Blog posts about the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries and their author Rabbi Ilene Schneider

Archive for the ‘Personal Reflection’ Category


Once upon a time – a long time ago – when I was young, one of my favorite Passover treats was carrot candy, not to be confused with candied carrots. It was basically carrots, sugar, and ginger, boiled and then cooled until it solidified and could be cut into small triangles. I loved it. So, as a young adult, with my first apartment and eager to cook, I asked my father’s mother for the recipe.

My memory of her directions is: “It’s easy. You peel and grate [by hand, of course] ten pounds of carrots. Put the shredded carrots into a sauce pan with five pounds of sugar and constantly stir over a low heat for two hours.” It was then that I realized Grandma Gert and I had very different definitions of “it’s easy.”

After my grandmother died in 1988, I was sorry I hadn’t written down the recipe, just to have it. My mother had inherited her mother-in-law’s recipe box, but I’m not sure I ever asked her to look for it. It’s possible I did ask her and she couldn’t find it. It was one of those recipes my grandmother didn’t have to look up. (My mother took possession of the recipe box because her sister-in-law, my Aunt Joan, used her refrigerator only to store batteries, nail polish, film, and yogurt; I can’t recall every seeing her cook, but have a lot of memories of going to restaurants with her.) I then began a lengthy and futile online search for the recipe. All I could find, however, were directions for making candied carrots, a totally different recipe.

Then, one day a few years ago, I came across an article in the Jewish Forward by a food writer from South Africa about favorite Lithuanian Jewish recipes. Grandma Ida, my great grandmother, who had taught her American-born and very assimilated daughters how to cook, had come to the US from Kupishok, Kovno, Lithuania, at age 18 in 1896. And, according to family oral history, she had quite a few half-siblings who settled in South Africa instead of the US.

One of the recipes sounded just like what I remembered of my grandmother’s instructions, but with “only” six cups of grated carrots, three-and-a-half cups of sugar, and one hour of frequent stirring. (See recipe at the end of this story.)

The biggest difference was the name. It wasn’t carrot candy, but ingberlach. “Of course,” I thought, “makes sense. After all, ‘ingber’ is Yiddish for ‘ginger,’ from the German ‘ingwer.’”

More frustrating is when I mentioned the name to my father and he said, “Sure. Ingberlach. Grandma made it all the time.” It would have saved me hours of searching if I’d thought to ask him instead of my mother. It never crossed my mind that both Grandma Ida and Grandma Gert almost always referred to food by the English not Yiddish names. In fact, Grandma Ida denied she even had an accent and refused to speak Yiddish because “I’m a Hamerican.”

So, I took out my food processor (no hand-grating for me) and spent an inordinate amount of time and effort to make carrot candy. It never solidified, even after I put it into the freezer. I think I was so worried about scorching it and ruining the sauce pan that I didn’t allow the liquid to evaporate completely. The flavor was okay, but the consistency wasn’t and it was very sticky. No one else ate it, and even I gave up after a while.

I never tried again, until a few days ago. Guess what? Still not as I remember. But I used more ginger, so the flavor is better. But it’s still too soft and sticky.

I now have both my mother’s and grandmother’s recipe boxes. I think it’s time to go through them. Maybe I can figure out why the taiglach – small balls of dough boiled in honey – another specialty of Grandma Gert’s, but for Rosh Hashanah not Pesach, always come out hard and dry.

Ingberlach (Ginger-Carrot Candies)

Slightly adapted from “The New International Goodwill Recipe Book,” published by the Women’s Zionist League of South Africa (1981).

6 cups peeled and grated carrots (from about 2 pounds of carrots)
3 1/2 cups sugar
juice and zest of 1 lemon (or 2 tbsp juice, 2 tsp zest)
juice and zest of 1 orange (or 1/3 cup oj, 2 tbsp zest)
2 teaspoons ginger, or more to taste

1) Place the carrots and sugar in a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat.

2) Bring to a boil, then lower heat to medium-low and cook, stirring often, until mixture turns thick and jammy, about 40 minutes.

3) Stir in the lemon and orange zests and juices, and the ginger, and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until mixture turns very thick and all of the liquid has evaporated, approximately 20 more minutes.

4) Mist a baking sheet lightly with water, then spoon the carrot mixture on top; gently smooth with a rubber spatula to a 1/2-inch thickness (if candy is sticking to the spatula, wet it with a little water).

5) Allow the candy to set, uncovered, in the fridge, then cut into rectangle or diamond-shapes. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.


Most people are aware of – and have probably indulged in – binge watching. I have for “Game of Thrones,” and “Grace and Frankie” and “Happy Valley” and “Red Dwarf.” Many weeks, I’ll save all four episodes of “EastEnders” to watch in one block. (The time commitment is the same as for a feature-length movie, but with fresh popcorn.)

I also tend to binge read.

I’ll read a positive review of the latest book in a series, think it sounds like something I would enjoy, and then realize I’ve never read any of the earlier books. So I start from the beginning. It’s not a problem when there are, for example, five earlier books. But when an author has been writing the same series for a couple of decades and now has over twenty books in print, the prospect can be daunting. Plus expensive, even with e-books. (And many libraries, because of space restrictions, cull older books from their shelves.) But I do it anyway. Sometimes, I’m rewarded by an author who is so good that I buy the next book in her series before I finish the earlier one, so I can continue to read without a break.

But there is a potential difficulty with binge reading. Not only can it become tedious (I generally take a break and read something else after Book #3. Or #4. Definitely by #12.), but the idiosyncratic, “charming” tropes an author uses, whether consciously or not, become, to put it bluntly, annoying.

When an author comes out with a maximum of one book every year, it’s easy to forget during the time lag that these writing quirks exist. One author, throughout all his books, describes, in detail, every trip, no matter how short, with names of streets and stores I don’t know, plus all the traffic and parking woes. When reading one or two books a week instead of one book every one or two years, it becomes painfully obvious that the technique is not only frustrating, but pointless. This author, whose books aren’t very long anyway, includes so much information about traffic jams that I began to suspect he was using the details as filler to make the books longer. The fact that the mysteries were pretty thin and not very complex or even interesting became obvious by the end of Book #2. I read the next one anyway, and then stopped when I realized he was repeating himself. I suspect he had discovered cut-and-paste.

Another author’s protagonist tends to have brilliant leaps of logic that help him solve mysteries that have everyone else – police, private detectives, family, friends – baffled. But he lacks the thoughtfulness and insightfulness of a Holmes or Poirot. He just suddenly knows what happened. And during the book he displays all the traits usually ascribed to TSTL (too stupid to live) females. Hey, if someone has just tried to kill your daughter, and is also targeting you, and you go with her to her apartment and notice right away the lock has been jimmied, what do you do? My protagonist (and I) would go back outside and call 9-1-1. What does he do? Enter the apartment, find the light switch doesn’t work, let his daughter precede him inside. Of course, both of them are attacked. To make things worse, in another book – come to think of it, in every book – he knows he shouldn’t be doing what he does and then isn’t surprised when he gets hit over the head or locked in an abandoned building. If he’s not surprised and expects it’s an ambush, you’d think he’d avoid the situation instead of walking into the trap, sometimes several times in the same book.

The time span between books also leads to a kind of amnesia. “Hmm,” I think, “I read the previous book last year. I think I enjoyed it.” So I’ll read the next one, and then part way through remember that I hadn’t particularly liked the protagonist or the setting or the mystery. I read it anyway, though, because I have a completion fetish. I avoid that mistake when reading one book in a series after another with no gap between them, and so I don’t bother reading another in which the protagonist has not changed or developed. Or worse, I don’t find her likeable or believable.

Fortunately, I’ve found the valuable gems – those books I can’t wait to download so I can continue reading without a break– far outnumber the plastic baubles. I’m so glad I have a Kindle.






I am not a politician. I am not a scientist. I am not a botanist nor a biologist nor an ornithologist. I am not an expert in history, neither natural nor human. I am not an ecologist nor a professional conservationist.  I drive a hybrid, but I also travel by air. I try not to use chemical fertilizers or pesticides or weed killers in my garden, but I also have no intention of pulling out poison ivy by hand. I compost and recycle, but I use my garbage disposal. In other words, I am a regular citizen, with all the contradictions that entails.

When I first moved to South Jersey in 1981, I had never heard of the Pine Barrens. I knew nothing about Elizabeth White and her cultivation of the first commercially viable blueberries. I had never heard tales of the Jersey Devil. I had never visited Atsion Lake or Batsto or driven on a sugar sand road or seen the Caranza Memorial or climbed the fire tower on top Apple Pie Hill. Wharton to me was the name of a graduate school of business in West Philadelphia.

I then read John McPhee’s The  Pine Barrens and so began my fascination with this incredible treasure in our backyards.

I am not naïve enough to think the Pine Barrens we know and enjoy are the same ones that existed when the Leni Lenape were the only human inhabitants of the area. Forests were clear cut to provide timber to fire the forges that produced cannon balls for Washington’s army and decorative fireplace surrounds for the industrialists who owned those forges. Rivers were dammed to create the lakes that provided the water power for mills. Cranberry bogs were dug and houses were built – small cabins for the workers in company towns and huge mansions for their bosses.

But in November, 1978, the US Congress through the National Parks and Recreation Act, created the Pinelands National Reserve.  Only three months later, in February, 1979, the Pinelands Commission was established, followed in June by Governor Brendan Byrne’s signing of the Pinelands Protection Act. By January, 1981, both Governor Byrne and the US Secretary of the Interior approved the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan. In 1988, the United Nations formally recognized the uniqueness of the Pine Barrens by designating the area a Biosphere Reserve.

Because of the vision and the political will of Governor Byrne and others like him, we are able to enjoy the natural beauty of the Pine Barrens. If not for those actions almost forty years ago, we would now be sitting in the midst of a sprawling urban enclave, complete with a supersonic airport, shopping malls, a city, and miles of concrete and asphalt.

We cannot undo the mistakes of the past centuries – the destruction of the original old-growth forests, the damming of the rivers, the creation of factories and farms – whether they were done through ignorance or greed or even the need to survive. But you, as the officially appointed stewards of the Pinelands National Reserve, can prevent the repeat of these errors. You have within your power the ability to prevent the degradation of the land and the dismantling of the intentions of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan by voting NO to the installment of a natural gas pipeline through the Pinelands. Please vote your conscience, not expediency.


I’ve been lax about updating my blog entries because whenever I decide to share an insight or event, whether personal or political (aren’t they the same?) or book-related, I post it on Facebook. I’m aware that not everyone who reads my blog is a Facebook friend or follower, so I decided I’d collect the comments and pictures I had posed during an incredible three-week trip Gary and I took in August to Seattle, Vancouver, southwest Alaska (on a cruise through the Inner Passage with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Glacier Bay), Denali, and Fairbanks.

But I discovered a problem when I began to write my travelogue: a written description of a trip, even complete with pictures, is boring. Remember those old film strips teachers would show in class? Boring. Remember going to dinner at some elderly (to you) relatives’ house and later having to sit through an interminably long slide show of their vacation? Boring. Remember bringing home a new boyfriend or girlfriend and having your parents pull out all your baby pictures? Boring. Not to mention embarrassing.

I was on the trip, and I can assure you the reality was terrific. We were never bored. We did things we didn’t think we’d ever do, saw things we’d never seen, had experiences we’d never imagined, reconnected with friends we hadn’t seen for forty or more years. But when I read what I had written, I was bored. I was bored while writing it. Even the pictures were boring – after a while, all mountains volcanoes, rivers, waterfalls look the same.

Doling out the information, complete with my wryly humorous (to my mind anyway) observations, in short bits once a day (more or less) may have been entertaining. Putting it into a running narrative is … have I said this yet? … boring.

So instead of a travelogue, here are some life lessons I culled along the way. In no particular order. And without relevant pictures.

  1. It’s very hard to take decent pictures with an iPhone. But it’s even harder to take pictures without it, as I learned one day when I didn’t get a picture of a Bald Eagle posing close by. I had left my tote bag with my wallet and phone in the trunk of the car of a lovely Seattle couple who took me birding one day. I was wearing yoga pants (hey, they’re comfy – I’ve never even tried yoga) and a tee-shirt, without pockets. Fortunately, the couple had a very good camera and emailed me the picture.
  2. It’s harder to take pictures from a moving train. Particularly when it’s raining. And I have the blurry pictures to prove it.
  3. It’s hardest to take pictures of wildlife, especially when they’re far off and moving. And the train is also moving. Wildlife photographers must have infinite patience – and very high quality cameras. And very fast (or is it slow?) exposure to get pictures of Orcas and Humpbacked Whales when they are breaching.
  4. It’s fun to get out of one’s comfort zone, as I discovered on a solo trip to Mount Baker, in a rented car, without cell phone reception. Fortunately, it was a direct route from Bellingham, where I visited some friends. (Notice, I didn’t say it was a straight route.) But it’s also a good idea not to be too reckless, which is why the following day I took a bus tour to Mount Rainier.
  5. And it can be rewarding to try – and succeed – at something you didn’t think you could do. On the way to Mt. Baker, I took a side trip to Nooksack Falls. For the first time in years, I was able to go down (and back up) a fortunately short but extremely steep rock and tree root strewn trail to the waterfall. I got to the vantage point to discover I was too short to see over the chain link safety fence so I could take pix, but I managed to climb up some rocks to see over the fence. I was so proud of myself, I texted Gary, who was a presenter and participant of the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies in Seattle, and said, “Look what I did, all by myself!”
  6. Sometimes, it’s nice to be taken care of. After we went through customs at Vancouver and boarded our cruise ship, we didn’t schlep our luggage again until we left Fairbanks to fly to Seattle and then home. The luggage was already in our cabin on the ship and in our rooms in Denali and Fairbanks.
  7. You can find a minyan anywhere. There’s an episode of “Northern Exposure” in which the Jewish doctor who has been assigned to the interior of Alaska is looking for a quorum to say Kaddish, the Mourners’ Prayer, for his uncle. He has a dream in which he rounds up everyone named Cohen (even the writers/directors the Coen brothers). We did the same thing, but in our case it was done through eavesdropping and then corralling anyone we heard speaking Hebrew so I could say Kaddish on the first anniversary of my mother’s death. We even found an American who, after the three of us kept staring at each other, turned out to be an acquaintance from our graduate school years in Philadelphia. A couple of days later, we all got together again and held Shabbat services (interrupted by a sighting of a pod of sea otters) and had dinner together.
  8. And you never know who lives in far-flung places. We had dinner in Skagway with a rabbinic colleague who lives in Israel but visits his kids in Skagway every summer. And we had dinner in Fairbanks with a classmate from my undergraduate days in Boston who has lived in Fairbanks for several years.
  9. Global warming is real. Just ask any Alaskan, at least the ones we met. If you’re not convinced by their apologizes that the waterfalls aren’t as spectacular as usual because of the lack of snow the past few winters, then read about how the glaciers are receding at an accelerated rate.
  10. You think you’ll remember where you were and what you saw. You won’t. It’s a good thing I filed all the pix as soon as I could into folders on my iPhone or the only reason I would have been able to tell the difference between Mount Baker and Mount Rainer is I saw the former, but the latter was hidden by clouds. (We did get a distant view of it from the Seattle Space Needle.) As I mentioned above, after a while, all mountains, volcanoes, rivers, waterfalls look the same.
  11. It doesn’t matter if everything blurs together; there’s always Professor Google to remind you of the difference between the taiga and the tundra.
  12. I can survive quite well without Wi-Fi, but only if I have cell phone reception and can check emails, texts, news notifications, and Facebook several times a day. Otherwise, I suffer withdrawal symptoms, as evidenced by my checking every few minutes to see if we had reception yet.
  13. Even if you can’t remember all the details, the pictures – even the blurry ones – still show the splendor of the planet.
  14. Finally, if you bump into me and don’t think you’ll be bored, I’ll be happy to show you all 399 of my pictures.


During Hallel at services during Shavuot, I was struck by the contemporary relevance of Psalm 115. Here is a modern translation:

They have mouths, but  cannot speak.
They have eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear.
They have noses, but cannot smell.
They have hands, but cannot feel.
They have feet, but cannot walk.
They have mouths, but cannot make a sound.
They will become like the idols they made and trust in them.

With just a few emendations, what the psalmist wrote applies to any fanatic who follows a tyrant or a doctrinaire belief system:

They have mouths, but cannot engage in rational or respectful debate.
They have eyes, but cannot see the evidence in front of them.
They have ears, but cannot hear opposing points of view.
They have noses, but can’t smell when something’s not right.
They have hands, but can’t feel for the suffering of others.
They have feet, but can’t walk away from what is wrong.
They have mouths, but cannot question what they are told.
These extremists have already become like their idols and believe what they say.


SEE PHOTOS OF THE TRIP ON MY FACEBOOK PAGE:!/album.php?aid=32564&id=1675915483

Is it a book tour when the author is going to be in an area anyway and arranges some readings and signings herself? And combines the “tour” with a vacation? And does it matter? (Besides, of course, to the IRS, but I’ll leave it to our accountant to figure it out.)

On July 13, I presented a program on Talk Dirty Yiddish at the annual conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies in LA; the next day, I repeated the program at the Orange County JCC in Irvine, and appeared at the Mystery Ink Bookstore in Huntington Beach for a signing of Chanukah Guilt. I sold books throughout the conference (and at the JCC and the bookstore). And I reread what I had already completed of Unleavened Dead and rewrote entire sections. But here’s the context of the “tour”:

When Gary and I were both asked to present programs at the IAJGS, we decided to take advantage of our temporary empty nest and go a week early so we could have a vacation. A real vacation, no agenda, no plans, no chores, no cooking, no cleaning, no laundry (that awaited our return home), no kids. It was the longest we’d gone away together, minus kids, in, oh, about 22 ½ years. (Natan is 22. Do the math. We did.)

We were in full tourist mode, sightseeing and eating our way through LA and environs. We took a “hop-on, hop-off” bus tour (no celeb houses, though – we figured we’d only see gates and lawns – but lots of tourists looking for celebs), went to Grauman’s Chinese Theater and LaBrea Tar Pits and Santa Monica Pier (2 birds I’d never seen before , aka “lifers”: Heermann’s Gull and Western Gull) and the Grammy Museum and the Paley Center for Media and “South Pacific” (where we bought Ari a t-shirt, since he was in the play at camp) and Olvera Street . . . and ate . . . and ate . . . and ate. We even experienced an earthquake. (Epicenter 150 miles away, but the hotel swayed. Fun only because there were no injuries, no damage, and it lasted only a few seconds. Felt longer.)

The highlight of our eating adventures was the Mexican ice cream festival at a restaurant next to the hotel. Even without the kids to witness our transgression, we felt guilty eating dessert for dinner, so we had a guacamole appetizer first. Then the ice cream. Mexican chocolate (cinnamon made it different) and blueberry and Mexican cookie (cinnamon again) dough and sweet cream and, my favorite, the most intensely flavored mint I’d ever tasted, laced with ribbons of Mexican chocolate and topped with pomegranate sauce. I’d better move on to another topic before I short out my laptop from the drool.

After the conference began, Gary was busy attending sessions. So, the ever devoted spouse, I rented a car and took off on my own. I went up to Griffith Park, home not only of the iconic Griffith Observatory, film location of the observatory scenes in “Rebel without a Cause;” not only of a bird sanctuary, where I saw a lifer black Phoebe; but of the newly (to me anyway) iconic Greek Theatre. I had no idea the pseudonymous site of “Get Him to the Greek” was an actual place. It was, unfortunately, closed, so I had to look elsewhere for an Infant Sorrow t-shirt for Natan.

I continued down the hill (mountain? Earthquake-created mound?), around the corner, and up the hill to the LA Zoo. (Another lifer in the rushing water feature at the entrance: American Dipper. Don’t ask why I didn’t take a picture. Truth: I didn’t think of it.)

Then it was off to Franklin Canyon, where I discovered the joys of driving a car on 1 ½ lane switchbacks with cars coming in both directions. It’s also where I discovered that a GPS with spoken directions is much safer than trying to look at a printout from Google Maps (often inaccurate) while driving on said switchbacks. For once in my life, I drove with both hands on the wheel, my foot hovering over the brake, and my eyes firmly on the road. Fortunately, I made it; unfortunately, the nature center (but not the grounds) had closed 10 minutes earlier and the ranger wouldn’t unlock it for me. But I did get another lifer: an Anna’s hummingbird. Two, in fact, flittering around a tree. Not even at a feeder.

I ended the day at the Milky Way, a Kosher dairy restaurant owned by Lea Spielberg. Yes, the mother of that Spielberg. She greeted me at the door, showed me to my table, was very gracious, asked me about myself and then told the other patrons (no celebs, alas; at least none I recognized) that I was a rabbi from New Jersey. She was particularly tickled when I told her I lived near Haddonfield, where the family lived when Steven (may I call him “Steven”?) was growing up. I gave her one of my cards with info. about my books and fantasized for about 2 minutes about getting an email from her son. I told her how much Ari likes Schindler’s List, which he saw as part of his class on literature of the Holocaust, and she told me proudly how Steven had taken her with him to Poland. She said she every now and then looks in the mirror and thinks, “I’m WHOSE mother?”

Oh, did I mention that we ate a lot of great food?

On the way back east, we took the redeye to Minneapolis, a puddle jumper to Rhinelander, WI, rented a car, drove to the middle of nowhere, turned left and kept going until we reached Camp Ramah in the North Woods (aka Conover), WI. We had missed visiting day because of our LA trip and came for Shabbat instead.
It was a wonderful experience, unhurried, uncrowded, peaceful.

But hot. It’s supposed to be cold, or at least chilly, up there. It wasn’t. So we didn’t need all the sweaters and long pants we’d brought (bringing our individual bags to just under the 50 lb. limit for each). We did, however, need insect repellant. Ten days later, and I’m still scratching.

Best of all, of course, was seeing Ari and witnessing for ourselves what a terrific and successful summer he’s having.

Worst of all was getting home again. The trip was fine. And Natan picked us up at the Philadelphia airport. It was great to see Natan, who had not only kept the plants on the back deck alive but had planted new ones on the front porch. We could tell he hadn’t taken advantage of our absence (not that we expected him to) and had a wild party, because the house was as messy as we had left it. (If he’d had a party, he would have had to straighten up first and his friends would have left the place in better condition than we had.) It was the transition back to “real life” that was tough. I may have been away from work for 2 weeks, but it then took another week to get caught up.

Ah, well, it was fun while it lasted. But Unleavened Dead won’t write itself.

Did I mention we ate our way through LA?


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.



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.

How to Make Charoset. (Huh?)

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).




Check out my new guest blog, hosted by Lesley Diehl, “author of cozy mysteries featuring sassy, country gals who enjoy snooping,” at Lesley asked, “What’s so funny about murder?” My answer: “Humor is subjective.”