Monthly Archives: November 2014

My Yiddish Name

By Leah Klahr (Lawrence, NY)

My middle name is Bryna, a Yiddish name that probably stems from the word broyn, which means brown. For many years, I carried the name with resentment. To me, the obviously Yiddish name reeked of an outdated and simplistic culture, a culture I viewed as distant from my perception of life. Though I rarely disclosed the existence of my middle name, I felt as if everyone who met me could immediately sense its strong scent and trace it back to me. Yet despite my disdain, I somehow sensed a deep connection to my Yiddish name, the name which had been my great grandmother’s before it was mine. It had quietly slipped into the core of my being, and while I continued to resent its sound and meaning, Bryna began to symbolize a secret and essential part of my identity.

This past summer, I chose to learn more about the Yiddish in me and my people. My interest led me to a Jewish literature program at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Together with other high school students, I entered the realm of Yiddish literature, and discovered that the Yiddish culture is far from simplistic. Yiddish embodies the continuing story of the Jewish People. Spoken for nearly one thousand years of Jewish history, it carries unwavering faith and adherence to tradition; it carries separateness; it carries words, sounds, and influences that managed to creep into crevices of the Jewish heart. Yiddish carries the large, frightening questions that knocked on shtetel doors, questions which scratched upon ancient, unbroken promises of faith; it carries the exhilaration of the new and uncharted; it carries the poetry of secularized writers who refused to forget the mother tongue; it carries survival, and the unending question of what it means to live as a Jew.

Together with other students, I discovered that Yiddish is not just a bridge through which we can connect to our past. It is the animated train of Sholom Aleichem’s Railroad Stories, merging the past and the future, transporting us  to new places, and connecting us to a world of old.

Bryna. Brown like earth. Like the ground that stood as witness to pogroms and ghettoes and death camps. Like the nature that is silent when we most want it to speak. Like the soil where broken life is transformed into creation. Like the synthesis of diverse creatures and life. Brown, the color of the earth that sustains us.

I had always perceived my Yiddish name as a remnant of a dying culture, as an unfortunate- sounding relic of the sturdy Jewishness of my ancestors. And while there is truth in such a perception, it is only a part of what my name symbolizes. Bryna represents my own struggles between the worlds of tradition and change. It represents the questions and identity that knocks heads with  Leah, the mother of Jewish faith, the name by which I am known. It represents the shtetel inside of me, and it also represents my struggle to escape its sometimes constricting walls. Bryna is the continuous reminder that you can take a Jew out of the shtetel, but you cannot take the shtetel out of a Jew. And though the truth of this adage had once invoked a sense of resistance within me, it is now a truth that I embrace like an old friend.

Bryna is still the name that I hide from the world. However, it is only seemingly hidden. My middle name is tied to my every thought and action; its presence in my life is indispensable. And yet, I refuse to be publicly called by it. Perhaps this paradox embodies the nature of the name, and the language and culture it implies. I am a searching Jew, still grappling with the multiple narratives and tensions of my identity. Bryna ensures that I will never stop searching. I am Leah; I am Bryna.

Leah Klahr is a current senior at Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls. She lives in Lawrence, New York, with her parents, four sisters, and one brother. She loves literature, and is especially passionate about fairy-tales. Leah has worked as the Editor-in-Chief of her school newspaper, The Looking Glass, and her work has been published in Teenink Magazine, and Fresh Ink for Teens.

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity, Jewish writing

Kristallnacht

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

Born in a small town in Southern Germany, my father hid, along with his parents, older sister and younger brother in the basement of their home during Kristallnacht. Translated as the “Night of Crystal,” Kristallnacht is often referred to as the “Night of Broken Glass.” It was a wave of violent anti-Jewish attacks that took place on November 9 and 10, 1938, throughout Germany, annexed Austria, and in areas of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia occupied by German troops. Instigated primarily by Nazi Party officials and members of the SA (Sturmabteilungen: commonly known as Storm Troopers) and Hitler Youth, the name Kristallnacht reflects the broken glass from the windows of synagogues, homes, and Jewish-owned businesses plundered and destroyed during the violence. Numbers vary, but over 1,000 synagogues and businesses were destroyed, at least 100 people were killed and over 30,000 men were taken to concentration camps. On November 10, 1938, my father was ordered to report to town hall. Along with nine other men, he was arrested and sent to the concentration camp Dachau. He was 16 years old. 

Town Hall

“What for?” my father asked. “What
did I do? I’m only sixteen,” and
the gendarme told him if he didn’t

like it, if he asked any more questions, he could go home,
they’d arrest his father instead. And he saw his father
paying his tax bill in the next room,

and he didn’t call out, afraid they’d arrest him too, afraid
his father would want to take his place, and
the gendarme said he had a job to do, a quota of ten men,

and he didn’t care how he filled it. And my father
knew the gendarme, went to school with his daughter.
He was told to empty his pockets, turn

in any money and weapons, and he turned in
his pocketknife, and told the gendarme he had to go
to the bathroom, and another gendarme, Wilhelm,

took him, and he knew Wilhelm too. He told Wilhelm
not to worry, he wasn’t going to run away, and
Wilhelm said he knew, but he was doing his job.

As my father and nine men were loaded on a truck
that said “Trink Coca-Cola” he turned and saw
Wilhelm crying like a child.

Breaking Laws

Kristallnacht
broken glass
Nazis arrest him
a boy sixteen years old

Dachau
November 1938
a striped cotton uniform
it’s almost winter

he shares a bunk
with a man in his fifties
who freezes to death one night

the next morning a kapo tells him
take off the man’s long underwear
do it quickly
before the SS come for the body
you will freeze at night too
if you don’t

it is the custom of some Jews
not to wear clothes from a dead body
and to save one’s life the rabbis teach
one must break custom

he washes the underwear that night
places it over a chair
next to the woodstove to dry
sleeps on it
still damp
to make sure
no one will steal it

Janet R. Kirchheimer, the author of How to Spot One of Us (Clal, 2007), is currently producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic poetry film https://www.facebook.com/BeholdAPerformanceFilmHer work has appeared in many journals and on line including Atlanta Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on beliefnet.com and Drafthorse http://www.lmunet.edu/drafthorse/main.shtml She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received Honorable Mention in the String Poet Prize 2014. Janet teaches poetry, creative writing and memoir classes in New York City. You can contact her at janetksivan11@aol.com.

These two poems, “Town Hall” and “Breaking Laws,” are from How to Spot One of Us (Clal, 2007) and reprinted with the kind permission of the author and Clal.

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, German Jewry, poetry