Thursday, May 4, 2017

Baby Steps and Beer

Kendall Jenner gives a cop a Pepsi and  saves the world

I'm typically not the type to jump on bandwagons, especially since I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one, but the Heineken video, “Worlds Apart” sure nailed the  much sought after, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” vibe.  

And similarly, I usually don’t like kicking people (or brands) when they’re down but Pepsi used some seriously indigestible saccharine and bullshit in their similar attempt with their “Kardashian Saves the World” puff piece. (click left for the video)

While Pepsi tried to solve America’s societal issues with an overly dramatic and unbelievable gesture, Heineken delivered a simpler approach suggesting that baby steps can be used to share insights and empathy with one person at a time.  And if enough people take enough baby steps, we might actually get somewhere.  Or simply stated, “Drink a Heineken and listen to someone who you typically might not even want to look at. You might learn something or better yet, you might feel something. (click to the left for the video).

Where Pepsi failed, Heineken succeeded
The Heineken piece shows three pairs of people from opposing backgrounds and beliefs working together in the noble cause of putting together a bar.  During the exercise they are encouraged to share information about themselves and their beliefs with their work partner.  

The couples are matched with each other in the same way you would expect to see the pairings for a Reality TV show.  There’s the arch-conservative and the super feminist, the transgender woman and the macho man and two people on opposing sides of the climate change issue.  By working together and cooperating to build the bar, they are forced to see the positive traits of their respective partners as opposed to judging them based solely on their lifestyles, beliefs or labels.

At the end of the video, after the work is done, the partners are given the opportunity to stay a bit longer and have a Heineken with each other.  The results are encouraging as people who would typically not be expected to want anything to do with one another stay for a beer, and even exchange phone numbers to continue building their relationships.

Baby steps.

You talkin' to me?
And speaking of reality television, let’s go back 4 weeks to a Survivor episode (yeah, it’s still on the air) when one of the contestants, Zeke was outed by another player as being transgender.  This abhorrent action was undertaken in the hopes that it would depict Zeke as a player, who based on his failure to disclose his gender history, was deceptive by nature and thus, a non-trustworthy player in the game.  Fortunately, Zeke’s fellow cast mates, stood by him, unanimously and strongly condemning the player who outed him. (Can I stop telling you where to click?) 

Most notable among his supporters was Sarah, the policewoman from a Conservative Southern family where they would never have given Zeke a second look.  However, in the weeks that she and Zeke played and struggled side by side on the island, she came to realize what a special person he was.  His transgenderism (is that a word?) did nothing to change her opinions of him.

Baby steps.     

The next section is for people old enough to remember the late Harry Chapin.  (If you’re not one of them, ask your parents.)  One of Harry's greatest stories  is What Made America Famous. (They even made it into a Broadway show).

The song chronicles a typical night for two different groups of people – the small town middle-aged volunteer fire department contrasted with the free-spirited long hairs getting stoned in a run-down building on the seedy side of town. The differences between the two groups are as great as their stereotypes would suggest with neither group being very fond of the other. 

Harry Chapin...kinda hard to hate
Following the separate introductions to the long hairs and the firemen, we learn that the building where the former are hanging out has caught fire.  Knowing the location, the volunteers take their time responding, going so far as to rationalize that the kids deserve to sweat a little and besides, they just cleaned the chrome on the fire truck.  Fortunately, one man among them, the plumber, takes it upon himself to go alone to the scene and saves some kids who were clinging on for dear life.  As Harry sings from one young person’s point of view…

“I shook his hand in the scene that made America famous.
And he smiled from the heart that made America great.
We spent the rest of that night in the home of a man I’d never known before.
It’s funny when you get that close it’s kind of hard to hate."      

Baby steps.

Here are three stories where preconceived notions of another group or another person dictated a person’s attitude before they tried getting to know them.  But when circumstances forced them together, as Harry said, “it’s kind of hard to hate.”    

Now I am not suggesting that we commit to spending a month on an island with minimal food or drink, or worse, getting stuck in a fire for us to realize the virtues presented by a balding middle-aged fireman.  I am however suggesting the easier route of a beer (doesn’t even have to be a Heineken) or a glass of wine, or a conversation, or a reading of an opposing point of viewpoint.

It seem that lately, more than ever, we are being conditioned by 140-character tweets or clever memes to reinforce our opinions and prejudices.  On Facebook, divergent opinions are met with unfriendings.  On college campuses, picket signs are being used more and more to prevent other groups from voicing an opinion.  And rather than reading articles on line, a few memes are all that is needed to reinforce our beliefs and close ourselves off to a different point of view.. 

Granted, there are some pretty nasty people out there such as ISIS and our own brand of Neo-Nazis who would rather shoot your body parts off before engaging in a dialogue.  But for the most part, the other side of an argument usually does have a valid point or two, and if it is not enough to change your mind, it might be enough for you to develop some empathy for the other side and maybe not view them with such negativity and hate. 

Baby Steps

From the song Beer, by Reel Big Fish,

“If you're drinkin' well you know 
that you're my friend and I say 
I think I'll have myself a beer.”

This summer, I, Leonard No Middle Name Blaifeder commit to having a good number of  beers ... Heineken in fact. And I invite any Right Wing, Israel Bashing, Climate Change Denying, Affordable Care Act Hating Yankee fans who like The Godfather Part II more than the original to join me. 

Baby Steps and Beer. Who will you invite?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

September 11th Remembered: Through the Eyes of My Father and I


I am sad and proud to share this blog...a guest blog written by my son, Zachary who has turned out to be an excellent writer.  Please read it below or better yet, build his numbers up by reading it on his site.  You might want to follow him as well. He's got a lot to say and he is one of my favorite writers.   

September 11th Remembered: Through the Eyes of My Father and I                                   by Zach Blaifeder 
In that instant, the gravity of the situation overtook my father.  He gazed around at the rest of the parking lot.  There were about 20 cars that had yet to be claimed.  " I realized then that I was one more person that had made it, and that some of the cars were not ever getting driven home," my dad had told me, " and that was the first time after the attacks that I started crying."
This week, as the 15th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks approached, the internet was sent into uproar over a commercial posted by a Texas mattress store regarding their “twin towers sale.”
This company claims there is no better way to remember 9/11 than with a mattress sale. And they are obviously wrong. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives on September 11th, 2001, and attacks forever changed the state of world affairs. It ushered in an era of enhanced airport screenings, a seemingly endless effort by the U.S. military to combat terrorism, and a sense of paranoia among people all over the world who constantly are thinking “when’s the next one going to happen?”
I think there are many proper ways to remember 9/11. If you live in the New York City area, visit the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in Lower Manhattan, which is one of the most moving places I have ever visited. Perform an act of community service like donating blood.  Or learn about what people went through on that horrendous day. While my father and I didn’t even come close to experiencing the brunt of the attacks, we were each left with tense, emotional, and vivid experiences that would be etched into our memories forever.
One of the earliest memories of my childhood occurred at the World Trade Center. I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 years old when I attended my great Uncle George’s birthday party which was taking place at a fancy restaurant at the WTC complex. When the festivities were over, I remember looking up towards the top of the buildings. I recall feeling the strain on my neck as I craned it at 90 degree angle. It was probably one of the first times in my life that I was overtaken by overwhelming amazement – the buildings were so tall and magnificent!
One of the reasons 9/11 is significant to me is because my father was in New York that day. At the time, he worked in advertising for a large bank at 100 Church Street, a mere 2 blocks away from the Twin Towers. And just like many people on that day, something prevented my dad from arriving at his office at the time he usually did.
He was shooting a print advertisement at the Trump International Hotel and Tower, almost 6 miles uptown from the World Trade Center. Instead of stopping at his office first, he took the PATH train from Harrison, New Jersey, where he had parked his car, to the WTC. Arriving at 8:30 AM, about 20 minutes before the first plane hit, he immediately took the E train uptown.
As my dad and his team were shooting the ad, word got around that something was amok downtown. Someone put on the TV. It was rumored that a single engine plane was the flying object involved. Then a second plane hit one of the towers.
A feeling like no one had ever experienced enveloped the hotel suite where they were shooting the ad.”We just had no idea what to do,” my dad told me. And after thinking for a bit, he announced to everyone “I guess we should keep shooting,” after thinking that his company would become mad at him for wasting precious time and money.The gravity of the situation had not quite sunken in. Fifteen years later, he still feels ridiculous for his words.
I was almost finished with my lunchtime meal of chicken nuggets and rice at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Wayne, NJ  when the 2nd grade teachers hurried into the cafeteria. That’s weird, I thought. Normally we would go outside to play for recess before returning to the classroom. But instead of heading to the playground, we exited outside through the door of the cafeteria and walked towards Ratzer Road, a main thoroughfare in my town. No explanations were given as one of the teachers blocked traffic to allow the steady stream of students from all grades to cross the road. We headed to the gymnasium of the YM-YWHA of North Jersey, only a short walk away from school. Inside, the principal addressed all the students, only vaguely referencing the events that just took place in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania and how all the schools in the township were evacuated as a precaution.
It wasn’t too long before we headed back to the school grounds. Many parents, including my mom, were waiting to pick up their children, which I also thought was weird because it wasn’t the end of the school day yet.
I only began to realize the true nature of the situation when I turned on the TV at home and saw the footage of the falling towers. My eyes remained glued to those images for the rest of the night.
My dad walked the streets of Manhattan that afternoon, surrounded by people with only blank facial expressions. He tried giving blood, but was turned away – the lines were simply too long. That night, he was able to stay in the hotel room where he shot the print ad earlier in the day. Returning to New Jersey was impossible, as all the Hudson River crossings leading out of the city were closed.
On the morning of September 12th, my dad was able to make it back to Harrison to retrieve his car. Each day prior to September 11th, he would give $5 to the parking lot attendant without saying a word. Things were different on this day though. Upon seeing my dad, the attendant was overjoyed with relief: “I’m so happy to see you,” he said as he hugged my dad.
In that instant, the gravity of the situation overtook my father. He gazed around at the rest of the parking lot. There were about 20 cars that had yet to be claimed. “I realized then that I was one more person that had made it, and that some of the cars were not ever getting driven home,” my dad had told me, “and that’s the first time after the attacks that I started crying.”
School had returned to normal the next day. My father wanted to visit me to let me know that he was okay. I was on the blacktop during recess when I saw him, still wearing the same suit that he was wearing from the previous day’s madness. He gave me a big hug, and let me know that he was safe. While my father already had an emotional understanding of what had transpired the day before, my second grade mind had still not quite grasped the intricacies of all that was happening. I carried on my day as normal.
 15 years later, as I look back at September 11th, 2001, I realize that the day is still clear in my memory. The images of pure destruction, victims with dust covering their bodies, and planes hitting the buildings partially ruined my innocence – they were a lot for a 2nd grader to take in. Even today, I have a hard time watching documentaries with images from that dark moment in our history. But we must never forget.
Never forgetting isn’t about mattress sales or Coca-Cola 12-pack art displays at the local Walmart. It’s about coming together as a community and remembering those who were lost that day and learning about the stories of those who survived. It reminds us that we should not take for granted living in a country that is a beacon of freedom, democracy, and liberty. And it should make us strive to be the best we can be. And I hope this story, one of many that transpired on September 11th 2001, will help us get there.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Don't Read Another Article on Networking...Just Watch The Godfather

When I work with graduating college students in preparation for their job search, I typically ask them if they’ve seen The Godfather.  If they say no, I usually rant and rave about what awful parents they have and the lousy decisions they’ve made in their lives up until now.  Eventually I try to return to the subject at hand unless they confess to never having heard of The Godfather, in which case, I simply give up on them.

You see besides being one of the greatest movies of all time (and yes I favor the first one over the second) The Godfather presents the greatest lessons on networking that you can possibly ask for.  And it does it all within the very first scene.

If you haven’t seen The Godfather over 50 times like I have, let me refresh your memory.  The movie opens with Amerigo Bonasera, the hard working, honest funeral director appearing before Don Corleone – The Godfather, played by Marlon Brando.  Bonasera tells the tale of his beautiful daughter who was viciously beaten by two young thugs, one of whom was supposed to be her boyfriend.  When the boys appear in a court of law, they are given a suspended sentence, and they go so far as to smile at Bonasera whose daughter is permanently scarred from the beating she received.
Bonasera comes to The Godfather for justice on the day of his daughter’s wedding.  We are told that It is customary among Italians to offer favors to the community on the day of their daughter’s betrothal whereas my people simply offer mid-shelf liquor and plenty of sponge cake to celebrate.   Bonasera asks The Don to murder the young punks who assaulted his daughter or at least make them suffer.  Being a man of honor, The Godfather will take up his cause, but before he does, he rightly chastises the timid funeral director for coming out of nowhere to ask for a favor (It helps if you read the quotes below with a few balls of cotton in your mouth for effect).

“We’ve known each other many years but this is the first time you’ve come to me for counsel...for help.”               
Networking Lesson 1:  Never wait to be in a situation where you need help to reach out to someone  You’ll get called out on it and rightly so.
Bonasera, Bonasera....
“I can’t remember the last time you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee even though my wife is godmother to your only child.”
 Networking Lesson 2:  It really doesn’t take much effort to establish and maintain a professional friendship.  Even a simple cup of coffee is a nice enough gesture for a colleague or hardened killer.

“But let’s be frank here.  You never wanted my friendship.  You were afraid to be in my debt."
 Networking Lesson 3:  Never be shy about helping out others.  Always be there for someone else because  good karma will eventually catch up with you.  Chances are you won’t be asked to dispose of a body, but small gestures will go a long way.

“You found paradise in America.  You had a good trade… made a good living..."
Networking  Lesson 4:  Don’t get full of your success.  Bad stuff happens and then you’ll realize that you can use a community to help you reestablish yourself.

And most important…

“You don’t offer respect.  You don’t offer friendship.  You don’t even think to call me Godfather.  Instead  you come into my house on the day of my daughter’s wedding and ask me to commit murder.”
Networking Lesson 5:  Call people Godfather if it makes them happy.  Or at the very least, realize the things that are important to people and show them that you care.

Bonasera of course realizes his own networking shortcomings and after an uncomfortable silence finally says (you can take the cotton out of your mouth now):

A little respect goes a long way
Be my friend…Godfather.”

The Godfather, as befitting a man with a pussy cat on his lap, responds with humility and friendship (put the cotton back in).

“Some day…and that day may never come, I may call upon you to do a service for me.  But until then, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.” 

God, I love this scene.  It makes me wonder why they called the movie The Godfather as opposed to The Networker.  You see what the Don wanted to convey is that people are generally happy to help other people.  And as a rule they won't expect much in return, if anything at all.  But before you ask, in fact, long before you ask, you have to show a little friendship, a little respect, and on rare occasion -- a ring kiss.  And since you never know who you might eventually look to for a favor, it’s good to treat everyone you meet with respect and friendship.  It’s really that simple.

                                     *                                     *                                       * 

On a separate, but not totally unrelated note, I am happy to say that I will be returning to “my family.”  Next week, I will begin working for Albridge, an information management provider for registered investment advisors and broker dealers.  They are a subsidiary of Pershing, who is in turn a subsidiary of BNY Mellon with whom I spent a large portion of my working career.

I am grateful to be returning to the fold and especially grateful to the people who offered encouragement, friendship, respect and the leads that helped open this exciting opportunity for me. You know who you are.  I am privileged to have worked with and drank coffee with some wonderful people over the course of my career.  Thank you all for being there and please know that I would (symbolically) kill for you all.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

My Deodorant Weighs in on Caitlyn Jenner

We all know that Coke is more than a sugary brown liquid designed to ruin your teeth and remove paint from your car.  In fact, it's a lifestyle, it's a friend, and most important, it's a brand!  As marketers, we know that one of the keys to establishing loyalty to our brands is building an emotional connection between our brands and the general public.  We know that the connection with Coke is built on Happiness; Apple is on Imagination; Nike on Inspiration; and Facebook on Wasting Time.

And Lord knows, developing the brand essence which serves as the core of the connection does not come easily or cheaply.  Budgets are decimated as tons of quantitative and qualitative research are digested and regurgitated in support of extreme hypotheses.  I remember several brand building exercises where we theorized if our brand was a celebrity, who would it be?  If it were a car, what model would it be?  If it had a voice, how would it speak? For example a toilet paper could be perceived as speaking in a voice that is bold, confident, strong, and unafraid.

Brand Conversation
The longer we spoke around our long tables and the more we spent on research, the more we believed in our mission.  And I’m not saying this was a bad thing.  The most successful brands today including the ones I mentioned up top have succeeded in winning a place in customer’s hearts and minds as a result of their voice.  Those of us who are old enough will always remember Mean Joe Greene throwing his jersey at “the kid” in support of Coke and a Smile.  And the “once played” 1984 Apple Ad which fought Orwell’s vision of uniformity with one of individualism is one that still haunts many of us.  Both were responsible for giving their brands a voice or a personality to which consumers could connect.  The Voice of The Brand.  The Brand Voice.  It gave us marketers a seat at the table and something substantial to be proud of especially since we couldn’t make it through the advanced finance courses in grad school.  

The voice says, "Drink Me" 
But somewhere along the way… likely with the advent of social media… we may have started taking ourselves too seriously.  Through Twitter and Facebook, these voices were suddenly empowered to actually speak…and to do so several times a day.  As marketers, we had to give them something to say…something that would remain true to the essence of the brand, something that would connect with the consumer, something that would resonate.  We even talk about conversations with our brands.  And consumers (God bless them) have bought into it.  Coke and Nike have over 3 million Twitter followers while Disney has over 4 million.

 And we ourselves are drinking our own Kool-Aid.  A recent story in Advertising Age noted that brands were conspicuously quiet regarding the introduction of Caitlyn Jenner.  Seriously, have we arrived at a point where we expect our brands to intelligently opine on today’s controversial headlines?  And do so in 140 characters or less?

Ah, such a brut !
Well I took it to heart and I asked my deodorant what it thought of this whole Caitlyn Jenner thing and what it had to say was not too flattering.  Oh well, what do you expect from a Brut?  Anyway, you can take away my marketing creds, but if you want opinions on Caitlyn Jenner or any other current topics, ask your mother, your clergyperson, your coworker, or even a random old guy on the bus.  Those are the voices we need to hear and these are the emotional connections we all need to build.  And if you want to have this conversation over a Coke or even do it while chatting on your IPhone, more power to you.

Monday, May 4, 2015

My Contribution to the Decline of Mainstream Media

In 1997, when my kids were all under the age of 5 and I had watched more than my share of purple dinosaur videos with them, I was inspired to write a 1,500 word piece called “Thank You Barney, And Happy Passover, Too.”  If I say so myself, it was a sweet inspiring story about how as adults, we neglect to say the” pleases” and “thank yous“ that were currently being taught to our children by their imaginary video friends.  I explained that holidays such as Passover, with their own imaginary friends and symbols helped reacquaint us with the lessons of humility and appreciation that we had forgotten from childhood.

At the time, I didn't post the story to my blog since the term “blog” had not even been coined until later that year.  Instead I made paper copies of the story and mailed it off to over 50 Jewish themed newspapers across North America.  (I figured that if nobody in the United States would publish it, at least someone in Canada might be willing to show me some consideration.)  As it turned out, however, my piece did get accepted by The Detroit Jewish News for publication in their holiday issue and I received a check for $50.  I even screamed, “I’M PUBLISHED, I’M PUBLISHED,” while waving the check in the air.  I was very impressed with myself and to this day, I still have five copies of the browning newspaper buried in my basement.

As I look back at my first professional story, I appreciate how smart and effective the publishing system was back then.    My place in the literary pecking order had been defined and established by a series of editors or gatekeepers who actually judged me based on the quality of my writing.  If I wanted to move up from Detroit Jews to Chicago Jews or even New York Jews, I had to write better.  Taking it further, if I wanted gentiles to read my work, I really had to step it up.  Such were the barriers to entry.

Flash forward 18 years.  If I had written the piece this year, I simply would have put it up on Blogger, perhaps rereading it once or twice for typos before hitting the post button.  I would have tagged the hell out of it with every term ranging from matzo to dinosaur, shared it with my fellow Dad Bloggers where we would engage in a virtual daisy chain of mutual links that would actually ensure my story would show up in places outside of Detroit.  Shortly thereafter, I would post it on my Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pintrest pages.   And guess what?  It would get read and I would convince myself that I was a writer. 

Taking it further, my story would be part of a smorgasbord of other blogs, memes, lists, opinions and new content which was published that day. And together, our army of  wanna be writers and photoshoppers would compete with stories from The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Washington Post –presenting an alternative to the stories that really matter and those that shape our common wisdom and experience.

You see, thanks to the internet, everyone can be a writer and everyone can be a publisher.  And if you have a cat, you can be a video journalist.  And since everyone can be a publisher or a videographer, there are no editors to judge whether your article actually meets meaningful standards.  There are no gatekeepers to reject you from every publication except for one in Detroit.  All you need is a publish button and your words are out there.  With some knowledge of Search Engine Optimization and social media, you can even find yourself an audience.

In fact, viral news outlets such as BuzzFeed, Reddit,  Memebase specialize in the lists, memes, and snarky chats that have become the cyber equivalent of fart jokes and Mad Magazine.   What’s worse is they are giving the quality mainstream media a run for their money because while their investment in infrastructure and socially sourced material is minimal, their content is being gobbled up by those that have come to appreciate digestible sound bytes rather than something more substantial.

When I was in the 4th grade, we would read the NY Times once a week during social studies class.  I will always remember the lesson when Mrs. Hinton taught us how to patiently fold the paper so we could read it in crowded places.  She explained that it took significant effort to read what was inside The Times, but it was worth it.

Later in life, I always had a good feeling when I would ride the subway and see rows of commuters folding the newspaper like Mrs. Hinton taught us as they absorbed the stories and issues that came alive in the pages of The Grey Lady.   People would talk about what they read.  And they would remember it.  Today, our reading habits are so fragmented that thoughtful discussions among friends and colleagues has been replaced by casual sharing and liking.

Circulation is way down for The Times and they are involved in a fight for survival. Meanwhile my blog has reached 6,000 pairs of eyeballs which is how things are measured these days.  It’s nice to be read and I appreciate your eyeballs (I really do) but I miss a time when being published was really something special.        

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Pop's Megillah

It's been a while since I've blogged and  I appreciate people teling me to return to it.  All I can say now is that I will ... honest.  Until then, I am taking the  liberty of reprinting a piece which I wrote about 13 years ago regarding my dad and our celebration of the Jewish holiday of Purim which happens to be today.  It's called Pop's Megillah.  Whether you are Jewish or Gentile, I wish everyone a Happy Purim and even more important...peace. 

Wayne, New Jersey. The makeshift traffic signal flips to green and the noise level in the shul races from zero to sixty. Graggers flail wildly in the hands of four-year-olds, accompanied by the foot stomping and bench banging of those too old to wave a child's toy, but eager, nonetheless, to drown out the name of the evil Haman.

After a half minute of chaos, the redheaded girl on the bimah, displaying the deftness of a future cheerleader, twirls the two-sided signal and it becomes a red light again. True silence is never achieved, but it is time for the congregation to quiet down so the reader can proceed reading the Story of Esther.
Red light -- stop! Green light -- go! I am oblivious to the mayhem around me because I am focused on another story of Purim, my Purim, which is found in a 19th century pencil-high brass cylinder that contains "Pop's Megillah.” Pop is gone now; he has been for over 12 years. But on Purim I am by his side like on no other day of the year, not even his birthday, not even his yahrtzeit.

On Purim, I am seated beside him some 35 years ago in a Bronx Shteibel not far from Yankee Stadium. Fussing uncomfortably on a splintered dark brown bench, I listen as the bearded, aged chazan chants the Story of Esther from beneath a yellowing tallis. I watch as my father's eyes move rhythmically with the chanting from right to left, right to left, so as not to miss a single word of the telling. Although I am a mischievous eight-year-old boy, I know not to disturb my father for he appears to be a traveler as well.
Is he in the land of Shushan along with other Jews on a spiritual pilgrimage of hope and inspiration? Maybe for a minute or so, but more likely he is in the Warsaw suburb of Pelcowizna, where as an eight-year-old, he too sat next to his father, a learned craftsman, jeweler, and scholar who commissioned a handsome sum to have his megillah created so that on Purim, he could bask in the luxury of his heritage.
Keeping the megillah safe over the years
Does his father, my Grandpa Mendel realize that his proud and sturdy Megillat Esther would one day find its way to the Golden Medina and that it would be treasured by his grandson whom he would never meet? He very well might have, because he also fashioned by hand a sturdy brass cover for his megillah that has served as its protection across the many miles that it has traveled.
This small "chamber of memories” exhibits the dents and black marks of its age, but in addition to protecting the megillah, it joins with it to provide me a deep attachment to the holiday and a still growing connection to my father and his father as well. For no matter where I may be on Purim, I hold fast to it like a relay runner holds his baton, knowing just how precious it is within my grasp.
As the reader ends the chanting with the words "l'chol zaroh,” the little redhead puts down her traffic light and I return to the Bronx shteibel along side my pop. His smile is one of deep accomplishment. The reading is finished and we begin our task of rolling the megillah back into its case so it is ready for next year. The task of rolling is quite methodical and precise. I hold onto one side by the corners as my dad, rolls the delicate parchment as tightly as possible without adding additional stress to its aged body.

Just a few of the many sections of Pop's Megillah
If not done right, the megillah can't fit
back into its brass covering and we must unroll it and begin again. As dad rolls, the letters and the history glide past. Its small rips and discoloring indicate not only the years gone by, but more so, that this is one well-read megillah. I cannot imagine one year out of the last 100 that each word of this megillah has not been pored over and savored. One day it will be my turn, and I will continue the chain. "But where are the vowels?” I think. "How am I going to possibly follow the reading without the vowels?
It is March of 1990. Pop is gone now. There was never any hankering over his possessions. I simply tell my brother, Mark, that I need the megillah and he understands. I take the megillah with me to an early morning reading at New York's Garment Center Congregation. I am among friends as these are the men with whom I have said Kaddish in the year following my pop's passing. I proudly show them its brass cover. I remove the megillah and share with them its wrinkles and its smells. They listen intently as I tell them about its previous owners and they smile for me.

"Vayihi Bemai Achashveros... "
The rabbi begins the chanting. "Vayihi Bemai Achashveros... It happened in the days of Achashveros. " It takes more concentration than I have ever given anything, but I am following along without vowels. I forego the gragger and I especially forego any side conversations. I pray that I don't have to sneeze for if my eyes leave the megillah, I will surely lose my place.
My place is back in the Bronx next to my pop, listening to a story that has been told over and over again on this exact day. While I treasure many of his possessions, it is a special joy knowing that I can share an exact moment, every year, when our eyes focus on the same small letters, our hands hold onto the same weathered parchment, and our children understand the importance of it all.
Generations.  My father, my brother, Mark and me.
My place is the D'Arcy Street Talmud Torah in downtown Toronto where my father and his family lived for 12 years because the Land of the Free had limited visas available to Polish Jews. My place is back in Pelcowizna at a time of Jewish prosperity and peace, before the world caved in on us.
My place is on a long line of Jews who live during times of anti-Semitism and despair when no less than our very survival is at stake. Times when we hope God hears our calls and inspires us and helps us in our struggle; times during which we hope that we finally will be able to live in peace among the nations of the world.
My place is on this line behind my Pop and Grandpa Mendel and in front of my sons for whom the three of us pray daily. The hope lives on in all of us, and until our vision of peace is fulfilled, I hold onto some memories and I smile.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Farewell, Dear Kiki

Our family consisted of Janice and me, Zachary, Michael, Jeremy … and Kiki.

Kiki was Christine Affouye Koffi.  She came from The Ivory Coast leaving her homeland, her family, her two daughters and her son about 22 years ago to earn money and to make a better life for them all.  She did it the only way she knew how -- by becoming a part of other people’s families and loving them.    

Kiki and her boys
Christine became a part of my family when she moved in with us about 18 years ago.  The twins were about one and a half.  Jeremy was not yet born.  Zachary and Michael could not pronounce Christine, so they shortened it to Kiki which she has been ever since.  Kiki was a native French speaker.  At first, we were concerned that the boys would not be with a native English speaker to help them acquire language.  It never mattered.  Kiki loved my boys and when Jeremy was born, she adored him as well.  She would hug them and play with them, cook for them and smile at them and always made them feel special.   She would lovingly say, “a tu…” to them.  Directly translated it means “to you...”  When said with love, it means so much more.  And she made Janice and I feel loved as well.  She called us Mommy and Daddy. We ate our meals together and asked each other about our days and little by little, thanks to her improving English and my returning French, we learned more about Kiki and her family back home. 

It is an amazing person who can leave her family when her children are so young and take care of other people’s families.  It is an amazing person who can miss her own children for years and still love someone else’s children without a trace of anger or resentment.  I remember one week when I had focus groups at work, I missed tucking in the boys 3 nights in a row.  I told Kiki that it was terrible that I haven’t seen my kids in 3 days.  She said, “Daddy, I haven’t seen my babies in over 5 years.”   It was the only time that she ever reminded me.

Kiki and Jeremy
Kiki went home to Brooklyn on Friday evenings although in more recent years she moved to the Bronx.  She cooked, she cleaned her apartment, and most important, she went to church every Sunday where she was part of a wonderful community from different French speaking African countries.  She was a deeply religious person and travelled everywhere with a well worn bible.   On Sunday night, she took the subway to the Port Authority and caught a bus back to Wayne where I met her and drove her home to our family.

When Janice cut her work hours and the kids began attending pre-school, we had to find another family for Kiki to love.  She would still be working for us if we couldn’t find the right family.  But we did find her a new family by asking around and reading classified ads.  Janice drove Kiki to the interviews and even more than the new families were interviewing Kiki to see if she fit the bill, Janice was interviewing the new families to see if they fit the bill.  Over the years there were Barbara and Bob and their daughter Catherine, Hindi and Jeff and their kids Noah and Dara, and most recently Mike and Lauren and their son, Jake.

But no matter where Kiki went, she added to her growing family.  We all kept in touch with each other and we all spoke to each other to check in.  Originally it was to see what kind of food Kiki liked.  Later on it was just to say hi and exchange stories of Kiki and the kids. 

Kiki and Alfred
One of our biggest thrills with Kiki came about 5 years ago.  We helped arrange for Alfred, Kiki’s 20 year old son to come to live in the United States.  We worked with a lawyer, filled out paperwork and one weekday afternoon, Janice drove Kiki to JFK to greet the son whom she had not seen since he was about 5 years old.  In addition to cooking, and cleaning, and church, Kiki now had something extra special to go home to on weekends.  Alfred enrolled in community college and began working in a restaurant.  On occasion, Kiki and Alfred would visit us on a Saturday afternoon to see how we were all doing.  And of course, Kiki called on Mother’s   Day, on Father’s Day and for the Jewish New Year.

This past Friday afternoon Janice received a phone call.  Kiki had passed out at work.  Janice went to Morristown Hospital as soon as she could.  Alfred arrived shortly thereafter.  Kiki was on life support.  Excessive bleeding from her brain.  It was not fair.  Kiki was only 1 year older than both Janice and me.  She had survived open heart surgery a few years back and had been doing well.  She was with another family who adored her. She had hopes of one day seeing her daughters and grandchildren.

But the doctors said she was essentially brain dead and was being kept alive by machines.  We returned to the hospital on Saturday.  We sat by Kiki’s bed and were joined by Hindi and Jeff who showed up as well to say goodbye.  We reminisced.  We showed pictures and told stories.  Kiki’s friends came from her community in the Bronx.  Women wearing similar dresses and head scarves.  They refused to accept the prognosis.  They gathered around Kiki’s bed and chanted and prayed and petitioned God on behalf of their sister, their aunt.  They said they believed in miracles.  And Alfred wanted to believe in them too.

The doctors were hoping to have Alfred on board before they withdrew life support.  But he was not on board.  How could he be?  Without him the process of Kiki’s passing would be drawn out.  Janice spoke with the doctors and nurses and then sat down with Alfred.  She took his hand and hugged him and tried her best to explain the circumstances.  It was the very least she could do … to show her love and her concern to the son of the woman who did the same for our sons for so many years.

Today, the friends continue to come, the prayers continue to be said.  But God has already decided.  I don’t know why but he has decided to take a young woman with a perfect soul and a beautiful heart away from us, a woman who lived a life of humility, who gave and gave and loved and loved.   A woman who never got to see her own grandchildren back in The Ivory Coast but a woman who loved and cared for so many families with such tender love and such warm spirit.

It is an amazing person who can leave her family when her children are so young and take care of other people’s families.   Today, there is one less amazing person in the world and for that, so many of us are heartbroken.  A tu, Kiki.  We will miss you so much.