Monthly Archives: August 2015

How To Bury Your Mother

by Leslea Newman (Holyoke, MA)

Slip out of the dark limo
into the bright light of day
the way you once slipped
out of your mother:
blinking, surprised, teary-eyed.
Turn to your father
and let him take the crook of your arm
like the crooked old man
you never thought he’d become.
Feel your heels sink into the earth
with every sorry step you take.
Weave your way through the graves
of strangers who will keep your mother
company forever: the Greenblatts,
the Goldbergs, the Shapiros, the Steins.
Stop at a small mountain of dirt
next to a hole that holds the plain pine box
that holds what’s left of your mother.
Listen to the rabbi mumble
prayers you’ve heard a hundred times
but this time offer no comfort.
Smell the sweet honeysuckle breeze
that is making your stomach buckle.
Feel the sun bake your little black dress.
Wait for the rabbi to close
his little black book.
Bring your father close to the earth
that is waiting to blanket your mother.
Watch him shove the shovel
into the mound upside down
showing the world how distasteful
this last task is.
See him dump clumps of soil
onto your mother’s casket.
Hear the dull thuds
of your heart hammering your chest.
Watch how your father plants the shovel
into the silent pile of dirt
and then walks off
slumped over like a man
who finally admits defeat.
Step up to the mound.
Grasp the shovel firmly.
Lift it up and feel the warm wood
between your two damp hands.
Jab the shovel into the soil.
Toss the hard brown lumps
into that dark gaping hole.
Hear the dirt rain down upon your mother.
Surrender
the shovel to your brother.
Drag yourself away.
Do not look back.

Lesléa Newman is the author of 70 books for readers of all ages, including the poetry collections, I Carry My Mother and October Mourning: A Song For Matthew Shepard (novel-in-verse) and the picture books A Sweet Passover, My Name Is Aviva, and Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed.

If you’d like to take a look at the book trailer for I Carry My Mother, visit:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yf4ubYHObAM

“How to Bury Your Mother” copyright © 2015 Lesléa Newman from I Carry My Mother (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA 2015). Used by permission of the author.

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Filed under American Jewry, poetry

Taxi Driver

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

A man of faith, transporting a doubtful believer,
he negotiated the stop-and-go of
Brooklyn traffic from under his yarmulke.
When asked if he were driving full time,
he answered, “No, I am a religious teacher,”
his tzitzis hanging outside his pants.
Assuming rightly I was Jewish, he asked,
“Do you put on tefillin?”
“Why should I?” I countered, cheekily.
“Because the head is over the heart.
Also, you should observe Shabbos.”
“It’s a little late for me.”
“It’s never too late to be a good Jew.”
He had arrived from Casablanca
because there weren’t enough Jews there to teach.
“I hope to lead a congregation here,” he said.
I paid my fare, concluding I was walking to hell
while he was driving, sans map, a straight path to heaven.

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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Filed under American Jewry, Brooklyn Jews, Jewish identity, poetry

Leaving Egypt Behind

by Isaac Azerad (Sarasota, FL)

Sitting in our sun-drenched living room, in that sun-drenched city aptly named Heliopolis, City of the Sun, on that morning, I am stirred by the ominous feeling that I am about to experience a defining moment in our family’s history.

I am handing over a box to my newly appointed French Language professor. In that box is my treasure, my stamp collection that I painstakingly assembled and catalogued for the best part of my 15 years. The teacher, Fawzi, is a pretentious syrupy little man, who was hastily implanted in our school to displace my esteemed professor who had just been expelled to his native France.

Fawzi is totally inadequate as a Francophone, mispronouncing common words so pedantically that I am developing an antipathy for this hypocritical man with his repeated expressions of feigned concern for my family’s welfare. This man will rob me of my last personal possession and along with it he will leave our home that morning with books, paintings, blankets, pillows and articles of clothing. This was open season on the departing Jews.

In the corner of the living room, suitcases sat patiently on the prized Persian rug next to a shoulder-high wrought iron pedestal propping a fish bowl, a top-heavy aquarium that my sister, Dorette, and I had tipped over many times, sending our fish and our Nanny into a frenzy in her attempt to save the fretting goldfish gasping for air while at the same time doing her best to hide the incident from our parents.

Next to that pedestal was a matching, round, marble-top coffee table with a wrought iron base fashioned after the designs of the genteel society of the time. That table, I recall, had the ideal height for my sister Sabrina’s hesitant first steps as she propped herself up when she learned how to walk a few years earlier. This image of our familiar home, comfortable and semi-opulent, was to be relegated to distant memories in the years to come.

The following morning my family will gather the assembled suitcases lined up in our predictably sunny living room and head to the airport for a final voyage, leaving Egypt behind with no prospect of ever returning to our native land.

With the clothes on our backs and our meager cash allowance of $20 per person, we were leaving without a definite plan of resettlement. In this second exodus from the land of Egypt, more than 80,000 souls embarked on a similar adventure fraught with apprehension and excitement.

A few months prior to that fateful morning in August of 1962, things started turning for the worst. My father’s lucrative business was summarily confiscated, along with our assets, real estate, and bank accounts. It started out gradually when a Business Guardian was appointed by the government to oversee the smooth transition of ownership to an Arab owner. No compensation was deemed necessary, as Jews were considered enemies of the state.

The occasional shouts of “Edbah El Yahud” (“slaughter the Jews”) were beginning to be heard more frequently and in more places. The toxic atmosphere was fomented by a revived sense of patriotism among the masses and ignited by Gamal Abd El Nasser, the pan-Arabism hero. Nasser nationalized businesses, confiscated wealth and belongings, and blamed the ills of the country on all foreigners and, particularly, on the Jews. Our family had been in Egypt for five generations.

One incident in early 1956 sealed our fate as the harbinger of our heightened sense of mounting insecurity. We felt violated when my father was taken at gunpoint in the middle of the night by two uniformed goons with automatic weapons who accused him of being a Zionist Spy. The accusation and arrest followed when they noticed a Press Badge on the dashboard of my father’s parked car. This was a car that my father, Maurice, shared with my uncle, Jacques, who by virtue of being the editor of the two French Newspapers—the Progree Egyptien and La Bourse Egyptienne—was considered part of the press corps. Perhaps unrelated to that incident, my Uncle Jacques was later replaced by a Government Guardian, an overseer of the Press, who was none other than a former classmate of his, a young officer by the name of Anwar al Sadat.

The stories of hardship and disappointment will be repeated throughout the Middle East and North Africa for Jews from Arab countries with their numbers swelling to close to a million displaced persons in the decades of the 50’s and 60’s.

The personal stories of destitution and displacement of the Jews from Egypt pale in comparison to the horrors of World War II. The fate of our brothers and sisters who perished in the Holocaust is not to be compared to any event in the History of mankind. It is perhaps out of respect for their memories and for the suffering of the survivors that the plight of Jews from Arab lands has been kept silent. For more than fifty years, Jews from Egypt remained quiet, relegating their memories to the back pages of history.

Only recently, some of our acquaintances and relatives started unraveling their families’ sagas in some detail. Lucette Lagnado who expounded so articulately in her book, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, traced the journey of her family from Egypt to France to Israel and then to America.

Coincidentally, along with my parents and two sisters, we have traveled an identical journey. I remember that my mother, Tony, of blessed memory, had identified so strongly with the characters in the book that she kept exclaiming how astonishingly familiar the stories were.

A similar journey is depicted in Andre Aciman’s book, Out of Egypt, portraying a rich history of cosmopolitan life and reminiscing about the tradition of multiculturalism in the Golden Age of Cairo and Alexandria. This year, my first cousin, Elliot Malki of Milan, has produced a new documentary showing at the Jerusalem Film Festival, tracing the life journey of several Jews from Egypt and their rise to success and prominence across the globe.

The story of the Jews from Egypt is one of triumph in the face of adversity, a story that demonstrates to the world that freedom from bondage is a character trait embedded in our Jewish ethos.

Despite the circumstances, the Jewish bond that binds us together makes us responsible for one another. I never heard the word “refugee” uttered from any of my fellow Jews from Egypt. We were simply travelers on a journey of hope, no longer Egyptian Jews but simply Jews from Egypt.

Along every step of the way, during every trial and every hardship, a Jew was there to lend a hand to my family. At every stage of my life I found help and guidance, support and comfort from an individual Jew or a Jewish organization.

I have a healthy respect for the awesome responsibility that I owe my people and the debt that I have to my heritage. To me, Judaism is a positive and necessary force in the world and it needs to be nurtured and preserved by Jews for all Jews and for humanity at large. Our sages tell us the task of repairing the world is incomplete but it is ours to undertake.

I believe them.

Isaac Azerad is the Director of Communications at The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee, President of Main Street Graphics, and past president of Temple Emanu-el. He lives with his wife, Gisele, in Sarasota, FL.

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Filed under Egyptian Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity

When Understanding Comes

by Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner (New York, NY)

A long time ago, I went to visit a man—tall, with white hair, a white beard and the heart of an angel, a noble soul—my maternal grandfather, whom I called Baba Moshe. His name was Moshe Abuhatziera. He was born in Tafilalet, Morocco, and later relocated to Casablanca, where he and my grandmother lived in an eclectic neighborhood of Jews and non-Jews. People got along and respected each other’s way of life.

I was born in Casablanca. My parents and I lived with my maternal grandparents during my early formative years. When I was six years old, my parents and I moved to our own apartment. However, I frequently visited and spent weekends and summer vacation with my maternal grandparents, Baba Moshe and Mama Esther. I was the only grandchild who ever lived with my grandparents, and my mother used to tell me stories of how they doted on me.

One story I found endearing: when I misbehaved, my grandfather would fill his flower watering pot. By the time he closed the faucet, I would be running for my life as fast as I could. He would run after me on his tiptoes, saying: “I will water you so you grow up like a beautiful flower.”

In Casablanca, life had a rhythm and daily challenges. My grandfather would get up at dawn. With patience, he slowly put his tzitzit over his shoulders and then tefillin around his hand and arm and then on his forehead as he recited his prayers. He blessed the new day, and at the setting of the sun he prayed once again. While praying, he looked radiant and absorbed; his physical presence seemed to transcend reality.

When I visited my grandparents, I would sleep with them in the same big room with a window and two beds. Most of the time I woke up from the lamplight or from hearing my grandfather’s uttered words of prayer. I looked at him and felt protected because he loved God. Daily prayer was one of the many mitzvot he fulfilled.

For a Jewish child in Casablanca, the world was not a safe place. Yet, within the nest of my family and with my grandpa, I felt sheltered and safe. I was comforted to see him and would go back to sleep.

In the morning, before going to work, he would ask me to come to his side to pray with him and would bring a chair and help me stand on it so that I could reach the mezuzah. First, he prayed that good will would prevail between men and that peace would reign among all nations. Then he prayed for the health of everyone in the family. He blessed me, and, last of all, he asked for God’s blessing.

“Dear child,” he would say, extending his hand, “bless me that my mind and eyesight remain intact until the last days of my life.”

With each blessing, I tapped on his hand. He kissed the mezuzah and asked me to do the same, and then he kissed my head and went to work.

Even though I was only a child, I felt that in blessing my grandfather, I did something meaningful – a mitzvah.

During the day I played with the neighbors’ children. Some were Spanish, some were French, and others were Jews, and we were unconstrained by adults’ preoccupations with religious or ideological differences.

When my grandpa came home in the evening all the children would be in the courtyard waiting for him. When they saw him, they would welcome him in unison, calling, “Baba Moshe!” and gather around him.

My grandpa always had almonds and dates and sometimes chocolate in the hood of his jellabiya (a traditional Moroccan robe). He would sit and talk with us while handing the children treats, engaging them in conversation by asking them how their day was and whether they were good students.

I enjoyed seeing my grandfather interacting with the children, and even though I was the last one to get my share of the goodies, I did not mind. On the way to our apartment, he would say, “You treat your neighbors like your own family.” Baba Moshe loved children.

In the evenings, my grandfather had many interesting stories to tell me. Some were about real life and some were imaginary fairytales. After each one he wanted me to summarize the essence of the story. I faced the challenge with excitement. I wanted to remember, to learn and see my grandfather’s face light up with a smile as he gave me a kiss on my head, adding, “You have a good memory.”

Sometimes, at first, I did not understand certain ideas, but my grandpa was patient. He would help me think through the story until I found the answer, which made me happy.

“You have it all here,” he would say, touching my head.

“Wait,” I would say, “if I had it before, why didn’t I know it the first time?”

“Ah,” he would say, “God gave us memory so we can remember. We have all the knowledge we need throughout our lifetime. But it takes time. We have to tap into it, learn, and practice. As you grow older, you master the meaning of wisdom.”

Years later I realized that encouraging me to retain information was his way of teaching me.

On Thursday we went shopping for Shabbat. I loved going to the market to see the multiple colors and to absorb the aroma of the fruits and vegetables, which infused the air. I was excited by it all. I held my grandfather’s hand and he held my heart.

That day, my grandfather bought some vegetables and fruits; he paid the vendor and received his change. We walked just a few steps and, as he was counting the change, he said, “Dear child, we have to go back. The man gave me too much change.” So we went back and he returned the money to the vendor, who blessed my grandfather, took a tangerine and affectionately handed it to me.

Honor and integrity were values I associated with my grandfather, my first teacher, whom I have endeavored to emulate throughout my life.

When he saw poor people begging on the street, he would stop and give me money to give to them. “Dear child,” he would say, “We are born with nothing and we will depart with nothing. The only thing we take with us is our good deeds.”

He taught me what it means to be human. If he saw bread on the floor, he would bend, pick it up gently, kiss it and put it aside so that no one would step on it.

He would save all the crumbs to feed the birds, and would add milk to dry bread to feed the cats. “Don’t step on ants or any crawling thing, let them also live,” he would say. I loved the tender soul of this man called Baba Moshe.

In those days, I would only look up as I walked the streets. My grandfather would say, “Dear child, also look down where you walk. When you only look up, you do not see people’s suffering and when you only look down, you lose sight of what it is like to have a sense of hope and to strive to better life on earth.”

These words instilled in me the feeling that no matter how rich or educated, one must be humble and grateful. Help others, even in some minuscule way, and work with others toward bringing about Tikkun Olam (to repair the world).

The Torah was the lifeline to our culture. It encompassed every aspect of life. We practiced its teaching with love which gave meaning and purpose to our daily existence. My grandfather, with a nostalgic sigh, would tell me, “Your forefathers wrote Zohar (Kabbalah) in the desert.” I did not understand what he meant, but I listened. Human ethics, honoring one’s roots, and respecting religious differences were part of my Jewish heritage that I valued and that played an essential part in my upbringing.

My grandma Esther always had her head covered with a hand-embroidered scarf. She was kindhearted, and I loved her. She always had a box filled with dried fruits and nuts and allowed me to treat myself whenever I wanted a snack. Everyone referred to her as the archivist of the family. She remembered everything in detail about our family history. She did not read or write, yet she had a keen intelligence and her own personal gems of wisdoms.

Friday morning my grandma began cooking for the Shabbat. Helping her made me feel grown-up. The aroma of Shabbat cooking made me wish for dinnertime to come sooner.

After we bathed for Shabbat, my grandma put a scarf of hand-made embroidery on my head and took me to the mirror: “Look how beautiful you are.”

She lit and recited the prayer over the Shabbat candles, blessed and kissed me, and wished Shabbat Shalom to each of one us.

The table was set with two breads covered with a hand-embroidered cloth, salt, wine, and the cup for Kiddush.

After his return from the synagogue, my grandfather would bless me with his hand on my head, kissing my head, and when he finished, I would kiss his hand.

Finally, grandpa recited the Kiddush blessing, followed by the long-awaited Shabbat meal. The longing for the return to Zion was a dream and part of my grandfather’s daily prayers. The aura surrounding Friday night was always a spiritual experience.

After dinner grandpa said Birkat Hamazon, a blessing to thank God for the food. My grandfather would tell me stories and my grandma always sang me a song or two before going to bed. I loved her soothing voice.

That Saturday, my grandpa went to the synagogue as usual. At about noontime he came home accompanied by two of his friends. His white Shabbat clothes and his beard were spotted all over with blood. His friends told my grandmother that on his way to the synagogue, two Muslims pulled his beard and beat him until he fell down. Since he was too injured to return home and was close to the synagogue, he went there instead. This story left me even more scared of the outside world.

After lunch, his friends went home and everyone took a nap. When I woke up, it was getting dark. My grandpa said, “Let’s go outside to see the stars.”

Outside the apartment he had a small garden of roses and geraniums. We leaned on the fence as we counted the stars. There were only two. We could not make Havdalah until we saw three stars in the night sky.

I looked at the flowers, which were in full bloom. I asked who makes the flowers grow. He answered “God.” After asking other such questions, I asked him who made God. He would pat my head and say, “Dear child, do not ask such questions. Our mind is finite, and too limited to understand the infinity of God.”

I did not understand what he was saying. I was curious, but I asked no more such questions.

I was agitated and upset. How could anyone inflict such violent acts on my beloved grandfather, who loved and was loved by children and adults alike and who had never done any harm to any living thing?

I was experiencing a feeling that I had never felt before. I must have said that if I were to see those bad people, I would beat them up, or that I hated them, something to that effect. My grandpa touched my head gently and said, “Dear child, do not hate. The Muslims are our brothers and the gentiles are our cousins. We are all God’s children, thus we have to treat all God’s children with dignity and respect. These people did not know what they were doing.”

His words were like an eternal torch, kindling the light to give meaning and purpose in life, reminding me of the importance of human values, which, throughout my life, I aspired to emulate.

My grandpa made Havdalah, blessing the wine, smelling the fragrance of spices, and lighting the candle to differentiate between Sabbath and the weekdays.

My mom came on Monday to take me home and learned what had happened to her father on the Sabbath. She was upset and cried. I felt her anguish. What had happened to my beloved grandfather, coupled with my own experiences of persecution, left me saddened, fearful and more traumatized.

A year later, all I knew of unconditional love was swept away.

In the middle of the night, with nothing but the clothes on our backs, we were driven to the port of Casablanca. There, in the darkness, stood my grandfather. He gave me a big hug, kissed my head and, while he was still reciting his blessing, we were whisked away to a waiting boat.

Ahead of us lay an uncertain life, but a promising future. For days I did not speak or want to eat as it dawned on me that we were going far away from my grandparents, especially Baba Moshe, and that I might never see him again.

I was nine years old when we left Morocco, heading to France and eventually to Israel.

When the boat reached the port of Haifa, I was excited to see the Carmel Mountains. I said to myself, “Here I will be able to skip in the streets and not be afraid that I am a Jewish child.”

The power of memory can be wonderful and painful at the same time. A few years later we received a telegram. My grandfather had passed away. The hopes that I lived with—that one day I might see him again—died as well.

I screamed so loud and, in a child’s omnipotent wish, hoped to bring my beloved grandfather back to life. It didn’t work. But his noble spirit, his kindness, and his respect for the cultural and religious differences of others have stayed with me.

These values have influenced and guided my personal life and professional work.

Dear Baba Moshe, thank you for your love and spiritual gift. Your legacy has become my lifeline.  

Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner was born in Morocco, lived briefly in France and then in Israel with her family for several years. She has been living in Manhattan for the past 51 years. Ms. Holzkenner is a psychoanalyst with extensive clinical experience in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, early childhood development and family therapy. She has lectured on her clinical work to various professional organizations, including in Israel. A member of the New York City Audubon Society, she loves photographing birds, flowers, and anything visual that creates nostalgia for what we were, what we are, and what we always will be: part of nature.  Her photographs have appeared in Dance Studio Life, the Audubon Society newsletter, and Persimmon Tree, as well in a traveling exhibition on the life of Bayard Rustin.  

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Filed under Family history, Jewish identity, Moroccan Jewry

Understanding My Roots

by Ronni Miller (Sarasota, FL) 

“Flexibility is Jewish survival…the rabbis may inveigh against assimilation, but it’s why we’ve survived for six thousand years.  We assimilate, but we still keep our pride of identity. And we keep our holy books.”  from Inventing Memory by Erica Jong

Why is my favorite word.  What is a close second.  Why is it important for me to know when I became aware of my Jewishness? What were the important circumstances that caused this to happen? And why have I chosen to adhere to my roots?

I run the tape of my memory backward to find answers and see a winter morning when my father escorted me, a seven year old, up a flight of dark stairs above a restaurant to a shul (a new word for me) in Irvington, New Jersey. The room was filled with children. There was a strong odor of chicken. Waiting for us was a man dressed in black.  

I was resistant to this new adventure. My mother had told me “it will be good for you” (a phrase already suspect since she had told me raw eggs in a glass of milk, and boiled rice with sugar floating in a bowl of milk, were also good for me). I sighed the sigh of one knowing the routine. Try it. If you don’t like it, we’ll find something else.

I was the first-born child of Jewish artistic and intellectual parents who dressed me in pinafores to play in sandboxes and watched over me as a china ornament. Other Jewish kids were something else.  Boys my age were all bigger and fatter, and the girls had ringlets and bows in their hair. (My straight hair never took to the curling irons that my mother tried endlessly to work.)  I didn’t want to know the boys, especially when their spitballs hit my cheeks, or the girls, whose giggles greeted my tears. The man dressed in black kept his back turned to us while he wrote strange symbols on the blackboard.

I preferred the company of my new boyfriend, the son of the minister who lived across the street in a little house next to the church.  Every morning we walked to first grade together. He told me that I was the prettiest angel in the Christmas pageant that we had performed before our winter vacation. I had begged long and hard to appear in the show, and I was very proud of my paper wings, which had disappeared from my bedroom the day after the show ended. 

I didn’t say so, but I suspected that this Sunday school shul idea had something to do with him, the Christmas pageant, and my performance of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” My pouting and my tears ended the Sunday school project but also curtailed my friendship with the minister’s son. Once again I stayed home for my Jewish education, and learned to light the candles on Friday night, sip out of a glass for the Kiddush prayer, and say a prayer over the store bought challah. I accepted my loss of a friendship.

As a shy, quiet child I preferred reading to playing king of the mountain and was left to my own devices after secular school, only to endure my mother’s question when she would occasionally look up from her own book: “So, why don’t you go outside and play with the other kids?” She was less likely to bother me if I was engrossed in The Bible In Pictures, an adult book that I found on my parents library shelves. It had a big, purple cover and was filled with black and white original drawings by the artist Gustave Dore.

The black and white print of “The Creation Of Light” on the first pages, with rays of light shooting out of black, gray clouds, appealed to my sense of mystery.  The lines on the adjacent page– “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form and empty…”– were words that also piqued my curiosity.  It was the pictures and the words, not anything religious, which appealed to my imagination in the same way that I could imagine being transported to other countries like Switzerland where I could play with Heidi and Peter. Books were far more reliable friends than kids playing in the schoolyard at recess or on the sidewalk by our apartment house. They ignored me while I hung on the sidelines and observed their actions.

Alone, I was free to imagine. I could pretend to be a famous writer and adventurer. I could imagine a ride on the bus alone, while in real life I sat next to Daddy when we traveled to his office on Saturday.  I could imagine my walk to the library alone, while in real life I held onto my Mother’s hand when we went together after school. Dependency gave me the freedom to wonder about the people who weren’t Jewish and why we weren’t supposed to talk about being Jewish when we were in their company, which seemed to be the majority of people in my school, apartment house, and neighborhood.

When we moved to the suburbs of South Orange, several miles away, again I heard the mantra– It will be good for you — voiced by my parents.  What were they talking about, I wondered, as I played alone or read a book in my own room, a preteen feeling like an outcast?

But then I was delivered to another Jewish class at a new temple that was housed in a mansion. It was a September afternoon, two months after I had been whisked away from our brick apartment house with its cacophony of buses and cars, and plopped into a completely different setting of quiet, tree-lined streets and wide lawns the size of parks where cars barely passed by. 

Chauffeured by my mother, who picked me up in my father’s Buick from my fifth grade class, I was deposited at the door of a castle, or so the mansion looked to me. I walked alone inside and found a room filled with other preteens sitting on chairs that included a protrusion for a desk. I slipped into a chair in the back row.  A woman stood in front of the blackboard and faced us.  On the board behind her were written the words: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But, If I am only for myself, who am I?  If not now, when? Hillel”

I was mesmerized by the words on the board. This was exactly how I felt as the girl who had just shorn her braids and spoke with a voice barely heard. The teacher spent the rest of the term drawing me out so that I learned Hebrew letters, those same symbols I had seen on the blackboard in an earlier classroom, and I learned faster than any of my peers.  The romance of another language, the chance to learn about philosophers like Hillel and to hear stories about mystics in the Kaballah, a favorite topic of the rabbi, piqued my curiosity about Jewishness. It was a far different Jewishness than the one I found at my grandfather’s Seder table, where only Hebrew was spoken and he read for what seemed like hours from the Haggadah. 

Red shoes and a mixer brought out again the mantra–It’ll be good for you.  My mother’s argument was that I needed to meet Jewish boys and girls my age, which was somehow tangled with an unknown future and the possibility of marriage. The red shoes had a square, sturdy heel. They were an attempt at compromise since I wanted Capezio’s, the light pastels with a spool-like heel that I had heard the girls talking about at school. I never wanted to go to the mixer, even though my mother told me it would be an opportunity to mix into my new neighborhood and it could set me on the right path to my future. The only thing good about the mixer that I could see was that it was to be held at the temple in one of the ballrooms of the old mansion, a place that to me held a mystery of bygone years with possible magical powers.  Maybe it would have the energy to transform me into a princess instead of the ugly duckling that I was sure I was, and just maybe there might be a prince.

Wearing stockings for the first time—and pulling at a thread causing a run—was how I entered the room. The boys were dressed in blazers and long pants, and the girls wore colorful, adult looking dresses with Capezio shoes. I stood there in my clunkers, although they were red not brown like my school oxfords, and wore a plaid first-day-of-school dress.

We sat on the floor in a circle to play the first of the mixer games.  Each girl had to put one shoe in the center of the circle, and the boys, one by one, had to find the shoe and its owner. The last shoe of twenty was a red one with a flat heel, not a spool one, and I’m not sure who was more embarrassed—the last boy or me, the last girl.   For the rest of my schooling in that community, I thought of myself as the one-who-stuck-out. Only a handful of Jewish girlfriends, far from the popular clique, saved me from total social annihilation.

Subliminal messages to stay within the tribe followed me into middle school and high school. I only accepted dates with Jewish boys.  Although our tribe was again the minority in the community, I knew my future mission was to marry a Jewish husband after I graduated from college. Listening to our reform rabbi talk about the Kaballah still intrigued me, as did all things magical. Yet being a nonconformist, I wasn’t interested in joining Jewish youth groups. The males I read about weren’t Jewish as they swept through life on battlefields in Europe, safaris in Africa, and farms in Salinas Valley. I wondered about those blond and blue-eyed men who lived outside my world of dark hair and bony noses. 

Yet, I clung to my Jewishness internally as I wandered more into the secular world of theater in New York on Saturdays and into the local town newsroom, never feeling I had quite hidden my heritage enough. In fact, offered the opportunity by my mother one morning to have a “nose job,” the popular cosmetic change in my high school years that would transform Semitic looking girls into pug-nosed peers and make them more popular to boys, I thought about it and announced the next morning that I would take my chances in life as I was, bony nose and all.

I actually heard two messages with that offer. One was to mask at least the visual aspects of being Jewish, and the other was to accept the state of prejudice against Jews.  At the time I was sure of my answer to remain as I had been born and see what would happen in my life. I remember using those words to explain my refusal. I’ve never regretted my decision.

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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