In gratitude…

I’ve written many times how grateful I am for so many things. It has taken my journey through ALS to truly clarify for me how much I’ve experienced over my lifetime such wonderful people, good fortune in family, career, travel and other acts that has shaped a life. For the most part, my recording of gratefulness throughout this blog was more cursory than some of those experiences merit. Here, I’m going to go deep and by doing so will hopefully give you a better portrait of me over the 64 years of my time here. I will list each one separately so I can provide a level of context that shines a brighter light on each one. My hope here is to encourage you, dear reader, to take a break from all of the worries, dashed hopes, and daily frustrations and take a “happy hour” ( preferably with a cocktail in hand) and take a sip of gratitude to end each day on a positive note.

I’m grateful to you, dear reader, for taking an interest and time to read my blog, commenting on my thoughts and ideas, and sharing it with others. The result of your efforts are encouragement to continue writing without shame or constraints about who I might be alienating or patronizing. Your feedback has given me the confidence to go where I have never gone before. And your sharing of my blog has introduced me to people I either haven’t connected with for some time or whom I’ve never met before. I also get to travel in my mind as my blog statistics show that I have readers not solely in the US, but also Canada, Cuba, the UK, Italy, France, Finland, Venezuela, Israel and Australia. Very exciting. So thank you again, I am grateful for your patronage.

I’m grateful for Mary Ann, who has been my best friend, ally, Caretaker, team member, spouse, mother to our kids, and friend to my friends, who became our friends over 37 years of partnership. It all began in 1982 when we both worked Oakland Public Schools. We met at Bret Harte Middle School and over the course of that school year, we became friends, then started dating. We were very discreet, only the school’s secretary knew what we were doing. No surprise as the word “secret” makes up part of the word secretary. I moved in with her the following year and two years after that, we married. And here we are, together in sickness and in health in 34 years of marriage. One thing that attracted each of us to each other was sense of simpatico given we are both from the East Coast and we both had strong ethnic backgrounds. We are both first generation Americans. Both of our parents arrived in the US either before or after the war. We both grew up speaking two languages at home, hers being Italian and mine being Yiddish. Both of our parents had high expectations and certainly my mom was not of the hugging type. We also both had one sibling, older than each of us, who we are close with. We each grew up in homes that had Old World traditions, sensibilities and of course, superstitions. My mother never left keys on the table, saying it was bad luck. I freely admit it took me quite a few years to break that habit. But I will also be clear that when it came to the food of our respective ethnic backgrounds, Mary Ann’s mom won, hands down ( sorry mom, may you rest in peace). I grew up with a limited number of options of Jewish cuisine. How many kreplachs, gefilte fish, stuffed cabbage, kasha varnishkas, and Ukrainian borscht can one eat? Should be little wonder why I looked forward to visiting with her parents each year during the holidays. Ravioli, pasta with sausages and meatballs, gnocchi, polenta, prosciutto, cheeses, olives, antipasti, and on. And of course, her dad’s homemade wine poured into a bottomless glass. Need I say more? And Mary Ann has continued the cooking tradition, which I am grateful for. I love you, Mary Ann.

I’m grateful for my kids. I have three kids, all adults now. While they were growing up, as parents, we had high expectations for them all, especially Max, our first child. As new parents, we felt we were driving without a license, trying to figure things out as we went. With our second, Lucia, it was tough during middle school, just being a female adolescent. By the time Ethan arrived, we were way more relaxed and more tolerant. There were a number of sayings that dominated our conversation when we were most frustrated. One was about getting through the adolescent years, “Bury them at 12 then dig them up at 20”. Our favorite was “When you lower your expectations, your success rate goes right up. ” That would immediately be followed with, ” No one is dead, in jail, addicted, or pregnant. We’re good! ” Then as they got older, they all went in their own directions. One became an extreme snow sportsman, including a heliguide, and avalanche safety expert. Another got into organic farming, became a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, and earned a Masters in international trade. And the other became a product designer and now runs computerized manufacturing machines. Mary Ann always said, “You raise your kids to be strong and independent, and God damn it, they go ahead and do it. ” This not only applied to their choices of profession, but also their choices of partners and lifestyles. I am happy to report that our support of our kids in all those areas, resulted in them all turning out to be good people. One final thing I am very grateful for from them is the parents we met through their school friends, we have gotten very close to and have become part of our community.

I’m grateful for my friends and community. I am blessed with friends I’ve known for over 40 years. We become our own family and support system. It’s amazing to have a group of friends over that period of time because you get to see each other’s families grow and with some of the kids as they became adults we’ve gotten to know them as adults. My own kids have developed strong relationships with my friends and even met them in places such as Japan and Washington DC. Since my diagnosis and subsequent decline in my physical abilities, they have rallied around me by showing up and treating me as myself. In addition to my lifelong friends, I have met such dear friends since moving to California that have joined my long-term friends to extend our self made family who love and support Mary Ann and me. They have even independently set up a schedule for meals to be delivered to us, and to help get me into bed each weeknight, which is no small task,. If it wasn’t for them, I truly believe I may not be living as well with my disease and Mary Ann could truly burn out. If you have friends like I do, keep them close, keep in touch wherever they are and show up for them. I’ve done it my whole life and am now benefiting from it.

I’m grateful for my caregivers and medical support folks. I’ve been fortunate to have been associated with people who are truly committed to caring for me. I feel safe in their hands, knowing I’ll be clean, dressed, and anything adverse with my body will be handled. This tribute is not like the Academy Awards where I’m thanking a long list of people to thank until the music starts and I’m being dragged off stage. My purpose here is to acknowledge, and honor them and recognize that I do not take them for granted.

I’m grateful for the courage and resilience of my mother and her family for surviving the Holocaust, coming to America and bearing my sister and I here. When the Nazis began bombing Poland, my mother wasted no time in packing up and fleeing. At first, her parents weren’t convinced it was the right thing to do. But my mother was insistent and eventually they followed her along with her two brothers and sisters. They lived in the segregated Jewish enclave that was part of the town of Krasnystaw.

(If you want to learn more about the Jews in Krasnystaw, go to Wikipedia.: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krasnystaw#Jewish_community)

Luckily, the town was located very close to the Ukrainian border. As my mother told it, there were Jewish Ukrainian soldiers at the border, assisting refugees in. As part of the Russian empire, let’s just say it was no cakewalk given Stalin was no friend to the Jews, nor to his own people for that matter. They first landed in Kiev. There, they worked in factories to sustain themselves. What many don’t know is that Stalin’s paranoia manifested itself by forcing people to inform the authorities on their fellow Jews or else be thrown in jail themselves. One day, a good friend of my mother’s family, informed on my uncle, who was subsequently thrown in jail. On the day of my uncle’s trial, friends of my family waited for the informant outside the courtroom and threatened him not to testify. He fled. I’m not sure whether the trial went on or not, having banished the star witness, but I do know that following it, my mother’s family was sent to a Siberian labor camp. For over two years, they slept in uninsulated barracks, having to chop their own wood for heat, and deal with a minimum of food. Yet they were resilient and all survived the ordeal until, one day, the Russians opened the gates and told everyone to evacuate. Not being given any means of transportation, according to my mother, the family built a raft from logs, drifted down a river nearby until they spotted the closest paved road. When they found a road, they began their journey to a displaced person’s camp in Munich, Germany. During their time in Russia, my uncle introduced my father to my mother. They married in the camp. Eventually, they were granted passage to the US because my father had an aunt in the US who was able to sponsor them. It was the only way refugees could gain access into the States. The issue was that the rest of my mother’s family could not join them. Instead they went to the fledgling State of Israel. It was 1948, the year Israel received statehood. After a few years, my mother was able to bring her two brothers to the States. Her sister and parents-decided to make a life in Israel. I’m very close to my family in Israel and we communicate often. I’ve been there twice and loved being there, especially with my family.

My mother’s naturalization certification dated 1954

I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had through my lifetime, having been able to fulfill a good part of my dreams. The first, of course was having a life partner and having a wonderful family. The next is being able to have a good career. I’ve worked for great companies and was able to work with great people and do what I loved to do best, which was to teach others, whether handicapped children or mature adults at a company I worked for. And those companies provided me opportunities to travel. Mary Ann and I also traveled on our own as well. I’m grateful to have traveled to many states and cities and countries overseas including The UK, Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Israel, Cuba, Jordan, India, China, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, Korea, and Australia. How could I ask for more? I dreamed of traveling and I’ve been blessed with the good fortune of going to more places than I dreamed of. And like a “friend with benefits”, going to these places allowed me to experience visiting with family on both Mary Ann’s and my side. The other benefit was meeting and working with people from many cultures. It was such a challenge to learn how to transfer skills and knowledge to others not American. Another benefit was satisfying my curiosity about what it means to be Jewish in other parts of the world. Given my curiosity, I’ve attended services in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Israel, Cuba, Singapore, China, India, and Australia, and visited Jewish sites in Italy. Meeting Jews in a those countries was an interesting exercise in understanding the commonalities and differences between us.

Jacob Sasson Synagogue in Mumbai, India

Finally, it’s about food. I am a foodie and having the chance to eat regional cuisine in each of countries was a true gift for me. To exemplify my gratitude, I’d like to highlight, the most memorable food I ate in different countries. In the UK, it was the fish and chips. My favorite place is The Sea Shell. In Italy, it is Zio Pietro in the southern town of Cisternino. There is a restaurant that looks like a butcher shop! You order the meats you want, and you pay by the pound. Then you are seated and presented with incredible roasted potatoes, bread, salad, and wine. Then you start receiving the meats you ordered perfectly barbecued. In Israel, it’s a restaurant in Jaffa called The Old Man And The Sea. Sitting outside overlooking the Mediterranean where you are presented with falafel and an endless assortment of condiments that comes with it. In Singapore, it’s a hotpot restaurant. Hotpot are two different soups served in warmers on your table and order meats, noodles, and vegetables that you dip into the soups and eat with condiments. In India, it’s a walking food tour in Delhi. You taste local foods, ending the day in an incredible curry house. In China, there are too many to list. The two that stand out are an amazing Mongolian restaurant and an amazing Sitchuan restaurant. In Cuba, it was a “palladores” or a private restaurant in a converted room inside someones house. The place we went was just outside Havana, right on the bay. In Australia, it’s about meat, which I had in Melbourne. In Sweden, there is a cold fish restaurant in an ancient covered marketplace. In Thailand, go to a local cooking school and learn to cook delicious dishes and get a tour of the local markets. In Korea, it’s an authentic Korean barbecue restaurant and that allows you to grill your meat choices at the table along with endless condiments and “sake bombs” to drink (a shot of sake dropped into a glass of beer.)

Zio Pietro restaurant in Cisternino, Italy.
Tokyo restaurant serving tuna sashimi right from the tuna’s remains.
Hot pot dinner in Singapore.
Fish and Chips in the UK
The Old Man and the Sea restaurant n Jaffa, Israel
Curry house in New Delhi, India

I’m grateful for everyday I wake up and continue to enjoy another day of life. It’s amazing how I took life for granted. I celebrate each day because being alive is something I didn’t really appreciate until I started living with the realization that my time can be limited. I feel a sense of urgency to make everyday count. With that, I keep my schedule busy with visitors and the days there aren’t visitors, I try to catch a matinee, a lunch, or write this blog. I also just go outside and sit in the sun. For my readers with family responsibilities, I understand this is a bridge too far. My point here is to not take life for granted, that it is fleeting. I don’t suggest dramatically changing your life, rather to be conscious and grateful for having the opportunity to be able to go to work everyday, to enjoy life in the way you choose to, and to truly believe that family and friends are not granted but something you work for. I bought Mary Ann a blessing bracelet which has four stones that motivates the wearer to consider four things they are grateful for each day. To some readers, this might seem lofty and unrealistic, but my challenge is that a few minutes of reflection can add to your day rather than detract from it. Think of a routine every day, like working out in the gym, or having a morning coffee, or commuting to work, then during that time, take all of two minutes and think of four things you are grateful for and think about why you’re grateful, what is about the experience that made it come to mind. My idea here is to leave some space each day to think of something positive. I hope it will make the day more enjoyable and lighter.

New Year’s Resolutions… And while we’re in the spirit of the New Year, I first want to wish you all a fantastic year. As far as I’m concerned, I plan to have a great year, too. It’s also the time when we have high hopes for the accomplishments we aspire to achieve. We try to make resolutions. The word comes from resolute, meaning to stick to something we wish to accomplish. Here are some of mine.

I resolve to dig deeper into my soul to find the spirit in me to surface that energy source to make me resilient, grateful, and happy each day I still roam this Earth.

I resolve to keep close to my family and friends and make them feel as comfortable with me as possible.

I resolve to keep my weight up (wah, you’re kidding, right?) In my situation, I was told to keep my weight up because even though I don’t move much, I burn a lot of calories just being. I am grateful that I can still eat like before and, being the foodie that I am, I’m taking full advantage of the edict. If you want to indulge in a guilty pleasure, then do it for me.!

I resolve to write this blog in the hope I can continue to inspire others and meet more of my readers. This has been an experience in expression I never dreamed I was capable of doing. Thank you all for giving me this opportunity.

I resolve not to judge others as they might judge me, especially when they first see me. First impressions and unconscious bias are tough things to suppress, and since joining a class of people who can be misjudged, it’s easier now for me to be empathetic with diverse groups and how marginalization can effect the very soul and confidence in them. Social Justice and equality starts with us.

I resolve to laugh more and cry when I need to. For the longest time, I didn’t allow myself to cry. I thought holding back would impress others that I was strong and steady. It didn’t make me feel any better, but it projected a sense of self I wanted others to see of me. Of late, that has changed. When I seek counseling, I am brought to a deep place I would rather ignore. What I found was that I couldn’t avoid it anymore and just let myself go there. It felt liberating and I felt I actually dealt with the thoughts and feelings I needed to. Now I freely let go and cry it out. As for laughter, I keep looking for new material to share and to continue to laugh as much as possible.

I’d like to end this posting with an anecdote I read recently: A disciple of the Rabbi of Bratislava journeyed far from his home to visit with the great Rabbi. He imagined the Rabbi living in a large home with disciples all around him and grand rooms deserving of the Great Rabbi. Instead, when he arrived, he found a very small house and the Rabbi living in one room with just a desk and a bed. Books were piled on the floor. Perplexed, the disciple asked the Great Rabbi, “Rebbe, where is all of your furniture?” The Rabbi replied, “Where is your furniture?” The disciple, confused replied, “Why would I bring my furniture, I’m only passing through.” The Rabbi responded,” So am I. “

More to come…

20 thoughts on “In gratitude…

  1. Harry, like everyone who knows you, I am grateful for you and your friendship. Your insights into life are deeply moving. I admire your courage, your compassion and your understanding. Your writings reflect your incredible approach to life. You are an artist who every day makes your life into a beautiful work of art, In deepest gratitude and with much love. Lee

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  2. Harry dear, you are by far the most resilient person I know. You have always enriched my life while Tom and Max were growing up. You taught me more about Judaism than I ever knew and also about patience. You have so much of it (and I so little). You are in my thoughts frequently.. The thoughts you expressed here are beautiful.

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  3. Another wonderful insightful installment, thank you Harry. I’m blessed to know you and thankful to our mutual friends the Sommers for bringing us together many years ago.
    Keep writing, I’ll keep sharing the blog and taking more of your advice and wisdom. La Chaim

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  4. I am grateful that you are my brother. Since I first saw you in the hospital nursery at 4 ½ I always felt you were a gift given to me.
    I am grateful for all the times you let me shlep you all over with me, were my sounding board, and my friend.
    I am grateful that even though we lived on opposite coasts, so busy raising families, working, not able to see each other often, we always stayed connected and close.
    I am grateful that we did start to see each more often. I am especially grateful for that time, not long before your diagnosis, when you and MaryAnn came out to visit, and afterward I drove to you into NYC, and there was a miracle! A parking spot right in front of your hotel, and the car did not have to be moved for 2 days! Unheard of, too good not to take advantage of, so I just stayed. And we had a bonus extra 1 ½ days of making more memories…jazz, Harlem, pastrami!
    I am grateful that I am able to spend time with you now. And time with MaryAnn, Max, Lucy and Ethan.
    Grateful and lucky to have you as my brother.

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  5. Thank you, Harry. As usual, you take what I was thinking about and worrying about and lead my thoughts somewhere else important. I had a phone conference today with my siblings, to talk about getting in home help for my mom and dad, each of whose conditions are deteriorating. I’m worried about home care, getting them fed, their various aliments, the possibility that one will fall and the other won’t be able to help the fallen one up — hell, the other might not notice the fallen one had fallen for hours. We’re working on that. But you remind me of how much I have had in my own life, and the life I’ve shared with my parents and siblings. for which to be grateful. A safe, small town childhood, with parents who’ve been married 67 years, and a path that led me, among other places, to Harry Wittenberg. If we’d only been to New Orleans, dayenu — it would have been enough — but there has been so much more. You remind me — my cup overflows. Mom always said that love is the one thing that when you give it away, you have more of it. You are the Tin Man, brother, of whom the Wizard said, the size of a person’s heart is not measured by how much you love, but how much you are loved by others. By that standard, your heart must be the size of Alaska. Much love Harry, and thanks. See you soon. Chris

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    1. Words are insufficient when expressing my love for you guys. I am as lucky, if not more so that we have been friends with for these good many years. I look forward to being grateful for brats (with sauerkraut of course), beer and loaded tots at the A’s games soon.

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  6. Dearest Harry,
    I am deeply grateful to have you as a friend and cherish our many years and times together.
    Love you and Mary Ann and looking forward to our next visit 💕

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  7. My gratitude for you runs deep and wide. A friendship that began 47 years ago in a little town called Accord. You touched Barry and I, as our best man always brought love, humor and devotion to our friendship. You ventured out travelling from the east, becoming our chosen family. Your spirit is an inspiration that we admire and adore. Write on my friend and thanks for so beautifully sharing your journey. Love you so! Donna

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  8. You still teach me. You still make me laugh. You still make me cry – tears of joy for knowing you.
    Thank you for sharing your journey with us. You are indeed a Sherpa on the Path of Life.
    See you soon. Love you.

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