Category Archives: Jewish writing

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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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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The Blue Mikvah

by Edna Shochat (Boise, ID)

To each his Temple.

My house of worship was established years ago

for young men, Christian.

Today YMCA is simply “The Y”.

Why? Because now everyone is welcome

regardless of age, gender, or faith.

Neither young nor male,

Jewish by birth and atheist by choice,

I attend, religiously, a daily ritual in the pool.

Like joining a Minyan

gathering for morning prayer at the Shul

I dip into the blue mikvah

and under watchful eyes of young lifeguards

swim like a gray-haired mermaid

counting my blessings.

Edna Shochat was born in British Mandate Palestine and grew up in Israel, leaving for the United States to follow career opportunities. Four years ago she and her husband followed their grandkids to Idaho. She discovered poetry at a Writing Through Cancer program while undergoing chemotherapy in 2011, and joined the YMCA to help her recovery. She continues to write poetry “to help carry her on the journey we all share, of aging.

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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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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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