Tag Archives: Jewish identity

T’shuvah

Chris Farrar (Columbus, OH)

I’ve been Jewish all my life, but for the first 17 years I didn’t know it.  It’s fair to say that I didn’t really know what “Jewish” was.  In fact, once when I was 8 or so, I went with a friend to Mass, and then told his mother – to her great delight – that I was definitely going to be Catholic.

Well wouldn’t she be surprised.

My father was raised Baptist but really had no interest in religion.  My mother’s family was Jewish, but very secular. 

I, my sister and brother were raised without any religion or religious connection.  Due to my father’s influence, I imagine, we always had a Christmas tree, we went on Easter egg hunts and generally did the things that Christian families did.  But nothing Jewish.

I grew up without any of the normal Jewish childhood experiences.  No Yom Kippur.  No synagogue.  No Passover.  No summer camp.  “David melech yisrael” would have been just a string of sounds in a catchy tune.

It was as if my mother’s Jewish heritage didn’t exist. 

So here’s what happened.

Some time in the middle of high school I underwent knee surgery and had to stay home for several days.  After exhausting all the science fiction in the house I was desperate for something to read.  The only thing I could find was “The Source” by James Michener.

This novel takes place in Israel in the early 60s.  It looks at the history of the Jews through the lens of an archaeological dig.  The site is a fictitious tel named “Makor.”   In Hebrew the word means “source.” 

When I finished that book I knew I was Jewish and I grabbed at it with both hands.  I read book after book on the history of the Jews.  I took courses.  I even joined the Jewish Defense League for a while, until I came to understand them better.

Later I lived on a kibbutz in Israel and learned Hebrew.  I taught it at the university as a TA.  I married a wonderful Jewish woman and raised three amazing Jewish children.  And now there’s a Jewish son-in-law and a new generation of Jewish grandchildren.

Early in my relationship with Judaism, after I returned from Israel, it seemed to me that the only way to be Jewish was to be ultra-Orthodox.  The Chasidim were the saving remnant, the keepers of the sacred flame.  I moved into the Lubavitcher Chabad House at UCLA.  I put on tefillin every morning.  I kept kosher.  I kept the Sabbath. 

This lasted a month.  At the end of the month I knew I couldn’t be Jewish in that way.  I wasn’t even sure I believed in God.   Not, at any rate, the way I needed to in order to live the Lubavitcher life.  That wasn’t going to be my connection to Judaism. 

Instead, as it has developed over the years, my connection has been to the Hebrew language, to the holidays, to my family and to the history of the Bible and of the land of Israel as understood through the perspective of archaeology.

So.  T’shuvah.

On Yom Kippur we think of it as repentance.

What it really means is “return.”

For me it’s been a return to a history that is my history, to a language that is my language and to a land that is my land.

And it’s a return to a book of writings so compelling in its message that it has become the foundation of our whole concept of the obligations of our shared humanity.

 And for me, more even than this, it means a return to wonder.

Who were these people, my ancestors? How did they live? How did they think?  They were a tiny outpost of humanity, living in a poor nation, smaller than many US counties.  They were ravaged horribly by powerful nations, not once but over and over again.  They lost their Temple and their sacred city but somehow, uniquely among ancient peoples, they didn’t lose their God. 

How did they, among all peoples, develop the moral, ethical and spiritual foundation now embraced by half the world’s population?

If they could see how the power of their belief has cascaded down the centuries, what would they think of it?  What would they think of the re-emergence of their nation in its own land, of the resurrection of their language?

Would they recognize their God?  Would they see Him in the miracles of the Tanakh?  Would they see Him in the rebirth of the land of Israel?  Would they see Him in the spread of their vision through Christianity and Islam? 

Or maybe they would see Him in the way a day of teenage boredom can change a person irrevocably, sending reverberations not only down the decades of his own life but also down the lives of generations to come.

So, back to t’shuvah.  Return.

Not just a return to history; but rather, perhaps, a return to the future.

Chris Farrar grew up in southern California, earned a doctorate in linguistics, and worked in technology marketing and, eventually, in data analytics. His first novel, By the Waters of Babylon, follows twelve-year-old Ya’el as she’s deported to Babylon after the siege of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The novel is available on AmazonBarnes & Noble, Kobo and Apple Books. If you’d like to learn more about Chris and his work, visit his website: christopherfarrar.com.

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Chosen People

by Carl Reisman (Mahomet, IL)

Dedicated to my father, John Reisman, z”l, and Fox’s Deli, Rochester, N.Y.

We didn’t keep the Sabbath

but we kept going to Fox’s for smoked sable dusted with paprika,

Nova lox, golden white fish, slabs of marble halvah,

pastrami shaved onto butcher paper, hot corned beef, and bagels,

not those crappy frozen cardboard ones we had on Sunday mornings,

but the real ones, boiled, baked until they had a crust,

still warm from the oven,

bagged up, a baker’s dozen,

always told by the counter lady, honey, you got one more,

and my Dad picked another,

sesame, poppyseed or onion, never raisin.

My mother warned us not to forget the cream cheese.

We didn’t discuss the Talmud but we took

the number 73 and I was nearly trampled by a lady who wanted

the man behind the counter to get her

one of the Hebrew National salamis hanging from a hook.

I had to look past her varicose veins to see the spool of hot dogs,

kosher ones stuffed in lamb casings,

that we would broil until they split.

My father had to pick me up so that I could see the floating pickles in their barrels,

bright green, the smacking cool cloud of vinegar and dill

mixed in the steamy air with a front of

mustard, pepper, chicken fat, garlic, and salt.

My family never raised the Golem to save our neighborhood

but as the year 5729 passed into memory

my father kept up his weekly trips to Fox’ s for kugel with white raisins–

it was not as good as his mother’s and my mother wasn’t even in the running

in the kugel race–nor could they hold a candle to my Hungarian grandmother’s strudel,

filled with apples and nuts,

or more surprisingly, cabbage, soft, sweet, with caraway, pastry so thin

when she rolled it that you could see the table underneath,

at least, so he said, she died before I was born; Grandma

and her cooking had passed into legend,

and my father was always showing up at the deli, Fox’s,

or, really, any deli,

looking for the Promised Land, wanting again to feel chosen.

Carl Reisman was a professional cook and restaurant reviewer before settling down to work as an attorney in Champaign, Illinois helping out people who were injured on the job and growing vegetables in the office garden. He has published two volumes of poetry, Kettle and Home Geography, and has contributed to journals including KaramuLegal Studies Forum, and Red Truck. His work is also included in the anthology,  Lawyer Poets and the World We Call Law.  In addition, his poetry has been taught, along with that of several other lawyer/judge poets, in a class at West Virginia University College of Law on the literary efforts of lawyers. 

Author’s Note: This poem is dedicated to the memory of my father, John Reisman, who died from complications of Covid three days short of his 90th birthday.  He was born of two Hungarian Jewish immigrants, the first child to survive (three siblings died), and grew up in a cold water apartment that was poor financially but rich in the traditional Jewish foods of my grandmother’s birth country.  My father was raised practicing Orthodox Judaism, stopped practicing, tried Reform Judaism, but never really found a home in a temple after he left the one in Perth Amboy, NJ, where he was raised.  Food was the most powerful connection he had to the soul of being Jewish, and the deli is where we went to try to find the source.

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On Watching “Fiddler” Once Again

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Like a petulant child,
I have spent much of my life
railing against the constraints,
as I saw them, of Jewish practices,
advanced by my father who came
from an Orthodox upbringing.

I protested vigorously against
Hebrew school interfering with
afternoon baseball games with friends,
the getting-up-and-sitting-down
for long hours on important holidays, 
and most notably, that my Bar-Mitzvah
was less for me than my extended family.

Yet, despite all those objections,
I am drawn back to my roots by the
familiar opening strains of “Tradition”
in “Fiddler” in a PBS special
on the making of the musical.

I have seen “Fiddler” many times, even in Yiddish,
and each time it brings me back to Anatevka,
a village not unlike my father’s birth place,
which makes me believe I still hang on to
an emotional lifeline to my father, to his faith.

I may have spent years running, but
a simple score I know so well, brings me,
with tears in my eyes, back into the fold.

And I’ve come to realize I am never that far away from the village, 
never that far way away from my father 
and from my own faith.

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. You can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Anne Watches Me

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Anne Frank and the Marranos of the
Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam
would not be proud of me as I walk, with cane,
a second day in this canal-laced capital.
Even surrounded by rich Jewish tradition,
located in the center of town,
I feel tangential to the teachings of
Spinoza and Maimonides.
What will make me feel more Jewish?
I have broken too many rules,
avoided too many rites, to lay claim to
being an active participant in my own religion.
And yet,
I am my father’s son,
he who escaped the Holocaust,
who suffered survivor’s guilt,
who nevertheless passed his heritage on to me.
I think of him, and all Jews, those who perished,
those who survived, as I slowly climb the stairs
in the Anne Frank House in the heart of a city that
has remembered and respected its Jewish history.
Ascending those stairs to the “Secret Annex,”
I can hear Anne’s footsteps behind me,
asking questions for which there are no answers:
Why me? Why us? Why now? –-
questions that echo both past and present
as tyrants then and now seek to control the world.
Anne, I feel your strength and bravery
wandering the rooms of your abbreviated adolescence
as a renewed Jew here in the old city of Amsterdam.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

 

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Not My Father’s Jewish Museum

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

 

I am not prepared for the profusion

of colors and thought that are persuasive

here in the Jewish Museum of New York,

expecting gray shadows of smoke rising,

of twisted corpses and mournful dirges.

Look! There is a hanging chandelier

blinking on and off at irregular times,

as if one language doesn’t work,

another will, in this case in Morse Code.

All languages, sadly, are an approximation

of the truth, an attempt to get to the core

of what it means to be Jewish.

I am unsure of what that is,

in any language, art, script, whatever.

I see artists trying to answer that very same question

in forms more varied than my own imagination.

The medium differs, the search continues.

Imagine a room full of stuffed animals – a Bear-mitzvah!

I may not know exactly who I am,

but the comfort here in this museum

reminds me I am not alone in my quest.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Berlin, November 10, 1938

By Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Remember this,” she said to me.

I have remembered. Through all these many years.

To this very day.

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

 

 

 

 

 

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Sabbath Candles

By Rick Black (Arlington, VA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Matter of The Errant Sun                        

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

Try as she may, mother could not escape her past. As a survivor of the Holocaust, she was left with an abundance of painful memories that would surface throughout her lifetime. As far back as I can recall, she shied away from discussing her experiences out of fear of opening painful wounds and, perhaps most important of all, not exposing her innocent children to the unspeakable horrors that she felt best be kept hidden. She remained highly sensitized to certain distinctive sounds and visual displays that, if present, could easily result in anxious moments or outright panic. I recall how she was terrified by the sound of a passing siren and remained frozen in fear until the siren’s harsh shrill disappeared far off in the distance.

And then there was the matter of the errant sun. She rather enjoyed the sun’s presence, but at times it brought about disturbing recollections that mother would rather forget. On many a sunny day she would quietly make her way to the living room and place herself directly in front of the large picture window. She happened to favor this one particular window for it seemed to best capture the sun’s majestic brilliance. Once seated in her upholstered chair she would lean slightly forward placing the palms of both hands against the window’s glowing surface. Then, as if on cue, her eyes would slowly close as the sun’s rays entered our home extending a much-appreciated warm embrace.

The sun often brought a smile to her face, but many a time her demeanor could change in dramatic fashion. A smile signaling joy and contentment would suddenly vanish, having been replaced by a sorrowful, clearly pained expression. And as would so often be the case, her initial tears of joy were suddenly pushed aside by the bitter tears of sadness and despair. For even within the dazzling sunlight, shadowy companions, nightmarish figures, were always by her side.

Mother kept much of her past life to herself but there were instances when she relented and agreed to share some of her thoughts and recollections. On one such occasion, she felt the need to speak of the sun’s past betrayal and how it had once meekly surrendered to an unspeakable evil. An inexcusable act that contributed to the misery and despair of those confined to the ghetto in Lodz, her hometown in Poland. As was usually the case, a trickle of glistening bitter tears began to appear on her pallid cheeks in anticipation of the story she would soon relate, a story about her long running squabble with the sun.

“You see during the war the sun left us,” she began. “It was a time when the sun, like so many others, left us to suffer and die. When I looked through the dirty windows, past the walls of the ghetto, I could see the sun shining. I could see people smiling. You see, my children, without the sun, there is no light and no warmth. The sun wanted no part of our world and forced us to live in darkness.”

She related how things appeared beyond the ghetto walls. Flowers bloomed, birds tweeted, and children played. But within the forbidding walls, all was dark; all had begun to decay. Wasted infants would whimper in unison while the sick and elderly lay with eyes nearly closed knowing the end was fast approaching. Most would soon succumb in this world of darkness. Mother was tormented by the sun’s presence beyond the ghetto walls. It was so close yet so distant. In its own peculiar way, the sun had joined the many forces of evil that subjected the Jews of Europe to unimaginable hardship and suffering. “It’s better not to ask,” she ended, “better never to know. Some things should remain hidden.”

Years passed and the sun returned to her life. Mother spent her remaining days sitting by the glowing window enjoying the sun’s life-giving energy and warm embrace. But I sensed early on that she could never forget, nor entirely forgive, the sun for its past indifference. And rightfully so. She had been witness to the errant sun’s darker side—the time it fled, refusing to provide light and joy to a people in desperate need.

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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Finding My Jewishness

by Anna Banasiak (Lodz, Poland)

I’m wandering in life
searching for my promised land
I see their faces
emerging from my dreams
hear the trains
in the forest of thoughts
my eyes are full of light
hands are dancing in the enchanted circle
like the Tzadikim
I hear the melody of the Hebrew alphabet
there is something strange in me
when I’m with people
I tremble
like a frightened bird
trapped in the past

Anna Banasiak, a poet and literary critic, lives in Lodz,Poland. She studied Polish philology and culture studies at the University of Warsaw, and served as the editor in chief of Kamena in Lodz. Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals around the world.

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Yahrzeit: Remembering the Love

by Joel Rudinger (Huron, OH)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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