Tag Archives: blessings

Sabbath Candles

By Rick Black (Arlington, VA)

I tell myself these are candles of joy.
Of peacefulness, quiet and repose.
Of blessings, rejoicing
and song.

Usually I light yahrzeit candles,
memorial candles, Yom HaShoah candles.
And they rekindle memories
of those I have lost.

But tonight I light
the wicks of Sabbath candles.
The scent of their smoke lingers—
the smoke itself, too.

I recall my mother,
lighting candles years ago—
closing her eyes to usher in
the angels of peace,

the living and the dead.
Indeed, how many years is it?
The Sabbath candles alit
and their glow.

Rick Black is a prize-winning poet and book artist. To read a few poems from his award-winning collection, “Star of David,” please visit http://www.turtlelightpress.com/products/star-of-david/  Currently, he is at work on a limited edition artist book of Yehuda Amichai poems entitled, “The Amichai Windows.” You can learn more about it at his blog, www.amichaiwindows.com.

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

My First Aliyah

by Judith Rosner (Sarasota, FL) 

I sat between my husband and brother and watched the snow falling through the stained glass windows of the synagogue as I folded and unfolded the piece of paper in my hands that held the prayers said before and after a Torah portion is read.  My cousin Walter sent them to me in the mail, written in Hebrew along with the English pronunciation.  I practiced saying them on and off during the two-hour drive from our home to Princeton, New Jersey where the synagogue was located and where his son, David, was to be bar mitzvahed.  I was both nervous and excited to be called to the bimah for an aliyah with my brother.  It was my first time.

Expecting a Reform service, since that’s how I remembered Walter being raised and where I feel most comfortable, I was surprised to find myself surrounded instead by the songs and prayers of my childhood—the cadence of a Conservative Jewish upbringing I long ago left behind. 

While my brother and all the boys went to Hebrew School preparing for their bar mitzvahs, I was sent to Sunday School with the other girls.  Our teacher, Mrs. Sands, was a beautiful, young Israeli.  She exuded class and charm and had a figure we adolescents dreamed of having as adults.  Full of life and ready with a smile, she had short, blonde, wavy hair.  Her dangling earrings would catch the light and brighten the glow about her.  Mrs. Sands had us mesmerized as we learned how to read Hebrew from a book similar to the English reader, “Dick and Jane.”   She taught us how to speak conversational Hebrew and to write in Hebrew script.  She led us in Israeli folk dances and taught us Israeli songs. 

Then one Sunday when we arrived for class, Mrs. Sands wasn’t there and we were told she wasn’t coming back.  Most of us figured she was let go because we were having too much fun and the Rabbi wasn’t happy about that.  Another theory was that she pronounced Hebrew words in the more modern, Israeli way.  In the end, all we knew was that the Rabbi fired her.  We never found out why.  And the injustice of his act led to an act of my own.

I decided I was done—done with Sunday School, done with the synagogue and its sexist rituals, done feeling warmly toward the religious teachings of my youth.  If Mrs. Sands wasn’t welcome, I didn’t want to be part of the establishment that didn’t want her.

I was pulled from my childhood memories as I heard the Cantor call my name along with my brother’s.  The English “Judy Rosner” sounded out of place, but then the Cantor used my Hebrew name, Y’hudite.  It rang true and sounded just right.  I was shaking as I took my place before the Torah scroll open on the reading table.  I felt a catch in my chest that made me worried I might cry.  Somehow I managed to say the prayers I had practiced along with my brother.  My daughter told me later she could barely hear me over my brother’s boom.  My husband was kinder and told me my voice complemented my brother’s nicely.

When we finished reciting the prayer after the Torah reading, the Cantor began moving me to the other side of the reading table.  I wasn’t tuned into the choreography of Torah reading, which he soon realized as he muttered somewhat annoyed under his breath, “No one seems to know where to go.” 

Rather boldly, I whispered back, “That’s because it’s my first time.”

“Your first time?” the Cantor asked incredulously.  “We’ll have to do something about that.”

And then came the best part.  The Rabbi rolled the Torah together and put a cloth on top as if to say, “Well get back to you in a moment,” and then he and the Cantor sang a special prayer just for me because it was my first aliyah.  Then the whole congregation sang the congratulatory song “Siman Tov! Mazal Tov! In effect, I was becoming bat mitzvahed, Conservative-style.  I felt proud, beautiful, and very special.  Mrs. Sands would have approved.

This wasn’t just a religious coming of age moment for me.   It was a political one as well.  Here I was, a woman in a Conservative synagogue, permitted to stand at the bimah and given an honor.  The synagogue of my youth would stand for no such thing.  Women took no part in the service, were not bat mitzvahed, and were never called up to the ark.

So now that G-d’s house has accepted me—on some of my terms, anyway—I feel better able to open my sanctuary, my heart, to G-d.  I still haven’t forgiven my childhood Rabbi for firing Mrs. Sands, and I still feel a bit like a foreigner in a Conservative synagogue, but I’m delighted that women now play a greater part in the service and that female rabbis have made their way to the bimah. 

I’ve been honored with an aliyah a number of times with my husband in recent years, most notably at the bat mitzvah of our daughter.  And each time I’ve been nervous and excited when singing the prayers.  However, none has had the emotional impact of my first time before the Torah at the Conservative synagogue in Princeton, New Jersey at the bar mitzvah of my young cousin, David.

Judith 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 websitewww.therosnergroup.com.

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Inheritance

by Bonnie Widerman (Irvine, CA)

There is a hole in the fabric of my Jewish childhood,
something missing, gone, nowhere to be found,
though I’ve searched my childhood home high and low—
Not for a beautifully crafted Tallit left behind.
I was never given one—no girl was in those days.
Not for a handmade Challah cover,
embellished with my awkward scrawling and designs.
Surely that fell apart years ago.
Not for my mothers Shabbat tablecloth,
white patterned fabric with a neatly scalloped edge.
All her tablecloths lie exactly where she kept them
when she was alive.
No. The treasure I inherited and lost all at once
was the very fabric of my mother’s Jewish life,
embodied in her Shabbat candlesticks—
A wisp of white smoke threading through the air
from an extinguished match.
A blessing in two voices, intertwined.
Two dancing flames casting shadows on the wall,
knitting our family together in Sabbath peace.
After my mother passed away, her candlesticks vanished
as if they were that matchstick smoke.
When I stand in her kitchen and look up at the shelf
where those pillars of blue-green enamel and brass once stood,
I feel the weight of their absence—and hers—in my heart.
I cannot bring back what is gone.
But the pattern of lighting candles with my mother
week after week, year after year,
is woven into the fabric of my life.
It unfolds into blessing every Friday night
as I light Shabbat candles at my own family’s table
with my daughters by my side.

Bonnie Widerman is the Director of Marketing & Communications for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, a national non-profit organization. She has been a professional writer and corporate communicator for more than 20 years. In her free time, she writes stories and poetry and her work has appeared in Ladybug magazine and Fandangle. Bonnie is currently editing a manuscript entitled, Her Kaddish: A Jewish Woman’s Journey through Mourning, which she wrote during the year she spent saying Kaddish for her mother, and which she hopes to share with others facing a loss.

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A Blessing for our Sons and Daughters

by Cheri Scheff Levitan (Atlanta, GA)

On Friday night, the eve of the Sabbath, it is customary to bless one’s children.  The traditional blessing for boys is “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe” (Genesis 48:20). Why be like them?  These brothers — contrary to Cain and Abel — lived in peace and set good examples for their family and community.  While having noble traits and aspirations, my preference is to bless my son with, “May God help you become and do the best YOU that you can in this world.”  

The traditional prayer for girls is “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.”  The movie Fiddler on the Roof, however, offers a subtle change in its song, Sabbath Prayer.  Instead of repeating the customary blessing offered for girls, a challenge comes in the form of “May you be like Ruth and like Esther.”  This statement calmly floats by in the song without ruffling any feathers; either because it is not noticed or no one cares to delve into its actual meaning.

Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah are the matriarchs of the Jewish faith.  They played strong supporting roles in the achievements of their husbands– Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Ruth and Esther are not considered to be matriarchs, yet they are the only two women to have books in the Hebrew Bible that are named for them.  They were strong women who played leading roles and took matters into their own hands to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.  The prayer from Fiddler is therefore saying, “Be like Ruth and Esther, smart and independent women, who not only take control of their own destinies, but model and guide the future of the Jewish people as well.”

The Book of Ruth is read on the holiday of Shavuot and the Book of Esther on Purim.  A careful reading of each reveals two very different women, from different times and backgrounds, who accomplish tremendous things. Ruth, a non-Jew, chooses to leave her own people to join the Israelites.  She exhibits acts of faith, modesty, integrity, bravery, and loyalty.  The Davidic line and the Messiah ultimately descend from her.  Esther, by contrast, initially does not display the noble acts for which Ruth is known.  She hides her Jewish name and background to put herself on display to win a beauty contest, and she marries the non-Jewish king.  But, once she becomes Queen of Persia, she ultimately risks her crown and life to save the Jewish people from Haman’s anti-Semitism.  In the end, Esther displays tremendous cleverness, bravery, loyalty and leadership.  It also is interesting to note that the men in their lives, Boaz and King Ahashverosh (a non-Jew) respectively, give Ruth and Esther the support, deference, and respect they deserve.

The wish “May you be like Ruth and like Esther” is an impossibly daunting challenge that is offered to both men and women as well as to Jews and those of other faiths.  It is difficult to be like one of these women, let alone both of them simultaneously.  Regardless, we cannot ignore this message.  The stories of Ruth and Esther reflect very important challenges, as well accomplishments, that have taken place throughout Jewish history.  They also highlight changes — changes in identity, ways of living Jewishly, and ways of imagining what is possible for both women and men — that we must face today.

What kind of blessing or wish do you have for your child?

Cheri Scheff Levitan shares stories and thoughts about being Jewish on her blog, Through Jewish Eyes (http://throughjewisheyes.com/), where this excerpt first appeared. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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Writing Practice: Counting the Omer

Over the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot we count the omer each day, marking the period between our liberation as slaves in Egypt and our receipt of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

It’s a period of counting when we reflect on the link between slavery and freedom, and it’s a time when we can reflect, too, on the blessings of our lives.

You can use these days to count your blessings and to think about how your life is different in freedom than it might have been in slavery.

Why not take a moment to make a list of blessings that you are grateful for each day?

Then choose one of these blessings and ask yourself why you feel it’s a blessing.

How does it change your life into something remarkable?

What is it that makes something– or someone– a blessing?

You might describe how you first came to understand this something or someone as a blessing.

And then you might expand your thoughts and discuss how you’ve grown or changed as a result of this blessing in your life.

For more information on counting the omer, visit:
http://www.aish.com/h/o/lac/48971726.html
http://www.jewfaq.org/holidayb.htm
http://www.chabad.org/generic_cdo/aid/130631/jewish/Sefirat-HaOmer.htm
http://www.ritualwell.org/holidays/countingtheomer/
http://www.uscj.org/Counting_the_Omer_an6375.html

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Writing Practice: Simple Acts

The simplest acts in our lives–from breathing to brushing our teeth to bending over to lace our shoes–are sometimes taken for granted.

Can you think of an act that you perform daily or weekly which you may overlook in your rush to catch the bus on your way to school or as you hurry to your next office meeting?

Maybe it’s the moment at your desk when you take the first sip of your morning coffee.

Or maybe it’s when the phone rings and you hear a loved one’s voice.

Or see a rainbow from your car window.

Or hear a new song on the radio.

Take a moment to think of the blessings in your life… and then write about a specific moment in which you first recognized that moment as a blessing.

Once you’ve written down the bare bones of the moment–go back and re-read what you’ve written.

Can you find a Jewish element in the moment?

And can you flesh out that Jewish element as part of that moment?

Here’s the beginning of a draft that I came up with:

Sunday Morning Doughnuts

It’s early Sunday morning, and I’m sitting at Dunkin’ Donuts after dropping my daughter off at Hebrew school.

On the table in front of me I’ve set a medium cup of coffee (extra light, no sugar), steam rising above the rim, and, on a paper napkin, a chocolate frosted doughnut.

I lift the doughnut to my lips and, before biting into it, say a blessing to thank God for allowing food to be grown and processed and made into something as delicious as a doughnut.

This simple act of blessing the doughnut–or any food that passes my lips–is my way of acknowledging God and reminds me of  all that flows out of God and how I’m as much a part of that flow of energy as the wheat and sugar and chocolate (not to mention the human labor) that goes into the creation of the doughnut.

But part of me wonders–in the very act of saying the blessing– how I can say such a blessing if I doubt God’s existence?

Does my doubt–as slight or great as it may be on any given day– make the blessing hollow, hypocritical?

These two conflicting poles–wanting to acknowledge and thank God on the one hand, but doubting God’s existence on the other–pull me in different directions.

On some days I gravitate toward one pole; on other days, toward the other. The tension is always there. It’s part of my Jewish identity, an internal debate reflecting, perhaps, my American-Jewish soul.

As an American, I try to be open to the world. I want to be free of the shackles of the Old World, to explore new ways of living. But as a Jew I look a bit dubiously at the New World. I want to be faithful to the past and to the faith of my forefathers and my Jewish heritage.

How am I supposed to reconcile these two conflicting impulses? Are they conflicting impulses or simply different sides of the same issue regarding faith?

Do I just learn to live with them or, ultimately, must I choose one or the other?

Can both–faith and doubt– co-exist simultaneously, or must one conquer the other and emerge the victor?

And then I take a bite of the doughnut, and all my questions of faith and doubt dissolve in the moment of savoring the taste of chocolate frosting.

Let us know what you discover about being Jewish in the simple acts of your daily life when you get a chance.

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, writing practice