After school refuge – 1963

by Annette Friend (Del Mar, CA)

Leaving behind
the petty fights and fires
taunts and turmoil
of 7th grade in Newark, N.J.
I’d set my walking compass
to Linda Telesco’s house.

A large oak towered over
the rickety porch, roots
eating into the sidewalk.
Furniture too large for the living room.
A gold brocade couch covered in plastic.
Jesus hung from a cross
directly over a scratched dining table.

We were best friends.
Craved the same crazy TV shows.
Reading was the outer limits of joy.
Gossiped about boys whose hair
seemed to grow longer each day,
and our teacher Mr. Ransom
who sneered at our grim pronunciation
of his beloved French.

I was only a generation from my parents’
Yiddish accents, wallet was “Vallet”
Vacuum cleaner, “wacuum cleaner”
Linda still salty sweet
from the oceans her parents
crossed from Sicily
before World War II.

We pulled out the Ouji board
clandestine in her closet
to connect to the spirit world.
Mainly the actors from our favorite
TV show “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

Her crush the exotic Ilya Kuriakin.
Mine the suave Napoleon Solo.
The pointer would glide
letter to letter guided by our fingers
or perhaps the spirits
while we inquired about their favorite colors
flavors of ice cream
when and where we could possibly meet.

Sometimes she’d cry afterwards
as she stared at Jesus on the cross.
Scared she was doomed to the fires of Hell
because she contacted spirits
and liked boys way too much.

I never wanted to go home
where the fires from the Holocaust
still burned every night in my parents’ eyes.                   

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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Shevat—the month that makes my soul ache

by Carol J. Wechsler Blatter (Tucson AZ)

Shevat, it’s the month that makes my soul ache, my heart hurt. It’s a cruel month, usually cold and bleak, sometimes damp and dark. Rarely do the rays of sun seep through my windows and lift my spirits. It’s during this month that I light three yahrzeit candles–one candle on 2 Shevat for my mother, one on 9 Shevat for my sister, and one on 13 Shevat for my father.

***
It was on January 16, 1965 that my mother, sister, aunt, uncle, and I were present at the burial of my father, Albert, in the oldest Jewish cemetery in Middlesex County, NJ, Mount Lebanon. It was a frigid, snow-covered Sunday morning in central New Jersey. Rabbi Yakov Hilsenrath (of blessed memory) gave a very brief eulogy. Over my down winter coat he pinned a black ribbon cut to simulate the physical act of death ripping me apart from my father who, from that time forward, would only be in my memory.

I remember how bleak and alone I felt losing my father. I was only twenty-two years of age. I was angry. I felt cheated at not having a father. Even when my father was alive, he worked so much to provide for us that I had very little time with him. He had grown up with minimal emotional support, love, and self-esteem, and as a result he was unable to be supportive and complimentary. He was an expert in delivering put-downs. Yet once he was gone, I imagined that if he had lived longer, things would have been different between us. How could I have fooled myself into believing he would have changed his ways and been more fatherly to me? Yet, despite his flaws, I still miss him. After all, he fathered me and, in his own way, he loved me.

***
It was on January 2, 1986, twenty-one years later, that my husband, my sister, my brother-in-law, my brother-in-law’s mother, and I were present at the burial of my mother, Bertha, in Indianapolis. Rabbi Dennis Sasso spoke about my mother and described her as a powerful, intense, and passionate woman filled with love for her family and her heritage. “You could agree or disagree with Bertha,” said Rabbi Sasso, “but you could never be indifferent to her.” I was forty-three.

Unlike my father, my mother supported, nurtured, and loved me. She was always my cheerleader and made certain that I had every possible opportunity to be successful. It was a shock when she died to find that she was no longer at my side. It was very hard to let her go.  

***

And it was on January 14, 2019 that I lost my sister, my life-long friend, who died unexpectedly of a catastrophic brain hemorrhage. Although we had a minyan prayer service in her memory in our home in Tucson with our rabbi and many congregants, we were unable to attend the service and burial in New York. I never had the opportunity to say goodbye to my sister. I never had the opportunity to put shovelfuls of dirt over her coffin. I never had the opportunity to sit shiva with other family members. This has left an emotional gap in my life and an unfillable hole. There is one thing I do, though. I keep on my bed a tiny green velvet embroidered pillow which she gave me which says, Sisters Are Special.

***
As long as I can remember I have sensed God’s presence, as a supreme being who governs my life in unexplainable and unknowable ways. It’s as if God beams a light leading me to insight so I can glean what had been until that moment unseeable and unforeseeable. I feel that God is — and will always be — my protector.

But is this the same God who allows death? How can I praise God, I ask myself as I recite the mourner’s Kaddish prayer with a broken heart? And I tell myself it’s because I also believe that God is not all-powerful. God cannot prevent death. This is not God’s job. Death is not about blame. Death is what death is. It is my job to accept death.

***
The Kaddish prayer is always said in the presence of ten adults, a minyan, and a community of worshipers. As part of a minyan for eleven months after the death of each of my parents and my sister, I reaffirmed and praised God’s presence in unison with other mourners.

Healing took place slowly.

Day by day.

***

Now I’m seventy-nine years of age. I am acutely aware that my time on earth is limited. I am here only for an extended visit. Some day I know I will die. So I am trying to make each day count. I am trying to be fully present, especially when I arise at all services, on Shabbat, and on holidays, and say my prayer:

I give thanks before you, O God living and eternal, for You have returned within me my soul with compassion; abundant is your faithfulness!

_____

Carol J. Wechsler Blatter is a recently retired psychotherapist in private practice. She has contributed writings to Chaleur Press, Story Circle Network Journal, and One Woman’s Day; stories in Writing it Real anthologies, Mishearing: Miseries, Mysteries, and Misbehaviors, Pleasure Taken In Our Dreams, Small Things, & Conversations,The Jewish Writing Project, and in 101words.org; and poems in Story Circle Network’s Real Women Write, Growing/ Older, and Covenant of the Generations by Women of Reform Judaism She is a wife, mother, and grandmother of her very special granddaughter who already writes her own stories. 

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A Brief History Of One Jew

by Gerard Sarnat (Portola Valley, CA)

15 years ago, we flew south to be around during our 1st grandchild’s birth, then stayed a decade which included our eldest’s #2.

5 years ago, my wife and I returned home up north that night #4, of eventually 6 grandsons, arrived at a nearby hospital.

Every Friday, when both family tree branches are in town, as well as friends, we now gather at our younger daughter’s welcoming house for Shabbos.

Although meditation may offer inklings or glimmers of some higher spirit, I am a hand-me-down true-blue once-hostile Stanford community atheist.

But since others seem at least sorta believers, it’s become much easier to hospitably sit back eyes closed while enjoying my Israeli son-in-law’s gorgeous chanting.

Perhaps particularly since those Hebrew words oy remain absolutely Greek to me. Plus who could ever get enough of multi-millennial traditions 

Such as three generations lighting candles, drinking from the grape, breaking bread, drumming together on this week’s most festive well-appointed table?

Gerard Sarnat won San Francisco Poetry’s 2020 Contest, the Poetry in the Arts First Place Award, plus the Dorfman Prize, and has been nominated for handfuls of 2021 and previous Pushcarts plus Best of the Net Awards. Gerry’s work has appeared in numerous journals and publications, including Hong Kong Review, Tokyo Poetry Journal, Buddhist Poetry Review, Northampton Review, Texas Review, Vonnegut Journal, Brooklyn Review, San Francisco Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, and The New York Times, as well as in books published by university presses such as Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, and University of Chicago. He’s authored the collections Homeless Chronicles, Disputes, 17s, and Melting the Ice King. Gerry is a Harvard-trained physician who’s built and staffed clinics for the marginalized, as well as a Stanford professor and healthcare CEO. Currently he is devoting his energy and resources to deal with climate justice, and serves on Climate Action Now’s board. Gerry’s been married since 1969 with three kids plus six grandsons, and is looking forward to potential future granddaughters. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit his website: gerardsarnat.com

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The Imperative of Remembrance

by Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner (New York, NY)

This piece is dedicated to the six million Jews and other innocent victims who perished in the Holocaust and to the beloved families left behind.

Years ago, after visiting my family in Israel, I stopped for several hours in Berlin before a connecting flight back home to the U.S.A. I shall never forget the overwhelming feelings of dread I had when I saw the building that once was the headquarters of Hitler’s Nazi regime. The thought that here I was, standing on the soil where the Final Solution was planned to murder six million Jews and other innocent victims, filled me with anguish. I wept. I could not wait to leave the country and vowed that I would never set foot on German soil again.

Several years after my stop in Berlin, a friend and her husband in Israel called, asking me to join them on an organized tour from Israel to Germany. Initially, I declined the invitation. The thought of being in Germany again made me uneasy. As a child, I had lived through the pain of prejudice and persecution just for being Jewish. I remembered the beatings and every syllable of slurs, a traumatic experience that has been like a shadow accompanying me throughout my life. 

Also, my late husband was a Holocaust survivor. Except for one brother, the rest of his family were all killed in the Holocaust. The atrocities inflicted on him during the years he spent in several labor camps left psychic scars with which he wrestled the rest of his life. The trauma became a silent phantom; during the day, painful memories were locked away, but at night, when the repressed pain became too much to bear, it burdened his dreams with nightmares, awakening him from a storm of grief, as he called out the names of his perished loved ones.  Witnessing his suffering from a wound that would never heal was painful. Many times he expressed the wish that one day he would visit Dachau, the concentration camp from which he was liberated. 

Like other survivors he journeyed from darkness to light, striving toward the birth of a new life. We built a family with two wonderful children, and he lived to enjoy our first three precious grandchildren. Like other survivors, the love and pride he took in his children were deep and truly meaningful. Often, my husband would say: “The revenge is to live a successful, meaningful life.” At the age of 93 after a long illness, Samuel Holzkenner (z’l) passed away. His wish to visit Dachau remained unfulfilled.

So, the question of whether to join my friends in Germany rattled around in my head for weeks.  After some deliberation, I contacted the administrative office in Dachau. Initially I was told they had no record of a Mr. Holzkenner. But after much correspondence, I finally received an email saying that they had found several documents about my late husband. This information was pivotal in helping deal with my emotional turmoil.

I wanted very much to fulfill my husband’s wish to visit Dachau, and I needed that to happen before memory deserted me, before age took me down. Also, I wanted to impart to my children and grandchildren the beauty and tenacity of their Jewish heritage. But being in a country where my people had been systematically annihilated filled me with anxiety, anger, and fears.  My grandfather’s words of wisdom came to mind: “Hate is the seed of evil that tarnishes the soul, while finding creative ways to no longer be a victim is self-healing.” His words inspired me to look into unresolved fears from my past traumatic experiences with prejudice and how they continued coloring my present life.  I realized that I had to cultivate a healthier perspective of life. I said to myself, healing only comes through learning to forgive and making peace with the past, and if a lesson is to be learned, one must never forget.

Yes, I thought, why should the good-hearted young German generation be judged by the sins of their fathers or grandfathers? This rekindled awareness imbued me with the strength to join my friends, tour the country, and visit several Jewish historical sites. And on the day my friends returned home, I took the early train to Munich, arriving in the late afternoon.  I spent a sleepless night in a hotel. In the still of the night, I cried and awakened. The first crimson hues of dawn brought the promise of a new day, a new hope. Early the next morningI took the train to Dachau.

In this cataclysmic landscape, I walked with apprehensive steps over the gravel walkway, thinking this is the same path where prisoners in a human chain of misery were forced to walk as they were brought into the camp to meet their demise. The path led toward the main original gate with its motto in German, “Work Sets You Free.”  I saw a variety of people of all ages strolling in groups in solemn silence. Everything seemed eerie at this site that was once a killing field. I felt the ashes of the perished ones still permeating the airI exhaled a long sigh.

As I had been directed, I went straight to the administrative office that preserved the legacy of the victims. The staff there welcomed me warmly. One administrator guided me to a room and we sat down. He asked me several questions to verify who I was before getting up to go to the archive room. When he came back, he provided me with my husband’s background information – his birthplace, date of birth, a list of names of people who were deported with him on the same train, the names of the camps he was in before Dachau—and the identification card Jews had to carry with them at all times. He gave me copies of all the documents.

I felt overwhelmed with sadness and pain at the images this information conjured up in my mind, imagining my husband and others taken from their homes, their families left behind in anguish and fears, the cries of loved ones being separated from loved ones, and the horror that awaited them all. I felt a lump in my throat and tears sprang from my eyes. When I lifted my gaze to the man in front of me, his eyes seemed rimmed with red, as though he was holding back his tears.

He got up and showed me around the place. There was a room where paintings of survivors were displayed, a library, and a big archive room that contained films, relics, photos, written documents about the history of what happened in the camp, eye-witness reports, personal narratives of survivors, and scholarly work. I was filled with a sense of gratitude and extended my thanks to all those involved in maintaining this place as a reminder of history, and as a resource for people like myself who wanted to research and learn about their loved ones’ experiences of the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany. I left the office knowing that the people here were on the right side of history.

I walked along the Path of Remembrance, viewing several Jewish memorial halls and monuments, all of which commemorated the sanctity of those who had perished and solemnly honored the loved ones who survived.  A Jewish menorah on the wall displayed the words “Never Again.” Another memorial sculpture in the yard symbolized the emaciated bodies of the prisoners dangling down; underneath was a placard indicating the dates 1933-1945, the years the camp was in use. Also, there was a big sculpture of a menorah and a lectern engraved with the word “Yizkor,” Hebrew for “to remember”; a museum; and other memorial sites to commemorate non-Jews.  Utterly chilling were the barracks, the gas chamber, and the crematorium building, all too painful to describe. 

As I moved around, I was consumed with grief. How could such a highly cultured nation as Germany descend into such unfathomable depths of barbarism?  The question remained beyond my comprehension. I wanted to be alone in some corner, mourning the martyrs in silence. I asked myself, how does one mourn for six million Jews and all the other innocent victims who perished. What prayer shall I recite?  I shut my eyes and bowed my head low, and cried for the suffering of humanity as I recited a prayer: “May the souls of the six million Jews, and the millions of others who were victims of Nazi persecution, rest in peace, and their sacred memory last forever and ever. Amen.”

When I opened my eyes, tears still dropping down my face, my heart filled with sadness, I was awake, yet felt physically transported to another time and place, I wished that by some miracle I had been disguised as an invisible eagle, with strong wings that soared over the regions of the world in turmoil, to redirect the tide of history. 

I wished that I had been there with the innocent victims yearning to live and be free, to hold their hands as my grandfather held mine once, walking together to the synagogue on Shabbat or the holidays, or to sing to them the first song my mother had sung to me to soothe my fears before bed. Or, that under my wings of love, I could have been their mother, or sister, and together we could have prayed to change the course of the trains and every road that led to their impending doom, and take them to the city of their ancestors that stands on the hill in the Promised Land. Out from the rhythm of my imagination: somehow, I heard voices, I knew they came from a nation in anguish of grief in a prayer asking: “Please, please, never, never again.”

On my way back home, I looked at the gravel paths. Among the stones are the ashes of cremated corpses of which I felt I was a part. Their infinite and indestructible souls are beyond the celestial heavens gazing at us here on earth, reminding us that wherever they are, they will always be part of us, for in the chain of life by many threads we were, we are, and we will always be interconnected, between the land of the dead and the world of the living, ancestors and descendants united. And yes, we must preserve the collective memory and keep truth alive so that these atrocities do not happen again, toward anyone regardless of age, gender, race, color, religion, or creed. 

I looked back one more time. I said to myself, I shall continue to mourn the annihilation of the innocents. And yes, I shall never forget. But I am also thankful for the miracle of survival and for the tremendous power of the human spirit to triumph over the extremes of evil. For I know that these monuments are a precious legacy, commemorating all the victims who perished in the Shoah, a symbol of human tragedy. 

Before reaching the main street, I picked up a stone as big as a coin cut from the evil of time past, a silent witness. I can’t see it, but I know it is there: engraved on it the word Zachor (remember). The clouds moved in wandering shadows, mirroring my emotions — intense and painful in a complex way. Everything here was, is, and will for eternity remain touched by solemnity and sorrow and tears.  Under my breath I said, Hitler did not win; here I am walking out of here as a free Jew, a testament that the Stars of David are not all burned out or destroyed; we still live and shine among the nations of the world. 

Just as I was leaving the camp, I met a group of non-Jewish German boys and girls, high school students with their teacher who — from what I could ascertain — was explaining the history of the camp. I was interested to find out what emotions this place stirred in them, so I approached the group and asked in the few words of German I knew, “Do you speak French or English?” The teacher answered, “Yes, I speak English and some students do as well.” I asked, “How do you feel being here?” One of them responded by asking me, “Why are you here?” I told them that my late husband was liberated in this camp, and briefly related my early childhood experiences of persecution. 

They were curious and articulate, not shy to ask their own questions. I encouraged their curiosity and answered as best I could. The students told me that they were here as part of their school curriculum that prescribed over 14 hours of instruction in National Socialism of WW II, as well as learning about the Holocaust, including a visit to a concentration camp. They also mentioned that they’d seen Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. Some expressed a wish for sympathy for their grandparents’ generation and resented being defined by their grandparents’ genocidal history. The past, they said, had so little connection with their immediate lives; they were no longer willing to bear the weight of historical wrongs. Others maintained that the past was still part of their psyche as they continued to struggle with their ethnic inheritance and national collective guilt, trying to make things right with the world. 

After this emotional discourse, we concurred that each generation must create a new culture of its own humanity by playing a unique role in the moral conscience of the world. Inhuman behavior toward any race, gender, age, creed, color, or religion is simply not acceptable. Every individual must seek insight in order to separate darkness from light, for if we are indifferent to the plight of others’ humanity, we will be neglecting the future and risk repeating the past. Moreover, we must be aware of the importance of participating in whatever minuscule manner we can to build a safe, more humane world. In Hebrew, I told the teens, we say, “Tikkun Olam” — a phrase describing the effort to repair the world. Two of the teens broke down in tears, as did I. In their words, I heard remorse and sadness; in their eyes, I saw hope. 

Among the swirling clouds I thought heard words wrapped in a celestial rhapsody. 

I looked up into the vast sphere, and smiled. I want to believe it was Samuel Holzkenner (z’l), smiling back from above, whispering, “Yes, may the seeds of hope give humankind strength and love to teach them more.”

 Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner is a psychoanalyst and family therapist with extensive clinical experience in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, early childhood development, and couples and family therapy. Born in Morocco, she lived briefly in France and Israel, and has resided in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan for the past 56 years. 

Her poem, “Hidden Identities in Transition,” inspired by the Jews of Belmonte, Portugal, and an essay, “When Understanding Comes,” both appeared in The Jewish Writing Project, and her poems and prose have appeared in such publications as Reflections in Poetry and Prose 2015, HaLapid, Chelsea Now, Chelsea Community News, the Israeli Birding Portal (in both English and Hebrew), and, most recently, she was profiled on Senior Planet- “Poetry, Power and Perseverance.”  Her photographs have appeared in Dance Studio Life, the Audubon Society Newsletter, and Persimmon Tree, as well in a traveling exhibition on the life of Bayard Rustin.

She has two children, and  five grandchildren, for whom she writes storybooks and poetry. 

 

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Elegy for a Man I Hardly Knew

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

I had met him just once

a week before his sudden death.

I hardly knew him at all,

an afternoon’s conversation, 

no more.

We had spoken for hours,

and I felt there was a connection,

saw him as a possible new friend.

(You know now difficult it is for older

men like me to make new friends.)

So, even though I barely knew him,

his sudden death shocked me, and

I felt compelled to attend his funeral

where I heard the usual — the 23rd Psalm, 

“turn, turn, turn,” and a few desultory speeches

—ending with the Mourner’s Kaddish.

His life was described in twenty minutes.

Surely, a human being rates more time.

Surely, there is more to be said about a life.

Was his soul in a hurry to get to heaven?

Did the rabbi want to prevent excessive 

crying over the casket?

If the soul hovers at the grave site, as rabbis 

say, waiting to hear words of praise, words of 

sorrow, before making its journey to higher realms,

then perhaps I could see the need for such urgency.

But maybe I was being momentarily insensitive

taking notes in effect for my own demise, not

understanding why the funeral was so truncated,

or why my friend’s soul wasn’t allowed a final communion

with all the mourners at the place of his eternal rest.

Shouldn’t all souls be granted this indulgence?

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 truth is not always easy to find: discovering my family’s Jewish roots

by Cathy A. Lewis (Nashville, Tennessee)

In 1963, my thirteen-year-old brother Jeffrey left our home in Pittsford, New York, to travel by plane to Mexico.  I had no inkling he’d return to us changed after spending six weeks there.

My mom’s family lived in Mexico City, which was beyond my comprehension at age six. While I was growing up, there was always a shroud of mystery around Mom and her familial origins.

Mom would tell me, “I’m not Latin, nor is our family. Circumstances caused me to be born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, while my brothers and sisters were born in Lima, Peru.”

My parents met in Colon, Panama, where Dad was stationed during WWII. Mom worked on the US army base as a translator. Their worlds collided, and it was kismet. They married six months later. I wondered at the brevity of their relationship. Mom would explain, “Back then, you didn’t waste any time. You never knew from one day to the next whether or not the world would implode.”

It was a year after Jeffrey returned from Mexico when my sister, at age ten, two years my senior, broke the news to me. She said as a matter of fact, “Jeff Lewis is Jewish.”

Puzzled, I asked, “What? What is Jewish?”

At that point, Mom sat me down and explained that my grandparents, who were named Silverstone and had changed the name from Zilberstein, were Jewish. “So that makes me Jewish, and my children Jewish. You are Jewish.”

My brain felt like it could burst by the sheer force of questions popping into my prefrontal cortex. One question dominated all others. “But how did your parents get to Mexico?”

Exasperated by my barrage of questions, Mom answered, “They had to leave South America due to the economic issues plaguing that country. Mexico at that time seemed like a land of opportunity. Plus, there was an already established sizable Jewish community.”

I still had questions. The thing about my mother, though, was once she finished discussing a subject, that was it. No further interrogations could continue. Much of my childhood was like that—no resolution to my unending queries.

In eighth grade, a history project was assigned. We were told to pick a country we’d like to live and work in. Much to Mom’s chagrin, I proclaimed, “My project will be about Israel and a kibbutz!”

My father became involved in my research, helping me put historical events in chronological order. I read an article Dad gave me about David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and the founding of Israel. It inspired me even further to communicate the empowering story of survival and conviction. 

My project was one of three picked to present at a school event, with parents invited to attend. At the end of my presentation, I concluded that “Moving to Israel was on my radar, and kibbutz living was the life for me!” With my parents sitting in the audience, I saw the color drain from my mother’s face.

On the ride home, Mom explained how she came to the US in 1944 after marrying my dad. She faced so much anti-Semitism. Mom had a great desire to protect her children from the hatred she experienced. As it turns out, my mom’s parents had fled Baranovichi, Poland (now Belarus) when WWI ended, to start a new life in Buenos Aires after marrying.  The Nazis murdered their extended family members who had stayed behind. 

Many years later, after Mom passed, I completed an ancestry search and found out that Mom’s family all had come from Israel at the start of the first century, fleeing to Eastern Europe after the Romans conquered Jerusalem, Israel. 

Now I embrace my birthright with pride and joy. Through my newfound connection to Judaism, I’ve formed a meaningful relationship with my Creator. And I’ve found while researching my genealogy over 100 relatives living in Tel Aviv, all Orthodox Jews. I’ve also connected with my cousins who immigrated to the US from Mexico, some of them Reform Jews, some Orthodox living in Lakewood, NJ. 

They have all welcomed me into the family with a full embrace, disregarding our differences, while focusing on the mutual affection and pleasure we derive from being one big family.

Cathy A. Lewis’ novel, The Road We Took—Four Days in Germany, 1933, is partially based on a true story of her father’s sojourn through Europe as a sixteen-year-old in 1933 and the four days he spent in Germany.  The book’s main objective, she writes, is to honor her relatives and those who perished in the Holocaust and express how quickly hatred can destroy our world. “It is a critical imperative,” Cathy says, “to remember history to ensure such events like the Holocaust never happen again.” To learn more about Cathy and her book, visit: https://cathyalewis.com

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The Word of God

by Eric Gabriel Lehman (New York, NY)

It was another Yom Kippur day a year and a half into the pandemic, and for a second time I davened in my dining area’s pop-up shul within sight of my kitchen sink. I scrolled through the Hebrew prayers on my phone, while up on my laptop the cantor, six-sided Keppel on his head and in sneakers, raised arms to his invisible congregation. Forgive our transgressions and our sins; claim us for Your own. The cantor’s music was no easier to resist than some memorized pop song and I sang along, even if the idea of sinning evoked my cigar-smoking grandfather’s sternness rather than my understanding of atonement as reflection and reconsideration. The day plateaued at the Musaf service, after seventeen or so hours of not eating or drinking, brain soft and eyes blurry in the dreamy afternoon light. Later, the dimming sky mirrored the melancholy of a year turning toward fall as we moved toward Ne’ila, whose final shofar blast would end the day like a mighty period. The ark’s opened curtain bared its theatrical cast of Torah scrolls in their embroidered vestments, each pair of rollers adorned with silver rimonim like jewelry. The chanting of the Thirteen Attributes, a threnody enumerating God’s compassion, mercy and grace, always rose like a collective sigh when sung live in the synagogue; my solitary rendition competed with ambulance sirens and the occasional car alarm, yet each attribute pulled me deeper into Ne’ila’s twilight. By the time we approached the edifice of Avinu Malkeinu, I felt ready to slip out of my body. Our Father, Our King, we have sinned in Your presence. Our Father, Our King, we have no sovereign but You. The prayer’s repetitive drumbeat inched me closer to an abyss, just when the seven repetitions of Adonai is God caught me and the final shofar sounding gathered me in its empyrean updraft. That’s when a familiar voice sounded within, half reminder, half reprimand, all party-pooper: You know you don’t really believe. 

2020’s initial laptop Yom Kippur experience was imbued with a valiant sense of making do and struggling against the odds—so Jewish. The familiar service was invigorated with novelty. This year’s, however, felt resigned. After an optimistic spring, the emergence of the Delta variant prompted my synagogue to cancel in-person services. Online or no, I donned pants and a dress shirt, in addition to tallit and kippah, as I had the year before, and I set my laptop upon a white tablecloth. Yet the forced retreat to the screen dampened my mood and tarnished Yom Kippur’s messages of hope and regeneration. Each freeze and lag reminded me how artificial the set-up was. When those permitted in the sanctuary laughed at the rabbi’s occasional joke, it sounded canned. The day’s cycle of prayers could have been a recording of the previous year’s services and the bima’s varied offerings of music and talk, a taped rehearsal. I began second-guessing my reactions. Would Avinu Malkeinu with its objectionable image of God as a ruler, bring tears? Would chanting the mantra-like Kaddish still connect me with my father, our relationship as problematic as the Kaddish itself, with its inventory of adulation for a God I’d always found hard to acknowledge? The High Holiday’s through-line of God as king/deliverer/judge demanding appeasement before granting life and health for another year felt like something out of a bad relationship: if I do x for you, regardless of how conflicted I am about it, you will love me. Each time I sang out the name of God I felt either hypocritical, sentimental or just plain lazy, performing by rote. Why, I asked myself, Passover’s wicked son, should a non-believer even utter the name of God at all?

My freshman year of college found me laying tefillin and eating on the kosher meal plan. I was pious enough to balk at singing out Jesus’s birth of a virgin in the Catholic Mass the university’s choir was going to perform in a crucifix-equipped church. (I eventually made my peace by humming the offending text.) I spent many Saturday mornings at the local Chabad House, tucked into a cozy building originally a Taco Bell, where I was drawn into the Lubavitcher’s bracing Chassidism, initially unsettling as a guest who’d shown up at the restrained supper of my Conservative Jewish upbringing and got everyone dancing on the table. The English major I was looked forward to the textual analysis of pilpul—as well as the rib-sticking cholent stew—after Shabbos services. Gradually, however, without my knowing why and unable to stop it, God began fading away. The Chabad rebbe’s express-train mumble of davening came to mean less and less. I couldn’t view Torah as holy writ any more than I could Shakespeare, however fascinating. I enjoyed being in a community of Jews, but like children coming to resent a parent’s interference, I questioned whether God had to be there. Complicating all this were the increasingly louder rumblings of a sexuality I knew the Torah condemned. Was I about to go Reform, with its goyish organ music and English prayers, or worse, become that ultimate sell-out, that pale imitation and oxymoron—the secular Jew?

When the Amtrak train taking me back to school—and to Chabad—after winter break slowed to yet another interminable stop in upstate New York, I found myself before a snow-covered field spread like the blank page of a journal awaiting my pen. I didn’t really know it then, but I was on a long and winding road toward claiming a Jewish identity without God. It would mean improvising and reinventing and some stumbling, but Jews had figured out how to remain Jewish without a temple and survived the Spanish Inquisition, hadn’t they? The snow stretched toward a lonely horizon line; I would miss Chabad House’s rowdy little stetl across from campus, cholent and all. The train’s sudden jostle into motion registered surprise at my conclusion. I had been brought up to believe in the evils of intermarriage and the ultimate sin of conversion, which my eight-year-old self once envisioned as lifelong exile from our apartment into the drafty, grimy hallway of our building in the Bronx. Yet even cast out into the cold, the air would be the same, I reasoned; I would keep on breathing. Even more surprising than this conclusion was how obvious it was. I wouldn’t experience anything as exhilarating yet straightforward until I came out.

Years later, beside him during an Orthodox High Holiday service after my mother died, my father commented that he never once heard me praying, even though he knew I read Hebrew. His was scanty; he depended on me to speak to God for the both of us. But I refused, determined to remain true to my Amtrak revelation. I should have realized that hearing the prayers out of my mouth might have soothed not hearing his wife’s voice from the other side of the mechitza, where she’d always sat. So there we were, two Jews stranded on islands of stubbornness and sadness, close enough to hear each other’s silence amidst so many full-throated affirmations of a God my father and I couldn’t or wouldn’t address, respectively.

This Yom Kippur, God’s name sounded especially distant through my laptop’s speaker. An all-powerful being able to create or destroy at will, unbeholden to any principle of justice other than its own, seemed unfathomable, even cruel, in the age of COVID. Such a God, supremely untouched by day-to-day turmoil, a remote, disinterested party, the very definition of a stranger, seemed unworthy of Yom Kippur’s abundant praise. Jonah’s story, read that afternoon, came across as an object lesson in the arbitrary nature of divine intervention, by turns micromanaging or else absent when needed. Such a mercurial, prissy God dipped no more than a toe into the messy world he was credited with creating, if systemic racism, climate catastrophe and imperiled democracy worldwide—for starters—were any indications. Like those able to retreat from COVID-plagued cities, he skipped town. 

The concluding prayers, with their many references to the book of life closing and the gates of heaven shutting, lent the gloaming of this past Yom Kippur a particularly end-of-time, Götterdämmerung feel. The yahrzeit candles lit for my parents had already burned low, the sounds of traffic out my window sank to a hush and the cantor’s voice sounded roughened by thirst. As the time for Avinu Malkeinu and the seven repetitions of Adonai is God approached, an ecstatic yearning I recognized from sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat chanting the Gayatri mantra or some other trayf snippet of Hindu spiritual embroidery overcame me. This troubled year, however, my mood gave me pause. Once, fearful of blasphemy, I resisted evoking the name of Jesus in the Mass, whose Latin I understood, but could I utter the name of God with a full heart in another language I knew if I didn’t really believe?

There in my dining area, body and mind—and for all I knew, soul—fragile and bowed beneath the full weight of the past eighteen months, I did what I hadn’t done in that Riverdale shul beside my father: utter the name of God. The God I named was no omnipotent force or intercessionist agent but what Sufis refer to as The One, the perfection of love, the embodiment of wisdom and compassion I might also embody. Such a name was shorthand for the divine in all of us; those Thirteen Attributes were our birthright, after all. The name of God I repeated seven times in a hoarse voice acknowledged the ineffable in lives often too encumbered and limited by what we are so sure we understand, sometimes to catastrophically shortsighted effect. I let myself tear up singing the Avineu Malkeinu loud enough to drown out my neighbor’s barking dog, part catharsis, part resolve. I will do better. We must do better. Then I recited the Kaddish’s many praises of God not only for my parents and grandparents and two cousins and a friend and someone from work but for my world in mourning, in pain, and sorely in need of healing.    

Eric Gabriel Lehman has published novels, short stories, and essays. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Brooklyn Rail, Raritan, and elsewhere. He teaches at Queens College/CUNY in New York, where he lives. You can find him online at Twitter (@eglehman1) and can reach him via email: Eric.Lehman@qc.cuny.edu

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When I Think About Prayer

by Rachel R. Baum (Saratoga Springs, NY)

We did not belong to the synagogue my grandparents attended

On the High Holy Days I stood next to my father

Surrounded by anonymity in dark suits

He mumbled the Hebrew fussed with the slippery borrowed tallis

As I followed the dots and lines of text with my finger

My father elbowed me “Look at that” he stage whispered

A diamond ring my sister would call a third eye

Dangled from a well-dressed woman’s finger

“I’m her” he teased, knowing how the benediction he bestowed

On any female with enviable money, talent, beauty, would be

Hurtful to my sister and me, and then “Read! Read!” he insisted

Though we both knew we were there to gossip not to pray

Real prayer was the cluster of swaying bearded men

We were observers gazing from the rim of an alien civilization

Although we rose for the silent Amidah

We vied to be the first to finish and sit

My mother admonished us for our whispered disregard

She turned the pages of the Siddur

As she would an album of photographs

Reciting the Hebrew from transliterated words

We left early to avoid the rabbi’s sermon

The Bema a distant stage with its costumed Torahs

An usher collected the pledge envelope

At the tollbooth of a sanctuary door

At home, another yarmulke was added to the drawerful

That my father forgot at shul to remove and return

Evidence of our yearly pilgrimage

Marking the passage of time and of faith.

Rachel R. Baum is a professional dog trainer, former librarian, licensed private pilot, kayak angler, and Covid Long Hauler. She is the author of the blog BARK! Confessions of a Dog Trainer and the editor of Funeral and Memorial Service Readings: Poems and Tributes (McFarland, 1999) Her poems have appeared in High Shelf Press, Ariel’s Dream, Drunk Monkeys, Wingless Dreamer, New England Monthly Poetry Digest, Poetica Review, Bark magazine, and Around the World anthology. To learn more about Rachel’s work, visit: https://rachelrbaum.wixsite.com/my-site

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My Grandfather’s Prayer Book

by Rick Black (Arlington, VA)

Detached cover.

Brittle, yellowed pages.

Partially erased, Hebrew letters.

His crumbling prayer book is mine now.

Stooped over in his living room, dovaning.

His white, short-sleeved shirt and shock 

of white hair; his thin, willowy frame.

The cigar stub between his lips.

The Bronx.

Roasting brisket and a shelf of pills. 

A Yankee game on the television console. 

Red geraniums.

A pale, florescent light.

Narrow, sickly-green vestibule 

with a picture of his youngest son,

killed in World War II.

We play checkers.

He nudges a checker to another square. 

Tobacco-tinted fingertips.

He doesn’t let me win. 

Now, I hold his prayer book

in my hands by the yahrzeit plaques,

by the tarnished and the yet to be tarnished, 

by the lit and the yet-to-be lit.

Rick Black is an award-winning book artist and poet who runs Turtle Light Press, a small press dedicated to poetry, handmade books and fine art prints. His poetry collection, Star of David, won an award for contemporary Jewish writing and was named one of the best poetry books in 2013. His haiku collection, Peace and War: A Collection of Haiku from Israel, has been called “a prayer for peace.” Other poems and translations have appeared in The Atlanta Review, Midstream, U.S. 1 Worksheets, Frogpond, Cricket, RawNervz, Blithe Spirit, Still, and other journals. 

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Mazal tov, mazal tov!

November 22, 2021

Dear JWP contributors:

We’d like to thank each one of you for helping us reach our thirteenth year—our Bar Mitzvah year—and for trusting us with your work since the day back in 2008 when we opened our doors and invited writers to share your stories and poems with us.

The first JWP story appeared on November 5, 2008, and since then we’ve had the pleasure and good fortune of publishing 465 stories and poems which have come to us from writers spread across the globe (Canada, Israel, France, Australia, Gibraltar, South Africa, Spain, Germany, England, and, of course, the United States) and from 32 states (from Alabama to Wisconsin), all of which have helped us explore what it means to be Jewish.

When we look back at the past thirteen years, we find ourselves amazed (and, quite honestly, inspired) by the way each writer has made such a sincere effort to understand Jewish identity and Jewish life today. The diversity of voices, the depth of insights, and the strong desire–some might call it a compulsion–to explore the many aspects of Jewishness in so many ways, and from so many perspectives, well, it’s quite simply breath-taking.  

So, before this month ends, we’d like to pause for a moment to offer our gratitude to all of the writers who have helped deepen —and expand— our understanding of Judaism over the years. Your stories and poems have provided us with a stunning kaleidoscopic perspective of Jewish life and culture, and, in the process, have made us more sensitive to the multitude of different voices that are part of being Jewish today. 

Each writer has a different voice, of course, a voice that might sound different than those we may be used to hearing. And when we listen closely to each story, each poem, we can hear the sound of a key turning to open a writer’s heart and receive in return a precious gift—a deeply personal understanding of what it means to be Jewish. 

For all that we’ve learned from each other over the past thirteen years, and for all that I hope we’ll continue to learn from each other in the years ahead, thanks to each contributor (and to our readers, as well), for joining us in this project, which was created to help each of us explore the nature of being Jewish. 

May all of you continue to find joy and meaning in the words that appear on your pages each day. 

B’shalom,

Bruce Black

Editorial Director (and Founder)

The Jewish Writing Project

jewishwritigproject.wordpress.com

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