The Search for Chometz

by Richard Epstein (Washington, DC)

He gave me a saucer containing eleven, neatly cut
pieces of bread:  each about a quarter-inch square.  I placed one
on the edge of the washing machine in the first floor
powder room, the kitchen counter, the dining room table,
the leather-topped lamp table in the living room,
and on the corner of each dresser in the upstairs bedrooms.

He waited downstairs.  When I came back to the kitchen,
he unwrapped a cloth covering a wooden spoon,
the white-feathered wing of a chicken, and a Shabbos candle.
The search for the chometz was about to begin.

I led the way to each piece of bread by candlelight, my hand
cupped in front of the flickering flame as we walked up
the darkened wooden stairway.  Melting wax dripped
onto my hand as I watched our shadows high on the wall.

Dad gently nudged each morsel of bread onto the spoon,
then brushed twice with short sweeping strokes
of a chicken wing.  He cradled the spoon on his forearm
as if it were a fragile doll and wrapped it within
the cloth before leaving each room.

Dad followed me down the stairs and back into the kitchen.
He whispered a prayer and blew long and slow
across the candle flame.

All things are done with prayer,  he said.  The candle tried
desperately to hold to its light. Like hoarded silver,
he wrapped the wooden spoon and bound it tightly with twine.

It is done.

Richard Epstein lives in the Washington DC area and is active in the Warrior Poets sponsored by Walter Reed Medical Center, the Veterans Writing Project and he hosts an open mic venue for veterans and friends of veterans on the National Mall.

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Finding My Jewishness

by Anna Banasiak (Lodz, Poland)

I’m wandering in life
searching for my promised land
I see their faces
emerging from my dreams
hear the trains
in the forest of thoughts
my eyes are full of light
hands are dancing in the enchanted circle
like the Tzadikim
I hear the melody of the Hebrew alphabet
there is something strange in me
when I’m with people
I tremble
like a frightened bird
trapped in the past

Anna Banasiak, a poet and literary critic, lives in Lodz,Poland. She studied Polish philology and culture studies at the University of Warsaw, and served as the editor in chief of Kamena in Lodz. Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals around the world.

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Heaven, Seriously?

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

We Jews are a bit vague when asked
about the actual parameters of heaven.
Many believe the souls of the righteous
go directly to a place similar to heaven,
or will be resurrected when the Messiah comes.
The Torah provides little expansion on the topic,
but bound as I am by earthly existence
I’d like some geographical reference points.
Is an after-life someplace west of the moon,
catty-corner to the Milky Way?
Should it not come equipped
with a signpost or a GPS?
I have trouble accepting
this life is but a mere foyer
to the Grand Ballroom of heaven,
believing instead that dancing
is to be encouraged terrestrially,
with feet grounded in the here and now.
Would that I had the comfort of knowing
where my soul will pirouette past time,
given the lack of clear and present instruction.

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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Sensing Spiritual Synchronicity

By Susan L. Lipson (Poway, CA)

As I settled in at temple services on a recent Saturday morning, taking a deep breath to focus my spiritual intentions, I looked around our sanctuary and suddenly found myself appreciating anew the beautiful artifacts wrought by artistic hands blessed to uplift spirituality.

My eyes lingered on the section of a Torah scroll, rescued from Holocaust-torn Europe, and restored and mounted within a protective acrylic case now hanging on the wall beside the bimah—a scroll whose sofer (scribe) never dreamed that his painstaking, holy work would survive a murder attempt to receive new life and a new purpose in a California temple.

Beside the ark stands a 6-foot-tall metal menorah, welded by strong hands that clearly desired to inspire. Did that welder-artist envision the sanctuary that would someday house this symbol of Jewish light?

And the actual light—the ner tamid—that glowing, multi-colored flame of glass, drawn out of some artist’s blazing oven to reflect in the artist’s eyes for the time it took to shape it, is suspended now before light-seeking eyes who look upward, over the ark, before closing their eyes in earnest prayers.

The ark itself inspired me as a kind of giant mezuzah, housing precious, handwritten scrolls inside the once-living body of God’s most majestic plant creation—the tree, ha’etz, appropriately protecting the Etz Hayim (Tree of Life, a.k.a. Torah).  

So many hands, divinely empowered, suddenly touched my heart through their offerings. 

My epiphany filled my head and heart with this spontaneous prayer:

“Dear God, bless all of the hands that worked so earnestly to create this beautiful environment in which to feel your presence, to add goodness to our community through their own artistically blessed hands. May they continue to feel inspired and to inspire others.”

Then I inhaled, exhaled, and opened my prayer book to join my fellow congregants in reading, chanting, and singing.

When a bar mitzvah began chanting the weekly Torah portion from the scroll, I felt chills of confirmation of my connection to God and Torah when, to my delight, I read the English translation in the book version: the teenager was reading the precise design directions for the building and beautification of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, describing the sizes and colors of every holy object to be built, even the artistic inclusion of pomegranate and gold bell motifs.

In the past, hearing this portion read, I never understood the purpose of such detailed design directions in our holy text. I had always considered this passage cryptically verbose. I had wondered why the objects in the worship space mattered so much. But now, the coincidence of my “object lesson” and the “objectification of spirituality” in the weekly reading struck me as bashert, meant to be.

Synchronicity is God’s way of reminding us that we need to look in order to see the connectedness of our world.

Susan L. Lipson (a.k.a. “S. L. Lipson”) has published books for children and teachers, as well as articles and personal narratives, curriculum materials, and poetry (www.sllipson.com). Recently, Lipson’s short memoir “Connections” was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams and Premonitions.  You can find more of her work on her blog, “Writing Memorable Words” (www.susanllipson.blogspot.com) and  www.susanllipsonwritingteacher.blogspot.com ). You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram (@sllipson), as well as on her Facebook Author Page: “S. L. Lipson, Author & Writing Teacher.”

 

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The Making of a Viking Jewess

By Nina Lichtenstein (West Hartford, CT)

“So, are you going to stay Jewish?” the woman in Starbucks asks. Holy crap, is it possible she thinks I divorced my identity? A wave of indignation mixed with frustration flushes through me. I am in my late forties, and I have been Jewish since, at the age of 23, I immersed in a mikvah to complete my Orthodox conversion a few weeks before I married my Jewish boyfriend.

Before I respond to her, I breathe. I swallow. Be kind. Don’t get emotional I tell myself. “Sure I’ll stay Jewish,” I begin, “it’s not like that’s a switch you can just turn off.” I think I even manage a smile. She smiles back at me. “He’s meshuge to have divorced you for her, and a shiksa to boot! I will tell him so if I run into him!” I cringe. You are so lacking boundaries I think, but I say, “Oh, please don’t. It’s OK, things happen for a reason. And besides, she is good to our kids and they like her.” The woman scoffs, and steps up to place her order.

My Jewish identity was not threatened by my recent divorce as much as was my emotional well-being. While falling asleep at night, I would entertain elaborate fantasies. I can have a partner who will sing “Eyshet Chayil” for me on Friday nights! I could move to Israel and finally become fluent in Hebrew! Or become the writer I had always wanted to be by moving to, say, Maine. I could move back to Norway….

My experience with my extended Jewish family had lasted for nearly 25 years before my marriage ended. My ex-in-law family was an unusual Jewish clan — a loud, fun-loving, tight-knit group of right-wing, N.R.A.-supporting, worried Jewish germaphobes. To them, family was everything, and they protected it —as well as their property — from intruders and strangers with love, dedication and overprotective fervor. My ex-mother-in-law was not your run-of-the-mill Yiddishe mame, because this matriarch carried a .38 in her handbag and could swear like a trooper. Nor was my father-in-law your every day zaydie; he did 100 push-ups and 100 pull-ups in his basement every morning before 5 am, and on his days off he’d be packing a Smith & Wesson in a leather holster, driving a tractor in his fields while smoking cigars. Their greatest enemy, after public schools and their “liberal brain-washing agendas,” was the ubiquitous germ in all its imaginable permutations. Despite their eccentricities, I grew to love them deeply.

It must have been a shock to them when, in the summer of 1985, I — the braless, Scandinavian, nationally programmed socialist that I was at 19 — introduced myself with a firm, confident handshake. I was 5’ 10” tall, fair-haired and blue-eyed, outspoken and independent, and I had decorated my handbag with peace signs, a pink women’s liberation fist, and reminders to “Party Naked!” My guess is they privately hyperventilated, and I don’t mean in the same way their son had when we first met.

I was just about to finish a year in the U.S. as an au pair when we met at the camp resort where my host family and I were spending Memorial Day weekend. He was super-tall, with a dark complexion and a gregarious personality; to me he was both exotic and intriguing. Not to mention fun. We were married three eventful years later.

It was clear early on in our courtship that the fact I was not Jewish posed a major problem for my boyfriend’s family. I remember tears and sobs over long distance phone calls once I returned to my native Norway at the end of the summer. “Religion doesn’t matter,” I would attempt. “It’s that we love each other that is important!” But listening to my boyfriend enumerate his parent’s arguments and concerns, I soon learned about the perpetual concept of ensuring Jewish continuity. I realized that the Jewish identity of a Jewish family could be shaken to the core by the prospect of a non-Jewish daughter-in-law.

Coming from a typical Norwegian Lutheran — but mostly agnostic — family whose main religion was carpe diem, enjoying life and long summer nights on our huge wooden boat on the northern fjords, I approached the matter pragmatically. I told him, “If it takes my becoming Jewish for us to be together, I will do it, rather than live my life without you.” And so what had begun for me as a gap-year experience between high school and university launched a trajectory that would lead me far from home into a life of diaspora, of living in between countries, cultures, families and languages.

My parents never once tried to dissuade me. In fact, they encouraged me to fly back to the States to explore the relationship, lest I live my life regretting what could have been. Yet when my dad walked me down the aisle to the huppah in the Orthodox synagogue where my wedding took place, wearing a kippah for the first time in his life, with a violinist in the background playing “Sunrise, Sunset,” he tightened his grip around my arm and whispered, “If you don’t like it, you can always convert back.” Little did he know. Once a Jew, always a Jew.

My early gifts from my mother in-law-to-be — Howard Fast’s The Jews: Story of a People and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen — were but the seeds of what became an interest in earnest. Although not practicing Orthodox Jews, my boyfriend’s family belonged to a small Orthodox shul where a large number of the members were Holocaust survivors and their families, many chicken and dairy farmers originally from Poland. After their rabbi turned me away from conversion the requisite three times, I was accepted as his student, with the caveat that I also enroll in Jewish Studies classes at the university. My readings had prepared me for this “dance of admittance.” Much harder was when, after studying with him for two years and finally presenting myself to the Vaad HaRabbonim (official Orthodox rabbinic committee) of Boston for conversion, they rejected my candidacy. Since I did not readily agree to go to Israel for a year to continue my studies in a yeshiva for women, as they demanded, they feared I was not truly committed to Judaism, but more to my boyfriend.

Thankfully, persistence paid off. After another year of regular classes, both in the rabbi’s study and at the university, I finally became a full-fledged member of the tribe. It must have helped that, while in Oslo for a semester as my grandmother lay dying, I was admitted to join the conversion group at the synagogue there, one known for its strict Orthodox guidelines. Finally, on an early fall day in 1988, dressed in a modest below-the-knee skirt and a white Laura Ashley blouse, I sat in front of three rabbis and answered their questions. What were my feelings about Christmas trees, and about henceforth calling Abraham and Sarah my real parents? Was I ready to observe Shabbat and kashrut even if it might complicate my relationship with my family? I remember feeling nervous but holding my own. This was just the beginning of my Jewish life, I told them. I intended to keep learning and developing as a Jew. They liked that. I dunked in the mikvah while the rabbis stood behind a screen, and as I said my blessings and noticed how surreal the moment felt, they pronounced their “amens” at the sound of the splashing water. With that, and my soon completed degree in Jewish Studies, I had evolved to become a Kosher Viking Jewess. I was adding some welcome material to the gene pool, eventually raising robust Jewish children with a proud Norwegian heritage, and observing Shabbat and holidays. I even used the mikveh for monthly immersions; it was a wholesome deal, and the continuity issue seemed resolved.

Our three sons attended an Orthodox Jewish day school from nursery through 8th grade, and learned to layn and daven and get by in Modern Hebrew. But they also appreciate their Norwegian heritage. They speak Norwegian, are citizens of Norway, will break out and rap in Norwegian as they tote Viking necklaces interlaced with their Stars of David and chais. My husband and I wanted them grounded in both traditions, giving them Thor, Balder and Odin for middle names, and they seem to appreciate the richness of belonging in more places than one. Hopefully, as adults, they will also want to pass their Norwegian heritage on to their children.

Although not observant by any Orthodox standards, my mother in-law taught me by meticulous example not only how to make the clearest chicken soup, the fluffiest matzo balls and the most tender brisket, but also how to prepare the Passover seder, and make the High Holidays meaningful. With me, she gained a third daughter, one who was eager to learn, asking many questions along the way. Soon they went from being kosher-style to kosher, and when I converted they offered me an inscribed siddur thanking me for having enriched their Jewish lives.

Whether it was unique to the in-laws’ brand of compulsions, or more about their discomfort when it came to anything to do with “strangers” — germs included — their fear of many lurking dangers meant that the in-law family lived in an environment defined by language and habits reflecting all the worst-case scenarios that might compromise the clan. I was part of this hyper-vigilant kinfolk for close to 30 years, and I had to work hard at times to not let osmosis influence my own attitude too much. After all, my birth-tribe was stoic, cool-headed northerners who found the expressiveness of more “exotic” tribes to be exaggerated drama, and at times plain overwhelming. Over time, I acquired certain mannerisms and ideas that were not high on my parents’ list of things they admired. I interrupted, complained more openly, obsessed about the minutiae of kashrut and Shabbat and argued adamantly for freedom of public religious expression. I would challenge my parents about their view of the world, and I introduced them to rabbinic thoughts and Jewish philosophy. To help cope with the occasional incongruities of opinions, I would make light of all the meshugas, the in-laws’ and mine, although I also realized my own sense of self was morphing as the years passed. For me, it was a package deal: in order to be a member of their tribe, I bought in lock, stock and barrel.

Twenty-five years went by while my husband and I lived a comfortable suburban life in a relatively diverse community teeming with Jewish life. Twenty-nine synagogues of all affiliations, a bustling JCC, a kosher market and Judaica store, and a public school system that never would question its Jewish students for taking off for any Jewish holidays, great or small. We agreed about making the investment and sacrifices that necessarily come along with the desire to instill a strong sense of Jewish identity in our offspring.

After all the observant practices I had taken on in my life as a Jew — including an Orthodox conversion and wedding, as well as the many daily, weekly, and life-cycle rituals which I loved and that were all very prescribed — I wanted a formal, Jewish termination to our marriage. My ex-husband had no objection. Deciding to divorce after much deliberation — and to divorce in this way — felt like the most independent decision I had ever made, and was critical to my self-definition.

Soon after we had performed the get divorce ceremony in our rabbi’s study, with the three bearded, ultra-Orthodox rabbis who had driven up from New York City to be witnesses, I was reminded of the increasingly narrow stance the rabbinate of Israel was taking on the kinds of U.S. conversions they accepted. Watching as the bent-over scribe fished out the tattered feathered quill and tiny plastic inkwell from the inside pocket of his black coat, his thin, pale and ink-stained fingers running across the smooth, lined parchment paper spelling out my Hebrew name — Naomi bat Avraham v’Sarah — I remembered my first conversion rejection in Boston. Everything that had happened in between seemed to flash before my eyes. My marriage and my carefully built Jewish family unit would no longer be what defined me. But I did still have my own Jewish self and my three Jewish sons to move forward with me into the world.

With my Jewish identity in the forefront of my consciousness, the next week I composed a letter to the Rabbinic Council of America, the arbiters of the strictest Orthodox Judaism. I wanted them to re-issue my conversion certificate, since I knew that the Beit Din (rabbinic court) of Hartford that originally converted me had been comprised of three aging rabbis from a generation of Modern Orthodox rabbis known for their (relative) leniency. Embarking on this new chapter in my life, post-divorce, I wanted to re-affirm my commitment to Judaism and at the same time minimize the chances that I or my sons might have our Jewish identities questioned should we chose to make aliyah or marry in Israel. Although it felt humiliating having to “prove” to someone, yet again, how Jewish I had become and how Jewishly I had thus far lived my life, I breathed through it. And I wrote my heart out. Hineini — here I am, I told them.

The new conversion certificate arrived in the mail a few weeks later.

A native of Oslo, Norway, Nina Lichtenstein is a mother of three mostly grown sons and Jew-by-choice who writes and blogs at “The Viking Jewess” (http://vikingjewess.com/) where she muses about living life in-between cultures, languages and traditions. Her writing has appeared in Lilith, Literary Mama, and The Washington Post. You can also find more of her work at “That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish” (https://thatsfunnyyoudontlookjewish.wordpress.com/), a blog that shares stories with converts to Judaism.

This essay was first published in Lilith magazine–independent Jewish & frankly feminist-and is reprinted with permission of Lilith and the author. 

 

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Yahrzeit: Remembering the Love

by Joel Rudinger (Huron, OH)

“May the memory of our dear one be for a blessing.”

On the evening of the anniversary of my mother’s death,
I light a match and touch it to the wick
and the Yahrzeit candle catches fire.
My wife and I recite a blessing while its flame burns brightly in
its tiny glass.
For twenty-four hours, her light will kindle memories.

Each time I pass the flame, I say, “Hi, Mom,”
and when I switch off all the lights to go to bed,
the fire of her candle flickers like a happy angel in the darkened room.
“Good night, Mom,” I say and climb the stairs.
Her silence comforts me and I know
when I come down for coffee in the morning
her silent light will still be burning.

I remember
when I was four she stared at me in panic
when a neighbor carried me home draped in his arms,
blood dripping from my forehead
after I had fallen on the upturned barbs of a chain-link fence,
how she softly took me from him,
my bleeding face dazed and whimpering on her shoulder,
her housedress turning liquid red.

I remember
when she took me trick-or-treating on Halloween evenings,
shivering on the sidewalk as her little ghost collected candy door-to-door
and the dark December nights when she held my hand
and walked with me in silence down the street
to wonder wide-eyed at the colored lights of other peoples’ Christmas trees.

I remember
her fragrant juicy apple pies with the lattice crust that
perfumed the house,
the tapioca pudding we made together for dessert,
her Sunday chicken soup that brought our family together
at the dinner table,
when she gave the blessing over the Sabbath candles on Friday nights,
closing, covering, her eyes in prayer.

I remember
her leaving afternoons to give her program “Dolls for Democracy”
in churches, synagogues, libraries and schools, holding high her little dolls,
talking about people of different faiths and cultures down through history,
what they stood for, what they believed, how they worshipped differently,
how everyone could live together in a post-war world.

I remember
when she talked my father into buying a piano we couldn’t afford
and gave me lessons.
She took me to symphonies and concerts at the Toledo Museum of Art,
to the Nutcracker ballet every year at Christmas time,
and on summer Saturdays we’d walk the marble halls of the museum
looking at old masters: Picasso, DaVinci, Brancusi, Moore.

One day at the zoo, she tossed a shiny apple to a young gorilla
who leaped to the top of his cage and whipped it down at her.
It hit her in the head and crushed and stained her new white hat.
“I’ll never do that again,” she said, as I ran off laughing.

I remember
being sunburned to blisters on the beach at Cedar Point,
how she soothed my body with Vaseline to stop the pain.
When I was in high school, she tried to teach me how to drive
as I steered my father’s car into an iron cemetery gate.
She glowed when we shared our first beer together when I was in college.
“You are now a man,” she said. “How about another?”

I remember
how she embraced my decision to leave home to go to school,
to leave home after college to try a new life in wild Alaska.
She always let me find my own way, accepted my failures without judgment,
accepted my judgments without failure.
She embraced my wife and called her a sister and a friend;
she helped me care for my daughters when they were ill.

I remember
her weekly games of mahjong and bridge with friends,
how she collected ivory Chinese figurines and displayed them
on a little shelf,
her anger when my father died,
her battles with cancer and loneliness,
then the sudden stroke that left her without voice
and frozen in her tired body till she willed herself to die.

“Good morning, Mom,” I say when I’ve come downstairs.
Her candle’s burning low but still gives out some heat.
I go into the kitchen to make the coffee.

Each year I never see her light go out
as if she wants to leave in privacy.
I visualize a sudden poof and stream of smoke and then
the candle’s glass is empty of its wax.

Next year, we will repeat the ritual.
The Yahrzeit candle will be lit.
For twenty-four hours,
her flame will bring her back to us with memories.

Joel Rudinger, currently a Bowling Green State University Professor emeritus and Poet Laureate of Huron, OH, is a graduate of the University of Alaska, the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, and Bowling Green State University. He has published numerous poems and stories in magazines such as the New York Quarterly, Colorado Review, Cornfield Review, The Heartlands Today, The Plough: North Coast Review, and New Waves.

This poem is reprinted from Symphonia Judaica (Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing) with permission of the author and publisher. For more information about Joel Rudinger’s work, visit Bottom Dog Press at http://smithdocs.net

 

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Ruth Leah

by Ruthie Stolovitz (Atlanta, GA)

Regularly, I am told of the weight of my namesake. People tell the beauty of my name, the history and the reason behind my name.

Unfortunately, you died before my birth at age 68, but you continue to impact my life as if I always knew you. I hope this means our souls are connected.

The rings on my mother’s hands each hold a story of my mother’s mother and her mother, a story that will forever repeat itself with the help of my descendants.

Her Spanish-style home near the water in Larchmont, NY was where my mom and her four siblings grew up. The home can be compared to my grandmother; my grandmother no longer inhabits the home, but it is still standing tall. My grandmother’s memory will always last.

Living in Florida for the end of her life, my brother visited her as a young boy and sang “Fly Me to The Moon” during the last stretch of her life.

Eternally her spirit will guide my decisions and daily actions.

A wonderful woman and great role model, my uncle tells me. I am honored to share a name with such a remarkable woman.

Hands that are gentle, my mom would tell me the similarities between me and my grandmother.

Ruthie Stolovitz is a 9th grader at The Weber School in Atlanta, GA. She wrote this poem for an assignment in Jewish Literature class, in which students discussed how biblical poetry can function as a tribute or eulogy. Students then wrote acrostic poems, in the style of biblical poetry, in memory of family members who influenced them.

 

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