Category Archives: Jewish identity

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.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

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

Tzedakah

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

When I give tzedakah
I feel rich.
Somehow, the act of giving
even something small, like shalach manot,
gives me a feeling of wealth
and generosity
of wallet and of spirit.

But tzedakah is about more than giving money;
it’s about trusting that the universe regenerates
and that a lopped-off limb
grows back.
I couldn’t have given tzedakah years ago,
not in the real sense,
and it’s not that I was ever teetering on poverty.
But after years of believing
that an empty bowl would remain empty
and a well might well run dry
I finally feel
that I am more than enough
to give
without risking my own disappearance.

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.

Leave a comment

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

On the Other Side

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

About a dozen relatives and good friends gathered at the Berlin train station that day in early May 1938 to see my mother, me, and our beloved Scottish Terrier, Pips, off on the first leg of our trip to America.

My favorite aunt, Tante Friedel, held her arms tightly around my eleven-year old neck, moaning “I will never see you again” as streams of tears ran down her cheeks. She was my father’s sister and supposedly I resembled her in many ways. It was said that I had inherited her left-handedness, her love of cooking, and her passion for making people feel comfortable. Now I wondered why she was so certain of our future.

Not everyone could hug us goodbye before the conductor blew his whistle, picked up Pips and handed him to a porter inside the coach, and then we boarded the train and started off on our journey, happy to leave Germany and its persecution of Jews as the danger to Jews was growing more intense every week.

After we reached the city of Bremen my mother, Pips, and I checked in for the night at a hotel before our ship departed the following day. The Bremerhof was a posh establishment where my mother had decided to spend our remaining few marks. We registered, ordered dinner, and went upstairs to our room. Shortly afterward, a steward arrived with a silver tray on which we found the dog’s dinner. Also on the tray was a printed card which stated: “Our non-Aryan guests are requested to abstain from visiting the Dining Room.” So we did without dinner that night and looked forward to experiencing the ship’s highly touted cuisine the following day.

We arrived in New York after a calm, relaxing ocean voyage on the “Europa,” Germany’s newest luxury liner. New York was hectic, crowded, and overwhelming. How nice it would be to board the train to Louisville, Kentucky, our final destination, where we would at last be reunited with my father. My poor father, who had survived the horrors of the concentration camp at Buchenwald, had been helped by relatives to find refuge in Louisville and awaited us there.

The Louisville & Nashville Railroad train was fully booked for the overnight trip from New York. We did not have the money for a private Pullman car, but had seats in coach. I sat on one side of the aisle, with Pips at my feet; my mother sat across from me in the remaining free seat. We did not notice the woman located nearby until she rose from her seat and walked back to where my mother sat and addressed my mother. 

My mother smiled, but it was obvious to me she did not understand what the stranger was saying to her.  So I took it upon myself to stand up, faced the woman, and asked her to repeat her remark to my mother.

“I asked her whether she noticed you were sitting next to a colored man and whether you had her permission to sit there.”

Puzzled by her question, I looked back to my seat, saw the quiet older man sitting there and repeated her question to my mother, who was obviously as surprised to hear the woman’s words as I had been. She smiled a sweet little smile, shook her head, and said “Naturally.” Around us, no one spoke or paid any attention to the woman whose face wore a disgusted expression as she returned to her seat.

After a night-long, back-rattling, sitting-up ride, we finally reached the wide countryside nearing the state of Kentucky. As the dawn came up, it was amazing to see such an enormously huge landscape. It seemed ever so much larger than any European piece of land we had crossed on our way from Berlin to Bremen. There were no buildings, only miles and miles of unpopulated land.

At last, our train rolled into the Louisville train station. There, in tears, my parents met each other again after many months of separation. Probably no one standing nearby had the faintest clue of the painful history and reunion they were witnessing in the grimy waiting room that day.

Even Pips recognized his old master; his tail did not stop wagging as my father petted him in a loving gesture of greeting.

A young black man stood near my father. “This is Mac, my driver,” my father said. Mac’s face lit up as we attempted to shake his hand. From my father’s letters from America we had learned he had started a new business that involved travel throughout the country and that he had hired a driver for his new career. We had known that my dad never drove while living in Europe. He  always had a chauffeur. But this was the first that we learned of Mac’s existence in my father’s life. 

The early humid May heat warmed up the Louisville train station. As we stood there talking, I noticed that my little dog had begun to pant. I asked my father whether we could get him some water since Pips was not used to the Kentucky temperatures. My father passed the message on to Mac who wanted to know from which fountain to draw the water. I had no idea what Mac meant until I saw him step toward two identical water coolers, one of which bore the sign “For Colored Only” and the second one labeled “For Whites Only.” When he returned from the “Colored” fountain bearing a cup of water, I had my introduction to segregated water fountains and restrooms.

Mac drove us home to our first American apartment that day. For my mother and me it was the start of a new life. Mac continued working for my father for many years. Sometimes I heard about unusual problems that arose when they traveled through the South. Most of the problems arose when my father had business in towns where he needed to stay  overnight. In some of the towns, black people could not find sleeping accommodations.

“What did you do then?” I asked my father years later when he had retired and no longer stayed out overnight.

“When Mac found no friends or relatives who could house him, I simply said, ‘Drive on, Mac. We will go to the next town where we will find a room for you.’”

My father didn’t want any harm to come to Mac. 

“I was incarcerated in Buchenwald because of my religion,” he would tell me. “How could I put him at risk for being black?”

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 Weil.

Leave a comment

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

I’m Teaching My Phone To Speak Yiddish

by Roz Warren (Bala Cynwyd, PA)

“Dad’s Yartzeit is next week,” I texted my sister recently.

Her response came back immediately:

“?????”

When I checked the text I’d just sent, it was easy to see why. Spellcheck had “corrected” the word Yartzeit to Yahtzee.

No wonder she was confused. There’s a world of difference between Yartzeit and Yahtzee.

I changed the word back and resent the message, reminding myself, once again, to proof my texts before letting them fly.

I was amused but not surprised by this little spelling snafu.  We’ve all experienced Spellcheck “correcting” words with odd and/or funny results. My own favorite example of this is the friend whose mom once texted her, “You are adored.”

Spellcheck changed this message to “you are adopted.”

Quite a notification to get from mom out of the blue.

Nor was I shocked that Spellcheck wasn’t fluent in Yiddish. Why would I assume that my phone was Jewish just because I was?

Still, I noticed that when I texted my son later to tell him about his grandpa’s upcoming Yartzeit, Spellcheck didn’t change Yartzeit to Yatzee again.  It now recognized the word and left it alone.  My smartphone was learning from its mistakes!

Over the next few weeks, I made a game of seeing what my phone did with the Yiddish words I used when I texted. It changed Shabbat to “shabby,” Mensch to “menswear” and “bisel” to “bisexual.”

“Bubbe” became “bubble.”

“Putz” became “puts.”

And “Oy Vey” became “It Vetoed.”

Every time Spellcheck changed a Yiddish word to the English word it assumed I meant to say, I’d change it back again. And the next time I used that word?  Spellcheck left it alone.

I was teaching my phone to speak Yiddish!

It soon became clear that my phone already knew some Yiddish. For instance? I didn’t have to teach it klutz or schlep. But my phone still had a lot to learn. It thought, for instance, that both “schmooze” and “schmuck” meant “schedule.”

It turned “mishegoss”  into “mushroom”  and “mishpocheh” into “mishap ox.”

Spellcheck turned “shmatte”  into “shattered” and “tuchis” into “tux history.”

It also corrected “Zayde.”  to “day dreaming.” My practical grandpa would have plotzed.  (Or as Spellcheck would have it, “plots.”)

I’ve enjoyed exploring the interaction between an ancient language and 21st century technology. And the more I use my smartphone, the more Jewish it becomes. Soon I expect it to start nagging me to dress more warmly and make sure to have a little nosh before I leave the house.

By the next time dad’s Yartzeit rolls around, I expect my phone to be fluent.  But while I’m pleased and proud that my phone now knows the word Yartzeit, let’s hope that it rarely needs to use it.

Roz Warren writes for everyone, from The Funny Times to The New York Times, and has been featured on both the Today Show and Morning Edition. You can learn more about her and her work at https://muckrack.com/roz-warren.

Leave a comment

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

The Third Night of Hanukkah

by Diana Henning (Cape Town, South Africa)

This story is based on a true event which unfolded on the night of Tuesday 4 December, 2018.

The mobile phone rings urgently on the bedside table; my husband answers.

“Dave, do you know that your synagogue is on fire?”

We both sit upright, fully alert now.

Tracy, our neighbour, is Christian, but she has a fond interest in our faith and cares about the well-being of her Jewish neighbours. My husband and I pull on our clothes over our pyjamas and dash toward our shul which is located a few metres away from where we live. On the way, we spot our rabbi racing towards his workplace, which is aflame against the night sky.

It’s the third night of Channukah. Earlier on we had sung Ma’oz Tzur to celebrate the miracle.  How had a happy holiday turned into such a calamity?

Smoke is billowing from the roof and three fire engines have surrounded the building. The firemen squirt their hoses towards our shul but the inferno is indomitable. As word of the tragedy spreads around our city, more and more onlookers arrive;  friends, curious neighbours, members of the press. I spot my friend, Elaine, in her dressing gown, her hair tousled. We embrace silently.

Our security organisation battles to prevent the public from running into the pyre to save the Torahs.

“Get back everybody. For your own safety please remain behind the tape!”

Shards of broken windows burst onto the street. The scene is reminiscent of those horrifying visuals of Kristallnacht that we know all too well. The firemen dash in and out of the fire’s grip, with their oxygen tanks at hand. They haul out many religious items and holy books. A human chain is formed; the books are lovingly wiped with towels and laid out on trestle tables to dry.

We all look out anxiously for the Sifrei Torah, but only one tiny Torah is carried out. The rabbi cradles it like a baby and places it in a towel. It is burnt irreparably, and we are later informed that all the other Torot were incinerated.

People around us begin to sob as the severity of the event unfolds.They sway and sag as they mourn the loss of the scrolls. The rabbis that have come from around the city simultaneously rip their shirts; bury their heads in pure despair. Yitkadal v’yitkadash sh’meih rabah…

Even as we stand there, people are posting video clips to social media; within hours, thousands have heard the news and hundreds of messages of support stream in.

Someone has remembered that the firemen are thirsty and dozens of bottles of water are handed to them. They sit on the pavement and begin to pack away their equipment. We slowly disperse, still in shock. It is clear that as a physical entity, our house of worship is no longer, but its spirit will surely live on.

Diana Keschner Henning lives with her husband  in the cosmopolitan suburb of Sea Point, Cape Town, South Africa. Besides penning flash fiction, she loves arm-knitting, walking and pampering her fur babies. 

For readers concerned about how the fire might have started, Diana adds, as a postscript to her story, that “insurers are still assessing the fire; however congregants have been assured that it wasn’t arson.”

 

.

Leave a comment

Filed under history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

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.

2 Comments

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

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.

Leave a comment

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