Monthly Archives: January 2013

A Silver Lining

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

As a physician, I dare say I know a thing or two about noses. Not that I’m the nosey type, mind you, but I have been examining, probing, and snaking my way through noses for quite a while. So when something in a nose appears to be out of the ordinary, or when anything, for that matter, just doesn’t sit right, I stop and ruminate a while and think of the possibilities. Such was the case a number of years ago when, during a routine examination of an elderly gentleman, I found myself going back to take a second and even a third look at the inside of his nose. This gentleman had come in for an entirely unrelated matter, but there was something very peculiar about his nose. It was something that I had never seen before.

Noses typically possess an inner lining of pink, moistened tissue, but this gentleman’s nasal lining possessed a sparkling grey, if not silver, hue, a strange finding to say the least. “Does the nose bother you in any way?” I asked. “No, not at all. The nose feels just fine,” he responded. I was deliberating whether or not to move on to other matters but my curiosity was piqued, leaving me no option but to inquire further and become a bit nosier. “What kind of work do you do?” I continued. “A silversmith. I’ve been a silversmith since I was seven years of age.” And then it dawned on me that fine silver dust had more than likely entered his nose during all those many years of working with silver. With time, fine specks of metal had settled beneath the carpet of tissue lining the inside of his nose resulting in an internal tattoo.  “I see you have an interest in silver,” he remarked. “You must come and visit my home sometime. I have some very interesting old and new pieces of silver Judaica that I am sure will catch your fancy.” I was taken aback. “How could you possibly know I have an interest in Judaica?” I asked, somewhat skeptically. “Very few people know that I am interested in old silver Judaica. Tell me how is it that you know?” He paused for a moment and, with a wry smile, stated, “I saw the mezuzahs on your doors and the pictures in your consultation room, and, besides all that, you have that look– the look of a collector.”

Within three days time, I stood at his front door waiting to gain entrance to what I hoped would be a collector’s paradise filled with objects that celebrate Jewish life and tradition. I was not disappointed. The front room was drab and lifeless and one could not help but detect  the unmistakable smell of old musty furniture. But much like the sparkle of stars against a darkened sky, the glitter of silver pieces flickered  from the surfaces of  tables placed side by side in  the center of the room.

“These are my pieces,” he began, pointing to exquisite silver Kiddush cups, candle sticks, Chanukah menorahs and plates, all with Jewish themes meticulously hammered on each item by this most gifted old world craftsman. I stood in awe not knowing what to select; I would have taken them all. “I have some old pieces to show you, as well. When we left Poland in the early seventies, the government placed a limit on the amount of money that could be brought out. There was, however, no problem bringing out sliver Judaica if one so desired. And so I went about seeking out and purchasing silver Judaica and was able to leave with  a good number of pieces.” Many of these items had a tragic history, he explained, having either been sold or handed over to Polish neighbors for temporary safekeeping by Jews who were driven from their homes by occupying German forces and who would never return to reclaim their family keepsakes.

I was most attracted to these old pieces as each had a story to tell, bountiful tales of joyous family celebrations, as well as the inevitable accounts of anguish, illness and death. There was one particular piece that caught my attention. Over to the side of one table stood a tall stately Kiddush cup. What made this piece standout was its octagonal center, a stunning detail that separated this cup from all of the others.

The cup must have been a prized family possession that had passed from father to son. I imagined that with the arrival of the Sabbath, the head of the household would have taken hold of the cup and solemnly recited Kiddush while the rest of the family stood in silent reverence around the dinner table. As my fingers surrounded this beautiful cup, I suddenly found myself thinking about the original owners. What had happened to them, and where could they possibly be at this moment?  But I knew. I knew only too well what had happened to the owners. Anyone acquainted with our history would most assuredly know.

This cup survived but can tell us precious little of those who once held it close to their hearts. The fathers who blessed their children at the Sabbath table, the smiling mothers who were overjoyed that the Sabbath had finally arrived, enabling the family to be together once again.  I bought the cup and use it frequently when family and visitors come by for a Sabbath or holiday meal. I’m sure the owners would have wanted it that way.

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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Touched

by Bracha Mirsky (Jerusalem, Israel)

In Memory of Itka Rochel bas Shmuel z”l (1930-1974)

I’m a proud third-generation Canadian. I grew up in Ottawa the capital of Canada; the winters were long and cold. I remember the snow banks were higher than I was. Although my father was born and raised in Ottawa, by the time I was growing up most of my dad’s family had left the city. My mother was from Montreal where she had a large close-knit family she left to raise a family in Ottawa. We would visit and embrace the warmth of our family in Montreal as often as possible, but in Ottawa my mother was as isolated and lonely as if every day was winter.

I remember my grandparents’ towering gray stone house in Montreal. Even now, I can see through the eyes of a child and feel the warm wonder of the sights, smells and sounds of Pesach:  sweet gefilte fish, chicken soup, matzoh, grape juice, spilling the drops from our cup …to lessen our joy at the memory of the suffering of our enemies. I have fond memories of my grandfather, uncles, father and brothers at the head of the table singing. I looked forward to examining the drama of Pesach in pictures in a small, brightly colored Haggadah. My mother was a quiet woman; her attention was always focused on her children, ready with a kind word and a hug. She would help my grandmother prepare and serve the meal.

I’m nine-years-old.  I shyly ask my bubby, “Can I help too?”

“Of course,” my bubby replies. “What a big girl you are now. A shayna maideleh!”  I would help serve the gefilte fish and collect and wash the cutlery. I would bask in the glow of my mother’s pride in me.

My mother loved us so much! She was the emotional core of our family, yet we had no idea that in her quiet way she was instilling so much in us. She was a stay-at-home mom, with six children — that was no easy task! Dad worked hard but it was always difficult to make ends meet. There was no money for Hebrew school and so I went to the local public school.

As a child the world was puzzling to me. I could not connect the dots that others seemed to have no problem with; the world did not make sense.

“Dad, no one likes me, they won’t play with me, they’re mean and always try to get me in trouble.”  His only reply was, “Make yourself a small target.”

“Mom why do they call me a ‘Christ-killer’?”

“Just ignore them; they don’t know what they’re talking about.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was hard to ignore them while the boys were beating me up after school as the girls watched. Canada, 1968, I was 11-years-old.

“Where are you going Mom?”

“There is a protest to free the Soviet Jews.” My mother never missed a rally or any event to try and win the freedom of a fellow Jew. This woman who loved children and her people so much, who would not hurt a fly, always put a heavy wrench in her purse before each rally. Just in case the KGB tried to break it up, she intended to take a good swing at one!

I can still see Mom lighting Shabbos candles and the whole world seemed to glow in that soft light. With my mother at my side, the world was at peace.

Shul — a place to sing! Awesome! Reading the stories of the Bible, imagining what it would be like to have such faith. I already knew that God was everywhere and I could talk to him whenever I wanted. Talking to God was easy, understanding God was the hard part.

“Mom, are you not feeling well again?”

“No dear, don’t worry I’m OK.”  But she wasn’t. Visiting the hospital, not understanding, “When will Mom get better?”

“Soon dear, soon.”

It seemed so gradual, I didn’t even notice it. Mom could do less and less and I did more and more. I’m 16, my two older brothers are away at university leaving me, now the eldest at home, to look after and cook for my father and three younger siblings. My youngest brother is only six- years-old.

I visit Mom in the hospital every evening with my dad but she looks worse and worse, no one says anything. A wall of silence, we didn’t know…how could we not know? She kept the truth from us, it was cancer.

Waking up erev Rosh Hashanah, I can hear my dad talking on the phone “…last night…” I stiffen in my bed, my body rigid, waiting, but no one comes. I get up and go down to breakfast; Dad acts normally and sends us off to school.

It’s erev Rosh Hashanah.

I sit at the back of the school assembly hall right up against a wall. In that big darkened room with only the stage lit up I’m in a tiny corner all alone, feeling with every part of my being that my whole world has come crashing down and no one else notices it, their world hasn’t changed at all. Yet I still try to deny it, I repeat to myself, “I must have been mistaken, Dad would have told me if anything happened, therefore nothing happened,” I say this to myself over and over again. Surrounded by a sea of people, I’m all alone in the dark.

That afternoon I begin my slow walk home from school with a heavy heart, thinking to myself, “It’s erev Rosh Hashanah.”

I’m about half-way home, alone as usual, when something softly brushes my cheek. I stop and stand still. My hair is tied back in a ponytail, there is nothing near me. Again, something softly brushes my cheek. My heart leaps out — NO! It can’t be! It’s not you, you’re not dead! It must be the wind!  I turn to face the opposite direction. The same soft touch brushes the same cheek. Then I knew…she was gone.

Stunned, I sit on a nearby rock, I don’t know for how long. Now numb and beyond pain, I accepted the truth. Then I began to wonder at the strength of my mother, to come to me and give me this gift. To reach out and touch me to say goodbye.

It’s erev Rosh Hashanah.

My mother taught me many things. She taught me about family, to be a proud Jew and to never stop caring. In her last moments on earth she taught me that God is real and that nothing can stop love, not even death.

* * *

I look after my father and siblings for three years until I’m 19 and then it’s my turn to go away to college. I become a nurse and meet my husband. We are married in a lovely ceremony in an Orthodox shul. I miss my mom, but I believe she is happy for me. I could not have anticipated the surprises that were in store for me.

I married at 23, and two years later I give birth to triplets, two boys and a girl. Oh! How my mom would have loved this! Never have I missed her so much as then. For the first time since her passing, I can see her in my mind’s eye, holding her grandchildren, and the joy from her face is blinding!

Public health services provide a really sweet woman to help out for the first few months, but after that initial period I am on my own. I am told by the supervisor, “No one can manage on their own with triplets; you’ll have to hire some help.”

“Really?” I say, “We’ll see…”

God, fill our hands with your blessings. In this, I am truly my mother’s daughter. Five years later I give birth to twin boys. Life is busier and happier than ever!

They grow, the years pass and they develop as proud Jews who know their God, and they are very proud of their people and love every one of them. I know exactly who they got that from. All the Bible stories are real to them, they love going to shul, singing and giving me joy.

And their mother tells them stories of a special soul, the bubby they never knew.

Mom, pray for them.

Bracha Mirsky is a mother of triplets and twins, Registered Nurse, Labour Coach, Certified Parent and Infant Consultant and Diabetes Educator. She has worked as a member of the St. Elizabeth Nurses Maternal and Infant Care Team as a specialist and with her local Family and Child services, assisting families with parenting issues. Bracha is a guide to parents through classes, as an advice columnist and as an author. Her book, What Makes Kids Tick? Giving parents the tools to shape child behaviour, is based on the counseling she has given parents and her own parenting journey, filled with stories of the challenges and rewards of raising multiple children and the insights the adventure has given her. Bracha can be reached at www.whatmakeskidstick.com. She has recently made aliya.

This story was reprinted with permission from Living Legacies: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume III, edited by Liz Pearl. For more information about the book, visit:  http://at.yorku.ca/pk/ll3.htm

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Embracing Pluralism

by Emily Goldberg (New York, NY)

Here I am, sitting silently amongst the tension. I watch in awe, somewhere in the middle or off center-left, as my new friends defend their various Jewish backgrounds on a casual Saturday night in Tzfat, Israel.

“My father, an Orthodox rabbi, would never officiate at a wedding for an intermarried couple, unless, of course, the spouse had converted. Halacha, or Jewish law, must always come first,” says a modern Orthodox girl on my left.

“But my mother, a Catholic, never converted,” argues a liberal Reform Jew to my right. “In my Reform community, I am still considered Jewish despite the intermarriage between my parents! In fact, without an intermarriage, I would not even be here today.”

Just six months ago, I never would have imagined that I’d somehow be struggling with the question of interfaith and its impact on Judaism with all different kinds of Jews surrounding me. In a pluralistic setting that we, twenty-six American Jewish teenagers, had created over the summer in Israel, it suddenly felt acceptable to cross the sensitive boundaries that divided us in our individual walks of faith. Will we allow our separate denominations, I wonder, to expunge our newly formed friendships? Will our different community affiliations destroy the sacred space we’ve created for spiritual growth?

One year earlier, the world of Jewish pluralism had barely entered my realm of thinking. Growing up in a sheltered Conservative Jewish bubble through both synagogue and Camp Ramah, I never considered the idea that the “other” Jews who existed around the world particularly cared about what I believed. I simply believed, like many American Jews today, that sects of Judaism were structured into a scale with Orthodoxy titled as the “most religious” and Reform as the “least Jewish” of them all, for reasons that I can no longer understand today. For years, I secured my place on this scale of American Judaism with the ignorant awareness that some denominations were placed at higher and lower levels, but I refused to ever explore these other communities. Besides, if non-Conservative Jews distanced themselves from my lifestyle, then what could I possibly learn from them?

It was during my last summer at Camp Ramah Darom in Clayton, GA, when I learned about the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a Jewish high school program that would later open my eyes to the perspectives of other Jewish denominations and shape my pluralistic view of Judaism. In early June 2011, a friend in my age group had drowned while we were rafting down the Ocoee River in Southern Tennessee. He was rushed to a local hospital where he passed away that afternoon, leaving my entire camp and community in shock and utter grief.

This tragedy inspired me to question theology and Conservative ideologies beyond the mandatory lectures throughout the week. Unsettled by the limited opportunities for spiritual introspection during the day, I attempted to explore my faith at night alongside my friends, who, understandably, wanted no involvement. It seemed sensible that, after overcoming a ten-day mourning period at camp, my friends did not need to hear phrases such as “How could God let this happen?” or “the Conservative movement has struggled with death and dying for years” anymore. My curiosity toward Judaism, text studying, and spiritual growth only burgeoned as the summer continued, but my social circle was taking a faith break. As a result, I was nicknamed “little rabbi” and “super Jew,” names that seemed to justify my constant desire to debate God’s omniscience with the first person I saw. I wondered if I would ever be fortunate enough to find a community of Jewish seekers with whom I could explore my own Jewish path. Throughout the emotional whirlwind of a summer, I simply wanted to unravel the rudiments of my Judaism and analyze their every aspect.

During my last week of camp, a counselor pulled me aside and provided me with information that marked a new direction to my post-Ramah junior year. She simply looked at me and said, “There are people out there who are like you. They’re applying to a program called the Bronfman Youth Fellowship, a five-week program in Israel next summer. You really should check it out.”

Weeks later, the Bronfman website became my most frequently visited computer page. Unfamiliar terms such as “Jewish pluralism,” “Ma’aseh,” and “Edgar Bronfman” entered my daily realm of thinking. As the days progressed, I continued to learn more about this once nebulous yet intriguing Jewish program. This organization could somehow amalgamate twenty-six high school students from across the Jewish spectrum to learn together? Five weeks in Israel will be spent learning from some non-Conservative teachers? Fascinated by the idea of exploring Judaism through new perspectives, I felt motivated to expand my sheltered Jewish bubble. Three months into my academic year, I opened the summer application, realizing that I had found my future community.

Seven months, five essays, and two interviews later, I packed my suitcase and joined the twenty-sixth Bronfman class for five life-changing weeks in Israel. Would these random people be interested in starting vehement theological discussions at any hour of the night? Will any of them enjoy being challenged and passionate about their beliefs this summer? I anxiously (and perhaps creepily, too) eyed the circle of unique thinkers from across the country. Little did I know, these twenty-five other individuals would inspire nights of deep, endless conversations, reconstruct my view of Jewish denominationalism, and sharpen my faith with the experiences of their own.

While I had traveled to Israel with Jewish groups in the past, this journey was unique in infinite ways. I never imagined that I would find the opportunity to debate God’s omniscience while overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City, learn Torah from acclaimed professors and rabbis while wearing Bedouin pants and a T-shirt, and become more comfortable with the idea of pluralism, a phrase that I had begun introducing to my Jewish vocabulary—all within the first week there. Once the first Shabbat as a community approached, I couldn’t help wondering if there was any scientific force on earth that could even attempt to drag me down back to reality.

As the weeks progressed, however, I faced some of the religious issues that our faculty had warned us to expect. Shabbat observances, levels of kashrut, and forms of modesty were tense topics that inspired hours of heated debate. A term like “more religious,” originally so common in my pre-Bronfman life, suddenly made me cringe when it was used to categorize the twenty-six of us rather than unite us. We defended our separate denominations in an attempt to secure the only Judaism we each knew, rather than looking at the incredible Jewish influences that surrounded us: each other. Striving to create a pluralistic community, we, in a sense, embodied both the strengths and flaws of our own denominations, allowing these titles to box us into different categories. Ultimately, that is how most Jews identify themselves today—through the offered boxes left for us to “check.” I learned over the course of five weeks in Israel, however, that the boxes themselves have become the issue in American Judaism today.

Unlike the radical thinkers who endorse the concept of post-denominational Judaism or “Judaism with no prefix,” I have come to value different Jewish denominations, the communities that ensue from them, and the traditions that make each one unique. Since post-denominational Judaism has evolved into a denomination of its own, I believe in the idea of “experimental” Judaism instead, a Judaism that encourages others to explore all denominations and integrate themselves into different communities.  People, myself once included, have the tendency to commit to one community both physically and mentally, almost entirely for security. This association, however, prevents us from exploring and experimenting with our individual walks of Jewish life and ultimately creating pluralism. This summer, our pluralism was not a reflection of our agreements and shared conclusions, but rather our willingness to grow from every perspective and opinion we encountered. Our pluralism was defined by our ability to unite, talk, struggle, and laugh together despite our different walks of life that separate Jewish communities on a daily basis. Most importantly, however, our pluralism marked an incredible feat in our generation of American Judaism: we, teens, jettisoned the walls of ignorance and fear that our ancestors built to insulate us. We embraced our differences and discovered beautiful commonalities through our experiments with the faith that divides so many people. We live in a world where too many focus on the direct destinations of their Jewish life, rather than on the journeys themselves. There is myriad knowledge and warmth we can gain by visiting the synagogues or communities that emphasize different ways of being Jewish than what we’re accustomed to practicing.

From my one summer in Israel, I learned that it is truly impossible to experiment with faith unless you are willing to step outside of your comfort zone. Denominations are necessary in order to strengthen communities; however, tolerance and the ability to explore these denominations, is the most vital step to creating Jewish pluralism. From the countless conversations I witnessed among my Bronfman friends, I realized that pluralistic Judaism could exist. And through the friendships we created based on understanding and faith exploration, I realized something more: pluralism can thrive.

Emily Goldberg, a student at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan, loves sharing her perspective on faith and religion, especially with her own growing Jewish community. She is the founder of “Common Ground Friends,” the first student-driven interfaith group in South Florida and records her own ideas in her blog, A Leap of Faith  (http://www.faithleaping.blogspot.com ), as well as in Sh’ma: the Journal of Jewish Ideas. This past summer she joined a life-long community of Jewish thinkers and leaders, The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, and is currently serving as the rabbinic intern at Romemu, a liberal synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She hopes to lead a liberal and innovative Jewish community of her own someday, one where others can be inspired to pursue coexistence and positive change.

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