Monthly Archives: January 2012

A Slice of Life

by Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)

My daughter and son-in-law pray in an old-fashioned synagogue where women sit in the balcony and the pale yellow wooden pews are creaky. As their new baby’s grandfather, I feel a little creaky myself. Still, there is in the high ceiling, blood-red velvet ark cover and the long length of the room an elegance, a sense of awe, and none of the modern chic found in many suburban houses of worship.

I like this fine.

The congregants are a mixed group. They wear black hats, crocheted yarmulkes, and those pale blue satin ones which many nonorthodox seem to favor.  Most of them are smiling, anticipating the large kiddush afterwards, perhaps. Few are as excited as I to welcome another Jewish soul into our fold. Some are just happy today simply because something out of the ordinary will take place, a change in routine, an event.

I am greeted with shabbat shalom, or good shabbos, or, less commonly, git shabbes. Regardless of dialect, I know that each person wishes us a mazal tov and a peaceful, enjoyable Sabbath. My eight-day-old, very cute grandson will have his bris this morning. To them, it is not so much my grandson that is special, but the occasion. For me it’s all of it, especially the newly-formed family: my beautiful daughter, her sweet husband, and this new bunch of deliciousness that is my grandson.

My son-in-law’s brother leads the morning shacharit prayer, my own son leads us in musaf. I am transported by all of it, as well as by my own prayers and gratitude that my daughter is well and past the pregnancy, the family is all here in good health, that all present will meet my newest grandchild for the first time as a full-fledged Jew. I am amazed and excited at seeing the magical line come glittering to life, the line connecting this baby to his and our eldest forefather, Abraham.

From the moment that my daughter and son-in-law had called several days before to ask me to be the sandek, I bawled like a baby at the honor, the specialness and this precursor of closeness I prayed for to be between my little grandson and me.

This marks the first time in my life that I have been asked to be the sandek, meaning that my infant grandson will be placed on a pillow on my lap while the mohel does his thing (oops).

Being the sandek is a great honor in our Jewish tradition.

Sandek is a Greek word meaning “don’t look at what the mohel’s doing or you’ll turn green, hurt the mohel, or both.” Just kidding. Actually, sandek comes from the Greek word, suntekos, which means “companion of child,” which is what I want to be for him, as I hope to always be for all of my grandchildren.

So here I am, sitting in this plush chair to the right of Elijah’s Chair on the Ark platform. The little munchkin is placed on my lap, and I lovingly look only at his eyes, his forehead, and his quivering mouth. I watch the teal-blue pacifier near his lips bob like a buoy as he alternatively screams in pain and gasps for air. I whisper cooing, encouraging words to him, but they are not honest  words. What I really want to say is, “Give me a second, Bud, just hang on while I stiff-arm these people like an NFL pro and run for the door.” I check all the exits and see that the one behind me is my best bet. In my brain’s image I scoop him up before the mohel feels the downdraft from my moving blur, and we are out of there, no pain, truly no gain. My protectiveness is fueled by unbidden imagery of what is about to happen and I wish for Samantha-types of blinking power to teleport us out of there.

I stay, of course.

I can feel him straining hard to break free from my hold. It’s crazy, but I want to help him. I’m his grandfather, for crying out loud, I’m supposed to help him with all the fun stuff, not allow him to suffer. Let his parents deal with all the have-to’s, that’s their job. I know I’m conflicted, this is part of what the human family calls meshuga time. I know that I’m one of his peeps who is the transmitter of traditions such as the one we are all gathered here for. But I think: if he looks like me, then perhaps his tastes are like mine. I therefore formulate a plan to take him to the nearest Starbucks because we are so in sync, my baby grandson and I. So we’ll have a cup of coffee and schmooze about the scrapes we escaped from together.

Sigh.

Again with the fantasy, I know. What’s with me? Where are my personal prayers? I can’t. He has to endure this ceremony, no matter how painful for him, no matter how painful for me. So I steel myself for the task before us and hold his feet immobile, as the mohel has instructed me.

The wine-soaked gauze-pad they will place in his tiny lips will not fool him for a second, and I know that what he really wants is chocolate with almonds, or maybe a muffin, with that fresh hot coffee.

Soon, my eyes fall on the mohel’s tray, and when I see a little blood near the mohel’s instruments, it takes all my self-control not to perform a bris on the mohel himself for what he was doing to my grandson.

But the truth is, it is all just so moving and meaningful.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, all the way to my grandfather, then my father, me, and now my little grandson. A long line down through time, all obeying our Father’s request, all part of the same family.

I tell you, it’s enough to make you give up coffee.

For more than thirty years, Chaim Weinstein taught English in grades six through college in  New York City public schools as well as in several parochial schools. Three of his poems, “The Shul is Dark,” “Mr Blumen,”  and “Unlikely Pair” have appeared on The Jewish Writing Project, and an early short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne. He is currently working in several genres and is hoping to  share a larger selection of his work in the future.

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history

A Woman of Valor, Who Can Find?

by Rachel Roberts (San Jose, CA)

She is old and young
all at once.
She carries centuries
and a language no longer spoken
in a stewpot
fastened to her back,
with a ladle to draw deep,
as she smiles, only remembering
as far back as yesterday;

The family complains that
her chicken has cholesterol
and that the flanken is fattening.
There is too much shiny oil
and not enough fresh green
to comport with vain standards of modern health;

But to me, the smell of onions in a pan
is beauty and perfect love
in the midst of a world malnourished
by exact measurements
and starved of substances that cannot
be easily quantified;

She knew how to love without hurting.
She loved us even when we did not love ourselves.
She forgot our infractions,
and stopped us from carrying anger in our hearts
simply by virtue of her example.
She overcooked her food and overwatered her plants.

Simple. Small. Innocent Diviner.
Her price is far above rubies.

Rachel Roberts wrote this poem in honor of her grandmother, Ida Rubin z”l, and  read it at her funeral in Livingston, NJ on February 21, 2011.  You can read more of Rachel’s poetry at her blog, A Postalcard from Ashkenaz: http://postalcard.posterous.com/

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In Search of a Baal Shem

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove,PA)

I never heard her call him the “Baal Shem of Michelstadt.”

Instead my grandmother spoke of “Rebbe Seckel Loeb Wormser” as a “Wundermann,” a miracle-worker.

My first real memory of him is connected to a beam of bright sunshine falling into her parlor window, setting off her “good” blue-and-white Wedgewood dishes glistening on the table. She was feeding me a mid-day meal along with telling me about the famous man.

I was not in her parlor frequently for my parents and I lived in another city and we did not see her often. Even  rarer was the chance of hearing my Oma tell me stories.

Tiny sun motes floated about the room that day as she spoke to me of the rebbe’s wisdom, his kindness and his strong religious faith.

“Both Jews and Gentiles in the small town of Michelstadt south of Frankfurt benefited  from his remarkable skills. Many a person depressed by business or health problems found the Rebbe’s calm, serene manner and his gift for active listening eased his troubles, perhaps even solved them. And when a healed  visitor walked out of Seckel Loeb’s door, it was always with renewed self-worth and confidence.”

Oma had her personal reasons for passing on tales about the great man.

Her own mother, my great-grandmother, Babette Muhr, had been brought to the home of the rebbe as an orphan child.  He had taken her in  and raised her as a member of his own family until the day when, as a grown young woman, she left Michelstadt to be married.

At least a half a century passed before the name of Rebbe Seckel Loeb Wormser entered  my thoughts again.

Long after I had arrived as a child-survivor of the Holocaust in the U.S, married, and had raised a family of my own, the mail brought a brochure put out by a well-known publisher of Jewish books.

One of the titles advertised for sale read: “The Baal Shem of Michelstadt.”

I could hardly wait until the small book arrived and lay open on my desk.

It was a collection of warm, sentimental episodes taken from the life of a man once renowned as a healer and worker of miracles. The book was written in the early 1900’s by a Swiss rabbi, Naftali Herz Ehrmann, under the nom de plume of  “Judeus.”

I was stunned to find in it many of the stories my grandmother had once told me, stories I had somehow not trusted to have been “real.”

But it was the photograph on the book’s last page which stirred me the most: a picture of a house.

It was a box-shaped wooden structure — two full floors and a triple-window mansard.  The metal plaque attached above the first-floor windows aroused my considerable interest. It read: “In this house the humanitarian S.L.Wormser lived from the year 1826 to his death in 1847.”

The plaque was dedicated as a tribute by his hometown of Michelstadt.

I concentrated on the windows in that photograph. How I wished I could transport myself into the past. This house was surely the home of Rebbe Seckel Loeb Wormser, the Baal Shem of Michelstadt, and now I knew these were the windows through which my great-grandmother must have looked out at the world.

The more I read about the Rebbe’s life, the more faint images culled from my grandmother’s tales came back to me. I remembered certain details which were mirrored in the book.

After forty-one years I finally decided to go back to Germany.

One important reason for my return was the nagging wish to learn more about him, to find out what I could about the man they called the Baal Shem.

On the June day when friends drove my husband and me to Michelstadt, I carried the book about the Baal Shem with me.

We reached Michelstadt in the middle of the day. Ancient houses embellished with distinctive “Fachwerk” decorations lined the cobblestoned streets. I closed my eyes and pretended to be back in the medieval hamlet of southern Germany that was once the destination of many a Jewish and non-Jewish pilgrim headed for a visit to the bushy-bearded saintly man with the kind brown eyes known throughout the neighborhood as teacher and healer.

After a hearty meal in the oak-beamed dining room of the Green Tree Inn, I no longer needed to pretend. I was close to realizing my fanciful daydream. This very hostelry was a favorite with Jewish travellers who visited Rebbe Seckel Loeb. Many stories about the Baal Shem of Michelstadt grew into legends here, nurtured no doubt by glasses of excellent local beer. Because of their fondness for the inn, some patrons even nicknamed it “The Jewish Canteen.”

Armed with the family record, I finally entered the tall doors of the “Rathaus Annex” and headed for the chief of tourist reception. I told the man I was looking for links to an ancestor who grew up in the house of Rebbe Seckel Loeb Wormser. Immediately I felt my tourist stature increase to that of a VIP.

Meanwhile I could hardly wait to see the house of the Baal Shem.

No one knew the Wormser House by that name, so it took much searching and asking for directions before I located it. Suddenly I stood in front of it: my photograph had come to life.

One hundred and thirty-five years after Rebbe Seckel Loeb died here, the house was still in use. I walked around it and inspected it from every angle. Now it was occupied by a law firm, but no one was in. I was disappointed that I could not enter. I so wished to see the rooms where the Master taught the Holy Books, where the wise man counseled the troubled on urgent problems now long forgotten, and where my own ancestor climbed the stairs.

I left the Wormser House hesitantly and returned to the Rathaus-Annex where I had an appointment with the town archivist.

In one wing of this ancient seat of the mayors of Michelstadt, a Herr Hartmann presided  over  records dating back to the 13th century. His amazing collection of documents owed its survival to the little bomb damage the town sustained during World War II

I knew nothing about my great-grandmother except her name: Babette Muhr.

Herr Hartmann delved into his well-preserved archives of the Jewish community. Within a few minutes he located a page listing the death of a rabbi named Wolf Muhr in 1848. This is really a coincidence, he told me, because he had never come across that name before, let alone the name of a local rabbi.

I was convinced that there was a connection between Rabbi Muhr and my ancestor and asked the archivist to trace it.

We did not succeed that day, but I found a book of local Jewish history on his shelf and he allowed me to browse in it.

I discovered that Wolf Muhr was Seckel Loeb’s cantor who handled the town’s rabbinical duties in Michelstadt until 1826. During that year Rabbi Wormser returned after a lengthy stay in the town of Mannheim where he worked as a healer at the local hospital.  Upon his return to Michelstadt he resumed his post of rabbi there.

I had gotten closer in my ancestor search. The archivist promised he would continue it. Perhaps we would find the connection someday.

The old Jewish cemetery was too far from town. I wanted to stay in Michelstadt a little longer to meditate at the grave of Rabbi Wormser, but my time ran out. I did not make it to his last resting place and to the new gravestone which replaced the desecrated monument of the Nazi period.

However, a final touching experience awaited me during my last hour in town: I was given  a tour through the Baal Shem’s synagogue. Like most German synagogues the original tiny structure, built in 1791, was torched by the Nazis. Only its exterior shell remained.

One Jewish family still lived in Michelstadt in 1969 when members of a few remaining Jewish communities in the state of Hesse met and decided to restore the former synagogue as a museum.

It was named the Lichtigfeld Museum in honor of Dr. I.E. Lichtigfeld, a postwar rabbi of Hesse, who tried to revive Jewish life in the area. The Lichtigfeld Museum primarily memorializes Rebbe Seckel Loeb Wormser, the Baal Shem of Michelstadt, whose love for humanity once brightened this town.

Ritual objects, books and mementos filled the showcases along the walls of the modest ex-sanctuary. Among them were two new additions I had brought from America: the English translation of  “The Baal Shem of Michelstadt” and a copy of my own biography of Elie Wiesel, “Witness for Life.” Having them in this place is an honor I cherish.

The site of the original Almemor had been preserved. I stood near the spot where the holy man once prayed and I reflected on the tremendous faith he inspired.

What was the real nature of the Rebbe’s “miracles?” Were the stories his deeds generated just that–exaggerated accounts of local happenings, blown out of proportion by his simple fellow country–Jews who needed someone or something to believe in?

The hatred-bearers did extinguish the spark of life here and they succeeded in wiping out the  decency and healing which once existed. But they could not erase the memory of the Jewish spirit that long ago filled this building and this town.

And who knows? Perhaps the special memory may be the most lasting of this Baal Shem’s many miracles.

Born in Germany, Ellen Norman Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel.  Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

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Filed under Family history, German Jewry, Jewish identity

You Can’t Have Enough Good Luck

by Harriet Kessler (Woodbury Heights, NJ)

I’m fond of hamsas. I have a ceramic hamsa on both my office and kitchen walls, and I have several silver hamsa pendants on chains that I wear around my neck. Most were bought during visits to Israel. But the newest, a sterling pendant with emerald, seed pearl and mother-of-pearl decoration, came from a Boulder, CO, store where I shopped while visiting a friend. (It was made in Israel of course.)

“Nice hamsa,” a colleague said the first time I wore it to work. “But I didn’t know you were that religious or superstitious.” The comment surprised me. I thanked him and asked why the pendant led him to question my beliefs, or lack of them.

“Because you never wear a Star of David,” he answered. “And you’re not into mysticism or bubbemeises.”

He was right. Logic pretty much defines me, and I never did wear a star.

Growing up in Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle), I was as proud a Jew as any. But in the early 1940s, anti-Semitism deterred most of us from wearing our Judaism around our necks. When some of my friends started wearing the Star of David shortly after the birth of Israel, I did not. Less a Jewish symbol than a piece of jewelry in my mind, the Star seemed too frivolous for my socialist soul.

Those socialist qualms were gone by the 1980s when my Jewish Federation colleagues took to wearing chai necklaces. A heavy silver chai on a Mariner Chain was my first piece of Jewish jewelry and I wore it constantly until Anatoly Sharansky was freed. The amulet symbolizing solidarity with the refuseniks delighted me.

My hamsa collection started on a trip to Israel in the early 1990s when my travel companion’s Israeli daughter-in-law visited our Tel Aviv hotel one night to give her a hamsa pendant. “It’s an open right palm pointing down,” Orna explained. “We all wear them against the evil eye.”

Taking notice from then on, I saw hamsas around the necks of many young people walking the Tel Aviv streets and knew that I wanted one. When I got to Jerusalem, I made the rounds of the Cardo jewelry stores until I found one that I liked, bought it and put it right on. It’s a pretty little ornament that makes me feel Israeli, so I’ve brought one back from the homeland every visit since.

Because I like to buy Israeli, to support the Jewish state, I’m pleased that Israelis sell other good luck symbols on chains. Should I tire of the hamsa, I can go back to the chai, or wear a mezzuzah, or a menorah, or even a Jewish star.

There are many Jewish amulets (just check the Internet) and perhaps I’ll collect a few of them. Most are attractive, and you can’t have enough good luck.

Harriet Kessler, the former editor of The Jewish Community Voice of Southern New Jersey, edits Attitudes Magazine, and is writing a book about her relationship with her recently deceased younger sister. You can read her previous submission to The Jewish Writing Project here: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2009/01/06/an-act-of-atonement/

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My New Year

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

January first doesn’t feel like my new year
even though it’s time for fresh calendars,
and melancholy after-Christmas sales,
and bracing for icy winter, and wishing beyond,
and starting from zero in Blue Cross deductibles,
and whittling-down diets after holiday fressing.

Rosh Hashanah feels like new year
when leaves dress up, then dry up, and fall,
and kids, bored with freedom, go back to school,
and the tans fade away, and the lines disappear,
and we all about-face and shift inward,
towards the refuge of home,
towards the comfort of heart,
towards the warmth of forgiving each other.

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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