Tag Archives: friendship

Wedding in Bnei Brak

by Daniel Meltz (New York, NY)

Before the reception started, the photographer was snapping pictures of the bride. He knew not to talk to her. He waved and pointed in different directions to show her where to stand. He smiled nicely. He wore a yarmulke. The bride was obliging, a cheerful, dark-eyed beauty in snowy crinoline, sleeves to the wrist, neckline to the neck, holding a tea-rose bouquet. No photos with the groom. Just Shonnie alone. Then a bunch more with her and her brothers, one on either side of her. Then the brothers one by one. Then a few more with Shonnie and her handsomely bearded father, as she gestured into his hands, rapidly making shapes with her fingers, explaining what was happening with the photographer and the direction he should face in. They were a jolly group, the three grown kids and their father, silently clutching each other and beaming with happiness. The only sounds were the irregular pops and clicks from their mouths as they signed to each other, and the slooshy snaps of the camera.

This was right before the hullabaloo of Shonnie and Elias’s wedding reception.

It’s to be expected that a Chasidic wedding will be a joyous shebang, a blowout of noisy commotion, full of reckless hopping and raucous chanting and klutzy dancing around in circles under an atmosphere of warmth and festivity that many only see on the news when the Super Bowl winners come home with a trophy and the city goes wild. Men (in black) and women (in wigs) celebrate separately, divided by opaque screens, adding to the ruckus of butting and charging on the men’s side of the wall.

Elias and Shonnie’s Chasidic wedding in Bnei Brak, Israel, was a joyous shebang in a way I’d never seen before. A shebang with the usual tootling of a klezmer quartet and a chorus of rollicking masculine hoots and some boisterous off-key prayerbook singing, but with pockets of silence as well, whole tablesful of no one talking, only hands flip-flopping and slapping and punching in ASL and Hebrew Sign.

Elias is deaf and his new bride, Shonnie, the dark-eyed beauty posing for photos, is deaf as well and slowly going blind. Her brothers―goodlooking 25-year-old identical twins, in identical retro eyeglasses, one in a hat, one in a yarmulke, one on either side of her―have the same condition their sister has: Usher syndrome. And their father, mother, and maternal grandmother have already been deaf-blind for decades as a result of the same hereditary accident.

Elias was deaf from birth, with no risk of blindness. He’d been in an unfamiliar state of calm since meeting Shonnie―since first setting eyes on her―a few months earlier. He’d traveled from Williamsburg, Brooklyn to Bnei Brak to meet her, after the matchmaker set up the visit. Elias had known about Shonnie’s availability for marriage for more than ten years but hadn’t wanted to pursue the match (scrupulously managed by the matchmaker) because the prospect of life with a woman who would likely end up blind (even though they had their deafness in common) seemed daunting to someone who’d been daunted all his life. But after all those additional years of loneliness, and all those additional years of anxiety about the loneliness in his future―an anxiety that never allowed him to truly feel calm―Elias thought he’d give it a try when the matchmaker reintroduced the prospect, letting him know that Shonnie had never married in the interim.

Chasidic matches often lead to official engagements after just one date. In the old days, Elias told me, the bride and groom actually met at the altar, after no dates at all. I had known about arrangements like this from Fiddler on the Roof without realizing it could be literally true. Elias told me that traditions had loosened up over the years and that two or three dates were allowed now before engagements were made official. (Chasidic engagements, in any case, are short.) In Elias’s case, he met with Shonnie five times in Bnei Brak. I think the matchmaker cut him some slack because of his disability and because he’d traveled so far for this monumental date. Shonnie was a new kind of experience for him, he would explain to me later. So sweet, so modest, so pleasant, so gentle. And something else (his signs could be fuzzy) about her cleanliness or fairness or neatness or kindness. He seemed to be hinting at what made her unique, unlike anyone he’d ever met. He told me straightforwardly, in any event, that after meeting Shonnie for the first time, he knew he could be happy with her. Sometimes this happens―not just in the movies―and a couple is happy together forever. So in theory one date did the trick. But he went back four times. He enjoyed Shonnie’s company. He wanted to see her as much as he could before flying back to Brooklyn. They’d been Skyping ever since, for the three and a half months leading up to the wedding, getting to know each other more deeply over the internet, adjusting to each other’s language―American vs. Hebrew sign. When Elias and I last met in New York during that interim period, he told me he finally knew what the word love meant.

Regardless of who was getting married that day, there would’ve been all kinds of heavy-duty Jewish joy to appreciate: joy in the resourceful match of the matchmaker, joy in the moonlit chuppah that went up after the rain cleared out, joy in the random eruptions of mazel tov, in the happy back slaps, the joining of the families, the wail of the clarinet, the wedding’s taking place in Eretz Yisroel, the 300 years of Chasidic customs and costumes on display.

But it was the signing that brought the wedding its almost mystical jubilation. About a quarter of the 200 guests couldn’t hear (mostly on the bride’s side―except for Elias and his two deaf friends, an older married Christian couple), so there was sign language flying all over the giant reception room, in a setting unaccustomed to any sign at all. Because no one signs in the Chasidic community. And no one in Elias’s family knows sign either. He himself didn’t learn sign until he was 21. Plus sign―with its gestural sensuality and its links to a freewheeling, liberal culture―seemed out of place among the ultraconservative Chasidim. And Elias’s subdivision of Satmar Chasidism is about as ultraconservative as they come.

On top of all this, six or seven of the deaf guests were signing into the hands of six or seven of the blind-deaf guests, pulling fists and jabbing fingers to communicate. Little architectures of intimacy:

glad you’re here

congratulations

friend of the bride

father of the groom

I’m putting your hand on the back of this chair

they’re taking more pictures

And back again to the foreground and the more spectacular conversations, deaf to deaf. All kinds of uninhibited hand-cascading enthusiasms chopping and swiping around the room, an emphatic chaos of silent schmoozes describing family connections, the traffic getting over here, the setting of the ceremony (up on the roof), the timing of the ceremony (any minute now), and who was hearing and who was deaf and who couldn’t see and who was both.

Then back to the smaller-scale deaf-blind exchanges about the whereabouts of the bathrooms and the arrangement of the chicken dinner on the plate put down in front of you.

I’d gotten to the catering hall early, after a ride through Tel Aviv (I’d never been to Israel before), watching undistinguished houses pass (as if sliced from a Play-Doh Fun Factory), interrupted by jazzy skyscrapers. I watched crowds of convivial sabras pass and crowds of convivial black-hatted Chasidic people. There was a slow progression from the one population to the other as I traveled from secular Tel Aviv to the latter-day shtetl of Bnei Brak, as the former gradually got off the bus and the latter gradually got on. (Bnei Brak, by the way, is in the top ten of the most densely populated cities on the planet.) There were banyan trees as dense as jungles and silk floss trees with mace-like spikes along the route―specimens alien to the broken-antenna-like trees on my block in Manhattan―while Israeli pop music twangled in the cab, with its lusty singing around the note about the melancholy of bygone childhood, suggesting the final goodbye to Elias’s childhood.

Not that Elias was childlike. He’d spent the last fifteen years keeping inventory in the Diamond District on West 47th Street, a decent gig for a deaf person with an incomplete education. (Deaf people have a low employment rate.) And he owned a townhouse apartment in Monsey, New York which he sublet to another Satmar for supplemental income. But he was less than completely comfortable in his own culture due to the weak communication, and much less completely comfortable in the wider culture because of his sect’s discomfort with the modern world and his family’s hovering concern for his welfare. So it wasn’t until now, really, at age 42, that he seemed fully grown up. (Which was partly due to the influence of Shonnie and partly due to his surprising good luck in finding an Orthodox Jewish therapist who knew how to sign and lived the same traditions. “Finally,” Elias told me. “Someone who understands me.” In fact, it might’ve been the therapist who put Elias in touch with the loneliness that in turn made him reconsider the prospect of marrying Shonnie.)

Meantime, I wasn’t sure I’d come to the right place. Google Street View had shown me a barracks-like building at this spot, and here I was stepping onto the plaza of a grandly lit-up ceremonial hall with shtreimel-wearing gents smoking cigarettes and fiddling with their smartphones. (A shtreimel is a high fur hat in the shape of the cylinder box it’s stored in. Costing as much as $3000, often made of mink, it’s worn by men from various Chasidic sects on holidays and special occasions. A friend of mine calls it the floor polisher.) There was lots of coming and going across the plaza, everyone dressed alike, in black suits and black hats and maxi dresses and hats with bows and, again, the shtreimels. This had to be the place.

Inside the hall, I was still a bit doubtful. Where were the deaf people? Where was Elias? It wasn’t that early. I poked my head into a few of the celebration rooms. It looked like a couple of weddings and a bar mitzvah were in the works. I noticed that there were papers with names printed on them attached to each door, and one of the signs read Roth in Yiddish. Elias’s last name. Good.

There were two 60ish women signing in the lobby, I realized, puffing and plosiving and yukking it up. They didn’t look Chasidic―no wigs, no hats―and one of them wore leggings. They seemed easy to approach.

“Excuse me,” I signed. “You here for the wedding?”

They both signed yes with big welcoming smiles (it’s always fun for signers to meet a stranger who knows sign too), so we chatted a bit. One of them was five feet tall with a boyish haircut. The other was blond with oversized glasses and uninhibited gestures. They lived in the area, were lifelong friends, looked forward to the wedding, had I seen the bride yet? No, I signed, but I was eager to. We exchanged some background, comfortably conversing, a solid reassurance that I’d have a good time tonight. They asked if I had kids. I signed that I didn’t. I signed I was gay. The one with the glasses understood the ASL sign for gay and the short one didn’t. The one explained to the other by fingerspelling the word, G-A-Y. The other one shrugged, not comprehending. Lots more smiling. It wasn’t until later that I realized they’d been hired as interpreters for the deaf-blind guests, when I saw them in action, during the wedding ceremony up on the roof, under the starlit chuppah, acting as interpreters of the interpreters: While a third interpreter―a hearing woman―stood at the edge of the altar, translating the Hebrew marriage blessings for the deaf guests who could see (plenty of king of the universes and Lord our Gods and blessed art thous), these two deaf women, the local best friends, put their hands, in turn, in the hands of the deaf-blind women (the bride’s mother and grandmother) and repeated the signs of the interpreter on the altar.

But as I was saying. Before the reception. The specialized interpreters and I stepped into the Roth room where the photographer was sweetly snapping pictures of the bride and her family on the men’s side of the hall. The interpreter’s interpreters grinned at each other, then at me, meaning Isn’t the bride magnificent? Then they introduced themselves to the bride’s deaf-blind mother and deaf-blind grandmother whose pictures weren’t being taken yet.

Elias’s mother hurried in, on agitated tiptoe. I recognized her although I’d only met her once twenty years ago. She was tall like Elias, in a drab turban, with a long face and a forward tilt. Without taking me in, she asked, “Where is the women’s?” (“Vair is da vimminz?”) meaning where was the cordoned-off section for the female guests. I pointed over the plastic dividers. “It’s right over there.” (Wasn’t it obvious?) She hurried away. Pre-wedding jitters, I thought. I’d never seen a mother of the groom wear orthopedic shoes before. She hadn’t even glanced at the scene of the picture taking.

Was this evidence of a culture clash: the hyperbolic adherence to Jewish law that characterized the groom’s family vs. the more relaxed approach of the bride’s? Kosher kitchen, Sabbath observance, wigs for the wives―check, check, check. The family of the bride was all over those details. But the bride wasn’t Chasidic. Some of her people―including her brothers―traveled for pleasure. None of the men on her side wore payos. And a couple of the men wore no head coverings at all, not even yarmulkes, something you’d never see on Elias’s side. Did this dichotomy inform Mrs. Roth’s apparent indifference to the picture taking?

The photo session broke up. There was no next item on the agenda.

(Oh, and Mrs. Roth’s pronunciation. “Vair is da vimminz?” Though she was born in Brooklyn, her first language was Yiddish―as was true of pretty much every Chasid―and the old-country eastern European accent came along with it.)

Now it was in fact getting late, and pretty much no one was here yet. I ambled around with my hands behind my back, trying to appear unselfconscious. I peeked around the divider. There were many more women on that side than there were men on this side. Hats matched dresses―black, blue, brown, white. Many had glitter. The women were talking in threes and fours, some sitting, some standing, some with their arms across the back of a chair. Then a flurry of something up at the front. More picture taking, I saw, as Shonnie reappeared on the women’s side for an additional photography shoot with what looked like women friends and women cousins. Then some men stepped into the pictures. Seemed odd to see men on the women’s side. I ambled back to the side I belonged on.

Elias hurried in on the men’s side. It was thrilling to see him, the day’s other celebrity. He scanned the room, on agitated tiptoe, in his usual state of distracted bemusement, as if this wedding weren’t his. He was always kind of impatient with the slow pace of the world (he was a fast walker, a fast signer), which often resulted in impatient sighs and fidgets. His reddish beard was neatly gathered and rolled under his chin. He wore a long black shiny jacket that looked like it had never been worn before and, of course, a shtreimel, setting off his blue eyes and imperial nose to dashing advantage. He saw me, looked startled, smiled craftily, signed, “how are you” “wow” “amazing” “happy.” He gave me a hug. We talked a few seconds. He appreciated that I’d come so far. He hurried away.

The band showed up and was fast getting ready and before you knew it the dancing had started with no groom present. There were lots more men all of a sudden on the men’s side and maybe eleven of them were dancing, in homburgs and shtreimels and long black suit coats laced with fancy patterns (you had to look closely, angled to the light, most likely silk) for this special occasion. And even though Chasidic dancing is clumsily unisex, without the barest choreography, along the lines of Ring Around the Rosy―not even a measly mayim step―the exuberance was heating up in the form of clapping and stomping and arm-swinging and chanting. Not to mention the circles of dancing, like bears in the forest, without the groom, the guest of honor.

At some point in the pandemonium, I said hello to the four hearing guys that Elias had grown up with (they’d been looking at me with some interest) and whom I’d heard about forever. I was predisposed to liking them because they had to be excellent fellows if they were lifelong friends with a guy they could barely talk to. And in fact they were. They all had glasses and scraggly beards, like sticker bushes in winter. One was named Mendy. He told me he was overjoyed for Elias. Had never seen him happier. Then he said, “Can I be honest with you? I’m in shock seeing all of this sign language.” He made me realize that this was likely the first time Elias’s friends and family had to adapt to his world instead of vice versa. Elias had been telling me for a long time that the only real community for deaf orthodox people was in Israel. (Hence the bride’s extended deaf community.) (She lived in Jerusalem.) There was only solitude for him, Elias would lament, among the non-signing Brooklyn Chasidim, and he couldn’t relate to what he characterized as the low-class, vulgar deaf scene  in New York (translation: too sexual), but there was no way he’d ever get to that Holy Land nirvana. Until now. He and Shonnie had no plans to leave Israel.

When I first met Elias in 1999, he was 21 with maybe a second-grade reading level and no first language. He’d been escorted to the Program for Deaf Adults at LaGuardia Community College in Queens by his skeptical mother who was starting to realize that without the proper education (a language and better reading skill) her son would never get a job. My boss at LaGuardia had picked me to help Elias improve his reading because I was a tutor that his mother might approve of: I’d gone to New Jersey yeshivas for eight years before college and knew the culture Elias had grown up in (most of my religious teachers had been Chasidim), although I hadn’t observed the many persnickety rules of conduct and cuisine since the 1970s. I was already on the staff at the Program for Deaf Adults as a part-time tutor so I had experience teaching one-on-one using sign.

I thought we might start by reading the newspaper together in our tiny classroom but that proved too advanced for Elias. Next class I brought him the Golden Book of Aesop’s Fables. He read aloud in an imprecise honk while simultaneously signing. It was painstaking work but Elias was determined. He was taking his first ASL classes at the college at the same time I was tutoring him so it made sense to combine the schoolwork. (He was also taking speech therapy at NYU Hospital.) When we got to “The Tortoise and the Hare” (I’d had to explain that a hare was a rabbit), his face lit up with a mischievous grin when he read the line, “and the hare fell asleep.”

Sometimes during our tutoring sessions he’d put down the book and look at me seriously and ask about puberty or what happens on one’s wedding night or something equally intimate and, coming from a Satmar, shocking. I realized he may never have been with anyone he could ask such questions. I tried to respond as neutrally and educationally as possible, avoiding any of his people’s proscriptions against idle arousing chitchat.

In time he asked me what “movies” meant. I tried to explain. He asked if I could show him one of these so-called movies, so I invited him to my apartment near Grand Central Station where I had a video of “Children of a Lesser God” in my permanent collection. I played it for him on my VCR.

Turned out to be a laborious process because Elias’s reading comprehension wasn’t solid enough for the subtitles. I signed most of the dialog, turning this way and that to portray the different characters (that’s part of sign grammar), frequently pausing the tape to catch him up on the script’s back-and-forth and its conflicts and processes. For example, early in the movie William Hurt takes a boat ride to a school for the deaf and then the action cuts to the school itself. Elias said, “That was a short boat ride.” I had to pause the tape and explain to him that they weren’t going to show you the entire boat ride. Movie concepts that we understand passively (editing, prewritten dialog…he thought we might be watching a documentary) had to be actively taught to Elias. I’d been instructed when studying deaf education that a good deal of what hearing children learn happens just by sitting there―language, for example, poured passively into our ears―whereas deaf children have to be actively taught everything.

And I suppose that includes some prejudices because Elias has none of the homophobia that might characterize any ultraconservative religious person. He in fact seems to adore my partner Mike. And before I met Mike, Elias asked me if I intended to flit from one guy to the next instead of settling down.

Elias drank Crown Royal toasts with his father and soon-to-be father-in-law, seated between them. His father looked like a grayer, slower version of himself. They didn’t interact much. With Shonnie’s father, Elias communicated using in-hand sign language. I couldn’t make out what they were saying to each other, but it made me wonder if Elias had ever communicated as fully with his father.

More toasts and l’chaims and pumping fists and raucous singing.

I knew it was time for the ceremony when a line of men started up the four flights to the roof. I trailed behind. The women went up in the elevators. I knew what to expect from the ensuing rituals because I’d been to a Chasidic wedding back in highschool when a teacher I was obsessed with, a brilliant Talmud scholar, invited me to his outdoor wedding in Crown Heights. I knew about the bride on the altar, so heavily veiled in silky white that there might’ve been a scarecrow in there. I knew about the solemn delivery of the groom by candlelight up to the bima, escorted by two friends who looked like they were in mourning too. (The groom traditionally fasts all day.) Then the bride’s mother taking the bride by the arm and walking her around the groom seven times. (In this case, Shonnie did the steering as her mother couldn’t see.) Then the quick ceremony with its singsong Hebrew and the breaking of the glass and more shouts of l’chaim and the quick disappearance of the couple into ritual sequestration.

Everyone but the couple returned to the party. The eating and dancing resumed. The entire dinner service (salad, pickles, olives, potato puffs, roast chicken, yellow rice, string beans, petit-fours) went by without the newlyweds on the scene. An hour and a half. No one acted as if this were strange. Although eyes cut to the door from time to time.

When Elias finally showed up, chest puffed with pride, the men danced around him and grabbed him and shoved him. He did awkward face-to-face dancing with his father, then his brother, his uncle, another uncle, his nephew, his lifelong friends, and me. He’d pulled me out of the crowd. I felt like I was dancing with the emperor, back and forth across the floor a couple of times. Then one of the tallest guys in the group, a strongman only twenty years old, lifted Elias on his shoulders and danced him around, driving the crowd back and forth again, clear across the room, then clear across to the other side, while Elias clapped to the music he couldn’t hear.

After a bathroom break I ran into Elias’s mother in the lobby. She had a bunch of women around her. “So! Finally!” She was more welcoming than earlier. “You’re Dan,” she said. “How do you like the wedding?”

I told her how much I was loving  it. “The energy, the excitement, the…”

She finished it for me. “The warmth.”

“Yes.” It surprised me that I agreed with her.

Two of the women around her turned out to be her daughters, and they too were welcoming. I’d heard about them from Elias―married, tons of kids, both in Williamsburg―but I’d expected dull, aloof personalities. Instead, they enthused about how glad they were to meet me. And one of them exclaimed, “I’m the one who sent you those hamentaschen every Purim.” I couldn’t get over their graciousness.

Back inside the reception hall, the music and dancing continued. Celebratory energy was blasting around like firecrackers: the signers and their unruly signs, the jumping friends and their forever friendships, the families and their hopes for the newlyweds, the newlyweds themselves, separated at the moment by the mechitza, but united by the energy―storage cells of their communities’ love in their own united bodies. I couldn’t imagine a happier place in the universe.

Then a gaggle of Elias’s pals―nine studious-looking, pale-bearded weisenheimers, all of them hearing, all of them deadpan―showed up out of nowhere in purple silk fezes and silk yellow tunics to dance in formation like a backup troup at a Beyoncé concert. The men twirled in unison, kicked like Russian dancers, dashed left, dashed right, ran back, dipped forward, swiveled, twirled, pirouetted, pliéed, ran around in a circle. The clarinets hooted. The mood blew up. The women peeped from around the divider. Shonnie peeped too. (Unflappably happy empress.)

Meanwhile, Elias’s father-in-law got a sign-language interpretation of the roof-raising spinning-and-shimmying shenanigans going on behind him, which he couldn’t see or hear. A yarmulked blond guy in secular dress (black jeans and a Members Only jacket), using his fingers to stand for the dancers in silk, pushed his hands up into the hands of the jubilant father, interlacing the fingers, dipping and twirling them, shifting them from side to side and up and down and backwards, in time to the music, a thrilling real-time representation, and you could see that Shonnie’s father was having as much fun as everyone else in the room.

His enjoyment summed up the day for me. His enjoyment depended on the support of another. His enjoyment was proof that someone whom the world might pity could experience pure delight. His enjoyment knew no bounds.

Daniel Meltz is a technical writer and manager at Google’s New York office. He taught disabled young adults for many years before switching careers. He has been published as a poet in many journals including Best New Poets 2012.
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Hummus Shop

by Brad Jacobson (Columbia, MO)

“Tear a small piece of pita,
use forefinger and thumb,
dip into hummus, and fold in half,”
Ra’ed instructs me
at the same hummus shop
his father took him as a little boy.

A bearded man wearing a black suit
and kippah walks a mountain bike
past three women with white head scarves
and long black abayas.    

Tonight I fly back to the States,
but now I smell the hummus
topped with spiced meat and chickpeas.
We share a large bottle of orange Fanta.

Six of us sit around the table. Tsipi and I
are Jewish. Ra’ed, Mysum, and the others
are Palestinians. All around me
I hear Arabic.  

I raise my eyes to look at Ra’ed.
I think,

“You invited me to your
favorite hummus shop.
You taught me marhaba means hi
and shokran is thank you.”

Mysum says, “We love you, Brad.”

I tell myself to be friends
but in the back of my mind
are cobwebs that are very old.

Brad Jacobson is a volunteer every summer in Israel in the SAREL program. He teaches TESOL at the Asian Affair Center at the University of Missouri, where he has an MEd in Literacy. In the summers he enjoys exploring places with his camera like the Old City of Jerusalem, Tzfat, and the Red Sea where he scuba dives. He has been published in Tikkun, Voices Israel, Poetica, Cyclamens and Swords, and the University of Missouri International News.

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, poetry

A Paris Odyssey

 

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

Suzanne’s parents had moved to Paris in the 1930s as a young married couple from Ukraine.  Mr. P. was a barber and opened a shop on a busy Paris street.  They wanted to start a new life away from the anti-Semitic fears in Ukraine.  Two daughters were born and the family lived in an apartment on the floor above the shop.

And then came the rise and popularity of Hitler.  And then the war.  And then the occupation of Paris by Germany.  The barber shop was shuttered and the family stayed in their apartment clandestinely to see if they could outlive the occupation.  Sarah, the younger daughter, then about to become a teenager, blonde and blue-eyed, became Suzanne as a way to fool anyone who stopped her as she was the one sent out to forage for food.

For four years they were able to avoid detection.  When Paris was freed, Mr. P.  decided not to attempt to reopen his shop, fearing that vestiges of the Vichy anti-Semitic regime remained.  Instead the family made plans to emigrate to the United States where Mrs. P. had cousins in Philadelphia.

My father was a barber and had operated his own shop for many years.  We lived behind the store in a two-story house.  When he needed another barber to work “the second chair,” the Barbers’ Union sent Mr. P, whose languages were French and Yiddish, but not English.  However, the South Philadelphia neighborhood where we lived was still primarily Jewish at that time, peopled with many immigrants, so speaking Yiddish worked fine.  After a few weeks Mr. P. said to my father, “I have a daughter exactly your daughter’s age.  She is miserable.  She won’t go to school until the fall and she doesn’t know any English or have any friends.  May I bring her to meet your daughter?”

The arrangement was made. I was not consulted, which increased my anxiety of meeting a girl my age who had undergone life experiences I could not imagine. The next day Mr. P. arrived with a pretty 17 year old who looked visibly intimidated.  We introduced ourselves and tried to find a way to talk.  My high school French had taught me “Open the window” and “The pen of my aunt.”  I didn’t think either phrase would help us communicate, but we discovered we were both fluent in Yiddish and that was our method of conversation for the next few months until Suzanne began her halting study of English.

Eventually, Suzanne married and moved to the suburbs with her family.  I did the same.  We lost touch but sometimes met at a Jewish film festival and were always glad to see each other.

Many years later I was a volunteer interviewer for the Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Project.  I decided to interview Suzanne, and in the intimacy of a two hour conversation I learned more about her years barricaded in the family apartment.  She shared emotions I had not heard before: the daily apprehension of being discovered, her inner trembling when she walked on the street to buy food, the tensions, even in a loving family, of spending four years locked together in one space, never knowing what had happened to their extended family.

I suddenly understood the seclusion and safety of the Jewish life I had led living in a Jewish neighborhood and the false sense of security this evoked in me.  The war had not been threatening to us and it was a while before we heard about the horror and devastation of concentration camps and could begin to understand the attempt to exterminate our people.  Leaving Suzanne’s house that day, I felt for myself the wrenching internal anxiety Jews had always felt throughout the world, throughout eternity.

Some time after that experience I wrote a memoir about growing up in Jewish South Philadelphia and sent it to Suzanne, certain it would evoke many shared memories.  She, in turn, sent me her memoir of those parallel years which she spent hidden in the Paris apartment and told of the loss of dear cousins and friends.  She thought she was lucky; I thought she was incredibly brave. It was not until I read her poignant memoir that I learned Suzanne had been Sarah.

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free lance writer for national publications.

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Jerusalem, 1976

by Michelle Edwards (Iowa City, IA) 

I apologized a lot the summer after I graduated from college. Easily the worst waitress in the seafood restaurant where I was working, perhaps even in their entire chain, I apologized for the wrong orders I delivered, the forgotten bowls of butter, and the length of time it took to bring, what seemed to me, an endless and unnecessary quantity of extra plates and silverware. The tips I earned waitressing, many times, generous tips given out of pity, allowed me to make the bundle of money I needed.

I had big plans. I was moving to Israel and starting a year of studies at Bazalel, the art academy in Jerusalem. It was 1976 and I was twenty-one years old. Near the end of my first year in Jerusalem, through contacts made at Bazalel, I landed a plum job printing etchings and lithographs for other artists in a studio affiliated with the Jerusalem Museum.

Living in Jerusalem I was always aware of my accent, my grammatical mistakes, and the countless ways I was identifiably American. Being foreign kept me on my guard. There’s a comfort in the familiar, what we know so well, the streets of our hometown or sounds of our mother tongue. I had left all that behind, without regrets. But it would have been an impossible treat, just once, to unexpectedly bump into a long lost pal from camp, or school, and, in English, joke around and share memories. That comfort was what I did miss. Regretted not having.

My father had died a few years before, and in my hometown of Troy, New York, my mother was busy raising my then teenage brother. My older sister was newly married and lived a few towns over. They were not great candidates for visiting me.

Back then, in the days before cell phones, a long-distance call was something you thought about carefully, planned for, did infrequently, and then, only in the late evening hours, when the rates went down substantially. Overseas mail was slow, and a trip to Israel, an expensive journey. Any traveler going there—neighbors, family friends, friends of neighbors, a grammar school classmate’s parents once, acquaintances even—would call me with a message from home, or maybe drop by my modest digs for coffee and cake. Sometimes with a letter or a small present from my mother. Being so far way, even our remote connections drew us together.

I write about all of this here to give an idea of how much it meant to me when my college friend, Laura, wrote asking if she might visit me in Jerusalem. Back in Albany, in our student days, Laura was my knitting buddy. Once, she had taught me a speedy afghan pattern, using three strands of knitting worsted on super jumbo needles. I still use a variation of this pattern for baby blankets. Knitting had been a love of mine since childhood. Now, with all that it took to live and work in Jerusalem, I was often too busy to knit.

Laura was living abroad, too, on the Greek island of Larnaca. Almost in my neck of the woods. More letters were exchanged and plans were made. I managed to get a few days off from work so we could travel together. Laura was interested in archeology, that was the reason she was in Greece, and we intended to go to Meggido and other sites. My job, printing etchings, dealing with other artist’s demands, was hard physical, and sometimes, emotional work. Having Laura come would give me a chance to vacation, to be carefree for a while. We might even knit, companionably again, outside at a café while sipping our cappuccinos and nibbling on a pastry.

Laura was due to arrive later in the day. I left work early; stopping at my apartment first to shower away the ink and solvent, the sweat and grime that come with being a printer. Clean and refreshed, I headed to Jerusalem’s central bus station.

Israeli buses were unreliable at best in those days. So I had allotted extra time for the eventualities that were sure to occur. Meeting a guest at the airport, being the first to welcome them to the country, was an important part of receiving visitors in Israel. I had wanted to do this right, to be there to say, “Shalom,” to my friend Laura.

The first bad sign was the lengthy line. The second one was really the third, fourth, and fifth ones as well; all buses to the airport came to the gate packed. Loaded. Full. They dribbled off a few passengers and boarded only a couple from the very front of the line. I was afraid to guess how long I would have to wait for my turn. I had miscalculated. The big cushion of time I had allowed for this kind of occurrence no longer seemed generous enough.

Anxiety was creeping into what was supposed to be a special afternoon. A bunch of folks around me began discussing sharing a sherut, a taxi, to the airport. I usually associated taxis with tourists, not working gals like me, but this was an emergency. I was desperate. With a bit of luck, I might make still be able to greet Laura as she left customs and joined the flow into the main greeting area. Squeezed in the middle of the back seat, the ride was suffocating and slow. Did I mention the heat?

When we got to the airport, I discovered Laura’s plane had landed early. Before its scheduled time. Who would have guessed that? I could hardly believe it was even possible.

I looked around for Laura. The airport wasn’t a big place. But I couldn’t find her anywhere. I headed to the information desk and had her paged. Three times. With instructions to meet me there. I waited and waited.

Nothing had gone right that day. This was a part of living in Israel I was still getting used to; much of what I took for granted when I lived in America, like buses and telephones, couldn’t be counted on there. Because of this, getting to places—work, the market, or the movies—and making plans of any kind, was complicated. The stress of the missed buses, the uncomfortable ride, and the afternoon heat had me frazzled, unhinged. And now no Laura.

Israel was and is a country that daily received and reunited the dispersed and separated, family and friends. The airport greeting area was an emotional arena. And that’s without including the pilgrims to the Holy Land. This was the day I was going to be a part of that show. The day I wore the badge of truly living there.

So where was Laura? Was she still in customs? It could be a lengthy process, and had occasionally, been so in my experience. Sometimes security arbitrarily selected a passenger for an extra thorough exam.  I checked by there again. Everyone on her flight had cleared through and appeared to be gone. Her name was on the passenger list, but that didn’t convince me she had actually been on the plane. Could be another system that didn’t work. After an hour or more, of paging and searching, I had to finally acknowledge that Laura wasn’t in the airport.

I jotted my phone number down on a piece of paper and left it with the information desk clerk, even though I knew she would never ever call me. The paper would be lost, and even if she did try, the phone in my apartment might not work that day. Defeated and disappointed, I did not even consider taking a bus home. Or a sherut. This time, I took a private taxi. It was an uncharacteristically, wildly extravagant gesture, and if I could have, I would have paid the driver extra to carry me up the stairs to my apartment.

On the ride back to Jerusalem, I had decided I’d return to work the next day. We were in the middle of printing an edition; it was the responsible, mature thing to do.  I’d tell everyone at the shop what had happened and gather up all the sympathy I could from my coworkers. There probably wouldn’t be much sympathy to gather, though. This was a country where the guys my age were just finishing their army service. Overreacting to life’s little disappointments was very American, a euphemism for being spoiled. Israelis were dealing with the big issues, like war and survival, not missed buses.

So what had happened to Laura, I wondered.  Did she get sick at the last minute? Break a leg? Was she called back to the States for an emergency? I hoped it was something more romantic, like she met the love of her life, hours or minutes before she was to come, and couldn’t bear to be parted from him. Exploring all these possibilities didn’t prepare me for what happened when I opened my apartment door.

There, sitting at my kitchen table, was Laura, smiling and sipping tea with my roommates, who had already taught her a few Hebrew words.

“Shalom,” she said.

Surprised, and relieved to find her at last, we quickly exchanged our stories of missing encounters. While I was stuffed in a sherut, Laura had zipped through customs; the usually busy airport had been momentarily empty.  Not finding me anywhere at the terminal or lobby, she was not distressed. No apology needed. She assumed something came up and I was unable able to make our meeting. An independent and seasoned traveler, she grabbed her luggage, hailed a taxi, and gave the driver my address.

I was amazed. It had never occurred to me that all the systems might function and deliver. The plane, customs, taxis.  If I had thought to save up a pocketful of asimonim, the Israeli phone tokens that could only be purchased from the post office, and were very often sold out, and if there had been a pay phone that actually worked, I could have called my apartment and asked my roommates if they had heard from Laura. But I hadn’t thought I would need to call.  And it didn’t matter now.

My guest had arrived. I needed to be a host. It was time for dinner. Maybe we went into town with my roommates and grabbed a falafel, or walked up to the makolet, the little grocery store in my neighborhood, and picked up some yogurts and fruit. I’m pretty sure we stayed away from the buses. The delight of having Laura with me, had helped shake loose the fury and strain of the day. Still I felt limp, washed out, and beat. Not long after eating, we settled into my room. Resting on my bed, I watched Laura unpack her bag.

“I knew that I couldn’t come and visit you without something to work on,” she said.

Laura had brought yarn, a crochet hook, and a shawl she learned to make from the women in the house where she lived. Sold to tourists, the shawls were lacey, with a delicate flower pattern that bloomed across the widest part.

I was a knitter with a very basic knowledge of crochet, mostly self-taught. The shawl was something new for me to try. Something beautiful to make. Every part of me was waking up, alert, anxious to turn my mind, my hands, and the wilted parts of my being, over to learning how to master this pattern.

Hours went by. The two of us sat and stitched, talked and laughed, probably preventing my roommates from having a good night’s rest. Laura guided me through the tricky sea of new stitches. Much, much later, right before dawn, it burst forth. The flower part of the shawl opened up. To this day, I can remember the amazed and exhausted buzz I felt. This is what I had been stitching for. It had all come together. In my hands was a gift of comfort and joy.

They say there are two Jerusalems. The spiritual one of mystics and true believers, where the holiest walk. And the other, the everyday one, where dinner is cooked, jobs are worked, and perhaps, where shawls are made.

That morning, long ago and far away, I learned a pattern was something I could believe in. My fumbles and mistakes could be frogged, taken out, and fixed. If necessary, I could double back and start again, because making the shawl was about trust. Putting my faith in wool and hook and trusting that after a hundred, or a thousand, or a million stitches, a flower will blossom.

Michelle Edwards is the author and illustrator of many books for children, one book for adults, and nearly one hundred essays and cards for knitters. Her titles include: CHICKEN MAN (winner of the National Jewish Book Award) and A KNITTER’S HOME COMPANION (an illustrated collection of stories, patterns and recipes). Michelle grew up in Troy, New York and now lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where she shares, with her husband, a house full of books, yarn, and the artifacts of their three daughter’s childhoods.  

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Crumbs

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

It was all orchestrated by Mother.
Moments before dark on the night before the first seder
she scattered breadcrumbs around her linoleum kitchen
but not leading anywhere, like Hansel and Gretl’s way home.

It was black inside like a fairytale woods, so
each person lit a candle, searching in its orange glow
for those deliberate crumbs
of day-old doughnuts or the last shtickel of challah
from Friday night.

Illuminated, you’d search the kitchen’s corners,
deep in the nooks and the slits of the crannies,
searching for the crumbs your mother planted.
You’d have a feather, or an old toothbrush –
its bristles splayed like a newborn giraffe’s legs –
and when you found something, you’d brush it
onto yesterday’s news, or in a little paper bag.

The next morning, you’d burn it,
letting the crumbs devour themselves to nothing —
like the marshmallow that falls off your stick
and into the fire,
leaving behind only a smell that reminds you
of something that used to be there, but is no more.

If you want to be thorough, to give it your all,
you hunt in your car for crumbs,
your desk, your locker if you’re a kid,
anywhere you might have left a trace of yourself, but
not quite enough to add up to a whole.

I like this ritual,
this Jewish spring cleaning,
getting rid of the crumbs in my life,
the pieces that don’t add up to much
and have gone stale.
Once upon a time, I loved someone
who wouldn’t let me eat a doughnut in his car
and, several decades later,
offered me crumbs of friendship.
At first I accepted them gratefully
— hungrily – but after a time
I realized that even an endless supply of crumbs
didn’t add up, and
didn’t satisfy me as much as one intact cookie,
(even a boring little ginger snap,
or some other intrinsically unattractive sweet.)

So I’m telling you
when I open the door for Elijah this year
I’m not going to let just any one in,
even if it’s Elijah’s guest, if he comes empty-handed.

And even when Passover has passed,
if I’m going to let you in,
you have to bring me a pound of those buttery bakery cookies
that look like pastel-painted leaves,
or better yet, an entire cake,
one you know I like.
You see, I don’t accept crumbs any more.

Janet Ruth Falon, the author of The Jewish Journaling Book (Jewish Lights, 2004), teaches a variety of writing classes — including journaling and creative expression — at many places, including the University of Pennsylvania. She leads a non-fiction writing group and works with individual students, and is continuing to write Jewish-themed readings for what she hopes will become a book, In the Spirit of the Holidays.

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