Stefanella's Drive Thru

Israel, U.S., conflict, war, peace, humor, travel, romance, fashion, fun

The Globo-Life August 15, 2010

Years ago while sitting in a San Francisco cafe, I moaned to an Israeli friend: “I like being here but I miss Israel.  And when I’m in Israel the things that drive me crazy there make me want to come back to the States!  I’ve moved around so many times I feel like it’s time to make a decision about where to settle down but I just don’t know where that should be!”

My friend, bless her Zen-filled heart, replied calmly:  “Why?  Why not be a global citizen?  That’s the way I feel.  I’m  comfortable wherever I go.  Of course there are places I prefer to be but I’ve learned to relax, enjoy and take the best of what each place has to offer wherever I am.”

I didn’t get it.  My then-mindset dictated a MUST DECIDE attitude backed by conviction that loyalty to one-place-only indicated good sense.  Die hard locale fidelity was my internal dictator.

But this summer the meaning of her advice clicked.  And as the surreal nature of realizations go, it hit me head-on right in the middle of a two-step move to Toby Keith’s Trailerhood as I line danced with total strangers in a small Cincinnati working class neighborhood bar.

I spend summers in Cincinnati with my 8-year-old so that he can get to know his aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, go to an English speaking summer camp and gain exposure to the multi-cultural experience of Israel versus the U.S. For me it’s a break from the intensity of Mid-East living and work and it’s also an opportunity to spend quality time with family and loved ones.

Thanks to Facebook, I started reconnecting with old Cincinnati friends each year, adding a dimension of fun and depth to our stays.

Over steamy cups of coffee and at dinners, parties, meetings, restaurant openings, Salsa on the Square, movie nights and art exhibits or during hours spent poolside, on shopping excursions and meeting new people via my old friends, I discovered I have arrived. I am globalized.

Because as I broke into a slight sweat alongside our a 60+ year-old line dance instructor Patty all decked out in her denim miniskirt and matching vest that I was reminded of Tel Aviv.  Saturday morning folk dance sessions along the Med pulsate to different strains but the Patty’s, Rex’s, Letta’s and Jimmy’s of Western Hills are alive and well inside the bodies of the Itziks, Chanas, Loolees and Shai’s of Israel.

As one friend shared the story of her beloved husband succumbing to cancer, another talked about Botox treatments, others spoke of job and financial woes,  methods for cutting costs in a flagging economy, choosing an education plan  for a 1st grader and facing the challenges of elder parent care, I realized I was physically in Cincinnati.  But I had lived all of these talks in Tel Aviv.  And Paris, London, Thailand and Singapore.

Vive la difference, I didn’t have to choose anymore.  I was having a damned good time with my global family and friends and rather than seeing the differences that separate us all, I was noticing the similarities forging our paths.

SO…..to my collaborating partners in crime – dear family, global friends, colleagues and an extra special someone held close to my heart:  Thank you for conspiring with me to make life richer, fuller, more meaningful and funner wherever I go

See you next year…..!

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Only the First Four Hurt: Part II August 1, 2010

I still have nightmares about the camps.  It’s always the same:  I’m in a camp and I can’t get out and I’m hungry.  I’m always hungry….Irving Kutas, May 2010

My Uncle Irving isn’t really named “Irving”.  His real name is Tibor Klein.  But after WWII his siblings changed the family name to ‘Kutas’ because they wanted something less Jewish sounding.  Despite the war being over and all, Hungarians weren’t particularly fond of or kind to their Jews.  And with the Klein parents no longer there to make decisions, the  children felt they couldn’t take any chances. So Sandor, the oldest of the boys, had the family name officially changed to Kutas.

Irving, or Tibor, was born in January 1929 in Fulpos: a small town in northeast, Hungary on the Romanian border.  He was the 5th of Andor and Maria Klein’s five boys and two girls and his siblings were Erszebet, Borbala, Sandor, Erno, Gyorge and Dezso.

Fulpos was a tiny, close knit, agricultural community of about 100 families with a population of 100,000 characterized by cohesive families. “Not like today,” Irving commented as he shared his history while seated at the dining room table of his Tel Aviv suburb home.

Irving’s father Andor was in the business of buying agricultural products to loan out to farmers who didn’t have funds to pay for equipment.  When they eventually turned a profit the farmers paid him back.  It was semi-lucrative because everyone in town was a farmer subsisting off of corn, potatoes, poppyseed, wheat & barley crops.  There were also a lot of cows in town and most families, aside from Irving’s, owned at least one cow for seeing to their dairy needs.  No one had electricity.

Aside from loaning money to farmers, Andor also ran a small mini-market out of one room of their farmhouse style home and he operated a pub out of another room.  His ”enterprises” were the only official businesses in town.

“My mother raised us kids and managed the bar and washed clothing by hand.  My father was smart but they had too many kids to support so we were poor.  We had enough to eat and we owned our home – it had the bar and store and the main house had three bedrooms, a balcony and an outhouse –  but that was it.  I remember that it was cold in the winter,” he shared.

“They were good and kind parents but they didn’t have time for us.”

Andor and Maria were born and raised in Hungary and both were observant Jews.  They observed the  Sabbath and except for days Maria stayed home to prepare meals, the entire family walked 3-4 miles to the neighboring town every Saturday to attend synagogue as there was no synagogue in Furpos.  There wasn’t a hospital either.

A total of four Jewish families lived in Furpos and until the 1940’s the Klein family was well liked by all.  “Everyone in town came to borrow money from my father; they knew he was approachable and that if they were having a bad year, they could hold off on paying him back until things were going well,” Irving recalled.  Knowing Irving today, it is clear he inherited his father’s generous spirit.

“My childhood was very good until the 1940’s.  I was a good student in school – I was best at math and I got straight A’s all the way through.  But when laws against Jews came into play in the 1940’s, we weren’t allowed to go to school anymore.  And my friends became anti-Semitic overnight,” Irving shared.

He was referring to offshoot decrees throughout Europe resulting from Germany’s insidious 1935 Nuremberg Laws that strangulated Jewish populations by barring them from basic rights.

As Irving relayed, around 1940 the anti-Jewish laws kept him and his siblings from attending school.

“I went to grade school until age 12 and after that I wasn’t allowed to go to junior high or high school because of the laws. Instead, I was ordered to go work for the “public youth  organization” which meant doing whatever town officials told me to: cleaning out cemetery grass, weeding lawns… whatever they decided.

“Luckily we weren’t really supervised so we did whatever we wanted to do.  But we made sure to stay away from our peers.  If I had played cards with my friends before, all of a sudden they’d beat me up. So we stayed away from them.”

At the time, his three older siblings – Erszebet, Borbala and Sandor – were staying with wealthy relatives in Budapest so they could get a better education.

The laws and growing anti-Semitism lasted from the time Irving was 12 until he was 15, in 1944.  That’s when the home and family life he had known all of his life came crashing down.

“In April 1944, the Germans ordered all Jewish families to leave their homes and go into a forced ghetto.  It literally happened overnight.  One night they announced that at 9 a.m. the next day we were to leave everything and congregate in the town square – each Jewish family with its horse drawn wagon.  We loaded onto the wagons and the  police escorted us… Within a few hours all of us were placed in a centrally located ghetto –  Mateszalka.”

Irving’s parents had already heard stories leaked across the borders from Poland, Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries: Jews were being taken away to concentration camps.  But the children were unaware. “We weren’t old enough to catch onto what was in store for us but our parents knew what was going on.

“But that day we were put into the ghetto and in the ghetto we had homes. . .”

At this point, Irving trailed off.  He wept quietly into the table napkins, his shoulders heaving.

“There we had homes.  They closed a few city blocks off and the Jews were concentrated into five or six blocks and everybody moved into the homes together.  It was one family to a room so there might be five or six families to each home.  There was no bed, no food, no nothing.

“I remember we kids went out to the street together to cry and beg for food for the family…”

Overcome, Irving trailed off again, crying.

“The police were on horses all the time both inside and outside the ghetto to make sure nobody escaped. They would beat up Jewish children and openly rape the girls.  The Hungarian police basically picked up young girls and did whatever they wanted to do with them.

“I don’t know exactly how often but maybe every few days or every week there would be a transport and people would be taken from the ghetto. They didn’t do it all at once because there were too many people.

“And Jewish community leaders were elected to make sure everyone was following orders.  Probably a week after we got there they started transporting people out of the ghetto.  They  picked a certain number of families each time to transport to Auschwitz.  We didn’t know where we were going at the time – we just knew we were going to a labor camp.”

 

Only The First Four Hurt July 20, 2010

This past Holocaust Day I stood with head bowed during the moment of silence, attempting to contain the flood of emotions that washes over me each year when the sirens sound.  But this time as the wailing powered down, I had an epiphany: It’s time to get Uncle Irving’s history.


Uncle Irving is married to my dad’s sister Esther or Aunt Babe.  It’s been her nickname since childhood.  Growing up in Cincinnati, my Aunt Babe, Uncle Irving and my four first cousins were fixtures in my life: We dined together at our house on the Jewish holidays, BBQ’d and played badminton on the lawn of theirs on July 4th, the cousins and I went to the same sleep-away camp each year and we attended the same youth group.

When I needed information or immediate advice while both parents were at work it was Aunt Babe I phoned in search of answers.  For new gym shoes, socks or underwear it was off to the downtown warehouse Uncle Irving worked in & up to the top floor inside the creaky freight elevator to take my pick from multiple boxes and shelves of assorted wear-ables.

Whenever holiday dinners rolled around, though, my siblings and I were instructed prior to guest arrival:  “Put the dog in the laundry room.  Uncle Irving is coming over.”

We had been briefed numerous times:  Uncle Irving, a Holocaust survivor,  was frightened of dogs.   The Nazis had used German Shepherds to instill fear or attack Jews in the ghettos and camps.  And although we didn’t have Shepherds – ours were small Boston Terriers – we had to  enclose them regardless.

Uncle Irving had a whole bunch of “isms”.  He was super careful about the food he ingested, the utensils he used and the venues in which he was willing to eat.  He had a habit of inspecting all three for a measure of cleanliness only he could grade.  He would wake up at 4 a.m., his family joked, in order to arrive at the bakery doors prior to the 5 a.m. opening.  He wanted to buy his rolls fresh from the oven before anyone else had a chance to touch them.

Our mother told us his food “isms” were a result of camp survivors being forced to use the same container for receiving doled out “meals” as for collecting personal waste.

That’s what our Mom told us.  Our parents also shared that both of Uncle Irving’s parents and several of his siblings had been gassed to death at Auschwitz.  And we knew he hailed from Hungary.

But I never confirmed any of the stories with Uncle Irving himself.  Except for his Hungarian roots which was an obvious personal characteristic because he spoke Hungarian with his brother and sisters whenever they were together.

The truth is, decade after decade, nobody, including his wife and children, confirmed anything about the years he spent in the ghettos, concentration camps and hiding out  in the forests.  His kids and Aunt Babe knew he’d been through tremendous trauma but the unspoken rule was that he didn’t talk about his past.

And no one dared trespass into that realm.

As years passed and he moved to Israel with Aunt Babe to be closer to three of his four children and the grandchildren, the silent oath remained in place.  Even when his grandchildren worked on obligatory family tree school projects necessitating interviewing and digging, information regarding his past had to be gleaned from Babe.

But something shifted after Uncle Irving suffered a sudden bout of agoraphobia in his 60’s that kept him house-bound for a year.  Agoraphobia, I discovered while writing a story about 2nd Generation Holocaust Survivors, is common among survivors who have internally buried their trauma.

When he was able to leave the house again, he began disclosing bits of information about the past.  Seated at a dinner gathering, someone’s comment or remark would spark a personal story.   The family, starved of information thus far, would sit in silence absorbing the revelations. Or, upon discovering that a new acquaintance had also been in the camps, he would swap information in the presence of Aunt Babe or other family members.

The instances were random, unprovoked and family members were stunned but grateful when they occurred.  But they were the stirrings of something looming larger and as I stood with head bowed last April, it occurred to me that as a non-immediate, once-removed family member and a person who routinely interviews others for a living, maybe my uncle would talk to me.  I knew it was important to document his story and I also felt that this was something I could do for him and his family to repay them for their generosity and kindness throughout the years.

I live in Tel Aviv, about twenty minutes from Aunt Babe and Uncle Irving’s place.  In recent years I have been through some taxing personal times and Uncle Irving, Aunt Babe and my cousins have been staunch allies providing refuge,  advice, legal counsel, love & faith.   Uncle Irving even put up his house as equity on my behalf in a time of need.

And so I approached him with my proposition:  Can I come over and document your personal history?

And he agreed.

I spent several sessions talking with him, asking questions, probing and typing.  The sessions were not comfortable and he warned in advance that he would cry.  And he did.  At times he sobbed heavily into dining room table napkins.  I  offered to stop saying I could come back another time.  But he wanted to continue.

In the coming blog entries I will share Uncle Irving’s story because I believe that re-telling his history is as important as the documentation itself.  As I share, the above title will become clear.

 

Boys’ Toys February 19, 2010

Every Thursday my son’s classmate comes to our house after school.  It’s an arrangement between the boy’s parents and I and so far it as worked quite nicely.

Yesterday the two boys met me at the school gate as usual but out of the ordinary was their hyper-animated state.

I have 100 shekels (U.S. $25) Sonya gave me for my birthday and I brought it to buy Gogos.  Will you take us to the store?” my son’s friend asked.

Sonya is a classmate.  But I didn’t know that.  I figured Sonya was an aunt.  Gogos are the craze du jour among Israel’s elementary school set.  They’re highly appealing, mini-plastic figurines that come three to a packet.  They cost about $1.75 per.

Your mom said it’s okay for you to spend your birthday money on that many Gogo’s? I asked.

It’s my money.  My mom lets me do what I want with my money.  As long as I take her to a hotel for vacation, he responded, laughing.

How very liberal of her I pondered.   I wouldn’t let my son do that. Maybe I should loosen up. . .

Okay then, I capitulated.  Let’s go.

At the store, I browsed front page stories about Mossad agents, assassination and dual identities while the boys handled the transaction.

They purchased 14 packets and split them – my son’s friend is quite generous – and then clamored to get home and open the goods.

They alternately ran and walked the 5 city blocks to our place, urging me to hurry.  My son actually screeched aloud with anticipation as I unlocked the front door. The neighbors! I chastised with an internal smile.  Their enthusiasm was refreshing.

They dumped book bags in the entrance hall and spread the packets across the coffee table, busying themselves with the business of divvying treasure.

When lunch was ready, I called repeatedly to no avail.  Eventually I threatened to lock up the kitchen for the day in order to cajole them into eating.

At 3, the boy’s father came to retrieve him.  And Gogo Hell broke loose.

You bought WHAT?  he asked incredously.  With what money?  After I told you there would be no more Gogo’s?  Where did you get a hundred shekels?  WHO gave it to you?  You’re in some serious trouble, young man

They exited and as I heard their exchange in the hallway, my cheeks flamed red with shame.  It hadn’t occurréd to me to phone one of the parents and check the story’s legitimacy.  I assumed if a kid says he got some money for his birthday and he’s allowed to spend it….Criminy.  Silly me.

THE TRUE STORY:  Sonya, presumably wishing to curry favor, gave the boy a hundred shekels she got from God-knows-where a day prior.  He decided to purchase the toys without telling anyone – other than a gullible ME, that is.  The part about the birthday and his mom knowing?  Mmm, Mmm, mmmm.  My son was also clueless to the dupe.

Okay so I learned my lesson.  The opened Gogo packets can’t go back to the store but the money has to go back to  Sonya.   I won’t take the loot away from my son – he was an innocent.  So I’ll cough up half the $$ and give it to the boy’s parents.  Peace offering sort of thing, Innit?

When the winds of war calmed later in the day, I texted his mother:  “You have to admit, it IS funny

She texted back:  This story is going to make the rounds for years to come.

 

Dedicating Life in the Aftermath of Death January 12, 2010

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealisticJohn F. Kennedy

I spent last Saturday in Nablus.  Not the prettified city in the link here but a small outlying village perched on a hillside right below Elon Moreh settlement. Elon Moreh is where, according to the Old Testament, God told Abraham he was giving “your descendants this land”.  It’s why the Jewish settlers are there, for the most part, and it’s down the road from Yasuf Village, recently in the headlines when settlers set fire to the local mosque and burned holy books.

But I digress.

I went to the area with an Israeli  who, after his son was killed in Lebanon, chose to dedicate his life to fostering understanding between Israelis & Palestinians.  He works on projects like bringing Palestinian kids who have merely read about seashores to Tel Aviv’s beach – a half hour’s drive from their village.  He hires clowns and entertainers for village events,  helps re-plant old growth olive trees uprooted by…you know who… and this weekend, he dedicated a new playground built to replace the previous one destroyed by …you know.

To get to the village,  we had to pass through three Israeli army checkpoints and sign a waiver. But it was a feel-good day and upwards of a hundred children, teens and Palestinian official types were there.  I wasn’t nervous about violence.

After being there, the closest thing I can draw a comparison with in  U.S. terms is  inner city projects – just a lot greener and minus the dealers and drive-bys.  The village countryside is beautiful – lush green,  graduated craggy hills characteristic of this part of the world, olive groves stretching forever and partially built skeletons of homes awaiting further construction.

And yet, basic infrastructure was lacking.  Trash was strewn by the roadsides and along the hills and raw sewage streamed between olive tree rows.  As we approached, children swarmed, touched, patted, fired questions in Arabic and stared unabashedly, taking in every utterance and movement.   Allah help me had I pulled a stick of gum from my backpack.  Unless, of course, there had been enough to go around to all 4 dozen kids.

The dedication itself was run-of-the-mill:  Clap clap.  Smiles all around.  Hand shaking.  Photo opp.

What’s interesting is the response I got when relaying my plans for the day to friends.     It’s been the same response for more than a decade whenever I announce I’ll be going into the West Bank or Gaza. That is, unless I’m talking to a journalist. “Why are you going there?  Did you lose something?  Aren’t you afraid?  It’s dangerous!  Are you crazy?”

I won’t downplay the serious nature of the political conflict nor will I make light of terrifying lynchings Israelis have fallen prey to in Palestinian areas.  But most people on the Israel side of the Green Line haven’t crossed to the other side unless they’ve served there in the military or they’re journalists, settlers or peace activists.   Ditto vis-a-vis Palestinians coming to the Israeli side of the line.

Both populations get most of their information about “the other” from what they see on the news:  often frightening and violent depictions.  Mainstreamers on both sides are scared and have no idea what life looks like “over there” beyond the lenses of extremism, suicide missions, military uniforms, rocket launches and bombing campaigns.


My strong sense after visiting this weekend is that there’s not a hope in hell for working anything out in the long-term between the parties until getting to know “the other” and moving beyond “Arab terrorists” and “military occupying Jews” stereotypes.

And for the record, I’m not trivializing the pain or suffering others have endured nor am I lightly suggesting a kumbaya-live-in-love-and-harmony approach.  There’s no easy fix and it may never happen.

But I figure if the Israeli who devoted his life to reaching out can do it after his loss. . .

 

The Birthday Bailout November 25, 2009

Last week myself and another set of parents co-hosted our sons’ 2nd grade birthday party .  It was an ordeal.  To say the least.  The hoopla was originally scheduled to happen at a local museum but due to logistics, the venue tanked.  So the other parents and I scrambled at the last minute to find a back up: the local bowling alley.

As the date approached, my son fell ill with fever as did his co-host.  We held off, hoping for health and instead, three hours pre-celebration we postponed.  Thank goodness for SMS, email and cellphone technology.    It all makes last  minute change tenable.

We re-grouped and re-scheduled for the following week and luck was to be on our side:  The celebration happened as planned.  But not without incident.

Let’s just say that when you invite 35 kids – thirty-bleedin’-five – there’s bound to be a “hiccup” or two.

And so, the post-party day after was devoted to ME-chill out-time.  I needed it.  To regain my voice – lost as I attempted to out-shout the background music (score! on Lady Gaga), video arcade din and general bedlam.  I also needed to relax after the tension of all that last minute hiccup stuff.

While chilling at home, I emailed my dear friend Keith with a party re-cap. I had to share it with someone.  His reply: “I laughed out loud.  Then I read it again and laughed again!” – prompted me to share it here.

It’s post-birthday party chill day.  My friend D just showed up impromptu and we went to a French brasserie for coffee/food together.  I also briefly met with a graphic designer for a project.  Otherwise, NADA else on the schedule.

The party was slightly hectic – 35 kids.  And honey, let’s just say these littl’uns  DID NOT grow up playing in the local league.  They was throwin’ the ball backwards into the spectator area, bouncing it from lane to lane, rollin’ it down the center panel between lanes. . .EVERYTHANG!

I was certain someone would get killed or lose a foot.

And of course, the “active” kids are the ones whose parents dropped them curbside and screeched away out of sight, leaving only tread marks in their stead.  Bless their little hyped up souls.  I went hoarse coaxing them NOT to throw balls the wrong way, drop balls on other kids’ toes, roll balls  down the lane while the machine was wracking or take them to the toilet á la “this is mine!”…It was a job.

And let’s not forget the crying:  One inconsolable who arrived as dinner was starting and missed the gaming, another who sobbed that his lane-mates were robbing him of his turn and another who DID NOT want to bowl – he had come for the video arcade!

But it was fun and my son had a really good time as did the other kids.  And he got tons of gifts.  And truth be known, it was the easiest party I’ve ever put on in terms of personal involvement.  I merely had to buy party favors, email invites and shell out $$.  Not too tough.

But, as the co-host-mom said the on the phone when she rang to check in:  ‘It’s sort of like the Last Supper.  Good thing it happened because it was the last time.’

I would have to vote an ‘Amen, sister!’ to that.  Less is more & mass invite parties are passé.  Even if it was my first.

 

Cake Catastrophes November 17, 2009

My soon-to-be 8-year-old put in a special request last week for his impending birthday party:

Please Mom.  Can someone else make the cake?  Or can we buy it?  Please?  You’re..uh…it’s just…You’re not good at cakes.”

He was being incredibly diplomatic and I had to laugh at the request.  And then I reflected.  

I’ve become a Cake Wrecks.com Candidate.  Lord have mercy.

I used to bake killer apple cinnamon crumbleHeavenly bittersweet chocolate, brownie and mint liqueur squares. To-die-for créme brûlée .

But everything seemed to slide southward when I started baking party cakes circa my son’s arrival into the world.

The first failing was for fête #1.   To the naive, the chocolate-iced buttermilk cake appeared okay.  But glancing around the living room of my San Francisco apartment, I noticed the guests toying with it.  Sliding it around on their plates but not really putting it in their mouths.   I sampled it myself and my cheeks went flaming red.

4th birthday lollipop cake

 

Quickly dashing down the hallway and into the kitchen where my dear friend Jo, rest her soul, was pouring herself a glass of wine, I moaned:  The cake’s terrible! Nobody’s eating it. It’s awful!”

Jo burst into boisterous laughter and advised: Go back in there and let everybody off the hook!  Tell them they don’t have to eat it!”

Which I did, much to the relief of the dozen or so invitees who let out a collective sigh and promptly set down their plates of untouched, inedible brick.

I had added too much of je ne sais quois and the cake was wrong.  Simply wrong.

The next cake wreck was in honor of my son’s 5th birthday, served to his kindergarten class.

At the time, he was way into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  And because the Turtles eat pizza to rev them up, I figured it would be brilliant to make “pizza cakes” for the class.

Starting out by baking two thin, round white cake “pizzas”, I topped them with red tinted icing a la “tomato sauce” and grated white chocolate i.e. “mozzarella cheese”.  Next, scattered Cherry Twizzler bites served as “sausage” and bananas were …uh…bananas.

pizzacake

To complete the concept, I picked up Dominos pizza boxes to serve them in.

On the day of the party, I presented the “pizzas” to the teachers who delighted over the concept.  The kids, however, were dull and disappointed.

Nobody ate it.  It was plechs,” my son later reported.  “I threw up when I tried it.

YOU DID NOT! I protested.

But he swore he had been sick and assured me several of his comrades had been ill too.   To this day he stands by the story.

So no, I won’t bake any cakes this year.

But I want to know:  What happened?  How on earth does a person go from créme brûlée to plechs?