Tag Archives: family

Vanilkové Rohlícky

Or Vanillekipferl, or vanilla crescents. They go by many names. The traditional Czech Christmas cookie plate is a thing of awe and beauty — a dozen or more different kinds of cookies, stuffed with apricot, layered with raspberry, filled with cream, or coated with chocolate or sugar, arranged in rich profusion. The wife of my grandfather’s nephew is the champion, and she would always send my grandfather a box each Christmas. But even my grandmother, who was not one of the world’s great lovers of cooking, always put together a cookie plate each year, repeating the tradition she learned as a child. Rum balls (hers were made of chopped chocolate and nuts, not cookies), shortbread (not as good as my Mum’s. sorry, Granny), and small florentines were on it, but the very best were the vanilkové rohlí?ky. We tried to make them; they fell apart, took hours, and tasted good, but ho hum. “Oh?”my Granny would say, puzzled, when we complained about how hard they were to make, “I just roll them out in long ropes and cut them.” Hmm. Clearly we weren’t using the same recipe.
Enter the handwritten cookbook of my great-grandmother, Marianne, which I talked about in a recent post. Sure enough, in its pages, handwritten in German, her first language, is a recipe for Vanillekipferln. Would they work? I had to try them out:
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    280 g Butter
    300-460 g Flour (I used a mix of all purpose and cake flour. I think all purpose would work fine)
    100 g ground hazelnuts (I toasted whole nuts in a low oven until the skins began to come off)
    100s sugar
    1 egg yolk

I ground the toasted nuts in a nut grinder. You could also process them until fine in a food processor, but the grinder is best. I then put all the other ingredients except the egg yolk into the processor, and processed them until the mixture began to come together in a ball. Then, I added the yolk and processed that too, until thoroughly mixed. The dough was too soft to work with at that point, so I put it in a cold place overnight. In the fridge for an hour would also work. In the morning, I preheated the oven to 300o F (yes, a low oven) and, miracle dicta, rolled pieces of the dough into ropes (about 1 cm diameter), cut them, and shaped them into crescents. I suggest using small pieces of the dough, no more than four cookies worth. Rolling on a cold surface helps. I used the smaller amount of flour — more flour would make a sturdier (though less buttery) dough. I baked them on greased sheets for 20-25 minutes. Begin with the shorter time, and check. There should be just a hint of brown at the tips of the cookies.
But wait, you ask, these are called vanilla crescents. Where does the vanilla come in? Once the cookies are baked, and before they cool down to much, I rolled each cookie carefully in vanilla sugar (superfine sugar to which I had added a vanilla bean a long time ago). About half a cup should do it. You could also use icing sugar, but I don’t like the taste of that.
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Marianne Bauer

L to R Marianne (Grunfeld) Bauer, Fritz Waldsheim, Liska Bauer, Oskar Bauer

L to R Marianne (Grunfeld) Bauer, Fritz Waldsheim, Liska Bauer, Oskar Bauer


My father died in July 1987; my uncle told us about our Jewish background that same summer; in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down, and in June 1993, my sister and I went to Czechoslovakia (as it still was then, though not for long) with my grandmother, Liska. Travelling through Prague and the Czech countryside with Granny was like listening to Marcel Proust. We would turn a corner, she’d see a building, and the stories would pour forth. A visit to the the Kinsky palace, in Chlumec where my great-grandparents had lived, reminded her of how when they’d pass it on their weekly drive between Prague and Hronov, my Gumper would tease, “Don’t look up. The Count will invite us for lunch, and we just don’t have time.” In the Prague Castle, we saw the Spanish Hall where she went to a Red Cross Ball then, “That’s the Schwartzenburg Palace,” she exclaimed before one sgraffitoed building, and told us how it used to be the Swiss embassy, and how she had gone there to beg (successfully) to have her Swiss visa extended, though she did not yet have her exit permit from the Gestapo. To get the permit, her father bribed a high Nazi official who came to their house and was “decent to them” and gave her the right permit. All my photos of this trip show my sister with her arm around my small Granny, holding her and protecting her.

We went to the farm where she grew up in Herelec, and the second floor apartment on Anny Lekenske street in Prague, where she moved with her parents and brother. And a lot of the stories she told were about her parents, especially Marianne, her mother. Marianne was born in 1894 in Jihlava, or Iglau as it was called then. Her father, Julius Grünfeld died the year after she was born and her mother, Anna Feldmann, remarried a man named Fuchs who had been ennobled with the name Fuchs-Anshort. It seems that Marianne lost contact with her father’s family, but just in the past year my sister and my niece have been able to reconnect with a branch descended from Julius’s oldest brother. They…look like our cousins! Which they are.

Marianne’s step-father was an army officer, and moved the family to Przemysl. Now part of Poland, it was then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where it was a crucial crossroads for trade, and a strategic barrier against the Russians. Some of the most important battles in World War I were fought there. It was also home to an ancient and substantial Jewish community, which formed a third of the population of the town. There, this ennobled sophisticated family, whose livelihood depended on assimilation to the norms and values of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its military, encountered, perhaps for the first time in large numbers, the Ostjuden, whom they would have seen as threatening and strange. It is perhaps this experience that best explains Marianne’s indifference, or perhaps better, hostility, to her Jewish background. The nineteenth-century emancipation of the Jews was not just an emancipation from the punitive restrictions of the state; it was also, for those who chose — and the families of both my father’s parents did so choose — an emancipation from the rabbis. Her son, Willy, was not circumcised at birth (and, poor boy, medical problems caused him to have to undergo circumcision as a youth). My grandmother’s name was entered in the record of Jewish births in Iglau, but the same document also records her abandonment of the “israelische religion” at the age of three to become a Catholic. Granny showed us the church where Marianne encouraged her children to participate in the Ascension day procession, and she told us how a crew of thirty Slovaks would come to bring in the harvest in the autumn. They wore their national dress on Sunday and to her mother’s delight, made grain crowns for the family, which they would keep safe until the following year. These folk customs delighted Marianne, but she showed no interest in her own tradition. Moreover, she identified herself with the traditions of Austria, not this new country of Czechs. Granny showed us the old Deutsches Haus in Prague where Marianne would go to meet friends. “Of course,” my grandmother then said under breath, “They all became Nazi collaborators.”

My grandmother loved her mother; you could hear it in her voice. The photos show them smiling together like sisters, my grandmother a little shorter, plumper, and more ordinary-looking than her elegant mother, but raised to be strong, and to value herself. I have a few things that belonged to Marianne: the family portraits that were passed down through the daughters of the family, her handwritten recipe book, a pair of earrings — chased gold lozenges, each inset with a pearl. My grandmother loved clothing, and she loved to go shopping, a trait she passed down to her granddaughters, though she wasn’t interested in labels, and she despised the boutique-ification of women’s fashion (one of my favorite stories about my Granny was her tale of walking into a Valentino boutique and picking up some of the garments, whereupon the salesman rushed up to her, distressed that she was touching the clothing. “Madame,” he said, “You mustn’t touch. If you want something I will help you. This is haute couture, you know.” Granny turned to him and said, “THIS is not haute couture; THIS is prêt-à-porter,” and stormed out of the shop.) When she died, we divided up her clothing, and one of the pieces I chose was Marianne’s alligator purse.

On December 14, 1941, Marianne and her husband Oskar were sent to Theresienstadt, and on January 20, 1943 they were sent to Auschwitz, where they perished. They had visas for Cuba, but Oskar said, “What do I want to do? Live in a hotel for the rest of my life?” and they did not go. My grandmother spoke to a survivor of Theresienstadt after the war who told her the last time he had seen her mother, she was smiling and taking care of the chickens. “And that is how I always like to think of her,” my grandmother said, voice shaking,’Smiling and taking care of the chickens.”

Home Movies

10384832_10152210306181333_5492971820267235243_nA few years back, my uncle put my grandfather’s home movies onto three DVDs and I spent yesterday evening watching them. I had seen them before, of course. Well, most of them. I had always been a little wary of number three, with the unpromising title, “Hunting and Fishing.” But I decided it was time to watch that one too, though I admit I gave up somewhere around “the fish hatchery in Compton.” And it was worth it.

It begins with scenes of hunting in what was Czechoslovakia, in the years right before the war. My grandmother and grandfather are both there, dressed like they are about to climb every mountain, as they indeed did a couple of years later. They hunted in the way modelled for them by the nobility of Austria, with the rows of rabbits and birds and beasts lined up, a final report for the master of the hunt, and a moment of respect for the animals who gave their lives that day. They were probably at the hunting lodge of my father’s cousin and brother-in-law, Paul, and I can’t say for certain of course, but I imagine most of the people in the film, apart from the beaters perhaps, were Jews like them. In 1848,the same time that the Jews began to be liberated from the laws that constrained their lives, the right to hunt was opened beyond the nobility in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and my ancestors took advantage of all their new freedoms. The night before the hunt, they drink and laugh, most of them in their twenties, and my uncle’s voice-over names those he recognizes: Ruda Beck, my grandfather’s best friend, who survived Auschwitz; the Winters, Ernst and Ilona, who got out in time.

After the War, my grandfather returned to Czechoslovakia, to find what was left, first in 1946 and again, with my grandmother, in 1947. A film clip shows her on a train with final destination marked “Praha,” after a little skiing at Davos, or was it Zermatt? My grandfather hunted again with Paul, who had survived Theresienstadt. The film, now in colour, shows a much diminished group, Paul’s face, gray and worn but he smiles when he receives a bottle of Slivovitz in a newspaper wrapping from one of his guests. The prizes of all these hunts, the antlers of the deer and the fanned tail feathers of the capercaillie, still hang on the walls of the house my grandfather built in the 1960s.

It is wonderful to see, in these movies, the faces of the people I loved. My father, endlessly, as a baby, looking worried, my grandmother laughing and flirting for the camera. my grandfather, handsome and debonair as he carves through the snow on skis (a relatively new pastime in the 30s). My grandfather thought he was Cecil B.DeMille, so there are rather more shots of pre-war (unbombed!) Rotterdam, moody churches in Budapest, and dark Viennese palaces (with one tentatively goose-stepping guard) than I would like, when all I really want to see is my family, the ones I knew and the ones I didn’t.

My uncle was far better behind a camera than my grandfather, though his medium was the still rather than the video. Did my uncle take the photograph at the top of this post? I love this picture, because it shows my grandmother, grandfather, and father the way I remember them. My grandmother is glamorous and vivacious, smiling and having fun. I admire the way she seized the joy out of life, right to the very end. My father is laughing in this image that shows him almost at the exact midpoint of his life — and holding one of the damned cigarettes that eventually killed him, far too young. I see both myself and my son in his face. My grandfather looks serious, but apparently he is doing his “Jack Benny face.” Whether my uncle took this one or not, his attention to the faces of our family, to the way we look from the outside made him the eye through which we look back at ourselves, as a family. Most of my favorite photos of my family were taken by him, and it is not surprising that he was the one to preserve these videos for us. He talks, at the beginning of the video, of how bittersweet it is for him to do this work, to create this bridge between past and present. I am grateful.

When I Knew

The title is misleading. The question I still ask myself is not, “When did I know I was Jewish?” but, “How, in God’s name, did I not figure it out sooner?” I blame Captain von Trapp.

I cannot remember a time when I did not know the story of how my grandmother fled Czechoslovakia, weeks after the Germans invaded, with my two-year-old father in tow, to meet my grandfather in London (the story of how he got to London, however, remained a secret until much more recently). She was a great storyteller, and in her version, she was not a bold heroine, but a foolish and somewhat spoiled girl, slightly oblivious of the danger around her. I heard many times about how she charmed the Gestapo at the border into letting them leave, how they had to stay in Versailles, and how my grandmother abandoned my father every morning to the tender ministrations of “la promeneuse” so she could hot-foot it to Paris, and later, of their life in London and Wales, of ration cards, and air raids, and shoes that unaccountably did not get polished when you left them outside your door at night. What I did not hear anywhere attached to the story was the word, “Jew.” It was a word I never heard used by any member of my family, in any context.

And that is where the Sound of Music comes in. I saw it for the first time a long time ago, long enough ago that I remember standing for the national anthem before it began. My grandparents had come to visit in Toronto, and we all went together. And there, on the screen, was their story, their love for their homeland, the evil Nazis, and their flight to freedom. They even lived high on a hill with a lonely goatherd, in a Swiss Chalet. In Quebec. Here it is:

Granny and Gumper's house in North Hat;ley

When the Captain sang “Edelweiss,” my mother says, tears rolled down my grandfather’s cheeks. Bless my homeland forever.

And once again, not a mention of the word “Jew” in the whole movie (Weirdly, when you think about it. Sure, the von Trapps weren’t Jewish. But Max? Max?). No wonder I was confused as the evidence began mounting and the questions started to come. Because I knew, I knew. But I didn’t know. I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and then all the Leon Uris books. I had dreams about being chased by Nazis. I even wrote a short story for school about a young girl, oh roughly my age at the time, escaping. I asked my father where our name came from. He lied (Miners from Lancaster come to work in the Silesian coal fields. I still have not forgiven him for this one!). I asked him why Gumper was smart enough to leave when others didn’t (you can tell I am getting close at this point). I asked my grandfather what happened to his two sisters. He left the room, and my grandmother changed the subject. I knew we weren’t Catholic, like all the other Czechs I knew, though when my grandfather swore, it was by Jesus and Mary (this also threw me off). Did I think they were Hussites? But no, the von Trapps weren’t Jewish. You didn’t have to be Jewish to flee the Nazis. It wasn’t a question about myself that I asked; it was one I had already answered.

Then cousin Frances came for one of the last Christmases before my grandfather and father died, and this time brought with her a family tree. On it were large branches that were missing, unknown relatives marked only “died in the war.” And Frances told us that we had a Jewish background. I didn’t fully absorb it, confused as I still was by the Captain. Maybe Gumper’s mother had been Jewish?

After my father died, my uncle sat me and my sister down with my mother and told us the story of our origins and swore us to secrecy. My mother already knew; my father had told her before they were married in an offhand way, and she regarded it as a matter of complete indifference. We didn’t keep it a secret; we started talking about our background and history with our father’s cousins, and with our grandmother, especially when we travelled with her to the Czech Republic after the wall came down. My sister remembered revealing all to our Kitchener cousins when we visited them for Christmas a couple of years after our father’s death.

For me this knowledge came, not as a revelation but as a confirmation, an “Oh, of course.” It was like I had spent my life doing a puzzle without the picture on the box, trying to piece together the faces I saw from the pieces I had. Someone handed me some missing pieces and suddenly all the sections I had been working on began to fit together. And on the woman’s face, the pieces now formed a smile.

Christmas at the Picks

Christmas 1939

The official part of Christmas with my new family is over, and I have an evening alone, as the rest of them go out to shop, eat, and watch a movie, as is their usual custom on Boxing Day. We have been talking a lot about what our Christmas traditions are over the past few days, as we attempt to merge our practices and rituals, honouring what is most important to all of us. Like most of us, I have had a series of Christmas traditions, depending on where I lived and who I was living with at the time, but if you ask me what I think of when I think of Christmas, it isn’t Toronto in the 1970s or Detroit in the 1990s; it is spending Christmas in North Hatley, for many years at the incongruous Swiss chalet on a Quebec hillside house built my Gumper, my grandfather Jan Pick, and later also at our own cottage. It was always our family and my grandparents; sometimes our cousins from Kitchener joined us, and in later years, my father’s cousin Frances would come from Mexico.

What did it mean to us? It was the light in the darkness of winter. We feasted and burned candles. We skied through the woods and snowmobiled, and chopped down a tree, bringing the freshness of the forest indoors. The ornaments were battered and glittering survivors of those collected by my grandparents in their years as exiles and refugees from their native Czechoslovakia. We ate fish soup, and herring, and salmon, and eel. We ate turkey and plum pudding, and spiced beef. We ate candied orange peel, truffles, florentines, pepperkakor, vanilkove rohlicky, rum balls, Turtles, mince pies, and shortbread.  We opened a mountain of presents (This was the only part my grandfather did not like — he thought we had too many presents, and he was right. And it only got worse when the Kitchener Picks joined us!). And like the Whos down in Whoville what we did most of all was sing. At Christmas Eve dinner, the apex of our feast, we would sing and sing and sing, songs in English and French; Czech, Slovak, Swedish, and Hungarian. Some were toasts and drinking songs, some were folk songs; we sang songs about the black earth of my grandparents’ homeland and about battles fought in far off Herzigovina; we sang songs my grandfather learned as a student in France and songs my mother grew up singing around a Swedish Christmas smorgasbord. We banished the darkness and drew our family together around the table. It was this family we were celebrating as we sang, especially my grandparents, especially my grandfather.

The Picks were Jewish of course, and it may be surprising for some of you to read that Christmas was so important to them. It is one of the curiosities of the ways a culture borrows from another that many Czech Jews celebrated Christmas with as much enthusiasm as their neighbors, albeit with less piety. I remember my grandmother taking about childhood Christmasses, about the carp who would come to live in the bathtub to be cleaned of its muddy interior before it would be eaten on Christmas Eve. And their family was not alone. My grandfather’s best friend from the old country was a man who survived Auschwitz and wrote a memoir of his experiences. “It was a very sad Christmas for the Jews this year,” he wrote without irony about Christmas 1939 in occupied Czechoslovakia.

The grainy photo at the top, which shows my grandmother, Liska, lighting the candles on a Christmas tree, is a still from a movie made by our cousin Frances’s father at Christmas in 1939 in the UK. He and my grandparents and my father, Michael, had managed to escape there. Also in this film are my father’s young cousins, Peter and John, kindertransport children who had been saved by Nicholas Winton, and my great grandmother Ruzena, whose necklace I wore at our own Christmas dinner last night. The people in the film are all people I knew well, so even though the film is silent I can tell what they are saying and even what they are thinking, as they greet Father Christmas, and praise my father for riding his first tricycle. And I can see the moment when the mood grow dark and they raise a toast their friends and family left behind — my grandmother’s parents, my grandfather’s sisters, all to perish, with so many more — and my grandmother knocks back her drink, and stiffens her jaw and smiles again, prepared to defy the darkness for another year.

 

 

Ten Books That Have Stayed With Me

I was tagged by Julianne Douglas over on Facebook to quickly write down ten books that have meant something to me, and then pass along the request to ten more people. I can’t do anything the easy way, so I thought it would be fun to do a blog post about it, and to explain why these books are important to me. Since it is the time of year when many people are looking for gift ideas, maybe even some of what I say will provide some inspiration. I am going to stick close to historical fiction for my list, since I have been thinking a lot recently about what makes good historical fiction in general, and medieval historical fiction in particular.

  1. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdattir. It is maybe cheating to begin with this because I have about fifty more pages to go, but it was reading this book that got me thinking about medieval historical fiction in the first place. Somehow Undset managed to write here a novel that continues to speak immediately to contemporary themes and problems, while at the same time maintaining a perfect period voice. I have not discovered one jarring note (though specialists in medieval Scandinavia might feel differently). I am thinking of how I could work it into a course.
  2. Cecelia Holland, Great Maria. This novel is another of the first that comes to mind when I think of other books I have loved that, for me, capture the Middle Ages and its values perfectly. Its heroine is awkward and difficult, and unsympathetic at times. This is because she thinks and feels and acts differently than we would do. This is because she lives in a very different world, and Holland does not allow us to forget it.
  3. Margaret Elphinstone, The Sea Road. This one will be less well known even to my book-reading and medievalist friends. It is the eleventh-century tale of Gudrid, as told to a cleric and scribe in Rome, of her role in the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic and her own journey to North America. Gudrid’s world is pagan and Christian, civilized and wild and once again, Elphinstone gets her voice perfectly. I should also say that everything Elphinstone writes is an instant hard-cover buy for me.
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. This isn’t historical fiction, most would argue, but rather fantasy. I am going to argue that it belongs on this list of books that made me think about how to write historical fiction. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is not some fantasy realm in some imaginary world, however it may appear to a casual reader. He binds it to the geography and language of the word that we know, the world that is ours, by creating stories told about stories told about stories, layering the past upon the past.
  5. Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Shadow of the Wind. I saw that Julianne had The Angel’s Game on her list which I unaccountably still have not read, though I went to an author reading when it first came out, and got a signed copy. This one is a book about books by a man who loves books. More than that, Ruiz Zafon casts a spell on the reader from the very first page. We are in post-civil war Barcelona with all its beauty, menace, and danger until the last page when he lets us go again.
  6. Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This is the perfect book for someone raised on Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen. Like Heyer, she captures that Regency voice without anachronism, and at the same time manages to work in the magic in a way that seems seamless and plausible.
  7. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel in her best historical fiction, here and in A Place of Greater Safety, about the French Revolution not only writes a historical novel, but constructs a historical argument. Here, her argument is a revisionist portrait of Thomas Cromwell. Usually he is depicted as the most hated of Henry VIIIs servants, but Mantel gives us a view of him from the inside to present him as a more sympathetic character. Her depiction of Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More were equally daring.
  8. Sarah Dunant, Sacred Hearts. Most people would think that a story that takes place entirely within the walls of a tightly enclosed sixtenth-century Ferarrese convent would not be interesting. Those people would be wrong. I read this shortly after teaching a class on Terese of Avila’s autobiography and felt it gave flesh to some of the bones of what Teresa describes.
  9. Markus Zusak, The Book Thief. I have already discussed this book on my blog, so I won’t say too much here except that this is another book about books (I am detecting a theme here…), and it made me have sympathy for characters I thought I could not feel sympathy for.
  10. Simon Mawer, The Glass Room. The story of the twentieth-century told through a modernist house built in what was once Czechoslovakia, this one hits close to home. Not only does it depict the world of my ancestors, the world into which my father was born, and the pain of going into exile from that world, the characters themselves reflect elements of members of my family. This may, then, seem less strictly “historical” than the other works on my list. But whether a book takes us to Tang China or Renaissance Italy, surely we love it because we see parts of ourself in it?

Something from the Pick Reunion, August 2013

“I am who I am”
God to Moses in Exodus 3:14

Thomas asked me to say a little bit about Jewish life in Czechoslovakia in the seventeenth and eigtheenth centuries, and though I know almost nothing about the subject, I was able to find out a few interesting things. Our ancestors lived a life then that was very much like our images of the Eastern European shtetl, albeit less romantic than the Fiddler on the Roof. They were restricted as to where they lived, they paid extra taxes, spoke Yiddish, had no secular education, were limited in the professions they could follow, and were under the tyranny/loving care (depending on your perspective) of their rabbis who were both religious and social leaders.

I had always believed this changed with the emancipation of the Jews under Emperor Joseph and the internal Jewish Enlightenment that was a consequence of the broader European Enlightenment. At this time, there began a process of Germanization of the Jews of Bohemia. They were allowed to join the army, they were required to take German last names, and became part of a secular, German educational system.

But until 1848, Czech Jews were not permitted to live anywhere but a few restricted towns, and only the eldest son was permitted to marry, in a move designed to reduce the number of Jewish families in Bohemia. Only after this date did these things change and over the next fifty years, the lifetime of Leopold Pick, our family went from being something none of us could recognize to the people we know and knew: industrialists, forward-looking, risk-taking, embracing modernity and technology and science, internationalists, and embracing both Czech and German culture. Jews moved into German-speaking areas of Bohemia, and took on German culture, and later Czech culture, when the country of Czechoslovakia was founded out of the rubble of 1918. (Though as an older woman at a lecture once told me, “You know, the only people ever to call themselves Czechoslovakians were the Jews.”) Ruzena Bondy’s prayerbook, written in German with some Hebrew, but with her own writing in Czech shows how she moved between three cultures.

Our name shows traces of these three cultures. Early on it was written Pik (Czech). We know it as Pick (German). Jan told Thomas a story that it comes from a Latin acronym: Peregrinus Iudeae Confessionis (with the K added for pronunciation). This means, “Traveller/Wanderer of the Jewish Faith” — figuratively perhaps, the Wandering Jew. It matters less what its “true” etymology was than what his story says about himself, how he saw himself, and what he taught his sons about who they were. Under the Czech/German sound of the name, there remains a sense of being always Jewish.

Thomas also told me a story about Edmund Pick owning orange groves in Jaffa. In Israel in 2011, I had a chance to do some digging on the Israeli site dedicated to the restitution of Holocaust property, and I discovered Edmund had bought a share or shares in the Jewish Colonial Trust, set up to promote Zionism. With his right hand, he was starting a factory in Czechoslovakia; with the left he was investing in a Jewish state. In a very real sense, Edmund and then Jan knew they were Jewish and this knowledge enabled Jan to save his immediate family. The “Peregrinus” in his name reminded him that his destiny did not have to be in Bohemia.

Our ancestors were Jewish and Czech and German, and we too are products of all the cultures and traditions and strains that have influenced us, the people who raised us, and where we have been since. We are from Canada, Britain, Argentina, the United States, and the Czech Republic. We are Jews and Catholics and Protestants and atheists. We speak English, French, Spanish, and Dutch. We are not half anything or a quarter anything. We live freely and we don’t need Adolf Hitler or a bureaucrat in a government office or a rabbi in a black hat to tell us who we are. We are all of us who we are.

Picks August 2013

Picks August 2013

Christmas Wrapping

I managed to do most of my Christmas shopping in only one day but even that was too much. By the time it was over I felt like I couldn’t stand to hear another Christmas song as long as I lived. Part of that was a consequence of two hours trapped in my hairdressers chair listening to the Christmas channel on the radio. No, I have no desire to rock around the Christmas tree, and I do not hear what you hear. Don’t get me wrong — I like Christmas carols. Just not Christmas songs.

But there are two songs I make an exception for, and by a weird coincidence, both are by bands that originated in Akron, Ohio. Maybe I’ll get to the second later this month (and I bet you’ve already guessed which it is) but the first is The Waitresses, “Christmas Wrapping.” It has been running through my head all month, perhaps because this is the first Christmas I have spent with no family other than my son.

So deck those halls, trim those trees
Raise up cups of Christmas cheer,
I just need to catch my breath,
Christmas by myself this year.

Then I pay more attention to the words: “Had his number but never the time. Most of ’81 passed along those lines.” ’81? ’81?! This song is thirty years old! Am I even thirty years old? Clearly I must be. Oh dear, when did that happen?

There seems to be no video of it (we are almost pre-video for this song) so I present you with the synchronized Christmas lights version:

Christmas Wrapping — The Waitresses

In a quiet way, unwind
Doing Christmas right this time.

Thoughts on Leaving my Son at O’Hare This Morning

When Outward Bound tells you that their programs are supposed to teach maturity and independence, they forget to let you know that they mean by that also the maturity and independence of the parents who have to let their children go and trust that the universe will move them along on their journey and bring them back safe and sound when it is over.

Anyway, I was reminded of a passage from one of my favourite books, A Big Storm Knocked it Over, by one of my favourite authors, Laurie Colwin, taken from us much to soon. And taken from her own small daughter much too soon too, as I recall more often than one might expect. Jane Louise has just left her baby, Miranda, alone with her husband for the first time and is returning from spending time with a friend:

It was nearing the end of the academic year. Everywhere she looked students were lugging boxes of books, clothes, and standing lamps out of their dorms. She stood on the sidewalk and watched a serious young boy load two duffel bags into the trunk of his father’s car and dash into a building. His father, a gray-haired man with a wide chest and a linen sports jacket, was loading the trunk. Jane Louise stood perfectly still, blinded by the sunny glare. Hazy light poured down around her.
Some day Miranda would grow up and go to college. day would follow day: She would lose her baby teeth. Her adult teeth would come in. She would go to school, learn to read, go to high school, have boyfriends, leave home. To her amazement, jane Louise found herself in tears. Her throat got hot, and tears poured down her cheeks. She felt powerless to brush them away.
The gray-haired man walked past her, carrying a pair of suitcases. When he saw her, he stopped and set the cases down.
“Are you okay?” he said.
“I was just thinking about my child going to college,” Jane Louise said.
“How old is your child?” the man asked gently.
“Just five months old,” said Jane Louise, and she began to sob. “You must think I’m a nut.”
The man looked at her thoughtfully. “When my kid went to sleep-away camp for the first time, I wanted to lie down in the driveway and eat dirt,” he said.
Jane Louise looked up at him. He filled her vision entirely. The hazy sunshine swirled around them. She grabbed his wrist, and kissed his hand. He was wearing a beautiful gold watch.
“Thank you,” she said. “Oh thank you.”
Then she collected herself. The man picked up the suitcases.
“It’ll be all right,” he said. “You’ll grow into it.”

NYC

Laguardia.

Snow.  Pizza.  Murray Hill Diner.  NYU.  Broadway.  John’s Pizzeria. 5th Avenue.  School Products. Deedee!  Korean barbecue.  Doughnuts.  Habu Textiles. 6th Avenue.  Soho.  Nolita.  Lower East Side.  Chinatown.  Live frogs in a bucket.  Balaboosta.  Subway.  GAP.  American Idiot.  Stage door.  More pizza.  Sarge’s Deli.  Blintzes and lox and pastrami.  New York Public Library.  Rockefeller Center.  Central Park.  New shoes.  Chocolate of many lands.

O’Hare.