Sunday, November 1, 1998
Dear G.U.C.I. Staff:
All families have their special traditions. Mine is no different. Every year my mother comes up from Florida for the High Holidays. Sometime between Rosh Ha Shannah and Yom Kippur, we usually make a pilgrimage back to the old neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. Ours was a very ethnic family, three of my grandparents from Czechoslovakia, one from Poland. My mom and dad, all of my aunts, and of course all of my grandparents spoke fluent Czech. We called it Bohemian. At our holiday dinner table, there was a much Bohemian flying as there was English. So Mom and I (the remnants of the family, except for a cousin in California) pack up the car each year at this time and head back to Cicero and Berwyn with three goals in mind. 1. To visit the relatives in the Free Sons Cemetery (and they are all there). 2. To buy several dozen kolatchki (fruit filled Czech pastries), and a few containers of frozen durshkovah (tripe soup). And 3. Have the heaviest Czechoslovakian dinner possible at the Plaza Bohemian restaurant in Berwyn.
But this time around, we decided to add a ride past our old home in Cicero, just to take a look. The neighborhood had changed ethnic groups, but looked almost the same. Yes, the Czechs had been replaced by Hispanics, most of the restaurants and bakeries replaced their Bohemian signs with ones in Spanish. When we rode by our old place, we saw an old lady outside cleaning. My mom wanted to tell her that she had grown up in that house, so we stopped the car and she got out. She tried to explain that my grandfather had bought the house in 1921 and it had been the family meeting place until well into the 60’s, over 40 years. My mom and both of her sisters, my cousins, my father, grandparents, and even yours truly had lived in that house. As my mom left the car, I said that I hoped the lady spoke English.
While they spoke, pictures of my childhood in that house crept into me. There was my cousin Ralph and me wrestling on the couch in the front room (the room that looked out on the street, we’d probably call it a living room today). There was my cousin Judy getting ready to go to a dance. I remembered vividly the many nights I slept in the front bedroom and watched the lights of the cars going down 60th Court as they reflected off of the ceiling and moved across the walls. And there was my grandfather, sitting on the front porch on a warm summer evening. Pictures came of family dinners (Thanksgivings always offered a turkey for the family and a goose for my father and me), and sleepovers on winter Saturday nights, and everyone trying to get into the bathroom on Sunday morning so we wouldn’t be late for Sunday school. I saw the bathtub, a big iron job on four clawed feet, and the mantel in the front room with the pictures of my grandparents on it. In my mind’s eye I remembered those pictures, oval, old-fashioned looking, black and white with some kind of sepia painted backgrounds. I was flooded with a herky-jerky, 8mm-like, remembrance of times long gone.
I looked over and saw that my mom wasn’t getting too far with the lady on the sidewalk in front of our old place, so I decided to give it a shot and went to talk to her too. She didn’t speak any English, but I was able to communicate to her that my mother had been a little girl in the house that was now hers. When she understood, she became very excited and to our surprise invited us in. We hadn’t been through that front door since 1963 or so. What a trip to do so now. The last time I stood in that kitchen and looked out into the alley in back, I was 17 years old, my Mom 50. Now we were there again, and little had changed. The old bathtub was gone, replaced with a modern one, but the rooms were very much as I remembered them, down to the dark wood trim that ran along the walls and ceiling in the dining room and in the front. The wood cabinet where my Aunt Lil kept all of her good dishes remained in place, now holding their good dishes. Not a whole lot different than it was 35 or even 50 years ago.
The old lady called her daughter from the back. It turned out the house belonged to her. She spoke to us in English and was happy to hear a few funny family stories about the house. We met her two children who attend Burnham elementary school, the same school my mother, aunts, and cousins attended. Her older son had graduated from Morton High School, like my parents, my aunts, my cousins, and I had. It was quite the same, only the tune had a Latin beat to it.
I felt that we had completed our family remembering day in a wonderful way. We started where they (my family) had all ended, and ended where we had all lived. What a great way to remember.
When it was time for us to leave our old house, the old lady, the grandmother hugged and kissed my mother. Neither could speak to one another, yet there was some bond there. We walked out to the front door and I turned for one last look at the front room and the mantel with the gas fireplace and the dark wood trim. There on the mantel were pictures of grandparents from the old country, Mexico. They stood in the same spot my grandparents’ pictures had stood. I told the daughter of the old lady, “Take the sombreros off of the people in those pictures, and they could easily be my grandparents.” She smiled. We smiled.
What a way to start the New Year, eh?
Thursday, October 1, 1998
Dear G.U.C.I. Staff:
The mood of camp has shifted dramatically from the noise and action of the summer to the cool and calm of fall. The leaves started changing into their colors around the same time we were all putting on our High Holiday finery. It’s a pretty time. We started our camp introspection, thinking about what we’d like to do differently this winter and next summer, around the same time that our Jewish cycle stopped on the look-into-yourself-and-figure-out-how-to-be-a-better-person square. This is our strength. That we stop each year and examine ourselves, that we seek new directions or re-adjust our present ones. I asked myself this season, why we Jews keep coming back to our synagogues on the High Holidays? Why are they so important to us?
One of the answers might be that we come seeking words of wisdom (but unlike the Beatles, we just won’t let it be…). I think that we would like Rosh Ha Shannah and Yom Kippur to smarten us up. Teach us something. But, what? Well, think about it. We’re looking for direction, and to find direction into the future, we have to know who we are and where we have come from. The Holidays connect us to our past, to our history. The physical act of going to Temple links us to Jews all over the world. And the service itself (and perhaps the rabbi’s words) speaks to our values, our relationships, responsibilities, our shortcomings, our dreams. It seems to me that Temple is exactly the right place to come seeking words of wisdom.
We all are wise in our own rights. What words of wisdom would you share with others if you had the chance? Here’s a list of wise words I came across; maybe one or more of them will speak to you:
“I’ve learned that you can’t hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk” - Age 7
“I’ve learned that if you want to cheer yourself up, you should try cheering someone else up” - Age 14
“I’ve learned that brushing my child’s hair is one of the great pleasures” -Age 26
“I’ve learned that there are people who love you dearly but just don’t know how to show it” -Age 41
“I’ve learned that the greater a person’s sense of guilt the greater their need to cast blame on others” -Age 46
“I’ve learned that you can tell a great deal about a person by the way s/he handles these things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights” -Age 52
“I’ve learned that making a living is not making a life” -Age 58
“I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance” -Age 62
“I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands. You need to be able to throw some things back” -Age 64
“I’ve learned that whenever I’ve decided something with kindness, I usually make the right decision” -Age 68
“I’ve learned to believe in miracles. I’ve seen several” -Age 73
“I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one” -Age 82
“I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn” -Age 92
What words of wisdom would you use to complete the sentence; “I’ve learned that…?” Now, it seems, is the appropriate Jewish time to start composing them. Shannah Tovah…All the best in 5759.
Friday, May 1, 1998
Dear G.U.C.I. Staff:
They say that a tornado sounds like a locomotive. Well, I certainly hear a similar thundering as opening day of Kallah Aleph races toward Zionsville under full steam. It never seems that we will possibly get it all together in that small window of time between the Spring rains and the arrival of duffel bags, bug spray, hopeful Jewish children, and apprehensive Jewish parents. Somehow we always make it.
As much as we are always looking ahead at Goldman Union Camp, this summer, our fortieth anniversary, we can’t help but look back. Here’s a story made for the annals of the U.A.H.C. Twilight Zone. Somewhere back during the first days of this camp, when it was a summer-long NFTY program, my first cousin, Ralph Garber, spent a summer here as Pool Director. He was a NFTY Vice President. I vaguely recall in 1958 or 59, my Uncle, his father, taking me on a trip to visit Ralph. We headed out from Chicago into the wilds of Indiana, stayed overnight in downtown Indy, and spent the next day at camp with Ralph. I really only remember swimming in the camp’s pool that afternoon (hey, I was only 12 or 13, give me a break). The trip was a small episode that I never really much thought about again.
Scroll forward to about 1980. I had already been the Camp Director here for five years when I discovered some 16mm movies in the camp Sifriya. We still had a projector in those days as we used to show movies on huge 16mm reels in the Oolam on Saturday nights (the pre-video days).
One of the movies I discovered was titled, “A Day In The Life Of an OVFTYite.” When I finally got it to run, I saw that it was filmed here at camp in those early days, and it took the audience through a typical day and week at OVFTY camp. It wasn’t until the Shabbat segment of the film that I started to hear that familiar Twilight Zone theme music in the recesses of my mind. The film took us to Israeli dancing after song session in the Chadar (sound familiar?). The camera stood stationary as the dancers hora-ed by. To my total amazement, my cousin, Ralph danced from right to left across the screen. I backed up the film and played the segment again, and then again. The trip my uncle and I had taken came rushing back to me at that point. I realized that this was that same place. I had become the Director of the camp my cousin staffed 20-some years before. That the pool I had swum in was, in fact, the Old Pool.
1958 was also the summer I began attending Union Institute in Wisconsin (I had already been a camper for a few years in other camps). The thought of all these years in camp,
coupled with the foggy recollection of a visit to an older cousin who I very much loved and looked up to, during his summer at Union Camp Institute, fills me with
a sense of continuity, and even security. I‘m proud to carry the banner for all that have forged the path before us, to lead this magnificent camp into the future, with an eye to the past. I sense the “rightness” of it all. And I am thankful to have been given the opportunity to work here in this camp with these people.
Soon the onslaught begins. Three hundred children will descend on our little camp, expecting who-knows-what, but expecting. And we will deliver. We will also spend much time commemorating our past this fortieth camp summer of ours. I guess that’s why God gave us two eyes; one to look back and one to look ahead. But our campers keep us honest, focused on the what’s real and now and crucial. Opening day 1998 thunders down upon us. Bring ‘em on!
P.S. We are jumping right into the 90’s here at G.U.C.I. Enclosed is a post card for you to return to us with your e-mail address. Next year G.U.C.I. staff letters will be sent by e-mail and posted on our website. If you’d like to continue receiving these letters, please return the card ASAP. Thanks.