A Letter to My Great Aunts and Uncle: Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1942

by Kayla Schneider-Smith (Rishon LeZion, Israel)

for Miri, Rosa & Benny

When you left your homes not knowing where you were going
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
turn around jump off the train don’t stop running
out of Poland out of Germany out of Holland
far until you reach the West or East
anywhere but here

when your cattle-car pulled through the arch
when you stumbled off the train without understanding
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
say you are 16 say you are a brick mason
don’t let them take you beyond the gate
to the tall trees where you cannot return

when they led you to the showers
and shaved your undressed bodies
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
stand close to the ventilation stand straight under the gas
if it hits you first it’ll be quick
it’ll be over in a second like a band aid like a blur
you won’t have to suffer long or
hear the wailing mothers and children or
climb the pyramid of suffocating bodies
gasping for air

when they shoveled you into the crematorium
in bursts of smoke and ash
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
I love you
to kiss you goodbye to say kaddish
to tear my clothes to get angry to start a revolution

I’m sorry I came too late.

Now, 77 years later
in this inhuman slaughterhouse
unthinkable bright green forest
in front of the lake in front of the puddle
where they took your lives and dumped your ashes

I only can tell you
I am alive

your nieces and nephews
and great nieces and nephews
and great-great nieces and nephews
are alive and thriving

Miri Rosa Benny

I carry, cherish, remember you always
I speak you back to life
I say your names aloud

Kayla Schneider-Smith is a poet, musician, and social activist from Monmouth County, New Jersey. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she wrote this poem while completing the Yahel Social Change Fellowship in Rishon LeZion, Israel, where she taught English, piano and guitar to children, adults and senior citizens in a small neighborhood called Ramat Eliyahu. Kayla is currently attending the Master of Fine Arts Writing Program at The University of San Francisco. She aspires to be an English professor, Rabbi, or Interfaith Minister one day.

If you’d like to read her work in prose, visit: https://www.yahelisrael.com/single-post/2018/11/27/To-Be-Or-Not-to-Be-Progressive-Judaism-in-Israel

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Everything as usual

by Hannah Winkelman (Rishon LeZion, Israel)

The mass exodus of people evacuating the bus should’ve clued me in. My phone had been buzzing all morning with Red Alerts; little did I know that for the next six hours, my phone would buzz at least 150 more times, signifying the deployment of rockets from Gaza to cities scattered around Israel.

I assumed this bus stop must have been a popular one. It wasn’t until the bus driver also exited the vehicle that I realized something was wrong. I took out my headphones and my stomach churned; the sirens were unmistakable.

This is my third time in Israel—a country marked by constant political turmoil and tension—yet I’ve never been confronted with any threats until now. The first time I came,  in 2011, I was 15 years old. The second time was last December on Birthright. The only time I felt unsafe was when too many fighter jets were flying at once for my own comfort. Our guide told us not to worry, so I pushed it out of my mind as the jets flew further and further away.

As I exited the bus, I turned my head toward the direction of the phones people pointed at the sky. Two or three thin lines of smoke were trailing after white objects in the sky punctuated by bright red. I expected fear, panic, anything of the sort—and yet, I was met with casual silence. No tension, no dread, no awe; I sensed impatience.

The sirens stopped, halting without a warning just as they had started. After a beat, the bus driver looked to his awaiting passengers: “ok, yalla” and I followed the Israelis as they jumped back on the bus.

The rest of the bus ride felt like a blur. A woman tried to speak to me in Hebrew, but her words fell on essentially deaf ears as I tried to piece together what she was saying with my remedial understanding of the language. She was impatient as I stuttered out in Hebrew “I speak a little Hebrew, do you speak English?” She rolled her eyes. I spent the rest of the bus ride in silence until I reached my stop.

The 20-minute walk home proved daunting. I couldn’t help but think about the possibility that if a rocket attack were to strike, I’d be stranded and defenseless, unsure of where to go. My mind spiraled with these anxious thoughts as my body moved through spaces both familiar and unfamiliar until I reached my apartment.

The assumed safety was brief. Only 20 minutes later, the sirens went off once again. We found the appropriate fall-out shelter—what looked like a closet ascending from the concrete about 20 feet away from our apartment—and we descended beneath the ground into the concrete bunker, finding inside children playing cards and dogs playing with their owners. The white walls and bare floor felt stifling as my roommates and I—three Americans—stood arm to arm. Voices of Israelis echoed and enveloped us, their casual treatment of the situation once again astounding. We were only in the bunker for five minutes.

I’ve always had a basic understanding that Israelis live in a state of apathy regarding their constant state of vulnerability. I’ve wrestled with my own opinions on Israel with the knowledge that it is a state that occupies while also under threat. But to witness the nonchalance Israelis have towards an imminent threat such as rockets dotting the skies was almost more jarring than the threat of the rockets themselves. I asked my friend in Ashkelon, the biggest major city closest to Gaza, if he was okay. He responded promptly in two messages: “hey thank you I am fine. Everything as usual.”

I didn’t write this post to report anything novel; most could surmise the ever-present internalized threat. But to witness it is so much more shocking than what I could have ever imagined. I will never understand what it is like to have lived in a country under constant threat; even after these nine months on Yahel, or if I stay for a few years after, or for the rest of my life, I don’t know if I’ll ever understand it. So while I will never be able to engage in the conflict or even day-to-day life as an Israeli citizen would, I can still fulfill what I consider my responsibilities to be as a global citizen—observing and learning to the best of my ability. That will have to be enough for now.

Hannah Winkelman graduated from Tufts University in 2018 and is currently living in Rishon Lezion in Israel on the Yahel Social Change Fellowship. She volunteers teaching English at a local high school and at various non-profit organizations. She is originally from Seattle, WA. 

Note: This post first appeared on the Yahel Israel Blog and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.  For more information about Yahel Israel, visit: https://www.yahelisrael.com/about

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The Silver Lions

by Steven Sher (Jerusalem, Israel)

for Ari

This old chanukiah

brought over from Poland

from my grandparents’ home

that I lit as a boy

and my son now lights

and my grandson covets

these Chanukah nights

with its twin silver lions

standing guard over flames—

listen and you’ll hear

the lions roar across

a hundred years

rattling every window

on their watch, illuminating

Vilna then New York,

defending Jerusalem.

Born in Brooklyn, Steven Sher is the author of fifteen books. He made aliyah five years ago, and now lives in Jerusalem near his children and grandchildren. To learn more about him and his work, visit his website: https://steven-sher-poetry.wixsite.com/writing

 

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Names Matter

by Marden Paru (Sarasota, FL)

All my life I’ve faced two commonly asked questions about the origin of my unusual names: What kind of names are Marden and Paru? And what are their nationality and/or derivation?

Believe it or not, the name Paru came from my Zayde Shlomo, who was a tailor by profession. He was given the concession to custom-make the first fliers’ uniforms—fleece-lined leather jackets and caps. You may have seen them in depictions of dogfights in movies about the early history of aviation and during WWI.

Zayde Shlomo worked outside of Vilna at the first Lithuanian airdrome in a town called Parubanic. When in the early part of the 20th century Jews were still adopting surnames, my paternal grandfather took on the name of the airport site, Parubanic, and added the Polish-Russian “sky.” 

My father was a mohel and, therefore, compelled to circumcise his old European, Polish-Russian-sounding surname from Parubansky to Paru.

As it turns out, Paru is the first commandment that God gave to Adam and Eve—“Be Fruitful and multiply—Paru Urvoo”—in the opening chapters of the Bible.

So, it was always easy to spell my legally-changed last name.

My name, Marden, came to me in a slightly different way. When Mom was pregnant with me, she passed a large neon sign on the Palisades of New Jersey—Ben Marden’s Riviera—the famous night club where the “mob” allegedly hung out in the 30s and 40s. 

As it turned out, Marden is an old English surname. 

Mother reasoned that if I were to be born a male, I would be given the name of my maternal great grandfather—her Zayde Mordechai. But being a young American, she considered English “M’ names such as Martin or Maurice, and finally settled on Marden as an unusual appellation for her first-born male child.

So, in answer to those two questions, I’m named after an airport and a nightclub. That is the emes—Hebrew for the naked truth!

But the story about my name continues. As a boy growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, I answered to a front porch geshrei (a yell) of “Mordechai”—my Hebrew name and the hero of the Purim story in Megillat Esther. When Mom would call me home for dinner (I was playing ball across the street at my new school), the kids heard “motorcar,” and that became my playground handle. “Motorcar” was not far-fetched since Phoenix had trolleys or street cars running on 5th Avenue perpendicular to our street in those days.

And when Dad called me Mordechai, some kids heard “Mortify” and that became my nickname on the block. 

I finally settled on Mordy, which I used until I met my future father-in-law—Milton Milan Kemeny—who took a liking to me and my legal name, Marden. 

Upon his advice—and for professional reasons—I have gone by the name Marden ever since, with the exception of my family and friends from my childhood who still refer to me as Mordy.

Marden Paru is currently the Dean, Rosh Yeshiva and co-founder of the Sarasota Liberal Yeshiva, an adult Jewish studies institute, and a  former instructor at the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation’s Melton Adult Mini-School. He attended Yeshiva University, the University of Tulsa, and the University of Chicago, and was a doctoral fellow and faculty member at Brandeis University. Marden and his wife Joan are members of Temple Beth Sholom and Congregation Kol HaNeshama. To read more about Marden and Joan, visit: https://www.brandeis.edu/hornstein/news/newsletter/Hornstein-alumni-articles/My-1966-Computer-Arranged-Jewish-Marriage-by-Marden-Paru.html

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Assimilation

by Jennifer A. Minotti (Cambridge, MA)

Looking back, my Ethiopian orphaned daughter acclimated fairly quickly to our life in Vermont, set amid colorful foliage and our blue-blooded friends. Surely, once she got situated, she started to protest her differences, but that was to be expected. First, she attempted to scrub off her dark skin in the bathtub, like filth. Next, she objected to her new name, one I gave her in honor of my deceased Russian grandmother, not hers. Finally, she took to imitating her older brother, perceiving him as Golden Child in biological position and genetic makeup. She was probably right. Yet over time, I don’t know how long, I think she finally accepted her fate and her dissimilarities. Adopted. Black. Girl. Later, she would come to appreciate her rightful position in our family as Daughter. Sister. Loved.  

I, on the other hand, never fully reintegrated into this patrician town after the week I spent in Africa. Quail eggs and Prosecco were no longer palatable. I, too, had been forced to assimilate at an early age. Growing up, I wasn’t told to assimilate, but it was implied. We were already different in our predominantly small, Catholic town. Jewish. Divorced. Female.

“Don’t tell anyone your father left,” my Holocaust-surviving mother implored. And so I didn’t. I lied, mostly to deceive myself. I worked hard. I became Successful. Happy. Envied. I Fit In.

So I reminded my daughter, nearly every night, not to shove when she ate. “Slow down,” I would say, tasting sourness in the back of my throat. I repeated this mostly because it was simply good etiquette. But really it was because I didn’t want her to feel different. Second-rate. Dirty, which was her perception, not mine. I wanted her to Fit In. I repeated that she had to do better, be better, because she was Black. Jewish. Female. I thought, I’m giving her good advice.

Except that I hated always trying to fit in. Still do. I feel trapped by assimilation, a rigged system anyway. I feel asphyxiated by my own accomplishments because, no matter how much I achieve, people still see me as Jewish. Female. Why not claim my Jewishness, I ask myself. My Femaleness. Why struggle to Fit In to a male, Christian-dominated system that will never fully admit me anyway?

Which is why I change my mind. I decide I need to claim my differences and so does my daughter. I need to break the cycle of assimilation in our family, because it doesn’t work anyway. I now tell my daughter, Stay true to Yourself. You’re Gorgeous as you are. Love your Beautiful Black Skin. Be proud of your Multiple Identities. I tell my daughter these things, not just because it’s good parenting, but also for its truth. I repeat these things daily, because after years of conformity I, too, need to hear them.

Jennifer A. Minotti is an Artist in Residence at the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights at Suffolk University and a PhD candidate at Lesley University.  She is the Founder of the Women’s Writing Circle and is the Co-Creator of The World’s Very First Gratitude Parade. A graduate of Boston University (B.S.) and Columbia University (M.A., M.Ed), she is a descendant of the famous Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty. She lives in Cambridge, MA with her family, where she studies Judaism weekly with her Partner in Torah.

 

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A Sabbath Prayer

by Hadassah Brenner (Raanana, Israel)

It’s the Sabbath Eve
And the shuk is filled with wonderful smells-
Knafeh and fresh Challah bread
Chai tea, dried ginger, zahtar spice.
The cheapest deals you’ll find
Just before the stands close for the weekend.

I feel the sun, still strong against my back;
Sweat beads between my legs.
I wipe my upper lip, brush back my hair.
Sigh loudly.

All of Jerusalem seems to surge through Mahne Yehuda market.
Students. Tourists.
Little boys and girls, hands outstretched to catch fallen candy.
Black-hatted men, carrying their prayer books protectively.
Women with bright eyes shining through the narrow slits in their garb.
Soldiers, M16 rifles slung over their hunched shoulders.

Saba blesses the wine,
His voice still sweet and singsong,
Despite the years.
Vayihi Erev
Vayihi Boker.
There was night,
And there was day.”

I close my eyes,
Rocking ever-so slightly.
Saba smiles at me.

“Are you tired, my dear child?
Besiyata Dishmaya, Inshallah.
With the help of Heaven,
There will be peace in our land
And you will rest your wearied limbs.”

I look up at him, wonderingly.
“How can you be so certain, Saba?
We have yet to lay down our weapons
In the thousands of years that we have lived here.
How do you know the day will come?”
Saba presses the cup into my hands.
Wine bubbles against my lips,
Stinging my tongue lightly, as I sip.

“My child,
I know there will be peace
Because for every night,
There is day.
And on the Sabbath day,
It is written that we shall rest.”

It’s the Sabbath Eve
And the sun has finally set.
A fire streaked sky extends over the Judean Hills.
We are white angels drifting through the stillness,
Humming soft melodies
To welcome the Sabbath Queen.

This ancient song of a thousand voices
Rises from the Old City’s gates
And it doesn’t matter what mother tongue
The people speak
Or what God they call out to
Because it is the same prayer in every language:

Vayihi Erev
Vayihi Boker.
There was night,
And there was day.

Besiyata Dishmaya
Inshallah.
With the help of Heaven,
There will be peace.

Because for every night, there is day.
And on the Sabbath day,
It is written that we shall rest.

Hadassah Brenner moved to Israel after high school, was drafted into the IDF, and serves as a lone solider, a combat medic. For as long as she can remember, she has turned to words to help her understand and overcome challenges in her life. She writes about her experiences in Israel as a new immigrant, a lone soldier, and a woman searching for her place in the world, and has published a poetry collection titled The Warrior Princess Once Said https://www.amazon.com/Warrior-Princess-Once-Said-Fighting/dp/191607068X/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?keywords=the+warrior+princess+once+said&qid=1570378590&sr=8-1 and two blogs: Military Madness https://militarymadness.wordpress.com  and When the Wind Whispers https://whenthewindwhispers.wordpress.com

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Three Prayers, One Heart

By Harold Witkov ( Downers Grove, IL)

In 2018 I suffered a heart attack and ended up having quintuple bypass open-heart surgery. When I left the hospital five days later, I had the expectancy of recovery, but rather than getting better, things got worse. 

Not long after I got home from the hospital, my health began to decline and I was diagnosed to have “heart failure,” and told that I was a “candidate for sudden death.” The problem was my heart function, or “ejection fraction.” It was dangerously low. I could drop dead.

What I needed most then was a surgically implanted defibrillator to zap and kick-start my heart should it stop beating, but that could not happen until three months after my surgery. In the meantime, all I could do was continue on with cardiac rehab, take my medications, and count the days.

During those months, I prayed a lot, shed tears, and suffered a series of complications. I became very sensitive to the word heart, and the heart symbol ❤️ (wherever they might appear during the course of a day). 

Once, for instance, when I lost Internet service for a few days, my laptop mercilessly put a heart symbol with a crack in it on my computer screen with the message: “You’re not connected.” How true it seemed.

In response to my overwhelming sense of vulnerability, I created my own special little prayer:

Shaddai, Shaddai, 

Please don’t let me die.

Heart, Heart,

Have a new start.

I clearly recall my somber Yom Kippur that year. During the service, I softly read aloud, along with the other congregants, the Ashamnu — the “We Have Sinned” prayer. In correspondence with my many transgressions, I gently tapped my heart with my right fist. For someone recovering from heart surgery and living with heart failure, it was a sobering experience.

The day of my defibrillator implant finally arrived. Not yet sedated, I was on the operating table when I became aware that things were not what they should be. They brought my wife in and explained to us that they had just discovered my body had an anomaly: I had a “persistent left superior vena cava.” It was a benign condition, but a condition that nonetheless canceled the implantation procedure. There was another defibrillator company that made an alternative defibrillator for people like me, I was told, but that would be another day.

My body anomaly and last-minute canceled surgery experience gave me a lot to think about. Despite the grave risk, I decided to at least temporarily forgo a defibrillator and just try to work at raising my heart function on my own. This I would do through exercise, medication, healthy eating, and prayer.

Then, in July of 2019, I had my 4th echocardiogram. This time my heart function was significantly higher. It was still below normal, but I was no longer a candidate for a defibrillator. There was also no scar tissue to be found. My heart had physically gotten slightly smaller too and, according to my cardiologist, that was a positive. The results were “all good.”

I am inclined to say that while my heart has been getting physically smaller, it has also been growing a lot on a spiritual level. This whole experience has made me a better person, although I’m still a work-in-progress.

Recently, I celebrated another Jewish New Year. Once again, in synagogue, I recited aloud the Ashamnu. This time my right fist gently tapped upon a much healthier and happier heart. And on Yom Kippur a new prayer touched my soul.

The Rabbi announced, “Please turn to page 261 in our prayerbooks. This year we are adding a new prayer, the Birkat HaGomeil — Sharing Thankfulness.” The Rabbi continued, “For those among us who have experienced a near-death experience over the past 12 months, and are comfortable in doing so, please rise as the congregation recites the Birkat HaGomeil.” In a sea of seated congregants, a dispersed handful, myself included, stood:

Baruch atah Adonai,

Eloheinu melech haolam

HaGomeil l’chayavim tovot, 

Sheg’malani kol tov.

Blessed are You, our God Eternal; Your majesty fills the universe – through Your generosity I have experienced Your goodness.

Harold Witkov is a freelance writer in the Chicago area who previously worked in textbook publishing and sales for more than 30 years.

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