Monthly Archives: November 2008

Walking a Tightrope

by Rachel BenDavid (Peduel, Israel)

Those of us new to observant Judaism constantly balance following the laws as we learn them with being sensitive to the feelings of others–especially parents. In some ways it’s like walking a tightrope,  always trying to make sure that we walk that fine line.

I recall at some point in learning the various halachot, my brother and I realized the upcoming holiday of Pesach might be problematic. The laws of kashrut are very strict when it comes to Pesach, and we both knew that what we thought was acceptable to eat in past years in my parent’s house wasn’t going to be acceptable for us anymore. We also knew that refusing to come home for the Pesach seder wasn’t an option. It would hurt our parents too much.

My brother and I were relatively lucky. Our parents had their “sore spots,” as is natural with parents whose children choose a very different path in life, but they weren’t anti-religious. We knew that with some tact on both sides, we could work things out.

So, my brother and I brought the meat and the handmade Shmura matza from New York City. We had the local Lubavitch shaliach come in to kasher what was possible to kasher. We bought new dishes. (My mother actually enjoyed feeling like a young bride who picks out new things!) And we used paper and plastic where we could.

We thought long and hard about how to organize the seder. My family was using English Haggadot (remember the Maxwell House Coffee edition?)  and we decided that we would all take turns reading aloud, and here and there my brother and I would “casually” jump in with “Oh, I heard something interesting about this,” or “I learned about this just the other week….”

In order to not make too much of a production out of the amounts of matza and maror we had to eat, my brother measured the quantities out ahead of time. So I knew that I needed to eat the amount on the plate he would put right next to me. He decided that he would be official wine pourer, and while he was taking care of everyone else, I would pour for him. (These things relate to some of the finer details about the Pesach seder).

And since a Pesach seder wouldn’t be a Pesach seder without invited guests, we invited my aunt and uncle, who wouldn’t have had a seder to go to if it hadn’t been for ours.

Soon enough all of the preparations were done–the food cooked, the table set, and all of us dressed in our finest clothes. At the appropriate time we heard the knock at the door, and I went to answer it. My aunt and uncle came in, and my aunt gave me a big smile, handed me a foil-wrapped package, and said, “This is for you.”

A number of things happened in the next few seconds, although thinking back on it the seconds seem much longer. My brain processed the information coming from my nose and my hands, and I realized–much to my horror–that the gift warming the palm of my hand was a freshly baked loaf of bread. (Bringing a loaf of bread to the Passover seder–for those not familiar with the laws of chametz–is the equivalent of bringing an expensive bottle of whiskey to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.)

My first thought was “Oh, no, I really hope biur covers this.” (“Biur” is the spoken declaration said the morning before the Passover seder which states that all chametz found accidentally in one’s house is like the dust of the earth, meaning without value).

My next reaction was one hundred percent due to my upbringing.  Long before I became an observant Jew, my parents taught me Jewish values, one being that you treat other people, especially older people, with respect NO MATTER WHAT. (There is a saying–“Derech Eretz kadma l’Torah”–which loosely translated means that treating other people well is a pre-requisite to Torah learning.)

So, although part of me wanted to shriek and throw the bread out of the window, I smiled at my aunt and said thank you. Then, after “casually” putting the bread down on a coffee table, I explained that “there just isn’t an inch of room left on the dining table,” and we proceeded to sit down and start the seder.

The rest of the evening went smoothly, although I couldn’t help being tense. I don’t know what I thought … that the bread would suddenly sprout legs and jump onto my newly kosher dishes? This gift seemed like the elephant in the room, to me at least. My brother must have felt the same way because as soon as my aunt and uncle were out of sight–we checked by peeking through the curtains–he grabbed the foil package and slam-dunked that sucker into my neighbor’s garbage can with a satisfying clang.

That night I had a little chat with G-d. Well, a more accurate description would be to say that I  had a hissy-fit along the lines of “Okay, G-d, what exactly was THAT about?!? Here we were, walking that tightrope and doing just fine, and you send a gale force wind to knock us off!” Needless to say, G-d was silent.

After my initial anger wore off, the really dangerous emotions took over. I started to sing what I call the “Ba’al Teshuva Blues.” Every one of us who has decided to become an observant Jew has probably felt this way once or twice, and some experience this every day. It usually comes after an embarrassing incident, or when all of the details of a new law seem overwhelming, or after you are disillusioned by the behavior of another Orthodox Jew. (“But… but… they aren’t supposed to do that!”)

It goes something like this: “This is never going to work. I will never fit in. Who was I kidding anyway? Is it really worth all of this effort? G-d will love me if I am a good person, do I really have to go the whole nine yards…?”

A lot of these emotions come from feeling isolated, similar to the way a 16-year-old girl might feel after having her heart broken for the first time and who thinks there is no one else in the universe who knows exactly how she feels.

Until you meet others who do know how you feel.

The first time happens when you meet someone who is dressed in full Ultra-Orthodox regalia and looks like he can trace his religious ancestors all the way back to Moses. Then you get to know him and he tells you his story, and it turns out that in the Sixties he was a hippy who partook of every illegal substance known to man. That really blows your mind, until you meet someone else just like him. Then you start meeting others who may look like they’ve been religious for a long time, but they have shared a similar journey to yours.

Then, when you mature some more, you do meet people who have been Orthodox from birth and can trace their religious ancestors a long way back. But you realize that they too have had challenges to face, and that Hashem puts obstacles in their way, just different ones than the ones you’ve experienced.

And you realize, too, that G-d is always forcing us to grow in one way or another, and our own personal problems are as individually designed as our fingerprints.

So you keep going, and you put these feelings into perspective.

Because, all in all, the journey–even if it means walking a tightrope–is worth it.

Rachel BenDavid lives in a yishuv in the Shomron and posts regularly on her blog, West Bank Mama ( This post appeared in slightly different form as “Following the Letter of the Law” in West Bank Blog (an earlier version of West Bank Mama) Oct. 29. 2006, and it’s reprinted here with the author’s permission.

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Finding A Place for Myself

by Charlotte Herman (Lincolnwood, IL)

Our apartment on Chicago’s West Side (also known as the “Great Vest Side”) in the 1940’s was where the relatives congregated.

The men sat in the front room smoking cigarettes, and the women drank tea in the dining room. The older ones drank from glasses and sipped the tea through sugar cubes held between their teeth. The younger, more “modern” ones drank from teacups and used spoons to stir in sugar from the sugar bowl.

All the relatives spoke Yiddish, or English with Yiddish accents. I would go from room to room trying to find a place for myself. A place where I belonged.

I sat with the women, watching and listening. My grandmother and older aunts always wore flowered housedresses, thick black shoes, and elastic stockings to cover up their varicose veins. I listened to their conversations and studied the way they dressed.

And I worried.

When I grow old will I suddenly start speaking with a Yiddish accent? Will I have to wear flowered housedresses and elastic stockings and thick black shoes?

I couldn’t bear the thought. So off I’d go into the smoke-filled front room where I watched and listened some more.

The men spoke about business, the war, and President Roosevelt and whether or not he was “good for the Jews.” And while they were trying to settle the problems of the world, they took turns pinching my cheeks. I’d rub my cheeks and go back to sit with the women. And worry.

During Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the relatives went to Anshe Kanesses Israel Congregation (aka the “Russische shul”) on Douglas Boulevard. The men sat downstairs, and the women were up in the balcony. Here, too, I tried to find a place where I belonged.

Up and down the stairs I’d go, from one section to the other.

I sat with my mother in the ladies’ section, fascinated by their hats, with feathers and flowers and G-d knows what growing out of them.

Then I’d go down to sit with my father who’d wrap his tallis around me and I’d braid the fringes. When I grew tired of sitting with the men, it was time to climb up the stairs again to be with the women.

On Passover the relatives crowded together in the dining room for the Seder. My mother always presented a beautiful table, and my grandmother would exclaim her approval with “Hoo ha.”

Gefilte fish. “Hoo ha.”

Chicken soup and knaidlach.. “Hoo ha.”

Chopped liver. “Hoo ha.”

Being the youngest, I sang the Four Questions, using the latest melody I’d learned at Hebrew school. And I was the one who would open the door to invite Elijah the Prophet to come in and drink from his special cup of wine.

How excited I was when I ran back to the table and looked inside the cup. Elijah had taken a sip!

One night I discovered why I was given the honor of opening the door. Standing there at the doorway, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted my father pouring some wine out of the special cup. It was my father who was Elijah. I never told anyone that I caught on. And when my children were growing up, we played that same game, with my husband becoming Elijah.

Many years have passed since those days in the old neighborhood. My mother and father and most of the relatives are gone. But I can still see them. Still hear their voices.

I don’t speak with a Yiddish accent or wear flowered housedresses or elastic stockings or thick black shoes.

But when one of my daughters sets a lovely table, or a grandchild paints a pretty picture, I have been known to let out an occasional “Hoo ha.”

Charlotte Herman’s most recent children’s novel, My Chocolate Year, takes place in Chicago in the 1940’s — the setting of many of her books. You can visit her website at:

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A Succah in Maine

by Roberta Chester (Bar Harbor, ME)

At the appointed time for Tashlich last year, I gingerly picked my way over the rocks along the stretch of the Atlantic Ocean in front of my home in Bar Harbor, Maine. It’s a ritual I repeat every year, yet somehow due to bad timing–-for which there is no excuse since the local paper publishes the daily tide tables–-it’s always at very low tide when I am perilously stepping over at least 75 feet of additional rocky shoreline.

At each step, as I walk over rocks slippery with seaweed and sharp with broken shells and crustaceans, my Tashlich prayers are preceded by my plea to Hashem to reach the water’s edge in one piece. It is a balancing act as I carry bread and siddur, charting my course along the rocks, and finally arrive at the water’s edge where I read the relevant prayers from my siddur and throw chunks of bread into the water as gulls flap their wings and swoop into the water eagerly devouring “my sins.” When I turn to leave, the tide is already coming in and licking at my feet.

Passersby along the shore stop to stare, wondering not why I am throwing bread to the gulls–that is not uncommon at all-–but why I would be reading at the same time. That exercise–-from which I breathe a sigh of relief after I have crawled on all fours over the sea wall that separates the rocks from the shore path without breaking a limb–-counts for some measure of penance.

The difference last year, as I walked along the path back to the house, was that I promised (and I spoke the words aloud) to have a succah in the coming year. During all the years I’ve lived here, I’d never performed the mitzvah of having my own succah, so this would truly be a “first,” and the prospect, though I had no idea how I would fulfill that promise, was very exciting.

The months passed, and, almost a whole year later, I had even more reason to have a succah since my daughter Lisabeth and her family, settled temporarily in New Rochelle, New York after leaving Tsfat, were counting on a succah when they came to visit Maine.

“Check out,” my daughter advised, and, suddenly, after a few clicks, a succah on the front lawn seemed definitely within the realm of possibility.

The web site gave me several choices, all of them quite expensive and some clearly beyond my means. I settled for one in the middle range that promised it was easy to set up. When I placed my order, I was assured the succah would arrive in two packages within a week, giving me enough time to set it up or find someone to help me.

“Make sure no trees are hanging over it,” my daughter reminded me, “so that it’s out in the open and we can look up and see the stars.”

The only place would be the front lawn, as close to the steps as possible, and near enough to an electrical outlet to have some light at night.

The first package arrived, and I was beginning to get anxious about the second when UPS delivered it to my door. Both cartons were so heavy, though, I couldn’t move them myself, and I sat on the front porch wondering who would set it up.  Finding someone who is handy is impossible here during the tourist season when all the carpenters are “straight out” (a Maine expression for over the top) with work. However, I was very fortunate that just then I had in residence at my Bed & Breakfast a man who assured me he would love to set up the succah. Lucky for me (a dyslexic in this area), his forte was spatial relations, so  I didn’t hesitate to accept his offer.

His wife very kindly indicated she didn’t mind postponing a hike so he could help me, and I looked on with admiration as he tackled the task with skill and determination, and heard him say “it’s like a giant tinker toy.” Mindful of the wind in Maine which can easily undo much sturdier structures than a succah, he suggested that we secure the poles with croquet wickets.

I was so grateful, I deducted $50 from his bill and stood on the porch imagining the decorations my grandchildren could add to beautify our succah. White on three sides and totally open on the fourth, it was too pristine-–perfectly square and uninteresting–-to be  called a work of art like other succahs I had seen. But it looked beautiful to me as I stood on the porch admiring my investment  and not regretting a penny.

“But what about the skach,” my daughter insisted. “That’s the most important part. You need boards, she told me. Order a bunch of 1 x 2’s.”

The local building supply store only had 1 x 3’s, and the clerk was baffled when I explained what it was for. After several rounds with him, my architect daughter came to the rescue and ordered 12 foot lengths which would be just right for my 10’ by 10’ succah.  They arrived in a pile on the lawn, and I knew there was no way I could position them myself.

Fortunately, I received a call from Zachary Davis, a student at the local college whose parents were friends of the man who erected the succah. In no time the boards were up and he was gathering leafy boughs from the woods beside the house. Now it was really looking like a succah. I asked my daughter to bring a supply of crayons and anything else she could think of so my grandchildren could dress up the sides of the succah. The opening seemed too wide, and I thought a curtain would suffice and even provide some insulation from the wind. I had to admit, though, that the shower curtain with pink roses that I hung from the pole looked somewhat silly, so I scrapped that idea. Besides, as soon as Zachary and I moved in a table and chairs, it was beginning to look cozy.

My daughter and family were to arrive from NY late on Thursday, which would give the children time on Friday before Shabbat to work on this project.  I purchased a 100 foot electrical cord so we could have light in the succah. And optimistically hoping we might even be able to sleep in it, I bought a few sleeping bags that promised to keep us warm down to 15 degrees. I had a round brazier which might have kept us warm with a wood fire if we could have kept it in the succah, but I was advised against it for safety reasons. Even if it we couldn’t sleep in it, we certainly could eat in the succah.

As it turned out, though, the car my daughter and son-in-law bought (in what they assumed was perfect condition) needed major repairs. They called and said they wouldn’t be able to leave until after Shabbat for the ten hour drive to Maine and would arrive in the wee hours of the morning. My grandchildren would hardly be able to decorate the succah after the long trip, so I would have to do it myself. I enlisted the help of the girl who cleans the guest rooms (preferring to do that myself) and gave her a ladder, tape, scissors, and string to attach some bright, autumn leaves to the walls and hang gourds and squash of various shapes, sizes, and colors from the skach.

My succah still looked a bit barren, but it occurred to me that a grouping of family pictures would be a wonderful addition, All that was needed were some pieces of tape for photos of my grandchildren and their cousins.  Erev Shabbat, the succah was truly a magnificent vision on the lawn beneath the bright orange harvest moon suspended over the bay. I stood on the porch, pleased and grateful that I had been able to fulfill the mitzvah and my promise, and delighted that my family would be here. For the first time in many years I would not be alone here on Succoth. Motzei Shabbat, before I went to bed, I walked out to the head of the driveway and tied a bunch of balloons to the Shorepath Cottage sign.

About 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, my daughter and her family burst through the side door. I’d enjoyed their succah in Tsfat, and, having delighted in its artistry and comfort with couches and carpets, I was very anxious for their approval.  Here in Maine, the elements are definitely less amenable than in Israel; it might rain and even snow at this time of year. But they gave the succah their stamp of approval with the caveat that “this was definitely a Maine succah.”

Two hours later we were happily eating our breakfast in the sukkah, and the guests in the house were taking our pictures. For the next few days, thanks to a good supply of gloves, hats and fleece jackets, we were able to eat all our meals in the succah. Though it was cold, the days were bright and sunny. A reporter for the local newspaper heard about the succah and came to write a story, complete with an explanation of the lulav and etrog, and took our picture.

Like the holiday itself,  the visit was very sweet, but far too short.  My daughter and her family  had to return to their own succah and to visits with other relatives, and I waved goodbye as they pulled out of the driveway to begin their long drive back to New Rochelle. During the next few days, several members of the small Jewish community here in Bar Harbor came to eat gingerbread cookies and cider in the succah, and I managed to eat a few meals there, though it had gotten much colder and felt somewhat lonely.

Then, Thursday evening–-Chol Hamoed Succoth–-we had a huge wind out of the northeast, “a nor’easter.” Half asleep, I heard the doors and windows rattling and the wind chimes clanging on the porch. It was the kind of night that makes you want to bury yourself under the covers, which I did, suspecting that whatever was happening outside was nothing I could do anything about. It would be better not to look, and I was right.

When I awoke and peered out the window through the pouring rain, I saw, much to my dismay, that the wind had totally destroyed my succah. The walls had collapsed, and some of the poles were bent  (those croquet wickets were no match for the wind), and the table and all the chairs were overturned and tossed about like matchsticks. The lamp had fallen; even the glass fixture and the light bulbs were broken. It was as if some giant, willful child had stormed through the succah and stomped on it.

I e-mailed Zachary, who came to the rescue and salvaged what he could. The lamp was a “goner” but luckily nothing had ripped. He indicated there was a chance he could straighten the poles that had been bent out of shape by putting them in a vise and would let me know. It was a dismal morning, made even more so by the rain and the sight of what had been a succah and was now just a tangled mess. Remarkably, the family pictures, though wet, were ok.

Since then, I’m pleased to report, Zachary was able to straighten the poles, and beautiful pictures of the succah have arrived in the mail from the guests who were here during Succoth. The photo and accompanying story appeared in the local paper, and now the population of this little town knows something about our very beautiful and profoundly meaningful holiday, just as I learned the valuable lesson of Sukkoth–how temporary and transient are the works of our hands and how vulnerable.

Roberta Chester, a writer living half the year in Jerusalem and the rest of the year in Bar Harbor, ME, owns and operates The Shorepath Cottage, Maine’s only kosher B&B, which is often the site of writing workshops for women. Her website is

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The Sacred, Secret World of Women

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

From early childhood, I was my grandmother’s frequent companion at the neighborhood public bath house whose clients were the Jewish immigrant women who had settled with their families in South Philadelphia. The place was known as “the shvitz” (Yiddish for “sweat”), and an evening spent at this working class imitation of today’s spa was comparable to dining out and theater entertainment for that tired, over-worked  community of women.  The baths constituted the Jewish equivalent of a Kiwanis convention, the Union League clubhouse, a beauty salon and an elite get-away spa, all under one roof.

The weary women who spent every Saturday night rejuvenating themselves at the shvitz spoke only in Yiddish, often unaware that I understood them. (Although English was the language of my home, Yiddish somehow imprinted on me, and, from my earliest speech, I was able to communicate with my grandparents in that colloquial and picturesque tongue.)  I was always the only child  at the baths, but it didn’t seem to bother my bubby, and I suppose it didn’t bother me either.

The building which housed the bathhouse was old and shabby on the outside, with faded paint and crumbling bricks, but the interior sparkled with white tile and shiny chrome, the air redolent with the purifying aromas of soap, antiseptics and cheap but powerful perfume.  As a teenager, before I understood the value of sisterhood, I would  recall the conversations that I overheard there as ordinary “woman talk.”  But as a child, barely understanding the references to  husbands and children, daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law, finances and bargains, recipes and illness, pregnancies and miscarriages, and the veiled sexual references that always drew a giggle or a nod, I knew somehow I was privy to information that  ordinarily would have been shielded from my young ears.

Many of the women who were part of this Saturday night at the shvitz were extended family.  Cousin Rose, the manicurist in her husband’s beauty salon, somehow found relaxation doing the same, without charge, for her sisters-in-law and cousins at the shvitz.  Cousin Eta, a diminutive redhead with a fiery personality, came late to the baths because she worked behind the deli counter in the small grocery store she and her husband ran in west Philadelphia.  And cousin Esther, of the same diminutive proportions as Eta, spent the day shampooing customers’ hair in her husband’s salon, but still had the energy to give pedicures to her relatives in the entrance hall of the shvitz.

Some years away from adolescence myself, I was intrigued by the femaleness of the carelessly draped bodies, the loving care of the long, often graying hair, the sighs of relaxation, the unaccustomed self-indulgence. All  hinted at inscrutable puzzles I could not understand.  But I was not upset by my lack of understanding.  I knew these were matters for grownups and my time would come.  It was enough to have been invited into this sacred, secret world of women.

Most of these women had been left behind when their husbands made the unknown journey to America to seek their fortunes. The women took care of children, parents, in-laws, and assorted relatives in what was to become a matriarchal society for a time, while husbands sought their future in the land of milk and honey, dealt with their disillusionment, sent money back to Eastern European countries to keep the family going in their absence, and then, finally, after reconciling the differences between their expectations and the reality, sent the necessary information for travel documents as well as passage money.

My grandmother was among that group.  She had been left behind with two small children to await her husband’s “success” and summons.  The summons came six years later. When my grandfather finally picked her up at the dock in New York, he discovered a diminished family.  Their daughter had died of an undisclosed ailment a few months before my grandmother and her younger child, my father, were to leave.  She decided to spare her husband this tragic news until their arrival, so he learned this when he greeted his wife and son after a six year separation.

But past lives were seldom the topic of conversation at the shvitz.  The present and future were more relevant.   By Saturday night the tired women were ready for some relaxation.  It was a time for pampering, a rare and unexpected treat.

The entrance hall, in addition to the manicuring facility, acted as gathering place and social hall. The oversized shower and bathing rooms gleamed with white tile, gracing both walls and floors, and randomly placed wooden benches were plentiful.  Drains were positioned along the floor so that when showers and faucets were open, the water ran in rivulets over the tile, negotiating its way to the nearest concave drain.  There were no shower or bath enclosures.  The shvitz was no place for modesty.

The sound of the ubiquitous running water, the smell of perfumed soap and shampoo mingled with lotions–all created a feeling of unfamiliar self-indulgence.  A massage corner baffled me. Why would people permit someone to pummel them mercilessly?  Another thing that puzzled me was the steam room, although I always felt compelled to thrust my face into that hot, humid cauldron for a moment and emerged gasping and ruddy from the steaminess that enveloped me.  I never understood how my grandmother and her friends could sit there for twenty or thirty minutes at a time, absorbing the intensity of the heat, continuing to laugh and talk and take pleasure in each other’s company in the midst of that boiler room.

When the women left the steam room, they stood under a cold shower to soak and refresh themselves.  There were large wooden buckets placed around the room.  My grandmother and I would drag one of them to “our bench.” After she washed my knotted hair with rancid-smelling brown soap, she filled one of the buckets with hot water and poured it over my head for a rinsing.  The soapy water cascaded into my eyes and nose, over my body and into the drain at my feet. No one could have been cleaner than she and I after those hours of soaking, sudsing and rinsing.

The bathing part completed, we were ready for phase two. We covered ourselves with white coarse dressing gowns, scratchy against my softened skin. I can still feel the shock of cold air as we exited through the swinging doors of the bathing room to walk upstairs to the resting room.  This scene–-now that I recall it through the layered backdrop of other experiences–-was more like a hospital recovery room.  We were all exhausted and purified.

This room sported rows of cots with mattresses. No sheets, no bedding–-just mattresses.  Behind each cot was a metal locker which held clothing and other belongings.  All the women lay down on the mattress ticking (without a pillow) and settled themselves for a rest. But first, each would reach into a brown paper bag and pull out an orange to restore the body after the fatigue of the bathing.  Somehow oranges were endowed with magical recuperative powers. They were supposed to replenish whatever nutrients and strength had been washed away with the soap and water. As the oranges were peeled and eaten, I lay on my bare mattress and listened to my grandmother and the other women recapture their week and share plans for the future.

Adjacent to the central gathering hall/pedicure salon was a small tea room furnished with linoleum-topped tables and wooden stools.  When the women felt sufficiently rested, they dressed, and before leaving for home, reluctant to relinquish their closeness and the difference from their daily lives,  they lingered in the tea room where each had a glass of tea and some home baked cookies.  Although there was a serving area that seemed capable of providing meals, I never saw anything eaten other than tea and cookies.

The women drank the tea Russian-style in a glass, swallowed through a sugar cube held in the teeth.  I have never recaptured that melting taste of poppy seed-filled cookies crunching in my mouth, washed down by overly sugared tea, as the women sat and talked, replenished and renewed by their bathing and conversation.

After our snack my grandmother began her protracted goodbyes and, with many pats on the head and blessings for me from her friends, we began our trek back to her house in the dark night.  The stars never seemed so bright, the streets so quiet, the bond so strong between us as we walked home from the shvitz, quietly holding hands.

Janice L. Booker is the author of The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths and Philly Firsts. She lives in Malibu, CA. This is an excerpt from her book, Across the Alley Next Door to the Pool Room, and it’s reprinted with the kind permission of the author. For more information about her work, visit:

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Blind Luck

by Beth Finke (Chicago, Illinois)

Every Wednesday, my Seeing-Eye dog, Hanni, leads me to the Chicago Cultural Center to teach a memoir-writing class for senior citizens.

Eighteen women with great names–Myrna, Sybil, Eldoris, Bea–who grew up on the South Side, in the suburbs, in Italy, in West Rogers Park. Some earned Masters degrees. One finished her undergraduate degree at seventy-three. Many were teachers. A few taught in the Chicago Public Schools. Their stories are fascinating.

Each week I assign these writers a topic. They go home, write 500-word essays, and then bring them back the next week to read aloud. After weeks, months, years of hearing their stories, I’ve come to know a lot of them pretty well.

The oldest student in class this session is Hannah. She’s eighty-eight years old.

Hannah grew up in Germany. Her family was Jewish. A determined and adventurous woman, Hannah escaped on her own in 1940. She was only twenty when she arrived alone in the US. Others in her family didn’t make it out in time.

“I’ll tell you this,” she says. “I’ve always been very, very lucky.”

Economic news lately prompted me to ask these writers to put something down on paper about the Great Depression.

“I’m wondering how it compares to what you see going on now.”

Many of them returned with essays about their parents’ views of the Great Depression. Hannah was one of the only ones old enough to have lived through it.

The story she read aloud was so moving that after class I contacted my “connections” at Chicago Public Radio and asked them if they’d be interested in recording Hannah’s story.

WBEZ said yes. The producer had planned on using Hannah’s story for a three or four minute segment, but ended up spending more than an hour in the studio interviewing her. Hannah’s radio piece ended up being five or six minutes long.

Here’s a description of the interview from the Chicago Public Radio website:

“In part two of our look back at the Great Depression through the stories of those who were there, we hear from Hannah Bradman – a Jewish woman who came of age in Germany at this time.”

It’s a privilege to know Hannah.

You can listen to her story online at and you’ll see – that is, hear – what I mean.

Beth Fink is the author of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound, winner of the ASPCA’s Henry Bergh Children’s Book Award.

For more information about Beth, you can visit her

Or take a look at her

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