Monthly Archives: July 2009

The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson

by Frances Brent (New Haven , CT )

7 July 1941
Riga

With difficulty Lev Aronson carried his cellos, bows, and cases up the stairs of the main post office. In a notebook, many years later, he wrote: “the typical wide stairs of old Russian government buildings, cold cement and steep steps, hard to handle with two cellos and emotional pain. . . . ” Two Latvian auxiliary police—volunteers dressed in civilian clothes and newly issued brassards— escorted him from behind. Lev shifted his weight up the stairwell. A group of Jewish musicians, jackets over their shoulders in the heat, was already leaving. No one spoke, “but a whole world was expressed in their glances.”

Since Melngalvju nams, the House of Blackheads, was destroyed in German bombing and fires on the evening of June 29, the predominantly non-Jewish radio orchestra had lost its largest instruments and most of its music library. The post office had become its headquarters.  Other Jewish musicians with valuable instruments had been summoned to the radio station. Lists of their names had been obtained from Latvian collaborators. Everyone milled around in a daze in the large postal room. Cases were opened; bows and instruments were lifted off velvet and satin linings. Outside, there was a great deal of commotion: Hundreds of people were in the streets. German cars made their way through the roads while vigilantes crowded the neighborhoods, leading small processions of startled Jews. Inside it was quiet enough to hear the ping of vibrating strings.

Someone hastily pushed Lev forward with his aluminum and leather cases, and the principal cellist of the radio orchestra, a man he knew well, approached. Lev was nearly six feet tall. He was accustomed to thinking of himself as “a man of the world,” but he was disoriented in the unusual setting. The man who was facing him, a well-known musician and a colleague, was not a common criminal like the thugs in the streets. He nodded awkwardly in greeting before Lev reluctantly unlatched and opened the lids of the cases.

When Lev released the instruments from their ties, it was the last time he touched the beautiful spiral, the seahorse tail of the Amati scroll. The cellist, his old colleague, smiled, shifting his gaze to the window. Then, turning his back, “his meaning was clear.”

Something lunatic caused Lev to ask a question. He chose his words in German, the current language of the street, rather than Russian, which would have been used ten days earlier: “Can I have a receipt?” The room filled with laughter. Lev felt a hand clutch the collar of his coat, shoving him backward, down the stairs.

[…]

Later in life, when he returned to the story of the confiscation of his instruments, the elements were always the same: the knock on the door, two Latvians wearing armbands, mounting the cement steps of the central post office, his colleague’s averted glance, laughter, a hand on his coat collar, a kick or a push, falling, tumbling down the shaft of the stairwell.

Opposite the post office there was a park with benches. Lev crossed the road in a daze. His trousers were ripped, his cheek and the bridge of his nose were bleeding. He sat in the half-shade under a broad oak. He thought about the Amati. He felt as though he had “forcibly delivered a friend.” After several minutes Lev painfully stood up. There was an odd noise in his ear. Since childhood this was a sound he had heard whenever there was complete silence. He knew he had to get back to the apartment where his parents, his sister, and Chiutan were waiting. It was dangerous to be seen on the streets. Many prominent Jewish intellectuals and civic leaders had already been rounded up, shot on the pavement, or dragged to Zentralka, Central Prison, or the Riga Police Prefecture . Strangely the fear of being arrested bothered Lev less than the humiliation he had felt among the musicians from the Radio Orchestra.

With Dead Expressions

On his way home, Lev passed the Opera House. A group of singers, dancers, and musicians, many old friends and colleagues, were gathered at the stage door. From a distance they seemed to be talking lightheartedly. It felt strange to be without an instrument, but out of habit he approached them anyway. When he came close enough to be noticed, their bodies stiffened, and they looked back at him “with dead expressions.” Some turned their gazes and others stepped aside, hurrying into the building. Only the dancer Osvalds Lēmanis moved forward and offered a handshake: “Have faith, old friend. I’ll do my best to look out for you.” Lev walked on. He understood the need for self-preservation. His relationship to his old colleagues could lead to their interrogation, arrest, or the loss of work. “So why bother?” he asked himself.

Lev’s identity as a Jew was now his main concern, and this was a completely new experience. How should he get back to his apartment? He would use the old city’s indirect routes, avoiding main thoroughfares and extending time until dusk. In darkness Jews and gentiles appeared the same. The old city was crisscrossed with alleyways and narrow passages connecting the buildings to one another. Houses were so close that neighbors could raise their windows, lean out, and talk; they didn’t have to use loud voices. He was able to go a long distance by passing through backyards. Small tunnels and old stone entranceways led to different sections of the old city. The silence was eerie. He could hear the echo of his shoes and an occasional drunkard humming “O Tannenbaum” though it was out of season. Then he was beyond the old city, two-thirds of the way home, past Pulvertornis, Gunpowder Tower. He forced himself to walk with confidence, his back straight, his head high, without a trace of meekness. Revelers passed him, their faces flushed from drinking.

8 July 1941
Riga

And so it was odd when they shouted, “Here are your instruments!”

A vehement knock at the door the next morning. Two Latvian collaborators and a German soldier: “All Jewish males will evacuate this building!”

On the street, men gathered from many different apartment buildings, some dressed in summer suits, one with phylacteries on his forehead. They waited for a long time before the strange announcement: “Here are your instruments!” One of the collaborators had buckets, soap, and rags.

Some spectators assembled on the corner as the men were put to work washing the street. A few laughed uncomfortably. Some taunted. The crowd formed a circle and watched as someone was lashed with a leather belt across his naked behind until he was totally covered with blood. The performance continued until people grew bored; even the guards seemed to lose energy. After a while they lined the men up and marched them through the streets.

On their way they encountered Russian prisoners of war, perhaps three hundred of them, in shocking condition. Their hands dangled at their sides and their clothes had been ripped. Some didn’t have shoes. Their feet dragged. Lev was amazed to see how expressionless they were, not responding when the Germans struck them with the butts of their guns to make them move forward.

Both groups were ushered through the gates of a city park. The Russians arrived first and they queued up along a series of long, narrow ditches. It looked like a burial ground, and everyone thought the same thing. Several guards pushed the men up to the edge of the ditches.

A uniformed German officer and several Latvians in civilian clothes stepped forward. The German had the soft face of a cleric. It was round and smooth except for the left cheek, which was scarred. He said: “Russian communists tried to destroy the beauty of these parklands, digging trenches for defense against our German army. Their judgment was wrong. Our army won’t be stopped by archaic tactics. This is the army of the future, led by the wisdom of the Führer. So that you remember, you’ll restore these grounds with bare hands!” The work continued until close to midnight.

9 July 1941
Riga

Lev’s hands, so important to the life of a cellist, were being destroyed. The next day he returned to the trenches, digging again without a shovel or gloves. His friend, the Chinese wrestler, Chiutan, had wanted to come along, arguing that he could do the work and save Lev’s hands, but both knew it was impossible.

In the early afternoon, when the task of filling the trenches was complete, Lev returned to the apartment block. German and Latvian officials were operating the elevators. Lev took the stairwell, wondering what would happen next. On the landing he saw a guard standing in front of his apartment. The door was taped, sealed with a large purple sticker, and on it were printed the words: CONFISCATED BY SECURITY POLICE. Lev approached: “I live here. It’s raining. I need a coat.”

The guard answered, “You don’t live in this apartment any longer. Where you’re going you won’t need a coat. Get out!” He pushed him down the stairs, and his body bounced against the railing. On the ground floor, another guard was waiting.

But nobody knew what would happen. Lev found his family and many others crowded into the empty apartment of a neighboring building. People were sitting on the floor or leaning against walls. Lev would think back later, “They already appeared to be mourning the dead.”

After several hours, the same SD man who had been stationed at the door of Lev’s apartment entered with some Latvians. One of them, named Ansons, had been in school with Lev.

“All men, outside!” it was announced.

When they were boys, Ansons’s name had appeared next to Lev’s on the roster, and sometimes Lev had helped him—“saved his neck”—when school assignments weren’t completed.

“Ansons, help my father—not me—he has a leg injury and walks with a cane,” Lev whispered.

Ansons didn’t answer.

There was turmoil and crying. Then a second announcement: “Young men, out of here! Old men stay! The rest will be turned over to Latvian authorities.” Soldiers separated families that clung to one another. But Lev’s father had been spared.

Again, Lev was on the street. About twenty men were lined in rows with Latvian guards stationed at five-foot distances around them. Ansons was in front of Lev, a rifle on his shoulder. Lev began talking to him quietly. “Where are we going? Where are they taking us?” Without turning his head, Ansons whispered, “Zentralka. Don’t ask anything else. Leave me alone. If you ask again, I’ll pretend I don’t know you. You’re on the way to God knows where, and that will be the end of you. I have to go on living. Don’t talk to me; it will only get me in trouble.”

Frances Brent is the co-translator of Beyond the Limit: Poems by Irina Ratushinsakya. Her book of poetry, The Beautiful Lesson of the I, won the 2005 May Swenson Award. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Yale Review, the Denver Quarterly, and New American Writing.  She lives in New Haven , Connecticut .

This excerpt from The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson is reprinted with permission of the publisher.

For more information about the book, you can visit: http://atlasandco.com/new-releases/the_lost_cellos_of_lev_aronson/

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A child is waiting for you in Australia

by Nava Semel (Tel Aviv, Israel)
translated from the Hebrew by Dan Gillon

I am on my way to meet my child in Australia.

I’m going to visit Iyar my son who, for the last three and a half years, has been living on the other side of the world. Whoever it was that said, if only half seriously, that my son had “run as far away from you as he could” had a point. Maybe there he could discover something about himself that he was unable to find in our midst.

At my end of the world, it is intolerably humid. Midsummer in Israel. Dragging my suitcase stuffed with winter clothes, I remind myself that there are times when one needs to get as far as possible just to come a little closer.

I am going ‘Down Under’ to visit my son in a part of the world where everything is upside down. He lives in a place I had never even heard of until he chose it as his place of study. Soon, following a chain of flights spanning two whole days, his place will become real to me. At first, he studied sound and music technology over there. Later, in an abrupt U turn, he began to study music itself from A to Z.

His father, Noam, called him “Rabbi Akiva,” after a famous Jewish scholar who decided to go to school when he was already a grown man. Sometimes Noam says it with a sigh, but I detect a hint of admiration, too.

I’m also going to meet my child’s girl friend whom I have never seen. Her name is Lucy Elliot and she is not Jewish. She is twenty two, a student of Chinese medicine and Iyar’s sweetheart. It is she who caresses him, sleeps with him, and comforts him — the young woman who provides him with a warm nest, a home away from home.

I’ve only seen her in pictures sent by Iyar. A winning smile, a dimpled cheek, wavy honey-coloured hair, her lips touching a yellow, very ripe, lemon.

As I set off on my journey, I am utterly drained. All the empty space within me is filled by sorrow, as in Michael Ende’s book, The Neverending Story, where encroaching nothingness gradually gobbles everything up. Because just a week ago Adi my beloved brother-in-law passed away. On his death bed, his eyes blazing an eternal blue, he whispered to me, “A child is waiting for you in Australia.”

I’m on my way and the grief bites ever deeper. The shoulder carrying my wintery suitcase aches, probably maimed by the bitter parting from Adi and our helplessness when facing his suffering. I am going to see Iyar who was not physically present in the room where Adi lay but was nonetheless by his side. Because he and Adi are twin spirits sharing the same view about expanding our horizons and pushing the boundaries of self-experience no matter what.

I embark on my journey emotionally torn and ravaged. “My soul drips with sorrow” as is written in the book of Psalms; now the phrase keeps ringing in my head, mingled with the repeated calls for my upcoming flight.

Tomorrow my husband Noam, my sister-in-law Sarah and her two daughters, Techelet and Toam, will end the Jewish seven days of mourning and I will be far away.

Lucy Elliot had sent a letter of condolence from Australia. She wrote that he who dies is reborn elsewhere. She added that the end is also a beginning. Beautiful, fine words. Compassion in English, which is not my native tongue. Yet this is the language in which my son’s sweetheart whispers words of love to him.

Her Australian accent is heavy. In our short, snatched telephone conversations, I have difficulty understanding what she is saying. Once she called me “Ima” –“Mom” in Hebrew– and in the background I could hear Iyar’s rolling laughter.

I set out on my journey carrying with me an empty notebook, hoping to tie up the loose ends of the last chapter of a novel I’ve been writing for the last year and a half. Like me, the novel is full of sorrow and loss, and I have so far lacked the strength to finish it. Perhaps Australia will help me find a way of concluding a haunting tale of Jews hiding in Italy under Nazi occupation.

“Mom, there’s a story waiting for you here,” Iyar tells me. I am on a journey to look for that story, though in the past it was the stories that found me. I don’t know what kind of tale is waiting for me over there; and maybe this was merely bait to lure me to cross continents, and the moment I land the story will slip away. But that is of no importance. It is a year since I last saw my son. And over the past six years, since he finished his army service, he has been roaming the world, a restless pilgrim in search of inspiring sites, grasping everything in awe. He is driven by a constant desire for adventure. Is this, I wonder, a sign of belated rebelliousness? Observing Iyar’s urge to travel to the earth’s furthest corners  reminds me of my grandfather, Gabriel Herzig, who left Europe so many years ago, abandoning my grandmother and the baby who was to be my father, seeking his destiny in America which in those days was no less the end of the world than is Australia today.

Will we be strangers to one another? After all, I’m a woman in mid-life. Embarrassed as I am to apply these words to myself, even though in my heart of hearts the same ‘youthful me’ has lost none of her intensity and refuses to wear the mantle of old age. Deep down there’s still that old insecurity, those same fears of darkness and built-in childishness that are the cornerstones of my nature.

Will we get on? Will we quarrel? And where will I sleep? Iyar wants me to share his room but I have already sent him a panicky text message that I will take a hotel instead

Above all, I want to avoid a rift between us. Many years have past since we shared a room, curled up together, mother and son.

On Independence Day last year he was twenty eight years old yet I still call him “my child.”

Born in Jaffa- Tel Aviv, Nava Semel has worked as a journalist, art critic, and TV, radio and recording producer, and has received numerous literary prizes for her work, which includes sixteen books, four plays, and opera libretti. Many of her stories have been adapted for radio, film, TV and the stage in Israel, Europe and the USA, and her books have been translated into many languages. Her acclaimed novel, And the Rat Laughs, which was made into an opera and composed by Ella Milch-Sheriff, has run on the stage of the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv for the last five years. The novel came out recently in English from Hybrid Publishers in Melbourne, Australia.

For information (in Hebrew) about Semel’s work, visit her website: http://navasemel.com/

For information (in English) about Semel’s work, visit the website of The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature that represents her work: http://www.ithl.org.il/authors.html

And if you’re interested in reading more (in Hebrew) about Australian Wedding, the book from which this is an excerpt, take a look at:
http://navasemel.com/index.php?page_id=141

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Searching for Melvin

by Patty Baumann (Hillsdale, NJ)

I never met my cousin Melvin.  The first I heard of him was when I was little, maybe 4 or 5, playing in the Bronx apartment of my great-aunt, Lena, and her husband, Morris, back in the 1950’s.  I can picture the adults socializing; my parents, my grandmother, her three sisters plus their husbands.  The room smells of coffee and cakes.  My brother and I are keeping busy as we are the only children present.  Perhaps we’re playing tag, or cards, or a board game.

The buzz of the conversation is background noise to what my brother and I are doing.  Yet a fragment of conversation makes its way into my head, unnoticed.  It clings tightly, as if it is so important the child that I am would want to remember it years later as an adult.  Above and beyond the din of chit chat and European accents come the words “He fell out of the window.”  I don’t remember who said it or in what context or what came before or after it.  And I continued playing on the living room floor.

A few years later, the sentence came to me.  “Mom, who fell out of a window?” I asked one day.  “Aunt Anna had a son,” she said.  “It was a terrible accident.  His name was Melvin.”  And then, perhaps sensing that I could fear that happening to us, she added, “he was very little.”

Melvin’s parents, Aunt Anna and Uncle Joe, lived in the Bronx, not far from Aunt Lena and Uncle Morris, on the Grand Concourse. What made them so adorable was that she was big and he was short and stocky. My only problem with Uncle Joe was that I could hardly understand a word he said. He had a gravelly voice that only adults could decipher. Melvin had been their only child.  After his death they had only each other.  Aunt Anna was expressive and warm with her love for us and for all the children of her nieces and nephews.  She had a lot of love to give, and no child of her own to dote on.

When I was fourteen, Aunt Anna died suddenly. A few days earlier, she had broken her hip. She had been in a Long Island hospital where her nephew worked as a doctor, so he could check in on her.  That day, suddenly, a blood clot finished her off.

Uncle Joe naturally took care of the funeral arrangements, and I remember Aunt Lena and Grandma being upset that Joe was not including them in the plans or giving them any of her property.  Both rightly felt that their Anna had mementos that were meaningful to her sisters.  But they were apparently not consulted.  I don’t think Joe had any contact with his sisters-in-law after the funeral.  He suddenly was out of the picture. Our lives moved on.

In the last few years I’ve attempted to piece together my family tree.  It has become a booming industry on the internet, and the amount of information available at the touch of a few key strokes is staggering.  As I remembered details stored in the recesses of my mind, one sentence leaped out at me: “He fell out the window.” It took its rightful place front and center, having waited quietly all these years for me to notice it.  But my mom, my aunt, and their cousins were dead.  My dad, if he ever did know, had long ago forgotten the information I wanted.  So the tidbits I had stored away tumbled out, as needed.

It pained me that someone, anyone, could have lived, been loved and lost, never to be thought of again as the few who cared about him left this world.  It would be virtually impossible to find anything about my distant cousin, the boy who fell from a window.  But I wanted to try.

Naturally, I needed a name.  First name, Melvin.  But last name?  For the life of me, I could not remember Anna and Joe’s last name.  Instead, I searched the vast New York Times archive of articles, pairing “Melvin” with “fatal,” “fall,” “windows,” etc.  Nothing.  Yes, lots of children fell out of windows, but apparently none were named Melvin.

On a whim, I leafed through page after page of last names on a genealogy website, hoping one of them would ring a bell.  When I got to the “P”s, the bell rang.  I settled on Pollack and it sounded right.

Quickly back to the New York Times archives, I entered “Melvin Pollack” into the search site and…. nothing.  No other New York papers had an extensive online archive; the Times had been my only hope.  Could I be at the end of the road so soon?

Call it fate, call it compassion from long ago and far away, or call it a heavenly kindness.  And maybe just coincidence.  My dad asked me to come over to his apartment and help him get rid of an enormous amount of junk; a lifetime accumulation of every day stuff that was part of our daily lives for so many years.

He and I came upon a box of photos, mostly from my parents’ wedding and early years together.  Both came from very large families, and their wedding featured dozens of aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws.  But, surprisingly, in this box was just one greeting card celebrating their upcoming wedding.

“Congratulations on your Engagement” it read on the outside with colorful but faded streamers decorating the border.  The inside continued the sentiment, and was signed, “Aunt Anna and Uncle David Paulian.”  I stared at the signature, then looked at my dad.  “Who was Uncle David?”  Dad shrugged.  He had no idea.  He too looked at the card.  Still, he didn’t know who Uncle David Paulian was.

Apparently Aunt Anna had been married twice.  More importantly, I realized that little cousin Melvin’s real last name was Paulian, not Pollack.  What a treasure trove this small box of mementos had been.

I returned to the on-line archives of the New York Times.  This time, I confidently typed “Melvin Paulian” and hit “search.”  And… zero.  “What does one have to do to get into the New York Times?” I wondered.  I decided to search just the last name.  Of the few hits that I got, one was “David Paulian.”  It was an announcement of his funeral less than a year after my parents’ marriage.  It gave his address in the Bronx but did not name his survivors.

Some of my relatives had been buried in Queens, and a number of cemeteries out there had websites.  In a matter of minutes, I found his grave.  Then I entered Melvin’s name.  And his gravesite, near his dad, appeared as well.  The sadness consumed me.  His date of burial, July 21, 1933, was fifteen years before his father’s.  How painful those years must have been for Aunt Anna and Uncle David.  A search of the 1930 New York City Census revealed their little family of three living in the Bronx.  Melvin was just a few months old.

My mission now was to find any information available.  My ultimate goal, with luck, would be a picture of him. I wrote to the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office for their reports on Melvin’s death.  A few weeks later the documents arrived.  They spoke of an average, four year old boy, well nourished, with brown hair and brown eyes, who had suffered a fractured skull when he fell from his apartment window on Washington Avenue to the courtyard below.  He died an hour later at nearby Bronx Hospital now called Bronx-Lebanon.

My eyes filled with tears.  I could picture my distraught Aunt Anna as she paced the hospital halls, surrounded by her family, praying for a miracle that would not come.  She had been an “older” mom in her mid-thirties when she had this baby.  Now, there would be no more children.

On a hunch, I searched the archives for what the weather was like on that terrible day.  I learned that it had been the second hottest day of the summer.  With no air-conditioning, apartment windows were wide open.  It explained why, in my initial archival search for Melvin, I found so many children who had fallen out of windows.  It was, sadly, a regular occurrence many decades before window guards were required.

I needed some sort of closure.  Certainly, any of Aunt Anna’s memorabilia was long gone, left to the machinations of her second husband, Joe.  Again, the box of mementos from my Dad came to the rescue.  In it I found a laminated newspaper announcement of my parents’ engagement published in a newspaper called The Bronx Home News.  If the Home News had reported on the accident, it would mean that for one day in his brief life, Melvin would have been known. Perhaps there would be a picture.

Through a series of e-mails, I learned that The Bronx Home News was on microfilm at Lehman College in the Bronx.  I was willing to go there, but first I wanted to make sure the particular issue existed.  I sent an e-mail to one of the library administrators.  Generously, she wrote back that she would have her assistant double-check.  Then, incredibly, she wrote again.  While checking for that issue, her assistant had spotted the article on Melvin.  She was mailing it to me.

Days later the envelope arrived.  The page of the Home News had separate stories of two children who fell from windows and died.  The story of Melvin’s fall appeared in the middle of the page, but referred to him as Marvin and his mother as Bertha.  It reported that his mother had left him playing with his toys on the living room floor, and he had fallen from their third floor apartment to the rear courtyard below.  There was no picture of this little boy, loved and lost like hundreds of other children left alone for a moment or two on hot summer days.

It so pained me to think of Aunt Anna.  As a child, I had no notion of how much she had suffered; I was small and she, despite her tragedy, was not a sad woman.

I felt the need to explore one more avenue.  My parents’ wedding at the majestic Concourse Plaza Hotel in the Bronx had been filmed by my uncle, and about 90 seconds of jumpy, dark film had been transferred to a DVD.  I loaded it into my computer and gazed at the familiar faces of my long gone family having the time of their lives.  When the camera focused on the table where Lena and Anna were sitting, I immediately recognized them and Uncle Morris.  But the man seated next to Aunt Anna, whom I always just assumed was some unnamed relative, was my Uncle Dave. No longer a stranger, he was now part of my family history.

There was one more obligation I felt compelled to complete.  On a beautiful fall day my husband and I traveled to Queens to the cemetery where my cousin Melvin had been laid to rest, eventually to be joined by his grief-stricken dad and mom.  We walked the rows of the well-kept cemetery, following a map given to me by the office.  And there, in front of me, stood the headstone of my cousin Melvin. Ironically, there was a space on the stone which once held a picture of him as was the custom back then.  But now it was gone.

I do not know when someone last visited it. If I had to guess, it would have been more than forty years ago.  But I was here now.  I placed a small stone from my own yard on the headstone.  My husband and I said the Mourners Kaddish.

A symbol on the headstone captured his story eloquently.  It was of the trunk of a tree with the upper part hacked and tilting off, as if the tree had been cut before it had a chance to grow.

Patty Bauman worked as a producer and researcher for Good Morning, America for over twenty years.  She has spent the past five years tracing her family roots, and is currently working on a book about her mother, herself, and medical malpractice. She lives with her husband and their 16 year old daughter in northern New Jersey.

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From Jew-ish to Jewish

by Rachel Reeves (Brighton, UK)

I feel frustrated at the moment.  I’m sitting here on the train, wishing I had my laptop instead of having to resort to my illegible scrawl.  This will be my ‘nth’ iteration of my innermost thoughts about my journey to becoming Jewish.  My initial version was written in the time running up to Shavuot – which has now long since passed.  Reading it back to myself now, it comes across as rather thin and superficial – not because that’s how I feel about my Jewish journey, but because I’m afraid to let too much out.  It’s an intensely personal thing and I’m afraid of baring my soul to readers who know nothing about me.  But, if I don’t tell the truth, then what’s the point of writing it down in the first place?

This redrafting has partly been inspired by a few in-depth conversations I’ve had with a new (Jewish) friend of mine.  He was born Jewish, lived very un-Jewishly for many years and has only recently started to bring his Jewishness back into his life.  He wants to be productive, contributory, a good Jewish person.  From what he tells me, he carries a lot of guilt around for basically ‘checking out’ for a large part of his life.  This really made me think hard.  I had made the assumption that all born-Jews I had met had lived intensely rich, fulfilled Jewish lives.  All the things that I, as an in-transit convert, had not.  To be honest, it has not been unusual for me to feel terribly jealous of these seemingly settled, comfortable, confident people that I have met over the past few months!  But this insight has been a bit of a revelation for me, at once helping me to feel a little less different (we are all, it seems, dissatisfied with our situation on some level!) and also a little more unsettled.  If all I can look forward to is more self-doubt, more internal pressure to do better, then why am I doing this?

And I suppose that this is the six million dollar question.  The easy answer that I have at the ready (for a short-hand ‘in’ to anyone at the synagogue that asks) is that somewhere in my family’s past there are Jewish roots.  True, but I don’t think that it totally answers the question.  That answer does nothing to reveal the deep-seated urge within me to be Jewish.  At the first Shabbat service that I attended, the rabbi (who has a beautiful voice) led the singing from start to finish.  The passion and haunting melodies pulled at something in my soul to such an extent that I knew there was no way that I could just be an observer.  I wanted all of ‘that’ to mean something to me, to form part of my way of living, breathing and being.

It’s not easy, but then nobody ever told me it would be.  Much of the time, I have felt only Jew-ish.  As if I am not putting enough effort into this journey of mine.  There is always something else demanding my attention, my time, my energy.  I see other people who have embarked on their conversion path at the same time as me and they seem so much more prepared, practised, consistent, organised. I just see them as being in a better place than me.  I know that being Jewish requires a practical commitment. It is far more about ‘doing’ Jewish than just considering yourself Jewish and having the piece of paper to prove it.  I expect that’s where my friend’s guilt is coming from. All those years of not ‘doing’ are clearly an important and serious issue for him.  And in a small way, I can appreciate this.  After all, my concerns all arise from the fact that I think I’m not ‘doing’ enough.

Judaism has had to adapt to the times over and over again.  I have joined a progressive form of Judaism – a truly modern iteration that still attaches great importance to traditional ceremonies, the Hebrew liturgy and inclusivity.  It may not suit some, but it certainly speaks to me.  The ethical and social approach fits broadly with the morals and guidelines that I tried to live by ‘before’ and those which I was brought up to value in an atheist household.  I wrote in my first attempt that I was concerned by the fact that this chosen religion of mine was centred around the family, and children in particular, and that I don’t have children to whom I can pass on my traditions.  To some extent, this concern has waxed and waned depending on how comfortable I feel with how much I am contributing to the community that I have joined.  I don’t want to be what a former colleague of mine referred to as a ‘net contributor’ – someone who takes more than they give, or who doesn’t give at all.  I would like to think that this ability to contribute is only limited by my current status (the one I refer to as Jew-ish) rather than by any natural disinclination to become a fully-functioning member of the community.  This ‘Jew-ish’ status also has more practical implications since I don’t really have any right to influence what happens in the community as yet – not until I become a fully-fledged member, which in turn can only happen when I become a fully-fledged Jew.

So, how do I feel with regards to my conversion?  Do I feel anywhere even close to being Jewish yet?  Well, I was immensely flattered and pleased to hear from someone just starting out on their conversion journey that they thought I was born-Jewish and had no idea that I was only a bit further along the winding path than they were.  Of course, this was all about outward appearances – the fact that I could follow the service, point them in the right direction in the Siddur when they lost their place, could sing or speak most of the Hebrew and knew other members of the community.  Yes, this is all part of ‘it,’ this progression towards becoming a Jew, but what about what is happening inside?  How do I really, really feel?  To be honest, I’m not sure that I know.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t know if I am doing the right thing, which is certainly beyond doubt and something I don’t ever remember questioning.  What I’m trying to say is that from day to day, my feelings change.  On one day, when I’ve made sufficient time to study Hebrew a bit more, when I’ve read a bit more of one of my many books on Judaism, when I ‘get’ a reference to some inside joke, then I feel that I am making good progress.  The very next day, when none of these things have happened, when for some reason I can’t attend a service, or when I’ve forgotten the Hebrew I learned the day before, I feel as if I am getting nowhere and have perhaps even gone backwards.  There have been days when my heart hasn’t been in the study, there have been Shabbat services when I have felt as if I am going through the motions and classes when I haven’t applied myself wholeheartedly to the work in hand.  This all makes me sound like a terrible student and perhaps not someone that should be welcomed with open arms into the Jewish community, which needs strong, disciplined, committed members for its future growth and benefit.  But I am trying my best.  When I feel that I have slipped, I work harder the next time. I try to approach the next study time with a different viewpoint and clear my mind of all the other day-to-day concerns that do their best to interrupt my train of thought.

But ‘this’ isn’t all about study, commitment and discipline.  It’s about spirituality, becoming a part of a people, history and life.  For some inexplicable reason (and believe me, I have tried to work out the ‘why’) I have always felt an affinity with the Jewish people, even when I was very young and before I knew about my own hard-to-pin-down family history.  I have always felt a little bit different, part of an indefinable ‘other.’  I couldn’t work out what this was until I first entered the synagogue for my first Shabbat service.  Never mind that a great portion of it was in a language I knew almost nothing about, that the constant flipping backwards and forwards through the Siddur confused me beyond belief.  I felt as if I had found my home and would do whatever I could to make sure that it became that place of refuge, a true sanctuary, for me in the future.

Much of this gives the impression that I am trying to run before I can walk – which of course is perfectly true (and it won’t be the last time it happens, either!).  I want to know Hebrew inside out, understand all the rituals and the history behind them, help influence the running of the synagogue – all of it now (or even better, yesterday).  At least it shows that the commitment is there!  But even if all that were true at this very moment, that I had ‘passed the test’ and was now a fully paid up member of the Jewish people, would that mean I could rest on my laurels and stop learning?  Actually, no it wouldn’t.  Of course.  It would just mean that one part of my spiritual, practical life had ended and I would now be embarking on a new stage in my Jewish journey.  And I can’t wait to set off on that future path, wherever it might take me.

Rachel was born in Birmingham, England and has gradually moved south over the years until finding her true home in Brighton, on the south coast.  Any further moves south will involve moving to another country! She tries to work, rest and play to the best of her ability and believes that she has always been Jewish in her soul, but only found herself in the right place spiritually and mentally to actively ‘scratch the itch’ last year.  Starting her conversion journey has become more enriching than she ever anticipated. You can read more about her journey at her blog: http://shavuatov.wordpress.com.

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