Archive for September, 2011

Shana Tova?

I just loved this uplifting Rosh HaShana message by Rabbi Benjamin Blech on aish.com.  It was exactly what I needed to hear.  I hope you will be similarly inspired.  Wishing everyone a year of health, happiness, parnassa tova, nachas, brachos, and shalomK’siva v’chasima tova!

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Movie Night

I’m not a big movie fan, so I don’t know what tempted me to check out an Austrian foreign-language film from my local public library entitled “The Counterfeiters (2007).”  Based on Adolf Burger’s true-life memoir “The Devil’s Workshop,” it’s about a group of Jews in Sachsenhausen concentration camp who were part of a secret Nazi forced-labor project to forge British pounds and American dollars to finance the Nazi war machine and bankrupt the West.  Because of the scheme’s top-secret nature, the Nazis used Jewish artisans and forgers who would be killed after their job was complete, so there would be no trace of the deception.  These Jews led a relatively privileged existence in the camp with somewhat improved conditions, because the Nazis so valued their expertise and were so desperate to see this project bear fruit, at a time when the Reich was suffering irreversible losses and when their only formidable successes were in the wholesale murder of Jews.

Besides the superb acting (and winning the best foreign film Oscar by lead Karl Markovics), this profound drama forces the viewer to ponder deeper moral questions that possibly have no clear answers.  Does one sabotage the project to stop the Nazis, knowing that discovery will bring punishment, torture and death to the group of workers?  Does one toil at the Nazis’ behest knowing that it will enhance the enemy’s chances of winning the War?  What is a hero?  What is sacrifice?  What is the extent of personal and public responsibility?  What does it mean to survive at all costs?  Is morality relative or absolute?

At the end of the movie, there are fascinating interviews:  Adolf Burger, the forger and survivor who exposed the counterfeit project to the world many years later, reacting when he saw Holocaust deniers and revisionists legitimized; as well as with screenwriter and director Stefan Ruzowitzky, who says his prime motive was not to make a movie that was a history lesson, but rather “a good movie raising universal moral questions.”  Does this “universalist” attitude possibly trivialize and minimize the genocide and suffering of the Jewish Nation, victimized simply because they were born Jewish, irrespective of their age, gender, level of religious observance, profession, economic standing or level of righteousness?    Does it lessen the impact of the Holocaust as a primarily Jewish tragedy?

Make no mistake:  director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s admission that most important for him was to make a “good movie” also means he understands that people want to identify with the characters that are portrayed within a film.  He says that it is simply impossible for a normal human being to relate to a concentration camp inmate.  It was so ghastly and inhuman that we can’t imagine what it would be like or how we’d feel or react.  For that reason, Ruzowitzy contends that he could have never made a film about the general “normal” prisoner population in a concentration camp, but rather focused on the “privileged” forgers’ barracks  because we can better imagine the circumstances.  He says, “What would I do if I was in such a privileged situation?  If I had something to eat… and everything was …fine under these (improved) circumstances, but knowing that behind this wooden fence, there’s hell, there are people killed, my friends, my families are tortured to death.  I think this is a sort of universal moral question we can relate to, especially us who are living in a wealthy society,  but we all know there are many people starving to death at the other end of the world.  How do we react to that morally?  Is it enough to make a donation once in awhile, or are we allowed to enjoy our wealth, knowing that so many people do not have enough to eat?”

Viewing the film, I can say that there is no doubt that “The Counterfeiters'” focus and sympathies are about Jewish victims, and the “universalist” questions it provokes enhance, rather than detract from, the film’s emotionally shattering impact.

If you watch this movie, you will not be up all night because of nightmarish scenes.  Rather, you won’t be able to sleep because you will be thinking – – really thinking.

The Shul on the Beach

As one of the founding members of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, California, back in the late 1970’s (revived from its 1930s origins), my husband and I were quite amazed to find yet another Orthodox “shul on the beach” 3,100 miles away in the town of  Old Orchard Beach, Maine (gen. pop. 9500), about 2 hours’ drive from our Maine house in the White Mountains.  Talk about deja vu.

Congregation Beth Israel is celebrating its centennial in the coming year, and although its membership numbers have fallen, it has remained an Orthodox shul since its inception.  The history of “Jewish” Old Orchard Beach is quite fascinating.  Located at 39 East Grand Avenue, Congregation Beth Israel is an exquisite little gem of a shul, right on the main boulevard nestled between motels, souvenir stores, bars and (non-kosher) restaurants, and an amusement park on the pier that is nearly identical to the old Santa Monica pier (for you nostalgic Californians out there).  The shul  backs onto the fine, silky sand and magnificent breaking waves of the Atlantic Ocean.  Old Orchard has been called “Maine’s Gold Coast” and “Maine’s Riviera” and today the clean, 7-mile-long white-sand beach attracts many French Canadian families who enjoy vacationing there on a greatly weakened US dollar.

The shul’s population has waxed and waned, but has always remained Orthodox and has a mechitzah.  Old Orchard Beach at one time attracted a heavily Jewish clientele during the summer season, but in the 1960’s it somehow lost its cachet and attracted a rougher, non-Jewish crowd.  Then in the 1980s and 90s, Israeli businessmen and entrepreneurs came for the summers and began buying and renting commercial real estate, running t-shirt shops, food emporiums, souvenir stands and electronics stores that catered to the summer crowd, and once again the shul had a number of summer “regulars,”  Israelis who were of traditional, but not necessarily Orthodox background.  At present in the summer there is almost always a Shabbos minyan consisting of vacationers, shop owners, and permanent residents, but the rest of the year there is a minyan only when the shul’s main caretakers and board chairman, Eber Weinstein, and his wife Luba, organize Shabbatonim for people from the Boston area. Even though on a typical “off season” Shabbos there may not be a minyan, the shul is always open on Shabbat and has kiddush and shalosh seudos (a late afternoon meal before the departure of the Sabbath)  following davening, lovingly prepared by Eber Weinstein and his brother, shul president and attorney Neal Weinstein.  My husband was extremely impressed when he walked to shul with Eber Weinstein on Shabbos morning, and it seemed like everyone they passed by – Jew and gentile alike – whether from the street or from cars – stopped to wave and greet Eber with great enthusiasm.  Clearly he is a well-regarded, popular and respected figure in Old Orchard Beach.

The Weinsteins are native Mainers and have many fascinating and amusing stories about both the Jewish community and growing up in Maine.  Eber’s wife, Luba, is originally from Odessa and more recently from Boston.  Her Massachusetts friends thought that when she married, she was making a terrible mistake by moving to a place so far from a mainstream Jewish community, but to their (and her own) surprise, she loves it.  Every week the Weinsteins open their home to Jewish residents of Old Orchard Beach and to various travelers and visitors for Shabbat meals, and their hachnasat orchim and ahavas yisrael are legendary.  Many guests from large, established frum Jewish communities around the US have told her that the Shabbos they spent in Old Orchard Beach was the most meaningful they’ve ever experienced.

It was certainly exciting for us to visit this community and make the acquaintance of the Weinsteins and some of the other Jewish residents of Old Orchard Beach who are life-long Mainers, among them some singles in their 40s and 50s who are looking for their basherts, and who wish to continue living within a small-town environment and maintain the quality of life that is unique to Maine.

Although the Jewish population is very small in Maine, we have been befriended by several Jewish Mainers, many of whom have Maine roots that date back to the 1800s.  When you’re Jewish, it really is a small world.

Things That Go Bump In The Night

note: click on the highlighted links for audio

For the past two weeks my husband has been working in Massachusetts, about a three-hour drive from our house in Maine.  People from my home town wonder if I’m scared to be alone, pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

My first thought is that while I’ve been alone for 2 weeks, some of my women friends have been alone for decades.  So it seems wimpy to complain.

There is no random violent crime where I live in Maine, unlike in my home town, so there is actually less chance of danger here.

However, there are definitely noises, and they can be unsettling unless you know what you’re listening to.  Not just “unsettling”:  I confess, they can sound downright scary.  So last year I made a list of all the wildlife in my area, and then found online recordings of their cries.  Once I knew that it was foxes I was hearing and not someone being murdered, I calmed down, and began keeping count of the great variety of “night music.”

I’ve been sleeping with the windows open because the cooler September temperatures (in the 40s and 50s) are so refreshing.  Because my area is devoid of traffic or people, and due to my particular location, it is very quiet, so whatever sound there is, is amplified.

When a leaf drops to the ground from a tree, I hear it.

Last night, an acorn plummeting onto our metal roof sounded like I was being pelted with a cannon.

Now that the acorns and beechnuts are falling, animals come to eat them.  I know this because on the driveway the next morning there are many husks that couldn’t have been smashed by my car.  Also, the footsteps on the driveway at night are heavy, unlike the usual pitter-patter of frenetic chipmunks and squirrels.  I know that bears rely on beechnuts this time of year, before they go into hibernation.  I have no reason to be outside at night, so I’m not fearful of a bear confrontation.  Because our driveway is hardpacked gravel and it hasn’t rained, they haven’t left tracks. But I know they’re there, because I’ve found bear scat all over my property, and because it’s bear hunting season and I often hear gunshots and baying hunting hounds at dawn and dusk just down the road.

Around 10 p.m., in the distance, a few yaps.  Then, like a chorus, more high pitched screeching, followed by yaps and howls.  Eastern Coyotes!

The coyotes are followed by the barking and screaming of foxes calling to one another.

Sporadically I hear the haunting cry of a loon, a type of duck found on Maine lakes.

Barred owls hoot throughout the night.

A whippoorwhill bird calls out.

And then, at around 11:30 pm,  I think I hear a moose.  It sounds like it’s coming from across the pond.  It’s kind of a low-pitched trumpeted moan.  I hear it every other minute for 15 minutes.  Then, silence.  I do a quick Google search on “moose sounds” and confirm that I heard a cow moose (female) in estrus, calling for a bullmoose (male).  Rutting (mating) season is usually in November, so this was an early surprise.

When I return to my home town all these nocturnal noises will be history, replaced by police and ambulance sirens, house and car alarms, booming music and people shouting.  Now that is scary!

Keeping Kosher in Maine: Meat, Cheese and Wine

Many people have asked me about the challenges of keeping strictly kosher in Maine.  Although we do not keep chalav Yisrael (dairy products which have been supervised by a Jew from the time of milking), some of my children and guests do, and I try to accommodate them.   I keep powdered chalav Yisrael milk on hand for unexpected visitors who have this requirement, and I bring a variety of chalav Yisrael cheeses from my home town and store it in the freezer (yes, you can freeze most varieties of cheese.  Sometimes the texture changes if eaten raw, but it is unnoticeable when melted).  Trader Joe’s in Portland carries chalav Yisrael “Pastures of Eden” feta cheese from Israel, as well as a non-chalav Yisrael Tilamook cheddar under Rabbi Teichman’s Igud HaHakashrus hechsher (from Los Angeles).  Additionally Trader Joe’s carries fresh Empire chicken, turkey breast, and ground turkey. The Trader Joe’s in Portland is 1 hour and 20 minutes’ drive from my home.

I can also find frozen Empire Cornish Hens and whole turkey at my “local” supermarket (30 miles away), at a Maine-New Hampshire chain called Hannafords (when they’re out of stock they will special order it for me for no additional charge).  I haven’t seen Empire deli meat or hot dogs anywhere, which I find surprising.  I believe I can special-order chalav Yisrael milk and other dairy products through the Chabad rebbetzin in Portland, but I haven’t needed to do this so I haven’t tried it.

Of course nowadays it is possible to order anything on the Internet, including perishables.  I was amazed to find that Costco is now selling glatt kosher cuts of beef and lamb under OU supervision.  Shipping is free to your door and arrives within 5 days of a placed order.  Although there are no Costco stores in ME, if you have a membership there you can order from their website online.

The truth is, we’ve been cutting back on our meat and cheese consumption since living in Maine.  My freezer is small and I would rather use it to hold ice cream <evil grin>.  We’ve been trying to eat more fruits and vegetables and whole grains and cut back on cholesterol, and since it’s mostly just the two of us up here, we don’t need huge quantities of meat or cheese kept on hand.

I make all my own challah and baked goods, but I did that in my home town, too, so I don’t miss the absence of a kosher bakery.  Trader Joe’s in Portland sells 5 varieties of kosher wine under the OU (including a non-mevushal cabernet from Spain ($12);  Herzog chardonnay and cabernet ($13), and a moscato called Sara Bee for only $5.99 a bottle!)  Some branches of New Hampshire liquor and wine outlets (liquor prices are controlled by NH state government and there are many bargains) also carry kosher wine (Hagafen and Herzog).  (Since I’m located only 6 miles from the New Hampshire border, I shop as much in New Hampshire as I do in Maine.)  I can buy Kedem grape juice at Hannaford’s and WalMart.

There are also two discount chains, Reny’s of Maine and Christmas Tree Shops (!),  that sell non-perishable “overstock” items at drastically discounted prices, many of which are kosher.  You never know what you’ll find there, but it’s always interesting, sometimes exotic, and super cheap.  These places resemble Pic ‘N Save (a little nostalgia for those from California) or Amazing Savings (East Coast).

Update, Nov 2013:  Anything can be had for a price.  You can order fresh chalav yisrael milk, fresh glatt meat, bakery goods and kosher junk food from Rockland Kosher Supermarket in Monsey NY and they will ship perishables in dry ice via UPS.  We used this option to purchase 15 half gallons of chalav yisrael milk and some chalav yisrael yogurt when 11 grandchildren came to stay with us in the summer.  We put the extras in a small chest freezer I bought on sale from Home Depot, and defrosted as needed.   Price-wise it was a luxury (the actual prices of the groceries are reasonable, but the shipping cost kills you), but I figured it happens only once a year, and fresh milk tastes a thousand times better than chalav yisrael powdered milk, which most of the kids refused to drink (they weren’t being picky – – it really was nasty!)  All’s you need is a credit card and a few clicks with your computer and you have literally the entire supermarket at your disposal.  Pretty amazing, really.

No matter where you are in the United States, every store has kosher products.  We are very fortunate that the general abundance of food products with kosher certification makes keeping kosher in rural Maine so easy.

Of Brushcutters and Biceps

Except for a couple of rainy days or Shabbos, this past two weeks I’ve gone kayaking every day.  I’m trying to make the most out of September, because in Maine it’s the nicest month of the year.  True, the fall colors aren’t yet putting on their show.  Even so, the daytime weather is warm like August, but the nights are cold and crisp.  The skies are brilliant blue; the sun is lower but shines cheerfully.  Blackflies, deerflies, mosquitoes and midges have all died out until next Spring, which means conditions are perfect for outdoor activities:  hiking, boating, fishing, gardening.  It’s summer’s last hurrah, without the tourists or “summer people”  who have seasonal camps (cabins and cottages).  This is “real” Maine.

While my arms aren’t any less flabby, I don’t think I am imagining it:  my arms feel stronger.  I also walk 2 – 4 miles daily, and I try to bicycle up and down a few hills for 30 minutes each day, too.  My blood pressure is lower, and deep breaths no longer hurt.  I am still fat, but I feel pretty good!

My husband has been out of town for the past 2 weeks, working at his company’s Massachusetts office, so I’ve had plenty of time to do stuff – – or nothing.  I decided to surprise him and do the brushcutting on our property, as the woods are constantly encroaching onto the driveway and into the orchard.

A few weeks ago we bought a Stihl brushcutter.  This is not some little string grass trimmer you buy at Sears or Home Depot.  This is the machine that pros use.  It oozes power, it weighs about 15 lbs, and it has a nasty looking carbon blade that can make quick work of bushes, brambles, and saplings.  It’s a gawky thing, not at all evenly  weighted, so to avoid being a back-killer it comes with bicycle handles and a shoulder strap to help redistribute its weight.  There are several steps to getting it started – – I suppose a man would call them a starter, a choke, etc, but to me it’s “thingamajiggy” and “whatchamacallit.”  You also have to mix a small vial of oil into one gallon of gas for it to operate properly.  In other words, my Stihl brushcutter is the Real Deal.  It’s not for wimps. But people in Maine are rugged.  I am a Maine Woman, after all.

The nice man at the store must have explained how to work the Stihl brushcutter  three times, but I’m not good at sequencing, so I just nodded my head and looked confident.  I’m sure he saw right through my act.  He told me that that I could come back anytime if I had any questions.  I’m sure he thought he’d never see the end of me.

But my strategy was different.  “I’ll just let my husband use it,” I thought to myself, and I put any further notions of operation aside.

So one Sunday my husband used the brushcutter.  It took practice to get the back-and-forth motion right, and to do the job smoothly.  He missed a lot of patches.  But at least he did it. Well, some of it.  There are only so many hours in the day.

So when he was called away to his work in Massachusetts, I realized that the job of woods-clearing was not going to get done unless I did it myself.  I thought it would be a nice anniversary present (34 years!) for him to not have to finish this chore himself.  I tried reading the manual and practically had a panic attack.  I put it aside, and tried to forget about it, but that creeping woodland was looming.

Today I decided it was now or never.

First I got dressed.  When you use a brushcutter, vines, leaves, thorns, and wood go flying.  Obviously I was going to wear safety goggles, but I also put on knee-high work boots, long sleeves, thick leather work gloves, hearing protection (against the noise) and farmers overalls.  You heard that right.  Bib overalls.  You know – – the kind of denim overalls farmers wear.  (Train engineers used to wear a striped version, and carpenters wear them in white).   They may not be available at your local WalMart, but they are available at the WalMart near where I live.  I wasn’t worried about tznius (dressing modestly according to Orthodox custom) because the only living thing that could see me was a chipmunk, who fled for its life.  I wanted as much of my body protected as possible. (I did cover my hair with a scarf, though.)

Let me interject by saying that while it has been a good many years since I’ve worn slacks, I have always dressed comfortably (“like a shlump,” my mother a’h, who was always immaculately dressed and groomed, would say).  My “uniform” is a denim skirt and for me, it’s pure torture to dress up in a fancy Shabbos dress or a suit.  I haven’t worn pantyhose in 20 years.  So the overalls weren’t all that awkward.

But back to the brushcutter:  after finding the right opening, I filled the brushcutter with the oil and gas mixture.  I pressed the thingamajiggy and then tried the pull starter, but nothing happened, so I turned the whatchamacallit and pressed the thingamajiggy again and pulled the starter and Vroom!   The brushcutter sprang to life in a most ferocious way.  Depressing yet another button, which made the blade turn, I started hacking and whacking.  Even with the bicycle handles and the shoulder strap, the brushcutter was a back-strainer, but that could also be because I was very tense and was repeating to myself, “I don’t want to die.  I don’t want to die.”

Soon I got into the rhythm of it, although it was admittedly tough going.  I didn’t find all that horsepower thrilling – – at the risk of sounding chauvinistic, I think that’s a guy thing.  But the brushcutter did get the job done, and it sure was a lot less labor-intensive than pulling weeds and digging up roots.  By now the sun was beating down, and all those layers of protective clothing meant I was schmaltzing.  Even though the brushcutter has an anti-vibration feature, despite the upper-arm workout from kayaking, my not-so-buff biceps were starting to feel like jelly.  I made a few more swipes at the woods and decided to call it a day.

I came inside and took off my scarf.  I was so hot that my short hair stuck flat to my scalp.  My face was beet red.  I was sweating – – not perspiring, but really sweating, in a manly sort of way.  I took a look in the mirror:  Eek!   I didn’t recognize the person I saw there.  I looked like our exuberant Town Clerk – who is a very nice lady who happens to be gay and very butch.

No, I did not take a picture of myself.

I quickly got out of the overalls, ran to the shower, toweled off and put on a skirt.

Happy Anniversary, dear Husband.  Next year I’m baking you cookies.

Camp Savta (Part 4 of 4)

Day Six:  All week long we had been reading about the approaching storm (Irene, downgraded from “hurricane” to “tropical storm”).  Since I knew we might be stuck in the house for more than 24 hours, I made sure to visit Lovell Library (the closest library to our town) on Friday morning with the kids.  Author Stephen King is Lovell’s most famous summer resident, and a huge benefactor to the town.  Recently he donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate the library, and although circulation remains small (most of the books are from the 1950s and 60s, and other than the complete collection of Stephen King books and a few bestsellers, current books are available mostly by special order or interlibrary loan), the library is a little gem.  We checked out several children’s books and a few appropriate DVDs in anticipation of the storm.

Friday afternoon we went to Virginia Lake.  This is a remote mountain lake not far from our house, but most definitely off the beaten track and not visible from any road.  The dirt road leading to the lake is in very bad condition and a vehicle must have high ground clearance to be able to navigate the many ruts and boulders in one’s path.  There is only one summer home located on the lake, which is rarely occupied.  The rest of the shoreline is conservation land.  Mostly only locals know about Virginia Lake, and how to get there.  Usually when we’ve gone there, we’re the only ones on both the shore and in the water, so it’s an ideal place for observant Jews who are concerned with tznius (modesty issues) to swim and relax.   The water is very clean – – you can see at least 10′ down – –  and there are usually loons (a type of duck with a very haunting call) diving for fish.

Although we own plenty of life vests and two kayaks, each boat is very small and meant only for one passenger.  Since there was no room for us to accompany them in the boats, we started the kids out in very shallow water and had them go just a short distance up and down the shoreline.  As their confidence and skill with the kayak paddles grew, they were able to go farther distances (but not so far that we couldn’t reach them within seconds in case of an emergency).  Of all the activities we had experienced during this action-packed week, kayaking got their vote as the most favorite activity.

Starting out in shallow water, even the 5-year-old caught on quickly

there was no one else on the lake, which is in a remote off-road mountain location

soon enough they were quite capable of paddling around the lake

this is about as far from shore as we'd let them go

enjoying the moment

While two kids used the two kayaks, the other two swam and "surfed" on a boogie board

"Hooray! Now I don't need a bath!"

Day Seven:  On Shabbos, besides the usual davening and meals, we played many different board games.  The kids liked “Charades.”  The time passed surprisingly quickly and the weather stayed clear.

Day Eight:  Originally we had planned on going to the Air Show in Brunswick, Maine, but due to Irene, the Air Show was cancelled.  Tropical storm Irene visited us on Sunday with huge amounts of rain, but since we had the DVDs (their favorite was “Fly Away Home” about migrating geese), board games and books, no one felt terribly confined but after a week of so much action they were nevertheless spoiled,  and boredom set in.

The kids started to bicker – mostly normal sibling rivalry – but I just hate that stuff.  Mediating did not help.  So I tried distraction.  I took one of the kids and gave him a carpet beater (the plastic hand-held one I got in the shuk during my trip to Israel).  I hung my rugs out on the railing under the covered front porch  and told him that I had a job for him.  I needed to have the rugs cleaned.  The harder he could hit, I told him, the better.  He beat the heck out of my rugs while getting out all his frustration and my rugs really did get cleaner in the process.  A win-win!  He was tired when he finished (amazingly he enjoyed the work… this child labor thing ain’t so bad!) and forgot what the fight with his brother had been about when he came back in.

Even though there was a power outage, we were unaffected due to our solar and battery power and being off the grid.  As the day progressed and the storm abated, my husband gave the children a firearms safety class and then, individually, taught them how to shoot a real gun from our front porch towards a target we tacked onto a nearby tree.  (Yes, we had gotten their parents’ permission beforehand.)  The younger two shot bulls-eyes with a pellet gun, and the older two shot with a .22.  We gave them the shot-up paper targets as souvenirs to show off to their parents, but also warned them not to talk about guns when they were going through airport security!

Day Nine:  The last day.  Monday came, and although in some areas the roads were bad due to damage from Irene, we were nevertheless able to make our way to the airport without incident.  Fortunately the flight had been booked for Monday several weeks in advance, because we thought the kids would be at the now-cancelled Air Show (due to Irene) all day Sunday.  Had we booked tickets for Sunday they wouldn’t have been able to fly due to Irene, and there wouldn’t have been space on any of the now-crowded outgoing Monday flights, so it was all for the best.  The kids were very excited about the upcoming flight!  We said our goodbyes at the gate (as unaccompanied minors, I was allowed to go into the terminal with them until the moment they boarded) and suddenly, a week of constant motion (and commotion) was over.   I am  happy that the Maine experience was a positive one and that they will have many memories that they will cherish.  But at that moment, completely exhausted, my only thought was, “How the heck was I ever a full-time mother to young children?”

Just like that, with their departure, life slowed to a near-halt.  It’s quiet . . .  awfully quiet.

The next day my daughter called.  “The kids can’t stop talking about Maine,” she said.  “They are already making plans for next year!”

Eek!  Calgon, take me away!