Eulogy For My Beloved Mother, Gerda Blumenthal

Eulogy For My Beloved Mother, Gerda Blumenthal

We are here today to remember and honor my mother, Gerda Blumenthal, who passed away on Monday.

My mother was my personal heroine, even as just two days earlier, a great hero of the Jewish people died as well–Ariel Sharon, a former Prime Minister of the State of Israel and a hero general who fought militarily to defend his people, but who also disengaged the State of Israel unilaterally from Gaza to make peace.

Sharon’s role in history to secure the Jewish people came on the heels of the Holocaust where 6 million Jews were murdered – one of every three in the entire world!

To my mother, the holocaust was one of the defining moments in her life. She was just 5 years old, when the murderous Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, came up behind my mother and her father on the street in Germany, grabbed him and dragged him off to the concentration camps. My mother, a child, was left alone crying on the streets, until some neighbors found her and brought her home to her mother. Miraculously, her father was one of the few to actually be let out a number of weeks later, as he had already received visas for the family to come to America. He had lost 20-30 pounds in just those few weeks of brutal slave labor and beatings, but he and the family were free to come to this country and start anew.

Like many of the immigrant families who were forced to flee persecution, my mother and her family arrived here penniless, and her father who didn’t even know the language, worked as a tailor to try and support the family. My mother had wanted to pursue her education—and to be a nurse—but when she graduated high school, she was asked to immediately go to work to help the family earn a living in those difficult days. She did this dutifully and worked—mostly doing secretarial work, which was popular in those days—while raising my sister and I and taking care of my dad. My mom would put me on the school bus, rush off to work, and be home in time to make dinner for all of us. Mom was unwavering in her commitment to taking care of us. Mom taught me what family was, what it was to put family first, and what it was to work hard, very hard, always being there to take care of us, even when at times, it seemed like too much for any human being.

My older sister and I are eight years apart. But there was another sibling, Susie, born between us. However, she died as a baby leaving my mother and father bereaved of their 2nd child still in the early years of their marriage. Despite this new challenge in their lives—and what seemed like another personal test—my mother carried on with my father to build the family, and I came along four years later. I have always tried to make my mother and father proud of me, especially in light of the loss of their other child.

My mother and father—were best friends, but like all loving couples, they also argued—but they always came back together again to make up and bond. And I learned well from them that in relationships, we can argue, but we can work things out—even though it’s not always easy to say I’m sorry or I was wrong, but we come back together because we are a family–we love each other and have that commitment. The loss of my mom is magnified, because of that deep love, but also because we are a small family that has always lived a hop, skip, and jump from each other—like one extended family.

My mother and father put my sister and I through private Jewish school, all the years, and then through college and graduate school—so that I was able to get my MBA and my sister her PhD. Even in later years, she helped babysit for my children and was like a second mother to them, so that my wife, Dossy could get her PhD as well. She loved my daughters—Minna and Rebecca, and my niece, Yaffa, so much. My mother and my father even moved here to Silver Spring in 2000—soon after we relocated here to work for the government—so they could be with us and the grandchildren—even though my mother really loved living in Riverdale, NY and the community and friends there, and would otherwise never have left there.

I will never forget the endless sacrifices made for us, which contrasts to many other families in modern times, when people seem more focused on career, their own interests and happiness, and mired in the world of the Internet and social media. But my mom taught me that while we may want a lot of different things, we need to put our priorities in order and focus on what is really important—family, friends, and faith.

Like Ariel Sharon who suffered a stroke eight years ago, my mother was diagnosed with the horrible disease of Parkinson’s—also eight years ago. My mother went from being the one who took care of everyone to where my father, in his own old age, and his own illness, had to take care of her. He did this with unbelievable courage and tirelessly, he did everything for her—everything! Even when we all thought she needed to go to the nursing home, he brought her home and cared for her himself for two years under extremely trying circumstances. Until this last April, when my mother was hospitalized again and was too ill to go home again. She went to the Hebrew Home In Rockville, and later because of her severe pain was put under hospice care. My mom unfortunately suffered horribly—more than we have ever seen anyone suffer. When she passed this week, I was horrified to lose my mother, as anyone would be, and at the same time, I was grateful to G-d that perhaps she now had some rest from the all the terrible illness and suffering and was finally at peace.

She died on Monday almost immediately after the Rabbi said the final prayers with her, and so I hope that the prayers and good wishes of the Rabbi and all of us—her family and friends—are heard in heaven and usher her in as a righteous soul, loving wife, mother, and grandmother—and grant her everlasting peace and reward from the Almighty.

Mom, we will always remember everything you have done for us. You taught us what a good traditional Jewish home and values are. Thank you for the love, care, and endless sacrifices. You will live on in the children and grandchildren and hopefully, our lives will be a merit for you. We love you always, and miss you. May G-d welcome you back, grant you peace, and bless you.

Work Life IMBALance

Work Life IMBALance

Mental, emotional, and physical health often feeds off of maintaining a good balance in life.

Yet, the financial services industry has been notorious for making people work unearthly hours, but also paying them unG-dly sums of money, especially in end-of-year bonuses.

I remember reading the other year that the average bonus at Goldman Sachs was something like $750,000!

The price people pay for this is work, work, and more work (and like in the film, Wall Street, often some very unscrupulous behavior as well).

Many people get apartments down by Wall Street, so when they stroll out of the office at 1 am (maybe that’s a good night), they can get to their place and clock a few hours of sleep before it’s back to the office–in record time.

Does the wealth accumulation and perhaps early retirement make it worth it–I guess to some people it does.

Today, the New York Times reported how financial firms like Bank of America (BOA) Merrill Lynch is perhaps seeing the ill effects of this misguided “human capital strategy.”

Finally, they are now encouraging people to “take four days off a month” and we’re taking about weekends.

That still leaves you with 6 days a week of work and typically 90 hours per week in the office!

Anyway, this is what they call being “committed to making the work experience better.”

This is coming off the heels of a 21-year old intern at BOA that died last Summer in the office “after working three consecutive nights” even though they attributed the death to epilepsy.

Work is good and healthy, except when it’s extreme and not. Work-a-holism is a disease and money is at the root cause.

It’s great to be committed to the organization, mission, people and to doing your best, but it’s another to sacrifice your soul, health, family and friends, and other interests that make you a well-rounded person.

Ambition is healthy, greed is deadly–and if you have to come up with three lemons to see that, then it may be too late. 😉

(Source Photo: Andy Blumenthal)

Imprisoned and Reeducated

Imprisoned and Reeducated

China always seems like such a beautiful and mystical land to me.

The innate beauty of this huge, yet sort of remote country, a homogenous people who have a raw brilliance yet type of innocence about them, and the ancient practices of natural medicine and martial arts, and a meditative demonstration of inner tranquility.

In contrast to this image, I have read about forced labor and tough punishment on people in various Asian countries, with a poignant focus on the North Korean camps with untold horrors. But recently, there seems to be more information being shared about forced labor camps in China as well.

First, I read about the notion by China’s ruling elite that the individual is nothing, and the State is everything. Therefore, the sacrifice of one or tens of millions of individuals for the sake of the greater country and those in power is acceptable, perhaps even desirable. This aligns with an extreme of utilitarianism–the greatest good for the greatest number, but irregardless of the effects on the individual.

This is very different than Western Countries, which have a tremendous value that is put on each individual–their voices and opinions, their rights and freedoms, and the protection and safeguarding of each person’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. There is emphasis on the individual and the social contract that exists between them and their government. In this system, the whole (State) is greater because of the sum of it’s parts (of individuals), not in spite of it.

Last Friday, I read about the consequences of these differences in political philosophy in an article in the Washington Post about the grim conditions in Chinese labor and reeducation camps.

What struck me the most was the opening of the article that described one of the Chinese reeducation camps.

“For the first weeks, Shen Yongmei was told to sit on a rough plastic stool from 6 a.m. to 8. p.m., her back absolutely straight, her hands on her knees, and stare in silence at three sentences painted on a wall.

– What is this place?
– Why are you here?
– What attitude are you going to employee in order to comply with the police?”

The 55-year old women was told to contemplate on these and any slackening could result in a beating.

After this, the women went through months of “reeducation through labor”–screwing on the plastic plugs on ballpoint pens–a quota of 12,000 a day.

All this to wash clean her “disobedient thoughts”!

In Judaism, there is a teaching that we don’t really get punished for thoughts, but for actions. A person can’t fully control where their thoughts stray, although we can take steps to control our wondering eyes, mischievous speech, gluttonous eating, and so on.

Similarly, in America, we are not punished for having a bad thought, but for committing a criminal act.

Yet, in China just being suspected of harboring disobedient thoughts can get you (and your family) into a whole lot of trouble and necessitate your rehabilitation through coercion.

For the last week, I have not been able to stop thinking about the image of the lady on the stool for 14-hours a day starting at those three questions in order to reform her.

Treating people like misbehaving children who are put in a quiet corner of the classroom for a short time and told to think about what they did and when they are ready, they can come back and join the rest of the class.

But these are not misbehaving, they are not children, they are not in a classroom, and it is not contemplative for a short time, but punitive and threatening of much worse to come if they don’t comply.

There are so many horrors out there that can be inflicted on human beings–not even for doing something wrong and violent, but for simply not agreeing with those in power.

Of course the state is important. But perhaps it is not a state, but a prison, if the people are forced to consent both in body and mind?

I would suggest that we can learn from the Chinese that a hedonistic, near-constant focus on the “I” and immediate gratification does not achieve long-term, well being for the “us”. And that there is an important place for individual self-sacrifice for the greater good.

This reminds me of the Jewish saying from Ethics of Our Fathers, where Hillel says that “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself what am I?”

Perhaps, a balance of looking after oneself and giving generously to others and the Nation can provide for both personal growth and satisfaction as well as a higher, long-term, purpose for the survival and advancement of the collective.

My belief: Education and not reeducation is the answer. Good jobs with fair pay and benefits and not labor camps is the answer. Self-determination and sacrifice and not State protectionism is the answer.

(Source Photo: Andy Blumenthal)

Teamwork, There Is No I

Teamwork, There Is No I

I really love this saying–“There is no I in Team.”

A colleague said very astutely, “even though some try to put it in there!”

Teams work best, when everyone does their part and contributes, and no one makes it about their personal agendas, ambitions, and issues.

A team implies a large degree of selflessness where we do what is best for the team and the mission we serve, and we don’t get caught up in personal ego trips.

When people place themselves above the team–and they try to impose that “I” right on in there, then rather than teamwork, we end up with rivalry and conflict.

From my experience, those who try to take the credit for themselves–typically end up exposed for who they really are and without the honor they chase.

But those who give recognition genuinely and generously to others are in turn respected for their contributions to the mission as well as to the team.

Selflessly united as a team we can assuredly succeed, but selfishly divided as just a bunch of I’s, we will most certainly fail. 😉

(Source Graphic: Andy Blumenthal)

Growing and Getting Old Together

Growing and Getting Old Together

The Wall Street Journal had a good book review on “The End of Sex” by Donna Freitas.

The book is about the casual hook-up culture, where a sexual interaction is brief–like a single night–purely physical, and “no strings” attached–“you just do it, you’re done, and you can forget about it.”

Essentially it is a purely hedonistic, selfish act, for one’s own pleasure–where the other person (if you even know their name) doesn’t count.

The review recounts studies that show that the percentage of undergraduates that have participated in hookups is as high as 65 to 75%!

People are searching a quick fix “without the constraints and sacrifices” that real committed relationships require.

According to the review, hookups are not liberating and empowering, but denigrating and dehumanizing–where the other person is just a thing to use for self-pleasure.

It can certainly be understandable that college-aged students are driven to exploration and experimentation, and those unattached can be frustrated and alone and are looking for love.

Whether hookup are the right way to find this–is an individual choice–however from my Jewish upbringing, I was raised to appreciate those who maintain modesty before marriage, because that way the bond of marriage is stronger for it.

The book review seems to imply that hooking up for sex is perhaps just steps away from “sexual assault”–taking sex through violence –one way or another. In a sense, the animal nature takes over and the spiritual element and higher connection is absent. Whether the means is consensual or forced, self-satisfaction is the end.

While sex is a genuine human need, waking up to a stranger–no matter how attractive–is not a great substitute for sharing life’s joys (and sorrows) with your true other half, because meaning means more than just the self and the moment.

On one hand, if people can’t find emotional love, then they can be left with the physical aspect of sex alone. On the other hand, even some in relationships may not be in the “right” relationships, and may be left searching for more. And still others may use sex to express their power over others–taking what they want, when they want, and how they want.

At the most elementary level, people are motivated to pure self-satisfaction, yet as they rise up to higher orders of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, they are driven further to self-actualization.

Seeing grandparents, parents and others grow a bond of giving and fidelity that is built up over decades is a truly beautiful thing–where love can deepen over time, rather than be forgotten the next morning.

Meeting other people, dating, and developing relationships are markers on the road for those who are fortunate enough to find their true life partners–those with whom they can grow and get old together with. 😉

(Source Photo: Andy Blumenthal)

An Immigrant’s Message

It was interesting getting out of Washington D.C. this week and talking to people outside the Capital about what they were thinking.
During Presidential campaigns and debates, I always hear the candidates say, “And let me tell me about (whoever) that I met from (wherever) and they told me (whatever).”Usually, when I hear these anecdotes, I wonder what the real meaning of these are, given that they are hand-selected by the candidates to prove their points of view.So I tried it myself in Florida this week to see what people where thinking about Washington and our national predicament—I asked, “What do you think?”Well let me start by saying that I didn’t talk to as many people as a presidential candidate does—that’s for sure—but I also wasn’t looking a tag line for my next rally or speech.

So here are a few things I heard from everyday people, most of them immigrants or children of immigrants.

One person I spoke to was from Haiti and had settled in Florida.  So I asked what his concerns were.  He told me about the suffering back in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 and how so little (relatively-speaking) had been rebuilt.  So far, I wasn’t really shocked at anything he said.  But then he went on to tell me how people in the Haitian community believed that the cause of the catastrophe was (no, not mother nature, but rather) that the U.S. government was testing new weapons in the Caribbean (from underwater submarines) and that this (accidentally) triggered the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

I asked what made them think this, and he told me how the people back in Haiti had witnessed U.S. response efforts and how zones were “mysteriously closed off” and the event was handled in tremendous stealth.  I asked was it just him whom thought this?  And he told me that this was a widely held belief by the people there.

Well, this was not like anything I had heard in the any of the candidate speeches during the election.  Maybe this guy was just an oddball, crazy, and telling wives tales about the going-ons in the Beltway, and everyone else was just feeling rosy.

So I spoke to someone else, a cabdriver from Romania living here for nearly 30 years – old enough to remember his country of birth but experienced enough to compare life there and here. He told me that he felt the people in Washington D.C. did not really care about him or others in the country. I asked what he meant by that.  He questioned our leaders of many decades (with the exception of two in the last 40 years—which I won’t name to protect the others), and he said that the others are basically just in it for themselves.

With regards to the “fiscal cliff,” he said, “No one is willing to make the real decisions that the country needs.”  He went on to add, “Unfortunately, politics has become just a profession.” Moreover, he said that “People aren’t even thinking short-term [let alone long-term], they’re just not thinking at all!”

This immigrant said he was worried generally about the future of the country and warned of what he believed was civil unrest to come, because he felt nobody was really dealing with our serious financial problems. He said that he had lived through a thousand-percent inflation back in his home country, literally, and that he felt we were going down the same road. Matter-of-factly he said, “Washington has bankrupted this country.”

Again, this was very different from the spin on most of the news shows these days, where the real estate recovery (however slight), consumer confidence (rising but on the edge with the rest of “the cliff”), and healthy personal and corporate balance sheets are all the rave. “What, me worry?” is the dominant attitude, not only about the “fiscal cliff” and the well known $16 trillion deficit, but also the other $86.8 trillion in national debt for entitlements, which according to the Wall Street Journal (27 November 2012) is not readily discussed.

My wife spent time talking to a woman less about politics, but more about her life predicament. Her husband passed away after 27 years of marriage, and she was just eking out a living primarily on the survivor benefits. She was living in a trailer, and having trouble finding a job. (“There is a lot of age discrimination out there,” she said.) She said she was lonely, despite her boyfriend, and that what mattered to her was just having some nice people in her life to talk with.  Her current plans were to continue monitoring her boyfriend’s activities on dating sites—he didn’t realize she could do that – and visit Bulgaria. There, she would meet the family of her late father, who unbeknownst to her had a child with a mistress that she only learned about upon his passing. She was angry at the doctor who prescribed her hormones, which she is certain gave her breast cancer, and she indicated that if she could do it over again she wouldn’t have listened so unquestioningly to what he said. For her, alternative healing such as attending a “drumming circle” was helpful, especially in calming all “the chatter “and worry on her mind.

While she didn’t talk about the country per se, this lady was clearly having a tough time in life and although she smiled frequently, the pain she felt was clear not only by the stories she told, but by the look on her face.

So, these were some stories that I heard—a little different from campaign fodder—but very telling in a way about what REAL people out there are thinking and feeling—versus the sound bites.

Now, we need to figure out how to dispel the negativity out there and help people and the country get it together.  It’s not enough to bicker, but we need a grand vision, a genuine strategy to get there, and the ability to articulate it to the masses—sacrifice will be needed, it’s time to get down to it and be real for at least the third time in 2 generations. 😉

(Source Photo: Andy Blumenthal)

L’Chaim–Live It Well!

Lchaim

I found an article on the consolation of death “buried” in my papers from a couple of months ago–and I’m glad I did.

The Wall Street Journal (10 April 2012) has a very interesting book review of “Death” by Shelly Kagan.

The book is about how do we live knowing that some day we will die–how do we console ourselves?

Here are a combination of the the ideas reviewed and my thoughts on them:

The Hard Stop–Since life and death, for each of us, cannot coexist, we are either alive or dead–“no one will ever encounter their own death”–so there is nothing to worry about.

– Not Me–We live life never really believing that we will die–instead, “death is something that happens to other people.”

Live Without Attachments–As Buddhism teaches that we should cast off attachments, self-concern, and suffering–hence, the loss of own self is a “nonevent.”

– Live The Moment
— We should live in the present and enjoy life, rather than mourn the past or worry about the future.

Live a Full Life–Live a full and meaningful life, and then perhaps, we “don’t cry because it’s over, [but rather] smile because it happened.”

Leave a Legacy–If we leave a legacy of our children and good deeds, then we live on even once we are physically gone.

I was always taught that since no one ever really came back from the other side to tell us what happens to us when we die, we should not be overly focused on it.

I remember overhearing some old men in synagogue debating what happens to us when we die–one taking the position that we go heaven and the other stating that death was the end (he put it more crudely though-something about us being dead no different than a dead dog!)

In the end, since it doesn’t pay to worry about what we don’t know and perhaps can’t even really fathom, I think all we can do is our best every moment that we are alive–and leave the rest to sort out to G-d, afterward.

The consolation then is if you tried your best, what more can anyone askof themselves or others?

In terms of the picture, the L’Chaim candy bar is a little reminder not to take everything in life so seriously either–live life and live it well. 😉

(Source Photo: herewith attribution to Uberculture, Jeremy Noble)