Monthly Archives: June 2010

It’s never too late

I attended a friend’s Bat Mitzvah this weekend. She’s in her mid-70s. For the uninitiated, a Bat, or Bar, Mitzvah is the Jewish service that marks a child’s passage into adulthood. It is also what you call the individual involved; Bat/Bar Mitzvah means ‘daughter/son of the commandments.’ Traditionally, this happens on, or near, the child’s thirteenth birthday. But, as evidenced by my friend’s accomplishment, there is no age limit on the practice.

To prepare for the service, one learns to chant a particular section of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, or for those so inclined, the Old Testament, in Hebrew. To chant, however, one must not only read Hebrew, but must also learn how to read the trope, the little marks that indicate what the melody is at any given phrase. This is not for the faint of heart. It requires many months of study with a tutor, and hours of practice. For traditional B’nai (plural) Mitzvah, that studying usually happens while their peers are doing homework, playing after school sports, or watching television. This is why the days leading up to the B’nai Mitzvah can be accompanied by some resentment on the part of the honoree (and perhaps why the relieved parents often throw a big party when it’s all over).

As if all that studying isn’t enough work, the B’nai Mitzvah also write a D’var Torah, a talk about the section of the Torah they chanted. I’ve heard some spectacular D’var Torahs delivered by thirteen-year olds, none more impressive than that of my own daughter, but the more mature B’nai Mitzvah bring a perspective to their analysis that comes only with age.

Many of the older women who pursue becoming a Bat Mitzvah, are from a time when most temples did not allow girls that opportunity. That was a privilege, and a duty, that belonged only to boys. As time went on, and the women’s movement picked up steam, girls were allowed to have Bat Mitzvahs, but they were often relegated to Friday nights, and instead of reading from the Torah itself, they read a Haftorah, a portion from the Prophets, a work that complements the Torah. That was the experience my sisters and I had when we were girls. Today, both boys and girls read from the Torah, on Saturday mornings.

Individuals who become B’nai Mitzvah later in life are driven by one or more common desires; to explore their spirituality on a deeper level; to be closer to their community; to study Hebrew and enhance their appreciation of the prayers. For some women it may be as simple as reclaiming that which is their right. Whatever their motivation, I greet the new ‘adult’ members of our community with the same pride I would feel for the more traditional set. To my friend, and all the older members of our community who came before, a heartfelt Mazel Tov.


Hold the pepperoni

With the exception of the mortgage on our house, we live a debt-free life. I was raised to believe that if you can’t afford to buy something outright, then you can’t afford it at all. As a result, I’ve never had a car payment; I never pay interest on my credit card; and my husband and I have been socking away money for our daughter’s college education since she was a baby. We’re as fiscally responsible as they come. Why, then, you might ask, do we, and others in our situation, continue to worry about money? The answer is both simple and imponderable: healthcare.

Statistically, more people are driven to bankruptcy by medical bills than anything else. Horrific illnesses and accidents are rarely foretold, and are, therefore, difficult to plan for. That means that in order to ensure that you can weather whatever unforeseen disasters come your way, you have to plan for the worst case scenario. (If that doesn’t take the joy out of buying a new car, nothing will.)

The process of reviewing our financial portfolio starts out innocently enough. What do we envision retirement looking like? What do we need to amass money for? In our case, we expect retirement to look a lot like life looks now, without the job part. Based on that, the question is, will our investments, social security, and whatnot, be enough for us to live on after we retire, even if we retire at 65? That seems like an optimistic retirement age when you consider that, actuarially speaking, I’m expected to live until 94, and Andrew until 92. (I’m guessing that a deeper dive into my misspent youth might cause the actuaries to adjust down a bit, but we’ll worry about that another time.) Clearly, the longer we work, the brighter the financial future gets, but when dealing with imponderables, it’s best to avoid bright light.

After a thorough review of our portfolio, we’re comforted to know that we’re wealthy enough to have pizza every night for dinner if that’s what we want to do. Unless… What happens if one of us has an unexpected, uninsured illness? If we live the pizza lifestyle, over twenty years we will have spent $109,500. That would surely be enough to cover a medical expense or two. When you start looking at your spending habits in that light, it becomes clear that you’ll never have enough money.

If it’s true that we’ll never have enough money, it begs the question, why bother to worry about it at all? So we spend $15 here, $15 there. What the hell, it doesn’t matter, until it does. Better hold the pepperoni.

A cousin by any other name

I’d like to take a quick, virtual poll. If you have a brother-in-law, do you refer to their wife as your sister-in-law; or a sister-in-law’s husband as your brother-in-law? I’m not certain, but I don’t think that’s the way we’re supposed to do things here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Those in-law spouses have no direct relationship to you. They are the nomenclature equivalent of an appendix, purely vestigial.

When I refer to my brother-in-law’s wife as my sister-in-law, I typically hasten to explain, “She’s not really my sister-in-law; she’s married to my husband’s brother.” This clarification can cause my husband to become impatient, and roll his eyes at me, because he’s thinking, ‘does it matter, who cares?’ But there are people who care. They’re the same people who will point out that you’ve mispronounced gorgonzola. This is a risk I’m not willing to take, hence my need for full disclosure about the relationship.

It will come as no surprise to you (you are, after all, reading my blog) that I love to tell stories. Many of them involve family members. When I introduce the characters I like to identify who they are in relation to me. I could take short-cuts and, for instance, refer to my husband’s cousin as my cousin, thereby saving two syllables, but what happens when someone asks, “Is that on your mother’s side, or your father’s?” I’d have to backtrack and explain that it wasn’t really my cousin, but my husband’s cousin. That takes a lot more syllables than the two I originally saved.

Other cultures have words for all these relationships. (Trust me on this. I remember writing a paper about it for a sociology class in college.) Why don’t we? I might not be as bothered by this if I didn’t have a child, but I do. And her relationship to my appendix of a brother-in-law’s wife is ‘niece.’ That person is her Aunt. If my daughter has a name for her relationship, why don’t I?

And while I’m on the subject, why do some parents insist that their children call me Mrs. Mintz, and others are fine with their kids calling me Judy? First of all, I’m not Mrs. Mintz. If I were any kind of Mrs., it would have to be Mrs. Kleppner, which is my husband’s last name. Since my last name is Mintz, that pretty much makes the whole Mrs. thing a non-starter. The really surprising thing is that the title ‘Ms.’ hasn’t made more inroads than it has. My daughter’s unmarried female teachers are Miss. So-and-so, not Ms. We’ve had plenty of time for Ms. to become mainstream, what’s the hold up here?

While you ponder these questions, I’m going to go research what I’m supposed to call my cousin’s children’s children. There aren’t any yet, but I want to be prepared.

You never know

One winter evening, a couple of years ago, we were driving home along the access road next to Route 2 in Arlington, when we spied something lying at the side of the road. As we went past I gasped, “It’s a person!”

Andrew slammed on the brakes and backed up until we were several car lengths beyond the person. He got out of the car and ran forward calling, “Are you alright? Are you hurt?”

I, on the other hand, stood behind the safety of my open car door, yelling, “Do you need help? Are you drunk?”

Somehow we had the presence of mind to call 911, my husband having visually determined that the guy was breathing. What we didn’t do was touch him. And when I say ‘we,’ I mean Andrew. I never got much further than a few steps away from the car, while begging Andrew to come away from the guy.

When the policeman arrived he determined that the guy was as drunk as the proverbial skunk, and poured him into the back of his cruiser to deposit at the police station. The policeman told us that by stopping we probably saved the guy’s life because he was in a great spot to be run over.

That was cold comfort for me. Don’t misunderstand; I’m glad he wasn’t run over. But while our presence may have kept a car from flattening him, it wouldn’t have done him any good had he been: bleeding, choking on his own vomit, having a seizure, a heart attack, an aneurism, etc., etc., etc.

I’m not proud of the way I reacted.

As part of the generation of Jews born on the heels of the Holocaust, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time mulling over what I would have done had I been a non-Jew in a Nazi-occupied territory. I always thought that I would have hidden Jews in my attic, or worked with the underground to sabotage the enemy. I believed that I’d have risked myself rather than imply complicity by silence. Now I’m not so sure.

When I saw that man on the ground I didn’t think, ‘I must rush to help him!’ I thought, ‘What if has a gun?’ I completely forgot that I was in a nice, upper-class suburb where guns rarely, if ever, intrude. My fear was completely unfounded, and thoroughly paralyzing.

I’m much more forgiving in general now. I know that while people may not always behave the way we’d like them to, that doesn’t mean that they don’t wish they could.

Fleeting beauty

My husband and I visit with family in southern Vermont frequently throughout the year, and that’s where we were for Memorial Day weekend. The house has an extensive garden and it was blooming like crazy with purple and pink flowers that I’d never seen before. “Those are beautiful,” I said. “Did you plant them this year?” The answer was no, the lupins (which is what they turned out to be) had been blooming at this same time of year, every year, for many years.

How could we have missed them, I thought? We’ve seen the garden in bloom before, many, many times. I realized that we must not have visited in late May or early June which is, apparently, when the lupin are in bloom. Every year this beautiful display happens, and depending on the family’s various schedules, there are some years when no one sees it.

I understand the fleeting beauty of flowers. My own house has a wisteria vine that runs the length of our front porch, trained along a metal rod that was hung for just that purpose. For a couple of weeks in May, when the wisteria is in full bloom, I feel like I live in a chateau in the Loire Valley. The bright yellow forsythia bushes that border our property seem to bloom and disappear within days. They come and go so fast that some years I doubt that I saw them at all. And our apple tree, old and tired and broken down as it is, still manages to produce flowers every other year, presaging the small crop of apples that I’ll have to pick up before mowing in the late summer.

Also in bloom at the house in Vermont, but with some evidence that their days were already numbered, were the lilac bushes. They were alive with so much activity that I was content to watch, inhaling their perfume, for long stretches at a time. The most colorful visitors were the yellow and black monarch butterflies. They would land with their wings spread open and stick a long thin proboscis down the lilac, pull it out covered with yellow pollen, and immediately poke it into the next flower. One of the butterflies was missing half of its left wing, and yet it didn’t seem deterred. It performed just as the others did, and flew off when it was done. Later we saw another butterfly missing half of the opposite wing. It must be a dangerous business, being a butterfly.

Before we left Vermont I stood in the yard where I could smell the lilacs and admire the lupins at the same time. The sun was perfect, just warm enough to warrant the shorts and tank top I was wearing, but not so warm as to risk driving me back inside. For a few moments I was in my idea of heaven. I wondered how I could keep that feeling with me; the sights, the sounds, the smells.

Maybe if I try very hard, I’ll be able to find something fleeting to appreciate every day, and in that way, I’ll be able to keep the spirit of that feeling alive. After all, flowers are not the only things with short seasons; in the grand scheme of things, ours are short as well.