This page features a creative writing piece submitted by participants of the Adult Services Department's Memoir Writing Group in Fairfax. Stories and opinions of individuals are not necessarily those of the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia.
For more information, contact Shari.Berman@theJ.org.
On December 23, 2021, Washington Jewish Week wrote an article, "The Mystery of Memoir Writing" which featured several members of our group, led by Carol Backman.
Click here to read the article: The mystery behind memoir-writing - Washington Jewish Week
A happy memory of a sunny day lingers
Sunshine abounds, covering the beach and its bathers
Under my umbrella I sit for protection
Not too much sun for me today
Not going to burn this time around
Yellow sand warms my feet lovingly
Dolphins in the ocean swim north in a school
Amazing waves crash at the shoreline
Yet, they begin to retreat as I will too, come sundown.
Are we almost there?
Days of waiting for the promised vaccine
Months of counting losses
Vanishing like smoke into the clouds
Yet not quite finished this silent threat
Yes, the balls in our court to mask or not
To keep away from those we love
Lines upon lines
Staggering to the finish
Seating in chairs with rolled up sleeves
A faint prick
And now the wait
Watching for the signs
A rash, a fever, chills and aches
Banished for now
Making room for lost hugs
Dripping down like tears falling gently to the earth
Clinging to the branches in clusters
Replenishing life-giving water
Covering the leaves like a canopy of white
Waiting for the sun to nurture unborn life
Children playing in the street
Fashioning snowballs with sticks and stones
Weaving a path towards home
Cheeks rosy from the cold
Shaking droplets from boots and hats
Sipping steaming cups of hot chocolate
Curling up with books and blankets
Dreaming of tomorrow
Shadows and light
Exposing the truth buried beneath the headlines
Lives disrupted, icons smashed
Freedom and justice restored
The Statue of Liberty burns brightly
A shot in the arm promising deliverance
Hopes and dreams ignited
An unbreakable bond between
We the people and elected leaders
The scourge scraped clean
The Capitol prevails
A virus suddenly appeared from the East
Causing death and destruction in each country it reached
It started in China, and before anyone knew
Spread to Korea, Spain, and Italy too
It was then called a pandemic, how quickly it spread
First hit old people, then all people, left many dead
No country was prepared for the necessary tasks
Shortages of everything, such as surgical masks
Not enough doctors, nurses and hospitals too
People are worried how we'll ever get through
We need more gowns, rubber gloves, and kits for testing
Ventilators, hand sanitizers, and beds for resting
We're short of so much, no country prepared
From young to the old, leaving everyone scared
A wise man appeared, Dr. Fauci, in the U.S.
He tells us the science behind this virus
What we must do to make this plague leave
The restrictions are strict and daily we grieve
No hugging or kissing or any contact
"If you get too close, I'll have to fight back"
"Social distancing" it's called, "Stay away six feet
Otherwise this virus will never be beat"
People were told to scrub their hands
Twenty seconds or more is the demand
Sanitizers were used to scrub down the house
"Don't touch your face, eyes, nose or mouth"
Walking outside is always permitted
However remember to keep your distance
Companies converted to help win this race
To make surgical masks at a great pace
Stores closed around us, no restaurants, no bars
No libraries or gyms, or even the parks
Schools had to close, kids had to study
Only with family, never a buddy
Thank goodness the food stores were open, to help
However, many necessities flew off the shelves
No wipies, towels, no toilet paper
"Come back again, we'll stock up later"
No airlines will fly, no sports to play
Everything's closed down, even Broadway
Have you ever heard of Disney Parks closed?
And movie houses to add to our woes
The only things left to help us feel free
Are texting, phone calling, and watching T.V.
We don't know how this darn thing will end
Meanwhile our neighbors become our friends.
We all should be happy with Zoom
We're no longer alone in a room
We could learn with just one
Or one hundred and one
To help beat this pandemic gloom
We all should be happy with Zoom
We're no longer alone in a room
Your family's suddenly there
With virtual cocktails to share
To help beat this pandemic gloom
We all should appreciate Zoom
We're no longer alone in a room
You can wear your old clothes
Because nobody knows
To help beat this pandemic gloom
When the world is filled with doom
You want to shake this virus gloom
Make some space within a room
Just lift up your feet and dance
Use some music with a quick beat
Jazz and mambo would be neat
Do what you can to beat defeat
Just lift up your feet and dance
2020 is our virus year
Your friends and family need some cheer
We want the virus to disappear
Meanwhile lift your feet and dance.
Thanks to the virus Covid-19
The days have a sameness, or so it seems.
Rise early, read papers, stretch, and wash,
Then feed the cat and have a quick nosh
After which comes walk number 1:
Forty-five minutes at not quite a run.
After the walk it’s time to eat:
Citrus and yogurt, with bread that’s whole wheat,
Some veggies and fruit; must limit the sweets.
Then it’s off to check e-mail or some work to do
After which lunch, and then walk number 2.
Once back from the walk I can finally read
Although chores or activities may intercede.
Do economics or play the piano,
Read a textbook or watch a video.
If drowsiness comes, take a short forty winks
Then back to reading, perhaps with a drink.
If hunger arises, there’s time for a snack
To be followed by walking to the next cul-de-sac.
Then back to reading, or writing, or working online
Beware of Facebook, which can take too much time.
When dinner time comes, we can choose what to eat:
Fish or chicken or beef, all to reheat
Accompanied by vegetables and some more bread
With blessings before and afterward said.
Another walk follows, and then back inside,
Watch a play or a concert, call friends, or just hide.
By 9:30 or 10, with eyes getting droopy,
It’s time for bed, before becoming loopy.
Turn off the computer, brush teeth and take pills,
Then under the covers and ward off the chills.
Though the days have a pattern, some are unique:
With activities the schedule will tweak.
On Mondays, up early, to the cleaners before 9,
To collect things the same day, all ironed quite fine.
Monday evening is trash time, so search far and wide:
Empty baskets and cat litter, then put trash cans outside.
Wednesday evenings a ZOOM call, 6:30 to near 8,
For the Singapore minyan – which we hope won’t run late.
On Fridays, a mad rush to prepare for Shabbos,
Sheets and towels must be washed
Before maids clean and polish.
Friday night we light candles, have kiddush and challah,
Eat dinner, chant birkat, brush teeth, and read parashah.
Saturday, I rise early to walk and eat quickly
Before services on ZOOM, a short chat, and ha-motzi.
The rest of the day is at leisure: walk, read, and have dinner
Then ZOOM once more for Havdalah – just five minutes, a winner.
And throughout it all, I’m blessed with my wife
In the house, for company and to sweeten life.
As a pair we go shopping, run errands, and talk,
Watch TV (she more than I) and perhaps jointly walk.
With our son living nearby, working late or at home,
And a daughter and son-in-law we can contact by phone
We feel lucky indeed. We wish others the same:
A life full of meaning and health, free from pain.
What’s underneath the mask?
Dare I ask, and hope
To find eyes that reflect the soul.
Eyes that are a window
Letting in the light of reason
Probing our assumptions
Grappling with hard truths.
The barriers we create are man and woman made
The masks we hide behind obscure our true intentions
Do we wear them to protect our community,
Our friends and relatives
Or do we fear the scourge we ourselves unleash
The promise of hope springs eternal
Spreading peace and justice
Sharing the fruits of the earth.
A better world
One day together
Striving for the light
Preventing despair, sickness and famine
One planet waking up
We are all in this together
Through our dreams
Facing the future
In the mid-1970s I worked as a pediatric nurse practitioner at a comprehensive outpatient clinic at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in North Philadelphia.
On many mornings, some of my co-workers and I would meet in the cafeteria for coffee before the start of our workday.
The group usually consisted of Cruz, a Puerto Rican woman who worked as a nursing assistant, Lynn, a Black woman who worked as a community health worker, Ann, a white woman who was a social work assistant and me.
It was probably a Monday morning, and as it got closer to 9 a.m. we talked about how we just didn’t feel like leaving the relaxation of our coffee time in the cafeteria and going to our clinic.
Then Cruz said, “You know, if I were my mother, I’d have to go out and cut sugar cane.” Lynn chimed in, “If I were my mother, I would have to go into a field and pick cotton.” Ann added, “If I were my mother, I’d have to go stock the shelves in the family dry goods store. “And I remembered that my mother had worked in a factory not far from this very hospital.
I said, “Oh my goodness, if I were my mother, I’d have to go around the corner to 4th and Cumberland to the Cumberland Knitting Mills and spend the day punching buttonholes in sweaters! “We looked at one another and then, almost as a group we rose, and said, “Let’s get to our work in the clinic!”
We had realized how very far we had come and how lucky we were.
My sister Mrinalini has for the past 25 years lived her summers in Germany and her winters in Bangalore, in south India, where I would meet her whenever I traveled to India. The past two years of pandemic decisively ended my husband’s and my long-standing practice of visiting India each winter. As a result, I had not visited India for three years and it had been nearly that long since my sister and I had last met at her home in Germany. Of course, it is not unusual for family members not to have visited one another during the pandemic. But most of us had derived comfort from being able to share a household with our spouse or a child or friends, thereby lessening the hardship and relieving the loneliness. In my sister’s case, the pandemic came suddenly while she was in India and unable to return to Germany due to restrictions. My sister, aware of India’s massive population and legendary indiscipline in crowded situations, and recognizing her own several health vulnerabilities, had imposed on herself the most stringent isolation measures in her city of over 12 million people. So, there she remained in Bangalore to face Covid alone for two and a half years with no face-to-face contact with any family member.
In mid-February, I got the news that my sister had had a stroke and was admitted to a hospital in Bangalore. To me there was no question but that I needed to be with her, and so within a few days of hearing the news, my husband and I, who had not traveled more than 20 miles from home since the pandemic began, booked our flights to India.
Both my husband and I had received our two vaccines as well as our first booster shots. Furthermore, the latest news reports seemed to indicate Omicron was beginning to recede both in India and the U.S. Still there were many questions we wrestled with — did we dare to undertake a trip to India when there were still so many unknowns, and should we trust the reports we were getting about the improving situation in Bangalore? There were also logistical issues depending on which airline we decided to travel on. We had to know the prevailing pandemic protocols in India, the US and in Germany, our country of transit., since we ended up buying tickets on Lufthansa. We nervously filled out numerous online forms in keeping with the policies of the three countries involved, in addition to making sure we carried hard copies of each document required at points of arrival and departure at each of the three airports. It was not without some satisfaction that we noted that all the paperwork was thoroughly scrutinized in all three countries and proved to be worth the trouble.
Much to our surprise, Lufthansa flight from Washington to Frankfurt was packed, while Frankfurt to Bangalore was close to capacity. Masks were strictly enforced on board Lufthansa on both segments of our long flights, even to the extent of waking sleeping passengers if masks had slipped down. As usual, we landed in Bangalore bleary-eyed and barely functioning having journeyed 30 hours since leaving our Annandale home, and very much aware that we had yet to face the dreaded long lines in Indian immigration. It felt good to crash into my sister’s empty apartment in the wee hours of the morning.
The next day we hurried to the huge bustling hospital situated in one of the busiest intersections of Bangalore. It was business as usual with streets full of people and vehicles inching along in massive traffic. The only clear evidence that something had changed was the almost total compliance with the local mask mandate. It took no time before our fears of being in India during Covid began to ease, and soon we felt reasonably safe moving about the city and diving into the crowded lobby of the hospital. The only exception was when we travelled to my sister’s room on the 11th floor each day in tightly packed elevators which, in typical Indian fashion, would stop on each floor and welcome additional passengers when you thought surely not one more body could be squeezed in. (It was reminiscent of the classic state room scene in the Marx Brothers film “A Night at the Opera”.) It was surreal and yet oddly comforting that India was still the same after two years of Covid. We showed up at the hospital everyday as long as my sister remained there – the first two weeks after our arrival. We stayed with her and watched as she gradually returned from a state of confusion, unmoored between past and present, between reality and delusion. By the time we brought her home to her apartment, she had nearly regained her former self.
Our three-week stay sped by quickly as I plunged myself into activities centered around my sister’s needs ranging from meetings with doctors and others related to her health care to running shopping errands to keep her supplied with mundane necessities such as a new pair of glasses to indulging her growing desire for her favorite Gujarati snacks. It is ironic that in Bangalore - one of India’s foremost high-tech centers - residents like my sister who have not mastered the mechanics of online shopping have had to resort to a visit from a long-absent sister living half a world away to bring products to her door.
We returned home exhausted but fully gratified that we acted swiftly and decisively on our gut feeling that the India trip was the right thing to do at the right time. The payoff is the psychological release from our Covid driven fears which had prevented us from considering even domestic flights for the past two years. I am grateful that we stepped out of our comfort zone and took on the challenge of travelling all the way to India and back.
Unfortunately, my sister is back in the same hospital as of Friday for yet another of her multiple health conditions, but this time, hopefully, her stay is brief and without crisis. I am not about to rush back to India soon, but, if I do, I know it is a decision I no longer need to dread because of Covid.
One of my strongest memories is my trip to Israel as a foreign correspondent in 1978. Of the many adventures I had the one that made an indelible impression was a guided hike to the pinnacle of Masada. Stretching toward the sky, the mountain loomed high like a giant albatross. Carried back in time, I recalled the tragic history of the mountain fortress built by Herod the Great in 31 BC above the Dead Sea in Israel. Inside the fortress erected to withstand sieges were rooms to store food, cisterns to hoard water, and impenetrable walls to ward off attackers
We set out at dawn carrying a bottle of water and oranges. Along the winding snake path that twisted and turned up the mountain, the air grew thinner the higher we climbed. When I finally reached the top of the 1,300 -foot mountain and joined the group in an amphitheater set in a circle of hard stone benches, the full import of the life and death decision the Jewish inhabitants faced in 70 AD hit me like a tidal wave. Besieged and outnumbered by the Roman troops who threw torches and launched cannons against the mountain fortress 73 AD, the Jewish Zealots, exiled from Jerusalem, faced a difficult decision. The head of each family drew straw lots to cast their votes—to die as free men or face the prospect of fighting to the death with survivors destined to live the rest of their lives as slaves to the Romans.
When the Romans overwhelmed the Zealots and their families, they found 953 people had perished in a mass suicide. By hiding in a cistern, two women and five children survived to tell the story. We know from the remains that the settlers did not die from starvation during the siege because storage silos still had wheat. Traces of the murals etched on the stone floors of Herod’s palace and fortress still remain, testament to a Roman culture that produced these monumental works of art.
The wind still whistles among the ancient rocks, eagles continue to soar overhead but all that is left is the silence, a timeless reminder of the violent clash of warriors on a battlefield high in the sky. Today Israeli soldiers swear an oath to serve their country by climbing to the top of Masada to remind them of the sacrifice their ancestors made thousands of years ago.
As we struggle in the 2022 to preserve our democracy I wonder about our legacy. Will we become enslaved to our possessions, watch as our freedom of choice is diminished, lose our right to vote in a fair and free election? Will we turn a blind eye to the corruption of elected officials? How can we best defend ourselves and preserve life on our planet? Our actions today will have consequences for the next generation. We are at the tipping point.
My happiest childhood memories are recalled as happening under an eggshell blue sky filled with huge white puffy clouds. That is the sky that is high above my head in this memory and others from reading Nancy Drew on our front porch to biking to visit a friend.
This recollection occurred on Sunday afternoons during mild weather when my father, sister, and I walked many city blocks, more than a half mile, to visit his Uncle Ben Morris, my great uncle, and his second wife Rose. Ben had immigrated in the early 1900s and found success in this new land. He and Rose lived in what I thought was the essence of elegance, an apartment overlooking Turner Park. This seven and a half-acre park is located in an urban setting off the major thoroughfare of Farnam Street in Omaha, Nebraska. These visits were planned, not casual drop-ins, but rather occasions.
My mother dressed my sister and me in outfits suitable for a special event such as a birthday party or excursion to shop downtown. On this particular day, my sister Linda and I were dressed in matching skirts and peasant blouses with shoes shined and hairdos secured by barrettes. My sister’s curls bounced close to her shoulders and my wavy hair tended to fall in my eyes. So mom took care to style each head of hair in a flattering fashion. These skirts were unique as my mother made them from a fabric designed with miniature peanut vendor stands to form the cheerful print. We loved to swirl and twirl as the skirts encouraged a sense of grace and freedom. My father was attired properly for a gentleman in the 1950s, with a lightweight suit, polished wingtips, and a gray straw hat with a jaunty brim.
This special time for the three of us to spend together included walking from our home up a steep street and crossing two major thoroughfares. The first roadway we crossed was Dodge Street, which runs through the length of the city of Omaha and serves as the route for the bus line. Facing us as we crossed Dodge was the Mutual of Omaha Headquarters building. After walking a block or so, we arrived at Farnam Street. This street also is a major artery and until 1955 served as the route for the Streetcar Line, which was demolished in Omaha as in many other major cities. After we had made it safely across Farnam, it was a downhill stroll for several blocks until we arrived at Turner Park and crossed this green space to arrive at the entrance to Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Rose’s dark brick apartment building. We always made a brief stop in the park at the miniature Statue of Liberty that was near its center. My Dad simply pointed out this replica and provided no commentary as for him America had been challenging. He immigrated in 1920 at the age of 10 to begin a new life in a land where he knew none of the customs or the language.
Once we were ushered through the Morris’s front door, we were seated in their lovely living room that included many marvels. On one of the tables sat a large beautiful white bowl filled with fruit that looked delicious but was never offered to us. The reason was simple, the apples, pears, and bananas carefully arrayed were made of wax. On another table there were roses suspended in a liquid inside a glass globe that rested on a dark wooden base. These roses retained their luxurious blossoms because they floated in a bath of ethylene glycol, glycerin, or formaldehyde and thus would never die.
I know we ate cookies on proper china plates with a flowered pattern and were careful with each bit so as neither to drop the plate nor cause crumbs to scatter onto the carpet. The furniture was beautifully upholstered and the Mahogany shone but there were no toys for us so the visits were never lengthy. Although I am certain we were asked about our school work and hobbies, what I recall most clearly is the joy my father took in being with family who invited him in with hugs and kisses in a land that was often very alien and unwelcoming to him. These walks have remained in the memories of my sister and me, and I am grateful that I can share these recollections with her.
March 2, 2021
I honestly think my best education was what I learned from my elementary school years. I was open-minded and interested in everything, and I learned from everyone around me. My mother taught me to be honest, not to lie or steal, and not to say bad words. If I did something wrong, she would tell my father to spank me, and if I said something bad, she would put pepper on my tongue. That was my worst punishment, because it took such a long time to get the nasty, stinging taste out of my mouth.
My father did many activities with me, creating interests I still have today. He read me books and took me to the library to get my first library card. He helped me with my homework, especially math, and he taught me how to take pictures through the microscope. With that skill I won a first place in the D.C. science fair in botany.
He took me on my first airplane trip to California to visit my uncle and my cousins, and he taught me I didn’t have to be perfect to earn his love by rewarding me with a five dollar bill when I got a D on an algebra test. “Everybody is human and makes mistakes,” he told me. I learned about being a ham radio operator from my father whose call letters were W3PPQ, and every year I accompanied him to the annual ham fest. Many years I took part in their contest of meeting the most people from different places. It was fun for me to talk to the visitors and asked them where they were from. Several years I was the winner. It could have the beginning of my interest in interviewing people like a journalist I wanted to become.
My grandmothers taught me to speak Yiddish, how to make Jewish foods, and they showed me how much a grandmother loves her grandchildren which I appreciate even more at my age. My Bubbe Mollie, was Polish and spoke in a polish dialect. To Mollie, a kugel was a “keegel.” Mother grandmother, Sophie, was a Litvak and said “Koogel.” They each made different kinds of foods, but it was all delicious. Sophie cooked gefilte fish, borsht, and chopped liver. Mollie made kasha varnishkes, or bowtie noodles and cereal grains with gravy, and at Passover, she make crispy matzoh brie that I now make for my grandkids.
Even though my maternal grandmother never learned to read or write English, she taught me so much about being Jewish. She told me stories of how she grew up in a big family on a farm in Minsk, Belarus where her father was a butcher. She talked about her sisters and brothers who were also her playmates and how items around the farm, like animal bones, were her toys. Both of my grandmothers were tough women who rarely shed a tear in front of others and worked hard taking cooking and cleaning and taking care of everyone else.
I always loved my teachers who were often my role models. It is not surprising looking backward that I became a math teacher. I was a nurturer, but I did not know that when I was young. I have always liked children and animals and enjoyed babysitting younger kids and helping them learn and grow. I once found a baby bird that fell out of its nest and tried to nurse it back to health. I was the one who offered to help the new person in the classroom or befriend the person who had no other friends.
I always loved dogs, and wanted to have one, but it never worked out. When I was about nine, my father brought home a puppy that I named Beau. He was a little frisky inside, so I had to keep him on a rope attached to a clothesline in the back yard so he could only run back and forth along the line. When he became too aggressive, I had to give him away. I now own an adorable whitetoy poodle named Bella who is like another child. I continue to live out my childhood dreams with her, and no one can take her away from me.
My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Brearley was the most memorable. She introduced me to travel and writing and nourished my fantasies of being a writer and a world traveler. When she taught the class about London, she made the city come to life. I wanted take a boat ride on the Thames River and visit Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Abbey where many English kings and writers are buried. I remember reading The Little Princesses, a book about the lives of Queen Elizabeth and her younger sister, Margaret Rose. I fell in love with them and wanted to live in Buckingham Palace too. I visited the palace with my young children and took a picture of them smiling next to the stone- faced. palace guards in front of the building.
On my first opportunity to travel abroad, I went to London with Helen, a college sorority sister. We traveled to England on the Queen Mary and spent six weeks living in London with her English uncle and aunt, Harry and Belle Kurtz. They were very hospitable and took us everywhere. They served English food at home and took us to pubs and restaurants where I tasted special dishes like English fish and chips.
I lived my dream of visiting London and the English countryside and explored London on foot and by bus and underground. I loved exploring the city on the underground, seeing museums, art galleries, and public parks and shopping at Harrods and Marks and Spensers, and It was exciting to see a real play at a London theater. While living in Heidelberg, Germany with the military years later, my husband and I took our children, Jordan and Stephanie, on a trip to London and the revisited Belle and Harry and their son, Alan, with his family. It was another childhood dream relived.
When I think about my legacy, I imagine it in terms of people not possessions. While I can appreciate a beautiful piece of jewelry, painting, family heirloom or antique, it doesn’t give me as much pleasure as reading my mother’s family journals that she began editing in 1972.
When I was growing up, I watched my mother type contributions to the Horowitz-Margareten Family Journal on an Olivetti manual typewriter and then mimeograph it for distribution to more than 500 relatives all over the world. Over time she would use a simple layout and then send it off to a printer to publish. When I took over the editing job after she retired in 1992, I upgraded the format and worked with a desktop publisher to improve the graphic design. When she could no longer type the submissions and arrange the layout, she asked me to take it on. Subsequently, I took on the mantle of editing and publishing, and wrote a column for every issue over a ten-year period.
As I reviewed her columns I learned about family recipes, how a great uncle sponsored relatives from Hungary who wanted to immigrate to the United States, and how cousins survived concentration camps and were able to begin a new life here.
They persevered and branched out to the East and West, North and South to establish families of their own and enter the professions, build department stores, and become entrepreneurs. My mother meticulously noted on index cards each time a family member sent in a check to help sponsor an issue in honor of a marriage, birth, or birthday.
The culmination of her work on the journal was publishing an updated genealogy featuring a historical sketch of the founders, photographs, and genealogical charts showing the ancestry of the Horowitz and Margareten families who had immigrated to New York City from Hungary beginning in 1886. When she urged me to take on the project of editing the family journal she said, “You will never regret it, and you will stay connected to the family and will get out of it more than you put in.” How right she was.
It inspired me to plan an international family reunion in DC with the help of my aunts and cousins living in the area. The highpoint of the reunion came on a Friday night, there were 120 of us who stayed for the weekend at a nearby hotel. Each of us introduced ourselves at the Shabbat dinner at George Washington University Hillel and explained how we were related to the matriarch and founder, Reginia Horowitz Margareten. We commemorated my mother’s 20 years of service to the family and awarded her a plaque in honor of her contribution. The next day we had arranged for a private tour of the newly opened Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. It was particularly meaningful because we had lost 122 family relatives in the Holocaust.
I will always remember the pleasant hours I spent with my mother learning about family history, addressing labels for the newsletter and seeing the smile on her face when she hugged the family members who came to attend the reunion.
In November 2020 we Americans turned out in record numbers to make our vote count. In many of our minds, including my own, our commitment to democracy was being challenged as never before in our lifetimes. We could not be indifferent about casting our vote; this time, it mattered, and we owed it not only to ourselves but to our children and grandchildren. And so, we showed up in every state, in every precinct, in every district, all across America to make our voices heard. As I watched this renewed commitment throughout the country to exercise one’s right to vote in 2020, I was transported back in time nearly 70 years, to India’s very first nation-wide election in 1951. Like 2020 in America, there was at that time in India a palpable sense of purposeful engagement in this most basic ritual of democracy. I remembered the electrifying energy that drove millions of Indians to the polls in 1951 as citizens of a newly independent democratic republic, at the same time as I witnessed the energy that propelled the voter turnout in America in 2020.
I was too young to vote in that unforgettable 1951 Indian election although I can clearly remember the euphoria and pride each Indian felt. My family and I shared in the celebratory mood that swept the entire country, after a hard-fought independence movement against British rule. For me it was intensely personal as my parents and grandparents and other members of my extended family had actively participated in nationwide protests against the British. My grandfather went to jail for joining Gandhi’s call to defy the British through acts of civil disobedience. My parents joined the boycott of factory-made British textiles by spinning “khadi” or self-made hand-woven cloth produced on a simple portable wheel – a symbolic ritual that became a daily fixture in my home, as it did across India. For a wide-eyed child like myself, it was a heady experience to march alongside my parents and join local throngs in singing patriotic songs, or to sit packed closely against my mother at massive gatherings to hear Gandhi and other national leaders invoke the people to remain steadfast and united in their quest for independence. My siblings and I listened intently to calls by these charismatic leaders to protest peacefully, insisting that the British “Quit India.”
Despite Gandhi’s calls for unity, however, we also found ourselves enveloped in a horrific trauma of events unleashed by the impending British decision to partition India into two nations along religious lines. Calcutta, my city, had always been known for its harmonious blending of diverse religions, but as independence approached, it was caught up in the worst possible madness and violence – killing thousands, and forcing Hindus and Muslims out of their once peaceful neighborhoods to seek safe-havens among their co-religionists. Alongside my memories of the inspiring moments of the independence movement, are recollections of that monumental tragedy in India’s history that became personal as my parents opened our home to Hindu “refugees” who were secretly spirited out of their endangered neighborhoods by my uncle and his team of brave young volunteers, accomplished at the risk of their own lives. I remember shivering as I stood on our rooftop and watched smoke arising out of distant neighborhoods where fires raged and I heard the muffled cries of militants vowing revenge and death on one community or the other. My child’s sense of security was further shaken a few months later by the news of Gandhi’s assassination -- not only because it was a national tragedy of epic proportion, but because Gandhi’s death was a personal loss for both my parents but particularly for my mother who had known him for decades as a father figure, especially after the loss of her own father in South Africa.
Gandhi’s death took place in January 1948, but in August 1947, we celebrated India’s independence. My parents marked this historic occasion by sending my two older sisters (I was too young to make the trip) to New Delhi to witness first-hand the ceremony and celebration – a testament to my parents’ wish that their children fully embrace the occasion. Four years later, India laid another cornerstone in its democracy by holding its first ever free election in 1951. I was not old enough to vote, but I vividly recall my parents and all our neighbors and friends turning out to cast their votes as if it were a sacred duty. Young and old, rich and poor, male and female – all across India people went to the polls- 173 million of them. To a person, each one of them understood that this simple act was what democracy and freedom was all about. I remember how proud people were to show off the indelible black ink stamped on their thumb to prove they had voted.
As I voted yet again as an American citizen in my local Virginia precinct this past November, memories of the 1951 Indian election washed over me. Today, I am equally proud of having exercised the power of my own vote to affirm my own commitment to democracy in the 2020 election, right here in America, as I was to watch my fellow Indian citizens do the same thing all those 70 years ago.
I looked forward with some trepidation to moving from Miami, Florida to Springfield, VA when the transfer notice from the Air Force came through for my husband.
After enrolling our two sons in new schools, I spent the first few weeks until our rental house was ready, encamped at the Chesapeake Bagel Factory at an outdoor table with our border collie Sam, in tow.
Once we moved in I began to think about finding a job and scanned the job opportunities in the local paper. I felt overqualified for many of the entry level jobs and underqualified for the ones that asked for several years of experience. In desperation I contacted the editorial staff at the regional Connection newspapers who liked my journalism background but could not meet my salary requirements for a feature editor.
Then I had an idea. I offered to do a feature story and said that if they accepted it, he could pay me as an independent freelancer while I continued my job search. The editor asked me to interview Dr. Jan Northrup, an educator who had just designed a program for working women and published a book titled ”The Promotable Woman, What Makes a Difference.”
During the interview she suggested I attend the seminars for federal women to get a better understanding of her program, and this assignment changed my life in ways I could never imagine. I learned that the ability to communicate with people from the mailroom to the executive offices was the key to success and career advancement. As the weeks went by, I became more confident, energized and focused on developing these essential skills.
When the article was published Dr. Northrup was extremely pleased and suggested I contact her public relations firm in Washington, DC to apply for a job as an account executive. She set up the interview, arranged for me to meet the vice president, and before I knew it, I began working for Clews Communications, The president let me know that Dr. Northrup wanted me assigned to her account so she could finish the book she was writing and promote her advice for working women in syndicated columns.
We met over coffee where I came equipped with tape recorder, pens and notebook. I asked her how she would handle different situations that working women encountered, such as: What do you do when you’re stuck in traffic? How do you balance a career with raising a family? How do you advance your career?
These were questions I knew would arise for myself and for women reentering the workplace and seeking promotions. “What do you do when you are stuck in traffic on a highway and the driver in the car next to you gets frustrated and honks his horn?” I asked. She replied: “Imagine the driver in the other car is wearing purple polka-dot shorts!”
I incorporated her advice in applying for my next job as a personnel consultant where I worked for 21 years and shared the advice she had given me with all my clients. I encouraged them to imagine each job as a building block that would give them a foundation to build their skills, and to treat each person with dignity and respect from the receptionist to the C-Suite executives.
When I was twenty-five, I got a job with American Home Products Corporation in their pharmaceutical advertising department on Third Avenue in Manhattan.
When I came for the interview Olivia came to greet me. She was extremely beautiful and had an other- worldly air like mad Ophelia in Hamlet. We conversed briefly and she handed me a sheet of paper whose text consisted of one long paragraph almost the length of the page. She said she wanted me to make all the necessary corrections, then she left the room and closed the door.
To my relief I saw that the text contained no mathematics, only descriptions of chemical terms, many of which had errors. I completed the test and handed the paper to Olivia. She asked me to wait and disappeared for about fifteen minutes. When she returned she glowed with pleasure. She said she will give me the job because I was the only one who got a perfect score.
We arranged the date when I would begin my work. I then went back to the employment agency and told them I was offered the job. “I am surprised they hired a Jew” commented the lady at the desk.
When I showed up at work the following week, I was given a nicely furnished office on a par with all the others. Apparently, they hadn’t planned properly because within two weeks they hired another woman who had to share my office because no other was available.
Ann and I got along really well. She was close to forty and a pharmacist. She had a glamorous background of once having been employed by Hollywood studios and starring in a couple of films. She was slender and curvaceous and very quickly made friends with an older gentleman whose office was across from ours. She would visit him occasionally, sitting on his desk, drinking her morning coffee and dangling her beautiful legs.
Ann was an alcoholic. I didn’t know about things like that then. I admired her easy smile and casual relaxed manner. She carried a flask of Hennessey Cognac in her bag. The flask was in a beige suede pouch. I bought myself a flask and pouch just like that and filled it with Hennessey Cognac. To accompany Ann, I would take a small sip. I didn’t like it and it did nothing to me since I swallowed only a few drops. But we enjoyed the camaraderie.
During the time I shared the office with Ann, they began constructing an office for me in the main entryway next to Olivia. They built it against an interior wall with three sides, a door and no window. I had a nice desk, a good armchair and lots of light.
I had been in my new office a few weeks when I found out that Ann had left suddenly for health reasons.
Shortly after Ann left, her office had a new occupant. Sue was a lesbian. She had a mannish appearance due to her haircut, manner of dress and conversation. Olivia requested I introduce myself and explain the work I was doing.
I was curious and confused about Sue. I tried to discern just how much of her was a man and how much a woman. I came to the conclusion that perhaps she was a man in a woman’s body. Since I always reacted to men differently because of their physical state, I concluded that now I could only react to the masculine spirit within her.
The advertisements were presented to me on cardboards called mechanicals. I also received the copy version. I checked for all possible errors then took them to Olivia for approval and signature. She was always gracious, and I had the feeling when I entered her office that I was being ushered in for tea.
Olivia used to tell me about her mother with whom she lived, but only in generalities. Often her eyes would mist over. She wore no makeup and her brown hair hung down to her shoulders like that of a small girl. She was tall and straight and had perfect, classic features marred only by what appeared to be cold sores on her lips. She applied some kind of shiny ointment to them but in the two years that I knew her I never saw them disappear.
Gigi was the director of the office. She was of French extraction, a diminutive, elegant woman in her fifties. Olivia would always refer to her in exalted terms. Whenever she mentioned Gigi her voice would take on a warm reverential tone.
When I brought her my mechanicals there was always time for Olivia to disclose some closely held feelings.
“They refer to me as The Company Girl, but that’s alright, I don’t mind in the least, I always do my best and follow Gigi’s wishes” she said.
When Olivia found me silent her favorite expression was “A penny for your thoughts, I’m no miser.” Then she would smile broadly, showing her nice set of teeth.
Olivia worked in a business office but in her company, one was in a milieu of good manners, dedication to the company and loyalty to Gigi. These things were imperative in maintaining a solidarity in work and office life. There was after all not just the advertising, there were issues of morality and human ties. And Olivia wove that web and lived in it.
I was having a problem. The work was easy and after a few weeks boring. But my problem was that I had trouble getting past the words. I managed to struggle through the first year I was there. In the second year Olivia hired an assistant for me.
Betty had a desk between Olivia’s office and mine. She was about three years my junior, very pleasant and bright. I began to have a lot more trouble getting past the words. I would look at the word but wasn’t sure I was seeing it correctly. I had to force myself to finish the sentence. After I finished the sentence, I worried about it. Did I miss something?
I was having similar problems at home. I had difficulty leaving the house because I couldn’t be certain I had locked the door. After turning the key in the lock, I would test the handle. Yes, the door was locked. But after I let go of the handle, I wasn’t sure the door was locked. The more often I tested the handle the more difficult it was to walk away. So, I would force myself to test the handle only once or twice and then walk away quickly.
The same thing happened when I checked to make sure the knobs on the stove were in the OFF position. The longer I stared at them the more difficult it was to walk away. I talked to myself a lot. I said that I would look at the knob and then not look at it again. Then I would walk away. If nothing happened and there was no fire or explosion, then I would know that it was safe to look at the knob once and move away.
All this took a lot of energy and by the time I completed these tasks I was perspiring from tension.
It was at the end of the second year that I had a panic attack.
At lunchtime I took the elevator downstairs and went outside. It was a warm, sunny day and I stopped by the bank window and made a deposit. Then I took the elevator back upstairs. I was going to eat my sandwich which I always brought from home.
There were three tall young men in the elevator with me. I kept remembering blondish hair and a light brown jacket. I was shaking. I exited on my floor, opened the door to the entryway into the office suites and then unlocked my office door. I locked the door and stood against it with my back. My heart was pounding, and I was sweating.
I knew I could not continue working there. I was very embarrassed by my lack of efficiency and by the fact that Betty was needed to make the work move. Olivia was bending over backwards to help me but it only filled me with guilt and shame. One day Olivia approached me as I was passing her office. She looked very distraught. She was speaking almost in a whisper “you must make the work move along more quickly.” She was gentle and it was difficult for her to say that. I nodded in agreement and we parted.
The next day I told Olivia that I was resigning because I needed a rest. She didn’t say anything, but I knew she was shocked and offended. When she passed me in the hallway her eyes were red and her gesture abrupt and angry.
I left the next day. When the elevator stopped in the lobby I rushed out of the building. I knew I had money in my account at the bank, but I was too distraught to get it. “Some other time” I said to myself as I walked hurriedly to the subway station.
Those who have never attended a Reform Jewish service, or who have only done so in recent years, have little idea of what American Reform services were like during the 1950s or 1960s. Services were stately, even decorous, with a rabbi, organ, and solo and responsive readings in English interspersed with Hebrew prayers, many of which were sung and marked for the Choir. Dress at services was formal, with men in suits and women in fancy dresses. Men prayed with uncovered heads and without talitot, while women wore hats, with many sporting large, elaborate creations that commanded attention. Some of my fondest memories were of women at our synagogue reading dramatically from the bimah, dressed impeccably and wearing broad-brimmed hats that added to the dignity of the occasion. I especially recall hearing them recite the Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning as if at a stage performance, intoning “Is this the fast that I have chosen?” to an awe-struck congregation hanging on every word.
Before the 1970s, few Reform synagogues had cantors. However, music was an essential part of services, and most synagogues had choirs, often with soloists, some of them paid professionals. At Beth Or in the 1960s, the choir sat in a prominent location at the front of the sanctuary, on the right, facing the organ. An adult choir, whose members wore black robes, served during evening and High Holiday services, while a children’s choir dressed in suits and dresses sang during Shabbat morning services. An adult member might join the organist and a few children to provide music during daytime services for Sukkot or Pesach on weekdays. A larger choir would sing during Shavuot, when confirmation ceremonies generally meant a large attendance. Later in the 1960s, the synagogue hired professional singers, and I remember hearing one of them rehearse during the afternoons when I occasionally stopped at the synagogue after school. I recall one moment during the Kedushah section of the Amidah when the soloist, to begin singing at a loud volume, would turn beet red before exploding with sound. Many years later the liberal congregation in Singapore with which my wife and I were affiliated used the same music at High Holiday services, and I shared the story with the visiting cantor, to our mutual laughter.
For several years I served in the children’s choir, attending rehearsals one night a week and singing Saturday mornings. About a dozen of us, generally below bar or bat mitzvah age, would gather each week to rehearse and then reconvene Shabbat morning in our good clothes to sing at services. While we occasionally horsed around, we usually quieted down enough to practice and then perform well Saturday mornings. At the time, the Reform movement’s Union Prayer Book I, for Shabbat, Festivals, and Weekdays, had different texts and music for each week of the month. My favorite services were the first in the month, which were longer, especially if we included Hallel – psalms of praise – in honor of Rosh Chodesh, the new moon. Then we sang a pretty version of “Hodu L’Adashem” – very Romantic and totally different from the more traditional settings my friends at their Conservative synagogues would hear. I also liked our version of “Mah Tovu”, in which the words “Anei-ni be’emet” (“Answer me in truth”) were sung to a melody that sounded very much like “I wish you a Merry Christmas.” I still have my loose-leaf book from choir with music we used for services.
A special privilege of being in the children’s choir was the opportunity to serve as a soloist a few times a year, which provided the chance to sing several special passages. Among my favorites was chanting the “Y’verechecha” (the Priestly Blessing) at the end of the service, after the rabbi pronounced it with raised arms over the congregation’s bowed heads. Another was chanting Kiddush. Just before the “Y’verechecha” the soloist sang the solo parts of the Kiddush, with the choir and congregation joining in “Ki vanu ve-charta”, supported by a swelling organ. After chanting the Kiddush, the soloist got to drink some of the wine, and I remember once the rabbi at that time tapping me on the shoulder and announcing, “You don’t have to drink the whole thing,” to everyone’s laughter.
After I left college and graduate school and became involved in Washington D.C.’s Fabrangen chavurah in the late 1970s, I became more familiar with the combination of traditional Ashkenazic settings and modern folk music that were typical of chavurot and other informal congregations of the time. Music at Reform synagogues, in turn, changed by introducing both more traditional melodies and new, folk-rock settings, often performed by rabbis and cantors strumming guitars. While all this is fun, particularly for younger attendees, it would be fun to re-experience the synagogue music of my childhood, at least on occasion.
Dr. Joshua Greene is a macroeconomist with a specialization in public finance. Retired from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), where he served for more than 28 years, including 6 years as Deputy Director of the IMF-Singapore Regional Training Institute in Singapore, he is currently a Visiting Professor and Interim Director of the Applied Economics Track in the Master of Science in Economics program at Singapore Management University in Singapore.
He is also a consultant for the Asian Development Bank and has served periodically as a consultant for the IMF, the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office (AMRO), and Bank Negara Malaysia (Malaysia’s central bank). He has also taught macroeconomics at George Mason University. Dr. Greene has done research on a variety of subjects, including African debt, factors affecting private investment in developing countries, the U.S. balance of payments, public debt issues facing the United States, and ways of accelerating growth in the United States.
He is the author of two books: Public Finance: An International Perspective, and Macroeconomic Analysis and Policy: A Systematic Approach, both published by World Scientific. His research has been published in IMF Staff Papers, World Development, the Journal of African Finance and Economic Development, and other journals. A past president of the Society of Government Economists, he has a Ph.D. in economics and a law degree from the University of Michigan and an undergraduate degree from Princeton University. Dr. Greene is also active at the Pozez JCC, having served as a Board member, past vice-president, and treasurer, and on the Film Festival Committee, which he co-chaired during 2011-12.
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