Monthly Archives: May 2014

Where I’ll Celebrate Passover Next Year

by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)

I resisted the idea of visiting Israel for most of my adult life. I was afraid I would feel nothing holy, nothing spiritual, nothing to connect me to the land of our forefathers. The Pesach cry “Next Year in Jerusalem!” never resonated with me. Why in Jerusalem? Why not in Berlin or Los Angeles, Moscow or Nairobi? How could spending Passover in Jerusalem make a difference in my life, enhance my Jewish identity, or connect me to world Jewry?

I spent my first Passover in Israel this year and returned with a twisted knot of emotions that will take some time to unravel. My greatest joy was in the daily gifts to my senses: the sweet smell of jasmine, the inviting warmth of the limestone architecture, the abundant sunshine, and the rich tastes of hummus and falafel. Each day the land and the people drew me in, but not without moments when my buttons were pushed and I drew back. I felt a bit like Dr. Doolittle’s pushmi-pullyu, the gazelle-unicorn whose two heads try to go in opposite directions whenever it moves.

The greatest challenge was trying to make sense of the ultra-orthdox Jews whose demeanor and conduct sent a loud message that said “keep away — you are not one of us.” Driving through the Mea She’arim area and provoking the rage of its residents was probably a bad idea, but even worse was the feeling we had while walking around Jerusalem of being invisible in the eyes of those who are a part of our history but who reject us as Jews. Why wouldn’t they look at us? And why were they always in such a hurry, rushing along the streets in their big hats and black suits as if late for a pressing business appointment?

We did not travel with a group or attend any religious services so we had no interaction with more modern Jews. Stepping into one of Jerusalem’s major hotels to use the facilities, we saw huge signs for upcoming bar and bat mitzvahs. One elaborate display welcomed Gaby Schwartz and her bat mitzvah guests. I became obsessed with Gaby Schwartz and how she felt about having her bat mitzvah at a fancy hotel in Jerusalem. Did Gaby miss her friends who couldn’t travel to Jerusalem to celebrate with her? Why leave your local Jewish community for such an important rite of passage? What did it mean to Gaby’s parents to celebrate the twin occasions of Pesach and their daughter’s bat mitzvah in Jerusalem?

The cultural and earthly pleasures of Israel will pull me back one day, but I look forward to spending next Passover in Berlin. The phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem” isn’t just about our physical presence on the land; it also reflects our aspirations for unity among the world’s Jews, for world peace and spiritual fulfillment. But are these the best words to end a seder for the many Jews like me who struggle to find their connection with Judaism and who tire of being associated with Israeli policies with which we disagree?

Building Jewish community in the place where I live, a place where Jewish life came close to extinction, has meaning for me. Berlin has a growing Jewish population, and although it is quite fragmented and rife with conflicts, it is also rich and vibrant, a reflection of our resilience. In Israel I was just a tourist, but in Berlin I am part of a Jewish community where my presence has significance for building a better future.

Donna Swarthout writes about being Jewish in Germany on her blog Full Circle http://dswartho.wordpress.com/Her work has appeared on The Jewish Writing Project and in Tablet Magazine, Tikkun Daily, Jewesses with Attitude, and AVIVA-Berlin.

 

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From the Maccabiah Games to the Olympics

by Craig Darch (Auburn, AL)

Dave Pincus contacted Mel Rosen in late 1976 about coaching the American track and field team at the 1977 Maccabiah Games. The Maccabiah Games, sometimes referred to as the Jewish Olympics, features Jewish athletes from countries around the world competing in all sports. The Games are held every four years in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv. Pincus, the American representative for the Games, had the responsibility to select a coach for the track and field team. Pincus, a former track star at Penn State, had followed the success Rosen was having at Auburn and wanted him to coach the American team. “There was a small, but talented group of Jewish track and field coaches in the United States. Mel was the very best.”

Rosen, like most Jews who were interested in athletics, was quite familiar with the Maccabiah Games. Rosen was a friend of Irv Mondschein, track coach at Penn State and head coach of the American team in the 1973 Maccabiah Games. Mondschein’s stories about life in Israel intrigued Rosen. While Rosen was not a religious Jew, he was interested in most secular Jewish topics. Pincus called Rosen to ask if he would coach the U.S. team in Tel Aviv in 1977. “I said yes immediately. It was an honor to go to Israel and coach. I was appointed head track and field coach four times. It was on our first trip when I visited Yad Vashem [the National Holocaust Museum] that the full weight of the Holocaust hit me. I was proud to be a Jew. I understood the purpose of the Maccabiah Games was to give Jews from the United States and other countries an opportunity to learn about their Jewish heritage.”

A few days before the competition, Rosen and his team took a tour of Israel. They visited Masada, the most popular tour site of visiting Jews and the symbol of Jewish survival, and the Western Wall, considered the holiest of the Jewish sites. “To see Jews from all over the world praying together at the Wall—and the contrast between the ultra Orthodox and the Reform Jews from the United States—was an emotional experience for me.” When Rosen stood at the Western Wall, he followed the custom of inserting a written prayer or petition, into its cracks. Rosen wrote two prayers. His first asked for good health for everyone in his family. In his second, he asked to be named Olympic head coach. “I thought, why not, what could it hurt? When I walked away from the Wall, I figured I had done everything I could do to be named head Olympic coach.”

Rosen was named the head track and field coach for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in November, 1989.

Dr. Craig Darch is the Humana-Sherman-Germany Distinguished Professor of Special Education at Auburn University, where he has taught for 32 years. While the Rosen book is his first biography, he has co-authored three college-level textbooks on learning and intellectual disabilities and has published more than 60 research articles for professional journals in the fields of special education and psychology.

This piece is an excerpt from From Brooklyn to the Olympics: The Hall of Fame Career of Auburn University Track Coach Mel Rosen by Craig Darch. It’s reprinted with the kind permission of NewSouth Books. For more information about the book, visit: http://www.newsouthbooks.com

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Searching For A Mensch

by Ronni Miller (Sarasota, FL)

I hit “send” on a nonsectarian, computerized, singles site. I thought the profile defined me. Widowed from my Irish Catholic husband who had been attracted to my legs and body as long as I left my mind somewhere else, I now hoped to find a Jewish man who was attracted to my body and mind.

Three men responded. Their profiles contained the words: “intelligent, sympathetic, curl up and grow together in each others arms.” We met. They talked.  I listened. The first, a retired scientist told me he was divorced and trying to get out of a relationship. He balanced his bulk on one hip while he withdrew his wallet to show me her picture, a zaftik, well stacked woman draped in diamonds. I, slim with barely protruding breasts, long, costume earrings, polo and jeans, realized he was looking for a clone and it wasn’t me.

The second, a retired surgeon, divorced with grandchildren had married a young, woman who filled his bed and stole from his wallet. He divorced and was forced to take jobs as a doctor in a clinic. I told him I was a writer with an unpredictable income. He sighed and said there was no chemistry for him.

The third date was with a retired man, never married who was in love with his new toy, a BMW. His picture, a rotund man with a sexy aura was not the man who sat across from me in the Italian restaurant’s bar.  This man was angular and bald and reassured me he would comfort my sorrow, something I never elicited. His last remarks were “merry Christmas”. Obviously he never had bothered to read my entire profile that identified me as Jewish.

I needed a new profile. I composed: “On this Saturday afternoon free from deadlines I will tell you what I’m looking for…”

Delete. This is not an essay or a short storyIt’s an advertisement on a single’s site. My fingers ignored the warning. “I need a mate who appreciates a woman who earns a freelance income. I need to be with a mensch, a man who from his own life experiences recognizes and appreciates me for my sincerity, diligence, creativity and works I’ve produced.”  Should I use the Yiddish word without definition?

Delete. The most popular words on men’s sights were “having fun”. “Fun for me is living in Italy and finding Alessandro, the fictional hero in my last novel.” Delete. “Fun is sharing a home wherever that is.”  Delete. “Fun is being connected on many levels…”  By the time I finished writing and editing darkness had descended.  I also felt spent and at the same time relieved.  My thoughts and feelings were cleaned out. Prospective matches or men who might become significant others would never read those words.  I would rewrite the profile again and would include the word mensch without definition.

I wrote the final, profile: “Female mensch searching for male mensch for fun and good times.”

Ronni Miller, author of Dance With The Elephants: Free Your Creativity And Write and Cocoon To Butterfly: A Metamorphosis of Personal Growth Through Expressive Writing, among other published books, is an award winning fiction author and founder and director of Write It Out®, a motivational and expressive writing program for individuals of all ages since 1992.  She teaches and lectures in the US, facilitates writing retreats in Tuscany and Cape Cod, and writes about her Jewish roots, feelings, memories and experiences in published books, short stories, essays, poems and plays for children and adults. In her private practice as a Book Midwife, she helps people birth their books. See www.writeitout.com for more information. 

 

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