Temple Israel of Hollywood


The only sounds I could hear were the clacking of small Bakelite tiles and the calls of "crack, bam, dot" from the four women seated around the table. As I peeked over the shoulder of one of the players, who was allowing this learner to sit in, I studied the designs on the vivid squares filling the center of the table.

The tiles were imprinted with Chinese characters and symbols, and the women's exclamations came as each one discarded a tile she had picked up, or one plucked from the rack facing her.
You may recognize that I was observing the ancient game of Mah Jongg. What you may not fathom is what Elaine Soloway was doing at the table. For wasn't she the gal who swore she shunned card-, table-, and hide and seek- games? Isn't this the former Chicagoan who insisted she hadn't the patience for anything lasting longer than 30 minutes?
Moreover, isn't she the Los Angeles transplant who declared she preferred solitary, rather than group pursuits, especially those not under her control?
So what are we to make of this picture of our Elaine perched on the edge at several Mah Jongg games, her view focused on her teacher's line-up and folder outlining the possible hands.
Sit for a bit, as I pull back the curtain to this recent phenomenon when I (time to switch to first person) decided to discard all of my restrictions, including my previous snobbery about the game.
My conversion -- aptly enough -- came at a weekend retreat for the women of Temple Israel of Hollywood. That's the synagogue I attend for Saturday morning Torah study. My friend Thelma, who chauffeurs me for the weekly lessons, urged me to sign up for the retreat. "You'll get a chance to meet women of all ages and enjoy the Ojai scenery and clean air," she said.
I hesitated before agreeing, because as I have stated, I was a non-joiner; and on top of that, was not a camper. Although there were opportunities to attend summer sleepover camp during my childhood, I was a scaredy-cat. I never wanted to leave my mama; and since I was slightly pudgy and uncoordinated, I preferred for my school vacations the concrete sidewalks of Division Street or the greenery of Humboldt Park. 
Despite all that, something spurred me to sign up for the weekend retreat, which offered exercise classes, Jewish learning, hikes, and Mah Jongg. But the first entry in my journal on the morning after check-in, read: I have made a mistake. I don't belong here. Everyone knows more about Judaism than I. Where will I get my coffee when I wake before breakfast? I can't figure out the heat in this room. I wish I could leave early.
Oy, such a complainer! Even I got tired of me. Then, I said to myself: Would it kill you to get with the program? Go to beginner Mah Jongg! Instead of whining, be game.
So, I did, and as I sat at the table with women decades younger than myself, I imagined my dearly departed mother and her sisters hovering overhead. I could almost hear Min, Rose, Etta, and Molly clicking the tiles. I could listen to their conversations, gossip, and laughter. I could practically smell their perfume. I easily saw their beautiful faces -- pinup girls all of them -- and their smiles as they relished their time together.
Let's pause for a bit of history:  While Mah Jongg originated in China in the 19th century; it became part of Jewish life during World War II. In fact, 12 Jewish women who raised money at tournaments for various relief organizations formed the National Mah Jongg League. The game spread in the 1950s and 1960s to our mothers' card tables. And currently, it's popular among younger women. For example, my Ojai teachers were in their '30's and '40's.
Now, I'm not sure if I'll ever really learn the game or even play it again. But, that's not the moral of this story. It is this: sometimes you can leave your comfort zone and try something you've previously avoided. Sometimes, you can say to yourself: would it hurt you to play? Would it be a disaster to stay awake past your normal bedtime? Could you possibly enjoy being part of a group? Would it kill you to take directions from someone other than yourself?
As for my misgivings cited in my Day One journal, it turned out that I loved the Shabbat services despite not knowing the Hebrew lyrics and melodies, I joined new friends at an early morning coffee run, and the low heat setting in my room kept me toasty.
Crack, bam, dot!

Happy Holidays

I was the seventh resident to tape a greeting card to the wall of our building's elevator. The design I had selected, and affixed with double-sided Scotch tape, was as holiday-neutral as the others. Snowman, Santa, a sprig of holly (mine), and wintry scenes. No figure on the cross, crèche, or menorah

When I first saw the cards on the elevator wall, which bore people's first names only and their apartment number, I thought, how quaint. At the time, it didn't occur to me to join in on the display because I had only been a resident for a few weeks.

Although I had introduced myself to several neighbors on my walkway, and said hello to fellow passengers in this small elevator, I didn't feel long-term enough to post a greeting card. (I feel a need to explain the use of "walkway" rather than "floor," which would've been the terminology in a high-rise. But I live in a 24-unit building, which is square-shaped and overlooks a ground floor landscaped courtyard. To me, it's very film noire.)

But on this elevator day, after going up-and-down several times to do my laundry, I decided, why not? My card read, "Happy Holidays." I added in pen, "to all!" and signed Elaine, #21.

Some background: I have lived and adjusted, in a variety of neighborhoods; I count 15 since 1960, the year of my first marriage. This condominium building, which houses a few other renters like myself, is my latest challenge. I have a one-year lease -- enough time to plant myself and see if I flourish. Or, if I'm seasonal, like the holly on my card.

One nourishment -- along with my family -- is the fact that I have settled in a fertile neighborhood called "Beachwood." My daughters and her friends have told me that this is the place where they all docked when they first moved as a troupe from Chicago to L.A.

I like the idea that I'm in a setting of fresh starts, hopefulness, and even youthful enthusiasm, even though I've topped all newcomers' ages by several decades. Why can't this also be blossoming soil for the older set?

In an earlier essay, I claimed I wanted to find a place that was walking distance from my daughter Jill. I thought the proximity would ensure an easy transition from my former home and life in Chicago, and that I could untangle any familial knots and knit a new tapestry of family love so tight, it'd be impossible to unravel.

So, while I was temporarily housed in an Airbnb that was walking distance from my kin in Silver Lake, I reviewed half a dozen places nearby. Alas, none felt like home.

But, as soon as I stepped into this Beachwood apartment, I sent a text to Jill: "it's perfect." When she -- in a reversal of roles that had her playing the scrutinizing mother and me the silent daughter -- came for a viewing, she agreed and the year's lease was signed.

So, instead of walking distance to Jill, I'm a 30-minute bus ride (#2 along Sunset Blvd.) or a 10-minute Uber or Lyft car ride ($8) to her home. But in the swap of neighborhoods, while losing easy access to dear relatives, I gained a grocery store a block away (the amazing Gelson's), a comedy club, (Upright Citizens Brigade), and a second-hand bookstore (Counterpoint where I bought Alice Munro's "Friend of My Youth").

Another bonus of my new home -- that helps to make up for the distance from Jill -- is that I'm a 15-minute walk from buses that can take me to several favorites: Temple Israel of Hollywood, a reform synagogue for Saturday morning Torah study, to Target on La Brea, or to The Grove on 3rd and Fairfax with its Farmers Market and Apple store.

And recently, I walked 1.3 miles to The Trails coffee shop in lush Griffith Park. It's that benefit that has me grateful for my locale, for from opposite directions, mother and daughter recently met for coffee, conversation, and hugs.

Eventually, the holiday cards that are decorating the elevator will be tugged down. Perhaps before that happens, passengers will take a moment to flip the cover of each card and read the name of the signer. Most will have no clue about "Elaine." I figure I have the coming new year to correct that mystery; not only for my neighbors, but also for resident 21 herself.