Raising a Gay Child Before Stonewall

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I regret to say that I barely remember the riots at Stonewall, the bar in Greenwich Village where on June 26, 1969, a group of gay patrons successfully resisted harassment by the New York City police. The event would play such an important role in my life. David, my son, was thirteen then. Since he was very young, my husband thought that he might be gay—then a major issue. 

When he was three, David wanted to wear dresses. He hid his short blond hair under a scarf and insisted on being called Mary. My friend Mickey, a professional dancer, was horrified and advised me to seek psychiatric help for David. After discussing the matter with a number of trusted professionals and friends, I contacted the Jewish Board of Guardians, a highly respected social agency in New York. After a thorough investigation, Dr. Z, a psychiatrist, saw David four times a week. In addition, Dr. Z saw my husband on a weekly basis. Nobody among the many lay-people and professionals my husband and I consulted told us that we were doing a good job bringing him up and should relax and enjoy our child. 

Prejudice is a terrible thing. As David’s mother I felt dreadfully isolated. He was a particularly charming, good-looking child, yet most often when I mentioned his gender non-conformity, people’s faces fell. It was as if he was suffering from a dreadful disease. It is a credit to David and me that through his short life—he died of AIDS at 37—we preserved the deep love we shared. At the time many parents rejected their gay children. 

As a Jewish child growing up in Nazi Germany, I was used to being discriminated against. I could dismiss those who were frankly rejecting, but was actually more hurt by the half-sympathetic people who felt sorry for me being Jewish. They invited me to celebrate their birthdays before or after the “real” event, and didn’t brave coming to mine. All my life I regretted speaking with the accent that prompting strangers to ask, “Where are you from?” I have been cautious in selecting friends, and treasure the intimacy with those who make the grade. I was sad that my son too had to exert caution in his dealings with the world at large.

Both David and I got to enjoy “gay liberation.” There were always parents, especially mothers, who stood by their gay children. In 1989, twenty years after the Stonewall riots, I went with David to watch San Francisco’s Pride parade. After he died, I joined my gay granddaughter in the festivities that blossom at the end of June around the now-historic Stonewall Inn in New York. This year, I happened to be in Greenwich Village the week before the event, and noted that police vans were already festooned with rainbow flags!

Discrimination is far from gone, but matters have progressed. Last weekend I ate at La Bergamote, a New York City bakery. A male couple with two children—a toddler and an infant—sat at the next table, enjoying the establishment’s excellent fare.

Given the fickleness of history I wonder how long tolerance will last. Both gays and Jews have seen acceptance alternate with extreme discrimination.

Vive la liberté!

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My Guardian Angel

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I have a guardian angel. I think he is male, though you could not tell by looking at him. He has golden wings and wears a plain white gown. He does not concern himself with politics or other important things, but every so often he rescues me in the most amazing way.

During World War II, the Nazis occupied Belgium. Two years later they decided to send Jews, including me, then a seventeen-year-old teen, to concentration camps. My family decided to hide instead. I was forced to leave my beloved high school and work as a mother’s helper.

When the Germans finally left Brussels two years later, I was much too old to return to high school. I took advantage of a special law that allowed war victims to enroll in institutions of higher education even if they had not graduated from high school. The deal was that they had to pass a high school equivalency exam after their first year in college. I passed my first year at the Institut Meurice Chimie with flying colors, even though I hardly knew any math. In fact, the only thing I remembered of high-school math was Pythagorean’s theorem governing right-angle triangles. During my equivalency exam the professor invited me to pull a math question out of a bag. It asked me to prove the famous Pythagorean theorem. I passed the exam, which entitled me to continue my education at grade level.

*

In 1959, long before cell phones, I drove with my five-year-old daughter Judy, her friend Elissa, and my three-year-old son David to Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park. We were in the middle lane of the old West Side Highway, surrounded by fast-moving traffic. Suddenly my vintage Ford stopped. What was I to do? If I stayed in the car, chances were that I would be hit, but how could I leave with my brood of three! Suddenly a car pulled up in front of us. Four men spilled out. They were auto mechanics on a lunchtime spin and soon we were on our way.

*

My fridge broke down two days before we were to leave for a lengthy trip. In exchange for luxurious accommodations in Brooklyn Heights, our friend Michael was to dog-sit for Sasha, our little Dachshund. I rushed to a store to buy a new fridge, armed with the measurements of the space to accommodate it. “You are lucky; I have a bargain for you,” the salesman said. “It is bigger than your old model, but it will fit.”

The next day the fridge was delivered. After its doors were unhinged, it fit into the apartment house’s small elevator. It managed to pass through the entrance of the apartment, but got stuck in front of the kitchen passage. After watching the deliverymen unsuccessfully maneuver the fridge for one hour, I panicked. I ran through the apartment building in search of help. I heard workmen banging away in Apartment 3A. I pleaded. The two guys followed me upstairs. After evaluating the situation they removed the frame of the wooden doorway of the entrance to the kitchen. One of my two new friends was an expert mover. He directed the deliverymen on how to maneuver the fridge into place. Angles and inches mattered, but it fit. The doors were reattached and the shelves put in. The doorframe was hammered back into place. A bucket of white painted materialized from nowhere, and another twenty minutes later everything looked pristine.

I figured that the emergency rescue would cost me hundreds of dollars, but the workmen told me that there was no charge. I guess they were perhaps being paid by my co-op or that the bill would come later. It never did, and my dog-sitter enjoyed a carefree vacation.

That was twenty years ago. I beseech my guardian angel that my refrigerator will outlast me.

*

Decades ago I wrote: Conception/Contraception: A New Look, which McGraw-Hill published in 1975. It explains humanity’s long quest to unravel the marvels of reproduction.

One stumbling block to the understanding of the exquisitely timed, hormone-controlled process was that nobody could find the mammalian egg. During the seventeenth century, England’s William Harvey, the discoverer of blood circulation, joined the search by examining the uterus of England’s royal deer. A picture of his experiments hung in Columbia University’s old medical library, where I did much of the research for this book. Harvey failed to find the minuscule egg, even though it is the biggest cell in the body. It was only in 1827 that Karl Ernst von Baer, a, Eastern-European scientist experimenting with dogs, finally discovered the mammalian egg. It took another 150 years, and the discovery of hormones, to nail down the details of conception, gestation, and birth. Inevitably the understanding led to the discovery of effective methods of birth control, a technique people had been searching for since antiquity.

The writing of the book was done, and now I had the pleasure of finding illustrations. One night I woke up with a start. I had vividly dreamt of a faded picture of William Harvey examining the uterus of a doe in the company of England’s King Charles I. The picture hung in the medical library of Columbia University; I had completely forgotten about it. The next morning I phoned Columbia and asked the librarian about it. He said that he never noticed it, but agreed to check. He returned to the phone excited. Yes, to his surprise and mine, the picture was there. I included it in the book.

*

Recently a number of unfortunate events beset my life. I wondered whether my guardian angel had quit. Last December, on an extremely cold day, I took a taxi to the Frick Library in Manhattan. I am still writing books! I left my mismatched gloves in the taxi. On my return trip I was nursing my cold hands as I was sitting on the crosstown bus. I looked up. A departing passenger had dropped a perfect pair of black suede gloves!

Thank you, Guardian Angel. I need you for as long as I live.

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Three Family Bar Mitzvahs

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David at his bar mitzvah in 1969.

To the memory of David Loebl (1956-1993) on his 63rd birthday and the 50th anniversary of his bar mitzvah.

I was eight years old when my mother and I attended the bar mitzvah of my cousin Ernst
Wertheimer (later Worth). During this Jewish coming-of-age ceremony, thirteen-year-old
boys and girls are called to the Torah. They read a portion of the text, interpret it and
present a speech. In addition to reading, celebrants also make and complete a pledge to perform a significant good deed for the community. A joyous party is usually twinned with the religious service.

The event took place took place in Frankfurt, Germany, in January 1933. It was within days of Hitler’s rise to power, a move in which his goal was to effectively extinguish the life of Germany’s two-thousand-year-old Jewish community.

I forget the religious portion of my cousin’s bar mitzvah, but I remember the party, a
dinner for about 50 held in my Aunt Erna’s gargantuan apartment. I wore a smocked
yellow silk dress and felt as if it were my societal debut. And in fact, I actually had a starring role: I recited a long poem, composed by my mother and dedicated to her favorite nephew.

Erna had seated the oldest next to the youngest, so I occupied a place of honor next to my
great-grandmother Mathilde Mayer. I danced with my cousin Ernst, and declared to anyone willing to listen that we had become engaged and were to marry when we grew up. I don’t think that I ever again was as high in my life as I was then. Then, in the midst of my euphoria, somebody decided it was time for me to go to bed! I refused, insisting that I would only do so if Ernst and his sister Edith would also retire. Surprisingly they humored me. I am still ashamed of having been such a brat and wonder at the idiocy of sending me to bed.

*

Most of my family escaped Germany during the following years and settled in England
and America. I met another Ernest and did marry him. We had a daughter and a son. One day when he was about eleven, David informed me that I “had better get ready for his bar mitzvah.” The request was a pleasant surprise.

Ernest Loebl and I enrolled David in the appropriate classes at the Hebrew Tabernacle in
Washington Heights. Like me, Rabbi Robert Lehman and Cantor Ehrenberg, who studied with David, were transplanted German Jews, familiar with our background. As was usually the case with his studying, David had to be urged to work on his Torah and Haftorah portions, but when March 15, 1969—our wedding anniversary—came around, he was beaming and ready. Some of the same people who had been at my cousin Ernst’s bar mitzvah attended David’s. Among them: my mother, my sister, my great-aunt Selma, my mom’s cousin Martin and his wife Anne (the latter had been a new couple in 1933).

We held David’s party at home. Unlike my aunt Erna, I included my son’s friends—a
noisy bunch of 20 or so. When I looked at my potential guest list it numbered close to a
hundred. Even our grand old apartment on Riverside Drive, with its 16-by-22 foot living
room, would not hold them! Fortunately I managed to borrow a neighbor’s large apartment for David’s friends. I took off a week from work, cooked and organized. David’s food requests included his favorite: stuffed cabbage. I told him that I could not make stuffed cabbage for a hundred people. But then of course, I changed my mind. I made oodles of cabbage rolls, froze them, and stored them in the borrowed apartment. Suddenly, as all the guests were seated, stuffing themselves with salmon and roast beef, I remembered that I had forgotten to serve the stuffed cabbage! When I fetched them a couple of weeks later they had defrosted during an electric blackout and were spoiled!
David’s bar mitzvah was the biggest and most glamorous party I ever threw. I cherish its memory.

*

Frankfurt’s glittering Jewish world has long vanished, but somehow our smallish family
has survived. On a cold Saturday in February we gathered to celebrate Noah Cooper, my
second cousin twice removed, who was old enough to be called to the Torah at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. By now I was the matriarch of the Mayer clan. The world
had changed in so many ways. A woman, Molly Kane, was the officiating Rabbi. Services, too, were more relaxed, but the ancient words and melodies shrunk the decades.

Like my David, Noah enjoyed the entire ceremony. His readings of the Torah and Haftorah portions were flawless and his speech very sophisticated. In addition to friends
and regular congregants of the temple, the audience included about a dozen of Mathilde’s and her husband Isaac Mayer’s descendants. To me, Noah seemed so much younger than my cousin Ernst or my son had been. Today we forget that way back when the Jewish traditions were established, a thirteen-year old was about to go to work.

Noah’s party was child-centered. He and his parents had spent months choosing the music for dancing, the videos and the delicious foods. I had a good time visiting with
family and friends, happy to still be around celebrating another generation. Just within
the last month, Tori, Noah’s aunt, gave birth to another one of Mathilde’s great-great-
great-grand daughters. May the world itself come to its senses, so that its children can
continue to thrive.

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Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford And Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh Testify To Senate Judiciary Committee

Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Photo by Ninian Reed / CC BY 2.0)

This land is your land, this land is my land,
From California to the New York island,
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters,
This land was made for you and me
—Woodie Guthrie

On May 12, 1954, I woke up with labor pains, about to give birth to my first child. We called Dr. Kuntze, my obstetrician. Expecting a long labor, he told my husband and me to wait at home. We did not own a television. To while away the time we asked our neighbor whether we could watch the Army-McCarthy hearings at her apartment.

Senator McCarthy was testifying vociferously on the black and white screen in a room crowded with serious-looking white males. For years the junior senator from Wisconsin had terrorized the nation with allegations of pro-Communist infiltration of the federal government, the CIA, the film industry, and universities. It was scary. The freedom of the United States, a country that had granted me asylum and residency eight years earlier, was at stake. Finally McCarthy aroused the ire of the army and President Eisenhower. The 1954 hearings broke his power, but it was a close call and caused much damage.

It was a coincidence that the meeting of the 2018 Senate Judiciary Committee that heard the testimony of Dr. Christine Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh also took place on a day that for me involved a visit to a hospital. The now-near-retirement “infant” I gave birth to during the Army-McCarthy hearings shepherded me lovingly during my outpatient surgical procedure and then accompanied me back home.

I missed most of Dr. Ford’s sane, emotional presentation, which still took place before a room filled with mostly aging white men. But I caught Dr. Kavanaugh’s testimony, and it terrified me beyond belief. It was not only what he said, but his demeanor. He snorted, twitched, and sweated. He swallowed water as if his life depended on it. He was yelling and tearing up. Was he on the verge of a mental breakdown? During the question and answer period he was supercilious, evaded questions, and evinced neither sagacity nor kindness. How could he be entrusted with a seat on the highest court of my beloved country which rescued me from the abyss of tyranny?

Suddenly my soul started vibrating with terror. I remembered the voice of Adolf Hitler as he ranted from the German radio. When I was a child it reverberated through my house in Germany. The subject matter of Kavanaugh’s and Hitler’s presentations were vastly different, but their tone, their self-pity, their fury were similar. Kavanaugh does not stand for America or for justice. He does not belong on the Supreme Court of America.

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The Disastrous Consequences of Separating Parents and Children

More than fifty years ago, my three-year-old son David and I went grocery shopping in our smallish neighborhood supermarket. I concentrated on the week’s bargains while he immersed himself in the comics rack. Suddenly I felt a small hand tugging at me. When I turned, I encountered David’s terror-struck face. He had been unable to find me and was convinced that I had lost him for good. Reassurance, and some guilt on my part, followed. I realized how scary the world was for David.

I can imagine the terror that enveloped the children at the US-Mexico border, and the grief and horror experienced by their mothers and fathers. It is hard to kiss small children goodbye when they first leave us to attend daycare, elementary school, or sleep-away camp. These, however, are necessary life-changes. Having one’s child wrested from one’s arms by a stranger represents a trauma of epic proportions. And of course, there is bitter irony in the fact that many parents have undertaken this journey precisely in order to provide their young with a brighter future.

When Trump’s latest strategy to eliminate undocumented immigration became public, so many US citizens protested that the president rescinded his original order and stopped separating parents and children at the US-Mexico border. But much damage had already been done. As of July 1, 2018, approximately two thousand children were still separated from their parents and the prospect of their timely reunion were dim. Some officials fear that some of the separated children will end up being “immigration orphans.” Jeff Sessions has offered the following as justification: “If people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them.”

I can visualize and identify with the chaos that reigns at the US’s southern border. I especially identify with the teenagers. Seventy-eight years ago I too camped in front of an impregnable border. On May 10, 1940, the Germans invaded Belgium. Five days later my mother, my little sister and I tried to cross the Belgian-French border near Dunkirk. We were refused admission because we did not have the correct documents. We were running away from the German army and trying to join my father in France, who had been arrested as an enemy alien (I would not see him for six years). We did not manage to cross the border but tried repeatedly during the next three days. In between attempts we camped in the sand dunes. I can’t remember what we did for food or how we attended to our other bodily functions. Eventually we all retreated and returned to the Belgian capital, where we miraculously survived four years of German occupation.

Elisabeth Wolff

Elizabeth Wolff

During this fruitless expedition, when one million Belgians tried to escape the Nazis, I happen to run into Elizabeth Wolff, my best friend. Her family too was trying to escape the German army. Elizabeth is a prime example of the emotional damage that world history inflicts on the innocent, and her abrupt separation from her parents was part of her root problem.

During the late 1930s, when the fate of many European Jews hung in the balance, the Refugee Children’s Movement rescued Jewish children by having some free European countries waive their residence requirements. This so-called Kindertransport (“children’s transport”) operation was a wonderful but heart-wrenching program that saved more than 10,000 children. Elizabeth had kissed her parents goodbye at the Berlin railroad station without knowing who would care for her in Brussels. The Hollenders, the kind parents of three older daughters, adopted her until she would hopefully be reunited with her own parents.

I met Elizabeth during recess at our local high school soon after she arrived. We rapidly grew very close. We visited back and forth and talked incessantly about sex, politics, our teachers, my irascible mother, the Hollenders and Elizabeth’s parents. At first Elizabeth heard from them regularly. Then the letters grew sparse, and finally they stopped. They were murdered. In 1942, both the Jewish Hollenders and my family went into hiding until 1944. I missed my friend dreadfully. I could not wait until the war was over and we could resume our friendship.

When that happened, Elizabeth had changed. We saw each other rarely, then I moved to America. I knew that she became a nurse, married a doctor, and had three children, who happened to be same the age as mine. In 2000, after I had written my wartime memoir At the Mercy of Strangers, which chronicled our friendship, I went to visit her in Belgium. To my utter surprise she seemed to have forgotten all about me. She apologized and wanted to know how the two of us had met. It appeared that she had erased most of her past. Her husband and children had been instructed not to talk to her about the Holocaust, and her friends believed that the Hollenders were her birth parents.

Surprisingly, she slowly rekindled our friendship, whose loss had caused me so much grief. Elizabeth recovered her knowledge of German and other long-lost memories. She died in 2015. I miss the years of friendship we could have had.

I am reminded of Elizabeth when I look at the children now in custody at the US-Mexico border. Will they ever recover from the trauma they have experienced?

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Public Parks, Private Gardens: The Met Celebrates Spring

“A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” Georges Seurat

Study for “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” Georges Seurat, 1884. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Given the nor’easter that dumped snow all over Central Park and our constantly dreary politics, it is wonderful that the Met is putting on a show that overflows with sunshine and outdoor delights. The exhibit is on the ground floor of the Lehman Pavilion, whose double-height courtyard stocked with plants ably competes with the wonderful show.

The exhibit, filled with many of the Met’s best-known Impressionist paintings, celebrates the 19th century rebuilding of Paris under the aegis of Emperor Napoleon III and Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, his urban architect. They demolished rat-infested neighborhoods and added wide boulevards, 30 parks, and verdant city squares that enabled the newly empowered middle class to enjoy the outdoors. The Bois de Boulogne, formerly a royal hunting preserve, became a public green space two-and-half times the size of Central Park. It was inspired by London’s Hyde Park.

The art world responded with luminous paintings, many created outdoors. All well-known Impressionist painters are represented among the 150 works of the exhibition. There is a small version of Georges Seurat’s iconic view of the Grande Jatte with its bustle-wearing ladies, sun-worshipping city-dwellers and frolicking dogs.

Camille Pissarro is represented by views of the formal Tuileries; Manet has a painting of the Monet family in their garden; and glamorous Auguste Renoir chose to paint the royal gardens at Versailles.

Garden at Sainte-Adresse

Garden at Sainte-Adresse, Claude Monet, 1867. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Claude Monet, who loved gardens, has more paintings in the show than anyone else. He painted public parks like the Parc Monceau, private gardens like the La terrasse à Sainte-Adresse and, most often, his famous private domain at Giverny, with its expanses of flowers, water lily ponds and iconic Japanese bridge. At the Met show an ancient film actually shows Monet painting there.

I personally experienced that magic garden in 1983. That fall I spent two days in Paris. My arthritic left hip throbbed with pain whenever I walked more that ten paces. I paid it no heed, rushing to all my favorite Parisian places: La Sainte Chapelle, Ile St. Louis, Rue de Rivoli, the bridges of the Seine. My only salvation was a long bus trip. It was a beautiful autumn day and I booked a bus excursion to Monet’s Giverny. My hip approved. The place proved as captivating as it appears from its creator’s canvasses. Even in October the colors were beautiful. I loved the water garden, the trellis, and the various paths. I was enchanted by Monet’s house and its simple everyday china. I was the only passenger on the bus who did not have a camera, and earned the following comment from one of the guards: “Madame, I compliment you: you are the only one on the tour who really sees the garden.”

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Christmas 2017: A Walk Along Fifth Avenue

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The world is a mess. Washington is concocting a disastrous tax plan, we’re confronting the reality of widespread horrible sexual behavior by men, North Korea is rattling long-range nuclear missiles, and Trump meddles in Middle Eastern politics. Nevertheless, New York’s Fifth Avenue spruced itself up for the holidays. Lord and Taylor, the southern-most outpost of my Christmas window walk, has three major tableaux and many small ones. I loved the tiny skaters encircled by taxis with Christmas trees strapped onto their roof. The scene is silhouetted against buildings reminiscent of a clock-topped Grand Central Station and of the Chrysler building. I also liked L&T’s winter forest, where raccoons and the like snuggle in the crevasses of a giant tree. A large, spectacled rabbit seems worried. He might very well be, and so am I. The relentless attacks from Amazon, Land’s End and other giant online retailers are forcing familiar department stores to downsize. Are these the last Christmas windows from L&T, the pride of Fifth Avenue?

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Wistfully I remember when, as a young mother, I spent my occasional child-free afternoon savoring the glamour of these retail palaces. They were a welcome contrast to the cloth diapers I was dealing with at home. Now I ducked into L&T and picked up a few holiday gifts, noting with both pleasure and dismay that most everything was on sale a full three weeks before Christmas. Were the prices inflated to begin with or is the economy bad?

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I proceeded uptown, stopping at Cartier, whose windows were filled with diamonds and tiny doormen figurines wearing old-fashioned uniforms. Saks Fifth Avenue celebrates the eightieth anniversary of Walt Disney’s film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Carabosse, the bad witch who tries to kill the heroine with a poisoned apple, was so repulsive-looking that one had to feel sorry for her. Never mind. I enjoyed listening to parents retelling the familiar fairy tale to a new generation.

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At the northern end of my walk, Bergdorf-Goodman’s windows featured New York’s cultural institutions. I was amused by the dinosaur skeletons outlined in rhinestones—the store’s interpretation of the Museum of Natural History—the glowing musical instruments that characterize the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), and the treasures and ephemera that illustrate the New York Historical Society.

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At last I came to Dolce and Gabbana, a newcomer to Fifth Avenue. As I was salivating over the glazed cookies and fruit that filled their windows, I realized that their food-laden table was an exception. Most of the 2017 Christmas displays had been devoid of their usual surfeit of sugary treats. Indeed, carbs, refined sugars and gluten are out of favor, and fats, especially the “healthy” extra-virgin olive oil or “EVOO,” are in. And yet, fats have not replaced the sweets in the Christmas windows this year. Perhaps the window designers did not consider that consecrated olive oil is the heart of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of light and freedom. The holiday celebrates the victory of the rebel Maccabees over King Antiochus IV of Syria. The Jerusalem temple had to be rededicated, and there was only enough holy oil to light the eternal lamp for a day. Miraculously it lasted for eight days, allowing the priests enough time to replenish the supplies. May America’s freedom miraculously survive dark times and the assaults it is subjected to!

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I am happy to report that the entrance to Trump Tower, at the intersection of 57th and Fifth Avenue, has calmed down as our president flits between Washington, Florida, New Jersey, and the rest of the world. I hope that both New York and I will be well enough a year from now for me to take my customary walk.

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