Grandma’s Candlesticks

by Janice Alper (La Jolla, CA)

Sentinels of light,

Grandma’s brass candlesticks

engraved with her wedding date

April 10, 1910

proudly cast light at our Sabbath table.

Every Friday near sundown,

my tiny grandmother

hair neatly combed,

jaunty black skull cap on her head,

waved her calloused hands over the flames

covered her face

muttered the blessing to usher in Shabbat.

I looked up at her

inhaled her fresh bathed smell of Palmolive soap

imitated her motions

shyly whispered the blessing.

Afterward we sat for a while

in Shabbos silence.

Now every Friday,

I take the tarnished candlesticks from the shelf

head bare

wave my hands over the tiny flames

cover my face with manicured nails

say the blessing out loud

so everyone can hear

close my eyes.

For a brief moment

 as I stand with my family

 these weighty sentinels,

 guardians of my heritage,

 silently rekindle my childhood.

Janice Alper has reinvented herself in her senior life as a writer of poems, personal essays, and memoirs which have been published in San Diego Poetry Annual (2018, 19, and 20,) The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Shaking the Tree. Currently, Janice is writing a memoir, Sitting on the Stoop, about her Brooklyn, New York childhood from the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, which she may finish one day. Last year she published a book of poems, Words Bursting in Air, which you may obtain by contacting her at janicealper@gmail.com. You can follow Janice on her occasional blog, www.janicesjottings1.com

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An encounter with holiness

By Adrienne Raymer Hutt (Sarasota, FL)

At a recent Torah study, we talked about holy experiences that we felt we’ve had and what made these experiences feel holy. I did not respond during the study session as I could not remember an experience that I would describe as holy, except for the extraordinary gift of my children. Afterwards, a long forgotten memory popped into my consciousness, and I was reminded of an encounter that I had at a swimming pool on the east coast of Florida  years ago. 

When I had young children, we would go to Florida to visit my parents, and I would take along a knitting project. On one particular visit, when my children were about three and four, we all went to the community pool, and I brought my latest knitting project with me.  As my parents played with and watched over my children, I took the opportunity to relax and knit.

I learned to knit from my mother most likely when I was old enough to be able to manipulate the needles and yarn. She and my sister were extremely fine knitters, I … well,  I tried my best. My mother taught me to knit in the Eastern European fashion.  Using this method, I wound the yarn to be knitted around the second finger of my non-dominant hand, and then, with a slight twist of  that finger, I released the yarn as it was needed to knit. This was how everyone I knew knit.  I did not know it had a name, or that  there was any other way.  

I understood that this way of  knitting was a part of my heritage, my Jewish  heritage, brought to this country by women who had emigrated from Eastern European countries. As they learned the ways of their new country, they retained ties to their European culture, and, by doing so, ensured that it was passed on to future generations.  I don’t believe that was their motivation; however, it was the result, and I liked this connection to generations past and present. So, I gladly learned how to knit.

Much later on, as I observed others knitting differently than me, I learned that there was another way of knitting, an English method.  No yarn was wrapped around your finger. Rather, it was manipulated by your dominant hand.  It was a method that always looked cumbersome to me. The way I knit seemed to be concise and precise in its movements. And so, I continued to knit in the manner that I was taught.

At the pool that day there were neighbors socializing and swimming.  A woman, who I did not recognize as a friend of my parents but who seemed to be a contemporary, approached me and said that seeing me knit in this way brought her back to the shelters in England during the bombing in WWII.  She explained that she was in England during this time, having emigrated there from Russia some years before the war began.

When in the shelters, she recalled, women would knit to ease their tension and fear.  Those of her community were mostly Jewish from Eastern Europe and knit using this method.  She learned to knit in this way, she told me, from her mother when she was a young girl. 

As a result of seeing me knit in the Eastern European manner, she expressed a sense of connection to her roots and to her frightening experiences during the times she had to take shelter. Observing me knit brought her back in time, and, feeling this connection to her past, she felt compelled to bring this connection into the present.

As she spoke, I had a deep sense of connection to this woman. I visualized all of these women sitting together, knitting. Maybe they spoke and maybe they did not; however, the rhythmic movement of the needles does have a calming effect, and so I could understand why these women grabbed their knitting before running for cover. I did not ask many questions. Instead, I let her recall whatever memories of knitting and shelters and bombing she needed to recall. Listening to her, I felt the ties to my heritage and ancestral geography.  I truly marveled at how such powerful emotions—felt by me, and expressed by her—could be conveyed through the simple act of knitting.  

I never saw this woman again during that visit or on subsequent visits. I do not remember her name or what she looked like.  What I do remember is her gift of sharing our heritage and her memories. In walking those few steps at the pool to where I was sitting, she gave me extraordinary insight into how I feel about being Jewish and my connection to my heritage.

During our moments together, I was transfixed and transported to a holy place via her need to share some of her most poignant memories. It was holy because in that brief period I was no longer sitting at the pool. She and I were somewhere else, together. Time was meaningless. We were in the past. In her past and in our collective present. This stranger and I were in a holy space.  

Until now, I was unable to understand this encounter. I now recognize that this experience has stayed with me in such detail because it was holy. I have encountered many people at a pool or elsewhere and have forgotten those experiences.  This one, this holy encounter, has been patiently resting in  my memory, waiting for me to identify and acknowledge it.

Now I look at knitting and at the Eastern European method that was used by our ancestors, used in shelters, used when sitting by a pool in Florida, and I can see how this particular way of wrapping the yarn around my finger stitches us all together into a  tightly knit, beautiful, and holy Jewish community.

Adrienne Raymer Hutt was born and raised in Brooklyn New York.  She attended Brooklyn College, graduating with a B.A. degree, and received her Masters degree from Southern Connecticut State College in Counseling, as well as a post-Masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy.  Adrienne and her husband Phil lived in Old Saybrook, Ct, where she worked as a speech pathologist, a teacher of the deaf, and, finally, as a  marriage and family therapist. They are now full-time residents of Sarasota.

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Meeting Elijah

By Jodi Rosenfeld (Phoenixville, PA.)

I met Elijah once on Brattle Street in Harvard Square.

When we read about Elijah the Prophet each year in the Passover Haggadah, we learn that he visits once a generation, or perhaps once a year, appearing in our very doorways to drink his wine. 

His job? To check us out—to see if humanity is ready for the coming of the Mashiach. 

He is a wily spy that scopes out this earthly home of ours to see if we are deserving of the great Messiah’s arrival. No such arrival? We can assume that Elijah stamped our report card with a big red “Not Ready.”

Now I don’t believe in any of this. But I do believe this story is one that is meant to challenge us in profoundly personal ways. And I do believe I met Elijah.

It was an unusually warm Sunday afternoon in April of 1996, and I was doing some shopping alone in Harvard Square. The Square was jam packed with locals and tourists, college kids and elderly pedestrians. 

On Brattle Street, I came upon a white woman, perhaps in her thirties, standing on the sidewalk in front of a line of shops. She looked haggard and a little sunburned, and she held a sign, handwritten with a marker on cardboard, that said, “Homeless with AIDS.” 

Her belongings were around her. There may have been a small grocery cart with some clothes and, of course, a jar with a few dollars and change. I put in a dollar. I was not prepared for what happened next.

“Excuse me,” she said, looking right at me. “Would you mind doing me a favor? Could you watch my things for just a minute while I run into this store and buy a soda?” She gestured to the small grocery behind her.

“Um, sure,” I answered. She handed me her sign, pulled two dollars out of her jar, and went into the store. I think she was gone a total of four minutes. It felt like an hour.

As I stood there, among the throngs of people, holding the sign that said, “Homeless with AIDS,” I learned about shame. 

Passersby sneered and scowled. One woman rolled her eyes and made a sound of disgust. A man put some coins in the jar but looked me up and down as he did. When the woman came back to relieve me, I was dripping with sweat. 

I walked casually away, but I wanted to run. I wanted to run from the judgement and derision of strangers, from my shock and disappointment in the people I’d encountered, and from myself for feeling embarrassment and shame.

And then I forgot all about it until one Pesach two decades later when I thought about this idea of Elijah coming to see if humanity was ready and deserving of an ultimate miracle. 

That’s when I looked back and realized I’d met Elijah once. 

Our wily prophet was a homeless woman with AIDS.

Jodi Rosenfeld is a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety and acceptance-based therapies. She holds a degree in English and Women’s Studies from Tufts University and a doctorate from the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology (now William James College). She lives with her husband and two teenaged children in the western suburbs of Philadelphia and will be starting rabbinical school in fall of 2021. Her debut novel, Closer to Fine, will be published on May 25, 2021 by She Writes Press.

For more info about Jodi, visit her website: www.jodirosenfeld.com/author

And if you’d like to attend her book launch on May 25th at 7:00pm, visit: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/rosenfeldatreads/register

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Missing my synagogue, my shul

by Tania Hassan (Gilbraltar)

I miss the synagogue.  Not my husband’s exquisitely vintage and stunningly intricate synagogue of his childhood but mine–my synagogue, my shul–the one that started out in a basement with doilies and shiny kippas in a basket by the entrance, and a chain across the parking lot (“lichvod Shabbat kodesh”) that forced shul goers to find parking around the corner.

How can I describe to you the ties that bind me to this most simple of communities or the profound love and connection in which the roots of my Avodat Hashem were planted and watered?

From lap to lap I shuffled as a child, gathering candies and friendships.  From wide-eyed babyhood, I grew into a sulky preteen and then a bride, a mother… all within the warm embrace of my parents’ friends and the fellow  members of Tiferet Yisrael Congregation, or “congregatation,” as the shul president sometimes called it – English not being his first or second language.

This shul was not just a place to pray.  It was our favorite playground. During shul hours, the parking lot and the coat room were begging for our imaginations to transform them into dangerous faraway lands. The choicest hiding spot was under Jack Oziel’s lush mink fur coat, which felt like melted butter against our hopelessly chapped and cracked lips. I can still feel it and smell the musty cloves that lingered in old pockets from havdalah to havdalah.

Believe it or not, in our neck of the woods, during “shalushudis” or rather, seudah shelisheet, we kids were sort of allowed to play in the main sanctuary, stomping on the hollow bimah, hiding in the velvet curtains of the Aron, and even peeking at and kissing the precious scrolls.

We were always shooed out by a red-faced, cranky Moroccan, who, with great flourish and a dismissive wave of his hand, locked us out and banished us back to the coat room.

But it was all a show because the next week, for 20 years, they would forget to lock the sanctuary and ignore the sudden disappearance of literally all the kids from the seudah shelisheet kids’ table.

I grew up pecking the men and women once on each cheek until I was bat mitzvah, at which time the men did a sort of slight Shabbat shalom bow, always amused at my adherence to religion despite my very childish appearance and antics. This familial style of greeting and interacting is very telling of the sort of community we grew up in.  One didn’t proceed to the kiddush or the exit without greeting every single shul goer.

Simchat Torah was The Best. No other synagogue with their enormous budgets and catered lunches could compare to the laughter, dancing, and, of course, fried sharmila and spicy orissa of my childhood Simchat Torah’s.

Age was irrelevant in this place. Old men were the coolest dancers and were always the first to whip those candies right back at us, usually resulting in the candy bouncing off the tinted glass that was our mechitza and hitting another horrified octogenarian. These were the days before Sunkist jelly candies. The older I got, the more sophisticated the candies became.  Rumor has it that now they throw whole packs of Twizzlers, O’ Henry’s, and the like.  Believe me when I tell you there’s nothing like a Moroccan shul.

__________

Yom Kippur. Oh, Yom Kippur, I miss you! I miss leaning on all the mollycoddling ladies. I miss the smell of lemons and Heno de Pravia cologne my grandmother would bring to keep her going. I miss the chazzan whose voice is the one I still hear in my head every time I utter a prayer. His strong, zealous service of God in a stunning clear call that still brings in my own Shabbat here across the whole world or wherever I go, whoever is up at the Bimah. In my ears, it’s always him. 

I miss the unity that I used to feel on Yom Kippur.  I don’t think everyone in that shul was Jewish, but we were One. That night and all the next day, we were shoulder to shoulder, intertwined souls, with the single mission to carry each other to the finish line, supported, cared about, and joyful.

We were happy on Yom Kippur because with all the petty politics of a shul out of the way, we focused on what we liked about each other. We laughed a lot until we elbowed each other or got stern looks from the chazzan or his wife, our eim bayit. We weren’t misbehaving, but we were so happy and united. The little things made us laugh.

We cried too. We knew each other so well—who had lost their mother that year , whose husband was ill, whose conversion was imminent. We prayed for ourselves, but hand in hand.

On this day, the Shabbat drivers put on their leather running shoes to walk home or to the house of a nearby host.  Yom Kippur was sacred to all, and we celebrated that accomplishment of theirs with great pride. To this day I can’t tell you which members were fully Shabbat observant and which weren’t, aside for the obvious ones, such as the chazzan and his family.

The tinkling Spanish of the ladies with their heavy perfumes and broaches, the croaky davening of tone deaf middle-aged men pierced by the melodious honey-like harmony of the chazzanim and their sons, or a delightful guest…the jar of chili peppers in the basement fridge that called our names every Friday night (after which we wiped our lips on Jack Oziel’s mink coat)… the diversity and the oneness… it shaped my entire being beyond the service of Hashem.

The shul shaped my perspective of the world. It helped me understand the world my parents had left behind and tried to recreate on much more frigid, colorless shores. And it embedded itself in the roots of my soul, in that space where self-esteem and formative experiences matter so much as to affect you forever.

People used to make fun of our shul. They saw it as a nebbish smattering of old school Spanish Moroccans, and Israeli and Russian ba’al teshuvas without a grand hall or grand communal accomplishments.  But there were those of us who found the secret to life along with the musty old cloves in deep pockets of simple and happy men.

And if your synagogue held gala dinners, or charged thousands of dollars in annual membership (barring the entry of a poor man longing to connect to His Maker), or catered a five-star kiddush with a VIP table, you just wouldn’t understand.

Tania Hassan is an ABA therapist who lives in Gibraltar, a 2.2 km squared British peninsula that shares a border with Spain.  Her Spanglish is superb, her British accent less so.  When she has spare time, she writes and pines for Canadian winters. 

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Sunrise at the Wailing Wall

by Brad Jacobson (Columbia, MO)

A man with a black hat and beard asks, “Did you put on tefillin today? How about doing a mitzvah?”

“Ok,” I reply, and he unzips an old blue bag, takes out two black boxes and leather straps.

He reads a prayer in Hebrew and pauses to let me follow.

He places a black box around my bicep, pointing at my heart, and wraps a black leather strap seven times around my forearm, saying it’s the number of colors in a rainbow.

He stands on his tip-toes and lifts my Phillies cap to place a black box on my forehead. It points towards heaven. He puts my baseball cap back. Maybe now the Phillies will win the pennant.

He instructs me to read the Shema. Six holy words.

I close my eyes and recite the prayer by heart.

I recall the story of soldiers who were ambushed during the Six Day War.

The enemy ran away when they saw them wearing tefillin.

They thought the black boxes were bombs.

Brad Jacobson is a volunteer every summer in Israel in the SAREL program. He teaches TESOL at the Asian Affair Center at the University of Missouri, where he has an MEd in Literacy. In the summers he enjoys exploring places with his camera like the Old City of Jerusalem, Tzfat, and the Red Sea where he scuba dives. He has been published in Tikkun, Voices Israel, Poetica, Cyclamens and Swords, and the University of Missouri International News.

“Sunrise at the Wailing Wall” is from Brad’s new book, “Lionfish: The Poetic Collection Of A Traveler’s Experiences In Israel,” and reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and publisher.

Visit the link to see more of Brad’s work: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1946124648/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ref_=pe_3052080_397514860&linkCode=sl1&tag=beeps-20&linkId=b8e4722d77fdd5f0148ae60390d40ec2&language=en_US&fbclid=IwAR3ZBUQsla0CdU7voiaWm5FRPXzEEIglc0tuceGIUFwSsys5u14kBYEscLU

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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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