Tag Archives: grandfathers

Water and Stone

by Aslan Cohen (Chicago, IL)

I never knew there was a real connection between laughter and death. To me, death was the solemnity of the shiva: covered mirrors, torn shirts, itchy beards. When I first visited my grandfather’s grave, I silently placed a small, unpolished stone above the black rectangle of his marble tombstone. Only rocks, in their mineral mutism, can adequately represent the congenital silence of our ancestors. I took that as a general truth. After all, only rocks remain.

Which is why I thought the goyim were so mistaken in using flowers. Most of the flower market in Av. Revolución, far from where the Jews live on the Western edge of Mexico City, consists of oversized funerary arrangements. People have them custom-made for their lost ones. And I just couldn’t understand how those kitschy amalgamations of colorful impermanence could be used to coronate the most serious thing in life.

Little did I know. Because many years later I went with some ‘goyim‘ friends of mine to the graveyard that is in Santa María del Tule, in the outskirts of the city of Oaxaca, on the Day of the Dead. It was an extremely humble place, about a five minutes walk from the Tree of Tule, a cypress of a species we call ahuehuete (which means “old man of the water” in Nahuatl), and which is said to be one of the oldest trees alive. If you go there you’ll find small children that, in exchange for a coin, will give you a tour of the shapes around its wide, wide trunk, and which included, when I was there, the ass of Shakira and the nose of Celia Cruz.

The path to the cemetery was adorned with long strings of petals, which, as I later found out, connect the individual graves with the particular house where the dead person used to live. Through this endless network of smells, life branches in and out of the cemetery, reminding us that our vane pursuits are nothing but a meaningless dance we perform during the short trajectory that goes from our doorposts to our graves.

I mention dance because there was music inside the cemetery. People danced to it in pairs. I remember there was a huge trombone playing with the band. The tunes were not particularly sad, but neither were they frivolous. Something in them captured the sweet-and-sour irony of the encounter of absence with life. This is the irony on which the Mexican Day of the Dead is predicated.

But the exact feeling it gave me is very hard to convey, especially because it was accompanied by the sight of whole families sitting in a circle around the place where their loved one had been buried, drinking and talking with the dead. They tell them about last year: a grandchild’s birthday, the departure of such-and-such who went looking for a job to the United States. They bring the dead their favorite meal. I saw apples and bottles of Coca-Cola over the tombstones. They placed them at the very same spot where I had once burdened my grandpa with a stone. I even saw a bottle of Corona in one of them.

And further down I saw a widow, a very old lady filled with wrinkles, who had brought nothing more than a single glass of water to share with her late husband. She told me that. And I remember being very moved. I am moved to this day. The images of that graveyard have been mostly blurred out from my mind, but I can still see the brown jícara (calabash) with still, transparent water enclosed in it. And I realize it is the very opposite of my grandpa’s stone. But, when all is said and done, they are really the same thing.

Aslan Cohen was born in Mexico City, where he grew up in the Syrian Jewish Community. Today he lives in Chicago with his wife, where he pursues a PhD in Biblical Literature at the University of Chicago.

 

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

A Taste for Herring

by Jonathan Paul Katz (New York, NY)

Herring started out as a childhood favorite. Thus, I never thought I would think of it as anything more than a comfort food.

I was introduced to herring by my grandfather, who loved to stock the house with dark bread and pickled herring on his annual visits to our family in New York. I tried it and loved it: the sweet and sharp acidity of the brine, the fleshy fishiness of the herring, and the way the whole thing stood so nicely on the toast.

One bite at six turned later into one piece of toast with herring on it, which then turned into a passion by the time I was in high-school. I loved pickled fish of all kinds, and that mythical childhood herring was right on top.

When I visited my grandparents in Israel, my grandfather and I would eat herring together in our strange South African and Ashkenazi Jewish ritual: him daintily and elegantly, and me with my crumb-scattered American abandon. Herring was simply the taste of childhood glee.

And then I dated a young man in college. I will not go into all the trauma he put me through during and after the relationship. It could have been worse, but it was not good, and for several months I sought paths away from an increasingly harmful relationship. I felt increasingly controlled emotionally by him, and there were moments of physical control, as well, and I lashed back to protect myself, my Judaism, and some of my favorite foods, as well.

As it happens, he did not like herring.

I found this out while he followed me as I shopped for Passover. We stood in the aisles of the supermarket near my university where there was a Passover selection for the neighborhood’s Jewish population. I stood there and saw jars of kosher-for-Passover herring, free of pesky (and chametz) malt vinegar, on the top shelf of the fridge.

“Look!” I told the boy. “Herring!”

“Ugh,” he said, “my dad likes to eat that stuff. Do you really have to buy it?”

I thought of all the things I didn’t like that I did for him. Public displays of affection, mayonnaise, and things far worse. I reached over to grab a jar, and was relieved to find that he refused to kiss me after I ate any herring.

I broke up with him that Passover, although the ghosts of the trauma of that relationship still nag me six years later. And somehow the taste of herring became associated with that relationship. Not from the fact that it was something that caused conflict, but rather because it was the taste of me making a decision for myself, regardless of his input.

In the months that followed, as I nursed my psychological wounds, I ate a lot of herring. On bread, on matzah, in salad, and even in pasta. Every Kiddush at a synagogue, I found myself helping myself to herring. Even now, I cannot resist.

Herring is now the taste of freedom and strength, and not just that of happy childhood memories beside my grandfather. Of course I eat it because it is delicious, but it is also a reminder that I am still autonomous and strong. And, boy, does autonomy taste good.

I think my grandfather would be proud. He died last year, but that taste for herring that he inculcated in me is still alive.

When he is not guzzling herring, Jonathan Paul Katz is a civil servant and writer living in New York City. He writes Flavors of Diaspora, a culinary blog focused on Jewish food throughout history.

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Israel Jewry, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

Grandfather

by Milton P. Ehrlich (Leonia, NJ)

Grandfather did magic
with a tremulous sleight-of-hand.
Cards and coins vanished
before my surprised eyes.

He could do soft-shoe and tap dance
with a cane like a vaudevillian pro.
He loved to tell corny jokes that
he heard on Eddie Cantor’s radio show
and that never failed to amuse him.

We went to the Stanton Street Shul
on Saturday mornings. I tossed
small paper bags filled with peanuts
and raisins at bar mitzvah boys.

The scent of leather phylactery
straps permeated the premises
from the men who wrapped tefillin
on weekdays on arms, hands, and fingers,
as well as on the top of the head.

Afterwards, he shared snuff
with friends, who sipped wine
and relished schmaltz herring
on challah woven together
with strands representing
the unity of Israel’s tribes.

Sabbath lunch: borscht and pitcha,
followed by a chulent, baked overnight
on a coal kitchen stove.

Grandfather had only one request.
He wanted a photo of himself
dressed exactly like his father
in a photo taken years earlier.

When I was old enough to use
a Brownie Kodak box camera,
he got the picture he wanted,
just before he died.

Little did he know his great-grandson
would become a columnist for The Forward,
the only newspaper he ever read
while drinking Swee-touch-nee tea
in a glass with a cube of sugar.

He was just a man, loved, and not forgotten.
What will my grandchildren remember of me?

Milton P. Ehrlich, Ph.D., an 85-year-old psychologist, has published numerous poems in periodicals such as Descant, Wisconsin Review, Rutherford Red Wheelbarrow, Toronto Quarterly Review, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, and The New York Times.

Leave a comment

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

Sing and Tell of My Grandfather

By Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)

During National Poetry Month, WNYC invited Pulitzer Prize winning poet Sharon Olds to share a writing prompt on its poetry site. Thanks to the prompt, I ended up writing “Sing and Tell of My Grandfather,” a poem that I hadn’t even known I was thinking about writing.

The assignment from Olds was to write a short poem (16 lines or fewer) using (among others) the words acid, anise seed, butter, cherish, grisly, margarine, mother, pearl, sing, and tell. Here’s the poem that I found waiting for me:

Sing and tell of my grandfather
a baker who learned how to use butter—
not margarine—to add flavor to the cakes
and Danish pastries and bread and rolls
that came out of his oven in Zharnow, hot
and steamy and sweet, not grisly anemic rolls
but thick and fluffy, with drops of sugar, like pearls,
and anise seed, like slivers of jade, the kind of rolls
his mother said would bring him wealth and long life
and happiness if he left home. “If you stay,” she said,
“you’ll live with the taste of acid in your mouth, if they
let you live at all.” So, he sailed for America and became
a baker and bought his own bakery and raised a family,
two daughters, thank God, one of whom became my mother,
and lived a life the ones left behind could only dream of.

If you’d like to read more poems written in response to this prompt, visit the WNYC site: http://www.wnyc.org/story/happy-national-poetry-month-heres-assignment-3/

Bruce Black is the founder and editorial director of The Jewish Writing Project. His work has appeared in Blue Lyra Review, Elephant Journal, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Reform Judaism, The Reconstructionist, The Jewish Week, and The Jewish Exponent, as well as in OmYoga Magazine, Yogi Times, Mindbodygreen, Yogamint, and The Sarasota Herald-Tribune. For information about his book, Writing Yoga, visit: 

http://www.rodmellpress.com/writingyoga.html

8 Comments

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

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.  

2 Comments

Filed under Family history, Jewish identity, Moroccan Jewry

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

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity

A Slice of Life

by Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)

My daughter and son-in-law pray in an old-fashioned synagogue where women sit in the balcony and the pale yellow wooden pews are creaky. As their new baby’s grandfather, I feel a little creaky myself. Still, there is in the high ceiling, blood-red velvet ark cover and the long length of the room an elegance, a sense of awe, and none of the modern chic found in many suburban houses of worship.

I like this fine.

The congregants are a mixed group. They wear black hats, crocheted yarmulkes, and those pale blue satin ones which many nonorthodox seem to favor.  Most of them are smiling, anticipating the large kiddush afterwards, perhaps. Few are as excited as I to welcome another Jewish soul into our fold. Some are just happy today simply because something out of the ordinary will take place, a change in routine, an event.

I am greeted with shabbat shalom, or good shabbos, or, less commonly, git shabbes. Regardless of dialect, I know that each person wishes us a mazal tov and a peaceful, enjoyable Sabbath. My eight-day-old, very cute grandson will have his bris this morning. To them, it is not so much my grandson that is special, but the occasion. For me it’s all of it, especially the newly-formed family: my beautiful daughter, her sweet husband, and this new bunch of deliciousness that is my grandson.

My son-in-law’s brother leads the morning shacharit prayer, my own son leads us in musaf. I am transported by all of it, as well as by my own prayers and gratitude that my daughter is well and past the pregnancy, the family is all here in good health, that all present will meet my newest grandchild for the first time as a full-fledged Jew. I am amazed and excited at seeing the magical line come glittering to life, the line connecting this baby to his and our eldest forefather, Abraham.

From the moment that my daughter and son-in-law had called several days before to ask me to be the sandek, I bawled like a baby at the honor, the specialness and this precursor of closeness I prayed for to be between my little grandson and me.

This marks the first time in my life that I have been asked to be the sandek, meaning that my infant grandson will be placed on a pillow on my lap while the mohel does his thing (oops).

Being the sandek is a great honor in our Jewish tradition.

Sandek is a Greek word meaning “don’t look at what the mohel’s doing or you’ll turn green, hurt the mohel, or both.” Just kidding. Actually, sandek comes from the Greek word, suntekos, which means “companion of child,” which is what I want to be for him, as I hope to always be for all of my grandchildren.

So here I am, sitting in this plush chair to the right of Elijah’s Chair on the Ark platform. The little munchkin is placed on my lap, and I lovingly look only at his eyes, his forehead, and his quivering mouth. I watch the teal-blue pacifier near his lips bob like a buoy as he alternatively screams in pain and gasps for air. I whisper cooing, encouraging words to him, but they are not honest  words. What I really want to say is, “Give me a second, Bud, just hang on while I stiff-arm these people like an NFL pro and run for the door.” I check all the exits and see that the one behind me is my best bet. In my brain’s image I scoop him up before the mohel feels the downdraft from my moving blur, and we are out of there, no pain, truly no gain. My protectiveness is fueled by unbidden imagery of what is about to happen and I wish for Samantha-types of blinking power to teleport us out of there.

I stay, of course.

I can feel him straining hard to break free from my hold. It’s crazy, but I want to help him. I’m his grandfather, for crying out loud, I’m supposed to help him with all the fun stuff, not allow him to suffer. Let his parents deal with all the have-to’s, that’s their job. I know I’m conflicted, this is part of what the human family calls meshuga time. I know that I’m one of his peeps who is the transmitter of traditions such as the one we are all gathered here for. But I think: if he looks like me, then perhaps his tastes are like mine. I therefore formulate a plan to take him to the nearest Starbucks because we are so in sync, my baby grandson and I. So we’ll have a cup of coffee and schmooze about the scrapes we escaped from together.

Sigh.

Again with the fantasy, I know. What’s with me? Where are my personal prayers? I can’t. He has to endure this ceremony, no matter how painful for him, no matter how painful for me. So I steel myself for the task before us and hold his feet immobile, as the mohel has instructed me.

The wine-soaked gauze-pad they will place in his tiny lips will not fool him for a second, and I know that what he really wants is chocolate with almonds, or maybe a muffin, with that fresh hot coffee.

Soon, my eyes fall on the mohel’s tray, and when I see a little blood near the mohel’s instruments, it takes all my self-control not to perform a bris on the mohel himself for what he was doing to my grandson.

But the truth is, it is all just so moving and meaningful.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, all the way to my grandfather, then my father, me, and now my little grandson. A long line down through time, all obeying our Father’s request, all part of the same family.

I tell you, it’s enough to make you give up coffee.

For more than thirty years, Chaim Weinstein taught English in grades six through college in  New York City public schools as well as in several parochial schools. Three of his poems, “The Shul is Dark,” “Mr Blumen,”  and “Unlikely Pair” have appeared on The Jewish Writing Project, and an early short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne. He is currently working in several genres and is hoping to  share a larger selection of his work in the future.

3 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, Family history