Monthly Archives: January 2009

The Gray Hairpin

by Linda Albert (Longboat Key, FL)

Granny, who was my mother’s mother, stayed with us every year when the High Holidays rolled around because we lived within walking distance of a synagogue, and, as a traditional Jew, she would not drive on the holiest days of the year. Each time she came to visit, I had to share my bedroom with her.

Her name was Rose Bennett. Born in Russia, she had come to Detroit, Michigan when she was eighteen to marry Louis Solovich, the brother of her sister’s husband. The two families lived next door to each other. Her sister had ten children; Granny had six. Along with Granny’s other sisters and brothers and their progeny, I used to think I was related to the entire city.

As a young girl I pretended to be asleep while Granny prepared for bed and would peek as she undressed, releasing her pendulous breasts from the confines of her corset and undoing the pins from the bun in her snow white hair. As interesting as these observations were, however, they didn’t make up for the loss of privacy I felt forced to endure. And the stray gray hairpins that remained scattered on my dresser after she left were an irritating reminder of that sacrifice.

Whenever Granny was with us, she took it upon herself to try to get the snarls out of my hair, which was blond and a feature my strong-minded mother called my “crowning glory.” Despite my complaints, I was not allowed a haircut from the ages of three to twelve. Instead, I wore my hair, which otherwise would have hung down to my waist, in fat, ugly, and unfashionable braids. Not only did I hate those braids, but I despised the unpleasant pinches on the cheek that they prompted and the comparisons to “pretty little Dutch girls.”

In an attempt to distract me from the pain of the hairbrush working through my knotted hair, Granny tried to tell me stories about the Old Country. But I whined and carried on so much she was never able to get to an ending. How was I to know until years later that Granny had collected rain water to wash her own hair? In her own gentle way, she had tried to teach me to take pride in myself and value my gifts.

When I turned twelve, my oldest cousin Ginny convinced my mother to allow me to have my hair cut short. Without my braids and those awful snarls, Granny’s reason for story-telling stopped. It never occurred to me to ask her to finish her stories. I simply assumed she would be around forever and I could hear them later.

My mother used to say that while Granny kept kosher, at least she wasn’t “crazy kosher,” and didn’t inflict her ways on her children, all of whom became Reform or liberal in the practice of religion. When she was with us, Granny performed her rituals in quiet corners, lighting Sabbath and holiday candles while we went about our worldly ways unaware of the richness we might be missing. And every year I continued to share my room with her, finding forgotten gray hairpins on my dresser as reassuringly annoying souvenirs of her visits.

These visits came to a jolting halt for me when I was a sixteen years old. Though she had looked like an old lady from an early age with her white hair and flowered dresses, her corsets and matronly bosom, and her old-lady tie-shoes with the thick black heels, Granny suffered from nothing more than hypertension and arthritis, and otherwise had the energy of a girl. Yet one night, in her seventy-second year, she announced to my aunt and uncle, with whom she lived, that she didn’t feel well, lay down on her bed, closed her eyes, and quietly died.

I was devastated. The minute I heard Granny was gone, I knew I had thrown away a priceless opportunity to understand my grandmother and to know more about my heritage. What was it like for Granny to have come to America when she was only eighteen to marry a stranger? How did she manage when she was left a widow with six children? (My mother, the youngest of six, was only eight month’s old.) How far did Uncle Max, the only boy in a fatherless household, actually get when he ran away from his home in Detroit to find his grandfather in Russia? Was he punished or hugged when he was finally found? Why didn’t anyone talk about Grandpa Louis, the handsome man in the picture and the hinted at “brains of the family”? And why did she stick to her traditional ways? Nobody but Granny could really answer those questions, and now it was too late for me to ask them.

The minute it was too late, I knew how much love and patience Granny had bestowed upon me, despite my lack of deservedness. I knew then with painful clarity that Granny would always be one of my greatest teachers, not only by her example as a woman who had taken the challenges of life with grace, but by the lesson of her death. I promised myself that I would never again take anyone or any situation quite so for granted. I would ever after be instructed by the inevitability of endings in life.

For years I regretted my failings in relation to Granny. I found my heart warmed by anyone who pronounced my name with a foreign lilt. I gravitated to other people’s stories. And then in a writing class twenty years after her death, I wrote about Granny in a character sketch, starting and ending with the memory of those gray hair pins, how real they remained to me, how much I still loved my very special grandmother, and how much I would have liked to thank her.

I read the piece later to a group of other writers. Just as I got to the last line in which I said I hadn’t seen a gray hairpin in twenty years, the woman sitting next to me spied something on the floor and leaned down to pick it up. Incredibly, it was a gray hairpin.

Ever since then I like to think that I have redeemed myself in Granny eyes and have been forgiven.

Linda Albert’s essays, articles, creative non-fiction, and poems have appeared in many publications, including McCall’s Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Sacred Journey, Today’s Caregiver Magazine, Itineraries, and the Borderline and SNReview Literary Journals. She lives on Longboat Key, Florida with her husband. You can visit her on-line at http://snreview.org/ (autumn 2008, poetry section) or at her website http://www.lindaalbert.net/

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Return to Germany

by Sonia Pressman Fuentes (Sarasota, FL)

In 1978, my husband, Roberto, and I began to plan a trip to Greece. Neither of us had ever been there, and we looked forward to exploring its historic ruins and taking a cruise around the Greek Isles.

In the past on foreign trips, I had given a number of talks for the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) as an “American specialist” on the second wave of the women’s rights movement. (I was a founder of NOW–National Organization for Women–and the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission–EEOC.)  So, I called Michael Bennett, my contact at USIA, to see if the agency needed anyone to speak in Greece.

“No,” he said. “We don’t. But we do have a request for someone in France and Germany. One week in France and two in Germany. Would you be willing to go?”

I was taken aback by Michael’s request. Germany? The land I’d escaped from over forty years ago? The country of Heil Hitler, marching boots, and swastikas? The country soaked in the blood of my people? Could I go there?

I told Michael I’d need time to think about it and then consulted Roberto about USIA’s request.

“Up to you,” he said.

For years I’d had a strong desire to return to my birthplace, to see where I would have spent my life if Hitler and his band of murderers hadn’t come along. But when I had thought about it, I had envisioned a quick trip into Berlin, followed by an immediate departure. USIA, however, was asking me to stay two weeks–something else again.

On past USIA trips, I’d enjoyed sightseeing and local entertainment in my spare time. But how did one enjoy oneself on the site of a charnel house?

I’d always found it challenging, meaningful, and exciting to speak abroad about women’s rights. But were women’s rights relevant in a country where millions of Jews as well as non-Jews had been slaughtered?

I decided to consult local and national Jewish leaders. The first person I called was Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Temple Sinai in Stamford, Connecticut, the Reform temple to which I belonged. A handsome young man in his early thirties, Rabbi Pearce empathized with my reluctance to go, but added, “It’s not just their country. There’s Jewish history in Germany, too.” I hadn’t thought of that.

“If you do decide to go,” Rabbi Pearce continued, “I hope you’ll report to the congregation on your return.”

I agreed to do this if I went but wondered what there’d be to report. After all, the Jewish problem had ended with the war in Germany in 1945, hadn’t it? What would there be to report now–over thirty years later?

I spoke with Jewish leaders in organizations such as B’nai B’rith. The consensus was that Germany was a new land with a new people. Israel was trading with Germany, so who was I to resist?

I decided to go. But because of Rabbi Pearce’s request, I asked USIA to include in my itinerary meetings with Jewish leaders and a visit to a former concentration camp.

Before departing, I called my brother, Hermann, who was 14 years my senior, and asked if he remembered any of the addresses of the places where we’d lived, where my parents had operated their stores, and where we owned an apartment building. To my amazement, he reeled off all the addresses, some of which were now in East Berlin. I resolved to try to find them all, if possible.

On November 2, 1978, I flew to Paris. (Due to his work commitments, Roberto was to join me later.) To my surprise, on the night of my arrival, the Jewish question came up. I was having cocktails with a small group of feminists at the home of the woman who was head of the American Cultural Center. A French woman reporter for the news magazine L’Express mentioned that she had recently interviewed Darquier De Pellepoix, the 80-year-old Frenchman who had been the Vichy government’s commissioner for Jewish affairs.

De Pellepoix, a major French war criminal who had been convicted in absentia but was never punished, lived in Spain. He told the reporter that the genocide of the Jewish people had never happened; that the 75,000 French and stateless Jews he deported from France to death camps had been resettled in the East; and that only lice were gassed at Auschwitz. The following day, his statements were on the front page of L’Express.

The reporter also mentioned that the French had never come to terms with their collaboration with the Nazis. While the NBC-TV film Holocaust had been shown all over Western Europe, it had not yet been shown on French TV. A Frenchwoman had, however, started a private fund-raising appeal so the film could be shown there.

Roberto joined me in Paris, and from there we flew to West Berlin, arriving on the night of November 8. The German assistant to the head of Amerika Haus met us at the airport and told us that by an odd coincidence we had arrived on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Forty years earlier, Hershl Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jewish student, had shot and killed Ernst von Rath, an official in the German Embassy in Paris, in retaliation for the treatment his family had received at the hands of the Nazis in Germany. Hitler and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels used the incident to incite Germans to wreak vengeance against the Jews.

As a result, mob violence began on the night of November 9, 1938, and continued into the next day as the regular German police stood by and crowds of spectators watched. Nazi storm troopers, along with members of the SS and Hitler Youth, beat and murdered Jews, broke into and wrecked Jewish homes, and brutalized Jewish women and children. All over Germany, Austria, and other Nazi-controlled areas, Jewish shops and department stores had their plate glass windows smashed, thus giving the terror its name, the Night of Broken Glass. Ninety-one Jews were killed, 267 synagogues burned (with 177 totally destroyed), 7,500 businesses destroyed, and 25,000 Jewish men rounded up and later sent to concentration camps.

We had missed the march commemorating that night but were in time to see the exhibition at the Jewish Community Center, the Jüdische Gemeinde Zu Berlin, on Fasanenstrasse 79/80. The Center was a modern building in the heart of West Berlin. As we approached, we noticed what appeared to be the ruins of another building cemented onto the front of the Center. We wondered about the significance of this.

The Center was thronged with people from the march. The exhibition consisted of pictures of Berlin’s magnificent synagogues as they had looked before the Nazi desecration, the shambles that had remained after they had been bombed and ransacked, and how those that had been reconstructed looked today. One of the “before” pictures showed Kaiser Wilhelm visiting one of these synagogues in an earlier period. One of the “after” pictures showed the remains of the synagogue that had stood on the site of the Center. It was two pieces of those remains that were attached to the front of the building.

A poster announced that the following Friday there would be a joint synagogue service in which a rabbi, a priest, and a minister would participate. This would be the first joint Jewish-Christian service in a Berlin synagogue in recent history.

We left the Center and walked around the city. I felt as if I had stepped back in time to the ’20s and ’30s. It seemed so much like the Berlin of the past about which my parents had spoken.

Both West and East Berlin were a curious commingling of past and present for me. One day in East Berlin, as I was crossing the street, I saw two uniformed men coming to get me. I cringed until I realized they weren’t Gestapo, just two East Berlin policemen crossing the street.

Despite such experiences, I loved being in Berlin–staying at the Hotel Frühling am Zoo on Kurfürstandamm 17, walking on streets on which my parents had walked and seeing street names that had resounded throughout my childhood: Alexanderplatz…Kottbusser Damm…Koepenicker Strasse…Gipsstrasse…and Unter den Linden.

A friend in the States had recommended a West Berlin restaurant named Xantener Eck. We went there one night for dinner. In Germany, if there is no empty table, the maitre d’ seats you at one that is partially occupied. On this night, we were seated with two men in their early forties who, we later learned, were printers.

As we poured over the menus, one of them recommended several entrees to us in halting English. With his English and my German, we were able to converse. When he learned I was Jewish, he immediately said, “I feel no guilt. I was born in 1937.” He then embarked upon a tirade against Jews and Israel and referred to the head of the Jewish Center we had just visited as a Fascist. “Why does he have to be a Jew first and a German second?” he asked. “If I were a member of a proud people like the Jews, I would not take money from Germany, as Israel has done, as individual Jews have done, and as the Center continues to do.

“All people are equal: Jews and Christians, whites and Blacks, Israelis, and Arabs. Why does the Jew think he’s better than everyone else?”

I shifted uneasily in my seat.

“And look what they’ve done to the Arabs in Israel,” he continued. “Two thousand years ago, Celts lived on the land where my house stands today. Their descendants now live in France. They don’t come back here and say they have a right to my house. What gives Jews the right to do this?”

His companion had paradoxical views. On the one hand, he seemed to share his friend’s sentiments, if not his vehemence. But he also asked me whether I’d had any special feelings as a Jew returning to Germany. When I told him I had, he said, “You know, my father was involved during the Nazi regime. I have to live with that.”

We spent several hours at dinner, during which we shared drinks and reminiscences with these men. When we left, we exchanged business cards, and they promised to visit if they ever came to the States. One of them came close to hugging me when we parted.

I was in a state of utter depression as we walked the foggy streets of West Berlin after this encounter. “Those men really liked me, Roberto,” I said. “And yet, it wouldn’t take too much for them to come for me again.”

The discussion in the restaurant brought home to me the fact that what had happened in Germany was still there in some of its people.

A day or two later, I shared the experience with a law professor and his feminist wife while having breakfast in their home. The professor said that he resented the burden of guilt that had been laid on Germans, but his wife did not echo his sentiments. His students did not like being reminded of this guilt, he said. They did not want to be made to feel responsible for events that took place before they were born.

We visited the Center again, this time for a meeting with the assistant to the director. I asked him about the conflict between the Germans’ desire to forget and the Center’s commitment to remind them. “Do they want to get rid of the past?” he asked. “Or do they want to continue it? It is in the interest of Germany not to forget. It has nothing to do with guilt or responsibility. Germany must cleanse itself of these things. It must be different in the future from what it was in the past. How can this be done without history, without knowing why it happened and how it happened?”

“How long must it take?” I asked. “After all, this happened forty years ago.”

“Forty years is not a long time in the history of mankind,” he reminded me.

Germany was riven with the tension between the collective obligation to remember and the personal need to forget.

We rented a car and spent days looking for the addresses in both East and West Berlin that Hermann had given me. I knew that Berlin had been reduced to rubble during the war and that I might not be able to locate any of the streets I was looking for, much less the buildings. But that was not the case. We found all the locations for which we were looking. The buildings had, however, all been demolished and rebuilt–except one–the apartment house where I was born at 83-A Linienstrasse in East Berlin. It was still standing, un-bombed, intact. There were lights on in some of the apartments. I went inside, knocked on a door at random, and a woman came out.

“Is there anyone here who might remember a family named Pressman that used to live here in 1928?” I asked.

“No,” she answered. The oldest resident had moved into the building in 1947. There was no one to remember us.

A friend in the States had given me an introduction to a woman who had lived in Berlin for many years. I visited her, and we had a wonderful time together. We talked, as women do, about our lives, our husbands, our hopes for our children. We hugged, and I turned to leave. She wouldn’t have done it to me, would she? I walked out her door. Why not? Why would I have been the exception?

We left Berlin and spent the rest of our trip driving through the German countryside and into the other cities where I lectured on the women’s rights revolution in the United States: Dusseldorf, Heidelberg, Freiburg, and Munich. I looked at the people; they looked just like anyone else. What had happened to their ancestors? What madness had seized them?

In Freiburg, we stayed at a picturesque hotel high up in the mountains. When I awoke in the morning and drew the curtains aside, an incredibly lovely panorama was spread out before me. As far as the eye could see, there were undulating valleys with picture postcard houses nestled among them. The beauty of it in the midst of the horror that had been struck me.

It was in Freiburg that I met with Margrit Seewald, a German program specialist with the US Embassy in Bonn who had coordinated many aspects of my programs in Germany although we had not met previously.  The Embassy had asked her to travel to Freiburg for my program there, and she, Roberto, and I spent some lovely times together there.

Then it was on to Heidelberg. At the end of my talk there, a woman came up to me and said, “You have made me feel so good personally that you, a Jew, came back to Germany–and that you came back to talk about women’s rights. I hope you’ll come again.”

In Munich, at Café Kreutzkamm on Maffeistrasse, I had lunch with two women who were leaders of Jewish women’s organizations: one was chairperson of an organization which was named Ruth and the other was with WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization).

“How can you live here” I asked, “next to Dachau?”

The younger woman, in her 50’s, had, with forged papers, survived the Holocaust by passing as a Christian. “Everyone has his or her own story; we each have a certain degree of schizophrenia,” she said. She felt guilty about living in Germany and read every available book on the Holocaust, but she had not encouraged her son to identify with Judaism. He considered himself “European,” she said.

The older woman, in her 70’s, had, with her husband, spent part of the war years in a Jewish ghetto in Austria. They had returned to Germany because German was the only language he knew. “I don’t think about it [the Holocaust],” she said. “I work with German women in organizations. They would be hurt if they felt I was different, and I don’t want to be different. When so many people stretch their hands out to you, you forget. Germany’s no different from any other country. After all, the Swiss prepared the poison gas for the concentration camps.”

She had told her children and grandchildren about the Holocaust. Her son-in-law told his children about the camps once and never mentioned them again. He had enrolled them in an exclusive private school, where they were the only Jews. There, they were being educated as “cosmopolitans.” She was nonetheless pleased when her young grandson came to visit, donned his yarmulke–skullcap–and accompanied her to the synagogue. She was optimistic about the future of Jews in Germany.

In Munich, I was interviewed and taped by Dr. Michaela Ulich, a feminist who was preparing an American Studies program for German high school students. And so, I, who had to flee Germany for my life in 1933, would, through the medium of tape, have a chance to talk to the young people of Germany.

We left Munich and talk of the future and drove on Dachaustrasse into the past–to Dachau, the first of Hitler’s camps. Dachau was full of tourists, most of whom were young Germans. In the midst of the crowd, one couple stood out–a man and woman in their late 50’s, walking arm in arm. Wherever I looked–at the gate with its ironic Arbeit Macht Frei–Work Makes You Free–sign, at the museum, on the grounds where the barracks had stood, at the gas chamber (which had never been used), and at the crematoria (which had)–they were everywhere. Finally, I could stand it no longer. I walked over to them and said, “What is it with you people? Wherever I look, there you are.”

The man responded in Yiddish. He was a German Jew who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz at the age of fourteen for five years. He now lived in Israel with his Israeli wife and children. He had come to Germany to testify at the war crimes trial of a former official at Auschwitz and had done so the day before. Now, he was showing his wife a camp such as the one in which he had been interned. Tears welled up in her eyes as he told us that on one occasion he had been beaten six times with a whip such as was exhibited at Dachau; he had thereafter been unable to sit for two weeks.

He pointed to the chimney of the crematorium and told us that on his first day at Auschwitz, one of the officials had directed his attention to the smoke coming out of the chimney and said, “Tomorrow the smoke coming out will be you.”

Roberto asked to see the number on his arm.

“Do you still think about it?” I asked.

“Think about it?” he said. “I wake up in the middle of the night saying this number.” Like Primo Levi, he “felt the tattooed number on . . .  [my] arm burning like a sore.” [Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, The Reawakening (Two Memoirs), trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Summit, 1985), 370.]

I asked him how he could identify the camp official at whose trial he had testified when he hadn’t seen him in forty years. The passage of time was not an obstacle for him. “That is a face I will never forget,” he said.

We left Germany and returned to the States.  Shortly thereafter, I received a postcard from Margrit Seewald, who wrote:  “Those last moments in Freiburg when I walked down the steps and you stood there at the top have impressed themselves hard-edge in my mind. It occurred to me that my life could’ve been yours, and yours mine.”

Perhaps.

Sonia Pressman Fuentes, one of the founders of the second wave of the women’s movement, was born in Berlin, Germany, but came to the U.S. in 1934 with her parents and brother to escape the Holocaust.  She is a writer, public speaker, feminist activist, and retired attorney who lives in Sarasota, FL.

This excerpt from her memoir, Eat First–You Don’t Know What They’ll Give You: The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter, is reprinted with permission of the author. Copyright 1999 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

For more information about Fuentes and her book, visit: http://www.erraticimpact.com/fuentes.

You can reach her at: spfuentes@comcast.net.

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The School on Bleibtreustrasse

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

In the spring of 1934, a new stage of my life began: I started school.

Because the German school year began in the spring and I had a July birthday, I was six, going on seven, when my mother first walked me the short distance to the public school on Bleibtreustrasse in Berlin-Charlottenburg.

To sweeten the occasion, my mother’s friends, the Winbecks in Hannover, sent a Schultuete, a large cone-shaped bag of candy, for me.  It was a sweet occasion, and I was happily excited over it.

My best friend at the time was Ursula Kurzweg, the daughter of our concierge. Every day we walked together to and from school where our first grade teacher, Herr Klausewitz, an elderly gentleman near retirement, treated us in an easy-going manner and instilled in us the history of Germany during Bismark’s time.

I enjoyed that year for yet another reason.

At recess, when everyone was allowed into the courtyard for “fresh air,” I had the almost daily chance to see my first cousin, Hans Gottschalk, who attended the boys’ school next door to mine. Hans was three years older than me–almost an adult in my eyes–and I had strong feelings of affection for him. He waved to me over the fence whenever he saw me. This not only made me happy but improved my status with the other girls in my class who were impressed that I rated the attention of an older boy. Of course, I never let on that he was my cousin.

The following year, though, things changed considerably at the school on Bleibtreustrasse

A new teacher, Fraeulein Schulz, who walked with a heavy limp, brought in an entirely different atmosphere of strict discipline. I was affected as soon as she noticed that I used my left hand to write the cursive script we were learning. It became her special project to convert me to right handedness. She tried to do this by hitting my left hand with a ruler whenever she saw me writing. I ducked behind the desk of the girl in front of me when it came time to practice writing, but Fraeulein Schulz and her long wooden ruler waited to pounce on me at every chance.

At some point during the school year she adopted a new stance. Obviously she had entered a rejuvenating period in her life by fixating on the persona of Adolf Hitler. She trained us to become part of her new purpose in life. Every morning when she limped into the classroom each of us had to stand at attention, raise our arm and return Fraeulein Schulz’s greeting of “Heil Hitler.” With her big swastika emblem pinned to her bosom, and her arm outstretched in salute, this teacher introduced us to the new world of Nazi Germany.

That year during the Jewish High Holy Days, when all the Jewish girls were absent from school, our teacher instructed the rest of the class to no longer speak to us when we came back. She threatened punishment should anyone disobey her orders.

So, I had no idea why my friend Ursula Kurzweg suddenly ignored me and would no longer walk to and from school with me. Only when I managed to ask why she was mad at me, especially since we hadn’t had a fight, did she reveal Fraeulein Schulz’s command not to be caught speaking to the Jews in class.

I now believe it was during this episode of being ostracized that I first realized I was Jewish. Prior to the second school year, the subject did not touch me, or perhaps I did not think about it. My mother taught me it was wrong to sew or write on Saturdays because it was Shabbes, a day of rest. Other than that, few Jewish holidays were observed in my parents’ home. Even my religious maternal grandfather was part of a very liberal assimilated trend of German Judaism. He and the rest of the family thought of themselves as German citizens who were Jewish, with the emphasis on their nationality.

But the ostracism of Jewish children at school brought to me an awareness that I was different, perhaps less worthy than the others. It started me on a habit of being apologetic for just about everything I did. I certainly did not recognize that the feeling might have been exactly what the Nazi thought-machine hoped to foster. How could I at that age?

By laying down her own personal rules, Fraeulein Schulz did more damage than many a Nuremberg law. In the name of the Third Reich, Fraeulein Schulz inflicted psychic injuries on me and my Jewish classmates for which I blame her to this day. And for which, I trust, she still sizzles in that hot part of the netherworld where she deserves to spend eternity.

It has taken a great part of my life to overcome the demeaning attitude of being Jewish that was laid upon me in grade school.

I feel extremely happy that my grandchildren are free of such negative feelings, are well into their religious experience, and are proud to be Jewish.

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.

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An Act of Atonement

By Harriet Kessler (Woodbury Heights, NJ)

We were probably the first girls– Susan Fuld and I–to be bat mitzvahed in all of Rego Park, NY.

It was 1946, and our shul, the Rego Park Jewish Center, was a storefront across from the public library on Booth Street.

I don’t remember the rabbi’s name. And I don’t remember anything about the ceremony. I do recall that Susan and I prepared for and went through the ritual together, and that of all the 12-year-old Jewish girls in P.S. 139, we were the least likely bat mitzvah candidates.

Both of our families were ideologically secular.

Susan’s parents, middle-class intellectuals, were college educated civil servants who read The New York Sun at night. Her father, an accountant, and her mother, a grade-school teacher– Zionists who made aliyah some seven years later when the House Un-American Activities Committee came calling–believed that religion was the opiate of the people.

My parents, a self-taught plastics engineer and a housewife, were labor-oriented high school graduates who read The New York World Telegram and were Workmen’s Circle devotees. In fact, living in Far Rockaway before our move to Rego Park, we could have doubled for the family that ate on Yom Kippur in Woody Allen’s Radio Days.

Despite our parents, Susan and I went to synagogue.

Not that our parents objected. They simply looked at us incredulously when we called for each other and trotted off to children’s services every Saturday, questioning what we found so appealing about spending time in the synagogue.

I dreamed of becoming a writer and a singer, and shul meant stories and music. David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah, Noah.  Such high drama! I loved the Bible stories because they were exotic and powerful. And I loved the songs–David Melech Yisroel, Hine Ma Tov, Shalom Alecheim, Ein k’Eloheinu–that let me show off my high notes as I sang at the top of my lungs.

Shul also meant celebration. The best was Simchat Torah which I so enjoyed that my mind’s eye often returns to a chubby little girl in a sailor dress and brown oxfords, her black corkscrew curls bouncing as she parades with all of Jewish Rego Park (except for Susan’s parents and mine), dancing down the center aisle of the old Jewish Center.

But if we went to shul despite our parents, we prepared for our bat mitzvah because of them.

For Susan– and it was all her idea–the Jewish rite of passage was intended to help her parents bear the pain inflicted by her older sister.

Dorothea, Susan’s senior by seven years, had married a Catholic boy, graduating from high school and eloping the next day with him before his Army unit left for Europe. Secular or not, her parents were devastated.

I never questioned why Susan’s performance of a ritual that was meaningless to her parents would help matters. But I took her word that becoming a bat mitzvah would assure her folks that they still had one Jewish daughter.

For me, though, the bat mitzvah meant atoning for my father’s sins.

I knew–even at 12–that my father had battled his temper all his life, usually without success except where his family was concerned. When I was eight, for example, we’d moved from Far Rockaway because of his shame following a 3 a.m. arrest. (The police car’s screaming siren had alerted all the neighbors.) His crime? Socking the arresting officer’s brother-in-law in a fit of road rage.

But, more significantly, my dad’s 13th year had come and gone sans bar mitzvah because of his lack of control. Like the young boy in “The Conversion of the Jews,” an early Philip Roth story, my father was the thorn in his heder rebbe’s flesh. Taking nothing on faith, continually interrupting the class with a relentless stream of questions, he eventually provoked the rabbi into striking him with a stick.

Where Philip Roth’s protagonist responded to his rabbi’s blows by screaming, “You don’t hit over God,” running from the schoolroom onto a rooftop, and threatening to jump unless all the Jews converted, my father simply hit the rabbi back–and ended his own Jewish education.

To my young mind, his missing out on a bar mitzvah meant that he wanted for Jewish legitimacy. I decided that he needed validation and that I needed it, too.

Was my father pleased? I don’t remember. Was I less isolated? I don’t recall that either. If I was, the feeling didn’t last.

Looking back, though, the bat mitzvah seems like a milestone in my unending struggle to be a good Jewish-American.

It was my first act of atonement, and, possibly, my most genuine–a touchstone that I return to year after year.

Harriet Kessler, whose first love is short story writing, is longtime editor of The Jewish Community Voice of Southern New Jersey and Attitudes Magazine. You can read her work at www.jewishvoicesnj.org

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