Piece #30

Many people have asked me how I got involved with Chabad in the first place.

It all started one morning more than a quarter of a century ago when I was quietly perusing the pages of the Montreal Gazette. I spotted an ad with a picture of a man in a black hat with a huge flowing white beard that looked like it had never been cut or trimmed.

The ad said that Bob Dylan’s rabbi, one Manis Friedman, author of  Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore? was set to speak at the Leacock 132 auditorium of  McGill University.

I had not the slightest interest in going to see this man, but Leacock 132? They have got to be kidding. Why on earth did they rent such a large venue? Nobody could possibly be interested in whatever this bearded rabbi from another era might have to say.

My guess was that only a handful of people would show up and the cavernous auditorium would look completely empty. I felt so sorry for the guy. I decided I would do my part and show up to make it slightly less embarrassing for the man.

Talk about being wrong! When I got there, far from being empty the place looked like a rock concert. The auditorium was packed to the rafters. Security guards were doing their best to hold back impatient crowds who were actually pushing and shoving trying to enter the auditorium.

I had to dig in my pockets for my press card which enabled me to get in and sit on the floor in the aisle leading to the stage – the same stage where I had gone to see everyone from W. H. Auden to Germaine Greer when I was a student at McGill.

Following his lecture which I found interesting enough, someone came up to me to ask a question.

“There is a reception for Rabbi Friedman at the @Chabad House on Peel. Would you like to go”

“No thank you.”

“It’s going to be a really great reception. Kosher food. Lots of food.”

“Not interested.”

“Rabbi Friedman will be there. You can talk to him if you like.”

“Still not interested.”

“The rabbi there says that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Messiah.”

“Come on. You’re making that up.”

“No, it’s true. He says that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Messiah.”

“Okay. You got me. I will go to the reception. This I gotta see.”

When I arrived, I sailed right past the buffet. I wanted to talk to this rabbi. I was introduced to Rabbi Ronnie Fine, who was a McGill University chaplain at the time.”

“Is it true that you actually think the Lubavicher Rebbe is the Messiah? “

“Yes I do. I see him as a leader of the Jewish people.”

“What makes him the leader? He was not elected to the position.”

“True,” says Rabbi Fine. “Who do you see as the leader of the Jewish people?”

I was stumped. I could not think of anyone else to even nominate.  It was not the prime minister of Israel. It was not one of the Bronfmans. It was not any other rabbi and it certainly wasn’t Barbra Streisand.

If being leader meant caring for all Jewish people around the world regardless of affiliation or level of observance, the Rebbe would certainly fit the bill.

I was intrigued by our conversation. Intrigued enough to start hanging out at Chabad which I still do to this day.

As I tap away at the keyboard writing this 30th piece,  I am thinking about suspending operations and heading straight to Amazon to buy some more books. The writing process can be very frustrating. It feels great when the words just flow, but it can be so  nerve-wracking and annoying when they do not.

But all that does not matter. Plumbers don’t have plumber’s block. Writers have no business using writer’s block as an excuse. All the books on writing speak with one voice. They all say just keep writing.

Maybe I should write about my old high school chum Lilian. I have such a vivid memory of her walking along Cote des Neiges pushing a baby carriage. I peered inside to see a tiny smiling baby in an adorable white bonnet.

That was Lilian’s daughter whom I dubbed Baby Regine. I still call her baby Regine even though she is now married and has three children of her own.

I was at her wedding and could not understand why everyone was paying attention to baby Regine clad all in white and a handsome young man in a tux. How come my friend Lilian and her husband Ron were not the centre of attention?

Then it came to me. They were now but minor players. It was not their wedding. It was Baby Regine’s big day. Her parents were no longer the focus of attention and neither are people in their sixties.

As soon as I start to think or write about age I am reminded of the  magnificent line in one of Philip Roth’s books. The main character was annoyed at a strong, virile and much younger man. Roth described him as “armed to the teeth in years.”

Wow. It doesn’t get any better than that. It was amazing for me to see how Roth who at the time was getting sick and old had no problems churning out novel after novel about being sick and old.

When I am not reading Roth. I am reading any book thing set in NYC. Just reading or hearing New York street names makes me feel good. I daydream about sitting in the lobby of the 70 Park Avenue Hotel, taking notes and walking people rush by on their way to work. I daydream about sitting on a bench on Philosopher’s Walk in Central Park on a sunny autumn day.

Philip Roth used to write standing up. CJAD newscaster Jason Mayoff still does. I write hunched over sitting down.

One day when I went to visit Mom in hospital her voice sounded very soft, but she was very coherent. She recited a Hungarian anthem without missing a beat and then asked me to bring her grapes. I took a 4-minute video of that recital to have to remember at some future date. She then turned to her imaginary friend and said that she wished that I would go and I did.

I showed her the video on my iPhone and she said that she looked better than that. Do we all feel that way? That we look better than what we see ourselves in some picture or video?

Mom had been taking her meds and fortunately she still had most of her appetite. How did I deal with her noncompliance when it came to taking meds? Simple. I lied.

I told her that the meds were not meds. They were vitamins designed for young people to make them stronger. The success  rate for this deception was an impressive 95 per cent.

Mom’s imaginary friend is Mermelstein and apparently he wants to marry her. Often she tells me to leave because she would rather speak to him than to me.

She occasionally asks me who I am, but more often her eyes light up when I visit. Not bad strictly speaking, for someone with mild to moderate dementia. I almost said medium dementia as it if were some kind of sweater-vest set.

“I vant to marry Mermelstein. Get out of here. I vant grapes.”

“OK Mom. I will leave and go buy you grapes. Red or green?”


“See you later.”

“Thank you my son. I love you.”

Mom often talks out loud to herself as I write. I use her stream of consciousness comments as a writing prompt. Is that allowed? Is that creative or disgusting or both?

I tell Mom she looks young and beautiful. Her dementia is advancing. She often asks visitors if they want to get married. She sometimes tells me that she will marry a man called Behrenfeld. Other times she tells me she will marry the prime minister of Israel on Tuesday because it is a lucky day.

In the past she has said I should marry Cindy. When I told her Cindy was my sister, she said I was crazy.

Sometimes when I visit, she asks if I have come empty-handed. She is always thrilled whenever I bring grapes or flowers, This past week I bought her a yellow and black dress on a whim for $12.99 at Jean Coutu.

Mom liked the dress so much that Jhonas her beloved caregiver told me she did not want to take it off. Jhonas also told me that Mom no longer knows the difference between jam and ketchup.

Maybe Mom is right. Maybe there is not much difference. Think about it. They are both red, they are both sweet and they are both sticky.

Mom blesses me and tells me have a happy life whenever I visit which is on most Fridays and Sundays with an occasional surprise visit.

When I arrive she smiles. I wonder how long the smiles will last. I want them to last forever. I want her to last forever. And that is why I often take picture after picture of her to remind me of the  smiling moments.

This Post Has 32 Comments

  1. hard to accept that this is your last story for a while, until we hear from you and again follow you wherever it will be…reading your story today, I really feel for you visiting your mother in the hospital, I went through that except that my mother was only 45 when she passed away, also a Holocaust Survivor, because of her bravery during the war my father and I survived (long story) when I wrote my book I just wrote from notes and memory, I am certainly as well read as you, I never even thought of reading about writing a book, I just wrote, it took me 9 years to finish, because my parents at the time were gone, so I needed to do a lot of research, I even managed to get our deportation papers which took almost 2 years with letters going back and forth…I mainly wrote my memoir for my family, for them to remember me and my story and as much as I knew about the beautiful family who were all murdered in Treblinka death camp…I am pleased with the outcome of my book and have gotten many letters, emails and phone calls to tell me how much people enjoyed it and how many Kleenex they used while reading it… I would like to send you a copy of my book, you have my email address. of course you are much more experienced in writing, and you are fortunate to have your mother for so long…with your talent for writing and your memory in tact, you will be a great success…we too know rabbi Ron Fine…Bill is in constant contact with him.
    wishing you all you want for yourself…until we meet again…

  2. A sweet tribute…i have a lump in my throat. Can’t wait for news that your book is finished and waiting to be purchased. Shabbat shalom Tommy!

  3. Tears slip out of my eyes when you write about wanting your dear Mom to last Forever. Also how sweet and cute she was with such a sense of humour and imagination. No wonder you are so creative dear Tomika. You have been such a wonderful son. Mine never learned how!


  5. Tears streaming down my face. I understand so very well your desire to have your mother around for a long tim ego come. I lost my mother in Decent last year and although the last few weeks and days she a little to add to the conversation I would give anything to hear her voice one last time.

    1. Sorry for the typos….I was crying.

  6. We all want more. Please post when you decide to share. Wishing our moms were here! As survivors they still managed to live remarkable lives here in Montreal. What strength !

  7. The smiling moments you create for your mother. It is a beautiful relationship and you are caring, loving and patient with her. She is very lucky you are her son. I love your writing and look forward to either a book I can buy or a play I can go and see. Good luck to you in your continued work.

  8. You & your mom have a wonderful relationship & you have been a loving son to her. Take care Tommy & have a wonderful summer & if you feel you miss us just drop a word or two & we will be forever grateful. I will miss you. 😢😍

  9. Sorry I forgot to thank you for these wonderful letters I have been reading with enthusiasm for the past several weeks.

  10. I worked at CLSC in Home Care..And Many of our clients suffered with Dementia..I remember how dedicated the Sons and Daughters were of their Moms and Dads. Thank you sharing your story, because it reminds me of the many moments that I had going to work every day..I had an amazing time and learned so much from my experience with the families involved.

  11. In my eyes you are a good son, I live how you take care of your mother!
    She must have been really there for you, for you to be doing the same!
    I look forward to your future ventures

  12. Thank you. x

  13. Thank you. Can certainly relate, visited my parents at a nursing home, 2yrs for my late Dad, I did the 3 – 7pm shift, my mother, 8 1/2 yrs, I did the 11 am to 2pm shift, had lunch with her everyday, except 3 days every July. Now I have lunch with my late parents at Baron de Hirsh Cemetary. I really do, bring a sandwich and have a talk. Good Luck to you and enjoy the rest of the summer. Thank you.

  14. Inspiring and entertaining as always.

  15. Sad that we will no longer have our daily fix of your entertaining, inspiring, humorous and real exerpts of your life. We can all relate….. I’m looking forward to reading your finished product. Keep on writing & sharing.
    Baby Regine’s Mother-in-Law & Lilian & Ron’s Machatenisteh

    1. Oh for heaven’s sake. Baby Regine’s mother-in-law. Great to hear from you. Thank you for the kind comments.

  16. Dear Tommy, I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch lately, but I had complete shoulder replacement & it’s really taken a lot out of me. However I’m hoping to recover quickly. I just want to thank you for your wonderful memories & although I don’t know you or your mom personally, I wish you both well with many more wonderful memories.

    1. Thank you Judi. May you enjoy a speedy recovery.

  17. Bittersweet…
    Enjoy reading your stories!
    From one 2G to another…

    1. Thank you Lucy

  18. Bless you dear Tommy. Every mother should have a son like you. Xoxox

    1. thank you Fran

  19. You deal with this extreamly hard situation with flying colours .
    You are a poster child for us how to handle this emotionally and physically draining part of cruel life with a smile.
    Kol Hakavod Tomika!
    Waiting eagerly for continuation.
    Truly believe your mother and my mother were together in Auschwitz.

    1. What do you recall about your Mom telling you about her time in Auschwitz?

  20. An emotional last read till the book comes out
    Can’t wait fir it
    Thoroughly enjoyed all 30
    Thank you

    1. Thank you Marilynn

  21. Your love and dedication are hear warming. Your words are real to the core. Please keep it up!

    1. Thank you Shelley

  22. I’ve got to say this one is my favourites because there isn’t anything flashy or dramatic about it. It’s just you talking about your process as a writer and being vulnerable along the way. In it’s simplicity – it says everything. It says who you are, what you care about and how what you care about shaped who you are. I have not read all of your pieces yet but of the 20 or so I’ve read – this one is my favourite so far. The others are compelling for various obvious reasons but I think what makes a great writer is the ability to make the mundane appear as the opposite, extraordinary and imaginative. You do this. You have always done this. As a broadcaster, you did it and you are doing it yet again. Keep doing it.

    1. Thank you Cora for taking the time for such a thoughtful response. Much appreciated.

  23. Hi Tommy. My own mother was on the same floor as your mother. I used to see you come to visit and was impressed at how regularly you came to visit her. I found it very difficult to visit my mother the 5 1/2 years she was there. It was just so sad. As she regressed and it became impossible to have a conversation and she cried often, I often fell apart.
    While my father was alive ( he passed away 2 1/2 years ago, she passed away in May) I tried to bring him to visit weekly. He was in a small group home who would not take my mother because of her difficult behaviour. As he had dementia as well, we, the children, decided to leave them where their needs were met the best way they could be.
    My parents met in Russia during the war. My father from a Polish family established in Poland for 500 years, joined the Russian army with two brothers, and thus the three were the only survivors of a wide extended Jewish family. My father and his two brothers were captured by the Germans and escaped from the POW camp and made their way back to Poland somehow. When they saw the devastation to their immediate family, they ran away back to Russia and rejoined the army.
    My mother, born in Rumania, was separated from her family when she was 14 years old. Running away from the bombing on her village, she missed the train that took her mother and siblings away. She never saw her mother again, but met her siblings scattered in Russia, Israel, and Canada years later.
    After she missed the train ( she was buying donuts inside the station and didn’t hear the train coming) she decided to go to Russia and walked there. While working as a nurse in Russia she met my father. They courted and after the war moved to Poland where I and my brother and sister were born.
    My mother found her sister living in Canada, through the Red Cross, and my parents decided to move to Canada. so in 1960, we came by boat with a couple of trunks of personal belongings including a set of dishes. We had never heard English being spoken and moved into Côte des Neiges. Five of us in a one bedroom basement apartment.
    I have thought of writing a memoir and have some stories already written. But I stopped a couple of years ago and want to say I am inspired to continue. I do not have the confidence or writing skill you have, but I have a story to tell. A wild thought, if you would consider working with me? To help me get focused and organized with my stories. Bronia zaks

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