The Shabbatniks

by Rita Plush (New York, NY)

Covid-19 brought the life I knew skidding to a halt and no amount of phone calls, long walks, or scarfing down a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Salted Caramel Brownie could soothe my fears about it. But when my older daughter Rhonda, an occupational therapist in a rehab facility, became a front line worker, and my younger, Leslie, had to go through rounds of treatment for stage 4 breast cancer, my worries took on new meaning. My girls’ lives were at risk. Beside myself with worry, I didn’t know where to turn. And then for some reason, I turned to candles. 

When my mother died, I had been a twice a year Jew, showing up at temple on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But I wanted to honor her with the kaddish prayer, so I started going every day. I found comfort in that ancient ritual and a connection to my people who for centuries had recited those very same words in their own grief. Maybe candle-lighting, my mother’s ritual, would help ground me now.

I dug up her Lenox candlesticks and dusted them off, remembering my mother, her arms stretched out over the flickering lights, the circular motion of her hands toward her face as she recited the prayer. That Friday night when I lit the candles, to my surprise, I also remembered the blessing. “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.”  Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot [blessings], commanding us to kindle the light of Shabbat. It had lived in me. I had learned the prayer without knowing I had. 

The following week, I posed the question to my daughters: What do you say we all light candles via Facetime this Friday? (God bless technology!) Sure, they said. We came up with a time that would work for all of us.

My mother’s candlesticks at the ready, I made the call from Queens to Staten Island and then to Seattle. My daughters gathered their families around their screens. “Why are we doing this?!” said my grandson, as only a 16-year-old torn from his video game can ask.

“Because we’re Jewish. And that’s what Jews do!” said Rhonda, working her mom mojo.

We lit the candles and said the blessing; then, we blessed the wine: “…borei p’ri hagafen.” Rhonda had bought a challah, or what passes for challah in their Washington town with only two Jewish families, and we said the motzi: “…haMotzi lechem min haaretz.” Behind the burning flames, our FaceTime images smiled; we wished one another a Shabbat Shalom. My daughters and I remained on our phones while the rest of the family drifted away to their own interests.

          Work, friends, the dreaded virus, the minutiae of our lives — our talk was the same as our regular, day-to-day conversations. Yet there was something different. Something special had been added to our post candle-lighting chat. A kind of peace? A sense of hope? An overall feeling that it was going to be okay? (The it being Rhonda’s safety; Leslie’s health.) I can’t put a finger on it, but whatever it was, they must have felt it, too. Because when it was time to say goodbye, Leslie offered, “Let’s do this again next week.”

As the weeks went by, my sons-in-law, Andrew and Larry, remained on the call commenting here and there on the past week’s events, their thoughts about them, and whatever else came to mind. I was getting to know them in a way I hadn’t known them before. Friday night candle-lighting became an event we all looked forward to. Even my grandson came to the table sans gripe (well, most of the time).

I decided to download Zoom so we wouldn’t be confined to little squares on our phones. Big screen here we come. I opted for the free 40 minute deal and with a little help (a lot of help actually) from online tutorials I managed to set it up and send my daughters the link. 

The thick of Covid thinned in the rehab facility where Rhonda worked. Leslie was responding to her new treatment. My anxiety dimmed, but not my enthusiasm for our candle-lighting — or my daughters’ interest in it. “What time is Shabbat?” they texted me each Friday. It made me smile: I loved how religious they sounded, even though they were anything but.

Two months into our new tradition, I suggested we ask my brother, their Uncle Steven in Puerto Rico, to be our guest that Friday night. Sure, they said. 

My brother seemed not to know what to make of our get-together, the joking around we did, the talk of food and recipes after the prayers. He watched rather than join in, but his smile showed he was happy to be included. We asked him to be a regular. He was “honored.” Thinking he didn’t have candlesticks, I sent him a traveling set via Amazon. Now he was a full participant. That Friday he asked us a riddle: “How do they throw a party at NASA? They plan it and rent out a space.” Baddaboom! He fit right in. Our Shabbat candle-lighting had become a true pleasure, just as the Jewish elders wanted it.

Weeks later we asked my nephew Gary, Steven’s son in Brooklyn, to our little band of candle-lighters. He often logs-in bucking traffic on the LIE (Long Island Expressway) but he has not missed a Friday night.  

When Thanksgiving came, we decided to have a virtual holiday so we could all be together. We Zoomed about the dinners we’d had—food again, a biggie with us. Steven had sent a group text about gratitude and each of us spoke, not only about what we were grateful for, but what gratitude meant to us. A more introspective and serious conversation than our usual lighthearted chats followed, deepening our awareness of each other’s thoughts and feelings. 

We decided to name our group and had a rousing time one Friday night coming up with a proper appellation that expressed who we were. Nudnik, interrupternik—we’re always talking over each other (we’re Jewish aren’t we?)—and Shabbatnik were in the running. We decided on Shabbatniks, since it was Shabbat that had brought us together. 

On Chanukah we had a Latke Throwdown—Bobby Flay has nothing on us. We made latkes in all their permutations—sweet potato, zucchini, from a mix and from scratch—took a photo, sent it to all, and discussed our creations that Friday. 

We love the deep bond we have found in being together for 40 minutes every Friday night. Forty minutes that makes us feel good all week. What better way to celebrate that feeling than with a song. Homework: come up with a theme song for next week that typifies us. 

Mid-week I sent out an email reminding everyone that we would be having an awards night to pick the winner. Rhonda and Andrew dressed to the nines in evening gown and black tie. What a group! And their submission was a winner as well, done to the theme song of the Addams Family. All together now: “The Shabbatnicks’ family started/when writer Rita wanted/the children to be part of/the Shabbatnick Family.” Snap, snap.

We have come late to the ancient custom of candle-lighting, but that tradition has had an impact on my family that is beyond anything we could ever have imagined. Could Covid and the isolation and worry it has thrown us into have made our connection so sweet and meaningful? Probably, now that I think about it. But rediscovering my family has more to do with finding new meaning in lighting two candles on a Friday night than any virus could ever bring. 

Rita Plush is the author of the novels Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News and teaches memoir at Queensborough Community College and the Fire Island School, Continuing Ed. Her stories and essays have been published in The Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast, Art Times, The Sun, The Jewish Writing Project, The Jewish Literary Journal, Down in the Dirt, Potato Soup Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Backchannels, LochRaven, Kveller, and are forthcoming in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Broadkill Review, and Avalon Literary Review. http://www.ritaplush.com

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Pink Azaleas by the Doorway

by Rick Black (Arlington, VA)

April 8, 2021 – the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

By the doorway, 

a profusion of pink azaleas

illuminates the growing darkness.

As dusk descends in the cul de sac,

the girl on a pink bicycle

circles round.

My daughter is spinning 

to an Israeli dance song, Moshiach*—

no redemption, though, 78 years ago.

Digging bunkers and underground tunnels,

acquiring weapons and bullets,

training groups of fighters.

The ghetto set ablaze block by block,

house by house—incendiary bombs,

dynamite, canons, etc.

No one was there to applaud the Jewish fighters.

Tonight no one is clapping for the Virginia Hospital workers.

It’s quiet. The windows are still alit, the lobby dim—

and one nurse waits to discharge a patient, her hand 

on the back of his wheelchair.

Oh, yes, remember the dead and mourn,

but don’t forget the azaleas

by the doorway, blossoming,

or the girl on the pink bicycle,

pedaling round.

Rick Black is an award-winning book artist and poet who runs Turtle Light Press, a small press dedicated to poetry, handmade books and fine art prints. His poetry collection, Star of David, won an award for contemporary Jewish writing and was named one of the best poetry books in 2013. His haiku collection, Peace and War: A Collection of Haiku from Israel, has been called “a prayer for peace.” Other poems and translations have appeared in The Atlanta Review, Midstream, U.S. 1 Worksheets, Frogpond, Cricket, RawNervz, Blithe Spirit, Still, and other journals. 

If you’d like to learn more about Rick and his work, visit his website: Turtle Light Press

*Moshiach means “redeemer” in Hebrew.

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Shabbat Dinner Memories

by Aaron Wertheimer (Irvine, CA)

 I remember as an eight-year-old how every Friday night our car would take us to my Aunt and Uncle’s house off Greenspring Avenue in Farmington Hills, Michigan where we would slip out of the car, slithering like snakes, and I would wriggle  free from my brother tickling me (my punishment for throwing a ball at him).

“Jason, stop it, come on!”

“I’m going to squeeze all the funnies right out of you with my bare hands!”

He’d chuckle as he, too, sported the same sheepish grin that I saw on my mom’s face.

By the time we laughed our way on to the snow, dirt and ice spilling down our shirt sleeves, my mom had picked both of us up off each other. 

Tov, we are ready!” she would say. “Wipe that snow off your face, luvadahling!”  

How I loved that word she would use to describe how much she loved us.

We wiped our boogers off, threw on our puffy jackets, which made us look like Michellin men and duck-walked our way over to the doorbell before ringing it. 

“Whoooooooooo issssss ittttt?” a sing-songy, lilting voice deep in the house would call, moving closer and closer, sounding excited and eager to open the door. 

The voice from within always seemed to feign ignorance about the giggling guests at his door, as if each time it heard us, it was the most exciting surprise it had ever heard.  This game of “Guess who?” was our little ritual between my brother and me and our uncle, whose excitedness and and eager “Who is it?” question reminded us that Shabbat was beginning with surprise, wonder, mystery, and joy. 

The only other magical surprise (that never seemed to surprise us) was when the door would fly back with such swiftness, revealing my uncle’s smiling face, just like mom’s, with the same excited smile, like he was ready to eat us all up in one delicious bite.

“Uncle Mark!  You know it’s us!  You can tell by our laugh and voice.  Come on!” we chided him. 

“Oh, I know sweetie.  Come here!  Let Uncle Mark give you a huge kiss and eat you up!  Look at that punim.  How did you get that cute?”

“I was born that way.”

“Then, what happened?”

“I don’t know.  I just want to eat!”

Inevitably, we would bust up laughing.  And the fun did not stop there. 

We would continue to hear small explosions of joy, like a pinata rupturing and gushing laughter raining down from the sky for everyone to collect and smile about, different colors, sounds, and breaths filling the room.  Shabbat was the end of the week, a time for us to eat, smile, laugh, and have time to sing songs like Shalom Aleichem and Lecha Dodi at the dinner table with family.

Every week, we would eat roasted chicken with green beans and mashed potatoes, and chicken soup with matzo balls as large as your face, food that would leave your stomach feeling as heavy as rocks, a full basket of rocks!   

On other nights of the week, we ate Kraft macaroni and cheese, bologna sandwiches, or kosher microwaveable chicken tenders.  However, on Shabbat, our family dined like kings and queens: macaroni and cheese suddenly turned into lasagna with pesto sauce, bread-covered sandwiches became braided, baked, and cinnamon sugar-dusted challah bread stuffed with raisins, cranberries, and chocolate chips, and with salted butter slathered on each slice. Most of all, chicken tenders became, melt-off-the-bone chicken cooked in pan-seared chardonnay lemon garlic sauce drizzled with parsley.  In a way, because the food was elevated, so too were we, and our house became that of a kingdom of royalty, making Shabbat a time to feel elevated and elegant.  On Shabbat, I never felt like anything less than a king.

As little kings and queens, my cousins and I would run through the island kitchen playing “Spy on the Parents Club,” a game during which we crawled on the ground like detectives spying on the parents without the parents seeing us, and, of course, we played Tag in a crowded house of 20 plus people. 

Grandma (Bubbie) was there, Grandpa (Zaydie) was there, cousin Sam and Joe, Mom, Uncle Mark, Uncle Eric, Uncle Michael were there, and even non-Jewish friends of my family would attend on occasion. On the Sabbath, I felt like I had total freedom to allow my imagination to run wild with my kid-cousins, and I felt like I was building something larger than life: a community of people from all walks of life celebrating the joy of being together.

I was happy, just as long as it was Shabbat, and I was playing and talking with family and friends.  Shabbat was a holy time to count our blessings, be grateful, and of course, throw more spongy balls at my brother, my cousins, and family under the dinner table.

It didn’t matter that my kid-cousins and I were running around underneath the dinner tables where, of course, no 30-40-50-year-old adult could have seen us.  Shabbat was a time to be in the moment, to look at the large Evergreen pine trees outside, to feel the cold crisp air, to smell the frosty grass outside, and inside to smell the barbecue coals, olive oil, and lemon garlic champagne sauce drizzled over fall-off-the-bone tender drumstick chicken.

Shabbat made me remember why I was alive: to savor each moment of life with those we cherish and to bring as much of that flavor into the rest of the week. 

Although I am 29-years-old and no longer a child throwing spongy balls at the dinner table, I am reminded of how all my detective work from “Spy on the Parents Club” helped me learn much more than simply learning to share a delicious meal with friends and family.  These Shabbat evenings were gifts from my family on how to consecrate what is most important to us all: having family and friends around, adequate health, a generous portion of laughter, and maybe a bissel food and drink, too. 

Perhaps, this is why I continue to celebrate Shabbat each week, and why I hope to continue to do so for the rest of my days. 

Aaron Wertheimer lives in Southern California, but his heart still lives on the slushy snow-scraped streets of suburban Detroit, Michigan.  In his free time, he loves to celebrate Shabbat each week by running, surfing, playing piano and drums, meditating, and dancing with friends and family.  If you would like to see more of his writing collections and creations or just chat, check out his Upwork.com portfolio page here.

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Stories My Father Told Me: Remembering Monty Kuper

by Ivan Koop Kuper (Houston, TX)

I shared a hotel room with my father when my family took a trip back to Poland, on a fact-finding mission, in the year 2000. One morning upon wakening, my father, the late Monty Kuper, a man of many interests, identities, and ideas, looked over at me from his bed and said that his “dead relatives” had visited him all night long – in his dreams.

On this particular pilgrimage, my family only scratched the surface of discovering the fate of my father’s parents and siblings, who – like himself – were residing in the industrial city of Lodz, in an apartment building located at Skladowa Street 14, when the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland, on September 1, 1939.

Growing up in Lodz, my father, then known by Moszek, was a very spirited child and with an active and highly developed natural acuity. He was raised with five other siblings, in a poor but nurturing family. Monty often reminisced how he would go to the cinema on the weekends; sing in the synagogue choir during the High Holy Days, and how he would help his father, who was a painting contractor, after school. He once confided that of all his boyhood memories, his favorite was seeing the “Polish Harry James,” aka Adolf “Eddie” Rosner, perform one summer evening, in the city park, in 1938. He also shared that when he used go to the cinema to see the silent, black and white American Westerns, he was particularly fond of the ones starring Tom Mix, and grade-B cowboy actor, Buck Jones, who he and all his friends referred to in their Polish dialects as: “Bucksie Jones.”

As a child, my father developed certain personality traits that would define him as an adult. These were characteristics I would also come to recognize all too well. These defining traits would literally drive me crazy throughout my lifetime; however, it was not until I grew into adulthood that I fully understood his unpredictable temperament. Monty had a short attention span and was easily distracted; he made impulsive decisions, and he often possessed a real lack of focus. My father was known to lose track of time; he would change his mind at the drop of a hat, and he would lose interest in a project before he completed it – only to begin another. Needless to say, his spontaneous behavior tested the limits of my mother’s already depleted patience that often resulted in marital friction between the two of them. 

Monty’s predisposition would be identified by latter-day, 20th century popular culture and men of medicine as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Those who are of the Jewish faith and who speak the Yiddish language also have a word to describe this condition: Shpilkes.

Monty Kuper, however, was also very intuitive, and had an uncanny ability to read people and potentially dangerous situations. It was his highly defined, improvisational, decision-making acumen that probably saved his life, time-after-time, as he traversed the landscape of the Second World War – during the uncertainty of his youth.

My father knew very little of the fate of his missing family in the aftermath of WWII, the war that decimated Europe’s Jewish population. He discovered his older brother, Lyva, aka Leon Kuper, in 1945, convalescing in an International Red Cross displaced persons detention camp after the war, in Zeilsheim, Germany, near Frankfurt am Main. Leon had survived both forced labor in Auschwitz-Birkeneau Concentration Camp and a death march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald. However, Monty always lacked the hard and fast evidence regarding the fate of his other family members, and how they endured the daily indignation and degradation of the 14 months they spent inside the Lodz Ghetto.

Monty learned from his surviving brother that their father, Izrael Kuper, and their older sister, both died of starvation, in the winter of 1941, in the Lodz Ghetto. And, according to family folklore, my father always maintained that his mother, Cutla Bryks-Kuper, and his other siblings were all deported sometime in 1942, to Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Camp. It was there – he believed – they met their final horrific fate, as did so many other of his boyhood friends and members of his extended family that forever erased any tangible evidence of their existence from the pages of history.

In February, 1940, when the German Waffen-SS began their roundup of Lodz’s Jewish population five months after the initial invasion and occupation of Poland by the Third Reich, my father, along with several friends from school, were already on their way to the eastern frontier of Poland that was now under the control of the Soviet Union. As a result of the political alignment between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, a non-aggression pact was negotiated between these two divergent ideologues that carved up and annexed Poland, for their own geopolitical and ideological objectives. It was in the town of Kovel (now in present-day Ukraine), where Monty and his friends found refuge, and where they were dealing in black market goods to other displaced Polish, Jewish, Russian, and other Slavic refugees who were also seeking sanctuary from the oppressive hand of German National Socialism. However, Monty was soon approached by the occupying Soviets, who insisted that he become patriated into the ranks of Soviet citizenship and a member of the Communist Party in exchange for asylum. 

The ultimatum Monty received from the Soviets did not exactly fit in with the spontaneous and free-form, decision-making lifestyle he was adhering to since the invasion of Poland by the Germans in their quest for lebensraum (living space). And so – at age 19 – Monty found himself branded as a “political undesirable,” and was sent to the Soviet Gulag forced-labor camp system in Siberia. For the next 18 months, Monty cleared rocks and cut timber for the construction of the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railroad in the Russian towns of Kozhva and Vorkuta, near the Arctic Circle. Monty once explained his rationale for choosing the role of a political prisoner instead of becoming a party member and joining the armed forces: “I thought I would never see my family again and I would be sent to the front if I agreed to join the Russian Army and become a member of the Communist Party,” my father confided. “I was never in fear of my life when I was in Siberia. There was always a possibility I could starve or even freeze to death, but the Russians never tortured or deliberately mistreated us like the Nazis would have done.”

On June 22, 1941, the German Third Reich broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact and invaded the Soviet Union. Russia was now at war with Germany and, as a direct result of this act of aggression by Germany, the Soviets set their foreign political prisoners free to join them in their fight against fascism. My father and his best friend, Michael Schulz of Warsaw, who he met in Siberia, were both conscripted into the newly formed 8th Division of the 2nd Polish Corp that was in exile and training with the British Army, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, under the command of Polish General Wladyslaw Anders. It was during this period that my father told me he also met a Russian girl named Rada; the daughter of a Soviet diplomat, who, with her mother, were sent deep inside Soviet territory, into Tashkent for safety, along with the families of other high-ranking Soviet officials. It was Rada’s mother, Nina, the second wife of the future premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Kruschev, who befriended young Moszek and who he said was educated in London and who, ironically – as the story goes – taught him to speak English. 

Monty and his friend Michael traveled with “Ander’s Army” from Uzbekistan to Persia, Iran, and eventually into the British Mandate of Palestine. After they reached the territory of the British Mandate, the command of this rag-tag, undisciplined unit of former political prisoners was then transferred to British control. Historically, the 8th Division of the 2nd Polish Corp then joined the British Army in what is referred to as the “Italian Campaign.” This included the infamous Battle of Monte Cassino, where Allied forces were engaged in a series of futile and costly attempts to capture a little-known abbey on top of a hill, on the outskirts of Rome. These series of battles lasted from January to May, 1944. However, while this historic event was unfolding, my father told me that he and his friend, Michael Schulz, were – at that time – in the Royal Tank Regiment of the British Army, and stationed at Camp Catterick (presently Catterick Garrison), located near the town of Richmond, in North Yorkshire, in England. It was there they both remained for the duration of the Second World War, and where my father said that he rose to the rank of corporal, and in charge of the parts department of the British Army’s Royal Motor Pool.

I am familiar with most of my father’s personal war-time history, because unlike most individuals who experienced the Shoah, my father was not introspective or reticent about sharing his personal history. I also do not recall Monty ever showing any indication of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or displaying any outward signs of what has come to be known as “survivor syndrome.” To the contrary, he was very personable and very outgoing. Throughout my lifetime – growing up in Houston, Texas – I heard the same wartime-era stories, over and over again; the same ones with slight variations from time-to-time, although, never presented in a boastful way or in an arrogant manner, but simply as a matter of fact. However, as I grew older, I became acutely aware that there were also parts of his saga that he conveniently omitted, thereby leaving significant transitional gaps in his narrative.

On another occasion my father shared with me that once, when he was in Siberia and had fallen ill, and was delirious with fever, his deceased grandfather, Rachmil Kuper, from Opoczno, Poland, appeared to him in a dream with a remedy. His grandfather told him to drink from a glass of wine that he offered him, and according to Monty, after he drank from the wine glass, his fever broke the following day and he was soon cured of all the symptoms of his illness.

Still operating by his wartime, heightened self-preservationist wits and his highly defined survivalist instincts, in 1992 – not long after the fall of the Soviet Union – when my father discovered I was planning to take a trip to Eastern Europe, he became very concerned. Monty still remembered the anti-Semitism he experienced as a child from his pre-nostra aetate (Vatican II), Roman Catholic neighbors with whom his family lived side-by-side while he was growing up in Lodz. One day before my journey, my father, anticipating the worst-case scenario, took me aside and said, “When you go to Poland, don’t tell anyone who you are and don’t tell them you’re Jewish. Just tell them you are an American.”

The fate of my father’s family was finally revealed to me in the summer of 2019 when my wife and I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. There I was able to discover what my father could not during his lifetime. In their archives it is documented that on the morning of March 10, 1942, 790 ghetto detainees assembled on the train platform of the Radogoszcz Railroad Station, located just outside the Lodz Ghetto. These unfortunate individuals received an order from their Nazi occupiers, four days prior, to gather up their personal possessions and assemble at the station because they had been selected for “resettlement” to a nearby work camp. Included on the roster of names, and chosen for deportation, was my father’s mother and four of his siblings.

“March was a cold month in 1942, with temperatures dropping to -15 degrees C (5 F), and sometimes even -20 degrees C (4 F),” wrote Polish historian and Lodz Ghetto survivor, Lucjan Dobroszycki, in his memoir, Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941-1944. “The mortality rate in the ghetto (2,224 deaths) was higher than it had been in the previous months with suicides occurring almost every other day.” 

Transport No. 17’s destination on that bitterly cold Tuesday morning was actually to Chelmno Extermination Camp, the Third Reich’s very first “death camp,” located 31 miles north of Lodz, on the outskirts of the rural town of Chelmno nad Nerem. According to post-war testimony compiled by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, Israel, these passengers were first taken to the nearby town of Kolo, then they were ordered to transfer to a smaller, narrow gauge train that took them directly to an abandoned brick mill in the forest on the outskirts of Chelmno. It was there they spent the night, and on the following morning they were forced into the back of an ordinary cargo van used for hauling furniture whose motor was left running and whose diesel exhaust system was retrofitted to flow back into the cargo area, thereby ending the lives of all those who were locked into the back of the sealed van. Their remains were then buried in one of several mass graves in the nearby forest, later to be exhumed and cremated toward the end of the war.

This was the Nazi’s attempt to conceal their fanatical mission of systematic mass murder and wholesale genocide from the rest of the world. The ashes of these victims – including those of my paternal family – were then unceremoniously scattered all together on the ground of the killing site that can still be found to this very day on the outskirts of the rural town of Chelmno. This event, which transpired on March 11, 1942, was verified by local Polish journalist and eyewitness, Stanislaw Rubach, who kept a diary of all the deportations and executions he witnessed during the Second World War. Needless to say, there were no survivors of the deportation and the subsequent executions that were delivered by the hands of the Nazis on this tragic day. 

My father has visited me only once since his death in October, 2011 at age 90. I was lying in bed and he appeared before me and asked if he could lie down beside me and rest. And in my dream I found comfort in his presence, and I was truly glad to see him again, although I don’t remember telling him so. And with my father lying by my side, I rolled over and went soundly back to sleep. 

Ivan Koop Kuper is a freelance writer, professional drummer, real estate broker and podcaster in Houston, Texas. His byline has appeared in Aish.com (Jerusalem), Jewniverse (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), ReformJudaism.org, Cable Magazine (London), the Los Angeles Free Press, and the Rag Blog (Austin). Koop invites everyone to follow him on Twitter @koopkuper. He is also available for comment at: koopkuper@gmail.com.

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A Moment of Truth

by Susan Rudnick (Pleasantville, NY)

      Just days after they had become available, I had snagged an appointment early in January for my first vaccine. I did a little dance in front of the computer to celebrate. The night before I had stayed up till after 1 AM and then had gotten up before 7 to go on both the New York state and city websites, as well as my local Westchester county medical provider’s site. I had stayed with it through the mire of questions and red tape. It had paid off.  Caremount, my medical provider, came through. 

     But the next day a text message abruptly canceled it.

     Caremount was no longer able to provide the shots.  

     My vaccine rollercoaster rolled off the rails. I felt vulnerable, jealous of the friends who had already gotten their vaccines, and ashamed. 

     How come I couldn’t make it happen? What lead hadn’t I followed? Why me? I’m a first-generation child of Holocaust survivors, and that night I woke up shivering from a nightmare about the visa I had which was no longer valid. I was trapped in Germany while others were able to leave. 

     Around 7:30 AM,  the day of my canceled appointment, I woke up to a phone call. Nope, it wasn’t a last-minute call for the vaccine.

     In a supposedly unrelated matter a few weeks ago I had received an e-mail from a second cousin I had never met who lived in Israel. Her sister, Ruth, and I had visited each other several times, both in Israel and NY, and we had become close. A year ago I had mourned her death from breast cancer. But Nomi lived on a kibbutz in the south and for a combination of reasons we had never met.

     Now in her eighties, Nomi was looking to connect with me. Her daughter, living in California, had found me. She mentioned that her mother had health problems and, realizing her time was short, wanted to meet me, and also learn what I could share about our family. We had all gone back and forth a few times about using What’s App and how to meet. But nothing had been settled.

     When I picked up the phone on that morning, I heard a voice that sounded familiar. It was Nomi. Her voice was comforting, and sounded a lot like her sister’s. Her English was not the best, but we managed a lovely back-and-forth conversation about our family. She had met both my parents on their trips to Israel.

      At one point I asked if she knew my parents’ refugee story: how they escaped Germany, made it to Brazil and then to New York while my mother was pregnant with me.

     “Yes” she said, “and how your mother lied about the pregnancy because for some reason at the time you were not supposed to fly if you were.”

     My heart missed a beat.  As a child, and, even now, I loved telling friends how I was conceived in Brazil but born here. But my mother had never told me about the lie. Nomi didn’t remember where she had heard it, but she knew it was true.

     My brave mother! She had lied to get us here. I literally wouldn’t be here now if she hadn’t. She desperately wanted a better life for us in the United States.  My parents had risked everything several times.  On this very last leg of their journey, I imagine them standing on an airport line together, and my mother not hesitating for a second to omit the truth about me in her belly.  

     In that moment I could feel my mother’s strength and wily wisdom coming to me through this fragile phone connection with someone I had never met.

     If I had been driving to get my shot I could not have picked up the call that held this vital fragment, a glorious puzzle-piece of my story that I would certainly enjoy sharing with friends.  

      I didn’t get the vaccine that day.

      But I was gifted with another kind of boost: a testament to the resiliency and creativity of my parents in a far more complex situation than my current one. I would surely find my way through the miasma of hotlines and websites to get my vaccine. 

Susan Rudnick is the author of the memoir: Edna’s Gift: How My Broken Sister Taught Me To Be Whole. It is the story of how her differently abled sister has been her greatest teacher. Susan is a published haiku poet and maintains a psychotherapy practice in Westchester NY. To learn more about her and her work, visit her website: susanrudnick.com

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The Summers of My Golden Ghetto

by William Levine (Belmont, MA)

A stranger driving through the tree-lined streets of Oak Hill village (AKA “the golden ghetto”) in Newton, MA during the summers of the 1960’s would eventually reach the startling conclusion that all school-age children had vanished. In place of these kids laughing on well-trimmed lawns were the mechanical whooshes of sprinklers. Indeed, most of us were sent out of town by the kosher meal promises of summer camp proprietors amid the standard sports and craft camp activities. My last summer in town was 1959, and I didn’t return until 1969. Only in my teenage summers at Camp Manitou from 1964-1968 was I mature enough to see my camp experience through the prism of my Jewishness.

Manitou was in the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine (Oakland, to be exact). In my ever-discerning teenage mind, I was able to sum up the Manitou experience as just moving with my Jewish enclave of Oak Hill to the Maine woods. The fact was that a majority of the campers lived within a two-mile radius of the owner’s home, myself included.  The camp’s pied-piper spiel to us kids was that all our friends were spending the summer diving into Manitou’s East Lake. My first year in 1964, nine of the ten campers in my bunk were from my junior high school. To get an idea of Manitou’s clannishness, one has to ask the question: How Jewish was Oak Hill?

Well, it was so Jewish that my second-grade class composite of Mrs. Sriberg’s class features 24.5 Jewish faces out of 26 students. The holiday season showed how Jewish the neighborhood was in a most tangible way. All of us Oak Hillers observed the phenomenon of The Festival of No Lights in our extended neighborhoods at Christmas-time.  As passengers in our family sedans, we drove down one street after another with no Christmas lights. It was as if there was a localized power outage in Oak Hill for the whole Christmas season. 

In my tween-age years, my parents explained why we lived in the land of No Christmas Lights. They extolled Oak Hill as being a neighborhood beyond the pale of anti-Semitism and home to a clannishness that we could all value. I realized that we weren’t corralled into Oak Hill village. But it didn’t hurt to build a Jewish fence to insulate us from the goyish world, at least somewhat. Even so, I felt awkward about the “golden ghetto” because we were also very American kids. 

For us Manitou boys, summer camp in the 1960s meant just moving our Oak Hill enclave to Camp Manitou in Oakland, Maine. Despite it’s totally Jewish clientele, the camp was foremost a traditionally competitive all-American athletic camp. Its grounds, bordered by woods, were cleared for sports ranging from archery to volleyball. The waterfront was mostly for instruction, but it also hosted several swim meets. Running these activities was an energetic, middle-aged, Jewish head counselor who had earned twelve letters in college.   

That the Jewishness of the camp was a distant second to sports was fine with me, although for eight weeks of the year my religiosity was stretched even by the low-key camp observances. At home my family was not at all kosher, especially with a dispensation at Chinese restaurants. But, overall, I had no qualms about the food that we dug into after we recited the blessing with makeshift napkin yarmulkas. Fruit punch (jokingly called bug-juice) was okay with meat as a milk substitute.

Friday night services were held in the rec hall that housed most indoor activities, so there was no worshipping in a sylvan clearing. Services were the worst evening activity in my book. There was nothing to look forward to after we finished supper on Friday night. I believe a counselor ran the half-hour Reform service. There was no heavy religious lifting—literally. We used mimeographed sheets rather than bulky prayer books. There were always a couple of prayers, mostly in English, followed by a counselor sermon, and then—the best part—a few Israeli songs, including a rousing Zum Gali Gali with an ear-shattering final ZUM.  While I did feel that I was participating with my bunkmates in a mandatory boring event every Friday, I do think the services ameliorated the sheepishness I’d felt over having no family tradition of Friday night services. My family was just high holiday attendees. Thus, the summer observance squared up religiosity with my cultural and ethnic identity.

Non-religiously, as I mentioned, my summer camp experience was just a cultural, reinforcement of the rest of my year’s existence in Oak Hill. This extra two months of an all-Jewish world honed a sense of clannishness. Camp was a place where, after lights out, we would rehash the highlights from past bar mitzvah seasons and muse on the sexiest girls at our sister camp, Matoaka, across the lake, with identical demographics. On the ball field, any kid who displayed anger was labeled as a “putz” or “schmuck.” No one had to look up the meaning.    

A mitigation against the Jewishness of Manitou was the staff make-up. Maybe half the counselors at camp were gentile. Ironically, while Manitou promised our fathers an extension of Oak Hill, many of the camp’s father-figures were not Jewish. This demographic was not a plus for me, but then there was Dave, a gentile counselor from Maine. Dave always seemed to have a good word for me and we enjoyed each other’s humor. I remember once, while dressing for an inter-camp dance, I had trouble tying a necktie. Dave came over and, without commenting on my woeful dexterity, said, “Here, let me help you.” So, really, though Manitou was essentially a hotbed of Jewishness, I did establish positive glimpses of the other 98%. 

A year after my junior counselor summer at Manitou, I graduated from high school, along with three Silvermans, four Levins, and eight Cohens. After “Zonderman” was called, I had to own-up to the fact that my time in the “bubalah bubble” of Oak Hill and Manitou was over. In a couple of months, I would be, for better or worse, in the non-Jewish real word. The real world would ironically start for me at Colby College, only about five miles from the ethnic cocoon of summers past at Manitou. Colby was my preferred school, small in size and large in academic reputation. But it was Colby’s gentile aura that concerned me almost as much as the rigor of its academics.

I correctly anticipated, though, that the familiarity with ins-and-outs of Central Maine would help with my freshman jitteriness. I came to school familiar with Maine accents, local ice cream hangouts, and the local dive bars. This tinge of townie familiarity, plus the lack of home-sickness immunized by nine years of Jewish overnight camps, ameliorated some of my real-world-launching fears. 

At any rate, when I arrived at Colby’s classic hilltop campus, I was hoping there would be a mini-Oak Hill available in the form of a Jewish-based frat. But I found that there was only one frat that had even a decent minority of Jewish students. After this disappointment, I eventually found warm feelings of assimilation in the frozen tundra of Central Maine. There were a few unsettling moments when offensive Jewish jokes were uttered, and there was some awkwardness when I was wished a merry Christmas.  But I really feel that I had the best of both worlds forging my identity in Jewish Oak Hill and Manitou. I was able to keep my robust Jewishness even as I assimilated into a world where Christmas lights were proudly strung and Hanukah was a holiday that couldn’t hold a candle to Noel’s popularity.

Bill Levine is a retired IT professional and an active freelance writer residing in Belmont  MA.  He attended Jewish Summer camps for nine years and gradually came to prefer fruit punch with meat instead of milk.

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Chosen People

by Carl Reisman (Mahomet, IL)

Dedicated to my father, John Reisman, z”l, and Fox’s Deli, Rochester, N.Y.

We didn’t keep the Sabbath

but we kept going to Fox’s for smoked sable dusted with paprika,

Nova lox, golden white fish, slabs of marble halvah,

pastrami shaved onto butcher paper, hot corned beef, and bagels,

not those crappy frozen cardboard ones we had on Sunday mornings,

but the real ones, boiled, baked until they had a crust,

still warm from the oven,

bagged up, a baker’s dozen,

always told by the counter lady, honey, you got one more,

and my Dad picked another,

sesame, poppyseed or onion, never raisin.

My mother warned us not to forget the cream cheese.

We didn’t discuss the Talmud but we took

the number 73 and I was nearly trampled by a lady who wanted

the man behind the counter to get her

one of the Hebrew National salamis hanging from a hook.

I had to look past her varicose veins to see the spool of hot dogs,

kosher ones stuffed in lamb casings,

that we would broil until they split.

My father had to pick me up so that I could see the floating pickles in their barrels,

bright green, the smacking cool cloud of vinegar and dill

mixed in the steamy air with a front of

mustard, pepper, chicken fat, garlic, and salt.

My family never raised the Golem to save our neighborhood

but as the year 5729 passed into memory

my father kept up his weekly trips to Fox’ s for kugel with white raisins–

it was not as good as his mother’s and my mother wasn’t even in the running

in the kugel race–nor could they hold a candle to my Hungarian grandmother’s strudel,

filled with apples and nuts,

or more surprisingly, cabbage, soft, sweet, with caraway, pastry so thin

when she rolled it that you could see the table underneath,

at least, so he said, she died before I was born; Grandma

and her cooking had passed into legend,

and my father was always showing up at the deli, Fox’s,

or, really, any deli,

looking for the Promised Land, wanting again to feel chosen.

Carl Reisman was a professional cook and restaurant reviewer before settling down to work as an attorney in Champaign, Illinois helping out people who were injured on the job and growing vegetables in the office garden. He has published two volumes of poetry, Kettle and Home Geography, and has contributed to journals including KaramuLegal Studies Forum, and Red Truck. His work is also included in the anthology,  Lawyer Poets and the World We Call Law.  In addition, his poetry has been taught, along with that of several other lawyer/judge poets, in a class at West Virginia University College of Law on the literary efforts of lawyers. 

Author’s Note: This poem is dedicated to the memory of my father, John Reisman, who died from complications of Covid three days short of his 90th birthday.  He was born of two Hungarian Jewish immigrants, the first child to survive (three siblings died), and grew up in a cold water apartment that was poor financially but rich in the traditional Jewish foods of my grandmother’s birth country.  My father was raised practicing Orthodox Judaism, stopped practicing, tried Reform Judaism, but never really found a home in a temple after he left the one in Perth Amboy, NJ, where he was raised.  Food was the most powerful connection he had to the soul of being Jewish, and the deli is where we went to try to find the source.

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Queen for a Day

by Herbert J. Levine (Sarasota, FL)

My grandmother loved to watch Queen for a Day, 

listening to each woman tell her sad story,

until they placed the crown on the winner’s head.

The American competitors needed washing machines.

My grandmother needed only her husband,

dead for more than twenty years.

How many separations she’d endured 

in the years when, with trumpet calls, he’d rallied the Czar’s troops 

against Japanese and Germans, 

the years he’d peddled door to door in New England towns,

while she ran a market-day saloon 

for the drunken farmers

and when he sent the money to buy tickets

having to separate from her mother, 

who would one day be killed by Hitler’s villains, 

also from her youngest brother and his wife, 

who left their baby girl with a Gentile family,

dying to save their comrades. 

If she could once have spoken of these things, 

she might have broken down at last and wept

not as queen for a day, but as mother of all our catastrophes.

“Queen for a Day” is from Herbert Levine’s second book of bi-lingual poems, An Added Soul: Poems for a New Old Religion (2020).  Many of the poems in his first book of poems, Words for Blessing the World (2017) are being used liturgically in a variety of congregations. He divides his time between Sarasota, FL and central Maine, where he and Ellen Frankel have three granddaughters.

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From Russia with Love

by Judith Rosner (Sarasota, FL)

“Take these candlesticks my child,

And when you light the Sabbath candles

In your own home with your own family,

Remember me and the family you came from.”

My grandmother, a girl of fifteen, heeded her mother

And carried these silver twins, wrapped in a pillowcase, 

Across the ocean from old world to new.

As her mother hoped, she faithfully

recited the Sabbath blessing over them

Each Friday evening, her family gathered at the table. 

Now two generations later, these candlesticks 

Still stand tall upon their three-pronged legs

In my home, handed down from my mother.

Grape vines etched upon their stems

Show off hanging clusters of ripened fruit

Amid the dings and dents of age and

Dark spots where tarnish resists polish.

Though weighty to the eye,

Hollow bodies give them little heft,

Light enough to be carried

Across the ocean years ago

By a girl of fifteen,

So that on this Friday evening,

I may light and pray over the candles they cradle,

As did my mother and grandmother before me,

To welcome the Sabbath and remember this story.

Judith Rosner, Ph.D., is a retired college professor, leadership trainer, and executive coach. She has published in the areas of leadership and management, stress and health, and women in the professions. Currently she writes poetry and personal essays. Two of her poems are published in the literary magazine Her Words  (The Black Mountain Press), her poem, “Forest Sanctuary,” appears in the Living Peace 2019 Art of Poetry Anthology and two of her essays appear on The Jewish Writing Project.  Judy and her husband split their time between Sarasota, Florida and New York City.

To read her stories on The Jewish Writing Project, visit:

Y’all Are Different: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/yall-are-different/

My First Aliyah: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2016/08/15/my-first-aliyah/

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On Watching “Fiddler” Once Again

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Like a petulant child,
I have spent much of my life
railing against the constraints,
as I saw them, of Jewish practices,
advanced by my father who came
from an Orthodox upbringing.

I protested vigorously against
Hebrew school interfering with
afternoon baseball games with friends,
the getting-up-and-sitting-down
for long hours on important holidays, 
and most notably, that my Bar-Mitzvah
was less for me than my extended family.

Yet, despite all those objections,
I am drawn back to my roots by the
familiar opening strains of “Tradition”
in “Fiddler” in a PBS special
on the making of the musical.

I have seen “Fiddler” many times, even in Yiddish,
and each time it brings me back to Anatevka,
a village not unlike my father’s birth place,
which makes me believe I still hang on to
an emotional lifeline to my father, to his faith.

I may have spent years running, but
a simple score I know so well, brings me,
with tears in my eyes, back into the fold.

And I’ve come to realize I am never that far away from the village, 
never that far way away from my father 
and from my own faith.

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. You can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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