Monthly Archives: May 2011

Crumbs

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

It was all orchestrated by Mother.
Moments before dark on the night before the first seder
she scattered breadcrumbs around her linoleum kitchen
but not leading anywhere, like Hansel and Gretl’s way home.

It was black inside like a fairytale woods, so
each person lit a candle, searching in its orange glow
for those deliberate crumbs
of day-old doughnuts or the last shtickel of challah
from Friday night.

Illuminated, you’d search the kitchen’s corners,
deep in the nooks and the slits of the crannies,
searching for the crumbs your mother planted.
You’d have a feather, or an old toothbrush –
its bristles splayed like a newborn giraffe’s legs –
and when you found something, you’d brush it
onto yesterday’s news, or in a little paper bag.

The next morning, you’d burn it,
letting the crumbs devour themselves to nothing —
like the marshmallow that falls off your stick
and into the fire,
leaving behind only a smell that reminds you
of something that used to be there, but is no more.

If you want to be thorough, to give it your all,
you hunt in your car for crumbs,
your desk, your locker if you’re a kid,
anywhere you might have left a trace of yourself, but
not quite enough to add up to a whole.

I like this ritual,
this Jewish spring cleaning,
getting rid of the crumbs in my life,
the pieces that don’t add up to much
and have gone stale.
Once upon a time, I loved someone
who wouldn’t let me eat a doughnut in his car
and, several decades later,
offered me crumbs of friendship.
At first I accepted them gratefully
— hungrily – but after a time
I realized that even an endless supply of crumbs
didn’t add up, and
didn’t satisfy me as much as one intact cookie,
(even a boring little ginger snap,
or some other intrinsically unattractive sweet.)

So I’m telling you
when I open the door for Elijah this year
I’m not going to let just any one in,
even if it’s Elijah’s guest, if he comes empty-handed.

And even when Passover has passed,
if I’m going to let you in,
you have to bring me a pound of those buttery bakery cookies
that look like pastel-painted leaves,
or better yet, an entire cake,
one you know I like.
You see, I don’t accept crumbs any more.

Janet Ruth Falon, the author of The Jewish Journaling Book (Jewish Lights, 2004), teaches a variety of writing classes — including journaling and creative expression — at many places, including the University of Pennsylvania. She leads a non-fiction writing group and works with individual students, and is continuing to write Jewish-themed readings for what she hopes will become a book, In the Spirit of the Holidays.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, poetry

Hawking Sees No Heaven

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Hawking sees no heaven,
a fantasy, he calls it,
“for people afraid of the dark.”
What, no Shangri-La for the children,
no safe haven for the doubtful?
His pronouncement manifests the force
of a prison door closing on a life sentence.
Mr. Hawking, I surely respect your intelligence,
but how can you be so sure?
We are more than machine
with triple AAA batteries gone dead.
In the small, sheltered space
before you fall asleep
do you not think your soul migrates
to a higher, more peaceful place?
Sleep may be death’s counterfeit,
but we dream, do we not?
Why not then for eternity?

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

Leave a comment

Filed under Jewish identity, poetry

Writing Wharton’s Wrong

by Lev Raphael (Okemos, MI)

Singing about marriage, two of Steven Sondheim’s characters in A Little Night Music condemn it for inflicting so much pain: “Every day a little death….every day a little sting.”

I felt a bit like like that in college, not because I was married, but because I was an English major.  Time after time, I’d find a book I was reading and enjoying stung me because of an anti-Semitic portrait.  There was Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, a Jewish antiques dealer in The Golden Bowl, and many more, too many to remember, but I met them at every turn in English and American books.

I understood that the authors were products of their society and a western culture that was ingrained with Jew-hatred, but it still pushed me out of the book the way a plot implausibility can make you lose faith in a movie.  I don’t remember ever not finishing a book that had a Jewish stereotype or slur, but I’d continue reading under a cloud.

Perhaps most disturbing of all for me was Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.  I had first read her Pulitzer-prize winner The Age of Innocence and fallen in love, so I worked my way devotedly through her oeuvre in paperback.  The House of Mirth was my favorite then and still is now.  It’s a stunning book about the vanity of human wishes and the damage a superficial culture can inflict on those who won’t play by its rules. Reading it for the first time in my senior year at Fordham, I was in awe: Wharton displayed an uncanny understanding of the power of shame to control behavior and crush hope.  The novel was so beautifully written, so witty and sharp-edged, such an indictment of Gilded Age New York.

And very unpleasant to read–as a Jew.  Every time the Jewish financier Simon Rosedale appeared in the book, I winced.  He was showy, loud, vulgar, spoke bad English, and came off as a buffoon when he wasn’t insidious.  Gentiles loved his money but rightly despised him, and his eye was always on the main chance.

Wharton actually pays special attention to his eyes the first time he appears, telling us he had “small sidelong eyes which gave him the air of appraising people as if they were bric-a-brac.”  How ironic that Wharton’s contempt for Jews is projected onto him, turning him into someone for whom others are merely items to assess and purchase.

Simon Rosedale does show a less mercenary side, but it’s always connected to his fierce drive to get ahead by any means necessary.  In the same way that assertive women today are seen by some people as bitches, Rosedale wanting success the way any other American might is condemned as vulgar and almost disgusting.

I hadn’t written much fiction of my own at the time, but in the following years, Jewish themes would predominate.  I often found myself returning to writers who inspired me in college, writers like Henry James and Lawrence Durrell who were hardly philo-Semitic, and yes, Edith Wharton.  The sting became duller each time, but it never went away.

And then a few years ago, perhaps because I’d been reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern again, an idea hit me.  What if I did a Stoppard?  What if I told Edith Wharton’s story in The House of Mirth from Rosedale’s perspective, entered his mind, his past, his dreams, his fears? What if I made him a person, in other words, and not a stereotype?

Rosedale in Love was born, and it bore me along with it on massive amounts of reading about The Gilded Age and turn-of-the-century New York, all of it deepening my appreciation of what Wharton had accomplished in the rest of her novel.  And helping me let go of my regrets for the ways in which Wharton had lost the chance to make Simon Rosedale a real human being.

Because she left me a whole book to write.

Lev Raphael is a prize-winning pioneer in American-Jewish literature, and has been publishing fiction and nonfiction about the Second Generation since 1978. The author of twenty books which have been translated into almost a dozen languages, he has spoken about his work in hundreds of venues on three continents. His fiction and creative non-fiction are widely taught at American colleges and universities, and his work has been the subject of numerous academic articles, papers, and books. A former public radio book show host and newspaper columnist, he can be found on the web at http://www.levraphael.comHe blogs on books for The Huffington Post and reviews for the on-line literary magazine Bibliobuffet.com.

You can check out his latest book, the Jewish historical novel Rosedale in Love, at http://www.levraphael.com/rosedale.html

5 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity, Jewish writing

Evidence of Light

by Arlyn Miller (Glencoe, IL)

Am Shalom sanctuary, early weekday morning

I.

From the east,
the autumn morning light
sets the stained glass aglow,
aqua and amber bejeweled.
Outside, a sparrow casts
its flitting shadow against
the arched panes of colored glass.
Everywhere, there is evidence of light.

II.

On the western wall, three windows
awash in a soft, even tone;
their encircled triptych assures:
you will voyage    home    to thrive and grow.
Pathways of penumbral hope issue
in all directions, it matters not in which you set forth –
Adonai Echod: God is one.
And even though the sun has not yet arced
across the sky, there is evidence of light.

III.

From the bema, to the south,
the eternal light suggests ascent,
spiraling and spare as wings.
In the foreground, rows of rounded
wooden seatbacks, like crested waves,
hint at movement and a journey.
Evidence of light, eternal.

IV.

The north door is open, guarded on each side
by the names of those we love and have lost –
clouds of memory, weighted by stones.
From the long corridor of the synagogue,
the light beckons: enter the day
and its evidence of light.

Arlyn Miller is spending a year chronicling the life of her synagogue  (Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL) as its Writer in Residence.  “Evidence of Light” appears in the December 2010 issue of Am Shalom’s KOL newsletter and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.
A poet, essayist and journalist, Arlyn teaches creative writing in schools and in the community through Poetic License, Inc.  You can find out more about her teaching work at www.poeticlicenseinc.net.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Jewish writing, poetry

Floating Between the Denominations

by Pamela Jay Gottfried (Atlanta, GA)

I am no longer surprised when people– upon hearing that I don’t drive or answer the telephone on the Sabbath– ask me if I am Orthodox.  The labels of denominations, and the assumptions about their adherents’ religious practices, are so ingrained that people momentarily forget that Orthodox women cannot be ordained as rabbis.  Personally, I enjoy defying the labels, finding the places where it is possible to be “just Jewish” and observe the mitzvot, commandments.

The week that we relocated to Atlanta I needed to go to the mikvah, ritual bath. I found a listing in a local Jewish directory and called to inquire about summer hours.  From the recorded message I learned that a woman must make an appointment 72 hours in advance and is given 20 minutes in the schedule to prepare and immerse.  In my old neighborhood all you had to do was show up, and with half a dozen preparation rooms there was hardly ever a wait.  Despite my last-minute call, I was able to secure 20 minutes that evening.

In New York, the mikvah attendant provided her clientele relative anonymity and freedom from small talk.  It’s not that she didn’t care who was patronizing the mikvah, it’s just that in what is arguably the most Jewish city in the world the mikvah attendant couldn’t possibly know everyone.  She lived in the house attached to the mikvah and treated the women who visited there as guests in her home.  She was a noble and modest hostess– never judgmental, always unobtrusive.  It was customary to give her a little extra, a gratuity, for her devotion to avodat kodesh, holy work.

That evening I was greeted by the attendant warmly with the requisite question: “Are you new in town or just visiting?”

“New in town,” I replied.  “We just moved here from New York.”

“Welcome! That’s great. We love it here.” The mikvah attendant had immigrated from South Africa many years earlier.

She followed up then, asking about why we had moved, whether we had family in town and where we were living.  She seemed surprised to learn that we were living within walking distance to a Conservative synagogue. So I admitted that I was employed there, but omitted the detail that I was serving as a rabbi in the congregation.  I didn’t want to burden her with explanations about non-Orthodox women visiting the mikvah or walking to synagogue on the Sabbath. I assumed that such a combination of ritual practices would be alien to her.

Finally, the small talk was over and she showed me to the back room, where I prepared for immersion.  Later, when I paid her, she followed me out to my car. Giving me back a few dollars she said, “It’s only 12 bucks.”

I mumbled something about it being customary in New York to tip the attendant.

“We’re volunteers here, so that isn’t necessary.”

As I turned to go, she said quietly, “tizki b’mitzvos,” which translates “be strengthened by [your observance of the] commandments. Clearly, I had misjudged her as judging me.  She recognized that any Jewish woman could be devoted to the mikvah–nowhere else are the fluid boundaries of Judaism’s denominations so apparent.  Thanks to a dedicated cadre of volunteers, the mikvah remains functional, and the observance of its ritual viable.  I promised myself to be a noble and modest guest in her home.

In time I grew accustomed to visiting the mikvah in Atlanta. I still have to remember to call 72 hours in advance, but the woman who coordinates appointments is kind to me when I forget. I have met most of the volunteer attendants and I’ve stripped myself, so to speak, of any disguises; now many of these women know that I am a Conservative rabbi.  In this community of women, I am happiest floating between the denominations, resisting labels and observing the mitzvot to the best of my ability.

Pamela Jay Gottfried is a rabbi, parent, teacher, artist, and the author of Found in Translation: Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom.  A New York City native and graduate of The Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Gottfried teaches students of all ages in churches, colleges, community centers, schools, and synagogues. She strives for balance in her life by spending as much time writing at the computer as she does working at the pottery wheel.

An excerpt of this essay originally appeared in Sacred Days: A Weekly Planner for the Jewish Year, 2004-2005, published by CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of CLAL and the author.

You can read more of her work on her blog, Pamela’s Pekele (http://rabbipjg.blogspot.com/), or visit her website for more information: http://www.pamelagottfried.com/

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity