Category Archives: Family history

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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Sunday Morning Ritual

by Diana Rosen (Los Angeles, CA)

I am five,
standing eagerly at his side,
my face at my dad’s elbow,
a ready audience for this most
amazing experience: The Shave.

He pulls his nose first right, then left,
his razor whispers scritch-scratch,
edging over his upper lip; then he strokes
down through the shaving cream
leaving even rectangles on his cheeks,
a lawn mower plowing through snow.

Stroke by stroke, vanishing strips of
white foam expose his deeply tanned face.
“Damn,” he swears, as a ribbon of vermilion
winds its way down his deeply-brown chin.

Automatically, I hand him
some toilet paper to sop up
the spoils of the Gillette.
Then comes the part I like best.

He pours into his hands some crackling
cologne from the white crockery bottle
with its tiny neck and the blue sailboat
on the ballooning bottom of the bottle.

The room explodes with the scent
as he slaps it on his face:

Plop!
Plop!
Platt!

And together we say,
“Now that’s a mechayeh.”

[Mechayeh—Yiddish for “a pleasure.”]

Diana Rosen’s flash fiction and poetry have been published in anthologies and journals including, among others, Kiss Me Gooodnight and Altadena Poetry Review, Rattle, Tiferet Journal, Silver Birch Press, Ariel Chart, and Poetic Diversity. She has published thirteen non-fiction books. and teaches freewrite classes at senior citizen centers.

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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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My Return

by Genie Milgrom (Miami, FL)

I clearly remember the day I became a part of the Jewish people. How could I forget? It was the culmination of the four plus years of study for an Orthodox conversion that had once loomed before me with no end in sight. Throughout the period of conversion, I had many fears and frustrations.

I was born in Cuba and raised in Miami so the foods I was used to as staples became forbidden. It took me a long time to slowly let go of the ham and pork, then the milk and meat mixtures (cheeseburgers and lasagna) and finally, because the process took so long, I was able to let go of one shellfish every six months. Shrimp, scallops, lobster and finally crab. Crab was the hardest. I had to change completely what I considered to be my childhood comfort foods yet the drive to be Jewish was stronger than anything I could buy at the grocery store.

The change of identity was overwhelming as I would go from being a Cuban Catholic woman to an Orthodox Jewish one. I had doubts that I could make the leap but I knew that if I was to cause such an upheaval in my life, I needed to convert in a way that would cause no doubts about my Jewishness anywhere in the world . The only choice was the Orthodox Beit Din or Jewish Court.

The period of study was frustrating as well even though I knew that the Rabbis had to reject me again and again as part of the conversion curriculum. Even knowing that and still trying not to take it personally, was extremely difficult. I had to learn to read and write Hebrew, the laws of the Sabbath (several volumes), the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish Law), the laws of Kashrut, and the laws of family purity. I had to learn all this as one studies for a graduate level class. I learned the laws and I knew them by heart but it was overwhelming. I was afraid I would not be able to remember them or keep them fully yet all this build up led to one of the most important days of my life. Their mission was to daunt me. My mission was to not be daunted. I won.

It was a rainy and dreary day as I walked into the mikveh building practically squeezing the life out of the hand of my best friend, Bonnie.

The interior was one large square room with several worn-out couches strewn about. I sat on the edge of one of them shaking like a leaf and unsure of what was to come next. I was so scared. It had taken a long time to get to this point, and I had alienated so many people; my family, friends I had grown up with, people who went through thirteen years of Catholic school with me and just about every one else in my life. At that moment, sitting on the edge of that couch, I was literally hanging in mid-air between my Catholic past and my unknown Jewish future. The Catholic past had detached from me through those long conversion years and no one was throwing out a life jacket from the Jewish side. It was a lonely and difficult time and as scared as I was, I was still not daunted.

Slowly, three black clad Rabbis I had never seen before walked in from a back room, sat down and asked me many questions about my beliefs, my intentions, my conviction and my understanding of what I was getting myself into. They asked me if I knew that I would be joining the most hated people on the planet, a people that had been hated for centuries. They asked me if I was aware that infractions of some Jewish laws included stoning during the Temple times and a few others that were just as difficult and thought provoking. I had been unprepared for the questions but I did not find them difficult to answer with full honesty. You don’t crawl through a process that takes longer than four years with your eyes closed. I thought the questions had gone on for over a half hour before they let up but in reality, Bonnie told me that only seven or eight minutes had passed.

I was led into a room and helped into the water of the mikveh by a kindly attendant and once inside the water, the questions started again. The same ones as before but asked with greater intensity. This time, it felt like an hour. I had a recurring fear throughout the conversion that when this moment came, I would have serious doubts but that never happened. I felt stronger than ever in my conviction to join the Jewish people. Finally, I submerged in the water and it was over.

When I stepped into the large hall with my hair still wet, I was met by a long line of Rabbis waiting to get a blessing from my newborn Jewish soul. The line was as endless as the blessings they requested.

All in all, I gave many blessings that day which in turn, blessed me abundantly. My new life as a proud member of the Jewish people had begun yet my soul knew it had finally returned home.

Genie Milgrom has served as past President of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Miami, past President of the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies at Colorado State University, and President of Tarbut Sefarad Fermoselle in Spain. She is the author of My 15 Grandmothers, How I Found My 15 Grandmothers, Pyre to Fire, Mis 15 Abuelas, and De la Pirra al Fuego. The books have won the Latin Author Book Awards in 2015 and 2018.

An international speaker, she has spoken at the Knesset in Jerusalem on the return of the Crypto Jews, has been featured in The Miami Herald, Jerusalem Post and many other newspapers, and has been hooded by Netanya Academic College for work on the return of the Crypto Jews. Currently, she is the Director of the International Converso Genealogy Program to digitize Inquisition files world-wide.

A postscript from the author: Due to the research of my family from Spain years after my conversion, I found an unbroken maternal lineage going back to 1405 Pre-Inquisition Spain, and, via a Beit Din in Israel, was declared “Jewish all along.”  I do not regret my conversion period, however, because I always knew I was Jewish. And though the conversion process was difficult, I have come to see with time that it was a necessary period of detox that helped make me who I am today.

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