First Person

The healing power of neighbors and pastry

Wendy Wiener
Wendy Wiener

Like any longstand­­ing havurah, or Jewish friendship group, my neighborhood has celebrated the cycle of Jewish holidays together for 20 years. We laugh, bake, eat and recount tales of past holiday celebrations. There’s no worrying about whether the house is clean or how many people are coming, when the food will be ready — or even if the party is held on the actual holiday. We’re not religious — and except for my family, my former neighbor Karen and her husband, Joel, we’re not even Jewish!

So, why was this Rosh Hashanah different from all other Rosh Hashanahs? In addition to the rugelach ingredients on the table, there were lemons that my neighbor Robert was using to illustrate how the surgeon would remove my huge brain tumor three days hence. I was wearing a bicycle helmet with a festive sparkly bow tied around it, to ease the impact of crashing into walls, as my peripheral vision and depth perception were gone. Bryn had taken me for an MRI the previous Monday; Karen had found a surgeon and made an appointment, to which she and Robert had accompanied me. And now, the neighbors were getting into the spirit of a new holiday — Brain Tumor Week on Elida Street — to be observed with nothing but positive healing energy and good cheer. So successful were we that I went to the hospital laughing, thinking about the previous night’s Brain Tumor Sing-along.

I was home in two days and Elida Street was joyful. I felt so insulated, protected and loved by these people, some of whom I’ve known less than a year, others for 20 years. Every day various combinations of neighbors were at our house; sometimes the entire neighborhood seemed to be accounted for in our kitchen. The indescribable smell and beauty of the bouquet on the table, fashioned by Patrice and my friend Laura, visiting from Utah, enveloped us. This bouquet was so synched to my energy that, trying to sleep the night after I got home, I was drawn out of bed and into the kitchen by its fragrance. I made a pot of jasmine tea and sat with the flowers, thinking how lucky I was to be surrounded by so many amazing people every day.

But a neighborhood doesn’t happen by luck; it takes nurturing to make it grow. How can you know Karen, Robert, Bryn, Patrice and dozens more if you go from house to car to work and back again? Neighbors, former neighbors, new neighbors, neighbors’ relatives and friends — we are a diverse group who have bonded because we spend so much time together, simply hanging out on our street. People from neighboring streets say they walk their dogs to our block, knowing there will be friendly conversation and plenty of attention for their dogs. In addition to spontaneous street meetings, bicycle repair clinics, tool sharing and project advice, we plan activities such as buying blocks of tickets to see “My Fair Lady” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” and recently, monthly forays to the Rum Runner for wine tastings.

At Chanukah, I could only be semi-trusted around hot oil and flames, but I happily kibitzed in the raucous donut-making assembly line and during preparation of the newly created “Flaming Dreidel” drink. After our Purim extravaganza, Karen declared, “Wendy is back!” explaining that my ability to think of and banter about absurd ideas had returned to pre-tumor levels — officially ending my brain tumor saga. Rugelach, donuts, hamentashen — the hat trick of brain tumor recovery. Who would have thunk it? My neighbors, of course!

Wendy Wiener and her husband have raised two daughters in the Palo Verde neighborhood. Wiener is an advocate for children’s literacy and homeless animals. ­