Category Archives: American Jewry

The Siddur’s Healing Power

By Paula Jacobs (Framingham, MA)

It looks like any ordinary prayer book: blue cover, plain lettering, traditional Jewish prayers, and printed in the USA. While the prayer book has bound Jews throughout the world for centuries, I never imagined that an ordinary siddur would transform my pain to healing, while teaching me the real meaning of connection and community.

When I was reciting kaddish for my father at my synagogue’s daily minyan many years ago, the prayer book became my daily companion as a source of solace and cherished memories. During my kaddish year, the siddur linked me to generations past throughout the Jewish calendar cycle. As I prayed, memories flowed, reminding me of family holiday dinners, Chanukah parties, Purim celebrations, and more.

Through the prayer book, I gained a profound, lasting appreciation for the value of a prayer community. Granted, when I began attending minyan, I initially struggled with some of the communal customs: rapid-fire recitation aloud of certain prayers, calling out the page number before the Aleinu prayer, and light bantering during the services. Sometimes I lost patience with leaders who davened too slowly or too fast, made Hebrew mistakes, or chanted off key.

But the siddur taught me what truly counts, what community is all about, and how to appreciate the uniqueness of each individual created in the image of God. By praying in community, I learned the invaluable lesson to appreciate fully the humanity of those with whom we pray and the intrinsic value of participating in something greater than ourselves.

Once I understood that important lesson, I began to heal. I also decided to help other community members heal by creating a ceremony to mark the end of kaddish. This ceremony features the presentation of a siddur signed by minyan members, symbolizing the community’s support role during the year of aveilut or mourning.  

As I continue to conduct this ceremony 18 years later, I am grateful that the siddur keeps me connected to community. It’s something I think about whenever I present a siddur to a community member and whenever mourners share their personal stories or photographs and memorabilia with the entire minyan community after receiving their siddur.

I am also grateful that the siddur has connected me to a story greater than my own. As I reflect upon the more than 200 stories I have heard, I recall the nonagenarian who died surrounded by his loving children and grandchildren; the father who sent his young children alone from Cuba to make a new life in America; the 20-something widowed mother who became a successful business-woman; the first-generation American who became a judge; the Holocaust survivor who built a new life and family in America; the elderly father who fulfilled his lifelong dream of making aliyah; and other family members who left behind a legacy of treasured memories.

I look at the signatures of those who signed my siddur when I finished saying kaddish. I see the faces of those who stood beside me as we recited the Mourners Kaddish: the young woman mourning her mother, the elderly man reciting kaddish for his late wife, and others who have since moved away or passed on. We were once strangers but through death our lives have become intertwined. And it is the ancient Jewish prayer book that has bound us eternally together and enabled us to heal.

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.  If you’d like to read more about the ceremony that she created to mark the end of Kaddish, visit  https://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/traveling-mourners-path

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The Fate of Cousins Who I Never Knew

by William Levine (Belmont, MA)

On July 1, 1941 my mother was a popular 17-year-old girl in the insular world of Atlanta’s Jewish community. No doubt she was looking forward to being pursued by her favorite crushes from Georgia Tech’s Jewish frat in the carefree summer of 1941. Mom had also assimilated enough of Dixie culture to be a true Southern Belle, helped by her enrollment in the prestigious citywide Girls High School. Most likely on July 4th, Mom took in the pyrotechnics show in Atlanta that ushered in the day as a Federal holiday.

On July 1, 1941, my mother’s 2nd through 4th cousins, twice removed, the Seligson family of Riga, Latvia, were doomed as the Nazis occupied Latvia’s capital city and rained down hell on its Jews. The Seligsons also most likely witnessed a fiery display on the 4th of July as fellow Latvians burned down Riga’s Chor Synagogue.

On December 8, 1941 my mom most likely listened to President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech via a handsome radio in her well-appointed living room in the affluent Ansley Park section of Atlanta.

December 8th was also a “day of infamy” for the Seligson family, if they were still alive. On that day they may have been among the thousands of Jews killed by the Nazis in the Rumbula Forest just outside of Riga. If so, their last seconds on earth were spent lying in an open pit atop dead Jews and bracing to be shot in the back of the head. By the end of the day the three generations of Seligsons in Riga were gone, murdered on either November 30th or December 8th 1941.

Mom died in 2006 without knowing that she had relatives who had died in the Holocaust.   Of course, I also did not know either, as I relied on her for family history. We had discussed her family and WW II casualties, and Mom said that a distant cousin in the Navy had been killed in action. But she had no inkling of any Holocaust victims.  In 2016, however, my view of a family luckily unscathed by genocide changed.

I received an e-mail from a reader who had viewed my piece in Family Tree magazine describing how a distant minor-celebrity cousin, the late Bert Parks, had led me to my previously unknown Latvian ancestry via a notation in his Wikipedia page. Cousin Bert, the late host of the Miss America pageant, had not given me an introduction to a beauty wearing a tiara, but rather had given me a something better: a clue to my family’s history.

My token fan, Jan, said that she too was related to Bert Parks, so we might be distant cousins.   Shortly after hearing from her, I learned that Jan was my fifth cousin, a discovery based on her family tree spanning eight generations on my mother’s maternal side. I spent several hours perusing the tree’s numerous branches. It seemed like I was related to half the Jews in Atlanta. But a few perusals later I found that I was also distantly related to eight Seligsons, with the notations by their names: murdered by Nazis or died 1941.  This realization added personal sadness to the horror, outrage and revulsion that I felt when I thought about so many Jews who had been swept up in the evil of the Holocaust and strengthened my need to honor their memory.

My eight Seligson cousins personalize the Holocaust for me. Now that I know about the fate of my Latvian cousins, I am more profoundly saddened and thus more connected to the river of blood that flowed into the death pit outside Riga in the Fall of 1941, where, presumably, an iota of DNA found in the pit would match mine.

But thank goodness there is a counter-balance to the sadness that came with my discovery of the Seligson’s slaughter. It comes with the discovery of hundreds of living relatives (family tree verified) descended from these eight Holocaust victims. As a lucky American, I have the opportunity to make sure that future generations remember my Riga relatives who got caught in a cyclone of hate. This past year at Yad Vashem, I felt writing a check in memory of my relatives who died in the Holocaust was more meaningful than previous perfunctory donations. Next year my pledge will honor all my cousins by name, including my nine year-old cousin, Miriam Seligson (1932-1941).

I now want to visit Riga. Should I get there, I will first visit the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. This museum is laid out within the confines of the Riga ghetto, which was the way station for the Seligsons for five months before they were herded into the pit in the forest to be murdered. Then I would like to go to the Jewish Memorial at Rumbula. This is where the Seligsons’ bodies lie trashed in a pit. I will pay my respects, as well as the respects from my mom, the happy go lucky Georgia girl of 1941.

William Levine is a retired IT professional and an active freelance writer residing in Belmont, MA.  He  has a growing interest in genealogy.

 

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My Brother’s Death

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

He was my younger brother,
perhaps older in wisdom than I.
He had a gentle heart and caring nature,
never forgetting a birthday or anniversary in our family.
He loved nature and history, and a good joke,
and loved being outside making sure the birds were fed.
In his younger days he loved riding his bicycle
through the streets of Brooklyn.
He loved old movies and could tell you
every John Wayne movie ever made.
He loved comic books,
especially Superman and Supergirl.
He loved his mother with a bond
that was true and enduring.
His passions were simple, and anybody who met him
enjoyed his quick wit and genuine smile.
According to the rabbi at the grave site,
as the body is set to be lowered into the ground,
it is believed that the soul hovers
over the pine box and the deceased
can hear your final messages.
“Goodbye, Gabriel, my brother,
I wish I could have given you a happier life,
but failing that, I wish you a full afterlife,
of walking pain-free and strong,
wherever that may be.”

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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Rosh Hashana, 5778

by Richard Epstein (Washington, DC)

It’s Indian Summer.  My Thai wife
brought home matzah ball soup
for the evening meal.  In the morning,
I woke to the aroma of matzah brie
on the kitchen stove.

She knows, with strawberry jam,  I will
eat all she can make.  As I type this,
I hear an interview with Warren Buffett
somewhere in the background.

This year, I have ignored Rosh Hashanah.
At least, I thought I did, until now.
But like Warren Buffett, Rosh Hashana
plays somewhere in the background.

I hear a ram’s horn call out its warning:
Wake up!  Prepare! To clear my thoughts
I went for a walk in the woods along Sligo Creek.

I saw a young man dressed in black standing
in the middle of a narrow footbridge reading
from a prayer book.  As I passed, he dropped
a handful of bread crumbs into the stream.

Long ago, a holy man dressed in white
would lead a goat into the desert to freedom.
A ritual or cure?  But, like wiping chalk writing
from a blackboard, a residue remains.

For Rosh Hashana, I was taught to examine
past actions and deeds. Define the behaviors
that be best cast off and those to save.

With defiance, pye weed, goldenrod and asters
shout a last hurrah. The tall grasses bow
to the shortening of days and impending cold.

Like Indian summer, I prepare myself for change
in this grand parade.  I reflect back, then forward
to another year.

Richard Epstein lives in the Washington DC area and is active in the Warrior Poets sponsored by Walter Reed Medical Center, the Veterans Writing Project and he hosts an open mic venue for veterans and friends of veterans on the National Mall.

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A Full Tank of Gas

by Milton P. Ehrlich (Leonia, NJ)

Father wept in ‘33
when smoke from book burning
wafted down Polack Alley in Maspeth.

He knew the line from Heine:

When they burn books,
they will ultimately burn people.
 

My family huddled in fear
as synagogues burned on Kristallnacht.
Newsreel Stormtroopers
rampaged through my childhood dreams.

When swastikas were painted
on the front door of our synagogue,
we were dismissed early from Hebrew School,
and, hurrying home I was waylaid
by snarling teenagers
who dragged me into Mt Olivet cemetery,
tied me to a tombstone and spray-painted
a swastika on the back of my coat.

My uncle survived a year at Dachau as a child.
As an adult, he never went to sleep
without a full tank of gas in his car,
like Shostakovich,
who slept with a packed suitcase
beneath his bed.

Milton P. Ehrlich, Ph.D., an 85-year-old psychologist, has published numerous poems in periodicals such as Descant, Wisconsin Review, Rutherford Red Wheelbarrow, Toronto Quarterly Review, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, and The New York Times.

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Grandfather

by Milton P. Ehrlich (Leonia, NJ)

Grandfather did magic
with a tremulous sleight-of-hand.
Cards and coins vanished
before my surprised eyes.

He could do soft-shoe and tap dance
with a cane like a vaudevillian pro.
He loved to tell corny jokes that
he heard on Eddie Cantor’s radio show
and that never failed to amuse him.

We went to the Stanton Street Shul
on Saturday mornings. I tossed
small paper bags filled with peanuts
and raisins at bar mitzvah boys.

The scent of leather phylactery
straps permeated the premises
from the men who wrapped tefillin
on weekdays on arms, hands, and fingers,
as well as on the top of the head.

Afterwards, he shared snuff
with friends, who sipped wine
and relished schmaltz herring
on challah woven together
with strands representing
the unity of Israel’s tribes.

Sabbath lunch: borscht and pitcha,
followed by a chulent, baked overnight
on a coal kitchen stove.

Grandfather had only one request.
He wanted a photo of himself
dressed exactly like his father
in a photo taken years earlier.

When I was old enough to use
a Brownie Kodak box camera,
he got the picture he wanted,
just before he died.

Little did he know his great-grandson
would become a columnist for The Forward,
the only newspaper he ever read
while drinking Swee-touch-nee tea
in a glass with a cube of sugar.

He was just a man, loved, and not forgotten.
What will my grandchildren remember of me?

Milton P. Ehrlich, Ph.D., an 85-year-old psychologist, has published numerous poems in periodicals such as Descant, Wisconsin Review, Rutherford Red Wheelbarrow, Toronto Quarterly Review, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, and The New York Times.

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“You Jewish?”

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

“You Jewish?”

At a crowded train hub

a man dressed in a long black robe

pointed at me and repeated, “You Jewish?”

“You, Jew, step out of the line.”

I waved him away.

“Men here, women over there.”

How dare he, out of all the people

rushing for their trains, single me out?

“Achtung, mach schnell.”

Do I have a long nose?

Do I have money pouring out of my pockets?

Do I shuffle along like a prisoner?

Please, God, don’t single me out.

The mournful music of the camps

resonates in my soul.

But then, later, after some thought,

I wondered if I had misread the Chasid.

Maybe he was just offering me

a sweet greeting for the holiday season.

I don’t want to be chosen.

Maybe he was simply saying

we are landsmen, no?

I dismissed him out of hand.

My parents are European.

I could have had numbers on my arm.

Have I been so scarred I may have missed

an opportunity for connection and grace?

You, Jewish? Yes, I am.

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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