Category Archives: Jewish identity

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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It Happened in Venice

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

Ahh…Venice.  Canals.  Cobbled streets.  St. Marks Square.  Gondolas with gondoliers rowing and singing “O Solo Mia.”  I had dreamed of this trip and here I was, climbing out of the speedboat that had taken my husband and me from the airport to the foot of our hotel.

The only nagging regret I had was by circumstances of work and schedules we could only make the trip at the beginning of Yom Kippur, and we arrived on the day of Kol Nidrei, causing nagging spurts of guilt I tried to suppress.  I knew there was a historical old ghetto synagogue in Venice, the first ever ghetto, so famous it was almost folklore.  I decided that was where I would hear Kol Nidrei.

A friend who spoke fluent Italian made many phone calls and finally was able to contact the synagogue and arrange for tickets.  I doubted it would work out but when we registered at the hotel we were handed an envelope with two tickets for that evening’s services.  Could it really be that I would be in Venice, Italy, hearing Kol Nidrei?  I was ecstatic with anticipation.  My husband had tripped coming out of the speedboat and was in too much pain to go, but insisted I go alone.

I boarded a vaporetto at the base of our hotel, with not a clue of where to disembark.  A vaporetto stops at the equivalent of every watery corner.  With relief I spotted someone reading the same guide book we had and she helped me find the right stop.

I was the only person who got off at that stop with no idea which street to follow.  By this time dusk had descended and a light rain begun.  Few people passed and none understood me.  Suddenly, pay dirt!  Coming toward me was clearly a family: man, wife, child, older woman, all dressed in holiday clothes.  I approached them and said, already knowing the answer, “Can you direct me to the ghetto synagogue?”  The male responded, in barely accented English, “Please come with us.  That’s where we are going.”  On the short walk, he told me he was a lawyer and his family had lived in Venice for 500 years.  He had visited the States many times,

When I entered the synagogue a guard took my purse and umbrella but left me with the siddur I had brought along, assuming the Hebrew translation would be in Italian.  It was.

I was ushered up a flight of steps and to my surprise the men and women were on the same floor, separated by a mechitza with many openings so nothing of the service was hidden.  Three seats just behind the mechitza were marked “Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia” for their American guests.  Apparently my idea was not so original.  Directly in front of these seats, on the other side of the mechitza, were three marked seats for the husbands of the American women.

I looked around the synagogue.  It was very grand, yet reminded me of the old fashioned shul my grandfather had helped found when he came to America in 1913. He and his fellow emigrants started the Zhitomir Shul at 6th and Dickinson streets in South Philadelphia. Having their own place of worship gave them some sense of familiarity in this new and strange land.

The ghetto synagogue was noisy, children rushing through the aisles to greet the men in the family, going in the back to see their mothers and grandmothers,  The bimah was crowded:  men talking, gesturing, praying.  And then there was a sudden stillness.  The cantor’s voice rang out with the haunting first sounds of Kol Nidrei.  A chill ran through me as I realized, throughout the world, Jews were hearing the same strains of the somber sounds of Kil Nidrei, with me. I felt tied with a rope to Jews throughout the world, a connection that was strong and tight.

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free-lance writer for national publications.

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Hummus Shop

by Brad Jacobson (Columbia, MO)

“Tear a small piece of pita,
use forefinger and thumb,
dip into hummus, and fold in half,”
Ra’ed instructs me
at the same hummus shop
his father took him as a little boy.

A bearded man wearing a black suit
and kippah walks a mountain bike
past three women with white head scarves
and long black abayas.    

Tonight I fly back to the States,
but now I smell the hummus
topped with spiced meat and chickpeas.
We share a large bottle of orange Fanta.

Six of us sit around the table. Tsipi and I
are Jewish. Ra’ed, Mysum, and the others
are Palestinians. All around me
I hear Arabic.  

I raise my eyes to look at Ra’ed.
I think,

“You invited me to your
favorite hummus shop.
You taught me marhaba means hi
and shokran is thank you.”

Mysum says, “We love you, Brad.”

I tell myself to be friends
but in the back of my mind
are cobwebs that are very old.

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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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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Pittsburgh 1918, 2018

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

My father, an immigrant,
crossed the ocean,
went to live with his older brother,
in Pittsburgh.

My father, an immigrant,
went to 5th Avenue High,
worked hard to understand
the strange English language,
in Pittsburgh.

My father, an immigrant,
went to doven each Shabbos
in the local synagogue
a world away from the
sumptuous temples of Squirrel Hill,
in Pittsburgh.

My father, an immigrant
knew anti-Semitism, later escaped Hitler,
was spared the horror of that morning,
in Pittsburgh.

What would he have said
were he born a century later
to witness murder so heinous?

Would he have cried out to the heavens
in mourning for his lost brethren,
knowing it could have been any Jew, anywhere?

Would he have recognized the
the darkening of the national identity
as human behavior descends into blind hate?

Would the ghost of my father have screamed
in the sanctuary with the fallen?

My father, an immigrant,
died in 1974, a devout believer.
His soul lingers with the eleven,
immigrants or not, who died,
in Pittsburgh.

He never questioned
the existence of evil in the world.
Would he have been surprised
that it came home to Pittsburgh
to shatter, until the next news cycle,
the spirit of man?

Coda:

And I, my father’s son,
fail to find the fitting words
necessary to speak of this tragedy.

The stop in my throat,
the tears in my eyes,
reduces me to silent outrage.

Others may be able to speak
more emotionally, more eloquently.
Instead, I will go out to my father’s grave,
put a stone on his tombstone,
and carry eleven other stones in my pocket
in remembrance of those Jews
who can no longer speak for themselves.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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