I didn't plan this and neither did my publisher, but my latest novel, Bloody Soil, is launching on November 9, 2022, which also happens to be the 84th anniversary of Kristallnacht. There is an eeriness to this, given that Bloody Soil revolves around the danger from a resurgent Nazi group in modern day Germany, and Kristallnacht was the event which marked the movement from discrimination and persecution into violence against the Jewish population in Nazi Germany. It is especially eerie at this time, given the frightening rise of antisemitism throughout the world.
I wish I could say that the neo-Nazis described in my novel existed only in my imagination. Unfortunately, I can't. Bloody Soil is based on real incidents. In Germany, a neo-Nazi group embarked on a killing spree over a period of ten years, targeting immigrants and those who supported them. Then there was Day X - a plot by a neo-Nazi group to kidnap elected officials that they deemed to be traitors, kill them, put their bodies in body bags, and then bury them in quicklime. While the events in my novel aren't an exact duplication of these events, my plot was inspired by that reality.
I also wish I could say that the antisemitism described in Bloody Soil is fictional or relegated to the past. It's not. The antisemitic rhetoric is getting louder, and the silence of some who should be pushing back is deafening. That my book is coming out on the anniversary of Kristallnacht isn't the only thing that is unsettling.
Kristallnacht occurred on November 9, 1938, when the SS and the SA were joined by Hitler youth and German civilians in attacking Jewish business, homes, synagogues, and people - 7500 homes or businesses were destroyed, 30,000 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps, and almost 300 synagogues were destroyed. The official death toll was ninety-one, although more recent history suggests that hundreds were killed. It was the beginning of the murder of two thirds of Europe's Jewish population.
It feels personal to me, as it does to so many Jews, and not only because I know that but for time and space, I and my entire family would have been brutally murdered for nothing more than being born of Jewish heritage. My grandparents who left what is now Ukraine and Lithuania before World War I still had family in that area until Nazis murdered them. Those still in Ukraine were stripped naked, lined up at a pit called Babi Yar, and shot. I believe those in Lithuania were locked in a synagogue and burned alive. (Both massacres are described in Bloody Soil.) My uncle's mother and sister were gassed on arrival at Auschwitz, and he spent his teenage years forced to carry the dead from the gas chambers to the furnaces.
The Holocaust didn't actually begin with Kristallnacht, though. It began with lies, with respectable people allowing hatred of Jews to go unchecked. The Nazis stated that Jews were responsible for World War I, for Germany's defeat, for economic oppression. They proclaimed that there was a world-wide Jewish cabal plotting to take over the world, and Jews were portrayed not just as puppet masters but as sexual deviants and degenerates. The fact that the lies were inconsistent didn't matter - Jews were both the international bankers, profiting off capitalism, and Jews were behind international communism, planning to destroy capitalism. Notably it wasn't just the Nazis saying these things. Here in the United States, Henry Ford wrote news articles in his own newspaper saying the same kind of things. Those words were echoed by an antisemitic priest, Father Coughlin and by Charles Lindberg. The antisemitism in the US didn't just echo that of the Nazis, it prevented action to rescue some of the Jewish men, women, and children who perished, as illustrated in Ken Burn's recent documentary.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, as I was growing up, Jews in America experienced a golden era of acceptance. The neo-Nazis were a handful of freaks and kooks, living in their mothers' basements typing manifestos. While some people (and private clubs) continued to distain Jews, most doors opened. Jews were able to work, live, and go to schools in places that a few years earlier wouldn't have accepted them. Antisemitism may have been muttered behind closed doors, but it wasn't out in public. It wasn't mainstream.
It's out again. The same conspiracy tropes. The same hatred. It's coming from far-right extremists, from people who embrace the same conspiracy theories about powerful world-wide Jewish cabals, and from the antizionists on the left who, sadly, echo some of the rhetoric about Jewish people but use the term, Zionism while claiming not to be antisemitic. It's in Europe, where Bloody Soil is placed, and it's in America.
Jews are the smallest religious minority in America, less than two percent of the population, and yet attacks on Jews account for more than 60 percent of all religious hate crimes. In 2021, the highest number of hate crimes against American Jews were recorded. As I sit here on a Sunday afternoon, neo-Nazis have been projecting hate messages about Jews onto the sides of buildings and billboards at football games.
Jewish people are increasingly uneasy about the rising sounds of hate. We've heard this before, and it doesn't end well.
And, so I'm writing a series with a secular Jewish protagonist working as an American intelligence operative. When I started this, I liked the idea of creating a protagonist from an unlikely background, since few novels in this genre have a Jewish American (let alone Russian Jewish immigrant) as the hero. It's especially important now to see Jewish people in heroic roles. Maybe the publication of a novel about a neo-Nazi plot foiled by a Russian Jewish immigrant to the United States on the anniversary of Kristallnacht in a time of growing antisemitism isn't eerie after all. Maybe it's appropriate.
I'm a little obsessed with Vermont Maple Syrup, as you might guess because I'm giving some away in November and again in January in honor of the release of my next thriller, Bloody Soil. (And another contest will be brewing during the maple tapping season. Watch for it.) If you want in on the contest, sign up for my newsletter. Information on entering will be sent out by in my October newsletter through email.
If you read my books, you would know that I mention Vermont at least once in every book, even if the novel is set elsewhere. In my second book, Nerve Attack, significant parts of the action take place in Vermont, and Ben & Jerry's, Vermont's famous ice cream, is a motivating factor for getting a Russian gangster to cooperate. My protagonist, Kolya Petrov, who spent his childhood in St. Petersburg, retains a love for snow and cold weather, and Vermont is a frequent vacation destination for him and his fiancee, Alex Feinstein.
Why I'm obsessed
I grew up pouring the store-bought high fructose imitation onto my pancakes and waffles and didn't experience real maple syrup until sometime in my late 20s. I was stunned by the richness of the flavor, and never went back to the other stuff. Now, I always have at least a gallon on hand. I love it on pancakes, especially pumpkin pancakes, but also on ice cream, in pastries, and even on salmon. Summer in Vermont means Maple Creemees - soft vanilla ice cream swirled with maple syrup.
And maybe I'm obsessed with maple syrup because I'm obsessed with Vermont. I'm originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and my first visit to Vermont was for a cross country skiing trip during a week off from a grueling job at a large New York law firm. I remember gliding through silent woods with the snow softly drifting to the ground, finding peace and serenity from the beauty and the silence. After skiing, we drank coffee in front of a wood stove while a lop-eared rabbit hopped around the room. Mornings, we would eat pancakes or oatmeal with, yes, real Vermont maple syrup, before returning to the woods. I was in heaven.
From that moment forward, I wanted to live in Vermont. Eight years ago, it finally happened. Retired from the practice of law, my husband and I moved into a house in Northern Vermont. The previous owner left us a gift of a jar of maple syrup, tapped from trees on our six acres. We've thought about doing it ourselves, but it's just so easy to go buy some from a neighbor. Besides, I'm lazy - and I have books to write.
So whoever came up with the idea of taking sap from trees?
Native Americans discovered maple sugar and were tapping trees and boiling the sap down long before Europeans ever reached northern New England and learned the process from them. (It was generous of the tribes to share their information, considering what Europeans would do to them.)
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the new Americans boiled the maple sap down completely to make a rich dark sugar. The sugar kept indefinitely, which syrup would not.
Cane sugar became cheaper in the early 19th century but lost its appeal to many northerners before and during the civil war, because cane sugar growers relied on slavery. Sugar made from maple syrup gained in popularity in the north, and in 1870, Vermont was the leading producer.
By the end of the 19th century, cane sugar became cheaper, and maple sugar became a luxury, and some of it became syrup instead of sugar. In the early 20th century, syrup was the main maple product. In 1920, Vermont produced 3.5 million gallons of maple syrup.
How's it made?
Maple syrup requires tapping the trees and taking the sap at just the right time. People used to do it with buckets and metal taps. Now, many syrup producers have acres lined with plastic tubes running from tree to tree, which saves labor and allows the collection of more sap.
Gathering the sap requires temperatures to be above freezing during the day, but below freezing at night. Once temperatures rise above freezing around the clock, the season is over. Generally, trees are tapped for about 6 weeks in the February to April range, although recently seasons have shortened due to warmer temperatures - and yes, global warming may eventually end maple syrup - as well as life as we know it.
The sap is boiled down in the sugar houses that are all over Vermont - and are fun to visit, when you're next in the state. It takes 50 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.
Is it healthy?
Well, yeah, okay, it's sugar. High in carbohydrates, no fiber, no protein, and yup, it's going to raise your blood sugar, especially if you have it with pancakes or ice cream. Not good if you're diabetic. Not good to eat in excess.
But still, of the sugars out there (and don't even mention artificial sweeteners), maple may be one of the healthiest. It's filled with minerals, magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc, and it is rich in antioxidants. WebMD even claims that maple syrup may protect against Alzheimer’s. The jury is still out, but it gives me an excuse to keep eating it. That and the taste.
And finally, a recipe.
Everything tastes better with maple syrup. I was going to put up the recipe for maple pecan pie, but I'm writing this while visiting family - and alas - that recipe is not on my computer. Instead, I'm offering a recipe for maple syrup pumpkin pie - in honor of October. I do not have any crust recipes because, as previous mentioned, I'm lazy (and a little inept at crust making). I prefer the store-bought kind.
So here it is:
Maple Syrup Pumpkin Pie
Set an oven rack in the lowest position and heat oven to 350º F. Place the pie plate on a foil-lined baking sheet.
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, pumpkin, cream, maple syrup, cinnamon, ginger, salt, and cloves.
Pour the pumpkin mixture into the crust and bake until the center is set, 60 to 70 minutes. Let cool to room temperature before serving.
Happy October! Enjoy! And may the syrup be ever in your flavor.
Mid-September, and intimations of autumn are all around us. In Vermont, wild apples are falling off trees lining the sides of road, and the leaves are beginning their short lived riot of color. Autumn has always been my favorite season - the beauty, the flavors, the feel of it. I remain a firm devotee of pumpkin (despite the scorn sometimes heaped on it) - pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie, and of course pumpkin spice lattes (which have no actual pumpkin but I don't care.) Freshly picked ripe apples are spectacular, as are apple cider, apple pie, apple crisp. It's the season where I break out the camera and go for long drives in my never-ending quest to capture the perfect image of the season.
My favorite holiday, both as a child and when my children were young, was always Halloween. It wasn't the candy - okay, part of it was the candy - but it was so much more than the candy. It was the decorations, the spookiness, the feeling of magic in the air, and the excitement of children dressing up in costumes and venturing out into the scary night to ring the doorbells of strangers.
Even in my younger days, though, I felt the melancholy beneath the delights of the seasons. The glory of autumn is a prelude to the darkness and cold of winter. The brilliant displays of color that disappear so quickly remind me of the shortness of life and the speed at which everything disappears. The flavors of apple and pumpkin - well, there's no downside to the seasonal treats, except for gaining weight. But nevertheless, autumn brings forth our thoughts on mortality.
One of the most poignant poems of the season, Spring and Fall by Gerald Manly Hopkins, describes a young girl weeping over the falling of golden leaves without quite knowing why she's crying. The poet, seeing the child's grief and her innocence, realizes that someday she will grieve for more than fallen leaves.
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Which pretty much sums it up - now, in autumn, I do weep and know why. Both my parents died in the fall: my father on September 15, 2014, and my mother on October 4, 2008. In Jewish tradition, despite being a hardcore agnostic - if agnostics by definition can be hardcore - I light a candle on the anniversaries of their deaths on the Hebrew calendar and recite Kaddish, the mourner's prayer. For me, the season has become not just a symbol of mortality, it has become the season of grief. Now, with the passage of time since their deaths, the grief has become muted, but still, every autumn, I remember my parents - and remember losing them.
Those feelings are amplified by the High Holy Days in the Jewish religion, which fall sometime between August and the end of October, depending on the year. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not so much a joyous celebration of the start of a new year in the Jewish calendar as a solemn contemplation of the fragility of life and the speed at which it goes. We look back on the year and think of what we could have done better. And we remember those who have passed. I remember my parents, not only because they both died in the fall, but because going to services for the High Holy Days was something we did together from my childhood through my teen years. And then on Yom Kippur, there is the Yizkor service - where we chant prayers in memory of our dead. As a child, I would leave the sanctuary before Yizkor began - those who have not lost a close family member are not supposed to take part. My parents would stay to recite the prayers for their parents. Now I stay, non-religious though I may be, to say the prayers for them. In the rustling of leaves, and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.
I still love autumn. It's still my favorite season. Pumpkins, apples, bright leaves, Halloween all retain their appeal. But it is also a season of sadness. Now at my age, I suspect that I continue to love autumn not despite the melancholy that the season evokes, but because of it.
Topic of the day: what's with all the different courts in the United States? It's confusing and annoying especially if you're a writer, not accustomed to the weirdness of the system. But if you're writing about the law or the legal system in the United States - or if you're just reading about it - you might want to know something of the basics.
We have a multilayered system in this country - which means that we have individual states and individual state laws and state courts; county/municipal laws and courts; and federal laws and federal courts.
Every state has different laws. The different cities in every state have different laws. If you're driving across the country, you might not want to pack your edible cannabis- which is legal in some states but can land you in deep trouble in others. Sometimes cities will have different laws from the state on guns or cannabis, and sometimes the state will tell the cities that, no, they can't have different laws. And don't forget that there's another layer - federal laws.
Federal law trumps state law except when it doesn't. Or when the Supreme Court says it doesn't.
Generally, violations of federal law go to federal court, violations of state laws go to state courts, violations of constitutional rights can be brought in either, but the federal courts are the last resort. Unless they don't want to be.
Most people understand that the laws are different. But court rules and court procedures are also widely different, and not just from state to state and from state to federal. Different federal district courts - within the same state or the same circuit - can have very different rules and procedures.
Whaddaya mean court rules and procedures?
Rules govern everything from how you file a case to how you try it - how much time you have to file to case, even how big the print has to be on your briefs. Violate those rules and it doesn't matter how good your case is -you can be an innocent person on death row - you can be the winner of the Nobel Peace prize - your case can and most probably will be dropped kicked out of court - and if you (or rather your lawyer) are out of time to fix it, you're done.
People with innocence claims have been executed because their lawyers missed filing deadlines.
Doesn't seem right - because it isn't right - but that's how this game is played.
There are too many cases and too many lawyers. Court clerks are delighted to find these technical mistakes that can cut down on the caseload. If clerks can find violations of a procedural rule, they're happy to drop kick that case, even at the cost of someone's life.
What does it mean for a lawyer?
As a lawyer, you have to know the rules in the court where you're practicing, and that also means you have to be admitted to practice in that particular court. Generally, you get admitted to a state, and you can practice anywhere in that state. You can try a case in family court or you can argue in the state supreme court. Whether you're competent to do either - whole other question - but as long you're admitted to the state, you're in.
Federal system - meh, not so fast. Every district court that you want to appear in - as in file a lawsuit, appear in court, whatever - you have to be admitted. Then you need to be admitted to the Court of Appeal to argue an appeal. And to argue in the Supreme Court, yup, have to admitted there too.
Keeping track of it all is a pain. It's why we lawyers feel justified charging the big bucks.
What does it mean for the writer?
If it's a crime story or a legal thriller that goes into the courtroom, the writer has to know not only what the laws are of the particular city/state where the story is set - but what court the case would be brought in. You don't have to go into the details - most people won't be interested in the technical aspects of lawyering. Just don't make a mistake that will have lawyers rolling in the aisles with laughter.
When in doubt, make friends with a lawyer in the right jurisdiction.
I've decided to periodically write a blog on legal matters because, well, I know something about the law. And I get tired of seeing people get it wrong.
So the topic for today: Hearsay. It comes up all the time in novels and movies, and in real life drama. If you pay attention, you'll see testimony called hearsay as a way to discredit the witness and get the testimony stricken from the record. So what is it?
Most of time, the non-lawyers talking about hearsay just, well, get it wrong. It's annoying but be careful about correcting people on Twitter. (I tried, and it got vicious.) Some people seem to think that hearsay is anything said outside of a courtroom by someone other than the witness on the stand. They also seem to think that hearsay is always excluded in court. (Also wrong. Will explain later.)
So first - what is it? This discussion is going to be about hearsay under the Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE) - and state rules can be and often are different. Here's the definition of hearsay in the FRE: "“Hearsay” means a statement that:
(1) the declarant does not make while testifying at the current trial or hearing; and
(2) a party offers in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement."
Yeah, but what's that mean in plain English?
In other words, it's an out of court statement that is offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted.
Quick demonstration: You have Liz, a witness on the stand in the court proceeding. Liz repeats a conversation with John, in which John stated, "My wife had an affair and stole my mother's jewelry to give to her lover." Is that hearsay?
What do you think?
The answer is maybe. (Betcha didn’t expect that.) It depends on the reason the testimony is offered. That's what's meant by offered for the truth therein.
If the wife is on trial for the theft of the jewelry, and the statement is intended to prove that the wife is indeed a thief, then it is hearsay. Unless it comes under one of the many, many exceptions to hearsay, it should be excluded. (To be discussed later.)
HOWEVER, if it's not the wife on trial for robbery but John who is on trial for murdering his wife - it's not hearsay. The purpose of the testimony is not to prove that the wife did indeed have an affair and steal jewelry but to establish John's state of mind - that John was angry because he BELIEVED that his wife was having an affair and stole his mother's jewelry. It's not being offered for the truth of the matter therein - it doesn't matter whether the wife actually had the affair and stole the jewels. What matters is whether John believed it - which would give him a motive to kill his wife.
Let's try it again with another witness statement. The witness reports that Biff said that people in the crowd are armed. Is that hearsay? It is if offered for the purpose of proving that people in the crowd were armed. It is not if offered for the purpose of showing that Biff believed that people in the crowd were armed.
More complications: under the FRE out of court admissions by a party at trial are not considered hearsay.
If a witness reports that Biff said: "I sent people to kill Louie because Louie wasn't loyal." Would that be hearsay? Even though it's being offered to show that yes, Biff did indeed send people to kill Louie because Louie wasn't loyal, it still isn't hearsay under the FRE if Biff is on trial for attempted murder, because admissions of a party opponent are not considered hearsay.
A caveat: admissions are not hearsay, but they're not always reliable evidence. Especially with people in police custody who might be vulnerable because of their age or mental disability. People make false confessions all the time. Unfortunately, admissions are such strong evidence that they often contribute to wrongful convictions. Another blog, another time.
What might be hearsay?
How about when a witness says, "Mark told me that he gave Biff a gun, a knife, and a bottle of ketchup, even though he knew that Biff planned to give them all to someone else to kill Louie and then dump ketchup on the body." Is that hearsay?
If Mark isn't a co-defendant, yeah, would be considered hearsay.
So is that statement excluded?
Maybe but probably not.
First, there has to be an objection. Even if it is hearsay, the judge ain't going to kick it out unless the attorney for the defense makes the objection. Then the judge will rule on whether it's admissible or not.
If the judge makes a bad ruling on an objection, that can come up on appeal. If there is no objection, it can't be appealed. The only recourse is to try for ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to make the objection. In other words, your lawyer was shit because he wasn't objecting when he should have. (These are notoriously hard cases to win, by the way. Even if your attorney was sleeping on the job.)
That's why it's important to have an attorney who is NOT asleep at counsel table.
Here's what would happen with decent attorneys on both sides. The prosecutor would have a witness on the stand who reported what Mark said about the gun, the knife, and the ketchup. The defense attorney would rise.
"Objection, your honor. Hearsay."
The judge would then give the prosecutor a chance to respond. "Your honor, this statement comes under the exceptions to the hearsay rule. It is a statement against interest and the declarant is unavailable because he refuses to testify."
(The declarant is Mark, by the way. The statement against interest is the fact that Mark could be charged for providing the gun, the knife, and the ketchup, especially since he knew that Biff wanted to kill Louie.)
There may be more argument on whether this fits the criteria for allowing hearsay that comes under the exception to the rules as a declaration against interest - but like all evidence rulings, it depends on the judge applying the rules to the statement.
There are more exceptions to the hearsay rule under the FRE, and I'm not going into the rest of them in this blog. I have a thousand words to write on my next novel today, and I'm behind. (Which may or may not be a true statement.) But at least you should have an understanding not only of what hearsay is and how complicated it can be, but why a good attorney is necessary to navigate the legal system.
Until next time.
Pesach, more commonly known as Passover to non-Jews, starts Friday night. (The English word, by the way, is a translation of the Hebrew name which literally means to pass over.)
Pesach is a big deal. It may in fact be the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar. (Sorry, my non-Jewish friends. Hanukah really isn't much of a holiday.) For those who are religious in any traditional sense, it not only celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, it celebrates the covenant between the Jewish people and God. Even those of us - like me - who are somewhat dubious on the God concept - can celebrate the holiday as a renewal of the human spirit, as a celebration of human potential, of Jewish heritage, and as a reminder of how lucky we are to be free. This makes it an important time to remember all of those who are not free and who are struggling to be free, especially poignant this year, as we watch the Ukrainians' inspirational battle against an enemy that wants to take away their freedom and kill anyone who resists.
I grew up in a Reform/Conservative home. By that, I mean we belonged to a Conservative synagogue, but were more Reform in practice. My mother kept vaguely kosher - we didn't have ham or pork products in the house - but she bought non-kosher meat and she wasn't that strict about not mixing dairy and meat. For Pesach, we got rid of bread and ate matzoh for the eight days of the holiday, but we still ate cereal and other foods that were not kosher for Passover. (I've done other blogs on kosher rules. Not the place for it here, but will answer questions in the comments if you're interested.)
So what is the celebration like for those who are observant? Before the holiday begins, there is a rush to clean the house of any hametz - food forbidden for the duration of Pesach that includes, but is not exclusively, leavened bread products. Matzoh, the flat unleavened bread made from flour and water, is the only grain product allowed, and it can't be any old matzoh either. It has to be matzoh that is kosher for Passover. To make cookies or cakes - the only flour allowed is matzoh meal.There are five grains - wheat, rye, oats, barley spelt - that are forbidden during Pesach. For Ashkenazi Jews, it gets a little complicated with rice, corn, lentils, beans not exactly forbidden and not exactly allowed. Rice, corn and beans have been prohibited since the 13th century, but in 2015, that was lifted for Conservative Jews. (For orthodox, not so much.) (In fact, if you're observant, you only consume food that has been marked kosher for Passover, including Cola products, by the way. I used to stock up on kosher for Passover coke because it was the one time in the year that I could get sugar sweetened coke instead of corn syrup sweetened coke. Look for Coke bottles with a yellow cap.)
The first two nights of Pesach are celebrated with a seder - the famous ceremonial meal where the exodus from Egypt is retold, four glasses of wine are consumed, various ritual items are eaten. Ritual items include a matzoh of course, boiled eggs, parsley dipped in salt water, a weird sort of sandwich made of an apple nut wine concoction, horseradish and placed between two pieces of matzoh.
The length of the seder depends on the level of observance of the household. As an adult with children, my husband and I used to have seders that lasted maybe 45 minutes to an hour, but then we just hit the highlights, especially the four glasses of wine. When I was a kid, we would often go to my Uncle Arthur's house. Seders at my Uncle Arthur's orthodox home could last for hours, with a reading of the story in Hebrew, a reading in English, and then a discussion of what various rabbis thought various passages meant. It was a wonderful family gathering, but I did get a little hungry as the evening went on. We'd eat around ten o'clock. After the meal, the readings were supposed to continue, but my Dad would always stand and proclaim - time for the book of Exodus - and off we'd go.
For the religious, the first two days have the same strictures on work and use of electronics etc that are forbidden on Shabbat. Same with the last two days. Food preparation is allowed, but the stove or oven has to be left on for the duration. The four intermediate days essential work is allowed, but not non-essential work. For a definition of essential work - ask someone else.
Jews, however, differ in observance from the very strict to the hey- okay - I'll eat a piece of matzoh. I'm closer to that end of the spectrum. But I do enjoy the gatherings, the fellowship, the rituals that remind me of my childhood and of my parents, the food, and the wine, even if I remain skeptical on the theological part of the holiday. With our kids grown, Jim and I have attended seders with friends or at the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe. This has been lost with covid - temporality I hope -I haven't felt comfortable having or attending a large gathering since 2020. But I've continued to celebrate in my own way, with matzoh ball soup, matzoh, gefilte fish, horseradish, and overcooked chicken for dinner. (Don't forget almond macaroons for desert.) And every year of the pandemic, I rewatched the Prince of Egypt, thereby fulfilling my duty to rehear the story of the Exodus.
This year, the first two days of Pesach coincide with Easter Sunday. In medieval times, the close positioning wasn't all that good for Jewish people. Both holidays became occasions to kill Jews - when religious crazies in the Christian world accused Jews of using Christian baby blood to make matzohs and of killing Jesus and then went on rampages to hunt and kill us. But we live in different times now, at least most of us do. And celebrations of both holidays have something to do with boiled eggs. So celebrate what we all have in common and enjoy whatever you celebrate. Chag Sameach.
It was minus seventeen degrees - minus forty-five windchill - when I woke this morning. One of the downsides of January in Vermont. It's a good month to write, to read, and to think. Good for downhill skiing, if you're so inclined. I'm not. I do a bit of cross-country skiing from time to time, but not at these temperatures.
Lately, much of our entertainment has come from keeping the fire going in the woodstove and watching the bird feeders. We have two bird feeders up - once we did the initial winter fill, the birds took a little time to realize that the food was there and that it was not a trap. Since then, it's been a riot of birds and squirrels.
The chickadees came first. They were almost polite, taking turns at the feeder, while those not eating patiently waited in trees and bushes. But the chickadees were soon crowded out by finch size brown birds with whitish yellow breasts, a species that we have yet to identify, but whatever they are, they have no manners whatsoever. Six or more will perch on the feeder, crowding each other, even pecking at new arrivals, in a bid for a turn at one of the holes that lead to the birdseed.
We have two downy woodpeckers that have been visiting regularly. The large one, with a red head, dubbed Woody by my husband, is twice the size of the other. I personally have my doubts that they are the same species, but I have limited knowledge of birds. When Woody arrives, the smaller birds retreat to the snow-covered branches of the very large lilac bush near the feeder and watch angrily until Woody has eaten his fill.
Two blue jays have also been gracing us with their presence. We suspect that they are a couple. I checked on the web since, as stated above, I know nothing of birds, and discovered that male and female blue jays are indistinguishable by their feathers, and gender can only be determined by mating and nesting behaviors. However, when they mate, they mate for life. Jim and I have decided that this is a loving couple - whether it's true or not, a romantic story goes a long way in a cold winter. The blue jays, however, don't land on the bird feeders. They scramble for the seeds dropping on the ground underneath, competing with the squirrels. It seems that the squirrel proof feeders which we purchased do not fit the body size of bigger birds like jays. The small birds have no problem. The woodpeckers, perhaps because they are accustomed to twisting their bodies on tree trunks, manage as well.
The squirrels, though, are less than thrilled with having to make do only with seeds that drop from the small birds' frantic meals. Periodically, they try to scramble up the side of the house to figure some way onto the feeder. So far, they've had no luck. However, along with amusing us, the squirrels have sparked the interest of our 11-year-old cat, Xiao. They leap on the windowsill outside. Xiao leaps on the windowsill inside. The squirrels jump down and run for it. The squirrels probably know that he can't get out, but they're taking no chances.
The squirrels are a variety that I'm unfamiliar with as a former resident of Ohio, New York, and New Jersey. They are red with stubby, half-length tails. I keep wondering if all of them had some sort of accident - but it's probably a genetic thing. Perhaps squirrels with longer tails were more likely to be caught and consumed by the many predictors here in the Vermont woods. Or perhaps, other squirrels just found the shorter tails attractive. At some point, I'll research it. I'm not interested enough at this point.
We had two stale ends of whole grain bread, and Jim thought that perhaps the squirrels would like something more substantial than the occasional seeds. Yesterday afternoon, he tossed the bread into the snow close to, but not directly underneath the bird feeders. Then we hung out at windows for half an hour, waiting for the squirrels to discover and consume the bread. To our surprise, they were afraid of it, avoiding going near these strange and apparently foreboding objects. This morning when I rose, the bread was still there. I assumed, given the minus seventeen-degree temperatures, that the bread would be frozen solid and of no interest to wildlife at this point. However, when I checked on the birds and squirrels after spending some time working in my office, the bread was gone. I assume the squirrels either took it or consumed it so completely that nothing was left. Apparently, squirrels like frozen dinners.
It astonishes both Jim and me that the birds and squirrels can survive in such temperatures, although it probably explains what they are so frantically fighting for the birdseed. We did our part by filling the feeders before the weather went sub-zero, and we are probably feeding several dozen birds, maybe more, as well as three or four squirrels. But still, humans would not survive outside for long in this weather. That the birds and squirrels can do so seems nothing less than miraculous.
Today Jim and I are sticking close to the fire in our woodstove that supplements the central heating, and not venturing even a toe outside. We have a supply of food and wood that will get us through until temperatures rise to a more balmy 5 degrees or so. And we have books to read and to write to keep ourselves occupied. I'm busily editing Bloody Soil, the book I just finished writing which once again features my Russian Jewish secret agent, Kolya Petrov. Jim is working on his second book: his first will debut next November, the same month as Bloody Soil. In breaks from our fictional worlds, we will continue to marvel at the amazing spectacle outside our windows.
I first wrote the below tirade on New Year's maybe four years ago when I was still a member of Rogue Women Writers. I recycled it in 2019 because it was still true then. I'm recycling it now, with a few edits to be consistent with our current covid times - and, yeah, I still hate the holiday. What do you want? At least I'm consistent.
Why I hate New Year's
I hate the New Year’s holiday. Always have. Well, not always. When I was a kid, it was the one day in the year when I got to stay up until midnight. I’d eat potato chips with onion dip and watch the stupid ball come down, usually with a babysitter because my parents were usually at a New Year’s party. I envisioned an elegant, fun filled evening of romance – an illusion I kept of New Year’s parties until I hit dating age and the pressure of having a special someone for the holidays – which I rarely did until I met my husband in my late 20s.
Now, much older and happily married, I still dislike New Year's. As someone who tends to be a bit on the depressive side, I just get worse around New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. So, at this time of year, with everyone making lists, time to make my list – of ten things I most loathe about this holiday.
1. Television news listing the most significant events of the past year. I know that journalists, like the rest of us, want to take the week off between Christmas and New Year’s, but this is just lazy. And, yeah, yeah, I know all the shit that happened last year, from the January 6 attack on our democracy to the surge of covid when we thought we were out of this but we weren't. I don’t need to be informed that these were significant events. I’m already aware. Which leads me to:
2. The annual listing of the people who died in the calendar year. Can you spell d-e-p-r-e-s-s-i-n-g? Or morbid? They died. I’m sad. And apart from all the celebrities who died, we lost a load of people to Covid, most of whom will go unheralded - but were very special to their kids, their spouse, their parents. The years I lost my parents - listening to the sad droning over famous people who had passed just made me sadder.
3. On a lighter note – New Year’s hats. They’re stupid looking. Enough said.
4. Restaurant dining on New Year’s Eve. I first wrote this in prepandemic times, when people still went out to restaurants. I haven't been to a restaurant - except to put on two masks, run in and pick up carryout - since last summer when we had the brief illusion that Covid might be over. But even for those souls who do go out to restaurants or who want to wax nostalgic over going out to restaurants in the past, going out on New Years Eve sucks. So, maybe you give in to the idea that you should do something to welcome the fact that you’ll be writing the wrong year on your checks – if you still use checks – for about a month and decide to go out to your favorite restaurant for your favorite meal. Only your favorite restaurant isn’t serving your favorite meal. It’s serving a $200 per person New Year’s Eve special. With Champagne – which is supposed to make up for the fact that your meal is $300 more than you wanted to pay. And you have to drink Champagne –which leads me to...
5. Champagne. It’s expensive. It’s festive. We’re supposed to love it. I don’t. As generally served, it’s a sweet fizzy drink. If I want a drink, I’ll take Scotch. Glen Livet is very festive. If I want sweet, I’ll have a milkshake. But we’re supposed to drink Champagne, because that’s what we’re supposed to do. Kind of circular, but there you are.
6. The forced gaiety. Again, for me in these covid times, not so much my problem - but in non-covid times, people feel like they should be going to parties to welcome the New Year. And the parties are miserable. The music is ear-shatteringly loud, and people who don’t know how to dance are bumping and grinding into each other. You’re supposed to be dancing along with them, with a brief period of kissing everyone within reach when the clock ticks down to the new year, even though you just want to flee for fresh air. Then there’s the forced gaiety of the people you see crowded into Times Square waiting for the stupid ball to come down as it does every year. Those smiles you see on the faces of people in the crowd on television – they’re either too drunk and stoned to know what’s happening or they figure this will be the last image their loved ones have of them. Hence the grins to fool the families into thinking their last moments were good ones.
7. People shooting guns or fireworks at midnight. Usually happens just after I’ve fallen into a deep sleep, having resisted the social pressure to stay up past my usual bedtime. Scares the dogs. Scares me, especially when idiots fire actual bullets into the sky, and yes, people sometimes do fire actual rounds into sky. Don’t people realize that what goes up….
8. New Year’s resolutions. No, I don’t make them. Why set myself up for almost certain failure once a year? I do that all the time. Don’t need to make a big thing about it.
9. The darkness after the holiday. After New Year’s Day, all the decorations come down. The decorated trees, the strings of lights, even the scary Christmas balloons, they all disappear until next year. It’s the lights, bright colors or even just strings of white lights shining in the dark, that I especially miss. They disappear, and we’re left with the coldest, darkest, and most depressing month of the year. January just goes on and on until it turns into February, the second most depressing month of the year. We could use some festive lights, at least until Valentine’s Day. And some more presents. Make every Friday in January a day to give one present to someone you love. Only not chocolate – I’ll still be fat from not having made a New Year’s resolution to lose the holiday weight. Books make really good January presents.
10. Finally, let’s get to the essence of the holiday. New Year’s marks just how quickly time goes by and how fleeting our lives really are. This may in fact be the core of my whole shtick about New Year’s – because the holiday just underscores what I already know – “what heart heard of, ghost guessed: it is the blight that man was born for….” We are mortal. Time is short. Yada yada. All the hats and the drinking and the fireworks and the forced gaiety are just trying to conceal that truly terrifying fact. In these Covid times, New Year's marks just how long we've been struggling with this pandemic, and that in 2020, we really thought we had it bear and things would be great.
So, yay, another year gone. Take a deep breath and plunge. May the coming year be, well, at slightly better than the last two.
When I was a child, I wanted a Christmas tree. Back then, there were Jewish families that had what was essentially a Christmas tree, but they labeled it a Hanukkah bush. I tried lobbying for a Hanukkah bush, but my parents weren't buying. I heard the same thing every year.
"We're Jewish, and we don't have Christmas trees."
Which was a pretty funny stance to take, given that we celebrated Christmas - in a manner of speaking - until I was about eight years old. By Christmas, though, I don't mean the religious holiday.
Christmas is actually several holidays jammed together on the same date - but for convenience's sake, labeled as Christmas. For Christian believers, Christmas is a solemn religious celebration of the birth of their Lord. But there are many who celebrate the day who are not believers - they are celebrating the holiday that I would label - the Celebration of Give-a-Lot-of-Gifts-and-Light-Up- the-Tree. Of course, for many, the two holidays are combined. Santa can move between the camps - designated as St. Nickolas for the religious - or just Santa Claus for those more secularly inclined.
For my people, the Jewish people who refuse to celebrate either the solemn religious holiday or the secular Celebration, there is the annual Feast of Chinese Food and a Movie - when - as tradition holds - we romp through empty city streets, enjoying the lack of traffic and the silence.
As a side note: I've never been religious, at least not in any traditional sense.
When I was a child, we half celebrated Give-a-Lot-of-Gifts-and-Light-Up-the-Tree -- without the light-up-a-tree part -- because we were Jewish. However, my parents had felt that they had missed out as kids, and they didn't want us to feel left out. Frankly, the holiday consumes almost two months of the year - and it's pretty damn alluring. The lights. The story of magic. So we hung up stockings. We woke up to gifts on Christmas morning brought by Santa Claus. We watched television specials about Christmas, when said television shows featured Santa Claus but not when they featured a lady on a donkey, which I thought had nothing to do with the holiday. But no tree.
At age eight, my sister spilled the beans about Santa, and we stopped the Celebration of Give-a-Lot-of-Gifts - probably because my parents knew about the lady on the donkey and didn't want us to celebrate That holiday. I didn't start celebrating the Jewish annual Feast of Chinese Food and a Movie until I moved to New York. (The Chinese food in New York was much better than the Chinese food in my hometown of Cincinnati.)
Fast forward a few years: I met the man who is now my husband. He was handsome, funny, smart, kind - and I could enjoy his Christmas tree because he wasn't Jewish. I like to think the last part isn't the reason I fell in love with him - although that first Celebration of Give-a-Lot-of-Gifts-and-Light-up-the Tree when we decorated his Christmas tree together was pretty enchanting.
As a second side note -- my husband has the same level of religiosity as I do -- which is to say, not much.
So through our marriage, now towards the end of its third decade, we celebrated everything especially, when our children were younger. Jewish holidays and the not so Jewish holidays - especially the Celebration of Give-a-Lot-of-Gifts-and-Light-up-the Tree. We really did it up. We went to the same Christmas tree market every year where we drank hot cider, fed pet goats, and fought over what would be the perfect tree. We'd decorate the tree to the music of the same album. We baked sugar cookies and watched The Santa Claus. And on Christmas morning, Santa brought copious gifts. (Christmas afternoon, we'd head to the movies - thus honoring both heritages.)
So now that my children are grown and thanks to Covid, not spending the holiday with us, I'm doing some re-evaluation. I'm feeling a little more ambivalent about the whole Christmas tree thing. I have gotten more in touch with my Jewish heritage over the last few years, even though I remain agnostic - and that combined with the rise in anti-Semitism has me a little less enthusiastic about the Celebration of Give-a-Lot-of-Gifts-and-Light-up-the Tree. This ambivalence was especially fueled with the rise in people feeling the need to insist that everyone, regardless of belief, say Merry Christmas. Two years ago, I was shopping at Costco in December and the guy checking my cart to see whether I was shoplifting wished me a Merry Christmas. I wished him a Happy Hanukkah back. His response: "Oh. You're one of those."
Yes, I am proudly one of those. Just not a religious one.
We already celebrated Hanukkah by lighting the menorah. As a Jew, I should be celebrating the Feast of Chinese Food and a Movie on December 25. But, there is still a pandemic, and I'm not comfortable in restaurants or movie theaters. And despite everything, the decorated trees are pretty, the lights alluring, and I am still married to the same wonderful guy who is still not Jewish.
So despite my ambivalence, this year we will celebrate a modified Give-a-Lot-of-Gifts-and-Light-up-the-Tree. We won't be able to be with our kids, but we might give each other a gift or two. The tree is maybe a foot high and made of pink pipe cleaners. But we will be celebrating whatever it is - together.
Happy whatever you celebrate.