Monthly Archives: January 2014

Memories of a Tragedy

28 years ago this week, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take off from Cape Kennedy. I remember  one aspect of that that day very well: it seemed to me that everyone heard the news before I did. I was at lunch with a colleague, then in my car driving back to my office without turning the radio on. I sat in the office for an hour or two writing up a plan for a class when the phone rang. I was expecting a bat mitzvah student for a lesson that afternoon and her mother was calling to find out if I still wanted to meet. I asked her why. She said: “Haven’t you heard the news?”. That was how I found out what had happened hours before.

I mention this part of the story because one thing that I always think about when considering the Challenger disaster was how different life was even only 28 years ago. It would be absolutely impossible for someone not to hear the news almost immediately upon an event like this taking place today. We are bombarded by news and information in so many different forms and it would seem impossible to even imagine that so much time would pass before we would hear news.

But, that is just an aside. The most intense and important memory I have of that terrible day is the realization that what seemed so routine, so fascinatingly easy, was in fact terribly dangerous and unpredictable. Looking back that day, it struck me that the fact that this was the first time American astronauts had been killed while flying (remembering of course the tragic fire aboard Apollo 1 and the loss of three astronauts on the pad) was truly remarkable. While there had been “close calls” before, we had become accustomed to flights taking off and splashing down or landing and the astronauts, the heroes, climbing out perfectly healthy. This was such a shock but when looked at realistically, the real shock was that it hadn’t happened before.

These 7 brave men and women, including of course Christa McAuliffee, “teacher in space”, took such a great risk in the name of science and adventure and to this day, I can remember their names and see their faces as they appeared in the pre-flight photographs. They, as well of course, as the victims of the Space Shuttle Columbia are remember with respect and honor.

But, there is one other memory I have of that day and it is much more personal.

I remember thinking to myself as I watched the news that night: “Now, I will never fly in space”. I was 30 years old when I woke up on the day of the disaster and I honestly, truly believed that one day I would fly into space. Why not? Surely, the world was advancing technologically and while I never could have pictured a computer in my pocket or so many other advances of the 21st century, at that moment, I honestly believed that I would one day fly into space.

But, as I watched the news that night, I realized that space travel would never be easy, never be simple, never be available to all except the best trained and most daring, neither category applying to me. I realized at that moment that if I wanted an adventure, I would have to find it here on earth.

Losing those 7 brilliant men and women was a horrible loss to our nation and the world. But, I also felt a personal loss that day, not as important but every bit as emotional.

May their memory be for a blessing.

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The Fire Station Up the Street

I regularly follow a Facebook post called: “Originally From Brighton 02135” which features pictures and stories from my old neighborhood in Boston. It is a great source of nostalgia and good memories.

The other day, a member of the Facebook group posted a picture of the fire station up the street from our house when it was dedicated in the early part of the 20th century. The picture immediately brought back memories, from my childhood and beyond.

We used to drive or walk by the fire station every day and I can still remember my mother, at that time a cub scout “Den Mother” taking my older brother’s cub scout group up there to meet the fire fighters and learn about the station. I was too young to be a cub scout but came along for the fun.

I also remember that the field behind the fire station was a great place to play baseball until construction of apartments forced us to move to other places to play.

Of course, as I grew older, the fire station became less interesting and when I left for college, I forgot it was there.

Then, many years later, I found it again.

When our son, Avi, was 5, he and I took a trip to Boston to visit my parents. He had been there with us before but this was the first time that just the two of us had gone together and I promised him we would do a lot of fun stuff. We went to the aquarium in Boston and several other places but the place that attracted most attention for him was the old fire station.

We live down the street from a fire station here in Ann Arbor and Avi and I spent many summer afternoons walking to the station and talking with the firefighters but this station was different, with an old bell system, with a higher pole to slide down and, most importantly, with a truck with a ladder that reached 5 or 6 stories. We spent several mornings during that trip hanging around the station, watching them test the ladders, waiting for the firefighters to come back from a call and just enjoying the atmosphere.

The picture on Facebook brought back memories of my youth but even more cherished memories of those moments with Avi.

Avi turned 21 this week. But, the memories are as vivid as always.

Happy Birthday Avi! Thanks for the memories and, God willing, for the many memories still to come.

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A Night at the Movies

I’m not a huge movie fan but when I find a movie that sounds intriguing, I try to get out to see it before it falls into the category of “I’ll see it when it becomes available on demand”. (That never seems to come soon enough.) It so happens that there are now 3 or 4 movies that I really want to see and last night, Ellen and I went to see the one that was first on my list: “Saving Mr. Banks“.

Having grown up in the era of  the film: “Mary Poppins” and still, to this day, being able to sing most of the songs by heart, I couldn’t wait to see the movie. Actually, I should mention here that not only can I sing the songs in English but I can also sing some of them in Hebrew as our division put the play on  in Hebrew at Camp Ramah in New England in 1980. I had forgotten much of the story- and that was unfortunate since remembering the story a bit better would have helped at the film last evening- but the songs are unforgettable and made me anxious to see the new film.

I’m not going to “review” the movie here. I don’t know how to do that without revealing the plot but I can only say that I found the movie to be everything I expected it to be- and more. In fact, truthfully, I didn’t expect it to be anywhere near the emotional experience it was. Go see it and, when you do, make sure you stay until the end of the credits.

But, I can tell you the basic premise of the movie without revealing any of the details. The story is about how Walt Disney convinced the author of Mary Poppins, P.L.Travers, to allow the movie to be made. As it turns out, there is so much behind the story of Mary Poppins and in the process of cooperating in the production of the film, the author is forced to confront much of the pain and sadness in her life through the story she had written. I’ll leave the rest up for you to find out for yourself- except to quickly add that the tears were shed during the movie Were both tears of sadness and happiness.

But, I want to point out one aspect of the movie that has motivated so much of my thinking about my writing, especially the sermons I write.

I believe that a sermon provides two functions, one much more important than the other. The first and the more important of the two, is to impart some information, inspiration or thought provoking material to the congregation. But, the other relates more to the writer than to the congregation.

I find that many of the sermons I write are inspired by stories that happened to me or conflicts I find within me and that the process of writing the sermon actually helps me find meaning in the stories or even, God willing, resolve some of the conflicts. Just as Mrs. Travers discovered about her book and Walt Disney helped her to see in the process of the production of the film, the sermons sometimes serve as a release or as an opportunity to write a different ending to something that is disturbing or just incomplete in my life.

I think this is true of anyone who delivers a sermon and I think it is what makes the whole process of writing such material so fascinating and so vital for those of us who have chosen this career or for those given the opportunity to deliver a d’var Torah or any kind of meaningful presentation.

I am hoping to soon complete a project I have been working on for several years: a book which will contain some of the stories of my life and the sermons that those stories inspired. The connections are sometimes obvious, sometimes more subtle but any writer writes from his or her heart and his or her experience but then tries to make the material stemming from those experiences meaningful to those who listen to his or her words.

Go see the movie Saving Mr. Banks and you will realize what a wonderful process it is to write from the heart.

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