Tag Archives: being Jewish

T’shuvah

Chris Farrar (Columbus, OH)

I’ve been Jewish all my life, but for the first 17 years I didn’t know it.  It’s fair to say that I didn’t really know what “Jewish” was.  In fact, once when I was 8 or so, I went with a friend to Mass, and then told his mother – to her great delight – that I was definitely going to be Catholic.

Well wouldn’t she be surprised.

My father was raised Baptist but really had no interest in religion.  My mother’s family was Jewish, but very secular. 

I, my sister and brother were raised without any religion or religious connection.  Due to my father’s influence, I imagine, we always had a Christmas tree, we went on Easter egg hunts and generally did the things that Christian families did.  But nothing Jewish.

I grew up without any of the normal Jewish childhood experiences.  No Yom Kippur.  No synagogue.  No Passover.  No summer camp.  “David melech yisrael” would have been just a string of sounds in a catchy tune.

It was as if my mother’s Jewish heritage didn’t exist. 

So here’s what happened.

Some time in the middle of high school I underwent knee surgery and had to stay home for several days.  After exhausting all the science fiction in the house I was desperate for something to read.  The only thing I could find was “The Source” by James Michener.

This novel takes place in Israel in the early 60s.  It looks at the history of the Jews through the lens of an archaeological dig.  The site is a fictitious tel named “Makor.”   In Hebrew the word means “source.” 

When I finished that book I knew I was Jewish and I grabbed at it with both hands.  I read book after book on the history of the Jews.  I took courses.  I even joined the Jewish Defense League for a while, until I came to understand them better.

Later I lived on a kibbutz in Israel and learned Hebrew.  I taught it at the university as a TA.  I married a wonderful Jewish woman and raised three amazing Jewish children.  And now there’s a Jewish son-in-law and a new generation of Jewish grandchildren.

Early in my relationship with Judaism, after I returned from Israel, it seemed to me that the only way to be Jewish was to be ultra-Orthodox.  The Chasidim were the saving remnant, the keepers of the sacred flame.  I moved into the Lubavitcher Chabad House at UCLA.  I put on tefillin every morning.  I kept kosher.  I kept the Sabbath. 

This lasted a month.  At the end of the month I knew I couldn’t be Jewish in that way.  I wasn’t even sure I believed in God.   Not, at any rate, the way I needed to in order to live the Lubavitcher life.  That wasn’t going to be my connection to Judaism. 

Instead, as it has developed over the years, my connection has been to the Hebrew language, to the holidays, to my family and to the history of the Bible and of the land of Israel as understood through the perspective of archaeology.

So.  T’shuvah.

On Yom Kippur we think of it as repentance.

What it really means is “return.”

For me it’s been a return to a history that is my history, to a language that is my language and to a land that is my land.

And it’s a return to a book of writings so compelling in its message that it has become the foundation of our whole concept of the obligations of our shared humanity.

 And for me, more even than this, it means a return to wonder.

Who were these people, my ancestors? How did they live? How did they think?  They were a tiny outpost of humanity, living in a poor nation, smaller than many US counties.  They were ravaged horribly by powerful nations, not once but over and over again.  They lost their Temple and their sacred city but somehow, uniquely among ancient peoples, they didn’t lose their God. 

How did they, among all peoples, develop the moral, ethical and spiritual foundation now embraced by half the world’s population?

If they could see how the power of their belief has cascaded down the centuries, what would they think of it?  What would they think of the re-emergence of their nation in its own land, of the resurrection of their language?

Would they recognize their God?  Would they see Him in the miracles of the Tanakh?  Would they see Him in the rebirth of the land of Israel?  Would they see Him in the spread of their vision through Christianity and Islam? 

Or maybe they would see Him in the way a day of teenage boredom can change a person irrevocably, sending reverberations not only down the decades of his own life but also down the lives of generations to come.

So, back to t’shuvah.  Return.

Not just a return to history; but rather, perhaps, a return to the future.

Chris Farrar grew up in southern California, earned a doctorate in linguistics, and worked in technology marketing and, eventually, in data analytics. His first novel, By the Waters of Babylon, follows twelve-year-old Ya’el as she’s deported to Babylon after the siege of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The novel is available on AmazonBarnes & Noble, Kobo and Apple Books. If you’d like to learn more about Chris and his work, visit his website: christopherfarrar.com.

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Being Jewish is a Blessing

by Carol Blatter (Tucson, AZ)

Until I take my last breath, I will always remember seeing for the first time the Hebrew words calligraphed with such care on the parchment of the Torah scroll. The Torah is said to be a tree of life, Etz Chayim, for all who uphold it. That morning, standing in front of the Torah scroll, I found myself clinging to each letter, each word, and feeling lifted up with joy in a way I had never experienced before.

I had an epiphany that these were the same words my ancestors had chanted for thousands of years and which had guided our people through years of prosperity as well as years of persecution and threats to our survival. As I touched these letters and words with the yad, the silver pointer that I held in my hand, I committed myself to serving God with all my heart and with all my soul —forever. 

My love of Judaism started a long time ago.

Mom, Dad, I want to fast for Yom Kippur.

They looked startled and worried.

Sweetie, you’re only ten and you are not required to fast, only adults have to.

But I want to.

Mom and Dad hesitated. They really didn’t know what to say.

A few moments of silence.

Ok, Mom said after she got a yes head shake from my dad. You can fast until three P.M. but no later.

Growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn NY, I always knew I was Jewish. But knowing I was Jewish wasn’t the same as observing Jewishly.

I started Hebrew school. I can still see the small blue book with double lines. I can remember making a gimel. I remember dropping out of Hebrew school because of artistic pursuits including acting and dancing lessons several times a week. I couldn’t fit in one more lesson.

Wanting to be more Jewish but dropping out of Hebrew school? How did that make sense?  Looking back, it was a mistake. But this mistake was rectified years later. 

I began to learn Hebrew at the age of thirty-seven at the same time our daughter was a student at the Hebrew Academy. I thought I would help her with her homework but she didn’t need my help.

Over the years of study, my original motivation changed. I became immersed in the joy of learning Hebrew. I could translate most of the prayers and songs at the Shabbat service. I was no longer a transliterator. I was no longer a spectator. I became a seriously engaged Jew. I am a seriously engaged Jew. 

At the age of forty-four, I was called to the Torah for the first time to chant the words written with such care on its parchment.

My rabbi unrolled the Torah scroll to the portion, Re’eh, which means see.

See, be attentive. See, keep learning. See, be a responsible Jew. See, be a viable link to the future of the Jewish people. See, never forget your Jewish roots. See, make the world better.

And after all this time I now see why being Jewish is such a blessing.

Carol Blatter, a recently retired private practice psychotherapist, has contributed writings to Chaleur Press, Story Circle Network Journal,  Writing it Real anthologies101words.org, Real Women Write, Growing/ Older, and Covenant of the Generations from the Women of Reform JudaismShe is a wife, mother, and grandmother, and her greatest pleasure is listening to her precious, clever granddaughter read and create amazing stories. 

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My First Anti-Semitic Experience

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Growing up in the cooling shade

of a predominantly Jewish neighborhood,

I had been totally unprepared for the

hot sun attack of anti-Semitism.

They say the first time it happens

it leaves a lasting sunburn on your skin,

and now, some 50 years later

it still singes my soul.

First time? Indiana, I was in the

bucolic fields of the Midwest.

I descended the plane and

a passenger near me said, “You Jewish?”

“Yes,” I said, dumbfounded at the question.

“Where are your horns?” he asked.

I could only manage a weak, “What”?

I had no reference point, no rebuttal,

and that lack of response

has haunted me all these years.

I have assuredly witnessed much more since,

but my silence then and failure to answer

was and is anti-Semitism accepted.

How I wish that Indiana passenger

were in front of me right now.

I believe I would know what to say.

Even with standing in the shade now

my sunburn still remains,

as indelible as the numbers

on my grandfather’s arm.

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. 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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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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Not That Jewish

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

I constantly debate my Jewishness,
or lack thereof.
Let’s look at the facts:
I don’t know any of the 613 laws,
much less obey them.
I almost never go to shul,
except on the High Holy Days.
(Do not ask me why I go then.)
My mother was not raised Jewish,
even though her mother was.
(Can Jews skip a generation?)
My sons were Bar-Mitzvahed.
(Did that make me or them more Jewish?)
I do not follow the news from Israel,
much less the news from my local synagogue.
I do not keep kosher,
nor do I light Friday night candles.
Yet, despite all of the above,
I still feel Jewish.
I am a Jew, by God, aren’t I?
Only not that much.

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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Y’all Are Different

by Judith Rosner (Sarasota, FL) 

Growing up Jewish in New York City, I never saw myself as different.  So I was unprepared for the flat Texas landscape where a church sat on every corner and religion for many, particularly Baptists, was a way of life, not a part of life.  My husband was serving his stint in the Air Force and while Texas was foreign territory for us, compared to Viet Nam where he might have been sent, it was a slice of heaven. 

I busied myself as a research assistant at Texas Christian University and also took on a teaching position there — an Evening Division class in Sociology 101.  I thought this job would give me an opportunity to test the teaching waters, never dreaming how rough the waves could be.

“Every week when I drop you off, I feel like I’m feeding you to the lions,” my husband said as he pulled the one car we shared over to the curb and deposited me in front of the campus building where my class was to meet.  He was right.  I was a brand new teacher facing students considerably older than my twenty-three years and there wasn’t a landsman among them.  I landed in a Christian arena every Thursday evening.  Each week I prepared ad nauseum, put on a confident and competent face, and came home to collapse from the exhaustion of it all.

I gave my class an assignment to prepare an oral report on a topic in the curriculum.  One evening, a student approached me and asked, “Do y’all think I could use a Pentecostal religious sect as a topic for my report?” 

“Why don’t you stay for a few minutes after class and we can talk about it?”  I said.  I needed a little time to ponder the question.

After class, I sat down with the student and said to him, “Well, religion is one of the social systems so you can use it as a topic.  But I’d like you to present your report in the form of a social movement.”  I gave him an outline to follow.

“I’ll be interested in hearing what you have to say since I know nothing about this religious sect,” I said as I began gathering up my papers and purse.

“Oh.  Y’all must be Catholic.” 

“Catholic?  Why Catholic?”

“Y’all are from up North,” he responded. 

All the students knew I was from “up North” because of the speed at which I spoke.

“Gee, I didn’t know the two went hand in hand.”  I was biding time and I knew it.  Running through my mind were two incidents I’d buried deep in memory hoping never to unearth them.  One took place at a New Hampshire beach where a nine-year old playmate asked me my Baptismal name.  When I told her I didn’t have one because I was Jewish, she started looking for my horns.  The other was when my friend Elaine came home from parochial school at Easter time to tell me Jews killed Jesus.  The fear, the hurt returned and I looked toward the door, judged how far it was from where I sat and how long it would take me to run to it.  A whole minute passed.

“Well, then, what are you?” he asked.

Did he really think there were no other religions in the world?  I took a deep breath and said, “I’m Jewish.” 

His jaw dropped and he said in a whisper, “I met one of them once.  She was a rich girl from Dallas.”

I was afraid he’d next be looking for my horns, but instead he asked me question after question about Judaism.  I had difficulty answering many and thought, This is it!  This is all this guy is going to know about Jews.  The responsibility foisted on me as representative of my religion felt weighty.  And yet, in another way, I sensed a lightness that came from the relief of sharing my identity and finding that the greatest consequence was curiosity, not contempt — or worse.

There will always be part of me that fears I’ll hear an anti-Semitic remark and not know how to respond, or attempt to explain something “Jewish” and not get it right.  But I’m open with others about who I am and proud of my Jewish identity.  In the end, I’ve decided that if I am the only Jew people meet, I’m a really nice one to get to know . . . even if I can’t answer all their questions about my religion.  

Judy Rosner is a sociologist, leadership trainer, and executive coach.  She has published articles in the areas of leadership and management, stress and health, and women in the professions.  Her primary focus now is memoir.

For more information about Judy, you can visit her website www.therosnergroup.com.

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Questions & Answers: An Interview with Bruce Black

by Karen Blum, editor of The Tulsa Jewish Review

Bruce Black created the Jewish Writing Project, a repository of stories and poems submitted by a variety of writers as an expression of their Jewishness, and as it turns out, ours.

What prompted you to create this space for people to share?

When my family and I moved to Florida nine years ago, we discovered that most of our neighbors at our synagogue were from somewhere else—Michigan, Ohio, Maine, Wisconsin, NY, NJ, Illinois. No longer did folks have families close by
 to share stories, and many families like ours found that their family stories were being lost or forgotten. So I founded the project as a way to help people preserve their family’s stories, as well as to explore and share their Jewish experiences.

I thought if we could share stories online about what it means to be Jewish, we might get to know each other a little better.

I love that you acknowledge that we all have a different lens through which we see our Judaism, why do you think it is important to share our differing perspectives?

Sharing our different perspectives on what it means to be Jewish broadens our understanding of what it means to be a Jew. Often, we mistakenly believe that our way of practicing Judaism is the “only” way. But if you speak to enough Jews and read enough Jewish stories, you’ll come to the realization that there are as many ways of being Jewish as there are Jews in the world. Each of us may belong to the same synagogue or temple as our neighbors—being Jewish is a communal experience, after all—but each of us experience our Judaism as unique individuals and feel differently about what it means to be Jewish.

In sharing our individual understanding of what it means to be a Jew, we may help someone else better understand how he or she feels about being Jewish. Each individual story has the power to inspire others to explore their lives in search of insights into what it means to be Jewish.

What is your best advice for writing about our Jewish experiences?

You might try to make a list of people who influenced how you feel about being Jewish. Ask yourself why a certain person had such a large influence on you. What did he or she do to make you feel that you, too, wanted to be Jewish? Or you might list your most powerful memories of being Jewish. Think of an experience when you realized how much being Jewish meant to you. Then try to describe the experience so that a reader might understand how the experience changed you.

Or, try this: Take some time to think about what matters most to you about being Jewish. Maybe you love the way the light of the Shabbat candles plays on your mother’s face. Maybe you love wrapping your fingers in your father’s tallit during Shabbat morning services. Maybe you remember the first time you held a prayer book in your hands and offered a prayer as part of a minyan. Describe what it is that you love about being Jewish and makes you feel strongly about being a Jew. Start writing. See where the words take you.

This interview first appeared in the Tulsa Jewish Review, which granted permission to reprint it here. If you’d like to read more articles in the Tulsa Jewish Review, visit: http://jewishtulsa.org/our-work/Tulsa-Jewish-Review/

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Shabbat in the House on Saturn Street

by  Bonnie Widerman (Irvine, CA)

When I was very young, my parents would drop me off on a Friday night at my Auntie Ann’s house in the heart of the very Jewish Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles and go off to the movies. Auntie Ann was a petite, gray-haired woman in her 60s who was not my aunt at all — she was my father’s second cousin by marriage. But for all practical purposes, this strong-minded woman, poet, and Orthodox Jew was my West Coast grandmother. And in her home, I had my first exposure to observant Judaism.

Auntie Ann lived in a yellow stucco house on Saturn Street with her beloved terrier, Penny. It was a fascinating house for a young child, with rounded ceilings and doorways thick with mint green textured plaster that made me feel as if I was stepping inside a birthday cake. “Come, let’s bench,” she’d say as the sun began to set. I’d stand beside her in the muted dining room as she lit two thick, white candles in a simple, multi-branched candelabra and recited a blessing over them. The flames made shadows dance on the walls and I remember feeling safe and peaceful there.

Auntie Ann and I would eat Shabbat dinner together in her spacious kitchen where the sink was always full of plants, the oven doubled as a breadbox, and the light bulb in the refrigerator was loosened to avoid turning on a light on Shabbat. When it was bedtime, I’d crawl under the crisp white sheets of a pull-out bed in the brown warmth of her study.

In the morning, we’d walk to Mrs. Van Gelder’s house for “Shabbos Group.”Peeking over the edge of the serving table, I’d marvel at plates loaded with pickles and sweets and other delicious-looking foods I’d have to wait for while the women talked in the living room. I’m not sure what they talked about–the week’s Torah portion or the Vietnam War or Israel–but I will always remember the way my Auntie Ann spoke. Although she had emigrated from Russia to Philadelphia when she was a toddler and spoke English like any other American, her speech was peppered with enough “Jewish” (Yiddish) that it sounded like secret code to me.

Late in the afternoon, we’d walk back to Auntie Ann’s house, where she’d doze in her yellow arm chair with Penny curled up in her lap as the sun began to set. When Shabbat was nearly over, we’d sit in darkness until her timer clicked loudly and turned on the lamp. Later, we’d turn on the TV news to catch up on what had happened in the world until my parents came to pick me up.

On Friday nights at home, my family also had a special Shabbat dinner together and lit candles. But it was different. Being Jewish was very important to us, even though we were not very observant. But it didn’t quite permeate every moment of our lives the way it did in my Auntie Ann’s home. And although Auntie Ann is gone now and so is the house on Saturn Street, the memory of the way being Jewish wrapped around us in that house has stayed with me over the years and has inspired my own Jewish observance in so many ways.

Bonnie Widerman has been a corporate writer and communications manager for more than 20 years. She also writes stories and poetry and has had poems for children published in Ladybug magazine and Fandangle. Bonnie is currently seeking publication for her book-length manuscript chronicling the year she spent saying Kaddish for her mother, who passed away in 2008 from ALS.

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