Tag Archives: k’lal yisrael

An Unexpected Discovery

by Laurie Rappeport (Safed, Israel)

Several years ago I became involved in guiding a group of students who were studying the history of the American Jewish Experience through music. The kids were examining Jewish America of the 21st century.

Toward this end they explored the traditional liturgy and music of successive waves of immigrants who made their way to America’s shores over the past 400 years. It was probably one of the most interesting subjects that I’ve ever tackled with a group of students.

The project first brought me into contact with the Milken Archives of American Jewish Music, which provided the students with a significant percentage of our research material. Much of the Milken material relates to the first Jewish immigrants who arrived in South Carolina from Brazil in the mid-1600s. These people were refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions and, after fleeing to South America, were forced to run again when the Inquisition reached South America.

The students had a wonderful time and I put the experience in the back of my mind until recently when I suddenly discovered that the history of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain and forced to wander the world, looking for sanctuary, was, in fact, my own history.

Until that time, as far as I knew, I was a bona fide gefilte fish and kreplach Jew with roots in Poland, Belerus and Lithuania. However, it turns out that one of my grandfathers, who hailed from England, was the descendent of Dutch Jews who were almost certainly of Spanish origin.

In 2008 I received an email from a man in New Zealand. Geoff had been born in Birmingham England and immigrated to New Zealand in the ’50s with his father and brother. However, recent documents had come to light that indicated that Geoff had, in fact, been adopted, and that his biological father had been Jewish.

In following through the family history that my family knew, as well as the history that Geoff had been able to determine, we were able to ascertain that Geoff and my mother were second cousins. A subsequent DNA test with my mother’s brother confirmed the relationship.

Throughout the following year Geoff showed great interest in his Jewish ancestry. Still living in New Zealand, he read voraciously about Judaism and Israel and contacted me on Skype several times a week to find out my take on the things that he was reading. In 2009 Geoff and his wife, Jenny, came to Israel to meet the family and attend my son’s wedding.

Geoff and Jenny continued to research our family’s history but they were also fascinated by Judaism. They returned to Israel the following year to celebrate Rosh Hashana with us and in February 2011, under Israel’s Law of Return, made aliyah. To say that no one was more surprised than I was is an understatement!

Geoff and Jenny joined an ulpan course to learn Hebrew and completed a formal conversion program in February 2012 with a giur and a Jewish wedding celebration as a new Jewish couple. The story of their return to Judaism was featured as a Friday spread in Israel’s largest newspaper. They bought a home and now live a 20-minute walk from my house in Safed in northern Israel.

Geoff has continued to explore our common genealogy and discovered a number of interesting details of our family’s life in England. The majority of England’s Jews are, like America’s Jews, descended from Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (One interesting note: many of these immigrants had intended to make their way to America but, when the ships docked on the eastern shore of Scotland or England, were tricked by the sea captains into thinking that they had arrived in America and never completed the train ride that would have taken them to the western shore and their second boat to America.)

What Geoff discovered was that, in at least two lines of our family, our lineage can be traced back to Dutch Jews who were welcomed to England by Oliver Cromwell in the late 1600s. (Jews were expelled from England in 1266 and were not allowed back into the country until Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, invited them to return.)  The majority of the Jews in Amsterdam during that period were descendants of Jews who had fled Spain in 1492.

Suddenly, my students’ project took on a whole new meaning as I realized that the art, music, traditions and customs of the Mediterranean and Sephardic world comprised my own heritage as well.

There’s still much left to determine about our family’s history, but access to the increasing availability of both English and Dutch records may open the door to new discoveries. One far-flung cousin was able to find her ancestor’s ketubah in Italy while another break-away branch of the family has been located in Australia and New Zealand. It turns out that one of their descendants lives up the road from me in the Golan Heights!

In the meantime, Geoff and Jenny have become core members of our local synagogue. (Geoff arrives every Shabbat morning at 8:00 am. I told him that, in my entire life, I’d never made it to shul before 10:00 am.) Their latest project is wine-making, which they undertook so that, when they spend time in Italy (which they do every summer), they’ll have plenty of kosher wine.

Laurie Rappeport is originally from Detroit. She is an online educator who works with Jewish day school and afternoon school students to teach them about Judaism and Israel. She frequently uses the Milken Archives as a resource for historical studies about Judaism. 

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

Black Hat

by Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)

At the close of the Rosh Hashana service the rabbi asks us to be seated.

He knows our kids are squirming and hungry but he has a plan. Smiling securely in our modern orthodox Jewish building, the rabbi deputizes each of us to reach out to our increasingly right-moving Jewish community shuls. Our mission, as the rabbi explains it, is to become friendly and join a minyan and style of davening different from our own. We are to break the barriers, say hello to black-hatted strangers, go to a yeshiva minyan, shukkle, mingle and daven. We are to begin this the very next Shabbat and help bring Jews closer.

I make my way through Brooklyn streets in the fading light of a cold Friday afternoon. Hurrying in my knitted purple yarmulke, camelhair coat, and oxblood loafers to a small synagogue, I feel like I’m a robin among penguins, a rose-vine in a field of black orchids, a square peg in a grid of round holes.

I am in a black-hat neighborhood and it feels like enemy territory, even though we are all Jews.

Despite my discomfort, I smile and wish “Good Shabbos” to passersby, but their eyes merely flick past me and dismiss me with mumbled responses.

I hang my coat on the pitted aluminum coat rack in the rear of their small shul and smile: when I leave, my coat will be easy to find in this field of black cloth and marbleized buttons. Like a rebellious peacock, I parade my colors before these plain-garbed men. It is the very choice of my clothing, I know, that fences me off into self-imposed alienation. But it is only in a shul like this where I feel the need to cover my stylish clothing, to conceal my wedding-banded finger with my right hand. I resent feeling like this.

In this overheated large room of white cloth-covered tables and metal folding chairs, these Jews stare with a brazenness unbecoming true knights of the Torah and defenders of the faithful. Though I am a stranger in their strange land, and the Torah demands that they love me, these Jews stare at me instead with pity and condescension, instead of love and concern.

I pull an Artscroll English siddur from the shelf and move toward an unoccupied table. I’m ready to pray and freeze their antisocial stares with one of my own.  So I stare back at them until they look away first, and I am as pleased with my win as a petulant child.

Most congregants pray and chant, though some talk and gesticulate, ignoring the open prayer books before them. Others weave through the mass of tables and chairs during prayers, removing scholarly tomes from crowded bookcases during prayer. Their brows furrow in concentration, poring over tiny print. They are learning Torah.

I don’t understand how they can do this during prayer, from whom they receive rabbinic approval. If I had an audience with the American president or with a king, I could not read a book openly in his face during that time. How can studying during a prayer session with the king of kings, even learning Torah, be justified? Their talking disturbs me for the same reason, but I am just a visitor so I keep my thoughts to myself.

The time for evening prayer arrives, and when the sexton asks me to lead the services, I am shocked, but I simply smile and nod slowly. Some skeptics here will now hear their first-ever modern Jew leading services. Still, I give them credit for trying me out, me, with my pale-blue shirt and striped tie and unblack shoes and colorful, little knitted yarmulke.

I know my davening surprises them because it sounds authentically East European. They can’t figure me out, and that pleases me: I like being mysterious.

When finished, I get heartfelt back-slaps and smiles from some worshipers. But others are suspicious. One asks me pointblank, “What is someone who looks like you doing in a place like this?”

I am stunned but say nothing, remembering a Torah teaching about not judging a wine by its bottle.  In this shul, my Jewish worth is measured by my clothing and the style and length of my hair. But for me,  Jewishness is in the soul, in memories of childhood, rituals and laws forsaken or embraced.

A young man blocks the return to my seat. Arms across his chest, he blurts his demand: “Why didn’t you wear a black hat when you led the services? Why that tiny Pepsi-Cola cap on the back of your head?” I feel like slapping his arrogance, his holier-than-thou aura. Thoughts furiously bounce around in my head. I want to scream: “If you are all so scrupulous about keeping commandments, how could you ask another Jew such a question? Why do you ignore the dictum ‘love your neighbor as yourself’? And where are your manners and observance of commandments between man and man?”

I feel sad that I must submit to my rabbi that his class experiment was a failure, that some fellow Jews  shunned and mistrusted each other. I can forgive their social  backwardness but not their hypocrisy. I am stone-silent as I think of a song: “It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile,” so I do, and still smiling, I wish him good shabbos.

Then I replace my siddur, retrieve my easy-to-find camelhair coat, and walk out uneasily, disconnected, into the cold night.

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. His poems and stories have appeared on The Jewish Writing Project, and his short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne.

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Filed under American Jewry

The Hassid and the Tennis Racket

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Outside looking in, his hands on the wire fence,
he stood sallow and sweaty in the hot sun,
dressed in black coat and hat watching me
practicing my pathetic serve,
stabbing at the ball with fly swatter frenzy,
willing it to land in the box with any kind of consistency.
Between tosses, I watched him watching me
through rimless glasses, his blue eyes searching
for some reason for my solitary ritual.
For ten minutes I struggled with my swing.
For ten minutes he did not move a muscle.
His silence screamed at me until, exasperated
I walked over to him and asked, “Do you play?”
He seemed puzzled by my question,
started to answer, but then stopped in mid-word,
and wistfully, I thought, shook his head no,
as if he had finally decided to fall on the side
of the ethereal, instead of the temporal.
At his hesitation, I wish I had had another racket
to invite him to play, to deconstruct the fence
between his universe and mine.

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 a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity