Category Archives: Family history

The truth is not always easy to find: discovering my family’s Jewish roots

by Cathy A. Lewis (Nashville, Tennessee)

In 1963, my thirteen-year-old brother Jeffrey left our home in Pittsford, New York, to travel by plane to Mexico.  I had no inkling he’d return to us changed after spending six weeks there.

My mom’s family lived in Mexico City, which was beyond my comprehension at age six. While I was growing up, there was always a shroud of mystery around Mom and her familial origins.

Mom would tell me, “I’m not Latin, nor is our family. Circumstances caused me to be born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, while my brothers and sisters were born in Lima, Peru.”

My parents met in Colon, Panama, where Dad was stationed during WWII. Mom worked on the US army base as a translator. Their worlds collided, and it was kismet. They married six months later. I wondered at the brevity of their relationship. Mom would explain, “Back then, you didn’t waste any time. You never knew from one day to the next whether or not the world would implode.”

It was a year after Jeffrey returned from Mexico when my sister, at age ten, two years my senior, broke the news to me. She said as a matter of fact, “Jeff Lewis is Jewish.”

Puzzled, I asked, “What? What is Jewish?”

At that point, Mom sat me down and explained that my grandparents, who were named Silverstone and had changed the name from Zilberstein, were Jewish. “So that makes me Jewish, and my children Jewish. You are Jewish.”

My brain felt like it could burst by the sheer force of questions popping into my prefrontal cortex. One question dominated all others. “But how did your parents get to Mexico?”

Exasperated by my barrage of questions, Mom answered, “They had to leave South America due to the economic issues plaguing that country. Mexico at that time seemed like a land of opportunity. Plus, there was an already established sizable Jewish community.”

I still had questions. The thing about my mother, though, was once she finished discussing a subject, that was it. No further interrogations could continue. Much of my childhood was like that—no resolution to my unending queries.

In eighth grade, a history project was assigned. We were told to pick a country we’d like to live and work in. Much to Mom’s chagrin, I proclaimed, “My project will be about Israel and a kibbutz!”

My father became involved in my research, helping me put historical events in chronological order. I read an article Dad gave me about David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and the founding of Israel. It inspired me even further to communicate the empowering story of survival and conviction. 

My project was one of three picked to present at a school event, with parents invited to attend. At the end of my presentation, I concluded that “Moving to Israel was on my radar, and kibbutz living was the life for me!” With my parents sitting in the audience, I saw the color drain from my mother’s face.

On the ride home, Mom explained how she came to the US in 1944 after marrying my dad. She faced so much anti-Semitism. Mom had a great desire to protect her children from the hatred she experienced. As it turns out, my mom’s parents had fled Baranovichi, Poland (now Belarus) when WWI ended, to start a new life in Buenos Aires after marrying.  The Nazis murdered their extended family members who had stayed behind. 

Many years later, after Mom passed, I completed an ancestry search and found out that Mom’s family all had come from Israel at the start of the first century, fleeing to Eastern Europe after the Romans conquered Jerusalem, Israel. 

Now I embrace my birthright with pride and joy. Through my newfound connection to Judaism, I’ve formed a meaningful relationship with my Creator. And I’ve found while researching my genealogy over 100 relatives living in Tel Aviv, all Orthodox Jews. I’ve also connected with my cousins who immigrated to the US from Mexico, some of them Reform Jews, some Orthodox living in Lakewood, NJ. 

They have all welcomed me into the family with a full embrace, disregarding our differences, while focusing on the mutual affection and pleasure we derive from being one big family.

Cathy A. Lewis’ novel, The Road We Took—Four Days in Germany, 1933, is partially based on a true story of her father’s sojourn through Europe as a sixteen-year-old in 1933 and the four days he spent in Germany.  The book’s main objective, she writes, is to honor her relatives and those who perished in the Holocaust and express how quickly hatred can destroy our world. “It is a critical imperative,” Cathy says, “to remember history to ensure such events like the Holocaust never happen again.” To learn more about Cathy and her book, visit: https://cathyalewis.com

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, Polish Jewry

The Word of God

by Eric Gabriel Lehman (New York, NY)

It was another Yom Kippur day a year and a half into the pandemic, and for a second time I davened in my dining area’s pop-up shul within sight of my kitchen sink. I scrolled through the Hebrew prayers on my phone, while up on my laptop the cantor, six-sided Keppel on his head and in sneakers, raised arms to his invisible congregation. Forgive our transgressions and our sins; claim us for Your own. The cantor’s music was no easier to resist than some memorized pop song and I sang along, even if the idea of sinning evoked my cigar-smoking grandfather’s sternness rather than my understanding of atonement as reflection and reconsideration. The day plateaued at the Musaf service, after seventeen or so hours of not eating or drinking, brain soft and eyes blurry in the dreamy afternoon light. Later, the dimming sky mirrored the melancholy of a year turning toward fall as we moved toward Ne’ila, whose final shofar blast would end the day like a mighty period. The ark’s opened curtain bared its theatrical cast of Torah scrolls in their embroidered vestments, each pair of rollers adorned with silver rimonim like jewelry. The chanting of the Thirteen Attributes, a threnody enumerating God’s compassion, mercy and grace, always rose like a collective sigh when sung live in the synagogue; my solitary rendition competed with ambulance sirens and the occasional car alarm, yet each attribute pulled me deeper into Ne’ila’s twilight. By the time we approached the edifice of Avinu Malkeinu, I felt ready to slip out of my body. Our Father, Our King, we have sinned in Your presence. Our Father, Our King, we have no sovereign but You. The prayer’s repetitive drumbeat inched me closer to an abyss, just when the seven repetitions of Adonai is God caught me and the final shofar sounding gathered me in its empyrean updraft. That’s when a familiar voice sounded within, half reminder, half reprimand, all party-pooper: You know you don’t really believe. 

2020’s initial laptop Yom Kippur experience was imbued with a valiant sense of making do and struggling against the odds—so Jewish. The familiar service was invigorated with novelty. This year’s, however, felt resigned. After an optimistic spring, the emergence of the Delta variant prompted my synagogue to cancel in-person services. Online or no, I donned pants and a dress shirt, in addition to tallit and kippah, as I had the year before, and I set my laptop upon a white tablecloth. Yet the forced retreat to the screen dampened my mood and tarnished Yom Kippur’s messages of hope and regeneration. Each freeze and lag reminded me how artificial the set-up was. When those permitted in the sanctuary laughed at the rabbi’s occasional joke, it sounded canned. The day’s cycle of prayers could have been a recording of the previous year’s services and the bima’s varied offerings of music and talk, a taped rehearsal. I began second-guessing my reactions. Would Avinu Malkeinu with its objectionable image of God as a ruler, bring tears? Would chanting the mantra-like Kaddish still connect me with my father, our relationship as problematic as the Kaddish itself, with its inventory of adulation for a God I’d always found hard to acknowledge? The High Holiday’s through-line of God as king/deliverer/judge demanding appeasement before granting life and health for another year felt like something out of a bad relationship: if I do x for you, regardless of how conflicted I am about it, you will love me. Each time I sang out the name of God I felt either hypocritical, sentimental or just plain lazy, performing by rote. Why, I asked myself, Passover’s wicked son, should a non-believer even utter the name of God at all?

My freshman year of college found me laying tefillin and eating on the kosher meal plan. I was pious enough to balk at singing out Jesus’s birth of a virgin in the Catholic Mass the university’s choir was going to perform in a crucifix-equipped church. (I eventually made my peace by humming the offending text.) I spent many Saturday mornings at the local Chabad House, tucked into a cozy building originally a Taco Bell, where I was drawn into the Lubavitcher’s bracing Chassidism, initially unsettling as a guest who’d shown up at the restrained supper of my Conservative Jewish upbringing and got everyone dancing on the table. The English major I was looked forward to the textual analysis of pilpul—as well as the rib-sticking cholent stew—after Shabbos services. Gradually, however, without my knowing why and unable to stop it, God began fading away. The Chabad rebbe’s express-train mumble of davening came to mean less and less. I couldn’t view Torah as holy writ any more than I could Shakespeare, however fascinating. I enjoyed being in a community of Jews, but like children coming to resent a parent’s interference, I questioned whether God had to be there. Complicating all this were the increasingly louder rumblings of a sexuality I knew the Torah condemned. Was I about to go Reform, with its goyish organ music and English prayers, or worse, become that ultimate sell-out, that pale imitation and oxymoron—the secular Jew?

When the Amtrak train taking me back to school—and to Chabad—after winter break slowed to yet another interminable stop in upstate New York, I found myself before a snow-covered field spread like the blank page of a journal awaiting my pen. I didn’t really know it then, but I was on a long and winding road toward claiming a Jewish identity without God. It would mean improvising and reinventing and some stumbling, but Jews had figured out how to remain Jewish without a temple and survived the Spanish Inquisition, hadn’t they? The snow stretched toward a lonely horizon line; I would miss Chabad House’s rowdy little stetl across from campus, cholent and all. The train’s sudden jostle into motion registered surprise at my conclusion. I had been brought up to believe in the evils of intermarriage and the ultimate sin of conversion, which my eight-year-old self once envisioned as lifelong exile from our apartment into the drafty, grimy hallway of our building in the Bronx. Yet even cast out into the cold, the air would be the same, I reasoned; I would keep on breathing. Even more surprising than this conclusion was how obvious it was. I wouldn’t experience anything as exhilarating yet straightforward until I came out.

Years later, beside him during an Orthodox High Holiday service after my mother died, my father commented that he never once heard me praying, even though he knew I read Hebrew. His was scanty; he depended on me to speak to God for the both of us. But I refused, determined to remain true to my Amtrak revelation. I should have realized that hearing the prayers out of my mouth might have soothed not hearing his wife’s voice from the other side of the mechitza, where she’d always sat. So there we were, two Jews stranded on islands of stubbornness and sadness, close enough to hear each other’s silence amidst so many full-throated affirmations of a God my father and I couldn’t or wouldn’t address, respectively.

This Yom Kippur, God’s name sounded especially distant through my laptop’s speaker. An all-powerful being able to create or destroy at will, unbeholden to any principle of justice other than its own, seemed unfathomable, even cruel, in the age of COVID. Such a God, supremely untouched by day-to-day turmoil, a remote, disinterested party, the very definition of a stranger, seemed unworthy of Yom Kippur’s abundant praise. Jonah’s story, read that afternoon, came across as an object lesson in the arbitrary nature of divine intervention, by turns micromanaging or else absent when needed. Such a mercurial, prissy God dipped no more than a toe into the messy world he was credited with creating, if systemic racism, climate catastrophe and imperiled democracy worldwide—for starters—were any indications. Like those able to retreat from COVID-plagued cities, he skipped town. 

The concluding prayers, with their many references to the book of life closing and the gates of heaven shutting, lent the gloaming of this past Yom Kippur a particularly end-of-time, Götterdämmerung feel. The yahrzeit candles lit for my parents had already burned low, the sounds of traffic out my window sank to a hush and the cantor’s voice sounded roughened by thirst. As the time for Avinu Malkeinu and the seven repetitions of Adonai is God approached, an ecstatic yearning I recognized from sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat chanting the Gayatri mantra or some other trayf snippet of Hindu spiritual embroidery overcame me. This troubled year, however, my mood gave me pause. Once, fearful of blasphemy, I resisted evoking the name of Jesus in the Mass, whose Latin I understood, but could I utter the name of God with a full heart in another language I knew if I didn’t really believe?

There in my dining area, body and mind—and for all I knew, soul—fragile and bowed beneath the full weight of the past eighteen months, I did what I hadn’t done in that Riverdale shul beside my father: utter the name of God. The God I named was no omnipotent force or intercessionist agent but what Sufis refer to as The One, the perfection of love, the embodiment of wisdom and compassion I might also embody. Such a name was shorthand for the divine in all of us; those Thirteen Attributes were our birthright, after all. The name of God I repeated seven times in a hoarse voice acknowledged the ineffable in lives often too encumbered and limited by what we are so sure we understand, sometimes to catastrophically shortsighted effect. I let myself tear up singing the Avineu Malkeinu loud enough to drown out my neighbor’s barking dog, part catharsis, part resolve. I will do better. We must do better. Then I recited the Kaddish’s many praises of God not only for my parents and grandparents and two cousins and a friend and someone from work but for my world in mourning, in pain, and sorely in need of healing.    

Eric Gabriel Lehman has published novels, short stories, and essays. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Brooklyn Rail, Raritan, and elsewhere. He teaches at Queens College/CUNY in New York, where he lives. You can find him online at Twitter (@eglehman1) and can reach him via email: Eric.Lehman@qc.cuny.edu

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

When I Think About Prayer

by Rachel R. Baum (Saratoga Springs, NY)

We did not belong to the synagogue my grandparents attended

On the High Holy Days I stood next to my father

Surrounded by anonymity in dark suits

He mumbled the Hebrew fussed with the slippery borrowed tallis

As I followed the dots and lines of text with my finger

My father elbowed me “Look at that” he stage whispered

A diamond ring my sister would call a third eye

Dangled from a well-dressed woman’s finger

“I’m her” he teased, knowing how the benediction he bestowed

On any female with enviable money, talent, beauty, would be

Hurtful to my sister and me, and then “Read! Read!” he insisted

Though we both knew we were there to gossip not to pray

Real prayer was the cluster of swaying bearded men

We were observers gazing from the rim of an alien civilization

Although we rose for the silent Amidah

We vied to be the first to finish and sit

My mother admonished us for our whispered disregard

She turned the pages of the Siddur

As she would an album of photographs

Reciting the Hebrew from transliterated words

We left early to avoid the rabbi’s sermon

The Bema a distant stage with its costumed Torahs

An usher collected the pledge envelope

At the tollbooth of a sanctuary door

At home, another yarmulke was added to the drawerful

That my father forgot at shul to remove and return

Evidence of our yearly pilgrimage

Marking the passage of time and of faith.

Rachel R. Baum is a professional dog trainer, former librarian, licensed private pilot, kayak angler, and Covid Long Hauler. She is the author of the blog BARK! Confessions of a Dog Trainer and the editor of Funeral and Memorial Service Readings: Poems and Tributes (McFarland, 1999) Her poems have appeared in High Shelf Press, Ariel’s Dream, Drunk Monkeys, Wingless Dreamer, New England Monthly Poetry Digest, Poetica Review, Bark magazine, and Around the World anthology. To learn more about Rachel’s work, visit: https://rachelrbaum.wixsite.com/my-site

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, poetry

My Grandfather’s Prayer Book

by Rick Black (Arlington, VA)

Detached cover.

Brittle, yellowed pages.

Partially erased, Hebrew letters.

His crumbling prayer book is mine now.

Stooped over in his living room, dovaning.

His white, short-sleeved shirt and shock 

of white hair; his thin, willowy frame.

The cigar stub between his lips.

The Bronx.

Roasting brisket and a shelf of pills. 

A Yankee game on the television console. 

Red geraniums.

A pale, florescent light.

Narrow, sickly-green vestibule 

with a picture of his youngest son,

killed in World War II.

We play checkers.

He nudges a checker to another square. 

Tobacco-tinted fingertips.

He doesn’t let me win. 

Now, I hold his prayer book

in my hands by the yahrzeit plaques,

by the tarnished and the yet to be tarnished, 

by the lit and the yet-to-be lit.

Rick Black is an award-winning book artist and poet who runs Turtle Light Press, a small press dedicated to poetry, handmade books and fine art prints. His poetry collection, Star of David, won an award for contemporary Jewish writing and was named one of the best poetry books in 2013. His haiku collection, Peace and War: A Collection of Haiku from Israel, has been called “a prayer for peace.” Other poems and translations have appeared in The Atlanta Review, Midstream, U.S. 1 Worksheets, Frogpond, Cricket, RawNervz, Blithe Spirit, Still, and other journals. 

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Israel Jewry, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, poetry

Davening in the Dining Room (5782)

by Carol Blatter (Tucson, AZ)

This year there was an absence of the beautiful aromas which were usually emitted in our kitchen and throughout the house during Rosh Hashanah. There was no chicken soup, no matzah balls, no kugel, no brisket, and no honey cake. Why? I would be dishonest if I said that I had a good excuse. I didn’t.

I found myself less engaged in cooking this year. I wasn’t ready. After the deprivation of social contacts due to the Covid virus for more than fifteen months (and now with the Delta variant), I had lost my usual energy and enthusiasm for the start of this holiday. So we just had an ordinary meal. The sweet tastes on our tongues, the tasty, tangy flavors, and the familiar tastes of combinations of traditional foods we enjoyed with our parents and grandparents at this high holiday were absent.

***

Lights emanated from the two candles I lit just before sundown. With my husband at my side we said the high holiday prayers which ended with a traditional blessing for reaching this season:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season. 

Although our traditional holiday foods were absent this year, we kept our holiday, Rosh Hashanah, the day of remembrance, as it was meant to be observed. We remembered our traditions. We remembered to recite the blessings for wine and bread (challah) before the meal. We remembered to engage in prayer and song with kavanah, with intention, with our rabbi this year (again) virtually. We remembered to reflect on our blessings; we have many. One of our most important blessings is being together as proud, loving mates of fifty-two years.

***

Over the past two years we have learned to pray wherever we are. We have learned to create a holy space of our own here at home, not the holy space in synagogue which we would have preferred. Our dining room is very warm and attractive with traditional furnishings. We have a gold-framed picture of  a rabbi with a long gray beard, with his black head covering, and wearing his white tallit. We have many items of Judaica on the mantle of our fireplace including a unique menorah made in a form called potichomania, an eighteenth-century art form created by Leona M. Fine with reflective colors and designs of blue, greens and golds.

What we lacked was being present in our synagogue. Even wearing our prayer shawls and kippot and wearing dress-up clothes— I wore a very elegant white dress with white cut out designs all around the bottom and my husband in a long-sleeve, light blue shirt and tie with dark pants and a dark blue blazer — it was still difficult to re-create or imitate the aura, the ambiance, the awesome feeling of praying in a holy place, a space designated for prayer, a place of solace, a place of reverence, a place set aside for those moments in our lives when we need to be in touch with God. 

In synagogue we pray to the east facing Jerusalem so we prayed to the east in our home. If we were in synagogue we would have seen the Torah scroll rolled out onto the Torah table. We would have had an opportunity to be called for an aliyah, an honor, and ascended to the Torah using the fringes on our tallitot to touch the ancient words of our Torah’s teachings. 

****

With or without COVID, we will never forget who we are. We are Jews. We are the People of the Book. We are the Chosen People, chosen by God to be a light unto the nations. We are linked to thousands of years of Jews who came before us. We will continue to recite our prayers, to observe our customs and traditions, and hand them down to our granddaughter who we hope will hand them down to her children and then to their children and their grandchildren.

***

And together we prayed for a year of good health and peace in the new year 5782 for all Jews around the world. 

Carol J. Wechsler Blatter is a recently retired psychotherapist in private practice. She has contributed writings to Chaleur Press,Story Circle Network Journal and One Woman’s Day; stories in Writing it Real anthologies, Mishearing: Miseries, Mysteries, and Misbehaviors, Pleasure Taken In Our Dreams, Small Things, & Conversations,The Jewish Writing Project, and in101words.org; and poems in Story Circle Network’s Real Women Write,Growing/ Older, and Covenant of the Generations by Women of Reform Judaism She is a wife, mother, and grandmother of her very special granddaughter who already writes her own stories. 

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

Furniture

by Steven Sher (Jerusalem, Israel)

Before proposing, Grandpa Sam

bought furniture and Grandma Anna,

pragmatic, agreed to marry him.

That’s what passed back then for love,

the young torn from their families and homes,

fleeing Russia before the next pogrom.

A couple needed a proper bed,

a table and chairs, a dresser and sofa.

They even believed that sturdy

furniture would prop up any failings

in their feelings, that they could build

a life around it and six kids.

Sam died before I was born. Named after him,

I don’t put too much stock in furniture.

Anna outlived him thirty years,

the stern and proper widow

always sitting straight and proud

in an upholstered high back chair

before the family when we gathered

every week around the solid table

Sam had bought so many years before.

Steven Sher’s recent titles include What Comes from the Heart: Poems in the Jewish Tradition (Cyberwit, 2020) and Contestable Truths, Incontestable Lies (Dos Madres Press, 2019). A selection of his Holocaust poems, When They Forget (New Feral Press), is due out in 2021, while his prose will appear in New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust. For Flowstone Press, he is editing an anthology of Oregon poets. Steven lives in Jerusalem. If you’d like to read more about Steven Sher, visit his website: steven-sher-poetry.wixsite.com/writing

Leave a comment

Filed under Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, poetry, Russian Jewry

Slow Burn

by Arlene Geller (Yardley, PA)

none of Solomon’s wisdom was imparted

when my father forced religion on me 

like a too-tight outfit 

after my grandmother died

before this loss, he was unobservant

holidays spent only over food

overnight, he became a Conservative Jew

and a faithful synagogue member

my Jewishness had been a protective cloak

I donned at my discretion

now his sudden threats and punishments 

plunged me into the realm of Gehinnom

coerced to go to synagogue

I dressed in my resentment

endured the hard pew

the incomprehensible ancient language

people shuckling and dipping

like wind-up toys in synchronicity

like the flames of candles

and I ignited

                          glowing

                                             burning slowly

Arlene Geller has been fascinated with words from a young age. She has parlayed this passion into a successful career as a writer, editor, wordcrafter, poet and lyricist. Her pieces have been published in newspapers, journals and magazines, as well as sung by choirs in commissioned works. If you’d like to learn more about her work, visit her website: arlenegeller.com

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, poetry

A Day at the Ball Park

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Feeling the need to catch the ocean breeze,

I went to a Brooklyn Cyclones game

in Coney Island, a minor league team 

of my beloved New York Mets.

The game was sponsored by Hadassah,

the world-wide Jewish service organization.

Seated comfortably in the stands,

I was surprised to receive

their free gift: a baseball cap

emblazoned with the Star of David

surrounding the team’s logo.

A flash to the Jews of the 1940s

who were forced to wear such a star,

my relatives for one, plus countless others.

How wonderful America is

that Jews can gather at a ball game

and proudly display their heritage.

The next batter up is Jay Gordon.

Is he Jewish?

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. 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/

Author’s Note: It is the practice of many minor league ball clubs to offer their fans free giveaways like hats, shirts and game passes. Different organizations sponsor these events.

Leave a comment

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

T’shuvah

Chris Farrar (Columbus, OH)

I’ve been Jewish all my life, but for the first 17 years I didn’t know it.  It’s fair to say that I didn’t really know what “Jewish” was.  In fact, once when I was 8 or so, I went with a friend to Mass, and then told his mother – to her great delight – that I was definitely going to be Catholic.

Well wouldn’t she be surprised.

My father was raised Baptist but really had no interest in religion.  My mother’s family was Jewish, but very secular. 

I, my sister and brother were raised without any religion or religious connection.  Due to my father’s influence, I imagine, we always had a Christmas tree, we went on Easter egg hunts and generally did the things that Christian families did.  But nothing Jewish.

I grew up without any of the normal Jewish childhood experiences.  No Yom Kippur.  No synagogue.  No Passover.  No summer camp.  “David melech yisrael” would have been just a string of sounds in a catchy tune.

It was as if my mother’s Jewish heritage didn’t exist. 

So here’s what happened.

Some time in the middle of high school I underwent knee surgery and had to stay home for several days.  After exhausting all the science fiction in the house I was desperate for something to read.  The only thing I could find was “The Source” by James Michener.

This novel takes place in Israel in the early 60s.  It looks at the history of the Jews through the lens of an archaeological dig.  The site is a fictitious tel named “Makor.”   In Hebrew the word means “source.” 

When I finished that book I knew I was Jewish and I grabbed at it with both hands.  I read book after book on the history of the Jews.  I took courses.  I even joined the Jewish Defense League for a while, until I came to understand them better.

Later I lived on a kibbutz in Israel and learned Hebrew.  I taught it at the university as a TA.  I married a wonderful Jewish woman and raised three amazing Jewish children.  And now there’s a Jewish son-in-law and a new generation of Jewish grandchildren.

Early in my relationship with Judaism, after I returned from Israel, it seemed to me that the only way to be Jewish was to be ultra-Orthodox.  The Chasidim were the saving remnant, the keepers of the sacred flame.  I moved into the Lubavitcher Chabad House at UCLA.  I put on tefillin every morning.  I kept kosher.  I kept the Sabbath. 

This lasted a month.  At the end of the month I knew I couldn’t be Jewish in that way.  I wasn’t even sure I believed in God.   Not, at any rate, the way I needed to in order to live the Lubavitcher life.  That wasn’t going to be my connection to Judaism. 

Instead, as it has developed over the years, my connection has been to the Hebrew language, to the holidays, to my family and to the history of the Bible and of the land of Israel as understood through the perspective of archaeology.

So.  T’shuvah.

On Yom Kippur we think of it as repentance.

What it really means is “return.”

For me it’s been a return to a history that is my history, to a language that is my language and to a land that is my land.

And it’s a return to a book of writings so compelling in its message that it has become the foundation of our whole concept of the obligations of our shared humanity.

 And for me, more even than this, it means a return to wonder.

Who were these people, my ancestors? How did they live? How did they think?  They were a tiny outpost of humanity, living in a poor nation, smaller than many US counties.  They were ravaged horribly by powerful nations, not once but over and over again.  They lost their Temple and their sacred city but somehow, uniquely among ancient peoples, they didn’t lose their God. 

How did they, among all peoples, develop the moral, ethical and spiritual foundation now embraced by half the world’s population?

If they could see how the power of their belief has cascaded down the centuries, what would they think of it?  What would they think of the re-emergence of their nation in its own land, of the resurrection of their language?

Would they recognize their God?  Would they see Him in the miracles of the Tanakh?  Would they see Him in the rebirth of the land of Israel?  Would they see Him in the spread of their vision through Christianity and Islam? 

Or maybe they would see Him in the way a day of teenage boredom can change a person irrevocably, sending reverberations not only down the decades of his own life but also down the lives of generations to come.

So, back to t’shuvah.  Return.

Not just a return to history; but rather, perhaps, a return to the future.

Chris Farrar grew up in southern California, earned a doctorate in linguistics, and worked in technology marketing and, eventually, in data analytics. His first novel, By the Waters of Babylon, follows twelve-year-old Ya’el as she’s deported to Babylon after the siege of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The novel is available on AmazonBarnes & Noble, Kobo and Apple Books. If you’d like to learn more about Chris and his work, visit his website: christopherfarrar.com.

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

Being Jewish is a Blessing

by Carol Blatter (Tucson, AZ)

Until I take my last breath, I will always remember seeing for the first time the Hebrew words calligraphed with such care on the parchment of the Torah scroll. The Torah is said to be a tree of life, Etz Chayim, for all who uphold it. That morning, standing in front of the Torah scroll, I found myself clinging to each letter, each word, and feeling lifted up with joy in a way I had never experienced before.

I had an epiphany that these were the same words my ancestors had chanted for thousands of years and which had guided our people through years of prosperity as well as years of persecution and threats to our survival. As I touched these letters and words with the yad, the silver pointer that I held in my hand, I committed myself to serving God with all my heart and with all my soul —forever. 

My love of Judaism started a long time ago.

Mom, Dad, I want to fast for Yom Kippur.

They looked startled and worried.

Sweetie, you’re only ten and you are not required to fast, only adults have to.

But I want to.

Mom and Dad hesitated. They really didn’t know what to say.

A few moments of silence.

Ok, Mom said after she got a yes head shake from my dad. You can fast until three P.M. but no later.

Growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn NY, I always knew I was Jewish. But knowing I was Jewish wasn’t the same as observing Jewishly.

I started Hebrew school. I can still see the small blue book with double lines. I can remember making a gimel. I remember dropping out of Hebrew school because of artistic pursuits including acting and dancing lessons several times a week. I couldn’t fit in one more lesson.

Wanting to be more Jewish but dropping out of Hebrew school? How did that make sense?  Looking back, it was a mistake. But this mistake was rectified years later. 

I began to learn Hebrew at the age of thirty-seven at the same time our daughter was a student at the Hebrew Academy. I thought I would help her with her homework but she didn’t need my help.

Over the years of study, my original motivation changed. I became immersed in the joy of learning Hebrew. I could translate most of the prayers and songs at the Shabbat service. I was no longer a transliterator. I was no longer a spectator. I became a seriously engaged Jew. I am a seriously engaged Jew. 

At the age of forty-four, I was called to the Torah for the first time to chant the words written with such care on its parchment.

My rabbi unrolled the Torah scroll to the portion, Re’eh, which means see.

See, be attentive. See, keep learning. See, be a responsible Jew. See, be a viable link to the future of the Jewish people. See, never forget your Jewish roots. See, make the world better.

And after all this time I now see why being Jewish is such a blessing.

Carol Blatter, a recently retired private practice psychotherapist, has contributed writings to Chaleur Press, Story Circle Network Journal,  Writing it Real anthologies101words.org, Real Women Write, Growing/ Older, and Covenant of the Generations from the Women of Reform JudaismShe is a wife, mother, and grandmother, and her greatest pleasure is listening to her precious, clever granddaughter read and create amazing stories. 

2 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism