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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.