2

A Just Right Thanksgiving

After a crazy few days of travel and stress, enter Thanksgiving.

In our times, Thanksgiving is thought of as such a holiday of excess. Too many people, too much food, too much consumerism. But this year, it was just right.

I flew back to Baltimore two days ago via Detroit, spent the night at home, then yesterday we drove down to Ocean City, and then today, up to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware for Thanksgiving. There were 25 of us, which is almost everyone on the planet with whom I’m related. My cousins have the most gorgeous beach house, and there was just enough food that I felt satisfied without overeating. Plus, it was nice enough outside afterwards to walk around in short sleeves, and I caught up on some sleep while we had our traditional post-dinner Sharknado marathon. One of my cousins said that it was nice that nobody was gluten-free, but there’s more than that. This year, there was no whining or crying, no cringeworthy or awkward conversations, it just kinda flowed, like the ocean right outside.

Right now, I’m listening to the waves of the Atlantic that I’ve missed so much crashing just outside the house here in Ocean City. I’m still overloaded with stress thinking about work and school and everything, but at least I’m not alone and I’m in on of my most favorite places on earth.

Yeah, kind of sappy, I know, but hey, it’s just been a long few weeks, in many ways. November’s taken a lot out of me, and hopefully December will put some of it back.

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31

This Day Is Your Day, This Day Is My Day

I turned 28 years old today, and it was hectic but otherwise completely unremarkable.

Just the way I like it.

A beautiful morning for some gym time, barely making it to Humanities in time to administer the midterm, after which Steffen and I sang the theme song from Maude (because, why wouldn’t you?). Then I taught 2 classes about commedia dell’arte, the highlight of which was during my first class when a student almost cracked his forehead open in an improv game, and then when I broke a piece of chalk while writing on the board, and then proceeded to lambaste the broken piece for not being a team player.

Then, when I thought things couldn’t get any better, my parents showed up (well, I knew they were going to), and then we went to dinner at Naf Naf and to the Union to see Arlo Guthrie in concert. Our seats were in the nosebleed section, but singing along to “Alice’s Restaurant,” “The City of New Orleans,” and “This Land is Your Land” with my mother (and Arlo, at the opposite end of the room) was one of the sweetest gifts of all.

I have been celebrating my birthday wrong all these years. It took me 28 years to realize this, but now I know how do it. It’s not about how I celebrate, or it being my day. It’s not even about growing up or getting older. It’s about being with the ones you love, and just celebrating life in general. For me, it is a happy birthday when the ones I love are happy being with me.

Quote of the day:

ME (to my class, after the commedia game): Good job everyone, that was fun. Did you have fun? Well, I had fun, and that’s all that’s important, because I’m a selfish person and that’s really all I care about.

Happy birthday, everyone everywhere.

8

That’s SoMG: The Curmudgeon of Liechtenstein

Take two!

That’s So Jacob presents:

That’s SoMG: Scandals, Secrets, and Shockers That Will Make You Slap Your Hand Over Your Mouth

Episode 2: The Curmudgeon of Liechtenstein

Germany, 1930s.

This is the story of my great uncle, whom I’ll call Uncle Herschel. Born and raised in Germany, Herschel trained as a telegraph operator before meeting his wife, a lovely lady otherwise known as Aunt Greta. Before the war, they had two children, Bert, who passed away of meningitis at the age of 13, and Rosalind, whom they called Lindy. (All these names are fake, by the way).

Anyway, when the war came to Europe, they sent Lindy away to live with some uncles in Dijon, France, while they weathered the Nazi storm in one of the most unusual places.

locator map of LiechtensteinZámek Vaduz na pohlednici

Vaduz, Liechtenstein.

Liechtenstein is a principality with only eleven towns. The entire country could fit inside the District of Columbia. It is so small that the Germans were not even interested in getting involved, which was lucky for Uncle Herschel and Aunt Greta.

Fortunately, as it happened, Uncle Herschel and Aunt Greta managed to secure visas for themselves to leave Liechtenstein and immigrate to America. They first tried to get Lindy to Liechtenstein, but apparently she was recognized on the train and had to return to Dijon. They then attempted to have a hearing for her to get an American visa, which did not happen. It is unclear why Lindy was sent to live in Dijon in the first place, but rumor has it she was messing around with a German soldier. Though Herschel and Greta immigrated to Baltimore, Maryland USA, they did not find out until the war was over that Lindy was among the Jews rounded up at the velodrome at Drancy and shipped to their deaths in Auschwitz. She was in her mid-20s.

Meanwhile, in America, Herschel got into business, and Greta was just…a stay-at-home wife. In no photo was Herschel ever smiling, and he treated Greta horribly. He refused to learn English, saying “let the Americans learn German and French.” Yes, he was that guy. They had no more children, mostly due to what happened one day in the 1960s, when my dad was still a kid.

Aunt Greta was found dead.

One day, she was found outside their home, and no one ever found out how she died. Though it is possible that she fell out of an open third-story window or was pushed, she most likely committed suicide by jumping. Nobody was close with her, not even my grandmother, who got along with pretty much everybody. My dad remembers very little of her, other than the fact that she was quiet and enjoyed knitting.

Uncle Herschel lived until the mid 1970s, and died at a ripe old age.

But mostly, he is remembered for always being grouchy.

The story was much better when my father told it, and we had photographs, postcards, letters from Lindy to her parents in Liechtenstein, including one where she describes wanting to go swimming in the river, but she knows that everyone will watch her and go “who’s that’s crazy person swimming in the river?” (Lindy’s words, not mine). The most unique object in this particular collection was Aunt Greta’s passport. Unlike everything else – the letters, the visas, the photos – for some reason, Aunt Greta’s passport was preserved remarkably well. We passed it around the seder table and marveled; it was as crisp and clean as the day she got it. It looked like it had just come out of the printer, aside from the outdated Nazi stamps and visas for Germany, Liechtenstein, and the USA.

And that’s my one connection to the nation of Liechtenstein.

In other news, the sign I have on my door saying “No Advertisements Please” worked for the first time today, as I came home to find pizza menus sticking out of every door but mine.

And although no Africans came to visit today, cheers to a five continent day: North America (Canada, USA, and Mexico), South America (Brazil), Europe (UK, Belgium, and Germany), Asia (Israel, India and Taiwan), and Oceania (Australia and Papua New Guinea).

16

That’s SoMG: The New Jersey Horse Meat Mafia

It all started with a pot of coffee.

Last week, on my way back to Madison, my dad and I were sitting at the rest stop on I-90 northbound in Belvidere, Illinois, having some Starbucks and gearing up for the final leg of the trip. My dad does not drink coffee anymore, but he did in high school. So, I asked him if Grandma drank coffee. He said that she always had a pot of coffee ready, and usually she and her step-niece Ida from down the street (all names hereinafter have been changed due to protect the privacy of the individuals, and also because it’s fun to make up names) would spend the afternoon in one of their kitchens, drinking coffee and talking for hours. I had never heard of Ida, so I asked the question that launched the story of the century.

“Ida who?”

“Your grandmother’s step-niece.”

“Yeah, Grandma had a step-niece, Aunt Susanne’s stepdaughter from her first marriage.”

“Aunt Susanne had a stepdaughter?”

“Yeah, from her first husband, Alfred, you know, the one who committed suicide.”

“…”

“You don’t know that story?”

“Well, obviously, no, I don’t.”

“Oh, goodness, it’s a long one. Once we’re back in the car, you drive, and I’ll tell you the story.”

<pause button>

That was the beginning of what turned out to be an interesting and very juicy family scandal that was too good to keep to myself. So now, I share it with you all in the first ever episode of…

That’s So Jacob presents:

That’s SoMG: Scandals, Secrets, and Shockers That Will Make You Slap Your Hand Over Your Mouth

Imagine, if you will, Are You Afraid Of the Dark? meets E! True Hollywood Story.

Now, onto the show.

<play button>

Episode 1: The New Jersey Horse Meat Mafia

Bavaria, Germany, 1898.

It all started in a tiny farm town where a young Jewish woman named Huldah was spending another summer helping out some local families. Huldah was from a farm town of about 1,000 people, but this town’s population was even smaller, barely in the triple-digits. Every summer since she was old enough, Huldah would go to the smaller town, stay with a family, and do various chores around the house and farm. Over the years, she came to know most of the people in the town, to the point where she felt comfortable just walking into someone’s house to say hello and ask if they needed some chores done. There were only a few girls her own age in the town, and one of them was unusually fat. This girl’s name has been lost to history, so we’ll just call her Fat Girl.

One day, Huldah was just walking around town, and she decided to call on Fat Girl. She goes to Fat Girl’s house, opens the door, and hears a bloodcurdling scream coming from the kitchen. She runs into the kitchen to find her friend giving birth on the kitchen floor. Apparently, Fat Girl’s weight had been sort of an advantage in the predicament she’d found herself in; she had slept with one of the non-Jewish farmhands, and was able to hide from everyone the fact that she was not just fat, but also pregnant. That afternoon, she gave birth to a fair-skinned little boy.

Well, once the baby came, she couldn’t keep the secret for much longer. As was the custom in those days, she and the baby disappeared for a little while, “to an aunt’s house,” until the storm blew over. By the time she returned home, a young Jewish bachelor had moved into town, and with much prodding from Fat Girl’s family and friends, the two were married, and soon had children of their own. After awhile, another child showed up at the house one day: a little blonde boy whom they called Ernest.

Now, back to Huldah. She got married and had a family of her own, giving birth to three children. The oldest was a girl called Susanne, then a boy, and the youngest was my grandmother.

In the early 1930s, Susanne came of marriageable age. Through the grapevine, Huldah found a young man called Alfred, and the two were married, and not long after, they welcomed a child of their own, a little girl they named Penny. Soon after Penny’s birth, Alfred went to visit an uncle he was quite close with who ran a furniture store in America, in Baltimore, Maryland. He stayed for a short while with him before returning home to Susanne and Oenny in Germany. Alfred and his uncle corresponded frequently via mail, and one day in 1933, Alfred gets a very short letter from his American uncle, saying:

“Alfred: Come back to America. Take your wife and your daughter and leave Germany at once.”

The family had been aware of the rise of the Nazi Party in their country, because, well, how could you not. Their lives were not as affected as others, and until this letter came, they had no idea of how dangerous the Nazis actually were. So, the whole extended family made plans to immigrate to Baltimore, leaving Europe for good. Through good planning, the first to make it out of Germany were Alfred, Susanne, and baby Penny, setting sail for Baltimore in 1934. Penny celebrated her first birthday at sea, becoming a minor news story once the family landed in Baltimore.

The whole family, being farmers, was familiar with the cattle business, so as the rest of them trickled over – my grandmother, her mother Huldah, and all the rest – Alfred decided to set up a meat processing center in Baltimore. Through friends and acquaintances, he found a business partner who had come from a nearby part of Germany and also knew the meat industry. His name?

Ernest.

By the time Huldah finally made it over in 1938 – the last one – Alfred and Ernest’s meat business was hugely successful, churning out sausages and bratwursts for the people of Baltimore every day. When her son mentioned his business partner’s name to his mother, her eyes lit up.

“Ernest, from the next town? The blonde one? His mother was my friend!”

Yes, after close to fifty years, the boy born on the kitchen floor, and the boy of the woman who helped bring him into the world, became business partners.

As stated before, the business was hugely successful. Ernest kept a relatively modest lifestyle, but Alfred showered his family with money and expensive things: a house, cars, clothing. Susanne didn’t have to work, but she owned and ran a small grocery store while she raised Penny.

The reason Alfred and Ernest’s business was so successful was because of the source of their meat. Unlike other local meat markets, they cast their net somewhat wider, finding a supplier in New Jersey who offered them meat for extremely low prices. Once in Baltimore, Alfred, who was more of the businessman of the two, marked up the price of the meat to align with the higher prices in Baltimore and earn them an incredibly large profit.

Meanwhile, a journalist sniffs out a news assignment based on whispers and rumors; that A & E weren’t getting their beef from local farmers, but from some place in New Jersey. Undercover, the journalist acquires the name and address of the New Jersey meat suppliers, and goes there to find two incredible, game-changing secrets.

One: the meat they are selling was not beef – rather, illegal horse meat.

Two: the whole operation was run by a New Jersey mafia family.

Needless to say, the news breaks in a grand fashion back in Baltimore. People, some of whom have become ill from the company’s meat, are outraged at this deception and demanded answers. The newspaper prints the offending meat packers’ names, and Alfred and Ernest were now on the front page. Of course, Alfred and Ernest hired a lawyer to handle their case, one of the best lawyers in the state of Maryland. He agreed to defend them in court, telling them the best possible result (a minor fine) and the worst (three to five years in prison). But the damage to their business and social reputations would be irreplaceable. Confident as ever, Alfred invested in the lawyer, and everything was going to turn out most likely in their favor, due to lack of concrete evidence other than newspaper reports.

The trial came closer, but it became too much for Alfred. As much as he maintained that he was going to win the case, he was growing increasingly paranoid and upset, and Susanne was starting to worry. However, as comforted as she was in her lifestyle, worrying was not something she did often. Alfred began staying home for longer and longer periods of time. On one of the days leading up to the trial, Alfred went to work. That afternoon, he was found dead, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound from a gun he’d purchased without Susanne’s knowledge and kept in his office.

Susanne and Penny were in shock.

The trial, however, went on without Alfred. As it turned out, Alfred was the one who communicated with the New Jersey supplier, and the details of that arrangement went with him to his grave. Ernest testified that he knew nothing about Alfred’s dealings, and got off with a minor fine, no jail time. His reputation and business suffered a bit, but ultimately, Ernest lived to see the daylight, daylight that Alfred would have most likely seen had he managed to stay alive for the trial.

By this point in time, Penny had grown up and moved out of the house, and down to northern Virginia. She blamed her mother Susanne for her father’s death and all that went along with it, and they maintained very little contact over the years. Though Penny retained friends from childhood through high school and frequently came to visit them in Baltimore, she rarely visited my grandmother, who helped raise her, nor her own widowed mother, who married Irving, a neighbor and widower himself (his wife, whom Susanne had known, had died of cancer at a relatively young age) living with three children of his own. Penny never accepted her stepfather and step-siblings, who came to appreciate Susanne and eventually, regard her as their own mother. Though Irving was a decent husband and father, he also led a flashy lifestyle, financing it through his new wife’s money; money that was not going towards Penny herself.

Through the years, my father and his sister kept in touch with their first cousin Penny, but from a distance. She married a man called Woody, who was not particularly religious and also not a particularly…well, let me put it this way. Ernest, her late father’s business partner, remained in business but never offered Woody a job, as he had to other family members. Eventually, upon Ernest’s death, the business and the money stayed in his family. Her father’s uncle, the man with the furniture store, hired Woody as a salesman, but Woody did so poorly that he had to fire him. So, they kind of did their own thing, now living in the Washington DC area. My father and the others in the family remained in contact with Cousin Penny and her husband Woody, but they never quite found out how they got their money; Penny didn’t work, and Woody only gave vague answers about “business,” saying “it was fine.”

The final chapter of the story commences one hundred and one years after it began, in 1999. My aunt, now a mother herself, became a grandmother for the fifth time, to my little cousin Emily, that January. By this time, communication with Cousin Penny had slowed to a trickle; interaction happened only at a select few “state occasions,” weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. No letters, phone calls, or emails, otherwise. The new baby’s parents – my cousin Hillary and her husband – live in Washington, DC, not too far from the suburb where Cousin Penny resided. As a gesture of good faith, Hillary picked up the phone and invited Penny to a baby naming party they were holding for Emily, in May of that same year. Penny said she couldn’t come, her husband was sick.

Well, sometime later that year or in early 2000, Woody died. My aunt, father, and grandmother did not hear about this until many months later, around the time my father was preparing the family invite list for the Event of the Century – okay, it was for my bar mitzvah, that November. The three of them sent Penny a sympathy card, and received not a thank-you note, but a very long and nasty letter, accusing my grandmother and aunt of abandoning her in her time of need (this is the woman who abandoned her own mother), not visiting Woody when he was sick, not bothering to attend his funeral (which no one on our side of the family knew about, since no one had even told us how sick he was, or when he died), and other things that were apparently so rude that the three of them came to a decision to unceremoniously declare Cousin Penny and her children persona non grata.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my father quietly deleted Penny from the invite list, and my bar mitzvah was the first major family event that Penny was not formally invited to.

They have not attempted to contact her again.

Growing up, I knew of Penny’s existence and the fact that she was Aunt Susanne’s daughter, but nothing else. After Aunt Susanne died in the 1980s, we gradually lost contact with anyone associated with her, including my grandmother’s close friend and step-niece Ida, who was somewhat younger than her. My grandmother would have been 103 last year, so it is quite possible that Ida is still alive somewhere, in her nineties. Over the years, some of my father’s cousins have had brief contact with Ida’s children, but not for many years now. Their many afternoons of coffee and conversation are now lost to memory.

By the time Dad finished telling the story, we had driven over an hour from Belvidere to Madison, and were only a few blocks away from my apartment.

So there’s that.


Now that it’s inordinately late, off to bed for me. Once again, only a five continent day for me (no South America) but let me acknowledge those that did check in today from North America (Canada, USA, Mexico, Guadeloupe [first time, welcome!], and Puerto Rico); Europe (France, UK, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein [first time, welcome!], Italy, Norway, Sweden and Spain); Africa (Mayotte); Asia (India, Vietnam, and the Philippines) and Oceania (Australia).

3

Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving has been the first in a very long time that I have been with family, and by family I mean extended family. Technically, I was there last year, but only for about 15 minutes between the airport and the beach, and there weren’t nearly as many people there. This time, however, there were a record-breaking 26 people, some of whom I hadn’t seen since they were born, and some of whom hadn’t even been born the last time I’d seen their parents. It’s always a fun family time when you have to ask what certain children’s names are, who are their parents, if they’re still married, and if they’re both here.

Probably the weirdest part of it was seeing the younger cousins that I do know, all grown up. I’ve seen them each in person probably more than a few times since I left home, but over a period of about ten years. I remember them all being born, and I can picture them as little people, and now they’re all real people, all but one with drivers’ licenses and Facebook accounts.

And on top of it all, I have no idea what anyone is talking about anymore. I’m familiar with the language being used around the table, but if I want to get into a conversation I have to ask for context and characters. This requires effort, and as we all know, Thanksgiving is the holiday where effort translates to getting the turkey into the face, repeat ad infinitum, and anything more than that is overdoing it. Wow, that sounded so lazy.

After the meal, though, we all settled into the living to bond over Sharknado 2.

Nothing says Thanksgiving like a one-armed Tara Reid, I guess.

4

To Grandma, On Her 103rd Birthday

Dear Grandma,

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Grandma, happy birthday to you! It’s your best grandson here, and your only grandson.

It has been almost nine years since you’ve been gone, but I still think about you all the time, especially today, on what would have been your 103rd birthday. Time flies, doesn’t it?

So much has happened since I’ve last seen you. When we last talked, I had just moved to Washington, DC. I ended up switching out schools and finishing up at UMass Amherst, when I started writing plays. In 2008, one of my plays won a competition and was performed in downtown Baltimore for a whole week! I know you would have been there with Mom, Dad, and Aunt Ruth in the front row center, and you would have been so proud. You would have also been proud when I decided to move to Jerusalem for a year, and when I would call you every week, you would immediately call my parents and all of your other friends, telling them that your grandson called you from Israel. You would have baked a challah and sent it to me and it would have been delicious. You would have been puzzled when I moved to Houston for two years, but proud when I successfully graduated with my master’s, and got into the University of Wisconsin, where I sit today, on my way to become the first of your grandchildren to get a doctorate. Well, Susan technically has a doctorate in pharmacy, but never used the title. I will most definitely refer to myself as Dr. Jacob when I get that degree in my hands. I think you might have been confused over what I am deciding to get my degree in, and what I am going to do with it. You would not have been alone. But you would be proud nonetheless.

I don’t know how you would have felt learning about our family trip to Germany and Prague two years ago. I think you would have listened patiently on the phone or on Skype (if you knew how to use it) but you would have been sad not going with us and maybe a little worried for us. You would have loved to have seen the pictures and videos, and you would have felt much better about being here in America seeing how much things have changed. You would have been amused by our dinner at the American Embassy in Prague, and you would have not wanted any souvenirs at all.

You would be pleased to know how much all of us have grown up. You would be proud of my sister’s cooking and her job, and if you were feeling up to it, you would be right there in her kitchen helping her. She might also feel better about herself, since you were really close with her, and you would probably say things to her that would have helped her get through things. You would be so proud of having a great-granddaughter with a degree (and a job!), two great-grandchildren in college, and two others in high school. You’d also be happy to know that your name comes up at every single family function, and we are constantly asked by those outside the family if we remember you, and that you are remembered by others as a “tough lady” even though we all know how much you love us.

You would be very concerned about events in Europe and the Middle East, so I am glad that you are not here to worry about those things.

I don’t know how you’d feel about my decision to apply for German citizenship. You would probably not be happy with that choice, since they gave you nothing. But you might support our decision after we explained to you about the job market. Even still, you probably would be kind of weirded out. But you would love us all the same.

You would be shocked to learn that Cookie died, among others, but not at others who have also left. You would be pleasantly surprised by some of those from your generation who’ve stuck around, like Irma and Bluma.

Finally, you’d be happiest to learn that we still celebrate Jewish holidays together as a family as much as possible. Usually we have a few who are absent (I’d be the worst offender, so sorry about that :-/) but Thanksgivukkah was a blast. You know I’d call you every week and visit when I got the chance. You’d still be happy knowing that we’re keeping the family jokes alive and passing them on to the younger ones.

From your greatest, best, and only grandson, as always, with love,

Jacob

6

Heard It Through The Laptop

Today, I heard some voices through my laptop.

No, it wasn’t Marvin Gaye. Nor was it Gladys Knight and the Pips. Nor did it tell me to plow under my corn and build a baseball field.

My dad sent me a link to an mp3 tonight, and with him and my sister in the room, I opened it.

And what I heard amazed me.

The crackle of the static and the whistle of the feedback yielded to the first voice, accented by the chirp of a parakeet in the background.

“Stanley? Stanley…Stanley?”

It sounded like a sweet old lady, but not at all who I thought it was. But as she began her recitation, it became clear exactly who it was.

“Dear children, and grandchildren, and the children who will come after we are gone…”

It was my grandmother. She identified herself, and announced the date as November 17, 1972, and began to tell the story of how she, along with my grandfather, great-uncle, great-grandmother, and aunt (a baby at the time) escaped Nazi Germany in 1938.

I’ve heard this story many times, from my grandmother before she passed away in 2005 at age 94, and then from my father. Even I have retold the story, a few times. First, shortly after my grandmother’s death, to a group of students from my college, and then one day to my friend Stacey over lunch at Franklin Dining Commons, during my junior year at UMass, who listened with wide eyes and a spoonful of cereal that never made it to her mouth. My grandmother openly told the story at school assemblies, in synagogue, and even on camera for the Steven Spielberg Holocaust Archives at Yale University.

But this was the first time I heard it through the voice that my father knew, that my aunt knew, before age deepened and roughened it slightly. She spoke slowly, with grace and dignity, adding dramatic pauses for effect and choosing her words very carefully.

After a few minutes, another voice emerged from the background.

It was not a familiar voice, but it was one that I felt like I had known forever.

My grandfather.

My grandfather, whose name is in mine, who died in 1973.

I had never heard his voice…until now.

For the next twenty or so minutes, we listened to the story that we all knew, now told by my grandfather. His voice was slightly more accented than my grandmother’s was, but it wasn’t hard to match the voice with the photos I’ve seen of him, notwithstanding the fact that I always imagined him speaking in a deep voice with a German accent, which is exactly what I heard.

But listening to him, it was like hearing the story told for the first time.