My First Aliyah

by Judith Rosner (Sarasota, FL) 

I sat between my husband and brother and watched the snow falling through the stained glass windows of the synagogue as I folded and unfolded the piece of paper in my hands that held the prayers said before and after a Torah portion is read.  My cousin Walter sent them to me in the mail, written in Hebrew along with the English pronunciation.  I practiced saying them on and off during the two-hour drive from our home to Princeton, New Jersey where the synagogue was located and where his son, David, was to be bar mitzvahed.  I was both nervous and excited to be called to the bimah for an aliyah with my brother.  It was my first time.

Expecting a Reform service, since that’s how I remembered Walter being raised and where I feel most comfortable, I was surprised to find myself surrounded instead by the songs and prayers of my childhood—the cadence of a Conservative Jewish upbringing I long ago left behind. 

While my brother and all the boys went to Hebrew School preparing for their bar mitzvahs, I was sent to Sunday School with the other girls.  Our teacher, Mrs. Sands, was a beautiful, young Israeli.  She exuded class and charm and had a figure we adolescents dreamed of having as adults.  Full of life and ready with a smile, she had short, blonde, wavy hair.  Her dangling earrings would catch the light and brighten the glow about her.  Mrs. Sands had us mesmerized as we learned how to read Hebrew from a book similar to the English reader, “Dick and Jane.”   She taught us how to speak conversational Hebrew and to write in Hebrew script.  She led us in Israeli folk dances and taught us Israeli songs. 

Then one Sunday when we arrived for class, Mrs. Sands wasn’t there and we were told she wasn’t coming back.  Most of us figured she was let go because we were having too much fun and the Rabbi wasn’t happy about that.  Another theory was that she pronounced Hebrew words in the more modern, Israeli way.  In the end, all we knew was that the Rabbi fired her.  We never found out why.  And the injustice of his act led to an act of my own.

I decided I was done—done with Sunday School, done with the synagogue and its sexist rituals, done feeling warmly toward the religious teachings of my youth.  If Mrs. Sands wasn’t welcome, I didn’t want to be part of the establishment that didn’t want her.

I was pulled from my childhood memories as I heard the Cantor call my name along with my brother’s.  The English “Judy Rosner” sounded out of place, but then the Cantor used my Hebrew name, Y’hudite.  It rang true and sounded just right.  I was shaking as I took my place before the Torah scroll open on the reading table.  I felt a catch in my chest that made me worried I might cry.  Somehow I managed to say the prayers I had practiced along with my brother.  My daughter told me later she could barely hear me over my brother’s boom.  My husband was kinder and told me my voice complemented my brother’s nicely.

When we finished reciting the prayer after the Torah reading, the Cantor began moving me to the other side of the reading table.  I wasn’t tuned into the choreography of Torah reading, which he soon realized as he muttered somewhat annoyed under his breath, “No one seems to know where to go.” 

Rather boldly, I whispered back, “That’s because it’s my first time.”

“Your first time?” the Cantor asked incredulously.  “We’ll have to do something about that.”

And then came the best part.  The Rabbi rolled the Torah together and put a cloth on top as if to say, “Well get back to you in a moment,” and then he and the Cantor sang a special prayer just for me because it was my first aliyah.  Then the whole congregation sang the congratulatory song “Siman Tov! Mazal Tov! In effect, I was becoming bat mitzvahed, Conservative-style.  I felt proud, beautiful, and very special.  Mrs. Sands would have approved.

This wasn’t just a religious coming of age moment for me.   It was a political one as well.  Here I was, a woman in a Conservative synagogue, permitted to stand at the bimah and given an honor.  The synagogue of my youth would stand for no such thing.  Women took no part in the service, were not bat mitzvahed, and were never called up to the ark.

So now that G-d’s house has accepted me—on some of my terms, anyway—I feel better able to open my sanctuary, my heart, to G-d.  I still haven’t forgiven my childhood Rabbi for firing Mrs. Sands, and I still feel a bit like a foreigner in a Conservative synagogue, but I’m delighted that women now play a greater part in the service and that female rabbis have made their way to the bimah. 

I’ve been honored with an aliyah a number of times with my husband in recent years, most notably at the bat mitzvah of our daughter.  And each time I’ve been nervous and excited when singing the prayers.  However, none has had the emotional impact of my first time before the Torah at the Conservative synagogue in Princeton, New Jersey at the bar mitzvah of my young cousin, David.

Judith Rosner is a sociologist, leadership trainer, and executive coach.  She has published articles in the areas of leadership and management, stress and health, and women in the professions.  Her primary focus now is memoir.

For more information about Judy, you can visit her websitewww.therosnergroup.com.

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The Matter of The Errant Sun                        

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

Try as she may, mother could not escape her past. As a survivor of the Holocaust, she was left with an abundance of painful memories that would surface throughout her lifetime. As far back as I can recall, she shied away from discussing her experiences out of fear of opening painful wounds and, perhaps most important of all, not exposing her innocent children to the unspeakable horrors that she felt best be kept hidden. She remained highly sensitized to certain distinctive sounds and visual displays that, if present, could easily result in anxious moments or outright panic. I recall how she was terrified by the sound of a passing siren and remained frozen in fear until the siren’s harsh shrill disappeared far off in the distance.

And then there was the matter of the errant sun. She rather enjoyed the sun’s presence, but at times it brought about disturbing recollections that mother would rather forget. On many a sunny day she would quietly make her way to the living room and place herself directly in front of the large picture window. She happened to favor this one particular window for it seemed to best capture the sun’s majestic brilliance. Once seated in her upholstered chair she would lean slightly forward placing the palms of both hands against the window’s glowing surface. Then, as if on cue, her eyes would slowly close as the sun’s rays entered our home extending a much-appreciated warm embrace.

The sun often brought a smile to her face, but many a time her demeanor could change in dramatic fashion. A smile signaling joy and contentment would suddenly vanish, having been replaced by a sorrowful, clearly pained expression. And as would so often be the case, her initial tears of joy were suddenly pushed aside by the bitter tears of sadness and despair. For even within the dazzling sunlight, shadowy companions, nightmarish figures, were always by her side.

Mother kept much of her past life to herself but there were instances when she relented and agreed to share some of her thoughts and recollections. On one such occasion, she felt the need to speak of the sun’s past betrayal and how it had once meekly surrendered to an unspeakable evil. An inexcusable act that contributed to the misery and despair of those confined to the ghetto in Lodz, her hometown in Poland. As was usually the case, a trickle of glistening bitter tears began to appear on her pallid cheeks in anticipation of the story she would soon relate, a story about her long running squabble with the sun.

“You see during the war the sun left us,” she began. “It was a time when the sun, like so many others, left us to suffer and die. When I looked through the dirty windows, past the walls of the ghetto, I could see the sun shining. I could see people smiling. You see, my children, without the sun, there is no light and no warmth. The sun wanted no part of our world and forced us to live in darkness.”

She related how things appeared beyond the ghetto walls. Flowers bloomed, birds tweeted, and children played. But within the forbidding walls, all was dark; all had begun to decay. Wasted infants would whimper in unison while the sick and elderly lay with eyes nearly closed knowing the end was fast approaching. Most would soon succumb in this world of darkness. Mother was tormented by the sun’s presence beyond the ghetto walls. It was so close yet so distant. In its own peculiar way, the sun had joined the many forces of evil that subjected the Jews of Europe to unimaginable hardship and suffering. “It’s better not to ask,” she ended, “better never to know. Some things should remain hidden.”

Years passed and the sun returned to her life. Mother spent her remaining days sitting by the glowing window enjoying the sun’s life-giving energy and warm embrace. But I sensed early on that she could never forget, nor entirely forgive, the sun for its past indifference. And rightfully so. She had been witness to the errant sun’s darker side—the time it fled, refusing to provide light and joy to a people in desperate need.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

 

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Of Death and Coffee

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

So, three older Jewish guys

are sitting around a table

at an older Jewish restaurant

talking about death.

It’s the subject of some worried inquiry

as all three approach the finish line.

“Jews don’t believe in heaven,” says the first man.

“Your soul lives on after you,” says the next.

“Perhaps,” says the third, “the big surprise

is there is absolutely nothing – gornisht.”

“You mean this is all there is?” the first one asks.

“Could be,” replies the second.

“Maybe it’s like this,” the third man says,

“just ten minutes before you die,

you get a message, like an e-mail, from God,

telling you exactly what’s gonna happen.”

“That would be nice,” the first man agrees.

The three men stare into their coffees,

each one contemplating his own mortality,

together as friends facing the dreadful uncertainty.

“Same time next week?”

“God willing.”

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and 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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Remembering Elie Wiesel

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

“Permit me to tell you a story.”

These are the words Elie Wiesel often used to begin an evening’s lecture or one of his “college encounters”.

Why am I using these words? Because they tell best how it happened that I was destined to write a story about this man who has become the prophet of his generation, which is also mine.

A long time ago when I was a little girl pushing a doll carriage along the sidewalk of my Berlin street, a young boy my age sat listening to stories in the House of Study of his hometown in the heart of Central Europe. We were far apart in location, background, and upbringing, yet, without our knowing it, a common experience was being prepared for us which would affect both his future and mine. We did not sense the coming of this experience, because we were both still living in the world of childhood, where all bad stories have happy endings.

Then the whirlwind came. Nothing remained the same.

Destiny was kind to me. I was permitted to live and to grow up in the United States. There, more than two decades later, I picked up a booklet containing a number of stories by a writer named Elie Wiesel.

At some moments in life one knows one has just been struck a by a flash of truth. Everything comes together at that point: something happens, a new insight is born. Such a moment is not easily forgotten.. I was aware of my particular moment when I read “Face in the Window,” a passage its author called “a legend of our time.” With powerful graphic words it describes a man who watches without comment the deportation of the Jews of his town. He says nothing, he does nothing He only observes. He is the symbol of a person, a nation, a world’s inertia in the face of evil: the “I don’t want to get involved” syndrome.

The piece touched me deeply. I knew nothing of Elie Wiesel. Not who he was, nor where he came from. But I felt instant kinship with him. He felt what I felt, and he knew how to express his feelings. He had the gift, the power, and the strong urge to make the words come out. And he spoke to me.

I heard Elie Wiesel speak at public lectures. I saw him on television, knew his face from the covers of his many books.

He was famous.

When my publisher asked whether I would write a book about Wiesel for young people, I said yes, not because I am an expert on Wiesel, but because we both lived through the same unusual time and he expressed so many feelings which I could share.

On a bright January day I traveled to New York for my first face-to-face meeting with Elie Wiesel. My appointment with him was in a mid-Manhattan office suite where an organization had lent him space. In a prior telephone conversation, he had given me explicit directions how to reach his office.  I was impressed with his concern that I should not get lost.

I was properly nervous for this interview with a celebrity. The dark-eyed slender man in the trim gray business suit welcomed me with a sweet smile and did not act like a celebrity at all. With old-world courtesy he ushered me into the room where we would talk.

We sat in the small office and he spoke to me of his childhood, especially of his parents. I had brought along fragments of my manuscript-to-be, and he was particularly interested in seeing that I had the right “tone” in my opening pages. In his own writing, he told me, he must feel the words “sing” before he is sure he is on the right track and continue with the story.

Sitting on a hard chair facing me, Wiesel answered my many questions patiently. I had the feeling I had known this man all of my life: I was seeing a friend.I felt united to him by the fact that, as children, our lives were altered by the Holocaust.

After the interview was over, I wandered through the lunch-hour crowd on East 42nd Street. Originally, I had planned to spend the afternoon with friends in New York. Now, I found I no longer wanted to keep the date.

I had just experienced a homecoming. Those who have heard Wiesel speak at an “encounter” know the sensation: it is a feeling of understanding completely, and of being completely understood. For me, it was an experience I needed to hug to myself, to enfold and digest in private, before talking about it and sharing it with others. I took the next train back to Philadelphia.

“Make this book your own,” he said to me when shaking my hand in farewell that day.”Tell the story the way you feel it.”

My aim then was to tell the story of a victim traveling through hell and emerging as a victor. Perhaps you too, will turn to the stories of Elie Wiesel and understand just a little more clearly why the things he had to say concern you, too.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

This piece is excerpted from Witness for Life, the biography about Elie Wiesel that Ellen Stern wrote for KTAV (1982), and is reprinted with the kind permission of the author. 

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Y’all Are Different

by Judith Rosner (Sarasota, FL) 

Growing up Jewish in New York City, I never saw myself as different.  So I was unprepared for the flat Texas landscape where a church sat on every corner and religion for many, particularly Baptists, was a way of life, not a part of life.  My husband was serving his stint in the Air Force and while Texas was foreign territory for us, compared to Viet Nam where he might have been sent, it was a slice of heaven. 

I busied myself as a research assistant at Texas Christian University and also took on a teaching position there — an Evening Division class in Sociology 101.  I thought this job would give me an opportunity to test the teaching waters, never dreaming how rough the waves could be.

“Every week when I drop you off, I feel like I’m feeding you to the lions,” my husband said as he pulled the one car we shared over to the curb and deposited me in front of the campus building where my class was to meet.  He was right.  I was a brand new teacher facing students considerably older than my twenty-three years and there wasn’t a landsman among them.  I landed in a Christian arena every Thursday evening.  Each week I prepared ad nauseum, put on a confident and competent face, and came home to collapse from the exhaustion of it all.

I gave my class an assignment to prepare an oral report on a topic in the curriculum.  One evening, a student approached me and asked, “Do y’all think I could use a Pentecostal religious sect as a topic for my report?” 

“Why don’t you stay for a few minutes after class and we can talk about it?”  I said.  I needed a little time to ponder the question.

After class, I sat down with the student and said to him, “Well, religion is one of the social systems so you can use it as a topic.  But I’d like you to present your report in the form of a social movement.”  I gave him an outline to follow.

“I’ll be interested in hearing what you have to say since I know nothing about this religious sect,” I said as I began gathering up my papers and purse.

“Oh.  Y’all must be Catholic.” 

“Catholic?  Why Catholic?”

“Y’all are from up North,” he responded. 

All the students knew I was from “up North” because of the speed at which I spoke.

“Gee, I didn’t know the two went hand in hand.”  I was biding time and I knew it.  Running through my mind were two incidents I’d buried deep in memory hoping never to unearth them.  One took place at a New Hampshire beach where a nine-year old playmate asked me my Baptismal name.  When I told her I didn’t have one because I was Jewish, she started looking for my horns.  The other was when my friend Elaine came home from parochial school at Easter time to tell me Jews killed Jesus.  The fear, the hurt returned and I looked toward the door, judged how far it was from where I sat and how long it would take me to run to it.  A whole minute passed.

“Well, then, what are you?” he asked.

Did he really think there were no other religions in the world?  I took a deep breath and said, “I’m Jewish.” 

His jaw dropped and he said in a whisper, “I met one of them once.  She was a rich girl from Dallas.”

I was afraid he’d next be looking for my horns, but instead he asked me question after question about Judaism.  I had difficulty answering many and thought, This is it!  This is all this guy is going to know about Jews.  The responsibility foisted on me as representative of my religion felt weighty.  And yet, in another way, I sensed a lightness that came from the relief of sharing my identity and finding that the greatest consequence was curiosity, not contempt — or worse.

There will always be part of me that fears I’ll hear an anti-Semitic remark and not know how to respond, or attempt to explain something “Jewish” and not get it right.  But I’m open with others about who I am and proud of my Jewish identity.  In the end, I’ve decided that if I am the only Jew people meet, I’m a really nice one to get to know . . . even if I can’t answer all their questions about my religion.  

Judy Rosner is a sociologist, leadership trainer, and executive coach.  She has published articles in the areas of leadership and management, stress and health, and women in the professions.  Her primary focus now is memoir.

For more information about Judy, you can visit her website www.therosnergroup.com.

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Great-Uncle Moishe: L’dor v’dor

by Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson (Bala Cynwyd, PA)

My first conscious memory of my grandmother’s youngest brother, Moishe (Morris in English), is from 1945. My older brother and sister and I were visiting Great-Uncle Moishe Spicer and his wife Rose in Coney Island. My grandmother and her sister Molly were there as well, and, when the declaration of the end of WWII came over the radio, I found myself outside with one of the kitchen pots and a spoon, hammering on the pot to celebrate. It was a very noisy night and I can still remember that celebration.

For some reason, Uncle Moishe favored me more than my four siblings. I never asked him why, but I liked the attention, especially because my mother was always too busy to pay much attention to me and my father was always working. So I basked in my great-uncle’s attention whenever I saw him. He made me smile and feel special.

Uncle Moishe became a widower, and eventually retired to Florida where I visited him in the mid-1980s. He moved near my aunt, actually living in the same building, so when I occasionally visited Aunt Gladys, I could also visit my great-uncle. One sunny day, after visiting my aunt, Uncle Moishe and I took a walk in a nearby park and I began asking him questions about our family background. Where were we from? What was life like in Austria-Hungary? How did he come to America? I asked him so many questions, he began to lose his voice from talking, but I persisted, and being his favorite, he could not say “no” to me.

What I learned fascinated me. Uncle Moishe told me that his family had lived in a shtetl in Russia on the border of what was then Austria-Hungary, very close to the Tibor River. The family had no last name because in the 1860s last names in Russia were still in the future. (A child was identified as “the son of” or “daughter of” his or her father, using his or her father’s first name as part of their names.) Because the Russian Army at this time conscripted young Jewish boys into the army when they were very young, Uncle Moishe’s grandfather and great-uncle were sent across the river to avoid being drafted and converted to Christianity. The parents never saw their children again!

The boys fled to a small town called Tarpiluvka in Austria-Hungary where they were adopted by a family with the name Speiser (which means food store). Mrs. Speiser was unable to bear children and thought the boys’ appearance was a miracle from God. Moishe and his older siblings grew up in Tarpiluvka, and eventually half of them came to America to start new lives, never to return to their place of birth. Half of the siblings kept the name Speiser and the other half, including my grandmother and Great-Uncle Moishe, anglicized it to Spicer.

The sacrifice that my great-great-great grandmother Sorah (Sarah in English) made to send her sons away went straight to my heart. I cannot imagine anyone today making such a sacrifice out of a desire to have her children remain Jewish. Inadvertently, I think, her sacrifice led me to become more aware of my Jewishness. We joined a Reconstructionist congregation of mostly seniors and I have found a renewed interest in Jewish history and Jewish holidays. I feel if I abandon my Jewish upbringing, then I am somehow abandoning Sorah’s wishes to have her children remain Jewish. Her desire has been handed down to her children’s children and eventually to my generation. It’s a perfect example of l’dor v’dor.

While I consider myself a Jew, I am not ultra-religious, although I do attend synagogue and belong to a small congregation. But I realize that learning about the sacrifice that Sorah made also made my life possible. If Sorah had not made this sacrifice, I may have never been born! My sense of being Jewish became heightened as a result of her heroic act. (And I believe the second part of my Hebrew name, Sarah, is from this ancestor, which pleases me even more.)

I will always be grateful for the time Uncle Moishe spent with me. He helped me learn so much about my ancestors. I feel fortunate that he agreed to answer all my questions. Otherwise, my family’s history might have remained a mystery. Instead, it has become a legacy.

Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson is a freelance writer and author of four cookbooks, a children’s coloring book, a computer manual, and a children’s (fiction) book based on her ancestors’ trek from Russia to Austria-Hungary (and eventually to America.) She lives in Bala Cynwyd, PA, and has a health-oriented website, www.menupause.info  for older women.

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Sacred Memory

Martha Hurwitz (Barre, MA)

This past Yom Kippur I was invited by the Rabbi of our synagogue to share memories of someone I loved as a segue into the Yizkor service.  I immediately thought of my mother because my memories of her are happy ones and I credit her for any good and admirable qualities I may have. 

However, I heard an internal nagging voice that said, “What about your father? What memories would you share of him?”  This was not a question that I wanted to hear or to answer.  My father was not an easy man to love or to live with.  Personal relationships and sharing emotions were very difficult for him.  He needed to be the center of attention and the one who was always right.  He believed that women should take a supporting role and made it clear that, while I should aspire to become educated and “polished,” it was in order to become a suitable spouse to a professional and successful husband, not to showcase any accomplishments of my own.

In the 20 years since I became a Jew, I have struggled with the liturgy surrounding memory of loved ones because it seems to be about the excellent examples of those who have died and how their memories are a blessing.  Clearly, memories are not always positive or, at best, may be conflicting and difficult, but in a Jewish context are considered sacred.  How can memory be a blessing or be considered sacred when it still causes sadness and confusion? I waffled back and forth, trying to convince myself that it would be just fine to go with the positive and glowing eulogy that I had prepared when my mother died.  In the end, I gathered my courage and decided to risk being vulnerable and share my struggle with the memories of my father.   I calmed my fears by assuring myself that I certainly could not be the only one who wrestles with this question.

 As the Rabbi prepared the congregation for Yizkor, I sat in a heightened state of nerves, barely able to absorb what he was saying. Fortunately I managed to retain his statement that alav ha-shalom is meant as much (or perhaps even more) for the living than the dead.  With shaking voice and trembling knees, I shared my struggle and memories of my father.

In the end, of course, it was a powerful experience both for me and for the members of my congregation.  It is clear that I am far from the only one who struggles with memory and how to integrate it into the sacred liturgy.  I ended my thoughts with “Dad, I forgive you and I love you.  Alav ha-shalom.” My father died in 2001, but it was not until that day, 14 years later, that I was able to begin to mourn for him. 

Since then I have thought a great deal about the liturgy surrounding memory and what may be the purpose of such ritual. I have begun to see that it is not so much to suggest that memory by itself is sacred or that those who have gone before us were perfect. Rather it is an opportunity to take all memories, difficult or not, and place them into a sacred space.  I know there are some memories that may be too painful and negative to ever be resolved in this way.  But remembering within the context of Jewish ritual and tradition is a way that sadness and confusion can be eased and even those who were flawed and left hurts behind can rest in peace within us.

Martha Hurwitz grew up on a farm in upstate New York and was raised in the Society of Friends (Quakers). She married into a lively Jewish family in 1983, converted to Judaism in 1996, and has enjoyed learning and studying Torah ever since, both in study groups and by reading various sources at home.  Having always enjoyed writing, she recently started a blog called “The Golden Years Revisited,” (www.cultivatingdignity.com) to explore and share the experience of getting older and poke fun at some of the myths and stereotypes regarding old ladies!

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