Category Archives: Judaism

Not My Father’s Jewish Museum

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

 

I am not prepared for the profusion

of colors and thought that are persuasive

here in the Jewish Museum of New York,

expecting gray shadows of smoke rising,

of twisted corpses and mournful dirges.

Look! There is a hanging chandelier

blinking on and off at irregular times,

as if one language doesn’t work,

another will, in this case in Morse Code.

All languages, sadly, are an approximation

of the truth, an attempt to get to the core

of what it means to be Jewish.

I am unsure of what that is,

in any language, art, script, whatever.

I see artists trying to answer that very same question

in forms more varied than my own imagination.

The medium differs, the search continues.

Imagine a room full of stuffed animals – a Bear-mitzvah!

I may not know exactly who I am,

but the comfort here in this museum

reminds me I am not alone in my quest.

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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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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A Paris Odyssey

 

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

Suzanne’s parents had moved to Paris in the 1930s as a young married couple from Ukraine.  Mr. P. was a barber and opened a shop on a busy Paris street.  They wanted to start a new life away from the anti-Semitic fears in Ukraine.  Two daughters were born and the family lived in an apartment on the floor above the shop.

And then came the rise and popularity of Hitler.  And then the war.  And then the occupation of Paris by Germany.  The barber shop was shuttered and the family stayed in their apartment clandestinely to see if they could outlive the occupation.  Sarah, the younger daughter, then about to become a teenager, blonde and blue-eyed, became Suzanne as a way to fool anyone who stopped her as she was the one sent out to forage for food.

For four years they were able to avoid detection.  When Paris was freed, Mr. P.  decided not to attempt to reopen his shop, fearing that vestiges of the Vichy anti-Semitic regime remained.  Instead the family made plans to emigrate to the United States where Mrs. P. had cousins in Philadelphia.

My father was a barber and had operated his own shop for many years.  We lived behind the store in a two-story house.  When he needed another barber to work “the second chair,” the Barbers’ Union sent Mr. P, whose languages were French and Yiddish, but not English.  However, the South Philadelphia neighborhood where we lived was still primarily Jewish at that time, peopled with many immigrants, so speaking Yiddish worked fine.  After a few weeks Mr. P. said to my father, “I have a daughter exactly your daughter’s age.  She is miserable.  She won’t go to school until the fall and she doesn’t know any English or have any friends.  May I bring her to meet your daughter?”

The arrangement was made. I was not consulted, which increased my anxiety of meeting a girl my age who had undergone life experiences I could not imagine. The next day Mr. P. arrived with a pretty 17 year old who looked visibly intimidated.  We introduced ourselves and tried to find a way to talk.  My high school French had taught me “Open the window” and “The pen of my aunt.”  I didn’t think either phrase would help us communicate, but we discovered we were both fluent in Yiddish and that was our method of conversation for the next few months until Suzanne began her halting study of English.

Eventually, Suzanne married and moved to the suburbs with her family.  I did the same.  We lost touch but sometimes met at a Jewish film festival and were always glad to see each other.

Many years later I was a volunteer interviewer for the Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Project.  I decided to interview Suzanne, and in the intimacy of a two hour conversation I learned more about her years barricaded in the family apartment.  She shared emotions I had not heard before: the daily apprehension of being discovered, her inner trembling when she walked on the street to buy food, the tensions, even in a loving family, of spending four years locked together in one space, never knowing what had happened to their extended family.

I suddenly understood the seclusion and safety of the Jewish life I had led living in a Jewish neighborhood and the false sense of security this evoked in me.  The war had not been threatening to us and it was a while before we heard about the horror and devastation of concentration camps and could begin to understand the attempt to exterminate our people.  Leaving Suzanne’s house that day, I felt for myself the wrenching internal anxiety Jews had always felt throughout the world, throughout eternity.

Some time after that experience I wrote a memoir about growing up in Jewish South Philadelphia and sent it to Suzanne, certain it would evoke many shared memories.  She, in turn, sent me her memoir of those parallel years which she spent hidden in the Paris apartment and told of the loss of dear cousins and friends.  She thought she was lucky; I thought she was incredibly brave. It was not until I read her poignant memoir that I learned Suzanne had been Sarah.

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 University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free lance writer for national publications.

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Sensing Spiritual Synchronicity

By Susan L. Lipson (Poway, CA)

As I settled in at temple services on a recent Saturday morning, taking a deep breath to focus my spiritual intentions, I looked around our sanctuary and suddenly found myself appreciating anew the beautiful artifacts wrought by artistic hands blessed to uplift spirituality.

My eyes lingered on the section of a Torah scroll, rescued from Holocaust-torn Europe, and restored and mounted within a protective acrylic case now hanging on the wall beside the bimah—a scroll whose sofer (scribe) never dreamed that his painstaking, holy work would survive a murder attempt to receive new life and a new purpose in a California temple.

Beside the ark stands a 6-foot-tall metal menorah, welded by strong hands that clearly desired to inspire. Did that welder-artist envision the sanctuary that would someday house this symbol of Jewish light?

And the actual light—the ner tamid—that glowing, multi-colored flame of glass, drawn out of some artist’s blazing oven to reflect in the artist’s eyes for the time it took to shape it, is suspended now before light-seeking eyes who look upward, over the ark, before closing their eyes in earnest prayers.

The ark itself inspired me as a kind of giant mezuzah, housing precious, handwritten scrolls inside the once-living body of God’s most majestic plant creation—the tree, ha’etz, appropriately protecting the Etz Hayim (Tree of Life, a.k.a. Torah).  

So many hands, divinely empowered, suddenly touched my heart through their offerings. 

My epiphany filled my head and heart with this spontaneous prayer:

“Dear God, bless all of the hands that worked so earnestly to create this beautiful environment in which to feel your presence, to add goodness to our community through their own artistically blessed hands. May they continue to feel inspired and to inspire others.”

Then I inhaled, exhaled, and opened my prayer book to join my fellow congregants in reading, chanting, and singing.

When a bar mitzvah began chanting the weekly Torah portion from the scroll, I felt chills of confirmation of my connection to God and Torah when, to my delight, I read the English translation in the book version: the teenager was reading the precise design directions for the building and beautification of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, describing the sizes and colors of every holy object to be built, even the artistic inclusion of pomegranate and gold bell motifs.

In the past, hearing this portion read, I never understood the purpose of such detailed design directions in our holy text. I had always considered this passage cryptically verbose. I had wondered why the objects in the worship space mattered so much. But now, the coincidence of my “object lesson” and the “objectification of spirituality” in the weekly reading struck me as bashert, meant to be.

Synchronicity is God’s way of reminding us that we need to look in order to see the connectedness of our world.

Susan L. Lipson (a.k.a. “S. L. Lipson”) has published books for children and teachers, as well as articles and personal narratives, curriculum materials, and poetry (www.sllipson.com). Recently, Lipson’s short memoir “Connections” was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams and Premonitions.  You can find more of her work on her blog, “Writing Memorable Words” (www.susanllipson.blogspot.com) and  www.susanllipsonwritingteacher.blogspot.com ). You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram (@sllipson), as well as on her Facebook Author Page: “S. L. Lipson, Author & Writing Teacher.”

 

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A Flip of the Coin

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

So tell me, learned men of the Torah,

who see beshert as a wedding cake of joy,

a bouquet of blessings bestowed by a loving God,

do you also not consider the flip side of the coin,

the reality of a world beset by numbing horror?

In addition to the glass half full,

do you not allow for a glass half empty,

with nothing left but the dregs,

such as when a plane falls from the sky?

Is that beshert, too?

When unimaginable tragedy visits our people

was that similarly meant to be?

At those times, I am inclined to believe

in the total indifference of the universe.

But when good things happen –

a child heals, new lovers meet, nations avoid war –

I am inclined to leave the philosophical door ajar,

and concede we have been placed in this good world

for a divine purpose from a purposeful God.

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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Tzedekah: The Gift of Giving

By Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson (Bala Cynwyd, PA)

Two strong memories of giving are still vivid in my mind’s eye. The first is my father sitting at the dining room table at the end of the year and making out $1.00 checks to each of his favorite charities. This was the 1950s when $1.00 meant something. And since he was a hard-working owner of a gas station and garage, supporting five children and a wife, $1.00 per charity was all he could afford. The other memory is my mother working as a volunteer for our synagogue and packing our one-car garage with other people’s stuff, much to my father’s chagrin, to be saved for the annual rummage sale, the money collected going for needy causes. The garage was always stuffed with stuff!

Both my parents’ actions could be labeled under the Hebrew word tzedakah, an obligation to give to those less fortunate than ourselves. Some also define this word as charity, but the meaning of tzedakah goes beyond charity, and for me, is linked with another Jewish tradition, tikkun olam, which means repair of the world. Helping others is also considered a “mitzvah,” a good deed, all of which dovetails into the whole concept of compassion for others through giving.

I grew up with the idea of tzedakah, and as an adult, continued to emulate my parents, who were following Judaic traditions. (This idea of giving can be found in other religions and belief systems. Jews don’t have a monopoly on this concept.) Then, a couple of years ago, I was introduced to Maimonides’ Eight Degrees of Charity, also known as Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity. Maimonides was a well-known and revered 18th century Jewish philosopher, astronomer, Torah scholar, and physician whose influence Jews still feel today. This ladder was a revelation to me, and the brief description below may give you, as it has me, new thoughts about giving in the future. (I have used several sources, each of which had some variances in language or interpretation.)

  • The lowest rung on this hypothetical ladder is when one gives help or money unwillingly, or gives a small donation grudgingly after being asked.
  • The next-to-the last rung on the ladder is a direct donation, but smaller than s/he is able to give, but given with a smile, after being asked.
  • The next rung up the ladder is a direct donation of sufficient size after being asked or only when asked by the poor.
  • The rung fourth from the bottom (now halfway) is giving a direct donation to the needy, with one another’s knowledge of the giver and the receiver, and without being asked.
  • The fifth rung from the bottom (or third one down) is charity in which the giver knows not the receiver, but the person receiving help does know the giver and may feel indebted.
  • The next rung, directly under the top rung, is when a donation is made anonymously to a charity fund that benefits the poor and the person receiving the help does not know to whom s/he is indebted.
  • The top rung of Maimonides’ ladder is the highest rung of tzedakah. This is when money is donated to prevent a person from becoming poor and helps this person (or persons) to become self-sufficient. This could be in the form of a loan or a job. It is the highest form of charity because it prevents poverty.

With this new information, I am much more aware of how and why I am giving. The next time I am ready to contribute, I want to keep in mind these eight levels of tzedakah and give anonymously, without expecting recognition. In fact, if I can afford to give, then I feel it is a privilege as much as an obligation to help another more needy than myself. I believe that this top rung of the ladder is probably the greatest gift you can give to another, as well as a gift to yourself.

How you give is as important as what you give. If you make wise choices from your heart, I can think of no better gift to yourself and to those in need at this time of year and throughout the next year. Give anonymously with joy and reap its benefits all year long!

(Note: Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity is from Mishneh Torah: Hilcot Matnot Aniyim 10:7-12.)

Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson is a freelance writer and author of four cookbooks, a children’s coloring book, a computer manual, and a children’s (fiction) book based on her ancestors’ trek from Russia to Austria-Hungary (and eventually to America.) She lives in Bala Cynwyd, PA, and has a health-oriented website, www.menupause.info  for older women.

This essay is reprinted with the author’s permission. It appeared originally in Women’s Voices for Change (www.womensvoicesforchange.org).

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The Tent Connection

by Ronni Miller (Sarasota, FL)

“and it came to pass that everyone that sought the Lord went out into the tent of Meeting…” Exodus 33:7

When I first moved to rural Woodstock in the ‘80’s, I had just barely shed my role as a suburban New Jersey divorced wife and single mother. My three children had sprung the nest and were ensconced in colleges of their choices all over the country. What I discovered in the isolated, eclectic pine cabin that I had built, ringed by fields of hay and mountains, was the fledgling connection to myself and to my life as a writer. It would take many years for me to reinvent myself, and during that time, while adapting to the culture of fading hippies, I felt an intuitive connection to the Jewish services that were held nearby under a tent.

Discovering services down the road from the cabin and under the tent was, at first, daunting, even uncomfortable. I had been raised to be proper and staid, reflective and sorrowful in silence inside a proper temple of brick and mortar, and I tried to duplicate that kind of Jewish experience for my own children as I raised them. But my connection to a spiritualism beyond the words that I mouthed in English and Hebrew in that environment was watery at best. What I began to discover under the tent was an inner connection, a physicality of feeling that I had no words to express. Singing, smiling, even laughing and feeling a lightness of spirit, at first felt wrong at such a holy time, but gradually this way of celebrating became the norm that I yearned to experience. I felt connected to something ancient, and I was proud to be a part of such a bond. Yet by the following year when it was time to make plans to return, I again questioned the sincerity of my action.

When I sold my cabin of wood and glass in Woodstock, NY, packed my quilt, books and computer, and moved south for sun and warmth, I felt the need to make a pilgrimage north each fall to re-experience the interaction of a Judaism that spoke to me of ancient connections and rhythms, a living energy that mingled psychological, philosophical, literary and religious themes in a meaningful way that I had never experienced before in any other synagogue of stone walls and stained glass windows. It became an annual ritual that provided a beginning for the New Year, a ritual that helped me understand where I was in my life at the time, as well as shining a light ahead that would help illuminate my path when I had to return to my home in the south and cope with everyday realities.

That first year, as I drove north on the highway, I thought of Rabbi Jonathan who played his guitar as we sang and danced on the earthen floor. The Woodstock Jewish Congregation Kehillat Lev Shalem is, as their motto says, “the congregation of a full heart.” It is “an egalitarian congregation whose members range from cultural atheists to traditional Jews,” says Rabbi Jonathan Kliger, who was trained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, served as spiritual leader under the tent for twenty-six years, and is now Senior Scholar of the Lev Shalem Institute, a center for learning, creativity, healing, and spiritual growth located at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation. Was I returning for this experience alone, and how did that connect to the religiosity of a new year?

I’ve struggled for two decades to understand the true reason for my annual pilgrimage to the tent for High Holiday services. I know I’m seeking a connection, but a connection to what? Even though I celebrate Shabbat each week by lighting the candles and saying the prayers over the bread and the wine, I feel at times like I’m going through the motions for the sake of tradition. So I drive the twenty-five hundred mile trip alone, from Sarasota, FL to Woodstock, NY, searching for something deeper. And I look forward to the experience of emotional freedom and, if only temporary, a spiritual connection while sitting on a metal folding chair on the earth, sheltered from the elements by a white canvas tent, surrounded by fifteen hundred like-minded strangers.

In my struggle to define the truth for this rite of return, questions pile on questions. Is it just nostalgia to return to a place that had once been my home at a crossroads in my life? Is it the novelty of celebrating the High Holidays under a tent with dancing and singing instead of with the austerity and solemnity encased by stained glass windows? Is it because I desire to be included in a community that welcomes all people, Jewish or not, straight, gay, single and married, a community that openly acknowledges the power of expressing feelings and emotions? Is it because I need to confirm the person I reinvented — or began to reinvent — in this mountain community of artists where individualism is recognized, not scorned?

On reflection, I can say, yes, definitely, it is nostalgic to remember every thread and every morsel of a new life that I had made for myself in a rural rather than suburban environment, and where bear, deer and pheasant were my neighbors instead of people.  It was where an eclectic cabin of pine with wide board floors and two story glass windows, surrounded by pasture and mountains, held treasured memories of a home I had built to declare both my choice of aesthetics, as well as my personal independence as a newly unmarried woman with three grown children.  Yes, it had been exciting to continue to create my fiction in this cabin, which overlooked undulating fields of hay, as well as inspiring to recall the birth of the writing program that has sustained me financially on my future path.

This quest for connection on a deep level is a pervasive theme in my life, as well as in my fiction writing, and it is the power of this quest that draws me to the tent each year.  The tent is where I feel the ancient and the modern connect.  A few children and grandchildren have joined me over the years, and for a few hours it feels like we are home again, a family under one roof. We stand before the bimah to receive a blessing before the Torah is opened. Together we hear the shofar blown, the children standing on metal folding chairs to see over the adults’ heads, or astride their father’s shoulders.

I am on a new chapter in my life now as a widow after twenty years of a second marriage. In the past I haven’t been swayed by practicality. Imagination and desire have always trumped reality. Yet I know that this rite of return helps me feel cleansed and inspired to begin a new year. The service under the tent strengthens my religiosity and my spiritualism, and, after it’s over, I know I’ll carry these feelings, along with the words from Rabbi Jonathan’s sermons, in my heart and mind as I drive south again over interstate highways from the Catskill Mountains, past the low country of the Carolina’s, and into the flat terrain beside the Gulf of Mexico.  This ritual of ebb and flow, this traveling up and back, comforts me. It provides a beginning for the year, a meaningful way for me to mark a distinction between the endings and beginnings in my life.

Ronni Miller, author of Dance With The Elephants: Free Your Creativity And Write and Cocoon To Butterfly: A Metamorphosis of Personal Growth Through Expressive Writing, among other published books, is an award winning fiction author and founder and director of Write It Out®, a motivational and expressive writing program for individuals of all ages since 1992.  She teaches and lectures in the US, facilitates writing retreats in Tuscany and Cape Cod, and writes about her Jewish roots, feelings, memories and experiences in published books, short stories, essays, poems and plays for children and adults. In her private practice as a Book Midwife, she helps people birth their books. See www.writeitout.com for more information. 

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