Tag Archives: anti-Semitism

Permit Me To Introduce You To

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

You’ve heard of names like

Auschwitz and Dachau?

Oh, good for you.

You have a passing acquaintance

with terms like “final solution” and “genocide”?

That’s nice.       

No, they are not answers to Jeopardy questions.

Permit me to introduce you to

Jews lined up at the lip of ditches,

(they, themselves, had been forced to dig,)

to be shot in the back of their heads,

to be sprayed by machine gun fire,

to be rolled into the open wounds of the earth.

What town was that?

Who was the mother trying to protect her child?

It does not matter; you’ll never remember.

They have all returned to the hard ground.

You go on with your life, that’s all right.

The dead have no hold on you, even if

their arms reach out from the blood-stained soil,

trying to shake your monumental indifference.

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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Leaving Egypt Behind

by Isaac Azerad (Sarasota, FL)

Sitting in our sun-drenched living room, in that sun-drenched city aptly named Heliopolis, City of the Sun, on that morning, I am stirred by the ominous feeling that I am about to experience a defining moment in our family’s history.

I am handing over a box to my newly appointed French Language professor. In that box is my treasure, my stamp collection that I painstakingly assembled and catalogued for the best part of my 15 years. The teacher, Fawzi, is a pretentious syrupy little man, who was hastily implanted in our school to displace my esteemed professor who had just been expelled to his native France.

Fawzi is totally inadequate as a Francophone, mispronouncing common words so pedantically that I am developing an antipathy for this hypocritical man with his repeated expressions of feigned concern for my family’s welfare. This man will rob me of my last personal possession and along with it he will leave our home that morning with books, paintings, blankets, pillows and articles of clothing. This was open season on the departing Jews.

In the corner of the living room, suitcases sat patiently on the prized Persian rug next to a shoulder-high wrought iron pedestal propping a fish bowl, a top-heavy aquarium that my sister, Dorette, and I had tipped over many times, sending our fish and our Nanny into a frenzy in her attempt to save the fretting goldfish gasping for air while at the same time doing her best to hide the incident from our parents.

Next to that pedestal was a matching, round, marble-top coffee table with a wrought iron base fashioned after the designs of the genteel society of the time. That table, I recall, had the ideal height for my sister Sabrina’s hesitant first steps as she propped herself up when she learned how to walk a few years earlier. This image of our familiar home, comfortable and semi-opulent, was to be relegated to distant memories in the years to come.

The following morning my family will gather the assembled suitcases lined up in our predictably sunny living room and head to the airport for a final voyage, leaving Egypt behind with no prospect of ever returning to our native land.

With the clothes on our backs and our meager cash allowance of $20 per person, we were leaving without a definite plan of resettlement. In this second exodus from the land of Egypt, more than 80,000 souls embarked on a similar adventure fraught with apprehension and excitement.

A few months prior to that fateful morning in August of 1962, things started turning for the worst. My father’s lucrative business was summarily confiscated, along with our assets, real estate, and bank accounts. It started out gradually when a Business Guardian was appointed by the government to oversee the smooth transition of ownership to an Arab owner. No compensation was deemed necessary, as Jews were considered enemies of the state.

The occasional shouts of “Edbah El Yahud” (“slaughter the Jews”) were beginning to be heard more frequently and in more places. The toxic atmosphere was fomented by a revived sense of patriotism among the masses and ignited by Gamal Abd El Nasser, the pan-Arabism hero. Nasser nationalized businesses, confiscated wealth and belongings, and blamed the ills of the country on all foreigners and, particularly, on the Jews. Our family had been in Egypt for five generations.

One incident in early 1956 sealed our fate as the harbinger of our heightened sense of mounting insecurity. We felt violated when my father was taken at gunpoint in the middle of the night by two uniformed goons with automatic weapons who accused him of being a Zionist Spy. The accusation and arrest followed when they noticed a Press Badge on the dashboard of my father’s parked car. This was a car that my father, Maurice, shared with my uncle, Jacques, who by virtue of being the editor of the two French Newspapers—the Progree Egyptien and La Bourse Egyptienne—was considered part of the press corps. Perhaps unrelated to that incident, my Uncle Jacques was later replaced by a Government Guardian, an overseer of the Press, who was none other than a former classmate of his, a young officer by the name of Anwar al Sadat.

The stories of hardship and disappointment will be repeated throughout the Middle East and North Africa for Jews from Arab countries with their numbers swelling to close to a million displaced persons in the decades of the 50’s and 60’s.

The personal stories of destitution and displacement of the Jews from Egypt pale in comparison to the horrors of World War II. The fate of our brothers and sisters who perished in the Holocaust is not to be compared to any event in the History of mankind. It is perhaps out of respect for their memories and for the suffering of the survivors that the plight of Jews from Arab lands has been kept silent. For more than fifty years, Jews from Egypt remained quiet, relegating their memories to the back pages of history.

Only recently, some of our acquaintances and relatives started unraveling their families’ sagas in some detail. Lucette Lagnado who expounded so articulately in her book, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, traced the journey of her family from Egypt to France to Israel and then to America.

Coincidentally, along with my parents and two sisters, we have traveled an identical journey. I remember that my mother, Tony, of blessed memory, had identified so strongly with the characters in the book that she kept exclaiming how astonishingly familiar the stories were.

A similar journey is depicted in Andre Aciman’s book, Out of Egypt, portraying a rich history of cosmopolitan life and reminiscing about the tradition of multiculturalism in the Golden Age of Cairo and Alexandria. This year, my first cousin, Elliot Malki of Milan, has produced a new documentary showing at the Jerusalem Film Festival, tracing the life journey of several Jews from Egypt and their rise to success and prominence across the globe.

The story of the Jews from Egypt is one of triumph in the face of adversity, a story that demonstrates to the world that freedom from bondage is a character trait embedded in our Jewish ethos.

Despite the circumstances, the Jewish bond that binds us together makes us responsible for one another. I never heard the word “refugee” uttered from any of my fellow Jews from Egypt. We were simply travelers on a journey of hope, no longer Egyptian Jews but simply Jews from Egypt.

Along every step of the way, during every trial and every hardship, a Jew was there to lend a hand to my family. At every stage of my life I found help and guidance, support and comfort from an individual Jew or a Jewish organization.

I have a healthy respect for the awesome responsibility that I owe my people and the debt that I have to my heritage. To me, Judaism is a positive and necessary force in the world and it needs to be nurtured and preserved by Jews for all Jews and for humanity at large. Our sages tell us the task of repairing the world is incomplete but it is ours to undertake.

I believe them.

Isaac Azerad is the Director of Communications at The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee, President of Main Street Graphics, and past president of Temple Emanu-el. He lives with his wife, Gisele, in Sarasota, FL.

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Filed under Egyptian Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity

When Understanding Comes

by Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner (New York, NY)

A long time ago, I went to visit a man—tall, with white hair, a white beard and the heart of an angel, a noble soul—my maternal grandfather, whom I called Baba Moshe. His name was Moshe Abuhatziera. He was born in Tafilalet, Morocco, and later relocated to Casablanca, where he and my grandmother lived in an eclectic neighborhood of Jews and non-Jews. People got along and respected each other’s way of life.

I was born in Casablanca. My parents and I lived with my maternal grandparents during my early formative years. When I was six years old, my parents and I moved to our own apartment. However, I frequently visited and spent weekends and summer vacation with my maternal grandparents, Baba Moshe and Mama Esther. I was the only grandchild who ever lived with my grandparents, and my mother used to tell me stories of how they doted on me.

One story I found endearing: when I misbehaved, my grandfather would fill his flower watering pot. By the time he closed the faucet, I would be running for my life as fast as I could. He would run after me on his tiptoes, saying: “I will water you so you grow up like a beautiful flower.”

In Casablanca, life had a rhythm and daily challenges. My grandfather would get up at dawn. With patience, he slowly put his tzitzit over his shoulders and then tefillin around his hand and arm and then on his forehead as he recited his prayers. He blessed the new day, and at the setting of the sun he prayed once again. While praying, he looked radiant and absorbed; his physical presence seemed to transcend reality.

When I visited my grandparents, I would sleep with them in the same big room with a window and two beds. Most of the time I woke up from the lamplight or from hearing my grandfather’s uttered words of prayer. I looked at him and felt protected because he loved God. Daily prayer was one of the many mitzvot he fulfilled.

For a Jewish child in Casablanca, the world was not a safe place. Yet, within the nest of my family and with my grandpa, I felt sheltered and safe. I was comforted to see him and would go back to sleep.

In the morning, before going to work, he would ask me to come to his side to pray with him and would bring a chair and help me stand on it so that I could reach the mezuzah. First, he prayed that good will would prevail between men and that peace would reign among all nations. Then he prayed for the health of everyone in the family. He blessed me, and, last of all, he asked for God’s blessing.

“Dear child,” he would say, extending his hand, “bless me that my mind and eyesight remain intact until the last days of my life.”

With each blessing, I tapped on his hand. He kissed the mezuzah and asked me to do the same, and then he kissed my head and went to work.

Even though I was only a child, I felt that in blessing my grandfather, I did something meaningful – a mitzvah.

During the day I played with the neighbors’ children. Some were Spanish, some were French, and others were Jews, and we were unconstrained by adults’ preoccupations with religious or ideological differences.

When my grandpa came home in the evening all the children would be in the courtyard waiting for him. When they saw him, they would welcome him in unison, calling, “Baba Moshe!” and gather around him.

My grandpa always had almonds and dates and sometimes chocolate in the hood of his jellabiya (a traditional Moroccan robe). He would sit and talk with us while handing the children treats, engaging them in conversation by asking them how their day was and whether they were good students.

I enjoyed seeing my grandfather interacting with the children, and even though I was the last one to get my share of the goodies, I did not mind. On the way to our apartment, he would say, “You treat your neighbors like your own family.” Baba Moshe loved children.

In the evenings, my grandfather had many interesting stories to tell me. Some were about real life and some were imaginary fairytales. After each one he wanted me to summarize the essence of the story. I faced the challenge with excitement. I wanted to remember, to learn and see my grandfather’s face light up with a smile as he gave me a kiss on my head, adding, “You have a good memory.”

Sometimes, at first, I did not understand certain ideas, but my grandpa was patient. He would help me think through the story until I found the answer, which made me happy.

“You have it all here,” he would say, touching my head.

“Wait,” I would say, “if I had it before, why didn’t I know it the first time?”

“Ah,” he would say, “God gave us memory so we can remember. We have all the knowledge we need throughout our lifetime. But it takes time. We have to tap into it, learn, and practice. As you grow older, you master the meaning of wisdom.”

Years later I realized that encouraging me to retain information was his way of teaching me.

On Thursday we went shopping for Shabbat. I loved going to the market to see the multiple colors and to absorb the aroma of the fruits and vegetables, which infused the air. I was excited by it all. I held my grandfather’s hand and he held my heart.

That day, my grandfather bought some vegetables and fruits; he paid the vendor and received his change. We walked just a few steps and, as he was counting the change, he said, “Dear child, we have to go back. The man gave me too much change.” So we went back and he returned the money to the vendor, who blessed my grandfather, took a tangerine and affectionately handed it to me.

Honor and integrity were values I associated with my grandfather, my first teacher, whom I have endeavored to emulate throughout my life.

When he saw poor people begging on the street, he would stop and give me money to give to them. “Dear child,” he would say, “We are born with nothing and we will depart with nothing. The only thing we take with us is our good deeds.”

He taught me what it means to be human. If he saw bread on the floor, he would bend, pick it up gently, kiss it and put it aside so that no one would step on it.

He would save all the crumbs to feed the birds, and would add milk to dry bread to feed the cats. “Don’t step on ants or any crawling thing, let them also live,” he would say. I loved the tender soul of this man called Baba Moshe.

In those days, I would only look up as I walked the streets. My grandfather would say, “Dear child, also look down where you walk. When you only look up, you do not see people’s suffering and when you only look down, you lose sight of what it is like to have a sense of hope and to strive to better life on earth.”

These words instilled in me the feeling that no matter how rich or educated, one must be humble and grateful. Help others, even in some minuscule way, and work with others toward bringing about Tikkun Olam (to repair the world).

The Torah was the lifeline to our culture. It encompassed every aspect of life. We practiced its teaching with love which gave meaning and purpose to our daily existence. My grandfather, with a nostalgic sigh, would tell me, “Your forefathers wrote Zohar (Kabbalah) in the desert.” I did not understand what he meant, but I listened. Human ethics, honoring one’s roots, and respecting religious differences were part of my Jewish heritage that I valued and that played an essential part in my upbringing.

My grandma Esther always had her head covered with a hand-embroidered scarf. She was kindhearted, and I loved her. She always had a box filled with dried fruits and nuts and allowed me to treat myself whenever I wanted a snack. Everyone referred to her as the archivist of the family. She remembered everything in detail about our family history. She did not read or write, yet she had a keen intelligence and her own personal gems of wisdoms.

Friday morning my grandma began cooking for the Shabbat. Helping her made me feel grown-up. The aroma of Shabbat cooking made me wish for dinnertime to come sooner.

After we bathed for Shabbat, my grandma put a scarf of hand-made embroidery on my head and took me to the mirror: “Look how beautiful you are.”

She lit and recited the prayer over the Shabbat candles, blessed and kissed me, and wished Shabbat Shalom to each of one us.

The table was set with two breads covered with a hand-embroidered cloth, salt, wine, and the cup for Kiddush.

After his return from the synagogue, my grandfather would bless me with his hand on my head, kissing my head, and when he finished, I would kiss his hand.

Finally, grandpa recited the Kiddush blessing, followed by the long-awaited Shabbat meal. The longing for the return to Zion was a dream and part of my grandfather’s daily prayers. The aura surrounding Friday night was always a spiritual experience.

After dinner grandpa said Birkat Hamazon, a blessing to thank God for the food. My grandfather would tell me stories and my grandma always sang me a song or two before going to bed. I loved her soothing voice.

That Saturday, my grandpa went to the synagogue as usual. At about noontime he came home accompanied by two of his friends. His white Shabbat clothes and his beard were spotted all over with blood. His friends told my grandmother that on his way to the synagogue, two Muslims pulled his beard and beat him until he fell down. Since he was too injured to return home and was close to the synagogue, he went there instead. This story left me even more scared of the outside world.

After lunch, his friends went home and everyone took a nap. When I woke up, it was getting dark. My grandpa said, “Let’s go outside to see the stars.”

Outside the apartment he had a small garden of roses and geraniums. We leaned on the fence as we counted the stars. There were only two. We could not make Havdalah until we saw three stars in the night sky.

I looked at the flowers, which were in full bloom. I asked who makes the flowers grow. He answered “God.” After asking other such questions, I asked him who made God. He would pat my head and say, “Dear child, do not ask such questions. Our mind is finite, and too limited to understand the infinity of God.”

I did not understand what he was saying. I was curious, but I asked no more such questions.

I was agitated and upset. How could anyone inflict such violent acts on my beloved grandfather, who loved and was loved by children and adults alike and who had never done any harm to any living thing?

I was experiencing a feeling that I had never felt before. I must have said that if I were to see those bad people, I would beat them up, or that I hated them, something to that effect. My grandpa touched my head gently and said, “Dear child, do not hate. The Muslims are our brothers and the gentiles are our cousins. We are all God’s children, thus we have to treat all God’s children with dignity and respect. These people did not know what they were doing.”

His words were like an eternal torch, kindling the light to give meaning and purpose in life, reminding me of the importance of human values, which, throughout my life, I aspired to emulate.

My grandpa made Havdalah, blessing the wine, smelling the fragrance of spices, and lighting the candle to differentiate between Sabbath and the weekdays.

My mom came on Monday to take me home and learned what had happened to her father on the Sabbath. She was upset and cried. I felt her anguish. What had happened to my beloved grandfather, coupled with my own experiences of persecution, left me saddened, fearful and more traumatized.

A year later, all I knew of unconditional love was swept away.

In the middle of the night, with nothing but the clothes on our backs, we were driven to the port of Casablanca. There, in the darkness, stood my grandfather. He gave me a big hug, kissed my head and, while he was still reciting his blessing, we were whisked away to a waiting boat.

Ahead of us lay an uncertain life, but a promising future. For days I did not speak or want to eat as it dawned on me that we were going far away from my grandparents, especially Baba Moshe, and that I might never see him again.

I was nine years old when we left Morocco, heading to France and eventually to Israel.

When the boat reached the port of Haifa, I was excited to see the Carmel Mountains. I said to myself, “Here I will be able to skip in the streets and not be afraid that I am a Jewish child.”

The power of memory can be wonderful and painful at the same time. A few years later we received a telegram. My grandfather had passed away. The hopes that I lived with—that one day I might see him again—died as well.

I screamed so loud and, in a child’s omnipotent wish, hoped to bring my beloved grandfather back to life. It didn’t work. But his noble spirit, his kindness, and his respect for the cultural and religious differences of others have stayed with me.

These values have influenced and guided my personal life and professional work.

Dear Baba Moshe, thank you for your love and spiritual gift. Your legacy has become my lifeline.  

Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner was born in Morocco, lived briefly in France and then in Israel with her family for several years. She has been living in Manhattan for the past 51 years. Ms. Holzkenner is a psychoanalyst with extensive clinical experience in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, early childhood development and family therapy. She has lectured on her clinical work to various professional organizations, including in Israel. A member of the New York City Audubon Society, she loves photographing birds, flowers, and anything visual that creates nostalgia for what we were, what we are, and what we always will be: part of nature.  Her photographs have appeared in Dance Studio Life, the Audubon Society newsletter, and Persimmon Tree, as well in a traveling exhibition on the life of Bayard Rustin.  

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Filed under Family history, Jewish identity, Moroccan Jewry

Beginning to Understand

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

A number of years ago, my wife and I joined a small group of fellow New Yorkers on a journey back in time. It was a trip that had all the earmarks of a solemn pilgrimage. A sacred mission of sorts to a place awash in tragedy and tears and the subject of countless discussions and heated arguments. We were about to land in a corner of the world where fleeting shadows have taken on human form and the ground, overcome with sorrow and tormented by unspeakable memories, yearns to reveal its secrets. Looking out the plane’s window, I began to make out the outlines of the airport below. Our jet was about to land in Warsaw, Poland.

We were all children of Holocaust survivors and wanted to see firsthand what the country was like and to appreciate how Poland, the country of our parents’ birth, had so influenced and shaped their lives. Each of us had heard the stories, the tearful recollections of a time and place that is no more. We were eager to visit the oft-mentioned towns and cities and step foot within the few existing synagogues that at one time boasted of overflowing crowds but that now stand silent, forlorn and empty.

There was much to see and experience but what remains with me above and beyond all else was a visit to the Majdanek concentration camp. This notorious extermination center is located only a short distance from the city of Lublin. Much of the camp remains remarkably intact and reminds one of a well-maintained museum. Glass enclosed exhibits contain some of the possessions that were taken from the victims upon their arrival. Eyeglasses, clothing, shoes and suitcases are all that remain of the many souls who entered this evil place.

Foot paths lead from one heart wrenching exhibit to the next and while traversing one particular path, we noticed that the path was paved with odd-shaped stones that looked strangely out of place. Upon closer examination, it became quite clear that some of the stones were actually broken sections of Jewish headstones that were likely scavenged from a nearby cemetery. Some of the stones had their inscriptions pushed face down into the soil below while others had lettering facing the heavens above.

Names of frail saintly elders, mothers who died in childbirth and children taken by illness could be easily identified. It was almost as though the stones, now severely beaten and dispirited, were directing their prayers to the blue skies overhead. They wanted nothing more than to be left in peace. “Why must the evil doers continue to harass us?” I thought I heard them whimper as nearby trees, sensing their anguish, nodded in agreement.

Some in our party began to weep while others raised their voices demanding an explanation. After all that happened here, one would have expected at least a semblance of compassion and good will. A number of workers were only a short distance away unloading headstones from the back of an old truck. Catching sight of this group of distraught Jews, they suddenly began to chuckle and laugh for, after all, this is how it was and continues to be. And for the very first time, I began to understand.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

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Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity, Polish Jewry

Deja Vu

By Sheldon Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

It should hardly be surprising that as a kid growing up in Boston during the 1950’s, I nearly always went about sporting my beloved Red Sox cap. I worshiped the Sox but wore the cap for an entirely different reason. I wore it because my father demanded that I do so. No, not because he was a fan-he was not and never had been. In fact, he could not make any sense of the sport of baseball and often wondered aloud how it was that grown men got paid by running like lunatics from one place to another.

My father was adamant and would never give an inch. No amount of arguing or pleading could possibly change his mind. “You must wear a cap. I do not want you to go out in the street with a yarmulke (skull cap) on your head. My son, there are too many people who hate us and if given the chance, would be only too happy to do us harm.” He would then relate a series of events detailing how Jews suffered in Europe–how they were demeaned, mocked and yes, at times, beaten in many a location including Poland, the country of his birth.

As a Holocaust survivor, he was in possession of a treasure trove of illustrative stories to make his point. Recollections would emerge of how unwary children were abused and ridiculed just for being Jewish. He would go into exacting detail of how the innocents were chased and often assaulted while the shouts of dirty Jews reverberated on the street. And the final insult, the coup de grace, was that the yarmulkes were nearly always pulled from the victims’ heads and proudly thrown to the ground. Joy and shouts of victory came when the yarmulke was ground into the soil, debased and spat upon. “But we’re in America,” I would helplessly chime in, “those type of people are not here.” “Listen to me my son. There will come a time when you will remember my words. There will always be people who hate us. They may not always say or do anything but they hate us nonetheless.”

My father’s insistence along with his many recollections have never left me. To this day, whenever I leave my neighborhood, I don my cap. No! Not a Red Sox cap. I now reside in New York and must be wary of all the diehard Yankee fans who would be only too happy to start up with a Red Sox guy. I work without wearing a yarmulke because I know only too well that my father would want it that way. “Don’t antagonize people. The yarmulke can bring out the worst in some.” And within the blink of an eye, he would produce a story or two to substantiate his dire warnings. When asked by co-workers or patients why it is I don’t wear my yarmulke, I never go into detail and simply reply that it’s just my custom not to do so while at work.

So what’s the point in bringing up the yarmulke at this time you may ask. Well the yarmulke has recently been in the news. Even though I initially tried convincing my father that people have changed and that we now live in an entirely different world, I must concede he was right all along. The current war in Gaza should serve as an awakening to those who are of the opinion that times have changed. That the evil our forbearers had to contend with is a thing of the past. We should all take the time and read about the appalling incidents that are so often brushed aside by many of our prominent news outlets. Worshipers being attacked outside of a synagogue or stores being threatened for carrying Kosher food are simply not news worthy.

Anti-Semitism has never left Europe and will likely never do so. This centuries old hatred raises its ugly head every so often and any excuse, no matter how inane, brings out the worst in people. Gaza just happens to be the flavor of the month. A severe downturn in the economy or unsettled weather somewhere in the Pacific is all that is needed to open the spigot once again. Occasional accounts often buried in the back of newspapers describe the hate that is on the ascendancy throughout much of Europe. The rants of kill the Jews can be heard in many a European city. Synagogues and Jewish owned concerns have once again been set ablaze. But for me, what captured my attention were the warnings from Jewish leaders that Jews in France and Belgium should no longer walk the streets wearing their yarmulkes. Boys and men were being verbally abused and beaten.

I find myself repeating my father’s words as I warn my own children to take heed and wear a cap whenever leaving the neighborhood. We are often referred to as a stiffed neck people, a proud and stubborn bunch that has defied all odds. We have learned to adjust, to adapt and persevere in spite of the challenges we must constantly face. So for the time being, at least, I encourage my children to wear a cap. It’s just safer.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears(http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity

Writing Wharton’s Wrong

by Lev Raphael (Okemos, MI)

Singing about marriage, two of Steven Sondheim’s characters in A Little Night Music condemn it for inflicting so much pain: “Every day a little death….every day a little sting.”

I felt a bit like like that in college, not because I was married, but because I was an English major.  Time after time, I’d find a book I was reading and enjoying stung me because of an anti-Semitic portrait.  There was Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, a Jewish antiques dealer in The Golden Bowl, and many more, too many to remember, but I met them at every turn in English and American books.

I understood that the authors were products of their society and a western culture that was ingrained with Jew-hatred, but it still pushed me out of the book the way a plot implausibility can make you lose faith in a movie.  I don’t remember ever not finishing a book that had a Jewish stereotype or slur, but I’d continue reading under a cloud.

Perhaps most disturbing of all for me was Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.  I had first read her Pulitzer-prize winner The Age of Innocence and fallen in love, so I worked my way devotedly through her oeuvre in paperback.  The House of Mirth was my favorite then and still is now.  It’s a stunning book about the vanity of human wishes and the damage a superficial culture can inflict on those who won’t play by its rules. Reading it for the first time in my senior year at Fordham, I was in awe: Wharton displayed an uncanny understanding of the power of shame to control behavior and crush hope.  The novel was so beautifully written, so witty and sharp-edged, such an indictment of Gilded Age New York.

And very unpleasant to read–as a Jew.  Every time the Jewish financier Simon Rosedale appeared in the book, I winced.  He was showy, loud, vulgar, spoke bad English, and came off as a buffoon when he wasn’t insidious.  Gentiles loved his money but rightly despised him, and his eye was always on the main chance.

Wharton actually pays special attention to his eyes the first time he appears, telling us he had “small sidelong eyes which gave him the air of appraising people as if they were bric-a-brac.”  How ironic that Wharton’s contempt for Jews is projected onto him, turning him into someone for whom others are merely items to assess and purchase.

Simon Rosedale does show a less mercenary side, but it’s always connected to his fierce drive to get ahead by any means necessary.  In the same way that assertive women today are seen by some people as bitches, Rosedale wanting success the way any other American might is condemned as vulgar and almost disgusting.

I hadn’t written much fiction of my own at the time, but in the following years, Jewish themes would predominate.  I often found myself returning to writers who inspired me in college, writers like Henry James and Lawrence Durrell who were hardly philo-Semitic, and yes, Edith Wharton.  The sting became duller each time, but it never went away.

And then a few years ago, perhaps because I’d been reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern again, an idea hit me.  What if I did a Stoppard?  What if I told Edith Wharton’s story in The House of Mirth from Rosedale’s perspective, entered his mind, his past, his dreams, his fears? What if I made him a person, in other words, and not a stereotype?

Rosedale in Love was born, and it bore me along with it on massive amounts of reading about The Gilded Age and turn-of-the-century New York, all of it deepening my appreciation of what Wharton had accomplished in the rest of her novel.  And helping me let go of my regrets for the ways in which Wharton had lost the chance to make Simon Rosedale a real human being.

Because she left me a whole book to write.

Lev Raphael is a prize-winning pioneer in American-Jewish literature, and has been publishing fiction and nonfiction about the Second Generation since 1978. The author of twenty books which have been translated into almost a dozen languages, he has spoken about his work in hundreds of venues on three continents. His fiction and creative non-fiction are widely taught at American colleges and universities, and his work has been the subject of numerous academic articles, papers, and books. A former public radio book show host and newspaper columnist, he can be found on the web at http://www.levraphael.comHe blogs on books for The Huffington Post and reviews for the on-line literary magazine Bibliobuffet.com.

You can check out his latest book, the Jewish historical novel Rosedale in Love, at http://www.levraphael.com/rosedale.html

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity, Jewish writing

Unlikely Pair

by Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)

I don’t dare stare at this Yiddish-speaking pair;
I eavesdrop instead, not nice, but life’s tough,
Waiting here in the cold for the 44 bus.
One, white-stubbled, stooped, bushy-browed
The other, nine, scrawny, short-limbed, pale,
Under black velvet cap long sidecurls twist,
Tsitsis turned yellow beneath his vest,
Like an old book’s pages, brittle beliefs,
Each a symbol centuries in his time.
Rough sage stares at Sidecurls’ gash;
Young boy shrugs, evasive eyes.

Old man nods, tells his tale right there:
An old Riga field, survived a bomb blast,
Head ringing, a brief deaf-mute;
About, blurry lines of white lab coats,
Dying to know it, fight his fate, stand his ground.
Doctor’s voice icy now, pierces his ears:
“We’ll amp this gangrene leg in his sleep.”
Adrenalin-lava explodes to his gurgly, “Nein!”
Blue veins in taut neck thicken, loudest, “Nein!”
Docs stop dead in their muddy tracks to hear,
Mouths clamp shut as he cries out loud
Moaning heart, Shema-tongued, mouth unstilled,
So Jew-like, he survives himself alive again.

“Now, Yingeleh,” hoary one says,
“Take care of your boychik self,
And don’t take no klops from hate-filled goys,
Gedenk: we Yidden give smacks, don’t take ‘em.”
With that he hobbles into coldest night,
Leaves sadness on the sweet young face.

The little boy, guideless, sighs, confused:
Torah-seeking, no-wave-making Jew,
Or Stubbled, injustice-smashing proud one?
Ovens and gas and beatings
Now a throbbing memory in each
Like an elusive melody
Dares us to remember
Dares us to forget.

Chaim Weinstein taught English for more than thirty years at two inner-city junior high schools in Brooklyn, NY. Two of his poems, “The Shul is Dark” and “Mr Blumen,” appeared last year on The Jewish Writing Project, and an early short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne. He is currently working in several genres and is hoping to  share a larger selection of his work in the future.

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Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry