Category Archives: American Jewry

Challah Covers

by Maureen Rubin (Los Angeles, CA)

My family endlessly obsessed over my brother’s bar mitzvah.  Guest list, menu, music, clothes.  Were burgundy velvet tuxedos too much?  When it was over, I was only ten, but started counting the days until my own bat mitzvah.

Not going to happen.   In my hometown shul in 1960, girls could not get bat mitzvahed.  Instead, we would take part in a group confirmation.  Fifty Jewish girls in white dresses–without blue satin sashes.

Spurred on by the injustice of bat mitzvah prohibition, I drifted away from Jewish studies after my dull confirmation.  In college, my Jewish connection was limited to attending Rosh Hashanah services at Hillel so I could meet Jewish boys from ZBT.

But the one event I looked forward to each year was the Passover seder where we reconnected with our huge, loving family. Our seder was the Reader’s Digest condensed version.  No haggadahs and we completed the story of Passover in record time.  Jews, slaves, Moses, plagues, burning bush, Red Sea, freedom. Done. Then we ate.  And ate.

My freshman year I went home for Pesach with a friend whose family finished the entire haggadah with a discussion on each part.  The in-depth dialogues around the table set off brain sparks.  I could suddenly relate the history of Pharonic oppression to what was then happening to American women.  I don’t want to be sacrilegious, but clearly there were parallels.  OK, we weren’t building pyramids and eating dirt, but we could legitimately protest how women’s futures were being sculpted by everyone but them.  Women in America were living our own form of Egyptian slavery!

Years later, I married a wonderful man who was proud of my career and life choices.  We had two daughters.  When our eldest was 13, we decided to give her the bat mitzvah I never had, but would have loved.  She would be bat mitzvahed on Mount Masada, where King Herod had built a complex that sheltered the last survivors of the Jewish revolt.  Masada remains a symbol of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty.

The ceremonies were unforgettable.  We sat in a stone amphitheater and looked down on our beautiful children. Ten 13-year olds, five girls and five boys, all wearing white, took turns reading from the Torah on the very spot where our ancestors chose mass suicide instead of Roman oppression. There wasn’t a dry eye in the dessert.

When the ceremony was over, the “new adults” received gifts.  The boys received beautiful hand embroidered tallitot and the girls received–challah covers! Suddenly, we saw movement below us, we heard buzzing from the girls. A voice rang out, demanding “fairness of gifts.” It was our daughter.

“We girls do not want challah covers,” she said.  “These gifts are not fair.  We are being treated differently.  Why did the boys get things they can wear to synagogue while we got things that keep us in the kitchen? We want to be treated the same.  We want tallitot.”

How proud we were.  Her act of civil disobedience reminded us of Biblical midwives who defied the Pharaoh’s orders to kill all the newborn baby boys.  In this sacred setting, it became clear that my daughter and her generation did not have to be told to remember that their ancestors were slaves in Egypt, nor that their foremothers were allowed few life choices.

The girls got their tallitot.  My daughter’s tallit became the chupah at her wedding and she will pass it on to her beautiful Jewish feminist eight-year old when the time is right.

Maureen Rubin is an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge. In her 30 years on campus, she taught writing and media law , served in a variety of administrative positions, published widely and received numerous teaching and public service awards.  Prior to joining the university, Rubin was Director of Public Information for President Carter’s Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs in the White House, and held similar positions for a U.S. Congresswoman and several non-profits. She has a JD from Catholic University School of Law In Washington, D.C., an MA in Public Relations from University of Southern California and a BS in Journalism from Boston University.

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The Goldschmidt School

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

On a long-ago afternoon in April 1935, I stood with my mother at the foot of a staircase of an elegant villa in the Berlin suburbs waiting to hear the results of an entrance exam which had been administered there earlier that day. 

The results were announced by a woman standing on the top of the upper staircase.  Dr. Leonore Goldschmidt, owner and principal of the Goldschmidt Schule, an institution serving Jewish children who had been disenfranchised by law from attending German public schools as of April that year.

It was a tense moment for all the parents standing in that hallway. I held tightly onto my mother’s hand as we awaited the principal’s next words. Finally, they came. “Ellen Nussbaum,” announced the woman as both my mother and I held our breath, “unfortunately cannot be accepted because of low test results and would not meet our high scholastic standards.” 

Had I been able to disappear from the scene, I would have prayed to do so. But I had not counted on my mother.

“Wait one moment,” she said, in a tone I knew well. This was the voice getting ready for a fight. “My daughter and all of these children have been through impossible times, times that are frightening to all of us. I know what a good student Ellen has always been. If her results are not satisfactory to you at this moment, I know that my daughter easily measures up to every single pupil here. I can produce all of her earlier grades in public school which will prove my words.”  

After my mother consented to allow tutoring in case I did not measure up, I was finally accepted into the Goldschmidt School that day. It became the beginning of a memorable time in my life, and I did not require tutoring.

The Goldschmidt Sdhool, a private school for Jewish boys and girls, was founded in 1935 by Dr. Goldschmidt, a former teacher, after the passage of the Nuremberg Laws prohibited Jewish children from signing up for and attending German public schools. The school was located in the middle of the Grunewald, a wooded, stylish suburb of Berlin with sufficient outside space for exercise and play.

The house itself may have once been a posh private villa. Now it was divided and furnished into a number of school rooms segregated for boys and girls. During the time I was a student there 400 students were taught by 40 teachers.The quality of education was extremely high; its goal was to prepare students for a future outside of Germany, primarily in England. I learned to read and speak English there. Dr. Goldschmidt’s aim was that most, if not all, of her students would one day be eligible for emigration to English-speaking countries, but primarily to England where she planned to open another school.

Her school was strict and disciplined; all the subjects were taught with great rigor, including the sciences, nature studies, languages, and Jewish studies, and were geared for a life outside of Germany. Most of the teachers were specialists in their fields who had lost their previous jobs when Germany dismissed them because of their religion.

I remember especially a wonderful lady, Professor Bromberg, who taught me Science, to whom I became quite attached because of her warm, understanding personality. 

I have memories of a very personal nature which began almost from the beginning of my Goldschmidt experience.

While in public school. I had lived within walking distance to my school on Bleibtreustrasse in Charlottenburg. Now, at Goldschmidt, I was far removed from my home and needed to use public transportation to the Grunewald. Every morning I walked to the tram station at Fehrbelliner Platz where I caught the street car that traveled to the end of the line. But I was not alone. With me on that daily trip was a young boy, Wolfgang Manasse, who lived a number of blocks from our apartment on Zaehringerstrasse. Every morning, he, along with his elderly nanny Emma and Wolfgang’s dog, Gustl, a golden cocker spaniel, picked me up at my building and walked me to the streetcar stop, a not inconsiderable distance. The same action took place in reverse in the late afternoon when we returned from Goldschmidt School which was located at the corner of Roseneck in the Grunewald.

For a year and a half, Wolfgang and I attended Goldschmidt together. We did not attend the same classes, but we became inseparable after school. Every day, we returned on the streetcar to be met by his nanny and Gustl. We spent afternoons and early evenings, sometimes even suppers, together at his house until the three of them walked me home before dark. Wolfgang and I became close and in our unsupervised conversations often pledged we would always remain that way. We never believed anything could part us.

Emma his nanny always wore the regional costume of the Spreewald where she came from. The many layers of petticoats under her black skirts, the tightly-laced colorful vest, and the elongated head covering with its veil trailing halfway down her back never failed to draw the attention of onlookers we met on our way to the tram stop.

Wolfgang, brown-eyed and dark-haired, was handsome, and I enjoyed being with him. We became good friends. Although he could be very serious, he was also a teaser and could make me laugh a lot. We shared many a secret and swore never to separate no matter what the future might bring. We were both the same age – 11 years old – so we were in a world of our own.

I gradually came to know his family. His charming parents were very kind to me, invited me often to their apartment, and treated me like their second child. Similarly to my family, the Manasses hoped to emigrate to America and worked on plans to leave Germany as soon as possible.    

This was a difficult time in my own family, too. During the time I attended Goldschmidt, my father was arrested and incarcerated in Buchenwald for eleven weeks. While there, he was forced to sign over his share of the road machinery business he partnered with a Gentile man. 

My mother, meanwhile, attempted by all means to free my father by getting him a visa for emigration to America from the American consulate in Berlin. I remember many trips to the consulate where she pleaded for a visa for her husband and the belligerent refusals she received there.

I recall one special visit where I was present because no one was at home and my mother did not dare to leave me there alone. When again my mother requested a visa, the American consul haughtily told her, “We do not give out visas to anyone who is not here in person.” To which my mother replied, “How do you expect that to be possible when my husband is in a concentration camp?”

I do not remember the consul’s reply, but I know that afterwards my mother used other means to get the required document. She paid a considerable bribe to an amenable lawyer who passed it on to a friend at the American consulate. This eventually resulted in the coveted visa.

So much went on all around us in Berlin at the time that life seemed to consist of one exciting, but unpleasant, episode after another. The Berlin Olympics in 1936 held the interest of the whole world. However, it also changed everyone’s personal life in the capital to some extent. 

One noticeable result of the Olympics was Germany’s intense desire to make the games a public spectacle, an attempt to show the rest of the world how great Germany was under the new regime of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party.

The Jewish friends who visited our apartment all commented on the appearance of the posters in cafes and stores which read “Jews not welcome.” While international visitors were in Berlin, the signs were withdrawn. As soon as the foreigners left the city, the signs returned.

In August 1939 the Nazi regime ordered that all Jewish names include the following: “Sara” for Jewish females and “Israel” for Jewish males. Omission was heavily punished. So I became Ellen “Sara” Nussbaum and my school was listed as Leonore Sara Goldschmidt School.

On a morning in September 1939, a group of brown-shirted SA storm troopers (Sturm  Abeilung) marched into the Goldschmidt School building and escorted all the students outside. They lined up everyone on the sidewalk in front of the school and made all of us watch the flames curl around Goldschmidt’s façade. The gleeful expression on some SA men’s faces left no one in doubt about the fire’s origin. 

When the last of the school employees came out of the building, crying as they, too, climbed into the open SA truck, all of us, even the youngest student, sensed what was happening:  this was the end of our beloved Goldschmidt School as we had known it.

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 children and young adults, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, Elie Wiesel,, and, most recently, Kurt Weill.

PS – If you’re curious about what happened to Ellen’s childhood friend, Wolfgang, you might want to read “The View from the Rue Constantinople,” a story she wrote about her friend’s fate: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/the-view-from-the-rue-constantinople/ 

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Oasis

by Brad Jacobson (Columbia, MO)

“Come—come into my store,” the shopkeeper calls.

Walking through the Arab shuk, I focus straight ahead.

“A special deal for you,” he says.

I eye a Bedouin carpet hanging outside his store.

The shopkeeper invites me to sit and have coffee

and tells me his name is Neal.

I am his first customer in twelve days.

He wishes for peace and says both Palestinians and Jews have hearts.

He loves to eat hummus and drink Coke with his friends.

I pick out a candle holder, but can’t find my wallet.

I am his first customer in twelve days.

He looks under the pillow.

Finds the black billfold and teases me,

“Where is my wallet—where is my wallet?”

We laugh together.

Brad Jacobson is a volunteer every summer in Israel in the SAREL program. He teaches TESOL at the Asian Affair Center at the University of Missouri, where he has an MEd in Literacy. In the summers he enjoys exploring places with his camera like the Old City of Jerusalem, Tzfat, and the Red Sea where he scuba dives. He has been published in Tikkun, Voices Israel, Poetica, Cyclamens and Swords, and the University of Missouri International News.

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Shalach Manot

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

The first time you surprised me with a package
I couldn’t imagine what I’d done
or what special day it was
to inspire the gift.

It contained:
A teeny box of Sun-Maid raisins
Three small hamantashen you’d bought in Brookline
A Baggie of mint lentils (the candy you hoarded, teasing, in a glass jar)
and a few pennies,
and was left, unsigned,
in a brown paper bag.

When you explained it to me
I kept seeing parallels between Purim and Halloween
like dressing up, out of character and into another,
and sweets,
and the flip-flop tension between evil and good.
And then I tried to figure out why you’d given the gift to me
since you only have to present shalach manot of at least
two foods to one person
and I was never sure if I was your favorite;
was it because you knew my other name is Esther
or because you knew what knowledge hadn’t been passed along to me?

So many things I learned from you:
Like wearing white for Yom Kippur, and no leather,
and how to douse the Havdalah candles in wine,
and that people bought Kosher toothpaste for Pesach.
Like how to shuckle with prayer, moving to the rhythm of the words,
and how to invite, then welcome, the white noise of Sabbath,
and dress up Saturday lunch, and elongate it, then nap.

So I want to thank you for the present
and what you taught me in the past
about how to be a Jew
like maybe my grandparents — or before — knew,
and even though I pared back to being me
(then added other layers, slowly, and organically)
I hope someone has given you gifts
that surprise and enrich you
and make you eager to open brown paper bags
which, you’ve learned to imagine,
may well contain something sweet.

Janet Ruth Falon is a writer and writing teacher in Elkins Park, PA.  Her latest book, In the Spirit of the Holidays: Readings to Enrich Every Jewish Holiday, contains 146 poems about the holidays and can be purchased on Amazon at http://a.co/d/5pejb3w, or through Janet at janetfalon@gmail.com.

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Tzedakah

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

When I give tzedakah
I feel rich.
Somehow, the act of giving
even something small, like shalach manot,
gives me a feeling of wealth
and generosity
of wallet and of spirit.

But tzedakah is about more than giving money;
it’s about trusting that the universe regenerates
and that a lopped-off limb
grows back.
I couldn’t have given tzedakah years ago,
not in the real sense,
and it’s not that I was ever teetering on poverty.
But after years of believing
that an empty bowl would remain empty
and a well might well run dry
I finally feel
that I am more than enough
to give
without risking my own disappearance.

Janet Ruth Falon is a writer and writing teacher in Elkins Park, PA.  Her latest book, In the Spirit of the Holidays: Readings to Enrich Every Jewish Holiday, contains 146 poems about the holidays and can be purchased on Amazon at http://a.co/d/5pejb3w, or through Janet at janetfalon@gmail.com.

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On the Other Side

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

About a dozen relatives and good friends gathered at the Berlin train station that day in early May 1938 to see my mother, me, and our beloved Scottish Terrier, Pips, off on the first leg of our trip to America.

My favorite aunt, Tante Friedel, held her arms tightly around my eleven-year old neck, moaning “I will never see you again” as streams of tears ran down her cheeks. She was my father’s sister and supposedly I resembled her in many ways. It was said that I had inherited her left-handedness, her love of cooking, and her passion for making people feel comfortable. Now I wondered why she was so certain of our future.

Not everyone could hug us goodbye before the conductor blew his whistle, picked up Pips and handed him to a porter inside the coach, and then we boarded the train and started off on our journey, happy to leave Germany and its persecution of Jews as the danger to Jews was growing more intense every week.

After we reached the city of Bremen my mother, Pips, and I checked in for the night at a hotel before our ship departed the following day. The Bremerhof was a posh establishment where my mother had decided to spend our remaining few marks. We registered, ordered dinner, and went upstairs to our room. Shortly afterward, a steward arrived with a silver tray on which we found the dog’s dinner. Also on the tray was a printed card which stated: “Our non-Aryan guests are requested to abstain from visiting the Dining Room.” So we did without dinner that night and looked forward to experiencing the ship’s highly touted cuisine the following day.

We arrived in New York after a calm, relaxing ocean voyage on the “Europa,” Germany’s newest luxury liner. New York was hectic, crowded, and overwhelming. How nice it would be to board the train to Louisville, Kentucky, our final destination, where we would at last be reunited with my father. My poor father, who had survived the horrors of the concentration camp at Buchenwald, had been helped by relatives to find refuge in Louisville and awaited us there.

The Louisville & Nashville Railroad train was fully booked for the overnight trip from New York. We did not have the money for a private Pullman car, but had seats in coach. I sat on one side of the aisle, with Pips at my feet; my mother sat across from me in the remaining free seat. We did not notice the woman located nearby until she rose from her seat and walked back to where my mother sat and addressed my mother. 

My mother smiled, but it was obvious to me she did not understand what the stranger was saying to her.  So I took it upon myself to stand up, faced the woman, and asked her to repeat her remark to my mother.

“I asked her whether she noticed you were sitting next to a colored man and whether you had her permission to sit there.”

Puzzled by her question, I looked back to my seat, saw the quiet older man sitting there and repeated her question to my mother, who was obviously as surprised to hear the woman’s words as I had been. She smiled a sweet little smile, shook her head, and said “Naturally.” Around us, no one spoke or paid any attention to the woman whose face wore a disgusted expression as she returned to her seat.

After a night-long, back-rattling, sitting-up ride, we finally reached the wide countryside nearing the state of Kentucky. As the dawn came up, it was amazing to see such an enormously huge landscape. It seemed ever so much larger than any European piece of land we had crossed on our way from Berlin to Bremen. There were no buildings, only miles and miles of unpopulated land.

At last, our train rolled into the Louisville train station. There, in tears, my parents met each other again after many months of separation. Probably no one standing nearby had the faintest clue of the painful history and reunion they were witnessing in the grimy waiting room that day.

Even Pips recognized his old master; his tail did not stop wagging as my father petted him in a loving gesture of greeting.

A young black man stood near my father. “This is Mac, my driver,” my father said. Mac’s face lit up as we attempted to shake his hand. From my father’s letters from America we had learned he had started a new business that involved travel throughout the country and that he had hired a driver for his new career. We had known that my dad never drove while living in Europe. He  always had a chauffeur. But this was the first that we learned of Mac’s existence in my father’s life. 

The early humid May heat warmed up the Louisville train station. As we stood there talking, I noticed that my little dog had begun to pant. I asked my father whether we could get him some water since Pips was not used to the Kentucky temperatures. My father passed the message on to Mac who wanted to know from which fountain to draw the water. I had no idea what Mac meant until I saw him step toward two identical water coolers, one of which bore the sign “For Colored Only” and the second one labeled “For Whites Only.” When he returned from the “Colored” fountain bearing a cup of water, I had my introduction to segregated water fountains and restrooms.

Mac drove us home to our first American apartment that day. For my mother and me it was the start of a new life. Mac continued working for my father for many years. Sometimes I heard about unusual problems that arose when they traveled through the South. Most of the problems arose when my father had business in towns where he needed to stay  overnight. In some of the towns, black people could not find sleeping accommodations.

“What did you do then?” I asked my father years later when he had retired and no longer stayed out overnight.

“When Mac found no friends or relatives who could house him, I simply said, ‘Drive on, Mac. We will go to the next town where we will find a room for you.’”

My father didn’t want any harm to come to Mac. 

“I was incarcerated in Buchenwald because of my religion,” he would tell me. “How could I put him at risk for being black?”

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 children and young adults, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, Elie Wiesel,, and, most recently, Kurt Weil.

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I’m Teaching My Phone To Speak Yiddish

by Roz Warren (Bala Cynwyd, PA)

“Dad’s Yartzeit is next week,” I texted my sister recently.

Her response came back immediately:

“?????”

When I checked the text I’d just sent, it was easy to see why. Spellcheck had “corrected” the word Yartzeit to Yahtzee.

No wonder she was confused. There’s a world of difference between Yartzeit and Yahtzee.

I changed the word back and resent the message, reminding myself, once again, to proof my texts before letting them fly.

I was amused but not surprised by this little spelling snafu.  We’ve all experienced Spellcheck “correcting” words with odd and/or funny results. My own favorite example of this is the friend whose mom once texted her, “You are adored.”

Spellcheck changed this message to “you are adopted.”

Quite a notification to get from mom out of the blue.

Nor was I shocked that Spellcheck wasn’t fluent in Yiddish. Why would I assume that my phone was Jewish just because I was?

Still, I noticed that when I texted my son later to tell him about his grandpa’s upcoming Yartzeit, Spellcheck didn’t change Yartzeit to Yatzee again.  It now recognized the word and left it alone.  My smartphone was learning from its mistakes!

Over the next few weeks, I made a game of seeing what my phone did with the Yiddish words I used when I texted. It changed Shabbat to “shabby,” Mensch to “menswear” and “bisel” to “bisexual.”

“Bubbe” became “bubble.”

“Putz” became “puts.”

And “Oy Vey” became “It Vetoed.”

Every time Spellcheck changed a Yiddish word to the English word it assumed I meant to say, I’d change it back again. And the next time I used that word?  Spellcheck left it alone.

I was teaching my phone to speak Yiddish!

It soon became clear that my phone already knew some Yiddish. For instance? I didn’t have to teach it klutz or schlep. But my phone still had a lot to learn. It thought, for instance, that both “schmooze” and “schmuck” meant “schedule.”

It turned “mishegoss”  into “mushroom”  and “mishpocheh” into “mishap ox.”

Spellcheck turned “shmatte”  into “shattered” and “tuchis” into “tux history.”

It also corrected “Zayde.”  to “day dreaming.” My practical grandpa would have plotzed.  (Or as Spellcheck would have it, “plots.”)

I’ve enjoyed exploring the interaction between an ancient language and 21st century technology. And the more I use my smartphone, the more Jewish it becomes. Soon I expect it to start nagging me to dress more warmly and make sure to have a little nosh before I leave the house.

By the next time dad’s Yartzeit rolls around, I expect my phone to be fluent.  But while I’m pleased and proud that my phone now knows the word Yartzeit, let’s hope that it rarely needs to use it.

Roz Warren writes for everyone, from The Funny Times to The New York Times, and has been featured on both the Today Show and Morning Edition. You can learn more about her and her work at https://muckrack.com/roz-warren.

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