Tag Archives: mothers and sons

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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The Making of a Viking Jewess

By Nina Lichtenstein (West Hartford, CT)

“So, are you going to stay Jewish?” the woman in Starbucks asks. Holy crap, is it possible she thinks I divorced my identity? A wave of indignation mixed with frustration flushes through me. I am in my late forties, and I have been Jewish since, at the age of 23, I immersed in a mikvah to complete my Orthodox conversion a few weeks before I married my Jewish boyfriend.

Before I respond to her, I breathe. I swallow. Be kind. Don’t get emotional I tell myself. “Sure I’ll stay Jewish,” I begin, “it’s not like that’s a switch you can just turn off.” I think I even manage a smile. She smiles back at me. “He’s meshuge to have divorced you for her, and a shiksa to boot! I will tell him so if I run into him!” I cringe. You are so lacking boundaries I think, but I say, “Oh, please don’t. It’s OK, things happen for a reason. And besides, she is good to our kids and they like her.” The woman scoffs, and steps up to place her order.

My Jewish identity was not threatened by my recent divorce as much as was my emotional well-being. While falling asleep at night, I would entertain elaborate fantasies. I can have a partner who will sing “Eyshet Chayil” for me on Friday nights! I could move to Israel and finally become fluent in Hebrew! Or become the writer I had always wanted to be by moving to, say, Maine. I could move back to Norway….

My experience with my extended Jewish family had lasted for nearly 25 years before my marriage ended. My ex-in-law family was an unusual Jewish clan — a loud, fun-loving, tight-knit group of right-wing, N.R.A.-supporting, worried Jewish germaphobes. To them, family was everything, and they protected it —as well as their property — from intruders and strangers with love, dedication and overprotective fervor. My ex-mother-in-law was not your run-of-the-mill Yiddishe mame, because this matriarch carried a .38 in her handbag and could swear like a trooper. Nor was my father-in-law your every day zaydie; he did 100 push-ups and 100 pull-ups in his basement every morning before 5 am, and on his days off he’d be packing a Smith & Wesson in a leather holster, driving a tractor in his fields while smoking cigars. Their greatest enemy, after public schools and their “liberal brain-washing agendas,” was the ubiquitous germ in all its imaginable permutations. Despite their eccentricities, I grew to love them deeply.

It must have been a shock to them when, in the summer of 1985, I — the braless, Scandinavian, nationally programmed socialist that I was at 19 — introduced myself with a firm, confident handshake. I was 5’ 10” tall, fair-haired and blue-eyed, outspoken and independent, and I had decorated my handbag with peace signs, a pink women’s liberation fist, and reminders to “Party Naked!” My guess is they privately hyperventilated, and I don’t mean in the same way their son had when we first met.

I was just about to finish a year in the U.S. as an au pair when we met at the camp resort where my host family and I were spending Memorial Day weekend. He was super-tall, with a dark complexion and a gregarious personality; to me he was both exotic and intriguing. Not to mention fun. We were married three eventful years later.

It was clear early on in our courtship that the fact I was not Jewish posed a major problem for my boyfriend’s family. I remember tears and sobs over long distance phone calls once I returned to my native Norway at the end of the summer. “Religion doesn’t matter,” I would attempt. “It’s that we love each other that is important!” But listening to my boyfriend enumerate his parent’s arguments and concerns, I soon learned about the perpetual concept of ensuring Jewish continuity. I realized that the Jewish identity of a Jewish family could be shaken to the core by the prospect of a non-Jewish daughter-in-law.

Coming from a typical Norwegian Lutheran — but mostly agnostic — family whose main religion was carpe diem, enjoying life and long summer nights on our huge wooden boat on the northern fjords, I approached the matter pragmatically. I told him, “If it takes my becoming Jewish for us to be together, I will do it, rather than live my life without you.” And so what had begun for me as a gap-year experience between high school and university launched a trajectory that would lead me far from home into a life of diaspora, of living in between countries, cultures, families and languages.

My parents never once tried to dissuade me. In fact, they encouraged me to fly back to the States to explore the relationship, lest I live my life regretting what could have been. Yet when my dad walked me down the aisle to the huppah in the Orthodox synagogue where my wedding took place, wearing a kippah for the first time in his life, with a violinist in the background playing “Sunrise, Sunset,” he tightened his grip around my arm and whispered, “If you don’t like it, you can always convert back.” Little did he know. Once a Jew, always a Jew.

My early gifts from my mother in-law-to-be — Howard Fast’s The Jews: Story of a People and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen — were but the seeds of what became an interest in earnest. Although not practicing Orthodox Jews, my boyfriend’s family belonged to a small Orthodox shul where a large number of the members were Holocaust survivors and their families, many chicken and dairy farmers originally from Poland. After their rabbi turned me away from conversion the requisite three times, I was accepted as his student, with the caveat that I also enroll in Jewish Studies classes at the university. My readings had prepared me for this “dance of admittance.” Much harder was when, after studying with him for two years and finally presenting myself to the Vaad HaRabbonim (official Orthodox rabbinic committee) of Boston for conversion, they rejected my candidacy. Since I did not readily agree to go to Israel for a year to continue my studies in a yeshiva for women, as they demanded, they feared I was not truly committed to Judaism, but more to my boyfriend.

Thankfully, persistence paid off. After another year of regular classes, both in the rabbi’s study and at the university, I finally became a full-fledged member of the tribe. It must have helped that, while in Oslo for a semester as my grandmother lay dying, I was admitted to join the conversion group at the synagogue there, one known for its strict Orthodox guidelines. Finally, on an early fall day in 1988, dressed in a modest below-the-knee skirt and a white Laura Ashley blouse, I sat in front of three rabbis and answered their questions. What were my feelings about Christmas trees, and about henceforth calling Abraham and Sarah my real parents? Was I ready to observe Shabbat and kashrut even if it might complicate my relationship with my family? I remember feeling nervous but holding my own. This was just the beginning of my Jewish life, I told them. I intended to keep learning and developing as a Jew. They liked that. I dunked in the mikvah while the rabbis stood behind a screen, and as I said my blessings and noticed how surreal the moment felt, they pronounced their “amens” at the sound of the splashing water. With that, and my soon completed degree in Jewish Studies, I had evolved to become a Kosher Viking Jewess. I was adding some welcome material to the gene pool, eventually raising robust Jewish children with a proud Norwegian heritage, and observing Shabbat and holidays. I even used the mikveh for monthly immersions; it was a wholesome deal, and the continuity issue seemed resolved.

Our three sons attended an Orthodox Jewish day school from nursery through 8th grade, and learned to layn and daven and get by in Modern Hebrew. But they also appreciate their Norwegian heritage. They speak Norwegian, are citizens of Norway, will break out and rap in Norwegian as they tote Viking necklaces interlaced with their Stars of David and chais. My husband and I wanted them grounded in both traditions, giving them Thor, Balder and Odin for middle names, and they seem to appreciate the richness of belonging in more places than one. Hopefully, as adults, they will also want to pass their Norwegian heritage on to their children.

Although not observant by any Orthodox standards, my mother in-law taught me by meticulous example not only how to make the clearest chicken soup, the fluffiest matzo balls and the most tender brisket, but also how to prepare the Passover seder, and make the High Holidays meaningful. With me, she gained a third daughter, one who was eager to learn, asking many questions along the way. Soon they went from being kosher-style to kosher, and when I converted they offered me an inscribed siddur thanking me for having enriched their Jewish lives.

Whether it was unique to the in-laws’ brand of compulsions, or more about their discomfort when it came to anything to do with “strangers” — germs included — their fear of many lurking dangers meant that the in-law family lived in an environment defined by language and habits reflecting all the worst-case scenarios that might compromise the clan. I was part of this hyper-vigilant kinfolk for close to 30 years, and I had to work hard at times to not let osmosis influence my own attitude too much. After all, my birth-tribe was stoic, cool-headed northerners who found the expressiveness of more “exotic” tribes to be exaggerated drama, and at times plain overwhelming. Over time, I acquired certain mannerisms and ideas that were not high on my parents’ list of things they admired. I interrupted, complained more openly, obsessed about the minutiae of kashrut and Shabbat and argued adamantly for freedom of public religious expression. I would challenge my parents about their view of the world, and I introduced them to rabbinic thoughts and Jewish philosophy. To help cope with the occasional incongruities of opinions, I would make light of all the meshugas, the in-laws’ and mine, although I also realized my own sense of self was morphing as the years passed. For me, it was a package deal: in order to be a member of their tribe, I bought in lock, stock and barrel.

Twenty-five years went by while my husband and I lived a comfortable suburban life in a relatively diverse community teeming with Jewish life. Twenty-nine synagogues of all affiliations, a bustling JCC, a kosher market and Judaica store, and a public school system that never would question its Jewish students for taking off for any Jewish holidays, great or small. We agreed about making the investment and sacrifices that necessarily come along with the desire to instill a strong sense of Jewish identity in our offspring.

After all the observant practices I had taken on in my life as a Jew — including an Orthodox conversion and wedding, as well as the many daily, weekly, and life-cycle rituals which I loved and that were all very prescribed — I wanted a formal, Jewish termination to our marriage. My ex-husband had no objection. Deciding to divorce after much deliberation — and to divorce in this way — felt like the most independent decision I had ever made, and was critical to my self-definition.

Soon after we had performed the get divorce ceremony in our rabbi’s study, with the three bearded, ultra-Orthodox rabbis who had driven up from New York City to be witnesses, I was reminded of the increasingly narrow stance the rabbinate of Israel was taking on the kinds of U.S. conversions they accepted. Watching as the bent-over scribe fished out the tattered feathered quill and tiny plastic inkwell from the inside pocket of his black coat, his thin, pale and ink-stained fingers running across the smooth, lined parchment paper spelling out my Hebrew name — Naomi bat Avraham v’Sarah — I remembered my first conversion rejection in Boston. Everything that had happened in between seemed to flash before my eyes. My marriage and my carefully built Jewish family unit would no longer be what defined me. But I did still have my own Jewish self and my three Jewish sons to move forward with me into the world.

With my Jewish identity in the forefront of my consciousness, the next week I composed a letter to the Rabbinic Council of America, the arbiters of the strictest Orthodox Judaism. I wanted them to re-issue my conversion certificate, since I knew that the Beit Din (rabbinic court) of Hartford that originally converted me had been comprised of three aging rabbis from a generation of Modern Orthodox rabbis known for their (relative) leniency. Embarking on this new chapter in my life, post-divorce, I wanted to re-affirm my commitment to Judaism and at the same time minimize the chances that I or my sons might have our Jewish identities questioned should we chose to make aliyah or marry in Israel. Although it felt humiliating having to “prove” to someone, yet again, how Jewish I had become and how Jewishly I had thus far lived my life, I breathed through it. And I wrote my heart out. Hineini — here I am, I told them.

The new conversion certificate arrived in the mail a few weeks later.

A native of Oslo, Norway, Nina Lichtenstein is a mother of three mostly grown sons and Jew-by-choice who writes and blogs at “The Viking Jewess” (http://vikingjewess.com/) where she muses about living life in-between cultures, languages and traditions. Her writing has appeared in Lilith, Literary Mama, and The Washington Post. You can also find more of her work at “That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish” (https://thatsfunnyyoudontlookjewish.wordpress.com/), a blog that shares stories with converts to Judaism.

This essay was first published in Lilith magazine–independent Jewish & frankly feminist-and is reprinted with permission of Lilith and the author. 

 

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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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What Happens to a Hebrew School Dropout?

by Beth Leibson (New York, NY)

My 11-year-old son, Ari, is now a Hebrew-school dropout.I am aware that that’s the name of a comedy act and a line of T-shirts. But, for me, the phrase is not a punch line, but a punch in the gut.

I imagine my response was just like parents whose kids drop out of high school: disbelief, sadness and helplessness followed quickly by a healthy dose of Jewish guilt. “Where did I go wrong?” “What did I do to cause him to reject my contribution to his heritage?”

I realize the situations aren’t exactly comparable. My son, Ari, won’t face difficulties getting into college or landing a good job—at least as a result of this decision. He won’t be walking the streets of New York stopping strangers and saying, “Dude, can you spare a kippah so I can cover my head in synagogue?” On the flip side, there’s no GED equivalent for the bar mitzvah (though an adult bar mitzvah is an option).

My goals for the after-school Hebrew-school program were modest: I knew he wouldn’t become a Judaic scholar, conversant in Jewish history or fluent in Hebrew. I just hoped he’d have fun being Jewish, make a couple of friends in the tribe, and possibly gain enough of a sense of Judaism that he could accept it—or reject it—with some knowledge base.

I suppose I could force Ari to go to Hebrew school. But I worry that it would backfire, that he would end up resenting his Jewish heritage.

When I was growing up, my household changed when my mother married her second husband. My mother was agnostic, her new hubby Orthodox, which made for an interesting combination. The family that had been only loosely affiliated with Judaism started to keep kosher and attend synagogue weekly. And my sister and I ended up at a Jewish high school. I felt like I was being force-fed Judaism as a result of my mother’s second marriage—and it gave me heartburn.

Of course, the effort backfired the minute I moved out of my mother’s house. While I retained a strong sense of Jewish identity, you would never know it if you watched my behavior when I was in college and my early 20s. I avoided synagogue and any Jewish event where my grandparents weren’t in attendance. I ate on Yom Kippur, a traditional fast day, and enjoyed sandwiches during Passover, the week when most Jews eschew leavening. In my late 20s, I married a non-Jew and did not ask him to even consider converting. Although I did warn him that any kids I might have—purely theoretical, mind you—would be Jewish.

My sister has stayed away from all things Jewish. To the best of my knowledge, she hasn’t set foot in a synagogue in the past decade, aside from my daughter’s bat mitzvah. This year, when I invited her to our very low-key seder, she told me it was “too Jewish” for her and her non-Jewish husband.

Eventually, in my 30s, I came back to the fold, drop by drop. I added elements as the whim struck, taking a deli-line approach; I picked what was fun or meaningful. I ventured back to synagogue on the High Holy Days, then branched into very occasional Friday night services. My then-husband and I took a trip to Israel and upon our return, he began—of his own accord—the process of converting to Judaism. And once we had children, the process accelerated. The kids thought challah was yummy, so we started to eat it every Friday night. I liked the notion of celebrating freedom, so we had seders at Passover. Of course, we did it in our own style, sitting on the living room floor with bowls of leavening-free chili in our laps.

Then my daughter, who has always identified herself strongly as Jewish, learned the Sabbath prayers at Tot Shabbat and asked that we say them—and provide grape juice—every Friday night. She’s still at it—and now lights the candles for Ari and me every Friday night.

Do I worry too much about Ari and Hebrew school? My daughter says yes; it is his life, she avers. I don’t disagree. It is his life—but I am his mom.

I want to send him into the world with a well-stocked box of life tools. That includes certain skills, such as the ability to tie shoes, use a pair of scissors, design and prepare an assortment of nutritious meals, balance a checkbook and, these days, safely traverse the Internet. It includes some basic habits, such as twice-daily tooth brushing, regular use of “please” and “thank you,” and proper tipping. I also want my children, my son, to have certain psychological tools, such as confidence, hobbies, a sense of humor, an ability to find joy in life—and a sense of who he is and where he comes from. I worry that Ari won’t have a clear sense of who he is and where he comes from as a Jew. It’s as though he’s missing the Phillips-head screwdriver in his toolbox.

What we do, the little steps that we take—or don’t take—every day contribute to our identity. Is Ari denying who he is? After all, renouncing religions is much simpler than “passing” for a different race; it is eminently doable and sadly common.

I’m not giving up on Ari. He will continue to have challah and grape juice every Friday night—and to watch his older sister light the candles. He will continue to celebrate freedom on Passover, throw sponges at the rabbi at the Purim carnival and seek forgiveness around the High Holy Days.

I know my kids are getting mixed messages about being Jewish since their father and I divorced. In my home, we celebrate the holidays, march in the Israel Day parade and generally identify ourselves as Hebes.

My kids say that they are often asked, “Are you half-Jewish?” I know that choosing Judaism means, at least to some extent, picking Mom over Dad—a position neither child (nor I, on most days) relishes.

Judaism is a journey, and everyone takes an individual path. My daughter is taking what seems like a pretty straight line thus far, sticking to the major highways. I took my own spiral approach to identifying as a Jew, pulling away and then cycling back. And Ari will take his own path, though I do worry that he’s wandered off into a field for a nap.

The good news is that he asked to attend the synagogue’s Purim carnival this year—and then put in a plug for a chocolate seder, negotiating the details with his acne-phobic older sister. I am hopeful that this means Ari will wake up from his Hebrew-school nap, grab his well-stocked toolbox, and make a life for himself that includes the joy and pride of being Jewish.

Beth Leibson is a New York-based writer and editor, and author of the book I’m Too Young to Have Breast Cancer (Lifeline, 2004).

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Journal and on Jewishjournal.com. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the Jewish Journal and the author.

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Writing Midrash: A Writer’s Workshop for Two

by Pamela Jay Gottfried & Jonah Gottfried (Atlanta, GA)

My ten year old son and I study Torah together.  Once or twice a week, we sit together and read the narrative of Genesis. Then we discuss its deeper meaning and our interpretations of the text.

It is both a responsibility and a privilege to teach my son Torah.  It is also, at times, a burden. But the burden feels lighter, now that we have discovered a common interest: writing.

The progressive school he attends introduces Writer’s Workshop in 1st grade and the teachers help the students develop their critical thinking skills beginning in Preschool.  This year it all came together for Jonah: improved motor skills, increased facility with words, and a Language Arts teacher who inspired him to work to his potential.

I realized earlier this year that I could hitch a ride on this teacher’s coat tails, and I suggested to my son that we form our own Writer’s Workshop.

Some weeks—as often as our time permits and the text demands—we write our own midrashim (interpretations/legends) and we critique each other’s work.  Recently, we decided to attempt a co-authored piece. We left the file in a shared folder on the desktop and worked on revisions independently, using Word’s “track changes” tool.

Jonah started the midrash, an imagined conversation among the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Our goal was to illustrate how Isaac’s parenting skills affected Jacob’s decisions in his adult life.  The biblical text is sparse and often merely implies the inner thoughts and feelings of the heroes.  We thought it would be fun and instructive to give voice to these biblical figures.  We are also open to your feedback and ideas, so please share them!

 Interesting Interviews

by Jonah & Pamela Gottfried

Isaac: “Hello, I am your ghost-host, Isaac. Today I will be interviewing my son, Jacob, about whether he learned anything from the mistakes that I made while raising him.  What do you want to say about your childhood, Jacob?”

Jacob: “I don’t have many memories of my life as a little boy…except that you ruined my childhood because you loved Esau more than me!”

Isaac: “How did that ruin your childhood?”

Jacob: “Well, the story began when Esau came back from a hunting trip. He was very hungry and I was making soup. He told me that he would give me his birthright in exchange for some soup. If you ask me, that was a pretty stupid trade on his part, but I was happy to agree.”

Isaac: “Some soup for a birthright sounds like a pretty good deal for you, but why would Esau do that?”

Jacob: “He did it because he was so hungry that he was willing to give up anything for food.”

Isaac: “That didn’t stop you, though, did it?”

Jacob: “Nope, not really. But then you decided to give the blessing of the firstborn to Esau. I still had his birthright, so I deserved the blessing, too. And when you actually gave me the blessing, boy, was Esau mad. I had to run away just to survive!”

Isaac: “Wait a minute. I gave you the blessing for the firstborn?”

Jacob: “Yep.”

Isaac: “Hmm, I certainly don’t remember that happening.”

Jacob: “Anyway, Esau still resents me to this day for what I did, but I think he had it coming because of the way he treated me.

Isaac: “Wait, what’s the connection between this story and my question?”

Jacob: “Well, you ruined my life because my brother despises me and then later, when I became a parent—Hold on. I think I should let my father explain this part.

Isaac: “What? Father? I’m your father!”

Abraham: “No, Isaac, I’m your father. And I’m also the Father of Monotheism, making me Jacob’s spiritual father along with being his grandfather. Besides, everyone knows that grandparents have a special bond with their grandchildren. It helps that we have a common enemy.”

Jacob: “No kidding, Saba Abe.”

Abraham: “Yes, son. Now, let’s enlighten your father.  Isaac, your eyes may have grown dim with age, but your thinking was cloudy from the moment Esau brought you fresh meat.  Did you forget what God told Rebekah?”

Isaac: “I remember: ‘The elder shall serve the younger.’ But as Esau grew, I wasn’t sure that God got it right. Esau wasn’t the servile type.”

Abraham: “What?! You thought God was wrong?”

Isaac: “Not really. I just didn’t know how to parent those unruly kids. They were always disagreeing and bickering with each other.  And your mother coddled you, Jacob. She loved you more than she loved Esau, and she didn’t hide her favoritism.

Jacob: “Really, Abba?! She was fulfilling God’s prophecy and you wrecked everything!”

Abraham: “Well, folks. There you have it. Rebekah and Jacob may have staged the deception, but it was the Almighty who wrote the script.”

Isaac: “I still don’t see how this ruined your life, Jacob. I mean, now you have everything—a house full of wives and kids, sheep, worldly possessions…”

Jacob: “Is that what you see?! Look more carefully and you’ll understand. My beloved wife, Rachel, died in childbirth, leaving me with only Joseph and Benjamin to console me. The other ten brothers hate Joseph because he wears a special coat and describes his dreams of the entire family bowing before him.”

Isaac: “Didn’t you give him that special coat? You showed favoritism to the younger…”

Jacob & Abraham: “Exactly!”

Pamela Jay Gottfried is a rabbi, parent, teacher and author of Found in Translation: Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom.  Jonah A. Gottfried is an aspiring author and rising 5th grader whose teachers are trained in the Writing Workshop curriculum. You can read more of Gottfried’s work at her website:  http://www.pamelagottfried.com/ 

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The Mystery My Mother Left Behind

by Lev Raphael (Okemos, MI)

My late mother loved the New York Times crossword and she loved reading mysteries. Born in Poland, she said the puzzle helped her perfect her English; she never explained the specific appeal of crime novels, but she was a huge fan of Agatha Christie, John Creasey, Frances and Richard Lockridge, and Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I read almost all the mystery library books she brought home; they were always better than the books assigned in school. On my own, I discovered the comic mysteries of Phoebe Atwood Taylor. While my mother enjoyed a good joke and had an Imogene Coca kind of laugh, those books weren’t serious enough for her.

It wasn’t until after my mother died in 1999 that I discovered profound and unsettling mysteries in her own life that I’m still trying to unravel. My mother was a Holocaust survivor. She lost her family, her home, her freedom — and would have lost her life if the war had lasted any longer than it did. She spoke about those war years sparingly, and when she did, I was too young or too overwhelmed to ask the right questions that would have yielded more information.

Going through her things after the funeral, I found something shocking in her closet. My mother had kept the concentration camp uniform she was wearing when she was liberated by the Americans in April 1945. You’ve probably seen “dresses” like these in movies and documentaries: thin, crudely sewn, it was gray with purplish stripes (though the colors may have changed over the decades). My father told me she’d washed it after the war, but he couldn’t say why she had kept this reminder of her horrible brutalization and the nightmare of seeing her world ground to dust.

I knew the names of the camps my mother had been in and contacted one via email but nobody could find records for her. This was troubling, since I knew that despite bombings and German attempts to destroy files, records existed for many camps. And then I tried again, this time using the number on her uniform.

A world of mysteries opened up to me. For at least part of the war, my mother, Helena Klaczko, was listed in several Nazi records as Lidja Garbel. How do I know this Garbel and my mother were the same woman? Because the insanely detailed prisoner card for my mother at Buchenwald lists her parents’ name, her street address in Poland, her education and her birth date. All the information matches what I know to be fact. Whatever her name, the woman with that number on her camp dress was the woman listed on the card and indisputably my mother.

But why did she have another name? The mystery deepened when I discovered that in a transport from one camp to another, there was a woman whose number was right before my mother’s and whose last name was also Garbel. So somehow, for some reason, my mother took this other woman’s last name as hers. But why? And why Lidja? Was it possible there had been an actual Lidja Garbel whose name my mother had assumed for some reason? The sister of this Frida Garbel?

My father had no idea what the answers were or what any of it could mean. And when I told him that this same Buchenwald prisoner card said my mother was married to a Mikhail Garbel, whereabouts “unknown,” he scoffed. “People said all kinds of things during the war.”

I had written a handful of Nick Hoffman mysteries by this point, and even been reviewed in the New York Times my mother revered. Sadly, my mother never got to read any of them because she was so sick when they started coming. But nothing in any of them matched these real-life mysteries whose solutions I have pursued in many directions, without answer. Sometimes I wonder if there really was a Mikhail Garbel or even a Lidja Garbel, if both were completely invented. Sometimes I think, what if my mother was married before she met my father? Sometimes I think, “There’s a book in this, if only I can find it.” And I wonder if my mother read mysteries not just as a fan, but as someone who had turned her own life into something mysterious.

Lev Raphael is a prize-winning pioneer in American-Jewish literature, and has been publishing fiction and nonfiction about the Second Generation since 1978. The author of twenty-two books which have been translated into almost a dozen languages, he has spoken about his work in hundreds of venues on three continents. His fiction and creative non-fiction are widely taught at American colleges and universities, and his work has been the subject of numerous academic articles, papers, and books. A former public radio book show host and newspaper columnist, he can be found on the web at http://www.levraphael.comHe blogs on books for The Huffington Post and reviews for the on-line literary magazine Bibliobuffet.com.

You can check out his latest book, the Jewish historical novel Rosedale in Love, at http://www.levraphael.com/rosedale.html

This piece first appeared on The Huffington Post, and it’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history