Monthly Archives: October 2012

Modeh Ani: I Am Grateful

by Laura Greene (Whitefish Bay, WI)

In 1957 I boarded the SS United States and sailed from New York to Germany to marry a “nice Jewish boy from New Jersey.” Neither of our parents attended our wedding, although they both approved of the marriage. The Army Chaplin provided the men for the minyan, and they held the chupah. I didn’t know any of the guests or what a minyan or a chupah were. At the end of the ceremony the rabbi folded my hands around a sheet of paper. I thought it rather strange to be handed a marriage license at the end of my wedding. The rabbi looked directly into my eyes and his last words to me before releasing my hands were, “The responsibility of having a Jewish home is yours.”

I was dumbfounded. This wasn’t fair. I had no knowledge of such things. Why was this my responsibility? Why hadn’t he warned me that he was going to say this in front of God! I would have argued, protested, refused. But now it was too late.

I am the daughter of two American-born, secular Jewish parents. I grew up in New Jersey which Jewishly is a suburb of New York. My Jewish grandparents on both sides went back to Moscow and Constantinople. They and my parents spoke Yiddish and attended Yiddish theatre. Yet none of them celebrated a Jewish holiday.

My mother never lit a Shabbat candle. Our so-called Seders meant bread on one plate and matzah on another. Hagaddah?  I never heard of it. I stayed home from school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because it didn’t look nice for me to be in school. My parents usually had an argument on Yom Kippur because my father, who stayed home from work, insisted on eating. To him religion was superstitious nonsense. Sometimes he referred to it as black magic and he mocked the religious. Yet, I always knew I was Jewish. My brother had a bar mitzvah by memorizing his portion. My mother made chicken soup, chopped liver, kugel, bacon and shrimp.

In college a sorority sister invited me to her family Seder. Her brother was studying to be a cantor and he sang the liturgy. The family explained the proceedings as the family read from the Hagaddah and sang the traditional melodies. How kind and gentle the family were. How non-judgmental. I felt cheated at how much I had missed. If I married a Jewish boy, maybe I could catch up. My parents wanted me to marry Jewish. They were pleased when I found Victor.

Victor and I met in college. Like me, Victor was Jewish all the way back. In fact his father lay t’fillin every morning. I found out much later that his father never told him why or taught him how. Victor’s Hebrew and religious school experiences were fraught with unhappy memories. He entered the army after college graduation and was sent to Germany. We decided not to wait to get married, and instead, took the opportunity to visit Europe during his leave time.

When we returned home, we both enrolled in school. He earned a Ph. D degree and I earned an MA degree. Our friends were academics. We hosted Seders and invited our non-Jewish friends. Victor knew how to lead a Seder and I knew how to cook. I lit my grandmother’s brass candlesticks that my mother had tucked into my luggage when I left for Germany. Victor’s first teaching job was in Manhattan, Kansas and there I had my next Jewish experience.

There were two resident Jewish families in Manhattan. They adopted the itinerant, and, for the most part, uncommitted Jewish university faculty members. The ever-fluid Jewish community owned a one room building and from time to time a student rabbi from Fort Riley would pay a call. For Passover the two resident families ordered supplies from Topeka and arranged for shipment to Manhattan. I ordered two boxes of matzah.

Nina Becker taught me how to light Shabbat candles and how to bench. I was awkward, but I did it. I never forgot what the rabbi said at my wedding. What was I going to do when I had children? I knew nothing.

While in Kansas, I gave birth to a daughter.  Then, since academics travel, our son was born in Ohio. Knowing nothing about the importance of names, and neither family making suggestions, we just picked our children’s names because we both liked them. Our son was circumcised, but there was no brit milah. It didn’t matter to anyone. The decision still haunts me. We never missed hosting a Seder, and I never missed lighting Shabbat candles.

Victor’s next teaching job was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so we said good-bye to Kansas. By then our daughter was eight-years-old and our son, three. Victor drove a U-haul truck with all our belongings and I followed him in our VW Bug with the children. They had been the only Jewish children in that college town. There were no child car seats or seat belts in those days. To avoid the summer heat and traffic, we left about 3 a.m. I fell asleep at the wheel and hit a guardrail. The car went airborne over a fifty-foot embankment, plunged down, hit the ground, and bounced a few feet before stopping.

Miracle number one: The car did not turn over. Miracle number two: My children were not hurt. They had bounced between and among the nest of pillows and stuffed animals.

“That was fun, Mommy, can we do it again?” said my three year old when the car stopped moving.

I did everything wrong after that. Believing it was safer in the car than on the road, I told my children to stay in the car. Dazed and shaken, I climbed up the hill to get help.

Miracle number three: The car did not catch fire. My daughter had the good sense to turn off the motor. We stayed in voice contact. Victor, unaware of the accident, continued his journey.

A trucker spotted me. It must have been very strange to see a woman pacing the interstate road in the dark and screaming over an embankment. There were no cell phones in those days.

“Where’s your car?” he asked.

Shivering in the 80-degree heat, I pointed.

“Stay here. I’ll report the accident at the next exit.” He drove away.

Two cars passed without slowing. Meanwhile, I kept telling my children to stay put. It seemed forever before a police car arrived. The officer was kind. He asked me where I got my jacket. Until then I hadn’t noticed that the trucker had put his jacket on my shoulders.

The policeman stayed with me until Victor arrived. When Victor saw only me and not the children, his face contorted in pain.

“The kids are fine,” I said.

He put his head on the rolled-down window and cried for a few moments, then climbed down the hill and retrieved our children. Geoffrey’s pajamas were the color of the rising sun. I still cannot see the orange sun without remembering that accident.

Miracle number four: The VW Bug had not rolled over, but the guardrail had ripped a hole through the door of the driver’s seat. The hole was large enough to put my head through, but we walked away from that accident. We completed our trip scrunched in the cab of the U-haul truck. I never knew who the truck driver was. I never had the chance to thank him or return his coat. I wondered why I was still alive and my children safe. What made him stop when others didn’t?

We arrived in Milwaukee in August. I wanted to attend High Holiday Services. I needed to thank God I hadn’t killed my children. I needed to thank God for being alive. I needed to thank God for sending us the truck driver.

We visited all the Reform and Conservative synagogues in town. At each one we were told that without tickets we couldn’t attend the High Holidays. I asked why a person needed a ticket to pray. The answers did not satisfy me. Defeated, I told one Conservative rabbi that we’d pray in the park. He responded differently than the others. “A Jew should not pray alone on the High Holidays. If you decide to join us fine, if not, that’s fine too.  Come and welcome.”

We joined that day and enrolled our daughter in his religious school. Shortly after, at my daughter’s public school orientation, a woman approached me. “You’re new in town,” she said. “Are you Jewish?”

Her question shocked me. People in Kansas and New Jersey just don’t go around asking that question. I must have looked stunned because she laughed.

“I’m a speech therapist. I can tell by your accent you’re from the east coast. So I guess you’re Jewish. I’m Jewish too. Give me your phone number and I’ll invite you for Shabbat.”

To my surprise, she did. We talked. She said the synagogue I had just joined was looking for teachers and I should apply. I laughed.

“I don’t know anything,”’ I said.

“So, you’ll learn. You’ll keep one step ahead of the kids. I’ll help you.”

She did, and I did. We became good friends. Bit by bit I learned. Many people mentored me. I took courses through the Jewish community and the university. I attended Jewish conferences. It wasn’t long before I identified strongly as a Reform Jew. In time I received certification from HUC and teacher certification from the University of Wisconsin. I learned Hebrew, and, through the years, have received numerous teaching awards. I love what I do. My life was enriched because of my involvement in Jewish education. After 40 years of teaching in religious school and Hebrew school and helping kids prepare for becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, I have gained far more than I have given. Perhaps my debt to the truck driver is now paid in full. I wonder if he got his jacket back.

Just as I have been influenced by my many teachers, so have I influenced the children I’ve taught. I think about my Jewish journey and how far I have come. Was I led here? I like to think so. My husband is no longer reluctant to attend services with me or display Jewish artifacts in our home. When we recently downsized from a house to an apartment, he requested that a mezuzah be on every doorpost of our apartment, not just the front door. I wish I had treasured that strange paper the rabbi placed between my hands on my wedding day, but I didn’t know what a ketubah was. When I told this story to my present rabbi he smiled.

“You could have said no.”

His answer surprised me. Until then it never occurred to me that I had that option.

My daughter didn’t marry, but my son married a Jewish girl and they recently joined a synagogue. They live far away from me. My oldest grandchild now attends religious school kindergarten. He will learn Hebrew, see his grandmother light Shabbat candles and understand why. My brother, an atheist, is a strong supporter of Israel and his daughter and her family are active members of an Orthodox Jewish community. Our parents must have done something right, and maybe we did, too. I am blessed. L’dor v’dor.

Laura Greene holds an MA in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College. She has written twelve books for children and has received commendations for her work from the National Council of Teachers of the Social Sciences, Council for Wisconsin Writers, and the Writers League of Texas. She is currently seeking publication of her first adult novel: Walking on the Razor, a literary thriller about Eli Cohn, an Israeli spy whose courage saved a nation. Married, with two children, and three grandchildren, Laura enjoys reading, knitting, ballet, music, travel, cooking, and teaching. 

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Ring of Defiance

by Ellen Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

Recently I lost a gold band off the ring finger of my right hand. The ring is a plain gold band, and I use it as a guard to keep that hand’s main ring, a lovely garnet I once bought in Jerusalem, from slipping off.

The gold band had been my mother’s wedding ring, and I wore it  constantly, not only as a reminder of her, but also of an episode that has meant an increasing lot to me over the years.

I have never forgotten the day in May of 1939 when my mother and I had reservations at the Hotel Bremer Hof , a well known hotel in Bremen, for the night before we were due to board the North German Lloyd liner EUROPA for our emigration to the United States.

When it came time for dinner Mimi (my pet name for my mother) called room service for some food to be brought up for Pips, my Scotty, who had been certified to travel with us. Pips even carried traveling papers stamped with an official swastika clearing him for the voyage.

Pips’ food arrived and hit the spot with the dog. But it was the slip of paper on the silver tray that left the message I remember to this day. It read in elegant typescript: “Our Jewish guests are requested to refrain from entering the dining room for any meals.”

The next morning my mother and I stood on the Bremerhafen pier undergoing one last bodily inspection before boarding the S.S EUROPA.

Two fat bosomy matrons in white uniforms had already searched all orifices of my mother and me (I was all of 11 years old) looking for gold, diamonds or other treasures which we might intend to smuggle out of Germany. Not having found anything they were looking for one of the heavy females spotted my mother’s wedding ring and demanded: “Hand it over!”

With a rapid, but calm, movement my mother slid off the ring, moved a few steps closer to the edge of the pier and tossed the ring into the harbor water between the pier and the ocean liner. Too young to know what the dangerous consequences of her action might have been I admired my mother’s courage that day

The S.S.EUROPA left Bremerhaven early that evening. The shipboard band played “Muss I denn, muss I denn” (a German folksong beginning with the words “why must I leave this little town?”)

There were tears in my mother’s eyes as we stood at the railing watching Bremen fade into the distance. I did not understand why she cried, but I was very young and did not have her memories of better German days.

It was an enormous feeling of satisfaction to visit Pips at his kennel on the top deck. Twice a day a German sailor, black-white-red swastika emblem pinned to his uniform blouse, walked my little Jewish dog around the upper level of the ship to do his “business.” Even this eleven-year old somehow found this to be an act of poetic justice.

Soon after our arrival in Louisville, our new American home, my mother requested my father, who had managed to arrive ahead of us, to buy her a new wedding ring. She did not feel married without it, she said.

And it was this ring, which I wore as a guard on my right hand, that I’d lost.

Fortunately this episode has a happy ending.

After a few hours of frantic searching, the Ring of Defiance reappeared. It had slipped off my finger during a session on the computer and awaited discovery right under the keyboard.

Of course, it is not the original Ring of Defiance, but even as a replacement I am very happy to have it back on my hand where it belongs.

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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Crumbs

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

Crumbs are rarely, if ever, a topic for discussion. And rightly so for these annoying particles serve no obvious purpose and even tend to complicate our lives by finding their way into some of the most obscure and difficult to clean places. Crumbs, by their very nature, deserve to be thrown out with the rest of the trash. My mother, however, had an entirely different outlook when it came to crumbs. A Holocaust survivor, she would never permit food, no matter what the size, to be discarded in so demeaning a fashion. In her kitchen, crumbs were afforded a layer of respectability and were never included with the refuse that was thrown into the trashcan. At our home, crumbs were properly collected and set aside so as to ensure a more fitting and sensible method of disposal.

With her hand properly cupped, my mother would deftly sweep every visible crumb into a waiting bag that had recently been selected as a repository for our collected crumbs. “How can I throw this food away? These crumbs could have been a source of nourishment and hope in the camps and ghettos where there was little or nothing to eat,” she would solemnly recount. When it came to food, nothing would ever go to waste; it was simply out of the question to do so.

During the war, Jews, like my mother, quickly became masters of improvisation, cleverly turning less than desirable edibles and scraps into presentable, life-sustaining meals. Crumbs were part of the process and had taken on a new found importance in the camps and ghettos. Leftover bits of bread were always eagerly sought out and occasionally fought over by those driven by all consuming hunger. Oftentimes hidden on one’s person, crumbs became the currency of survival when food rations were not forthcoming or when a sick loved one was in dire need of nutrition. While growing up, if we children happened to be present during the collection of crumbs, mother’s stories relating to food, or lack thereof, would always accompany the gathering process. “We scavenged for crumbs,” mother related tearfully. “Crumbs meant survival.  Crumbs could have given a ghetto resident another day of life.”

Each meal and snack produced a new crop of crumbs and the bag would slowly fill. Once it was decided that the right amount was present, my mother would dutifully make her way to a pre-determined site in the back yard and begin sprinkling crumbs upon the ground. In no time at all, birds, accompanied by an occasional squirrel, would appear and descend upon this feast of tantalizing crumbs. The symphonic rhythm of the birds’ frantic pecking interspersed with the sporadic sounds of flapping wings had become an unforgettable melody that would bring a knowing smile to her beaming face. She was overjoyed knowing that nothing, not even the smallest crumb, had gone to waste and that some hungry creature had been given a proper meal.

Our custom of collecting crumbs quickly ended with my mother’s passing. Crumbs had suddenly become a nuisance of sorts and there were more important things to do with our precious time.  Yet every year when the winter months arrive, I find myself hypnotically drawn to the window that overlooks my own backyard. The ground, now bare and frozen, provides very little nourishment to the few winged residents that have elected to remain behind. Every once in a while, a number of birds land unexpectedly beneath the window and begin pecking aimlessly at the lifeless ground below. With nothing to show for their efforts, I can sense their frustration and disappointment as they raise their eyes in my direction and give me a look that nearly always conveys the same simple, yet urgent, request: remember… please remember us. 

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust. For more information about his work, visit:  http://tinyurl.com/86u3ous

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Why Fast?

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Good question for a self-doubting Jew.
Me, who counts the number of pages left in the service,
me, who counts the numbers of lights above the ark,
me, who now gets up and sits down more slowly.
What is my one day fasting
compared to a Muslim’s thirty,
a dieter’s holy grail,
a third world child’s daily necessity?
Does my fast count for extra credit
when the signed and sealed decision is made?
I fast for reasons that hover
just outside the borders of precise definition.
I fast for reasons that have little to do
with the poor education forced on me.
I fast for reasons that mark my tenuous connection
to a congregation of people I know once a year,
to a congregation of six million I never knew.
Finally, I fast to ask forgiveness for sins,
real and imagined, deliberate and accidental.
And while that hefty number is being tallied,
I try to convince myself  that fasting
will let me hear the voice of God,
establishing a one-to-one connection I need to make.

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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Turn, Turn, Turn

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

I’d like to ask Pete Seeger to supper in my sukkah.
He’s 92 now, and who knows how many more?
I’d serve vegetable stew on brown rice
and a seedy home-risen bread
and after a local, seasonal pie
I’d turn to him, and tell him
how I grew up, and then out, on his music,
how The Weavers were my family’s soundtrack,
how my parents didn’t care about the politics
but just liked the songs, and sang along
— and our family didn’t sing much —
especially my father, in a buffalo-plaid shirt,
at an Adirondacks bungalow,
on the steps to a screened-in porch,
holding up the trout he’d caught on Schroon River
like a Torah just taken from the Ark.

After I’d served tea, and offered sweaters against the autumn night,
I’d turn to Pete, and tell him
how his songs, and the banjo,
and that beckoning voice of his youth
are the best sounds of my innocent soul,
the part that’s pure, that’s remained unmarred;
that his songs blessed me with things to believe in,
and how, to this day, I’m not only willing,
but I’m desperate for him to raise a hand between strums,
and point to me, to us, urging us to sing together, to sing along,
to sing for God-knows-what something.

The sukkah rustles in the wind, leaves crackle,
weary season’s-end mosquitos make a half-hearted appearance.
I wrap my father’s buffalo-plaid shirt around me;
I wear some of his clothes now that he’s gone.

Pete would turn to me, chuck me under the chin,
and sit up higher in his brittle, reedy body.
He’d hold up his hand as if to part waters
and point
and every person sitting in any sukkah
anywhere in the world at that moment
would start singing that song from Ecclesiastes,
The one about time for this, and time for that,
and the four-part harmony would rise out of the sukkahs
towards heaven, if there is one,
like sweet, good-hearted smoke.

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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