Category Archives: Judaism

The Nature of Things

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

I was eleven the spring my father singed his eyebrows off
while burning down pear trees.

Anne Carson says dirt is a minor thing.
This is not true.
Perhaps she has not seen a string bean pushing
its way up through the dirt.

The Rabbis say that Adam gave names to all the animals,
but do not say who named the trees.

These are some of the plant names I love:
Joseph’s coat, Persian shield, Silver shrub, African mallow.

Once in January, my father woke me at four o’clock in the morning
to help cover the parsley in our garden with blankets.
Frost was on the ground.
Stars, so bright at that time of the year, lit the garden.

In June, I call home to ask my father about the gladiolas.
He says some are coming, some are going.

The Talmud says occasionally rain falls because of the merit
of one man, the merit of one blade of grass, of one field.

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/

This poem is reprinted from Mima’amakim with the kind permission of the author.

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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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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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