Tag Archives: American Jews

Challah Covers

by Maureen Rubin (Los Angeles, CA)

My family endlessly obsessed over my brother’s bar mitzvah.  Guest list, menu, music, clothes.  Were burgundy velvet tuxedos too much?  When it was over, I was only ten, but started counting the days until my own bat mitzvah.

Not going to happen.   In my hometown shul in 1960, girls could not get bat mitzvahed.  Instead, we would take part in a group confirmation.  Fifty Jewish girls in white dresses–without blue satin sashes.

Spurred on by the injustice of bat mitzvah prohibition, I drifted away from Jewish studies after my dull confirmation.  In college, my Jewish connection was limited to attending Rosh Hashanah services at Hillel so I could meet Jewish boys from ZBT.

But the one event I looked forward to each year was the Passover seder where we reconnected with our huge, loving family. Our seder was the Reader’s Digest condensed version.  No haggadahs and we completed the story of Passover in record time.  Jews, slaves, Moses, plagues, burning bush, Red Sea, freedom. Done. Then we ate.  And ate.

My freshman year I went home for Pesach with a friend whose family finished the entire haggadah with a discussion on each part.  The in-depth dialogues around the table set off brain sparks.  I could suddenly relate the history of Pharonic oppression to what was then happening to American women.  I don’t want to be sacrilegious, but clearly there were parallels.  OK, we weren’t building pyramids and eating dirt, but we could legitimately protest how women’s futures were being sculpted by everyone but them.  Women in America were living our own form of Egyptian slavery!

Years later, I married a wonderful man who was proud of my career and life choices.  We had two daughters.  When our eldest was 13, we decided to give her the bat mitzvah I never had, but would have loved.  She would be bat mitzvahed on Mount Masada, where King Herod had built a complex that sheltered the last survivors of the Jewish revolt.  Masada remains a symbol of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty.

The ceremonies were unforgettable.  We sat in a stone amphitheater and looked down on our beautiful children. Ten 13-year olds, five girls and five boys, all wearing white, took turns reading from the Torah on the very spot where our ancestors chose mass suicide instead of Roman oppression. There wasn’t a dry eye in the dessert.

When the ceremony was over, the “new adults” received gifts.  The boys received beautiful hand embroidered tallitot and the girls received–challah covers! Suddenly, we saw movement below us, we heard buzzing from the girls. A voice rang out, demanding “fairness of gifts.” It was our daughter.

“We girls do not want challah covers,” she said.  “These gifts are not fair.  We are being treated differently.  Why did the boys get things they can wear to synagogue while we got things that keep us in the kitchen? We want to be treated the same.  We want tallitot.”

How proud we were.  Her act of civil disobedience reminded us of Biblical midwives who defied the Pharaoh’s orders to kill all the newborn baby boys.  In this sacred setting, it became clear that my daughter and her generation did not have to be told to remember that their ancestors were slaves in Egypt, nor that their foremothers were allowed few life choices.

The girls got their tallitot.  My daughter’s tallit became the chupah at her wedding and she will pass it on to her beautiful Jewish feminist eight-year old when the time is right.

Maureen Rubin is an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge. In her 30 years on campus, she taught writing and media law , served in a variety of administrative positions, published widely and received numerous teaching and public service awards.  Prior to joining the university, Rubin was Director of Public Information for President Carter’s Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs in the White House, and held similar positions for a U.S. Congresswoman and several non-profits. She has a JD from Catholic University School of Law In Washington, D.C., an MA in Public Relations from University of Southern California and a BS in Journalism from Boston University.

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

On the Other Side

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for children and young adults, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, Elie Wiesel,, and, most recently, Kurt Weil.

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

Have the Hate-filled Times Come Again?

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

On the night of November 10, 1938 my mother and I stood on the sidewalk of Fasanenstrasse in Berlin and watched flames shoot out of the roof of our beautiful and beloved Temple, the great Reform Synagogue, across the street.

I was eleven years old and could not understand what was happening. Behind us in the street several fire engines manned by their crews rested without attempting to put out the fire. In front of the engines crowds of people just stood and watched, some of them obviously snickering.

No one made any attempt to put out the fire. It was obvious to me even at a young age that this was no accidental fire: it had been set because of hatred.

This was the synagogue in which I had my first introduction to Judaism, where I learned about our holy days, listened to the heavenly music of the choir, and felt the closeness of God even as a young child.

That night I even questioned God: “Dear God. This is Your beautiful house. Why are You allowing these evil people to burn it?  And why did You not punish those just standing around seemingly enjoying the spectacle?”

But I said these thoughts quietly to myself for even my mother just stood there silently not saying a word. Her face wore such a languished look I did not dare to interrupt her sadness.

Finally, she turned to me and said in a quiet voice, “Remember this.” Then she pulled me away from the crowd and led me to the train station nearby. We went home in silence.

I have remembered that night throughout my life. It has become known as “Kristallnacht” (Night of Broken Glass) because aside from the burning of synagogues, other horrendous episodes occurred that day. Jewish shops all over Germany had their storefront windows smashed by unruly mobs, and many Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps.

“Kristallnacht” was the forerunner to the Holocaust.

On Saturday, October 27, 2018, a crazed, heavily armed individual entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and murdered eleven elderly congregants while they were praying. His comment upon being wounded by arresting officers (who themselves sustained gunshot injuries) was: “All Jews should be killed.”

These words lie heavily upon our souls. Have the terrible, hate-filled times come again?

Never in the history of the United States have American Jews faced such concentrated venom.

Yet there is a difference. And there is hope.

In Germany, the hate and conflagration was started and fostered by tools of the State. Here, the actions were of a lone, crazed gunman. And here, the State, in the form of Pittsburgh’s police force and elected officials, Pennsylvania and Federal law enforcement officials, along with Pittsburgh’s medical personnel, the American Press, and worldwide reaction to the tragedy, has supported the bereaved Tree of Life congregation.

Despite my great sadness as a child Holocaust survivor, I have faith in the future.

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