Monthly Archives: October 2011

Being Jewish

by Marcy White (Toronto, Canada)

In memory of Frank White z”l (1933-2010)

The first time I refused to go to shul for Rosh Hashanah I had the biggest fight with my father. We didn’t speak for one week because my dad expected me to do what he wanted. I was a 16-year-old struggling with the existence of God and refused to sit through a four hour service.

I couldn’t stomach the annual shul scene: everyone dressed in brand-new outfits, whispering about who gained weight, who looked good, who was unemployed or single. Eventually, I stopped attending services altogether. It was a gradual break, evolving over several years. I would wait at home for everyone to return and partake in the post-synagogue meal. Despite the comments from my father, I didn’t feel guilty about my religious lapse and I didn’t harbor secret feelings of being struck down for my agnostic beliefs.

Growing up in Montreal, I attended Solomon Schechter Academy and Herzliah High School. I ate kosher food at home and kissed the mezuzah before leaving on a trip. I went to Jewish camps and all my friends shared my religion.

When I was in my early 20s, I moved to Toronto and still practiced the customs: I lit Chanukah candles, ate matzah on Passover and nothing on Yom Kippur. I enjoyed the traditions but the shul sanctuary did not fill me with a sense of belonging.

When my first child was born in 2002, he spent three agonizing months in the hospital fighting for his life. From the second Jacob emerged from my body, every breath he took was a struggle. He was tethered to countless machines monitoring his breathing, his oxygen levels and his heart rate.

During that excruciatingly painful time, I did not find myself bargaining with God for assistance. I did not promise to eat kosher if Jacob would breathe without needing to be suctioned or become more observant if he would swallow without choking. But many friends who came to sit with me did so. I sarcastically joked that if there was a god, there were so many caring people of various religions praying for Jacob we’d have all the deities covered.

My son’s bris occurred under a general anesthetic when Jake was six-weeks-old, at the same time he underwent a surgical procedure. Instead of being held by his father or grandfather as dictated by our tradition, Jacob was lying on a gurney, sedated and intubated, under the glare of the operating room lights. It was a fortunate coincidence that one of the surgeons was also a mohel.

When Jacob was 10-months-old he was diagnosed with Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD), a rare neurodegenerative disease. Although it was a relief to finally have a name to put to the assortment of symptoms, it was a crushing blow to learn that he would never walk or talk and would always be fed through the tube that was surgically implanted into his stomach on the day of his bris. I learned there is no cure and Jake’s symptoms would worsen over time.

When the shock of the diagnosis wore off, I resolved to give my son the greatest chance at a long and healthy life. I reasoned that if his body could be strengthened, it would be harder for the degenerative aspects of the disease to progress.

When Jake was 16-months-old, I hesitantly enrolled him at Zareinu Educational Centre, a school for children with special needs. I was wary of exposing my son, whose immune system was incredibly weak, to other germ-infested children. Until then, Jacob had been virtually sequestered at home, safely removed from others because a simple cold could be fatal to him. The opportunity for Jacob to receive an assortment of therapies to help his muscles develop, coupled with a vat of antibacterial hand wash, outweighed the benefits of keeping him sheltered at home.

The school was run by the Orthodox Jewish community. I’ve always heard that “they”, the devout Jews, who strictly observe all the rules of the religion, don’t consider “us”, the secular Jews, who drive on Saturdays and eat in non-kosher restaurants, Jewish. I wondered how Jacob would be treated in this program because our religious practices were vastly different from theirs. Would he be invited to participate with the others, or would he remain an outsider, the not-really-Jewish Jewish boy? Would the other parents try to keep their children away from my son?

Jacob, the most medically fragile child in the room, was welcomed into the class and received all the therapies and education the program had to offer.  My son was included and supported. It didn’t take me long to feel comfortable in the group.

Around the time Jacob turned four, I learned about Yedidus, a Sunday morning children’s program near our home. It was run out of Bais Yaakov High School, an Orthodox girls’ school and was open to all Jewish children with special needs.

Initially, I was skeptical about the qualifications of the leaders. How could teenage girls be comfortable taking care of my son when most adults were too afraid to be alone with him? My concerns were squelched when I observed the girls, all dressed modestly in long skirts and long sleeves, welcome Jacob into the group with an abundance of warmth. I knew he would be accepted despite our differences along the religious spectrum.

In the five years since we timidly wheeled Jake into the school on a Sunday in mid-October, my categorization of “us” and “them” has dissipated. Jacob was unequivocally enveloped by this extraordinary community.

Jacob’s Princesses, the frum girls affectionately named by Jake’s younger twin sisters because princesses always wear skirts, shower my son with attention, love and compassion. Unlike the typical teenagers depicted in the popular media, these girls do not devote their free time to listening to music, hanging out in shopping malls and playing video games with their friends. Consistent with the concepts of Gemilut Chassidim and Tikkun Olam that they see practiced in their community every day, the princesses’ after school hours are spent visiting hospitalized children, taking care of the elderly and helping their mothers with various chores. And they do this without hesitation and without complaint.

Jacob has been invited into their homes for Purim, Chanukah and to spend the night on Shabbat. For the past two summers, four incredible princesses took Jake to Camp Yaldei, an overnight camp in the Laurentians in Quebec, for a month. The girls spent entire nights at our house, awake while most of the city was sleeping, watching our nurses tend to Jacob so that they would be comfortable with all aspects of his care.

Thanks to these extraordinary Orthodox teenagers, Jacob is able to enjoy some typical childhood experiences, including sleepovers, camp and a house over-flowing with friends and laughter each year on his birthday.

Because of Jacob’s Princesses and the empathy and love they shower on him, I developed a new appreciation for Judaism and Orthodoxy. I realized that a religion that is based on helping other Jews and giving back to the less fortunate when life treats you well deserves a second look. Motivated by the relationships I developed with these incredible girls, I started to re-evaluate my commitment to the religion into which I was born.

I learned how to make challah and my family lights Shabbat candles together. My daughters sing the brachas and Jacob knows when to vocalize for his favorite part, the “amen” at the end of each prayer.

When we visited my parents two years ago in Montreal, my dad’s face glowed with pride as he listened to my children ask the four questions during our Passover Seder. He was thrilled once again when they came with him to shul for Rosh Hashanah.

Sadly, my father passed away a few months ago. Although I still question the existence of God, I believe in the goodness of the Jewish community. In honor of my dad, the person I used to argue with about attending synagogue, I go to shul every day to say Kaddish. For him.

Marcy White enjoyed a career in the investment industry that was sidelined with the birth of her son in 2002. Her academic degrees did not prepare her for caring for Jacob who was born with Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD). Since Jacob’s diagnosis at 10-months- old, Marcy has become an advocate for her son and furthering PMD research to help find a cure. Marcy has written many articles about Jacob that have appeared in publications such as the Globe and Mail, Canadian Jewish News and Exceptional Parent. She co-founded www.curepmd.com to educate people about PMD and fund research into finding a treatment. Marcy lives in Toronto with her husband, Andrew, and their three children, Jacob, Sierra and Jamie.For more information about PMD visit www.curepmd.com.

Reprinted with the permission of the author Marcy White and with the permission of Liz Pearl, the editor of Living Legacies – A Collection of Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women – Volume III. (PK Press, 2011). For more information about this publication or to order copies please contact liz_pearl@sympatico.ca.

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Filed under Canadian Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity

Rosh Hashanah: The First Without My Father

by Jane Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

I hadn’t been with my parents for decades
at their synagogue (in a church,
with Love Never Faileth on the wall above the bimah,
and their newish Jewish Japanese rabbi),
but I always knew we’d speak
to wish each other a Happy New Year
and, like they’ve done at every event around the calendar,
they’d wish me good health, and whatever my heart desired
(which, I have to tell you, hasn’t happened).

But this year, with my father gone,
I felt him with me:
Singing, jumping up and down octaves to stay on key,
drifting off, and back on, during the sermon,
and, most of all, holding my hand
when I stood for the Mourner’s Kaddish.

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.

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The Tapestry of Self

by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)

The tapestry of my life has always had loose threads, strands that stick out in different directions and seem unlikely candidates for a fine woven print. Sometimes I tuck one of those threads away and get a pass on explaining who I am to the world.  Why share that I am Jewish if I feel more secular than religious? Why tell others that I am a German American Jew who in some ways feels more German than Jewish?  I’ve been living in Berlin, Germany for the past year where my mind has been feverishly at work trying to solve the puzzle of my identity.

The part of me that has always felt German now revels in the daily opportunity for self expression. Each step towards language fluency makes me feel more whole and I am exhilarated on the rare occasions when I meet someone who does not speak English. My taste buds crave a daily käese stange (breaded cheese twist) or kürbiskern brezel (giant soft pretzel with pumpkin seeds) and although I do not eat much meat, I love hearing my kids say “schnitzel!” as a substitute for “shit.” I come close to feeling at home in Germany while sitting for hours at the Rüdisheimer Platz wine garden enjoying the company of family and friends over a picnic dinner.

But there is a deeper significance to my German residency than the opportunities to speak a language I love, enjoy the food, and experience the rich and diverse cultural life of Berlin.  I am coming full circle, returning to the birth place of both my German Jewish parents so that I can integrate the past into the life of my family in a way that the first generation of Holocaust survivors and escapees could not.  This cannot be done from America; one has to be on German soil to experience the past and to grasp that there is a new landscape for Jewish life in Germany today.  Stepping into that landscape and seeing how it feels is a powerful way to pick up some of the loose threads of self that make up my identity.

Our son Avery turned thirteen this year and decided he wanted to become a bar mitzvah in the birthplace of his ancestors.  Our family is not clearly affiliated with any branch of Judaism so it was a bit daunting to find a place for ourselves amongst Berlin ‘s population of approximately 20,000 Jews and nearly a dozen congregations.  We’ve attended Reform, Masorti and Renewal services and are still getting used to reading Hebrew that has been transliterated for Germans (bar mitzwa instead of bar mitzvah) and a host of unfamiliar approaches to songs and rituals.

We will fully experience being Jewish in Germany when Avery becomes a bar mitzvah this October with Ohel Hachidusch, Berlin’s very small Renewal congregation.  The bar mitzvah will take place at the Jüdisches Waisenhaus Berlin (Jewish Orphanage of Berlin). The former orphanage is a historic building that was devoted to the welfare of Jewish children from 1913 to 1940.  After Kristallnacht many of the children were brought to safety via Kindertransport. The Nazis closed the building in 1942 and deported the remaining residents to concentration camps.  This will be the first bar mitzvah held in the Waisenhaus since it was restored and reopened in 2001.  As part of his coming of age, Avery is helping with a memorial project for my Great Aunt Meta Adler who was a Holocaust victim.

In the midst of a generally upbeat year of growth and discovery, I have also had some low moments. I never feel isolated but I do at times feel alienated in Germany, especially after encounters with government bureaucrats. It has been well over a year since I applied to have my German citizenship restored and I am still waiting despite the fact that I provided complete records of my German Jewish ancestry to the federal government. My constantly simmering anger at the indifference of the bureaucracy to my meritorious application is matched by my determination to see this process through to a successful conclusion, even if I have to hire an attorney. ( I’ve written about Reclaiming My German Citizenship in a recent essay for The Jewish Writing Project http://tinyurl.com/3ffufg9.)

And then there are those perpetual encounters with Germans whose scrutinizing comments leave a chill in their wake.  I have endured quite a few mini-lectures about what rule my children have broken and how important it is that they “pass auf” (watch out) and modify their behavior.  After silently suffering through too many of these lectures, I recently blew up at a woman on the U-Bahn in my best German for lecturing my daughter about her subway behavior.  These encounters make my skin crawl with their eerie reminders of an era when everyone was under suspicion for conduct that was outside the narrow realm of what the National Socialists deemed permissible. Is there something in the German psyche that propels such finger-wagging behavior?

But as I embark on my second year of living in Germany my paramount feeling is that this is a place where I can be fully German, Jewish and American.  As part of Germany’s growing Jewish population, I want American Jews to understand that there are Jews who do not want to place a strike out line through the German part of their identity.  The German thread does not have to be tucked away but can be woven back into the tapestry of self that represents who we are.

Donna Swarthout moved to Berlin with her family to explore her German Jewish heritage and identity and the nature of Jewish life in Germany today.  You can read more about her experiences on her blog Full Circle: www.dswartho.wordpress.com

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The Power of Prayers

by Susan L. Lipson (Poway, CA)

(High Holidays 5772/2011)

So many earnest voices chant their heartfelt prayers today;
How will my words be heard then
In the swell?
Why should God even listen to the simple words I say,
When others sway and cry with
Private pain?

What if my prayers aren’t echoed by a chorus of Amens,
If my words aren’t in the books,
Held by all?
What if I sing my own tune, in my head, not the refrains?
Does God hear solo voices
In the choir?

As Master of conductors, can’t God pinpoint any voice
Amid the others joined in
Harmony?
Can’t God hear what we feel when we send our thoughts to Him;
Must we really move our lips
To move God?

I think God hears intentions, not just voices, not mere words;
And prayers are multilingual,
Not one form.
So if my thoughts fly upward, from my book, like soaring birds,
I need not feel that I’ve strayed—
God hears all.

God hears me, God hears you, God hears them,
God hears all.
God’s in me, God’s in you, God’s in them,
God is all.

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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The Bridge Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

It’s a long bridge, and high,
with pilings deep in the water,
dug into the foundation of earth.
It takes ten days to cross,
by foot,
(more, with baggage),
and you have to walk it yourself.
No one can carry you.
People have been known to jump off
but miraculously, survive,
as long as they’re willing to try again
the following year.
Each person decides
how many times to pay a toll
and to whom
along the way.
And you pay with words,
tokens of your repentence:
“I forgive you.”
“Please forgive me.”
But what’s most amazing
is that you’re supposed to keep turning around
as you walk,
turning around
to face four corners
and everything in between,
turning around
to make sure you’ve seen every person
and the scope of your past year
so you can pay up and start fresh
on the other side.
And instead of getting dizzy
as you cross
you feel lighter, and cleaner,
more at-one with yourself
and all the other travelers
and the earth below the water
beneath your feet.
Venice has its Bridge of Sighs;
but this is the Bridge of Awe.

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.

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Filed under American Jewry