Category Archives: Jewish identity

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

The Hebrew Lesson

by Chris Farrar (Columbus, OH)

2:40 Friday. Workshop running over. Hebrew at 3:00. Enough time? Barely.

Sign off Zoom. Run, quick quick like a little bunny. What Mom used to say. Why thinking of that now? No matter. Bathroom. Glass of water. Snack? No time. Mow lawn? Ridiculous. But the grass! Tomorrow, tomorrow.

Get head into lesson NOW!

2:59. Sit down at machshev. Open Zoom. Which button? Four of them in front of me on the masach. Not obvious. What ferkakte engineer designed this godforsaken interface? “New Meeting”? Lo. “Schedule”? Lo. “Share Screen”? Absolutely lo. Ah. Process of elimination. “Join”! Ken, ken, ken!

Let’s see. Drop down box: “Meeting ID or Personal Link Name”. Move cursor to down-arrow using achbar. Will I see it? Sometimes there, sometimes not. Aha. “Ronit’s Personal Meeti”. Rest missing. Not problem, barur as the nose on my face.

Zoom wants password for Personal Meeti. Pull mikledet toward myself, type in password.

Ronit appears, smiling. Sits in white chair, blank wall behind. Shalom Chris!

Shalom Ronit!. I know what she’s going to ask, what her first she’elah will be. How did the week go for you? Same every week. Hate the question, never remember what I did.

Before can ask, I turn it around: Ech avar lach hashavua? Ha! How you like them apples Ronit?

Laughs, answers, tells me about her shavua. After this, no escape. My turn.

For once, not hard to answer. Remember, Ronit? Told you about spiritual writing workshop? Just got out of sednah al ktivah . . . ruchani? ruchanit? Oops. Noun-adjective agreement. Ktivah, “writing,” noun. “Spiritual,” adjective. Masculine or feminine? Ruchani or Ruchanit? Lightning-quick decision. Sednah al ktivah ruchani, I say. Wrong! “Ruchanit” she says. Should have known. Universe gave clue, I ignored it. This workshop all women, except me and Michael. Of course ruchanit. Men spiritual? Ha! Laugh inside at own joke. Linguistic joke. Appreciative audience of exactly one.

Conversation moves on. Lots of things to talk about from the sednah. Diane’s mother Jewish, child during sho’ah, hidden by Polish family. Elise in California, watching sun set, listening to my recording of kaddish yetom. Ruthie, the menaheletprofesorit be universitat Sewanee, new writing prompt every meeting, terrifying. Write a new and fresh ktivah every day? Help help help! Michael scratching his asshole. How to tell her in Hebrew? Rapid mental review of vocab. But who teaches “asshole” in language class? Wild guess: hu hitgared et pi hataba’at. Scratched the mouth of his ring? Seems awfully fancy. Success! She freezes, stunned. Hu be’emet amar et zeh? Ken, I answer, he really said that.

Pace picks up. Makshiv or sam lev? both same thing: pay attention. Decide makhshiv. More elegant. Slightly. She uses new word: tmichah. Quick, the root. t – m – ch.  Same as tomech, he supports. So, noun: support. Got it. Use it in my answer. Move on. Words following words, sentences following sentences; thunderstorm of meaning, each word  a raindrop pattering into place, perfect, distinct, blending together into magnificent whole.

Can’t believe can do this. Mind working like computer – meaning, tense, gender, mood, click click click. Would pass the Turing test – listener would think I’m human. Oh. Am human.

4:00. Shavua haba, ota sha’ah? she asks. Ken, I answer, next week, same time. Goes on my calendar. Need to continue. Not truly fluent. Fluent is not thinking, fluent is just talking, all on autopilot. Will be fluent some day? Perhaps. Will thrill go away? Maybe. Talking is just talking.

But talking in reborn language of reborn Israel? Nothing compares to thrill of that.

Lesson ends, exhilaration lasts rest of day.

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.

Leave a comment

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

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

Open, Thou, My Lips

by Rick Black (Arlington, VA)

Three steps backward,

three steps forward,

I bend my knees. 

I struggle to part my lips,

to recite the words,

to offer praise. 

Let me taste rain.

Let me hear windchimes at night.

Let me inhale jasmine.  

How grateful I am,

a temporary resident

amid night stars. 

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. 

If you’d like to learn more about Rick and his work, visit his website: Turtle Light Press

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, 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

Looking for Love on JDate

Rita Plush (New York, NY)

When my husband died after our 50-plus years of marriage, I tried to make a life for myself. But a year of lunch with the ladies, my book club and yoga could take me just so far down my road less traveled. 

I wanted a man in my life, that zing, that frisson I couldn’t can’t get from a broccoli-and-cheddar quiche, a best- seller or Down Dog. But where to find a kind, intelligent, caring male who would be interested in a creative, book-reading, arts-loving, 70s-something Jewish woman?

 I let my rabbi, lawyer and accountant know I was interested in meeting someone (people know people). When they failed to raise a posse, I took the reins. Shaving five years off my age, I downloaded a flattering photo, whipped up a profile and joined the other 750,000 Jewish singles looking for love on JDate. I worried in equal measure that no one would contact me, and that somebody actually would

After a lifetime with my husband, it seemed bizarre to have another man in my life. And how would my children react? Not that I needed their permission or their blessings but their opinion of me mattered. I wanted them to think well of me, to be proud of the independent life I’d carved out. Little did I know that along with their acceptance came an abundance of unsolicited parenting. Don’t meet him alone! Don’t give him money! Don’t let him in your apartment! Take your own car. CALL US IF YOU’RE IN TROUBLE!!  

They needn’t have feared. I made quick work of a “kissy huggy type” who let me know right off what sexual positions he preferred. Actually, one was… never mind. Before we even meet, you’re giving me your faves? Thanks for sharing, fast boy! Buh-bye. And the big spender therapist who never married (not a good sign for a man his age), and sold his car for the winter so he wouldn’t have to pay for a garage. I saw myself as the designated driver in this twosome. I was looking for a partner, not some free-ride Freud. He never made it to a cup of joe at the local diner. 

And there were those who had:

Sixty-four, shorter than he’d claimed online; I said I was younger, considered it a wash. He liked older women (you came to the right place, junior), and had the habit of repeating the last words of almost all his remarks. And humming. “My Bar Mitzvah was in a hotel in the mountains, in the mountains. Humm….” was the first thing he said to me. That event was still uppermost in his mind? A small life had he. Always single, no siblings or relatives to speak of (including nothing interesting to speak of), few friends. Talking to him: 45 minutes of boring. He wanted to meet for dinner next time. I mumbled something that must have sounded like yes because he called the next day—oy vey.  Said I was busy with work and family. Mercifully, he got the hint and didn’t call again. 

There was a well-mannered Yiddish-accented gent in a handtied bowtie, jacket from one suit, pants from another, right out of an I. B Singer short story. He brought newspaper articles about his sons to show me how authentic he was and gifted me a framed picture of myself he had taken from the JDate site. A sweet man, he asked if he could call me now and then to see how I was doing. I thanked him, demurred and suggested a site for Yiddish speakers.

Things started looking up with Leonard. A well-dressed antiques dealer, active in synagogue life; an ardent reader, he enjoyed the theater and museums. He was me in a suit! We went to the Met. Another time he suggested the new Neue Galerie in NYC to see a Klimt exhibit (I thought I died and went to Art Nouveau heaven). But alas, it turned out he liked his armoires more than he liked me; breaking dates for business became a habit. Or was it monkey business; had he found another?

Would I date a married man? Separated and getting a divorce? No and no.

Would I date a non-Jewish man?

One found me on the site—You don’t have to be Jewish to be on JDate. It’s a known fact that Jewish men make the best husbands. But gentile men looking for Jewish women? Listen up madelas

He had the nicest dimpled smile. He was kind, I could tell. Here was my chance for a Christian boyfriend—a sheygets, a shander (a non-Jewish boy, a scandal), the bane of my early dating years, I dared not confess to my mother. My father? You’re kidding, right. I’d be out on the street with my crinolines and saddle shoes. But my parents were gone; it was up to me. I could date whomever I pleased. Could I though, having just about prohibited my children from dating outside the faith? I could hear them. How come it’s okay for you, but it wasn’t for us?! I could not date a gentile man no matter how gentle he was.

So, there it is and here I am. Lunching with the ladies, keeping up with my reading, and Down Dogging for all I’m worth. But wait! Social distancing is getting less distant. Who knows what eligible gents have signed on to JDate since my furlough? I’ll spiff up my profile and take another crack at this blood sport known as online dating. My age? That needs no update thank you very much; don’t confuse me with the facts. Spring is in the air, a season of new beginnings, and I’m optimistic that my new Ralph Lauren leopard print sheets from Home Goods won’t always be the most exciting thing in my bedroom.  

Rita Plush is the author of the novels Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News and teaches memoir at Queensborough Community College and the Fire Island School, Continuing Ed. Her stories and essays have been published in The Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast, Art Times, The Sun, The Jewish Writing Project, The Jewish Literary Journal, Down in the Dirt, Potato Soup Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Backchannels, LochRaven, Kveller, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Broadkill Review, Avalon Literary Review, Jewish Week, and The Best of Potato Soup 2020. 

If you’d like to read more about Rita and her work, visit her website: https://ritaplush.com

9 Comments

Filed under Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

All I Can Do

by Kayla Schneider-Smith (Rishon LeZion, Israel)

all i can do is be sad today,
and hear about the rockets flying from
one fence to the other
regardless of what mother and her baby
are strolling on the other side,
which man is rolling a cigarette
in the front seat of his truck,
wondering what he’ll bring home his
wife for the weekend

all i can do is not choose a side today, 
for sides have already been chosen,
and secured, and posted on doorposts
and upon gates, clung to for life,
the indentation of angry hands meant
to hold instruments, to hold one another,
grasping pocketknives grasping guns
grasping flag poles waving colors in the wind,
blues and whites and greens and blacks and reds
that claim sovereignty claim territory claim God
claim blood

all i can do is keep walking today,
walking to work walking to class
walking to busses
trying to memorize the shape of shelters
the shape of my heart how long it’ll
take me to run when i should duck for cover
when it’ll be too late

all human loss is our loss,
all mess on our fingers is ours,
the brokenness of other bodies is
our bodies’ brokenness,
brothers and sisters refusing to let go
tearing out each other’s spines
pouring all this frustrating summer heat into the gutter,
to dirty the world instead of making it better,
to hurt instead of heal

Kayla Schneider-Smith is a poet, musician, and social activist from Monmouth County, New Jersey. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she wrote this poem while completing the Yahel Social Change Fellowship in Rishon LeZion, Israel, where she taught English, piano and guitar to children, adults and senior citizens in a small neighborhood called Ramat Eliyahu. Kayla is currently attending the Master of Fine Arts Writing Program at The University of San Francisco. She aspires to be an English professor, Rabbi, or Interfaith Minister one day.

If you’d like to read her work in prose, visit: https://www.yahelisrael.com/single-post/2018/11/27/To-Be-Or-Not-to-Be-Progressive-Judaism-in-Israel

1 Comment

Filed under Israel Jewry, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, poetry

Grandma’s Candlesticks

by Janice Alper (La Jolla, CA)

Sentinels of light,

Grandma’s brass candlesticks

engraved with her wedding date

April 10, 1910

proudly cast light at our Sabbath table.

Every Friday near sundown,

my tiny grandmother

hair neatly combed,

jaunty black skull cap on her head,

waved her calloused hands over the flames

covered her face

muttered the blessing to usher in Shabbat.

I looked up at her

inhaled her fresh bathed smell of Palmolive soap

imitated her motions

shyly whispered the blessing.

Afterward we sat for a while

in Shabbos silence.

Now every Friday,

I take the tarnished candlesticks from the shelf

head bare

wave my hands over the tiny flames

cover my face with manicured nails

say the blessing out loud

so everyone can hear

close my eyes.

For a brief moment

 as I stand with my family

 these weighty sentinels,

 guardians of my heritage,

 silently rekindle my childhood.

Janice Alper has reinvented herself in her senior life as a writer of poems, personal essays, and memoirs which have been published in San Diego Poetry Annual (2018, 19, and 20,) The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Shaking the Tree. Currently, Janice is writing a memoir, Sitting on the Stoop, about her Brooklyn, New York childhood from the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, which she may finish one day. Last year she published a book of poems, Words Bursting in Air, which you may obtain by contacting her at janicealper@gmail.com. You can follow Janice on her occasional blog, www.janicesjottings1.com

Leave a comment

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