Monday, September 28, 2015

Pope in My Back Yard: The News Scoop

The pope at St. Joe's U.  --Gia Avallone

In a surprise detour, Pope Francis and his good friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka dropped by the new Jewish-Catholic sculpture at St. Joseph's University. Fortunately, I had been to the dedication of the sculpture two days earlier and  had just  interviewed Rabbi Skorka, in from Buenos Aires for the dedication. With the adrenalin racing from my old reporting days, I turned around this story for The Forward in a couple of hours. Because of my access, it's one you won't read elsewhere. You can read  the story in The Forward here.

With the words of Pope Francis 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Pope in My Back Yard: Sightings

Philadelphia at its best
With our street facing the Pope's sleeping quarters and totally blocked off, we did an end run and came up a side street this morning just before he arrived. I got to see his arm waving out his Fiat. But later in the day, came the fun. Riding through empty streets on our bikes to go into Philadelphia, past smiling, friendly uniformed police, National Guard, Border Patrol, Secret Service.
Friends with a high view had invited us and while you could see the Pope better on TV and hear his impassioned ex temp speech on love better there, too, we had spectacular views of Philadelphia.

Looking towards the Philadelphia Art Museum

Friday, September 25, 2015

Pope in My Back Yard: The Rabbi and the Sculpture

"Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time," dedicated today
Pope Francis' good friend and co-author Rabbi Abraham Skorka  arrived in Philadelphia a day ahead of the pontiff. (And like the Pope, he is also staying just a block from my house, though not at St. Charles Seminary. We have quite a high-end bed-and-breakfast community going here)
This afternoon Rabbi Skorka  was the keynote speaker at a dedication of an important sculpture -- one that shows Christianity and Judaism on an equal footing.
A dialogue between Rabbi Skorka and his friend, when he was Cardinal Bergoglio, deepened their relationship and their conviction that both grew spiritually from a closer understanding of each other and each other's theology.
Rabbi Skorka
That belief -- and also the effort to fight longstanding anti-Semitism, often within the Church -- led St. Joseph's University to establish, in 1967, The Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations, which is responsible for the new sculpture, along with a number of Jewish organizations including the American Jewish Committee. (*See list of other participating organizations below)
So, about that sculpture: All over Europe a sculptural representation of Judaism and Christianity in the form of two women,  shows the Christian "Ecclesia" -- tall and proud and wearing a crown -- and "Synagoga," who is blindfolded by a serpent, her staff broken, her tablets slipping from her hand. It represents the triumph of Christianity over Judaism.
The new sculpture, called   "Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time," by Joshua Koffman, shows the two women seated beside each other, almost like two sisters, reading over each other's shoulders.
Below is the Medieval version:
Medieval version, Strasbourg Cathedral

Beside collaborating on their book, On Heaven and Earth, Rabbi Skorka and Pope Francis appeared together on TV 31 times, showing how debate and dialogue with each other deepened their respective faiths. It's time, said Rabbi Skorka, for a "new world in which we are no longer foreigners with each other." The new rendition of the sculpture, he said, is a "reminder of our past and the challenge of the future."

Here is the text, from Nostra Aetate, which opened the door to an improvement in Catholic-Jewish relations:
"True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ."
*Other groups collaborating with the Institute are the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Anti-Defamation League, Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia and World Meeting of Families.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Pope in My Back Yard: Countdown Two Days Out

There was a buzz this morning. Helicopters practicing their landings at St. Charles Seminary., When I went out to look, I found my own personal port-a-potty, right on my corner. But first (since some have complained about my touting too many toilets),  a view of the Chapel where Pope Francis will receive the Bishops on Sunday. It was serene, the lull before the storm. The only people out were a few neighbors along E. Wynnewood Rd.
Chapel Building
And here's the building across the street from me, where the Pope isn't sleeping, It's the Seminary's school. It dates from not long after the Civil War.
Photo Courtesy Gerry Senker

Of course, downtown, excitement  is beginning to build: Personal prayer intentions posted at the Cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul
Notes at the Cathedral: Photo - Terry Fernald

And now, my corner. We think the facility may be for the Secret Service and police who will be shooing people away. Anyway, I'm presuming the pictures will be a lot different come Saturday.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Pope in My Backyard: Signs and Predictions

Here are some photos from downtown Philadelphia, taken by my daughter, in advance of the Pope's visit. Lots of signs, not so many people yet! Out my way, by St. Charles Seminary, nada. The only signs are "permit parking only". They want to keep everyone very far away.
Water bottles piled up 
Cleaning up Market St. at 8th.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Pope in My Back Yard: The Signs of Day Two

Photo by Dotty Brown
Everywhere you look, the Pope is in fashion. Check out the Nicole Miller window in Manyunk, a Philadelphia neighborhood.

A sign  that the Pope is coming -- and that U.S. mail is not:

Photo by Naomi Fernald

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Pope in My Backyard: Day One of Countdown

The metal crowd control gates have gone up on the street bordering the side of my house a week ahead of the arrival of Pope Francis in Philadelphia. The gates also  partially block the entry way to my little street, such that one car can barely squeeze through.  The noose is tightening. No one told us about the gates. No one has told us what to expect.
Such is the scene at Ground Zero, my house, across the street from where the Pope will be sleeping one week from now.  When he arrives, we will be prisoners of the event. For that matter, most of Philadelphia will be in lock down, or lock up, depending on your perspective.
Which is why a lot of folks are heading out of town, if they can. We, however, after much thought, are staying put. Is it because we need some excitement in our lives at this certain age? Curiosity?
Or maybe it's history. The last time a pope came to town, we carried our young children on our shoulders down this very street to see him in an open-top Popemobile. It made for a good story.  Having new stories to tell is always good.
This time will surely be different. Today's paper says Pope Francis' visit to Philadelphia "is the largest event security operation ever undertaken by the U.S. Secret Service." Bigger even than the inauguration of President Obama. "This one is more unique because of the amount of travel the pope will do within the city of Philadelphia and the volume of people as well," said Secret Service Director Joe Clancy.
Clearly, the city is getting prepared. Today, during a drive downtown -- probably one of the last I'll be able to make before they close down the highway -- I saw an important sight: three very large 18-wheelers, loaded with Port-a-Pottys.
Before it's too late: Pope Port-a-Pottys en route 

Speaking of which... from my bathroom window, I can look right into some of the campus buildings of St. Charles Seminary, the Pope-motel. But those buildings are about a block from where the Pope's brand new bed will be. More likely, the Secret Service, standing guard at the Seminary and looking into my window as I shower will find more entertainment than I will looking out at them.  

Sunday, August 23, 2015

"50 Children" Granddaughter Dies

For those who have followed the recent revelation, in book and film, of one of Philadelphia's most poignant stories -- that of the rescue of 50 children from Vienna, slipping them out of Hitler's deadly grip  -- here's a sad note.
The granddaughter of that daring couple, Gil and Eleanor Kraus, who helped the story come to light, has died. Liz Perle had an important literary career in her own right, as the obituary in the New York Times notes.
Her husband, journalist Steve Pressman, recognized the compelling story in Eleanor Kraus'  diary and produced a movie, 50 Children, the Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,  and a book.  Our condolences to Steve.
One of those people who was rescued was Kurt Herman, whom I was able to interview before he passed away last December. You can read his story here.  Time goes by, the stories are lost. Unless people record them. Thanks, Liz and Steve.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Tomas Stern's Unexpected Rescue Mission

The Stupava Synagogue: Undergoing Rescue

Tomas Stern: A Personal Mission
What compulsion drove me to finally visit a small cemetery where my great-grandparents are buried? What could I learn about my heritage, about myself,  from some old headstones? This spring, I acted on my desire to see Stupava in Slovakia (formerly Stampfen in the Austro-Hungarian Empire).
Through serendipity and the Web, however, I learned much more than I expected. Most importantly,  I found someone with no ties to my town, Tomas Stern, who is working to save the heart of it.
My journey is told here, in a story published in the Forward.
What is it about hunting down one's origins that happens at this later time of life? For more on that question, see Phil Goldsmith's quest. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Mission to Emulate: Finding Our Family

Phil Goldsmith's new book could be our book: In Search of Self and Family

Isn't that the quest so many of us embark on -- or want to embark on -- even if we keep relegating the project to some future time?
At this age, it's not so much about learning about ourselves. We should be comfortable in our skins by now. It's more about taking responsibility for documenting family history for the sake of our children and grandchildren and some day, hopefully, great and greater grandchildren.
Without serious writing or videography, the whisper-down-the-lane stories from generation to generation get ever wispier and more unreliable.
For Phil, the time was now. After leaving the last of his many paid careers, including law, journalism, banking, politics, and his unpaid effort to tighten gun laws at Cease Fire PA, he immersed himself in  history and biography by reading at least one book about every American president, starting with George Washington, and ending with Barack Obama. (See previous blogpost here.)
Then he turned to his own family.
About those grandparents... 
Fortunately, for those of us who don't know Phil or are not a relative, his book is filled with fascinating characters. (The nut does not fall far from the tree...). Phil himself did not realize how fascinating they were until he started really learning about them. For instance,  a  grandfather and great uncle were one of the nation's largest manufacturers of handbags. Newspapers and trade publications wrote about them -- and they held patents for newfangled closures. Phil also learned why -- as a kid  --  he and his family had moved so often: family discord had broken up the company, where his father also had worked.  Another grandfather was a country lawyer who became an important civic leader in Allentown, PA.
As he connected with dozens of living relatives, Phil also discovered papers long stashed in trunks and attics -- moving letters, written almost daily, from a son serving in the Pacific during World War II to his parents;  tender letters from a grandfather urging a grandson (Phil actually) to stay in college; the poetry of a mother who suffered lifelong depression.
From the trove, Phil was able to glean insights into the generosity of his ancestors, a trait he surely inherited. For instance, one day his (lawyer) grandfather offered a stranger a ride to a job interview. Ten days later he writes to the man (and keeps a carbon copy): "Dear Mr. Roberts, You will recollect that... I gave you a ride to the Taylor-Wharton plant where you were trying to get a job. I am anxious to know whether you got your job and whether it was a good one."
Phil Goldsmith

His book, while meant mostly for his children and grandchildren, resonates with anyone whose ancestors arrived from abroad to these shores, struggled, moved, married, divorced, succeeded, failed, and in the end became  a piece of the American quilt.
Which is most of us. It's also a voyage through history, as he cloaks his family's stories in the broader circumstances of their times.

While Phil -- fueled by curiosity and adept at research-- is particularly suited to writing memoir, so much material is out there now that his book is also a blueprint for anyone who might embark on a similar journey into the past  Through arrival records at Ellis Island and flight and ship manifests, it's just a click of a name to discover who arrived where and when and what city or shtetl they came from. (I was surprised to discover in ship records that my grandmother had traveled from Vienna to New York and back again in the 1930s well before she and her husband --and my mother -- actually had to flee.)  Through Census records -- open now to 1940 -- you can know who lived on your grandparents' block, what they did for a living and where they, too, came from.

But Phil's was not just a kitchen table exercise. He reached out to family members who hadn't talked to each other in decades -- some because of hurts or insults that no one remembers anymore. They graciously turned over to him letters and diaries that form the backbone of his book, eloquent gifts that resonate from the past. (Will Facebook and email offer us this wealth of history? Maybe, if we leave each other our passwords. And remember to delve into the "sent" box. )
Phil's writing --and resources -- get richer and richer as he gets closer to the present. And by the book's end, I found myself crying. Forgive me if I give away the ending:
As I have spent many hours of my life walking along the beach... I have watched and heard the splashing of the waves come and go, just as generations of family come and go--one after another, some big, some small some rough, some calm, some throwing off a spray of salt water that is sometimes high enough to reflect the brilliance of the sunlight and others barely perceptible....Amidst the variety of size and strength of the waves is their constancy, regardless of year, month or day. Wave after wave -- like generation after generation...But with this continuity of life is the parade of the impermanence of individual life. Like footsteps on the wet, hard-packed sands of the beach, our own lives -- regardless of how large they once were-- quietly disappear. The waves flow over them, one after another, erasing our imprint and awaiting the mark of new ones.
No, Phil. You made sure your family's imprint will not be erased.