This Time We Can Help

My eight-year-old son comes to me in the dawning day in mismatched pajamas. He hesitates for a moment before climbing into my warm bed, then he speaks: “Time to snuggle.”

It is this exquisite moment I am trying not to think of as I suppress a sob a few hours later this morning.  I am sitting at Sarah’s kitchen table, listening to a woman I’ve just met describe her eighth year. That was the year she survived the Holocaust.

I know eight so well. I picture my son’s 2nd grade classroom full of energetic, earnest and exuberant boys and girls, whose greatest concerns are mastering handball and subtraction. I picture her at eight years old, watching her mother fall victim to a death march they were forced to endure. Other women, younger and stronger, urging her to keep going. She says she would not have survived without their help. Here she is now in Los Angeles, telling her story, strong and secure, with children and grandchildren of her own.

I am at a meeting of the Steering Committee for the Funds for Holocaust Survivors in Urgent Need. I have found my way here due to the plea of one of my Torah study mates, Sarah Moskovitz, a pioneering therapist to child survivors.  They have organized because the last survivors, the children who survived concentration camps and ghetto annihilations and death marches, the children who watched their brothers and sisters and parents and grandparents die, the children who were miraculously hidden and saved by righteous gentiles, need help.

The Committee, many of them survivors or children of survivors, discuss the situation. There are about 10,000 Holocaust survivors remaining in Los Angeles. Of those, about 3,000 are at or near the poverty line. They make daily choices between food, medicine and rent. These children of the Holocaust need not be put through suffering again, when they have us, their communal family, to help.

Sitting at my side, Samara Hutman, Executive Director of Remember Us: The Holocaust B’nai Mitzvah Project, expresses her view: “The world once stood by and allowed these most vulnerable people, these children, to suffer such agony. Now we have one last chance to do right by them.”

Jewish Family Services of Los Angeles provides help to these Survivors, but the financial support that once came from the German government as Restitution for Holocaust Survivors have now been cut. The need is great.

I’ve never done anything for Holocaust survivors. I’ve cried at films, I’ve visited museums, but I’ve done nothing. It seems so distant in time and place. But sitting next to a woman, elegantly dressed at this early hour, who says, “That was me. I lived that,” I am moved to action. Humbled by the strength and dedication of the people at this table, I offer what I can. We offer what we can. Jews, Gentiles, all of us. Like the women who would not let that little girl fall down when her mother could go no longer, we are their family.

If you’d like to learn more, please contact The 1939 Club at (310) 491-7802 or info@1939club.com or visit www.1939Club.com. To contribute, a tax deductible check may be written to The 1939 Club, 8950 Olympic Blvd. #437, Beverly Hills, CA 90211. You will be sent an acknowledgment and receipt. You may use the form below, or at visit the website of Kehillat Israel Synagogue.

Thank you.

Thinking of You, Twelve Years Gone

January 27, 2000. I was sitting at the kitchen table finishing a bowl of cereal, soaking up the unlikely view from our window – a secret farm hidden behind a bland 4-unit apartment building on our crowded block of bland apartment buildings in West L.A. I used to call it Brentwood, but it was more Wilshire than San Vicente. Yet my morning walks took me past Monica Lewinsky’s father’s home and the townhouse where O.J. didn’t murder anyone. So Brentwood seemed a reasonable designation.

This view from the kitchen window was the selling point of our apartment. Where else in a densely-packed post-grad-school neighborhood could a person enjoy such fertile beauty? In the garden, my neighbor worked amidst his rows of lettuce, tomatoes and sweet peas, his wide brim hat spreading out as far as his shoulders. He must have lived there for decades, I thought, cultivating the soil behind his building, while on the other side cars competed for scarce parking spaces and tiny dogs soiled the sidewalk, oblivious to the existence of his magic garden.

We had lived there for two years, a long time for us at that point in our lives. It was our first apartment together, my husband and me, the place that put an end to the nightly question as our courtship advanced, “Whose place tonight?” Now we had only ours. Soon we would be moving to our first house, leaving this place that launched our marriage.

My next-door-farmer turned his head, caught me watching him from above, and waved to me. I waved back, an embarrassed voyeur. At the sound of the ringing phone I stood up like Pavlov’s dog and moved to answer it. The clock on the wall said 8:05. It was time to go to work, my other place in the world. I was dressed in casual clothes suited to my identity as a public interest lawyer. I had a touch of the self-righteous to me, working for equality and civil rights. My grandfather, long suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, had nonetheless managed to hold onto his nickname for me, “The Lady Lawyer.” It made him laugh whenever he said it, maybe owing to a disconnect between his perception of me as a little girl, and a lawyer. Maybe he thought I was playing dress-up. “Laura the Lady Lawyer.”

He was on my mind. After many years of being cared for at home by my grandmother, she had added a daytime caregiver. The woman was loving, kind, and strong enough to get him in and out of bed, and to the bathroom. But when the caregiver had to be out of the country for a week, my grandmother knew she could not take care of him on her own. Reluctantly, and at his doctor’s urging, she called a nursing home. After a few days there, he had developed pneumonia. Now he was in the hospital.

I had visited them every day. Them, because my grandmother was always there. I was as worried for her emotional state as his physical. She stayed in that room, fed him, sang to him, told him jokes, trying like hell to get her husband to come back, even for a second. She leaned up close to his face, shouting a punch line. “A million dollars, Al. Get it? A million dollars!” Eyes closed, he nodded. He tried, for her.

“Hello?” I answered the phone. I couldn’t see the farmer anymore. I knew he was still out there, moving down the row, removing weeds and dead leaves from the vegetables bursting out of the ground.

“Laura.” It was my mom. “Grandpa Al…died, honey. I’m so sorry.”

Instead of going to work, I drove to my grandparents’ apartment – their last shared home of a 63 year marriage. My parents, aunt and uncle, and a cousin were already there. My sister and three-year-old niece Rebecca arrived.

“Where’s Al?”  Rebecca asked her mom, puzzled as to his absence from the chair she always saw him sitting in.

My sister answered with words I didn’t expect: “Grandpa Al is in heaven now, with his mommy and his brothers and sister. And he can see you and hug you.” My sister’s eyes flooded as she spoke. We shared a look that said, “Do you really believe that?” and “I don’t know — maybe.”

“Oh,” Rebecca replied. Her mother’s explanation fit naturally into her magical world view. She reached her arms straight up, receiving and returning his embrace. I watched, jealous, wanting to be able to hug him, too.

Now I sit here at my desk, twelve years later, and reach for the sky.

Give Thanks, Give Turkeys

A dozen volunteers hustled back and forth with groceries in their arms. Empty boxes filled the driveway and front yard of the small house cradled between the 105 and the 110 interchange. Taking care not to disturb their hosts’ carefully tended native plants, children and adults filled 125 boxes with groceries, to be delivered to hungry neighbors.

This scene has been replayed every month for fourteen years. On the last Sunday of the month, when many families in the neighborhood have empty pantries and are waiting for another pay day, the volunteers of “One on One Outreach” do their part to fill a need. The idea was the brainchild of the man at whose house we worked, who realized that his neighbors were going hungry.

I went this month with my husband, our seven-year-old son and fifteen-year-old niece. Alongside first-timers and veterans, we used our hands, arms, backs, legs and hearts. Like ants building a hill, we busied ourselves carrying this month’s assorted food and sundries, collected, sorted and stored each month by our host. Potatoes, plums and peaches. Bologna, granola bars and pistachios. Laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid and baby powder.

I wondered how my seven-year-old would fare. It’s physical work –  two hours of lifting, bending, stuffing, organizing and checking that every box is complete. He became a boy on a mission. He carried gallons of juice down the long aisle of boxes, he saw to it that every box got a sack of potatoes, he ensured the plums would not be bruised. He grew three inches with the importance of his work.

We loaded the heavy boxes onto two pickup trucks, one suffering from time and use, the other shiny and sturdy. They cruised two short blocks, flimsy bungee cords miraculously holding boxes stacked six high. We followed on foot in the middle of the street (part of the fun for a seven year old).

We stopped at the first apartment building. One by one we carried boxes to appreciative families, until they were quickly gone.

My son and my niece, who have never known an empty pantry, or a refrigerator that couldn’t be restocked, glimpsed into the apartments and lives of people not born with that same gift. Overhearing his dad describing to me how many people were crammed into one particular apartment, our son said softly, hopefully, “But they have a happy life.” Noticing a courtyard of grass and cement, he said, “They have a lot of room to play outside.”

I wondered how to frame my response. Like all of us, he was trying to make sense of what he saw, of the disparity between his circumstances and those of the kids in front of him. I didn’t want him to feel pity, but empowerment and action. And while it’s true that anyone can be happy or sad — rich or poor — it’s a lot easier to be happy when your tummy is full. I thought of the tantrum my son threw two nights earlier, when he didn’t like what I’d made for dinner. I let his observation stand. “That’s true,” I said, “there’s lots of room to play.”

The next night would be Halloween, but in contrast to our neighborhood, there were few decorations. Our host and one of his neighbors are the only ones who hand out candy, he told me, and the kids just go back and forth between the two houses until they run out. He showed me boxes of treats stacked by his front door, ready for trick-or-treaters. “I usually hand out about a thousand,” he said.

We had promised our son one more trip to buy Halloween decorations, so after we finished, we headed back to West L.A to do that. We dropped twenty bucks on things that, despite my best intentions, will likely be thrown away or lost before next year – cotton spider webs, plastic bones, a kitty cat tail.

On Halloween, we accepted a friend’s invitation to join her in Malibu Colony. We passed through guarded gates to beachside mansions professionally decorated in elaborate ghoulish fashion. Up and down the street, generous hosts handed out fistfuls of candy or full-size candy bars. One offered an open bar and encouraged donations to UNICEF. All around us were revelers enjoying the decadent night, filling up on empty calories and joy.

“Twenty-four hours ago we were handing out groceries,” my husband reminded me, as we sat on the deck of a beach house listening to the ocean. It felt like much longer. Good thing we only have to wait until the Sunday before Thanksgiving for our next opportunity. “Bring gloves,” we were advised. “Those frozen turkeys get really cold.”

We will be there. Maybe you will, too.

Donate frozen turkeys to One on One Outreach, at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades, 16019 Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades. Frozen turkeys will be collected there November 13, 14 and 15, and November 18. Contact me with questions.

What’s your favorite way to help others? Do you have a Thanksgiving tradition? Please share it.