t what it once was, though the stability of owning something is still appealing.

In the meantime, we are grateful for our happy life, and all of the lessons we have learned from our multiple moves. Nearly 18 years after moving into my first apartment, which did not feel like home, I have a home with my family. The walls around us are transient, but the relationships are not.

Meanwhile, with G-d’s help, it’s still not the last stop before assisted living.

“The Wedding Plan”: Keeping the faith while searching for a mate

During the decade I spent dating and waiting to meet my husband, my mom and I used to joke that perhaps I should just pick a wedding date, with confidence that Mr. Right would materialize. I never verbalized our inside joke to anyone else, because it was a crazy idea, and not something I would actually do.

In the film “The Wedding Plan,” Israeli writer and director Rama Burshtein imagines the spiritual journey of a woman who takes the leap of scheduling a wedding without a groom.

At the beginning of the “The Wedding Plan,” Michal (Noa Kohler) pays a spiritual advisor to find and resolve whatever is blocking her from finding her bashert. The woman has Michal perform the mitzvah of hafrashas challah (separating a piece of dough to be burned) before sitting across from her and, while smearing Michal’s face with the guts of a raw fish, forces her to be brutally honest about what she really wants.

What she wants is not a fairy tale romance, but a life partner. She is searching for a husband with whom to build a home and host Shabbos meals, instead of being a perpetual guest. After the consultation ends, the film abruptly cuts to a wedding hall, presumably a few weeks or months later, where Michal and her fiancé Gidi are supposed to be tasting dishes for their wedding menu. Instead, they are sitting awkwardly next to each other, straining to make conversation until Gidi finally admits to Michal that he doesn’t love her.

It takes Michal some time to recover from this shock, but when she does, she realizes that she has purchased a dress, reserved a wedding hall and rented an apartment. The only thing she needs is a groom, and G-d has 22 days to produce one for her. How hard could that be?

I must admit that I had hoped the film’s journey from this decision until the chuppah would be more comedic than it turned out to be, but upon further reflection, I was glad that Burshtein raises serious questions about the faith struggle that is inherent in the search for a mate. While Michal prays and puts her faith in the Almighty, she also continues to date, recognizing that she will have to do her part to achieve her goal. Throughout the film her faith vacillates, but she never backs down from the wedding plan, even as the pressure and doubts increase.

Burshtein does not glamorize or make light of Michal’s decisions. At the film’s climax, when Michal is dressed in a poufy wedding dress, seated in the bedeken chair, just before we learn whether and whom Michal will marry, her distress and confusion are palpable, serving as a cautionary tale not to try this at home. But Michal has done it for us – tested the very limits of her faith and the fidelity of her friends and family, who have all shown up to the wedding that seems unlikely to happen.

Despite some laugh out loud moments at the absurdity of the situation, this movie is serious about its underlying subject: a religious woman’s desire to get married. I was delighted that the movie never trivializes the topic, or suggests that Michal should just be happy with her single life.

In the secular world, it is unfashionable to verbalize one’s desire to get married, unless one already has a long-time partner, because doing so smacks of desperation or flightiness. On the other hand, within the Orthodox community, there are those who view “older singles” as being too picky, or being flawed in some way – not attractive enough, too argumentative, too boring, too flashy, you name it. For many people, it is difficult to reconcile their faith in a merciful G-d with the reality that some wonderful people struggle to find their match, and that others never do.

The character of Michal is attractive, confident, quirky, and conflicted. Her life is put together in many ways, but she has flaws, just like anyone else. Despite her imperfections, there is never any question that she is worthy of being loved and finding her match.

One of my favorite moments in the film is when Michal, who owns a petting zoo, presents her animal show at a girl’s birthday party. The pre-teen girls are all dressed in pinks and pastels, and she asks if any of them want to pet the snake. Most of the girls recoil at the idea, but one shows an interest and willingness to do so, until she is dissuaded by an adult. Michal unsuccessfully intercedes, and the audience feels her disappointment at seeing the girl constrained by social expectations. The girl is a mirror of Michal: comfortable with who she is and willing to be different from the norm, and like Michal, we want her to stay true to herself.

Michal’s character traits – her honesty, audacity, and determination – unsettle some characters in the film and fascinate others. To some, her wedding plan is an affront to G-d, but others see it as a demonstration of great faith.

While Michal’s wedding plan is larger than life, and implausible in reality, the underlying emotions are very realistically portrayed. Anyone who has been single for a long time struggles to maintain optimism and faith and wonders if there is a point at which they should stop searching, especially when suggested matches seem off the mark.

Michal says early in the movie that she is not sure she can endure any more dates. Except for those lucky enough to marry happily when they are very young, the dating process is fraught with expectation, disappointment, rejection and constant questioning of past and future decisions. It is a cycle with an endless loop of highs and lows. Michal is ready for the uncertainty to be over, but instead of giving up, she invests all of herself into getting what she wants. In the process, she gives voice to other single men and women in the same situation.

Pesach Prepping

A few years ago, there was a reality television show called “Doomsday Preppers,” which profiled families that were stockpiling supplies in preparation for natural disasters and other worst-case scenarios. I never watched the show, but it was pretty clear from the buzz about it that these folks were going well beyond what most people consider to be reasonable preparations for adverse events.

Because preparing for Pesach (Passover) can have its own extreme elements, my husband and I have taken to joking in recent years that we are Pesach Preppers, though the stash of matza, potato starch and kosher for Passover chocolate (necessities, people!) that has been gathering in my basement in recent weeks more closely resembles a well-stocked pantry than an apocalyptic bunker.

The cleaning process we typically employ is not extreme in the least — we focus on removing chametz (leaven) from the areas where it is prepared and eaten, and just making the rest of the house generally clean, checking for hidden bits of food as we go. This process does, however, take time.

While I love it that there are guides for cleaning for Pesach in one day, and I believe it is truly possible to do that, the reality of my home is that it just takes longer. Here are the reasons why:

I tend to accumulate clutter, and procrastinate cleaning and organizing. While clutter is not chametz, I make a concerted effort in the weeks before Pesach to make things more orderly, and to toss or give way things we no longer need. I don’t do this *only* in the weeks before Pesach — we try to do some serious clutter reduction at least a few times a year — but Pesach inspires me to do more, and I am sure this is correlated strongly with the warmer weather and longer days, which inspire many people to clean things out.

I fully acknowledge that much of this cleaning and organizing is spring cleaning and not related to removing chametz from my home. I give credit to those who are more organized than me throughout the year, and therefore don’t end up falling behind. For me, the annual process of going through the house and getting rid of stuff is not a substitute for reducing clutter at other times, but the inspiration to do a better job of managing clutter all the time. There are times throughout the year that I literally say to myself, “I better deal with this now, or I will have to deal with it before Pesach.”

I firmly believe that this accountability has gradually increased my ability to do a better job of managing clutter year-round, not that you could tell by looking at my house right now.

Finally, I do all of this because I want my home to look and feel clean for at least the first hour or two of the holiday, before the dining room table and floor get covered by matza crumbs and it looks like I never cleaned anything. There’s nothing quite like a cleaned and ready for Passover home. It looks good, it smells good, it feels good to be there. It’s the goal that keeps me going.

According to Jewish tradition, one month before each of the major holidays, we begin to study the laws of the holiday and initiate preparations. In this vein, the 30 days before Pesach are a month-long spiritual process which includes planning, shopping, cleaning, kashering and cooking. In a home that is cleaner and better organized than mine, the process may take much less time, but I need a month to gradually prepare for the holiday. During this month, the holiday is always in the back of my mind and, except for the big push to kasher the kitchen in the last few days before the holiday, the tasks are spread out enough that they aren’t too onerous.

I firmly believe that preparations for Pesach should not be so burdensome that they make people resentful of the holiday and of Judaism itself. On the other hand, most worthwhile enterprises in life require significant effort, and Pesach is no exception.

I’ll be the first to admit that Pesach is stressful. It’s exhausting. But it’s also incredibly rewarding, and the memorable qualities of the holiday are not tied up just in observing the rituals for eight days (seven in Israel), but in the month of preparation and anticipation.

I don’t clean for Pesach in just one day, because I would find that too exhausting. By spreading out tasks, and doing them gradually, the process for me is less stressful and more rewarding. I realized this year that I no longer feel overwhelmed by Pesach. I know I can do it. I want to do it, and the payoff for all of this effort will be a wonderful holiday which I love and look forward to each year, and which I hope my children will also love throughout their lives.

For an excellent essay about cleaning for Pesach in one day, check this out:

For a good laugh about cleaning for Pesach, check this out:

Coal mining’s legacy

I’ve been gushing lately, to pretty much anyone who will listen, about Denise Giardina’s two novels about coal mining in West Virginia, “Storming Heaven” and “The Unquiet Earth.” Both books have been around for quite a while, published in the late 1980s and early 1990s, respectively, but I happened to delve into them just after the 2016 Presidential election, in which the anger and discontent of working class and rural whites, including coal miners, became major topics of discussion.

One of the lessons of the election was the folly in dismissing the concerns of a significant segment of the population, which also happens to hold disproportionate sway in the electoral college. The anger voters expressed in 2016 was not just a product of recent economic changes, but was an overflow of resentments that have been building for decades as a result of dwindling opportunities and stagnant wages. Giardina beautifully portrays the generations of hardship experienced in the coalfields of southern West Virginia and gives historical context for the current political climate.

“Storming Heaven” opens in the late 1800s, when large coal companies, mostly based on the East Coast, took control of large swaths of coal-rich land, either through purchasing the land for less than its value, or forcibly evicting residents. Within a few years, coal had become the dominant industry in Mingo, Logan and other counties. (In Giardina’s books, the fictional Justice County is a stand-in for Mingo.) With enormous demand from the steel industry and power companies, there were fortunes to be made from mining. Those fortunes lined the pockets of coal company executives, while the miners themselves were paid starvation wages.

Giardina writes of men and boys, as young as eight years old, working long hours, six days a week, in underground mines where deadly roof collapses were common, and black lung disease was the reward for those who could withstand decades of back-breaking labor. Deprived of land ownership, miners lived in company houses, and rent was deducted from their paychecks.. Their wages were paid in scrip, currency printed by the coal companies that could only be spent in company stores. Hunger and disease were rampant.

While there are clearly some artistic liberties taken in “Storming Heaven,” the historical details are so vivid that I did several online searches while I was reading the book to distinguish fact from fiction, and found that most of the dramatic details in the book were true to life.

Despite the horrible work conditions, at the turn of the 20th century, mining was still the most promising industry in southern West Virginia, and miners were willing to put their lives at risk to support their families. However, over time, as company abuses worsened, and death tolls rose from mine accidents, miners began organizing themselves into unions.

Even though the labor movement was already established in other industries and regions of the country in the early part of the 20th century, the coal companies did not permit workers to unionize, so miners met clandestinely, fearful of being discovered and punished. Giardina writes of miners being threatened and even murdered by armed guards hired by the coal companies, simply for joining a union.

In spite of the intimidation, following a mine explosion that killed dozens of miners, union members organized strikes at several Mingo County mines in 1919. In retaliation, the coal companies evicted the miners from their company-owned houses, forcibly throwing women and children out with no prior notice. Rather than give in, the striking miners organized tent communities in the West Virginia hollows, where they lived for months, subsisting on meager diets.

As a whole, local, state, and federal governments turned a blind eye to the miners’ concerns, often because of graft from the coal companies. However, there were some exceptions. In the town of Matewan, an important railroad junction in Mingo County, the mayor and sheriff sympathized with miners. On the morning of May 19, 1920, they watched as a group of Baldwin-Felts agents, hired by the mining companies, changed trains in Matewan, on their way to evict striking miners from a nearby coal camp. When the agents returned by train to Matewan later that day, the mayor, sheriff and other locals met them with an arrest warrant. Prepared for a battle, miners and other sympathizers were stationed inside storefronts overlooking the railroad tracks, with guns trained on the Baldwin-Felts agents.

What happened next was a shootout that would become known as the Matewan Massacre. It is unclear who fired the first shot, but in a matter of moments, seven Baldwin-Felts agents and three Matewan residents, including the major, were dead. The massacre helped to embolden miners, and fueled the outrage many felt toward the coal companies. (The site of the massacre is now a historic landmark, which I visited on assignment as a college intern for The Charleston Gazette.)

Over the next few months, the miners began literally building an army, collecting firearms from as far back as the Civil War, in preparation for further conflicts with the coal companies. In addition to orchestrating workers’ strikes, they used explosives to damage mining equipment and shut down operations.

Sid Hatfield, Matewan’s sheriff, and others who stood off against the Baldwin-Felts agents in Matewan, stood trial for their involvement in the massacre, and all were acquitted. However, on August 1, 1921, Hatfield and another man, Ed Chambers, were to stand trial in a separate case involving dynamiting a coal tipple, a structure used to load coal onto trains. As the two men ascended the McDowell County Courthouse steps with their wives at their sides, they were ambushed by Baldwin-Felts agents who assassinated them in front of their horrified wives. In “Storming Heaven,” the names are different and various details are embellished, but the overall events are historically true.

Following the courthouse assassinations, the miners’ rage culminated in the Battle of Blair mountain, an armed conflict between unionized miners and armed forces on the payroll of the coal companies. The federal government got involved as well, but not as a neutral agent. Instead, U.S. military planes flew over the Logan County battlefield, dropping WWI era bombs on the miners. Ultimately, the coal companies were able to crush the miners’ revolt, and managed for quite a few years afterward to subject workers to even worse working conditions. The United Mine Workers did not have the right to fully organize in West Virginia until 1935. Eventually, laws required safer working conditions and fair compensation for miners.

Giardina’s follow-up novel, “The Unquiet Earth,” shows the evolution and decline of the coal industry from the 1930s to the 1990s. This second novel is less dramatic but equally reflective about the impact of coal mining on local economies, the environment and workers’ health. Even in the best of times, Giardina’s portrayal of mining is of a dirty, dangerous, back-breaking industry. While the coal industry has at times been a source of sustainable wages for those without higher education, it has always come at a steep price, and the benefits of the industry have been disproportionately in favor of coal and energy companies over the miners themselves.

Giardina’s books portray historical events from multiple points of view, demonstrating the humanity on all sides. Even though I grew up in West Virginia, I was removed from the coal industry, and had not given much thought to the lives of coal miners, with the exception of viewing the excellent 1987 film “Matewan.” Giardina’s books portray the hardships of miners in a very relatable way as workers who sacrificed for their families, took pride in their work, and loved the mountains that contained the coal. The books also made me think about the legacy of the coal industry as I never had before.

West Virginia’s economy has been largely dependent on the coal industry, which is why some politicians continue to fight to preserve it, at the expense of building new, more sustainable industries. Giardina demonstrates that even in its glory days, the coal industry exacted terrible consequences. Today, the consequences are different — working conditions are safer, but modern mining methods, such as strip mining and mountaintop removal, are more damaging to the environment while employing fewer workers. And, as a resource, coal has a finite supply.

All of this has been written about at length in newspapers and non-fiction books, but Giardina’s fiction artfully brings these realities to life. Toward the end of “Storming Heaven,” two characters travel to Charleston, my hometown, where the unions are organizing. Giardina describes the mansions lining the Kanawha Boulevard, built by coal executives. I have always loved the beautiful homes on the Boulevard, but had never stopped to consider who had built them, or how they made their fortunes.

The knowledge that the wealth that beautified my hometown came at the expense of workers’ health, safety, and prosperity, was eye-opening, and made me realize that these historical events are more immediate than we realize, and have ongoing effects. We would do well to reflect upon these long-term effects as our leaders consider changes to economic, energy, and environmental policies.

Balancing the Jewish past and the future in Charleston, WV

When I was growing up in Charleston, West Virginia, I would hear from time to time that synagogues in other parts of the state were closing, either merging with other congregations or simply shutting down, leaving their towns with no operating Jewish institutions. The cities that had prospered with the coal industry had fallen on hard times and most of the Jews who lived there had moved away, or assimilated.

Charleston, on the other hand, still had a vibrant, active Jewish community with two thriving congregations, B’nai Jacob Synagogue and Temple Israel, known colloquially as the synagogue and the temple. Unfortunately, the factors that are taking a toll on Jewish communities throughout the United States – secularism, inter-marriage, and older members dying while fewer children are born – have continued to erode Charleston’s Jewish community. Now Charleston’s two congregations are discussing how they can consolidate into a single facility while preserving the rituals of the more traditional synagogue and the more liberal temple.

I see the wisdom in sharing resources and working together to sustain a Jewish presence in my hometown. But it’s still painful to see the decline of the community that helped nurture my Jewish identity. And, it’s hard knowing that an institution that was so important to my family’s history will be changing in dramatic ways.

My family, on my mother’s side, arrived in Charleston in the late 19th century and was always very involved in the synagogue. My great-great-grandfather was one of the founders of the congregation, one of my great-grandfathers was the president of the chevra kadisha (burial society) and another served for a few years as the congregation’s chazzan, mohel and shochet. My grandfather was a regular at Shabbos services, and sometimes at weekday services as well. Not to minimize the contributions of the women in my family, my great-grandmother was a leader in the chevra kadisha and other synagogue groups, and my grandmother and her sisters were active members of the chevra kadisha who sewed tachrichim, the traditional burial garments for the deceased.

As a child and teenager, I would sit with my grandfather in services. He always had hard candies in his pockets to give to me and my sister. We enjoyed sitting with him, singing the songs from the service, and walking home with him afterwards.

The synagogue is located on a residential street in Charleston’s East End, just a short walk from the state capitol building. My grandparents lived on the next street over, the 1500 block of Quarrier Street, which we were told was the longest residential block in the United States. Zayde, especially in later years, walked slowly, and the journey home with him was almost more important than the destination, as he would stop to admire spring flowers or fall foliage, and regale us with stories.

The synagogue describes itself as “traditional.” It is not affiliated as either Conservative or Orthodox, and is somewhere in between – most members drive to Shabbos services and men and women sit together, but most of the regular services are not egalitarian and incorporate all of the traditional liturgy.

My memories of the shul, I realize, are very much colored by my personal and familial experiences there. My family instilled in me a love of traditional Judaism, and the synagogue was the place outside our home where Judaism was practiced. To me, the main sanctuary was truly a place of holiness to connect to the Divine. And, it was also a place to connect to community, family and our history.

Judaism walks a fine line between revering the past and dreaming of the future. Too much emphasis in either direction can be detrimental. When there is too much focus on history, too much nostalgia on what used to be, or the ways things have always been done, then the relevance to the present and future is often sacrificed. On the other hand, a focus only on what is new and enticing is doomed to be ephemeral and rootless, without the foundation of tradition and history. Like Tevye and the Fiddler on the Roof, we are constantly on the precipice, bridging the gap between what was, and the unknown of the future.

Charleston’s Jewish community is still deciding what shape its future will take. It pains me to think that the synagogue building might not be part of that future. In a city in which Jews have always been a small minority, the synagogue is a building that is proudly Jewish, and was designed to accommodate Jewish rituals, from the wooden bima in the center of the sanctuary, the full sets of the books of the prophets and the five megillahs on hand-written scrolls, to the two kosher kitchens, and the mikveh down a dark hallway in the basement.

As ritual observance in the community has declined over the years, these facets of the congregation have become less used, and probably under-appreciated. I understand that, from a purely financial perspective, preserving them might seem decadent, but the real tragedy is to not understand their value and how these relics are not archaeological curiosities, but cornerstones of the Jewish future.

I feel incredibly blessed that the seeds of my Jewish future were sown in Charleston, and I am wistful sometimes that I don’t live there now. The synagogue, standing at the corner of Virginia and Elizabeth streets, has always been a comforting presence to me, and it saddens me to think that it might not be there someday.

I hope that Charleston’s Jewish community makes choices that are built upon its beautiful past, and not without regard for the importance of tradition and history.

Thoughts about Poverty, Opportunity and Race

Recently, as part of my job, I read the book “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough. Published just a couple of years ago, the book profiles various schools and supplemental programs that are teaching children and teens, especially those who live in poverty, to develop character traits that are correlated with success in school and later life.

Children living in poverty face considerable obstacles to success, including exposure to traumatic experiences, lack of mentors in their immediate family who have successful careers, and schools that are not equipped to prepare them for long-term success. One of the characteristics that is critical to whether students will succeed or fail is grit, the ability to persevere at long-term goals. Children growing up in poverty need extraordinary amounts of grit to graduate from high school and move into post-secondary education and jobs with decent wages. Recent research suggests that while some people are naturally “grittier” than others, it is possible to develop this ability.

Throughout “How Children Succeed,” Paul Tough makes multiple references to impoverished, primarily black, neighborhoods of Chicago, where high school graduation rates are extremely low, and where teachers, principals and various non-profits are working to turn that around. Tough also repeatedly mentions a book I have had on my shelf for years, but had never taken the time to read, until now, “There Are No Children Here” by Alex Kotlowitz.

Published in 1991, “There Are No Children Here,” is an intimate portrait of two brothers who live with their mother and six siblings in an apartment in the Henry Horner Homes, a complex of public housing high rises (a.k.a. “the projects”) in Chicago that in the 1980s was in deplorable condition after decades of severe neglect by the Chicago Housing Authority and was overrun by rival gangs. The book depicts several instances in which brothers Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, ages 12 and 9, and their family hunker down in the hallway of their apartment, fearful that they will be hit by stray bullets when gangs are battling outside.

Henry Horner no longer exists – the complex was eventually razed – and public housing in the United States has undergone improvements to make it safer, and more integrated with surrounding neighbors. For example, in many cities, low income high rises have been replaced by smaller apartment buildings and townhouses, and often “below market rate” units (the parlance used to describe low income housing) are intentionally built alongside market rate units to create more economic diversity and avoid segregating the poor away from everyone else.

However, the portrayal of poverty in the book remains relevant today, even if the specific details have changed over time. (I am not knowledgeable enough about the current state of public housing to comment on whether changes have led to significant improvements in safety and quality of life.)

During the year I spent in journalism school, “There Are No Children Here,” was often cited as an example of high quality urban reporting. Over a period of two years, Kotlowitz spent significant time getting to know the Rivers brothers, visiting with them at their home, in their neighborhood, and at school, as well as interviewing their family members, teachers and neighbors. Reading it now, I am amazed at the thoroughness of the reporting, and the elegance of the writing, which flows like a novel. I regret not reading the book sooner, but I also wonder if I would have appreciated the book in the same way all those years ago.

Over the several days I spent reading “There Are No Children Here,” I found myself mesmerized and depressed by the story of the Rivers brothers. They are depicted as bright boys who are determined to stay out of trouble, but they face constant obstacles in the form of despair that their family is stuck living in the war zone of the projects, the absenteeism of their father who is only in their lives sporadically, the trauma of friends and neighbors dying because of gang violence, and the pressure from friends to engage in petty crime or gang activity. More than 20 years after the book was published, a Google search reveals the brothers both are still living – overcoming their fears that they would die before reaching adulthood – but both have served time in prison and have struggled to escape the cycles of poverty and crime that were endemic in their childhood neighborhood.

“There Are No Children Here” doesn’t propose any grand solutions to the problems faced by children like the Rivers brothers. The purpose of the book, described in the preface, is to raise public consciousness of the reality of life in poverty.

As I read the book, I was fascinated to learn about these two boys who in real life are close to my age – one older and one younger – who had so much adversity to overcome at a time when I was living a comparatively idyllic childhood. The point of comparison was further driven home by a brief mention in the third chapter of the book that their maternal grandmother had been raised in my hometown of Charleston, WV, where her father was a part-time preacher at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, a name I recognized. It is entirely possible that I went to school with distant relatives of these boys.

It is eye-opening to realize that the poverty in our society that is so often not talked about is at most a few degrees of separation away from all of us – it is our neighbors who are struggling, whether we think of them that way or not. And yet, addressing poverty in a meaningful way is so elusive. “How Children Succeed” reveals that the challenges faced by the Rivers brothers remain rampant today, including multi-generational poverty, drug abuse, and urban violence. (On the bright side, the teen pregnancy rate, while still high, has improved significantly in the last 20 years.)

It seemed fitting that I read “There Are No Children Here” in the days leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. day. The book gave me an opportunity to reflect on the inequalities that remain in our society, and which are so institutionalized that we hardly notice them, as well as the very real progress that has been made over the years.

In the preface to his book Alex Kotlowitz relates that LaJoe, the mother of the Rivers brothers, when asked about childhood in the projects replied that, “There are no children here.” The degradations of poverty, the exposure to violence, the lack of hope, all served to rob children of their innocence. La Joe and Kotlowitz both hoped that publishing the boys’ story would lead to greater acknowledgement of the problems they faced, and would perhaps lead to changes for the better.

More than twenty years later, it is clear that whatever changes came about were too late to give Lafeyette and Pharoah the protections and opportunities they needed. However, it’s not too late for many others, with help from schools and supportive programs, to develop the traits needed to build a better future for themselves.



Reflections on Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

When I was 12 years old I first experienced Harper Lee’s brilliant storytelling. My family had recently become enchanted with the ability to rediscover old movies at the local video store, and my mom brought home a VHS copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” starring Gregory Peck. She told me it was a film she had seen years before, and loved, and she wanted to share it with me and my older sister.

I wasn’t used to watching black and white films, but I soon understood the charms of this particular film which so beautifully captured a child’s perspective on the segregated South. Recently, in doing a bit of research about Harper Lee, I learned that she felt the film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” was one of the most faithful adaptations of a novel she had ever seen.

A few months after first seeing the movie, I ordered a copy of the book from a Scholastic book catalog. At the time, some of the Southern expressions and dialect were difficult for me to follow, and I was bored by long passages about the Finch family history and details about the town of Maycomb, Alabama, but overall, the book resonated with me just as much as the movie.

I loved the adventures of Scout, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill as they try to lure recluse Arthur “Boo” Radley out of his house, and felt the sting of their pain and disillusionment when justice is denied a falsely accused black man. I also deeply admired the courage and integrity of Scout and Jem’s father, Atticus Finch, who represented the falsely accused black man in a rape trial in the deep South in the 1930s.

In the years since then, I have reread the book several times, and it continues to move and inspire me. It is a wonderful snapshot of childhood, both whimsical and darkened by normal childhood fears and the growing understanding of injustice in the segregated South. As a writer, I have come to appreciate Harper Lee’s remarkable skill in weaving together this beautiful, entrancing story, which lays bare racism and hypocrisy without sounding pedantic. Lee’s writing is simple and straightforward and, occasionally, poetic.

Like many of her fans, I was disappointed to discover that she had never published another book. It turns out Lee, who hailed from a small town in Alabama similar to the fictional Maycomb, was so overwhelmed by the public recognition of her first book that she decided not to write again.

However, earlier this year, publisher HarperCollins announced it was publishing a book Lee wrote prior to writing “To Kill a Mockingbird,” titled, “Go Set a Watchman.” This book also centers on Scout (whose proper name is Jean Louise), now an adult in the 1950s, as she travels from her life in New York City back to Maycomb for a visit.

Soon after learning about “Go Set a Watchman,” I pre-ordered a copy, despite qualms that perhaps the elderly Lee was being exploited by her attorney after decades of avoiding publicity. In the end, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to read more of Lee’s writing, which I rationalized with the thought that Lee, 88, was perhaps willing to have the book published now, when she is old enough to be excused from responding to interview requests and other publicity.

The new book shares the same delightful writing “voice,” of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and includes descriptions of favorite childhood haunts, such as Finch’s landing, the family’s ancestral home outside of Maycomb, which are consistent in content and tone with “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Scout still has her tomboyish spirit and spunk. However, some of the other characters from her childhood are more complicated than she recalls.

While in Maycomb, Scout is disturbed by heightened racial tensions between black and white neighbors who, ostensibly, used to get along, at least at a distance. Most of all, she is devastated that Atticus, her father, is resistant to movements to desegregate schools and promote voter registration among blacks, which he views as interference from activists from the North for which the South is unready. The man she so admired for his bravery in standing up against racial injustice has become an old man who fears change. She is thoroughly disgusted. Scout spends much of “Go Set a Watchman” coming to terms with how her hometown and its inhabitants have changed, and whether she can ever return there.

As a book, “Go Set a Watchman” is much less polished than “To Kill a Mockingbird” because it was never fully completed for publication. Some characters, like Atticus, seem dramatically different between the two books, and it is possible that Lee would have reconciled differences had she been able to revise “Go Set a Watchman.”

On the other hand, one book is a reflection of a child’s view of her life and the people in it, and the other is a young woman’s view of the same people and community at a later time, in different circumstances. Often, as we age, we begin to understand that the people we once admired are more complex. And, older people, like the geriatric Atticus, are often less willing to take bold positions on controversial issues, as the circumstances of aging and health concerns make it less palatable to be at odds with one’s neighbors. These considerations, for me, softened the blow of Atticus’s racist positions.

“Go Set a Watchman” gave me a sense of closure, to learn about the direction Scout’s life would take. Like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” its writing is straightforward and beautiful. Knowing that the book was not a fully finished product, I read it with an eye toward appreciating Lee’s writing style, and learning about racial attitudes in Alabama just before the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. Just as the older Atticus is disappointing for not being the civil rights activist he might have become, Lee’s depiction of white southerners’ attitudes about desegregation show that many feared the changes that were in store, and this humanizes them. Change is difficult, after all.

As a fan, I am grateful for the opportunity to read more of Lee’s writing, which gives me a sense of knowing more about the writer herself, since Scout is an extension of Lee. “Go Set a Watchman” also shows how Scout’s (and Lee’s) moral conscience grew from her father’s influence, and bloomed into her adult sensibilities as a result of her own experiences and thoughts.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is poignant for its ethical insights, but it is delightful reading because of its vivid characters, especially Scout, a whip smart tomboy growing up motherless in a time and place where women were supposed to be perfectly composed and dainty. “Go Set a Watchman” revisits many of these wonderful characters, and shows how they have changed, for better and for worse, with the times around them. Like a visit with relatives who live far away, I was glad to see them again.

Susan Jablow, Free-lance Writer

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