Deciphering Coded Messages

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Fifty years ago –as a Sarah Lawrence College sophomore–I competed for and was not accepted into a writing class.  It was an ego blow that took me a long time to come back from. Last month I closed my art gallery and now I am turning all my energies to writing a family memoir that spans the entire 20th century from Odessa to Paris and to America.

As often happens, a health emergency reminded me that there are fewer tomorrows than we like to imagine.

All my ‘tomorrow’ projects are waiting for me in boxes, files and notebooks. Somehow, I am the family archivist.  My children cannot read the French, Russian and Yiddish letters that tell our family history. Those letters will bring to life their grandfather Sioma, in his own evocative, whimsical and idiosyncratic words.  I am searching for the proper archives to house, for instance, the love letters of my mother and her first love while he was fighting in the Spanish Civil War and she was gestating their first child.   And so many more things like that.

The memoir I am working on uses objects or documents as prompts.  Each object takes me on a journey through my memory and feelings and into the evidence that others have left behind. These artifacts will be chapter headings.



Growing Old

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In 13 years, I shall be the age my mother died. Then, when I was 33, I used to say… about her death… that she was young. Everyone said it. But I wasn’t sure then. I am now. Now I know.

She wasn’t old and – that’s for sure.

She didn’t look old.
She didn’t act old.
She wasn’t old.
She just stopped.

In 13 years, I shall be there
– not dead, I hope, but 63.

Children look at me, “Mrs.”, “Lady”, “Ma’am”, but I’m not old, and I’m not against being old, but in my head I’m still 29, 17, and 5. Can’t they see that?

In 13 years, I’ll still be 50, 29, 17, and 5. I won’t be old, I’ll be just as I am today, only more so. And now I know that years after that notable benchmark – the age my mother died – I may seem to be old, but inside I’ll still be all the ages I once was – only more so.

Between the Pantry and My Soul

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Published in the Jewish Weekly News, March 24 1994.

“What kind of name is Jane? –I’ll call you Judy!”

So, my future mother-in-law called me Judy. I was a dry sponge thirsty for yiddishkeit. Although she didn’t like my name, Lilly, appreciated my eagerness. She saw me as more European than American, and at the time she was right. From her, this was a compliment, of course. I learned all about keeping a Kosher home, tried out Lilly’s recipes for apple pie, for matzah brei, for Pessach, spongecake. She made the best gefilte fish and taught me how. I learned Russo-Yiddish idioms, insults, and endearments that my Russian grandmother never got a chance to teach me. I have Lilly to thank for so many intangibles that help me feel at home at last, as a Jew.

Of course, I didn’t trust her to know everything! I devoured books on Jewish customs, traditions, and arts. Nothing about me changed outwardly… but out of sight, my soul was being quenched. Several years went by. I felt confident enough seder. No more disinterested guests who came late and left early; no more deadly flanken and leftover vegetables. My seder would be “perfect”: the guests would make it interesting and fun; and the food would be dairy or parve, no meat. I had, by then, become a fish-eating vegetarian and my home was kosher.

What ensued was a major campaign. Plans were made, guests were invited. Passover dishes and utensils purchased, and a menu evolved. Cleaning the house and making it Pessachdik was a challenge beyond my expectations. The transition period when you are creating Kosher-for-Passover areas, yet still cooking and eating hametz (leaven goods) is very tricky.

As Passover nears, and the hametz area gets smaller and smaller until it disappears. And then, there is the legalism, that allows you to have non-Passover items in the house somewhere, but covered and packed away. They are there, but no longer mine. I have “given” them to the Rabbi, and he has sold them to a non-Jew for the period of Passover. It feels silly. Can I suspend my “disbelief” and make this sleight of hand work for me?

I cleaned and scrubbed and covered sections with towels, and surfaces with tin foil as I had seen my mother-in-law do. Periodically, I would call Carolyn, my friend and local orthodox expert, to check on a problem. She decided on all of the cases I brought before her. For a short while, for an important stage in my life, Carolyn was an unofficial Jewish mother to me.

Somewhere in the pantry, while I perched on a stepladder, clearing out a top shelf, a new sensation overwhelmed me. What was happening in my kitchen was also happening to me. I had reached a quiet place, where nothing I was doing seemed a chore. As in a waking dream, I watched myself in directed activity. What I was cleaning and sorting… was my soul. I was refreshed and re-energized.

Although, I wasn’t able to keep this aura throughout the eight days of Passover, I strive to reach it each year as I recommit myself to the task of Passover preparations.

It’s so easy to make a perfect seder and never experience Passover. The exercise that I call “spring cleaning of the soul” is available to all, Jew or Gentile. As Jews, we have the rituals of Passover preparation to help us attain that state of mind that is pure and ready for renewal. It is a special gift, a special privilege. This year I am honored to have been invited to two Seders. I will dutifully bring my wine or dessert contributions to my host, but it is back that the truly wondrous part of Passover will have happened – somewhere between the pantry and my soul.

Patch of Green

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Written by Jane during her time at Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, circa 1982.

A distant patch of green flaunts its greenness. In the early, early morning hours the air is fresh, newborn and still. The sky a haze of waking light and that distant patch of green shines out from all the rest as if a square of sky had opened and projected “Ideal Green of Green” on that privileged piece of hill.

The cows, sensing my approach, slowly raise their bulks and lumber over to the gates. It is 5AM Shabbat, and its my once-a-month turn to milk the cows. Three of us woke before dawn – the night guards off duty – the only lights around come from the dairy building.

Two more times I’ll leave the steamy dairy carousel to reroute the cows; each group to its enclosure. Careful to open & close the correct gates in the correct sequence.

But the patch of green has dulled by then. By the third time out, the green is indistinguishable from other greens–the full light of undeniable morning reigns; that square of sky has shut and I’ll wait another month to see that secret marvel of nature again.

In the carousel, the busy noises of activity fill the room: rhythmic whooshes of suction; the clatter of metal parts moving, dropping, and banging; clumping hooves of cows adjusting themselves; swooshes of grain falling into the meal buckets; the whistle of an improperly-placed suction cup; shouts of “Hutza!” to a cow that is reluctant to leave the carousel.

All these noises – each with its own rhythm – indeed, a veritable symphony.

One turn around the carousel and the cows have delivered 8 to 30 liters of heavy milk, the kibbutz fills its tanks and coffers, and the milk cooperative, TNUVA, enriches the country with all its milk products.

Meanwhile the cows go round, I fit the suction cups on the endless variety of teats – parry the kicking legs, and avoid the waterfalls of urine and the huge splashes of shit. I think its call dung only when its dry. Oh, what a long way from Manhattan I am!

The job done, I make my way uphill to the dining hall. I’m not tired anymore. I’m on a high, even slightly hyper. I feel elated, cleansed, and strong. I’ve participated in a great experiment: The Kibbutz. At no other time do I feel so freely that sense of belonging and contribution.