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100th Post!

I never thought I’d make it this far – I thought I’d lose interest within a week – but my 100th post is here. I hope you’ve been enjoying my random ramblings up to now, and there will be more rambles, rants, reviews, and random memories to come.

Now, apropos, I’d like to comment on an interesting news story I read about recently.

On December 2, NPR correspondents Gregory Warner and David Kestenbaum published a piece on the afterlife of American clothing, which you can read here. Apparently, Africa is where America’s donated t-shirts go to die. Warner and Kestenbaum’s travels took them to Africa, where they ended up in a Kenyan clothing market. The t-shirt section, as one might suppose, is massive, considering the amount of custom-made t-shirts Americans distribute for film festivals, family reunions, and 5k runs, that usually end up either in the back of a messy closet or, as these were, donated to Goodwill and then sent over to Africa. That sentence had an inordinate amount of clauses.

One of the shirts they found was this gem from 1993, the classic “I [verbed] at [Jewish first name]’s [Bar/Bat] Mitzvah.”

Clearly, this Kenyan danced the night away in celebration of Jennifer becoming a woman.

Ah yes, the bar/bat mitzvah t-shirt. The shirt that you gladly took pictures in that night but never saw the light of day again. The bane of every laundress mother’s existence, especially for those mothers who had more than one kid attend the event, or, even worse, multiple children attending multiple different b’nei mitzvah circuits, thereby increasing the number and variety of garments, making it nearly impossible to sort after a particularly large load. “Which of you kids got slashed and burned at Jimmy and Kimmy’s eco-themed double-mitzvah?”

Upon reading the story and seeing the picture of the smiling Kenyan showing off the shirt, on December 10, Jillian Scheinfeld of Kveller.com set out to see if she could find the mysterious Jennifer. The only clues available were the date, November 20, 1993, and a tag sewn into the back bearing the name “Rachel Williams.” Armed with this info, Scheinfeld appealed to the Internet, and because this is 2013, the bat mitzvah girl was located exactly one day later. Thanks to the initiative and Facebook skills of Aaron Soclof from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the t-shirt’s owner, Rachel Williams (now Rachel Aaronson) was alerted to the presence of her discarded swag in a marketplace in Kenya and on computer screens across the Jewish world. Aaronson gladly consented to being interviewed, and at the end, gave Soclof the final piece of the puzzle: the identity of one Jennifer Slaim, now Rasansky, a Hebrew school friend at whose bat mitzvah Rachel Williams danced with the toons in Troy, Michigan in 1993. Aaron Soclof published the results of his search and interviews with the girls (who are still friends!) here. To bring the story full circle, Kestenbaum and Goldstein, our friends from NPR, published this follow-up which features a picture of Jennifer, all grown up, posing with the same shirt.

All in a day’s work.

This story takes me back to my own bar mitzvah. As the youngest in my class (and the least popular) my parents wanted my bar mitzvah party to be extra special, in contrast to all the Saturday night Beth El auditorium dances I’d been regularly attending for the past year of my life. It just so happened that earlier in the year, they had taken a ride on the now-defunct Liberty Limited, a dinner train that ran from New Freedom to York in southern Pennsylvania, and pitched it to me for a possible bar mitzvah venue. I probably mumbled something like “I don’t care,” but I ended up going with them toNew Freedom to see the train and figure out if it was financially feasible. As it turned out, the cost of renting three train cars for the afternoon (a car with chairs/tables for myself and my friends, a car with chairs/tables for all the adults, which included a “sky car” covered with a glass dome, and a big, open “dance car” to run around which came with a DJ who played me and my sister’s CDs) was less than that of a fancy party hall and hired DJ/ professional entertainment. My parents were thrilled with the idea that they’d come up with and at how cooperative the train company were. When I asked about having some sort of entertainment on the train, my parents set out to get that taken care of as well, hiring five local actors to act out a murder mystery on the train for my guests to solve.

The big day came, and honestly, I wasn’t too excited to attend. The only friends I had were a handful of people from my grade who’d bit the bullet to attend their 139th bar mitzvah that year, and a few from my synagogue, and even so, most of them were really my sister’s friends, going along for the ride to make me feel like I actually had friends. We met in the parking lot of my middle school and boarded a coach bus for the hourlong ride to the New Freedom train station, where we would board the train. At some point during the day I realized that my entire party would be in motion, and I couldn’t decide whether that was cool or nauseating. Since it was a Sunday morning, clothes were casual and food was of the breakfast variety, consisting of Goldberg’s bagels and donuts from the kosher Krispy Kreme – choices that I later discovered my friends appreciated, both in terms of eating familiar foods and for the girls who happily showed up in sweatshirts and jeans rather than the tiresome teenage excuse for an evening gown. As the day went on, I actually started to enjoy myself. We had a bunch of disposable cameras, and I remember taking lots of pictures of people (but not being in them myself), playing with my younger cousins, running around the train, and even going up to the front to honk the horn, something which I initially had no interest in doing, but…YOLO, you know? Plus, it was November in the beautiful Pennsylvania Dutch country, providing interesting vistas that changed throughout the party.

The party ended with little fanfare – we got back to New Freedom and back on the bus to Baltimore. I didn’t think much of it until I heard a few people still talking about it a few weeks later, with comments on how interesting and different it was. My favorite review came from my mother’s friend Denise, who was also mother of my friend Robin who had attended the party (names have been changed to protect the innocent). According to Denise: “Robin came home, threw up from motion sickness, and said she’d had the time of her life.”

That’s what I’m talking about.

Oh, and to answer the big question: yes, I had a t-shirt at my bar mitzvah. Since it was a mystery party, it was black, had a magnifying glass, and proudly proclaimed that the wearer had “solved the mystery at Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah.” I designed it myself, and I thought it was pretty slick. I still have mine, and I even wear it sometimes. I will not show you a picture of the shirt, so here’s this one instead:

Works Cited:

Kestenbaum, David and Jacob Goldstein. <http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2013/12/11/250200378/we-found-this-20-year-old-t-shirt-in-kenya-the-internet-found-the-original-owner>.

Scheinfeld, Jillian. “Let’s Help NPR Find the Owner of this Bat Mitzvah Shirt from 1993.” Kveller.com. 10 December 2013. <http://www.kveller.com/blog/parenting/lets-help-npr-find-the-owner-of-this-bat-mitzvah-t-shirt-from-1993/>.

Scheinfeld, Jillian. “Mystery Solved.” Kveller.com. 11 December 2013.< http://www.kveller.com/blog/parenting/jennifers-1993-bat-mitzvah-t-shirt-mystery-solved/>.

Soclof, Adam. “How Jennifer’s bat mitzvah t-shirt wound up in Africa.” Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 10 December 2013. <http://www.jta.org/2013/12/10/news-opinion/how-jennifers-bat-mitzvah-t-shirt-wound-up-in-africa>.

Warner, Gregory and David Kestenbaum. “The Afterlife of American Clothes.” National Public Radio. 10 December 2013. <http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2013/12/10/247362140/the-afterlife-of-american-clothes>

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Road Trip 2: Ohio, 2001

After a summer hiatus due to Bar Mitzvah preparation, we resumed our trip with a drive to the west in August 2001, getting national park stamps in western Pennsylvania and Ohio. This trip was only four days, since Dad decided he couldn’t do another 8 days of driving.

I was a little less obsessed with national parks this trip (mostly because there were much fewer stamps to be acquired) so we also did some more sight-seeing and touristy things.

Day 1 (August 21, 2001): We picked up and headed out west through the radio wasteland of the Appalachians to Fort Necessity NHS and Friendship Hill NHS. Pit stop for the night was suburban Pittsburgh.

Day 2: Pennsylvania to central Ohio to Cleveland. We stopped in Akron to do two touristy things, the extremely fun Harry London Chocolate Factory, and the Football Hall of Fame, which was less impressive. We stopped in Canton to see the First Ladies NHS, a newer site, that unfortunately hadn’t gotten a stamp yet, but they gave us a sticker. We ended the day in Cleveland.

Day 3: The morning brought us to what would become one of my favorite museums of all time, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The beauty is in its layout and design, and the awesome exhibits inside were a treat too. Dad even enjoyed the museum, and he hates pop music. It was also a landmark day for him – he got a senior discount for the first time ever, having turned 55 earlier in the year. We rode past the stadium of the Cleveland Indians, but they were away that week.

In the afternoon, we headed out of Cleveland to what Dad called “the best kept secret in Ohio,” – Perry’s International Victory Memorial in Put-in-Bay, on South Bass Island in the middle of Lake Erie. We rode a ferry to the island, and drove around via a rented golf cart. The memorial itself was a huge tower.  We rode an elevator to the top, and the view was crazy even though it was foggy. I could’ve stayed on that island for longer, but alas the last boat left at sunset and we had to be on it.

Day 4: Up bright and early, since we had to do the Cleveland-Baltimore drive, and pick up a stamp along the way at James Garfield’s home in Mentor, OH. We literally camped out in the parking lot with bagels and cream cheese, running in to get the stamp at the visitor’s center and look around for about fifteen minutes before packing up and heading home.

It was a short trip, but a pretty good one. Only a few stamps, but many more unique experiences (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Put-in-Bay, Harry London). A lot less happened in Western PA and OH than in New England.

This was also the last year of the true “road trip.” Next year’s  trip was to the south, but with flying to our main city, renting a car and doing “excursions” rather than a continuous road trip.

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Road Trip 1: New England, 1999

Our first official road trip started on June 13, 1999. With a tank full of gas and hearts full of hope, we headed to nab our first stamps of the day, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After driving through Maryland and Delaware, we arrived in Philly just in time for lunch.

Our first stop was the Gloria Dei Church. It wasn’t too interesting – just an old church with a graveyard. We didn’t see a visitor’s center, so we asked around inside, and the church workers had no clue what we were talking about. It was listed online, but not in the book, so I thought we had a chance of scoring one, but alas, we failed. (A few years later, they did indeed get an official visitor’s center with a stamp. I need to go back.)

The rest of the day went very smoothly. We picked up the first stamp of the trip at Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, home of a supporter of George Washington, then another at the Liberty Bell (Independence National Historical Park) and at the home of Edgar Allan Poe. There, one of the rooms had a rubber “telltale heart” hidden under a plank, which I thought was the coolest thing ever. Later that day we hit Valley Forge before stopping for the night in Fort Washington, PA.

Day 2: More of the same. We hit three: Morristown NHP, Morristown, New Jersey; and my first brown stamps (as opposed to Mid-Atlantic light blue) were Ellis Island (new to my dad but old hat to me, having visited it with my 4th grade class), and the Statue of Liberty (which we climbed up to the base). But that didn’t matter because we got to spend the night in a state I’d never been to before: Bridgeport, Connecticut. I had finally visited a state that my sister hadn’t. Moving on to:

Day 3: Bright and early to capture Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Our first stop was the historic Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI, where we got to see the secret passageway beneath the bimah (another historical thing that BLEW MY MIND) and say hello to the oldest still-standing synagogue in the USA. It’s also the only Jewish-themed national park, so, bonus. Once we hit Massachusetts, we made an unplanned stop in New Bedford and got the stamp for the New Bedford Whaling NHP, which remains one of my favorite national parks to this day – the town was so cute and little and New England, and the huge whale skeleton suspended on the ceiling didn’t hurt either. We spent the night at the Suisse Chalet Inn in Cambridge – I didn’t mind it so much (probably too high on having fun) but my dad remembers it as being a roach motel.

Day 4: Boston Day. This was also no-car day, which was less expensive and easier on my dad. We walked the entire length of the Freedom Trail to get the Boston NHP stamp, as well as the Black History Trail to get the Boston African-American stamp. I wasn’t interested in anything other than the parks and the stamps, but upon my dad’s insisting, we strolled around Boston Common and made a stop in Harvard Yard. We took the T to Brookline to see John F. Kennedy’s home, and then headed to Dad’s favorite part of the trip, a Red Sox game at old Fenway Park. They played the Twins but I can’t remember who won.

Day 5: Boston Suburbs. We hit up the Salem (Salem Maritime NHS), Saugus (Saugus Iron Works NHS) and Lowell (Lowell NHP) AKA home of the cotton mills. This is the only time on any of the trips I remember having a serious breakdown (I was totally a crier as a kid) – I think it was because of traffic. I was surprised at how little we fought throughout the entire eight-day trip. We also veered up to New Hampshire, just so I could say I’d been there, even though the only stamp was much further up.

Day 6: Goodbye Roach Motel, hello central and western Mass. We excitedly hit up Minute Man NHP in Concord/Lexington and the Springfield Armory in Springfield, ending the day with Weir Farm in Wilton, CT, before stopping at my cousins’ place in the Bronx for Shabbat.

Day 7: Shabbat. No parks.

Day 8: Last day. We bid the cousins goodbye, visited old Great-Aunt Yetta (think Yetta from The Nanny, only in real life), who lived in Washington Heights squalor complete with faded photos on the walls, furniture held together by duct tape, and a funny old-lady smell in the whole apartment, and got two stamps (Grant’s Tomb and Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace) before heading home. Where I proceeded to tell the whole story to my mom and sister, and anyone else who would listen, numerous times.

Overall, we had a great time. My dad is very much into history, and learning about American history with me was as much fun for him as it was for me. He viewed it as an “educational experience” for me, but I had my stamps and some other souvenirs so I was happy enough. He had been to NYC and Boston before, but hadn’t gone to any of the battlefields, presidents’ homes, or even Fenway Park before. He and I quarreled very little, and with my old-style, Pre-GPS maps from AAA, I managed to navigate us the whole way, even leading my dad on a shortcut once and redirecting him after he almost missed the exit off the New Jersey Turnpike going towards NYC. Even though I had such fun as the navigator, the driving did take its toll on my dad, who spent the next day or so sleeping it off.

We took a break in the summer of 2000, while I prepared for my Bar Mitzvah, but resumed our road trip with a Part II for four days in June 2001, heading toward the Midwest – the second of 5 official road trips we took together.