Monthly Archives: December 2008

Kallah Bereishis

by Jeanette Friedman (New Milford, NJ)

On my 12th birthday I wasn’t standing in front of a Torah scroll to make a blessing but in a darkened sukkah with some friends and a birthday cake without candles. (There were no candles since I wasn’t permitted to blow them out).

It wasn’t fair.

I could stand behind the curtain upstairs in the musty women’s section of our Crown Heights shul and peek down at the men, including my twin brother, as they recited the  blessing over the Torah as “Chassan Bereishis”– The Groom of Genesis.

Why, I wondered, couldn’t there be a “Kallah Bereishis”– The Bride of Genesis?

I was a Beis Yakov girl, a student at the ultra Orthodox girls-only school where they taught us the Pentateuch and Prophets and only the halacha we needed to know about running a household and being a good wife.

But we had TV at home, and I had a high school teacher, Shirley Jacobson, who taught civics and spoke about political action and talked to me about going to college.

She inspired me to convince my parents to let me to go to Brooklyn College, as long as it didn’t cost them anything except the bare minimum.

Brooklyn College saved my life.

It’s where in September, 1970, in the middle of my battle for freedom and my escape from the Orthodox women’s ghetto, that I met my husband Philip, a Vietnam vet, and we’ve stuck together through thick and thin for 37 years.

At Brooklyn College, I learned how to be a Jew and a citizen of the world without suffocating ritual.

I learned how to use my Jewish values to make the world a better place for other people, and how to make the world a better place for me—from marching against the war in Vietnam in 1965 to marching in the Women’s Lib parade in 1970.

When I joined the school newspaper, I met a group of people who gave me courage to move out and up. They were the first to appreciate my writing ability, and taught me a trade that still pays the bills. They taught me how to look for an apartment and drive a car. They taught me how to dig for information and to use the power of the pen.

Whenever I was in conflict with myself or my ethics, the first person I turned to for advice was Sol Amato, a kid from the Lower East Side who used to wait tables in the Borscht Belt. He was the dean of the special baccalaureate degree program and a very gentle man.

I remember Sol’s office and the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet filled with papers about the great philosophers and minds of the world. Sol always asked the right questions, gave thoughtful answers, and pointed me in the right direction.

And then there was the late Dolly Lowther Robinson, a sharecropper’s daughter who went to law school and became Secretary of Labor for the State of NY and a Model Cities Commissioner under Abe Beame.

Without Sol and Dolly, above all others, the road I was on would not have led to Rabbi Jack Bemporad, Chavura Beth Shalom, and this bat mitzvah ceremony in Alpine, New Jersey

When Phil and I moved to Teaneck, we had four kids, ages 1, 2, 3 and 9. We had been in town about two years when, in 1979, someone painted swastikas on the synagogue where my kids were going to nursery school.

That’s when I started down this road– with my fellow sons and daughters of survivors–which has led to meeting amazing people, including world leaders, and travels around the world.

Eventually, the road, twisting and turning, led to Rabbi Jack, who has taught me much, though I’m sure I frustrate the hell out of him because he has had to uncross all the ultra-Orthodox hardwiring in my brain.

It’s because of Rabbi Jack that I’ve looked into the Talmud.

And it’s Rabbi Jack who I want to thank for helping me with my new beginning.

That’s because as we begin the Torah cycle again on Simchat Torah, and I step up to the bimah on my 60th birthday to read the Creation and the First Day, I feel like the bride that I dreamed of when I was 12 years old.

The bride of Genesis–kallah bereishis.

A freelance journalist, editor, and author, Jeanette Friedman serves as communications director for the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. This essay appeared in slightly different form as “My Bat Mitzvah Speech, Simchat Torah 2007: Today I Am A Woman” at her blog, http://www.jeanettefriedman.com/ It’s reprinted here with the author’s permission.

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Mazel

by Brenner Glickman (Sarasota, FL)

Does an animal have a soul?

It’s a question that Maimonides explores in his commentary on the Torah’s commandment to let a mother bird go free when taking her fledglings or eggs.

Maimonides suggests that the mother bird is like a human mother–capable of care and love– and he teaches that the essence of this commandment is mercy… mercy for the mother and recognition of her feelings.

“There is no difference in this case between the pain of people and the pain of other living things,” he writes.

In other words, we cannot destroy her young in her presence because it would be too hurtful for her to witness.  We must set her free.  She is like us.

Still, this question–does an animal have a soul?–haunts me because of something personal in my life right now.

At the beginning of this summer, our dog, Mazel, received a devastating diagnosis.

Normally, when we come home, Mazel gives us such a greeting, I cannot even tell you.  He jumps, he yelps, he licks, and just shows us in every way how happy he is to see us.

But one evening in June we came home and there was no greeting.

We found Mazel lying on the floor unable to get up.

We took him to the animal ER.  After a few tests, the vet told us what we most feared.  Mazel was filled with cancerous tumors and suffered from massive internal bleeding.  There was nothing we could do.

The doctor told us to take him home and spend his last few hours showering him with love.

Mazel was our dog for ten years, our first child, if you will.  We picked him out at the pound and gave him a home and a life and love.  And he returned the love every day and with every lick.

When he was still a puppy, he comforted me when my grandmother was dying.  I will remember it forever.

I was sitting on the couch in the living room and I started to cry.  Mazel walked right over and sat at attention right in front of me.  He looked right into my eyes, and then he tilted his head to the side, just like so.  And then he jumped on the couch and nuzzled me.

The thing is–Mazel was not allowed on the couch.  He knew not to jump on the couch.  He also knew that at that moment he was supposed to jump on the couch.

We started to make plans for Mazel’s burial.  We were conflicted.  We wanted to bury him whole, in keeping with Jewish tradition.  But we decided to cremate him instead, so we could bury his urn on my family’s island in Maine.  It was his favorite place in the world, and we were planning on going in August.

And then something happened.  Mazel revived.  His bleeding stopped.  He started to feel better and walk around.  After a few days, it was like he was himself again.

We were delighted beyond words.  We knew it wouldn’t last, but we were so grateful for every moment and every day we had with him.  We hugged him and kissed him every chance we got.

And he lived all of June.

And he lived all of July.

And then, on August 2nd, he came with us to Maine like he did every summer.

And he had a ball in Maine.

And then, one evening, he got still again, and, a few hours later, he died.

He had made it to Maine, where we were able to bury him in the manner we had wanted, in the place that he liked best.

My brother had just lost his dog a few months earlier.

He said to me, “They give you so much love, and they don’t ask for anything.”

And I thought, that is so wrong! Mazel asked for stuff all the time.  He asked for food, he asked to go out, he asked to come back in.

But that is not what my brother meant.

They ask for so little from us, and they give us so much.

We miss him so much.  Our house is so empty without him.  We will get another dog soon, but not just yet.  We need to mourn for this one.

My wife imagines that when our time comes and we go to heaven, Mazel will be waiting there for us and give us a great greeting.  I like that a lot.  I like that a whole lot.

I am so proud that we come from a tradition which recognizes that animals are precious and that they have, as Maimonides suggests, a soul capable of so much love.

Brenner Glickman is rabbi of Temple Emanu-el in Sarasota, FL, where he and his family have adopted a new dog, “Jerry” (also known as Jerusalem). You can visit Rabbi Glickman’s  blog at http://www.jlive.org/profiles/blog/list?user=3o0apsblovluy

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From Fancy Rosie’s Needle

By Ferida Wolff (Cherry Hill, NJ)

Grandma Rose lived with us when I was a kid.

She wasn’t a chatty sort of person, but she did tell my sister and me stories. Often they were cautionary tales.

I particularly remember the “Don’t run with…” story. It could be don’t run with a pencil, or don’t run with a fork in your hand, but usually a pair of scissors prompted it.

“Don’t run with scissors,” Grandma Rose would say, and a story would begin.

“When I was your age in the old country, we didn’t have anything. We had only the clothes on our backs and a little bit of food, if we were lucky.”

Grandma Rose’s stories always began that way (and I always had a lot of trouble imagining her as my age).

“One day,” she’d continue, “a neighbor’s boy found a pair of scissors in the road. Now this boy would never listen to what was good for him. If his mother said, ‘Chew slowly or you’ll choke,’ he gobbled and ended up with hiccups. But that’s another story.

“Well, he was so excited to show the scissors to his parents that he ran home. On the way, he tripped and poked out his eye. So, you listen and don’t run.”

I listened. (I didn’t want my eye poked out.) But I was more interested in how the magical scissors or pencil or fork should suddenly appear in a village that had nothing.

So I would ask Grandma Rose questions about the old country and the people she knew, the family members I would never meet, the pre-electrical and pre-plumbing days in a country I would probably never see.

Grandma Rose would sip from her glass of tea, the spoon anchored by her index finger, and tell me about growing up on the outskirts of Vienna and about her life as a fifteen-year-old immigrant in New York City, where she worked as a seamstress.

Her co-workers called her Fancy Rosie because she made beautiful blouses from the scraps of material on the factory floor.

It was hard for me to picture her as Fancy Rosie. All I ever saw her wear was an apron over a housedress, her head wrapped in a babushka.

Years later, when I had my own children, I started asking my mother questions that would help me understand the genetic traits inherited in our family.

She told me stories where Grandma Rose had left off…of growing up in the Great Depression and of the World Wars.

Through my mother’s eyes I saw a different picture of my grandmother.

And as my children grew, they asked me the same kinds of questions that I had asked Grandma Rose.

I told them about growing up in a neighborhood equally divided between Jewish and Italian families.

I hummed the rhythms that I heard at my Sephardic grandparents’ table on Pesach and on long Shabbat afternoons.

Showing my children ancient and faded photographs, I introduced them to relatives who had passed away before I was born and to those who had played with them when they were too young to remember.

Now I am a grandmother.

My daughter is already telling her son stories–one generation passing along the family lore to the next.

And I find comfort in having a past, fitting in somewhere, being part of the unbroken thread from Fancy Rosie’s needle.

Ferida Wolff’s essays appear in newspapers, magazines, and online at www.grandparents.com and www.seniorwomen.com. A frequent contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, she has written 17 books for children, including her latest picture book, The Story Blanket (Peachtree Publishers 2008). You can visit her website: www.feridawolff.com.

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