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

Archive for the ‘Personal Reflection’ Category


What is more important: real success or the illusion of success? Read my thoughts about how to promote yourself so you seem like a big fish in a big pond when you’re a tiny bit of alga in a puddle.


My favorite women’s clothing store, Coldwater Creek, will be closing all of its brick-and-mortar and online sites in just over a week. I have been buying my clothes from them since they were a catalog only retailer. I estimate that at least 90% of my wardrobe is from them. If I count only those clothes I wear every day, especially before I retired, it’s probably closer to 95%.

I love their clothes. They fit well, they hold up well, they wash well, they are fashionable without being trendy or flashy. And that may be why, despite the fact that “everyone” I know of a certain age shops there, they have gone out of business.

The clothes are durable, so there’s no need to replace them every year or so when they wear out. (The exception are 100% cotton jerseys, which tend to become misshapen after several washings. Or maybe it’s the dryings. Or maybe it’s because I never bother to follow cleaning instructions.) I have one plain black “travel knit” shift that can be dressed up or down depending on what I wear over it. I’m not sure how old it is. It is so versatile that shortly after I bought it I got a second one, worried that I would somehow damage the first and not be able to replace it. The backup dress is still folded in tissue paper on a shelf in my closet.

Plus, because they’re not trendy, the clothes don’t look dated. They stay in my closet (and on my body) for years before I give them to charity, and then usually only because I’ve worn them so often I’ve gotten bored with them. I have a few things that may be 10-15 years old.

The very reasons I like Coldwater Creek – durability and timelessness – are probably why they haven’t shown a profit since 2007. I’ll have a discount coupon begging to be redeemed, will go to the store, and not find anything I want to buy because I already have the same thing at home.

And what does that have to do with writing? (Thought I’d forgotten the topic, didn’t you?) A book series has to stay fresh and innovative to remain popular. I have stopped reading some authors on my “must read” list because they are writing the same book every time, just changing the names and settings. Or there’s no character development: the main characters don’t age, the events of previous books don’t affect their behaviors or attitudes. Why spend money on a book I’ve, in essence, already read? Yes, they may be comfortable, they may still hold interest, but eventually, they become stale. And if they’re classics, I’ll just re-read them, not buy new ones by the same author. Unless it’s something fresh.


Several years ago, when my oldest son, now 26, was a toddler, I read to him nightly. Usually, the books were my old favorites, books like Ferdinand the Bull or Doctor Doolittle or Winnie the Pooh. One day, I took out my childhood copy, unearthed from my parents’ basement when they moved from the Boston area to South Florida, of one of the Bobbsey Twin books. I adored the Bobbsey Twins as a child and read them all. Bert and Nan and Freddie and Flossie were my friends. I opened the book with great anticipation of sharing it with my son, so imagine my dismay when I couldn’t get beyond the first half page. The family’s maid was written as a stereotypical Stephen Fetchet character, complete with misspelled words to represent her mangling of the English language. It doesn’t bother me when I read the dialect in a classic like Huckleberry Finn, maybe because I don’t read it aloud, but I could not continue with the Bobbsey Twins.

      More recently, I was on a panel at a local library, and we were asked to share our favorite or most influential book. I had no problem choosing one: Eloise was the book that introduced me to the wonders of libraries. I went to the local Barnes and Noble, took the book from the shelf, got an overly-caloric drink, and sat down to read it. I fully expected to purchase the book so I could savor the antics of the high-spirited, independent, mischievous Eloise whenever I wanted. The book is still on the store’s shelf, not mine.

        I was appalled by the book. Eloise is not high-spirited, independent, or mischievous, at least not in a positive way. She is spoiled, disrespectful, disruptive, nasty, and a vandal. Her mother is almost completely absent. All we know is she travels and has credit cards. Eloise always keeps a bag packed in case her mother calls at the last minute for her to join her in an exotic locale with a warm climate, but the impression I got is that her mother has yet to do so. The father is never mentioned. The only men, besides the hotel employees, are her mother’s lawyer and a tutor, hired because no school would accept Eloise. A nanny is supposedly in charge of Eloise’s care, but does not seem to give any supervision at all. Basically, the nanny sleeps late, smokes, drinks, and watches boxing on TV.

         The main feelings I had after re-reading this book as an adult were sadness, pity, and anger at the neglect of this young, intelligent child. During the many years that had lapsed between readings, I had learned that the author, Kay Thompson, who lived at the Plaza, most likely based Eloise on her goddaughter Liza Minnelli. What a lonely child Eloise must have been.

         I am a bit worried now about revisiting some other old favorites, many of which are in public domain and free on Kindle. I’ve downloaded quite a few, and so far have not been at all disappointed by Pride and Prejudice or Sherlock Holmes or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Jane Eyre. Of course, those are not children’s books, although I read them originally a long time ago. Next up on my classics-to-be-reread is Little Women. I read it obsessively and frequently as a young teen. I really, really hope it’s as good as I remember.




Actually, the most stupid. The most daring is when Gary and I visited with Refusniks in Moscow and Leningrad during Chanukah 1980. But you can read about the most stupid – plus the answers to 11 other questions – on
Holli Castillo’s blog:


For those of you not on FaceBook (or who didn’t see my status update there), I just added the following post:
In honor of April Fools’ Day (a day early), a quote from UNLEAVENED DEAD:
“I particularly liked the story about the history professor who, in nineteen eighty-three, publicized his theory that April Fools’ Day originated when Constantine allowed his court jester to rule the empire for the day. The punch line is that the professor’s story was itself a hoax, a perfect example of an April Fools’ Day joke. And the Jewish connection (and probably a tipoff that the story was a fabrication): the jester’s name was Kugel.”


You can read all about the topic on Lorna Collins’ blog:


   A friend’s dog recently died. Her son, in his early 20s, is on the autism spectrum and missing the dog a lot. She wrote in an email: “[He] is able to verbalize a bit.  Not much but a bit.  He did say he was trying to keep the tears back, but I told him it was all right to cry.  [He] has lost a companion and he’s grieving.  It’s kind of like they were brothers growing up together.”

   In response, I sent her a copy of the reading for the online memorial service fellow author Barb Goffman had requested I write for her dog, Scout: “Two thousand years ago, the sage ben Sira wrote: ‘Bewail the dead, hide not your grief, do not restrain your mourning. But remember that continuing sorrow is worse than death. . . . Death is better than a life of pain, and eternal rest than constant sickness.’

   “He was talking about our human loved ones, but the same can be applied to our animal companions. What do we want from a loved one? Loyalty, affection, empathy, companionship; we want someone who will love us unconditionally and make us laugh, someone who comforts us and keeps us from feeling alone. Those attributes can apply to our pets as well as our human families. And pets are part of our families.

   “In Judaism, there is a lot of respect for animals. We are forbidden from harming them or causing them pain. They are not allowed to work on the Sabbath. We must feed them before ourselves.

  “Each ‘dog year’ is supposedly equivalent to seven human ones. The number seven is significant in Judaism: the seven days of the week, the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, the seventh year during which fields lie fallow, the seven circuits a bride makes around her groom in a traditional wedding ceremony. Seven is the number of completion and renewal. After six days of work, God rested; we, too, work six days and rest on the Sabbath. But then the cycle begins again, just as the cycle of life renews itself.

   “I’ll end with a quote from Proverbs 12:10: ‘A righteous man knows the soul of his animal.’ Barb, you knew Scout’s soul. He completed you, and you completed him.”

   Corresponding with my friend reminded me of something strange that happened many years ago. Just before he turned 4 (or maybe 5) my younger son, then diagnosed as being on the Spectrum, started to cry for no reason. I asked him what was wrong and he said, “I want our cat to come back.” Our cat had died exactly a year earlier – not figuratively but on the exact day. My son had not reacted at all at that time. But he did know and did mourn – he just didn’t have the words to express his feelings. Yet he instinctively remembered the date.

   I told my friend to let her son know that it is fine to cry. I was about 50 when our cat died, and fell apart in the vet’s office when I brought our cat’s body (wrapped in a large towel) there.

   I had been planning to take our cat in to be “put to sleep” that day. I didn’t do it sooner because my older son and my husband had gone away for a few days, and I didn’t want my son to come home and find out our cat had died. They came home the night before, and my son went to the vet with me. He said, “He waited for me to come home to say goodbye.” The night before, I had carried our cat into the powder room where his litter box, food, and water were. In the morning, I got up at 6AM, having a premonition and wanting to check on our cat before the boys got up. Our cat had managed to drag himself up 2 steps – his back legs had collapsed the night before – and across a 14′-wide family room to lie down in front of his favorite spot in front of the sliding glass door, where he died. I’m getting teary-eyed now remembering it.

   So, my friends, if a beloved pet dies, don’t let people try to comfort you by saying, “It was only a pet.” They mean well, but you know there’s no such thing as “just a pet.”


   Not much. But, in all fairness, it has been only just over two weeks, including days I would have been off anyway (New Years, weekends) and bad weather days when I would have worked from home.

   When people ask me how I’m enjoying being retired, I answer with a grin. Although, I am still in a period of adjustment.

    I’m having no problem with not going to work, but I’m still not used to having flexibility with my time. I don’t have to wait for a weekend or day off to wash my hair, do my nails, fill my birdfeeders, do laundry. I still put off the laundry until my underwear drawer is almost empty and the hamper is overflowing, but I don’t have to; it’s now out of choice (sounds better than “procrastination”), not lack of time. I don’t have to make appointments for haircuts or doctors in the early morning or late afternoons; I can take the first available opening. I can visit my parents in Florida (heading down there next week) without counting how much paid time off I have accumulated. Even better, if my return flight is canceled because of a blizzard, I can delay returning until the snow melts, maybe in April.

    It’s weird to drive past a nursing home facility and realize I don’t need to make visits there. And it’s nice to be able do errands whenever I feel like it rather than when I’m going to be visiting patients who live near the stores I want to go to. And I’ve been able to take care of minor errands I’d been putting off because I didn’t want to take the time while working to go, for example, to a craft shop to pick up jewelry glue to fix a ring. Or to get the tire pressure checked.

    I have even (blasphemy!) joined a gym so I can use the stationary bike. My goal is to be able to stand up from the low couch with the broken down cushions without having to rock back and forth to build up some momentum. And to walk upstairs without pulling myself up with both hands on the railing. (It’s either exercise or buy a new couch and a new house on one floor. Neither is an option until I hit the lottery or sign a seven-figure book contract, both of which have an equal chance of happening. And I never buy lottery tickets.)

    Other retirement plans include scanning our thousands of pictures into the computer. First, I need to organize the two huge boxes of pictures that have been in our family room for almost two years. No more excuses that I haven’t the time or energy to sort through them and get rid of multiple wallet-sized school pictures. I have taken the first step: the photo scanner is on the family room coffee table.

    I’m also going to clear out the coat closet. And the desk. And make a list of all the DVDs we own. And … well, you get the idea.

    I volunteered to be treasurer of the Burlington County Natural Sciences Club. I’m going to call the Rancocas Nature Center, where I used to work, to see if they have an open shift in the bookstore.

    I think I’ve finally sorted through all my emails. Now I have to see if those who wrote me about my doing guest blogs for them are still interested. And I need to continue with my book promos and writing the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mystery #3, Yom Killer.

    Yesterday, my younger  son called in the mid-afternoon to let me know he was home. I said I probably wouldn’t see him until I got home after the board meeting of the Friends of the Library. His response: “I thought you were retired.”

    I am. But, as one of my friends said, “You’re not retired. You’re re-tired. You had new tires put on.”

    Yup, and enjoying the smoother ride





It is traditional on Chanukah to eat any food that has been fried in oil. For some reason, though, we tend to restrict ourselves to two items: latkes and donuts. So here are my suggestions to diversify our menu for each day of the holiday. It’s geared toward this year, but can be adapted for any.

  1. Wednesday night: Fried hamburger (Forget the broiler or the grill; my grandmother from Ukraine used to make this for me whenever I visited, so I consider fried hamburgers to be traditional Eastern European Bubbe Food.)
  2. Thursday dinner and Friday lunch: Fried turkey (Good any year, but perfect for that once-in-a-lifetime convergence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving.)
  3. Friday night: Fried chicken (Very appropriate for Erev Shabbat.)
  4. Saturday brunch: French toast (Tastes best when made with butter rather than oil, in my opinion, but it’s still a wonderful way to use up the challah from Friday night. And continue the butter theme on Saturday night with a big bowl of popcorn.)
  5. Sunday: Fish and chips (The greasier, the better.)
  6. Monday: Chicken fried steak (No idea how it tastes; I’ve only seen it on menus.)
  7. Tuesday: Fried flounder (So much tastier than broiled or baked.)
  8. Wednesday: Fried anything and everything (onion rings, broccoli, zucchini, mushrooms, pickles, Oreos …. The list is endless.)

Experiment and mix it up this Chanukah. It’s a holiday, so the calories and cholesterol don’t count. And I guarantee that if you eat all these staples of American non-haute cuisine this week, you will need to have your stomach stapled.


My memories of this day and weekend of 50 years ago are the same yet different from most people’s. The same in that I share the same experiences as the rest of the country (and world) watching the events unfold on TV. Yes, I do remember where I was when I heard JFK had been assassinated. Yes, I remember watching as Oswald was gunned down. Yes, I remember the catch in my throat when John, Jr. saluted his father’s coffin. 

But my memories are different from other people’s, too, in that they are intertwined with other memories that are far more personal. Yes, I was mesmerized by the TV, but it wasn’t at my house. It was at my parents’ best friends’ house, where I was helping babysit their children, whose mother was in the hospital after suffering an aneurysim. She was fortunate: it leaked instead of burst. It was repaired successfully repaired surgically, and today, fifty years later, she is still with us, living in Florida not far from my parents.

But I have an even more powerful and personal connection with November 22, 1963. It was my cousin Peter’s 15th birthday. We got together as planned at his house, a modern split level in West Roxbury, a neighborhood of Boston, to celebrate the day. But instead of singing “Happy Birthday” and opening gifts, the family sat in front of the TV and tried to comprehend the enormity of what we were witnessing.2

Six-and-a-half years later, Peter, too, was dead. He suffered massive brain damage caused when a speeding station wagon skidded on a wet road and slammed into his VW bug. He had parked on the shoulder until the storm passed. The impact was so hard that his seat belt was pulled from its mooring. Ironically, one of the physicians who consulted on Peter’s case also treated JFK .

Peter and I were first cousins, once removed. His mother and my paternal grandmother were sisters. We all lived in the same house, a three-family Queen Anne Victorian my great-grandfather (the grandfather Peter was named for) had bought around 1907, in Roxbury, then a new “streetcar suburb.” Peter’s family lived on the first floor; my grandmother and great-grandmother and aunt lived on the second; my parents and I on the third, in the attic apartment originally designed for the housekeeper. My great-grandmother, grandmother, and great-aunt all became widows within about three years of each other.

Peter was five weeks older than I am. We shared the same gene for red hair, as did my great-aunt. Whenever my mother would take the two of us out for a walk in the stroller, people would stop her and say, “Oh, how cute. Are they twins?” And my mother would answer, with a straight face, “No, they’re five weeks apart,” and then walk on before the questioner could react. (They would also stop my then twenty-one year old mother and ask her how much she charged for babysitting.)

 We moved from Roxbury when I was about four years old. But Peter and I still saw each other frequently. We were like twins.

Even the most universal and shattering event can have a personal dimension that overshadows it. I can never think about JFK’s assassination without thinking about Peter.

I still miss him. Happy 65th birthday, Peter.