After the War by Alice Adams

After the War by Alice Adams is one of those rare books that defy the bad sequel status.  Ms. Adams seamlessly returns to the town of Pinehill and its colorful residents, all the gossip and speculation clashing with reality, fantasies fueled by emotional inner dialog, secret affairs of which everyone is aware, conversations attributed to no one in particular such as one would overhear at social functions, and she serves it up deliciously as if the reader is a neighbor with privileged insight into everyone’s private and public lives.

Ms. Adams addresses a new round of social and political issues through the different characters’ points of view, often having them use words deemed unacceptable in today’s society if not during the era in which the story takes place.  By doing so, she challenges her readers to reflect upon private thoughts and experiences, examine one’s upbringing and prejudices, and form an opinion.

As always, Ms. Adams’s prose is excellent, and she brilliantly breaks the rules of writing when she upsets the delicate balance of life in Pinehill with the unexpected death of a major character one third of the way into the story, draws the most peripheral of characters onto center stage, and begins or picks up storylines late in the novel only to conclude them with a satisfying ending.

After the War is masterful storytelling from a gifted writer gone too soon.

The Hoopla About Chuppahs

Beautiful white chuppa with red flowers for outdoor wedding ceremony.

When John Welles’s best friend, Sam Feldman, invited him to a party Sam’s mother was hosting, John was not at all enthused. Sam, who always had a girlfriend on his arm, wanted John to run interference for him as he dodged the girl his mother wanted him to meet. Little could either young man have predicted how captivating Abigail Cohen, called Babby, would prove to be. Not only was Babby beautiful, the young school teacher was intelligent, articulate, and poised. John began to rethink his opinion about dating Babby, but not in time. By the end of the party, Sam and Babby hit it off exactly as Sam’s mother knew they would. John did not begrudge Sam his good fortune. Rather, he and Claude Willoughby were the best men at Sam and Babby’s wedding.

Being Jewish meant Sam and Babby took their vows under a chuppah. A chuppah is a Jewish wedding canopy with four open sides. There are many traditions surrounding the chuppah, and they have changed throughout the years depending on an orthodox or modern interpretation.

The chuppah is usually a square of cloth supported by four poles. The fabric can be as elegant as silk or velvet, as simple as cotton or linen, or as important as an heirloom piece of lace or tallit belonging to a family member. The poles can be free-standing or held in place by friends of the couple. Either way, the poles should touch the ground. It is a great honor to be asked to hold the chuppah poles, and this role is often given to people very close to the couple.

Many couples like to decorate the chuppah poles and tops to match the theme of their wedding. Whatever material is chosen, be sure that it will withstand unpredictable weather conditions if the ceremony is outdoors. Ruining a family heirloom or the collapse of an unsteady chuppah will definitely spoil the wedding.

the-hoopla-about-chuppahs-2The purpose of the chuppah is to symbolize the new home the couple will create. At one time, the cloth chuppah was draped around the bride and groom but was later spread over their heads. Ancient rabbis compared the chuppah to Abraham’s tent during Biblical times. Abraham was famous for his hospitality, and since his tent was open on all four sides, travelers could enter from any direction.

The bride and groom are brought to the chuppah by both parents. The space inside the chuppah should be big enough for the couple, clergy, and a small table for ritual items such as wine and glasses. The bride will also need enough room to circle her groom without tripping or snagging her dress. Don’t forget to make the chuppah tall enough for the tallest person to stand under without hitting the fabric where it will drag in the center. Family and friends in the wedding party, including parents, often stand outside the chuppah. Afterward, the new couple can receive guests in their chuppah as a symbol of the love and openness of the home they will build together.

Too Tired to Rest

too-tired-to-restThe reel of unseen dreams flickers her eyelids as the man who has slipped into her room watches. A crescent smile glides across his face like a canoe trailed by ripples of worry. Deep within her consciousness, she senses his presence, and the blue eyes marred by clouds of age slowly open.

“Hello, Grandma.”

One, two, three seconds pass as recognition surfaces. Her face, soft as worn flannel, bunches around her eyes and mouth.

“Hello, Freddy.”

Her equally soft hand pats his sandpaper chin.

“I know I haven’t been to visit you as often as I should, but…”

“No apologies, sweet boy. You’re here now.”

“I came to spend Shabbat with you, Gram.”

The old soul leans forward in her bed, peers out the window.

“Seems a little early yet,” she says.

“Well, Mom says you’re asleep by seven, and the summer sun sets so late.”

“Cheeky devil,” she chuckles, again patting his face. “Go ahead and light the candles. Fetch my shawl from the drawer—no, that one, Freddy, the next one down—and I’ll say the blessing.”

Fred complies with her request, draping dark blue silk around her head and shoulders. Daylight blasts hot and bright through the windows of her room in the nursing home; her white crowned head swathed in navy gives the appearance of the moon in the night sky. He lights two candles in cut glass holders, and the sun withdraws its spears behind linty clouds.

Elsa Cohen breaths as deeply as her ravaged lungs will allow; she wheezes like a broken bellows, drawing withered hands above the dancing flames, the ancient prayer she recites flowing like new wine. When she finishes, she looks up into her grandson’s drum-tight face.

“Why so troubled, Freddy?”

“I don’t know, Gram. I’ve been feeling kind of…melancholy lately?”

“Are you asking me?”

“Well, no.”

Elsa pushes the shawl off her head, smooths the fabric around her shoulders.

“It’s just that, I haven’t been keeping Shabbat lately either, Gram.”

“I see.”

“Do you?”

“No, that’s just what people say when they’re giving you time to collect your thoughts and tell what’s on your mind. Spill it, Freddy.”

“Oh…uh, well, I haven’t been keeping Shabbat because…because it’s really hard to do in today’s society, you know? I mean, living in America and all, well, people don’t stop, like, working and stuff at sundown on Friday until sundown Saturday.”

“Oh gosh, people don’t even stop on Sunday anymore either.”

“That’s true.”

“I remember when you were little that gas stations and stores were closed on Sunday, and all the good people went to church, and everyone rested.”

“We live in a ‘round the clock kind of world these days, Gram.”

“That we do. How’s that working for you, Freddy?”

“What do you mean?”

“When you visited three months ago—”

“Ouch.”

Elsa waves him to silence.

“You said you and Margaret were so exhausted with long hours at work, running errands, shuttling the kids from here to there.”

“Well, I don’t see how taking a whole day off to do nothing is going to help any of that, Gram. Wouldn’t that just put us more behind?”

“Do more on the other six days. Totally run yourself into the ground. Or you could save up all your Shabbats until retirement and lay around doing nothing for ten years.”

“Gram, be serious.”

The old woman chuckles until she coughs. Fred leans her forward and delivers firm pats to her back. Her nightgown is a floral landscape across the sharp ridges of her shoulders. Once settled against her pillows, she continues.

“You have to decide for yourself, Freddy, why you do or don’t do these things.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier if you just told me what to do?”

“What fun would there be in that? Besides, there’s no guarantee you’d do it just because I say so.”

“It was so much easier when Grandpa was alive. We all met for dinner at your house and followed his lead.”

“Fredrick—Shabbat hasn’t gone by the wayside just because your grandfather died. Everything that is good about it is still with us. My goodness, dear boy, for one so educated, you sure are stupid.”

Fred can’t keep from laughing at his little grandmother’s spoon-blunt words cutting him sharply.

“Okay, Gram, I get it.”

“Are you sure? Because I could spell it out for you. Use pictures and small words.”

He kisses her forehead like she is his child.

“I love you, Gram.”

“I know, Freddy. Now take that box of candy over there your mother sent me—she knows I can’t chew caramel and nuts anymore—and go home to your family. Rest, my boy.”

Elsa snuggles into the blankets her grandson pulls up over her chin. Her eyes flicker as the dream scenes resume, and she is asleep before he crosses the room to leave.

Woman in Gold – Movie Review

I’m not a fan of Ryan Reynolds especially after watching the disaster that was The Green Lantern and some piece of tripe he starred in with Jason Bateman. In fact, I don’t care for his acting at all, and I’m being generous when I call it acting. Helen Mirren, on the other hand, is brilliant, fabulous, and classy even if the movie she stars in is horrible and disintegrates around her.

When I saw that Ryan Reynolds had been graciously cast opposite Helen Mirren in the movie Woman in Gold, I cringed wondering if even she could carry the dead weight of Reynold’s flat acting and bleating voice. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that she didn’t have to.

Woman in GoldWoman in Gold tells the story of Maria Altmann, a young Jewish woman who fled Austria with her husband during World War II. Sixty years after her forced exile, Maria seeks the help of Attorney Randy Schoenberg to reclaim the famous Gustav Klimt painting of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. Maria and Randy take the battle all the way to the US Supreme Court with a slowly building intensity that often left me clenching my teeth as I awaited the outcome of each painful step. I won’t spoil the ending, but rather, I’ll say this is one movie that should not be missed.

What I will focus on is the impression the movie left upon me. It is hard to imagine a regime so evil that it would perfect the practice of hatred to the level that the Nazis did. And yet, one can hardly turn on the news or surf the Internet without seeing this same type of barbarism taking place today all over the world. God forgive us that we are allowing it to happen again.

Equally chilling is the arrogance and indifference with which these acts of terror are met. Of course, it is absolutely criminal that personal property is stolen, but more important are the lives that are being destroyed. As Helen Mirren portraying Maria Altmann said regarding the restitution of the stolen art, it will not bring them back. Still, it is a small step toward acknowledging and righting the wrongs committed.

Then the problem becomes how do we stop the crimes that are occurring now as we make restitution for the past while preventing the evil from raising its ugly head in our future? I believe the answer lies within each person on a daily basis. What will you chose to do today? Acts of good or deeds of evil?

Woman in Gold 2

By Bread Alone

1433270193628Forgiveness is a tricky concept. It is easily applied to a situation when the transgression is minor. A forgotten birthday, a word misspoken in haste, a misunderstanding of perceptions; forgiveness is willingly doled out in each of these instances.

But what about the attempted genocide of an entire people? Or searching one’s own soul in an effort to release a lifetime of guilt? Who is responsible to bestow forgiveness to the offenders when these are the circumstances? Man and/or God?

These are the questions that trouble the minds of Reuben and Hannah Wise and Dr. John Welles after they dine together one January evening in 1955. All three are divided in their opinions concerning the particular events that generated their questions. While they remain polite toward each other, a wedge has been driven into their friendship, especially between Hannah and John.

I chose to have Reuben serve challah bread during the Shabbat meal to which he and Hannah invited John for two reasons. For one, challah is traditionally served during the observation of Shabbat. More importantly, though, the presence of bread during this significant meal drew attention to the many references of bread in the Bible as well as underscored the differences between the Wises and Dr. Welles.

The following recipe is the one I had in mind for the challah Reuben made in my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. I hope you will enjoy this lightly sweet, rich, and delicious bread with your meals.

Reuben Wise’s Challah Bread

1 ½ cups warm water

2 tablespoon yeast

½ cup olive oil

½ cup sugar (or honey) (I used raw sugar)

3 eggs (2 for the recipe and 1 for the wash)

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 cups flour (slightly packed)

In a Kitchen Aid mixer add 1 ½ cups lukewarm water and 2 tablespoons yeast. Mix gently and allow the yeast to foam.

Add ½ cup sugar (or honey), ½ cup olive oil, 2 eggs, and ½ teaspoon salt. Mix well, approximately one minute or so. Add the six cups of flour one at a time and mix thoroughly with a bread hook. You may need to add ½ cup of flour if the dough is very sticky.

Remove from the mixing bowl and divide the dough into two halves. Divide each half into four pieces and roll each piece to about 12 – 14 inches in length. Braid the pieces of dough. (You can find instructions for braiding challah on the internet. I chose a four-strand braid for my bread.)

Brush each braided loaf with an egg wash (beaten egg with a little water to thin it). Place the braided loaves on a non-stick cookie sheet with parchment paper or a cooking mat on it and sprinkle liberally with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, or slivered almonds. Let the loaves rise until about 1/3 larger in size.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Bake the loaves for 23 – 25 minutes. Loaves should be golden and firm when finished.

This recipe can also be mixed and kneaded by hand.

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The traditional blessing over the bread as spoken by Reuben Wise:

HAMOTZI – Blessing Over the Bread

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, Ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz.

hamotzi_0

Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe,

who brings forth bread from the earth.

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