Monthly Archives: July 2022

Bashert? Who, Me?

by Esther Erman (Mountain View, CA)

Let me tell you a story.

In 1993, I was a 47-year-old divorced mother of two college graduates, getting my doctorate in language education. Despite being that oxymoron – a “mature student” – I was also a “starving student,” financing my degree at Rutgers with a meager teaching assistantship and a couple of other low-paying jobs.

After a period of disillusionment with Judaism, I’d slowly been working my way back. In addition to my work in language education (pedagogy, linguistics, and culture of diversity), I had a strong interest in feminism, which led me to concurrently earn a certificate in women’s studies. That was how I stumbled upon Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb. Her writings exhibited a feminist view of Judaism and included a concept, new to me, of the Shekhinah – the feminine side of the deity. I was inspired to study with her. But (and remember this was long before Zoom) the rabbi lived in New Mexico, which to me, a denizen of New Jersey who’d never been west of Chicago or south of DC, might as well have been the moon.

Then I received a brochure from Elat Chayyim about their upcoming summer Jewish Renewal retreat in Accord, New York. Lo and behold, Rabbi Gottlieb was scheduled to teach during one of the weeks! I applied and, given my starving student status, received a scholarship to enable me to attend.

But just then, my son, who was teaching in Prague, decided to come home for some of the summer. If I went to Elat Chayyim as planned, I’d have had to miss time with him. Although Rabbi Gottlieb would be there for only that week, I figured I’d be despondent after my son returned to Prague, so I changed my retreat week to one that would take place after he left. And I decided I’d even splurge and treat myself to one of the $50 massages being offered at the retreat, which would be only my second-ever massage.

Without Rabbi Gottlieb there, I chose a class in Kabbalah. Spirituality and mysticism have been occasional elements in my life, with me devoting a good amount of energy and attention to them at times. That summer, I felt especially open to and interested in both. The Kabbalah class was taught by Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, then the rabbi of the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley. (For this New Jersey resident, it was hard to say which was more exotic and strange – Berkeley or the Aquarian Minyan.) Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank was possibly the gentlest man I’d ever met. He and his class, his creativity and his energy, were a continuous revelation. I felt ongoing wonder and amazement as we studied and learned and experienced together. Even though this was in 1993, I felt as if I were back in the 60’s – only being a more authentically “young” person than I’d actually been back in the real 60’s. I felt open – and I was amazed to be having these feelings in a Jewish context. (Unfortunately the world lost a great spirit when Rabbi Wolfe-Blank died at a very young age just a few years after that summer.)

I perceived both Rabbi Gottlieb and Rabbi Wolfe-Blank and their teaching as being exotic – so different from my East Coast/Eastern European/Holocaust survivor experience of Judaism. Here I found a place for my creativity and my individuality, a place where my uniqueness (or my oddness) could be not only accepted, but honored and celebrated. Maybe it was this that lowered my barriers and let me be open to what came next…

Each retreat attendee was assigned to a small group mishpocha (family) – kind of like a homeroom – where we met first thing in the morning and then again in the late afternoon, to share our experiences. Lee, one of the few men in my mishpocha, had just completed a course in massage therapy and wanted to practice. He offered a free massage to everyone in the group. Great! I can get the massage and save the $50. 

The time for the massage came. As I was about to get on the table, I looked at Lee – and I saw him surrounded by a golden aura. I caught my breath and was smitten. And then I thought, Oh no! He lives in California. 

At a very few times in my life, I’ve had what I consider “mountain peak” experiences (in which I include rare experiences of visions and voices). I had studied a bit of mysticism and different beliefs. And a lot about astrology because I had a co-worker who was very knowledgeable and generous. I knew a bit about auras, and I had seen one or two, but nothing as startling as the golden aura around Lee. Although gold auras are usually associated with saints and other divine beings, the message I received was Pay attentionthis is a good man, and one who might be very important to you.

I spent much of the rest of the week trying to get Lee’s attention, but, to my increasing dismay, to no avail. At the closing circle of the retreat, I was crying. Lee came over, gave me a hug, which was clearly not meant to offer anything more than kind support. Lee also offered me a full-size box of tissues, saying he didn’t want to pack them for his flight back to California. Being sure I’d never see him again, I made copious use of those tissues on my drive all the way back to New Jersey. 

And then I wrote to Lee…

Lee and I  have just celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Especially on Shabbat, I remember exactly how much I longed to be with him on that first Shabbat during the week we met. As we celebrate Havdalah at the end of Shabbat with our arms around each other, I glance at that box of tissues in its hallowed spot in our home, and, in wonder, thank the Shekhinah for bringing me together with my bashert.

Like Rebecca, the heroine of her upcoming novel (Rebecca of Salerno: a Novel of Rogue Crusaders, a Jewish Female Physician, and a Murder), Esther Erman was a refugee. The daughter of two survivors of the Shoah from Poland, Esther was born in Germany. A naturalized citizen, she early developed a passion for language. After receiving her BA and MA in French from different divisions of Rutgers University, she returned there for her doctorate in language education. She wrote her dissertation about Yiddish, her first language, which she had abandoned at age five. A multi-published author, Esther now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband Lee. When they’re not traveling—especially to be with family in other parts of the US and in England—she loves to bake, quilt, and add to her monumental book collection. Her website is EstherErman.com.

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At the Country Club with Superman 

by Jessica D. Ursell (Campania, Italy)

I’m a person who likes to understand. I like to go back and unravel events and have them make sense. I mean I’m a Jew. It’s practically part of our DNA. We think, we ponder, we discuss, and we try to figure out the why of things. 

I’m not a person who particularly minds feeling angry. It happens. But I’m precise and I value clarity. And I want to understand my emotions — all of them — especially why, after more than three and a half decades, I still have this smoldering anger at what happened and my response to what happened (or should I say my unfortunate, frustrating, and maddening lack of response) when I went to see Superman at the country club in the mid-1980s.

My parents didn’t belong to a country club. Not enough money then and, even if there were, membership in a country club just didn’t fit our European Jewish socialist Bundist ethos. We weren’t elite, even though my parents were elated as they moved us out of the Amalgamated Workmen’s Circle housing in the Bronx to the cushy azalea filled suburbs of Westchester.

Personally, I never expended any brain cells on whether we should try to join one of the several country clubs in our little exclusive enclave edged against the water of the Long Island Sound. These were the same clubs that 50 years earlier had signs saying “no dogs no Jews” or so the talk went. I just didn’t think about it. That is until I heard that Christopher Reeve was going to film a public service announcement for the Special Olympics at one of the country clubs in our town.

I knew this because a friend (and I use the term loosely especially in retrospect) told me about it because her Irish Catholic parents did have a membership at the club. And she asked me if I wanted to join her so that we could see Superman in person. Who knows, maybe we could even talk to him!

Dazzled at the opportunity, and thinking only of Superman with his wavy black hair and chiseled cheekbones, I was thrilled to be her guest. Thinking about it now, I wonder why she chose me and not any of her other friends. She and I weren’t really that close. She never came to my home after school, and I never went to hers. I suppose, despite her family‘s membership at the country club, she didn’t have many close friends. I realize now that she was a bit of a hanger-on and someone who struck me as wanting to impress. Unlike me, she craved approbation whereas I rather rejoiced in the opposite. To be sure I wasn’t a contrarian in the sense that I chose the opposite out of sheer obstinacy. More like I valued the unconventional, and whatever seemed different from the norm automatically held a sort of appeal for me. Conformity was boring, and I never wanted boring.

At home we weren’t religious. Not one bit. I didn’t go to Hebrew school. Nor were there yearly pilgrimages to synagogue on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, let alone on any of the other holidays. Most evenings at our dinner table, my brother, my parents, and I (and on weekends  my grandparents) discussed ideas. Frequent topics included: books (Art Spiegelman‘s Maus); philosophy (Bertrand Russell, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli); art (Picasso’s Guernica); and politics – lots of politics; music, too. Music was always playing…often classical, sometimes Gregorian chants, many times jazz, and those symphonic tangos beloved by my dad. So often our conversations turned to justice. What was right? Was the outcome fair? The Rosenbergs. The Palestinians. What about the other point of view? How can we make things better? For our family? For our community? For the world? In our home lived the very essence of Tikkun Olam.

Our Jewishness, my Jewishness, was not a fancy fur coat pulled out of the closet to wear on the high holy days. It was not something skimming the edges of our skin but bone deep. Automatic and visceral. My Jewish self was not something I ever questioned then or now. 

Every Seder, as I watched my grandmother‘s treasured cousin ladle out the matzoh balls for the chicken soup, I saw the numbers on her arm. A stark, indelible reminder of what we lost, what we had left, and all our hopes for the future.

To paraphrase the brilliant Elie Wiesel, Jews are the only people of antiquity to have survived antiquity as a people. I have always been immensely proud of this, and I feel the sweep of history as I am one part in an unbroken chain going back millennia.

The day finally arrived. Bright and sunny. I don’t remember what I wore, but I know I must have dressed with particular care. 

And then it happened. Just as we were about to enter. The commandment.  “Don’t act too Jewish.” 

Christopher Reeve was inside. Waiting…

Stunned into silence, I failed to respond. Nothing. In that moment I became a bystander in her attempt to have me erase my essence. I was to be an active participant in negating myself.

Rehashing this incident decades later with my husband, he pointed out that as a non-member of the club the only way I could see Christopher Reeve was if I went with her. I didn’t know any other members. I was, therefore, dependent on her “grace” for a once in a lifetime experience. It wasn’t as though she had given me her edict weeks before so I would have the chance to respond and, hopefully, decide that even Superman wasn’t worth compromising my integrity and my sense of self. In fact, had I had any time to think about it, it would’ve been obvious that acquiescing to her demand would be the very antithesis of everything that Superman represents. It is obvious now. And, in truth, I know that it was obvious even then. 

But I remained silent. And I can’t explain it. Not adequately, anyway. Never before nor since have I remained silent in the face of injustice or aggressions — micro and macro. But I failed here. And that is where my anger comes in.

I should have refused to enter. I should’ve told her then and there the absurdity and ignorance of her demand. Superman — the Superman of Truth Justice and the American way — was Siegel and Shuster’s uniquely Jewish creation, so how could she demand that I suppress my Jewish self? Did she not see the irony? If she viewed me as “the other,” as different, how could she not see that Superman epitomized the concept of “otherness”?

And what did she mean anyway? How much Jew is too much? 

Don’t act too Jewish

Too showy?

Too exuberant?

Too eager?

Too meek?

Too mild?

Too weak?

Too loud?

Too much?

The great irony of all of it is that the only thing I remember from this event is that I stayed silent. I’m so ashamed and angry that my silence constituted a negation of my essence. I would not be me without being Jewish.

We entered the club but, amazingly, I don’t remember seeing Christopher Reeve. I must have seen him. He was there. But I have zero memory of it. 

The only lesson that I can take from this event that still burns on the walls of my consciousness all these years later, the only lesson that I can draw strength from today, is that one must never be a bystander, nor must one ever participate in self erasure.

And I tell myself: Never again. 

Daughter of an immigrant Jewish mother from the foothills of the Himalayas and a South Bronx born Puerto Rican Jewish father, Jessica Ursell is a veteran officer of the United States Air Force, poet, attorney, and progressive political activist. The granddaughter of survivors of the Holocaust, Soviet gulags, and a descendant of a Taíno great-grandma, she understands in her bones what happens when intolerance, indifference, and ignorance take root in society. Jessica lives with her husband in Southern Italy where she writes poetry addressing the complex interplay between trauma, power, love, loss, and madness.

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