Tag Archives: l’dor v’dor

Honoring your mother and father in lockdown

by Jay Prosser (London, England)

‘How about salmon stir-fry?’

‘Yes, weather warm and dry.’

I realise my parents are once again having a parallel-universe conversation.  This is the result of mutual increasing deafness, not helped by the depressing news virus updates at more-than-background volume.

Sitting between them at breakfast every morning, I’m often required also to translate between them.  The experience is similar to watching a movie with them.  ‘What are they saying?’  ‘I haven’t seen her before.’  I’m tempted to do sign language on the movie.

It would be one thing if I was 16, or 21, or even 30.  But it’s quite another if you’re a man in your 50s — with your life, job, and partner left behind in another city — to spend the lockdown months with parents in their 80s.  Neighbors have been very kind, and my parents relied on them before we could get online groceries.  But this is not The Graduate, and I’m definitely not Dustin Hoffman.  The neighbor’s wife is charming, but we bond only over tomato plants and coordinated deliveries.

Eleven weeks ago, my catastrophic worrying – the world is going to end – for once, proved the wise response. Just before lockdown, I packed my car with jars of halech (Iraqi Jewish date syrup), fermented beetroot and horseradish (it was just before Pesach, can you believe), piles of books so I could continue to teach, albeit remotely, at my university, and drove the 200 miles to be with my parents.

This week’s parashah includes the mitzvah about honoring your father and mother, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the extraordinary relevance of the 5th  commandment in lockdown.

The Hebrew word, kavod, translates as ‘honor’ or ‘respect,’ but its root, kved, carries the sense of heaviness, of a burden.  Our ensoncement has definitely not been easy.  We’ve had a series of domestic catastrophes.  The washing machine broke the day I arrived, releasing a flood that would have drowned Pharaoh’s horses.  Then the dishwasher broke.  The vacuum cleaner. The internet.  The landline.  It felt like a trial by ordeal.  I missed my partner.  My friends.  My ordered, other life.

The verse in Exodus, ‘Honor your father and mother and I will arrange your days on the land which your God gave you,’ is about commitment to your parents and their home, clearly meant to be Israel.  But returning to maintain my childhood home for my parents, the mitzvah has a different resonance right now.  My parents are fit for their age and definitely more social than me.  Their week is normally a cheerful merry-go-round of ballet and golf; French and tai chi; croissants and coffee; and, ever more occasionally, synagogue.  But since they’ve not been outside for ten weeks, I’ve been their lifeline. I’m living in the studio in the loft and admiring my parents’ resourcefulness and stoicism – really respecting them — as they do their 50 circuits daily around the 100-foot garden (about 1.5 miles), weaving in and out of each other’s way, as if performing a coded bee dance.

The Talmud says that to honor your parents is like honoring God, because along with God you owe your existence to them.  We learn that there should be almost no limit to honoring one’s parents, so that if our father was sleeping and we needed the key from under his pillow to unlock the chest and sell the contents that would make us a large fortune, we nevertheless shouldn’t disturb him.  We hear of the rabbi who willingly bends low so that his elderly mother can use him as footstool to get into bed at night.  But we also learn that all such actions must be done with a good heart and the right sprit: that we can be punished if we serve our parents a ‘delectable fatty bird’ resentfully.  This latter, at least, is not my problem.  I find it truly heart-warming to see my parents tucking into my easy-peasy roast chicken dinner.

Honor, the Talmud says, includes making sure your parents have provisions.  I’ve summoned this to mind as I help my mother with her online grocery order, explaining that, yes, you do have to pay when you get to the checkout, because you’ll lose your slot if you don’t — not always succeeding at keeping my head out of my hands.  Honoring one’s parents also includes providing for other needs.  I’ve planted salad greens in their garden to encourage my father to move more often from his chair to water them.  I’ve been baking (no one appreciates my challah more).  I’ve accrued gadgets to make their life easier in the enforced absence of their home help.  A secret joy is watching my mother gently order and nudge the new Roomba as if it were a small dog.

Jewish law even has something to say about honoring and dementia:  that we should continue to care for our parents until we absolutely no longer can, and only then should we delegate.  We learn Kaddish in order to honor parents after their death.  And the greatest honor we give them is by continuing to perform good deeds even when they won’t be here to witness them. As I’ve adjusted to my parents’ rhythms, I’ve realised what an honor it is for me simply to be here:  listening to their stories; watching their favourite film . . . which leads to the story of how they met; and I’ve heard that story a thousand times.

But in the end, honoring your elderly parents by spending lockdown with them is — unlike the normal filial fleeting visit home — not about you.  It’s about them and seeing the changes they’ve really gone through – their ageing process. It’s about realising your parents are mortal, fragile, vulnerable, especially to this virus.  It’s about carrying on the story from generation to generation.  And it’s about honoring all those who’ve come before you, and thereby keeping traditions alive.

And, yes, it’s about translating at the breakfast table.

Jay Prosser, a reader in humanities at the University of Leeds, has published his Jewish-themed writings in Tablet, Jewish Renaissance, and elsewhere, and has written and edited several academic books on various subjects. At the moment he is working on a book about his Asian-Jewish family.  For more information about Jay and his work, visit: https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/english/staff/1076/dr-jay-prosser

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The Genuine Article

by Herbert J. Levine (Sarasota, FL)

My father’s grandfather, in photographs always an old man wearing a long black coat, his white beard gathered in two points, was the genuine article, the Jew who had never passed through Western Europe’s ordeals of civility. Because he loomed large in his grandchildren’s life, Peretz Satran of Sered, Romania and Winthrop, Mass. became the stuff of family legend, as exotic to me as his one-foot-high silver-covered spice box, which he, a dealer in scrap metal, had assembled out of the base of a lamp and other metal odds and ends and decorated with little copper bells hanging from the bottom of the two silvered tiers. At the top there was room for three small glasses–– for a l’chaim toast, I suppose, at the end of Havdalah. 

Sitting atop that huge spice box, engraved in Hebrew with the names of the patriarchs and matriarchs and the twelve tribes, he had placed an American Marine Corps eagle, for after all, had not God carried our ancestors on eagle’s wings out of their slavery in Egypt, and here was Peretz in yet another exile, where the trolley conductor sent him to Arlington Heights, seven, eight miles away, when he had plainly asked, so he supposed, for Orient Heights. After this misadventure, his grandchildren sought to correct his pronunciation to save him from getting lost again, but he said back to them in his best King’s English, “kiss mine hass, did I said it right?” 

In his synagogue, he may have been the only mystic. The story goes that he was so deep in the Shmoneh Esreh prayer each Shabbat, that he never noticed the little boys throwing sticky, purple cockle burrs into his beard, which they had collected from bushes growing just outside. A parallel story is that the birds wouldn’t leave him alone either, but this time he took action, tying tin cans on a rope hung in his beloved cherry tree; morning and evening, he would go out to shake the cans and scare them away from the maturing fruit. 

When this eccentric patriarch announced in 1928 that he was leaving America and going to the Holy Land to die, no one was surprised; the surprise came when he returned two years later in the midst of Arab rioting, saying, “you can get killed over there.” So he chose America after all, where I see him standing in his sunflower-covered booth on the eve of the Sukkot holiday, surrounded by two daughters and their children, holding the brimming wine cup that he is about to bless. The intensity of his gaze is not lost on me, even knowing that this image was posed by a photographer from the Boston Record American to show that some Jews in America still observed the ancient customs they had brought with them from over there. 

When his Hasidic rebbe was moving from the West End to East Boston and needed to set up a mikveh, the ritual bath collected from flowing waters that women use after their periods so they can resume having sex with their husbands, Peretz Satran traveled in his cart and horse to Walden Pond and there collected a large block of ice. I like to see him in that cart on the long road from Concord, transporting the frozen water of Walden Pond––which our transcendentalist sage, Henry Thoreau, likened to the eye of all the world, as sacred in its own right as the waters of the Ganges––and delivering that small block of eternity to a narrow house in East Boston, where it would be placed in a room dug out of the earth, melt into purifying water and set the stage for still another sacred rite, bringing husbands and wives together to produce new generations of Americans like you and me. 

Herbert J. Levine published his first book of poetry, Words for Blessing the World, at the age of 67. His previous books were scholarly treatments of Yeats and Psalms. To learn more about Herb and his work, visit:https://benyehudapress.com/books/words-blessing-world/

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A Letter to My Great Aunts and Uncle: Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1942

by Kayla Schneider-Smith (Rishon LeZion, Israel)

for Miri, Rosa & Benny

When you left your homes not knowing where you were going
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
turn around jump off the train don’t stop running
out of Poland out of Germany out of Holland
far until you reach the West or East
anywhere but here

when your cattle-car pulled through the arch
when you stumbled off the train without understanding
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
say you are 16 say you are a brick mason
don’t let them take you beyond the gate
to the tall trees where you cannot return

when they led you to the showers
and shaved your undressed bodies
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
stand close to the ventilation stand straight under the gas
if it hits you first it’ll be quick
it’ll be over in a second like a band aid like a blur
you won’t have to suffer long or
hear the wailing mothers and children or
climb the pyramid of suffocating bodies
gasping for air

when they shoveled you into the crematorium
in bursts of smoke and ash
I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you
I love you
to kiss you goodbye to say kaddish
to tear my clothes to get angry to start a revolution

I’m sorry I came too late.

Now, 77 years later
in this inhuman slaughterhouse
unthinkable bright green forest
in front of the lake in front of the puddle
where they took your lives and dumped your ashes

I only can tell you
I am alive

your nieces and nephews
and great nieces and nephews
and great-great nieces and nephews
are alive and thriving

Miri Rosa Benny

I carry, cherish, remember you always
I speak you back to life
I say your names aloud

Kayla Schneider-Smith is a poet, musician, and social activist from Monmouth County, New Jersey. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she wrote this poem while completing the Yahel Social Change Fellowship in Rishon LeZion, Israel, where she taught English, piano and guitar to children, adults and senior citizens in a small neighborhood called Ramat Eliyahu. Kayla is currently attending the Master of Fine Arts Writing Program at The University of San Francisco. She aspires to be an English professor, Rabbi, or Interfaith Minister one day.

If you’d like to read her work in prose, visit: https://www.yahelisrael.com/single-post/2018/11/27/To-Be-Or-Not-to-Be-Progressive-Judaism-in-Israel

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The Silver Lions

by Steven Sher (Jerusalem, Israel)

for Ari

This old chanukiah

brought over from Poland

from my grandparents’ home

that I lit as a boy

and my son now lights

and my grandson covets

these Chanukah nights

with its twin silver lions

standing guard over flames—

listen and you’ll hear

the lions roar across

a hundred years

rattling every window

on their watch, illuminating

Vilna then New York,

defending Jerusalem.

Born in Brooklyn, Steven Sher is the author of fifteen books. He made aliyah five years ago, and now lives in Jerusalem near his children and grandchildren. To learn more about him and his work, visit his website: https://steven-sher-poetry.wixsite.com/writing

 

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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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A Savory Recipe

by Jane Ellen Glasser (Lighthouse Pt., FL)

        for my daughter on her 16th wedding anniversary

I would never have thought sixteen years

a sweet anniversary, a rejuvenation of love.

That was the year your father and I divorced.

          I was confused as a child watching Mother pour

          sugar on seasoned meat. Like her marriage,

          I knew some things didn’t belong together.

I have watched you and your husband

navigate differences, repair cracks and leaks

with the plug of sweet acceptance.

          After the meat was browned with onions,

          after the cup of sugar, Mother added in sour salt

          before simmering the meal stove-top for hours.

What I didn’t learn from my parents or my own failed

marriage, you have mastered: love’s work

takes opposites, sweet needing sour to grow a marriage.

          When the meat was tender, Mother

          thickened the sauce with ginger snaps.

          No one made a more savory brisket.

Just days ago, you hosted family and friends for a seder

on heirloom china. You served brisket and a recipe

for a loving marriage to pass down to your children.

Jane Ellen Glasser’s poetry has appeared in journals such as Hudson Review, Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Reviewand Georgia Review. In the past she reviewed poetry books for the Virginian-Pilot, edited poetry for the Ghent Quarterly  and Lady Jane’s Miscellany, and co-founded the nonprofit arts organization and journal New Virginia Review.  She won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry 2005 for Light Persists and The Long Life won the Poetica Publishing Company Chapbook Contest in 2011. Her seventh poetry collection, In the Shadow of Paradise, appeared from FutureCycle Press in 2017. Her work may be previewed on her website: www.janeellenglasser.com

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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.

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A Proper Home

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

While growing up in a Yiddish speaking home, I was often witness to the respect and adoration given to the Yiddish books that once graced our small bookcase. It goes without saying that prayer books, bibles and other holy texts were held in high esteem, but books written in Yiddish, the mameloshen (mother tongue), came in a close second. Like many Eastern European Jews, my parents had a particularly strong attachment to books written in Yiddish. Whatever the theme or intended message, these books were often afforded special status not only because they were written in Yiddish but because Yiddish utilizes Hebrew script, the very same letters found in all of our sacred texts.

More often than not, many of these Yiddish books were passed on to my parents by either aged or sickly friends and neighbors who simply wanted their treasured books to take up residence in a proper home. Yiddish books, after all, were like beloved relatives who detailed our long and often difficult history. I remember how we always removed and replaced these books with the utmost care so as not to injure their often spindly, dilapidated spines and worn bodies. In our home, we read these books primarily on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays when there was ample opportunity to lay on the couch, close one’s eyes and perhaps take a solemn journey back in time.

History has a way of repeating itself and perhaps is meant to do so. A short while back, I was approached by a few acquaintances and patients asking if I would be willing to take possession of their Yiddish books. Some followed my advice and sent their books to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts while others would not hear of it. This latter group wanted their books to reside in a warm loving home rather than in an “orphanage for Yiddish books”.

I remember an elderly gentleman who, only recently, was seated in my examination room. He began speaking as soon as I entered. “I have to talk to you about my Yiddish books,” he began. “I know you speak and read Yiddish. So, doesn’t it make sense for them to be with you? They mean so much to me. I can’t just throw them out. Please, come to my home. The books will be waiting for you.”

His pleas were repeated with ever increasing urgency. How could I possibly refuse this clearly distraught gentleman? He was concerned about the fate of his beloved Yiddish books now that he had sold his house and was about to move to a small apartment where there was simply no room for his books. Aware of how much this request meant to him, I agreed to come by that very night and take possession of the box of Yiddish books that, I was told, was silently awaiting my arrival. As I left his home carrying the box, I heard a long tremulous sigh follow me to the door. It was an unmistakable declaration of sadness at seeing his beloved friends leave, accompanied by a sense of relief that they would at least have a proper home.

Since then, in addition to a few books that once belonged to my parents, I have accumulated a fair number of Yiddish books as I found it difficult to refuse those pleading on behalf of their loved ones. And so, just about every Sabbath and Jewish holiday, I’ve gotten into the habit of carefully taking one of these aged volumes in hand to reacquaint myself with many of the words and phrases that no longer see the light of day.

Much like aged relatives, these books speak volumes of survival and adaptation and give voice, as well, to immense pride and joy. Each time I’m done and get ready to close one of these books, I start to wonder who will be next in line? Who will be willing to accept books that are written in a strange language dealing with topics that have little or no relevance to most people? I’ll ask around when the time comes, but, apart from the praiseworthy mission of the Yiddish Book Center, I fear there will be no takers.

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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Forefathers

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

I tell my father that I’m working on a new poem.
I got into the poem, but can’t seem to find a way out.
“Kind of like a fart in your pants,” he says.
And I realize that my poetic forefathers were probably not
William Shakespeare and Robert Frost, but more likely
Milton Berle and Henny Youngman.

I ask him if there were any poets in our family, and he tells me
Tante Channele was a poet but nobody liked her, which doesn’t
make me feel any better.

A hairy woodpecker, with the red mark of a male on its neck,
comes to our birdfeeder today.
“Look at how bright, how clean his colors are,” my father says.
“He looks like he’s just been painted.”
And I know exactly who my poetic forefather is.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us, poems about her family and the Holocaust.  Her recent work has appeared in The Poet’s Quest for God and is forthcoming in Forgotten Women.  Janet is currently producing AFTER, a cinematic film about Holocaust poetry.  https://www.facebook.com/AfterAPoetryFilm/

This poem is reprinted from Mima’amakim with the kind permission of the author.

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Pidyon Haben

by Gerard Sarnat (Portola Valley CA)

“Every first-born male among your children, you must redeem.”

— Exodus 13:13

Redemption’s a primitive mitzvah commanded in

the Old Testament to occur on my grandkid’s 30th day

when a Kohen from the priestly patrilineal tree of

Aaron is handed 5 silver shekels by the boy’s father.

While our alternating amused and distraught daughter

nurses off in a dark corner, ultra-orthodox little girls

clothed from head to toe wrap garlic + sugar cubes

in gold lamé lace bags that their subjugated mother

hangs for kenahorah-poo-poo-poo knock on wood

good luck to shoo away devils — after which she checks

that the fancy sheitel covers her wifely shaved skull.

Compared to the newborn’s bris with the mohel

hacking off the infant’s foreskin, this ain’t nothin’.

But having successfully bit my tongue, all said & done

till the next one, these rituals reinforce why I’m an atheist.

Gerard Sarnat has spent time as a physician and social justice protestor in jails,  built and staffed clinics for the marginalized, and spent decades working for Middle East peace. His work, which has appeared in over seventy magazines, including Gargoyle, Lowestoft Chronicle, and The American Journal of Poetry, has recently been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

For more information about Gerard Sarnat, visit his website: GerardSarnat.com.

 

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