Category Archives: Israel Jewry

“Give, You Shall Give”

by Dobra Levitt (Jerusalem, Israel)

Two memories lodged in my past seem to have waited years for my Talmud Torah class to reveal their true value.  We have been learning the laws worded as double expressions in the Torah such as: give, you shall give; lend, you shall lend; load up, you shall load up your neighbor’s fallen donkey. The law of restoring a pledge, “restore, you shall restore,” requires a lender to return the garment of a poor person who has given it as security for a loan. Since his garment is most likely the only covering he has, Torah law made it obligatory to return it to him each day before sunset for as long as it’s held as security. The first memory from my working years in Philadelphia brings this law out of the pages of the Gemarah into living reality.

After university and before I found my first teaching position, I worked for a short time at the Department of Public Assistance.  My job was to visit people receiving financial assistance, lend a sympathetic ear to their cares and concerns, and send in a standardized form recording my observations. The people I visited were humble folk, grateful to the powers-that-be for the help they got and for the “nice miss” who listened to their troubles.

The job took me into neighborhoods I never knew existed. One place was a single room apartment in a building “somewhere near the railroad tracks.”  Its occupant was a small, elderly Afro-American man. By now he’s just a memory of a memory, but for many years he was a living person in my heart.  His slight form, his politeness and gentleness were not abstractions describing him but qualities inseparable from what endeared him to me.  Except for a plain wood bureau and maybe a few items he kept in a closet, the only things he possessed in this world were literally a table, two chairs, and a cot that served as his bed.  Lined up on the bureau top were framed photos of loved ones “from the South.” They were all that really mattered to him. I can’t recall his talking about anything else. I remember standing beside him as he showed me each one, telling me who they were and how they were related to him.

At the bottom of his bed, folded up very neatly, was a khaki overcoat he may have bought at one time from an army and navy store. As sure as I stood there, I knew that coat was what he used to cover himself at night. I may have asked him or found out from my supervisor that a blanket had been ordered for him—it troubled me so that he still had not received it. I must have sent in the visiting form with an urgent request for its immediate delivery, but I was scheduled to leave the Department shortly after my visit, so I never knew the outcome of my gentleman’s story. I always hoped that someone broke through the bureaucratic red tape and got his blanket to him without a minute’s further delay.

Talmudic scenarios, at least literally, are not common anymore. It’s unlikely that when we step out the door we’ll encounter a lost sheep we should exert ourselves to return to its owner or help a neighbor unload his fallen donkey, but there are rare exceptions. With my own eyes I saw how a frail mortal could have nothing to his name in this world but one garment to cover himself at night—and if he had to give it as security, his very life could be endangered if it wasn’t returned on time.  “If you take thy neighbor’s garment to pledge, you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down; it is his only garment, his covering for his skin; wherein shall he sleep?”

Reading this passage from the Torah, I felt the incredible closeness and immediacy of Hashem in every situation and far more deeply felt the line from tehillim that came to me: “The Lord is good to all, and His mercies extend to all His works.

Years later, and on a lighter note, the second memory is a perfect embodiment of the doubled expression, “give, you shall give.” One of the meanings the sages derived from the repetition was that it was better to give multiple times – giving smaller sums to several charities rather than a lump sum to only one or giving to three poor people five shekels each for a coffee rather than fifteen to one person. Little did I know at the time that I was fulfilling a law of the Torah in this ideal way.

I was at the time learning in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, occasionally making forays into Boro Park for shopping or meeting friends. Leaving Boro Park one early afternoon to catch my bus, I was accosted (if I can use that word for such a diminutive crowd) by a class of very young yeshivah boys in the fourth or fifth grade asking for a donation. It seems they were collecting for some charitable cause that their school turned into a class competition. There may even have been a run-off among individual boys to decide the Supreme Collector of the whole yeshivah.

Good fortune went round that day. For some reason I had a lot of small change in my bag and on the spot became a dispenser of charity coins to maybe twelve very happy boys. You would think a windfall of immense worth fell into their hands as each one walked away, shouting and jubilant, with his nickel or dime. When just two or three boys were left and I had come almost to the end of my change, I began thinking I should hold on to what was left for the bus fare or something else I might need. Walking towards my bus stop, I explained to the boys why I was “closing up shop.” Having done so well as a group, they accepted the decision with a good grace and went their boyish way – except for one unappeased boy. I can almost see him as he stood his ground. He was smaller than the rest and just as it was undeniable that he wore glasses, so was it absolutely clear he wore intelligence. It was written, as they say, all over him. He persisted at my side, backing away with me as I walked. “But I gave to the whole class,” I told him. “Yes, but I’m a different person,” he answered. And to whatever I said that I thought bolstered my argument, he answered in his childish voice, never changing his tone or showing the least irresolution: “Yes, but I’m a different person.”

Of course I gave him. How could I not! He was so preciously unique and his ingenuous logic was unassailable. It was my logic that was below the mark. Surely I must have had a few bills in my purse so I could have gotten change for the bus, and what could I possibly have suddenly needed in the minutes it took to walk to the station that twenty-five cents would help pay for? When I look back, I think I was acting on the not uncommon instinct to preserve my money lest – who knows? – I might go penniless!

I treasure the  memory of my little yeshivah boy. I can’t begin to count how many times his innocent “Yes, but I’m a different person” has sounded in my heart, making me smile and, on occasion, even admonishing me. Sometimes I am unexpectedly approached by a group of needy people here in Jerusalem where, unfortunately, the poor abound. This often happens before the festivals when poor men and women with needy families ask for help. I have to remind myself: true, nowhere does halacha require me to give away all my money, but I won’t fall below the poverty line if I give more than I regularly give to people who are asking.  Each one has a just claim; each one is a different person.

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

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At Sammy’s Store

by Brad Jacobson (Columbia, MO)

Today is Shabbat.
I stop in for a Bamba
Peanut snack and Coke.

We do not pay
until after Shabbat.
Sammy wears a Yankees hat.

His first language is Arabic
but he speaks English and Hebrew
to customers.

David visits Sammy every day.
He manages the Heritage House,
the Jewish hostel next door.

Sammy, David and I dream
about sailing around the world.
We will meet at the ship tomorrow.

Or the day after.

 

Brad Jacobson is a volunteer every summer in Israel in the SAREL program. He teaches TESOL at the Asian Affair Center at the University of Missouri, where he has an MEd in Literacy. In the summers he enjoys exploring places with his camera like the Old City of Jerusalem, Tzfat, and the Red Sea where he scuba dives. He has been published in Tikkun, Voices Israel, Poetica, Cyclamens and Swords, and the University of Missouri International News.

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Pretzels on sand dunes

by Kae Bucher (Fresno, CA)

My daughter makes huts out of pretzels
while I chew on thoughts of yesterday

where we once wandered
(as fragile as seashells on desert sands)
and gathered manna

today,
we eat bread and cake
under palmy fronds

tomorrow,
meat, fish,
or hard-boiled eggs

I chew on this in a hammock under a painted sky
which floats up and over
sand dunes

all tribes kept within Yah’s heart,
where an eruv nest holds eggs
about to bloom.

Since graduating from Fresno Pacific University, Kae Bucher has taught Creative Writing and Special Education. Her poetry appears in The Rappahannock Review and Awakened Voices Magazine and is also slated for publication in The Seventh Wave. Her first short story, “The Lost Names of Kaesong,” will appear in the upcoming edition of California’s Emerging Writers. You can read more of her poetry at www.bucketsonabarefootbeach.com.

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Rockets

by Kae Bucher (Fresno, CA)

(a tehillim for Israel)

Along highway 180
(amidst swerving vehicles, angry-fisted drivers and crushed steel
from the accident on the side of the road), I pray

Please let whoever was in that car be okay
and help me get home
without getting hurt or hurting anyone.

Hot air from an open window pummels my eyes
and I squint, stretching my left foot
away from the sweaty plastic floor mat

A sandal slips under the brake pedal and I suck in sharp alarm,
adrenaline and ice. Out of the corner of my eye,
heat waves ripple over palm trees.

On the other side of the yellow line, paint flashes and grills rip
through my mirage of safety. A foot closer, and they become Hamas rockets
that won’t stop firing

36 projectiles at homes, cars
glass shards, shrapnel
28 injuries

two pregnant women hospitalized early

May the little one emerge at sha’ah tovah,
a goodly hour, an hour of ripeness and readiness for entering this world
in health and joy.

Out the window, the traffic dwindles
I recover my footing,
pass a palm tree and a carseat in a mini van
before melting back behind my steering wheel.

Under a Kerem Shalom sun,
another Red Alert siren sounds.

Families jump out of cars—
mothers and babies run for shelter,
grandfathers hide in stairwells,
and uncles throw themselves on the mercy of the asphalt,
covering their heads.

When the wailing stops,
those who survive
come out of hiding
resume their lives

I turn on the air conditioner,
look for the exit to take me home.

Since graduating from Fresno Pacific University, Kae Bucher has taught Creative Writing and Special Education. Her poetry appears in The Rappahannock Review and Awakened Voices Magazine and is also slated for publication in The Seventh Wave. Her first short story, “The Lost Names of Kaesong,” will appear in the upcoming edition of California’s Emerging Writers. You can read more of her poetry at www.bucketsonabarefootbeach.com.

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A Woman Learning Talmud

by Dobra Levitt (Jerusalem, Israel)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ibex, Sheep, and SWAT Gear

by Saraya Ziv (Jerusalem, Israel)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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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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