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It’s traditional not to offer a eulogy at a graveside funeral, but my mother was anything but traditional.

We all – including my mother – knew this day was coming, but that knowledge doesn’t make the reality any easier.

All of us will miss her greatly, especially my father. They began to date when my mother was 15, and her mother first allowed her to date. When a boy asked her out before she was 15, and my grandmother refused to allow her to go, my mother threatened to jump out the window. According to my mother, her mother said, “Go ahead; we live on the first floor.” My mother’s version of her first date with my father is that she had also been asked out by another boy, but my father was going to take her to a Chinese restaurant. Coming from an Orthodox family, this would be my mother’s first taste of tref. She accepted my father’s offer.

They knew each other well before, however, as they lived diagonally across the street from each other on Devon Street in Roxbury. My father’s family lived in a large two-family, plus attic apartment, Queen Ann Victorian. His aunt and uncle and their son Barry lived on the first floor. He and his parents and sister and grandparents lived on the second floor. My mother used to babysit for Barry.

They married almost 69 years ago, still in their teens, as soon as my father was discharged from the Navy after World War II. They moved into the attic apartment over his parents, across from her parents. My mother learned to cook from her mother-in-law; my mother’s mother was not known as a good cook. Almost everything I know about cooking, I learned from my mother, although she did tend to rely on cake mixes and, until I taught her better, would boil frozen vegetables. And it was from both my parents that I learned how to get along with in-laws.

Not that her relationship with her mother-in-law was without its conflicts. The other day, my father said my mother always said she wanted to be buried next to Grandma Gertrude so she could continue to argue with her.

My parents were able to stay together so long for two reasons: they shared the same moral values; and they complemented each other. My father is a pack rat. “You never know when you might need something or can adapt it for another use, so don’t throw it away.” My mother’s approach was, “We aren’t using it; get rid of it, preferably, by donating it. The compromise was to keep it, but store it in a logical place, usually the basement or garage where my mother wouldn’t have to see it.

That mentality fit in with her mania for cleanliness and neatness. She complained to her doctor once that her back hurt when she got on her knees to scrub the kitchen floor. I think she was in her 70s at the time. The doctor told her there was a wonderful invention called a mop and she should consider buying one. She was the type who would clean before the cleaning woman came, check afterwards, and clean again.

But my mother was not the typical stay-at-home mom who had milk and cookies waiting for me after school. As soon as I was old enough to start Hebrew school and walk there and home alone after public school, she went to work outside the home full time.

My mother was an extremely intelligent woman. When she was in high school in the 1940s, it wasn’t considered important for women to attend college, so she switched from the academic to the commercial track, and her first job after graduation was with the Grove Hall Savings Bank. She stayed there, with only a hiatus when I was young, following the bank first to Morton Street; later she worked at Newton Savings Bank in Newton Centre. For years, wherever we would go, someone would come up to her and ask, “Aren’t you Esther-from-the-bank?”

I always encouraged her to go to college, especially after she retired from the bank, but for some reason she was reluctant. She never stopped learning, however, through books, lectures, and travel.

She had a phenomenal memory for names, faces, and events. She could look at a picture of her kindergarten class and name almost everyone. She was the go-to person for family history and anecdotes, from all branches of all sides of the families, hers and my father’s.

She and my father loved to travel. But in addition to the usual cruise and resort vacations, they did things like live for several months in both India and Sri Lanka, where they searched out and befriended members of the Jewish communities in both countries. They also volunteered on a military base in Israel, where my father had fun fixing tanks while my mother used her extraordinary organizational skills in the office.

My mother never learned to drive. Her excuse was that she was traumatized when her father was severely injured when a teen driver leaped a curb and pinned him against a building. I suspect, though, that she was a Luddite. She resisted switching from a manual to an electric typewriter, and later never wanted to learn how to use a personal computer. She hated when the bank switched to computers, as she was convinced there were more errors than when everything was done by hand.

Yet, without the use of databases and spreadsheets and word processing, she managed to keep all the household records, handle their investments, and even leave me a hand-written list of what to do after her death about life insurance, pension plans, etc. Everything was planned in detail in advance.

Even after she became weakened by years of chemo and radiation treatments for lymphoma – both Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s – she fortunately retained her mental acuity, and continued with her interest in the news (and outrage at non-liberal – and some liberal – politicians), love of books and classic movies, and deep commitment to Judaism.

My parents were not very observant when I was younger, although they belonged to an Orthodox synagogue in Mattapan and were active in its social activities. It was only after they moved to Newton and joined a Conservative synagogue that they became more observant, keeping Kashrut, for example, and my mother became a bat mitzvah. They were active in many areas of the Massachusetts Jewish community, from Soviet Jewry to the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts to their affiliation with and involvement with Temple Reyim in Newton and Congregation Aschei Chesed on the Cape, which they helped found. And their Jewish commitments didn’t wane in Florida, with their activities on behalf of Temple Torah.

Both my parents have been long-time liberals. Their response to the Bush win over Gore was to become active in the Florida Democratic Committee. My mother loved to engage people in political debates. My father told me one of their neighbors, a right-wing Republican, lamented he’d have no one to argue with now.

Many people didn’t realize it, but my mother had a very subtle sense of humor. My favorite story happened when I was a baby. My cousin Peter, Barry’s brother, who lived in the same house, was born five weeks before me. He also had red hair. My mother would take both of us out on walks, and people would stop and say, “Oh, how cute. Are they twins?” To which my mother would reply, “No, they’re five weeks apart,” and then walk on without looking back.

And, of course, there’s family. As I said before, she never considered her in-laws to be anything but parents, and my husband Gary as her son. One of her biggest regrets was that she was unable to travel to Boston for her brother Barney’s funeral.

And there was her adoration of her grandsons, Natan and Ari. When we called my parents to tell them that they were grandparents after Natan’s arrival, they were preparing to go the Cape for the weekend. They switched directions, drove to NJ, and only afterwards realized they hadn’t packed things they kept at the Cape, like nightwear and toothbrushes. Ari’s bar mitzvah was the last time they traveled. There was no way my mother was going to miss the occasion. No phone call – and there were a lot of them – was complete without my giving a full rundown on all the boys’ activities.

I had planned to speak briefly, but once I began writing, I realized I couldn’t say everything important about her 87 years in just a few words. And I’m still not sure I’ve done her justice. Her passing has left a big hole in the lives of all who knew and loved her.


Today, a friend – an actual one, not just a virtual one – posted a picture on Facebook of some ducks in a pond near her home in CA. The pictures weren’t too clear, as often happens when taking photos of distant objects with a cell phone. (And I have the blurry Facebook posts I’ve added to prove it.) I tried to identify the species, thinking at first they were mallards. But their heads weren’t green, but were white with a black stripe from crown to nape. I spent all too much time checking images and descriptions of various ducks, teals, and other water birds, and finally posted, “I’m stumped. The pix aren’t clear enough for me to ID them. They’re not mallards – no solid dark or green head on the one on the left – but the rufous breast indicates it may be. I was thinking it could be a hybrid mallard X black duck or mottled duck, but neither species is in CA.”

To which another friend replied, “Shucks, Ilene – ‘duck’ will do!”

To which I replied, “Not for a birder!”

After which I realized (and posted) the observation that I enjoy bird watching and both writing and reading mystery books for the same reason: to find a solution.

When reading mysteries, I try to outguess the author (and, sometimes, the protagonist) by finding out whodunit before the end of the book. If the author has played fair and seeded enough hints throughout the book, I’ll sometimes succeed. But even if I’m surprised at the end, I’ll have the fun of the “ah hah!” moment when I realize what I had overlooked. On the other hand, if there are facts the author has withheld, then not only won’t I succeed, but I’ll be frustrated and annoyed at the end of the book.

When writing mysteries, I have two problems: 1. Confounding the reader without cheating them, while not being so simplistic that there’s no real suspense. 2. Constructing a complex mystery without writing myself into a corner I can’t write myself out of. It happens. Often. Which is why the delete button was invented.

In birding, there’s also the experience of solving a puzzle. (I’m referring now to identifying a bird, rather than recognizing it without any conscious thought.) Both birding and reading and/or writing mysteries involve the same kind of attention to minutiae, plus the unraveling and organizing of details that seem inconsequential at first: when and where and circumstances and shape and environment and the process of elimination and, ultimately, logic.

And in both cases, there’s an enormous sense of accomplishment at having arrived at the answer.

As for the mystery ducks, I used the same set of steps mentioned above, “when and where and circumstances and shape and environment and the process of elimination and, ultimately, logic,” to arrive at the solution that they are immature red-necked phalaropes.

Unless they’re not. In which case, they’re Miss Scarlet in the dining room with a rope.

NJ is the punchline of many mean-spirited jokes. Find out what residents of South Jersey know and why they disagree with the rest of the US – and North Jersey.  Check out my guest blog on Annette Snyder’s site “Fifty Authors from Fifty States” at http://annettesnyder.blogspot.com.

And if any of what I wrote sounds familiar, it’s because I cribbed from my own previous blogs on the topic!

Small but interested audience last night at the Moorestown Library. But my next appearance promises to be a crowded one – if the weather cooperates better than it did last night.

I’ll be exhibiting (and, I hope, selling) my books at BooksNJ 2015, Sunday, June 14, 1:00-5:00 PM, on the grounds of the Paramus Public Library.

And speaking of panels, I’ve been asked to be on one there (time TBA):
Killing in New Jersey:  Murder in the Garden State
Michael Stephen Daigle
Ilene Schneider
Dave White
Maureen Wlodarczyk
Panel Leader: Lori-Ann Quinn

The BooksNJ website (http://www.booksnj.org/) promises:


MAY 21, 7:00 PM: MOORESTOWN LIBRARY, 100 West 2nd Street, Moorestown, NJ: Panel with NJ Authors Network MOORESTOWN

JUNE 14, 1:00-5:00PM: BOOKSNJ, Paramus Public Library, 116 East Century Road, Paramus, NJ

JULY 15-20: LAS VEGAS, Orleans Hotel and Casino, 4500 W. Tropicana Ave.

JULY 16-19: PUBLIC SAFETY WRITERS ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE (http://policewriter.com/wordpress/conference/)

AUGUST 7-9: DEADLY INK, NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ, Fan Guest of Honor (http://www.deadlyink2015.org/)




I don’t like practical jokes, even on April Fools Day. I never really enjoyed the original “Candid Camera,” and have never seen “Punk’d.” I squirm when I see people humiliated in public. Or in private. So it was completely unintentional, and rather ironic, when I became the perpetrator of such a hoax.

It began on March 31, when fellow Oak Tree Press author Sharon Moore emailed all of the OTP authors to check the blog on April 1 for an important announcement. When I clicked on the site the following day, there was a “press release” from Sharon that OTP publisher Billie Johnson had signed a deal with Simon and Schuster. “Wow,” I thought naively, “I wonder if S&S is going to distribute our books under a new imprint.” Then I read further and realized it was a doozy of an April Fools Day joke. Billie, Sharon wrote, was purchasing S&S! After I stopped chuckling, I sent an email announcing that I had big news, too: my books had been optioned by Hollywood, Broadway, and TV.

I thought my joke was so good (and absurd – I love absurdist humor) that I posted a version of the email onto my FaceBook page. I wrote:

“I was sworn to secrecy until April 1, but I can now announce my Rabbi Aviva Cohen books have been optioned as a movie by Spielberg, as a series by HBO, and as a musical by Sondheim. Bette Midler will star in all 3 productions. And Mel Brooks is teaming up with Gene Wilder and Carl Reiner to adapt Talk Dirty Yiddish as a PBS special.”

And that’s when the joke was on me.

Many people got it. I got a lot of comments along the lines of “Yeah, you wish.” But I got others with what seemed to be sincere congratulations

The April 1 “dateline” hadn’t tipped everyone off. So I added a link to Sharon’s blog. I still got awed responses. So I suggested people check the date of the posting. Still too subtle. So I posted it was a joke. Some friends responded to the original post without checking the comments. Two days later, after 135 likes (some for the cleverness of the joke) and 87 comments (many from people who understood it was a hoax), I posted a new status explaining it was a joke.

My favorite response was from an author I consider a friend (I hope she still feels the same about me) who wrote, “You mean I just wasted hours being green with envy? And now my husband is laughing at me.” But I couldn’t tell if she were serious, or if she had realized it was a joke and was going along with it.

And that’s really the crux of the matter. As I wrote in my mea culpa, the joke must have been a success if people believed it. But, I continued, it also “demonstrates the limits of the written word for communication, as people can’t hear tone of voice and inflections or observe body language.”

My idea is not original. Much has been written about how hard it is to know what someone intends when reading a post or a text. A whole industry – that of emoticons – is devoted to “solving” the problem. But is that big grin meant to be ironic? Is someone hiding behind the winking face to disguise an insult? Even my favorite comic strip, “Pearls before Swine,” devoted a series to using emoticons to excuse nasty comments. (“If you’re hurt by what I said, it’s your problem. I added a wink.”)

How can we really be communicating when comments are taken out of context and there are no auditory or visual cues to help understand what is meant?

Do I have answers? No. Just more questions. And puzzlement.

But I do appreciate  my husband’s perspective on the matter. He told me I should be flattered that people thought the news could be possible. It meant they liked my books. Of course, it could also mean they have a low opinion of popular culture. I prefer to believe that they do think my books are that good. So if anyone has contact with Spielberg or Sondheim or HBO or Bette Midler or Mel Brooks or Carl Reiner or Gene Wilder, please let them know I’m willing to accept offers. But, please, no prank contacts from them. I, too, can be very gullible.

The major theme of Passover is the universal one of  celebrating the journey from slavery to freedom, from tyranny to independence. The foods served and displayed on the Seder plate, in the center of the table, all have symbolic meanings relating to the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt: the matzah (unleavened bread) for the haste with which the Israelites fled from Egypt; the horseradish or other bitter herb for the bitterness of oppression; the shank bone for the 10th plague, when the Israelites put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts to ward off the Angel of Death, and  to represent the Paschal offering in the days of the Temple; the greens to represent the spring season; salt water, to represent the tears that were shed under the cruelty of the taskmasters; the hardboiled egg to symbolize wholeness and the cycle of the year; and the charoset, to remind us of the mortar the Israelites used to make bricks.

“Charoset?” you ask. “Never heard of it. What is it? And who wants to eat mortar?”

Glad you asked. Charoset is a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and red wine. Other families may have their favorites, made with figs, dates, and other fruits. But apples, nuts, cinnamon, and wine are the ingredients I grew up with. Sometimes, I’m a traditionalist.

It’s simple to make: put all the ingredients into a food processor (so maybe I’m not that much of a traditionalist) and mush it up. Taste. Decide it’s missing something. Add more wine. Taste. Now it’s too watery. Add more nuts. Taste. Now it’s too bland. Add more cinnamon. Taste. Now it’s too sharp. Add more apples. Look for a larger bowl. Taste. Give up and decide it’s fine the way it is.

I’ve been following that recipe for years, and have yet to hear any complaints. Our guests wouldn’t dare complain. If they do, they’ll be in charge of making the charoset next year.

To my friends who celebrate Passover, have a hag sameach (happy holiday) and a zissen Pesach (a sweet Passover).




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