Tag Archives: Shabbat

Grandma’s Candlesticks

by Janice Alper (La Jolla, CA)

Sentinels of light,

Grandma’s brass candlesticks

engraved with her wedding date

April 10, 1910

proudly cast light at our Sabbath table.

Every Friday near sundown,

my tiny grandmother

hair neatly combed,

jaunty black skull cap on her head,

waved her calloused hands over the flames

covered her face

muttered the blessing to usher in Shabbat.

I looked up at her

inhaled her fresh bathed smell of Palmolive soap

imitated her motions

shyly whispered the blessing.

Afterward we sat for a while

in Shabbos silence.

Now every Friday,

I take the tarnished candlesticks from the shelf

head bare

wave my hands over the tiny flames

cover my face with manicured nails

say the blessing out loud

so everyone can hear

close my eyes.

For a brief moment

 as I stand with my family

 these weighty sentinels,

 guardians of my heritage,

 silently rekindle my childhood.

Janice Alper has reinvented herself in her senior life as a writer of poems, personal essays, and memoirs which have been published in San Diego Poetry Annual (2018, 19, and 20,) The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Shaking the Tree. Currently, Janice is writing a memoir, Sitting on the Stoop, about her Brooklyn, New York childhood from the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, which she may finish one day. Last year she published a book of poems, Words Bursting in Air, which you may obtain by contacting her at janicealper@gmail.com. You can follow Janice on her occasional blog, www.janicesjottings1.com

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The Shabbatniks

by Rita Plush (New York, NY)

Covid-19 brought the life I knew skidding to a halt and no amount of phone calls, long walks, or scarfing down a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Salted Caramel Brownie could soothe my fears about it. But when my older daughter Rhonda, an occupational therapist in a rehab facility, became a front line worker, and my younger, Leslie, had to go through rounds of treatment for stage 4 breast cancer, my worries took on new meaning. My girls’ lives were at risk. Beside myself with worry, I didn’t know where to turn. And then for some reason, I turned to candles. 

When my mother died, I had been a twice a year Jew, showing up at temple on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But I wanted to honor her with the kaddish prayer, so I started going every day. I found comfort in that ancient ritual and a connection to my people who for centuries had recited those very same words in their own grief. Maybe candle-lighting, my mother’s ritual, would help ground me now.

I dug up her Lenox candlesticks and dusted them off, remembering my mother, her arms stretched out over the flickering lights, the circular motion of her hands toward her face as she recited the prayer. That Friday night when I lit the candles, to my surprise, I also remembered the blessing. “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.”  Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot [blessings], commanding us to kindle the light of Shabbat. It had lived in me. I had learned the prayer without knowing I had. 

The following week, I posed the question to my daughters: What do you say we all light candles via Facetime this Friday? (God bless technology!) Sure, they said. We came up with a time that would work for all of us.

My mother’s candlesticks at the ready, I made the call from Queens to Staten Island and then to Seattle. My daughters gathered their families around their screens. “Why are we doing this?!” said my grandson, as only a 16-year-old torn from his video game can ask.

“Because we’re Jewish. And that’s what Jews do!” said Rhonda, working her mom mojo.

We lit the candles and said the blessing; then, we blessed the wine: “…borei p’ri hagafen.” Rhonda had bought a challah, or what passes for challah in their Washington town with only two Jewish families, and we said the motzi: “…haMotzi lechem min haaretz.” Behind the burning flames, our FaceTime images smiled; we wished one another a Shabbat Shalom. My daughters and I remained on our phones while the rest of the family drifted away to their own interests.

          Work, friends, the dreaded virus, the minutiae of our lives — our talk was the same as our regular, day-to-day conversations. Yet there was something different. Something special had been added to our post candle-lighting chat. A kind of peace? A sense of hope? An overall feeling that it was going to be okay? (The it being Rhonda’s safety; Leslie’s health.) I can’t put a finger on it, but whatever it was, they must have felt it, too. Because when it was time to say goodbye, Leslie offered, “Let’s do this again next week.”

As the weeks went by, my sons-in-law, Andrew and Larry, remained on the call commenting here and there on the past week’s events, their thoughts about them, and whatever else came to mind. I was getting to know them in a way I hadn’t known them before. Friday night candle-lighting became an event we all looked forward to. Even my grandson came to the table sans gripe (well, most of the time).

I decided to download Zoom so we wouldn’t be confined to little squares on our phones. Big screen here we come. I opted for the free 40 minute deal and with a little help (a lot of help actually) from online tutorials I managed to set it up and send my daughters the link. 

The thick of Covid thinned in the rehab facility where Rhonda worked. Leslie was responding to her new treatment. My anxiety dimmed, but not my enthusiasm for our candle-lighting — or my daughters’ interest in it. “What time is Shabbat?” they texted me each Friday. It made me smile: I loved how religious they sounded, even though they were anything but.

Two months into our new tradition, I suggested we ask my brother, their Uncle Steven in Puerto Rico, to be our guest that Friday night. Sure, they said. 

My brother seemed not to know what to make of our get-together, the joking around we did, the talk of food and recipes after the prayers. He watched rather than join in, but his smile showed he was happy to be included. We asked him to be a regular. He was “honored.” Thinking he didn’t have candlesticks, I sent him a traveling set via Amazon. Now he was a full participant. That Friday he asked us a riddle: “How do they throw a party at NASA? They plan it and rent out a space.” Baddaboom! He fit right in. Our Shabbat candle-lighting had become a true pleasure, just as the Jewish elders wanted it.

Weeks later we asked my nephew Gary, Steven’s son in Brooklyn, to our little band of candle-lighters. He often logs-in bucking traffic on the LIE (Long Island Expressway) but he has not missed a Friday night.  

When Thanksgiving came, we decided to have a virtual holiday so we could all be together. We Zoomed about the dinners we’d had—food again, a biggie with us. Steven had sent a group text about gratitude and each of us spoke, not only about what we were grateful for, but what gratitude meant to us. A more introspective and serious conversation than our usual lighthearted chats followed, deepening our awareness of each other’s thoughts and feelings. 

We decided to name our group and had a rousing time one Friday night coming up with a proper appellation that expressed who we were. Nudnik, interrupternik—we’re always talking over each other (we’re Jewish aren’t we?)—and Shabbatnik were in the running. We decided on Shabbatniks, since it was Shabbat that had brought us together. 

On Chanukah we had a Latke Throwdown—Bobby Flay has nothing on us. We made latkes in all their permutations—sweet potato, zucchini, from a mix and from scratch—took a photo, sent it to all, and discussed our creations that Friday. 

We love the deep bond we have found in being together for 40 minutes every Friday night. Forty minutes that makes us feel good all week. What better way to celebrate that feeling than with a song. Homework: come up with a theme song for next week that typifies us. 

Mid-week I sent out an email reminding everyone that we would be having an awards night to pick the winner. Rhonda and Andrew dressed to the nines in evening gown and black tie. What a group! And their submission was a winner as well, done to the theme song of the Addams Family. All together now: “The Shabbatnicks’ family started/when writer Rita wanted/the children to be part of/the Shabbatnick Family.” Snap, snap.

We have come late to the ancient custom of candle-lighting, but that tradition has had an impact on my family that is beyond anything we could ever have imagined. Could Covid and the isolation and worry it has thrown us into have made our connection so sweet and meaningful? Probably, now that I think about it. But rediscovering my family has more to do with finding new meaning in lighting two candles on a Friday night than any virus could ever bring. 

Rita Plush is the author of the novels Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News and teaches memoir at Queensborough Community College and the Fire Island School, Continuing Ed. Her stories and essays have been published in The Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast, Art Times, The Sun, The Jewish Writing Project, The Jewish Literary Journal, Down in the Dirt, Potato Soup Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Backchannels, LochRaven, Kveller, and are forthcoming in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Broadkill Review, and Avalon Literary Review. http://www.ritaplush.com

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Shabbat Dinner Memories

by Aaron Wertheimer (Irvine, CA)

 I remember as an eight-year-old how every Friday night our car would take us to my Aunt and Uncle’s house off Greenspring Avenue in Farmington Hills, Michigan where we would slip out of the car, slithering like snakes, and I would wriggle  free from my brother tickling me (my punishment for throwing a ball at him).

“Jason, stop it, come on!”

“I’m going to squeeze all the funnies right out of you with my bare hands!”

He’d chuckle as he, too, sported the same sheepish grin that I saw on my mom’s face.

By the time we laughed our way on to the snow, dirt and ice spilling down our shirt sleeves, my mom had picked both of us up off each other. 

Tov, we are ready!” she would say. “Wipe that snow off your face, luvadahling!”  

How I loved that word she would use to describe how much she loved us.

We wiped our boogers off, threw on our puffy jackets, which made us look like Michellin men and duck-walked our way over to the doorbell before ringing it. 

“Whoooooooooo issssss ittttt?” a sing-songy, lilting voice deep in the house would call, moving closer and closer, sounding excited and eager to open the door. 

The voice from within always seemed to feign ignorance about the giggling guests at his door, as if each time it heard us, it was the most exciting surprise it had ever heard.  This game of “Guess who?” was our little ritual between my brother and me and our uncle, whose excitedness and and eager “Who is it?” question reminded us that Shabbat was beginning with surprise, wonder, mystery, and joy. 

The only other magical surprise (that never seemed to surprise us) was when the door would fly back with such swiftness, revealing my uncle’s smiling face, just like mom’s, with the same excited smile, like he was ready to eat us all up in one delicious bite.

“Uncle Mark!  You know it’s us!  You can tell by our laugh and voice.  Come on!” we chided him. 

“Oh, I know sweetie.  Come here!  Let Uncle Mark give you a huge kiss and eat you up!  Look at that punim.  How did you get that cute?”

“I was born that way.”

“Then, what happened?”

“I don’t know.  I just want to eat!”

Inevitably, we would bust up laughing.  And the fun did not stop there. 

We would continue to hear small explosions of joy, like a pinata rupturing and gushing laughter raining down from the sky for everyone to collect and smile about, different colors, sounds, and breaths filling the room.  Shabbat was the end of the week, a time for us to eat, smile, laugh, and have time to sing songs like Shalom Aleichem and Lecha Dodi at the dinner table with family.

Every week, we would eat roasted chicken with green beans and mashed potatoes, and chicken soup with matzo balls as large as your face, food that would leave your stomach feeling as heavy as rocks, a full basket of rocks!   

On other nights of the week, we ate Kraft macaroni and cheese, bologna sandwiches, or kosher microwaveable chicken tenders.  However, on Shabbat, our family dined like kings and queens: macaroni and cheese suddenly turned into lasagna with pesto sauce, bread-covered sandwiches became braided, baked, and cinnamon sugar-dusted challah bread stuffed with raisins, cranberries, and chocolate chips, and with salted butter slathered on each slice. Most of all, chicken tenders became, melt-off-the-bone chicken cooked in pan-seared chardonnay lemon garlic sauce drizzled with parsley.  In a way, because the food was elevated, so too were we, and our house became that of a kingdom of royalty, making Shabbat a time to feel elevated and elegant.  On Shabbat, I never felt like anything less than a king.

As little kings and queens, my cousins and I would run through the island kitchen playing “Spy on the Parents Club,” a game during which we crawled on the ground like detectives spying on the parents without the parents seeing us, and, of course, we played Tag in a crowded house of 20 plus people. 

Grandma (Bubbie) was there, Grandpa (Zaydie) was there, cousin Sam and Joe, Mom, Uncle Mark, Uncle Eric, Uncle Michael were there, and even non-Jewish friends of my family would attend on occasion. On the Sabbath, I felt like I had total freedom to allow my imagination to run wild with my kid-cousins, and I felt like I was building something larger than life: a community of people from all walks of life celebrating the joy of being together.

I was happy, just as long as it was Shabbat, and I was playing and talking with family and friends.  Shabbat was a holy time to count our blessings, be grateful, and of course, throw more spongy balls at my brother, my cousins, and family under the dinner table.

It didn’t matter that my kid-cousins and I were running around underneath the dinner tables where, of course, no 30-40-50-year-old adult could have seen us.  Shabbat was a time to be in the moment, to look at the large Evergreen pine trees outside, to feel the cold crisp air, to smell the frosty grass outside, and inside to smell the barbecue coals, olive oil, and lemon garlic champagne sauce drizzled over fall-off-the-bone tender drumstick chicken.

Shabbat made me remember why I was alive: to savor each moment of life with those we cherish and to bring as much of that flavor into the rest of the week. 

Although I am 29-years-old and no longer a child throwing spongy balls at the dinner table, I am reminded of how all my detective work from “Spy on the Parents Club” helped me learn much more than simply learning to share a delicious meal with friends and family.  These Shabbat evenings were gifts from my family on how to consecrate what is most important to us all: having family and friends around, adequate health, a generous portion of laughter, and maybe a bissel food and drink, too. 

Perhaps, this is why I continue to celebrate Shabbat each week, and why I hope to continue to do so for the rest of my days. 

Aaron Wertheimer lives in Southern California, but his heart still lives on the slushy snow-scraped streets of suburban Detroit, Michigan.  In his free time, he loves to celebrate Shabbat each week by running, surfing, playing piano and drums, meditating, and dancing with friends and family.  If you would like to see more of his writing collections and creations or just chat, check out his Upwork.com portfolio page here.

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From Russia with Love

by Judith Rosner (Sarasota, FL)

“Take these candlesticks my child,

And when you light the Sabbath candles

In your own home with your own family,

Remember me and the family you came from.”

My grandmother, a girl of fifteen, heeded her mother

And carried these silver twins, wrapped in a pillowcase, 

Across the ocean from old world to new.

As her mother hoped, she faithfully

recited the Sabbath blessing over them

Each Friday evening, her family gathered at the table. 

Now two generations later, these candlesticks 

Still stand tall upon their three-pronged legs

In my home, handed down from my mother.

Grape vines etched upon their stems

Show off hanging clusters of ripened fruit

Amid the dings and dents of age and

Dark spots where tarnish resists polish.

Though weighty to the eye,

Hollow bodies give them little heft,

Light enough to be carried

Across the ocean years ago

By a girl of fifteen,

So that on this Friday evening,

I may light and pray over the candles they cradle,

As did my mother and grandmother before me,

To welcome the Sabbath and remember this story.

Judith Rosner, Ph.D., is a retired college professor, leadership trainer, and executive coach. She has published in the areas of leadership and management, stress and health, and women in the professions. Currently she writes poetry and personal essays. Two of her poems are published in the literary magazine Her Words  (The Black Mountain Press), her poem, “Forest Sanctuary,” appears in the Living Peace 2019 Art of Poetry Anthology and two of her essays appear on The Jewish Writing Project.  Judy and her husband split their time between Sarasota, Florida and New York City.

To read her stories on The Jewish Writing Project, visit:

Y’all Are Different: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/yall-are-different/

My First Aliyah: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2016/08/15/my-first-aliyah/

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Kissing in Mamaloshen

by Leslie Neustadt (Niskayuna, NY) 

        After Kissing in Vietnamese by Ocean Vuong

Grandma Freda kisses as if she could 

protect me with her crimson tattoo. 

She seals my ears with endearments, Lesincoo.

She kisses my smooth hands, my fingers meant 

to turn pages, not sew in sweat shops. 

She kisses as if each kiss were a kush fun lebn.

As if her kisses meant I’d be passed over 

by plagues. No pogroms, no gas chambers, 

no yellow stars—if only she kisses me enough.

She calls me shana madela. Her kisses drops 

of honey, but they put meat on my bones. You’re too 

skinny. She kisses as if her kisses could inoculate 

me from sticks and stones, No Jews Allowed.

Her sugar cookies, apple cake, dill-scented 

chicken soup are kisses too. When Grandma 

Freda kisses, she inhales my little girl scent, 

makes me feel like sunlight. She sits in her pew 

on Shabbas waiting for me. Plants a buss on my cheek.

I glint with her imprint. Grandma Freda kisses 

with her full bosom, her skinny legs pulsing 

rivers of blue. Her kisses a map to follow 

when my body fades. Now, I paint my lips 

crimson, make red tattoos with my wrinkled 

lips on the grandchildren bequeathed to me.

Poet, writer and visual artist Leslie Neustadt is a retired New York Assistant Attorney General and board member of The International Women’s Writing Guild. The author of Bearing Fruit: A Poetic Journey, Leslie’s work is illuminated by her Jewish upbringing and expresses her experiences as a woman, daughter, wife, mother and cancer patient. You’re invited to visit her online at www.LeslieNeustadt.com.

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Kosher Cuisine (Phoenix, 1946)

by Marden Paru (Sarasota, FL)

My family and I moved to Phoenix, Arizona in early 1946. It was a very warm and dry climate akin to that of the Land of Israel. Surrounded by devout Mormon neighbors (who never drank alcohol or coffee), our home and our family’s lifestyle would accurately be described today as centrist Orthodox. 

We walked to shul as a family each Shabbat and Yom Tov and enjoyed special Shabbat seudot (meals). In the heat of Arizona, special adaptation of kosher cuisine was a must. 

With no air-conditioning and only an evaporative cooler blowing moisture through air ducts, our house felt cool in the 110+ degree heat. It must have been all of 80 degrees indoors but it felt like a mikhaya. (Yiddish for very pleasurable—not a Japanese word if that is what you are thinking.)

Often, we were served cold fruit soup or cherry borscht on Shabbat in place of hot chicken soup. During the hot season, I always missed the unborn, no-shell chicken eggs usually floating in the hot chicken soup, but that was due to climate necessity. Unfortunately due to the high bacteria count, ayerlakh are no longer available today and banned by the USDA. But we never got sick from them because boiling the chicken broth killed any bacteria that might have been present. Alas, now it is a culinary memory of the distant past.

Mom made the best pitcha (jellied calves feet with garlic—an aspic) which she learned from Bubbie. With Dad a shokhet, we enjoyed a delicacy which I have not eaten again during most of my adult life—baby lamb tongue—so sweet and tender. Zayde made his own brine pickles in big barrels in his basement as well as pickled herring which his “house guests” and grandchildren thoroughly enjoyed.

Gribbiness (caramelized onion and chicken cracklings) were noshed by us on erev Shabbes before the balance of the batch made its way into the gehakteh lebber (chopped liver). Early on Bubbie and Mom allowed me to assist in its preparation by hand-grinding the freshly-broiled liver, hard-boiled eggs along with celery, and the rendered gribbiness fried in chicken schmaltz (fat) The hand-operated meat grinder to this five year-old came across as a fun invention to play with. The produced output was tasty also. Hand-grinding chopped liver ingredients was my forte through my high school years. It was one of my regular chores for which I received an allowance later on.

Bubbie and Mom were fantastic European-style Ashkenazi chefs, which is all the more remarkable because both were born in the good ole USA—in Boston to be more precise. Bubbie was born 1896 in Malden, Massachusetts shortly after her family emigrated from Russia in the 1880s. Mother was born  February 22, 1922 at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and grew up in Roxbury.

Marden Paru is currently the Dean, Rosh Yeshiva and co-founder of the Sarasota Liberal Yeshiva, an adult Jewish studies institute, and a  former instructor at the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation’s Melton Adult Mini-School. He attended Yeshiva University, the University of Tulsa, and the University of Chicago, and was a doctoral fellow and faculty member at Brandeis University. Marden and his wife Joan are members of Temple Beth Sholom and Congregation Kol HaNeshama. To read more about Marden and Joan, visit: https://www.brandeis.edu/hornstein/news/newsletter/Hornstein-alumni-articles/My-1966-Computer-Arranged-Jewish-Marriage-by-Marden-Paru.html

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A Sabbath Prayer

by Hadassah Brenner (Raanana, Israel)

It’s the Sabbath Eve
And the shuk is filled with wonderful smells-
Knafeh and fresh Challah bread
Chai tea, dried ginger, zahtar spice.
The cheapest deals you’ll find
Just before the stands close for the weekend.

I feel the sun, still strong against my back;
Sweat beads between my legs.
I wipe my upper lip, brush back my hair.
Sigh loudly.

All of Jerusalem seems to surge through Mahne Yehuda market.
Students. Tourists.
Little boys and girls, hands outstretched to catch fallen candy.
Black-hatted men, carrying their prayer books protectively.
Women with bright eyes shining through the narrow slits in their garb.
Soldiers, M16 rifles slung over their hunched shoulders.

Saba blesses the wine,
His voice still sweet and singsong,
Despite the years.
Vayihi Erev
Vayihi Boker.
There was night,
And there was day.”

I close my eyes,
Rocking ever-so slightly.
Saba smiles at me.

“Are you tired, my dear child?
Besiyata Dishmaya, Inshallah.
With the help of Heaven,
There will be peace in our land
And you will rest your wearied limbs.”

I look up at him, wonderingly.
“How can you be so certain, Saba?
We have yet to lay down our weapons
In the thousands of years that we have lived here.
How do you know the day will come?”
Saba presses the cup into my hands.
Wine bubbles against my lips,
Stinging my tongue lightly, as I sip.

“My child,
I know there will be peace
Because for every night,
There is day.
And on the Sabbath day,
It is written that we shall rest.”

It’s the Sabbath Eve
And the sun has finally set.
A fire streaked sky extends over the Judean Hills.
We are white angels drifting through the stillness,
Humming soft melodies
To welcome the Sabbath Queen.

This ancient song of a thousand voices
Rises from the Old City’s gates
And it doesn’t matter what mother tongue
The people speak
Or what God they call out to
Because it is the same prayer in every language:

Vayihi Erev
Vayihi Boker.
There was night,
And there was day.

Besiyata Dishmaya
Inshallah.
With the help of Heaven,
There will be peace.

Because for every night, there is day.
And on the Sabbath day,
It is written that we shall rest.

Hadassah Brenner moved to Israel after high school, was drafted into the IDF, and serves as a lone solider, a combat medic. For as long as she can remember, she has turned to words to help her understand and overcome challenges in her life. She writes about her experiences in Israel as a new immigrant, a lone soldier, and a woman searching for her place in the world, and has published a poetry collection titled The Warrior Princess Once Said https://www.amazon.com/Warrior-Princess-Once-Said-Fighting/dp/191607068X/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?keywords=the+warrior+princess+once+said&qid=1570378590&sr=8-1 and two blogs: Military Madness https://militarymadness.wordpress.com  and When the Wind Whispers https://whenthewindwhispers.wordpress.com

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A Taste of Home

by Tania Hassan (Gilbraltar)

It will be kibbud av va’em,
I tell myself before leaving the little ones behind.

I fly the 9 hours to gain some eternity.
My oldest friend picks me up at the airport. It’s been ten years.

Shehecheyanu for keeping me alive.

I walk out into the pouring rain,
I bless it.

Inhaling the sweet smell of wet cedar and grass into every pore of my being,
We duck into a tiny coffee shop in a Montreal alleyway.

Rich, thick and nutty, that latte goes down like
Abuela’s autumn bean soup.

Vekiyemanu – for sustaining me.

We pass the steel moose cut-outs at every major intersection,
I stop for the requisite selfies.

Later I reflect on the expression on my face;
The way my smile reaches the whites of my eyes.

I embrace my parents,
My father’s Ralph Lauren aftershave,
The nephews I never met.

I never noticed their scattered freckles on FaceTime.

Vehigiyanu Laz’man Hazeh – for bringing me to this season in my life.

I laugh with brothers. Hearty guffaws we have to stifle with anyone else.

The boundaries fade away and I am 13 again.

Honouring my parents is easy when my husband is neatly tucked away at home,
meals prepared in the freezer, and I’m sleeping in my childhood bed.

The baby weight I just about lost,
Was greedily piled back on as my palate stopped pretending it was a cultured European.

Though the height of kavod/honour would have me preparing Shabbat for my parents,
I took a back seat and allowed my mother to serve her traditional Morroccan feasts

Honey and cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, and all the love you could cram into five days and nights..

Filling my heart with home.

Five days and not a day longer.

Baruch – A blessing.

Tania Hassan is an ABA therapist who lives in Gibraltar, a 2.2 km squared British peninsula that shares a border with Spain.  Her Spanglish is superb, her British accent less so.  When she has spare time, she writes and pines for Canadian winters. 

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Finding Genuine Connection  

by Paula Jacobs  (Framingham MA)

When the world appears bleak – school shootings, human rights violations, and even day-to-day aggravations that seem magnified in challenging times – I have sometimes opted to bury myself in distractions rather than genuinely connect with others. But then I hear the words of Hillel the Elder in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 2:4), Al tifrosh min ha-tzibur, “Do not withdraw from the community.”

So what do I do? On Shabbat I come to synagogue. No cellphones or texting allowed. As the hazzan leads us in spirited prayer, I join in the animated communal davening where, whether in harmony or off-pitch, everyone feels welcome. It’s here that the anxiety that envelops me and the outside world temporarily disappears.  And it’s here that I feel closely connected.

My soul comes alive as I chant from the Torah. As I vocalize the words of our ancient tradition, I connect to the past, reflecting how my ancestors clung to the teachings of the Torah for the strength to overcome seemingly insurmountable hardships and struggles.

These days I attend Shabbat services regularly, and find it uplifting to be in the company of familiar faces. I kvell with the bar/bat mitzvah family, and am grateful for the privilege of sharing the joy of a simcha such as a special birthday, anniversary, baby naming, or upcoming trip to Israel.  And, of course, I love socializing with friends young and old.

It is here at shul during kiddush lunch where I am able to engage in the genuine and intimate human conversations that create and strengthen connections.  Importantly, in this safe space we each can be our authentic self, instead of an idealized screen image projected by social media on our mobile devices.

I listen empathetically when friends regale me with their tales of joy or woe, sometimes sharing my own stories or kvetches.  As I look at smiling faces, listen to voices in pain, or hear opinions that conflict with my own, I reflect how we truly learn to develop empathy and understanding:  It is by observing a facial expression, hearing an emotional tone of voice, and learning to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes – and not by clicking on an emoji or Facebook “like.”

It is here – unplugged from mobile devices – that genuine human communication has been reclaimed.  And it is here that I am reminded that when our only connection is superficially via text or email or social media, we miss the opportunity for meaningful human interaction, the sort that occurs via face-to-face conversation and one-on-one personal dialogue.

In today’s uncertain world, real human connection feels more important to me than ever, and why I so appreciate my spiritual Jewish community where I have found genuine connection, comfort, and family. It’s in this sacred space that I have learned what connection is really all about. That’s why it’s the place I am so proud to call my haven, my harbor, my home.

Paula Jacobs writes about Jewish culture, religion, and Israel. Her articles have appeared in such publications as Tablet Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, and The Forward.

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As Our Father Neared Death

by Herbert J. Levine (Philadelphia, PA)

As our father neared death, his mind raced
between fantasies and the facts of his life,
his speech like the black box of an airplane that had crashed,
the record of its journey jumbled beyond reconstruction.
My brother and I cared for him, sometimes
feeding, sometimes reading to him
from the Book of Psalms. I led him
beside green pastures and still waters
when he, in a soft voice, as if from far away, blessed me:
May God bless you and keep you. May God shine His Face upon you
until its end. Am I not the brother who wrapped himself in a tallit,
who stood before the congregation on Shabbat and holidays
to lead it in prayer to an improbable God? But all that ritual
razzmatazz fooled my fond old man and me.

After his death, my brother came every Shabbat and holiday
to say Kaddish with our mother.
She said to me every Sunday when I visited her,
“Your father would be so happy
that your brother is saying Kaddish for him.”
Thus my brother received her blessing for the great kindness
he did her, a kindness that only the living can receive.

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/

Note: “As Our Father Neared Death” was first published in slightly different form in Words for Blessing the World  (Ben Yehuda Press, 2017). The poem is reprinted here with permission of the author.

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