Monday, October 6, 2014

A Day of Remembering

Last week, Jews in Glen Rock and everywhere around the world joined in small or large gatherings to celebrate the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. The holiday marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year. It has several different names in Hebrew. My favorite is Yom Teruah, which literally means “the day of making noise.” That probably refers to the noise made by blowing a ram’s horn called a shofar many times each day. But it may also refer to the loud talking that often goes on between friends in the synagogue. I’m just as guilty as anyone else on this count. And I still got a little embarrassed this year when, at age 65 much like at age 8, I was urged by someone sitting in the row in front of me to shhhhh. It seems I had gotten a little too enthusiastic sharing news with my friend Joe, whom I see just a few times a year. Let’s face it, prayers may be important at this time of year, but not as vital as sharing stories about our families, some of Joe’s infamous legal clients, or the prospects for Rutgers’ football team. As a faithful attorney, Joe doesn’t say much about his clients of course, but we do have a laugh about one family whom he has dubbed “the evil Katzensteins.” We laugh because Audrey’s maiden name is Katzenstein, and, luckily, these evil ones are not related to her. Gossip…gossip.
The many names of Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah is also known as Yom Hazicharon, which means “day of remembering.” I wondered why that name was chosen by the ancient rabbis, and I asked my modern rabbi for an explanation. Not surprisingly, he gave me a religious reason—he said that we hope God will remember us as the new year begins and, once remembering us, will keep us in mind for the whole year to come. I suggested another explanation to him, more human than religious. Throughout most Jews’ lives, they join with their families, in large or small gatherings, to celebrate holidays. And they share family traditions at those gatherings. That’s what we remember on Rosh Hashanah, and it helps us get a good start on another year.

For me this Rosh Hashanah was a special time for remembering. My mother died in early March, and this was the first year in my lifetime that I didn’t see or speak with her during the holiday. But she was well remembered. Amanda had several friends visiting during the holidays, and while they sat around talking to each other, they wrapped themselves in one of the many afghans my mother had knitted for us. And Brett pointed out that while the chicken soup Audrey made using Ina Garten’s recipe was very good, it wasn’t quite like Nana’s. Nana would take out some of the vegetables used for the soup, puree them, and add them back in to thicken and flavor the broth. Memorable. And I made my mother’s matzoh balls, which, she didn’t really make from scratch. Instead, she insisted that you had to use Streit’s matzoh ball mix (no other brand would do), and you had to use the one with the soup packet enclosed inside the box. And, like my mother’s, these came out perfect this year.
Nana cooking and making memories
And I told some stories about holiday celebrations with my family in Savannah. I have a favorite picture of our family gathered at the table when I was around five years old. Everyone is looking toward the camera, except me; I’m too busy eating to pose. (Some things never change.)
The family at holiday time. My grandfather is on the front right;
my grandmother is  in the very middle, where she belonged.
I hope my kids are building up memories of our family gatherings on Rosh Hashanah or other holidays, and that they will be sharing them with children, or cousins, or friends in the years ahead. After all, the New Year is not only a time for looking ahead; it’s also a time for reaching back and holding on strongly and happily.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Best Danish Cure

“The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea.”
—Isak Dinesen

Our fifth day of biking in Denmark featured all three salt water elements in Danish writer Isak Denisen’s quote above . . . and more.

We didn’t have to break a sweat to get to our first destination of the day—the Valdemar Slot (castle), located not far from our hotel in Troense. Our group was given a personal tour by a woman who truly loved taking people through the grand home. The castle is still occupied part of the year by descendants of the same noble family that was awarded the castle in 1678 after a famous naval battle. Family photos and portraits abound, as well as a museum with lots of hunting trophies, including a huge polar bear that one of the nobles bagged years ago.  For those of us who are non-hunters, the trophies were a little disconcerting and a lot scary.

My favorite part of the tour was a visit to the basement level, where the housekeeping staff spends most of its time and effort. In one corner was the head housekeeper’s bedroom. Right outside her door were several ironing boards. I figured they were there in case she woke up early in the morning and needed to fill her time productively. Talk about working overtime!

The castle seemed like the perfect place for us to take a group portrait. Here we are!

Here's the crew posing in front of the castle:
Barb, Doug, Casey, Phyllis, Harvey in the front
and Leah, Audrey, me, and Patti in the back.
The sweating came after we left the castle. We made a brisk ride across the island of Tasinge and came to a bridge that looked like Mt. Everest to me but didn’t seem to deter anyone else. I de-biked and decided to walk up the bridge, grumbling all the way. I am not sure what was going through my head, but I knew that I HATED that bridge! I had had it, at least for a while. I bailed out, and decided to hitch a ride with Per in the van for most of the rest of the day. I am a little ashamed, but not sorry, as you will be understand as you read on.

The group rode across part of the island of Langeland (“long land”), and finally joined Per and me at a ferry landing. (What took them so long? I joked) Waiting for the ferry along with us was a family of daredevils, too crazy to be believed. They were a young mother, father, small child, and either a friend or sister (I never learned which). They were cycling across Europe from their home in Paris, with the child being transported in a cart, and the sister/friend/cousin making the trip mostly on roller blades (you can’t make up this stuff!). Now they were making their way across Denmark.

Here are the dad, child, and crazy roller-blading sister
waiting for the ferry as they biked across Europe.
Coming off the ferry, our group began biking across the island of Lolland, which rhymes with “Holland” and was supposed to be just as flat. The plan was the ride for about 15-20 miles on Lolland, moving from west to east. This should be a snap, we were told, because the winds supposedly always blow from west to east there, providing a strong tail wind. There is an old Yiddish expression that goes, “Man plans, and God laughs.” God was definitely chuckling that day because the winds were very strong from east to west, turning helpful tail winds into sweat-inducing headwinds. Even Audrey bailed out after a time, but Lars and many of the group soldiered on. Then Harvey discovered that his difficulties biking that day were not all wind-related. He was riding on a rapidly deflating tire. Even that had not deterred him much. The group stopped to help fix the tire and then took a potato chip break to replenish the salt they had lost while sweating as they rode into the wind near the sea. If I had been there, I would definitely have been shedding tears to complete Isak Denisen’s triumvirate.  But I was safely in the van (chuckle, chuckle) on the way to our next destination in the town of Maribo.
Harvey, Audrey, and Phyllis rode happily
without my grumbling this day.
According to Isak Denisen, the cure for everything is salt water. Not to disagree, but I think the best cure for uphill climbs over high bridges and biking into stiff headwinds might be a welcoming van and a few glasses of Danish beer.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Our Danish “Odyssey”

“I am saying that erotic love is comic to a third party—more I do not say.”
—Soren Kierkegaard

On our fourth day of riding in Denmark, we went from Faaborg to Troense. The trip took us onto four different islands, and we rode not only on our bikes but also on two different ferries. We ended up in a charming little town that had a dirty little secret. Well, not exactly a secret, because it is mentioned in the guidebooks and Lars, our guide, shared it with us. And not everyone might consider it dirty . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Because I am always an English major at heart, I am going to call this day “our Danish Odyssey.” Our adventures were not exactly epic, but they did have some unusual Homeric parallels. We started the day with a quick ride to the harbor in Faaborg, took a walk along the town’s cobblestone streets, and came across my favorite Danish sign of the trip—a store window that advertised home delivery of pizza and kebabs with the quaint saying “du ringer, vi bringer,” which I figured must be translated “you call and we deliver”—though doesn’t it sound better in the original Danish? From there, like Odysseus, we boarded a ship and sailed for the island of Aero, a name that certainly sounds Greek to me.
Anyone need kebabs delivered?
Once in Aero, we mounted up and began a trek across the island to its largest town, Aerøskøbing. Halfway through our ride, we stopped to admire the beautiful seacoast and the blue seas, when we were attacked by marauding lady bugs. I know that sounds a little overdramatic, and not exactly on a parallel with facing down the Cyclops, but those bugs were downright vicious. Below is my photo of the creatures resting up en masse on a rock to prepare for a new attack. Perhaps there was mythological symbolism in that attack.
Did any Greek myths mention marauding lady bugs dotting the coastline?
We continued biking on to Aerøskøbing, enduring some Odyssean uphill and downhill stretches. Then we boarded a ferry that took us back to the town of Svendborg, which we had left two days earlier, and we quickly biked from there over a bridge to the island of Tasinge and the town of Troense.

I have received some feedback that my accounts of our Danish trip have been overly negative. To which, I say, “nope, nyet, nein, no way!” I have only positive things to say about Troense. It was the kind of small, quaint European seaside village you dream about. After dinner that night in our charming, small hotel just across the street from the water, Lars took us for a walk along the town’s most appealing and notable street. That’s where he revealed the town’s “dirty little secret.”

Troense's nicest street lined with thatched cottages.
Check out the placement of ceramic dogs on the window sill.
Lars explained that many Danish naval and merchant marine captains decided to settle in Troense even before they retired. Not a bad choice. Some of the wealthiest of those captains bought homes on the street on which we walked that night. Most of the houses had bright whitewashed walls, dotted with windows, and thick well-cared-for thatched roofs. Lars prompted us to look on the window ledges inside several of the houses, where we spotted pairs of ceramic dogs. Some pairs of dogs were facing out toward the street; others were facing inward. The dogs, he explained, had been gifts the captains picked up for their wives during their travels. What was behind the dogs’ orientation on the window sills?  That’s the dirty part. Some of the wives found an unusual use for the gifts. If her husband the captain was home from his travels, his wife would turn the dogs inward. If her husband was away at sea, she would place the dogs looking out toward the street, as if anticipating his return. A nice gesture, and nothing dirty about that, you say. Oh ho. It turns out that some of the wives had boyfriends on the side, who would check out the placement of the dogs. If they were looking in, the boyfriends would wait for a better time to woo their married girlfriends. If the dogs were looking outward, the coast was clear. And we had been told that the Danes were such straight-laced people!

Which brings me to my last Homeric connection. As I remember the story, Homer considered Odysseus’ wife Penelope to be one of the true heroes of his epic tale. During the 10 years during which Odysseus sailed to and from Troy and got into all sorts of travail, Penelope stayed home raising their son as a single parent. During those 10 years, many people—particularly potential suitors for the desirable but unwaveringly faithful Penelope—tried to convince her that her husband was long dead and it was time for her to move on. She turned all of the suitors away. There were no ceramic dogs on her window sill. At least I don’t remember any. But I read The Odyssey a long time ago, and my translation may have been cleaned up a little.
Penelope's suitors compete for her attention but never win her love.