Monthly Archives: February 2013

Passing Along a New Tradition

by Ferida Wolff (Cherry Hill, NJ)

I have paid many shiva calls, the Jewish visit of condolence, over the years so I’m aware of the general customs that prevail: enter the house without knocking, let the mourner initiate conversation, bring something edible to the shiva house. The traditions help mourners focus on their immediate loss and then segue into the stream of life again.

My sister and I were sitting shiva for our father at my house. People entered through the open front door without knocking, as is traditional, but then the traditions bent themselves somewhat to the circumstances. Some of the visitors were my sister’s friends and some were mine, but none were our father’s; they had never met him.

Dad had moved around a bit – from New York to New Jersey to Florida and back to New Jersey to be near us when he and our late mother needed extra care. Yet he always considered himself a New Yorker. He had no real connection to New Jersey in general or to the place where he spent his last years. Much of his family still lives in New York, his city of birth. When we made plans for his burial, there was no question as to where it would be; he was buried on Staten Island in the same cemetery as his mother, father, brothers, wife, and countless other relatives. After the burial, those attending services spread out to visit the familiar graves and to place stones on the plots as reminders that the loved ones have not been forgotten. We knew that the same custom would prevail whenever family members went to visit our father’s grave, too.

So my sister and I chose to mourn back home where we felt most comfortable.

That is where our friends came to pay respects to us, the sisters they knew, with the intention to console. Several of the visitors were not Jewish, unfamiliar with our traditions, but it did not matter to us. When they rang the bell, someone in the house answered. We were just glad they were there.

“I’m so sorry,” they each said in the way consolers do. It is hard to know what to say to mourners. Each person wants to make her friend feel better. Sometimes a hug is the only thing needed. And there were plenty of those.

They asked about our father so, in a tradition reversal instead of listening to stories, my sister and I told them. Some memories were difficult. Our childhood years were an erratic emotional mixture. There were some difficult times but there were also some fun times to offer: the annual (sort of) family picnics, huge Pesach dinners at our grandmother’s house with thirty-five people all trying to wash their hands at the same time, stories sprinkled with our father’s propensity to pun.

Shiva plates piled up: homemade cookies, muffins, mini-quiches, chocolate covered pretzels, tea sandwiches, all brought on dishes from our guests’ kitchens. Coffee and tea flowed and the conversation was a welcome consolation for us all.

After the mourning period was over, I started returning the platters to their owners. One of my friends, however, suggested that I keep the cut-glass dish her food came on. It was presented with love and blessings for both the mourners and my father’s spirit.

“Pass it on, if you like,” she said.

I thought that was a wonderful idea. When I made a shiva call some months after when my friend’s brother had died, I did exactly that. I filled the same dish with cakes and blessings and brought it with me. Later my friend wanted to return it, as I had, and I told her what my other friend had said to me. She smiled.

“Oh, how lovely,” she said. “I will.”

Her reaction made me realize that this small gesture of condolence carried a larger meaning. The caring that was transmitted with the platter affirmed our personal connection as well as an understanding that life continues and it is enhanced by friendship, compassion, and memory. It was like a holy embrace at a particularly hard emotional time. I knew that I would continue to do this in the future, passing on this new tradition.

And in giving my friend the plate, I experienced a sense of release from my own grieving which, for me, led to gratitude. I understand now the true value of the custom of shiva. It is the most comforting embrace of all.

Ferida Wolff’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Moment Magazine, Midstream, Horizons, and Woman’s World, among other periodicals. An author of seventeen books for children and three essay books for adults, she has also contributed stories to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and HCI’s Ultimate series, as well as online at www.grandparents.com and as a columnist for www.seniorwomen.comYou can visit her website for more information www.feridawolff.com or her blog at http://feridasbackyard.blogspot.com/ And you might enjoy her most recent book, Missed Perceptions: Challenge Your Thoughts Change Your Thinking (Pranava Books).

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Crosses on the Wall

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

My father sent me to Hebrew school,
where mournful prayers kept me a prisoner,
preventing me from playing first base
for my beloved Little League team.
On the High Holidays, I dreaded wearing
my wool suit which made me scratch.
I looked all around the synagogue, bored,
counting the number of lights on the memorial wall.
I kept sneaking looks at how many pages remained.
Liberated at 13, I ran free, but was slowed by guilt.
Years later, I am a speaker of literature
at a conference at a small Catholic college.
Two nuns sit in on my workshop,
and on the wall floats a giant cross.
“So boychik, my ancestors seem to be saying.
“How are you feeling these days?
See how your lack of Jewish education has cost you?
Are you now playing first base for the other side?”

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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Shabbat in the House on Saturn Street

by  Bonnie Widerman (Irvine, CA)

When I was very young, my parents would drop me off on a Friday night at my Auntie Ann’s house in the heart of the very Jewish Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles and go off to the movies. Auntie Ann was a petite, gray-haired woman in her 60s who was not my aunt at all — she was my father’s second cousin by marriage. But for all practical purposes, this strong-minded woman, poet, and Orthodox Jew was my West Coast grandmother. And in her home, I had my first exposure to observant Judaism.

Auntie Ann lived in a yellow stucco house on Saturn Street with her beloved terrier, Penny. It was a fascinating house for a young child, with rounded ceilings and doorways thick with mint green textured plaster that made me feel as if I was stepping inside a birthday cake. “Come, let’s bench,” she’d say as the sun began to set. I’d stand beside her in the muted dining room as she lit two thick, white candles in a simple, multi-branched candelabra and recited a blessing over them. The flames made shadows dance on the walls and I remember feeling safe and peaceful there.

Auntie Ann and I would eat Shabbat dinner together in her spacious kitchen where the sink was always full of plants, the oven doubled as a breadbox, and the light bulb in the refrigerator was loosened to avoid turning on a light on Shabbat. When it was bedtime, I’d crawl under the crisp white sheets of a pull-out bed in the brown warmth of her study.

In the morning, we’d walk to Mrs. Van Gelder’s house for “Shabbos Group.”Peeking over the edge of the serving table, I’d marvel at plates loaded with pickles and sweets and other delicious-looking foods I’d have to wait for while the women talked in the living room. I’m not sure what they talked about–the week’s Torah portion or the Vietnam War or Israel–but I will always remember the way my Auntie Ann spoke. Although she had emigrated from Russia to Philadelphia when she was a toddler and spoke English like any other American, her speech was peppered with enough “Jewish” (Yiddish) that it sounded like secret code to me.

Late in the afternoon, we’d walk back to Auntie Ann’s house, where she’d doze in her yellow arm chair with Penny curled up in her lap as the sun began to set. When Shabbat was nearly over, we’d sit in darkness until her timer clicked loudly and turned on the lamp. Later, we’d turn on the TV news to catch up on what had happened in the world until my parents came to pick me up.

On Friday nights at home, my family also had a special Shabbat dinner together and lit candles. But it was different. Being Jewish was very important to us, even though we were not very observant. But it didn’t quite permeate every moment of our lives the way it did in my Auntie Ann’s home. And although Auntie Ann is gone now and so is the house on Saturn Street, the memory of the way being Jewish wrapped around us in that house has stayed with me over the years and has inspired my own Jewish observance in so many ways.

Bonnie Widerman has been a corporate writer and communications manager for more than 20 years. She also writes stories and poetry and has had poems for children published in Ladybug magazine and Fandangle. Bonnie is currently seeking publication for her book-length manuscript chronicling the year she spent saying Kaddish for her mother, who passed away in 2008 from ALS.

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Going Through the Motions

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

When you stand, I stand
When you sit, I sit
When you bow, I bend a tiny little bit
When you lift yourselves up to kadosh, kadosh, kadosh
I watch
and when you stretch out your arm
into the aisle
to touch the Torah
and kiss the book in between
I go through the motions
And today
the motion that matters most to me
is staying
still
of not following my self out the door
because nothing is meaning much
and my faith, today,
is only hope
that one moment will matter,
that I’ll connect, once,
to why I’m here
like chaotic shards of metal waiting to be magnetized
and formed into shape, like Wooly Willie’s beard.
I’m dying to connect, once.
So I wait
for I’m not sure what
going through the motions
and staying, still,
as you stand
and sit
and rock
and bow down low
I wait, still,
going through the motions
even though, in truth,
I’m afraid I’ve gone.

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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