Category Archives: American Jewry

The Ring

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

I will never forget Thursday, May 26, 1938, the day my mother, our beloved Scottish Terrier named Peeps, and I stood on the pier of the North German Lloyd shipping company in Bremerhaven, waiting to board the ocean liner SS Europa for our departure to the United States. The Europa was the largest ship built in Germany during the 1930s.

Prior to forever leaving German soil, we were required to undergo a final physical examination; Germany had to ensure that emigrants were not taking valuables out of the country. My mother carried only the maximum amount allowed: a ten-mark note, worth about $2.50 at the time. Being eleven years old, I was not permitted to leave with any funds. It was late afternoon when we were ordered into a tent that stood only a few feet away from where the Europa was moored. Those travelers who were not emigrating did not enter the tent nor endure its indignities. Inside, two elderly white-clad matrons with gray braids and large swastikas prominently pinned to their ample bosoms, ordered us to undress from the waist down. Then, as we were bent over two chairs, the attendants inspected our orifices for hidden treasures. Finding nothing, they instructed us to get dressed. As we prepared to exit, one of the grumpy ogres pointed to my mother’s left hand with its plain gold wedding band and commanded, “Hand it over!”

It took only a second for my mother to slip the ring from her finger. What she did after that, shocked not only me, but even more so, the matrons. Thinking, but not vocalizing, “If I can’t have it, neither will you. I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow you to take my wedding ring!”

My mother, with the band tightly clutched in her hand, sprinted toward the water’s edge a few steps away. She tossed the ring into the narrow strip of water separating the ship from the pier. Just as quickly, she zoomed back to scoop up Peeps and me from the tent, dragging us to the queueing spot where other passengers had begun boarding.

After reaching the top of the embarkation ladder, but before taking my first step into the huge vessel’s interior, I turned for a final glimpse backward. The looks of incredulity, frozen on the horrified faces of the two inspectors now standing on the pier outside the tent, were beyond description. Pulling Peeps’ white patent leather leash up the last step behind my mother, I was so overcome by what my mother had done that I slowed to what could have become a fatal stop.

The unbelievable daring and courage she showed by throwing her ring into the harbor still stunned me. We could have easily been caught and then, what would have happened to us? We might have been arrested and prevented from boarding because of her disobedience.

A few hours later, after stowing Peeps into the dog kennel on the top deck and finding our belongings in our cabin, my mother and I went above to witness the ship’s departure. It was getting dark and would soon be time for the Europa’s high-speed steam turbine engines to start up. Simultaneously, we heard the ship’s orchestra begin playing the tear-jerking, traditional German farewell folk song “Muss i denn, muss i denn zum Staedtele hinaus?” (Why must I leave this small town?)

Standing at the railing beside my mother, I saw she had tears running down her face.

“Mom,” I asked, “aren’t you glad we are finally getting out of here?”

“My dear child,” she replied, “I am and we have every reason for being grateful. But you must remember that I have lived through much better times than ours and it is these I am remembering at this moment. The good and happy times. And now I am looking forward to being in the new country and being reunited with your father.”

My mother’s first request after reaching the United States and settling in Louisville was for my father to buy her a new wedding ring. After all, she needed to show she was a married woman. I cherish her replacement ring, and after almost eighty years, I still proudly remember the incredible moment of defiance when my mother tossed her original wedding band into the water to prevent it from falling into Nazi hands.

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.

Editor’s Note: Ellen Norman Stern shared a different version of this story, “Ring of Defiance,” with The Jewish Writing Project in 2012. We’ve included a link here to show how a writer’s memories can fuel different stories, and how our retelling of these stories can differ from draft to draft over the years, depending on what we find most worth telling at the time: (https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/ring-of-defiance/).

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A Savory Recipe

by Jane Ellen Glasser (Lighthouse Pt., FL)

        for my daughter on her 16th wedding anniversary

I would never have thought sixteen years

a sweet anniversary, a rejuvenation of love.

That was the year your father and I divorced.

          I was confused as a child watching Mother pour

          sugar on seasoned meat. Like her marriage,

          I knew some things didn’t belong together.

I have watched you and your husband

navigate differences, repair cracks and leaks

with the plug of sweet acceptance.

          After the meat was browned with onions,

          after the cup of sugar, Mother added in sour salt

          before simmering the meal stove-top for hours.

What I didn’t learn from my parents or my own failed

marriage, you have mastered: love’s work

takes opposites, sweet needing sour to grow a marriage.

          When the meat was tender, Mother

          thickened the sauce with ginger snaps.

          No one made a more savory brisket.

Just days ago, you hosted family and friends for a seder

on heirloom china. You served brisket and a recipe

for a loving marriage to pass down to your children.

Jane Ellen Glasser’s poetry has appeared in journals such as Hudson Review, Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Reviewand Georgia Review. In the past she reviewed poetry books for the Virginian-Pilot, edited poetry for the Ghent Quarterly  and Lady Jane’s Miscellany, and co-founded the nonprofit arts organization and journal New Virginia Review.  She won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry 2005 for Light Persists and The Long Life won the Poetica Publishing Company Chapbook Contest in 2011. Her seventh poetry collection, In the Shadow of Paradise, appeared from FutureCycle Press in 2017. Her work may be previewed on her website: www.janeellenglasser.com

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A Woman Learning Talmud

by Dobra Levitt (Jerusalem, Israel)

       I love my Talmud Torah class.  It meets one morning a week in a shul in the heart of Jerusalem.  And just as no other place in the world has a heart like the heart of Jerusalem, no other Talmud teacher is quite like ours.  He hails  from England, that island of literary giants which seems to endow many of its inhabitants from birth with the gifts of language and wit.  So add his own talent for the spoken word and humor to what he’s imbibed from his native air, and you get a “one in a million” Talmud Torah class.

      The class has been learning the laws of lost objects.  When I started attending late in the year, they had nearly completed the laws involving distinguishing signs on a lost object that would require the finder to announce he had found it.  It seems though that a brand new article, say a vase or a hat, may not have to be announced since the owner would not have had sufficient time for his eyes to get used to it, which meant he wouldn’t be able to identify it as his.  This law was extremely problematic for me.  If I were buying a hat, for example, you can be sure I would examine it inside-out  before I walked out of the store with it.  I would definitely have been able to identify that hat as mine since it was for its particularities that I had chosen it.  Even if the choice had been between exactly similar hats, one of them would have been better for its fit or some other tangible quality.  I raised this issue in the class, and a gentleman called out from his seat, “That’s because you’re a woman buying it”.  There was, of course, nothing to answer to that.

      Then came those laws where the place the lost object was found had to be considered – whether it was a public thoroughfare or not; how well-traveled it was; whether mainly Jewish people lived there or non-Jews.  An interesting example of the place was what to do if one found a carcass of a kosher animal that looked as if it had been ritually schechted on the road between Tiberias and a town further north.  Since this highway was traveled mostly by religious Jews in Talmudic times, the law is it could be assumed the slaughtering was kosher and therefore the finder had to announce it.  I wondered how a person could lose an entire animal, say a goat or a cow, without knowing it.  True, there’s an enormous difference between presumably a Talmudic cart or wagon and a modern hauling van – I guess if the Talmud brings such a case, one has to imagine how this could have been possible:  maybe the owner had two or three animals piled up in his cart so that one just slid off onto the side of the road; maybe he had only one and as he was turning into the lane from the main road, his cart lurched or he was jolted by another wagoner.  Take into account also the hustle, racket and din of heavy Talmudic traffic as we can imagine it, and such an incident may not have been uncommon.  In any case, nobody in class seems to have been bothered by this question, and the discussion carried on touching on some of the details of the schecting evidence – how much of the windpipe was severed and so on, at which point one woman had to get up and leave  – “the gory details” were too much for her.

      The laws involving objects found in rubbish heaps were also puzzling.  It seems that in Talmudic times, a person having no storage room in his house for a pot he owned or wanting to hide it for some reason would stash it away in a rubbish heap for safekeeping.  Could it be that rubbish heaps then were different from rubbish as we know it?  And who in his right mind today would even think of storing a pot in such a place?  True, rummishers still exist (not to cast aspersion on anyone, heaven forbid), and usable objects can be retrieved from rubbish, but that’s only by accident.  Could this also be a situation where there is a difference between what a man or a woman would think of doing? (again, not to cast aspersion).  No one seems to have been disconcerted by these questions and the class continued delving into rubbish heaps, so to speak  – whether they were cleaned regularly or not; whether the object was large like a pot or small like knives and forks, etc. – so unless I did some research on rubbish heaps and their use in the Talmudic period, this subject will remain a mystery.

      I loved learning laws regarding what to do if one found doves or pigeons tied together near a wall where their owner had placed them while he went off on a nearby   errand, for example.  I love doves so I didn’t much like the idea of their being tied together, but concede that a dove-owner would not do harm to his own property.  Still it can’t be much fun to be tied up huddled by a wall, especially for birds, one would think, but that could be a pure and simple case of projection.  How do we know what doves feel?  Maybe since they’re so supremely loyal to each other, they’re loyal to their owner and wait for him very patiently by the wall.

      Another law involving domesticated doves shows how knowledgeable and exact our sages were. They determined that a dove would not fly more than fifty cubits from its dovecote so that if one found doves within this area, they would have to be returned to the owner.  The Gemarah relates many stories of Rav Yirmiyah (you might call him a Talmudic troublemaker) who would ask seemingly far-fetched and trivial questions on a halacha.  On the dove’s flight habits, Rav Yirmiyah asked:  What if one foot was within the fifty cubits and the other foot outside?  This was one too many for the sages and they threw him out of the study hall.  Eventually, of course, they let him back in, but maybe they wouldn’t have evicted him in the first place if they had known that centuries down the line, he would be vindicated.  How so?  Later the very same day we learned about Rav Yirmiyah and the doves, I began reading an article called “Moses’ Mother” by Rabbi Yanki Tauber, based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  Imagine my astonished delight as I read him starting off by recounting the very same story in the Gemarah about the “troublesome” Rav Yirmiyah!  It could be that the Rav has a point, the article explains.  For example, sometimes you have to be both outside and inside a problem in order to resolve it. And if we look in Parshah Shemos at the number of those who went down to Egypt,  the Torah tells us Yacov’s descendants were seventy souls.  But if we examine Parshah Va’yigash, the number adds up to only sixty-nine. Who was the seventieth?  It was Yocheved, Moses’ mother, who was born at the boundary wall between Eretz Israel and Egypt. That meant that Moshe had a knowledge of two realities, a vision that Moshe would need to lead his people out of exile.  (or – to   express it another way, he had one foot in the darkness of exile, and the other foot in the light of redemption.  Rav Yirmiyah, now you have a leg to stand on!)

         With these thoughts, a woman learning Talmud will end her discussion for now, noting that since the Lubavitcher Rebbe often said we are on the threshold of redemption, she anticipates that time whenever her feet are planted in her Talmud Torah class.

             Dobra Levitt lives in Jerusalem where she writes; tutors English; and teaches  creative writing.  She recently published a memoir called The Fish in the Yellow Paper, a collection of essays describing her childhood and high school teaching years in Philadelphia. Here’s a link to her book if you’d like to take a look: https://amzn.to/2ukRsMG

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Looking for Faith

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

A sampling of haikus:

Attending service,
After so many years away.
Would I feel welcome?

Memory wall:
Little lights bright as buttons
Who will pray for me?

Eyes closed in prayer.
My voice feels very small to me.
Need a microphone?

The service rolls on.
I don’t know any Hebrew.
I am full of doubts.

Good Bar Mitzvah friends,
Scattered now into old age.
How the years have past.

Lots of presents then.
My parents so proud of me.
I think of them now.

A community.
Worshipers sing with one voice.
Am part of the whole.

I search for meaning.
I look everywhere for it.
Here is where I find it.

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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Ibex, Sheep, and SWAT Gear

by Saraya Ziv (Jerusalem, Israel)

The son of my lawyer, Dina, is getting married tonight and she has just about obligated me by contract to show my face for the ceremony. The wedding is across the street from Jerusalem’s large central market where a pigua, a terrorist attack, hit this morning. In my evening bag I carry pepper spray which I do not know how to use and which looks as menacing as a canister of breath freshener. I have two sharp pencils. I have the dull pin of an old brooch. I have no chance if a pigua hits tonight.

One route to this wedding is through the town of Beitar. The bus winds past a stretch of trees which reminds me of a parkway on Long Island. When we travel through concrete tunnels erected to postpone bullets blowing off my skull, I remember I’m not headed towards my brother’s Oyster Bay colonial. At a checkpoint, a civilian has another in a bear hug; they’re both giggling. Our driver opens his window and says something that sobers them. On a thin meridian, shoulder to shoulder, soldiers stand guard.

We pass between razor wire fences into Beitar. A life size diorama of ibex, sheep, and deer graze at a giant welcome sign. One large billboard encourages – enjoy Shabbat, from the minute it comes to the minute it leaves. Another warns – you’re bad talking others?  I don’t want to hear it! The only one to jump when two figures in SWAT gear and masks board our bus at the front door and exit at the back is me.

I reverse the trip in the dark. My bus is stuck behind a truck that says FedEx International. I imagine the truck plowing the Atlantic, crossing Europe, and landing in front of us, all on a single tank of gas. The driver is tuned in to a radio station he selected in New Jersey. His radio reports that the Garden State Parkway is backed up for miles, the new Miss America can drive a tractor, and nothing about pigua in the soft Judaean Hills.

On the hill to my village we halt at a roadblock. Two soldiers, one a woman with a French braid and a sub-machine gun, examine the trunk of a car. A loud crack terrifies me. It’s the limb of a tree, victim of a recent conflagration.

Saraya Ziv attended SUNY Buffalo, worked as a Business Analyst on Wall Street, and left the United States one April morning in 2015 on a one way ticket to Tel Aviv. She was born and lived in New York City all her life, but now lives a short drive to Jerusalem. You can find more of her work at her website, Mask for Winter (http://www.maskforwinter.com/) where this piece first appeared.

Note: This story appeared under a different title, “Beitar,” on the Mask for Winter in 2017, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission. 

 

 

 

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Manna in the Morning

by Jacqueline Jules (Arlington, VA)

Cook fires,
clothing scraps,
animal dung
have long disappeared
from the desert.
But the story remains:
how the Israelites
fled Pharaoh
under a spiral
of swirling white clouds
as angels swept
stones and snakes
from their path.
For forty years,
Jews followed Moses
with manna-filled bellies,
thirst quenched by
a wondrous wandering well—
the same fountain I sipped
this candle-lit evening
with honeyed challah
and roasted chicken.
Carrying dishes to the sink,
my sandaled feet skip
on a freshly swept  floor,
free of snakes and stones.
Tonight, Pharaoh lies drowned
behind me
and I am traveling to Canaan
under a sheltering white cloud,
certain of manna in the morning.

Jacqueline Jules is a poet and the author of many Jewish children’s books including Never Say a Mean Word Again, The Hardest Word, Once Upon a Shabbos, Sarah Laughs, and Drop by Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva. Visit her online at www.jacquelinejules.com

“Manna in the Morning” appears in A Poet’s Siddur: Liturgy Through the Eyes of Poets, edited by Rick Lupert.  It is reprinted here with permission of the author. For more about A Poet’s Siddur, visit: http://poetrysuperhighway.com/agnp/a-poets-siddur-shabbat-evening/

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Family Gathering

by Carol Westreich Solomon (Montgomery Village, MD)

Past Pennsylvania farms, harvest-bare,
I drive to the cemetery
Where my uncle waits for my aunt
Beneath a half-empty headstone.
Next to me, Aunt Dellie rambles
About Yiddish class
Until crackling gravel announces our arrival.

“Come, so many to visit,” she says,
Scooping stones into my cupped hands.
She dips beneath the gate chain
Protecting the dead.
By height, tilt, shade,
She navigates the headstones
To those she’s come to see.

Her aunts.
Her sister.
Her father.
Her mother.
Plop go the stones, our calling cards.

Tucked among thinning headstones
Her grandmother’s grave.
Faint numbers record the length of her years
But not her strength
When a husband wanders.

Near my uncle’s grave, an alabaster headstone
Straight and proud,
Not yet buffeted by winter winds
Or chipped by mower-churned stones.
Cousin Linda.
“So young.  See all the stones.  They all came for Linda.”

“Who will come for me?”
She brushes dead grass from her husband’s headstone,
The ground uneven,
The marker leaning in.
No family gathering in granite awaits the rest of us.
Planes, schools, jobs
Have scattered us all.

Her reunion done,
Aunt Dellie washes death from her hands,
Then dips beneath the chain
Separating her from her loved ones.
Still, she invites them into my car
And they travel with us
For the rest of the day.

Carol Westreich Solomon has returned to her first love–creative writing–after exploring literature and writing with high school students in Maryland.  As the lead consultant of Carol Solomon and Associates, she previously taught writing to adults in corporations and government agencies.  Her YA novel Imagining Katherin was designated a 2016 Notable Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries.  Her work has also appeared in Lilith,  JewishFiction.net, Persimmon Tree, Poetica, Little Patuxent Review, Pen and Ink, The English Journal, and The Washington Post.

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