Category Archives: American Jewry

The Ultimate Truth

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

At a recent and joyous Orthodox wedding,
surrounded by dancing men all dressed in black
with most stylish hats, I was asked by a young scholar
why was I not singing in Hebrew.
“I don’t know Hebrew,” I said, embarrassed,
owning up to my lack of Jewish education.
“So why don’t you learn?” he said,
“The words are  the ultimate truth, the one truth,
the word of God given to His people.”
“But don’t other religions have their truth?” I countered.
“Spoken like an American,” he said. “Ours
is the only truth. We know this for thousands of years.”
Hard to argue with someone so convinced
of the certainty of his belief, while admitting to myself
I was jealous of his steadfast conviction.
Better not, I thought, to get so engaged
into such a theological discussion while
celebrating with cheers the bride and groom.
The search for truth continues for me
long after the final toast is offered.

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, Family history, history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

Kosher Cuisine (Phoenix, 1946)

by Marden Paru (Sarasota, FL)

My family and I moved to Phoenix, Arizona in early 1946. It was a very warm and dry climate akin to that of the Land of Israel. Surrounded by devout Mormon neighbors (who never drank alcohol or coffee), our home and our family’s lifestyle would accurately be described today as centrist Orthodox. 

We walked to shul as a family each Shabbat and Yom Tov and enjoyed special Shabbat seudot (meals). In the heat of Arizona, special adaptation of kosher cuisine was a must. 

With no air-conditioning and only an evaporative cooler blowing moisture through air ducts, our house felt cool in the 110+ degree heat. It must have been all of 80 degrees indoors but it felt like a mikhaya. (Yiddish for very pleasurable—not a Japanese word if that is what you are thinking.)

Often, we were served cold fruit soup or cherry borscht on Shabbat in place of hot chicken soup. During the hot season, I always missed the unborn, no-shell chicken eggs usually floating in the hot chicken soup, but that was due to climate necessity. Unfortunately due to the high bacteria count, ayerlakh are no longer available today and banned by the USDA. But we never got sick from them because boiling the chicken broth killed any bacteria that might have been present. Alas, now it is a culinary memory of the distant past.

Mom made the best pitcha (jellied calves feet with garlic—an aspic) which she learned from Bubbie. With Dad a shokhet, we enjoyed a delicacy which I have not eaten again during most of my adult life—baby lamb tongue—so sweet and tender. Zayde made his own brine pickles in big barrels in his basement as well as pickled herring which his “house guests” and grandchildren thoroughly enjoyed.

Gribbiness (caramelized onion and chicken cracklings) were noshed by us on erev Shabbes before the balance of the batch made its way into the gehakteh lebber (chopped liver). Early on Bubbie and Mom allowed me to assist in its preparation by hand-grinding the freshly-broiled liver, hard-boiled eggs along with celery, and the rendered gribbiness fried in chicken schmaltz (fat) The hand-operated meat grinder to this five year-old came across as a fun invention to play with. The produced output was tasty also. Hand-grinding chopped liver ingredients was my forte through my high school years. It was one of my regular chores for which I received an allowance later on.

Bubbie and Mom were fantastic European-style Ashkenazi chefs, which is all the more remarkable because both were born in the good ole USA—in Boston to be more precise. Bubbie was born 1896 in Malden, Massachusetts shortly after her family emigrated from Russia in the 1880s. Mother was born  February 22, 1922 at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and grew up in Roxbury.

Marden Paru is currently the Dean, Rosh Yeshiva and co-founder of the Sarasota Liberal Yeshiva, an adult Jewish studies institute, and a  former instructor at the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation’s Melton Adult Mini-School. He attended Yeshiva University, the University of Tulsa, and the University of Chicago, and was a doctoral fellow and faculty member at Brandeis University. Marden and his wife Joan are members of Temple Beth Sholom and Congregation Kol HaNeshama. To read more about Marden and Joan, visit: https://www.brandeis.edu/hornstein/news/newsletter/Hornstein-alumni-articles/My-1966-Computer-Arranged-Jewish-Marriage-by-Marden-Paru.html

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Ancestral Memory

By Jena Schwartz (Amherst, MA)

You know that feeling when you remember something but you don’t know if it’s because you really remember or if you’ve heard the story so many times, or seen the photo, that maybe your mind thinks it remembers but doesn’t really?

What is “real” memory and what is imprinted on us by exposure or repetition?

My daughter was leaving the house yesterday. As she was passing through the kitchen, I stood to give her a hug, but I stopped short when I reached her, taking in a long look at her face. She looked stunning to me, her beauty timeless. For a moment, I saw so much of my father’s side, and in the very same instant, my mother’s side. It felt uncanny.

This was on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, and I thought all day about memory.

How can we possibly remember what we did not experience firsthand? It does not make sense from a logical standpoint. But I believe in my bones, quite literally, that such memories are real.

I remember the Holocaust and the Inquisition just as I remember lighting Shabbat candles at a table in Romania, in Macedonia, in Poland, just as I remember that I, too, was a slave in Egypt.

I remember nursing babies in the red tent, long days of walking.

I remember running through the forest barefoot in terror.

I remember the smell of soup on the stove and challah in the oven.

I remember weddings, the drinking, and how the girls were not allowed to daven.

I remember fathers teaching daughters and daughters screaming as fathers were hauled away, so many fathers, and brothers, sons.

I remember. I remember the sound of glass shattering, I remember huddling, I remember waiting it out, holding our breath, afraid of every floorboard, every footstep.

I remember the songs and the spices of Saturday at sundown, wishing each other a sweet week, a week of peace, even after, even then.

I remember it all.

Jena Schwartz is a promptress and coach who offers fierce encouragement for writing and life. She lives in Amherst, MA with her wife and two children, ages 13 and 17. Her poetry and personal essays have previously appeared in On Being, Mamalode, Sliver of Stone, and Manifest Station, among other places. She is studying to become a bat mitzvah in May, 2020, at the age of 46. Visit her online home at www.jenaschwartz.com.

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Hyman in America

by Herbert J. Levine (Sarasota, FL)

Born down the street from Boston’s Old North Church, my grandfather Hyman was the first American-born child of Jacob and Jennie, so his family fondly called him Hyman-in-America. His mother was one of two sisters Levine who married two brothers Krasnapolsky, who had the good sense to take their wives’ last name, so that their American children didn’t grow up with names like Hymie and Morris Krasnapolsky.

I never met this grandfather for whom I was named, Herbert having substituted for Hyman, because my mother didn’t want the bullies calling me Hymie (they Herbie’d me instead). He had seven brothers and two sisters. The brothers mostly died of heart disease, so we Levines watch our cholesterol. I wear a gold ring that was his, a mermaid ringing its edge, with a garnet in its tail, and our shared initials in Chinese-y script in the middle. I have the well-worn tefillin that he received for his bar mitzvah and used all his life, quite small and still useable more than a hundred years later. I had his Hamilton gold pocket watch until our house was robbed and also the pin from his fraternal order, the Knights of Pythias, which featured a medieval-looking helmet and crossed lances, pinned to a velvet cloth in a leather folder, one of my childhood treasures.

This order that was so important to him, the Knights of Pythias, took as its founding myth the legendary story of two friends, Damon and Pythias, students of the Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras. The story goes that Pythias, sentenced to death by a tyrant, asked to go home to settle his affairs and was allowed to do so only because his friend Damon stood surety for him until his return. That he did return so impressed the tyrant that he freed the loyal pair and kept them on as counselors to his court. The motto of the latter-days Pythians is the founder’s creed: “If fraternal love held all men bound, how beautiful this world would be,” which goes a long way to explaining why my father so often quoted to me that part of Polonius’s speech on male friendship, which he described as his father’s favorite: “The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,/ Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.”

When my father gave me an edition of the Twelve Minor Prophets for my Bar Mitzvah, he said his father had given him the book and told him to make his philosophy of life from each of the prophets. At that time, Martin Luther King was quoting Micah in his world-shaking speeches: “Let justice flow like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” so it seemed a powerful idea to me. Both my father and my Levine grandmother loved to quote another of Micah’s memorable utterances, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God,” so it’s likely that this verse also summed up my grandfather’s creed.

Grandfather Hyman was something of an orator, so was designated to give the annual Yom Kippur appeal at the community’s one synagogue, even though he was neither a successful businessman (he worked at a coal company weighing the coal trucks before and after their deliveries), nor renowned for scholarship or piety. Apparently, his oratorical flair was what was called for. His surviving books also show his affinity for oratory – Emerson’s Essays, which were first delivered as public addresses, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, in which the poet presents himself as a grand teacher to America and the world.

Whitman, who loved laborers, might have celebrated him as a jack of all trades. There’s a picture of him smiling broadly wearing a carpenter’s belt with a hammer suspended from it and behind him, one of the bunks at Camp Young Judea that he had helped to build, which generations of his descendants have attended. 

As I grew older, I heard darker stories — that he had to be carried home drunk from a Simchat Torah eve festivity, that he had occasionally snuck out with Gentile friends on a Saturday night to eat non-kosher food in Boston’s Chinatown. Fifty years later, my father was still burdened by these memories. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to pass them on as the shadow of his father’s legacy.

Toward the end of his life, Hyman had a stroke and sought to recover his faculties by practicing penmanship. We have in his hand a short popular poem that he copied in an elegant, calligraphic script. This poem can be found on the Internet, under the words of its refrain, “All I Got Was Words.”  The stanzas speak to me of his life – like the poem’s anonymous speaker, he got no fine clothes from his parents; they gave him no car nor sent him to college. What he got were words that embody a way of life, “Zog dem emes,/ Gib Tzedakah,/ Hub rachmones/ Zei a mensch.” –Tell the truth, give to the poor what is just. Have compassion. Be a mensch, the sort of person with whom one is proud to be associated

Herbert J. Levine published his first book of poetry, Words for Blessing the World, at the age of 67. His previous books were scholarly treatments of Yeats and Psalms. To learn more about Herb and his work, visit:https://benyehudapress.com/books/words-blessing-world/

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A Letter to My Great Aunts and Uncle: Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1942

by Kayla Schneider-Smith (Rishon LeZion, Israel)

for Miri, Rosa & Benny

When you left your homes not knowing where you were going
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
turn around jump off the train don’t stop running
out of Poland out of Germany out of Holland
far until you reach the West or East
anywhere but here

when your cattle-car pulled through the arch
when you stumbled off the train without understanding
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
say you are 16 say you are a brick mason
don’t let them take you beyond the gate
to the tall trees where you cannot return

when they led you to the showers
and shaved your undressed bodies
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
stand close to the ventilation stand straight under the gas
if it hits you first it’ll be quick
it’ll be over in a second like a band aid like a blur
you won’t have to suffer long or
hear the wailing mothers and children or
climb the pyramid of suffocating bodies
gasping for air

when they shoveled you into the crematorium
in bursts of smoke and ash
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
I love you
to kiss you goodbye to say kaddish
to tear my clothes to get angry to start a revolution

I’m sorry I came too late.

Now, 77 years later
in this inhuman slaughterhouse
unthinkable bright green forest
in front of the lake in front of the puddle
where they took your lives and dumped your ashes

I only can tell you
I am alive

your nieces and nephews
and great nieces and nephews
and great-great nieces and nephews
are alive and thriving

Miri Rosa Benny

I carry, cherish, remember you always
I speak you back to life
I say your names aloud

Kayla Schneider-Smith is a poet, musician, and social activist from Monmouth County, New Jersey. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she wrote this poem while completing the Yahel Social Change Fellowship in Rishon LeZion, Israel, where she taught English, piano and guitar to children, adults and senior citizens in a small neighborhood called Ramat Eliyahu. Kayla is currently attending the Master of Fine Arts Writing Program at The University of San Francisco. She aspires to be an English professor, Rabbi, or Interfaith Minister one day.

If you’d like to read her work in prose, visit: https://www.yahelisrael.com/single-post/2018/11/27/To-Be-Or-Not-to-Be-Progressive-Judaism-in-Israel

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Everything as usual

by Hannah Winkelman (Rishon LeZion, Israel)

The mass exodus of people evacuating the bus should’ve clued me in. My phone had been buzzing all morning with Red Alerts; little did I know that for the next six hours, my phone would buzz at least 150 more times, signifying the deployment of rockets from Gaza to cities scattered around Israel.

I assumed this bus stop must have been a popular one. It wasn’t until the bus driver also exited the vehicle that I realized something was wrong. I took out my headphones and my stomach churned; the sirens were unmistakable.

This is my third time in Israel—a country marked by constant political turmoil and tension—yet I’ve never been confronted with any threats until now. The first time I came,  in 2011, I was 15 years old. The second time was last December on Birthright. The only time I felt unsafe was when too many fighter jets were flying at once for my own comfort. Our guide told us not to worry, so I pushed it out of my mind as the jets flew further and further away.

As I exited the bus, I turned my head toward the direction of the phones people pointed at the sky. Two or three thin lines of smoke were trailing after white objects in the sky punctuated by bright red. I expected fear, panic, anything of the sort—and yet, I was met with casual silence. No tension, no dread, no awe; I sensed impatience.

The sirens stopped, halting without a warning just as they had started. After a beat, the bus driver looked to his awaiting passengers: “ok, yalla” and I followed the Israelis as they jumped back on the bus.

The rest of the bus ride felt like a blur. A woman tried to speak to me in Hebrew, but her words fell on essentially deaf ears as I tried to piece together what she was saying with my remedial understanding of the language. She was impatient as I stuttered out in Hebrew “I speak a little Hebrew, do you speak English?” She rolled her eyes. I spent the rest of the bus ride in silence until I reached my stop.

The 20-minute walk home proved daunting. I couldn’t help but think about the possibility that if a rocket attack were to strike, I’d be stranded and defenseless, unsure of where to go. My mind spiraled with these anxious thoughts as my body moved through spaces both familiar and unfamiliar until I reached my apartment.

The assumed safety was brief. Only 20 minutes later, the sirens went off once again. We found the appropriate fall-out shelter—what looked like a closet ascending from the concrete about 20 feet away from our apartment—and we descended beneath the ground into the concrete bunker, finding inside children playing cards and dogs playing with their owners. The white walls and bare floor felt stifling as my roommates and I—three Americans—stood arm to arm. Voices of Israelis echoed and enveloped us, their casual treatment of the situation once again astounding. We were only in the bunker for five minutes.

I’ve always had a basic understanding that Israelis live in a state of apathy regarding their constant state of vulnerability. I’ve wrestled with my own opinions on Israel with the knowledge that it is a state that occupies while also under threat. But to witness the nonchalance Israelis have towards an imminent threat such as rockets dotting the skies was almost more jarring than the threat of the rockets themselves. I asked my friend in Ashkelon, the biggest major city closest to Gaza, if he was okay. He responded promptly in two messages: “hey thank you I am fine. Everything as usual.”

I didn’t write this post to report anything novel; most could surmise the ever-present internalized threat. But to witness it is so much more shocking than what I could have ever imagined. I will never understand what it is like to have lived in a country under constant threat; even after these nine months on Yahel, or if I stay for a few years after, or for the rest of my life, I don’t know if I’ll ever understand it. So while I will never be able to engage in the conflict or even day-to-day life as an Israeli citizen would, I can still fulfill what I consider my responsibilities to be as a global citizen—observing and learning to the best of my ability. That will have to be enough for now.

Hannah Winkelman graduated from Tufts University in 2018 and is currently living in Rishon Lezion in Israel on the Yahel Social Change Fellowship. She volunteers teaching English at a local high school and at various non-profit organizations. She is originally from Seattle, WA. 

Note: This post first appeared on the Yahel Israel Blog and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.  For more information about Yahel Israel, visit: https://www.yahelisrael.com/about

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The Silver Lions

by Steven Sher (Jerusalem, Israel)

for Ari

This old chanukiah

brought over from Poland

from my grandparents’ home

that I lit as a boy

and my son now lights

and my grandson covets

these Chanukah nights

with its twin silver lions

standing guard over flames—

listen and you’ll hear

the lions roar across

a hundred years

rattling every window

on their watch, illuminating

Vilna then New York,

defending Jerusalem.

Born in Brooklyn, Steven Sher is the author of fifteen books. He made aliyah five years ago, and now lives in Jerusalem near his children and grandchildren. To learn more about him and his work, visit his website: https://steven-sher-poetry.wixsite.com/writing

 

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