Saturday, April 11, 2020

Does Anything Quimper to This Small World Passover Story?

For nearly as long as I can remember, my Aunt Claire has been collecting Quimper French pottery (pronounced CamPear). It’s mostly yellow or white, round or octagonally shaped, and often includes a man or a woman standing in profile, surrounded by a border of dainty, yet measured flourishes of blue, green, or red paint. In addition to plates, bowls, and cups and saucers, my aunt has collected, in the course of nearly 50 years, gravy boats, serving platters, wall hangings, pitchers, vases, and more. Some out-of-the ordinary pieces are painted in shades of green, but still are adorned with the distinctive French country figures. A man on one plate, a woman on another.

When she redecorated her kitchen, sometime in the 1980s, I’m guessing, she made Quimper the centerpiece of the room, choosing wallpaper, fabric for the window curtain, and plain blue everyday dishes—all to complement the yellow pottery. She and I trekked to the Pierre Deux store in New York City to find exactly the right wallpaper and fabric pattern.

Fast forward to this past Thursday evening.

As I scrolled through Facebook, admiring all the seder tables, adorned with laptops to bring friends and family into our quarantined celebrations, this photo caught my eye:


Commenting on the photo, I said, “Chag sameach! And a weird question: Do your yellow dinner plates have figures of men and women on them? Are they Quimper?”

In his reply, the poster of the photo, one-half of a couple I know through a mutual friend (and, more recently, through my synagogue) wrote: “Yes, and I don’t know!”

Me: “What does it say on the back of the plate? My aunt has been a longtime collector of antique pieces of this French pottery, which is pronounced ‘CamPear,’ and she has an incredible collection of it. It seems her collector's eye has rubbed off on me!

Adam: “I looked on the back of the plate and it does say Quimper.”

He then sent me this photo via a direct message and our conversation continued from there:


Me: As I suspected! I foresee a blog post coming from this conversation. Stay tuned....and chag sameach!

Adam: Ha ha! Ok. They belonged to Marla’s mom, Donna Newman, and after she passed away they came to Marla.

Me: Are they your Passover dishes or do you use them year-round?

Adam: We use them on special occasions year-round.

It’s now Saturday afternoon, and I’m crafting this post—not only because I love this story of an unexpected connection, but also so I can send it to my Aunt Claire in Florida. She’ll love it, too!

Never again will a Passover come or go that I don’t think of Adam and Marla and the Quimper dishes on their holiday table.

Wishing everyone a ziessen Pesach!

Saturday, April 4, 2020

My Guilt-Free Pandemic

Sheltering-in-place is hard for everyone, but perhaps more so for those of us who live alone—even if we’re introverts. Sure, I love what my sister calls “bonding with my apartment,” but that’s usually after a week of work, working out, socializing, and dealing with the stuff that goes along with running a household: laundry, garbage, recycling, cooking, bills, and all the rest.

Here are five things I won’t feel guilty about during the pandemic—and perhaps not ever again:

1. Not Cooking: Although blizzards and pandemics send many people scurrying to the kitchen to produce huge quantities of comfort food, challah, brownies, and the like, I’m not one of them. In the three weeks I’ve been home, I’ve made one batch of chili and one chuck roast—most of which is in portion-size containers in the freezer. That’s enough. Cooking brings me no joy, no comfort, and I’m not going to do it anymore. I’m going back to salads, veggie burgers, and scrambled eggs. My kitchen and I will both be happier that way.

2. Not Reading: There’s nothing that goes better with bonding with my apartment than curling up with a good book. There’s a problem here, though: I don’t have the bandwidth to read. No concentration. No attention span. No comprehension. Therefore, no guilt.

3. Not Tuning in to Minyan: Prayer can be challenging in the best of times. These days it’s nearly impossible. I think I’ll stick to a Mi Shebeirach for each ambulance siren—and there are a lot of them here across the street from NYU/Langone Tisch Hospital—and for the people I know personally who are fighting COVID-19, including a friend from my hereditary cancer network who is hospitalized on a ventilator. Any more than that is… Just. Too. Much.

4. Not Observing Passover the “Right” Way: In a year when my MacBook Air—not MetroNorth—is going to take me to the seder, does it really matter if all the chametz is out of the house or if I shake out the crumbs from the toaster-oven before Wednesday night? About some traditions, though, I say, “Pandemic, be damned.” Come the virtual seder, I’ll still want assurance that shmorah matzah tastes exactly the same as the box it comes in and that Elmo is going to make his usual guest appearance in time to sing “Echad Mi Yodea.”

5. Oreos: Drastic times demand drastic measures, and if Oreos are my comfort food of choice right now, so be it.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and wash your hands.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

5 Things I Miss in These Crazy Times

Today it’s cloudy and rainy in New York City. In an earlier time (like, maybe three weeks ago), I would have welcomed such a day to stay home and hunker down. After two weeks of doing just that, though, here are five things I’m missing in the age of COVID-19:

1. Browsing for Books: Even with shelves of unread books, browsing for new ones is one of my all-time favorite activities. I can’t wait for libraries and bookstores to reopen, so I can get lost in the stacks once again.

2. Hanging Out at Union Square: Although it’s probably OK for my sister and me to hang out together as we often do on weekends, we’ve refrained from visiting each other except by video chat. Right now, I’d like nothing better than to stroll to Union Square, spend some time in Barnes & Noble, and then visit with her in Apt. U21F, which overlooks 14thStreet on one side and south down Broadway on the other.

3. Spending Weekends at Del Boca Vista: Amy and I go out to New Jersey about once a month, and it’s a highlight in our world. We have it down to a science: We meet at “our Dunkin’” in Penn Station on Saturday morning just before 11 a.m.—in time to take the New Jersey Transit 11:14 to New Brunswick. (We both purchase e-tickets on our phones, but we activate them differently: one upon boarding the train and the other when she hears the conductor’s ticket punch. Can you guess who’s who?!) Our dad meets the train, and from there it’s on to Frank’s Pizza for lunch and then home to “the new 12 Webster Road” in DBV. A trip to Labyrinth Books in Princeton and dinner out are often on the agenda, as is breakfast at the Somerset Diner. We’re nothing if not predictable!

4. Sitting in “My Pew” at Minyan: No, my pew doesn’t have my name on it, and no worries if someone else sits there, but when all’s right with the world, Isabelle is to my right, Harriet and Albert are in front of us, and some combination of Sandra, Laura, Jesse, and/or Charlie usually are behind us. From her voice alone, Joanne makes her presence known; I don't even have to turn around and look to know when she's there. I’ve been shunning virtual services (and several invitations to “meet up” virtually with friends) thus far—mostly because my eyes are so tired from a week of work that regularly includes eight or 10 hours of screen time that I just want screen-free evenings and a screen-free Shabbat.

5. People Watching: This pastime of mine is right up there with book browsing, and except for the little bit I can do while standing in the check-out line at Fairway, it’s mostly off limits these days. Soon, I hope, I’ll be taking in lots of good people-watching on my bus ride to minyan, browsing in Barnes & Noble or visiting in Union Square after services, and that when we’re able to find a weekend that works for all of us, Amy and I will be back out at DBV, and I’ll have a chance to people-watch in Penn Station while I wait for her in front of “our Dunkin’.”

Stay healthy and safe, my friends—and if you’re so inclined, let me know what you’re missing in the age of coronavirus. 

Saturday, March 21, 2020

5 Things I’m Grateful for During These Crazy Times

I’m tired of the word “unprecedented,” which has been overused in recent weeks, so here are five things for which I’m grateful in these never-before-seen days:

1. Dunkin’: The Dunkin’ on the corner of 33rd Street and Second Avenue has remained open thus far. Although the store has shortened its hours, I can begin or end my daily walk with coffee—or occasionally a latte.

2. I.M. Pei’s Garden: I’ve always enjoyed the private, well maintained green space that separates the buildings of Kips Bay Towers, but even more so now. Today, the space bustled with couples, families, and others, out for a stroll, some fresh air, or just a change of scenery. We maintained our distance and our neighborly ways. It was lovely.

3. Technology: I have new appreciation for technology beyond the phone and have used FaceTime more in the last few days than ever before. As my sister said to me earlier today, “Why did it take a pandemic for us to start video-chatting?” A fair question…

4. Sunshine and Fresh Air: I’m not sure I ever fully appreciated the feel of fresh air on my face and in my lungs the way I do now, each time I step outdoors. Today’s brilliant sunshine was an added bonus, its warmth a welcome complement to the brisk spring air.

5. The Daily Vort (Yiddish for word): One of my new colleagues has been writing and sending a daily email to the staff that he’s entitled the Vort. No more than three or four paragraphs, each message contains timely Jewish content and a bit of inspiration for these troubled times. Reading them brings routine and comfort to days that don’t have enough of either.

Stay healthy and safe, my friends—and if you’re so inclined, let me know what you’re grateful for as you make the best of your time at home.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

A Rundown on My New Job

Dear The Mums,

Remember when you taught nursery school at the JCC in Rockville, Maryland, back when it was still called nursery school and not, as it is today, early childhood education? I was reminded of that long-ago family connection to “the field,” now that I’m working as a senior writer for JCC Association of North America, the membership organization of JCCs, YM and YWHAs, and a network of summer camps across the continent.

It’s only been two weeks since I started, but the welcome I’ve received has been overwhelming and began almost from the moment I accepted the position, which I’d applied for right before Thanksgiving and accepted just before Christmas. From the signs and balloons that awaited me in my office to a first-day lunch out with my team, I have been bowled over by the warmth of absolutely every single person I’ve met thus far. What’s more, within a few days, all the new-employee paperwork was done, I was enrolled in a pension plan, my medical insurance card arrived in the mail, and my business cards were printed. Lest I forget, I have a complimentary membership to the 14th Street Y, and I can’t wait to go swimming.

I’d met the president and CEO, Doron Krakow, during my interview, but he was out of the office traveling until well into my second week. When he returned, I heard him greeting people by name, asking how each person was doing, catching up on projects, and demonstrating a warm, leadership-by-walking-around style. When he stopped into my office (which, it seems, someone vacuums nightly), I received a most enthusiastic, warm welcome—including a hug—and we chatted for a few minutes. I told him, as I have repeated so many times in the last two weeks, “I’m thrilled to be here!”

As far as the work and my team goes, it’s all good. We meet weekly around a table, face-to-face, to review the status of all our projects, which are managed by Angela, the marketing administrator. Joanne, the chief marketing officer, heads up the team, and the other members include Loraine, the graphic designer; Morgan, the digital media marketing manager; Ben, the photographer/videographer; and Michael, who is a marketing consultant to JCCs. (His wife is a Reform cantor, and the Jewish geography as I am getting to know my new colleagues and they’re getting to know me has been fun. One woman, Yuliya, has a Gratz diploma on her wall, which sparked a great point of connection for us. She loves Dr. Davis the way you did!)

The marketing department functions as a service unit for all the other parts of the organization, and in addition to reading lots of materials to get up-to-speed, I’ve contributed to a few projects, including an update about JWB Jewish Chaplains Council activities. (JWB—Jewish Welfare Board—was established to support Jewish servicemen at the time the U.S. entered World War I and eventually merged with The Council of Young Men’s Hebrew and Kindred Associations, founded several years earlier, becoming the national association of JCCs and YM-YWHAs.) I’ve helped with Doron’s “Shabbat Shalom,” his weekly email message, drafted a joint letter from him and the board chairman to Federation executives, urging them to register for JCC Association’s upcoming biennial gathering, and also drafted an article for a lay leader that spells out the importance of attending this biennial event, known as JSummit. It’s scheduled for early May in Milwaukee, and I’m looking forward to being there.

A few more details to paint as full a picture as possible about my new gig: The offices, located on the fourth floor of an office building on Eighth Avenue, halfway between Port Authority and Penn Station, are lovely – with lots of oversized scenes from JCCs decorating the walls. It’s nice to be surrounded by joyful images of kids at summer camp, seniors in water aerobics classes, and preschoolers enjoying juice and challah in anticipation of Shabbat. (Yesterday, the staff had its once-a-month oneg, which, not unlike the pre-school celebrations, included a bit of singing; a micro d’var Torah; blessings over the candles, juice, and challah; home-baked treats; and a few minutes of collegial schmoozing.) There’s a beautiful conference suite; a number of offices leased to tenant organizations, including two in which the executive directors are former URJ/RAC employees; and a designated staff lounge, where people gather for lunch—and, again, someone cleans the refrigerator every single week.

All this by way of assuring you that I’m quite happy with my professional life these days—the work, my colleagues, and the mission and values of the organization—and, truth be told, proud of myself for (finally) having made this much-needed change. I think you would be proud, too.

Miss you…xoxo.

P.S. If Brian’s name sounds familiar, you’re right. He and I were classmates at Laf Coll, and he preceded me as president of Hillel. When I told the now-retired Bob Weiner about my job and that Brian and I would be colleagues, he wrote back, “So happy and proud. Good Shabbos. Hugs and love, Bob.”

P.P.S. The JCC in Rockville is now the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, and from what I can see online, it appears to be an amazing facility.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

I Think Everyone Read More Than I Did in 2019

In 2019, I aimed to read a total of 12 books – a modest goal, I thought, after reading seven in 2018 and a mere four in 2017. Although I didn’t hit that target, I enjoyed the books I read and, as difficult as it was, actually stopped reading the ones that weren’t as engaging.

The first one I put down unfinished was “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” by Yuval Noah Harari. Despite its best-seller status, after 115 pages, I’d had enough and moved on to something that better held my attention. “ Morgan: American Financier,” by Jean Strouse, also didn’t do it for me. Although I was interested in the historical facets of the man – his travels, family, and home, located just a few blocks from my own apartment – the financial rigmarole of stocks, bonds, banking, and railroads was more than I could handle after plodding through more than 200 pages.

Having put those two tomes aside, these are the four books I read from cover to cover in 2019.

1. When a beloved high school English teacher died suddenly in February, I purchased a copy of Benjamin Dreyer’s “ Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Gide to Clarity and Style,” in his memory and was immediately smitten with the author’s – a copy editor at Random House -- wit, wisdom, and irreverence around grammar and language. By the end of the month, I was quoting from the book often. Here’s one of my favorites: “One does not...use quotation marks for emphasis. That is why God invented italics.”

2. A random find at Labyrinth Books in Princeton, NJ, where we Hermans are frequent visitors, “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA,” by Brenda Maddox, captivated me on all fronts. Here’s what I wrote on goodreads.com upon finishing the book in May:
Before finding this book by accident, I had little idea about Rosalind Franklin – who she was, what she accomplished, or how she was robbed of the credit she deserved for her work at the time by the very men, fellow scientists, who benefitted most from it and who went on to win the Nobel Prize, thanks, in large part, to her Photo 51.

An entirely different facet of her life intrigued me, too. Her family's Jewish history and a relative's role in British-ruled Palestine, as well as the possibility that she carried a BRCA mutation, which may have contributed to her death from ovarian cancer at age 38, were fascinating aspects of her life -- especially to a fellow BRCA mutation carrier.
I recently found a second book about her, "My Sister Rosalind Franklin: A Family Memoir," written by her younger sister, Jenifer Glynn, and I look forward to reading that one as well.

3. Turning to something lighter during the fall, I got totally wrapped up in Claire Lombardo’s debut novel, “The Most Fun We Ever Had,” which my sister, a voracious reader, recommended to me. Over the course of only 11 days, I read the entire 532 page book that tells a decades-long tale of the Sorenson family – Marilyn, David, and their four daughters – from the point of view of nearly all the characters. “Real people, real life, and a good read about one family's ups and downs that will take you away from whatever nonsense you're dealing with in your own life,” is how I described it after finishing the book in October.

4. My final book of 2019 also came from a recommendation from my sister, who lent me her inscribed-by-the-author copy after she’d met him at an arts and medicine event at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: “The End of Your Life Book Club,” by Will Schwalbe. This one, too, I read in short order, finishing it just a few days ago, after which I wrote this “review” on goodreads.com:
Although the book initially seemed a bit slow to me, I grew to love the author and his mother through the course of reading it. From the start, his descriptions of the MSKCC waiting rooms – including the coffee and graham crackers – were oh-so familiar to me, and I came to realize that I'd met his mom’s oncologist, Dr. Eileen O'Reilly, M.D., when she spoke about pancreatic cancer at a NYC FORCE meeting several years ago. For these reasons, as well as having lost my own mom to cancer shortly after the author lost his, I feel a connection to him. Of course, all the "book talk" was wonderful, and I've added several volumes from the book's appendix to my own to-read list.
This year, I purchased more books than I read, and my goal for 2020 is the opposite: to read more books than I purchase.

Happy new year and happy reading, my friends.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

With Hereditary Cancer Syndrome, Every Month Is an Awareness Month

Thank goodness it's November.

It's taken me a long time to realize what a toll October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, takes on me each year, but last week, it hit me. At an awareness event at my synagogue, one of the presenters scribbled the word "metastatic" in all capital letters on the flipchart at the front of the room - M-E-T-A-S-T-A-T-I-C - and I thought I might lose it.

As though a time machine had whisked me away, it was Friday, April 2, 2010, all over again; I was alone with my mom at the hospital. Just outside the room where she'd been since the previous Monday (the night we were to have hosted the first seder of 5770), amidst the constant bustle of the nurses' station, her oncologist offhandedly said to me: "It's everywhere."

It's impossible to believe that fateful day was nearly a decade (a decade?!?) ago, but in the intervening years, I've done everything possible to protect my own health since I learned I carry the same BRCA2 genetic mutation that we now know contributed to my mom's death. In addition to significantly increasing carriers' lifetime risk for breast and ovarian cancer, it also raises my risk of melanoma and pancreatic cancer - and in men, the risk of breast, prostate, melanoma, and pancreatic cancer.

Although I'm glad to have turned the corner from October into November, the latter is Pancreatic Awareness Month, and my vigilance is year-round, so, here are a few statistics about the disease from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PANCAN):
  • Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States;
  • One of the deadliest cancers, it has an extremely low survival rate - just 9 percent;
  • This year, an estimated 56,770 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and 45,750 will die from the disease; and
  • It is estimated that in or around 2020 (just two months away), the disease will rise to be the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths.
Of course, I'm grateful that my family doesn't have a history of pancreatic cancer. At the same time, according to PANCAN, the cause of most pancreatic cancer is unknown, and there are no early detection tests and few effective treatments.

Having said that, with each passing year, I'm increasingly grateful to FORCE: Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered, the grassroots organization that has done so much for me during the last decade. In addition to introducing me to other BRCA+ women whom I could learn from and lean on throughout my journey, FORCE has given me a network of friends who are framily and a platform from which I can spread awareness about hereditary cancer mutations, as well as share my knowledge, gained through experience, to help women who are behind me - as thrivers, survivors, and previvors - on their own hereditary cancer journeys.

Most recently, FORCE helped me uncover this clinical trial for pancreatic surveillance, designed to collect enough data to allow the researcher to obtain funding to conduct a full study that may lead to early detection among individuals at highest risk. Because it's open to individuals with BRCA mutations, but without a family history of pancreatic cancer, it ensures that I can continue to do everything possible to protect my health. For this and so much more, I'm ever-grateful to my FORCE family.

With that in mind, please consider making a donation to FORCE - not only in gratitude for what the organization has done for me, but also to ensure that it can continue to provide much needed support, resources, and advocacy to others affected by hereditary cancer syndrome, and to help me fulfill my annual $250 fundraising goal as a volunteer outreach leader for FORCE in New York City.

With deep thanks and appreciation,
~ Jane.