Category Archives: Jewish writing

no sunlight, no healing

by Robert Feldman (Maricopa, Arizona)

out here in the promised land

10 helpless clay-baked goloms are bathed

in thick, koshered Dead Sea mud,

while Nazarath weddings blast saxophones and accordions just up the road,

and the passion of a hundred Tzfat hora dancers

toast along with the other tribes,

all the while beckoning to Haifa salt Mediterranean scholars

hustling Haggadahs on shakedown Ramalah Rumla Reza Street

out here in the promised land

while holy Jerusalem just nods to this music and her maternal knowing,

Mt. Bental’s brilliant sparks of light effervesce the night sky,

opalescing enlightened orange and date trees,

while Be’er Sheva’s golden desert doors

and Tel Aviv’s  hip hoppers down on Contemporary Road

harvest and garland yelloworange buttercups and purple pansies,

waving the bouquets up and back down these consecrated roads,

where yarmulked children hopscotch way past midnight,

dressed in innocent pigtails and peyus

their paisley sneakers swinging,

where bees become birds

become cherry trees

become exquisite, tender offerings

sharing salutary bonds etched in stone:

“all this is bestowed upon my people…

you have been given

the tears and the laughter of four thousand years,

endless sunlight to forever heal, 

King Solomon’s stone and shekels,

oil and olives

dates dipped in tahini

honey dripping from pregnant rosebuds…

chipped austere cups brimming with cool sweet water”

Inspired to write poetry by iconic members of his hometown Paterson’s literary tradition, most notably Allen/Louis Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams, Robert Feldman helped found the Bisbee Poets Collective and facilitate the annual Bisbee Poetry Festival while residing in southern Arizona. He continues to write, publish, and present his work (including “Hineni” 2018; “Sunflowers, Sutras, Wheatfields and other ArtPoems” 2019), make fire paintings, & play tabla. You can find more information about him and his work on his website: www.albionmoonlight.net 

Note from the author: “This piece was first composed while sitting early morning at an outdoor coffee shop at Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv; the energy around me was invigorating and transformative, the comings and goings of the venders and shoppers…everybody was there all at once, and translating all that into this poem was pure simcha!”

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Honoring your mother and father in lockdown

by Jay Prosser (London, England)

‘How about salmon stir-fry?’

‘Yes, weather warm and dry.’

I realise my parents are once again having a parallel-universe conversation.  This is the result of mutual increasing deafness, not helped by the depressing news virus updates at more-than-background volume.

Sitting between them at breakfast every morning, I’m often required also to translate between them.  The experience is similar to watching a movie with them.  ‘What are they saying?’  ‘I haven’t seen her before.’  I’m tempted to do sign language on the movie.

It would be one thing if I was 16, or 21, or even 30.  But it’s quite another if you’re a man in your 50s — with your life, job, and partner left behind in another city — to spend the lockdown months with parents in their 80s.  Neighbors have been very kind, and my parents relied on them before we could get online groceries.  But this is not The Graduate, and I’m definitely not Dustin Hoffman.  The neighbor’s wife is charming, but we bond only over tomato plants and coordinated deliveries.

Eleven weeks ago, my catastrophic worrying – the world is going to end – for once, proved the wise response. Just before lockdown, I packed my car with jars of halech (Iraqi Jewish date syrup), fermented beetroot and horseradish (it was just before Pesach, can you believe), piles of books so I could continue to teach, albeit remotely, at my university, and drove the 200 miles to be with my parents.

This week’s parashah includes the mitzvah about honoring your father and mother, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the extraordinary relevance of the 5th  commandment in lockdown.

The Hebrew word, kavod, translates as ‘honor’ or ‘respect,’ but its root, kved, carries the sense of heaviness, of a burden.  Our ensoncement has definitely not been easy.  We’ve had a series of domestic catastrophes.  The washing machine broke the day I arrived, releasing a flood that would have drowned Pharaoh’s horses.  Then the dishwasher broke.  The vacuum cleaner. The internet.  The landline.  It felt like a trial by ordeal.  I missed my partner.  My friends.  My ordered, other life.

The verse in Exodus, ‘Honor your father and mother and I will arrange your days on the land which your God gave you,’ is about commitment to your parents and their home, clearly meant to be Israel.  But returning to maintain my childhood home for my parents, the mitzvah has a different resonance right now.  My parents are fit for their age and definitely more social than me.  Their week is normally a cheerful merry-go-round of ballet and golf; French and tai chi; croissants and coffee; and, ever more occasionally, synagogue.  But since they’ve not been outside for ten weeks, I’ve been their lifeline. I’m living in the studio in the loft and admiring my parents’ resourcefulness and stoicism – really respecting them — as they do their 50 circuits daily around the 100-foot garden (about 1.5 miles), weaving in and out of each other’s way, as if performing a coded bee dance.

The Talmud says that to honor your parents is like honoring God, because along with God you owe your existence to them.  We learn that there should be almost no limit to honoring one’s parents, so that if our father was sleeping and we needed the key from under his pillow to unlock the chest and sell the contents that would make us a large fortune, we nevertheless shouldn’t disturb him.  We hear of the rabbi who willingly bends low so that his elderly mother can use him as footstool to get into bed at night.  But we also learn that all such actions must be done with a good heart and the right sprit: that we can be punished if we serve our parents a ‘delectable fatty bird’ resentfully.  This latter, at least, is not my problem.  I find it truly heart-warming to see my parents tucking into my easy-peasy roast chicken dinner.

Honor, the Talmud says, includes making sure your parents have provisions.  I’ve summoned this to mind as I help my mother with her online grocery order, explaining that, yes, you do have to pay when you get to the checkout, because you’ll lose your slot if you don’t — not always succeeding at keeping my head out of my hands.  Honoring one’s parents also includes providing for other needs.  I’ve planted salad greens in their garden to encourage my father to move more often from his chair to water them.  I’ve been baking (no one appreciates my challah more).  I’ve accrued gadgets to make their life easier in the enforced absence of their home help.  A secret joy is watching my mother gently order and nudge the new Roomba as if it were a small dog.

Jewish law even has something to say about honoring and dementia:  that we should continue to care for our parents until we absolutely no longer can, and only then should we delegate.  We learn Kaddish in order to honor parents after their death.  And the greatest honor we give them is by continuing to perform good deeds even when they won’t be here to witness them. As I’ve adjusted to my parents’ rhythms, I’ve realised what an honor it is for me simply to be here:  listening to their stories; watching their favourite film . . . which leads to the story of how they met; and I’ve heard that story a thousand times.

But in the end, honoring your elderly parents by spending lockdown with them is — unlike the normal filial fleeting visit home — not about you.  It’s about them and seeing the changes they’ve really gone through – their ageing process. It’s about realising your parents are mortal, fragile, vulnerable, especially to this virus.  It’s about carrying on the story from generation to generation.  And it’s about honoring all those who’ve come before you, and thereby keeping traditions alive.

And, yes, it’s about translating at the breakfast table.

Jay Prosser, a reader in humanities at the University of Leeds, has published his Jewish-themed writings in Tablet, Jewish Renaissance, and elsewhere, and has written and edited several academic books on various subjects. At the moment he is working on a book about his Asian-Jewish family.  For more information about Jay and his work, visit: https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/english/staff/1076/dr-jay-prosser

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“What do you want?”

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)
Unscathed, I live comfortably in hibernation, 
my larder stocked, my outlook optimistic.
The morning air wafts through my open window,
and I can hear the call and response of birds
punctuated by the screams of ambulances.
Then there is a knock at my door.
It grows louder, and, finally, I say,
“What do you want?”
I peer out my window and go downstairs 
and see a strange man dressed all in black.
“I have some terrible news,
about your friend, Tony, I believe.”
“Tony?”
“Yes, I see you and Tony at the diner most days.
You often eat breakfast together. Is that not true?
And he’s a paramedic and loved by many?”
“He is a good friend. What’s wrong? Tell me!”
“He is in the hospital with Covid-19.”
“Oh, my God, Is he OK?”
“I’m sorry to say he’s on a ventilator.”
“Which hospital? Can I see him?”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible. Can I come in?
Perhaps we can pray together.”
“No, no, go away. You’re scaring me.”
“But there is more.”
“Don’t tell me he’s gonna die.”
“Most probably, but there is even more.”
“Are you coming for me?”
“Yes, possibly, and quite soon, I might add.”
Panic-stricken, I double-lock the door and shut the window.
I collapse in a chair and start praying for my friend,
but, upon reflection, I begin to say Kaddish for myself,
somehow hoping these words might save me.

 

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/

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Uncle Leon

by Marden Paru (Sarasota, FL)

Uncle Leon (Label) came to Phoenix in 1947 and lived with us. 

He was the youngest and now the only survivor of the Parubansky family, barely a teen when he was sent to a concentration camp, and one of the very few out of several thousand prisoners to survive a Nazi death march to the Czechoslovakian border. 

HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) took care of Uncle Leon in a displaced person’s camp after the defeat of the Nazis until he was able to connect with American relatives.

At the time that Uncle Leon arrived, we were a growing family of seven living together under a single roof. My parents built an addition to the house since, with only one bathroom and a shortage of bedrooms, we were bursting at the seams. So, a large dorm-like room with clothes closets and a bathroom was added, along with an evaporative cooler, which was installed on the new roof. Suddenly, our Culver Street house seemed huge and spacious to a child of seven.

With no knowledge of English, Uncle Leon was aided by my father in finding a job and subsequently learned a new marketable skill. At the poultry market where Dad worked as a shokhet (a butcher trained in kosher slaughtering), Leon learned to candle eggs. The skill was in how to locate blood spots in the yoke within the shells of the eggs, then discard those eggs and pack the remainder by the dozen. This led to learning Spanish, the primary language among the Mexican employees of the poultry establishment, and driving a truck to deliver eggs by the gross to local supermarkets and bodega grocery stores.

In the mid-50s Uncle Leon went east to find a Jewish wife and married Aunt Sally in 1959. The chuppah (literally canopy/the wedding ceremony) ironically took place in the Vilna Shul in Boston, a landsmanshaft synagogue founded by recent Lithuanian post-war immigrants who’d  settled in Massachusetts. 

Uncle Leon became an expert candler and did this for the remainder of his working career, which lasted sixty years, most of which were spent later in the Boston area, where he was reunited with family cousins and was also in the company of Uncle Joe and Aunt Esther, though they lived several towns apart. 

Marden Paru is currently the Dean, Rosh Yeshiva and co-founder of the Sarasota Liberal Yeshiva, an adult Jewish studies institute, and a  former instructor at the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation’s Melton Adult Mini-School. He attended Yeshiva University, the University of Tulsa, and the University of Chicago, and was a doctoral fellow and faculty member at Brandeis University. Marden and his wife Joan are members of Temple Beth Sholom and Congregation Kol HaNeshama. To read more about Marden and Joan, visit: https://www.brandeis.edu/hornstein/news/newsletter/Hornstein-alumni-articles/My-1966-Computer-Arranged-Jewish-Marriage-by-Marden-Paru.html

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The Genuine Article

by Herbert J. Levine (Sarasota, FL)

My father’s grandfather, in photographs always an old man wearing a long black coat, his white beard gathered in two points, was the genuine article, the Jew who had never passed through Western Europe’s ordeals of civility. Because he loomed large in his grandchildren’s life, Peretz Satran of Sered, Romania and Winthrop, Mass. became the stuff of family legend, as exotic to me as his one-foot-high silver-covered spice box, which he, a dealer in scrap metal, had assembled out of the base of a lamp and other metal odds and ends and decorated with little copper bells hanging from the bottom of the two silvered tiers. At the top there was room for three small glasses–– for a l’chaim toast, I suppose, at the end of Havdalah. 

Sitting atop that huge spice box, engraved in Hebrew with the names of the patriarchs and matriarchs and the twelve tribes, he had placed an American Marine Corps eagle, for after all, had not God carried our ancestors on eagle’s wings out of their slavery in Egypt, and here was Peretz in yet another exile, where the trolley conductor sent him to Arlington Heights, seven, eight miles away, when he had plainly asked, so he supposed, for Orient Heights. After this misadventure, his grandchildren sought to correct his pronunciation to save him from getting lost again, but he said back to them in his best King’s English, “kiss mine hass, did I said it right?” 

In his synagogue, he may have been the only mystic. The story goes that he was so deep in the Shmoneh Esreh prayer each Shabbat, that he never noticed the little boys throwing sticky, purple cockle burrs into his beard, which they had collected from bushes growing just outside. A parallel story is that the birds wouldn’t leave him alone either, but this time he took action, tying tin cans on a rope hung in his beloved cherry tree; morning and evening, he would go out to shake the cans and scare them away from the maturing fruit. 

When this eccentric patriarch announced in 1928 that he was leaving America and going to the Holy Land to die, no one was surprised; the surprise came when he returned two years later in the midst of Arab rioting, saying, “you can get killed over there.” So he chose America after all, where I see him standing in his sunflower-covered booth on the eve of the Sukkot holiday, surrounded by two daughters and their children, holding the brimming wine cup that he is about to bless. The intensity of his gaze is not lost on me, even knowing that this image was posed by a photographer from the Boston Record American to show that some Jews in America still observed the ancient customs they had brought with them from over there. 

When his Hasidic rebbe was moving from the West End to East Boston and needed to set up a mikveh, the ritual bath collected from flowing waters that women use after their periods so they can resume having sex with their husbands, Peretz Satran traveled in his cart and horse to Walden Pond and there collected a large block of ice. I like to see him in that cart on the long road from Concord, transporting the frozen water of Walden Pond––which our transcendentalist sage, Henry Thoreau, likened to the eye of all the world, as sacred in its own right as the waters of the Ganges––and delivering that small block of eternity to a narrow house in East Boston, where it would be placed in a room dug out of the earth, melt into purifying water and set the stage for still another sacred rite, bringing husbands and wives together to produce new generations of Americans like you and me. 

Herbert J. Levine published his first book of poetry, Words for Blessing the World, at the age of 67. His previous books were scholarly treatments of Yeats and Psalms. To learn more about Herb and his work, visit:https://benyehudapress.com/books/words-blessing-world/

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The Ultimate Truth

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

At a recent and joyous Orthodox wedding,
surrounded by dancing men all dressed in black
with most stylish hats, I was asked by a young scholar
why was I not singing in Hebrew.
“I don’t know Hebrew,” I said, embarrassed,
owning up to my lack of Jewish education.
“So why don’t you learn?” he said,
“The words are  the ultimate truth, the one truth,
the word of God given to His people.”
“But don’t other religions have their truth?” I countered.
“Spoken like an American,” he said. “Ours
is the only truth. We know this for thousands of years.”
Hard to argue with someone so convinced
of the certainty of his belief, while admitting to myself
I was jealous of his steadfast conviction.
Better not, I thought, to get so engaged
into such a theological discussion while
celebrating with cheers the bride and groom.
The search for truth continues for me
long after the final toast is offered.

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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Kosher Cuisine (Phoenix, 1946)

by Marden Paru (Sarasota, FL)

My family and I moved to Phoenix, Arizona in early 1946. It was a very warm and dry climate akin to that of the Land of Israel. Surrounded by devout Mormon neighbors (who never drank alcohol or coffee), our home and our family’s lifestyle would accurately be described today as centrist Orthodox. 

We walked to shul as a family each Shabbat and Yom Tov and enjoyed special Shabbat seudot (meals). In the heat of Arizona, special adaptation of kosher cuisine was a must. 

With no air-conditioning and only an evaporative cooler blowing moisture through air ducts, our house felt cool in the 110+ degree heat. It must have been all of 80 degrees indoors but it felt like a mikhaya. (Yiddish for very pleasurable—not a Japanese word if that is what you are thinking.)

Often, we were served cold fruit soup or cherry borscht on Shabbat in place of hot chicken soup. During the hot season, I always missed the unborn, no-shell chicken eggs usually floating in the hot chicken soup, but that was due to climate necessity. Unfortunately due to the high bacteria count, ayerlakh are no longer available today and banned by the USDA. But we never got sick from them because boiling the chicken broth killed any bacteria that might have been present. Alas, now it is a culinary memory of the distant past.

Mom made the best pitcha (jellied calves feet with garlic—an aspic) which she learned from Bubbie. With Dad a shokhet, we enjoyed a delicacy which I have not eaten again during most of my adult life—baby lamb tongue—so sweet and tender. Zayde made his own brine pickles in big barrels in his basement as well as pickled herring which his “house guests” and grandchildren thoroughly enjoyed.

Gribbiness (caramelized onion and chicken cracklings) were noshed by us on erev Shabbes before the balance of the batch made its way into the gehakteh lebber (chopped liver). Early on Bubbie and Mom allowed me to assist in its preparation by hand-grinding the freshly-broiled liver, hard-boiled eggs along with celery, and the rendered gribbiness fried in chicken schmaltz (fat) The hand-operated meat grinder to this five year-old came across as a fun invention to play with. The produced output was tasty also. Hand-grinding chopped liver ingredients was my forte through my high school years. It was one of my regular chores for which I received an allowance later on.

Bubbie and Mom were fantastic European-style Ashkenazi chefs, which is all the more remarkable because both were born in the good ole USA—in Boston to be more precise. Bubbie was born 1896 in Malden, Massachusetts shortly after her family emigrated from Russia in the 1880s. Mother was born  February 22, 1922 at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and grew up in Roxbury.

Marden Paru is currently the Dean, Rosh Yeshiva and co-founder of the Sarasota Liberal Yeshiva, an adult Jewish studies institute, and a  former instructor at the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation’s Melton Adult Mini-School. He attended Yeshiva University, the University of Tulsa, and the University of Chicago, and was a doctoral fellow and faculty member at Brandeis University. Marden and his wife Joan are members of Temple Beth Sholom and Congregation Kol HaNeshama. To read more about Marden and Joan, visit: https://www.brandeis.edu/hornstein/news/newsletter/Hornstein-alumni-articles/My-1966-Computer-Arranged-Jewish-Marriage-by-Marden-Paru.html

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Ancestral Memory

By Jena Schwartz (Amherst, MA)

You know that feeling when you remember something but you don’t know if it’s because you really remember or if you’ve heard the story so many times, or seen the photo, that maybe your mind thinks it remembers but doesn’t really?

What is “real” memory and what is imprinted on us by exposure or repetition?

My daughter was leaving the house yesterday. As she was passing through the kitchen, I stood to give her a hug, but I stopped short when I reached her, taking in a long look at her face. She looked stunning to me, her beauty timeless. For a moment, I saw so much of my father’s side, and in the very same instant, my mother’s side. It felt uncanny.

This was on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, and I thought all day about memory.

How can we possibly remember what we did not experience firsthand? It does not make sense from a logical standpoint. But I believe in my bones, quite literally, that such memories are real.

I remember the Holocaust and the Inquisition just as I remember lighting Shabbat candles at a table in Romania, in Macedonia, in Poland, just as I remember that I, too, was a slave in Egypt.

I remember nursing babies in the red tent, long days of walking.

I remember running through the forest barefoot in terror.

I remember the smell of soup on the stove and challah in the oven.

I remember weddings, the drinking, and how the girls were not allowed to daven.

I remember fathers teaching daughters and daughters screaming as fathers were hauled away, so many fathers, and brothers, sons.

I remember. I remember the sound of glass shattering, I remember huddling, I remember waiting it out, holding our breath, afraid of every floorboard, every footstep.

I remember the songs and the spices of Saturday at sundown, wishing each other a sweet week, a week of peace, even after, even then.

I remember it all.

Jena Schwartz is a promptress and coach who offers fierce encouragement for writing and life. She lives in Amherst, MA with her wife and two children, ages 13 and 17. Her poetry and personal essays have previously appeared in On Being, Mamalode, Sliver of Stone, and Manifest Station, among other places. She is studying to become a bat mitzvah in May, 2020, at the age of 46. Visit her online home at www.jenaschwartz.com.

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Hyman in America

by Herbert J. Levine (Sarasota, FL)

Born down the street from Boston’s Old North Church, my grandfather Hyman was the first American-born child of Jacob and Jennie, so his family fondly called him Hyman-in-America. His mother was one of two sisters Levine who married two brothers Krasnapolsky, who had the good sense to take their wives’ last name, so that their American children didn’t grow up with names like Hymie and Morris Krasnapolsky.

I never met this grandfather for whom I was named, Herbert having substituted for Hyman, because my mother didn’t want the bullies calling me Hymie (they Herbie’d me instead). He had seven brothers and two sisters. The brothers mostly died of heart disease, so we Levines watch our cholesterol. I wear a gold ring that was his, a mermaid ringing its edge, with a garnet in its tail, and our shared initials in Chinese-y script in the middle. I have the well-worn tefillin that he received for his bar mitzvah and used all his life, quite small and still useable more than a hundred years later. I had his Hamilton gold pocket watch until our house was robbed and also the pin from his fraternal order, the Knights of Pythias, which featured a medieval-looking helmet and crossed lances, pinned to a velvet cloth in a leather folder, one of my childhood treasures.

This order that was so important to him, the Knights of Pythias, took as its founding myth the legendary story of two friends, Damon and Pythias, students of the Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras. The story goes that Pythias, sentenced to death by a tyrant, asked to go home to settle his affairs and was allowed to do so only because his friend Damon stood surety for him until his return. That he did return so impressed the tyrant that he freed the loyal pair and kept them on as counselors to his court. The motto of the latter-days Pythians is the founder’s creed: “If fraternal love held all men bound, how beautiful this world would be,” which goes a long way to explaining why my father so often quoted to me that part of Polonius’s speech on male friendship, which he described as his father’s favorite: “The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,/ Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.”

When my father gave me an edition of the Twelve Minor Prophets for my Bar Mitzvah, he said his father had given him the book and told him to make his philosophy of life from each of the prophets. At that time, Martin Luther King was quoting Micah in his world-shaking speeches: “Let justice flow like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” so it seemed a powerful idea to me. Both my father and my Levine grandmother loved to quote another of Micah’s memorable utterances, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God,” so it’s likely that this verse also summed up my grandfather’s creed.

Grandfather Hyman was something of an orator, so was designated to give the annual Yom Kippur appeal at the community’s one synagogue, even though he was neither a successful businessman (he worked at a coal company weighing the coal trucks before and after their deliveries), nor renowned for scholarship or piety. Apparently, his oratorical flair was what was called for. His surviving books also show his affinity for oratory – Emerson’s Essays, which were first delivered as public addresses, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, in which the poet presents himself as a grand teacher to America and the world.

Whitman, who loved laborers, might have celebrated him as a jack of all trades. There’s a picture of him smiling broadly wearing a carpenter’s belt with a hammer suspended from it and behind him, one of the bunks at Camp Young Judea that he had helped to build, which generations of his descendants have attended. 

As I grew older, I heard darker stories — that he had to be carried home drunk from a Simchat Torah eve festivity, that he had occasionally snuck out with Gentile friends on a Saturday night to eat non-kosher food in Boston’s Chinatown. Fifty years later, my father was still burdened by these memories. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to pass them on as the shadow of his father’s legacy.

Toward the end of his life, Hyman had a stroke and sought to recover his faculties by practicing penmanship. We have in his hand a short popular poem that he copied in an elegant, calligraphic script. This poem can be found on the Internet, under the words of its refrain, “All I Got Was Words.”  The stanzas speak to me of his life – like the poem’s anonymous speaker, he got no fine clothes from his parents; they gave him no car nor sent him to college. What he got were words that embody a way of life, “Zog dem emes,/ Gib Tzedakah,/ Hub rachmones/ Zei a mensch.” –Tell the truth, give to the poor what is just. Have compassion. Be a mensch, the sort of person with whom one is proud to be associated

Herbert J. Levine published his first book of poetry, Words for Blessing the World, at the age of 67. His previous books were scholarly treatments of Yeats and Psalms. To learn more about Herb and his work, visit:https://benyehudapress.com/books/words-blessing-world/

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A Letter to My Great Aunts and Uncle: Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1942

by Kayla Schneider-Smith (Rishon LeZion, Israel)

for Miri, Rosa & Benny

When you left your homes not knowing where you were going
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
turn around jump off the train don’t stop running
out of Poland out of Germany out of Holland
far until you reach the West or East
anywhere but here

when your cattle-car pulled through the arch
when you stumbled off the train without understanding
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
say you are 16 say you are a brick mason
don’t let them take you beyond the gate
to the tall trees where you cannot return

when they led you to the showers
and shaved your undressed bodies
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
stand close to the ventilation stand straight under the gas
if it hits you first it’ll be quick
it’ll be over in a second like a band aid like a blur
you won’t have to suffer long or
hear the wailing mothers and children or
climb the pyramid of suffocating bodies
gasping for air

when they shoveled you into the crematorium
in bursts of smoke and ash
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
I love you
to kiss you goodbye to say kaddish
to tear my clothes to get angry to start a revolution

I’m sorry I came too late.

Now, 77 years later
in this inhuman slaughterhouse
unthinkable bright green forest
in front of the lake in front of the puddle
where they took your lives and dumped your ashes

I only can tell you
I am alive

your nieces and nephews
and great nieces and nephews
and great-great nieces and nephews
are alive and thriving

Miri Rosa Benny

I carry, cherish, remember you always
I speak you back to life
I say your names aloud

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

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