Monthly Archives: August 2009

The Key to Jewish Survival

by Susan L. Lipson (Poway, CA)

Anti-Semitism has been a blessing for the Jewish people. Yes, you read that right, and yes, I am a Jew. And no, I’m not being totally ironic. I am pointing out a paradoxical fact: anti-Semitism has been the key to Jewish survival by blessing us Jews with the will to survive, a will born of an “all-for-one-and-one-for-all” Musketeer mentality, uniting us against those who oppose us. Hatred has brought us together as a team more than love ever has, and far more than Judaism itself. Without anti-Semites, Jews would have no desire to fight for the survival of our people.

But what exactly are we fighting  for? A religion (about which the majority of us are woefully ignorant)? A right to be different (isn’t that just a rebellion without a cause)? Traditions (based on nostalgia, duty, guilt)? A culture or race (a distinction that disappeared courtesy of the Diaspora)? God (that supreme, yet often doubted Creator who chose us as the “light unto the nations” in the first place)?

Despite the desire of anti-Semites to snuff out our light, Jews have survived by reacting as a strong and stubborn group to that which threatens us. Our survival today is based more on reactions to the world than on actions as Jews, a trend that has produced the vast majority of complacent, scantily educated Jews who have allowed Friday nights to slip away into football games and parties, and Saturdays to become workdays. Reactionary Jewishness has made outrage, distrust, and contempt take the place of Torah, service, and acts of loving-kindness—the pillars of Judaism.

When Jewish fundraising organizations bring speakers to Jewish communities, they look for politically controversial people and subjects that present threats to Jewish people and/or Judaism itself. They know that overt anti-Semites like Louis Farrakhan will draw bigger crowds than, say, an overtly Jewish speaker like Professor Alan Dershowitz. (Dershowitz recalled in one interview how Farrakhan once took Dershowitz’s designated place as a featured speaker—and that recollection, by the way, inspired this essay.) Crowds gather in direct proportion to the anger evoked by the event, for the majority of Jews have become reactive, no longer active, Jews. We need no anti-Semites to snuff out our light; we do just fine on our own with our passivity.

We are passive because of either ignorance about our religion, laziness in facing our obligations as Jews, willingness to assimilate into easier lifestyles, defeatism in the face of historical challenges, disappointment in the unnecessary divisions within our own Jewish communities, fear of suffering, self-loathing brought on by absorption of prejudice around us, or rebellion against our families. We have thus become the biggest threat to our own destruction by being Jews who choose not to live Jewish lives. We should be thankful the angry Jew-haters have kept us alive, if not thriving. Thriving is up to us.

Susan L. Lipson, a children’s novelist and poet, has taught writing in the San Diego area for more than ten years. Her latest books are Knock on Wood (a middle-grade novel) and Writing Success Through Poetry. She writes two blogs: www.susanllipson.blogspot.com and www.susanllipsonwritingteacher.blogspot.com.

Lipson also writes songs, including Jewish spiritual songs, some of which have been performed by synagogue choirs and soloists.

Contact her via Facebook or MySpace (Susan L. Lipson).

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Writing Practice: Simple Acts

The simplest acts in our lives–from breathing to brushing our teeth to bending over to lace our shoes–are sometimes taken for granted.

Can you think of an act that you perform daily or weekly which you may overlook in your rush to catch the bus on your way to school or as you hurry to your next office meeting?

Maybe it’s the moment at your desk when you take the first sip of your morning coffee.

Or maybe it’s when the phone rings and you hear a loved one’s voice.

Or see a rainbow from your car window.

Or hear a new song on the radio.

Take a moment to think of the blessings in your life… and then write about a specific moment in which you first recognized that moment as a blessing.

Once you’ve written down the bare bones of the moment–go back and re-read what you’ve written.

Can you find a Jewish element in the moment?

And can you flesh out that Jewish element as part of that moment?

Here’s the beginning of a draft that I came up with:

Sunday Morning Doughnuts

It’s early Sunday morning, and I’m sitting at Dunkin’ Donuts after dropping my daughter off at Hebrew school.

On the table in front of me I’ve set a medium cup of coffee (extra light, no sugar), steam rising above the rim, and, on a paper napkin, a chocolate frosted doughnut.

I lift the doughnut to my lips and, before biting into it, say a blessing to thank God for allowing food to be grown and processed and made into something as delicious as a doughnut.

This simple act of blessing the doughnut–or any food that passes my lips–is my way of acknowledging God and reminds me of  all that flows out of God and how I’m as much a part of that flow of energy as the wheat and sugar and chocolate (not to mention the human labor) that goes into the creation of the doughnut.

But part of me wonders–in the very act of saying the blessing– how I can say such a blessing if I doubt God’s existence?

Does my doubt–as slight or great as it may be on any given day– make the blessing hollow, hypocritical?

These two conflicting poles–wanting to acknowledge and thank God on the one hand, but doubting God’s existence on the other–pull me in different directions.

On some days I gravitate toward one pole; on other days, toward the other. The tension is always there. It’s part of my Jewish identity, an internal debate reflecting, perhaps, my American-Jewish soul.

As an American, I try to be open to the world. I want to be free of the shackles of the Old World, to explore new ways of living. But as a Jew I look a bit dubiously at the New World. I want to be faithful to the past and to the faith of my forefathers and my Jewish heritage.

How am I supposed to reconcile these two conflicting impulses? Are they conflicting impulses or simply different sides of the same issue regarding faith?

Do I just learn to live with them or, ultimately, must I choose one or the other?

Can both–faith and doubt– co-exist simultaneously, or must one conquer the other and emerge the victor?

And then I take a bite of the doughnut, and all my questions of faith and doubt dissolve in the moment of savoring the taste of chocolate frosting.

Let us know what you discover about being Jewish in the simple acts of your daily life when you get a chance.

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Papa Chazanow

by Marianne Goldsmith (Oakland, CA)

“Eat, don’t talk.”

I received this advice from the only grandparent I ever knew – Frank (Papa) Chazanow. The occasion was lunch at Papa’s house, when I was 5 1/2, old enough to manage my own fork, and tall enough to sit (avec booster) in a grown-up chair. Seated next to my younger brother, I observed my grandfather as he ate soup, wiped his moustache with his napkin, and then launched into an intense discussion with my mother across the table.

“Tachter (daughter),” he would say, and proceed to speak rapidly in Yiddish.

Whenever I heard  “de kinder” (the children) mentioned, I would perk up, and attempt to join the conversation. I had significant news to share. For example, I could now write my entire name.

Papa responded with a waving of spoon and direct eye contact  (his watery grey, mine dark brown). “Eat, don’t talk.”

I giggled and glanced over at my mother, who nodded gently. Papa grinned slightly and then turned to my mother. I played with my soup, stirring the noodles and carrots, smushing the peas until the broth turned a murky green, still trying to make sense out of what was being said.  Forever it seemed I would never find out.

I wanted to ask questions. Why was my older sister called the “shayna madel” (“pretty girl”) and I was the “guta madel,”(good girl) which I interpreted to mean “good tomato”?

“Eat, don’t talk” was the cruelest of punishment.

Papa was always in shul before we arrived. He was standing at his shtender against the wall near the bima, the back of his balding head covered with a black yarmulke, the cream colored tallis draped in long folds over his small, bony shoulders. He davened with dignity, swaying back and forth.

When there was a break in the service, we greeted him. He leaned over to embrace each one of us, the tallis falling over us like a curtain as we kissed him, lips brushing against his wiry grey mustache. “Good Shabbos.”

He often took part in the torah service on the bima, reciting blessings or conferring with the Rabbi or the cantor on proper procedure. At times, he even brought the service to a halt.

“Papa’s mad. Must be a mistake,” my mother whispered, with a wry smile. The whole congregation had to wait until Papa was satisfied that the liturgical error was corrected.

I know my grandfather arrived in Texas about the same time as the men he rebuked on the bima, escaping the pogroms of Russia, sailing from Bremen to Galveston during the early 1900’s. The Jewish community helped one another to survive, and Papa was one of many who made his way peddling fruit in the country towns of central Texas. At night, he slept under his wagon.

I wonder, did he recite his prayers before sleeping under the big, flat Texas sky, gazing up at the heavens, the bright stars glinting against a black night?

Marianne Goldsmith grew up in Waco, Texas. She has lived in the San Francisco bay area for over 30 years, and has worked primarily as a communications consultant and writer. Her work has appeared in The Jewish Bulletin, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, Dark Horse Literary Magazine, and a self-published anthology.

This portrait of her grandfather, Frank Chazanow, and the community synagogue, Congregation Agudath Jacob (est.1888), is excerpted from a 1979 journal entry she recently discovered and which she hopes to develop and expand in the future.

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A New Melody

by Harriet R. Goren (New York, NY)

We belonged to a moribund synagogue in a stagnant neighborhood where the sermon was the same every Yom Kippur: “Please make your Kol Nidre donation so we can pay the mortgage.”

The shul president pronounced it “muggage,” and I waited every year in hopes that he would get enough money and wouldn’t need to say that word.

One year the man behind us, in his late 80s and one of the youngest members of the congregation, died of a heart attack during the Amidah. I dreaded the holidays more and more each year, their unpleasantness increasing over time at the same rate as that of the relationship in which I was enmeshed.

One year they introduced a new cantor. His last name seemed to be “from Israel.” He wore a funny cantor’s hat, and I was not impressed.  For a few hours I listened to him sing with usual cantor bombast although, unlike the previous hazzan, it was loud enough to keep me awake.

Then we got to the Hatzi Kaddish, a prayer of pause in between parts of the service.

He sang a short melody just once, no repeats, but in that moment all his ice and artifice disappeared.

His voice became soft and lyrical. It was one of the prettiest, gentlest melodies I’d ever heard.

The service continued, but I kept hearing it in my head over and over again above the other mumbled words. I heard it in my sleep that night and again the next morning. Never before had I gotten to services so early (much to the surprise of my boyfriend). But I didn’t know when the cantor would sing it again, and I didn’t want to miss a second.

The service ended, and the relationship soon after, and I joined a new synagogue with amazing melodies of its own. But that first one always echoed, beckoning to me to continue to listen carefully until I heard it again.

Harriet R. Goren, a lifelong New Yorker, is a web and print graphic designer (http://www.goren.com). She is an active member of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, aka BJ (http://www.bj.org), where she has had the honor of chanting Torah and helping lead services as a hazzanit. This piece was written in the Writers’ Beit Midrash at The Skirball Center for Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El (http://www.adultjewishlearning.org), a workshop for non-fiction based upon shared insights about passages from Torah and Talmud.

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