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Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Shul Rat


I grew up going to synagogue (Shul is the Yiddish word for synagogue) every week, starting when I was four years old. Mom would drop me and my brother off at junior congregation on Saturday mornings, and then pick us up an hour later to take us to our afternoon activities (gymnastics for me and computers for him). I liked that the service for the kids was only an hour and in a small sanctuary, and that the leader of the services was kind of a kid himself, in his early twenties and doing bible trivia with us and giving out candy for correct answers. There was something special about being there with only my brother and no parents around. It gave us a chance to take ownership of our Judaism, and our synagogue, and not have it be filtered through anyone else, or through a sense of duty.

I also liked that after services we could wander around the synagogue, until Mom got there, and it was like wandering through the White House without supervision. We’d sneak around and make it feel really mysterious and dramatic. The ceilings were high, and the setting was so formal, and everyone was quiet so as not to disturb the goings on in the main sanctuary. There was also something wonderful about having a community outside of my family, and a building to explore. My extended family was not next door, or down the block; we didn’t even have big family dinners more than once or twice a year, so the synagogue was my sense of family.

I liked the older people at shul. They weren’t always warm, but they paid attention and looked me in the eye. I felt like my best self there. At school I was a good student, but got teased constantly. At dance and gymnastics classes, I was barely keeping up and certainly not a star. At home…eh. But at shul, I mattered.

When I was seven, my father started to go to Saturday morning services regularly, and not long after that, my brother and I stopped going to afternoon activities and just stayed for the rest of the adult services with our father. The main sanctuary was a big deal. There was a high ceiling and stained glass windows, and tapestries on the walls, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. I liked the smell of the prayer books, and the hard covers, and the golden type on the cover. I liked that I knew who was a regular and who was new. I liked having a set seat that I went to every time. I loved when the Torah reader, the mother of one of my brother’s good friends, would sing harmonies, and I could sing along with her, and learn from her.



My synagogue was not quite this grand, but I can dream.

For special occasions, like an engagement, bags of candy were made up and thrown onto the bima, and the kids ran up to get as much candy as they could reach. I never see this at my current synagogue. Maybe it’s been outlawed because someone could get hit, or someone could miss out on candy. Better to just have a table full of candy to choose from after the service, they think. Phooey.

bags of candy

Bags of candy! (not my picture)

After my father got involved in the synagogue, we started to go to Friday night services, which were a formal affair. Kids came with their parents, and the cantor sang his complex loops of song, and everyone dressed up.  After the service there was a sit down oneg (dessert and talk) in the social hall. Tables were set up in a u-shape, and tea and desserts were set out. There were always non-dairy brownies with chocolate frosting, and I always ate off the frosting and left the brownies behind. Then the rabbi would hit his teacup with his spoon to start the discussion, and the kids would rush out just in the nick of time. The rabbi resented this, and forced his own children to stay put, but the other adults seemed to understand that kids could not sit through a long and boring discussion so late at night, when there was a whole building to explore.

Sometimes we’d end up sitting in the dark, in the far reaches of the building, looking through the toys left out by the preschoolers, or telling ghost stories. Other times, we made up elaborate games that required running through the building, and hiding under benches in the small sanctuary, and even sneaking up onto the bima in the main sanctuary to see what the rabbi kept in his lectern.


“Are there toys at shul?”


“Or pizza?”

I would have loved to bring Cricket and Butterfly to shul with me, to run through the halls of the building and play tag and have an excuse to laugh and jump and not be so self-conscious. But I never struggled to feel “spiritual” at shul, it was just there, in the building, in the occasion, in me. I wish every kid had a place like that, where God is infused into the walls of the building and doesn’t have to be spelled out; where history is just there all around you, waiting to be discovered.

Cricket would be more interested in searching for the left over bags of candy, but then I’m pretty sure God is in the candy too.





The Tango Lesson


More than ten years ago now, I went to a group dance lesson at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, because I had to do an attempt at literary reporting for my creative non-fiction class. I was not ready to write non-fiction at that point, and anything that smelled like journalism made me hyperventilate. But I’m a follow-the-rules kind of girl, so I did the assignment.

The first Saturday of each month, the museum opened its doors, free of charge. You could view the exhibits, or watch a movie, but most of us were there for the dance lesson. This week’s dance was the Argentine Tango.

picture from

A crowd had already gathered on the third floor when we arrived. The willing dancers gathered in the center of the floor, around the small circular stage. There was a woman in a conservative black skirt suit, with stiff white wings on her back, and children running through the maze of casually dressed adults. Another group, the circumspect, sat on the steps at the edges of the floor, holding pocketbooks, legs crossed. The last group, the voyeurs, mostly well-dressed twenty and thirty-somethings, leaned over the railings on the floor above.

In the center of the room, the four dance instructors stood on the podium, each facing a corner of the room. The two men wore black suits, one wearing a microphone headset. He welcomed us in a broken stream of words until the microphone was adjusted. The two women wore low cut black dresses and chunky heeled black dance shoes.

“Everyone step to your right,” the man with the microphone said. “Feet should be together – is that true for you?” he asked, and many people looked down at their feet to check. “Step to the left.” Everyone moved in the same direction at the same time, like a dial clicking one notch at a time.

The instructors demonstrated the next steps forward, hugging in the center of the stage as the rest of us tripped over each other trying to imitate them. The next part of the lesson: arm position. “This is the dance of passion,” the instructor said. “So whoever you’re pretending to hold, pretend to hold them in a passionate way.” He paused, then added, “For you youngsters – just hold your arms up.”

The music started. The main instructor, with an eyebrow raised, asked the single dancers to partner up. Two teenage girls with long blond hair and various piercings held onto each other and giggled. A grey haired couple stood side by side, wearing sensible rubber-soled shoes.

A mother danced with her young daughter. An older white man was paired with a little black girl looking for a partner. A little girl danced with her cabbage patch doll.

“The Tango is all about getting to know someone,” the instructor said. A teenage girl in a black dress and high heels pointed to her arm position and said to her boyfriend, in his jeans and ratty t-shirt, “This is my dance space, this is your dance space,” a line from the movie Dirty Dancing. He seemed to know the reference, because the next thing he did was to lean in to her dance space and kiss her.


from Dirty Dancing

My dogs would never be able to make sense of a Tango, with its sidelong glances and quick flicks and tension. They’re much too straightforward for that, but they have created their own dance forms. Cricket has a “Grandma’s home!” dance that involves a lot of hopping on her two back paws and reaching up into the air with her front paws. Butterfly has an outdoor dance with a lot of skipping and hopping and galloping, before she finally stops to poop. They also have a few partner dances, where they cross leashes and sniff each other and run side by side and then pull apart.


Dance with Grandma!

pix from eos 042.jpg

Dance in the leaves!


Dance in the snow!


Dance together!

The dance floor at the museum began to look like an oversized game of Twister after a while, with a widening gap between the serious dancing couples and everyone else just playing around, snapping fingers, running instead of dancing, shimmying when that was not what the instructor called for.

A man in a long black coat, black hat, and beard, danced with a woman in a modest red dress on the outskirts of the crowd. He leaned down after a complicated step, and she reached up, to kiss him on the lips. Their teenage son, in the same kind of plain black suit, with fringes dangling out of the corners of his white shirt, wandered through the couples, wind-milling his arms, dancing on his own, twirling his coat like a black dancing skirt.

His parents watched him, but let him be. I noticed the couple because they were obviously Jewish and therefore familiar, but even more than that because they looked so comfortable in their bodies. You could see their relationship in every move they made: the private jokes, the comfortable fit of one hand in another, the playful kiss on the cheek. When I watch Dancing with the Stars, or So You Think You Can Dance, they’re always emphasizing the sexuality and formality of dance, but this was something more real and down to earth; this was like watching a long-married couple do dishes together, or listening in on a gentle disagreement about the color of the curtains.

This is what I love about watching Cricket and Butterfly dance, every move they make is real and expresses something they actually feel in the moment. It’s not formal or theoretical, it’s down to earth and full of life. If I could ever create a dance for myself, that’s what I’d want it to be like, especially if I could include a swirling dance skirt, and a few puppies for good measure.


And then rest.

Olivia and Dina


Olivia Cole was one of my mom’s good friends in high school. They were both in the theatre group, at their girls’ only school in the city. There were girls of every shade and religion there and none of that mattered. I got the sense that they were in a safe haven in that school, where the limitations placed on other girls in the fifties just didn’t apply to them.

Mom went off to film school in California after that, and Olivia went to RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. Then Mom went on to work as a film editor, and got married, and had kids, and found that film work was not on the right schedule for parenting two little kids, and one big one. And Olivia moved out to Los Angeles, married, divorced and won an Emmy.


Olivia wins an Emmy!

I’d seen Olivia’s picture in the yearbook and heard her name, but I’d never met her myself. And then North and South, the miniseries, came on TV, and I was busily watching Patrick Swayze and listening to southern accents when I saw Olivia. I started screaming and calling for my Mom – Is that her?! And it was. I knew (of) someone who was on TV!

When I was in seventh grade, I got to see her on stage in A Raisin in the Sun, and then I saw her in three episodes of Murder, She Wrote, and a miniseries with Oprah Winfrey. But all of this time I still didn’t know her. I saw her in another play a few years later and she came out to meet us, and I was shy, and she smiled and called me “A tall drink of water” or was it “long” drink of water. Not sure. But she was still a stranger, a mirage even. When she was on stage or on my TV, she wasn’t really Olivia, and I wasn’t sure who she might be in real life. She wasn’t the kind of actress who played herself over and over, she played characters who were nothing like her, except that they used her eyes and her voice. They even changed her body, making her walk, her body language, the shape of her, unrecognizable.

olivia cole - the women of brewster place

Olivia in the Women of Brewster Place.

And then, when I was in my twenties, she came to stay with us. She had to sell her father’s house on the island and Mom offered our apartment as base of operations. Normally Olivia would have stayed in the city with her mother, but this was more convenient, and, more importantly, a chance to catch up with an old friend.

We had Dina then. She was probably ten years old, a black lab mix from the shelter, still in good health, and calmer than she’d been for the most of her life. I was still at my shyest back then (and only a few steps removed from that even now). I think Olivia was the only adult who ever slept over at the apartment (nephews, no matter what they might think, do not count as adults). Olivia was this mix of grand theatrical wisdom and down to earth, plain spoken quiet. And she loved my dog. And Dina loved Olivia.

dina smiles


Dina did not have many friends. Little children were as frightened of her as she was of them. They would see her black hair and sharp teeth and hide behind their mothers. Dina would see their quick movements, and short stature, and sit down by my leg with her back hair raised up. When people asked if she would bite, I had to say yes, she might do that. She’d tried to bite me, for picking her up when she didn’t want to be moved, for leaving her home when she wanted to come with me.

I took her to therapy with me for a few months, when she was suffering from unbearable separation anxiety, and maybe just knowing where I went without her, knowing what the place smelled like and sounded like, calmed her down. By the time Olivia visited, Dina was doing better, but she was still Dina. So Olivia’s matter of fact and immediate friendship was disarming and surprising to her. She wasn’t used to being liked by strangers. The two of them went for long walks together, down to the beach, keeping stride, breathing together.


Dina loved to listen to Olivia’s voice.

With people, Olivia was a talker. She had that dramatic raconteur voice, with a touch of her southern Mom and her time in London coming through, and a lot of her time on stage filling out her voice so that even her whispers filled the whole room with a low smoky sound.

I don’t know if Olivia talked to Dina out on their walks, telling her stories of her own dog, Oro, or her trips around the world, or the characters she’d played. Maybe they were just quiet together, breathing in rhythm, walking towards the water and feeling the slight breeze in the air. Whatever it was, they came back content.

Dina had a friend. She didn’t know anything about Emmy awards and Hollywood and pilot season and table readings, all she knew was that this presence had entered her life and offered love of a gentle, fresh, relieving kind.

dina dances

Dina, the dancer.

I have to believe that’s part of what changed things for my Dina. She never became a social butterfly, but something in her anxiety seemed to slow down. As if she’d decided that it was all okay. She didn’t have to get better to be loved, she just had to be.


Olivia Cole is currently in a two-woman play about the Delany sisters, called Having Our Say, in Hartford, Connecticut. If you’re in the area, or plan to be there before April 24th, stop in and see her. She’s magical.

Olivia in Having our say

Olivia in Having Our Say.

This is a review of the play when it was at the Long Wharf theater:

Link to Hartford Stage:

A Chicken in the Yard

Why did someone throw a cooked chicken, and potatoes, into the woods behind our building where we walk the dogs?

So, one day, we were walking in the backyard of our co-op building, a nice big yard with a hill up into the woods, and Cricket spotted a squirrel, and Butterfly spotted her sister hopping like a bunny rabbit to catch the squirrel, and I let go of Butterfly’s leash (not Cricket’s, because I am not crazy), and Butterfly ran towards the squirrel, and then took a swift left turn towards a section of ivy we usually do not bother to explore. Cricket pulled me up the hill and over to the spot and I saw what I thought was an enormous, pale grey mushroom. I stepped on Butterfly’s leash and held both girls back from the strange thing until Grandma, our nature guide, could take a closer look. She looked at it, touched it with the toe of her shoe, and said, “I think it’s a chicken.”


“Of course you can trust me off leash, Mommy.”

I did not believe her. Really, I thought, Mom has not had enough rest lately. What would a chicken be doing in our backyard? On the next walk, I was careful to keep hold of the leashes, and promptly forgot about the strange mushroom in the ivy. But later in the afternoon. After a long nap, I convinced Mom to hold Butterfly’s leash for me, while Cricket tried to drag me to the street to visit the cars up close, and when Butterfly pulled on her leash, Mom let her run free. Instead of running ten feet and finding the perfect pooping spot, as usual, Butterfly galloped the length of the yard, up the hill, around the corner, and into the ivy. By the time Mom caught up to her, Butterfly had her face down in the greenery. Mom pulled the leash and managed to get Butterfly a foot away from the area, and saw that she was eating something. It looked like a potato.


The ivy patch, or potato patch.

“A potato?” (This was me, when Mom and Butterfly met me and Cricket half way across the yard, Butterfly looking back at her ivy patch with longing.)

“A potato. And it was definitely a chicken, not a mushroom, probably split down the middle and flattened with a brick.”

“A cooked chicken?”

“And potatoes.”

“Why did someone throw a cooked chicken and potatoes into the woods?”

Mom could not answer this for me, though she had a suspicion that it was the same woman who throws huge chunks of French bread on the lawn to choke the birds.


“But Mommy, I want the bread!”

I held both leashes while Mom took an extra bag from her pocket and used it as a protective glove with which to remove the chicken and potatoes from the woods, so that the girls would no longer be drawn to it as if it were, well, chicken.

Unfortunately, Butterfly was able to find a potato hiding under the ivy the next morning, and stood around chewing it ostentatiously in front of me at seven o’clock in the morning when I didn’t have the energy to fight with her. And Cricket found another potato that afternoon, which inspired her grandma to search through the ivy more carefully for any other leftovers.

We seem to be safe now. And I say it that way because, almost immediately, when I was told it was a chicken and not a magically appearing mushroom of unusual size, I started to think that someone was trying to poison my dogs. We’re the only ones who seem to go up there – because that’s where the managers told us to go since we insist on not walking the dogs in the street four times a day. And Cricket is kind of annoying, and some of the grass in front of our building has clearly been peed on, so maybe someone has a grudge against my dogs and wanted to hurt them and what better way than to cook up an entire chicken, and potatoes, and inject them with poison, and throw them in the path of my babies.


“I am not annoying.”

My paranoia started to wear off after a few days, when it was clear that my dogs were not dying. I had to remind myself that some people are just weird. Some people throw their dinner into the woods, for the magical fairies (aka raccoons) to enjoy, instead of into the garbage cans in the basement in well tied black garbage bags.

Both dogs still rush over to that spot in the ivy to check if any new snacks have arrived, and Cricket has decided that there may also be snacks hidden in the adjacent leaf pile, and insists on shoving her nose in as deep as possible, and burrowing, every time she has a chance.


Cricket’s leaf pile (there are no potatoes in there, that I know of).

It makes me wonder if I’ve been failing as a dog Mommy all of these years, by NOT burying treats in the yard for them to find on their walks.

pix from eos 041.jpg


Color War

When I went to sleepaway camp as a kid (for five summers, eight weeks at a time) the worst thing that I had to endure was color war. Each bunk, and each age group in the entire camp, was split down the middle. Even the counselors in my own bunk could be on the opposing team. We were either white or blue, and almost all of the competitions that made up the war were fought against the kids we saw every day. There were swim competitions and foot races and trivia contests and ultimate Frisbee. We had to learn songs to cheer for our side, and wear t-shirts with our team colors. And at the end of the war there was a huge tug of war with the whole camp pulling on one or the other side of the rope.

I’m not sure what the purpose of color war was meant to be, maybe a team building exercise, or a chance to compete at the activities we’d just been doing carelessly each day before that, but the unintended consequence, or at least I hope it was unintended, was that we got to feel what it would be like to have to fight with our friends and neighbors, and it was awful.

By my last summer, I actively campaigned against not only my own involvement in color war, but its existence altogether. At thirteen, I could finally articulate the pain in the fact that my counselor, my mommy-substitute for two months, would be actively rooting against me for at least 24 hours. It was shattering.

It would be like splitting my family in half, with Grandma and Butterfly on one team and Cricket and I on the other, and every meal we ate, every TV show we watched, would be a battleground. Cricket would lose her mind.



This is what I’ve been thinking about lately, with the American presidential election in its long swing through hell. There are two teams, that’s it, and it’s a fight to the death to see who gets to represent each team, even if no one, really, can represent 50% of the country to anyone’s satisfaction.

In a multiparty system like Britain’s parliamentary system, smaller parties can win seats in the parliament and have influence in governing. A party that wins 20% of the votes in a multi-party system, will get 20% of the seats in the legislature, and a voice in parliament. In a two party system like we have in the United States, we can still have third parties, and have had many of them, but they rarely gain traction. Why? Because in winner-takes-all elections, the 20% a third party may be able to muster doesn’t win them any power. This is why Bernie Sanders is running as a Democrat, despite being an Independent, as well as a Democratic Socialist.

Americans seem to be comfortable with our two party split, our black and white dichotomies, not to put too fine a point on it. There are many people who’d like to make the next division Christian versus Moslem, as if everyone in the world is either one or the other. But that assumes that all Christians are one, and all Moslems are one, and that everyone else doesn’t exist. That’s what you have to do to create this two team system. You have to whitewash, or blackwash, everything.

The dichotomy between Republican and Democrat has never been more extreme in my lifetime than it is right now. During the Bill Clinton era, the constant complaint was that both parties were so centrist that choosing one over the other was just about brand loyalty and nothing deeper than that. Today, it’s a deep divide.

I think I’d be more comfortable with proportional representation, just because it fits my world view better. Let me fight with the people I’m actually in disagreement with, instead of a whole team of people who have to be loyal to each other no matter what they actually believe in.

Except, at least with the two party system, Trump has to won a majority (or if there’s a third party candidate by November, a plurality) of the votes in order to get into power. In a multiparty system he could win just 20% of the vote and at least have some power – and I would have to deal with that. Though it’s hard to imagine someone like Trump being interested in that kind of power. He’s an all or nothing kind of guy.

Another benefit of the two party system is that outliers like the Ku Klux Klan, who may still be a presence in certain states, cannot elbow their way into either of the big parties and get to power in the country overall. But, maybe that’s also part of the problem – most of the country had no idea these outliers were there. We didn’t know that there were going to be so many Trump supporters bubbling up, because until they reached a critical mass they were invisible in our winner-takes-all system.

But, I like the idea that in a family, even if there are certain people with more power, the minority voices – like Cricket’s and Butterfly’s – still get heard and still have a vote. They may not have the final vote, or the most heavily weighted vote, but they still count in the delegate math. Maybe Butterfly would be in the “food, glorious food” party, advocating for extra meals and extra treats. And Cricket would be in the “I want to play” party, advocating for extra outings and more interactive time with her people. They could work together on certain tasks, helping each other reach their goals, as long as they are both satisfied by the outcome. And on other issues they wouldn’t work together, but might find common cause with Grandma (“let’s go to the beach”), or with me (“snacks in front of the TV would be nice”). It’s a more flexible system, and allows people to be more honest about their beliefs and motivations.


“Grandma! It’s time for gardening!”


45 - and salty

“Grandma, aren’t you thirsty?”