Category Archives: American Jewry

My Mother’s First Chanukah in the Nursing Home

By Madlynn Haber (Northampton, MA)

Today, I arrive at the nursing home with two bags of Chanukah presents.  It is my mother’s first Chanukah in the beginning stages of dementia. I smile at the ladies in wheelchairs lining the hallway on the way to her room. One has no leg, some have no voices, several have no minds left. I smile with sweetness and kindness. I have respect for them knowing they once had  moments of passion and joy. They don’t have those anymore, and neither, it seems, do I.

In the bags, there are five presents for Mom: hand lotion, an artificial plant, a crossword puzzle book, a back scratcher, and a mechanical rabbi that dances to the tune of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.” I have two presents for her roommate, and my daughter’s first night present. 

My mother tries to open them before we light the candles. I have to stop her like I did with my daughter when she was one and two. By the time she was three, she figured out that you have to wait for the candles to be lit, for the blessings to be said, for the story of the holiday miracle to be told and remembered before you get to open the presents.

My mother has forgotten all this, if she ever knew. We did light candles when I was a child, but eight presents, one for each night, was too extravagant for us.  We got a quarter some nights, some candy or a piece of fruit and one real present on the first night. Now, my mother saves the quarters she wins in bingo games at the nursing home for my daughter who has always gotten a special present each night.

I bring a present for myself to the nursing home as well since there is no one to buy one for me. I wrap it in Chanukah paper and open it with delight. It is a CD that I have wanted to hear.  It is by a young singer songwriter. She sings about her loves and passions, adventures, travels, and mysterious encounters. I used to know about such things, too. I used to light Chanukah candles with an expectation that small miracles would happen easily and a large one might actually be possible. I used to have a wide view on the world. Now I can only see one small task at a time: take Mom to the doctor; attend her care meeting; replace her slippers; bring her more powder; reset the remote for her TV, again.

My daughter and I help my mother into her wheel chair and then into my car and we go to Pizza Hut, one of Mom’s favorites. She reads the placemat. On it there are questions for discussion. What would you do with a million dollars?  What would you do if you were president for one day? What would you ask for if a genie came out of a bottle and gave you a wish? Oddly, they are questions about miracles, so appropriate for our Chanukah meal.

My mother says she would wish for a long life! I am stunned into silence. I am grateful that I don’t blurt out the words, “Haven’t you lived long enough already?”

It is a miracle that I have chosen to make her happy. I think I can do it for maybe a year. I can bring her cake and balloons on her birthday. I can take her on a picnic for Labor Day, to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. I can cook her Thanksgiving dinner, bring her presents on Chanukah, take her to a movie on New Year’s Day, a lecture on Martin Luther King Day. I can make a Seder for Passover and a basket for Easter. I can do that for one year. 

But what if her wish comes true? What if she lives a longer life? We will need, I am sure, to be blessed with miracles for all the future years she may be granted.

Madlynn Haber is a writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her work has been published in the anthologies Letters to Father from Daughters and Word of Mouth, Volume Two, in Anchor Magazine and on the websites A Gathering of the Tribes,  BoomSpeak and The Voices Project.

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I Was the Dreidel 

by Madlynn Haber (Northampton, MA)

I was the dreidel, which was the starring role in the play called “The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin,” when I was 11 years old.  I can’t remember having any lines to say. But I do remember the costume. It was made of four pieces of cardboard, which formed a square, with elastic bands holding the cardboard up on my shoulders.

I can’t remember the story either. What was the plot? Why didn’t the dreidel spin? How did it resolve? I assume the dreidel found a way to spin. I like to picture myself twirling around on the stage—a swirling, tap-dancing dreidel in a great Broadway musical. But  that’s not what happened. There wasn’t even a stage. Just chairs set up in rows in a dingy basement.

It was a poor Jewish neighborhood after-school program, unaffiliated with any synagogue or congregation. That’s one of the parts that stayed with me, the lack of affiliation. Also the immobile dreidel, boxed in, unable to spin, stubbornly refusing to go along.

After the play, the cast gathered together around a menorah. We each said something as we lit a candle. It couldn’t have been the traditional blessings. It wasn’t a traditional Hebrew school. We learned Yiddish instead of Hebrew and believed in socialism instead of God.

I had asked to go to Hebrew school when I was in the fourth grade and after I found myself drifting into churches, kneeling and staring at the statues of Mary and Jesus. My parents couldn’t afford the price of joining a synagogue where I could go to Hebrew school and learn how to pray. Instead, they sent me to this secular Jewish school where I learned to play bingo in Yiddish.

I remember very clearly the image of my father’s face as I looked out into the audience above the light of those Chanukah candles. It may have been the last time I saw him in my childhood. Shortly after, he moved away and wasn’t heard from again. (As an adult, I tracked him down, found the rooming house where he lived, and visited him at the taxi company where he worked.)

On the day of the play, my father came to pick us up in a long, black Plymouth. It must have been shortly after my parents’ separation. We didn’t have a car when he lived with us, and he acquired the Plymouth right after he left. Coming down the front stoop with the screen door slamming behind us, my mother and I got our first glimpse of that car with its high fins. My father was smiling, a proud grin on his face as he opened the car door to let us in.

I slid into the front seat, positioned between him and my mother.  She shut the door and made a tight fist with her right hand.  Then, she sharply tapped on the top of the dashboard. With a slight sneer, she said, “Kind of tinny isn’t it?” My father’s smile faded. None of us spoke after that comment as we drove to the Jewish School.

Years later I learned the traditional Chanukah blessings in Hebrew. Memories of starring in that play return when I light the menorah. I remember the silence in the car.  I can see my father’s grinning face. I can hear my mother’s sarcastic voice. And I can remember myself when I was eleven and I was an immobile dreidel, unable to spin.

Madlynn Haber is a writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her work has been published in the anthologies Letters from Daughters to Fathers and Word of Mouth, Volume Two, and in Anchor Magazine and a forthcoming issue of Exit 13 Magazine.

 

 

 

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Have the Hate-filled Times Come Again?

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

On the night of November 10, 1938 my mother and I stood on the sidewalk of Fasanenstrasse in Berlin and watched flames shoot out of the roof of our beautiful and beloved Temple, the great Reform Synagogue, across the street.

I was eleven years old and could not understand what was happening. Behind us in the street several fire engines manned by their crews rested without attempting to put out the fire. In front of the engines crowds of people just stood and watched, some of them obviously snickering.

No one made any attempt to put out the fire. It was obvious to me even at a young age that this was no accidental fire: it had been set because of hatred.

This was the synagogue in which I had my first introduction to Judaism, where I learned about our holy days, listened to the heavenly music of the choir, and felt the closeness of God even as a young child.

That night I even questioned God: “Dear God. This is Your beautiful house. Why are You allowing these evil people to burn it?  And why did You not punish those just standing around seemingly enjoying the spectacle?”

But I said these thoughts quietly to myself for even my mother just stood there silently not saying a word. Her face wore such a languished look I did not dare to interrupt her sadness.

Finally, she turned to me and said in a quiet voice, “Remember this.” Then she pulled me away from the crowd and led me to the train station nearby. We went home in silence.

I have remembered that night throughout my life. It has become known as “Kristallnacht” (Night of Broken Glass) because aside from the burning of synagogues, other horrendous episodes occurred that day. Jewish shops all over Germany had their storefront windows smashed by unruly mobs, and many Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps.

“Kristallnacht” was the forerunner to the Holocaust.

On Saturday, October 27, 2018, a crazed, heavily armed individual entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and murdered eleven elderly congregants while they were praying. His comment upon being wounded by arresting officers (who themselves sustained gunshot injuries) was: “All Jews should be killed.”

These words lie heavily upon our souls. Have the terrible, hate-filled times come again?

Never in the history of the United States have American Jews faced such concentrated venom.

Yet there is a difference. And there is hope.

In Germany, the hate and conflagration was started and fostered by tools of the State. Here, the actions were of a lone, crazed gunman. And here, the State, in the form of Pittsburgh’s police force and elected officials, Pennsylvania and Federal law enforcement officials, along with Pittsburgh’s medical personnel, the American Press, and worldwide reaction to the tragedy, has supported the bereaved Tree of Life congregation.

Despite my great sadness as a child Holocaust survivor, I have faith in the future.

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.

 

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Pittsburgh 1918, 2018

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

My father, an immigrant,
crossed the ocean,
went to live with his older brother,
in Pittsburgh.

My father, an immigrant,
went to 5th Avenue High,
worked hard to understand
the strange English language,
in Pittsburgh.

My father, an immigrant,
went to doven each Shabbos
in the local synagogue
a world away from the
sumptuous temples of Squirrel Hill,
in Pittsburgh.

My father, an immigrant
knew anti-Semitism, later escaped Hitler,
was spared the horror of that morning,
in Pittsburgh.

What would he have said
were he born a century later
to witness murder so heinous?

Would he have cried out to the heavens
in mourning for his lost brethren,
knowing it could have been any Jew, anywhere?

Would he have recognized the
the darkening of the national identity
as human behavior descends into blind hate?

Would the ghost of my father have screamed
in the sanctuary with the fallen?

My father, an immigrant,
died in 1974, a devout believer.
His soul lingers with the eleven,
immigrants or not, who died,
in Pittsburgh.

He never questioned
the existence of evil in the world.
Would he have been surprised
that it came home to Pittsburgh
to shatter, until the next news cycle,
the spirit of man?

Coda:

And I, my father’s son,
fail to find the fitting words
necessary to speak of this tragedy.

The stop in my throat,
the tears in my eyes,
reduces me to silent outrage.

Others may be able to speak
more emotionally, more eloquently.
Instead, I will go out to my father’s grave,
put a stone on his tombstone,
and carry eleven other stones in my pocket
in remembrance of those Jews
who can no longer speak for themselves.

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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Born in America

by Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)

As a boy I learned Hebrew while sitting in
a cramped, stifling second-floor classroom
on Wednesday afternoons and on Sunday
mornings, chalk dust in the air and cigarette
smoke mixed with sweat and the stale smell
of ink and old paper, reading Bible stories
from ancient books with dusty yellow pages
and the smell of an exotic, sun-drenched land
rising from between the lines.

The land was called Israel—Eretz Yisrael
in Hebrew—and I was told to call it home,
even though home for me was a split-level
house in northern New Jersey within sight
of the tall spires of Manhattan where my
father worked, and all I knew about Israel
was that it was hot and dusty, a dry land
covered in sand, a place where refugees with
numbers tattooed on their arms came from
Europe’s death camps to build new lives.

I remember how the Hebrew letters felt so
strange on the tip of my tongue and made
the back of my throat swell so that I nearly
choked on the words, and I remember how
I turned the pages hoping my teacher wouldn’t
call on me to read, afraid I’d stumble and trip
in front of my friends over the unfamiliar words.

In the end I learned what I had to learn for
my bar mitzvah, no more, no less, and memorized
all the Hebrew words and how they were supposed
to sound by listening to a record the rabbi had
made, and I repeated the words over and over again
until they sounded like words that came from my
heart, words that I had absorbed in my mother’s
milk as an infant nursing at her breast.

Only I could never convince myself that Hebrew
was really my language. I always felt like an
imposter reading the words, as if the odd-shaped
letters and words belonged to someone else. I was
an American Jew, after all, and, like most Americans,
I spoke English, not Hebrew. And when I walked down
the streets of my suburban town in northern New Jersey,
I foolishly thought that my friends and I were safe
forever from the horrors of the past, and that Israel
served as a haven for others, not for Jews like us
who had been born in America.

How my friends and I had laughed at the idea that
we needed to learn Hebrew. Instead, we dreamed of
playing basketball and throwing a football in a high
spiral on a perfect autumn afternoon and sneaked
peeks across the aisle at the girls, their heads bent
over their books, pretending that we weren’t there,
intent on learning the Hebrew words that all of us
might need one day to strengthen our bonds as Jews.

Bruce Black is is the founder and editorial director of The Jewish Writing Project. He lives in Sarasota, FL.

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Sunday Morning Ritual

by Diana Rosen (Los Angeles, CA)

I am five,
standing eagerly at his side,
my face at my dad’s elbow,
a ready audience for this most
amazing experience: The Shave.

He pulls his nose first right, then left,
his razor whispers scritch-scratch,
edging over his upper lip; then he strokes
down through the shaving cream
leaving even rectangles on his cheeks,
a lawn mower plowing through snow.

Stroke by stroke, vanishing strips of
white foam expose his deeply tanned face.
“Damn,” he swears, as a ribbon of vermilion
winds its way down his deeply-brown chin.

Automatically, I hand him
some toilet paper to sop up
the spoils of the Gillette.
Then comes the part I like best.

He pours into his hands some crackling
cologne from the white crockery bottle
with its tiny neck and the blue sailboat
on the ballooning bottom of the bottle.

The room explodes with the scent
as he slaps it on his face:

Plop!
Plop!
Platt!

And together we say,
“Now that’s a mechayeh.”

[Mechayeh—Yiddish for “a pleasure.”]

Diana Rosen’s flash fiction and poetry have been published in anthologies and journals including, among others, Kiss Me Gooodnight and Altadena Poetry Review, Rattle, Tiferet Journal, Silver Birch Press, Ariel Chart, and Poetic Diversity. She has published thirteen non-fiction books. and teaches freewrite classes at senior citizen centers.

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A Work in Progress

by Natalie Zellat Dyen (Huntington Valley, PA)

Within the bookends of your life
Between the beginning and the ending
Lies a work in progress
Blank pages to be filled every day.
When you’re young and each empty line leads to a road not taken.
And when you’re old, convinced there’s no more to be said.

On days when your cup runneth over
And words spill onto the page in joyous celebration of life
And on days when your heart is burdened
With broken promises and unrequited love
And the pen lies heavy in your hand.
Write anyway. Love anyway.

In this time of beginnings and endings
As you pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life
Don’t forget that today is yet another page to be written.
The final chapter is not the end.
Good books live on in memory after the author is gone
And you will live on in the memories of those you have loved
And who have loved you.
So write anyway. Love anyway.

Natalie Zellat Dyen is a freelance writer and photographer living in Huntingdon Valley, PA. Her work has appeared in Philadelphia Stories, The Willow Review, Global Woman Magazine, Intercom Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Schuylkill Valley Journal, Wordhaus, and other newspapers and journals. She has just completed her first novel. Links to Natalie’s published work are available at http://www.nataliewrites.com.

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