Tag Archives: assimilation

Rescuing The Past

By Sheldon P Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

At a recent tag sale, I happened upon an item that just didn’t seem to belong there.

The sale took place at a small, non-descript house that stood out in sharp contrast to every other home on the street. Flakes of peeling paint littered the walkway and elongated weeds stood at solemn attention in the narrow front yard. A bold white and red sign proclaiming “Tag Sale Today was affixed to the porch and, within no time at all, brought forth a gush of interested opportunists in search of a good buy. I happened to be in the area and decided to stop and take a peek.

A wobbly screen door let out a high-pitched screech as I entered the premises. Once inside, I found myself transported back in time. There had been little if any updating over the years. What had been purchased sixty or seventy years ago now lay scattered about in every direction waiting to be pushed, poked and squeezed by a multitude of inquisitive fingers.

Initially, there was very little that caught my eye, but, upon entering the kitchen, I couldn’t help but notice a black and white photograph that seemed to be out of place. It lay partially covered by some old books and faded documents that had been carelessly tossed onto an old wooden table. In a dented tarnished metal frame was the picture of a solemn man dressed in what was likely his Sabbath attire. His distinctive cap and long unruly beard identified him as an observant Jew who, more than likely, had resided somewhere in Eastern Europe generations earlier. His sad eyes and resolute face immediately caught my attention. It was a face that could have served as the ideal cover for a book containing stories of a difficult existence in a far off place filled with conflict, tumult and hardship. The man in the photograph was silent but I could sense his strength and determination, and his desire to free himself from the past.

After picking up the picture, I asked the middle-aged fellow who was in charge of the sale if he knew the identity of the man in the photograph. “I think it was my wife’s grandfather,” he answered indifferently. “You see, this house belonged to her father, and, after his death, we decided it was time to empty the place of his belongings before we put the house on the market. My wife is fairly certain that the man with the beard was her father’s father. The photo was taken way back when in the old country. We have no use for it so if you want it, I’ll throw in the picture if you decide to buy anything else.”

Rather than have it end up in the trash, I bought a small-framed etching that I really had no use for and left with the picture pressed firmly to my side.

After getting into the car to head home, I glanced over at the front passenger seat where the picture lay and got to thinking about how little family photographs and mementos mean to some people. After all, this was more than likely her grandfather, the one person who was a critical link in a long chain of family members who played a role in her being here. There was not the slightest reservation about disposing of the only photograph that she possessed of her grandfather. It also got me to thinking about all of the other personal or religious items belonging to departed loved ones that so often appear at tag sales.

Elderly parents or grandparents may have kept personal mementos and prized religious items hidden in a drawer or cabinet and would, with the utmost respect and adoration, take them in hand during holidays, family events and special occasions. After loved ones pass on, children suddenly abandon old photographs, prayer books, prayer shawls, and other ceremonial items, and grandchildren feel no attachment to what are viewed as meaningless outdated relics.

The picture got me to thinking about how easy it is for some of us to jettison our history, our culture and, yes, our own identities. The man in the photograph was on a mission. It’s as though he came here to remind me that, like it or not, we can never escape from the past.

We must never forget who we are.

To this day, I don’t know his name but he resides in a new frame that hangs on the wall as you enter my home.

“Who’s the man with the beard?” a number of visitors have asked while pointing to the picture on the wall.

“I have no idea,” I reply, “but he belongs here, he just belongs here.”

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, Jewish writing

Understanding My Roots

by Ronni Miller (Sarasota, FL) 

“Flexibility is Jewish survival…the rabbis may inveigh against assimilation, but it’s why we’ve survived for six thousand years.  We assimilate, but we still keep our pride of identity. And we keep our holy books.”  from Inventing Memory by Erica Jong

Why is my favorite word.  What is a close second.  Why is it important for me to know when I became aware of my Jewishness? What were the important circumstances that caused this to happen? And why have I chosen to adhere to my roots?

I run the tape of my memory backward to find answers and see a winter morning when my father escorted me, a seven year old, up a flight of dark stairs above a restaurant to a shul (a new word for me) in Irvington, New Jersey. The room was filled with children. There was a strong odor of chicken. Waiting for us was a man dressed in black.  

I was resistant to this new adventure. My mother had told me “it will be good for you” (a phrase already suspect since she had told me raw eggs in a glass of milk, and boiled rice with sugar floating in a bowl of milk, were also good for me). I sighed the sigh of one knowing the routine. Try it. If you don’t like it, we’ll find something else.

I was the first-born child of Jewish artistic and intellectual parents who dressed me in pinafores to play in sandboxes and watched over me as a china ornament. Other Jewish kids were something else.  Boys my age were all bigger and fatter, and the girls had ringlets and bows in their hair. (My straight hair never took to the curling irons that my mother tried endlessly to work.)  I didn’t want to know the boys, especially when their spitballs hit my cheeks, or the girls, whose giggles greeted my tears. The man dressed in black kept his back turned to us while he wrote strange symbols on the blackboard.

I preferred the company of my new boyfriend, the son of the minister who lived across the street in a little house next to the church.  Every morning we walked to first grade together. He told me that I was the prettiest angel in the Christmas pageant that we had performed before our winter vacation. I had begged long and hard to appear in the show, and I was very proud of my paper wings, which had disappeared from my bedroom the day after the show ended. 

I didn’t say so, but I suspected that this Sunday school shul idea had something to do with him, the Christmas pageant, and my performance of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” My pouting and my tears ended the Sunday school project but also curtailed my friendship with the minister’s son. Once again I stayed home for my Jewish education, and learned to light the candles on Friday night, sip out of a glass for the Kiddush prayer, and say a prayer over the store bought challah. I accepted my loss of a friendship.

As a shy, quiet child I preferred reading to playing king of the mountain and was left to my own devices after secular school, only to endure my mother’s question when she would occasionally look up from her own book: “So, why don’t you go outside and play with the other kids?” She was less likely to bother me if I was engrossed in The Bible In Pictures, an adult book that I found on my parents library shelves. It had a big, purple cover and was filled with black and white original drawings by the artist Gustave Dore.

The black and white print of “The Creation Of Light” on the first pages, with rays of light shooting out of black, gray clouds, appealed to my sense of mystery.  The lines on the adjacent page– “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form and empty…”– were words that also piqued my curiosity.  It was the pictures and the words, not anything religious, which appealed to my imagination in the same way that I could imagine being transported to other countries like Switzerland where I could play with Heidi and Peter. Books were far more reliable friends than kids playing in the schoolyard at recess or on the sidewalk by our apartment house. They ignored me while I hung on the sidelines and observed their actions.

Alone, I was free to imagine. I could pretend to be a famous writer and adventurer. I could imagine a ride on the bus alone, while in real life I sat next to Daddy when we traveled to his office on Saturday.  I could imagine my walk to the library alone, while in real life I held onto my Mother’s hand when we went together after school. Dependency gave me the freedom to wonder about the people who weren’t Jewish and why we weren’t supposed to talk about being Jewish when we were in their company, which seemed to be the majority of people in my school, apartment house, and neighborhood.

When we moved to the suburbs of South Orange, several miles away, again I heard the mantra– It will be good for you — voiced by my parents.  What were they talking about, I wondered, as I played alone or read a book in my own room, a preteen feeling like an outcast?

But then I was delivered to another Jewish class at a new temple that was housed in a mansion. It was a September afternoon, two months after I had been whisked away from our brick apartment house with its cacophony of buses and cars, and plopped into a completely different setting of quiet, tree-lined streets and wide lawns the size of parks where cars barely passed by. 

Chauffeured by my mother, who picked me up in my father’s Buick from my fifth grade class, I was deposited at the door of a castle, or so the mansion looked to me. I walked alone inside and found a room filled with other preteens sitting on chairs that included a protrusion for a desk. I slipped into a chair in the back row.  A woman stood in front of the blackboard and faced us.  On the board behind her were written the words: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But, If I am only for myself, who am I?  If not now, when? Hillel”

I was mesmerized by the words on the board. This was exactly how I felt as the girl who had just shorn her braids and spoke with a voice barely heard. The teacher spent the rest of the term drawing me out so that I learned Hebrew letters, those same symbols I had seen on the blackboard in an earlier classroom, and I learned faster than any of my peers.  The romance of another language, the chance to learn about philosophers like Hillel and to hear stories about mystics in the Kaballah, a favorite topic of the rabbi, piqued my curiosity about Jewishness. It was a far different Jewishness than the one I found at my grandfather’s Seder table, where only Hebrew was spoken and he read for what seemed like hours from the Haggadah. 

Red shoes and a mixer brought out again the mantra–It’ll be good for you.  My mother’s argument was that I needed to meet Jewish boys and girls my age, which was somehow tangled with an unknown future and the possibility of marriage. The red shoes had a square, sturdy heel. They were an attempt at compromise since I wanted Capezio’s, the light pastels with a spool-like heel that I had heard the girls talking about at school. I never wanted to go to the mixer, even though my mother told me it would be an opportunity to mix into my new neighborhood and it could set me on the right path to my future. The only thing good about the mixer that I could see was that it was to be held at the temple in one of the ballrooms of the old mansion, a place that to me held a mystery of bygone years with possible magical powers.  Maybe it would have the energy to transform me into a princess instead of the ugly duckling that I was sure I was, and just maybe there might be a prince.

Wearing stockings for the first time—and pulling at a thread causing a run—was how I entered the room. The boys were dressed in blazers and long pants, and the girls wore colorful, adult looking dresses with Capezio shoes. I stood there in my clunkers, although they were red not brown like my school oxfords, and wore a plaid first-day-of-school dress.

We sat on the floor in a circle to play the first of the mixer games.  Each girl had to put one shoe in the center of the circle, and the boys, one by one, had to find the shoe and its owner. The last shoe of twenty was a red one with a flat heel, not a spool one, and I’m not sure who was more embarrassed—the last boy or me, the last girl.   For the rest of my schooling in that community, I thought of myself as the one-who-stuck-out. Only a handful of Jewish girlfriends, far from the popular clique, saved me from total social annihilation.

Subliminal messages to stay within the tribe followed me into middle school and high school. I only accepted dates with Jewish boys.  Although our tribe was again the minority in the community, I knew my future mission was to marry a Jewish husband after I graduated from college. Listening to our reform rabbi talk about the Kaballah still intrigued me, as did all things magical. Yet being a nonconformist, I wasn’t interested in joining Jewish youth groups. The males I read about weren’t Jewish as they swept through life on battlefields in Europe, safaris in Africa, and farms in Salinas Valley. I wondered about those blond and blue-eyed men who lived outside my world of dark hair and bony noses. 

Yet, I clung to my Jewishness internally as I wandered more into the secular world of theater in New York on Saturdays and into the local town newsroom, never feeling I had quite hidden my heritage enough. In fact, offered the opportunity by my mother one morning to have a “nose job,” the popular cosmetic change in my high school years that would transform Semitic looking girls into pug-nosed peers and make them more popular to boys, I thought about it and announced the next morning that I would take my chances in life as I was, bony nose and all.

I actually heard two messages with that offer. One was to mask at least the visual aspects of being Jewish, and the other was to accept the state of prejudice against Jews.  At the time I was sure of my answer to remain as I had been born and see what would happen in my life. I remember using those words to explain my refusal. I’ve never regretted my decision.

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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Jewish Identity: A Round-Trip Journey

by Donna Swarthout (Bozeman, MT)

A life-long discomfort with institutionalized Judaism is hard to shed once you reach the mid-life years. Sure, it’s great to keep an open mind, but there’s also the sense of not wanting to waste time on pursuits unlikely to enrich one’s life. Some of us narrow our options as we get older in a bargain to reduce the odds of having regrets.

Years of involvement with synagogue life had left me without a strong Jewish identity. This could be my own fault for not making a large enough personal investment, at least that’s what our rabbi and congregation president hinted at when we recently decided not to renew our annual membership. What was it that held us back? Years of trying to fit in, find meaning in the services, and carve out time and money for the responsibilities of membership had left us feeling….well, unfulfilled.

But something shifted when we moved to Germany in July of 2010. The vague contours of my Jewish identity gradually took on a clear shape. This was not a transformation of faith, but rather a return to the embrace of German Jewish culture, to the memories of my childhood when I was surrounded by relatives who all spoke with the same New York German Jewish accent and whose lives were a story from a faraway place that I could only imagine.

In a place where Jewish life had been all but extinguished, our family took part in building a new Jewish presence on German soil. A void was filled as I attended services in Berlin among people who shared my ancestry and my determination to revive a part of what had been lost. The sense of connection to Jewish traditions and rituals was present for me in a way that it had never been in the States, at least not since I had left the East Coast at the age of eight to become a California transplant.

Back in the States we were part of the melting pot of Jewish America. Despite all the benefits that come from our diversity, there was also something missing that I had never before been able to put my finger on. In Germany I realized that the missing element was a common cultural heritage that connects us.

As assimilated Americans, we have Jewish identity issues that German Jews don’t have. We come together to share Jewish rituals, but the feeling does not always or often run very deep. We remind ourselves that we come from a long historical tradition that must be kept alive, but we may not feel this in our bones. We worry about things like building funds and membership growth, but how do such pressures help build our Jewish identities?

It was the return to the States that cast a sharper light on the questions that I had struggled with for so long. The journey back to my roots had helped me to find the core of my Jewish identity, but the old doubts about how to lead a meaningful Jewish life resurfaced upon my return to Montana.

One of the first discussions I had with our rabbi after our return was about my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Olivia had been struggling for quite some time to decide if her coming of age ritual would be a bat mitzvah or something outside the Jewish faith. As I listened to the rabbi recite the long list of official guidelines, I was stunned to hear that she would be required to keep a punch card to mark her attendance at services. She would need to have ten punches on the card during the year leading up to her bat mitzvah, with no free coffee or hot chocolate to reward her at the end!

I’m troubled by the image of my daughter holding up her punch card to the rabbi after Friday night services. Would my daughter really be more Jewish when the card was full? If she learned her Torah portion and the requisite prayers, why couldn’t she carve her own path to her bat mitzvah and Jewish adulthood? Wouldn’t a single profound experience at services be worth more than half a dozen boring ones? Judaism in America feels formulaic at times and the punch card rule symbolized a structure within which I often feel more constrained than inspired.

The end of a journey can bring emotions that range from elation to relief, from fulfillment to exhaustion. I returned from Berlin enriched by my involvement in one of the smallest, but fastest growing Jewish communities in the world. But I also had renewed feelings of ambivalence and doubt about my connection to American Judaism. Now I must weave these two strands of my Jewish self into a single thread of my identity. And I must not abandon the effort to find community amidst the melting pot of Jews in America.

Donna Swarthout lived in Berlin, Germany from 2010 – 2012. You can read more about her experiences on her blog Full Circle. Her work has appeared on The Jewish Writing ProjectAVIVA-berlin.de, Tikkun Daily, and in Tablet. This piece first appeared on Jewesses with Attitude (http://jwa.org/blog) and is reprinted here with the kind permission of The Jewish Women’s Archive.

 

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Digging to China

by Roslyn Bernstein (New York, NY)

Summer 1951

We wore aluminum dog tags with our religion stamped on them, so that a stranger would know where to bury us after an atom bomb attack. It was the fifties, a time when television was just beginning to appear in the East End. We lived in the West End, near our Lady of the Benevolent Sacred Heart Church, a wooden building with beige stucco walls and a stained glass window of Christ on the cross facing the Atlantic Ocean.

We were the outsiders, longing to belong, the only kids on the block who had never been inside the church, although we often stood by the heavy oak door peering in. Jewish girls didn’t attend Sacred Heart Church and they most definitely did not go to the Sisters of Charity School.

Joanne and I lived on the same block and we ate lunch together every day at school, unwrapping the silver foil on our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at a table far from the other girls. Her father, Arthur, was a lawyer who was proud to be an atheist. Her mother lit Friday night candles, but never went to synagogue.

My parents ate clam fritters on Friday night. They sent me to the neighborhood elementary school, where green paper Christmas trees adorned the classroom doors and where a torn blue and gold Chanukah menorah was taped carelessly in one corner. Joanne and I knew the words to “Silent Night” although our mothers forbad us from singing Jesus’ name. Just mouth the lyrics, our mothers said. Never, never say them.

But I never listened. I sang “Silent Night” at the top of my voice, raising my volume when I came to the words, “Holy Infant So Tender and Mild.” After all, it was forbidden. I envied Patricia Everson, the blonde girl who sat in front of me. She was always crossing herself. “Mary, Mother of God, have mercy on me,” she said before she did every long division problem. “Lord Jesus help me,” she whispered as she stood before the class and tried in vain to spell the names of the Indian tribes in New York State.

Joanne and I often talked about the bomb. She was sure that it would strike New England, where the Boston Tea Party had taken place.

“Boston is a more revolutionary place than New York,” she told me, as we sat in the wet sand, looking for jingle shells. We had studied the American Revolution two years earlier. Now, we were deep into the Cold War and Communism. I was sure that Russia was going to drop a big bomb somewhere and that we would all disappear into a mushroom cloud of smoke.

She argued with me incessantly but there was no dissuading me from this grim vision. I read the newspapers that my father brought home every evening—The World Telegram, The Evening Sun, The Journal American. I’d sit on my front porch, swatting flies, and turning the pages.

My favorite was The Journal American, a paper that included a daily editorial on the woes of communism. “Listen to this, Joanne,” I said one day as I pulled a scrap of newspaper from my beach bag and began reading the bold headline: “The Bomb is Ticking. Do You Hear It?”

Joanne shook her head. “Don’t believe everything you read,” she said. Her voice was loud and dramatic. I continued reading: “If we don’t take any action, it will explode on our hallowed soil.” “That means on our beach,” I said. “Soil means sand.”

“I’m not scared,” she said. “It’s all propaganda. They want us to be frightened.”

I twisted my dog tag as she spoke, feeling the raised letter J for Jewish that was stamped above my name. Then, I crumpled the clipping into a ball and threw it into the water.  It landed on the crest of a wave, and disappeared into the dark surf.

Born in Brooklyn, Roslyn Bernstein moved to Long Beach, New York in 1948.  A poet and journalist, she has been a professor of Journalism and Creative Writing at Baruch College, CUNY, since 1974. She earned a BA at Brandeis University and a MA and Ph.D. at New York University, and has served as the director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program at Baruch College since it was established in 1998.

This excerpt from “Digging to China” in Boardwalk Stories by Roslyn Bernstein is reprinted with permission of the author and her publisher, Blue Eft Press (www.blueeftpress.com).

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