Category Archives: American Jewry

A Paris Odyssey

 

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

Suzanne’s parents had moved to Paris in the 1930s as a young married couple from Ukraine.  Mr. P. was a barber and opened a shop on a busy Paris street.  They wanted to start a new life away from the anti-Semitic fears in Ukraine.  Two daughters were born and the family lived in an apartment on the floor above the shop.

And then came the rise and popularity of Hitler.  And then the war.  And then the occupation of Paris by Germany.  The barber shop was shuttered and the family stayed in their apartment clandestinely to see if they could outlive the occupation.  Sarah, the younger daughter, then about to become a teenager, blonde and blue-eyed, became Suzanne as a way to fool anyone who stopped her as she was the one sent out to forage for food.

For four years they were able to avoid detection.  When Paris was freed, Mr. P.  decided not to attempt to reopen his shop, fearing that vestiges of the Vichy anti-Semitic regime remained.  Instead the family made plans to emigrate to the United States where Mrs. P. had cousins in Philadelphia.

My father was a barber and had operated his own shop for many years.  We lived behind the store in a two-story house.  When he needed another barber to work “the second chair,” the Barbers’ Union sent Mr. P, whose languages were French and Yiddish, but not English.  However, the South Philadelphia neighborhood where we lived was still primarily Jewish at that time, peopled with many immigrants, so speaking Yiddish worked fine.  After a few weeks Mr. P. said to my father, “I have a daughter exactly your daughter’s age.  She is miserable.  She won’t go to school until the fall and she doesn’t know any English or have any friends.  May I bring her to meet your daughter?”

The arrangement was made. I was not consulted, which increased my anxiety of meeting a girl my age who had undergone life experiences I could not imagine. The next day Mr. P. arrived with a pretty 17 year old who looked visibly intimidated.  We introduced ourselves and tried to find a way to talk.  My high school French had taught me “Open the window” and “The pen of my aunt.”  I didn’t think either phrase would help us communicate, but we discovered we were both fluent in Yiddish and that was our method of conversation for the next few months until Suzanne began her halting study of English.

Eventually, Suzanne married and moved to the suburbs with her family.  I did the same.  We lost touch but sometimes met at a Jewish film festival and were always glad to see each other.

Many years later I was a volunteer interviewer for the Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Project.  I decided to interview Suzanne, and in the intimacy of a two hour conversation I learned more about her years barricaded in the family apartment.  She shared emotions I had not heard before: the daily apprehension of being discovered, her inner trembling when she walked on the street to buy food, the tensions, even in a loving family, of spending four years locked together in one space, never knowing what had happened to their extended family.

I suddenly understood the seclusion and safety of the Jewish life I had led living in a Jewish neighborhood and the false sense of security this evoked in me.  The war had not been threatening to us and it was a while before we heard about the horror and devastation of concentration camps and could begin to understand the attempt to exterminate our people.  Leaving Suzanne’s house that day, I felt for myself the wrenching internal anxiety Jews had always felt throughout the world, throughout eternity.

Some time after that experience I wrote a memoir about growing up in Jewish South Philadelphia and sent it to Suzanne, certain it would evoke many shared memories.  She, in turn, sent me her memoir of those parallel years which she spent hidden in the Paris apartment and told of the loss of dear cousins and friends.  She thought she was lucky; I thought she was incredibly brave. It was not until I read her poignant memoir that I learned Suzanne had been Sarah.

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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The Old Man and the Tortoise

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA) 

Whenever I think of Olivaer Platz, I remember the old man and his tortoise. A picture of him remains in my mind and brings up a complete memory of a time and a place.

Olivaer Platz was a small public park in the midst of Berlin when I was growing up in the 1930s. It was located near the major artery of Kurfuerstendamm, and it attracted many people. All around the park were shops popular with customers of all ages.

I remember my favorite, Café Heil, where I was occasionally treated to the small meat pastry I loved whenever one of my parents had coffee and cake there, met friends, or just read the assorted newspapers and magazines available to the patrons. There was an ice cream parlor in the same block, too, whose various flavors of ice cream sandwiches were in enormous demand in warmer weather.

In the afternoons I remember seeing older adults reading their newspapers on the benches in Olivaer Platz. It was only a few squares from our home in Mommsenstrasse 66, and I was occasionally taken there to play in the children’s section.

I went primarily to shoot marbles. The object of the game was to propel the marble with one’s thumb in order to hit an opponent’s marble. If the hit was successful, the other child’s marble became yours. I had a collection of colorful glass balls on which I prided myself. Not being very skillful, however, I was often unsuccessful at the game, lost my own marbles, and came home crying.

One day my mother and I arrived at Olivaer Platz and found that one of its park benches had been painted yellow with an orange-colored letter J drawn on it. The bench clearly stood out from the others. Nearby was a sign proclaiming that due to a new ordinance Jews were no longer allowed to sit on the regular benches and were subject to arrest if they disregarded the law. The yellow bench was now the Jews’ bench.

After that my mother, whom I called “Mimi,” no longer took me to the park, except for walking through it en route to the Kurfuerstendamm. She would not sit on the yellow bench. And she could not—and would not—stand around waiting for me to finish my marble game.

I still remember that bench, primarily because of one old man. I saw him only twice. Each time he fascinated me, not because he sat on a bench that had changed its color, but because of what he did when he sat on the bench.

I watched him closely as he carried a shabby leather briefcase to the bench, sat himself down, and opened the briefcase. Out came a large, dark-brownish tortoise. The old man gently placed it on the ground in front of him, presumably to give the tortoise a little air.

I assumed the tortoise was his beloved pet, possibly his only family. It was certainly a sad time for all of us. How pathetic that lonely old man was I could not fathom then. I only knew I felt sorry for him.

But in years to come, the memory of the old man sitting on the yellow park bench with his tortoise became a symbol to me.

In my mind all of the degradation and isolation heaped upon the Jewish people by the Nazi regime crystallized into the figure of that solitary old gentleman, with his reptile friend, sitting alone on a yellow bench.

(Author’s Note: It was not until September 1, 1941 that a new Nazis law required all Jews over the age of ten to wear a yellow star affixed to their clothing identifying them as Jews. The yellow star was intended to humiliate Jews, as well as make them visible targets vulnerable to attack. Not wearing the insignia carried the death penalty.)

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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Vienna – 1938

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

It was like speaking to my mother,
my mother who has been dead for 14 years.

Invited to dinner, I sat next to Renee,
an elegant woman of advanced years.

She looked like my mother, sounded like my mother,
and spoke in soft Viennese accents
that sounded like melted chocolate.

But most remarkable of all,
she lived in that classical city in the same year,
my mother did, 1938, the year of the Anschluss.

Spellbound, I listened as she told the following story:

“Ordinarily, a red flower sitting in a pot on the window sill
basks in the early light, its petals rising to meet the emerging sun.

Amid the tightening noose of soldiers swarming, doors knocked open,
the flower appears as a symbol that beauty has not been crushed
under the soles of marching boots.

But the bright red flower has been discolored
by the growing and blackening evil,
and serves now as an ominous warning sign.

‘Papa if you see a flower on the window sill, do not come home.
The Gestapo is here looking for you. Run, please!
I do not know when I -or the flower- will ever see you again.'”

Both my mother and Renee escaped the Holocaust,
one to Palestine, one to Switzerland.

How many other lives were saved, I wonder,
by the appearance of one red flower
sitting in the morning sun?

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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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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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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