Tag Archives: rituals

Not That Jewish

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

I constantly debate my Jewishness,
or lack thereof.
Let’s look at the facts:
I don’t know any of the 613 laws,
much less obey them.
I almost never go to shul,
except on the High Holy Days.
(Do not ask me why I go then.)
My mother was not raised Jewish,
even though her mother was.
(Can Jews skip a generation?)
My sons were Bar-Mitzvahed.
(Did that make me or them more Jewish?)
I do not follow the news from Israel,
much less the news from my local synagogue.
I do not keep kosher,
nor do I light Friday night candles.
Yet, despite all of the above,
I still feel Jewish.
I am a Jew, by God, aren’t I?
Only not that much.

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/

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Brooklyn Jews, Family history, Jewish identity, poetry

Sacred Memory

Martha Hurwitz (Barre, MA)

This past Yom Kippur I was invited by the Rabbi of our synagogue to share memories of someone I loved as a segue into the Yizkor service.  I immediately thought of my mother because my memories of her are happy ones and I credit her for any good and admirable qualities I may have. 

However, I heard an internal nagging voice that said, “What about your father? What memories would you share of him?”  This was not a question that I wanted to hear or to answer.  My father was not an easy man to love or to live with.  Personal relationships and sharing emotions were very difficult for him.  He needed to be the center of attention and the one who was always right.  He believed that women should take a supporting role and made it clear that, while I should aspire to become educated and “polished,” it was in order to become a suitable spouse to a professional and successful husband, not to showcase any accomplishments of my own.

In the 20 years since I became a Jew, I have struggled with the liturgy surrounding memory of loved ones because it seems to be about the excellent examples of those who have died and how their memories are a blessing.  Clearly, memories are not always positive or, at best, may be conflicting and difficult, but in a Jewish context are considered sacred.  How can memory be a blessing or be considered sacred when it still causes sadness and confusion? I waffled back and forth, trying to convince myself that it would be just fine to go with the positive and glowing eulogy that I had prepared when my mother died.  In the end, I gathered my courage and decided to risk being vulnerable and share my struggle with the memories of my father.   I calmed my fears by assuring myself that I certainly could not be the only one who wrestles with this question.

 As the Rabbi prepared the congregation for Yizkor, I sat in a heightened state of nerves, barely able to absorb what he was saying. Fortunately I managed to retain his statement that alav ha-shalom is meant as much (or perhaps even more) for the living than the dead.  With shaking voice and trembling knees, I shared my struggle and memories of my father.

In the end, of course, it was a powerful experience both for me and for the members of my congregation.  It is clear that I am far from the only one who struggles with memory and how to integrate it into the sacred liturgy.  I ended my thoughts with “Dad, I forgive you and I love you.  Alav ha-shalom.” My father died in 2001, but it was not until that day, 14 years later, that I was able to begin to mourn for him. 

Since then I have thought a great deal about the liturgy surrounding memory and what may be the purpose of such ritual. I have begun to see that it is not so much to suggest that memory by itself is sacred or that those who have gone before us were perfect. Rather it is an opportunity to take all memories, difficult or not, and place them into a sacred space.  I know there are some memories that may be too painful and negative to ever be resolved in this way.  But remembering within the context of Jewish ritual and tradition is a way that sadness and confusion can be eased and even those who were flawed and left hurts behind can rest in peace within us.

Martha Hurwitz grew up on a farm in upstate New York and was raised in the Society of Friends (Quakers). She married into a lively Jewish family in 1983, converted to Judaism in 1996, and has enjoyed learning and studying Torah ever since, both in study groups and by reading various sources at home.  Having always enjoyed writing, she recently started a blog called “The Golden Years Revisited,” (www.cultivatingdignity.com) to explore and share the experience of getting older and poke fun at some of the myths and stereotypes regarding old ladies!

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity

The Search for Chometz

by Richard Epstein (Washington, DC)

He gave me a saucer containing eleven, neatly cut
pieces of bread:  each about a quarter-inch square.  I placed one
on the edge of the washing machine in the first floor
powder room, the kitchen counter, the dining room table,
the leather-topped lamp table in the living room,
and on the corner of each dresser in the upstairs bedrooms.

He waited downstairs.  When I came back to the kitchen,
he unwrapped a cloth covering a wooden spoon,
the white-feathered wing of a chicken, and a Shabbos candle.
The search for the chometz was about to begin.

I led the way to each piece of bread by candlelight, my hand
cupped in front of the flickering flame as we walked up
the darkened wooden stairway.  Melting wax dripped
onto my hand as I watched our shadows high on the wall.

Dad gently nudged each morsel of bread onto the spoon,
then brushed twice with short sweeping strokes
of a chicken wing.  He cradled the spoon on his forearm
as if it were a fragile doll and wrapped it within
the cloth before leaving each room.

Dad followed me down the stairs and back into the kitchen.
He whispered a prayer and blew long and slow
across the candle flame.

All things are done with prayer,  he said.  The candle tried
desperately to hold to its light. Like hoarded silver,
he wrapped the wooden spoon and bound it tightly with twine.

It is done.

Richard Epstein lives in the Washington DC area and is active in the Warrior Poets sponsored by Walter Reed Medical Center, the Veterans Writing Project and he hosts an open mic venue for veterans and friends of veterans on the National Mall.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Passover, poetry

Rescuing The Past

By Sheldon P Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

At a recent tag sale, I happened upon an item that just didn’t seem to belong there.

The sale took place at a small, non-descript house that stood out in sharp contrast to every other home on the street. Flakes of peeling paint littered the walkway and elongated weeds stood at solemn attention in the narrow front yard. A bold white and red sign proclaiming “Tag Sale Today was affixed to the porch and, within no time at all, brought forth a gush of interested opportunists in search of a good buy. I happened to be in the area and decided to stop and take a peek.

A wobbly screen door let out a high-pitched screech as I entered the premises. Once inside, I found myself transported back in time. There had been little if any updating over the years. What had been purchased sixty or seventy years ago now lay scattered about in every direction waiting to be pushed, poked and squeezed by a multitude of inquisitive fingers.

Initially, there was very little that caught my eye, but, upon entering the kitchen, I couldn’t help but notice a black and white photograph that seemed to be out of place. It lay partially covered by some old books and faded documents that had been carelessly tossed onto an old wooden table. In a dented tarnished metal frame was the picture of a solemn man dressed in what was likely his Sabbath attire. His distinctive cap and long unruly beard identified him as an observant Jew who, more than likely, had resided somewhere in Eastern Europe generations earlier. His sad eyes and resolute face immediately caught my attention. It was a face that could have served as the ideal cover for a book containing stories of a difficult existence in a far off place filled with conflict, tumult and hardship. The man in the photograph was silent but I could sense his strength and determination, and his desire to free himself from the past.

After picking up the picture, I asked the middle-aged fellow who was in charge of the sale if he knew the identity of the man in the photograph. “I think it was my wife’s grandfather,” he answered indifferently. “You see, this house belonged to her father, and, after his death, we decided it was time to empty the place of his belongings before we put the house on the market. My wife is fairly certain that the man with the beard was her father’s father. The photo was taken way back when in the old country. We have no use for it so if you want it, I’ll throw in the picture if you decide to buy anything else.”

Rather than have it end up in the trash, I bought a small-framed etching that I really had no use for and left with the picture pressed firmly to my side.

After getting into the car to head home, I glanced over at the front passenger seat where the picture lay and got to thinking about how little family photographs and mementos mean to some people. After all, this was more than likely her grandfather, the one person who was a critical link in a long chain of family members who played a role in her being here. There was not the slightest reservation about disposing of the only photograph that she possessed of her grandfather. It also got me to thinking about all of the other personal or religious items belonging to departed loved ones that so often appear at tag sales.

Elderly parents or grandparents may have kept personal mementos and prized religious items hidden in a drawer or cabinet and would, with the utmost respect and adoration, take them in hand during holidays, family events and special occasions. After loved ones pass on, children suddenly abandon old photographs, prayer books, prayer shawls, and other ceremonial items, and grandchildren feel no attachment to what are viewed as meaningless outdated relics.

The picture got me to thinking about how easy it is for some of us to jettison our history, our culture and, yes, our own identities. The man in the photograph was on a mission. It’s as though he came here to remind me that, like it or not, we can never escape from the past.

We must never forget who we are.

To this day, I don’t know his name but he resides in a new frame that hangs on the wall as you enter my home.

“Who’s the man with the beard?” a number of visitors have asked while pointing to the picture on the wall.

“I have no idea,” I reply, “but he belongs here, he just belongs here.”

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.

Leave a comment

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

I Changed My Mind

by Helga Harris (Sarasota, FL)

I hated you.

I didn’t hate you at the beginning.

When I was a little girl … I guess you were pretty. I didn’t notice. I took you for granted.

Every Friday night, from the time I was old enough to sit with my family at the dinner table, which looked the same each week—white linen, matching china, glistening silverware and sparkling glasses—there you were in all your splendor, the two and a half foot silver candelabra in the center of the table. With your graceful four ornate sculptured arms and the eagle at your center reaching to the heavens, you looked ready to soar. That was you. I was too young to appreciate you or your age.

You were conceived, hand crafted, circa 1860, in Austria-Hungry. My father, the youngest of five children, inherited you. He brought you into his marriage and treasured you, his only family memento. You were old the first time I saw you but what did I know?

Before sunset each Friday, my Papa came home with a bouquet of flowers. My older brother and I washed our hands and sat at the Shabbat table. Mutti lit the candles, said a prayer; Papa followed, cutting the chalah and chanting the appropriate blessing. After the amen, we ate the customary meal: gefilte fish, chicken noodle soup and of course … the roasted chicken. The vegetables varied from week to week and so did the dessert; usually it was stewed fruit compote, apple cake, cookies and tea. Cold seltzer in a spritzer bottle (it was fun to pump) and wine for the adults was always on the table.

I didn’t hate you when I was little. You were just there … like a piece of furniture or a painting on our dining room wall. I had no personal relationship with you then. That changed when I became a teenager.

The chore my mother gave me, from the time I was thirteen, was to polish you every Thursday afternoon so that you would shine on Friday night when the four candles on your winged arms were lit. By then I was old enough to see how grand you were. But polishing you was another story.

It was not fun. Did you realize that the candles dripped on you and hardened? Your body had over a dozen pieces that fit into each other. Polishing you took over an hour. I wanted to do other things … even homework. But my job was not negotiable. I had to keep you shining for the Shabbat. And I did; until I got married, left my childhood home and you. One of my wedding presents was a beautiful, contemporary candelabra.

Of course I saw you whenever I visited my parents. By then I was an adult and admired your beauty. You were and still are stunning. Who polished you after I left? It was no longer my concern. I was free.

But nothing is forever. Many years later, after my mother died and my father remarried, he presented me with his family heirloom. Papa wanted you to remain in our family. I was overcome by the gift. At that time I was in my fifties and lived in an apartment in Miami, facing Biscayne Bay. The view was breathtaking. I displayed you in my living room on a beautiful oak cabinet that my son, Jeffrey, had built for me. You stood out like a prized possession, which you still are. People took notice of you the moment they stepped into my home. You were gorgeous.

My freedom didn’t last. I was back to polishing you. However, the feeling was different; I was older, smarter and loved you. But … there is a big “but.” After two years, the salt air from Biscayne Bay damaged your silver. It pitted you like a skin rash. You looked sad. I wasn’t going to ignore your condition. I was your caretaker. Through research and recommendation I found an expert who came to my aid. In 1975, I paid $400 to have you re-silvered and treated. The maven promised that I would never have to polish you again. That sounded like beautiful music.

Decades passed. I became irreligious and didn’t light your candles weekly. But you retained the place of honor in my home. I always loved Jewish traditions and on each holiday you glowed. My favorite simcha is the Passover Seder when I invite eighteen people to dinner. (The number signifies life in Hebrew.)

When my daughter, Susie, realized your monetary worth, she recommended that I store you in the attic in case of theft. I wouldn’t hear of it. What is the point of having something so beautiful and not being able to enjoy it?

This week I polished you. On Saturday I will again have eighteen people at my Seder table. All the food and desserts are homemade … with love.

I took a serious look at you while I was sprucing you up. I, almost half your age, am of advanced age. You’re an antique and I, an octogenarian. We have a common bond … we’ve aged. Your arms are shaky and my legs wobbly. You, newly polished and shiny, and I, with makeup and extra mascara, are still good looking.

I love you.

Helga Harris was born in Berlin, Germany, and moved with her family to New York City in 1938. She attended Brooklyn College and graduated from Pratt Institute and worked as fashion designer for forty years.

A writer as well as an artist and designer, Helga has published a memoir, Dear Helga, Dear Ruth, as well as articles in The St. Petersburg Times, The Sarasota Herald Tribune and The Tampa Tribune. She has also contributed stories to anthologies, including Dolls Remembered, Doorways and various magazines. The most recent collection, We Were There, was published by the St.Petersburg Holocaust Museum. Her latest memoir is Susie … WAIT! and her first collection of nonfiction short stories is Nothing Is Forever.

She is currently co-leader of a writing program at The Lifelong Learning Academy (offered at the University of South Florida’s Sarasota campus).

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, German Jewry, Jewish identity

To My Children Who Know Nothing About Passover

by Richard Epstein (Washington, DC)

Your grandpa passed away some twenty years ago
and so have his Passover Seders.  Every year, he used
two chairs.  As I write this, I am there.  Time stops
like a turtle on its back, legs flaying wildly in the air.

The house is scrubbed, the windows cleaned.  Two sets
of pots and pans, dishes and dinnerware are retrieved
from boxes and paper bags stored in the cellar.
The dining room table is set, wine glasses filled red.
Your grandmother places the Seder Plate on the table
while Grandpa says a blessing and washes his hands
at the kitchen sink.  Grandpa holds the Seder Plate
for all to see and explains each item.

“…because we were slaves in Egypt…,” he would say.
He breaks the middle matzah in its covered plate, wraps
half in a napkin and places it under the tablecloth by his chair.
As we turn our attention to the Haggadah, he moves
the wrapped matzah under the pillow on his second chair.

At the table sits Grandpa’s sister, Aunt Rose, always first
to disapprove of something said or done but with a grand smile
and poised in exemplary posture. There’s cousin Lilly, gray haired,
too thin, always wary of an un-approving look from her pal, Aunt Rose.

There is usually a guest (a boarder or family friend), my brother,
home from the Navy;  my sister and her husband (a cross  between
Kojack and Yul Brynner) and their three pre-teen daughters. Sitting
closest to the kitchen is my mother, always with a pleasant smile.

Our dog watches from the edge of the kitchen as we begin
the Four Questions.  My sister recites in Yiddish, her daughters
recite in Hebrew.  I ask permission as an Ashkenaz and after
a nod I sing each question as smooth and faultless as I can.

We listen to the tale of the Four Sons (the wise, the wicked, the simple,
and the one who doesn’t know enough to ask).  I am satisfied in not
knowing which role I am cast.  The Haggadah reminds us Moses was given
up at the river’s edge to save his life and he came to live as a palace prince.

We tip our wine glasses ten times as we recall each plague cast upon the land
and our escape through the Red Sea.  We eat scallions dipped in saltwater
(to remind us of spring and life’s sorrows); a hardboiled egg in saltwater
(I always plead more); home-made gefilte fish with horseradish, grated
the night before; matzah ball soup; brisket, crowned with onion
and an obedient audience of  browned potatoes; and four glasses
of  sweet, red wine, each with a blessing before and after the meal.

I open the front door to welcome Elijah. The red goblet at the center
of the table is filled just for him.  As I stand in the cold night air, I scan
the sky for a winged angel on horseback with a long black sword dripping
with blood and edged in flame.

Back inside we remind the young to barter with Grandpa for
the afikoman they stole.  (It  must be redeemed to complete
the meal.) We end a long evening with bellies too full and we
open our books to find Chad Gadya.

In these days, Grandpa is just a word and Passover is something
you may have once heard.  Both flow  warm in my blood
and give strength to bone.  If I were a sunflower, I’d bow
my head low.  For too soon, there will be no one left to remember.

Richard Epstein lives in the Washington DC area and is active in the Warrior Poets sponsored by Walter Reed Medical Center, the Veterans Writing Project and he hosts an open mic venue for veterans and friends of veterans on the National Mall 

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, Passover, poetry

Passover Reminiscence

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

We bought spring clothes for Passover and fall clothes for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the high holidays.  The weather seemed always too cold for the new Passover clothes and too hot for the new fall clothes.  It took a long time and a lot of explanation for me to understand that the dates of the holidays didn’t change but the relationship between the Gregorian calendar and the Hebrew calendar did.

Holidays punctuated the sameness of days, the continuing emphasis on getting things done, going to school, shopping, playing; in general, our daily routine.  Preparation for the holiday of Passover was frenzied.

I don’t know how our grandmothers and mothers did it.   No dishwashers, no prepared foods, certainly no outside help – and yet, somehow it got done.  I hope it wasn’t the holiday that contributed to a shortened life span for that generation of women.   Yet, the expectation of repetition of the preparations, and the ceremony of the seder, were comforting in their continuity.  Before so many contemporary creative Haggadahs  with their inventive writings and improvisations were popular, we used the old Maxwell House Haggadah, a text familiar to me since early childhood.  Maybe the company’s distribution of these brand name Haggadahs was to give the subtle suggestion that Maxwell House coffee was kosher.  When my grandfather was alive, my parents, little brother and I went to their house on Wharton Street for the ritual meal.  I can still see my grandfather, imposing in a white kimono-like caftan, leaning on pillows as prescribed in the Haggadah, intoning the familiar story of the exodus.  My brother was too young to participate in the ceremony, but I, a Hebrew school student, asked the centuries- old Four Questions.

We learned to say them in Hebrew School in two languages, Hebrew and Yiddish, and I dutifully asked them in both languages, intoning the singsong liturgy learned in Hebrew School.  I remember being given sips of the sweet Passover wine, feeling indoctrinated in a world of grownups.  I also felt very important, with all attention focused on me; also, nervous, fearful I would make a mistake.  I didn’t realize that family indulgence was part of the game and all would smile gently if I slipped up.  Passover was  celebrated for its full eight days with ritual foods.  On the eighth day I was sent to the nearest bakery to buy the first bread.  My mother always grumbled that the bakery opened too soon which elicited a discussion of whether the holiday was over before lunch or before dinner, an argument still unresolved.  When we children came home for lunch in elementary school and junior high, Passover foods awaited us.

We all had two Seders on two successive nights and spent the next part of the holiday eating fried matzoh, gefilte fish and the special holiday dishes which, for some unexplained reason, certainly not sacred, we never prepared the rest of the year.  Nuts were a part of the Passover table, walnuts and almonds and particularly filberts.  These were the perfect shape for marbles, and we could be seen, in our new Passover clothes,  kneeling on the sidewalk using those  nuts for a game of marbles

Janice L. Booker is the author of The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, Philly Firsts, and Across from the Alley Next Door to the Pool Room, from which this reminiscence is excerpted with permission of the authorFor more information about her work, visit: http://www.amazon.com/Janice-L.-Booker/e/B001KCCS8E

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity, Passover