Tag Archives: being Jewish

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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Filed under American Jewry, Brooklyn Jews, Jewish identity, Judaism, poetry

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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Filed under American Jewry, Brooklyn Jews, Family history, Jewish identity, poetry

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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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity