Yiddish, A Look Inward

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

My parents were fiercely devoted to Yiddish, their beloved mother tongue. Both were Holocaust survivors and were incapable of distancing themselves from the past. Although they spoke Polish and some English, they would speak of their experiences and share their thoughts and memories in no language other than Yiddish. Only Yiddish, they would remark, could properly describe their emotions, inner turmoil, or unbridled joy. Their penchant for Yiddish carried over into our daily routines. It made little difference where or when, Yiddish was spoken nearly all of the time. Be it at home, in the park, or at the corner market, it was Yiddish, Yiddish, Yiddish, with only a word or two of English thrown in for good measure.

I became acutely aware that we were different from many of our neighbors shortly after moving into our apartment in Boston. For some reason, the contrasts became all the more evident whenever we rode the trolley. I was certain that the other passengers — you know, the regular Americans in the car — were staring in our direction as the strange, unfamiliar sounds of Yiddish emanated from where we sat. I felt embarrassed and ill at ease and urged my hapless parents to avoid using Yiddish and to please, please speak to me only in English. After all, most of my friends at the time conversed freely with their parents in English. Why should it be any different for me? Their reaction was nearly always the same. They looked at one another for a moment or two, chuckled in unison and murmured in Yiddish that I most assuredly had been led astray by an evil spirit (Dybbuk), a troublemaker whose mission was to take advantage of young innocent children and lead them away from menschlichkeit, the path of proper behavior and decency.

And so it went for a number of years until one day the Dybbuk decided to leave my person, perhaps seeking greener pastures elsewhere. I suddenly found myself being drawn closer to Yiddish at about the time I left home to begin my undergraduate studies out of state. A course in Jewish history was indeed an eye opener and got me to thinking about Yiddish and its impact on us as a people. Attending lectures and reviewing books relating to our long and turbulent history both confirmed and reinforced much of what my parents would often speak of. I had previously never appreciated the immensity of the hardship, isolation, denigration, and danger that many European Jews were forced to contend with during previous generations. As a people, we were subjected to forced conversions, expulsions, ghettos, isolation, and murderous pogroms. Yiddish, the language of our forbearers, in concert with its literary and cultural outgrowths, proved to be critical in helping keep us unified and intact during these most difficult of times. Yiddish infused us with hope and laughter, tenacity and perseverance.

During school breaks, I found myself returning home with a newfound appreciation for all that our people had endured in generations past. I began speaking Yiddish to my parents and their friends and actually enjoyed doing so. I befriended a number of individuals who enjoyed dropping a sentence or two of Yiddish into the conversation. But perhaps most gratifying is the role Yiddish has played in my professional life. Having a medical practice in the New York metropolitan area means contact with a large immigrant population from the former Soviet Union as well as a number of Holocaust survivors. Yiddish comes in quite handy considering that many of the former group speak little or no English while the latter simply relish the opportunity to schmooze a bit in Yiddish

Renowned linguist and Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich was said to have remarked that much like the Jewish people, Yiddish will find a way to outwit history. Yiddish exemplifies how we, a stiff necked people, have learned to survive against all odds by remaining tenacious, resourceful and devoted to one another. Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, has miraculously managed to save thousands upon thousands of Yiddish books from near certain destruction. In doing so, he seeks to assure that we continue to remember and has observed that “historical amnesia is a dangerous malady, especially for a people whose identity is as dependent on historical memory as ours.” Let’s take the time to occasionally look inward and remember that Yiddish is not only a reflection of our past but of our future as well.

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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Filed under Boston Jewry, European Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity

Sitting Shiva

by Leslea Newman (Holyoke, MA)

Mirrors are covered
Wooden benches are set out
Have a good mourning

Where’s the coffee pot?
I ask my father, who knows
my mother would know

Welcome. Please come in.
Sit anywhere. Except there!
That’s my mother’s chair

Ancient Hebrew prayers
cannot bring my mother back,
so what good are they?

My aunt spills her tea
when I speak to her softly
in my mother’s voice

White coffee cup smeared
with my mother’s red lipstick.
Don’t you dare wash it.

Chocolate rugelach
my mother and I both love
clog my throat like mud

My mother’s old friend
cups my face with both her hands
Fingers wet with tears

My aunt stands to leave.
“Call if you need anything.”
I need my mother.

Lesléa Newman is the author of 70 books for readers of all ages including the poetry collections, I Carry My Mother and October Mourning: A Song For Matthew Shepard (novel-in-verse) and the picture books A Sweet Passover, My Name Is Aviva, and Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed.

If you’d like viewing the book trailer for I Carry My Mother, visit:

“Sitting Shiva” copyright © 2015 Lesléa Newman from I Carry My Mother (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA 2015). Used by permission of the author.

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Poem and Direction of the Heart for the Tenth Day of T’shuvah

By Marcia Falk (Berkeley, CA)

In her new book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season, renowned poet Marcia Falk re-creates key prayers and rituals in poetic forms from a contemporary perspective for those in search of a contemplative approach to the High Holidays. Here is an excerpt:

What Do You Have?

Not this earth, not even dust—
Not yours, caw invisible crows
like doors swinging shut.

Not your memories, rising
and burning in the air
like leaf-dew in sun.

Not your thoughts, poking in
and darting out
like hummingbirds in the blossoms.

Only this bit of time (like clouds unforming)—
even as you point to it,


Nothing. You began as nothing and you will end as nothing. And in between—everything, and nothing. In between—joy and sorrow, beauty and decay. Everything yours to partake of, yours to bear. Yours to see, to know, to give birth to—and to let go. None of it yours to have.

Not even you are yours to have. You belong to a wholeness so great you cannot even conceive of it.

No, it is not a belonging; nothing owns you. You are simply part of it. You came out of it and you will return to it. You do not ever leave it, you are part of it forever.

And this is your moment to be alive.

Marcia Falk was born in New York City and raised on Long Island in a Conservative Jewish home. She received a B.A. in philosophy magna cum laude from Brandeis University and a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature from Stanford.  A university professor for fifteen years, she taught Hebrew and English literature, Jewish studies, Bible, and creative writing at Stanford, the State University of New York at Binghamton, and the Claremont Colleges. Her classic verse translation of the biblical Song of Songs was released in 2004 in a new edition, The Song of Songs: Love Lyrics from the Bible (Brandeis University Press).

For more information about her work, visit: http://marciafalk.com/

The material posted here is excerpted from The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season By Marcia Falk (HBI Series on Jewish Women, Brandeis University Press) and reprinted with permission of the author and publisher.

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Sarah Laughed

by Natalie Zellat Dyen (Huntington Valley, PA)

Sarah laughed
When God said she’d bear a son.
Sarah, her skin a road map of her life.
What pleasure is possible? she asked,
For one as old as I?
What good can come
From this time? This body?
And later
Holding impossible in her arms
Sarah laughed once again.

And what of you
Whose path runs long and deep into the forest?
Too late to turn, you say.
Too old.
What if I fail?
To you I say
Listen to Sarah’s laughter
To the possibility of laughter.
To the words in your heart,
Not in your head
The words that say
Anything is possible.

Natalie Zellat Dyen is a freelance writer and photographer living in Huntingdon Valley, PA. Her work has appeared in Philadelphia Stories, The Willow Review, Global Woman Magazine, Intercom Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Schuylkill Valley Journal, Wordhaus, and other newspapers and journals. She has just completed her first novel. Links to Natalie’s published work are available at http://www.nataliewrites.com.

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The Poet Receives A Tool Box

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

Teacher and philosopher, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes in his book, My Rebbe, about a holy person, “…we see the connection with the beyond or hear it more in the spaces between sentences…. As they speak we understand that there is more above the line and below the line or between the lines.”

Poetry and holiness are intertwined. Poetry lives in those spaces between the lines: in the layout on the page, the white spaces, whether it is formal or free verse, what the poet says, hints at or doesn’t say, the grammar and punctuation, the connotation(s) of each word and so much more. It’s what makes me come alive when I write and edit. There’s that initial impulse, a word or line pops into my head or something startles me and lurks or most times haunts me until I write about it. Like the time I was sitting on the M104 bus going down Broadway in Manhattan. I saw a man with one leg shorter than the other, wearing a black leather shoe with a tall heel to make up the difference. I started writing about the man and the wife who loves him, makes his breakfast and kisses him goodbye each morning as he goes to work. I missed my stop.

It’s only in the last months that I feel poetry lurking. My father died three years ago, and I wrote four new poems during the first year. Then I stopped. I couldn’t and didn’t want to write anymore; I just wanted to be quiet. I didn’t want to talk most of the time, never mind try to write.  Then I stopped thinking about it. And then I stopped caring about it. I kept in mind something my poetry teacher, Mary Stewart Hammond, told me, “Sometimes you need to live your life, not write about it.”

Recently, I watched an interview with Sarah McLachlan where she talked about losing her father in 2010 and releasing her new album in 2014. “I don’t think anybody gets to this point in their life unscathed,” McLachlan said. “I’m 46 years old and this is the time when parents die, when big changes happen.”

“When you were dealing with all that, where were you musically?” asked [the interviewer]. “Nowhere …. I would play music, but I didn’t have it in me to write anything,” she said. “My father passed away almost four years ago, and it kind of took that long for me to recognize what I’d lost and what that meant to me moving forward, but also what he’d given me.” I know exactly what she was feeling. After my father’s death, it was not a time for writing; it was a time for grieving, for mourning, for reflecting. I was observing the traditional year of mourning, saying Kaddish, not going to movies, not listening to live music or buying new clothes. Like Sarah McLachlan, I didn’t have it in me to write.

At first, I didn’t care if my poetry came back. But after two years, I thought it might actually be gone. I tried to write a few times, but had no inspiration. I began to realize that I needed to wait for it to come back.  About six months ago while visiting my mother, I went to the basement and into my father’s tool room. After he died, we couldn’t clean it out. There were too many memories. He was a tool and die maker. I looked at jars filled with nails, screws, washers. On his workbench were micrometers, screwdrivers, levels, hole punches, two blue cotton aprons and other tools I couldn’t identify. I opened my father’s wooden tool box, and right there in the top drawer was a beige tin with “Revelation, the perfect pipe tobacco” written in red on the cover. When I opened it, I saw several short, round pieces of metal with sharpened ends. They looked like silver crayon tops. The tin had been in there for over thirty years but I never really noticed it. Until now. Poetry was swirling so fast in my head that I could barely keep up. I ran upstairs and started writing; a few minutes later, I had filled up two sheets of paper.

My father always encouraged me in my writing, was so happy when my book, How to Spot One of Us, was published and was always interested in my teaching and readings. There was my father, in his tool room, helping me to move forward. Encouraging me to write again.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us (2007).  She is currently producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic poetry performance filmhttps://www.facebook.com/BeholdAPerformanceFilm.  Her work has appeared in journals and on line in such publications as Atlanta Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on beliefnet.com.  She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received Honorable Mention in the String Poet Prize 2014. 

This essay is reprinted here with the kind permission of The Best American Poetry Blog (http://thebestamericanpoetry.typepad.com/the_best_american_poetry/), where this essay first appeared.  

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How To Bury Your Mother

by Leslea Newman (Holyoke, MA)

Slip out of the dark limo
into the bright light of day
the way you once slipped
out of your mother:
blinking, surprised, teary-eyed.
Turn to your father
and let him take the crook of your arm
like the crooked old man
you never thought he’d become.
Feel your heels sink into the earth
with every sorry step you take.
Weave your way through the graves
of strangers who will keep your mother
company forever: the Greenblatts,
the Goldbergs, the Shapiros, the Steins.
Stop at a small mountain of dirt
next to a hole that holds the plain pine box
that holds what’s left of your mother.
Listen to the rabbi mumble
prayers you’ve heard a hundred times
but this time offer no comfort.
Smell the sweet honeysuckle breeze
that is making your stomach buckle.
Feel the sun bake your little black dress.
Wait for the rabbi to close
his little black book.
Bring your father close to the earth
that is waiting to blanket your mother.
Watch him shove the shovel
into the mound upside down
showing the world how distasteful
this last task is.
See him dump clumps of soil
onto your mother’s casket.
Hear the dull thuds
of your heart hammering your chest.
Watch how your father plants the shovel
into the silent pile of dirt
and then walks off
slumped over like a man
who finally admits defeat.
Step up to the mound.
Grasp the shovel firmly.
Lift it up and feel the warm wood
between your two damp hands.
Jab the shovel into the soil.
Toss the hard brown lumps
into that dark gaping hole.
Hear the dirt rain down upon your mother.
the shovel to your brother.
Drag yourself away.
Do not look back.

Lesléa Newman is the author of 70 books for readers of all ages, including the poetry collections, I Carry My Mother and October Mourning: A Song For Matthew Shepard (novel-in-verse) and the picture books A Sweet Passover, My Name Is Aviva, and Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed.

If you’d like to take a look at the book trailer for I Carry My Mother, visit:

“How to Bury Your Mother” copyright © 2015 Lesléa Newman from I Carry My Mother (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA 2015). Used by permission of the author.

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Taxi Driver

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

A man of faith, transporting a doubtful believer,
he negotiated the stop-and-go of
Brooklyn traffic from under his yarmulke.
When asked if he were driving full time,
he answered, “No, I am a religious teacher,”
his tzitzis hanging outside his pants.
Assuming rightly I was Jewish, he asked,
“Do you put on tefillin?”
“Why should I?” I countered, cheekily.
“Because the head is over the heart.
Also, you should observe Shabbos.”
“It’s a little late for me.”
“It’s never too late to be a good Jew.”
He had arrived from Casablanca
because there weren’t enough Jews there to teach.
“I hope to lead a congregation here,” he said.
I paid my fare, concluding I was walking to hell
while he was driving, sans map, a straight path to heaven.

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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Filed under American Jewry, Brooklyn Jews, Jewish identity, poetry