Monthly Archives: April 2009

Now What?

by Ellie Sugarman (Sarasota, FL)

The many hours, weeks and months that I’ve spent learning Hebrew are almost over.

I will become a bat mitzvah on May 9th, 2009 at Temple Sinai in Sarasota.  My family and friends are planning to attend.

It’s been a challenge to learn not only how to read directly from the Torah, with its minuscule print, but having to learn how any mark under or above each letter alters its sound.

The unique markings above or below the letters, or at the side of a consonant, tell you whether to hold or repeat the sound.  Certain markings will tell you to sound more than one consonant together.  These marks are called the “trope, ” and they help listeners know when a new thought begins and ends.

So, I had to learn not only how to chant the letters which make up each word, but how to stress or elongate the syllables.

All this is not very easy, especially for someone my age!

It’s common for children of thirteen to become a bar or bat mitzvah.  But occasionally an older individual who never had a bar or bat mitzvah dreams of a ceremony of his or her own.

For me, becoming a bat mitzvah became a goal after I found myself as a widow after fifty-nine years of a good marriage. It was very unsettling.  I needed to feel rooted again.

Perhaps I am unique in this need, but I felt learning about my Jewish heritage would offer me solace and well-being. I felt I was on the right path.  I felt sturdier and protected.

It was when some dear friends invited me to welcome the Sabbath over the course of many Friday evenings that I began to have these “feel good” feelings.

Observing the Sabbath each week at their home, and chanting the blessings for the bread and the wine, allowed me to feel the love and warmth of my hosts.

I hadn’t realized what was happening to me.

Returning to the synagogue was helpful, too, and a Sabbath service that I attended about six months ago at Temple Sinai was especially reassuring.

I was asked to recite one of the prayers before the Torah was read, and I was able to do it well.

Walking back to my seat, I had an epiphany. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

It had been a cloudy, dreary day, but for a minute the sanctuary suddenly appeared so very bright and sunny.  Everything around me was glowing.

I blinked my eyes, and the natural color of the room returned.

If someone were to tell me that they had experienced this, I would have listened but possibly would have challenged the truthfulness of it happening.

I do not doubt my experience.

My motto has always been, “Yes, I can.”

I don’t know what else I will be able to learn or accomplish in the years ahead.  Right now, I’m looking forward to becoming a bat mitzvah.

After that, who knows?

There’s always a trip to the moon!

Ellie Sugarman, a perennial student, will be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah on May 9, 2009, to read her Torah portion, Emor. She has volunteered at the Women’s  Resource Center for the past seven years and was a docent at the Ringling Museum of Art for more than 15 years.

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Remembrance

by Nina Gold (Waterville, ME)

On Holocaust Remembrance Day,
Yom Hashoah in Hebrew,
he told her he was human
he understood what it was
to fear long walks, gas, and G-d—
but he felt, too, the hot terror
in the shoulders of a bare-faced teenager
wearing a uniform starched by his mother,
taught to hate, given orders, and handed a gun.

All the while, she was gathering things:
a few shirts, underwear,
sewing jewelry in the hem of her coat, snatching
sacred photographs and stuffing them
into hidden pockets. Just as he finished talking
about how organized religion was the man-made cause
of nearly every war and nearly
everyone’s hatred,
she slipped away and could never reply
that in this case, yes, religion was
inextricably bound to death, to

Those who gave their lives

but Hitler had nationalism in mind.
When she disappeared, his heart
shattered like glass.
He raised their children Jewish.

Nina Gold was raised in Newton, Massachusetts and is currently a student at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

She says that she wrote about the Holocaust because she’s interested in young people’s relationship to anti-Semitism.

“Some students I know see anti-Semitism as a real, contemporary issue—something that has a place in their lives—while others consider it foreign or anachronistic. When I hear Jews my age say, ‘I’m not really Jewish,’ or ‘my parents are Jewish, but I’m not anything,’ I sometimes fear we may be our own worst enemies.”

You can read more of her work on her blog: http://minibeastspeaks.blogspot.com

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My Father, The Jewish Athlete

by Helen Epstein (Lexington, Massachusetts)

When I was growing up in the 1950s, none of my friends’ Dads worked out at a gym, let alone swam laps in a pool. My father did. For nearly two decades between the two world wars, he represented Czechoslovakia in international competitions and two Olympic Games. He also coached and served as a role model for younger Jewish swimmers.

One of three sons of an assimilated Jewish family, Kurt Epstein was born in 1904 in the Austro-Hungarian province of Bohemia. The Epstein boys played at being American cowboys; their parents employed a cook and a nurse, a German tutor and violin teacher.

Sports were an important part of life for Czech children by then– girls and boys, Christians and Jews, children of factory workers as well as children of factory owners learned to swim, skate and row. The Epsteins lived on the Elbe river and, early on, Kurt began to use it.

“Any mood can be improved by a good swim,” my father always said.

But there’s no question that he saw swimming as a response to anti-Semitism. That was one of the reasons he joined his school rowing club, which introduced him to athletic discipline, and its rewards.

Rowing made him an asset to his school and small town and soon Kurt began to think about competitive swimming. He and his friends who swam in the Elbe followed newspaper reports of races in Prague, invested in a stop watch, began to clock their times. Then, they signed up to compete.

According to scholars, Czech Jews, like Jews all over Central Europe, were well-represented among athletes of the 1920s and 1930s. This was largely due to the work of Dr. Max Nordau, who called for a “muscular Judaism” at a Zionist Congress in 1898. Dr. Nordau, a physician and one of Herzl’s earliest supporters, argued that a muscular Jewry had existed in ancient times but over the centuries had been destroyed by ghettoization.

Whether or not Kurt was aware of Nordau’s ideas, he would have been in sympathy with them, and eager to put traditional Jewish stereotypes behind him like most Czech Jews.

In 1924, Kurt took pride in joining the Czechoslovak Army in “It never occurred to me to stay up all night and drink potfuls of coffee like some to try to produce an irregular heartbeat and get a rejection,” he recalled.

He was selected for reserve officers school and posted back to Prague where he played water polo in the Vltava River. Then the Czechoslovak National Swim Club requested that he be furloughed to compete in Barcelona, the first of many competitions he attended from Scandinavia to North Africa.

By the early 1920s water polo was one of the roughest and most popular spectator sports in Europe. It is tempting to ponder the psychology that drew men to such a rough sport. Kurt recalled speculating about it himself whenever his team played against the Hungarians who rarely lost a game.

I once asked why a player was playing so furiously since his team was already winning by two digits. He answered that after the war, each one of Hungary’s neighbors had taken a piece of their land. Therefore it was important at least in sports to score as high as possible.

For my father, the ultimate place to score was at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Whether or not to participate in what would become known as the Nazi Olympics was a hotly debated question throughout the world. The Maccabi ordered all its members to boycott.  A Gallup poll indicated 43% of Americans favored boycott and many athletes refused to participate.

Kurt Epstein decided to go. When asked whether he ever regretted his decision to participate, Kurt always said no. He believed sports occupied a higher plane than politics and described the triumph of “the American Negro runner” as he called Jesse Owens, who defied Aryan notions of racial superiority by winning four golds.

Two years later, Hitler annexed what is now the Czech Republic. Kurt was deported to Terezin, then to Auschwitz, then to a small labor camp called Frydlant. There, the prisoners took turns giving lectures to one another on subjects they loved. My father gave one on the Olympic ideal and the importance of amateur sports. He sometimes gave his sports training, along with luck and friendship, as reasons for his surviving Nazism.

When he returned to Prague after the war, he was elected to the Czechoslovak Olympic Committee. When the Communists took over in 1948, he felt that he would not survive a second totalitarian regime and vowed to get out in time “in a swimsuit if necessary.”

He arrived in New York City in the summer of 1948 where, for a decade, he was unable to find steady employment but where he was soon elected Treasurer of The Association of Czechoslovak Sportsmen in Exile in the Western World. Eventually, he was accepted into the ILGWU and became a cutter in a clothing factory in New York’s garment district.

He maintained a correspondence with a network of athletes-in-exile –Jewish and non-Jewish — living in Australia, South America, Israel and Europe, read the sports section of the newspaper every day and never lost his belief in the international brotherhood of sports.

He taught his children how to swim, and I still do.

Helen Epstein is the author of Children of the Holocaust and Where She Came From — the first two volumes of a trilogy about the families of Holocaust survivors — and the biography of Joseph Papp, the American Jewish founder of Free Shakespeare in New York City’s Central Park.
Her website is
http://www.helenepstein.com.

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Growing Up Jewish

An Interview with David B. Black (Yardley, PA)

(interviewed by Rick Black)

Port Chester, NY was a small town, especially the Jewish community.

We went to shul on Lake Street, then on Willett Avenue, and in the Jewish Center. In fact, my father was a founding member of the shul on Willett Avenue – Congregation Knesseth Israel at 249 Willett Avenue. A lot of the Orthodox Jews lived between Travis Avenue and Townsend Street but that was a different group, a religious group, and we had nothing to do with them.

Of course, I went to Hebrew school. The rabbi’s name was Winkler. He was the head and he had a son our age who was part of our gang. At Hebrew school, we were not the greatest kids but I remember the one pleasure that we had was when we left Hebrew school, we would go to the Lifesavers building on Main Street, which was a block away, and there they had three big lifesavers in front of the building – peppermint, wintergreen and I don’t know what the other one was, it might have been orange. We used to play king of the hill and we would run up on the hill and try to hold it, and the other kids would grab our coats and rip our buttons off, and my mother would always wonder how I lost all my buttons – but I never told her.

The other thing at the Lifesavers building was on Saturday morning when the football season was in vogue, they would have a fella from our high school team, Baker – who was the star fullback – giving out samples of lifesavers to all of the automobiles that were passing by. Most of them were on their way to the Yale game and, as they would pass the Lifesavers building, he would drop the lifesavers in their car, and we used to chase after the extra samples that fell in the street.

I was bar mitzvahed in a very small shul – the one on Lake Street. We didn’t make much of it. It was just a small bar mitzvah for our family. I davaned Saturday morning for the service, Shacharis and Musaf, and when they took the Torah out of the ark, I had to sing the “Shema” and my voice broke, and a kid from Hebrew school said, “You alright?”

My father was so proud that I’d be able to davan now. My folks gave me a party for all my friends, all the boys, at my house on Washington Street. We had them over and had a lot of fun. I got a lot of fountain pens. I must have gotten six fountain pens and three didn’t work. I remember the best one that I had was Waterman’s, and that was my favorite.

And, of course, I used to caddie and my mother bought me a set of golf clubs when I was bar mitzvah. I used to make a dollar a round plus a twenty five cent tip, and that allowed you to play on Monday at the course. I played golf at the public courses.

* * *

Before the Jewish Center was built, we would play basketball in barns around town. It was hot but we didn’t care. Even though I was thin, I wouldn’t let that stop me from playing a lot of ball. I went to Hebrew school after my regular classes and then I would spend a lot of time at the Jewish Center, playing basketball and working out.

While at the Center, I played a lot of billiards, I learned how to play pool, I played a lot of ping pong and, later on in life, I was doubles champion for Westchester County in ping pong with Irving Walt as my partner. I was taught boxing and hitting the punching bag. I was pretty good at the punching bag. I had a lot of friends and we played a lot and spent a lot of time at the Jewish Center.

We used to have a good time in the gym. In fact, the fella who had the candy machine in the hall never collected any money because all the guys used to bang the machine against the wall and the candy used to come out. We didn’t feel that was stealing. We felt that he didn’t know his business! We used to have a lot of fun. Many days I would bask in the sun on the roof.

We had a basketball team that was not so hot – but it was pretty good. I was a forward. Our coach used to get the games for us in Stamford and Greenwich and White Plains and New Rochelle and Mamaroneck and Mount Vernon. One day we traveled to Staten Island – we got beat so bad. We used to play in Yonkers – they had a very good team. And some of our boys were on the town team that played for the county championship in White Plains. We lost in the last ten seconds – one of our guards threw the ball to one of the other Yonkers players in error and he made a basket and we lost by one point. We had some good times.

While in junior high school, four friends and myself started a club called the Maccabeans, and we were a very active club. We would run beautiful dances. We would decorate the gym with balloons and confetti and hire a band and the whole town would come and pay tribute to the dance that we would put on. We would take the money that we raised and we would donate it to the Jewish Center for some cause – it might be a new standing radio, it might go for someone to go to camp who couldn’t afford it – but it was a good deed for everyone.

We had about 35 or 40 members after we got started and it was the most popular club in the Jewish Center. We were guided by a young lady who was Ethel Goldman and she saw to it that we ran the club in a constitutional way. I was the president of the club for maybe five sessions. They wouldn’t hear of having another president. They liked the way I conducted the meetings.

The dues were ten cents a week for everybody. If they were behind one month, we looked into the fact to find out whether they had the money or didn’t have the money. And if they didn’t have the money, we used to let them stay in anyway. One of my friends, Joel, though, had a friend who was gentile, and said he would like to put him up for membership in the club. It was a question of letting him in or not, and we took a vote, and voted against it. You had to be of the Jewish faith and connected to the Center to get in – that’s what we figured.

One time our club decided to put on a Broadway musical at the Jewish Center and they hired a director to put on “Loose Change” – that was the name of the musical – and I was one of the chorus. I lost 10 pounds by dancing in this show. It was a very good show; it sold out for three nights. But when we came to the dress rehearsal and the production manager was up front and the curtain went up and he raised his arms to start like a conductor, everybody froze. We didn’t get off the first kick.

So, he said, “I don’t understand you. It’s a good thing that we’re having this rehearsal because if this happened tomorrow night, we would be in dire trouble.”

So they put the curtain back and they started again – and this time it was okay. We were very successful with the play; it was a humdinger.

* * *

My Dad knew we had the club and he used to sell a lot of pants in his store, and when he had to have the pants fixed, he would give the pants to be repaired to a special tailor, and one of the tailors was a Russian. He had his wife and children come over to this country when I was about twelve. And my father said, “You know, this young man has no friends here. Why don’t you introduce him to your friends and get him started?”

So, this fella’s name was Max Bregoff and I met him. He was a tough Russian. I introduced him to a lot of my friends who were members of the club and we made him a member of the club, too. We called him the mad Russian. He used to get very angry. He’d spit at them. He was a tough hombre but he found the American way and he was able to live a good life and enjoy himself. He spent a lot of time at the Jewish Center. Yes, he did find the American way and he became a friend.

After I graduated high school, I still played basketball for the Jewish Center. And then we had a very good ball team that used to play before crowds of two, three, four thousand people. We played other teams within the town – the Don Boscoes, the Holy Name Society, the Catholic organizations, the Y.M.C.A. It used to go on for weeks.

One time we took our team to play against Don Bosco, the Italians, and heard ’em say, “Let’s get the Jews.” But I never really had any trouble with anti-Semitism in Port Chester. We played a lot of teams and used to raise a lot of money for the Jewish Center.

David B. Black, 94, is my father. He was the men’s wear merchandise manager for Alexander’s Department Stores for over thirty years until his retirement in 1978. Over the past two years my brother interviewed Dad weekly to gather material for a family memoir, from which this is an excerpt.

Rick Black, my brother, is a prize-winning poet and former journalist who creates hand-crafted books at Turtle Light Press in Highland Park, NJ. You can see his work at http://www.turtlelightpress.com/abouttlp.shtml

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity