Highlights Foundation Writers Retreat

Lucky me! I recently attended a Highlights Foundation writers retreat in the northeastern Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains. The campus consists of a “5,200-square-foot Retreat Center known as the Barn, 21 cabins, a lodge, and the Founders’ farmhouse, located in Boyds Mills–10 miles from Honesdale, Pennsylvania.”

I’ve known about the Highlights Foundation since I started on the path to publishing Kidlit and, thanks to a generous scholarship from PJ Library, I was able to attend the “Jewish Symposium 2022: An In-Community Experience for Jewish Creatives.” PJ Library, an organization that “sends free Jewish children’s booky to families across the world every month,” is also well-represented in the synagogue preschool where I teach. Everywhere I look…beautiful children’s books!

Hon, I was so nervous when I drove up. Nervous as in major imposter syndrome! What business did I have being there, surrounded by award-winning Kidlit authors, talented illustrators, well-known Jewish educators, and successful literary agents?

The main reason I signed up was because my literary agent Rena Rossner was going to be there. She was wonderful as were the other professionals, writers, illustrators, and educators. My nerves didn’t go away completely, but though it was my first, hopefully it will not my last writers retreat.

The Highlights Foundation positively impacts children by amplifying the voices of storytellers who inform, educate, and inspire children to become their best selves.

We do not take lightly what it means to create engaging, authentic stories for children and youth. We believe that you, as storytellers, have profound impacts on the lives of children. This matters a great deal to us as an organization, and most importantly to our world.

Highlights Foundation





			
			
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Missing our Matriarch, Poem on Grief

We can’t avoid the saddest part of our humanity and though we know we’ll have to deal with it, as my husband’s Aunt Pauline said, “It never gets easier.”

I haven’t posted in awhile because Cecile Gruer, my 86 year-old mother-in-law and matriarch of our family, passed away last week. There’s so much to say about her decline, measures that were taken to try to restore her health, and the month she spent under hospice care. The last time she celebrated a happy occasion with the family was her granddaughter’s wedding in September 2021. Even then, she wasn’t truly herself.

There’s much more to say about Cecile, who as a young girl in Poland, ran with her parents and siblings from the Nazi’s during WWII. She spent years in Siberia, freezing and starving. After the war ended, she was a teenager in an Austrian displaced persons camp. Her immediate family eventually moved to America, first to St. Louis and then to New York. She met Morris, another Holocaust survivor, in Brooklyn, NY and they married and built a home and family. So much to say…

The outpouring of sympathy from family and friends illustrates the importance of community. It may sound cliche, but it’s crucial to support each other when a life starts and when it ends.

Hubby and I are exhausted from the many months of Cecile’s decline, reeling from witnessing her personality change, saddened by her loss of communication, and grieving her passing. A tribute post will have to wait. Though Cecile didn’t die young, Jon Pineda’s poem on grief strikes a chord.

My Sister, Who Died Young, Takes Up the Task was published in The New York Times Magazine January 16, 2022 with commentary by Victoria Chang. She said, “I first read this poem on Twitter, and even though it’s a simple poem about grief, it stayed with me. I’m fascinated by the way that it discloses so much in its title, showing how a title can get important information out of the way so that the poem can breathe on its own. Yet the reader doesn’t know what the ‘task’ is until the third stanza. The poem is an example of how abundant emotions can be conveyed by stripping language down to the bone.”

My Sister, Who Died Young, Takes Up the Task

A basket of apples brown in our kitchen,

their warm scent is the scent of ripening,

and my sister, entering the room quietly,

takes a seat at the table, takes up the task

of peeling slowly away the blemished skins,

even half-rotten ones are salvaged carefully.

She makes sure to carve out the mealy flesh.

For this, I am grateful. I explain, this elegy

would love to save everything. She smiles at me,

and before long, the empty bowl she uses fills,

domed with thin slices she brushes into

the mouth of a steaming pot on the stove.

What can I do? I ask finally. Nothing,

she says, let me finish this one thing alone.

Powerful Pandemic Perspective

Cecile, left, the matriarch of our family.
Grandma with her youngest granddaughter.

I was intensely moved by Toby Levy’s January 3, 2021 Op Ed article in The New York Times. Apparently, so were 621 people who commented on her piece. Coincidentally, me and my niece Talia left also comments. Ms. Levy’s article reminded us of our own family’s matriarch, Cecile. My husband’s mom survived the Holocaust, as did his dad, by being shipped to Siberia with their families. Hunted every step of their journeys across Europe, their childhoods were harrowing and horrific. According to Cecile, dealing with the pandemic is isolating, lonely, worrisome, and inconvenient. But terrifying? No. Cecile is in better spirits than a lot of my contemporaries. I listen to her for perspective and wisdom, just like Ms. Levy.

A Holocaust survivor reflects on what it means to survive the pandemic.

By Toby Levy, a retired accountant and a volunteer docent for the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Jan. 3, 2021

These days, I’m a little bored.

The boardwalk is my lifesaver. I’m two blocks from the boardwalk. I can walk to Coney Island if I want to. I go alone. I have some friends here. We used to play canasta once a week. But when Covid arrived, my daughter insisted, “You can’t sit in one room!” So I talk on the phone. I read. The grandkids call in by Zoom. I also do a little bit of Zoom lecturing for the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

I keep very busy, and it helps me a lot. I am trying not to give up. But what is getting me down is that I am losing a year. And this bothers me terribly. I’m 87 years old, and I lost almost a full year.

I’m doing everything I can to stay connected, to make an impact. So even now, amid Covid, I tell my story to schools and to audiences the museum organizes for me, by Zoom.

Here’s what I say: I was born in 1933 in a small town called Chodorow, now Khodoriv, about 30 minutes by car from Lvov, now Lviv, in what was then Poland and is now Ukraine. We lived in the center of town in my grandfather’s house. The Russians occupied the town from 1939 to 1941, then the Germans from 1941 to 1944. My father was well liked in town by Jews and non-Jews. One day in early 1942, one of the guys came to him and said, “Moshe, it’s going to be a big killing. Better find a hiding place.” So my father built a place to hide in the cellar. My grandfather didn’t want to go. He was shot in the kitchen; we heard it.

Not long after that, the Germans said they were going to relocate the remaining Jews to the ghetto in Lvov, so my father and my aunt searched for someone to hide them more permanently. They found Stephanie, who had a house on the main street with a garden and a barn. She had known my parents their whole life. My father built a wall inside the barn and a hiding place for nine people, where we slept like herrings. It was just four feet by five feet. Pigs and chickens were on one side, and we were on the other: my parents, my aunt and uncle, my maternal grandmother and four children, ages 4, 6, 8 and 12.

Eventually, with the help of Stephanie’s 16-year-old son, they expanded the space a bit and added a way for the kids to look out. That is where I spent the next two years. I always think of the son when I get down, because when Stephanie was scared to keep hiding us, he insisted we stay.

We had lice. We had rats. But every day in the barn was a miracle. I’m not a regular person. I’m a miracle child. Most of the Jews of Chodorow never returned.

So when the coronavirus came, I thought, “I’m a miracle. I will make it. I have to make it.”

During the war, we didn’t know if we would make a day. I didn’t have any freedom. I couldn’t speak loudly, I couldn’t laugh, I couldn’t cry.

But now, I can feel freedom. I stay by the window and look out. The first thing I do in the morning is look out and see the world. I am alive. I have food, I go out, I go for walks, I do some shopping. And I remember: No one wants to kill me. So, still, I read. I cook a little bit. I shop a little bit. I learned the computer. I do puzzles.

I still sometimes feel that I am missing out. A full year is gone. I lost my childhood, I never had my teenage years. And now, in my old age, this is shortening my life by a year. I don’t have that many years left. The way we have lived this year means I have lost many opportunities to lecture, to tell more people my story, to let them see me and know the Holocaust happened to a real person, who stands in front of them today. It’s important.

I am scared that I am not going to be in the shape I was a year ago. When this started in March, one of my grandchildren, who lives in New Jersey, went to Maine with his wife; they never came back. They have a baby boy now, and I have only seen him on Zoom. This child will never know me. That’s a loss.

Some of what I’m missing is so simple. I have a male friend I know from synagogue. We would take a trip, if we could, by car. To anyplace! I would go to Florida. Maybe even go to Israel for a couple of weeks. But not now. So, again, this has shortened my life. That is my biggest complaint.

I understand the fear people have, and I understand you have to take care.

But there is no comparison of anxiety, of the coronavirus, to the terror I felt when I was a child. That was a fear with no boundary. This is going to end, and I am already thinking, planning where I am going first, what I will do first, when this ends.

Toby Levy for The New York Times

BuzzFeed/Tasty Brisket Recipe

 

 

 

 

 

UPDATE: Tasty posted the video yesterday, 4/8/20, in honor of Passover & it has over 4 million views–wow!  Thanks for all the love! (Shout out to my kids for plugging this link.)

The original BuzzFeed Brisket video on YouTube, “Jewish Moms Try Each Other’s Brisket,” had over 1 million views. Unbelievable!

Some of the funny comments I received:

Can you send some through the post to Scotland please? We’re on lockdown here.
Hysterical! Thank you for sharing. (Glad I didn’t audition; you women are out of my league!) but I loved this and will share with my kids, etc. Shabbat shalom!

Such a fun video! Thanks for sharing! Happy holidays!

Good for you for doing this and you were by far the best “actress”. Mazel Tov!!!!
Omg Naomi this is AMAZING!! You are a natural on camera, and without tasting them I think you should have won!
And, drumroll, I finally transcribed my mother-in-law’s recipe, the one I used for the shoot. Cecile, as mentioned before, is a wonderful cook of Eastern European Jewish food. I tried to glean measurements from her, and also took notes as I cooked, but amounts may be tweaked. Her recipe is a two-day affair: cooking one day, and slicing and serving the next.
Grandma Cecile’s Brisket

Ingredients:

  • 41/2 – 5 lbs brisket
  • 1 1/2 onions, chopped
  • 4-6 stalks celery, cut up
  • 5 carrots, cut in large chunks
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • Spice Mixture: 3 teaspoons Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute, 1/4 teaspoon paprika, 1/2 teaspoon marjoram, and  1/4 teaspoon thyme
  • vegetable oil for searing
  • Brisket Sauce: 1/2 – 3/4 combo of sweet-n-sour sauce (such as duck sauce, I didn’t have any so I used apricot jam), 1 Tablespoon soy sauce, 1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 bay leaves

Directions:

  1. Dry meat and then dredge in flour/spice mixture. (Cecile shakes the meat and spice mixture in a Ziploc bag.)
  2. Heat vegetable oil in large pot. Sear meat on all 4 sides. (The cut is thick, so all edges need searing.)
  3. Remove brisket from pot. Sautee onions and celery until translucent, about 5 minutes.
  4. Add meat back to pot and leave on high heat for 2-3 minutes.
  5. Turn heat to low and cook 10-20 minutes on each side, adding water so that the meat is simmering.
  6. Add bay leaves and Brisket Sauce and bring to a boil again.
  7. Cover and simmer for 2 1/2 hours. Add carrots at 2 hours.
  8. When a fork can lift up the meat in the center, the brisket’s done. (If using a thermometer, it should be 160 degrees F.)
  9. Take out of pot immediately and wrap in tin foil. (I let it cool on the counter and sliced it that night since it had to be ready to serve at the BuzzFeed office the next day, but brisket’s better if it “rests” and is sliced the next day.)
  10. Let cool and store in fridge. Save sauce and veggies.
  11. Slice meat the next day. In 350 degrees F oven, heat brisket in sauce and veggies for 40 minutes.

Yield: Approximately 5-7 people (or more! Again, going w/loose translation of how much for each person.)

BuzzFeed Brisket Recipe

The BuzzFeed Brisket video “Jewish Moms Try Each Other’s Brisket,” has over 3 million views!! Is that considered viral?

Some of the funny comments I received:

Hysterical! Thank you for sharing. (Glad I didn’t audition; you women are out of my league!) but I loved this and will share with my kids, etc. Shabbat shalom!

Such a fun video! Thanks for sharing! Happy holidays!

Good for you for doing this and you were by far the best “actress”. Mazel Tov!!!!
Omg Naomi this is AMAZING!! You are a natural on camera, and without tasting them I think you should have won!
And, drumroll, I finally transcribed my mother-in-law’s recipe, the one I used for the shoot. Cecile, as mentioned before, is a wonderful cook of Eastern European Jewish food. I tried to glean measurements from her, and also took notes as I cooked, but amounts may be tweaked. Her recipe is a two-day affair: cooking one day, and slicing and serving the next.
Grandma Cecile’s Brisket

Ingredients:

  • 41/2 – 5 lbs brisket
  • 1 1/2 onions, chopped
  • 4-6 stalks celery, cut up
  • 5 carrots, cut in large chunks
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • Spice Mixture: 3 teaspoons Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute, 1/4 teaspoon paprika, 1/2 teaspoon marjoram, and  1/4 teaspoon thyme
  • vegetable oil for searing
  • Brisket Sauce: 1/2 – 3/4 combo of sweet-n-sour sauce (such as duck sauce, I didn’t have any so I used apricot jam), 1 Tablespoon soy sauce, 1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 bay leaves

Directions:

  1. Dry meat and then dredge in flour/spice mixture. (Cecile shakes the meat and spice mixture in a Ziploc bag.)
  2. Heat vegetable oil in large pot. Sear meat on all 4 sides. (The cut is thick, so all edges need searing.)
  3. Remove brisket from pot. Sautee onions and celery until translucent, about 5 minutes.
  4. Add meat back to pot and leave on high heat for 2-3 minutes.
  5. Turn heat to low and cook 10-20 minutes on each side, adding water so that the meat is simmering.
  6. Add bay leaves and Brisket Sauce and bring to a boil again.
  7. Cover and simmer for 2 1/2 hours. Add carrots at 2 hours.
  8. When a fork can lift up the meat in the center, the brisket’s done. (If using a thermometer, it should be 160 degrees F.)
  9. Take out of pot immediately and wrap in tin foil. (I let it cool on the counter and sliced it that night since it had to be ready to serve at the BuzzFeed office the next day, but brisket’s better if it “rests” and is sliced the next day.)
  10. Let cool and store in fridge. Save sauce and veggies.
  11. Slice meat the next day. In 350 degrees F oven, heat brisket in sauce and veggies for 40 minutes.

Yield: Approximately 5-7 people (or more! Again, going w/loose translation of how much for each person.)

Nurture the Wow, Published Book Review

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“Putting Prayer Into Parenting,” my published review of Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s book Nurture the Wow, was published in the October/November 2016 issue of Hadassah Magazine. Click here to read the review and an interview with the author.

Woohoo to an insightful parenting book, and to the opportunity to write about it.