Category Archives: Family history

Shalach Manot

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

The first time you surprised me with a package
I couldn’t imagine what I’d done
or what special day it was
to inspire the gift.

It contained:
A teeny box of Sun-Maid raisins
Three small hamantashen you’d bought in Brookline
A Baggie of mint lentils (the candy you hoarded, teasing, in a glass jar)
and a few pennies,
and was left, unsigned,
in a brown paper bag.

When you explained it to me
I kept seeing parallels between Purim and Halloween
like dressing up, out of character and into another,
and sweets,
and the flip-flop tension between evil and good.
And then I tried to figure out why you’d given the gift to me
since you only have to present shalach manot of at least
two foods to one person
and I was never sure if I was your favorite;
was it because you knew my other name is Esther
or because you knew what knowledge hadn’t been passed along to me?

So many things I learned from you:
Like wearing white for Yom Kippur, and no leather,
and how to douse the Havdalah candles in wine,
and that people bought Kosher toothpaste for Pesach.
Like how to shuckle with prayer, moving to the rhythm of the words,
and how to invite, then welcome, the white noise of Sabbath,
and dress up Saturday lunch, and elongate it, then nap.

So I want to thank you for the present
and what you taught me in the past
about how to be a Jew
like maybe my grandparents — or before — knew,
and even though I pared back to being me
(then added other layers, slowly, and organically)
I hope someone has given you gifts
that surprise and enrich you
and make you eager to open brown paper bags
which, you’ve learned to imagine,
may well contain something sweet.

Janet Ruth Falon is a writer and writing teacher in Elkins Park, PA.  Her latest book, In the Spirit of the Holidays: Readings to Enrich Every Jewish Holiday, contains 146 poems about the holidays and can be purchased on Amazon at http://a.co/d/5pejb3w, or through Janet at janetfalon@gmail.com.

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On the Other Side

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

About a dozen relatives and good friends gathered at the Berlin train station that day in early May 1938 to see my mother, me, and our beloved Scottish Terrier, Pips, off on the first leg of our trip to America.

My favorite aunt, Tante Friedel, held her arms tightly around my eleven-year old neck, moaning “I will never see you again” as streams of tears ran down her cheeks. She was my father’s sister and supposedly I resembled her in many ways. It was said that I had inherited her left-handedness, her love of cooking, and her passion for making people feel comfortable. Now I wondered why she was so certain of our future.

Not everyone could hug us goodbye before the conductor blew his whistle, picked up Pips and handed him to a porter inside the coach, and then we boarded the train and started off on our journey, happy to leave Germany and its persecution of Jews as the danger to Jews was growing more intense every week.

After we reached the city of Bremen my mother, Pips, and I checked in for the night at a hotel before our ship departed the following day. The Bremerhof was a posh establishment where my mother had decided to spend our remaining few marks. We registered, ordered dinner, and went upstairs to our room. Shortly afterward, a steward arrived with a silver tray on which we found the dog’s dinner. Also on the tray was a printed card which stated: “Our non-Aryan guests are requested to abstain from visiting the Dining Room.” So we did without dinner that night and looked forward to experiencing the ship’s highly touted cuisine the following day.

We arrived in New York after a calm, relaxing ocean voyage on the “Europa,” Germany’s newest luxury liner. New York was hectic, crowded, and overwhelming. How nice it would be to board the train to Louisville, Kentucky, our final destination, where we would at last be reunited with my father. My poor father, who had survived the horrors of the concentration camp at Buchenwald, had been helped by relatives to find refuge in Louisville and awaited us there.

The Louisville & Nashville Railroad train was fully booked for the overnight trip from New York. We did not have the money for a private Pullman car, but had seats in coach. I sat on one side of the aisle, with Pips at my feet; my mother sat across from me in the remaining free seat. We did not notice the woman located nearby until she rose from her seat and walked back to where my mother sat and addressed my mother. 

My mother smiled, but it was obvious to me she did not understand what the stranger was saying to her.  So I took it upon myself to stand up, faced the woman, and asked her to repeat her remark to my mother.

“I asked her whether she noticed you were sitting next to a colored man and whether you had her permission to sit there.”

Puzzled by her question, I looked back to my seat, saw the quiet older man sitting there and repeated her question to my mother, who was obviously as surprised to hear the woman’s words as I had been. She smiled a sweet little smile, shook her head, and said “Naturally.” Around us, no one spoke or paid any attention to the woman whose face wore a disgusted expression as she returned to her seat.

After a night-long, back-rattling, sitting-up ride, we finally reached the wide countryside nearing the state of Kentucky. As the dawn came up, it was amazing to see such an enormously huge landscape. It seemed ever so much larger than any European piece of land we had crossed on our way from Berlin to Bremen. There were no buildings, only miles and miles of unpopulated land.

At last, our train rolled into the Louisville train station. There, in tears, my parents met each other again after many months of separation. Probably no one standing nearby had the faintest clue of the painful history and reunion they were witnessing in the grimy waiting room that day.

Even Pips recognized his old master; his tail did not stop wagging as my father petted him in a loving gesture of greeting.

A young black man stood near my father. “This is Mac, my driver,” my father said. Mac’s face lit up as we attempted to shake his hand. From my father’s letters from America we had learned he had started a new business that involved travel throughout the country and that he had hired a driver for his new career. We had known that my dad never drove while living in Europe. He  always had a chauffeur. But this was the first that we learned of Mac’s existence in my father’s life. 

The early humid May heat warmed up the Louisville train station. As we stood there talking, I noticed that my little dog had begun to pant. I asked my father whether we could get him some water since Pips was not used to the Kentucky temperatures. My father passed the message on to Mac who wanted to know from which fountain to draw the water. I had no idea what Mac meant until I saw him step toward two identical water coolers, one of which bore the sign “For Colored Only” and the second one labeled “For Whites Only.” When he returned from the “Colored” fountain bearing a cup of water, I had my introduction to segregated water fountains and restrooms.

Mac drove us home to our first American apartment that day. For my mother and me it was the start of a new life. Mac continued working for my father for many years. Sometimes I heard about unusual problems that arose when they traveled through the South. Most of the problems arose when my father had business in towns where he needed to stay  overnight. In some of the towns, black people could not find sleeping accommodations.

“What did you do then?” I asked my father years later when he had retired and no longer stayed out overnight.

“When Mac found no friends or relatives who could house him, I simply said, ‘Drive on, Mac. We will go to the next town where we will find a room for you.’”

My father didn’t want any harm to come to Mac. 

“I was incarcerated in Buchenwald because of my religion,” he would tell me. “How could I put him at risk for being black?”

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 children and young adults, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, Elie Wiesel,, and, most recently, Kurt Weil.

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I’m Teaching My Phone To Speak Yiddish

by Roz Warren (Bala Cynwyd, PA)

“Dad’s Yartzeit is next week,” I texted my sister recently.

Her response came back immediately:

“?????”

When I checked the text I’d just sent, it was easy to see why. Spellcheck had “corrected” the word Yartzeit to Yahtzee.

No wonder she was confused. There’s a world of difference between Yartzeit and Yahtzee.

I changed the word back and resent the message, reminding myself, once again, to proof my texts before letting them fly.

I was amused but not surprised by this little spelling snafu.  We’ve all experienced Spellcheck “correcting” words with odd and/or funny results. My own favorite example of this is the friend whose mom once texted her, “You are adored.”

Spellcheck changed this message to “you are adopted.”

Quite a notification to get from mom out of the blue.

Nor was I shocked that Spellcheck wasn’t fluent in Yiddish. Why would I assume that my phone was Jewish just because I was?

Still, I noticed that when I texted my son later to tell him about his grandpa’s upcoming Yartzeit, Spellcheck didn’t change Yartzeit to Yatzee again.  It now recognized the word and left it alone.  My smartphone was learning from its mistakes!

Over the next few weeks, I made a game of seeing what my phone did with the Yiddish words I used when I texted. It changed Shabbat to “shabby,” Mensch to “menswear” and “bisel” to “bisexual.”

“Bubbe” became “bubble.”

“Putz” became “puts.”

And “Oy Vey” became “It Vetoed.”

Every time Spellcheck changed a Yiddish word to the English word it assumed I meant to say, I’d change it back again. And the next time I used that word?  Spellcheck left it alone.

I was teaching my phone to speak Yiddish!

It soon became clear that my phone already knew some Yiddish. For instance? I didn’t have to teach it klutz or schlep. But my phone still had a lot to learn. It thought, for instance, that both “schmooze” and “schmuck” meant “schedule.”

It turned “mishegoss”  into “mushroom”  and “mishpocheh” into “mishap ox.”

Spellcheck turned “shmatte”  into “shattered” and “tuchis” into “tux history.”

It also corrected “Zayde.”  to “day dreaming.” My practical grandpa would have plotzed.  (Or as Spellcheck would have it, “plots.”)

I’ve enjoyed exploring the interaction between an ancient language and 21st century technology. And the more I use my smartphone, the more Jewish it becomes. Soon I expect it to start nagging me to dress more warmly and make sure to have a little nosh before I leave the house.

By the next time dad’s Yartzeit rolls around, I expect my phone to be fluent.  But while I’m pleased and proud that my phone now knows the word Yartzeit, let’s hope that it rarely needs to use it.

Roz Warren writes for everyone, from The Funny Times to The New York Times, and has been featured on both the Today Show and Morning Edition. You can learn more about her and her work at https://muckrack.com/roz-warren.

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My Mother’s First Chanukah in the Nursing Home

By Madlynn Haber (Northampton, MA)

Today, I arrive at the nursing home with two bags of Chanukah presents.  It is my mother’s first Chanukah in the beginning stages of dementia. I smile at the ladies in wheelchairs lining the hallway on the way to her room. One has no leg, some have no voices, several have no minds left. I smile with sweetness and kindness. I have respect for them knowing they once had  moments of passion and joy. They don’t have those anymore, and neither, it seems, do I.

In the bags, there are five presents for Mom: hand lotion, an artificial plant, a crossword puzzle book, a back scratcher, and a mechanical rabbi that dances to the tune of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.” I have two presents for her roommate, and my daughter’s first night present. 

My mother tries to open them before we light the candles. I have to stop her like I did with my daughter when she was one and two. By the time she was three, she figured out that you have to wait for the candles to be lit, for the blessings to be said, for the story of the holiday miracle to be told and remembered before you get to open the presents.

My mother has forgotten all this, if she ever knew. We did light candles when I was a child, but eight presents, one for each night, was too extravagant for us.  We got a quarter some nights, some candy or a piece of fruit and one real present on the first night. Now, my mother saves the quarters she wins in bingo games at the nursing home for my daughter who has always gotten a special present each night.

I bring a present for myself to the nursing home as well since there is no one to buy one for me. I wrap it in Chanukah paper and open it with delight. It is a CD that I have wanted to hear.  It is by a young singer songwriter. She sings about her loves and passions, adventures, travels, and mysterious encounters. I used to know about such things, too. I used to light Chanukah candles with an expectation that small miracles would happen easily and a large one might actually be possible. I used to have a wide view on the world. Now I can only see one small task at a time: take Mom to the doctor; attend her care meeting; replace her slippers; bring her more powder; reset the remote for her TV, again.

My daughter and I help my mother into her wheel chair and then into my car and we go to Pizza Hut, one of Mom’s favorites. She reads the placemat. On it there are questions for discussion. What would you do with a million dollars?  What would you do if you were president for one day? What would you ask for if a genie came out of a bottle and gave you a wish? Oddly, they are questions about miracles, so appropriate for our Chanukah meal.

My mother says she would wish for a long life! I am stunned into silence. I am grateful that I don’t blurt out the words, “Haven’t you lived long enough already?”

It is a miracle that I have chosen to make her happy. I think I can do it for maybe a year. I can bring her cake and balloons on her birthday. I can take her on a picnic for Labor Day, to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. I can cook her Thanksgiving dinner, bring her presents on Chanukah, take her to a movie on New Year’s Day, a lecture on Martin Luther King Day. I can make a Seder for Passover and a basket for Easter. I can do that for one year. 

But what if her wish comes true? What if she lives a longer life? We will need, I am sure, to be blessed with miracles for all the future years she may be granted.

Madlynn Haber is a writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her work has been published in the anthologies Letters to Father from Daughters and Word of Mouth, Volume Two, in Anchor Magazine and on the websites A Gathering of the Tribes,  BoomSpeak and The Voices Project.

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I Was the Dreidel 

by Madlynn Haber (Northampton, MA)

I was the dreidel, which was the starring role in the play called “The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin,” when I was 11 years old.  I can’t remember having any lines to say. But I do remember the costume. It was made of four pieces of cardboard, which formed a square, with elastic bands holding the cardboard up on my shoulders.

I can’t remember the story either. What was the plot? Why didn’t the dreidel spin? How did it resolve? I assume the dreidel found a way to spin. I like to picture myself twirling around on the stage—a swirling, tap-dancing dreidel in a great Broadway musical. But  that’s not what happened. There wasn’t even a stage. Just chairs set up in rows in a dingy basement.

It was a poor Jewish neighborhood after-school program, unaffiliated with any synagogue or congregation. That’s one of the parts that stayed with me, the lack of affiliation. Also the immobile dreidel, boxed in, unable to spin, stubbornly refusing to go along.

After the play, the cast gathered together around a menorah. We each said something as we lit a candle. It couldn’t have been the traditional blessings. It wasn’t a traditional Hebrew school. We learned Yiddish instead of Hebrew and believed in socialism instead of God.

I had asked to go to Hebrew school when I was in the fourth grade and after I found myself drifting into churches, kneeling and staring at the statues of Mary and Jesus. My parents couldn’t afford the price of joining a synagogue where I could go to Hebrew school and learn how to pray. Instead, they sent me to this secular Jewish school where I learned to play bingo in Yiddish.

I remember very clearly the image of my father’s face as I looked out into the audience above the light of those Chanukah candles. It may have been the last time I saw him in my childhood. Shortly after, he moved away and wasn’t heard from again. (As an adult, I tracked him down, found the rooming house where he lived, and visited him at the taxi company where he worked.)

On the day of the play, my father came to pick us up in a long, black Plymouth. It must have been shortly after my parents’ separation. We didn’t have a car when he lived with us, and he acquired the Plymouth right after he left. Coming down the front stoop with the screen door slamming behind us, my mother and I got our first glimpse of that car with its high fins. My father was smiling, a proud grin on his face as he opened the car door to let us in.

I slid into the front seat, positioned between him and my mother.  She shut the door and made a tight fist with her right hand.  Then, she sharply tapped on the top of the dashboard. With a slight sneer, she said, “Kind of tinny isn’t it?” My father’s smile faded. None of us spoke after that comment as we drove to the Jewish School.

Years later I learned the traditional Chanukah blessings in Hebrew. Memories of starring in that play return when I light the menorah. I remember the silence in the car.  I can see my father’s grinning face. I can hear my mother’s sarcastic voice. And I can remember myself when I was eleven and I was an immobile dreidel, unable to spin.

Madlynn Haber is a writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her work has been published in the anthologies Letters from Daughters to Fathers and Word of Mouth, Volume Two, and in Anchor Magazine and a forthcoming issue of Exit 13 Magazine.

 

 

 

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Have the Hate-filled Times Come Again?

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

On the night of November 10, 1938 my mother and I stood on the sidewalk of Fasanenstrasse in Berlin and watched flames shoot out of the roof of our beautiful and beloved Temple, the great Reform Synagogue, across the street.

I was eleven years old and could not understand what was happening. Behind us in the street several fire engines manned by their crews rested without attempting to put out the fire. In front of the engines crowds of people just stood and watched, some of them obviously snickering.

No one made any attempt to put out the fire. It was obvious to me even at a young age that this was no accidental fire: it had been set because of hatred.

This was the synagogue in which I had my first introduction to Judaism, where I learned about our holy days, listened to the heavenly music of the choir, and felt the closeness of God even as a young child.

That night I even questioned God: “Dear God. This is Your beautiful house. Why are You allowing these evil people to burn it?  And why did You not punish those just standing around seemingly enjoying the spectacle?”

But I said these thoughts quietly to myself for even my mother just stood there silently not saying a word. Her face wore such a languished look I did not dare to interrupt her sadness.

Finally, she turned to me and said in a quiet voice, “Remember this.” Then she pulled me away from the crowd and led me to the train station nearby. We went home in silence.

I have remembered that night throughout my life. It has become known as “Kristallnacht” (Night of Broken Glass) because aside from the burning of synagogues, other horrendous episodes occurred that day. Jewish shops all over Germany had their storefront windows smashed by unruly mobs, and many Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps.

“Kristallnacht” was the forerunner to the Holocaust.

On Saturday, October 27, 2018, a crazed, heavily armed individual entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and murdered eleven elderly congregants while they were praying. His comment upon being wounded by arresting officers (who themselves sustained gunshot injuries) was: “All Jews should be killed.”

These words lie heavily upon our souls. Have the terrible, hate-filled times come again?

Never in the history of the United States have American Jews faced such concentrated venom.

Yet there is a difference. And there is hope.

In Germany, the hate and conflagration was started and fostered by tools of the State. Here, the actions were of a lone, crazed gunman. And here, the State, in the form of Pittsburgh’s police force and elected officials, Pennsylvania and Federal law enforcement officials, along with Pittsburgh’s medical personnel, the American Press, and worldwide reaction to the tragedy, has supported the bereaved Tree of Life congregation.

Despite my great sadness as a child Holocaust survivor, I have faith in the future.

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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Born in America

by Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)

As a boy I learned Hebrew while sitting in
a cramped, stifling second-floor classroom
on Wednesday afternoons and on Sunday
mornings, chalk dust in the air and cigarette
smoke mixed with sweat and the stale smell
of ink and old paper, reading Bible stories
from ancient books with dusty yellow pages
and the smell of an exotic, sun-drenched land
rising from between the lines.

The land was called Israel—Eretz Yisrael
in Hebrew—and I was told to call it home,
even though home for me was a split-level
house in northern New Jersey within sight
of the tall spires of Manhattan where my
father worked, and all I knew about Israel
was that it was hot and dusty, a dry land
covered in sand, a place where refugees with
numbers tattooed on their arms came from
Europe’s death camps to build new lives.

I remember how the Hebrew letters felt so
strange on the tip of my tongue and made
the back of my throat swell so that I nearly
choked on the words, and I remember how
I turned the pages hoping my teacher wouldn’t
call on me to read, afraid I’d stumble and trip
in front of my friends over the unfamiliar words.

In the end I learned what I had to learn for
my bar mitzvah, no more, no less, and memorized
all the Hebrew words and how they were supposed
to sound by listening to a record the rabbi had
made, and I repeated the words over and over again
until they sounded like words that came from my
heart, words that I had absorbed in my mother’s
milk as an infant nursing at her breast.

Only I could never convince myself that Hebrew
was really my language. I always felt like an
imposter reading the words, as if the odd-shaped
letters and words belonged to someone else. I was
an American Jew, after all, and, like most Americans,
I spoke English, not Hebrew. And when I walked down
the streets of my suburban town in northern New Jersey,
I foolishly thought that my friends and I were safe
forever from the horrors of the past, and that Israel
served as a haven for others, not for Jews like us
who had been born in America.

How my friends and I had laughed at the idea that
we needed to learn Hebrew. Instead, we dreamed of
playing basketball and throwing a football in a high
spiral on a perfect autumn afternoon and sneaked
peeks across the aisle at the girls, their heads bent
over their books, pretending that we weren’t there,
intent on learning the Hebrew words that all of us
might need one day to strengthen our bonds as Jews.

Bruce Black is is the founder and editorial director of The Jewish Writing Project. He lives in Sarasota, FL.

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