Monthly Archives: June 2009

Writing Practice: On Being Jewish

In an effort to encourage readers to explore what it means to be Jewish in their daily lives, The Jewish Writing Project will offer suggestions for writing practice from time to time.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve never kept a journal before, or if you prefer writing on yellow legal pads, or if you type your thoughts directly onto your computer after everyone else in your house or apartment or dormitory has gone to bed.

What matters is that you begin writing.

Who knows? Maybe a story or poem will emerge, or you’ll find the thread of a memory that you’d forgotten for years, or you’ll realize something about your Jewishness that you’d never known or thought about before.

* * * * *

For some of us, being Jewish is an answer; for others, a question.

“I’m Jewish,” some of us might declare, “and I live this kind of life, do these kinds of things, look at the world this way.”

That might mean you observe Shabbat by unplugging the tv or not turning on lights or walking to shul. Or it might mean you eat only kosher food, or you attend minyan every morning and evening.

“Why am I Jewish?” others might ask. “Why should I live this kind of life, do these kinds of things, look at the world this way?”

You want to know who can say how you should live, or what kind of food you should eat, or how you spend your weekends.

Each approach-–answer and question–-view being Jewish from different ends of the same telescope.

Between these two views is a spectrum of choices that await us as Jews.

Whether we follow halachah or observe only those portions that seem relevant to our lives or don’t observe at all, every Jew decides within these categories of observance or non-observance how to live his or her life to the fullest potential.

Observing Shabbat may mean spending the morning in shul or relaxing at the beach, studying Torah in the afternoon with a group of friends or reading a novel that you’ve been longing to read all week.

Whatever ways we practice Judaism, we make choices that allow us to identify strongly (or not strongly) as Jews.

Each of us chooses to be Jewish.
Writing practice:

1. If being Jewish involves a variety of choices, take a moment to make a list of the choices that you’ve made to be Jewish.

2. Set aside a few minutes–-say ten or fifteen, or more if you can spare the time-–and think about how you feel about being Jewish. (Is it an answer or a question?) And think about why you feel that way.

3. Can you describe the choices that you make on a daily or weekly basis that enable you to identify as a Jew?

4. List at least five examples of ways that you are Jewish… or things you do to make yourself feel more (or less) Jewish.

5. And, finally, ask yourself how these choices influence the way you see yourself as a Jew and how you view your relationship to the Jewish community.

6. When you finish, put the list aside for a day or two, then go back to it and review the list again. How does reading it make you feel? More Jewish? Less Jewish? Proud of being a Jew? Embarrassed?

7. Spend a few minutes noting your observations, and then begin writing them down.

8. To share your observations and discoveries with us at The Jewish Writing Project, simply click on the “comments” button below.

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Remembering Who I Am

By Monica Rozenfeld (New York, NY)

“It’s Friday! It’s Friday!” my grandmother screamed in distress after Mom turned off the lights in the bedroom. “It’s Friday!”

I was sitting there, witness to the mayhem, not understanding why turning off the lights had anything to do with it being Friday.

I thought that my grandmother had hit some sort of syndrome in her old age.

It was several years later when I fully understood that the only syndrome she had hit was nostalgia for a tradition her family no longer kept.

My family is from Russia, now the Ukraine, where it’s no secret that religious practice was not allowed during my grandmother’s youth. Religious schools were closed, and anyone discovered practicing Judaism was punished harshly.

So, my parents did not have an example of Jewish practice to pass down to me.

The secrets of Judaism had been hidden. Only my great grandparents knew them well: Shabbos, holidays, rituals, Hebrew, and history.

I was an oblivious Jew.

But when I started learning about Judaism in college, the pieces started to fit together.

Friday wasn’t just Friday; it was Shabbos. My grandmother knew the word, but was afraid to say it. So “Friday” became her secret code.

Little by little, I unraveled the pieces of my grandmother’s hidden Jewish life.

Her hatred for traveling on Saturday. Her refusal to cook after sundown on Friday. It all began to make sense.

“Oh, my father loved the holidays,” she would tell me in her beautiful Russian accent. “He celebrated every single one.”

Every single one, and I knew nothing of Purim, Shavout, or even Shabbos.

But after she related these kind memories, my grandmother would share little else with me. She was still afraid of the consequences.

“I’m not sure I am allowed to tell you,” she would say to many of my questions.

I’m not sure her fears ever subsided.

During the Holocaust, my mother once told me, she was just one gunshot away from the end of her life.

If that gun had gone off, my mother would never have come into the world, and I, of course, wouldn’t be here.

Before the gun was fired, though, a Russian soldier, speaking in perfect German, demanded the Nazi put down his gun and leave, and he did.

And my grandmother hadn’t forgotten G-d since that day.

So how did I start learning about Judaism?

The truth is, I always had sparks of G-d in me.

I always talked to G-d, and I always felt I walked with G-d.

But I didn’t know it was a “Jewish” G-d that I believed in until I took a Torah class in college. The speaker–a rabbi–said, “You only fall when you forget who you are.”

I was awe-struck, glued to this sentence: I only fall when I forget who I am. I only fall when.. I forget who I am?

Who was I?

The only solid answer that I came up with was: I’m Jewish.

And that visceral response led me on a Jewish path to finding my existence in this awakened identity.

Since then, I’ve become even more curious and engaged and excited to learn.

I want to know everything that I can about Judaism and what Judaism has to do with me. And I want to know how to thank Judaism for the very existence of me.

I just want to know.

Judaism has become more than an identity, a culture, a spiritual retreat. It has become my world.

And as I continue to learn about Jewish history – from our exile to slavery to the gun pointed at my grandmother – I find myself in awe that I am here, today, and, here, Jewishly.

I guess it’s true that we all go on our own soul-search trying to find out who we are and where we belong. I’m sure there have been many times I have been tested, forced to question who I am. But it was when I discovered, maybe rediscovered, all these things my soul already knew, that I figured it out.

Being Jewish is the most unshakable thing about me and what connects me to my past, and hopefully to my future.

Monica Rozenfeld currently works at a Jewish education-non profit and is the founder of TheJewSpot ( She owes many thanks to Maimonides, a fellowship program she participated in during college, which opened up the doors to her Jewish soul and is the reason she is engaged in Judaism today.

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Praying for Trout

by Eric Eisenkramer (Ridgefield, CT)

In the course of my years of fly fishing, I have probably spoken dozens of prayers while on the stream. When the sun was well below the horizon, and there was just enough light to tie on one more fly, I said to myself: “Please let one more trout rise.” When the rain clouds were forming, and it looked like my day of fly fishing was going to be cut short, I may have whispered: “Just a little longer, please.” And of course, when the trout were not biting, and every cast and every fly was ineffective, I might have said out of frustration: “Come on, just one bite.”

As The Fly Fishing Rabbi, sometimes people ask me if my prayers for trout to rise are answered more readily than those of everyone else. I think not. I’m just as likely to get rained on, or to lose my fly in the dark or not to catch a single fish as anyone else.

As I thought about praying on the stream, I asked myself: What should we pray for when fly fishing? Is there such a thing as a blessing for fly fishing?

In Judaism there are two types of prayers, petition and thanksgiving. When we say “Come on, just one bite,” we offer a petition, asking for something specific. But I am not sure that this is really a prayer. To pray usually means bringing God into the equation. At my Temple, we say a healing prayer, called the mishebeirach, each week at services. I look around the sanctuary and ask people to share the names of those that are ill. And then we sing and pray together that they will find healing. Asking for a fish to rise is not exactly a prayer. It is a wish. Asking God to heal a person is a prayer.

There are prayers that are good for fly fishing, and they are prayers of thanksgiving. Ironically, I am more likely to say a prayer of thanks when I am not catching fish. When the trout are rising, I am to busy or excited to think about anything but the fishing. But when the water is silent, and I cannot get a bite, and I am not too frustrated, then I sometimes take a moment to look around. I watch the river flow by. I feel the breeze. I smell the pine needles.

When I see the beauty of nature, I ask myself: How did such an amazing earth come to be? What did I do to deserve to live in such a beautiful place? Feelings of awe, connection and humility come to me. And then I am led to a simple response: “thank you.” Saying “thank you” when fly fishing is to acknowledge that this earth we live on is a gift. Saying “Dear God, thank you” when on the stream is to offer up a prayer.

In Judaism, there is a formula to begin a blessing: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe. Then you add thing for which you want to say “thank you.” Sometimes when fly fishing, I speak the words of this blessing from Jewish tradition: Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Creator of light and darkness, Maker of peace, Creator of all.

The next time I am on the stream, I will probably still wish for the rain to hold off and a big trout to take my fly. But I will also try to take a moment to offer up a simpler prayer. I might just say something like this: “Dear God, thank you for the gift of this amazing world.”

Eric Eisenkramer, the rabbi of Temple Shearith Israel in Ridgefield, CT, was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, where he discovered his love of fly fishing. A graduate of Tufts University, he received his ordination from Hebrew Union College.

“Praying for Trout” is reprinted here with the author’s permission. It first appeared on his blog, where you can find more of his thoughts on fly fishing and Judaism.

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On Writing a Poem Related to the Holocaust

by Susan L. Lipson (Poway, CA)

My student came to me with a school assignment: write a poem in response to a Holocaust victim’s poem, “The Butterfly,” by Pavel Friedmann.

We discussed the particular juxtaposition of a yellow butterfly’s beauty with the haunting images of life in the Jewish ghetto, and the symbol of hope amid the ruins of life.

I asked him to imagine himself in a concentration camp: “So, as an inmate, what would you see every day as you worked, something that you could see in another way, a brighter way, out of both desperation and hope?”

He mentioned a barbed wire fence in front of flowers on the other side.

I replied, “How about the barbed wire fence itself–how might a hopeful, yet hopeless person view such an ugly fence in a new light; what simile could describe the wire and the barbs as looking like something happier?”

I drew a line with asterisk-like barbs across his paper.

“What does it look like to you?” I asked.

He replied, “Flowers on a metal vine.”

And so his poem, and mine simultaneously, was born.

He turned in his free verse to his teacher with pride; I’m posting mine here, hoping to elicit your comments.

by Susan L. Lipson

Metallic flowers on a silver vine
Stretch taut to keep us in their garden walls,
Where worms like us must dig, but never whine,
Must bury seeds of hope before they fall;
No birds alight upon these petal spikes,
Lest they get pierced like friends I’ve loved and lost,
Friends who were but “vermin,” “dogs,” or “kikes,”
Rebelling, not considering the cost.
To sniff these blooms brings blood, not pleasant scents,
Yet still the petal barbs tempt me to climb—
Just up and over!—leave behind this fence,
Escape to fragrant fields and summertime…
Confinement alters views, both tempts and taunts;
Like a relentless ghost, our minds it haunts.

Susan L. Lipson, a poet and children’s novelist, has taught writing in the San Diego area for more than ten years. Her latest books are Knock on Wood (a contemporary fantasy for children) and Writing Success Through Poetry.

Lipson also writes songs, including Jewish spiritual songs, some of which have been performed by synagogue choirs and soloists.

For more information about her work, visit her website:

This piece first appeared on her blog, Writing Memorable Words ( in slightly different form. It’s reprinted here with permission of the author.

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