Monthly Archives: May 2012

A Blessing for our Sons and Daughters

by Cheri Scheff Levitan (Atlanta, GA)

On Friday night, the eve of the Sabbath, it is customary to bless one’s children.  The traditional blessing for boys is “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe” (Genesis 48:20). Why be like them?  These brothers — contrary to Cain and Abel — lived in peace and set good examples for their family and community.  While having noble traits and aspirations, my preference is to bless my son with, “May God help you become and do the best YOU that you can in this world.”  

The traditional prayer for girls is “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.”  The movie Fiddler on the Roof, however, offers a subtle change in its song, Sabbath Prayer.  Instead of repeating the customary blessing offered for girls, a challenge comes in the form of “May you be like Ruth and like Esther.”  This statement calmly floats by in the song without ruffling any feathers; either because it is not noticed or no one cares to delve into its actual meaning.

Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah are the matriarchs of the Jewish faith.  They played strong supporting roles in the achievements of their husbands– Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Ruth and Esther are not considered to be matriarchs, yet they are the only two women to have books in the Hebrew Bible that are named for them.  They were strong women who played leading roles and took matters into their own hands to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.  The prayer from Fiddler is therefore saying, “Be like Ruth and Esther, smart and independent women, who not only take control of their own destinies, but model and guide the future of the Jewish people as well.”

The Book of Ruth is read on the holiday of Shavuot and the Book of Esther on Purim.  A careful reading of each reveals two very different women, from different times and backgrounds, who accomplish tremendous things. Ruth, a non-Jew, chooses to leave her own people to join the Israelites.  She exhibits acts of faith, modesty, integrity, bravery, and loyalty.  The Davidic line and the Messiah ultimately descend from her.  Esther, by contrast, initially does not display the noble acts for which Ruth is known.  She hides her Jewish name and background to put herself on display to win a beauty contest, and she marries the non-Jewish king.  But, once she becomes Queen of Persia, she ultimately risks her crown and life to save the Jewish people from Haman’s anti-Semitism.  In the end, Esther displays tremendous cleverness, bravery, loyalty and leadership.  It also is interesting to note that the men in their lives, Boaz and King Ahashverosh (a non-Jew) respectively, give Ruth and Esther the support, deference, and respect they deserve.

The wish “May you be like Ruth and like Esther” is an impossibly daunting challenge that is offered to both men and women as well as to Jews and those of other faiths.  It is difficult to be like one of these women, let alone both of them simultaneously.  Regardless, we cannot ignore this message.  The stories of Ruth and Esther reflect very important challenges, as well accomplishments, that have taken place throughout Jewish history.  They also highlight changes — changes in identity, ways of living Jewishly, and ways of imagining what is possible for both women and men — that we must face today.

What kind of blessing or wish do you have for your child?

Cheri Scheff Levitan shares stories and thoughts about being Jewish on her blog, Through Jewish Eyes (http://throughjewisheyes.com/), where this excerpt first appeared. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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A Poet’s Reflections on Approaching the Edge

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

In looking at my two Holocaust poems–“Accident of Fate,” The Jewish Writing Project, May 14, 2012 (http://tinyurl.com/cpywfs5) and “One Holocaust Movie Too Many,” The Jewish Writing Project, August 22, 2011  (http://tinyurl.com/d7dt7po)–I can’t help notice that there is a sizable difference in perspective.

In “One Holocaust Movie Too Many,” the earlier one, I am the outsider looking in. I see pictures of the Holocaust, but the screen filters me from reality. I am there and not there, separated from the horror via celluloid and watching from a distance in present time where the world is safe and Jews can be proud of their heritage. In the poem, I do not hear the “awful trains,” except in a vague generational memory. I am as distant as anyone who has not been through the camps.

In “Accident of Fate,” there is a closer, deeper perspective. Yes, there is also the movie screen, but I wished in this poem to state much more emphatically that my involvement in the horror is much more than a memory. It is a feeling that I have been spared, granted life, but should not have been. Except for this accident of fate, I should have been in the barracks waiting to be put to death. The poem raises vividly an unresolved philosophical dilemma: why was I allowed to live while others were marched to the chambers? I realize, of course, there is no answer to this question. In the latter poem I am singed by the fires of the crematorium. I am there – far more so than in the first poem where I exist as a curious spectator.

My different vision for each poem was cast by personal history. My parents escaped Vienna in 1939, and I was born during the war in safe Switzerland. On some level (though not as much as my father), I have suffered from some kind of “survivor’s guilt,” never fully escaping the thought that I, very easily, could have been one more nameless victim.

I never truly understood my father’s torture, but I am beginning to see now that I am not totally unscathed from the horrible history. Though I did not fall in, my toe has always touched the rim of this terrible abyss. In the second poem I move closer to the edge.

Each time I approach the edge, I find myself compelled to write.

Here is a poem that I wrote after thinking about the process of moving closer and closer to that edge:

My Father’s Soul

Two Holocaust poems written months apart,
both describing horrors seen on the silver screen,
both touching on my escape from
the fires of the crematoriums.
In the first poem, I serve as spectator
seeing the barracks from a distance,
realizing I have been fortunate enough
to live free in a Jewish neighborhood.
In the second poem, I am the participant
with the growing sense
a part of me, a part of my father
still lives among the prisoners,
and what’s more, I have no business
being a survivor, being allowed
to live free in a Jewish neighborhood.
I am my father’s son;
his survivor’s guilt is my guilt.
His soul is my soul as I put
one foot ahead of the other,
casting my eyes upward at the smoke.

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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Accident of Fate

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

No such thing as
too many concentration camp movies.
No such thing as
too many concentration camp books.
I have seen and read many, but hardly enough
for somewhere inside of me,
I know I should have been there,
there in any camp you choose
with a number on my arm,
and my bones sticking out of my body.
I do not know how to call it,
accident of fate or God’s hand,
but I have been found guilty of the soft life
here in this land of bountiful
where I can decide which restaurant to patron,
or what popular play to attend.
I feel I should be someplace else,
rousted out of the barracks at two a.m.,
hoping to be spared another beating
or a final trip to the chambers.

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, European Jewry, poetry

Light Music

by  Ilan Braun (Le Tour-du-Parc, Brittany, France)

Have you ever heard
On a summer evening
The violins and the cellos sobbing
While high in the sky
Swallows are  dancing
A place where the bows on too tight cords
Are running up faster than life
Faster than death
Where  grey-faced musicians
In spite of all
Smile  to the children around
Where tears flow like streams
Stemming from springs
Believed to be forever dried up
Do you hear, still,
This light music?

Ilan Braun, a retired French journalist who wrote for L’Arche, says that “This poem was inspired by the tragedy of the Terezinstadt concentration camp.”

A poet, writer, painter and amateur historian on the Holocaust and post-war Jewish clandestine immigration to Israel, he has lived in Israel and Australia and visited over 30 countries.

You can read more of his work in Labyrinthe poétique: De la terre au ciel (Publibook, Paris, 2009) and in English (“The Oak of Tears”) in Under One Canopy: Readings in Jewish Diversity, edited by Karen Primack (Kulanu Inc. Silver Spring, MD. 2003).

For more information about his work, visit: www.ilanbraun.dr.ag

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