Category Archives: Reflections

Post – Goodbye to Chaim

Goodbye to Chaim

June 9, 2014
Dear Ruth,

How to begin …

I met Chaim when I was 10. He was 12. At a Saturday children’s art class at the Legion of Honor, a man came over to me and asked if I was Jewish. I answered. He told me about a Zionist youth group where there was singing and dancing (I didn’t know from Zionism, but singing and dancing I understood.) Somehow my parents allowed me to go, even though, being stalwart communists, they were opposed to Zionism. That was 1946, just a few years after the Holocaust and before the State of Israel.

So I joined Hashomer Hatzair – The Young Guard. Chaim and I and the rest of our “plugah” (group) met in the small storefront (“moadon”) – the clubhouse. Our program of “sichot” (discussions), “tiyulim” (hikes), moshavim (camps – summer and winter) and chagim (holidays) was our core center, more important to us than parents, school, even more important than romance. For some 7-8 years, we grew up together in this way in this crucial and intense part of our lives. We learned the WWII Jewish story, and through our leaders came firmly to the beliefs in “socialist-zionism”. We studied Zionist texts and were fiercely committed to the creation of a Jewish country based on the teachings of Marx and Borochov – where Jews would find safety and build a just society. We fully intended to emigrate, to found a kibbutz, to live socialistically and in peace with our Arab neighbors. It was a policy of our movement not to have hired labor (especially Arab) – because we believed that would be degrading and conduce to a “class” system. We had no doubt, no question but that we would carry out this emigration plan – our aliyah – when we grew up.

But always singing and dancing.

How unquenchable we were in the thirst for this passion. So many memories come flooding – of dancing with our “chaverim” (comrades). Some names come back: Tzippi, Rena, Moshe, Aviva, Leah, Ilan, Yvonne The dances were unending – we must have known 50. Jewish, Hebrew, Russian, Czech, Greek, Italian … We would gather in a circle and, if there was no phonograph (which there usually wasn’t), someone would start the melody and the dancing would begin accompanied by just our raw voices – in circles or with partners or however. I remember and cherish that Chaim and I would always dance the korobushka.

One summer our plugah traveled east to Camp Shomria in the upstate mountains of New York. Chaim had spent that year on a kibbutz in Israel and was due to return and head directly to our camp. I see him radiant and looking very Israeli in sandals and a Russian-style shirt and bounding into our embrace.

More. Chaim and I were also involved with non-zionist radical, communist-led (or fronted) activities outside of our group. Sunday in the late 1940’s, we stood, he and I, near the entrance of Sigmund Stern Grove where an outdoor summer concert was to be held. We gathered signatures from the incoming concertgoers for “the Stockholm Peace Petition” outlawing nuclear weapons. I can see him very clearly with his clipboard, approaching people. Several of us, including Chaim, gravitated to the LYL (Labor Youth League) – many long evenings of discussion and painful self-criticism. I have a memory of meetings on a big beautiful arty boat in Sausalito. The name “Varda” comes to mind – Varda the artist. Was that his boat?

And, there was the bohemian part in our teens – the mysterious and transgressive world of North Beach lured us – me more, much more than Chaim. But the two of us did have some beatnik days together drinking wine (we were underage) in Vesuvio’s.

And there was always singing and dancing.

With active zionism behind us, after Chaim moved back to Berkeley from Pennsylvania, we often met to dance on some lawn – in a park, in front of I-house (International House) or to shmooze in the Mediterranean Café on Telegraph or to browse the bookstores.

More, channeling back to early years. I remember, that as an adolescent Chaim was a budding biologist. He kept dark jars in a row and cuttings of things in his back yard in the Sunset district. Talked about splicing and made experiments. This curiosity about growing things continued and, if I’m not mistaken, carried on into the back yard in Berkeley. I brought my children Yossi and Rachel to visit Chaim and Ruth; they played among the Glasser fruit trees. Chaim explained some of the tree families to me.

Chaim was a linguist – as well as an adorer of Noam Chomsky – both linguist and politico to this day. (Don’t get me started on Chomsky – it would not be nice.) Even in later years and separated by 3000 miles, I called occasionally from New York to ask about a turn of phrase, a construction, an etymology. One day, when we were in Moe’s bookstore in Berkeley, separated by some aisles, I happened upon two copies of a little book on Esperanto.

Chaim's Esperanto letter to me.

Chaim’s Esperanto letter to me.

Secretly I bought both – then surprised Chaim with one. Over tea, we laughed hysterically (but with sympathy) over the back story of Esperanto – this universal language invented in 1887 by a Jew (Zamenhof) as a solution to the divided world – divided by its daunting and hostile tower of Babel. Later, back in New york, I received a letter from Chaim — all in Esperanto. He had picked it up in just a few days (two or three.)

There are jokes, stories and understandings that we shared where we didn’t even have to speak in order for recognition and memory to kick in. On a call I asked if he had a VCR machine I wanted to send him a tape. There was a slight pause. “Yes,” he said. “Do you know how to use it?” I asked. There was another pause. “… this summer”, he said. We burst into laughter – both knowing exactly what was meant; to wit, that he didn’t know, that he was not up on “technology,” that somebody had probably gifted or pressured him to buy a machine, that he intended to mount a summer campaign to learn. All this was understood in that pause.

I came to know and love Ruthie. She always stunned me with her beauty, her compassion and independent spirit. I never had the joy of seeing her in a dance performance but I can imagine that it would be a picture of grace filled with content. She seemed to remember in detail the visits that I made and would often, in these later years, remind us of this or that. How she took care of her beloved Chaim in his last years grabs me at the heart.

Losing Chaim, I lose a part of myself.


Post – Taking It Off

Taking It Off


Sheepskin on a living room chair

Waiting for him, she studied paintings in preparation for her own. Here’s St Bartholomew, skinned alive, holding his flayed remains and Michelangelo’s own face within that sheet of horror. Why?

The bell rang and the very small boy walked in and right over to the furry white thing draped over the chair. “Grandma, I like this. It’s so soft. What is it?”

“It’s a sheepskin from Australia.”

“Is the white fur his skin? Why do they call it sheepskin? Is it that the skin is from a sheep? How did they get it here?”

She furrowed her brow a little. “Yes, that’s the skin. Are you ready for lunch? How would you like a peanut butter sandwich? We can go to the playground later.”

“OK … but how did the skin get here, Grandma? Did you take it off the sheep?”

“And you can have some jelly with it too. Would you like that?”

“But Grandma, how did they get the skin off the sheep? Did they just pull him out of it? Did he mind?”

She walked away into the kitchen. He petted the skin for a while then went looking for her.

They each had their questions.

Post – Too Little, Too Late

Too little, too late

With reference to:   Reading (Gasp) for Enlightenment, Without Snobbery or Shame by Edward Rothstein (New York Times, Sept. 8, 2001)

Dear Mr. Rothstein,

Are you some kind of a communist? Trying to smuggle the western canon back in and get people to read books, particularly “good” ones? We have just concluded decades convincing the public that to read “good books” is to become ensnared in nets of racial and gender oppression, cast down by white males, mostly dead. That argument was, of course, just a ruse – a ruse contrived to move discretionary time away from books and squarely onto the tube. We wanted people watching and buying. Our challenge was to figure out how to get them to do that. We thought our Political Correctness ploy a masterstroke of unmitigated genius. Now here you come, a spoiler, scheming to get them off the couch and into the library. Get this into your red head – reading books, particularly good ones, is an activity which will seriously cut into TV watching. TV girds the economy (something not to be messed with just at the present moment). If people spend time reading instead of watching, sales will plummet. They won’t buy so much. Just when we are moving to undreamed of levels of persuasion, hidden and otherwise, moving to new assaults that render the mind incapable of sustaining quiet, non-sound-biting bouts of reading, you come along with a rather convincing and graceful counter-assault. Well, forget it. We’ve won.

Look, just last week the Times reported on events that signal empyrean achievements. We have fetched taste and vocabulary out of the toilet such that it will make them go “yeah, yeah – this is us – we’re all the same – we all do that” and they will run each other over on the way to the store. Praise the TV’s fighting exec Steven Bochco. He comes victoriously forward in his struggle to permit “shit” to be uttered (As Cable Applies, Pressure, Network TV Spouts Expletives, Sept. 2, 2001). He is an advocate and missionary – a noble soldier in our war against reading. We salute him and hoist a few in his name. More victories are coming down the pike. I predict we’ll be able to show child porn and live killing on prime time very soon. It makes me tremble to contemplate the soaring ratings. In shaping public appetite for sex, scatology and violence and teaching it to have attention spans measured in milliseconds, we are winning our fight against books – all kinds. At some point we may even be even able to do away with the PC ploy.

As we, the media, continue to consolidate and merge (Court Weighs Easing Limits on Big Media, Sept 7, 2001), our united and uniform front against reading becomes irreversible. Why, just the other day on Tuesday, Sept 4, MTV, with a permit from the Mayor, took over Pier 54 at the end of 14th ST. At 11pm, the volume of “music” was so high that at least 150 complaints were lodged with police and the Quality of Life Office. We are in grateful awe of this successful attack by MTV and the Mayor aimed at any reader holdouts. No way to read with that many decibels. Some residents took to the streets screaming in search of quiet. Fortunately, MTV was able to keep full control of the entire neighborhood till midnight, even though it was a school night. Rothstein, there’s no going back now. Even if readers and potential readers of good books shed snobbery and shame –  successful consequences of our PC ploy – your campaign is too little and too late.

Thank you,
Media United Inc.

Sharon Girard, New York City Sept 10, 2001

Post – The Sound of Italy

The Sound of Italy

October 19, 2008
Dear family and friends,

Our Italy idyll ended Friday. So many sights, tastes and sounds – an embarrassment of …. You know. I’ll just tell you about some sounds.

A sound you won’t hear too much about in the guidebooks is the sound of song – “Avante populo, a la riscosa. Bandera rosa, bandera rosa.” Jack, Ben and I were returning to our hotel in Florence, a simple albergo, converted from a small “palazzo” where sweet silence or Vivaldi could be heard in its breakfast room – the taste of the owner who had a shelf of CDs. Ambling along, we heard loud talking in the street, many voices and that song – “Bandera Rosa” – an old communist anthem – like “Solidarity Forever.”

I know it from my childhood in Hashomer Hatzair (late 40’s and early 50’s). We sang that along with other radical standards. In this country where Berlusconi is reviled as much as Bush is in ours, a huge demonstration (5000) was gathering. They marched right by us in front of his party headquarters, lit firecrackers,

Red Flag

Bandera Rosa

singing, carrying signs. What was it about? Berlusconi’s new tack is to move onto the schools and universities with a privatizing agenda and the marchers were angry. I couldn’t make out the details – it’s just that I was caught up in their spirit, the spirit of the masses; it was a return to my old young days of such singing and marching. Ben thinks we are listening to the beginning of the end of Berlusconi; we saw signs “Salve Italia” – Save Italy.

Another sound is the sound of talk. Consider the custom of the passeggiata – the time-honored tradition of “walking and talking” At around 6 o clock or so, the town, whatever town it is, emerges from its 3 hour quietude and goes out into the streets for the passeggiata. (Except for the major tourist attractions like the big museums, most shops and businesses shut down somewhere around 2. Only churches and a few cafes are open. Many streets are deserted.) I didn’t know about this “walking and talking” practice – became aware of it gradually. I began to notice the shocking absence of loud rock music. There were hardly any of those awful bars with angry screaming music and clusters of smokers that have infested my own neighborhood and lined Second Ave all the way from 7th St. to the 50’s. Instead of going to these kinds of talk-squelching habitats, the young Italians, … walk and talk. Imagine that. What a concept; talking as a diversion.  Scandalous.

Coffee Gelato

Coffee Gelato

I first noticed the phenomenon of talk and walk in Pisa along with our first swooningly delizioso gelato (coffee flavor – my favorite). Imagine Machiavelli exiled from his beloved Florence after the Medici regained power. He couldn’t talk. Depriving an Italian of talk must be akin to depriving a smoker of cigarettes.* For Machiavelli, talk deprivation would have been the most acute pain. A historian writes about talk in Florence: “Here, in many ways, was the key to Florentine republicanism: in the insistence on talk about taxes, public office, war, elections, civic leaders and everyday laws – in short, talk about politics….Florence above all, a city given to speech and full of extremely restless spirits.” In the talk department at least, it’s not a stretch to compare republican Florence with ancient Athens; after all, Aristotle wasn’t called a peripatetic for nothing! An early talk-walk person.

Finally, there is the sound of laughing. We stayed for a month in a restored farm-villa owned by friends of Ben and Jack some 10 km (about 6.2 miles) from the hill town of Volterra – an Etruscan stronghold way back when.

Sarcophogus - Etruscan couple

Sarcophogus – Etruscan couple

To go anywhere, we had to basically drive from our villa to Volterra first. Now 10 km is not very much – but the windy, curvy road to our place was completely unpaved and unmaintained. The craters were deep. The curves were like 359 degrees. 10km felt like 100. OK, what about laughing? The first few days I found myself white-knuckling it on that road (and on many other Tuscany roads up and down and around to the hill towns that we sought). After a while I decided to give up the white knuckles and just have a good time. What a strategy. On the 3 or 4 unforgettable patches in our road to/from Annunciata (our villa) we bounced up and down so hard that I almost strangled myself in my seat belt. There was such loud and raucous laughter that it probably reached the ninth Circle of Hell. (BTW, in Florence, we stayed in the house of Dante’s in-laws — nothing to write home about … but I am.)

Today, back in Amsterdam, I helped Jack in his garden. There is a kind of English romantic feel to it. Some wild flowers are allowed to flourish along with roses, Sweet William and other domesticates – as long as they respect their own territory and don’t try to take over. It may look like a mad mélange – but there is high poetic and

Sweet William in the wildness

Sweet William in Jack’s poetic garden

philosophical beauty. You could say that he has fostered a balance of power among the elite roses and the demotic wildflowers. Hmmmmm. It was so enjoyable, maybe I’ll volunteer a couple of hours in the communal garden on Jane Street (corner of 8th Ave.)


*Here is the most famous letter in Italian literature. It was written by Machiavelli from his farm outside of Florence where he was self-exiled after being fired by the returning Medici. I read the letter aloud when we visited the site. I imagined him seeing his beloved duomo in the distance and longing for his old life of talk, politics, electioneering. But Jack observed that if he hadn’t been summarily truncated from that life, we might not have his masterpieces.


Post – Conversations of a Solitary Walker

Conversations of a Solitary Walker

Walking toward the Hudson River, Sam Weber remarked on the weather and the grayness of it.  Holding tight to Jack, his sturdy companion, he was able to fend off the pits and uneven curbs of the street.

Along the boardwalk two young mothers talked and secured the plastic wind shields on their baby carriages.  A couple made out on a bench. Another, huddled in windbreakers, read the Times and sipped their coffee from blue and white cups with faux Greek letters.  In the empty café, waiters stood around joking. Friends lined up at the rolling hot dog cart.  Shouting boys tossed a ball. A mutt and a golden retriever strained their leashes to sniff one another while their owners took up a chat.  Clustered seabirds caw-cawed.  An argument sputtered out.  A conversation ended.  Others began.

Across the river, the Lackawana Ferry tower clock showed 11:47.  “Come on, Jack.  Lunch time,”  Sam muttered to his cane.  “The Special’s extra special today.  Let’s get going.”

Post – Beauty, Getting Ready

Teeth White

Beauty – Getting Ready





June 4, 1999
Dear Scott,

The week before Memorial Day was seriously important for Lisa. She was getting ready for a big event – a photo-shoot or meeting with some Hollywood mogul. I am privy to only a teeny portion of the real story (you already know how secretive she is about her screen projects.  And remember how I was severely reprimanded for revealing the identity of one of her important friends in the Clinton entourage.)  I don’t understand it but I guess hush-hush comes with the territory – that of being a budding media presence.

Well, here we are in Woodstock. It’s Sunday late afternoon. It’s warm. It’s lazy. It’s Wagner. I’m lazily and happily immersed in the Ring. Lisa on the other hand has returned to the City. She’s getting all her ducks lined up for the impending event. She reviews the beauty arsenal and overall strategy:

waxing and shaving – done
nails manicured and polished (hands and feet) – done
massage and facial – scheduled Tuesday (already paid for)
hair – scheduled Tuesday

Everything is on target and looking good. She is in control and projects a steel calmness. She goes into the bathroom to brush her teeth. Oh. My. God.

Where the hell is her new Opalescence Tooth Whitening Gel kit (ADA accepted, American Dental Association, made by Ultradent Products, Inc. The Syringe People)?? She had jumped at the chance to buy it at discount in New York ($200). The normal cost in Beverly Hills for that kit and care was $1299.98

But where is the kit right now when she needs it? She panics. Terror, tears and heart murmurs set in as she realizes that it is exactly where she left it – sitting on a shelf IN YOUR WOODSTOCK HOUSE.

She freaks. Visions of herself in Transylvania with long brown teeth grip her. Visions of ridicule. Small boys and dogs laughing and barking at her. Heart racing, she picks up the phone. A lady answers, “Emergency 911, give me your number please.” Oh shit. She had dialed 911 instead of 411 (makes sense.) She redials and gets your number. You explain that Sharon is in the midst of listening to Das Rheingold. Reluctantly, Lisa talks to you instead . She chokes back her embarrassment and tries to be cool …. “Thanks so much for a wonderful weekend Scott. The bus ride was so lovely. It only took a few hours. I got home safely. Boy, it’s hot in the City… Oh and by the way, umm, would you mind passing on a little message to Sharon. Please ask her to bring home the teeth stuff tomorrow. She’ll know what that is. It’s on the shelf in the bedroom next to her L.L. Beane bag.”

Later, you give me the message. I nod but worry that Lisa is going to gag on the unfamiliar east coast summer weather which had come in with a vengeance overnight. We heard that it’s over 90 in the City. I leave a message on Lisa’s machine. “Hi Niecie. I hear its blazing hot in the city. There ARE air conditioners in the apartment. Your room should be cool enough with the cross breeze from the bathroom but feel free to sleep in my bedroom with its own air conditioner tonight. See you tomorrow. Hope you had a safe trip home.”

Lisa plays the message. “A safe trip home?? Oh. My. God. She didn’t say anything about my teeth stuff. Didn’t Scott tell her? Did he forget? Did she tune out when he was telling her? Or, maybe he told her and she forgot? What do I do now? I better call back again. Just to be sure. Gotta have that kit. Gotta bleach. Oh. My. God. “

Lisa decides to call. Again. She is so embarrassed. “Hi Scott, this is Lisa.” “Oh, hi”, you say. Silence. “Um, oh just checking in. (pause) Can I speak to my aunt?” “Oh”, you say, “She’s in the middle of her Wagner project.” (Pause) Lisa doesn’t say anything. You continue, “You know, in conjunction with Nietzsche. Right now she’s listening to Die Valkürie.” Lisa rolls her eyes. You go on, “It is exactly at the incredible part when the valkeries are flying around. I couldn’t possibly stop and interrupt her now.”

Lisa’s internal combustion revs up. “Not interrupt? This is a huge emergency. What the fuck do I say? I can’t just repeat what I already said about the teeth stuff. Maybe I should just try to call again later. … But suppose nobody’s there. I’d have to leave the same message. Oh. My. God. Oh screw it. I’ll just tell him. He’s understanding. I wonder if I should tell him to keep this under his hat. Not to tell anybody. Oh I’m so embarrassed. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me in my whole life. Part of me wants to melt into the woodwork and just forget it; the other part wants to just deliver the message and dare anyone to snicker. What do I do?”

She takes a big decision. She’ll go with nonchalance.

“Oh, that’s ok.”, she says. “Please don’t interrupt her.” Then, with just the right amount of insouciance, “I just wanted to remind her to bring my teeth stuff. It’s on the shelf near her Beane bag. I know I called yesterday. I’m just concerned about her forgetting. I mean I know I’m the one who forgot in the first place … but I’m concerned about Aunt Sharon. She’s always joking about memory over 50. She’s over 50, you know. I just didn’t want her to forget. She’s such a dear. You know, she would just feel awful if she forgot. We always remind each other – its our way of woman-relating. We’ve bonded so well, I wouldn’t want anything to screw it up. I’m sure you understand.”

You mumble, “Yeah, sure I’ll remind her.” This was NOT reassuring to Lisa who resisted but succumbed again to images of herself, dentally challenged, but now pictured on the front page of the Enquirer at the checkout line of every supermarket in the country. For distraction until I returned, she tried to while away the afternoon surfing the net, catching up on the latest scandals, reading Midsummer Night’s Dream (to prepare for the new movie) – all to no avail. Her anxiety dissolved only when I entered our apartment and handed her the teeth stuff. She whipped into the bathroom and closed the door. She performed the ablutions spelled out on the instruction sheet, praying that the skipped day wouldn’t make a serious difference.

I don’t know how the big event actually turned out.


Post – I Wish I Were A Water Lily

I Wish I Were A Water Lily

Water Lilies by Monet

Water Lilies by Monet

April, 1999
I can’t tell you how scared I am of the weather to come. It’s April 7th and already registering 92 degrees – smashing the record. Fear and trembling in the face of God, freedom and immortality can’t hold a candle to my fear of the heat that lurks and prepares to cook us. Those degrees are in league; they are uniting and assembling into an inferno. Do you remember how there’s no cooling in the evening? Do you remember how here in the City, the degrees don’t expire as the sun goes down? They simply soak themselves into the sidewalks and the buildings. Then, when you are gasping and ready to scream – please, please no more, there is just silence and indifference and you are driven at 3 or 4 in the morning to take yet another shower. Once we walked hand in hand in the garden at 104th Street and admired the lilies suspended in the coolness of the pond. Now we don’t admire as much as wish we were those lilies. Soon we will be … or sand.