Monthly Archives: March 2013

Passover Reminiscence

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

We bought spring clothes for Passover and fall clothes for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the high holidays.  The weather seemed always too cold for the new Passover clothes and too hot for the new fall clothes.  It took a long time and a lot of explanation for me to understand that the dates of the holidays didn’t change but the relationship between the Gregorian calendar and the Hebrew calendar did.

Holidays punctuated the sameness of days, the continuing emphasis on getting things done, going to school, shopping, playing; in general, our daily routine.  Preparation for the holiday of Passover was frenzied.

I don’t know how our grandmothers and mothers did it.   No dishwashers, no prepared foods, certainly no outside help – and yet, somehow it got done.  I hope it wasn’t the holiday that contributed to a shortened life span for that generation of women.   Yet, the expectation of repetition of the preparations, and the ceremony of the seder, were comforting in their continuity.  Before so many contemporary creative Haggadahs  with their inventive writings and improvisations were popular, we used the old Maxwell House Haggadah, a text familiar to me since early childhood.  Maybe the company’s distribution of these brand name Haggadahs was to give the subtle suggestion that Maxwell House coffee was kosher.  When my grandfather was alive, my parents, little brother and I went to their house on Wharton Street for the ritual meal.  I can still see my grandfather, imposing in a white kimono-like caftan, leaning on pillows as prescribed in the Haggadah, intoning the familiar story of the exodus.  My brother was too young to participate in the ceremony, but I, a Hebrew school student, asked the centuries- old Four Questions.

We learned to say them in Hebrew School in two languages, Hebrew and Yiddish, and I dutifully asked them in both languages, intoning the singsong liturgy learned in Hebrew School.  I remember being given sips of the sweet Passover wine, feeling indoctrinated in a world of grownups.  I also felt very important, with all attention focused on me; also, nervous, fearful I would make a mistake.  I didn’t realize that family indulgence was part of the game and all would smile gently if I slipped up.  Passover was  celebrated for its full eight days with ritual foods.  On the eighth day I was sent to the nearest bakery to buy the first bread.  My mother always grumbled that the bakery opened too soon which elicited a discussion of whether the holiday was over before lunch or before dinner, an argument still unresolved.  When we children came home for lunch in elementary school and junior high, Passover foods awaited us.

We all had two Seders on two successive nights and spent the next part of the holiday eating fried matzoh, gefilte fish and the special holiday dishes which, for some unexplained reason, certainly not sacred, we never prepared the rest of the year.  Nuts were a part of the Passover table, walnuts and almonds and particularly filberts.  These were the perfect shape for marbles, and we could be seen, in our new Passover clothes,  kneeling on the sidewalk using those  nuts for a game of marbles

Janice L. Booker is the author of The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, Philly Firsts, and Across from the Alley Next Door to the Pool Room, from which this reminiscence is excerpted with permission of the authorFor more information about her work, visit: http://www.amazon.com/Janice-L.-Booker/e/B001KCCS8E

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity, Passover

Questions & Answers: An Interview with Bruce Black

by Karen Blum, editor of The Tulsa Jewish Review

Bruce Black created the Jewish Writing Project, a repository of stories and poems submitted by a variety of writers as an expression of their Jewishness, and as it turns out, ours.

What prompted you to create this space for people to share?

When my family and I moved to Florida nine years ago, we discovered that most of our neighbors at our synagogue were from somewhere else—Michigan, Ohio, Maine, Wisconsin, NY, NJ, Illinois. No longer did folks have families close by
 to share stories, and many families like ours found that their family stories were being lost or forgotten. So I founded the project as a way to help people preserve their family’s stories, as well as to explore and share their Jewish experiences.

I thought if we could share stories online about what it means to be Jewish, we might get to know each other a little better.

I love that you acknowledge that we all have a different lens through which we see our Judaism, why do you think it is important to share our differing perspectives?

Sharing our different perspectives on what it means to be Jewish broadens our understanding of what it means to be a Jew. Often, we mistakenly believe that our way of practicing Judaism is the “only” way. But if you speak to enough Jews and read enough Jewish stories, you’ll come to the realization that there are as many ways of being Jewish as there are Jews in the world. Each of us may belong to the same synagogue or temple as our neighbors—being Jewish is a communal experience, after all—but each of us experience our Judaism as unique individuals and feel differently about what it means to be Jewish.

In sharing our individual understanding of what it means to be a Jew, we may help someone else better understand how he or she feels about being Jewish. Each individual story has the power to inspire others to explore their lives in search of insights into what it means to be Jewish.

What is your best advice for writing about our Jewish experiences?

You might try to make a list of people who influenced how you feel about being Jewish. Ask yourself why a certain person had such a large influence on you. What did he or she do to make you feel that you, too, wanted to be Jewish? Or you might list your most powerful memories of being Jewish. Think of an experience when you realized how much being Jewish meant to you. Then try to describe the experience so that a reader might understand how the experience changed you.

Or, try this: Take some time to think about what matters most to you about being Jewish. Maybe you love the way the light of the Shabbat candles plays on your mother’s face. Maybe you love wrapping your fingers in your father’s tallit during Shabbat morning services. Maybe you remember the first time you held a prayer book in your hands and offered a prayer as part of a minyan. Describe what it is that you love about being Jewish and makes you feel strongly about being a Jew. Start writing. See where the words take you.

This interview first appeared in the Tulsa Jewish Review, which granted permission to reprint it here. If you’d like to read more articles in the Tulsa Jewish Review, visit: http://jewishtulsa.org/our-work/Tulsa-Jewish-Review/

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish writing, writing practice

Crash Victim’s Father

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

“God is punishing me for my sins.”
Oh, father, are you sure?
Or is this your valiant attempt
to understand what cannot be understood?
A daughter is dead, so is a son,
as is, tragically, an unborn child.
A whole religious community now mourns.
What evidence, I ask, suggests it was your fault?
You load your shoulders with the pain,
to make sense out of the senseless,
but why carry even more sorrow by contributing
the additional burden of perceived sin?
Surely, God in His wisdom does not wish to pile on.
It would seem He has better things to address –
why the accident in the first place? –
as He dons His Old Testament robes of wrath.
Nothing can make the night day for you,
but what value is it to extend the darkness,
by throwing a believed culpability into
the incomprehensible celestial mix?

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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Jewish Identity: A Round-Trip Journey

by Donna Swarthout (Bozeman, MT)

A life-long discomfort with institutionalized Judaism is hard to shed once you reach the mid-life years. Sure, it’s great to keep an open mind, but there’s also the sense of not wanting to waste time on pursuits unlikely to enrich one’s life. Some of us narrow our options as we get older in a bargain to reduce the odds of having regrets.

Years of involvement with synagogue life had left me without a strong Jewish identity. This could be my own fault for not making a large enough personal investment, at least that’s what our rabbi and congregation president hinted at when we recently decided not to renew our annual membership. What was it that held us back? Years of trying to fit in, find meaning in the services, and carve out time and money for the responsibilities of membership had left us feeling….well, unfulfilled.

But something shifted when we moved to Germany in July of 2010. The vague contours of my Jewish identity gradually took on a clear shape. This was not a transformation of faith, but rather a return to the embrace of German Jewish culture, to the memories of my childhood when I was surrounded by relatives who all spoke with the same New York German Jewish accent and whose lives were a story from a faraway place that I could only imagine.

In a place where Jewish life had been all but extinguished, our family took part in building a new Jewish presence on German soil. A void was filled as I attended services in Berlin among people who shared my ancestry and my determination to revive a part of what had been lost. The sense of connection to Jewish traditions and rituals was present for me in a way that it had never been in the States, at least not since I had left the East Coast at the age of eight to become a California transplant.

Back in the States we were part of the melting pot of Jewish America. Despite all the benefits that come from our diversity, there was also something missing that I had never before been able to put my finger on. In Germany I realized that the missing element was a common cultural heritage that connects us.

As assimilated Americans, we have Jewish identity issues that German Jews don’t have. We come together to share Jewish rituals, but the feeling does not always or often run very deep. We remind ourselves that we come from a long historical tradition that must be kept alive, but we may not feel this in our bones. We worry about things like building funds and membership growth, but how do such pressures help build our Jewish identities?

It was the return to the States that cast a sharper light on the questions that I had struggled with for so long. The journey back to my roots had helped me to find the core of my Jewish identity, but the old doubts about how to lead a meaningful Jewish life resurfaced upon my return to Montana.

One of the first discussions I had with our rabbi after our return was about my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Olivia had been struggling for quite some time to decide if her coming of age ritual would be a bat mitzvah or something outside the Jewish faith. As I listened to the rabbi recite the long list of official guidelines, I was stunned to hear that she would be required to keep a punch card to mark her attendance at services. She would need to have ten punches on the card during the year leading up to her bat mitzvah, with no free coffee or hot chocolate to reward her at the end!

I’m troubled by the image of my daughter holding up her punch card to the rabbi after Friday night services. Would my daughter really be more Jewish when the card was full? If she learned her Torah portion and the requisite prayers, why couldn’t she carve her own path to her bat mitzvah and Jewish adulthood? Wouldn’t a single profound experience at services be worth more than half a dozen boring ones? Judaism in America feels formulaic at times and the punch card rule symbolized a structure within which I often feel more constrained than inspired.

The end of a journey can bring emotions that range from elation to relief, from fulfillment to exhaustion. I returned from Berlin enriched by my involvement in one of the smallest, but fastest growing Jewish communities in the world. But I also had renewed feelings of ambivalence and doubt about my connection to American Judaism. Now I must weave these two strands of my Jewish self into a single thread of my identity. And I must not abandon the effort to find community amidst the melting pot of Jews in America.

Donna Swarthout lived in Berlin, Germany from 2010 – 2012. You can read more about her experiences on her blog Full Circle. Her work has appeared on The Jewish Writing ProjectAVIVA-berlin.de, Tikkun Daily, and in Tablet. This piece first appeared on Jewesses with Attitude (http://jwa.org/blog) and is reprinted here with the kind permission of The Jewish Women’s Archive.

 

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Filed under American Jewry, German Jewry, Jewish identity