Scenes From the Northeast: Even a Blackout Can’t Still Life’s Rites

By Max Gross

Published August 22, 2003, issue of August 22, 2003.
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CONNECTICUT

As Sara Sternstein, 23, was about to get into her wedding gown the lights went off.

Her husband-to-be, Laurence Hasson, 23, was already posing for wedding photos in the courtyard of the Hyatt Regency Greenwich hotel near a bubbling brook.

Much to everyone’s amazement, the couple’s traditional Orthodox wedding — which they’d been planning since December — went off almost exactly as planned.

While the hotel was dark, a backup generator provided light for the ballroom. Caterers from the Riverdale-based Main Event rushed portable ovens to Greenwich from the Bronx. Overheated guests escaped the heat in an outside tent cooled by a gas-powered air conditioner.

Some 300 out of 370 guests eventually made it. “The wedding exceeded our expectations. Everyone who was there really put their heart into it,” Hasson said.

As the band struck up a tune, hotel guests — not wedding guests — began trickling into the ballroom. Two had such a good time that they asked Hasson for his address; they wanted to send a wedding gift.

MICHIGAN

Funeral businesses don’t stop because of blackouts and water shortages.

“We did everything by candle light,” said Jonathan Dorfman, director of the Dorfman Chapel in Farmington Hills, Mich.

The funeral arrangements he carried out in the dark, Dorfman said, conjured up images of ancient times, when funerals did not require artificial light.

Irving Auslander, 85, passed away the night before the blackout. For his son, Harvey, the Friday funeral was spiritually moving and, ironically, proceeded more smoothly than it might have on a more ordinary day: With so few cars on the road, the procession didn’t have to contend with much traffic. And because people couldn’t pump gas into their cars, fewer people attended, and the shiva that night became a much more personal experience.

“We did have candles, but by the time it got dark we didn’t need it,” Auslander said. “Somehow we could see each other.”

* * *

“It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw,” Gertrude Weintraub, 90, said of the care she received during the blackout at the Fleischman Residence, an apartment complex housing 600 elderly residents in West Bloomfield.

Fast-thinking administrators, social workers and nurses — with the help of 30 volunteers — quickly deployed an emergency plan originally conceived for a Y2K crisis.

“It happened right before dinner, and we had to switch gears and begin using paper and making sure our blessed generator took care of our frozen foods,” said Carol Rosenberg, the apartments’ associate director, who added that the troubles associated with snowstorms pale “when you lose electricity and the ability to flush toilets.”

Weintraub mainly credits the residents, whose spirits she says never soured. “They went with the flow, and when the lights came back on just before Shabbes, it was as if they said, ‘Let there be light,’ so great was their spiritual wellness.”

NEW JERSEY

Flying into New Jersey Thursday evening, Lenny Silberman, continental director of the JCC Maccabi Games, was determined that the games would start their second week in New Jersey as planned. If the Jews could survive in the desert for 40 years, he thought at the time, then surely 1,400 young athletes could make it to the Garden State from St. Louis and Houston.

“I [asked the Boston delegation head to send] out an e-mail to the 35 different delegation leaders saying, ‘Yes, the games are still continuing, the [JCC on the] Palisades has no power and the phone system is burnt out but everything will be okay and will go on.”

Everyone arrived in time for the opening ceremonies on Sunday, even the Vancouver delegation, which commandeered a bus to Newark after being stranded in Toronto.

So the games came off without a hitch. Ethan Cohen, 14, a basketball player for the MetroWest Congregation in New Jersey, said that he “was only concerned because we had to practice and there were no lights.”

NEW YORK

The announcement came to Moishe Feiglin via megaphone.

Shortly after the blackout, the Hatzolah ambulance service — the Jewish emergency medical service started in 1973 — cruised Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood and announced that there were neighbors at Grand Army Plaza who needed help getting home. Anyone who had a car, the announcer said, should drive up Flatbush Avenue — a major Brooklyn artery — and pick people up before dark.

After hearing the announcement, Feiglin, 27, a Lubavitcher originally from Melbourne, Australia, borrowed a friend’s car to help out.

Most who accepted rides had already made the trek on foot from Manhattan. Feiglin brought a bag of potato knishes, but the people he picked up were too dehydrated to eat. “I should have been smart and brought some drinks along,” he said.

Feiglin didn’t know any of the passengers he chauffeured on his two trips back and forth from Grand Army Plaza, but he made friends quickly. “They told me if I ever need anything I should look them up,” Feiglin said.

* * *

An “eco-Shabbat” held Friday at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, planned months ago, kicked off the third U.S. bike ride organized by Hazon, which raises money for Jewish environmental groups. Many of the 100 attendees — from the U.S. and Israel — had carried bikes down darkened stairwells to reach the bus to the Hamptons, motivated and energized by the blackout, which they perceived as a warning about over-consumption.

While America focused on how to get more power, conferees talked about how to live on much, much less. There were calls to make synagogues more energy-efficient, as well as prayers and discussions of Jewish texts, all orchestrated by Hazon founder Nigel Savage, who has enough energy to power a small airplane.

The next morning, nearly every one of the attendees biked through squalls and did 130 miles by Monday.

OHIO

For Tibor Rosenberg, owner of Tibor’s kosher butcher shop in Cleveland, the 2003 blackout drew nothing but a yawn. “It happens once a year,” said the 48-year-old immigrant from what was then Czechoslovakia, referring to blackouts caused by storms.

Rosenberg stayed at his shop, calculator in hand, selling his wares. An hour and a half after the blackout hit, he called it a day, convinced the low temperatures of his meat cooler would preserve its contents. Once home, he lounged on the deck of his house with his family. “We should have a blackout once a week,” Rosenberg said. “Families get together for quality time.”

When he returned to work on Friday morning, patrons voiced doubts about eating the shop’s meat. Rosenberg assured them that it was safe. “A hundred years ago,” the butcher said, “people just put ice in those coolers… That’s why they call it an icebox.”






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