Monthly Archives: December 2014

God, Jewish and Otherwise

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

God, Jewish and otherwise,
tell me this:
Some poor people
decide to get coffee
at a small café in the heart of Sydney,
and by some accident of time,
they become hostages and victims, some dead.
Some poor students
decide to attend class
at a small school in the heart of Pakistan,
and by some accident of time,
they become murdered and maimed, some escape.
Tell me it’s part of your plan.
Tell me it’s not for me to know why.
Tell me it was destined to be,
and I will tell you,
I have to believe it’s sheer randomness,
the luck of the draw, the flip of the coin
because I cannot for the life of me
understand how you could allow such evil
to grab your poor creations by the throat
and squeeze.

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 the 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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My Chanukah Miracle

by Eleanor Wachs (Sarasota, FL)

I would say that I was the only child in Borough Park, Brooklyn who begged for a menorah. When I was growing up, there was very little Jewish life in our apartment on 1466-49th Street. Yes, there were a few Yiddish words thrown in here and there, and, a few Jewish foods picked up at a delicatessen or kosher bakery or take-out to eat at home. But there was no mezuzah on the doorpost. No brown and white Hadassah Hospital sticker annually placed on the apartment door. No Shabbos candlesticks or Kiddush cup for wine. No Passover plate for a Seder. No Jewish calendar in Hebrew and English for benstch licht times. No blue tin tzedokah box for the poor that rattled nosily when coins were dropped in. There were no ritual objects in our home on display. Yet, I was surrounded by the signs of a continuing Jewish tradition. At a friend’s house, I learned when to use the soap with the blue stripe and when to use the soap with the red stripe when washing dishes. On Yom Kippur, I saw that it was expected to get dressed up but it was permitted to wear sneakers. It was much later, way past childhood, that I found out what a “shatnes” test was. I could not figure out why a dry cleaner could perform what I thought was medical test! (Orthodox Jews cannot wear clothing that mixes linen and wool.)

Brooklyn’s neighborhood of Borough Park where I grew up on 49th street was a Jewish world on display—noisy and busy—except for the Sabbath day, when it was peaceful and quiet. On Shabbos, everyone walked. Men in long, black kaftans flapping in the breeze like penguins’ wings and huge fur trimmed streimels, (black wide-brimmed hats designating a wearer as a member of a Chasidic sect) would walk with their small boys. Young girls, whether in the sweltering summer heat or the freezing winter, wore long sleeves and white tights, and would saunter across the sidewalks in groups of five or six connected by pinkies. Mothers wearing neat sheitls (wigs) and expensive suits strolled with other young mothers, infants, toddlers, and small children around them, gabbing effusively in Yiddish.

My street was bordered by two majestic temples. One was on 14th Avenue and one was on 15th Avenue. 14th Avenue had the Conservative temple with a choir, wooden pews, velvet and silver encased torahs and a rabbi with a booming voice that reached the 1,000 ears of the worshippers each Friday night and Saturday morning. The other temple, on 15th Avenue, was Orthodox with its beautiful Italianate dome that opened to show the evening stars. Four steibels (house synagogues) were on 49th where men, like rows of tall pepper shakers, rocked back and forth in prayer. Supposedly, there was a mikva, a ritual bath, in the basement of an unobtrusive red brick house with forsythia bushes and a decorative iron fence. The house was indistinguishable from the others on either side. How could there be a bath in the basement? What a mystery.

On Friday afternoon, everyone scurried around a bit faster to get ready for Shabbos. Bouquets of pink and white mums, dumped into white mop pails, were sold on the 13th Avenue corner next to the newspaper vendor where you could buy the Yiddish papers that were draped over the newsstand next to the New York Post, the Daily News and the New York Times. The silver candlesticks with the Shabbos candles were in windows by now. The crystal chandeliers in the front rooms on 49th Street were soon to glow for at least a full day, for turning on or off a light was forbidden. As I peeked into most any window, I would see the large dining table with a lace cloth. The next day, the table would be filled with crystal bowls of fruits and kosher candies. Sometimes, I would see the portrait of the “rebbe” hung on the center wall behind the dining room table; but, I never knew who he really was, or his name, or his importance.

Two enormous rosy pink apartment buildings stood tall near the end of our block. Our home was in 1466, apartment 4C. It was a cramped one bedroom apartment for four people. 1455 was its twin right across the street. In the dismal and dark lobby of 1466, (free of any furniture which had been stolen years ago), I would wait for the Shabbos elevator that stopped on every floor, and sniff the sweet aroma of chicken soup that whiffled through the first floor lobby, imagining the matzo balls in the steaming broth. Next course, I would guess, would be the chopped liver, a small delicious scoop sitting on a lettuce leaf, or perhaps an oblong of gefilte fish dunked in jelly sauce and magenta horseradish, followed by a few more courses and then a delicious dessert.

In this neighborhood, I wanted to celebrate Shabbos and all the Jewish holidays and their rituals. For Chanukah, I wanted a menorah. The menorah I yearned for was a plastic, chartreuse menorah with two lions at its base. It sat in the Barton’s Candy Shoppe window on 13th Avenue for the month of December. The lions’ heads were tilted back, their manes braided. They had a distinguished look for their important job of holding up the weight of the burning candles for every night of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights. Across the top of the menorah was a metal strip for nine candle holders and underneath the strip was a Hebrew script which, of course, I couldn’t read. Surrounding the menorah were shiny gold coins of chocolate Chanukah gelt or pretend money that children used for barter when spinning their dreidels, or tops. I wanted this menorah in the same way that a young girl would want a pretty doll or a fluffy stuffed animal, two worthless dust gatherers according to my mother.

I didn’t expect any gift for Chanukah from my parents; however, I had to go the annual Christmas party where my father worked and where Santa Claus with his big sack would pull out gifts for all the children: Christina! Camille! John! Ann Marie! Eleanor! Santa would usually give me some token—I remember a silver bracelet that soon had a greenish tinge. It was an annual ritual for my family to go – my father making the rounds, making sure he said hello to this general or that lieutenant, and my mother standing by his side, smiling. But the late afternoon affair, which was usually on a Friday, always filled me with a deep sadness—I knew that I wasn’t going to celebrate either holiday. Santa wasn’t going to visit 4C and no menorah would glow there. I had nothing to say to the other children who would ask me about my Christmas plans.

On my long walks on 13th Avenue to the public library on 43rd Street, my usual ruse to leave the apartment, I would linger at the Barton’s candy shop window, checking to see if the menorah was still there. It never dawned on me that the shop would have more than one. Maybe I was attracted to its unusual color, or its prominent place in the window, or its chocolate surroundings. Unlike the many stores on the avenue filled with very expensive Judaica, this was a simple menorah. My mother bought candy weekly in Barton’s or Lofts, their competitor, to feed her chocolate addiction—or you could say raise her serotonin levels with sugar to escape an unhappy marriage. All varieties of chocolates, from fancy truffles to plain Hershey bars, were staples in our home, like crackers, or green beans, or fruit at friends’ houses.

One chilly night, we were walking home side by side from the library on 43rd Street and 14th Avenue, both of us holding the treasures we had found on the library shelves. When we passed Barton’s, my mother stopped. “Let’s go in here for a moment,” she said as if it was an unusual stop. She marched ahead opening the heavy, glass door with its long designer style handle, as I followed behind, giving a quick peek in the window for the chartreuse menorah.

“Yes, a box of butter crunch, a box of mixed dark chocolates, and a half pound of orange peel, and two chocolate marshmallow squares” were my mother’s orders to the candy lady who scrambled up and down the counter from case to case as my mother pointed out what she wanted to buy. My mother took out her wallet from her purse to get the money to pay for the chocolate. I stood next to her, anxiously gathering up chutzpah to ask for the menorah, expecting to hear the familiar annoyance in her voice because of my request. I knew that I was going to displease her and I knew of her quickness to anger that would rise in seconds and could last for days and shut me out.

“Ma. Ma? MA?”

Did she hear me? Was she too involved in figuring out if she had enough cash to buy her chocolates?

“What is it, Eleanor?”

“Ma…Uhm, can I get…Can I….Uhm….Can I get the green menorah in the window?”

Everything stopped. I held my breath waiting for her answer. The cash which was soon to be extended to the candy lady was snatched back into the second button of her coat. The candy lady stopped the transaction. She leaned back against the back counter, crossed her arms across her white uniform and stared at us waiting for the outcome. Was the sale finished or not?

“Why would you want that? We don’t need it.”

“Please. I will take care of it.”

Here was the paradox. Denying a Jewish child in Borough Park a menorah was like refusing a Catholic kid in Italian Bensonhurst a Christmas tree. C’mon, lighten up. It’s Christmas.

Please Ma. I’ll do all the lighting.”

“Well, all right. Does it come with any chocolate?”

The candy lady went to the window and pulled out the menorah and put it in a special box made for it which she stored in a shelf behind the counter closer to the front window. Then, she put it into a Barton’s plastic bag, and stretched over the counter and handed it to me. My mother paid for her candy, my menorah, and the Chanukah gelt, and we schlepped home on the icy city streets with her plastic bags of candy, my menorah and our library books.

I must have bought a blue box of Chanukah candles somewhere on the avenue since they were everywhere and inexpensive. On the back of the box, the prayer for lighting the candles was transliterated, and I mumbled it even though there wasn’t anyone around to correct me if I made a mistake in Hebrew. Who would know?

Even then, I knew we were different, yet Jewish. It was both confusing at times and shameful. I was unlike any of the other girls in the neighborhood. But now I had my plastic menorah and I could enact the ritual that I saw around me in my community. The candy shops are gone now and my mother died years ago. Yet, I still have my candy shop menorah. It’s my Chanukah miracle.

As a folklorist (Ph.D Indiana University) Eleanor Wachs has written and published articles about crime victim stories in New York City, urban legends, and personal experience narratives. She currently teaches courses on folklore and writing at Ringling College of Art and Design and has lived in Sarasota for ten years. 

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A Passionate Life: Portrait of My Grandfather

by Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

“Retain integrity without succumbing to authority.”

So my beloved Saba advised me on my 18th birthday. “Don’t let anyone interfere with your endeavors to develop an independent way of thinking,” he told me. “Think first; afterwards argue or act. Don’t lose your countenance under duress.”

Saba (Hebrew for grandfather) was my mentor and anchor, who encouraged me to strive for excellence and showed me that I could do anything to which I set my mind. He taught me to be humble, ethical and empathic and encouraged me to stand up for what I believe in and not be afraid to admit I had made a mistake, learn from it and move on.

After all, that was the way he always behaved. Saba underwent many transformations in his long life, from Jewish scholar to Zionist rebel, laundryman, world traveler, benefactor, thinker, writer and friend to many. He lived throughout as if he was on an insatiable intellectual quest. As he wrote to me, “life is full of exciting curiosities, joy and deep feeling for the world’s mysteries”.

Saba was the second son born to an Ultra-Orthodox family of textile manufacturers and fur merchants in the central Polish town of Zdunska Wola near Lodz. He was named Berl Dov Gross – one of about 50 Berls in the Gross family! His birth date was given as 16 December 1906, although a question mark always remained over that date, the family joking that he had changed it to make himself slightly younger than his future wife Chana.

His mother died while giving birth to him, and his father then married her younger sister, who sadly would not prove to be a good stepmother to Saba and his older brother. This second union would produce three more sons and a daughter, all of whom were to perish in the Holocaust. Indeed, Saba’s father would be the last Jew to have a full religious burial in Zdunska Wola.

Years later, a study of local Jewish cemetery records would reveal that Saba’s mother had actually died in 1905, proving the family’s suspicions to be correct all along.

He had had good reason to make himself younger than he really was, helping him to escape Polish military service and immigrate to the then British Mandate of Palestine in 1925 – one of only a few members of his extended family to escape the subsequent reign of Nazi terror.

For many years, Saba would beg his family to flee, but no one would listen. Tragically, when they later turned to him to help them escape, he was no longer in a financial position to do so. It was a heavy legacy, which he bore stoically but did not allow to hamper his zest for life and all it had to offer.

The family belonged to the Gerrer Hasidic movement, then probably the largest and most important Hasidic group in Poland. While Hasidism generally promotes spirituality and joy through Jewish mysticism, the Gerrer Hasidim emphasize religious study and the objective service of God. Forbidden to learn anything but sacred texts as a child, Saba nevertheless managed to sneak secular books under his bedclothes, learn violin, and even find a tutor to teach him mathematics and other worldly subjects.

Although he rebelled against his religious upbringing, it would stand him in good stead in later life, enabling him to cite Jewish textual sources with ease. He would often recall being taken as a young boy to another town to meet the Rebbe or leader of the Gerrer Hasidim, describing a crowded room where he and other boys literally hung from the rafters to see what was happening.

As an adolescent, Saba became a member of a local Zionist movement and announced his desire to join the pioneers in Palestine. His father would only agree on condition he enter into an arranged marriage. His bride Chana was from the nearby city of Lodz, and the young couple was married in 1924 and left the following year for Tel Aviv. Chana’s parents and sister also decided to follow their lead and move to Palestine, only to make the fateful decision to return to Poland when their money ran out soon afterwards.

Arriving in Tel Aviv without a trade, Saba learned about textiles and proceeded to combine study, both secular and religious, with work. He and Chana would come to have two children, Naomi (my mother) and Moshe. A generous man, Saba was happy to share the little he had with those less fortunate. His strong individualist moral convictions and sense of justice, however, also placed him on a collision course with the powerful Histradrut or Labor Union, finally resulting in him returning his membership card.

He set up his own laundry business in Jaffa, but it was destroyed by fire during the Arab riots of the late 1930s, which were protesting against Jewish immigration and land transfers. Thus, the family was left without a source of income, but as Saba would later reflect in a letter to a friend, he would come “through the hardest years of 1929-39 unscathed, not having bowed at any time to any person”.

According to family legend, Saba had no option but to go down to the harbor, where he found one ship departing for South America and another for Australia. It was July 1938, and fortunately, he chose the vessel heading for Melbourne, promising his young family that he would send for them as soon as he could.

War, however, was to intervene, and it would be several years before he could afford to purchase even one ticket for a family member to join him. Meanwhile, back in Tel Aviv, Chana was forced to resort to housecleaning to feed her children. Having arrived in Melbourne without a word of English, Saba worked hard whenever he was able. When unemployed, he spent his time reading in the public library and listening to records in a local music store. He would then, at times, feel obliged to spend his meager income on classical music records instead of food.

Eventually, he managed once again to establish his own laundry business, sweating over hot machines and lugging heavy sacks of laundry up and down stairs. A recent letter from the daughter of one of my grandfather’s former employees vividly describes the tough work and conditions: “It was extremely hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. No such thing as heating or cooling and the dust from the washing was thick on all the beams… They were happy times but you had to work for what you got.”

After the War, Saba was finally able to bring his family out to Australia, starting with his teenage daughter Naomi. By then, he had begun to travel overseas, and over the years, he would visit exotic places before it became fashionable to do so, such as Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the Pacific Islands and even Dutch Guiana (Suriname) by freighter, maintaining a travel schedule that would exhaust someone half his age. He reveled in the adventure of being an independent traveler of modest means, although as he grew older, the advent of mass tourism with its package tours and controls disillusioned him considerably.

In 1946, he spent the entire year in China, shortly before Mao Zedong came to power, only returning to Australia when his family and friends lied to him that his factory had burned down. While in Shanghai, he assisted European Jewish refugees with their emigration to Australia. In Melbourne too, he would help newcomers from Poland and Israel to become established.

He and Naomi enjoyed a warm relationship and were well matched intellectually, spending long hours in discussion. Saba was a handsome man, and many, upon seeing her on his arm, found it hard to believe they were father and daughter.

Eventually, his son Moshe joined Saba in the laundry, and by the late 1950s, had taken over management of the business. Chana by then was living in Melbourne too. Although separated from Saba since 1938, they never officially divorced. He had a home built for her in Tel Aviv and continued to support her in Australia. For the rest of her life, Chana would live with Moshe and his wife Yona, helping to raise their growing family.

Now free to focus on his intellectual pursuits, Saba moved to London for a while, where he eventually set up house with a Hungarian-Australian artist. The relationship would last for some years during which they traveled widely, but by the late 1960s, it was over, although they remained friends.

Fascinated by the ancient world, Saba spent about thirty years studying Israelite society and in particular, Abraham and Moses. The result was his book, Before Democracy, in which he attributed the Israelites’ survival to their tribal way of life based on family and individual responsibility. He controversially argued that their transition to a centralized monarchy was an ill-conceived and retrograde step “but a stone’s throw away from despotism”.

Reluctant at first to have his life’s work published, Saba preferred, as he wrote to a friend, to “preserve my integrity and end my life as an individual who refrained from partaking in the rat race of publish or perish”. He ended up, however, battling unsuccessfully to have the book published for several years. Finally offered a contract, he withdrew his work before it had seen the light of day, refusing to make the major changes the publisher required.

In the end, he never found the “daring publisher” he hoped for, and the family ended up self-publishing the book, although sadly, by the time it appeared, he was too ill to appreciate it fully.

Saba endured several bouts of ill health, which on occasion left him scarred, but not beaten. He was like a cat with nine lives, rebounding from each episode with renewed vigor. Eventually, however, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease – the same illness, which tragically, would later come to afflict Naomi too. “I am losing my ‘I’,” he told his daughter, by which he meant he was losing what made him whom he was as a person.

My last memory of my brilliant Saba is of him sitting in the middle of his room, endlessly twisting a rubix cube around in his hands. He passed away on 8 July 1994. To this day, I still regret that I did not learn more from him about my Jewish heritage while I had the chance.

Almost ten years earlier, he had given me a pair of silver candlesticks from Israel as a wedding gift, fondly expressing the hope that I would remember him each time I lit the Sabbath candles.

Every Friday evening and on numerous other occasions, I remember him as my beloved Saba, my teacher and my friend, from whom I learned to question, to reason and to explore. In my mind’s eye, he remains the invincible hero of my youth, strong and independent, hoisting his bag onto his shoulder and striding away, as he did when we bid each other farewell at the airport for the last time.

May his memory be a blessing.

Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, she previously worked in publishing and now serves as vice-president of Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. Her work has appeared in online publications including the Jewish Literary Journal, Jewish Daily Forward, Times of Israel, Eureka Street, Alzheimer’s Reading Room and Online Opinion, as well as The Jewish Writing Project. You can read more of her work at shirasebban.blogspot.com.au

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