Tag Archives: Biography

NEVER CAUGHT : the Washingtons’ relentless pursuit of their runaway slave Ona Judge



In January of 2018, a review of a new book featuring George Washington and his runaway slave named Ona “Oney” Judge caught my attention. I picked up a copy to review for Black History Month in 2019.

NEVER CAUGHT – The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge is a narrative non-fiction. The book is heavily footnoted and supplemented with a lengthy bibliography and index. In a twist from most historical works on Washington that focus on his evolving beliefs about the concept of slavery, Never Caught flips the script. Erica Armstrong Dunbar examines what it means to be born a free person into a world where you are trapped in slavery.  A world where every effort is taken to strip you of your humanity and rights as a human being. In narrating the unearthed facts of Ona Judge Staines life, Dunbar exposes the raw facts of slavery -man’s inhumanity against man.

I met Ona Judge Staines in the archives. . . I was conducting research. . . about nineteenth-century black women in Philadelphia and I came across an advertisement about a runaway slave. . . called “Oney Judge”. She had escaped from the President’s House. . . How could it be that I never heard of this woman. (Erica Armstrong Dunbar)

Quick. Tell me the first ten things that come to mind about the first president of the United States of America. Bet they include: He was married to Martha. Lived in Mount Vernon, Virginia.  Had false teeth (ivory not wood). Was trained as a surveyor. Fought in the American Revolution.  Became our first President. Never lived in Washington D.C. because it didn’t exist in his lifetime.  Never told a lie (that is a lie).  Served two terms in office. We celebrate a national holiday on his birthday.

What? No mention that George at the tender age of eleven, following his father’s untimely death, inherited a 280-acre farm with ten slaves? By the time he married Martha, he personally owned over 100 slaves. Martha Parke Custis, widow of Daniel Park Custis, brought 84 dower slaves from the Custis estate to Mount Vernon upon her marriage. Dower slaves are part of an estate and can only be inherited by members of that estate. George and Martha controlled them but did not own them and could not set them free. Upon Martha’s death, the dower slaves would be passed along like fine china or an heirloom chair to living members of the Custis estate.

George Washington was reputed to be a “kinder” slave owner which meant he fed and provided for his slaves somewhat better than others. His hot-temper has been sanitized in history and ask the slaves that were housed in the smoke house in the new capital if they had five-star accommodations.

A favorite dower slave of Martha’s, known only as Mulatto Betty, gave birth in 1773 to a daughter named Ona Marie and fathered by Andrew Judge, a white indentured servant. Ona’s “carefree” childhood ended when she was nine years old. She was sent to work full-time in the mansion to become Martha Washington’s personal servant and to receive training as a seamstress from her mother. She excelled at both tasks earning her a “most favored slave” status.

As our first President-elect headed north to New York and the nation’s new capital, he knew slavery laws in the northern states were unraveling; the early smells of manumission and freedom floating in the air. He hand-picked slaves he thought he could trust not to run away if they learned that freedom was a possibility – Ona Judge, now in her teens, was high on that list.

Ona played her part carefully. She yearned for freedom. Yearned for a life where her safety and well being wasn’t subjected to the whims of a trigger tempered slave owner. For safeties sake she outwardly projected submission and affection for the Washington family; a family riddled with grief, misery, and poor health. Perhaps in some way she believed the Washington’s had special feelings for her; they did allow her more liberties to travel within the northern city unaccompanied. It is more likely allowing her to dress nicely was meant to reflect more on their social status than on her well-being.

She learned the truth about her place in their lives when the national capital moved to Philadelphia. Pennsylvania law “required emancipation of all adult slaves who were brought into the commonwealth for more than a period of six months.”  The President, financially strapped back on the plantation feared the lost property value of freed slaves.  To protect his investments, Washington devised a shifty system of uprooting his Philadelphia slaves and rotating back to Mount Vernon before the six months deadline.

What the others thought about their repeatedly uprooted lives we do not know. We do know that Ona knew of the progress toward freedom around her. She guardedly watched for that one split second in time where she could chance leaving. When Ona learned that she would be given as a wedding present to Washington’s volatile granddaughter during the next rotation back to Virginia, she knew it was now or never. Taking her life in her hands, she reached out to the free blacks in Philadelphia for help and fled. Ona, now twenty-two-years old and illiterate, headed out into the scary world alone as a fugitive willing to face death or capture.

Her harrowing journey took her to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She found menial labor and despite the back breaking work, enjoyed her veiled freedom. One can only imagine the horror she felt the day she was recognized on the street by a friend of Washington. Once notified she had been located, Washington put on a full court press, illegally using the power of his office, to have a local government official convince her to return of her own volition. After failing at that attempt, Washington repeatedly sought to locate and physically return her. His tiny slave outwitted him at every turn.

Ona fled to Greenland, New Hampshire and stayed out of the grasp of capture for over fifty years. She married, had children, kept a low profile and missed her biological family still back at Mount Vernon.

Shortly before her death February 25, 1848, Ona, nearly 80 years old and still a fugitive slave of the Custis estate, gave interviews with two abolitionists newspapers. Both interviews appear in the appendix. They are believed to be a unique opportunity to view life as a slave in the Washington presidency.

“When asked if she is not sorry she left Washington, as she has labored so much harder since, than before, her reply is ‘No, I am free, and I have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means‘”.

Highly recommend reading for young adults and those interested in history. A chance to look behind the curtains of the first First Family. A chance to learn about a young black woman determined to be remembered – a human being and a child of God.

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

when breath becomes air graphic poem

blue quotation-marksAt age thirty-six, I had reached the mountaintop; I could see the Promised Land… I could see a nice catamaran on the [Mediterranean Sea]. I could see the tension in my back unwinding as my work schedule eased and life became more manageable. I could finally becoming the husband I’d promised to be…

I flipped through [my] CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious… The future I imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving evaporated.Paul Kalanithi

Paul Sudhir Arul Kalanithi grew up in Kingman, Arizona. After graduating  from Stanford University in 2000 with a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature and a B.A. in Human Biology, he found himself caught between the worlds of literature and science; neither a perfect fit for him in his quest to discover the answer to the overwhelming question – what makes life worth living?  What is a meaningful life?

After deliberation, he set a goal to attend medical school, but not before he explored more fully the nature of thought and consciousness; how man makes decisions, defines consciousness, and rationalizes his existence. After attending the University of Cambridge where he earned a Masters of Philosophy in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine, he turned to Yale University of Medicine where he graduated cum laude in 2007. Armed with years of theoretical education, he now focused on practical experience and hands-on patient care.  He returned to Stanford University to begin his residency training and ultimately fine-tuning his focus onto the field of neurology. In his sixth-year of a seven-year training program to become neurosurgeon, Paul learns he has stage-four lung cancer.

Now cresting at the top of his field, having struggled with the long duty hours, strains on his personal life, he feels he has a good grip on his personal identity. He will soon become a doctor, counselor and adviser to his patients. He has stumbled and made mistakes along the way to understanding that he must fully understand his patients as a whole to offer the best care.

And now he stands facing his own mortality. He knows he will never have that long sought after career as a neurosurgeon. He has become the patient. His world has come to a full-stop. “Who am I now?”, he asks.

In the end, he became the writer; an early life goal. A man determined to leave a lasting legacy. A man opening his whole life to the world in hopes that in revealing himself, others will learn to face their own mortality and fears; to live life fully, unafraid and ready when the end arrives. Paul, according to his wife, wrote feverishly, determined to lay bare his faults and strengths, his terrors and joys, and finally his acceptance and willingness to face death straight on in his own terms.

It is a hard book to read. The squeamish might want to skip through his cadaver training. And he is strongest when he openly discusses his weaknesses, his lack of empathy for his patients, and the moment he realizes what he has become and makes the change for the better. At times I felt like a voyeur as he shared painful moments in his marital life with his wife, Lucy. Paul’s terminal diagnosis impacted his family’s present and future.

Sadly, Paul never got to finish his book. Some reviewers have found the book rather cold and at times impersonal. It must be remembered that the book was compiled from his copious notes and essays. He undoubtedly would have edited the material had he the chance to do so making it sound less like a doctor’s chart dictation and more fully exposing the full range of his personality.

Lucy Kalanithi’s epilogue is riveting and more fully exposes the “whole” Paul. Lucy’s sharing of Paul’s final hours had me in tears.

Readers personally struggling with terminal illness and looking for ways to make decisions about their own care or caregivers seeking inspiration and help on behalf of a loved one are encouraged to view Paul’s videos and interviews online. In the end, you will never forget Paul; he did make a difference. He let us view the meaning of life as he lived it.

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THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS:

THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS:
the extraordinary story of the last true hermit

The trees are mostly skinny where the hermit lives,
but they are tangled over giant boulders with dead-fall everywhere
like pick-up sticks. There are no trails. . ..

[A]t dark the place seems impenetrable.
This is when the hermit moves.
He shoulders his backpack and his bag of break-in tools,
and sets out from camp.

Opening Paragraph : Stranger in the Woods.

 

Michael Finkel
Alfred A. Knopf | 2017
227 pages
Non-Fiction | Biography | Maine
Review Source : Personal Copy
★★★★☆

 

In 1986, 20-year-old Christopher Knight walked off his job (installing security alarm systems) for no apparent reason. With little preparation, he got in his new Subaru Brat and drove aimlessly south; away from his home state of Maine. When he never came home, his family matter-of-factly assumed he was off finding himself somewhere. In 27 years, they never contacted the authorities to report their son missing.

Much like Forrest Gump on his infamous walk to nowhere-in-particular, Christopher grew tired of aimlessly wandering and headed back to Maine. Reaching his hometown, Knight drove right past his parent’s house without stopping and kept on driving until the dirt road he chose ended. Tossing the keys on the dashboard, he walked into the woods and was not seen for 27 years. But his presence was felt. 

For 27 years, the circle of cabins surrounding North Pond endured strange burglaries. Mattresses disappeared; others lost clothing, food, batteries, radios, books, grills, propane tanks et all. . . For some homeowners, the home invasions were a mere inconvenience. For others, having been burglarized over 50 times, their vacation homes were a source of anxiety and insecurity.

Law enforcement authorities, for over 25 years, tried every trick in their arsenal to identify the burglar and failed. Finally, employing a highly technical bug devised by Homeland Security, Game Warden Terry Hughes hit pay-dirt. April 4, 2013, alerted by an alarm in the middle of the night from Pine Tree Camp, a day camp for the disabled, Christopher Knight was found “shopping” in the camp kitchen.

As his story unfolded during interrogation, authorities questioned the veracity of this bizarre man in the clunky old-fashioned glasses. They were to change their opinion as Knight led them through a tangled wilderness to his well camouflaged camp.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy
Game Wardens, State Police and Somerset County
Sheriff’s deputies hike
into Christopher Knight’s camp site.

 

As he languished in prison awaiting his day in court, everyone in the “civilized” world wanted to know how he survived the harsh Maine winters, what he did to fill each day, and why he chose to isolate himself from humanity. But Christopher Knight was not a man to share his inner thoughts and actions. After receiving over 500 requests from journalists for an interview, he responded to only one. Something in Michael Finkel’s handwritten letter spoke to Knight. Asked why he thought Knight was willing to meet with him, Finkel replied:

I believe that Knight realized he might be endlessly hounded to tell his story, and that if he told it once, and allowed it to be made public, he might be able to have more privacy going forward.

And what a story he revealed, piece by reluctantly chewed piece. Never revealing more than the bare facts; keeping his inner thoughts to himself. Desperate to feed the curious just enough to release him to a life of seclusion once more; if not in the deep woods, at least in the privacy of his family.

Knight doesn’t consider himself a hermit. He hated the word. He still needed the instruments of civilization to sustain him and to achieve his perfect world void of germs, people, and the great cacophony of society in general. He was known as a child to be a “genius”, a voracious reader, honest and someone who preferred his own company. Probably the hardest part of his solitary life was the requirement to break his own moral code. He must steal to survive. He never tries to hide the fact that he was a thief.

I don’t want people trying to justify my bad behavior in an attempt not to sully what they admire in me. Take the whole package, good and bad. Judge me on that. Don’t cherry pick.

To the arm-chair adventurers, Knight’s ability to survive 27 harsh Maine winters without once lighting a fire seemed mystical. To those more concerned about his felonious talents, he represented less a hero and more a mild Ted “Unibomber” Kaczynski bringing distress to the local community and costing years of tax dollars in the effort to capture him.

When Christopher had shared all he was going to share with Finkel, he told him is was time to leave him alone. And he did.

At times, Finkel strays away from Knight to expound on reasons for solitary isolation. He questions why some human beings choose to exclude themselves from the “pack”. In our current technology oriented world of Facebook, Twitter, and Texting, there is an effort to avoid isolation and self-reflection. There’s a monstrous market in self-help books, each flaunting the idea that they can help find what’s missing in your life. It is no wonder that people are attracted to someone who wholeheartedly rejects their world.

“I think that most of us feel like something is missing from our lives. And I wondered then if Knight’s journey was to seek it. But life isn’t about searching endlessly to find what’s missing. It’s about learning to live with the missing parts.”

I found myself, a person who treasures her quiet life on a small Georgia mountain, thinking, at what length would I go if I wanted to isolate myself from the rest of the world, never even hearing my own voice. My answer, not very far.

I need friends, smiles, conversation, a campfire and a hot bath.

You are going to either love the book or hate it. Either way, you should read it.

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Frontier Grit

frontier-grit-cover

 FRONTIER GRIT

THE UNLIKELY TRUE STORIES OF DARING PIONEER WOMEN

Author | Marianne Monson
Shadow Mountain | 2016
Hardcover: 208 pages
ISBN: 978-1629722276
Genre: US History/Biography/Pioneer Women

ARC e-book from Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review

★★★★☆

collage-pioneer-women

“What constitutes a frontier?…To me, a frontier is simply a place where your people have not gone before…it might be an unexplored theological issue, …a newly invented technology, or an insight irreconcilable with current social norms.”Marianne Monson, Frontier Grit

As a young girl I was in love with Calamity Jane. Well, actually Doris Day’s version. Whip, crack, away! A gusty woman in a man’s world.

Marianne Monson has scoured American history and selected twelve very special women who left their mark, improved the lives of others and truly reflect the pioneer spirit. Their names may be unfamiliar to you now, but after you read their stories you will never forget them.

Each chapter features one of these remarkable women. All of these women were migrants or immigrants from other countries or other regions of America. But in the end, where they came from wasn’t as important as who they became and how they created a new life for themselves, often in defiance to social norms. Their lives, as a rule, faced unimaginable obstacles and hardships but each refused to be defined by their gender and social roles. And when faced with superhuman odds, they never stayed down for the count when knocked off their feet.

After you meet these incredible women, you might look at your own life and recognize how their sacrifices and courage affected your life today. We owe a lot to the past generations of women willing to take a chance, push social limits and to take a stand. These stories are intended to inspire you; to help you pick yourself up and dust yourself off when you get knocked down.

The author encourages you to read more about each woman by conveniently placing a bibliography at the end of each chapter.

I already knew something of Nellie Cashman, gold prospector, as her story coincides with a branch in my family tree. Indulge me as I give you some personal information that places Nellie Cashman in Dawson City.

In 2005, I was gifted a copy of a book by the authors, Ed and Star Jones entitled, All That Glitters: The Life and Times of Joe Ladue, Founder of Dawson City. Joe Ladue was one of the earliest pioneers in the Yukon and my Great-Grand Uncle. “Uncle Joe” filed his application for a 160-acre town site on July 27, 1896. As luck would have it, a major gold discovery was made in Bonanza Creek, a little more than a mile from the new town site shortly after he filed.

As the Jones’ wrote, “Cashman might be considered the feminine counterpart of Joe Ladue. A petite, pretty woman with jet black hair and dark eyes, she was gifted with a stamina and toughness denied most men.”All That Glitters, pg 45.

nellie-cashmanWhen news of the Klondike strike reached Nellie Cashman in 1897, ” she put together a $5000 grubstake” and hot footed to the Chilkoot Trail. “Arriving in Dawson, City, she opened a store in the basement of the Hotel Donovan and a restaurant called Delmonico….She acquired No. 19 Below Discovery on Bonanza Creek and it proved a prudent investment. All That Glitters, pg 46

SO….You want to know more about Nellie?  And remember!  She is just one of twelve stories! You’ll have to get a copy of Frontier Grit.  The Yukon story is just a piece of this incredible woman’s life.

Recommended for all young girls, women and enlightened men.

  

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Notorious R. B. G. : The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Notorious R. B. G. :notorious-rbg-with-frame

The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

AUTHORS  |  Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik
PUBLISHER  |  Dey St (Wm Morrow) | 2015
Hardcover: 227 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-241583-7
Memoir / Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Review Source: Personal Copy

★★★★☆

 truth

During the February, 2016 memorial coverage of Justice Antonin Scalia, I found myself drawn to a photograph taken in India in 1994 of Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsburg together lumbering along waving from atop an elephant.scalia-ginsburg-elephant It stopped me in my tracks as I knew they represented the yin and yang of the American Justice System. Was it conceivable that they were friends outside their hallowed chambers? What was my little 5 ft tall Jewish icon of Women’s Rights doing hanging around the man that declared that the constitution didn’t bar sex discrimination?

That question rattled around in my brain and prompted me to look into her biography. I needed to know more about Ruth as a person, not just a Supreme Court Justice with fancy collars and a fiery pen. There are some great choices available, including books written by Justice Ginsberg herself, but I fell in love with Carmon and Knizhnik’s Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

This glossy picture strewn work brings RBG to life in short but thorough stories of her progression from Kiki, the baton twirling teen, deeply in love with the adventurous and independent Nancy Drew books to present day, a strong and resilient Supreme Court Justice not afraid to stand up and fight for human rights.

RBG, born in 1933, began her steady growth toward gender independence fighting as she states, with three strikes against her, “[I was] a woman, a mother and a Jew.” But as she fought for her own survival and career, she wasn’t as yet a strong advocate for feminism. As a college professor, Ruth, inspired by student activism, joined a national movement that has steadily over tme moved toward not just women’s rights but equal rights for all regardless of gender, race, or social status.

Ruth began to fight her way into a “man’s world” pulling all women along with her. She knew the importance of staying focused and educated on issues. She formed her own style. Pick your battles. Fight hard but not loudly or brash. Permanent change must be achieved through baby steps, carefully. When you have something to say, say it with a steady hand and carefully chosen words. Your voice will be heard over the din.

format_quoteAnger, resentment, indulgence in recriminations waste time and sap energy.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg

As much as I was fascinated by all the legal briefs and dissents that Ruth presented, the most important message I got from the book is best said by the two people perched on top of that elephant so many years ago.

“Call us the odd couple,” Scalia said. “She likes opera, and she’s a very nice person. What’s not to like — Except her views on the law.”

[Likewise, Ginsburg could acknowledge her differences with her good friend Nino while still admiring his peppery prose.] “I disagreed with most of what he said, but I loved the way he said it,”

George Washington University event, 2015

These two people, at odds in their legal lives, can also see the human side of each other and share the richness of friendship and love.  In our current political climate, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have shown the importance of civility, respect and friendship.

I am going to jump in here with a diversion from the book and a personal comment.  As we head into a new world in America, my best guess istrump-ginsburg-rant that Justice Ginsburg will not be deterred by tweets or taunts. She will stand with her principles and continue to represent all of us to the best of her ability.  Highly recommend reading.

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Managing Bubbie

hot bubbie

Bubbies book

 

Managing Bubbie

by Russel Lazega

Managing Bubbie netgalley

CreateSpace| 2015
Hardcover: 244 pages
ISBN: 978-1499126297
Genre: Memoir/Jewish Culture/Holocaust

ARC  E-book from Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★★ 5/5

Winner of 20 Book Awards!

“I vant you should make this book.”

Shortly after Lea Lezega’s grandson, Russel, finished college, his Bubbie tells him, again she might add, he must write about her life. It would make them all millionaires! She is certain! Years pass before Russel grabs a pen and starts researching truth from fiction in Bubba’s stories. Ten long years of interviews and document searches confirm that Bubbie indeed led one hell of a life.

And tell the story her eynikl, Russel Lazega has done!  Bubbie would be very proud! Hang on to your reading glasses… As Bubbie says,My life – oy! my life is full of crazy stories.”

Lea Lazega, the ultimate Jewish Bubbie to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, is straight out of a Neil Simon play with over-sized tortoise-shell glasses and that instantly recognizable Yiddish accent percolating invectives at one or more family members.  The book opens in Miami in 1987 with Bubbie telling Cousin Leon some far-fetched theory that Ronald Reagan is her long-lost half brother. Trying to follow Lea’s logic feels like running headlong through a corn maze blindfolded.

Nearing the end of her “golden years”, Bubbie finds her body failing her unrivaled spunk and she is as offended by its physical weakness as she was by the murderous Nazis. Despite her better interests she struggles to be the manager of the situation, not the managed. Her family struggles to keep her out of trouble. She has always done what she wants regardless of the rules of civilized and uncivilized society. It is a battle of wits and Bubbie, as she has done throughout her life, wins!

No assisted living facility in Florida will accept her …She’s worn out 6 already…2 in one month! She’s been blacklisted. “She just won’t follow the rules!” Yet in the midst of trying to make her final years comfortable and hitting brick walls,  the younger family members see the strong amazing woman that towed her young family threw hell and back to outwit the Nazis as they muscled their way through Europe.

Lea was born in 1911 in a small desolate Polish village, a child of a skirt-chasing flirt determined to become a world famous entertainer and an iron-willed mother striving to turn her man into a husband. Her parents had just returned to Poland following a five year stint in America; one of Isaac’s misguided efforts to become rich and famous gone horribly awry. There was one good thing that did happen in America. Esther gave birth to Lea’s sister, Evelyn making Evelyn a US citizen and at the first opportunity she returned. Lea, growing up in Poland, a young victim of anti-Semitic bullying and discrimination vowed to follow her sister. I promise mineself then that I’m going to America- No matter vat, I’m going to follow my sister to the greatest country in the world- America.

Lea’s first chance at a new life took her to Brussels, Belgium where her menial sewing factory job didn’t improve her living conditions but it did provide her freedom from her battling parents and the bullies. Soon after, she married a timid tailor and life was rosy with Lea in charge. When rumors of German mistreatment of Jews in far off European countries sifted into everyday conversation in Belgium, Bubbie’s radar told her she needed to leave Europe and head to America.

With one ear to the ground for safety for her family, Lea haunted the halls of governments from Belgium through France and into Spain to obtain those all important documents needed to reach America. Bombs crushed cities, Nazis prowled the streets and countries fell but Lea never lost sight of her goal. So many close calls but always outwitting the enemy. Hunger and abhorrent living conditions never slowed her drive. As always, rules never applied to Lea. Line up, sign up, hands up…not Lea. Her winter passage on foot through the deadly Pyrenees mountains into Spain with her babies was awe-inspiring. And in the end, Lea planted her flag- in America.

Russel has done a phenomenal job of telling Bubbie’s life scattering humorous moments in America with her life during the Holocaust. I guarantee you will cheer her victories and huddle with her in those terror filled moments-just inches from death. He vividly describes Lea and the children cowering behind a large rock in the Pyrenees too afraid to build a fire for warmth against Bubbie’s fury at Ed McMahon for telling her falsely she had won $10 million dollars. Sue him Russel, sue him for me!

I can’t say enough good things about this book. Highly recommended for book clubs.

I conclude with one more story from Bubbie. Listening to President Reagan on TV visiting a War Memorial in Europe. Reagan: For four long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow…Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation…Bubbie with a tearful eye and a broken smile answers, “Oy, Brother you don’t know the half of it.”

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