Tag Archives: growing up Jewish

Born in America

by Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)

As a boy I learned Hebrew while sitting in
a cramped, stifling second-floor classroom
on Wednesday afternoons and on Sunday
mornings, chalk dust in the air and cigarette
smoke mixed with sweat and the stale smell
of ink and old paper, reading Bible stories
from ancient books with dusty yellow pages
and the smell of an exotic, sun-drenched land
rising from between the lines.

The land was called Israel—Eretz Yisrael
in Hebrew—and I was told to call it home,
even though home for me was a split-level
house in northern New Jersey within sight
of the tall spires of Manhattan where my
father worked, and all I knew about Israel
was that it was hot and dusty, a dry land
covered in sand, a place where refugees with
numbers tattooed on their arms came from
Europe’s death camps to build new lives.

I remember how the Hebrew letters felt so
strange on the tip of my tongue and made
the back of my throat swell so that I nearly
choked on the words, and I remember how
I turned the pages hoping my teacher wouldn’t
call on me to read, afraid I’d stumble and trip
in front of my friends over the unfamiliar words.

In the end I learned what I had to learn for
my bar mitzvah, no more, no less, and memorized
all the Hebrew words and how they were supposed
to sound by listening to a record the rabbi had
made, and I repeated the words over and over again
until they sounded like words that came from my
heart, words that I had absorbed in my mother’s
milk as an infant nursing at her breast.

Only I could never convince myself that Hebrew
was really my language. I always felt like an
imposter reading the words, as if the odd-shaped
letters and words belonged to someone else. I was
an American Jew, after all, and, like most Americans,
I spoke English, not Hebrew. And when I walked down
the streets of my suburban town in northern New Jersey,
I foolishly thought that my friends and I were safe
forever from the horrors of the past, and that Israel
served as a haven for others, not for Jews like us
who had been born in America.

How my friends and I had laughed at the idea that
we needed to learn Hebrew. Instead, we dreamed of
playing basketball and throwing a football in a high
spiral on a perfect autumn afternoon and sneaked
peeks across the aisle at the girls, their heads bent
over their books, pretending that we weren’t there,
intent on learning the Hebrew words that all of us
might need one day to strengthen our bonds as Jews.

Bruce Black is is the founder and editorial director of The Jewish Writing Project. He lives in Sarasota, FL.

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

Deja Vu

By Sheldon Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

It should hardly be surprising that as a kid growing up in Boston during the 1950’s, I nearly always went about sporting my beloved Red Sox cap. I worshiped the Sox but wore the cap for an entirely different reason. I wore it because my father demanded that I do so. No, not because he was a fan-he was not and never had been. In fact, he could not make any sense of the sport of baseball and often wondered aloud how it was that grown men got paid by running like lunatics from one place to another.

My father was adamant and would never give an inch. No amount of arguing or pleading could possibly change his mind. “You must wear a cap. I do not want you to go out in the street with a yarmulke (skull cap) on your head. My son, there are too many people who hate us and if given the chance, would be only too happy to do us harm.” He would then relate a series of events detailing how Jews suffered in Europe–how they were demeaned, mocked and yes, at times, beaten in many a location including Poland, the country of his birth.

As a Holocaust survivor, he was in possession of a treasure trove of illustrative stories to make his point. Recollections would emerge of how unwary children were abused and ridiculed just for being Jewish. He would go into exacting detail of how the innocents were chased and often assaulted while the shouts of dirty Jews reverberated on the street. And the final insult, the coup de grace, was that the yarmulkes were nearly always pulled from the victims’ heads and proudly thrown to the ground. Joy and shouts of victory came when the yarmulke was ground into the soil, debased and spat upon. “But we’re in America,” I would helplessly chime in, “those type of people are not here.” “Listen to me my son. There will come a time when you will remember my words. There will always be people who hate us. They may not always say or do anything but they hate us nonetheless.”

My father’s insistence along with his many recollections have never left me. To this day, whenever I leave my neighborhood, I don my cap. No! Not a Red Sox cap. I now reside in New York and must be wary of all the diehard Yankee fans who would be only too happy to start up with a Red Sox guy. I work without wearing a yarmulke because I know only too well that my father would want it that way. “Don’t antagonize people. The yarmulke can bring out the worst in some.” And within the blink of an eye, he would produce a story or two to substantiate his dire warnings. When asked by co-workers or patients why it is I don’t wear my yarmulke, I never go into detail and simply reply that it’s just my custom not to do so while at work.

So what’s the point in bringing up the yarmulke at this time you may ask. Well the yarmulke has recently been in the news. Even though I initially tried convincing my father that people have changed and that we now live in an entirely different world, I must concede he was right all along. The current war in Gaza should serve as an awakening to those who are of the opinion that times have changed. That the evil our forbearers had to contend with is a thing of the past. We should all take the time and read about the appalling incidents that are so often brushed aside by many of our prominent news outlets. Worshipers being attacked outside of a synagogue or stores being threatened for carrying Kosher food are simply not news worthy.

Anti-Semitism has never left Europe and will likely never do so. This centuries old hatred raises its ugly head every so often and any excuse, no matter how inane, brings out the worst in people. Gaza just happens to be the flavor of the month. A severe downturn in the economy or unsettled weather somewhere in the Pacific is all that is needed to open the spigot once again. Occasional accounts often buried in the back of newspapers describe the hate that is on the ascendancy throughout much of Europe. The rants of kill the Jews can be heard in many a European city. Synagogues and Jewish owned concerns have once again been set ablaze. But for me, what captured my attention were the warnings from Jewish leaders that Jews in France and Belgium should no longer walk the streets wearing their yarmulkes. Boys and men were being verbally abused and beaten.

I find myself repeating my father’s words as I warn my own children to take heed and wear a cap whenever leaving the neighborhood. We are often referred to as a stiffed neck people, a proud and stubborn bunch that has defied all odds. We have learned to adjust, to adapt and persevere in spite of the challenges we must constantly face. So for the time being, at least, I encourage my children to wear a cap. It’s just safer.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears(http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity