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(You Gotta) Accentuate the Positive and Eliminate the negative...

Pay no attention to the number by the month.  Here's a good thought for the New Year.  Shannah Tovah. Ron                        ...

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Talking About Fear at Rabbi Hours

                                                                                                                         Jan. 2017

Dear Family and Friends:

Every Thursday afternoon I venture out onto the campus of Indiana University.  I head over to the Indiana Memorial Union where I camp out at Starbucks for a couple of hours.  I have a little table tent sign that I put up which announces that, "The Rabbi is in....ask me anything."  I have been holding these Rabbi Hours for a few years now.  Sometimes I have no customers and sometimes several students come by.  Occasionally a professor will find me.

Rabbi Hours conversations have covered a wide variety of topics.  More than one student has come to talk about boyfriend/girlfriend problems.  Others have asked my opinion about changing majors, studying abroad, Jewish views on life after death, Last month a professor dropped by to confess that he had been raised Jewish but stopped participating in any Jewish activities.  It was more an announcement than a question.  I asked if he was interesting in re-connecting with the Jewish community and he replied that he really didn't have the time.  "OK.....(long pause), thanks for dropping by.  I will be here every Thursday if you want to talk about anything."  Not a very good response, I know.   He caught me a bit off guard.  I hope he comes back sometime so we can really have a conversation. 

Lately it seems that more non-Jews come over to talk than Jewish students.  There certainly is a curiosity about us mysterious Jews.  Some want to hear about Israel, but most ask religious, theological, Jewish practice type questions.  Last week I encountered one out of left field.  The boy began by explaining that his question had nothing to do with religion or Judaism.  I understand that sometimes people need to talk, especially to someone removed from their social circles, someone objective and non-threatening. My sign says ask me anything and he was taking me up on the offer.  His question:  "how do people deal with fear?"  I have learned over the years that sometimes the first question is not THE question.  Sometimes there is a question behind the question.  I was not quick to offer an answer in this case.

I asked the boy what brought up this question.  Was he just thinking about this or had something happened to which he was reacting?  He explained that he was the kind of person who took no chances in life.  He was doing fine in school, everything was good at home.  It was like Paul Simon said in "One Trick Pony," he walked down the middle of the road, slept in the middle of the bed...etc.  It seemed to me that perhaps fear wasn't what we were really talking about.  It was more about risk.

I told this fellow that everyone has to deal with fear on their own, and that facing one's fears might be best done a little at a time.  Small steps before big ones.  First the socks and then the shoes.  Then I asked if he might really be talking about stepping out of his comfort zone...was risk the fear?  He nodded.  I asked if he thought he would be able to take a small risk just to see how he felt about it.  I explained that I thought that often we learn a lot about ourselves when we do things directed outward with no personal gain intended.

"Have you done anything to help others?" I asked.


"Maybe you have been too absorbed in yourself and your safety.  How about considering a small step outward?

"What kind of step?"

"Think about volunteering for a day at a local homeless shelter or food bank?  Maybe try it one time and see where that leads.  See how you feel about it. See if it doesn't turn your attention outward, broaden you field of vision.  It might even feel good."  I told him about my experiences working at the Shalom Center here in Bloomington washing dishes.

"I never thought of that.  Can I come back and tell you about it, if I can pull it off?"

'I'm here every Thursday and would love to see you again."  I hope he takes that small risk and that he's better off for it.  I also hope he comes back to Rabbi Hours to let me know.  I have the feeling that he will.

Since I began writing this post I received an email from this student.  He wrote how much he appreciated our short conversation and that he was thinking of ways to challenge himself over the coming winter break.  I think he's going to discover how good it is to step a bit out of the comfort zone, take a little risk, and beat that initial fear.  Small steps. That's the ticket.


Friday, December 23, 2016

Camp Directors' Kids, +'s and -'s

                                                                                                               Dec. 2016

Dear Family and Friends:

Last night I happened upon a podcast (thank you Katy for putting it on FB).  Micah Hart, son of long-time Director of the Jacobs Camp Institute in Utica, Miss, Macy B. Hart, has instituted a pod cast called" Campfires and Color Wars."  Micah's brilliant idea is to create 45 minute segments all based on experiences at summer camp.  Well, last night's centered around what it is like being the child of the Camp Director.  Micah hosted his sister Leah Tennen and my son Mike Klotz.  It was so interesting for me to hear Mike talk about camp and being my son at camp.

At first I was a bit apprehensive.  My first thought was, "Oh god, this could be a real bitch session where the kids unload about how unfair it was to be in that position and how difficult their fathers made it for them."  But that was not the case.  My wife and I listened to the entire show and it was...heartwarming. I don't want to paraphrase what was said; but I do want to encourage you all to listen to the show and to subscribe to the podcast as I have done.  Cut and paste the following into your browser to tune in:

It's funny.  Macy and I were best camp director friends for over 25 years.  We met the first winter I was hired to direct what was then called Union Camp Institute, before I'd even had a summer under my belt.  the Camp Directors' meeting that February was held at Jacob's camp where we were shown Macy's newly poured kitchen floor and heard a lecture about portion control (how big should a cutlet be, anyway?).  I thought, "What did I get myself into?"  I was studying to be a rabbi and wanted to run a Jewish program centered camp.  I'd never thought about kitchen floors or the size of portions.  Over the years I learned so many practical lessons which enabled GUCI to be that Jewish program centered camp institute.   Macy and I immediately hit it off.  We would spend the next 25 years rooming together at every UAHC biennial, NFTY convention and UAHC staff meeting.  I cannot over state the amount I learned from Macy...about camping...and about life.  We talked about everything.  And we conferred about things when we hit the rough spots that all camp directors encounter.

Now our kids are great camp friends and are talking about their dads.  Give a listen.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Sharing the Good News

Dear Friends and Family:                                                                      Dec. 2016

We like to start off each Shabbat (Friday evening) here at Hillel, before we light the candles, sharing any good news from the past week.  You can imagine that, with a sanctuary filled with IU students, people are somewhat reluctant to share.  But as soon as one student breaks the ice, the good news flows.  Last week one of our G.U.C.I. alums, Tony Satryan announced that he had been accepted to Johns Hopkins grad school.  That’s REALLY BIG news and great to hear.  Congrats to Tony. Tony’s sharing was followed by others telling that they would be studying abroad next semester, that one had landed a much-desired internship and on and on.  It’s a great way to end the week and a great way to begin Shabbat.  

My own good news was years in the making.  I shared a smidgen.  Last month I traveled to Atlanta to officiate at the Bar Mitzvah of Linda Ross Brenner’s son Josh.  I started rubbing elbows with the Ross family from West Virginia in the mid 70’s at what was then Union Camp Institute (good old UCI).  Linda was a camper, a member of camp’s first Avodah crew, staff member and finally my administrative assistant.  So she was mainstay at camp.  With a most dynamic personality, everyone knew Linda.  She was a force (or maybe I should say the force was with her…and maybe a bit intimidated by her).  Not only was it emotional for me to “rabbi” the Bar Mitzvah, but Ian Silver led the music.  Ian preceded me at camp.  He was already entrenched in UCI when the Klotz’s arrived in 1975.  Subsequently Ian spent many summers song leading and teaching drama.  Ian was a major player in the music of our camp.  Assistant song leader under Mike Weinberg and then mentor to Lee Freedman (In a musical way, Weinberg begot Silver, Silver begot Freedman, Freedman begot Cincinnatus, and on and on).  Ian helped lay the foundation for the great music and singing that has always been an integral part of G.U.C.I.  Years after he left camp he returned to visit and ended up marrying my then administrative assistant Judy Benjamin Abramson.  You see how connected all of these lives are.  I officiated at Ian and Judy’s wedding, which took place in the outdoor chapel at camp.  

So I am participating in the Bar Mitzvah of the son of a very long-time friend, standing next another very long-time friend (and his guitar).  How good is that?  I wouldn’t have been able to do it justice sharing it in a sentence or two at Hillel.

Last weekend I journeyed to Dallas to take part in the installation of long-time staff member and former program director, Rabbi Dan Utley.  Dan and I worked together for years, created programs, played music, solved problems, and always laughed a lot.

 It seemed to me that, just a minute ago, Dan was just a kid.  Now it’s Rabbi Dan Utley.  That’s another wow moment.  In addition Alan Goodis, who began coming to camp when he was just three (his mom was on faculty) did the music and Jacob Pactor was in the congregation.  I spoke that night about core values we learn at camp.  The service was followed by a song session complete with slides on a screen so all could sing along.  At one point Alan came up to me and asked if I was ready to tell a story.  Dan had asked in advance if I might do so.  When I told Alan it was a go, well, the next slide was a picture of a campfire.  Perfect.  By the way, Dan, Alan, and Jacob met in cabin 11, their first Shoresh session (Shoresh is the youngest unit at camp).  They were each eight years old.  That’s friendship.  

Wait, there’s more.

I left Dallas and flew to Chicago to meet up with Dr. Lee Freedman, Rabbi Jim Bennett, and Rabbi Sandford Kopnick for our yearly Chicago Bears celebration.  Sandford was also in that first Avodah group with Linda and Jim was their unit head (I’m talking 1979). Sandford and Jim were each multiple-year program directors; Lee was long-time song leader, unit head, and even returned years later to be camp doctor.  It is hard for me to remember a time when I didn’t know these fellows.  Our friendship is golden.  They are a treasure, period.

Watching kids grow up, working side by side with other staff members, bonding is all part of the magic of camp.  I’m sure this relationship building happens at every camp.  It is certainly a main course at G.U.C.I.  This month has been special for me to see my staff members grown, doing good work, being good for each other.   I was a part of each of their formative years.  Our joint camp staff experience cements the bond.   There are many more of you out there.  But these were the people that I met up with in just one month.  It means a lot to me to see our kids succeed and to see how they remain close friends over the years.  In Hebrew we call it Shomrim Al Ha Kesher; guarding the connection.  Makes me proud.

Starting off Shabbat by sharing good news is a nice thing to do.  I’m sure we will continue to do so.  This week I could have shared a lot more, but it would have taken me all the way to Havdalah (Saturday night) to tell the whole story.  

So let's all be “Shomrim Al Ha Kesher,” treasure these old friendships, and keep in touch.


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Who Cries at Christmas?

Dear Family and Friends:                                                                        2016

It is that time of the year again.  I kind of love it (except I'd like to see more sunshine).  So every year we see the same cartoons on TV, hear the same carols, get the same sale ads.  Why not a rerun of a blog I wrote about four years ago.  I still feel the same.  If you missed it the first time, I hope you lke it.  

To all; here's wishing you a wonderful holiday season ...have yourselves a merry little whatever you celebrate.


OK.  I admit it.  I love Christmas.  It’s not a theological, religious or faith thing.  No, it’s more sociological, psychological, and nostalgic, I believe.  Nevertheless, I love it.  My friend and colleague Rabbi Ben Kamin wrote that Jews are outsiders at this time of the year, outside looking in, or something to that effect.  How not true for me. 

I never wanted a Christmas tree.  I never asked to put lights up on the house (although we always lived in apartments in Chicago).  I never wanted to go to midnight mass (although I did go several times with high school buddies, all of whom were Christians).  But I certainly remember riding around Chicago with my dad looking for the best light displays.  And, later on when he lived in Deerfield Beach, Florida, driving over to the National Inquirer’s headquarters to see their world renowned Christmas light display. When Juca and I were first married we lived on Addison on the North side (just a few blocks from the cathedral…I’m referring to Wrigley Field) and would love going downtown to the Loop at this time (Ba’yamim Ha Hem, Ba’Zman Ha Zeh) to see all of the store displays and marvel at the shoppers on State Street.  Good times. 

But I expect that that’s not it; not the real reason that I love Christmas. It is the sentiment, the warmth of the holiday.  It’s the hope and wish for peace on earth goodwill toward men.  Christmas is Pesach.  It’s family time; family history; family stories; it’s over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go.  That’s Christmas.  How great to think of kids excited to wake up on Christmas morning to see what is waiting for them under the tree. 

Thank God Judah Maccabee and his gang saved the Jewish People so that Jesus could be born 168 years later so that we could have this wonderful holiday. 

So the real confession here is that whenever I hear Bing Crosby sing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” or “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” or The Weavers sing, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” or especially whenever I hear Judy Garland sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,”  the tears come.  (I cry whenever I hear Judy Garland sing anything…even “The Trolley Song.”  But I digress) Right, so who cries at Christmas?  Me, that’s who,.  Right Ben, it’s not my holiday, but it means a lot to me and in my own way I’m right in the middle of it.  I don’t feel like I’m on the outside looking in.

The Weavers and Pete Seeger add a line after the goodwill toward men sentiment.  They sing, “Why can’t we have Christmas the whole year around?”  With all that’s going on in Connecticut, Israel, Afghanistan, etc. etc. we certainly could use it. 

Have yourselves a merry little Christmas.


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Hoping to Fly the Blue "W"

                                                                                                            November, 2016

Friends.  It's Spring training, MLB about to begin.  Here's an old post about my Cubbies.  I hope to be able to write a reprise soon.


Dear Family and Friends:

I have never in my life had the opportunity to say, “Tonight the Chicago Cubs may be World Series champions!”  Being a born and bred Chicagoan, Northsider even, and having been on this earth a long time, it’s remarkable that tonight might just be the night. Let’s see.  The last time the Cubbies were in the World Series was four months before I was born, 1945.  The last time they won the Series was two years after my Grandfathers arrived at Ellis Island from Eastern Europe, 1908.  I’m sure my grandparents couldn’t have cared less about the great American pastime, but I sure wish my Dad could be sitting next to me watching tonight, along with his best buddy (whom I called uncle) Roy Levy.  How many times they snuck away from work on weekday afternoons to catch the last few innings of games at Wrigley Field?  Impossible to calculate.  How many times my Dad fell asleep watching The Cubs on TV on Saturday afternoons?  Also impossible to estimate.  I remember once, Cubs playing on TV, Dad asleep in the couch, I changed the channel.  Dad immediately woke and said, “Hey.  I’m watching the game.  The Cubs are up by two.”  He was right.  He could watch the games in his sleep.  Remarkable.

Yesterday the editor of our local paper, Bob Zaltsberg of the Herald Times wrote a column about singer/songwriter Steve Goodman, z’’l.  Goodman, a native Chicagoan of my vintage and, I believe, a fellow camper at Union Institute in the early ‘60’s, wrote several songs about Chicago and the Cubs.  He’s best known for his “City of New Orleans.”  But these days his, “Go Cubs Go” is his biggest hit.  Zaltsberg wrote that “Go Cubs Go” is not Goodman’s best work.  He prefers “Last Wish of a Dying Cubs Fan.”  Also great.  But I’d like Bob Zaltsberg to think of this (maybe I’ll send him this letter); how do you measure “Best?”  Cub’s fans fly the blue “W” and sing “Go Cubs Go” after every win at Wrigley Field. Two nights ago the Cubs came back to win a squeaker 3 to 2 to keep them in the Series.  Afterword, approximately 50 thousand fans stood in the friendly confines of Wrigley and sang it.  How many were singing out on Sheffield Ave or on Clark Street is hard to guess.  I think when over fifty thousand people join together to sing one of your songs, well, that’s a lot of votes for best in my book. 

A friend invited me to watch the game tonight at a local watering hole, Nicks.  I can’t do it.  For some reason this is a personal thing.  I’d hate to be in a crowd if the Cubbies didn’t win (don’t want to use the “L” word), and I kind of want to relish in the moment (like a moment of silence) if they do.  I guess that’s not very baseball-like, since the sport is so communal.  But that’s how I feel.

So, Steve Goodman.  To quote your “Last Wish of a Dying Cubs Fan,” Yes they still sing the blues in Chicago.  But not this year and not for this Cubs team. And hopefully tonight Chicagoans and expatriate Chicagoans will hoist the blue “W” and join in the refrain, “Go Cubs Go.”   Win or lose, I’ll be singing a solo rendition and be most happy for a great season.



Thursday, October 13, 2016

The One Less Traveled

Last month the Hebrew Union College (the rabbinic seminary I attended from 1972 through 1977) asked me to write a short synapses of my career.  I'll be participating in a rabbinic symposium and this is to be used as an introduction.  Here's what I wrote.

I Took the One Less Traveled By

My rabbinate has been unlike most. In my H.U.C. interview, I stated that my intention was to be become a camp director in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. At that time, youth work was not viewed too seriously at the College. Nevertheless, I was accepted and thrived during my time studying in Jerusalem and Cincinnati. During my third year, the directorship of Union Camp Institute opened. The camp is in Zionsville, Indiana, just two hours from Cincinnati. I was offered the job and jumped at the opportunity. For the next two years, I ran the camp from our apartment in Cincinnati with weekly commutes to Zionsville. The morning after ordination, I moved my family permanently to Indianapolis where we spent the next thirty-five years.
Although I used to maintain that a camp director’s job is not very rabbinic, and for many years I was the only rabbi among the Union’s camp directors, my rabbinic training — and certainly the title “Rabbi” — helped. I was, in fact, a Jewish educator, working mainly with college-age camp staff members. Our camp was and remains a Jewish educational institute; Hebrew, Israel, Shabbat, Jewish values, and Jewish community are at the forefront of its program. In many informal ways I was able to have positive Jewish impacts on campers and staff members.
Five years ago, I retired, and we moved to Bloomington, Indiana. I now work at IU Hillel, teach several classes, am a Jewish resource for the other Hillel staff. In addition, I teach four adult Hebrew classes in the greater Bloomington community. Ironically, I am more the rabbi now than I was when I was actually working. I have shed the non-rabbinic responsibilities I had as a camp director (administration, supervision, budgets, physical plant, fund raising, etc.) and now concentrate on teaching Judaism and Hebrew. I was ordained in 1977, almost forty years ago. Lessons, texts, concepts that we dealt with at that time come to my mind daily. Besides a leadership role here in the Bloomington Jewish community, I am called upon to officiate at many life cycle events each year. Being a rabbi has now kicked in full gear. I couldn’t be happier.
Rabbi Ron Klotz served as Director of the URJ Goldman Union Camp Institute and is currently Director of the Center for Informal Jewish Education, Helene G. Simon Hillel Center at Indiana University

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Mafia and Me

Friends.  For whatever reason this entry came to mind today.  It is one of my favorites.  Thought I'd throw it out there again for anyone who might have missed it.
                                                                                                June, 2014
Dear Friends and Family:

A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to be invited to Kansas City where long-time Beth Torah Director of education and long-time G.U.C.I. faculty member Marcia Rittmaster was retiring.  I was to be one of the speakers at the Shabbat service honoring her.  It was a great evening for a wonderful person.  There were many current and former campers as well as parents of former campers present.  I was a surprise guest so many wanted to talk to me about camp, retirement, Jewish education etc.  But what usually happens at events like this is that the time of the informal dinner buffet also becomes prime schmooze time.  I talked away the dinner and never got to the food.  (More about that in a minute).   I’m fortunate that people associate me with those positive Jewish experiences their children had at camp.  So the schmooze/camp talk flowed…and I loved it.
  After the formal Shabbat service, the congregation had set up an artificial campfire in the lobby.  Kids and adults sat around the “fire” while Charlene Gubitz led a song session.  In the middle I told a story.  Then more songs.  As the song session was just beginning to wind down a girl, maybe fourteen years old, came up to me to tell me how much she loved camp and that she wanted to, someday, be a counselor and help other kids love camp.  Then, with a bit of an embarrassed smile she said, “But, it’s not G.U.C.I.  I go to camp Schwayder with my cousins from Denver.”  I think she expected me to say something like…too bad you didn’t come to our camp.  I didn't.  Our conversation went like this:

Ron: “Is that a Jewish camp where Jewish kids sing Jewish songs, say Jewish prayers, and have a wonderful time with each other?”  (I knew that it was that kind of camp)

Camper:  “Yes, that’s why I love it.”

Ron:  “Well, if you can help other kids love being Jewish with their camp friends, you will be doing something great for the Jewish world.”

She looked at me for a second, I guess surprised by my comment, and then gave me a great hug.  We finished the song session together and she was gone.  I didn't even get her name.
So I walked out to my car after the whole shebang and realized that I was famished.  I never got to the buffet or to the Oneg food after the service.  On the way back to the hotel I spotted a small pizza place called, “Mafia Pizza.”  I loved the name and I stopped.  I half expected to see pictures of Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, or at least Marlon Brando on the walls.  But quite the contrary, greeting me at the door was a very Middle Eastern looking gentleman who shook my hand and introduced himself as the owner, Mohammed.   I kiddingly asked if Mohammed was an Italian name.  He joked back telling me that it was not, that he was from Ramle in Palestine, but that he knew a few Italians.  That started us off.  When I told him that I had been to Ramle and had lived for a few years in Jerusalem he invited me to sit and have a lemonade with him.  I ordered a cheese pizza to go and sat down.
Enter Mohammed’s cousin, who sits with us.  We talked about Israel (they were quite complimentary as to Israel’s’ great accomplishments in building the country and quite angry with their fellow Palestinian leaders for not following suit), Chicago, where they had lived for several years, Jerusalem, the West Bank, Green line, but all in a very friendly way (this was before they knew I was a Jew).  I took a chance when they asked what I had studied in Jerusalem and told them that I was a rabbi.  Just as we were getting into what that was all about my pizza arrived and I got up to pay and leave. 

“No.”  Mohammed said, “You can’t pay.

“Come on,” I replied, “You already treated me to a lemonade, I’m paying.”

“No!  I can’t charge you.  You’re my cousin.  We’re family.” 

He gave me hug (my second of the night) and handed me the pizza.  I was a bit stunned to find out that I was actually a family member of the Mafia…the Islamic, Kansas City branch of the family.  What could I do?  He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse…kinship.

It was an interesting trip to Kansas City last month. 

Until next time… Arivederci.  Ciao Bambinos.  And Salaam Aleykem.


Saturday, September 3, 2016

(You Gotta) Accentuate the Positive and Eliminate the negative...

Pay no attention to the number by the month.  Here's a good thought for the New Year.  Shannah Tovah.


                                                                                                   September, 2016

Dear Friends and Family:

This morning I sat with the Indiana University Hillel staff, as I do every Thursday morning, and discussed upcoming projects, programs, and various issues.  I love these sessions.  They remind me of Leadership Staff meetings at camp.  In addition to the above mentioned topics we usually compose a blessing to be used at Shabbat dinner the next night.  This week we talked about the Torah portion of the week, “Re'eh.”  The scene is Moses speaking to the Israelites beside the Jordan River.  This is the beginning of Moses’s farewell address.  It's his last chance to impress upon his People the challenges that lie ahead and their responsibilities to follow the commandments.  Moses begins by saying something to the effect of; 'See (pay attention).  I place before you blessings and curses….”  It goes on to encourage the Jewish People to follow God's commandments and in doing so, “Choose life.”

Our Shabbat prayer for this week focused on this notion of blessings and curses.  We called the curses, “Challenges.”  We wrote, “Each week during our time here at Indiana University, we benefit from blessing and face challenges.  We pray that in the weeks to come we have the insight to appreciate the blessings in our lives, and the courage to face our challenges.”  Sometimes, for me, it is easier to identify the curses, the challenges, than the blessings.  It is easy to let the troubles of the world weigh you (me) down.

Look, I never comment on politics but suffice it to say that this is a depressing presidential election year.  Our Democrat/Republican crippled government is cause for despair.  Our conservative - to the point of nearly erasing the separation of church and state -State government is mind boggling.  Brazil just threw out her President and over fifty percent of Brazilians surveyed expressed no faith in the former president’s replacement.  The Olympics ended in a quagmire of US athletes lying to police after they drunkenly vandalized a gas station in Rio.  I could go on and on.

So that's what I see each morning in the paper and each evening on the news.  But this morning's brain storming session with the staff reminded me that I have to open my eyes (Re'eh means see!)  to the blessings all around me.  Off the top of my head...Juca and my family and friends, health, Bloomington, working with Jewish kids on campus, music, humor, jazz and an occasional sail on Lake Monroe.  I could go on and on.  I guess it's just that the blessings are not advertised as well as the curses.  Good news doesn't sell newspapers, someone once said. 

As a Jew, I can't simply not care about the world around me.  As a person trying to remain sane, I have to keep some distance.  So here's my revenge.  I am going to keep on trying to do good deeds, be a good person, and help others whenever I can.  I'll also continue to follow the events of the world even if I can't affect their outcome (except with my vote and an occasional march down Kirkwood Ave. in protest of something or other).  But I'll appreciate that I can sit on my porch on my quiet street in this small city, play my banjo, watch the seasons change, and plan my next class.  There are a lot of blessings in my life.  I could go on and on.


PS.  The High Holidays are coming up.  Time to regroup, refocus, and renew.  Also not a bad time to tally up those blessings and accentuate the positive… (eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don't mess with Mister In-Between.  Thank you Johnny Mercer)

Monday, May 30, 2016

Things Are Fine in Glocca Morra

                                                                                                          May, 2016

Dear Family and Friends:

During the year in which I was born, Yip Harburg, a Yiddish speaking songwriter was penning the words to, “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”  (He also wrote such standards as, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," "April in Paris," and "It's Only a Paper Moon," as well as all of the songs in The Wizard of Oz, including "Over the Rainbow.")  Glocca Morra was a mythical Irish town sung about in the musical “Finnian’s Rainbow.”  I know you are ecstatic to have this tidbit of trivia.  

A few weeks ago the Clark’s and Klotz’s (older generation) met for a weekend of fun (as we have several times since we became family through our children, Jeremy and Melissa).  This time around we joined up in the not-so-mythical town of Metamora, Indiana.  Ever heard of it?  I’m not surprised.  Metamora is so small (your cue to say, “How small is it?”)…Metamora is so small that it is not even shown on the Indiana road map.  We found it anyway.  Bill Clark made the arrangements and we met up at the century-old Metamora Inn bed and breakfast, our HQ for the weekend.  That’s where we met the first of many wonderfully friendly people of the area.  The Inn is owned and run by a husband and wife team.  He’s G.I. and she’s Jo.  Together they are known as, you guessed it, “GI Joe.”  The inn was clean, comfortable, and the breakfasts Jo made for us Saturday and Sunday morning were delicious.  Best thing about the inn was their large porch.  We sat out there each happy hour and evening and…were happy. 

At first glance we thought that the inn might be the extent of the things to see and do in this historic (read very old) town.  We were wrong.  That Saturday morning we ambled the five or six blocks of the town to find that Metamora had been a booming tourist attraction.  Although its heyday went bust along with the economy several years back, people still came by to see and ride the well-preserved passenger train and canal boat.  We learned that Metamora had been a center for trade a hundred years ago because it was built on a 110 mile canal where boats pulled by horses brought farm products and other material from central Indiana to Cincinnati.  The advent of the freight train killed the canal business but Metamora lived on as an attraction to visitors looking for a taste of the past.  Antique shops, an authentic grist mill (with water wheel on the canal) and several other interesting shops still open on the weekends for those interested enough to find the town.

We were in luck on our weekend in Metamora.  We happened to be there for the last day of operations of the not-so-well-known Museum of Oddities.  That was perhaps the most appropriate name any museum ever had.  Everything in it was odd; death masks, Peruvian artifacts, an autographed photo of Charles Manson.  The only not-so-odd thing was a Chanukah Menorah.  Well, that wasn’t odd for us, anyway.  I guess oddness is in the eye of the beholder.  As we left I talked to the owner.  Turns out he is a professor who traveled the world collecting the oddities himself.  He’d opened the museum fifty years ago and that Saturday was to be its last day.  He was selling the exhibit and moving to Florida.  Isn’t that odd?

Next door we had a great lunch at the Smelly Gourmet.  That’s the name and the food was great.  While we ate out on the patio we saw what looked to be cowboys and cowgirls getting off of the train.  Seems like we happened to be in the right place at the right time if re-enactments of bank robberies and cowboy gunfights are your cup of tea.  I’m sure the cow folk on any other day of the week were farmers, accountants and lawyers.  But once a month they don their spurs, Stetsons, and six-guns and become the Jessie James’s and Wyatt Earp’s of Metamora. 
We spent the entire day wandering from gun fight to antique shops to art stores.  We rode the train and the canal boat (pulled by two beautiful draft horses), now living museums.  The people who run, repair, and explain the histories of the canal and train lines are all volunteers.  Their mission is to preserve that small bit of Indiana history.  They were full of stories and eager to talk.  Nice people. 

As more luck would have it, we heard that that night was the once-a-month bluegrass dinner over at the music barn.  It was a great down home evening.  The dinner was meatloaf, corn and mashed potatoes.  Our Metamora Inn host, G.I. was the leader and mandolin player of the house band, and there was professional bluegrass quartet headlining the performance.    Later G.I. told me that they put on a bluegrass/folk music jam session the first Sunday afternoon of the month.  Guess where I’m going, banjo in hand, next Sunday. 

So what we all thought was going to be a weekend of watching the grass grow turned out to be one packed with experiences none of us had ever had.  Of course the icing on the cake was spending the weekend with the Clark’s.  We always have a great time together.

I don’t know how things are in Glocca Morra, but at least things are still happening in Metamora.  Nothing that will earn it a spot on the Indiana road map, but interesting, odd, colorful, and a bit historic,  places, people, and music.   We met many interesting people, heard a lot of stories, and saw a community proud of its history and dedicated to preserving it through living museums. 

We found it all in Metamora (now, wouldn’t that be a great song title?).


Thursday, May 5, 2016

Prague and Poland

Dear Friends and Family:

Two of our best friends are currently leading a NFTY group through Prague and Poland and then on to Israel.  My wife and I did this twice in the past few years.  Here is a recall of my first trip to Eastern Europe.

                                                                                                 November, 2000

Dear Friends and Family:

It's unusual for me to find myself in our Beit T'fillah (outdoor chapel) at 10 p.m. on a Friday night in October, all by my lonesome.  But, as I returned, last month, from a UAHC (now URJ) Camp Directors' trip to the Czech Republic and Poland, I didn't feel I had reached my destination until I arrived at our Beit T'fillah.  

We took off on a grueling, six-day, experience, stepping back into the distant and cerebral past of the middle ages, and to the not so distant, emotional past of our Eastern European Jewish history.  It was quite a personal voyage for me.  You see, three of my grandparents came to America in the early 1900's from Prague, Czechoslovakia.  Czech was spoken at our family get-togethers around tables filled with Bohemian foods.  It just wasn't Thanksgiving if we weren't all at my Aunt Lill's on Chicago's West side, digging into the goose, dumplings, and cabbage along with the newer traditions, turkey, stuffing, and cranberries.  The beer was Pilsner Urquell.  We belonged to B’nai Jehoshua, a synagogue made up of mostly Czech families.  Enough said.  I knew I was a Czech Jew.

At several stops along the way that week, the realities of our Jewish past stepped up to splash their ice water in my face.  The first was in a small synagogue in Prague where the living had honored the names of all Czech Jews deported by the Nazis, by listing them on the synagogue walls and ceilings.  I stood there under the names of my Mother's family, the Steiners, who I would never meet or know.  These were the relatives after which my Aunts and even my Grandfather were named.  Until that moment I had never felt so related to our enemy's victims.  I felt a deep connection to that family I would never know, but eternally miss.  The names on that ceiling drew me right into the horrors of that time.      

We left the Technicolor Prague for a black and white Warsaw and Krakow.  Warsaw is a gray, cement block city where most of our Jewish presence has been erased.  But, I did stand on Mila Street to honor the well-known Mordachai Anielewicz, leader of the ghetto revolt against the Nazi monsters.  Standing on that street also gave me the opportunity to honor the not-so-well-known Moshe Pashtan, z"l, who, born on that street, escaped the ghetto as a child to Germany (of all places) and then to Israel, only to wind up sharing a tent with me for a summer as my Assistant Tzofim Unit Head at Olin-Sang-Ruby in 1969.  Moshe and I took a bus to New York after camp that summer.  I was leaving for a year (due mostly to Moshe's summer-long prodding) on my first pilgrimage to Israel.  For me, Mila was Pashtan's street.  It was one of the many spots I stopped to whisper the Kaddish.

I prayed again at the Jewish cemetery of Warsaw.  It's overwhelming to stand amid the 250,000 Jewish graves, to read the Hebrew on the tombstones, to understand the poetry of their old words.  It's another strong connection.  This is where the enormity of our loss starts to become real.  Kaddish seemed inadequate to me.  But it was all I knew to say, a way to thank God for giving me life, to remember and to continue.  In retrospect, Kaddish was the perfect Jewish memorial. 

After a " From Russia With Love" style train ride to Krakow, thirty miles or so from my Father's family's hometown (The Klotz's came from Tarnov), we bused to the emotional apex of our trip, Auschwitz and Birkenau, Nazi work and death camps.  Passing under that wrought iron sign "Arbact Macht Frei" (work will make you free), walking through a gas chamber, seeing the ovens, strips away the distance and protection the filters of film, printed word, even personal testimony of survivors affords.  Being there makes it real. Very real.  The impact is so deep it takes the breath away. 

Finally, it's Birkinau.  This is where the train tracks end; the camp built solely for the purpose of killing Jews.  A million and a half of our grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins stepped out of their cattle cars and departed this world at that wrenched place.  Men to the left, women and children to the right.  Being there brings the inescapable thought that it could have been me.  It could have been you.  Then the reality, it was me and it was you.  To the left and to the right; stripped, gassed, cremated, ashes dumped into two small pools of water.  All that remains are those pools.  We were numb standing by the water.  We neither cried nor screamed.  Just numb.  Rabbi Allan Smith, our guide that day began our ascent from those depths with a worship service in the area adjacent to the water pools filled with ashes.  We shared some of our thoughts along with the prayers.  Then he led us in the opposite direction the 800,000 women and children took as they marched to their deaths down a half-mile brick path.  They are in the pools.  We rise from the place of the ashes to carry on and do our work and live as Jews.  I stopped and dug up a few pieces of brick from that path.  So many children had stepped there.  I needed something in my pocket to hold on to.  When my group talked a bit about the experience I told my colleagues that, after the sadness and the anger, I felt an intense sense of pride and confirmation.  Pride in carrying on our Jewish heritage.  Pride in my ethnicity, my faith, my membership in Am Yisrael.  This was an experience that confirmed all of the above and even more, the work we do, not only here at camp and in NFTY, but in every synagogue, and in every home where our kids learn to sing the Shabbat blessings and light the Chanukiot.  I've always maintained that it is sacred work, teaching kids to love Judaism and strengthening their Jewish identities.  But now, after having been in this place, I felt I was carrying home the blessings of those who walked that brick path.  I'm honored to carry the torch into the future.

So, I returned late on a Friday night, exhausted after over thirty hours of travel.  On the way home from the airport I took a left instead of a right and wound up at camp (just a minute out of the way).  Closed and dark, it's still GUCI.  I took ten minutes to sit in our Beit T'fillah imagining and remembering the voices of our campers and staff, singing our prayers, fanning away the heat with prayer cards.  That's how I completed this extraordinary trip.

And so, I headed home, my pockets lumpy with pieces of brick.



Saturday, March 5, 2016

California Dreamin'

                                                                                                                        March, 2016

Dear Friends and Family:

When you get to a certain age, I guess its “normal” to start viewing the reruns of your life.  Today I thought how lucky I am to have had five incredible highlights in my adult life.  Here they are: 1. the day I married Juca, 2. the day our son Jeremy was born, 3. the day our son Michael was born, 4. the weekend Jer and Melissa were married, and 5. the beautiful weekend last September when Mike and Steph were married.  I’m not forgetting when our granddaughters Zoe and Maya made their debuts.  Those were high times as well.  

Last September Juca and I flew out to San Francisco, met our sister Helenita and brother-in-law Gilson at the airport for what was to be a magical weekend.  Everything about the wedding weekend was beautiful, unusual, and inspirational.  It all started with our car rental.  Mike had asked me to rent a minivan to help schlep people and things from the hotel to the venue and back.  I stepped up to the counter and spoke to the older gentleman filling out my forms when he asked me what the occasion was and where would I be going.  After explaining, he said that it seemed to him that I would need more room than just a minivan and that he was going to upgrade the reservation to a full size van….no extra charge.  Does something like that regularly happen?  I don’t think so.  Turns out he was right and the van was a great help. 

The wedding weekend centered around Santa Rosa, California; about sixty or so miles north of San. Fran. We found ourselves in Petaluma, smack-dab in the middle of the most beautiful rolling hills of California wine country.  It was certainly clear this was not Indiana.  Beautiful.  Everything about this wedding experience knocked my socks off.  It began with a rehearsal dinner at what may be the best Italian restaurant I’ve ever been to.  Listen, growing up in Chicago, I’ve been to a lot of them.  Nothing like this.  The meal was out of this world.  But being there with our whole family and meeting Steph’s family topped it all.  Let me say a word about Steph’s family.  What a bunch of fun-loving, warm, appreciative, sense-of-humored people.  It was an absolute pleasure to celebrate with them.  They said so many wonderful things about our Mike and thanked us so much for raising such a wonderful person that I was bursting with pride (but thinking about it I understand that we become the good people we are because of and in spite of our parents).  Toasts were made, stories told. It was a festive, no, joyous evening.  Just as the rehearsal dinner had been at Jer and Melissa’s wedding. 

The next afternoon we bussed out into the middle of wine country to a farm which was the wedding venue.  The family met for pictures and just before the ceremony we read the Ketuba (Jewish Marriage contract) to begin the proceedings.  Steph and Mike created a remarkable Ketuba that not only pledged their love and respect for each other but also spoke of making the world a better place and honoring and respecting family and friends.  It took Juca and I a couple of hours a few months earlier to translate the Hebrew text.  We each sat with a dictionary and were blown away by the beauty of the poetry and the depth of the ideas in that Ketuba.  While the family was gathered in that private place, all of the wedding guests were being bussed in from Santa Rosa and up to the top of one of the hills on the farm where the chupah (wedding canopy) had been set and chairs arranged.  We were taken by tram up to that wind-swept hilltop where a bluegrass band played as the wedding party marched in.  There were so many moments during the next thirty or forty minutes of the wedding that will stay with me forever.  Walking Mike down the aisle, Steph arriving in a magnificent wedding dress brought to the hilltop in a white pickup truck, Juca, Helenita, and all of the women in Steph’s family gathered by the side of the chupah reciting the Shehechiyanu (a prayer of thanksgiving), sitting in the front row looking at Mike and his bride flanked by his best man, Jeremy…that’s a picture etched in my heart, hearing the wedding vows that Steph and Mike had each written, so personal, so loving, so them.  It just seems right to me that those moments were the absolute highlight of the event, even though it kept on getting better and better.  Dinner on another hilltop outside in the California sun; toasts at dinner and a great rap song/toast sung by Steph’s mom and aunts.  Remarkable.

To top off the evening the party was held in what was called a barn, but it really was a beautiful party room with stage, dancefloor, etc.  Here’s the kicker.  Steph works in the music industry.  The band that played was (and called themselves) Jerry Garcia’s Other Band.  I can’t describe the thunder and lightning that was that band.  No one could help but dance to the music.  You just couldn’t stand still.  It was phenomenal.  What a night.

So seeing these reruns, thinking of all of the blessings that have come my way, my family’s way, kind of says to me that if I made my exit tomorrow (don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere) it would be OK.  That’s how good it has been.  Can you imagine being on that hilltop with Juca, Jer, Mellissa, Zoe, Maya, Mike, Steph, our family from Brazil, my cousins, our friends, Steph’s great family?  Regardless of belief, how could anyone help but whisper “Shehechiyanu, V’keyamanu, V’higianu La Zman Hazeh,” being thankful for life and living, and being present at that most joyous time?