Category Archives: Jewish identity

“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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Standing in a Boxcar at the US Holocaust Museum

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

The walls seem so barren here.

     I cannot see the sky.

The car is standing still.

     We have been riding for two days.

I am alone in a cattle car.

     I cannot see my father.

I can step out at any time.

     Bodies are pressed against me.

I am in the Holocaust Museum.

     I am in a concentration camp.

I took a shower this morning.

     I am ordered to take one this evening.

Later I will go out for lunch.

     I haven’t eaten all day.

My parents are back in New York.

     Where are my little sisters?

I am 75 years old and retired.

     I am fifteen years old and scared

Nothing really bad has happened to me.

     Please, what will they do to me?

I am alive in Washington, D.C.

     I am dead in Auschwitz, Poland.

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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Challah Covers

by Maureen Rubin (Los Angeles, CA)

My family endlessly obsessed over my brother’s bar mitzvah.  Guest list, menu, music, clothes.  Were burgundy velvet tuxedos too much?  When it was over, I was only ten, but started counting the days until my own bat mitzvah.

Not going to happen.   In my hometown shul in 1960, girls could not get bat mitzvahed.  Instead, we would take part in a group confirmation.  Fifty Jewish girls in white dresses–without blue satin sashes.

Spurred on by the injustice of bat mitzvah prohibition, I drifted away from Jewish studies after my dull confirmation.  In college, my Jewish connection was limited to attending Rosh Hashanah services at Hillel so I could meet Jewish boys from ZBT.

But the one event I looked forward to each year was the Passover seder where we reconnected with our huge, loving family. Our seder was the Reader’s Digest condensed version.  No haggadahs and we completed the story of Passover in record time.  Jews, slaves, Moses, plagues, burning bush, Red Sea, freedom. Done. Then we ate.  And ate.

My freshman year I went home for Pesach with a friend whose family finished the entire haggadah with a discussion on each part.  The in-depth dialogues around the table set off brain sparks.  I could suddenly relate the history of Pharonic oppression to what was then happening to American women.  I don’t want to be sacrilegious, but clearly there were parallels.  OK, we weren’t building pyramids and eating dirt, but we could legitimately protest how women’s futures were being sculpted by everyone but them.  Women in America were living our own form of Egyptian slavery!

Years later, I married a wonderful man who was proud of my career and life choices.  We had two daughters.  When our eldest was 13, we decided to give her the bat mitzvah I never had, but would have loved.  She would be bat mitzvahed on Mount Masada, where King Herod had built a complex that sheltered the last survivors of the Jewish revolt.  Masada remains a symbol of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty.

The ceremonies were unforgettable.  We sat in a stone amphitheater and looked down on our beautiful children. Ten 13-year olds, five girls and five boys, all wearing white, took turns reading from the Torah on the very spot where our ancestors chose mass suicide instead of Roman oppression. There wasn’t a dry eye in the dessert.

When the ceremony was over, the “new adults” received gifts.  The boys received beautiful hand embroidered tallitot and the girls received–challah covers! Suddenly, we saw movement below us, we heard buzzing from the girls. A voice rang out, demanding “fairness of gifts.” It was our daughter.

“We girls do not want challah covers,” she said.  “These gifts are not fair.  We are being treated differently.  Why did the boys get things they can wear to synagogue while we got things that keep us in the kitchen? We want to be treated the same.  We want tallitot.”

How proud we were.  Her act of civil disobedience reminded us of Biblical midwives who defied the Pharaoh’s orders to kill all the newborn baby boys.  In this sacred setting, it became clear that my daughter and her generation did not have to be told to remember that their ancestors were slaves in Egypt, nor that their foremothers were allowed few life choices.

The girls got their tallitot.  My daughter’s tallit became the chupah at her wedding and she will pass it on to her beautiful Jewish feminist eight-year old when the time is right.

Maureen Rubin is an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge. In her 30 years on campus, she taught writing and media law , served in a variety of administrative positions, published widely and received numerous teaching and public service awards.  Prior to joining the university, Rubin was Director of Public Information for President Carter’s Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs in the White House, and held similar positions for a U.S. Congresswoman and several non-profits. She has a JD from Catholic University School of Law In Washington, D.C., an MA in Public Relations from University of Southern California and a BS in Journalism from Boston University.

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The Goldschmidt School

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

On a long-ago afternoon in April 1935, I stood with my mother at the foot of a staircase of an elegant villa in the Berlin suburbs waiting to hear the results of an entrance exam which had been administered there earlier that day. 

The results were announced by a woman standing on the top of the upper staircase.  Dr. Leonore Goldschmidt, owner and principal of the Goldschmidt Schule, an institution serving Jewish children who had been disenfranchised by law from attending German public schools as of April that year.

It was a tense moment for all the parents standing in that hallway. I held tightly onto my mother’s hand as we awaited the principal’s next words. Finally, they came. “Ellen Nussbaum,” announced the woman as both my mother and I held our breath, “unfortunately cannot be accepted because of low test results and would not meet our high scholastic standards.” 

Had I been able to disappear from the scene, I would have prayed to do so. But I had not counted on my mother.

“Wait one moment,” she said, in a tone I knew well. This was the voice getting ready for a fight. “My daughter and all of these children have been through impossible times, times that are frightening to all of us. I know what a good student Ellen has always been. If her results are not satisfactory to you at this moment, I know that my daughter easily measures up to every single pupil here. I can produce all of her earlier grades in public school which will prove my words.”  

After my mother consented to allow tutoring in case I did not measure up, I was finally accepted into the Goldschmidt School that day. It became the beginning of a memorable time in my life, and I did not require tutoring.

The Goldschmidt Sdhool, a private school for Jewish boys and girls, was founded in 1935 by Dr. Goldschmidt, a former teacher, after the passage of the Nuremberg Laws prohibited Jewish children from signing up for and attending German public schools. The school was located in the middle of the Grunewald, a wooded, stylish suburb of Berlin with sufficient outside space for exercise and play.

The house itself may have once been a posh private villa. Now it was divided and furnished into a number of school rooms segregated for boys and girls. During the time I was a student there 400 students were taught by 40 teachers.The quality of education was extremely high; its goal was to prepare students for a future outside of Germany, primarily in England. I learned to read and speak English there. Dr. Goldschmidt’s aim was that most, if not all, of her students would one day be eligible for emigration to English-speaking countries, but primarily to England where she planned to open another school.

Her school was strict and disciplined; all the subjects were taught with great rigor, including the sciences, nature studies, languages, and Jewish studies, and were geared for a life outside of Germany. Most of the teachers were specialists in their fields who had lost their previous jobs when Germany dismissed them because of their religion.

I remember especially a wonderful lady, Professor Bromberg, who taught me Science, to whom I became quite attached because of her warm, understanding personality. 

I have memories of a very personal nature which began almost from the beginning of my Goldschmidt experience.

While in public school. I had lived within walking distance to my school on Bleibtreustrasse in Charlottenburg. Now, at Goldschmidt, I was far removed from my home and needed to use public transportation to the Grunewald. Every morning I walked to the tram station at Fehrbelliner Platz where I caught the street car that traveled to the end of the line. But I was not alone. With me on that daily trip was a young boy, Wolfgang Manasse, who lived a number of blocks from our apartment on Zaehringerstrasse. Every morning, he, along with his elderly nanny Emma and Wolfgang’s dog, Gustl, a golden cocker spaniel, picked me up at my building and walked me to the streetcar stop, a not inconsiderable distance. The same action took place in reverse in the late afternoon when we returned from Goldschmidt School which was located at the corner of Roseneck in the Grunewald.

For a year and a half, Wolfgang and I attended Goldschmidt together. We did not attend the same classes, but we became inseparable after school. Every day, we returned on the streetcar to be met by his nanny and Gustl. We spent afternoons and early evenings, sometimes even suppers, together at his house until the three of them walked me home before dark. Wolfgang and I became close and in our unsupervised conversations often pledged we would always remain that way. We never believed anything could part us.

Emma his nanny always wore the regional costume of the Spreewald where she came from. The many layers of petticoats under her black skirts, the tightly-laced colorful vest, and the elongated head covering with its veil trailing halfway down her back never failed to draw the attention of onlookers we met on our way to the tram stop.

Wolfgang, brown-eyed and dark-haired, was handsome, and I enjoyed being with him. We became good friends. Although he could be very serious, he was also a teaser and could make me laugh a lot. We shared many a secret and swore never to separate no matter what the future might bring. We were both the same age – 11 years old – so we were in a world of our own.

I gradually came to know his family. His charming parents were very kind to me, invited me often to their apartment, and treated me like their second child. Similarly to my family, the Manasses hoped to emigrate to America and worked on plans to leave Germany as soon as possible.    

This was a difficult time in my own family, too. During the time I attended Goldschmidt, my father was arrested and incarcerated in Buchenwald for eleven weeks. While there, he was forced to sign over his share of the road machinery business he partnered with a Gentile man. 

My mother, meanwhile, attempted by all means to free my father by getting him a visa for emigration to America from the American consulate in Berlin. I remember many trips to the consulate where she pleaded for a visa for her husband and the belligerent refusals she received there.

I recall one special visit where I was present because no one was at home and my mother did not dare to leave me there alone. When again my mother requested a visa, the American consul haughtily told her, “We do not give out visas to anyone who is not here in person.” To which my mother replied, “How do you expect that to be possible when my husband is in a concentration camp?”

I do not remember the consul’s reply, but I know that afterwards my mother used other means to get the required document. She paid a considerable bribe to an amenable lawyer who passed it on to a friend at the American consulate. This eventually resulted in the coveted visa.

So much went on all around us in Berlin at the time that life seemed to consist of one exciting, but unpleasant, episode after another. The Berlin Olympics in 1936 held the interest of the whole world. However, it also changed everyone’s personal life in the capital to some extent. 

One noticeable result of the Olympics was Germany’s intense desire to make the games a public spectacle, an attempt to show the rest of the world how great Germany was under the new regime of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party.

The Jewish friends who visited our apartment all commented on the appearance of the posters in cafes and stores which read “Jews not welcome.” While international visitors were in Berlin, the signs were withdrawn. As soon as the foreigners left the city, the signs returned.

In August 1939 the Nazi regime ordered that all Jewish names include the following: “Sara” for Jewish females and “Israel” for Jewish males. Omission was heavily punished. So I became Ellen “Sara” Nussbaum and my school was listed as Leonore Sara Goldschmidt School.

On a morning in September 1939, a group of brown-shirted SA storm troopers (Sturm  Abeilung) marched into the Goldschmidt School building and escorted all the students outside. They lined up everyone on the sidewalk in front of the school and made all of us watch the flames curl around Goldschmidt’s façade. The gleeful expression on some SA men’s faces left no one in doubt about the fire’s origin. 

When the last of the school employees came out of the building, crying as they, too, climbed into the open SA truck, all of us, even the youngest student, sensed what was happening:  this was the end of our beloved Goldschmidt School as we had known it.

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 children and young adults, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, Elie Wiesel,, and, most recently, Kurt Weill.

PS – If you’re curious about what happened to Ellen’s childhood friend, Wolfgang, you might want to read “The View from the Rue Constantinople,” a story she wrote about her friend’s fate: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/the-view-from-the-rue-constantinople/ 

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Oasis

by Brad Jacobson (Columbia, MO)

“Come—come into my store,” the shopkeeper calls.

Walking through the Arab shuk, I focus straight ahead.

“A special deal for you,” he says.

I eye a Bedouin carpet hanging outside his store.

The shopkeeper invites me to sit and have coffee

and tells me his name is Neal.

I am his first customer in twelve days.

He wishes for peace and says both Palestinians and Jews have hearts.

He loves to eat hummus and drink Coke with his friends.

I pick out a candle holder, but can’t find my wallet.

I am his first customer in twelve days.

He looks under the pillow.

Finds the black billfold and teases me,

“Where is my wallet—where is my wallet?”

We laugh together.

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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Shalach Manot

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

The first time you surprised me with a package
I couldn’t imagine what I’d done
or what special day it was
to inspire the gift.

It contained:
A teeny box of Sun-Maid raisins
Three small hamantashen you’d bought in Brookline
A Baggie of mint lentils (the candy you hoarded, teasing, in a glass jar)
and a few pennies,
and was left, unsigned,
in a brown paper bag.

When you explained it to me
I kept seeing parallels between Purim and Halloween
like dressing up, out of character and into another,
and sweets,
and the flip-flop tension between evil and good.
And then I tried to figure out why you’d given the gift to me
since you only have to present shalach manot of at least
two foods to one person
and I was never sure if I was your favorite;
was it because you knew my other name is Esther
or because you knew what knowledge hadn’t been passed along to me?

So many things I learned from you:
Like wearing white for Yom Kippur, and no leather,
and how to douse the Havdalah candles in wine,
and that people bought Kosher toothpaste for Pesach.
Like how to shuckle with prayer, moving to the rhythm of the words,
and how to invite, then welcome, the white noise of Sabbath,
and dress up Saturday lunch, and elongate it, then nap.

So I want to thank you for the present
and what you taught me in the past
about how to be a Jew
like maybe my grandparents — or before — knew,
and even though I pared back to being me
(then added other layers, slowly, and organically)
I hope someone has given you gifts
that surprise and enrich you
and make you eager to open brown paper bags
which, you’ve learned to imagine,
may well contain something sweet.

Janet Ruth Falon is a writer and writing teacher in Elkins Park, PA.  Her latest book, In the Spirit of the Holidays: Readings to Enrich Every Jewish Holiday, contains 146 poems about the holidays and can be purchased on Amazon at http://a.co/d/5pejb3w, or through Janet at janetfalon@gmail.com.

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