Category Archives: American Jewry

Reflections on a Wall

by David Drimer (Kingston, NY)

Every time I visit Jerusalem, it feels like the first time.

There is a force, a powerful magnet, always drawing me to the Kotel. No matter what prosaic thing I may be doing in the city, it’s always on the fringes of my consciousness. As I wander the streets of the Old City, inching ever closer, the pull becomes stronger.

As much for this reason as for any other, this is the essence of why I make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem every few years.

Finally, I approach the Wall in silence, if not awe. I enter the Plaza and move closer, keenly aware of those around me. Immediately I put my forehead against the Wall, my hands above my head, feeling the heat of the rock. I instantly marvel: “How many tens of thousands – hundreds of thousands – of my Jewish forebears have prayed here in this very spot?” Suddenly, I am – as I once titled a poem – “alone amongst them.”

Candidly, my thoughts quickly turn introspective and soon lead to grief. I unbury my personal pain, the pains of my loved ones, the pains of the world. I consider each in turn. My emotional response is far from unique. As David Wiseman wrote for the Israel Forever Foundation, “If tears could melt stone, the Kotel wouldn’t be standing.”

I bring little notes of prayer to place in the Wall. One is to my mother Doris/Devorah Leah (z”l), the other is to my father Gideon/Moishe Gidon (z”l). What I know of unconditional love, I first learned from my mother. She was sick for a long time, suffering in acute pain daily for many years. I have often looked for meaning in her suffering. I have still not found it. On my father’s 90th birthday, his last, I wrote him a card that said, “Whenever I have a tough ethical decision to make, I think, ‘What would my father do?’” It was true then. It remains true to this day. It’s a hard path. It has cost me. These are the mysteries of life, my road to travel. I consider the totality of their lives and speak my heartfelt prayers to them partially aloud, but sotto voce.

In this quiet period of meditation, I ask for guidance in solving my and my family’s problems, guidance on how to be a better man, a better father, a better husband. I seek guidance on how to best serve the interests of the Jewish community. It’s my career, it’s my calling, my hope is to do it the best I can. My single biggest remaining ambition is to bring my and my wife’s hopes for our Holocaust Awareness Initiative to full fruition. I pray unabashedly for help.

Time spent at the Kotel sobers me up a little. I start to breathe easier and become more cognizant of the peace of the place, more aware of the simple grandeur of this plain stone wall, a literal wreck for thousands of years.  I begin to sense relief. I have put down my burdens.

I finally remember to pray for the Mets to win the World Series. It can’t hurt. (NOTE: It didn’t work; eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.) I don’t bother with the Jets anymore. That ship sailed long ago.

My feelings now drift towards an increasing feeling of serenity and joy. Look at this amazing place. This phenomenal tradition. The spiritual power of this Wall calls people of many religions to dip their toes in the waters of Judaism.

I no longer think of myself as an especially “spiritual” person. Figuratively, I’m the man who blocks the door, while others behind me pray, at least temporarily but blissfully unaware of the looming threat of the outside world. I choose to be alert while others seek transcendence.

But in this place, just before we greet Shabbos, its transcendental for me, as well. It has also been written, again by Mr. Wiseman, “If hopes and dreams could make these stones fly, there would be a wall floating around somewhere in space.”

Eventually – I have no idea how much time has passed – I turn away.  The women of the wall (“My women of the wall”) have yet to emerge. I learn later my daughter went back to pray twice. My wife, who lost her mother just one year ago, finally emerges teary-eyed. I know precisely what she was praying about. But they are tears of joy. Her mother was a remarkable, powerful woman. My wife is the living embodiment of her mother’s very strong Jewish values. Ina Frey/Chaya Tsura (z”l) looms over our lives every day.

We leave, refreshed. Renewed. Reinvigorated. More inspired by our faith than when we entered. We exit the Plaza more committed to our cultural imperatives of Tzedakah (Charity) and Tikkun Olam (Repair the World).

Such is my “tongue’s poor speech,” as the 11th century Spanish Jewish poet Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote, on praying at the Western Wall.

David Drimer is the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Ulster County (UCJF) and a co-founder of the National Holocaust Awareness Initiative (NHAIonline.org). He had been national executive director of the Zionist Organization of America, (ZOA), and Associate Publisher/General Manager of the Forward newspaper. He had been a longtime executive and publisher at Knight Ridder newspapers and the Economist Group. He was recently named a Human Rights Commissioner by the Ulster County legislature. He also serves on the Ulster County Task Force for Preventing and Responding to Domestic Terrorism.

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Sanctuary

by Alison Hurwitz (Cary, NC)

Incongruous, that towered height among the holly, butternut, 

hydrangea, along the oaks, camellias, black-green laurel hedge —

there it rose, so tall it steepled everything, as if to say, remember,

pray to what grows green above us.

A field-worn, furrowed man called Shorty came knocking once. He said

when young, he’d planted a young redwood seedling there, brought back

from California, vaguely hoped that it would someday grow to be 

a landmark. He’d removed his crumpled hat, his hand a map of years, 

his eyes as wide as forests, asked if he could go and touch the trunk, 

already girthed to temple, breathing dusk. My mother understood,

she a tree parishioner, so both of them remained a while in silence.

When Shorty went away, he left his story grafted to its branches. 

Dad cut back the deck each year, to give the redwood room to ring. Rare 

days when grandparents sat dappled on the deck, polite and tightly furled,

Jews and Catholics baffled past translation, they sat in shade below it, and 

in stillness, shifted into softening; green a common tongue between them. 

At seventeen, I’d park with my first love across the street, and kiss until the night 

dipped branches dark with longing. When, same car, same street, same boy, 

time wrenched us into ending, the tree stood by to witness, a shelter until 

my loss let go its spores, until my heart referned with undergrowth.

Ten years later, beneath the tree, my new husband and I stood quiet while my parents, 

faces filigreed with leaf-light, planted blessings in us. They prayed we’d tend

a sapling, make a small repair, something to green the broken world. My parents’ hope 

could sing the music out of wood.  Mitzvot and Meritum. Their reverence, ringed.

The day after my father died, when all I had was absence, I stumbled out to sit 

below our redwood tree. There, grief burrowing among its roots, I stayed until 

I found a seed and held it in my palm. I breathed and felt the way that branches 

lifted into blue, its birds built nests, the fledglings flew, each ending bending to beginning: 

holy as the timeless sky.

Alison Hurwitz’s work has appeared in Global Poemic, Words and Whispers, Tiferet Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, Anti-Heroin Chic, Book of Matches, and The Shore, and is forthcoming in Amethyst Review, Rust and Moth, Thimble Magazine, Academy of the Heart and Mind, and SWWIM Every Day. She writes gratefully in North Carolina. To read more about her and her work, visit alisonhurwitz.com

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Peel Away to Dust

—a pantoum after Psalm 103, verses 6-16

by Donna Spruijt-Metz (Los Angeles, CA)

Tonight—buoyed 

by making order—and rituals

of passing 

and there’s the fear of it.

By making order I am lifted—rites

of YOUR presence—

the fear of it—

the haunting stop

of YOUR presence

gentling me. Time—and yet

the haunting—stop—

I am blindfolded by my hands

as YOU gentle me—time—

the moving into—yet

my hands

along the walls of YOUR compassion

are absolute—yet 

the ghost persists, spirits me

along the walls of YOUR compassion—

fumbling YOUR fabled kindness.

I touch it, hungry

spirits peel—fragile—

as I fumble in YOUR kindness

YOU lift humiliation, my concerns—

peels me fragile,

frightened desertion. 

Unlock concerns

and dust feels pain.

I remember every desertion, 

going to dust

I am dust and dust feels pain

as I fertilize YOUR fields.

I, willful, mourn going to dust.

Wind passes through us all—moves us on.

I bless, fertilize YOUR fields

tonight, light, buoyed.

A few words from the author on the poem “Peel Away to Dust“–
For years, on most Thursday nights I have gathered with a group of friends to study psalms using a process called ‘Lectio Divina,’ borrowed (and morphed) from the traditional Christian monastic practice. Often these musings lead to poems. The repetition in the pantoum form helped me to express my halting approach towards the holy.

Donna Spruijt-Metz is a poet, a psychology professor, and a recent MacDowell Fellow. Her first career was as a classical flutist. She lived in the Netherlands for 22 years and translates Dutch poetry to English. Her poetry and translations appear in Copper Nickel, RHINO, Poetry Northwest, the Tahoma Literary Review, the Inflectionist Review, and elsewhere. Her chapbooks are ‘Slippery Surfaces’ (Finishing Line Press) and ‘And Haunt the World’ (a collaboration with Flower Conroy, Ghost City Press). Camille Dungy (Orion Magazine) chose her forthcoming full length ‘General Release from the Beginning of the World’ (January 2023, Free Verse Editions) as one of the 14 Recommended Poetry Collections for Winter 2022. She gets restless. Her website is https://www.donnasmetz.com/

And here’s a link to Donna’s debut collection, which will be released on January 1, 2023: https://www.amazon.com/General-Release-Beginning-World-Spruijt-Metz/dp/1643173510

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Chanukah Metaphor

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Nun.

Gimel.

Hey.

Shin.

The four faces of the dreidel,

a game learned in childhood,

a metaphor for adults.

Take all, lose everything

put in two, take half.

Fate turns on a spin, 

fortunes flip on a dime, 

a fifty-fifty chance for the dime, 

a one-in-four shot for the dreidel. 

Thus, the questions I’ve wrestled with

ever since childhood:

is it luck, circumstance, or fate,

or are we all part of God’s plan?

Does He spin the dreidel for us?

Does He decide which side turns up?

Or are we subject to twirling all our lives 

and watching where we land?

Nun.

Gimel.

Hey.

Shin. 

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. You can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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The Chanukah Candles Challenge

by Dvora Treisman (Figueres, Spain)

In 2001 I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area with my cat and husband to live in Barcelona, his hometown. After a couple of years we moved to Tarragona, then further south to L’Ametlla de Mar, and then we divorced. At that point I moved to Figueres near the French border, the birthplace of Salvador Dalí. For all those first few years, I would go to the kosher shop of a synagogue in Barcelona to buy Chanukah candles. One year I made the trip, an hour by train from Tarragona, to find that they were sold out. I made do with votive candles. The next year I found that Chabad-Lubavitch had set up in the center of Barcelona, so I headed over to their shop to get my candles. One year a friend who came to visit brought me two boxes, so I was set for a while.

It was 2012 and once again I was on my yearly quest to find Chanukah candles. This was not like California where any supermarket would have them sitting on the kosher foods shelf next to the gefilte fish. I was now living in Figueres where, I am sure, I am one of only two Americans and the only Jewish person. I knew of the two places that sold them in Barcelona, but Barcelona was two hours away by train.

Girona, being only about 30 minutes away, seemed like a better bet. In medieval times, Girona’s Jewish community was an important center of Jewish mysticism. There are no Jews left, but there is a Jewish museum in the middle of the historic district. This is what was, in the middle ages and before the Expulsion, the Jewish ghetto, the area just bordering the cathedral. The museum has a shop with books, mezuzzahs, menorahs, and chanukiot, and would surely have the candles.

The entrance to the museum didn’t look how I remembered it from my visit twelve years before. When I entered, the spacious reception area was empty, except for the two young women sitting at the reception desk. Neither looked up as I approached, so I said “Bon Dia” and that roused one of them.

When I had visited before, the museum was called the Center Bonastuc Ça Porta. Bonastuc Ça Porta is one name used to refer to the famous rabbi, philosopher, and kabbalist of Girona, Moisès ben Nahman, also known as Nachmanides, also known as Ramban. Kabbalah uses ciphers among other methods in its mystical interpretations of the Bible. Maybe that accounts for why this rabbi had so many names. I asked if this was the place where the famous rabbi used to live. Apparently I had that all wrong. This was the Jewish Museum, the young lady informed me. It’s not a house, it’s a museum. It seemed she didn’t suffer fools.

Clearly this woman was not interested in welcoming me into whatever there was on offer, rabbi’s house or not. So I asked where the shop was and headed in there hoping to find more tolerance and, more importantly, candles.

The shop looked just as I remembered it. It has a dark, old fashioned bookshop feel, overflowing with books, and other curiosities, among them many menorahs and chanukiot. I asked the man if he had any candles for the chanukiot. No, he didn’t. I asked if he could direct me to where I might buy some. No, he had no idea. Probably nowhere in Girona, he told me. I don’t think it ever occurred to him that those decorations he was selling have a use, and he evidently had no interest in what someone might do with the candelabras if they bought one.

At that point, I felt disgusted with this Jewish museum that doesn’t welcome visitors and the Jewish shop that doesn’t stock candles for the menorahs it sells. It was time to move on.

I had met Jaye through my blog and we became friends. She was a New Yorker living in France near the border and we sometimes would get together up there or down here in Figueres. This time I took the train up, she hopped on at her station, and we went together to Perpignan. Her agenda was to go to an Asian grocery to pick up some ingredients, and mine was to find the kosher shop where I planned to buy those elusive Chanukah candles.

When we arrived in Perpignan we went first to the address I had found for the kosher shop. I was a little doubtful because when I looked up the address on Google maps street view, it showed a car repair shop. But I had some vague hope of a Chanukah miracle.

It really was a car repair shop. So on we went to do other things, saving the Asian grocery for last. Once there, while Jaye was collecting her cooking supplies, I began browsing around. I was enjoying myself going up and down every aisle when all of a sudden, zap! There were packets of candles that, although they didn’t have Hebrew on the packaging and didn’t come in mixed colors, seemed to be the same size as Manischewitz candles.

My Chanukah candles that year were all white, they were made in Thailand, and they fit my chanukiah perfectly. Two friends in California had offered to send me candles, but no need. I travelled two hours to a city in France and, in an Asian grocery, found the perfect candles that were made in Thailand. For modern times, modern miracles.

Dvora Treisman was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Los Angeles.  She moved to Berkeley in 1971 with her first husband where he attended graduate school at UC Berkeley and she found a job there in administration.  Years after their divorce, she married again — a Catalan from Barcelona whom she met while salsa dancing at the Candlelight Ballroom, and in 1999, at age 52, she, her cat, and her new husband went to live in his hometown.  This essay is excerpted from her recently published book No Regrets: A Life in Catalonia.  It can be found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, other online retailers, and can be ordered from your favorite bookshophttps://www.amazon.com/No-Regrets-Catalonia-Dvora-Treisman/dp/B0BM3SWN93/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2YWBQOOKV14B1&keywords=no+regrets+a+life+in+catalonia&qid=1670865953&s=books&sprefix=no+regrets%2Cstripbooks%2C170&sr=1-1

She is also the editor of the book Ken Nirim: Reflections and Stories, a Collaborative Project of Former Members of Hashomer Hatzair in Los Angeles, available from Blurb. https://www.blurb.com/b/11400592-ken-nirim-reflections-and-stories

And she has a blog called Beyond The Pale:  https://beyondthepale-dvora.blogspot.com/

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The Rebbe’s Blessing

by Steve Meltz (Clifton, NJ)

It was a 98° Tuesday night in the summer of 1974 when my mother parked her green Ford Pinto along Eastern Parkway at the corner of Kingston Ave in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.  

My mother, brother, sister and I were headed to 770 Eastern Parkway, the world headquarters of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (of blessed memory) with whom we were about to have a one-on-one meeting called a Yachidus (Yiddish for “At one with”).   

This was arranged by a friend of my brother Dan’s named Yossie who he had befriended at a religious summer Camp we had both attended in the Catskills called Gan Israel. The camp was run by the Lubavitch (also known as Chabad) who are a Brooklyn-based Chassidic group whose leader we were about to meet.          

Dan had casually mentioned to Yossie, that I was unable to have my bar mitzvah in our own synagogue. I was 12 at the time and had also met Yossie at Gan Israel and was taken by how kind, gentle and genuine a person he was and at summer’s end we said our goodbyes.   

What I did not know at the time was that he was from one of the most prominent families within the Lubavitch community and had arranged for this meeting, a great honor. Normally one would have to wait over three years to have an audience with the Rebbe and Yossie had arranged it in less than three months.

I later learned that among the Lubavitch community, having a one-on-one meeting with the Rebbe was like having an audience with the Pope and was among the highest honors one could be given within that community. I suppose because it was arranged so quickly and easily, I did not realize at the time just how big of a deal it was. 

770 Eastern Parkway (referred to as just “770”), was originally a three-story Gothic revival mansion built in the 1920s. Over the years, as the Lubavitch community had grown, this building and a large apartment house next to it on the corner were joined. Thankfully this original structure had remained intact and had been added to rather than torn down and replaced.  

The evening sky had turned dark, and the only available light came from a few evenly spaced streetlights. As we approached 770, the light grew stronger as it came into view in all its splendor. It was dramatically lit from below and looked like a structure from a medieval university. 

As we entered the upper level, we walked through a small vestibule with a 15’ ceiling and a single naked bulb high above our heads. To our right were two adjoining rooms each with long wooden tables and benches that had clearly seen better days. The tables we piled high with books of all kinds scattered everywhere. At those tables were 35-40 men engaged in the study of Torah, Talmud, and other sacred texts. Typically made up of small groups of 2 to 6 men who ranged in age from 20 to 70, these study sessions often turned into debates about interpretations of passages and texts and were often loud and lively and at the same time very passionate and exciting.

I had only been active within the community for about two years and in that time had visited Crown Heights many times for Shabbat weekends and had prayed in 770 many times before, but being here now felt very different. 

As we walked through that entrance usually reserved for men, I could feel the eyes of those around us. Looking in our direction and no doubt thinking, they must be important if they’re getting to meet Rebbe, and I was thinking the same thing.

The Rebbe’s private office was on the floor just above ground level and he usually met people on Tuesday evenings throughout the year. 

As the leader of a worldwide religious movement who was also a brilliant rabbinical scholar and fluent in 17 languages, he was consulted regularly by his followers on virtually all matters affecting their future.  

Questions like: “who should I marry?” or “should I start a business?” or “what profession should I pursue?” or “what course should I take in life?” were just some of the questions the Rebbe was requested to answer six days a week.

Because this was (and still is) a society in which arranged marriage is practiced, anyone within the community who was contemplating marriage (both male and female) would write to the Rebbe for both his guidance and his blessing. 

We were led to a dimly lit corridor with some 20-30 other people and were left standing in a 5’ x 25′ hallway meant to accommodate no more than 15 at most. There we waited with Yossie who had met us on our way in. For close to an hour and a half we stood in relative silence and only whispered so as not to disturb the meeting currently under way as a steady flow of men and women were ushered in and escorted out of the Rebbe’s office in 15-to-25-minute intervals. As I stood there, my mind turned to… What if?

I had noticed on several prior occasions when praying in the great sanctuary hall on the floor below that every time the Rebbe entered or left the sanctuary, men of all ages would scatter and hide from his gaze. When I asked a friend why, he said it was believed that the Rebbe had the ability to see into a person’s soul just by looking into thier eyes.  

It had suddenly occurred to me that in a few minutes would be looking directly into those eyes. What if it is true? What if he could see into my soul?  What would he see? Even at the tender age of 12, I knew I was no angel and was certain I had broken at least two of the ten Commandments. Seeing the righteous flock scurry like cockroaches as he entered and exited a room only magnified those fears. After a quick and reassuring look from Yossie, the Rebbe’s office door opened, a couple exited, and we were waved in.

My mother and I sat in the two chairs directly in front of the Rebbe’s desk and my brother and sister sat in two chairs placed against the back wall of his office. The Rebbe was standing as we entered the rather small room with a 1950s style florescent desk lamp as its only source of light which gave the room an eerie, film noir quality. With him were two assistants who stood in the shadows. 

As he began to speak to my mother, he looked directly at me. I found myself focused not so much on his words, but on his face which looked like the face of Moses. He had piercing blue eyes and a very full, almost entirely gray beard that fell to the middle of his chest.

Even all these years later, it’s hard to explain what I was experiencing. I knew instantly that I was in the presence of a truly great man. He gave off an aura that was nothing short of holy and angelic and wore a traditional long black coat (1860s style), a white shirt, and the signature Fedora worn by nearly all his male followers.  

While still looking at me, the Rebbe, in a fairly deep and slightly Yiddish-accented voice, said, “So, Mother… You look like you have a heavy heart.” It was at that moment that I began to believe that he really could see inside a person’s soul.

I should explain that the reason I could not have my bar mitzvah at my hometown synagogue was that my mother, a divorcé and mother of three, had been engaged in a long-term affair with the rabbi of our congregation in a small town in northern New Jersey. We had been active members of the synagogue and been welcome at all religious and community events until the affair was made public. Once it was discovered, we found ourselves virtually excommunicated from the synagogue and the Jewish community. As a result, I was without a place to have my bar mitzvah. 

In my mother’s defense, the rabbi (who was also a practicing psychologist) had been “counseling and comforting” a fairly large number of divorcees within the community and many years later it came to light that he was by legal definition a serial sexual abuser and had taken advantage of both of his positions as a rabbi and therapist by having had many such affairs with similarly vulnerable women. Many years later, I found out that he had been defrocked and his titles (both rabbinical and doctoral) were stripped away from him. Sadly, there were no apologies to any of those he had wronged or to the families whose trust he had for decades betrayed.  

In trying to respond to the Rebbe, my mother spoke in a restrained and strictly measured, barely audible voice, no doubt trying to figure out how she would explain the salacious and sordid details of the situation to the Rebbe… 

“Well, you see there is a problem…,” she began, pausing to take a deep breath as though she were taking a looooong drag of the cigarette. She was entirely on her own. I sat about two feet to her left facing the Rebbe’s desk and dared not look at her. I had held my breathe for so long that I was forced to take in a breath so deeply that I sounded like I was genuinely stunned. 

The room was so still and quit, it suddenly seemed even smaller to me. What could she reveal in front of her children and what, if anything, did we know? 

What could she admit to the Lubavitcher Rebbe about the affair she had had with our Rabbi at home? She was an adulterer and had to own up to it. 

Would she have the courage to confess to the sins she had committed, even if it was by coercion? This was an absolute defining moment for my mother and might have signaled a turning point in her existence. I glanced to my left ever so quickly and saw only the silhouette of her chest rising and falling rapidly. 

After what seemed like an eternity, she slowly began… “You see,” again a long pause… “My son cannot have his bar mitzvah at the shul in the town where we live, because…  because… “

 I shot a quick look over my shoulder and saw my brother and sister out of the corner of my eye, but there was not enough time or light to make eye contact. 

It was obvious that she was struggling to carefully choose what to say next when the Rebbe who had sat down behind his desk, leaned forward, placed the palms of his hands on his green desk blotter, slowly pushed his chair backward, and once again stood up. His measured and deliberate movements seemed to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. Slightly slumped, he walked slowly to the front of the table and leaned against it in a decidedly reassuring and connected way. Standing only a few feet from us both, I could barely see his face but there was a glow that reminded me of Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments standing at the burning bush as God spoke to and through him. 

He slowly crossed his right arm over his left and wrapped his right hand around his voluminous gray beard and began stroking it in a downward motion. His hand was slow and soothing as if he were petting a cat or caressing a loved one. 

Though he was not particularly tall, looking up at him from my seated position he seemed larger than life with his shoulders slightly slumped forward, but despite his less than perfect posture he had a very real presence about him and it was clear to me that this was indeed an honor.

It was obvious that my mother was struggling for the “right” words and the Rebbe picked up on it. 

“So,” the Rebbe said in a low empathetic tone deeply connected to the obvious difficulty my mother was having. “So,” he again repeated, “he’ll have it here,” he said in a tone of voice so matter of fact that it seemed to answer a great ancient riddle. 

“Excuse me?” my mother said in a voice that immediately betrayed her surprise and relief at the same time. Her voice, which was usually very deep and akin to Lauren Bacall’s, jumped a full two octaves higher. 

“When you say here, where exactly do you mean?” she asked slowly and deliberately in an effort to clarify what she was sure she could not possibly have heard. 

“He will have his bar mitzvah here at 770,” the Rebbe repeated. And in those nine words it was as if all of her problems were resolved and in some odd way she was absolved of the sin which which led to our being here, at least for the moment. 

With those nine words, she was effectively let off the hook, and with that realization she began to cry uncontrollably.

In my mind I was thinking, did this just happen? Did the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the head of a worldwide Chassidic movement with thousands of followers, just offer to let me have my bar mitzvah at 770? 

The enormity of this kind of honor is difficult for one who is not Orthodox or Chassidic to grasp and would be equivalent to the Pope offering to perform my confirmation himself.

 I too felt the sudden urge to cry as I looked into the Rebbe’s eyes with abundant gratitude but held back my tears knowing that it would not be befitting for a boy who was soon to become a man. 

My mother’s tears finally subsided and the meeting, which has lasted for only about 15 minutes and which felt like suspended time, came to an end. It was during those 15 minutes that I knew he was going to be my leader and that I was going to be one of his disciples.

For almost a solid 5 minutes of the full 15, the Rebbe stared directly into my eyes, but I didn’t feel exposed or scared. I felt connected to him in a very real and spiritual way as though he were my grandfather or King Solomon the wise. His eyes were the kindest and most compassionate I have ever seen before or since.

At the meeting’s end, my brother and I stood and shook the Rebbe’s hand as we turned to walk out the door. My mother had to use all of her power to restrain herself from throwing her arms around the Rebbe and giving him a giant kiss (which was strictly forbidden). 

The irony was not lost on me that I was going to have my bar mitzvah at 770 instead of in the town where I grew up because that rabbi couldn’t keep his hands off of women who were not his wife.

As we left the office, I felt physically lighter, as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I could tell that my mother was still in shock as I saw Yossie standing in the hallway with a big smile on his face. 

I smiled back but couldn’t speak. “So, nu? How was it?” he asked as he escorted us out of the vestibule and through the doorway that led back out onto the street. 

“He’s absolutely w-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l”, my mother answered with a genuine hint of awe in her voice that I–and I’m certain no one else–had never heard before.

“Steven will have his bar mitzvah here at 770,” she said, with a voice still in a relatively high octave, which betrayed the fact that she was clearly still in shock. 

I could see that Yossie had a hard time comprehending what my mother had just said and he too became silent. As he walked us back to the car through the humid night air, the look of surprise and happiness for me never left his face as we said our goodbye’s and drove off into the night. 

It wasn’t until several years later that I came to fully understand why. In all his years as Rebbe, he had only done this a handful of times and it was usually an honor reserved for lifers (those born Lubavitch) so, as it turned out this was a VERY big deal.

And so it was that on Thursday, September 28, 1975, my actual 13th birthday according to the Hebrew calendar, at the regular weekly Thursday morning prayer service at 770 that I, Simcha Yosef Ben Dovid Levi Meltz, was called up to the Torah and given the aliyah just before Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson… the Lubavitcher Rebbe (may he be of sainted memory). 

All in all, there was very little pomp and circumstance or fanfare as I completed this central and essential rite of passage in the Jewish religion which officially signified my becoming a man. I would from that point forward assume full responsibility for my actions as an adult according to Jewish law. 

I was not dragged from a hut and banished to the bush to fend for myself against wild and ferocious animals for a week with nothing but a dagger, nor was there any body-piercing involved whatsoever. I had not crossed a physical line between childhood and adulthood, but a spiritual one and I felt somehow different, like I was closing a chapter on my my old life and was beginning another as a Lubavitcher Chassid.

Unfortunately, the service was conducted in the upstairs section of 770, which I had glanced only a few months earlier when we came to meet the Rebbe. Because it was in the Men’s Only section of 770, neither my mom nor my sister were allowed to attend. 

It still saddens me that after all the struggles and crosses my mother had been forced to bear that she was denied the right to see her own son become a man according to Jewish tradition. I knew how proud she was of me, but I can only imagine how much prouder she’d have been had she been able to actually see it.

As I look back now, that was the day I officially “became” a Lubavitcher Chassid, a member of the largest Chassidic group within all of Judaism. And it was on that day that I took a leap of faith and landed squarely in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Steve Meltz was raised from the early age of 11 in the Chabad / Lubavitch community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn receiving a traditional Orthodox education while attending yeshivot in Brooklyn and in Baltimore, Maryland. Parting ways with the Orthodox community while in his late 20s, he began a voyage of self- discovery, and in 2007 (at the age of 45) received his smicah as a Reform rabbi and teacher. He presently serves as an affiliate rabbi in a norther New Jersey synagogue where his voyage of self-discovery continues to this day. 

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Where Do We Begin?

Elan Barnehama (Boston, MA)

My childhood home in New York City was within walking distance of several congregations, but my parents rarely took us to synagogue. And I was fine with that. And it wasn’t because my father wasn’t within walking distance to anything, what with him being confined to a wheelchair since getting infected by polio in Israel, ten years after his family fled Vienna, and one year after Israel became a state. His polio made mobility difficult, but it had never stopped him and my mother from going anywhere or doing anything.

We did, though, observe the Jewish holidays, rituals, and traditions with as many friends and relatives as could fit around our dining room table. Those who joined us eagerly engaged in robust conversations, lively debates, and detailed storytelling, with thick accents that seamlessly moved between Hebrew, German, and English. 

Later, when I had children of my own, I continued the tradition of skipping synagogue in favor of gatherings around our table which we expanded to capacity. I was, by then, a writer and teacher, so I did my thing which was to choose Biblical tales to retell, discuss, and  analyze the stories. But in order to teach, I had to learn. And that meant re-reading the Torah.

I started at the beginning. Or tried to. As a child, I was confused when I realized that Bereshit wasn’t read during Rosh Hashanah, even though the holiday celebrated the beginning of the year and creation. Also confusing was that Rosh Hashanah fell during the seventh month, and not the first. 

It seemed to me that those early rabbis were comfortable with inconsistencies and contradictions, with nuance and context, and that appealed to me. I mean, they put two different stories of creation right next to each other in the opening chapters of Bereshit. There were valuable lessons to be learned from each version and each sequence of creation.

So, when I began again at the beginning during Simchat Torah, I found a different translation for the beginning for Bereshit. This translation didn’t translate the word Bereshit as “in THE beginning,” but rather “in A beginning.” Several internet searches reveled that the translation of the word Bereshit had been fixed by Rashi and Ibn Ezra about a thousand years earlier, though it had not caught on everywhere. Still, it explained much. Beginnings are a constant. Sometimes they happen by choice. More often they are prompted by, well, life. 

The thing is, I’d been raised on stories of new starts as my parents and their parents had endured several demanding beginnings. And on their belief in that old Jewish proverb that stories are truer than the truth. My parents’ stories brought them to the United States, their third county and their third language, all before the end of their third decade.

My mother’s family-tree chronicled 500 years of German residence before her parents fled Berlin for Jerusalem in the fall of 1933. My father’s family, fortunate to have survived Vienna’s Kristallnacht, made their way to Haifa in the days that followed. While participating in the push to create a Jewish state, my father gave himself a new Hebrew name in honor of this beginning. But polio forced another beginning as doctors sent him to New York City for medical care that was unavailable in Israel at the time.

When I was a kid, I liked to slip out of my bedroom window onto the roof of our house in Queens. Safe in my own fortress of solitude, I replayed my day and planned for the next one with renewed optimism and possibility. 

One thing I learned from my parents’ stories was to trust not knowing. Sure, what’s ahead might be horrible and miserable. But that moment of not knowing also holds the promise of possibility, of a beginning that lies ahead.

Elan Barnehama’s new novel, Escape Route, is set in NYC during the 1960s and is told by teenager, Zach, a first-generation son of Holocaust survivors, and NY Mets fan, who becomes obsessed with the Vietnam War and with finding an escape route for his family for when he believes the US will round up and incarcerate its Jews. Elan is a New Yorker by geography. A Mets fan by default. More info at elanbarnehama.com and Escape Route, available now

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How Mrs Bentley’s History Formed Me

by Megan Vered (San Rafael, CA)

The shop, narrow as a stick of Doublemint gum, was owned by Anna Bentley and her husband Oscar, originally from Bratislava, Slovakia. Their last name had once been Buchinger, but in 1939, after the Nazi invasion, they fled to England where they changed their name and opened a corset shop. Mrs. Bentley had been a corsetière in Vienna before marrying Oscar, helping women curve in all the right places. Being up close and personal with women was her sweet spot. In 1951, she brought her old-world skills across the ocean when she and her husband emigrated to Berkeley. They opened their store just as I was coming of age, ripe fruit for the picking. Mrs. Bentley had a home operation where she and her team of workers, which included her daughter and friends, dyed fabrics and garments in every shade of the rainbow. Tie-dye was all the rage. Until then, I’d been stuck with the ho-hum underwear selection at JC Penny’s; Bentley’s took the experience of shopping for lingerie to a glitzy new level. 

“You must fall into it, dahlink,” Mrs. Bentley commanded in a thick central European accent. She had swished open the dressing room curtain without asking permission, and now stood directly behind me, her teapot frame swaddled in too-tight clothing. There she was in the mirror, tiny teeth square as Scrabble tiles and the faint hint of a mustache on her upper lip. Her hands cupped my budding breasts. “Lean over and fall into it.” She urged me forward, peppermint breath hot on my neck. 

Once I righted myself, Mrs. Bentley’s sure palms smoothed the bottom of the barely discernible cups. She adjusted the straps with an efficient tug. “There. Much better.” She stood back and admired her handiwork, lips forming a confident knot. I couldn’t imagine that my breasts were anywhere near as glorious as those of the sophisticated, shapely girls who shopped there. I did my best, in my lavender lace, to adopt a 28 AA sense of cool. My body was still under construction, but in the dimly lit dressing room, I could almost imagine a day when I would have meaningful curves. 

So caught up in the insecurity of my own reflection, I failed to see the tragedy in Mrs. Bentley’s eyes as she shaped and shifted my budding bosom. Eighty-five percent of the Slovakian Jews were murdered by the Germans, which included Anna and Oscar Bentley’s parents and close relatives, although I understand that a handful of them made it to Palestine. I never thought to probe into Mrs. Bentley’s past or that of any other older Jew in my community. If my mother was aware of Anna Bentley’s back story, she never said a word. Even though we were expected to watch devastating black and white films in Sunday school, there was a collective hush when it came to acknowledging those who had brushed shoulders with the Holocaust. It would be years before I would realize that people I saw every day at temple, the grocery store, the pharmacy, had fled Europe, lost family, or had a number tattooed on their arm. 

Perhaps by surrounding themselves with color the Bentley’s washed away the heartbreak of history. Perhaps by tending to young girls like me on the brink of bloom they were able to forget, if only for one moment. Perhaps it brought a sense of repair to usher me and my friends into womanhood from the inside out, helping us become safe, secure, well-supported. Mrs. Bentley, whose dark wool skirts, modest blouses, and practical pumps read more school marm than sex goddess, brought a sense of daring identity into our young lives at a time when our knees wobbled with self-doubt. 

Mrs. Bentley intimidated me with her weighty touch and stern eye, but at the same time she offered me a delicious opportunity to explore the boundaries of my femininity, an opportunity to break free from my mother’s secret, suffocating life. The endless hooks of her long-line bra, the wiggling to squeeze into the girdle, the painstaking unfurling of sheer stockings that clipped into garters. My teenage lingerie drawer was stacked with excitement, unlike my mother’s monochromatic drawer.

I lost track of Mrs. Bentley once I graduated from high school and moved away, but to this day, when my high school girlfriends and I get together someone invariably shimmies her bosom and cries, “You must fall into it dahlink!” We all remember the dozens of bras that dangled from Mrs. Bentley’s right wrist like colorful bangles as she bustled around the tiny store. She was always ready to size you up and had all the tools for a quick alteration. A worn, yellow measuring tape hung from her neck and a red pin cushion hugged her left wrist. Pins poked out from between her teeth like miniature pick-up sticks. We all remember the terror of being topless in her dressing room and the feel of her strict palms against our budding chests. And yet, in today’s faceless world of on-line and chain store shopping, there is no comparison to the personal touch we received as girls. 

Anna Bentley died in 2009 at the age of 96, having outlived her husband by thirty-five years. I was just one of many giddy girls who visited her shop, one of many self-obsessed teenagers with no regard for her past. It is only now as I explore the contours of her life that I see a woman who saved herself and us by turning her sorrow into bursts of vibrant color. 

Megan Vered is an essayist and literary hostess. Her essays and interviews have been published in Kveller, The Rumpus, the Maine Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Writer’s Chronicle, among others. Her essay Requiem for a Lost Organ was long listed for the Disquiet 2022 Literary Prize and she was a finalist for the Bellingham Review’s 2021 Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Megan lives in Marin County, where she leads local and international writing workshops and serves on the board of the UC Berkeley Library and Heyday Books. Her memoir, A Dance to Remember, Confessions of a Medical Maid of Honor, is currently under review for publication.  

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It Could Have Been Me

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

It could have been me

     
A survivor tells how lice
     
attacked her body daily
     A man waits for an exit visa
     in Berlin, 3 days, he still waits
     The ship St. Louis is turned back
     900 refugees are barred from the U.S.

It could have been me

     A family goes into hiding in Amsterdam
     
They will soon be discovered
   
  A prisoner, shriveled and starving,
     throws himself against an electric fence
     A baby is shot in the head because
     he was crying in his mother’s arms

It could have been me

   
  He is forced out of school in Vienna,
     taunted now by former classmates
     Starved in the cold in Poland,
     he will do anything for a morsel of bread
     They are marched to the showers in Auschwitz,
     where are you, my God?

It could have been me… all of them could have been me

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. You can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Conversion of the Jew?

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

“The usual, Mel?”
says Delora, the sweet-smiling 
server at the new Mennonite-run coffee shop.
“I’m thinking,” I say.
“How is God treating you today?”
she asks playfully, but with
a hint of missionary zeal.
“OK, I guess, hadn’t thought about it.”
Last week I accepted a tract
from her on the life of Jesus.
“What did you think? Interesting, no?”
“I’m still digesting it,” I say.
Sweet Delora, I think,
I’ll finish your book,
discuss its merits,
but don’t expect me
to switch religions.
I may be a “bad” Jew, derelict
in his religious and cultural duties,
but I am still a Jew.
You are certainly entitled to follow
whomever you want, but
do not count me in your fold.
I may not follow a strict Jewish path,
but I’m not about to deviate off it.
“I see you have chicken noodle soup
on the menu. I’ll have that to celebrate
who I am,” I say proudly.
“Good choice,” Delora says.

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. You can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, poetry, writing practice