Category Archives: Brooklyn Jews

Unexpected Chesed

by Michael J. Weinstein (Syosset, NY)

“On three things the world depends: Torah study, the service of G-d, and bestowing kindness.”— from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers

I was not brought up very observant, but after a family trip to Israel in 2011, I started to return to Judaism. I have worked as an Investment Advisor for over 20 years and after the financial crisis, I became a survivor of sorts. I found a refuge in learning Torah, particularly the works of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, zt”l, who taught “Never Give Up” and to always look for the good in others and in ourselves. I was told that if Rabbi Akiva could learn after age 40, it was not too late for me.

I knew my great-grandparents were from Pinsk, part of the Pale of Settlement in Russia, and like so many they left to escape the pogroms, the persecutions, the poverty, and the laws separating the Jews from religious freedom. It was my great-grandfather, Meir, who came alone in 1896 and later sent for his wife, Nachama, and their three children in 1900. Meir “Americanized” his name to Morris, and Nechama became Anna. I later learned that Meir had a pushcart, a beard, and a kippah, and davened with the Stoliner shul on the Lower East Side. A few years later, my great-grandparents moved to Brooklyn. It was there that my Grandmother Belle and her sister Dorothy were born. Years later the family was able to afford a two bedroom apartment on Ocean Parkway, and the family stayed in Brooklyn until 1976, just after my bar mitzvah, when they left for the Sunshine State of Florida.

It was the memories of my family living in Brooklyn, particularly the Passover seders at 101 Ocean Parkway, that never left my mind. And so after the trip to Israel, I started to learn Torah, to reconnect with the ways of my grandparents and great-grandparents, and the generations before them. I wanted to do something positive but did not know what to do, but prayed to Hashem: “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the World, help me help others.”

Somehow, I turned to Google and typed two words, “Mitzvah” and “Brooklyn,” and pressed the enter key. That’s how I found the Brooklyn “Mitzvah Man,” Michael Cohen, who had produced a video about the importance of mitzvah and helping others. “Providing Chesed to those in need” was his motto, and I volunteered to help.

I didn’t know how a guy like me with a full time job as an investment advisor, living and working about an hour away on Long Island, could help anyone in Brooklyn, but Michael suggested I start by visiting one Holocaust survivor, Ludwig Katzenstein. Michael’s suggestion turned out to be a real blessing, and one mitzvah led to another mitzvah as I volunteered at Friendly Visiting For Holocaust Survivors, a program of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island.  Also, on Thursday nights for almost six months, I volunteered at Aishel Shabbat by delivering boxes of food for Shabbat to needy families, but it became too difficult for me to drive from Long Island during the winter months.

Instead, I decided to step up my visits to the Holocaust Survivors, later meeting over 23 Holocaust survivors, mostly on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings. At some point, I visited not only the Holocaust Survivors but nearby Orthodox synagogues all over Brooklyn, in neighborhoods such as Borough Park, Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Flatbush, and Midwood, and I started taking photos, first with my Samsung Galaxy phone and later with a Nikon camera, intending to someday make a book of 100 Orthodox synagogues of Brooklyn.

I thought about it and realized that my great-grandparents started on the Lower East Side, and later moved to Brooklyn. My grandfather was born in a tenement on Cherry Street on the Lower East Side, lost his mother when he was 7, and was sent to live with his older Sister in the Bronx and became a lifetime New York Yankees fan.  My father married and moved from Brooklyn to Briarwood, Queens, where I was born and lived until age 3. I later learned that my great-grandparents are at rest at the United Hebrew Cemetery in Staten Island. So I actually have roots in all 5 boroughs and decided, with Hashem’s help, to make a book, “Ten Times Chai: 180 Orthodox Synagogues of New York City,” a coffee table style photo book with 613 color photos of existing Orthodox synagogues.

At some point, I decided to talk to congregations about my visits with the Holocaust Survivors, my journeys into over 60 neighborhoods in the 5 boroughs, and discuss some of the architectural beauty and history of many of these synagogues. Nothing led me to believe that my book would change anything until a few months ago.

I was contacting various synagogues and synagogue presidents and rabbis to see if there was any interest in having me do a free book talk. Upon contacting the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates in Queens, I contacted the synagogue president, Avram Blumenthal, and I was told “we’ll get back to you” more than once. I started to question myself. Who was I? Why was I trying to share my story? Why couldn’t I just thank Hashem for the book, etc? After about two months, I called Avram and was told, “Before you say anything, let me tell you what happened.”

I was told that Avram and members of the synagogue were planning a 30th anniversary event to honor the original founders of the congregation and those who designed the sanctuary in 1987. Avram was too busy to buy the book and went on a trip to Israel, where he saw my book on a friend’s coffee table in Jerusalem. When he returned to New York, Avram learned that one of the synagogue’s founders, Lucille Rosenberg (Liebeh Tziviyeh bat Shmuel) who served as the chairperson of the Interior Design Committee and who was battling cancer, was now in a hospice. Lucille was an artist, had a Masters degree in art, and had taught art at Solomon Schechter schools. Avram bought a copy of the book, personally inscribed it to Lucille, and gave it to Lucille’s husband, Abe Rosenberg, who brought it to Lucille.

By the time the book was brought to the hospice, Lucille was non-communicative. Lucille’s loving husband Abe gave the book to Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg and Rebbetzin Karen Hochberg of Young Israel of Jamaica Estates, who were trying to comfort Lucille, talking about Lucille’s accomplishments and showing her the photos of her work. With help from Hashem, Lucille opened her eyes for about a minute and smiled in appreciation. All those present told Lucille that her work was a vital part of the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates more than 30 years after its founding. Lucille was also told that her designs are now part of a book that is seen by people in Israel and throughout the world. Abe later told me that Lucille’s smile showed that “she knew the good that she had accomplished.” Lucille was aware of the tremendous chesed, the kindness of others, and Abe expressed his gratitude to all involved.

I am thankful to Hashem that there are good people like Avram Blumenthal, Rabbi & Rebbetzin Hochberg, and of course Abe Rosenberg, Lucille’s loving husband, their friends and family, as well as the staff at the hospice who cared for Lucille in her last days of life. Everyone’s kindness confirmed how important it is, as Pirkei Avot reminds us, to bestow chesed for the world to become whole.

Michael J. Weinstein, grew up in Jericho, Long Island, New York, attending a Conservative Synagogue, the Jericho Jewish Center, and had his Bar Mitzvah in 1976, with his blue velvet leisure suit.  He graduated from Cornell University in 1985 and has had a career as a financial advisor, starting with Merrill Lynch and currently serving as a Director – Investments with Oppenheimer & Co. He continues visiting Holocaust Survivors as a Volunteer.

For more information about Michael Cohen’s project, The Mitzvah Man, in Brooklyn, visit: http://www.themitzvahman.org/

For more information about Friendly Visiting for Holocaust Survivors, visit:  http://www.connect2ny.org/

For more information about Michael J. Weinstein’s book of photographs, Ten Times Chai: 180 Orthodox Synagogues of New York City, visit:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1612549268/ref=cm_sw_r_em_apa_HhsyBbCEEB794

And to read more of his work, visit: https://www.jewishlinknj.com/features/21952-ten-times-chai-takes-readers-on-a-pictorial-tour-of-the-shuls-of-nyc

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In the Matter of….

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

In the matter of prayers
the jury is still out.
Some say these prayers ride the express
straight up to heaven.
Others opine they are but
bootless cries to the same place.
Do they cross terrestrial borders
on their way upwards?
Do they weather translation
in a myriad of languages?
Do Jewish prayers work
for those of another faith?
Do they, in turn, work in reverse,
a Catholic paean for those un-Catholic?
These prayers serve to ask timeless questions:
Who will hear us?
Who will see us?
Who will save us?
People in the camps waited for the answers.
People today flock to their churches
and synagogues seeking the same.
Maybe the jury will come back soon
with its celestial verdict.

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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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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Visiting the Mount of Olives

by Steven Sher (Jerusalem, Israel)

for Maureen Kushner, on the yahrzeit of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, zt”l

Our van winds through the narrow streets

and splits the crowds that choke the way.

The Arab children after school seek shortcuts

past the Jewish plots–whole sections overrun

with broken stones. Windshield grating,

front and rear, guards against large rocks

that can be hurled at passing cars.

We are targets in our own land.

It is the day before Tu b’Shevat,

a season of renewal, a time of growth—

the first flowers bloom in the city below.

When we find the Arab caretaker, he leads us

to the gravesite and asks for too much money,

but we don’t bargain with our dead before us.

Like Abraham for Machpelah, we pay full price.

He scrubs the stone with brush and water.

More Arab boys pass through the lane.

An old woman and her daughter appear

in the section next to where we stand

reciting Psalms. In his year in the earth

her husband has prepared a place

for their eternal home. She says it feels

more like home than Brooklyn.

Returning to our van, we meet a group

on foot breathing hard. Alarmed

there’s been a new attack, the road

exposed below, we gird ourselves

for a hail of rocks on our descent.

Born in Brooklyn, Steven Sher is the author of fifteen books. He made aliyah five years ago, and now lives in Jerusalem near his children and grandchildren. To learn more about him and his work, visit his website: https://steven-sher-poetry.wixsite.com/writing

 

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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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Filed under American Jewry, Brooklyn Jews, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, poetry

Not My Father’s Jewish Museum

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

 

I am not prepared for the profusion

of colors and thought that are persuasive

here in the Jewish Museum of New York,

expecting gray shadows of smoke rising,

of twisted corpses and mournful dirges.

Look! There is a hanging chandelier

blinking on and off at irregular times,

as if one language doesn’t work,

another will, in this case in Morse Code.

All languages, sadly, are an approximation

of the truth, an attempt to get to the core

of what it means to be Jewish.

I am unsure of what that is,

in any language, art, script, whatever.

I see artists trying to answer that very same question

in forms more varied than my own imagination.

The medium differs, the search continues.

Imagine a room full of stuffed animals – a Bear-mitzvah!

I may not know exactly who I am,

but the comfort here in this museum

reminds me I am not alone in my quest.

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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The Chametz Boys

by Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)

When I was 11, I was the only one of my neighborhood friends who went to yeshivah. They all attended public school and then went to the Talmud Torah on Hendrix Street. 

My Talmud Torah friends and I rarely talked about school, religion, or life, but we all loved discussing baseball.   

We loved everything about the sport: playing it, watching it, trading team and player cards, knowing all the statistics better than we knew facts about our own families. I never knew, for example, the birthdate of my cousin Feivel, or where he was born, or exactly how old he was. But I knew everything about Mickey Mantle, including that he came from Oklahoma (an exotic “country” to us) and how extraordinary his baseball achievements were, especially in light of his being stricken with osteomyelitis. 

No one knew or cared then about his personal problems, just that he was voted MVP, won the Triple Crown Award, batted .356, and hit 52 homers in 1956, an extraordinary athlete. Plus, he wore number 7 on his uniform, so that meant he understood the importance of Shabbos. (Just kidding.)

But, seriously, how could you not love such a guy or his teammates, Whitey Ford, Tony Kubek or Bobbie Richardson, baseball warriors all? They played their hearts out with skill and passion, and we loved them for it.

Several days before Passover one year, one of my friends suggested that we all go to Yankee Stadium for a game. We grew thoroughly excited at the idea, and we all agreed to go. But we knew we could only afford to sit in the bleachers, where seats then cost about a dollar. My friends wanted to go on Yom Tov itself, but I convinced them to hold off until Chol Hamoed, the holiday’s Intermediate days, when work was permitted, so that we could all go together, and they agreed. 

I couldn’t wait for the day of the game to arrive.

Game day was a scorcher, 93 degrees in April at the first pitch, but who cared? We were traveling together on the subway from Brooklyn to a major league baseball game in the Bronx to see our beloved Yankees, and for me, a chance to see the great Mick. 

My mother, may she rest in peace, had made me a great Passover sandwich: egg salad on matzah, which she broke in half so I could feel like I was eating two sandwiches. It looked so good at home that I couldn’t wait to open it at the stadium. But when I saw what my friends were eating at the game, I was, frankly, you should pardon the pun, less excited: they’d bought franks at Yankee Stadium, and franks and more franks, and I was quite jealous. 

Still, we were all in the moment, sitting together at Yankee Stadium, the sounds and smells of a live baseball game filling our senses, and I eagerly awaited the appearance of my hero, Mickey Mantle, who would play centerfield and bat fourth, as usual. 

We couldn’t wait for the game to begin.

I stole glances at the hot dogs and buns and sodas my friends were enjoying, and I felt unhappy. But as they munched contentedly on their stadium hot dogs, I excitedly peeled back the tin foil that covered my egg salad matzah sandwich. When I took it out, however, holding half of my matzo sandwich in the palm of my hand in the noonday sun, both ends of my sandwich sloped downward, a soggy matzah mess. 

My friends looked at my wilting matzah sandwich and laughed out loud, elbowing each other and pointing to my sad matzah sandwich. I could only look at their buns and dogs and sigh jealously. They smirked, enjoying their hot food, and I sheepishly grinned, embarrassed at my own matzah and yellow egg-droop-sandwich and warm canteen water. 

In the end, none of it really mattered as all of us got caught up in the excitement of the game and watched the great Mick and his Yankees destroy the opposing team. 

The Cleveland Indians were the ones who really wilted in that game, and although my funny matzah sandwich was the butt of 11-year olds’ jokes for a few hours that day, we all glowed from the brilliance of the Yankees play in general, and the Mick’s in particular.

That was a happy Pesach indeed.

For more than thirty years, Chaim Weinstein taught English in grades six through college in New York City public schools as well as in several parochial schools. His poems and stories have appeared on The Jewish Writing Project, and his short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne.

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