Lesson in a Dress Factory

Lesson in a Dress Factory

I’ve been blessed with many role models for guiding my values. My father, Sam Coopersmith, was the earliest.

He was the youngest child of Jewish immigrant parents who came to the U.S. from Europe when they were in their teens. Growing up in a neighborhood of crowded tenements on New York’s Lower East Side, young Sam’s dream was to attend college, become an accountant, and be able to live comfortably with a family of his own in a nice house in a nice neighborhood away from the city.

But the hard times of the Great Depression put an end to that dream. Like everyone else during the the depression, he had to work wherever he could find it. After he married my mother Florence, her father, my Grandpa Max, gave Sam a job as a shipping clerk in his dress factory in Jersey City. Sam was hard working, smart, and ambitious, learned the business quickly and soon was able to open up a dress factory of his own.

His business thrived, and my two younger brothers and I grew up in a nice house in that quiet, affluent suburban town that my father had dreamed about.

For a few weeks each summer when I was a teenager, I’d ride to work with my father at 5:30 AM, travelling on the Jersey Turnpike as the sun was rising, from our quiet, tree-lined little town, to the grimy, grey, industrial section of Jersey City. I got to earn some money, and he got to educate me about the family business. I started as he had, as a shipping clerk.

And I got to see his values on full display, in his kindness to his workers. He seemed to be on close personal terms with every one of his hundred or so employees. The union would repeatedly try to organize his workforce, but they never made much headway. Because on his own he always paid them higher wages, and offered better benefits, than  the union contract offered. It was clear to me what he was about: work hard, show an interest in people, and treat them well, always be honest, and always keep your word.

One day a guy in a very fancy suit came into the factory, and asked me where Sam was. I pointed to the loft above us, above the factory floor, reachable by a creaky wooden stairway. The man thanked me and walked up. 

I had never seen anyone dressed like that in the factory, so I was curious. I went up to a dark place in back of my father’s office where there was a crack between the boards and I could see in and hear what was being said.

“Sam,” the man was saying, “the Boss sent me here because he really doesn’t understand why you’re not using our trucking services. And between you and me, I don’t think he’s going to be patient much longer. You understand?”

It didn’t take me long to figure out what was going on. Most of us growing up in Northern Jersey in the 1950s knew about the Mafia. But I had never seen them. Now I could see it — the Mafia was right here, putting the squeeze on my dad!

“Look Mario,” Sam said, “I understand your point, I really do. But like I told you before, my hands are tied. My contract with my customer (a department store chain) says I have to use their trucking. I can show it to you if you want.”

Mario shook his head, waved him away, and they went back and forth for a while. Then Sam went and opened up a cabinet, and pulled out an elaborately wrapped present. “Mario, I think your wedding anniversary is coming up later this month, am I right?” He was right. “I think your wife will really like this,” he said. Mario took the present.

“And by the way, I know the boss’ son has a birthday coming up. He’s a Yankee’s fan, right? I think he’ll like these. Great seats, right behind first base.” And he have him an envelope with the tickets. They talked some more and Mario left.

I didn’t mention anything to my father as we drove back home at sunset. I knew he wouldn’t me to know about such things. But I saw what I saw, and knew what I knew. My father had managed to avoid the clutches of the Mafia, not only because of his street-smarts, which clearly were considerable, but mainly because of the way he cared about, and understood, people.




Aryae’s 77th

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Six Lessons (Plus One) from My First Awakin Circle

I’m restarting this blog after having been on hiatus for a while. Why now?

It’s the timing of three apparently unrelated events that’s leading me to do this:

1) I’ve just completed a piece I was asked to write for ServiceSpace (ServiceSpace.org) that would be nice to publish here;
2) this website, which mysteriously disappeared for a while, just now has mysteriously turned back on;
3) it’s time to start my annual road trip.

Synchronicity? Go figure! So here goes!

Six Lessons (Plus One) from My First Awakin Circle

Have you ever found yourself standing in front of a door with the strange feeling that, if you choose to open it and walk inside, life will never be the same? For me, on a balmy summer evening in 2013 in Santa Clara, California, standing at the front door of the home of Dinesh and Harshida Mehta, I felt that this was one of those moments. I took a deep breath, opened the door, and walked inside.

I was greeted in silence by a man about my age with a calm demeanor and a sweet smile, who put his hands together and bowed to me. This must be Dinesh, I thought. I wasn’t used to being greeted in this way. But I immediately understood his message, so I smiled back, placed my hands together, and bowed to him.

My first Awakin Circle lesson: we share silence here; we acknowledge and honor the divine in each other.

Dinesh silently showed me into the living room. There was a large circle of cushions on the floor, and a few seats on couches and benches against the walls. I felt embarrassed. It had been years since I had sat for any length of time on a cushion on the floor, and imagined it would be quite uncomfortable. On the other hand, who was I to assume the privilege of sitting in one of the comfortable chairs? Dinesh, seeing my dilemma, silently guided me to one of the chairs and invited me to sit.

My second lesson: here we care for each other with kindness and generosity.

What an extraordinary experience that hour of silence was! The mind was wandering to all kinds of places. In the weeks that followed, as I continued to come back week after week, I would gradually come to understand that that was really the point: to learn to observe the wandering mind and emotions without being attached. And to open to something larger. But what was most extraordinary to me, sitting for an hour with a room full of strangers, sharing the space, sharing the silence, sharing the collective energy of which we were all part, was the intimacy. In a way that I hadn’t expected, how connected we all seemed!

My third lesson: the power of simply sitting together in silence.

Then it came time for the circle of sharing. Each week there’s a passage that gets read – eclectically sourced from teachers and people of wisdom around the world – followed by the opportunity for all of us to share our reflections.

There were roughly 50 of us in the room. “How much time do we each have?” the circle anchor asked. “53 seconds!” said Hafiz, smiling.

There would be no signal to each of us when our time was up; we each got to self-monitor. As a life-long facilitator of circles and group conversations, I was interested in how this would work. It turns out that some people spoke way longer than their allotted time, and that made me uncomfortable. I thought, is this fair? How will everyone get their turn?

But what happened was remarkable. When someone would speak for a long time, typically the next several people would speak very briefly, or pass. Most people seemed unattached to how much time they had to speak.

“How does this work?” I asked Nipun later. “My experience is that when one person is long winded, others get nervous and want to claim their space to speak as well.”

Nipun smiled. “When we sit for an hour in silence together, we get connected,” he said. “It may not always be conscious, but our behavior changes. There’s a shift from me to we.” Later I’ll learn that there’s more to it. It’s not only about the hour of silence each week. It’s also about the giving spirit of kindness and generosity with which people here consistently treat each other. It starts with the conscious intention and practice of the Mehta family, and ripples through all of us.

Lesson number four: in a community infused with kindness and generosity, where people sit in silence together, there is less ego and more caring.

Finally there was the third hour, the wonderful meal served to us by Harshida and the team of volunteers working with her in the kitchen. As I got to the front of the line Harshida, whom I had never met before, looked me in the eye, smiled most warmly, handed me my plate of food with both hands, and silently gestured to make sure I had as much of each kind of food as I wanted. Wow! Later, as we were all sitting in silence at the various tables, eating, she and others came around with more trays of food to offer us seconds, and thirds.

Later when I walked up to thank her for her generosity, she simply shrugged and said, “Thank you for coming to our home and spending the evening with us!” Harshida has a full-time job at a bank. Yet somehow, every week for the past 21 years, she’s found the time to clean and prepare her house, and prepare a meal for 50 people. I’ve heard Nipun tell the story many times about how his mother, with complete sincerity, will say to anyone who thanks her, “Thank you for coming to be with us!” Why? Because it is we, her guests, who give Harshida the opportunity to serve. Wow!

Lesson number five: for someone totally committed to service to others, giving is it’s own reward.

After the meal there was time for people to interact and speak with each other. I found that, having shared the past three hours with 50 strangers, random conversations happened quite easily that were warm, friendly and comfortable. I was surprised at how quickly these conversations could get deep and intimate, and how those of us from very different backgrounds could discover important things we had in common.

Lesson number six: the Awakin Circle tills the soil for beautiful friendships to grow.

My final lesson didn’t arrive until a few weeks later, as I was starting to learn more about the scope of the ServiceSpace community. Awakin Circles all over the world. Global Awakin Calls each week, Karma Kitchen gift-economy restaurant meals all over the world, DailyGood good-news publication, and so much more.

“This is all too much for me to get my mind around,” I said to Nipun. “I don’t understand how it’s all happening!”

Nipun laughed. “If you told me you understood ServiceSpace, I’d know you didn’t!”

So I’m learning to live with the wisdom of not always needing to understand. And to pay attention instead to stilling the mind and finding small ways to serve others. And that makes all the difference.  

Three Weeks

It is written that King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE. It stood for about four centuries before being destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. After the Hebrew exiles returned from Babylon in 539 BCE, they built the Second Temple, which lasted over 500 years before being destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. According to tradition both were destroyed at this time of the year, called the Three Weeks (17 Tammuz – 9 Av on the Hebrew calendar). Every year we observe the Three Weeks as a time of mourning and solemn reflection.

In ancient times the rabbis reflected on the question: what are we to learn from the destruction of the Temples? Their inquiry took them to two themes: what we value, and how we treat each other.

Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9B:

The First Temple, why was it destroyed? For three things within it: idol worship, sexual transgression, and bloodshed.

But the Second Temple, where they were immersed in Torah, mitzvot, and acts of lovingkindness, why was it destroyed? Because there was senseless hatred. This comes to teach that the weight of senseless hatred is equivalent [to the total of all the other three].
(Oral tradition committed to writing around 5th century CE)

This year with the Three Weeks falling on June 30 – July 21, I’ve been reflecting on events in the U.S. today. A national government that no longer represents the majority of its citizens, wantonly engaging in senseless hatred, cruelty, destructiveness.

In the U.S. our “holy temple” has been in the values and ideals of American democracy. Although we’ve been painfully slow to live up to these ideals, they’ve always served as the guiding light that unites us, and toward which we, the American people, aspire and progress. But today my heart is breaking as I stand by helplessly, forced to watch the daily destruction of our democracy.

Is this the “Three Weeks” for America? Am I exaggerating? Can we still save our country?

Soon I’ll be joining with thousands of Americans in California and across the country to do what we can to help save our democracy by helping people vote in the coming election. But for now I’m sitting quietly with the question: what can we learn from the Three Weeks about the right course of action for today?

Ibn Ezra commenting on Leviticus 19:17:

“Don’t hate your brother.”

This is the inverse of “love your neighbor as yourself.” Behold how these mitzvot, both of them, are planted in the heart. And those who cultivate them shall remain in the land. Because it was senseless hatred that destroyed the Second Temple.
(Spain, 12th century CE)

Rav Kook

Since we destroyed ourselves and the world through senseless hatred, then surely we can restore ourselves and the world through senseless love.
Orot Hakodesh (Holy Lights), Israel, 1938

Rabbi DovBer Pinson:
[The Three Weeks] is a harsh time to be sure, a time of Din / judgment, yet despite this, or perhaps because of this, it is also a time where we can more easily feel close to [God]…. It becomes clear that all of our sufferings are meant to wake us up to our higher self and purpose, if we but heed the call.
(The Months of Tammuz and Av, U.S., 2018)

Breslover Hassidim
Senseless love is good for the world!
(20th century)

Trip Log June 16: Amanda

Sometimes we learn more from what we don’t know than from what we know. And when we learn about what we don’t know, the ground under our feet — and the spirit within us — can change.

Every year I hike up to the lookout at Cape Perpetua on the Oregon coast. On a clear day you can see 70 miles of coastline. Sometimes it’s bright and sunny; sometimes dark and mysterious. Either way, I’m always in awe of the beauty.

But there’s a detour I’ve previously avoided: the Amanda Trail. 3.2 miles steep downhill into the town of Yachats, and then the steep 3.2 mile return climb — too much for me. Better to stay at the lookout and enjoy the world from up here.

But still, every year when I pass by the trail I wonder: who is Amanda? Why is this trail named after her? This year, 2018, I decide it’s time for me to learn. I’ll start low, on the coast, and hike up. That way the return trip will be easier.

As the climb begins from the outskirts of Yachats into the forest, there are signs and information from the people who built and maintain the trail.

And I begin to learn what I don’t know. About the Ya’Xaik people, a band of the Alsea Tribe who lived here peacefully on the coast, in what is now Yachats, for thousands of years. About how they sustained themselves through hunting, fishing, and wild plants in the forest. About their travel and trade with other tribes, their relationship with the earth, their way of life.

Then I learn about the white hunters, trappers and settlers. And how the U.S. Army came in and displaced the native people from their land. How they forcibly moved them to a coastal reservation, made a treaty with them and then broke the treaty. And how, during the 16 years that the notorious Alsea Sub-agency managed the reservation, half of the native population died of starvation, exposure, disease and abuse.

Then I learn about Amanda. Amanda De-Cuys. She was living with a white settler with whom she had a little daughter, Julia, eight years old. Amanda was blind. U.S. soldiers came to remove her and march her to the reservation. The white settler could have saved her by marrying her, but he refused. Corporal Royal Bengal, who was with the expedition, kept a journal. Amanda and Julia held onto each other crying, before Amanda was finally dragged away. She had no shoes. They marched her, together with other Indians that they had rounded up, over the volcanic rocks of Perpetua to the reservation at Yachats. Corporal Bengal wrote how Amanda tore her feet on the rock, leaving pools of blood. After they finally got Amanda to the reservation, there is no further record of her, or of Julia.

Yachats Early Residents
Trail Sign
A Brief Tribal History
Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians.
Amanda’s story
Trail Sign

Finally I learn about how in the community of Yachats, descendants of white settlers have come together with descendants of the tribal peoples who lived here for thousands of years, to solemnly recognize the dark history of this area, and to honor the people who suffered, by honoring Amanda. It took decades, and the complexity of interfacing with countless local, state, and federal agencies, but eventually the trail commemorating her heart-breaking journey, Amanda’s Trail, got built. And they went further and created a sacred grove, with a statue of Amanda, and a log circle for people to come and sit, contemplate, and solemnly pay their respects.

The relationship between Yachats and the Tribes has grown since. Amanda is a testament to helping First Nations Peoples transcend historical trauma. It has inspired and united the Yachats community. Knowing, understanding and appreciating our local First Nations’ history by our local community and the public at large [has] helped heal the wounds, bringing reconciliation and collaboration to a previously divided people.

Joanne Kittel, Yachats Trails Committee
A Solemn and Spiritual Path: The Amanda Trail Story

When I get to the grove and sit in the circle in the presence of Amanda’s statue, I’m overcome with tears. I stay here a long time. I too am here to witness, to cry, to pray. I think of the current dark time in the U.S. where innocent families are being torn apart. How many Amandas and Julias are being tormented today?

The high lookout is a beautiful place. I hope to continue hiking there for many years. But by itself, it is incomplete, hollow, devoid of meaning. I know that now. As long as my travels bring me here, and as long as my feet can carry me, I hope to also hike on Amanda’s trail.

A final prayer: may the sacred spirit of this place, together with all of its healing, stay with me as I head home. And may I be more awake and more compassionate as a result.

Trip Log June 15: Magnificence

Of all this vast world, what fills you most with awe, wonder, amazement? Is it the great expanses of space and time, or tiny ones? Is it looking up, or looking down?
I’m contemplating all this today as I hike up the steep Saint Perpetua Trail high above the Oregon coast. Last week I was a guest living among the giant, ancient redwoods. Today the vast spaces of the coast are stretched out before me, but my eye is drawn down instead to the magnificence of the tiny wildflowers.

We learn from the mathematics of fractals how patterns in nature repeat themselves no matter how large or small the scale.

My teacher Reb Shlomo taught that there are different ways of learning. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. Sometimes it happens in one infinite moment.
When she was six years old my daughter Noe said to me, “Dad, did you know that kids know as much as adults?”
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah!” she said. “We just know different things!”
The great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote: “The butterfly counts not months but moments. And has time enough.”

Trip Log June 12: Legacy Part 2 — Kaddish

It’s not always so easy to align the human calendar with the forest calendar. Sometimes it means being open to surprise.

Last night began the 18th yahrzeit (anniversary of his passing) of my father Sam Coopersmith. I set out to honor him in the traditional way, to light a candle and say the ancient Kaddish prayer. But as the sun was setting and the wind kept shifting, I found myself multitasking: struggling to keep the candle from blowing out, fending off the mosquitoes, adding an extra layer of clothing, keeping things from blowing away. I went through the motions, but didn’t feel much connection with either my father or the forest.

This morning the weather is mild and calm. With the tent and camping gear packed and in the car, I’m preparing to leave and head north. In a way that I can’t explain, the forest feels inviting, so I‘ll give Kaddish another try.

As soon as I start saying the ancient Aramaic words, something shifts in the forest. I don’t really know how to express this (and you might be questioning my sanity) but let me try anyway: the trees are listening. The trees are paying attention. Why? I wonder as I’m saying the prayer.

    … May the Great Name be blessed and exalted, praised and sanctified …

Maybe it’s because so far I’ve been just another transient human to these redwoods, no more permanent than a passing mosquito. But here’s something older than they are, from my own legacy: this ancient prayer.

    … beyond all blessing, exaltation, praise and song, and comfort — that can be said in this world …

It comes through my father, and my mother, and their parents, and their parents and their parents parents going back some 3,000 years. That’s a time scale they can relate to. So they’re ready to pray with me.

Now my father, Sam, is present too. We embrace each other with joy. We’ve both been wanting this, the connection between where he is and where I am.

So here we are, all of us saying Kaddish together. The stream of legacy, flowing through countless generations, uniting us all.

    … may the Source the of Peace in high places bring us peace in this world. And let us say, amen!

Trip Log June 12: Legacy

After four days with you, my mind is quiet enough to feel your presence. The peace, the serenity, the timeless joyful stillness.

By providing for the life of your offspring for 10,000 generations, you’ve perfected the art of legacy.

Not so with us. We’re a younger species. In this generation we’re blindly destroying the web of life that we and our offspring, and yours, need to live.

But all is not lost. You remember — exactly 100 years ago while aggressive lumber-baron armies were cutting you down, sawing you up, selling your pieces to make a few men rich — that famous picnic right here in this forest. The one with Rockefeller. How a small group of humans who travelled here to observe were horrified by what they saw. How they decided to pool their wealth for something even more precious: to buy you back your forest. How the people of California then created a huge park to protect you. And how today you are bursting with life, the largest old-growth redwood forest in the world.

In spite of it all, we humans are still capable of that.

Imagine: what if we could reunite our communities to live as one community. Our restless newcomer driving ingenious impatient motion, infused with the experience and wisdom of your stillness, of your countless millennia of legacy.

Imagine the next generations.

Trip Log June 10: Volunteer

As I’m helping myself to coffee at the Visitor Center, a short, stocky guy in his 60s wanders over, spreads out his arms, and says, “Isn’t this a glorious morning?” The brass sign on his park uniform says Volunteer / Scott.

“It sure is Scott,” I say.

In past years I’ve avoided the Visitor Center. After all, I’ve come for a quiet retreat, to live alone in a tent, commune with the forest, and restore my soul. Crowds of noisy tourists stopping off for a quick nature fix are not what I had in mind. But this year feels different. I’m feeling more open.

“I love talking with the visitors!” Scott confides. “They come and ask me what to do. I answer, ’What do you like? A quick hike? A moderate hike? Time by the river? Fishing? A picnic?’ I help each one discover the right way for them to be in this beautiful place! What could be better than that?”

Before retiring Scott worked for a small company in Reno that provided towels and bedding to local hotels. When they needed someone to keep an eye on the payroll and bank accounts, he stepped up, learning as he went, and eventually they made him both Comptroller and Director of HR. Given my background, I’m interested in the HR part. It turns out that Scott taught himself the whole HR function: everything from Training to Management Development to Employee Relations to Benefits Administration.

“Then I got a stroke. Most of the vision in my right eye, and the feeling in my right arm, was gone. And my memory was shot. The boss wanted me to stay. I told him I wasn’t so sure that was best for the company. If he needed something done, he needed to be sure it got done.”

Scott had managed to save enough money, and his needs were simple enough, that he didn’t really need the salary. “I wasn’t working for the money,” he says, “I was working because I loved to do it.”

Scott’s been volunteering for five years, and doesn’t plan to stop. “I thank God for the stroke, and for sending me here,” he says.

“Really?” I say.

“You bet! This is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in my life. I used to look at people and nature as two different things. Here I get to live at the interface between them.”

I think about that. “Maybe we can go further and say that all of us — the people, the redwood trees, the bears, the mosquitoes, and everyone else — are nature!”

“I’ll buy that!” he says, laughing.

I head over a picnic table to sit with my iPad and write this story. A big tourist bus parks across the highway, and 40 noisy people swarm past my table. One of them, an old woman, slightly bent over, in loud, colorful clothes and costume jewelry, looks over at me.

“So sorry,” she says in a Boston accent. “You came to be in nature and here comes our busload of tourists and descends on you!”

“Not at all,” I say, looking around. “Here we all are! Isn’t that wonderful?”

Trip Log June 8: Noise

When I get to the redwood forest, the trees welcome me with the ancient eloquence of their silence. I’ve been away so long I’ve almost forgotten this feeling. My heart fills with tears of love.

Friday evening at the campsite, I silently prepare to answer them with the ancient eloquence of the ritual Shabbos (Sabbath) meal — candles, wine, challah, special foods, prayers and blessings.

Then comes the noise. The insistent, dominating whine from the camper that’s just pulled into the next camp site. I try to ignore it, to still my mind, to return to the loving gratitude of the ritual. I can’t do it. The noise is now dominating my evening. What to do?

A couple of years ago something similar happened. I felt upset and angry, walked over to the family in the camper, and asked them to have some consideration for other campers and please turn off their generator. The man had looked at my angry face, then at his wife and teenage sons, and shrugged. “The park rules say I can keep it on till 10:00,” he said. And he did. The noise drowned out my peace and serenity for the rest of the evening.

So I sit there surrounded by the noise, contemplating lessons I’ve been learning all my life from friends and teachers. I get up and walk over to the camper. There’s a couple about my age, the woman sitting outside reading, the man inside preparing dinner. I take an instant to look at them, to imagine their lives, their struggles and their hopes.

“Hi,” I say. “I’m camping across from you. Beautiful evening, isn’t it?” We introduce ourselves. He does most of the talking. She looks frail. Turns out they’re from Southern California, on their way back from visiting their son in Oregon. I tell them about my daughter and granddaughter in Portland.

“I’ve been wondering how long you’re planning to keep your generator on,” I say.

“The rules say we can keep it on till 10:00,” he answers. I just nod, without saying anything. He looks around at the campgrounds, mostly tents. “It’s pretty quiet here, isn’t it?” he says.

I nod again. “I think that’s why a lot of us come here.”

“Well, I don’t know, I guess we can turn it off after dinner, in about an hour or so.” He looks over at his wife. She nods.

“Well thanks,” I say. “I appreciate that. Enjoy your dinner!”

“Thanks. And you enjoy yours too.”

Back at the campsite, I say the blessing and light the candles. The noise from the generator is still strong. But the noise in my mind has gone, and I‘m able to be peacefully present in the silence.

A few minutes later, I notice that the outer noise is gone too. I walk back over to the camper. “Are you guys okay?” I say.

“Yeah,” he says, “I just shut it off.”

“Well, thanks,” I say.

He stands there a moment, looking a little awkward. “I just decided, I don’t like the smell!” The three of us laugh, and then talk some more about our kids.

June 5 : A View from Sam’s

Dinner with Wendy at Sam’s, a fish house on the coast, just before starting my trip north. Outside the window: metal owls.

The owls are speaking to me.

Yeah, we’re just someone’s idea of an owl, they’re saying, turned into a metal image. But dig deeper: behind the image there are real owls, wild and fierce.

The redwoods you’re planning to visit aren’t real. You created them out of your memories. Now go find the real ones. Then come back and create something new.