Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Inner Palace

by Ilan Braun (Le Tour-du-Parc, Brittany, France)
Little Adam sleeps and dreams
In his mother’s inner palace
Little Adam in his tightly closed fists holds Knowledge
Like a delicate full bloom flower
He knows everything about the universe
And the world above
He knows the Divine Law
From the first letter, Alef, to the last one, Taf
Little Adam knows and understands the Creation’s mysteries
All of them without exception
Why the whales sing under the rolling waves
Why the moon shines during the darkest of nights
Why the sun breeds the day every morning
Why Man and Woman like one unique being
And why this, and why that, and so much more
Little Adam in his mother’s heart
Even with closed eyes, sees All
The huge Time space before his birth, and right after
Yesterday, today and tomorrow on the same horizon
With closed eyes, he smiles
Because Angels, with love, surround him
And rock him with melodious lullabies
Till he dreams again
Alas, the long and sweet inner Night is ending
And being torn apart
Tender dreams suddenly ending
The Day is rising blinding Little Adam with too much brightness
From his mother’s heart expelled
Crying and moaning from alien pain
As an Angel, with his finger, has given him total oblivion
Here is Little Adam on his own on this earth
And forever seeking the lost Palace
Ilan Braun, a retired French journalist who wrote for L’Arche, is 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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The High Cost of Being Jewish

Cheri Scheff Levitan (Atlanta, GA)

For “fun,” while my husband was out of town, I decided to go back in time and add up how much we’ve spent – er, invested – in developing the “positive and confident” Jewish identities of our two children.  The list included:

  • An annual synagogue membership (to ensure we’d have a place to go for our son’s bris, the kids’ b’nai mitzvot, high holiday services, etc.);
  • 13 years of a day school education (K through 8 at The Epstein School and 9 through 12 at The Weber School);
  • An annual JCC membership to ensure that the kids would be able to attend:
    • Over 5 years of various JCC sports programs;
    • 8 years of various JCC summer camp programs;
  • A semester in Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program; and
  • Numerous round-trip plane rides to New York, Florida, or Israel to celebrate family holidays and simchas.

While I’m not complaining (actually, I guess I am), this list of “costs” is deceptive.  You see, while membership has its privileges, all of the organizations associated with the list above strongly request (or require in some cases)  – in addition to tuition – contributions to annual fundraising campaigns too.  I’m sure that even my Christian friends and relatives can relate to these challenges.  Adding up the numbers, I almost fainted!

So, how much did we spend in total?  Before I tell you, I must share two things that happened earlier this year.

The “easier” event to talk about involves an unpublicized, perceived act of anti-Semitism at a high school in Eugene, Oregon.  While, admittedly, I don’t know all the facts, it seems that a teacher who has been “earmarked as a racist” inserted an anti-Semitic slur (the K _ K E word) into a question on a discussion sheet about the movie “Swing Kids.”   The movie is an interesting portrayal of resistance by German youth during the Nazi regime.  However, Jewish parents and their students were not warned in advance about the film’s screening or content, especially as it pertains to the ways Jews are portrayed.  As a result, many of the Jewish teens in the class reported feeling uncomfortable, and even traumatized.

The second situation is a bit more complex.  Unless you don’t read newspapers or watch the news, you undoubtedly heard about the rabbi, his two children, and the principal’s daughter who were murdered outside a Jewish day school in Toulouse, France.  A letter from a woman named Becky (Rebecca “Beck” Caspi, Director General, Israel Office and Senior Vice President, Israel and Overseas of The Jewish Federations of North America), who attended the victims’ funerals, crossed my desk shortly after the tragic event.  She wrote:

“I’ve been thinking about how a father, who chose not to pursue fortune or fame, but to dedicate his life to teaching, lost his life because of that decision.  And I’ve been thinking about his wife – now a widow – who lost not only a husband, but her two beautiful sons.  Aryeh was only six and Gavriel just three.  And I’ve been thinking about Miriam Monsonego [the principal’s daughter] who got up to go to school and was brutally murdered instead.

None of them had to be at the Ozar HaTorah School in Toulouse [that] Monday morning.  They were part of a Jewish community that was building a Jewish future – securing our continuity as a people – by investing in education.  And for that, they were sacrificed.”

As both of these situations highlight, we pay a price for choosing to become, to stay, and to be Jewish.  Sometimes, the price is financial.  Sometimes, the price is fear.  Sometimes, the price is anger (and accompanying ulcers).  Sometimes, the price is life itself.

I feel bad about having counted my “identity-building” dollars in the wake of all of this.  Does it really matter how much it has cost us?

The choice to be Jewish – and to ensure the Jewishness of our children – is ours.  With it, there is a price that we willingly pay.  So be it.  Regardless of how it all gets added up in the end, the price is clearly very high to those of us who make this choice.

Cheri Scheff Levitan wrote this piece for her blog, Through Jewish Eyes (http://throughjewisheyes.com), where this excerpt first appeared in slightly different form. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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The God Particle

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

They may have found the particle in Geneva,
but they didn’t find God in heaven.
So, the search continues, in Switzerland, in me.
I applaud their efforts, even though
I don’t understand their physics.
Yet, I know the answer to God’s existence
won’t be found inside a semi-conductor,
but in the intricate tunnels of the human heart.
If I could find a particle of belief,
I would be the most willing convert to orthodoxy.
Nations fight over religion;
families argue the merits over religion
in prewedding discussions with their offspring.
The battle between belief and non-belief
rages across the tough terrain of my soul.
Will you esteemed physicists
now find yourself closer to God,
or will one tiny particle even more convincingly lead
to the gateway of the splendor of His work?
I await an answer from you or God.

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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Making the Most of Life

by Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

Like most of us, I usually try to avoid thinking about death. Its seeming finality – the enormity of the thought that we are never coming back – is not something I have ever managed to face and comprehend fully no matter how hard I try. Instead, heart thumping, courage faltering, I usually come to a screeching halt just before plunging over what seems like the looming precipice beyond.

Yet, on the ninth anniversary of my beloved father’s passing and just a few days after attending the funeral of my dear friend Shimon, I find myself drawn to musing about death and to be able to do so more calmly and rationally than ever before.

Selfless and discreet, Shimon was a caring man, a listener, who preferred not to speak about his own trials and tribulations and devoted much of his life to helping others through his nursing work and later as the hospital chaplain for our synagogue. Listening to the rabbi’s eulogy for Shimon, I felt uplifted and a sense of inner peace soothed my soul – just as my friend would have wanted.

I do not normally derive comfort from a Jewish funeral service. Nor are you meant to. The tearing of relatives’ clothing over their hearts to symbolize their pain, recital of prayers – “You return us to dust… the best of … years have trouble and sorrow; they pass by speedily, and we are in darkness” (Psalm 90) — and the harsh thud of earth shoveled onto the coffin, all serve as a wake-up call to those who grieve.

In addition to honouring the deceased, mourners are required to confront the reality that not only have they lost their loved one, but that their own lives are finite: “Teach us to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90) Indeed, this is the source of the Jewish tradition of wishing mourners “a long life” – not because we would be so heartless, as I once thought, as to desire that they live for a long time without their loved one but because we hope they will enjoy “long days” from which they will derive meaning and purpose, striving to make the world a better place.

My mother would often quote a passage from the Talmud, which is traditionally recited for a man at a Jewish funeral: “It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Tarfon, Pirke Avot, 2:21)

At Shimon’s funeral, the rabbis recited a beautiful poem, “Life is a Journey,” by the late Rabbi Alvin Fine of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, which provides a realistic summary of the fallible human condition. Failure certainly does not preclude meaning:

“From defeat to defeat to defeat, until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.” (from Gates of Prayer, published by the CCAR)

Perhaps I have become more aware of death because I have been writing the life stories of my late grandfather and of my mother, who is now sadly in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease. In the course of this journey, I have been fortunate to have been able to trawl through a treasure trove of family letters, some dating back as far as the 1930s – snippets of social history, which regrettably, with the advent of email and the Internet, come to an end around the year 2000. It is sobering to realise that I will not be leaving the same legacy for my children.

Written in English, Hebrew, Yiddish and even occasionally Polish, these letters have crisscrossed the globe. Desperate letters in Yiddish from a sister in Lodz, Poland, in 1935 to her sister, my late grandmother, in Tel Aviv; hundreds of letters in Hebrew, which followed my mother’s journey from Tel Aviv to Melbourne, Australia, in the late 1940s and back again, and then on to London and Montreal a decade later and back to Melbourne once more in the late 60s; and letters in English spanning four decades from my Canadian father’s family in Toronto to their brother in Melbourne and from my adopted Melbourne “aunt” and close family friend to my mother,  providing vignettes of what life was like for Australians in the 1950s and 60s.

In perusing these letters, each preserved in its original envelope, what quickly becomes clear is that no matter what advances technology may bring, fundamentally little has changed: human beings still experience joy and suffering, success and failure, complain about the economy, celebrate births and marriages and bemoan divorces and deaths among family and friends. Life continues – whether you are there to witness and experience it or not. As the ancient Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) teaches: “there is nothing new under the sun.” (1.9) “One generation passes away, and another generation comes; And the earth abides for ever.” (1.4)

So much toil and trouble, fuss and bluster, anguish and elation. Yet, after we are gone and our contemporaries have also vanished with the passing years, what remains? For the creative few, a contribution to knowledge they may have made; a book they may have written; artwork they may have produced. For those with means, a legacy in bricks and mortar or a charitable foundation to which they may have contributed. For the vast majority of us, the living legacy of our children, grandchildren, and possibly even great-grandchildren, as well as photos and other memorabilia and perhaps sayings or traditions handed down from generation to generation.

My late father was a quiet man. On the first anniversary of his passing, the rabbi likened him to the Ancient Israelite tribe of his Hebrew namesake Issachar, whom Moses exhorted to rejoice quietly “in your tents”, in contrast to fellow tribe Zebulun, who was to be happy “on your journeys”. (Deuteronomy, 33:18)

In his own discreet way, my father did whatever he could to care for and support his family. He would do anything for the ones he loved and he was everything to us. To him, home and family came first, and I will never forget how on the day he died, he urged me to leave his hospital bedside and return to my husband and young children because “they need you”.

My father stood like a pillar at the centre of our lives. We were all accustomed to depending on him, and when he died, we felt his absence keenly. In the days and months that followed, I could not help but ask myself how it would have bothered anyone if he had been allowed to continue driving through the streets, helping to lighten the load of his family and friends?

At my friend Shimon’s funeral, the rabbis also quoted from Ecclesiastes:

“Kohelet wrote: ‘The eye never has its fill of seeing.’ (1.8) … God, be now with those whose hearts are broken because, whenever parting comes, it comes too soon.”

Unfortunately, such words of comfort were missing from my own father’s funeral and shiva. The rabbi went to great lengths to urge the family not to respond to the embraces of friends at the funeral; he only agreed to attend shiva once at my parents’ city apartment; and when at his request, my mother, sister and I came to the synagogue each evening during shiva to recite Kaddish, we found the main sanctuary cold and dark, with the men comfortably ensconced in the small, cheery annex used during the week. The annex did not have a mechitza (partition to separate men and women), and so the men insisted that we file into the main sanctuary and sit in the row closest to the annex, the windows of which were opened so that we could hear the prayers.

Until my father’s passing, I had been fairly sure that there was nothing after death. Although I keep a traditional Jewish home and had spent years studying philosophy, I could not seem to accept the idea of “eternal life” and “everlasting peace” in the “world to come”. Yet, when I lost my father just a few hours after spending the night tending to his needs in hospital, I began to question my former apparent certainties. How was it possible that my father could be there one minute and gone the next? What had happened to his persona, to the essence of who he had been, to his soul?

Ecclesiastes teaches:  “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, but the spirit returns unto God, who gave it.” (12.7) Today, while I am still not sure whether or not I believe in God, I draw comfort from praying that my father’s “soul be bound up in the bond of everlasting life” and I strive to honor his memory through my actions.

As Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer wrote in their poem, We Remember Them, also recited at Shimon’s funeral:

 “As long as we live, they too shall live,
for they are now a part of us,
we remember them.” (From Gates of Prayer)

Shira Sebban, a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, worked as a journalist for the Australian Jewish News. She previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. You can read more of her work at: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=13636  

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Breaking the Jewish Taboo on Germany

by Lev Raphael (Okemos, MI)

I never expected to travel to Germany at all, let alone five separate times.  And the idea of enjoying myself there and making German friends would have struck me as implausible–if not crazy–ten years ago.  Why?  Because I grew up the son of Holocaust survivors and Germany always seemed to me the apotheosis of evil.  I feared and loathed it.

Letting go of those feelings prompted me to write My Germany, a combination of mystery, travelogue, and memoir.  Weaving together my story with my parents’ stories, it charts my unusual journey from hatred to reconciliation.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to be invited to speak about it across the US and Canada at Jewish book fairs, colleges and universities, libraries, churches and synagogues, the Library of Congress, and German cultural institutions.  The response has been profoundly accepting and sometimes–it embarrasses me to say–even rapturous. I’ve often had crowds of over one hundred people attend my events.

I’ve also done two book tours in Germany sponsored by the American Embassy in Berlin and the American Consulate in Frankfurt.  And I’ve been interviewed by Der Spiegel International.  And, amazingly, a German TV producer has expressed interest in documenting my next tour.

But American Jewish newspapers and magazines (print and on-line), even ones I’ve published reviews in over the years, have ignored the book.  That’s despite the fact that I’ve been publishing Jewish-American fiction and creative non-fiction for over thirty years, and that the book is published by the University of Wisconsin Press, highly respected for its Judaica and memoirs.

So why the virtual blackout?

I haven’t written the book to urge anyone to like or visit Germany.  It’s a description of how I emerged from my horror of Germany as an idea and then came to terms with it as a reality.  But even that’s apparently too much for many Jewish gatekeepers, who still seem to be suffering from collective PTSD over sixty years past the Holocaust.  Or they think their audiences are.

It’s not just editors who have problems. One prominent professor of Jewish Studies who resisted a visit of mine to his school accused me of offering Germans “forgiveness,” even though my book specifically says nothing of the sort.  But he couldn’t even cope with the word “reconciliation.”  He said that was just “code.”  You’d expect a professor to be more up-to-date: recent anthologies about post-Holocaust relations between Jews and Germans specifically distinguish between the two terms.

Reconciliation doesn’t remotely mean forgetting or even ignoring the past.  It’s acknowledging the historic chasm can never be filled in, but embracing the fact that one can reach across it in compassion and strive for mutual understanding.

A Jewish student at a major university said that when he told friends at Hillel, the school’s Jewish student center, that he was going to my reading, they asked why he’d bother.  (They were already furious at him for wanting to work in the automotive industry in Germany.)  Another college student at one of my readings said her father refused to speak to her about her majoring in German.  I’ve heard many more stories like this.

Even in-laws have asked me how I could possibly go to Germany under any circumstances whatsoever, and say they would never dream of doing what I’ve done.

How can I return to Germany?  Because of all the people I’ve met there who are deeply involved in Holocaust education, whether through teaching, writing, publishing, or community work.  Because when I met individuals agonizing over their parents’ or grandparents’ Nazi past, I realized how much better off I was to be the son of victims as opposed to perpetrators.

Of course, you could argue that My Germany wasn’t widely covered by Jewish media because it lacks worth or substance.  But you know what?  Disliking one of my books hasn’t stopped Jewish reviewers in the past from expressing their opinions in print, going all the way back to my first collection of stories in 1990, Dancing on Tisha B’Av.

That book was controversial for mixing stories about gay Jews and children of Holocaust survivors, and there were many Jewish Book Fairs where I would never be invited to speak about the book.  Attitudes among American Jews about gay issues have changed for the better. But when it comes to Germany, our community seems, for the most part, frozen in time.

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-two 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

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