Category Archives: American Jewry

My Return

by Genie Milgrom (Miami, FL)

I clearly remember the day I became a part of the Jewish people. How could I forget? It was the culmination of the four plus years of study for an Orthodox conversion that had once loomed before me with no end in sight. Throughout the period of conversion, I had many fears and frustrations.

I was born in Cuba and raised in Miami so the foods I was used to as staples became forbidden. It took me a long time to slowly let go of the ham and pork, then the milk and meat mixtures (cheeseburgers and lasagna) and finally, because the process took so long, I was able to let go of one shellfish every six months. Shrimp, scallops, lobster and finally crab. Crab was the hardest. I had to change completely what I considered to be my childhood comfort foods yet the drive to be Jewish was stronger than anything I could buy at the grocery store.

The change of identity was overwhelming as I would go from being a Cuban Catholic woman to an Orthodox Jewish one. I had doubts that I could make the leap but I knew that if I was to cause such an upheaval in my life, I needed to convert in a way that would cause no doubts about my Jewishness anywhere in the world . The only choice was the Orthodox Beit Din or Jewish Court.

The period of study was frustrating as well even though I knew that the Rabbis had to reject me again and again as part of the conversion curriculum. Even knowing that and still trying not to take it personally, was extremely difficult. I had to learn to read and write Hebrew, the laws of the Sabbath (several volumes), the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish Law), the laws of Kashrut, and the laws of family purity. I had to learn all this as one studies for a graduate level class. I learned the laws and I knew them by heart but it was overwhelming. I was afraid I would not be able to remember them or keep them fully yet all this build up led to one of the most important days of my life. Their mission was to daunt me. My mission was to not be daunted. I won.

It was a rainy and dreary day as I walked into the mikveh building practically squeezing the life out of the hand of my best friend, Bonnie.

The interior was one large square room with several worn-out couches strewn about. I sat on the edge of one of them shaking like a leaf and unsure of what was to come next. I was so scared. It had taken a long time to get to this point, and I had alienated so many people; my family, friends I had grown up with, people who went through thirteen years of Catholic school with me and just about every one else in my life. At that moment, sitting on the edge of that couch, I was literally hanging in mid-air between my Catholic past and my unknown Jewish future. The Catholic past had detached from me through those long conversion years and no one was throwing out a life jacket from the Jewish side. It was a lonely and difficult time and as scared as I was, I was still not daunted.

Slowly, three black clad Rabbis I had never seen before walked in from a back room, sat down and asked me many questions about my beliefs, my intentions, my conviction and my understanding of what I was getting myself into. They asked me if I knew that I would be joining the most hated people on the planet, a people that had been hated for centuries. They asked me if I was aware that infractions of some Jewish laws included stoning during the Temple times and a few others that were just as difficult and thought provoking. I had been unprepared for the questions but I did not find them difficult to answer with full honesty. You don’t crawl through a process that takes longer than four years with your eyes closed. I thought the questions had gone on for over a half hour before they let up but in reality, Bonnie told me that only seven or eight minutes had passed.

I was led into a room and helped into the water of the mikveh by a kindly attendant and once inside the water, the questions started again. The same ones as before but asked with greater intensity. This time, it felt like an hour. I had a recurring fear throughout the conversion that when this moment came, I would have serious doubts but that never happened. I felt stronger than ever in my conviction to join the Jewish people. Finally, I submerged in the water and it was over.

When I stepped into the large hall with my hair still wet, I was met by a long line of Rabbis waiting to get a blessing from my newborn Jewish soul. The line was as endless as the blessings they requested.

All in all, I gave many blessings that day which in turn, blessed me abundantly. My new life as a proud member of the Jewish people had begun yet my soul knew it had finally returned home.

Genie Milgrom has served as past President of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Miami, past President of the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies at Colorado State University, and President of Tarbut Sefarad Fermoselle in Spain. She is the author of My 15 Grandmothers, How I Found My 15 Grandmothers, Pyre to Fire, Mis 15 Abuelas, and De la Pirra al Fuego. The books have won the Latin Author Book Awards in 2015 and 2018.

An international speaker, she has spoken at the Knesset in Jerusalem on the return of the Crypto Jews, has been featured in The Miami Herald, Jerusalem Post and many other newspapers, and has been hooded by Netanya Academic College for work on the return of the Crypto Jews. Currently, she is the Director of the International Converso Genealogy Program to digitize Inquisition files world-wide.

A postscript from the author: Due to the research of my family from Spain years after my conversion, I found an unbroken maternal lineage going back to 1405 Pre-Inquisition Spain, and, via a Beit Din in Israel, was declared “Jewish all along.”  I do not regret my conversion period, however, because I always knew I was Jewish. And though the conversion process was difficult, I have come to see with time that it was a necessary period of detox that helped make me who I am today.

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Judaism

In the Matter of….

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

In the matter of prayers
the jury is still out.
Some say these prayers ride the express
straight up to heaven.
Others opine they are but
bootless cries to the same place.
Do they cross terrestrial borders
on their way upwards?
Do they weather translation
in a myriad of languages?
Do Jewish prayers work
for those of another faith?
Do they, in turn, work in reverse,
a Catholic paean for those un-Catholic?
These prayers serve to ask timeless questions:
Who will hear us?
Who will see us?
Who will save us?
People in the camps waited for the answers.
People today flock to their churches
and synagogues seeking the same.
Maybe the jury will come back soon
with its celestial verdict.

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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If It’s Friday, It Must Be…

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

If it’s Friday, it must be chicken.  Our family’s Shabbat dinner in South Philadelphia was as ritualistic as Torah law.  The menu was chicken soup, vegetables (cooked in the soup), stewed chicken, challah, and dessert.  The day started with the purchase of the chicken.

The chicken store was one of the many storefronts, often mom and pop shops, that lined several blocks of Seventh Street, the shopping “mall” for South Philadelphia.  The shops on Seventh Street supplied all the necessities of daily living, from hammers to lingerie.  But on Friday morning the chicken store was the busiest, opening at 7 a.m., with some women, early risers, waiting in line for the indoor key to turn.

The chickens were also waiting, clucking nervously and pacing back and forth in their cages, as if they knew their final day had come.  The object of the buyers was to find the chicken with the fullest breasts, meaty thighs, and no visible flaws.  The women went to the cages and pushed their hands into the openings to find the chicken that met these requirements. I wondered how they could find what they were looking for through the flurry of feathers and bouncing chickens.  I was sure these fowls were insulted by this invasion of their privacy.

When the ladies found the chicken they wanted, they held onto its feet so it wouldn’t disappear into the crowd of identical looking poultry.   My mother was not among the early risers, so she had a harder time finding the appropriate bird. I started to accompany her for the chicken-choosing expedition when I was about ten, during school holidays and summers.  I worried that I might have to repeat this ritual when I was a grown-up with a family to feed.

The owner approached the cage, removed the chosen chicken, and handed it to the schochet (ritual slaughterer) for kosher decapitation.  This was done in a back room out of sight of the customers.  I thought about what my school friends said—headless chickens could still walk around—but I left that for myth and never tested it.

The headless chicken was then handed to a woman whose job was to remove the feathers and pinfeathers.  My cousin and I called her “the chicken flicker.”  The now decapitated, feather-free chicken found its way into a brown paper bag and was on its last journey.  The destination, our kitchen sink, then became a hub of activity.   My mother, who always found the flicking inadequate, used a tweezers to remove stubborn pinfeathers.  Although she asked me to help, I usually found an excuse to do something else.

The first task to cleaning the chicken, I knew, was to get out the insides.  I visualized this process on our walk home with distaste and averted my eyes at this surgery.  I marveled that my mother didn’t mind doing it.  I suppose she had no choice, but I never liked taking part in that process. The liver was turned into chopped liver which my father enjoyed the next day for lunch.  The chicken was then submerged in a pot of boiling water, accompanied by companions of carrots and celery, which hours later was transformed into our dinner soup.  Sometimes I watched the soup as it cooked, peering into the steaming pot.  The bright pieces of orange carrots seemed to dance toward each other like goldfish in a fountain.

When there was a non-fertilized egg inside the chicken, it was awarded to me at dinner as the older child. The tiny yellow ball was fuzzy like a miniature baseball. I had no idea of its abbreviated destiny.  The chicken parts were apportioned to the family according to seniority.  My father got the breast, my mother the thighs, my brother the wings and drumsticks, and I shared the thighs with my mother.   At the dinner table, the chicken had the company of the very soft carrots and celery and a boiled potato.  If my mother were ambitious that day, sometimes a kugel substituted for the potato.

Dessert was predictable: one week applesauce, the next week Jello.  Sometimes leftover chicken was transformed into chicken salad for a sandwich lunch the next day. But that wasn’t as absolute as chicken for dinner on Friday night for Shabbat.

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free-lance writer for national publications.

 

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The Ring

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

I will never forget Thursday, May 26, 1938, the day my mother, our beloved Scottish Terrier named Peeps, and I stood on the pier of the North German Lloyd shipping company in Bremerhaven, waiting to board the ocean liner SS Europa for our departure to the United States. The Europa was the largest ship built in Germany during the 1930s.

Prior to forever leaving German soil, we were required to undergo a final physical examination; Germany had to ensure that emigrants were not taking valuables out of the country. My mother carried only the maximum amount allowed: a ten-mark note, worth about $2.50 at the time. Being eleven years old, I was not permitted to leave with any funds. It was late afternoon when we were ordered into a tent that stood only a few feet away from where the Europa was moored. Those travelers who were not emigrating did not enter the tent nor endure its indignities. Inside, two elderly white-clad matrons with gray braids and large swastikas prominently pinned to their ample bosoms, ordered us to undress from the waist down. Then, as we were bent over two chairs, the attendants inspected our orifices for hidden treasures. Finding nothing, they instructed us to get dressed. As we prepared to exit, one of the grumpy ogres pointed to my mother’s left hand with its plain gold wedding band and commanded, “Hand it over!”

It took only a second for my mother to slip the ring from her finger. What she did after that, shocked not only me, but even more so, the matrons. Thinking, but not vocalizing, “If I can’t have it, neither will you. I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow you to take my wedding ring!”

My mother, with the band tightly clutched in her hand, sprinted toward the water’s edge a few steps away. She tossed the ring into the narrow strip of water separating the ship from the pier. Just as quickly, she zoomed back to scoop up Peeps and me from the tent, dragging us to the queueing spot where other passengers had begun boarding.

After reaching the top of the embarkation ladder, but before taking my first step into the huge vessel’s interior, I turned for a final glimpse backward. The looks of incredulity, frozen on the horrified faces of the two inspectors now standing on the pier outside the tent, were beyond description. Pulling Peeps’ white patent leather leash up the last step behind my mother, I was so overcome by what my mother had done that I slowed to what could have become a fatal stop.

The unbelievable daring and courage she showed by throwing her ring into the harbor still stunned me. We could have easily been caught and then, what would have happened to us? We might have been arrested and prevented from boarding because of her disobedience.

A few hours later, after stowing Peeps into the dog kennel on the top deck and finding our belongings in our cabin, my mother and I went above to witness the ship’s departure. It was getting dark and would soon be time for the Europa’s high-speed steam turbine engines to start up. Simultaneously, we heard the ship’s orchestra begin playing the tear-jerking, traditional German farewell folk song “Muss i denn, muss i denn zum Staedtele hinaus?” (Why must I leave this small town?)

Standing at the railing beside my mother, I saw she had tears running down her face.

“Mom,” I asked, “aren’t you glad we are finally getting out of here?”

“My dear child,” she replied, “I am and we have every reason for being grateful. But you must remember that I have lived through much better times than ours and it is these I am remembering at this moment. The good and happy times. And now I am looking forward to being in the new country and being reunited with your father.”

My mother’s first request after reaching the United States and settling in Louisville was for my father to buy her a new wedding ring. After all, she needed to show she was a married woman. I cherish her replacement ring, and after almost eighty years, I still proudly remember the incredible moment of defiance when my mother tossed her original wedding band into the water to prevent it from falling into Nazi hands.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

Editor’s Note: Ellen Norman Stern shared a different version of this story, “Ring of Defiance,” with The Jewish Writing Project in 2012. We’ve included a link here to show how a writer’s memories can fuel different stories, and how our retelling of these stories can differ from draft to draft over the years, depending on what we find most worth telling at the time: (https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/ring-of-defiance/).

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A Savory Recipe

by Jane Ellen Glasser (Lighthouse Pt., FL)

        for my daughter on her 16th wedding anniversary

I would never have thought sixteen years

a sweet anniversary, a rejuvenation of love.

That was the year your father and I divorced.

          I was confused as a child watching Mother pour

          sugar on seasoned meat. Like her marriage,

          I knew some things didn’t belong together.

I have watched you and your husband

navigate differences, repair cracks and leaks

with the plug of sweet acceptance.

          After the meat was browned with onions,

          after the cup of sugar, Mother added in sour salt

          before simmering the meal stove-top for hours.

What I didn’t learn from my parents or my own failed

marriage, you have mastered: love’s work

takes opposites, sweet needing sour to grow a marriage.

          When the meat was tender, Mother

          thickened the sauce with ginger snaps.

          No one made a more savory brisket.

Just days ago, you hosted family and friends for a seder

on heirloom china. You served brisket and a recipe

for a loving marriage to pass down to your children.

Jane Ellen Glasser’s poetry has appeared in journals such as Hudson Review, Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Reviewand Georgia Review. In the past she reviewed poetry books for the Virginian-Pilot, edited poetry for the Ghent Quarterly  and Lady Jane’s Miscellany, and co-founded the nonprofit arts organization and journal New Virginia Review.  She won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry 2005 for Light Persists and The Long Life won the Poetica Publishing Company Chapbook Contest in 2011. Her seventh poetry collection, In the Shadow of Paradise, appeared from FutureCycle Press in 2017. Her work may be previewed on her website: www.janeellenglasser.com

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A Woman Learning Talmud

by Dobra Levitt (Jerusalem, Israel)

       I love my Talmud Torah class.  It meets one morning a week in a shul in the heart of Jerusalem.  And just as no other place in the world has a heart like the heart of Jerusalem, no other Talmud teacher is quite like ours.  He hails  from England, that island of literary giants which seems to endow many of its inhabitants from birth with the gifts of language and wit.  So add his own talent for the spoken word and humor to what he’s imbibed from his native air, and you get a “one in a million” Talmud Torah class.

      The class has been learning the laws of lost objects.  When I started attending late in the year, they had nearly completed the laws involving distinguishing signs on a lost object that would require the finder to announce he had found it.  It seems though that a brand new article, say a vase or a hat, may not have to be announced since the owner would not have had sufficient time for his eyes to get used to it, which meant he wouldn’t be able to identify it as his.  This law was extremely problematic for me.  If I were buying a hat, for example, you can be sure I would examine it inside-out  before I walked out of the store with it.  I would definitely have been able to identify that hat as mine since it was for its particularities that I had chosen it.  Even if the choice had been between exactly similar hats, one of them would have been better for its fit or some other tangible quality.  I raised this issue in the class, and a gentleman called out from his seat, “That’s because you’re a woman buying it”.  There was, of course, nothing to answer to that.

      Then came those laws where the place the lost object was found had to be considered – whether it was a public thoroughfare or not; how well-traveled it was; whether mainly Jewish people lived there or non-Jews.  An interesting example of the place was what to do if one found a carcass of a kosher animal that looked as if it had been ritually schechted on the road between Tiberias and a town further north.  Since this highway was traveled mostly by religious Jews in Talmudic times, the law is it could be assumed the slaughtering was kosher and therefore the finder had to announce it.  I wondered how a person could lose an entire animal, say a goat or a cow, without knowing it.  True, there’s an enormous difference between presumably a Talmudic cart or wagon and a modern hauling van – I guess if the Talmud brings such a case, one has to imagine how this could have been possible:  maybe the owner had two or three animals piled up in his cart so that one just slid off onto the side of the road; maybe he had only one and as he was turning into the lane from the main road, his cart lurched or he was jolted by another wagoner.  Take into account also the hustle, racket and din of heavy Talmudic traffic as we can imagine it, and such an incident may not have been uncommon.  In any case, nobody in class seems to have been bothered by this question, and the discussion carried on touching on some of the details of the schecting evidence – how much of the windpipe was severed and so on, at which point one woman had to get up and leave  – “the gory details” were too much for her.

      The laws involving objects found in rubbish heaps were also puzzling.  It seems that in Talmudic times, a person having no storage room in his house for a pot he owned or wanting to hide it for some reason would stash it away in a rubbish heap for safekeeping.  Could it be that rubbish heaps then were different from rubbish as we know it?  And who in his right mind today would even think of storing a pot in such a place?  True, rummishers still exist (not to cast aspersion on anyone, heaven forbid), and usable objects can be retrieved from rubbish, but that’s only by accident.  Could this also be a situation where there is a difference between what a man or a woman would think of doing? (again, not to cast aspersion).  No one seems to have been disconcerted by these questions and the class continued delving into rubbish heaps, so to speak  – whether they were cleaned regularly or not; whether the object was large like a pot or small like knives and forks, etc. – so unless I did some research on rubbish heaps and their use in the Talmudic period, this subject will remain a mystery.

      I loved learning laws regarding what to do if one found doves or pigeons tied together near a wall where their owner had placed them while he went off on a nearby   errand, for example.  I love doves so I didn’t much like the idea of their being tied together, but concede that a dove-owner would not do harm to his own property.  Still it can’t be much fun to be tied up huddled by a wall, especially for birds, one would think, but that could be a pure and simple case of projection.  How do we know what doves feel?  Maybe since they’re so supremely loyal to each other, they’re loyal to their owner and wait for him very patiently by the wall.

      Another law involving domesticated doves shows how knowledgeable and exact our sages were. They determined that a dove would not fly more than fifty cubits from its dovecote so that if one found doves within this area, they would have to be returned to the owner.  The Gemarah relates many stories of Rav Yirmiyah (you might call him a Talmudic troublemaker) who would ask seemingly far-fetched and trivial questions on a halacha.  On the dove’s flight habits, Rav Yirmiyah asked:  What if one foot was within the fifty cubits and the other foot outside?  This was one too many for the sages and they threw him out of the study hall.  Eventually, of course, they let him back in, but maybe they wouldn’t have evicted him in the first place if they had known that centuries down the line, he would be vindicated.  How so?  Later the very same day we learned about Rav Yirmiyah and the doves, I began reading an article called “Moses’ Mother” by Rabbi Yanki Tauber, based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  Imagine my astonished delight as I read him starting off by recounting the very same story in the Gemarah about the “troublesome” Rav Yirmiyah!  It could be that the Rav has a point, the article explains.  For example, sometimes you have to be both outside and inside a problem in order to resolve it. And if we look in Parshah Shemos at the number of those who went down to Egypt,  the Torah tells us Yacov’s descendants were seventy souls.  But if we examine Parshah Va’yigash, the number adds up to only sixty-nine. Who was the seventieth?  It was Yocheved, Moses’ mother, who was born at the boundary wall between Eretz Israel and Egypt. That meant that Moshe had a knowledge of two realities, a vision that Moshe would need to lead his people out of exile.  (or – to   express it another way, he had one foot in the darkness of exile, and the other foot in the light of redemption.  Rav Yirmiyah, now you have a leg to stand on!)

         With these thoughts, a woman learning Talmud will end her discussion for now, noting that since the Lubavitcher Rebbe often said we are on the threshold of redemption, she anticipates that time whenever her feet are planted in her Talmud Torah class.

             Dobra Levitt lives in Jerusalem where she writes; tutors English; and teaches  creative writing.  She recently published a memoir called The Fish in the Yellow Paper, a collection of essays describing her childhood and high school teaching years in Philadelphia. Here’s a link to her book if you’d like to take a look: https://amzn.to/2ukRsMG

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Looking for Faith

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

A sampling of haikus:

Attending service,
After so many years away.
Would I feel welcome?

Memory wall:
Little lights bright as buttons
Who will pray for me?

Eyes closed in prayer.
My voice feels very small to me.
Need a microphone?

The service rolls on.
I don’t know any Hebrew.
I am full of doubts.

Good Bar Mitzvah friends,
Scattered now into old age.
How the years have past.

Lots of presents then.
My parents so proud of me.
I think of them now.

A community.
Worshipers sing with one voice.
Am part of the whole.

I search for meaning.
I look everywhere for it.
Here is where I find it.

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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