Category Archives: Jewish

Please, Stop Staring at My Stomach!

by Rachel Cohen (Philadelphia, PA)

Recently, a woman in our community gave me a gift of esrog jelly. She felt that this gift would be a catalyst for me to become pregnant and have a child. She also offered frequent Shabbos invitations to my husband and me, perhaps because she felt bad for us that we were alone.

I was very hurt and frustrated by this as I felt that she had crossed personal boundaries and made an assumption that I was having difficulty conceiving. Based on this assumption, she gave us a gift that we did not want. I felt that she was treating us as a charity.

I could have told her that there are many reasons why couples do not have children for extended periods of time, and that these reasons are exclusively the concern of the husband and wife and only the husband and wife.  But I didn’t feel comfortable confronting her. It isn’t this woman’s place to pry into our personal life, even if she thinks she has noble intentions.

I’m not the only one in our community who feels that some people pry too far. Once an expecting mother remarked to me: “Last year I miscarried a child. My husband was in a bakery when I was giving birth to the miscarriage. A person in the bakery would not stop questioning my husband about my pregnancy. My husband refused to answer but the man kept nagging. Eventually, my husband explained that I was having a miscarriage in the hospital. The man in the bakery gasped.”

The question that I’d like to pose to my community is this: why are people so insensitive to the feelings of others and feel a need to pry into a sensitive part of other people’s lives that is not for them to know about? Does a person have to experience such an embarrassing moment like the man in the bakery to realize that he is crossing boundaries?

I’m sure there are many people who are simply not thinking when they pry. Some of my peers tell me, “I mean it for the best,” or “I thought it was acceptable to ask,” or the best one, “Because we are all one nation and have to watch out for each other.”

But, truth be told, I feel there are very few reasons to rationalize crossing such private and personal boundaries and embarrassing a person. So again I ask: why do people do this? And more importantly, why should people stop crossing personal boundaries?

The answer, I believe, is rooted in one of Judaism’s most significant attributes, which sets the Jewish people apart from all other nations.

The Jewish people received the Torah as a guide for how to live and how to treat other people. The great Talmudic Sage Hillel tells us how we should treat others. When summarizing the entire Torah to a prospective convert, he says, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah…the rest is the explanation of this – go and study it!”

Perhaps if others took a moment to think about how they would feel if the situation was reversed and they themselves were being asked about their most private, personal matters, they would think twice before prying.

In the Torah we also received laws about modesty. Tznius is more than just what one wears. Rabbi Maurice Lamm, z”l, writes, “Tznius means discreet habits, quiet speech, and affections privately expressed…This is not merely a series of behavioral niceties, a sort of Bible’s guide to etiquette, but a philosophy of life.”

Questioning someone’s pregnancy status, then, is not acting in a tznius manner. Taking time before speaking or even averting one’s gaze from a woman’s swelling belly could save someone potential harm and hurt feelings.

I know that, personally, I don’t want to be that person who questions everything about others. I don’t want to be the person who embarrasses others in order to get a juicy detail about their private life because I believe that asking is so called “caring.”

Please keep your esrog jelly (and your assumptions) to yourself. Pray, please pray for others. But, please, don’t tell the person who you may hurt that you are praying for them. My stomach is my stomach. I may have gained some weight, but please stop staring.

Rachel Cohen is a cardiac Intensive Care nurse who loves Philadelphia, PA. When she is not at work, she enjoys freelance writing and poetry. She is currently in graduate school and working on a memoir.   

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Pidyon Haben

by Gerard Sarnat (Portola Valley CA)

“Every first-born male among your children, you must redeem.”

— Exodus 13:13

Redemption’s a primitive mitzvah commanded in

the Old Testament to occur on my grandkid’s 30th day

when a Kohen from the priestly patrilineal tree of

Aaron is handed 5 silver shekels by the boy’s father.

While our alternating amused and distraught daughter

nurses off in a dark corner, ultra-orthodox little girls

clothed from head to toe wrap garlic + sugar cubes

in gold lamé lace bags that their subjugated mother

hangs for kenahorah-poo-poo-poo knock on wood

good luck to shoo away devils — after which she checks

that the fancy sheitel covers her wifely shaved skull.

Compared to the newborn’s bris with the mohel

hacking off the infant’s foreskin, this ain’t nothin’.

But having successfully bit my tongue, all said & done

till the next one, these rituals reinforce why I’m an atheist.

Gerard Sarnat has spent time as a physician and social justice protestor in jails,  built and staffed clinics for the marginalized, and spent decades working for Middle East peace. His work, which has appeared in over seventy magazines, including Gargoyle, Lowestoft Chronicle, and The American Journal of Poetry, has recently been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

For more information about Gerard Sarnat, visit his website: GerardSarnat.com.

 

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Comfort Food

by Gili Haimovich (Gyva’taim, Israel)

I practice on my kitten what I would answer

If I would ever have a child and he or she would ask me:

“Mum, where do your words come from”?

Well, my Canadian kitten,

My English words come from above,

From the emptiness.

From the void space

In my mouth.

Between the upper and the lower

Gums.

“But where does your Hebrew come from, Mum? With me you always speak Hebrew”.

Well, my child,

(The child would not be Canadian nor Israeli, but just a child),

My Hebrew is lying in my tummy,

Like comfort food.

Waiting for you.

Gili Haimovich is an international poet and translator who writes in both Hebrew and English. She has six volumes of poetry in Hebrew. Her most recent, Landing Lights (Iton 77 Publishing House, 2017), received a grant from Acum, as did her previous book. She also received a grant nominating her as an outstanding artist by the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption (2015). Her poetry in English is featured in her chapbook, Living on a Blank Page (Blue Angel Press, 2008) and in numerous journals and anthologies, such as World Literature Today, Poetry International, International Poetry Review, LRC – Literary Review of Canada, Poem Magazine, Asymptote, Drain Magazine, Blue Lyra, Circumference and TOK: Writing the New Toronto as well as main Israeli journals, newspapers and anthologies including The Most Beautiful Poems in Hebrew (Yedioth Ahronot Books, 2013). You can visit her website for more information about her and her work:  www.poetryon.com.

“Comfort Food” originally appeared in Drain Magazine, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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Finding Babette, My Great-Grandmother

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

This is a story about my maternal great-grandmother, Babette Muhr, whose life has interested me ever since I learned about her from the few memories that my own grandmother passed on to me.

I was fascinated to discover that Babette lived with the “Wundermann,” a famous holy man known as “The Baal Shem of Michelstadt.” For years, I tried to find the truth of this story, and ended up learning more about Rebbe Seckel Loew Wormser (the Baal Shem’s given name) than I did about Babette.

Few people knew the rebbe as well as the little orphan girl named Babette Muhr, who cried herself to sleep in the horse-drawn carriage travelling the 5-6 hours from her small home town of Reichelsheim, Germany to her new home in Michelstadt, near Frankfurt. Having recently lost her father and mother, the young girl was escorted by well-meaning townspeople who considered it a mitzvah to deliver the child to her new home. But wrap-around blankets and comforting arms gave little solace to the grieving child who did not want to leave her hometown and feared the new world ahead of her. The pitch-dark road leading to Michelstadt caused her to shiver with fright.

The legends surrounding the almost mystical rebbe describe him as poor and barely able to sustain his own large family of five children.  My grandmother called him a “Wundermann” for his many so-called miracles known to reach across the borders of Europe. His great heart always made room for those in need of help. At times his house was filled with almost 70 students from many parts of Germany, but it was always large enough to also accommodate orphans whom he fed with his limited means. The orphans lived with him and his large family, and there must have often been times when the rebetzin wondered how much thinner she could make the soup and still provide proper nourishment for the large brood in her dining room.

Little Babette learned many new facts about her new family within a few days after her arrival. One was that her new “father” was a vegetarian who would not touch any food that came from an animal, not even milk, eggs, or butter. On weekdays he lived on soup and coffee. On the Sabbath, he added a little more food to this meager diet. It was a lifelong vow of abstinence he had adopted during his student days in Frankfurt. Of course, in a household run on such sparse funds as that of the rebbe, meat was a great luxury.

Babette discovered very quickly that she would be exempted from his vegetarian diet. From the first day, she sat on a small chair next to her host while he cut up tiny pieces of meat from the family’s ration and fed them to the little girl. He was most concerned she had the proper food to grow on.

The rebbe had a running business that kept his family alive. He manufactured amulets designed with inscriptions to heal diseases. These “kemenot,” made of paper or parchment, included either the name of the Lord God or of an angel like “Rafael” who could heal specific diseases. The amulets were meant to be hung around the neck of the patient and promised speedy healing, especially when combined with prayers.

The twenty-odd Jewish families who made up Michelstadt during the rebbe’s lifetime (1768 to 1847) were well-to-do and did not appreciate his activities, especially those concerning the so-called “miracles” for which he was famous, which in many cases involved the healing of mentally ill patients. He had emissaries travelling in Germany and parts of Europe who took and delivered orders for the amulets and, in turn, collected the payment, which was due the rebbe.

It was around that time that his fellow Michelstadt neighbors rebelled against the rebbe’s extreme piety and his kabbalistic practices. Their complaints to the town authorities resulted in his arrest in his synagogue and a two-day stay in the local jail. These intrigues prevented the rebbe’s elevation to the post of Chief Rabbi in his hometown, handing that job to a competitor, and depriving him of an income.

After his wife of twenty years, Adelheid, died in 1809, the rebbe left Michelstadt and moved to Mannheim where he accumulated much fame as a healer. While there he healed a woman hospitalized for incurable insanity after local physicians had given up on her care. Her name was Benzinger and she had a 17-year-old daughter. While still in Mannheim, the rebbe became engaged to the daughter whose mother he had cured. He returned to Michelstadt, married the young lady, and reopened his yeshiva. It must have been during this second marriage that Babette joined their household and was raised by a woman not much older than her.

My grandmother said Babette lived in the home of the rebbe until she herself was married. Many years later, during a trip to Germany, my husband and I visited the town of Michelstadt, for I was always curious about the place that had sprouted so many family legends. We walked around the rebbe’s house, which is still occupied, but we could not get in because the lawyer’s office, which now rents it, was closed for the day. I looked up to the upstairs windows and tried to imagine Babette’s thoughts as she viewed her world when she lived there.

As I write these words, I am holding a photocopy of a marriage certificate which I recently received from the archivist of the town of Michelstadt. According to the certificate, a couple named Meier Oppenheimer and his wife, Babette Muhr, appeared before the mayor of the German town of Rimbach on September 6 in the year 1859 where he signed a document confirming their wedding performed three days before by the rabbi of that same town. It was their daughter, Bertha Oppenheimer Salomon, born in Fuerth, Germany in 1867, who became my grandmother.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

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This Evening

by Sarah Lamstein (Newton, MA)

The house is filled
with the smell of baking challah.
My daughter sings
night songs in her bed.

The loaves expand
slowly in the oven.

Generation, generations,
I chant
as the two loaves
rise.

Sarah Lamstein’s life is sweetened by the rise of a new generation – her grandchildren.  She lives in Newton, MA and writes books for children.  To learn more about Sarah’s books, visit www.sarahlamstein.com.
 

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At the Butcher’s

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

Take a number please,
the dispenser reads
at the butcher’s.
I take one and wait in line.
It’s before Shabbos, everyone is rushed,
people pushing or being pushed,
trying to get to the counter, to get their food,
someone mutters, “I was ahead of you.”

“Who’s next?” says the butcher,
and panic falls from me like a puzzle
dropped on the floor and I can’t
find all the pieces and the ones I can
pick up don’t fit together anymore and

I want to tell them about my father’s
sister and how her visa number was too
high and there were too many people in
line ahead of her waiting to get out and how
she was deported to
Auschwitz and she didn’t get
a number there and if she had, she
might have survived and

I want to tell them about my friend’s mother, how
she got a number on her forearm in
Auschwitz, and how she got a
visa number after the war and about the
dreams she has every night and

the butcher calls my number, and I
cannot make a sound.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us, poems about her family and the Holocaust.  Her recent work has appeared in The Poet’s Quest for God and is forthcoming in Forgotten Women.  Janet is currently producing AFTER, a cinematic film about Holocaust poetry.  https://www.facebook.com/AfterAPoetryFilm/

Reprinted from Lilith Magazine, where this poem first appeared, with kind permission of the author.

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The Chametz Boys

by Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)

When I was 11, I was the only one of my neighborhood friends who went to yeshivah. They all attended public school and then went to the Talmud Torah on Hendrix Street. 

My Talmud Torah friends and I rarely talked about school, religion, or life, but we all loved discussing baseball.   

We loved everything about the sport: playing it, watching it, trading team and player cards, knowing all the statistics better than we knew facts about our own families. I never knew, for example, the birthdate of my cousin Feivel, or where he was born, or exactly how old he was. But I knew everything about Mickey Mantle, including that he came from Oklahoma (an exotic “country” to us) and how extraordinary his baseball achievements were, especially in light of his being stricken with osteomyelitis. 

No one knew or cared then about his personal problems, just that he was voted MVP, won the Triple Crown Award, batted .356, and hit 52 homers in 1956, an extraordinary athlete. Plus, he wore number 7 on his uniform, so that meant he understood the importance of Shabbos. (Just kidding.)

But, seriously, how could you not love such a guy or his teammates, Whitey Ford, Tony Kubek or Bobbie Richardson, baseball warriors all? They played their hearts out with skill and passion, and we loved them for it.

Several days before Passover one year, one of my friends suggested that we all go to Yankee Stadium for a game. We grew thoroughly excited at the idea, and we all agreed to go. But we knew we could only afford to sit in the bleachers, where seats then cost about a dollar. My friends wanted to go on Yom Tov itself, but I convinced them to hold off until Chol Hamoed, the holiday’s Intermediate days, when work was permitted, so that we could all go together, and they agreed. 

I couldn’t wait for the day of the game to arrive.

Game day was a scorcher, 93 degrees in April at the first pitch, but who cared? We were traveling together on the subway from Brooklyn to a major league baseball game in the Bronx to see our beloved Yankees, and for me, a chance to see the great Mick. 

My mother, may she rest in peace, had made me a great Passover sandwich: egg salad on matzah, which she broke in half so I could feel like I was eating two sandwiches. It looked so good at home that I couldn’t wait to open it at the stadium. But when I saw what my friends were eating at the game, I was, frankly, you should pardon the pun, less excited: they’d bought franks at Yankee Stadium, and franks and more franks, and I was quite jealous. 

Still, we were all in the moment, sitting together at Yankee Stadium, the sounds and smells of a live baseball game filling our senses, and I eagerly awaited the appearance of my hero, Mickey Mantle, who would play centerfield and bat fourth, as usual. 

We couldn’t wait for the game to begin.

I stole glances at the hot dogs and buns and sodas my friends were enjoying, and I felt unhappy. But as they munched contentedly on their stadium hot dogs, I excitedly peeled back the tin foil that covered my egg salad matzah sandwich. When I took it out, however, holding half of my matzo sandwich in the palm of my hand in the noonday sun, both ends of my sandwich sloped downward, a soggy matzah mess. 

My friends looked at my wilting matzah sandwich and laughed out loud, elbowing each other and pointing to my sad matzah sandwich. I could only look at their buns and dogs and sigh jealously. They smirked, enjoying their hot food, and I sheepishly grinned, embarrassed at my own matzah and yellow egg-droop-sandwich and warm canteen water. 

In the end, none of it really mattered as all of us got caught up in the excitement of the game and watched the great Mick and his Yankees destroy the opposing team. 

The Cleveland Indians were the ones who really wilted in that game, and although my funny matzah sandwich was the butt of 11-year olds’ jokes for a few hours that day, we all glowed from the brilliance of the Yankees play in general, and the Mick’s in particular.

That was a happy Pesach indeed.

For more than thirty years, Chaim Weinstein taught English in grades six through college in New York City public schools as well as in several parochial schools. His poems and stories have appeared on The Jewish Writing Project, and his short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne.

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