Monday, January 10, 2011

On the Street

I fell for it. Walking on Amsterdam, I had just passed an older man with a cane when he called out behind me “You dropped something”. I turned to look even as I felt that everything was yes still in my pocket. He looked at me to catch my attention again “You dropped my heart”. Oh, a flirt. Oh dear. He did not crack a smile. I wanted to keep walking; he wanted to keep talking. I tried to do both as I naturally speeded ahead. “Where are you from?” He asked. “Italy?” I answered, shaking my head and gesturing at the ground with my pointing hands, “No, here”. I know that with my dark curls and light skin I look exotic, at least Italian or Mediterranean, which is close enough. “Where is your family from?” “From Poland and Bulgaria”. I did not add that I am Jewish, which could have explained all. A quizzical look came over his face. “Is that near Africa?” He was making a joke, he said “I am just kidding” but he may never have heard of Bulgaria. I could have told him that I am often mistaken for Italian or Hispanic or Greek, but instead I thought about how much more ethnically diverse and evidently so my neighborhood used to be. I wondered about his background and history in the neighborhood, but did not ask. I smiled as he walked into a drugstore and I walked on.
He may have made my day more than I did his. I am at an age where being noticed on the street often amuses rather than outrages me. Yet a few days before I had found myself walking with purpose (and hence speed) in midtown in the evening, practicing tunnel vision. Suddenly I heard voices behind me, clearly raised loud enough to penetrate my defenses. Yeah she has those wide hips and she just keeps walking. Nothing is going to stop her. She must be a native New Yorker. Look at her. They went on in this vein for a while, making sure that I could hear; they must have been closer than I like to realize. They were certainly taunting and they sounded like they might be drunk. They thought that their behavior was acceptable. Or, they were just not thinking at all. It was an avenue crowded with tourists so I felt relatively safe, but at a different time of day I would not have. I thought about doing so but elected not to turn around to glare at them or tell them off – because getting my attention and/or getting a rise out me was exactly what they wanted and I did not want to satisfy them by falling for their ploy. I continued on, walking as fast as I could, but it took a while to put distance between us because the sidewalks were so crowded. They were probably behind me and invading my air space for no more than two or three blocks, but it felt like an eternity and the agitation stayed with me for longer, exacerbated by a string of minor snafus which may have been set off by my agitation. A bit later on I described the incident to a friend over dinner and I was able to relax after that. My friend was sympathetic but she noted that people persist in such behavior because no one talks back to them. I agreed but said I did not want to pick a fight at that moment. I am not fully sure that I made the right choice; I certainly would have alleviated my aggravation if I had said something or at least given them a nasty look. Choosing one’s battles and knowing when to speak up for oneself – these moments sometimes come at surprising times and in unexpected ways. They are especially charged when gender dynamics and/or feelings of safety in public spaces are involved.
So, in the wake of that episode, having the older man look at me through his large glasses and work to engage me felt almost sweet. His sense of allowance felt different, even though it may not have been. I may have felt differently if he had continued on the path with me for a bit longer and there had not been as natural an ending to the exchange. I started thinking more about what I might be projecting or emanating as I walked down the street. This is difficult, because I do not want to go too far in the direction of seeing myself as overly responsible for the incidents described. At the same time I am receiving feedback that I can still consider even as I filter it given the presenters. What do strangers see when they see me?
Comparing and contrasting these two incidents, considering their contexts and where they fit in the chronology of my life, reminds me of how much we bring to even the smallest meeting or interaction. In New York City so many of these moments happen or have the potential to happen every day it is dizzying and hence no wonder that natives walk fast and avoid eye contact. Yet sometimes our chance exchanges, such as striking up a conversation with a stranger, prove uplifting or even life-changing. I hope that I remain open enough for those possibilities.
©2011 Leah Strigler

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

In the Neighborhood

My former neighbor Peg texted me to ask for a photo of the sign on West 86th street which announces the honorary name of Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard. The Nobel-winning Yiddish author lived for many years in the famed Belnord, the block-big landmarked apartment mansion with courtyard, a portion of which is seen in this snapshot of the NW corner of 86th at Amsterdam Avenue. Peg asked: did he know your father?
Indeed he did. Beshevis, as I usually heard him referred to, was born in Bilgoraj, a small town near my father’s hometown of Zamosc. Bilgoraj is where my grandmother Hadassah Kalichstein was born and where my aunt Sonya lived with her maternal grandparents when a child. When I met Bashevis as a child he looked at me and pronounced “Mir zenen landsleit” – we are landsmen, from the same hometown. Landsmenshaften were hometown associations organized by immigrants here in order to bond with and help compatriots from di alte heym, the old home. True, we were of sorts, but it was really Bashevis and my father who were so bonded. They were from the same hometown area and vanished world and both had landed on the Upper West Side, both writers for the Forverts, the Yiddish newspaper that my father would later serve as editor. Roman Vishniac, the photographer whose iconic images of Jewish Poland just before its destruction were published in a volume entitled A Vanished World, also settled in the same neighborhood, living for many years in the building where I now do. A kleine velt, it is a small world after all.
And it is all the more so with our constantly evolving technologies. Peg and her husband Bernie left the neighborhood and building just over a year ago, setting off around the country in their mobile home. But I can stay in touch via cell phone, e-mail and internet. Peg is blogging their adventures: We were floormates for over a decade, but only became good friends a few years ago when the building began a condo conversion. It seems bashert or meant to be that we would be neighbors since we were once before. For two years I lived a block away from them in Woodley Park in NW Washington D.C., their hometown. We did not know each other then but as there was only one main shopping strip, a section of Connecticut Avenue, I think that I have a memory – constructed I am sure – of seeing them on the street, their beloved pair of Blue Merle collies in tow. They are both tall and remain striking, even with their one current dog, the lovely Sully. When they left I was most upset that they took him away since he does not e-mail, but he is featured regularly on the blog and in photos that they send me. When they visited this summer Peg scolded me for not having a camera phone, since she loves to trade snapshots. Within a month my phone had died and I upgraded to one with the added feature. My first photo was of the building courtyard entrance and its latest changes, sent to them to see. They are both accomplished artists and photographers and have been charmingly praiseful of my efforts, including this morning’s special request.
The neighborhood of my childhood and current home is layered with the stories of many Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe as well as a number of layers of American Jewish history and evolution, not to mention my own history and childhood. Bashevis was known to frequent the outpost of Chock Full o’ Nuts which faced the Belnord across Broadway. In Double Self-Portrait (1976) by Richard Estes the window of that automat reflects both the artist and the Belnord across the street. (Estes clearly spent a lot of time in the neighborhood during my childhood. This image and others based on the area are at Chock Full o' Nuts has recently re-opened a store in Manhatan, on 23rd street.) Bashevis was also a regular at Famous, the kosher dairy restaurant on West 72nd street that suited his vegetarian diet. On the same street as the Belnord and the Boulevard sign are two significant synagogues: one block east is the Jewish Center, a model synagogue-community center buildinf at its inception and a popular congregation today; two blocks east is the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, the first Reconstructionist synagogue, founded by Mordecai Kaplan, who as a younger rabbi had worked at the Jewish Center. Peg was waxing nostalgic, saying that if she was here she would have gone out to walk with me and I would have known all the stories. Well not all, but certainly some. Thanks to my cell phone and its camera she was able to stand on the corner with me and chat about the project. Whatever the technology, it is still the human desire to create art, communicate experience and make meaning that helps us to remember where we came from and where we have been and then share these places with others. Sometimes it is the only way that we can go back, a phenomenon I saw so clearly with my father, Bashevis and Vishniac. People often help to hold places for us: their stories and language, landmarks, images and meanings. Today I felt a type of landmark, also a tour guide, reporter and artist, a historian of place and time, all on another normal day in the neighborhood.
©2011 Leah Strigler

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Days of Awe

During the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we add a number of lines to the Shemoneh Esreh, asking for God to inscribe us in the Book of Life. To me these prayers have always spoken of the balance between our awareness of a divine power and our consciousness that we shape our lives and the world with our communications and actions. Odd, since these additions emphasize God’s actions, especially the ability to show mercy to human beings. Our recitation of these lines indicate that we believe our actions do have meaning and effect, at least when it comes to supplication. That we plead on behalf of the collective is evidence of our understanding that we are inter-connected and that our fates are bound together. Perhaps that is why we imagine a Book filled with names rather than more individualized acknowledgements of our fate.

During the year following the events of September 11th, 2001 I felt that the world had been permanently suspended in a period where our actions determine our future. I continuously felt that the fate of humanity was being judged and that our thoughts and behaviors were contributing to that determination. I kept myself aware of this sensibility liturgically by continuing to recite the additions to the Shemoneh Esreh throughout the year.

Now each time the season comes around I try to repeat this practice at least once in preparation for the High Holy Days. I use it as a framework for reflecting on the state of the world and of humanity. I wonder what challenges our future will bring and what mercy we can hope for, from the Divine Source and from each other. This year, 2010 and 5771, the anniversary of 9.11 falls on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I hope that it will remind all of us of what we learned, at least for a while, in the immediate aftermath of that day. May our collective new year be filled with blessing.

Monday, May 31, 2010

May Flowers

I’m a city girl and so my knowledge of flora is limited by growing up amidst concrete. I did live (and still do) in a wonderful neighborhood bordered on both sides by huge parks, so the greening and flowering of trees and plants are familiar harbingers of warm weather for me. Still, I often forget how powerful the attraction of blooming things is. I remember once having no luck separating my cat from a vase of sunset orange tiger lilies; a usually fastidious creature, he kept at them until his face was covered in pollen that made him look like a child who had smeared jam across his face. I marveled at the call of nature as I lifted him away time and again.
A voracious learner, I am always disappointed in myself for not knowing more about the natural world, or not feeling confident enough in identifying plants, animals, etc. The truth is that I know many flowers from their use in perfumery, a long-time love. Poppy, carnation (my first floral fragrance favorite and still the most sentimental), rose, jasmine, magnolia, mimosa, iris, lily, violet, tuberose, gardenia, geranium, orange flower… all are well-known to me in distilled or created form. Separating the scent from the other sensory indicators of flowers is an odd thing to contemplate at the brink of summer, which is to me so much about color and light. But the perfumer’s art gives us the illusion that flowers, or at least their silage, are with us at all times, not just in season, and that is a luxury that keeps some of spring’s hope at the ready.
When I was in college I was the flower child or flower girl for the Kosher Kitchen – the titles were my own private joke, but my task for four years was to visit the florist on Friday afternoon and pick the flowers for the Sabbath dinner tables. I also brought them to the dining hall and arranged them in vases. This private perk allowed me to welcome in the Sabbath and the weekend with a few moments of communing with flowers, albeit separate from their natural habitat.
A few weeks ago I toured the city with friends and we walked the High Line, admiring the wildflower landscape and the backdrop views of the Hudson. Later, as we waited for their express bus home on a quiet stretch of midtown, one friend pointed out that the hyacinths arranged primly in a large planter were wafting scent our way. We moved close to bury our noses in the crisp, cool purple floral fragrance that broke the careful line-up. Spring had come. The other day at the farmer’s market with another friend we picked up a huge bouquet of lilacs for her Sabbath table. They were almost over-run in their lushness and their perfume overpowered an Indian dinner.
So I wonder what it is about flowers that most attracts you – scent, color, shape, their audacious or delicate existence, their ephemeral quality? What most signals spring, in all of its call to life and lushness? Which flowers most represent spring and the advent of summer? What do they tell you when they appear, out of season, in the midst of your daily activities?
©2010 Leah Strigler

Monday, May 10, 2010

The First Year

I ran into a friend on the street Sunday afternoon. I had just been thinking about her, that I should send her a message for Mother’s Day, wishing her well and noting how hard it is the first year after a parent dies to experience such holidays. Her mother died only a short while ago. She had been walking with uncharacteristic fierceness, hiding behind large sunglasses (think Jackie O) and frowning. Our conversation changed her demeanor, as she lit up with wonder saying that she had just been thinking about her bad mood and realizing why she was feeling so blue. I also reminded her of how well she had cared for her mother. Smiles and good wishes followed; the sun came out and the wind temporarily died down. I kid you not, and the weather’s good timing had us riffing even more magical phenomena: rainbows and greenery and sparkles.
In Jewish tradition much emphasis is placed on the desire to do mitzvot or good deeds. In this instance the synchronicity was all but instantaneous, enough to make one believe in the Law of Attraction. I thought of the idea and the means of immediately enacting it appeared. Would that all opportunities for good deeds come rushing to meet us on our way.
Jewish tradition is wise to have mourners mark the first year after a passing, since it takes a cycle of special days – holidays of the Jewish and secular sort, seasons, birthdays, anniversaries and celebrations – to recast one’s life without the beloved but with memories of them. When my father passed away another friend, who had lost her mother even earlier, said to me that what I would miss most (as she did) was the conversations that I would not have with him. I think the same principle is in play here: the days we especially mark make us more acutely aware of the absences in our lives. We may carry people in our hearts, but they are no longer in our present and this is especially poignant at significant moments. At a baby ceremony earlier in the day I was reminded of this as well as, in keeping with Ashkenazik Jewish custom, the new arrival was named for departed family members who were remembered lovingly and with tears. There was tremendous joy too for this long-anticipated child and the future imagined for him.
For me Mother’s Day is a double whammy, since my father passed away on this Sunday twelve years ago. While the date is not his yahrzeit, the Jewish day on which I recite once again the mourner’s kaddish in commemoration of the anniversary of his passing, it is impossible to forget the connection. It was a sunnier Sunday and I was lucky enough to have a few friends who had come to the hospital to visit stay with me and my mother as we shifted into our new reality. How odd that a day devoted to one parent now forever reminds me of the sadness of losing my other parent and the power of community. Perhaps it is this experience more than the Jewish mourning tradition that makes me so sensitive to what my friend was experiencing.
There are many ways to close a posting like this, some sappier than others, but I think it is truer to its spirit to leave it, much the way absences of loved ones leave spaces to fill with spirit.
©2010 Leah Strigler

Monday, March 15, 2010

Bread Alone

With Passover only a few weeks away, I find myself craving bread; also pizza, but pasta, not as much and desserts, not really. It is unusual for me to be so focused on hametz; the excesses of Purim usually quell any cravings (especially for sweet things) and make me feel prepared for the freedom/denial of Passover, when eight days stretch far longer in the mind. Depriving oneself seems to do that, slow down time, quite effectively.
My best strategy for Passover is quite simple. I eat as little matzah as possible; usually a maximum of one piece once we have cleared the seders. I continue to eat foods that are kosher at all times: fruit, vegetables, potatoes, cheese, meat, eggs and nuts. I avoid as best as possible all of the fake “bready” foods, desserts included. By the end of the holiday I usually feel better than ever and each year I wonder if I could continue to live bread-free, all of the time forever more. How much variety do I need in my food anyway? And what exactly is essential about bread?
Man does not live by bread alone. The famous quotation seems absurd in that it flattens into the one simple term a stunning array of food items, crossing cultures, eras, culinary imaginations, different grains and an endless variety of additional ingredients. What culture or nation does not have at least one bread that is considered an identifying staple?
But bread of course is a metaphor for the basic physical needs of our survival and that is the gist of the Biblical citation. In Deuteronomy chapter eight, verses two and three, it says (I am using the Jewish Publication Society’s translation):
Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to
Learn what was in your hearts; whether you would keep His commandments
or not. He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees.
The flatness of the matzah reminds us of the speed with which the Israelites fled Egypt. The learning that life is about more than bread anyway reminds us of the forty years it took those same Israelites to die out in the dessert, so that their children could be prepared to live in allegiance to their Lord, albeit freely in their own country. In each miraculous set of events the power of the divine is paramount. We humans are asked to be incredible jugglers, appreciative of the delights of our physical world while yet attuned to the gifts of God as well as to our own limits. It is exhausting to think about. It should be making me hungry. What constitutes freedom and what slavery? What serves as basic sustenance for you, your bread? And what reminds you that life is a gift symbolized by bread, the work, nourishment and creativity that we knead into it, and yet rises above it, into the ether like the scent of yeast looking to meet the airiness of enlightenment. When we are blessed, it rains back down on us in transmuted gifts. ©2010 Leah Strigler

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Poetic Echoes

The Echo Of
Night in an ancient city; I match your footsteps.
Walking alone where many have walked over much time,
where I have walked many times, where you…
Walking together with you.
And the aged stones of the old buildings hold
the wisdom of eternal time. They glow softly with
soaked moonlight and hold the night
for an extended moment
in which our footsteps leave a single echo.
What does this city know of us together?
More than we each know of ourselves,
A single moment glowing softly
that we let fall into eternity, hidden
among stones.

A few weeks ago I shared with two rather new friends some poems that I had written in high school and college. They received a quite enthusiastic reception and one friend has been urging me to post my poetry more regularly. A lovely and most appreciated suggestion, especially since I fell out of the habit of weekly posts (a new year’s resolution) all too quickly. But all written pieces represent moments in time and revisiting old pieces that one has written is even more intense than rereading works that had been significant at earlier stages of life, whether difficult or beloved. In both case one re-acquaints with an older version of the self, but one’s own words are even more potent reminders and evidence of past life. Poetry, with its immediacy and bareness of form, can be particularly wise and difficult; this particular genre has been weighing heavily on me since I returned to it.
Two incidents account for this. The first is that an old friend came to visit and the visit was difficult. Actually, it all but ruined the friendship, although on account of my excessive acceptance and generosity (please read this as self-blame) I held my tongue and did my best to host. The danger in not speaking up became clear when as a thank you he sent me some poems written about his NYC visit, many based on observations that I had made. What are the limits of poetic license? One poem, dedicated to me, re-imagined my apartment as a servant’s room, haunted by a former occupant mysteriously murdered, the case unsolved. It made my blood run cold and I realized that this friendship was dead and buried.
In the mail this week I received my college alumni magazine, with the note that an old friend had died by her own hand. She and I had fallen out of touch a while back but I would occasionally run into her. I remember our last real get-together taking place the week that Yasser Arafat passed away; we sat in a hummus joint downtown and I translated the Israeli news blaring on the television. The media were following the story but an official announcement was yet to be made. She and I were good friends in the early nineties when we both lived in DC. Both transplanted New Yorkers, we delighted in taking long walks together (as few others did there) and sharing literary and intellectual conversation. Her death was announced in the papers and the news is three months old but somehow I missed it and feel badly, both about losing touch and for not knowing. I have been rereading her work this week as that is the only thing I can do to process and remember her. It is beautiful as ever but so much sadder; it feels rewritten in light of the future that had not yet come to pass.
Alas. I should bring up something positive. Poetry was an early love of mine and one of my favorite activities in high school was the literary club, which I co-directed my senior year, also editing the annual journal. At the time I was concerned not so much with the quality of my work as with the joy of the activity; I loved reading and writing and discussing poems. It has been such a treat to go back and re-read these pieces, recognizing myself, my history and my ability with delight. These are not embarrassing snapshots (why did I ever think that I looked better with bangs?) but rather lovely captures of key moments and knowings that have given me renewed strength and dedication to pursuing more such joyful and thoughtful creative activity, not to mention writing and communicating with greater sensitivity and fortitude. I am somewhat in awe of the voice of my younger self and wonder how she could have grown into one so much less sure. Time is a funny process, as is its companion aging. May they and all other processes and forces bless us with many opportunities to recognize meaning and beauty, both fleeting and eternal.
©2010 Leah Strigler