Saturday, November 30, 2013

Totti dancing with my niece, Jamie, at Janie's wedding, 1988
Luckily, my father got to enjoy my nephew's visit home from the Navy, and the family's Thanksgiving, before going into the hospital Friday.  In my opinion, having been his caregiver since he was diagnosed with dementia, it was another mini-stroke, symptomatic of vascular dementia and causing further decline.  The neurologist will confirm.

Our love and prayers are with you, totti. 

My father's favorite classical piece, Symphony No. 9, from Dvorjak's
New World Symphony.

Monday, November 25, 2013

By Daniel Burke, Belief Blog Co-editor
(CNN) - Break out the menurkeys and sweet potato latkes, people, it's time to celebrate Thanksgivukkah, a once-in-a-lifetime holiday.

A calendrical quirk brings Hanukkah and Thanksgiving together this Thursday for the first time since 1888. Scientists say the confluence won't occur again for another 70,000 years, give or take a century.

Dana Gitell, a 37-year-old marketing manager for a Jewish nonprofit in Massachusetts, is the mind behind the mashup "Thanksgivukkah." (If you think that's a mouthful, her other ideas were "Thanksgiving-ukkah" and "Hanukkahgiving," both of which caused our spellchecker to sputter and die.)

With the mix of words in place, the idea caught fire like a deep-fried turkey.
Gitell is gathering an online album of Thanksgivukkah celebrations, and says she's received submissions from places like South Dakota and Anchorage, Alaska outposts not typically known for their large Jewish communities. Even rabbis from ultra-Orthodox sects like Chabad have jumped on board the Thanksgivukkah bandwagon.

"At first I didn't know how rabbis would respond to something as irreverent as a mashup," Gittel says, "but they almost uniformly embraced it. It's completely kosher."

We don't know if the rabbis approve of everything on our list, because people are going kinda nuts. Must be that once-in-an-eon thing. But without further ado (and with a nod toward Adam Sandler's "Eight Crazy Nights"), here are eight ways to celebrate Thanksgivukkah.

1. Light a menurkey
Leave it to a fourth-grader to create the ultimate Thanksgivukkah icon.
Asher Weintraub came up with the idea during a family trip to Florida last year. The little genius from New York City thought it'd be really cool to have a menorah, the nine-branched candelabrum used to mark Hanukkah, in the shape of a turkey.
Weintraub created a Kickstarter account, raised $50,000, made a 3-D prototype and heroically fended off his father's attempt to rename the thing a "menorkey." Nice job, kiddo.
The father in question, Anthony Weintraub, says he's sold between 6,000 and 7,000 menurkeys, including a few to famous finance experts and owners of National Football League teams.
"I'm beginning to think my life as a menorah salesman isn't over," says Anthony Weintraub.

2. Make a nice Turbrisket 
Let's face it, Thanksgiving was getting pretty gonzo even before meeting Hanukkah. I mean, turducken? But Thanksgivukkah has taken crazy to a new level.
You've got your Turbrisket (turkey filled with brisket), your deep-fried turkey, your sweet potato latkes, your cranberry-stuffed knishes, your pumpkin kugel, your pecan pie rugelach I could go on, I'd get fat just by typing the rest of the list.

Marlene Eldemire of Cincinnati says her family wanted to make the huge mashup menu Buzzfeed posted earlier this month. "I told them they can go ahead and make it," Eldemire says with a laugh."There's no way."So her family is settling for a few Hanukkah standbys like brisket that'll sit next to the turkey and sweet potatoes this Thursday.

3. Deck the halls for the Challahday
This is another spot where people are getting really creative, says Kali Brodsky, editor of They're making pumpkin menorahs, Thanksgivukkah coloring books for kids, and table settings that mix and match Hanukkah and Thanksgiving themes.

Rabbi Rachel Silverman of Boston says she's decorating her table with Thanksgiving symbols (a cornucopia, pumpkins, harvest bouquet) and Hanukkah items (a menorah, gold-colored coins called "gelt"). If you're feeling lazy, Brodsky says, you can just print out the Thanksgivukkah place cards Jewish Boston has created and set a place for Bubbe.

4. Watch a HUGE dreidel spin down the streets of New York 
To honor the confluence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, Macy's has created a 25-foot-tall, 21-foot-wide dreidel for its iconic parade. The "balloonicle" (part balloon, part vehicle) will spin just like a real dreidel, and it's the first time the parade has included a Jewish symbol, according to Macy's.
"Inclusion of the dreidel balloonicle is indicative of both a nod to the rare occasion in which Hanukkah's first day falls on Thanksgiving and of the dreidel's inherent entertainment value," says Macy's spokesman Orlando Veras.

5. Party like it's 165 BC (and 1621 CE) 
Hanukkah, for those who need a refresher course, marks the miracle of the successful defense of the Jewish temple by the Maccabees, an army of Jewish rebels, against the Goliath-like Syrian-Greek army in 165 BC. One day's supply of oil somehow lit the temple's menorah for eight days, and the rest is history.
The Jewish event and the Pilgrims' arrival in America are both celebrations of religious freedom, says Sherry Kuiper. At Kuiper's synagogue, Temple Israel in Columbus, Georgia, the kids led a service in which they dressed up like the Maccabees and Pilgrims, traveled in a make-believe time machine, and celebrated Thanksgivukkah together.

The parallel isn't perfect, Kuiper acknowledges. After all, the Native Americans certainly don't celebrate Thanksgiving as the birth of their religious freedom.
But Thanksgivukkah offers a reminder that the more things change, the more some things like the human need to express gratitude stay the same, Kuiper said
6. Kvetch about Thanksgivukkah 
Okay, this one isn't exactly "crazy." But it must be acknowledged, some folks just can't get into the Thanksgivukkah spirit.

Thanksgiving was one of the few holidays on which interfaith families didn't have to explain to the kids "why mom believes this and dad believes that," argues Allison Benedikt in a recent Slate column. "I cannot tell you what a relief it is to have this one major holiday—the best one!—that isn’t in some part about what I am and my husband is not (Jewish), or what he is and I’m not (Christmas-celebrating)," Benedikt says. (And for just the record, sweet and sour braised brisket with cranberry sauce is an abomination, she says.)

Jennie Rivlin Roberts, whose Judaica store, Modern Tribe, is selling Thanksgivukkah gear like hotcakes, says she understands some of the kvetching. But a mashup of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah is so much better than the usual "December dilemma," the overlap of the eight-day Jewish holiday and the cultural behemoth know as Christmas, Roberts says. "With Thanksgivukkah, you're not really mixing two religions, so you can really go for it. People may say it's silly, and yeah, some of it is, but it's also full of fun and joy."

7. Watch a rap battle between a turkey and a dreidel
Julie Benko was stuck on the subway in New York City for two hours, and she was bored. So, she did what any sane person would do - she wrote a song about Thanksgivukkah. OK, Benko is not your average straphanger. She's something of a Broadway belle, having just returned from playing Cosette on a national tour of "Les Miserables." But that doesn't mean it's any easier to find a rhyme for "Thanksgivukkah."

Still, Benko's klezmer-inspired tune has lots of YouTube competition. There's the rap battle between a turkey and a dreidel sponsored by Manischewitz. (Yes, they rock it old shul.)  There's the slickly produced "Oils: A Thanksgivukkah Miracle." And there's this cute little number from the the Kehillah Schechter Academy in Norwood, Massachusetts, called "The Ballad of Thanksgivukkah."

8. Watch a scary movie about stereotypes
After all the candle-lighting and the decorating and eating and the kvetching and the singing, let's face it, you're probably going to be pretty tired.

So why not plop down on the couch to watch the trailer for a Thanksgivukkah-themed horror movie?
"Thanksgivukkah: The Movie" is about a nice gentile family who find their Thanksgiving celebration invaded by a family of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Jokes about religious stereotypes ensue. We don't know if the trailer, which is made by Jewish filmmakers, is completely kosher, but we guess there's enough time for the rabbis to sort it out in time for the next Thanksgivukkah.

So, with that, we see you in 70,000 years for another Thanksgivukkah. Gobble tov, my friends!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

50th Anniversary of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy's Death

On the morning of November 22, 1963, my classmates and I waited for our 7th grade homeroom teacher, Mrs. Doyle, to appear as she did every day to officially begin our school day. We waited longer than usual that morning.  Eventually, she entered the classroom closing the door behind her slowly. She appeared shaken, her eyes swollen and red.  Instinctively, we knew something was wrong as the class glimpsed at each other then back to Mrs. Doyle. When she finally spoke, it was with such deep sorrow with which I wasn't familiar.

"Children...", she stopped to regain what composure she had. "Children, President Kennedy has been critically wounded." She began crying. On cue, we did too. "There will be no further classes. You're dismissed." I don't think we quite understood what it meant for President Kennedy to be "critically wounded."  We walked out confused.  When I arrived home, my parents and siblings were glued to the television.  The news of the President's condition remained a secret for what seemed forever until news anchor, Walter Cronkite, with noted emotion, announced President Kennedy had died. We all sobbed. I knew why I did. I'm pretty sure why my parents, who adored him, did. As for the rest of my younger siblings, I could only imagine, while I tried to comprehend the enormity of his death. I couldn't. I didn't even understand the change in power to Vice President Lyndon Johnson.

What I kept thinking is how President Kennedy cared about us.  He wanted us to be the best we could be. You see, the girls' gym teacher, Mrs. Coony, along with Mrs. Doyle, my homeroom teacher, were Irish Catholics. The Irish Catholics adored President Kennedy who, being Irish Catholic, helped raise their heritage to higher grounds. The bagpipes, for which I have a deep affinity, seemed to have played more frequently at parades, at school functions, almost everywhere, louder, prouder.

But returning to Mrs. Coony.  She insisted that her gym classes would include President Kennedy's Physical Fitness Program for children. I'd always been enthusiastic about sports, perhaps because of my father's love of swimming, I too loved to swim; perhaps due to my younger brothers who enjoyed all sports, I too participated.

But performing sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, and running weren't my cup of tea. However, this was a gym teacher's dream; an Irish-Catholic gym teacher's dream; Mrs. Coony's dream that we be the best we could be because President Kennedy wanted it that way. 

With time and certificates later, I literally felt more fit, more alive.  I was a healthy, robust twelve year old thanks to her, thanks to President Kennedy.  Then, I felt the connection to him.  I haven't since President Kennedy felt that connection again.  Perhaps I'd grown more cynical over the years; perhaps less enthusiastic about politics.  I believe his youth reflected the idealism of the baby boomer generation. We sought to understand the world, and try and make a difference. "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country;" a statement made famous from his inaugural address; one which would remain as we continued to search and waited for the return of Camelot.

Monday, November 18, 2013

My father sang along while watching Pavarotti to Bixio's "Mamma," in Italian!  This is short of a miracle! 

It was nearly 3:00 p.m. while the asparagus were cooking for dinner.  My father was listening quietly to Pavarotti.   Suddenly, through the usual sobs while listening to songs from his home country of Yugoslavia, he sang along with Pavarotti to Mamma in Italian!   I couldn't believe my ears!   How did he know the words?  Yes, we had Italian friends and neighbors since childhood from whom he may have been exposed to the song.  I, too, am familiar with Mamma, but don't know Italian except for my feeble attempts to learn the language.  Or he'd heard it before the war as Yugoslavia shared a border with Italy. 

An 85 year-old with vascular dementia, my father sits quietly and calmly with conversations of yes, no, sure, with an occasional simple question.  He recognizes all of us.  He offers very little conversation but can play melodies he'd known since he was young, including Christmas songs, on the harmonica which in itself is truly surprising considering his inability to express himself verbally.  I think of his post-war days serving in the British army while stationed in Germany where he met my mother; both playing the accordion together and with family.  Was Mamma known in post-war Germany?  I have to doubt it, but who can verify?

What I have learned about dementia (my mother too had Alzheimers) is that the medical community doesn't yet understand the complexity of the disease.  Most agree that short-term memory seems to be affected first, and long-term memory remains somewhat intact until the disease is more advanced.  So, it wouldn't be surprising if he'd remember his youth, but Italian?

Although the mystery remains, I will treasure sharing this moment of tremendous joy with my totti. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Wishing the Filipino people strength and courage

Coritha was the first musical artist in the history of popular Pinoy music to experiment with Philippine native instruments in her music. Rondalla instruments such as the Banduria, Octavina and Laud were used in the songs "Awit Kay Leandro," "Bilanggo" and her biggest hit song "Oras Na." Although the singer-songwriter felt her experimentations were not as successful as she had wanted them to be due perhaps to the novel idea of trying to merge native Filipino music, Coritha's pioneering efforts have enriched Pinoy music and kept Pinoy culture alive in the hearts and minds of many Filipinos.

Coritha was the first musical performer and recording artist to work with blind musicians utilizing their talents as banduria players for her live performances and recordings during the early part of her career? Ruben Mueco, Ramon Valentero and Catalino Lazo were three of the blind musicians who contributed their unique talents to Coritha's musical endeavors.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

  • Simple ways to help veterans that can make an impact
  • You don't have to spend a lot of money to show gratitude for veterans
  • Just saying "thank you" can go a long way

(CNN) -- Veterans Day is a day to honor and celebrate the military veterans who have served our country, but if you don't have a veteran in your family or even know one, the meaning of the day may be lost.

The Veterans Administration says there are 23 million living U.S. Veterans. A veteran could be your neighbor, your co-worker or the person sitting next to you on the train. They are silent heroes we may run into every day and while we may appreciate their service, many people are not quite sure exactly how to help a veteran.

Historically, Veterans Day is marked by parades, official ceremonies and events, but many Americans only know it as a day off work or school. Since the 1950s, Veterans Day has been the day to honor veterans of all wars. Here are some ideas if you want to do something more for a veteran:

1) Write a letter

Many organizations, including California-based Operation Gratitude, sponsor letter writing campaigns for veterans. It's never too late to write a letter of gratitude to a Veteran.


1. Please make sure your letters will fit in a standard size envelope
2. Include your own name and address in the body of the letter
3. Do not write about politics, religion, death or killing
4. Please do not use glitter
5. This is strictly a letter-writing effort to thank Veterans; please do not send any care package items for Veterans
6. All letters will be screened
7. Send multiple letters together in one large mailing envelope or box

Please send as many letters (or copies with original signature) as you would like by regular mail only to:

Thank a Veteran
c/o Penny Alfonso
1970 Rangeview Drive
Glendale, CA 91201

2) Volunteer at a VA hospital

Veterans of all wars seek health care at the nation's many VA hospitals. And more than likely, there is a VA hospital in your community.

Cathy Pratt of veterans organization Freedom is not Free says visiting a VA hospital can make a big difference for a veteran. Many of those hospitalized may not have family or anyone to visit them. Taking a couple hours every week or month to volunteer can make a huge impact on your life and a veteran's life. This would also be a great way to teach children American history by introducing them to the people who have preserved America's freedom.

If you go to the Veterans Administration website, there is a way to sign up volunteer at your local VA hospital.

3) Donate simple things

Not money, but donating small items can help make some lonely lives better. Small donations to VA Hospitals are always welcome. Many patients are on fixed incomes and unable to buy some of the things that could make their recoveries better.

Check with your local VA Hospital, but here are some items they are looking for:

• Magazines
• Coffee and cookies
• New or gently used clothing
• Telephone cards

4) Help the homeless

According to VA, a little more than a fifth of the adult homeless population has served their country. The VA has founded a National Call Center for Veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, that provides free, 24/7 access to trained counselors. Call 1-877-4AID VET (1-877-424-3838).

The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars also have homeless programs to assist veterans and several charities are dedicated to helping wounded service members and their families. Coming home from war and returning to the workforce while dealing with the wounds of war can also be economically challenging.

If you are going to donate money to help a homeless or struggling veteran, make sure you pick a reputable charity or organization that has 501(c)(3) designation. Contact your local VFW or American Legion to find out how to make sure your money stays in your community.

5) Say thank you

This may be the simplest and maybe the most effective way to make an immediate impact for a veteran. Many veterans may feel disenfranchised and forgotten by a nation. If you see a veteran or know of one, take a moment to say thank you.

"Thank you for your service," is a simple statement that can go a long way.

Veterans have given up a lot to serve their country, and many will deal with emotional and physical wounds for the rest of their lives. Knowing that we appreciate their service and their sacrifice can help.

And don't forget about the veterans still serving. Many of our active duty military personnel have served multiple tours in Afghanistan or Iraq. If you see a person in uniform in public, say thank you -- two words that can make a big difference.

These are just five simple ways to help a veteran, but there are hundreds more ways to make an impact.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Can Running Help the World Achieve Peace?

Editor's note: May El-Khalil is the founder and president of the Beirut Marathon Association. She spoke at TEDGlobal 2013 in June. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- The sports world was shaken this past year by violence at the Boston Marathon, reminding us of the fragility of peace no matter the place and time. However, marathons in the United States, and the world for that matter, rallied -- bouncing back as they defied fear through running.

The drive to keep moving forward is at the very heart of marathon running, and nothing is better than large-scale sports events when it comes to helping people to overcome insecurities and fears together.

Peace is an emotionally charged word. It is something that everyone wants, and it is so elusive to so many. I come from Lebanon, a country that has seen more than its share of conflict and war, but it is also a country that embraces life and peace.

Many underestimate the power of sports to create real change in society. But in Lebanon, we have seen how sports, and especially running, can have a positive impact on individuals and ultimately on communities and countries.

May El-Khalil: Making peace is a marathon

I founded the Beirut Marathon Association 11 years ago and had a firsthand look at how people can unite if given the right platform and a safe, inclusive environment where every individual feels that he or she is a true partner -- a stakeholder -- in the event.

I used to be a marathon runner; running to me came naturally and helped me stay balanced and focused mentally and physically. That all ended on a day in 2001 when I was training with my husband and some friends in Lebanon to participate in the Dubai Marathon. As our run took us to a street filled with traffic, I was hit by a truck and pinned to the pavement. The accident left me hanging between life and death for a while: I was in coma, and came out of it only to spend two years in the hospital. After 36 surgeries, I was able to walk again, but running was no longer possible.

As I convalesced in the hospital, the only thought that kept me excited and hopeful was the idea of creating an international running event for Lebanon. If I was not to run again, I wanted others in my country to know the rush of being part of a large-scale running event, to share all the inspiration and positive feelings that result from such an experience.

This was my big dream -- to bring my country together, to concentrate on something much bigger than myself and my pain. The Beirut Marathon Association was created while I was still in the hospital, with the help of supportive family and friends, and the first international Beirut Marathon was held in 2003. That year over 6,000 runners took to the streets of the city and its surrounding area. It was the first time that Lebanon witnessed such a large-scale running event. People took notice.

That first race showed that everyone was looking for a way to participate in a national event that did not fall under any specific political affiliation. People were willing to leave their differences behind and to come run together through the culturally diverse neighborhoods of the city and its vicinity.

My vision and that of the Beirut Marathon team grew, and we resolved to continue, no matter what the circumstances, because we were excited. We also realized that we were setting an example. This kind of harmony created through sport could extend even further, to other places and to other times.

Organizing such an unprecedented running event in Lebanon was not easy. We confronted political and cultural obstacles, among others. We had to build trust and interest little by little. We had to coordinate closely with parties all over the country; we worked with the Ministry of Youth and Sports, with the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, with the Lebanese army, and with all political parties, many private organizations, like municipalities, the Lebanese Red Cross, and others. Through it all, we got a surprising amount of support from public and private institutions and individuals.

Many troubles have plagued Lebanon over the past 11 years of our work, but on Marathon Day we always managed to bring people together in spite of their differences.

Of course organizing our events during those times of conflict required a lot of flexibility and contingency planning. In one instance, we turned protesters who were sitting in protest tents in the heart of the city into spectators who cheered the runners on and who offered them refreshments and water. We were only able to do it because we had earned the trust of all parties in the country and had the support of all the Lebanese. The lesson we learned from all of this is that peace is possible!

This year the slogan of our Banque du Liban Beirut Marathon, which will take place on November 10, is "Run for Lebanon." It is an affirmation of the power of sport to create a better country, one where differences are tossed aside and similarities are embraced for a more prosperous future. This has been as challenging a year as any other, with the whole region around us going through war and turmoil and with internal political conflicts unresolved.

In times of such uncertainty, it is more important than ever to remind people of what is good, and what is important: healthy competition, unity, prosperity, growth, joy, and most of all peace.

As in previous years, people responded, and our registration for this year's races has reached more than 36,600 participants from all over Lebanon and the world.

Peacemaking is not a sprint, it is more of a marathon. We cannot expect any major change to happen overnight. Strength, stamina and resolve are needed to finish long runs, but the human spirit is capable of great things. I have seen the elusive peace, and I believe that it can become evident to all, one steady step at a time.