Category Archives: American Jewry

Come in, Come in

Brad Jacobson (Columbia, MO)

Walking by the Kotel
Rabbi Machlis calls out
to the Kenyan and Chinese tourists,
Shabbat Shalom, Shabbat Shalom!

Yesterday two soldiers
were stabbed here in the Arab shuk.
I ask the rabbi if he is concerned
but he says, No, I am with you.

We meet a Muslim beggar.
The rabbi invites him along.
At his home, people are already gathered.
I squeeze into a corner seat.

Rabbi Machlis booms:
Come in, come in,
there is plenty of room.

We crowd around tables.
The homeless man, tourist,
soldier, Christian, Muslim, and Jew
eat cholent, challah, and gefilte fish.

Each one of you
is our special guest,
he says. We are in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Machlis calls me the scuba diver
—he knows I love to dive in the Red Sea—
and asks me to speak next.

Brad Jacobson lives in Columbia, MO, where he teaches ESL. Every summer, he volunteers in Israel. He enjoys hiking in the desert and diving in the Red Sea.  His poetry has been published in Tikkun, Poetica, Sar-El, Voices Israel, and other publications.

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Filed under American Jewry, Israel Jewry, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, poetry

Not That Jewish

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

I constantly debate my Jewishness,
or lack thereof.
Let’s look at the facts:
I don’t know any of the 613 laws,
much less obey them.
I almost never go to shul,
except on the High Holy Days.
(Do not ask me why I go then.)
My mother was not raised Jewish,
even though her mother was.
(Can Jews skip a generation?)
My sons were Bar-Mitzvahed.
(Did that make me or them more Jewish?)
I do not follow the news from Israel,
much less the news from my local synagogue.
I do not keep kosher,
nor do I light Friday night candles.
Yet, despite all of the above,
I still feel Jewish.
I am a Jew, by God, aren’t I?
Only not that much.

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, Jewish identity, poetry

Shabbat in Rehab

Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

“Shalom” I called through the open door. 

The couple stopped and turned toward the door in one movement.  I beckoned to them and invited them to come into my room.

It was my first day in a rehab center following orthopedic surgery. 

The couple was clearly Chabad.  I could be sure of that from the man’s worn but pressed and clean black jacket, shtreimel hat, and the ubiquitous payes – grey sidelocks cascading over his ears.  The tzitzit were clearly visible below the hem of a starched white shirt. 

His wife, a fading beauty, wore a long sleeved print dress and a brown curly sheytel (wig.)  It was late afternoon on a Friday and I assumed they were making loving kindness visits to Jewish patients.

After a few moments of friendly conversation, the woman offered me a miniature challah from a bag which sagged with many more.  Her husband told me proudly that she rose early Friday mornings and baked one hundred of them to distribute to patients in hospitals and nursing homes.  He examined the lighting in the room and explained how I could use the switches to simulate Shabbat candle lighting and gave me the exact time.  I don’t know if this was a Chabad pilpul decision or if our creative Talmud makes these allowances, notwithstanding the lack of electricity.  We are clearly a people who make it possible to adapt ritual under any circumstances.

I was in the rehab center six weeks. They arrived punctually every Friday afternoon with the challah and the time to light Shabbat candles.  I had asked on their first visit if they spoke Yiddish as it is always a source of great pleasure for me to converse in that artful and descriptive language, so he and I had very satisfactory conversations in Yiddish.

On my last Friday night in rehab I told them I would not be seeing them again as I was going home the next day.  My husband was in the room and the Chabad gentleman asked him if he would put on tefillin (phylacteries) in thankfulness for my recovery.  My husband replied, somewhat embarrassed, that he had never done that.  The man answered, “Well, then, it will be a double mitzvah,” and my husband, much to my surprise, said “of course.”

The gentleman put a kippah on my husband’s head and wound the phylacteries around his fingers, his arm, all in the prescribed ritualistic process, and placed the box that contained bible verses on his forehead in the centuries old appropriate manner.  My husband repeated the prayers and the tefillin were removed.

After the couple left with many good wishes, I turned to my husband and said, “I’m shocked that you, a lifelong skeptic, agreed to put on phylacteries.”

“How could I refuse,” my husband said in a soft voice.  “They were so gentle and sincere.”

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 University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free lance writer for national publications.

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Sing and Tell of My Grandfather

By Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)

During National Poetry Month, WNYC invited Pulitzer Prize winning poet Sharon Olds to share a writing prompt on its poetry site. Thanks to the prompt, I ended up writing “Sing and Tell of My Grandfather,” a poem that I hadn’t even known I was thinking about writing.

The assignment from Olds was to write a short poem (16 lines or fewer) using (among others) the words acid, anise seed, butter, cherish, grisly, margarine, mother, pearl, sing, and tell. Here’s the poem that I found waiting for me:

Sing and tell of my grandfather
a baker who learned how to use butter—
not margarine—to add flavor to the cakes
and Danish pastries and bread and rolls
that came out of his oven in Zharnow, hot
and steamy and sweet, not grisly anemic rolls
but thick and fluffy, with drops of sugar, like pearls,
and anise seed, like slivers of jade, the kind of rolls
his mother said would bring him wealth and long life
and happiness if he left home. “If you stay,” she said,
“you’ll live with the taste of acid in your mouth, if they
let you live at all.” So, he sailed for America and became
a baker and bought his own bakery and raised a family,
two daughters, thank God, one of whom became my mother,
and lived a life the ones left behind could only dream of.

If you’d like to read more poems written in response to this prompt, visit the WNYC site: http://www.wnyc.org/story/happy-national-poetry-month-heres-assignment-3/

Bruce Black is the founder and editorial director of The Jewish Writing Project. His work has appeared in Blue Lyra Review, Elephant Journal, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Reform Judaism, The Reconstructionist, The Jewish Week, and The Jewish Exponent, as well as in OmYoga Magazine, Yogi Times, Mindbodygreen, Yogamint, and The Sarasota Herald-Tribune. For information about his book, Writing Yoga, visit: 

http://www.rodmellpress.com/writingyoga.html

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity, poetry, Polish Jewry

A Lasting Snapshot

By Bill Levine (Belmont, MA)

Every 50 years or so, my dad hosted a Bar Mitzvah celebration. The first was my own Bar Mitzvah in 1964, and then a belated celebration for my 20-year old nephew in 2013.  I appreciated my dad’s second celebration of Judaism much more than the first as it was an event that sealed off the fallout from sibling toxicity—at least for a day.

When my father first announced his intention to stage this rite of passage, I was skeptical.  I couldn’t envision my sister’s son, Gabe, adding to his Brandeis academics with Bar Mitzvah lessons.  I worried that dad at 94 didn’t have the wherewithal and energy to transform this bucket list item to reality.  Then there was the problem of my sister and I.  Could we collaborate instead of fight over our object of estrangement, namely dad’s checkbook?

On a Sunday afternoon in April it really did happen.  At my sister’s request, I had agreed to cut dad’s checks for Bar Mitzvah shoes for Gabe and floral flourishes instead of just flowers. With our help, Dad was able to shepherd in his last hurrah, and my nephew dedicated himself to learning Torah.  As the cantor warmed up the guests by extoling the virtues of my nephew, I surveyed the makeshift sanctuary.  The buffet table was packed with eating contests portions of deli. No one would leave hungry unless they were vegan.

The Senior Life residence function room filled with odd demographics—mostly under 21 Brandeis students; aging baby boomers; and the over 85 crowd.  It was an advertiser’s nightmare: no one 25-54. What resonated with me the most, though, was that my dad, my nuclear family, and my sister’s brood were all in the  same room for the first time since my dad’s 90th birthday party was held four years ago.

Later in the service I was called up for an aliyah to close the portable ark  in tandem with my sister.  Due to our recent turbulent relationship, I was disarmed when she gave me this procedural honor.  But it occurred to me that maybe closing the ark curtains could start to close the curtains on several years of friction between us.

After the service, my dad’s “greatest generation” crowd headed right for the buffet table, happy to be partaking of a spread that wasn’t punctuated by the sadness of a shiva.  Our extended family—consisting of dad, my son Matt, my sister, my niece Molly, myself and my wife Lesley—all sat together for the first time since mom’s funeral six years before. Our table talk was a triumph based on the low expectation threshold of no put-downs or arguments.  Meanwhile, a sprinkling of long-time connections paid their respects to my wheel-chair bound dad, introducing themselves with a hopeful “Remember me…”

Later came the shared  “what a family moment.” My fellow boomer cousin, Johnny, took out his iPhone, and my family huddled around to view a series of standard old relative shots featuring great-aunts in voluminous bathing suits on long demolished boardwalks.  Then Johnny showed us a picture of three well-dressed men in a 1940s swank nightclub. One was my great-uncle, one a cousin, and, unbelievably, the third man was Joe DiMaggio, The Yankee Clipper.  Right then I thought, Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? To hang out with my family, obviously.  Our family was blessed with a TMZ (a celebrity gossip TV show and website) moment.

When the guests left, they took with them large Styrofoam containers of deli, enough for several brunches. My sister had ordered too much food at my dad’s expense.  I was irked. But I understood there was a truce on sibling rancor. Besides, I thought dad might have preferred the gluttony because at his Depression-era Bar Mitzvah his monetary gifts had doubled as the payments to the caterer.

A year after the Bar Mitzvah, dad was dead, and my sister and I were dueling heirs yet again. But dad had given me that day a lasting snapshot of a functioning, reasonably  happy birth family. It is still a vision to shoot for.

Bill Levine is a semi-retired IT professional, aspiring humorist, and freelance writer residing in Belmont, MA.

NoteA Lasting Snapshot” was published previously as “The Bar Mitzvah Gift” in the Jewish Advocate and also on a senior’s web-site, GO60.US. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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Father’s Phantom First Family

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

When it came to keeping secrets, few were as tight-lipped as my parents. Once these two Holocaust survivors decided to exclude any one particular topic from conversation, no amount of whimpering, urging or cajoling could convince them to reconsider. You see there were some wartime memories that proved just too painful to discuss and so keeping them under wraps was felt to be the only sensible thing to do.

One such prohibited topic dealt with my father’s first family, a wife and three small children, four innocent victims who perished during the Holocaust. They, along with thousands of others held captive in the Lodz Ghetto, had either succumbed to starvation, exhaustion and illness or were ruthlessly singled out, rounded up and taken to nearby killing centers. The story of this first family had become a closed chapter in a book of tragedies that was to be kept out of sight and out of mind. From my earliest recollection, I sensed that this was a subject that was strictly off limits and, though I was always intrigued, I knew better than to ask too many questions.

My father, who was generally an open and talkative sort, never spoke of this phantom first family. There were no details of their lives and no information as to how or where they died. Talk of their appearance, likes, dislikes, mannerisms and personalities was never forthcoming and remained under lock and key. My mother, perhaps fearful of not wanting to open old painful wounds, seldom discussed any subject that was certain to upset my father. “Your father is a nervous man,” she would often say, “he has suffered enough. There are things you should not ask.”

On rare occasions, mother would inadvertently let a word or two slip about the secret first family but there was never enough information that would amount to much of anything. She always seemed to catch herself right in the nick of time. It was like a pinhole in a drawn window shade that permitted a hint of light but resulted in little, if any, illumination or insight. The first family’s names were never mentioned and their faces never graced the pages of our emaciated photo album.

Growing up, I found myself trying to come up with likely names and images for this first family. I played with the possibilities. The color and texture of their hair, the color of their eyes and any distinctive facial features that would make them stand out in a crowd. In spite of a vivid imagination, my efforts failed miserably as these faceless spirits continued to elude me. Whenever emboldened by a jolt of curiosity, I would cautiously approach my father with questions relating to his first family. “Foolish child, how could you ever possibly understand?” was his customary response, a refrain he often used whenever feeling distressed and at a loss for words. I accepted defeat and never gave it much thought until my own children came on the scene.

While visiting my parents a number of years ago, I was determined to be a bit more forceful in my attempt to learn about this first family. Whether it had been the presence of my own children or the appreciation that I could no longer be put off, my father began to appear a bit more receptive to the idea of introducing his first family into our daily conversations. As the lone survivor of his extended family, he, and only he, could provide information about those who had not survived. No photographs, letters or mementos of the first family’s existence had ever surfaced after the war, making my father’s recollections all the more critical. I was well aware of his sensitivity and appreciated his vulnerability, and, at my mother’s urging, I proposed that we go slowly and proceed at a pace of his own choosing.

Father took a long deep breath and began to speak haltingly of the strife and struggle of life in the ghetto. He continued on this theme for a number of minutes before introducing me to his young daughter and two infant sons. Though details were quite meager, a milestone had been reached that, I hoped, would lead to more open discussion in the near future. A major hurdle was overcome and I could immediately appreciate that a bit of clarity had been sprinkled onto a distant blur. Visions of faint images were beginning to inch forward ever so slowly with the promise of additional advancement if time would only permit. But it did not. My father died soon after our initial breakthrough. This first small step had barely scratched the surface and now there was no one left to ask and nowhere else to turn.

Years later, I came upon a most remarkable work by Josef Zelkowicz, a witness to the horrific events that took the lives of so many in the Lodz Ghetto. In Those Terrible Days: Writings from the Lodz Ghetto, Zelkowicz describes how children were brutally separated from hysterical parents, forced onto transports and then taken to extermination centers:

“Hours have passed since these woes, these agonies, were inflicted on those wretched people, but the situation has not calmed down one bit. Mothers have not yet tired of shrieking, fathers’ wellsprings of tears have not yet sealed, and the silence of the night amplifies the reverberations of the screaming and sobbing. No sound reaches your ears, man, but that bitter wailing; no thought occurs to you but death; and your heart ponders, nothing but devastation.”

I will likely never know what became of this first family. I now, however, understand why it was my father could not relive a time when mothers and fathers, all terror stricken and desperate, wept uncontrollably as their loving children were savagely torn from their protective embrace. His common refrain—“Foolish child, how could you ever possibly understand?”—has now taken on a clarity of its own. My father had been right all along. I could not possibly understand. I could not possibly appreciate the horrors that had left him dispirited and at a loss for words. When it came to any talk, any mention, any recollection of the first family, I now realize that my father couldn’t and my mother wouldn’t. He succeeded in keeping his secret intact, thereby helping safeguard his sanity and keeping us, his current children and loved ones, safe from harm.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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High Holy Days

By Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

It is suggested in the High Holy Day Prayer Book
you should carry two scraps of paper,
putting one in each pocket.

One paper should say:
“For my sake the world was created.”
And the other one should read:
“I am ashes and dust.”

What kind of choice is that?
Are we the sovereigns of our own planet,
or nothing but little fragments,
ready to be blown away at the wind’s notice?

On this holiday we reflect:
What is our purpose in our limited time here?
If you’re expecting some kind of answer,
I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong synagogue door.

Our purpose, it seems to me,
is not to find ultimate answers,
but to continue questioning,
with respect to our terrestrial place,
recognizing awe for what we can never fully understand.

I think I will need more than two scraps of paper.

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, poetry