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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.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Living vs Loving or Is It All the Same?

When  I type  (or try to type) the word "love" on my iPhone, it often comes out "live"! So on an almost daily basis, I find myself thinking about the relationship between live and love, between living and loving, Sometimes I let the accidental "live" remain in an email  because it makes just as much sense  ... As in: "I am living your gift". Or simply and more frequently:
"Live, Dotty."

The living and the living ( I mean loving. It happened again!!) of this week or so has included Father's Day, the birth of a grandchild, the birthday of my husband, the arrival of lots of family and today Independence Day. And while I wouldn't mind independence from the cooking and dishes, we remain in our now-too-big home as the gathering spot for our ever-growing family. This, and a book I am writing, hasve kept me from this blog for awhile. But stay tuned. I'll be back...  I'm living what I'm doing...I mean I'm loving what I'm living...

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Question: How Old is Computer Dating?



As I approach my (or should I say, "as we approach our") 46th wedding anniversary, I had to laugh this morning at a story on the first dating service in America. That was -- hard to believe -- 50 years ago! And I was a part of it.
A group of guys at Harvard -- at a time when I was at nearby Wellesley College -- came up with the idea. They called it "Operation Match."
"We'll provide the match. You provide the spark," was their pitch.
Recognizing -- even while I was  still in my late teens --that this would be remembered as a seminal moment in history,  I kept a copy of the questionnaire.
The story by one of my favorite reporters, Michael Vitez, would make it appear that the questions were fairly comprehensive.  Actually they were straight forward, pairing couples up largely on the basis of such basic things as location, religion, depth of religious belief, sex -- and height.
One of my Wellesley friends, Susan, was matched with Harvard medical student, Fred. They weren't particularly surprised.  Both were already dating, and both are particularly short for their respective genders. Height probably played a huge part in the match algorhythm. They married. And are still married!!
I was matched with five guys, all living within a couple miles of my dorm. I vaguely remember meeting a couple of them. They must have been forgettable. None stuck.
Mixers were the more typical way of meeting in those days. Then, at least, you could size up the person quickly. (A bit like what one dating service touts today: "It's only lunch." ) Wellesley, an all-women's college (still), needed to lure guys to campus. I remember at one dorm mixer being asked to dance by a very tall guy. He must have been 6-foot-three or four. I'm five-foot-one.
After a song or two, I looked up from somewhere around his armpit and asked him: "What's it like to dance with someone so short?"
"It's great," he said, looking down at the top of my head. "You don't have to talk with them."
I met my husband the old-fashioned way: blind date. His college friend and my college friend decided we would get along. A lot more than getting along, of course, is involved in 46 years of marriage. And, too, more than those Operation Match questions could possibly fathom back in 1965.
There's that thing, though, they did identify but could not quantify or capture:
The spark.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Fulltime or No Time grandparenting?

On Mother's Day, one might wonder who needs a mother most. Your own children and grandchildren or a lot of parentless children in Uganda?
Where would you spend your time?
Mama Arlene had an epiphany in her 70s.

Bored with traveling, she took off to live in Uganda and follow through with her vision. Hers is an inspiring story that few of us will replicate. She's now 84 and still mostly working in Uganda.
On the other hand ---and isn't there always an other hand ? – Melissa Dribben, a long time reporter and columnist has quit her job, no, her career, to be the full time caretaker for her grandchild while her daughter works. Read that story here.
 I respect the commitment that these women have made but their choices stir up other feelings in me.  Questions like-- did I spend enough time with my children when they were little and I was pursuing career.? Is Melissa now generously giving back or making up for what she herself may have missed? On the other hand, I'm shocked that mama Arlene Brown could at this stage of life want to remove herself so entirely from her own  family.Where is the balance? How much do grandkids need you and how much do you need them? And where is that balance?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Shoulberg at 76: Going Just Swimmingly

Dick Shoulberg, master coach -- Phila. Inquirer, Clem Murray

Dick Shoulberg, the renowned Germantown Academy swim coach who hurtfully lost his job in 2013 to a huge national outcry, is doing just fine, thank you.  Hazing had been hinted at, an allegation that many of the youths he had coached even to the Olympics  could not believe, nor did their parents. His age at the time, 74, was another theory. The school backtracked months later and called him back as "coach emeritus," with reduced responsibilities.
Shoulberg, 76,  who finally 'was retired'  from the school earlier this year, has clearly not retired.
As this swim coach extraordinaire says:
"As long as there is water and kids, I'm going to do it as long as the guy upstairs says I can."
He recently traveled to Mumbai to teach young swimmers in India. He's been out to Colorado to help coach the US swim team in advance of the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. He's setting up a local swim camp. He has kids from around the world coming to train with him.
A fine interview by Jessica Parks in the Philadelphia Inquirer catches us up with Shoulberg.   With age has come wisdom and he has plenty of Shoulberg-isms to share, mostly on what young people need. Parents should take heed.
On why to push kids hard:
 "What I've found is, the higher you raise the bar, the higher the kids will reach."
On their need for structure:
"Kids wanted structure in 1958, and they want structure in 2015. They want to know where they stand with you. They want consistency."

To read my previous blogs on Dick Shoulberg:
About his ouster.
Then the outcry that followed.
And his reinstatement.





Friday, April 24, 2015

In Her Spirit: an UnRetiring Passion Prevails

It really stuns me that two years after the death of Happy Fernandez, her legacy continues -- and is building. That's how much she inspired some two dozen women she brought together after retiring as president of Moore College of Art. Of course, she wasn't retiring. She was putting together a new challenge for herself -- trying to help women improve their leadership skills and rise in the ranks of non-profits, especially boards of trustees.
Since she died in January 2013, this rump group, made up of leaders of a number of Philadelphia non-profits as well as women on executive boards and high-ranking university officials, has met numerous times. At first, it was to honor Happy. But then it began gathering its own head of steam. The group's signature accomplishment so far was convincing the Forum of Executive Women to gather statistical information about women on non-profit educational and medical boards in the region for the Forum's annual report.
The results proved painful. Most of these boards had fewer than 1 woman for every 5 men. Some had none. And that despite the extraordinary number of women now holding high level jobs in all areas of the economy.
Happy's group hasn't stopped there. Now it is trying to use connections and persuasion to convince those who govern the Philadelphia area's non-profit universities and medical behemoths to address the lack of board diversity.  In today's Philadelphia Inquirer,  Jane Scaccetti -- a member of Temple University's board who also runs and is a founding member of a professional tax accounting firm -- partners with WHYY (public broadcast) president Bill Marrazzo to make the argument publicly.
Jane Scaccetti, CEO Drucker &Scaccetti

Bill Marrazzo, WHYY
This is not simply a question of gender equality.  As the article states, "We are not making the argument that women are 'better' than men. We are, however, making the suggestion, one firmly rooted in evidence, that perspectives informed by the different life and professional experiences men and women bring to the table yield new and often better decisions."
Stay tuned...


Thursday, April 16, 2015

An Immortality of Sorts



Photo and caption from Catholic Charities Appeal
Here's one cohort of workers who do not have to fear that, upon retiring, they won't know what to do with themselves. Their service is so in demand that they are constantly being called up for duty.
Who is this group?
Priests!!
As Kristin Holmes reports in the Philadelphia Inquirer,  the shortage of priests is so severe in the area that many well into their eighties are stepping up to the pulpit.
Nearly a third of priests and bishops in the Philadelphia Archdiocese  --171 out of 520-- are officially retired, the article says. A full 50 percent in the neighboring Camden Archdiocese are also retired. And no army of young recruits has emerged to fill the ranks. 
So people like Msgr.  James Mortimer are regularly recruited to replace priests on vacation or ill. He hadn’t wanted to retire in the first place, but back when he was 75, he hit the mandatory retirement age (already moved up from 65 because of the looming shortage.) He went off to fill in for priests in South Dakota and did a teaching stint in Rome.
Now Msgr. Mortimer is back in Philadelphia, retired but not really, at age 88.
I remember when the Quaker Lace factory closed in Philadelphia. Lace tablecloths and the like were being made on machinery so old that when the one man who knew how to repair them retired or died, they shut down.
What other jobs or industries are teetering as they lose their workforce with few or no replacements? What are the ramifications? Any thoughts?



Sunday, April 12, 2015

Barbara Bergmann: A Feminist Economist

Barbara Bergmann
It was nearly two years ago that I had the remarkable opportunity to meet Barbara Bergmann, my daughter's backyard neighbor. It happened because of an enormous fig tree that she wanted Becca to have.
During the course of that afternoon, the moving of the tree, and the time to talk, I sensed that this elder, whom I was seeing only in the context of her garden was someone very special.  With a little research, I learned that Barbara Bergmann was a pioneer in the field of women and economics and that she had broken through glass ceilings even before that phrase existed. I wrote about her, the afternoon of the fig, and the difficulty we have as a society seeing past gray hair, thick glasses and a cane.
Sadly, it takes a death and the subsequent obituary to fully appreciate a person's legacy.
Barbara Bergmann died last week and yesterday the New York Times devoted significant acreage to her life.
Here are a few items from this obituary, which I encourage you to read.
For one, Barbara saw the advent of the word processor as a threat to women's employment. Thousands of women would lose their jobs as  typists, secretaries and clerical workers, she warned.
She argued for federal support for daycare, especially as the number of single parent households exploded.
And she fought for equal pay for women, even as she had fought on her own behalf to get academic jobs at universities that just didn't hire women.
Becca now has Barbara's fig tree, which after the shock of transplant, will soon bear fruit again. As for the richness of Barbara Bergmann's legacy, we thank her for the intellectual seeds she planted that continue to challenge old thinking and give parity to women in this economy. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Art of Aging

I'm now listening to some of today's live "Transforming Aging" sessions on the web-- still free for 48 hours -- that started today. You can just go to the website... sign up here
again if you didn't already.

Then click on any of the sessions that have already happened -- and you can listen! (I list the schedule at the end of this post.)

Here are a few highlights of "The Art of Aging",  with artists Alice and Richard Matzkin 
Richard Matzkin, sculptor: "Creativity is the willingness to move into the unknown.
This has a lot of meaning for older people who have the tendency to go with the tried and true, the habitual ways of being. That deadens creativity. Bringing creativity into your life is like bringing renewal into your life....You have to let go of judgment. That's what stops creativity.

Alice Matzkin, artist:
It doesn't have to be art-- can be gardening, cooking, being with your family in certain ways. Having a passion for something you love to do and put your heart and soul into it.

Q. How to tap into your creativity?
R.M.: Have the attitude of "play," of being a child again and play.... When you're in the zone, creating, it's a meditation.

A.M.: Take a class, meet others... you don't have to show your creation to anyone. It's for you.

Confronting her own aging, Alice Matzkin,  whose work is in the National Portrait Gallery, also painted herself:


Alice Matzkin: self portrait