Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Stones in the Road (With Apologies to Mary Chapin Carpenter)

Last Shabbat morning, I had an opportunity to walk a familiar path at GUCI. It is a stroll I have taken hundreds if not thousands of times over the years. I shlepped my guitar along that well-worn gravel road that leads from the Chadar Ochel to the Beit T'fillah in order to prepare for services. But, what made this particular saunter unique is that it was the only time during the reunion weekend that I found myself completely alone.

It was a moment I used for some reflection. I wanted to take in the experience; to feel the stones in the road beneath my sandals, to smell the acrid August morning air. You see, when one reaches a certain point in life, the importance of such memories takes on a sense of deep and compelling urgency. I didn't want to forget anything about this place. This was the place of my youth. This was the place of my faith. This was the place of my deepest and oldest friendships. This was the place of decency. This was the place of true love.

As I trudged down that road, I could clearly recall the faces of hundreds, no...thousands, of campers and staff that had shared this sacred space with me in decades past. They were the pictures of tanned youth and sinewed strength. They had dreams and plans and hopes and ambitions. We were just coming into our own and the world would be stunned by our radiance. We rebounded from our disappointments far more gracefully and we hid our cynicism far more easily. We were idealistic and foolish in a way that only youth can forgive. Time was our ally and we had no thoughts of its fleeting.

I became acutely aware of the memories that each of the four-hundred of us has; those of us who made the pilgrimage back to this blessed, steamy cow-patch in weirdly but aptly Jewishly named, Zionsville. Each of us sharing those memories with others until the incomplete individual became the collective whole. A patchwork quilt of recollections woven together by laughter and prayer. It brought the holiness of this place into better focus for me.

As I came into the Beit T'fillah, I heard the din of conversations. People simply could not stop talking and sharing. I tuned my guitar and started to play the music of Shabbat morning with song leaders of my son's generation. We had only met the night before and had no idea if or how we might fit together but the sanctity of the space elevated our voices in perfect harmony. We all inherently understood how to do this because this is where we were tutored.

There is so much emotion wrapped up in a trip of forty-eight hours. It wasn't nearly long enough and yet it was perfection. I rediscovered a purity in my Judaism that had been sorely lacking lately. I heard The Divine Spirit whisper to me in the strings of a plucked banjo and I tasted Her kiss in the treacly Shabbos kugel. I sang until my lungs burned and I played until my fingers bled. I was more engaged in my faith during those two days than I have been in the past two years. This is the magic of Goldman Union Camp and it is a magic that every single one of the four hundred inherently understands. We are all just stones in the road of this place and for one weekend, we all came home.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Girls With Guitars

I learned to play guitar on my Dad's twenty-dollar, bargain purchase from Eaton's.

It was collecting dust in his closet and I thought I would give it a go. I really just wanted to play some of the old Peter, Paul, and Mary songs that he was so fond of so that we could sing together. I never thought of the possibilities or where that old six-string might take me.

When I was growing up, Jewish music was the sole purvey of men. Even in my Reform congregation, I had never seen a woman sing on the bimah with the exception of a choir solo or two on Yom Kippur. Men were the cantors. Young men were the song leaders.

And then one day, my parents gifted me with the first NFTY album, Songs NFTY Sings, and I heard her voice. Debbie Friedman z"l opened up the world to me. Here was a woman unapologetically singing, writing, and song leading in a way that moved people to think about Jewish music in a whole different way. Through that album, she told me that I could do it too.

When I first attended UCI (GUCI came later) in 1975 as a Gezah camper, I was enthralled by the music and the young men who were leading it. I heard Debbie's songs but I couldn't see Debbie in their faces and I couldn't hear her voice. I loved each and every one of them who became my guides and my teachers but I had to ask,

"Where are the women?" "Where are the girls?" "Can I do that, too?"

It was Ron who encouraged that simmering Jewish musician in me. He mentored me, pushed me, and set me up with a line of teachers whom I will carry with me forever. I will admit that he had some initial reservations about my small stature and whether or not I could be seen during a Shabbat song-session in the Chadar Ochel or if my voice could carry, but together we proved that girls with guitars could rock GUCI. In 1983 I became the first female head song leader in GUCI history and the pride and joy that I feel when I see young women today lead in the Chadar or the Beit T'fillah is overwhelming.

Music at GUCI is a defining core value. When we sing as a camp community we open ourselves up to the depths of our Jewishness. We find common ground in our spirituality, our language, and our love of the Divine Spirit. I never set out to be a trailblazer but watching and hearing all of those girls with guitars who lifted up their voices after me and found inclusion in the music, is something that I will always cherish.

Shiru L'Adonai Shir Chadash.  

Friday, 22 June 2018

A Letter

Dearest Molly,

I have been wanting to write something to you almost since the moment of your appearance in this world but and its shackled looniness has simply gotten in my way. I hope that by the time you are old enough to understand this missive, much of my bitching and moaning about the stuff contained herein will have mercifully vanished out of our public consciousness and will no longer be problems for you and your contemporaries. I hope that one day, you and I will be able to sit together and read this drivel and laugh raucously over what was, what is, and what we hope will be.

A few ground rules for reading this piece. Yes...your grandmother uses foul language and does so liberally throughout this piece. She has since long before your father was even a kernel of a spark in her eye. Many people will tell you that cursing is a sign of an unimaginative mind and a lazy speaker. I sharply disagree. I am a believer that sometimes, only certain words can adequately express emotion. Don't let anybody ever distract you from the true meaning of a curse. While I am not of a mind that we should be dropping f-bombs at will in any and all settings, sometimes the reclaiming of language empowers us and gives colour and texture to our extreme feelings. Words always matter and I will not be censored because somebody else might be offended by my language. And anyway, I'm fairly certain that while I have been saddled with more than a few pejoratives by others in attempting to describe my nature, unimaginative and lazy of speech were never amongst them.

I also hope that while reading this you will understand the pain, anger, and anguish I am feeling at this particular moment. I hope and pray that you never, ever see this side of me but when there is pure evil in the world, I tend to get bilious and pissed off. 

You, my darling granddaughter, are my greatest hope for the future. In your beautiful hazel eyes, I see nothing but optimism and potential. Your gaze transfixes me and displays such trust and love. We can talk in cliches for hours about how it is all ahead of you and how you can be anything you want to be, and my God I hope all of that is true, but I think that being born at this crisis point in history means you will have to shoulder so much more and for that I am profoundly sorry.

Yours will be the first generation with both feet firmly planted in the information age. While your parents and grandparents are still desperately flailing and failing badly at navigating through the sludge and the shit, I have some measure of confidence that you and your friends will someday have it all figured out. It still galls me that the internet, which holds the keys to so much advancement and connection, is also the place where racism, misogyny, hate, ignorance, and intolerance festers. The weaponization of information to further the evil and self-serving agendas of demagogues, false prophets, greedy oligarchs, and tyrants is one of the greatest miseries ever unleashed on the citizens of this planet. Where once in bygone times, dictators and despots used armies of iron and machinery, today's martinets use bits, bytes, and pixels. Dear one. Never let yourself be manipulated by mindless propaganda. Always demand to see the truth and never accept the word of any leader from any side of the ideological spectrum who purposefully hides his or her plans from the disinfectant of sunlight. Always, always, always ask the tough questions and never, never, never accept the easy answers even if they suit your personal philosophies.

It is very easy for people to get caught up in their own lives and to forget that there are others in the world just trying to find a better place for themselves. Generational poverty and living in constant danger make desperate people even more desperate. You, my love, have been born into tremendous privilege. You live in a country that, while far from perfect, provides you with unparalleled advantages. But just because you were bequeathed a life that offers so many avenues, doesn't mean that others less fortunate than you shouldn't be able to aspire to what you have. Human suffering is an issue that has bedevilled humankind for millennia but we can be and should always be mindful of those assholes who look down on other human beings simply because of where they come from, the colour of their skin, who they happen to love, or the gods to whom they pray. Worse still, we need to muzzle and ostracize those colossal bastards who gleefully use their perches of power and authority to further their evil agendas of hate and division.

Beware of the narcissist and those seeking self-aggrandizement. Align yourself with those who use their skills and their fortunes to help others rise out of the depths. The best people in this world are often those who work in complete anonymity.

You have been born into a community with a rich and tremendous history. Being a Jew is something of which I have always been extraordinarily proud but I have never used it to justify my bad behaviour. We Jews have certainly had our share of misery and suffering but we should never use our perch of privilege to further advance the suffering of others. We are a people that have been bequeathed a strong social justice streak that has its roots in Tanach. (Sometimes called the Old Testament.) Always beware of people who quote Scripture in order to further their intentions of evil. When that happens, try a few of these verses on them.
“Thus says God: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.” Jeremiah 22:3
“Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:8-9
“Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.” Psalm 82:3
“Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the orphan, plead the widow’s cause.” Isaiah 1:17
People who think that they are holier than you, generally aren't. I have no idea what you will someday think of religion, God, or even of being born Jewish, but I hope you know that people who spout their Judaism as a reason for their bigotry and hatred probably missed more than a few religious school classes. Every Shabbat morning, I read the following passage based on Mishnah Peah 1:1:
These are the Things that are limitless,of which a person enjoys the fruit of the world,while the principal remains in the world to come.They are: honouring one's father and mother,engaging in deeds of compassion,arriving early for study, morning and evening,dealing graciously with guests, visiting the sick,providing for the wedding couple,accompanying the dead for burial,being devoted in prayer, and making peace among among people,But the study of Torah encompasses them all.
It seems simple, and the Torah part may seem archaic to a modern girl like you, but sometimes our humanity is found in our ability to reduce caring and kindness to the lowest common denominator. Sometimes, showing up for others is all that matters. Never forget that we Jews were once the "other". 

You have been born into a time when women have options. I have no doubt that you will be raised to show your strength and to follow your passions but there are still a few out there who think that you are lesser simply because of your XX chromosomes. There are still some people who believe that you shouldn't have agency over your own body or that you owe them sex. Feminist is not an angry nor a foul word. It simply means that we women want to be treated as equals in all realms of society. Own the word and live by its ideals.

There is so much misery happening right now that I can't believe it is real. Knowing that there are children out there, some who are as young as you are, who have been separated from their parents for reasons of politics...well it has kept me up nights. I hear their screams in my semi-consciousness and I loathe the people who have put them there. I shriek FUCK YOU in shaking rage at the newspaper and at the TV on a regular basis. I ugly cry when I think of those parents who are desperate to find their children but may never be able to because of serious malpractice and indifference. I send prayers of thanks that my granddaughter knows the hugs and comfort of her parents when she cries from discomfort or is frightened. There is an entire cohort of children who will be forever scarred by this evil and dastardly sack of shit. Given the lessons of history that I thought we had learned, I never thought or believed that I would see a modern, western society do this to needy people in my lifetime, but here we are.

I resolve for your sake to never give up fighting the righteous fight. I resolve for your sake to call out the bastards' bullshit every single time I hear it or see it. I resolve for your sake to never shrink from calling out the enablers and the sycophants, even if they are friends and family. I resolve for your sake to be engaged in the fight and not on the sidelines when evil is invoked. I resolve for your sake to be on the right side of history.

You, Molly, deserve nothing less.



Saturday, 26 May 2018

Reykajvik: Where the Water Falls and Falls and Falls

Our guide told us at the beginning of our daylong trip through Iceland's Golden Circle, that the word Reykajvik comes from the Old Norse meaning "bay of smoke". 

I'm fairly certain that he was just fucking with us.

After our experience today, I am absolutely certain that the word Reykjavik means "water that cascades from the heavens...and the earth...and the trees...and the rude bastard sitting next to The Better Half."

The Husband and I have travelled to all parts of the world and have experienced Mother Nature in all of her menopausal glory. We have endured searing desert heat in the Australian Outback that melted our shoes. We have lived through miserable cold and wind in Alaska. We have come face to face with ocean storms so severe that both of us were barely conscious in our bed. We have travelled in cold and heat and rain and snow and every combination one could possibly imagine. But I have little doubt that today was by far the absolute worst travel day either of us has ever experienced.

Iceland isn't really known for its stellar weather. We came well prepared for the possibilities of cold and rain and were not surprised when the forecast today called for showers. We had our raingear and umbrellas and our waterproof hikers. I packed gloves and earmuffs. Yup. We were ready for the exciting beauty that awaited us at Gullfoss and Geysir. We were eager to hike the volcanic rocks, learn of the mysteries of shifting tectonic plates, feel the immense power of a rugged waterfall, and to watch the geysers explode. We wanted to smell the sulfur and to feel the moist heat of the geothermal springs. We were however totally unprepared for the Pandora's Box of misery that hit.

Photo Credit: Kathy Stein
The rain was heavy and cold and it started before we even left the hotel. By the time we were on the bus, we were already damp. The wind was blowing from all directions and umbrellas proved useless against the blustery gusts. Our hikes through the volcanic caverns were slick and often treacherous. I saved one woman from certain injury as she lost her footing on the slippery rocks. The water was everywhere. It came at us horizontally and diagonally for hours. Our raincoats and hoods were no match for Icelandic climate. We were soaked from stem to stern and everywhere in between. We couldn't access anything in our pockets because it had all turned to pulp. We couldn't take a selfie because the rain and wind would blow directly at us. At one point, I began to feel envious of drowned rats. I swear that I actually saw flocks of swans swimming in a flooded farmer's field. No joke. We are fairly certain that The Husband's camera became a drowning casualty. There was so much water pounding on it constantly, that he thinks the electronics got fried. We are desperately hoping that it can be resuscitated at home. Anybody who knows him and his feeling for his photography know this to be a great potential loss.

All of this is really unfortunate. I had been looking forward to this weekend for the entire trip. I was excited to see Iceland and what I did manage to view through the mist, fog, and my rain-soaked glasses is beautiful in its starkness. Nature has been kind to this part of the world. I am often in awe of how desolation can carry such beauty. I loved the volcanoes in the distance and would have loved to venture closer. Sometimes, the best-laid plans though....

We have a bit more time here before heading home tomorrow. Given the forecast of more of the same, we have decided to head to the airport with memories of a wonderful vacation still in our thoughts and dry clothes still on our backs. Hopefully, we will get another chance to visit this unique country. I will remember to double layer the raingear.

Photo Credit: Kathy Stein

Thursday, 24 May 2018

It is So Much More Than a Beach

There are times when less is more. 

There are times when listening is better than talking.

There are times when silence is better than words.

I will offer only a few soundbites from our day trip to Normandy with stops at Juno Beach, site of the Canadian Forces’ landing on D-Day, Gold Beach, and Beny-Sur-Mer. It seems more appropriate that way.

*The Centre at Juno Beach is a must visit. It is stunning in its depth and breadth and is staffed by dedicated young Canadians working towards university degrees. The explanations, films, artifacts, and even the building itself are extensive and chilling.

*I loved that all of the people on our tour were Canadian. It made the journey to Juno all the more poignant. There was no having to explain Canadian history or roles in the conflict. My guess is that the Americans touring Omaha or Utah Beaches felt a similar kinship.

*The walk along the beaches themselves was mind-altering. We arrived at low tide, about the same time as the Allied Forces did, and were stunned by the amount of distance needed to travel from water up the sand to higher ground. There was a quiet stillness everywhere and even while some kids were laughing and splashing in the water taking kayak and paddleboard lessons, there was an understanding that we were walking on sacred soil.

*We spent a long while just walking Juno Beach. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

*I hated the gift shop. I realize that much of the continued funding for the centre relies on tourist purchases but the silk scarf festooned with poppies or the onesie adorned with “D-Day, June 6, 1944” was far too much for my taste. I loathe the commercialization of war and death.

*We visited the Canadian cemetery at Beny-Sur-Mer. It is an immaculate place that overlooks Juno. I had gathered some stones from our walk on the beach and placed them on the Jewish headstones. I’m not sure how many of those soldiers still have any family but I wanted somebody to know we were there.

*It was a day well-spent in France. I honestly can’t think of a better way.

They shall grow not old
As we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them
Nor the years condemn;
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning 
We will remember them.

We will remember them.

~Laurence Binyon

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Indulge in Your Passions

I knew it when I signed up for this trip.

Today’s date has been circled with big, bright, red circles for weeks. As much as The Husband and Twin Son loved the varied places we have visited so far, and even if they truly enjoyed the tastings across Ireland and now Scotland, a pilgrimage to the Royal Mile in the heart of Edinburgh was the real whisky attraction. A full mile of whisky shops, pubs, tasting bars, and Scotch accouterments dot a beautiful cobblestone street extending from Edinburgh Castle at the top to Holyrood Palace at the foot. It took the four of us a bit of hiking through the downtown core to find it, but find it we did and suddenly the boys had discovered Disneyland.

Valhalla. Gan Eden. Nirvana. Heaven. B’olam Ha-ba.

The question wasn’t whether or not they were going to sample and then buy but rather what rare types and how many bottles. It was to be expected. If fate and fortune had found me in rare music mecca, I would have behaved much like they did today. When one’s passion is suddenly splayed out in front of you and every conceivable option is available for the taking, it is so very difficult to control one’s emotions and impulses. I’m so very happy that they didn’t even try. It is a rare day when there are so few words to describe unfettered joy.

We wandered into each and every shop and tasting bar. I managed to slip out for a bit of Scottish souvenir hunting while they indulged and imbibed but I was around to witness their fun. The guys left the shops empty-handed with promises to return. They wanted to experience all the rides before making final decisions.

They finally stumbled on their brass ring. A small and less than impressive store at the end of the mile called Cadenhead’s proved to be their unicorn come to life. The blackboard at one end of the shop provided a whisky that melted his tongue, he threw me a glance that was so electrified I thought he might be on fire. Once again, I will leave it up the connoisseurs to express their opinions and their delights. Let’s just say there was a lot of good sips taken today.
open ledger of what was available. The proprietor was more than eager to allow them to taste whatever struck their fancy and the looks on both of their faces reminded me of the first time by boys tasted ice cream. When The Husband found one particular

I have never been so happy to give up a day of vacation to drinking as I was today. Everybody should be allowed to indulge themselves in their passions and hobbies from time to time. Today was a day when I got to see a giddiness in The Husband that was fun and beautiful. I have no doubt that we will return to Edinburgh for another productive stroll along the Royal Mile.

We leave the British Isles tonight and sail on. Tomorrow is our last sea day. We will chat again from Normandy, France.

Monday, 21 May 2018

The Greyness of Scotland is Lovely

Loch Ness
There is a definite authenticity factor to be considered when a day in the Scottish Highlands comes complete with a very light drizzle, a greyness that is the colour of wet steel, and a mist coming off of the braes in the distance that is eerily reminiscent of a highlight reel from Brigadoon. It is almost as if the locals purposely provided the atmospheric backdrop for our journey. The spring heather on the hills (yes, it really does exists) is still brown and damp but come summer it will illuminate the mountains with swaths of purple and white. Oh, how I wish I could see that.

The Great Glen of the North was our gateway to Inverness, Culloden, Loch Ness, and Beauly. Fans of Outlander (both the books and television series) will be well acquainted with the names and the historic battles waged here. The Battle of Culloden in 1746, saw the Highland Clans and Jacobites band together with the impetuous and foolish Bonnie Prince Charlie in an attempt to overthrow the government forces and send them packing back to England. The massacre that ensued is legendary and it was the last military battle ever fought on British soil. The Highlanders of today still mourn the loss of their clansmen and the Culloden Moor is today a museum and ancient burial ground. I happened upon the gravesite for Clan Fraser and couldn’t help but think of Jamie (Yes, I am an Outlander aficionado.) and his kinsmen fighting for the honour of Scotland. Without venturing too far into this time-warping thing, it doesn’t get too far afield to imagine what could have happened had the idiot Charlie been smarter and successful in his bold endeavour. He would have restored his father to the throne of England and Scotland, sent George II scurrying back to Germany, George III would never have ascended the throne and the entire American Revolution might never have occurred. Just a ‘pondering.

We headed through the picturesque landscapes passing all manner of wildlife on our way to Inverness. North Atlantic seals, Shetland ponies, pheasants, partridges, and even a few “Heilan Coo” (that’s Highland Cow to those not familiar with the local dialect) were visible. The surrounding area is dotted with old ruins, castles, and enough fabled monsters, witches, and kelpies to fill several children’s books. Inverness, which likes to call itself the gateway to the heart of the Highlands, is a quaint town marked by Inverness Castle. A castle has stood here in one incarnation or another since 1057. The Ness river runs through the town south to its famous Loch.

Which brings me to what is possibly the biggest tourist scam ever perpetrated on visitors to any country on earth. I used to think that designation should rightfully belong to the people of Pisa and their dumbass sinking tower. Nope! I was mistaken. Keeping alive the story of a fabled water creature that cannot be categorically proven nor disproven, even using the brilliance of modern science, has moved Loch Ness to the top of my list. The Highlanders are brilliant. They draw people to the lake, which is actually quite eerie and mysterious in the Scottish mist, in busloads. They try and sell them boat tours (of what I am still not sure) and regale them with stories of sightings and drownings and other magical mumbo-jumbo.

And then….

They point you to the gift shops.  And of course, we buy. Who wouldn’t buy their new granddaughter a stuffed Nessie? What am I? A complete monster?

Our guide Ian told us that he hopes they never prove or disprove it. The tourism boom just to stand at the shores of the lake is phenomenal and frankly a whole lot of fun.

A few side notes from our day.

**I won’t discuss the haggis that I watched Twin Son and His Better Half eat for lunch. This vegetarian could barely imagine it. The cauliflower was delicious.
**I sometimes forget just how beautiful the world can look in the rain. While I wouldn’t want to spend 80-90% of my time in the gloom, there really is a lovely sheen to the earth in the mist of this area.

**You have to know that you have a really good guide when he regales you with Scottish Mouth Music toward the end of your trip. I love hearing all of these old tunes that eventually made their way to the Appalachians and other areas of North America. This Scottish folk music, like its Irish cousin, is the basis for much of our Country, Bluegrass, Delta Blues, and eventually Rock and Roll.

**Men in kilts is a look that I could learn to like. Not as unattractive a kit as one might imagine.