Category Archives: American Jewry

Three Prayers, One Heart

By Harold Witkov ( Downers Grove, IL)

In 2018 I suffered a heart attack and ended up having quintuple bypass open-heart surgery. When I left the hospital five days later, I had the expectancy of recovery, but rather than getting better, things got worse. 

Not long after I got home from the hospital, my health began to decline and I was diagnosed to have “heart failure,” and told that I was a “candidate for sudden death.” The problem was my heart function, or “ejection fraction.” It was dangerously low. I could drop dead.

What I needed most then was a surgically implanted defibrillator to zap and kick-start my heart should it stop beating, but that could not happen until three months after my surgery. In the meantime, all I could do was continue on with cardiac rehab, take my medications, and count the days.

During those months, I prayed a lot, shed tears, and suffered a series of complications. I became very sensitive to the word heart, and the heart symbol ❤️ (wherever they might appear during the course of a day). 

Once, for instance, when I lost Internet service for a few days, my laptop mercilessly put a heart symbol with a crack in it on my computer screen with the message: “You’re not connected.” How true it seemed.

In response to my overwhelming sense of vulnerability, I created my own special little prayer:

Shaddai, Shaddai, 

Please don’t let me die.

Heart, Heart,

Have a new start.

I clearly recall my somber Yom Kippur that year. During the service, I softly read aloud, along with the other congregants, the Ashamnu — the “We Have Sinned” prayer. In correspondence with my many transgressions, I gently tapped my heart with my right fist. For someone recovering from heart surgery and living with heart failure, it was a sobering experience.

The day of my defibrillator implant finally arrived. Not yet sedated, I was on the operating table when I became aware that things were not what they should be. They brought my wife in and explained to us that they had just discovered my body had an anomaly: I had a “persistent left superior vena cava.” It was a benign condition, but a condition that nonetheless canceled the implantation procedure. There was another defibrillator company that made an alternative defibrillator for people like me, I was told, but that would be another day.

My body anomaly and last-minute canceled surgery experience gave me a lot to think about. Despite the grave risk, I decided to at least temporarily forgo a defibrillator and just try to work at raising my heart function on my own. This I would do through exercise, medication, healthy eating, and prayer.

Then, in July of 2019, I had my 4th echocardiogram. This time my heart function was significantly higher. It was still below normal, but I was no longer a candidate for a defibrillator. There was also no scar tissue to be found. My heart had physically gotten slightly smaller too and, according to my cardiologist, that was a positive. The results were “all good.”

I am inclined to say that while my heart has been getting physically smaller, it has also been growing a lot on a spiritual level. This whole experience has made me a better person, although I’m still a work-in-progress.

Recently, I celebrated another Jewish New Year. Once again, in synagogue, I recited aloud the Ashamnu. This time my right fist gently tapped upon a much healthier and happier heart. And on Yom Kippur a new prayer touched my soul.

The Rabbi announced, “Please turn to page 261 in our prayerbooks. This year we are adding a new prayer, the Birkat HaGomeil — Sharing Thankfulness.” The Rabbi continued, “For those among us who have experienced a near-death experience over the past 12 months, and are comfortable in doing so, please rise as the congregation recites the Birkat HaGomeil.” In a sea of seated congregants, a dispersed handful, myself included, stood:

Baruch atah Adonai,

Eloheinu melech haolam

HaGomeil l’chayavim tovot, 

Sheg’malani kol tov.

Blessed are You, our God Eternal; Your majesty fills the universe – through Your generosity I have experienced Your goodness.

Harold Witkov is a freelance writer in the Chicago area who previously worked in textbook publishing and sales for more than 30 years.

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Columbus in Granada

by Annette Friend (Del Mar, CA)

Spain, last October,
the days always starting with rain.
We toured the slippery cobblestone
streets of Old Granada with careful steps, umbrellas crashing into
sides of alleyways lined with purple bougainvillea,
walls topped with shards of jagged blue and green glass
keeping robbers away from white washed houses.
Our guide tells us these alleys were once
the Jewish Quarter hundreds of years ago.
No Jews here now, only our name remaining.
Via de Judios.
I am lonely for them.

We take the bus into the teeming city center.
Protests continue against cutbacks in mental health,
signs fly from windows admonishing Catalons not
to secede from Spain. I am reminded of the U.S.,
our issues, our national fractures.

It is almost Columbus Day.
Here he is still venerated, unlike
America which has more mixed emotions.
Celebrations and bullfights are scheduled,
We are told the traffic will be brutal.

Columbus’s bones are buried in Granada,
(at long last with DNA evidence)
in a magnificent church where we visit,
close to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand’s graves,
who sent him on his journey
paid for with Jewish money.

There are still those rumors that Columbus
might have been a Converso, a Jew in hiding,
born in Italy, speaking only Spanish,
his children establishing a home in Jamaica where Jews
could practice freely, a land Columbus
discovered in his travels.

How strange his bones ended up in a church
mired near Isabella who expelled all Jews from Spain
in 1492, the same year Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
Are his bones crying
forced to listen to church bells ring forever
while his soul is singing the Shema?
Or are they laughing at the joke history has played
as a once reviled hidden heretic is brought back home to Spanish ground,
surrounded by the crosses that once condemned his people
and worshipped as a hero?

Annette Friend, a retired occupational therapist and elementary school teacher, taught both Hebrew and Judaica to a wide range of students. In 2008, she was honored as the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Jewish Educator of the Year from San Diego. Her work has been published in Tidepools, Summation, and The San Diego Poetry Annual.

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The Light in the Window

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Rosh Hashanah, 5780 –
I’m sitting in the synagogue
listening to the rabbi preaching
the importance of listening
with eyes, ears, heart and soul,
to be part of the congregation
that says hineni, “Here I am.”
But I am a bad listener,
drifting in and out of the rabbi’s words.
My eyes wander up to the stained glass windows
where I see and sense the sunlight pouring in.
This light fills me with awe and comfort,
giving me the feeling there is hope
in these times of conflict and uncertainty.
The rabbi finishes his speech,
but it’s not his words I take away;
it is the language of light
that offers me His presence instead,
and I become  a most complete and faithful listener.

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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Holy Ground

by Kayla Schneider-Smith (Rishon LeZion, Israel)

Bubby holds up a fist and makes a
zero with her fingers

This is how “Jewish”
Reform Jews are to me,

she shuffles me through crowded markets where
boiling men wear summer coats and study
their feet as we pass them

step to the side, step to the side,
Bubby goads, but all I hear is

make yourself smaller,
make yourself zero

Bubby buys me a white shirt
and a white skirt for Yom Kippur
the way she thumbs through the racks and lights up when
she finds something right
makes me feel like she loves me

so that each time the hot familiar anger rises
I remember how she bought me a Yom Kippur outfit and
walked me through the city with her rolling shopping bag and
poured me iced coffee slushies and
paid for taxi rides home and told me

I’m waiting for you to wake up

Wake up to what, Bubby?
to your God who
invalidates my God?
to my God who challenges yours?

Kayla Schneider-Smith is a poet, musician, and social activist from Monmouth County, New Jersey. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she recently completed the Yahel Social Change Fellowship in Rishon LeZion, Israel, where she taught English, piano and guitar to children, adults and senior citizens in a small neighborhood called Ramat Eliyahu. Kayla is currently pursuing her Masters of Fine Arts in Writing at The University of San Francisco and working as the Mindful Arts Program Coordinator at the San Francisco Education Fund. She aspires to be an English professor, Rabbi, or Interfaith Minister one day.

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

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Anne Watches Me

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Anne Frank and the Marranos of the
Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam
would not be proud of me as I walk, with cane,
a second day in this canal-laced capital.
Even surrounded by rich Jewish tradition,
located in the center of town,
I feel tangential to the teachings of
Spinoza and Maimonides.
What will make me feel more Jewish?
I have broken too many rules,
avoided too many rites, to lay claim to
being an active participant in my own religion.
And yet,
I am my father’s son,
he who escaped the Holocaust,
who suffered survivor’s guilt,
who nevertheless passed his heritage on to me.
I think of him, and all Jews, those who perished,
those who survived, as I slowly climb the stairs
in the Anne Frank House in the heart of a city that
has remembered and respected its Jewish history.
Ascending those stairs to the “Secret Annex,”
I can hear Anne’s footsteps behind me,
asking questions for which there are no answers:
Why me? Why us? Why now? –-
questions that echo both past and present
as tyrants then and now seek to control the world.
Anne, I feel your strength and bravery
wandering the rooms of your abbreviated adolescence
as a renewed Jew here in the old city of Amsterdam.

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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Finding Genuine Connection  

by Paula Jacobs  (Framingham MA)

When the world appears bleak – school shootings, human rights violations, and even day-to-day aggravations that seem magnified in challenging times – I have sometimes opted to bury myself in distractions rather than genuinely connect with others. But then I hear the words of Hillel the Elder in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 2:4), Al tifrosh min ha-tzibur, “Do not withdraw from the community.”

So what do I do? On Shabbat I come to synagogue. No cellphones or texting allowed. As the hazzan leads us in spirited prayer, I join in the animated communal davening where, whether in harmony or off-pitch, everyone feels welcome. It’s here that the anxiety that envelops me and the outside world temporarily disappears.  And it’s here that I feel closely connected.

My soul comes alive as I chant from the Torah. As I vocalize the words of our ancient tradition, I connect to the past, reflecting how my ancestors clung to the teachings of the Torah for the strength to overcome seemingly insurmountable hardships and struggles.

These days I attend Shabbat services regularly, and find it uplifting to be in the company of familiar faces. I kvell with the bar/bat mitzvah family, and am grateful for the privilege of sharing the joy of a simcha such as a special birthday, anniversary, baby naming, or upcoming trip to Israel.  And, of course, I love socializing with friends young and old.

It is here at shul during kiddush lunch where I am able to engage in the genuine and intimate human conversations that create and strengthen connections.  Importantly, in this safe space we each can be our authentic self, instead of an idealized screen image projected by social media on our mobile devices.

I listen empathetically when friends regale me with their tales of joy or woe, sometimes sharing my own stories or kvetches.  As I look at smiling faces, listen to voices in pain, or hear opinions that conflict with my own, I reflect how we truly learn to develop empathy and understanding:  It is by observing a facial expression, hearing an emotional tone of voice, and learning to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes – and not by clicking on an emoji or Facebook “like.”

It is here – unplugged from mobile devices – that genuine human communication has been reclaimed.  And it is here that I am reminded that when our only connection is superficially via text or email or social media, we miss the opportunity for meaningful human interaction, the sort that occurs via face-to-face conversation and one-on-one personal dialogue.

In today’s uncertain world, real human connection feels more important to me than ever, and why I so appreciate my spiritual Jewish community where I have found genuine connection, comfort, and family. It’s in this sacred space that I have learned what connection is really all about. That’s why it’s the place I am so proud to call my haven, my harbor, my home.

Paula Jacobs writes about Jewish culture, religion, and Israel. Her articles have appeared in such publications as Tablet Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, and The Forward.

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Lion of Hope

by Brad Jacobson (Columbia, MO)

Black stocking feet and no shoes.

Blue and white prayer shawl
wrapped around his head and arms.

He stands in front of the ancient Wall,
his face hidden.

Large as a lion, he raises his hands
like a street performer before the worshippers.

He sweeps his arms above
the old man in white,

above a boy
in a blue baseball jersey,
#32,

above the rabbi
in back of the Torah.

The Lion of Hope roars, and
his prayers speed like Lefty’s fastball,
soar to the top of Mt. Moriah,
pure as tears protecting a child’s prayer.

He steps slowly to a chair by mine.
I touch the Wall and hear
the Big Man whisper,
I am exhausted.

After prayers we walk together
to the Kiddush table by the stairs.

The Rabbi raises a cup of wine.
Big Man turns to sing sweet
Shabbat songs to Chinese tourists.

He shakes my hand.
Shabbat Shalom.
Be healthy. Have peace.

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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