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Serving Those Who Have Served Our Country

11 Nov

For the past couple of years, I’ve blogged on Veterans Day even when, like this year, I’ve been a bit remiss about blogging on other days.  Last year I remembered a man I am proud to have called a friend and whose cause I was honored to assist, Jimmy Proffit.

DSCN1311There are more than 50,000 homeless veterans on our streets today. I am glad that my father was never one of them, nor my friend Linda’s brother. I am ashamed that our country cannot take better care of these lost soldiers.

Today, I want to mention other veterans who have been inspired to serve their brothers and sisters no longer in arms who are in desperate need of help:

This morning I heard a feature news story on our local NPR station about another local couple whose similar altruistic impulses moved me to tears. Soldiers Committed to Remaking the World (RTW). Daniel and Arbetha Habeel founded RTW in 2010 to serve veterans. A retired, disabled Viet Nam era veteran, Mr. Habeel and his wife recognized, like Jimmy Proffitt and his wife Virginia had, that there are far too many homeless veterans on our streets. Whether unable to work due to physical disability, broken by PTSD, or simply ill-equipped to reenter the civilian world, these veterans often cannot easily access resources. It could be that the resources don’t exist, or that they don’t know how to track them down. We’ve all read about the backlogs at VA hospitals, for instance.

Mr. and Mrs. Habeel began by offering homeless vets a place to stay. They were affiliated with another veterans service organization and during a fundraiser for that group, homeless vets who were hungry rang the bell and asked for a meal. The Habeels fed them, charging whatever small change the vet could offer. When the vets offer nothing, the Habeels fed them anyway. They realized that the veterans living in the park across the street from their Washington Park home needed more services–food, shelter, transportation, clothing–and set out to provide it. They have been doing so for five years, taking no government funding in order to serve veterans who have had discharges other than “honorable.”

Chicago Standdown happened yesterday. I had the privilege of volunteering once at Standdown. Started by Vietnam veterans Robert Van Keuren and Jon Nachison in San Diego. According to their website, “nearly 200 Standdown events occur each year and it is estimated that over 52,000 veterans are served each year by these programs and approximately 27,000 volunteers help to make this happen.” Government organizations participate in these events and veterans can learn about services there, but the barbers and cooks are community members. Chicago Standdown occurs twice a year at the Humboldt Park Armoryand serves 700-800 veterans each time. Follow the fourth link below to hear a moving story about Standdown and how it helps vets from Seattle to Morriston NJ.

The lights on my porch are green this week. Every time I walk into the house, I think about those who have served our country in war and in peace. Have you said thank you? #GreenlightAVet

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Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, A Book Note

30 Apr

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy by Karen Abbot

Recently, I became an accidental student of the Civil War. While standing in the checkout line at the library (yep, I LOVE the library), I noticed a book with an intriguing title–Liar Soldier Temptress Spy. I popped out of line to look at it.    karen-abbott-photoThe topic, the under-sung stories of four women who served the Confederacy and the Union as spies (one as a soldier!) told by a historian, Karen Abbott. The cover blurb by Erik Larson (Devil in the White City), naming Abbot “the John Le Carré of Civil War espionage,” sealed the deal. Larson made my beloved Chicago’s true history of serial murder during the 1893 World’s Fair come alive, like only the best murdery mystery writers can. If he thought Abbott was worth reading, then so did I.

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Belle Boyd (Credit: Library of Congress)

I was not disappointed. Liar Temptress Soldier Spy starts a bit slowly as Abbott introduces each of her four characters in turn, providing biographic background that explains how each woman came to care about her cause enough to take huge risks to support her side of the war. Seventeen-year-old Belle Boyd, an ardent rebel hailing from Martinsburg, Virginia, supported her cause using all of her beguiling (and belligerent) traits. Smart and beautiful, she had proven her determination by the age of eleven when, told that she was too young to attend a dinner party, she rode her horse into her parents’ dining room and declared, “Well, my horse is old enough, isn’t he?”  Before her mother could raise a hand or voice, a guest (a politician or Revolutionary war hero, no doubt) intervened to ask Mrs. Boyd to “tell me more about your little rebel. Six years later, on July 4, 1861, when Union soldiers demanded that her mother fly their flag and then physically threatened her, Belle did not hesitate to shoot. She survived her offense by following up with a charm defensive and spent the rest of the war spying for the Confederacy.

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Emma Edmondson as Frank Thompson (image credit: Wikipedia)

Emma Edmundson, seeking to escape her father’s disregard and her mother’s sadness over having born daughters, became Frank Thompson, and upon leaving her native Canada, volunteered for the Union Army. Serving from 1850 through most of the war, she remained undetected, cross-dressing, living as a man among men, and amassing a reputation for cunning, bravery, and compassion. In one brilliant moment of spying on the Confederate Army she “masqueraded” as a woman to cross enemy lines. When terribly injured in a battle, she cared for herself, unwilling to be discovered (and dismissed with dishonor or, worse, tried, for her patriotic deception). After the war, Edmonson/Thompson was recognized for her exemplary service and her case paved the way for remuneration and pension for women who had served.

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Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Confederate spy, with her daughter, Little Rose (Smithsonian Magazine, The Granger Collection, NYC)

Southern widow Rose Greenhow used her social position in Washington D.C. to penetrate the upper echelons of Union leadership and pass valuable information to the rebel leaders. Like Boyd, it was her deepest desire to be recognized as valuable to the cause, especially by their beloved Stonewall Jackson. Like Boyd, she was eventually found out, jailed, banned from the north, and exiled. Greenhow, however, was sent to Europe to President Jefferson Davis to try to persuade the French and British leaders to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation.

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Elizabeth Van Lew (credit: Smithsonian Magazine, (The Granger Collection, NYC))

It may have been Elizabeth Van Lew, however, who won the war for the Union. A wealthy abolitionist in Richmond, Van Lew’s servants were all paid former slaves. Once she acquired a slave, she freed them and kept them on if they wished. This, plus her vast social circle, allowed her to be the center of a spy ring that penetrated as deeply as Davis’s private office, so that she was able to send accurate information, on a daily basis, to General Sherman. Van Lew, despised by Richmond, deserves her place in history as much for what she gave up to support Lincoln and the Union  as for her heroic actions.

Abbot makes these stories come alive, alternating between the women in a seamless way and connecting their stories via in-depth historical accounts of battles and the machinations of war. Her extensive archival research allows her to attribute to the women thoughts and words that they wrote in their letters and journals. She describes the near-misses, the penury brought on by the war (I could smell it!), the shear ingenuity of the codes and techniques they used to pass messages, and their innermost thoughts about the people and issues of the day. More than a women’s history, this is a readable, compelling history of the Civil War that illuminates the issues and concerns that nearly fractured our Union. And more than a history of the Civil War, this book educates us about early spying techniques, the gruesome results of battle, and the deprivations (physical and emotional)  caused by the war and its aftermath.

As I was reading the book, I happened to be in Washington, D.C. on the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Lincoln which I marked (with Culture Sprout) by seeing One Destiny at Ford’s Theatre. We also visited the Spy Museum where we spent a lot of time looking at the exhibit on Civil War spies. More on those later….

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Remembering a “Veteran’s Veteran”

11 Nov

I have not blogged since 9/11 when I posted my annual remembrance of Jeffrey Gardner, a childhood friend who perished in the World Trade Center.  A lot of things have been banging around in my head, half-baked and not written. They will come soon, really soon I hope.

Today, though I want to pause on Veteran’s Day to remember another friend, Jimmy Proffitt. Jimmy passed away last month after a long battle with leukemia. If there ever were people who epitomized the term “salt of the earth” it was Jimmy and his widow Virginia. He was a man of modest means who made an enormous difference in the lives of veterans and homeless people in Chicago. His energy and his dedication to his fellow humans inspired me and everyone who came in contact with him. His death leaves a void, to be sure, but his mark on his community will be felt for years to come.

My notes from last Veteran’s Day:

More than 25 years ago, Jimmy and Virginia found themselves with leftover Thanksgiving dinner. They made about 30 sandwiches and a thermos of coffee and headed to downtown Chicago. Once there, they found homeless men and distributed the food. Recognizing the incredible need, Jimmy and Virginia continued to make sandwiches for Chicago’s homeless. Every Sunday, with the exception of Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day weekends, they circle Chicago’s loop with their small army of helpers. The Chicago Homeless Sandwich Project today distributes more than 1,500 bagged lunches each week. They also provide hot and cold beverages, clothing, and a ready smile to the increasing number of homeless on our city’s streets.

We have been privileged to ride with Jimmy many times, handing out sandwiches and seeing firsthand the need he fills. Jimmy tells us that more than 75% of the homeless on our city streets are veterans, men (and now women) who have come home from war so damaged that they cannot hold a job, or who lost everything while they were serving (job, home, family) and have not been able to get back on their feet.

Jimmy was called to serve his country, and while his own life has been modest compared to many more visible philanthropists, he may be the most philanthropic person I know. Next to the hospital that saved our child, The Sandwich Project is our favorite charity and I encourage to click the link above, read about the supplies they use each year, and find out how you can help.

 

I wish I had thought to call him a “veteran’s veteran,” but I give all credit to the headline writers of The Herald NewsWhat does that mean? Well, it means that Jimmy continued to serve his country and brothers long after he left the Marines. If our actions define the name we leave in the world, Jim Proffitt left an illustrious name, one which we should all strive to emulate.

May his memory be for a blessing

–“Joining to Bid Farewell to and Almost Homeless Veteran,” The New York Times, 2/5/2011 by Don Terry

Remembering Jeffrey Gardner on 9/11

11 Sep

There’s no easy way to say this: My childhood friend Jeffrey Gardner died on 9/11, a victim of terrorism. I pause today to think of him and what his death, and that of the others who died that day, as well as the countless more who have died since in the “War on Terrorism” means in our culture today.  I think Jeffrey would find it meaningful that this year’s anniversary during Elul, when Jews around the world prepare for  return, for the Jewish High Holidays, the Days of Awe during which we repent and hope to be written in the book of life for another year. For if ever there was a man who deserved be written there–who in many ways might have been said to define “life”–it was Jeffrey Gardner.

For 13 years I’ve written a memorial post on this day. That first post surfaced in an Internet search and put me back in touch with my best friend from elementary school, so I like to think that the gifts Jeffrey gave us in life continued past his untimely death. Today as I get ready to hoist my bike on the car and then go for a long lakefront ride, and as I plan a philanthropic event for pediatric healthcare, I can’t help but think that the values Jeffrey lived do, in fact, live on in many of his friends. Maybe not with the same gusto, but still. And we all think of him often.

In that spirit, I am reposting lat year’s memorial:

In 2012, Culture Husband and I visited the 9/11 Memorial to culminate our anniversary celebration. Somehow it seemed appropriate, even necessary, to visit the memorial and remember even as we celebrated. When we returned to NYC in December, we took Culture Sprout there as well. In fact, we stayed at a new hotel by the memorial and from our balcony we could see the people teeming toward the security line and the edge of the memorial park.

As I wrote last September, even in the cold of December, atmosphere was eerily like the memorials on the beaches of Normandy–all obvious signs of the destruction, horror, and blood are gone. But there is something in the air and light, in the way other visitors walk slowly and whisper, in the quiet, respectful aura of this place despite the hustle and noise of the surrounding city that took our breath away. Charlotte seemed to intuitively understand the sobriety and sacredness of the memorial.

DSCN1634  

It’s hard to tell a kid that the world is a dangerous, scary place. Even harder to tell her that someone you loved was felled by hatred and intolerance. But, recently she has said she’d like to take on world peace as a life goal. It’s a big one, but maybe, just maybe, she’s got a guardian mensch guiding her.

 

Each year for a long time I’ve posted an essay about Jeffrey, about what his life and death meant to me.

Politicians continue to fight over the completion of the 9/11 Museum, leaving the memorial and legacy painfully, shamefully unfinished. We’re still at war around the world–a war whose opening salvo was loud and silent at the same time (remember the deafening silence when all air traffic stopped?) And, yet, Syria indicated today that it might be willing to declare its chemical weapons. Do we have reason to be cautiously optimistic?

I ask you to please take the time to read my essay and remember that while “America was under attack,” as Andrew Card famously told President Bush 7 years ago, very real people were being injured and murdered. The ripple effect of their loss cannot ever be forgotten.

(Originally written on 9/11/2006)

Jeffrey B. Gardner died 5 years ago today when the World Trade Towers collapsed. I had known Jeffrey for as long as I can remember, growing up in the same town (Livingston, NJ) and attending religious school at B’nai Jeshurun together.

More than a boy I grew up with, Jeffrey was a dear friend throughout my high school and college years. We were both socially conscious teenagers and active in our temple youth group and in JFTY, the Jersey Federation of Temple Youth.

Like all of the people who have signed his guest book, I can attest to Jeffrey’s special qualities–his goodness, kindness, wisdom, and sense of fun. I can also recall his pride as he listened to his father sing in the temple choir on the high holy days, his clear affection for his siblings, and his love for his mother. Jeffrey and I, along with 20 other Jewish teens, spent a special summer together in 1982. As part of the JFTY Urban Mitzvah Corps, we lived in a fraternity house at Rutgers (later Jeffrey’s alma mater) and volunteered for various organizations in the New Brunswick area. We worked with the elderly, disadvantaged children, and the disabled. In the evenings we studied and played, enriching our Judaism and bonding as a group in a way that is immeasurable. Jeffrey lived his Jewish values and he taught us how much fun (and mischief) we could have within the limits of a moral, thoughtful life. My father had a special place in his heart for Jeffrey. Not just because they were in the same business, but because Jeffrey was respectful, forthcoming, and friendly. In business, my father could count on Jeffrey, just as I could count on him as a friend. Since Jeffrey’s death, I’ve learned that he continued to live those values for the rest of his far-too-short life. He read the Christian Bible and the Koran in order to understand other people’s belief systems. He volunteered with Habitat for Humanity throughout the hemisphere. He worked hard at his career and prospered. In his obituary, his sister Amy noted that he had a sun tatooed on his ankle because “a good day was as bad as it got. ” Jeffrey shone like that sun. Even when we weren’t in touch for a long time (we hadn’t spoken for about 3 years before his death), I felt his presence and the mark that he made on my life. On that perfect sunny September morning, a day eerily like today in Chicago, hatred killed Jeffrey. The irony that intolerance killed a soul who embodied tolerance is not lost on me. I dedicate today to Jeffrey–as sad as I am for his loss, I strive to live a life of which he would have been proud, to be tolerant and kind and strong as a tribute to his memory. Rest in peace, dear friend. You are indeed Z”L (Zichrono Livracha), of blessed memory.

Postscript, 9/11/2012: I think Jeffrey would have liked the Survivor Tree. He might have said that hatred cannot destroy what G-d has made, no matter what G-d you believe in. I know it made me smile on that sunny day in March, as I placed a stone on Jeffrey’s name to let him know I’d been there, wiped away my tears, and left with Culture Husband to face the city.

 

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A Moment’s Pause for Veterans’ Day (It’s not all about the sales!)

10 Nov

I’m listening to Studio 360’s fascinating radio piece, American Icons: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  I recommend it highly as a commentary on the memorial itself, but moreover as a reminder of how controversial the war was and how poorly remembered its veterans were for far too long.

Vietnam_Memorial_Web_Text

When Philippe and I visited the wall in 2003, we were moved by the somber yet elegant design. In the aftermath of 9/11, war was, of course, on our mind. But, daily counts of the deaths of “troops” and “civilians” had begun to dehumanize the very human toll of a war that was being waged so far away. Seeing the names of Americans who fell in a war to defend democracy on the other side of the world drove home the somber fact that our contemporaries were doing the same.

At around the same time, our friend Don, a Vietnam veteran, started telling us some of the stories of his four tours of Vietnam. In the first tour, as a draftee, he was one of a handful (or maybe the only?)  of his brigade to survive. He volunteered for his subsequent three tours out of a sense of guilt, duty, a job left undone. His service took him to Cambodia–unofficially–and in performing “black ops” he was asked to commit crimes in the name of his government. This part of his service was never officially acknowledged. Like the many veterans whose sacrifice was anonymous before the Wall was erected, Don’s service was invisible.

Shortly after our trip to D.C., Don proudly showed us his certificate of pardon from President Bush — his “illegal” service had been recognized and forgiven. Don is just one of many veterans of the Vietnam War, and other wars, who we have been privileged to meet through our friendship with Jimmy Proffitt.  As I wrote on Memorial Day, Jimmy is a Vietnam-era Marine who was injured stateside and never saw combat. Jimmy is, simply put, the salt of the earth.

Jimmy

Jimmy Proffitt (photo from Vietnow.com)

More than 25 years ago, Jimmy and his wife found themselves with leftover Thanksgiving dinner. They made about 30 sandwiches and a thermos of coffee and headed to downtown Chicago. Once there, they found homeless men and distributed the food. Recognizing the incredible need, Jimmy and Virginia continued to make sandwiches for Chicago’s homeless. Every Sunday, with the exception of Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day weekends, they circle Chicago’s loop with their small army of helpers. The Chicago Homeless Sandwich Project today distributes more than 1,500 bagged lunches each week. They also provide hot and cold beverages, clothing, and a ready smile to the increasing number of homeless on our city’s streets.

We have been privileged to ride with Jimmy many times, handing out sandwiches and seeing firsthand the need he fills. Jimmy tells us that more than 75% of the homeless on our city streets are veterans, men (and now women) who have come home from war so damaged that they cannot hold a job, or who lost everything while they were serving (job, home, family) and have not been able to get back on their feet.

Jimmy was called to serve his country, and while his own life has been modest compared to many more visible philanthropists, he may be the most philanthropic person I know. Next to the hospital that saved our child, The Sandwich Project is our favorite charity and I encourage you to click the link above and learn how you can support him.

As one of the commentators just said in the background as I write, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial serves as a mirror. The names on the Wall force to see ourselves, to recognize and individualize the real human loss, the loss of fathers, mothers, brothers, sons, sisters, daughters, friends. They are no longer “our brave servicemen and women who gave their lives.” Each one has a name and a story and a life left behind. Tomorrow their comrades, including Don and Jimmy, will gather at the Wall and read their names in remembrance and reverence.

As you shop Veterans’ Day sales and enjoy your day off (if you get one!), take a moment to thank the men and women who serve our country today and every day. You may not agree with the wars they are asked to fight, and you may not choose to serve as they do, but we should all be grateful for their dedication and sacrifices.

Remembering Jeffrey Gardner on 9/11

10 Sep

There’s no easy way to say this: My childhood friend Jeffrey Gardner died on 9/11, a victim of terrorism. I pause today to think of him and what his death, and that of the others who died that day, as well as the countless more who have died since in the “War on Terrorism” means in our culture today.  I think Jeffrey would find it meaningful that this year’s anniversary comes between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the Gates of Repentance open and Jews around the world repent and pray that they might be entered in the Book of Life. For if ever there was a man who deserved be written there–who in many ways might have been said to define “life”–it was Jeffrey Gardner.

In 2012, Culture Husband and I visited the 9/11 Memorial to culminate our anniversary celebration. Somehow it seemed appropriate, even necessary, to visit the memorial and remember even as we celebrated. When we returned to NYC in December, we took Culture Sprout there as well. In fact, we stayed at a new hotel by the memorial and from our balcony we could see the people teeming toward the security line and the edge of the memorial park.

As I wrote last September, even in the cold of December, atmosphere was eerily like the memorials on the beaches of Normandy–all obvious signs of the destruction, horror, and blood are gone. But there is something in the air and light, in the way other visitors walk slowly and whisper, in the quiet, respectful aura of this place despite the hustle and noise of the surrounding city that took our breath away. Charlotte seemed to intuitively understand the sobriety and sacredness of the memorial.

DSCN1634  

It’s hard to tell a kid that the world is a dangerous, scary place. Even harder to tell her that someone you loved was felled by hatred and intolerance. But, recently she has said she’d like to take on world peace as a life goal. It’s a big one, but maybe, just maybe, she’s got a guardian mensch guiding her.

 

Each year for a long time I’ve posted an essay about Jeffrey, about what his life and death meant to me.

Politicians continue to fight over the completion of the 9/11 Museum, leaving the memorial and legacy painfully, shamefully unfinished. We’re still at war around the world–a war whose opening salvo was loud and silent at the same time (remember the deafening silence when all air traffic stopped?) And, yet, Syria indicated today that it might be willing to declare its chemical weapons. Do we have reason to be cautiously optimistic?

I ask you to please take the time to read my essay and remember that while “America was under attack,” as Andrew Card famously told President Bush 7 years ago, very real people were being injured and murdered. The ripple effect of their loss cannot ever be forgotten.

(Originally written on 9/11/2006)

Jeffrey B. Gardner died 5 years ago today when the World Trade Towers collapsed. I had known Jeffrey for as long as I can remember, growing up in the same town (Livingston, NJ) and attending religious school at B’nai Jeshurun together.

More than a boy I grew up with, Jeffrey was a dear friend throughout my high school and college years. We were both socially conscious teenagers and active in our temple youth group and in JFTY, the Jersey Federation of Temple Youth.

Like all of the people who have signed his guest book, I can attest to Jeffrey’s special qualities–his goodness, kindness, wisdom, and sense of fun. I can also recall his pride as he listened to his father sing in the temple choir on the high holy days, his clear affection for his siblings, and his love for his mother. Jeffrey and I, along with 20 other Jewish teens, spent a special summer together in 1982. As part of the JFTY Urban Mitzvah Corps, we lived in a fraternity house at Rutgers (later Jeffrey’s alma mater) and volunteered for various organizations in the New Brunswick area. We worked with the elderly, disadvantaged children, and the disabled. In the evenings we studied and played, enriching our Judaism and bonding as a group in a way that is immeasurable. Jeffrey lived his Jewish values and he taught us how much fun (and mischief) we could have within the limits of a moral, thoughtful life. My father had a special place in his heart for Jeffrey. Not just because they were in the same business, but because Jeffrey was respectful, forthcoming, and friendly. In business, my father could count on Jeffrey, just as I could count on him as a friend. Since Jeffrey’s death, I’ve learned that he continued to live those values for the rest of his far-too-short life. He read the Christian Bible and the Koran in order to understand other people’s belief systems. He volunteered with Habitat for Humanity throughout the hemisphere. He worked hard at his career and prospered. In his obituary, his sister Amy noted that he had a sun tatooed on his ankle because “a good day was as bad as it got. ” Jeffrey shone like that sun. Even when we weren’t in touch for a long time (we hadn’t spoken for about 3 years before his death), I felt his presence and the mark that he made on my life. On that perfect sunny September morning, a day eerily like today in Chicago, hatred killed Jeffrey. The irony that intolerance killed a soul who embodied tolerance is not lost on me. I dedicate today to Jeffrey–as sad as I am for his loss, I strive to live a life of which he would have been proud, to be tolerant and kind and strong as a tribute to his memory. Rest in peace, dear friend. You are indeed Z”L (Zichrono Livracha), of blessed memory.

Postscript, 9/11/2012: I think Jeffrey would have liked the Survivor Tree. He might have said that hatred cannot destroy what G-d has made, no matter what G-d you believe in. I know it made me smile on that sunny day in March, as I placed a stone on Jeffrey’s name to let him know I’d been there, wiped away my tears, and left with Culture Husband to face the city.

 

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Remembering Veterans and the Legends They Leave Behind

27 May

My father was a U.S. Air Force veteran. He served in ROTC and after college in between WWII and the Korean War and, lucky for our family, never saw combat. Today, as every day, I remember him.

But, today I remember two family members whose service to our country has become the thing of legend, and a local veteran whose continuing service to our country inspires me. I only know tidbits of their stories, but through them, I see how service to our country creates ripples in ponds for generations.  In alphabetical order they are: Colonel Abraham Garfinkel (U.S. Army), Jimmy Proffitt (U.S. Marine Corps), and Samuel Rosen (U.S. Navy).

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Memorial Day Flag Display, Boston Commons (Photo courtesy of Global Jet (Flickr). Click image for more information.)

Uncle Abe

Colonel Abraham Garfinkel

Abraham (Garfunkel) Garfinkel (d. 4/11/1962): My great-grandfather’s brother Abraham faked his age to enlist in the Army in 1900. That would be legend enough, I think, given his subsequent 45+ years of service. But he went on to be the oldest survivor of the Bataan Death March and an inspiration to soldiers around him. Colonel Garfinkel was, according to the research my mother has done, one of the highest ranking Jewish Army officers at the time of his retirement. Born in 1885, Uncle Abe was near retirement when WW II broke out. Having served most of his career in the Philippines, Colonel Garfinkel continued to serve in the Pacific Rim. He was one of the highest-ranking officers on the Bataan Death March and remained a POW in various Japanese internment camps until his liberation from Mudken on August 20, 1945. Uncle Abe survived his son Lt. Harold Garfinkel  who was KIA in April 1945 in the European theater. His oldest son Capt. Bernard Garfinkel survived the war.

My distant cousin Sheldon Zimbler, a great-nephew of Uncle Abe, immortalized the men of the Bataan March in Undaunted Valor: The Men of Mudken…In their Own Words. As one reviewer wrote, it’s not a new history, but it  is one we mustn’t forget.

Jimmy Proffitt: Jimmy would blush silly if he knew I was writing this. Jimmy is a Vietnam-era Marine. He was injured stateside and never saw combat. My understanding is that he suffers survivor’s guilt because he trained many men who went to war and never came home. Jimmy is, simply put, the salt of the earth.

Jimmy

Jimmy Proffitt (photo from Vietnow.com)

More than 25 years ago, Jimmy and his wife found themselves with leftover Thanksgiving dinner. They made about 30 sandwiches and a thermos of coffee and headed to downtown Chicago. Once there, they found homeless men and distributed the food. Recognizing the incredible need, Jimmy and Virginia continued to make sandwiches for Chicago’s homeless. Every Sunday, with the exception of Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day weekends, they circle Chicago’s loop with their small army of helpers. The Chicago Homeless Sandwich Project today distributes more than 1,500 bagged lunches each week. They also provide hot and cold beverages, clothing, and a ready smile to the increasing number of homeless on our city’s streets.

We have been privileged to ride with Jimmy many times, handing out sandwiches and seeing firsthand the need he fills. Jimmy tells us that more than 75% of the homeless on our city streets are veterans, men (and now women) who have come home from war so damaged that they cannot hold a job, or who lost everything while they were serving (job, home, family) and have not been able to get back on their feet.

Jimmy was called to serve his country, and while his own life has been modest compared to many more visible philanthropists, he may be the most philanthropic person I know. Next to the hospital that saved our child, The Sandwich Project is our favorite charity and I encourage to click the link above, read about the supplies they use each year, and find out how you can help.

Samuel “Sonny” Rosen (d. 12/27/1944): Growing up, I always knew that my Aunt Ethel had married a soldier just before he shipped out on the USS Spence in the fall of 1944 and that he never came home.  Samuel Rosen left behind a widow and son, my cousin Eric who was born in June of 1945.  My cousin Eric and my father grew up together in their grandmother’s home until Aunt Ethel remarried (or my grandparents moved out, never have been sure which happened first). Though my father was 13 years older than Eric, they were quite close. My dad made sure that we knew about Samuel, but I’m sure I never quite understood what it meant, really.Samuel "Sonny" Rosen

Samuel Rosen was only 35 when he went to war . His ship, and three others, sank in a typhoon on December 27, 1944. just three months and 17 days after Samuel married Ethel. He perished along with 800 servicemen and his body was never found.

What I never understand is how viscerally affected Eric was by the loss of a father he never knew. A founding member of the American WWII Orphans Network, Eric has searched his whole life to make meaning of his loss, of the emptiness he felt, and of (in his words) “growing up fatherless in the 1940s and 1950s” shaped the man he became.  Since retiring from his long career as an attorney, Eric has studied theology and has used this study to explore the feelings he harbors about his fatherless childhood. The result is a play, The Trial of Abraham and Abraham’s Choice . This brief tome sums up all the questions about G-d and faith that Eric has had as a result of the guiding absence that has shadowed his life, situating them in the biblical tale of Abraham’s sacrifice.

Eric’s book is suspenseful and moving. It raises as many questions as it attempts to answer and it is, I think, a must read for anyone who has lost a parent in war. When I finished reading it, I felt I knew my cousin’s anguish just a bit more.

For Surely They Touched the Face of G-d–Remembering Jeffrey on 9/11

10 Sep

 In March, Culture Husband and I celebrated our anniversary with a night in a posh hotel near Battery Park City.  We ended our trip with a visit to the 9/11 Memorial. Somehow it seemed appropriate, even necessary, to visit the memorial and remember even as we celebrated.

The atmosphere was eerily like the memorials on the beaches of Normandy–all obvious signs of the destruction, horror, and blood are gone. But there is something in the air and light, in the way other visitors walk slowly and whisper, in the quiet, respectful aura of this place despite the hustle and noise of the surrounding city that took our breath away.

We thought we knew what to expect, at least in terms of what the memorials would look like. We’d read about the waterfalls flowing into holes placed where the foundations of the towers were. But nothing can truly prepare you for the sense of loss, and of hope, that the falling water and the seemingly endless hole convey.  I was reminded of a recurring nightmare I had as a child, in which I was alone in all-white room and a hole in the ground opened up, pulling me in somehow. The 9/11 Memorial pulled me in differently–the water was calming and soothing. The open hole is deep enough as to seem infinite. And, looming behind us the symbol of our resilience, the new ONe WTC or the “Freedom Tower.”

As we entered the sacred space of the memorial park, we stopped to listen to a guide talk about the Survivor Tree. Originally planted in the 1970s, this Callery pear tree had grown to about eight feet tall by the beginning of this century. It was found in the rubble of the crumbled towers, its limbs burnt and leafless, its trunk charred, and its roots exposed. A rescue team removed the tree to a Parks Department nursery where it was nursed back to life. In December 2010, the tree was returned to Ground Zero, to a place of prominence in the park.  It shows the scars of its trauma. But it has grown to nearly 30 feet tall in the past 11 years and it blooms each year. If you look closely you can see the new growth emerging from the damage. There is no question that this tree is a living metaphor for rebirth and resilience. That this tree survived what steel and stone could not stopped us in our tracks. The power of nature to heal reminds us that we are made of the same living cells as this tree and we too can heal.

In that spirit, we continued our visit to its intended destination, the memorial to my friend Jeffrey Gardner.

Each year for a long time I’ve posted an essay about Jeffrey, about what his life and death meant to me.

As the politicians continue to fight over the completion of the 9/11 Museum, leaving the memorial and legacy painfully, shamefully unfinished, I ask you to please take the time to read my essay and remember that while “America was under attack,” as Andrew Card famously told President Bush 7 years ago, very real people were being injured and murdered. The ripple effect of their loss cannot ever be forgotten.

(Originally written on 9/11/2006)

Jeffrey B. Gardner died 5 years ago today when the World Trade Towers collapsed. I had known Jeffrey for as long as I can remember, growing up in the same town (Livingston, NJ) and attending religious school at B’nai Jeshurun together.

More than a boy I grew up with, Jeffrey was a dear friend throughout my high school and college years. We were both socially conscious teenagers and active in our temple youth group and in JFTY, the Jersey Federation of Temple Youth.

Like all of the people who have signed his guest book, I can attest to Jeffrey’s special qualities–his goodness, kindness, wisdom, and sense of fun. I can also recall his pride as he listened to his father sing in the temple choir on the high holy days, his clear affection for his siblings, and his love for his mother.
Jeffrey and I, along with 20 other Jewish teens, spent a special summer together in 1982. As part of the JFTY Urban Mitzvah Corps, we lived in a fraternity house at Rutgers (later Jeffrey’s alma mater) and volunteered for various organizations in the New Brunswick area. We worked with the elderly, disadvantaged children, and the disabled. In the evenings we studied and played, enriching our Judaism and bonding as a group in a way that is immeasurable. Jeffrey lived his Jewish values and he taught us how much fun (and mischief) we could have within the limits of a moral, thoughtful life.
My father had a special place in his heart for Jeffrey. Not just because they were in the same business, but because Jeffrey was respectful, forthcoming, and friendly. In business, my father could count on Jeffrey, just as I could count on him as a friend.
Since Jeffrey’s death, I’ve learned that he continued to live those values for the rest of his far-too-short life. He read the Christian Bible and the Koran in order to understand other people’s belief systems. He volunteered with Habitat for Humanity throughout the hemisphere. He worked hard at his career and prospered.
In his obituary, his sister Amy noted that he had a sun tatooed on his ankle because “a good day was as bad as it got. ” Jeffrey shone like that sun. Even when we weren’t in touch for a long time (we hadn’t spoken for about 3 years before his death), I felt his presence and the mark that he made on my life.
On that perfect sunny September morning, a day eerily like today in Chicago, hatred killed Jeffrey. The irony that intolerance killed a soul who embodied tolerance is not lost on me.
I dedicate today to Jeffrey–as sad as I am for his loss, I strive to live a life of which he would have been proud, to be tolerant and kind and strong as a tribute to his memory.
Rest in peace, dear friend. You are indeed Z”L (Zichrono Livracha), of blessed memory.

Postscript, 9/11/2012: I think Jeffrey would have liked the Survivor Tree. He might have said that hatred cannot destroy what G-d has made, no matter what G-d you believe in. I know it made me smile on that sunny day in March, as I placed a stone on Jeffrey’s name to let him know I’d been there, wiped away my tears, and left with Culture Husband to face the city.

Eastland: A New Musical at the Lookingglass Theatre

15 Jul

On July 24, 1915,  Western Electric employees and their families lined up along to Chicago River to embark on a four-hour cruise to Michigan City. Excitement was high as more than 7,000 people anticipated the fifth annual summer outing.  More than 2,500 revelers boarded The Eastland, one of four cruise ships chartered for the trip. Before they even left the dock. The Eastland capsized and more than 800 people died, trapped by the ship, crushed by shifting furniture, or drowned in twenty feet of water.

More people died in The Eastland accident than perished in the Great Fire of 1903. The ship was recovered and renamed, went on to serve in the military before being decommissioned and destroyed. Along with the lives lost that day are the names of the heroes. Nearly a century later, all that remains is a plaque by the Chicago River, memories passed down by survivors, and a handful of books about the disaster. I’ve lived in Chicago for most of the past 25 years, and I’ve probably walked by that plaque.  I know the city’s history fairly well. And, yet, I, like so many Chicagoans (especially transplants from elsewhere), had never heard of the Eastland disaster, the so-called “Chicago Titanic.”

Lookingglass Theatre’s production Eastland: A New Musical (written by Andrew White) should, by rights, change that.  Winner of the 2011 Best Regional Theatre Tony Award, the Lookinglass Theatre’s current season takes the theme “In Just One Moment, Everything Changed…,” and examines seminal moments in American history. That two of the moments are Chicago tragedies is fitting, given that the ensemble performs in a theater housed in the Water Tower pump building, one of two buildings that survived the Great Fire.

What sets Lookingglass Theatre aside in a city chock full of stupendous repertory and ensemble theater? Its productions come to life with a combination of brilliant acting, music, circus arts, and ingenious stage design. Nothing is as it seems and nothing is predictable.

So it is with Eastland: A New Musical. We know the ending before we walk in. But, we are greeted with a theater draped in silk sails, seated on pews, packed in tightly, and surrounding the stage on three sides. Actors serve double duty as musicians, playing turn-of-the-century instruments such as a banjo, accordion, piano, viola, and guitar. As the first actor strikes the first clear, strong, mournful note, you know you’re in for a treat. The voices are gorgeous and blend beautifully; the music clean and pure.

Eastland doesn’t simply tell the story of the tragedy. It weaves a dreamscape of interrupted lives, imagining the stories of several victims and one survivor (her grandchildren have provided valuable insight to the sources White consulted). White’s Eastland victims are immigrants who have suffered an Atlantic crossing; a young mother in a loveless marriage who has found new love and new hope for a fulfilling life; a young boy whose life is cut so short that he floats through the play as an image in his mother’s mind; working women who wind wire into cable for the newly invented telephone; an undertaker who is stunned by the scale of loss; and a ship’s captain who cannot fathom or shoulder the burden of this loss.

Jeanne T Arrigo, Monica West, and Tiffany Topol winding wire into cable in Eastland at the Lookingglass.

White evokes early 20th century Chicago, teeming with immigrants, grime, and desire. It’s the filthy city that we know from The Jungle, with prohibition and Al Capone, Harold Washington and the Daleys still long in its future. It’s a city where anything is possible, as demonstrated by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. We already love this city, its history, and phoenix that literally grew from its 1871 ashes. We grow to care about these characters–they are Chicagoans, and, thus, they are us. When, inevitably, they slip away from us, we are devastated.

The steamer Eastland being righted after capsi...

The steamer Eastland being righted after capsizing in the Chicago River near the Loop community. Chicago Daily News, Inc., photographer. CREATED/PUBLISHED: August 14 REPRODUCTION NUMBER DN-0064980 REPOSITORY Chicago Historical Society, Clark Street at North Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614-6071. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of my favorite visual moments included Reggie Bowles (Doug Hara), the Human Frog, as he dove and swam to pull bodies from the water. “How could I stand by and watch those lives drift away?” he asks. He challenges himself each time he dives to beat Harry Houdini’s underwater record. Behind a scrim, suspended by wires, Bowles swims downward searching for people to help. He sings upside down and swimming. It’s truly breathtaking. Houdini appears to goad him and Bowles carries on a conversation with the Great Houdini as he salvages bodies. When he finally finds a survivor, though, he is all business.  A voice tells him that, like the Eastland, his name will fade quickly from memory, his heroism disappear for the historical record. The real Reggie (pronounced Reggae) was a 17-year old son of a Western Union wire chief who hopped on his bicycle as soon as he heard of the accident, hurried to the site, and volunteered to help. White immortalizes the extraordinary heroism of this ordinary boy, weaving his story into the imagined lives he creates.

What struck me most, aside from the extraordinary voices, the powerful acting, and the lovely verse, was the artistic direction. Using trap doors, scrims and pulleys, the play gives a visceral sense of the listing and leaning of the boat, the struggle of the victims, and the virtuoso rescue efforts of passersby. The first moments of the play don’t hint at the disaster to come–all is anticipation as it might have been that day. When the boat first leans and lists, we wonder along with the characters if it will be alright (even though we know it won’t). And when at the end, they wonder “if they’d missed a sign, a broken mirror or a lost watch,” we wonder with them. Empty, drenched clothing is hoisted on pegs as actors in similar costume are tagged, the dead, and sing their names and stories. These are ghosts, this is a ghost story, and the “extraordinary light” of these ordinary people will shine only in memory.

Andrew White’s words make this play memorable, creating not a memorial, documentary, or reenactment, but a haunting elegy. His words will ring in your ears when you walk out of the theater knowing that, indeed, “only the river remains.”

(My thoughts are not meant as a review. Plenty of seasoned critics have reviewed this lovely play. I’ve attached a few links to their pieces.)

Living in the Cradle of the United States on April 19

19 Apr

I grew up in Livingston, NJ, a sleepy suburb of New York City. There were no historic landmarks, no national registry buildings that I knew of.  Certainly there were historical sites near by where George Washington slept and where Thomas Alva Edison invented or perfected lightbulbs, phonographs, and film.  But, the sense of history is was not woven into my daily path.

By contrast, in Boston I am constantly aware of history. Not just because I can walk the Freedom Trail, or because I pass Bunker Hill on the way to pick up Culture Husband from work. When I leave my hundred-year old house to walk into Arlington Center, I pass at least 6 homes on the historic registry. En route to the coffee shop, I pass the site of at least two revolutionary battles, marked by stones engraved with key names and dates. We ride the Minuteman Bikeway to get to school each day.

The third Monday of April is a state holiday in Massachusetts. Many people believe it is a day off to clear the city for the marathon. With even Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Museum of Science wearing a race number (65,000,000), that’s not surprising.

Minutemen line up for the march to Lexington

In reality, it is Patriot’s Day, a commemoration of the ride of Paul Revere and the first battles of the American Revolution, fought by the brave militiamen and farmers in Lexington and Concord MA. The weekend is marked by battle reenactments all over the 16-mile stretch of Battle Road, culminating with a dawn reenactment of the Battle of Lexington on Monday morning (which we did not attend!). We went to the Minuteman National Park where we watched, “The Road to Revolution,” a multimedia show about the day’s events. While we missed the reenactments (because we were lunching in historic Lexington), we saw many reenactors. Their passion for the history of this country is infectious.

John Russell House, Arlington MA. Corner of Pleasant Street and Massachusetts Avenue

This morning, I’ll pass the John Russell House and Smith Museum, site of the Battle of Menotomy, fought 237 years ago today. Many skirmishes occurred on Massachusetts Avenue, the main artery that takes us to school each morning.

Seeing the reenactors, watching “Road to Revolution,” and knowing that I walk daily where men (and women and children) fought for independence has given me a different sence of American history. Of course I learned this history in school. But, there is something different about reading the names of battle dead from a 200-year-old marker when I’m stopped at a traffic light.  To know that we share this space with their spirits imbues a sort of patriotism and love of country (or at least history) that I can’t quite describe.

This is a map depiction the outbound routes ta...

This is a map depiction the outbound routes taken by Patriot riders and British troops in the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The footpath through Minuteman National Park is quiet now. As the breeze softly rustles the trees and birds chirp, we can only imagine the cries in the dark, “The Regulars are coming. To arms.” We can only imagine the sound of horses hooves pounding up the road, hands banging on farmhouse doors, lanterns swaying in the dark.  Our reenactors show us the bayonets, the hand-to-hand combat, the fear on both sides of the battle, and, eventually, the ousting of the British.  We know that those same foes are now among our country’s staunchest allies, past wars forgotten, brotherhood remembered. The contrast with the way wars are fought today, the number of casualties, the changed nature of surprise attack is evident, not just because we see reeanctors shooting photos with digital cameras, talking on cell phones, and climbing into school buses to get to the next stop.

Our Founding Fathers and the people who engaged battle on behalf of freedom were brave and forward-thinking men and women. We may not always agree on how they would interpret their dreams in our modern world, but we can certainly agree that the “shot heard ’round the world” on April 19, 1776–whether fired intentionally or by a nervous trigger finger–is one to be remembered, commemorated, and celebrated. Happy April 19th from Menotomy (now known as Arlington.)

Minuteman give an interview to cable television.

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