Category Archives: Family history

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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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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Standing Up for the Voiceless: My Fight with Royalty in Anne Frank’s House

by Jessica D. Ursell (Campania, Italy)

Let me say right at the beginning that as a granddaughter of survivors and a proud Jew, I am not afraid of fighting anti-Semites wherever they might be, but never in my wildest imagination did I think that in November 1994 I would be directly confronting an actual princess of a Southeast Asian country and her bodyguard in Anne Frank’s house.

I went to Paris for the month of November while I was waiting for the results of the bar exam. I told myself that it would either be an early celebration of passing such an extraordinarily difficult exam or as a way to recharge my batteries in case I needed to take it again. (As it turned out, I was successful on my first try.) 

But before I found out I had passed, I was in Paris staying with my beloved grandmother Dora’s eldest sister Lodzia and her family. These family members (my great aunt Lodzia and her three daughters Rachelle, Monique, and Danielle) were hidden from the Nazis in the cellar of a courageous French farming couple, Madame and Monsieur Malais, during the war. Lodzia’s eldest daughter, Rachelle, would later marry Pierre Malais, their son.

And from Paris, after my visit with Lodzia’s middle daughter, Monique, I decided I had to go to Amsterdam. 

Specifically, I felt a deep need to see Anne Frank‘s house where she spent 761 days hiding in a secret annex with her parents, sister, and four others before they were all exposed and taken to their deaths by the Nazis. Only her father, Otto Frank, survived.

Amsterdam was very private and personal for me. Going to Anne Frank‘s house at Prinsengracht 263 to see where she hid as a teenage girl was something I wanted to experience solo. So many of my own family members perished at the murderous hands of the Nazis. I wanted to be alone with my emotions and have time to process them without discussing my reactions on the spot. 

Unattached and unencumbered except by the weight of my thoughts, I began this profoundly emotional journey.

Inside Anne Frank’s house, my recollections swirling, transported me backwards in time … wrapped in the warmth and closeness of our Passover Seders with the remnants of our family. 

Our Seders were small but deeply meaningful with lots of discussion about the relevance of what our people experienced as oppressed slaves millennia ago in Egypt to our current world. The flavor of all our family discussions was clear: we have to bear witness to what happened to our people and above all we must never be bystanders to evil.

Time unspooled…

I saw the numbers 48696 branded into the arm of our treasured Chavcia with her sweetly chirping voice.

Dearest Chavcia, a cherished cousin of my beloved grandmother Dora, ladled mouthwatering, light, fluffy matzoh balls into her homemade chicken soup. Those numbers 48696 seared into her skin visible again and again as she brought out the roasted chicken, holding the large platter heavy in her arms. Chavcia’s gentle sweetness and diminutive frame contrasted starkly with the brutality and, as Hannah Arendt noted, the banality of evil that led to the Nazi vision of dehumanization and eradication of the Jewish people. Our people. My people.

Numbers 48696 on Chavcia’s arm… 

More numbers 114057. Those belonged to David, Chavcia’s husband, whose steady voice gave me comfort as he led our Seders.  

David … his numbers 114057 … survived the terrors of Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg, and Flossenbürg concentration camps in Germany and was liberated from the hell of Dachau on 29 April 1945.

Numbers 48696 and 114057

Indelible reminders of darkness, devastation, and loss.

Chavcia, a teenage girl in the Warsaw ghetto, carried a tiny tin pail of watery gruel all the way across the ghetto so that she could give her portion to my beloved great grandmother, Tsivya, to prolong her life. Hastening this watery substance across the ghetto to preserve it in its tepid state lest it get ice cold, the liquid splashing and sloshing against the pail, Chavcia knew her mission to save Tsivya was in vain but she didn’t stop. 

Chavcia survived the terror and deprivation of Majdanek in 1943, although her own beloved mother Golda did not. Chavcia later survived the incomprehensible horrors of Auschwitz and lived to share her story, but her beloved father, Zalman Horowicz (brother of my own precious great grandmother Tsivya), perished in the hell that was Treblinka.

In February, 1945, Anne Frank and her elder sister, Margot, were put on a transport from the horrors of Auschwitz to the brutal conditions of the disease-ridden Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where starvation, disease, and death were rampant. It was there that they both succumbed to typhus just a few months before the war ended in Europe.

I’ve read that the average visit to Anne Frank‘s house takes about an hour but I was there for what felt like much longer. Maybe hours longer. I was transfixed, and walking through the house I felt like I was walking through thick tar. 

Overcome with sensation, strangely throughout my body I felt the emptiness. 

The loss. 

The void. 

The realization kept hitting me over and over again, but it wasn’t so much about what was there–the infographics–but what was not. 

All that was lost.

I was experiencing the void, the colossal emptiness, and sense of betrayal as I moved slowly through the house at Prinsengracht 263.

Companionless, I took my time going through the space barely conscious of the other people there.

Anne Frank, a girl but not just a girl. Anne Frank is the girl standing in for all the girls, for all the children, like my grandmother Dora’s and my great aunt Lodzia’s little sisters, Bronia, Reinusha, Helcia, and Romcia, who were persecuted and murdered simply because they were Jewish.

Overwhelmed by my cascading thoughts, I thought about my four murdered great aunts, little girls that I only knew from a single precious black-and-white photo, and wondered what I could do to ensure that their memory and the collective memory of the 6 million of our people would not be lost.

Standing in Anne Frank’s house, I stopped, feeling the emptiness all around me, and suddenly loud and prolonged laughter cracked the silence and the hushed murmurings of the other visitors.

Puncturing the still air, the harsh staccato laughter was so forceful, so immediate, I whirled around, jarred and disoriented, not knowing what was happening.

Directly behind me, only a foot away, stood an attractive woman who looked to be in her late 20s wearing aviator type sunglasses with long, lush dark hair, skin-tight leather pants that I remember being a tawny brown hugging her trimly curved body, and high-heeled boots. She was accompanied by a very muscular, determined-looking young man from a Southeast Asian country in a well-cut suit, the outline of his bulging physique clearly apparent beneath the elegant fabric.

Everything welled and rose inside of me … the silenced voices of the 6 million pounding in my chest.

“How dare you laugh in this sacred space! Don’t you know where you are?”

My voice rang in my ears and ricocheted against the walls.

He strode between us, his bulk filling the space.

“Careful, this is the Princess … you’re talking to!” he threatened, his grim face inches from my own.

Paying no heed to his threat, my voice rang out even louder. “I don’t care who she is! She has no right to behave that way–laughing in this house, in this sacred place!”

I don’t remember anyone else in the immediate area. All I could see was her mocking mouth and her brute in bespoke clothes breathing his threats into my face.

I stood right where I was. 

I did not flinch.

I did not move. 

Not an inch. 

Not a millimeter.

He took his Princess by the arm and ushered her out.

They were gone. And as I stood in Anne Frank’s house, still shaking with shock and anger, I knew I would never be a bystander to bigotry and hatred. 

Bronia, Reinusha, Helcia, and Romcia, my great aunts who were murdered as little girls, were silenced by the Nazis. My beloved cousin Chavcia and her husband David lived the remainder of their lives with numbers intended to strip them of their humanity seared into their flesh and with unfathomable pain seared into their psyches. The generational trauma inflicted by the Holocaust has not abated. It is ever present and palpable in my own life and in that of so many first- and second-generation families.

Using my voice to speak out and challenge hatred and intolerance whenever and wherever it occurs is my way of honoring their memory and the collective memory of the six million Jews who were singled out for extermination by the Nazis simply because they were Jewish. 

I take heart and heed the words of noted Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer and will not be a victim, never a perpetrator, but above all, I will never be a bystander.

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. Her essay, At the Country Club with Superman, was published by The Jewish Writing Project in July 2022.

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Bubbe and Zayde Take Me to the Ice Capades

by Judith Sanders (Pittsburgh, PA)

On their Bronx subway platform,

they hold my hands.

She with her hatpin and cloth coat.  

He in a button-down and tie clip, 

worn for this holiday 

from cashiering at a newsstand.

We wait for the train to Manhattan,

where they never go, except today, 

for me, their scrubbed, chubby grandchild, 

who can’t speak their language

and has her own room.  

She was never yanked from school. 

Would never know, God willing, 

the soldiers, the nightmare of ripping 

and smashing, the mother’s screams.  

My parents don’t care about the Ice Capades, 

the ladies in sequins, twirled by men in tights. 

They are going to the symphony.  

Bubbe and Zayde guard me, one on each side, 

from the clatter of the oncoming train.

They do not ask why I want to go 

to the Ice Capades, when my whole life 

is one glide down smooth ice, an escapade, 

a frolic.

Judith Sanders’ poetry collection In Deep was recently published by Kelsay Books.  Her work appears in numerous journals, including Pleiades, The American Scholar, Modern Language Studies, Der Pakn Treger, and Poetica, and on the websites Vox Populi and Full Grown People.  She lives with her family in Pittsburgh.

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Memories of My Grandmother Adele

by Christopher Bailey (Geneva, Switzerland)

For two summers I lived in San Francisco with my Grandmother Adele while I was with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.  

Over the meals the two of us shared together, my grandmother often talked about what lore she could remember about the Jewish village in Romania where she was born, or at least the stories told to her, (she couldn’t remember the name of the village), her passage as a little girl in steerage with her sister and their mother to the United States, and their hard life living in tenement housing on the Lower East Side of New York, sharing an apartment and one bathroom with three other families.  

Her last name was Itzkowitz, not her given name, but the name the clerk at Ellis Island gave the entire boatload of Jews as he could not understand Yiddish.  But even seventy years later, my grandmother would tell me how her mother would take her and her sister Tillie up on deck twice a day from the hold for air—women and children were allowed this luxury—and how above them the ‘white people’ (she described their 1908 clothing as white dresses and jackets, like angels…)  would stand on the balcony looking down at them in pity, and toss leftover items from their breakfast to the hungry steerage passengers below.  Her mother would try and catch what she could to give to her young daughters. 

Once she caught an orange for my grandmother.  As she described the sensation a lifetime later, my grandmother told me she had never even seen an orange before and did not know how to eat it.  But it looked like sunshine.  When her mother helped her peel it, she could smell the anticipated taste from the spray of citrus oil released from the torn peel, and her ancient face lit up with the retelling.  

As she described taking her first bite, and feeling the sweet summery juice explode in her mouth and comfort her insides, she exclaimed as if again experiencing it for the very first time, “It was like tasting sunshine…”

Life was not easy on Essex Street.  The women from the earliest ages worked in the garment industry. Her father, who eventually joined them, could not find a job.  She remembers him sitting in a corner, holding up his Yiddish newspaper, looking for news of home, and trying to block out the chaos of the families beyond the wall of his newsprint paper, all the while holding in his regret and anger and sorrow for leaving Romania, anger which planted the seed of the colon cancer which soon would take his life, the same cancer that very nearly took mine a century later.  

My grandmother also described her ‘pet,’ a mouse in the tenement, which she slowly taught to trust her by saving scraps of food furtively stolen from the dinner table and laying them out for the mouse, a little nearer her little hand every day, until the mouse learned to eat right out of her hand, its tiny lungs and heart beating in double time in her tiny palm.  

Eventually, after growing up in the sweatshops, and as a young woman joining the labor movement, she eventually left New York with my drunken hard scrabbling grandfather for California, because in her words, “It’s where oranges come from.” 

Gabriel, my son, last year did a little ancestry research and actually found the village where my grandmother was born, a place called Lasi.  As he read up on it, he discovered that it was the site of the most systematic slaughter of Jews in Romania during the Holocaust.  As far as we know today, only those members of my family that took the boat survived.  

When my grandmother died some years ago, my father and his brother went to clean out the house.  I asked him months later where he kept the boxes of letters and journals she had shown me in her basement.  I mentioned it too late.  He had thrown everything out.  

That Thanksgiving, when he told me that he had emptied the house and kept nothing, I told him some of the stories that his mother had told me.  He knew nothing of them.  As I told them, I felt a chill coming over me as the realization began to sink in. My memories of those conversations were all that was left of that world. 

Christopher Bailey was educated at Columbia and Oxford Universities, as well as at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After a career as a professional actor and playwright, he is now the Arts and Health Lead at the World Health Organization, where he co-founded the Healing Arts Initiative, which looks at the evidence for the health benefits of the arts. As an ambassador for the field, he has performed original pieces such as Stage 4: Global Stories on Empathy and Health, and The Vanishing Point: A journey into Blindness and Perception, in venues around the world, hoping to spread the WHO’s definition of health as not merely the absence of disease and infirmity, but rather the attainment of the highest level of physical, mental and social wellbeing. To view some of his work, visit: The Vanishing Point and Chris Bailey at The Met in NYC

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Afternoon at the Holocaust Museum (from a dream)

by Annette Friend (Del Mar, CA)

There you were Mom and Pop,
middle-aged, well-dressed,
on a bustling afternoon
in the Holocaust Museum.
So odd, since I’ve rarely seen you
appearing so alive
since you’ve both died.

I was so enchanted seeing you again,
I barely thought of context at first,
you both docents on display at this exhibit.
I think you were excited to see me
although you were quite preoccupied
showing spectators around
the Jewish apartment in Berlin containing
the average artifacts that fill all our lives,
except these rooms were turned to rubble,
up-ended couches, dishes smashed,
curtains slashed, lives ripped apart
at the seams, by black-booted beasts
on a sunny April afternoon in 1939.

You both smiled seraphic
at the rapt crowd,
radiant as angels,
which maybe you were,
as if, finally, you both were detached
enough from the horror,
even as memories
encroached on all sides.

Maybe you’ve embraced all the relatives,
friends, whose lives were leveled
years ago at vicious hands of Nazi brutes.
Has that holy reunion given you a type
of peace to be able to tour
through the past without shattering
into shreds?

Or perhaps God in His inimitable wisdom
sat down with you both on His white mantel of clouds,
patiently gave you His explanation for His silence,
willingness to wait out the Atrocity
while sitting on His hands.

Perhaps that explanation is enough,
if only in the afterlife.                                                            

Annette Friend, a retired occupational therapist and elementary school teacher, taught both Hebrew and Judaica to a wide range of students. In 2008, she was honored as the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Jewish Educator of the Year from San Diego. Her work has been published in The California Quarterly, Tidepools, Summation, and The San Diego Poetry Annual.

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Erratics

by Anne Myles (Greensboro, NC)

—Spirit Mound Historic Prairie, October 27, 2018

In 1804, Lewis and Clark trudged sweltering

up Paha Wakan, supposed by all to be a place of Deavels—

but found just birds and insects, herds of buffalo below.

As I approach it now—singular upheaval

on an island of east Dakota prairie—

I check my phone by habit, read the news:

eleven Jews just massacred in Pittsburgh. 

On the trail to the summit I see a boulder

of tombstone-gray granite.

A sign explains it as a glacial erratic:

a rock unlike those native to the region,

carried by the force of moving ice,

scoured and thrust for hundreds of miles perhaps.

Erratic from errare, to wander.

It reminds me of the long migrations of my people—

what drove us to places we could not imagine,

to places we believed we knew.

And I ponder this life in which I left New York 

to end up a dweller in the strange Midwest,

imagining the word my grandfather called my mother,

Yevreika—Jew-girl—rolling across the generations.

My country lies spread before me.

From the top we beheld a most butifull landscape—

which I gaze on to the horizon, wondering

how much blood has watered the fields I see

to feed the prairie grasses that rustle now

as a pheasant startles up within them

and rockets sideways into sun and wind.

Anne Myles’s work has appeared in On the Seawall, North American Review, Split Rock Review, Whale Road Review, Lavender Review, and other journals. A recent transplant from Iowa to Greensboro, NC, she is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Northern Iowa, and received her MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has been nominated for a Pushcart and was co-winner of the 2022 ellipsis… Award, judged by Carolyn Forché.

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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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The Ladies of the Monday Night Club

by Madlynn Haber (Northampton, MA)

When the Ladies of the Monday Night Club

met in our living room, I helped my grandmother

put chocolate candies out in crystal dishes.

I sat on the floor by the swinging door

watching the ladies who smelled like flowers.

They took their seats around the room

talking in loud accented voices.

Some were called by their last names,

no Miss or Mrs., they were just

Homnick, Goldman, and Levine.

Some called by their Yiddish names,

Manya and Malka, and some by their modern

American names like my grandmother, Ruth.

Their laughter and chatting was hushed

by a leader when the meeting’s rituals began.

The one I most remember was the collection

of money for Tzedakah, for charitable causes.

Each woman in turn rose, walked to a basket

making her donation, her addition to the kitty

in the name of an honor or blessing in her life.

A grandchild’s graduation. A daughter’s pregnancy.

A husband’s promotion. I listened to discover

if my latest report card would earn me a mention

when my grandmother took her turn.

After the sharing, there was a card game

and home-baked apple cake and coffee

The Monday Night Club Ladies, always on hand

for celebrations, came out in full force

for my grandmother’s seventieth birthday.

There were less at her eightieth and only a few

when she turned ninety. By then, the meetings

had been moved to Monday afternoons

and I had grown-up and moved away.

I hold cherished memories of sounds, smells,

and stories, I recall from my spot on the floor

when the Ladies of the Monday Night Club met.

I inherited my grandmother’s membership pin,

a fondness for women’s groups, her recipe

for apple cake, and a commitment to making

donations when good fortune comes my way.

____

Madlynn Haber lives with her dog, Ozzie, in a cohousing community in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her work has been published in the anthologyAdult Children (Wishing Up Press, 2021), Buddhist Poetry Review, Dissonance Magazine, K’in Literary Journal, Hevria, The Jewish Writing Project, Muddy River Poetry Review, Poetica Magazine and other journals. Visit her online at www.madlynnwrites.com

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