Monthly Archives: August 2011

Sh’ma – On the Matter of Hearing

by Elliot Holin (Dresher, PA)

When I was a child, I loved hearing the phrase “Hero Israel” because it brought to mind such wonderful and powerful images of men riding horses across the desert, swords held high, whooping with delight, their robes billowing in the wind. I admit that my vocabulary was more limited then, but I am sure that the pictures in my mind were vivid. In time, my list of heroes expanded from Moses to Abraham, but I don’t think Aaron ever made it. He wasn’t even on the ‘B’ list, though I’m guessing that David might have been because the Goliath story was pretty cool.

You can imagine my stunned disbelief when adults got around to telling me it wasn’t “Hero Israel,” it was “Here, O Israel.” That called for a new way to frame the image, and so I quickly decided that it was a call to being somewhere, but where, exactly? Where is “here”? I understood it when the words were recited at our synagogue, but I also knew that friends of mine worshiped at other synagogues, so could “here” be “everywhere”? Yes! Now I understood what my parents and other adults meant when they told me that God was everywhere! Here, too, and there, as well! That certainly made the phrase that people said and sang with such fervor all the more personal. I mean, heroes from a distant past were one thing, but to say that God is “here” made the possibility of relationship with a God who cares so much to be “here” for me pretty dramatic and meaningful.

But then (here we go again), people told me that the word isn’t “Here,” it’s “Hear.” That was pretty deflating. I mean, I went from heroes, to God being “here,” to something that my parents told me I didn’t do very well. All of a sudden a word that had meaning suddenly sounded, well, parental and disapproving. “You’re not paying attention! Do you hear what I’m saying! Why do I have to repeat things three times?”

When I calmed down, I wondered what it was that I was supposed to hear. The sounds of the world around me? The words of Torah or prayers speaking to me? God addressing me? How would I know if what I was hearing was important? If it was, what was I supposed to do?

“Now hear this! Now hear this!” Like the sound of a submarine dive alarm blaring throughout my adolescence whenever girls entered a room, scaring me to death with their poise and grace, and rendering me mute most of the time that I was around them, all that I really heard was the sound of my heartbeat, pounding me into submission through embarrassment. I had no vocabulary around those giggling, pretty female forms, and so I entered a new phase of my life.

Later, when things sorted themselves out – by which I mean that my silence was often interpreted as introspection, an assumption that worked so totally to my advantage that if ever proof of a miracle was needed, well there you had it: a bull’s eye scored by a blind man shooting blanks –  I came to understand over time the difference between just hearing and really listening. It wasn’t a dramatic moment that brought me to that realization; it was more like years spent connecting the dots.

But here’s the interesting thing: in the midst of those journeys, I always considered myself to be one of the children of Israel, and that always made me feel special. I heard something right for me pretty early on. Then I listened to the wisdom of our sages throughout the ages, and my hearing got better.

Elliot Holin, a native of San Francisco, is the founding  rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA. He is married with three sons, enjoys people, world travel, photography, and the San Francisco Giants and 49ers.

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One Holocaust Movie Too Many

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

How many times can you see
the broken bodies piled high
at Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen?
How many times can you stare
into the vacant eyes of prisoners
crammed into three-tiered bunks?
How many times can you cringe
at the frightened people wedged into boxcars?
Apparently there is always room
for one more picture of piled shoes,
pajama-clad skeletons, empty suitcases.
I say this sitting comfortably
at a cafe in a Jewish neighborhood
where I can see a young man
wearing Sandy Koufax’s #32 baseball jersey,
knowing that the world seems safe – for now,
knowing, too, that I do not hear the awful trains
rumbling towards their final destination,
except in a generational memory
never to be ignored or forgotten.

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/

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Filed under American Jewry, poetry

Beaming on the Bima

By Lesléa Newman (Holyoke, MA)

When I enrolled in my synagogue’s two-year adult B’nai Mitzvah class, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that eventually I’d have to stand up on the bima in front of the entire congregation and lead them in prayer. But I didn’t believe that would ever really happen.

It came about sooner than I expected.

The class began in October with basic Hebrew lessons. Of the ten of us, all women ranging in age from mid-thirties to early sixties, only one of us had a solid Hebrew background. As a child, I was exempt from Hebrew school because I was a girl, and my brothers envied me. As an adult, I envied my brothers and their ability to sit in shul on a Saturday morning and actually comprehend the service.

Two years before the B’nai Mitzvah class began, embarrassed by my ignorance, I took a “Hebrew Marathon” which is something my temple offers every year before the High Holy Days. This eight hour course, given all in one day, starts with the assumption that many of us already know some Hebrew words. Most of us have read the word “kosher” written in Hebrew letters on the side of matzo boxes during Passover every year of our lives and seen the word “shalom” written in Hebrew on countless Rosh Hashanah cards. The Hebrew marathon gently builds on this knowledge and introduces participants to the entire Hebrew alphabet.

After the marathon ended, I took a ten week follow-up course, and now, in the B’nai Mitzvah class, I was learning the basic rules of Biblical Hebrew grammar. It was thrilling and mind-boggling at the same time. My classmates and I quickly learned that Hebrew resembles English as much as a matzo ball resembles a slice of watermelon, and eventually we stopped asking, “Why?” whenever a new grammatical concept was introduced along with the one or two or twenty exceptions that went along with it.

After studying Hebrew for several months with an excellent teacher who pronounced our vocabulary words in a charming British accent, we began a new course of study with a new teacher. We began to really look at the Saturday morning service and learn the different components of it. What does the Torah service consist of? What is Musaf? Now that we could read, or at least stumble along somewhat, Teacher Number Two helped us learn the “choreography of the service,” as she put it. She taught us when to sit, when to stand, when to bend at the knee and when to bow.  Each class ended with her thanking us. “It was a pleasure davening with you this morning,” she’d say, despite the fact that the majority of us could barely carry a tune.

And then it was May.

Teacher Number Three took over the class, and began by handing around a sign-up sheet. On this piece of paper, we were to put our names next to a date: a Saturday morning in July or August. We did what we were told and when the sheet made its way back to our teacher, she calmly announced that on the week each of us had just signed up for, we would be chanting a Haftorah portion during Shabbat services.

Pandemonium broke out.

“There’s no way…”

“We weren’t told…”

“I thought we had another year…”

Though we were a group of (supposedly) mature adults, we were acting like a class of junior high students whose teacher had just announced a surprise quiz. I half-expected someone to stamp her foot and yell “That’s not fair!” but no one did. We were all too busy panicking.

Now my class is hardly a group of slackers. There is a doctor, a social worker and a college professor among us. There is even a woman who makes her living as a public speaker (that would be me). But clearly the thought of singing Haftorah in public filled each of us with sheer terror.

Our fearless leader assured us that we would all “get it” and it was her job to make sure of that. She told us no one steps up to the bima unprepared. “There’s always a first time,” I mumbled. Then I tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that I was only chanting one-fourth of a Haftorah portion, so I’d be up on the bima with three of my classmates. Plus, my portion was only four-and-a-half minutes long. And furthermore, thousands of twelve and thirteen year-olds had learned to chant Haftorah before me. If those little pishers could do it, how hard could it be?

Don’t ask.

The second week of class, our teacher handed out our Haftorah portions. Each of us were also given a box of Highlighters: blue, pink, orange, yellow, purple and green. If we had acted like junior high school students the week before, now we regressed into elementary school children, as playful fights broke out over who got a purple box and who got a pink one.

Once we had settled down, our teacher explained the concept of trope marks. Every word was accompanied by one trope mark. Of course, this being Hebrew, in some cases a word had two trope marks. (Why? Don’t ask.) Each trope mark stands for a melody. Some trope marks appear over their Hebrew words. Others appear under, in and among the dots that stand for vowels. They have different shapes: one looks like a diamond, one looks like an apostrophe mark, and a third—my favorite—looks like a chicken bone. Trope marks also come in groups. Each group is assigned a color. Our assignment was to look at each word of our portion, find the trope mark, figure out what color group it belonged to and color it accordingly. And of course some trope marks share the same name but appear in different groups and carry different melodies. If this sounds confusing, it is.

It only gets worse.

After the Haftorah portion is appropriately marked by color, we each had to learn to sing our part. This involved reading the Hebrew words, which by the way were printed in some fancy-shmancy font none of us had ever seen before, memorizing the tune that each trope mark represented, and putting it all together. Our teacher sent us home with a sheet of paper that translated the trope marks into notes, which helped only those of us who could read music. She also gave each of us a tape. The tape did not contain our individual trope portions; that would come later. No, this first tape contained the names of the trope marks, grouped together and sung to the melody they represented. After each grouping was sung, there would be a pause on the tape so the line of melody could be repeated. (Remember “ecoutez et repetez” from high school French class?)

Have I mentioned that I’m tone deaf?

Obediently I took my tape home, popped it into my Walkman, and immediately burst into tears. When I caught my breath, I phoned my teacher.

“I can’t.” I gulped down the sobs that were threatening to erupt again. “I’m really sorry, but I’m just not capable of doing this, and I think it would be better for me to drop out now so you can find someone else to fill my slot on July 24th and…”

My teacher interrupted my babbling with exactly four words: “You’re not dropping out.”

When I arrived at the synagogue for the third meeting of our Haftorah class, I learned that I wasn’t the only one who’d had a meltdown during the week. The self-doubt in the room was so thick, you could have spread it on a piece of challah. One woman pinpointed the problem. “I don’t even know how to attack this,” she said. “Should I try to learn all the Hebrew first? Should I color in all the trope marks? Should I listen to the tape over and over? How should I learn?”

We all leaned forward eager to hear our teacher’s reply. Master of the four-word response, she smiled and said, “You’ll find your way.”

Back home, my spouse who is quite musical, volunteered to help me by playing the trope melodies on a portable keyboard and listening to my attempts to recreate them. Now despite my years of singing “Don’t Rain On My Parade” in the shower pretending I’m Barbra Streisand, whom I really sound like is The Nanny’s Fran Drescher. With a frog in her throat. And my spouse, poor thing, has perfect pitch. Night after night I serenaded my family, trying my hardest to stay in tune.

“How did that sound?” I asked my spouse one particular evening when I thought I did rather well.

“You changed keys three times on that line.”

I was impressed. “Only three times?” I said.  “I must be improving.”

The following week was June which meant that July was just around the corner. And something finally clicked. I remembered that a writing teacher of mine had once advised me to study another art form, any art form other than writing. I was crushed. Obviously my teacher thought I had no talent.

But that wasn’t the case. “It’s a good way to learn how you learn,” he said and he was right. I chose to study karate, having no attachment to how good a karate student I would become. In fact, I knew I’d be a slow learner as I’ve never been physically inclined. The first time I saw my sensei perform the kata, or series of choreographed punches, blocks and kicks that each white belt had to learn, I knew I’d never master it. (I probably cried then, too.) But I did master it. I practiced every single day. And I didn’t go on to move #2 until I had completely mastered move #1. Which took a very long time.

I arrived at our fourth class with one phrase under my belt. From here on in, class time would be devoted to hearing each of us sing by ourselves as much of our Haftorah portion as we had managed to learn. Before each “performance” our teacher allowed us two minutes of what we came to call therapy. To the untrained ear it would appear that each of us were eager to share our learning process with our classmates. In truth—at least in my case—this was merely a stalling tactic.

When my turn came, I told my Haftorah comrades how scary it was for me to sing in front of them. “I’d rather write a five-hundred page book,” I told them, which, though I am a seasoned writer is a terrifying undertaking. I also told the class the dream I’d had the night before: I opened a brand new copy of my latest novel and each word was accompanied by a trope mark which had to be color-coded! When the laughter died down, I took a deep breath and sang the two words I had managed to learn. When I was finished, I felt proud as if I’d performed an aria from Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera House. My teacher could not have been more pleased.

As the weeks passed, each student’s classroom solo grew longer in length. Each student also had to face her own demons. One woman felt confident about her singing but had fears about her ability to read Hebrew. Another woman read Hebrew easily but was self-conscious about her singing. I had serious doubts about my ability to read Hebrew and my singing, but nevertheless I forged ahead. (I also decided that I was not going to sing my Haftorah, I was going to chant it, which seemed much less intimidating.)

Since practice makes perfect, I practiced my portion every single day. The weekend before my big debut, I packed my tape and color-coded Haftorah portion and traveled to Colorado to teach a writing retreat being held at a convent. There, at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains among the deer, the writers and the Poor Sisters of Saint Frances Seraph of the Perpetual Adoration, I had another dream: my friend Victor who had died of AIDS  when he was 51 and who hadn’t set foot inside a synagogue since his Bar Mitzvah, sat beside me and, with infinite patience and love, helped me sound out the Hebrew words. I took enormous comfort from the fact that Victor had come all the way down from Heaven to give me his blessing.

And then the big day came.

As is my habit, I focused my anxiety on the all-important decision of what to wear. Pants or skirt? Glasses or contact lenses? Hair loose or swept back? I got myself together and did a last minute check in the mirror. Even though I looked okay, something was missing. What was it? In a flash, I knew: my Bubbe’s gold watch which I only wore once a year, on the High Holy Days. My grandfather, whom I had never met but was named for, gave the watch to my grandmother as a Mother’s Day gift from the children—my mother and two uncles—long before I was born, and I do not remember ever seeing her without it. I fastened the timepiece around my wrist, wound it up, and raised it to my ear to hear its tick. Now I was ready to make my way to the synagogue. Once there, I took my seat with the other three members of my Haftorah group and the service began. There up on the bima, leading the opening prayers, was one of my former karate teachers! I took this as a sign that everything would be okay.

And it was.

My group of four climbed the steps to the bima at the appropriate time. Our teacher, who coincidentally was wearing the same outfit as I was—a pink blouse and black slacks—stood beside us, ready to provide a prompt if necessary. I looked out at the congregation and caught sight of my spouse sitting with my best friend. In front of them was my Hebrew teacher, near a dear friend who has known me since the year I graduated from college. I am a regular at our shul’s Sisterhood meetings, and many of my “sisters” were sitting on the pews as well. Everyone’s face was awash with kindness.

I did not chant my Haftorah portion. I opened my mouth and sang those ancient Hebrew words with all the passion I could muster. When the last member of our group was done, our teacher sang the blessing after the Haftorah in her beautiful, melodious voice. When she was finished, my group started moving off the bima to take our seats but our teacher stopped us. She had us stand there while she told the congregation that it was our first time on the bima and how proud of us she was. A spontaneous chorus of “Simen Tov und Mazel Tov” broke out. I grasped hands with two members of my group and cried. And beamed.

After my Hebrew teacher gave the D’var Torah and one of my classmate’s daughters led the Musaf service, I retired to the social hall with my spouse and my friends for the kiddish. There I was hugged, kissed, and kvelled over. By the end of the morning, my face literally hurt from smiling so much.

Right before I left the synagogue, my Haftorah teacher gave me a hug. “See you in the fall,” she said. “We’ll be studying Torah trope in September. It’s a bit different from Hatftorah troupe, but I think you’ll manage it.”

Sure, I thought. Piece of (honey) cake.

Lesléa Newman is the author of the novel, The Reluctant Daughter; the short story collection, A Letter to Harvey Milk; the poetry collection, Still Life with Buddy, and the children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies.  You can visit her website to learn more about her work: www.lesleanewman.com

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My Father Is Dying

by David Merkler (Barcelona, Spain)

My father is dying and I don’t know how to handle it. My father is dying and I don’t believe in G-d. My father is dying and I’m having difficulty seeing justice in the world.

My father was born in Budapest on 6th January 1933. On the 30th January Hitler came to power. I was born on the outskirts of London, and raised in a very comfortable middle-class neighbourhood of London, but I am a Hungarian Jew. A Hungarian Jew who doesn’t speak Hungarian and has hardly visited the country, but my temperament and spirit are there in eastern Europe on the banks of the Danube. We grew up without knowing anything about the Holocaust. The only thing I knew was that my Uncle and Grandfather had died in the war. The details were sketchy, but I knew I was afraid of Germans. We had a beautiful house, a 3 storey detached house, but nothing in it. All my friends were surprised. When they came to visit us, our million pound house was furnished with sticks of furniture and second hand items. Even we children were clothed in second hand garments. Other memories stay with me. I marveled as my father would “weld” spent bars of soap onto new bars of freshly opened soap. How did he do it? What was the trick? The trick was not to waste anything. And food, of course. Nothing could be thrown away. I sat at the dinner table until my food was finished. I didn’t like the food. Hard luck. I sat at the table for half an hour or longer after dinner had finished until my plate was empty. Rules of the house.

And looking back on this regime, I finally began to understand what had been happening when I was well into my thirties. We were always in a ready state to move, to flee the country. What if the Hungarian Fascists (the Arrow Cross) took over the leafy Wimbledon suburbs of London? What if Eichmann marched in again on March 19 with a contingent of SS? You could never be too safe. If they came, we wouldn’t wait around this time. Sell the house and on to the next country, wherever that would take us.

My father is dying and I can’t understand why. If G-d exists, surely the survivors should be allowed to continue surviving. If virtually my entire father’s family was murdered, worked to death, died of starvation in the Budapest ghetto or committed suicide, then my father must have been a statistical mistake. (Correction: my father stated that, in fact, most of those who died in the ghetto died of thirst. Nuances of an agonizing death. What would you prefer? Starvation or dying of thirst?) Yes, by 1944 they knew where they were going. They weren’t going to be resettled in those exquisite cattle trucks or forcibly marched on a school excursion. So my great great uncle Sandor Feuermann and his wife Mitzi committed suicide. They chose to cheat the hangmen in their own way.

I have just read Suzanna Eibuszyc [http://tinyurl.com/3rl2ktf]. She states “that in every survivor’s family, one child is unconsciously chosen to be a ‘memorial candle,’ to carry on the mourning and to dedicate his or her life to the memory of the Shoah.” So now I understand why I was placed on this earth. My Argentinian born psychologist has told me to try to learn to “bear” the burden and not “suffer” the burden. Semantically it makes sense, but in practise? I walk down Barcelona’s sunny streets and I cry. I cry every week and sometimes every day for the 16 victims of my grandmother’s family (direct and in-laws) and for all the Merklers who were deported from Batya and Kalosca. All German speakers at some stage with German surnames. Feuermann, Haas, Merkler, Glück. My 8 year old son Alexander asks me: If we have a German surname, why did the Germans kill the Jews? Answers on postcard please addressed to Alexander Merkler, aged 8, Gelida, Barcelona, Spain.

My father is dying and probably the only person who cares is me. I am such an egoist. My link with the old country, the old language, with a witness to the atrocities of another age, is leaving me. My father’s memories are the memories of a child survivor. The shame of having to put on the star of David, the shame of being called a filthy Jew, the guilt of remembering stealing bread from a woman at night in the ghetto, the excitement of watching films though a crack in the wall at a cinema where Jews weren’t allowed to go. My father is dying. Hungary paid USD 50 to my father in compensation for the murder of his brother and USD 80 for the murder of his father. They recognized their collaboration with the Germans in the murder of the Jews. Post-communist Hungary didn’t have much money to pay out. Keep your money. It doesn’t help.

As I grow up, my father shares more and more information about what actually happened. When his mother dies, he delves back into the past, divorces my mother, marries a Hungarian woman with a large family and starts research work on his family. The work is gleaned into a book. A tribute to that lost lifestyle and those who lost their lives. I am educated in details of the Holocaust that most people will never know about. Hungary was the last country whose Jewish population was exterminated and Budapest the last city to be “cleansed,” but they didn’t have time to finish the job, not quite. They murdered my grandfather in March 1945, they murdered my uncle in April/May 1945, but they couldn’t destroy all the evidence this time, the personal possessions, the photos, the intervention of the neutral powers, the liberating forces. My father was liberated by the Soviets. My uncle? Did he pass away before or after Gunskirchen camp was liberated by US forces? Did he breathe a moment of freedom before passing away at 16? Peter murdered at the age of 16 far from home, far from his parents. G-d doesn’t exist. I am telling you G-d doesn’t exist. Stop praying. To put it in my grandmother’s words. “When you are dead, you are rotting meat.” And she knew what she was talking about.

My grandmother died in 1984 at the age of 80. We visited her house every Saturday until I went to University. I don’t know how she bore the burden. She lost her husband, her elder son, her sister, her nephew and her best friend, but she was unrelentingly tough. Her pain was everywhere, but she was so strong. When she finally decided the time had come to end it all, she decided to take an overdose of sleeping pills. We found her on the floor of her kitchen on several occasions still conscious. She was simply too physically tough. Her body wouldn’t obey her and give in. My father wants to be buried with his mother. She is his hero. She had escaped to Britain. She enlisted in the US Army, worked as a translator translating correspondence going into and out of Germany for the Americans in their efforts to catch Nazis at the end of the war. My grandmother went into communist occupied Hungary, found my father in an orphanage, bribed the Soviet border guards and took him out. Only 3000 DPs (the initials of that pleasant British euphemism stand for Displaced Persons) or Jewish survivors were allowed into Britain because the British were quite sick of the “Yids” at this stage blowing up their troops and the like in British Mandated Palestine.

So I discover I am a minority three times. I am a Jew. My father is an immigrant, whereas almost all the Yids I know in Britain are second generation, and, finally, I discover that my father Andrew (in fact András) had had the gall to cheat death and was placed in a Swiss safe house towards the end of the war. So what does that make me? My mother’s family were from the Russian empire and my father’s family from the Austro-Hungarian empire. Simple, but according to the new map of Europe I am a Hungarian, Slovakian, Polish, Bielorussian Jew with a German surname born in England living in Spain. My father told me more recently that we are ethnic Germans because the first Merklers came down the Danube from Germany to Hungary in the 17th century. Tracing back through my paternal grandmother’s line, we have changed mother tongue four times in five generations from German to Hungarian to English to Spanish/Catalan. Motke always said, “More Askenazi than David isn’t possible.”

My father is dying and doesn’t know where he wants to be buried. A very untypical dilemma. Should he be buried in Budapest’s Jewish cemetery where we have plots purchased for life or death (or until the next Holocaust when it is decided to dig up the remains of the Jews and burn their bones as there aren’t enough Jews alive to murder in Europe any more), or should he be buried with his mother on the outskirts of London? The only problem is that the London burial plot has to be renewed after 40 years, and will I take care of his grave if I am living in Spain? Or maybe he should be buried in Spain? So my father discusses the options over the phone coming to the conclusion that he should have his mother dug up and buried with him in Budapest or Barcelona. Sounds like a sight-seeing tour of Europe. Where shall we go–London, Budapest or Barcelona? But in this case it’s deadly serious.

My scars will never go away and I wasn’t even there, but I feel I was there. My family were murdered and I know all the details of their last moments because of testimonies, because of my father’s work, historical records, because I have their photos, even passports, even personal possessions. My father went to Kalosca. The main employer of Kalosca was Merkler Lajos, and his paprika mill was the biggest in Hungary. When they came to take him away, nobody cared that he had created more employment and wealth for everybody in that town or that he was married to a non-Jew. They took him away with the other Jews and they pillaged and stole everything. My father visited the town several years ago. When they discovered he was a Merkler, one of the old men returned to him an ivory letter opener without saying  a word. A symbol of opulence in the 1940s when not everybody could afford such an item. The guilt had got to him and he wanted to return the stolen goods 60 years later. I have the letter opener in my study. Another scar, but this time visible.

My father is dying and the doctors don’t know what he’s got. He’s been sweating at night for a year and has lost 10kg (22lbs). The symptoms are the same he had after the war when he contracted tuberculosis. Tuberculosis, the disease of the ghettos, thriving on overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions, attacking the undernourished whose defenses are weak. The virus stays dormant in your body and as your defenses get weaker it gets stronger. My grandmother died at 80. My father will be 79 next January 2012.

So you see Hitler will finally get what he wants. Another Jewish corpse will be added to the Jewish graveyard called Europe.

David Merkler wrote this piece in between managing two small businesses, one a language school, the other a remodeling business. He was born and grew up in London, England  and now lives in Gelida, outside Barcelona, Spain, with his partner, Valeria. He has two sons, Joel and Alexander, from his first marriage. You can reach him at davidmerkler@languagesbarcelona.com

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Ellis Island

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

i

Hi, Dad.
Today I discovered the manifest
of the ship you sailed on
when you crossed the Atlantic alone
and arrived in New York, November 7, 1923.
The basic facts jump off the computer screen:
Age 18, single, male, brown hair,
$40 in your pocket and a
second class ticket in your hand.
Name of vessel – the “Polonia”
Ethnicity – Hebrew, Lithuanian
Port of Departure – Libau
But the pages before my eyes
say little how you felt
passing the Statue of Liberty,
said nothing of your dreams and fears.
Were you excited? Scared? Or both?
What words did you reserve
for your running thoughts then?
What words do you have for me now?

ii

You never told me tales of your youth,
except to say how hard life was,
and how you had to go without.
You never told me lessons you learned,
or what private words your parents presented,
and if they gave you blessing to cross the sea.
You never told me at the end of your life
what conclusions you had drawn
or whether you’d be leaving the world at peace.
I suspect you didn’t.
I suspect you withheld large portions of your years
that were to remain completely unopened.
Perhaps if I had known you better,
and did not gather information
off a ship’s manifest, it might have
made a difference, then again, perhaps not.
I do wish your life hadn’t been
such a Cracker Jack’s surprise box,
as I hope the airing of this and other poems
won’t be such a revelation to my own children.

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/

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