Breaking Point…by Leora Freedman

Breaking Leora FreedmanEvan and Joannie believed in voluntary poverty, so they welcomed the challenge of making do with little money. Besides, Evan didn’t want to do the things that would have led to economic security, like joining his father’s dental practice on West 23rd Street.  Even after Evan realized that their plans for a utopian community on the Prophet River in northern British Columbia required about $600 per year, he didn’t ask his father, Morris, for anything.  Morris was sad and perplexed that Evan had taken up with a non-Jewish girl who wore men’s trousers and wanted to be even poorer than Morris had been as an immigrant boy.

Though they were pacifists, Evan and Joannie headed for utopia in a refurbished US Army jeep, towing a heavy homemade trailer which caused repeated breakdowns.  That summer, they raised a log cabin with some visiting friends from college.  But autumn found them alone in the bush with a need for something more than “sweat equity.”  So they packed out their possessions little by little, over ten miles of muskeg to the Alaska Highway, where they stored their things in a portable “skid shack” and went to look for work.

Winter found them living in the skid shack in Fort Nelson, sleeping on top of their cartons of books, tools, and clothing. The hotel where they found jobs served mining company people and others with business in the far north.  It was hard work cooking for so many people, peeling hundreds of potatoes and cutting away the mushy sections that had frozen.

But they were happy at that time. The skid shack had an airtight heater vented through a pipe in the roof, and Joannie cooked by taking the lid off the heater and lowering a pot into the fire. It was only later in the utopian project that Evan learned what wintering in close quarters could do to people, just as he learned the horrors of getting a piece of flesh stuck to freezing metal.

One day, the hotel manager told Evan to bring in the sheets, which were put outside to dry in minus 40 degree weather.  Evan didn’t realize that if you try to fold a frozen sheet it will break.  Like his immigrant father, he was stubborn and determined to get the job done. For a while he broke sheet after sheet.  Finally, he realized what was going wrong.

Copyright © Leora Freedman 2017

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Good Morning Merry Sunshine!…by Leora Freedman

Good Morning Merry Sunshine! by Leora FreedmanSome parents can’t make up stories for their children no matter how hard they try, while others realize that the story doesn’t have to be good—it only needs to keep going.  Morris used to tell his three boys long stories about animals.  There were dialogues between horses and cats, dogs and rabbits, and monkeys and birds.  The animals spent a lot of time visiting each other.  Sometimes they met new animals, and they might go to the playground or build a snow animal together.  Each story was different but all of them ended with Morris asking:  “And what do you think the little bird said?  ‘Good morning merry sunshine!’”

Later, Morris told them stories about his own father, who was called a ne’er-do-well—a name they gave people in those days instead of irresponsible or unstable.  This father was a contractor who would start a job and then disappear, leaving fifteen-year-old Morris in charge, and the boss of men twice his age.  Morris told his own boys how much he’d adored his ne’er-do-well father, who always told an interesting story about what had happened to him when he finally returned.  Morris never held anything against him.

When Morris’s sons were grown, they went off on adventures.  Morris didn’t approve of adventures because of his ne’er-do-well father, but he tried to understand when one son built a cabin in northern British Columbia while another volunteered in a dangerous inner city.  He did like hearing their stories when they came home for a visit.  One year on Morris’s birthday, two of his sons were away.  Without consulting each other, and almost at the same moment, each son sent him a telegram with a long animal story that ended: “And what do you think the little bird said?  ‘Good morning merry sunshine!’”

Copyright © Leora Freedman 2016

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Hungry Enough to Eat a Bear…by Leora Freedman

Hungry Enough to Eat a Bear by Leora FreedmanThe grocer’s shop on West 34th Street had a sign in the window: “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army.”  It rhymed if you spoke like a New Yorker.  In that shop, back in the 1960’s, Flora Feuerstein was known as “Mrs. Canada.” Her son Evan wasn’t in the army—he was starting a utopian community in Canada.  No one in the shop ever asked any questions when she sent packages of kosher salami to Evan and Joannie, who were building a cabin in northern British Columbia.  Flora was worried that they might not have enough to eat, and also that they might be eaten by wild animals.

Evan had excelled at Junior Riflery in camp, but hunting a moving animal was a different story.  He couldn’t even hit a grouse that was only a few feet away.  Once, the grouse he missed was so close that he could have just reached down and grabbed it, though he didn’t think to do that.  In the meantime, they were getting low on beans and rice because their cache on the Alaska Highway was regularly invaded by a bear.  The cache was a platform about ten feet off the ground, resting between four black spruce trees.  An entire wheel of cheese disappeared.  Evan imagined the bear joyfully rolling his precious cheese down the embankment.

All their attempts at bear-proofing the cache—like wrapping the tree trunks in metal—failed.  Evan’s marksmanship improved, and he decided it was time to hunt the bear.  His friend Bernie, a biology major, was visiting then, so one night Evan and Bernie sat up in the cache, leaning against the sacks of rice and lentils piled under a canvas tarp.  Eventually Bernie fell asleep in the half light of the sub-Arctic night.  Evan stayed awake, holding his gun, and when the bear appeared he shot and killed it.

Bernie woke instantly, yelling, “Don’t shoot!  Don’t shoot!”  He calmed down when he realized the bear was dead, and he watched as Evan tried unsuccessfully to skin the bear with an inferior hunting knife he’d bought in Manhattan.  Bernie always traveled with his favorite scalpel.  “I’ve never dissected a large mammal before!” he exclaimed, slicing through the skin as if unzipping a costume.  But it was real, and the slabs of strangely textured meat, both fresh and dried, fed them for many months.  Even though bear meat is not exactly a delicacy, this one tasted good.

When “Mrs. Canada” heard about these events, she sent Evan more salami.

Copyright © Leora Freedman 2016

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Free Lunch….by Leora Freedman

Free Lunch by Leora Freedman

Morris and his friend Henry had to make ends meet while they went through dental school, which at that time you could enter straight from high school.   They were pretty sure that once they became dentists they could make a living, but in the meantime they were hungry.  All the bars in New York back then served a “free lunch.”  So Morris and Henry would go to a bar and eat lots of pretzels, salty peanuts, bits of salty cheese and smoked herring—without ordering anything to drink, of course.  The bars did not serve water.  When Morris and Henry couldn’t stand the saltiness a minute longer, they’d rush out of the bar looking for water.

Then Morris found a job teaching night school for immigrants who were newer than he was.  He taught two classes on American history, which he did not really know.  But he found at least one student in each class who knew everything, so instead of lecturing he would ask questions, and these students would answer.  Morris could then teach these answers to his next class.  He would also learn more material from the students in this second class which he could teach when he returned to the first class, and so on.  The students were eager to talk and to learn, and Morris was a well-liked teacher.

During this period of his life, he learned other things about how people helped one another, especially relatives.  There was the uncle who once lent him a hundred dollars and then claimed he had put Morris through dental school.  Morris repaid this uncle as quickly as possible.  When Morris finally became a successful dentist, he kept a “revolving fund” for people in need.  He said that when one person paid it back, he could lend it to another.  But sometimes he would lend it again even if it hadn’t been paid back.

Copyright © Leora Freedman 2016

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Prophet River…by Leora Freedman

Prophet River by Leora FreedmanIn 1959, when Evan and Joannie went up to homestead in the Prophet River country—more than one thousand miles north of the US-Canadian border—they almost immediately met an outgoing member of the Dane-zaa tribe named Jerry.  That day, Evan and Joannie were busy backpacking their supplies from their cache at Mile 210 on the Alaska Highway.  They carried their packs down over seven miles of muskeg to the spot on the Prophet River where they’d already built a lean-to.  Their plans were to build a cabin and, eventually, a utopian community.

“I see one people-pack walking!” a voice called to them from farther down the trail.  The muskeg sucked at their boots and made it hard to keep walking toward the first person they’d met in the Prophet River Valley.  Since they were each carrying about sixty pounds, they felt as if they might be sucked completely into the swamp with every step.  “I see two people-packs walking!” Jerry observed as they got closer.  Finally they met in the middle of the trail.  “You lost?” he asked.

When they told Jerry that they had come from New York City to find a better life in the northern wilderness, he said:  “My trapping cabin over there—stay in my cabin!  Trap on my land!  You want a dog?”  So even though they always had trouble convincing anyone from the south to remain at the community with them, Evan and Joannie were never really alone in the wilderness because the Dane-zaa people were not far away.

This proved important in the matter of getting enough to eat.  Although Joannie was an experienced gardener, she had never tried to grow vegetables in a place where the temperature dropped to freezing on a July night and eleven-day rainstorms came regularly every other week.  They’d brought along a supply of rice, beans, peas, and peanut butter, but meat was an essential part of the local diet, as few other foods were available.  The Dunne-za at that time lived on meat, fish, and a few items of “white man’s food” like flour, black tea, and sugar.

Evan consulted the thousand-page book he and Joannie had compiled by researching at the anthropological library of the Museum of Natural History.  Along with information about tanning leather, dyeing cloth, delivering babies, and hundreds of other things members of a subsistence community would need to do or make for themselves, there were a dozen or so pages about making hunting snares.  Evan carefully constructed his snares with small branches and pieces of wire.  He placed a large number of them around their camp, figuring a rabbit would jump into at least one of his snares by suppertime each day.

But the days and weeks passed and the snares remained empty.  Evan and Joannie, along with some friends who came to visit, felled small spruce trees, peeled and notched them, and built a cabin according to the sketches in their thousand-page manual.  At the end of the day they were hungry, and their food stores were getting lower.  Evan couldn’t figure out why the little Arctic hares, which were brown in summer and white in winter, were so plentiful in the area but so difficult to catch.  Jerry and other Dane-zaa visited from time to time, and one day they arrived when Evan had just finished building some bookshelves for the many books they had packed in over the muskeg from Mile 210.  “Everything you know in those books?” Jerry asked.

One day Evan was out walking with Jerry, who pointed casually to a spot where the faintest path showed, just an extra glimmer from slightly trampled blades of grass.  “Rabbit run here,” Jerry commented.  Then Evan realized that there were little animal highways leading from place to place, and if you wanted to catch an animal you had to put the snare in its path.  These animal trails were invisible until someone showed them to you, and then you saw them everywhere.

Copyright © Leora Freedman 2016

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Cold Water….by Leora Freedman

Cold Leora Freedman
One day in the winter of 1958 Flora decided to visit her son Evan and his girlfriend Joannie, who were living in a cold water flat in “Hell’s Kitchen” in New York. They had dropped out of college and were planning to start a utopian community in northern British Columbia. First they needed to save up enough money for a truck, tools, and supplies for one full year. Worrying how Evan, who had been ill as a child, would fare living in the wilderness with no doctor nearby, Flora left her apartment filled with art on Central Park West and traveled down to West 45th Street and Tenth Avenue.

Flora had never seen Evan and Joannie’s apartment before, though she’d heard descriptions of apartments like this when she was a girl and her father worked in HIAS to help new immigrants. The young couple paid $16.10 per month, and there was only a cold water tap—no hot. It was also a railroad flat, with several, mostly windowless rooms laid out in a straight line. Flora, Joannie, and Evan sat in the front room on what had once been chairs, though they now had no backs. Evan had painted them in bright splotchy designs. He was enthusiastic about how he had set off a bomb that finally got rid of the bedbugs. Flora said that was a good thing.

Joannie was a Quaker, though even if she’d been a Jewish girl, she would not have been type of person Flora wanted her son to marry. She sat on her splotchy backless chair wearing dungarees and a plaid men’s shirt. Flora felt effete in her knit skirt and sweater. How had this unattractive young woman seduced her son into a possibly fatal adventure? Joannie told her how a friend from college had arrived unexpectedly in New York and came to their address, though he didn’t know which apartment was theirs. When he asked around, all the neighbors swore they’d never seen anyone like Evan and Joannie. “Around here, if someone in a nice suit and tie is looking for you it means trouble. They were just protecting us!” Joannie seemed delighted.

Flora was a socialist and a Whitman scholar, and she was not unschooled in progressive thought. Yet she was left feeling as cold as the water that ran in the dingy kitchen’s pipes. Evan’s grandfather and father had worked hard for decades precisely so Evan would never have to live like this. Something calamitous had happened to the Feuerstein family, Flora felt. Thousands of years of history had been diverted and its streams were rushing in another direction to fill Evan and Joannie’s utopia.

Copyright © Leora Freedman 2016

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Listening to the Still, Small Voice…by Leora Freedman

Listening to the Still Small Voice by Leora FreedmanWhen Evan was a little boy, his parents sent him to Quaker school because he was small for his age and the public school was rough.  During rest period in the Quaker school, the children lay on the padded benches in the Meeting room.  Evan looked up at the ornamented vent in the center of the domed ceiling and felt that the Holy One of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob rested there, looking down on him and his classmates.

Evan didn’t understand why he was in this strange place.  Later on, he found out about the quotas on admission of Jewish students to the universities and how he would appear less Jewish if he came from a Quaker school.  He liked the school and the silent Meeting.  People would get up to speak when the spirit moved them, which was not so often.   Evan also liked the idea of listening to the still, small voice within oneself.  His mother told him this idea came from their own Elijah the Prophet.

After he grew up, Evan was sent to a Quaker college, where he found a Quaker girlfriend.  Joannie was from a family of seven children and knew how to make soap from scratch, milk a goat, plant a garden to feed a family, and many other things one didn’t learn in a Jewish family in Brooklyn.  Although Joannie originally planned to practice nursing in the Amazon after graduation, Evan convinced her they would have a better chance of changing the world if they formed an intentional community in the far north of Canada.  So the two of them left the Quaker college, moved into a cheap apartment in New York City, and started preparing to go one thousand miles north of the US-Canadian border.

Evan and Joannie approached their journey north like a research project.  They spent hours reading anthropological accounts in the Museum of Natural History library, taking notes and making detailed sketches of how to build a shelter in the forest, hunt, fish, weave cloth, dry meat, make furniture, and deliver babies.  Eventually they had more than 1000 pages of instructions for their new life, and they bound it all together to make their own book.

In the meantime they tried to save money to finance their intentional community.  Evan took a job in a button factory, building up his strength by moving heavy boxes of buttons.  His coworkers were interested in this young man with so many plans.  But when Evan tried to persuade them that a better society was possible, they said they never wanted to leave the button factory.  One of them argued that even after the revolution, people would still need buttons.  They didn’t hear the same still, small voice that Evan and Joannie heard.

Copyright © Leora Freedman 2016

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The Daughter Who Got Away is now available as an ebook!

Daughter-Ebook-Web-240htThe ebook for The Daughter Who Got Away is up and live! It’s available for Kindle, Kobo, iBooks, and other e-readers.  To buy the e-book, visit:

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Silkie…by Leora Freedman Leora FreedmanEvan Feuerstein thought he was going to college to find out the meaning of life.  His father Morris thought he was sending Evan to college so he’d become a dentist.  Then he could join Morris in his West 23rd Street dental practice, which had just expanded to take up two apartments instead of only one.

At first Evan was delighted with college.  Instantly he found a circle of friends who’d also been misfits until now.  These friends liked to play guitars and banjos and sing songs like “Silkie,” a sad and mysterious ballad about a sea-creature with the body of a fish and the head of a man.  The Silkie could leave the sea for dry land and become a man on only one day each year, after which he had to return to his natural element.  The students also liked other songs Evan enjoyed singing, like “Don’t Fence Me In.”  Morris was not delighted when Evan went on a song-collecting trip in Appalachia and failed pre-med chemistry.

The course Evan liked best was the seminar on Utopian communities, which he did not fail.  To his parents’ consternation, he took up with a non-Jewish girl who played the banjo and planned to become a nurse in the Amazon jungle.  He also grew a beard, which caused the Dean to write a letter to his parents about grades and beards.  Evan then shaved off his beard, glued it onto an enlarged photograph of himself which he’d printed in the college darkroom, and mailed it to his parents in New York.  But it was too late for calming measures:  He had flunked out.

Even when he wasn’t a student anymore, Evan lived on campus.  During the day, he read hundreds of books in the college library, looking for the meaning of life.  At night, he worked in a barbecue grill factory.  The college had removed his bed from the dorm room, but Evan’s roommate didn’t mind if he slept on the floor in a sleeping bag.  When he got back from the night shift, one of his eccentric friends would usually still be awake, reading.  This friend studied Classics, but his father wanted him to become a “real” man and was disappointed that he didn’t like hunting and fishing.

Each night Evan got on his bicycle and rode off to assemble barbecue grills.  As he pedaled past the lighted windows of the big Victorian houses on the outskirts of campus he saw people moving around their kitchens, watching TV, going upstairs and downstairs.  He realized that his life was meant to be lived in a different element, like the Silkie’s.

Copyright © Leora Freedman 2016

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How Our Ancestors Learned to Drive…by Leora Freedman

How Our Ancestors Learned to Leora FreedmanFor our ancestors, learning to drive meant that they were American, not hungry, and they had places to travel to rather than places to escape.  Joseph Baum imagined himself gliding on a country road in upstate New York, the wind teasing his wife Charlotte’s hair and his children, Flora and Edwin, in the back seat with a large picnic basket between them.  Although there were no drivers’ licenses back then, Joseph took driving lessons from the man who sold him the second-hand Model T.  He also bought a big book about engines and learned every detail about the combustion process.

The first time Joseph backed the car down the driveway next to their Brooklyn house, he smashed into the large maple tree at the edge of the lawn.  Horrified, he never again got behind the wheel of a car.  The Model T sat in the driveway until one summer morning when his sister Irene—who had never driven or taken a driving lesson—decided she would be the one to drive.  Irene piled the children into the back seat, a large picnic basket between them, backed down the driveway, and drove everyone out to Coney Island.

When they grew up, Edwin learned to drive very well, and Flora also learned with some misgivings.  She used to drive her family out to the country in summer, where they fixed up a ramshackle house on a winding road in Connecticut.  Flora always inched around the turns, beeping constantly to warn oncoming cars.  In between listening to the Green Hornet on the radio, her sons laughed at her in the back seat.

Flora’s husband Morris almost never drove except for early Sunday mornings in Connecticut.  He would get up before anyone else was awake and drive down the winding road to the town deli to buy fresh rolls for breakfast.  It seemed like only a few years ago he and his friends in dental school had made ends meet by eating the free–but terribly salty–food in the New York bars and then rushing out to drink water.  Now, Morris was delighted to leave his own house, drive his own car, and buy food for breakfast.  The Connecticut deli owner saw Morris’ delight and offered him a job in the deli so he wouldn’t have to return to work in his dental practice in New York during the week.  To the deli owner, all that traveling looked like a hard life.

Copyright © Leora Freedman 2016

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