Israel-Finding Meaning in Hard Times

If I hadn’t had my accident in Israel, I would have never met the Muslim man who directed me to a deeper understanding of Judaism.

I met him in Syracuse, New York and because of my injuries he knew I had gone to Israel. I sensed that he was a traveler, too, and asked where he was from. He replied, “Persia”. I knew he meant Iran and I quickly told him what I believed to put him at ease. I told him that I traveled to learn about all religions, that I believed in inclusion and in the fact that we all share a common destiny. I asked him about his faith and he told me he was Muslim.

It turns out that the my new acquaintance was also on a quest to understand and showed me that he had downloaded the audio version of The World’s Religions by Huston Smith. That evening I ordered a copy of this book and when it arrived I immediately read the chapter on Judaism.

Picture courtesy of Syracuse University

The Jewish people have endured a long history of exile, discrimination, persecution, and even extermination. But through it all, as Huston Smith points out, the underlying power of Jewish survival has been its people’s search for meaning. Meaning found in God, history, morality, justice and most of of all suffering.

After my visit to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland, I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, who was a prisoner at that death camp. I thought of him while I have been recovering.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

He has became a widely quoted existential author stating that life has no purpose and it is our responsibility to create purpose for ourselves. Every moment and experience, good or bad, helps us define that meaning.

He offered us a formula-

In my travels in Israel, I found cultural power. I found a country of problem solvers strengthen by a tradition of never giving up. I found myself inspired by this. I chose to find meaning in my mishap. The whole experience has given me a deeper understanding of the Jewish spirit and since I have been home has given me the opportunity and time to reflect even further. But the greatest gift has been a renewed confidence that allows me to declare, “Bring it on world! I’m going to be okay.”

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how’.” Viktor Frankl

Copyright 2019@ The Autonomous Traveler All rights reserved.

Israel-The Iron Dome

Image result for the iron dome defense system
Picture courtesy of wisemoneyisrael.com

The Iron Dome is a mobile missile launching system using a specific algorithm that can calculate if an enemy missile is about to strike a populated area. With 90% accuracy, the launcher sends out its own missiles to explode the enemy missiles in the air.

Israel is a country surrounded people of many faiths and political leanings. Many of my readers are anxious to learn about what is going on in Israel. I will do my best to present the facts in an unbiased way.

The Iron Dome System, created in Israel, took 3 years to perfect at a cost of 20 million dollars.

Picture courtesy of The Jewish Policy Center

The launchers are compact and can be moved around by truck so at any time their location is hard to detect. Each unit has 12 missiles.

Since I’ve been home The Iron Dome has been used to destroy incoming missiles from the Gaza strip.

Copyright 2019@theautonomoustraveler.com All rights reserved.

Israel-Remembering The Holocaust

I was raised in the rural part of Western New York State and never knew any Jewish people. But growing up in the 1950’s and1960’s, my teenage imagination and heart was pierced by the life and death of a Jewish girl named Anne Frank.

During my childhood, the impact of WWII was still very vivid. The Diary of A Young Girl was published in 1952 and the movie, “The Diary of Anne Frank” was released in 1959. History lessons about The Holocaust were of great interest to my fellow high school students and me. Hitler and the terrible things he did were the story we grew up with. It wasn’t a colorful saga like the superheroes fighting on the big screen today. It didn’t offer a happy ending as good guys beat up the bad guys. It didn’t allow us a sigh of relief because the conflict finally ended. The holocaust was real and it was horrible.

I read The Wall by John Hersey when I was nineteen. The author wrote about barriers put up around the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw, Poland during the WWII. These walls kept the Jews of that city confined as they waited to be exterminated.

Because of my Polish roots, I have gone to Poland twice. I visited Schindler’s factory in Krakow and got to see remains of the wall in Warsaw that I had read about.

I visited visit Auschwitz, the Nazi extermination camp. The German words on the prison gates offered a cruel promise, “work sets you free.”

Image result for auschwitz gate

What a horrible place. The Nazi had figured out just how many Jews would generate enough body heat to activate the poisonous chemicals in the gas chambers. In some parts of the camp, I actually smelled the lingering scent of death. I kept it together until I came upon an exhibit filled with the suitcases. I thought of the millions of Jewish victims who carefully packed their belongings thinking they were going to be relocated but were killed instead.

During this 1990’s tour of Poland with my aunt, there was a Jewish man on our tour group named Jack who was a guidance counselor from the midwest. He was a kind person who made a point of asking where everyone was from and taking a genuine interest in who they were. I soon found out that Jack had been a “guest” at Auschwitz. His family was killed there but he was kept alive because he was small and agile and the Nazi used him to light the fuse inside a nearby coal mine. At the end of our tour, I asked Jack what was the most valuable lesson he had learned in his life. He told me it was to always stay positive and to enjoy and cherish every minute of each day. I will write more about the strength that comes Jewish culture in future posts.

I want to close with a warning. We can’t forget this terrible time in history, this extreme time of hate that manifested itself in horrific death and destruction. My memories of The Holocaust have never left me but they were beginning to fade as I, like all of us, have gotten caught up in the stress of our present day world. Society is off balance. We presently live in a high pitched frenzy of gossip and labeling, righteousness and absolutism, bullying and scapegoating, exclusion and discrimination. Anti -semitism and white supremacy are making an appearance again. We all need to stop and look at what we are becoming before it is too late.

Copyright 2019 @ theautonomoustraveler.com All rights reserved.

Tel Aviv, Israel

I’ve never been so excited about going on a trip as I was about going to Israel. Friends on Facebook were looking forward to my posts and pictures but many cautioned me to stay safe and be careful. One friend went as far as asking why I wanted to go to a place “so,so dangerous”.

The morning I was to fly out of Syracuse was a bit foggy and offered a kind of a mystical backdrop that seemed very appropriate for the journey I was beginning. Having checked my bags and gone through customs, I sat near my gate. And even though it was not dawn I gave my own Hindu salutation to the sun.

Having left my home and the North Country and no longer experiencing the stress about what and what not to pack, I was at peace. And with peace comes gratitude. Remembering the words of Rashid, my Islamic guide in India, I gave thanks to the God “who had created us all”. I knew I was very lucky to have this travel opportunity but I worried that my inclusive respect for all religions might get me in trouble with the other members of the tour. The trip was a secular overview of Israel but I knew there would be people of both Christian and Jewish faiths. Would they accept that even though I have a strong commitment to God, I choose to have no affiliation with any religion?

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv was nothing I expected. It was a cosmopolitan center with a progressive personality. The city recognizes unmarried couples, including gays and lesbians, as family units and grants them discounts for municipal services. It is a place of modern structures along the beachfront of the Mediterranean Sea.

I asked my tour guide if it was safe for me to walk along the board walk after dark. He assured me it was.

As I explored this part of Israel on my first night, the word that kept repeating in my mind was “health”. The city was clean and well cared for. People ran and jogged, biked and skateboarded. There was music and smiles. Everyone was relaxed. It was very safe but beyond that its essence was harmony as people seemed to be living the beauty of the present moment.

I met my fellow tour members. I sensed their desire to learn rather than to judge. I felt very comfortable with all of them. They were nice people.

My first day in Israel was quite a happy experience. I was grateful.

Copyright 2019 @ The Autonomous Traveler All rights reserved.

Wearing a Fuzzy Pink Bath Mat to the Prom

My last post, “Everybody Must Get Stoned” was a bit dark and discouraging. I guess my intention was to sound the alarm about where we are headed as human beings if we don’t get our act together. I’m really an optimist and I owe my resilience to my mom who repeated the same mantra over and over,”don’t worry, we will figure something out”.

My family was poor and we faced a lot obstacles that I won’t go into now. My parents didn’t go beyond an eighth grade education and, like all of us, they made some bad choices in their lives. But they did manage to give their children some important skills

Because of her promise that we would figure things out, my mom gave me a sense of power. When things broke or didn’t meet the required expectations, confident problem solving was always invoked and we persevered until things were back on track again.

In the peace of my camping trip a few weeks ago, I found the time to think about a lot of things including my childhood, my mom, and who she helped me to become. Because of her, I don’t give up, have chosen a life of action, and I’m a happy person. And I’m proud to say that I haven’t given in to any addictions (well, maybe, a small Pecan Turtle Blizzard at Dairy Queen from time to time.) The hard times in my life, have always been motivators for me, opportunities to figure things out and move on to the the next or an alternative step.

Before doing this blog, my approach to writing used be all screwed up. I would start something and then label it “dumb” and give up. It took a long time for me to finally hear my mom whispering, “don’t worry, just revise. You’ll figure it out”.

There is a funny story about the lengths my mom and I went to solve a particular problem. I was going to a formal dance and I needed the appropriate clothes that we just couldn’t afford. My aunt let us borrow a long white brocade dress and my mom added a lovely pink satin ribbon to the waist, letting it cascade down in the back. I needed a shawl and after some creative brainstorming we decided to buy a pink faux fur bath mat and line it with satin fabric. We devised a clasp hidden under more pink ribbon that matched my dress.

Well, I went to the formal event and people said my shawl looked like a bath mat. I guess what was important was that they didn’t figure out that it actually was a bath mat.

I can laugh about this now. It was one humorous glitch in a long line of my mom’s victories. She was determined that all three of her daughters would go to college and, beating almost impossible odds, she made that come true. She did other incredible things, too, that only came to light after she died.

When I was looking for a picture of a pink fur bath mat for this post, I came across pictures of pink fuzzy pillows that were for sale. I’m going to buy one so from time to time when life presents me with a problem I don’t think I can handle, I can hold the pillow, remember my mom, and know everything will be okay.

Copyright 2019@theautonomoustraveler.com All rights reserved.

“Everybody Must Get Stoned”-Traveling with Forrest Gump

I’m very scared!

“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” written by Bob Dylan, released in 1966


“Well, they’ll stone you when you’re trying to be so good
They’ll stone you just like they said they would
They’ll stone you when you’re trying to go home
And they’ll stone you when you’re there all alone
But I would not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned”

There are a lot of interpretations of this song. Some say it’s about drugs or the songwriter’s critics. Bob Dylan named the piece “Rainy Day Women #12& 35”. In explaining the meaning, Dylan told about two women, ages 12 and 35, who came into his studio. He had just read an article about the stoning of females in a Middle Eastern country and he was pondering whether all relationships were about stoning.

53 years after this song was released, I tend to agree with Bob Dylan’s message and it is just as intense, maybe even more intense today. We are tribal , so eager to label others. We are not living in a supportive world where we recognize the good in others. We gossip about, evaluate and assess everything and everyone we come in contact with. As we become more and more stressed we tend not to acknowledge our own human failings and the counterproductiveness of our actions. We only look for people to blame. We join with others who might think like us because being in a group gives us strength and anonymity. And as we herd together, we turn over our sense of rationality and justice to the power and force of the emotional mob we identify with. We seek out scapegoats and we stone them.

The examples of this condemnation abound. Atheists condemn Christians. Muslims dislike Jews. Liberals look down on conservatives. Immigrants are seen as unworthy. Minorities are distrusted. All rich people are seen as greedy and dishonest. All poor people are viewed as lazy. Intellects see the uneducated as dumb. Republicans fight Democrats. The two coasts of America look down on the fly over states. Mets fans boo the fans of Yankees. It goes on and until “everyone must get stoned”.

When I was doing my graduate work at Saint Lawrence University, my advisor, Dr. Bill Fox, taught a required course called General Semantics. He was a great teacher and I learned a lot, especially the practice of avoiding dividing any situation or idea into the two neat parts of either/or. Dr. Fox helped us see beyond the illusions of right and wrong, correct and incorrect, black and white. He encouraged us to seek out all the shades of gray and, in doing so, led us to all the colors in the rainbow.

When I was an elementary teacher, I found a great book on critical thinking skills for kids. One of my favorite lessons concerned the dangers of absolutes, using words like always, never, all, everybody, perfect. We had a lot of great discusses about coming to better understandings.

I think I’m personally sensitive to wide label brush strokes because I’m 100% Polish-American. I spent a lot of my childhood listening to Polish jokes that labeled the people of my nationality as “dumb”. The pain is long gone and hopefully it has made me person who approaches the people I meet with an open mind, eager to understand who they are.

We all share a common destiny. Each time we do an injustice to one person we are doing an injustice to all of us. It’s as if the world is standing in a big circle, not a circle of unity but one of destruction. And I fear that if we keep throwing rocks at each other no one will be left standing.

I’m very scared.

Copyright 2019@theautonomoustraveler.com All rights reserved.

“The Land of a Thousand Dances”-Traveling with the Forrest Gump Soundtrack


One, two, three!
You gotta know how to pony like Bony Maronie
Mashed Potato, do the Alligator
Put your hands on your hips, let your back-bone slip
Do the Watusi, like my little Lucy
Na, na na na na, na na na na, na na na, na na na, na na na na.

“Land of a Thousand Dances” written by Christopher Kenner in 1962

Hit single by Wilson Pickett in 1966

It really funny how little humans comprehend. I remember dancing to this song in my all white high school in Western New York and as we tried to master The Pony and The Mashed Potatoes we had no idea we were trying to emulate another culture. Maybe it was because we were self centered teenagers and deep into the comfort zone of our all caucasian world. But luckily music was a universal language that first exposed us to a world beyond what we grew up in.

I’m ashamed to say I needed to look up Wilson Picket to learn more about him for this post. I realized that over the years I enjoyed dancing to a lot of his singles including “Mustang Sally” and “In the Midnight Hour”.

In the 1960’s, I was part of a white closed system but not completely. I lived next door to Mr. C.’s farm. Looking out my bedroom window, I could see his yellow house, the grey shingled barn, the collection of outbuildings and beyond it all, acres of orchards. They were my refuge, a lovely deviation from the limits life imposed on me. I was shy and self conscious in high school and I was always glad to get home. School was like a game board with rigid rules and what seemed like only one path. Competition was intense, some won and others were left behind.

I would change my clothes after school and then go down to my father’s cluttered workshop that smelled of oil and dirt to retrieve my bike. Pushing and pulling it over the dry clods of a plowed field I’d finally get it to the powdery road that weaved through Mr. C.’s farm.

My route passed a stagnant pond that was be mixed with insecticides stored nearby. The smell from the fumes was terrible. It was the 1960’s, no one knew any better.

As I pumped the pedals of my bike as hard as I could, row after row of plum, apple and peach trees blurred into lovely shades of green and chartreuse. Sometimes I would stop to pick the ripest fruit from a high branch closest to the sun. Other times I would keep going hoping for the freedom that motion offered.

When I reached the halfway point of my journey, I came to a field where vegetables were grown for sale. A cluster of hunched over bodies dotted the area. I slowed down and was surprised to see black people picking tomatoes. I had never seen anything like this in real life. Sure I had watched “Amos and Andy” and Shirley Temple with her African-American dance partner but this was different.

I noticed that no one acknowledged the loud clicking sound of my old bike. Something seemed to press them all down, forbidding them to make any connection with me.

On I went. A wonderful hill and the gift of gravity were next. I pumped harder and harder and my mind raced.Where did the workers come from? Where did they go when the sun set and darkness came?

Down, down the hill I sailed. The speed and the rushing air cleared my mind. I was gloriously free in the moment.

The road leveled, my bike slowed and I was home again.

Having returned the bike to the dank darkness of my father’s workshop, I walked back to the my house but was stopped by an intruder, a rooster who stood a foot and a half tall. It was autumn personified from the red of its comb and wattle, to the rusty brown on its back, and the yellow cascading down its head and chest. Its grandness was further accentuated by the explosion black feathers at its tail.

The exotic creature was unlike any barnyard poultry I had ever seen. and I sensed that the bird had been bred and raised for a special mission and its defiance frightened me.

The rooster took a step forward, unfurled its huge wings, rose into the air, and thrust its open talons toward me. I screamed and ran into the house as the rooster slowly sauntered into the nearby plum orchard sensing it had made its point.


My mom was preparing dinner and my dad reading the paper laid out before him on the kitchen table. I told then about the attacking rooster and my father told me it belonged to a worker Mr. C. had hired to help with the farm. He went on to describe the rooster’s owner as “Good Ole Sherm” who wore no shoes and who had feet as wide as they were long and was “black as the ace of spades.”

No one ever had to explain to me that during my childhood I lived in a very intolerant country and was part of a prejudice family. My grandparent came to this country directly from Poland in the early 1900’s and I frequently felt the sharp painful stabs of Polish jokes. And my dad and mom seemed to have a lot of negative things to says about other ethnic people, racial minorities and, from time to time, various religious groups.

My dad volunteered to take me to see Sherm about the rooster. After supper, I followed him through the plum orchard to Sherm’s home in Mr. C.’s abandoned chicken coop.

Constructed with old cinder blocks that looked like small grey loaves of course bread, the squat structure had a black tar paper roof and paned windows on three sides. Someone had attempted to clean the glass but dirt stubbornly clung to corners. The small door for chickens was nailed shut. A larger entrance, four weathered vertical boards held together with two horizontal boards, had an empty tuna fish can for a knob.

My father knocked on the door and after a moment it was opened by a tall middle-aged black man in overalls, a flannel shirt, and work boots who seemed happy to see us and welcomed us in.

My father went in first. I followed. The windows brought light into cramped space that was furnished with a broken wicker chair, a lime green formica table with rusted chrome sides and legs, a red kitchen chair covered in cracked plastic upholstery, and a small cot. The shelter had no water, electricity, or bathroom. An oil lamp, camp stove, and a battered aluminum cooler were the only conveniences. I didn’t smell any chicken odor, only the masking scent of white wash.

My father sat down on the wicker chair, I stood. Sherm did not look at me but pulled the chair away from the table and gently motioned for me to sit down. The two men talked about the rooster and laughed as they came up with a plan. They discussed this year’s crop and the need for more rain. Sherm asked if he could get us something. My dad nodded.

Sherm took one step toward the cooler on the floor, opened it and took out a glass bottle of orange juice. He reached up to a wooden plank shelf over the door and brought down three glasses. I could see that they had not been washed thoroughly and a hazy film remained.

I watched my father raise a dirty glass to his lips and drink the warm golden liquid until it was gone. I did the same.

I learned a lot about the hypocrisy of prejudice that day, that humans find great personal benefit in labeling other people with broad unjustified brush strokes. Maybe we do it because we are afraid or lazy or because there is comfort in being a member of a tribe. But if we take the time to talk to individuals, really listen and get to know them, everything would be a lot easier. My dad, despite his prejudicial comments in private, treated Sherm, the person, with the greatest respect and compassion. Witnessing that simple act of hospitality and the resulting act of total acceptance has had a lasting impact on me. I believe in inclusion and the importance of an open mind and an open heart.

Copyright 2019@theautonomoustraveler.com All right reserved.

India-Celebrating Indian Style-Part 3-Blowing Up Evil

Picture from indiamarks.com


The Hindu holiday, Dussehra, symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. Rama, a major deity, kills Ravana who has kidnapped Rama’s wife, Sita. Sita is a revered goddess for her virtues of good character, good fortune, success and happiness. Rama’s skill as an archer brings down not only Ravana but his brother, Kumbhkarna and his son, Meghnad

I was able to see this story dramatically reenacted with 75 foot tall effigies made of paper and bamboo and filled with fireworks.

The crowds waited for the symbolic arrows to be shot by someone dressed like Rama. First the brother and son statues burst into flames, completely destroying them.

And then with the loud crackles and bangs of fireworks, Ravana explored from within and burst into flames. The crowd of thousands cheered.

Evil was destroyed and goodness and justice were restored! Spectacular!

India-History Speaking through Art

As part of my tour, I was taken to the Qutub Complex in Delhi which was built by Muslims in 1192 who conquered and then occupied Hindu Delhi. During this time they constructed a mosque and a tower, The Qutub Minar.

Picture by zeenews.india.com

The tower is 220 feet tall and made out of variegated and detailed layers of sandstone and marble. The garlands and lotus are characteristic of Indo-Iranian design.



I love art and art history and was thrilled to see, close at hand, the intricate carvings in stone. I am always amazed at the skill and patience of crafts people of long ago.



The site is part of history, a reminder of one of the many times India was under the rule of a group outside its borders. It will be forever an UNESCO World Heritage Site, always protected for all of us to experience and learn from.

India-A Muslim Friend

Travel opens us to new worlds. I have lived my whole life in rural areas in New York State, quiet places that have little diversity. I have really never known a Muslim even though there is a mosque in my area. Like many Americans, I know very little about Islam. Unfortunately in my country there is a lot of suspicion about the people of this religion and almost a taboo about wanting to know knowing more about them

I found out our guide was Muslim as he took great pride in telling us about the Mughals, Muslims who came from Persia (present day Iran ) and ruled India from 1556-1707. They ran a consolidated government that used local people to collect taxes in cash from agricultural sources and trade. The arts flourished especially in the form in architecture. Forts, mosques, and mausoleums, notability the Taj Mahal, were build under their reign. Tolerance was encouraged as Hindus were integrated into the governing process. But as time went on, systems broke down and the Mughals lost their hold on India.

Our tour guide was the first person of the Muslim faith I ever had an opportunity to really talk to. He was kind and very patient with me as I tried to sort out all the sights and sounds of India and relate them to what I knew and hoped to learn. On one of our last days, I mention to him that I wanted to buy a terracotta cup that is meant to absorb the excess water from the yogurt. I really thought this was clever and I wanted to show people back home. Near the Ganges River on the way back to our bus, the guide stopped our group at a stand and asked us if we wanted a chai tea. A few of us, including myself, said we would. Our guide paid for them all and then he handed me a larger cup, a yogurt cup, that he had some how gotten from the vendor. I was thrilled by this kind gesture. This little cup is my most precious souvenir of the trip. Its meaning goes beyond its efficiency. It represents a new knowing and a change of heart and mind that will always stay with me.

In America, as part of my country’s culture, I was programed to suspect and fear anything to do with the words “Muslim” or “Islam”. It is so much easier, as a human beings, to label people with broad brush strokes and dismissing them, sometimes forgetting they exist or, even worse, hating them. We don’t take times to listen to stories and really look at reality and gather facts. I’m now spending some time learning about Islam and I will no longer feel uncomfortable doing it.

I have my first Muslim friend. It is sad that it took almost a lifetime to find one but I feel so fortunate that it was him.