Tag Archives: childhood

Berlin, November 10, 1938

By Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

Late on the afternoon of November 10, 1938 my mother and I were traveling home on the Stadtbahn, Berlin’s elevated train system. Fortunately we knew my father had already landed in the United States after the torment of a lengthy stay and an eventful release from the concentration camp of Buchenwald.

Now there were many details still left to be settled for the hoped-for emigration of my mother and me and we had just come from the headquarters of a government office located in another section of the city.

It was cold. Because of the winter month darkness came early. What I remember most clearly was that my mother suddenly decided to get off the train several stops before our regular one. She did not explain why, only said, “I saw something,” grabbed my hand, and pulled me with her when the train doors slid open.

What she had seen I did not understand until she and I had run down the steps at the train stop and headed toward an area which I immediately recognized as Fasanenstrasse, the street where our synagogue was located.

That evening as we got closer to the familiar building a strange scene unfolded.

A large group of people stood on the street in front of the entrance and stared silently at the magnificent synagogue illuminated by a bright glow from within. I had visited the building many times when its facade was splendidly lit, but I had never seen it so luminous, shining so brightly, as if its heart was on fire.

My mother was devout and frequently took me to services here at our synagogue on Fasanenstrasse, the home of Berlin’s liberal Jewish community. I had witnessed my first religious observance in its sanctuary and visited my first Sukkah in its enclosed rear yard.

I was introduced to the rituals of liberal Judaism here. The sound of its majestic organ and the brilliance of its choir had opened a portal to faith to me.

But its magnificent cupola had always fascinated me. When I looked upward, I easily visualized it as God’s throne. Its high golden dome became an umbrella of holiness and safety to me and I could imagine Him watching me from its heights. Under it I felt protected and sanctified.

My mother pointed her finger toward the sky. I followed her glance and saw flames shooting out of the cupola. They burned brightly in the cold evening air, sending down crackling sparks onto the synagogue roof. I thought it surprising that I heard that snapping, popping sound from so far away.

We stood at the rear of the crowd. There were smirks on many faces. What was more astonishing was the sight of several idling fire engines forming a circle around the front of the synagogue. Nearby, their crews in firemen’s uniforms stood in relaxed conversation. At a close distance there were watchers all around. But no one moved. It was eerie, as if the whole scene were a bad dream in slow motion.

It became evident that no one would put out the fire. We stood there for what seemed to me a long time.

Trembling from cold and fright, I stood in the crowd, strongly aware that something quite terrible was happening. I was heavily troubled by thoughts that ran through my head.

“Why is God allowing this? Why is He letting them destroy His beautiful sanctuary? Why is He not striking all these evil people down?”

I was an eleven-year old child living through a very upsetting time. I had already learned not to voice such dangerous thoughts.

When finally, my mother reached for my hand, we turned to leave, and silently walked back to the elevated train station.

When we reached the station, my mother said her only words.

“Remember this,” she said to me.

I have remembered. Through all these many years.

To this very day.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under European Jewry, Family history, German Jewry, history, Jewish identity

Yahrzeit: Remembering the Love

by Joel Rudinger (Huron, OH)

“May the memory of our dear one be for a blessing.”

On the evening of the anniversary of my mother’s death,
I light a match and touch it to the wick
and the Yahrzeit candle catches fire.
My wife and I recite a blessing while its flame burns brightly in
its tiny glass.
For twenty-four hours, her light will kindle memories.

Each time I pass the flame, I say, “Hi, Mom,”
and when I switch off all the lights to go to bed,
the fire of her candle flickers like a happy angel in the darkened room.
“Good night, Mom,” I say and climb the stairs.
Her silence comforts me and I know
when I come down for coffee in the morning
her silent light will still be burning.

I remember
when I was four she stared at me in panic
when a neighbor carried me home draped in his arms,
blood dripping from my forehead
after I had fallen on the upturned barbs of a chain-link fence,
how she softly took me from him,
my bleeding face dazed and whimpering on her shoulder,
her housedress turning liquid red.

I remember
when she took me trick-or-treating on Halloween evenings,
shivering on the sidewalk as her little ghost collected candy door-to-door
and the dark December nights when she held my hand
and walked with me in silence down the street
to wonder wide-eyed at the colored lights of other peoples’ Christmas trees.

I remember
her fragrant juicy apple pies with the lattice crust that
perfumed the house,
the tapioca pudding we made together for dessert,
her Sunday chicken soup that brought our family together
at the dinner table,
when she gave the blessing over the Sabbath candles on Friday nights,
closing, covering, her eyes in prayer.

I remember
her leaving afternoons to give her program “Dolls for Democracy”
in churches, synagogues, libraries and schools, holding high her little dolls,
talking about people of different faiths and cultures down through history,
what they stood for, what they believed, how they worshipped differently,
how everyone could live together in a post-war world.

I remember
when she talked my father into buying a piano we couldn’t afford
and gave me lessons.
She took me to symphonies and concerts at the Toledo Museum of Art,
to the Nutcracker ballet every year at Christmas time,
and on summer Saturdays we’d walk the marble halls of the museum
looking at old masters: Picasso, DaVinci, Brancusi, Moore.

One day at the zoo, she tossed a shiny apple to a young gorilla
who leaped to the top of his cage and whipped it down at her.
It hit her in the head and crushed and stained her new white hat.
“I’ll never do that again,” she said, as I ran off laughing.

I remember
being sunburned to blisters on the beach at Cedar Point,
how she soothed my body with Vaseline to stop the pain.
When I was in high school, she tried to teach me how to drive
as I steered my father’s car into an iron cemetery gate.
She glowed when we shared our first beer together when I was in college.
“You are now a man,” she said. “How about another?”

I remember
how she embraced my decision to leave home to go to school,
to leave home after college to try a new life in wild Alaska.
She always let me find my own way, accepted my failures without judgment,
accepted my judgments without failure.
She embraced my wife and called her a sister and a friend;
she helped me care for my daughters when they were ill.

I remember
her weekly games of mahjong and bridge with friends,
how she collected ivory Chinese figurines and displayed them
on a little shelf,
her anger when my father died,
her battles with cancer and loneliness,
then the sudden stroke that left her without voice
and frozen in her tired body till she willed herself to die.

“Good morning, Mom,” I say when I’ve come downstairs.
Her candle’s burning low but still gives out some heat.
I go into the kitchen to make the coffee.

Each year I never see her light go out
as if she wants to leave in privacy.
I visualize a sudden poof and stream of smoke and then
the candle’s glass is empty of its wax.

Next year, we will repeat the ritual.
The Yahrzeit candle will be lit.
For twenty-four hours,
her flame will bring her back to us with memories.

Joel Rudinger, currently a Bowling Green State University Professor emeritus and Poet Laureate of Huron, OH, is a graduate of the University of Alaska, the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, and Bowling Green State University. He has published numerous poems and stories in magazines such as the New York Quarterly, Colorado Review, Cornfield Review, The Heartlands Today, The Plough: North Coast Review, and New Waves.

This poem is reprinted from Symphonia Judaica (Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing) with permission of the author and publisher. For more information about Joel Rudinger’s work, visit Bottom Dog Press at http://smithdocs.net

 

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

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

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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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity

Growing Up Jewish in the South

by Jerome Massey (Fairfax , VA)

Interviewed by Rick Black (Arlington, VA)

(Rick Black and Jerome Massey met through Olam Tikvah, their shul in Fairfax, Virginia. This is the first of a two-part interview.)

RB: What was your bringing up like being Jewish in the South?

JM: I was born in Norfolk, VA, 27th of July 1922. My mother, Mollie Leibowitz, came from Latvia when she was maybe 10 years old. My father was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1900 and they got married in Norfolk, Virginia, probably around 1918-1919.

My Dad was apprenticed to a tinsmith when he was, I think, maybe 12,13,14 years old and when he was 16 years old, he finished his apprenticeship and was considered a mechanic. He claimed that he was the youngest tinsmith-mechanic on the Atlantic coast. He stayed in that kind of work til the 1920s and then he went to several other businesses.

The economic times in the early 1920s – things were good and things were bad; people made fortunes and lost fortunes. He ended up in the shoe business and worked for Hofeimer’s – that was a chain of shoe stores. He worked for them for a while and then he came up to Washington and worked for Hahn’s Shoe Company and another shoe company and then he went into business for himself.

My mother and he broke up, he remarried to Henrietta Driefus over in Alexandria, and my sister and I spent part of the year in Alexandria and part of the year in Norfolk – that went on for quite a few years. My mother remarried to Joseph Hecht, who was a watchmaker and jeweler, so I was raised by several different families. I was raised by an Orthodox family, a Conservative family and a German Jewish family.

RB: Was your mother the Orthodox side of the family?

JM: Yes, my mother came from an Orthodox family and my father’s family was Conservative. But I guess I might be what they call a universalist. I believe that all religions are basically the same and they all teach you to be a good person. And if you follow the Bible, the Pentateuch or the Koran, they are all teaching tools to teach you to be a good person. And to teach you that we’re all human. We all make mistakes but we’re all human and God put us on the earth to take care of it and make it a better place.

RB: Did being in the military influence your faith at all?

JM: I guess so. You have some very, very bad experiences and then you wonder why you’re still here and then you finally come to one conclusion: that God puts everybody on earth for a reason, to accomplish something, and when you’ve accomplished that, it’ll just be time for you to leave. That’s more or less my thoughts on that.

RB: Did you used to have family seders?

JM: Oh, of course, we had seders all of Pesach, the first and second seder and the last seder at my grandfather’s house. All the big family was there, all my aunts and uncles and all their children. It went on from sunset to midnight. And my grandfather made his own wine. He had two kinds: he had some for the children and women and he had some for the men. I don’t know what he put in the men’s but it was much stronger than what he gave the children and the women.

RB: Did you ever help him make the wine?

JM: A little bit. He had these five gallon jugs – you know, these big five gallon jugs? – he used them. But there was never a shortage of bronfen at my grandfather’s house.

RB: What’s bronfen?

JM: You don’t know what bronfen is?

RB: No. Is that Yiddish?

JM: Bronfen is . . .

RB: Liquor?

JM: Yes.

RB: I never heard that term.

JM: It’s rye. Rye whiskey. There was never a shortage. When I was little I lived across the street from my grandmother and grandfather, so I would go across the street to their apartment and go with him to shul and he was the hazzan at the shul. I was the only grandson that went with him to shul. The other grandchildren didn’t live close by. Every Shabbas I went with him – Friday night, Saturday morning. I’d spend Friday night with him and then at the services on Saturday morning, they called him in, he would sit at this long table and discuss – I guess they were discussing the parsha of the week – I don’t know; I didn’t understand what they were talking about.

RB: In Yiddish or English?

JM: Yiddish.

RB: Did you understand Yiddish?

JM: Yes. It’s mostly gone now but at sundown, well, after services you would go back home and rest, and after sundown we would walk down to his store which was maybe eight blocks away, and open up his store, his grocery store. And he would keep that open, I guess, til 10 o’clock at night.

RB: On Saturday?

JM: Yes. You know, after sundown you can open . . .

RB: Yes.

JM: He sold live chickens and he had a shochet in the back – you know, to kill the chickens – and he had people in the back to take the feathers and everything off the chickens. You know, it smelled bad back there. And the shochet, I don’t know, I think the shochet charged him twenty-five cents or whatever it was. But that was normal in those days.

And my mother remarried to Joseph Hecht – a fine gentleman, my stepfather. He was very mechanically inclined and so he taught me how to use all kinds of tools. He said, ‘You could do anything you want to do and if you don’t do it right the first time, do it over again and eventually you’ll do it right.’ So, he would work on automobile engines or a watch – it didn’t make any difference, he could work on anything – and I learned how to do all these things. So, I was spending part of my time in Norfolk – my sister and I – we spent part of our time in Norfolk and part of our time in Alexandria.

RB: Was it much different up in Alexandria?

JM: It was entirely different because you went from more or less Ashkenazic, Russian or Latvian Jews to German Jews who had been in this country since, oh, some of ’em prior to the Civil War and right after the Civil War. So, you had – I think the word is nouveau riche – you had the rich German Jews and you had the people that had just come over from Russia. I guess just like the wetbacks who come up from Mexico, just finding their way around. So, you had two different civilizations, you might say. When you had dinner with the people up in Alexandria, always white linen tablecloths, white linen napkins, beautiful silverware, glassware and someone to serve the food to you. And your table manners had to be perfect; everything had to be perfect cause that’s the way they were. While the people down South – you might say almost, well, they weren’t peasants but there was a difference in their whole outlook. The people up in Alexandria were bridge players; the people in Norfolk were poker players. I mean, you’ve got different stratums of society.

RB: Would you go to shul up in Alexandria, too?

JM: In Alexandria, we went to the Beth El Temple. They had a rabbi that they had brought over from Germany while in Norfolk we had both the Conservative and the Orthodox shuls. We went to both of them, or all of them, and it was strange. When I went up to Alexandria, I’d never tasted bacon. I didn’t know what bacon was. Didn’t know from pork or bacon or anything like that. And they served bacon for breakfast. I didn’t even know what it was. It was an entirely different lifestyle.

RB: Did you like it?

JM: No. But it was just an illustration.

RB: But, I mean, were you aware it was kosher or not?

JM: I didn’t know. You take a six or seven year old boy and you don’t know. It was just a whole different culture. So, as I said, I grew up and eventually I went to grammar and junior high school in Norfolk, and then my father bought a house over in Chevy Chase, DC, and my sister and I came up here and we went to high school here.

We went to the best high school in the Washington area. In those days – in the 30s and 40s – people in Virginia and Maryland, a lot of them sent their children to school over in Washington because the schools in the District of Columbia were way superior to those in Virginia or Maryland. So, my sister Shirley and I both graduated high school in Washington, DC.

RB: Did you get Bar Mitzvahed?

JM: No, I never got Bar Mitzvahed. I didn’t but – well, it depends what terminology you mean. I went to Beth El temple and the rabbi handed me a great big Torah on one Sabbath that would have been my Bar Mitzvah Sabbath. He made me hold the Torah for the whole service, which I did. But as far as . . . I can’t remember reading anything. He made me hold the Torah that day, that Sabbath. When I got back home that day, my mother handed me a prayer book, which I still have in my library. She gave me [that prayer book] on my 13th birthday. It’s a little worse for wear, but I still have it.

Lt. Col. U.S. Army (Ret.) Jerome L. Massey won numerous commendations in his service during World War II and in subsequent years. He will be 93-years-old in July.

Rick Black is a prize-winning poet and former journalist for The New York Times who owns a poetry and fine art press in Arlington, VA. You can see his work at www.turtlelightpress.com

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A Song for My Father

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

It’s been a while, Dad,
since I’ve spoken to you.
For far too many years
I have boiled in anger,
still smarting from
the scalding scars of your indifference.
Rumor has it you loved me as a child,
and then kind of lost interest,
the search for your celebrity,
to be known in the Jewish community,
claimed your undivided attention.
You learned your religion
in the shetls of Lithuania,
and brought your tightly-held beliefs
to this new country.
I tried hard to be your son,
but all I learned was
singing in a different language
had little to do with me.
You studied medicine in Europe,
escaped the Nazis by a hair,
but healing proved secondary
to your reading of the Torah.
If I never sang for you,
you never sang for me.
For others you sang
the wisdom of the Law,
the miracle of modern medicine.
You wrote articles for the Forward,
and gave medical advice over the airways.
I suppose I must be grateful
for the gifts you have strewn my way.
What gifts? Writing, for one.
I doubt I could ever pen these lines
if I hadn’t typed your columns,
corrected your grammar.
Your gift was not in the giving;
it was imparted by your presence.
So thank you, anyway, I guess, though
it’s too late for you to understand my song.
I do wish, even now, your largess
could have been more personally delivered.

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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Ernestine’s Fudge Ministry

by Sharlya Gold (Sarasota, FL)

Sometimes a kid, not necessarily the best looking or the smartest, stays in your mind long after you leave school. For me, that kid was nose-in-the-book, Bible-reading Ernestine Rogers. She didn’t call attention to herself, but if there was a riff in all the horsing around before our 8th grade math class started, you could hear the soft turn of a page. Or even while the teacher was explaining a problem.

The first time that happened, Mrs. Adams didn’t appear to notice. She was at the chalkboard, her back to the class, until somebody tattled. “Mrs. Adams, Ernestine’s not paying attention!”

The teacher turned around, holding the chalk like a baton, and I felt sorry for Ernestine. She’d only been in class for a week; still, she should have known better.

But instead of scolding her, the teacher fixed the rest of us with an angry glare. “People, my job is teaching, and yours is learning. Do you have to write it 100 times to make it stick in your brains?”

“No, ma’am,” we mumbled, and after that we just pretty much ignored Ernestine. When she read her Bible, we just kept quiet, and most of us pretended not to notice.

I noticed, though, because Ernestine was a wonder to me. Imagine! A mousy little thing like that, standing up to the teacher. It began to bug me, wondering how she did it, so one noontime I passed up having lunch with my friends and went to the table near the back wall where Ernestine always sat

I slid onto the bench across from her. “Hi, Ernestine.”

She’d been reading, and now she looked up, keeping her place with a finger. She smiled, a surprised, happy smile. “Do you want to eat with me?”

“Uh…I guess so.”

I didn’t expect to feel so uncomfortable.

“It’s… nice back here,” I managed to say.

“It’s lonely, though.”  She smiled again. “But not today.”

She wasn’t making it any easier, acting like we were good friends.

Finally, I just said it. “Ernestine, I’ve been wondering why you always read the Bible, plus how you get away with it.”

“It’s just something I do,” she said. “When you trust in the Lord, you try to follow what He says which means learning the Holy Scriptures.” She paused. “Let me ask you a question. How well do you know the Lord?”

“About as well as I know math. Why?”

Instead of answering, she reached inside her lunch bag and brought out two neatly wrapped squares. “Homemade fudge,” she said, pushing one toward me. “It’s pretty good.”

Pretty good? It was great! Full of walnuts and not too sweet. I’d never tasted fudge like that–and I’d never met anyone like Ernestine.

While I ate the fudge, she read the Bible to me, all about the eternal damnation lying in wait for people who don’t seek salvation through Jesus Christ. “I’m going to help you get saved,” she said, and later, much later, I realized that Ernestine’s ministry had begun with me.

We had lunch together the next day, too, along with a little conversation, more fudge, and Bible reading. My two best friends got mad. They said I could eat with that girl my whole life and wouldn’t let me walk with them to our next class which Ernestine wasn’t even in!

I hadn’t told them about the fudge, but it really was the high point of having lunch with Ernestine. It certainly made listening to the Bible easier. Although I’d gone to Sunday School, those Biblical stories were totally new to me, and before long they started interfering with my sleep. Whenever I closed my eyes, I’d see those poor tormented people. I had to stay awake to keep them out of my dreams.

But Ernestine didn’t always read the Bible.  Sometimes, she’d just talk. She’d tell me about regular people who’d played into Satan’s hands. Like the doctor who was too busy saving lives to get himself saved. And the pilot who intended to get saved, but died in a plane crash before he got around to it. And the kind, generous couple who believed that good deeds alone would get them into Heaven. “They’re all in agony this very minute,” Ernestine would assure me. “I just pray that their lives are a warning to others.” I didn’t have to ask what others. She meant me.

After one especially tragic story, I raced home, threw myself into my mother’s arms, and burst into tears. The story of what I’d been going through for almost two weeks tumbled out as did my overwhelming fear: our family was going to Hell. “We have to get saved!” I cried, half-choking in my hurry to spur my mother into action, “We have to do it right away before we die. You and Daddy are already old!”

My mother stroked my hair and held me close until I stopped crying. “Now, listen to me. There are many different beliefs about God and many different ways to interpret the Bible. We Jews believe in God,  but not in the existence of Hell or Satan.”

“Are you sure we’re not going to burn forever and ever?” I asked.

“I’m sure, but if you talk to the rabbi, you’ll understand more. He’s better at explaining than I am. Want me to call him?”

I already felt better. I trusted my mother. She didn’t lie to me. She never said that medicine wasn’t bitter when it was or that a shot wasn’t going to hurt when she knew it would.

“That’s okay, Mama,” I said. “I was just so scared.”

She tilted my wet face so she could look into my eyes.  “Is there anything else?”

“Yes. One thing.” I took a deep breath. “Ernestine says we have to pray to Jesus.”

My mother thought about this awhile before she said, “Jews pray to God. Not to Jesus. Jews believe that Jesus was a wise teacher and a good, kind man. But a man. Like Abraham.”

I started to cry all over again. “But what’ll I do about Ernestine?”

“I don’t know that you have to do anything but be respectful of her beliefs. You can do that without accepting them for yourself, can’t you?”

I said yes, kissed my mother, and went to wash my face. But I couldn’t wash away what was really bothering me.  It was the fudge.

My conscience pointed out that I couldn’t go on accepting Ernestine’s fudge since I had no intention of accepting her salvation.

But I’d be earning the fudge by listening, I argued.

My conscience wouldn’t give up. Is it a fair trade, knowing what you know? it asked

I preferred not to answer, and in the end my conscience was no match for the fudge. Ernestine and I had went on having lunch together. I never told her what my mother said and made sure I was respectful as always. Still, something had changed, a subtle shift in our positions. I think she sensed that I was no longer frightened by her stories or in awe of her. The day she stopped bringing fudge, I knew it was over. I made up with my friends, and Ernestine went back to reading the Bible to herself.

She moved away after that year, and I lost track of her, but, recently, a friend from junior high told me he’d heard that Ernestine had become a preacher. She even had a church of her own.

I hadn’t thought of Ernestine for years, but I didn’t have to dig deep for the memory of how I’d dropped her like a lead weight when the fudge ran out. Guilt has never lain much below the surface in my psyche.

But hearing about her success sent a burst of relief through me, much like the time my mother allayed my fears of Hell. All those years, I’d carried the secret fear that I’d ruined Ernestine’s life. How silly it seemed now. How egotistical to imagine that she’d given up because her fudge ministry with me had failed. Good for you, Ernestine! I felt like shouting. Good for you!

And good for my mother, too, I thought. She could have discouraged our friendship, viewing it as a threat to my spiritual development. Instead, she took the occasion to teach me respect for others and their beliefs. That lesson stuck, even though my passion for chocolate fudge faded. My heart and mind—and waistline—have never been sorry.

Sharlya Gold, the author of The Potter’s Four Sons: A Fable and The Answered Prayer and Other Yemenite Folktales, writes books for children, and articles and memoirs for adults.  She teaches ”Writing your Life, Without Starting at the Beginning” at Temple Emanu El in Sarasota, Florida, where she lives with her husband, Len (“who deserves a medal,” she says, “for Support, Endurance, and Patience”).

“I had always considered this personal experience distinctly Jewish,” Gold says about the experience that she shares  in Ernestine’s Ministry of Fudge. “Two children, one with an early calling to proselytize, the other frightened into rejecting her own belief system. But as I learned after sharing this story,  many non-Jews, too, had their own childhood conversion stories.”

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